Lessons from the Virtual Bar
For 75 straight nights, our columnist made drinks and entertained his Twitter followers. This is what he learned.
A great many people have done heroic and selfless things in response to the novel coronavirus epidemic. A few have done stupid and selfish things. I can’t say I did the first and I hope I didn’t do the second. What I did do is what I know how to do, and that’s show people how to mix drinks. On Friday, May 29, I closed out a 75-day run of posting a Twitter thread at cocktail hour demonstrating—with pictures—how to make a different classic (or classic-ish) drink, with ingredients folks were likely to have around or at least might be able to get, plus off-the-cuff (some would say off-the-rails) commentary on how to mix it and whatever else pops into my head.
On Saturday, March 14, 2020, I had already been trying pretty hard to avoid people for more than a week and was looking at my third night of formal shelter in place, quarantine, lockdown, whatever you want to call it. Even if I wanted to go out for a drink, most of the bars around me were already closed (they would all be closed by law two days later). With my wife and daughter (who’s 23 and temporarily living with us) slowly making their way home from Idaho, I was alone with the cats. But Chester and Mamie weren’t saying much and I was bored. So why not mix myself that drink?
But as I got out the bottles for a Suburban, an old New York drink for which I had an inexplicable craving, I had a thought.
I wasn’t the only one trapped at home who would be mixing up something to file off the burrs left by the process of scraping through a scary week. But not everybody out there had spent the past 20 years teaching people how to mix drinks, and not everybody had a house full of bottles of just about everything from Aalborg Aquavit to Zubrovka along with all the bar gear in the world. I even had a lemon and two- and-a-half limes.
So what if there were some amusing way to put all that stuff at the public’s disposal? I mean, short of taking all the booze in the house and putting it out on the stoop. Derek Brown, dean of Washington, D.C., bartenders, had already more or less pointed the way by offering on Twitter to suggest a recipe to anyone who tweeted him some ingredients. That offer was generous indeed (as is Derek), and for a couple of days there he busted his ass answering the avalanche of requests it solicited.
I’m not that nice, hardworking or ambitious. But one thing I could do is show people how to mix a good, strong drink, if not with precisely what they had in the house, then with whatever I did that I thought they might also have (so nix the only-in-Piedmont amari, the Goan cashew-fruit feni, and all the other weird stuff that accumulates when you travel the world on the booze beat).
So as I stirred up my Suburban—that’s rye whiskey, Jamaica rum, port wine and bitters—I took out my old iPhone 6s and snapped a series of quick pictures of the process. Then I sat down, sipped the cocktail and posted the pictures on Twitter, with appropriate commentary for each. (I’m @DavidWondrich by the way.) But before I sat down, I took a quick shot of me washing my hands, or at least one of them. I needed the other to hold the camera. I used that shot to lead the thread off. Then it was the ingredients, followed by the gear and then a step-by-step demo through the process.
Now, this was not your usual Instagram-style cocktail content.For one thing, there was no bright and photogenic setting. I don’t have an actual bar in my house, since my house is old and creaky and the rooms are small and not well arranged for such things, so I did my mixing where I usually do it, at the kitchen butcher block. The backdrop was some shelves full of random pots and pans. There’s a box of Raisin Bran, if you look sharp.
As for the lighting, if I turn on all the kitchen fixtures, plus the one in the pantry it’s—well, “adequate” is about the best you can say.
Plus, my thumb-typing is shit. Coupled with Twitter’s notorious lack of an edit function, that made for a number of typos, some of them painful. I could have fixed that if I planned the whole thing out; wrote the tweets in advance, on the computer. That sort of thing. (That would have also fixed another problem, the fact that I forgot to mention the bitters and had to tack them on at the end of the thread.) But I wanted to do everything in real time, just like a bartender does when she makes your drink. That meant each tweet would have to be written as fast as possible, since people would be waiting for their drink, so to speak. So I wasn’t going to waste a lot of time proofreading and double-checking when there was a drink to be mixed.
Despite all this half-assery, a surprising number of my friends and regular Twitter crew commented on the thread. I’d occasionally posted drinks before, with no such reaction. What’s more, there were also comments from people I had never heard from before, and a few people even replied with pictures of their own Suburbans.
