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.
Posted: Apr 9, 2009 2:17pm ETIf in a vacation one is looking for the chance to reconnect with family, this one at Beaches resort in Turks and Caicos showed high promise. Beaches is a version of the couples resort Sandals with the little ones in mind: plenty of kid-friendly activities, pools, eight water slides, X-Box gaming rooms, classes in how to become a scratch deejay and, of course, the beaches.
Since I, however, usually take my holiday with a view toward smoking and drinking, I wasn’t holding out much hope for this excursion that my wife, Ellen, had planned in favor of my daughters, Grace and Abigail, and their friend Arianne. With the kids in tow, I assumed a general health program would be the better course. In fact, I had so despaired of pursuing my usual high jinks that I left the States having packed no cigars.
On arrival, my instincts seemed spot on. Guests roamed the grounds in tidy little family units, earnestly on their way to avail themselves of cones from the cotton candy machine or to catch the next performance by the characters from Sesame Street who moved about en masque. When we returned to our suite each night we were greeted by a little dog fashioned from towels to amuse the kids. This was going to be a trying week.
But once again I had foolishly underestimated Ellen. First, of all, the all-inclusive policy of Beaches extended to the many bars (even the swim-up type) and to the well-thought-out wine program. But furthermore, my lovely wife had arranged for butler service in our suite. Our man Dwayne, it develops, might have been Jeeves himself in his constant anticipation of my needs. Not only did coolers of beer mysteriously arrive at our poolside cabana, but he somehow divined that a bottle of bourbon and plenty of soda water would be necessary provisions for our room.
Yet I still had one problem. I was jonesing for a smoke and I’d left those burners at home.
Posted: Feb 23, 2009 2:56pm ETThe drink bone is connected to the smoke bone is a sentiment that I am fond of saying, but sadly in the age of the nanny state getting the two key skeletal elements of this adage together is becoming harder and harder. Either you find one of the few remaining bars with a license that allows smoking or you walk your drink outside while you smoke.
Stefanie Marco, a mixologist who designs drinks for Moet Hennessey, took an interesting swipe at the problem when creating cocktails for the company's new vodka brand extension Belvedere IX. Her new invention is IX Vice, which, while not involving any smoke, does confer the look, the nicotine and something of the taste of a cigar in a cocktail.
The key ingredients are Belvedere IX, which is a complex flavored vodka made sort of like a gin, chocolate, hard snuff nicotine candy and a marshmallow, which gives the impression of the smoldering end of a cigar.
Here's how to make the IX Vice, according to Stephanie:
- 4 oz. Belvedere IX
- 4 tablets Stonewall Hard Snuff, Java Flavor (crushed)
- 1/4 cup (or 1 bar) dark chocolate or unsweetened chips
- 3/4 cup hot water
- 4 large marshmallows
Crush hard snuff nicotine candy with a muddler. Add chocolate and hot water and allow the ingredients to melt. Chill to room temperature, or colder. Combine with vodka and shake with ice. Pour into a long shot glass and top with a large marshmallow. Using a kitchen torch, flame the marshmallow, shoot and enjoy.
I would say don't shoot, just sip and enjoy, but to each his own.
A word on the Belvedere: The Roman numeral is for its nine ingredients, which include ginseng, guarana, acai, ginger, sweet almond, jasmine, eucalyptus, three cinnamon, and black cherry. The ingredients are individually distilled in microbatches and then blend with 100 proof Belvedere. The taste is hard to pin down with wisps of ginger, menthol, sweet spice and citrus.
Posted: Dec 5, 2008 5:02pm ETLet’s all raise our glasses to the end of Prohibition and a return to good cheer.
Seventy-five years ago today, Prohibition, the so-called Noble Experiment, was ushered out with the 21st Amendment of the Constitution, which repealed the 18th Amendment. The original change, also called the Volstead Act, had ruled the land for almost 14 years, making alcoholic beverages illegal and generally creating national calamity. On December 5, 1933, came the culmination of the country's return to its senses. A state convention in Utah ratified the 21st Amendment, making it the 36th state to do so and clearing the bar of the needed 75 percent of states.
As much as it now seems quaint that the United States would have been dry for so long, we should all take a sober moment of reflection so that it may never happen again, for there remain elements among us who would rob us of other civil liberties. Given the woes that beset the nation on account of Prohibition, we must be ever vigilant against such acts.
In retrospect, the attendant problems of Prohibition were many and obvious, the benefits few. But clearly for there to have been an original amendment supporting an end to drinking, there must have been a mindset that thought it would help. Does that remind you of some more recent examples of groupthink run amok, cigar smokers?
