Everyone has to start somewhere... where did you start with your first drink? And how might that have set the stage for the style of drinking you would move toward next? If your first tentative steps are well placed, it puts in in that much better of a position to really enjoy what the future might hold.
Sage advice is often encountered, or at least understood, after the fact. So it will most likely be upon deaf ears that all my good intentions of the following recommendations on how to make the most of your first drinking experiences will fall.
To begin with, I very much am in support of the drinking laws in whatever location you might be. Here in America, the drinking age is 21, and I will not support anybody who chooses to break that law. If you are currently underage, then the only reason you should read any further, is to simply gather some knowledge and understanding of how to venture forth in the drinking world once you do become of age.
There is however one serious problem with having a set drinking age, especially one as high as 21. As children we look up to, admire, and in some cases worship those amongst us that we know as "adults". They seem to have all of the answers. They are infallible. Some day, we too will be an "adult", and will also be a fount of wisdom and advice. Reaching 21 is essentially that imaginary cross-over; it is when we suddenly turn into an "adult". We have most likely been driving for several years by now. We are probably living on our own, have a job, and have to shave regularly. We have arrived. We are an adult. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about alcohol, and drinking beverages that contain it. In this topic (and many others), we are mere infants, and like infants we need long and slow training in order to acquire the necessary skills to navigate its shores. But, at the same time, we are adults. All of our past experiences have instilled upon us the need to now present ourselves with the bravado of confidence. To convince ourselves and those around us that we do in fact know it all. I expect that it is from this, that many of our drinking problems spring.
To help you navigate your first experiences at the bar, I would like to attempt to provide you some advice that I hope you at least attempt to take to heart. Some of the following will apply to beer and wine, but my main focus will be to provide you with some insights into how to pay proper tribute to the pinnacle of the adult beverage, the cocktail.
The Role of the Cocktail
To begin with, despite everything that your peers might be telling you, the purpose of drinking is not to get drunk. Yes, technically alcohol is a chemical substance that induces drunkenness, and yes, cocktails wouldn't really be cocktails without alcohol. But a properly made cocktail is so much more then just being defined by the amount of alcohol it contains. The cocktail is a form of cuisine, with interesting, exciting, and even enlightening flavor potentials.
The cocktail (and its alcohol), when taken in moderation, also have a socially relaxing effect. It comforts you, and allows you to let your guard down just a little. When you are out with friends, it adds a little bit to the fellowship of the evening. However, if you go too far, and get "ripped", then it just makes a mess of things.
I've got a saying:
"Drinking just to get drunk,
is like having sex just to get pregnant."
Yes, technically both are the biological intents, but if that's all you are focusing on, then you are missing out on the real enjoyment that can be had when you truly embrace the experience properly. Frankly, when you go out drinking, you should probably get "drunk" about as often as you'd like to get pregnant.
Think back to when you first learned how to ride a bike. The entire prospect of balancing in that way, on just two skinny tires, was difficult to grasp. Others made it appear so easy, but while you might have really, really, wanted to ride a bike, the challenge it presented was also terrifying. With training wheels, you were able to turn the bike into something more like a tricycle, with which you had extensive experience with, and so could gradually get used to this new experience.
Similarly, there are many aspects of the cocktail which are so far outside of your existing experiences that the only real way to deal with them is to rely on some form of training wheels. The very flavor of a real cocktail would be an unexpected shock to the palate of the new adult. Just as your first wine should not be a vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, neither should your first cocktail be a Martini. Not only will the alcohol in your drink add a rather unexpected "texture", but the flavor of many of the spirits themselves will be quite unlike anything you've ever had before. Gin, tequila, and whiskey can be very difficult for the budding cocktail palate to understand, much less appreciate. Brandy and rum can be a little more approachable, but still distinctly unusual.
