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Friday, May 20, 2005

The Modern Drunkard Convention: not the reportage you were expecting

It was Friday the 13th. I was slated to speak from stage to sundry drunken throngs on Sunday, but wanted to get the whole experience. I was sitting in row 13 as my flight swooped into Denver. I knew it would be special.

Modern Drunkard Magazine had me picked up at the airport by one of their (almost all) part time staff. "I’d do anything for Frank and Christa" Frank Bell told me cheerfully as we headed downtown. Mr. Bell had been designated the driver of the Drunk Bus which carted the horde of Drunkards from venue to venue to hotels for the 1st convention last year in Las Vegas. In fact he drove the bus there from Denver. It was that sort of unmitigated loyalty that I’d see repeatedly from the MDM staff during my stay.

All my hotel arrangements, likewise, seemed (rather counter-intuitively) to have been performed by a sober person; I was expected, and all was in order. At 7pm I strolled over to the Ogden Theater which turned out to be purely a rock & roll venue, not unlike the Hollywood Palladium. Things were already in full swing. Frank Kelly Rich, the human embodiment of Modern Drunkard Magazine and the brain behind the convention was onstage introducing his staffers to thunderous applause. It looked like the three bars and 2 large kegs were at full steam, as was Frank.

The performances during the three day event were an odd mix of Cirque de Solé, burlesque, lounge, rock, comedy and country thrash. Then there was me, but that comes later.

Frank was somewhat the worse for wear by the time he caught sight of me. "DOCTOR Cocktail, I am soooo glad yrrrr here!" he slurred with a giant grin. And that is really what this is all about; the cult of Frank. Everybody loves Frank Kelly Rich. He’s disarmingly sincere. In this case, a fearsome percentage of attendees wanted a personal drink with the Man. He was not fain to turn any of them down and he’d had a lot more to drink than showed. His stamina was truly awesome. He kept this up all night and, having reached this fairly early plateau of mildly slurred speech maintained that level, juggernaut-like for the unreeling hours of love. Despite the few dander-raising issues in his life (Jack Daniel’s lowering the proof of their whisky without telling anyone and THEN continuing to piously claim tradition is one, Denver Sunday Blue Laws - backed by Big Beer, he says - is another) Frank is a bona fide people lover, and it shows. When, that night, the boozing finally began to take its toll, his wife Christa was by him, head to head stroking his blond hair, and shortly thereafter they disappeared. Though, by special arrangement with various venues (including a former synagogue,) the partying would go literally all night, I also hightailed it back to the hotel full of amusement and Maker’s Mark - both on Frank’s tab.

Denver has a lot of bars, especially down on East Colfax Ave. I mean a LOT of bars. The bars are what pay for Modern Drunkard Magazine through their ads and the magazine repays them in kind with free copies, fresh humor and alcoholic insights monthly. that’s the other thing about Frank…. he’s really very smart. He’s written four novels…. fiction potboilers, and does the best of the writing for the mag and website. He has a new book deal with a major publishing house for Modern Drunkard-branded wisdom. Frank and I share literary agents, so I am bound not to reveal his advance, but if you were there and saw a couple marbles rolling around on the floor, thank you for not stepping on them - they were my eyeballs.

Which brings us to the little teapot tempest between MDM and Martini Republic before my tenure here. Editor Joseph handed MDM a backhanded compliment by directing readers to MDM’s Bill W. (A.A.) story - while opining that the writing from a grammarian point of view was, well, beneath MR’s standards. I suppose he had to say it; MR’s many viperous antagonists would surely have had a field day connecting this blog, which revels in its virtuousness, with the Drunkards’ rabble. And to be fair, when Modern Drunkard interviewed me the transcriptionists turned LA into San Francisco and my word "assuage" into "a sway." When I wrote them about it, Frank quipped, "That’s why we call ‘em the 100-proof readers!" but the website had the corrections in place the next day. That said, while Martini Republic revels in this sort of confrontation, it was a bit of a sucker punch to MDM which exudes boozy good will - and whose readers are as loyal as their staff. How loyal? Loyal like Macintosh computer owners-loyal. So they had the obligatory write in campaign and withering put downs grew like wildflowers. When I told Frank I’d be writing for Martini Republic, he simply said "Better watch out for those guys, Doc, they’re a bunch of commies." At the time I took it as a compliment. Anyway, if Joseph was actually taking issue with the talent on MDM’s staff, he wasn’t looking closely enough - and he had it wrong. If, more likely, it was the 100-proof readers, well… oh, well! The lifeblood of online posting is over-reaction.

