The first time I remember tasting bourbon was less than a decade ago. I was at a party hosted by a colleague and her husband in an up-and-coming neighborhood within the DC city limits. My wife and I were living in a small studio in the upper reaches of the Georgetown neighborhood. She was away for a few weeks, somewhere in western Africa on behalf of Uncle Sam. The apartment, being what it was at 500 square feet, was mine alone for a brief respite. I took these opportunities to explore and perhaps indulge a little more than I would otherwise.
The party was an interesting mix of DC lawyers, association folks, bourbon, and Frito Pie. I attended knowing precisely one individual. I was a bit reserved around new people at that time as well. This is generally all that is needed for an early night at home binge watching episodes and finishing a few drinks of my own on the couch of my choosing. But instead I asked for a little bourbon.
My father enjoyed single malt scotch when I was young and impressionable. I felt, without really a reason of my own, that it was the superior being of the whiskeys. So much so that I really never saw a reason to branch outside Speyside for my every whiskey need. Truth is, I probably drank more beer or gin at this time than anything else. But Scotch was still at the top of the food chain.
My host was from Kentucky and had a sizable collection of bourbons to taste. I tried three or four. They were, I decided, pretty drinkable. Expecting smoke I instead tasted sweet. Instead of hollow, I found something rich and full of character.
Drinking is as much an art form as anything else. The chief occupation of many suburban bars across america is a fill-in-the-blank game of ice and liquid with flavors that mask as much as 100% of the alcohol in a glass. One red cup for you, blue goes over here, and the pink blended drink with the umbrella belongs to the gentleman in the back. Of course the true artists mull fresh sprigs of freshly harvested herbs, shaving thin strips of charred tropical fruits over glasses of shaped ice and alcohol hand-crafted by men with authentic beards and tanned leather boots.
I digress. As the night progressed the bourbon did not slow but rather accelerated the way that all drinks do after the tipping point. Most anyone with any real experience in alcohol knows that moment only in retrospect. Only the most seasoned veteran of Friday nights and languid, miserable Saturdays will see the point in the distance in the way surfers can sense a set approaching. And only when you cross that bridge, any chance of return blocked off by the physics of the human body and retribution you deserve for actually knowing better, you realize what you have done. My moment of clarity generally happens while looking in a mirror (*I find now that it's best to avoid mirrors at all given that after any amount more than a few sips my third eye becomes resplendent like a distant sun).
And I was in good company. By this point the double-handle-sized bottle of Maker’s Mark on the swivel stand was well into it. Drinks were less poured for taste than for experience. Roland Barthes once said that a drink is in France seen as the spinning out of a pleasure, drunkenness a consequence rather than intention. There is an animal quality to the experience of a dinner-party-turned-feast-of-Bacchus. Drinking is the trojan horse of logic. It's first job in every brain is to start to put this portion of your mind to sleep, calmly reading sweet stories and happy endings to a disbelieving yet approving fully functioning mind. After the kind of lives everyone has lived one's rational mind wants to go to sleep at times. It wants to be subdued and given a chance to recuperate. So it says, “ok, just for five minutes”. And that's, generally, like, scientific and encyclopedic, man.
So now you know the status of each mind when guests were rationed a significant Styrofoam(TM) coffee cup of Maker’s Mark with a lid. There was a show on the other side of town and we had respectable cabs to take us there, powered by bourbon.
After a while your tongue no longer registers the sensation of high proof alcohol. The wincing action of each parched cowboy as they slog down a shot of warm whiskey in a dusty saloon, having just traversed a baking desert in three layers of leather jackets and dark hats becomes ridiculous. Your tongue only registers the sweet, rich flavor of whatever you are drinking. And so you drink faster than what would have been reasonable only hours earlier. And the cup that seemed daunting suddenly feels empty. But you feel fine. I mean, sure you should have stopped a while ago, but that drink totally didn’t add to the current state.
Except that twenty minutes happen.
Climbers visiting the larger peaks in the Drunk Mountains will on occasion slip off a glacier rather than safely and slowly return to the security of base camp. One foot slips first. An attempt to rally occurs. Then one gives in to the slip knowing there is, quite frankly, nothing that can be done. You must stay the course and hope for the best.
I needed to get home as soon as possible. I was in a less than savory neighborhood with zero money in my pocket. Decisions are reduced to needs in this state. You must act and do so quickly despite the ability to see clearly or think in ways that seem convincing to anyone including yourself. I decided to start with a cab. A cab will bring me to an ATM and then home. I would be in my bed sleeping within the hour. A little sleep, something for the headache in the morning, and with a little luck we would be able to salvage a portion of what remained of the weekend.
In the bottom of my throat I felt it coming. Then the need to roll down a window as soon as possible.
Twenty long minutes later the cab left me wobbly and partially hunched, leaving some thirty years of expertly distilled grains and caramelized oak sugars streaming down the side of the poor man’s livelihood. But I was in no position to do anything about that now.
Bourbon by default must be comprised of 51% or more corn in its mash bill. By default the other 49% can be composed of rye, wheat, or naked hate filled aggression towards the front left quadrant of my brain. It's only when you drink too much that this force of evil is able to gain the kind of traction necessary to make you wish every laugh, every damn memorable moment from the night before would disappear if even for the smallest sliver of reprieve.
But there was none to be had. I did not sleep. For me, hangovers are so natural and easy to come you might think I was born to feel like a cracked egg in an 80’s drug ad after drinking. The next two days comprised of equal parts exhaustion from a headache that kept me from sleeping to a sick feeling that would arise each time the TV (the unnaturally bright box in the corner, equal parts companion and source of discomfort) hinted at food or even water. To think was painful. To get up risked getting sick. To pretty much try to do anything required in order to maintain life was rendered obsolete.
After two days I slowly moved from the couch to my clothing. I managed to slowly apply each piece of clothing, a wallet, cell phone. I was dehydrated. But more importantly I had to move my car from where it was improperly long-term housed in a metro parking garage a dark, warm 35 min ride that would follow a ten minute walk in the sun.
Slowly the walk began to help a little at a time. But I was dangerously dehydrated and my blood sugar was lower than it should be after a day or so on little more than a few crackers. But first the car, then find something close.
This was a plan that was not thoroughly thought through. My first choice should have been gatorade. Then perhaps food. But no matter what the first should be gatorade. Instead I made it to the car and managed to move it as we did in those days, moving mere floors to throw off the authorities (so smart). Before long I felt desperate. I needed something now. I scanned for a soda machine and saw the glimmer of one in a gas station across the street. It was glorious. My target was Sprite. If that worked well, the caffeine in Coke would be the icing on the cake. I crossed over a short wall and across a small lawn. With a single-minded clarity I got there. I had precisely enough money for one bottle of Sprite and felt part of me ease for the first time in two days. The miracle of the mind is that I began to feel better before the first drop touched my lips. Beginning to end it was the barrel aged, distilled corn mash that brought me to my knees and a sugary corn syrup that saved me.