The first seven years of my drinking life were spent in a dive bar – although back then it was just known as a bar. The place was called Amestoy’s on the Hill, and it was located in a dicey neighborhood in Bakersfield, California, not far from where I lived.
I went there a couple nights most weeks. Cheap draft beer was what I drank, with the rare Gin and Tonic when I was flush, and maybe a shot if someone else was buying. Amestoy’s was small and dark and old – it opened in 1948 – and had a crowd to match. Working men and women, most considerably older than me, with a lot of rednecks and Basques.
There was no entertainment to speak of. No shuffleboard or anything. The room wasn’t big enough. (If you wanted shuffleboard, you went to Murphy’s.) I think if you went during the day, they’d sell you a pre-made sandwich. But I never went during the day.
There was a jukebox that played Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard, Bob Seger, and some more modern stuff like Guns N’ Roses. But not much. The selection mostly stuck to the classics: classic rock and classic country. You could put a couple of bucks in the jukebox and pick enough songs to last for an hour. The bartender had a button behind the bar that he could push to advance it to the next one. When it was someone’s birthday, they’d play “Happy Birthday” on the jukebox. But sometime the guy behind the stick would have to skip through 20 people’s songs before it would come up.
The ceiling was full of darts pinning $1 bills to the plaster. People would throw them up there, although Frankie, the bartender/owner, seemed to be the only one who could make them stick. Once a year, Frankie would pull them all down and use the money to throw a barbecue for the regulars.
The walls were decorated with gimee mirrors from liquor companies and the bottom halves of neckties. As the story went, if a customer walked in wearing a tie, they’d cut it off and hang it on the wall. I never saw it happen. It wasn’t the kind of place that one wore a tie.
They did a few “cocktails” there. The bartender’s specialty was the Flaming Dr. Pepper (a shot of amaretto and 151-rum, lit on fire, and dropped into a glass of draft beer.) Another favorite was the Waterfall, an elaborately poured concoction made of peppermint schnapps and beer.
Frankie would also do the occasional round of Blueberry Kamikazes, usually for a crowd of young women who’d somehow stumbled in the door. That was the only time I recall him getting out the shaker. People mostly drank beer, and there were two types on tap: Coors and Coors Light. A small glass was 75¢ and a pitcher was $5.
The reason I went there was because the drinks were cheap, the people were friendly, and they all knew me. (They thought I was named “Jim” but that’s a different story.) The atmosphere also appealed to me, although there wasn’t much of it that you could point to. But it felt like a bar was supposed to. It was a place where you could go and hang out with a few friends, enjoy some drinks, and forget about your troubles.
Amestoy’s was the only bar I’ve been to where strangers would regularly buy you a drink. If someone was celebrating, or got a piece of good news, or was just feeling generous, it was common to buy a round for everyone sitting at the bar. The drinks were cheap enough that you could do so without going too deep into your wallet. The bartender was also quick to buy a glass for a regular or a pretty girl. It was an easy place to make friends.
There were no windows, and the entrance was around the corner by the bathrooms, so you couldn’t see inside or out. Nobody every used the front door. If you opened it by mistake, you got plenty of dirty looks. Sitting at the bar, you were immersed in the environment, which made it that much easier to forget about what was going on elsewhere.
When you walked in and the door closed, you left the outside world behind. The feeling of the bar – the cramped, dim space that somehow held the promise of good times — took over. There was music and booze and company, the air filled with laughs and the occasional shout, along with the clouds of smoke. Everything you needed when you get right down to it.
Amestoy’s is still there, although I haven’t been in over fifteen years. The two owners – father and son, both named Frank – are dead now, and the bar is owned by someone new. From what I’ve read online, it’s a very different place these days. Supposedly, they even serve gourmet food and craft beer. It hardly matters now. The place I knew and loved is gone, except in my memories.
Most of us are creatures of habit. When we go to a bar, we tend to order the same drinks over and over again. And if you've found something you love, why not? The downside, though, is that we end up missing the possibility of discovering a new favorite.
Nobody knows good new drinks like the bartenders at the cocktail bars in Portland. Five of the best suggest craft cocktails that you can order as alternatives to the tried-and-true.
If your usual drink is a Lemon Drop, try an Elderflower Gimlet (Gin, Lime Juice, Sugar, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur). This is a bold choice. Definitely worth trying. St-Germain has a unique flavor: floral, fruity and fascinating.
If your usual drink is Maker's on the Rocks, try an Old Fashioned (Bourbon, Sugar, Bitters, Citrus). Great suggestion! I love an Old Fashioned. There's a reason that this drink has persisted since the beginning.
