Posted: Jun 24, 2014 2:30pm ET
I really didn't expect the bank to be open on Friday. After all it was a national holiday. It was a good thing it was, however. You see I'd neglected to draw funds in anticipation of National Martini Day and was planning to perform my observation at a drinking establishment where I hadn't yet developed a line of credit.
While I was pleasantly surprised at her being there, I still enquired of the teller at my local branch how the bank happened to be doing business on such a solemn occasion. Well, it turns out it was a matter of semantics. While they sound alike, national holiday and federal holiday (when the banks do close) are not the same thing. The latter (such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and the upcoming Independence Day) are designated by the federal government, and the former are not so very structured. For instance, National Pink Day, which just passed (June 23) has no agency, governmental or otherwise, to enforce the wearing of pink. Since I didn't get the memo, I must have looked terribly out of step in navy and white.
But this isn't a blog about pink clothing. Instead it concerns the proliferation of liquor celebrations. Nearly a week before Martini Day came Bourbon Day, and readers of my Friday drinks piece will recall it was recently International Negroni Week with a National Cognac Day dropped into the middle of it. As those tipple days piled up I thought, "well that's a lot of cocktail celebrations," and looked into it. Well, that's not even the tip of the iceberg (or, I guess, in this case ice cube). Turns out, May 30 was National Julep Day (something that I and much of America celebrate during the running of the Kentucky Derby, but it seems that's just a warm-up to the main event). Logically, January 1 was Bloody Mary Day, followed shortly by a succession of hot drink days (Hot Toddy, Hot Buttered Rum and Irish Coffee). February brought us Kahlua Day. I couldn't find a drink day in March, but that's my birth month so I don't really need another excuse to drink. April 7 was National Beer Day. It seems some issues were left unsettled by that celebration, because August 1 will bring us International Beer Day.
Posted: Oct 31, 2013 2:30pm ET
When you think of a Churchill that requires a specialized environment to maintain its integrity and that will develop mold under the wrong temperature and humidity conditions, you usually picture something the color of leather and about seven inches long by 47 ring gauge, like a Romeo y Julieta.
In this case were talking about an orange gourd of quite a bit larger dimension: a Halloween pumpkin. Pictured here is an entry in the Louisville, Kentucky, Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular. A friend and local publicist Philip Ruskin snapped the shot and submitted it.
We called Travis Reckner, who runs the pumpkin show and was walking the grounds as we spoke. He told us the Louisville setting is a change of venue for the show, which has been held in Providence, Rhode Island. Travis added that it also posed some problems as the event has encountered something of a warm spell with temperatures as high as 85° Fahrenheit, 20 degrees above normal.
And that's been causing the more than 5,000 jack-o'-lanterns to spoil a lot more quickly than normal. They also develop, you guessed it, mold, just like a cigar would. Given the right conditions, Reckner says, the pumpkins will cure, just like tobacco, and turn leathery. What's different is that a cigar aficionado might brush the mold off his smoke. These guys go in with a Shop Vac.
Travis is undaunted, however, by the climatic developments, saying, "We're building something special here."
Unsurprisingly, we were most interested in the depiction of Winston Churchill in the medium of pumpkin and how that came about.
This year's theme is "Journey Around the World," Reckner informed us, and 150 or so of the featured jack-o'-lanterns fit that theme. As guests walk the third of a mile of woods where the event is staged, they figuratively travel through the Caribbean to South America to Egypt and Africa and on to Europe. The Churchill pumpkin is in that last category, representing England, with Big Ben and the country's most prominent statesman and cigar smoker.
Posted: Oct 18, 2013 10:00am ET
First of all, I'd like to profess my complete innocence in the case of the missing 65 three-bottle cases of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20 Year bourbon and nine bottles of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye taken from Buffalo Trace Distillery, in Frankfort, Kentucky.
My defense rests on three pillars. 1) I have an alibi: I wasn't stealing Bourbon in Kentucky at the time, but drinking at my local pub, where I can produce several patrons who will have foggy memories of that; 2) I'm sober at this writing: I think everyone can agree that had I taken that much of the magical elixir that is Pappy's I would have put a serious dent in that $26,000 worth of whiskey by now; 3) Police believe it was an inside job: No one in their right mind would hire me to work in a Bourbon distillery.
That said, the irony of this is not the robbery of the distillery, but that there is any such thing as a Bourbon worth $130 a bottle. (That is if you could find it; I'm sure the thieves plan to sell the bottles for much more, just like you wouldn't sell smuggled Cubans at list price.) Not that they're not worth it, but it wasn't so long ago that the Bourbon market was flagging and no one could have conceived of a bottle fetching that much money. Nor that there would be 20-year-old Bourbon at all. Nor that there would be a rye that anyone would consider worth stealing.
