One Step Closer

Last week I ordered a martini after work – breaking news this is not.  But for me, the simple act of enjoying an ordinary martini has been impossible for quite a long time.  While sipping the icy cold cocktail with a colleague in a near-empty restaurant bar, I took a moment to reminisce about my drinking preferences: what led to my martini hiatus; my past attempts at reintroduction; and my current station, based on my new-found love affair with gin.

The story begins on a cold, winter afternoon over six years ago.  Low-hanging gray clouds blended with Washington’s stubby granite and marble skyline, which itself blended with dirty, soot-crusted patches of melting snow.  I was to meet several co-workers, as well as my girlfriend, for a Friday happy hour at a martini lounge that had recently opened in the lower level of a Capitol Hill row house.

Down the steps and into the darkly painted and dimly lit space, I wasted no time tying one on, as they say.  Only a short while later – say, about an hour – I was well into my third vodka martini and feeling tight.  Being a young man at the time, I had not yet mastered the delicate art of managing one’s buzz, manipulating time and drink to create the perfect combination.  Especially when consuming spirits, I would go from sober-as-a-priest to falling-down drunk.  Unfortunate yes, but nonetheless part of knowing your body’s chemistry, tastes, and faculties.  Thankfully my girlfriend was there in my hour of need, rescuing me from myself and along the way, witnessing things no young woman should ever have to see.

Weeks and months passed, then years, but I could not enjoy another martini following that experience.  Any time I so much as smelled vodka and vermouth together, my stomach would turn; the Garcia Effect had indeed taken firm hold.  Try as I might to reconstitute my taste for martinis, I was never able.

Years later, I found myself sitting at another bar with that same woman – now my wife – this time aboard a cruise liner touring the Caribbean Sea.  It was a special occasion and another attempt was in order; certainly it had been long enough for my body to forget the agony I have inflicted upon it.  But success was not to be.  Even the bar’s specialty martini – an Iceberg Martini, consisting of vodka, vermouth, and crème de menthe – could not fool my physiology’s memory.

Shortly after that trip I gave up trying to reacquire the taste: martinis would forever be crossed off my list of cocktail options.  I decided instead on whisky, the Manhattan being my cocktail of choice.  This was the routine until earlier this year, when I discovered the herbal wonders of gin.  This past February, I wrote about the Parisian Cocktail, an ordinary gin martini with crème de cassis.  It marked the beginning of my slow and cautious return to the classic martini.

Although as of late, the Negroni has been my cocktail du jour, it didn’t suit the hot weather last week and felt less than refreshing that afternoon with my colleague.  Why not try a gin martini?  This is, after all, as martini aficionados will inform you, the proper spirit with which to make the cocktail.  And the cold, crisp gin certainly sounded delicious on such a warm day.  Yet without a third ingredient to mask the taste and smell – menthe or cassis as in past attempts – I was afraid of embarrassing myself by viscerally reacting to the drink.  But after contemplating my choices for a few minutes, I thought what the hell? 

So, a gin martini it was.  And although it wasn’t an exact replica of the martini that so thoroughly entrenched my conditioned taste aversion, to me it represented progress.  Apparently, simply substituting one spirit for another was the key to appreciating this classic cocktail again.  Perhaps I’m closer than ever to a time when I can order a vodka martini without feeling immediately nauseous.  But let’s not push our luck.  No one wants to see that again.

Published in: on August 17, 2011 at 10:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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Cutting Corners?

A fine, aged whisky (or whiskey) is a thing of beauty.  Whether it is Scottish, Irish, Japanese, or American, a full bodied, oaky, slightly smokey pour is my idea of simple perfection in a glass, unadulterated by water, temperature, or mixer.  However, an unsettling trend has developed in the whisky world, a trend placing profits and production over time, patience, and ultimately, quality: the reincarnation of white whisky.

You might not have heard of white whisky before.  Or perhaps you know it by its other name, moonshine.  Well, not exactly, and therein lies the root of the problem.  Moonshine – un-aged whisky bottled straight off the still, the kind produced illegally during Prohibition – is not identical to the present craft distilled white whiskies.  Modern white whiskies are aged somewhat, but nowhere near the length of time of traditional scotches and bourbons.  And there it is, our problem: time.

Aging whisky in barrels, oftentimes for decades, costs money: the barrels themselves as well as the space to house said barrels being the two most obvious expenses.  Because you cannot sell the spirit whilst it ages, startup distilleries have a hard time making a profit: this “is why many new distillers start with ‘white’ spirits like vodka and gin, then invest in whiskey once the money is flowing.  But the allure of producing brown liquor is a strong one, so for the last few years entrepreneurial types have been looking for ways around the time conundrum,” writes The Atlantic’s Clay Risen.

So, what to do if you’re a distiller who wants to produce whisky but doesn’t want to wait?  You produce whisky with only minimal aging, allowing you to turn a profit much more quickly.  Yet cutting corners comes at the cost of quality: regardless of what artificial aging techniques are used – bags of wood chips, smaller barrels, even moving the whisky inside the barrel – there is no substitute for time.

Perhaps consumers are wise to this fact: The Washington Post’s Jason Wilson asserts: “It’s unclear how many people are buying white whiskeys, and even more unclear how they’re being consumed… ‘Demand for them isn’t high, and I rarely see repeat sales on them. Most folks just want to try them to satisfy their curiosity.’”

Curiosity is certainly understandable, but is by no means a substitute for good old-fashioned patience.  Perhaps these corner cutters would be better off remembering “the maxim of Julian ‘Pappy’ Van Winkle: ‘We make Fine Bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always Fine Bourbon.’”

