13% ABV bottled
My Drinking Life
Author’s note: Inspired by a recent reading of Pete Hamil’s exquisite classic “A Drinking Life,” I decided to write my own imbibing bio.
I remember once when I was fifteen or so I walked into the living room and saw my dad drinking a beer while watching TV. It was a Corona. “What the fuck are you doing, dad?” We cursed heavily and with great aplomb in my family, one of the few things my parents were highly laissez faire on.
“I’m having a beer, what?”
What? What?! I had never seen my dad have a single sip of alcoholic in his life. And now all of the sudden he thinks he’s Homer Simpson, able to just come home from work, pop a beer, and veg out in front of the boob tube? Where did this mystery bottle of beer even come from?! He surely didn’t go to the store and buy it. He wouldn’t even know how to do such a thing!
Suffice to say, alcohol did not really play a part in my parents’ or my life as a youth. No, my parents weren’t teetotalers. Alcohol just seemed to not interest them in the same way, say, American politics or CBS’s primetime lineup simply doesn’t interest me.*
Thusly, in high school I hardly drank at all which makes you think I must have been one of three things:
1. A huge nerd
2. A huge health nut.
3. A huge religious freak
EH! Wrong. I certainly wasn’t Big Man on Campus Jock King Sirfucksalot or anything but I was quite popular, even the class president one year, though we all tend to overrate how high our approval ratings were at a younger age. Likewise, though I played various sports year-round, my diet pretty much consisted of Taco Bell, McDonald’s, chain pizza, and the like. I wasn’t exactly a foodie just yet. And, even before my face necessitated shaving, I already was a virulent atheist amongst a sea of kids that thumped the bible, studied the bible, and quoted the bible on the back page of your yearbook (”Aaron, Have a terrific summer but never forget Proverbs 10:5 ‘He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son.’”) Not to mention, even if I wasn’t an atheist I was a Jew and we’re allowed to drink religiously from like age 5 on.** Alas, the Manischewitz always made me start snoozing during the latter part of shul.
I never snuck off into the woods to drink, I never stole a nip of some uncle’s vodka and refilled the bottle with water, I never paid an older kid to get me a six pack from 7-11. In 12th grade I got busted by the police for simply being at a party where underage people such as myself were drinking. I’d only just arrived and had only had a single sip of cheap keg beer. The schnook of an Oklahoma City cop tried to emasculate everyone by forcing those under eighteen years of age to call their parents on speaker phone in front of the entire party to tell them, “Mommy, daddy, Officer Jeffries has just busted an alcohol drinking party I was attending and you need to come pick me up lest I get a ticket from this kindly man.” Pretty sure he broke protocol for what was a most cruel and unusual punishment.
Those eighteen or older like me didn’t have to call our parents but we were cited with a hefty Minor in Possession ticket and an ensuing court date. The whole ride home after having picked me up, my histrionic mother cried and shrieked, “Now you’ll never get to go to college!” “But mom, I’ve already been accepted.” “Syracuse will find out and they’ll take your scholarships away! They’ll throw you out of school! You’ll have to go to some shitty community college! Your future is ruined you fucking idiot!” Eventually my court case was thrown out, my ticket was revoked, I was allowed to attend and even matriculate at Syracuse, and that still, amazingly, as far as I can recall, remains my only brush with the law. Alcohol related brush that is. Purely alcohol related brush that is.
At the aforementioned college, Syracuse, I drank just like everyone else, nothing special, nothing to brag about. Thrown into a collegial melting pot with kids from major cities such as New York, LA, Chicago, and Miami, and, more significantly, kids from ramshackle blue-collar drinking towns such as Scranton, Pittsburgh, Utica, a kid from Oklahoma quickly realized how much of a bumpkin, how much of a drinking neophyte he truly was. Many of these kids had not only been inside bars, they were regulars at bars already. They didn’t just drink whatever they could score, they actually had favorite beers and liquors. Admittedly, in retrospect, their favorites were shitty, but being that I only knew about those beers that had major network commercials and those liquors that had full-page ads in Sports Illustrated, I was duly impressed.
