Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bookshelf: Drinking Japan

When I first arrived in Japan, I used to walk around looking for “pubs” on the theory that I knew what they were. It is not as simple as that. In Japan, the word “pub” can refer to various types of drinking establishments, not all of which serve reasonably priced drinks. There are “English pubs” and “Irish pubs” offering exactly what you might expect but there are also “sexy pubs” that sell something else.

~ Chris Bunting
Drinking Japan

Living in California where sushi joints are as common as coffee shops and devoting no small portion of my life to the study of distilling and drinking, I have some familiarity with Japanese whisky, shōchū, and sake — but only as an American understands these things. That is, I drink what I can get in the United States. Consequently, the breadth and depth of drinking choices in Japan itself has been a matter of trawling for hearsay, quizzing bartenders and distillers who have visited Japan, and reading.

For the last several months I have been trying to remedy that with a crash course in Japanese spirits and cookery.

One of the most useful books on drinking alcohol in modern Japan to come across my desk is, appropriately enough, Drinking Japan by Tokyo-based journalist Chris Bunting. Subtitled A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments, Bunting’s book is something of a revelation.

As with all guidebooks, some of its information — hours, addresses, or staff, for instance — is bound to be obsolete by the time it lands in your hands. Accept it and move on. The rest is a meaty mix of history; tips to avoid cultural misunderstandings (that extra charge on your bill isn’t sneaky thievery — it’s there on purpose and everyone at the bar but you understands this); suggestions for dealing with unfamiliar drinking environments; warnings on harsh penalties lashed out to drunk drivers (and passengers of drunk drivers); pronunciation guides; detailed guides and maps to bars, distilleries, and liquor stores; and profiles of Japan’s noteworthy alcoholists.

With so much of Americans' focus when it comes to Japanese drinking on sake and, to a lesser degree, whiskies, it was a surprise to me that Japan has a robust craft brewing scene. Obviously, Japan has breweries, but in California, I have known only light and, let’s face it, undistinguished brands such as Kirin and Sapporo. Bunting devotes an entire chapter to what he calls the “glories of Japanese beer” and breaks down where to get it and how to drink it.

One of the more engrossing chapters for me concerns awamori, an Okinawan distilled rice spirit that can be traced clearly to the early 1500s, but in all probability is older even than that. Awamori was, from its earliest days, an aristocratic drink. Bunting writes “Only forty individuals were given permits and all distilling was done under royal patronage; the stills and the ingredients were owned and loaned out by the kingdom and all of the liquor had to be returned to it, save for 5.4 liters left as payment with each maker. Unlicensed distilling brought the death penalty and transportation of the culprits family to a prison island.”  This, naturally, suggests that moonshining was enough of a problem that draconian laws were put in place to stem the flow from illicit stills (or perhaps a little side action on those royal stills when nobody was looking). Awamori had its ups and downs since the 18th century — not unlike American moonshine — but modern distillers seem to understand that the success of the class is anchored in quality product.

An almost heart-wrenching section — that is, from a drinker’s point of view — describes the utter destruction during World War II of awamori stocks that were well over 100 years old. After a bombardment by the battleship USS Mississippi annihilated the center of awamori making in Okinawa, “[S]tocks of black kōji spores necessary for making awamori destroyed. After a desperate search, a straw mat with traces of kōji on it was found under the rubble of one distillery and, after several failed attempts, the mold was successfully cultured.” Kōji (Aspergillus oryzae) is not much used in the West, but the fungus is essential for converting starches to sugars in several traditional types of Japanese fermented food and beverages.

Awamori Distilleries from Drinking Japan
At the time of printing, Bunting noted only 46 awamori distilleries remaining. Fortunately for the curious traveler or Japan-based drinker, he profiles a number of bars that specialize in the spirit. One of these days, I will get to Japan and I will sample awamori in situ. And Japanese whiskeys. And sake. And shōchū.

Until then, I have Drinking Japan to help me plan where and what to drink when I get there.

