His name was Ross Taggart and he was my college roommate for almost two years. We shared a room above the garage at this crummy house in downtown Reno. Ross was working on a master’s degree and I was finishing my bachelors. He was older than me by three years and congenially molded himself into the role of an older brother. Both of us being from Las Vegas and sharing a love of dated cultures—specifically reading and movies—he was the perfect roommate during a very imperfect part of my life.
Our room was a sprawling mess of two mattresses on the floor with clothes and books pushed into barriers demarcating who owned what. Too hot in the summer and an icebox in the winter, it was a dump but it was our dump. We shared the house with a flock of international students who hung sheets throughout the basement to create spaces not fit for refugees and members of a Reno’s biggest ska band.
I doubt you’d find a household with more range than at 561 North Center Street in Reno Nevada. You should Google Map the address and see what a mess my last two years in college were. Trust me, the house hasn’t changed much in appearance. The only difference is that the house has been converted into a Christian mission.
Gin, unlike other liquors, has an origins story. Whereas I can‘t remember the first time I tried a swiped can of beer from my parent’s refrigerator or that embarrassing balcony vomit session from ingesting tequila for the first time, I know how I first discovered gin. Ross Taggart was my introduction.
We were in some God damn awful casino polishing off a $4 steak and eggs when Ross offered to buy me a drink. We went to one of the many dilapidated casino cantinas where he ordered two Gibson’s. A simple martini served over ice, Ross was a fan of gin and dry vermouth garnished with a cocktail onion. Always over ice, never up, Ross swirled his drink with the pierced onion while pontificating upon nothing memorable.
The conversation died but the memory of the drink didn’t. Ross is the only person I knew that read out of love and not requirement. Moreover, he read important books. Whereas I fumbled through course selections and beefed up my pop literature with Thompson and O’Roarke, Ross read the greats. Take the top 100 books in English literature and he had consumed all of them. He had a tradition that I mimic to this day of rereading The Great Gatsby every spring. He said it reminded him of why our American canon is beautiful and should revisited often.
If he was right with Gatsby, certainly he was correct with his Gibson’s.
I found the cocktail onion to be disgusting but it was my introduction with gin. Like all great cocktails, I cared little for the drink but the experience I had with it. Ross and I shared that filthy, rat-hole for months challenging both our friendship and health but I always respected him for his intellect and drive. He was the guy who was cooler than anyone else, even if I was the only person who believed it.
My second memory of gin came from the first day I worked at Big Ed’s Alley Inn my fourth year in college. A hole-in-the-wall bar off the Reno strip, it was famous for two things: ridiculously hearty breakfasts and Ramos Fizzes. The breakfasts had enough heart-stopping cholesterol to choke out any hangovers properly placed on Saturday nights and Ramos Fizzes proved to be the best thing to wash greasy pork chops and eggs down with. The Ramos Fizz is a rather complicated drink. Into a blender, you add crushed (never cubed) ice, a jigger of gin (one and half ounces), fresh squeezed lemon and lime juice, egg white, sugar, cream orange flower water and soda water. The egg white was separated by rolling the yolk from cracked shell to cracked shell over the blender. It was a nightmare. To this day, watch me bartend and I am constantly wiping my hands on my shirt. After a shift of making nothing but Ramos Fizzes, my shirt would be so covered in egg white that it looked like I was wearing a Plaster of Paris tunic.
I worked for a taskmaster of an owner who would hover over me as I rolled eggs into the single blender and whipped up Ramos Fizzes during the brunch rush on Sundays. I crushed it as a barback making almost $100 a shift but I was so broken from leaning over for five straight hours making one drink that I vowed never to make another Ramos Fizz again.
Don’t bother asking for one at the club. Not only do I not have orange flower water, we don’t carry eggs. Besides, it is just as easy for me to get a bouncer to escort you out of the bar than relive that Hell.
Ramos Fizzes were Huey Long’s favorite drink. The Lousinana governor was reported to have shanghaied Sam Guarino to the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City to show the bar staff how to make the drink. Huey was eventually gunned downed by a dentist and I learned that the best drinks are made with practice. By the end of my two year stint at Big Ed’s, I had become so profiecent at making the Ramos Fizzes that I could literally do them with my eyes blindfolded. Once the rush died down towards the late Sunday afternoons, I would make a couple with my eyes covered. From this, I learned that bartending is more than making drinks—it is a part of the show of being behind the bar.
Let’s be frank—gin taste like pine needles steeped in a bag of Xmas potpourri. It’s not for everyone. Hell, it probably shouldn’t be legal. With Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire coming in at 94-proof, gin packs the kind of punch reserved for shoe polish and turpentine drinkers. But like wiring a live electrical receptor or handling a cobra, you got to respect what you have in your hand. Get a half-dozen of these bastards down your neck, you are more than likely ready to end a marriage or find yourself in the back of a squaddie.