I shouldn’t have been. What we, what everyone drank, in college was foul. Kegs of shit like Milwaukee’s Best (”Beast”), cans of Natty and Genny Light, bottles of Labatt if we were splurging. Plastic handles of Popov, airline bottles of Seagram’s 7 we’d stolen from whomever, fifths of Bacardi if we were super lucky. Always mixed with a potent punch or a generic supermarket cola to make the vile liquor even less detectable. We drank worse than many local bums.
By now I loved getting drunk, but I didn’t love drinking. It was a means to an end. I sucked it up for that first hour or so just to get to the ultimate euphoric feeling. I eventually switched to potent Long Island Iced Teas just to ameliorate and expedite the process, and for economy’s sake (they were only $5 a pint at our favorite bar.)
I loved getting drunk, but I couldn’t help thinking:
This can’t be it.
This can’t be why everyone drinks.
There has to be more to this.
For thousands upon thousands of years, man has drunk, and man has considered beer and liquor the nectar of the God’s. And I’m not talking about just the morons over the centuries, the beerbellies, the buffoons, the dummkopfs, the rubes throughout history. No, I’m talking about truly smart people: Pliny the Elder, US Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allen Poe, Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, Ben Franklin, and Winston Churchill. There was just no fucking way that these great people were praising something as horrific as Molson Ice from a tallboy can.
Yet, I seemed to be the only person my age questioning things. The only person around having an existential drinking crisis. Everyone else was perfectly content with sucking down vile pisswater so long as it eventually got them shit-canned.
There had to be more. And I was going to discover it. I was determined!
I was still more a liquor than a beer guy back at the turn of this millennium and now, while prebarring back in my college hovel with my friends, I’d get on the dial-up internet and go to cocktail websites, find one or two drinks that sounded interesting, that had a cool name, and then order them that very night.
I’m not proud to admit that I became the kind of twenty-two-year-old jackass who went to packed college bars on a Thursday night and would order a round of drinks for his friends like this:
“Yeah, could I get two of the $4 Coors pitchers for my friends, and for me…a Rusty Nail.”
To which, inevitably, a fellow classmate of mine, forced to tend bar to earn enough for the following semester, just trying to get through the night, maybe get a sexy female patron’s number, hopefully not have to clean up too much bathroom vomit, would incredulously reply: “What the fuck’s a Rusty Nail?”
Luckily I’d memorized all the drinks I wished to try and I could proudly say, “Why that’s three parts Scotch and one part Drambuie. Serve over ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.”
“Uh…yeah…I don’t think I know how to make that. I can pretty much only make ‘blanks’ and ‘blanks’ where both ingredients are named in the name or shots that slutty women drink to justify their promiscuous behavior.”
He’d turn over his shoulder to the “senior” bartender, some drop-out from our very college who was now twenty-five and still bartending to fund his drug and fucking young sorority girls habit, and call out, “Eh, Scotty? We got Drambuie?”
“Buoy? Like in the water?
“Oh, yeah, I think I’ve seen a bottle of that stuff.”
And ten minutes later a dust-caked bottle of Drambuie would surface, the cap soldered onto the bottle by the sticky liquid and the fact that it hadn’t been twisted off in years, since the last time some wannabe had taken a gamble on it, and then the poor bartender, who by now had missed dozens of drink orders and ensuing tips, who had caused a line of peeved dipsomaniacs to congregate at the bar, would try his damnedest to make me a Rusty Nail. And it would inevitably be overly heavy on the booze component because we were college kids and we made our drinks strong and, you know, who wouldn’t prefer more liquor in a drink than mixer? Only a fool.
I feel bad about these years, this behavior of mine. And most of the drinks I forced these poor bartenders to make were fucking horrendous. Old man drinks from the roaring 20s when I guess people had more tolerance for absurd recipes that featured components like milk, honey, and even onions. Sure, I discovered a great cocktail or two that I still throw back on occasion to this very day–a Manhattan, an Old-Fashioned, even a simple gin and tonic–but I mainly drank a lot of overpriced-for-a-college-kid and poorly-mixed-by-a-college-kid cocktails.
