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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Amazing the Results That Acting Like a Human in a Tourist Bar Will Get You

Aug.24.16

Amazing the Results That Acting Like a Human in a Tourist Bar Will Get You

by Wesley Straton

Mojitos in Habana Vieja

On my second day in Cuba, I find myself in the notoriously touristy Bodeguita del Medio at 1 pm, studiously avoiding a German backpacker’s attempts to catch my eye and sipping on an overpriced and mediocre mojito as the band in the corner plays yet another Buena Vista Social Club cover. It’s not my kind of place, not remotely, but I’m following Hemingway.

The bar is one of the many destinations on the Hemingway trail: the legendary alcoholic himself famously declared that this classic dive bar was his go-to for mojitos. A little digging suggests that Papa Hemingway was never actually a regular, but I won’t find that out until well after leaving Cuba. And you can’t blame the owners for capitalizing on the story.

The duo of paunchy, middle-aged bartenders—one named Rey, and one whose name I don’t manage to catch—are visibly bored by their work. They keep dozens of half-made mojitos under the heavily-graffitied wooden bar: tall glasses full of wilted mint, bottled lime juice, and sugar, just waiting for ice, a generous pour of Havana 3 Year Old, and a token splash of soda water. I have a drink in my hand less than a minute after I walk in.

“You must get tired of making these,” I say. The barmen shrug.

“No,” Rey answers. “It’s where the money comes from.”

Once they realize I speak Spanish, their dour expressions brighten a little and both bartenders turn out to be incredibly friendly. I ask them about the bartending scene in Havana and they tell me about the best rums (Santiago, not Havana Club) and the bars Cubans actually go to. The crowd of tourists waxes and wanes and they polish off over two liters of rum before I finish my drink.

“I prefer tequila,” the man who isn’t Rey tells me. “But it’s hard to get here.” He tells me about a friend of his, an American doctor, who always brings a bottle of 1800 when he visits. I make a mental note to do the same if I come back.

They’re surprised that I’m in Cuba alone. To be honest, it’s not the easiest place for it—after months of solo backpacking, Havana is the first place that actually makes me feel lonely—but Cuba is well worth a little social discomfort. “It’s not so bad,” I say. “I’m just excited Americans can finally come here.”

“We love Obama,” the tequila drinker says. “He’s the beginning of the end of this idiocy.”

He’s referring, of course, to the embargo and everything that goes along with it. The conversation drifts to the messy presidential race going on in my own country. Like nearly every Cuban I speak to over the next several days, both bartenders are praying for Hillary, horrified by the idea of a Trump presidency. The bad blood between our countries, as far as they’re concerned, is ancient history. “We don’t hate Americans,” the tequila drinker says. “We’re neighbors.”

This sentiment, too, is one I’ll hear throughout my stay. I finish my mojito as yet another wave of tourists hits and Rey starts doling out the next round of cocktails. I’m getting my wallet out to pay when he sets another mojito down in front of me. This one has a healthier sprig of mint in the bottom, though the taste is pretty much the same. “This one’s on us,” he says. “Welcome to Cuba.”

The Number of Drinks That Move Questionable Ideas to the “Good” Column

Aug.23.16

The Number of Drinks That Move Questionable Ideas to the “Good” Column

by Chris Schacht

Beer in Alaska

After a few days in the backcountry of Denali, eating dehydrated food and drinking filtered water, there’s nothing quite like a beer and a burger.

I found it a little upsetting, though, that I was enjoying that meal in sight of the Christopher McCandless bus.

It wasn’t the actual bus, but a reproduction used for Into the Wild, the film based on McCandless’s life. The bus ended up at the 49th State Brewery, which is not far outside the park. Now, I’m no worshipper of McCandless (I never read the book and thought the movie was fine), but I found it macabre for my two cousins and I to be gorging ourselves on sourdough burgers while tourists sat against the bus and snapped pictures, recreating the famous photo he took shortly before starving to death. I know McCandless said “happiness is only real when shared,” but I don’t think he was talking about Instagram.

No brooding over a bus could stop us from enjoying our drinks. With the first beer, I eyed the bus with disdain. By the third, I forgot it. They had a wide selection for one brewery, and between my traveling companions and I, we ordered only one dog of a beer.

And after those beers, we didn’t want to leave quite yet. We freed up our table to new diners and joined some guys building a bonfire in the courtyard. They were seasonal employees for the restaurant and for nearby guide companies. I’ve done my share of seasonal work, so we compared notes on Moab, the Adirondacks, and travels abroad. My cousins, one of whom lived in Fairbanks, had definitely been around, too.

Travelers and locals and seasonal bums, we all enjoyed our drinks together, and told stories around a fire that was only necessary in the sense that it gave us a place to gather near. Wilderness, like beer, provides us a means of escape. But more importantly, the two remind us that people matter, and that experiences really are better when shared.

Unfortunately, we had to get going. We had a long drive ahead of us, and our designated driver wasn’t keen on sticking around while we drank and the roads darkened. I took one more glance at the bus, which my cousin Eric must have noticed, because he nodded that direction. “Want your picture taken?” he said. He knew my feelings on the matter, so he was just ribbing me. Or he was acknowledging that we had reached the magic number of drinks that move previously questionable ideas to the “good” column. I passed on the offer. My cousins, the beer, the fire, our new friends; that was enough.

I recently asked my cousins if either of them had a picture from the brewery, maybe one of a beer, one of us, or one of the bus. They said no. On a trip otherwise fully documented with cell phones and SLRs, we hadn’t taken a single one.

Vive the People’s Drink

Aug.22.16

Vive the People’s Drink

by Jesse Dart

Spritz in Padova

In the middle of the piazza there are fruit and vegetable vendors with produce piled high. It’s late June. There are no students, the university has let out for the summer. It’s hot. Women in heels, however, are strolling along the stone paths walking their dogs. A few are chatting idly at tables with their friends over drinks. The octopus stand is just setting up for the evening. We are in Italy. We are in Padova.

Padova is like a snarky aunt 25 miles west of Venice. From the outside, you might think that she’s boring, provincial, but once you get to know her, you’ll be captured by her wit, her class, her style. Padova longs for people to fill her streets, her bars, her cafes and they do, without fail. Everyone here—men, women, children—can handle their drinks.

When I’m here, I always make time to go to Bar dei Osei in Piazza della Frutta in the center of town. The bar is small, with no inside seating. I’d say it’s an institution, but that’s too clinical: it’s a mainstay. It seems to have always existed. In their front window, you can see a large mortadella waiting to be sliced.

Here you drink spritz like you do in most northern Italian cities. In Padova, though, it’s the Spritz con Cynar that always gets my attention: bold, herbal, addicting. Cynar, is a bitter made primarily from artichokes, with a leafy green profile–different form the slightly sweeter Aperol. Bar dei Osei makes them the best, especially when combined with a Mortadella panino. I sit down and order one.

It’s rude to call Spritz a cocktail. It defies cocktails—it’s beyond them. Here, it’s the most democratic drink there is. A price hike could trigger protests. Spritz is the people’s drink, it’s for rich/poor, students/professionals. It has no class, no race, and no pretentiousness. Everyone drinks it, for better or worse, and that’s what makes it so great. If you’re not sure which bitter you want, at Bar dei Osei you can order the Spritz al Banco, which is a genius combination of Aperol, Campari, and Cynar with a splash of Prosecco. I drink one, two, three, and watch the ladies in heels with their dogs.

I’ve had spritz in grandpa bars, in fancy hotels, in cocktail bars. I’ve had them in London and in France, in the United States and in Australia. But none of them cut it. None of them have the expertise that comes with making them over and over, a thousand times a week, like the bartenders here do. Too watery, too much prosecco, too little bitters, too expensive or maybe they are just another cocktail on a list of 100. People here take this seriously: the price, the obligatory snacks (because you don’t drink without some kind of food), the atmosphere, conviviality, the democracy of it all. Politics aside, the spritz is an equalizer of people, of attitudes. The economy of the place depends on it.

The bartender brings over another round. “Six Euro” she says. We pull some coins out of our pockets. The line for octopus has grown, teenagers, families, friends have replaced the women in heels with dogs and the heat has finally subsided for the evening.

Day Drinkers, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Aug.18.16

Day Drinkers, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

by Markus Bell

Soju in Seoul

Listless, middle-aged Korean women fan themselves atop up-turned beer crates, islands of refuge among pools of water that threaten to merge and flood the warehouse. Windows are boarded up and protests to the government against the market’s forced relocation are scrawled in red paint across the slats. A shy breeze carries with it a pungent, tangy smell from parts unknown.

It’s late afternoon in Seoul’s best-kept secret, Noryangjin Fish Market, and the temperature is pushing 100 degrees.

Record heat or not, it’s business as usual and fishmongers tout their wares to the early evening customers. The catch of the day is sea bass. “You foreigners love it,” a vendor who looks like he was born with the sweat beading across his brow informs me. We bargain for three kilos and he gifts us a plastic bag full of prawns.

With expert precision, the fishmonger’s wife exacts a fatal blow upon our prospective dinner. Switching tools, she guts it and strips the scales. A trail of blood drains into the communal gutter, joining decades of other marine life offal. She points down a damp alleyway, commanding, “First on your left. They’ll cook your prawns and get your drink.”

Cradling polystyrene plates of finely sliced raw fish, we dance our way around puddles of stagnant water to the area designated for on-site consumption of the market’s wares.

“Oe-seo-o-seyo!” call the staff, ushering us to our table. The day drinkers have been busy and tables are strewn with bottles of Hite beer and shelled crustacean. A red-faced salaryman is slumped in the corner; chin on chest, he defies the efforts of his party to wake him.

We sit crossed legged on the vinyl floor and the waitress unloads a stack of side dishes. We peel off slice after slice of sashimi with metal chopsticks, coat it in soy sauce and wasabi, and wrap it in sesame leaves. It has a bite that can only be chased by Korea’s green-eyed monster–soju.

As the afternoon bleeds into the evening the fish disappears and the table begins to groan under the weight of empty bottles. With each round we order the eyes of the waitress grow wider. Impressed? Concerned? No matter. We’ve switched to spicy gochu pepper sauce and this demands chasers.

“It won’t be the same, you know,” the waitress suddenly reflects. “When we have to relocate – higher rent, less space. It’ll be the end of us.” The man in the corner suddenly awakes and she scuttles over to help carry him out.

Emptying our shot glasses we crack another bottle. In most of Seoul’s marketplaces, day drinking is slowly disappearing, displaced by regulated hours and serious men in serious suits. But here, for now, we are holding out–staggering along, carrying the soju-fueled flame.

It’s Strangely Fun to Hear Cognac People Losing Their Minds Over Really Old Cognac

Aug.17.16

It’s Strangely Fun to Hear Cognac People Losing Their Minds Over Really Old Cognac

by Jake Emen

Cognac in Paradis

There’s a locked room beneath the Martell facility in Cognac, France, holding three centuries worth of secrets. A single dimly lit, nondescript hall, echoing with the faint whispers of passersby, offers its only means of entrance. Or escape.

It’s no prison, though: it’s the Paradis, the cellar where the oldest, finest eaux-de-vie are carefully kept as years, decades, and lifetimes continue to come and go above. Each producer has their own Paradis, but few can lay claim to one as magnificent as Martell’s, the oldest continually operational major Cognac house, founded in 1715. Here, Paradis is the Chai Jean Martell, or Jean Martell Cellar, and the oldest remaining eau-de-vie stretches back to 1802.

The eaux-de-vie, which isn’t known as Cognac until it’s blended, have been aged for exceedingly long periods before being transferred to nonreactive glass vessels known as demijohns, which stop the aging process and keep the spirit intact indefinitely. Kept within seemingly innocuous wicker baskets, which would otherwise be useful for no more than toting around laundry, they instead offer a time-bending, transformative journey to the lucky souls who encounter them.

Each demijohn holds a unique story, a moment locked in time for eternity. One’s story begins on May 30th, 1848, and I would find out later as I searched for some sort of historical significance to the time that was superior to simply stating that it had been over 167 fucking years since the stuff was made, that this is apparently the very same day that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, became effective, and that Wisconsin became the 30th state a day prior.

On that day, one particular eau-de-vie was distilled. It then spent 65 years maturing in the cask before being transferred to its state of dormant demijohn deep sleep. Something about this eau-de-vie was deemed worthy of safekeeping, of locking away in Paradis, until some lucky schmuck was able to stroll past in 2015 and attempt to ineloquently link it to something like the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Reading a book is supposedly a means of transporting you to the past, but it’s not sensory in any way, it’s entirely up to the imagination. A great author may be able to conjure up an immersive world for a reader, but nothing is ever actually experienced.

Raise a glass of eau-de-vie distilled in 1848 to your nose, though, and there’s no imagination necessary. Its smell and taste, its appearance in the glass, the feel of it along your tongue and cheeks, all of this came to be thanks to some craftsman’s hands 167 years prior and is now there for you, ready to deliver the innate imbibing pleasure which always rested within.

It’s musty and oaky, dry and spicy, but with fruity and floral notes as well, a delicate interplay belying its incredible age and the multi-century journey the spirit took until the day it was finally enjoyed as intended, November 4th, 2015. The room fills with a flowing, blissful energy, a crazy state of excitement and wonder passes from person to person, as a buzz created in 1848 comes to fruition and is brought to life 61,153 days later for you and your friends. Paradis.

Saturate Your Mind in Beer When the Obscenities of Mass Tourism Prove Overwhelming

Aug.16.16

Saturate Your Mind in Beer When the Obscenities of Mass Tourism Prove Overwhelming

by Matthew Bremner

Lukewarm Beer on La Rambla

Victor Ramos sat at a table in a terrace restaurant on La Rambla in Barcelona. He stared glumly into the distance. His eyes were clogged with tiredness and his back, bent by years of work, made sitting uncomfortable. His knees hurt, too, and at about this time of day, around mid-afternoon, the sun was always at its most overwhelming. Ramos felt his age only too keenly.

He was one of the few old things left on La Rambla, one of the few people remaining from a forgotten time. It was this small thing that kept him going, kept him making the short walk from his small flat in the Raval, where he lived alone, to one of the many cafes that line the famous street.

I met Ramos in the final few months of my time in Barcelona. I had moved to the city with my girlfriend in the hope of staying there permanently, but things hadn’t worked out, and La Rambla had become a Mecca-cum-metaphor for my frustration. I would go there and goggle at the sweaty sunburnt sight of modernity, drinking lukewarm Estrella Dams, until my mind was saturated by beer and boredom. Then one day, when the obscenities of mass tourism were becoming less fascinating, I sat next to him on one of the street’s many terraces. He was a crotchety old man, reminiscing about a glorious past.

I ordered beer, another lukewarm Estrella Damm, and Ramos sat murmuring over a milky coffee. As he babbled, he stared ceaselessly at the battered cardboard sign of a nearby shoe shiner: “5 euros for a polish” it read. The shoe shiner sat with his back to us, the worn chair in front of him empty and only the faint suggestion of his last client creased into its faux-leather. “Bet he doesn’t get many customers these days,” Ramos offered, as if we had been speaking for hours. “You know this whole street used to be lined with shoe shiners, back when it was beautiful, that is.” He went quiet again and resumed his staring.

It was odd watching them both: the crusty octogenarian and the hapless shoe shiner, both goaded by sun-oiled sinewy bodies and rubber flip-flops, and both overlooked by an age in pursuit of its own time and uses.

Ramos started to tell me what La Rambla was once like. It was a sinuous tree-lined expanse, full of theaters and markets. It ran from Plaça de Catalunya to the sea, he said. It was a street of fetid fish merchants, slick shoe-shiners, and solemn salesmen; of bombastic artists boozing in posh restaurants, and theatregoers out for an evening stroll. Work and leisure existed cheek by jowl. “It was a street full of its city. Now, it is a street full of the world… a world that doesn’t care about what the street once was.”

In front of us, people slouched over jugs of astringent sangria and shoveled soggy paella into their mouths. They packed the roadside terraces that in turn congested the street with a mass of plastic tables. Next to these establishments, more sightseers marched down the street in a sizzling miasma of beer, sweat, and sun lotion. Among them, half-naked men paraded their pectorals and sexual desires, and half-cut hen parties stumbled into bars and spluttered their drink orders.

I told Ramos that at any given moment around 80 percent of the people on La Rambla were tourists, and that this year anywhere between 8-9 million foreigners would visit the city. He shook his head. He knew that tourism wasn’t all bad, that the city had experienced a much needed lift after the 1992 Olympics. But somewhere something had changed, something had gone wrong. Economic success had converted central Barcelona into a theme-park, and it saddened and disgusted him in equal measure. But he knew his disdain didn’t matter. The street was changing, and he was too old and too poor to follow its lead.

“Every morning I wake up and wish I didn’t have to come here,” he told me, “yet, the street has always been part of my life, and I can’t stop living my life.” Ramos told me he had passed the time with his friends here, wooed his wife here, started long walks to the sea from here; he did things with people who, and in places that, no longer exist. He had only the outlines of his memories, and like a palimpsest, these recollections had been written over many times by the pressing needs of the present.

He frowned deeply, and began to organize himself to leave. He said he hadn’t talked to anyone for so long in months, and that he was happy to have told someone about his Rambla. He told me he’d return the next day, back on the street that dragged further from his past. As I watched him walk into the distance, I ordered another beer. Beside me a gaggle of giggly young women had taken over Ramos’s table. The party ordered a sangria and began Instagramming each other’s sunburnt feet.

Photo by: Josep Ma. Rosell

The Singular Experience of Drinking Beer in a North Korean Restaurant in Cambodia

Aug.15.16

The Singular Experience of Drinking Beer in a North Korean Restaurant in Cambodia

by Brent Crane

Beer in Phnom Penh

At the Pyongyang Cold Noodle Restaurant in Phnom Penh, one of a dozen plus eateries around the world owned by the North Korean regime, beer flows as freely as the blessed waters of the Kuryong Falls. An experience there is a grand show and, like any fiction, it is enhanced by alcohol, which is brought to you by spotless women in puffy joseon-ot dresses.

Pyongyang is so much more than a restaurant. It is a concert hall, a cultural variety show, a carnival of exported oppression (the North Korean staff cannot, of course, quit) and, most interestingly, a glimpse into a secret place. But it is North Korea as North Korea wants it to be seen: convivial, confident, and grand.

Look around: the place is packed with Chinese patrons, banquet style. Massive landscape paintings line the walls, LOTR-esque, with deep gorges and pristine waterfalls graced by majestic eagles and fierce tigers. Posters warn against the use of photographic devices. It smells like a Chinese fridge, the air icy with an artificial chill. The Dear Leader is suspiciously absent.

On stage is a spectacle. Women in white and red skirts dance to space rock. They step behind some traditional Korean drums and bang away to an increasingly intense soundtrack. Horns. Synth. Electric violin. Drum fill. Boom! Bang! Bop! Guitar solo.

One woman (they are all women) scuttles over to the biggest traditional drum and the other three take the other drums and suddenly it’s a drum battle. Then, before I can finish my first Chinese beer, they rush off stage and the violinist takes over with a beautiful singer. “Danny Boy, the Pipes…” melds into a techno version of Mozart’s Turkish March. The crowd eats it up like gourmet kimchi.

A new singer comes out and begins a solo performance. “What’s she saying?” I ask my friend Claire, a South Korean who’s joined me here with her Swiss-German husband Simon. She studies the karaoke screen. “…a bunch of birds flying around…Talking about a special flower: Moran. ‘The fragrant flower makes me wanna’…I don’t know. Dance or fly or something.”

A rock band appears. The guitarists are faking. You could tell during the key change.

Then the stage lights flash on. Mario-like music blares. Four identically dressed dancers with shiny, unblemished, robot faces come out and sing in perfect unison, “Under the bright sun we will prosper!” We all order another beer, then another and another, melting away the myriad ethical questions about coming here for fermented barley from Harbin. You couldn’t look at the tome of a menu without thinking of the famines.

A dancer with a fan and a red hat with a green peacock feather takes the stage with a revolutionary waltz. She starts spinning. The feather flutters in her inhuman torque. “That hat,” Claire belts over the music. “That hat is what the shamans wear.”

“I didn’t know there was shamanism in Korea,” I remark.

“Yeah. Shamanism is the deepest root. Then Buddhism, then Confucianism.” The music picks up, drowning Claire, and the dancer spins faster as the crowd erupts.

I ask Claire about growing up with such a strange neighbor. “You’re taught to hope for reunification,” she says. “You’re taught to love your people to the north. You think less about the dictator and more of the normal people. And then when a Westerner comes along and gets really political about it—I’m just like ‘okay okay,'” she says as she takes a sip of beer. “The weirdest part for me is that I could have been them.”

Everything Is Good, Everything Is the Same

Aug.11.16

Everything Is Good, Everything Is the Same

by Bhavya Dore

Beer in Mumbai

The second plate of naan arrives, flecked with strands of cheese and spots of black sesame. It’s 11pm on a Tuesday night at Gokul, the kind of night when a tall, cool glass of Kingfisher would do quite nicely.

I happen to have that tall, cool glass of Kingfisher right in front of me, and the sweet taste of bitter is exactly the kind of thing I need. Not just because it’s the kind of muggy night that merits beer-soaked fun, but also because I haven’t drunk here at Gokul in a year.

Personal prohibition was brought on by jaundice; no drinking for at least six months after recovering. The path to good health is lined with abstinence, but having ridden out that curve I am back now and Gokul—a habitual port of call since 2006—is as good a place as any for a beery comeback.

Tucked in a lane behind the Taj hotel, the vibe is equal parts seedy, iconic, cheap, convenient and comfortable. It is always in danger of passing from genuine dive into appropriated cool, but on balance it seems to do quite well, staying this side of pretentiousness.

There are bars like this one through Mumbai; dimly lit watering holes offering inexpensive liquor and crunchy treats like masala papad and chakli with Schezwan sauce. I have heard tell that even on dry days—holidays in the state when alcohol is prohibited—Gokul is the one place you have always been able to go to. It has moved through various iterations; as a tiny restaurant, an unofficial gay bar, a Lonely Planet recommendation. Its clientele demographic is all over the map.

