You may know Paul Feig as the creator of the cult-classic TV series Freaks and Geeks. Or you may know him as the director of a string of Melissa McCarthy hits, including Bridesmaids and the all-female remake of Ghostbusters. You may even know him as Mr. Eugene Pool, the science teacher on the first season of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But to his friends, he is famously known as a cocktail maestro, an avocation he put to good use during the Great Pandemic when he created, on Instagram, 100 cocktails over 100 days to raise money for coronavirus charities.
Feig has put those recipes in his new book, Cocktail Time!, but there is so much more in this beautifully produced volume than just what to do with that bottle of curaçao you bought years ago at a duty-free shop because you liked its blue color. Cocktail Time! is part autobiography, part primer on how to live a gracious and fun life, and just about the most slyly amusing book you will read this year.
JIM KELLY: You came to your avocation a bit late, since your parents were Christian Scientists who never drank, and your perception of bars as a teenager came from cop shows like Baretta, where alcohol was consumed solely in seedy bars, along with a fight chaser. Only in your late 20s, when you visited London and saw convivial Brits outside pubs drinking and laughing, did you realize that you could enjoy yourself in a bar without getting pistol-whipped. Which brings us to the bar at the Dukes hotel, justly famous for its martini. Can you describe your first time there?
PAUL FEIG: How could I forget? It was in the mid-1990s, and I had been told that Ian Fleming discovered the martini there. Having just begun to fall in love with gin and martinis, I figured I had to make a pilgrimage to this temple of non-temperance.
Having seen other old opulent hotel bars in London, like at the Connaught and Claridge’s, I was prepared to step into the ultimate Deco drinking den, something with the dark wood and leather majesty of the old Oak Bar at the Plaza, in New York City, mixed with the arty flair of Parisian watering holes like the Hemingway and the bar at the Hotel Costes. So imagine my surprise when I got to Dukes and walked into what looked like my grandma’s apartment.
It was two small rooms separated by a fireplace, with a small wooden bar in the far corner. The décor was more Miss Marple than James Bond, and for a second I thought we were in the wrong place. But then we were greeted by Alessandro Palazzi and shown to a table in the corner.
Alessandro wheeled an old wooden cart over and proceeded to show-and-tell us his frozen-gin-shaker-and-iceless method for making martinis, including his wonderful signature flourish of shaking the vermouth from the glass onto the carpet once the sides of the vessel had been coated.
My wife, Laurie, and I took a sip, and a love affair began. The martini was cold and perfect, strong but friendly, with a beautiful, huge twist of Amalfi Coast lemon sticking up out of it. Now there’s hardly a week that goes by that doesn’t find Laurie and me sipping and conversing with Alessandro.
J.K.: You like gin so much that you developed your own recipe and brand, Artingstall’s Brilliant London Dry Gin. How much experimentation did you do to come up with Artingstall’s?
P.F.: My research really started about 25 years ago when I had my first gin martini, at the Savoy hotel in London.
I had never liked gin before that because I had smelled it a few times as a kid, and it seemed like something you should use to clean your bathroom with instead of pour into a glass and drink. When I came of age, I had always wanted to drink martinis because they epitomized cool adult life to me, and so I would have vodka martinis. But then I was reading a cocktail book that said a true martini is a gin martini, and so decided that I needed to teach myself to like gin.
I definitely developed an affinity for it, but always felt like there was a better way to do it that wouldn’t make it taste so challenging, the way the older gins like Beefeater did. My wife and I have since traveled internationally, and wherever we would go, I would try their local gins. I discovered that there were so many different tastes and styles, and so was always sure I would find what I considered to be the perfect one. But I never quite did, and so would say that if I could make my own, I know exactly what I’d want it to taste like.
So, when I was finally able to link up with Minhas Distillery, in Wisconsin, it was a dream come true. I worked with Ravinder and Manjit Minhas and their distillers, telling them the exact flavor profiles I wanted, and they went off and distilled eight variations of what I had described. From there, I did a tasting of all eight, and gave my notes on what worked and what didn’t, and then they went off and distilled eight more micro-variations on what we discussed. They then brought those back to me, and we did another tasting where I was able to hone my notes even further, and then they made eight even-more-micro variations.
