Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Natty Ice vs. Milwaukee's Best Ice

Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.


Hey, all you readers who I consider friends because working at home is lonely and you seem nice: You're going to the Serious Eats All-Star Beer Festival (Also Featuring Sandwiches), right? It's July 23rd on Governors Island in New York and it's going to be awesome. They've lined up a ton of beer and wine and I'm pretty sure I've seen the words "meatball" and "ham" bandied about as well.

I've only been to Governors Island once and I loved it so much I contemplated running for governor and/or trying to crime my way onto whichever chain gang picks up the trash after events. Last summer I was The Kenji's third assistant slider slinger at some kind of meat carnival there; my primary responsibility was beer procurement, and I did so well that I've been invited back to the island to do it all over again, and now I'm inviting you (and maybe even pouring your beer.) Order tickets here. Tell them you're a friend of the Bottom Shelf to receive a complimentary eye-roll from the organizers, then use code beersandfest to receive an actual five dollar discount.

Research coordinator Emily and I are very easily entertained, so with The SE Beer Fest (AFS) on the horizon, we don't need a ton of other action to keep us going through July. After an unsettled year of moving and schooling and only kinda working, we have finally scratched our way into a normal groove, so for the most part we're content to just peacefully coexist. In fact, we've become so domesticated that we even have an official household budget, which is neatly divided into three categories: Bills; Yogurt and Diet Coke; and Whatever Will Blows the Rest On.

For all of June and the patriotic portion of July, I allocated the bulk of the discretionary pool to overtipping for service of onion rings and tequila. As enriching as that was, eventually a man tires of confused stares when he asks for mustard with his rings and whiskey with his tequila, so last weekend was dedicated to lowering the cholesterol and raising the savings.

Austerity Weekend got off to a mixed start Friday night. We saved money and arteries by making dinner at home, but then I pissed away $1.29 by wrecking a perfectly good sponge on just its second day of active duty. A dandy like myself naturally demands the finest in spongeware, which means the models with the scrubby pad on one side. Thing is, when you use the serious side to get melted cheese off your knife, cheese grains get stuck in the scrub patch, forcing you to either be rational and thrifty by wiping old cheese across your dishes for a week until the situation resolves itself, or get all princessy and declare, "That's disgusting! It's just a sponge! Why are you going to let it contaminate a week's worth of dishes?!"

So after a sleepless night of mourning my sponge and my $1.29, I was still pretty groggy Saturday morning when Emily suggested we go to the free public pool, which is why I said something that she interpreted as "Yes, good idea, let's go soak in water that dirty hippie Cambridge strangers have soaked in; perhaps we can work on our skin cancer, too, and drown."

I didn't even consider packing refreshments beyond a chicken salad sandwich and a bottle of water, because my one previous trip to a public pool convinced me that the lifeguards would have sniper rifles with which to pierce any beer I dared raise to my poor sunburned lips. But it turns out that the long-haired, bad-bodied stoner kids who guard lives at public pools in Cambridge are decidedly less aggressive than their New York counterparts. Before we were allowed in the pool in upper Central Park last year, we were subjected to a cavity search followed by a functional MRI to determine if our brain chemistry indicated a propensity to communicate diseases or pee where we oughtn't. Food, drink, and direct eye contact are prohibited at that pool. But in lovably lazy Cambridge, we saw a lady eating pickles out of a jar in plain view (if his eyes had been open) of the glaringly hungover pool cop. Freedom!

I'm now fully committed to the pool lifestyle, which means I need to figure out what to smuggle in to drink. Glass containers are out, because I want to follow at least some of the rules, if just for practice. Hard liquor's out, because that seems trashy with kids around, plus I'm an iffy swimmer even when sober. Beer it is! And ice beer specifically, since it's basically regular crap lager brewed in a fashion that increases the alcohol content without much diminishing the flavor. I don't usually go for strong beers, because I drink quickly and efficiently and enjoy watching the sun set, but space is at a premium in the pool cooler.

The schizophrenically comprehensive Supreme Liquors in Central Square is one of my favorite places to shop. This summer there's a dedicated Natural Ice cooler right by the register, just past the $800 bottle of 1989 Chateau Margaux and to the right of the inflatable Miller Lite furniture display. You can get a 24-ounce can of Natty Ice for 99 cents, which, at 5.9% ABV, makes it an even cheaper beer buzz than the $2.99 Name Tag Lager from Trader Joe's. They also sell 24s of Milwaukee's Best Ice (also 5.9%) for $1.29. Em and I blind-tasted them to see how this summer's going to play out.

Milwaukee's Best Ice: This smells fetid and sour and a bit too human-organic, like three fat guys sharing a two-man tent. The taste is much milder than the aroma, so it's drinkable, but it's bitter and alkaline and not worth the price of a fancy sponge.

Natural Ice: This one has no odor to speak of, and it tastes like cheap, sweet wheat, reminiscent of store-brand braided honey pretzel twists. Based on price and pop, this earns the Bottom Shelf's seal of approval for semi-surreptitious pool drinking; have your cabana boy stock up accordingly.