2020 was the year we reconsidered our relationship with drink, both collectively and individually.
Collectively we drank more but spent less on liquor. According to a survey of 1,540 Americans recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the frequency of drinking rose 14 percent in 2020 over the previous year.
We drank less in bars, which were being shuttered, and more at home, having gone into survivalist bunker mode. We filled our liquor larders with cheaper comfort brands. While volume consumed was up, overall revenues for liquor companies were down.
Individually, how we related to alcohol was impossible to categorize. Some of us stepped up our home games, hosting outdoor get-togethers for our pods, acquiring exotic liquors to mix cocktails we might otherwise pass by. But others abandoned drink altogether, including one friend who announced early on that she was going dry.
For me, the change was more in quality than quantity, both of liquor and experience. My consumption of spirits and cocktails didn’t seem to diminish much, but what and where I drank shifted dramatically.
I live in New Orleans, and the effective closing of the bars here played an obvious role in this shift—for a few months, even to-go drinks were banned. But even after the bars tentatively re-opened, under strict capacity caps, I didn’t find much allure in going out.
I want very much to support my favorite bars so they survive until the pandemic gets inoculated away. But that’s hard when I feel more alone drinking in public than I do at home. The Quarantini was funny when riffs on it appeared last spring. Now, not so much.
The year hasn’t been entirely cast in gloom, though. Some shooting stars have brightened the skies. So I would like to take this moment to thank the members of the Alcadamey for getting me through a trying year.
Here are some products, moments, places and drink-adjacent customs and accouterments that have made my 2020 memorable, and in a good way.
The Cuban-inflected bar Manolito is on my regular hometown circuit, about a 25 minute walk from my house. I’d always liked how cozy and cramped it is inside; it’s like visiting the apartment of a grad student with a crappy stipend. That flipped from feature to flaw with the pandemic, and they sensibly banned drinking inside even before it was required. But co-owner Konrad Kantor and his pared-down staff set up an impressive go-drink operation, while he could, keeping the neighborhood in buoyant spirits.
The half-gallon Daiquiris-in-a-jug were fresh, bright and natural. Sipping while at home or in a park brought back pleasant memories of the Before Times, in New Orleans, in Havana, everywhere. They also stored quite well in the freezer. When fishing off Cuba, Ernest Hemingway used to call tequila his “steering fluid.” These Daiquiris were mine, keeping me pointed toward home.
When the curtain came down taking boozy trips was suddenly no longer a thing—no distillery tours, no Tales of the Cocktail, no Brooklyn Bar Convent. But liquid being liquid, it found a way to flow. Public relations folks and brand managers shipped spirit samples to the liquor press, then set up remote tastings with the experts, including master distillers and top-flight bartenders. Was it as fun as touring a distillery and finishing up with a flight? Nah. But it helped maintain a far-flung community and kept us interested in what was filling the pipeline, so that we could share it with others.
Some of these tastings involved spirits unknown to me, including a world whiskey tour (with Starward from Australia, and Brenne from France, among others). Others verged on the familiar—like Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel 2020 Special Release Barrel Proof Rye, a robust 130-proof rye that had Jack’s profile, but made me wonder, “Hmmm, have you been working out?”
I’m looking forward to getting back on the road for the rigors of research, but I was grateful for being able to continue to explore the spirit world with knowledgeable guides, even if it looked like they were entrapped in Hollywood Squares.
I haven’t seen any sales figures, but I’m guessing that the small-scale entrepreneurs who were industriously bottling their hand-crafted bitters, syrups and mixers had a good year. The whole concept even pre-pandemic was to serve as a bridge between bar and home. With the simple addition of spirits, most anyone can make bar-worthy drinks if they have quality syrups.
And these have been easier to find than ever. I’ve enjoyed the artisanal offerings of Small Hand Foods (California), Liber & Co. (Texas), and Cocktail & Sons (Louisiana). But I was especially thankful for Pratt Standard (D.C.), and their Bitter Lemon and Rosemary Grapefruit syrups, which are bright and fresh and smarten up nearly any spirit. I’ve also embraced anew the mixing of these syrups with seltzer for perfect summer sodas.
