Auden Martini

Original Artwork by Paul Killebrew

Anyone who has ever looked at a photo of W.H. Auden knows the man enjoyed a good martini in his time.  Perhaps one or five too many.  "But," the inimitable Rosie Schaap asks in this week's cover story, "what sort of martini?"

She writes:

If Tarquin Winot, the epicurean protagonist of John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, is to be believed, he made them like so: “I borrowed W.H. Auden’s technique of mixing the vermouth and gin at lunchtime (though the great poet himself used vodka) and leaving the mixture in the freezer to attain that wonderful jellified texture of alcohol chilled to below the point at which water freezes. The absence of ice means that the Auden martini is not diluted in any way, and thus truly earns the drink its sobriquet ‘the silver bullet.’”

It's charming—sort of—to imagine W.H. Auden, with his lined, noble countenance, inventing the progenitor of the jello shot, but Winot, a perverse and unreliable narrator, is not to be believed, and it seems questionable that an Englishman of Auden's generation would abide, much less favor, a martini made with vodka instead of gin.

What would he abide?  Join the search over here.  And, if afterwards you find yourself a bit parched,  the perfect antidote to the office hour blues can be found after the jump.

Rosie Schaap's Martini

A good martini requires a good cocktail glass, one equipped to hold no more than four and one half ounces, and ideally smaller still—not one of those dopey, super-sized glasses that have become ubiquitous, and which often hold ten or more ounces, guaranteeing that the cocktail will become unappetizingly warm about midway through its consumption. Too small, you say? Make another!

Don’t be afraid of vermouth—it’s what makes a martini taste like a martini. I like Noilly Prat, although there’s some controversy because its formula for the U.S. market changed recently. It still tastes good to me. As for the gin, I admit that though I’ve always loved the taste of it, Hogarth—and the scientifically unsubstantiated belief that it has greater depressant qualities than other spirits—put me off the stuff for years. Happily, I’ve come back around. There are all kinds of so-called “artisanal” gins on the market these days, but I stick with good, old-fashioned, relatively inexpensive Beefeater. It’s delicious. And olives? By all means—but in a nice little dish on the side, not in the drink. This recipe makes one three-ounce martini that’s neither very dry nor very wet, but balanced:

2 1/2 ounces gin

1/2 ounce dry vermouth

1 strip of lemon peel

1 fresh mint leaf

Chill a cocktail glass. Fill a mixing glass with good, clean ice, then pour in the gin and vermouth. Stir for about thirty seconds, then strain the liquid into the chilled cocktail glass. Twist the lemon peel over the drink to release a spray of its aromatic oils. Discard peel. Float mint leaf in cocktail.  Enjoy!

Thanks, Rosie.  I will.  And if anyone else has any suggestions for further literary libations, the bar (and the comments) are open.

Originally Published: September 9th, 2009

Travis Nichols is the author of two books of poetry: Iowa (2010, Letter Machine Editions) and See Me Improving (2010); and he is the author of two novels: Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (2012) and The More You Ignore Me (2013). He has contributed to The Believer, Paste, The...

  1. September 9, 2009

    Auden hits the spot! I would be interested if you took this story further with more poets / writers and their fave drinks!

  2. September 9, 2009

    After a night of Auden martinis, I’ll take whiskey and scrambled eggs. Or maybe hock and soda . . .

  3. September 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I always knew Auden was a fraud. Real poets drink whiskey!\r


  4. September 9, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    To echo Kent's wonderful refrain, I once met W.H. Auden. He was given an honorary degree at my alma mater, Swarthmore College, when I graduated in June, 1964. Since it was the college's centennial year, they were handing out honoraries left and right – U Thant, the current UN Secretary General, got one; I don't remember who all else. It would have been interesting to hear what WHA might have had to say, but the commencement address was delivered by the biggest star on hand, President Lyndon B. Johnson, paying platitudinous tribute in his esrtwhile role as the peace candidate vis-a-vis Barry Goldwater to the college's Quaker heritage. I was introduced as the senior class poet and shook Auden's hand, like soft worn leather. His face was intricately wrinkled, a map of the century. I am older now than he was then. We must love one another or die.

  5. September 10, 2009
     Richard Epstein

    "No, Sir, claret is the liquor for boys; port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero (smiling) must drink brandy."\r

  6. September 10, 2009
     Patricia Neilson

    Didn't Auden disown that poem?

  7. September 10, 2009
     Tim Upperton

    I think he disowned the conjunction in the quoted line.

  8. September 10, 2009
     Richard Epstein

    I don't think the history is much of a secret. Auden first decided that "or" was untruthful and changed the word to "and." He then decided that the poem could not be made honest, not by his standards, and stopped including it in collections and anthologies. Mendelson defends Auden's decision, saying that the tenor of the conclusion was weak and false and inept. Posterity, the only voice which matters, seems to be deciding otherwise.\r


  9. September 11, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    Rosie Schaap's essay was a featured link at Harper's online yesterday, September 10.\r \r

    Right below it, there is the same for my article on "The New Chicago School" of poetry, which I thought some here at Harriet might be interested in reading. The excerpt and link at Harper's takes you to Digital Emunction blog, where there is also some interesting discussion under the post (including an angry charge that my essay is plagiarized!).\r