The last song on John Prine’s last album is called “When I Get To Heaven,” and in it, Prine lists all the things he’s going to do when he passes the pearly gates. First he’ll shake God’s hand and “thank Him for more blessings than one man can stand.” Next he’ll start a rock and roll band, and check into a swell motel. And then the chorus:
Then I’m gonna have a cocktail,
Vodka and ginger ale.
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long.
Last week, Prine passed away from COVID-19. And until—if—we see him again, we’ll never know what happened next. But I do hope that if he does make it to that hotel the bartender has plenty of vodka and ginger ale on hand, because that was indeed Prine’s signature drink. He called it a Handsome Johnny. Inside Hook just dug up an interview Prine did a few years ago on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country station in which he describes the Handsome Johnny in more detail.
“I named it kind of after myself,” Prine admitted. “I thought Handsome Johnny sounded like a Rob Roy or a Manhattan.” This is not quite vanity. “Twenty years ago, when I started drinking Handsome Johnnies,” he explained, “people wouldn’t make you a Rob Roy or a Manhattan. They said it was old school.”
A Handsome Johnny consists of Smirnoff red label—not blue, because good vodka kills bubbles—and diet ginger ale because regular is too sweet “and you don’t wanna get diabetes from drinking.” In the winter, you drop a lime in it—“don’t squeeze it”—from about six inches above. In the summer, you do the same with a lemon. If you live long enough, you know how much six inches is.
“It is really not a good drink,” singer-songwriter Amanda Shires told The Bitter Southerner, “but because John Prine likes it, I’ve somehow managed to develop a taste for it.”
That’s somehow one of the most lovely tributes a friend can give you.
If you’ve got some Smirnoff and diet ginger ale handy, why don’t you mix up a Handsome Johnny, drop in a lemon or a lime depending on how the air feels where you are, and lift it in a toast to John Prine. And then tell us all about your favorite Prine song and your own personal signature drink in the comments.
(For me, when I think of Prine, I think about taking guitar lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where he also took lessons a long time before. And so maybe every other song we learned was written by him. On our first day, it was “Paradise.” But the ones that really break my heart are “Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness” and “Christmas In Prison.” “Spanish Pipedream” makes me smile. And so does this one, which also seems like a fitting end to this post.)