Imagine an industry trade show: beige event space, rows and rows of booths, slick salespeople explaining their products to potential vendors. Now imagine that, instead of vacuum cleaners or facial creams or semiautomatic weapons, the unifying product at this trade show is alcohol. Booze is everywhere, every kind of booze that exists on God's delicious green Earth, and you can walk around and try it all. The people there are practically begging you to try it all. This is how I spent last Wednesday night.
In the Kansas City area, most bars and restaurants purchase their liquor from two wholesale distributors: Glazer's and Major Brands. Every fall, in advance of all the special holiday packaging that liquor companies roll out, Major Brands throws a holiday party. The idea is that proprietors of local establishments can check out all the new products and get a sense of what they want to order from their reps for the upcoming busy season.
For the two years I've been aware of this party, it has been held in a conference-style meeting room upstairs at the Argosy Casino, in Riverside. Last year, I tagged along with my co-worker Berry, who has worked in a lot of bars around town and who excels at getting the scoop on these types of events. I got drunk and, as we were leaving, I ordered a couple of sandwiches from the free prime-rib buffet. Then I wrapped the sandwiches inside napkins and stuffed them in my coat pocket, to have for lunch the following day. In the car on the way home, I removed the sandwiches from my coat, fearing grease leakage. I glanced up at Berry. The look on her face expressed something between shock and pity.
"That's some hobo shit," she said, shaking her head.
But Berry is forgiving and forgetful, so she invited me along again this year. We wormed our way past the sign-in area and entered the fray. There were men in suits, crusty ex-con-looking dudes, sassy barmaids, and attractive young women hired by liquor companies for their attractiveness. Something for everyone. I wandered, aimless and overwhelmed, until I made eye contact with a middle-aged rep.
"You look like a man with a refined palate," the gentleman called out to me from behind his booth.
You have poor instincts, I wanted to tell him, but I walked over and chatted him up about his wines. Did I know that the family of famous Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli has grown grapes in the hills of Tuscany for over a century? I did not. Would I like to try a glass? Would I ever.
"What varieties do you tend to sell?" he asked.
"Oh, you know ... reds?"
The man did a double take, then gave me a little once-over. He was not accustomed to such unsophisticated responses. But he was a good sport and continued to humor me with tastings until a person who actually belonged at the party approached and asked real questions about the wine. I ducked away and disappeared into the crowd.
Last year's Major Brands party was my first encounter with whipped-cream-flavored vodka, which has since caught on at a lot of the party bars around town. This year, my big flavored-vodka take-away was Bakon, a bacon-flavored vodka. I was skeptical at first. Bacon is in everything these days, and, as a result, I have come down with a case of bacon fatigue, a condition that would once have been unthinkable. But then I saw what the Bakon man was cutting his Bakon with: bloody-mary mix. It's an irresistible concoction. (Also Bakon-friendly: pickle juice.)
If, like me, you derive perverse joy out of listening to sales pitches, this was one hell of a party. "If you try a better single-malt scotch in this room than this here Balvenie, you come back and tell me what it was because I want to try it," a sly old fox with a mustache told me. "I don't think it exists, but you let me know." He cackled with precision. I grinned and nodded and cackled a little, too, and then I drank it down.
One of the more boring booths in the room — a couple of vodkas, a couple of whiskeys, no gimmicks — was incongruously staffed by a gorgeous, statuesque blonde, over 6 feet tall, in a tight black dress. Oh, mama. I glimpsed her on my first lap around and stopped by a half-hour later, buoyed by the confidence only the finest flavored vodkas can instill in a man. At the exact moment when I knew it was too late, it dawned on me that I had nothing interesting to say because when it comes down to it, I am a sad, boring man. I just kind of grinned like a dope and pointed: "What's the difference between those two whiskeys?"
She dutifully explained, and I pretended to listen. She poured me a little shot, and I stood there in front of her drinking it, pretending to savor its subtle flavors. Then I formulated some winning comment (I don't remember what it was, and it probably wasn't winning at all), but just as I was about to unleash my infallible charisma, some dork sidled up and started peppering my girl with business questions. The nerve of this guy! I milled around for a bit, but this chatterbox wasn't going anywhere, and my dignity was evaporating with each second that I continued loitering. I slunk off into the crowd. Over the years, I have become pretty good at slinking off into crowds.
I tracked down Berry. "Let's go downstairs and gamble," I said. Underneath the fake-sky ceiling of the Argosy — it always looks like dusk above you, even when it's 4 a.m. on a Tuesday and you're blowing through next month's rent — I lost $20 in about five minutes. ("What do you expect? You can't play the slots at the Argosy," Pitch food critic and casino enthusiast Charles Ferruzza told me the next day. "Those are the tightest damn slots in town. I keep telling you, you wanna win something, you gotta go to the Isle of Capri!")
Berry caught a nice run at the electronic blackjack screens at the bar, but then I horned in and killed it. "Not my night," I said, as we exited the premises, broke and defeated. On the whole, though, I'd rate the evening a success. The liquor industry, it should come as no surprise, knows how to throw a party.