While Prohibition was the law, the country became lawless. Mobsters and murderers ran the liquor trade and otherwise law-abiding citizens who just wanted to have a drink became scofflaws. Clearly, the organized gangland structure that exists now arose from Prohibition as so much was to be made in the trade and the public proved it was willing to overlook their transgressions.
Prohibition was not only damaging during its reign, but it has wreaked long-term havoc on our national alcohol industry. American producers were effectively set back decades. With no whiskey produced for a decade and a half, outside spirits makers were able to make inroads into our market. Canadian producers particularly benefited as they could easily smuggle their spirits across the border. When it was all over, American whiskey makers had no liquor with which to battle back as new spirits had to age for at least two years to sell and more like four to be any good. Whiskey rushed to market gave rise to the epithet "rot-gut Bourbon." Straight rye, once the market leader, almost disappeared altogether and is only now making a resurgence.
Posted: Dec 1, 2008 4:10pm ETJust returned from a Caribbean cruise refreshed, but slightly disappointed. The Solstice, newest addition to the Celebrity cruise ship fleet on which I sailed, was magnificent in all respects but one: it was almost bereft of smoking venues.
One of the great pleasures to cruise ships for me has always been the opportunity to smoke on board. Most have a cigar bar or some reasonable facsimile thereof located on the highest deck so the smoke wafts harmlessly up. And if you are lucky enough to have a room with a balcony, you can sit out there and puff away as well. Most ships sell cigars at duty free and their ports of call typically have Havanas available, so smoking is doubly attractive.
However, upon boarding the Solstice I was informed via memo that no inside smoking venue existed and that smoking was limited to the outdoors on certain decks, which did not include balconies in private staterooms.
"That's a bitter pill," I thought, but swallowed it anyway, chalking it up to another encroachment of the vice police. I did all right for a few days, but then encountered a bar on the third day that offered a flight of the Jim Beam Small Batch Bourbon collection (Basil Hayden, Knob Creek, Baker's and Booker's). Now, tasting that selection without a cigar to go with it is kind of like visiting a hat store that has no mirrors. But I bit at the bullet and determined on the fourth day to have a smoke ashore.
That smoke came on St. Kitts, which at 68 square miles is one of the smaller and more peaceful islands you are likely to dock at on a cruise ship. Stepping off at the little port of Basseterre and into the Pelican Mall, I spied a shop named Smoke N' Booze and immediately intuited it as a sign from above. Inside, the store had plenty of the latter and a medium-sized walk-in humidor with a fair selection of the former (in the Cuban variety). Knowing I wouldn't have good smoking opportunities back on board, I chose only one cigar—a Montecristo Edmundo—and went in search of a friendly place to smoke.
Posted: Nov 17, 2008 10:08am ETAlmost everyone is feeling the pinch right now, but as the holidays come on it is important to keep in context that having to settle for VSOP instead of going for the XO Cognac isn't really roughing it. One out of eight people in America is struggling with the reality of hunger—and that doesn't mean they skipped lunch—they actually aren't sure where their next meal may come from. Hunger is a pervasive problem, affecting millions and not limited to certain areas, social groups or neighborhoods.
Even while we all are tightening our belts in reaction to the severe economic crisis that besets us, we should remember those who have it even worse. One organization that has a heritage for this kind of consideration going back almost half a century is Feeding America (feedingamerica.org), formerly America's Second Harvest). It is a hunger-relief charity that comprises a nationwide network of food banks that feed the needy with surplus food in very tangible outlets like soup kitchens.
One reason I bring this up now is that from now until November 23 there is an ongoing auction on eBay called The Give Hope Campaign that benefits Feeding America. It is a partnership with Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi, which itself with match donations made to Feeding America until December 31. The auction includes once-in-a-lifetime experiences, many of which include celebrities. You may bid, for instance, to have celebrity bartender Tony Abou-Ganim host your Mojito party or join Food Network Star Ted Allen for dinner at Mario Batali's Del Posto. There are also gourmet dinners at places like Craft, Bouley and Nobu and travel packages to the California wine country and the Sawgrass TPC golf course.
If you are one of the lucky ones, I urge you to think up about this discreet way to target your discretionary funds. Visit
Posted: Oct 30, 2008 4:17pm ETTwo bottles of moonshine just landed on my desk.
Well, not technically moonshine, but it's labeled as such. The 'shine in question is Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon and Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine, and it does have the seal of approval from Mr. Johnson, himself a certified and convicted moonshiner, as well as a legendary NASCAR driver.
