The Poisoning

Alexander Chee

My first taste of gin made me sick. I was fifteen or sixteen, and, on a night I’d been left alone, and for reasons now lost to me, I drank down a great deal of my parents’ Tanqueray. I remember specifically opening the exotic wood doors of their liquor cabinet as if it could admit me to some secret chamber of adulthood by virtue of its magic. But if gin was that sort of magic, the spell’s first price was a day and night of pain. My memory of gin for a very long time after that was a memory of nausea, a day on the couch in the living room spent with only sips from my mother’s favorite cure-all—paregoric—as I begged for the pain and unease to leave me.

This experience is fairly common. I’ve told this story often, and many people report the same, and that they still cannot drink gin.

I’m not like them.

The next time I drank gin was also like a poisoning. I was living in New York and waiting tables at a steakhouse while I worked on my first novel. There was another waiter there, William, from Louisiana, who only went by his full name—William, never Will—a handsome man, upright and soldierly (and he had been a soldier). His boyfriend was on the road in a traveling version of Cats for most of the year. William didn’t have a show business bone in his body. He’d come to New York to be with his boyfriend, though, and was stuck in a cruel trick of fate or at least bad planning. And so William and I would frequently find ourselves having drinks together after work, and making plans to meet up the next day before a shift, to work out together.

People began to mistake us for each other. I didn’t think we looked much alike—William was not Asian, though he had mentioned being part Native American, and while we both wore our hair in fades, he was taller, by about three inches. It still seems to me there was another answer, though, some way our mutual flirtation had twinned us. What we felt was something other people could see.

If anyone was going to get me to drink gin again, in other words, it was probably him.

To set the scene of most of our nights: both of us in white starched shirts, bow ties, black pants, white aprons, running through giant wood-paneled rooms carrying enormous steaks and their sides and their sauces. Or, after work, the same shirts open at the collar. A bow tie in the pocket. Sleeves rolled up as we sat down at the bar. And martinis. Mine, always vodka. His, gin. As a child, I had always associated gin with the very preppy people I knew growing up in Maine. William was one of the first people to help me understand that gin is enjoyed all over the world, and he liked to affect a Louisiana accent when he ordered his gin martinis.

People often told me then that a vodka martini was not really a martini. William may have said this too. I was never very impressed by this statement.

I understand it, now. A vodka martini is apparently properly called a Kangaroo, for reasons I can’t get anyone to pin down. Vodka arrived after gin to American liquor cabinets, becoming popular in the 1940s and ’50s, and perhaps it needed a little marketing help. Vodka doesn’t taste like much, masked by whatever it is mixed with. Vodka martinis are better dry, I suspect, because otherwise they may taste too much of vermouth, even the smallest amount of vermouth. In college, we drank vodka precisely because it didn’t taste like anything.

Gin on the other hand is supposed to taste like something, and gin distillers are always playing with this. Nolet’s Silver, for example, a well-known gin, is like boozy rose water. Bombay Sapphire is one of the most famous brands, and all of its gins list the botanicals on the bottle. Most of the newcomers since then do also. Plymouth Gin was just as concerned with potency as flavor when it created a navy-strength gin, strong enough to pay sailors with, according to its website. Sailors tested the gin by pouring it on gunpowder. If the powder still lit, it meant the gin was sufficiently strong.

The gin martini’s pleasures include the arguments over the way to make one. As MFK Fisher observes in Gourmet, “subtly and irrevocably the cocktail becomes more wine and less liquor the nearer one gets to Europe.” She writes of San Franciscans drinking “a more or less western and much ginnier version,” and blames the European version on the name—the bartenders arguing with you that the drink is named for the vermouth. What she describes next is still very much the experience of an American in Europe today:

It will be made of a local version of English gin, unless they are knowing enough to demand English gin. It will be made of sweet red vermouth unless the American tourist is knowing enough to demand dry white vermouth, and it will be made without ice unless he demands ice. And if he is foresighted enough to demand ice, it will be served in a lump in the glass, which will often be a tall lemonade glass with the “cocktail” down in the bottom. The cocktail will be made, if the American is very fortunate, in the proportions of half and half—and if he is less so, in The City’s proportions but in reverse, so that a flick of gin has been gently and cautiously passed over the ruddy, sweet, herby, and strangely bolstering potion.

