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Whiskey Sour

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“Can I help?”  Sally asked, leaning against the little table where they kept all the alcohol.  Daddy had one of the bottles in his hand, looking at it like he was thinking about something else, and he hadn’t actually started pouring anything into his glass.  This made it the perfect opportunity to interrupt; once he was started, she was sure he wouldn’t let anyone finish pouring and mixing for him.

“Help?”  He glanced down at her, raising one of his eyebrows in the way that said just what do you think you’re doing, Sal? 

She could hear the TV in the other room, which was a sure sign that Mommy was going to go in there and yell at Bobby to turn it down and stop sitting so close.  There was something sizzling in the kitchen, too, which would probably be dinner soon.  But in here, it was quiet, just the slosh of the liquid and the clink of glass on wood when Daddy set the bottle back on the table.

“Susan K. makes drinks all the time.”  It had been an embarrassing moment during playtime when Sally had told her no, only grown-ups were allowed to touch alcohol bottles.  Susan had looked at her with a kind of pity that made it clear that whatever Sally was, it was probably babyish.  “She said so at school.”

Daddy smiled down at her, still looking a little confused to her—or like he heard a joke she didn’t actually tell.  “That’s what they’re teaching you in kindergarten?”

“Sometimes we play Party.”  It was one of the best games they’d come up with.  She and Ann and Susan, and sometimes Cindy if she was being nice, would pull out the prettiest things in the dress-up box and put them on.  Sally always looked for the hats and gloves she thought Mommy would wear; that was the easiest way to know that she would look pretty.  And then they took turns hosting and serving imaginary pâté and deviled eggs.  It was Susan who suggested a Tom Collins to go with their hors d’oeuvres, and Sally had frowned and told her she couldn’t invite the boys to play.

It had, needless to say, been awful when it turned out Sally didn’t know what Susan was talking about.

Daddy made a quiet, thoughtful little noise as he looked down at her.  Sally straightened up, trying to look sophisticated and definitely old enough to hold a bottle without breaking it or spilling its contents.

“So what does Susan K. know how to make?”  It wasn’t a yes, but it also wasn’t a no

“She can make everything,” Sally told him, trying to remember the names of the drinks Susan had suggested.  She wasn’t entirely convinced that Susan knew how to make all of them, because it seemed like every time Sally asked what was in them, the answer was tonic water and gin.  But it was.  “Martinis, Tom Collinses, gin and tonics, Rob Roys…”

“You could be playing Bar with a menu like that.”  For some reason, Daddy laughed, which seemed closer to a yes than anything, and Sally filed the idea away for when Party got boring.  “All right, you can help.”

“Yes!” 

“First rule: no jumping while you’re mixing drinks.”  When Daddy held up a hand, she realized she was bouncing up and down and did her best to stand flat-footed next to him.  “Second rule: no mixing drinks unless Mommy or I ask you to.  Is that clear?”

Sally nodded.  “What do I do?”

After he looked over the liquors in their matching bottles and shiny silver caps, he pointed at the one he’d been holding before.  “This is rye whiskey.  We’re going to make a whiskey sour.”

“Is that what you were going to make?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  But this is easier than an old fashioned.”

For a moment, she was tempted to tell him she wanted to make the harder one.  But if she made a mistake with the old fashioned and wasted a whole cupful of whiskey, he might not let her try again until she was six or seven, or maybe even older.  It was probably better to start with the easy drink and prove that she could make it.

“First,” Daddy went on, “you get a glass and fill it with ice.”

He’d been holding one in his other hand, already with ice in it, so he offered it to her, and she set it down on the table.  Mommy always made her pour her milk with the cup resting on the table, instead of holding it in the air.  The rule was probably the same with whiskey.

“See that little pot with the spoon sticking out?  Open it up and put a teaspoon of sugar in the glass.”

“There’s sugar in there?”  Her eyes widened.  She’d walked by this table a million times and never even thought there might be something she’d be interested in—except for the cherries and the olives, but Mommy kept those in the refrigerator during the day.

“It’s not for eating,” he warned.  When she glanced up at him, he was wearing the kind of frown that meant it could be eaten, but if she wanted to keep helping, she’d know better than to try.

So she didn’t protest, just reached for the sugar and only spilled a few grains on its way back to the glass.  When they were done, maybe she could lick her finger and pick them up.

“You usually shake a whiskey sour,” he was saying, pointing to a shaker she’d seen  him use before, “but we’re going to stir it tonight.  Pick up the whiskey.”

For a moment, Sally stared at the bottles.  Actually getting to pick one up seemed very grown up; she could see herself mixing up drinks for a whole party, just like her parents would, but she could also imagine dropping it and shattering the glass around her bare feet.  Daddy must have thought she’d forgotten which one had the whiskey in it, though, because he tapped the top of it a little impatiently. 

Taking a deep breath, she lifted it out of its row of neat bottles.  It was heavy, but she couldn’t tell if that was because it was made out of glass or because there was a lot of whiskey inside it just then.  It was a beautiful shade of brownish gold, like a fur coat made liquid.

“Pour—carefully!—and I’ll tell you when to stop.”

She pulled the stopper out of the bottle and with both hands, tilted it into the glass, and watched with furrowed brows as the whiskey splashed into the sugar.  If she didn’t spill a drop, it would prove that she could help with drinks from here on out.

“Good.”  He helped her set the bottle upright again and watched as she capped it.  Then he held out half a lemon, and she realized that he must have sliced it when she was frowning at the whiskey.  “Squeeze this in as hard as you can.”

Less lemon juice came out than Daddy wanted.  After a minute of trying to squeeze it into the glass, his hand covered hers and finished the job, his fingers pressing hard into hers.  Then there was only stirring it—carefully, again, so that she didn’t make the whiskey slop over the sides of the glass—and then it was done.  The lemon juice and sugar didn’t really change the colour of the whiskey, just made it a little cloudier.  The result wasn’t quite as pretty as the whiskey by itself in its glass bottle, but she’d made it—with only a little help.

Daddy took a sip and nodded thoughtfully.  “This is a good first drink, Sally.”

“Can I try it?”  It was like baking cookies.  You had to try at least one to make sure they tasted right.  Of course, she wasn’t sure what a whiskey sour was supposed to taste like, so she wouldn’t actually know if she made it right, but if Daddy said she had, that was good enough for her.

“One sip.”  It was the same warning voice he’d used about the sugar, and he didn’t let go of the glass when she held it to her mouth.

Once she tasted what she made, she understood why.  If she’d been holding the cocktail, she would have dropped it in disgust.  Even with Daddy’s hand around it, she nearly spilled some in her haste to get it away from her.  “That’s horrible!

“Maybe you’ll like it better when you’re older.”  He laughed.  “Still want to be my bartender?”

Sally nodded, sweeping the little bit of spilled sugar into her palm like she planned on carrying it to the wastebasket in the kitchen.  After tasting that horrible thing—her tongue felt like it was made out of socks now, even though she already swallowed the little bit of whiskey that she drank—she was sure she was entitled to a few grains of sugar.  “As long as I don’t have to drink any of that stuff.”