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Popov Vodka
Photo: queen of subtle on Flickr

The Less Fortunate, my Grandma used to call them. Those poor creatures whose grimy, impecunious fingers clung to rungs beneath ours on the economic ladder. Which is to say, homeless people and cockroaches. Because when I was growing up in Northeast Philly, even the economic ladder we clung to was metaphorical. We couldn’t afford a real one.

Still, for as bad as things were back then, Grandma never let us lose sight of the fact that The Less Fortunate were out there, hungry and tired and available for her to look down upon. Ah, bless her heart. She could always find the silver lining. Right up until she got hit by that bus on her way to Horn & Hardart for the $1.29 Early Bird Special. Grandma never really was the same again after that. She stopped doing all those little grandmotherly things. Like breathing.

You don’t need me to tell you that the ranks of the Less Fortunate have swelled to enormous proportions in recent years. And when times are tough, adult beverage lovers with suddenly weightless wallets turn to concoctions that, while cost-efficient, really have no business being put into the human body. Even I, a professional drinker, recently resorted to something called a White-Trash Russian — a toxic combination of Bowman’s Virginia vodka and Yoo-Hoo. I’m almost certain it did irreparable damage to my stomach lining and, quite possibly, my central nervous system. I walked with a limp and gained a Southern accent for several weeks before I was right again. Then again, it did the job. I got so fucked up that for an entire evening I forgot how broke my ass is.

But it got me to thinking — is there such a thing as a good poor-man’s cocktail? Surely, not every cheap drink out there tastes like Sterno. When I see guys in tank tops drinking out of Styrofoam cups while munching on pigs in a blanket and cheese puffs at the local municipal park on Saturday afternoon they look so goddamn happy. What’s in those cups?

I knew of a few varieties. The Poor Man’s Margarita — tequila and Squirt — is a popular one out West. And in some Eastern cities, large parties of paupers used to get by on Purple Passions — Welch’s grape juice and grain alcohol. But now I hear that Blue Lagoons — whatever that blue sports drink crap is plus grain alcohol — have supplanted them recently in some circles. I’ve heard that some less-than-tasteful folks in Denver mix a lovely thing called Pee in a Cup — Mountain Dew and vodka (or Everclear), served warm for verisimilitude. Some of the curb-sitters in my old neighborhood in Philadelphia used to specialize in what was known as the Colt Python (from the handgun of the same name) by adding a few shots of whatever cheap whiskey was on sale at the state store to a half-quart of Colt 45 malt liquor. Down the Jersey Shore I’ve been to parties where they made Skippies. These consist of a bottle of rot-gut vodka, a case of Natural Light and lemonade mix, stirred up in a trash can or beer tub with ice.

In Chicago, the underemployed swear by Muddy Bottoms, a potent combination of Green River “gourmet” soda and cheap bourbon. Out in Salt Lake City, I once met a single mother of six who loves her some Trailer Park Sangria. “Buy the cheapest box of red wine available. Some places even take food stamps,” she told me. “Drink some wine to make room in the box. Add grape juice.” Smooth.

One of my former editors, Rocky Rakovic, had a favorite cheap drink called the Pabst-Smir – a shot of Smirnoff dropped into a glass of Pabst. “Bear in mind,” he cautioned, “you can’t drop your own shot, someone else needs to ‘administer’ it to you.” You stay classy, Rock.

I decided to conduct my own reconnaissance mission. I hit the closest liquor store by my house, Davy Jones Locker, which isn’t so much a final resting place for dead seamen as it is the killing fields for homeless people’s livers. Vlad behind the counter told me the cheapest drunk in the store was a tie between a pint of Popov Vodka and an abomination called Kessler American Blended Whiskey, which bills itself as “Smooth as Silk.” I’d venture it’s more of a silk-burlap blend. In the interest of science (and because they were only $5 a pop) I bought them both. However, after some brief experiments with the Kessler, I lost all interest in science and instead became fascinated by something written on the side of the bottle of Popov: “NOW! Unbreakable Bottle.”

Seems like a handy trait in a product people use to make themselves unable to carry things. Plus, I like the sense of urgency generated by the exclamation mark. It’s as if they’re daring you not to start drinking as soon as you hit the parking lot. In my lubricated state, however, I saw this less as a service to the consumer than as a prideful boast. A challenge, perhaps. So I went outside, and with all the strength I could muster, heaved the hard plastic Popov bottle into the ground. Lo and behold, it survived, mostly intact.

So as you can see, my fellow impoverished boozehounds, the Obama-ites do have it right after all. There is Hope. It’s just that Hope is trying to get out from under a bad mortgage, so it’s going by an assumed name these days. That name? Popov Vodka. Sure, it may not be as invincible as the fancy happy juice — I once heard about a case of Ketel One that survived an airplane crash — but at least you can rest easy knowing that even if you do manage to break a bottle of Popov, you can still drink out of it without fear of slicing up your small intestine with shards of glass. How’s that for a silver lining, Grandma?

So call me Less Fortunate if you will. Hell, call me anything you’d like. I won’t be listening. Because I’m pretty sure the Popov has made me go deaf.

Read the previous installment of The Imbiber column on Food Republic.