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Jack Bettridge

Of Churchill and Strangers on a Train

Posted: Sep 20, 2007 10:58am ET
Sometimes something good comes from a sour situation.

Have been reading Stephen McGinty’s excellent book Churchill’s Cigar, which as the title suggests is a look at one of the twentieth century’s greatest figures through his life in smoking.

Well-written and humorous, it uses sources like interviews with Churchill’s family and friends as well as records of his cigar purchases to piece together the subject’s lifelong (90 years) love affair with the leaf. The book reveals how Churchill’s spirited mother bribed him to give up cigarettes as a school boy with the promise of a horse and a gun. Happily, his parents were not as successful at keeping him from cigars. Deployed in his twenties into the restive Cuba of the 1890s, he started the pursuit there in earnest, very quickly becoming a valued customer of some of the best purveyors.

While the book gives detailed accounts of Churchill’s smoking throughout his life, particularly interesting are the years of the Second World War when the British Secret Service jumped through hoops to ensure the cigars that the prime minister was receiving weren’t poisoned by the Germans. Least concerned, seemed to be Churchill himself, who sometimes smoked gift cigars received even before the verdict on toxicity was in.

One great anecdote comes from 1941 while Churchill was Canada. Photographer Yousaf Karsh was given exactly two minutes for a portrait of the busy English leader. Churchill arrived with a cigar in his mouth and kept with it. The photographer knew better than to ask him to remove it for the portrait. Instead he yanked the cigar from Churchill’s mouth while snapping way. The maneuver elicited a scowl and captured one of the most celebrated images of the prime minister.

Ultimately, Winston was good natured about the affront, commenting to Karsh, “You can make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
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James Bond's Secret Formula Revisted

Posted: Sep 13, 2007 11:39am ET
Lillet, the Bordeaux-based maker of wine aperitifs, recently introduced a limited-edition bottle that reprises a classic image from its collection of advertising poster art: the 1937 image of a woman reveling in a flowing white dress, bottle of Lillet in one hand, cocktail in the other, with grapes vines in fruition in the foreground. The 70th anniversary "Roby" bottle celebrates the 70th anniversary of the poster by Robert "Roby" Wolff, which is the highest selling in Lillet's history.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first is because I so enjoy that style of art (check out Lillet's website www.lillet.fr for more examples) especially in a time when we are being barraged with ugly, noisy advertising images. Second is that it allows me to segue into other topics near to my heart: Martinis and James Bond.

Lillet is the brand of aperitif that Bond substitutes for Vermouth when he invents his famous Vesper cocktail in "Casino Royale."

"Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel."

Purists would bemoan that that order opened the floodgates for the vodka Martini and worse savageries, but it was an iconic moment and served to make an important point about the Martini: the choice of aperitif counts. Even though he was ordering a dry martini, the secret agent was specific about what it should be mixed with—and none of this just whisper Vermouth bravado. He knew the Martini as a mixed drink and not a glass of chilled gin. Every ingredient was important.

If you're mixing along at home, however, be aware that the Lillet he called for (Kina) is not available any longer. Kina indicated quinine, and it was a bitter mixture that was phased out in 1985 as tastes changed. So have portions. Bond it ordered in a deep Champagne goblet with this reasoning:
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Smoking Politics

Posted: Aug 27, 2007 11:11am ET
Got an interesting slant on smoking politics yesterday from Lewis Shuckman, who when not purveying caviar and other fish delicacies as owner of Shuckman's Fish Co. & Smokery is a guerilla warrior in the struggle for smokers rights in the Louisville area. Phone chatting with Lewis always involves an update on the absurdities of the legislative attempts to banish cigars. Yesterday, he relayed a discussion he'd had with a local councilwoman who is spearheading an attempt to ban smoking in Louisville restaurants and who—ironically— also represents Shuckman’s ward.

The conversation went something like this: Lewis suggests smoking should at least be allowed in designated areas in restaurants with Smoke Eaters. Councilwoman says, no, because smoke could still get in the kitchen and do its evil undocumented second-hand harm. Shuckman first reverts to sarcasm—"shudder to think that cigar smoke would somehow get onto some of the smoked turkey in the kitchen or some of my smoked salmon"—then forbids the councilwoman to comment on something of which she is evidently ignorant: the food service industry.

While that conversation devolved, ours didn’t. Lewis went on to say that apparently local landmark Churchill Downs will get protection from the law because a ban would make it hard for the home of the Kentucky Derby to compete with gambling venues just across the river, in Indiana, that allowing smoking. Lewis wondered why the same wouldn’t be true about restaurants that also must compete with eateries across the Ohio River. Hmmm…

Then he got to the heart of the matter. The ban, as with other similar legislation throughout the country, would compel owners of restaurants to enforce it. Now, Lewis ponders, why is a restaurateur required to police his patrons’ use of a legal substance, when he doesn’t bear the same onus with illegal substances or acts. A customer uses a forbidden drug in his restaurant and the owner won’t get fined, but light up a cigar and he is in legal jeopardy. You wouldn’t think of asking a restaurateur to disarm someone who carried an illegal weapon, but you would expect him to force someone to put out his cigar.
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Going Mad Men

Posted: Aug 13, 2007 9:48am ET
Anyone watching “Mad Men”? I don’t mean the current presidential campaign, but the new series on AMC centered on the advertising industry circa 1960 (Thursday at 10 p.m. also on demand with TV Encore).

