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Jack Bettridge

Seeing Is Believing (In the Big Smoke)

Posted: Nov 24, 2009 12:25pm ET

My first Big Smoke came in New York in 1997, when I started at Cigar Aficionado, and it blew me away with the great smokes, drinks and food. But mostly it was the fun and camaraderie of the guests that struck me. Here were all these stogie fans having a great time celebrating their passion for smoke and knowing they were with like-minded people. I thought: "It don't get much better than this."

So I guess you could say I was unprepared later that same year at my first Big Smoke Las Vegas where I saw all those same qualities amped up by a power of 10. Well, knock me over again, because I've just returned from the 14th Big Smoke Las Vegas and the event hasn't lost one quantum of enthusiasm—from the guys who line up hours before the doors open to the to those who treat it like a costume party to those who come as a club, a team and, in one case, a syndicate. Check out these flip videos I took as proof (and hold on until the end to see an enthusiasm of a different stripe):


Also, I read someone griping on the forums about the quality of drinking at this year's Big Smoke. Maybe he went to a different event than I did, but this video (and my inability to keep my hand steady while recording it) seems to suggest a preponderance of evidence to the contrary. Not only could you drink well, but if you went to the Patrón Tequila you could get your picture taken with young lovelies. Whatever happens in Vegas…well, you know the rest:
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The Joy of Smoking—and Shaving

Posted: Nov 9, 2009 11:06am ET
One day last week, a number of early-morning contretemps—including my daughter’s locking herself out of her bedroom—conspired to make me leave home without shaving lest I miss my train. I considered that I might just let it go for the day, thinking no one would really be scandalized by my stubble. I even asked Dave Savona if was that noticeable, which he didn’t think was, but then again he hadn’t shaved for years. By lunch, I decided a trip to the barber was in order.

I’m glad I did as my lunchtime adventure taught me two things: the value of self-indulgence and how much a professional shave is like a fine cigar.

The first concept, I’ll confess, was not a major revelation on my part as it's an idea that Cigar Aficionado has been directly or indirectly preaching from the outset: The Good Life is good, and you should take time and resource to treat yourself to it once in a while. But that is also something that we must remind ourselves of every once in a while (especially when you're het up from spending 15 minutes finding an Allen wrench and taking your daughter’s bedroom door handle off). In this case, the good-old-fashioned barber shave, while nothing to compare to the performance cars that you pay for in private islands and that we sometimes feature between the covers of our magazine, is a sweet little example of indulgence.

The second concept dawned on me because, in truth, I started the experience by ignoring the importance of the first concept. I arrived at the barber’s thinking I would rush through this so I could get a bite to eat before returning to my desk. I was even thinking I should get some reading done as sat in the barber’s chair. Of course, while you might read during a haircut, while being shaved it is quite impossible. Nevertheless, I began the ministrations of my tonsorialist with a distinct lets-get-this-over-with mindset. But once I got the hot towel on my face, it struck me that hurry was not in the program. The barber walked away and let me ruminate on that with my eyes closed. Once I gave into the idea that I was going to be there for a while, a great feeling of relaxation came over me and I submitted to the special attentions, the lotions and potions being rubbed into my skin, the careful going over with a precisely honed razor.
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Cîroc To Show Its Flavor

Posted: Nov 4, 2009 2:13pm ET
I wrote in Cigar Aficionado’s Good Life Guide not too long ago (June 2009) about the wide array of flavored vodkas that are available, but at press time I was unapprised of two new efforts from one of my favorite vodkas that are soon to be released. So I wanted to remedy that lapse in this space:

Cîroc is making flavored vodkas—Red Berry and Coconut—for the first time. The French vodka was already one of the first to be made with grapes, and its characteristic softness comes through on these two flavored versions.

