Bottoms Up

For our second review, we had hoped to add to our street credit (not that it was lacking) with the added dimension of a seasonal theme, but alas, the best laid schemes of mice and men go, and the liquor store was out of Sam Adam’s Oktoberfest. Bereft of another excuse to write about beer, we were forced to turn to the thus far unexplored world of spirits, hoping to warm our own after walking down Spring Street on one of those signature Williamstown “why the hell is it so cold in October” evenings.

We knew we had to start somewhat basic, but even that decision did little to narrow down our range of options.  And what more awkward feeling is there than standing slack-jawed and stupid in front of a liquor store counter, or an open bar, looking at bottles upon bottles of perfectly acceptable paths to drunkenness yet still without a clue about what to order? You’ve been there; we know you have. That’s why we ended up reviewing two similar yet distinctly classic, and some might go so far as to say canonical, drinks – the classic gin and tonic and its Russian stepbrother, the vodka-tonic. A little classier perhaps than the standard rum and Coke, but less of a mouthful than “whiskey and ginger ale with lime,” both are great go-to drinks, something to have lined up in your back pocket so you won’t have to look like an idiot scratching your head in front of that open bar at your cousin’s wedding.

First for us was the V&T. We used Smirnoff – a cut above by college or well drink standards, but nothing too special at $5.25 a half-pint. For the sake of our own aesthetic experience and the honor of the article, we bucked the tradition of warm shots from a handle and poured our vodka over ice. Ice is one of two important ingredients that oftentimes gets overlooked during the consumption of highball drinks (those containing one spirit and one mixer). The other is the glass. Your standard highball glass filled with ice leaves room for exactly a shot and a half of alcohol, but since we were mixing with tonic, we went a size up, leaving plenty of room to work with.

Taking a swig of lone tonic is an experience everyone should have at least once. The stuff is absolutely horrible – flat, sour, bitter, even painful to the insides of the mouth. Yet there’s just something about it; two parts of that and some ice to chill the whole drink and somehow vodka has gone from throat-burning gasoline to a smooth, refreshing elixir that slides gently over the tongue, not setting your whole mouth on fire but rather providing a subtle warmth only once the drink has hit the back of your tongue and begins its silky descent into your chest. This delayed effect also leaves a somewhat dry taste in the mouth after swallowing, but this can be a good thing once you have progressed beyond the $14-per-handle stuff. The drink is also versatile enough to leave much room for garnishes; lemons, limes, splashes of cranberry – all these and more can let you make the V&T entirely your own.

Okay, so then we moved onto the gin. Things heard about gin: gentleman’s drink, old man’s drink, gangster rapper’s drink. Gin – an alcoholic liquor obtained by distilling grain mash with juniper berries, which gives the drink a unique piney flavor, and which one passerby once described (and we can’t help but agree) as smelling and tasting a bit like Christmas. For the gin and tonics, we splurged for the Tanqueray ($10/half-pint), and the extra effort really shone through in the drink’s flavor. Unlike the more subtle V&T, the Tanqueray G&T hits you with that undeniably distinct gin flavor as soon as it hits your lips, but chances are that by then its aroma alone has already slapped you square in the face. Although we used ice just as we had previously, the gin in this cocktail always retained a much greater sense of warmth, one that undercuts its actual temperature for the entire duration of the consumption process, not only once it has gotten to your chest. Certainly a drink to be enjoyed slowly and decisively – sipped, like one would from an ancient well in search of sustenance, or the soul of a reservoir buried deep beneath the ground. Unlike the V&T, the G&T has really only room for one garnish, and if you ask for one topped with anything but a wedge of lime you are likely to earn gawks and even, depending on location and time of night, get shot by gangsters (or even “schooled” by gangster rappers).

So whether it’s the reliable smoothness of a vodka and tonic, or that special place that tonic water brings the already legendary flavor of a good gin, there is something about each of these drinks that makes them a good addition to the drinker’s repertoire. And nothing is so satisfying as the knowing, acceptant nod of a bartender to a drink request that is confident and decisive instead of confusedly panicked.