Posted: Jul 20, 2009 4:38pm ETMy wife wants to vacation in Niagara Falls this summer.
And I don't.
It’s an argument that I won’t win, but it goes something like this:
"But, honey, Niagara Falls is for honeymooners and we're already married with kids."
"That's why I want to go there—for the kids. They should really see the Falls. It is like a miracle."
Then I quote Oscar Wilde (which I realize doesn't make me sound exactly anymore like the man of the family): "The miracle would be if the water didn't fall. We should take the kids someplace really educational."
She just stares at me and asks: "And where would you rather go?"
"And don't say Kentucky.”
But I do say Kentucky just like I have so many times before, but this time I think I have a compelling argument. And predictably it all centers around the Bourbon Trail.
In the interest of full disclosure, Kentucky has many other things to offer—historical sites, great cuisine, rolling hills full of race horses, Churchill Downs, etc.—but I couldn’t go without a tour of the great Bourbon distilleries. In my case that may seem like a bit of a busman’s holiday, but consider this: lots new has been added to the Tour since I last wrote about it a few years ago. And what with my cigars and spirits seminar being on Bourbon at the Las Vegas Big Smoke in November, I could do with a refresher course.
Posted: Jul 13, 2009 2:00pm ETWhat my wife has been warning me about for years finally happened. I have a skull in my home bar.
No, it's not my own pickled skull or that of some wayward guest whom I beheaded for drinking too much of my Chivas Royal Salute. It's a bottle of vodka.
Now I admit, I've become jaded about vodka lately. Seems as though a new clear spirit debuts every month and each one claims outstanding purity and has a more arresting package than the last. But I got a look at one yesterday that made even me take notice: Crystal Head vodka.
I admit that the bottle (if that's what you'd call it) is pretty much the showstopper here, that and its connection to a celebrity. It's not the first time someone has tried to sell vodka through a link to a well-known person (witness the misguided Donald Trump vodka), but in the case of Crystal Head it's a more interesting endorsement. But more on that later, let's look at the package first.
Crystal Head comes in pretty much just that: a crystal head. Well, more like glass shaped into a skull with an abbreviated bottleneck at the top, but you'll get the picture if you look at the picture. The concept is that the package is a replica of one of 13 crystal skulls that have been found throughout the world—from the Yucatan to Tibet—which were supposedly made out of single pieces of crystal over a period of 300 to 500 years, using an unknown process (as there are no discernable tool marks on the heads, and if they were carved they would have been shattered). The seven heads that are today accounted for are claimed to be imbued with unworldly characteristics.
I know almost nothing about archaeology—although my kids seem to think I may have been unearthed from some ancient dig—nor am I debunker of myths, so I won't make any claims to the story's veracity or lack thereof. (A quick Internet search will show you how varying experts fall on the question.) But the point is that Crystal Head would make a pretty cool presence on anybody's bar—especially if you set it up with an eerie light behind it on Halloween.
Posted: Jun 23, 2009 3:07pm ETMy worst fears have been realized.
I just received a press package from Knob Creek and tore off the brown paper wrapper with some anticipation, only to be greeted with a foreboding message on the lid of the box: "Thanks for nothing."
"My god!" I thought, "What have I done to rankle the folks at the distillery?"
I lifted the box top to expose a terrifying sight that rivals even reading the current performance of my IRA: an empty bottle of Knob Creek Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
What kind of sadist would send me such a thing?
It gets worse. With the package comes an apologetic missive from Knob Creek president Bill Newlands. It seems the popularity of this Bourbon, created by Jim Beam's grandson Booker Noe, has been so vast that the distillery is having a hard time keeping up with customer demand. The next batch of the 100-proof whiskey, aged the full nine years, won't be available until November. And Knob Creek won't compromise its quality by bottling anything a few months shy of its age of majority. In other words, we can expect stock depletions at the package store shelf.
Have I done my job too well? Could all my years of championing the amber elixir of the Bluegrass State have been repaid with this: a shortage of one of its finest whiskies? Might the same fate befall Maker's Mark? Wild Turkey? Woodford Reserve? Evan Williams? Eagle Rare?
The blood chills. The eyes glaze over.
