The Last Bartender

Freedom Book Club

The Last Bartender was voted the Freedom Book Club's August, 2010 Book-of-the-Month!

The Last Bartender


Operation Anaconda

Gardiz, Afghanistan

March 12, 2002 - 0530 hours


he rumble of American tank transports and armored personnel carriers resonated for miles in the stark, mountainous terrain. The howling winds and echoes were such that a novice would have found it impossible to pinpoint the source or direction of the convoy. But there were no neophytes among the Taliban fighters waiting in ambush for the crusading invaders.

Here they come, the Taliban leader thought. Moving slowly, single column good very good

      The commander had positioned his troops along the narrowest section of the valley. If he could disable the first few vehicles the rest would stack up

behind them, freezing the procession in place while his men rained fire down on them.

      As a younger man in the late eighties, he’d been called to action against the Soviets. Back then, it had been American weapons that had turned the

tide, helping to even up the odds and allowing the tribal warriors to endure and prevail against the vastly superior military muscle of the invaders. This time

around, those American weapons were in the hands of the Americans, wielded by an army united and motivated by an unprecedented attack on their

homeland. He harbored no illusions about the situation his people now faced; it was going to be a tough, ugly fight.

       The veteran warrior snugged his collar around his neck, braved the blustering wind and peeked out from behind a boulder. The sun was rising on a

morning that was cold and a landscape that was damp from the combination of light snow and freezing rain that had been falling throughout the night. The

precipitation had stopped, though it was difficult to tell because of the snow being kicked up by the strong winds gusting through the valley.

The convoy was moving slowly, cautiously, but would be within range of the their mortar rounds in a few minutes. A machine-gunner was positioned to pin down any enemy solders foolish enough to attempt an assault on their position, high above the roadway on the steep, slippery mountainside, safely ensconced behind the impenetrable boulders and outcrops that encrusted the hard, black soil. It wouldn’t be long now.

The commander used hand signals when visibility allowed, or the simple tapping of a stick on rock when it did not, to communicate with his men scattered across the snowy moonscape. The lead vehicles would be within range momentarily. He signaled the mortar teams to readiness.

They’re approaching… He waited until the wind had stilled and the swirling snow settled to the ground, then cautiously lifted his head and again glanced over his boulder. His gaze was fixed on the bend in the road some 500 yards away, waiting for the lead vehicle to appear.

Thwack! His head exploded into a pink mist.

Some forty feet above, a second fighter crawled out of his protective rocky outcrop and started scanning the desolate vista with a pair of binoculars. Pinpointing the source of fire would have proved challenging even in clear weather, as the nearest opposing high ground was nearly two-thirds of a mile away.

As he turned his field glasses to search the hillside, the lenses briefly reflected the glare of the rising sun. The fighter paused; he thought he’d spotted the momentary, telltale flare of a muzzle flash. He was scrutinizing the position when a bullet pierced the left lens of the binoculars and speckled the snow-dusted ground behind him with his brains. The faint report of the gunshot followed almost four seconds later.

Yet unaware that their commander and auxiliary lookout were soaking into the topsoil, the lead two-man mortar team finished targeting their weapon; one man stood to reposition the heavy ammo crate. A 190-grain, .300 Winchester Mag. crashed into the top of his skull, causing his entire head to explode from the resultant cavitation shock. His partner had barely turned to see what had happened when a bullet smashed into the mortar barrel, rendering it useless. He was scarcely on his feet when the next bullet did the same to him.

The lead vehicle rolled around the bend and into plain sight. The second mortar team, aware, by now, that they were under sniper fire but needing to take advantage of the drop in the wind, targeted their weapon on the enemy and dropped the 82mm high-explosive round into the tube. A bullet, fired almost two seconds earlier, smashed into the muzzle, crimping the steel tube and knocking the weapon off its footing; the two fighters were killed when the round exploded in the pipe.

The machine-gunner was silenced within seconds after opening fire.

The U.S. convoy crawled past the ambush site unscathed. The U.S. Army sniper, already well-regarded and soon to be known to his grateful co-combatants as the “Pale Rider,” had just earned his first Silver Star.


The Last Bartender




en! Nine! Eight! Seven… The barroom was so crowded it hardly seemed possible that another person could have stuffed themselves in.

