David Foster Wallace wrote an article for Harper's that appeared in the April, 2001 issue. He was reviewing Bryan Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and used the occasion to discuss a variety of factors that rarely get addressed when considering how best to use a particular word. What does this have to do with cocktails? Nothing. And everything. Or at least something. Possibly. I think.

Here's how Wallace opens:

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption" and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special "Distinguished Usage Panel...of outstanding professional speakers and writers" is an attempted compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel as mere sham-populism?

Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?

I have to tell you, this led to some real nerding-out for me. Like a lot of people, I grew up hearing "look it up!" when I wanted to know how to spell a word. Beyond that I didn't think much about dictionaries. This whole subtext of Prescriptivism (how words should be used) versus Descriptivism (how words are used) and the subsequent friction between those two camps, often characterized as 'usage wars'...this, was a whole new thing. And I loved it. I felt like dictionaries, those massive bookshelf hogs, had a secret life, a mission that I had been unaware of. Like cocktail lore (specifically, Ted Haigh's book Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails) this was a rabbit hole and it led, inevitably, to more usage manuals, books about words, books about dictionaries and of course, more dictionaries*.


Whether we're conscious of it or not, most of us are fluent in more than one major English dialect and in a large number of subdialects and are probably at least passable in countless others. Which dialect you choose to use depends, of course, on whom you're addressing. More to the point, I submit that the dialect you use depends mostly on what sort of Group your listener is part of and whether you wish to present yourself as a fellow member of that Group.

After re-reading this article I started thinking about drinks. How drinks change over time and how that change is shaped by regional customs (and laws), shifting palettes, who's drinking, who's mixing, new products, old products, and products that disappear completely. When preferred versions of a particular drink differ, how best to reconcile notions of what is permissible and what is correct? For the purpose at hand, those preferences, or at least some of them, are the connection between Wallace's article and the drinks that follow. Here, I focused on the Old Fashioned but it could just have easily been the Martini, Manhattan, Mint Julep...**

Genever Old Fashioned

Genever Old Fashioned

Wallace's review of Garner's book is thorough but since it's David Foster Wallace you also get numerous engaging, often humorous side trips complete with a host of footnotes. It's a review of a book on language usage and I get how that probably sounds dry and really boring. It's not though. While discussing Garner's Dictionary, Wallace addresses many aspects of language usage: its role in various American sub-cultures, the education system's myopic take on usage and the ideologies and politics constantly at play when communicating with words.


Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in U.S. English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a "Democratic Spirit." A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a very difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a D.S.'s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity - you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.

This kind of stuff is advanced U.S. citizenship. A true Democratic Spirit is up there with religious faith and emotional maturity and all those other top-of-the-Maslow-Pyramid-type qualities people spend their whole lives working on. A Democratic Spirit's constituent rigor and humility and honesty are in fact so hard to maintain on certain issues that it's almost irresistibly tempting to fall in with some established dogmatic camp and to follow that camp's line on the issue and to let your position harden within the camp and become inflexible and to believe that any other camp is either evil or insane and to spend all your time and energy trying to shout over them.

Absinthe Old Fashioned

Absinthe Old Fashioned

You knew there were going to be drinks right? Prescriptivism, Descriptivism...what we like, what we know, how things were versus how they are and how we think they should be. Drinks are drinks and I don't wish to over-emphasize their role in the world but like language, they adapt and change. And these changes are often attended to by adamant supporters and detractors. Some drinks have histories, ingredients and rituals that inspire heated debate. While this can lead to some head-scratching confusion it doesn't have to be a bad thing. Not always.

Adjusting an established recipe is practically a tradition and one which history accommodates...to a point. That point is not fixed however and will vary depending on whom you're talking to. That's part of the fun though. At least in a rhetorical sense. Which in this case requires substituting rhetoric's persuasive arguments for drink making's better efforts and what's not fun about that? When there's a deviation - ratios, ingredient substitution, role of sweetener, etc., why is that? Does it make sense? Does it nod to the original or is the lineage distant and blurry? Does it work in the glass? Because if it does then maybe that should be the end of it. Exactly how hard and fast are these rules anyway?***


We regular citizens tend to go to The Dictionary for authoritative guidance.(10) Rarely, however, do we ask ourselves who decides what gets in The Dictionary or what words or spellings or pronunciations get deemed "sub-standard" or "incorrect.' Whence the authority of dictionary-makers to decide what's OK (11) and what isn't? Nobody elected them, after all. And simply appealing to precedent or tradition won't work, because what's considered correct changes over time. In the 1600s, for instance, the second-singular pronoun took a singular conjugation - "You is." Earlier still, the standard 2-S pronoun wasn't you but thou. Huge numbers of now acceptable words like clever, fun, banter, and prestigious entered English as what usage authorities considered errors or egregious slang. And not just usage conventions but English itself changes over time; if it didn't, we'd all still be talking like Chaucer. Who's to say which changes are natural and which are corruptions? And when Bryan Garner or E. Ward Gilman do in fact presume to say, why should we believe them?

