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The Cocktail at the End of the Universe

In search of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, an imaginary 1970's cocktail from space

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here are four cocktails I know how to make offhand, with the right proportions and everything. They are the Manhattan, the Boulevardier, the Negroni, and the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster.

The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster is, of course, the most famous and dangerous of all spacefaring mixed drinks. It was invented by Douglas Adams for his 1978 radio show (and later stage show, and book series, and TV program, and movie) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, although according to Adams it was invented by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed president of the galaxy. It is considered highly inadvisable to drink more than two at once; the drink's effect is described as "like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick."

Here is the recipe, as described in the 1979 novel: One bottle of Ol' Janx Spirit. One measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V. Three cubes of Arcturan mega-gin, properly iced to preserve the benzene. Four liters of Fallian marsh gas. A measure of Qalactin hypermint extract, floated over the back of a silver spoon. The tooth of an Algolian suntiger. A sprinkle of Zamphuor. And an olive.

Like any other raving fan of the Hitchhiker's universe, I have strong opinions about the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. It should be pale gold, and positively bristle with umbrellas and curly straws. It should be spicy and astringent in flavor, yet highly drinkable and with surprising depth. But it's fictional; both Adams and radio show producer Geoffrey Perkins explained to thirsty fans that it's impossible to mix one under Earth's atmospheric conditions. I have never really wanted to make one.

On this last point, I seem to be alone.

Aside from the olive, there's not a single ingredient in a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster that can be found on Earth, and yet terrestrial translations abound. Wikibooks collects 17 recipes, and there are at least two dozen more scattered around the internet. Many variations try to replicate the alien components with what seem like their closest counterparts, but this literalism is frequently undrinkable. One horrifying recipe includes vodka, gin, Clamato, sake, creme de menthe, lemon zest, a jalapeño and the obligatory olive, while another consists mainly of Jack Daniels, plus Jaegermeister, tonic water, peppermint extract, and grappa. An otherwise sedate suggestion includes a tablet of Airborne in place of the suntiger tooth. Other approaches throw the original recipe away, and instead go for aesthetics, offering exactly the right shade of green, or yellow, or unearthly blue, depending on how you always imagined it should look. The real iconoclasts ignore everything but the intoxicating effects, and just mix up all the most potent booze they can find.

In addition to an internet full of parched geeks trying to mix PGGBs for themselves, there are a handful of drinking establishments with this venerable libation on the menu. If you're in Washington, Maine, Wisconsin, Greece, France, or Canada, there's a chance you're near a bar that will smash your brains out with a brick. They'll do it gladly, because these bars cater to nerds, and a person who wants to order a PGGB is their ideal customer. Historically alienated by bar culture, the deeply geeky can now patronize multiple establishments where they're prioritized, accepted, and understood — and a sci-fi drink on the menu sends that message loud and clear. Like the bad 70's cocktails it parodies, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster is encouraging an entirely new community of drinkers.


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he Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster couldn't have been born during mixed drinks' turn-of-the-century Golden Age. Classic cocktails — the martini, the gin fizz, the French 75 —were restrained in both name and ingredients, tailored like men's suits. The Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster is a blowsy, garish Hawaiian shirt of a drink, both in its recipe and in its vaguely raunchy polysyllabic name. It could only have come, as it did, out of the '70s and early 1980s — the era that brought us Sex on the Beach, the Kamikaze, and the Harvey Wallbanger.

This was a period of bright, cloying drinks made of watered-down liquor and mixers that practically glowed in the dark. It's tempting to get snooty and simply say "70s cocktails didn't taste good," and it's not untrue. But plenty of people would say classic booze doesn't taste so hot either. Great scotch is reminiscent of a tire fire, and I was originally introduced to Fernet Branca with the memorable warning, "It tastes like you're being poisoned, but you're happy to be poisoned." Bad-but-fascinating flavors take more work to love, and thus bitter, smoky, or pungently herbal concoctions read as sophisticated. We've all loved sweet things in our time — children are wired for it — so appreciating a sweet drink is easy, lazy, superficial. It's like people who complain that their favorite band's new album is too "accessible," meaning "nice to listen to." You prove your connoisseurship by appreciating the nuances of the unpleasant.

