Dry January; a Sort-Of Love Letter

It’s January’s sad curse to be the month of personal improvement. Not gluttonous like November, festive like December or mercifully short like February January becomes a sad receptacle for all the stuff we know we should do but would never in a million years and with a straight face claim that we want to. Exercising more, eating vegetables, getting adequate sleep, the perfunctory and the unglamorous, the things which will make our lives infinitely better if only we had that final extra goose of willpower to actually do them.
My views on any sort of self-improvement during the first thirty-one days of the year run parallel to my feelings about filing my taxes or meeting a deadline before the absolute last minute; I know I should do it, that my life would be better for it, yet I always find it unflinchingly easy to not only come nowhere close to accomplishing these goals but to retroactively justify why I was better off not even trying. Which is why I surprised myself a little bit when a friend said he was doing Dry January and then immediately apologized. “You must hate that in your line of work,” he said “all those sober people cutting into your business like that.”
“Actually no,” I replied. “I’m all for it. I think it’s great.”
It’s the truth. I’m all for Sober January. And if you’re a bartender like me, you should be too.
First some numbers: last year The Independent estimated that about 3.1 million of their fellow Brits undertook Sober January. Of those who participated 49% lost weight, 62% reported better sleep and 79% said they saved money. While none of these numbers are particularly earth-shattering (especially that last one: “This Just In, not buying something for a whole month actually saves money!! Cue the CNN Breaking News graphic!”) they shouldn’t be dismissed either. We are, after all, in the business of taking care of people and anything with a purported positive health benefits to our guests deserves our attention. If this is a choice that helps the people who sit at our bar every day — especially if they do it every day — feel better we at least have a professional if not a moral obligation to support it.
Okay, but again this isn’t anything anybody who’s done this for any length of time doesn’t kind of know already. How is it good for us? Well start with what happens when all of those people come back to your bar on February 1. Few and far between are the regulars of mine, the super patrons who see me more than most members of their immediate family, who spent a significant amount of time on the wagon and then came back to pick up right where they left off. The same people who ordered a double Johnny Black on the rocks with no more mental strain than they expend on brushing their teeth suddenly let their eyes roam over my back bar before pulling in their breath and asking what I recommend.
Take enough time away from anything that used to be automatic and it becomes harder to do automatically. That sidestep move you used to execute flawlessly a dozen times a day at your old bar? Not so easy now that you’re back for a guest bartender shift two years later now is it? And we all know the autopilot shift beer, the unthinking shot of Jameson that’s long since morphed from something salutary and fun into a perfunctory numbing exercise at the end of a long day, undertaken without joy or activity in the frontal lobe. To pull that out of the equation is to reintroduce thought into the mix, and unless you’re an automaton serving well whiskey and Bud Lite out of dirty lines thought is always something you want on the other side of the bar. To take time off from the sauce is to make people think again about what they’re putting into their bodies. Break a habit of automatic ordering and your guests will not only be healthier, they’ll be more curious, more adventurous and, if you’re really fucking lucky, more fun.
Your guests shouldn’t be the only ones putting more brain cells into what’s in their glass this time of year either. Mixing mocktails is the bartender equivalent of cooking vegan; you see how good you really are when you have to shake and stir with one hand tied behind your back. And what better tool to deploy in this situation than that most perennially underrated of cocktail ingredients, the humble shrub? I love shrubs, for reasons beyond my weird obsession with vinegar. First created as a way to stretch the previous year’s harvest past what could reasonably be expected by nature these zingy, fruity workhorses combine vinegar, sugar and all manner of produce into a concoction that appeals to everyone with a soft spot for tanginess and/or frugality. Pear and chai is a favorite flavor combination of mine in the winter months, as is basil, grapefruit and Southern Hemisphere hops. But the real beauty of shrubs in January is that they transform into the most delightful zero-proof cocktail with ice, soda and a garnish that’s just a hair on the respectable side of ostentatious.
January is a slow month. Between the lingering hangover of the holidays and the temperatures that range from unpleasant to unbearable and yes, this weird dare-cum-personal-improvement-gauntlet that we’ve developed as a society it makes sense that a lot of people stay home the first few weeks of a new year. Don’t get bitter. They’re gonna come back smarter, more curious and thirstier, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Vermouth & The House Savoy

Our upcoming July Episode is on the Martini.  To tide you all by, here’s a story about one of your most ubiquitous and finicky ingredients: Vermouth.

 

Vermouth is one of the hardest ingredients to keep well in a bar. The persnickety concoction just won’t keep.  For that reason, it either has to be replaced often, or stored in small containers to maintain its taste.

And why not?  Vermouth itself is the product of nobility and innovation, of expansion by diplomacy, marriage, and conquest.  Its earned a right to be a princely drink, all thanks to the House of Savoy.

