If you’re acquainted with Tom Waits — the most important and breathtakingly talented songwriter and performer of his generation I-don’t-care-what-you-say-because-if-you-disagree-you’re-wrong — you’d think it would be easy to come up with a Tom Waits drink.
Many of Waits’ early songs are exquisite, heartbreaking, often hilarious soundscapes where the main characters have been, to put it generously, over-served. Just a few titles illustrate: “The Piano has Been Drinking.” “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart.” “Gin-Soaked Boy.”
Until he met his wife Kathleen Brennan in 1987 and together they embarked on a remarkable journey of musical exploration that too few people know about, Waits says he lived a lot like the Bowery-bum scoundrels and layabouts that populate his songs.
Life moves along. He reports that he had his last drink in 1992. He credits Brennan with saving his life.
Tom Waits for you
So a Tom Waits drink can’t be for Tom Waits.
It can’t be for people who wish they were Tom Waits. [That would be the cheapest thing on tap with a shot of Old Crow, repeated until “you’re using parking meters as walking sticks,” to quote the man himself.]
It should be a tribute to his characters and stories, drawing on the things they imbibe as they rove through the songwriter’s florid imagination.
The early songs are full of beer and whiskey and cheap wine, but specific references to kinds of booze or brand names are pretty scarce. This is not surprising for a guy who actually lived in his car for awhile. “Brand loyalty” probably wasn’t top-of-mind.
Unthwarted, I read the lyrics to all his songs — he has over 400 [!], excluding instrumentals and the one where he made up his own language — looking for hints about his characters’ tastes in booze. I found maybe 30.
This is the part where you say, Wow, it’s weird how seriously this guy is taking this.
The Tom Waits Cocktail: 27 Stitches
My Tom Waits drink, using only ingredients mentioned in his songs, is designed to muster a certain authentically decadent insouciance. Or something. Key references shown.
- .5 oz rye whiskey
- When the weather’s rough and it’s whiskey in the rain it’s best to wrap your savior up in cellophane. — “Chocolate Jesus,” Mule Variations
- .5 oz brandy
- …I was stirring my brandy with a nail, boys / Stirring my brandy with a nail — “Get Behind the Mule,” Mule Variations
- .25 oz Chivas Regal
- Red Pants and the Sugarman in the Temple Street gloom / drinkin Chivas Regal in a four dollar room… – “Downtown,” Heart Attack and Vine
- …I sold a quart of blood and bought a half a pint of Scotch – “Til the Money Runs Out,” ibid
- …so I’ll meet you at the bottom / of a bottle of bargain scotch – “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart,” Small Change
- .75 sweet vermouth
- So you’re standing at the corner of 5th and Vermouth… — spoken word interlude, Nighthawks at the Diner
- ‘Bartender, I’ll have a Manhattan please’ — Bette Midler, of all people, in the intro to a cameo duet titled “I Never Talk to Strangers,” Foreign Affairs
- …We’re drinking Manhattans!!! — “I’ll Take New York,” Frank’s Wild Years
- Rinse of Green Chartreuse [I know, I know! WTF?]
- With a bottle of Green Chartreuse, ain’t nothing seems right… — “Til the Money Runs Out,” Heart Attack and Vine
How to make a Tom Waits cocktail, aka “27 Stitches”
- Put a little Chartreuse in an Old Fashioned glass. Swirl it to dampen the inside of the glass, dump out the remainder
- Stir the other 4 ingredients in a mixing glass, 55 turns of the barspoon [reference to his song “Ol’ 55.” Sorry.]
- Strain over fresh ice into the Old Fashioned glass.
- Garnish with a single crow’s feather [references too numerous to mention].
Tom Waits cocktail (“27 Stitches”) tasting notes
What we have here is essentially a Scotch-and-brandy Manhattan with a Chartreuse rinse.
Before you jump a Greyhound to Natchez, take a look. It’s not quite as crazy as it seems.
- The obscure classic Saratoga is a brandy-and-whiskey Manhattan.
- The Rob Roy is a Scotch Manhattan.
- The Sazerac historically was made with Cognac [brandy] — or whiskey [rye] and Cognac.
- Many Old Fashioned riffs — “improved whiskey cocktails,” as they’re known by booze geeks — use a liqueur to sweeten and invigorate the whiskey spirit.
- Then there’s The Highland Sazerac, a drink Difford’s says includes Scotch, Cognac [aka brandy], and…Green Chartreuse.
So we have not left the known universe of drinks. But we’re roaming the perimeter, whistling to calm our nerves.
Chaotic, yet with a certain bastard logic running through.
Reminiscent of many things, but not like any one thing.
A hobo train dangerously close to jumping the rails.
Stumbling through the Tom Waits booze-ography
This drink of course is not comprehensive. On purely mixological grounds I had to eliminate some ingredients I could not in good conscience put into the same glass at the same time.
- So I disposed of the “Gin-soaked Boy,” Swordfishtrombones, and the Singapore Slings the sailor in “Shore Leave” (ibid) drinks with a midget while waiting for the rain to pass.
- Gone too are the Mickey’s Big Mouths Frank drinks before he burns down his tidy suburban home in “Frank’s Wild Years,” ibid.
- I wish I could have used “Father Cribari” wine, referenced in “Altar Boy,” Orphans, a witheringly comic jeremiad about child molesting priests. Cribari is one of the nation’s largest bulk suppliers of sacramental wine.
Some ingredients I had to eliminate on purely humanitarian grounds
- In “Circus,” Swordfishtrombones, the narrator says, “Me and Molly Hoey/drank Pruno and Kool-Aid…” nb: Pruno is a fermented beverage made in plastic bags by prisoners, comprising fruit cocktail, sugar cubes, ketchup, and other detention-center cafeteria discards.
And this omission needs no explanation: …And you’ve been up all night drinking cleaning products… – spoken word interlude, Nighthawks at the Diner
I could go on. I won’t.
Oh, right: The name “27 Stitches”
“Til the Money Runs Out,” Heart Attack and Vine:
Splashin Bagdad on the Hudson in Panther Martin’s eyes
He’s high and outside wearin candy apple red
Scarlett gave him twenty-seven stitches in his head
With a pint of green chartreuse ain’t nothin seems right
You buy the Sunday paper on a Saturday night
Can’t you hear the thunder someone stole my watch
I sold a quart of blood and bought a half a pint of scotch