A cocktail of ideas

Webb Young, Hemingway and papayas. What cocktails can teach us about producing ideas...

By: Clare Howdle,   4 minutes

Back in October I went to Wordstock. Run by writers’ association 26, it was a day long festival of all things writerly, with talks, workshops and creative sessions to chew on.

In one session a book was recommended which I knew I had to read. They said it could change the way I work forever. How can you resist that? I took down the title, googled it, bought it then promptly forgot about it. Not because I couldn’t be bothered to pick it up and read, but because work got in the way. Until now.

Today I read it. I went to a coffee shop, sat and read it. It took one hour. I made notes. I underlined. I nodded. It was brilliant. Nothing written in it was anything I didn’t already know, but put together the way it was suddenly everything was illuminated.

Which ironically, is one of the pivotal points the book makes. The author? James Webb Young. The book? A Technique for Producing Ideas of course (I can almost hear the collective groan from adveritising brainboxes and students now). The thing is as a student I read literature and as a professional I read blogs, go to conferences, work. I just hadn’t come across it. It might be a classic to others, but it was new to me.

In it, 1940s ad man Webb Young explains that there is a way to stimulate ideas; a tried and tested process that if followed will always deliver.

I’m not going to divulge the process here (you’ll have to read it to find out) but one of the very significant points it makes is that an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people, combined with general knowledge about life and events.

Enlightened by my coffee shop hour I wanted to put this new-to-me ideas-generating process to the test. Making new combinations by gathering raw, specific and general materials together. And my subject matter? Cocktails.

So my specific raw material gathering began. A Christmas gift finally getting put to good use, The Cocktail Keys became my foundation for the process. In it, the fundamentals of each of the cocktail classics are broken down, explaining how and why they work. Ingredients are detailed, qualities are discussed and, if you invest the time, energy and money, understanding is the reward.

I’d already attempted to get to grips with Ernest Hemingway’s choice beverage, but struggled to create a daiquiri with the right balance. A great daiquiri is apparently all about the perfect notes of sweet and sour, traditionally achieved by combining lime and sugar syrup, but for the more pioneering cocktail maker, the perfect note can be the result of any number of possible liquor and citrus combinations.

The next stage of ‘specific’ material gathering was to address the alcohol situation. Finding the right base is imperative in creating a good cocktail. And a good idea. Cuban white rum was recommended to capture Hemingway’s Havana, but I wanted to look forward, not back. A nod to the literary past with an eye on the future. That would be the muddling of ideas. I needed to come up with something new. So to Constantine Stores, an emporium of liquor buried in deepest Cornwall. An eye-opening conversation with the store’s owner saw me leaving with an imported bottle of Dominican and a head buzzing with possibilities.

Of course, to make the exercise stack up I needed to come up with an original thought, a taste that hadn’t been tasted before (at least not by my target audience – four friends coming for dinner). I wanted something alive, fresh, vibrant but not garish. No cherries or cocktail umbrellas here. Elegant and knowing. Simple but sophisticated. Fun but serious.

Unique. Like Hemingway.

Could I think about the fruit that could embody all those things, that would evoke the right connection with the drink?

And this is where I tried blending specific material with gathered experience. I trawled my mental catalogue for something to draw on, a flavour that had those elements within it, that captured the spirit I was looking for. In Webb Young’s words, I was ‘taking two facts, turning them this way and that, looking at them in different lights and seeing how they might fit.’

My gathered experience took me to the times when I had felt alive, fresh and vibrant, when I was learning new things, living simply, having fun. And then it clicked. Papaya. The atmosphere of my sabbatical in Brazil five years ago, where ripe papayas lined the streets ready to be eaten every day – the sticky juice washed off by salty water as I surfed, read, walked, relaxed. Surely that was a fruit, a drink that would make anyone feel alive, refreshed and excited – the specific knowledge of cocktail artistry with the gathered knowledge of personal experience; a Papaya Daiquiri.

And so to the drinks cabinet I went. Blending my idea together one scoop of papaya flesh and squeeze of lime at a time. Slowly mixing with the rum, towers of crushed ice, a flourish of curled rind. It was exhilarating to be making something up, something that was mine, something that would soon be shared and commented on by everyone who tasted it. And it worked. Both the cocktail and the technique for producing ideas went down a storm.

I am a convert. Honestly. Buy the book, try it yourself.

I’d recommend reading it over a papaya daiquiri.


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