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Learning To Drink Whiskey

I went to college at the University of Nevada Reno (UNR). It is pretty common for kids growing up in Las Vegas to head north and kids graduating high school from Reno to go to UNLV. UNR was awesome. Until meeting Erin, it was the best years of my life. From writing for The Sagebrush, playing rugby, interning at the state legislature, travelling, running for ASUN president, working at a Greyhound bus station, barbacking and getting a degree in political science, going to UNR was the best decision in my life. It was a chance to take advantage of affordable in-state tuition and still move away from home. I spent the first two years in the dorms (Lincoln and Nye Hall) and moved into the soon to be labeled Rugby House for my third and most of my fourth year. It was a dumpy bungalow across the street from Mackay Stadium’s parking lot and we took full advantage of the house for every home football game.

While my time in college might not have been productive, I was very busy. Between spending time in the classroom and the school paper, travelling on the weekends to rugby tournaments and working at a variety of restaurants, I always had something going on. I had a great circle of friends, teammates and co-workers. I was learning something new every day and I loved living in Reno. It was a cool town with an edge. The best way that I can describe it today is if Salt Lake City and Las Vegas had a one-night stand and accidently had a baby, her name would be Reno. The Biggest Little City in the World was close to Tahoe, offered all of the advantages of casinos (cheap drinks and buffets) and was filled with enough rednecks to toughen up a chubby kid from the Vegas suburbs. Name another college that has a 90-foot clown less than two blocks from the college president’s office? I went to the Harvard of the West and if I had to do it all over again, I would choose the University of Nevada Reno every single time.

It was a full life with the exception of dating. At first, I used to rationalize that I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. It wasn’t until I was going on my third year of college did I realize that I had absolutely no game. I was cursed with no bank account, no wardrobe and questionable hygiene at best. It also didn’t help my chances when I alienated half of the potential dating pool by writing a column calling sororities organized whorehouses and labeling anybody from Northern Nevada a gapped-toothed redneck. The rare girl that reluctantly went out with me was in for an evening at a dirty spoon called The Gold ‘N Silver Inn and drinks at The Beer Barrel. I was the anti-Don Juan. I couldn’t figure girls out to save my life. I was awkward, nervous and covered in sweaty palms. It didn’t help that I didn’t have a car and she would often have to give me a ride. It didn’t stop my enthusiasm for asking girls out but I became a lot more accustomed to coming home alone and hoping into a cold shower.

However, it wasn’t always my fault. I remember this one time during the summer of my fourth year that I took a girl out. Instead of shoveling a $3.99 breakfast down her neck, I took her to a restaurant that actually had napkins. We went to a movie and got a drink later and things were working out really well. So well, in fact, that she wanted to see where I lived. We drove back to my house only to find my roommates plastered. Across the street from the house, there was a carnival in town and they were giving away free tequila. My date and I went to check out the amusement rides and food stands when we came across the free booze. I was aghast. She was ecstatic. We ordered two and I let her finish my shot. I could barely put it into my mouth without heaving. We spent the rest of the night riding the Tilt-A-Wheel while she kept slipping away for another free shot.

I eventually got her back to my bedroom but it wasn’t under the conditions I was hoping. She passed out on her belly with her head over the side of the bed. She spent the rest of the night and most of the morning horking up all of the free booze. What did she drink? It was a strawberry-flavored, creamed based tequila called Tequila Rose. Simply put, it’s not just the worst liquor on the planet but yet another reason I couldn’t get laid in college. I felt like even when all of the stars were lining up with me, I still couldn’t close the deal because my date looked like she just slipped into a diabetic coma. People say they often remember their first fill-in-the-blank moment. Well, to this day, I remember my first and last Tequila Rose. All the worst, I remember how it smelt going in and out of a young, confused co-ed.

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t drink whiskey. It was called in utero. In truth, it took a little bit of practice to be able to put down a shot simply because you’re not supposed to be able to knockback shots of bourbon like Richard Burton at age 19. My best friend in college, Fitz Whaley, used to give me a lot of garbage because I couldn’t shoot Jack Daniels. He had the calm drunkenness of a Jack Kerouac when we went out and was able to slowly slurp down a horsechoker of Jack like it was mother’s milk. Whiskey burned and tasted like fermented wood. I knew there was something nefarious in whiskey when upon ordering one, I instantly became nervous. I was afraid of barfing all over the bar and looking like a wet rag in front of my friends.  Furthermore, I knew even at a young age, no good comes from being able to chug Old Grand-Dad and there were some skill sets that I didn’t need to have that early in life. It wasn’t until taking that girl out for free Tequila Rose and bumper cars did I start to re-evaluate how bad that super sweet booze was for you. I made a vow to myself to stop ordering Kamikazes and White Russians after watching her make the walk of shame out of my bedroom.

It took time but I developed a taste for whiskey that can only be satisfied with whiskey. Big glasses of jungle juice with fourteen types of fruit schnapps and Everclear became absolutely disgusting when I started to have the self-esteem to drink something decent. I know why I used to like flavored liquors. It is because my palette hasn’t been deadened enough to enjoy a Scotch. Drinking a bunch of Cactus Juice coolers was the only way I knew how to cope a buzz without getting sick. I wanted to catch a drunk like the next guy. The problem is that the next guy was somebody drinking a boat drink in the middle of the winter in a desert. The day that I put down the Apricot Brandy and hoisted a Jameson was a good day.

