You Gonna Drink That? The Class System Colors of Booze

Scotch on the rocks
Hard liquor for the hard-boiled.
So there I sat, at the stick in my latest hangout, The End of Times, having another Scotch on the rocks. The guy on the stool next to mine reminded me of Orson Wells during his “We will sell no wine before its time” Paul Masson phase. For some reason, this guy kept looking over at my drink and snickering. After he did it about five times, I turned to him and said, “Something funny, Orson?”

He didn’t get the reference, only smirked at my drink again. It was then that I noticed he was drinking something clear, with no rocks. “What’s that,” I inquired, nodding at his glass. “Everclear?”

“As a matter of fact,” he slurred at me, “it’s vodka, straight.” His slurring made it sound like he’d just said, “Ass a madder of fat, ish voda stray.” Orson took another belt, like he was adding an exclamation point to his statement. 

“Low class, that’s what you are,” he then told me. “Not a gentleman at all.” And with that he tossed off the rest of his drink, slipped off the stool, and whirlygigged it out the door.

I sat there for a moment, staring at his now empty glass, then back at mine. Low Class? What’s low class about drinking Scotch as opposed to Vodka? Vodka, by the way, is also known as the last booze an alcoholic can drink, as it’s the easiest on the liver. Or so they say. Thankfully, I’m days years away from finding out if that’s true or not.

Then my train of thought became a runaway, rolling back to the private detective novels and movies I love so much. Maybe Orson was onto something? Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne drank Martell, a quality cognac. That’s brown. Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell drank Scotch. Brown liquid. Philip Marlowe, in the movie version of The Big Sleep walked around with a bottle of Rye in his pocket. Again, a brown liquid.

A martini
However, in the movie version of The Thin Man, Nick Charles drinks martinis, usually. He’s a high-class guy, too. Marlowe and Liddell are certainly NOT high-class guys. 

I took a sip of my drink, pondering if I were on the brink of some deep-meaning social theory. Does what a detective drinks really mirror who he’s supposed to be? Was Mike Shayne trying to “put on airs” by making his brown liquor cognac? It was worth considering, and certainly worth another round, so I ordered one. As I took a sip of my new, soon-to-be-dead and lamented friend, I pondered a few questions:

1. Do authors use what a character drinks as a “character window”?

2. And don’t some authors use it as a “character crutch”?

3. Bad guys, like detectives, always seem to drink from the whiskey family (barley, corn, rye, etc,) while their bosses usually drink something considered “higher class”, like champagne. Are the bosses “putting on airs” by doing so? Is it a way for them to show they have money, when in reality they only end up appearing nouveau riche and gauche?

4. Champagne would be considered a “clear” drink, wouldn’t it? Would it?

I took another sip from my glass, letting my thoughts get washed in the alcohol. Made those thoughts happy, that was for sure.

Then it occurred to me: what about straight drinks versus mixed drinks? Tough guys drink it straight, no chaser. In the pulp, noirish books of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s I’ve read, women usually drink mixed drinks. I mean, can you see Mike Shayne bellying up to the stick and ordering a Fuzzy Navel? A Sex on the Beach? If Philip Marlowe ever walked into a bar and ordered a Cosmopolitan, I would find some way, any way, to build a time/reality machine that would shoot me into his world so I could slap some sense into him and make his stones drop back down. Can you really see those guys ordering these kinds of drinks?

No, neither can I.

The drink reflects the man, especially if that man is tough, street-wise, world-weary.

My head was spinning at this point, and it wasn’t the booze. It was because I’d never thought of how entwined the detective and his drink were, how symbolic a glass of champagne or a martini could be.

It certainly bore more research, and that was a fact.

And I decided to start straight away, by ordering another round.

Robert Lewis grew up under the pier at Venice Beach, CA. There, by firelight, he would entertain the stray dogs with weird and wonderful tales. He’s still telling stories, but now he lives in a place with walls, a roof, and cases of red wine. Crime fiction and blues guitar are his things. He blogs over at NeedleCity, and twits sporadically and nonsensically as @robertklewis.


  1. db

    What did Hammett’s Continental Op drink?

    The only hardboiled-type guy I can think of who regularly drank a mixed drink is Marid Audran, the hero of George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen novels (When Gravity Fails, A Fire in the Sun, and The Exile Kiss; they’re near-future science fiction, but very much in the hard-boiled detective tradition).

    Marid always drank something called “gin and bingara” with a splash of Rose’s Lime. I’ve always wanted to try it, but I have no idea what bingara is. Every once in a while, I remember Marid and do a Google search for bingara…but the closest I’ve come is that Bingara is the name of a town in New South Wales, Australia.

    Maybe Effinger made it up. We can’t ask him, because he died in 2002 at 55 years old. Which is sad. What’s infinitely sadder is that he only wrote those three Marid Audran novels. They’re fantastic, and when you reach the end of the third and realize there aren’t any more…well, it’s kinda like an alcoholic realizing the bottle’s empty and there’s never going to be another one.

    • AD

      I too was brought here by a search for Marid Audran’s White Death bingara drink (first result!). I found the same Bingara reference that you did, and not much else. However, I did learn that there is an Arab liquor called arak or araq, led there by a reference in Effinger’s Budayeen Nights collection of short stories. One of the recurring characters in the Budayeen calls for his afternoon bingara by saying “bring me some of that ugly Arab drink”. I’ve learned that it’s a clear liquor, but apparently turns milky white when mixed/dilluted with ice or other liquids. Could this be the source of Marid’s ‘White Death’? It doesn’t explain the name ‘bingara’, but perhaps that’s a brand or local name? This is all guess-work of course, but gin and arak w/ lime juice should turn white, so there’s that. It sounds like an awful drink, but if I can find some arak I may give it a try and hoist one or two to Mr. Effinger and Mr. Audran.