I was trying, I was embarrassing myself, and my drinking life was most certainly not improving. Nor was my sex life as no twenty-one-year-old dame really wants to fuck the weirdo drinking a Sidecar in a bar loudly playing Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me.” And I was getting drunker quicker than all my friends as I matched their watery pitchers of lite beer with Scotch and bourbon based drinks.
My first year out of college I moved to Hoboken, a helluva drinking town, anecdotally called the “per capita bar capital of America,” “more bars per block than any place else!” locals will tell you, but if you’ve ever done even a modicum of traveling in this country you’ll quickly learn there’s about a dozen places in America that make these same ludicrous and uncomfirmable claims (Austin, TX; Athens, OH; Lacrosse, WI; Newport, RI; Anchorage, AK; to name a few.)
In Hoboken I was fortunate enough to live with two friends that greatly shaped my drinking career. One, an inveterate drunkard from Scranton taught me about manly bar culture. How to get the bartender’s attention, how to order a drink, how to tip on a free round, how to drink a Guinness, how to throw back Irish whiskey, and how not to get 86ed for inappropriate behaviors. Seemingly simple things to know now, sure, but so is kissing, yet everyone sucks at that the first times they try. You have to learn these things somewhere. The other friend, a well-heeled white boy from Cincinnati, Kevin, taught me about the finer vices in life. Raised by a country club epicurean father, he knew about good Scotch, cigars, and vittles by the time he graduated from high school. Not to mention, he’d spent a summer of college actually working in Belgium. He told me that this was the greatest beer producing country in the world, first introducing me to the more ubiquitous Belgian fare: Leffe, Hoegaarden, Chimay, and Duval. All these beers absolutely fucking floored me. Yes! I was finally drinking, and getting drunk!, on good stuff. My dreams were becoming reality.
Now, on Friday and Saturday nights, in the early evening, while our other friends were throwing back cheap pitchers at some dive, Kevin and I would go to Belgian bars like the wonderful Markt–then in the Meatpacking District–where we’d casually and coolly sit at the relaxed bar like two proper gents. Enjoying delicious Belgian brews from their appropriately logoed and designed glasses–a revelation!–amongst Markt’s typical crowd of golddiggers and men that dress like celebrities (fedoras, sunglasses indoors, sneakers with pinstriped suit pants) but aren’t really celebrities (musicians without gigs, scenesters, “artists”). Of course by drink four we were back down the street at the late, great Village Idiot where we would recklessly drink pitchers of Miller High Life, vomit onto the sawdust covered floor, try to find a woman sans STDs, and misplace our memories. Yeah, real proper gents.
I still assumed American beer was shit, “fucking close to water” as they say, I mean it’s all but axiomatic isn’t it?, but this final barrier would change sometime later that year on my first ever visit to the glorious Ginger Man. Strolling the garbage covered, urine soaked streets of the W. 30s while on a day date, looking for something to do, looking for clean air to breath, I recalled having read about this brilliant nearby bar with a gobsmackingly prodigious draught list.
I would later, upon becoming a regular, learn that this huge place is usually packed during happy hour and on evenings, but on this one particular Saturday afternoon it was completely empty. Me and my date were the only customers. (And, yes, I do take dates to dark bars in the middle of a beautiful weekend day. What, like I’m gonna go hold hands at a museum, Christ.) The sole bartender on that first day of attendance was bored out of her wits. She needed to find some way to liven things up. You know how Baskin-Robbins lets you sample some of their 31 flavors with those little pink plastic spoons? Well, on this Saturday afternoon, the bartender let me sample many of the Ginger Man’s seemingly hundreds of craft beer draught offerings.
One tap that day immediately caught my eye: Arrogant Bastard. What a name! It was exactly what I thought I was at the time (I was actually just a Big Douchebag but that isn’t a great name for a beer). Arrogant Bastard’s gargoyle logo was so freaking cool too. Oh, and the taste! It was an eye-opening experience, like losing my virginity. I didn’t know beer could smell so good, look so good, and taste so fucking good.
