Before you know it, the holiday season will shift into high hype, and booze makers, the free-spending advertisers they generally are, willing to pitch big bucks at whoever is willing to catch them, will supplement the editorial sections of publications of all types with eggnog recipes, careful-consumption caveats, and other libation explications. Rest assured, dear reader, New Times is no exception.
It is unlikely, however, that the concoctions discussed herein are being considered for full-color spreads in your local daily. No, once again New Times has gone that extra mile for you (or, in this case, that extra few feet to the dusty shelves in the back of the liquor store). Here then is the definitive slugs fest, not just another nose-in-the-air, pompous pondering of potations and potent potables. This is one critical catalogue of grog you'll surely want to clip and save for future festive-season shopping sprees. The elixirs examined here, each of them legally obtainable at local liquor emporiums, are, in a word, unforgettable.
Compiling such a dandy reference entailed hours of rigorous research, which consisted mainly of driving around to three or four of Greater Miami's roughly 250 liquor stores, asking the advice of clerks who had more important things to do - polishing the cash register, for instance - and assembling a panel of volunteers brave enough to consume the fruits of this wide-ranging labor.
Some general thoughts about booze and business
Inexplicably, a large-scale conspiracy is afoot in the liquor industry, its sole purpose to nip in the bud stories such as this one. Manufacturers, distributors, retailers, powerful advertising agencies, those whose livelihoods depend on the sale of Fletcher & Oakes Tropical Fruit Cordial and Soda Water, will resort to any measure in order to prevent that oxymoron they call "negative publicity."
This conspiracy theory (which, incidentally, was elucidated by a liquor-store clerk while he was polishing his cash register) was confirmed with a phone call to the Southern Beverage Journal, which publishes lists of every alcoholic beverage one could possibly imagine, to make life easier for wholesale buyers, and to make money for themselves. The editors and publisher of the Beverage Journal would, of course, extend the hand of fellowship to a fellow community-service-minded publication and provide a comprehensive list of all the booze available in South Florida. Yeah, right, and Schaefer really is a tasty beer.
Translated into the parlance of the common barfly, what the honchos at the Journal said was: "Go screwdriver yourself." Apparently they had no interest in helping any smart-aleck journalist to nibble like a cockroach at the sacred crust of a hallowed industry whose reputation is tarnished only by its connection to fatal accidents, wide-ranging health problems, and unproductive behaviors. That's what they implied, anyway.
Further discussion of the helpful folks at the Southern Beverage Journal notwithstanding, if liquor is sometimes maligned, it also has been endowed with supernatural characteristics. The dead philosopher Nietzsche once wrote, "Two great European narcotics, alcohol and Christianity." Jeez, Louise. In a more steady, eighteenth-century hand, the very dramatic Richard Sheridan put it this way: "A bumper of good liquor/Will end a contest quicker/Than justice, judge, or vicar." Cheers. (Sheridan, by the way, later became Britain's treasurer of the navy.)
For his part, journalist-humorist Irvin S. Cobb, despite dying in 1944, managed to write, "It smells like gangrene starting in a mildewed silo, it tastes like the wrath to come, and when you absorb a deep swig of it you have all the sensations of having swallowed a lighted kerosene lamp. A sudden, violent jolt of it has been known to stop the victim's watch, snap his suspenders and crack his glass eye right across." He was describing moonshine, but he may as well have been writing about, as you'll soon discover, Heublein Gold Rush.
The panel and the procedure
Pilar Gatto-Casero is a popular entertainer whose musical wit was captured on an album called Yellow Mango. She isn't a big drinker, she warned before the tasting began, a claim she then proved by departing after every two or three samples "to get some fresh air." Critic and traveler Rafael Navarro possesses a demanding palate, but he has been known to adapt to swilling beers (imports, natch) at the local pub. At heart he's really a blue-collar guy, as in sapphire-studded lapels. Glenn Garvin is a serious journalist who's traveled the world, fearlessly searching out his next free drink. Sue Mullin is New Times's own "Cafe" critic, but she's on the panel anyway. Tom White is this paper's editorial cartoonist, which makes him a well-qualified member of any bad-taste gathering. Rounding out the team is Tom Finkel, a former bartender and the poor slob who will edit this story. (And if he touches a word of it, he's liable to find his coffee has been spiked with strawberry-banana schnapps.)
Drop by drop the specimens were carefully measured into three-ounce Dixie bathroom cups. Saltless Saltines and an industrial-size jar of Cheez Whiz were provided to clear clogged palates and to ensure fairness of judgment. As the first bottle was opened, Pilar called out for mineral water; others requested beer. These connoisseurs, it should be confessed, had no previous training in the tasting of raunchy booze. In their evaluations, they went with gut instinct. The fact they'd drink this stuff at all proves they've got a lot of guts.