“… Six! Five! Four! Three…

As the second hand approached midnight, the bartender climbed atop the bar, cupped his hands like a megaphone and shouted the countdown along with the standing, cheering celebrants. He was of average height, had a lean, muscular build with Mediterranean features and thick, dark hair with a hint of curl to it.

“… Two! ONE! Yeah! That’s it boys and girls—we’re all outlaws now!”

“Yeah!” came a shout from somewhere within the churning, alcohol-fueled hoard. “Let’s make sure the crime fits the punishment!”

“Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em!” the bartender said. Smoking in the bar was long illegal, of course, but that was of little consequence at this point. He climbed down from the bar and got back to work.

It was the last day on the job for Justin Gardiner, now thirty-one-years-old and the head bartender at Ruby’s Whisky Parlor for four years now. While that announcement by itself would have been cause enough for a raucous celebration, it was, in fact, the last day at work for every bartender in the country. As of midnight, the United States, from sea to shining sea, was dry.

“Hey Bobby.” Justin slapped a bar napkin in front of a uniformed police officer who’d just squeezed his way to the bar. “Welcome to the end of all things. What’ll you have?”

“I’m on duty.”

“So am I. What’ll you have?”

“Dewar’s rocks, water on the side.”

“Dewar’s? Come on, it’s the end of the fuckin’ world, man. Live it up!” Justin grabbed a bottle of 15-year-old Glenfiddich and poured him a drink. “We have two weeks to bring all of our leftover inventory to a State Liquor Authority drop-off point. We get a lousy tax credit and they pour all the juice down the drain. Drink it, man. Drink it.”

Justin had a better than normal relationship with the local law enforcement grunts, primarily as a result of his own military service. He’d enlisted right after the 9/11 attacks and served two tours in Afghanistan. Little was known about his service—he was notoriously tight-lipped about it—except that he’d seen plenty of action in an Army infantry unit and had attained the rank of Sergeant First Class.

The officer tossed a five on the bar for the tip cup and took a quick taste. “Is Nick here tonight?” Nick, another NYC policeman, a patrol cop at the 109th, lived nearby and was a Ruby’s regular. Like most of Ruby’s patrons, he’d grown up in Flushing, Queens and never left.

“He’s in here somewhere. Fire your gun into the ceiling, that should get his attention,” Justin joked, shouting over the noise.

“How long do you guys figure to be carrying on?” Bobby asked, clearly unconcerned. “You’re supposed to be closed by now.”

“What are they going to do, pull our license? Not to worry—everyone here’s an employee,” he winked. “We’re just cleaning up.” Justin grabbed the cop by the shoulder and gave him a friendly shake. “Glad you could stop by. It’s nice to have everyone together one last time.”

“How could I not?” the officer asked. He took a moment to collect himself and to clear his throat. “Do me a favor—lock the front door, dim the lights, and hold down the noise. Make sure nobody is loitering outside on the street…” It was pretty much the same thing he told them every night when they pushed past regular closing hours.

        “I’ll get on it, chief.” Justin moved along, needing to attend to other customers. He was pouring nothing but top shelf now; they’d keep the empty bottles and eventually fill them with speed-rack rotgut for their government credit.

        Before long, the establishment’s owner emerged from the back room and stepped behind the bar. The expected chant of “S – O – S! … S – O – S! … S – O – S!” went up from the patrons. This night, the last night, they shouted with a little more determination than usual. Samantha Olivia Siebold (aka: SOS, Sammie, Sam, and Ruby) looked like she’d been crying, not unexpected given the circumstances. She was an industry lifer, fond of saying that she hadn’t held a real job since she was sixteen years old. Now thirty-five, she’d owned Ruby’s for six years, had tended bar for eight years before that, and was the lead singer for a so-so cover-band for much of that time until her responsibilities at Ruby’s made that impossible.

        “How you doing?” Justin asked. “You hanging in there?”

        “Yeah. I’m holding it together. So far, at least. Do you need help back here?” She started tying her trademark red hair back in a ponytail. She recently switched from a brassy dark copper to a more mature auburn shade, feeling her old color was too girlish.

        “I got it under control. Go out and mingle, you can give me a break in about a half hour if you want.”

         “Good enough.” She poured herself a glass of white wine, stepped out from behind the bar and disappeared into the crowd.

