I hold a memory of being, say, seven years old. My parents were hosting a family party, and I walked into their bedroom — maybe I was playing hide and seek with my cousins.
Something drew me to the sight of a classic red Budweiser can sitting on a TV table. Not only was I seven, but the can was probably room temperature and likely discarded. The taste was so jarring that I spit it out into a nearby plastic cup. That was the memory I had for the drink for years to come.
I didn’t drink at high school parties, or even in my early college career. It wasn’t exactly that I held some moral stance — most of my friends did drink before they turned 21. I had no insightful health or philosophical stance. I just didn’t like the culture that came with it. I felt mostly socially comfortable and came to like being different by not drinking.
Years later I would better understand there were issues of alcoholism in my family. That became a factor in my approaching drinking with a kind of detached anthropological approach. Somewhere in my mind is always the fear of losing control and hurting those around me, as others in my family have.
I recognized the deep and historical culture tied to it all, and I also respected many people who had very informed, robust views of spirits. I wanted to have something resembling that too.
I’ve clearly developed a relationship to spirits; They are a big part of my rather idiosyncratic opinions about glassware. But I don’t typically develop particularly snooty opinions. In fashion and housewares and food, I want to be someone who knows what I like and what goes into quality. But I’ve resisted being dismissive of others, knowing how relatively uninformed I am.
I take coffee far more seriously today than in the past. I do have a taste preference but any reasonably quality pour will satisfy my. I also think there’s something different about a diner cup and an artisan experience. I want to be someone who can appreciate them both.
That’s how I’ve approached alcohol.
My first two bar experiences were the night I turned 21 and a few days later that weekend. On my 21st, I went to a beloved and respectable dive bar in Center City Philadelphia. That weekend, I had my father buy me a beer at a classic of my rural hometown — at first he offered to just have a drink at home, but I had to remind him that that wasn’t the point.
At both places, I had a Yuengling lager, which I associated then as being loosely “local” to Philadelphia, old and approachable. Though I tried other beer, that was my go-to for most of my 21st year.
At a young age, I had a pretty good handle on the idea that drinking was not just what you liked but also a signal for who you wanted to be. I was falling deeply in love with Philadelphia at that time, and I was reading about a growing craft beer movement happening both nationally and locally.
The first local beer I really loved was Kenzinger from Philadelphia Brewing Company. Through PBC, I started to buy and explore the catalog of its older parent Yards, eventually finding its Brawler, a deceptively dark, malty ale.
After college, I would sometimes get a Jack and Coke, later transitioning to Jameson and Ginger, because I found happy hours with $5 pours, and I thought it was better for me with a cheaper buzz.
In 2011, at 25, I took a road trip with childhood friends in Ireland. In preparation, I tried my first more serious attempt to understand what whiskey actually was. I enlisted my uncle, a scotch drinker, and began my own (very limited) exploration. I bought my first few bottles of Jameson, sipping sometimes but still usually drowning it in soda.
The Ireland trip was genuinely rather helpful in maturing me quickly. Not just the Jameson distillery tour, which I thought was about the coolest thing I’d ever seen, but also the Guinness brewery, and spending more than a week talking to bartenders and my friends, as we drank not to get drunk but to learn and compare notes.
In the following years, at family parties, my uncle would lead my cousins and me in small tasting sessions, comparing his scotch to whatever other whiskeys were around. I traveled more, experiencing craft beer and spirits from around the world.
I experienced a few early, embarrassing experiences with wine, exposing me to a universe of culture I was deeply intimidated by, so I shied away from this world. I slowly and quietly gained a very rudimentary appreciation. I still couldn’t offer you much insight but I can get great cheer from sharing some $25 bottle of red with friends.
I instead put more time into spirits.
By 2014, at 28, I felt confident that whiskeys were my drink of choice, though I was still developing a palette. Still price sensitive, I might get a popular mass-market bourbon (say, Maker’s Mark) or a Jameson at happy hour. In the right circumstance, I was getting whiskey cocktails out at a bar or restaurant. I was appreciating seasonality: when I appreciated the Miller High Life in the hot sun, or a flavorful craft beer in the fall; when I liked light and airy cocktails in the sun and a brooding whiskey pour in the winter; when a sparkling wine was the right celebration or a red felt right best.
The next year, my specialty drink for my wedding was an Old Fashioned, with Bulleit Rye, in my recollection. At 30, I felt like I had a fine foundation, an appreciation for the five or six primary liquors, confidence in what different beers did for me and why I’d enjoy wine. I was pairing with the time of year and the experience and the geography and my own mood.
In 2017, I played with cocktails at home for the first time. I grew mint for mojitos and mint juleps; I used bitters for old fashioneds; I tried mixes for rouges and even got pretty good at using egg whites for whiskey sours.
Last year one of my resolutions was to get deeper in the world of whiskeys. I explored the Kentucky Bourbon trail with one of the childhood friends with whom I went to Ireland seven years earlier. I read and listened and learned, on tours and podcasts and articles and a couple books. I developed a (limited) understanding of mash bill, the malt-forward scotches, the sea-kissed Irish whiskeys, the sweet, corn-dominated bourbons and, increasingly for me, the spicy ryes, including their Pennsylvania roots.
I can now make at home a fairly respectable Old Fashioned, and understand why. In my home I have a collection of still fairly lower-cost but varied whiskeys — plus at least something worthwhile from each of the liquor standards. There’s always a few decent wines and some good local beer around.
A friend once told me that he thinks the warmest homes are those with pets, books and booze. I’ve enjoyed the journey of becoming one of those households.