Monkey – er – Turkey Day

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New Restaurant. Old pawn shop. New windows. Old silica.

Is anything really new?

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These cream cheese toasts were lemony, and the pairing with Bernard Baudry’s Chinon Rosé was pretty exciting. Noses and legs got all in on the action.

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I apologize to my wine cellar-having-collecting brothers (and they are mostly all dudes.) Our thanksgiving fluids came from a store shelf. I don’t apologize for the wines though. The Montesecondo was made for this short rib stew:

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The turkey was brined and guided through the cooking process by a professional.

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The wedge thing was a turkey sausage roll, bigger than a baloney.

Kids.

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Glass windows cut by David Bordine. Iron frames welded by Phillip Cooley.

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Van Winkle Bourbon, My Notes

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All distilled by Buffalo Trace and famously limited.

OLD RIP VAN WINKLE, 107 proof
A gorgeous array of aromas and flavors including notes of candied orange peel, old malmsey, hazelnut and pecan shells, longpepper, toasted pan bread and old saxophone reeds.

VAN WINKLE SPECIAL RESERVE, 12 YEARS OLD LOT “B”, 90.4 proof
The prettiest of all the Van Winkle bourbons, there is a dimension of muscat and mashed poppy seeds here. Charcoal and cream sensations join cherries and spice while leading to a long, marzipan-scented finish.

PAPPY VAN WINKLE’S FAMILY RESERVE 15 YEARS OLD
Aromas and flavors of naturally sweet boiled peanuts raked over smoldering cedar woodchips. Cocoa, coconut husk and cinnamon candy cola make startling refreshment in the midpalate before finishing with a sensation of lemon peel preserved in vanilla and a hot jawbreaker burn.

PAPPY VAN WINKLE’S FAMILY RESERVE 20 YEAR, 90.4 proof
This isn’t so much about the flavors as it is about how they are shaped and proportioned. The vanilla is a wide open breeze. The toasted nut flavors seem to be macerated in sercial madeira. The charcoal-scented burn on the finish is immense, powerful, and exquisitely beautiful.

PAPPY VAN WINKLE’S FAMILY RESERVE 23 YEARS OLD
The leanest and most architectural of the Van Winkle bourbons. It’s like walking into a vast timbered cathedral with impossible angles. The usual rewarding botanical bourbon sensations – cherries, caramel, nuts, spice – are like deeply stained shadows.

IPA

There’s a new IPA barbecue sauce, IPA roasted coffee, and IPA sundae. I learned this when I stopped for a bite to eat before the new IPA art exhibit, which was awesome. I met a woman there who I hadn’t seen in a while and afterward we drove in her IPA to see the IPA play at the IPA Bar. I like IPA so much, it’s the name of my cat. I would drink a nice lager IPA, like Atwater D-light, but really, it’s a little light for an IPA, don’t you think?

Beer. My Journey.

I sell beer, both to beer drinkers and to regular people who happen to want to drink beer. In a 3 mile radius, where ten years ago there were a dozen legitimately different beers on draft – so I estimate – now there are hundreds. Where there were a few dozen available by the bottle, now there must be a thousand or more. And though admitting it is more shameful than ever, there is a lot of disappointment in the selection process. A plurality of imbibers are bamboozled by misinformation and terrified of appearing stupid. The self-appointed experts and professionals are failing them.

Naturally I blame success. The booming market increases incentive for commercial interests to perpetuate confusion. Money is made more in the brief seconds at the point of sale, and less in the scrupulous and time-consuming practices that produce beer which one might want to drink on a sustainable basis. Appraisal trumps use. The formula is clear: 1) escalate novelty, 2) breed viral brands in an environment of attention spans 3) shortened by an avalanche of artificial differentiation. The vastly more numerous casual beer drinkers don’t stand a chance connecting clues about quality and objective merit. “I wanted an Amber, and I hate Pale Ale. I’LL HAVE AN IPA!”

It’s the same crappy beer choices we had in the 1970s, only they are flavored differently. I’ve seen it happen to wine and Tequila and cigars. I also claim to have 30 years of perspective. Here is my person beer journey timeline.

1984 – After sampling various lagers and malt liquors at high school parties, I decided I would be loyal to the brand Moosehead. To this day I suspect that all of these beers were better then than they are now, as true for Mickey’s as for Harp.

1987 – Introduced by a friend of the owner, I became a regular at Gusoline Alley in Royal Oak. The slogan boasted “50 seats and 100 beers,” or something like that. This was my introduction to Orval, Sam Smith’s, Franziskaner and all the rest. New domestic small breweries made their first appearance during this time too: Breckenridge, Pete’s Wicked Ale and Bell’s. I studied hard.