So Frank was ensconced most of the second day with reporters as the entertainment continued to unfold. I’m not going to make any effort to further describe the acts. I’m not that kind of a reporter. On this evening, though, I chose to indulge in the one liquor company sponsor brave enough to contribute its name (and booth) to the convention: Fernet Branca. Rockers love Fernet Branca for the same reason Bikers love Malort (or, to be correct, Malørt) - to show how tough they are. Me? I actually like it. I actually like both. I like Ng ka py too, and everyone knows Ng ka py is for really tough bastards. So it was Maker’s and Fernet, though in honor of my first full convention day, I started out a smidge earlier with a three Martini lunch. Mainly the second day was the "Where’s Frank?" day. I was thinking that perhaps the Modern Drunkards’ Convention in Denver was just a little TOO close to home for Frank’s good health.

On the third day (how very biblical) I rested. I arrived an hour before I was to take stage, donned my Dr.Cocktail shirt, a stethoscope, and a 1948 physicians electrical head mirror. Frank was being interviewed by the BBC. The MC "Titsa Galore" introduced me and I spent the next hour talking earnestly about mixed drink history. I explained fermentation, distillation, the first mixed drinks (spiced wine,) the first liquor (brandy,) the main precursor to the cocktail (punch) and the whole history of the cocktail. Every 15 minutes I made a cocktail of the sort I revealed in my book: a forgotten cocktail. I’d take a sip and pass it down to the audience who had, at this point, made an orderly group to receive these sacraments. I told them of the ultimate cocktail (laudanum). I had a heckler - a set of powerful lungs screaming "COCKTAILLLLLLL!!!" repeatedly. I leaned over and said "try laudanum." "LAUDANUMMMM!!!!" "Very good," I said, "but that’s not what I meant." It was really the most harmonious stage experience I’ve ever had. The Drunkards were the dream rapt audience. From the wild applause the moment I said "I’M Dr. Cocktail - and YOU’RE the Modern Drunkards" to the serious questions in the experts seminar (me, Frank, and the MDM staff) that would follow, the whole convention had a kind of warmth of heart that is quite out of style these days, and really has been since the 60s. It felt good. It was the emotional opposite of punditry.

I find myself hoping for a long vital life for Frank and his coterie, and maybe worrying too. We got along very well, he and I. I think he was intellectually fascinated by the doppelgangers that were our mutual - and mutually-different - lives in alcohol, as was I. “You know,” he said, “yours was the longest interview I’ve ever done.” Bless your Kerouac-heart and just be well Frank, if you can’t be good.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Quick notes for serious drinkers

Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, who wrote the two best tiki drink books yet published: "Beachbum Berry’s Grog Log" and "Intoxica," has finally launched his eponymous website. Given all of the awful Flash-animated color/font/graphic-packed tropical (and other) drink-oriented sites out there, Jeff’s is both a relief and a pleasure.

Since Berry actually plies his trade as a writer, the verbiage (and the humor) are a cut above. Since I am a committed fan of the lengths to which he goes to achieve his conception of perfectly balanced potions, I’ll note that his taste buds do not fail him in the rum review section either. My only complaint is that it is too short. Berry says "I just didn’t want to go on about all the rums I hated." I say…g’wan! We just like to read your writing.

The Bum recently released a third book as well, "The Taboo Table," which didn’t make quite the same media splash as the other two. This is because, while there are drink recipes in it, it’s really a tiki cookbook, a food preparation style cooks and non-cooks alike viscerally consider icky. Ya know what? It’s actually damned good, and he used those enviable gold-plated taste buds of his again to shore up the recipes - which end up being strangely inspiring. CoI disclosure: I wrote the cover blurb. But lookit…rumaki is everyone’s plausibly deniable indulgence. Er, OK - it’s mine.

In other news, I am to be a keynote speaker at the annual Modern Drunkards Convention - this year, in Modern Drunkard Magazine’s hometown of Denver, Colorado this coming Sunday. No driving. All venues involved in the 3 day event are within crawling distance; not that I plan to in any way compete with THOSE topers. I shall report the entire event as it gloriously transpires, dear readers, upon my return.

–Your Doctor.

Monday, May 9, 2005

Cinnabar update

Over drinks and dinner with Nurse Cocktail, Chuck Taggart, and Wesly Moore, we learned the why and wherefore of Cinnabar’s pending demise. It’s the driving, stupid. But of course, that’s getting off too easy. Weekday business was way down and had been for some time. Alvin, Damon, and Flame had been discussing closing for over a year. They chose their moment with discomfiture but, as we saw them, were obviously at peace with it. Alvin looked tired. I knew he would enjoy kicking back. Flame is always about possibilities.

So, readers from the larger world are puzzled at the fuss. OK, a cocktail venue is gone, but it’s just one joint. Well…

The history speaks. In fact, the voices of Los Angeles history are a cacophony from Cinnabar. Alvin’s inspired take on the Negroni landed them national recognition when famous cocktail scribe Gary Regan published their recipe and cited them in his book "New Classic Cocktails". The drink probably belonged as much to his talented bartender, Jason MacDonald. I followed Jason to the newly-minted Cinnabar when he left the closing Duplex. It was at Duplex I met Jason, who introduced me to Paul Greenstein, band leader of the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters, owner of Millie’s, and co-author of "Bread & Hyacinths" - a riveting book on the Socialist movement in Southern California. Duplex, despite its out of the way location saw a number of celebrities in for the amazing food and drinks. And Cinnabar got Bob Hope. They also had the famed Yee Mee Loo bar. Yee Mee Loo was a Chinatown bar right out of Raymond Chandler. Alvin had an interest. He got the back bar, bartender Richard moved to the Good Luck Bar, and both places co-opted Yee’s signature drink, the TiDeeBowl. Old timers remember the tiny Yee Mee Loo with reverence, and that back bar was originally a Hollywood prop from the 1930s. If we factor in six degrees of separation, Cinnabar was a true Los Angeles nexus point in history. They made damned fine cocktails to boot.

So we didn’t come in on weekdays anymore. Flame looked at me when I showed up Saturday night. "It’s YOUR fault" she said, and maybe so. I moved just about twice the time distance away - but obviously I was not the only one staying home. It’s the driving, stupid - but, even so, I think Walt Kelly said it best: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

–Doc.

Friday, May 6, 2005

The scales tip away from us

Cocktails have always carried the Scales of Justice. Empyrean flavors, the back story of not merely every libation you’ve ever had, but of all sips in all dark taverns and in the umbrella’d sunlight of bygone days, celebrations, thoughtful ponderings, romances, and euphoria - all on the one side, and taciturn, belligerent, torpor topped with flagging motor control and lonely DUIs weighing down the other. It’s a balance some achieve more successfully than others. In the quest to maintain the healthiest of balances while enjoying sophisticated lifestyles, there is also a certain handicapping going on.

Places like New York, London, San Francisco, Paris, New Orleans support the narrow path to gracious imbibing better than other places, like the one in which I live, Hollywood and environs. Why? It’s the driving, stupid. It’s why those walking mass-transit non-NIMBY cities have proud career bartenders and we have actors between gigs. And we are just about to lose another of the few important venues for the classic cocktail we have.

When the cocktail literati come to town, they inevitably inquire. Who wouldn’t? Where are the good drinks to be had? My answers always came with the same regretful boilerplate caveat: Los Angeles is so big, so sprawling, one must drive and the venues are in no way centralized.

For tropical punches go to the Tiki Ti and Trader Vic’s. For Martinis, Musso & Frank’s. For Singapore Slings, gin fizzes, Le Freres Taix - but only during the day. Old time barkeeps don’t want to stay up late or drive at night - and come the night, lots of joints want Pretty behind the bar. For Mojitos, it’s Ciudad - and for the best of them again, it’s the day shift so you can catch Tony Ramos working his magic - though he remains underutilized and under-appreciated as the best old tropical drink barman alive today. The Ivy still makes a lovely cross between a Gin Gimlet and a Rickey (which they call a Gimlet) and anything you can tell the bartenders at the Polo Lounge how to make, they will, to the very best of their collective ability. They don’t know the odd old drinks, but their customer service is top tier. You might catch Phil at Engine Company 28 downtown - if, indeed, he is still there. He likes to invent things which can be entertaining in that grand venue.

But if I were to tell them the one place that I as Dr.Cocktail knew where they might have a flight of arcane and classic potations, it was always the same. It was one place: Cinnabar in Glendale - and it’s closing.

Alvin weathered several bartenders, some great, some workable, and he put a lot of passion into his bar. I do not yet know why they are closing, but tomorrow night I will find out. It is, sadly, enough that they are. Mea culpa, I didn’t go as often as I used to. I moved and it was a bit further away - and I set up the best cocktail bar in the world (my house), but Cinnabar was always THE place for cocktails when out on the town, and they will be missed.

There have been a few particularly distressing closings in the past 10 years that impacted the availability of great cocktails in Southern California: Duplex and Madam Wu’s top that list. Chadney’s and Pierre’s Los Feliz Inn, also. And there was never a bartender at the Dresden like Evan. Perhaps, as we always hope, some new place of hope and cocktails will rise up. Perhaps. What we have seen more of in the past, however, are the Bar Marmonts, the Gordon Bierches, and the entire Sunset Strip where it’s single malt in a big tumbler, boutique Bourbon, little oddly-named beers and big oddly-named wines. Well prepared classic cocktails are simply MIA.

