I was reading the New York Times special “winter drinks” issue when it occurred to me that my subset of the baby boom might go down in history as the Lost Generation of Cocktails. Just the first three paragraphs left me feeling I’d been parachuted into a very strange land, or maybe suffered a stroke and woke up with a type of reader’s aphasia. See what it does for you:
For a drink with a ball gag in its mouth, the Night Marcher has a lot to say about where cocktail culture may be heading.
Some major themes in fashionable bars lately: small, elegant, stemmed glassware; arm garters; house-made bitters; a seriousness that is hard to distinguish from humorlessness; gin.
Some major themes in the Night Marcher, a drink that one owner of the Tar Pit, a bar that will open in Los Angeles later this month, calls “our ambassador”: a large, grimacing tiki mug; bondage gear; store-bought Cholula hot sauce; a sense of humor that is hard to distinguish from weirdness; rum.
A drink has a mouth? Into which one can insert a ball gag? And themes? Bondage gear?
Of all the jobs I never held, I may miss bartending the most. One of my secret social fears is that I’ll have some people over for dinner one night, handle the front door and the coat-hanging with ease, and be struck dumb by a request for a Manhattan or, worse, a Rob Roy. With a few exceptions, mixing drinks — and especially cocktails with ball gags — leaves me feeling like those dreams where you’re giving a speech naked.
I don’t know where I went wrong. My dad had bar ware and could make anything. There was a citrus squeezer that captured the seeds, a wooden mallet for cracking ice, jiggers and shot glasses in all sizes, an elegant bottle opener, swizzle sticks in glass/stainless/plastic, and shakers of various types. He didn’t have a bar, but he could stand at the kitchen counter and mix up anything from a Tom Collins to a pitcher of martinis and serve it to you in the correct glass. (Mostly; he didn’t go much for the stemmed stuff, but I always thought martini glasses were a bit too James Bond for people in our demographic.)
My mother could do all this, too, but left it to him, because that was his job at the end of the day — making and serving the drinks. They had one, maybe two, and proceeded to dinner. It was what adults did.
When I started drinking, I started with beer, the classic choice of teens everywhere. Beer was easier to get and easier to steal from your parents, at least if they kept a second refrigerator in the basement stocked with Stroh’s or Budweiser. Beer is an acquired taste, and for a good long time this was the best thing about it, in that it was hard to drink quickly and virtually required nursing, preventing overindulging.
But the big alcohol trend of my youth were the so-called pop wines, Boone’s Farm and Annie Green Springs among them, sweet and sticky and perfect for getting your 16-year-old girlfriend loaded, in hopes of getting some before the inevitable vomiting on the front lawn (if you were lucky). No one really drank them much beyond high school, but I think they set the template for my generation’s lack of cocktail literacy. Because pop wines were followed by wine coolers, premixed sangrias, Zima and other crimes against humanity. Not everybody likes beer, even after you’ve developed the ability to drink like a grownup. But in that interregnum between legal drinking age and true adulthood (when wine with actual corks entered the picture), they were what served for cocktails for people my age, and with the exception of an occasional summer treat of frozen daiquiris or Slurpee-machine margaritas from a Mexican restaurant, they were what people my age drank.
My friend Becky tended bar (under the tutelage of our own MarkH), and what I learned from her was the following: If you want to keep a bartender happy, don’t order strawberry daiquiris or sloe gin fizzes. We used to go to her place, a restaurant/cocktail lounge connected to a hotel adjacent to the OSU campus, to watch her work (and drink her occasional “mistakes”). I once observed her nearly blow a gasket when the Ohio Women’s Republican Club descended on the joint and tied her up with blenderful after blenderful of fruity concoctions. She taught me that “and water” is music to a barkeep’s ears, advice I took to heart. In a mellow mood and during slow periods she would experiment with new formulations, but I don’t think the Brown Robe or Pink Bunny — both conceived during a beautiful Easter Sunday when “The Robe” was playing on the bar TV — ever caught on.
A brief pop-cult interlude: The radio ads for Annie Green Springs went like this:
Sold my suits and pawned my watches,
bought some Annie Green Springs wine.
Now I’m going up to the country,
gonna find my peace of mind.
Movin’ up with Annie Green Springs,
city’s not the place for me.
Movin’ up with Annie Green Springs,
to a place I’d rather be.
Let’s set aside, for now, the rather disturbing picture that such a ditty conjures, of a man happily embracing drunkenness and unemployment. My brother pointed it out to me one day when I was in junior high, chuckling over the idea of selling wine with a wino’s ballad. It was a funny, singable 15 seconds of song, anyway. Some years ago I was reading a profile of Warren Zevon, which described a dark time of underemployment in his past, when he was so hard up he was forced to write jingles for an undrinkable wine called Annie Green Springs. Sometime after that, I met the man himself, sang him that jingle and asked if it was his. He looked at me like I was insane and said, and I quote, “No.”
But you know who did write it? Professor Google says? BOZ SCAGGS. How would I know this stuff otherwise? Maybe wrecking the newspaper business will turn out to be worth it. You know what else? I remember reading a story in Time magazine around that time, about the trend in pop wine. And guess what? Google found that, too. You marvel, you.
Cocktails came back into vogue a while back, in the ’90s. Martini shakers suddenly started appearing on wedding registries, but by then I felt set in my ways. Inexpensive wine was everywhere by then, and when I came home from work, that’s what we drank, unless it was summer, when I’d have a cold beer on the back steps, like the proletarian slob I always suspected I am. But cocktails continue to haunt me. There’s a passage in an Elmore Leonard book, “52 Pick-up,” where a blackmailer is taunting his mark, the latter a man who started life in a blue collar and traded up to white:
Here comes sport, now, rum collins for the broad and a Heineken. Loaded and he still drinks beer. That’s your background showing, man. Eleven years on the line at Dodge Main. Couple of shots and a beer every day after the shift. Right?
Until I read that it never occurred to me that the Budweiser in my hand was a social marker, but of course it is. The ’90s were also the time when designer beer came along, when someone was always pressing a bottle of some raspberry lager into your hand. This trend seems to have moved on, and thank God for that, because some of that was nasty-ass beer. Last I heard, hipsters in their 20s had rediscovered Pabst Blue Ribbon. Ha ha.
We’ve gone on at some length, now, and we still haven’t solved my cocktail problem. I’m making some progress on my own. There’s a container of simple syrup on my refrigerator door, mixed up last summer when Alan and I went through a mojito phase with mint from our container garden. I can make margaritas in the blender. But the drinks my parents made like it was second nature, gin rickeys and whiskey sours and various collinses, are beyond me. I guess I could look up the recipes online, but I don’t have the right mixers and I certainly don’t keep maraschino cherries on hand.
And so I sit, today, confronting this picture of the Night Marcher in the Times, of a drink in a black tiki mug with a ball gag in its mouth. An artfully scored lime with several picks emerging from it crowns the rim. Some sort of steamy, dry icy-looking condensation swirls off to one side. I feel utterly defeated. I guess I can always stop by and let someone else make one. I’m sure it costs only about $20 or so.
Maybe you get to keep the tiki mug.