Published in: on August 12, 2011 at 1:54 pm  Comments (3)  
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I’ll Have a Cocktail

I’ve been able to get out of the house a bit more than usual during the last few weeks.  After the sun sets and the child is put to bed, I take a relaxing, short walk to one of the many neighborhood establishments to sit, alone, with a drink and my thoughts.

Drinking alone may not be for everyone, but it happens to be one of my favorite things.  In an appropriate setting – a dimly lit bar doing steady business, but by no means busy, serving stiff and classic cocktails – one can take company in their own solitude.  Sitting quietly, raising the glass slowly to your lips, slowly savoring the flavors and ingredients; deliberate and calm movements, made in the company of a few strangers and the bartender, while the ambient noise of conversations and music fill the air.

In this setting, I have found I prefer a cocktail rather than a beer or glass of wine.  And my reason for this choice is simple: bartenders are experts at crafting cocktails; I am not.  This is not to say I am incapable of performing the task, of course not; I certainly enjoy fixing myself a drink.  And creating your own beverage – just like cooking your own meal – does at times taste better because of the effort involved.

However, a cocktail prepared by an expert is likely to be of far higher quality.  Capability and expertise are therefore important distinctions.  Yes, I am completely capable of creating most cocktails in my kitchen; I own several books containing thousands of recipes, a decent set of basic bartending tools, and a moderate variety of top shelf liquors.  Yet my home bar has its limits and is lacking in several important areas, namely the absence of fresh fruit for juices or garnishes as well as rail-quality mixers.

More importantly to note are my own shortcomings: I am not an expert when it comes to those intrinsic qualities that make a great bartender, such as creativity, knowledge, and finesse – the characteristics separating a modern, professional mixologist from a common bartender.  Because anyone can open a bottle of beer or wine, even me; on the other hand, it takes a certain expertise to create a perfect cocktail.

So I’ll leave the more simple drinks – a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or a dram of scotch – to be prepared at home, where a clean glass and bottle opener are the only requirements.  I’ll leave the cocktailing to the experts behind the bar, where I can take full advantage of the skills and resources at their disposal.  And perhaps make a new friend along the way.

Published in: on August 10, 2011 at 9:22 am  Comments Off  
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Summer Beer

August has arrived; in most places that means just one month of summer remains.  Yet here in D.C., August and September both bring the worst of summer’s heat and humidity.  Productivity lags and many flee the city for vacation.  And it is during this time – the early days of summer’s latter half – I realized I had yet to write, in general terms, about summer beer.

For the last several years I relied upon Sam Adam’s Summer Ale as my go-to summer seasonal brew.  However, this year I’ve discovered two other fantastic summer seasonals and have enjoyed them so much as to forsake Sam Adams – my old reliable – altogether.

The first is Victory Brewery’s Summer Love Ale, a fantastic light and aromatic beer perfect for the mid-Atlantic region’s miserable summer weather.  Victory is based in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, just a bit southwest of Philadelphia, where the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains begin; so clearly, the brewers at Victory understand how to craft a brew that will help you manage this region’s miserable summer weather.

The second is Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ Ale, a slightly hoppier and medium-bodied, but no less delicious, summer ale.  The folks at Lagunitas bill the ale as “sneaky smooth with a touch of what we call wheatly-esque-ish-ness.”  Coincidentally, a few weeks after I discovered Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’, a favorite writer of mine – James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic – took a break from his ordinarily serious analysis to sing the praises of this wonderful summer brew.  Or, covering the recent debt  ceiling negotiations was driving him to drink.  (At least he was drinking good beer.)

So there you have it – a couple of new choices to enjoy during the latter half of summer.  Perhaps by next summer I’ll learn of a few additional options, making the decision of what to drink during these waning days of warm weather all the more difficult, yet fantastically refreshing.

Measuring Up

When pouring yourself a beer, most of us don’t lose sleep over differences in measurements and definitions.  A beer is a beer, whether poured from a bottle, tap, or beer engine.  There are small beers and big beers, generally speaking; attention is usually paid more to contents than the container.  But leave it to the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) to get all size specific – for good reason, mind you – when talking about the size of a standard pint of beer.

National Geographic reports the BBPA’s efforts at new specificity in their August issue; the association’s concern on this issue stems from the U.K.’s declining beer consumption.  I wrote back in December about the alarming rate at which neighborhood British pubs were disappearing; not surprisingly, because Britons are drinking less beer.  According to recent numbers from the BBPA, “Brits drink some 23 million pints of beer a day, but sales have dropped 19 percent over the past six years, and 25 pubs close in an average week.”

The BBPA’s focus on measurement – or serving size – is indeed interesting when taken in context with their present legal constraints.  “British law has long dictated that pubs sell beer and cider only in an imperial pint (pictured), which is about 20 percent larger than a U.S. pint, or in glasses one-third or one-half that size. But this year Parliament is set to scrap several restrictions on weights and measures to encourage innovation. This would legalize a two-thirds pint—an amount some are calling a schooner based on a similar-size Australian pour.”

Fundamentally, the association hopes the ability to order a smaller glass of beer would lead to a greater number of Brits willing to duck in for a quick drink or two.  But should this two thirds solution take effect, we Americans are not likely to notice: two thirds of a British Imperial Pint equates almost exactly to a standard 12 ounce pour.  Which really means, for those of us with future travel plans in Britain, we can order an American sized beer at British prices.  So if you’re lucky enough to visit the U.K. and find yourself in of the few remaining local pubs, take my advice: go big or go home.

Picture courtesy of National Geographic Magazine

Published in: on August 2, 2011 at 9:26 am  Comments Off  
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