It’s pretty well done. Very good art direction (feels like the era) and a pretty punchy plot (if a little soap opera-ish). Producers take pains to emphasize how different the era was: no political correctness, indifference to safety issues, a gulf between men and women in the work place, lots of style and everyone smokes and drinks—all the time.

I was a only kid at the time, but that last part seems pretty accurate, except that it seems to me that cigars are a little under-represented on the show. My memory was of lots of cigar advertising and shops and a pretty good assortment of guys who smoked cigars or pipes. The one time I have seen someone smoking a cigar on the show, it was set up wrong (coming as a segue from a line about how they can smoke cigarettes as much as they want).

Of course, the ad agency that the show is set around has a cigarette account (they supposedly come up with Lucky Strike’s catch phrase “It’s Toasted” in the first episode, ignoring that the slogan really predates 1960 by more than 40 years), so maybe that explains the cigarette emphasis. But does anyone remember different—that there were way more cigars?
 
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The Cigar and Cognac Conundrum

Posted: Jul 31, 2007 3:43pm ET
Sometimes this antismoking dementia gets in the way of my doing my job.

The other night I was invited to a dinner hosted by Remy Martin. The point was to show off its 1738 Accord Royal, technically a VSOP, but the company characterizes it as being a notch above that premium level, even while its not old enough to be termed XO. Standard Remy VSOP sells for $36.99, the 1738 version for $49.99. Like all Remy products, it’s a blend of eaux-de-vie that comes strictly from the Champagne crus of Cognac (so called for their especially chalky soil and not to be confused with Champagne region and its sparkling wines). In this case, the Cognac is 65 percent Grand Champagne and 35 percent Petite Champagne. The name, 1738 Accord Royal, stems from an eighteenth century degree from Louis XV that allowed Remy to extend its grape production in an era when new plantings were prohibited.

Now here comes Bettridge, who always natters on about how the Cognac accompaniments for a cigar should be XO level or above (see the video currently on the Cigaraficionado.com web site for more on that). So I taste the Cognac, and yes it is notably richer than the typical VSOP. My knock on lesser Cognacs is that they don’t have as much complexity and therefore fewer notes with which to harmonize with a good cigar.

This 1738 version seemed to be an exception to my rule, with a depth and width of flavor uncommon at this level. There was plenty of nuts and spice with round chocolate notes and orange and apple on a long finish.

That’s all great, but I still don’t know how it goes with a cigar. Why because the pleasant restaurant we were in (BLT Steak) is in Manhattan and in New York you can’t smoke in restaurants anymore -- even in a private room, which this was.

So I’ll have to get back to you later on how the 1738 worked out with a cigar. Any smoking suggestions?
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A Smoke After A Smoky Meal

Posted: Jul 20, 2007 2:53pm ET
Normally, the news that my livery car is running 15 minutes late doesn’t make me happy, but last night was an exception.

Savona and I had just left dinner very pleased, having been the guests of Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue (ward.uat.dminsite.com/) of Kansas City, Missouri, which was hosting at the James Beard House in lower Manhattan. It’s always a great place to eat (former home of the iconic American chef, home to the foundation of the same name), but this meal was particularly satisfying. My penchant for barbecue is well enough known that I don’t have to go over that. But think of this: Hors d’Oeuvres included Hickory-Smoked Salmon with Toast Points and Rémoulade, Berkshire Pork Medallions with Spicy Barbecue Sauce and Mini Hickory-Smoked Kobe Prime Rib Sandwiches with Horseradish Sauce. Kobe beef BBQ? Oh my God!

At dinner we dined on Kobe Beef Burnt Ends with Grilled Asparagus, sampling Rancho Zabaco Sonoma Heritage Vines Zinfandel 2003. Then we moved onto Denver-Cut Smoked Lamb Ribs with Villa Mt. Eden Grand Reserve Zinfandel 2003. The lamb blew our minds. The finishing entrée was Crown Prime Beef Short Ribs, but alas we had to leave before the Bread Pudding with Vanilla–Rum Sauce.

As we stood waiting for the car, a call came in: “15 minute delay.” Did we go back inside with our tails between our legs to wait it out. No! Thanks to Savona, we had the ultimate capper to such a meal: cigars. But not just any cigar, the Arturo Fuente Short Story. Just the right amount of smoke for our small window of opportunity and more than enough flavor to stand up to the bodacious meal we just had.

I woke up thinking cigars and food are a pairing combination that often is overlooked and given short shrift. What do you think?
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Why a Culebra?

Posted: Jul 17, 2007 11:07am ET
The culebra cigar shape has always flummoxed me. Spanish for snake, a culebra is a crooked viper of a cigar, usually packaged in a set of three intertwined around each other. It’s novel, but what would possess anyone to roll tobacco in that way? They’re hard to package, weird to smoke and they don’t fit in any cigar case I know of.

