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Cocktails

29 Oct 2020
by  - 

Last week, a co-worker flabbergasted me with a thank-you gift for doing something that I considered a routine part of my job. It was a truly unexpected, generous gesture—and what she gave me was a surprise, too.

At first glance, I sized up the tall, sparkly gift bag and assumed it contained a bottle of wine, always a welcome present. When I opened it, however, I found a large bottle filled with a coffee-colored liqueur that, when I unscrewed the cap, smelled leathery, minty and herbaceous all at once.

That’s how I came to fall in love with Fernet-Branca.

The aroma that emanated from the bottle reminded me of both root beer and iced tea—if the drinks were filtered through my grandfather’s aftershave. Its taste, which I waited to get home to discover, was astringent and almost uncomfortably bitter. It reminded me of some dark spoonful of medicine served by my childhood physician, and I screwed up my face as I swallowed. Then I poured a second glass of the amaro liqueur—which, according to most bartenders, is best served neat. I tried to discern the flavor profile, but with 40 herbs, roots and spices on the ingredient list, it’s complicated.

Unlike most apertifs and digestifs, Fernet-Branca is very low in sugar. It’s also one of the only amari liqueurs to be aged for a full year in oak barrels, a process that adds intensity and complexities to the final result. Distilled in Milan, Italy, since 1845, its ingredients include the familiar and the exotic: Chamomile, peppermint, saffron, myrrh, Chinese rhubarb, aloe ferox, angelica, colombo root, cinchona bark and orris root are just a sampling of the herbs that go into the mix using both hot and cold infusion processes. The actual recipe is known by only one man, Niccolo Branca, the great-great-grandson of Bernardino Branca, who invented the liqueur and originally promoted it for its health benefits, allegedly battling flatulence, overeating, gas pains and hangovers.

Today, Fernet-Branca remains popular in Italy, as well as in Argentina, where it’s drunk with a Coca-Cola mixer. The liqueur is catching on in Germany, where the preferred drinking method is Fernet-Branca and Red Bull. On this continent, it’s most frequently consumed as a bracing shot. It’s also turning up as an ingredient in many craft-cocktail recipes.

I was intrigued by a cocktail I found online called the Hanky Panky—a version of which can be found at Truss and Twine in Palm Springs (which is currently closed, alas). The drink, a version of which is pictured here, first appeared in 1925, making its debut at the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London. Today, it’s making a comeback—likely due to its simplicity and its complexity. The classic Hanky Panky only has three ingredients: 1 1/2 ounces of gin (I used Beefeater’s), 1 1/2 ounces of sweet vermouth, and 2 dashes of Fernet-Branca. You simply stir the liquids with ice in a mixing glass or cocktail shaker, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish the glass with a twist of orange peel if you like, and sip.

I also sampled what Argentines refer to as “ferne con coca” or “Fernecola”—an ice-packed glass with a few fingers of Fernet-Branca topped with sugary Mexican Coke. While the sweetness of the cola hardly subdues the bitterness of the liqueur, the bubbles make the drink particularly intoxicating. During World War II, a Fernet-Branca distillery opened in Buenos Aires—today, it and Milan remain the only places in the world where the liqueur is made. The International Wine and Spirits Record, which monitors the world’s beverage-alcohol market, not long ago declared that Argentina consumes three-fourths of the world’s Fernet-Branca.

But be warned: Fernet-Branca is not for everyone’s tastes. I recommend taking the liqueur for a test-spin before committing to a full bottle. Ask your favorite bartender to pour you a shot or order a Fernet-Branca-based cocktail if you see one on the menu.

A version of this piece was originally published in the Memphis Flyer.

23 Sep 2020
by  - 

Midcentury-modern cocktails. “Palm Springs golden era” cocktails.

Is there such a category? I get asked this all the time.

Tiki first comes to mind. It began as a mix of escapism and cultural appropriation—that’s not a dig, as I grew up eating at “Polynesian lounges” and love Tiki—but it became a subculture in its own right. But what were Americans drinking when they weren’t at Trader Vic’s or Don the Beachcomber?

Margaritas were all the rage, of course, while Ol’ Blue Eyes favored his Jack Daniels; martinis were awfully dry by that point; and the old fashioned was fruit salad. But there must have been some other interesting stuff out there, right?