Jean-Sebastien Robicquet, the creator and master distiller of Cîroc, recently showed off his latest innovations. Red Berry melds strawberry and raspberry into a sweet, yet creamy, combination. Coconut is predominantly flavored with that spice (one of only two vodkas so flavored), but also includes some tropical fruit flavors. The first is jammy, but not cloying. The second has a very polished texture. Both are flavored with natural ingredients, distilled to 70 proof and sell for $34.99 in the 750 ml bottle.

For Robicquet, who hails from the French vineyards, between the cities of Bordeaux and Cognac, all the Cîroc vodkas were a labor of love. He chose mauzac blanc and ugni blanc grapes (the second being the main varietal from which Cognac is made) and distilled the resulting wine five times, the last go-round in a pot still. The company has also created a range of cocktails for the vodkas. Of course, that wasn't enough for yours truly. Still Robicquet was polite and didn't kick, when I insisted on mixing the two flavors (the result of which was excellent by the way).

I'll let Jean-Sebastien tell you more in his own words on the following video:
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The Joy of Finishing Last

Posted: Oct 27, 2009 11:42am ET
I could still taste the tangerine the next morning.

Eighteen hours had passed since I’d first tasted Bowmore Gold and the last tasting note was just getting finished on my palate. There are arenas where it’s best to come in last, and the world of hyperpremium Scotch whisky is one of them.

The place was the New York location of Charlie Palmer’s Aureole.

The occasion was an unveiling of the final act in Bowmore’s triology of releases of prize whisky kept from when Morrison Bowmore bought the Islay distillery in 1964.

The menu was I don’t remember.

I know the food was good because the chef was Charlie Palmer. But its memory has been overshadowed by a presence that will not be ignored. What still stands out in my mind a week later is the whisky and its exquisite tasting notes: fruits and nuts, spices and herbs, confections even, and, of course, the aforesaid tangerine.

My point—other than just to brag about being one of the few who has tasted this astounding whisky—is that spirits that have attained a heavenly tier—the kind you cash in your certificates of deposit to pay for—earn their keep with their epilogues. Be it whisky or brandy or Bourbon or rum, the best hang on for hours after you drink it to remind of how good they were or maybe morph into new flavors you hadn’t thought when they were on your tongue.

They should when they cost $6,250—which is the suggested retail price for each of the 701 bottles of Bowmore Gold available worldwide. (The triology of Bowmore Black, White and Gold is also going to be available at the Christie's New York spirits auction on November 14 and is expected to bring between $18,000 and $24,000.) Whether that is worth it is between you and your pocketbook, but there is no denying some spirits have achieved a plane of their own.

When it still tastes good the next day, you've probably encountered one.
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Glenmorangie and More

Posted: Sep 16, 2009 2:52pm ET
I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon yesterday that paired a selection of Glenmorangie single-malt Scotches, as well as the Ardbeg Uigeadail, with a slew of food, which included a shrimp dish, chicken, pâté de foie gras, a selection of excellent tomatoes and even French fries. I always love the chance to drink spirits—whisky, brandy, rum, even gin—along with food, and happily attended especially since it was arranged by Jeffrey Pogash. Jeff, who works for the Glenmorangie importer, Moet Hennessey, has long been a champion of this sort of meal and knows just how to put it together. (A column I wrote on spirits and food matching is in the October 15, 2009, issue of Wine Spectator, if you're looking for more insight.)

I was not disappointed. Glenmorangie, a pioneer in whiskies with Sherry-barrel finishes, makes particularly floral spirits that lend themselves well to the process. However, the real bonus of the meal was the attendance by Bill Lumsden, the Glenmorangie master distiller. Bill introduced Sonnalta PX, the first expression in the private collection, and had this to say about it:

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Of Maverick, Cigars and the Tube

Posted: Aug 26, 2009 3:51pm ET
No, this isn't a blog about Sarah Palin and cylindrical, metal packages for storing cigars. Rather, it involves watching cigars on television. Specifically, the classic Western "Maverick."