Johnson was a frequent winner on the driving circuit from 1955 to 1965. You may know him from a Tom Wolfe magazine story published in Esquire or the movie The Last American Hero, both of which championed his exploits as a runner of the illegal alcohol his father made in copper stills in the hills of North Carolina. You needed a fast car and steel nerve to outrun the federal agents. Johnson had both in spades. He souped up his car to outrun the revenuers and then developed a slew of maneuvers to outfox them. The power slide was his, as well as the bootleg turn, a 180-degree about-face when confronted with a roadblock. Never caught behind the wheel, Junior finally did time when captured tending his daddy's still. After paying his debt to society, he figured it would be more lucrative to put his driving skills to use on the burgeoning stock car circuit, where he became an instant success and folk hero. In 1986, Ronald Reagan pardoned him, restoring his right to vote. (A Democrat, Johnson recently endorsed Barack Obama.)
Anyway, he joined forces with Piedmont Distillers in Madison, N.C. to market Junior Johnson's Midnight Moon, which he describes as, "Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best shine ever."
I would agree that the product is quite vodka-like and very smooth. I would, however, take exception to the middle statement, but anyone who knows my affinity for whiskey could figure that out. The last pronouncement I would agree with, except that this is not really "shine" as it isn't illegal and it's triple-distilled in column stills, which would entail a high-profile operation that few savvy moonshiners would attempt.
Posted: Oct 6, 2008 11:25am ETA seven-course meal is elegant. A different wine with every course would be a luxury. But pairing each dish with a single-malt Scotch, well that’s downright decadent.
Maybe so, but that was the plan Thursday night when I and about a dozen others were hosted by Evan Cattanach, master distiller emeritus of the Classic Malts Selection, at the New York Palace Hotel. Instead of matching wines with the meal, Evan took it upon himself to pair each exquisite course with a different new release from the whisky collection.
And I have to say that what may sound like a daunting night of drinking was actually an unqualified culinary success.
Pairing spirits with food is not a new concept. I’ve experienced it done quite well on a few occasions (particularly once at a lavish lunch thrown by Remy Martin with its range of excellent Cognacs and at meals planned by Chef Jim Gerhardt, of Louisville’s Limestone Restaurant, who has long championed Kentucky cuisine by pairing its produce, fish and game with local Bourbon). Moreover, Evan remembers that he would have seen whisky, not wine, as a matter course at his father’s table when he grew up in Scotland. He laid part of that to the shortage of wine during the Second World War when he was a lad.
Formerly a distillery manager and now a whisky ambassador, Evan knows whereof he speaks when it comes to the Classic Malts Selection—he managed four of the distilleries that make up the collection as part of his 33-year hands-on career in whisky-making and has been representing all of the whiskeys for many years.
We met in the Chairman’s Office at the New York Palace, a wood-appointed room, lined with bookcases and centered with a huge banquet table, all of which made it perfect for this event. We were welcomed with hors d’oeuvres and the light whisky of Dalwhinnie, the winter-snow-buffeted distillery of the Highlands that, at 1,073 feet, is the greatest elevation at which the Scots make whisky.
Posted: Aug 28, 2008 1:03pm ETMost of my interaction involving cigars goes in one of two possible directions: I encounter people who either love and want to have a smoke or people who hate them and want me to put mine out. Recently, I was treated to a third possibility.
I was at an impromptu cocktail party outside a cottage on Pennsylvania's Highland Lake just south of Binghamton, N.Y., enjoying the summer evening, a Sam Houston Bourbon Manhattan and an Alec Bradley Tempus Genesis, when someone approached me. The gentleman’s name was Alan Jewell, and he remarked that he liked the smell of the corona I was smoking. I assumed that this was the category of the above-mentioned cigar encounters and immediately offered him a smoke.
Alan begged off, citing sinus problems, but implored me to keep smoking as the aroma brought back memories, smell being the sense most closely associated with remembering. He then spun a story about Binghamton back in the day when the small city on New York’s Southern Tier was dominated by the Endicott Johnson Shoe Co. The company was the benevolent employer of many of the people in the Triple Cities area, which includes Endicott and Johnson City, both named in honor of the founders, and created housing and educational and recreational facilities for its workers.
Alan particularly recalled going to the baseball games of the Binghamton Triplets, a Yankee farm team. The shoe company would arrange for a block of seat for its employees, and he said that most of them took the occasion to light up White Owls courtesy of General Cigar, which had a factory there from 1928 to 1938 (later an Ansco camera facility). “All those shoemakers from all over Eastern Europe and Italy—they talk about diversity now, we had real diversity then—would gather in the seats and light up and this wonderful aroma would waft out over the stadium…"
Alan waxed on with other fascinating tales about Binghamton of old, and I was happy to have supplied the impetus of those pleasant memories via my smoke and to have had a cigar encounter of a third kind. Thanks, Alan.