It seems that nobody has really done the heavy lifting on this era, so as a bar manager and cocktail writer, I am mostly on my own—and the best research I can do begins with my own memories. The bartenders I “trained with,” like there was training back then, were all older guys, so it makes sense that the drinks they made were likely popular in the ’50s and ’60s.

How about a sloe gin fizz? The closest I could get to finding any “history’ on this one was Sipsmith Gin’s promotional page, which states that the drink was popular in the ’60s. Cool. The Savoy Cocktail Book has a “Sloe Gin Cocktail” which sounds like an absolute horror: It was two parts sloe gin, and one part each French and Sweet vermouth; hopefully the sloe gin was drier back then! Beyond that, I found nothing from before the middle of the century with a recipe, but it’s in every Mr. Boston guide I had “growing up” as a barman. It’s a pretty drink, and when well-balanced, it’s pretty tasty, too. I basically make it like a Tom Collins, just with sloe gin:

  • 2 ounces of Plymouth Sloe Gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of simple syrup

Build tall, or shake and dump into a Collins glass; top with soda.

Ironically, I was going to say that’s not the recipe from Mr. Boston … but it pretty much is now; they’ve come a long way. Notice there’s no egg white in there; I’m pretty sure that’s because bars had stopped using eggs behind the bar by then, or used sour mix with the latest miracle of science: Powdered egg white already included for the modern bartender! I was always taught to make it with sour mix, because we never had fresh ingredients back in the early ’00s. Crazy. Sometimes we’d add some regular gin, too (which is still a good move), since the only sloe gins available were the cheap, artificial ones. Was that a fizz, though? Not on your life.

What about that famed and currently super-popular Brown Derby? Nothing says Old Hollywood drinking like “Brown Derby,” because the drink was named after the movie-star hangout. Word around the campfire, by way of Robert Moss, is the drink was cribbed from earlier books and renamed. Such is the peril of cocktail trademarking. Wherever and whenever it was invented, it’s quite likely that the Palm Springs set was knocking them back in the mid-20th century. Heck, Dale DeGroff re-popularized it after seeing it in a book called Hollywood Cocktails from the 1930s. Sadly, this one went out of fashion at some point, probably due to the scarcity of fresh juice at bars, as drinks became more cost-effective and, well, lousier. It’s easy to make at home, and it’s a go-to cocktail for my bar guests looking for something different:

  • 2 ounces of bourbon
  • 1 ounce of grapefruit
  • 1/2 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of honey syrup

Shake; serve up with a grapefruit twist.

Since we’re at it, here’s a David Wondrich discovery of a drink from midcentury bartenders, the “Airmail.” Keep that honey syrup handy! It’s kind of a French 75 variation, which is kind of a Collins variation, which is … well, they’re all delicious.

  • 1 1/2 ounces of gold rum
  • 3/4 ounce of lime juice
  • 3/4 ounce of honey syrup

Shake; strain into a coupe; top with dry sparkling wine. No garnish.

I would be remiss if I forgot the rusty nail, that “grampa drink” that I absolutely had to know how to make when I first started, because the old guys would test me. It might have been called something else previously, but it’s been the rusty nail since the ’60s, and that’s the era we’re talking about. It’s another case of why good drinks need great names to catch on. This one is so easy, it’s criminal: Just stir Scotch and Drambuie (Scotland’s esteemed honey and herb liqueur) in a glass with ice. I used to make it with a 2-to-1 ratio, respectively, but these days, I would probably go with 2 ounces of Scotch and 3/4 of an ounce of Drambuie. I would pick a nice, smoky blended malt for this; save your Islay single malts, or you’ll lose the Drambuie. And don’t use a mellow commercial blend; you want some body and peat!

I am going to continue digging into this under-loved era of drinks. There are plenty more of note, but I have already covered many of them recently—the mai tai, the margarita, the Army Navy, etc. I am inspired by the simplicity of many of these drinks as I continue to do research for the midcentury-inspired drink program I am putting together at the Cole Hotel in Palm Springs. Finally—a chance for everyone else to critique my inventions!