As discussed in a previous blog, cigar smoking on television or in the movies always captures my attention. That is especially true when the cigar is an important prop in the action and it is used more creatively—and positively—than the stereotype of popping a perfecto in the character's mouth to make it clear that he is a gangster or some other villain. Cigars in the negative were done to death using Edward G. Robinson and then later in the Courageous Cat cartoon with Chauncey Frog, who was clearly based on Robinson. (I will admit, however, that one of the greatest cigars scenes of all time is in a gangster movie: Albert Finney shooting up his rivals with a submachine gun between puffs in Miller's Crossing.)

Anyway, my guiltiest television pleasure of late has been watching old episodes of "Maverick," which currently are airing several times a day on the Encore Westerns cable network. The show is a treasure trove of positive cigar sightings as the main characters (read: the good guys) smoke them in almost every episode. It wasn't unusual that characters smoked on TV during this show's era (late '50s-early '60s), but mainly what you saw were cigarettes, which must have pleased many sponsors (tobacco ads were still allowed on television at that time). On "Maverick" what you had was smoking that wasn't advertising driven, especially as—in historical accuracy—the cigars in question didn't sport labels, because brands weren't much in fashion in the late nineteenth century. What you see for the most part are stogies—the real stogies, named for Conestoga wagon drivers, that were long and tapered at either end. Occasionally, they smoke Cubans—mainly when the plot line calls for an expensive cigar.
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What I Did on My Summer Stay-cation

Posted: Aug 21, 2009 12:39pm ET

I didn’t end up making the aforementioned trip to Kentucky to see the cooperage operation for Brown-Forman, but I also didn’t go to Niagara Falls as my wife had schemed. Where the family actually went (after much begging from my daughter Grace, who is fascinated by all things historical) was Mystic Seaport. At the other end of Connecticut from where I live, it was an easy day trip into a time that occurred many days ago (more than a century would be closer).

Mystic may now be more famous for the cheese pies for which the movie Mystic Pizza was named and for which daughter Abigail begged, but in the nineteenth century it was a bustling whaling port. Now the Seaport historical area ( is a recreation of a New England port town, replete with ships, large and small, and the shops, buildings and homes that would have lined the streets.

Lo and behold, it also contains a working cooperage as most goods—notably whale oil--were shipped in wood casks at the time. While the demonstration wasn’t specific to whiskey (as is the one in Kentucky), it was nevertheless educational and dealt with some really old-school coopering as it was all done with hand tools in that era.

Photo by Grace Bettridge

For some reason, the Mystic cooperage does house a whiskey barrel (this specimen was filled with Early Times—coincidentally a Brown-Forman product—in 1972), but it also carries a mélange of other size casks used for stowing other goods.

The term barrel in the coopering world more properly refers to a cask size than a general term for a wood storage devices. For most purposes a barrel is around 31½ gallons, which is twice the size of the typical metal keg in which beer comes. In the whiskey world, however, a barrel is about 53 gallons. The sizes aren’t well standardized, especially since they mean different things in different countries. A hogshead at twice the size of a normal barrel (63 gallons) is what they used for storing tobacco. Wine typically shipped in pipes, or butts, at twice again that size.

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The Laws of Gin & Tonic

Posted: Aug 13, 2009 2:19pm ET
Sometimes even the masters return to the basics.

When I was invited to meet Angus Winchester, the global brand ambassador for Tanqueray gin at Raines Law Room for a drink, I was expecting anything but something basic. First, the peripatetic Winchester is a loyal soldier in the cocktail revolution, seen seemingly everywhere, from bars to television to books, promoting excellence in drinking. Second, Raines Law Room is a saloon so far out on the advance guard that it doesn't even sport a sign. And furthermore, Tanqueray’s current slogan is “Resist Simple.”

So, I walked in thinking I’d be greeted with some very exotic drink, perhaps laced with elderflower liqueur, infused with tarragon or garnished with tiger lilies. What I got was a refresher course on making a simple Gin & Tonic.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as all that. And it is very worth taking another look at a drink you might be dismissing. Watch the video as Angus breaks down the rules of making a first rate G'n'T (or in this case T'n'T, with a nod to the sponsor, not the explosive).

