Last fall Quentin Tarantino made the talk show rounds to promote the release of his movie criticism masterwork cum memoir “Cinema Speculation.”
On “Late Show with Seth Meyers,” the auteur talked about loving age-inappropriate violent films as a child. On “Howard Stern,” he debated the artistry (or lack thereof) of Marvel movies. For his “Jimmy Kimmel Live” appearance he told raucous stories about his mom once dating Wilt Chamberlain.
While each of these appearances was wildly entertaining, what cocktail fans most noticed about the latter was what Tarantino was sporting: a “Tiki-Ti” jacket from the iconic Los Angeles tropical den. It was no modern release, either, but a golden anniversary number, issued to celebrate the bar’s 50th anniversary in 2011. On top of that, many tikiphiles were sure to note that this jacket was only given to the bar’s inner circle of fans. Tarantino’s jacket even had a custom “Q.T.” embroidered on the right breast.
If people suddenly wondered whether Tarantino was secretly a big fan of cocktail culture, they should have noticed that this fact has always been hiding in plain sight.
Over the last 30 years, through nine features and one short film, Tarantino has made it clear he is American cinema’s modern master of on-screen cocktailing, drinking scenes, and bar culture.
You Don’t Put Bourbon in That?
If many great filmmakers take awhile to find their aesthetic, Tarantino hit the ground running with two major hits, though early on, his movies mostly lacked any sort of drinking, certainly of the high-end variety. Perhaps that was because they were written by a high school dropout who had never been schooled on any sort of college drinking scene like many other screenwriters; perhaps because Tarantino had come of age in a Los Angeles more rampant with drug use than cocktail culture.
The key scenes in his first two movies are more likely to take place in brightly lit diners than dark and moody bars. In his 1992 debut, “Reservoir Dogs,” an unusual diamond heist movie in which the actual heist is never shown, there’s little drinking of anything besides coffee, and only one brief bar scene.
Tarantino’s next movie, the 1994 masterpiece “Pulp Fiction,” likewise has the famous diner scenes that bookend the movie. Though there is a bar scene — where an espresso-sipping Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) sets up the boxing fix with “palooka” Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) — in a movie rife with cocaine and heroin, there’s no drinking whatsoever, and that includes the $5 milkshake Mrs. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) stuns Vincent Vega (John Travolta) by ordering at Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
“You don’t put bourbon in it or nothing?” he asks the Buddy Holly-dressed waiter.
Indeed, they don’t. The bourbon in Tarantino’s movie will appear eventually, however.
“Jackie Brown,” Tarantino’s 1997 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel “Rum Punch,” offered a change of pace from his first two ultra-violent, ultra-reference-y movies. More adult in nature, more interior in execution, its characters feel like real human beings, more so than the (admittedly, wildly entertaining) personas that populate “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”
And these adults drink, too.
Down-on-his-luck bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is a Bushmills man; low-rent criminal Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) is a whiskey-on-ice drinker. A key bar scene takes place at the Cockatoo Inn, where gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) meets with the eponymous Brown (Pam Grier), a flight attendant, to discuss pulling off a potential money smuggling scene.
She sips on a white wine, while he opts for a “Screwdriver, homes.” The orders feel veracious, though not particularly interesting or insightful. In the Tarantino universe, however, even the mundane is enough to get the fan boys arguing, such as in a Reddit thread where users debate the meaning of Robbie’s order, a drink he will call for three other times in “Jackie Brown.”
“He [Ordell] wants to be sophisticated to the point of having a ‘usual,’ but picks something as lowbrow as the Screwdriver,” writes one Redditor. But I’m not so sure about that. At this point in time, Tarantino himself also seems to lack the sophistication to know many other cocktails than that ubiquitous 1970s mixed drink. (Despite the name of Leonard’s book, the tropical cocktail plays no role in the book nor the movie.)
The same mostly holds true in “Kill Bill,” both Volume 1 (2003) and 2 (2004) — characters drink the most stereotypical thing possible.
