Now, this is a somewhat…historical…account. As in, it took place several years ago, and the names and places have almost certainly changed since then. I don’t remember the original ones anyway, so if there are any Federal Agents monitoring my Internet traffic, don’t even bother, because I don’t know.
But I digress.
Back in the day, several years ago, Roy and I decided to take a short junket into the surrounding countryside and immerse ourselves in Pastoral Tranquility, with Lunch. We headed out and eventually found ourselves in a town not too distant from our home base, a town with a reputation as a bit of an artists’ colony, and thus with the massive influx of New Yorkers that appears in any New England burg that gets a rep for being an Artists’ Colony, some possibilities for good dining.
Never let anyone say that New Yorkers aren’t good for anything people would want. We all know they’re good for certain things, it’s just that many of those things are widely regarded (outside of New York) as Undesirable. I’m here to tell you it isn’t always that way. Where there be New Yorkers, there also be High End Coffee and Good Food. I’m not sure whether this is fleas to dogs, or stink to – well, never mind. The two come together.
So, since we knew that Village X had acquired a reputation for Artists we hoped that the influx of New Yorkers, and thus, Good Food, had already occurred, and we stopped there for lunch.
We found ourselves sitting outside on a wooden deck, overlooking a Scenic Waterway. So far, so good. I observed that the menu had four different microbrews on tap. Another decent sign, although, really one wishes to see the number of local microbrews on tap in double-digit numbers, not just 4 of them. But. I noticed they had a Specialty Drink list.
I love Specialty Drinks. I keep a huge liquor cabinet with eight different kinds of bitters on hand. I have three cookbooks that consist entirely of cocktails, especially antique cocktails or those prominently featuring bitters. It is the closest I come to being a Hipster. I always ask, and check out, the Specialty Drinks for any bar or restaurant I encounter.
I am also a Brown Liquor Person. In my world, people largely sort themselves out as either Clear Liquor People (those who like actual real martinis, and drinks made from vodka, gin, and tequila) and Brown Liquor people (those who prefer bourbons, whiskies, rye, and Scotch). I am a Brown Liquor Person, and have a significant personal collection of single-malt Scotch, and keep three different kinds of rye on hand, and actually have all of the ingredients required to make a proper Sazerac (including the absinthe for rinsing the glass).
So when I saw that the Specialty Drink menu for this establishment featured something called a “Local Manhattan” my interest was powerfully piqued. I love Manhattans. I can do lectures on Manhattans. Manhattans are properly made with rye, dammit, but in a desperate moment, Makers’ Mark or another decent bourbon is acceptable. There is no substitute for the vermouth or the bitters. They should have a cherry. The cherry is the only non-alcoholic component of the drink. They should be served in a martini glass. Drinking a Manhattan out of a highball glass makes you look like an alcoholic. And so forth.
If some place has a Manhattan, or variant of Manhattan, on their Drink List, I will always order that.
So, hence, the Local Manhattan. Featuring, as the menu said “local micro-distilled whisky”.
That’s funny, I thought. I was unaware that this region had a Distilling Tradition. But hey, we’ve got a malting floor so that the local beers can be truly “local”, we’ve got steadily increasing numbers of local microbrews, we have local cheeses, we have local maple syrup, we are basically a Locavore Paradise – as long as it’s summer – so why not a bunch of trust-fund hippies from Brooklyn setting up a “local micro-distillery”?
I ordered it. “Give me a Local Manhattan” I said to the waiter.
The waiter said “What?”
I said “A Local Manhattan.”
The waiter said “What’s that?”
I suggested that the waiter desist bothering me with these petty concerns, the thing is on the menu, and the proper response here is to take it up with the bartender. Blasted millennial snowflakes.
The waiter sloped off, and returned five minutes later with the waters we’d ordered. They came in mason jars. Mason jars, for the Uninitiated, are canning supplies. When someone’s granny or mom is pickling things or making jams or “canning” what they’re doing is cooking things in a particular way, and pouring those things into sterilized mason jars, and sealing them up. Mason jars are those glass jars with embossed things on the outside, and a lip that is threaded for a screw-on lid. They have “Ball” spelled out on them in raised glass. I don’t know why they’re called “Mason jars” and not “Ball jars”. It’s a Southern Thing.
So, anyway, our waters come out in a mason jar. How very…rustic…I thought. If I were dining at the sort of place that featured fried green tomatoes, or cornbread in any form, or catfish, or fried corn, I’d expect the mason jar. I wasn’t expecting the mason jar at a gastropub in a New England Art Colony.
Still. I had hopes.
The drinks arrived.
Roy had a perfectly sensible local beer.
My “Local Manhattan” turned out to be 16 ounces of something clear in another mason jar.
I was…surprised. Typically, Manhattans are made from Brown Liquor, not Clear Liquor.
As a long-time veteran of situations involving friends with pretensions to alcohol manufacture who stick cups of things in front of one and say, chirpily, “Try this!” I reflexively took a deep breath before sampling my Local Manhattan.
Taking a deep breath is vitally important when sampling Alcohol of an Unknown Provenance. You never ever want to wind up taking a swallow of Foreign Liquor and then needing to breathe in immediately after. That’s a good way to scorch your windpipe with Fumes. No. You always breathe in first, then swallow, and then breathe out, ensuring that any flammable fumes are directed into the external air supply rather than towards your lungs.
It’s a good thing I have these Instincts, too, because as soon as I took that slug of “Local Manhattan” from the mason jar, I knew immediately what the “local micro-distilled whisky” was.
It was moonshine.
And there is no alcohol where it is more important to breathe out immediately after sampling than corn squeezins. None. You breathe in after slugging down white lightnin, you can send yourself to the hospital. I’m pretty sure that moonshine is where I learned that rule.
Good thing, too. I must have had a priceless expression on my face, too, because Roy stopped in the middle of a sentence and started saying “What? What? What is it? What?” over and over again. I exhaled, and I was surprised not to be breathing flames across the table.
Local micro-distilled whisky.
I don’t reckon I’ve ever heard a description that was both so very accurate, and so very misleading, all in one short set of words. And there was me, with a freaking pint of white lightnin’, the only beverage that this establishment was appropriately serving in a mason jar, sitting on the table in front of me. I related this priceless tale later to someone who – evidently not understanding the fundamental issue – wanted to know if I’d finished the whole glass. What the hell do I look like, I said. Uncle Jesse? Daisy Duke? Boss Hogg? Who the hell drinks an entire pint of moonshine? I certainly don’t know anyone who would. No. I drank as much as I could, for novelty’s sake, and then bailed out.
Years later, I am still baffled by questions. How did the bartender get hold of enough moonshine to put it on the Specialty Drink list? Where did it come from? Who the hell, other than me, ordered this stuff? And, of course, as an accounting professor, I have a persistent question in my mind about Excise Taxes…or, as I learned about it in my childhood, the Revenooers. Inquiring minds want to know but, as the book says, one must get used to disappointment.