The intent was deeply condescending, and, like the drinks, a little gross: to lure men by luring women, and to lure women by giving them sweeties

In contrast, the garish candy-booze of the 1970s was gross, but it was friendly. Both the drinks and the aesthetic of the 1970s "fern bar" – the spiritual and actual ancestor of T.G.I. Friday's — were designed to be more welcoming to women than the dark saloons and VFW halls that were the site of most 1960s tippling. Henry Africa's, generally cited as the first fern bar, was designed to look like "your grandmother's living room," according to its proprietor — comforting, bright, full of plants and stained-glass lampshades, and serving up the alcoholic version of an ancient dish of Werther's. The intent was deeply condescending, and, like the drinks, a little gross: the goal was to lure men by luring women, and to lure women by giving them sweeties. The fern bar was a literal honey trap.

It worked better than intended. By making drinking establishments woman-friendly, albeit in a backhanded way, the fern bar invited women into a sphere of American culture that had previously been closed to all but the brassiest dames. Two years after Henry Africa's opened, California overturned the law that prohibited women from being bartenders. (To be fair, it wasn't a fern bar that cracked the case; it was a topless establishment that wanted its dancers to do double duty.) As the bar scene shifted to a more approachable mien, women felt free not only to drink in public, but to take part in creating and defining drinking culture – and culture in general.

That's the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster's legacy: it's a groovy Harvey Wallbanger from outer space. And, true to its pedigree, its purpose on Earth seems to be welcoming new populations into the warm embrace of public alcohol consumption.


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he Way Station has been described by the New Yorker as "New York's preëminent 'Doctor Who'-themed bar." It is, of course, New York's only Doctor Who-themed bar, but it's always nice to get that New Yorker diaeresis. The interior features steampunk weaponry on the walls and a bathroom decorated to look like a TARDIS.

I stand outside for a full ten minutes trying to get up the nerve to go in.

There is no question that I'm a nerd bar's target audience. I play Dungeons and Dragons. I read comics and sci fi. I watched Doctor Who for a while and then gave up on it, both of which are respectable nerd positions. I have a Hitchhiker's Guide tattoo (not a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, unfortunately, although I still have plenty of space). And I drink a lot.

In true nerd fashion, I've often described my particular aversion to group identities as "an allergy to granfalloons"

But I'm not here for the bar. I'm just here to find someone who can mix me up a PGGB. I don't crave community; in fact, I'm enormously suspicious of anything that smacks of demographics, or team spirit, or false intimacy. In true nerd fashion, I've often described my particular aversion to group identities as "an allergy to granfalloons": Kurt Vonnegut's word, in his apocalyptic epic Cat's Cradle, for self-defined human categories that are celebrated but ultimately meaningless. I belong to a lot of granfalloons - Smith College alumnae, writers, Kurt Vonnegut fans – and I tend to be very uncomfortable with all of them. I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member, and I don't want to go to any bar that would court me as clientele.

That said, from the décor, the events list, and most of all the drinks, the Way Station seems like an excellent place for the kind of granfalloon I'd belong to if I could relax about that sort of thing. One page of the menu is all Doctor Who-themed drinks; the other features references to movies drawn from across the pop culture spectrum, from Reservoir Dogs to Lord of the Rings. There's no PGGB, but anecdotally, I know that people have gotten them here before. Most offerings are little sweet for me, though there's nothing nearly as cloying as a fern bar drink, but I'm loath to order the "TWS Manhattan" because it's the one reference on the menu that I don't get. I'm with you on the Fear and Loathing, the Mr. Pink, and the Gimli (a variation on a gimlet). But TWS? I look it up on my phone: Trans-World Skateboarding? Toad the Wet Sprocket? By the time I realize it stands for "The Way Station," I've already ordered a Shirley Temple of Doom. It tastes about how you'd expect.

