WRITTEN BY SPENCER SPELLMAN
Bucket lists are out, and in are vision boards, challenges, and projects with attainable goals and start and end dates, such as 52-week and 12-month challenges. And it’s just that line of thought that’s led to my big 2017 project, Cocktail Chronicles: 52 Weeks of Cocktails.
Truth be told, this all began a few years ago in an effort to innovate my life. On my 30th birthday, rather than wallow in self-pity and a bathtub of wine (not that there’s anything wrong with that) about my 20s being over, I was instead running down a volcano in Maui with a parachute strapped to my back. A few seconds later and I was paragliding over Maui’s Upcountry. What resulted was a year of attempting to do at least 30 things that I had never done but had always wanted to do.
I did 38.
And the couple of years since have been an extension of that, attempting a new challenge or risk every month. However, this year, it seemed as good a time as any to innovate again. And naturally, like most good stories and jokes, this one begins (and will end) at a bar.
I think every drink has a story. But of even greater importance is that every person has a story. What is your story? And what is the story of what you drink, and, more importantly, what does that drink say about you? Well, that’s what I’m setting out to do in 2017. The goal of 52 Weeks of Cocktails is two-fold: first, to meet 52 different people this year, buy them each a drink, and ask, “What’s your story?” I want to listen and learn from people in ways that, perhaps, I haven’t in the past. And, in turn, the second part of the project is creating a drink recipe for that person based on that person’s story and interest, as well as our conversation.
Fittingly, this all started to take root a few weeks ago, at my favorite Reno watering hole, Chapel Tavern. I was sitting at the bar, engaged in a conversation about someone else’s story, when my favorite bartender turned to me and said, “Spencer, I have something I want you to try.”
That’s how it often starts at Chapel, where the bartenders know I have a penchant for trying new spirits and cocktails. Moments later, we were being served shots of Becherovka, a Czech herbal liqueur that, quite simply, can only be described as drinking a shot of Christmas.
Yet while most people would simply shoot it, I was that guy sipping a shot—not because I’m a delicate flower, but rather because I’m thinking about what kind of cocktail I can make with it. No less than 24 hours later, I was scouring the shelves of Craft and Ben’s Fine Wine & Spirits. Craft is, hands down, my favorite bottle shop in the area, since it’s so carefully curated, with a number of fine whiskies and spirits you can’t usually find just anywhere. But, alas, Ben’s Fine Wine & Spirits has one of the bigger selections in Reno, and thus it’s where I found a bottle of Becherovka.
By the end of the day, I was sipping on my first Becherovka cocktail, a winter-themed Old Fashioned (which I dubbed a Snow Fashioned), inspired by my Chapel drinking companion, whose favorite cocktail is an Old Fashioned.
While I’m really only a couple weeks into the project, I’ve learned so much already. I’ve met extraordinary people with extraordinary stories who have been so eager to share them, often with such transparency and honesty. These aren’t conversations I’m likely to have just over lunch or at happy hour.
As American writer Madeleine L'Engle wrote in A Wrinkle in Time, “Life, with its rules, its obligations, and its freedoms, is like a sonnet: You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.” It’s those sonnets that I want to hear, and therefore learn from, and as a result, continue crafting my own sonnet. For as L'Engle also said, “Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving.” It would seem that I, and more broadly, the world, could use a little bit more courage and love.
1½ ounces bourbon
½ ounce Becherovka
¼ ounce spiced simple syrup
Dash of bitters
Orange peel or cherry as garnish
I first made a spiced simple syrup, which was equal parts sugar and water (brought to a boil), steeped with a couple cinnamon sticks, cloves, and star of anise seeds After the syrup had cooled down, I followed my traditional recipe for an Old Fashioned. I added the bourbon to a mixing glass with a couple pieces of ice and stirred for 10 seconds, before adding a lot more ice and stirring. Lastly, I added the Becherovka, simple syrup, and dash of bitters, and stirred again. To serve, I strained it into a rocks glass over a big ice sphere (kind of like a snowball, yeah?), garnishing with an orange peel and, in this case, also a cherry.
Southern born and bred, Spencer Spellman was bitten by the travel bug at a young age, flying on a plane for the first time at age five and by himself for the first time at seven. While he continues to travel around the world in search of the best whiskey, Spencer now calls Reno home, where his search is for the best cocktail. He has written about travel, food, and drinks for a number of publications that have included the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Travel + Leisure, just to name a few.