Even though smoking indoors is prohibited, Gokul is free from the constraints of reality and the air-conditioned ground floor room is permeated by a tobacco fug. The pomfret arrives; a flat, red slab. We tear off hunks off it. All the while I remember it was probably a shady dish in a shady joint like this that gave me jaundice in the first place. But now is not the time to dwell on quibbles over hygiene; especially not when you’re after things like “character.”

I look around for familiar faces, but tonight there seem to be none. We are seated in one far corner, lit up by the iridescence of the television in a place whose approach to lighting is the less, the better. The show switches from kabbadi to Ian Botham stroking a boundary in a cricket highlights reel from 1981. There are ghosts everywhere, and not just on the television. The taste of Kingfisher is comforting, and it is good to be reunited with it. But nostalgia is the refuge of the unimaginative, and I am here to make new memories.

“What’s new on the menu since I met you last year?” I ask the man in charge, simply known as Anna to D, who invokes the authority of a regular.

A fellow with a standard-issue moustache, Anna is non-committal. “Everything is good, everything is the same,” he says, with a half-smile.

Glad to be back.

We’re Going to Need Some More Information on the Yakuza Club and the Strippers

Aug.10.16

We’re Going to Need Some More Information on the Yakuza Club and the Strippers

by Russ Rowlands

Mai Tais on Waikiki Beach

Four of us sat around a table on the posh waterfront patio of the Outrigger Waikiki in Honolulu, heads in hands. I was coming down from a solo day-drunk while also trying to drain the salt water from my sinuses after an ass-over-teakettle first attempt at surfing. The other three were recovering from a night on the town and being uncharacteristically taciturn about it.

It was 3pm. Around us sat a thin crowd of honeymooners, clearly second- or third-rounders who had overdone it on turtle tours and theme-park luaus. Despite their salty experience they were still putting in the effort, all dressed up in colorful shirts tucked into dockers and white dresses showing off more pink flesh than was strictly warranted.

A manicured waitress arrived and greeted us with a sunshine-bright aloha, to which I cannot say she received the deserved commensurate response. The other guys didn’t even look up. Undecided between the menu’s various elderberry-infused offerings, I asked her for four rum punches. The guys had flown all the way to Hawaii from Barbados, and I thought some home-town nostalgia would perk them up. The waitress stared at me blankly.

“You don’t have rum punch?” I tried, as politely as possible. The look on her face was the same one you get when you drunkenly order tacos at a late-night shawarma joint. At least one of the guys looked up when I said it.

“Hmm. Rum sours?”

“Ohhh sure, rum sours!” she said. I wasn’t reassured by the set of her eyebrows, though.

Four neon-green drinks arrived soon after, be-rimmed with limes and umbrellas. Unsteady hands, attached to noncommittal arms, reached out for the medicine. The drinks were consumed in silence, and had no apparent curative effects.

The waitress, undeterred and attentive, suggested the hotel’s specialty, a Mai Tai. Four ounces of varied rums, pineapple juice, and a slice of fruit. The boys didn’t offer an opinion. I hesitated. The famous, if faded, Mai Tai was not something I had ever seen on a menu in a non-ironic manner. Our waitress smiled brightly, patiently.

“Oh come on, give them a try – they’re delicious!” she said, putting her hand on my shoulder. I nodded, letting responsibility for the matter slough off me.

Our Mai Tais arrived in huge tumblers soggy with condensation. Thick layers of dark rum, pineapple juice, and then more white rum were somehow well delineated. Massive chunks of pineapple perched on the rim, glistening vibrantly in stark contrast to every other fruit rim in my long experience. Heads lifted.

Tentative sips were taken. Less tentative gulps were taken. Glasses were finished, ice ringing dully against a boozy pineapple pulp. We looked around at each other, guiltily. The Mai Tais were stunningly good.

The guys eventually loosened up, telling me about a debauched night of Yakuza clubs, suicidal strippers, and nearly-lost limbs. Despite our evident appreciation for the iconic drink, I don’t think Tourism Hawaii will be calling us anytime soon to request a promo.

What Sort of Monster Doesn’t Finish a Magical Dram of Scotch?

Aug.09.16

What Sort of Monster Doesn’t Finish a Magical Dram of Scotch?

by Jake Emen

Scotch in Islay

Islay, Scotland, with its 3,000 residents and 239 square miles, is home to eight whisky distilleries. There’s more on the way, too, with business booming and investors eager to get in on the world’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for the peaty, salty, briny, and all-around wonderful whisky that flows from the island’s stills.

That thirst was not always unquenchable, however, an unfortunate truth which came firmly to light in 1983. This was to become a year of mourning, one which would be eternally remembered with anguish and grief by whisky drinkers once Port Ellen shuttered its doors and mothballed its equipment. No more whisky was to be distilled there.

Whisky takes time to come of age, though, and great whisky often takes decades. So while new production ceased, the warehouses have remained ever-active, slowly but surely maturing their remaining contents.

Mammoth spirits company Diageo owns the facility and has been doling out the remaining stock from those warehouses in small, highly exclusive annual releases. Bottles fetch a few thousand dollars a pop, when they can be tracked down at all. The liquid is the stuff of legend.

But who needs a bottle, when you can sample it straight from one of those prized, mythical casks?

A celebratory tour of the island in honor of the Lagavulin distillery’s 200th anniversary (also owned by Diageo) included a visit to Port Ellen. Beyond the warehouses, a thriving malting operation also takes place, providing the bulk of the peated, malted barley used in Islay’s active distilleries.

Soon, murmurs were heard and rumors were swirling. A frantic energy was building. There’s still whisky in those warehouses, yes? Will we get to try any of it? No, no, let’s not get our hopes up. Certainly there was no mention of this on the itinerary.

The group wandered out of the malting house and down to the shore, along the southern coast of tiny Islay, overlooking the even tinier town of Port Ellen itself. The sun was shining across brilliant blue skies, betraying the island’s windswept and perpetually storm-battered reputation, and perhaps signaling that on this day, there would be no mourning, no eternal grief or anguish. No, on this day, the whisky gods had a gift to bestow.

The gift, of course, was that patiently matured Port Ellen distilled whisky. Produced in that fateful final year of production, the whisky itself was now 32 years old, having spent the entirety of its life, a life longer than my own, coming of age in ex-sherry casks. Glasses were passed out and admired, more sunshine emanating from the contents held within than from the bright blue sky above.

Standing next to that warehouse, with its instantly recognizable Islay aesthetics—whitewashed walls with bold, black lettering indicating your location, P O R T E L L E N—a Glencairn glass is passed into my hands. Drinking Port Ellen, one of the world’s most prized whiskies, at Port Ellen, one of the world’s most fervently mourned former distilleries, it’s a pour of whisky that cannot be conveyed via mere tasting notes. This isn’t a collection of specific flavor profile pinpoints, it’s a transcendental, joyful experience to be savored far beyond the moment when the final drop was cherishingly sipped down. Sure, there’s salt and peat and spice and sherry, but really, it’s hope and dreams and loveliness.

Revelry ensues, photos are taken, glasses are returned and the group begins walking away. What’s this? Someone put down their glass, with whisky still remaining in it? Who would dare? Is there a commission to report this foolish person to, some sort of task-force to ride in, sirens blaring, to escort this person to his or her fully-deserved imprisonment?

No, I have a better idea. Shh. I’ll make this my little secret. I pick up the glass and savor its remaining sip. Another gift from the whisky gods above on this absurdly beautiful day spent wandering this tiny, quaint island which conjures up just such magical moments for whisky lovers the world over.

Learning to Love the Exotic Cuisine of Upstate New York

Aug.08.16

Learning to Love the Exotic Cuisine of Upstate New York

by Pooja Makhijani

Beer in Buffalo

Like most American-born children of immigrants, I felt tension between the culture I was immersed in at school during the day, and the culture that my family kept alive within our home and in our community, which I returned to each night. In the late-1980s, after the passage of various immigration reform laws, my New Jersey township became home to thousands of migrants from China and India. We had South Asian neighbors, celebrated South Asian holidays, ate South Asian foods. My immigrant parents, to a large extent, were able to preserve their Old-World life, unlike, perhaps, immigrant families in less diverse parts of the United States.

My experience of American (read: non-South Asian) foods was largely limited to Kraft Mac & Cheese and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. It was only when my parents’ became established in their careers in the early-1990s that “exotic” American foods beyond the occasional Pizza-Hut pan pizza became affordable and ubiquitous for us. And as I began to enter more white spaces, my appreciation of and taste for “American” food grew.

A dozen years ago, I married an Indian-American man, like myself, who had grown up in a city that required his assimilation, or at least more so than mine. He grew up with football and chicken wings, and, having entered his family, I have learned to love these things, too. (OK, maybe not football. Yet.) We frequent Buffalo annually, and we always have wings.

Our family prefers Duff’s Famous Wings in Amherst, a quiet northern suburb, rather than Anchor Bar, in downtown Buffalo, where wings are thought to have first been prepared. Local lore tells the story of Teressa Bellissimo, co-owner of the bar, who, upon the unannounced arrival of her son with several of his friends, deep-fried chicken wings and tossed them in cayenne hot sauce. Anchor Bar’s wings are smokier than Duff’s, and the bar is only frequented by my family when they have visitors in town. Duff’s, on the other hand, attracts both college students from nearby University of Buffalo and locals like my own.

On our most recent visit, we avoid the evening rush, when hungry diners spill out to picnic tables outside, and settle into a cramped corner in the main dining room. The standard-issue tables and chairs are squeezed tightly into this space, and my knees knock against my husband’s. Not much has changed since Duff’s was founded in this location in 1946, he tells me. The ceiling is white stucco, the walls are dark wood-paneled, and the bar is small and crowded.

We order 30 medium wings and a pitcher of Labatt Blue. “MEDIUM IS HOT/MEDIUM HOT IS VERY HOT/HOT IS VERY, VERY HOT,” we are reminded. The beer is cheap, light, and easy-to-drink, and a reminder of his twenties, my husband tells me. “It was either this or Molson,” he says.

Wings are a conversation-less meal. Between dipping the wings into blue cheese or extra hot sauce, tearing off bits of meat with one’s teeth and downing gulps of beer to offset the bite, wiping one’s orange-tinged fingers with napkins, and discarding bones into a bowl or bucket, there is no time for pleasantries. Duff’s wings are plump and crisp-skinned, and I much prefer the wings over the drumettes. They have a vinegary note, and their heat lingers on our lips and tongues long after our meal is complete.

In Drinking, as in Life, End With Bad Wordplay

Aug.05.16

In Drinking, as in Life, End With Bad Wordplay

by Daisy Dee

This week, illustrator Daisy Dee is sharing dispatches from a week spent drinking in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.

Single Malt Whisky at the Pharmacy Museum, 1 pm

My dress is heavy and dripping.

I’m scheduled to fly out in three hours and New Orleans (in typical fashion) wants to send me off with a drink and a downpour.

As I walk to my final seminar at the iconic New Orleans Pharmacy Museum in the Quarter, the sky erupts into a casual thunderstorm. Growing up in places that vacillate violently between weather patterns, I learned to always carry with me a tiny umbrella to shield me from intense sun and moderate rain. It’s more of a safety blanket than a functional umbrella, and when the rain turns torrential, it struggles pathetically to divert the deluge. When I arrive at the museum, I am only slightly drier than I would have been with no protection at all, and I’m dripping excessively onto the floor. Actually, most of us are. The rain stops as soon as we are all safely inside, of course.

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum on Chartres is a beautiful and deeply historic space. The original storefront was the first accredited American pharmacy, run by Luis J. Dufilo, Jr., the first to pass the pharmacist’s licensing exam, in 1804. The museum is designed to look like an apothecary from that time, with bottles containing medicinal herbs and tonics lining every wall. There are pharmaceutical relics on display, illustrating the evolution of modern medicine with informative placards discussing the uses of leeches and ether.

There couldn’t be a more suitable location to have a seminar on Auchentoshan and bitters. Bitters were originally developed medicinally as a digestive aid, and to this day are a common (especially among bartenders) treatment for an assortment of maladies. Today’s workshop is run by Robin Nance, national Auchentoshan brand ambassador, and Tobin Ludwig of Hella Bitters. We start with a sparkling, slightly bitter single-malt cocktail. Tobin presents the history and methods surrounding the development of bitters, explaining how some bitters are created using a mixture of dry spices and aromatics steeped in a strong spirit, as one would make tea, but others are made using tinctures (a single ingredient extracted into an alcohol base) that are then blended into a final product.

Robin then explains to us the history of Auchentoshan single malt scotch. Unlike most distilleries in Scotland, which tend to be more remote, Auchentoshan was built near Glasgow. Despite being quite an old distillery—it was founded in the 1800s—their attitude towards making whisky embraces the experimental rather than emphasizing tradition. Due to their practice of triple distillation (an uncommon process in Scotch), Auchentoshan’s final spirit comes out of the still at 81% ABV (162 proof). Triple distilling strips away some of the heavier grain elements from the distillate, leaving a whisky that is lighter and more delicate.

It would make the perfect base for bitters, but unfortunately, due to shipping laws, it wouldn’t feasible. Instead, we use Auchentoshan American Oak as our base.

This workshop utilizes the tincture method of creating bitters. Using tinctures and adding to a base spirit by measured amounts is instantly gratifying. You can taste and predict what an ingredient will add to your recipe (as long as you don’t blow out your tastebuds on the bird’s eye Thai chili tincture). All of the flavors are broken down into categories like bitter, spice, fruit, floral. We take notes on our recipes and fiddle with the bottles, tasting and exchanging sweet almond and allspice tinctures.

I decide to focus on my favorite spice, cardamom, and build a bitters recipe around that core, adding some Madagascar vanilla, cassia, allspice, ginger and sweet orange for a chai effect, with a base of angelica root and some black pepper for spice and bitterness. It’s a nice mixture, warming with a bitterness like artichoke that makes my mouth water. But I ask others to taste it as well, as I went a little hard on that bird’s eye chili.

It’s time for me to head to the airport, and I have no idea what title to write on the label, but when in doubt, go with terrible wordplay:

“You’re not my cardamom!”

And with that, I’m ready to go home.

A Drink Fit for Royalty but Poured for a Crowd

Aug.04.16

A Drink Fit for Royalty but Poured for a Crowd

by Daisy Dee

This week, illustrator Daisy Dee is sharing dispatches from a week spent drinking in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.

L’essence at Arnaud’s, 3 pm

I do things for silly reasons. The reason I became a bartender in the first place was because I wanted to taste spirits that were older than me. I was poor and young and didn’t know that it wouldn’t be that difficult to do. I figured working in a bar would provide me with a spirits education, and eventually I would get to drink something twice my age. Even though I’ve accomplished that tiny dream many times over at this point, I still operate on that prerogative. I suppose it’s just in my nature to seek out and taste history. This is one of those opportunities.

Beam Suntory, a spirits manufacturer, has rented out Arnaud’s, one of my favorite restaurants in all of New Orleans, for a hotel-themed party. I am ecstatic.

I check in with the “concierge” and he hands me a substantial, copper-colored bottle opener masquerading as a beautiful room key. The main dining area has been transformed into a breathtaking hotel lobby, with a large bar serviced by five bartenders pumping out classics quickly and efficiently: cognac-based French 75s, Penicillin Punches, Boulevardiers, and Hibiki Highballs are all on offer. I help myself to a highball and hunt down some snacks; the food is being provided by the restaurant and it is delicious.

There is a line forming to go upstairs, where there is an exclusive tasting room in which guests can sample the rarer spirits in the company’s catalogue. Upon entry I receive a small stemmed glass, etched with the iconic “A” of the Auchentoshan single malt whisky distillery. I love this room, especially the wallpaper, a blend of playful circus imagery and animals that look like they belong on family crests. People are milling about from one corner to another, discussing the nuances of the products that the brand ambassadors are serving up. El Tesoro’s Paradiso is being poured in one corner, while others are gathered around the Hakkushu and Yamazaki bottles. I’ve come upstairs for one thing, a tiny taste of by far the rarest and most delicate spirit in the room: Courvoisier’s L’essence.

The marketing department of the cognac industry as a whole has done very well in making cognac a luxury item in the U.S., thanks in no small part to the hip-hop community and the frequent mention of cognac alongside expensive jewelry, designer fashion, and high-end sports cars. L’essence is Courvoisier’s special-edition cognac, and is the essence, not only of all of their grand and petit champagne eau de vies (dating back to 1910) but of luxury as well.

I’ve found a seat close by, realizing that the line forming for such precious liquid will be the perfect opportunity to practice some face sketches. Word is spreading that the L’essence is being poured and everyone wants a taste. Of course they do, as the bottle retails for up to $3,200. These events are the most likely place to taste something so rare, unless you have a friend who also happens to be royalty.

The Courvoisier representative checks the glasses for cleanliness before pouring. The cognac is so delicate that if any other spirit still lingers in the glass, it will overpower the L’essence. It is indeed delicate and nuanced and very much appeals to my taste. It has a very smooth, nutty body with surprisingly floral notes for a spirit containing mostly century-old eau de vie. Its flavor lingers for a long time, and I savor the half-ounce of liquid in my glass slowly while watching everyone vie for a taste. I watch a man sneakily attempt to get seconds, but he’s turned away to give a fresh face the opportunity to taste.

Half an hour passes, and the decanter is empty. A few minutes later and my glass, which I’ve managed to stretch for this long, is finally empty, too. I take a deep breath of the remaining perfume and dream longingly of the next time I will taste something so exquisite.

The Best Damn Gumbo I Have Ever Had

Aug.03.16

The Best Damn Gumbo I Have Ever Had

by Daisy Dee

This week, illustrator Daisy Dee is sharing dispatches from a week spent drinking in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.

Frozen Irish Coffee at the Erin Rose, 5 pm

It’s time for the Tales of the Cocktail tradition: Frozen Irish coffee at the Erin Rose, the unofficial cocktail of the convention. It’s a sweet, milky slush with a brandy base that lives in the industrial-strength daiquiri machines at the back of the bar. It’s garnished with coffee grounds, which are hands-down my favorite part of the drink. I slurp those up first and then hope they aren’t stuck in my teeth when I smile.

Sitting in the back room of the Erin Rose brings me back to a late night, two years prior, on a Tuesday around the same time of year. I am sitting with some friends after returning from an excellent show at the Maple Leaf. We’re drinking frozen Irish coffees, debating whether to walk to Verti Marte for po’boys or go to bed hungry. I’m barely drunk, but desperately hungry, almost too hungry to walk. But then, like a human room of requirement…

“NEVER FEAR, GUMBO MAN IS HERE,” a booming voice calls as a stranger bursts into the back room.

My eyes light up, and he catches my excitement and walks over to me. There is no gumbo in his hands, only a phone on which he shows me photos from his Instagram account, which is filled with pretty women kissing his cheeks. “Happy, satisfied customers,” he says.

“How much is it?” I ask. Eight dollars for chicken and andouille, ten for seafood, which includes chicken, andouille, shrimp, and blue crab.

I hear the words “shrimp and blue crab” and want it desperately, but I’m still hesitant. I haven’t seen any product, but I’m stupid with hunger so I ask the bartender, who is quietly watching the whole scene play out, “Can I trust this man?”

He nods dismissively.

Looking back on it, I might have done the same if I were him just to see how things would unfold.

But I am convinced. I fish a $10 bill out of my bag and hand it to my new friend. He walks out of the bar and my friends all stare at me blankly, shocked that I could be such a sucker. Only a few minutes pass, but it feels like forever.

I question my life choices.

My gumbo hero returns with the spoils. A steaming styrofoam cup filled with gumbo, generously chunky with all the promised ingredients. Spiced and a little earthy, rich and dark and so satisfying. I want to kiss his cheeks like the girls in his photos, but he has disappeared as abruptly as he’d arrived.

I don’t know if it’s the story surrounding the experience or just the fact that I was ravenous. But it was the best damn gumbo I have ever had.

Scenes From a Frantic, Week-Long Bar Crawl

Aug.02.16

Scenes From a Frantic, Week-Long Bar Crawl

by Daisy Dee

This week, illustrator Daisy Dee is sharing dispatches from a week spent drinking in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.

Vieux Carrés at the Carousel Bar, 11 am

I’m sitting at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone drinking a cocktail and lazily spinning around the room while seated at the rotating circular bar. It’s crowded, and those who are not lucky enough to have a seat at the spinning bar are awkwardly shuffling along at the speed of the barstools to keep up with the lucky few. Its a fun experience, but disorienting. Not recommended for those who are easily motion sick.

The Hotel Monteleone serves as the epicenter of the week-long spirits industry convention, and people cycle in and out, looking for old friends. The bartender, Neil, is celebrating his birthday, and the entire carousel erupts into a rousing rendition of happy birthday while a woman presents a lit candle stuck into a bowl of their famously addictive bar-nut mix.

Despite the early hour (for me, at least) I’m drinking a Vieux Carré, which translates to Old Square, a moniker for the French Quarter. The Carousel Bar is historically recognized as the birthplace of this classic cocktail. It’s a variant of the Manhattan, with a base of bitters (Peychaud’s and Angostura, usually), rye whiskey, and sweet vermouth. In this version, however, half of the rye is replaced with cognac, the bitters are applied with a heavy hand, and a spoonful of Bénédictine, an herbal French liqueur, is added, giving the drink a smooth, buttery quality. Others must be excited to be in the cocktail’s bar of origin as well, because Neil is making a ton of them.

The bar takes about 15 minutes to make a full revolution. I sit so long I lose count of them, trying to capture the likeness of people constantly shifting seats while also trying to talk with friends that I rarely see.

In the end, hunger for fried chicken wins out and our group departs before I can finish my sketch. But this is Tales, a frantic, week-long bar crawl. Like the Carousel Bar, even when you’re sitting still, you don’t stay in one place for very long.

Nothing Beats the Monday Blahs Like a Party in the Streets

Aug.01.16

Nothing Beats the Monday Blahs Like a Party in the Streets

by Daisy Dee

This week, illustrator Daisy Dee is sharing dispatches from a week spent drinking in New Orleans during Tales of the Cocktail.

