The Hemingway (and Fitzgerald) Whisky Sour

Whisky Sour

1 teaspoon sugar or simple syrup

Juice of half a lemon

1 ½ oz whisky

Shake well, strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Add a dash of seltzer water if desired.  Garnish with lemon peel.

Suggested reading:  A Moveable Feast – Scott Fitzgerald

             The recipe shown above is the traditional whisky sour, and you’re free to use bourbon, sour mash, rye, blended or Canadian whiskey, or even Irish, as Hemingway did in Islands in the Stream.  Here, Hemingway refers to a drink as a “whisky sour,” but it’s more likely he was drinking a mixture of lemonade (in French, called a citron pressé), Scotch whisky, and perhaps a little Perrier water.  In other words, Hemingway likely didn’t shake the drink as you would a true whisky sour, just built it in the glass, but that’s what he called it nevertheless.


Shown above, the Dingo, Montparnasse, Paris, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald met for the first time in April, 1925.            

In his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes at length about his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald.  In this particular chapter, he tells of their first meeting, at the Dingo Bar, where Hemingway was “sitting with some completely worthless characters.”  One of them happened to be Duff Twysden, on whom Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises was based (see the Jack Rose).  In walks Scott.  Hemingway knew of him; after all, he was already a successful writer.  Hemingway described him as looking “like a boy with a face between handsome and pretty.  He had very fair wavy hair, a high forehead, excited and friendly eyes and a delicate long-lipped Irish mouth that, on a girl, would have been the mouth of a beauty.” 


F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scott was drinking champagne, and then:

“the strange thing happened.  As he sat there at the bar holding the glass of champagne the skin seemed to tighten over his face until all the puffiness was gone and then it drew tighter until the face was like a death’s head.  The eyes sank and began to look dead and the lips were drawn tight and the color left his face so that it was the color of used candle wax.  This was not my imagination.  His face became a true death’s head, or death mask, in front of my eyes.”



Hemingway in Paris, around the time of this escapade

Hemingway wanted to get him to a hospital, but Scott’s friend said it was a normal reaction, it happened sometimes when he drank.  So they put him in a taxi home.  A few days later, Scott met Hemingway at the Closerie des Lilas, and they each had two whisky and sodas.  Nothing odd happened.  It was during that encounter that Scott asked a favor of Hem.  It seems that his wife Zelda had been “compelled to abandon their small Renault motor car in Lyon because of bad weather,” and would Hem be good enough to accompany Scott to Lyon to retrieve it.  They could ride down together on the train, get the car, and then drive it back to Paris.  Hemingway was enthusiastic about the trip, as it would give him a chance to spend time with an older and more accomplished writer.  So he accepted. 


The trip was nothing short of a disaster, something to laugh about years later, perhaps.  Or write about.  First off, Scott failed to meet Hemingway at the train station, so he had to foot the bill for his ticket.  Once in Lyon, he couldn’t find Scott, so he had to pay for that first night in the hotel.  This was not what had been planned, especially for the young, starving writer.  But Hemingway made the most of it and ate a cheap dinner in an Algerian restaurant, engaging in conversation with a toothless fire-eater.  He then returned to his hotel and read Turgenev.  Good times.  Finally, Scott showed up next morning, but his words and manner made it appear that it was Hemingway who’d stood up Scott.  Hemingway was increasingly wondering why he’d said yes.  But they had a nice big American breakfast, then a whisky and Perrier, and felt much better.  The plan was to hit the road after the hotel packed up a lunch for them to go.

When they got to the garage, Hemingway was “astonished to find that the small Renault had no top.”  See, the reason why Zelda had been “compelled” to ditch the car in Lyon was because she’d ordered the top to be cut off, because of some minor accident in Marseilles, and she refused to have it replaced.  She liked convertibles, anyway, even if they had no top.  So, off they started on their drive back to Paris in their topless French car.  Then the rains came.


They “were halted by rain about an hour north of Lyon.  In that day we were halted by rain possibly ten times.”  Along the way, during breaks in the squalls or under the shelter of trees, they ate an excellent lunch of truffled roast chicken, washed down with white Mâcon wine.  They bought several bottles which Hemingway “uncorked as we needed them.”  Drinking wine straight from the bottle was particularly exciting for Scott, “as though he were slumming or as a girl might be excited by going swimming for the first time without a bathing suit.” 