Brandy Old Fashioned

Brandy Old Fashioned


In ADMAU's Preface, Garner himself addresses the Authority Question with a Trumanesque simplicity and candor that simultaneously disguise the author's cunning and exemplifies it:

As you might already suspect, I don't shy away from making judgments. I can't imagine that most readers would want me to. Linguists don't like it, of course, because judgment involves subjectivity.(12) It isn't scientific. But rhetoric and usage, in the view of most professional writers, aren't scientific endeavors. You don't want dispassionate descriptions; you want sound guidance. And that requires judgment.

Whole monographs could be written just on the masterful rhetoric of this passage. Note for example the ingenious equivocation of judgment in "I don't shy away from making judgments" vs. "And that requires judgment." Suffice it to say that Garner is at all times keenly aware of the Authority Crisis in modern usage; and his response to this crisis is - in the best Democratic Spirit - rhetorical.

Rum Old Fashioned - Fortunately, I had a couple ounces of Zacapa 23 on hand. This is one of my favorite Old Fashioneds.

Rum Old Fashioned - Fortunately, I had a couple ounces of Zacapa 23 on hand. This is one of my favorite Old Fashioneds.

In the end, if I'm making an Old Fashioned I'm keeping it simple. Drinks do change over time, some more than others, but I see the Old Fashioned as a style of drink with the sugar-water-bitters-spirit version being the progenitor (and the one you're likely to get, with whiskey, if you order it). The gist of Wallace's article is that the rules of 'Standard Written English' do not apply to every situation in which English is being used. It may be a stretch to apply that to drinks, but, well...that's what I did. People who swear by a variation of a certain drink usually do so for reasons that aren't mine to question. I'll listen to those reasons though, often happily. And preferably with some version of the above drink in hand.


Old Fashioned - Whiskey, Genever, Rum, etc
2-3 oz Spirit
1/2 tsp Sugar
Water - about 1 tsp
2-3 dashes Bitters
Garnish - Orange or Lemon peel, cherry

In a mixing glass dissolve sugar in water and bitters. Add booze and ice. Stir and strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass. Or, if you're so inclined, just build it in the glass.

Absinthe Old Fashioned - Doug Petry, Rye, Louisville, KY
1 1/2 oz Absinthe, Kubler
1 oz Simple Syrup
1/2 oz St. Germain
3-4 dashes Peychaud's

Stir absinthe, simple and St. Germain with ice, strain over fresh ice, top with bitters.

Brandy Old Fashioned - via Morgenthaler here
2 oz Brandy
1 sugar cube or 1 tsp 2:1 simple
2 dashes Angostura
1 Orange Wedge
1 Cherry preferably Amarena or Maraska

Muddle sugar, bitters, orange (try to avoid the peel) and cherry in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass. Add the brandy, stir and fill with crushed ice.


10 - There's no better indication of The Dictionary's authority than that we use it to settle wagers. My own father is still to this day living down the outcome of a high-stakes bet on the correct spelling of meringue, a wager made on 14 September 1978.

11 - Editor's Note: The Harper's style manual prescribes okay.

12 - This is a clever half-truth. Linguists compose only one part of the anti-judgment camp, and their objections to usage judgments involve way more than just "subjectivity".


Double Layer Footnotes!

* Unfortunately, enjoying usage manuals has never made me immune to making numerous boneheaded grammatical errors.

** If you're keen on the Old Fashioned, Robert Simonson's book on the subject, The Old Fashioned, is worth checking out. While tracing the drink's history he touches on various adjustments that have been made to it over the years. Including the whole to-muddle-or-not-to-muddle business. Recipes abound from bona fide classics to those for which that template serves as inspiration. The Absinthe Old Fashioned is from the Modern Classics section of his book. Here's another one from a previous post.

*** For more on menus full of signature drinks see Derek Brown's excellent article article here.