By Daren Wang
Some people want to cure cancer. Some people want to write the perfect song. Me, I want to find the best bourbon cocktail in the best bar in all the South.
I didn’t create this goal out of whole cloth. I’ve filched parts of it from here and there.
My friend Kurt Ronn spent three years traveling the world looking for the perfect Negroni. I admire his style: The Negroni is a sweet, bitter, magical cocktail, deserving of a quest. But it is both too narrow and too broad for me. Too narrow, in that there are only so many variations to be had in ice, Campari, gin, vermouth, and garnish. And too broad, because I can’t afford to trace his footsteps across Europe, Asia, and North America.
I can do the South, though. For the next few months, I’ll be roaming across nearly all that can rightfully claim to be “The South,” visiting indie bookstores to support my new novel, “The Hidden Light of Northern Fires.” I love a good bookstore, and the South has some of the best. Man, however, cannot live by print alone. As do so many other writers, I’ll be finishing up many of my days on the road with a cocktail.
Why a bourbon cocktail? Well, because it’s the South, of course. And because there is a symbiosis between bourbon and writers of fiction.
It fueled William Faulkner, but was most certainly his downfall as well.
Eudora Welty could be seen picking up a bottle in Jackson, Mississippi, on a weekly basis. Jane Pepperdine, a mutual friend, talked of the summer night in the ’90s when she and Eudora sat in Jane’s backyard in Decatur, Georgia. Eudora eyed the planes from nearby Hartsfield-Jackson as they passed overhead, clinked her glass of bourbon, and vowed to never travel beyond the South again.
And she never did.
The relationship is mutual, though. Fred Minnick writes in “Bourbon Curious” about how much of our relationship with bourbon is because of the myths and legends we are told about the stuff. How a baptist minister named Elijah Craig found that, after a barn fire, the charred barrels were a great place to age spirits, or how George Washington favored a Pennsylvania distillery to supply the bourbon he sometimes paid his troops with.
In some ways, I have been preparing for this quest since 1990.
That was the year that I found a copy of Jim Atkinson’s “The View From Nowhere: the Only Bar Guide You’ll Ever Want — or Need” on a table in a mall in Tucker, Georgia. There was a sticker where its original retailer had marked it down to $3.99, but Goodwill had it downgraded further to 99 cents. The book details Atkinson’s quest for the ultimate “bar bar.”
Over the course of the book, Atkinson developed a set of standards for what made a bar a “bar bar.” There are 77 rules for Bar Bars and a scoring matrix of 11 categories, each with a score from 0 to 5. A sampling:
Atkinson’s 38th rule of the Bar Bar: “Any bar with more than one bartender working at a time is not a Bar Bar.”
Atkinson’s 21st rule of the Bar Bar: “If the back of the bar looks like nothing has ever been thrown away, you are in a Bar Bar.”
I haven’t walked into a drinking establishment in the ensuing 27 years without judging it based on the Atkinson Scale.
But the cocktail scene has changed a lot since 1990. Nowhere in Atkinson’s 280 pages is there mention of anyone flaming an orange-peel garnish over a barrel-aged old fashioned with hand-crafted bitters, and small-batch, single-barrel bourbon. There needs to be a new take on the Bar Bar. And, as Bob Dylan once sang, I guess it must be up to me.
I can’t do it alone, though. One of the measures on Atkinson’s scale is “Holding Forth” — a type of conversation unique to the Bar Bar, and to that end, I’ve invited friends and fellow writers to guide me to their hometown favorite. Follow me @darenwang on Twitter and I’ll let you know where, who, and when, and I hope you can come out and meet me and tell me why I’m wrong.