On the other hand, it may just may be that the earlier lack of respect for American whiskey—the same market conditions that closed the Stitzel-Weller distillery where Pappy Van Winkle, the man himself, once plied his trade—gave us the first examples of these remarkable spirits, albeit in short supply. After all, if this country had shown an appreciation for its own whiskey decades ago, no one would have let it reach such old age.
On a more serious note, this whiskey theft is yet another example of the newfound love of Bourbon and other American whiskeys. For much more on the subject, read my feature story "America's Whiskey" from the October Cigar Aficionado, on newsstands now.
Posted: Oct 16, 2013 10:00am ET
This is going to be hard to write without seeming to gloat, but I'm going to plow through anyway and hope for your indulgence.
I just experienced about the greatest day of whisk(e)y drinking that a fellow can have: the New York WhiskyFest Weekend Seminars. It was part of last weekend's extravaganza of brown spirits at New York's Marriott Marquis.
If you're familiar with WhiskyFest, an event produced by Whisky Advocate magazine (a Cigar Aficionado sister publication, formerly called Malt Advocate), you know the nighttime sessions as must-go events, with the opportunity to walk the floor and sample dozens of hard-to-find drams in one convenient setting.
With the recently added Weekend Seminars format, that description just got a big promotion. Those lucky enough to attend drank impossible-to-find whiskey while sitting tableside and being led through these wonders by some of the most renowned members of the distilling trade.
It was kick-ass right from the git-go (9 a.m) as publisher and editor John Hansell introduced "the dream come true" tasting that he had orchestrated—Wanted Dead or Alive: A Tasting of Rare Whiskies. Including rare whiskies from active and demolished distilleries, the seminar even ranged into tastes that had been created specifically for the event and would never be made again.
Dr. Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach for Diageo, opened things up with a sample of the toasty, meaty Glenury Royal 23-year-old from the now-silent distillery in the Scottish eastern Highlands. Morgan's degree is in history and his doctorate dissertation was on Quakers. Oddly the Glenury founder, Captain Robert Barclay, was of that faith as well as having wagered prodigiously on his prowess as a walk-racer. "He was my kind of Quaker," said Morgan. "He made his money from gambling and vice."
Sam Simmons, the global ambassador for William Grant & Sons, brought along a 23-year-old sample from Kininvie, a Speyside, Scotland, stillhouse that ran for only 20 years and was almost exclusively used for blending. The whisky Simmons brought was from the first distillation on July 4, 1990, and was a veritable pocket full of posies with the taste of potpourri, mint, tangerine and licorice.
Posted: May 15, 2013 10:00am ET
I always liked the sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," but until Monday night I never knew how much.
In the latest episode, the show's best characters—the delightfully sleazy Barney and the comely Robin with the odd masculine taste—are set for with their last night out before their impending nuptials. The plan is to relax and celebrate "everything that makes us awesome" at their favorite table at a familiar bistro.
They are drinking tumblers of Scotch at the bar, when Barney says he almost forgot something. He produces a plastic bag with two cigars. An appreciative Robin coos, "No way. Is that...?" Barney confirms, "El piramide, the first cigar we ever smoked together." (Small point of order: If memory, of an episode aired years ago, serves me right, the pyramids they actually smoked first were Partagás, which these cigars didn't appear to be, but I'll have to take that up with the show's continuity department.)
Their revelry almost immediately ends when an obnoxious p.c. yuppie couple complains. Robin explains that they're not going to light them up. They just want to look at them.
"Right," says the woman. "The smell even when they're unlit is very..."
"...pungent," the so-called male in the relationship finishes her sentence. He even wants them to put the bag away. "It's just reeeeally unappetizing."
When the couple steals their table by the window, the games begin. In unison, Barney and Robin decide to "make those smug, obnoxious sons-of-bitches pay." I've said too much already, so I won't ruin the clever way they go about it. Hopefully, you have it on TiVo, or can watch it online.
Anyway, the way the writers quickly got the point across that this couple was just unbearably awful was to present them as baseless cigar haters. Even when Barney and Robin didn't plan to light up, they imposed their opinionated will. And the viewer immediately understood the scenario. You know those people. Obnoxious. Perfect.
Posted: Feb 13, 2013 12:00am ET
The first thing I did when I heard the unsettling news Monday morning was to run out to the liquor store and buy a 1.75-liter bottle of Maker's Mark—not because I needed a drink at 9:30 a.m., but because I wanted to secure some of the original proof Bourbon from Loretto, Kentucky, before it sold out.
In case you haven't heard: on Saturday Maker's Mark sent out emails to its legion of Ambassadors informing them that after more than 50 years that the company was changing the proof on its Bourbon from 90 to 84 (or 45 percent alcohol by volume to 42 percent).
