“Can I pick three words?"
“Sure, say whatever you want to,” I said; “Just know that I have veto power."
“Ha okay...then something boozy, bitter, and weird. With bourbon."
“Shit, man; you asked for it.”
I turned to my shelves, letting my body bounce with the music.
Cynar is bitter and weird; an amaro distilled with artichokes and other strange things.
Let's use Fernet too, because it’s inherently weird. And it's bitter. And boozy. And weird. And because we love it.
Luxardo Bitter Liqueur because—well, because it’s a new acquisition, and I want to play with it; and he asked for bitter, and it says bitter right there on the label. I taste-tested to remind myself. It leans toward Campari’s bitterness, with a slick touch of Aperol sweetness, and a dark thickness beyond either one that appeals tremendously to my dark and bitter side.
He wants bourbon, I'll give him bourbon. I jiggered .75 and .75 of Eagle Rare, because I remembered liking its sweet sharpness, which would rise through the bitter like a champion. Then .25 oz each of the aromatics. I tallied 2.25 oz total, which left room for adjustments.
I dipped a straw into the mixing glass to taste the raw build. Needs a touch more sweet.
Simple syrup? Nay, let’s try Becherovka because—hell, why not? It’s lovely, and it’s seasonal, and it’s a bit sweet to round off all the bitters, and it’ll add some bright spiced complexity to the overall dark weirdness.
It’s all about balance.
Or, it could be terrible, and I'll have to start over.
Another straw test cleared it for takeoff, to my relief. I added ice and stirred the mix until it was chilled, withdrawing the barspoon with a small sip to check taste, temperature, and dilution.
Delicious. And weird. And alluring...
Someone made the joke about how I must be wasted by the end of the night, from testing so many drinks, and I grinned along while I strained the concoction over one of the new large-format ice cubes. And I straw-tested once again before serving, unable to resist.
I noticed someone to my left watching.
“What’s that one?" he asked.
“It's a Choose Your Own Adventure,” I said, pointing out his menu’s list of adjectives. “Boozy, bitter, and weird, he wanted. With bourbon."
“Oh it’s bourbon? Okay, I’ll try one of those. That looks real good."
Everyone knows bourbon. Everyone thinks they want bourbon; even if they probably actually want rye, or irish, or even scotch. But everyone knows the buzzword bourbon; so everyone wants bourbon. We do what we can to buck the trends; but you can only sail so close to the wind without capsizing.
And anyway, hell—if it gets people drinking Fernet and Cynar and other dark and boozy weirdness, I’m all for it. Let’s play, baby. Try my bourbon cocktail, if you dare...
The Bear Hug made it onto the winter menu at the last minute; and right away, demand exceeded our expectations to the point we decided to batch the cocktail to save time when busy. That made it a great sell—both for check averages (being a couple bucks more than average) but also tactically, after we'd batched it into one bottle—it became an ace up the sleeve, an easy way to buy a few moments here and there when tables were full and the bar was three-deep.
Sell a Bear Hug.
Grab the (bourbon, fernet, cynar, luxardo bitters, becherovka) bottle.
Jigger out 2.5 oz. If the rush is in full melee, count or estimate.
Add ice and stir stir stir.
Strain over a 2.5-inch ice cube in a rocks glass.
Surf the edge.
“Hey, can I get a Choose Your Own Adventure that's boozy and bitter made with bourbon?"
“Let’s try a Bear Hug, yeah?"
Boom. Two-dolla upsell. And she’ll probably have another.
“God, yes. So long. I really need something powerful to take the edge off."
Grin. “I can offer you a powerful Bear Hug?” Arms open wide for the embrace.
Sometimes a genuine hug.
Sometimes a saturnine shrug.
Somehow the Bear Hug blew up and became the season’s most popular drink despite the intensity of the ingredients and the boozy complexity of the whole. People liked the large-format ice, the dark simplicity. People liked the bourbon base. They liked the name—who doesn’t enjoy a good bear hug when it’s cold and bleak outside? People sampled friends' Bear Hugs, and asked for two. They asked about the ingredients, and I'd raise an eyebrow to warn off the faint of heart. They tried it anyway. They ran out my pre-measured batches, always in the middle of a weekend rush.