So let’s drink to Alvin, to Flame, to Cinnabar. Drink to them - and with them, at least until Sunday May 15th.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Good drinkers and good thinkers: Dr. Cocktail takes a barstool

I don’t blog, I don’t blog, I don’t blog. Oh look, I’m blogging.

~~~

I was an early web adopter. Then it was like, ok, I get that we have all this cyber real estate, but what do you DO with it? Write about yourself? Write a poem? Put up a pretty picture? It all seemed so self indulgent before the big corporations stepped in. And that’s how blogging struck me so many years later…a resurrection of the Web’s proud roots….directionless, self-indulgent crap. Ooh, my private diary…. but if you find it you can read about my every puerile whim!

So what happened? Good writers and good thinkers, that’s what. Day laborers who would never make their money with a pen turned out to have a point of view, but, again, so what? Well, so if they end up writing with articulate humor or passion that is enough. As Joseph Mailander, the host of my first blogging indulgence once said to me, "a good blog is the reader’s dirty secret, it’s his or her secret indulgence." A first-person narrative soap opera is what it is, but again, the writing and the smarts in the blogs we’ve come to know make them persuasive, and having laid down that foundation, we cycle back around to the individual points of view, and then we’re hooked.

Cocktails and politics, or to roll it all up and express it daintily, "cultural issues," have snuggled up before, symbiotic, less as a matter of drawing lines of correspondence than "I like Martinis. I like the ACLU. I will write of these two lovers and my menage e trois with them. Surely, it all preceded blogs and the web, but looking at those venues alone we see cocktails and politics again and again, alone and together. The bulletin boards, of course, now take on the aspect of blogs as well - and vice versa via peanut gallery mutterings from the blog comment forms.

Ever since I became notorious in my little corner of whimsy, (cocktail history,) the blogs have seemed like strangers overheard complimenting me without knowing I was there to hear. It was and had to be a fait accompli that I would one day be among them.

~~~

I met up with MartiniRepublic doing a Google search on Laird’s Applejack. It’s one of those searches I repeat on some kind of a schedule. Partially because applejack was the first spirit distilled in this country — and Laird’s was early to do so commercially (having assented to provide George Washington with their formula just to be nice) — and partially because I look for physical and informational artifacts of that history.

Among the Google results was the website MartiniRepublic.com. My inspection was consequential for the Laird piece, and cursory for the rest of the site… except for ONE OTHER POINT. They were Los Angeles-based. I was Los Angeles-based. This was important. It meant someone new to have Martinis with. I suggested as much. The depth of the whole political discourse aspect only sunk in after Joseph assented to the cocktail and suggested I contribute to the site.

Mulling that over, I proceeded to follow the various trails of bread crumbs left by MartiniRepublic leading hither and thither, and I learned. I learned that LA-affairs blogs are like a pit of vipers. They’re like a pond of piranhas. They’re like apples with razor blades in them. Am I putting too fine a point on it? Brother, walk a mile on my freeway. We have the obligatory national politics, liberal and conservative, but when it dips into the cesspool of local LA "cultural issues" jeez, hose me off. Right now we are readying ourselves for a mayoral election, mercifully now narrowed to two, even though all three still want to win. And all three of these gameshow contestants are putzes. We have the incumbent do-nothing putz, the talk big but don’t have a clue putz, and the golden boy who sold out to win putz. Oh, and the blogs get ALL whupped up over these guys and other nuances of the LA scene dealing with, among other items,… immigration, rights of one sort of another, and, oh yes, themselves. I really learned a thing or two when I saw the degree to which these blogs, mosquito-like, feed off each other. You know what it is? It’s love. They couldn’t live without one another, and for that reason I embrace them in all their nutty confrontational passion. Awwwww.

~~~

I met Joseph at the Tiki Ti bar, a clear indication we both knew our LA joints. My Navy Grog (with my special Pimento Dram additive) was already in hand when he walked in, and I knew him immediately. A strange combo of Hector Elizondo with the wry, dry humor only Satan himself could muster, and perhaps just a dash of antimatter Dennis Miller. We drank and I basically agreed to write for Martini Republic. Why? Didn’t I mention I could drink with him? Also, MartiniRepublic and the other rabid LA blogs out there are genuinely smart. I enjoy reading the ones that I by no means agree with, too. Why not? They too are smart. witty, and acerbic, and I embrace a lively divergency of points of view. But MartiniRepublic offered me a gig, they’ll let me write whatever my suspect brain tells me to, and did I mention we can meet for the occasional LA libation?

I’m Dr. Cocktail and I approved this column.