Drinking these days can leave a bad taste in your mouth -- and I don't mean from the tab. Those oversweet, ill-mixed and worse-matched concoctions that are being passed off as cocktails are corrupting the palates and social pleasures of educated elbow-benders.
Maybe it's Yuppieism -- a three-piece suit and a dressed-up order; or maybe it's a neoconservative desire to disguise good liquor as a grownup's Shirley Temple. That would explain the explosion of pink. I keep getting gimlets that are strawberry- colored instead of pale chartreuse, and one bartender at a Dupont Circle chicerie, faced with a rejected melon crush, pronounced: "All our cocktails are made with grenadine."
Right here in the midst of the Me-Healthy Decade, Washington seems to have developed an excrucating sweet tooth. A highly respectable half-dozen, lunching at a highly respectable hotel, ordered Kahlua up, Tia Maria up, Drambuie on the rocks, Bailey's Irish Cream, "Irish coffee with rum" and a relatively rational cognac -- and then a second round.
Then there were the mint julep made with creme de menthe; the manhattan made with white dry vermouth (instead of red sweet) and sporting an orange slice instead of a marischino cherry (the bartender disapproved of red dyes); the gin-and- tonic with Tom Collins mix.
And Irish coffees with anything and everything. It's one thing to throw Irish Mist into coffee between consenting adults, but this profusion of spiked sundaes is obscene. There's a bar on Capitol Hill where the house special is Amaretto, Irish whisky, Bailey's, Kahlua and light and dark creme de cacao, all dumped into a jigger of coffee.
And what is it served in? A brandy snifter, too hot to hold and so wide-mouthed that the whipped cream slides down either side of your face.
Drinking in Washington is as hard on the eyes as on the palate. Hotel bars have abolished the shot glass and the pony (drinking whisky out of a sherry glass can make a woman feel like a dipsomaniacal dowager), along with the long, cool pilsner. Champagne is served in sherbet dishes, white wine in red wine glasses, and some Georgetown spots stock only snifters.
Even more infuriating is to order a martini straight up and get it in a snifter too big to balance except in your palm, thus heating your drink to the dull, medicinal stage.
Whatever happened to elegance? To the graceful champagne flute, in which the bubbles soared proudly to the lips? To the perfect martini in its elegant, cool, long-stemmed glass? Or to the classic, tailored simplicity of the gibson goblet, the pointed recesses of which cradled the onion like a pearl?
And whatever happened to the Irish coffee mug, footed for distinction and equipped with a sane, serviceable handle?
The next time some correspondence school bartender shakes your martini so that it splashes you instead of him, or presents you with prepackaged punch and calls it a Bacardi cocktail, go home and make your own. At least you'll be in civilized company.
Mint juleps are essential for Kentucky Derby Day -- the first Saturday in May -- so you might want to start practicing. For each julep, mix three or four ounces bourbon with a spoonful of simple syrup. Crush mint in a glass with the back of a spoon and serve the julep over cracked ice; stick a fresh mint sprig on top. Bourbon is better than sour-mash whiskey because "sippin' taken straight, has a distinctive flavor that doesn't marry.
Irish coffee is beatifically simple: a spoonful of sugar and two ounces of Irish whisky, then coffee, topped with unsweetened whipped cream.
(Incidentally, true liquor literacy dictates "whisky" for Irish, Scotch and Canadian mashes. Only Americans, with their traditionally haphazard spelling, ferment "whiskey.")