A word about Raines Law Room: it’s not a library for legal students. It’s an elegant watering hole hidden down the steps in a semi-basement at 48 West 17th Street in New York City. Note well the number because there is no sign announcing the club. While a number of hip cocktail clubs have referenced themselves as speakeasys, Raines Law Room refers to an earlier legal attempt to curb drinking. The Raines Law was passed in New York in 1896 and prohibited alcohol on Sundays in bars other than those at hotels. Because a lot of people at the time were on a six-day workweek, this would have put a real crimp in an honest laborer's drinking plans. What happened, however, was that establishments called Raines Law hotels began springing up. They consisted of a bar with the minimum number of rooms above to qualify as a hotel. In many cases, the rooms were never actually let out or if they were, they often were used on an hourly basis for—wait for it—prostitution. So once again the solution created even more law breaking.
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The Plot Thickens

Posted: Aug 4, 2009 5:00pm ET
The first piece in my master plan is in place.

I have just received a document deeding me a lifetime lease on a square foot plot on the island of Islay.

For those of you who are ill informed: Islay is one of the cardinal whisky-making regions of Scotland (the one that makes all the really smoky Scotch); and my master plan is to one day own a distillery.

This, the initial step in the right direction, comes to me through the largesse of Laphroaig, makers of single-malt whisky on Islay. You see owning a piece of Scotland is part of the Friends of Laphroaig program and comes with purchase of a bottle of Laphroaig and registration at

Having fulfilled both requirements, I am now the proud recipient of a lease for one square foot of Islay (plot no. 391520 to be exact). This may not seem like much, but with it comes the agreement from Laphroaig to pay a yearly ground rent to me in the sum of one dram of Laphroaig whisky. Fine payment indeed.

The catch (and there's always a catch) is that I must claim it in person at the distillery. Further, the whisky maker is not offering heritable ownership, nor the right to cut peat, farm sheep nor extract mineral from the plot.

That's okay with me. Now, the problem is convincing my wife to vacation in Scotland this year. Readers of my earlier blog will recall that I've been having difficulty convincing Ellen to tour the Bourbon Trail of Kentucky instead of going to Niagara Falls this summer. This may be a tougher sale, but well worth it considering the dram offered at journey's end.

My only questions are what cigar should I smoke upon payment of whisky (assuming I can convince aforementioned wife that a change of itinerary is in order) and whether I will need to include a Schedule E with my next 1040 to report rental income of one dram should I collect.
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The Outer Limits of Beer

Posted: Jul 29, 2009 11:01am ET
Sam Adams came to visit the other day, which is always liberating. Rather, I should say it was Jim Koch, the mastermind behind Samuel Adams and the Boston Brewery. He has such zeal for brewing that it’s always exciting to talk beer with him. Which is what we did…sort of.

Jim was here to introduce us to the latest version of his Utopias. Describing Utopias as merely beer doesn’t even start to scratch the surface. This is an extreme beer that he started to work on 15 years ago, one of the main thrusts being to explore the upper limits of alcohol content. He first started with Triple Bock at 17.5 percent alcohol (35 proof) I was introduced to Utopias in 2000 at 21 percent alcohol (42 proof), now it’s up to 27 percent, or a whopping 54 proof. Just fermenting. No distilling.

When you consider that 14 percent used to be considered the limit for beer, that’s outrageous. Beer proof typically tops out there because the yeast that creates the alcohol dies out—or gets the microbe equivalent of drunk—when the alcohol level gets too high. Koch’s strategy is get what he calls “Ninja yeast” and convince them to keep fermenting. It takes years and involves much blending of casks.

But lets let Jim explain:

The flavor is interesting—cinnamon, graham cracker, maple syrup, Sherry or Port—but not something you’re likely to mistake for a cold lager. Definitely worth trying, if you have any beer geek in you at all.

Oh yeah, Jim and I had our first smoke together. And this is what he had to say.

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