It’s delicious. Every sip makes me happy. That is all.
Wigle Saffron Amaro’s only flaw is that it’s not available in all 50 states, and that I have to remember to look for it when I’m passing through Pennsylvania, or have a friend passing through, or have a friend of a friend who might be going to Pittsburgh and could get me a bottle.
It is perfect for the times—dark yet with a hint of brightness to come. I finished my bottle a couple of weeks ago. Anybody headed to Pennsylvania?
Back in the mists of time, one of the first books I bought to educate myself on the cocktail was Dale DeGroff’s first tome, The Craft of the Cocktail (2002). It served up the perfect balance of informational and elegant, with no-nonsense instructions, enough history to whet an appetite, and elegant photographs that made the rediscovery of the cocktail arts seem noble, educational even.
The new, updated version came out in the middle of the pandemic, and I was pleased to get my hands on it. Given the gloom and dour prognostications for bars, the old and new books at first felt like bookends of an era—the alpha and omega of the craft cocktail era.
But browsing through it, I felt my hope renewing. It’s filled with sturdy drinks both old and new, featuring cocktails that have survived traumas worse than Covid-19, as well as a new crop of drinks crafted by bartenders full of creativity and drive, two elements essential in leading us out of this mess. The New Craft of the Cocktail offers a sound mooring in stormy times.
My tastes steadily skewed toward the darker notes in drink this year—less tropical, more classic; less treble, more bass. (There’s probably a metaphor in here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.)
Among my “salvation spirits” was Blue Run Bourbon, a sourced whiskey out of Kentucky that was selected with the aid of former Four Roses distiller Jim Rutledge. It’s stout of flavor and strength, bottled at 113 proof, with sales limited to selected southern states. It’s also pricey at $170, which as I see it is roughly the cost of two therapy sessions.
Long nights were also made brighter with dense, peaty Scotch. I was especially drawn to the Octomore line from Bruichladdich. This Islay distillery is famous for its smoky, super-high-peat whisky, but Octomore Ten Year, released in 2020, perfectly balances the grain and smoke. It was the ideal sipper for watching a world smolder and burn.
While I wasn’t in much of a mood for fruity beach drinks, I didn’t forsake rum. Among my new BFFs were two Panamanian rums—Ron Abuelo’s Two Oak and the Centuria releases. Sipping these rich, complex rums was less like being on the beach and more in a deep cave—which was obviously the ideal place to spend the year
I was fortunate enough to spend much of the summer hiding out deep in the woods of Maine. (State slogan: “Self-Isolating since 1820.”) As I’ve done every year for more than two decades, I retreated to a cabin near the Canadian border to write. In a normal year, I can go six or eight days without seeing a single person, so it was a welcome return to my old routines amid a pandemic.
Among my pastimes: rooting around in the forest looking for old bottle dumps. I love learning the habits of drink of those who came before me. This past summer, I found under the leaves a stash of four whiskey bottles, apparently from the 1970s. And—this was a first—all were capped and still had whiskey in them. (Yes, I tasted. No, they did not hold up well buried in loam.)
But mostly I gathered and cleaned bottles that were unique or had nice lines. I keep my syrups and pre-mixed cocktails in them. And during the depths of the pandemic last spring in New Orleans, I hauled out a box of some old bottles, filled them with various cocktails, corked them and biked around the city to leave on the doorsteps of friends. Do you remember when the milkman left bottles of fresh milk at your doorstep? (Of course you don’t. Nobody is that old.) I felt like I was extending and improving the tradition, and I hope these unearthed bottles live on.
I did get in one road trip this summer, driving with my niece, who was relocating from San Francisco to Madison, Wisconsin. After a week of socially isolating while driving hundreds of miles a day, we washed up in Madison and almost immediately headed over to the Settle Down Tavern, opened mid-pandemic by Brian Bartels and his partners. The city had given over the street to the block’s restaurants, and even though we were all spaced distantly outside, it still felt like a community. It wasn’t exactly normal, but from this vantage point we could see normal, and for that I was grateful.