Given my well-documented love affair with this Bourbon that is made with wheat in place of rye, I immediately worked through the familiar stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and buying a bottle. Then I decided I needed to put in a call to the source itself to get the whole story. So I called Rob Samuels, who has served as the COO of Maker's Mark since his father, William Samuels Jr., stepped down as CEO in 2011.
Monday night at 6:30, I spoke to Rob, who had spent a hectic few days talking to reporters and friends of the brand, trying to quell concerns that the whisky (Maker's Mark's prefers to spell it the Scottish way-without the "e") would be changing.
Maker's had been a small brand, known mostly in Kentucky, until the 1980s, when it began growing by about 8.5 percent a year and became ubiquitous across America as well as being well-known in many foreign markets. The problem, Rob says, started about 18 months ago, when popularity started creating shortages. They managed down inventories, eliminating distribution in certain countries, but still the top sizes were not available in some markets during November and December, the company's two biggest months. "This is different than anything we've ever experienced."
Maker's Mark has been on a tear lately to make more Bourbon by running the distillery even on Sundays (unusual in Kentucky) and adding more warehouses to store the liquor for its six- to eight-year maturation. Several months ago they started looking at other ways to solve the problem, while "maintaining the taste profile and each step of the process exactly today as it has always been. This was the alternative to meet demand." Lowering alcohol content stretches volumes, because it is achieved it by adding more water during bottling. Maker's Mark and almost all whiskeys are diluted to some extent-the minimum proof being 80, or 40 percent alcohol. But naturally the option of further watering down Maker's has not sat well with the many alarmed bartenders and consumers who have weighed in since the announcement. Rob says, however, that concerned calls have been fewer than the ones received when shelves were empty.
Posted: Feb 8, 2013 12:00am ET
I have a confession to make. For three seasons now I have been hooked on what is essentially a soap opera: Masterpiece Classic’s “Downton Abbey,” produced for British television, but shown here on PBS.
Sure it’s very classy and all, telling the fictional story of a noble English family during the last days of the great manor houses in the early 20th century, but still—I admit—it is a soap opera. And I’m hooked at the gill—addicted to this show that is more the kind of thing my wife would watch than my smoking buddies. Even while I was performing the manly rite of watching the Super Bowl on Sunday I was secretly recording “Downton Abbey” on DVR for later viewing. (No! I didn’t forsake my beloved Ravens during the brownout.)
Despite its scrupulous attention to cultural details and the historical underpinnings of the show—it begins on the day of the sinking of the Titanic, continues through the First World War and its aftermath, with steady references to then-current events—something of the unrealistic pervades the plot. For instance, all seems lost for a hoped-for union between Matthew Crawley, a third cousin, and the lord of the manor’s eldest daughter that would save the family from giving up Downton Abbey, when Matthew is paralyzed in the war. After a miraculous recovery revives hope, it is only dashed again because of his previous commitment to another. But relief in the guise of the Spanish influenza pandemic swoops in to put the romance on track once again. You get the picture.
And it is this reliance on the hand of fate (deus ex machina), not the R-words (romance and relationship) that makes “Downton Abbey” such a soap opera—and hence so objectionable to the man in me. Nevertheless, I plow through because I am captivated by the plot and fascinated by the attention to historical detail in what is otherwise a costume-drama period piece.
But recently something started to gnaw at me. And it had to do with cigars. Whenever Matthew and Lord Grantham want to have a heart-to-heart, they do so after dinner over a nice smoke. So far, so good. I, of course, understand how conducive a fine Habano is to deep conversation. It is the setting, however, that bothered me. Every time they light up, it is at the supper table. Even while the ladies have left to enjoy petits fours and palaver (or whatever they do), it still seemed a little vulgar in a manor of this style to smoke up right there. The research I’d done on gentlemen’s retreats of the rich and famous when I wrote “Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age” (May-June 1998) suggested that any place as elegant and set on protocol as Downton Abbey would have had a more appropriate place for men to take their cigars.
Posted: Aug 1, 2012 12:00am ET
I’m sitting atop 666 Fifth Avenue, gazing out across glorious Central Park as the sun goes down in the full flush of midsummer and I think, “What would make this scenario even better?
I’ll kill the suspense right now and just say it: a cigar and a cocktail.
Happily, the above mentioned address is home to New York City’s Grand Havana Room, where enjoying those two items in conjunction is not only allowed, it’s the plan. So I summon the svelte waitress in the end-of-the-world mini-dress, request a Knob Creek Manhattan straight up with a twist and draw my Alec Bradley Tempus from a pouch humidor.
All is right with the world. I’m in one of the premier smoking spots on the globe, ensconced in an enveloping leather easy chair in this wood-paneled haven of—what some would call decadence, I would say—spiritualism.
But my reverie abandons me as I ponder the lot of the souls wandering just beneath me in the park. For they cannot smoke their cherished cigars. They cannot sip their Manhattans. And it’s simply because the law won’t allow. Here, I am one of the privileged. I can indulge myself in these two ways after a day of work, which is something that not too long ago you could do all over New York City. Sadly, that is no longer true, and you need access to this club or one of a handful of places that still allow cigars.
