Behind the Bar Stick People

Writer Alexander Chee on Classic Cocktails and What Makes a Good Bartender

Image: M. Sharkey

Since Alexander Chee ordered his first Manhattan at Café Loup in 1991, the West Village bistro has remained essentially unchanged. “Christopher Hitchens used to drink here,” he says of the place, which is a favorite of New York’s literary set. “It’s common to see writers having meetings with editors here or to run into an agent.”

Chee is himself a novelist (one that Junot Diaz called “the fire, in my opinion, and the light”). His most recent book, The Queen of the Night, about a 19th-century courtesan turned Paris opera star, came out in February to much critical acclaim. NPR praised it as being “sprawling, soaring, bawdy and plotted like a fine embroidery,” and everyone from The New York Times to Us Weekly has recommended it. The Friday evening we met, just before a reading from the book at Soho House, Chee ordered a Manhattan at Loup and then another, as the place filled up with just the types he said it would.

“There’s a way in which the Puritans’ version of the founding of America affects our attitudes toward alcohol,” he says, looking around. “It’s just so boring that we would think of it as a possible pejorative. In Europe, they’re just like, ‘Yeah, we drink.’”

So, yeah, Chee drinks. (And this writer drinks with him.)

On Learning Young

“I grew up in the ’70s with parents who would throw cocktail parties in their suburban home. They taught me how to make a Tom Collins and a Manhattan on the rocks at age 12, and I would help serve the guests. My mom would make those toasts with crab and melted cheddar cheese and paprika. The Manhattan on the rocks was her drink. Now that I’m old enough to have them myself, I’m like, ‘Whoa, Mom!’”

More on Mom Jane Chee

“I remember, every Sunday I went to church with my siblings and my mother while my dad played golf. We would meet him for brunch at the golf club afterward. In Maine, the blue laws are such that you can’t serve alcohol until noon, so we would arrive at 11:45, my mother would put her order in, and at 11:59, the Manhattan on the rocks would sit on the bar. Again, that is a serious drink! The drink would come across the room at exactly noon, just as my father would be coming down from the 18th hole.”

On House Drinks

“My partner, Dustin, and I both enjoy drinking and eating at home. People always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite restaurant?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know. My house?’ At home, we drink a perfect Manhattan, usually with bourbon, but we switched over to rye recently. Old Overholt is our house well liquor; it’s a perfectly decent, respectable rye that is also relatively inexpensive.

“A couple of years ago, we bought a cabin in the Catskills, and one of the first things we did was create a house drink. We call it the Nutty Pine: It’s bourbon, and instead of vermouth as you might put in for a Manhattan, we do a tiny splash of sweet vermouth, pine liqueur, walnut liqueur and a dash of walnut bitters. We also do a version with gin, and we call that the Naughty Pine.”

On Four Roses

“It’s sentimental for me. On a research trip to Paris, I would go for drinks at this bar in the Marais called Duplex. The very handsome Venetian bartender there—blue eyes, tall—would always flirt with me. Four Roses was the bourbon they had in the bar, so that’s what he’d make my Manhattans with. One night, he bought me a drink, and my friend, who was acting as my translator and guide to all things French, was like, ‘He has never bought me a drink!’ He was so mad.” [Laughs]

On Wine

“I don’t really like wine. Actually, I like really good wine. My big problem is that when I was in food service, I was a steakhouse waiter, so I developed a very expensive wine taste that I can’t afford.”

On Drinking and Writing

“Not for a novel—so much planning goes into a novel. When I write, I drink coffee. But I remember Joan Didion talked about how she would sometimes read over things with a glass of wine. That’s a useful moment: having that drink while you read over something you’ve written. It’s soothing. Cocktails for me are consolation.”

On Good Bartenders

“My brother loves wine, and after working in private equity for more than a decade, he can buy fantastic wine. He has a little game he likes to play with sommeliers: He’ll say, ‘Surprise me!’ They’ll bring out a glass of wine, and he has to guess what it is and he loves it. He has fun, and he learns a lot about wine every time.

“The bartenders at Amherst Coffee in Amherst, Mass., were like that for me. I was there for four years as Amherst College’s visiting writer, and those bartenders were wonderful. They’d encourage me to try new things, and I learned about whiskey and bourbon from them. They’re responsible for all my good vices.”

On Friendship-Making Cocktails

“When I arrived at Amherst College, I quickly realized the majority of the senior faculty did not think highly of the fiction writer who came in for a couple of years—whoever you were. That first fall, I threw a Halloween party, mostly for other visiting faculty and young faculty. My downstairs neighbors were both faculty and alumni, and they had over one of the most senior members of the English department—a remarkable, erudite man who has published maybe the most essays ever on Updike.

“I came downstairs to let someone up at the same moment that he was about to leave, so I invited him up for a drink. He seemed to feel a little self-conscious about it, but he accepted. So I said, ‘What would you like?’ And he said, ‘A gin martini.’ So that’s what I made him, and he loved it. After that, he liked me. Other Amherst people were like, ‘Why does he like you? He doesn’t like any of the visiting writers.’ I just made him this gin martini and then we were friends.”