March 24th, 2010

Imbibers old and young


My grandfather is 89 and drinks Manhattans. Upon first sip, he often utters one of his favorite expressions: “Hot damn.” He is a natural flirt — he actually gets away with addressing one of the walker-clutching ladies at his nursing home Lightnin’ — and the Manhattans he mixes in his apartment help him in that endeavor. One of his favorite stories is how a female resident approached his doorway one day as he was watching the Red Sox and drinking his favorite cocktail.

“What’re you drinking?” she said.

“Cranberry juice.”

“Don’t smell like it.”

“I’ll be right back,” he said, returning with a Manhattan for her as she settled in to watch the game.

This Christmas, my brother bought our grandfather a bottle of boutique rye whiskey — Rye 1, which, ironically enough, I have described as “not your grandfather’s whiskey” — and some sweet vermouth. I went into the kitchen to make him his drink as requested: 2 parts whiskey, 1 part vermouth, over ice. (The old man doesn’t bother with cherries or twists.) He was taken aback when he tried it, thinking I had made it too strong. Nope, 2 to 1, like you asked, I said. But then — of course! — he asked if the Rye 1 was stronger than the average whiskey. Yeah, it is, I said, remembering that my grandfather, like most of the drinking public, is used to lighter Canadian whiskies in his drinks. It’s a legacy of Prohibition and WWII that, in most places still, when you call for whiskey that’s not bourbon or scotch, you get Canadian Club or V.O. or the like.

Not that he doesn’t like the stronger, and stronger-flavored, straight rye. In fact, he seems to have developed a taste for it. I imagine the ladies will, too, soon enough.

* * *

When the 21-year-old son of a good friend told me he drank Manhattans, I was surprised. “Well … SoCo Manhattans,” he admitted, vaguely understanding the gaucheness of such a drink preference. (Hey, we’ve all been there.) Luckily, though, we were at Eastern Standard, and I was in charge. We started with a Frisco, one of my fave gateway drinks to whiskey, then moved to a Whiskey Smash.

Meanwhile, I convinced his friend and fellow classmate at Northeastern to try a Pisco Sour. “It has egg in it?” she balked. “Don’t be afraid,” I said, explaining that it would do for her drink what meringue does for lemon pie. The coup de grace was when our bartender, Hugh, handed her a teaspoon so she could scrape the fluffy, lemony, pisco-infused egg white from the bottom of the glass. It’s fun to watch young drinkers when they try a cocktail that makes them Get It. Today’s 21-year-olds don’t know how good they have it coming of age during the Cocktail Revival. I was well into adulthood before I experienced these sorts of mixtures. Then again, my grandfather, born during Prohibition, has missed them entirely. Can you imagine?

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16 Responses to “Imbibers old and young”

  1. Arnold

    My first reaction is: why make it harder on the kid when he is so close?

    To be up front, this is colored by my own cocktail progression: I was a SoCo drinker years ago when I first washed up on the shores of a young Silvertone. A similarly young Josh Childs turned me on to SoCo Manhattans (at first), and then quickly turned me on to the bourbon version. The rest is a cloudy history that has culminated in a home bar with at way too many types of gins, whiskeys, liqueurs, etc.

    Your young friend is apparently already dipping his toe into vermouth and bitters…so why start throwing citrus into the mix? Try the “sweetest” bourbon you can think of and continue on from that point.

    I of course am probably mistaken, but my initial feeling upon reading this post is that the young man is on the verge of jumping into the deep end of the cocktail pool and by introducing drinks with citrus juice at this point will only distract him from the path upon which he seems to be already traveling.

  2. MC Slim JB

    The youth of today are indeed spoiled!

    I was a lonely cocktail drinker from my mid-twenties (mainly favoring Negronis, bourbon Manhattans, and Nick & Nora martinis) for a long time. Craft cocktail bars were years in the future, so I mainly tended my own home bar, and hit the great old hotel bars in my travels (I score pretty highly on that “100 Greatest Bars of the World” list).

    I heard my preferred tipples referred to as “grandpa drinks” more than once by my beer- or pop-wine-swilling contemporaries. I bit my tongue and resisted the urge to suggest that if they were lucky, one day they would graduate to my kind of drinks. Instead I worked on inveigling them with gateway cocktails like vodka gimlets, whiskey sours, and serious up margaritas.