Like the typical Way Station visitor (this is a guess, but an extremely educated one), I need a whole drink in me before I strike up a chat with the bartender. Darien has been at the Way Station since February, and he says the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster in the recipe book, but he doesn't remember what it is offhand. As it turns out, the Way Station drink recipes are organized by fandom: Doctor Who drinks, Mad Men drinks, Sherlock Holmes drinks. In the "miscellaneous" section, we find "Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster: bartender's choice."

This seems like a perfect opportunity, not just to get the taste of Shirley Temple of Doom out of my mouth but to find out how a bona fide nerd-bar mixologist would interpret the PGGB. Darien's version is Old Overholt rye, Atsby vermouth, a lot of cherry juice, and Fireball whiskey, just enough to impart a little heat. This drink has nothing to do with the original PGGB in recipe, looks, or effect. It is delicious.

While I'm drinking, a regular comes in. I can tell she's a regular because she's talking with Darien about her upcoming birthday party, to be held here at the bar, and because instead of ordering a drink she asks for ginger beer in her personal stein. It turns out that many of the regulars here have steins, identical stainless steel ones engraved with the Way Station logo. Once you decide you're Way Station ride or die, you can order a $50 engraved mug from a Massachusetts-based Etsy store and keep it behind the bar.

The key attraction is lack of judgment: the Way Station offers access to a purely accepting community

Trish, the one with the ginger beer, has been coming to the Way Station for a year; she wanted to come for two years before that, but "I was never the kind of a person who would just go to a bar." She also wasn't especially into Doctor Who at first - "I kept trying, but it took three or four times to take" – but she's adamant that you don't have to be a Whovian to appreciate the Way Station. The key attraction is lack of judgment: the Way Station offers access to a purely accepting community. That's worth a lot to Trish; she comes to the bar all the way from Bensonhurst, 45 minutes away by train, and she comes often. She doesn't even drink.

Another bartender and another regular arrive, wearing identical T-shirts advertising Vulcan Ale, a Star Trek-branded Irish red from the Calgary-based brewery Federation of Beer. (I find out later that the bar is prepping for a Vulcan Ale launch party.) A woman with a shaved head and red Star Trek shirt comes in, unpacks her dinner, starts to eat. Darien makes her the same thing I have, which turns out to be his go-to drink. It's a homey scene — not your grandmother's living room, but something just as familiar and welcoming to the people the bar wants to attract: maybe the dorm suite of your friend's older brother, the one who always had exactly the comics you wanted to read. I powerfully want to leave. But first I have to use the TARDIS.


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he Way Station was always meant to be a gathering place, and it has become home to many," says Anders Heidel, whose four-year-old bar (PGGB recipe: bartender's choice, as noted, but Anders favors tequila, pineapple, and blue Curaçao) was originally steampunk-themed. But it's not just home; it's a combination game room, bar, and movie theater where all your friends live too. The next few weeks on the Way Station calendar feature movies, board game nights, "nerd karaoke," burlesque, a Doctor Who costume contest, cybersecurity pub trivia, music performances including a band of bar regulars, and beer-fueled discussions of astronomy and sexology. Some of the regulars, says Heidel, will come to several events; others stick to their favorites but come out every week. When you love a geek bar, it is not a casual love.

"Alcohol is a social lubricant for everyone, and geeks sometimes take a bit of help to be comfortable"

When Lynn Nilles opened 42 Lounge in Milwaukee (PGGB recipe: Jack Daniels, peach schnapps, blue Curacao, orange juice), in early 2013, people told her "nerds don't drink." Au contraire, she says: "Alcohol is a social lubricant for everyone, and geeks sometimes take a bit of help to be comfortable when introduced to a new situation." But there's a significant and widespread perception that, like women before the 70s, nerds don't really want to do their drinking in a bar. Why leave the house? That's where your Warhammer miniatures are.

In order to overpower the introverted and homebodyish nature of its clientele, bars like the Way Station, 42 Lounge, and Everett, Washington's AFK Tavern have to offer extra comfort and familiarity. Themed drinks, including the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, help get the job done. "The PGGB is something that is recognizable and approachable," says Nilles. "It's not a Manhattan or a beer they've never heard of — it's something they've heard of a million times and now they get to try it! That's why we make all of our drinks geek themed — you'd be amazed at how willing to try new things people are when you name it after something they can relate to."

