What Did Ernest Hemingway Really Drink?

Ernest Hemingway
Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche / Contributor/ Getty Images

It’s no secret that booze was Ernest Hemingway‘s life-blood, for himself as much for his fictional cohorts. Frederic Henry’s drink of choice in A Farewell to Arms is the martini—”They made me feel civilized,” he says—while in The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes likes a Calvados-and-gin concoction called the Jack Rose. In “Three Day Blow,” Nick Adams nurses his heartache with a bottle of “whiskey” (by which Hemingway probably meant Scotch); G&Ts are Thomas Hudson’s go-to in Islands in the Stream; and in Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway is seldom without a gimlet, even carting around a bottle of Rose’s lime juice, since fresh limes were elusive on safari.


It’s almost impossible, given all of this, to parse Hemingway’s actual drinking habits from his occasional frat-boy antics. But that’s exactly what Philip Greene has done in his excellent book To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion, which was recently re-released with 35 new recipes. As Greene tells it, Hemingway’s acquaintance with booze was quixotic and nearly spiritual. Yes, he occasionally betrayed his alcoholic bona fides by drinking insane, heroic quantities and leaving a trail of smashed highballs and friendships in his wake. But booze was more crucially an existential salve for Hemingway, a much-needed release after a grueling day of defending the Queen’s English.

“At times he clearly drank for effect,” says Greene, a Hemingway expert and co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. “When he committed suicide in 1961, he was relying on drink to dull his pain. But he was also a sophisticated drinker, a local connoisseur who sought out the best bars in Paris and Pamplona. Did drink harm him? Yes. But who’s to say it didn’t also enhance his writing? With Hemingway, it’s like what Churchill said, ‘I’ve taken way more out of alcohol than it’s taken out of me.’ ”

Hemingway el floridita bar

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To Have and Have Another dovetails Hemingway’s drinking life with his literary output, tracing a path from, say, his martini particulars—1 3/4 oz. Gordon’s gin to 1/8 oz. Noilly Prat vermouth—to the great Harry’s Bar martini scenes in Across the River Into the Trees, to Hemingway’s martini benders with Spencer Tracy during the filming of The Old Man and the Sea, to his bizarre martini luncheon with Edward VIII, the former king of England. Importantly, there are over 60 cocktail recipes, many of them works of art (to name just one: a dressed up Tom Collins called the “Maestro Collins,” with which Papa fueled his fishing exertions), as well as glimpses of Papa’s exacting drink standards, such as for the martini: “Just enough vermouth to cover the bottom of the glass… and the Spanish cocktail onions very crisp and also 15 degrees below zero when they go into the glass.”

You may be surprised to learn that Hemingway enjoyed some decidedly un-macho drinks like the White Lady (gin, Cointreau, and lemon juice), plus a host of champagne cocktails. “He adored champagne,” Greene says. Hidden in Hemingway’s papers at the JFK Library in Boston, Greene found a drawing for an unnamed scotch-and-champagne creation that Hemingway relied on as a crutch in the late 1950s, when his health was deteriorating. Tellingly, it was in his medical files, so Greene dubbed it “Physician, Heal Thyself.”

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Hemingway’s favorite real-life tipple was a simple scotch and soda, according to Greene. It shows up in his prose more than any other drink, most memorably in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” a sad autobiographical story about an aging writer grappling with his own death while on safari.

But Hemingway also kept a bottle of Campari close at hand on safari, for his beloved negronis. Or were they Americanos? In “a rare mixological mix-up,” Greene writes, Papa confuses the two drinks in Across the River and Into the Trees: “They were drinking negronis, a combination of two sweet vermouths and seltzer water”—a precise description of an Americano. Negronis, unforgettably, include gin. How, Greene asks, could Hemingway have forgotten the gin? Perhaps on this occasion Hemingway violated his cardinal rule to never drink before writing.

Besides the mint julep, bourbon is missing from To Have and Have Another, as it curiously is from Hemingway’s prose.

“He definitely drank it, specifically Old Forester. But he doesn’t write about it,” says Greene. “I’m willing to bet he decided to leave bourbon to Faulkner”—with whom he had a longstanding rivalry.

Although daiquiris make only a single prose appearance in Hemingway’s work — in Islands in the Stream — he liked them enough to suck down 17 in one sitting at the El Floridita. Controversially, the two recipes here—for the Floridita’s famously misspelled “E. Henmiway Special” and the “Papa Doble”—excludes sugar, as Papa hated sweet drinks (“No sugar. No fancying,” are his daiquiri directives). That explains why, despite what some would have you believe, Hemingway wasn’t a mojito fan. In fact, Greene hints that Papa may have never even tasted a mojito.

“There are so many myths out there,” Greene says. “Like that Hemingway invented the Bloody Mary. But it’s just folklore that came out of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where he went when he was trying to keep his drinking secret from his then wife, Mary Welsh. She became ‘that bloody wife, Mary,’ which turned into the ‘Bloody Mary.’ Like so much else with Hemingway, it’s a nice story, but it doesn’t match up with the reality.”

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