    By those standards, a kid in his 20s drinking Friscoes and smashes instead of crappy Cosmos or raspberry/white-truffle “martinis” is well ahead of the game. I still enjoy well-balanced, well-made citrus-school cocktails to this day, and am always pleased to see young drinkers doing the same. They could do a heck of a lot worse.

  3. Br. Cleve

    I’m so old I don’t even know what a SoCo Manhattan is! Is that something you drink when you’re in a trendy bar in SoCo?? Why, when I was a youngster, I had to walk 39 miles through ice and snow, without socks or shoes, just to be able to find a horse whose piss we could ferment into beer. Maybe it was a skunk, not a horse. Sure smelled it. You’d have to drink that all winter and be thankful you had anything to drink at all! These new fangled “Packaged Goods” stores are a godsend.

    they don’t really put vermouth in that drink, do they? Eeeeewww……

  4. ljclark

    Man, Arnold, did the Citrus Growers Council insult your mother? What’s wrong with citrus in cocktails? The idea’s been around for quite some time. In any case, my young friend, being 21, is not, I hope, on any path at all yet, cocktail-wise. I mean, if you settle into straight spirits at that age, where do you go from there? He also ordered a Mai Tai that night at no urging from me. The only direction I provide for young drinkers is introducing them to what a good cocktail tastes like and sending them on their merry, experimental way.

    Slim, one of these days I’m going to make you do jello shots with me.

    Old Man Cleve, thanks for putting our good fortune into perspective with your sordid tale of hardship and want. I had no idea that’s what things were like in the ’70s.

  5. dietsch

    A young friend (oh, about 30) approached my bar last night, looking for a second round. “Surprise me,” he said. I’m starting to dread those words. I served him a Manhattan made of WT rye and Carpano Antica, smuggled in from the People’s Republic of Mass. He said, “My grandfather drank Manhattans,” to which I replied, “It doesn’t have to be an old man drink.” One sip later, he deemed it delicious and eventually drained his glass.

  6. MC Slim JB

    My good buddy in the apartment downstairs from my old place used to periodically stir up a tray of Jell-o shots. I imagine you could get all freaky/artisanal these days with gelatin made from the hooves of pata negra Iberico pigs (fed only on acorns from the forests of Dehesa!), some of that newly-rehabilitated vodka stuff, and hand-pressed Guatemalan cashew apples or somesuch. What sort of antique serving vessel would they come up with for it at Drink?

  7. ljclark

    Nice, Michael. Great to hear from you. Can’t wait to check out Cook & Brown soon!

  8. TJayW

    Coincidentally enough I met this young scholar later that same evening! I was doing a little spirit research myself at my local watering hole. It was fun to talk spirits with someone my own age. And he was REALLY excited about ES.

    I’m 22 and I discovered classic cocktails early last year. In fact Paul from ES made my me first. Mine was a whiskey smash. I’d heard about ES from a friend. She had been praising Jackson’s cocktails for months (and their burgers) so I went to see for myself. And yes the burger was damn good. The cocktail — and I don’t mean to be overdramatic — changed my world. The bar I worked at made 10 different mojitos with flavored rums, and 15 or so other overly sweet concoctions dictated by the suits at corporate. The idea of balancing flavors and crafting recipes to take advantage of bitterness, or the tartness of fresh fruit was revolutionary. In retrospect ES’s whiskey smash is a fairly sweet drink but it opened a door. I graciously walked inside.

    I called my mom that day and told her I was dropping out of my current college, and going to culinary school. I wanted to learn how work the magic I’d just witnessed. Now I’m working at what I believe to be Boston’s best bar and loving every minute while I learn from the best!

    On another note, I’d love to meet more people my age that are as interested in cocktails as I. LJ if there is any way to send out an e-mail rallying your younger readers I’d love to set up some sort of Barely Legal Imbibers group. (Ya, the name needs some work) Can we make it happen!?

  9. ljclark

    Ha, what a coincidence, Tyler! Your story warms my heart. I have met several in the “barely legal” set who share your experience & interest. Maybe we can do one better & publish a guest post with your plea. Then you could set up a Facebook page, & the ball would roll from there.