      It’s sad that there are only the three novels, but I’m thankful that Mr. Effinger gave us those before he passed away. I just tore through them in about two weeks, and you describe the feeling of finishing the trilogy perfectly – that’s all there is and will ever be. I found another small taste of that world in Budayeen Nights, and it offers a little more insight into what might have been in future Marid Audran novels, but still a poor substitute the real thing.

  2. RKLewis

    “…well, it’s kinda like an alcoholic realizing the bottle’s empty and there’s never going to be another one.”

    Ha! Nicely done, sir!

    Thanks for stopping by and giving it a read!

  3. Sue Swafford

    At least Marid drinks gin. Vodka is for people who don’t like to drink. Its main claim to fame is that it doesn’t taste or smell like anything much. When I was a kid it supposedly didn’t leave telltale signs on the breath of the 3 martini lunch bunch.

    I am re-reading Effinger’s series. His (electonically and physically) enhanced humanity so reflects what is actually happening now that I keep harkening back to his books. The first was published in 1987. So, did he take the idea of computer chips and imagine planting them in peoples’ heads? Or was something like that being thought out among the advanced tech circles at the time?

  4. Stephen B.

    I was directed to this post because, like db, I was idly curious and wondered if the Internet could tell me what bingara was (besides a town).

    Swell post, though. A couple of things spring to my mind:

    1) “Orson” is a pompous ass and a poseur. Drinking in a bar is expensive; I reckon if a person is going to drop hard earned cash on a drink in public, it should be a drink they *like* as opposed to something they’re drinking only because it looks good.

    2) You may be on to something with the clear/brown distinction, but I think it’s not simple. Certainly straight/mixed is a much more significant distinction. Mixed drinks are fussy, and fussy links strongly to effete. How can you be both fussy and manly? Maybe you have to add in some other signifier, like cost. Scotch is brown (therefore burly, manly, and low class) but single malt Scotch is very pricy and there’s all kinds of trivia to learn about Scotch and to distinguish one distillery from another, so it’s fussy (therefore high-class and somewhat effete, because high-class means you don’t work with your hands at dangerous and ill-paying jobs). Hmm. What did Lord Peter Wimsey drink? Oh, he was a world-renowned expert on wine! He’s definitely high-class, and wine is certainly not colorless (except, possibly, pinot grigio). Scotch and soda, Scotch on the rocks, Scotch neat…none of these are unmanly and I can come up with high-class associations for all of them.

    No, I think your drunken lout was just that, and his attitude and speech merely betrayed his own lack of grace.

    Oh, and about the bingara: I remember one of the bartenders calling Marid’s drink a “white devil”. Now, gin plus Rose’s lime will be pale green, maybe like absinthe. Maybe in this context “bingara” is, like “angostura,” a kind of bitters named after its place of origin? In which case, it probably is brown but you’d only put in a dash. Hmm. I’ve got gin and Rose’s lime and some angostura bitters handy; I may have to try that.

  5. Winston Smith

    To: db – “Maybe Efinger made it up. We can’t ask him, because he died in 2002 at 55 years old. Which is sad. What’s infinitely sadder is that he only wrote those three Marid Audran novel George Alec Efinger wrote plenty, considering his health (He only lived as long as he did because the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) picked up a huge tab).
    A leading figure in the SG New Wave movement, Efinger went commercial (novelizing the Zork computer games in 1 vol., then going Noir (with his typical twisted sense of humor) in the When Gravity Fails trio, which was supposed to go on for at least another vol.

    As Harlan Ellison said in his blurb for the book (from memory) ‘NOW will you go out and read this guy?’ Who wrote whenever he could novels and short stories written, kinda optimistically, in a style rather like J.G. Ballard and William Burroughs on a 4-day nitrous oxide binge – i.e. from crystal clear beautiful prose to ‘what just happened to who, who I thought dead 50 years ago, and whatya mean “Steely Dan” is an it, rather than the hottest bi around.

    For them of you who read only ONE literary genera, you missed a potential Great Author never able to make it to the typewriter long enough to get the notice he deserved, William S. Burroughs (it is hard to tell where the fact from fiction in his works and life – beyond blowing a good portion of the Burroughs Computer fortune he inherited on being found not guilty of anything when he shot his wife in the face during a William Tel reenactment with bow replaced by revolver and apple by a shot glass of something dark. Steely Dan was a dildo, which is the reason a couple of great twisted musicians looking for a name thought it would be cool to use the oddest ‘character’ in post-WW II lit.)
    AND if you haven’t read Ellison, Efinger, Ballard and Burroughs, you’ve missed a LOT.
    (btw) I’m going to have to do a cross-ref on Saudi, Ottoman, Turkish and Maghrebi languages, searching for a drink that may be either a regional specialty or a “non”alcohol used by officially abstaining Muslims.
    Audron favored the “White Death” (named by a bartender for him) consisting of gin, bingara and about 1/4-shot of Rose’s – he also favored several non-existent opiates, tranquilizers, uppers, downers and sidewaysers over booze (does anybody know if his favorite Palastinian detective and his creator exist, and whether any of his books are available in English?)

  6. Tina B

    I, as well, got here looking for Effinger’s “bingara”! I, like Stephen B, came to the tentative conclusion it might be bitters. But, the real question is “what in the world is tende?”. As you will recall tende was the personal stock of Marid’s one true friend, Chiriga.

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