John Burns, our man at the bar, reveals the not-so-guilty pleasures of drinking alone
A man walks into a bar. He’s alone; it’s the same old story. Maybe he’s looking for company, or to get out of that hotel and watch the game, or just to unwind. So he orders a drink and it’s the right drink and it’s made well. He takes a breath, a sip. A breath, a sip.
Even in the age of 24/7 social check-ins and check-outs, it’s still possible to head to a bar and just…be. It’s one of my signal pleasures when I travel, which I do often for work. (I’m writing this on a plane now as it happens, en route to a bar.) After a wall of meetings, I want some alone time, but not alone alone. Follow? I want bustle around me but stillness within—perhaps that’s one definition of the right cocktail at the right spot.
Exactly a year ago, I was sitting in Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the gallery Hitler built to glorify Nazi art. On the main floor of that austere relic is one of the city’s best watering holes. There’s something both seedy and worldly about the Goldene Bar. Rattan chairs cluster conspiratorially around tables onto which fat candles slowly melt. Servers are friendly, children come and go, everyone’s wearing scarves and exactly nobody glances at the walls and their patently racist gilt paintings (original, from the ’30s) depicting the countries of the spirits served. It’s voyeur heaven, made perfect by a Cosmopolitan jolted by local bitters and (a quirky touch) a shot of Munich’s famed helles beer.
These are Proustian scenes for me, perfectly formed moments I can still recall with full clarity.
A year earlier, I found myself in Austin, Texas, with a nice group of folks I needed a break from. It wasn’t them; it was me, so I split off for “errands” at the W Hotel’s Secret Bar, a clandestine nook reached by entering first the hotel, then the main Living Room Bar, then the Records Room (itself a wistful destination), then finally our destination, a well-provisioned, scarlet-walled bolt hole that, like all W bars, attracts the bespoke set. Being south of the Mason-Dixon, I went for a Metropolitan, an improbably delicious Manhattan with Bulleit rye, basil and raspberry and it was heaven. These are Proustian scenes for me, perfectly formed moments I can still recall with full clarity: what I was wearing, the music, the heat of the alcohol and the chock of the ice, the snacks, badinage with the bartender, the calm that comes from watching the drink go out like the tide.
My happiest cocktail again found me in the springtime. I was sitting on the dock of Nimmo Bay last May, a luxury fly-in fishing resort midway up the coast to Alaska. For various reasons, I was the only guest, so I had the place to myself (well, me and 20 or so employees there to meet my every whim). Afternoons feature cocktails on the floating dock, beside the fire pit, so there I was watching the Great Bear Rainforest do what it’s been doing since Raven first brought the light when the clock struck G&T and one of the unfailingly friendly staff brought over an ample rocks glass of Victoria Spirits gin, fancy hipster tonic, wedges of lime and a pile of ice. It was shockingly cold, astringent, citric, floral. Clarifying. There was no music, there were no crowds, there wasn’t a dance floor or a menu even. Just me, my drink, and the most beautiful ambiance you could ever imagine. I was alone, perfectly content.