  10. Arnold

    First off, I have nothing against citrus. Some of my best friends are grapefruits…

    My point was to help nudge the young man toward a foundation of classic drinks, and then go from there. These would include the Manhattan (and/or Old Fashioned) and Martini. He is already drinking Southern Comfort Manhattans, which hopefully include the vermouth and bitters and not just chilled SoCo in a martini glass. By going for difficulty points early one might be making it more difficult to get him on the path towards bourbon and then rye as a regular foundation for his cocktails.

    I have NOTHING against the Frisco or any number of classic smashes, but unless this person is a student at BU or some other local college (or in another city with a decent number of good cocktail establishments), how many bars/bartenders that he will encounter in the next few years of his life will be able to make either? Not that great Manhattans or Martinis are easy to find, but much more of a staple than Friscoes, Whiskey Smashes, or the Ramos Gin Fizz’s of the world.

    MC: my point about citrus was that if he looks for citrus on the cocktail menu in the future, he is most likely to see “crappy Cosmos or raspberry/white-truffle “martinis”” rather than Friscoes or smashes. So if on the cusp of bourbon Manhattans, don’t turn his attention to drinks that without a foundation of knowledge are potentially very close to the too fruity suggestions made in a recent Globe article that you derided over Twitter.

    Cleve: No worries if your historical and current slang liquor knowledge isn’t perfect (though I’m surprised you don’t like vermouth…). SoCo is slang term for “Southern Comfort”–basically a combination of bourbon and peach liqueur (and currently other flavoring chemicals). The claim is that this has been around for more than 100 years (so a bit earlier than tiki lounge music but not too far off the time line for the foundation of the modern libertarian movement…), but it is unclear to me when the current recipe that one can find on their local liquor shelf was concocted. Using this instead of bourbon or rye makes it a SoCo Manhattan.

    And you must be in incredible shape…

    In general I think it is fantastic that young people have these options. When I was that age it was the craft brewing movement that was expanding the drinking universe, while anything other than Mai Tai’s at the Golden Temple in Brookline or rum and cokes/gin and tonics during the summer was a foreign concept. My point was that if you are trying to nurture an appreciation for classic cocktails and spirits in general, it is most likely better not to get too fancy too soon. Citrus in the right proportion is wonderful. It can also leads to crappy Cosmos. If someone hasn’t had an IPA before, would you go right to the Imperial hop monsters or start them off with something upon which they can expand their own tastes and preferences?

  11. Jen

    My grandfather was a Manhattan man. He loved his Manhattans. I just had to comment because the post made me smile and think of my grandfather. I miss his cigar smoking, Manhattan drinking self.

  12. Adam

    Sorry, Arnold, but there is no bourbon in SoCo (at least, the readily available 80-proof version). It’s all flavorings. And (engaging liquor snob mode) subbing it into a Manhattan makes that drink as much a Manhattan as an Appletini is a Martini.

  13. Arnold


    No apologies necessary. While there might not be actual bourbon in modern SoCo, it is (or has its roots in, whatever modern miracles of chemistry have recreated) spiced/flavored bourbon.

    You raised a very interesting question with your “liquor snob” comment. It is easy for one to dismiss a vodka martini as not a martini since it doesn’t contain gin (as I’ve often done in the past). Just as many probably shook their heads knowingly when they read your SoCo Manhattan comment.

    But what about Manhattans or Old Fashioneds made locally by stars or rising stars from Rhum, Bols Genever, or Mezcal? Are you willingly to tell a Misty or Emily or Max that the drinks they term as such are equivalent to Appletinis because they don’t use whiskey? Or is it acceptable, as opposed to SoCo, because they are made by serious bartenders with “serious” liquor?

  14. Adam

    Albert, interesting question. I gave it some thought and it seems to me that changing the spirit absolutely changes the name of the drink, just as a vodka martini is not really a martini.

    A Manhattan made with rum (or rhum) is — more or less — El Presidente. A Manhattan made with gin is some form of a martini or martinez. Mezcal? Rosita, if memory serves me correctly.

    For me this isn’t about serious liquor or lack thereof, just about speaking the same language and at the heart of the matter, about being a drinks geek. Naming something allows us to talk about things on the same basis, and reappropriating an established name for something new may or may not honor the original. As a drinks geek I want to be able to talk about a Manhattan without necessarily needing to mention the word “whiskey”, and I want to be able to order a Star Cocktail, not an “applejack Manhattan”.

