Our man at the bar, John Burns, explores the mystical properties of Magical Drinking
The rest of the world has moved on, but I’m still hung up on Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. Top of the eighth, the Chicago Cubs were ahead 6–3, then gave away three runs for the Cleveland Indians to tie it up heading into the ninth. When play resumed in extra innings after a rain delay, Cubs second baseman (and series MVP) Ben Zobrist hit an RBI double for the go-ahead run that brought a 108-year drought to its end.
Relief Cubs pitcher Jon Lester let in those three runs, but that’s OK. The guy’s a hero (a story for another time), and more germane to a cocktail magazine, he secured this historic victory through magic. When the Cubs started their pre-season in April, the Commons Club in the Virgin Hotels Chicago offered the Never Quit: a fundraiser cocktail for Lester’s favourite charity, with vodka, peanut syrup and leaf alcohol, topped with Old Style lager. The twist: the vodka was macerated with Lester’s pitcher’s mitt. Yes, it was a drink of fake grass, peanuts and leather, which sounds terrible — like a Moscow Mule minus all the good bits — except, to repeat, it appeared in the same season that Lester helped shutter a century-long curse. Coincidence? I think not.
Believing you can alter the world just by wishing it is called Magical Thinking. It’s the go-to for preschoolers, rom-com screenwriters, and President Donald Trump. I’ve become interested in a related phenomenon — Magical Drinking — that suggests you can change your world through beverages. (Bonus: the more you drink, the surer you are they’re working.)
This isn’t about wacky ingredients. Many strange objects can go into standard cocktails. Cooked foods, candy, weird herbs and mosses, dumb bacon straws — yawn — even fancy ice. When I was a kid, it was my job on our summer camping trips to hike up into the Columbia Icefield and chip off a Ziploc worth of glacier for the grownups’ afternoon G&Ts. They said it tasted like nothing else throughout the year…
What I’m talking about is totemic objects that increase a drink’s aura as much as its flavour.
What I’m talking about is totemic objects that increase a drink’s aura as much as its flavour. I suppose bitters and such can count. I’ve been obsessed with a YouTube video of Tokyo bartender Hiroyasu Kayama using home-grown wormwood and other botanicals in his Forest Cocktail, a demented savoury Gin Rickey that transports drinkers (by all accounts) out of a ninth-floor Shinjuku cocktail bar and into the wilderness. How lovely.
Down the other end of the scale are ingredients there for the vibe more than their effect on flavour. Spray gold and activated charcoal, say. Or the Garden Martini offered a few years back at Manhattan’s Il Buco. Gin-based, it boasted celery bitters and ginger shrub, with a sliced-vegetable float and a spritz of dirt. Actual Brooklyn topsoil, reduced by sous-vide, then strained. “This cocktail gives the drinker the experience of going through the earth to get to the root vegetables,” bar manager Jon Howard told Bon Appétit. Sure, vegetables come out of the ground, but does that make this tasty? Or just, you know, intentional and artisanal?
Then there’s this. Oregon’s iconic Rogue Ales released an ale (still available) made from the usual malts and hops, plus one outlier: it’s fermented with wild yeast harvested from brewmaster John Maier’s beard. No need to freak out, they say. “John has had the same old growth beard since 1978 and for over 18,000 brews, so it is no great surprise that a natural yeast ideal for brewing was discovered in his beard.” Rogue Beard Beer has a real aura: it won Gold at the 2015 World Beer Championships. Drinking it will make you a winner and a sasquatch — guaranteed.
—by John Burns