Stay away. We’re contagious. First my nephew caught Covid, then I did. Now my brother has it. Next up: the dog.
This too shall pass, this rottenness, and I’m happy that the virus, for now, is behind me. It’s just one small blessing in muddled times, a jagged slab of flotsam to hug while the ship sinks.
There are other things. Like Elif Batuman’s new novel, “Either/Or,” which I’ve plugged here before briefly. It’s one of few passing pleasures right now, be it a startling observation about love or a suave turn of phrase that knocks me dizzy.
Or a jab of insight glinting with wry misanthropy:
“Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood this now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable.”
Or any number of absurdist gems:
“I hadn’t a clear mental picture of his new girlfriend, Lara, and realized that I had almost expected her to look blurry.”
But what’s a small delight to me may be imperceptible to you.
Unless you’re traveling abroad and you’ve just learned that the U.S. has lifted its Covid testing requirements to return to the States — a major hassle deleted from an already stressful travel climate. I recently had to take the test in Portugal and Italy to get back home and the logistics were near-traumatic.
So rejoice for that minor miracle. And why not the same for Monkey 47, a richly aromatic, botanically fierce, impishly named gin that I’ve rediscovered and is well worth the price. Even the gin-averse extol its ample virtues. It may be the best gin on the shelf, a smooth bracer for rough days.
What else is keeping me warm, now, when the skies are dark? The crack and screech of Brandi Carlile’s voice on her song “Broken Horses.” The zesty mazeman noodles at Ani Ramen House. Penélope Cruz’s febrile, heartrending performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s stirring melodrama “Parallel Mothers.” My unquenchable wanderlust. Bongos. That woman at the cafe. Books, mountains of them.
Beating a thoroughly decomposed horse, allow me to gripe again: I really dislike summer. My reasons are a predictable plethora of plaints, especially if you’ve spent anytime around these pages: the heat; the humidity; the endless days; the enforced outdoorsy-ness; excruciating patio brunches; hot, crowded vacations; shorts and flip-flops; talk therapists fleeing most of August. The only grace note is air-conditioning. Set on blast and let me be. With a good book and a savory cocktail.
That last detail is key. Because I do admit the crappy months bring with them delicious, refreshing libations, potions with fruit and cucumber floating in them like inflatable pool toys and concoctions fragrant with aromatics and flowers and other sensory complexions. Creativity is paramount. A friend even jabs fresh cinnamon sticks in her gin and tonics. Go nuts, lady.
It’s the months (and there’s only 1 ½ left!) for bracing dry rosés; reliable, amicable gin and tonics; lip-smacky Aperol spritzes, that tingly, honeyed mix of Prosecco, Aperol and orange; and the Americano, that lightly bitter blend of Campari, sweet vermouth, seltzer and orange slice. I’m no fan of Campari or bitters — the Negroni is my nemesis — but the Americano goes down smooth, mostly.
My other picks for summer sipping are choice. In particular is the Hendrick’s Gin small batch, limited edition Midsummer Solstice, a “new flirtatiously floral incarnation” of the superlative Hendrick’s, perhaps my best gin, a near-orgasmic elixir. It’s downright poignant.
This gin is exceptional, crisp, sharp but silky, sophisticated, as fragrant as a botanical garden. A must: Use quality tonic with it, something like Fever Tree aromatic tonic water or Q Spectacular tonic. Anything less is polluting top-shelf gin, like pouring Sunny Delight in your Dom Pérignon. And don’t forget a citrus or cucumber slice. Some juniper berries. Why not a rose petal? A banquet is being made, not just a drink.
Thing is, Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice is going away soon — it’s a limited edition, available only for the hot season. So stock up; it’s worth it. Meanwhile, a year-round ultra-zesty gin is Brockmans, an English drink so strong with berries that my brother disses it, saying it tastes like strawberry shortcake. I don’t know what the hell he’s going on about.
It is fruity, definitely. I taste grapes. But Brockmans says its botanicals are “a refreshing influence of citrus and aromatic wild berries.” It is irrationally flavorful.
Some ad copy, with apologies: “Bulgarian coriander provides an aromatic, gingery orange top note.This blends perfectly with the soft and rounded harmonies of blueberries and blackberries, supported by the bottom note of Tuscan juniper berries.Dry, bittersweet Valencian orange peel elongates the deeper tones and gives an intensely smooth finish.” (If a mixologist named Axl didn’t write that then a poet of the produce department did.)
