Hmm... Which whiskey? The Glenfiddich 40-year-old costs $1049 per shot. A jigger of Benchmark costs $1.
“Gimme the Gl…Glenfid…d’uh, no. I guess I’ll take the Benchmark,” I say.
The $1 Benchmark is part of the happy-hour deal if you also get a pint of the house beer, which is Staropramen (A Czech lager. Means “Old Spring.” Actually Molson Coors now owns it, just to take some of the romance out of it. But you get a generous mug and it costs $4. Deal!).
So, yeah. I’m a happy camper sitting here in, turns out, this ancient Stingaree house of joy, which comes complete with resident ghost and this ginormous wall of whiskeys from Japan, Scotland, Tennessee — all over.
“It would take you a couple of years to sample every one of these,” says Vanessa, the bubbly gal to my left.
“Only reason I’m drinking this wine is my doctor told me to swear off whiskey,” says Roy, on the other side.
That’s the thing about this place: Yes, they have the TVs, with the shoe-squeak and ref-whistles of hoops onscreen, but nobody’s taking mind. They’re all talking. Yapping. Up and down the bar.
“I drink to make other people more interesting,” says Ernest Hemingway in a quote on the wall.
But it wasn’t the grog that brought me here. Or the main menu. Because normally, prices are very, like, Gaslampy. I’d noticed it when I was at the Lazy Hippo, right next door, earlier this year. Have been meaning to come back ever since. Partly because the whole black interior’s bottle-bejeweled walls gave it such an atmosphere, but mainly because I’d noticed these guys had a happy hour, which suddenly made it accessible to those of us who can’t afford a $1049 shot of whiskey.
And foodwise, too, these people take happy hour seriously.
For starters, it goes from 4–7 every day, including weekends.
Matt the bartender hands me the happy-hour menu. Slim, but rich in bargain food, drink, and more quotes.
“I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” Sir Winston Churchill.
“I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.” Frank Sinatra.
What kind of bargains? Items in the menu’s “kitchen” section start at 50 cents, for spicy Vietnamese wings, although you’ve got to buy at least six. Hey, that’s a full $3 you’re out. A cup of soup’s $1, Belgian fries go for $2, scotch egg for $3, a sausage (bratwurst, Italian, or lamb) in a roll goes for $4, chorizo mac-and-cheese is $5, a bowl of kale salad’s $5, shrimp cocktail’s $6, and so is their t.w.h. (The Whiskey House) burger. “House-ground angus chuck, sharp cheddar, 1000 island, drunken onions, lettuce, tomato.” And it’s served with fries.
“Those sausages are house-ground,” says Matt. “We make them right here.”
Vanessa’s just finishing off her kale salad. I’m almost tempted, except I guess I’m still searching for the perfect HH burger deal. And this one looks good. I go for it, partly because for $6 you get the cheese, the onions, and the fries.
Grogwise, there’s that incredible $1 whiskey shot with the $4 Czech beer (or a 24-ounce PBR can for $4). Then the house wine — sparkling, red, or white — for $5, plus $5 cocktails like the Al Capone (bourbon, vermouth, Campari).
Vanessa is ordering more: “Kale was really tasty, but I want something solid,” she says. She gets the scotch egg.
Best thing about my burger is the meat. It just tastes good quality. No mashed gristle filling out the patty. Tomato and lettuce are nice and crisp. No leaf-end droops. Cheddar’s sharp, onions give it sweetness.
So, I’m chewing, sipping, glugging. Glugs for the cerveza, sips for the Benchmark. Think this is a Kentucky bourbon. I try to recognize peaty flavors in it, but the truth is, I know prettymuch nada about whiskey. Though I see why they have beer chasers. Takes that bite off. And beer and whiskey both come from grains, right? So they shouldn’t collide in your brain.
Maybe it’s the alcohol, but now I’m beginning to get interested in this whole whisky/whiskey culture. Like, what does the word “whiskey” actually mean? I ask around. We all dive to outsource our brains onto our iphones.
“Huh,” says a guy down the line. “‘Water of life.’ Gaelic. ‘Uisge beatha.’ Uisge, like, whisky; water; beatha, like, ‘vita,’ life.”
“And what’s the difference between whisky and whiskey?” I ask.
“I’m pretty sure ‘whisky’ is for Scotch, and ‘whiskey’ is for Irish and bourbon,” says Vanessa’s buddy Steve. “Don’t ask me why.”
Then, bottom line, you have to ask: how come one glassful of the stuff can be $1, and the next a thousand bucks? “Whiskey’s like wine,” says Matt. “Once you know the difference, you’ll pay for something with a pedigree. Like this 40-year-old Glenfiddich. And actually, even the Benchmark you’re drinking costs $8 outside happy hour.”
Lesson: stick to happy hour.
But I really like this place. I decide next time, foodwise, I’ll lay out $10. That’ll buy a lamb sausage, soup, kale salad. This way I should come out, kale and hearty. Heh-heh.
Guess the whiskey’s having some effect, ’cause as I’m leaving, I find myself singing the uisge beatha drinkers’ anthem.
“And it’s mush-ring dum-a do dum-a da, Whack for my daddy-o, Whack for my daddy-o, There’s whuskey in the jar.”
420 3rd Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Hours: Monday to Friday, 4–11 p.m., or up to 2 a.m. if warranted; Saturday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–2 a.m.
Happy Hour: 4–7 p.m., seven days
Happy Hour Prices: Spicy Vietnamese wings, 50 cents (minimum 6); cup of soup, $1; Belgian fries, $2; scotch egg, $3; bratwurst, Italian, or lamb sausage in a roll, $4; chorizo mac-and-cheese, $5; kale salad bowl, $5; shrimp cocktail, $6; house burger, fries, $6. Non–happy hour, best deal, in-house sausages in a roll; e.g., bratwurst $7, sweet Italian $8, lamb $8
Buses: 3, 11
Nearest bus stops: (For #3), Fourth and G (southbound); Market and Sixth (northbound); for #11), Fourth and Market (northbound), Third and Market (southbound)
Trolley: Green Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: Convention Center