The Bride (Thurman) sips warm sake in the middle of the day at Hattori Hanzo’s (Sonny Chiba) sushi restaurant in Okinawa. More sake flows at a meeting between the crime bosses of Japan, then later at the famous scene at the House of Blue Leaves, where they are also served the fictional Tenku beer. In Volume 2, Bill himself (David Carradine) shoots tequila before chopping it up with The Bride. All fairly by-the-book choices for a screenwriter.
Something happened between 2004 and 2007 because Quentin Tarantino seemed to take a quantum leap forward in both his drinking knowledge and the level of imbibing he now wants to show on the big screen during this time.
He had just turned 40 and by now surely had some money. Perhaps he was finally trading in the greasy spoons and coke for better bars and restaurants.
Perhaps this newfound drinking intelligence came from dating fellow director Sofia Coppola, the sophisticated scion of a Sonoma vineyard, noted Japanese whisky influencer, and a Bemelmans bar regular?
Whatever the case, “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s 2007 short that is part of the Grindhouse twin-bill and surely his least-known and least-acclaimed film, has one of his more iconic drinking scenes.
At an Austin bar, Huck’s, three young ladies celebrate a friend’s birthday, sipping on longnecks of the local Shiner Bock, when their bartender friend, Warren (played by Tarantino), sends over a round of Chartreuse shots.
“What the fuck is that?!” one of the women asks of the green shots, a question that would have been asked by most people of this era.
Mind you, this was well before the modern cocktail renaissance had again made a star of the Carthusian monk-produced herbal liqueur, necessary for cocktails like The Last Word. This was still five years before Pouring Ribbons would open in New York’s Alphabet City, with a dedicated Chartreuse menu both new and vintage.
Back in 2007, especially outside of New York and San Francisco, no young Americans knew what Chartreuse was and no bars really served it.
But Tarantino sure did and, casting himself as Warren, he gets to snatch the green bottle and explain its brilliance in lines (that he, of course, wrote) that reek of someone bragging about something esoteric they too only just recently learned about.
“Chartreuse!” exclaims Tarantino. “The only liquor so good they named a color after it.”
The Polynesian Pearl Diver
Tarantino begins to show a real understanding of drinking culture in his next two films, “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Django Unchained” (2012).
“Inglourious Basterds,” an alternate-history Holocaust thriller, opens with a famous farmhouse interrogation scene where Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) hunts for Jews hidden on the property, all while sipping on a glass of milk after eschewing wine. There is wine throughout the movie, however — Shoshana (Mélanie Laurent) drinks some in a Parisian bistro, Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) has a glass when shown at his English estate, Landa even serves some Chianti to his American captors — as well a Scotch and soda drunk by British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender).
Arguably Tarantino’s most famous drinking scene, though, comes about halfway through the film, in La Louisiane, the basement tavern where Hicox is pretending to be a German soldier during a rendezvous. Unfortunately, he messes up when he orders a pricey round of 33-year-old single malt Scotch, displaying three fingers in a British, not German manner.
“You’re no more German than that Scotch,” says Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), who prepares to kill him.
“There’s a special rung in hell, sir, for people who waste good Scotch,” Hicox says. The tension is immense. His secret, that we’ve known all along, is finally blown, and shit is about to go down. But it doesn’t happen immediately, of course. Tarantino allows Hicox to savor his glass of expensive whisky as both he, and us in the audience, wait for the violence soon to come. The Scotch is of the utmost importance.
Would Tarantino have known by this point in his drinking education that it was highly unlikely that a 33-year-old single malt Scotch would have even existed commercially in 1944? Whether he does or not, by this point in his filmography he is firmly leaning into the theory that one’s drink can define a person, a tenet he will follow throughout the rest of his career.
“Django Unchained,” an antebellum-era blaxploitation film, again opens on Waltz defining himself by his drink. Portraying German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, he and freed slave Django enter a seedy saloon where he scares off the inn-keeper and acts as their own bartender, perfectly hand-pumping two giant beers (“Prost!”). A beer has never looked more refreshing on screen.
Later in the film, at Candyland, the Mississippi plantation of antagonist Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the characters display their drinks of choice while being entertained in his Cleopatra Club. Some opt for bourbon and sweet tea, others Champagne, shots of tequila, or bottled beer in Schultz’s sake, but the dandy-ish Candie wants a Polynesian Pearl Diver “do not spare the rum.” It arrives ostentatiously served in a coconut shell.