The next day, I kind of forgot about the whole thing and did something else. When six o’clock rolled around, though, a few people asked where tonight’s cocktail was. So the day after that, I mixed a Daiquiri. Same drill. As with the Suburban, I suggested various substitutes if you didn’t have this ingredient or that one. Unlike with the Suburban, there are a whole lot of ways to make a Daiquiri. I made it my way but tried to not be an asshole about it.
This time I got a lot of pictures of people’s Daiquiris and a lot of questions. The next day was St. Paddy’s day and I punted with a quick photo of the Guinness and John Powers I was drinking, but I felt kinda like I was in dereliction of duty. The day after I mixed a Martini and went through the whole drill, crappy pictures, typos and all. There were a lot of thoughts offered on the Martini, and I clinked virtual glasses with people all over the world. After that, I didn’t miss a day for the rest of that week or for the ten that followed.
For day 11—the Improved Tequila Manhattan—I finally came up with a name for the whole shebang. “Lo-Fi Lush Hour.” For day 14—the Sazerac—I added a logo thrown together for me unsolicited by my friend Sean “Mr. Rocky Mountain Refreshment” Kenyon, the dean of Denver saloonkeepers. (Or, as I called him in one of that day’s tweets, “Mr. Ricky Mountain Refreshment.” Thumbs. Sheesh.) The logo featured a 45 adapter, the little doohickey you’d clip into the big hole in the middle of your Bay City Rollers singles, so you could play them on your home turntable. I suspect that no more than one in ten of the people Lo-Fi Lush Hour reached had any earthly idea what it is. On day 23—The El Presidente—I began ending the threads with a message from our sponsor, for which I dug up a different old ad each day for some defunct booze or whatever: a brand of coal, a sleazy old movie theater, guano. This amused me. Having perfected a format, I went on like that for 52 more days, in the process covering a good portion of the history of mixed drinks and supplying a quick and dirty, but fairly comprehensive, course in the fine art of mixing drinks, as David Embury called it back in 1948 (he was given to pretension; if anything, it’s a craft—something which can be returned if it’s not made right is a craft, not an art).
To see the Lush Hour in action, you can find a link to that first episode, plus links to ten more (one for each subsequent week), at the end of this article.
I’d like to talk a little about what I’ve learned from all this, but before I do that I’d better state the club rules, so to speak. Every ongoing enterprise—a government, a business, even a lowly Twitter cocktail-blog—works best if it’s organized according to a set of general principles that it deviates from only when absolutely necessary. Here were mine:
I. Wash your hands. I mean really.
II. All drinks are bartender’s choice. No pitches are accepted and suggestions are almost always ignored.
III. All parts and labor are also bartender’s choice. This is strictly a one-man operation—there’s no director, crew, editor or post-production fixer. All ingredients are supplied by me, except for some of the booze, which was sent to me months and even years back either by friends in the business or by PR people for various promotional reasons entirely unconnected with the Lush Hour. And no, you cannot send me a bottle on the ol’ DJT quid-pro-quo. The Lush Hour has no brand sponsors, other than the defunct ones at the end of each thread.
IV. All drinks are drunk. I’m not making these drinks purely for education. I’m in this with everybody else, so I’m making them because the news is rotten and the times are scary and I need a drink at the end of the day. So there are only going to be drinks I like or think I might like.
V. The Lush Hour is about bartending, not writing or photography. I mix the drink, taking pictures as I go, then I write it up on the spot, each tweet going out as soon as it’s written (or, as it seems half the time, before). No planning, drafts, rewrites, edits, nothing. All typos are there not for effect, but because I was using my fat thumbs to type the thing into Twitter, wrestling with autocorrect in English and Italian as I went (my phone is bilingual).
VI. We mix it the old way. By the time a drink has become a classic, its recipe has usually become encrusted with layer upon layer of hacks, shortcuts, clever tricks, suppositions, that’s-how-we-make-it-heres and out-and-out bullshit. Where possible, the Lush Hour presents the original recipe; the way the drink’s creator mixed it or how they did it where it came from before it got famous. If that involves resurrecting techniques, procedures or proportions different from what most bartenders use today, so much the better. That keeps things interesting.
VII. Answer everybody. If you comment on one of the tweets, like a good bartender I will answer you, whether I know you like a brother or don’t know you from Adam.