Soju at Yuki Izakaya

Hiroshi picks me up from the hotel lobby. We’ve planned to go down to Frenchmen Street to enjoy my favorite part of New Orleans, the constant stream of live music. I secretly hope that the Young Fellaz Brass Band will be playing on their corner like they do almost every night, but our plan for now is to eat dinner at Yuki Izakaya, a quiet, unassuming Japanese pub.

It’s a quiet Monday. The band that is playing is called Up Up We Go, a group with rotating musicians centered around founder Salvatore Geloso. Tonight, Shawn Meyers accompanies him with percussion. The music is smokey and dreamy, the vocals reminiscent of Amy Winehouse.

We make our way to the very back of the bar, close to the kitchen. Hiro introduces me to his friends behind the bar. I order soju and Calpis and Hiro chooses an Asahi Black. We order some takoyaki and other snacks, and settle into our stools to take in the band.

I love to draw musicians because it’s one of the few times when I don’t seem like a complete creep for staring at strangers for uncomfortable lengths of time while seemingly taking notes in a tiny black book. Yuki’s is dark and we are seated quite possibly as far away from the band as we can possibly be, but there is enough light to make out their faces. Geloso’s bright, chandelier-style earrings stand out to me in the dim bar, as well as his striking silhouette, while Meyers moves a little too quickly for my eyes to track. I attempt several times to get a likeness but fail.

Halfway through their set, the Young Fellaz Brass Band can be heard outside, setting up for their nightly performance. They’re a large, rag-tag group of young street performers who take up musical residence almost every night on the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres. A tiny part of me wants to abandon this drawing and the dark bar to go dance in the streetlight to their high-octane performance. I’ve heard that some of the musicians who perform in venues on Frenchman are resentful of the brass band, as their high energy and volume penetrates right through the buildings, competing with the performers inside. The Young Fellaz Brass Band are a magnet, drawing people to an abandoned corner curb; the crowd can get so big it spills into and across the entire intersection.

To me, this is wonderful. This band brings their A-game night after night. They know how to entertain a crowd and they hustle, sometimes performing for hours. Sure, they are loud, but they’re a fucking brass band. Of course they’re loud. I can see how other musicians would view them as competition, but just as a rising tide raises all ships, the start of the set out on the street corner has forced Up Up and Away to raise their own energy levels as well. After their short break, they come back with a funky song that interacts playfully and competes for volume with the band outside. Their set becomes more kinetic and loses the lazy Monday vibes from earlier in the night. I’ve become consumed with covering up a tragic attempt at a face with a brick wall in my sketch, so I decide to stay at Yuki’s while finishing the drawing. I watch the rest of their set while enjoying the sounds of the chaotic party going on in the streets in the background.

Drinking Bootleg Beer in Bangkok

Jul.28.16

Drinking Bootleg Beer in Bangkok

by Craig Sauers

Thai Craft Beer in Thailand

A breeze blew over the brown water. Waves licked the beams beneath my feet. I had a cold pale ale in one hand and a notebook in the other. Sunglasses shaded my eyes. From where I was sitting, I could see vines growing wildly on a flood wall and a temple roof turning ochre in the late-afternoon sun. The distance between the other side of the river and me was no farther than 50 feet, and I was just a boat ride away from the one-room apartment I called home, but I felt so far removed from Bangkok I may as well have been in Boston.

My glass was empty. The man I was drinking with gave me another, an amber ale he was tinkering with in his free time. His name was Chit, and Chit Beer was his baby: a shack-turned-brewing academy and Thai-craft-beer bar on a speck of land called Koh Kret. He was lean and outspoken, with the relentless energy of a man well-seasoned in the art of throwing backyard barbecues. We talked about Bitcoins, the marathons we had run in New York, and how, while at Georgia Tech, he got hooked on home-brewing. I told him I couldn’t remember the last time I’d tasted a beer as flavorful as his in Thailand. He called me a VIP.

When Chit laughed, he looked like the Cheshire Cat. His eyes would shrink to the size of thimbles, the whites all removed, a barely visible web of wrinkles belying his youth. He laughed often.

We volleyed pleasantries and covered the basics. Then, casually, he revealed that he was a colonel in the army. What, how, but isn’t this whole set-up illegal? “It’s only illegal if the excise police catch me,” he said, and winked. Under Thai law, he couldn’t brew and sell his own beer unless he could produce 100,000 liters of it a year. Penalties ranged from small fines to jail time. That wasn’t stopping Chit. It wasn’t stopping the more than 200 other home-brewers in Thailand, either, I was told. Chit opened his bar only on weekends, when the police were off the clock and wouldn’t come knocking. When they showed up anyway, he paid the tea money. So did his home-brewer friends. And so did their home-brewer friends.

Craft beer was almost contraband in Thailand until five years ago, when seemingly overnight it became de rigueur to sip Rogue and Deschutes at Bangkok’s sexiest bars and clubs. The high society all drank imports from the U.S. and Europe. But, since 2012, when Chit opened his bar and began to teach the basics of brewing, the population of beer geeks and home-brewers has burgeoned. Suddenly, the flavors and philosophies of foreign craft beer cultures feel closer to Thailand than ever, and a legal domestic craft beer industry seems realistic.

“I dream of big change, but we’ll never see change unless we fight for it,” Chit told me, as he raced away to check on a batch of beer bubbling in his kitchen. For once, he wasn’t laughing.

An Utter Lack of Judgement Is a Bar’s Best Quality

Jul.27.16

An Utter Lack of Judgement Is a Bar’s Best Quality

by Boshika Gupta

Old Monk in Bombay

Where I’m from, you either choose to be a well-behaved Indian girl or a rebel who drinks. It’s black and white with little room for error.

I grew up in a fairly liberal home. However, as soon as I was old enough to start seeking adventure, I realized drinking in public and coming home sloshed was off-limits.

However, one of the best things about Bombay is that you can find a place for yourself, even if you’re a confused college student with little pocket money and a desire to be young, wild, and free.

This is how I found myself trekking to Sunlight three years ago on my birthday with a few friends. Sunlight is a dive bar located in what we refer to as “town,” the southern part of the city with its generous share of old money and an abundance of kaali-peelis (black and yellow taxis.)

I visited the bar again recently, three years later. Suffice to say, Sunlight, with its dim lighting, blaring jukebox, and mostly bare walls, was comfortingly the same.

I carefully trudged up the steep stairs and made my way to the nearest staff member. When I told him I was looking for a table, he looked at me dubiously. “A table just for you?” he asked. This sentiment was echoed by a kind stranger who offered to let me sit with her group of girlfriends.

I gratefully accepted the invitation and slid into the seat. “Do you booze?” the girl at the table asked me. “Of course,” I responded, ordering my faithful glass of Old Monk. Dark rum which has ruled the hearts of Indians since 1954, Old Monk is rather strong, with a distinctive flavor and a promise: you will feel the buzz in all its glory.

My companion for the night went out briefly to withdraw some cash from an ATM. She brought back with her tales of being stalked by a man whom she avoided by talking on the phone. Her friends defiantly finished their beer and declared that they don’t need men.

I left soon after and vaguely registered the cabbie staring curiously as I fumbled for money in my bag. I grinned, pretending I was back inside Sunlight’s familiar interiors, swaying to the music and soaking in the complete and utter lack of judgment.

Photo: Alan Levine

Agreed, Being a Wildebeest Would Totally Suck

Jul.26.16

Agreed, Being a Wildebeest Would Totally Suck

by Larry Keller

Kilimanjaro Beer on the Serengeti

In Tanzania, this is what is known as an “African massage.” It’s my third day of being launched side to side like a pinball in a Toyota Land Cruiser as we bounce and rock over rutted roads in the Serengeti. We stop not once, but twice, to change shredded tires.

The pop-up roof affords me an elevated, wide-angle view of the savannah and the incredible wildlife. There’s beauty, of course. Sleek lions prowling through tall grasses, golden in the warm early morning light. A sinewy leopard lazing on a rock. Impalas and gazelles bounding over the dry terrain, as if propelled on bionic legs.

But there is this, too. Opportunistic hyenas sitting alertly, watching and waiting. Three dozen zebras drinking from a shallow stream, suddenly bolting en masse, terrified when a stealthy lioness appears nearby. A baby zebra near the road, its flesh devoured except from its head. A bloated wildebeest, a gaping hole in its chest.

I’ve become fond of wildebeests. They look comical with their spindly legs, horse-like manes and tails, big chests and small hindquarters, but they are fast, sure-footed, and resolute in their relentless migration to water. Some have an endearing habit of making direct eye contact with us as if trying to figure out what we are.

We see hundreds upon hundreds of them galloping toward a stream trickling through the parched grasslands. The youngest are about four months old, gamely keeping up with the herd. One mom pauses 15 seconds to let her youngster nurse in the midst of the stampede.

It’s a hazardous journey. Lions and hyenas lie in wait on land, and crocodiles in the water. We see one wildebeest separated miles from its herd. It surely is doomed. Only a half hour earlier we had seen lions in the vicinity.

Late in the afternoon, we spot two scrums of vultures digging into dead wildebeests. The second carcass is near the road. We stop and watch. A dozen of the beady-eyed birds with tiny heads and long necks tear into its belly and into each other. Squabbling loudly, they flap their wings and attack each other whenever one snatches a coveted strand of guts. It’s a sordid end for the hapless wildebeest, ripped into and fought over, its paltry remains left to rot in the remorseless sun.

Two of the vultures, however, stand quietly to the side, throats bloodied in the feeding frenzy. If their wounds fester, their fate will soon be that of the wildebeest in the harsh cycle of life and death in the Serengeti.

We drive back to our lodge after a long and dusty day. I head to the bar. It has a wide patio with a small shimmering swimming pool perched above the expansive plains below.

I quaff a Kilimanjaro beer and ponder the dichotomy: Endless undulating grasses, dramatic acacia trees and charismatic wildlife on one hand; the undercurrent of fear and ferocity on the other. Tormented by tsetse flies and ticks, the Serengeti’s inhabitants constantly are prowling for prey, constantly wary of becoming prey.

I have no such worries. Nor do I have any epiphanies. Only this: thank goodness I’m not a wildebeest. Then I order another Kilimanjaro.

Photo by: Laurent de Walick

There’s Nothing Alcohol Can’t Solve Except Actually That Bathroom Situation Sounds Pretty Dire

Jul.25.16

There’s Nothing Alcohol Can’t Solve Except Actually That Bathroom Situation Sounds Pretty Dire

by Ying Tey Reinhardt

Myanmar Rum in Bagan

The magic of ancient Bagan, Myanmar, was fading slowly as the taxi driver drove away from the stupas and serene Buddha statues and towards the train station. At the entrance of the station where my husband handed him a handful of kyats, he nodded back as if to say “Good luck surviving the ride from hell.”

Except for another backpacker, there were no other tourists in sight. Only a handful of local women squatted next to their woven baskets and plastic bags by the platform. Two kids played catch, their flip-flops making clapping sounds against the concrete as they ran, and a weasley old man stared at us under his navy green wide-brimmed hat.

Back in the guesthouse, the staff had asked us of our plans. Upon hearing that we’d be taking the train instead of the bus to Yangon, his face scrunched up as he’d eaten something bad.

“Don’t. Even the locals don’t take the train anymore. Why not take the bus?” he’d smirked.

We know, we know. The overnight interstate busses running across Myanmar had undergone a massive upgrade, boasting wide-berth seats, personal screens, and a steward that walked up and down the narrow aisle, serving drinks and snacks. But these bus tickets were sold out and we had a flight to catch in two days.

Train travel was the only other alternative and according to a few blog posts, it was allegedly the craziest thing you could do to yourself. It was also the sort of thing you would do to test the mettle of your marriage. Not only the carriages looked as if they were dug right out of a train graveyard, there were also mentions of levitation, carriage derailment in the middle of the night, and unimaginable bathroom conditions. Reading all those experiences made us almost opt for third-class buses, but we didn’t. Instead, my husband gave me the ‘challenge accepted’ look. We then went on to buy, not just the 16,500 Kyat (about US$14) tickets for the Upper-class Standard Sleeper, but also a 175ml bottle of Myanmar Rum. Our experience told us that there’s nothing a little bit of local alcohol couldn’t solve.

The mustachioed train steward beamed when we climbed on board. The lack of passengers meant a full range of Sleeper cabins were available for selection and we chose one that had a filthy metal fan that worked. There were two narrow beds separated by a little cabinet in between. Apart from abundant space, there were also two wide-open windows to catch the passing scenery. The linen on our beds even seemed somewhat clean. We took that as a good sign. About a quarter after 5 p.m., the whistle blew and the train’s wheels screeched to start. That was when we took our first swig of Myanmar Rum. The liquid burned my throat for the first few seconds before it cooled down to a candy-sweet aftertaste.

When the train lurched and swayed sideways, expansively and sluggishly, we drank some more. When the sun descended and a dim moon slid through the clouds, we drank. When our bodies were slammed hard against all surfaces, and the fan stopped working, we scrambled about in the darkness for our trusty bottle and took another sip. Each time we returned from the toilet, we soaked our hands in anti-bacterial gel and gulped down more. Each sip unlocked a ray of hope and restored our faith in our journey. Were we so masochistic that we’d signed ourselves up for torture, deliberately defying all cautionary warnings about supposedly the worst train ride in the world? It was a little too late for regrets then as we hung on to our bunks for our lives. The night wore on until we passed out from heat and fatigue.

What was supposedly a 12-hour train ride stretched into a 19-hour one. By midday, we rolled into Yangon battered, zombie-like but triumphant. We toasted to our survival, our sanity, and our intact relationship with a final sip. Once the train slowed down, the train steward came around to collect our tickets. We thanked him by pressing the half-full bottle of Myanmar Rum into his hands, as if passing on a good luck charm. May this drink take care of you and your ordeals now.

Now That, Kids, Is How You Start a Drinking Story

Jul.19.16

Now That, Kids, Is How You Start a Drinking Story

by Stephanie d'Arc Taylor

Rosé on a Grecian Isle

I’m lying naked on a rock on a Grecian isle. I’ve waited my whole life to utter those glamorous words, and it feels fucking fantastic.

My boyfriend and I have found a secret turquoise cove tucked away from the main road after circumnavigating the island on our rental scooter. The paved road ended, and the dirt track was slightly too steep for the pitiful 50ccs of our chariot, so we got off and walked the rest of the way. Now we’re here, luxuriating in the silky water and early June sun, and I feel like I’m in a Lana del Rey music video.

We set out early that morning for Piraeus, the port town twenty minutes from Athens on the metro. We didn’t have a plan of which island to go to. We only knew we wanted to get in the water. There was also a rumor that you could drink extremely cheap wine on the islands nearest Athens. The ticket agent told us we could get to Aegina for 20€ roundtrip, so we bought our tickets and ran to catch the ferry.

An hour later, we were pulling into Aegina harbor accompanied by dozens of seagulls hoping for someone to drop their spinach pie overboard. Until now, our plan had been to wander around the port for a few hours, maybe check out a ruin or two, have a fish lunch and some rosé and then catch the ferry back.

My old roommate found it to be hilariously predictable that I, as an American, get so “turned on,” as he put it, by two-wheeled motorized vehicles. I’d just started seeing my boyfriend at the time, and we were having loads of fun roaring around town on the scooter he was borrowing from a friend who was out of town for a few months. I’ll not deny it: there is something sexy about clinging to the torso of a man, especially one you’re falling in love with, while zipping through traffic. Lana del Rey must have written a song about it. I guess my boyfriend liked it too, because now we have a sweet scooter of our own.

So when we saw the words ‘scooter rental’ come into focus as we pulled into port, we obviously had to get one. It opened up the island to us. After a few hours of basking in the sun in our secret cove, we zoomed to a taverna on the other side of the island. Only in Greece for a few days, we were fine with sticking to the taverna greatest hits: tzatziki, Greek salad, fried calamari, a grilled fish, and enough 3€ carafes of local rosé to get me feeling giddy.

On the ferry back to Piraeus, full of fish and still buzzed, we happily fell asleep on the banquettes of the lower deck, surrounded by old Greek people watching soap operas on wall-mounted televisions. It was only upon waking that the haphazard nature of my sunscreen application became painfully apparent. I bet Lana del Rey doesn’t get sunburned. But after a day like today, I’m happy being me, sun damage and all.

The Best Plastic Bag of Juice in Which to Pour Vodka

Jul.18.16

The Best Plastic Bag of Juice in Which to Pour Vodka

by Charline Jao

Mixers in Taiwan

Armed with nothing but a handful of cash from our various internships and a large bottle of vodka we picked up from 7-11, my friends and I embarked on a mission set in the Kenting Night Market in Taiwan: find out what night market drink makes the best mixer.

Taiwan is full of exotic fruits that I rarely eat in the United States: wax apples, dragon fruit, custard apples, and guavas filled the markets with their sweet smells. Vendors held out samples on toothpicks, calling out to and complimenting passersby. Some pick up on our chatter and yell out “Taiwan fruit! Sweeter than USA!.” We knew which fruits we liked from what our hosts and families fed us, but on a summer vacation whim we wanted to go a step further and figure out what fruits we liked best spiked.

The cold and fresh watermelon juice? Too watery. The market’s iconic papaya milk? Gross, which probably should have been obvious in retrospect. As we continued to try and mix various fresh juices and teas, we grew more and more discontent with the stream of perfectly fine beverages we were ruining and unhappily drinking out of guilt. That is, until we saw a vendor lift a bunch of tough and fiberous sugarcane stalks and put them through a loud machine that spit out juice, releasing the dense smell into the humid air.

Sugarcane thrives in the tropical weather of south Taiwan, despite not being a native crop. The country is filled with old sugar factories, remnants of the trade that became one of the countries biggest exports from the seventeenth century on. Nowadays, these factories are museums or “cultural parks” to house educational and artistic spaces. The old railroads that hauled stalks of sugarcane 3000 kilometers around the island in the twentieth century sit unused and abandoned, with a few still running as tourist attractions. Still, the abundance of sugar cane stalls in night markets have made them a reliable staple and reminder of an extensive history.

Our vodka, on the other hand, was nothing special. In my backpack was a moderately-sized bottle of Svedka that smelled like freshman year and a lack of restraint. Taiwanese drinking culture, or the lack thereof, meant it also smelled like disapproving looks from locals as we pulled out the Svedka and discretely poured some into the bag of juice. Luckily, we’re in Kenting, a popular destination for young people; judgement was minimal.

The combination makes the cheap vodka incredibly smooth and my friend, who’s working in environmental protection for the summer, explained to me that it’s common to make alcohol out of sugarcane in different parts of the world. I’m not entirely sure if this is a sufficient explanation, but we were thrilled at this new discovery. When we get back to Taipei, we tell everyone about this unexpected revelation, comparing it with the guy who accidentally invented Slurpees by forgetting soda in the freezer.

There’s No Better Way to Drink Than Like a Transylvanian Saxon

Jul.14.16

There’s No Better Way to Drink Than Like a Transylvanian Saxon

by Kristin Winet

Affligem in Bucharest

We’re in a pie place in Bucharest. The walls are covered with wooden kitchen utensils and stuffed chicken dolls with button eyes and the servers are dressed in white aprons with frills along the seams. It’s the best place in the city for pie, we’ve been told, pies that aren’t cherry or lemon meringue but pies that are filled with warm, savory meats and fresh cheeses. All around us, everybody is yammering away in Romanian and seems to know exactly how many small dishes to order. Everybody’s table is full of tiny round plates and crumpled napkins.

Our server, a young woman whose name tag says “Nina,” brings out a flat, round serving platter with a sheep- and goat-cheese pie, a Greek salad, and four full glasses on it. She sets the platter down on the edge of the wooden table and presents us with what we recognize first: two tulip-shaped beer glasses, filled to the brim with a deep golden-colored blonde ale and topped with light, foamy bubbles. Then, she sets down the two thumb-sized chalice glasses, the pie, and the salad.

My husband and I look at each other. What’s in the little glass, and what are we supposed to do with it?

Nina senses the pause. “It’s, like, the body and the soul,” she says, pointing at the tulip and then at the chalice. “We pay attention to the soul in Romania.”

We toast, we sip, and we think. It’s thicker, more like sweet bananas and yeast, smooth and grainy. It evokes the taste of bread.

As I’d come to learn, what we were actually drinking was Affligem, a Belgian brew inspired by the 1,000 year old Benedictine tradition of serving the yeast, the “soul” of the beer, in its own small glass. The idea is that the yeast—the magic ingredient that drives the fermentation process creation of beer—is its own delicacy, its own piece of the process worth celebrating. As it sinks, working its way down, it delicately enhances the flavor profile of the beer and finally clumps into a pile at the bottom. Instead of swirling it back in, however, the beer is served without it—as a bright, crisp, and clean lager—and the part at the bottom becomes a drink all its own, a viscous, sedimented testament to the life force of something greater. Though not everyone serves Affligem this way, the Transylvanian Saxons did, so it’s still the way today.

We pay attention to the soul in Romania.

A week before we boarded the plane for Romania, I had walked out of a job I hated for the very last time, the last heavy box of books in my arms. My first professor job, at a place I’d hoped to thrive in, was over. In the heat of the May summer on top of the mountain where the university was, no one said goodbye to me. As I drove over the mountain, I blasted the playlist I’d made of songs about bad jobs and cried.

Bucharest was the first stop of a two-week trip through Eastern Europe, a place that would come to represent a moment in my life characterized by the admittance of defeat and uncertainty. For the first time in my life, I had learned to say enough was enough. After this trip, we’d pack up all of our belongings again and move 3,000 miles away. We’d start over again, and we’d thrive.

Though there are three common ways of serving Affligem, I like Romania’s tradition. I like the idea of sipping the life force of a beer out of a tiny chalice. A tiny, thumb-sized chalice, a centuries-old tradition, where the discarded becomes the focus, where that which we pay no attention finally garners its much-deserved spotlight.

