A Drinker’s Guide to the Beat Generation

Drink Features

In the mind’s eye—as well as the archive of scratchy black-and-white footage that captured much of the era of the Beat Generation—trying to make out the booze that these writers drank from the persistent cloud of cigarette smoke makes for a next-to-impossible visual scavenger hunt. But at first blush, I’d bank on cheap red wine, the kind easily found in any place in the world, the kind favored by ‘50s hobos, the kind that mixes well with Benzedrine, the chemical that fueled Neil Cassady’s character as he drove as Jack Kerouac’s cypher across the country’s open roads.

Born partially from the radical cultural shifts that swept the nation after World War II, the Beats got their start in NYC’s Columbia University in the early 1940s, where aspiring writers like the afore-mentioned Kerouac met Allen Ginsberg. The group expanded to include Lucien Carr, John Clellon Homes, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs, the unofficial godfather of the scene.

But if the Beats were more about jazz, heroin, and marijuana than straightforward boozing, their literature certainly read like a mainline of the best that booze has to offer. A sometimes mad, rhythmic stream of consciousness that tapped into the American spirit (On the Road), rallied against the status quo (Howl), and re-imagined what the term “novel” could mean (Naked Lunch).

Look a bit closer, and alcohol did have its influence—especially in the writers’ lives. Burroughs was almost certainly drunk when he attempted to shoot an apple off his wife’s head (and missed, killing her) while living in Mexico City. And alcohol pretty much killed Kerouac; he passed in 1969 of cirrhosis.

But in some of the books, booze was part of a larger arsenal of liberating devices, a way to rebel against the stodgy ‘50s embodied by suburban conservatives. As Kerouac wrote, speaking of the people that willfully lived beyond the traditional: “They danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”

To start embracing this liberating spirit start with some good wine, something complex and big like a Chianti, Malbec, or Bordeaux. Something that goes with dimly lit rooms, the Americana photos of Robert Frank, and an improvisational jazz score. Then shift to vodka—that clean and pure and delicious libation that’s perfect to imbibe while reading Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, with nirvana floating just out of reach.

Then things can get more interesting. Reach for tequila if you want to dip your big toe into Burrough’s well-documented madness (but no William Tell redo’s, please). And howl after each shot to offer respect to Ginsberg. Or go big and get some absinthe to push the intoxicating experience into a very Naked Lunch hallucination.

Then it’s the more mature alcohols. Scotch, as witnessed in Big Sur, whose character would swig “Scotch from the bottle and when it’s empty I run out of the car and buy another one, period.” Here things get appropriately somber; published in 1962, the book offers a thinly veiled window into where the writer found himself—long after the fame of his first book, long after making it through breakfast without a drink was a Herculean feat.

So, have just one—a double pour, if you must—in honor of Jack, and all the other lost scribes of that beatific generation.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin