Thick in the Middle and the Chapel Knife
A cantina and a hushed Tulum twilight. The bartender doesn’t smile, but he brings me heavy pours of mezcal with orange slices dusted in maguey worm chili salt. So I like him more so than if he smiled. A far off stereo plays gypsy jazz. Wooden tables and wooden chairs. A full moon night approaching and still the shirt sticks to my skin, still the salt and sweat stain my eyes…still the stillness asks so little but to yield to a breeze off the ocean, through the trees to the dirt road where I stand holding a bottle. A bottle of peculiar anjeo mezcal they let me buy from the bar. One in the morning, a taco cart, ice cold coca-cola and tiny plastic stools…across the street from a gated concrete church…makes me think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Eating tacos of lengua and frijoles con queso as I stare drunkenly up at the cross framed by a few nomadic clouds and backlit by that same damn moon…thinking, I’m not catholic, but I could live here all the same. I could live in the history and the stories of the small towns I’ve walked through.
Stories are always thick in the middle, often leaner in their beginnings and endings. That thickness, the hefty mid-section, is all colour, accent, ominous portent, trap door drama and straight out smiling teeth lying. That is storytelling as far as I can tell. Carrying someone willfully or kicking cursing reluctantly from the first page to the end…using any damn trick and foul treachery you can to keep them heading toward the final words. Our head full of fantasy and a longing quickened breath of dreams. Feet waiting on a journey, a path…blood hurried and breathless running…staggered in the dawn…an end. With all that thickness in between, from tippy toes to hair singed by a down south sun.
As a bartender, I like to tell stories, not often but with a rarity inspired by my interests. I like to trade them with regulars and travellers alike. The stories that I like to tell the most are narratives constructed for the purpose of putting the right cocktail in front of them. The beginning of the story, with you sitting down at the bar, hints at the cocktail to come by name and maybe ingredients. The tale of it all is told after that first sip, sketching out the origin and inception of the cocktail…tying it all together with a narrative of dubious history, but colourful and charming nonetheless. The ending…the ending is always an empty glass.
The devil is in the details. What often draws the line between a good cocktail and a great cocktail is the attention to those details. You gotta respect the devil if you don’t want to serve that fallen angel bastard. Its in the details that you can produce a complex cocktail like the Batanga, by respecting the tradition and ritual involved in Don Javier Delgado Corona’s recipe. The cocktail is named in reverence after a regular, who was thick in the middle…he was ‘batanga.’ The old man, Don Javier, is ninety-three more or less. He has been owner and operator of La Capilla (The Chapel) in Tequila, Mexico since the 1950’s. As a devout Catholic he refuses to hang a sign naming it La Capilla, but the name is a carry over from before he called it his. Respect your god, but respect tradition as well.
He has spent most of his life behind that bar, and most of his life has been spent passing a Batanga over the stick. Salted rim on a tall glass, ice, blanco tequila, squeeze of lime and cane sugar coca-cola…stirred with an old wooden handled knife that is used to cut ingredients for salsa and guacamole served at the bar. The ‘cuchillo’ (knife) is seasoned, its the whole damn secret of a complex and yet staggeringly simple drink. We as Pourhouse bartenders are not spending our days prepping salsa for the bar…a shame in my opinion, but unfortunately I’m not drifting through my later years in a true blue every spaghetti western cantina…not yet anyway. So we prep a vegetal cordial consisting of lime juice, lime zest, jalapeño, habanero, tomato and avocado to replicate the effect of a well seasoned ‘cuchillo’. This will be added to the tequila and then topped off with Boylan Cane Cola.
(photo by Christopher Flett)
I hope one day to travel to Tequila in Jalisco and to meet Don Javier, who has been written of and hailed as a standard for what service can and in many cases should mean. Service in his words, “Smile when someone walks in. Greet them. Ask them where they want to sit, and get them a cool drink in a clean glass.” A few weeks ago we had some people at the Pourhouse bar who had been to La Capilla and had met Don Javier. They say he sits in the corner, wrapped in a blanket as his family helps tend to the bar. La Capilla has been listed as one of the greatest bars in the world, finishing well within the top twenty of many lists, take that for what its worth to you. Any ninety year old man still working a bar after nearly seventy years, even if that means greeting you through the door, deserves some recognition…and hopefully our representation of his cocktail can be worthy of honouring Don Javier, his knife and the chapel.
-Derek Sterling Boone
(photo by Jessilyn Laurel)
Maldon Salted rim
2 oz. Blanco Tequila
3/4 oz. Vegetal Cordial
Topped with Boylan Cane Cola
Built and stirred
“Water is liquid of last resort.”-Bernie Lubbers
I was raised (not born) in the British Columbia Rocky Mountain trench town of Golden, by a single mother (a widow and former Service RN) and two older sisters…my formative years best described as a Reagan era Tom Sawyer. I built forts and fought great wars. In winter I shovelled snow and when old enough I chopped wood. In spring I helped plant. In summer I slept outside in a tent most nights. I mowed our massive lawn and raked for what seemed like days. Crouched over holes to catch garter snakes, letting them go as curiosity abated…other boys would tie them head and tails to train tracks and wait…or would return the next day to examine the gore. I hated these boys. Swam in a slough, and when tired laid out on a raft of water logged timber and plywood sheets. Late in the day I would sit upon the high white fence that surrounded our near acre of land, a deep yet narrow ditch separated our fence and the train-tracks. High up on the fence I imagined it a horse, like in the westerns my oldest sister would make me watch, and would wait for the train. As it approached slowly, wary of the kids and homes so close, I would salute it. The engineer would blow the whistle and throw chrome cans of CP rail water. On those same tracks in a feat of dimness and danger I rode my Honda 50cc; I have never loved a piece of mechanical ingenuity more. We had a chicken coop, which I tended to, and rabbits. My mother had a vast and meticulously cared for garden. The sun through the leaves of rows and rows of peas, eating them from the shells while sat in the dirt. Laying in the grass day dreaming about building a cabin high up in the mountains… I still dream of that mountain, and picture the cabin now…further up I would build a still. Deep and deeper into the dream I go back in time and traverse space…and I’m in the mountains of Kentucky running from the law by the light of the moon and bootlegging ‘shine. Part of me thinks maybe that was all true, but a lifetime ago and another one after that.
Bernie Lubbers stands…shuffling papers at the head of two long wooden tables in the Chambar basement banquet room, just rustic enough for hosting a lecture from the Kentucky born and Heaven Hill employed “Whiskey Professor.” This man knows American Whiskey, sports a “Bottled in Bond” tattoo, wears a rhinestone studded belt…and he flashes just enough of a salesman smile to remind me of the men who would wheel and deal at the classic car shows I reluctantly went to as a kid. Men with grease stained hands and greasier hair who I eyed suspiciously as they talked with my mother and her boyfriend at the time. Her boyfriend, he rebuilt Studebakers and never really seemed to like me much. Though as soon as Bernie Lubbers begins to ‘lecture’ in that measured Kentucky drawl… I hear less salesman and more storyteller. He is without doubt an Ambassador of bourbon. Knowing whiskey is a part of his trade…but it seems loving whiskey is more about heritage. He quotes Lubbers senior who he imparts drank a quart of bourbon every day, “I don’t trust a bourbon over six years old.” A heritage in the same vein as: Evan Williams, Elijah Craig, and Jacob Beam (ancestry very much part of Heaven Hill with Parker Beam)…a history composed more of myth and coloured with contradicting origins…then to finally frame it and put it on the wall actual f’ing facts: French settlers naming everything after their royalty and military. Corn, corn and corn, even a damn island of it. Fresh water springs and limestone. Puritanical obsession with getting sauced and enough forethought to pack a copper-pot still through the damn frontier. Oak barrels to ship and at some point a conflagration on the inside (or beginning on the outside)…charred them. There are more…but the deeper in the forest, don’t the trees become the same, like brothers…twins even. Facts and fables become a backwoods stew cooked slow and low.
I have told these stories, across the Pourhouse bar to questioning patrons…only to find out the “history” I paired with their cocktail is more fable than fact, mostly straight Kentucky bullshit. Another grifter on the chain-gang working the ruse. This knowledge is passed down the line, and much like a game of ‘Telephone’ is corrupted the further down the line you go. These stories twist and writhe and feed upon each other, like the viscous trails of bourbon in a spun glass. Truthfully though, I love them…I fucking covet them. The biggest story, the thirteen headed snake of them all, is where the name bourbon actually comes from. The truth seems to centre around: location, branding, and barrel aging due to shipments by river or land over a significant stretch of time. That time in the barrel is what would give it such a distinct flavour. Perhaps it was french distillers like the Tarascon brothers Jean and Louis. Who shipped their whiskey down to New Orleans in charred new oak where french settlers were calling for something closer to cognac than corn whiskey. The Tarascons might have called it bourbon to further entice them…increasing demand for that Old Bourbon Kentucky Whiskey. Bernie Lubbers pulls at the yarns we have all been told, pulls some of the stories right apart. Though I’m left with all this debris of hyperbole at my feet and rapt to Lubbers studied history of Heaven Hill Distillery…I am left watching realizing that he took away some of the fables, but neglected to put all the facts in their place…leaving a dreaded vacant uncertainty. I think of the stories I have been told and the stories I have told myself, of whiskey and talking with friends, and how this oral history of distillers, reps and bartenders is a healthy cocktail of spirits, truth and tall tales…then I remember a joke Bernie makes… “A barrel without liquid is like me on Saturday night…it loses its integrity.”
If you asked the current roster of bartenders and apprentices what bottle stands tall and exemplar on the backbar…that would quickly be answered with Heaven Hill distilled Rittenhouse, Straight Rye Whisky…Bottled in Bond. A whiskey that is the spirit of one distiller at one distillery and one distilling season. It is composed of the same spirit and the same class of materials. It is trust in a truly singular expression of that distillers skill that must be bottled and stored in government bonded warehouses for a minimum of four years…supervised by treasury agents. The act also prohibits any fuckery of condition or character, nothing can be put in and not a damn thing can be taken out save for water to reduce proof…no less than 100 Proof or 50% alcohol per volume. I am also a card carrying…certified…Bonded Bartender now thanks to Bernie Lubbers.
