Cocktails and the Savage Seas

This week I’m reviewing “The North Water” by Ian McGuire which tells the story of a crew of 19th century English whalers and their desperate fight for survival in the Arctic. Whales, unforgiving elements, and hellish tales of murder aren’t quite the best lead-ins for cocktail making, but I always make do!

Searching for cocktails that paid homage to the whalers of the North Atlantic, I came upon “The Whaler” via Imbibe, care of Prospect in San Francisco. So this is a very good drink with a nice soft egg/rum taste up front and a consistent, velvety pop powered by the prosecco. If I make this again I might add a bit more lime juice and a few more mint leaves, as I thought the drink might be a bit more exciting if those tastes were more pronounced. Very good cocktail for a late summer afternoon or dinner party.

The Whaler

  • 2 oz. aged Jamaican rum
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 3/4 oz. honey syrup
  • 1/2 oz. fresh egg white
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters
  • 5-6 fresh mint leaves
  • Chilled dry sparkling wine

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Next up was the was “The Harpoon” which is more commonly known as the Cape Codder. As a budding cocktail historian, I really enjoyed reading about the lineage of this popular, All-American drink; long story short, the “Harpoon” designator was a failed attempt at branding by the Ocean Spray corporation in the 1960s, but the “Cape Codder” name eventually won out. Obviously, with the poppy cran/lime combo and vodka, this is a perfect fresh cocktail for a hot summer day out sailing or on the porch. At least that’s where I drank mine 🙂

The Harpoon

  • 1 1/2 oz. vodka
  • 4 oz. cranberry juice
  • 1/2 oz. lime juice
  • soda water

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Reading through Ian McGuire’s excellent “The North Water” (one of the few books I’ve read in a day), I was struck with how closely it resembled  giants of the “survival against all odds” genre like “Heart of Darkness” or “Blood Meridian.” The familiar tropes are all here: a sympathetic but disgraced protagonist, a harsh and ultra-violent setting on the bleeding edge of the civilized world, and a psychotic antagonist.

But that repetition of well-worn devices is no crime if they work well. And McGuire wields them with exceptional skill, his storytelling ability shining in two key respects; first, his descriptions of unforgiving tundra and black seas that hosted the mid-19th century whaling industry, which really was horrifically dangerous. Secondly, his riveting treatment of broken and desperate men, particularly the wonderfully named demon Henry Drax, whose brutality and reptilian intelligence evokes comparisons to Conrad’s Kurtz or McCarthy’s Judge. When these elements collide on the decks of a whaling boat or on barren ice floes, the resulting narrative is vivid, savage, and compelling.

I might quibble with the last 10-20% of the story, which reads a bit too neat and cliched. Compared to the senseless savagery of the rest of the book, I was a bit unprepared for the more streamlined, semi-heroic conclusion. I suppose that’s a testament to the power and quality of the world of “The North Water” – so attractive are its description of man’s inhumanity and nature’s cruelty, any respite – no matter how heart-warming – is unwelcome.

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