Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Mad Men" and Drinking

Forgive me for being a bit behind the times (I always am), but I finally got around to watching "Mad Men," Matthew Weiner's wonderful AMC series about a group of advertising executives in early 1960s Manhattan.

I had been interested in this gleaming sliver of New York history long before the program came along, that golden age from 1945 to 1965 when the city was the prosperous capital of the world, stylish, progressive, modern, its chest puffed out with well-earned pride. I've watched with fascination such films as "The Apartment," "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit," "The Best of Everything," and the Doris Day-Rock Hudson flicks (as well as the retro pieces "Good Night and Good Luck," "Down With Love," and "Far From Heaven"; I will be taking in "Revolutionary Road"); read novels of the period; and visited what hot spots from the time that are left relatively intact in the City. Also, certainly, my interest in cocktails has caused me to focus on that era, the last of the 20th century when people drank with ease, assurance and style, and had ready access to great bars and great bartenders.

The metropolis throbbed with ingenuity and activity then, and its citizens (well, the privileged white ones, anyway) fully enjoyed their status in the world community as leaders in fashion, business, theatre, art, literature, technology, almost everything. In retrospect, the period is rendered particularly poignant, and near tragic, in that it was so brief, and because its players had no idea that assassination, war and cultural revolution would dash it all to pieces by the end of the 1960s.

Much has already been written about how constantly the liquor and cigarette smoke flows in this show. It does, indeed. No scene passes without a puff or a swig. The execs don't just keep bottles in their desk drawers; they have home bars in their offices, right out in the open: glasses, bottles, decanters, ice, the works. Workers help themselves in the middle of the day.

Jon Hamm plays the lead role of Don Draper, an impossibly handsome and assured man of deep cynical talents and mysterious past. He drinks Old Fashioneds, regularly. Sometimes classic, sometimes with muddled fruit, depending on the joint. A good solid drink for him. Of what base, I'm not sure, but when his new secretary (played by Elizabeth Moss) is being drilled by her boss, she's told that Draper's drink is rye. "That's Canadian, isn't it?" she says. "Better find out," says her boss. No doubt, the line is a reference to Canadian Club; in later scenes, he's seen with a bottle of the stuff in his office. Sad to think that Draper is resorting to that blended swill, but the stuff was common and popular at the time, and often passed as rye.

In the second episode of the first season, there's a scene where Draper and his boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), are dining with their wives at Toots Shor's. I don't know if the art director did research into what the interior of Toots Shor's looked like (you can see parts of the real thing in "The Sweet Smell of Success"), but it's exciting to think that he did pattern the booths on the real deal. Mrs. Draper (January Jones) is drinking vodka Gimlets, a fact she later regrets. ("Lobster Newberg and Gimlets should get a divorce. They're not getting along well.") Draper has his Old Fashioned. Sterling is having (many) Martinis with olives, served in glasses which, to my eye, looked a tad too big for the time. Sterling's wife, I don't know; maybe a Collins of some sort; leastways, it was a highball.

In the same episode, Draper is entertaining Rachel Menken, a perspective client (and soon-to-be lover) at an uptown restaurant. She drinks a Mai Tai, in an era-appropriate opaque tiki glass. Interesting to think that the cocktail was a relatively recent invention in 1960, devised as it was just after WWII.

There's a confusing scene in the third episode, set at the Draper's suburban home during a party. Betty Draper is fixing up a pitcher of refreshments for everyone, pouring in Blue Hills bourbon, ice and then seltzer. (Blue Hills is a brand that did exist. Beyond that I know little.) Mint is nearby in a bowl. She then arrives in the next room with a tray of silver-plated cups and announces she's offering Juleps. The presence of seltzer had me wondering, and the cups didn't look frosty enough, or necessarily abundant with crushed ice or mint. Still, people were perhaps were not so exacting in their mixology back then—certainly not housewives in the suburbs.

In the same episode, Draper raids a garage fridge while putting together a playhouse for his daughter. He drinks a great many cans of Fielding beer. Again, I can discover very little about this brand. There was a Fiedling made in Halifax. The full name was Fielding's Fine Bradshaw Beers. The beer was made at the White Castle Brewery, which was founded by Daniel Fielding, and was bought out by Samuel Webster & Sons in 1961. I doubt this is the beer "Mad Men" was referencing.

As Mark Simonson pointed out, the can looks exactly like the Hamm’s beer label of the time, but with green instead of blue. (Yes, Mark is a relation, a cousin, and an expert on typeface. He spied the Fielding beer in a separate, wonky, font-driven investigation of his own.)

Hamm's beer. Jon Hamm. Perhaps an inside joke? Is anyone named Fielding involved in the "Mad Men" series?


Dr. Bamboo said...

I have an irrational love for Mad Men...the Mrs. and I were lucky enough to receive Season 1 on DVD this Christmas. I'll have to go back now and see if I can identify all the specific drinks.

Also, I didn't know Mark Simonson was realted to you. I remember reading his post on the Mad Men typography not long after he posted it!

Robert Simonson, "Our Man in the Liquor-Soaked Trenches"-New York Times. said...

Dr. Bamboo, there is no such thing as an irrational love for "Mad Men." It's all justified.