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Cocktail Theology

By William Dailey at First Things

Photo by Paula Hayes / Unsplash

A man down the bar from me turned and said, “Is that a costume, or are you really a priest?” I have often been asked this question when tucked away in my corner seat at the bar at New York’s Death & Co., a good spot for reading and having a crisp martini. Even months from Halloween, people in the East Village assume that a man in clerical garb must be in costume, but once they learn that I am a coconspirator in the world of cocktail enthusiasm, fine conversation flows.

It started in Washington, D.C. Derek Brown, one of the forces behind the recent craft cocktail revival, wanted to complete his confirmation while I was a priest at his parish. As I instructed him in the Catholic faith, he initiated me into the mysteries of craft cocktails. “A priest walks into a bar” has launched a thousand mediocre jokes. But since those days of reading Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity with Derek, and being invited by him to the openings of new speakeasies, I’ve discovered that “A priest walks into a bar” can also be a perfectly appropriate beginning to giving thanks at the end of a day (a good or bad one), to finding friendship in a foreign city, and even to bringing a bit of charity and Christian fellowship to places where communities have long gathered.

“God gives us wine to cheer our souls,” sayeth the psalmist—and quite right, too. It was no accident that our Lord’s public ministry began at a joyous wedding celebration, one saved by the generous intervention of Christ in providing the greatest vintage ever poured. There’s a conviviality to a shared libation that draws us together, lifts our spirits, and cuts what Walker Percy called “the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons.” I type this essay on a sunny Thursday in New York City at a lovely café called Dante, cheered by a phlegm-cutting negroni and the lively spirit of this relaxed corner of Gotham.

Drinking is not for everyone; few things are. I do not set aside lightly that all of us are frail and alcohol can do much damage in the lives of men. But I do set it aside for now, and wish instead to consider what a blessing—or, better, ongoing series of blessings—the discovery of the craft cocktail has been in my life as a priest.

The lives of bartenders and priests are more similar than one might imagine. What brings people into the life of a priest? They are anxious, and want counsel and solidarity; they are joyous, as at the birth of a child; they are new to a city and seeking community and communion; they are mourning the loss of a job or a loved one; they are looking for love. And the same circumstances—the moments of life that draw us out of ourselves in search of God in others and in his Church—prompt priests, and countless others, to walk into bars. So while I do not have anything like a master bartender’s familiarity with bitters, syrups, or single malts, I do have some familiarity with what bartenders see across the bar when someone takes a seat at their station.

Some clarifications may be in order. I do not contend, in offering these musings on a theology of cocktails and cocktail culture, that every time I want a negroni, I am seeking a profound spiritual encounter. Nor do I hold myself out, here or elsewhere, as a paragon of virtue. I strive for moderation but won’t claim I’ve never had a misstep. But this is not the confessional, and perhaps it is enough to say that in stepping into a bar or stepping into a classroom, one does best to remember that one is dust and unto dust shall return, and that when one loses track of that in any setting, one is prone to err.

Enough throat-clearing—what about the cocktails? I cannot say for certain what my friend Derek may have learned from me about the Lord, but under his tutelage I did grow fond of the martini. I remain so. One should drink what pleases one, yes, but I’m enough of a believer in the objectivity of beauty to say that a martini ought to please one. The play of the gin’s juniper on the palate, its marriage to a grassy, slightly herbal dry vermouth—a union blessed by the twist of citrus that pulls it together and greets the nose even before the tongue saying, “You’ve made it this far today, keep your chin up”—all of this merits the appellation “king of cocktails” often accorded it.

To get a martini right, do just the opposite of James Bond: Ian Fleming may have known cars and guns, but on drinks he was out of his depth. A martini is made with gin, not vodka, stirred and not shaken, and the proper proportions would disappoint one’s grandfather. These days I go for two parts gin to one of vermouth; Derek favors equal parts of each. If these proportions shock your conscience, well, I won’t attack your upbringing, but I will say, “Try it, you’ll like it.” If you are able to locate a delicious dry vermouth like Dolin or Noilly Prat at your local shop, you’ll soon see what led Bernard DeVoto, our greatest writer on cocktails, to say of the martini:

The water of life was given to us to make us see for a while that we are more nearly men and women, more nearly kind and gentle and generous, pleasanter and stronger, than without its vision there is any evidence we are. . . . One more, and then with a spirit made whole again in a cleansed world, to dinner.

Here is another virtue the martini brings: value. As a vowed religious, one must be cautious not just about the intoxicating potential of spirits, but also about the cultivation of too fine a palate. . . .

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