Our man at the bar, John Burns, savours a Southside as he mulls the value of drinking local
Barstools are for boasting. And when you’re alone, they’re for wool-gathering, your privacy on public display. Random thoughts assail you — unless you’re just there to watch the game, which is fine but for the purposes of this column let’s assume no high-def.
I’m at a bar now, in fact, just me and no TV, making notes on napkins the way you do. This is not unusual. Over the last 18 months I’ve warmed my share of seats, and I’ve written about some of the highlights in these pages, usually from notes on the backs of napkins very like this one. Those 18 months happen to have included a fair amount of travel, and so the cocktails I’ve described have often gone down in other cities, in bars very like this one.
There’s a cocktail for every mood and moment, says John Burns, our man at the bar
To me, cocktails are mood on ice. They elevate a moment, enhance life. They’re the pocket squares of gastronomy, the clever patterned socks that tie it all together and keep the same old interesting. In that way, they distill our best selves.
When I travel, I always treat myself to an interesting bar off in some neighbourhood (thanks for the research, city magazines!) and in preparation, run through the questions. What will I wear? What time of day will I visit? And, of course, what will I order? The whole sums to this: For these precious minutes, who will I be? Cary Grant? Steve McQueen? (Hey, don’t laugh at other people’s self-delusions.)
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.
Our man at the bar, John Burns, discovers the joys of warm beer
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, reading 141 books over the course of a few months, but that was a side project of mine over the fall and if I’m going to be completely frank, since we’re old friends now, I’ll admit that it wasn’t always tea in my cup as I worked my way through eight linear feet of Canadian nonfiction.
Now that I’ve finished the reading, you’d think I’d never pick up a book again, but I found myself leafing through Charles Dickens the other day—it’s the snap in the air—and came across this passage from Our Mutual Friend: “The bar of the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters was a bar to soften the human breast.…[The rooms] had red curtains matching the noses of the regular customers, and were provided with comfortable fireside tin utensils, like models of sugar-loaf hats, made in that shape that they might, with their pointed ends, seek out for themselves glowing nooks in the depths of the red coals, when they mulled your ale, or heated for you those delectable drinks, Purl, Flip, and Dog’s Nose.”
Our man at the bar, John Burns, on the seductive power of nomenclature
Names are my downfall. I’m just a sucker for them. For fanciful origin stories and tales of whimsy. The music of language spellbinds me, which is why I fall so often and so hard for the poetry of the label.
Take Bénédictine, that herbal liqueur purportedly invented by Norman monks. A cabal of French brothers whose order was founded by a Merovingian count in 658 AD created a secret recipe 500 years ago, then mislaid it when they fled the French Revolution. Come 1863, the industrialist Alexandre Le Grand — whose granddaughter Simone Beck would go on to co-author Mastering the Art of French Cooking — rediscovered (or made up) this proprietary mix of 27 botanicals and bottled it, sealing it with the gilded letters DOM: Deo Optimo Maximo, or “To God Most Good, Most Great.” Who could hear such an improbable yarn and stand unmoved?
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.