Mind you, ornate tiki drinks were not even created until after Prohibition; legendary tiki bar pioneer, Donn Beach (“Don the Beachcomber”) would introduce a drink called the Pearl Diver, made with multiple rums, juices, spices, and butter, at his bar in the 1950s. Point being, it’s impossible Candie could have ordered one in 1858.
But, again, I have to wonder if Tarantino is aware of that.
“Django” was shot in 2011, the same year as the Tiki-Ti’s aforementioned 50th anniversary when Tarantino may have been issued his jacket. Likewise, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry had just revived the Pearl Diver, and revealed its long unknown ingredients, in his 2007 book “Beachbum Berry’s Sippin’ Safari.”
Was Tarantino getting into the modern tiki revival around the time he made the movie and, again, did he feel compelled to fill his film with his newfound drinks knowledge?
Once Upon a Time in Drinking
If 2019’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is, in many ways, the culmination of Tarantino’s filmmaking career, it’s also the apex of his growing cocktail appreciation.
The drinking begins, as we’ve come to see a lot of Tarantino drinking occurs, during the opening credits, chyroned “February 8, 1969.” Fading TV star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stuntman double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) take a meeting with agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) at Los Angeles’s iconic Musso and Frank Grill.
Dalton opts for a tumbler of Whiskey Sour; Booth gets a pint of Blood Mary with a celery stalk soaring several inches out of the glass, which he further adulterates with Tabasco sauce and black pepper. (In a flashback, we see that the night before, Schwarz had watched a Dalton movie while enjoying Cognac and Cuban cigars.)
Unique cocktails appear throughout the movie. Each of them not only shows a period-correctness in popularity and preparation — a clear veracity for what each character would have actually ordered at that time — but also insight into each’s state of mind.
No Tarantino universe cocktail is more intrinsic to the character than Dalton’s ubiquitous Whiskey Sours. An upscale mixologist would today prepare the drink with fresh lemon juice and egg white, holding the glowing red maraschino cherry. Yet the one at Musso and Frank appears to be more of a 1960s preparation — watery sour mix, sans egg white. A Los Angeles native, Tarantino would have been well aware of how the legendary Hollywood hot spot served its drinks over the years.
“I feel so lucky that there’s a place like the Musso and Frank Grill — one that exists now exactly how it has always been,” said Tarantino, who got the owners to close the restaurant for five days for his shoot. “It was fantastic being able to shoot at an iconic landmark that is so authentic and connected to Hollywood.”
However, back at his ranch house on Cielo Drive, we get to see how Dalton likes it best at his home bar, the only time a Tarantino character ever makes their own cocktail on screen.
He takes a cocktail shaker and fills it with whiskey from a gallon swing bottle, a popular serving size in this era when bourbon was beginning to go out-of-style in favor of lighter spirits like vodka and white rum. Those spirits were favored by the younger generation who were starting to see whiskey as their “old man’s drink.” Of course, Dalton, as he makes abundantly clear throughout the movie, hates the hippie youth invading the culture, so he’s surely more than happy to stick with his bourbon, trends be damned.
He cracks eggs to add the whites and squeezes his own lemons. (We will have to presume he uses some sort of sweetener.) He then shakes up the oversized cocktail with ice and adds all of it to a swing-top German beer stein, which he then uses as company in memorizing his sides. The next day, when he forgets the same lines on set, he blames his love of the cocktail:
“Eight f*cking whiskey sours! I couldn’t stop at f*cking three or four? I had to have eight?!”
Perhaps that is why Dalton swears off Whiskey Sours and has switched to frozen Margaritas — a popular fad of the time in Southern California — by the final scene of the movie. Even if his career is in the toilet, even if he will soon have to battle the Manson family that night, it’s impossible to watch the scene, watch Dalton drinking straight from the blender jar, without immediately craving a frozen Margarita. And that is a tribute to Tarantino’s clear passion for movie mixology.
As the film’s music supervisor Mary Ramos said of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”:
“It’s a love letter to cocktails.”
The article Once Upon a Time In… Drinking: A Guide to Tarantino’s Most Iconic Drinking Scenes appeared first on VinePair.