Cheers, Mr. Bunting, for the read.

Chris Bunting (2011)
Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments
288 pages (paperback)
ISBN: 4805310545

Goes well with:

    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    Children in Restaurants (Or, Mr. Rowley, Your Blog Stinks)

    Mr Rowley, I will be sure to never read your blog, 
    nor follow you on Twitter, 
    but I can feel free to say that 
    your blog stinks, 
    as do your tweets. 

    ~ S_Templar
    San Diego Union Tribune commenter

    I wrote in a recent San Diego Union Tribune article that I'd rather see a dog loose in a restaurant than children. This is true, but the operative word in the sentence is neither dog nor children. It is loose.

    Clearly, older children who have been taught civility, table manners, and inside voices are not what I'm talking about, nor am I opining on those who color quietly or eat their meals in peace with their families. They can't in any meaningful way be said to have been let loose in a restaurant.

    The very young, however, are inherently problematic. Admittedly, children do exist who are quiet, curious, polite little angels, even at a young age. But they are rare. Teething babies wail. Toddlers throw tantrums. Invariably, some have full-blown, red-faced meltdowns. I do not blame children who aren't in control of themselves; they are, after all, children. If they were in control, they could hold down jobs — or at least make me a respectable bourbon old fashioned.

    I do, however, heap contempt on parents who don't understand — or don't care — that children who haven't been taught how to behave have no place in restaurants that cater to adults.

    You know the children I mean — the loud-talkers; the screamers; those who scamper around the place while guardians seem oblivious to their kids' actions (or safety); the throwers of food; the interrupters and squealers; the climbers of booths; the little Hessians making a grab for something on your table; those floor mongrels egging on younger siblings to crying jags; the off-balance simpleton who quietly stares while digging in his nose as if a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory were buried deep in its recess.

    McDain's Restaurant and Golf Center in Monroeville, Pennsylvania recently banned kids under the age of six. This is an extreme measure, but to owner Mike Vuick, I say: bravo, sir. I myself frequent no-kid joints all the time.

    They're called bars.

    Goes well with:

    Friday, July 22, 2011

    America's New Distilleries: A Bonus

    Everyone seems to understand that there are more distilleries in the United States than there were ten years ago. But just how many more, where they are, and how to distinguish one from the other is not at all clear. And I say this as someone who studies these things, counts distillers among my friends, and sometimes travels solely to visit places that turn grains into something you'd want to drink.

    Though I composed this post last week, I am at this very moment in front of an audience of distillers, bartenders, writers, and cocktail enthusiasts in New Orleans with Chasing the White Dog author Max Watman in a sold-out, SRO session called America's New Distilleries. We're about fifteen or twenty minutes into it and I am probably blathering on about the geographical distribution of DSPs and membership in the American Distilling Institute as indicators of distillery density in the US.

    Those of you in the audience will understand these maps; they are here for your reference when the talk moves on. If you use them (and be my guest for online use), please link back to this post. If you want to print them, get in touch and tell me what you have in mind. Once this Tales of the Cocktail session is over, and I'm back safe and sound in San Diego, I will post a follow-up to this with a little more narrative and context.

    For now? This is a bonus for coming to see us in person. Click each image to enlarge.


    Thursday, July 21, 2011

    Ah, New Orleans. I'd say this is where I make a pig of myself, except that would imply that I do not also do so in other towns and, as those of you who know me may attest, that's just not true. We landed Tuesday for the annual Tales of the Cocktail ho-down and it's been non-stop go-go-go.

    Friday morning, I'll share the podium with Max Watman for a sold-out session called America's New Distilleries. Because so many of today's distilleries are small businesses, it seemed more fitting to gather together a group of them to sponsor the session rather than one of the larger distillery groups that produce millions of cases a year.

    Those who abed this day will miss a chance to sample products from nine separate new American distilleries. Spirits will range from aged peach brandy (which readers of David Wondrich's excellent book, Imbibe, may think is extinct) and triple-smoke whiskey to sarsaparilla-tinged gin, 100-proof cherry hooch, and a chai liqueur that just grows on me more and more.