Taylor Lake CountryVery Berry
$1.99 per 1.5 liter bottleAlcohol Content: 7.1 percent
Very Berry surrendered its fuchsia plastic seal and its aluminum screw cap with a mixed whiff of nonspecific fruit and kid's chemistry set. This pert little "grape wine with natural and artificial flavors added" possesses a distinct brown tint that causes it to bear a striking resemblance to day-old coffee. The judges' initial reaction was unbridled laughter, perhaps due to the gravity of the proceedings. Upon further lubrication, though, Rafael Navarro pensively anointed Very Berry with the title "Kitty Dukakis's mouthwash," while other panelists complained it hadn't been chilled properly, suggesting it might go down more easily if it were frozen.
Very Berry does score points for price - at $1.99 one can afford to force down a lot of it - but there wasn't enough juice in this juice to inspire the Big Spit. It's merely a nonfatal take on Jonestown Flavor-Aid. Unaware this vino was actually created from grapes, panelists speculated as to what sort of berry might have been employed. Best guess: dingleberry. After only one swallow of the substance, several members began reminiscing about early high-school inebriations. As far as, in Tom White's words, "bang for the buck," Very Berry is a loser. Navarro: "A Ripple-drinking indigent would spit this out." Break open the Sterno, and pass the handkerchief.
DeKuyper Original BluesBerry Blueberry Schnapps
$7.99 per 1.75 liter bottleAlcohol Content: 15 percent
DeKuyper's introduction of peach-flavored schnapps revolutionized American drinking taste and did wonders for the fern-bar trade. An even more repulsive side effect of that success was the idea, eagerly adopted by manufacturers, that schnapps could be flavored with anything. Spearmint? Sure. Cranberry? Why not. Elderberry? Great idea! And eventually, someone arrived at blueberry. Probably someone from DeKuyper's Elmwood Place, Ohio, plant, rather than the ancestral home office in the Netherlands. Definitely someone who should be taken out and shot.
There are many factors to consider when tasting fine liquors, not the least of which is viability as paint thinner. For that, the panel awards BluesBerry full honors. The large bottle has a handle, a built-in pourer, and a label that reads "Anno 1695," which is Latin for "sitting on the shelf for nearly 300 years." Aging has in no way helped to refine this baby. With the aroma of, as Pilar reminisced, "little-girl cologne," and a startling clarity that belies its viscosity, BluesBerry was summed up by Glenn Garvin as "Just shit." He did, however suggest one possible use: "It tastes like something you'd win in a bar trivia game."
Seagram's Gin & Juice
$2.75 per 200 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 20 percent
This entry was by far the most disappointing - a number of judges actually liked it. Well, sort of. Gin & Juice comes in a handy flask, and it is, in effect, a salty dog, except it contains gin instead of vodka, "citrus" juice instead of grapefruit, and no salt. Whatever happened to vodka and Gatorade? Why Seagram's would dilute its perfectly palatable gin is another question that's probably best left unanswered. In short, after being shaken well, as per the label instructions, and deposited down panelists' gullets, G & J lifted nothing from anyone's innards. Perhaps Tom Finkel summed it up best: "It's yellow."
Heublein Gold Rush
$2.99 per 750 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 12.5 percent
Veteran mallgoers might remember Orange Julius stands and their namesake drink, which consisted of orange juice blended with some white dairy product and was actually quite palatable. And some recall the Creamsicles of our youth - artificially flavored vanilla ice-cream bar coated with artificial orange stuff - purchased from the ice-cream man. There existed some hope among panelists that Gold Rush might fall along these lines. Instead it simply fell.
Gold Rush, its label announces, is a combination of rum, fresh cream, and natural orange flavors ("The Liquor's In It"). In reality the concoction has the body and texture of motor oil with half the taste, and its startling aroma is better described than experienced. Taking all these elements into account, a large plastic bucket was immediately retrieved from the broom closet to serve as a communal toss pot.
The judges, valiantly attempting not to pass out from the smell, called it an abomination of rum, sour cream, and Tang. Everyone agreed that Gold Rush is truly godawful - it looks like cafe con leche, smells like baby vomit, and tastes like sewage that's been chemically treated. Pilar, upon sipping, had to be restrained by fellow tasters after she began hollering, "Oh my God. Oh my God! You drink this stuff and you can become an acid burnout." "I'm sorry, I can't drink this," said Sue Mullin, who didn't. "Change the name to Gold Flush," another panelist managed to spit out. "Is there Parmesan cheese in this?" Finally Tom White suggested donating the bottle to Camillus House as a way to wean winos from alcohol.