The party, as expected, went on into the wee hours. After a few hours of excitement and circulating throughout the unusually large crowd, the regulars gravitated back to their seats at the bar to better concentrate on their drinking, escape from the noisy madness behind them and contemplate the magnitude of the event.

A blaze of light and sound was exploding from the far, back corner of the seating area—essentially a dining room separated from the bar by a rustic wood-and-frosted glass partition. Larry “Mad Dog” Lennox was banging away on his Martin guitar—too loud, as always—sipping Jack’s and Coke and rocking through a decade’s worth of hit songs. He was doing his much anticipated early Springsteen set now, with everybody singing along to “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road” and “Jersey Girl.” The veteran barroom troubadour, with his gravelly, smoke-cured voice and sixties-length light brown hair, was pounding out a performance to remember.

Like most in his position, Lennox was looking at the end of his music career; better than two decades of playing the top spots in the Hamptons and, in the off-season, local Queens watering holes like Ruby’s. But that would all be grinding to a halt tonight, and it would be back to cabinetmaking to support his wife and young daughter.

        Justin sat down on a rickety stool he kept behind the bar, down by the regulars’ corner, and reached, elbow-deep, into the plastic garbage can full of beer. He plucked a longneck bottle from the sharp, icy slurry, cracked it open, and gingerly patted his arm and hand dry on the bar rag he kept tucked under his belt.

        “This is one thing I’m not going to miss.” He held up his chapped hands and peeling, cracked fingertips to the nearby patrons. “When this is over, I’m not going to wash my hands for a month.” He took a swig from the bottle and wiped his lower lip with the back of his hand.

        “You’re gonna miss that cold beer though, right?” Barry Turner asked. A professional financial planner, he was in his late thirties and had thick, curly hair that was seriously thinning down the center, not unlike Larry Fine of Three Stooges fame.

Justin had to detach himself from another long pull on the bottle before answering. “Oh yeah—yeah, we’re gonna miss the cold ones.”

“Still gonna brew your own?” Manny Khan asked. Manny, whose real name was Mangat Khanna, was a native of New Delhi, India, and worked for an industrial equipment company. He sold large scale food processing equipment and turnkey commercial manufacturing kits in the U.S. and Canada. He traveled a lot on business, but was a steady Ruby’s regular when in town.

“Not going to stop now!” Justin declared. He’d been toying around with a home-brewing hobby for the past couple of years, and had some luck cooking up more than a few decent batches of the stuff.

“There’re new taxes going into effect for any home brewing over 50 gallons a year,” Turner observed.

Justin shot him a look. “Oh yeah, I’ll be sure to pay my fuckin’ taxes. Those pricks have taken my livelihood, stolen my pleasure in life…” he held up his beer, “and are going to scatter my friends to the wind. I don’t see that I owe them a whole lot more. They’ve sucked me dry and now you’re telling me that they need to chew on the fuckin’ husk? Fuck them.”

“Just letting you know, boss. I wasn’t gonna try to collect for them.” Turner smiled and saluted Justin with his drink.

Justin hopped off the stool to refill an empty glass being waved at him. On his way back, he pulled a bunch of draft beers and slid them in front of his buddies.

“What’s this?” Nick the Cop asked. He’d returned to his seat after striking out with some too-young cutie sitting at one of the tables.

“Drink up,” Justin ordered. “It’s all going to get dumped tomorrow if we don’t.”

“It’s better for the environment if we recycle it first,” Nick joked, enjoying a free sip.

“Marty!” Justin reached through the crowd to shake a hand. “We didn’t expect you tonight. How ya doin’? Move over guys, make a little room here…” Marty the Book was close to seventy years old and retired. He had been taking bets during the day at the bar for decades, way before Sam had bought it. He rarely stopped by at night.

“My usual, when you get a chance,” Marty requested. He squeezed into his customary spot by the wall.

Marty drank Dewar’s and milk—doctor’s orders on account of his stomach ulcer, or so he claimed—but Justin fixed the drink with a shot of 18-year-old Johnnie Walker Gold label. “Try this; it’s a blended scotch like Dewar’s. I want to move the top shelf hooch out of here…”

“And you want me to smuggle it out in my stomach?” Marty took a taste. “That’s good stuff, thanks. How’s the boss holding up?”

“She’s okay. She’s getting a little weepy here and there but she’s too busy to really think about it. It’ll catch up to her later in the week.”

Marty nodded his agreement and sipped his drink. “What about you? Where are you off to?”

“I don’t know. I’ve had offers, but … I don’t know. Looks like it’s time to hang up the old bar rag and maybe go back to school, you know, see what else is out there. We’ll see what shakes out.”

“Good luck. We smokin’ tonight?” Marty tossed his pack of cigarettes on the bar in anticipation.

“Light ‘em up. They can’t take our license away now…”

Marty had barely gotten his smoke lit when a slap on the back commanded his attention. “Who’s that?” He turned and glanced over his shoulder. “Hey, Johnny, how the hell are ya?”

“What do you say, John?” Justin reached over the bar to shake hands. “Hey Bobby.” He greeted the big guy looming next to him as well.

“The usual,” Johnny mouth silently to Justin, then turned his attention back to Marty.

        Justin poured a generous vodka on the rocks, using Chopin, a Polish potato vodka that was Johnny’s latest obsession. He’d worked his way through the Stolichnaya era, then Absolut, stuck with Grey Goose for a while, then moved on to Belvedere before discovering Chopin. He tossed a fresh lemon twist into the drink and placed it in front of Johnny.

        Johnny “V” Vacario was, or at least appeared to be, a classic, weedy grease ball—about five-seven and 150 lbs. or so, with slicked, jet-black hair and a thin mustache. Mr. V was always impeccably dressed and groomed, frequently sporting dark turtlenecks, sports jackets, dark slacks and a color-coordinated hanky in his breast pocket. The Queens accent was thick in this one. When he spoke, his rear jaw moved as if he were chewing a Tootsie Roll.

        The man-mountain lurking alongside was Bobby Thumbs, Johnny V’s shadow and “muscle.” At six-five and north of 300 lbs., he played high school football until he blew out his knee in senior year. When his knee disappeared, so did any hope of a college scholarship, and his grades were such that he was wait-listed at the local community college. He’d since found semi-gainful employment showing the flag for his grade school buddy, Johnny.

        Whether or not Johnny was truly “connected” was a matter of continual speculation amongst his barroom companions. There were no tradition-bound, Godfather types roaming the streets of Flushing, and no ostentatious, Soprano-like high living. There were just the street-level, meat-and-potato thugs, the overcompensating runts and neighborhood toughs who maintained only sketchy relationships with the made men and capos that called the shots during card games and afternoon meals.

        With Johnny, it was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. He certainly made every effort to promote the image—even occasionally “letting it slip” that he was packing heat—leading most to suspect that it was all posturing. But there was never any mention of a career or otherwise legitimate employment, and he always had a fat wad of cash in his pocket. And there was always the question of Bobby Thumbs; he was an expensive and not particularly trendy accessory, if indeed that’s all he really was.

        Johnny V and Nick the Cop had a friendly, but arms-length sort of relationship. Whenever they were in the bar together, they tended to gravitate to opposite ends of the room. Nick had already drifted down to the center of the bar and all was right with the universe.


As the evening progressed, the stools in the regulars’ corner inched ever closer together. Voices were lowered to a more intimate level as heads leaned in to each other, toasts were raised with increasing frequency and the sing-alongs got louder and more pathetic. In time, the multiple demands for encores were satisfied, and Larry Lennox made his way to the bar, his arm draped around a physically and emotionally exhausted Sam. He waved off the offers of drinks and shots from friends and fans, lit a smoke, and settled for a cold beer from Justin.

        “That’s the end of an era,” Sam said. She accepted a White Russian from Justin. “Thanks, doll.”

        “Don’t be melodramatic, Sweetpea. Everyone’s getting out alive,” Larry said, giving her a friendly squeeze.

“I guess,” she sighed. “Justin, did these guys get their cases out of the back? They were all marked with their names.”

“I forgot all about that,” Justin said. “Listen up everybody! Anyone who’s got booze in the back, let’s get it out of here before the revenuers show up!”

“Let’s do it while they can still walk. I want everything out of here tonight,” Sam added. She’d taken liquor orders from most of the regulars, passing on the wholesale savings to them. The off-premise sales were illegal but she certainly didn’t give a flying crap at this point. She’d collected cash from everyone in advance.