    If you're not in the room drinking learning with us, here are links to their sites;

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Tiki Tuesdays

    Whether the house specials are tropical drinks or tacos, it seems as if Tiki Tuesdays are cropping up in bars all over these days. Some tikiphiles don't even bother with bars and simply make delicious rum concoctions at home before the work week is even half over. Me? I don't know why we have to make it Tuesday. Seems Tiki Wednesday and Sunday are perfectly fine days to mark the passing of the week. That's not to say I would turn around and leave if I should stumble across a full-blown Tiki Tuesday in progress...and that's exactly what I found at Rogue Ales public house in Portland last month.

    Because I intended to catch up with Blair Reynolds of tiki syrup fame, Craig Hermann (aka Colonel Tiki), and their families while there, I packed along a Hawaiian shirt. For this, I was roundly mocked at home. This was, of course, not the first time that has happened. Whenever I don one of those floral shirts, my sidekick Dr Morpheus asks "Is that what you're going to wear?" Sometimes, admittedly, I put one on just to elicit this response. I never said I was not mischievous. Photographer Douglas Dalay will more blatantly lean in closer to me, cup one hand to his ear, and make the most pained expressions when he sees me wearing such a shirt. "What?" he'll mock-shout. "What?! I can't hear you over that loud shirt."

    So with those two in tow, I dropped by Rogue Ales to take a load off and try to catch up with distiller John Couchot. John was offsite that day, so we visited him at another Rogue property, but not before discovering that Rogue, too, had a Tiki Tuesday. The deal was that anyone walking in wearing a Hawaiian/tropical shirt would get a free beer. Mine was locked away in the rental car a block away. Ah, well. After much travel, it felt good to sit and enjoy a cool beverage and I wasn't about to go get it.

    Dalay had other ideas. Not one to pass up a good deal, he asked for the keys and disappeared. About five minutes later, who should stroll through the front door talking smack about free beer? I wasn't sure because I had one hand cupped to my ear, leaning in, and trying to make out what he was saying over the loud, loud shirt.

    Goes well with:
    • Simbre Sauce, the pre-batched cinnamon-allspice-vanilla-bitters syrup we use at home for Nui Nuis, ice cream, over granola, etc., is named after Douglas Dalay.
    • Rogue Ales. There are several venues for Rogue, but the one we dropped in that day for Tiki Tuesday was at 1339 NW Flanders in Portland, OR [(503) 222-5910]. They also host a Bacon Wednesday. At least, that's what the sign by the host station read. I didn't have a shirt for that.  
    • Other Portland stories include Remember the Maine? Hell, I Barely Remember the Walk Home and Pok Pok's Chicken Wings (with recipe).   

    Friday, July 15, 2011

    Bookshelf: America Walks into a Bar

    Years ago, during one of my extended stints in New Orleans, the city was struck by a tropical depression. Wave after wave of winds and driving rain buffeted us and water began rising ominously. This was before Katrina and, while everyone was monitoring the situation, few seemed concerned that the weather would actually turn dangerous. Many did, however, rule that things had become entirely too treacherous to stay at work or at home.

    The books and papers in my cloth satchel were bound to be ruined by the torrents of rain, so I quickly ducked into the Bourbon Pub, an old gay bar at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann. Taking refuge in a neighborhood bar, I realized, wasn’t my solitary genius idea. The place soon filled with locals. As much time as I have spent in New Orleans, I had never — to that point — been to a hurricane party. Everyone in the bar knew the weather was bound to get bad before it got better. Clearly, these locals felt, no work could be done while the storm raged and the rain blew nearly sideways. So, what better way for the community to come together then within the bowels of an old brick building where video poker, indoor smoking, and a seemingly endless supply of liquor that fueled a convivial — yes, even party — atmosphere?

    Face it, when the power fails, the phones go down, and the streets are filling with water, where would you rather be: your office or a bar?

