My friend Alicia drinks.
She is not a drunk but, like me, she is not averse to taking a drink of something decent …for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Alicia has perfect posture and a very large collection of sunglasses, so no one would know of her affinity for drink unless one of her best friends blogged about her.
Naturally, I thought of Alicia when it was time to return the open bottle of Fino sherry to the big box liquor store where it came from.
I didn’t like it. Too dry. Tasted like horse piss.
I called Alicia’s land-line and, without announcing who was calling, I just said, “Let’s go to the liquor store.”
She said, “OK.”
When I arrived, she was standing on the curb outside her house, purse in hand.
I like that in a woman going shopping for liquor.
Alicia and I went to high school and college together. We drank our way through Europe.
As I was such an angel in high school, I do not have any memories of drinking with Alicia during those years. However, we made up for lost time in college. Four years at Loyola, New Orleans. If we did not coin the phrases “shit-faced” and “knee crawling,” we should have.
I already told you about Martin’s Liquors in Uptown New Orleans. What I did not say was that it was not just around the corner from the college. Unless you were tooling around Uptown in an old lady’s Oldsmobile, it was kind of a hike.
In 1975, Katz and Bestoff, a.k.a. K&B Drug Stores, sold hard liquor to college boys. The drinking age had been lowered just before I left for college in order to assuage the national guilt of sending 18-year-old boys off to their deaths in the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. To buy at K&B, you had to be 18 years old and have cash, check or a credit card. K&B had a store at the corner of Broad and St. Charles Avenue. That corner was less than a block from the front door of the university. The miracle was that all K&B drug stores were also liquor stores.
I have never really had any interest at all in beer and, although I like wine, I only want a few sips while eating certain things. When I was first off at college and a legal drinker, I went straight for the hard stuff. I did not know what I wanted so I did the typical stupid college kid things like order a Gin and 7-Up or a Bourbon whisky sour. I tried the red fruit punch made with grain alcohol and served by various fraternities out of a garbage can. I didn’t have my first Scotch until I was a Junior in college. I drank blended Scotch, exclusively, until I was in my late forties when, for some reason, I switched to vodka.
The booze at my K&B sat on the shelves just to the left of the cashier and under the tall deep shelf with all your home healthcare needs for the elderly. Walkers, enema bags, toilet seats that fit over toilet seats, shower stools, etc. Short of a drive thru, the arrangement was perfect. However, I am pretty sure there was a no return policy on open containers of wine, beer or liquor.
In those days, more toward the end of my college “career” when I had a car, an apartment and a kitchen, I would go out to the suburbs to a place called Schwegmann’s Grocery. Schwegmann’s was, for me at least, the first time I had been in a mega store. This was a grocery store that was at least five or six times larger than your typical late 1970’s grocery store.
When you walked into Schwegmann’s in Metairie, Louisiana, the first thing you saw on your right was a full-fledged bar. Beer, wine, hard liquor. Once, I was there with my friend Lisa Lee. She pointed to an old woman wearing a house coat and nursing a cup of beer as she leaned on the bar. Her grocery cart stood next to her and her ice cream was pooling on the floor under the cart. She had obviously done some or all of her shopping and decided she needed a bracer before her drive home. I am pretty sure Schwegmann’s would not have allowed that old lady an open bottle return, not that she ever relaxed her grip on a drink.
Today, everything, everywhere is big box.
Forty years later, Alicia and I are on the way to the big box liquor store in Tampa. As we drove along, I explained to her that I wanted to return a bottle of sherry I had purchased the day before. I was told by the man who had helped me that the sherry he recommended was very much like Harvey’s Shooting Sherry. (See Etouffee II.) I told Alicia that the nice man at the big box liquor store said that I could bring it back for any reason if I was not satisfied.
No questions asked.
“Mother of God! You can take used booze back to this place?”, said Alicia.
“On a Sunday?”
We walked into the store. I started to scan the people who worked there looking for the guy who sold me the sherry.
I saw a guy that I thought might be my sherry man, and I started to walk in his direction. Alicia meandered behind me. The last I saw of her she was running her fingertips along the neck of a very tall bottle of French vodka.
It was a Sunday afternoon and the place was crawling with people. This place had it all. Wine. Beer. Hard liquor. You name it. They sold it.
