I was a bartender before mixology was en vogue. In fact, I was a bartender before I was supposed to be a bartender.
At seventeen I was working in a restaurant where everybody more or less did a little of everything. My actual title was delivery driver, but if the kitchen was behind, I jumped in and helped cook. If the dishwashers were swamped, I grabbed a sponge. And if the bartender was in the weeds, I made drinks.
A high school kid behind the bar did raise a few eyebrows, but it was a neighborhood place so nobody tattled. Aside from the obvious violation of alcohol laws, my presence led to some compromising situations.
I remember quite clearly a kid who was at best eighteen pulled up a stool and ordered a Bud Light.
Me: “Do you have ID?”
Him: “Do you?”
He got his beer.
My early attempts at cocktails could be described as inconsistent. For the most part, I went by color. If you ordered a Sex on the Beach from me I’d have no idea what goes in that particular drink, by I did know it was red. What you got might not be a Sex on the Beach per se, but it would be red.
Eventually I learned. I focused on the classics: Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Martini, etc. I actually make a palatable Rusty Nail. The ability to make classics isn’t in as much demand as it once was.
I’d be very comfortable as a bartender in a fine dining restaurant. Those places still have traditional bars where you can get a draft (drought) beer or an honest whisky soda. I don’t think I’d be a good fit anywhere else. It seems like lately, bars have become Balkanized.
A quick glance at the employees will let you know what kind of place you’ve wandered into.
If your bartender has a thick wiry beard you are likely in a taproom and beer is your only option. But if your barman has a wispy beard or waxy mustaches, you’ll be presented with a list of whimsically named concoctions requiring teaspoons and ornate glasses from steampunk’s fringes.
To be fair, there are ladies who tend bar, but I have yet to identify any outward identifiers as reliable as men’s facial hair. Initial theories: Shoulder tats for women are cocktaily and nose rings are beer hall. It’s not a fully explored… it’s a work in progress at best, but I’m pretty sure that wine bars establish a bang to pony tail length ratio and they do not tolerate dissent.
Pro Tip: If you see a well-groomed smiling person in their early twenties behind the bar, you’ve probably wandered into an Applebee’s. You should leave.
Right now, at least in Birmingham, the waxy mustaches and their cult of mixology are in ascendance. I have a not so charitable theory as to why.
Could it be that all these original cocktails with names like “The 12th Ave. Old Fashioned” or “Sarah’s Jalapeno Cosmo” are whipped up to cover for the fact that making a really good Old Fashioned or a properly light and refreshing Cosmopolitan is hard to do consistently. Nobody can tell if you screwed up a drink you made up yourself, and no self-respecting hipster wants to argue drink making (it’s probably called crafting by now) with a guy who has fifteen different types of bitters on the shelf behind him. I could be wrong. I can think of at least two bartenders who make perfectly delicious Old Fashioneds and Cosmopolitans in addition to their made up tinctures whimsically named after Flannery O’Connor stories, but I suspect that I’m on to something.
I have a non-wispy beard and a recently close shorn haircut with no tattoos. If the purely physical were all that was considered, I would have no right to recommend cocktails for human consumption. But I am a football fan. As such, I say stupid things about all manner of topics whether I have the requisite qualifications on the particular, or any related, subject. Football fans don’t care. Look at the graduate level derp coming out of UCF right now.
So as a football fan, let me recommend the following mixes.
The first is a semi-original concoction. I’ll not shy away from the fact that the goal from the beginning was that it be red. But I was pretty pleased. It’s a good game-time Gump gestation.
The second is my take on a classic. No matter how the game goes, we still have the next day reckoning to contend with.
The Crimson Tinted Drink That Deserves a Better Name
(makes 1 drink)
2 oz. Tequila
4 - 6 black cherries, pitted
1 tbsp. honey, or more to taste
1 tbsp. lime juice
freshly cracked black pepper
lime wedge for garnish
This is based on something that a really good and actually studied bartender made for me years ago, and yes, it was named after a Flannery O’Connor story. She used Strawberries rather than cherries and while I have no idea what proportions she measured out, I am fairly certain that the other ingredients are spot on.
With the back of a wooden spoon muddle the pitted cherries in a rocks glass.
Add the tequila, honey, and lime juice with some ice and then add club soda as needed to fill out the glass. Pour into another glass and back to mix. Give it a taste and add honey if needed. This shouldn’t be too terribly sweet, but the honey should be noticeable. Mix again.
Top with a few twists from your pepper mill, garnish with lime and begin to inebriate.
In the morning, when you remember why you don’t drink tequila that often, try a bit of the hair of the dog.
The Alpine St. Bloody Mary
(makes roughly a quart of mix)
4 cups tomato juice
4 tbsp. ground horseradish
2 tbsp. celery salt
2 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
juice of 1 lemon
freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste
Tabasco to taste
lemon and lime wedges, Manzanilla olives, and leafy celery stalk for garnish
A quick note on horseradish that may be common knowledge but was only revealed to me recently: You don’t have to buy the whole thing. The grocers want you to buy the whole phallus shaped monster root - when no home recipe ever calls for more than a few tablespoons - at $4.99 a pound knowing full well that the bulk of it will spend a few short months vying for real estate in your refrigerator until you finally get sick of seeing it and toss it in the trash. Ask them to cut off a small chunk. Neither of the two stores I usually go to have any problem doing so.
Pour the tomato juice in a large bowl along with the horseradish, celery salt, Worcestershire, and lemon juice. Stir until well mixed. Taste for salt and heat adding Tabasco and salt as desired.
Fill a tall glass with ice, add two ounces of decent vodka, top with a few twists of cracked pepper and garnish with lemon and lime wedges, the celery, and a few olives.
There are all sorts of variations on the traditional Bloody Mary. Most have probably tried a Tequila version with pickled jalapenos as garnish for instance. If you want to try something odd, substitute Scotch for vodka. The whisky adds a smoky, peaty quality to the tomatoes. I know that sounds suspect, but if you enjoy Scotch at all, give it a shot.
If the game goes well, sit back on Tuesday morning and relish the replays with a glass of this potent hangover cure at your side. If the game doesn’t go so well, let this ease your pain as you try not to contemplate the vast JK Scott-less void that lays ahead.
I’m looking forward to toasting the fifth in nine years as the clock runs out. If you’re still up (and you will be) and our guys get to bring another trophy home to Tuscaloosa, raise a glass with me.
Cheers, enjoy, no injuries, and Roll Tide.