Then at some point during the season, Virginia ABC discontinued Luxardo Bitter Liqueur, as is their wont—just when things are getting interesting. And because we can't sell anything without an ABC sticker, we couldn't just order more from elsewhere. Undeterred, I played around and began subbing 3:2 Aperol and Campari.
Close enough for jazz, as an old guru once drummed into me...but it made batching even more crucial.
Just don't tell the ABC that. Batching cocktails isn't allowed. Unless it's a "sangria" or a "frozen margarita". The ABC is a god-fearing agency with grit and muscle and decades of precedent. Their minions roll deep when they come inquiring, striding into the scene strapped, deploying agents to cover every exit.
The Virginia ABC is a big bully. The spirit of the agency needs a bear hug. It needs to be reminded of its calling. To protect people; not to stifle craft and progress. It's time to thaw.
Perhaps in a few years, when Prohibition was a century ago, they'll finally give up the fight—allowing free enterprise to enrich the craft-cocktail movement; letting the market determine prices, and freeing small companies to do business with limited-distribution craft distilleries—
Damn it. Not bloody likely. Not soon, anyway...
Picture this if you will; a fictional account inspired by true events:
It's early evening. I can tell, because I shot out the streetlight with a pellet gun, to see the night better from my porch. Crickets chirp from somewheres nearby. My skin smells sunbaked. I take a sip from the Old Fashioned balanced on my thigh. Half a joint leans charred and resting on the brass edge of the old sawed-off artillery shell butt that I use for an ashtray, like my grandfather before me. Some classic guitar solo washes over the scene as I brainstorm cocktails for next season's menu. The nights are finally cooling down, and I almost consider getting up to fetch a sweatshirt.
The Flavor Bible lies sprawled on my lap. It's stuffed with notes and slick with marginalia. If I threw it to the floor like the I Ching, it would explode with the ghosts of ideas, a chaotic flurry of scrawled cursive narrating the process of writing cocktails.
I remember how much #rvadine loved the Bear Hug. I decide it might be fun to offer it again—but this time barrel-age the concoction for some months, to enrich the complex mix with sweet oak and caramel char. See if I can maybe reel the drink back into autumn, play with flavor and spice and time. With the added thickness of aging, I note, it definitely will need a lemon twist – or at least an express-and-toss – to brighten it up some.
I order my bottles on the lovely ABC ordering page right away, estimating how much I'll need for the whole season based on last year's numbers—because barrel-aging quickly with wood chips in a cryo-vac is too harsh and raw a corner to cut for something as exquisite as this.
When the booze order comes in, I pour all several bottles into an old Reservoir bourbon barrel we have, and prop it up on a shelf where its metal cooping catches the light like the Cheshire cat. The spirits will soak in and out of the wood like a teabag, as the room's temperature fluctuates through the days and weeks. The end result will be...well, that remains to be seen.
When the beast's due date draws nigh, we post a teaser on social media:
Remember last winter's Bear Hug cocktail #rvadine? Next season @SirStirsAlot brings it back for #AutumnCocktails. And now it's barrel aged! Come try our #GrizzlysKiss before IT tries YOU!
Right away people start asking for the Grizzly's Kiss.
A couple more months, I tell them.
I taste the batch. Holy shit. Wow.
Six weeks more, I say.
It just keeps getting better.
Next month, I smile.
In the middle of a placid Wednesday I hear the door open and look up from resetting my station. I've already seated my final reservation. This is a walk-in. I wave them to a space at the bar before I realize.
It's Kevin, the ABC agent assigned to our cause. Our booze babysitter.
"Hey, man, what's up?"
He doesn't look happy. I probably don't either.
Two more agents flank him into the restaurant, bristling with guns and badges.
"What's going on?" Eyes narrowed, I put on a compliant smile.
Kevin looks up at the Reservoir bourbon barrel up on the shelf, branded with our logo. Where the grizzly bear hibernates. He points at the barrel.
"What, the barrel? We bought that from Reservoir. A local whiskey distillery..."
"I mean, what's in it."