I’d been ruminating over the mystery particularly lately since we recently tasted a culebra as part of a tasting for an upcoming issue. Then it hit me while in the act of typing said cigar review: With a culebra, you can smoke and type at the same time while keeping the smoke out of your eyes. Simply turn the cigar to the side of your face and let the smoke funnel away from you.

Is that problem solved now officially solved, or does someone have a more viable explanation for the existence of these serpentine cigars?
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Sharp’ning Up Your Cocktail Talk

Posted: Jun 29, 2007 12:21pm ET
Every year dictionary publishers and language arbiters announce with some fanfare words that they have decided to add to the lexicon. Because of the relentless march of technology, many of them are terms that sprout from the conversation of computer buffs and other such electronically obsessed types: blogging, podcasts, texting, for example.

Seldom is proposed a word that is useful to the rest of us. “Sharp’ner” is one such word. It comes to us from London slang and refers to a quick and social drink at the start of the evening. Currently being championed by the makers of Beefeater gin (www.beefeatergin.com), it’s a term that seems much more useful in our everyday life than “metrosexual” or “youtubing”.

Beyond simply defining the time and setting, the sharp’ner further seems to foster a healthy attitude about drinking—as the name implies the point is to hone the mind after the dulling workload of the day. Unlike the preponderance of slang phrases for drinking—hammer some pounders, slam some shooters, etc.—having a sharp’ner doesn’t have a sense of inevitable inebriation. And that is what Beefeater is promoting.

“In America, meeting a friend for ‘a drink’ can mean committing to an entire evening,” says the brand director, Suzanne Freedman. “Londoners have the right idea with the sharp’ner as it offers a way to meet up with a friend for one drink and very little obligation.”

The Kennington
The Kennington
I applaud the spirit of Beefeater’s effort even while I have no idea if sharp’ner is actually London slang. (I have heard the term “cleanser” used variously by Australians to mean a quick alcoholic drink to cleanse the mind and as a non-alcoholic drink between a bout with the harder stuff as a way to cleanse the palate even if it’s too late to cleanse the mind.) The concept of the sharp’ner is a way to focus on the remedial aspects of drinking and take the emphasis off of overindulgence, in short, more quality, less quantity.
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Further Adventures in Spotting Smokers

Posted: Jun 19, 2007 4:14pm ET
Earlier I blogged about a game I like to play that I call “Seen Smoking.” Not much to it essentially except spotting people smoking cigars. Sometimes it’s on the street, other times it’s in the media or celebrity life.

Sunday, I had a particularly good sighting while watching “Entourage,” the HBO series that just began its second season of the year. (It ran for a number of episodes in the time slot following “The Sopranos,” then took a week off when “The Sopranos” had its final episode and it just restarted in what is being called a separate season—these things were easier to follow years ago when every season began in September, but I digress.)

Anyway, as the season begins the main character, actor Vinnie Chase, and his entourage (hence the title) of hanger-ons, including brother, manager and go-fer, have traveled to Colombia to film a biopic of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Enter Billy Walsh, the self-possessed megalomaniacal bully who is directing the “film.” (His term. I prefer “movie,” as I think of film as something you scrub off your shower door.)

Owing to his inability to find a good ending for the picture or bed down the starlet, Walsh commences to chain smoke cigars in a sort of punctuation to his directorial meltdown in the jungle. (Shades of Coppola on “Apocalypse Now”?) Cigars can get you through a lot!

It’s not the first time “Entourage” has featured cigars, but it is the most in one episode. Jeremy Piven, who has made quite a splash—Emmy Award—playing Vinnie’s oily, hyperactive agent, is known to smoke off the set as well. Apparently HBO hasn’t the same compunctions as a lot of the rest of television has about portraying characters with cigars—case in point “The Sopranos." More power to ‘em.
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The Power of Positive Drinking

Posted: Jun 7, 2007 3:15pm ET
It’s almost like the power of positive drinking…
 
…strike that…
 
…positive thinking.
 
I’ve no sooner put to bed a story on rum for Cigar Aficionado (August 2007 issue) than arrives from the trade organization The Rums of Puerto Rico (www.rumcapital.com) an insulated backpack (with a set of luggage wheels, no less) that contains a bottle each of Don Q Cristal and Don Q Citrus Rum.
 
Am I that transparent?
 
Of course, this all plays into what I’ve been thinking and writing about lately: rum, in all its iterations—light, gold and dark—is on the upswing right now. Probably most remarkable is the white spirit part of that equation—it’s the fastest growing white spirit in the U.S. But lots of new rums are debuting as lighter spirits, belying the notion that liquor has to be dark to be good.
 
Puerto Rico plays a big part in that development, having been instrumental in trying to standardize a drink that has almost no international regulation. In particular, all Puerto Rican rums must be aged a minimum of one year—even the colorless ones. Consequently some legendary rums come from there, the aforementioned as well Ron Barrilito, Castillo and Bacardi.
 
Going into the summer as we are, I am very excited about the possibilities for rum cocktails and especially for pairing cigars with rum. The latter, I think, is especially well-advised during the summer months.
 
Does anyone else feel they turn to thoughts of rum in the warm weather?
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