I’m pretty excited about tackling the challenge of updating some of these forgotten midcentury drinks, so feel free to come over, and let me know how I am doing—while following all applicable ordinances, of course.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

20 Aug 2020
by  - 

It’s back to work for yours truly. Not that I haven’t stayed busy—more on that in another piece—but I haven’t been bartending, per se. Am I excited to go back to work? Let’s just say this guy is going to make a great retiree someday—but I am excited to tend bar the way it used to be, whenever I can do that.

I was half-tempted to write a good old-fashioned rant about the state of the industry right now, and the conflicted way I feel about people who are currently traveling and going out for cocktails. “Conflicted” may not actually be the accurate term, but a guy’s gotta pay the rent, so I will leave that alone.

I am grateful to have employment to return to, and for a lot of other things these days. But I am out of practice, as I figure most of us are—so I think a refresher course is in order. For you bartenders, home bartenders, servers and barbacks lying on your résumés to get a bar job, and anyone else who might need a touch-up, here is the world’s shortest bartending manual.

One, let’s set some ground rules. Never face your shaker at anyone; always shake to the side. If you don’t understand why this is the first thing I am requiring, then you’ve clearly never doused anyone with a whiskey sour. When you shake, make sure that both parts of the shaker are firmly sealed before starting. This is especially important with dry-shaking, where ingredients are shaken without adding ice. Even I still end up wearing something I dry-shake on occasion, when I get cocky.

Two, measure. Oh, I know, your free-pour skills are top-notch; you can tell a millimeter per second’s difference with your internal clock. The Riverside County Department of Weights and Measures has a sticker on your rump. Still, use a jigger. This is something I never want to butt heads about with any new hire again. A lot of us (unfortunately) are going to be job-hunting and competing with each other soon, so get a leg up, and practice your jiggery.

Three, put ice in the shaker or the pitcher. I know you think you put ice in, but you really put only half a scoop in there. That’s why your stir looks bad (at least partly), why your shake sounds anemic, and why your drink is sad. Fill it up two-thirds of the way with ice, after you pour your ingredients.

Four, work on your stir. I get a twisted pleasure out of having people stir a drink in an interview. It has three possible outcomes: a confident and expert stir that’s silky smooth (rare); a spoon that rattles back and forth across the pitcher (extremely common); a tipped-over and/or broken pitcher, because the person has no idea what they’re doing (far too common). It takes practice, but it’s not hard! Buy a pitcher and a bar spoon, if you don’t have one, and put ice in it (see above); add a little water; and stir for 10 minutes at a time. You can binge old episodes of The Office while you do it for all I care; just have one hand stir for 10 minutes. Change the ice when needed. The stir technique is deceptively simple: It’s a push-pull. You want to keep the outside curve of the spoon against the inside of the pitcher, and the handle of the spoon between your middle and ring finger, with the thumb and index finger pinching further up the spoon for support. With your hand steady, simply push and pull with the fingers while keeping the top of the spoon still, and the spoon firmly against the walls of the pitcher. The ice should spin gracefully around the liquid, and there should be no jostling. It’s like the moon in orbit: The spoon should always show the same face as it orbits the center of the glass. You could have redrum carved into your forehead, but if your stir and shake look good, I will consider you for hire.

Five, build the drink with the smallest ingredients first, and the main spirit last. That way, if you screw up, it minimizes the loss.

Six, learn the basics. I don’t care if you don’t know how to make a Ramos gin fizz, although these days, that is borderline basic knowledge, but there are some drinks you just need to know how to make the “right” way. I don’t have the space to cover all of them in detail in this edition, but here’s a good little list to get you started.

One spirit, stirred:

Old Fashioned: 2 ounces of bourbon; teaspoon of superfine sugar or 1/2 ounce simple syrup; four dashes of bitters. Stir on plenty of ice; garnish with an orange peel.

One spirit, shaken:

Daiquiri: 2 ounces rum; 1 ounce lime; 1/2 to 3/4 ounce simple. Up; lime garnish.

Gimlet: 2 ounces gin; 1 ounce lime; 1/2 to 3/4 ounce simple. Up; lime garnish.

Bee’s Knees: 2 ounces gin; 1 ounce lemon; 3/4 ounce honey water. Up; lemon twist garnish.

French 75: 1 1/2 ounces gin; 3/4 ounce simple; 3/4 ounce lemon. Up; top with sparkling wine and a lemon twist.