After the discourse and tasting at Chambar, feeling a little more than tight, I headed to my night shift at Pourhouse. Imbued with whiskey, but stoop shouldered with the burden of proof. Bernie and a supplier named Vito, sat down at the hundred and twenty year old reclaimed Douglas Fir bar. They slipped into a conversation amidst the gaslights and Howlin’ Wolf. I made them a cocktail that is a marriage of Heaven Hill whiskey and Pourhouse style decided upon by myself and “The White Wizard,” Christopher Flett…The pre-prohibition classic, the Brooklyn. An elegant manhattan variation made of Rittenhouse, dry vermouth, Maraschino and Amer Picon (something we have to make in-house). On what was a rare quiet night I was allowed to leave work early (letting an apprentice take over to beef up his skill set) and sat down for a burger and an Elijah Craig Old Fashioned, my second favourite bourbon next to Corner Creek. As I left, headed home for the evening, I shook hands with Vito and Bernie, thanked Bernie again for the schooling…and he thanked me for being a champion of Heaven Hill whiskey. He told me to wait and reached into his pocket to give me his business card…a poker chip, a symbol of skill and chance tethered together, much like the history of American Whiskey, and much like my career as a bartender.
-Derek Sterling Boone
The Graceful Exit
My thirteen year career as a bartender is split between a ten year tour of duty at an infamous Granville Street nightclub and a three year continuing post at the Pourhouse in Gastown. The former made me feel like a grunt in the midst of trench warfare. The latter more like a green beret…in the ranks of some serious and specialized bartenders. They took me in, all rough around the edges, and gave me a chance. Even as an old dog I learned a new level of craftsmanship and creative edge, I finally loved what I did. I have been a service well bartender most of my career…At Pourhouse this means I’m responsible for all drink orders for the restaurant, lounge and the wood in front of me, the other bartender is there for the rest of the wood. I’m a workhorse, a real grinder, so give me a busy night, a white-out, in the weeds, chits deep and the gentleman or lady in front of my bar asks for a Dealer’s Choice. In the parlance of the cocktail, that means a few details fleshed out but ultimately free rein for a bartender. You can reference a five year history of Pourhouse creations or take from our firm adherence to pre-prohibition cocktail history…or empty your mind like the waiting coupe glass in front of your stirring pitcher. All the while a whirlwind of servers are waiting for drinks, managers are calling out 86’s, and the kitchen bell is ringing for service. I get a brief respite, a zen koan, a moment to create something out of nothing.
I had a regular in front me who asked me to come up with “one for the road,” I asked if he liked Mezcal and he smiled in approval. Mezcal is a song I can’t get out of my head, it haunts me…as an ingredient I’m fearless with it and that’s the way I feel it wants to be treated. Usually I take a classic, break it apart and rebuild it either from the foundation spirit or the supporting structure of unique amaro, liqueur or other oddities we like to hunt down and covet. So I bastardized and tweaked a spirit/sweet/bitter build, by taking a heavy smoke, sweet and spicy Mezcal like Los Siete Misterios, the floral and herbal sing-song of Amaro Montenegro, the bitter and sweet oranges of Aperol, a dash of Bitter Truth peach bitters to round out the fruits and lemon oil to dry out the finish. The regular stared at me after the first sip, then back down…I asked for his verdict…he nodded his head, refusing to look up from the coupe. Silence mixed with measured and considerate sips, then maybe a smile are the only signs I look for…if that’s what you get, then it goes in the little black book of recipes we keep on the back bar. He asked me for the name…and I told him I just came up with it…no name meant he would have to wait before he got to call it out to another bartender.
When I worked on Granville I had some rough nights…obnoxious riffraff looking to burn the world nights…Granville on a weekend is like a DMZ…an Apocalypse populated only by the doucheratti and their ilk. Every weekend I was helping doormen break-up fights or in the middle of my own with no doormen to be found. You acted like a shitheel, then you got curbed (I don’t mean stomped, I mean yesterdays trash). This part of being a bartender appealed to me, something Hammett or Chandler-esque about it all. Late night noir and a Speakeasy dust-up. A barroom spaghetti western stand off. Like Toshiro Mifune…a samurai brawl in a sake joint. I really loved this shit. I saw countless ‘little boys,’ dumbed down and lit up by testosterone, cocaine and jagerbombs, taken out with a ‘hard exit’. Of the two doors, that acted as entrance and exit to the nightclub, one was open and the other was locked. The doormen escorting the antagonists out the door would attempt to unlock that door with said shitheels head, hence the “Hard Exit.”
As the regular finished up his drink, paid his bill and shook my hand goodnight…he thanked me for the cocktails and imparted that he hoped I would name that drink soon. As he walked out the door, I remember thinking, so that’s what a graceful exit looks like.
Derek Sterling Boone