Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Alameda Brandy Conference

Brandy is not a word with pleasant associations. See the little old lady pushing a thimble of brandy across a doily strewn table? It’s a long climb from that little old lady’s living room to the barrel house at Jepson Winery in Ukiah, California, where Alison Schneider talks about blending brandies as if she were talking about choreographing a ballet.

In about a week and a half, the American Distilling Institute will convene at St. George Distillery in Alameda, California for our annual conference. I’ll be there, as will numerous writers and many, many distillers. Matt Rowley has written a great anticipatory piece here (he did the heavy lifting).

For artisan distillers, this is the key event of the year, and this year, it’s all about brandy. This will include all sorts of eaux de vie, and all types of miraculous flavors. The most surprising spirits I’ve had over the last few years have been brandies, or close to it, like the Gew├╝rztraminer Grappa made in Petaluma at Stillwater Distillery. St. George, themselves, make a fabulous line of brandies, both aged and unaged.

These small distillers are changing the rules. Grappa, in their hands, is no longer the byproduct, no longer a desperate attempt to squeeze the last dimes out of a harvest, but a goal in itself. What’s more, small, artisinal distillers are allowed to do anything they want. Basil eau de vie? Sure. Organic asian pears? Why not? 

I’m a whiskey man at heart, but I have to admit that the real sweet spot for small scale, artisinal distilling is brandy, and I’m looking forward to seeing what everybody is doing, and what they have to say about it.

This year, for the first time, the public has a chance to drop by and get a taste of the action. Come out to St George on Sunday for  Meet the Maker from 2 to 5. $40 gets you in the door, where 40 distillers will be pouring their own wares. You can buy tickets and get more details here.

In the meantime, I’m trying to get around some brandy in anticipation. Rory Donovan’s Peach Street Distillers (he’ll be there) makes my favorite: 

Friday, March 20, 2009

A little more on Popcorn

Here's a little obituary-type consideration for the good folks at Gourmet.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Popcorn Sutton, R. I. P.

The Asheville Citizen Times is reporting that legendary story teller and moonshine maker Popcorn Sutton was found dead at his home.

Sutton, 62, spent much of his life making moonshine, a craft that brought him fame and a string of criminal convictions dating to the 1970s.

He was facing 18 months in federal prison on moonshining and weapons charges and had told a judge at his sentencing he was in poor health and would rather die at home than in jail.

The sticker on the back of his truck, above, says "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story." Sutton was a complicated man, full of contradictions.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Mixology Monday XXXVII: The First Time (I hope this place gets closed down by the police)

Young drinkers take role models, and one of the shining beacons of intemperance glares through the fog from the round table in the Rose Room of the Algonquin hotel, where the Vicious Circle shared quips, told jokes, and generally inflated themselves and one another. It was here (or nearby) that Dorothy Parker came up with her sentence “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”

Ultimately, I share Parker’s own view that the Round Table folks were not literary giants. I would suggest, however, that sitting around and telling jokes might be a better drinking lifestyle than the Still Life with Whiskey Bottle that produced The Sound and the Fury.

Witty, bitter, and sophisticated, the Round Table folks are perfect role models for young people who would consider themselves gimlet eyed rather than, say, beer goggled.

Among the founding members was Robert Benchley. Benchley wrote with a sense of comic timing and misdirection that is almost unmatched.

His short piece “If These Old Walls Could Talk” begins:

In passing by the old Waldorf the other day (or, to be exact, just as they were beginning to tear it down) I realized, with a slight catch in my throat, that some of the dullest hours of my life had been spent within its crumbling walls and, as I stopped to look for the last time at its historic front, I would have murmured “Eheu fugaces!” if I had been sure whether the “g” is pronounced hard or soft.

Benchley was also a drinker, and this is interesting to us here because he was, for years, a teetotaler.

When this month’s Mixology Monday topic was issued, I thought immediately of Benchley. This MxMo, hosted by LUPEC-Boston, asked the question:

What drink do you suggest for the delicate palate of the cocktail neophyte?
Here’s how it went for Benchley. (The story is apocryphal, of course, and it is a tribute to the man’s inebriation that there are conflicting stories regarding Benchley’s first drink.)