I've weathered shortages before. When paper clips were in short supply a few decades ago, I learned to use a stapler. When an oil embargo brought serpentine lines at the pump, I carpooled. I even remembered how to walk. But this is different. What can you do to replace Bourbon?
Wait. This is no time to panic. You could all start conserving. Resist the urge to hoard. Next time you feel like a Knob Creek, instead have a big tall glass of grain alcohol mixed with a few drops of brown food dye. Close your eyes and imagine hints of maple, vanilla and orange peel. Now say to yourself: "I can wait 'til November. It's a for good cause."
Posted: Jun 19, 2009 12:38pm ETI wanted to hate this product.
When Jim Beam announced its Red Stag, Bourbon infused with black cherry flavoring, the purist in me was horrified. What lunatic would want to take something so noble as Bourbon and sweeten it up with fruit? After all Bourbon is the purest of all spirits, strictly produced as a straight whiskey, no flavoring, barrels only used once, no coloring. It isn't vodka for goodness sakes. And what would it taste like anyway? Cough syrup?
Then I got a chance to taste and changed my mind. Bobby Gleason—you may know him as Bobby G, the fastest bartender in Las Vegas—wheeled a bar cart into our offices and started mixing up concoctions that turned my head.
First off it doesn't taste like cough syrup, although I would have to say it isn't really a Bourbon either—strictly speaking. Of course, you get the cherry flavors right up front, very sweet, but not cloying. The finish has a bit of nut on it. But I won't bother to review this as sipping whiskey as I think it is as a cocktail mix where the drink shines.
Check it out at jimbeam.com for more recipes. But I beg of you don't give up regular Bourbon.
Posted: Jun 9, 2009 4:43pm ETI appreciate fine watches as much as the next guy (as long as the next guy isn't James Suckling), but this item from Antiquorum, the premium auction house for timepieces, caught my eye for other reasons. Antiquorum is having a huge auction Thursday that includes—get this—“Rat Pack” memorabilia.
Included is Sammy Davis Jr.'s watch with a money clip featuring a Star of David over a menorah, set with a total of eight small diamonds, mounted over a pair of scrolls representing the Torah. The scrolls open on hinges to reveal the Ten Commandments underneath. But the interesting thing is the engraving on the back: “To—Sammy Davis Jr. Good Luck Always/Jack Entratter/1957."
Seems Entratter was a notorious Vegas mafia figure in charge of the Sands. The story goes that he was an integral part of the "persuasion" of Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn to give Frank Sinatra the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, for which Sinatra won an Oscar.
Sound familiar Godfather fans?
I wonder if there were any horses' heads in the story.
The auction also includes Davis's personal hardbound presentation book of the 1960’s heist film, Ocean’s Eleven, presented to him by the director, including photos of Davis and the rest of the cast taken during the movie’s production. There's also Sinatra’s “HH” cufflinks given to him by Hubert Humphrey to acknowledge the Chairman of the Board's efforts for Humphrey’s presidential campaign in 1968.
If you think you might have an offer they can't refuse visit www.antiquorum.com
Posted: Jun 3, 2009 4:09pm ETAs the world looks to France to see the French Open tennis tournament played out on the clay courts of Roland Garros, the good news seems to be that the country has loosened its strict rules regarding the depiction of smoking in movie posters on public transportation.
The bizarre news is that any such add campaign must have a cultural or artistic goal, picture only people who are dead or fictitious and not subjects linked to the tobacco business.
This news comes to us from frogsmoke.com, a Web site subtitled "The beauty and madness behind the Gallic fumes." Created by a Dutchman, who, married to an English woman, lives in France and carries on a love/hate relationship with the country, the site is determined to expose "what makes France such an endearing and infuriating country at the same time." (It also offers a gallery of dozens pictures of famous French smokers.)
The movie-poster controversy exploded in April, when an ad for a film about the rise of fashion designer Coco Chanel (who famously smoked 50 cigarettes a day until her death at age 87) showed the actress who portrays her holding a cigarette. France's new strict antismoking policy had already resulted in the alteration of a movie poster showing Jacques Tati riding a bicycle. While the comic filmmaker's signature character was invariably clad in a raincoat, carrying an umbrella and smoking a pipe, the public-transportation poster was retouched to put a pinwheel in his mouth in place of his pipe.
