By Jess Graves
Let's not even plunge ourselves down the rabbit hole of morality that may or may not be the Wisconsin conglomerate known as SAB Miller, because that isn’t the point. We aren’t here to debate the integrity of what we all know is a shitty beer of questionable origin. Lets instead take it at face value for exactly what it is: a cold, cheap, unassuming, drinkable, (kind of cute) beer, and go with that.
My first encounter with the Miller High Life pony bottle was at a now-defunct Atlanta bar called Cavern, one of those delightfully authentic dives fashioned out of the dead space between two larger tenants in a street side strip mall. My friend Sean took me there right after I moved to Atlanta in 2012. He went to Yale for grad school and Cavern reminded him of when he’d take the train down from New Haven to New York to party for the weekend. “It’s like those random shoebox bars on the Lower East Side where you can just get ridiculous.” He said.
The bartenders at Cavern were as worn-in as the bar stools, and the place stank of stale cigarettes. As soon as we walked in, we were assaulted with a bleating wall of sound emanating from a janky DJ booth. It was always a remix of some late-90’s pop song by the Backstreet Boys or Chumbawumba, somehow never accompanied by a note of self-congratulatory irony. I loved it.
Cavern wasn’t a hipster bar, it wasn’t an anything bar. It was just a bar. A bar where all kinds were welcome — one night I sat with two drag queens to one side of me and half an Emory fraternity to the other. They served ponies - five for six dollars - crammed into a tin promo bucket and covered with ice.
The great thing about the High Life pony, which tops out at a mere seven ounces, is that it can be finished completely long before it ever warms enough to actually taste. When it’s ice cold, the pony slugs down as quick and easy as the Capri Suns doled out by SnackMoms after soccer practice. The bubbly, carbonated lager refreshes particularly well in the Southern heat.
When Cavern shuttered, so did my affection for riding the proverbial pony. “I keep a flask in my car just to pour one out every time I drive by.” Sean said to me once. Eventually, I took to drinking more grown-up drinks at more grown-up establishments, and somehow managed to trick magazines into letting me write about them.
Just a few months ago, on assignment for Southern Living*, I saddled up at the (then) new-to-town Craft Izakaya -- an Atlanta spin on the idea of a Japanese “izakaya”, which basically translates to “bar that serves food”. In true Harvey Dent fashion, the opposite faces of the bar have different personalities. One dedicated to sushi, the other for drinks. I still can’t decide which menu is more irreverent or delicious, but for the sake of this article, we'll stick to the drinks.
Head Barman Tom McGuire mixed a menagerie of intelligent, interesting, potable and palatable cocktails that day - the exact kind of impressive, print-worthy beverages a skilled son of the stick should lay out when the press is present. Craft Izakaya loiters inside a larger development dedicated to food and dining here in Atlanta called Krog Street Market. At that point, most of the market was still under development, including a bar concept spearheaded by Greg Best (often referred to as "The Godfather of the Southern Cocktail") and his business partner Regan Smith, both formerly of the famed Holeman & Finch.
Greg was around Krog Street Market that day, I assumed with a business-related purpose (I didn’t ask him) and greeted me as I was perched on my stool. He looked at Tom knowingly, held up two fingers, and shortly thereafter whisked away two pony bottles of High Life. I raised my eyebrows. “What was that?” Tom grinned mischievously. “Want one?” I glanced back in Greg’s general direction. Who was I to question The Godfather? He knows his stuff, so I'll have what he's having.
“This,” Tom said, setting down what appeared to only be a cold bottle in front of me “is a Milwaukee champagne cocktail.” I must have looked confused. “All the same basic ingredients of a classic champagne cocktail - simple syrup, Angostura bitters, a lemon garnish," He explained, "made instead with the champagne of beers.”
Once I recognized the lemon peel innocuously floating inside the chilly bottle, the drink may as well have winked at me along with Tom. Gimmicky in a good way, bar nirvana: a simple, witty, fully-sanctioned and delicious grown-up cocktail that defied its own fanciness by being, well, exactly what it was; a dressed up High Life — like a redneck in a ball gown. Still just as cold, cheap, unassuming, drinkable, and cute as ever -- but with a little age, much smarter.
*The column "Girl Walks Into a Bar" on p. GA12 of Southern Living's April 2015 issue.