Outside, the first snowflakes of the season are falling, all sleepy-eyed and virginal. They float across the sky like lace on a wedding dress, gravity barely carrying them toward the warmth below. We've been drawn to the Iron Barley by a rumor, one that's whipping through frozen alleyways and creeping into chimneys. The rumor of a drink. A brandy drink. With cinnamon ice cream. And pumpkin. And nutmeg. The kind of drink that changes a person.
"It's good shit, that's all I know," says Iron Barley bartender Jackie Jones, creator of the pumpkin brandy Alexander. The bar itself sits low and has chrome stools straight from a soda fountain. Sidle up, and it's like returning to the womb.
"We had that blender, and we had to use it for something after we stopped making the watermelon drink," explains Jones, "so I worked this up." The basic brandy Alexander consists of ice cream, brandy and crème de cacao. But variations abound. Jones makes her big batches with canned Libby's pumpkin filling, Blue Bunny cinnamon ice cream, heavy cream and, usually, brandy. Tonight she's out of brandy, so she's substituting amaretto, which is OK by us. Jones says that any nutty liqueur will work. And it's particularly good, she adds, with Frangelico hazelnut liqueur.
The Iron Barley is a south-city restaurant tailor-made for wintertime. The "barley" of its title is to be taken literally. (Owner Tom Coghill's twin passions are home brews and hearty cooking, and barley is an operative ingredient in both.) Their barley paella? Holy shit, is that some good grub: shrimp and calamari and clams and sausage and spicy seasoned barley. If you've never been here, you're missing out. On nights like this, sitting at the Barley's bar is like nestling among the embers of a bonfire. The radiated heat, both from the room and its occupants, reddens the skin.
Jones pours an Alexander for local guitarist/beer man Tom Hall, who plays here on Wednesdays "if I show up," he qualifies. Hall takes a sip and froth sticks to his mustache. He drinks again. "I wouldn't think I'd be drinking something like this," he says. "It's in a martini glass." But it's a good goddamned drink: thick on the pumpkin and nutmeg, heavy on the cream, slathered with cinnamon and the nutty Amaretto, and yet not as sweet as you'd think. The first sip arrives like a naked surprise party. Whoa. This is good. This is better than imagined. Winter is coming. Let the cheer snow down. Randall Roberts