Personal Essays

Jack & Ginger

Moving back to your hometown offers opportunities to rekindle old friendships—and start new ones. An 80-proof love story.

A few weeks ago, while visiting my parents in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va. I met up for a drink with my two oldest friends, both of whom I have known since before any of us hit puberty. We met at the place we always meet when I am in town from New York, and we ordered and drank the same thing we always order and drink. We caught up on our jobs, our families, our love lives, our anxieties about turning 30, and what we wanted from and hoped for from the impending decade of our lives. As it often is with old friends, we were the same as we had ever been, only slowly older, slowly different. What struck me though (as it often does), were the things that stayed the same: Kelly’s razor-sharp commentary, Josephine’s knack for practical compassion, my own lack of social tact, and that triplet of bourbon and gingers—“Jack and Gingers”—on the bar.

Seven years ago I was 23, had graduated from college and moved back to Charlottesville after a year spent drinking plum brandy and beer in Bratislava. I drank both like water, but didn’t love either (the brandy was too strong, the beer too sweet), and while abroad, I had been achingly homesick so my return to Charlottesville was welcome, if temporary. My first few weeks back I spent trying to reestablish the friendships I had let wane over the past five years with Kelly and Joey. Having never lived in Charlottesville as an adult, I hadn’t ever frequented its bars, but upon my return I started going out two, three, nights a week to meet up with them, staying out sometimes until last call.

Our bar of choice was in the basement of an upscale French restaurant, the C&O, named for the railroad that ran past it. The place is at once classy and down-home. It has a rough-hewn wooden interior, threadbare red velvet cushions in its banquet seats, white tablecloths, and the Band, Dylan, the Allman Brothers, or Leonard Cohen on the stereo. Smoke curls spoon the light fixtures. It’s the kind of place where lawyers, contractors, studio art majors, the scions and prodigal sons of old Richmond families, and Girl Fridays all sit elbow to elbow drinking vodka tonics, pints of Starr Hill, gin gimlets, Knob Creek neat, and Jack and Gingers into the wee hours of the morning.

Kelly and Joey and I would camp out at one of those white-tableclothed tables drinking steadily—Yes, another round, that’d be great—and reacquainting ourselves with each other. It was on one of the first of these many evenings that, my two friends having ordered a second round of matching Jack and Gingers, I asked if I could try a sip. “You’ve never had one?” Kelly gasped, “It’s all we drink around here.”

I flagged our waitress. “Can I change my order? I’ll take a Jack and Ginger, too, please.”


* * *

After that first drink, I was sold. I liked Jack and Ginger together more than I liked them apart. Ginger brought out the sweeter side of Jack and Jack, the fun-loving side of Ginger. This was my drink; after years of wondering what it would be, here it was. Occasionally, I would mix things up and order a glass of the Syrah, but a Jack and Ginger was the drink I could picture myself picking up, along with a handful of peanuts, off a serving tray passed by a young son or daughter at a friend’s cocktail party in 20 years.

I loved that the drink was sweet without being girly. I liked that it was on the less expensive end of the cocktail spectrum and unpretentious without being Tequila Sunrise-tacky. I liked looking at the topaz-tinted ice cubes in the glass. I was relieved there was no vodka or gin involved, both of which taste to me like Benadryl. I loved just saying the words “Jack and Ginger.” I liked that when I enunciated the “and” between the “Jack” and the “Ginger,” the drink I’d ordered personified an urbane couple from a bygone era, but that when the “and” was slurred—“JacknGinger”—the life of the drink adopted a rough-and-tumble attitude worthy of a late night that was getting later. Eventually, after I’d decided to stick around town for a while and found myself a nine-to-five job, I even enjoyed getting together with Jack and Ginger on my own at the C&O in the evenings, and I liked what I perceived to be the cinematic staging of that post-work drink: A young woman walks into a bar and takes a seat. She’s not waiting for anyone: She’s there alone, John-Wayne-style, and the place is quiet. “What’ll it be?” asks the bartender. He’s a friend but has a few other customers, so she just says, “A Jack ‘n Ginger, please, Farrell,” and asks him how he’s been. “I’ve been good,” he says. “How ‘bout yourself?” She smiles. “Pretty good, pretty good,” she says, her nose to the glass in front of her.

