I won’t pretend I’ve never poured Southern Comfort into a McDonald’s milkshake. But Jameson and Glenlivet feature more prominently in my stories of college-era drinking than sickening concoctions. In those days, we would buy a bottle of the best whisky we could afford, and more bottles of something cheaper that we referred to as “cannon fodder” and saved for drinking after a strong buzz had dulled our palates.
Over time, we came to understand that there was a canon of cocktails, with nuanced variations and underground classics that paralleled the music world. Cannon fodder was replaced by classic cocktails and proper barware. I returned from a trip to Scotland with just enough clothing in my bag to keep the bottles of single malt from clinking in the customs line. The distillery tours that furnished the contents of my luggage also established a respect for the artistry in producing a fine liquor. But until now, I underestimated the art in a perfect cocktail.
I learned the lesson, appropriately enough, on the very street where some of those earliest alcoholic experiments took place, literally within sight of my college dorm. For the first time in at least fifteen years, the Daddy and I found ourselves on Capitol Hill on a Tuesday night, looking for a drink. We walked down 12th Avenue in confusion; the few familiar features in the landscape were mere palimpsests in this newly built neighborhood where parking lots and warehouses dominated in our youth. And then we saw it.
Inside, a tin roof gleamed in the light of industrial fixtures. An umbrella stand stood under an early twentieth century telephone mounted on a gold-papered wall covered with framed newspapers celebrating the repeal of Prohibition. Shelves of liquor bottles rose from the bar to the high ceiling on two sides of the long, narrow space.
A friendly connoisseur showed us to a seat and guided us through the book length menu. The Daddy was delighted to see 1776 on the menu. He ordered it with a Bitburger on the back. I zeroed in on the Oaxacan Scaffa: mescal, punt e mes (I had to ask, it’s vermouth), and maraschino, aged for 9 months in a bourbon cask. Mescal (I just can’t get used to the “z” spelling) always seemed like a drink that does not play well with others, but the cocktail was too intriguing to pass up.
It came in a port glass and looked almost like red wine. The smoky aroma was almost overpowering, but the first flavor on the tongue was a burst of cherry – fortunately not maraschino syrup, but the sweetness of fruit. The flavors were concentrated and intense, but sequential, like Willy Wonka’s experimental chewing gum. The cherry was followed by a round, oaky, whisky-like flavor, and finished with a strong smoky aftertaste that persisted even after I helped myself to the Bitburger. The only hint of mescal that I detected was less a flavor than a feeling. Oaxacan Scaffa was a rogue and a scoundrel. A little bit unwashed, a lot rude, and utterly irresistible – the hero in the kind of novel nice ladies hide in the back of their nightstand.
“If you like mescal, you should try ‘Campfire in Georgia.’ It’s my favorite,” our server offered helpfully. I trusted her completely.
She returned with a lowball under a smoke-filled cloche. Lifting the cover, she waved the smoke toward me while I dutifully inhaled. Removing my glass from a plate filled with smoldering wood, she set it on the table in front of me. If the elaborate presentation made me momentarily expect a group of handclapping waiters to descend on the table singing “Happy Birthday,” the impression was immediately forgotten with the first sip. The flavors of Campfire in Georgia were so perfectly blended they were hard to pick out. Together with the vinegar, the smoke infusion was just what was needed to keep the peach fizz from turning the whole drink ‘fern bar’. Once again, the mescal provided the alcohol bite but was otherwise incognito. This drink, too, was more than its flavors. It told a story. Rain dripped down the windows, but each sip felt like an easy summer night with friends, sitting in front of the campfire with a cold fruity drink in my hand. I could almost hear the mosquitos buzzing.
When the alarm buzzed Wednesday morning, it wasn’t friendly at all. I was rushed, late for work, and by two pm the late night was really starting to pull me down. I had hit a wall. But every now and then, I breathed in the faint scent of wood smoke in my hair. Like the smell of a lover on a borrowed shirt, it was a little lift that carried me through to the end of the day.