Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cultured Barrister: Lush Life

The Cultured Barrister is a SCOV Law Column that is an ongoing miscellany cataloging the matters that young attorneys are likely to be confronting as they begin their professional ascent.  The CB is meant to begin a conversation and rarely will claim the final word.  If you agree or disagree, the Cultured Barrister and the other readers of this blog want to hear from you.

With the oncoming Christmas season, there are the inevitable firm parties, dinners, and social events.  Though we pale behind Atlanta, D.C., and some of the more-sociable bar associations, there is still some sense of holiday decorum. And good cheer to be found in the form of an open bar manned by a surly fellow forced to wear a Kris Kringle hat.  At these events, the young associate often "distinguishes" himself or herself by one of two maneuvers.

The first maneuver is to stick with the old familiar—the associate may choose a bottle of Long Trail, a Magic Hat, or if he is feeling brave, a can of PBR.  He may feel confident in this choice of a standby and be able to judge his consumption quite well.  Still, the primary impression left by a man in a suit holding a can of PBR is "Do you think TKE will ask us to pledge?"

Or, nervous about being in a professional gathering, the associate switches to red wine, usually a merlot. After all, isn't wine the classy alternative to beer?  Being new to the perils of red wine (and somewhat thirsty) the associate quickly quaffs three glasses in a row and finds herself soused before the second wave of appetizers appears.  When she makes her way to the senior partner, she is close to killing a bottle, and suggests that the partner accompany her snowboarding this winter because she was the snowboard team captain at the University of New Hampshire and they kicked Dartmouth's tail.  Of course, this was long after the senior partner was captain of the Dartmouth ski team.  Of course.

For the associate hoping to raise the bar this season, I offer the following cocktail choices.  Each one has a bit of elan and brio, and are just far enough off the beaten path to qualify for an impressed raised eyebrow from anyone who hears you order it.

The Highball

What is in it?  Bourbon, Rye, or Whiskey (Canadian or otherwise); ginger ale or soda water.

How is it served? Over the rocks in a tall glass.

Why?  This is the drink of professionals—professional alcoholics.  It says, that you are serious about drinking.  This is the drink that F. Scott Fitzgerald orders at the start of a bender.  Not exactly a boilermaker (shot and a beer), but it does convey a sense that you do not brook frivolousness in your life.  If the bar catches fire, look for the man with the highball in his hand.  He knows the way out (unless he has had more than two, then he probably started the fire).


What is in it?  What do you think?

How is it served? Over the rocks or neat in a short, fat glass.

Why?  This is the only drink you are going to have tonight, and you want to do it well.  You probably also went to BC for law school and were taught that the Lord put no higher form of drink on the face of the earth.  As this indicates, Scotch lends itself to a "Buster's Big Day Drinking with the Adults" mentality, and if ordered improperly will look like you are reaching out of your league.  It also attracts a geeky cult that will spend most of an evening debating the relative merits between single- and double-malt scotch, the proper aging techniques, and whether highland or lowland water sources are the best.  Scotch is probably the riskiest order you can make at a party, but if done properly, it will confer instant credibility.

Brandy Alexander

What is in it?  Brandy; dark creme de cacao; half and half; and nutmeg

How is it served? Strained into a brandy snifter with the nutmeg grated on top.

Why?  This is a thinking man's alternative to the White Russian.  It is less sweet, more complex, and it does not cause people standing next to you to start quoting The Big Lebowski as soon as you put in your order.  The drink had a heyday in the 1970s, but it is poised for a comeback.  The fresh nutmeg is a classy touch, but not every bar has the equipment or knowhow to make this drink.

The Sidecar

What is in it?  Cognac; triple sec; and lemon juice

How is it served? Strained into a cocktail (martini) glass.

Why?  This is another post-World War I creation that was a favorite of the lost generation down and out in Paris and London.  It is essentially a fancy way to put some powerful intoxicants into your system with panache.  Probably best consumed while pondering the failure of Art Nouveau to address the existential ennui of an imperfect world.  The cognac can be substituted with bourbon, vodka, gin, applejack, or tequila for around-the-world variations.

The Old Fashioned

What is in it?  Sugar; bitters; water; and whiskey

How is it served? On the rocks in a short, fat glass with a slice of orange.

Why?  The Cultured Barrister's grandparents used to make Old Fashioned mix by the gallon in discarded wine bottles.  History dates this drink back to 1806, and it is quite possibly the world's first cocktail.  This is Don Draper's drink of choice.  Like anything this old, the Old Fashioned may come off as mannered, but it never goes out of style.