A Little Ditty About Staring Directly Into the Void While Drinking

Jul.13.16

A Little Ditty About Staring Directly Into the Void While Drinking

by Matthew Bremner

Old Fashioneds in Tokyo

It was midnight, and I walked down into a smoky cocktail bar in the basement of one of the thousand neon-lit buildings in Tokyo’s center. The decor was a mix between a corporate conference room and a 1920s cruise ship, all dimmed to a jazz club’s shadowy intimacy. Faux-leather chairs slouched in the darkness, and the pungent scent of the highly-polished table-tops cut through the acrid smoke.

The waiters bowed with stiff backs as I entered, their suits hanging off their slender frames, sagging at their shoulders, and lending them a boyish formality. They swept around the side of the bar to take my coat and wish me a warm welcome. They smiled professionally and moved almost imperceptibly, their black trousers swishing in the darkness.

I was in Japan to cover a story about kodokushi, or the “lonely death,” a phenomenon in which isolated, often elderly, people die from loneliness. That day I had witnessed my first case. The man was 60 years old and had no family—or at least, no family that wanted to know him—no friends, and no job. He had not committed suicide per se; he just chose not to live. He stopped eating, stopped washing, and he stopped leaving his apartment, until one day he died of a heart attack. I had seen his ignominious end, his urine-soaked bedsheets and his shit-caked carpets. And I had watched from his balcony as the rest of the world carried on obliviously below.

The waiter came and I ordered on an Old Fashioned. Not because I liked the drink especially, but because I had a very limited cocktail knowledge. I had been going to the bar every day for over a week, and every night I found myself smoking and sipping unenthusiastically at that pepped-up bourbon.

The bar was quiet as always. Five salarymen, regulars, lined the bar with their solemn expressions and empty glasses. They were all alone, separated from each other by the nebulous cubicles of cigarette smoke that formed around them. To the left of the bar were three more men, each one seated at a different table, each one drinking deeply from his glass. No one spoke, but everyone stared: into the dregs of their drink and beyond, into their thoughts.

My cocktail arrived, and I gulped it back quickly. I ordered another one, and I finished that one, too. I suppose I wanted to get drunk, to dull the sweet stink of putrefaction in my nose and the sadness in my mind. But I couldn’t.

Instead, I imagined the hundreds of thousands of small rooms like this one, piled on top of one another. I imagined the millions of lonely drinkers getting drunk, slumping into each other’s personal space like melting candles; close enough to touch, but too drunk to talk. Then, I imagined the man dying alone in his apartment, and how close his neighbors might have been at the moment of his death. I imagined a woman sitting in her chair reading, while the man lay ill in his bed. Back to back, they were separated only by a thin wall.

I looked around the bar, resting my drunken gaze on the temple of the man next to me, and willing myself into his thoughts. I wondered why, if every night he saw the same people, ordered the same drink, and did the same thing, he kept his loneliness to himself. I wondered why, in a city of millions, where people spill into to each other’s intimacy on a daily basis, this same man was unable to let physical proximity become familiarity. But how could I know anything? The boundaries that separate us from other people’s problems, however slight they may seem, the plaster of an adjoining wall or the skin of a human being, are in actual fact miles thick.

My thoughts were interrupted by the barman, who had come scurrying over to my table, and was nodding to my empty glass. I saw in his face his desire to talk to me. Up until that point, none of the barmen had spoken in English; we had instead survived on elaborate hand gestures and a global vocabulary of cocktail-related words. But for whatever reason, he had now summoned the courage to interrogate me.

With a deep, shaky breath, he asked, “What have you done so far in Japan?”

Photo: Erich Wagner

Why Does This Story About Gross Wine Make This Place Sound So Appealing?

Jul.12.16

Why Does This Story About Gross Wine Make This Place Sound So Appealing?

by Rosita Armytage and Markus Bell

Corked Prosecco in Palermo

Motley Sicilian men line the wooden benches outside the Taverna Azzurra, chain smoking and nursing cheap, frosty, high-alcohol beer. It’s Thursday in Palermo and the men have been here since at least 3 pm.

Nestled between major roads, among the street art imprinted on peeling concrete walls, the Taverna has seen better days. A confetti of cigarette butts pave the way to its dingy interior. The stink of sun-warmed garbage mingles with diesel fumes from the still running motor of a moped. The moped’s owner greets the drinking men with kisses on both cheeks.

We take our drinks outside by the fruit and vegetable sellers. One euro for a plastic cup of prosecco. It’s corked and smells like feet. We gulp it down anyway.

The music blasting from inside the bar shifts seamlessly from Jimi Hendrix into Italian ballads. Men are loitering by motorcycles and mopeds, watching teenage girls with bare midriffs and coy glances strut by, feigning imperviousness to the eyes that follow them. Rotund children wobble up and down the alley, part of the parade of pedestrians, on a catwalk flanked by fruit stalls and second-hand trinkets. The motor of the temporarily abandoned moped hums.

Scrawny young men lean self-consciously against walls, chatting with the older men. Boys learning how to be men. Muscles—and egos—taut and stretched. South Asian street vendors ply their wares up and down the narrow lanes, avoiding stony-faced locals adamant that they will not be bothered during the sacred hours of aperitivo. The streets buzz with genteel poverty, bravado, and teenage desire.

A neighborhood dog bats a rock back and forward across the cobble stones.

As the heat of the day starts to cool, nearby vendors fry up squid and prawns for the drinkers and the Taverna Azzurra crowd shifts, from middle aged and elderly men to a hipper crowd of men and women in their twenties and thirties.

Displaced, the older patrons drift away, down narrow streets to houses nearby. Their wives, a bar woman informs us, have already called them home for evening meals that are rapidly cooling on the table.

The benches running street side start to fill up, and we call out for Americanos. The bartender’s combover is fooling no one, but his mixing skills are admirable. Amber Campari joins Vermouth and tonic water: it’s called an Americano, but to us the sweet and bitter tastes like Sicily.

A Thousand Maggot-Like Grains of Alcoholic Rice

Jul.11.16

A Thousand Maggot-Like Grains of Alcoholic Rice

by Rob Armstrong

Burak in Long Semiyang

The people of Long Semiyang took me into their homes after inclement weather forced me and my motorcycle off the treacherously muddy jungle roads.

Beyond mountaintops that fade into a grey blanket of morning mist, an equatorial sun rises, unseen, over the heart of Borneo. My wooden spear, wrist-thick and tipped with pointed steel, thrusts into the charred ground rhythmically. Each impact sends up a puff of grey ash that swirls in the still air before dissolving into the predawn light. The deep green of the slope on the opposite side of the valley stands in stark contrast to the charred remains of the jungle that stood here only days before. Those responsible for this wasteland, a dozen men of the Kayan tribe, are strung out to the left and right of me in a staggered line. With eyes directed downwards, they, too, stab at the blackened earth with sharpened lengths of wood as long as a man is tall as they navigate the smoldering tree trunks that litter the slope of the valley.

The Kayan women follow us at a distance, hunched over as they feed handfuls of gabah, the husked rice grains saved from last season’s harvest, into the divots left by our spears. Without the tiny holes we create, this years’ harvest will be washed into the river by the first rains before it has a chance to take root. Working next to me, my host, Mathew, interrupts the call of a group of Bornean gibbons with his own call of “burak, burak, burak burakburak!” each repetition increasing in tempo and volume.

One of the younger Kayan boys scampers over and around the blackened remains of the forest towards us, a white pail in one hand, a stack of pink plastic cups in the other. The pail is filled with a raw and unfiltered rice-beer; burak in the local language. A product of the the fermentation of cooked rice with naturally occurring yeasts, clumps of the brew slide from the cup as it’s scooped out, falling back into the bucket with an audible smack. With the consistency of bubur, a rice porridge breakfast dish popular in parts of Southeast Asia, and a flavor reminiscent of the finest cask wines from my adolescence, it takes a moment or two to prepare my empty stomach for this onslaught first thing in the morning.

I attempt not to retch as a thousand maggot-like grains of alcoholic rice wriggle over my tongue and down the back of my throat. Throughout the morning, one draught follows another until I’m certain I can taste the burak in my sweat, which attracts the attention of a small swarm of Giant Asiatic honey bees. The bees become the ultimate test of my composure as I desperately try to resist swatting at their irritating advances as they search for a salty treat. They’re placid enough, but if threatened deliver one of the most painful bee stings in the world. Mathew tells me, “More burak is the solution. It will calm your nerves.”

When the field is planted, the drinking continues in a more civilized manner, back at the twin wooden longhouses of Long Semiyang. Clean clothes appear with a slightly more refined bottle of burak, still young with a milky white color and grainy texture, but filtered of rice grains, which makes all the difference. A good bottle of burak can take months to settle into the translucent final product and reach its full wine-like potency.

After a meal of chicken soup with garlic, ginger, chilies and native lemongrass, a hand-carved blowpipe appears from within the longhouse. The sharpened tips of a handful of darts, darkened with a lethal poison, are carefully removed and thrown into the fire to prevent accidents, as a jungle drinking game develops. A square of cardboard, crude concentric circles drawn on it, is placed some distance away. Glassy, bloodshot eyes take aim down the length of the smooth, dark, tropical hardwood cylinder as an alcohol infused breaths sends the disarmed darts, one at a time, towards the target. The shooter furthest from the bullseye is forced to drain his mug before the next round can begin.

As the empty bottles begin to pile up and the darts get lost in the long grass behind the target, the number of competitors dwindle. By mid-afternoon, the burak has been flowing for nine hours straight and we all need spare some strength for tomorrow. This is, after all, only the third day of a planting season that will last a full week, each consecutive day following the same routine: predawn alcoholic rice porridge for breakfast in the fields, a freshly cooked lunch, then drinking games before an afternoon nap. As I doze drunkenly on a rattan mat, I begin to understand why the Kayan had a book named Drunk Before Dawn written about them.

Joining Neptune’s Boozy Cadre of Adventurers and Miscreants

Jul.07.16

Joining Neptune’s Boozy Cadre of Adventurers and Miscreants

by Russ Rowlands

Wine on the Equator

“What day is it?”

“No idea”

“Tuesday?”

“It’s Friday,” said Alan, the skipper.

“Where are we?”

I looked at the chart. “Eight minutes.”

That is, we were zero degrees and eight minutes north of the equator. Eight minutes, eight nautical miles. It was the only ‘where’ that counted. We had left Costa Rica in Alan’s 46′ sloop twelve days before, and it would be another fifteen days until we next sighted land in French Polynesia. Longitude was meaningless. We hadn’t seen another boat for a week.

“How long to the equator, navigator?” asked Alan.

I looked at the compass and our speed, then guessed. “Two hours?”

“Uno roundo!” he said in his Australian-pidgin-Spanish, kicking off our daily happy hour ritual. He trudged downstairs to round up three Costa Rican lagers from the icebox, and brought them up in their Australia-flag beer koozies.

We sat silently for the first round, as usual. After twelve days on a smallish boat, there wasn’t much left to say.

I brought up the second, habitually last, round. “This is my first time sailing across the equator,” I mentioned, somewhat self-consciously but supremely excited.

“No way!”

“A virgin! There’s a ritual for this!” Alan exclaimed. We finished our second beers as the two older guys told stories about their first time across the equator. Alan chugged the rest of his lager and ducked below.

“How much time left?” he yelled from the cabin.

“We’ll cross it in five minutes or so.”

“Shit, put’r in neutral!” he joked.

With a minute to spare, Alan climbed up out of the cabin wearing a conical paper birthday hat (for someone’s third birthday) and a pair of Elton John sunglasses. He had the six-foot boat hook under his arm and a magnum of cheap Chilean wine and some plastic cups in his hands. He quickly poured us all a pint of the red.

I sat at the helm, beaming in the golden-hour glow, our sails only half full. Alan held his glass aloft and began the ritual.

“As the representative of King Neptune, Lord of the Seas, I knight thee,” he proclaimed, touching each of my shoulders with the aluminum boat hook. “Arise, knight, and take your place at Neptune’s side!”

I stood, and he poured some of the red out onto my head. It dribbled down my beard and onto my Blue Jays sweater, where it left a permanent reminder of my induction into Neptune’s boozy cadre of global wanderers, adventurers, and miscreants.

How Do We Get Our Hands on This Cognac Made by Far-Right Georgian Nationalists?

Jul.06.16

How Do We Get Our Hands on This Cognac Made by Far-Right Georgian Nationalists?

by Charles Rollet

Cognac at Military Bar

At Military Bar, a dimly-lit watering hole for Tbilisi’s burgeoning far right, a group of young men with camouflage-patterned pants and black T-shirts are drinking beer surrounded by a strange medley of right-wing paraphernalia.

There’s the obligatory Confederate flag on the wall (given to the bar by a U.S. soldier, the bartender claims), but there’s also an array of flags and stickers from the Right Sector, the Ukrainian paramilitary group widely accused of harboring neo-Nazi sympathies. That’s not to mention the grenade-shaped ashtrays, the camo netting on the ceiling, and the ubiquitous “Smash the Reds” stickers.

How did I end up at a place no guidebook on Georgia—the tiny, picturesque Caucasus country—would mention? The reason is perhaps more bizarre than the bar itself. On May 29, a group of sausage-wearing “neo-Nazi” skinheads terrorized Kiwi Café, a vegan café in Tbilisi, by throwing meat at its patrons in an event that went viral around the world.

It was easily the most international exposure Tbilisi had received this summer, and the skinheads who masterminded the attack were believed to congregate at Military Bar. As a freelance journalist at the scene, I decided to go there to interview a nationalist figurehead. Once I showed up, though, I had to wait for a few hours for my interview, so I ordered a few drinks.

I was surprised to learn that Military Bar produces its own cognac, which is subtly emblazoned with an M-16. Even more interesting was the bar’s signature cocktail, a martini glass filled with a mysterious red liquid and rimmed with sugar. It’s called a “Russian’s Blood” cocktail, in dubious honor of Georgia’s longtime foe.

I spoke to a few of Military Bar’s patrons, who all professed virulent dislike of Russia, Muslims, Arabs, gays, and feminists. But not vegans.

“If I had a shish kebab I’m gonna eat it myself, I’m not gonna throw it at nobody,” Nick Bernadze told me in front of Military Bar’s sandbag-lined entrance.

The heavily-muscled Bernadze is the founder of Georgian Power, one of Georgia’s most prominent neo-far-right groups. In the wake of the vegan incident, he became a spokesperson of sorts for Georgia’s far right.

“Honestly, I haven’t seen a neo-Nazi in my life. I’m not sure how useful that ideology is. I’m a Georgian nationalist,” Bernadze said.

I wasn’t entirely convinced. (Georgian Power’s motto, Georgian Pride World Wide, is clearly modeled on a popular white nationalist slogan.) But Bernadze insisted that all the bar’s patrons—including a separate club of SS-loving hooligans widely considered to be behind the attack—had nothing to do with neo-Nazis or anti-vegan rampages.

“In Georgia we have so many problems, we have Russian troops 10 kilometres from Tbilisi,” he said.

Despite the denials of any links between Military Bar and the terrorized vegan café, I heard many rumors at Military Bar that a rogue Kiwi barista had vandalized their hotspot a few days prior to the widely-publicized attack. That would give Military Bar some probable cause, but since Georgian police haven’t arrested anyone, it seems unlikely there will ever be an official culprit. (Critics routinely accuse Georgian cops of ignoring hate incidents against gays, liberals, and now vegans.)

Either way, it seems clear which establishment has won. Kiwi Café’s embattled vegans have decided to move to a different location. Meanwhile, Military Bar seems to be doing very well; in fact, it just threw a bash to celebrate the Brexit.

Photo: Beth Ann Lopez

A Modern-Day Pirate Tells His Worst Story

Jul.05.16

A Modern-Day Pirate Tells His Worst Story

by Brent Crane

Singhas in Bangkok

The humanitarian mercenary, who I recently met for beers off Khao San Road in Bangkok, goes by “Doc” in the Middle East and, here in southeast Asia, “Fox.”

I showed up twenty minutes early to our rendezvous at the Rainbow Hostel. He was already there, eating naan, when I arrived. Fox chose the place, a cramped spot “run by an Indian Sikh, a friend of ours,” he had said over email.

The “ours” referred to his humanitarian group, a small outfit made up of former military men who specialized in delivering aid to war zones; “the world’s most fearless and dangerous charity,” he called it.

When I arrived at the Rainbow Hostel, there was an Indian family with several young kids screaming and running up the aisles, treating the place like a playground.

Fox was easy to find. He was the only one with an eye patch (ISIS mortar, Iraq 2015). He also had a bandana on his head, a scraggly goatee, and two missing teeth (rifle butt of a Karen mercenary, Myanmar 2013). By most definitions, he was a pirate.

Fox, 30, was short, skinny, and though he appeared older because of his injuries, he would seem younger than his age without them. But he was a serious man and after I sat down, he got right to business.

“This is most likely my final mission,” he explained to me. I had yet to order my first Singha.

Fox was in ill health. He had diabetes and felt that, by running humanitarian missions into some of the world’s most remote and dangerous areas—Iraq, Syria, West Papua, southern Myanmar—he was working himself to death. By the looks of him, I had no reason to doubt it.

“I am trying to get out of this field cause it’s killing me,” he said as my beer came. I had arrived in Bangkok less then three hours earlier and the cold brew felt refreshing in a way that only your first beer in a foreign country can.

Fox said he was tired of operating within a “gray state,” he put it, where he couldn’t speak openly of his professional escapades. But here he was spilling the beans to me, a virtual stranger who had reached out over email from Cambodia and flew over because I had nothing better to do.

I asked Fox about his missing teeth. Or rather, he brought it up and I asked to hear more.

They came out a year or two ago. He had just rescued 11 trafficked little girls from a “stateless land” in the Moei River between Myawaddy, Myanmar and Mae Sot, Thailand.

“We went back for more and our interpreter kind of sold us out,” he said. The next thing Fox knew, he was getting “butt-checked with a rifle to the face.”

“When I woke up, I was on the other side of the bank, in a parked truck on the Burmese side,” he explained as I sipped.

He came to to the sight of a gunman rattling three of his teeth in a little glass jar. Fox tried to move but his hands were handcuffed. The guard was chewing betel nut, Fox said, lots of it. Soon he was very high.

After a while, Fox got up, walked to the guard and waved his handcuffed hands in front of his face. The guard betrayed no recognition. Fox reached into his pocket, extracted the keys and freed himself. He then waded the twenty yards across the river (“it’s shallow in the dry season”) to the safety of Mae Sot.

“Drugs saved my life that day,” Fox joked. “But, honestly, it’s like the worst story I have.”

Three Hindu Women on One Bike in Search of a Drink

Jun.30.16

Three Hindu Women on One Bike in Search of a Drink

by Sharanya Deepak

Arak in Merita

It is noon in Amed, Bali and I have a motorbike that needs repair and a heart that is smitten. Pari is 27 years old, cynical, and has a face that appears to be constantly in thought. He is fixing my bike, making fun of Russian tourists, and is of the opinion that I need a drink.

“You have a bad day, yes? You need a drink. You go to Merita.” I bump and nod and think about things to talk about, but he makes it clear that the drink is not with him. “I don’t drink. You go to Merita for arak number 1.” I wait for my sister on a corner, yell something at her about following local footsteps, and we are off. Merita, a few miles from Amed, is on the East Coast of Bali. It is the hometown of arak, Bali’s drink of choice. There are three types of arak, arak number 1 being the finest, most sought-after, and difficult to find option. After three hours in Merita spent biking in hope and dehydration, we have almost given up. “Arak number 1?” I shout arbitrarily at people on the street, getting in response wide smiles and cheery shrugs. Finally, a middle-aged woman with red hair comes up to us. “You, arak?” she says. I nod aggressively. “Why?” she says. And I am stumped.

“You Hindu?” she says. “Yes! Hindu! Brahman!” I scream. She is pleased. I salute gods I haven’t acknowledged in years, and we are off once again, three Hindu women on one bike in pursuit of a drink. We reach a big house guarded by mango trees and a skeptical young woman named Amy. After initial reservations, she is happy that we recognize the inscriptions on her pillars, I compliment her jacket, and she agrees to let me in on her family secret.

Arak number 1 is made in a few houses in Merita, a village of about a hundred families. There are many kinds of arak in Bali, but they are what the people of Merita deem “impure” and “tasteless.” Amy’s family—the Mertas—have been making arak number 1 for more than a hundred years.

To make one liter, the palm flower (tuak) is distilled for four hours through a rusty metal pipe and allowed to settle for another hour. The result is a strong, pungent spirit that is ideally drunk in shots. People from all over the east of Bali come to Merita to buy from the family. Bartenders, hotel owners, young men like the one I met. But It is up to them to sell or to not.

“Sometimes we don’t sell our arak, we keep it,” Amy tells me, indicating that I am supposed to shoot my drink, not sip it. “It is special. It is not for ruffians.” I nod at her, proud to not be considered a ruffian. Arak number 1 is what the Lonely Planet will not tell you about Bali. Every time I take a shot, the drink tastes different, my mood elevates and falls with alarming suddenness, and here it is, the essence of Bali, devoid of simplification.

We are drunk and grateful, and my sister does a sudden curtsy, sending everyone into fits of laughter. They believe we are about to do a dance. And so we do.

A Hundred Ladies Stirring Chocolate Drinks

Jun.29.16

A Hundred Ladies Stirring Chocolate Drinks

by Ferron Salniker

Tejate in Oaxaca

I’m hot and sweaty, up against the crowd filing through the entrance to the Tlacolula market, and my boyfriend’s mezcal hangover looks like it might finally take him down. Live turkeys are dangling by the neck, the smell of freshly cut pineapple drifts past us, and then the streaming bulbs of chorizo part. There’s a woman standing behind a clay tub with a crowd of people drinking something around her. “We need to get some of that,” I say.

It’s tejate—a drink made by grinding nixtamalized corn, toasted cacao, mamey seeds, and rosita de cacao, a fragrant flower from the funeral tree (that actually has no relation to cacao). White curds sit at the top from kneading the wet dough to a grainy, light consistency. The woman asks us how much simple syrup to add and then she pours the light brown liquid into a jicara cup, a dried gourd from the calabash tree hollowed and painted cherry red.

