Whisky & Culture

A ward of the bar

Jefferson Chase unearths a gem of whisky writing
By Jefferson Chase
Strange coincidences. Last autumn I was in London having a drink with an old friend, Michael Jackson, who mentioned an unusual memoir he had read.The book was called The Tender Bar, Michael remembered, but the writer’s name escaped him.J.R. Moehringer, it turned out the next day, when I discovered said tome by complete accident in a used bookshop near Charing Cross Road. True to Michael’s description, it was a colorful, nostalgic look back at an anything but model adolescence.Abandoned by his father as a boy, Moehringer grew up in a bit of East Coast suburbia famous for its alcoholic excess.Manhasset, site of the largest liquor store in New York State, was the only town on Long Island with a cocktail named after it (a Manhasset is a Manhattan, with more alcohol). The town’s half-mile-long main drag, Plandome Road, was every drinker’s street of dreams – bar after bar after bar…When one man torched his bar on Plandome Road to collect the insurance, cops found him in another bar on Plandome Road and told him he was wanted for questioning. The man put his hand over his heart like a priest accused of burning a cross. “How could I,” he asked, “how could anyone – burn down a bar?” Before long, young J.R. gets to see the inside of one of those establishments, called Dickens, because his Uncle Charlie works there.He immediately falls in love with the sights, sounds and smells of the place and discovers among its regular customers not one, but a host of substitute fathers.The men didn’t include me in every conversation, certainly, but they no longer treated me as a seagull that had wandered into their midst….Uncle Charlie no longer jumped a foot in the air every time he found me standing beside him, and the other men took more careful notice of me, talked to me, taught me things. They taught me how to grip a curveball, how to swing a nine-iron, how to throw a spiral, how to play seven-card stud. They taught me how to shrug, how to frown, how to take it like a man. They taught me how to stand and promised me that a man’s posture is his philosophy.In essence young J.R. gets adopted by the bar. Our hero endures puberty, goes to university and, most importantly, has his first legal drink, a gin martini, in Dickens. The bar changes its name to Publicans but remains the place of shelter to which he returns every time life throws him a curveball.Uncle Charlie was startled to see me walk through the door at Publicans a week after I’d left for Yale. “Who’s dead?” he said.“No one. I just needed to see some friendly faces.” He pointed at my chest. I felt better instantly. Then he reached for the gin. I frowned. “No,” I said. “I’m off gin. Please. How about scotch?” He looked appalled. Changing my drink? An unthinkable breach of Publican’s protocol.“What’s the pitch?” he asked, pouring.“Girl trouble.” “Lay it on me.” The rest of the dialogue is far too obscene to be reproduced here, which is good because I don’t want to spoil any of the fun of The Tender Bar. The great thing about drinking buddies is that they’re like a family or circle of friends minus the pressures and demands. You can take them or leave them. Ironically, that’s what makes them stick so stubbornly in your mind and beckon to be revisited.