I had been there before. I remember being impressed by the young woman who helped me find the list of wines my brother suggested. I do not drink much wine, but I purchased two clever wine racks on Amazon and needed bottles to fill it up. I am more of a wine decorator than a wine drinker. My brother and his wife like wine and he sent me a list. I went in the big box store with a list, a debit card and faith in my brother’s good taste.
At some point I realized that I had lost Alicia. I turned to find her slinging back some jet-black syrup in front of one of those stands where people offer you free samples of sausages, cheese, wine and other things I never accept. I avoid eye contact with these people. I can’t say why. I just do.
I approached Alicia, cautiously, sort of like Harry Potter meeting Buck Beak. I did not want her to think I was trying to take her drink from her. She might spook and there were innocent people in that store. Alicia ran her tongue around the bottom of the little medicine cup from which she had been served.
“Good! Yummy. Want to try some?”
“No. Sherry. Remember?”
I tried to coax Alicia toward the man who would take the open container of sherry out of my hand and exchange it for something potable.
The sample lady and I looked at each other like we were fighting over Alicia’s immortal soul.
She then offered me some of her brew. I declined. Without saying that I did not accept drinks, in public, on Sundays from women I did not know. It was then that the sample lady played her trump card.
“We also have… Sambuca.”
“Bobby! They have Sambuca!”
I approached the sherry man like we were old friends.
I realized quickly that this was a different guy than I had dealt with the day before. I began again with the story about Harvey’s Shooting Sherry and the old lady in New Orleans.
I could have stopped with “sherry”. This guy was a walking encyclopedia when it came to sherry.
Turns out, all sherry worth drinking is from Jerez, Spain. When the grapes have fermented, the good people of Jerez spike the mash with some sort of clear grape-based spirit. They then seal it in barrels for years before bottling it and selling to people like me who like it but know nothing about how it is made.
Most of the sherry is purchased by British concerns who then re-sell the barrels to thrifty Scotsmen to age single malts.
From my second sherry man at the big box liquor store, I learned that Fino and Manzanilla are dry and light in color. Like a Chablis. Amontillado was “medium”, somewhere between dry and too sweet to swallow. The sweet stuff, at least one of them, comes from a grape called Pedro Ximenez.
This three-tiered system reminded me of the German Rieslings. The Germans’ Kabinett is dry-ish. The Spatlese is getting on toward the sweet side. The sweetest, Trockenbeerenauslese, is from a grape they let stay on the vine until after the first freeze. As I understand it, the Germans rush out and harvest these frozen grapes and then mash them up for fermentation. They want them frozen on account of the fact that the ice, i.e., water, separates from the sugars in the fruit. I have no idea how they quickly separate the water from the sugars, but they do. What they wind up with is a grape syrup that forms the base of what gets fermented into a really sweet wine. I understand the Austrians actually ferment raisins to make a really sweet dessert wine. Never tried it. Don’t know what it is called. I just know it is out there and it sounds like a wicked hangover.
I like a dry Alsatian Riesling. Just a little every now and then. Like half a glass every ten years. I’ve never been much for too sweet when it comes to liquor or chocolate. I like dark chocolate and I stay away from Bourbon. From what the sherry savant said about Pedro Ximenez, anything made with that grape would be too sweet for me. Others must feel differently. But what do they know?
I told the guy I would take a bottle of the “medium” and subtly said something about the exchange policy. There was $13.49 at stake and I wanted to find out if the return policy was for real.
Alicia did not give the sherry man a chance to answer.
“So what about port? Tell me about port.”
“Well,” said the sherry man, “there is red port and white port and…”.
The sherry man had both bottles of sherry and he was explaining to the manager in the raised box at the front of the store that a customer was actually taking the store up on its promise to exchange one bottle of sherry for another. She seemed to be buying the story. At this point I was glad that I had shown restraint and not called the first sherry, the Fino, horse piss.
The manager had a very stern countenance. She took the “medium” from the salesman and then, with just her fingertips, took hold of the plastic bag holding the open Fino. She handled the Fino like a bio hazard. She gave me a good looking over and then turned toward her cash register. A few seconds later I had my new receipt. No smile from the manager. You would think that I had just lifted thirteen bucks out of her purse but I had a new bottle of sherry and a receipt to prove I had paid for it.
As I started to back my car out of the parking space in front of the big box liquor store, Alicia said, “So what do you think they do with the open bottle of horse piss?”