Johnson Distilling Co.
Shine On GeorgiaMoon Corn Whiskey
$10.99 per 750 ml. jarAlcohol Content: 40 percent
When you're in unfamiliar waters, drinkingwise, it's always best to read the label. Two significant notes on Georgia Moon's jar: This clear liquid is "less than 30 days old" - very much in its favor; and it is "The Secret of the Georgia Hills." Can't those people keep anything to themselves?
While Tom Finkel said the stuff wasn't at all bad - "It's the only one with any booze in it" - the panel's more acute palates will tell you that the only way this couldn't be considered vile is in comparison to a certain Heublein product. Tom White mused aloud that it might be "the actual embalming fluid of Elvis," but surely that factoid would have been included on the label. Sue Mullin suggested sprinkling it around to kill fire ants, while Pilar considered using it to fill the air-conditioning compressor of her car.
Doubtless Georgia Moon is marketed as a novelty - the perfect gift for your wife/cousin, perhaps. Then again, while it is practical for inducing violent stomach reactions, Moon is even better, with its clarity and wide, Mason-type mouth, to house your insect collection. In fact, a caterpillar garnish might put a shine on this ersatz 'shine.
Heublein OriginalPat O'Brien'sNew Orleans Hurricane
$5.99 per 750 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 17 percent
Everyone who's ever tippled in the French Quarter has at least one Hurricane story. Here's one now:
A gang of reporters walked into O'Brien's and ordered drinks. One chap, Marty, ordered a Hurricane specifically to obtain the free souvenir glass, which, once empty, was accidentally knocked off the table. Another Hurricane was purchased posthaste, and Marty could only stare in dismay as that glass, too, was bumped to the floor and shattered. A third glass was dropped and broken by the now-inebriated Marty, who finally managed to crawl out of O'Brien's with an intact souvenir glass, his fourth, clutching it to his bosom as if it were his first-born child. While sightseeing on the way back to the hotel, a nifty sight was seen by another member of the party (ahem), who spun excitedly toward Marty with arm outstretched - hey, look! - at which point.... Which only goes to show, there are benefits to three-ounce Dixie bathroom cups.
Because the label would admit only that the bottled version of a Hurricane contains rum, natural and artificial flavors, and artificial color, there was some dispute among panelists as to whether the product might actually be intended as an expectorant. Two judges mentioned that it caused them to perspire profusely.
Health benefits aside, there is no denying that Hurricane-in-a-bottle has color (bright red), aroma (cough syrup), and taste (bad). Pukability? Not immediately evident, but definite potential.
Alize Cocktail de France
$10.99 per 375 ml. frosted-glass bottleAlcohol Content: 16 percent
"A unique blend of natural passion fruit juices and cognac," Alize is the sort of brainstorm that could only have been inspired by the consumption of a tankload of Gold Rush. The judges deemed this "unique blend" suitable for any occasion during which one would like to throw up.
As panelists attempted to clear the phlegm generated by the Heublein Hurricane, a subcommittee struggled to open the Alize bottle, plugged, as it turned out, with a real cork.
Based on bouquet, body, and hue, judges concurred that they were approaching the essence of putrescence, if it hadn't been reached already. Staring sadly at the nearly opaque, brown-tinged mixture in his cup, Tom Finkel had the audacity to doubt whether Alize contained any cognac at all. Glenn Garvin, remarkably quick of tongue, made a face and said, "There are some really bad cognacs out there."
Fletcher & OakesTropical Fruit Cordialand Soda Water
$1.99 per 750 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 5.5 percent
Another ride on the schnapps gravy train. "The original schnapps spritz," boasts the label, which also includes this intriguing haiku: "A light snap of schnapps./A squeeze of fruit./A splash of soda."
The panel, by this time interested in neither schnapps nor poetry, was absolutely positive about two things: 1) this Fletcher & Oakes effort probably contains coconut, and 2) no second helpings, please. One judge speculated about the possible existence of cream-soda flavor. Thanks to the liberal proportion of "soda water," however, this spritzer is not nearly up to some of the other entries when it comes to filling up the communal swill bowl.
Truffles WhiteChocolate Liqueur
$7.99 per 375 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 12.5 percent
"Something milky this way comes," warned Rafael Navarro - one look at the squat, off-white bottle with the enormous gold-painted genuine wood cap was enough to revive hopes that a taster might soon pitch his or her medianoche. Alas, while it has exactly the same amount of alcohol as Gold Rush, our judges nonetheless determined Truffles to be Gold Rush Lite, or 3.2 Gold Rush, or the wimp's version of Gold Rush. And just look at the price! See what a fancy container can do?
