“Soldiers drink, sailors drink too—a lot,” begins David Wondrich, Esquire’s top cocktail writer and a pre-imminent booze historian. “But this is a weird topic to talk about in a public forum because 50 million to 80 million people died during WWII. That’s three to five percent of the world’s population. It’s a hell of a feat, that level of ferocity.”
Along with his partner—Latitude 29 owner and Tiki archaeologist Jeff “Beachbum” Berry—the duo kicked off Tales of the Cocktail 2015 by sending their audience more than 70 years into the past. “The Big One: Drinking WWII” discussed the numerous reasons alcohol had a place in humanity’s darkest moment (commemorating everything from loss to celebration, addressing everything from stress to pain), and the seminar highlighted a few of the cocktails created during the conflict that have stood the test of time (see NOLA.com’s write-up of the recipes highlighted: the Singapore Sling, MacArthur Punch and PB2Y2).
Although there were appropriately somber moments interwoven throughout, Berry and Wondrich are some of today’s most cherished historians for a reason—they’ve got some killer bar stories to share.
Nazis drank like frat boys
“Want to mention Jagermeister?” Wondrich asked.
“Any ambassadors in the room?” Berry replied.
The Tiki man then proceeded to reveal that the name Jagermeister translates to “master of the hunt” in German. While this term was previously associated with genuine hunting, Berry said it was also a reference to certain Nazi forest hunters during WWII. Like any WWII soldiers, the Germans enjoyed a drink whether it was in celebration, stress or defeat. So Jagermeister was immensely popular along the frontlines according to Berry. And before the brand was ever born, (1934) many of the German soldiers already knew it as Göring-Schnaps—nicknamed for a man (Hermann Göring) who at one point served as Hitler’s number two.
The only battle winner
The Battle of El Alamein—where the Brits fought to keep the Germans out of Cairo—doesn’t quite go down in history next to the beaches of Normandy, but Berry said this particular military exercise carries a special distinction. “Although no historians will say as much, a drink helped win this battle,” he explained.
German’s famed general Erwin Rommel was closing in on Cairo looking to cut off the Brits’ supply chain. As resources in the city were getting scarce, bad liquor began flowing. UK troops complained about worsening hangovers, not an ideal scenario when defending the city from an increasing threat. So in the face of all these high-pressure stakes, Hotel Shepherd bartender Joe Scialom came up with a solution—he dubbed it the Suffering Bastard.
The drink, recreated here by Angel’s Envy, combined whatever gin Scialom could acquire, bitters made by a Greek man across the street, stolen dark spirits, and ginger beer. It quickly became known as a hangover cure among the British forces.
After Rommel and co. finally confronted the British stand, Scialom fielded an odd request according to Berry. As battles could wage on over nights and days, soldiers took the edge off (whether it was pain, fear, stress or something else entirely) by drinking. So the bartender received a telegram from the frontlines: “Can you please send eight gallons of Suffering Bastard, everyone is really hungover.” Scialom filled every thermos he could find, coaxing any available taxies to bring the liquids to the needy-UK frontlines. According to Berry, generals on the scene would later confirm this order was in fact placed. And history definitely shows that the Battle of El Alamein was won by the 11th Hussars, the British cavalry with an apparent taste for the Suffering Bastard.
Dry at sea
With a need for increased manufacturing, the US implored many of its domestic distillers to join the war effort. According to Berry and Wondrich, this meant alcohol being turned into things like synthetic rubber or torpedo fuel.
Well before this war, General Order ’99 declared the Navy as a dry military branch—no alcohol consumed whatsoever while in duty according to Wondrich. “But as they also said, adapt and overcome,” he noted.
True to the motto, Berry pointed out that eventually Navy shipmen learned that alcohol was increasingly becoming a component of their torpedo fuel… and so they would drink it. (Think Everclear, pure burn without much flavor.) As one might imagine, the Naval higher-ups quickly discovered this practice and frowned upon it. To combat the misuse of torpedo fuel, they would add a nausea-inducing chemical to the fuel to discourage the new practice.
But again, “adapt and overcome.” Not to be deterred, Shipmen sought out any means to purify the now degraded torpedo fuel and make it palatable. The filter they employed? “Take a loaf of bread, cut off the ends,” Berry noted. The two historians then honored the practice by taking a handle of Everclear, adding cheap grenadine and Maraschino Cherry juice, filtering it through a slice of bread, and ending with a shot.