Collins: 2 ounces gin (or vodka); 1 ounce lemon; 3/4 ounce simple. Tall over ice; top with soda and a lemon garnish.

Mojito: 2 ounces rum; 1 ounce lime; 3/4 ounce simple; separated mint. Light shake; dump; tall with soda and “slapped” mint.

Two spirits, stirred:

Martini: gin, two parts; dry vermouth, one part. Up; lemon twist or olive.

Manhattan: rye, two parts; sweet vermouth, one part; two dashes of bitters. Up; orange twist or cherry.

The ever-present vodka martini is just shaken vodka with an olive, since I am tired of getting them sent back for having vermouth. I am convinced most vodka dirty-martini drinkers either don’t want to taste alcohol or have some kind of salt-craving adrenal issue, so don’t be afraid to use a whole ounce of olive brine!

Two spirits, shaken:

Margarita: tequila, two parts; triple sec, one part; lime juice, one part. Rocks; salt; lime garnish.

Sidecar: brandy, two parts; triple sec, one part; lemon juice, one part. Up; sugar half rim.

Cosmopolitan: 1 1/2 ounces vodka; 3/4 ounce triple sec; 1/2 ounce cranberry juice; 1/2 ounce lime juice. Up; orange twist.

(A little simple syrup helps this category of drinks; I like 1/4 ounce.)

Three spirits, stirred:

Negroni: gin, sweet vermouth, Campari, equal parts. Rocks; orange twist.

Boulevardier: rye, sweet vermouth, Campari, equal parts. Up; orange twist.

If you want more, check out this column’s archives. I recommend learning the three-spirit drinks (Last Word, Corpse Reviver No. 2, Paper Plane, Naked and Famous), the Mai Tai, the New Orleans classics (Vieux Carré, Ramos Fizz and, of course, the Sazerac!), and the Aviation, El Diablo, and Vesper (which are popular oddballs that don’t fit a clear template).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to practice reading lips through a mask.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

14 Jul 2020
by  - 

You’re all cut off.

Look, when I wrote about bars being an important part of our society, I didn’t say you should all run right out to them the second they reopened—while forgetting all the things we’ve learned over the last several months. This is why we can’t have nice things!

I’ve heard a lot of people recently say: “I have been drinking so much more during quarantine!” I get it. Some of us (like me!) are still unemployed; those who are employed have few options for entertainment outside of the home; and the supermarkets sell booze in California. Cthulhu knows I’ve had a couple of unhealthy binges during this nightmare.

So … let’s all sober up for a minute, and talk about non-alcoholic cocktails—and, more specifically, the herbs that can make them delicious.

If you are a regular reader of my hodgepodge of history, recipes and rants, you know I think herbs are pretty great. They give my favorite type of hooch (amaro) its signature flavor, and I think they might be helping keep this unreasonably abused body of mine functioning at an acceptable level. They can also make things without alcohol pretty tasty, too, so let’s raid the pantry, and get kitchen-witchy!

But first, a disclaimer: I am definitely not a doctor; this is not medical advice; and you should check for contraindications with prescription medications, pregnancy or existing health conditions for anything beyond the culinary use of any herb. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s start with rosemary and thyme, because, why not? I keep these around, fresh, much of the time. They last, being woodier than, say, cilantro. They work with chicken or vegetables with ease. They are also really great for you!

I love thyme, and I use it often. It’s antimicrobial and can help tame a productive cough. It also has carminative properties, helping with gas and bloating, and it can ease digestion. Rosemary has been valued for millennia, and it, too, can also help with digestion. It has benefits for the nervous system and can help kick-start the liver. Both also work fabulously for making infused syrups and vinegars. Making the vinegar couldn’t be easier: Just take a quality apple-cider vinegar, preferably from a local producer to show some love, and drop the herbs into a sterilized jar before covering with said vinegar. Give it at least a few weeks to really get the mojo working—and then you can use it lots of ways. Take a spoon directly, or add a little local honey and hot water, or perhaps soda water. If you sweeten it, you basically have a shrub, a once very-trendy cocktail ingredient that doesn’t get enough love these days.

