One day I hope to sit down with Heywood Gould — the novelist and screenwriter who wrote Cocktail, the movie — and have a drink with him. Maybe even a Cognac or Polish Martini. That’s what Heywood used to drink as a bartender in Manhattan during the 1970s. Definitely a few shots of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey. That’s what he drinks now.
The reason is simple. Despite having become a successful writer, Gould still speaks like a bartender, the type of bartender I’ve always enjoyed sitting across from: a raconteur, keen observer of humanity, and someone who understands that the reasons people enter a bar are varied, but rarely do they really have to do with flaming orange peels or flipping bottles.
But that’s what you think, right? That Cocktail, the movie, is all about flair — a style of bartending that involves juggling and spinning bottles in a theatrical routine. Bartender friends immediately gave Gould a “Thanks a lot, asshole” for portraying the profession of bartending as part psychologist, chemist and, now, court jester in Cocktail, the movie.
Tobin Ellis, consultant/owner at BarMagic of Las Vegas and co-founder of the American Flair Bartender Association, didn’t see the movie until after he became a bartender. But he admits that, for over 20 years he’s heard a Tom Cruise comment almost every shift. Ellis insists that Cruise’s character in the movie, Brian Flanagan, is a poor role model for bartenders. For Ellis, bartending is “about people, about service, about speed.” Flair is for embellishment or sport.
Gould would agree. Cocktail, the movie, has Hollywood written all over it. But the devices that make it so are a necessary evil. As he says, “The movie was a hit from day one.” It’s still a popular movie 25 years later. He adds, “I guess people gave it a second look and decided to forgive its ‘cheesy’ moments.”
The book Cocktail, which the movie is based on — also written by Gould — doesn’t include Brian Flanagan. Flair isn’t a significant part of it either. But without those elements, it’s unlikely that the movie would be so enduring. The movie is, after all, a coming of age story, filled with obstacles, braggadocio, and redemption. Flanagan gets the girl in the end; he achieves his dream. (Cocktails and Dreams, to be specific.) The book takes it down another path.
While watching, you can sometimes squint and see the grittier side of Cocktail. Bill Norris, beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, a national cinema chain based in Texas that serves cocktails and occasionally plays Cocktail, wrote:
“After the silliness and faux-drama of the first two-thirds of the film, the bottle tossing, the shaker juggling and the bar-top poetry reciting, the whole film flips on its head in the final third and becomes something different, something dark, a cautionary tale about life behind the stick and what it can do to you and the people you care about if you don’t pay attention.”
I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the book per se when I emailed Heywood about interviewing him. It’s the 25th anniversary of the movie, after all. But I did want to try and separate what was true to life from what was Hollywood in the movie. I understood, like Norris, that the story line was set overtop the often difficult-to-watch but always compelling drama of hard-drinking, occasional-drugging, cynically-inclined, sometimes self-destructive bar folk.
Bartenders are an intense breed. They have to be. They understand, after much observation of humankind, that people are often ruthless in their pursuit of tiny slices of pleasure and that the pleasant-enough asshole that you’re serving has shoved all his shame, hate, and disappointment in his pocket like little scraps of food to be doled out later once that third or fourth drink has hit. We don’t just face humanity; we face humanity bare, the consequences of which can sometimes be thrown right back at us. Those without moral boundaries or stable lives are thrown asunder, leading to irreparable harm.
I could tell you stories. But Gould could tell you more. I fully expected, as a bartender and bar owner, to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. I didn’t. Not always. When I asked Gould if the scene where Flanagan stands on the bar in a Manhattan club with only one other bartender and no barbacks, and people clapped for him, was total bullshit, he chided:
“As far as stopping to climb on the bar to recite poetry, I did it myself. Also my three-hundred-pound quaalude-popping partner climbed on the bar to do a time step he had learned in tap dance class.”
I stand corrected. Instead of my this-is-true-that-is-not line of inquiry, what followed was an e-mail exchange where I learned more about the bartending world of the 1970s and less about the character of Brian Flanagan as a bottle flipping boy-man who would outlive his mentor, the philosophically inclined Doug Coughlin, whose aphoristic “laws” are peppered throughout the movie.