 Luis Buñuel also writes beautifully of the martini in his autobiography, My Last Breath:

To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of the dry martini . . . At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen “like a ray of sunlight through a window—leaving it unbroken.”

As Buñuel was good enough to demonstrate his own technique on film, which I found online, I watched and then followed along as I made my own. He pours a few drops of Noilly Prat along with Angostura bitters, measured into half a demitasse spoon. These are stirred into very cold ice, and then he drains off the vermouth and bitters. Gin is added to the ice and shaker, which are now nicely coated, and the martini is stirred before serving.

The Buñuel technique, it seems to me, as I drink his martini now, is a good one if you don’t favor a gin that is already made with botanicals, which I do, and which I used—St. George’s Terroir Gin. Bitters in a botanical gin confuses things, to my mind. I believe that anything you might add by way of bitters should already be in the gin. Next time, I’ll use Plymouth.


Happy hour in Trieste, featuring a Negroni and an Aperol spritz. (from the author’s extensive records)

Martinis are at least as much a part of steakhouse fare as steaks, and during my time as a waiter, I had as many conversations about dryness, complete with the sad jokes about waving the vermouth over the glass, as I did discussions about rare, medium rare, medium, and so on. Grown men telling me they wanted their steaks “medium rare plus,” with a “very dry gin martini,” made my nights feel like a series of split hairs. Also potentially spilt ones: much of my time as a steakhouse waiter involved balancing a tray full of martinis as I sprinted across the room. There was nothing worse handing a diminished glass to a guest who’d been hoping for a full martini, the gin around the glass’s base like a tell. The martinis cost $15 to $20 a piece then, so you didn’t really want to do this.

William, I noticed right away, had an unmatched ability to run across the dining room with his tray of martinis balanced on the upturned points of his fingertips, as if he were about to perform a magic trick—as if any other trick were needed besides getting them across the room. He made it look elegant and urgent at the same time, and there was a solemnity to his manner that was beautiful to watch. By contrast, I carried mine too carefully on the flat of my hand, another hand steadying the tray. It seemed like it should work and never did. One day I asked him to show me how he did this.

He explained that balancing the tray this way stabilized it and allowed him to control it more easily. You have to lean back as you walk forward, he said, because this allows you to keep from spilling the martinis as you walk. None of this made any sense to me, and yet when I tried all of it together, it worked.

Every time I did the trick, I thought of him a little. Every time I set down a row of martinis for guests, all of them full, I thanked him.

The day came when William and I went out after work to talk about our relationship. I remember that as we entered the bar he took my jacket and hung it up for me. He did this sometimes and it always charmed me. He convinced me to order a proper gin martini, and I consented. I remember that we had three, paused before deciding to have one more, and that this was the one more that did us in. Then we had one more after that. The rest is missing. The gin made a shroud around the evening.

The anatomy of a bad decision made while drinking is difficult to map if the memory is lost to the drinking. This thing between William and me was not a simple matter. William was a good person and a loyal one. He was never going to cheat on his boyfriend. And I didn’t want him to, either. We loved each other and there was no place for the love to go except into our restraint, and into these martinis, as it were, which we drank as if we could drink the feeling away, as if we could have it and forget it and be done with it, but also never let it go.

The next morning I couldn’t remember what we’d said. I was sick again—another day and night of sickness, barely able to walk from one room to the other.

Never again, I said, when I thought of gin next.

Blaming the gin, of course.