“It’s very nutritious too,” she says, which I later repeat to myself when going back for two more cups of what tastes like cold, perfumy chocolate milk.

Drinking chocolate in Oaxaca dates back to pre-Hispanic times, and for the elite Mixtecos and Zapotecs it was a ritual during celebrations. Oaxaca was smack in the middle of the cacao trade route, which probably contributes to its diversity of chocolate drinks even though little cacao is grown here. There are about 12 recorded variations, more than anywhere else in Mexico.

These days, tejate is just another staple in the central valley still made by mostly Zapotec women, and, like mezcal, flexes flavors that are bold, ancient, addicting. They call it the beverage of the gods because it’s a genius combination of ingredients meant to keep us mortals going: the maize is cooked in ash or lime to retain its nutrients, the cacao provides a high, and serving it over ice paused our hangover sweats, at least for a minute.

I left the market that day with cheap hairbands, mangos, and a plan to return to learn more about tejate and the 4,000-year-old indigenous food traditions on Oaxaca’s street corners.

I got back to Oaxaca a month later, right before Easter, for the annual Tejate Fair in San Andres Huayapam, a town that’s grown the rosita de cacao since the sixteenth century.

“Esa madre?” a Oaxacan friend said when I told him I wanted to go to the festival (madre technically meaning mother, but in Mexican slang meaning something like “that thing?”) “It’s just a hundred ladies stirring chocolate drinks and selling the same thing.”

The evening before the festival, I walked behind the yellow church under the rosita de cacao trees as women carried buckets from the molino, the mill, where their ingredients are ground instead of the old-fashioned way of hand-grinding on a stone metate. But the tejateras, as they’re called, are still working hard: in the early morning, before the festival starts and the smells of barbacoa fill the streets they’re swirling the dough for hours and adding water until it thins.

All 150 of them. My friend is right: except for the few vendors with the coconut tejate, they’re all selling the exact same drinks. How one would choose who to spend their ten pesos on is beyond me.

I head towards a booth and meet Marisela, who says she’s been making tejate for 30 years, and her mom made it before that. I ask her what makes one tejate different from another.

“Each person has their touch. It’s all about how they roast the ingredients and the exact mixture,” she says.

I wander over to the booth on the corner of the church and buy a cup. It tastes about the same as the last one, but it’s still good and I drink it all.

A Cocktail Based on Soup That Supposedly Isn’t Gross

Jun.28.16

A Cocktail Based on Soup That Supposedly Isn’t Gross

by Barbara Adam

Phở Cocktails in Hanoi

“Where’s the unicorn?” my six-year-old asked as we stepped inside the dimly-lit Unicorn Pub, a short walk from Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake.

The pub, famous for its phở cocktail, was the final stop on our eating, drinking and sightseeing blitz of Vietnam’s capital for an airline magazine. Our weekend of research had been hampered by the presence of U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose motorcades had slowed our progress around the city.

Making our final stop was a giant relief, for we had a plane to catch and really didn’t want to miss this mysterious drink that claims to capture the flavors of Vietnam’s national dish, phở noodle soup.

We settled into the small lounge area, sprawling across two sets of kindergarten-sized tables. Children are a relatively common sight in bars in Vietnam, so no one batted an eye at the smallest of our gang. Her presence was instead treated as a cause for celebration.

“Mummy, the unicorn,” Miss Six said.

That’s when I had to confess that it was possible there was no unicorn at the Unicorn Pub. A glass of lemonade wasn’t adequate compensation for the lack of mythical beasts, but she didn’t complain. I don’t think she really expected a unicorn.

We left a miniature Twilight Sparkles and a bamboo dragonfly in charge of our tables, and went to watch the adult drinks being prepared at the bar.

We were the only patrons. It was far too early for cocktail hour for Hanoi’s hipsters, who were either at work or still asleep. The staff-to-customer ration was four-to-three, and we had a great view of the action.

The barman lifted a tall metal tree onto the bar. Three of the tree’s branches contained small silver pots. The barman filled the first with star anise, the second with cardamom and the third with slivers of cinnamon. A generous slug of gin and another of Cointreau went into a jug, which was then lit on fire and poured into the highest pot. The order of the pots is important for faithfully matching phở flavors.

The flaming liquid trickled from pot to pot, generating a very phở-like aroma. I suspect the reason the lights are so low in the pub is to enhance the visual appeal of the cocktail. The thin column of blue flame rising above the bar is a spectacular sight.

The liquor, now tea-brown, was poured into a lowball glass. A second barman added chilled and shaken lime juice, sugar syrup and coriander.

The drink was then garnished with slices of lime and chilli, a star anise pod and a shard of cinnamon. Beside each drink was a little bowl of lime wedges and chilli, the traditional accompaniment to a bowl of phở.

One sip confirmed it: the drink contains the flavors of phở without tasting like cold soup. It was sweet and flavorful, with a kick of alcohol (I was worried the alcohol would have burnt off) and a tingle of chilli and coriander, as well as smoky notes of star anise and cinnamon.

There might not have been any unicorns at the Unicorn Bar but there was quite a bit of magic in the phở cocktail. We even had time for a second one before our flight.

Turns Out, You Can Make “Wine” Out of Just About Anything

Jun.27.16

Turns Out, You Can Make “Wine” Out of Just About Anything

by Melissa Locker

Cashew Wine in Belize

The driver was showing me around his village when he first mentioned it. He pointed at a young Mayan child pulling up carrots and handing them to an older boy who was putting them in a bag for storage, “They’re going to make carrot wine out of those.” I asked for details—or even better, a taste. “They haven’t made it yet,” he said, laughing. “The only thing that’s ready right now is cashew wine.”

They didn’t have many stores in the Mayan village set into the pine-covered mountains of Belize, just a tiny shop stocked with basic groceries and household supplies and a tortilleria selling warm corn tortillas out of a cut-out window a few hours each day. But my driver, Calbert, was sure he could find cashew wine elsewhere.

A few days later we were bumping along the dusty road that wind through the Cayo district in western Belize when Calbert told me that he had asked around his village about cashew wine. He found out that they were selling it at the gas station a few miles down the road. Of course, everything in Cayo is a few miles down the road and it usually takes an hour or two to get there because the dirt roads require careful maneuvering, especially after a rainstorm. “It’s like black ice,” said Francisco, a guide from San Ignacio. While he had never seen black ice in person—or snow, for that matter—he had seen it on TV and thought it was an apt comparison. “I watch Ice Road Truckers and the way they have to move their steering wheel back and forth while the wheels slide—it’s just like that.”

I still wanted to try the wine and since Calbert apparently had nothing better to do, we set out to find the gas station. An hour later, we arrived at the sun-bleached Superstar gas station that sat along the paved highway that lead to Belize City. Inside, the gas station looked like a typical truck stop. The back shelf was lined with liquor; there were tiny bottles of blackberry wine bitters made with palo de hombre (go ahead and Google that), soursop liqueur, craboo wine, locally-made one-barrel rums, Belikin beers, and, at last, cashew wine.

Cashew wine is not made from the cashew nut that sits alongside craisins and coconut flakes in a bag of trail mix. Instead, it’s made from the cashew fruit, which is sometimes called a cashew apple (adding to the confusion, the cashew nut is not actually a nut, but a seed, so basically, what we’ve been eating all these years is a roasted, salted lie).

Cashew fruit is highly perishable and extremely delicate, which might explain why they are incredibly hard to find in the U.S. Due to the dearth of fruit, few people in the U.S. seem to know that cashews grow from the bottom of a fruit and not directly from a tree like walnuts or almonds. In Belize, the so-called “accessory fruit” is plucked, separated from the nut, and fermented into cashew wine.

Because cashew wine is made from fruit, it’s very sweet, with a viciously tart kick. On first taste, the wine bore an unsettling resemblance to apple cider vinegar, which is understandable considering that pantry staple is made from fermenting apples. Fans of kombucha would recognize the sweetly acidic combination, too. The flavor took a little getting used to, but after a little experimentation with temperature it became clear that if the cashew wine was served cold and on the rocks, the ice cut through both the cloying sweetness and the sharp tang of the fermentation, making it almost drinkable, like a slightly off port.

It was also clear that if you sampled enough of it while experimenting, eventually you would give up caring how it tasted. It’s a dangerously slippery slope that unfortunately I am well acquainted with, so I stopped drinking despite only making a modest dent in the bottle. I didn’t want to have a headache the next day because there was too much I wanted to do during my time in Belize. There were waterfalls to climb, caves to swim through, Mayan ruins to see, and a jungle that I had only begun to explore. I didn’t want to waste a day in bed nursing a hangover from overdoing it on cashew wine.

Besides, Calbert told me there might just be a bottle of carrot wine languishing in his brother’s greenhouse.

The Ghosts of Drinkers Past

The Ghosts of Drinkers Past

by James Young/Culinary Backstreets

Tío Pepe in Mexico City

For every level of society inside and outside Mexico, cantinas serve as both toxin and tonic for drink, song, jocularity, wit, mayhem and mishap. Tio Pepe, now thought to be the oldest such bar in the old Aztec capital, has provided both in equal measure since way before it received its present name in 1878.

The cantina is nowadays a refuge for Mexican politicians, as the nation’s state department and the city’s supreme court sit in front of it. On a Tuesday at noon, we found a huddle of operatives gathered in a booth arguing amid cocktails.

We sat down with Don Sebastian Alvarez, who took up bartending at Tío Pepe in 1987, a witness to the ebb and flow of politicians, luminaries and troublemakers passing through the doors.

Alvarez, who admitted it was against the rules to name names, told us that one time, “A certain representative walked into the bar (roughly at noon). He asks for a drink.”

The bartender says, “As you know, by law we cannot serve to those already drunk.”

The lawmaker says, “I made that law, and I can unmake it. So give me a drink.”

Don Sebastian says he kindly escorted the elected official out of the bar. This is Mexican politics. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.

As such, it is difficult not to place the cantina in a romantic light – but why shouldn’t we? To its advantage, the den is small, a half dozen booths and a couple of tables. But its people, veteran pourers, give it life.

Alvarez doesn’t drink, but suggests their Negroni – one part gin, one part Campari, digestive and orange peel (85 pesos, or roughly $4.50). “It’s good for a strong hangover,” says el Don.

Swinging saloon-style doors on the cantina’s north and west faces are inlaid with stained glass, in line with the frosted panels that bind the outer walls. Inside, the bar itself is backed by an elaborate, imported façade with wooden arabesques and mirrored panels. The moniker “Hennessy” arches above the centerpiece in colored glass, a temple’s gate.

Cantinas hold sway in Mexico as placeholders for the particular political, social and geographic context within which they were created, having provided little corners of free will that cut across the land for the men that ruled – and those drinking holes that only decades ago yielded to a more modern view with all allowed, women, children and vendors in tow. (Women were first allowed in 1982.)

The litany of literary figures that have gone through the place may well be exaggerated, but they nevertheless add to a visceral sense that ghosts still haunt the bar. And how fitting that Tío Pepe sits at the corner of streets Dolores and Independencia (literally “pains” and “independence”).

“I was in a cheap cantina off Dolores Street, Mexico City,” said William S. Burroughs in Junky. “The place was suffused with a dim yellow light. A moldy looking bullhead mounted on a plaque hung over the mahogany bar. Pictures of bullfighters, some autographed, decorated the walls. The word ‘saloon’ was etched in the frosted-glass swinging door. I found myself reading the word ‘saloon’ over and over. I had the feeling of coming into the middle of a conversation.”

The bull’s head and toreador pics are gone, but the swinging doors and “saloon” statements remain. And we feel that conversation.

Address: Independencia 26
Telephone: +52 55 5521 9136
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. noon-10pm; Fri. noon-11pm; Sat. noon-9:30pm; closed Sunday

This article comes from the Culinary Backstreets“Behind Bars” series—which celebrates classic drinking establishments from across the globe and, more importantly, the dedicated bartenders who pour drinks there.

The Ginjinha Whisperer

Jun.24.16

The Ginjinha Whisperer

by Célia Pedroso / Culinary Backstreets

Ginja Sem Rival in Lisbon

Abílio Coelho is a generous man, offering a smile to every customer while serving each of them the most traditional drink in Lisbon: ginjinha. He has spent 44 of his 63 years behind a counter serving the libation. Ginja Sem Rival, the bar he serves it in, like the best places, is a hole-in-the-wall, and the drink is made in-house.

Ginja is the actual name of the liqueur, which is made from a sour cherry of the same name. The fruit might not be so sweet but is fortunately well suited to being turned into this smooth drink, which is enjoyed both as an aperitif and digestif. Commonly known by its nickname, “ginjinha,” which means “small glass,” it was supposedly created by a Galician monk in Lisbon in the 19th century.

Ginja Sem Rival opened in 1890 and is still run by the same family in the same location, not far from its famous “rival,” Ginjinha do Rossio, the oldest ginjinha bar in Lisbon. Coelho is familiar to many of the bar’s regulars, as he’s been working there longer than any of his colleagues, and he knows exactly what to pour them without asking com ou sem elas?—with or without cherries?

During his tenure there, he has seen and heard a great deal. He recalled one Venezuelan pilot: “He drank 66 ginjas! He didn’t buy a bottle, he wanted to be served the 66 ginjas, and he still managed to leave the bar and walk to Bonjardim”—the nearby piripiri restaurant—“and ate so much chicken!”

The sour cherries with which ginja is made usually come from central Portugal and the mountains in the north, but sometimes the bar has to use fruit imported from Spain.

Besides ginjinha, the bar also makes the liqueur Eduardino from herbs, fruit and aniseed. Though sweeter than ginjinha, its alcohol content is a few points higher than ginjinha’s 23.5 percent. Ginja Sem Rival is the only place where you can find Eduardino. “This clown called Eduardino was a performer at the nearby Coliseu,” Coelho explained, “and was a good friend of the owner. He would mix different liqueurs here and would have a little glass before going on stage. One time the owner tasted this mix and liked it so much that he decided to produce it and named it in tribute to his friend.”

Coming into Ginja Sem Rival for a sip of ginjinha or Eduardino is no laughing matter, though. When in early 2014 the new owners of the building tried to close the bar permanently, there were loud demonstrations outside and many petitions to save it circulated on social media.

The new landlords clearly went too far: Ginja Sem Rival stayed open, to the great relief of many Lisboetas.

Address: R. Portas de Santo Antão 7, 1150 Lisboa, Portugal
Telephone:+351 21 346 8231
Hours: 8am-midnight

This article comes from the Culinary Backstreets“Behind Bars” series—which celebrates classic drinking establishments from across the globe and, more importantly, the dedicated bartenders who pour drinks there.

Photo by: Rodrigo Cabrita

History, in Bulk

Jun.23.16

History, in Bulk

by Paula Mourenza / Culinary Backstreets

La Bodega d’en Rafel in Barcelona

When Edu, owner of the Barcelona wine bar Celler Cal Marino, was growing up in the 1980s in the neighborhood of Sant Antoni, he would confuse Rafel Jordana with the iconic German soccer player and coach Bern Schuster (“Schuster is in the bar, daddy!”). Jordana, owner of the bodega that bears his name, is not so famous internationally, but he is undoubtedly one of the icons of Sant Antoni and of the old-school bodega-bar culture in Barcelona.

La Bodega d’en Rafel has served as a location for a number of films and television series (such as “Cites,” the Catalan version of “Dates”), a subject of many articles and profiles and an important touchstone for a larger community that connects Barcelona locals with their identity. If there’s one thing that characterizes La Bodega d’en Rafel – besides good cava, local wine, a well poured beer and the comforting traditional tapas – it’s the power that the team here has to make you feel at home, feel that you belong – that there will be always a place for you at the bar.

The origins of the bar are hazy, although this beloved bodega has seemingly always been a neighborhood institution, situated as it is between a big market, the old “red light district” of El Raval and the theaters and cabarets of Paral·lel. Some elderly neighbors say that the place was a high-end restaurant during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Evidence of this can be found in the amazing, irreplaceable old tiles on the walls that are hand painted as was once done by Valencian master artisans. These depict scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Jordana claims that these tiles could be 80 to 100 years old.

Sometime in the 1950s, the restaurant began its evolution towards becoming a bodega, which, in Barcelona, is a combination of tapas bar and bulk wine shop – though most of all it is the beating heart of the neighborhood. As La Bodega del Pau, it was well known as the headquarters of Los Castizos, the amateur choir of the Sant Antoni Market fishmongers, which used to meet there to drink, sing and generally mess around together.

In 1962, José García Jiménez, a native of Andalucia, came here with his wife from the Catalan village of Batea in Terra Alta, which is known for bulk wine production. He took over the bodega, changed the name to Bodega Terra Alta and ran it until he died in 1987. Jordana, who had previously been working in advertising, was by then married to Jiménez’s daughter, María, a nurse who sometimes also helped out in the bar. When Jordana took over, he updated the bar, refurbishing it a bit and moving the wine from old wood barrels to less charming but more sanitary plastic ones. He also improved the food offerings and the kitchen and updated the name in 2003. His idea had been to name it after the village of his birth in the Pyrenees, but María, who knew better than anyone the significant role he played in the bar, said, “No dear, the bodega has to take your name.”

Jordana, smart guy that he is, noticed how the neighborhood was changing before and after the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992. Drinking habits were shifting from bulk table wine to more refined bottled wine – some with a protected designation of origination, some labeled by varietal – that customers would order by name. Instead of ten intense domino and card games each day, customers might play just one or two games on occasion, and the noisy gambling machines, so popular in the 1980s, began to gather dust in the corner. As for the customers themselves, the market stall vendors, car mechanics and blue-collar workers gave way to hipsters, musicians, journalists, writers and film industry professionals from all over the city who nowadays share tables and the bar with old parishioners, retired workers and young locals.

The only thing that remains unchanged – besides the Don Quixote tiles – are the classic tapas Rafel serves, such as mushroom, octopus or cod croquettes, esqueixada (a salad of cured cod and fresh vegetables), the house specialties cap i pota (cow’s head and leg) and callos (tripe) stews, Olot potatoes stuffed with pork and beef and the omelets. And while the vermut ritual has waxed and waned and evolved in the city, Rafel has long offered a good house vermut and all its beloved canned, marinated or pickled accompaniments (anchovies, cockles, olives, etc.).

As Rafel says with a smile, “This bodega is like the Rolling Stones: if you keep singing and doing concerts for so long, perhaps it’s because you’re not so bad at doing your thing.”

Address: Carrer Manso, 52. Sant Antoni
Telephone: +34 93 442 5624
Hours: 7:30am-midnight; closed Sunday

This article comes from the Culinary Backstreets “Behind Bars” series — which celebrates classic drinking establishments from across the globe and, more importantly, the dedicated bartenders who pour drinks there.

Photo by: Paula Mourenza

Getting Tight In Drunkard’s Alley

Jun.22.16

Getting Tight In Drunkard’s Alley

by Davey Young / Culinary Backstreets

Tight Bar in Tokyo

If it weren’t for the dozens of brightly lit signs and paper lanterns promising libations of every sort, you might mistake the two narrow alleys alongside the train tracks on the northeast side of Shibuya station for a derelict apartment block.

In reality Nonbei Yokocho (AKA Drunkard’s Alley) is one of Tokyo’s few remaining yokocho (side street) bar districts. Like the much larger and better-known Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Nonbei Yokocho is a collection of aging and tightly packed microbars.

Each watering hole is scarcely more than a few square meters, and if longtime regulars aren’t taking up the scant floor space, newcomers may try any number of doors before they find an empty seat. Among the several dozen cubbyhole bars in Nonbei Yokocho, there have only been about five vacancies in the last decade, and most of these changed hands through word of mouth or backdoor deals. Some of these cloistered rooms span generations. There is an undeniable in-crowd vibe here, and the generally gritty, windowless exteriors can intimidate the uninitiated.

Tight Bar, much to the contrary, is a lighthouse on the upper floor of the district’s northwest corner. A glance at its fishbowl window is enough to beckon the Nonbei Yokocho greenhorn up a steep and narrow set of stairs to partake and watch life unfold below. Owner Yosuke Kimura can be found tending bar most nights, his easygoing demeanor and t-shirts a stark contrast to the stereotypical Tokyo barman’s shirtsleeves and bow tie. But it’s a calculated casualness. The lean former salaryman walked away from a company job 12 years ago when he saw the “For Rent” sign hanging in the window and never looked back.

“Shibuya has few places where you can just drop by and have a drink,” he said. “You have to order food, or if it’s a bar, you usually have a table charge. Because there are few bars that allow customers to drink just one glass, I wanted to make a bar that gives such service. Customers can drink casually, and if they can talk to each other, it also makes this place interesting.” On our last visit, a steady rotation of expats who knew Kimura-san by name and a few curious tourists came through for a pre-dinner tipple.

“When I just opened my bar, most of the customers were my friends. Then regular customers from Nonbei Yokocho came in. Afterwards, more and more foreign tourists or foreigners started to come here and drink,” Kimura explained. This trend isn’t unique to Tight Bar. “Yes, the customers in Nonbei Yokocho have changed,” Kimura mused as he hand-chipped ice for a gin and tonic. “More young people come here now. In the past, there were mostly 40- to 50-year-old salarymen, but recently even university students have been coming here. The image of the old man’s Yokocho has shifted to a lighter image.”

Kimura-san is constantly tinkering with new cocktail recipes to keep pace with the changing customer base, and recently he’s been experimenting with different liquor infusions. On our most recent visit we sampled a gin and tonic with rosemary and black pepper, as well as an orange-infused brandy cocktail. These simple but eyebrow-raising flavor combinations are a rarity in Tokyo’s rather deficient cocktail scene. The bespectacled barkeep wants what any good craftsman does: to serve a truly unique product, though he’s happy to pour you a frothy-headed Asahi as well.

Despite its small size – just five stools – a lot of people can squeeze into Tight Bar. “Last night we had 15 or 16 people in here. But after 10 p.m. it’s hard to make room.” As the tiny bar began to fill up, we asked Kimura-san if he’s at all worried about the fate of Nonbei Yokocho. As Tokyo readies itself for the 2020 Olympics, rumors abound of old districts such as these getting torn down.