To make a syrup, just heat sugar and water, in equal parts, until the sugar is dissolved. I usually don’t go all the way to full boil, but many people do. Just let the syrup cool, and throw in a handful of whatever herb(s) you want to use. Rosemary and thyme are great for this and play well together; feel free to use any woody or dried herb. Avoid leafy herbs like fresh mint, cilantro or basil, as they will just wilt in the hot syrup. Save those for an aromatic garnish. Once the syrup is cooled, remove the herbs; strain; filter through cheesecloth if you’re fancy; and make some lemonade. There are other uses, of course, but it’s 117 degrees outside, so just make the darned lemonade—with equal parts fresh lemon juice and syrup, adding water to taste. I like it strong, so I go equal parts all the way, and let the ice melt a bit for the extra dilution. This is normally where I would talk about how to put it in a pitcher or punch bowl with fresh herbs and thinly sliced lemons to serve at your next party—preferably with ice balls frozen with herbs inside them, you domestic deity, you—but parties aren’t a thing right now. If you want fall off the wagon, you can spike with vodka, gin or tequila.

Elderflower is another herb that is popular in cocktails. I haven’t always been kind to requests for elderflower cocktails in recent years (it’s a personal problem; I am working on it!), and you don’t need a commercially made liqueur to enjoy it. However, if you want to make a syrup with it, and you do, it is a slightly different process. You’ll want to make a strong tea with the flowers in the water first, then pour it through a cheese cloth, before adding in the sugar in equal parts to finish the syrup. Try it tall, with soda and lemon. You can also use the tea, consumed hot, to break a fever, and it has many other benefits for immunity as well. I believe a tincture made from the ripe, dried berries can help reduce the severity of a flu if taken early, and it’s easy to make, too. It can be as simple as adding the berries to some neutral grain spirits and leaving them for some weeks—or just buy one from a reputable store. I’m not sure if elderflower helps with COVID-19, but I can say that believing that it did would be safer than taking medical advice from a certain president.

Dried seed herbs are also excellent in syrups. My favorite is coriander, but cumin or fennel—or all three together—are fantastic, too. Just make a strong tea, as with the elderflower, and follow the rest of the process. The tea made from all three is great for digestion; I have been enjoying it regularly as of late. I made a coriander-lime soda as a bar special once; if you don’t have a carbonator to play with, you could probably come close with a quality mineral water, a slice or two of jalepeño, fresh cilantro and a little lime juice.

Did you know you can make non-alcoholic bitters? They can be made with glycerin—food-grade, of course. I have some I have prepared in my pantry, and they’ll be ready in a couple of weeks. I am not going to get into recipes here, but I am currently working with things like blue cornflower, dandelion root, orange peel, chamomile, fennel and coriander. Will it work? I will let you know in a future column.

Until we can meet again, stay safe out there, people.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

18 Jun 2020
by  - 

Anyone else feel like an escape right now?

I have written about Tiki here and there in this column. Cocktails from Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs have been featured occasionally, and my colleague Patrick did a profile on The Reef—all well-deserved, but Tiki hasn’t come up substantially in two years now. So, I have been remiss in my responsibilities—this is a Tiki town, and I have left the subject woefully under-represented!

Partly, that is out of respect. Tiki is its own subculture that goes beyond cocktails—it has its own clothing, music and lifestyle. Exotica, floral-print shirts, shorts, goatees and classic cars are things I am not into personally, but Tiki people also spend their free time looking into lost and ancient cocktails, and I can certainly get into that!

Now that I’ve made it clear that I am not a Tiki authority, I feel like there is one Tiki drink that every bartender should know how to make—the timeless mai tai.

First of all, let’s get the controversy and some misunderstandings out of the way: A mai tai does not have pineapple juice in it. It can have grapefruit juice in it, but then you’re drinking the Don the Beachcomber recipe, and not the Trader Vic’s recipe. (More on that in a bit.) It should never have a color that isn’t light brown to dark yellow; it should never have a cherry, or, heaven forbid, freaking “cherry juice”!

I confess that when I first started making mai tais, what I was really making was some sort of poor-man’s scorpion. Who knows what manner of dusty, spiral-bound, written “circa the year I was born'' cocktail book I got that recipe from, but it was probably from my dad’s old bar—and drinking mai tais at the many, mostly gone and sorely missed “Polynesian” lounges around the Boston area was no help whatsoever. I’m pretty sure they had the same book I had. Much like the daiquiri, the mai tai has taken a beating in the course of the drink “Dark Ages.”

