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The Event and the Good Fight

It was an eleventh hour request, but we couldn’t say no.  Anything smacking of culture or hipness is relatively sparse in these parts – these parts being, literally, the suburban sprawl featured in the opening credits of Showtime’s Weeds.  So when Garrett called the day before the event with the request that we handle the drinks portion of the night, we knew we had to do it.  The problem was: we didn’t get his message until it was too late to return it, which left us blindly ringing his salon, Garrett Markenson Coiffure, on Sunday – the day of the event – in the hopes that someone might pick up.  No luck.  We left a message: “Sounds intriguing.  If it’s not too late, let’s talk.”

And talk we did – just moments later.  Garrett was at the salon, prepping for the event.  He filled me in on the details. That night was the soiree for Ashley, one of the salon’s assistants who had been promoted and earned her own chair.  There would be a runway show featuring Ashley’s hair creations, with Ashley given the floor to properly present her vision and techniques for each model.  The guest list would number about one hundred.  Typically, we were told, there was serve-yourself wine, but knowing that we were into the cocktail thing, Garrett was wondering if we’d be interested in coming up with a few cocktails and tending the bar.  Absolutely, we would – but there were problems to overcome.

The first hurdle was the time.  When Garrett and I finally spoke, the family and I were already off for a morning at the Natural History Museum, which was an hour away.   This wasn’t a big issue, but we were remote and our time frame would be crunched.  Garrett also had a budget, which wasn’t a problem – quite the opposite, actually – but it meant that we’d have to work within it, and as none of the alcohol had been purchased, it meant that we’d have to develop a menu that served a hundred people, buy all the booze, and do any particular prep work that was needed – all before the party.  The party was at 6pm (we’d have to be there an hour early to set up).  It was currently 10am, and we were just arriving at the museum. If my estimates were correct, we’d have only about two hours to shop, prep, clean up, and get to the event.  And, did I mention, that neither Lesley nor I had ever professionally tended bar before?  I told Garrett, “No problem.”

The menu was the first order of business.  I’ll freely admit that, without practical experience under our belt, we had to fly a bit blind on the estimates.  For any event, two cocktails per drinking person is a safe assumption – any more than that, no matter how long the event, is a bit much for all but the most stalwart drinker.  Plus some people wouldn’t drink at all.  We figured that if we had the supplies to make roughly 150 drinks, we’d be more than safe.  But what to serve?  Ashley, whose party it was, was a whiskey girl, and the theme was slightly Western.  Our first pick was rye.  But the guests would be mostly younger women – should we serve vodka?  If that’s was the night called for, we had no problem with it, but as vodka isn’t among our daily repertoire, I have to admit that it’s not an area in which we’re particularly fluent.  Instead, we opted for light rum and Dry Gin, as we could find stellar examples of both (Flor de Cana 4- year old and Beefeater) at great prices (volume of liquor vs. cost was always in the forefront of our menu planning).

As we wanted to make a variety of drink types while keeping our core ingredient set small, our initial menu consisted of the following:

Rosemary Sour (rye, lemon juice, rosemary syrup)
Scofflaw (rye, lemon juice, grenadine, dry vermouth)
Rye Buck (rye, lime, ginger ale)
Midnight Punch (rum, grapefruit juice, grenadine, ginger ale)
Small Dinger (rum, gin, lemon juice, grenadine)
Dandelion and Burdock Martini (gin, dry vermouth, bitters)
Fitzgerald (gin, lemon juice, bitters)
Gin-Gin Mule (gin, ginger beer, lime juice, mint)

There, of course, were some immediate problems.  We had both too many drinks and too many sours.  The plan had been that we would make the punch ahead of time, but as we didn’t get home until about 2pm, we quickly axed that idea.  Citrus and mint are expensive, so cutting the punch and the Mule reduced the ingredient list.  Vermouth is cheap, but if we were pairing down the sours, did we need the Scofflaw?  Not to mention that martinis, with nearly double the alcohol, are among the most costly drinks to make.  Although I already had a bottle of Adam Elmegirab’s Dandelion and Burdock Bitters, we cut that drink too.  Which left us with the Sour, Buck, Dinger, and Fitzgerald.  Still, we had three sours and we remained over budget.  We cut the Fitzgerald – which halved the amount of lemons we’d need – and we were magically at the budget number.