For the budding wine drinker, it is common to find White Zinfandel being the training wheels that are used to gradually expose them to some of the flavor potential of what a real wine might taste like. In the beginning, it might be the only wine that is palatable, but gradually the palate evolves to be able to appreciate the complexities of a Semillon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet, and other wines that are full of wild complexities of flavor. The spirit that plays this role best is perhaps vodka. It has very little flavor of its own, and so aside from the sharp bite of alcohol it can almost hide behind anything.
The best drinks to use as training wheels, will be those that bare a close approximation to the same flavor profiles of the drinks of your youth. Drinks flavored heavily with juices, or which are almost a soda pop, will be the easiest to accept. In fact, you can essentially take anything non-alcoholic that you might like, and simply add a shot (1 1/2 ounce) of vodka to it, in order to turn it into an "adult" beverage. This is essentially all that a Screwdriver is; orange juice, with a shot of vodka. Likewise you can add vodka to cranberry juice, grapefruit juice, tomato juice, Coca Cola, 7up, Dr. Pepper, Ginger Ale. There are countless variations on this theme, but all of them are relatively boring. What you really should try, are drinks that aren't quite that close to your drinks of childhood.
Here then are just a few drinks that I might recommend to try on your first experiences upon reaching the legal drinking age.
Mojito - This is perhaps the "in" drink at the moment. It's been around for quite some time, starting out as a thirst quencher used by workers down in Cuba who were harvesting sugar cane. The rum they had available to them was fairly rough, and so they'd add a little sugar cane juice to sweeten it up, as well as water to both soften it's bite and make it cooling on a hot day. It eventually became the popular drink for the working class to relax with on the hot beaches, gradually evolving to include lime juice, mint, and soda water. In those days the upper classes were drinking Daiquiris at the La Floridita bar, while the Mojito was all but ignored as being just for the "common" folks. After the Cuban rebellion, the fleeing refugees brought the Mojito with them to Florida, where it gradually became popular amongst the general public. Now you can find it almost anywhere. Properly made, this drink needs fresh mint, and requires a little more time than many other drinks, so be nice to your bartender, and avoid ordering it if there is much of a crowd.
Cosmopolitan - This drink has become much maligned these days and perhaps for good reason. It seems like whenever a drink gets over popular, bartenders will take shortcuts in order to be able to make it faster, cheaper, or so that they don't have to be bothered to have the "real" ingredients on hand that the recipe actually calls for. Properly made, the Cosmopolitan is actually a pretty good drink, even if its popularity is often associated with preppy young girls who don't know a cocktail from a highball.
Sidecar - This drink was originally invented in Paris, around 1920, and was one of the hits among Americans traveling abroad while Prohibition ravaged the US. The form had already been around for several decades, being reflected in the simple Whiskey Sour, or in the more complex "Brandy Crusta". Made simply from brandy, Cointreau, and lemon juice, this drink should not be overly sour, but instead should be smooth as velvet. It should properly be served in a cocktail glass, which is commonly garnished with a sugared rim, even though this was not part of the original recipe.
Pimm's Cup - Now here is a drink you may not have heard of before, and if you have, then chances are good you've never had one. With how rarely this drink is ordered, I'm actually quite amazed at how often I see a bottle of "Pimm's No. 1" gathering dust on the back shelves of various bars. A Pimm's Cup is an extremely easy drink to make, just a shot of Pimm's No. 1, topped off with Lemon-Lime soda, or Ginger Ale. This essentially makes it a Highball, but because Pimm's No. 1 is only 25% alcohol, you end up with a drink that is about half the strength of a normal highball. And since Pimm's No 1 has wonderfully complex flavor to it, it makes a great adult beverage that doesn't slap you around.
Final Words of Wisdom
Here in the US, upon turning 21 it is seen as a time which you have finally reached adulthood. This means more responsibility, and more accountability. So why not take this opportunity to actually act your age and think carefully about how you are going to celebrate. Your first exposure with adult beverages doesn't have to be a painful or debilitating experience. Choose your drinks carefully, drink slowly, and drink in moderation. See your drink as a liquid cuisine; look for it to provide you with interesting and exciting taste experiences. And of course, don't drink and drive.