Many Tuesday afternoons, as I stand behind the bar where I work, my focus fixes on a Manchester United scarf draped on the far wall, near the door to the patio. When that happens, I think of Mark, one of my first regulars at this place. He drank beer and bourbon. He was kind. He adored his family and thrilled to watch Man U play. When he died suddenly and unexpectedly, our bar community grieved. The scarf is there to remember him by. I still feel his warm spirit filling that corner, like a friendly ghost, pint in hand.
Stick around any bar long enough — on the working side or the civilian side — and you will inevitably come to love at least some of the people who drink there. Stick around longer, and you will just as inevitably lose some of those people you love. I’ve long cherished bars as sites of real community, where nearly the whole of an adult’s life cycle can be enacted and observed. I’ve watched customers and fellow regulars fall in love and get married. I’ve celebrated the births of their children (after that, they usually become much less regular). I’ve seen them get old, get sick and belly up to the bar for their last round at their final last call.
It feels right to strike an elegiac tone for my last Drink column. In 2011, I began with a few martini recipes and some advocacy on behalf of vermouth. I can’t count the number of cocktails I’ve made and tasted in the name of “research” for this column, but I still prefer the simplest stuff. In offering a Gibson — essentially a martini in which the customary olive is replaced by a pickled onion — I’m returning to where I started. If you like your martinis with olives, you’ve probably noticed that the quality of the olive can make a big difference. So it is with the garnish in a Gibson: The better the onion, the better the cocktail. I like to pickle my own, for optimal flavor. The recipe here, adapted from Gabriella Mlynarczyk, gracefully balances salt, spice and sweetness.
Maybe the onion is far too obvious a metaphor, considering its association with tears, but I’ve never been great with goodbyes. Over these last five-and-change years, I’ve maintained that the places where, the times when, the reasons and — most of all — the people with whom we drink, are what make drinking matter. The most beautifully made cocktail is of no consequence to me without good company: It may be a delicious thing, but it’s only a thing.