The Road to Sake Is Paved With Gold(schlager)

Here it is, Sunday night, and I'm at my desk enjoying a glass of sauvignon blanc. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn't have been caught dead drinking this stuff, but I've come around. White wine is actually good, I'm happy to report. There's a certain inevitability in the arc of one's drinking life. If a drink is in fact good, sooner or later, you'll end up drinking it. So let's give it up for sauvignon blanc.

It's Best to Get Started Early. There's a Lot to Learn.

It doesn't seem like that long ago I was desperately trying to force myself to like beer. Was that 1993? Maybe it was 1994. I was probably fourteen or fifteen and boy did I want to get shitfaced. Did I ever. But it was hard, you know? Booze wasn't too easy to come by, and it tasted pretty terrible.

The first time I got drunk I was a freshman at Firestone High School, in the former rubber capital of the world and home of LeBron James, Akron, Ohio. It was a dismal fall Saturday and I had the good fortune to be introduced to some juniors (I've arrived!) and their cheap vodka and orange juice. I definitely blacked out early on, and when I regained awareness I was hanging off the deck on the back of this guy's house doing pullups. The white turtleneck I was wearing was smeared with mud on the back. Later on I found my retainer in a flower bed. I agree this is all sort of horrifying, but I was having fun.  

When you're fifteen, pounding screwdrivers is easy. The hard part is teaching yourself to stomach Natty Ice or Miller High Life or whatever godawful beer you can get your hands on. If you want to tie one on, you need to knock back a whole lot of that stuff. So you sit there in some friend's basement, or maybe in the park after dark, holding your nose and trying not to yack as you plod through a six pack. I remember being sixteen, trying to get drunk without the hassle of beer, having a positively barbaric outing with Zima chugged from styrofoam cups, and a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi rhine wine. Thanks mom and dad for buying us that shit. Memories to last a lifetime, and not just for me.   

You might say my behavior was foul, maybe even reprehensible, but I was only getting started. Worlds were unfolding. Shots of Goldschlager, 40s of OE, the delightfully repulsive took on so many forms. Oh, this might be twenty years too late, but sorry not sorry Dan's parents about your Canadian whiskey, and sorry not sorry Tim's dad about your single-malt Glenfarclas. That stuff was like 110 proof, and it burned going down, but whatever. In all things in life, you do what you need to do to get the job done. If the job is to be seventeen and wasted, when Glenfarclas presents itself, you drink that shit, and you come back for seconds.  

Division I College Drinking

Secure in my capacity for excess, I headed off for a four year tour at The (The!) Ohio State University. I arrived with my Arizona ID, which was an awful fake, but it worked remarkably well at Kroger's and Applebees. The Natty Ice was never in short supply freshman year, thank god. That was the year I learned to love kegs of Icehouse, and had a nasty run-in with a certain Mr. James Beam. It was the year I learned to drink in the shower at 8 a.m., as a means of getting a head start before a noon kickoff, or maybe before going to church if that's your thing. Good times in Bradley Hall, turning reckless binge drinking into high art. 

Things only escalated sophomore year once we moved off campus to E. 18th Avenue, and continued raging at an aggressive pace for the subsequent three years. Handle bottles of Scoresby blended scotch bought from the ghetto liquor store at the corner of 5th and 4th. Warm Captain Morgan's smuggled into Ohio Stadium on a sweltering football Saturday. Shots of the Three Wisemen, a revolting combination trio of Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Jose Cuervo. Senior year I helped pioneer the self keg stand. Yes, that's physically possible. No, I haven't done it since 1999.

  Coaches.  John Cooper won a lot of games, but pretty much never when it counted. 2-13-1 against Michigan. Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel won titles, and are combined 14-1 against Michigan.  

Coaches. John Cooper won a lot of games, but pretty much never when it counted. 2-13-1 against Michigan. Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel won titles, and are combined 14-1 against Michigan.  

1999 was a ridiculous year, binge-drinking at its zenith. The football team was having its worst season in years. It was back before the paradise of Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel, when John Cooper blew it against Michigan year in and year out. We compensated by forming a football-themed drinking team. I was one of the defensive captains, I played middle linebacker. I organized, motivated, hit hard. I coordinated the team jerseys. I wasn't one of those offensive wonders, the quarterback and the running back, those guys who would drink bong water, or dive-bomb a lawn chair, or expose themselves at parties. That season, if you puked it was a fumble. But it wasn't a turnover if you got back up and started drinking again.   

My stamina was amazing back in those days, and not just because of Ripped Fuel [Friend: Hey, do you want some Ripped Fuel? Me: What's Ripped Fuel? Friend: It's like trucker cocaine, I got it at GNC. Me: I'll take two].  One time Dan's mom (she of the missing Canadian whiskey) came to Columbus and asked how I'd spent the previous day. "Drinking an inordinate amount of alcohol." "How much is that?," she asked. "30 beers." To be fair, though, it was over a stretch of 20 hours, so arguably I'd paced myself. Besides it was probably Coors Light or something more water than beer. Stamina, people. Enjoy it while you can.

  Thoughts on Scotch.   Glenfarclas, we didn't deserve you. Scoresby, you're not rare at all, but you should be. Johnnie, man, it was good to catch up at the firm retreat last week. Hadn't seen you for a while. 