Instantly, on the drunken spot, I declared Arrogant Bastard my favorite beer in the world. Believe me, it didn’t have that stiff of competition back then. By the sober next day, after kicking the girl out of bed, I was on the Stone brewery website reading all I could about my new favorite brew. I even ordered an Arrogant Bastard t-shirt and pint glass. I wore my shirt proudly and often that ensuing year and it garnered much attention and chuckles, acting as a great conversation piece. I think most people assumed it was one of those faux-vintage pseudo-hip fake company t-shirts you get at Urban Outfitters.
“Nope, it’s a real beer,” I’d tell them, “It’s my FAVORITE beer.”
Wow. I thought I was so freaking cool for having such an “obscure” non-macro as my favorite brew. Back then it was pretty hard to find Arrogant Bastard. Only a few bars had it on tap and only a specialty store or two in the NYC area had it bottled. Now, of course, it’s one of the most ubiquitous craft beers around. One I rarely even have much any more because I’ve come to take it so much for granted. But, the few times per year I do have it, it brings back nostalgic memories much like it must have done when Proust bit into his madeleine. Simply tasting it makes me feel young and dumb again. And you can’t beat that.
From that point forward, my life would never be the same. I discovered Beeradvocate.com and their “Top Beers on Planet Earth” list, printing it out in a minuscule footnote-sized font so I could keep it as a handy reference in my wallet at all times. Now, whenever I hit a beer store or nice bar I would discreetly pull out my list and see if they had anything on it. They rarely did. An Old Rasputin here, a Victory Storm King there, but those were few and far between. Even as recent as 2004/2005 most of these “great” beers simply could not just be stumbled upon, you truly had to seek them out. And I still had no clue where to look and the majority of my friends certainly didn’t want to assist me in my new found hobby. They all still preferred drinking Miller Lite. But my drinking was still improving and I was on my own discovering new craft breweries to love by the week. Not just Stone but Victory and Dogfish Head, Rogue, Allagash, and of course local favorite Brooklyn Brewery.
And now here I am in 2009, often drinking many of the finest beers in the world. Such as the great and faux-limited Dark Lord. OK, it is fairly limited, something like 20,000 bottles made per year, and, of course, only available on one day per year (aproposly, Dark Lord Day.) And, yes, I couldn’t get it any other way than in being lucky enough to know a great guy like The Captain who kindly procured a bottle for me. So I am indeed eternally grateful to have it. I am blessed in my beer-drinking life.
Back in the mid-2000s, really so recently, I would look at the BA Top 100 and fantasize about having any of the big dogs. I was near certain I would never, never, never get to even sniff any of the legendary bottles on that list from places like Russian River, Founders, and Three Floyds. Where did you even go to get such oddities?! Hell, as recent as 2007, probably the best, most highly-regarded beer I’d ever had was Stone’s Imperial Russian Stout.*** But now I get to try all the great stouts.
Dark Lord is a glass-staining black stout with a potent aroma of roasted malts, dark chocolate, coffee, and stinging booze. Additional tastes of dark fruits with just a hint of candi sweetness. Smooth mouthfeel, neither too carbonated, nor too syrupy. Wonderful and meaty, a top ten stout in the world for sure. I didn’t quite like it better than Darkness or Kate the Great, but when we’re getting into such rarefied air, it’s like splitting hairs now, isn’t it?
And my drinking life goes on…
(I’d be curious to hear other beer bloggers’ (or simply drinkers’) “A Drinking Life,” either in the comments or your own blogs. Go for it! Let’s make this an internet sensation!!!!!!)
*What’s that great Jim Gaffigan joke: “When you don’t drink, people always need to know why. They’re like, ‘You don’t drink? Why?’ This never happens with anything else. ‘You don’t use mayonnaise? Why? Are you addicted to mayonnaise? Is it OK if I use mayonnaise?’”
**Not to mention, according to Dr. Drew on a recent episode of The Adam Carolla Podcast, Jews can’t even become alcoholics. Something wacky about our Semetic blood. Nice!
***I currently count some 58 beers I’ve had on the Top 100 as of this second.