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Book Review: The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto by Bernard DeVoto

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I finished reading the book at around the six o'clock hour.  I was sitting at my patio table enjoying the lessened heat of the desert and drinking a slightly cool beer.  A porter, to be exact.  Road Dog Porter from Flying Dog Brewery, to be precise.  It was a good porter even if it was a little to creamy for my taste.  But it was a pure porter, roasted malts and good Cascade hops.  Bernard DeVoto, the author of The Hour:  A Cocktail Manifesto — the book I was on about just a couple of lines up — might have approved.  Sure, it wasn't a martini or a slug of good whiskey, but it was pure, classic, and not soiled by that most heinous of cocktail affronts:  fruit.

To be annoyed or to just enjoy, such was the question I constantly came back to as I read his manifesto.  I'm still not certain but lean toward the "enjoy" it side.   The book oscillates between sounding like a polemic and a sermon — reached loudly and obnoxiously.  But, that's the point, right? According to the American Heritage dictionary a manifesto is "a public declaration of principles, policies, or intentions, especially of a political nature."  The Hour dwells on cocktail principles and Devoto is a cocktail purist.  In his ardor to evangelize this purity he expresses his views with an acerbic sarcasm.

A little about the author:  he was an historian, journalist, critic, novelist, conservationist.  He was born in 1897 and during the 30s and 40s worked as an editor and writer for the Saturday Review of Literature and Harper's.  He became an expert on the life of Mark Twain and served as the curator of the Mark Twain papers from 1938 to 1946.  I really don't know much about any of that, but perhaps there are others out there who do and will find it interesting.  Of course, Twain was a social critic, too, with an outstanding wit.  How much influence did his work have on DeVoto?

The Hour is a slim book, one hundred thirty-six pages, and was originally published in 1948.  It's been reprinted and really is worth a read.  I think the cocktails of the modern world would drive DeVoto absolutely mad.  There are quite a few that contain fruit — including one I'll soon be writing about, forgive me, please, Mr. DeVoto.  He hates fruit and finds no decent place for it in cocktails.  Cocktails should only be dry martinis or a slug of good whiskey.  Yes, he explains at length what a good whiskey is and it isn't Scotch.  Additionally, he really doesn't like rum.  Before I shut off my satellite TV service I saw a lot of commercials about rum.  I'm sure Johnny Depp's portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow encouraged people to try out rum.  Well, if you are a rum drinker, just stay away from this book.  It will aggravate you.  DeVoto doesn't just disparage it once or twice, it's a continuous assault.

He would have made a good blogger.  He's got lists, repeats what he does and doesn't like and generally “goes off.” It's entertaining. Some of his tirades seem to veer off course, but I think if you really take time to understand him — and if you understand the mindset of the 40s — they are probably somehow on target.  His illustrations of Chuck and Mable and their scatterbrained unsophistication is hilarious.  Using this inane couple he completely reams people who have no respect for alcohol and no social savvy.  And as he does so he reveals a sublime spiritual sensibility in his principles.  For example, behold the beauty of this quote from page 109:  "But, brethren, give them one moment of compassion — so little aware of liquor, so little worthy of it, that they must make it coy and cute and leering, of such small personal resources that it can free them to no well being of their own.  They do not like the goodness of good liquor, for they kill its taste with disgusting things."  It reads nearly like scripture.

The Hour is a sharply written book that will leave you with an opinion whether you like it or not.  Enjoy it with "an honest drink in a plain glass in your hand."  An honest drink is one with no fruit and no rum.  Don't forget that.

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