Rusty Nail

What is in it?  Scotch; Drambuie

How is it served? On the rocks in an old fashioned glass.

Why?  One of a number of duo cocktails (you guessed it, two spirits mixed together), the Rusty Nail is a little edgy and a little seamy.  The rusty nail is a lot like your uncle, who retired early and spends his days working on a sailboat in the back yard and systematically draining every bottle of beer with which he comes into contact.  There is an at-once-noble-but-at-the-same-time-you-would-not-trust-your-children-near-him air about him.  A Rusty Nail sends mixed signals, but its novelty will make you stand out from the moment you order clear through to the time it takes the bartender to look it up in her guide book.  At the same time, this is an elegantly simple drink whose flavors mix and mingle in a delightful number of ways.


What is in it?  Vodka or gin; dry vermouth; olive or onion

How is it served? Shaken or stirred into a cocktail glass.

Why?  If you stand and stare at the Mona Lisa for a long enough time, you are bound to see something new.  Perhaps you notice the desolate backdrop that looks more like something from Cormac McCarthy than 16th century Florence.  Or maybe, if you stare long enough, you will see something new in the smile.  The point is that we have all seen the Mona Lisa hundreds of times. And yet, to really see her requires patience, concentration, and a willingness to drop our acquired preconceptions.

In the same way, the Martini is the drink you have known all your life.  It is iconic.  It has history.  It has tradition.  It has rules.  The only thing worse than an opinionated scotch drinker is a Martini drinker.  They will tell you the rules: usually involving suspending one of the ingredients, wiping the glass a particular way, or even stirring rather than shaking.  Nuts to that.  Martinis are an acquired taste.  If you like olives, chances are you will like a Martini.  You can prefer a particular preparation, but if you find yourself entering into an argument in which you profess that the only way to add Vermouth is to unscrew the bottle and wave it over the glass, then you need to try a new drink.


What is in it?  Gin or vodka; lime juice; and powdered sugar

How is it served? Strained into a cocktail glass.

Why?  The drink of Raymond Chandler and Ed Wood, Jr.  'Nuff said.

Dark and Stormy

What is in it?  Dark rum; ginger beer

How is it served? On the rocks in a highball glass with a wedge of lime.

Why?  The national drink of Bermuda is also one of the best ways to pass a winter's night in Vermont.  A beguiling blend of dark rum's rich molasses taste wedded to the complexity of a ginger beer.  This drink will ease some of the troubles while clearing the sinuses and preparing the digestive track.  It is a one-shop-spice stop.


What is in it?  Red wine; triple sec; fruit; sugar

How is it served? In a pitcher with slices of fruit poured into a wine glass.

Why?  Best enjoyed outside in a sidewalk cafe in midsummer, Sangria is a good alternative to a glass of wine and some of the heavier cocktails.  It is a light and refreshing drink that has enough water and juice to keep you hydrated.  Bar Sangria is different than the pitcher you get at a good Spanish restaurant, but there is no shame in enjoying a glass.  Just check the menu first to make sure some variation is offered.

Irish Coffee

What is in it?  Coffee; whiskey (Irish); whipped cream

How is it served? Hot and in a glass mug.

Why?  You tell yourself you are just having one drink before you get behind the wheel.  You are tired after a full day of billables, and you could use a shot of caffeine.  Irish coffee caries a jolt of whiskey that usually makes the coffee taste slightly mentholated.  Want something "Irish"?  Just add whiskey.  The mixture is unnatural (like a bowl of nuts and gum), but yet, it maintains a certain level of popularity that outstrips its inherent charm.  Why Irish Coffee ever survived the 1970s to live longer than the Joker's Wild and Arthur Treacher's is beyond me.  Yet, here it like some polyester throw-back.  Like vintage Ricardo Montalban commercials, the drink survives just this side of kitsch.


What is in it?  Whiskey; sweet vermouth; and bitters

How is it served?  Strained into a cocktail glass or in an old fashioned glass on the rocks.

Why?  This is a touchstone drink.  With a few variations, it can be any number of drinks (remove the bitters and substitute scotch for whiskey and you have a Rob Roy; substitute dry for sweet vermouth and you have the Rat Pack's favorite drink: a dry manhattan).  Brandy, port, and rum have also been called in as substitutes.  The drink is definitely of a post-World War II vibe, and it bespeaks elegance and wealth more than any other drink.  It is by its very name a sociable drink ready to rub shoulders with everyone.  Classier than an Old Fashioned, safer than a Rusty Nail.  The Manhattan says, "I have seen the world.  Let it come to me now."  An evening power drink with enough variations to keep it interesting.

