I was seventeen years old when I first encountered bum wine. My friend Chris and I were in an alley behind a Capitol Hill liquor store, waiting for a local wino whom we would sometimes enlist to buy us a twelve-pack. I remember it was an unusually hot afternoon, so we weren't surprised that the wino had used our money to subsidize the purchase of a forty-ounce bottle of Steel Reserve. But when the pudgy man also unsheathed a bottle of "orange jubilee"-flavored MD 20/20 from a brown paper bag, Chris felt that he had overstepped our little gentlemen's agreement regarding his compensation.
"Mad Dog?" Chris objected, using the nickname for the fruity dreck. "You didn't say anything about that."
The wino shrugged. At $1.99, it didn't seem like a waste of money to him — and I had to agree. Especially after we watched him gulp down more than a third of the forty and refill it with the contents of the other bottle. We gazed in awe at the concoction fizzing into a tang-colored cloud.
"Fhrampagne," the wino said, pronouncing it like a mutant version of "champagne." Chris and I looked on, stunned, as the wino hucked the smaller bottle in the trash and hoofed off down the street, potion cradled against his belly. Malt liquor and fortified wine? Together? Obviously, we had much to learn on the subject of skid-row booze. We sought to educate ourselves by rotating fhrampagne in with our then-limited porch-drinking repertoire of light beer and bottom-shelf tequila. The high alcohol content not only knocked our bearings loose in a matter of minutes, but the various flavors of Mad Dog created a rainbow of shades that served as great conversation-starters at the gutter-punk flophouse next door. Fhrampagne is a drink that announces to the world, "I'm at rock bottom, and I don't care." Which feels like a cool statement to make when you're young and careless — and can survive the bone-twisting hangovers that result from binges on subpar hooch.
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After all, regular consumers of syrupy booze brands like Night Train and Cisco have a single objective: to get as fucked up as possible as cheaply as possible, brain cells and stomach lining be damned. But the association that such brands have with the poor and homeless means that sipping on a bottle of St. Ides can pack a strong political punch as well. Liquor stores that stock fruit-infused fortified wines and malt liquor are a frequent target for police and groups who say the consumers of such alcohol contribute to neighborhood blight and crime.
At 2644 Larimer Street, Joe's Liquor Store does a brisk walk-up business in discount gin, whiskey shooters and lots and lots of forties. Owner Dung Choi says that after he declined to sell his building to make way for the new Volunteers of America headquarters in 1998, the service organization built around him ("Give and Take," May 4, 2000). Today he continues to feel pressure to move out — or at least upscale his offerings for the ever-gentrifying neighborhood.
When Suzette Riddick bought Downing Street Liquors at 1038 East 22nd Avenue in 2004, bum wine was the number-one-selling product, luring homeless and loiterers into the neighborhood. Since Riddick got rid of the fortified wines and instead started stocking high-end vodkas and imported merlots, she says the surrounding block has cleaned up. Other liquor stores in rapidly "improving" parts of town are getting the bum's rush as well. The liquor store where I was introduced to bum wine now sells mostly microbrews and French wines — and Chris's old apartment is now a high-end townhome.
Before all the skid-row liquor stores disappear from central Denver, I decided to have a last round of classic bum booze. Here are a few good finds.