And then the hypochondria set in.  Scott became convinced that he’d contracted congestion of the lungs (he’d read about it), and he begged Hemingway to stop over at the next big town before “the onset of the fever and delirium.”  They stopped at a hotel, and Hemingway had to become doctor and nurse to Fitzgerald.  Scott took to the bed, and while their rain-soaked clothing dried, Hemingway ordered lemonade and whiskey, which Scott referred to as one of “those old wives’ remedies.”  It didn’t stop him from drinking it, though.  Scott demanded that he have his temperature taken, in spite of Hemingway’s assurances that his forehead felt cool.

When the waiter arrived with the two glasses with the pressed lemon juice and ice, the whiskies, and the bottle of Perrier water, he told me that the pharmacy was closed and he could not get a thermometer.  He had borrowed some aspirin.  I asked him to see if he could borrow a thermometer.  Scott opened his eyes and gave a baleful Irish look at the waiter.


Scott, giving his best “baleful Irish look.”

The waiter finally brought them a thermometer.  Sort of.  It was a huge affair with a wooden back, designed for measuring bathtub water.  Nevertheless, Hemingway shook it down like a doctor would, and commented that it was lucky it wasn’t a rectal thermometer.  He placed it under Scott’s arm, and whatever the temperature ended up being (it was in Centigrade, of course), Hemingway managed to convince Fitzgerald that it was normal.  Scott remained convinced he was dying, and all the while the waiter kept bringing double Whisky Sours.  Eventually, the drinks worked their magic, and Scott felt good enough to go downstairs for dinner.  There, they had a carafe of Fleurie with their snails, followed by a bottle of Montagny, “a light, pleasant white wine of the neighborhood” with their poularde de Bresse.

Scott ate very little and took one sip of the wine.  He passed out at the table with his head on his hands.  It was natural and there was no theater about it and it even looked as though he were careful not to spill or break things. 

Hemingway and the waiter got him back upstairs to bed, and Hemingway went back down and finished the dinner (and the wine).

The next day they drove back to Paris, the weather was beautiful, “the air freshly washed and the hills and the field and the vineyards all new.”  He said his goodbyes to Scott, and Hemingway took a taxi back to his apartment.  He was never so happy to be back home, and he and Hadley celebrated with a drink at the Closerie des Lilas.  He told Hadley that he’d learned one thing, “Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love.”

For the rest of their friendship, Hemingway not only worried about Fitzgerald’s drinking, but also over Zelda’s negative influence.  He was convinced she was mentally ill (he was probably right), and further believed that she encouraged his drinking so as to diminish his abilities as a writer, so jealous of his success was she.  Hemingway was quoted as saying, “I told Scott that being a rummy made him very vulnerable – I mean, a rummy married to a crazy is not the kind of pari-mutuel that aids a writer.”[i]  Can’t argue with that. 



Scott and Zelda, shown above.

In addition to the Dingo and Closerie des Lilas, apparently both Hemingway and Fitzgerald spent a bit of time at Harry’s New York Bar, a Paris landmark located at 5 Rue Danou, famously pronounced ‘“Sank Roo Doe Noo.”  It was even part of their advertising, like a jingle; visiting Americans were encouraged to “just tell the taxi driver Sank Roo Doe Noo.”   Speaking of the Whisky Sour and Harry’s, owner Harry MacElhone was quoted in 1951 as saying he missed the good old days when Hemingway and Fitzgerald were customers, and that “Hemingway could down 20 whiskey sours at one sitting and then go back to his hotel to work.”[i]   Hmmm….


According to Harry’s lore, Hemingway served as a most unusual bouncer back in the day, when an “ex-pug” (a former boxer, as in pugilist) would visit the bar with an unwelcomed pet.

“Back in the old days, Harry’s New York Bar on rue Daunou was one of the few good, solid bars, and there was an ex-pug used to come in with a pet lion.  He’d stand at the bar here and the lion would stand here beside him.  He was a very nice lion with good manners – no growls or roars – but, as lions will, he occasionally shit on the floor.  This, of course, had a rather adverse effect on the trade and, as politely as he could, Harry asked the ex-pug not to being the lion around any more.  But the next day the pug was back with lion, lion dropped another load, drinkers dispersed, Harry again made request.  The third day, same thing.  Realizing it was do or die for poor Harry’s business, this time when lion let go, I went over, picked up the pug, who had been a welterweight, carried him outside, and threw him in the street.  Then I came back and grabbed the lion’s mane and hustled him out of there.  Out on the sidewalk the lion gave me a look, but he went quietly.”[i] 

I’m not sure which tale is taller, the one about the 20 whisky sours or the one about the lion.  It’s just my job to pass them along to you, dear reader.  Cheers.

[i]  Hotchner, Good Life, 106

[i] St. Petersburg Times, June 24, 1951

[i]  Hotchner, Good Life,  85

About philgreene61

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