R.I.P. The Campbell Apartment

The impending closure of the Campbell Apartment, in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, has me feeling feelings and thinking thoughts.

Jen and I had our first drink at the Campbell … well, I don’t recall for sure. Maybe we first went there when she still lived in Boston, or maybe after she moved to Long Island City. But it was part of our “dating life,” a place I took her to impress her with my sophisticated urbanity and wit.

The Campbell is where I started to appreciate the art of the cocktail. My friend Adam from the Boston Shaker teaches a lot of cocktail classes, and he sees people coming to cocktails from one of three paths: culinary, historical, or scientific. There are people who see the cocktail as the start of a great meal; there are those who are drawn to the Jerry Thomas aspects of it; and there are those who are fascinated by the chemistry of mixing drinks.

Though now, after 10+ years of writing about cocktails I’ve learned to appreciate all three elements, Jen and I first approached the cocktail from the culinary perspective, and just a touch from the historical, and the Campbell was a wonderful venue for both approaches.

The Campbell Apartment was also a great place to take a date, and the memories we have of our early relationship there are priceless to us. The dress code made you feel grown up and most people took it seriously enough to make you up your game a little. In fact, one thing that annoys me about the Post article I linked to is how it portrays the dress code:

“Right now, the image that people have of it very often is it’s a place to go before special occasions,” Gerber explains.

“So if you’re going to a black-tie event at the Hyatt in Grand Central, you go in [to the Campbell Apartment] for a drink. That’s OK, you can be in a tuxedo,” Gerber says.


The dress code at the Campbell was business casual. Here’s what the website says:

Proper Attire Required

Absolutely no Athletic Shoes, T‑shirts, Sweatshirts, Baseball Caps, Shorts or Torn Jeans

I see nothing there about a fucking tuxedo. And think about where the Campbell is located — in Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan, a place of law firms and doctors’ offices. The MetLife building is due north. Few lawyers, doctors, or insurance officers wear sweats and torn jeans to work.

So you’d go after work in your business-casual attire and fit right in. Sure, if you wanted to go home first and change into something swankier before going out on the town, that would work too, but to paint that as a requirement is crap.

Anyway. Moving on.

As I said, the Campbell is where I really started to appreciate the art of the cocktail, but after a while, moving on is exactly what we did. After all, we started seeing each other in 2003. Jen moved shortly after that to Long Island City, a short ride on the 7 train from Grand Central. So when we started seeing each other, the Campbell was a perfect place to meet after work. Back then, you could smoke on the balcony, so I’d get off the D train at 42nd, get a cigar at Nat Sherman, and then poke around Posman’s (also sadly evicted from Grand Central) before meeting Jen in the lobby outside the Campbell.

We’d get a couple of drinks and I’d have a smoke, and then we’d head off to dinner or go back to the overpriced market stalls at GCT and grab stuff to make a simple dinner at one of our apartments.

But back to the moving on. We were regulars there, probably around 2003-2004. Anyone who knows the cocktail scene in NYC knows what else was happening at that time. Milk & Honey opened in 2000, though Jen and I never went there together. Flatiron Lounge opened in 2003; Employees Only in 2004; and Pegu Club in 2005. I don’t know when we first started going to Flatiron, but I remember being there one night when the bartender told me that Pegu was about to open, so we were there almost at the start.

And then we moved to Bushwick, when the Williamsburg scene was getting hot. We ate at Diner and Marlow & Sons quite often, and it was so easy to start (and end) those nights with drinks at nearby Dressler, at a time when Jim Ryan and Mark Buettler were regularly behind the bar. We made regular pilgrimages to Red Hook to stock our home bar at LeNell’s. I met Gary Regan there, and talked about old Gaz with Jim, right after Jim went north for Cocktails in the Country.