Truth be told, the mai tai is a sort of gussied-up daiquiri. Trader Vic—so the much-told story goes—around 1944 wanted to create a drink that would become a new classic. He had some 17-year-old Jamaican rum (the storied and now-$50,000-a-bottle Wray and Nephew 17) lying around and wanted to use it. He added fresh lime to some shaved ice, along with the rum, a little double-simple syrup, some curaćao and finally orgeat; he then gave it a shake. The resulting cocktail was so amazing it reportedly had a Tahitian house guest exclaim, “Mai tai-roa aé!” (“The best, out of this world!”). A legend was born. Funnily, I heard (and repeated) this story long before I ever knew how to make a Trader Vic’s mai tai.

Here's where it gets juicy: A fellow with the pseudonym “Don Beach” had a place in Hollywood called Don the Beachcomber, and he accused Trader Vic (also a pseudonym, by the way) of taking “inspiration” from a rum punch he had on the menu. It was well-established that Vic had borrowed heavily from Beach’s business model and aesthetic; the two chains were busy becoming the basis for what we now call “Tiki.” According to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry (what is it with these guys and the nicknames?), Don had a cocktail on his menu called the “Mai Tai Swizzle” between 1933 and 1937, so there is that. It is also totally possible that Vic made up his drink on his own; who really knows?

Either way, Beach threw his hat in the ring and marketed his own mai tai recipe, and premixed versions of “the Original Mai Tai” to compete with Vic in the marketplace, prompting a lawsuit. Vic won the suit, and most bartenders (including this one) concede that whatever happened, Vic’s recipe is the better one.

Here it is, from the man himself, by way of Difford’s Guide:

  • One lime
  • 1/2 ounce of orange curaćao
  • 1/4 ounce of rock candy syrup
  • 1/4 ounce of orgeat
  • 2 ounces of Trader Vic Mai Tai rum; or 1 ounce of dark Jamaica rum and 1 ounce of Martinique rum

Cut lime in half; squeeze over shaved ice in a mai tai (double old-fashioned) glass; save one spent shell. Add remaining ingredients and enough shaved ice to fill glass. Hand shake; decorate with spent lime half, fresh mint and a fruit stick.

I would go with 3/4 of an ounce of lime, as size and juiciness vary. Rock candy syrup is an old-timey way of saying a syrup with two parts sugar to one part water. Good luck finding the Trader Vic Mai Tai rum, but the dark Jamaica and Martinique work great. Mix as above, using the best orgeat you can buy (or make); there are really good craft versions available now, for the first time in modern history.

Oh, and the Don Beach version? It’s good, too, but if the Trader Vic version is a tricked-out daiquiri, this one is more of a Hemingway daiquiri. From Don the Beachcomber, 1933, via Post Prohibition:

  • 1 ounce of gold rum
  • 1 1/2 ounces of Meyer’s Plantation rum
  • 3/4 ounce of lime juice
  • 1 ounce of grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 ounce of Cointreau
  • 1/4 ounce of falernum
  • 6 drops of Pernod or Herbsaint
  • 1 dash of Angostura bitters

Shake well with crushed ice; pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass; garnish with four mint sprigs.

Avoid the clear falernum on the market for this recipe; you’re gonna want something craft-made and spice-forward. Never mind that, though; unless you’re a serious cocktail geek, the Trader Vic recipe is all you really need.

However, if you find yourself at Bootlegger Tiki in Palm Springs (once it reopens), once the site of an actual Don the Beachcomber location, it’s totally acceptable to push Vic aside for a day. Escape from life the way your grandparents did; either version is pretty “mai tai-roa aé”!

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

22 May 2020
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Remember that episode of Cheers—the one where Norm, Cliff and Frasier all sit at tables six feet apart?

They order from tablets that have been carefully sanitized after each guest. A single empty seat is also at each table, which could be occupied by a member of the same household, but the men are all solo as usual. Sam pours the beers, a list of service tickets in front of him, as he tries to make eyes at two blondes over his face covering. They don’t notice him from behind his plastic-glass barrier, as far away as they are. Carla places the sealed beer vessels on a table in the middle of the bar, and calls each guest in a muffled Boston accent through her N95 to retrieve them, one at a time. The boys drink from recyclable cups through paper straws going under their masks—finishing the beer under the allotted time limit, of course. Except for Norm … he lingers a little longer. Carla signals at him from six feet away and gestures at her wrist, where a watch would be, and points at him. Classic Carla!

