Booze Issue

[Booze Issue 2013]

In search of a liquid soulmate

James Bond has his martini. I have … indecision

Herbs & Rye’s Last Word is a wonderful dalliance, but can the attraction last?
Photo: Sam Morris

Like all good quests, this one starts with a handsome man who can kill a person with his bare hands. His name is Bond (James Bond), and we all know how he takes his martini.

It’s that part of 007’s allure that I’m hoping to borrow: his steadfast dedication to the better things in life; his cool decisiveness when faced with tough questions like, “Can I get you something to drink?”

While friends fall back on go-to cocktails and movie characters always have signature drinks, I see every menu and beverage list like a choose-your-own-adventure book. If I pick the pomegranate mojito, will I turn to Page 43 and run through sprinklers with an attractive stranger? If I opt for the Oktoberfest beer, will I get lost in a haunted pumpkin patch for all eternity? If I order a vodka Red Bull, will I be condemned to spend my night surrounded by frat boys who never tire?

And so I browse—every beer list, every cocktail menu, every wine by the glass. I like to know my options, lest I miss out on the house-made ginger beer or cask IPA. But barside surveying has its downsides. By the time I’m ready to place an order, my buzz has wandered off to drunker pastures, and my friends are almost through the round. What I need is a signature drink. Something that defines me. Like Bond.

I start my search at Atomic Liquors under the posterized gaze of Spock and the Dude (who never has this problem). I briefly explain my issue to the woman behind the bar, who gives me a blank look before the wheels start turning. Soon she’s back with the Hunter S. Smash, an easy drinker made with Old Crow bourbon, supposedly the preferred liquor of the cocktail’s namesake. The booze is tempered with lemon juice, ginger syrup, bitters, mint and soda, and for $8 it tastes like a bargain. I’d happily order one again, but I’m not sure I want to equate my entire persona with a cocktail reminiscent of spiked lemonade.

A few days later I’m at Main Street’s Velveteen Rabbit, where a hip (but not hipster) crowd is exploring the new fall drink list to a world-beat soundtrack spun by an Afroed DJ. It’s almost too busy to continue the experiment, but when the bartender looks my way, I have no idea what to order so … “Signature drink … James Bond … blah, blah, blah.”

“Gin gimlet,” the bartender says when he appears, popping a coupe glass full of pale green liquid in front of me, a single cucumber slice floating on top like a lily pad on a tiny lake.

A tiny, delicious lake. This gimlet is an artistic endeavor, made with Hendrick’s gin, lime, muddled mint and cucumber, rose water, amaro and fleur de sel. I imagine what it says about me (fresh yet classy) and introducing it to friends for the first time (“you’ll just looove it”). Then I imagine trying to order one at a neighborhood pub … Next.

By the time I hit Herbs & Rye, I’ve updated my sales pitch. It has to be something I can get anywhere, I tell bartender Isai Haro, and he seems to understand. Haro says he’s a Sazerac man with a wandering cocktail eye, and for me, he’s shaking up a Reform-Era drink that originated at the Detroit Athletic Club. Called the Last Word, it’s made with equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino and lime—simple ingredients, easy directions. And it’s a tasty brew, sweet up front but mellowing into a crisp, bitter finish that sets you up for the next sip. As I contemplate claiming the cocktail as my own, Haro starts talking through others I should try, the Hemingway daiquiri, Corpse Reviver and Ramos gin fizz (although you can’t order that last one on a busy night, because it takes a good 10 minutes to shake properly).

Before I know it I’m browsing again, flipping through Herbs & Rye’s pages of classic cocktails, flirting with pisco sours, Moscow Mules and that gin fizz. And that’s when I realize: I’m no James Bond. I can’t commit to one drink. Not when there are so many author-inspired elixirs, gorgeous gimlets and rediscovered classics waiting to be tasted. I’ll keep choosing my own adventure—one cocktail at a time.

Photo of Sarah Feldberg

Sarah Feldberg

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