Everything about who I am now — my writing, my wife, my kids — all of it has its roots in that time of our lives. We haven’t been back to the Campbell in too damn many years, and we certainly won’t be able to get back before it closes. And after a few years of drinking at Pegu and Death & Co and Dressler, the Campbell’s drinks just weren’t what we wanted anymore anyway — too large, too sweet. But that doesn’t matter.

I owe a lot to the Campbell, and if it weren’t 8:30am, I’d raise a glass, toast its memory, and lament its demise. New York real estate is a face-hugging alien of a bitch, and I regret what it’s doing to the city I love.

WHISKEY signing: Virginia Distillery Company

June 4, 2016
noon-2 pm

299 Eades Ln
Lovingston, Virginia 22949

What better way to gear up for the launch of our whisky tours than to have Michael Dietsch, author and spirits writer for Serious Eats on site June 4th from 12PM to 2PM for a special reading and book signing of his new book, “Whiskey: A Spirited Story with 75 Classic and Original Cocktails”. “Whiskey” covers the history as well as the differences of various brown spirits– specifically bourbon and Scottish single malt. The book also details a variety of delicious cocktail applications for that spirit we all know and love. We’ll be doing a special cocktail demo so you can learn from the best! Join us in our Visitors Center to learn more about whisky, see craft cocktail making in action, and pick up a signed copy of Michael’s book.

How to Order My Books

My latest book, WHISKEY, arrives in May 2016, from Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton. WHISKEY covers the history of the venerable brown beverage, the differences between — say — bourbon and scotch, and the abundance of cocktail applications for all the many different whiskeys of the world. Preorder here:

My first book, SHRUBS, premiered in September 2014 also from Countryman. In SHRUBS, I look at the history of the beverage called shrub, from its origins in the Middle East up through to its modern use in the trendiest cocktail bars and restaurants. Order here:

Jack Daniel’s, If You Please

In a one-stoplight town in the south-central part of Tennessee, you’ll find the home of the top-selling American whiskey brand in the world.

Photograph by Michael Dietsch

Photograph: Michael Dietsch

In November, I attended a press trip to the Jack Daniel Distillery, where I saw how the iconic brand is produced, aged, and bottled. We even got our hands dirty helping out a little around the distillery. And I learned some curious and interesting facts about the brand’s history and production.

Drier Than the Sahara

One thing that’s quite unusual about Jack is that you can’t drink much of it on the official tour, not even a full ounce per sample.  You see, Lynchburg sits in a dry county and even the small amount you can drink required a special exemption.

Now, you might have heard this story once upon a time, about how crazy it is that one of the largest-selling whiskey brands in the world is made in a dry county. What you might not know, though, is why the county chooses to remain dry all these decades after the repeal of Prohibition. Daniel’s brings in a lot of tourism, to the tune of 250,000 visitors a year. Imagine 250,000 people a year coming into a small town like Lynchburg, touring the distillery, and then sticking around well after dark to have a drink or twelve. Lynchburg fears, probably rightly so, becoming the Vegas of the South. I’m all for less Prohibition, and right now please, but I don’t live in their community, and I can mostly see their point.

Charcoal: Not Just for Grilling Out

Not much distinguishes Tennessee whiskey from bourbon, and in fact, Jack Daniel’s could legally call itself a bourbon if the company wished to do so. The main difference between Jack and bourbon is that Jack uses a charcoal-filtering process to smooth out the whiskey prior to aging. Here’s how it works.

First, the company brings in sugar maple, grown sustainably in the region. The sugar maple comes to Jack cut into long, thin planks, or ricks. Jack employs a couple of guys whose job it is to burn the ricks of sugar maple into charcoal. First, they douse the sugar maple with an accelerant to help it burn quickly and efficiently. The accelerant isn’t gasoline or kerosene, either of which would impart an off taste to the final product. Instead, it’s high-proof unaged Jack Daniel’s, straight off the still.

Here’s a photo of a guy setting the sugar maple on fire. He’s not one of the aforementioned employees, but just a chump who got the chance to do something fun once.


