Posted: Aug 11, 2008 1:43pm ETI'm stoked at the moment because half of my summertime-guilty-pleasure-television regimen has recently returned to broadcast: "Mad Men."
"Mad Men" is the American Movie Classics series set in the early 1960s in a Madison Avenue advertising agency. Conceived and produced by a "Sopranos" alumnus, it is very true to the time with all excesses of the era intact: plenty of smoking, drinking and carousing, and very little of the now-pervasive Nanny State to be seen. For something that is a bit of a soap opera, it is quite a lot of fun, and I anticipate each new episode (Sunday night at 10 p.m. EDT) with excitement. Is anybody else hooked on this?
But what I really want to talk about here is last season. That's because my sainted wife went out and bought me the DVD box set of season one to rewatch as a prelude to season two. It is cleverly packaged in a gun-metal-gray case shaped like a Zippo lighter and sports a hinged top just like the original.
Not only is that a kick for smokers, but the packaging includes offers to buy real Zippo lighters with Mad Men logos on them. One is a limited-edition (production of 1,000, consecutively numbered) lighter, chromed out to a high polish and packaged in a Zippo velour collector's box. The other is on classic satin chrome and packaged in a black gift box. (Visit here to order).
Of course, if you are planning to light cigars, you'll probably prefer the companies Zippo Blu (see our review).
And what is my other summertime guilty television pleasure? Well, HBO's "Entourage." But for some demented reason that other show made for men apparently isn't going to broadcast until this fall. Rat crap!
Posted: Aug 5, 2008 5:21pm ETWhenever I feel a touch of the malaria coming on or it just gets hot like it does this time of year, I always think of one thing—or two things actually: quinine tonic and gin (or vodka or rum, you get the picture).
The good news about the ultimate summer drink last year was that Fever-Tree, a maker of drink mixers, had introduced an all-natural quinine tonic water made with quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree, the original and most concentrated source of quinine (most standard tonic water contains the cheaper and less intense Remijia tree bark as its quinine source). The better news this year is that we now have two choices in boutique quinine water with the introduction of Q Tonic, made with quinine harvested from Peru.
Both are all-natural products and lower in sugar (and calorie) content, allowing the taste of the quinine to show through. Q Tonic uses agave as sweetener, while Fever-Tree uses fruit sugar. For you Atkins dieters, the carb counts on both are also significantly lower.
Despite all the similarities, the two have quite different taste profiles, which to me is a good thing. More choices in a category populated by drab sameness. While Fever-Tree (fever-tree.com) is intense with a slightly bitter tang, the Q (qtonicwater.com) is clear and bright.
I'm feverish just writing about it. Or is it just warm in here? Where's that bottle of gin?
Posted: Jul 25, 2008 10:17am ETAbout the only good that has come from the recent rounds of anti-smoking legislation has been the boon it has been for cigar retailers. Because most areas exempt cigar stores, smokers are driven to them when they want to cop a smoke in the middle of the day. And local retailers have responded in kind by setting up lounges for smokers who want to come in, buy a cigar and then enjoy it on premise at say, lunch time.
That's great! What I question, however, is the audacity of those customers who see lounges as public smoking emporiums. Do they really think it is the height of cigar aficionado etiquette to pop in to their local retailer with a cigar they have purchased online and suck up all the air? Come on!
Michael Herklots, who is the general manager of Davidoff's store at The Shops at Columbus Circle in New York City, has posted the following test in his smoking lounge that communicates the logic more succinctly than I can:
CAN YOU PURCHASE A COFFEE IN STARBUCKS AND BRING IT TO BOUCHON TO DRINK?
CAN YOU PURCHASE A SUBWAY COMBO MEAL AND EAT IT AT PER SE?
CAN YOU BRING YOUR FAKE CUBAN CIGAR THAT YOU PURCHASED ONLINE TO A CIGAR STORE AND ENJOY IT?
THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING OUR BUSINESS. PLEASE ENJOY YOUR PURCHASE.
The store respectfully asks a $10 purchase for the use of the lounge and also asks that no cellular phones be used, which is another of my pet peeves. Good on 'em.
Posted: Jul 8, 2008 3:56pm ETHere’s a novel form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Apparently, when Pablo Picasso was born in 1881, he wasn’t breathing and the midwife gave him up as stillborn. A quick-thinking and cigar-smoking uncle had other ideas, however. He leaned over and blew smoke into young Pablo’s face, causing him to cry and, so, breathe deeply.
Mention that next time someone harangues you about health concerns and cigars. This is one case where a cigar saved a life and made the world safe for those crazy paintings of women with two noses and their eyes pointing in different directions.