One by one, the patrons eased themselves off their seats and shuffled around to meet Justin at the door to the back room. Bobby Thumbs was the first in line, picking up a couple of cases of premium vodka for Johnny V. Justin handed him one, then stacked the other on top. “Right out to the car, okay Bobby?”

“Not a problem, chief.” He took a few steps backward with the load then cut through the crowd on the way to the front door.

Barry and Manny were next; they got a single, mixed case each. “Here you go, kids. Don’t drink it all at once,” Justin said as he handed over the goods.

Justin checked his list as Larry stepped up to the door. “You’re kidding, right? Are you opening your own bar? You heard that’s illegal now…”

“We entertain a lot,” Larry responded with a wink. “You’re gonna help me carry this shit out to the car, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, let’s check it out first. Alright, we’ve got a full case of Jack Daniels, a case of vodka, half case of Grand Marnier, and a half of dark rum.” Justin was opening the boxes and checking the contents as he ticked off the inventory.

“There should be some tequila in there,” Larry said, peering over the bartender’s shoulder.

“Keep your pants on, rock star. Here we go…” Justin opened yet another box. “Half a case of Mezcal tequila, 100% Blue Agave—nice, you’re not fucking around, are you? And half a case of Johnnie Walker Black.”

“Should be one more mixed case.”

“One more mixed case…” Justin shifted some boxes around. “Here you go—four bottles of Southern Comfort, four bottles of Sambuca and four of blackberry brandy. No beer?”

“I picked it up earlier this week.”

“Let’s go.” Justin heaved a case over to the singer and lifted one himself. Two trips playing bumper cars through the dense crowd and they were done.


As the clock ticked past closing time, the crew showed little inclination that they were prepared to call it a night. There was little or no acknowledgement that it was the last night—all of the anger, bile, sorrow and disappointment had been drained from their systems in the weeks previous. The only difference was the brief debate as to the final song to be played on the jukebox before it’s ceremonial unplugging. In the end, the decision was left to Sam, who went with Sinatra’s “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).”

        The proprietor had one last surprise in store for them: “If you want ‘em, the bar stools are yours,” she said. She tactfully neglected to mention the unusual volume of ashtrays, glassware, bar spoons, shakers and bar napkins imprinted with the bar’s logo that had been disappearing in recent weeks. Justin dug up a Sharpie and everyone got busy autographing the underside of each other’s bar stools.

        Though they put it off for as long as they could, the moment finally arrived where everyone agreed that there was nothing left to do but to go home. The final toast was left to Larry, who lifted his glass to Samantha Siebold and to her establishment:

“May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.”

Mad Dog knew all the good ones.


The Last Bartender



he new prohibition had been three years in the making and rolled out in stages along several fronts. Initially, in exchange for federal funds specially earmarked to prop up struggling state and federally operated healthcare programs, the states were encouraged to restrict and discourage the sale and consumption of beverage alcohol. Alcohol-related illnesses, birth defects and accidents had long been a significant underlying cause of otherwise preventable medical expenditures and emergency room visits. Alcohol-related highway deaths perpetually hovered over 16,000 per year, and countless non-fatal accidents totaled billions in property and healthcare costs. The political justifications for the restrictions were straightforward—people who abused alcohol selfishly damaged their health and passed the costs on to society. They robbed increasingly tight federal and state healthcare dollars from more responsible, healthy citizens who end up paying the tab. It was a strategy that had been successfully wielded against smokers and fast food restaurants and easily redirected against unsuspecting drinkers.

At the same time, urban mayors, always on the lookout for new and effective ways to attack crime and increase revenues, seized on the federal initiative and took it a step further, initiating Sunday closings for bars and highly-restrictive business hours for alcohol retailers, followed by crushing taxes, zoning and licensing requirements and renewal fees, all with the intention of marginalizing alcohol-related businesses.

The final blow came in the form of “The Alcohol Liberation & Freedom Act” (ALFA), which amended the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 to include beverage alcohol as a controlled substance. Alcohol regulation was taken away from the states and put under the control of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and its prohibition enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In their infinite wisdom, Congress chose the end of the second week in January, a Saturday night, as the last day for legal alcohol sales across the country. Typically new laws for a new year go into effect on New Years day, but it was thought that the combination of traditional holiday enthusiasm along with the impetus of the permanent “last call” would prove too explosive an evening for local law enforcement.