    We may have no hurricane parties in San Diego, but gathering in bars and taverns in times of turmoil is nothing unique to New Orleans or, indeed, new. In her new book, America Walks into a Bar, Christine Sismondo places the bar squarely at the heart of American social life. Call it the tavern, a pub, a saloon, or any other style of watering hole, the bar has for centuries been where Americans gather to share news, hatch plots, settle wagers, and predetermine the outcome of political races.

    The book covers political intrigue, secret societies, court officers, and unionists all brought together in front of the brass rail. Sismondo also writes about marginalized populations who have assembled and amassed in bars for most of the last three centuries. The Molly Maguires are there, as are feminists, African-Americans, and gays. One hears about New York’s famous Stonewall Inn and how a police raid there resulted in riots that helped launch the modern gay rights movement. What we hear less about is what the place was actually like. Sismondo digs up historical references that make the mob-run bar sound every bit as dangerous and squalid as a Luc Sante opium den.

    Ms Sismondo would like her drink refreshed
    Inadvertently, perhaps, Sismondo drops one of the most useful bar tips I have ever heard. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing number of thirtysomething hipster parents bringing their young children with them to bars and gastropubs. Now, I’m not one of those crusty old curmudgeons who hates children in every setting. I adore some babies and don’t even mind kids in bars. However, when the place gets a reputation among young parents as child-friendly, it’s only a matter of time before strollers, booster seats, escaped Cheerios, and the stomach-churning smell of vaguely sour milk comes to define a place. That’s fine. I just don’t want that place to be my neighborhood bar. Sismondo, writing about the “nonbreeding” parents of Park Slope, opines that, faced with a similar choice, such “residents seemingly have no choice but to retreat into upstairs spaces that can’t be accessed…”

    I enjoyed the book's breezy, almost conversational tone, its historical anecdotes, and its look into how America’s bars have long stood as a vital “third space” in our communities, but that bit about retreating into upstairs spaces is one I’m going to put to use. I’ve always quite liked second-story bars for the views they offered of the surrounding neighborhoods, but I realize now something else has always nestled in the back of my brain: not many parents will schlep a stroller up a flight of stairs.

    Christine Sismondo (2011)
    America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops
    314 pages (hardback)
    Oxford University Press
    ISBN: 019973495X

    For those of you attending Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Christine Sismondo will be speaking next Thursday, July 21 on The Bad Bad Boys of Saloons and signing books at the popup bookstore in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone. See for details.

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Hellz Yeah: It's Tiki Oasis Time

    When I was a kid, one of the best things about having been born in August was that I never had to go to school on my birthday. These days, I have something else entirely that captures my attention at the tail end of the summer: Tiki Oasis.

    Every August, as they have since 2006, tikiphiles gather in San Diego for a four-day extravaganza of Polynesian Pop madness. Rum, obviously, plays into the long weekend, but I will say this about a tiki crowd: no other group of drinkers is as open, friendly, and welcoming.

    According to the official history,
    Originally conceived as a fundraiser to support the rehabilitation of the Palm Springs Caliente tropics Motel, Tiki Oasis outgrew its original 88 room location and Southern California-centric following and in 2006 moved to its current location in San Diego where the event sells out a 400 room hotel and draws over 2500 attendees from all over the world.
    The theme this year is South of the Border. From 18-21 August, revelers will lounge around the pool, attend educational sessions, buy and sell tropical-themed merchandise, and enjoy a musical lineup that explores the Latin roots of exotica music, a cornerstone of tiki culture. I'll be busy with birthday shenanigans during Tiki Oasis, but some of them may just have to shift over to the hotel. After all, it's about three miles from my house — how could I pass up the chance to spend time with such a fun crowd?

     Goes well with:
    • The Tiki Oasis website has all the official details, schedules, musical lineups, and more. Check it out here.
    • Find Tiki Oasis on Twitter here.
    • Finally, be sure to check out my piece on about last year's anniversary punch made by San Francisco barman Martin Cate. Recipe — and enormous fireball — included.