The label suggests the white-chocolate substance would make an excellent topping for ice cream or berries. That will have to be left for another panel to decide. This information did inspire alternate serving suggestions, however, from our tasters: Truffles over filet mignon, over plantains, over bratwurst. "Truffles," said Tom White, "over my dead body."
"You're making a subjective judgment on good products," whines Larry of Sunset Foremost, a sprawling booze shop that features an endless variety of compelling wines, although Larry can't brag that he has everything. Where's his stock of Very Berry, for instance? "It's a myopic view to think drinks are only for drinking," he adds. Fair enough. How about trying Truffles as a suntan lotion?
The Club Long IslandIced Tea
99 cents per 200 ml. canAlcohol Content: 15 percent
According to ex-bartender Finkel, the Long Island Iced Tea is the one drink order that never failed to provoke him to ID a customer. As far as he knows, no one ever requested this version of the venerable heart-stopper in a bar. Perhaps these little cans were meant for drinkers on the run - no, wait, that's illegal in Florida. Couldn't happen.
Its rich caramel color, the panel concluded, makes Club Tea look for all the world like the gooky fluid that runs out of the bottom of your overstuffed garbage bag, forcing you to hose out the can. Dumpster drainage.
You'd think a beverage made with gin, rum, tequila, and vodka would be more like gangrene starting in a mildewed silo, with a taste like the wrath to come, and when you absorb a deep swig of it you have all the sensation of having swallowed a lighted kerosene lamp. A sudden, violent jolt of it has been known to stop the victim's watch, snap his suspenders and crack his glass eye right across. But the best our group could manage was the request by Rafael Navarro for a Tylenol. Capsule. From a bottle with a broken seal.
One thing can be said of Club's take on the Long Island Iced Tea: Four tiny cans of the stuff were purchased for the tasting. Three remain unopened.
Leroux Banana Strawberry Schnapps
$2.99 per 750 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 24 percent
As panelists wiped their chins with the backs of their hands, nearing the end of the ordeal, the tasting's first asterisk was announced. A sadistically helpful liquor-store clerk (who, incidentally, was a dead ringer for the Frugal Gourmet) was so considerate as to volunteer that with every purchase of Leroux's ingenious flavoring of schnapps, the customer receives - absolutely free - a bottle of Leroux White Creme de Cacao DeLuxe Liqueur. The clerk further implied that the two sauces should not be consumed separately, whereupon he rushed to the back room to photocopy a recipe: "Pour 1 1/4 oz. Leroux Banana-Strawberry Schnapps, 1/4 oz. Leroux White Creme de Cacao and 2 oz. half and half over ice into a rocks glass. Stir." Hmmm. Doesn't say anything here about what to do after that.
The panel, it was decided, would sample the schnapps straight, and then mix it with the creme de cacao, as per the recipe.
While there's a certain symbiotic relationship between strawberries and bananas, there was no doubt among the judges that this particular treatment of schnapps - deceptively colorless - fulfilled their vision of what hell must be like.
Admirably courageous and intrepid, the panelists swilled the mixture of swills, sans half and half (there was none in the house). Comments were few; the most that can be said about combining these two clear fluids is that they didn't change color.
La Gaita Sidra Asturiana
$1.59 per 700 ml. bottleAlcohol Content: 0.5 percent
It was indeed time to celebrate, so the panel popped the (genuine) cork of a bottle of Sidra Asturiana sparkling apple drink, imported by Goya Foods of Miami. Immediately the judges began speaking in tongues, suggesting that despite the near-nonexistence of alcohol, a new low had been achieved to rival Gold Rush as the standard against which all bad booze must be measured. The group concluded that the taste of this halfheartedly effervescent beverage was a cross between an apple that's spent a dozen years in the back of an old Frigidaire behind the mustard jar that predates bar codes, and a cider presser's armpit. A higher alcohol level might have been an improvement, they suggested, due to its function as a preservative.
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The Bitter End
Responsible members of the group began to stagger around the room, attempting to figure out what to do with all the remains - lots of remains. Others took the sedentary approach, belching loudly and engaging in another enthusiastic bout of chin wiping. Perhaps the idea of mixing all these bizarre beverages wasn't such a good one. Then again, that never prevented any money-grubbing entrepreneur from thinking them up, bottling them, and raking in the profits.
As it turned out, no one pumped his or her bilge on the host's carpet. In lieu of staying up all night and watching for signs of nausea, a survey was undertaken to ascertain stomach contents. Burger King, medianoche with extra pickles.... Then Rafael Navarro said, "Nothing. I was afraid if I ate, I'd be vomiting all night." The next day the news broke: Navarro had been vomiting all night.