In an email exchange that lasted from May 30th to June 7th, comprised of 22 emails, I was riveted by Gould’s stories and prose. I stared intently at the screen on my smartphone reading his responses, despite the fact that we were conversing during the same week I opened my new bar, Mockingbird Hill. So, I decided to nix my initial idea and just publish some of his answers, which you’ll find below:
Victorian Heroine with the Vapors
When Cocktail opened, the reviews were so bad I took to my bed like a Victorian heroine with the vapors. Roger Ebert said I “obviously” had no idea what went on in saloons, which I found kind of poignant, having been a bartender for 12 years. After the critics got through savaging me, the bartenders moved in. I was driving in Vermont at 2 AM listening to an all night DJ when a bartender called in and said: “For me and my bartender friends the novel, Cocktail, is our Bible. I can’t believe that Gould has betrayed us all, selling out to Hollywood, making us all look ridiculous.” My own friends complained to me: “People keep coming up and demanding we juggle bottles like Tom Cruise. Thanks a lot, asshole!”
300 lb. Quaalude-Popping Tap Dancer
I worked in all kinds of bars, from 42nd Street dives to Midtown hotels, and never had a barback. We prepped our bar, cut the fruit, squeezed the juice, washed the glasses, changed the soap, married the bottles, did the PC once a month or a week, if the boss was paranoid. That was the job. A partner and I worked a 90-foot bar in the Crystal Room and later at Le Jardin, the first disco in NY with no busboys. On the union jobs we put the dirty glasses in a rack and a busboy would take them into the kitchen to be washed. Nobody was allowed behind the bar. Nobody could touch bottles during our shift or go anywhere near the register. We were the masters of our tip cup: never had to cut anybody in, never had to share and never got a rake off from the floor staff. Everybody made and kept their own money. It made life a lot simpler – and friendlier.
As far as stopping to climb on the bar to recite poetry, I did it myself. Also my 300-pound quaalude-popping partner climbed on the bar to do a time step he had learned in tap dance class. The bartender ruled the roost in the Soho bars and also uptown on the UES. We had no bouncers, either. The manager had to help with ejections.
Aristocrats of the Working Class
I worked with two kinds of bartenders: the pros at the midtown Manhattan hotels and the painters, actors, writers, entrepreneurs, etc. who had become bartenders to support their art. One of things many of them had in common: They drank and drugged themselves into disability or death.
Many of the pros came from second and third generation bartending or bar-owning families. Others from neighborhoods where the saloon was the center of activity. Bartending was a steady, secure job, especially if you were a union member. Bartenders were the aristocrats of the working class. They didn’t make as much money as masons or carpenters, but they had more prestige. Nobody cares what a bricklayer thinks of them or if the plumber calls them by their first name.
These guys [bartenders] were habitual, unapologetic drinkers and sports bettors. Drank after work, drank on their days off. Didn’t do the exotics – coke, speed, smack, downs, etc. – which may be why they survived. Just got loaded and went home. It got some of them in the end in the form of cancer or cirrhosis. Diabetes was a biggie as well. Some of them got old before their time like their fathers and grandfathers before them.
You found the “boho” saloon people in Greenwich Village, Soho and the looser places on the UES. I had friend who called us “Lost Talents,” after Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation.”
Some had enjoyed precocious success – big show at a major gallery, a role in a Broadway play, a short story in Esquire – but had been unable to follow it up. “One hit wonders,” they had pretty much given up by the time I met them. I had a friend who had come to NY from Chicago to be feted and touted and then inexplicably dropped by the art world. He hadn’t painted in years. “There’s too much good art in the world,” he used to say.
I was in the second group, the struggling artists. I went 11 years, getting books and magazine articles published, even writing a few screenplays (Fort Apache the Bronx was one; I got paid $1250 for the first draft) before I was making enough to quit bartending.
We drank for free so I developed a taste for Remy and Martel Cordon Bleu. “Vitamin C,” we called it. “Coke, Cognac, and Camels.” I should have added “Constitution” because the ones who didn’t have a strong one fell by the wayside.
Sleep is Overrated
I had a list of “overrateds” and “underrateds,” One was “Sleep is overrated; it’s a gateway drug.” Another one, “Talk is overrated as a means of resolving disputes,” made it into the movie.
Kindred Spirits and Tragic Affairs
Kindred spirits came from all over and washed up in saloons. The company was congenial. Conversation was intelligent except after six AM. I assume that both sexes are more interesting and attractive than the nine-to five sample. There were quick couplings, tragic affairs, even a few happy endings.
But a lot of people died. Car crashes, falls, OD’s, sudden strokes. There were a few inexplicable suicides of the “I just saw him yesterday, he was laughing his ass off” variety. A few murders. One – the nightmare of all bartenders – in which an ejected drunk came back with a knife and stabbed a manager. A couple of drug deals gone bad. Another in which a very tough bartender had a one-nighter with a neighborhood girl in Little Italy and her boyfriend shot him on Bleecker Street on a Friday night.