Photograph: Jack Daniel Distillery

After the sugar maple burns, it resembles the stuff you’d buy if you got a bag of hardwood lump charcoal–not the briquettes, but the natural stuff you can get at specialty grocers. I used to grill out using lump charcoal all the time, and I loved the way it burned–clean, without the binders and other gunk you get from briquettes. (I asked whether anyone had ever taken some of the sugar-maple charcoal lumps home to grill with, and I don’t think our host understood me because he mentioned the Jack Daniel’s brand briquettes you can buy.)

That aside, Jack doesn’t use this lump charcoal to filter its whiskey. Instead, they grind up the charcoal into fine pellets, which they use to fill giant tanks inside the facility. The unaged distillate is pumped to spouts atop the tanks, where it dribbles out of the spouts and down onto the charcoal below. In a process that takes weeks, the whiskey slowly trickles through the tanks of charcoal pellets, until it emerges at the bottom, stripped of some of the chemical compounds that would otherwise make the whiskey taste bitter or tart. When the charcoal pellets are at the end of their lifespan, they’re ground up further, into dust, and used to make Jack’s charcoal briquettes, thus ensuring that no part of the sugar maple goes to waste. To make the even-smoother Gentleman Jack, the company filters the aged product through the charcoal one more time, thus mellowing it even further.

Sundown in Nashville

Before our group went to Jack, however, we spent a night in Nashville. I arrived early on a Monday afternoon, checked into my hotel, and grabbed a cab to get lunch. I chose a meat-and-three place, which are pretty common in Nashville. They’re cafeteria-style joints, usually mom-n-pop places, that sell you a lunch of some kind of meaty main dish, with up to three sides. (Hence, “meat-and-three.”) The most famous in Nashville is Arnold’s Country Kitchen, about seven minutes out of downtown. I was lucky; you can always find roast beef on the mains at Arnold’s, but the rest of the mains rotate through the week, and on the day I was there, one of the choices was fried chicken. I ordered that, and I was very pleased.

I also spent sometime at the Country Music Hall of Fame; I probably would have gone there anyway, but they were having an exhibition on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and the influence of Nashville musicians on rock albums of the late 1960s and 1970s. A large group of talented session musicians set in on those recordings, contributing a unique sound to music of the era and helping to revitalize the country genre at the same time Outlaw Country was coming up. The exhibit was great, and I’m glad I had the time to go, but I wish I could have stayed longer at the museum and seen more.

Shrubs on ABC’s Shark Tank

This is interesting.

ABC has a reality program called Shark Tank. I’ve never seen it. Apparently, the idea is that, if you have an idea for a business, you can pitch it to the show, and if the producers feel it has merit, they’ll bring you on and you can pitch the idea to a team of “sharks,” or hard-hitting business tycoons who will decide whether to fund your company.

The season premiere is this Friday, September 25, and it features the McClary Bros. line of drinking vinegars. I’ve had their shrubs, and I’m excited to see that shrubs will get some prime-time attention.

I also have a mercenary motivation for this post. I want people to search online for “Shark Tank” and “drinking vinegars” or “shrubs” or “McClary” and find this page. I want them to click this link: Buy My Books. And then I want them to buy my book. It’s a simple idea, really. Can you blame me?

Not at Tales this year

A few people have asked, so …

Yes, it would have been great to sign copies of SHRUBS down there this year. A few things stood in the way:

  • Money — we don’t have much right now.
  • Time off — Jen has taken a bunch of time off so I could do other travel this year. She doesn’t have enough time accrued at the moment to allow her to stay home with the kids right now.
  • Second manuscript — This is the biggy. My second ms is due September 1. I’ve set a personal deadline of August 1, just so I have the month to redraft things, move stuff around as needed, and make any edits I think are necessary before my editor sees it.

If all goes as planned, my second book will be out about a month before next year’s TOTC, and therefore it might make a lot of sense to go down to sign both books for people. We’ll see how 2016 shakes out when it gets here.