When I skidded into my late thirties, I went through a predictable, even clichéd series of life upheavals that revealed, among many other things, that I was drinking way too much. Starting around 5:00 pm every day, I’d enter a state of intense anticipation, awaiting the cool bite of scotch or the warm wash of red wine. It didn’t matter whether I was at a business dinner in an increasingly unpleasant, anxious job or at home in an increasingly unpleasant, anxious marriage. I always had at least two drinks -- usually three or four -- work days and weekends.
Over the span of several tumultuous months, I changed many things in my life for the better -- work, marriage, home -- and my drinking changed, too. I didn't drink at all through the first months of this transition, and when I started again, I drank less frequently. After sustaining this change for a couple of years, I got a phone call from a researcher who wanted me to participate in a six-month study about alcohol consumption. I agreed right away. You see, my reform was wholly my own; I hadn't needed a helping hand from any twelve-step programs, therapists, or medications. If science wanted me to help needy others by modeling my superior awareness and control, I’d provide that service, humbly, to humankind.
As part of the study, I started recording my drinking, and over the course of the first couple of months I noticed a pattern. Occasionally I had nothing to drink. Occasionally I had two drinks. But on all other nights, week in and week out, I had exactly one drink, whether at home or at a restaurant, stressed out or happy, in town or on the road. By the time the survey wrapped up, I didn't worry about keeping my records up-to-date; I'd just try to remember those exceptional drink-free or multi-drink days at the end of each two- or three-week period, mark them down, and fill in the rest of the calendar with ones.
I was smug about those numbers. I‘d reduced my daily drinking from two, three, even four drinks down to a single drink most nights, and I had the scientific data to prove it. That single evening drink was not only evidence that I was drinking less, it was evidence that I was drinking a healthy amount, like, you know, the French. One evening drink was the 21st century version of an apple a day, right?
When the study wrapped up, my hubris made the beginning of my exit interview pretty fun, as I rattled off my last few weeks of ones. But the hubris didn't last long; science wanted a final datum, not of counted number but of measured amount.
"When you have a drink at home," the researcher asked, "how many ounces of alcohol do you usually drink?"
"Oh, you know, a regular serving," I sputtered.
"So, when you have a bourbon, say, your glass has about two or three ounces of liquor in it."
"Yeah, that's right," I replied, feigning confidence. "You know, one drink."
She asked her final questions, thanked me, and hung up. But I was pretty sure I’d just sold science, and my pride, down the river.
For a while I pretended that her question hadn’t bothered me, but it kept nagging, particularly when I pulled down one of the glasses I used for drinks at home. Months after the survey had ended, I took one of those glasses out of the cupboard to split an Anchor Steam with my wife. I nearly filled my own glass and handed the bottle to her.
"Not exactly half," she said, tilting the bottle and finishing it off.
She was right: there had been no more than an inch of beer left in her bottle. I’d stiffed her because I assumed my drinking glass held six, maybe eight ounces max. Surprise: it held exactly twelve ounces of liquid. I was now shaken and stirred. A few days later, when no one was around, I grabbed a glass from the cabinet, placed four ice cubes into it, poured in my usual amount of bourbon, and then strained the bourbon into a measuring cup. This one drink -- bourbon on the rocks, the one I enjoyed most consistently -- consisted of more than three two-ounce drinks.
It was little consolation to realize that I was, by any measure, drinking far less than I had been back when I regularly knocked back three or four of these bombs. But I knew I’d been deluding myself about my drinking, and I invested a lot in my seeming self-awareness. I stood at the sink, looking at the glass full of bourbon and ice, more deluded than I’d been moments before.
Turns out that, most nights, I had a three-drink minimum.
My maternal grandfather was one of those Mainers that you read about -- a great accent, rough hands, wry humor, and a prodigious belly on a wiry frame. Grampa bounced around in different jobs from the Depression through the 1970s, baker to farmhand, bus driver to janitor. Though I never became close to him, I’ve got vivid, important memories dating back decades. I remember sharing a Fanta orange soda in a glass bottle with him after a hot afternoon of work in his beloved garden, where he wrung tomatoes, peas, and rhubarb out of the Maine clay. I remember standing next to him at a table covered with old newpapers, bowls, and cups of melted butter, greedily consuming the clam necks that his dentures, which had bitten off the tender steamer bellies, hadn't allowed him to chew.