That’s complexity, and it tastes like it. A naughty twerk on the tongue, a tingly boogie down the throat. I love this gin. No added fruit — or tonic — required. Neat or on the rocks. A nip of nirvana.
On a fizzier, less poetic note, I’m trying out White Claw Hard Seltzer, a burpy canned beverage that tastes like high-end soda water but with the subtle kick of a domestic beer. Low-budget, low-buzz bliss.
It goes down exactly like seltzer water with a zip of fruit tang — raspberry and black cherry; lime and ruby grapefruit. A 12-oz. can boasts 100 calories, 2g carbs and 5% alc/vol. A 12-pack runs about $14. Those figures intoxicate me.
Like the other mentioned hooch, the seltzer pings a little dent in the summertime blues. Those back-to-school TV ads are welcome, as are the fall movie trailers, like the one for Scorsese’s rousing “The Irishman.” (De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, Keitel — I’m about to have an aneurysm.) A quality quaff is practically a seasonal panacea.
About six weeks till summer skedaddles. Hit the AC and pour me a tall G&T. I can do this.
Sure, I took a nip on my trip this week to Charleston, South Carolina, not on the basis of “When in Rome …,” though there was a bit of that. No, I just like a good cocktail or Scotch or beer, particularly in a nicer establishment, like a fine restaurant or stylish bar/saloon. (Or salon: Where I get my hair cut, they serve free Prosecco, a nice Kardashian flourish.)
And, as part of what became something of a foodie journey (see that part here), I hit a lot of those places. My slogan: No driving, no hangovers, no regrets.
Right before my three-day trip to Charleston, I blogged about the award-winning small-batch boutique distillery I had my sights on, High Wire Distilling Co., on bustling — one might say boozy — King Street.
I made it, and took the short tour — the place is fashionably cozy and drips with hip — and partook in the tasting flight. The tour was $5, as was the tasting. (I also bought a bottle of the Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin for a reasonable $27.)
The High Wire tasting flight. Left to right: Hometown Vodka; Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin; Hat Trick Barrel Rested Gin; and New Southern Revival Brand Rye Whiskey. Especially for how early in the day these were imbibed — noon shots on an empty stomach? — each libation exerted kick and fire and were exceptionally complex.
At this upscale bistro I sipped the Nordic Witch — “bright and herbal, this witch is ready to head south for spring” — made of Old Tom Gin, Strega, Linie, Aquavit, Lime and Peychaud’s. It was superlative, swirly and tangy, but it was so small, I didn’t even take a picture of it.
With dinner I had a Classic Whiskey Sour that hit the spot:
Husk has one of the coolest, most coveted little bars in the city (big patio for you patio people), with potions to match. Waiting for a dinner table, I ordered a tasty Gin-Based Drink Special, whose name and ingredients I foolishly didn’t commit to memory.
But here it is:
During dinner I got the toothsome and bracing Option Bee: Earl Grey-Infused Local Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Honey, Lemon and Egg White. Below:
My penchant for gin is glaring and at this classy, streamlined drinkery I stuck to my beloved botanicals with the assertive “Clover Club” — Hendrick’s Gin, Raspberry Preserves, Dry Vermouth, Lemon and Egg White — followed by the satisfactorily simple “PGT (Proof Gin and Tonic)” — Hendrick’s Gin, Lemon Bitters, Cucumber.
Proof’s a neat place on crawling King Street, and I would have returned with more time.
Slathered in ersatz grunge and lacking snarly attitude, The Griffon touts itself as the authentic dive bar in Charleston, and apparently a lot of people who haven’t been to Charleston’s The Recovery Room or Dirty Franks in Philly actually believe this. This bar is a poser dive if ever there was one, a faux dump made to look beaten and badass with floor-to-ceiling wallpaper compiled of signed $1 bills. It tries awfully hard, and it made me kind of sad. The Griffon is the Planet Hollywood of dives, a cosplay simulacrum, a movie set. Spotless bathrooms? Yep. Tourists only. I had a $4 bottle of Miller Lite. Then I skedaddled.
Finally, for non-alcoholic, caffeinated elixirs I spent mornings at the sleek, slightly industrial, mid-century and mini-menu’d Revelator Coffee Company on — where else? — King Street. Fully recommended. Free WiFi, tip-top drinks, cheery baristas.
