I’ve sought out strange flavors. I like when a spirit is very bitter or pungent. I love the earthy mustiness of Pu-Erh tea and the “disgusting” “liquid earwax and fermented palm fawn” flavor of Jeppson Malort. But nothing in my experience prepared me for the 21 Gun Salute.
When my friend Robert pulled out a sample bottle of a Chinese tonic wine called “Golden Drum Hammer” last night at the Ultimate Cocktail & Spirits Blast at the Midtown Marriott and proclaimed it an aphrodisiac, I was curious. Remembering an odd Chinese whiskey I found in San Francisco’s Chinatown about ten years ago, I wondered if the Ultimate Spirits Chinese section had anything like it.
We ventured over and sampled the Golden Drum Hammer. It’s a low alcohol spirit (52 proof) that has a a flavor like Dutch corenwyn (malty and grainy) with hints of sweet herbs and chocolate. The company treats it like a medicine and recommends taking it 30 minutes before sex. It will also treat hemorrhoids, climacteric syndrome (menopause) and senile urological syndrome.
Moving on to another table, we sampled a sweeter Chinese spirit that came in a fancier bottle. I don’t remember it very well because the next thing we drank cast a stinky, disgusting pall over the entire evening.
The 21 Gun Salute comes in a missile shaped bottle in a box that opens the lengthwise, the way a missile launcher might. The rep, a friendly young Chinese man in an oversized suit, introduced himself as Benjamin, and had us smell the bottle before he poured anything. I didn’t quite catch it at first, so I just held out my glass.
When I took in the aroma of 21 Gun Salute, I was taken aback. It actually made me hallucinate briefly, in a most unpleasant way. I felt a surge of irritation, followed by an intense desire to get away from the glass. The smell was extremely unpleasant, the way only certain organic smells can be: rotting urine, stale sweat, spoiled meat, unknown gland secretions. This beverage smelled like a dirty human being, and though many of us are loath to admit we recognize these particular smells, I have to say it reminds me of the way we men smell below the waist after sweaty work. It is revolting.
And it tastes that way, too. Strangely, while Robert and I had a lot of trouble with this drink (although mercifully, none of us had any nausea), my girlfriend Mira found it much easier to handle. “I taste something like the flavors in Red Bull,” she said, searching for analogues. “I have no reference in my past for this,” Robert said in wonderment. “It smells like man.”
What in the name of all things good and polite was this? The rep, Benjamin, didn’t know. When he said he hadn’t tried 21 Gun Salute for himself, fearing drunkenness and reprimand from his boss, I insisted. “I think you’d better try it,” I said, glaring at him. He obliged, and the wince of pain and anguish, the involuntary swinging of arms and stomping of feet was priceless.
It wasn’t the strength of the alcohol that offends so much. It’s whatever ingredient gives it that pungency of sweat mixed with a tiny hint of feces, a distinctly male locker room aroma. It smells like an animal in heat. Because Robert and I shamefully identified this rancidness as a male smell, it made me wonder if therein lied Mira’s greater ability to cope with it.
21 Gun Salute comes in different strengths; the one we tried was 76 proof. Benjamin says they would all retail for about $35 a bottle, although like the Golden Drum Hammer tonic wine we tried first, 21 Gun Salute has no U.S. distributor.
Robert and I agreed that the way to market such an awful beverage would be to challenge people to drink it. Are you man enough? It’s funny, I said to Mira after I’d rinsed the taste out of my mouth with rum from another table, I think I feel like more of a man now, but I also have a nagging feeling that some of my masculinity has been ripped away from me by this vile liquor.