St. Paul, the champagne cocktail, and the failures of wit

I’m not a man who can really be described as “goal-oriented.” I am experience-oriented — I make decisions based on whether I think the experience will be interesting. I suppose I figure accomplishments fade, but a good autobiography is forever. I do have one goal, however, and it has bedeviled me for years: I would like to be responsible for an enduring quote about alcohol. I bite my knuckles in jealousy at the following quotes:

“Work is the curse of the drinking class.” — Oscar Wilde

“I always wake at the crack of ice.” — Joe E. Lewis

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” — Variously attributed to W.C. Fields and Dorothy Parker

I have, I must say, come up with a toast that I think may outlive me, although it is rather rude: “Good friends in hard times and hard friends in good times.” I plan to make it into Bartlett’s with that one, the same way every other quote does: I am just going to keep repeating it until somebody notices and enters it into the permanent record.

Max enjoys a cocktail
Photo by Coco Mault
Max enjoys a cocktail

But a toast is one thing, a really good quote is another. The best I have managed so far is the following:

“I never drink before lunch. However, I’ve moved lunch back to 10 a.m.” This gets a chuckle when I say it aloud, but look at it, there on the virtual page. It just lies there. It doesn’t pounce out at you as a really first-rate quote should. Wit is different in print from when spoken, especially when you’re a drinker and your tongue thickens throughout the course of the evening, and your mots come increasingly from recumbent or supine positions. I had a friend just babble at me from a drunken stupor recently, and it was hilarious, but wouldn’t represent itself well transcribed.

Oh, well. I will pursue the elusive drinking quote the only way I know how, by continuing to drink and then writing about it. I may accidentally produce the quote I am looking for, and, when that happens, you had better believe I will go ahead and say it at every possible moment. Then people will say, “As Bunny always says,” which, as time passes, will turn into “As Bunny once said,” which, when it makes it into Bartlett’s, will have become “— Max ‘Bunny’ Sparber.” By that time, my PR campaign on behalf of the quote will be forgotten, and people will think I was a great wit, rather than an accidental one with an obsessive urge to market whatever I say to posterity.

And so there has been some drinking in the past few weeks. I try to divide my drinking time between Minneapolis and St. Paul, in particular because St. Paul is a town that was built on drinking. For those who have forgotten its history, the first inklings of the town it would one day be came when the magnificently named Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant took over a cave on the Mississippi and turned it into a saloon. He applied his own name to it, resulting in the even more magnificent Pig’s Eye Pandemonium, and who wouldn’t want to drink there?

And so it continued in St. Paul, with breweries springing up left, right, and elsewhere. If you take any historical tour of St. Paul, you’ll discover that every single building was used as a speakeasy or to make bathtub gin. The Wabasha Street Caves? Speakeasy. The Victoria Theatre? Speakeasy. You’ll look at a nondescript apartment as a possible rental and the landlady will lean in to whisper “Ma Barker made hooch here.” There’s even supposed to be a bucket of beer embedded in the infrastructure of the St. Paul Cathedral, forgotten by some workingman whose fate is unknown. If it was a really good beer, I suppose his coworkers might have embedded him in the cathedral walls as well, a poor man’s Fortunato, buried beneath the motto “Nemo sepelit impune meo cervisia” — no one buries my beer with impunity.

My most recent St. Paul watering hole is Meritage, although it’s not a hole and I did not drink water there. The whole joint reeks of class. They even have an absinthe station behind the bar, with a half-dozen brands of La Fee Verte to sample, which is tempting. But the truth is, I’ve had my fill of absinthe. People think too much of absinthe, which tastes an awful lot like Pernod or various pastis, all of which have been legal forever. I know the addition of wormwood to absinthe is supposed to make you see green fairies or whatever, but that’s all nonsense. Drink enough of any alcohol and you’ll see green fairies.

The best thing that can be said about the return of absinthe is that it is now possible to make a number of classic cocktails that call for an absinthe base, but the truth of the matter is that most modern absinthes are just not very good for mixing. They’re intended to be drunk with water, and so have a robust flavor that tends to overwhelm mixed drinks. No, people have gotten used to a sort of absurd floor show, in which the absinthe is carefully louched with water and a sugar cube through a special grated spoon, often with water from a fancy fountain. Sometimes, someone will actually set the sugar cube alight, because the flavor that tastes best with absinthe is singed eyebrow hair. Entertaining though this may be, in the end you could just take a bottle of Herbaint home, pour some tapwater in it, drink it while watching the home shopping networking, and see just as many green fairies.

But Meritage has a drink that I consider to be one of real class, the champagne cocktail. It also makes use of a sugar cube, but there’s no fuss. You just toss the cube into a champagne flute and add a few drops of bitters. Easy, easy lemon squeezy — oh, that reminds me, often a lemon twist will be added. It doesn’t seem like a terribly complicated operation, and it isn’t, but it can go a long way toward making a so-so sparkling wine taste really superb. And, besides, the champagne cocktail is what they drink in “Casablanca,” and they drink a lot of it in a hurry. After all, in flashback, the Nazis are marching on France. “Henri wants us to finish this, and then three more,” Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman “He says he’ll water his garden with champagne before he’ll let the Germans drink any of it.”

“Kiss me,” she answers. “Kiss me as if it were the last time.”

Champagne cocktail at Meritage
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
Champagne cocktail at Meritage

Take that, absinthe. Meritage has a number of champagne cocktails, and the one I sampled is called The Bitter Cube. What is it? Champagne, into which they have popped a sugar cube soaked with Bolivar bitters, which, in retrospect, I should have figured out from the name. Especially as the company that makes Bolivar bitters is called BitterCube. They use Argyle sparkling wine, I am told, and the resulting drink is pleasant indeed. A champagne cocktail can be very sweet — after all, you’re taking a sweet wine and adding a sugar cube to it. But the amount of bitters in this drink offers what I’ll call a nice counterpoint — suddenly there are fruity notes, and hints of camomile and cinnamon. I could have drunk them all night.

Later, from a prone position, I cried out, “Kiss me as if it were the last time,” and everybody laughed, and green fairies lighted on the floor next to me, smiling and clapping their hands.

“Am I being witty?” I asked them.

“You’re drunk,” they answered. “You’re not making any sense at all.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sue Halligan on 06/29/2011 - 02:28 pm.

    Max, thanks for the tip. It’s hard to find a good champagne cocktail in the Twin Cities. The last one I had (at D’Amico’s Kitchen in Minneapolis) was not memorable.

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