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. When it comes to whiskeys and of course wines, the keener one’s appreciation of the genre, the greater the potential to develop desires beyond one’s means. Not so with the martini. A properly stirred martini with Beefeater and Dolin, a touch of orange bitters, and a twist of lemon could proudly be served in the finest of cocktail lounges and yet served without scandal in a parish rectory. By contrast, I would not likely dine at a restaurant that featured the box of wine that has graced the top of my microwave these last several weeks—but it serves me just fine. It is a great pleasure to be able to host one’s friends at a modest cost and serve them a delightful beverage that stands up with the very best martinis one can find.
That brings us to the most important spiritual aspect of cocktail culture: hospitality. Those people coming in off the streets, coming into churches and taverns, what do they seek? Home. What truly excellent pastors can help to provide for the wayfarer is a taste of the home that is promised us with our Maker, though of course we will never feel quite at home this side of the kingdom. But the work of helping people to feel a bit less estranged, a bit more comfortable in their own skin and in the Milky Way, is the work of hospitality, and it is a task for a bar like Derek’s Columbia Room, New York’s Death & Co., or South Bend’s Tapastrie even as it is for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. A priest who answers the rectory door and a bartender who places before her customer a cool glass of water and a menu share the obligation to look upon the congregant with love and respect and then to assess what’s the best way we might serve.
For the past several years, I’ve been invited to a cocktail convention in New Orleans, where I’ve spoken about the holy Carthusian monks who make Chartreuse and the meaning of their cross-and-orb insignia, a popular tattoo in the bartending world. It represents their motto stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “the Cross is steady while the world is turning,” words I recently recalled while leading a memorial service for a young bartender who had unexpectedly died.
Last year, the convention organizers saw fit to end the official program by having me offer a blessing on a sunny corner of Jackson Square, where I told the story of a seminar from a few years back that featured Joaquín Simó of Pouring Ribbons and Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand, two of our best bartenders. A young attendee had asked Joaquín whether he posted the number of calories per cocktail on his menus. Joaquín pointed out that a cocktail is a dangerous drink, that it will be converted to sugar, that it will dull the senses, and that it will cloud the judgment. He said, “If you are worried about the calories, you probably just shouldn’t order a cocktail. We are, after all, pushing a glass of poison across the bar.”
Alexandre politely raised his hand and said, “Excuse me, but may I disagree with my friend Joaquín, whom I love? Perhaps it is because I am French, but when I think about the wonderful ingredients, the care, the skill, the thoughtfulness that goes into our drinks, I believe we push not poison across the bar but beauty, and this is a very good thing.”
I know that Alexandre has the better of that friendly disagreement about what’s in the glass. Will I have another? Yes, please, and then to dinner.
William Dailey, C.S.C., is director of the Notre Dame–Newman Centre for Faith and Reason.