A 17th Century Silk Banner of the House Savoy.  Find it and more like it at www.metmuseum.org
A 17th Century Silk Banner of the House Savoy. Find it and more like it at http://www.metmuseum.org

Vermouth’s history starts several hundred years before the concoction came to be, as two brothers began a dynasty in the background of remarkable events. It was the dawn of the second millennium, wine production was under control of the Church, and largely produced by monasteries in England, or else made for peasants in southern europe. Byzantium was at war and the Papacy was in the midst of the pornocracy, in which the Pope took part in orgies, mutilations, and affairs of state. Meanwhile, a pair of Saxon brothers, Humbert and Amadeus, used marriage to claim a strategic mountain pass in the Alps.  From this humble beginning the House Savoy would rise.

 

Fast forward five hundred years.  Wine is finding a resurgence in France, thanks to monks around europe, and a mid-1500’s ice age which crippled English production.  France is also enjoying the lands of House Savoy, thanks to a few Italian wars and one Charles the VIII.  However, Emmanuel Philip, a member of the nearly fallen House Savoy, aims to reclaim his home.  Emmanuel takes up arms as governor of the Netherlands, and leads a Spanish invasion of Northern France, reclaiming the Savoy lands Charles had taken.  With other opportunities arising, Emmanuel reclaims much of the old Savoy lands, and moves the capital to a little town called Turin.

 

Fast forward another two hundred years, and we find the Savoy at a particular height.

It is 1786, and the House of Savoy has claimed the Kingdom Sicily, exchanged it for Sardinia, and is taking part in the thorough enhancement of Turin.  Part of this advancement includes the mixture of white wine with an infusion of spices which will come to be known as Vermouth.

Fast forward again to your own bar, your own stock.  Centuries have hurtled by, and still people want this persnickety spiced wine concoction in their cocktails.  From the Gin Craze in London to the Cocktail Party era of the American 1960s, vermouth has mixed its way into many of the most popular cocktails: Martinis, Manhattans, Negronis, Rob Roys.  Meanwhile, the Savoy name might call to mind your go-to cocktail book from the 30’s, the ballrooms in Chicago and New York, or the impressive family that still exists in Europe today.  So mix up your Vermouth, that most noble and demanding of drinks.  Mix in a Martini, a Manhattan, or even straight – and raise a glass to the noble House of Savoy.

-K

Where Not to Order a Sazerac

image

Your mechanic doesn’t want to take a look at your refrigerator. Your dentist doesn’t have any idea what’s up with your knee. The guy at the dive bar doesn’t want to make you a Sazerac.

According to the sandwich board there’s a special on Red-Headed Sluts. You probably shouldn’t ask if they use Absinthe or Herbsaint.

There are more framed jerseys on the walls then there are tap handles. Don’t ask them to muddle a sugar cube in place of simple syrup.

I’m sorry, but it’s plastic cups only at the beer garden. No they don’t have a preference of Peychaud’s or Angostura.

That’s fine. It’s a beautiful day and the beer is cold. Order a Yuengling and enjoy the game. Treat yourself to the best Red-Headed Slut you’ve ever had in your entire life. But you probably shouldn’t order a Sazerac.

The woman at the wine bar would rather talk about how long this particular Chianti rested on the lees than rinse a glass with Absinthe.

Your bartender at the brewery is more interested in the blend of wild yeast strains in your saison than whether you prefer three dashes of bitters or four.

These are professionals who worked hard to be good at what they do and they’d love to do it for you but if it’s not the thing that they do then the odds are good that they probably can’t do it.

Maybe not. Maybe they’re branching out. Maybe they’re expanding their repertoire. Maybe they worked in an old-school cocktail bar for decades, the kind with low lighting and a marble countertop and the same cadre of regulars alighting on the bar every night like crows on a telephone wire framed by old recipes for slings and fizzes mounted to the wall and they have been dying for someone to ask for a sazerac because it’s been years (years!) and they’re starving. Maybe your IT guy was a firefighter in college. Don’t go to him first if the building’s burning down.

All rail drinks are four dollars until six pm. Gin and Tonic please.

It’s dollar Corona night. I’ll take four.

It’s happy hour and the bar is crowded and there’s plastic speedpours everywhere and there’s a special on Micheladas and the entire bar is floating because it’s a boat. Don’t order a Sazerac.

Most bars if they’re good, and always assume they’re good, work very hard at being good. Because they work hard to be good at one thing doesn’t mean they’re good at everything.

Brewing beer is hard work. Presenting wine at a table is hard work. Controlling a bar full of twenty-one-year-olds on game day during homecoming when Jameson’s on special and the kitchen is out of everything except french fries is hard work. Making a Sazerac is hard work.

A bar’s thing is its thing and it doesn’t have to be your thing and if their thing and your thing are not the same thing then that’s okay because variety is the spice of life and if the world was full of nothing but classy cocktail bars we’d all be robbing our own mothers for a lite beer in no time.

Your flight attendant couldn’t help you with the train schedule. Your cheese guy at the farmer’s market was all out of Asparagus. Your bartender at the dive bar made your Sazerac with Jack Daniels.

– G

Inspired by an amusing social-media kerfuffle between co-founders earlier this week. If you’d like to hear more about places where you should order a Sazerac listen to our pilot episode, coming June 1st.