Book review: 'Cecil Beaton's Cocktail Book: Mixing with the Bright Young Things'

Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken

17 April 2020

A homeage to the Golden Age of cocktails and the work of the renowned photographer, this book – in association with Claridge's – is a time capsule of a bygone era

He captured the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando and Marlene Dietrich; worked as staff photographer on Vogue and Vanity Fair in the 30s; and won Academy Awards for his costume design for musicals My Fair Lady (starring Audrey Hepburn) and Gigi. Photographer Cecil Beaton has one of the twentieth century's most illustrious CVs.

Cecil Beaton's Cocktail Book: Mixing with the Bright Young Things is a homage to that Golden Age of cocktails, the drinks that would have quenched Beaton's youthful thirst, and those of his A-list muses. The book has been published by the National Portrait Gallery in association with Claridge's, where some of the most elaborate of parties were thrown. Lavish charity fundraisers such as the Dream of Fair Women ball transformed the hotel's ballroom into a fantasy world where the Bright Young Things (BYTs) peacocked and imbibed the drinks flung by its bartenders.

In his foreword, Denis Broci – who oversees the cocktail program at Claridge's – references the wave of books that were published to meet demand from the BYTs, throwing cocktail parties in their London pads, but in need of some guidance. And Beaton, never one to miss out ('We daren't risk more than an hour or two of sleep, in case something happens while we aren't there') was a regular on the scene.

Books like Barflies and Cocktails (1927) by Harry MacElhone, and Harry Craddock's The Savoy Cocktail Book (1930) are the reference points for Broci as he chronicles the cocktail recipes of the time, adding contemporary twists to some as he goes. Cocktails, which include Floral Panky, Blood & Sand and El Presidente are split into main spirits (gin, brandy, rum, etc) and recipes are punctuated with snippets of history.

Aviation cocktail from The Fumoir, Claridge's
Aviation cocktail from The Fumoir, Claridge's

And while having a collection of these recipes is undoubtedly one of the biggest takeaways from owning this book, it's the accompanying photos and illustrations from the Claridge's archives that give it its sense of magic.

From the opening pages' photos of BYTs (including Beaton) in fancy dress for The Mozart Party held in the New Burlington Galleries in 1930, to illustrations of costume designs published in Vogue, each turn of the page provides a glimpse into the origins of cocktail culture as we know it. Not to mention the prints of old menus, mementos and invites from the hotel's Grill Room, as well as The Berkeley and Café de Paris.

It's a time capsule of a bygone era, a tribute to one of the last century's most talented creative minds, and a reminder of both how far mixology has come since, and how much the classics matter.

£14.99, National Portrait Gallery Publications, Waterstones

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