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:

Mixology Monday: Irish Goodbye

mxmologoNearly 11 years ago, Paul Clarke — now editor of Imbibe magazine, but then just a guy in Seattle — came up with an idea called Mixology Monday. Based on round robins such as Wine Blogger Wednesday, Tomatillo Tuesday, and Fenugreek Friday, Paul came up with the idea of hosting a themed round-robin for the then-nascent cocktail-blog community. Back in 2006, there weren’t many of us.

In 2006, Jen worked in midtown Manhattan, and I was either still laboring in the Bronx or just starting a job in Union Square. We lived in Bushwick, we cooked elaborate meals every night, and we frequently took the train to the bus to get to LeNell’s in Red Hook, to talk good booze with a good friend and try out some new bottles.

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Since then, we’ve lived in Rhode Island, very briefly in Massachusetts, back in Brooklyn, and now in Virginia. And we now also have two tiny humans who follow us around everywhere.

Paul long ago found himself too busy to carry on the project, but happily, Fred Yarm was willing to take it on, and he’s stewarded it quite well since Paul moved on. I seldom contribute, but I always read, and this month, Fred chooses the Irish Wake as his theme.

I’ve been fascinated to watch my fellow drinks-scribes over these many years since MxMo launched. Some of us have gone on to literary achievements, writing for magazines, newspapers, and web sites. We’ve even seen a few book deals come out of this pursuit. (Ahem, ahem.)

Some among us have left pundit circles altogether and become bartenders or even bar owners. I know people all over the country who have tended bar for the first time after writing about cocktails on the Internrdz.

I tried this once. It seems my talents are literary, which is just fine with me. I can’t complain; the job has taken me to Guadalajara and the tequila highlands, Barcelona, and the American-whiskey heartlands of Kentucky and Tennessee. I’ve signed books in San Francisco and had Sazeracs on a carousel in New Orleans.

Some of my friends in this community have understandably concluded that alcohol is a poison, and they’ve chosen to leave it behind. I admire that. I’m rethinking my drinking habits; though I don’t currently intend to stop drinking altogether, it’s never a bad idea to drink less often and in less quantity.

I still find the industry fascinating — too fascinating, in fact, to leave behind. I pull at a lot of threads during the day as I read Facebook, follow blogs, read industry magazines, and talk to people in the business, and there’s always something going on that I want to know more about.

One thread that currently interests me is the dramatic increase in Irish-whiskey distilleries over these past 11 years. When I started this hobby-turned-career, there were three, and now there are apparently sixteen. Whiskey as a category continues to gain strength, and Irish whiskey especially is surging. It’s easy to understand why; Irish whiskey is easy to drink, and it’s always been popular among young people, and especially women.

I have a project in mind, one where I research these sixteen distilleries, and try to find out how far along they are in producing their own stuff. Some of them have product in the marketplace even though they haven’t been open long enough to sell whiskey they’ve produced and aged themselves. Clearly, they’re sourcing product from other distilleries, and I want to know more about that. How do these distilleries plan to stand out from each other? What yarns to they plan to spin about their products?

I read more often these days than I write. I find it far more challenging to have one 3-year-old at home during the day than I did to have one 3-year-old and one 1-year-old, and so my writing right now is limited, and so every time I start working on this idea, my daughter tells me she’s licking the wall or I find her painting the cat.

Blogging about cocktails and spirits was my first gig, and although it paid … well, shit, it paid as well as Huffington Post pays, so never mind the pay. I wrote in this space to force myself to learn more about a subject that fascinated me, and to take what I learned and help others understand it too.

I haven’t participated in Mixology Monday in … oh, hell, nearly six years. But the theme of this month’s Mixology Monday is Irish whiskey, and the Irish wake, the mourning process for seeing loved ones depart these flawed bodies.

What I’ve written here isn’t what Mixology Monday is traditionally about–posting cocktail recipes and taking cool photos of tasty drinks. But this is the elegy I’ve chosen to recite over its casket. Thank you, Paul, for starting this journey, and thank you, Fred, for shepherding it on. And good bye, Mixology Monday. You were a great friend.

May flights of angel share see thee to thy rest.

Gin and Tonic — A Variation on the Theme

Hi all!

I’m here today to guide your eyes and clicks over to the Lindsay Olives website, to which I contributed a cocktail recipe, as part of its guide to holiday cocktail parties. I always enjoy working with savory cocktails and the kinds of ingredients that you don’t normally associate with mixed drinks. Savory drinks have more to offer than just a bloody mary!

I brainstormed and researched and tinkered around a bit, and I came up with a combination of cucumber-infused gin (house-made, though you could use a commercial brand, such as Hendrick’s) and Lillet Blanc aperitif wine, with a splash of brine from a jar of pickled peppers. I topped that off with tonic water for a riff on the gin-and-tonic that works just as well midwinter as it would on a stifling August day.

Check it out!

The Art of the Cocktail Party

Cool and Spicy G&T

Aside from that, no major projects to report right now. I’m hunkered down with family business, helping my oldest navigate kindergarten and my youngest enjoy her last year at home full time before entering preschool.

I just returned from a quick jaunt to Denver, where I waited in line for the annual special release of Stranahan’s Snowflake single-malt whiskey. More on that to come.

I’m working on pitches for future book projects, but there’s nothing to report on that front since I haven’t submitted anything.

WHISKEY and the SHRUBS second edition are still selling well, and either one of them would make a great holiday gift, so please click through the links right here and send copies to everyone you’ve ever met.

I finished up some work over the summer for the upcoming OXFORD COMPANION TO SPIRITS AND COCKTAILS, edited by the estimable David Wondrich. And I have a small project that I’ll be starting next week; more on that when it sees print in the spring.

 

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.

Bullshit.

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

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.

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.

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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.