Saturday, July 11, 2009

Palm Beach

During my freshman year of college, the biggest influence on my social development was probably my friend Julie. Possessed of two older siblings, she'd had years of instruction in all the important things, like how to mix a drink, how to befriend a bartender, and generally how to avoid appearing spastic in social situations. Better yet, Julie had lived in Greece, where the drinking age was low and largely unenforced. All in all, she had a wealth of knowledge about alcohol, bar behavior, and general sophistication, much of which she imparted with generosity and flair.

Over my Christmas break, she invited me to a New Year's party at her cousin's house. With vague promises of drinking, debauchery, and unimaginable delights, she convinced me to throw myself into a frenzy of total strangers and awkward interactions.

It would be fair to say that I was the star student of Julie's informal finishing school, and she was almost as nervous as I. In the days leading up to the party, she gave me all sorts of advice and admonitions. I was not only a partygoer; in the context of this event, I would also be a representative of my generation. I was to drink well and regularly, showing that I, like my elders, was capable of consuming liquor with vigor and elan. I asked for -- and received -- advice on dress, behavior, and other key aspects of the vital social graces. By the time the day arrived, I was prepped within an inch of my life.

Julie was no fool: she realized that, while her older cousins and siblings would be providing the booze, she and I would be providing much of the cultural currency. Consequently, we worked out a playlist of cool Indigo Girls, B-52s and Edie Brickell CDs that I should bring. Also, she suggested that offering my hosts a bottle of something or other would be a classy move.

The booze proved problematic. I was eighteen, didn't have a fake ID, and was located far from the grasp of any older relatives who might have been willing to contribute to my growing delinquency. I looked about three years younger than my age, and had neither the confidence nor the grace to pull off the old "Mister, will you buy me a bottle" trick. As the quick days between Christmas and New Years dropped away, it became clear that providing booze was going to be a serious issue.

Finally, with the party drawing nearer and nearer, I worked up my nerve and snagged an old, half-empty bottle of sweet vermouth from my parents' living room liquor cabinet. I wrapped it in an old sweater and smuggled it out to my car.

When the party came, I showed up, CDs and vermouth in hand. The site of the bacchanal -- a tract home in Herndon, Virginia -- turned out to be far less frightening than I had expected. The host's children were sweet and surprisingly polite when their parents whisked them upstairs to bed. All in all, it was oddly reminiscent of the parties that my parents used to throw when I was a little kid.

While my CDs were greeted with enthusiasm and interest, the sweet vermouth inspired a long, uncomfortable pause. Finally, Julie's brother Peter stepped into the breach, proclaiming "Great! Now we can have Manhattans!" I could have hugged him. Later, in fact, I think I did.

Although I didn't know a Manhattan from a Long Island Iced Tea, I appreciated the save and smiled as if Peter had perfectly guessed my intention. I handed over the sweet vermouth and settled into a great party.

The next morning, I woke up in a strange bed with a dry mouth and a grinding headache. Over the next half hour or so, I caught glimpses of my fellow day-after zombies as I drank coffee, tried to joke with the kids, and hustled out the door. On my way to the car, Julie's cousin ran out and handed me a bottle. It was the sweet vermouth, untouched since the previous night. Realizing the difficulty of smuggling it back into the house, I tried to talk her into keeping it. She politely -- yet firmly -- refused.

At any rate, I have since learned that a little sweet vermouth, carefully applied in the right place, can be a bit of heaven. This is one such case: the Palm Beach is a good summer drink, slightly tart, yet balanced with a creamy caramel taste. It is cool, refreshing, and has a nice light tan color.

Palm Beach
(from The Ultimate A-to-Z Bar Guide

1 1/2 ounces gin
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
1 1/2 teaspoons unsweetened grapefruit juice

Shake ingredients with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glass.

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