Toasting New Year’s by the drink

Published 1:37 pm Tuesday, December 31, 2019

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A New Year’s toast was undoubtedly drunk by many in our community last night as the third decade of the 21st century arrived. A glass might have been raised at home, at a private party, or at one of many restaurants and bars around Hampton Roads.

That final option wouldn’t have been available little more than a half century ago because Virginia was still wringing its hands over whether public drinking should be allowed.

Virginia eventually shed much of its prohibition-era inhibition toward drinking, and beginning Oct. 17, 1968 Virginians were allowed to purchase liquor by the drink.

As a result of that huge change in ABC law and subsequent loosening of restrictions, today beer, wine and even hard liquor can be served at licensed public events. Look no further than Windsor Castle’s three annual festivals for examples.

That doesn’t mean there was less drinking prior to 1968. It was just done differently. Alcohol was most often consumed — in fact, had to be — in private settings. And because of the stigma often attached to drinking that grew out of the Prohibition Era, it was usually done discreetly.

I was reminded of that recently by Thomas Phillips III, son of Tom and Betty Phillips, from whom Anne and I bought The Smithfield Times.

Tom called to wish us well after he read that we had sold the paper. He promised to visit soon and drink a toast to community newspaper owners, past and future.

“We’ll have to have a sink drink,” he said.

I knew immediately what he meant. His father, like many of his generation, kept a bottle of bourbon tucked away in the kitchen. If you visited Tom between 5 and 6 p.m., he would most likely invite you to join him in a drink.

A ritual followed. Tom would pull out the bottle and two glasses. One or two ice cubes were put in the glasses and a shot of bourbon was poured over them. The glass was to be swirled in hand and, with a toasting gesture, the bourbon was drunk.

This was all done while standing at the kitchen sink. After drinking the bourbon, you turned on the tap, ran a bit into your glass and chased the drink with good ol’ Smithfield artesian water (un-chlorinated back then).

Some years earlier, I had encountered a variation of the “sink” drink. Soon after Anne and I married, I began taking her grandfather, Reynolds Parker, to visit Captain Sid Johnson (a merchant ship captain back during the 1930s) every Christmas. As the first of those visits ended, Captain Sid asked “Would you fellows like to have a Christmas toddy?”

Well, of course we would.

The three of us went to the kitchen where Captain Sid opened an above-counter cabinet, reached deep inside and extracted a pint of bourbon. Understand that his wife, Miss Grace, knew full well that he drank, but the mores of the day required that liquor not be in plain sight.

Captain Sid then took down three little Welch’s grape jelly glasses, poured a generous drink in each (no ice) and handed them out. We toasted the season, turned up our glasses and drank down the rather course bourbon (I don’t recall the brand).

Captain Sid then looked me in the eye and said, “Boy, do you need some water?”

I managed to croak out, “No sir.”

A few years before that, I was working in Bell Hardware during my senior year in high school, and was sweeping the floor before closing at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

Owner Wookie Bell was in his counter-office in the back corner of the store and his neighbor, Mr. Freeman, had just arrived for his daily visit.

Wookie invited Freeman back to the office for a Christmas drink. He reached under the counter and extracted a pint of bourbon he had bought that day. The pint was in a paper bag favored at that time by ABC stores. When Wookie lifted the bag, it tore, and the pint of bourbon hit the concrete floor and shattered.

I was at the front of the store where I could clearly hear the bottle break and Wookie curse. Within seconds, I could also smell the bourbon.

“What are we going to do now?” he asked Freeman. “That’s my only bottle.”

“We’ll just go down to John’s and get another,” Freeman reassured him. John was local bootlegger John Ayers. And they did.