I leave Sunday for three days in Charleston, South Carolina, and already I can smell the aromatics and botanicals, those ultra-fragrant plant compounds often used in alcoholic potables, most popularly in gin. Aromatics and botanicals furnish a strong herbal, floral or fruity tang that sets flowery, pungent gin apart from insipid vodka, which tends to smell and taste like undiluted alcohol (and which is why producers are always grossing up their swill with flavors like cherry, vanilla, mango and peppar, whatever that is).
In Charleston is the award-winning High Wire Distilling Co., which claims to be the city’s first distillery since Prohibition. Like a boozy boutique, the outfit “produces a distinctive line of small batch spirits, including gin, rum, whiskey, and vodka using premium, specialized ingredients.”
And I’m taking the $10 tour and tasting, which (more canned copy here) “provide an overview of the distilling process and allow guests an opportunity to see the still, mash tun, fermentation tanks, barrel aging, and bottling operations.” Tour-takers“receive a traditional tasting flight of four High Wire spirits.” (Yes!)
This has got to beat the tragic, gimcrack Heineken Experience brewery tour I signed up for in Amsterdam last year (my head still hurts from the strobes and electronica). And it might just match the exemplary Russia Vodka Museum in St. Petersburg, where the tastings exuded high European class. Or the fine, frothy, free tour of the Sam Adams Brewery in Boston.
I have my eye on one of High Wire’s specialty gins, which goes for $27 a bottle (I don’t yet know the size), the “Hat Trick Extraordinarily Fine Botanical Gin,” described in detail:
“Made with crushed juniper berries and fresh lemon and orange peel, this bright and flavorful gin is well-balanced and pleasing to the palate. Balancing botanicals include licorice root, angelica root, coriander, and cardamom. From a straight up martini to a more complex Fitzgerald, this gin dazzles even the most discerning gin drinker.”
I’m sure I don’t know what at least three of those cocktails are, but they sound ravishing with this nifty gin, which, you never know, might suck. I’ll taste it during the tour’s tasting segment. If I like it, I’m buying a bottle. And then, you know, drinks on me.
A glass half-empty sort of fellow, I maintain a suspect relationship with reality, an existential leeriness that has proven keenly unhelpful. Though I’ve fought it, I’m kind of stuck with it, a black and blue complexion not unlike a bruise.
The world’s not helping — Trump, Syria, Israel, Bolton, the EPA, fires, flooding, shootings — but I’m still able to locate an array of things to be glad about. Small, but good.
I could mention the pleasures of last week’s birthday, my family’s sound health, my sister-in-law’s spiffy new car or the dog’s chewy glee over the pig’s ear I got him. I could mention my niece’s turquoise hair, my friend’s marriage or how the Stormy Daniels affair is closing in on the president like a vice.
But I won’t, even though I just did.
Here are a few other things currently leavening my oft-smudged outlook:
Last week saw the release of “Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History,” a book this circus freak-show fanatic had to get, and did as a birthday present. Yunte Huang’s widely praised biography of famed conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker is a vast, panoramic narrative of the twins’ bizarre, unlikely life (wives, numerous children, slave ownership) in 19th-century America that deftly weaves details and personalities from U.S. history into a rich, fluttering tapestry. Elegant prose twins with magnificent detail.
The giddy anticipation of mulling world travels is a reliable endorphin. I recently posted my dual urges to go to Budapest and Amsterdam — the former I’ve never been to, the latter I’ve visited in quick, couple-days spurts. Always looking ahead, with one eye on the calendar and one on the map, I get a jolt just thinking about strolling new streets, eating exotic cuisine, ogling art, architecture and people. It’s already April. Time to start some serious research. (Spoiler alert: I’m leaning toward Amsterdam.)
I’m captivated by the film “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” by that doyen of documentarians, that genius of fly-on-the-wall observation, Frederick Wiseman (“High School,” “La Danse”). Released last year and running a whopping three and a half hours, the movie is a leisurely, painstaking amble through the hallowed marble halls, offices, shelves and auditoriums of the NYC institution. Wiseman’s eminent pointillist eye and febrile curiosity fashion an immersive experience inside everything from folios to fundraising, e-books to behind-the-scenes bureaucracy, programs to performances, community outreach to the organization’s pumping inner organs. Almost defiantly, “Ex Libris” is culturally kaleidoscopic.
Another birthday gift whacking the sweet spot is a squat, artisanally stylish bottle of Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin, a German, handcrafted, batch-distilled, 47-percent alcohol (94 proof) beverage that tastes like an Everlasting Gobstopper in liquid form, swirling and multi-chromatic — fragrant, aromatic, smooth, rich and tangy. My brother was scanning the gin shelves and three individuals, one who worked in the shop, voluntarily told him that Monkey 47 was the best gin they’ve had. Three random people. He was sold. Now we both are.
