Gore Vidal once described the conservative columnist William F. Buckley as “a charming visitor from the 18th century.” That phrase came to mind — minus the ironic malice — the first time we met Ted “Doctor Cocktail” Haigh, who struck us as a charming visitor from the 1930s.
We made the Doctor’s acquaintance around 1992, when he lived in a pre-Prohibition apartment building in downtown L.A. He favored vintage Panama hats and two-tone brogues, and his proudest possession was Rudy Vallee’s monogrammed valet kit. With success as an art director on period films, he moved to a midcentury house on Micheltorena Drive — complete with a 1948 Packard convertible parked in the carport. The living room housed his vast collection of vintage booze bottles, barware and glassware, while the Art Deco cabinets of his study overflowed with vintage cocktail books, bar guides, recipe pamphlets, and alcoholic ephemera.
Rummaging through this treasure-trove, the Beachbum soon became overwhelmed by the sheer amount of drink recipes he’d never seen before. He quickly gave up on his notion of copying the most interesting ones into his notebook; there were simply too many.
Doc became something of a mentor for the Bum, teaching him to canvas seedy liquor stores in bad neighborhoods to ferret out “dead stock” — discontinued brands of historical interest — often gathering dust on back shelves in storage rooms. We watched and learned how Doc curried favor with crusty old proprietors in order to gain access to those rooms, where, hidden among bottles of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Wine, one just might find a decanter of such long-defunct hooch as Okolehao or Forbidden Fruit liqueur (the latter, along with Crème Yvette, was Doc’s personal white whale).
In those days Doc would also routinely enter bars carrying a stack of ancient cocktail books, plunk them down on the counter, and demand that the bartender make obscure recipes from them. This being Los Angeles, the bartender was either an actor between auditions or a biker between arrests; depending on his level of interest, indifference, or outright hostility, the evening could be a real white-knuckle ride. While going out drinking with Doc was an experience not for the faint of heart, in a few cases he actually did succeed in turning a moonlighting felon into a motivated drink-maker.
But Doc’s proselytizing didn’t end there. After years spent auditioning recipes from the hundreds of rare bar guides in his library, he cast 80 of the best-performing drinks in his 2004 book Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails: From The Alamagoozlum Cocktail To The Zombie. It was a gift to the drinkers of the world, the result of decades of collecting — and, equally important, of separating the wheat from the chaff.
Five years later, Doc has followed up Vintage Spirits with a revised and expanded “Deluxe Edition” offering 20 additional recipes, more drink lore, and more photos lovingly staged in the Doctor’s preferred 1930s mien. It’s an even better sequel than Evil Dead II.
Granted, we’re not without bias. After all, we were one of the Doctor’s first patients. But even a cursory look should convince you that this new edition is worth the asking price many times over: It would cost you thousands of dollars to obtain the original source material from which Doc drew his recipes, to say nothing of the years you’d have to spend testing thousands of cocktails to find the ones worth rescuing from obscurity.
That said, we do have one nit to pick. On page 321, Doc states that the Beachbum “makes his living composing pornographic haikus for sympathy cards.” This is fiction. The Bum has nothing against pornography, or haikus for that matter. But he resents the implication that he works in either discipline, only because he resents the implication that he works at all.