Kimura-san naturally has concerns, but he seems to have made peace with them. “This is a 65-year-old building. We cannot do any reinforcement work. We are allowed to use this building as it is by national law. According to the building code, this is an illegal building. But because this place was built 65 years ago before the code was implemented, it’s in the gray zone.”

He pauses to clear the bar of a few empty glasses before continuing. “I hope this place becomes a tourist destination. If this place becomes more popular, maybe the government will change their attitude.” We can raise a glass to that.

Address: 1 Chome-25-10 Shibuya
Telephone: +81 3 3499 7668
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 6pm-midnight; Sun. 6pm-2am

This article comes from Culinary Backstreets’ “Behind Bars” series — which celebrates classic drinking establishments from across the globe and, more importantly, the dedicated bartenders who pour drinks there.

By: Davey Young

Terminal Nostalgia

Jun.21.16

Terminal Nostalgia

by Paul Benjamin Osterlund / Culinary Backstreets

Mythos in Istanbul

In Istanbul’s iconic Haydarpaşa train terminal, the door of a crowded restaurant and bar opens to beams of sparkling light streaming across the Marmara Sea coast.

Trains haven’t departed Haydarpaşa for nearly three years while the station undergoes extensive renovations, but its restaurant Mythos is still open and popular as ever, a refuge for a faithful crowd of regulars who come to drink at a train station even though they aren’t going anywhere.

Built in the first decade of the 20th century by the Germans and gifted to Sultan Abdülhamid II, the station is a handsome and prominent icon of the city, occupying an imposing presence on the city’s Anatolian shoreline. Haydarpaşa was once the hub for eastward bound international routes that went from strategically crucial to evocatively romantic, lines such as the Taurus Express, which crisscrossed through Anatolia and the Mesopotamian hinterland, hitting Aleppo, Mosul and Baghdad, ultimately arriving in Basra. The route ran until 2003, when the outbreak of the second Iraq War forced it to shut down.

Haydarpaşa was still being used for suburban and long-distance domestic train routes, but in 2013 all services were halted as the renovations began. An initial plan to redevelop the station commercially, threatening to turn it into yet another Istanbul shopping mall, drew the ire of activists and railway employees, many of whom have assembled on Haydarpaşa’s steps every Sunday for the past four years, demanding that the station remain a transit center. Much to their relief, that plan was eventually scrapped and it appears that Haydarpaşa will resume train service within the next couple of years.

Amid all of the confusion and contestation, Mythos—also known as the Haydarpaşa Gar Lokantası (Haydarpaşa Terminal Restaurant)—has remained the terminal’s one constant. Our recent visit found the place packed to the gills on a Monday night.

Though Mythos is a fine meyhane with a fine selection of meze, buttressed by excellent seating options in the nostalgic dining room or outside in the station flanking the train cars, there is also a little corner bar boasting no more than six seats. Most of these are perpetually occupied by the regulars.

Behind the bar is 63-year-old Recep Gül, who has worked at Mythos since 1977, both as bartender and waiter. He prefers cracking open cold bottles of Efes, Turkey’s flagship beer, to working the floor: “You can’t chat while waiting tables,” Gül said.

The soft-spoken, white-haired Gül is the owner of a spontaneous, booze-fueled story that has shaped his entire life. As a 14-year-old in the Black Sea province of Ordu, Gül and his friends were instructed by a teacher of questionable judgment to fetch him a bottle of vodka. Watching their teacher pour himself a drink alongside appetizers of cheese and olives, their curiosity (and thirst) had to be quenched. “Until then, we didn’t know what alcohol was,” Gül said.

The boys bought the same vodka and snacks and sat down for a picnic in a nearby hazelnut orchard. As their first-ever buzz began to set in, they were ratted on by fellow classmates and the teacher in question tossed the teens in a storage room for several hours. Gül’s father eventually got wind of his son’s escapade and delivered a serious beating. “You’re a student, what are you doing drinking alcohol?” he said.

In a life-altering snap decision, the irate Gül hopped a bus to the city of Samsun, then to Ankara, ultimately winding up in Istanbul. He made his way to his older brother’s place in the district of Zeytinburnu, finding work and permanently establishing himself in the city. Gül’s father wrote him letter after letter begging for his son’s forgiveness, and while he eventually came back to visit, Gül’s home had become Istanbul.

“Somehow I couldn’t escape the confines of alcohol,” said Gül with a smile. He’s no binge drinker, but given that his inaugural brush with drink ultimately led to his exile and four-decade stint as a bartender, it has defined his existence.

Though said he plans to retire in two years when he turns 65, we wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up sticking around with his regulars, for whom he pours drinks with ease and comfort.

One of those regulars is Mustafa, sporting a blazer, a charmingly-disheveled salt and pepper mop and a serious mustache. He swigs Efes from a thin glass normally used to serve gin and tonics and other mixed drinks.

“I only drink Efes. I don’t smoke and I never drink rakı,” proclaimed Mustafa, who has been coming to the bar for 25 years, and says he shows up nearly every night of the week. We’ve never witnessed such loyalty to Efes, though we find it to be unfairly maligned and appreciate its merits on a hot summer afternoon. The season is of no importance to Mustafa, who put down at least four during our chat.

Continually going over the bar with a rag, Gül serves us small plates of salty peanuts and tart green plums, the first of the season. While some dusty bottles of gin and Malibu rum adorn the shelves, the anise-flavored rakı and beer are the poisons to pick.

On our second beer, Gül treats us to a slice of Rum böreği, one of Mythos’ specialties and a close cousin of Greek spanikopita. The gentleman to our right insists on buying us a glass of rakı before we leave. While inititally hesitant to go down that route after already having started with beer, we quickly realized our companion was not going to take no for an answer.

The bar at Mythos is not a place to drown one’s sorrows, so if you are planning on shedding tears in your beer, it’s best to stay at home. Gül and the regulars, combined with the nostalgia of a station in limbo and the soothing gaze of the glimmering sea cultivates a soulful yet invigorating atmosphere—even if the trains aren’t running.

This article comes from Culinary Backstreets’ “Behind Bars” series—which celebrates classic drinking establishments from across the globe and, more importantly, the dedicated bartenders who pour drinks there.

Photo by: Paul Osterlund

For Love of God & Chacha

Jun.20.16

For Love of God & Chacha

by Paul Rimple / Culinary Backstreets

Wine of Kardenakhi in Tbilisi

It is 9 p.m. and we are packing our bags for a red-eye flight to Poland when I realize we have no chacha, Georgia’s otherworldly elixir of distilled fermented grape pulp. We never, ever travel without chacha, and there is no way we’re going to buy over-the-counter, factory-produced product—and not because it’s over-priced. Chacha is a potion brewed by the hands of masters over wood fires in hammer-battered stills sealed in a paste of dirt and ash. Without the human touch—the artistry—chacha is just a soulless, liver-grinding liquor. I make the call.

Andria deals in wine, chacha and religion from a devilish little cellar in Tbilisi’s old neighborhood of Sololaki. Like him, we have our sources from the wine region of Kakheti, but it can take days for us to get restocked, so when our well runs dry at home, we call Andria.

“I was born 62 years ago, up there,” Andria says, pointing to the ceiling of the cramped, dank cellar. “I came in a hurry. They didn’t have time to take my mother to the hospital.” He breaks into a wide grin and boasts that nobody is more of a Sololakeli than he is, for he was literally born in the ‘hood.

The red brick walls are covered in Georgian Orthodox Christian calendars, icons and pictures of the Patriarch, His Holiness Ilia II. There is a rack with religious books, cards and knickknacks he sells and stacks of newspapers, little plastic bags stuffed with more plastic bags and big plastic bags stuffed with used glass and plastic bottles are crammed all over the place. Nothing goes to waste here, even if it should. When his little black and white TV set is on, it is tuned only to the Patriarch’s religious channel. A long, low shelf along one wall holds glass jugs of amber-hued white wine and dark red Saparavi—all labeled in flowery Georgian script. Up along the back wall are shelves stacked with assorted chachas: walnut-infused, clear, old and young “cognacs” and bottles of something he calls “Georgian whiskey,” which is pretty good, but it’s not whiskey.

Georgians don’t buy a couple of bottles of wine for dinner, they buy a few five-liter plastic bottles—at the very minimum. Shops like Andria’s are in every neighborhood for people without a personal source in wine country, or for those of us who are in a pinch and need a quick fix. Some sell decent wine, others bad. Unfortunately, Andria often lets his wine oxidize in the big glass flagons and two-liter plastic bottles—but then his real trade is Georgian Christianity.

“I was born Anzor Naneishvili, but that’s not a Christian name. My priest gave me the name Andria,” he says, sitting on a child-sized stool he claims is 150 years old. He is an engineer/contractor by profession, but as the social system began to crumble around him in the early 1990s, Andria found himself in the midst of an existential crisis. Life had no meaning, he couldn’t even find sense in the nationalism of Georgia’s first post-communist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, he says. Civil war in Tbilisi and the hard times that followed compounded Andria’s troubles, which peaked at the death of his mother. “I realized then that if I didn’t turn to the Church, I would never understand anything,” he confesses. Feeling the standards of his well-paying job were too unethical to endure, he walked out and began selling devotional items on the street.

Inebriants entered Andria’s professional life. In 2003, when a former colleague who made wine in the Kakhetian village of Kardenahki asked if he could help sell his wine. Andrei agreed under the condition that the man honestly sell only “natural wine, like a Christian,” and he opened up the cellar under his apartment.

“I didn’t know anything about wine, but I learned,” Andria says. His partner’s idea of righteousness, however, was to stretch the wine with water and spirit. He told Andria that it’s not cheating when everybody does it and assured him, “nobody will ever know,” but Andria would have none of that. Shortly after kicking him out of the shop, Andria was approached by two brothers also from Kardenahki, who said they heard what he had done to that fraudster and offered their wine and chacha, guaranteeing their quality. He continues to sell their products today.

We have better local sources for wine, but not a more reliable neighborhood dealer of hooch. There are philistine chacha makers who place strength before palatability and barbarians who put who knows what into their concoctions. A good chacha should have the taste of the grape it came from, and it should be sippable, like a good tequila, another earthy spirit. Buying chacha in an old Sprite bottle is a leap of faith. All the better that Andria Naneishvili loves Jesus, and if his shop happens to be closed, his phone number is posted on the door.

Wine of Kardenakhi
Address: Amaghleba St. 10
Telephone: +995 593 28 40 35
Hours: random
Delivery available

This article comes from Culinary Backstreets’ “Behind Bars” series—which celebrates classic drinking establishments from across the globe and, more importantly, the dedicated bartenders who pour drinks there.

Photo by: Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Unhinged, Hysterical, and Maniacally Hospitable

Jun.16.16

Unhinged, Hysterical, and Maniacally Hospitable

by Georgina Gustin

Pulque in D.F.

On a screamingly loud street not far from Mexico City’s fabled main plaza, next to a public bathroom and behind a couple sets of constantly swinging doors, I found myself clutching a smeared glass of something fruity, sour, and snot-like.

I have no idea who ordered or paid for this beverage, but I noticed a few things about it. First, that it was in a pint glass, and a menu on the wall—one of those striated plastic boards with moveable plastic letters—announced that jars and buckets were also optional conveyances. Then that the stuff inside the glass—pulque—had a vaguely buttermilk-like taste and the consistency of slime.

More pulque-filled glasses kept emerging magically out of the tottering, swaying crowd, and then, I also noticed, I was getting a little pulgue-high. All the better to enjoy Las Duelistas, the insane, friendly, sprawling bar—pulqueria, actually—where every college student in Latin America seemed to be getting drunk that day.

Pulque is made from fermented agave sap mixed with fruit or grains, usually oatmeal. The rim of the glass is lined with some sort of flavored salt, which is usually long gone by the time it arrives in your hands. Pulque is cheap and social and gives you a bizarre, loose-limbed buzz. The Aztecs concocted it first and were big fans, though after the Europeans entered the scene, cerveza became the country’s favored bargain tipple.

I saw a lot of young Mexico City residents (aka chilangos) celebrating the country’s pre-Colombian traditions, arms or necks bearing tattoos proclaiming non-European roots: brilliant, inky depictions of maize, the staple, pre-Spanish crop that Mexicans claim as birthright. Corn is in the blood.

Pulque, too. This is not a European import. It’s indigenous. Every inch of Las Duelistas blazes with multi-colored murals of Aztec cosmology, lest you forget the drink’s mythological origins. There’s a kind of biker bar defiance about it.

But the energy inside Las Duelistas is happy, if a little unhinged and hysterical. People wedge beside each other, sweaty and jostled, passing pulque around with a kind of maniacal hospitality. Try this. Now try this. Also, this.

Pulque-sharing will have the mystical effect of making your Spanish fluent, not that it will matter. All you really need here is a thirst for whatever gets passed your way. You don’t question the provenance. You just drink.

Photo by: ProtoplasmaKid

It Ain’t a Speakeasy, It’s a Hideaway

Jun.15.16

It Ain’t a Speakeasy, It’s a Hideaway

by Patrick J. Sauer

Pinot Noir in New Orleans

There is a New Orleans restaurant that quietly opened last winter that is, for lack of a better term, (and for lack of my imagination), so hipster that in describing it, one must evoke the spirit of Bill Hader’s beloved SNL character, Stefon. Deep breath, hands to face, back down into a clench, exhale, and: If you’re looking for the Big Easy’s hottest new restaurant then you want N7, a French place with no phone, no website, no celebrity chefs, no Snapchats, an address that doesn’t show up on Google Maps, your Uber driver won’t find it, the main delicacy is salty fished served out of a tin can outside like at a Great Depression hobo camp, and the waitstaff only communicates with guests through trombones.

Alright, the last one isn’t true—although that would be amazing—but everything else is more or less on the money. N7 is tucked back in a Ninth Ward alley, just off St. Claude Ave. Even in this smartphone age, it isn’t easy to find, as its nestled behind a tall wooden fence, its only signifier a small, spray-painted, red N7 stencil. It’s a French bistro, named for the old “Route des Vacances” that took Parisians from Notre Dame to the Cote d’Azur to summer away on the French Riviera. Housed in a former tire shop, N7 has a friendly backyard with Christmas lights, wooden tables, a large patio, and a Citroen car to hammer home the living-is-easy vibe.

No matter how romantic N7 was in early May under the first sunlight following a 72-hour thunderstorm deluge, after I was told by our companions—who had been multiple times and swore by it—that the menu was “can to table,” my stomach turned. And not because of the metal packaging, I’ve been eating StarKist since the early 1970s. It sounded like the most twee corduroy-suit-Wes Anderson-with-a-Snidely-Whiplash-mustache restaurant concept I’d ever heard of. Canned beer, sure. A speakeasy that serves sardines? I’m going to go find a Lucky Dog.

However, the goddess Fortuna, along with my friends who were making their third trip, spun me in the right direction. They were absolutely right. Can-to-table may sound silly, but I haven’t had a meal like that … well, ever. Who knew tinned food could be so damn delicious? (I mean aside from the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and people with much more sophisticated tastes than myself, apparently.) The people behind N7 trust you’ll dig the canned goods. And they’re right. The offerings were so tasty, getting us to order another go-round was like shooting fish in a very tiny barrel. We polished off a number of tins, including a spicy calamari, squid in ink, a lobster rillete with bread, and, my favorite, the tingling habanero smoked oysters. Add in a some olives, cheese, and a plate of yellowtail carpaccio and us too-old-to-be-cool-folk had ourselves a feast. Some of the cans are true delicacies, shipped directly to N7, and near impossible to find in the States. Others, like the Ekone Smoked Oyster selection, can be sent to your house, but it won’t be the same. You’ll miss out on the whole French On va prendre la bouteille and the Crescent City evening tranquility.

Befitting it’s French countryside ethos, N7 is a wine spot, primarily European, universally natural. There’s around twenty choices, including wines from some less-guzzled—at least to my limited oneophilic experience—regions like Germany’s Pflaz and Chile’s del Bio-Bio. We kept it homegrown and went with an Oregon pinot noir. Kicking back and soaking it all in, it becomes clear what N7 isn’t. There are no bartenders in suspenders checking their pocket-watches, no blocks of ice to be chiseled with a 19th-century tool, no sixteen-ingredient gin drinks, no egg whites, no passwords, no hidden doors. It’s not a faux anything. N7 is low-key and a bit hard to find because it wants to be unobtrusive, relaxing, an oasis. It ain’t a speakeasy, it’s a hideaway.

N7 has all the trappings of the worst of foodie culture, but it isn’t affectation. It isn’t ironic or self-aggrandizing. Whomever runs N7 isn’t after anything more than love of place, product, and people. The owners aren’t trying to disrupt, revolutionize, or upend the hot dog cart. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Although, every now and again, the hippest restaurant in town is actually the place to be. Now, about those trombones…

Is Halfway Around the Globe Too Far to Travel for Whisky?

Jun.14.16

Is Halfway Around the Globe Too Far to Travel for Whisky?

by Jake Emen

Whisky in Taiwan

It’s 5 pm in Yilan, Taiwan, an hour’s drive southeast of Taipei along the island’s northeastern coast. My body thinks it’s 5 am. Either way, it’s June 2nd, that much is certain. There was a journey to get here; there was the 15-hour and 50-minute flight from JFK to Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, which came after the four-hour layover, which itself followed the flight from Dulles. That was on May 31st.

But it’s June 2nd now and we’ve arrived at our destination, the Kavalan Distillery. A walk through the distillery’s expansive grounds, past its shimmering copper-pot stills, through the warehouses and visitor’s center, has all led to this. A tasting flight of four new Kavalan whiskies is lined up on the table. They have each been aged in a different type of sherry cask, and none are yet available in the U.S. market.

Before me lies the whisky, to my right is Ian Chang, Kavalan’s master blender and head distiller. He takes a highly scientific approach to the creation of whisky, with little left to chance. It’s a craft born of both perfectionism and passion. A testament to, “how crazy I am about whisky,” as he says during the tasting.

Sherry-cask aging is one of the trademarks of Kavalan, which in a decade has taken the global whisky world by storm. Taiwan’s subtropical climate enables them to age their whisky quite rapidly, the heat helping them accomplish feats of maturation in a few years which the folks in Scotland need decades to equal. This does not make their Scottish competitors very happy. Temperatures in the top floor of Kavalan’s warehouse exceed 110 degrees, which means that even excitable whisky nerds such as myself can’t wander its halls for long.

The new additions to the Kavalan lineup have been aged in Amontillado, Manzanilla, Pedro Ximenez, and Moscatel casks, and will be released in the U.S. this fall. One sip and then another and 30 hours of travel is slowly cleansed from my soul.

A quiet, formal tasting soon evolves into a lively dinner. Heaping mounds of fresh seafood are passed around a large circular table as rows of mini shots are filled three at a time and knocked back in succession. One by one, Ian raises a glass in each of our honors, while we gratefully return the favor.

Is halfway around the globe too far to travel simply to taste whisky? Contemplating the question on the 14-hour and 50-minute flight back to JFK, there were no regrets.

Be a Local and Order Another Martini

Jun.13.16

Be a Local and Order Another Martini

by Susan Harlan

Gin at the Grand Central Oyster Bar

I used to live in New York City. After seven years in North Carolina, the city still feels like home, but it’s a different sort of home, one that is also strange. I may think that I live there for a few days or weeks, but then I realize that a particular pizza place has closed, or I have forgotten the stops on a subway line, and I know it isn’t mine, not really.

I get to go back most summers, and now I have rituals for my time there. These rituals aren’t complicated: many involve sitting in parks and watching people. But one involves happy hour in a train station. Some days, after reading at the New York Public Library, I walk down the front steps, past the lions, and two blocks over to the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station.

The Oyster Bar is located on the dining concourse, below the main concourse. From about 5:00 to 6:30 in the evening, this lower concourse is packed with commuters clutching their Two Boots pizza slices and Shake Shack burgers. The ceiling is low, so the space feels tucked away from the station above and perhaps less subject to its clocks and schedules, at least if you don’t have to go anywhere.

And Grand Central Station is hectic enough on a weekday evening to make you glad you’re not going anywhere. This is where the Oyster Bar comes in. I try to arrive shortly after five so I can get a good seat. I walk straight through the station, past everyone rushing around under the jade-green zodiac sky, and down to the OYSTER BAR RESTAURANT sign. The restaurant is through these doors to the left, and the cafeteria-style counters are to the right. The lounge is straight ahead, with its white Eero Saarinen tables and chairs. If you walk past the cafeteria counters and into the next room, you’ll find yourself in another bar that is darker and more tavern-like and decorated with paintings of ships.

I sit down at the right-hand corner table in the lounge and order a half dozen oysters and a gin martini with a twist. The last time I was there, this was $20. If the train station smells like the city, the Oyster Bar smells like the sea: salty and fishy.

The happy-hour oysters tend to be big. They’re not delicate, richly flavorful oysters like some other options on the menu, but they’re good oysters. Simple. I haven’t ever asked what kind of gin they use for the happy-hour martinis. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s just gin, but it’s also good. And the martini is served in the kind of glass I like—a smaller glass—with a bit of extra in a small carafe. Some bars, especially hotel bars, prefer huge martini glasses that feel inelegant and all-American super-sized. A smaller glass fits in your hand. It doesn’t try to overwhelm you.

The Oyster Bar may seem like a touristy choice. It’s “iconic,” and this isn’t necessarily a favorable description: it suggests that the life of a place may be in the past and not in the present. It opened in 1913, so it has been a lot of things. And it still is a lot of things. Yes, there are tourists, but there are also commuters and New Yorkers and people like me who aren’t really anything at all, who are insider and outsider, who are just there. Sometimes I watch people check their watches. Maybe they have dinner plans and theater tickets. Maybe they’re waiting to catch a train home to the suburbs. I go to the Oyster Bar because watching people dash off to wherever they’re going makes me feel less like I, eventually, will also have to leave.