The first two times I drank gin, the nights were like lightning strikes. I have no memory of the third time, but this is because the third time was gentler, so unremarkable as to almost vanish. I had moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. This was a decade after the night with William. I was now a published writer, and had recently been hired as a visiting writer, which is a kind of high-class adjunct no one ever wants to befriend because you’ll leave too soon. You’re surrounded by the “cordon sanitaire,” as one friend put it, of the short-timer. “How long is the visit for?” people would ask, and I would say, “Four years,” and if they thought it was a long time, you knew they didn’t work at the college. If they told you they thought it was too short to bother befriending you, they did.

A gin and tonic in a goblet in a Berlin bar. (from the author’s extensive records)

I was left, then, to myself, and left to begin drinking in those kinds of reveries at the bar in the way Buñuel spoke of. The place I chose at the time, called Amherst Coffee during the day and Amherst Whiskey at night, was walking distance from my apartment, and the bartenders and I became friends very quickly, as I was their rapt student. They introduced me to the Plymouth gin first, instructing me on the reason it was a classic, and then to my first favorite gin, the Junípero. They made a Junípero martini dressed with a caper berry, which seemed better than an olive. I loved it. Junípero is a California gin, the juniper in it like black pepper, and perfect for the dry martini. I think of it now as the spiritual heir to the San Franciscan martini MFK Fisher California described—the child of them. In any case, this was the gin that made me understand the reason people are as protective of the gin martini as they are, and I joined them, drink by drink.

The doomed love I’d felt for William so long ago was gone, barely a memory. I sat at the bar, reading and contemplating my visiting writer loneliness, or flirting, which is much the same. Gin is good for this. And yes, the bartenders, now that I think of it, were all a little like William, all handsome young men, a little silly and a lot serious, my version of the French waiters who taught MFK Fisher about wine in Provence—and I was at one point reading her while sitting there with my martini. But this is perhaps just the sort of protection a martini can offer: to keep those ironies at arm’s length. It is a kind of solace, the gin martini, an angelic sword brought down on my troubles, drawing a protective line of fire around me in the dark. Or so it feels. In any case, during these nights, I began to understand why people defend the gin martini the way they do. The ritual of making my own became like a spell I cast on myself.


I eventually made friends at Amherst, and gin helped.

Amherst College is, as I discovered, one of the gin martini’s ancestral playgrounds. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is set there. Martinis are frequently served without a second thought at parties. When one host’s wife confessed to drinking her first at the age of sixty-eight, I could only wonder at the spectacle of seeing her finally drink one. The first fall I was there I threw a Halloween party, and prepared to make martinis and Manhattans, which is now my idea of a party. I had many martini glasses, thanks to a penchant for buying them at junk shops and thrift stores, plus a nearby Target. When I stepped into the stairwell to let someone in, I encountered a senior colleague who was leaving the apartment downstairs after dining with the junior faculty member who lived below me.

This senior colleague was, is, a part of the old guard, the sort of man who devotes his life to a single writer and builds a palace of thought around the work. He was famous for saying he would not retire—he was well past the age of retirement—but instead wanted to die at his desk. “They’re taking me out of here in a pine box!” he would say, and then slap his knee and laugh, and you knew he meant it.

He was being polite, I think, when he agreed to come up to the party. I should mention that I was wearing a Viking helmet when I issued the invitation. He was not known to socialize with the visiting writers. He requested a gin martini, which I made for him. When he took the first sip, he said, “This is excellent.” He looked at me over the top of his glass, and his eyes were full of recognition. As if I was finally a real person to him.

For this member of the old guard, the taste of a correct gin martini is like a passport or a gang sign. We were friends for the rest of my time there. Our friendship always mystified others at the college, but we knew why we liked each other and I miss him still.

I left Amherst College in 2010, and, having mastered gin as both communication and reverie, gin now kept me company, almost a travel companion.

