Tip No. 2: Have a signature drink like James Bond.
“It’s silly, but I’m always so impressed if a guy has a cool go-to drink. Obviously, if it has a ton of fancy ingredients, like puréed berries or whatever, you can look a little bit like a high-maintenance weirdo, so don’t do that. If you like Scotch, have a favorite brand. It makes you look all self-actualized and grown up. (You don’t have to say your drink order with the theatrical panache of James Bond. That’s for close-ups.)”
I’m a beer drinker. I wasn’t always. When you’re a teenager and you find an in for alcohol (when all else fails, ring dial-a-bottle – they don’t want to waste the gas), you want to try every kind of crazy liquor under the sun, and always in bizarre combinations. The single worst drink I’ve ever concocted was a mix of pear liqueur and grape juice. My rationale: they’re both fruit. That was 13 years ago and I’m still shuddering at the thought.
I became a beer drinker slowly and out of necessity. Beer fit my budget a lot more soundly than those 26ers of root beer schnapps that would surface at every party for a year before they were finally finished on a dare in some card game. You have to develop a taste for it, and when you do, you’re rewarded with a wide variety of preparation methods and locations and subtle, surprising hints of flavour. A good beer goes down easy, once you’ve trained your pallet to clear a path.
The same has to be said for hard liquor, but I’m clueless when it comes to a “good Scotch” – most liquors taste relatively the same to me, if “harsh” and “volatile” can be likened to tastes. You know those scenes in Westerns where cowboys order shots of whiskey and down them like they’re Fresca? I always wait for them to gag or react somehow, because that’s what shots of straight liquor have always been about for me: the immediate squishy-faced aftermath, the “I can’t believe we just did that” quality of the experience.
In choosing a signature drink, I wanted something classic that would expand my pallet and make me appreciate how liquors work in combination with very simple ingredients. I did a bit of research, came up with three classic cocktails, and hit up the Pourhouse in Gastown. Basking in its roaring-twenties aesthetic and low-lit wood-paneled atmosphere, I bellied up to the bar and placed my order with the bartender, who was dressed to the nines and more than willing to welcome me into the ritual of cocktail preparation.
I started with the Old Fashioned, the original cocktail. This is the kind of thing modern macho-man throwback Don Draper drinks in between (and during) his affairs. It requires muddling a sugar cube with water and bitters in the bottom of an Old Fashioned glass, filling the glass with ice cubes, and adding a shot of bourbon, scotch, rye, or brandy. My bartender recommended Rittenhouse 100-proof rye and further swore allegiance to American whiskeys. He then added an orange slice, a maraschino cherry, and a lemon zest that he used to wipe the rim of the glass. What’s really appealing about the Old Fashioned is its bouquet – your nose takes in the aggressive citrus smell of the fruit as you drink, and it mingles exotically with the hardness of the liquor, all capped by that familiar warmness in the chest.
A couple of friends showed up, so I left the bar to sit with them at a table and was unable to watch the prep on my other two cocktails. I went with the Sazerac next, a New Orleans original that’s similar to the Old Fashioned but has absinthe as an added ingredient, removes the ice, and strips the fruit down to a lemon zest that’s twisted over the cocktail and either added or discarded. But don’t take my word for it. Watch Chris McMillian, who is quite apparently the greatest bartender in the world, take you through it:
I finished things up with a Manhattan, the only cocktail of the three I had tried before. The Manhattan is served in a cocktail glass and typically forgoes the sugar and water of the previous drinks, drops the ice, trades out the Sazerac’s absinthe for vermouth, and of course adds a maraschino cherry as a garnish.
The verdict? If I had to rank them, I’d put the Sazerac just over the Old Fashioned, with the Manhattan trailing in third place. In addition to having the greatest taste (the absinthe really does it for me, reminding me of the kid who used to try dangerous booze for kicks), it also has the most intriguing history and a colourful place of origin. That said, I love the sensory experience involved in drinking an Old Fashioned. The Manhattan is slighter by comparison. Of course, this all has a lot to do with how the Pourhouse prepares these particular drinks. Another bartender in another bar in Saskatoon might have a Manhattan to die for. I’m looking forward to finding out who knows their stuff, and who can play a solid variation on a classic.