Get me writing about "Mad Men" and cocktails at the same time, and you have a happy reporter.
I've spent a good portion of the past month researching and writing a piece for the New York Times on whether the period experts over at "Mad Men" know what they're doing, history-wise, when they hand Don Draper an Old Fashioned and give Roger Sterling a Vodka Martini. Turns out: Yes they do.
Of the experts I interviewed for the article, none proved more valuable than Brian Rea, the 82-year-old career New York bartender ("21" Club, Little Club, etc.) who remembers who and what he served when he was 32. The man's memory is sharp as a tack.
Sixties Accuracy in Every Sip
By ROBERT SIMONSON
EARLY in Season 1 of the AMC series “Mad Men,” Don Draper, the mysterious advertising executive at the core of the show, was seen at home emptying can after can of Fielding beer. Bloggers afflicted with the fact-checking gene quickly noted that there was no Fielding beer in the United States at the time.
“That was a huge mistake,” said Gay Perello, the show’s prop master since the second season. “I hated that label. Hated it.”
Ten years ago, few would have cared whether the executives at Sterling Cooper — the fictional 1960s advertising firm featured in the show, which begins its third season on Sunday — entertained a client with mai tais or bloody marys. But it was the show’s good fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) to unveil its drink-centric world at a time when a growing fraternity of alcohol enthusiasts is rediscovering America’s rich drinking history. Now, the goof police are out.
Cocktails have been a vital element of the show right from the opening scene, which showed Don Draper sitting in a bar. Before the audience learns his name or his profession, he expresses his drink preference: “Do this again — old-fashioned, please.”
Other than the Fielding lapse, drink historians and barmen of a certain age say that “Mad Men” mostly gets its bibulous world right. Dale DeGroff benefits from a twin perspective. A former bartender at the Rainbow Room, he is often credited with rekindling interest in classic cocktails. But in the early 1970s, he worked at the influential advertising firm Lois Holland Callaway. One of the agency’s clients was Restaurant Associates, which ran such sensations as the Four Seasons and Forum of the Twelve Caesars.
“These ad guys made themselves experts on all the details that needed attention, including everything at the cocktail bars and even the wine lists,” Mr. DeGroff, 60, remembered.
That many ad men drank deeply seems unquestioned. The bartender and bar lore archivist Brian Rea, 82, worked in the 1950s at the Little Club, a popular Midtown restaurant. “Lunch was a big thing,” he said. “They took two and a half hours. We had a lot of agency people come in, from Cunningham & Walsh, BBDO, all having serious lunches with drinks.”
Carlo Marioni, 65, a New York bartender with more than 40 years’ experience who now works at Pietro’s, agreed: “Those years, for lunch, they used to drink three martinis. Then they’d come back before dinner for rusty nails, white spiders.”
If Mr. Rea and others give “Mad Men” high marks for nailing its milieu, part of the credit for this achievement goes to Ms. Perello, 43, who prepares every drink seen on the show, using nonalcoholic ingredients. “We’re definitely the alcohol department,” she said. “I can make an old-fashioned in my sleep now.”
To get an idea of the popular cocktails of the time and how they looked, Ms. Perello relies heavily on a volume from 1992 called “The Art of the Cocktail: 100 Classic Cocktail Recipes,” by Philip Collins. Little is left to chance. “We’re very picky about our glassware. Things are bit bigger and bulkier now. For a martini glass, we go a little smaller and thinner.” Period bottle labels and caps (old-style tax stamps, yes; bar codes, no) are recreated by the graphics department, using old ads as guides.
Occasionally, expediency dictates a decision. When an accounts executive was sent a case of gin by some British colleagues last season, Ms. Perello chose Tanqueray, though Beefeater then dominated the London dry gin market in the United States. “Tanqueray has not changed their bottle,” she explained. “With Beefeater, the bottles are completely different than they were. And I needed 12 bottles.”
Liquor is not only an integral part of many plotlines (last season, it played a pivotal role in a car crash, a divorce, a rape and two career implosions), but often a telling sign of character. When it comes to choosing a character’s poison, Ms. Perello said, many people have input, starting with the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner: “Matt will say, ‘I want them to have a brown liquor.’ And I’ll go, ‘Let’s do a nonblended Scotch, because this is a person who would appreciate that.’ ”
The cocktail historian David Wondrich, 48, thinks an old-fashioned is a conservative choice for the young Draper, but considers his preference for Canadian Club “exactly right. We’d had years of destruction of the American whiskey industry up until then. So the Canadian stuff was viewed as being pretty good.”
“The big Scotches were Bell’s, Black & White, Teacher’s, White Horse,” Mr. Rea said. “When you’re drinking Canadian Club, you’re showing people you drink a better brand” of whiskey. He and Mr. Wondrich also said Betty Draper’s taste for Tom Collinses and vodka gimlets was spot on.
Thirsts on “Mad Men” have not slackened in Season 3. Draper will vary his rye intake with Old Overholt, while Roger Sterling, Draper’s boss and the show’s resident booze philosopher, broadens his palate. About Sterling’s beloved vodka (bottles of Smirnoff made frequent cameos in earlier episodes) Mr. Rea said, “Martinis were the big thing in those days. Vodka was just beginning to come on strong.”
This season, Sterling gets his hands on some prized contraband: Soviet-made Stolichnaya (then not available in the United States). His priorities remain solidly in place. “Help yourself,” he tells a colleague. “Not the Stoli.”