    KABOOM! Ryan Chetiyawardana on High-Temperature Distillation

    I do not own a rotary evaporator. Three possible reasons for this spring immediately to mind. To wit:
    1. Rotary evaporators are effete affectations of so-called molecular gastronomists and have no place in a traditional kitchen such as my own.
    2. Rotovaps are dangerous and those who would use them foolhardy.
    3. They cost a lot of money
    Rotary evaporators are ingenious industrial stills that have been around since the 1950's, no more dangerous than any other piece of kitchen gear. The sole reason I don't have one is the cost. Even a small, one-liter countertop model can run into thousands of dollars.

    But not everyone is dissuaded by the cost. They've been showing up in forward-looking professional kitchens and the backrooms of bars that play host to experimental bartenders. In a nutshell, they allow low-temperature distillation of alcohol in very low atmospheric pressure. Delicate and ephemeral tastes and scents that perhaps could have been captured laboriously only en fleurage in past centuries can be, with a rotovap, cranked out on one's kitchen counter.
    Rotovap: click to enlarge

    In the latest issue of CLASS magazine, London bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana discusses his rotary evaporator. Specifically, he writes about the traditional low-temperature/low pressure technique for which the high-tech still is known and then, pulling a Father William, he turns it on its head, inverting the process to become high-pressure/high-temperature distillation.

    Chetiyawardana writes:
    One of the main culprits for this thinking was black pepper. I've always found it a very complex spice and found notes ranging from red berries all the way through to wood, tobacco and coffee. When run through a low pressure distillation, the delicate floral notes shine through. On trying pot still distillations, this yields some of the spice, but it wasn't until I ran a high pressure distillation that I finally achieved the wonderfully fragrant, oily and earthy distillate I wanted.
    The still — for that's what a rotary evaporator is — has been dubbed Chetiyawardana's "Kaboom Still." Hats off to him for pushing distillation into new directions.

    Goes well with:

    Friday, July 8, 2011

    Bread Pan Ice Blocks

    It's been so goddamned hot this week. Friends in other parts of the country regularly beset with summer scorchers have no sympathy.

    "How hot?" they ask. "Seventy-seven degrees? Eighty? Poor you, living in paradise all year. You can't take a little heat."

    Yeah, they're cloudy. Know what else they are? Cold.
    To an extent, they're right. San Diego just doesn't get more than, say, nicely warm most of the year. But when the mercury spikes, we're not used to it. Even locals like me who've come from sultry — even swampy — places and know the soul-sucking power of truly hot days and nights have grown accustomed to the temperate year-round pleasantness of it all.

    I only remind friends who expect unbearable heat in the summer and whose houses are built to deal with it: most San Diego homes seem not to have air conditioners. Us? We have a window unit that sits in storage 10 months out the year. The two months it's installed, we turn it on maybe a dozen times.

    We're due to set a record this year. That contraption is on every night now. When I'm not sleeping directly under its cool airplane engine gusts, I'm keeping the heat at bay with uncharacteristic shorts, a nearly unheard-of and ungentlemanly bare chest, and ice. Big chunks of ice.

    Rather than fuss with fancy silicone ice cube trays that still wouldn't yield enough ice, I simply filled two large bread loaf pans with filtered water and froze them. When I need a cube or three, I break the thick ice logs into rough blocks about 3" to a side with a stainless steel surgical hammer. In they go, into a sawed-off spring water bottle I now use as an iced tea glass. Top off with cold tea from the fridge and — for a while, anyway — stave off the worst of the San Diego sweats.

    It's good practice for New Orleans.

    Meanwhile, I leave you with a short, short clip based on H. P. Lovecraft's 1926 story Cool Air.  I'd even take on Dr. Muñoz's ailment if it meant I could have continuous, blessed cool air.