Most states followed suit and passed their own prohibition legislation, allowing state law enforcement organizations to boost their budgets with federal funds to assist with administration and prosecution. Several states refused to pass such legislation, leaving the problem to the federal authorities. New York was one such state.


Here you go.” Justin handed Sam a sizable cluster of keys. “They should all be there.”

“Did you really think you were going to get away without turning in the keys?”

“Lotta good they would have done me now. What’s left to steal, the walls? Come on in…” Justin held the door open and let his former boss into his home.

 “And you need to forget the combination to the safe,” she joked.

“We had a safe?”

Justin really hadn’t minded his federally-mandated unemployment for the first few days. He was able to casually weather the two-day hangover from the closing party, catch up on some much needed sleep, and even clean up a bit around his place. He rented the first floor of a modest two-family home on a quiet, tree-lined Flushing street. Along with the small backyard, he had use of the finished basement, the garage and the driveway.

The basement was currently dedicated to his on-again, off-again brewing hobby. Under the present circumstance, it was most definitely going to be on again.

“How’s the shutdown going?” Justin asked. He plopped down on the couch and motioned Sam to do the same. The room’s furnishings were clean and in good condition, but all looked as if they’d been purchased at a warehouse sale.

“The booze is gone. That was all turned in yesterday, and I’m still waiting for a guy from the auction house to get back to me on when he’s going to stop by and give me an estimate on the rest of the stuff.”

“There’s going to be an awful lot of used bar equipment on the market. I wonder who’s going to buy it all?”

“Not me.”


“Sure. You should probably pull the shades now.”

“I’m pretty sure the secret police already have my name. But if you turn informant I’m cutting you off,” he snickered. He walked into the kitchen to fetch a couple of beers, and returned a moment later with a pair of longnecks minus any labels.

“Thanks. Home brew?” Sam asked, accepting the cold bottle.

“You bet. Might as well start developing a taste for it; before long, it’s going to be the only game in town.”

She took a good swig, then a second. “This is good! I don’t drink a lot of beer, but there’s nothing wrong with this.”

“Thank you ma’am. Like I said—it’s gonna be the only game in town.”

“I think the last one of yours I tasted was some sort of a dark beer.”

        “Yeah, over time I’ve tried them all. The darker ones tend to be hit-and-miss. I’ve cooked up some really good batches, some not so good. It’s harder for me to zero in on a consistent recipe for the richer tasting stuff—harder to balance the heavy, sweet malt taste with enough bitterness from the hops to make a nicely structured drink. This lager style is easier to brew properly—it’s always nice and crisp, and clean and easy to drink.” After several years of working at it, he had a well-developed sixth sense, a craftsman’s touch, for the art of brewing, and enjoyed talking about it.

“I’m convinced,” she said, enjoying another sip.

“Come downstairs. I’ll show you the setup.” He escorted her through the kitchen and led the way down the stairs. Once in the basement, he flipped up the light switches. The old-style fluorescent lighting took a second to flicker to life. The walls were done in 60’s-era pine paneling and the floor was a black-and-white checked linoleum, lifting and peeling in many spots. The room was unheated; the air was cool and a bit clammy.

“It smells like the bar down here,” Sam said.

“Yeah, it sorta comes with the territory. I cooked up a batch last week; there’s about two cases aging in the old refrigerator in the back that my landlord lets me use. They should be ready in another month or so.”

“How much do you usually brew at a time?” she asked.

He walked over to a large stainless steel pot and a pair of large, glass water bottles sitting against the wall. “Five gallons at a time. That’s a little better than two cases. I’m kicking around the idea of ramping that up a bit.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“Now? Nothing. Before, there was just too much good beer in the world, it didn’t seem worth the hassle. But now…” He walked over to a table and picked up a page that he’d printed off the Internet. “Check this out.” He handed her the sheet.

        “No way! What is that?”

“That’s a 60-quart brewpot—15 gallons—complete with a built-in thermometer and a half-inch stainless drain valve. It’s gonna take forever to bring to a boil on my stove, but I can cook up a full keg at a time with it.”

        “No shit. It looks really serious. Is that all you need?”

“I’ll need a few more of those carboys,” he pointed to the five-gallon water bottles. “But that’s about it.”

