Years ago, when my husband and I were dating, we were out at a concert when he headed to get us drinks. When I asked for an amaretto sour, I saw a shadow cross his face. A frisson of horror. A slight greening around the gills.
It turned out there had been an incident. He prefers not to speak of it, but for him, the amaretto sour would be more accurately called the trigger warning.
My husband is not alone. I've asked the question of many friends over the years, and it always brings forth a torrent of nostalgia laced with the farcical comedy of remembered shame. The question: Is there a drink that you have sworn off drinking again?
Gin and tequila are common villains in these stories. Jagermeister, the Hans Gruber of booze, has taken many hostages. People report the drinks they swore off after inexplicable crying jags, public streaking, bar fights. One urinated in his sock drawer (tequila). Another darkly referenced "the gincident". Another abandoned his own dinner party and was discovered shirtless, laughing, hugging the cat (mezcal). One had expelled a fully intact string of spaghetti from her nose (Jack Daniel's blackberry coolers). And based on the stories I've heard, Southern Comfort has a lot to answer for.
As someone who once had a "sensitivity to juniper", I empathise with the tellers of these tawdry tales, even as I recognise their underlying fallacy. Though I once became quite ill after drinking gin martinis, I now understand that I am not "sensitive to juniper". I am "sensitive to slurping down two fishbowl dry martinis in under an hour". I now know that "dry martini" is a fancy term for a glass of gin, and I know martinis should not arrive in 240ml glasses. Much like a tub of Ben & Jerry's ice-cream looks like 1½ servings but is supposedly four, a dry martini served in one of those conical horse troughs contains up to four servings of alcohol. My desire to hold cabinet-level talks with the toilet after two of those bad boys had nothing to do with juniper.
While genuine allergies and food poisoning cases exist, most of these stories scapegoat a drink no more guilty than any other. Just ask poor, notorious absinthe, or my other old adversary, the caraway-flavored Nordic spirit aquavit. I was not a party-goer in college, but during my year abroad, determined to be a cool kid for one night, I gamely drank everything that my far-more-boozy housemates handed me. That included wine, whisky, some sort of punch, more wine, vodka, cider, beer and finally a slug of aquavit brought by a Swedish friend. Later that night, as that friend kindly held my hair back, the toilet complimented me on my elegant conduct. For years afterward, I defamed aquavit as the source of the evening's misery. Even the smell of rye bread, with its hint of caraway, was unbearable.
It's like when you go through a bad breakup. You have to wait a year before you start dating again.
These are not, of course, universal stories. Many wise people have never overindulged in alcohol, emerging from the womb saving for retirement and eating kale salads. But many other people - my tribe - spend years figuring out how to be the adults we become. If we're very lucky, as I was, we get some sensitive, smart instruction on matters of finance, sex, safe driving, personal hygiene, effective lawn maintenance.
But no adult ever sat down and told me the facts of drink. How drinking could be delicious, and unhealthy, and delightful, and addictive. How, much like with sex, the decisions one makes around drinking can change one's life instantaneously, or change it gradually, over time, for better and for worse. Or basic matters of practice: how to make a crisp, cold, sensible, 120ml martini. No one ever said, "Hey, don't drink a cement mixer, like, ever."
Most of us have to figure that out on our own.
These powerful reactions to the flavours and smells of drinks that wounded us when we were young and stupid are inversions of Marcel Proust's blissful madeleine: visceral, gut-level recalls of deeply unpleasant moments, when we tasted a particular drink as it came back out of us. The force of these memories can deter us from something we now have the sense to enjoy properly. My friend Frank made an apt comparison. "It's like when you go through a bad breakup," he said. "You have to wait a year before you start dating again."
Having long gotten past my gin aversion, I decided to try my husband out on bartender and author Jeffrey Morgenthaler's revamped amaretto sour. The recipe appears on Morgenthaler's blog, an entry titled "I Make the Best Amaretto Sour in the World." How can one resist such chutzpah?
Morgenthaler's recipe adds a high-proof bourbon, which cuts back on the sweetness and overpowering almond. I'm a fan. But the tweak was not enough for my husband. With increasingly pained eyes, he tasted one amaretto sour variation after another. The version that finally met with approval (the shy sour - see recipe below) dialled back the amaretto to a whisper and cloaked it in a smoky mezcal. Still, a few minutes later, he was smacking his lips peevishly. "That amaretto flavour just stays on your tongue," he muttered. In the interests of marital harmony, I stopped tormenting him with further samples.
Let's be clear: I'm never going to urge someone to just give those kamikaze shooters another try. But it pains me to think of those who fear all punch because of the trash-can version they had at a party, or refuse all tequila because they swallowed the worm.
So here are tips on how to go about (gently) patting the dog that bit you:
■ Remember that what you experienced of a spirit in your youthful idiocy is not the definition of that spirit. Unless you were a wee lord, you were probably doing what I did: looking for the cheapest bottle you could find and hoping the cashier wasn't checking IDs. You can probably afford a better bottle now, something that rewards sipping over slamming.
■ Try your nemesis in a drink far removed from the one that made you ill. If your tequila aversion started with too many margaritas, try to meet agave spirits in something stirred, like a oaxaca old-fashioned. If it started with tequila shots, go for something like a bright, fizzy paloma.
■ Scale up gradually. When I was testing my "juniper sensitivity", I didn't dive headfirst into martinis. I tried drinks in which the gin was less prominent, or balanced by other power players. Discovering the negroni got me past my fear of gin in a matter of weeks.
Finally, as much as I hate sounding like your Victorian aunt, the best piece of advice I can give is simply not to binge drink. Your future self will thank you - not just because your future self is more likely to be around, but because you'll be able to sip a martini without having to stifle your gag reflex.
If you learn nothing else from me, learn this: The people chanting "DRINK DRINK DRINK" at a college party do not have your best interests at heart. It's more important than any recipe I could share.
Shy sour: a cross between a margarita and an amaretto sour. Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post
This is a cross between a margarita and an amaretto sour - a shyer, less-cloying variation in which the almond liqueur is dialled back and serves more as a backnote to the citrus and base spirit.
A smoky mezcal works nicely here, but if you like American whiskey more than agave (mezcal is an agave-based liqueur), this recipe can be done with rye instead.
1 pinch salt
2 dashes orange bitters, preferably Angostura
15ml fresh lime juice
30ml pink grapefruit juice
45ml mezcal (may substitute rye)
1. Chill a Nick and Nora glass or coupe. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
2. Add the salt, bitters, lime and grapefruit juices, amaretto and mezcal. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then double-strain into the glass.
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