THERE'S A TOM WAITS SONG, "Gin-Soaked Boy," where the gravel-voiced singer name checks one of America's great cheap bourbons, telling a tale of staggering home loaded on the stuff and finding his woman missing, presumably in the arms of a gin fan. It's a great, mean song from Waits, a propulsive blues number backed by a menacing electric guitar riff by Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett, and we will have to write about the song someday, because it is that good.
But today we're going to talk about the bourbon, and a bar. First, the bourbon: when bars have Old Crow, you tend to see it on the bottom shelf, because it's cheap, and that's a shame. Old Crow is a venerable bourbon. It was the first sour mash bourbon created, and was Ulysses S. Grant's favorite drink. It was a top selling American brand for years, but then went belly up and was bought by its competitor, Jim Beam, in 1987. The Old Crow distillery was closed, and so the contents of current bottles of Old Crow are, presumably, essentially the same as Jim Beam White Label. I have a bottle of the current stock of Old Crow, and it's good enough for mixed drinks -- it makes a perfectly satisfactory bourbon sour, for example.
The original Old Crow had quite a following, and fans still pine for the original stuff, but it should be noted that the current version, despite its reputation as a "cats and dogs" mix, in which Jim Beam pours whiskey that they wouldn't package under their own name, nonetheless consistently does well in blind taste tests, and got a 91 rating from the Beverage Testing Institute in the 1990s.
And Old Crow has one more thing going for it -- a terrific mascot, featuring a top-hatted and red-waistcoat-wearing crow, resplendent in string tie, spats, and gold-tipped cane. The mascot never seems to have made it onto the logo for Old Crow, which features a woodcut of a raven clutching a sprig of wheat, but was used extensively in advertising the bourbon at least as far back at the '50s. The mascot doesn't seem to be in much use anymore, but you can still find plastic statuettes of the fellow in antique stores and in older bars.
There's a rather large one in the corner of the Crow Bar in Tomah, Wisconsin, and the Old Crow mascot also emblazons the front of the building, although the bar itself doesn't feature the bourbon. "We had a bottle for years," the bartender explains, shrugging. "Nobody ordered it." They do, however, have Maker's Mark, stashed away on the bottom shelf, for some reason.
The Crow Bar can be compared to Old Crow, mixaphorically speaking, in that both are older specimens of drinking culture that have seen better days. The Crow Bar dates back to 1939, and there's a photo of the bar from that era on one wall, partially obscured by a video gambling machine. It was a fairly plain bar back then, with a sign hung on one wall reading, in all caps, KEEP 'EM FLYING. Above that there was what appears to have been an actual stuffed crow, posed in flight. The photograph is a blow up of a promotional postcard that somebody found, and the back of it features a laboriously hand-lettered note reading, in part, "Regular half-way stop for more and more regular travelers. There's a reason - stop in - learn why."
We would wager that weary travelers don't stop in much anymore. At least, we don't meet many people who pass through Tomah on the way from someplace to someplace else. It's a bit of a drive off the highway although, like television host Craig Ferguson, we at the Bottle Gang make a habit of going off the highway for a few miles when we travel. We knew of Tomah already -- local writer and editor Mark Baumgarten hails from there, as did Gasoline Alley creator Frank King, who worked at the Minneapolis Times in 1901. The main street of Tomah has one of the largest accumulations of bars we have ever seen on an American street -- perhaps one in every three or four businesses is a bar of one sort or another, mostly undistinguished sports bars or grills, none of which seem particularly busy. There's only two customers besides us in The Crow Bar just now, both older, one chatting amiably about a friend she has in common with the bartender. "Is she getting ready for menopause?" the bartender asks.
The bar has suffered from years of decorating and redecorating. There are still kitschy -- yet surprisingly elegant -- deco-styled wooden tables for patrons to sit at, probably installed sometime during the late '40s. The stuffed bird above the bar is gone, replaced by a painting of several crows worrying an owl. The floor is the sort of industrial carpet that you find in cheap businesses, and there is a picture of Tony Montana from Scarface on one of the back walls and a picture of Muhammad Ali near the door. It's the sort of generalized crap bars accumulate over time, and it rests awkwardly on the walls next to assorted crap from earlier times, such as wooden posts with quotes from Omar Khayyam, or my favorite, a promotional triptych from Michelob that must have been given to the bar about 1975. In the center is the Michelob logo, in a faux gold frame, surrounded on either side by mock elegant electric gaslamps. On either side of the lamps are headshots of women, likewise framed in faux gold, each holding frothy glasses of beer. The women are very much the type that ads featured in the 70s, with mile high hairdos and white pantsuits, and they look absolutely ridiculous now.
But there is something about this accumulation of bric a brac that's comforting. We've written about how Irish-American bars will fill their shelves with junk from Ireland, to give the pub a more authentic quality. Well, here is an American bar that has legitimately filled up with American junk, representing decades of operation. And it's a good, comfortable neighborhood bar, with a nice selection of beer on tap, including Hacker-Pschorr and Guinness. The bar might have faded from its glory as a popular travelers' watering hole, but it's still worth peeking your head in, if you're in Tomah. Again, a little like Old Crow whiskey: It may not be what it once was, but it's still not too bad. (SPARBER)