Then I remember it is summer, and the weather and human ingenuity have conspired to vanquish draconian smoking regulations. There’s the hotel across from where I work that opens its rooftop to cigar lovers. There’s the pub down the street that’s created a patio in its backyard. And then, of course, there are the many tobacconists who, no matter what the climate, have welcoming lounges for those who could not otherwise find smoking asylum.
So I sit easier thinking of the retreats that allow us to pursue our passion and I raise my glass in appreciation of them. I hope you all have just places and cherish them. At Cigar Aficionado, we want to know about all such precious vanishing natural resources. Wherever you are in America, please tell me the places you have found to enjoy a cigar and a cocktail.
Posted: Jul 2, 2012 12:00am ET
Some invitations you don't turn down—so I didn't. Jimmy Russell, master distiller of Wild Turkey and a Bourbon titan, visited New York from Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, last week to pour some American Honey at Blue Smoke, the Danny Meyers barbecue joint in Murray Hill. You get the picture. This wasn't something I was going to miss.
American Honey is a Wild Turkey-based liqueur that is catching fire right now, and while I'm normally more of a fan of Russell's fuller-proof spirits—Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Rare Breed, the single-barrel Kentucky Spirit and Russells' Reserve—at 71 proof this is a formidable liqueur even with the insistent sweetness of honey.
While the idea of a whiskey-and-honey drink may seem like the latest thing—witness Jack Daniel's also has a popular version—Jimmy explained that his has actually been around since the 1980s when it was first released as Wild Turkey Honey. Not only that, but he traces his inspiration to his childhood when his parents—his father was a stillman himself at the distillery now called Wild Turkey—would rub a mixture of Bourbon and honey on his gums to calm him when he was teething. "These days they'd probably get arrested for doing that," Jimmy laughed. They stopped giving it to him when he started asking for "some of that honey." (Maybe that explains his life-long taste for Bourbon.) As an adult he still touts it's medicinal purposes, however, explaining that if you put some in a shot glass and microwave it, you've got a ready-made hot toddy. "It's good for a cough," he said. "So I always try to have a cough."
When I—sadly—had to leave that soiree of whiskey and barbecue, Jimmy was kind enough to give me a bottle to take home. and this weekend I was inspired to experiment with it. While watching tennis on television I was moved to read up on Pimm's Cup, one of the signature beverages served at Wimbledon.
Pimm's No. 1, a gin-based concoction, is one of my favorite liqueurs, but it seems there have been as many as five other variations of that liqueur that is the alcohol quotient of the mixed drink known as the Pimm's Cups. Brandy, Scotch, rum, vodka and rye whiskey have been among the base spirits for Pimm's versions that, at one point, numbered 1 through 6.
Posted: Jun 26, 2012 12:00am ET
It's no secret: pairing cigars and spirits is my thing. But I don't regard the actual mixing of the two a particularly palatable proposition. That is, I don't dip my cigar's head into a brandy snifter before smoking it and I don't feature tobacco that has been flavored with whiskey—even the Maker's Mark cigar that has been aromatized with one of my favorite Bourbons; it smells and tastes rank when you light it.
But how about if you made a cocktail that tasted like a cigar? At least then you could go to a bar with a no-smoking policy and, while not actually indulging in our favorite pastime, get a reminder of what you were missing. I encountered something like that yesterday at an event for Pallini Limoncello at the Macau Trading Company in New York City's Tribeca section. It was a small gathering with the express purpose of inventing cocktails with the host's liqueur.
Limoncello is the signature drink of Italy's Amalfi Coast, where huge lemons grow all over the place. While out-sized, the native lemons aren't particularly tart compared to what grows in the United States, and they make a sweet liqueur that tastes something like a lemon drop. Limoncellos are not necessarily made from that lemon, although Pallini is one of the makers that uses Amalfi lemons exclusively.
Anyway, we all set to work on creating drinks and a few of them ended up being fairly reminiscent of a cigar. No, there was no tobacco added. (I've had that at a Manhattan contest, and it succeeded in putting me off what is usually one of my favorite drinks.) What gave them that taste were smoky spirits. In particular, Ardbeg single-malt Scotch and mezcal. It seemed that the lemon in the Pallini brought out the inherent smokiness in both those products in a pleasant way.
It wasn't something I would have thought of. (My own instinct for the limoncello challenge was to go with Bourbon, in something like a Sazerac offshoot, including a wash of absinthe and a dash of orange bitters, which worked out well, but had no cigar overtones.) This suggests to me a whole new avenue of experimentation with sort of Rob Roy variations, using Islay Scotch and limoncello. Now, I have something to do with my free time. My wife's reaction was, "Oh, joy!"