I need a drink.
No, really. For years I’ve wandered from sidecars to Sazeracs to Mojitos to mai tais in search of a go-to beverage that would conquer my mealy-mouthed indecision at bars. And frankly, I’m embarrassing myself. Ordering some random thing only to find that it comes with a little umbrella. Choosing a concoction that knocks me on my ass when I’m supposed to meet the principal of my kid’s school.
You know those sad chameleons who feign camaraderie by ordering the same thing as their drinking partners? That’s me. Port with my father-in-law, Guinness with my brothers. Every time Grandpa gets a Glenlivet on the rocks, so do I. Love drinking with him, except that, to my tongue, Glenlivet is like licking the floor of an old Scottish barn.
During my formative imbibing years, I took cues from Hollywood, which meant an inevitable White Russian phase around the time of The Big Lebowski. Blue Velvet led to Pabst Blue Ribbons, Rob Roy to Rob Roys. I even dipped my toe into a pool of absinthe after Moulin Rouge, and I hated that movie. Hated the drink, too.
You would think I might know what I was doing in a tavern after all these years of hanging out in them. I’ve covered bars for multiple publications, and I downed roughly 10,000 drinks before anyone thought of paying me a cent to do so. Instead, I’m flailing in a sea of choices while menacing mixologists with their handlebar mustaches and sleeve garters poke at my lifeboat with their tongs and try to drown me with 14 varieties of ice cubes.
“What you drink tells you who you are,” magazines like Esquire love to impart in that Esquire-ian way, but I don’t need a drink to tell me who I am. My wife is more than happy to do that. I just need a good cocktail—a fallback I can order anywhere and can make myself. Something strong but not debilitating. Familiar but not ordinary. Fun but not foolish, classy but not pompous. I refuse to be the guy who orders something so obscure he has to show the bartender the recipe.
My first step: Solicit suggestions from friends. Their advice ranged from predictable (lots of Manhattans, Tom Collinses, and old fashioneds) to deliciously vague (“three fingers of the best dark rum they have plus one ice cube”) to specific (“equal parts St.-Germain elderflower liqueur, Plymouth gin, and Campari, on the rocks with a dash of Angostura bitters”) to jokey (“Oh, girl, you know you want a Cosmo!”). My friends would not be much help.
I needed a professional, so I called Noah Rothbaum. The editor of Liquor.com and the author of The Business of Spirits, Rothbaum knows drinking like Newton knew gravity, but he’s not all high and mighty about it, creating laws and whatnot. “The people who know the least about cocktails and spirits are usually the ones who have the most rules,” he says. “Like, ‘You can’t have ice in that. You can’t add water.’ Why not? What’s going to happen? Is it like Pop Rocks and Coke?”
In other words: It’s your drink and it should make you happy. After an hour of trying to ascertain what makes me happy, Rothbaum suggested three possible libations, all simple, all classic, all delicious if made right. He promised that none would make me look silly or elicit sneers. They might even garner respect.
“Can I get a Horse’s Neck?” I asked the bartender at Lady Gregory’s, an Andersonville pub solemn enough to title its 50-page beverage list “The Drinks Bible.” The guy looked around, as though he suspected he was the butt of a joke. Flustered, I showed him the recipe on my Android. Ten minutes later, he delivered a sweating Tom Collins glass with Knob Creek bourbon, Fentimans ginger beer, a dash of bitters, ice, and a curled lemon peel. A refreshing, genial mix of sweet, sour, spicy, and oaky. But the bartender, as if embarrassed by our interaction, never returned. Another dude brought the check.
“Can I get a daiquiri?” I asked the barkeep at The Matchbox. He was a large gentleman in a small bar, tattooed and unimpressed, and my drinking buddy edged away from me. But The Matchbox’s reverence for genuine cocktails borders on mania, and Rothbaum had assured me the daiquiri qualifies. Not the slushy one with bananas: I got an old-school version with dark rum, lime juice, sugar, and water, in a martini glass rimmed with powdered sugar, and I liked it just fine. What I didn’t like was the look on my friend’s face, which said I might as well have just ordered an American Girl doll. “Sadly, people are embarrassed by daiquiris,” Rothbaum says. “They say things like, ‘What are we, on a cruise ship?’” If I have to convince people what I’m drinking is legit, then I need a new drink. Or a new drinking buddy.
When I asked the barman at the Sofitel’s Le Bar for a Moscow mule, he wrinkled his nose. “A what?”
“A Moscow mule.”
He wandered off. Great. Here we go again. I was ready to call goddamn Rothbaum and demand three more suggestions when a tumbler appeared with a fresh lime perched over the edge of a clear, inviting concoction. Vodka, ginger, lime. Simple as that. The first sip was delicious, a tangy shock that rebooted my taste buds like jumper cables to a car battery. The second sip was a greedy gulp. “Did you use ginger beer or ginger ale?” I asked.
“Neither,” the bartender said. “I used puréed ginger. Pretty intense, huh?” He walked away, leaving me with my tumbler and that curious warmth you get when you meet someone and have the unshakable feeling he’s going to be a friend for a long time.
“I’ve been to Moscow,” a dyspeptic man grumbled at the end of the bar. “You know, they don’t drink that there.”
I just smiled and finished my drink.