Artie’s Bar and Cheap Whiskey
by John Delach
Once upon a time the drinking age in New York State was 18-years of age whereas the voting age was 21. Now the voting age is 18 and the drinking age is 21 but the age in which you can be killed while serving in the military remains 18; go figure.
In my youth, we could drink and die at 18. I grew up in an ideal location for drinking, Ridgewood, Queens populated by a German-American majority who brought with them the old customs that included neighborhood bars and grills. In Ridgewood this meant that practically every other corner was home to a saloon. (We had small neighborhoods.)
My house of sin was Artie’s, a watering hole located on Grandview Avenue between Harmon Street and Greene Avenue. (For the record, Harmon and Greene like other thoroughfares in Ridgewood were named after Revolutionary War heroes.) Artie’s was a typical Ridgewood saloon with one important distinction for a neophyte under-age kid looking for a beer buzz. Artie, himself, made it known that he would never serve anyone under 18 unless they were quiet, behaved and, most importantly, they were accompanied by money.
We were brought up on beer and beer was all that we sought. Artie had all of the Brooklyn beers on tap, Piel’s, Reingold and Schaefer plus Ballantine. Beer cost fifteen cents for a seven ounce glass of one of these local brews. Every fourth round was on the house, but bar etiquette required that customer never left after a buy-back. Artie had other rules as well. We were responsible for other non-legals we brought in, never bother the regulars, never sit at the bar until we were legal, never sit at the owner’s table unless invited to do so and don’t violate any other rules; real or implicit. Transgressions resulted in expulsion but the guilty would be re-admitted the following Friday night so long as he was still accompanied by money.
There was a prank regulars would play on the unsuspecting. I admit I fell for it: “Hey kid, Ace, (the bartender on duty) is short of pennies. Can you pay for your next beer in pennies?”
I obliged only to watch Ace scoop them up and scatter them behind the bar making me the fool. Part of my education, I learned and at least it didn’t happen when Artie was tending the bar.
Friday nights were special. Ginny, Artie’s wife, made what they called, “bar pies,” small pizzas cut into four slices that were out of this world. If our stamina held up to face the 4 AM closing hour, Artie was not adverse to arming us with cardboard travelers that my mates and I carried to nearby Grover Cleveland Park where we could finish our fantasy while we barked at the moon and solved earth’s problems.
Once legal we were welcomed to sit at the bar as citizens and I did spend many Friday nights and Saturday afternoons in this environment. This afforded me a distinct insight into the hierarchy of the hooch Artie served to his faithful. Behind the bar were three shelves with a mirrored backdrop. There were remote areas for gin, vodka, cordials and the like, but most of the shelves were devoted to whiskey. On the top shelf were the real whiskies, the Canadians; Seagram’s Seven, Seagram’s V.O. and Canadian Club.
(No Scotch, no bourbon, it would be further into the 1960s when Artie introduced a first Scotch, J&B and Kentucky’s Old Grand-Dad, both to culled out spaces on the top shelf.)
Below were an assortment of what we then were told were Rye Whiskeys that I now know as “American Blended Whiskeys.” Here is a definition of American Blended Whiskey: “They’re a blend of cheap whiskey with grain alcohol which is then watered down for bottling.”
On the middle shelf at Artie’s were Schenely, Four Roses, Three Feathers and Fleischmann’s. Down on the bottom; first choice of serial drinkers; Wilson, Philadelphia and Imperial. The bottom three were usually consumed as a “bat and a ball,” “a depth charge” or, simply, “shot and a short round.” Each involved a shot of booze with a 5 oz. beer chaser.
Four Roses should not be confused with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey of the same name that has been extremely popular in Europe and Asia for many years and has a growing fan base here. Sold to Seagram’s in 1941, this American Blended had the best reputation of the lot.
Wilson has been lost to history except for a photograph I found in the Duke University online library taken along US-1 (The Lincoln Highway) in Rahway, NJ in 1940. In the background is a billboard that has a raised bottle of whiskey and the copy: “No Better Whiskey in Any Bottle – Wilson Whiskey, ‘That’s All!”
Here are some reviews of the others that continue to exist:
Schenley from Schenley Distillers, Owensboro, KY / Bardstown, KY / Atlanta, GA. Tag Line: “America’s Finest.” “I detect hints of acetone and notes of toluene as well as other industrial solvents. I have never put anything this terrible in my mouth. ‘America’s Finest’ Paint Thinner, maybe.
Philadelphia Blended Whisky (sic) from The Medley Company, Bardstown, KY. Tag Line:”The Heritage Whisky.” “Mommy, it hurts when I swallow. This dreck is insulting to everyone’s heritage. According to the label this stuff is ‘a premium quality blended whisky famous since 1894 for its smooth taste and incomparable flavor.’ Drano also has an incomparable flavour.”(sic)
Imperial American Whiskey from Barton Brands, Bardstown, KY. Tag Line: “An Exceptional American Whiskey” The Urban Dictionary: “A cheap rotgut, bottom shelf booze that drunks love.” Or this: “Imperial is a whiskey one drinks to get drunk provided one can drink enough of it.”
Thank god we only drank beer back in the day and I never said the Ridgewood of my youth was a classy place.