He walked over to a shelf and poked through his small inventory of malt and bags of hops; he had enough for another couple of batches. And he had two stacks of empty cases—12-ounce longnecks, compliments of Ruby’s—piled against the wall. He made a note of the fact that he’d need more bottle caps.

        “How much are you allowed to brew before the DEA breaks down your door and drags you away?”

“I think it’s 100 gallons per year. That’s about a case a week; not a problem if all you want is a beer with your meals, but it’s mighty thin for parties.”

“That’s for sure. And you can’t sell it, right?”

“No way. Personal consumption only. Selling alcohol is now a crime against the state, an offense committed only by evil degenerates seeking the downfall of helpless little children and the enlightened society that nurtures them.”

“What else is new?”

“You feel like partnering up on a few batches?”


“Why not? I’ll spring for the heavy equipment, you help out with the consumables, and we’ll cook up enough for a couple of nice beer parties. It’ll be like the old days.”

“The old days were last week.”

“I know. But I’ve got to get the new equipment and fresh supplies in house, and then it’s going to take at least two, maybe two-and-a-half months to brew up a keg’s worth and age it properly. Everyone’s stockpile of pre-ban beer will be gone by then; they’ll be ready for a party.”

“That’s for sure. How do we not get caught?”

“Same way drug dealers don’t get caught. Don’t do television interviews and don’t advertise your business in the paper.”

“Very funny.”

“Seriously. We already did Prohibition in this country; it’s how organized crime got started. Private house parties, secret passwords, keeping the local law enforcement people where we can see them…”

“You’re talking about Nick?”

“The last time I saw him, it didn’t look like his taste for beer was slacking off any. It’s not like we’d have to bribe him or anything. We just keep him and his police radio around—he’ll keep us in the loop. He won’t want to get busted any more than we do.”

“True enough. Now that I think about it, alcohol isn’t considered a controlled substance under New York law, just at the federal level. We’d just have to stay out of their way.”

“Uh-huh. I’m going to start ordering my consumables online, from a Canadian wholesaler. Beer is still a major national pastime in Canada, so I figure they’ll be less likely to share their customer list and purchase records with our Federal ‘secret police.’ The biggest market in the world just cracked wide open to Canadian brewers and brewery suppliers. If they play their cards right, they can be as rich as Columbian drug cartels within a year or two. I doubt they’re going to screw that up by playing ball with Washington.”

“So where do we start?”

“I say we go back upstairs, fire up the computer, and start heating up our credit cards.”


The new equipment and consumables arrived the following week and Justin wasted no time getting to work.

Bringing the contents of the large vessel to a boil turned out to be less troublesome than he’d anticipated. At 19-inches in diameter, the pot easily bridged two burners, making what might have been a tedious, drawn-out process a reasonable one. And the drain valve made filling the carboys a snap.

The worst part of the entire process was the bottling. It was messy, repetitive, and almost impossible for a single person to do efficiently. At least two people were needed—one for filling, one for capping. Given that he was looking at filling around 160 bottles, he wanted a three- or four-person assembly line to get the job done in a timely and organized fashion.

This turned out to be a desire easily fulfilled. All it took was a mutually agreeable Saturday afternoon and his remaining stockpile of beer.

Larry Lennox arrived first, with Sam Siebold and two large pizzas in tow. Manny Khan showed up ten minutes later.

Justin made sure everyone had a cold homebrew before escorting them downstairs and explaining what they’d be doing. He already had an aluminum folding table set up; a case of clean, empty longneck bottles sat on the far left, a carboy of beer next to it, followed by a box of bottle-caps and a manual, lever-operated capping tool. An empty case was placed on the right side of the table to receive the full bottles.

“I’ll man the hose,” he started. “Someone will slide me a bottle, I’ll fill it and slide it over to the next station. The next person will cap it, slide it over to the last person who’ll stick it in the case. Who wants to man the capping machine? Manny, you look like you’ve got a good grip…”

“That’s fine,” Manny said, inspecting the hand-operated tool. “Just put the bottle under the machine, place the cap on the bottle, and pull the lever, right?”

“You got it.”

“I sell automated machines that do this, if you’re interested. We have electric, pneumatic, even hydraulic models,” Manny said.