Medicated with a little Jack and Ginger, our tender egos—still smarting from the residual effects of who hated whose boyfriend, who went to which college, who thought what about whom at what point—began to buck up and move on. But of all the things to love about Jack and Gingers, what I loved most was that Kelly and Joey drank them too. Indeed, there was something extremely comforting in the ritual of sitting down at a corner table and hearing the refrain, “I’ll have a Jack and Ginger”; “Me, too, please”; “And me, too.” I loved the look of our three full glasses lined up like a small wall of whiskey holding back the day and up the night. I liked the feeling that by drinking the same drink the three of us shared something deeper in common than just a taste for bottom – shelf brown alcohol and ginger ale.

It was over these matching cocktails that the three of us, while dissecting the minutiae of our daily lives, began to forgive each other the petty rivalries and jealousies and injuries we’d collected against and among each other through grade and high school, and that had festered during the college years when we only saw each other over vacations. Medicated with a little Jack and Ginger, our tender egos and insecure identities—still smarting from the residual effects of who hated whose boyfriend, who went to which college, who thought what about whom at what point, who had left town and for how long, who had implemented the silent treatment ruthlessly, who was thinner or fatter or more acne-plagued or who had a nicer haircut at any given time—began to buck up and move on. There, talking occasionally about the past but mostly about the present and the future (Oh, the places we would go, the things we would do!), we got to know each other as adults, and after having felt strangely new in town and out of place for months, I began to feel like I belonged again.


* * *

Ensconced at the C&O with my two oldest friends, I appreciated many qualities of my two newest ones. It wasn’t, however, until, after three years in Charlottesville, and having moved on my own to New York, that I began to appreciate something else about Jack and Ginger: regional loyalty. In New York I soon discovered that Jack and Ginger carried a little of the place and the people back in Charlottesville. When I got to the city and started going to bars with either old college friends or new graduate school ones, my first excursions would often include a dialogue along the lines of, “What do you want to drink?” “A Jack and Ginger, please.” “A what?” “A Jack and Ginger.” “That’s so Southern of you! “

Whiskey and bourbon. I was perfectly cognizant of the fact that these particular varieties of firewater were native to Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and that many had names proudly proclaiming as much: Rebel Yell, Colonel Lee, Kentucky Gentleman, Virginia Gentleman. And yet, before arriving in New York I had thought the regional affiliation of these labels was ultimately as insignificant as the implied geographic affiliations of Sierra Nevada or Stolichnaya. While many alcohols have superseded their origins, whiskey and bourbon have not: They remain products of the South with a capital S, and Southerners—whether they know it or not, and myself included—often have a special place on their palettes reserved for the brown stuff. I had never considered myself a Southerner until I saw myself in the eyes of my fellow drinkers in New York. My tongue knew me better than my brain.

It’s been noted ad nauseum before and it will no doubt be noted ad nauseum into the future, that the South remains a place apart from the rest of the country. Of course, given the Internet, the availability of media, and the ease of travel, compounded by the fact that Charlottesville is just south enough to be considered “South,” it’s an easy isolation for a Southerner like myself to overlook or dismiss as a relic of the past—a recent past, but a past nonetheless. It also remains a past that, for good or ill still holds a certain mystique for many people. The attitude non-Southerners take towards the South’s alcohols reflects this. To my new friends and neighbors, drinking a Jack and Ginger at a bar seemed to be the equivalent of strolling down Atlantic Avenue whistling “Dixie.” Jack and Ginger isn’t a common cocktail in the city. Here, the hipsters drink their PBRs, the foodies sniff fine wine, the young lawyers loosen their ties and throw back the vodka tonics, the professional young ladies enjoy their pink drinks, the high rollers sip Champagne, the thirtysomething Brooklyn fathers catch up over microbrews. A New Yorker drinking bourbon or whiskey falls outside this parade of predictable drinking culture, and I’ve taken to giving these drinkers a second glance. Whenever I see them bellied up to a bar, I assess them and my unscientific findings have been that they tend to fall into one of the following groups: young literary types—mostly male—who want to be both intellectuals and bon vivants; young women who want to hang with the boys but maintain their sex appeal; old men with rotund mid-sections who are longing for a time that has past; or displaced Southerners like myself who are holding onto our drinks—our most readily available reminders of home—like security blankets.