Now, because Tati, like Chanel, is dead, the pinwheel can apparently removed and the pipe set back in place. Also, according to the site, other famous French smokers, such as André Malrauxand Jean-Paul Sartre, can be pictured smoking as they are now safely dead. But you won't see Gérard Depardieu or Catherine Deneuve smoking on the side of a bus until they do us the courtesy of escaping this veil of tears. And someone like Zino Davidoff, despite being dead, will never have his photo with cigar on the Paris Metro because he is linked to the tobacco business.
Posted: May 29, 2009 1:50pm ETRemember protest songs?
They have a fine tradition that stretches back for centuries of using music as a means of dissent whenever and wherever freedom was threatened. The music of the '60s was in many ways defined by such voices as Dylan and Lennon railing against inequality, lost liberty and infringements on our rights to pursue happiness.
Well, a month ago, I met a man at the Big Smoke at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods, in Connecticut, who is still writing protest songs. He is putting words to music that decry incursions on a pursuit that is dear to all of us: cigar smoking. I chatted up Christopher Gansky, a vocal talent from New Jersey and learned that he is also dabbles in a rock'n'roll group, and last week he sent me a CD of an album he did with a band called The Cuddly Curmudgeons: "The Bound and the Jury." Not surprisingly, the cut that I keep playing from it is called "Stogies and Stout," a rant against the Health Police.
Check out the song.
The tune, written by Gansky and guitarist/keyboard player Steve Watson, is a driving screamer reminiscent of The Ramones. The words have an unmistakable message: get the Nanny State off our backs. The lyrics hit on a number of tasty pleasures that we are so often warned away from ("I'll eat steak and eggs 'til the day that I croak, Fine cigars relieve stress that could cause a stroke") and the refrain repeats the singer's determination to resist prohibition ("I won't go without my stogies and stout").
Gansky, whose day job is doing commercial voice-overs and narrations, presciently wrote the song in 1997, before the Health Police invaded our lives in earnest. Since then the group has disbanded and he is reforming it as The Castaway Castros, a tongue in cheek reference to the Cuban dictator. "I thought it would fun to make some capitalist money off a communist," he said.
"Stogies and Stout" isn't the only cigar-referencing song by Gansky, who has smoked cigars for more than a decade and a half. He also wrote a couple of parodies: "Sweet Home Havana" (sung to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama") and "Smokin' on the Sidewalk" (Smokin' in the Boys Room"). But "Stogies and Stout" has that protest edge to it that makes me nostalgic for my days as a student demonstrator. Plus, like most rock'n'roll, it's a lotta fun.
Posted: May 25, 2009 11:08am ET
Before the legislatures of New York (where I work) and Connecticut (where I live) decided without consulting me that it was a good idea to limit the public venues in which I could smoke to almost none, I brought cigars everywhere. I would no sooner have left the house for a get-together without a handful of smokes than I would watch “Deal or No Deal” on TV without being strapped to a chair with my head propped up and my eyes pinned open.
In the pre-prohibition, good-old days of the cigar boom, I worked under the assumption that if there were a gathering of two or more people at least one of them might want a smoke. Furthermore, I saw it as my duty to provide said smokes as far as I could and to keep the world safe from lousy cigars. I thought of myself as a cigar knight, if you will.
Then, about six years ago, the city and state of New York as well as my home state (where ironically some of the most expensive wrapper tobacco in the world in grown) began to strip me of my purpose. I could no longer play the savior by showing up at a bar stuffed to the gills with burners.
Which is why what happened to me yesterday happened.
My buddy Dave Palombo was having his annual pre-Memorial-Day Trader Vic’s party in the garden of his home. I remembered to pack some bottles of white rum I had left over from a tasting I just did for a Drinks item in the Good Life Guide of the July/August Cigar Aficionado (check it out!). I also brought some Grand Marnier because the bartender that Palombo had hired to run the Tiki bar (part of the party’s theme) was making Suffering Bastards as the signature drink and didn’t have any triple sec or orange Curaçao. I even remembered to stash a selection of bitters (as the drink also calls for that) in the pockets of my safari jacket (also in keeping with the party’s theme).