Gin don’t play.
Gin was the drink of choice of Winston Churchill, Jackie Gleason, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, WC Fields and James Bond. 007’s famous Vesper cocktail was three measures of Gordon’s Gin, one of vodka and half measure of Kina Lillet. I would argue that even some of my best drinking partners would not be able to make a dent in Bond’s martini regiment before hitting the floor. Lord knows I am only good for two.
Hemingway was famous for his daiquiris but mind you he consumed the majority of these while living in Key West and Cuba. His early days in Paris were gin fueled days and nights with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read A Moveable Feast and imagine trying to match Ernest and Scott’s gin intake. Hell, read A Moveable Feast just to remind yourself you couldn’t write yourself out of a wet paper bag. After being humbled, just read Hemingway to remark that perfect times with perfect subjects make for the best writing—Death In The Afternoon best encapsulates this.
Chandler, creator of Phillip Marlowe, was my favorite discovery in my early 20s. Chandler could carve a sentence out of wood but he is the only pulp writer that could bring me to drink not by his words but setting a mood that I wanted to participate in. I suppose I have never needed a catalysis for having a drink but Chandler made it romantic, dirty and grim. Mix a pitcher of martinis the next time we get rained out on a Sunday and try to get through The Long Goodbye. Nary a book better to read than this tome with a cocktail in your hand unless you start with his Farewell, My Lovely. That son of a bitch knew how to drive a story.
There is a drink called the Burma that I have been working to reinvent. Not quite a classic cocktail like a Manhattan or Horse’s Neck, the Burma was a very popular British drink when the Brits still ran amuck in India. A simple concoction, it is a jigger of dry gin, triple sec, lime juice and a couple of dashes of Angostura’s Bitters. Shaken over ice, it is poured chilled into a cocktail (martini glass for the uninitiated) and garnished with a thin sliver of lime. A raw amber color, the Burma tastes like good old fashioned imperialism. After a long day of enslaving a people and decimating a culture, there was no better cocktail for unwinding with the sounds of elephants trumpeting in the background and beggars clanking tin cups in front of your walled off estate.
After the British left the subcontinent in 1947, they took their drink back to the isle and it was the rage throughout the 1950s, when suddenly, it fell out of favor. While the sun never sets on the British Empire, the love of the Burma went the way of the dodo and became nothing more than a footnote in a dated bartender manual.
I like the Burma and have been working hard to reintroduce it to the modern drinker. Because gin is raw and complicated, I find it to be a difficult and challenging liquor to mix. With the Burma, I have a recipe that demands to be both honored and shared simply because it is the best gin drink I know how to make for non-gin drinkers. It is bright with citrus undertones but doesn’t hide the taste of the gin. Brightness is the best way to describe how the Burma hits your mouth from the first sip. It is raw but uplifting. It burns down the gullet but settles into the belly as a shovel of warm coals halfway through the drink. It is the kind of cocktail that intimidates at first but demands to be reordered before leaving the bar.
And like with all gin drinks, no man should ever order more than two. Nothing good comes from the third gin cocktail.
The most common way to consume gin is with tonic, garnished with a large freshly cut lime wedge. Simplicity—sheer, simple simplicity. The quinine of the tonic pairs with the gin creating a glass of heaven suitable for any occasions. Unlike other cocktails that are seemingly out of place during certain times of the year, gin and tonics beat back social norms and prove to be a superior cocktail.
Erin and I are suckers for Hendrick’s Gin. A cucumber infused gin, Hendrick’s is my gin of choice because of the botanics and drinkability. The cucumber takes away a lot of the bite that gin traditionally has and becomes a dangerous character in my two-per evening rule. Unlike other liquors that can allow the consumer to step down in their price, I can’t make the argument that a cheaper gin is as good as one of the more pricier. Simply put, if you can’t afford to drink decent gin, stay away. Bad gin creates more home wrecking moments than the rest of the liquors combines—yeah, I’m talking to you tequila.
Ross lives somewhere in New York now. He is working on a PhD in modern Irish Literature. We text each other on occasion, mostly to talk about our families and what we’re reading. To this day, I marvel at his intellect and scope of knowledge. If I had one piece of advice I could offer any incoming college freshman it would be to find a Ross Taggart. Find somebody smarter than you and try to learn as much as you can from them during your time together. They are few and far between but I know there are enough Taggarts to go around.
Second piece of advice? Stay the Hell away from gin. Nobody should be allowed to drink gin until they are at least 30-years old. And when you finally reach your third decade, spend a few moments with me before jumping half-cocked into the bathtub worth of distilled juniper berries.
Gin don’t play.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main Wednesday through Saturday. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Podcast—likely to start a new one shortly. He does read The Great Gatsby every year and thinks that Tom Buchanan is a dick.