12 Rounds With… Daniel Handler
There’s a moment in Daniel Handler’s introduction to Bernard DeVoto’s “The Hour” where Handler offers his infant son his first tiny taste of a cocktail. I too have done this – dipped my pinkie into a glass and held it forth for my insistent youngster, his small mouth cupping the scant drop of liquid. In both Handler’s case and in my own, the child’s reaction was the same – a single word mustered up from a tiny vocabulary: “More.”
It’s at that moment that I felt a kinship with Mr. Handler. The psychologists may call it transference or projection, but I knew then that Daniel and I were both playing our parts as middlemen in a greater cocktail saga. We had learned from and been inspired by our fathers, and now, we were seeking to instill the same level of admiration – for us and for drink – in our sons.
With a resume too encompassing to do it justice here – master of the accordion, member of bands including The Magnetic Fields and Danny & the Kid, author of “The Basic Eight”, “Adverbs” and numerous other titles – on these pages, Mr. Handler will simply be the man who wrote the introduction to “The Hour”, and that, in and of itself, is enough. If our places are but to preserve, polish, and pass the baton to the next generation, the oral history of the cocktail has a true Homer in Daniel Handler.
01) What inspired your interest in cocktails?
Being broke. Investing in a home bar, and inviting people over, proved to be much cheaper than going out.
02) What was your first formative cocktail experience?
Watching my father mix a Manhattan for himself, most evenings.
03) What is your all-time favorite mixed drink?
Probably the Delmonico – gin with brandy, sweet and dry vermouths and bitters, served up with lemon. It’s complicated, like all the world’s best pleasures.
04) Favorite place to drink?
In a quiet bar at the violet hour.
05) If you don’t know the bartender, what do you order?
A Manhattan if I can see him – you learn a lot about someone by the way they make a Manhattan – but if I can’t then Maker’s on the rocks. He can’t screw it up, and Maker’s isn’t fancy enough for him to try and substitute something cheaper.
06) If you could make any drink with the 12 Bottles, what would you make?
I’d probably be showing off, so I’d coat a lowball glass in Kübler and then shake up some Rittenhouse with a little of both bitters, and pour it all in, ice and all, to make a sort of makeshift Sazerac. Makeshift isn’t a bad name for a cocktail, come to think of it.
07) If you could replace any one bottle with another, what switch would you make? And why?
I’d replace the rum with a bitter liqueur – Fernet Branca or Cynar – which is handier for experimenting, and because I frown upon rum drinkers in my home.
08) Outside of the 12 Bottles, what should people make an effort to try?
The novels of Vladimir Nabokov and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop.
09) If you could only have one mixed drink for the rest of your life, which would it be?
A martini. It’s simple enough that you can’t really get tired of it, and it’s strong enough to make you forget all of the other drinks you’re missing.
10) With whom (living, deceased, or fictional) would you like to most share a drink?
A bender with Raymond Chandler would be something to write home about.
11) On which one item should the home bartender splurge?
A bottle of bona fide Maraschino. It lasts forever and it can bail one out of a number of miserable cocktail situations.
12) One piece of advice for the home bartender…
Small glasses. Get people knackered in stages.
“The Hour” by Bernard DeVoto, with an introduction by Daniel Handler, can be found on Amazon.com or at your local bookstore.
Among the questions we ask our interviewees is how they would like to be introduced. In this case, the response was: “Mr. Chandler, I’d like you to meet Daniel Handler.” Should you or Mr. Chandler like to buy Daniel a drink, he can often be found at Zam Zam on Haight Street at the violet hour.