Gin & Tonic

What is in it?  Gin and Tonic Water (and a slice of lime)

How is it served?  On the rocks in a highball glass.

Why?  There is a reason that some drinks persist as classics.  The G & T is appropriate for any gathering.  While any serious imbiber has his own favorite brand of gin (whose recipes vary widely), nearly any brand above the well is great.  The drink itself is light, crisp, and refreshing.  What's more, the quinine flavoring will help you fight malaria.  Although not as colorful as the others, a G & T is always welcome and always available.

Whiskey Sour

What is in it?  whiskey and lemon juice and sugar (sour mix)

How is it served?  Strained in a sour glass (slightly larger than a white wine glass with a stem), but let's not fool ourselves, you are going to get it in a highball glass on the rocks.

Why?  This is your safety order.  It is not the most shameful drink, but it does evince a lack of soul and creativity.  No one over the age 19 who does not belong to a sorority should order a whiskey sour.  It is a drink of amateurs.  Yet, it is still a cocktail, and it is not without its merits or defenders. If the other choices on this list are too intimidating.  Start here.  This is level zero.

What to avoid

There is a whole wide-world of cocktails.  This list is only intended as a starting point, a safe harbor, but you should feel free to experiment and try new things.  But be careful, next to overconsumption, the following are pitfalls that you should abstain from at all costs.  Avoid:

Anything that ends in -tini or advertises itself as a Martini and does not involve vermouth.  All Martinis are cocktails but not all cocktails are Martinis.  Adding the suffix -tini to cutesy words is worse than searching for lesser Motown albums in an independent record store.  If you want a drink, order it.  If you want a Roy Rogers, ask your parents to take you to Red Lobster.

Sex on the Beach/Flaming Doctor Pepper.  College called; they want their drink orders back.

Any vodka-based drink.  Seriously, vodka is what you drink if you are Russian or do not want to taste the alcohol in the fruit punch.  This is how people get accidentally intoxicated and live to regret their actions the next day.

Bloody Mary (unless it is before lunch; anything goes before lunch).

Mojitos—Come on, you are not a fifty-something housewife who is out with her friends trying "nachos" for the first time either.

Any drink where "frozen" is a serving option.  (remember, the firm party is not at Applebee's this year)

Cosmopolitans.  Unless Carrie and the girls invite you shoe shopping first.

The Cultured Barrister

1 comment:

  1. Dear CB -- I tried before to post this comment, but I fear the Internet gods were against me. So here goes again.

    This was an exceptional review of the merits and demerits of particular drink choices -- a worthy primer for our imagined young associate (of which there are so few in Vermont). Of course, one could quibble around the edges (see below), but overall you have done an outstanding job of laying out the territory.

    My esteemed and wise spouse had cause to be both glad and sad after reading your column. Glad because you included the Sidecar, a venerable drink she learned about from (and shares often with) her soul sister Leticia. Sad because of the quick dismissal of the Cosmopolitan. Now I carry no brief for the Cosmo, which I find too sweet for my tastes, but I do think it is a reasonable choice for more than the shoe-shopping set. In any event, DDR will find you in Montreal and cause you pain -- and perhaps put the photo on the cover of the bar journal. That'll teach you.

    A word could have been said about the qualities of gin, for a gin drink with Bombay Sapphire, for instance, is a vastly different animal from the same drink prepared with Hendricks. Both are high on the shelves, both are excellent, but because of the way gin is made (pure spirit filtered through a host of "botanicals," among which must be included juniper berries) they offer distinct taste experiences. If our venturesome associate pictures it as a two-martini evening, it would be interesting to try the first one with one gin, and the second with another. But by all means, please don't sink into the well -- a martini should be made with "good" gin, and it won't be unless you ask. Sapphire, Hendricks, whatever Tanqueray works it's way up the shelves, Plymouth are all good choices. If you're going to water down your gin with tonic, you can stick to the lower shelves.

    No matter what you're drinking, too much vermouth is a bad idea. If you want a glass of wine, order it. If you want a cocktail, remember that vermouth is a flavoring and smoothing agent and should not be overused. Oh, and Mr. Tyler would be disturbed that you did not mention the perfect Manhattan -- good whiskey with both kinds of vermouth, and a fine variation on the basic theme.

    Finally, my friends at Scottish distilleries tell me that good whiskey should not be taken neat. They say that water brings out the flavor in the whiskey, which cannot be experienced to its fullest without that liquid addition. Taking your Scotch on the rocks will have the same effect, and make you seem like you know something. Drinking whiskey neat makes you seem like a hard-boiled detective or a gunfighter -- not usually the image the young associate wants to convey.