The Three Foot Jump
[Doug] Coughlin is based on a personality, not a person. That lethal combo of cynicism and sentimentality, sophistication and innocence, charm and self-loathing. The Coughlins I knew were across the bar from people they wanted to be, but couldn’t make that three-foot jump to join them on the other side. They schemed and dreamed and worshipped success and never got it.
Behind Every Great Fortune is a Crime
The Coughlins I knew were tough, cynical and smart, but fair and loyal in their own way and that was their downfall. They didn’t have the ruthlessness to make the career moves or hustle the rich girl or rip off a friend. Balzac says: “behind every great fortune is a great crime.” The Coughlins wouldn’t or couldn’t commit that crime.
“Go fuck yourself, asshole”
Bartenders were definitely stars in the ’70s, which also made them targets for soreheads, scorned lovers, and undercover cops. Bars were packed every night (except Tuesday for some reason) from 8 PM to closing at 4. We had to beg and bully people to leave and some of them would exit grumbling: “I didn’t hear you give last call.” In a way, it kept us alert. We couldn’t get too loaded because we knew (or hoped) that certain demands would be made up on us at the end of the night.
One night a new waitress caught my eye. “Will you marry me?” I asked.
“Go fuck yourself, asshole,” she said.
Well, to make a long story short, she did marry me, and we have three sons, one of whom works as a bartender and makes cocktails I’ve never heard of.
I’ll stand by the laws today. The one that influenced me the most made it into the movie as dialogue: “Workers never hustle. Hustlers never work.” I was a worker and there was a time when my hustler friends seemed to be getting over with their scams while I was trying to make good drinks, cleaning ashtrays, changing soap, rewriting rejected stories and getting them re-rejected and writing free scripts that never got made. But in the end the workers outlast the hustlers as Flanagan outlasted Coughlin – if they live long enough.
The Pink Squirrel is one of what I used to call “Crossing Cocktails,” drinks made on the transatlantic liners by bartenders in white jackets for ladies in evening gowns. In the ’30s movies there’s always the tight shot of the drink being shaken and poured that pulls back to a glittering saloon with a great band and couples doing intricate ballroom dances that make you realize you were born too late. The Squirrel is made with Creme de Noyeaux, White Cacao and heavy cream, shaken and garnished with a big fat red dye number two cherry. I used to add a wrist of Bacardi Light to stand it up. Velvet Hammers, Sidecars, Grasshoppers, Pink Ladies, French 75’s and 95’s are more crossing cocktails. The amount of drinking that goes on in all movies made before 1960 shows how much more fun people were having in those days.
The Death Spasm
The Death Spasm was a late-night concoction I invented featuring spirits that killed more artists and writers than oblivion. It had Gin, Absinthe, and Fleischmann’s Rye, shaken very cold and thrown down in one shot. The Alabama Slammer was a disgusting variation of the Sloe Comfortable Screw, replacing the vodka with Wild Turkey 101 and the OJ with peach juice to make it completely Southern. The Orgasm was just there because it rhymed with Death Spasm.
Old Overholt & Cheap Red Wine
My aperitif was a “Polish martini,” made with Wyborova, Lillet, and a float of Pernod. Then, Cordon Bleu until I was talking to myself. Cognac had no physical affect on me, which made it so dangerous because I never knew I was drunk.
Now I like Old Overholt and cheap red wine with dinner. I like to drink at home, watching TMC, close to my bed.
The audition drink in my day was a Bloody Mary, but it really gave the owner a chance to see how you looked behind his bar. Now, you have to take drug tests, background checks, and trail for three weeks before they hire you.
A $100 night was a big deal for us. Everything was done in cash. We didn’t take checks or credit cards at the bar. Now I hear there are people making $500, $600 a night.
On the Profession of Bartending
Bartending is a profession now, not a job you took until (hopefully) you made it in your art. It was all male, now it’s half female, although the female bartenders have the same prestige and total authority. Bartenders are like celebrity chefs now. It’s a new world.
Here are two recipes from Cocktail, the movie.
The Pink Squirrel is an old recipe that was popular during Gould’s stint as a bartender. Gould has improved it with a “wrist” of Bacardi.
¾ ounce Creme de Noyeaux
¾ ounce Creme de Cacao
1 ounce Cream
(Optional: ½ ounce Bacardi Light)
Shake hard and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, or parfait glass. Add Bacardi before shaking to “stand it up,” as Gould says.
The Death Spasm, Gould admits, he made up. As far as I can tell, it has never been published before. Sounds exactly as he describes it above, capable of “kill[ing] more artists and writers than oblivion.”
¾ ounce Rye Whiskey
¾ ounce London Dry Gin
¼ ounce Absinthe
Shake hard with ice and strain into shot glass. Float absinthe on top.