After a few more rounds like this, I was able to settle on the exact formula, which is what comes in every bottle of Artingstall’s today. Wow, that last line sounded like an ad!
J.K.: True or false? One martini is just right, two martinis are too many, and three martinis are not enough.
P.F.: Well, it all depends on who’s making the martinis and how big they are. In the days of the infamous three-martini lunches, martinis were about an ounce and a half. So tossing back three martinis over the course of a meal wasn’t the herculean boozing feat it sounded like. But in so many places today, they serve what are almost 10-ounce martinis, which is like drinking a third of a bottle of gin. So a three-10-ounce-martini lunch is one from which you don’t return to work. Or consciousness.
On the other side of the equation, there’s bartenders who think they have to maniacally shake a martini into submission, and so the martinis they pour are watered-down, cloudy messes. If one of those comes in a four-ounce glass (the most sensible martini size) then you’re fine to have two. But if it’s a Dukes martini, which is straight gin because it never touches ice, then two martinis will definitely leave you slightly incapacitated.
So there’s no real answer to your question without specifics because all martinis are not created equal. Sadly.
J.K.: You stress the importance of drinking your cocktail from the right kind of glass, and decry the explosive growth of the martini glass—from the ideal 4-ounce version to the 10-ounce bucket—in particular as a crime. Do you have a favorite vintage glass, and, if so, where did you find it?
P.F.: I have so many old glasses I love, and I collect them wherever I go.
I have a particular passion for old highball-glass sets that come in wire carrying racks. I remember as a kid in the late 60s and early 70s carrying one of those around my parents’ bridge parties serving drinks to their guests. Since my parents never drank alcohol, the glasses were usually filled with juice or soda, but it was just the act of being able to pick up a rack of eight glasses by a handle and walk around like a drinks vendor that made me feel so cool.
My favorite ones are from a company called Culver, which made glasses with these fun geometric patterns on them in shiny golds and blacks. They just scream, “People were cooler about drinking and more fun back then!” Or at least they do to me.
“My research [for the perfect gin] really started about 25 years ago when I had my first gin martini, at the Savoy hotel in London.”
As for a favorite vintage glass, there’s one I found in a thrift store decades ago from an old bar in my hometown of Detroit called Harry’s. It’s got the name of the place written in huge red letters around the glass, along with a caricature of who I assume was Harry next to it. It’s one of those round 1950s tumblers that look so cool when you’re drinking a scotch or whiskey sour from it. Major cool, old-time drinking vibes.
J.K.: Like many of us, you spent the Great Pandemic drinking, creating a different cocktail every night for 100 nights and sharing your work on Instagram. I know the martini (gin, never vodka!) is your favorite, but surely there must have been a dud among the bunch. And, by the way, what is the worst drink you have ever been served?
P.F.: Oh, there were a few duds. The worst one by far was a disco-era drink called the Hot Pants. I mean, how could a drink with that name be bad?? Well, one look at the ingredients will tell you just how impossible it is that it would be good. Tequila, peppermint schnapps, grapefruit juice, and powdered sugar. Oh, and with a salted rim to boot!
It’s a truly awful drink, so awful that I had to put it in my book just so people could experience it for themselves. But also because, clearly, this was a drink that a good number of people liked back in the 70s. My theory? Everyone was so coked out of their minds back then that they needed something to break through their drugged-out haze, and I guarantee that a combo of those tastes in a salt-rimmed glass would blast through their taste buds like Drano through a clogged toilet pipe. Viva la 1970s!
As for the worst drink I’ve ever been served, it’s pretty much most martinis in Europe outside of high-end bars and hotels, I hate to say. They’re either lukewarm or have way too much vermouth or aren’t even martinis. More often than not, when I ask for a gin martini in foreign lands, I’m brought a large glass of room-temperature vermouth and a shot of gin on the side. It seems that the term “martini” doesn’t exist in a lot of places, and so they think you’re asking for a glass of Martini & Rossi vermouth. Here’s a tip: when you order a martini and the waiter looks a bit confused and then asks, “Red or white?,” just cut bait and order something else.
j.K.: You are very lucky that your wife, Laurie, shares your passion, so much so that you lovingly refer to her as “Tipsy” in your book. You and she love to give parties, and you suggest the importance of food at these parties, even if it is celery sticks with blue cheese. Do you have a favorite, and where do you come down on the question of pigs in a blanket, in my opinion a snack created by God?