"Spirits. Aging in the bourbon barrel for a while. The oak adds a touch of—"
"I know what's in it. Someone called you in because of your twitter post. You're not allowed to have that much premixed liquor at one time."
My scalp prickles with chill. "Well how else can we barrel-age a cocktail?"
He shrugs. His goons cover the front door and the hallway next to the bathrooms. Good thing it's Wednesday, and the only folks here are a couple of regulars.
"Hey, can we talk about this over here?" I nod toward the space between the back hallway and the walk-in. "We're trying to run a business here." I smile wanly. "Guest experience and all that..."
We move into the cut by the stereo. He explains the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control's laws about premixing spirits and barrel aging...and before he's done, I realize my mouth has fallen open and my upper lip has tightened into an incredulous sneer, as if he just explained to me that despite decades of development, we were going to the moon again in the same technology that had worked back then. Because why fix what's not broken?
I collect my face and swallow. I ask him, "Doesn't that seem a little silly, in 2015?"
"I know, I know," I hold my palms up disarmingly; "Yours is not to reason why; yours is but to do and et cetera..."
He nods officiously, missing the point.
"So what's next now?"
"I'm supposed to dump the barrels out on the street."
"Really!?" I bite back a harsh guffaw. "Not even down the drain—but specifically in the street? Like, Carrie Nation hatchet style?"
He swallows. Shakes his head. Shrugs and nods. "Pretty much."
I sigh. Kevin's a good guy, I know; just doing his job. I shouldn't tease too much. Especially when our life is on the line here...
"Okay, what about this: Can we just get it out of here, away from the bar? Not actually pour it out and waste it? We'll drink it, not sell it."
He looks at the barrel.
"That's a lot of money, man," I plead. "A lot of good booze bought fair and square. We'll drink it at our staff Christmas party. Private consumption only. Please don't make me pour it out." I grin at him. "Hell, I'd rather drink it all right here—even if it kills me."
He smiles at that. "Fine. Take it out of here. I won't make you dump it if you do it now."
"Thanks!" I smile back, but my jawline tingles sour. Like I'm supposed to be grateful to this swaggering ape with his murder iron and his shiny shape of metal that says he's to enforce the whim of this state-sponsored monopoly.
Cheers to free market and small business tho!...
I have the dishwasher lug the barrel through the back hall and upstairs to the Boss's apartment, where he can mourn the latest casualty dropped by his arch-nemesis.
Satisfied, Kevin and his goons exfil. Conversation slowly returns to the dining room.
The shakedown is over.
"Anyone who wants one," I declare to the room, "come over to the bar for a shot of Fernet on the house."
This is a small but blatant rebellion. A transparent attempt to cobble together some dignity by breaking a petty rule; No free alcohol—by order of Its Grace, the ABC!
"To authority!" I cry in sardonic basso; "May sovereignty ever stand your challenge!"
A half-dozen Branca shot-glasses clink clink together, and we down the elixir. I collect the empty glasses and shrug wryly as our guests return to their seats. A day in the life...
Next step is to confer with our dear friend and faithful regular, the ABC Chairman, to seek his advice on whether we can somehow legally sell the much-demanded concoction without incurring the wrath of the outdated and ill-fated bureaucracy he heads; an agency swarming with police-academy washouts armed to the teeth with guns and badges, with hatchets and fines and sanctions. With the power to revoke liquor licenses for weeks at a time—for any duration they choose, and for any attributable offense. Beheading small businesses with true Lannister abandon.
I shuddered at the image.
The Bear Hug ran its course and delighted people hither, thither, and yon...and we moved on into the spring menu, and onward to the summer menu, while I thought about whether a barrel-aged Bear Hug might actually be good nor not.
Parties came and went, and we funneled our liquors into the bellies and minds of RVA's best and worst, while the antiquated machine's wheels churned beneath our feet. We did what we could to disguise the faulty mechanism, but sometimes it would reveal itself.
"Sorry," I'd sometimes have to say; "The ABC hasn't carried that in a couple weeks. That drink is eighty-sixed indefinitely."
They'd frown. I'd shrug.
"Why don't you try a Choose Your Own Adventure? We've got you covered there." I'd smile whimsically. "Guaranteed."