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    Distiller Wanted: New Orleans

    Celebration Distillation, the makers of Old New Orleans Rum, is looking for a new distiller. Parker Shonekas sent me the job description this morning. As usual, when I note distillery job openings, I have nothing to do with the company (other than, in this instance, a deep appreciation for the Cajun spiced rum and admiration for [edit: former*] head distiller Chris Sule). Just passing on information, so it's no use asking me questions about the position or applying for it by sending me your resume. For that, you've got to get in touch with Parker Schonekas ( 

    If I lived in New Orleans, you can be damn sure I wouldn't be posting this. I'd be at the distillery this very minute.

    Barrels o' rum at Celebration Distillation
     Production Team: Distiller

    Celebration Distillation, the makers of Old New Orleans Rum, is seeking a motivated and hard working individual to work with our Production Team and to train to become an Old New Orleans Rum Distiller. We are the oldest premium rum distillery in the United States, and we produce three distinct and delicious rums - Old New Orleans Rum - Crystal; Amber; Cajun Spice.

    Job Description:
    • Work in the production of Rum and other products
    • Run Stills
    • Perform fermentations, filtrations, and final blends
    • Upkeep and Maintain Equipment
    • Keep facility and workspace clean
    • Assist in the analysis of process and equipment efficiencies
    • Assist in the analysis and installation of upcoming expansions
    • Occasionally work events or parties hosted at the distillery
    • Work Flexible Hours
    • Time Expectations: Minimum of 40 hours per week
    • Commitment to Quality
    • Any knowledge or experience in alcohol production or food production is preferred
    • Any technical experience in pipe fitting, welding, process engineering, chemical or mechanical
      knowledge is preferred.
    • 21 Years of Age and Over 
    *My thanks to Todd Price who clued me in that, as of two days ago, Chris is now working at NOLA Brewing. A quick phone call to Celebration confirmed it. Good luck brewing them beers, Chris.

      Tuesday, July 5, 2011

      Bookshelf: My New Orleans

      I met John Besh in Oxford, Mississippi about two months after Hurricane Katrina. Although he is known as a New Orleans chef, Besh hails from Slidell, Louisiana where I had family before the storms.

      Before floodwaters had even begun to subside, I had spoken to all my friends and relatives in and around New Orleans, making sure everyone was okay. It wasn’t until I saw so many in one place a few months later — the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual meeting — that I realized everyone was not okay. Good friends had put on weight. Others had shed pounds they didn’t have to lose in the first place. All were in various degrees of shock and many were self-medicating with too much liquor.

      Besh was there with a burning ferocity. He told stories not just about of people surviving, but of people determined to rebuild their homes and their city. During the time when many Americans — even, I'm saddened to say, friends — argued against ever repopulating New Orleans, he was practically galvanized by the challenges ahead. While so many of my New Orleans friends seemed almost overwhelmed by the devastation, the former Marine set to work. He famously navigated streets of the flooded city in a boat, bringing red beans and rice to those who needed it. I don’t go much for heroes or role models, but John Besh might be a bit of both. I'm not interested in his stints on Iron Chef, his appearances on Bravo, or the other aspects of his celebrity. When it mattered, when the world seemed like it might have ended, he rolled up his sleeves and he fed people.

      And he’s been doing it ever since. Of course, he was a chef before Katrina, but since then, he has become arguably New Orleans’ most well known outside the city. I’ve eaten uncounted times at his restaurants and will undoubtedly end up in one before Tales of the Cocktail is over this month. As often as I visit, I don’t, at the end of the day, live in New Orleans. That may change one day. But until then, one of the touchstones of the city’s cookery is Besh’s massive cookbook, My New Orleans.

      In it, Besh writes about the aftermath of the storms:
      The story of our city is greater than those storms. We have been here for over 300 years, and we'll be here for another 300. Maybe it's about my children's generation, and their children's. Will they still eat red beans on Mondays? Make St. Joseph's Day altars? Will they still love the Saints? Will we ever win a Super Bowl? All I know is that I cook New Orleans food my way, revering each ingredient as it reaches the season of its ripeness. No other place on earth is like New Orleans. Welcome to the flavors of my home. Welcome to My New Orleans.
      In short order, I will share with you one of my favorite recipes from Besh’s book. But in the meanwhile, I’ll leave you with this: The Saints did win the Super Bowl. Red beans still get made every Monday. And, by god, New Orleans will most assuredly be with us for another 300 years.