P.F.: I’m torn between serving what I actually want to eat and what I know I should serve when it comes to cocktail parties. I know I should serve easy-to-eat, classy finger food and canapés, but, personally, I rarely meet a fancy canapé I truly enjoy. They’re always a bit too tart-y, sitting inside a thick shell, or too bready, perched on top of a piece of round dough, or they’re just trying way too hard and aren’t particularly fun to eat, like some twist on tuna tartar or a small bird egg with something strange on top of it. They look classy, and they are classy, but they’re not usually what I’m craving while I’m having a cocktail.
What I want to serve and eat are small slices of pizza or little egg rolls or hot wings or, yes, those celery sticks with blue cheese spread in the middle. So I guess maybe that’s what I should serve, putting on airs be damned. If you make the rest of your party super-classy and stylish, then low-end food choices will become kitschy or ironic, which in turn will make them cool. And if not, then at least most people are eating what they actually want to eat but couldn’t admit they wished you would serve.
And as far as pigs in blankets go, as long as you have a great deli mustard to dip them in, they truly are the snack of the gods.
J.K.: You make it clear that the cocktail lifestyle is as much about dressing up, acting like grown-ups, talking, and laughing as it is about liquor, and that drinking a grapefruit and soda (in a swell glass, of course) is fine. Do you know a lot of teetotalers? Oh, and speaking of dressing up, your suits! You are never wearing the same one in the photographs, and they all look like they are from Cary Grant’s closet. How many suits do you actually own?
p.F.: I do have some friends who don’t drink alcohol for various reasons, and I love them just the same as my boozy friends. But each of them does the proper thing—they don’t make everyone else feel like monsters for drinking. I’ve been with some people who make a big production out of telling people they don’t drink, or who immediately tell you all the bad things that liquor does to your health, and so those people are pretty much off my list for the next event or evening out. We don’t give you shit for not drinking, so please don’t give us shit for drinking.
And please don’t make a giant show of putting your hand over your glass and loudly saying, “Oh, I don’t drink,” when the waiter comes around to fill the wine glasses. You can just whisper to the server, “Oh, thanks, but I’m not having any wine tonight,” and let them quietly spirit away the glass. You don’t have to dampen everyone else’s good time by turning into Carrie Nation and taking an axe to their vice of choice.
As far as my suits, I have way too many. If you throw sports jackets and my not-currently-in-style ensembles into the mix, it’s well over 100. But that’s because I rarely get rid of any suits because they always, eventually, come back into style. It’s like my grandmother used to say: “They put fashions into a big barrel whenever they go out of style, and when the barrel’s full they turn it over, take off the barrel, and start pulling from the top of the pile.” I’ve been around long enough to see that it’s totally true.
J.K.: Finally, let’s address the pink elephant in the room. Have you ever seen any after a particularly festive evening? And what is the trick to moderation for a cocktail enthusiast?
P.F.: I haven’t seen any pink elephants, but I’ve seen some floors very up close and personal. The biggest lesson you can learn as a drinker is to not mix your alcohols too much. If you start with gin, stick with gin all night. Or vodka. Or whiskey. Sure, you can have some wine with dinner, too, but don’t allow yourself to set sail on a booze odyssey that takes you through every bottle on the shelf during the cocktail phase of the evening. Because you will pay the price.
I break down a typical evening out like this: one cocktail at the beginning of the evening, then either wine with dinner or, if not having wine, another similar cocktail to go with the meal, and then end with a small after-dinner drink if you’re in the mood. If you’re going to have a small scotch or Cognac at the end of the evening, then it’s allowable to mix that against the liquor in the cocktail you had at the start of the night if it was a different one.
Just keep that nightcap small, because hangovers are the mark of an amateur drinker. Or a really fun but regrettable night. It’s up to you to decide how you want to justify your suffering.
Cocktail Time!: The Ultimate Guide to Grown-up Fun, by Paul Feig, is out now from William Morrow
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for Air Mail