This week I’m reviewing Tim Whitmarsh’s history of ancient atheism, so I scoured the internet for cocktails that might tickle the fancy of non-believers everywhere. I came upon the “Atheist’s Best,” a champagne cocktail that uses vodka, cherry juice, and lemon. The recipe led me to make cherry juice for the first time, which is super easy and rewarding: I threw a cup of fresh cherries into my blender along with a half cup of water, then strained. The juice in that natural state actually smells amazing, like a cherry milkshake.
The final product was ok but nothing special – too much of the champagne influence sort of drowns the other sensations. The flavors just felt a little jumbled and never came together in a cohesive and strong taste. I might double the amount of cherry juice next time, just for kicks. A fine looking sipper but, in the end, forgettable.
I then turned to the late great Christopher Hitchens, figuring his penchant for booze and heresy would offer up some pertinent recipes. Surprisingly, given Hitchens mastery of the essay and his love of alcohol, evidence for his views on cocktails was sparse. I found snippets here and there: he thought champagne very overrated, loved Eric Felten’s cocktail guide, and compared martinis to women’s breasts “martinis are like breasts: One is one too few, while three is one too many.” Then, I stumbled upon this video:
Alright, so I had to get a little creative and sought to make best use of Mr. Hitchens’ beloved Johnnie Walker Black Label AKA Breakfast of Champions. I quickly came upon the classic, simple “Rob Roy” – Gaz Regan in 2011 wrote a really interesting history of the drink, outlining its origin and different varieties. I went with the dry version of the drink and used orange bitters, which was recommended by Portland bar tender John Myers. Well now, this drink was a trip – extremely powerful, scotch forward, with an intriguing and complex taste brought on by the orange bitters. This is certainly one to drink slow as it’s a rich cacophony of powerful flavors. Loved it.
- 2 ounces Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch
- 1 ounce Martini & Rossi dry vermouth
- 2 dashes orange’ bitters
- 1 lemon twist, for garnish
Once the cocktails wore off, I picked up “Battling the Gods,” a history of atheism in the ancient world by Tom Whitmarsh. This is a fascinating and striking book, written to inform readers increasingly ignorant of the classics that modern secularism is hardly modern; instead, it is the latest manifestation of anti-theist thought, the history of which stretches back for millennia. Whitmarsh ably walks the reader through the sparse but compelling strands of atheist argumentation in ancient Greece as notable philosophers, enabled by the relatively permissive intellectual spirit of the day, began to disassemble the foundations of the divine.
This is gripping history as the different streams took on different forms, win new admirers, and subtly color the discourse and even drama of the era. It is also accessible history; I wasn’t intimately familiar with every philosopher mentioned, but Whitmarsh never burdens the narrative with detailed biographies. He also provides the reader with helpful contextual snippets, anchoring the developments in atheist thought to the political and military events of the day. I thought the most fascinating part of the book was its conclusion, as Whitmarsh traces the movement of collective atheist thought–collated in mostly lost compilations–into ancient Rome. If you have even a passing interest in the history of Western religion and ancient philosophy, you’d do well to pick this up. And have a few cocktails with it, should be fun.