Posted: Jul 1, 2008 11:12am ETThe irony of my job at Cigar Aficionado and my participation on its tasting panel is that I don’t often buy cigars. I don’t have to. About the only time it happens is when I’m in a country with more liberal policies about selling the bounty of the island nation to the south of Florida. And then I’m always sort of stung by the idea that I have to pay for them.
An exception occurred over the weekend.
I had taken the family to Nantucket—another island, this one off the coast of Massachusetts—to visit my wife’s sister’s family and my mother-in-law, Diane, who was visiting from Washington State. On the last day there my sister-in-law’s husband, Thatcher, told me he’d made reservations at Topper’s in The Wauwinet inn to treat Diane to a “nice meal.” I’ll admit that Topper’s is arguably the best dining on the island, but I thought the lobsters we’d had at home the night before constituted a “nice meal.” But not wanting to seem the piker and lose any ground on our continuing battle to be Diane’s favorite son-in-law, I agreed. So we left the kids and trekked out to the end of the island.
By the decor of the place and the idyllic setting, I could tell right away that this little freak was going to cost me. Opening the menu I got an inkling of how much: the prix fixe rate was listed in troy ounces. Now, my wife, Ellen, claims I’m tight, but in my defense, I didn’t start to audibly squeak until Thatcher suggested we all order the tasting menu, which rings up half again more than the standard dinner. But I was still willing to see his wager in this dangerous game of impressing Diane, so I let it go. Then he raised the stakes again: “They have a thing here where they pair a different wine with each of the six courses. Let’s do that.” The supplement for the tasting from Topper’s Wine Spectator Grand Award would add almost the cost of each meal—per person—to the bill.
I was reaching for my nitroglycerin pills when Ellen leaned over and whispered, “Settle down, Titus." Then she mercifully bailed me out, tactfully telling Thatcher, “I don’t think we should drink that much wine. It’s late and we have to drive back.”
Posted: May 18, 2008 12:39pm ETHave Gun – Will Travel rerun, “Show of Arms” (circa 1957).
DAWN in SAN FRANCISCO’s Hotel Carlton, where the TV western’s main character, Paladin (played by Richard Boone), lives out his alter ego as a wealthy dandy (when he isn’t riding the range as a highly principled gun for hire, “the knight without armor in a savage land”).
PALADIN is playing out the last hand of an all-night poker game, which he is winning. The Chinese bellboy arrives with a box of cigar, which Paladin pays for and instructs HEY-BOY (not much politically correct about 1957) to pass out to his gambling partners.
One of the gamblers MR. BERNARD (played by character actor Ned Glass), having been particularly well-fleeced, grabs four from the box even though he is already smoking a cigar. PALADIN gives him a reproachful glance at the apparent impropriety.
BERNARD shrugs and says: “Well, I figure they’re costing me a hundred a piece, Paladin.”
PALADIN just smiles.
Posted: May 6, 2008 9:13am ETSunday night was my first great chance of the spring to blow smoke on my new deck. Perfect weather. A day of yard work behind me. It’s a school night so the kids retired early. No sound but that of the cardinal that’s nested in a mountain laurel.
Then it started. Some kid with a motorbike whined by at full throttle. (I could get some tacks or some razor ribbon.) I stopped myself, didn’t light up, waited until the noise went away. Reached for my cigar, and a plane flew overhead. My congressman’s supposed to be doing something about that. (Have to fire off an angry letter.) But the plane left my air corridor, so I sat back and started again in relative silence.
I began my ritual, contemplating the head of the cigar for a moment. The deliberation continued as I started to decapitate it with my fingernail. I was about halfway around when the sliding glass door opened. It was a friend of my wife, who, over for a visit, had spotted me through the window. (Have to get curtains.) Overcome by curiosity, she’d decided she needed to know exactly what I was up to.
“Why do you do it that way? Don’t you have a cutter? Isn’t that unsanitary?”
I don’t like scatter-shot questions, but I plow ahead in order: “I like to. I left my cutter upstairs. I clean under my nails.”
She just stood there, and I couldn’t wait any longer, so I lit up and leaned back in my chair. She didn’t move, and I thought, “Maybe I should make conversation.” But what? Maybe I could launch into a lecture about the niceties of cigar cutting or discourse on the leaf blend in the Churchill I was smoking—if I only knew what it was. Too bad Savona wasn’t there.
Instead, I waited her out, all the while puffing away in silence. Just when it started to get uncomfortable, she said, “I don’t know how you can stand that smell.”
I shrugged, but didn’t answer. What do you say to something like that?
Posted: Mar 24, 2008 12:26pm ETIn the universe of Big Ideas some succeed famously, some shuffle along, and others miss the mark. A package arrived at Cigar Aficionado the other day that seemed to bestride that spectrum.