That is not to say that there isn’t a place for these kinds of drinks. I have made a good living slinging drinks that seem to belong in the parking lot of a high school prom as oppose to a nightclub. I might be wary of flavored liquors but in lieu of having the actual mixers to recreate the flavors, why not use the artificial flavors? It is vastly easier to use Stoli Vanilla then to cut and press fresh vanilla beans. Citrus vodka and soda is quicker to make than squeezing the contents of a bushel of lemons. And Watermelon? What the Hell does watermelon even taste like? Metaphysically, watermelon taste like summer. In a bar, watermelon taste like a fermented Jolly Rancher. Good watermelon is a ripe red color that is firm, crisp and sweet. Watermelon liqueur, on the other hand, is a pale pink that mimics the flavor of raspberries and vomit. If it wasn’t for the full catalog of flavored Absolute, Bacardi, Stoli and Grey Goose, I would never make a drink for a guest that they liked.

The problem with most drinkers today is that they don’t like liquor. Cocktails were invented a hundred years ago because the liquor being distilled tasted like something out of a drained radiator. You needed to mix it with fruit juices or sodas simply in order to choke it down. Booze was wood grain alcohol cut with water and a variety of agents to help mask the horrific taste of the bathtub gin. Fortunately for us, the 21st Amendment was ratified and distillers are able to make products that don’t lead to blindness. The problem is that they tend to make only stuff that should be served at a carnival. Cream-based, strawberry-infused tequila have their place but it’s not in my life. That potential train wreck has left the station years ago and I am not in the business of trying cinnamon or black cherry-flavored whiskeys or rum. Regardless of gender, at the club, people tend to drink things that are sweet and palatable. It has to be smooth or they would rather not drink at all. Granted, the majority of drinks that I pour are draft beers, glasses of wine and standard drinks (i.e. vodka and tonics, Long Islands, rum and cokes, etc.) but we do serve a lot of drinks with questionable flavors: cherry, melon, pear or grape. Too often, it seems that we’re just putting an ever increasing sized funnel down our neck and drowning it with sugary crap. In an era where booze has never tasted better, the vast majority of my guests are insisting upon a drink that is described as a Tall, Strong and Fruity: filled with brightly colored liqueurs that leave your teeth gritty and your bottom aching.

The problem is that I work in Salt Lake’s largest club and the volume of business we push through the club doesn’t allow us a chance to handcraft cocktails per order. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the guests want something that is cheap, delicious and will get them drunk. We just want to sell as much as possible. I am probably not helping my cause by continuing to pour out AMFs at such a rate that my left arm is stained blue most of the time. I am a turn-and-burn bartender that values speed over creativity. So, even when I am given the challenge of making a really interesting drink, I often fall short because either I don’t know how to make it or know what goes into it.

For example, we were slammed on Saturday and this young guy in a tweed jacket had been patiently waiting for his turn. When I finally got to him, he ordered a Hendricks and tonic. Hendricks is a small batch cucumber-infused gin made out of England. For my money, it is simply the best gin on the market and probably my favorite liquor after Maker’s Mark and John Powers. It mixes well with soda or tonic and is simply delicious over ice with half a lime. It’s the kind of drink that makes me want to recolonize India, ride an elephant and wear a lot of khaki. As I was reaching for the Hendricks from the back bar, he asked me if I had any cucumber or ginger. I told him I didn’t and he graciously said it was okay. He would just have it with some tonic. I thought of two things: one, he’s right. We should carry cucumbers and ginger for fresh made cocktails. We’re a relatively fancy bar with a wide variety of liquors. Why aren’t we focusing on making drinks that are both creative and refreshing? Two, doesn’t this hipster piece of shit see that I am busy and I don’t have time to muddling every third drink?

I think what bothers me about making these craft cocktails is the fact that we are limited in how to make them. Because we haven’t committed to this style of bartending, it makes little sense to do a half-assed job of it. It is impractical to have a full kitchen behind the bar with fresh herbs, house-made mixers and matching flavored liquor for each Berg-ed bottle. Utah’s liquor laws limits how much hooch we can pour and often it requires some pretty interesting ingredients we don’t carry. I think we are the rule as oppose to the exception with our drinks. It is really hard to set the bar high when customers don’t make it easier for us to start exploring new techniques and styles of drinks simply because they act as if they have never been in a bar before. Why waste walnut extract in a Manhattan if your guest has never tasted whiskey before? It is infinitely easier to float a Midori on top of a margarita and tell the customer that it is Green Iguana and I created it just for you. Maybe it’s time for me to start celebrating the 3.2% Bud Light draft and a JagerBomb as the official drink of Utah. They’re easier to pour than a muddled Old Fashion.

I left Reno in 1997 and haven’t returned with the exception of attending my sister’s graduation from medical school. It is a distant memory but still my fondest. I miss drinking at the Beer Barrel, Little Waldorf, The Breakaway and Big Ed’s Alley Inn. I missed getting my teeth kicked in every rugby game I played and above all, I miss the friends that I met during college. It was a formative time and one that I often use as a measuring stick for any other experience. I am going back to Reno for The Mudshark’s reunion show on the 14th of October and attending UNR’s Homecoming. I am excited. I am looking forward to meeting up with old friends and putting down some drinks. Tequila Rose isn’t in my future but I’d be a liar if I said that I am not a sucker for Stoli’s Raspberry and lemonade. There are limits to my hypocrisy…

Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin or follow his Tumblr feed. Become a fan of Behind The Bar on Facebook.

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About Ben Raskin

Born in El Cajon, raised in Las Vegas, educated in Reno and living in Salt Lake City. I bartend, write, box and live in Sugarhouse UT.

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