When I was sixteen, I went to the bookstore in my town and bought a copy of The Modern Drunkard, by Frank Kelly Rich. Shortly thereafter, I drove two miles to my friend’s house; set up a stool in the corner of his garage; and, while his band practiced, read the book cover to cover.
Like any sixteen-year-old, eager to grow up, the book molded my conception of what adult life was like — the fleeting experiences being kicked out of bars, engaging in month-long benders without any repercussions, sexual conquest, and calling people ‘clods.’
The single, most prominent aspect of that book that has stuck in my head, is the hilarious, made-up skill badges given for successful drinking. They were like in Boy Scouts’ merit badges with adult undertones. The most vivid being the ‘Vermouth Wings’ given to the poor soul who, when all other types of alcohol at a party are gone, continues to imbibe with straight vermouth.
Now, I didn’t start drinking until a few years later. But when you’re sixteen and learning about recreational drinking from a book, you mistakes ostensible ‘rules’ for laws. For the following seven years I assumed vermouth was disgusting.
My ignorance didn’t pertain to only vermouths; all amaros began to fall by the wayside in my drinking repertoire. I thought of them in the same way, I assume, most people do: as cocktail components (at best, begrudging additions), rather than cornerstones — like bourbon or vodka.
I’m not sure when my ignorance turned upside down.
In my final year at Tulane, I wrote a paper about cocktail culture as a mechanism for more informed drinking habits. For instance, rather than going to a bar and knocking back vodka with energy drinks or AMFs, I suggested trying a microbrew or an uncut bourbon. There’s certainly something to be said for a drink that comes from a small batch or isn’t aged longer than your oldest child. It’s something to be savored. I argued that not only would your pocketbook thank you for drinking slower, but that your liver would as well.
That’s not to say that pursuing microbrews, small batch bourbons, or some kind of crazy vodka should be the goal of every person. Obviously drinking is a social experience, and the social aspects should come before the drinks themselves. I wouldn’t go to a club and order an eighteen year old single malt scotch, because I’m sure, at some point in the evening, Ludacris would come on and I’d want to shake it, losing half my drink in the process.
There is a purpose and place for certain types of alcohols; so what is the place of amaros? Overseas, folks drink vermouth over ice with soda water and a twist of lemon, as an aperitif to stimulate an appetite before dinner. In the U.S., we typically have a drink or two to accompany dinner rather than one before our meal. As a culture, we dine quicker than cultures, who are used to lengthy dining (like in South America or France) do. So, in America, the place for aperitif cocktails is harder to place.
At Tales of the Cocktail this year, I was lucky enough to attend the Vermouth Institute lectures, where I learned about the history and culture of producing and imbibing vermouth/fortified wines. A key point in the discussion was about vermouth cocktails’ functionality as drinks in a tasting menu. Cocktails, themselves, tend to be too strong and frequently end with drunken diners. Beer has the habit of creating a full feeling with all the hops and barley. Wine can be strong on the palate, when pouring full glasses. Alternatively, when vermouths and other amaros are added to a cocktail, the drink’s ABV can be reduced to about that of strong beer, and they also stimulate appetite. It’s a perfect combination for a tasting menu.
As it was for me, education is the key to understanding the place of certain alcohols. I came from a place of disrespect for vermouth; I now look at it as a fascinating beverage with more versatility than most spirits. If you don’t believe me, pick up a bottle of rabarbaro (rhubarb liqueur). Pour a shot of the liqueur over ice, top with soda water and a squeeze of lemon. Then drink it before dinner and think about how your appetite is functioning differently than before. Suddenly that hamburger or lamb shank is tastier than ever before.