If wasn’t, however, until I pulled up to Palombo’s house 20 minutes later that it dawned on me that I’d forgotten cigars. Now Palombo is an avid cigar smoker and the party was going to be outdoors so no one except for the most insensitive lout imaginable (and Palombo wouldn’t have invited that sociopath to his house anyway) was likely to complain. But here I was with cavernous pockets but nary a smoke. I simply hadn’t put two and two together that this was one of the few times when cigars would have been welcomed. In short, my brain had gone limp from too much prohibition.
Posted: May 18, 2009 1:20pm ETI don’t know what it’s like where you are, but this month hasn’t been very May like in the New York area. Rain, cloudy skies and temps that haven’t quite hit that ideal point where you don’t worry about whether you have a jacket or not. Perhaps that’s why I’ve allowed a six-pack of Summer Ale from Samuel Adams to linger in my beer fridge.
It just hasn’t felt like summer.
Finally, after another weekend of clouds and rain, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer and I broke down last night and dove into this seasonal beer that is available from April to August.
I’m glad I did. Sam Adams founder Jim Koch’s intention was that the tangy Summer Ale be a perfect companion for a hot summer day, but I found that it also had the effect of summoning the spirit of summer even though it hadn’t actually arrived.
The beer is brewed with wheat malt, lemon zest and Grains of Paradise, a peppery, citrusy West African spice that is supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities (don’t worry, I didn’t go all Viagra on the stuff). The point is the ale’s obvious tangy profile is an interesting take on summer brew, when the typical strategy is to go light, clear and cold. Having recently written a piece on craft brewing in Cigar Aficionado (June 2009) and taped a video on the subject for this website, it set me to thinking about how one of the best things about the beer revolution has been the choices it has wrought. Years ago American brewers didn’t put out seasonal beers. They had one or two choices in styles that you got all year long. Because Koch’s smaller operation can turn on a dime, he puts out dozens of different tastes from his Sam Adams (not really so) Light to his extreme beers, such as Triple Bock.
And certainly Koch isn’t the only one to do this. Nor is this meant to be an indictment against Big Beer. Those large-capacity brewers are operating in a different realm, and they do what they do very well. In fact, I think in the case of Michelob, they’ve done a pretty fair job of coming up with some interesting and (for them) off-beat beers. Michelob even came up with a pumpkin-flavored brew as a seasonal last autumn. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but they were out there doing it.
Posted: May 1, 2009 4:39pm ETI always get a lot of calls during Derby Week asking for my picks, and this year among my top contenders is a controversial choice: Colorado.
No, Colorado is not a thoroughbred raised in the Rocky Mountains, nor the British Ascot champion of the same name—after all, he raced in the 1920s. In fact, I'm not talking about a horse at all. (Face it. No one in his right mind has any faith in my handicapping ability, anyway.)
This two-year-old is a whiskey named Colorado that's made in the state of the same name. I just got a taste of it and have to say it's impressed me more than any of the recent small American craft distilling efforts I've tried. So when people ask me what I'll be drinking this weekend as I watch the Run for the Roses, I throw this in as a contender.
Properly, it's Stranahan's Colorado Straight Rocky Mountain Whiskey and it only relates to Bourbon on the levels of being straight (aged in new charred oak for a minimum of two years—some of the mix is as old as five) and being an American original. This whiskey is made from pure barley (four strains, all from Colorado) and is distilled in what master stillman Jake Norris calls a pot-column still, a fusion of the two basic types.
We did a preliminary tasting and were impressed by what fine flavors Stranahan's has gotten out of such little time in the craft (the company started distilling in 2004). The nose is full of maple and vanilla, and smacks almost of Cognac. That brandy thing continues on the palate, but with a large dose of licorice and hard candy. It finishes with orange peel and banana.
I wouldn't, however, peg this for making the classic Mint Julep—partially because it's too expensive ($50 to $60, visit stranahans.com), but also because it's too sweet for such a sugary drink (see recipe) And, of course, I'm not going to forsake my classic Kentucky Bourbon friends as I watch the telecast from Churchill Downs. If you read me often you can probably guess I'll be joined by some of the following this weekend: Woodford Reserve, Russell's Reserve from Wild Turkey, Jim Beam's Knob Creek, Old Rip Van Winkle, Maker's Mark, Evan Williams Vintage and one of my new favorites Eagle Rare. Giddyup, horsey.