Give me the worst bourbon you got.

No, I don’t want to hear the speech the Maker’s Mark rep taught you, I want what you got on the rack. The bottle that’s been languishing on the bottom shelf, shamefully collecting dust, that bad motherfucker   nobody wants and everyone threatens to drink on a dare. Yeah, that one. No, I’m not joking. Yes, it’s for me. Yes, I know what I’m getting myself into. Listen, I don’t care what it did to the last guy, I want it now. Stop the fucking disclaimers and give me the fucking shit, you evil fuck!

See, that’s the kind of crap a bartender has to deal with. From me, anyway. Imagine for a second you are a bartender. You’ve been serving jackasses drinks for ten hours straight.   At the end of the bar is an old Irish guy that you can understand only after he’s drank six pints of Guinness, the universal translator. But tonight he’s drinking Glenfiddich, the universal scrambler. Next to him are three suits telling you the same stories that bored you the first time you heard them. They tip like suits and use a corporate gold American Express Card. Which is good because you can charge drinks on it to give to the girls at the other end of the bar, desperately waiting for the nice guys to show.   The guys at the pool table call you by a nickname you hate and you’re not afraid to tell them as much. But they don’t give a shit because they play pool and therefore run the joint.   Mix in a few random losers and feel-sorry-for-themselves blobs and you got the regulars.

Those are your fucking regulars. Your cellmates. And, according to that fucking bartender code, you have to serve them.   Worse than that, they will stare at you the entire time they’re there, watching you do your cool thing, waiting for their turn to lay some horrible shit on you. And you must listen, because they are the customers. The first and only thing you were told when you became a bartender was, “You know you’re a real bartender when all the regulars want to be you or want to fuck you. In both senses of the word.”

It’s a tough gig, being a bartender, and they appreciate whatever true friends they can get. You know—that guy or girl they can trust to keep them sane, that person to watch the bar, go on a cigarette run, or drink that drink somebody ordered but nobody paid for.   And I figured it out early on—that job is perfect for me.   I didn’t want to be that grasping bar hound that acts as if the bar was his palace, I wanted to be the long-lost but beloved black sheep whose demands are strange but easily fulfilled — that’s why I became the rot gut guy.

I figured out a plan to make myself comfortable at any bar I walked into.   I would order the worst bourbon they have and they would love and understand me. It works like this:

“Hey, gimme the worst bourbon you have, straight up.”

The bartender looks at you but doesn’t show any emotion. Slowly, he reaches for the cheap stuff, usually Jim Beam or Old Granddad.

“No,” you say, deeply insulted, “I gotta be honest—I want the cheap shit, gimme what’s on the rack.”

The bartender laughs to himself and thinks you’re an idiot, or that you’re trying to put your friend in a world of hurt.   But you down it fast, right in front of him, and order before the empty glass raps wood.

“Gimme another, but this time I want a big glass.” Doesn’t matter how big the first glass was, there’s always a bigger one.

Usually the rack bourbon is a velvet-tongued bullwhip like Barclay’s, Kentucky Gentleman or Kentucky Beau, for the love of God. Sometimes you will be shocked to discover they don’t have a rack at all, at which point you should get up quietly and slowly back away.   Don’t make eye contact with anyone and find the sidewalk.   You cannot trust a place without quick and easy access to bad bourbon.

Okay, say they have speed rack and you got the bigger glass and the bad bourbon is rolling down your throat like the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. The bartender will be so intrigued that he will always remember you and that’s the trick. The bartender is the friend of people like us, but you don’t want the courtship to drag on. Drink your bourbon and keep your mouth shut. You established immediate recognition and that’s a true prize.   Trust me, you drink the rot-gut with style and you’re in.   You order two shots of the cheap stuff and you’ve bought the bottle for the bar. That’s when the free drinks start coming.   And isn’t that the whole point anyway? Only suckers pay for all their drinks.

Why Bourbon?    Well . . . let me tell you how it is:

Bourbon is the brownest of the brown liquors. It’s the only true American spirit.   Born by our ancestors in the county of Bourbon, Kentucky, it boasts of cheap sour mash and dozens of unmentionable additives. Unlike other drinks, bourbon doesn’t get better with age (don’t tell those rich fucks who frequent places called lounges or wine bars that lay down twenty dollars for premium aged bourbon just to prove their palette is as trained as their tennis backhand).  

Bourbon was made to be cheap. It was made so our southern brethren wouldn’t have to dole out hard-earned Confederate dollars for imported rum or gin. It’s made cheap, it’s sold cheap, and it definitely tastes cheap. Rot gut. It’s mean medicine for those who need it and love it like a mother loves her fat, ugly brat of a child—with a straight face and a bitter heart.

—John Flanigan