      John Besh (2010)
      My New Orleans: The Cookbook
      384 pages (hardback)
      Andrews McMeel Publishing
      ISBN: 0740784137

      America's New Distilleries

      In a mere two weeks, I'll be back in New Orleans for Tales of the Cocktail. On Friday, July 22, Max Watman and I will be giving the talk about the burgeoning trade in spirits from new domestic distilleries. It's no surprise to drinkers that there are a lot more distilleries than there were just a few short years ago.  But just how many more, where are they, and what are they making?

      Max and I will be tackling these questions and more — all the while sampling with our audience a range of whiskeys, Pacific Northwest gin, aged peach brandy, cordials, and some enhooched cherries that might just backhand you right off the front porch.

      Unfortunately, if you don't already have a ticket, you're out of luck. The event has been sold out since last month. Not to fret, however. Once we're done with New Orleans, and I have recovered from Tales, I'll post some of those findings right here on the Whiskey Forge.

      If you absolutely insist that no trip to New Orleans is complete without saying hello to me, drop by the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone 12:30-1pm on Friday, July 22. Max and I will both be there signing copies of our books and quite possibly enjoying a cool beverage from the Carousel Bar 40 feet away.

      Monday, July 4, 2011

      It's a Nice Day for a White Whiskey

      Some months back. Lew Bryson of Malt Advocate asked me about increasingly common options for so-called "white" whiskeys from American distilleries. Lew was probably just looking for a quip. What he got was me in a chatty mood and (edited for length and clarity) this:

      Whether drinkers find white whiskeys most useful for sipping, mixing, or shocking depends in part on their existing impressions about moonshine. Shock for today’s waves of crystal grain comes in two distinct flavors: disdain and fun.

      Some whiskey aficionados look on the entire class as not just suspect, but an insult to whiskey. Some won’t even deign to call it whiskey at all (and, under US law, grain spirits untouched by barrels are not whiskey, but that’s just using the law to enforce one’s prejudices). White dog, they’ll tell you, is useful only as a teaching tool. It is a proto-whiskey, a foil that elucidates the power of barrels and age. Those who would drink it as their drink of choice are defined by what they’re not: they are uncouth, uneducated, unsophisticated, and practically uncivilized. That some would actually want to drink the stuff is indicative only of their woeful state.

      The other drinkers — those who realize the inherent fun in a jar of white lightning —revel in the breakin’-the-law history of illegal hooch. They expect it to be bad, and so play up their reactions to it. We have hundreds of years of stories about the horrible things that happen to people who drink moonshine and, not surprisingly, an entire class of YouTube videos has evolved that feature young drinkers trying their best to down Heaven Hill's contribution to the genre, Georgia Moon. Drinking it, still, is a test of machismo. For the shock value, one might as well be drinking a bucket of spit.

      Distillers who deliberately tap moonshine history as part of their brand must understand that the sketchy nature of the spirit runs deep in America’s psyche. Other than absinthe, few spirits are actually feared. Moonshine is. If drinkers mock and heap disdain on white spirits that come in jugs and jars, it should come as a surprise to no one.

      The surprise comes, though, when spirits lovers actually sample these new spirits. While most of us would agree that Georgia Moon is no sophisticated sipping whiskey, some of the white spirits on offer now are. Tuthilltown’s Hudson corn whiskey is a great example of America’s primal spirit. They don’t call it moonshine, but it’s a better execution on the theme than much of the so-called commercial moonshine I’ve had.