"I think in many ways the appeal of the Pan Galactic is that, not only are the overwhelming majority of recipes I've seen solid drinks, they also serve as a drinking nerd's alcoholic shibboleth," agrees Tristån Erickson, a bartender at AFK Tavern (PGGB recipe: "a variant of a Long Island, with muddled lemons, a dash of blue Curacao, and a dash of grenadine for a good purple color"), which opened in 2010. You don't drink at a bar that offers a PGGB because it's your favorite drink — after all, like the Doctor, it could show up looking like almost anything. You drink there because its presence on the menu sends a signal: Here you're recognized. Here you're understood. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, even if it can only be pronounced in an obscure Betelgeusian dialect.

To get nerds out of their houses, turns out all you need to do is offer a collective living room, with someone else to do the washing up

Like the fern bar, the geek bar is expanding perception of who drinks, and why.To get nerds out of their houses, turns out all you need to do is offer them a collective living room, with the same books and movies and games and friends, but someone else to do the washing up. If you want them to buy booze, add familiar, welcoming inside jokes on the menu.

The fern bar and the geek bar, in their own times and ways, made that kind of community accessible to a new population. The fern bar's grandma-chic aesthetic and fruity drinks, and the nerd bar with its menu of sci-fi puns, both signal their potential to be that dream space: a home away from home full of kindred spirits, a public space that's as comforting as a private one.


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he Way Station was too much camaraderie for me, but now I'm curious: what does a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster look like for nerd-bar malcontents, people who want to pay tribute to their favorite book but not have to talk to anyone new? None of the existing recipes sound like the drink I imagine, so I decide to make my own Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster at home, or rather at my boyfriend's home because his booze is better. I want it to be pale gold, spicy and astringent in flavor, yet highly drinkable and with surprising depth: the PGGB I see in my mind's eye. I want it to be guided by the book recipe, but not prescriptivist. And I want to devise and drink it with a single beloved person who actually understands me, not surrounded by multiple mystery social strata of strangers all frantically signaling their belonging. No offense, Way Station, but you don't know me; you just know people like me.

We wind up mixing a whole tiny bottle of Bulleit; a thimble of tonic syrup concentrate (a strange flavor, but almost brackish like the waters of Santraginus V); an ounce of jenever (more of a proto-gin than a mega-gin, but still, extremely ginny without being gin per se); a spoonful of Génépy des Alpes (not mint, but it shouldn't be mint — it's hypermint, people! Beyond mint!); Prosecco for bubbles; and a splash of some kind of cinnamon liquor for the suntiger tooth effect. It's exactly the right color, and not precisely terrible, but definitely not at all good. "It's like some sort of back-alley gang fight is going on in my mouth right now," says my boyfriend. So little harmony for a drink that's so often used to telegraph welcome and belonging.

I feel like I've been tapped on the head with a slice of lemon wrapped around a small ball-peen hammer

Surprisingly, though, with the addition of a few ice cubes, a touch more Génépy, and another healthy slug of cinnamon stuff, it starts to come together. It is, in fact, spicy and astringent, with a little warmth and a little herbal aroma. It's interesting. It's more than interesting — it's kind of good. And it's definitely having the right effect. I feel like I've been tapped on the head with a slice of lemon wrapped around a small ball-peen hammer.

I drink (most of) the rest of it curled up on the bed, noting how the flavors meld and mellow over time, while my boyfriend plays video games. This is how I love things: in a quiet room next to people I know.

But for people who prefer to love things communally, in a party room filled with potential best friends you haven't met yet, the geek bar is here for you. It wants to help break bar culture open, the way fern bars did in the era of classic '70s sci fi. And it's probably serving up a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster — at least, it will if you ask.


Jess Zimmerman is a writer, editor, and smartass who lives with a dog in Brooklyn. She has written for the Guardian, Hazlitt, the Hairpin, the Toast, Atlas Obscura, Aeon, and others, and identifies as Chaotic Good.
Illustrator: Matt Lubchansky
Editor: Meghan McCarron

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