The Adroit Alcoholic
Why is it that people can justify spending eight dollars on a wispy, lightly flavored beverage at the bar, but can’t seem to shell out fourteen bucks for six delectable bottles of finely crafted, liquid ambrosia? How do you drop fifty bucks on six shots of unpleasant hooch at a pub, when for the same amount you could have purchased a bottle of something that was made and aged with care and love? Also, it won’t leave you feeling like a competitive couch-to-toilet relay participant. I have been posing this question to some of my hardier drinking friends and they usually tell me it has to do with the atmosphere. Apparently, you pay that money to be in an establishment among other people.
That seemed odd to me because I spend much of my time trying to avoid being around people. I don’t mean in the "Is everyone staring at me?" kind of way, but I have noticed that I don’t like crowds of people. In my opinion, if you have one hundred people in a bar you end up with ninety-seven idiots, two tolerable people and one absolutely wonderful individual that is nowhere near your table.
This is time for a little background on my bar experience. I spent nine or so years as a bouncer at places that ranged from hipster to lucky you didn’t get stabbed to death. Bar back, bartender, liquor store clerk, keg delivery ... just some of the jobs I have held in the booze industry. I have seen the scene from every angle you can think of. That is why I am using this forum to give you my advice on paying for the ambiance. Let’s call it…
‘Learn to drink the Joe way’
There are many nuances to drinking my way. I always start with a good look at the exterior: Is it dark and secluded or bright and fantastic? Is it thronged with people, what kind of music is playing, are the people there "sexy"? If it’s full of people, shiny, loud, and "sexy" -- avoid it. That is what I call a "Douchetrap" establishment. Yes, there will be lots of things happening: bright lights, loud noises and scantily clad wait staff, but you can be guaranteed they will have six taps dedicated to three beers that taste the same and top shelf charges for mediocre liquor. Go back and check out the dark spot on the next corner.
If there is a bouncer, how do they act? It seems strange but it is very important. Is the bouncer obviously aggressive? Let me explain that a bouncer’s job is to be aggressive; many good ones are friendly yet aggressive at the same time. You must be able to distinguish, "Have a good time but don’t get out of line", aggression from, "I ain’t cleaning up your blood", aggression. A hostile bouncer usually means a hostile environment. A hostile environment means dirty glasses and cheap, bad hooch ... avoid it. If the bouncer is laid back or, better still, there is no outside security, go in.
Upon entering, apply my "look, listen, smell" technique. Look at the patrons, glance around quickly at the bartender and the staff. Are they all relaxed? Listen to the music. Can you hear the conversations above the music? Is anyone hollering to drown out the music? Finally, take a whiff of the joint. I have had my nose busted several times and I can still sniff out a bad bar from a mile away. If a bar doesn’t take care of its beer and taps, you will smell it. It’s a smell I think of as rotten wood and moldy bread aged in sugar water, which is pretty much what it is. If it passes these tests, I sit down and have a drink, usually starting with a local recommendation. That is when you get to pick the bar apart and see if you could drink there as a regular. Most people look at the top shelf to gauge what the bar is like, I look at the rail. If the bar has Jim Beam or Jack Daniels on its rail, you can bet the owner is a boozie (that’s like a foodie but for booze). If they have Southern Kentucky Throat Peeler on the rail, you are gonna have a sickness tomorrow. I like places that have chalkboard taps, which usually means they have a constant turnover in their beers. Of course, taps I don’t recognize are very welcome also.
When hunting for a place to drink my way, just follow the basic idea that if everyone is there, it’s probably not good. If it’s on the beaten path, walk toward it and then turn left before you get there. These are the rules I have used to find a few places. Barley Johns in New Brighton, Minnesota is a small brew pub that always has some really good rare tap finds as well as its own brews. Then there is The Neighborhood off of G Street in San Diego. They introduced me to Allagash Curieux and shall have a soft spot in my liver forever. I will also mention the Poet and the Patriot in Santa Cruz; a lovely establishment, not adventurous in its beer selection but wonderful to behold. It’s the kind of place that I wish I lived above so I could be there now. It is places like these that I love so. Places you should go if you want to drink my way, places you should avoid if you are of plastic molded sensibilities and, sometimes, glass jawed. There are several more places I wish I could mention but many are hazy or my brain just refuses to relive their full memory. At any rate, it is this type of establishment that you will find me in. I hope you found this article informative. If you are like me, you may use this to find a place you can sit and enjoy a drink. If you are not like me, this should help you realize places you should avoid, because quiet, thoughtful drinkers also tend to be short-tempered and are often holding, sitting on, or adjacent to, weighty projectiles. My one hope for this article is this: I hope you use these rules to find a place you enjoy and I hope this place treats you well. Also, if by any chance these rules of mine lead you to a place that I frequent and you happen to see me at the bar... In that rare case I shall bestow upon you the greatest honor I can when I apply a shot of Pappy Van Winkle to your bar tab. Have fun stormin’ the castle.