The other day I attended an “Introduction to Mixology” class. It was one of those deals that came through SweetJack or Groupon, I can’t remember which. It promised to teach essential bartending skills while getting into the “nitty gritty” of cocktail science. We’d learn not only essential drink-making skills, but also the history of the cocktail.
The class was lots of fun and everything it said it would be, so I’m not going to provide a review here. There’s Yelp for that. Instead I’m going to cop up to my own odd relationship with cocktails, and how signing for this class fit into that.
I didn’t grow up with much exposure to cocktails. My family was all beer and wine, and only in the most serviceable capacity. There was beer in cans and beer in bottles, and there was red wine and white wine. There was the embarrassment of my dad bringing boxed wine to a dinner at friends because he liked the novelty of it. To my parents’ credit they had no hang-ups about drinking, and at dinner they would allowed us kids small portions of beer (yuck) or wine (hmmm…) if we wanted it. My dad could never remember the legal drinking age, and when we’d go to restaurants he’d ask us all if we wanted a glass of wine, forgetting that we were underage.
I didn’t develop a taste for beer until college. I didn’t like the taste of it at first, but seeing that it was a staple of social events I figured I’d better get with the program. This was the same time I started eating chicken, for the exact same reasons. Sometimes you gotta go along to get along, as they say. I’d been limping my way through freshman year drinking wine coolers, but that would never do since they were a girls’ drink. But beer tasted gross to me, and it would take me hours to get myself to finish a full plastic cup of the stuff.
I was determined to man-up and learn to drink beer, however, and I started with a bottle of Chihuahua beer that somehow had found its way into my hands. On my 19th birthday I sat down and drank the whole bottle by myself. Mission accomplished – I’d drank my first full beer. Not so great but not so bad. From that point onwards I was able to start developing a taste for beer, to the point where I really liked the stuff and could name enough brands to be able to pass.
But cocktails? I didn’t know the first thing about them and felt intimidated by them. This fell in the same category as playing poker or watching sports, neither of which I knew anything about or really cared about. The only thing I cared about with cocktails, poker or sports was not being “found out” and humiliated as a less-than-guy.
This could be the part where I gripe about my parents because they never schooled me in any of these things. But I’m not going to, since I never showed any interest in sports or card games, let alone cocktails. My parents encouraged me and my siblings to pursue what we were interested in but did not coerce us into anything we weren’t interested in. It made for a fine childhood but when I arrived at college I felt socially inadequate.
I did have one fail-safe fallback to bluff my way through awkward party situations: I pretended to be stoned. I first learned this trick during the after-parties of the junior prom in high school. I’d got the courage to ask a reasonably popular girl to the prom, and she was able to get us into a series of popular-person parties afterwards. But there were not sparks between us, and when we’d get to the parties she’d disappear to socialize with her friends. I’d just stand there, shy and scared, until finally someone asked, “are you stoned?” “Uh, yeah… yeah,” I said. “Coool!” I wasn’t even sure what acting stoned was supposed to be like since I’d never been stoned, but I made it up and was perhaps convincing enough. Thankfully in all the various times I pulled this trick nobody ever asked where I got the stuff. I wouldn’t have had the faintest idea where to find it.
It wasn’t until after college that cocktails began to be a real source of concern. At parties, the plastic beer cups were exchanged for cocktail glasses, and people were asking me what I’d like to drink. I honestly couldn’t name a single cocktail. Had I seen a James Bond film I could have bluffed “shaken not stirred” but guess what? Nope, hadn’t ever seen one. At this same time, I figured I’d better learn to eat fish if I was ever going to be invited to someone’s house for dinner again.
Somehow I discovered the Whiskey Sour, and that became my go-to drink. I worried that it might be a girl’s drink, or even an old lady’s drink, but at least I had a drink. Nobody ever laughed at my order or rolled their eyes, though sometimes they looked a bit surprised. Maybe they weren’t ordered very much. A few years later I graduated to the Gin & Tonic, which was completely easy and respectable to order as long as you didn’t ask me what kind of gin I wanted. “Uh, whatever you have is fine.”
Then I came out of the closet and here comes the Cosmo! Followed by Lemon Drop and assorted other fun drinks that could be ordered off menus. I got my mom on the bandwagon and when we’d go out for dinner we’d both order fanciful complicated drinks, with the Cosmopolitan always being a good fall-back. “What’s that drink?” my mom would ask, and I’d order us a couple of Cosmos.
But still, even with the G&T and Cosmo as backups, I really couldn’t confidently order a cocktail without a menu. So when I saw the offer for the Mixology class this seemed like a good opportunity for my continuing adult education.
But if I haven’t already confessed to enough embarrassing, vapid things in these writings, I’ll add one more to the pile. On occasion I’ll be browsing the gigs listings in Craigslist to see if there are oddball work assignments to pick up for a little extra cash or thrills. A couple of figure modeling gigs (check that off the bucket list!), some focus groups, but what’s really caught my interest are the gigs for shirtless bartenders and cocktail servers for private parties. It’s vain, vapid and perhaps totally delusional, so of course those parts of me would be interested in such a gig. But not knowing how to mix a drink, let alone knowing next to nothing about cocktails, could be a serious impediment. So could not having a smooth chest, deep tan and six-pack abs, but I was allowing myself to overlook all that. Who wants Daddy to mix them a drink?
So off I went to the Mixology class to (hopefully) learn my basic bartending skills so in my fantasies I could be ready to run around shirtless mixing drinks. And in the meantime, I was actually able to learn a thing or two!
The drinks class traced the “history of the cocktail,” at least in terms of what they told us from whatever source they knew. Who was I to question as long as we were able to sample them? We made mini-size (half-ounce) versions of these old-time cocktails:
Mint Julep (1790-1800) – mint leaves, sugar, Rye Whiskey
Old Fashioned (1800-1810) – orange, brandied cherries, sugar, Bitters, Rye Whiskey
John Collins (1820-1830) – lemon, sugar, Rye Whiskey, soda, cherry, lime
Whisky Sour (1850-1860) – my old standby! Rye Whiskey, sweet and sour, cherry
Manhattan (1870-1880) – Rye Whiskey, Sweet Vermouth, Bitters, cherry
Martini (1880-1890) – Dry Vermouth, Gin, olive – stirred
Daiquiri (1910-1920) – sugar, lime, Silver Rum
Blood and Sand (1920-1930) – Scotch, Cherry Liqueur, orange juice
Of these, the John Collins was perhaps my favorite. The Daiquiri was also a surprise, since it was on the rocks. We’d all thought of the frozen variety popularized in the 80s but I’d never had one on the rocks. Tasty!
So while the class was amusing and perhaps I’ve scored some additional points in cocktail credibility, I don’t think I’m anywhere near going pro, let alone shirtless!