“Sure, maybe I can get a used one. Do you have one with a few miles on it, not too fancy, reasonably priced?”

        “Yes, but it is the size of your entire house.”

        “That’s nice; maybe some other time.” Justin got back to the business. “Okay, let’s get everything lined up. Sam, why don’t you get on my left and start feeding me bottles.”

        “You mean like I’ve been doing for the past four years?” She walked up to the case, used two fingers to flip a bottle into the air, caught it firmly in her right hand and smacked it down in front of her former employee.

        “Exactly.” Justin inserted the end of the siphon hose into the bottle and started working the small hand pump. Once the bottle was filled, he passed it over to Manny, who managed to cap it correctly on the first try. Then it went over to Larry, who placed it into the waiting case.

        “One down, 159 to go,” Justin declared. “Anyone who starts singing ‘159 Bottles of Beer on the Wall’ can go home now.”

        The assembly line worked smoothly, with Larry running upstairs occasionally to fetch cold beers for the other worker bees. “Tell me again how you make this stuff?” he asked Justin after opening a fresh bottle for himself.

        “You mean for the 400th time?”

        “I’ve only had two beers. There’s a chance I might remember something this time.”

        “First, I boil the malt extract for about an hour. The hops—which are in the cannabis family, I’m sure you’re happy to know—are the trickiest part of the process. It’s sort of like adding garlic and oregano and red pepper to tomato sauce; you have to do it more by taste and experience than by following any specific recipe.”

        “That’s why they make sauce in a jar,” Sam interrupted.

        “Anyway,” he continued, “the hops go into boil for anywhere from 40 minutes, maybe an hour or so, depending on which type I’m using.”

        “Did you ever use reefer instead of hops?” Larry couldn’t help asking. It wasn’t like Justin hadn’t gotten the suggestion many times in the past.

        “I tried it once. Fucked up what would have otherwise been a nice batch of beer and wasted a quarter-ounce of decent weed along with it. It tasted bitter and green and didn’t do anything special for your head. I ended up tossing it. Sounds good in theory, though.”

        “You just need to practice, man,” Larry said. “I never took you for a quitter.”

        Justin returned to the subject at hand. “Anyway, after you finish the boil, you let the wort—that’s what it’s called at that point—cool to room temperature. That takes some time. Then I siphon it into one of those big water jugs, adding the yeast while it’s filling so it gets properly aerated. I stopper the bottle with a fermentation lock, which lets the carbon dioxide escape while keeping the no-goodsies out, and let it ferment for about a week—sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more, depending on how things are moving along. Then it gets siphoned into a second carboy to separate it from the spent yeast and sediment, and stays there for two more weeks. I really should leave it in there for at least a month, but I don’t have the patience.”

        “That’s a tough call,” Larry agreed. “Green beer today, or better beer next week. I don’t know what I’d do…”

        Justin kept filling the bottles and ignored him. “When that’s done, I add some corn sugar for carbonation and we’re ready to bottle. They’re fully carbonated in about two weeks, then the beer needs to age a while to smooth out the rough edges.”

        “How long now?” Larry asked.

        “If I had enough refrigeration, I could age it three or four months. As it is, I usually let it sit for about a month before I start drinking it. That’s long enough to mellow out most of the funky odors left over from the fermentation process. The stuff we’re drinking now is maybe five weeks old.”

        “And well worth every minute. It sounds like the whole process involves more time than effort,” Larry commented.

        “Pretty much.”

        “So why stop at 15 gallons, man? It’s not like we don’t need the beer.”

        “It’s illegal, numb-nuts,” Sam said.

        “I’m serious. If it takes so long to make one batch, why make just one at a time? Can’t you make like a batch a week, so you always have fresh inventory on hand? You know, if we have some kind of beer emergency, you can’t make us wait two months for a drink, man. That just ain’t right.”

        “Beer emergency? What are you talking about?” Sam asked.

        “I hear you,” Justin said. “I’m just not set up for that kind of volume. For one thing, I need more bottles. Lots of ‘em. I’d need some more carboys, but they’re easy enough to get. The big thing is refrigeration. This stuff isn’t pasteurized; it spoils pretty quickly.”

        “So? We need bottles and refrigeration,” Larry repeated. “We sent a man to the moon more than 40 years ago, we should be able to figure this out.”