Grandpa Knew Best

And forever inspired my liquor cabinet.

I started mixing my first drinks when I was 8. Well, drink. My grandpa would start the evening off with a martini. This ritual applied to most incidences of dusk, regardless of day or occasion. It was his capital-M Moment, which provided, no doubt, a habitual calm developed from decades as a salesman on the beat.In a rocks glass packed with ice, I’d pour three fingers of Tanqueray and one finger of vermouth, stir with the same finger, and add no olives, just a small candy bar on the side. Until I was 14 I thought a bite-sized Milky Way was the standard garnish for a martini. Even though I grew up with a bar in my living room, I have no such nostalgia for my parents’ favorite drinks. But I remember Nana and Papa’s.

My grandpa’s birthday would have been next week. He was the single greatest influence on my attitudes toward food and drink. Though a man of modest means and tastes, Papa taught me how to D-I-N-E. I learned from him how to make a ritual out of any eating moment, whether the restaurant’s tables were covered in white cloth or the streaky residue of a bleach-soaked rag. He always ordered a drink before he’d accept a menu or listen to specials. As a waiter, you could forget a second seating on a table once my papa settled in. He was yours for the night—and in the later years, you’d also be in for a short sermon on the merits of actually putting vermouth in a martini (Amen). After ordering cocktails for himself and Nana, Papa always asked for crackers or bread to start. God help the waitress who tried to get anything more out of him before he finished his first drink.

My nana drank gimlets, and fussed little about however a bartender wanted to interpret that. She preferred vodka on the rocks with a swirl of lime cordial, which always meant Rose’s Lime. Something about a gimlet, though it’s no stronger than a martini, has always knocked me on my ass; the sweet lime works against moderate consumption. It is impossible not to suck them down ice-cold. I think of my petite, black Irish nana, who also spent the bulk of her life burning through Camel unfiltereds, and the perfect posture that drink never affected; the only evidence of her tipsiness would be her contagious pixie laugh.

This mental memorial to my grandparents explains and informs my fascination with a different kind of cocktail culture, a time when well-heeled men and women drank stylishly, in hats (I always imagine lots of hats). I never saw Nana or Papa drink anything but their simple signature drinks.

I think the newfound obsession with cocktails must stem from memories like mine—recollections of men and women of the Greatest Generation, their boozy predilections, their penchant for dress-up. I also grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when something altogether heinous happened to everything from car design to personal grooming. Baby-boomer parents drank as if genetically underprovided with taste buds, buying into the illusion that Blue Nun was wine and pisswater was beer. Forget the boomers’ newfound dedication to wine snobbery in middle age. No amount of Opus One in the cellar can make up for the depressing “food as fuel” attitudes my parents’ generation have conspicuously bestowed upon many of their children. We like Grandpa better because Grandpa seemed to know how to live.

I realize now that as I grew up, so did those drinks, and not just because of the size of my fingers. My perfect martini still measures gin to vermouth three-to-one—but I now add a small splash of lavender syrup. Tanqueray has always had too much juniper for me, but I drink it because that’s what Papa drank. My gimlet has evolved, too: I now muddle a quarter of a fresh lime with raw sugar, better to scour those aromatic oils off the lime and into the vodka, like an instant infusion. Yet just as Papa taught me 20-some years ago, when I’m home I still use my fingers to measure and mix.