Clock ticking (3pm now), I high-tailed it over to Garrett’s place while Lesley whipped up the rosemary syrup (we have an enormous bush of it at home) and grenadine.  Garrett approved the list of three drinks, and I told him that if he wanted to go another forty bucks, I could easily work in the martini – he agreed.  So, now we were at four drinks – two sours, a highball, and a martini; two rye drinks, and two white alcohol drinks.  Also, as I mentioned, since neither Lesley nor I were trained bartenders, we needed drinks that we could quickly and easily assemble – but we also wanted to do it right, no corner cutting on ingredients or techniques.  I felt good about the drinks, but it was 3:30 and we still had to do all the shopping, finish the syrups, get the lemons juiced, get ourselves ready, and be back by five.

At 5:20pm, I was at the salon, all set-up and juicing lemons while Lesley made the ice run.  Garrett had originally planned to set us up next door in his shop, but our one insistence was that we be near a sink.  A table, sink, towels, and a trashcan, and we were good to go.  Garrett’s staff, some of the nicest folks we’ve ever met, went out of their way to help us, so there were really no hitches as we got ready for the event.  For better or worse, the crowd was a little smaller than the hundred for which we had anticipated, but the flow was manageable.  To simplify things and eliminate constantly bumping into each other, we agreed that Lesley would handle the two rye drinks on one side while I mixed the dingers and martinis on the other.  Syrups and common ingredients were in the middle, as was a menu.

How did it all go?  Brilliantly.  By selecting a varied menu, we really had something for everyone.  The Rye Buck was the evening’s clear winner, and only once or twice did we have people ask for Vodka-Soda and then refuse anything because we didn’t have that on hand.  The vast majority of guests not only went with the program, they were excited by it.  One gentleman, in particular, who was a Bourbon-Coke drinker, enjoyed three Rye Bucks over the course of the evening.  Others were intrigued by cocktails the likes of which they had never seen before and made an effort to try as many as possible.  Also, once we knew that we were more than covered on the ingredients front, we happily went off menu, and because we hadn’t spiked our syrups to preserve them, we easily accommodated any requests for virgin drinks.

Overall, our goals for the evening were to see a few of the drinks we love in practice, extend the reach of 12 Bottle Bar (picking up a few new readers, hopefully), and above all else, convey in person what we try to do in print – that great drinks need not be complicated nor intimidating.  Most of the people drank happily but, I’m sure, they will continue to go about their lives with cocktails as a minor and occasional accent to an evening out.  A few of the guests, however, may be intrigued enough to continue trying new drinks and expanding their knowledge – and that’s really all we can ask for.

As the evening wore down, I told Lesley that, above all else, I was desperate for a decent meal, having not eaten but a few nibbles all day.  We popped into California Pizza Kitchen (the most decent place nearby), placed our to-go order, and sidled up to the bar.  Here, two things of ultimate importance happened – two things that, for us at least – brought meaning and definition to the whole event.  First, this was the very first time in more than two years that my wife and I had sat alone at a bar and ordered a drink.  Not that it’s important to you, but this evening out – playing bartenders – was our first without the boy since he was born.   It took the mighty call of an event with cocktails for us to briefly let go of our parental bond and, for the fifteen minutes that we sat at the CPK bar alone, become a couple of adults again.

Having tended bar all evening, it was high time for someone else to make us a drink.  Displayed before us on a triangular placard was a photo for CPK’s new Asian Plum Martini.  Pearl Plum Vodka, Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur, fresh lemon juice, and simple syrup – since we’re big fans of the last three ingredients (having never tasted the first), we figured what-the-hell, might as well try something new.  As we watched the bartender free-pour into his mixer, shake, and place the drink before Lesley (one was enough, I figured, and opted for a Newcastle), we were once again just another couple out on the town.  Until we tasted the martini, that is.

I think Lesley described it best as “soapy bubble gum” – how could they mess this up so badly?  We politely inquired about the bottles.  The Canton is wonderful stuff, and the lemon juice appeared to be as claimed.  The vodka I only tangentially glanced at – it’s flavored vodka, so it is what it is.  What caught my eye was the bottle of “bar syrup”.  Looking over the label, it was nothing more than high fructose corn syrup and a handful of preservatives – and that’s what it tasted like.   Maybe it was the syrup or maybe it was the free-pouring, but as much as we wanted to just turn off our brains and enjoy the drink, we couldn’t.  We had started down the proper cocktail road so long ago that there was no hope of ever going back.

With delicious and easy-as-punch drinks like the Rye Buck or most anything else you’ll find on the Drinks Menu of 12BB, why would anyone make or order something like this Asian Pear Martini (which, I’m certain, could also be made in a delicious fashion).  All Lesley and I could do look each other in the eye, knowing that plenty of hard work still lay ahead of us.

Garrett, whenever you have your next event, 12 Bottle Bar will be there – fighting the good fight, one drink at a time.

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