Remembering Frederick Martin and his Idiosyncratic Drinks Book

Oh Captain My Captain

I’ve mentioned a couple of times Frederick Martin’s An Encyclopedia of Drinks and DrinkingIt is well worth buying despite having been written c. 1970 albeit published 1978. Coles in Canada published it, something unusual in itself as Coles is well-known as a producer of student guides, summaries and critiques of books on high school and other curricula. Somehow the master of potted classics was persuaded to publish a book which is or became a classic in its own field. (Maybe the potted part was the common thread).

The U.S. equivalent of Coles Notes is CliffsNotes. Coles Notes still exists, it was originally an outgrowth of the Coles bookstore chain, but both publishing arm and the book shops are now part of the big Indigo Books chain.

Martin, as gleaned both from the book and various Internet sources, was an old-school wine and spirits merchant and an officer during the Second World War in a good regiment. Despite a starchy-sounding background, the book is full of good sense and advice and is practically free from snobbism. A bit obtrudes, as when he finds baloon-size Cognac glasses “inexpressibly vulgar”, but the humour saves him.

There are many bon mots in the book. Of the new keg (pressurized, pasteurized) beer then emerging, he noted its popularity, then added, “with the brewers anyway”.

Of Canadian whisky, he said:

… to my mind it is smoother, though less flavoursome, than straight Bourbon, is much superior to ordinary American blended whisky, but lacks the special character inherent in a fine Scotch; and I am endeavouring to be descriptive and not pejorative when I say it is a “compromise” spirit.

I do feel he would have said more of the recent crop of Canadian whiskies of straight character such as Lot 40, Canadian Club Single Rye Chairman’s Select, WhistlePig, Dark Horse, etc.

Another zinger: “I have gone on record as saying ‘there is no much thing as one Dry Martini’, but I do not really believe more than four a good thing before dinner (or lunch)”.

In 1970, you had to write snail mail to friends or contacts in different countries to learn about social drinking customs. When he inquired of Bermuda, the lapidary answer came back, “A great deal all the time”.

Finally, a good point conveyed in his restrained English way: “Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with drinking spirits with a meal”. Traditionally, whisky and other spirits was a between meals/late night practice, one not to be reflexively dismissed in our oh-so-sophisticated time (there is a good deal of logic to it). But he was being non-categoric and practical, a good idea for anyone taking on the complex field of drinks, their history and customs.

Here’s to you Captain Martin, and it’s a Canadian whisky dare I say, you will give it a chance, after all dogmatism is the refuge of … not the scoundrel but the dull and narrow-minded.