VIII. We’re not the Jet Set. The Lush Hour aims for good, solid, nothin’-fancy renditions of well-known classics; drinks that will satisfy more than impress. It’s for everybody who enjoys a drink, not just the cocktail geeks. Hand-curated crystal-clear ice, flashy garnishes, home science projects and impossible-to-get ingredients are out. OK, there might be some flex going on with the vintage barware—I mean, I’m such a vintage barware geek I’ve got my own line of gear inspired by the stuff. But there are no drinks that you can only make with some rare, expensive tool.
IX. Stay home. Rather than force people to go out and shop for this ingredient or that, I would rather suggest alternatives. Likewise, I try not to waste anything. That means citrus gets peeled before it’s squeezed and that bottle of rye might be a house blend of the lingering remnants of several different brands.
X. No Selfies. I hate selfies.
The best thing about the Lo-Fi Lush Hour was the ability to witness how people will cluster around a void and crowd in until it begins to take on the contours of the missing object. Within a week of starting the Lush Hour, it was surprisingly like a bar, even if there was no actual bar and the patrons had to mix the drinks themselves. As S. A. Rao, a reader, wrote, “I haven’t made all of these, but reading them has almost recreated that feeling of being at a bar—watching the bartender make someone else’s drink and thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll order that next.’”Another reader, one “limonene,” chimed in to say “I really miss the camaraderie and how much I learn whenever I visit my favorite bars, and this provided some of those familiar feelings during a really difficult time.”
Putting aside the obvious ways it couldn’t be a real bar, nonetheless at each Lush Hour you’d find a line of hard-core regulars bellied up to the bar, the same people just about every day (and God bless them). There would be the friends of the house who dropped in when they were in the neighborhood to exchange a couple of wisecracks. There were the people who came by a few nights in a row and then we’d never see them again. There were the people who sat in the corner nursing a beer There was the occasional—very occasional, thank God—sorehead who just wanted to yell at the bartender or one of the other patrons. This wasn’t the place for them.
And finally there were the quiet types who came in and kept to themselves until that one day after a few weeks of lurking when they’d step up to the bar and show off their game: the perfectly-executed New York Sour, with its distinctive float of red wine (the first time they’ve ever floated anything), the lofty Ramos Fizz, the baller glassware holding their Pink Shimmy.
It’s an often-made comment about this coronavirus epidemic that it denies people the greatest comfort we as a species have in times of crisis, the comfort that comes from the presence of others. The Internet can never replace that physical reassurance. But as I’ve learned from the last 11 weeks of piloting the Lo-Fi Lush Hour, if we can set aside all our fightiness and focus on something simple like how to make a proper Rob Roy, even the shittiest platform (and Lord knows Twitter has that reputation) can offer a surprising amount of good company.
When I started the Lush Hour, I was determined to keep going until the bars reopened. Of course, I thought that was something like a month away. With each episode taking about twenty minutes to photograph, a half-hour to write up, one mumble-thumbed tweet at a time, and another half-hour to answer at least the first round of questions and comments, that was still a fair amount of work, but it was doable. But four weeks of no bars turned to six and then eight, and every night I had to carve out an hour plus right around dinner time to spend glued to my phone while my wife and daughter had to bend their routines to accommodate mine. That was strike one.
Strike two was the drinks. There are only so many straightforward, distinct, classic drinks out there that you can make with the contents of a medium-well stocked bar. At about week five I made a decision to hold some of those solid, A-level classics back, so that subsequent weeks wouldn’t seem like the Island of Misfit Drinks, but after eight weeks I started running out of those, too—there went the Julep, the Singapore Sling, the Last Word, the Jungle Bird. Even the second-level drinks, the forgotten classics, were running thin. Every once in a while I’d throw in an original, but too much of that and you might as well be on Instagram. Choosing the night’s drink was turning into real work, and I’ve already got a job, thank God.
I didn’t want to wait for strike three, so at the end of ten weeks I pulled the plug. There would be one last week as a lagniappe, and then out. This way, at least, I’d go out while it was still fun, and not when it was, as my fellow Half Full columnist Max Watman put it in a tweet, “Here’s #92, I dunno anymore, have we done brandy and soda?”
But here’s the thing: I miss it already. It turns out, I just don’t like it when a bar closes.
Here are 11 Lush Hours, one from each week.