      I recently tried the range of Koval’s white spirits out of Chicago — American Oat, Levant Spelt, Midwest Wheat, Raksi Millet, and Rye Chicago — each of them a lovely spirit made entirely of a single type of grain. The clearly distinguishable taste of base grains is one of the reasons that we’ll see white whiskeys around for some time.

      Drinkers who delight in cocktails are going to adore home-grown American whiskeys whether they’re aged in oak or not.

      I’ve no doubt that in ten years, new brands and new distilleries that can't cut it will have folded, but for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have even more choices in white whiskey. Get it while you can — and possibly ensure that minimally aged grain spirits become a more enduring part of the American drinking repertoire.

      Friday, July 1, 2011

      Pok Pok's Chicken Wings

      I've lost my goddamned mind: 
      just conducted an interview 
      of the chicken wings I'm frying at home. 
      Surprisingly, they have a voice a lot like mine, 
      only higher.

      ~ Facebook post from me last night,
      an increasingly rare occurrence

      Last month, I spent the better part of a week in Portland, Oregon. Like so many before me, I was smitten. Can you blame me? I’m from San Diego, a desert town on the coast. It’s hard not to be taken with Portland’s lush greenery and air so moist you can feel it even on a sunny day (or, rather, during sunny parts of most days). Add to that the breweries, the distilleries, the Bookstore, hiking out in the gorge, the cocktails, and the food…oh, sweet Jesus, the food.

      We ate. When someone asks me what we did in Portland, my answer is simply: we ate. Bacon macaroni and cheese from a food truck, sour cherry water ice, bulgogi tacos, truffled popcorn, pickles, ice cream sandwiches, fried-to-order chocolate donuts, pork ribs, chicken fried steak, boar, an amazing red pork stew, cured meats, cheeses, biscuits, fried chicken, berries, cherries, lefse, blue cheese burgers. I didn’t feel right for a week afterward. It was glorious.

      A plate of spicy chicken wings at Andy Ricker’s restaurant Pok Pok, though, was so good that we ordered another round even though there wasn’t one single hungry person at the table. I’m not the first to write about the wings. I won’t be the last. The have a fame of their own. When my friend Barry sent directions for making them from a 2008 Food & Wine recipe, I bought three kilos of flappers and broke out the fryer.

      It was too much. None was left.

      Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings
      (aka Pok Pok Wings)

      The menu calls them Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings. No disrespect to Ike, but most everyone I spoke to in Portland called these crispy glazed chicken wings Pok Pok wings. In brackets are my adjustments and notes. You’ll notice that I like garlic and heat. To add some spice to the glaze, I added a healthy dollop of sambal oelek, an Indonesian crushed chile paste that’s widely available even in whitebread grocery stores.

      ½ cup Asian fish sauce [Viet Huong brand nuoc mam]
      ½ cup superfine sugar
      4 garlic cloves, 2 crushed and 2 minced [8-10, 4-5 and 4-5]
      3 pounds [whole] chicken wings
      2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for frying
      1 cup cornstarch
      1 Tbl chopped fresh cilantro
      1 Tbl chopped fresh mint [chiffonade]
      [2 Tbl sambal oelek, Huy Fong brand]

      In a bowl, whisk the fish sauce, sugar, [sambal oelek, if using], and crushed garlic. Add the wings and toss to coat. Refrigerate for 3 hours [more than that and they become oversalted from the fish sauce], tossing the wings occasionally.

      Heat the 2 tablespoons of oil in a small skillet. Add the minced garlic; cook over moderate heat until golden, 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

      In a large pot, heat 2 inches of oil to 350°F. Pat the wings dry on paper towels; reserve the marinade. Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl, add the wings and turn to coat. Fry the wings in batches until golden and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Drain on paper towels and transfer to a bowl.

      In a small saucepan, simmer the marinade over moderately high heat until syrupy, 5 minutes. Strain over the wings and toss. Top with the cilantro, mint and fried garlic and serve.

      Salty? Yes. But not too much so as long as you don’t overdo the marinating time. Cook a pot of plain white rice, crack open a beer, and make sure you've got plenty of napkins.