In Germany, on a fellowship in Leipzig, I discovered firsthand that European problem with the martini MFK Fisher spoke of—the drink made with too much vermouth, too warm, in a martini glass. I quickly gave my first lesson to a young German bartender there on the American dry martini proportions, even how to cut a twist off a lemon properly, and to mix the materials in a shaker. In Shanghai I watched, captivated, as a Spanish gin and tonic champion bartender made his championship gin and tonic in a goblet for me. He brushed the glass with fresh mint, dropped juniper berries on the ice, and then poured the tonic down a bar spoon so as not to bruise the bubbles. In Lisbon and Barcelona, remembering that Shanghai bartender, I found the goblet-style gin and tonic to be how the Mediterraneans seem to like to serve it now, and I prefer it. The goblet is so much more fun than a skinny highball with its sad lime, and while it scandalized the Americans with me, who hadn’t yet discovered this way of drinking it, they then rushed off to get theirs made the same way.

In Cambodia, in the bar of a Phnom Penh gay sex hotel, I was presented with a European martini just like the one I was given in Leipzig. And just like then, I gave my second lesson to a bartender on how to make the American dry martini. He waited patiently through my explanations and I tipped him heavily for his patience—and I think all patrons should tip heavily when giving lessons of this kind. It is, after all, an intrusion.

After that, unwilling to risk another European martini, I drank Negronis all the way through Cambodia and discovered I preferred them while traveling.

A Negroni cart at the Borghese Palace Art Hotel, in Florence. “They got rid of this, breaking my heart,” laments the author.

The Negroni cocktail is made with sweet vermouth, Campari, and gin, garnished with an orange slice, and it is often called bitter, but it was never bitter enough for me. William was the first person to introduce me to the Negroni, which, much like gin, I did not immediately enjoy. And in fact, I don’t know that I enjoyed the next three or four Negronis I had after that first one—the drink to me was, for a long time, like a familiar door I just kept trying, always mistaken about what was on the other side, and never quite remembering each time. A friend who preferred Negronis called them an acquired taste, and on that trip to Cambodia, I did acquire that taste, each Negroni there like a marker in a pilgrimage. The drink was less fussy than a martini and thus more forgiving and open to more interpretations.

And if it was a pilgrimage I was on, it led me all the way to the fabled source: Florence, Italy, said to be the birthplace of the Negroni. A year after that summer trip to Cambodia, I stood in the lobby of an ancient Florentine hotel, all marble and crimson velvet, and met my first Negroni cart, three shelves tall, bristling with bottles—each shelf devoted to the components, with different gins, bitters, and vermouths. The bartender invited me to choose each component, and after my first, I asked her to make me one she would prefer. The drink’s mastery of my imagination was complete.

I now dream of having my own Negroni cart.

Gin to me is home now. I associate it more with love than loneliness. I keep a crowd of favorites around. Death’s Door, if I can find it, is one favorite special-occasion gin—to me, it’s like black pepper and granite. There is usually Plymouth. My husband likes Beefeater. I have an ongoing love affair with Old Tom gin, a bootlegger recipe that often colors the gin dark yellow like bourbon. You can make a cocktail with Old Tom gin called the Pegu Club—Old Tom with lime juice and Cointreau, shaken with ice—which reminds me of my favorite childhood mythical creature, the Pegasus.

My husband loves gin as much as I do. We even have a house cocktail for our Catskills cabin that we made together, a creation we call the Nutty Pine, mixing gin or bourbon with sweet vermouth, walnut bitters, and a dash of a pine liqueur, shaken with ice. When we first met, we drank more bourbon than gin. Now it is tipping to the other side. If, before this, my gin reveries were dreams of the future, and might-have-beens, they are now as often memories. If I really did enter adulthood, on that distant, almost forgotten day when I pulled open those liquor cabinet doors, it was not a single transformation ahead of me, but a life of transformations. Not one potion, but a life of them. Glass by glass.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. His essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is forthcoming in 2018.