And so I drink my martini and eat my oysters and listen to strangers’ voices echo on the white-tiled vaulted ceilings. In fact, the tiles aren’t actually white at all; they just create an effect of white. They’re pale brown and taupe, with grooves along the length of them, like a rake run over sand. When I first realized this, I thought that I knew the place, and I felt good and like I lived in the city, and so I ordered another martini.

Photo: Leonard J. DeFrancisci

All Parts of the Cow (On the Grill)

All Parts of the Cow (On the Grill)

by Roads and Kingdoms

Tsugie in Osaka

Waste not, want not could be the unofficial motto of Osaka’s Horumonyaki culture. Here, all of the parts of the cow that normally get discarded are the star of the meal. Offal has long been a sought-after dish in the city known as “the nation’s kitchen”—an Osaka chef named Kitazato Shigeo trademarked Horumonyaki as far back as 1940. At Tsugie, one of the great Horumonyaki joints in Osaka’s Tenma district, we wanted for nothing. Along with our friend and guide Yuko Suzuki, we sampled everything from your standard flank steak and short ribs to cheek, raw heart, and grilled tongue—and a number of the cow’s different stomachs, all of which have a distinct and identifiable flavor.

Tsugie’s bar is structured around a charcoal grill, the centerpiece of the tiny restaurant. Working the grill was Tsugie’s owner, Takeshi Yamakawa, who looked like he could be one of the patrons, having the time of his life even as he had his hands full pouring drinks and cooking three plates at once. There are no seats in the place—you’re served standing up, a tradition called tachinomi (literally, simply: “drinking while standing”) whose increasing popularity in Japan is emblematic of a larger cultural shift away from formal dining. Chefs like Takeshi are at the vanguard of this shift, serving up bigger flavors for cheaper prices in a more casual setting.

At the bar, we made sure to keep to the literal meaning of tachinomi, washing down our meal with biru and sake. “In Kyoto, they’d throw this stuff away,” Yuko told us as dish after dish arrived. At Tsugie, they take it and dress it up with sesame oil and yuzu and ginger soy sauce and chili paste. Then, it’s served piping hot to the clusters of Japanese businessmen and women who head straight here after work—a testament to Tsugie’s ability to create a symphony with the most traditionally reviled parts of an animal. The end result: something so delicious you can hardly believe it was once part of a cow’s stomach.

Chopped Pig Head, a Substantial Abdominal Coating for All-Night Benders

Jun.08.16

Chopped Pig Head, a Substantial Abdominal Coating for All-Night Benders

by Shirin Bandari

Sisig in Manila

Drinking on an empty stomach is a bad idea. Everyone knows that. The less in there, the faster you feel the effects of alcohol. What to eat before a big night out? People have various theories, from eggs, avocados, and sardines on toast to lard-laden burgers. The common factor is the necessary fat content.

You need that lining of oil in your stomach before a full night of debauchery.

On this side of the world, the Philippines presents the ultimate drinking match: sisig.

Our regular haunt is in one of the seedier parts of old Manila. The humid, open-aired shack overlooks the busy street of Remedios. Before the night’s festivities, you can watch street vendors prepare for work and listen to a band’s sound check next door. Girls clad in extremely short school uniforms practice funny-sounding Filipino-Japanese cheers below.

You must order the Bucket Promo for a few pesos: six bottles of beer in a plastic or metal bucket filled with ice and your choice of pulutan (food eaten with alcohol), the sisig.

Our bucket was bedecked with the logo of a famous local motel.

Don’t get any ideas.

The head of a pig is chopped finely, sautéed with onions, chillies, and served on a sizzling plate. The bits and pieces of pork ears and jowl are charred to a black-and-brown crisp. It is meaty, tangy, and greasy. The bright red chillies and local green lemons add the needed kick. The sizzling plate brings out the extra oil and provides a substantial abdominal coating for a all-night bender.

The trademark dish has three phases. Boiling, grilling, and sautéing. The entire head of the pig is first boiled to soften and remove the hairy fuzz. It is then chopped in portions for broiling or grilling. Before serving, with two large cleavers it is hacked into unrecognizable parts and incorporated with onions, chillies, soy, vinegar and calamansi (local lemon).

Sisig originated in the province of Pampanga, Central Luzon, north of Manila. The literal translation means “to snack on something sour” like an unripe fruit. The word also refers to the method of marinating meat in a sour liquid, such as vinegar or lemon. In the mid 1970s, local residents bought unused pig heads from the American commissaries at Clark Air Base in Angeles City, Pampanga. The U.S. personnel stationed there did not use the heads in their meals, hence the abundance.

The enterprising restaurateur Lucia Cunanan has been credited with concocting the bizarre dish in 1974 in Angeles City. Eventually, even the U.S. servicemen began to order it with their beers in various night clubs in Pampanga.

Lucia Cunanan’s legacy is the most popular pulutan in the Philippines. Tragically, in 2008 she was found stabbed to death by her husband over a gambling row. Her small railroad shack—Aling Lucing’s in Angeles—still stands today.

Variations have evolved through the years: some add chopped liver or ox brains, and even top it off with a raw egg, pork crackling, and mayonnaise.

The artery-clogging pork massacre is far from refined. It is not for the faint of heart (palpitations included) but possibly the best thing you can have with an iced cold beer.

After a couple buckets down, does it really matter?

Only the next day’s hangover can tell.

Sometimes Paradise Goes Unpaved

Jun.07.16

Sometimes Paradise Goes Unpaved

by Rebekah Kebede

Red Stripes in Jamaica

We had assumed for years that Winnifred was dead. Fenced off, manicured, paved over. It couldn’t be helped. That’s the way of the world, we said. The little guy always loses.

My boyfriend, Sean, and I stumbled across Winnifred Beach on a backpacking trip to Jamaica nine years ago. We were on a tight budget; I was a grad student and he worked at a non-profit. The owner of Zion Country, a little hostel where we stayed, told us that Winnifred was free and the best beach around.

So we piled into a route taxi, whose driver dropped us at a small dirt road on the side of the main thoroughfare. We walked down the quiet road, rocks poking into our flip-flops. The path wound its way through the tangled bush, finally dropping steeply down to the coast.

We turned a corner and there was Winnifred. Bright aquamarine water and a shady, quiet beach. It’s hard to put into words what was special about Winnifred. Tucked away from the road, it felt like a hideaway. Whatever it was that the fences and fees at Jamaica’s many private beaches were supposed to keep out, it wasn’t at Winnifred. Sure, there were some people hawking trinkets, but theirs was a gentle hustle.

It was about the vibes as much as anything else. Winnifred is in Portland parish, on the far eastern side of Jamaica, both literally and figuratively as far away as you can get from the all-inclusives in Negril, on the other side of the island.

We whiled away hours on the beach, taking our cold Red Stripes into the warm water and reading under the shade of the trees.

But there was a cloud hanging over those good vibes. Locals told us there was a fight brewing over the beach. Someone wanted to build a resort on the beach and make it private. Sean and I looked at each other knowingly. Surely, they were screwed. But when they asked us for money for their fight, we donated anyway and wished them luck.

As we trudged up the path from the beach on our last visit, we turned and took a last look, knowing that Winnifred was not long for the world, but happy that we’d made it there.

Time and many other beach trips went by. “Remember Winnifred?” we’d say once in awhile, and shake our heads in silent mourning.

But life moved on. We got married and had a son. We moved across the world to Australia.

One day, we were watching television when suddenly, there was Winnifred on the screen. And there was Anthony Bourdain, slurping soup and chowing down while discussing Winnifred’s fate with Cynthia, a local restaurant owner.

“It’s WINNIFRED!!” we shouted. We were giddy. Winnifred was alive! The Free Winnifred Beach Benevolent Society was still fighting for their beach. A court ruled in their favor later that month. A few months after that, Sean’s employer assigned him to Jamaica.

“It was written,” a friend said. And it did feel like fate.

We headed out to Winnifred soon after we moved to Jamaica, driving along Portland’s narrow highways where tropical foliage pushes into the road.

Just when we thought we were lost, we turned the corner. There was Winnifred. Again.

A man waved hello to us. “Welcome to paradise,” he said.

We set up under a tree in the middle of the beach, right behind the man who sells beer and ice cool jellies, or coconuts. Our 18-month-old son, Luca, played in the sand and we cracked open a couple Red Stripes and ordered up some lobster from Cynthia’s place.

It was as though we had never left.

If Your Last Memory Is of a Bottle of Moonshine, You Probably Drank Some

Jun.06.16

If Your Last Memory Is of a Bottle of Moonshine, You Probably Drank Some

by Ollie Peart

Toffee Vodka in Somerset

We drove down a track with enough potholes in it to disable a tank. At one point, a misjudged bump scraped the bottom of the car so hard that it’s a small miracle it didn’t rip off, taking our legs with it.

We were, to put it simply, in the middle of nowhere. Or so it seemed. We were actually trundling through rural Somerset, just a few minutes from Glastonbury, home to the world famous festival. We pulled up outside a pub with an exterior more bland than a grandma’s sweater. Despite that, outside was a line of cars almost as long as the road itself.

What were they all doing here? From the outside the pub looked just about big enough for one man and half his dog, let alone a carpark full of punters. We eventually found a parking space and pushed at the door, a plastic milk carton full of water and bit of old rope acting as some kind of self-closing device.

Every little bit of shelf space had something on it. Old toys that bought back memories of my childhood, TV characters, old signs brandished with “Giant Haystacks” and “Big Daddy,” two English wrestlers from the 70s. The bar was busy pumping pints between several bits of taxidermy. Funk music blasted, drawing what seemed like everyone to the dance floor.

We sat down at our table. The waiter, who happened to be the manager, danced up to us, high-fiving another member of the staff en route, his energy leaving a wake of smiling regulars relaxed and content. It was our turn.

Rather than watch us point at something on the menu, he ploughed straight in like a true pro.

“What do you like? What are you in the mood for?”

The question stumped me. I wasn’t expecting it. I was expecting a vacant look while he looked at me until I made a decision.

He did no such thing. Like the indecisive dullard that I am I blurted out something along the lines of “I’m not sure.” He smiled. He knew I needed help and he knew he could help me. He expertly summed up exactly what I wanted even though I didn’t know myself. A starter, a main, and an utterly superb beer recommendation that was so good, I’ve forgotten what it was called.

The food arrived and needless to say it was sensational. We were in a pub, but this was anything but pub food. This was tasty, dripping with flavor, beautifully delivered food. The kind of food that makes you audibly grunt with satisfaction, muttering the words “Oh god” while you make a face that only your other half has seen you make.

After we’d eaten we thought that was that. It normally is when you eat in a pub. You go in, eat, then leave. But not in The Sheppey. The waiter came back.

“Right.” he said. “What do you want next?”

Not knowing that I wanted anything, he popped off and came back with a round of shots.

“On the house” he said, words which normally precede the shittiest of drinks. This didn’t. I downed it despite knowing nothing about what it was I was drinking.

“It’s a toffee vodka, we make it here.”

The last time I had toffee vodka I was sick in a urinal and headed home early, so I’m normally averse to such things, but this was delicious.

The place was alive with dancing, music, conversation and laughter and we were all part of what made it so fantastic. We were meant to be there, and we were made to feel like we were.

The night went on and my memory got vague. My last recollection of the evening was our waiter showing us a bottle of moonshine. I don’t know if we drank it, but as it was my last memory of the evening, I expect we did.

The Beauty of Blowtorched Tuna and Street-Corner Sake

The Beauty of Blowtorched Tuna and Street-Corner Sake

by Roads and Kingdoms

The Toyo experience in Osaka

From 9am to 5pm, it’s not easy to make friends in Japan. Not because the Japanese aren’t friendly or polite or open to your presence in their country, but both the language chasm and the duties of the workday mean that as a visitor, your main job is to stay out of their way as you go about yours. But once the masses of salarymen and women emerge from the gleaming steel structures that dot the country’s massive cityscapes, all bets are off.

In Osaka, a city known to shed the formalities of the workday with incredible ease, you have one of Japan’s greatest backdrops for striking up a fleeting tableside friendship. You’ll find it on an unsuspecting street a few hundred meters from Kyobashi Station, at what looks more like a garage sale or a homeless enclave than a dining-and-drinkng establishment. Nothing about Toyo makes sense: the kitchen is housed in the back of a pickup truck, the tables are made from stacks of yellow Asahi crates, and the hours are as erratic as the décor. But come most days after 4 pm and you will find a line of young Osakans clutching briefcases and fingering iPhones, anxious to take in the Toyo experience.

Look alive! You will never find a better perch from which to take in the dramatic transformation of the post-work Japanese. The same people who stood so quietly, so tensely in line behind you soon grow animated. Ties are loosened, hair let down, and kampais ring out in spirited choruses as rank and order dissolve with each passing sip. From soba to miso to raw-tuna red, the most aggressive transformers wear the stages of devolution on their faces. You want to be near this; this is the Japan that runs antithetical to the one you have constructed in your head. This is the beauty of Japan: It builds a set of beliefs and perceptions during the day only to destroy them once the sun goes down. Rigid? Reserved? Formal? Find a table, fill it with food and beer and new friends, and watch as all those stiff postures slacken.

Fueling this metamorphosis is Toyo-san, chef and owner of this beautiful mess, a short, muscular man in his late 60s with a shiny bald head and a wildfire in his eyes. He holds forth at the stovetop with a towel wrapped around his neck like a prize fighter, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, and a full-blast blowtorch in his hand. Toyo trades in extremes. Half the food that he sends out is raw: ruby cubes of tuna dressed with a heaping mound of fresh wasabi; sea grapes the size of ball bearings that pop like caviar against the roof of your mouth; glistening beads of salmon eggs meant to be stuffed into crispy sheets of nori.

The other half gets the blowtorch treatment: Tuna is transformed into a sort of tataki stir fry, toasted, glazed with ponzu and tossed with a thicket of spring onions. Fish heads are blitzed under the flame until the cheeks singe and the skin screams and the eyes melt into a glorious stew meant to be extracted with chopsticks. Even sea urchin, those soft orange tongues of ocean umami, with a sweetness so subtle that cooking it is considered heretical in most culinary circles, gets blasted like a crème brulee by Toyo and his ring of fire.

Regardless if you opt for spanking raw or burning inferno, the most important part of the Toyo experience is to keep a constant supply of cold beer and sake close at hand. You’ll need it to share with the salarymen that inevitably approach your table trying to figure out how a foreigner found his or her way to their little slice of post-work paradise. Be ready with a bottle and a few words of spirited Japanese, because it will never be easier to make friends than out here under the cloak of the Osaka night, with the auburn glow of Toyo’s flame throbbing in the distance.

Tell them what they want to hear: That you’ve come for Toyo-san. That, of course, is why they’re here. Every so often he looks up, gives wide-eyed onlookers an enthusiastic thumbs up, but mostly he keeps to his food and his flame, laughing softly to himself at something we’ll never understand. In some corners of Japan’s culinary world, where restaurants have roofs and ingredients come with responsibilities, he might be crucified for his blatant disregard for convention and basic decorum, but in Osaka, where eating is a sport and rules are made to be blowtorched, Toyo-san is a hero.

Drinking Vodka, Making Pisco

Jun.01.16

Drinking Vodka, Making Pisco

by Wesley Straton

Screwdrivers in Chile

Pacán sells his pisco in repurposed vodka bottles. His tasting room consists of an old barrel upon which he sets as many or as few samples as he sees fit, in glasses that are best not carefully examined. His house is dilapidated, his property is a mess, and he is known in the area as el pisquero loco (“the crazy pisco maker.”)

He also happens to make some of the best pisco in the Elquí Valley.

I went to the valley specifically for the alcohol. I’ve had my fair share of Pisco Sours over the years, and I wanted to learn more about the grape brandy that both Chile and Peru claim as their national spirit. Unfortunately, my job in a local hostel was seriously getting in the way of my distillery visits. The hostel was beautiful and charming, as promised, but my agreed-upon schedule of half-day shifts had somehow stretched into a full-time job for which I did not get paid.

Frustrating, to say the least. So when the crotchety pisquero down the road invited me to come see his distillation process, my coworker Jenny and I conspired to get out of our usual hostel duties to visit our neighbor.

We arrived at Pacán’s place a little after noon. Our host was having a hard morning: his 94-year-old mother was in the hospital with a broken hip, and he was drowning his sorrows in some midday Screwdrivers. He poured glasses for Jenny and me, both decidedly light on the orange juice, and we drank vodka and chatted in Spanish until my head was spinning.

The portrait of Pacán’s life that I formed was built of small clues, casual asides. He’d had a wife once, a good job—there was even a mention of a son about my age. But now Pacán lived alone, selling a spirit he didn’t even drink himself to a thin trickle of tourists and imbibing unlikely quantities of vodka. I wanted to know more, but he was more interested in hearing about us: these wide-eyed young women with foreign accents and uncertain travel plans. “You’re very brave,” he said, over and over. “And very kind.”

After an hour or so we managed to convince Pacán to get started. The still, out of sight at the back of his property, was a mess of plastic drums, lumpy concrete, and blackened steel. It looked more likely to produce toxic waste than artisanal liquor. But I knew how good Pacán’s brandy was, and some minor aesthetic concerns were not enough to put me off.

Pacán began by setting his drink down and taking off his shirt, exposing his enormous and deeply tanned beer belly to the autumn sun. He opened the still’s boiling chamber and I shoveled out the pungent remains of the last batch’s mash, throwing them into the trash heap next to the still while Jenny hauled a fresh drum of fermenting grapes across the yard to take their place.

I resealed the chamber, tightening the nuts while Jenny filled the cooling chamber with water from a nearby stream and Pacán loaded a mixture of wood and garbage into the stove beneath. I cringed inwardly as I watched, but I was his guest and it was hardly my place to protest as the plastic coat hangers and grocery bags twisted in the flames.

The first liquid to come out of the still was cloudy and bright. The heads, as those first couple ounces are called, are seriously toxic, and Pacán poured them out into the dirt, then placed an empty wine bottle under the spout to collect the good stuff.

“And now?” Jenny asked.

“And now we wait,” Pacán said, and poured us more vodka.

By evening, Jenny and I had resorted to pouring our Screwdrivers out into the stream while Pacán wasn’t looking. It was bad enough that we’d left the hostel for the whole afternoon; we didn’t want to go back drunk, too. But his aggressive hospitality and bare stomach aside, Pacán had charmed us.

“Come back soon,” he told us when we finally left. And we did, stopping on our way out of the valley for a quick visit less than a week later. I hope it’s not the last.

Hoppy and a Shot of Shochu

May.31.16

Hoppy and a Shot of Shochu

by Selena Hoy

Near-beer cocktails in Koenji, Tokyo

We crowd into the izakaya after the jazz set, a grotty establishment on the second floor of an old building within sight of Koenji Station. Inside the bar, a heap of shoes lays higgledy-piggledy at the edge of the raised area where we sit, cross-legged, on tatami mats. If it were a nicer place the shoes would be lined up neatly or even secreted away in tiny shoe lockers with a wooden key, but in this bar such niceties are too frivolous. The guy sitting next to me has a grizzled beard covering jovial cheeks. He orders Hoppy with a shot, and it comes in a cold brown bottle delivered alongside a slug of chilled shochu poured into a frosty glass mug. He pushes it in front of me, the table crowded with bowls heaped with salted edamame and gobo-furai, strips of burdock root mandolined construction-paper thin and fried until crunchy.

Hoppy is a (mostly) non-alcoholic (0.8%) malt and hops-based brew that came onto the scene after WWII, when taxes on beer made the beverage a luxury out of reach for the average working person. It’s a drink born of ingenuity: Hoppy is usually taken poured over a shot of shochu, a domestic distilled spirit that was long known as a working class drink, but is actually more popular in Japan than Nihonshu (known abroad as sake), despite the international fame of the latter. Measured five parts Hoppy to one part shochu, the mix tastes remarkably close to beer, with a similar alcohol content.

In the smeared windows there are flyers with peeling tape at the curling corners advertising happy hour specials. Through them, I can see a few traffic cops shooting the shit at the crosswalk below, shouting reprimands at the sneering blue-haired girl who crosses against the light in front of them. On the corner, a leather-skinned fellow wearing a hachimaki headscarf wrapped around his forehead grills sardines on a brazier, sending smoke up into the neon yellow light warding off the night, while patrons hang off stools awaiting the finished product.

Sipping the Hoppy on its own, the taste is unassuming and bite-less, like drinking beer foam. But once the shochu is added, it has that needed kick, transforming a twinset to jeans and a t-shirt. The best shochu to use is probably imo-jochu, shochu distilled from sweet potatoes, as it has a strong, distinctive flavor that can be rough if taken straight. Mixed with Hoppy, though, it goes down easy, adding just enough attitude to make it interesting.

“Another round!” says the guy. “But don’t worry,” he says to me in an aside. “This won’t give you a hangover.” I’m skeptical, but figure I can always slam a turmeric power drink later as a wager against the morning doldrums.

The decades have passed since the original yen-stretching workaround, and prices have almost gained parity, though Hoppy and shochu is still, measure for measure, a bit cheaper than beer. The drink now has a strong whiff of Showa-era nostalgia, and Hoppy is mostly found in Tokyo, most notably in places that have been around since the postwar period, like the shitamachi (“low town”) area. Look in derelict alleys for watering holes with tattered old chochin paper lanterns glowing red.

“Kampai!” he says. “Kampai!”

Decoding Sake in a Dank Osaka Basement

Decoding Sake in a Dank Osaka Basement

by Roads and Kingdoms

Shimada Shoten in Osaka. Post sponsored by Umeda Area Management Alliance

For first-timers and seasoned boozers alike, understanding the nuances and nomenclature of Japanese sake can be a daunting task. Ginjo or daiginjo? Hot or cold? Filtered or not? Aged like a big French red or fresh like a spring shower? When presented with a kanji-riddled menu of rice wine selections, most gaijin punt and opt for a biru instead.