And I remember his daily ritual. When he arrived home from work at the school he cleaned, he'd putter furtively by the kitchen sink and the surrounding cabinets. My brother and I spent many weeks at their house near Waterville each year, particularly during the summers, and I grew familiar with the strange rhythms of my grandparents’ life. I never quite understood many of those rhythms; tip-lipped Yankees both, they had little interest in self-reflection and offered few insights to kids. But even when I was young, I sensed that his habit of heading straight for the kitchen sink held odd, perhaps troubling, meanings.
I was eight when grampa first asked me, soon after getting home, if I was ready for a bit of hooch. Gramma, a teetotaler, overheard this, and scolded him, completing an exchange I found baffling. So, the next afternoon, I rushed to my grampa's car the moment he arrived, and asked, "What's hooch?"
He grinned and walked me from the driveway through the back door into the kitchen, glancing around to confirm that gramma was in a back room. He reached up to the cabinets above the sink, extending his hand to the back of the top shelf, and brought down a small glass. It was clear and thick, with an indented bottom, encircled by a thin white line just below the rim.
He reached under the sink and pulled out a large, unfamiliar bottle. Showing me the turkey on the label, he said, "This is hooch," and he poured a splash of liquor into the glass. He handed the glass to me without speaking, letting me decide what to do; I didn't taste it, but just stuck my nose into the glass. And, all at once, I figured out what hooch was: hooch was what my grampa smelled like every night of his life.
He took back the glass, filled it, and drank, slowly enough to savor it but quickly enough to wrap things up before gramma popped in for a look-see. He rinsed out the glass, wiped it with a dish rag, and placed it back in its place on the top shelf, out of sight.
As I grew older, the familial tensions I’d sensed when I first heard the word "hooch" recurred with greater urgency. Now and then, I'd hear my grandmother say something to him under her breath. He'd snap at her to mind her own goddamned business. On the car ride back down to Massachusetts, my parents would whisper when they thought my brother and I had fallen asleep, asking each about his threats to "lie down on the train tracks and be done with it." In the year or two before lung cancer destroyed him, there had been family discussions about alcoholism. By then I was old enough to know what that meant.
But on summer nights when my gramma was reading in her bedroom and my brother and I watched the Red Sox at my grampa's feet, hooch was just a wisp in the warm air that floated through the living room screens. And sometimes, during a Schaefer commercial between innings, my grampa would go around the corner into the kitchen, squeak open cabinet doors, twist on and off a bottle cap and then the spigot, squeak open the cabinet doors again, and settle back into his easy chair, having turned one drink into two -- or maybe three -- with no one the wiser.
For a few weeks after discovering that I’d been knocking back double scotches or triple bourbons most nights, I decided to go cold turkey once again. Lacking the zeal that had filled my veins during my divorce, I failed miserably. Though I knew I didn't crave the alcohol-based depressants, I wasn't sure what, if anything, I did crave.
To figure it out, I started wondering about my relationships to other quasi-addictions. I had been one of those smokers that real smokers hate, lighting up only when I would enjoy it entirely and able to go without a smoke for days, even weeks, at a time. The nicotine did little for me. However, tapping the cigarette on table or thumbnail, deciding how I'd hold this particular smoke, exhaling through the nose, mouth, or both: that stuff I loved.
I still missed the rituals of smoking, so I decided that I missed the rituals that surround drinking. I needed the most obsessive mode of drinking I could find, one that would provide me the satisfaction of alcohol, while cutting back on the amount. Since beer holds no romance for me, and serious wine consumption breaks my bank, I turned to the playland of vintage cocktails.