If your usual drink is a Cosmopolitan, try a Negroni with Carpano Antica (Gin, Campari, Sweet Vermouth). I'm not sure about this recommendation. The flavor profiles of the two drinks have some similarities, but are still quite different. Most people who order a Cosmo are looking for something sweet, and a Negroni isn't sweet, even when made with Carpano Antica.
If your usual after-dinner drink is Baileys, try some Pastis instead. This is a very odd suggestion, as the two liqueurs are nothing alike. Baileys is sweet and chocolately, while Pastis (e.g., Pernod or Ricard) is bitter and aromatic, and tastes like licorice.
If your usual drink is a Gin and Tonic, try a Gin Rickey instead (Gin, Lime, Sparkling Water). This is a great pick. I love a Gin and Tonic — one of the best, simplest cocktails around — and the Rickey is similar, but makes for a nice change of pace. Plus, it's the official cocktail of Washington, D.C., named for Colonel Joe Rickey, a 19th-century lobbyist.
Granted, your local T.G.I. Friday's will probably screw up these drinks. But if you can find a halfway decent bartender, you'll be in for some fun.
Over on Chicagoist, Roger Kamholz presents the "Year in Cocktails," a fast summary of what happened on the craft cocktail scene last year in Chicago. In short:
"It's been an incredible year for cocktails in Chicago. From the openings of several exciting new bars, to the creativity on display at the city's most established watering holes, Chicago has hit an impressive stride when it comes to the cocktail."
According to Kamholz, the best drink he had all year was the Gunshop Fizz, a cocktail mixed up at New Orleans' Cure using Peychaud's Bitters as the primary ingredient. (Sounds kinda gross to me, but maybe it works.)
Probably the most exciting cocktailian happening in Chicago last year was the opening of Aviary, one of the country's most innovative bars.
Kamholz concludes by saying he looks "forward to seeing what Chicago's remarkable group of bartenders and mixologists have in store for us in 2012."
Over the course of the year, Derek visited some of the country's (and the world's) best bars in order to sample the cutting edge of mixology. It's a difficult job, but Derek took the hit for us.
Among his favorite drinks he encountered: the Martinez Sour, as prepared by Justin Pike at The Tasting Kitchen in L.A., a Rob Roy, as mixed by Arash Hanjianpour at Candelaria in Paris, and the Cold Hot Chocolate from Craig Schoettler at Aviary in Chicago.
Derek opines that the trend for high-end cocktails shows no signs of abating; if anything, it's now become part of the mainstream. Good news for those of us who love fine spirits. (Even if it makes our livers a little sad.)
The New York Times recently tackled a collection of beloved bar and spirits myths, debunking them with the help of some well-qualified experts.
Older is better: “It’s absolute nonsense,” said Ronnie Cox, director of the Glenrothes, a Speyside Scotch. “It’s not about oldness, it’s about maturity. Age doesn’t mean anything other than that whiskey’s been in that cask for that amount of time.”
Sweet is silly: “I think expectations are still informed by the cocktails of the pre-craft era, when people added sour mix and cranberry cocktail,” said Tom Chadwick, owner of Dram, who insists that all his cocktails, even the sweet ones…are balanced, with the spirit, citrus, sweetener and other elements cohabiting in the glass.
Absinthe: Customers “really hope they’ll hallucinate,” said Maxwell Britten, beverage director at Maison Premiere, a Williamsburg bar well stocked with absinthe. “I tell them, ‘If you drink enough alcohol of any category, I guarantee you will hallucinate.’ ”
Irish Whiskey are Catholic or Protestant: “If you look into the ownership, it’s all international corporations,” Mr. Frizell said. “I don’t think the Irish even care.”
The worm in the bottle of mezcal: [Note: The myth usually claims that tequila has a worm in the bottle. It doesn't. It was mezcal, tequila's uglier sister, that did.] “It was created by Gusano Rojo in the 1950s,” said Steve Olson, an owner of the Lower East Side tequila and mezcal bar Viktor & Spoils, of the widely sold mezcal brand, “when the tequila market had boomed and left mezcal far behind, as an enterprising marketing attempt to get mezcal away from its image as moonshine.”
Kudos to the writer, Robert Simonson, for a great piece. He includes some more quotes that didn't fit, over on his blog.
A poll was taken of 100 bar professionals from around the world to produce a list of the world's 50 best bars. Obviously lists like this are a little silly. Such things are subjective and prone to cronyism, and also vary depending on the respondent’s criteria and state of inebriation. Still, I love a good list, so I'm sharing it with you.
Note: I haven't been to any of these bars. And that makes me sad.
Here are the Top 10:
1. PDT, New York 2. Connaught, London 3. Artesian, London 4. Death & Co, New York 5. Milk & Honey, London 6. American Bar at the Savoy, London 7. 69 Colebrooke Row, London 8. Drink, Boston US 9. Harry’s New York Bar, Paris 10. Black Pearl, Melbourne, Australia