* * *

I initially bristled at New Yorkers’ desire to southernize me by my choice of cocktail. Insecurity set in and the attitude felt simplifying, as if my friends and acquaintances were somehow implying that clichés rang true and that I was indeed—while perhaps charming and quaint in my own way—less sophisticated than they, that I walked, talked, and thought more slowly, that I was a little bit backward and that my haircut hung a little wonky. At first, the attitude people took towards me and my signature drink smacked of a pat on the head. But instead of influencing me to turn my back on Jack and Ginger and reinvent myself in a New York mold by drinking Manhattans and martinis and Cosmos, the attitude endeared the drink to me even further. The longer I lived in New York, the less I objected to being thought of as a Southerner and the more I embraced the idea because it associated me with a place and people I missed and longed for.

The drink that, for others, had been shorthand for my native habitat when I first arrived in the city began to represent much the same for me. While many transplants come to this city to forget where they have come from and to reinvent themselves amid the chaos and anonymity of its infinite promises and possibilities, I slowly seemed to be doing the opposite. In New York, I began—more than I ever had before—to claim as my own the place I had left behind: I practiced my banjo regularly and picked up the mandolin; I began reading about Thomas Jefferson; I became vocal about how beautiful I thought the Blue Ridge Mountains were and how much I missed having them there at the periphery of my physical world; I drank my Jack and Gingers and with each sip I felt a little more at ease.

The drink that, for others, had been shorthand for my native habitat when I first arrived in the city began to represent much the same for me. What may have seemed reductive at first became a way for me to situate myself amid the jumbled masses of Manhattan. Soon, I was throwing back Jack and Gingers at a bluegrass bar in the East Village, and when cajoled to meet friends at swanky bars in Nolita or Chelsea, I discovered I could cling to the cocktail and survive the night intact. When at a literary party where everyone except me had read the book of the moment, I took to leaning on my drink like a crutch. As everyone else weighed in with his or her thoughts, I would lift the glass in a “cheers” motion and shrug as if to say, “We don’t read that stuff where I come from, but we have more fun.”

My ideas of what security looks like have naturally evolved since those nights at the C&O, but I do admit that a Jack and Ginger both reminds me of and makes me miss the sense of security I would have two or three nights a week at the C&O when looking at the trio of Jack and Gingers that Kelly and Joey and I had ordered, imagining that because we had matching orders there was that something more profoundly matching about the three of us as well. And there was: a childhood, a place, and a time, all of which we were bidding goodbye to together at that bar.

In the three and a half years since I moved away from Charlottesville, our lives have moved on and the closeness we harbored at that restaurant has been lost somewhat. We have missed the things people begin to miss when they are no longer a part of each others’ daily lives. It’s a small anxiety that goes unshared at first, a good day or a bad one, then it’s a minor professional or romantic triumph or setback, then it’s larger professional or romantic successes and failures, then it’s a missed birthday, an illness, and finally a vague sense of ignorance that sets in when someone asks, “How’s Kelly? How’s Joey?” and you reply by saying, “I think they’re good, but I should really give them a call.”

While I’ve warmed the barstools at many fine establishments in the city, I have yet to find a stand-in for the C&O. The closest is a little bar near my apartment that’s going for a “southern” vibe. Alas, for all its charms, the music is always a touch too loud and too FM and the wallpaper a tad too bordello. That’s the bad news. The good news is that after spending 28 of her 29 years in Charlottesville, Kelly is moving four stops away from me on the G train.

When I saw her on my most recent trip to Charlottesville I asked if she thought of herself as a southerner. She shrugged. I wonder if she’ll feel differently in six months. Whether she does or doesn’t, we’ll discuss the matter, dissect it, weight its relative merits and faults at a bar somewhere in Brooklyn, where our Jack and Gingers may eventually give way to Maker’s Mark. After all, we’re now pushing 30, and our stamina isn’t what it used to be, bartender, so we’ll only stay for one, two tops. And yes, we’re waiting on a third. She’s running late, but says she’s on her way.

TMN Contributing Writer Nell Boeschenstein lives in Virginia, where she has been teaching at Sweet Briar College. She is a former producer for Fresh Air With Terry Gross and BackStory With the American History Guys. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus, This Recording, the Guardian, and elsewhere. More by Nell Boeschenstein