The Big Idea is Beer Chips, or potato chips made with beer. As spawned by Brett Stern, a product designer in Portland, Oregon, the idea is so big that it overflowed into the marriage of two other drinks—the Margarita and Spicy Bloody Mary—with potato chips. Mr. Stern was kind enough to send us all three, and as they arrived before lunch when we were famished, we did extensive, unscientific taste tests on all three, which will be reflected in our blood work at our next physical checkup.
The inspiration for the original product—Beer Chips—came to Stern much in the same way that Isaac Newton was hipped to the idea of universal gravitation when he watched an apple fall from a tree. Stern was eating potato chips and drinking beer one day when a chip slipped and fell into the beer. But instead of deriving a physical principle from the mishap, being a product designer, he thought "Beer Chips."
But it's not just chips that go with beer, rather chips made with beer. That may sound rather soggy, but the execution was done with something more like freeze-dried beer. Stern made thick-cut potato chips, then coated them with dehydrated beer ingredients (malted barley, corn syrup, hops and yeast) as well as salt, cane syrup and honey. (An entertaining, but purely fanciful, video of the process can be viewed here.)
But Stern, being a visionary, did not stop there. He created Chip Shots, a Margarita-flavored snack, and Hot Potatoes, the Bloody Mary version. These were achieved in much the same manner: coating chips with the dried flavors of the respective drinks. Stern says that in the snack creation game you can easily obtain "dry topical coatings" of most any flavor, which he admits "doesn't sound very sexy," but to us succeeded in at least two of his attempts.
Posted: Feb 20, 2008 11:13am ETBy my calculations, I drank about $400 worth of Scotch whisky at lunch the other day.
Before you go jumping to the same conclusion that my wife did—that I must have tied one on pretty hard—let me say that I only had a couple of drinks. It's just that those drams were something very special indeed: the latest iteration of the legendary Black Bowmore.
If you’ve never heard of Black Bowmore, it may be because so little of it was made and because in the past it has been released with such little fanfare. Its story in a nutshell goes like this: In 1963, when the whisky dealer Stanley Morrison bought the Bowmore distillery on Islay on Scotland’s west coast, he didn’t think very highly of the whisky made there. The plan was to use it for blending. In the meantime, the distillery was modernized with such updates as steam heat (instead of coal) to run the stills. The first distillate after the overhaul was made on November 5, 1964 and filled into oak casks fresh from storing a certain brand of Olorosso sherry from Williams & Humbert called “Walnut Sherry.” The casks, which were deemed to be in excellent condition, were stored in a cellar located below sea level, where temperatures were constant for slow maturation and a hint of sea spray. As time passed they monitored the casks and, noting a pronounced dark color to the whisky, figured they had something special. In 1993, some of the whisky—by then the color of Coca-Cola—was bottled as a 29 year old (2,000 bottles). The rest of the special whisky continued to age in casks. Although Bowmore knew it had something special and designed special packaging for the release, whisky appreciation was in its infancy and not too much was made of the $100 a bottle whisky at the time. In the next two years, Bowmore released a 30-year-old (2,000 bottles) and then a 31-year-old (1,800 bottles) Black. By 1995, the price per bottle was $200.
Posted: Dec 10, 2007 10:01am ETIt's about time!
This past Saturday marked the first time that spirits were auctioned in New York City since before Prohibition started in 1920. Christie's, the London auction house that also has a presence here, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a national trade association, are to be thanked for lifting the statewide ban that stood even while prohibition had ended in 1933.
The ban as it stood forced any private owner wishing to sell prized bottles of spirits (distilled alcohol, including whiskies, brandy and rum) to go elsewhere with their prizes. Typically that elsewhere was London, an enlightened culture that holds spirits auctions every few weeks, not every 88 years.
One of the storied collections that American buyers missed out on came from Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress and celebrity. When one of her many husbands died his bottles were shipped to England. Not only did that mean most American buyers missed the auction, but that New York State missed out on the chance to collect thousands of dollars in sales tax. (The sale on Saturday brought $304,800, with a superlot of more than 700 bottles going for $102,000 and a bottle of Macallan single malt aged for 60 years bringing $54,000. Had the sale not gone off in New York, the total loss of sales tax would have been $25,542.24.)
Doesn't make much sense, but laws of prohibition rarely do. That is something that we cigar smokers are vividly aware of.
Part of the shame of it is that antique spirits are such a natural for auction as they stay relatively intact as long as they are sealed in the bottle. Spirits stop aging once they leave the casks they matured in, unlike wine, which continues to change in the bottle, sometimes not for the better.
You can open a Cognac that was bottled a hundred years ago and have a pretty good idea of what it tasted like to those who drank it a century earlier. Also unlike wine, you wouldn't need to consume the entire bottle when you opened, but could enjoy it sip by sip for years. This means spirits auctions are more conducive to enjoyment of the beverage than simply passing on collectors' bottles that will never be consumed.