Michael Jack Pazdon, bar manager of Goose & Gander in California's Napa Valley, dedicates a small section behind his bar to terrible liquor, like whipped-cream-flavored vodka, gifted to him by distributors. It's hidden from customers' view on a "shelf of shame," which he pillages when he needs to punish bartenders who mess up at work. He'll pour a shot, hand it to the offending bartender, and command, "Put that in your mouth and think about what you've done."
It's a bit of an insider secret, but it's true: Drinking terrible, low-quality booze is quite common among bartenders. The same bartenders who offer you sophisticated drinks with blends of oude genever and oleo saccharum are also surreptitiously sucking back MGD and cream liqueur after shifts.
At Goose & Gander, it's become a popular game among friends. You may have heard about "icing", which stems from a similar mind-set: You surprise your friend with a Smirnoff Ice and make him kneel and chug it (usually with a camera in hand for the inevitable Instagram). Bartenders started sending emissaries from one bar to another to dole out the icing and even sent bottles across the country in the mail disguised as other (much-higher-quality) liquor.
These are but a few anecdotes. Having rigorously observed bartender culture from the scientific perch of a nearby barstool for many years, it occurred to me that many top bartenders are eschewing good booze in favor of absurd, repulsive, and/or hilarious drinks, like these four:
Bartenders have been known to swig high-proof and super-bitter spirits—like megapungent Wray & Nephew rum (63 percent alcohol)—during work hours, just to wake up a little. It's the equivalent of a splash of ice water on the face. The high-octane (it's 110 proof), highly flavorful, bracingly herbaceous green chartreuse is another favorite. In San Francisco, barkeeps were known for taking shots of the uber-bitter Fernet-Branca, and this has now spread internationally, while Chicago bartenders are known for enduring the torturous Jeppsen's Malrt (even its own label once described it as "brutal"). I've personally shared shots of stanky Batavia Arrack with some of my favorite bartenders but so far have avoided downing full ounces of Angostura bitters, which has become a thing.
Some mixologists prefer the truly trashy—drinks first sampled ironically and then embraced with open arms like a good/bad Journey song. I believe the pickle-juice chaser, a.k.a. the Pickleback, started this way. As did the tradition of making good drinks look bad by turning them electric blue. The current darlings of the trashy-liquor category are Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which tastes just like Atomic Fireball candy with a million times the sugar, and the milky, rum-cream-cinnamon concoction called RumChata. Thanks to the increasing number of cocktail conventions and the Internet, these sorority-girl shots sometimes spread faster among cocktail-makers than among consumers.
The Many Incarnations of the Bone Luge
Sometimes the delivery vessel of the liquor is more important than the liquor itself. Off-duty mixologists have been inventing various "luges" for years—making a slide out of something (a drink menu, the brim of a hat, etc.) and pouring booze down it and into your mouth. This seemed to reach a peak with the creation of the bone luge, where an intoxicant (often sherry) is poured through a hollowed-out marrow bone. The bone luge began in Portland, Oregon, but traveled far and wide and was so wonderfully stupid it made its way onto VH1 and into Anthony Bourdain's mouth. Bartenders have since moved on to making luges out of crab shells, oysters, and all sorts of other carcasses after they're finished eating them.
Liquid Word Play
Bartenders love to create special mixes for themselves and their friends by combining two favorite shots, often marrying the high-proof with the low-brow. Thus we get the FerTreuse (Fernet and Chartreuse), FerBalls (Fernet and Fireball), FerChata, and so on. These aren't always fun to drink, but it's fun to say you've tried them. Once, anyway.
—Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer and the publisher of alcademics.com.
• • •