We had wandered into yet another Irish pub, a cozy temple of dark wood and gleaming glassware, on day four of our honeymoon. Still enthralled by the landscape and the people, I had grown weary of one of their most enduring gifts – Guinness.
We’d sipped the beer in every coastal town we’d stopped in thus far, and at that moment, the prospect of downing a perfectly poured pint seemed as welcome as another helping of bangers and mash. But we had committed to an informal pub tour of the southern Irish coast, and I knew that ordering a glass of red wine in a watering hole in Glengarriff would nix any possibility of lively conversation with the locals.
So, I conjured the name of the most sophisticated-sounding drink in my repertoire and asked the beefy bartender to make me a Sidecar.
Red wine might have been a wiser choice.
“What is it then?” he asked belligerently.
I sheepishly tried to explain that it was mostly brandy, some sugar, a little lemon and probably something else that would all come together beautifully if he wielded his bartender magic properly.
“Sounds like ruining my good brandy,” he said dismissively.
A long pause and the dark glint in his eye told me he had no plans to make anything but trouble for me unless I changed my order. I decided a Jameson and soda would do, and took the lesson: A good bartender knows when to tell you that you can’t have what you want.
Here’s what he knew, and what I should have guessed: The bloke behind the bar would have made me a lousy version of one of my favorite drinks, and we were both better off if I allowed him to play to his strengths, which included meticulously pulling pints, carefully watering down whiskey and muttering under his breath about Americans’ collective poor taste in spirits.
I had taken to ordering Sidecars a few years earlier, primarily because a good one tastes like lemon candy for grown-ups, but also because I delighted in testing bartenders with what was then an out-of-the-ordinary request.
In the 15 years since my Irish bartending friend put me in my place, a revolution in mixology has made the Sidecar a standard entry on many a well-curated drinks menu, much to my delight. Interest in the history and culture of American bartending and drink mixing has reached a fever pitch. Drink lists across the country feature forgotten standards and revamped versions of classic tipples. The revival has given rise to serious scholarship, including the 2007 James Beard award-winning book “Imbibe!” by David Wondrich, which includes formulas for 120 classic American drink recipes. And earlier this year, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., opened an exhibit fueled by the mixology movement titled “Spirited Republic,” which examines the relationship between our government and the people through the lens of alcohol.
With all this swirling in the cultural mix, my editors recommended that I broaden the scope of my monthly column to consider the delights of not just wine but also mixed drinks. We’ve got great possibilities to start with locally, as several North Carolina distillers are making spirits that compare favorably to a wide range of small-batch liquors now available from the U.S. and abroad. As I’ve done with wine in this space, I set out in hopes of making the idea of a well-mixed drink more approachable to a wider number of people. While the increased emphasis on mixology has improved the baseline quality of drinks being served generally, it has also served to create a rarified air around the topic. That’s regrettable and possibly even unpatriotic.
If “Imbibe!” author Wondrich is right – and he presents a powerful case – “mixing drinks was the first legitimate American culinary art, and … the first uniquely American product to catch the world’s imagination.” If so, it’s our cultural birthright to enjoy a properly mixed drink. With that in mind, let’s raise our glasses to life, liberty and the pursuit of mixological happiness.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at amberwrites.com.
As with most mixed drinks, this recipe can be tinkered with. This is how I make a Sidecar, but I’ll toast with anything that comes close, as long as it errs on the side of tart rather than sweet.
2 ounces VSOP brandy
1 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker with a handful of ice. Stir. Rub the cut side of a lemon around a champagne goblet, then rub the rim of the goblet in superfine sugar to create a sugar-rimmed glass. Strain the mixture into the glass. Float a wisp of lemon peel on top for garnish.
Yield: 1 cocktail.