Your Bar and You

January 27, 2010

Every tee-partialing household has, or should have, a bar. Yours probably does, if we take “bar” to mean a stock of liquor that exists on a “going concern” basis (as opposed to one-off stocks for large parties). But your bar isn’t much, is it? You don’t feel any special sense of proprietorship over it. It doesn’t say anything about who you are or what type of social space your apartment is. But sometimes, after you’ve visited my bar, you wish it did. How can you make that happen? You’ve tried wandering the aisles of the liquor store, but it’s all so bewildering, and you end up spending more money than you wanted to on a haphazard selection that sends you reproving vibes as it sits unconsumed on your shelf, like some stray animal “adopted” by an enthusiastic but irresponsible child. Is there nothing to be done?

The key to building a great bar is the same as it is for any collection, be it of books, movies, autographs, or whatever. You must define the collection’s domain, and you must do so according to (1) your interests, and (2) your budget. A paleoichthyologist friend of mine once won a book-collecting contest with his collection “Man and Fish.” Of course it had Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea, but it also had fishing manuals, treatises on the importance of fishery to American culture, and suchlike. The collection wasn’t worth very much money (I’d guess a few hundred dollars), and most of the books were, if not common, then not particularly rare. Nonetheless it was a remarkable collection. Beholding it, one’s sense of the importance of fish to man was immediately expanded, not indefinitely into vaporous musings, but along the lines that my friend’s own wholehearted engagement with the man/fish question suggested. The collection was an appendage of his personality, an expression of his identity in a new medium. Of course collectors with deep pockets might build much more comprehensive collections, perhaps about about man and the sea in general, but that was beyond my friend’s personal interests anyhow. When you start thinking about building your bar, think “Man and Fish.”

Now, how can we translate the “Man and Fish” principle to liquor collecting? The place to begin is with your interests. What are your favorite cocktails? What are the cocktails you are so attached to that you shake your head ruefully when you discover that a friend doesn’t like them? Those cocktails will form the nucleus of your bar. Let’s say that you love the Manhattan. Start by buying one to three bottles of the main spirit, which can be either rye or bourbon. (I highly recommend Rittenhouse rye, which sells for about $17/750ml and is the best rye I’ve ever had). Next you’ll need some sweet (red) vermouth. Vermouth is a very misunderstood drink: many bars feature a large bottle of Martini and Rossi that sits out for years and years, being slowly depleted. But since you love the Manhattan, you’ll do some research and discover two things: (1) there are brands of vermouth that taste much better than the ubiquitous Martini and Rossi (try Noilly Prat), and (2) vermouth should be refrigerated and consumed within a few months. Finally, you will need some angostura bitters, which is a no-brainer since there’s only one brand. And of course you’ll need a metal shaker, a strainer, and some glassware, but that sort of goes without saying. Now, already, you’re at the point where your friends will say, “Daaamn! Now I know where to go if I want a top-notch Manhattan! Party at YOUR house!” Read the rest of this entry »

Politics as Drinking Game

January 22, 2010

In the wake of Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts, Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, and other left-of-“right-of-center” bloggers have complained that today’s GOP is treating politics as only a game of Red Team vs. Blue Team, without regard to substantive policymaking. The GOP reflexively opposes everything Obama does, they say, painting it as socialist no matter how centrist it actually is.  One consequence of this strategy is that Democrats have tacked to the center, relative to the desires of their base, only to have that centrism depicted in the fair and balanced media as radical leftism. This dynamic has produced what David Leonhardt, in an NYT op-ed, calls a health care package that is “politically partisan but substantively bipartisan.”

Politics is both a game and more than a game. When we talk about political gamesmanship, we’re assuming that the game in question is zero-sum: each side’s goal is to have more seats in Congress, more governors, and more presidents (i.e., one) than the other. On the other hand, especially in Obama’s pragmatic mode, the substance of politics is non-zero-sum: each party’s goal is to advance some policies that will, they think, benefit the whole nation. Of course it’s possible to conceive of the substance of politics as non-zero-sum, and to conceive of the federal government as a weapon with which to rob some citizens for the benefit of others. Pre-Civil-War sectional politics was zero-sum like that — although “Abraham Lincoln”* did his best to reinterpret it as non-zero-sum. But each party needs to win a zero-sum game in order to advance their agenda in the non-zero-sum realm of politics. In other words, we can think of politics as a complex game in which a non-zero-sum game is wrapped inside a zero-sum game, and the goal is to win the non-zero-sum game by implementing the best policies. This holds true for Democrats as well as Republicans. The problem that Sullivan et al have identified is that the GOP has forgotten that the goal of the zero-sum game is to win the non-zero-sum game, and that conversely Obama is so focused on the non-zero-sum game that he has neglected the zero-sum game, which remains crucially important to his supporters and opponents alike. It remains so partly for practical reasons (you need it to win the non-zero-sum game) and partly for emotional reasons (all politics is tribal). If only there were some way to turn the destructive passions unleashed by tribal politics into a constructive channel …

This brings me to my modest, Lincolnian proposal. Let’s redirect some of the destructive energies at play in the zero-sum game into a game of ambiguous mathematics: a drinking game. Everybody picks a team, either red or blue. At the end of the year, you tally up your team’s wins (Congressional seat pickups, etc.) and have one drink for each. If you’re on the red team you drink the “Red Elephant.” If you’re on the blue team you drink the “Blue Donkey.” This game would teach both sides a lesson about the perils of getting drunk on power. Nobody would want to pick up more than, say, 10 seats.

David Broder, if you are reading this, please mention me in your column.


The Red Elephant

1 oz bourbon (Evan Williams) or rye whiskey (Rittenhouse)

1oz Campari

1oz sweet vermouth

2 dashes orange bitters

– shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled coupe glass

The Blue Donkey

1.5 oz gin (Bombay Dry)

.75 oz blue curacao

.75 oz lemon juice

– shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled martini glass

* see my bio