He was 31 or 32, having barely drunk a drop, and he was standing at Tony’s Bar with Dorothy Parker. Typically, Parker and all of Benchley’s friends would be getting drunk, and Benchley would be drinking soft. Tonight, however, he said “Let’s see what all the fuss is about,” and downed an Orange Blossom. He had tried a cocktail previously in another speakeasy (or perhaps it was this one, the record is conflicted), and said with a scowl that he hoped the place was closed down by the police.

The Orange Blossom worked. Benchley would soon spend as many hours of the day drinking as working, and was once rumored to have visited 38 speakeasies in one night. I’m afraid it doesn’t end well for Benchley, he drank himself right into cirrhosis and death. I’m not the kind to issue warnings with cocktails, but I suppose there is a certain amount of responsibility called for when introducing a neophyte to the drinking life.

There seem to be about 200 recipes for the orange blossom, and I won’t pretend to know which one is the right one, or which one Benchley drank. I like this one.

Squeeze an orange and pour an ounce of juice into a shaker with two ounces of good gin,
a teaspoon of superfine sugar, and a dash of orange bitters. Ice. Shake. Pour. Decorate. Enjoy -- but not too much.

It’s a very well balanced drink, with enough juicy flavor playing along with the gin
that it tastes like a very grown up glass of orangeade, but without so much in the way of fruit and sugar that it becomes cloying.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cattle Rustlers & Bootleggers

The thinness and blueness of the line between civilization and anarchy is, of course, metaphorical. The barrier is more like a variegated shopping mall. Sometimes, the shopkeepers get together and cooperate, and when they do, you can bet they give the project a name. In Alabama, this week saw the culmination of “Operation Giddy up and Go.” 15 counties in Alabama and one in Florida got together to recover stolen goods in a 6-month sting. They got “tractors, backhoes, all terrain vehicles, power tools, more than 80 head of cattle and 17 calves.” They also found some moonshine.

Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries Ron Sparks said, “the number of cattle and property thefts has gone up tremendously as unscrupulous people try to make a quick buck.”

Monday, March 2, 2009

Before the blizzard

Just about the time I dropped out of high school, I had a friend who drove a convertible Buick Skylark, like this one.

In late winter, yearning for the spring, he and I would put the top down and cruise around with the heat cranked, probably listening to Black Sabbath.

In the same spirit, I pulled the tarp off of the big table out back this weekend and set into some summer cocktailing. We had a moment of warmth before the sun slipped behind the mountain, and if you kept your coat on and didn’t think about it too much, you could see summer in the limes and grapefruits on the cutting board.

The Papa Doble was the drink of choice.

Squeeze a half a lime and a thin wedge of grapefruit into a shaker filled with ice and add two shots of white rum and a splash of Marischino liqueur. (Which has nothing to do with marischino cherries . . . get some Luxardo, it’s delicious.) Shake it like hell. I don’t have anything to shave ice with, so I put 5 or six ice cubes in a towel and whacked it against my stoop until they were crushed.

It is common wisdom that Papa developed the daiquiri that bears his name at the Floridita in Havana with Constante Ribailaguam, the bartender and owner, but Phil Greene found a reference to frozen daiquiris in a letter dated 1939. Perhaps with Constante he was only refining the drink. We should be thankful he did, although I wouldn’t want to try to drink sixteen of them.

The drink is crisp, slightly bitter, and wonderfully refreshing. I'm actually not convinced by all the purple waxing Hem threw its way -- I don't know that it'd make you a better boxer, and I see in my glass very little resemblance to the wake of a ship at thirty knots -- but I trust Papa, and as soon as I can dig the table out from the snowdrift it is now buried under, I'll take another stab at finding the poetry. In the meantime, one more illusory glimpse of summer:

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Dean Combs busted in North Carolina

ALE agents in North Carolina dynamited a still near the Wilkesboro speedway.

Here's the story.

Don't overlook the comments.