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The History of Hollywood and Gin

From the booze-soaked glory days of old Hollywood to modern spectacles like The Great Gatsby, gin has been a movie star since the beginning.

NORA: “Now, how many drinks have you had?”

NICK: “This will make six martinis.”

NORA: “All right.” (To waiter) “Will you bring me five more martinis, Leo, and line them right up here?”

Nick and Nora Charles - The Thin Man 1934

That’s a quote from one of the most legendarily gin-fuelled films of all time, The Thin Man, but it could have easily been overheard at any Hollywood party. For the first 3 decades of American cinema seemingly everyone in front of and behind the camera loved a cocktail, or seven. In fact, to this day, the last take of every Hollywood movie production is called the ‘martini shot’ after the tradition of the crew hitting the bar when everything has finished.

Stories abound of the bad behaviour of glamorous film stars on and off the set. Errol Flynn, famously, used to inject vodka into oranges so that he could drink on set. Richard Burton, allegedly, needed booze on such short notice that he had a bar built at the top, and bottom, of a staircase he was required to use to get to the set. Spencer Tracy, one of Hollywood’s most dashing leading men, was such an inveterate soak that he was followed at all times by a “Tracy Squad” assembled by MGM, and consisting of an ambulance driver, doctor and four security guards dressed as paramedics.

Old Hollywood DrinksOne of the most famous stories of drunken Hollywood debauchery (and ingenuity) comes from Raymond Chandler, author of the Philip Marlowe books which would be adapted into hugely successful films starring Humphrey Bogart (himself no stranger to a dry martini). Chandler was actually fired from his job as an oil industry executive due to excessive alcohol consumption, which proved a blessing in disguise as it prompted him to jump-start his writing career.

As well as being a novelist, Chandler scored a job adapting one of his stories, The Blue Dahlia, into a screenplay. On one condition, that he be sober for the entire tight 3-month deadline given to him to write it. Chandler swore blind that he was sober until, disaster struck! Writer’s block, Chandler could not work and claimed that he could only complete the script in a “continuous alcohol siege.”

He drank nonstop and ate nothing for the next eight days. To keep him alive Paramount, purportedly, paid a doctor to inject glucose into his arm twice a day. He finished the script and earned an Oscar nod for his efforts but later revealed that he had been drunk the entire time and invented the writer’s block story to gain more alcohol without attracting suspicion.

With such importance behind the scenes, it’s no surprise that gin played a starring role on screen too.

The Thin ManOne of its earliest, and biggest, roles was in the already mentioned The Thin Man from 1934. A screwball detective comedy where a husband and wife team, Nick and Nora Charles, attempt to solve the murder of the titular Thin Man. The Thin Man is full to bursting with one-liners and gin. There is scarcely a scene in the entire film where one of the Charles’ doesn’t have a martini in hand and the script is full of fantastic quotable lines for gin lovers such as Nick’s instructions on how to make cocktails properly, by shaking in rhythm.

“Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.”

Or this exchange:

Nora Charles: [suffering from a hang-over] “What hit me?”

Nick Charles: “The last martini.”

Gin would keep popping up in cameos and sharp one-liners for the next few years (a personal favourite, from 1937’s Every Day's a Holiday: "You ought to get out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini.") before it featured in one of the most famous films of all time, 1942’s Casablanca.

If you haven’t seen it, stop, go, find it. It’s one of the best films ever made. It’s especially notable for gin drinkers though for introducing the world to the line: “of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world,” and for helping to popularise the French 75. The French 75 is a cocktail made with gin, champagne, lemon juice and sugar and named for the kick it has which is said to match that of a French 75ml artillery gun.

Sadly, gin’s time in the limelight would be stolen by that upstart vodka and, worse, we can blame a fictional Englishman for it. Who betrayed their national spirit? None other than James Bond whose iconic order of a vodka martini “shaken, not stirred” would completely eclipse the classic gin Martini in the minds of many and helped to popularise the drinking of vodka in England and America.

Bond would partially redeem himself in 2006’s Casino Royale where he introduced thirsty film fans to book Bond’s signature tipple, The Vesper. 3 measures of Gordon’s, 1 measure of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken over ice and garnished with a twist of lemon.

Hmm, 2006. That’s just a year before Sipsmith came on the scene. Maybe Bond has helped save gin after all?

Before Bond, sozzled cinema-goers would find the biggest celebration of spirits in 1988’s Tom Cruise starring movie Cocktail. The story of 2 rival bartenders in the later 80’s, every frame of Cocktail is soaked in spirits and hardly a shot goes by without some stunning cocktail creation in sight.

Sadly, Cocktail isn’t that good, but it was hugely influential in the bar world and helped to popularise flair bartending, where cocktail makers would do tricks and flips with bottles.

The Great GatsbyThe most recent gin flick has it’s roots, once again, in old Hollywood. 2013’s The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is an adaptation of a 1925 novel by writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, a noted fan of the gin rickey, which makes numerous appearances in the book and film.

"preceding four gin rickeys that clicked full of ice. Gatsby took up his drink. 'They certainly look cool,' [Gatsby] said with visible tension. We drank in long, greedy swallows."'

Want to add some of that old Hollywood style to your Oscar party? Try these 5 classic gin cocktail recipes.

The History of Hollywood and Gin

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