Hilarious, right?

Oh, wait, how about the episode from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where “The Gang” recklessly throws a party during a pandemic? Paddy’s becomes the epicenter for an even stronger strain of the contagion. Frank Reynolds goes on a ventilator.

TV gold.

These are both worst-case scenarios on what things will be like once bars are finally allowed to reopen; the truth will likely be something in the middle. How far in the middle will depend on which city in which you reside. But the lingering presence of the virus leads to some uncomfortable questions: Do we even need bars? Do we need bartenders?

I could definitely see a near-ish future without bartending as we know it: Picture a wall of options to choose from on slick LED display as you wait in line, six feet apart. Your options are all pre-batched cocktails, certainly no garnishes, and probably no reusable glassware. The architecture and branding will determine the experience, and that experience will be exactly the same every time. Maybe there will be music in some places—a band behind a stage wall less cozy than the one at the Roadhouse—but probably not. There will certainly be no talking to strangers.

I could position myself for this future; I could put together a drink program for it, and teach the “bartenders” the basic set of skills required for pouring the bottle in the vessel.

Just think of it: There are no fights and no bad drinks—or at least no inconsistent ones. Nobody is breathing all over you, with no jerk bartenders thinking they’re Jove almighty. You’re just drinking at a table with the friends you arrived with, and no creeps bothering you, unless you count some unwelcome stares. Oh, wait, there are opaque barriers between tables—so there are no unwelcome stares. You don’t need to talk to a stranger in real life ever again, and if you do feel the need, there are apps for that. You can have anything you ever wanted sent to you, including intimacy. You can meet over Zoom; they don’t even have to know where you live.

Bars are obsolete. Millennials and younger people are drinking less than previous generations, anyway, and are less likely to go to a bar regularly. I can’t fight the future, but it will be a sad day when the last traditional bar has its last regular turned away, be it from a loss of business to the new model, or the powers that be forcing the doors shut.

Why will that day be sad? Why is everything I’ve mentioned here sad? Because bars are important.

Bars are places where you muster up the false courage to act like a fool, to make small mistakes (and sometimes big ones), to—in the words of a song I have heard far too many times—“forget about life for a while.” They’re the places the sad drunks die slowly, among friends, instead of home alone. A bar is a place where an introvert like me can have a stage, with the safety of a plank of some sort between us.

Bars are where revolutions begin. I know that for a fact; I have read the patina-hued plaques all over Boston. They’re one of the few places we get out of the sad like-minded echo-chamber reality we now live in: You might have to hear someone with different views from yours, and she’s sitting right next to you. You can’t make her leave, but you can always change seats. But you don’t. Why don’t you? In this era where you can tell your little cybernetic organ which news suits you or doesn’t (Thumbs up or down? More stories like this?), and people don’t read newspapers anymore, why suffer a fool? Why go to a place that plays not the talking heads you don’t like on the TVs, but the Talking Heads you do like on the jukebox? Because that is life. It’s breathy and loud, and full of mysterious odors, crushed under despair and lifted by mutual experience.

I realize most people don’t spend as much time in bars as I do. When I am not behind a bar, I am often sitting at one. If you sup at a restaurant table, you are always rolling the dice on food and service—it’s the unspoken thrill of dining out. If you sit at the bar, you also roll the dice on your company. I am certain a fair number of people in this world have had sub-par meals and lackluster service ameliorated by making a new “single-serving friend” (to use Tyler Durden’s expression). If the occasional great meal is tarnished by being next to a boor with a napkin shoved down his shirt, at least it’s something to talk about with each other later. Sure beats talking about the steak being unseasoned or some such thing.

So, yes, bars are important—not more important than lives, of course. But they’re important. While I appreciate the seriousness of our current situation, I really hope things don’t change too much, too fast, out of fear. Life will never be totally safe, and it shouldn’t be. I would hate to make your next martini from under glass—or out of a bottle.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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