It is a thing, evidently, an alcoholic thing, a thing that tastes like a wonderful thing.
I recently discovered the Cucumber Rickey (yes, I now know the drink’s been around since Tutankhamun) at the Montreal bar La Distillerie, a packed, ultra-trendy but relievedly casual spot that specializes in inspired, palate-thrilling cocktails without the pretense and rigamarole of highfalutin mixology, and does so at gulpingly cheap prices. My Cucumber Rickey — Bombay Sapphire gin, a truckload of fresh cucumbers, lime juice, simple syrup, and orange and mandarin bitters — was $7.50 in U.S dollars. Another, please.
A poor specimen of a cocktail connoisseur — a kicky gin and tonic does me fine — I’m still keenly curious about and eager to try new alcoholic concoctions. I regret I didn’t have time to sample more from La Distellirie’s festive menu, which boasts 27 specialty drinks, though I did try the toothsome Mohawk — Bombay Sapphire gin, peach purée, lemon juice, elderflower cordial, homemade jasmine tea syrup, soda water — a fragrant sweet and sour pleasure. (What in the hell is elderflower cordial?)
That menu is something else, a disarming, user-friendly catalog tailored to individual thirsts. For instance, if you’re in the mood for a “Herbal, Fresh, Refreshing” drink you can choose from four cocktails, including the ubiquitous Mojito, as well as my dear Cucumber Rickey and Mohawk.
If you require a “Robust-Intense Powerful Concentrated” drink, select from the Mad Man, Rollercoaster and three others. A quartet of neon-tinged beverages with long French names are located in the “Accessible, Delicate, Light-Soft” category. And so on. There are six categories total.
La Distellirie has three locations in Montreal. I was at the smallest and most popular spot — got there early, beat the crush — in the city’s Latin Quarter (make that Quartier-Latin) on Rue Ontario East. Two doors down from La Distillerie is Pub Quartier-Latin, a ridiculously friendly, semi-dive bar, with a cheery staff, cheap drinks, heaping greasy food and reliable WiFi. I hung out there a lot, writing on my laptop and sipping passable gin and tonics.
My drinking preferences have evolved over time. Fifteen years ago I’d keep a 12-pack of Rolling Rock in my fridge and stock no distilled spirits. A few years later I always had cheap Yellowtail merlot on hand, but still no hard booze, which I drank almost entirely at bars (mostly, blush, vodka cranberries). My beer and wine period seems to have lasted forever, and my liquor sophistication remained downright uncivilized.
Until, at last, my brother introduced me to the nuanced grandeur of Scotch — the peat, smoke, vanilla, grass, fruit, even hay — all those swirling notes that begin in the nostrils and finish in a slightly seared gullet. He enlightened me by pouring The Glenlivet, Laphroaig and Talisker, single malts reserved for special occasions. (Our everyday Scotch is the smooth, blended, wholly unpretentious Dewar’s White Label.)
We sample gins for the best G&T’s, as we call them, and have graduated from Schweppes to Fever-Tree premium tonic. Our favorite gin to date: The Botanist. Least favorite: New Amsterdam. (Only later did we learn it was distilled in Modesto, Calif., explaining scads.) We quickly realized that Gordon’s London Dry beats out Bombay Sapphire in taste and price.
We make easy Scotch and sodas, the occasional Cape Cod, and try out new ryes and bourbons, Woodford Reserve being a standout.
As I said before, I’m a cocktail dilettante. My brother’s the aspiring mixologist, who, like a driven chef, derives myriad satisfactions from confecting a complex libation, step by step, following a strict recipe. He’s especially partial to Old Fashioneds and the bitter, face-scrunching Negroni, which offers a delightful finish of ear wax.
When done creating, he always clinks glasses and often smacks his lips after the first sip of success.
He’s particular about his brands and demands his ice cubes just so. This self-anointed beverage snob, a real liquid dandy, won’t drink at any bar that sprays its tonic from a push-button nozzle, or soda gun. That’s commitment.
I don’t care if they fire my tonic out of a gun. Yet I do crave quality, like the tasty bracers at La Distellerie, which take skill and a little heart. I make modest drinks as best I can — my G&Ts, when I slice up some fresh fruit, are really not bad — and I like to think I could pull off my own Mohawk or Cucumber Rickey. All that, even if I do pour my wine from a cardboard box.