I’ve got to admit, I don’t have high hopes for this one. Funny that I would approach this drink with such pessimism. It must be my natural contrarian streak. I like to think of myself as a pragmatist, which, to be fair, often presents as pessimism. I tend to approach things first from a “what obstacles are in our way” viewpoint. Which is also ironic, don’t you think? You see, I am also, paradoxically, usually the one out front trying to get people excited. Reminding them that we can do anything we set our minds to, if we only believe in ourselves and each other. What can I say? It’s complicated being me, just like it is complicated being you. That’s alright, as Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” So, in the spirit of keeping your chin up even when you know you are going to fail, won’t you join me now as we stand and make The Eternal Optimist.

I have wanted to try this one for a while, but I kept putting it off. Recently, my brother gifted me a bottle of Uncle Nearest 1884 and I knew the time had come. It is wonderful stuff and they make it just down the road from us. Uncle Nearest is the fella who helped Jack get started making whiskey down in Lynchburg and they have an awesome backstory, so definitely check them out. I’m not sure if this is a riff on an Old-Fashioned or a Monte Carlo or a combination of the two but it ought to be interesting. It was created by Eric Holzherr, owner of Washington DC’s original cocktail bar, Wisdom. Sadly, like so many other amazing bars, they have closed their doors during Covid and will not reopen. I try to be positive, but it is always a bleak reminder of just how much has been lost over the last year and a half when I see that “Permanently Closed” banner across a name. Bars come and go, it is their nature, but when they do, a piece of community is lost as the staff search for new work and the regulars look for a new place that feels like home. This has happened across the world and across every portion of society and I fear that we will not fully realize the cost for decades to come. If that bit of positivity doesn’t drive you to drink, I don’t know what will.

Grab your tins and toss in 1 1/2 ounces of whiskey, the original called for a small batch whiskey, so I went with Uncle Nearest 1884; 1/2 an ounce of Benedictine, 1/2 an ounce of that lovely artichoke based Cynar amaro, 1/2 an ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice and 2 ounces of apple juice. Add ice and give it a good shake to the dulcet tones of Eric Idle singing, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. When your tins are well chilled, strain into a Collins glass over ice and garnish with an apple slice.

That’s a unique drink, not bad, but different. All the ingredients play well with each other, surprisingly well, actually. There are some bold elements here, but the apple juice brings them all together and makes them line up in an orderly fashion to make a nice sipper. You can definitely get that Monte Carlo and Old-Fashioned lineage in there, though. A good drink, if you go in for that sort of thing. I think I do and that kind of surprises me.

Speaking of attitudes, I stumbled across a piece of my childhood the other day on my Grandpa’s bookshelf. A signed book of poetry from Tenessee’s first Poet Laureate, Richard M. “Pek” Gunn. I remember reading through this as a little boy, laughing at the stories in verse and looking at the hand drawn pictures that accompanied them. Scholars say, “Gunn’s usage of traditional southern pronunciations and quirky dialects elicits an inflection of hospitality and depicts the humanity of Southerners, allowing them to shine through his poems.” I just remember them as a fun way to spend time reading while Pa was watching Gunsmoke. One of the poems always stuck in my mind and as soon as I saw that old book, I pulled it down to share with my son, who was still down about a tough baseball loss. It seemed like a good time to share it’s wisdom with him and it is definitely relevant to our lesson today, so please allow me to present…

The Optimist

I passed a sand lot yesterday,
Some kids were playing ball,
I strolled along the third baseline, 
Within the fielder’s call.

“Say, What’s the score?” I asked the chap,
He yelled to beat the stuffin’
“There’s no one out, the bases full,
And they’re Forty-Two to Nuthin’!”

You’re gettin’ beat, aren’t you my lad?”
And then in no time flat,
He answered: “No Sir, not as yet!
Our side ain’t been to bat!”

Richard M. “Pek” Gunn, Poet Laureate of Tenessee from 1971-1994

There is a lot to be said for having a good attitude and this simple poem says volumes. Honestly, if you grew up in the American South in the 70’s and 80’s you have probably seen this poem framed hanging on the wall of a barber shop or town hall or Cracker Barrel. I remember it vividly, because it was from that book of poems Pa loved. He had an intense love of language, though you might not have known it watching him drive his tractor through the fields. He was also a master storyteller, who would launch into tales of the old days at any moment, to share a little wisdom and a laugh in his own inimitable style. That’s the man I remember, laughing with folks as he shared our communal past with them. He would go on to be friends with our current poet laureate, Margaret Britton Vaughn. When those two got to swapping stories, you might as well sit back and enjoy the show, because they would brook no interruption. She even featured him in one of her poem’s that brought us all to tears talking about “the golden band worn through with time” the day Laura and I were married. There are a lot of happy memories tied up in those stories and poems. 

It’s tricky to keep your spirits up, especially during these uncertain times. It’s easy to get tired and lose sight of the things that matter. We’ve all gone through some things, but that’s ok. This is the hand we were dealt and we have the opportunity to make sure that the world to come is better than the one we left behind. I know I have seen it, as we have gotten back out. People taking the time to truly see one another, to be kind, to remember just how important community is to us, as a species. We need each other and maybe this time spent apart will help us remember that. So, whether it is at your favorite bar or the ballpark or church or wherever your people are, I hope you are able to reconnect with old friends and find new people who will help you face whatever comes next. We are better together and knowing that, well, it makes me optimistic about the future and you can’t ask for more than that. Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.