How To Drink Like H.L. Mencken

Drinking in History

The stories and history surrounding what we sip.


Any book that's been written about drinking in the last 50 years probably has a quote from H.L. Mencken, the American writer and cultural critic. The "Bard of Baltimore" had so much to say about drinking that ignoring him would be like forgetting to mention Confucius in a book about Chinese philosophy or overlooking Daryl Hall in a book about musical duo Hall & Oates. Yes, he's really that important.

In his essay "How to Drink Like a Gentleman," Mencken compares drinking to sex, claiming that most people need all the instruction they can get. The tutorial that follows uses drinking as a foil to skewer the habits of people who can't seem to get either right, including members of what Mencken famously called the middle class "booboisie." Born in 1880, Mencken lived through the peak of the Temperance movement and Prohibition, and the subject of drinking gave him a way to lambast the overbearing morality of his times. Mencken was well known for rebuking the suffocating judgment of others with barbs like "A prohibitionist is the sort of man one couldn't care to drink with, even if he drank," alongside other gems like "Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

"How to Drink Like a Gentleman" originally appeared in Liberty Magazine in 1935, and casts Mencken as the drunk at the end of the bar with an opinion about everything. In Mencken's case, however, people actually paid attention to him. Liberty folded in 1950, but the essay has recently been republished in the Liberty Digital Collection as part of a new series of ebooks featuring lost stories from other notable Liberty contributors, including Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Gandhi, FDR, and Bette Davis.

Some of the advice Mencken offers in his essay is a little surprising. He recommends mild drinks such as wine or vermouth over hard ones—perhaps not what you'd expect from the native of a place known for rye whiskey and dockworkers. His reasoning was sound, though; Mencken thought hard drinks hampered the conversational skills he needed to offer people his unsolicited advice. Of course, boring dinner parties were an exception to the rule: "What you need is not an aperitif but an anesthetic. Chloroform would be better, or the kick of a mule; but in their absence you must put up with a cocktail."

Mencken's best advice, however, is his sly counsel to ignore most drinking advice. You want white wine with steak but fear the horrified stares of polite society? Mencken's take was that "The so-called experts are simply intoxicated by the exuberance of their own virtuosity. They preach perfection—which is obnoxious to nature."

Worried that your fancy dinner party host will disapprove if you wash down a tin of caviar with a bottle of Bud Lite Lime? Mencken wouldn't have been. His take: "We live in the United States, and must be content with what is vouchsafed to us...nothing will befall you—save only that you will rise from the table a wiser and a happier man. And the next time you see a whisky bottle on a dinner table you will seize it by the neck and beat in the skull of your host."

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He's currently working on a book about bourbon. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire.