Book Review: Setting the Table

Oversized books

Setting the Table

The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto

by Bernard DeVoto
Tin House Books, 136 pp., $16.95

Actually, this handsome reprint of Bernard DeVoto's 1948 curio is seriously undersized, so slight it's better fit for a stepping stool than a coffee table – but it'd be a classier addition to the bar cart. (Do people still have those?) "Drinking, like existence, is an endless muddle, one of the slipperiest boulders in life's daunting stream – we cling to it for support but end up even wetter than when we started," explains the effortlessly clever Daniel Handler in the introduction. DeVoto made sense of that muddle by providing exacting instruction in The Hour: "There are only two cocktails. One can be described straightforwardly. It is a slug of whiskey and it is an honest drink." (The other cocktail of choice was a martini, but pity the soul who abominated it with vodka, or even an olive.) Fruit juices were described as "pestilential," "gangrenous," and "vile"; rum for "people without taste buds." DeVoto, who was a longtime columnist for Harper's and a Pulitzer Prize winner for his study of the American West, was never less than eloquent, but he toed pure poetry with his description of 6pm, or cocktail time: "This is an hour of diminishing, of slowing down, of quieting." In these reverential stretches, DeVoto, too, quieted that agreeably tart tongue of his to get at the heart of the matter. If he was particular, it was because he was passionate – and the feeling is catching.

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