Death in the Afternoon (1932) was also the name of one of Hemingway’s many famous, timeless novels—though, depending on who you ask, it’s hard to say which “death in the afternoon” is now more well-known.
Of Books and Booze
Ernest Hemingway loved drinking as much as he did writing.
While he wouldn’t necessarily drink while writing (“the only time (drinking) isn’t good for you is when you write or when you fight”), he’d often pen his passion for the world of spirits.
Notably, he did so in his notes to a Russian critic and translator, Ivan Kashkin:
“P.P.S. Don’t you drink? I notice you speak slightingly of the bottle. I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure. When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like Whiskey? When you are cold and wet what else can warm you? Before an attack who can say anything that gives you the momentary well being that rum does? I would as soon not eat at night as not to have red wine and water….Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief. Let me know if my books make any money and will come to Moscow and we will find somebody that drinks and drink my royalties up to end the mechanical oppression.”
When you are cold and wet what else can warm you?
Through several decades of writing, the most famous of Hemingway’s titles included A Farewell to Arms (1929), The Old Man and the Sea (1952), The Sun Also Rises (1926), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). And while he was known most for novels like these, we have also been left with a mysterious namesake: he had published Death in the Afternoon, a novel on Spanish bullfighting, in 1932, and later, while residing in Florida’s Key West, contributed a recipe for a cocktail called “Death in the Afternoon” to a celebrity recipe compilation book published in 1935.
Three to Five
While the Death in the Afternoon cocktail is a simple concoction in composition and preparation, it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. That is, it’s a potent mixture of Absinthe and Champagne—and that is all. Then, factor in the alcohol by volume (ABV) of the Absinthe in Hemingway’s time (read: significantly higher than it is today), and moreover the suggested pour and dosage, and you’ve got yourself a serious afternoon indeed.
The original recipe, a simple but robust combination of what are thought to be Hemingway’s two favorite spirits, read:
“Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.”
While the original recipe calls for “one jigger” of Absinthe per cocktail, many contemporary or adapted versions have toned this down by over 75 percent. Others may include a dash of simple syrup to further dilute the potency and, at other times, add a lemon twist for aesthetic effect and a slight citrus spritz to balance the spirits.
Of course, the original recipe is always encouraged for the most authentic experience of consuming Hemingway’s unique formulation, but the newer, adapted twists may be advised (plus or minus the simple syrup) if you are wanting to stand up at the end of the night—or early evening.
Death in the Afternoon (per original instructions)
- 1.5 oz. Absinthe
- dry Champagne, chilled
Pour Absinthe into a Champagne flute or coupe glass, and top with chilled Champagne.
In true Hemingway spirit, sip and repeat this process three to five times throughout the next few hours.
A Note on la fée verte
Absinthe, that sweet liquor that can still be quite hard to find in a normal bar’s collection, is known for its high alcohol content and divisively strong anise flavor. In terms of production, it’s often compared to that of Gin; that is, Absinthe is started from a clear base spirit and infused with a plethora of botanical ingredients to achieve its final flavor profile. “True” Absinthe, or those made in the original fashion, will attain their signature eye-catching green hues with a second infusion, but—as I am sure you may already suspect by seeing some neon green offerings—others will rely on food coloring instead.
Its most traditional method of consumption, attributed to the French, is also quite interesting, and notably not too far from Hemingway’s rendition (though, perhaps, significantly less alcoholic). Using a small slotted spoon, cold water, one measure of Absinthe, and a bit of patience, a sugar cube is placed on the slotted spoon over the glass of Absinthe, and the cold water is slowly dripped over this until the sugar cube is fully dissolved. When all is said and done, the water to Absinthe ratio should be about three to five parts water to one part Absinthe, and the Absinthe, sugar, and water mixture will display its signature milky opalescence.
The liquor’s public profile is one that is still seemingly shrouded in archaic concern and continued misinformation, largely a product of Prohibition-era scare tactics like many other spirits alive at the time. However, the reputation of Absinthe, in particular, has been a little more damaged, due to its perceived hallucinogenic properties, which led its ban to remain in place far longer than any other spirit post-Prohibition. For better or for worse (hey, I don’t know what you’re into, and that’s not my business), however, it is not—at all—a hallucinogen.
Where some of that historic suspicion came from was due to one of Absinthe’s main ingredients, wormwood. Wormwood contains a chemical called thujone that, in large quantities, is, in fact, a hallucinogen—hence, the propaganda blowing the effects of Absinthe out of proportion. But, by all realistic measure, before you would be able to get any of those hallucinogenic properties out of its concentration levels present in Absinthe, you’re bound to get alcohol poisoning first—so it’s not advised to try. (In Europe, however, there remains no regulation around the concentration of wormwood in Absinthe. But that’s another story