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Jack Bettridge

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 laphroaig.com.

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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What I'll Do on My Summer Vacation

Posted: Jul 20, 2009 4:38pm ET
My 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?"

"Ken..."

"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.

 
   
The newest wrinkle is that Brown-Forman, maker of Woodford Reserve and Old Forester Bourbons and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey just opened its cooperage to tours within the past few weeks. Formerly called Bluegrass Cooperage and Brown-Forman Cooperage, it is the only barrel-making facility owned exclusively by a distillery. For this reason, most distillery tours (and not just in Bourbon Land) don’t key too much on this aspect of making spirits, but it is essential. Most of the flavor of aged spirits come from the barrel, which you learn when you visit the rick houses where they are stored. But this is the chance to see them actually assembled using a craft that has been passed down for generations. The first oak barrels were actually made by the Ancient Romans. To be used for Bourbon aging, they must be made with no glue, nails or screws, which would leech into the liquid. That leaves wooden dowels and metal hoops to keep them together, with help from reeds that plug the seams.
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Getting A Head At The Bar

Posted: Jul 13, 2009 2:00pm ET
What 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.
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Panic Mode

Posted: Jun 23, 2009 3:07pm ET
My 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."
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Flavored—But Surprisingly Good

Posted: Jun 19, 2009 12:38pm ET
I 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.

Of course, it is a natural in a Manhattan, which already is garnished with a cherry. Bobby G used fresh cherries instead of maraschino to hold down on the sweetness, and it was outstanding. The Old Fashioned was also a delight. But the list of possibilities goes on as far as your imagination. Gleason created a Sloe Stag with sloe gin that balanced sweet with sour very well. Also, chocolate with cherry is a no brainer. His success with mixing lemon, sour, mango nectar and Tabasco surprised me.

Check it out at jimbeam.com for more recipes. But I beg of you don't give up regular Bourbon.
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An Offer You Can't Refuse

Posted: Jun 9, 2009 4:43pm ET
I 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
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Oh, Those French

Posted: Jun 3, 2009 4:09pm ET
As 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.
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A Song For Smoking

Posted: May 29, 2009 1:50pm ET
Remember 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.
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