As Captain Augustus McRae once said, “What’s good for me might not be good for the weak minded.” I always liked that idea. I have enjoyed a great many distractions over the years that I would not recommend for the weaker of heart or constitution or for myself, really, in retrospect. That said, I am glad I’ve been afforded the opportunity to be pretty foolish over the years, without serious repercussions. One downside of good fortune is a healthy dose of belief in yourself, whether warranted or not. So, with a nod to both Dunning and Kruger, and in the spirit of taking a swing when you don’t even deserve to be in the game, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Lively Gus.
This concoction is a Monkeybrad original, dreamed up on the spur of the moment when asked to create a cocktail based on the name “Lively Gus”. At the time I did not know that all flies are named Gus or that a particularly spry example inspired the request. Not that this would have changed anything. When I heard the phrase, I immediately thought of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove and Augustus McRae, kicked back in his chair on the porch waiting for biscuits to brown, being anything but lively. On some level this is a riff on a Texas Ranch Water, since I went with Topo Chico for the bubbles, but it’s more inspired by half remembered details from a book read long ago, than by any actual cocktail. It’s an amalgam of elements from the story, things I wanted to try and a bit of hope as I rattled off a list of ingredients, not worrying about the measurements. The more I thought about it, the more I actually wanted to try one, so here we are.
I never make things easy for myself, so before I could actually make this one, I had to make an ingredient. The real key to this drink is bacon fat washed mezcal, in a nod to Gus’ pigs, which were not for rent. To make it add 1 1/2 ounces of fresh bacon grease to 4 ounces of mezcal, I used Del Maguey Vida and stir. Let sit overnight, before popping in the freezer. Once the fat hardens and separates, strain through a coffee filter and set aside. Even if you have no intention of making this cocktail, make this mezcal infusion. This natural extension of a good smoky mezcal is simply heavenly. Seriously.
Now that you have that sorted, grab your tins and pop in 2 ounces of that amazing bacon fat-washed mezcal, 3/4 of an ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice, 1.5 ounce of honey syrup made with Captain Rodney’s Barrel Aged Honey that I smoked with some mesquite; add a stab of Bittermen’s Molé bitters and a pinch of Sal de Gusano agave worm salt. Add ice and give it a nice leisurely shake to the beat of Lyle Lovett’s inimitable “Fly Swatter/Ice Water Blues“, which should have won some sort of “unexpected rhyme of the 90’s” award, but the world is not a fair place. I wanted to go with Garth Brooks singing “In Lonesome Dove” but it doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the book, as far as I remember it. Sure it happens in Texas and mentions Rangers and it says the name a lot, but there is nary a sign of McRae, Call or even Blue Duck, so I had to give it a pass. Lyle is from Texas anyway, so it just feels right. When your tins are good and chilled, strain over some of those artisanal ice cubes in a Collins glass rimmed with Tajin and top with Topo Chico, I prefer their “Twist of Lime” but any will work. Pop in a reusable straw and garnish with some leftover bacon and a dehydrated lime wheel on a cocktail pick. Sip slowly on the front porch in the shade after a good poke as the lively Gus’ buzz in the distance.
There is nothing in the world wrong with that. I mean, it’s not the best drink I have ever had, but if it was on special in the bar you would not be disappointed. Frankly, it’s better than anything I tried at a popular “craft cocktail” place over the weekend. It’s light and airy, perfect for porch siping and that bacon washed mezcal is simply amazing. It would be improved with an element of spice, so the next time I am going to add some habañero shrub to kick things up a notch. My first instinct was to add some red pop rocks to the Tajin, just to make things extra lively, but I thought better of it. You might not show similar restraint, I can’t make that decision or you. It’s a good drink, though, and bacon fat washed mezcal is definitely a thing now.
I first read Lonesome Dove when I was in high school. I remember watching the mini series with my grandparents, Pa was a big fan of westerns, but I did not really get into it. I only read the novel because my mom suggested it as surprisingly good writing and it absolutely is. I loved it and ended up reading the entire series. Many years later, I would do some work filming in Angel Fire, New Mexico at the location of “Montana” in the miniseries. It was a rewarding but challenging time and I remember having a nice moment looking out across the same vista that Captain Call, McRae and the boys had enjoyed thinking about the line, “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.” Like most of them, those hardships passed, in time and I came out the other side, better for the experience.
I try to make point to reread this book every decade or two. I have a whole list of important works that get this treatment. It is always interesting to me to see just how much my own perceptions have changed since the last reading. As I get older, I find myself with a greater appreciation of Gus and his seemingly lighthearted, epicurean take on the world. I also find myself with less patience for Call’s pride and stoicism. That’s funny, I used to think that Captain Call and his serious demeanor showed that he was the more mature of the pair and I wanted to be more like him. Now, I see the pain he caused by not being able to laugh at himself or at least admit his failings and I am happy that circumstances have led me to adopt an easier stride, more closely aligned with that lively old Gus. Knowing yourself, being honest about what you see in the mirror and still having the good humor to laugh about it, well, that seems like a pretty decent existence to me. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and if I live to see the sunset, I will make some more. That doesn’t make me less of a man, just more human. As the fella himself said:
I’m glad I’ve been wrong enough to keep in practice. . . You can’t avoid it, you’ve got to learn to handle it. If you only come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day–that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.”Captain Augustus McRae, Texas Ranger
I’m not one for a dry shave, but I respect the sentiment. It is important to not take yourself too seriously, it does not pay any extra and it costs more, in the long run. So when someone asks you to whip up a Lively Gus or any other foolish thing, don’t be afraid to go for it. Start throwing things out off the top of your head and see if they turn out well. If they do, you’ve got a nice drink and a story to go with it, if not, well, at least you took the shot and can laugh at your failure. That’s the wrong word, isn’t it? As long as you are trying, you have not failed, things just did not work out. So keep on plugging away and one of these days, you’ll get it right, or close enough, anyway. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.