From the Quill - Pour Me Another
“I drink to make other people more interesting”
For those of a certain age, and who may have spent some of their formative years in a metropolitan area, there was a well-known type of drinking establishment that was quite prevalent in the darker and slightly seedier parts of the city. These establishments never had the caché of a dive bar, nor would they ever be mistaken for a place to go on a first date. Their front windows would be darkened, or at most, have one or two small neon signs from a local, and long forgotten, brewery. They would be perfect for day drinking or those (usually men getting off some sort of public transit system) just stopping in for a quick drink between work and home. The smell of urine and stale beer mixed easily with the stench of poorly blended scotch. The air was thick with smoke, unrealized dreams and despair. The bartender poured drinks not to celebrate, but to forget. They were colloquially known as “old man bars”; a place where you looked back on your life and realized there was not much to count, other than debts.
As the inflation and malaise of the 1970’s, gave way to the go-go 1980’s, the old man bars moved to even fewer desirable areas and were replaced with newer and brighter watering holes. The television show Cheers (where everybody knows your name) gave rise to pubs and Irish themed bars; some authentic and some in which Guinness Stout was poured into a frosted glass, causing it to actually jump out of the glass, sprint out the door and jump in front of a taxi. To elevate the spectacle and sexiness of drinking, the late 80’s saw the rise of destination bars-think Tom Cruise in “Cocktail”-juggling multiple bottles of average-at-best vodka with syrupy sweet mixers to pour multiple glasses of Long Island Ice Tea or Rum and Coke, all while high fiving the entire bar.
While this type of bar aesthetic stayed around for most of the 90’s, the drinking world as we know it today came to life from two cable shows from the early 21st century: the woman of “Sex in the City” who spent their days and nights discussing men and designer shoes over a perfectly crafted Cosmopolitan, and the “Mad Men” advertising executives at Sterling Cooper who closed deals over three martini lunches or four Manhattan fueled dinners.
From these two cultural touchstones, came the twin modern fixtures in today’s bars: craft cocktails and a mixologist. Drinking became extremely popular, and extremely pricey. Bars became borderline cathedrals to making the perfect drink, complete with graduate school bartenders dressed in starch white button-down shirts, rolled up to the elbow to display their arm tattoos. What seems like a never-ending glass shelving system holds small batch, artisanal craft vodka, gin and rye from start-up distilleries in the Hudson Valley and Austin, Texas. Herbs for muddling are never store bought but from backyard or rooftop gardens in Seattle or Williamsburg. The mixologist stands before you, as you watch him take an eye dropper of bitters from one bottle or a swirl of a Hungarian liquor in another to masterfully finish the drink. The show and the experience become as important as the drink. The simple question on whether you want lemon or lime in your Japanese gin and Scottish highland tonic water becomes a sticking point. “Well our lemons are actually locally sourced Meyer Lemons that are dipped in absinthe for three days and then placed in a smoking chamber for 24 hours, before being hand massaged for 20 minutes to extract the natural essence”. Where I do sign up to be the lemon?
The price for entrance to this academy of cocktails is beside the point as you say yes to the opportunity to drink a cocktail made popular in the Harding Administration or for an after dinner elixir made with a craft rye that can only be created when there is enough snowpack in the Rockies.
Even during our Covid forced lockdowns, mixology and craft cocktail lessons thru books, podcasts and You Tube channels have thrived, allowing anyone with the desire and enough disposable stimulus money to create the near perfect drink at home. Even Stanley Tucci became a viral sensation when his video for a perfect Negroni bordered on “spirited” foreplay.
The cost, experience and science of it all is something that the patrons of those long gone “old man bars” could have never imagined. Or they maybe would have just sat back and ordered another one.