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Jack Bettridge

Happy National Whiskey Sour Day!

Posted: Aug 25, 2015 12:00am ET

That may sound redundant. How could such a day help but be happy? It's quite unlike National Secondhand Wardrobe Day, with which it shares the date August 25th. A day saddled with that moniker could go horribly. But Whiskey Sour Day? As we say about our lucky princes, it was born on third base, waiting to steal home.

Whoever scheduled this scored well in my book. So often the national booze days are planned out of season. But having a Whiskey Sour day just as summer is closing is perfect—especially since August is a month bereft of official national holidays, as opposed to simple observances. (Hint to presidential candidates sharpening their campaign promises.) Many great whiskey cocktails crowd the bar, but the Whiskey Sour is the right one for hot weather and the best plan for mixing citrus with brown spirits. So toasting the end of August with it makes perfect sense.

My allegiance to the drink is nothing new, and I've written on this love affair before as well as giving my take on how to make it perfectly. What I didn't expect was to gain a fresh perspective as I prepared for the festivities. Then I was proffered a new recipe just in time to celebrate.

Of course, many variants of the Whiskey Sour exist, but most depend on switching out whiskey for some other spirit. There are Gin Sours, Amaretto Sours, Brandy Sours...probably the best is the Pisco Sour. But you don't see much on taking the basic Whiskey Sour to the concierge level with added ingredients.

Then, the makers of Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky suggested a complex sour that brings a lot to the table (well, bar). Normally, I make Sours with Bourbon, not Canadian whisky, but this north-of-the-border dram, with its high rye content (91 percent), plus a measure of Bourbon, has a bite you don't normally associate with Canadian, one that stands up to the lemon tang.

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Perk Up With a Pisco Sour

Posted: Feb 7, 2015 7:00am ET

I hope that the country wasn't so swept up in the excitement surrounding Thursday's World Nutella Day that we've forgotten about National Pisco Sour Day, which comes on the first Saturday of each February. It distinguishes itself among the galaxy of national tippling days in that it's officially recognized by the government and accompanied by food fairs, music and dancing in the street—in Peru anyway. The holiday has yet to get its due here. And in Chile, which has been feuding with Peru over the origins of this spritely Southern American brandy for centuries, they wait until May for their big Pisco Sour bash.

On the other side of the globe where it is summer, February probably seems like the perfect time to celebrate a cocktail so frosty, frothy and thirst quenching as the Pisco Sour. In the frozen North, however, drinkers mightn't be so apt to think of it that way. We should, though. It's a great variation on the Whiskey Sour, which can put us in mind of the tropical weather we're missing, while also utilizing a fruit that happens to be currently in season in South America.

Like its cousin, a Pisco Sour combines citrus with sugar, egg white and bitters for a drink that sports a bit of a merengue on top. In this case, of course, the spirit is the titular pisco. Developed in the days of the Spanish South American empire, it is a liquor distilled from the wine of local grapes. But in the regions where it is made it represents much more than that—it's a way of life, a bone of contention and a flash point between two neighboring countries. Sterling Field, the bar manager at Chicago's Celeste, and a pisco champion, says, "I don't think anyone wants to get into that argument." Happily, in North America we can choose sides based on personal taste rather than national allegiance.

The basic stylistic variances between countries reside in how it is distilled. Peru has long-established regulations that say pisco must be made in pot stills and bottled at the proof at which it comes off the still. Chilean rules are laxer, allowing column stills and the reduction of alcohol strength before bottling. Each country has dozens of examples. Only but a handful make it to the United States. Such brands as Portón, Barasol and Macchu Pisco represent Peru. Capel, Control C and Kappa are Chilean entrants.

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Right On The Marque

Posted: Feb 3, 2015 1:30pm ET

In the firmament of cigar-pairing spirits, rum holds a place in the top triad of choices (along with whisk(e)y and brandy). Its taste profile (resolutely sweet, owing to a sugarcane base) and its shared origin with cigar-producing areas (at least a lot of the time) can put it hand-in-glove with a great smoke. A marque system, recently developed and now coming to the United States, attempts to make that logic even more useful to consumers who are formulating their own pairings.

The problem with the notion of rum in a cigar partnership is that inconsistency keeps the drink from being a universal donor. While so many of the great rums come from the Caribbean, it can be made anywhere. Furthermore, no worldwide regulatory body guarantees production methods or standards of aging. Flavoring additives can be freely used. It needn't be aged at all, and when it is the age statement on the label could be an average or simply refer to the oldest rum in a blend-no matter how miniscule.

So unlike with the straight whiskeys (e.g., Bourbon and rye) of the U.S., Scotch malts and blends, Cognac and Armagnac, you can't simply say "Give me a rum" and assume you'll get a reasonable cigar match. The rum could be too light or flavored in way that makes no sense. Take a flier by ordering rum generically and a spectrum of things could happen. If you're served a quality aged rum, you'll have a happy marriage for your cigar. Get some raw, Ron Stinko, and you'll want an annulment.

This is where the Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) marque comes in. Developed by the West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association, it's been put on the label of rums sold in Europe since 2008 and is now entering America. The seal guarantees certain levels of quality, while still allowing for rums of diverse charms. The circular symbol (see picture) indicates that:

  • The rum is fermented and distilled in one of WIRSPA's 15-member Caribbean countries: Antiqua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago.
  • It is a product of sugarcane origin (molasses or sugarcane juice).
  • It is matured in wood for at least a year.
  • Any age statement (although one is not required) reflects the age of the oldest rum in the blend (the same standard that applies to Scotch and Bourbon).
  • No flavoring has been added (although caramel coloring, which is allowed in brandy and whisk(e)y except Bourbon, can be used.)
Authentic Caribbean Rum marque.
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What Day Is It?

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.

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Prime Pumpkin

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.

Bottle shot of Kanon vodka.

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.

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The Bourbon Theft

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.

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Attending WhiskyFest

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.

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How I Met That Cigar

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.

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Maker’s Mark—Proof Positive?

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.

bottle shot maker's mark.
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Soap-Opera Confessions

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.

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