I like to think of my drinking life as a hero’s journey. In the same way, I’m sure, my dog likes to think of chasing a ball as an epic hunt across open plains, and Paris Hilton likes to think of her record sales as proof of musical talent.
The hero’s journey, in case you’re unaware, is the template for a wide range of stories from mythological tales to Hollywood blockbusters. The concept was famously refined and popularized by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and later works. The general run of the story starts with a person in the day-to-day world (say, a guy who might know that whiskey and rum are different, but isn’t quite clear on the details). He or she descends into the underworld (say, a night’s binge on Zima and the next morning’s hangover of the soul), triumphs, and returns to his or her people with new enlightenment (say, how to mix a proper Old Fashioned).
Campbell, of course, has lots of additional details, but I honestly don’t have enough rum (or chutzpah) to cast my drinking journey in full Campbellian scope. For today, we’re going to concentrate on a small subset of the journey – the allies, mentors and helpers the hero meets along the way. In legend, these are often wise old men and women, gods or goddesses, angels, talking animals or trusty sidekicks.
There are three figures you should consider seeking out as you move along your quest to become a better drinker. I was originally tempted to call them the Three Wise Men, but you may not have exactly three; they certainly don’t need to be men; and wisdom can help, but isn’t always required. Instead, let’s call them your Spirits Guides. They’re probably not going to take the form of the Egyptian god Thoth or a talking wolf (unless you’ve had way too much absinthe), but they can be valuable along the way.
The first, and probably most important, of the Spirits Guides is a sympathetic bartender. A knowledgeable and sympathetic bartender is ideal, but not necessary. I’m not talking about someone to pat you on the head and say “there, there” when you’re dealing with a case of the whiskey flu (though that’s entirely welcome). Instead, you want someone who supports your desire to be a better drinker.
Becoming informed about drink takes some hands-on training. If you really want to understand the difference between blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas (about which more later), you need to taste blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas, preferably side by side and from the same label. Acquiring all the bottles to accomplish that (and do it across a variety of liquors, wines and beers) can get expensive pretty fast. A sympathetic bartender can make this more economical and speedier. One who is also knowledgeable can kick up the learning by an order of magnitude.
Living in New Orleans, I’ve had the good fortune to drink at the feet of more exceptional bartenders than I can mention here. I’ll call out three as particularly important in widening my drinking life, but there are many others who deserve broad acclaim (and who will show up in later posts). For now, I’ll give special thanks to Chris McMillian, Paul Gustings and Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. When you’re here, seek them out and listen to what they have to say.
Many spirit guides require some sort of obeisance, and your first Spirits Guide is no different. First, be sure to tip appropriately. This is key. Your bartender is your best friend. Take care of him or her. Second, pick your times. Your bartender may be enthusiastic about setting out three different gins with three different mixers in a boozy grid when you’re one of a few people in the bar on a Tuesday night. Probably a little less on Friday when the bar is four people deep. Help them help you. Finally, make sure you can get back and forth to your bar easily. Learning to drink requires, well, drinking. Driving doesn’t really mix. If you can walk, that’s ideal. Again, New Orleans has been very good to me for this, but consider Uber or taxis or your favorite ride-sharing service. Your bartender may have liability if you screw up, so don’t.
The second Sprits Guide, you should cultivate is a good liquor store owner or manager. At some point, you’ll want to try something that’s hard to come by and this person will be the key to your getting it (a good bartender may be able to help here, but it’s less likely). The power of this person will vary from state to state. (Insert rant regarding the ability to access drinks as a matter of personal freedom.) In more open-minded states, a good vendor can order most things you want to try. If you live in more restrictive states, consider moving or petitioning your legislature.
The key ingredient in the drink pictured above is Wray & Nephew Overproof Rum that my friends at the W.I.N.O. (Wine Institute – New Orleans, for those not in the know) near my office ordered especially at my request. High proof liquors are especially effective at extracting flavors in infusion, and I wanted the rum’s sweetness and funkiness for some special projects including this one with strawberries from the farmers' market, cinnamon and cardamom. Mixing the final product with equal parts champagne made a lovely little number I’m calling the Brittany, in honor of the birthplace of strawberry cultivation which is also a quick drive of Champagne country.
Your third Spirits Guide is a sympathetic friend. Exact roles may vary – and you may have multiple partners in this. Having someone you can drink with, though, is tremendously valuable. Your sidekick in slosh can help provide another perspective to what you’re drinking. I’ve often realized a subtlety about a cocktail that I enjoy after someone else pointed out. He or she can suggest new and interesting projects and can call the cab when you need it – just make sure you do the same for them.
There is, of course, a fourth guide I hope you’ll consider – good old Uncle Steve, The Drinkist himself. In many ways, this is simply a version of the “sympathetic friend” mentioned above but you can take a look at the website when you’re up at 3 in the morning and all your friends are asleep. Pour yourself a little sleep aid and peruse until sleep comes (which should be quick if you’re reading this site)
Photo: The Brittany
Photo Credit: Steve Morgan