    All of that said, the fact is that at the end of the day good drinks are good drinks no matter what they’re called, and appletinis suck. Most people are not drinks geeks and don’t care about all of this, and in fact using a name like “mezcal Manhattan” is probably a lot easier for the average customer to grok.

    Which brings us over to the question of liquor snobbery. There are a few things that I tend to associate with getting hammered for sake of getting hammered (NOT that there’s anything wrong with that!): Jagermeister, Goldschlager, SoCo, most things called schnapps, any beer with “Natural” in the name, any beer with “Ice” in the name, any beer with both “Natural” and “Ice” in the name, and other assorted things that I can’t recall because I drank them earlier in life for the sole purpose of getting hammered and killed too many brain cells.

    These may or may not be the same things on your list, but I bet I’m not far off. These are products that just don’t seem to belong in the same world as a perfectly-balanced Manhattan. And this has nothing to do with these liquors being serious or not. SoCo is indeed some amazingly serious stuff, as evinced by the two-day hangover I suffered last time I tasted it (by “taste” I mean “shot” and by “shot” I mean 15 or so shots taken as a challenge my freshman year of college, but I digress).

    What is a great cocktail and what is not? To channel Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it”. But I know for a fact that it doesn’t contain SoCo or apple pucker

    (My apologies in advance to anyone who took the time to read this entire comment. I obviously have way too much time on my hands.)

  15. ljclark

    Adam, I, for one, appreciate the time you took to craft such a thoughtful comment. “At the end of the day, good drinks are good drinks.” Amen to that. If we want to get REALLY geeky, let’s look at one of the very first explanations of what a cocktail is. Many of you will recognize this 1806 citation ( “Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters it is vulgarly called a bittered sling” — a “sling” being simply spirits, water and sugar. The original Old-Fashioned is, ironically, the modern name for the concoction formerly known as a bittered sling. So when you hear people ordering genever old-fashioneds or Oaxaca old-fashioneds (with Mezcal), those fall well within the realm of a drink we normally think of as containing whiskey — or brandy, if you live in the Midwest. We might be a little more orthodox about the ingredients in a Manhattan, but I loop back to Adam’s point quoted above.

  16. Arnold

    Fantastic thoughts, all.

    Lauren, if you are willing to lead the way, I will follow pushing back against local bartenders (such as the ones I referenced above) when they use the term Manhattan with any cocktail not containing whiskey or otherwise adhering to the traditional recipe. Perhaps that is deserving of a whole new blog posting on your part? While you reference Adam for reason to not pursue such a strategy (the grok explanation), I believe just because it is easier to understand the lingo there should be no reason not to be the proverbial “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Smith (and Heinlein) would approve of you going against current convention and staking out new ground.

    Alberta, I’m willing to bet that even if they don’t personally approve, many of the areas’ top bartenders could actually come up with a very good drink made with SoCo. Basically because they could probably come up with a good drink with almost anything. And while I agree with much of your criticism, it seems to me that some things become in vogue with certain groups and gain a cachet not well deserved by their intrinsic taste (never mind the fact that much of what Potter thought was objectionable in his time is now considered standard Lady GaGa video fare–tastes change over time). PBR comes to mind, and perhaps more importantly for the audience of this blog, Hi-Life. While I think it is better than any thing with Natural in its name, will you defend Hi-Life (a favorite of the local industry crowd) as a serious beer more deserving of its stature than any of the other drinks you list in a negative fashion?

    I ask because when recently buying a bottle of Amaro Nonino, the owner of a well known Boston liquor store expressed to me the opinion that Fernet was basically in the same category as Jagermeister. Which is definitely considered a “serious” drink that doesn’t “suck.” But to this particular aficionado of such liquors, the fascination with Fernet was similar to that of Jagermeister with college kids.

    But this is getting off the original topic, which was a young man was willing to drink a (at its core) sweet whiskey in a cocktail approximating a Manhattan. In my opinion, he would have been better served in the long run by suggesting a Maker’s Mark or similarly sweet bourbon Manhattan than going off in relatively exotic directions. While “cool” that he is exposed to such drinks at such an age, it does nothing to provide him a solid base upon which to judge all manner of cocktails in the future.

    So in the end, I guess let’s all agree to disagree.

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