Thoughts on Scotch.  Glenfarclas, we didn't deserve you. Scoresby, you're not rare at all, but you should be. Johnnie, man, it was good to catch up at the firm retreat last week. Hadn't seen you for a while. 

In December 1999, our drinking team finished off an undefeated season, and we played against ourselves in a national title game. The Icehouse Bowl or something dumb like that, presented as a Christmas-themed costume party. I wore some absurd thrift-store polyester suit, green pants and a red jacket. Quite obviously, we won a big victory. National title, baby. I drank the worm in a mezcal bottle, and I woke up face down the next morning, still in my holiday best, shoes and all. There is irony here. Eighteen years later I have such vivid memories of that night, but the next day I would have told you I didn't remember anything.  

Graduate School. Way Less Fun, Way Worse Hangovers.

People always say you should go out when you're on top, so that's sort of what I did. The me that could drink to such calculated excess retired at the end of that game. My vaunted stamina was rapidly eroding, the hangovers increasingly painful, the sense of self-loathing during a day-long head-pounding malaise all the more acute.  There was no single moment of epiphany; it was a gradual realization that this actually wasn't fun anymore. Laying low as a matter of self-preservation characterized my final months in Columbus.  

  The Kong.  Scorpion Bowls. My last visit here ended not well. 

The Kong. Scorpion Bowls. My last visit here ended not well. 

This isn't to say I didn't give it a go when I got to Cambridge in 2000. I proudly got ejected from the Crimson Grille and the Hong Kong for insulting bouncers. I corralled our entire lab into drinking 40s of OE from brown bags during our fall 2002 new-student open house. We played a drinking game. Every time our adviser trotted out one of his buzzwords du jour, everybody had a drink. Because he spoke a dialect comprised exclusively of buzzwords, the game was a raging success. Some great people ended up joining the lab that year.  

Big picture, though, let's be real here. The Harvard graduate chemistry crowd, a few notable exceptions aside (Dr. Chen and the Borg, those guys were maniacs), couldn't quite compete on the same field as Big Ten undergrads. Realistically, not many people can compete at that level. At the risk of stating the obvious, nor should people want to. 

Boston had a lot of bars, though, and I spent a lot of time at them. Drinking Guinness and Johnnie Walker, because I happened to like Guinness and Johnnie Walker. Do you see that shift? Now we're talking about drinking just because we like what we're drinking. Our biology tells us that, if we're to keep drinking, it's going to have to be on these terms and only these terms. We don't do binge-drinking anymore. We can't do it. By the time I was in law school, which I assure you would have been more enjoyable had I been drunk the entire time, I was largely drinking this way. The last time I drank a 40 was in 2005 on the Caltrain. I can't say I liked the drink, but I can say I liked the idea of drinking it on public transportation. 

The Real Zenith of Drinking

I'm turning 40 this year. Since my late 20s, I've enforced a three drink maximum with a fair degree of rigor. I panic with even faint anticipation of a hangover. I am, you see, committed to enjoy my drinking, and I refuse to do anything that will compromise the experience. The experience should always be good.

There's no reason it shouldn't be. We are living in a golden age of alcohol, and I can't imagine a better place to experience it than the Golden State. Wine has flourished here for decades, although truth be told I think Napa is awful. I prefer wine that tastes like dirt anyway, and the odds of getting a mouthful of dirt are better with French wine, so I get most of my wine at Kermit Lynch in Berkeley. Craft beer culture has simply exploded in the past ten years, and cocktail culture too. It seems like California is at the vanguard in every segment of the alcohol market, although the tide is rising throughout the country. 

And so we come to sake. A market segment that, for all intents and purposes, doesn't exist in the United States. But let me tell you, people, it needs to exist, it must exist. Sake should be huge. This isn't a drink that should be confined to occasional consumption at a sushi restaurant, or that deserves placement next to margarita mix and vermouth on the bottom shelf of the Safeway liquor aisle. Sake is an everyday drink. It goes down easier than wine, it pairs well with western food, and it's affordable. Sake, however, has a marketing problem, a foreignness problem. Sake's potential is obscured by kanji brushstrokes, unmemorable Japanese names, and technical nomenclature. We've decided that needs to change. 

In two months, we're opening The Periodic Table. Sake will be presented as something accessible and casual. We'll serve cheese, cured meats, pickles, all of which are great with sake, believe it or not. We'll educate people, try to break through the brushstroke barrier, and emphasize that you don't really need to care whether it's a junmai daiginjo or a junmai sake. It only matters whether you like the taste. Part of the project is to present it alongside local beer, to show how they can be consumed with the same food in the same casual setting. And, as an added and unexpected twist, we're now planning to do scotch-style Japanese whiskey too. Suntory Time in Emeryville.  

When I sat down to write this piece, I planned to dive right into sake. But unsure where to begin, and not quite ready to start the hard technical research, I started thinking about my life in drinking, and how I went from being a drunken post-adolescent Ohioan to opening a sake bar in the Bay Area. To me, the lesson of this history is that drinking is something everyone can enjoy, in different ways at different times in life. No matter how foreign a drink might seem, if you like it, then drink more of it. It's just a drink, after all.

Now we start on sake. Let's demystify, drink, and repeat.