I started stocking up on all of the requisite fetish objects and elixirs with fervor. Soon, I’d accumulated a Hawthorne strainer and barspoon to accompany my fine Boston shaker, several obscure mail-order bitters and hard-to-find liqueurs, and a set of genuine 1950s cocktail glasses wrapped in tissue paper that I’d discovered, unloved, at a local yard sale, four for three bucks. Those glasses were the turning point, for they held just the right amount for a single, stunning drink.
I find deep pleasure in drinking a single, stunning drink most nights. Though my knowledge is slight and new, it’s well-rounded, thanks to a number of sources, primary among them Gary Regan's Joy of Mixology. Regan's book provides many deep, persnickety truths, just the sort with which a novice can legitimate his own prejudices and peccadilloes. With a few weeks of practice, I developed a solid, if rudimentary, ritual.
First, I ponder what's on hand: Do I have Tanqueray, Plymouth, or both? Did I use all of the lemons? How much of that homemade grenadine is on the refrigerator door? Then I search for a recipe that corresponds to both supply and desire.
With recipe in hand, I choose the right glass for the occasion and chill it. I select the necessary tools and lay out the bottles I'll need: my liquid mise en place. I measure (I always measure) a half-ounce of this and two ounces of that, pouring each in sequence into my shaker. Even if they aren't in the recipe, I squirt in a dash of bitters -- two, if the recipe asks for one.
I stir, counting to forty, or I shake, counting to twenty. Each count is one-half second; I've timed it. I strain. And, only then -- after I've performed a meticulous, pleasurable ritual that may not rival a Japanese tea ceremony in complexity of meaning but does in anticipation -- do I drink.
Following that engaging, satisfying, and obsessive process, I find I want to have only one drink almost every night -- but what a drink it is. I spent a full week marveling at the perfection of the Pegu Club. I've had my world opened to the dry backbone that maraschino adds to gin and lemon in the Aviation Cocktail. I've come to understand why Gary Regan calls the Manhattan, a concoction I’d been throwing together for years with little thought, "the finest cocktail on the face of the earth."
Over the last few weeks, I've been intrigued by one particular vintage cocktail. While it’s a great drink, its recipe makes it legendary, a ritual so involved and contentious that debate about it continues to this day. After reading about it in Regan, on-line, and elsewhere, I decided that I had to try the glass-rinsing, sugar-muddling, rind-twisting procedure that makes the Sazerac the Kama Sutra for cocktail ritualists.
There are dozens of recipes for this famous drink, but for my first time out I decided to go with Regan's less intricate recipe. I had lemons and simple syrup on hand, and I've been fortunate to find a regular source so I can keep Peychaud's bitters in stock. In a moment of criminality that would make a New Orleanian cringe, I dug a bottle of Pernod from the back of my liquor cabinet as a substitute for the essential Herbsaint -- impossible to find in my hometown.
That left me with one item to find: a bottle of rye. I'd never had rye; didn't have a clue about it. Conversations with liquor store clerks didn't help much, as they hadn't ever seen a bottle of the stuff. After trudging all over town, at the eighth store I visited, I spotted a bottle of Old Overholt, lurking on the bottom shelf behind the register. I drove straight home and set to work.
I filled my cocktail glass with crushed ice and water to chill it. I measured out the rye and simple syrup into my shaker, and I splashed in several dashes of Peychaud's bitters. I trimmed off a thick curl of lemon rind with care, lest I spray the precious oil on my fingers instead of atop the drink's surface, and set it aside.
Working quickly, I dumped the ice and ice water from my glass, dried it, rinsed a capful of Pernod around the inside, and poured out the remainder. I added crushed ice to the shaker, stirred while counting to forty, and strained the drink into its anisette-lined glass. Finally, with pride, I twisted the lemon rind over the glass and dropped it in.
Even without the lovely, tortured ritual, the Sazerac is an elusive drink to describe, complex at some moments and simple at others. It starts quick and bright in your mouth, the lemon and anise sitting on top, and turns slow and dark as the rye releases and lingers.
That first Sazerac was unlike anything I've ever tasted, but I recognized it immediately. The lemon gave way to the rye, my tongue became my nose, and once again I inhaled the hooch on my grampa's breath.