1991-1993 – I lived in Germany and drank as many various beers in as much volume as I possibly could. This involved week long explorations of beer available in Holland, England, Czechoslovakia (as it was then known), Austria and Switzerland. I know what you’re thinking. I missed Belgium. Well, not completely. I did spend one night in a train station in Antwerp drinking bottles of lager from a vending machine. I think it’s only fair to count this as missing Belgium.

1997-2000 – I salaried as beer and wine buyer for several Merchant’s of Vino/Whole Foods, which at the time had one of the largest retail selections of beer in the region. This was my first encounter with Brasserie St. Sylvestre, Hoegaarden, and the various beers of Great Lakes and North Coast, to name some examples. I remember assuming the buying duties of the Farmington Hills store shortly after the promotion of the previous buyer to a store-level position. Interestingly, he had kicked out Budweiser from our set, on the basis of various grievances. Such a move was unheard of at the time and the fallout was interesting to witness.

2001-2007 – I managed Cloverleaf Fine Wine and Spirits. This chapter could form its own lengthy blog post, so I’ll touch on highlights. This was the first retail set that offered every beer by the single bottle for the same rate that it sold by the six-pack (or 4 or 12.) We also used a strictly rational  – thus radical – approach to beer storage and preservation, informed by a rigorous double blind study of the effects of various storage environments on various beers. I contributed close to a thousand tasting notes to Beer Advocate and got involved in that site’s discussion forums. After one trip to New York I learned that there was a particularly interesting import collection of beers – Shelton Brothers – which was barely being offered in Michigan. After some phone calls and promises of support, the portfolio was brought in and divided between local wholesalers – Arbor and Rave – who briefly competed with each other for the claim to sell the most volume. It was shortly after this time that I met Phil Cooley of Slows and Mark Brown of Red Coat Tavern, both of whom easily recognized and exploited the availability of these beers to enhance their own ambitious beer programs. Incidentally, here are the current weighted rankings of these beer sellers on Beer Advocate:

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2009-present – I am mostly responsible for serving barbecue at Slows. Here I have relatively little directly at stake in the beer trade. Instead I am surrounded by it and enjoy a certain day-to-day surveyor’s vantage point. It is clear that there are many different conversations about beer happening simultaneously and often in contradiction of one another.

In my next post I will share some of my opinions about beer for sale in Michigan in the present day.

Commercial Drinks and Cigars

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Speeding taxi tires over the bricks of Michigan avenue sound something like large-gauge bubble wrap bursting under a blanket.

Furthermore:

A GREAT BEER OR WINE is a gleaming artifact of collective selection pressure. There are natural constraints; microflora, vintage and geography, to name some examples. There are also constraints of artificial selection; think of the commercial marketplace, or projections of the id.

It’s been my habit in recent times to elevate “natural wine” or classical beers over the alternatives. This indicates an aesthetic or lesser rather than greater volatility. Spans of time and nature are more constant than are fashion or market faction.

In some cities – Chicago, New York – it is imperative for curators, cooks and cocktail makers to pursue a distinctive niche. Get noticed. In Detroit, by contrast, it is more important to be inclusive. One niche will not sustain you. So be a classicist or a naturalist at your own risk. The same would apply to the alternative styles.

But be careful, broadness can not be equated with the so-called lowest common denominator. Here quality succeeds. Mediocrity struggles. Think of the Detroit model for success as the assemblage of several niches in one shop.

So how do you define quality with respect to the polarity of “classical” vs. “experimental” drinks? Going entirely classical, or for that matter entirely experimental, hazards the invitation of an insular public, and thus volatility, struggle or even failure.

I don’t claim to have the answer, or even that there can be one answer. I do use some rules of thumb to gauge the prospects of success and value in the landscape. Choices that reflect ego and manipulation should emerge from a genuinely brilliant source, one who – in the spirit of perfect theoretical circularity – has absorbed a broad range of information in the making. By the same token, choices that reflect classicism should be fresh and eternally charming, which is to say they shouldn’t hide dull uninspired work behind the camouflage of tradition.

Most of all, who is attracted to the restaurant/gallery/bar? Is it a small army of clones? Is it a mix? There are various ways to judge diversity, and the most superficial among them are securely claimed by corporate interests. Race, gender and age are at only partially useful as proxies for real diversity. It is somewhere in the mind that true diversity is represented. Resistance to conformity. Independence of thought. Asocial inclinations. These can only be evaluated by joining the mix on the streets and getting to know who you are sharing a space with.

I know, it’s a paradox. Life is complicated.

I was recently (re)schooled on the subject of cigar selection. I know little about cigars and I was relieved to learn that it really does come down to what do you like. After several disappointments I decided i like Kristoff cigars. Hand rolled Dominican, Cuban seed, etc. etc. I suppose that must mean something. The stogie was delicious and complex to me, without any harshness. My palate has drifted toward the delicate with age – a common status among the gastronomes I talk to.