Where Have All the Bar Stories Gone?
After weeks of quarantine, our columnist misses the comfort and camaraderie of sharing stories in bars.
Yes, thank you for asking. I do miss sitting at a cocktail bar and browsing a well-conceived drinks list. I miss the tang of a perfectly-balanced citrus drink and the sly blend of an unfamiliar amaro with a smoky whiskey.
But as it turns out, I can make tasty drinks at home. You should, too. We are in a golden age of online tutorials teaching us how to pilot ourselves into delicious distraction.
What I don’t have at home is the company of friends and strangers. So drinking at home is invariably one-dimensional, no matter how three-dimensional my drink.
In a bar, you enter into a complex matrix of interactions each time you settle onto a stool. You’re an instant member of a makeshift nano-community. You see people you know, people you know you but can’t recall their names, and lots and lots of strangers, some of whom are interesting and many of whom are not.
I don’t mean to get maudlin or nostalgic about this change in drinking culture in the pandemic age. After all, going out was never purely Cheers and Cliff Clavin getting potted and spouting off amusingly. Because these nano-communities inevitably include a bitter middle-age guy who gets more racist with every shot of tequila, and a know-it-all whose knowledge expands with every drink.
Ernest Hemingway once said “I drink to make other people more interesting.” I’m not sure that happens for me, but drinks do provide both fuel and lens to make the interactions of other people along the bar more intriguing. A cocktail—or two—adds heat to a kettle, which agitates the molecules and produces steam.
The last trip I made before the lowering of the corona curtain was to Alaska. I connected through Seattle each way. Heading north, I stood at SeaTac and watched a news report of the first Covid-19 death in the United States, which had just occurred in a Seattle suburb. On my way back through a few days later, I learned that nine people had succumbed to the virus in Washington.
I flew to Alaska to be a judge in a Half Full cocktail competition sponsored by Hendrick’s Gin, something that seems like a huge luxury now. Six bartender finalists from around the country flew in to make their hot gin punch recipes. The competition was more fun than usual because I wasn’t judging solely the quality of the drinks, but also each bartender’s storytelling skills.
“Storytelling is the basis of civilization,” said Sebastien Derbomez, the U.S. brand ambassador for Hendrick’s. “It’s how you share your culture.”
And there was a lot of sharing. In demonstrating his punch, Toby Darling from Chattanooga dressed in the role of a smooth-talking adventurer/huckster, who made his drink with a hurdy-gurdy soundtrack. Lauren “Elvis” Pellecchia from Cincinnati staged a mini-suffragette rally, complete with a sash, serving us a soothing punch tart with rose hips.
Jorge Andres Vallejo from Chicago served up a cocktail inspired by his grandmother in his native Ecuador. His presentation concluded with him being doused with pots of water, something he picked up from festivals at home—a daring move given the February weather in Alaska.
But to be honest, I’ve thought about the other three presentations more frequently since I’ve been self-isolating at home. Because these bartenders focused their entries on transformation, spectacle, and community—three of the things I’ve missed the most since my local bars closed.
Alex Utter of Jewel of the South in New Orleans made a marionette, which she used to tell the story a cranky man named Cassius, who visits a bar and has a transformative experience thanks to the bartender and a nearby stranger. I have been Cassius more than once (“sunshine made his eyes hurt, laughter grated in his ears like crunching metal”), and I too improved my outlook with an hour on a barstool. It’s more fun and cheaper than an hour on the therapist’s couch.
Jason Kilgore, of Backbar and Dear Irving in New York, opted for over-the-top spectacle—an approach embraced by 19th century saloons, 20th century tiki bars, and early Bruce Willis movies. He brought the judges out from the comfort of a warm lodge into 17-degree weather, seating us around a fire pit he’d constructed at the edge of a bluff overlooking an icy delta. The spitting snow and ominous clouds of early afternoon slid away as if on cue, and out came a lowering sun edging the distant Chugach Mountains with copper.
Kilgore wore a cape with no shirt, imbuing the whole scene with a Game of Thrones meets Shakespeare sensibility. He’d set a cast-iron cauldron in the roaring fire, and each liquid he poured in to make his punch—called “News from Scotland”—led to a loud hiss and occasional flames spiraling up as he recited his recipe inspired by Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth (“Round about the copper go/In the herbs and spices throw.”) The drink happened to be delicious, but that was beside the point. Winter, it appeared, was coming. (And Kilgore eventually won the competition.)
Back in the warm lodge, Jessi Pollack from Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis asked the bartenders and judges to stand around her table as she made a punch called “Dave’s Secret.” She told a story about a witch named “David Wondrich” (the Daily Beast’s senior drinks writer, an actual person, and a judge in an earlier round, when 70 entries were culled down to the six finalists.)
“I promise everything I’m about to tell you is the truth,” Pollack lied, using a line that has commanded my attention along a bar more than once. She assigned each of us an ingredient to add to the bowl, and a few lines to say as we did so—a scrape of nutmeg, a pour of lemon juice and a blessing of salt across the glasses.
Our ingredients were set before us in 11-sided wooden cups that her woodworker husband had made and drinks were poured from an 11-sided ladle, representing the number of people around the table. “I was inspired by the Passover Seder,” she told me later. “The symbolism of adding ingredients one by one was structured much like the reading of the Haggadah. Each participant reads aloud a little section and we each act out a symbolic gesture. It represents structured magical thinking at its most earnest.”
It was this drink that stuck with me most. It’s that fading sense of community that feels most distant as cities east and west head into a second month of shutdown, and consumers stare out the window and wonder what’s next.
Pollack’s presentation was a powerful way of exploring community, not by lecturing about it but demonstrating how and why it works. Show, don’t tell. Don’t talk about the community–be the community.
And that may be what I miss most as I drink this very excellent but curiously one-dimensional cocktail on my couch.