Drinking with Civilians

by Alia Akkam

 “There are no vodka cocktails on this menu,” my friend, who works in the education field, whined.

We were on the patio of a Brooklyn cocktail lair, surrounded by hipsters sipping well-crafted drinks – some laced with Campari and flaunting perfectly geometric squares of ice, others crowned with frothy egg whites. Before she could embarrass me by pleading with the waitress for a vodka and soda, I matter-of-factly said, “They don’t serve vodka here; it’s not that kind of place.”

She huffed, mumbled something about hating elitist bars, shunned the idea of gin, and looked at me skeptically when I suggested she try the Cognac creation. One sip of that, and her face scrunched up in horror. “Maybe try the Whiskey Smash instead,” I suggested. Her reaction to that one was less volatile than the Cognac elicited, but as she took reluctant sips all night, it was clear she was unhappy. “Why couldn’t I just get vodka?” she managed to ask one more time.

It’s a good question, and I wish I had thought of responding with, “For the same reason I can’t get bitters at that dive bar down the street you prefer.” If we had hung out there, where she would have been comfortable swilling “cocktails” from the well, I wouldn’t have even deigned to order a drink, settling on the safety of a beer instead.

While I personally don’t seek out vodka on a regular basis, I am happy to enjoy it on the rocks when it’s a high-quality brand (I’m a sucker for Karlsson’s with a dusting of cracked black pepper, for example) or integrated into, say, an innovative Bloody Mary. What frustrated me wasn’t that she was craving vodka so much as her unwillingness to try something new. Sure, maybe she really didn’t have a taste for the Cognac or whiskey drinks, but my guess is she didn’t want to like them, pouting over not getting what was familiar.

Like many of you, I confess to being a cocktail geek. I don’t expect my non-industry friends to feel a rush of adrenaline when they see a vintage Boston shaker in an antique store like I do, but I do resent when there is a lack of reverence for the craft of making cocktails. “It’s just a drink,” my music-obsessed friend told me once. Really? So, I suppose if I forced her to listen to Colbie Callait for an hour that would be okay because it’s just “something to listen to.”

Being in the industry, we easily take for granted that we can go to a renowned bar and run into a friend or strike up a conversation with a bartender we know at any given time. But when we hang out with friends who get tipsy after one cocktail and don’t know the difference between Employees Only and Dutch Kills, we are reminded of just how snobby we appear to them. Consider the editor friend who excitedly told me how she had just discovered Hendrick’s Gin, to which I snapped, “I’ve been drinking that for six years.”

Our impulse might be to throttle the companion who asks the bartender what amaro is, but we need to remember there is a world beyond booze, too, and we can’t expect the investment banker, even though he can afford a well-stocked bar in his penthouse, to understand the difference between bourbon and Canadian Whisky as easily as derivatives and convertible bonds. The best we can do is educate, and hope our pals are willing to learn and share our different realms of expertise. I have two designer friends who throw around terms like Post-Modernism with regularity, but they barely drink. When they know a date with me is on the horizon, however, they get excited to quaff newfound liqueurs like Aperol, while I sit riveted by the details of Art Deco windows. For the close-minded crew, thankfully there’s always a wine bar for an anxiety-free hangout.

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