I grew up, for the most part, in the suburbs of Manhattan, in a lush hyphenated river town brimming with middle class boredom and its ceaseless drive to get lit. I had older siblings, too. My brother, four years my senior, told me that as skinny, loud, beshnozzed jews, in order to establish a semblance of manhood in the social sphere, we should be able to drink bourbon, neat. And so I did, with the hearty abandon only fraternal encouragement could inspire.
It was easy as I found bourbon an anchor to my heady ways. Its viscosity lent my skinny ass weight: with each sip, I felt like I was adding another rock, grounding me to the earth and the company of men. I was a pontificating, often self-righteous, burgeoning intellectual ripe with attendant anxiety, my thoughts whizzing at infinite speed and Beam — sweet, sweet Jim Beam — was my counterweight, my gravity, my cojones, bestowing me with what I imagined to be masculinity while affording me temporary relief from my accelerated, self-lacerating mind.
But as my 20s moved towards their conclusion, my system began to slow. Not dramatically, at first, but noticeably and over time the drag of my becoming was too conspicuous to ignore. I no longer needed a cohort to time and gravity’s merciless tug. If bourbon once helped ground my wiry ways, it now kept all of me down.
And so I moved, briefly (a few years), to scotch. Of course, scotch runs a wide gamut and can be heavier, weightier, than bourbon — it often has ground itself running through its veins: peat. But there is a note in scotch, often more prevalent, that rather than reaching to the ground, aspires to the air, if not to the heavens. It’s more of a spirit, if you will. I gravitated towards the highlands, Glenmorangie being my go to (before its transformation): spicy, a hint of honey, a heavenly aspiration.
But scotch, alas, did not suffice. It has too much heft to offset the onslaught of my decay. I needed something more vaporous, something more rarified, something that did more than reach for the sky: something that was of the sky itself.
Enter tequila. Oh, tequila! It would be my lift, the sun itself mixing with my being to elevate me into the ether. The agave takes in the sun for seven or eight years before fruiting and then — then! — gives way to fermentation. Where whiskey ages in a dark barrel, tequila ages in the unadorned sun. Tequila doesn’t brood the way whiskey does; it finds its life in the blaring light of day, naked, bold, and hot.
I drank blancos or the six month reposados, all fire and air, all heat and vapor, all sky and woosh. I never cared for anejos, those tequilas barrel-aged for over a year (and less than three) and which hence approach whiskey’s weight. No, I wanted to taste the sky itself, its airy delights, its solar merriment. In those days, my drink was always the same: a glass of tequila (El Tesoro Reposado or Siete Leguas Blanco) and a Pacifico back. I called it a Mexican boilermaker (the traditional boilermaker is a shot of bourbon and a beer, for me on the side rather than in the beer. As far as beer is concerned, Pacifico is a sunny beer, little of the yeast and earth that soils the brewski that beer lovers adore. Pacifico was the rays delivering tequila’s solar glow to my being’s blood.)
For a full decade, tequila lifted my spirits, proffered the sunshine to my tortured, weighty soul. Its spice was a ready transition from highland scotch’s fruity, suggestive effervescence. But, like all things, it too would pass: tequila and me would part ways over the matter of heat.
As I rounded 40, tequila’s burn proved too much for my fraying gut and disoriented being. I’d order my El Tesoro and Pacifico and, between you and me, I found myself burping. It was quite distressing. I was newly single after 13 years of marriage, ordering my go to cocktail, only to find myself sitting with a would-be love and passing gas in her face. It was humiliating. I felt like a perverse, yiddish, Gargantuan Icarus.
The earth of whiskey too heavy, the sun of tequila too hot, I didn’t know where to turn. I flailed for weeks, even months. And then an herbalist acquaintance suggested ice: my being needed water, my booze and blood needed cooling. But I’d always drunk my booze neat. What kind of booze could possibly go well with ice. Gin, she replied, gin.
Gin? I’d had my share of Bombay Sapphire, sure, but always knew gin as a medicinal headache (and Sapphire is a shitty, astringent gin). Little did I know it was what my way of going yearned for. For gin is, indeed, medicinal — that is its origin, the juniper berry spirit initially being considered an elixir to stave off disease. And as years and life have withered me, a medicinal booze has proved just the thing.
Indeed, as I’ve turned into my mid-40s, I’ve found myself adjusting and fine tuning all my input sources — food, music, film, people. I no longer have the will, stamina, or vitality to chug indiscriminately. Just as I no longer down any old burrito or go to any old music show, my taste in booze has become quite, and to some excessively, discerning. I suppose I need more help from my environs, a bolster from Mother Nature.
Like medicines of old, gin is a culinary delight, each concoction a bit different: this one favors anise, that one cardamom, another pepper, while still another tends towards the sweet viscosity of whiskey sans the cloying sweet syrup. I stock my bar with a good 20-30 gins at any given time, one for each mood, for each need, for each desire. It is my pharmacopoeia, my apothecary cabinet.
Gin, in turn, has led me to herbal booze in general — amaros, digestifs, absinthes, aquavits. I find where I once longed for the hefty purity of bourbon neat, I now crave cooled herbaceous variety. From bourbon to scotch to tequila to gin to herbal booze in general is my journey, as existential as it is metabolic, from the weight to the sky to the vegetal plenitude of earth. Where I once leaned into whiskey’s steady weight, I now turn to spicy complexity. This is my intoxicated, and sadly not intoxicating, bildungsroman.