In a dank basement on a quiet street in Osaka’s Minamihorie neighborhood, sake neophytes can get a liquid education. Shimada Shoten is primarily a sake distributor, with a storefront stocked with a selection of Japan’s finest nihonshu (the owners tell me they have personally visited over 250 breweries to build out their list), but drop down a secret staircase and you land in the tasting room, with transport barrels and half-drunk bottles scattered everywhere. I descend into the basement with a local friend in tow, the two of us prepared for one of the meandering food-and-booze crawls that make Osaka Disneyland for serious eaters. A group of men who look like they haven’t seen daylight all week herald our arrival with a chorus of grunts.

Shimada operates on the honor system. Choose your glass from a stable of beautiful ceramic sake vessels, pick your poison from a series of refrigerators, and at the end of the night, tally up all the damage. Let’s go.

We warm up with a sparkling sake from Hiroshima, then move on to a junmai daiginjo from Ishikawa prefecture, one of Japan’s best sake-producing regions. You can taste its greatness, a cool shower of stone fruit and spring flowers. One refrigerator houses koshu, aged sake, and we take our chances with a 12-year bottle from Kyoto. Aged sake makes up only a fraction of a percent of Japan’s total sake production, and remains a controversial beverage, given the vast range of quality found in the end product. This particular koshu is as dark and musty as the room we’re drinking it in.


We need a landing pad for all this rice wine, so we order the only food they serve in this joint: chunky miso from Wakayama, purple piles of pickled plums, and a strangely delicious cream cheese spiked with sake that pairs perfectly with nearly everything we pour.

Nihonshu sneaks up on you. It goes down gently, floral and cold, coating your throat in the most positively medicinal of ways. There is no recoil, no heartburn, no palpable reminder that what you’re drinking is an intoxicant—just gentle sweetness and the earthy whisper of fermentation. The beauty and size of most sake glasses—scarcely larger than a shot glass—adds to the apparent innocence of it all. But once you get started on a proper sake session, with you pouring for your partners and your partners pouring for you and nobody allowing a glass to ever approach empty, it takes on a momentum of its own.

Sake is produced in all but one of Japan’s 47 prefectures (Kagoshima reserves its distilling ambitions for potato shochu), and the early evening unspools into a liquid road trip. Nagano, Akita, Nara, Sendai, Okayama: We race our way around Japan, testing the harvest from every corner of the country, probing the borders with our tiny glasses, savoring the nuances of climate and topography: the snow melt from the mountains above Niigata, the pristine waters that flow from the Katsura River outside of Nara, the long, sunny days of Okinawa. A proper sake tasting will whisk you around Japan faster than the Shinkansen.

You could lose yourself quickly down the Shimada rabbit hole, which is probably why it closes at 7 pm sharp. The night has just begun—five or six hours of binge eating, drinking, and bonhomie await us above the basement—and a few stops later, I’ll forget most of what I’ve come to understand over the past hour of drinking. But for a few glorious blocks strolling the city’s low-lit streets, the world of sake all makes perfect sense.

Moscow Mules in the Middle of Nowhere

May.24.16

Moscow Mules in the Middle of Nowhere

by Leslie Canter

Vodka and Ginger in Marathon, Texas

Somewhere between Ozona and Fort Stockton my boyfriend gripped the steering wheel and tapped the brake to re-engage control of the car. Large yellow signs indicated danger: “Caution, Strong Cross Winds”. You could hear it whistle. Eighteen-wheelers whipped around. Fearless crew cabs passed on the left, their wheel wells as high as the roof of our crossover hatchback. We weren’t in Austin anymore.

A few minutes after noon earlier that Friday, we hit the road and headed west from the capital of Texas. Destination: Marathon. Tires full and the back seat a jumble of Valero’s finest gas station fare, I manned the radio and he kept his eyes on the road. The trip would be quick. We’d explore a bit, and be back in time for Super Bowl kickoff that Sunday.

A few hours after leaving home, signs of life dwindled. Our journey bordered on high-speed circumvention of rocky outcroppings and thousand-acre ranches. Dusk settled and in the distance, flickers of light suggesting a tiny spit of town came into view. We pulled in. On one side, unguarded wire racks with koozies and wooden figurines, an art gallery showcasing dramatic black and whites, The Gage Hotel, and a hole-in-the-wall called the Famous Burro. On the other, 656 miles of scrubland before Mexico. We set our bags down, checked into the hotel and headed towards the Burro.

The Famous Burro is a stucco building two blocks away from the end of the main strip in Marathon. Open from 3pm to 11pm on good days, and TBD during slow times or when the owner’s been over-served, the Burro dishes out fried pickles, chicken wings, and their famous Blue Burro Burger. From what I could tell, we were visiting what appeared to be the county seat for eating, drinking, and good gossip.

The town of Marathon is a one-road, two-lane stretch of interstate running parallel to a now-defunct trans-continental railroad line in Brewster County, Texas. In the early days of the Wild West, the railroad regularly delivered people, provisions, and prosperity. These days, things are a little different. Marathon’s connection to the outside world is limited to spotty cell service, and the USPS that sits sentinel at the end of the town’s main drag. News is delivered on more of a need-to-know basis than we’re used to back home, and most folks are alright with that.

My boyfriend and I wandered through a colorful patio of mosaic tables to the front door of the Famous Burro. We heard jukebox music from behind a neon “Open” sign, and marveled at the similarity between the awning column and something you’d see inside a Greek restaurant. “Famous Burro” in scripty letters on the architrave illuminated the stretch of sidewalk below. Naturally, a blue stucco burro jumped over a half-moon.

“After you.” My boyfriend held the door open and we were welcomed into a dimly-lit room with exposed wooden beams and low, sticky tables with mismatched chairs that backed up to the bar. The clock was a few minutes off.

“Sit wherever you like.” Four Marathon residents were the only other patrons at the bar. The bartender rushed around the bar with two plastic menus and made his suggestions. “We’ve got beer. And really good Moscow Mules.”

We went with the Mules.

Delivered in pint glasses and heavy on the vodka, the ice melted quickly. It went without saying you sipped these Mules slowly–Burro-style. “Cheers.” Clink.

That night, local shop workers, artists, and sous-chefs drank and laughed to the sound of college basketball and Merle Haggard. A woman with wild hair and a handicraft-style shawl hunched over the bar next to a leather-faced man in Wrangler jeans and roper boots. A younger man joined a little later, followed by the woman who, from what we overhead, worked at the gift shop. Foot traffic had been low that day and she’d been in and out of the bar all afternoon. Not drinking, just catching up. The group sampled saccharine shots like connoisseurs evaluating fine wines. Raucous laughter. A bag dropped to the concrete floor. More laughter and calls for the offending neighbor to pick up the next round. They’d be here all night.

Travelers are put to the test here. Running like clockwork isn’t an aspiration, and visitors have no choice but to slow down. When we arrived, we were ready to fill our short time in town with as much as we could–art museums, hikes, afternoon bocce ball competitions, postcards, and those books we’d been meaning to read. What we discovered was a destination that demanded we suspend our expectations. It was hard. But we had 398 miles of cruise control to let go of the last emails we’d sent, the Slack messages and push notifications that we hated to leave unacknowledged–the frustrations of the day-to-day as low-level software employees. At first, the miles felt like an eternity. Cell service dropped. I flipped through dwindling radio stations. But as the lights dimmed behind us, we let time slip a little and settled into something more circadian.

Back at the Famous Burro, we ordered another round. Our voices mingled with laughter of the locals. A storm rolled in. There wasn’t much to do but wait it out.

Secret Beer on a Muslim Beach

May.23.16

Secret Beer on a Muslim Beach

by Brent Crane

Staying cool at Batu Ferringhi, Malaysia

Nobody told me that the beaches in Batu Ferringhi would be too hot for leisure in April. The heat in Malaysia is punishing, and when I got there I found that on a clear day the beaches were deserted except for a sweaty construction crew hammering together a new dock.

I walked along the shore for an hour until I found a seaside pool that accepted non-guests. It was in a resort called Cool Bananas and it became my sanctuary for the day.

I took dips and read on the grassed pitch overlooking an empty stretch of sand. I watched the foreign couples that roamed the grounds, the men in bathing suits, baseball caps and the women hidden behind black abayas.

I paid for a one-day membership. The Chinese pool manager told me that most of the guests came from the Middle East, places like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia.

“Do they drink here?” I asked. We were standing by the bar.

“No, never,” he said. “Just juice, coca cola.”

There was a mosque nearby. Throughout the day it broadcast a muezzin’s call that you could hear clearly from the tiki hut Sunset Bar. I had one glass of a wine there and after sunset, when it felt as if I had stayed long enough, I walked back towards Shalini’s Guest House (“A Home Like A Home”) where there were food vendors overlooking the beach.

There were two operations there, one run by Malays and the other by a Hindu man named Raj who had bright eyes and a thick mustache that wrapped around his whole face. Both sold the same fish but Raj’s was cheaper, and he swore that he made a great steamed lemon sea bass. I took up his offer for the sea bass and walked to the Malays, who had smoothies.

As I was about to order one, I heard Raj calling. He was standing there in the middle of the dining area, gesturing at me and grinning sheepishly. I returned.

“We have drinks here,” he said. “Do you want beer? Tiger, Heineken, Anchor.” And that was exactly what I wanted.

“But there is no beer on your menu.”

“Ninety per cent of my customers are Muslim. If I put beer on my menu, they won’t eat anything here.”

I sat down. Raj brought me the secret beer and we talked.

“I was born here,” he said. “I’ve had this restaurant for 17 years.”

Raj told me about his holidays. He had visited Australia, Singapore, and Ukraine, where his daughter had once studied. He was particularly fond of Ukraine.

“It is very nice there,” he beamed. “Very nice women.” He cupped his breasts with raised eyebrows. “I like it there very much.”

As the muezzin started again, I ordered my second beer. The fish arrived in a lemon, garlic broth, boiling over flame. Several cats purred at my feet and jumped to the table. I shooed them but they returned. Raj complained.

“The health inspector, next week he is coming with a big group. Ten people. A government group. I will have to hide the cats.”

Raj was going to round up the cats and stuff them in a cage, all ten or so of them. As he explained this, he scooped up my leftover fish parts and laid them by the cats.

“You can’t have cats in your restaurant,” he said. “Not on the table. This is very bad.”

I emptied my Tiger, content with my lazy day and my discovery, Raj, the friendly fishmonger of Batu Ferringhi, with his hidden beer and soon-to-be hidden cats.

Wonka food with Jiro Gravity

Wonka food with Jiro Gravity

by Roads and Kingdoms

Takoyaki in Osaka. Post sponsored by Umeda Area Management Alliance

Osaka has a reputation, as its residents will gladly tell you, as a sort of breadbasket for comedy in Japan. The people of Kansai—the region where Osaka is located—with their melodic off-country accents and big-hearted ways, are just better at jokes than the rest of the country. If you don’t speak Japanese, of course, punchlines will breeze by you in any dialect. So you look for the good humor in the non-verbal: the nod of a traffic cop, the smile of the takkyubin driver, the whimsy of the pachinko-like paths through Shinsaibashi-suji or the glass canopies of Osaka Station City.

There is also playfulness on the plate. Take Junya Suzuki’s pocket restaurant Takoriki in Osaka’s Chuo ward. It isn’t playful in the kawaii sense. There are no plush animals or anime cutouts or even plastic display foods in the window. Junya is studious as he works takoyaki—fried spheres of minced octopus and batter—on the grill. His hair is closely cut on both sides and pulled into a small ponytail on top, but with the meticulousness of most countercultural fashion statements in Japan. There is, however, something unmistakably bright and spirited about his cuisine. Junya’s innovation is to make takoyaki—which originated in Osaka as a deep fried street food for the hurried or the inebriated—as light as clouds, and pair them with the effervescence of champagne. It’s Wonka food with Jiro gravity.

The first time we went there, the long counter of guests started as strangers to one another. It was late winter outside, which even in temperate Osaka can mean bulky jackets and collars turned against the wind. But inside Takoriki, the lightness was contagious: we all started, slowly at first but then with increasing buoyancy, to float along with the bubbles of the champagne and the weightlessness of Junya’s golden orbs (order the lightly salted variety; they are so balanced as to not need the ponzu and mayo bath typically seen). Someone wanted to know our impressions of Osaka. We said people here are funny, and that seemed to please the counter. There was a woman who had lived in California, and she had questions and a few memories for us. Her boyfriend had never been, and he didn’t speak any English, but by the end of the evening, he had punchlines for us in Japanese. We can’t remember them now, nor would we understand them if we could, but somehow in the moment it all made perfect sense.

Premium Rum and a Worthless Moto License

May.18.16

Premium Rum and a Worthless Moto License

by Daniel Bruce

Rum in the Kingdom of Cambodia

I was brooding in a Phnom Penh bar about the 50 bucks I’d spent on changing my driver’s license to a Cambodian one. The day I applied for it, I was told by an acquaintance that the Cambodian government had recently abolished driver’s licenses for light motorbikes like my second-hand Honda Click Plus from 2007. The agency that helped me avoid the pain of applying for the license myself evidently forgot to mention this crucial detail. I had the new license, but didn’t need it.

To celebrate this expensive new trinket, I asked the bartender about the rums they had. “Well, we have our own, the Samai rum. With coke, or in one of today’s special drinks?” he said. Normally I am not a big fan of diluting spirits, but I decided to have it on the rocks, just to cool it down a bit.

The rum came in a big wine glass, and I admired its subtle sweetness that balanced well with its creamy texture. This rum could have easily been mistaken for a Caribbean one.
The bartender told me it was made by two guys from Venezuela and that it was Cambodia’s first ever premium rum. The bar wasn’t really a bar: it only opened as such on Thursdays. The rest of the week it was a distillery. As the evening progressed and I found myself talking to the distillery’s co-founders, Antonio and Daniel, both in their early thirties.

They told me the origin story. “A couple of years ago, while drinking cheap rum in a bar here, we both realized how much we missed Latino rum,” Daniel said. Added Antonio: “First we thought about distilling just for ourselves, but when we started looking into details of what equipment was needed, stills and washbacks etc., we realized that we might as well go all the way. So here we are.”

They are right about cheap rum: Cambodia doesn’t lack for sugar cane, but southeast Asia’s rums are a mess. You’re most likely to find them mislabeled as cheap whisky, which is insulting somehow to both spirits.

This is what Samai is trying to change. In the spacious distillery/part-time bar, with roofs high enough to ward off any claustrophobia, I saw plenty of sherry butts lying on top of each other, making room for their new make to grow old. The back wall of the illuminated patio was made of old reddish bricks. Just in front of it, their retro-style Portuguese copper-still was burning hot – turning the fermented molasses into over-proof spirits.

On my next visit, I sat alone again. This time I watched the Samai team including the female master distiller, Champichi, doing a blind tasting for their fifth batch. All of them taking notes, sticking their noses into Bordeaux glasses, looking dead serious.

In keeping with my spend-thrift habits in Phnom Penh, I doled out another 25 bucks for a bottle of Samai’s premium rum. Unlike my useless new license, this seemed a sound investment.

Beer For My Horses

May.17.16

Beer For My Horses

by Tor Bilski

Drinking in a stable in Iceland

Beer and horses go together in Iceland, sometimes literally. Take, for instance, the Beer Tölt, an Icelandic riding game, the purpose of which is to prove the smoothness of the horse’s four beat gait (the Tölt) and the skills of the rider. The horses compete against each other – they love a good race – and the rider must stay in the saddle while holding a mug full of beer in one hand without spilling. He/she who spills the least, drinks the most. It’s Iceland’s version of beer pong.

Most people ride in Iceland in close, large groups. Horses are nose to tail in a line or sometimes they rearrange themselves four or six abreast, forcing your knee to knock another rider’s knee, stirrups clanging. Wind, rain, snow… all come at you hard. And this would be June. When the ride is over, you head for the stable’s kitchen or tack room where there is sure to be a gritty plastic table with six packs of Gull and Thule beer, the Icelandic equivalent of a Bud and Coors. A welcome sight and reward for all the bumps and mishaps out on the trail.

Now, however, to accommodate all the tourists inundating Iceland, horse farms have scaled up. Dusty kitchens have given way to new cafes. And cafes have given way to bars on the premises.

About 40 minutes out of Reykjavik is Laxnes Farm, a family run horse farm in the Mosfellsbær valley. The owners, Póri and Heiða, recently retired from Icelandair, are friends of our Icelandic friends, and are spending their second careers sprucing up the family farm and learning to welcome tourists, even a pack of eight American women. We weren’t there to ride on this day. We were there to drink.

We introduce ourselves to Póri, all eight of us sticking out our hand for a shake, leaning in eagerly to declare our names. By the fifth handshake, he looks ready to bolt and we hadn’t even gotten to Beth, Bev and the other Beth.

With introductions finally behind him, Póri leads us first into a former horse shed revamped into a bar, where his wife Heiða is tending. Knowing better now, we skip all the formalities and just mutter weak little ‘Hi’s.” The windows are covered with a cloudy film of barn dust, but somehow a spot of sunlight manages to illuminate all the glistening apparatus of the towers and faucets and taps, the copper pulls and silver handles. The walls are full of bric-a-bracs: horse bits, reindeer antlers, a mini scythe, a picture of Ben Stiller who I assume filmed some of “Walter Mitty” here. Heiða fills beer glasses for us. She has white blonde hair and a Buddha-like smile that exudes a mysterious sense of place and peace. She inspires lifestyle envy in me. Someday when I retire, I want to be Heiða, pouring beer in a former horse shed.

After we get icy mugs of light pilsner beer, the tour of the farm continues. Through the tack room and past dozens of stables, we are led into a dimly lit barn, but instead of stables the large empty space has been converted into a room to be rented for parties. There are clusters of tables covered in red and white gingham; the floor is packed dirt, old saddles hang from the walls, like works of art. A bar at one end, this time no beer on draft, holds dusty bottles of Jim Beam, Jameson and Wild Turkey. At the other end is a raised dais for bands and dancing. When we reach the dance floor, Póri suddenly blasts the sound of hyper fast mariachi horns from the speakers. I have a moment of placement dissonance: am I in Mexico? And then the world-weary voice of Johnny Cash comes in clear and low. Oh, I’m in Nashville.

“Love is a burning thing, and it makes a fiery ring.”

Some of us find the rhythm of a Texan Two-Step to this classic four/four song, and we dance it with mugs of beer in one hand, trying not to spill. Oh right, I’m in Iceland.

A Welcome Blur Between Old Friends and New

May.12.16

A Welcome Blur Between Old Friends and New

by Angela Wu

Ginja in Lisbon

The one thing I had to do in Lisbon was try ginjinha, my new friend told me.

Ginjinha, or “ginja,” is a deep red Portuguese liqueur made with sour cherries. It’s served all over, he explained, but there are a handful of places to really try it. Also, he and a friend had plans to meet up for ginja later. If I came back in an hour, they’d take me with them.

I had just wandered into the shop where he worked, so it would have been generous to say our friendship was even five minutes old. An hour later, I stood waving outside the door.

“Man, she doesn’t know where the best ginja is!” he said to his friend, as the three of us set off, up a hill. In this city of hills, you’re always climbing or descending, but somehow, mostly climbing.

At Ginginha do Carmo, a modern bar tucked under one of Lisbon’s many staircases, my new friends ordered me my first ginja the touristic way—in a chocolate cup. You could sum up the drink as sweet, sour, and alcoholic. But it tastes a bit different from bar to bar, because many make their own. Sometimes it’s syrupy sweet, and other times it’s wine-like and makes your head spin. What’s typical is that you buy it at a tiny bar that may as well just be a counter with a door, and you sip it outside, standing with friends and a happy mix of young and old, locals and tourists.

On the street in front of Ginjinha Sem Rival, our third stop, we decided to meet up again next week. I’d bring another friend I’d just met, and we’d all have dinner and finish off the ginja list.

The plan was to meet at A Ginjinha, which has been making and selling the liqueur since 1840. I showed up 15 minutes late and found myself 20 minutes early. As a longtime expat from Paris told me later, with a look, “There are lots of things to say about time here.” My contribution: here, things happen when they happen.

Our second drink was meant to be at Os Amigos da Severa, one of my friend’s favorite ginja bars. When we arrived, we found a darkened doorway where a lively bar was supposed to be, but he insisted it would be so great that we should wait. Nobody knew when the bar would actually open, but it was no big deal, because there were benches nearby and a shop where we could buy cold beers. Someone had a guitar, and while we waited, we sang every song we knew, in the square where the legendary fado singer Maria Severa once lived.

Out of songs and in search of a bathroom, we peeked into a warmly lit restaurant at the edge of the square. Its tables were packed with appetizers, but it was empty, waiting for the night’s reservations. Yes, of course, they served ginjinha. Eventually, the bar would open and the restaurant would fill, but for now, as the sky turned navy and apartment windows lit up around the square, the four of us sat on the restaurant’s patio, sipping ginja, talking politics, and playing with a neighborhood cat. New friends or old friends, it was hard to tell.

There’s No Bar That Needs More Scandinavian Students

May.11.16

There’s No Bar That Needs More Scandinavian Students

by Michelle Arrouas

Cocktails in Weserstrasse

Our wine glasses were empty and the outdoor tables were freeing up. We were tempted to order another round and linger while darkness fell over Neukölln, but we had a long list of places to visit. We might have looked like just another couple on a spontaneous night out, but we were on a mission; finding the best new bars for the guidebook I was updating. We were getting ready to leave when my boyfriend stopped the waiter.

“How long have you been in business? And what used to be here?” he asked.

“A physiotherapist, but everything is new. We stripped down the rooms and modeled the place after Pastis in New York when we opened a year ago,” the waiter replied, gesturing at the tiled walls and beautiful old wooden bar.

“And what happened to the physiotherapist?” my boyfriend said.

“He went out of business. Only young people live here now, so there’s no need for a physiotherapist,” the waiter replied with a smile.

He might have been joking, but he wasn’t wrong. No one at the restaurant or the street it was located on seemed to be over 40. We left the bistro and walked down Weserstrasse. It was crowded with people, with bars, and with traffic. All of the bars looked tasteful, quirky, and cool, and none of them had been here ten years ago. Before Neukölln became the latest victim or beneficiary–depending on who you ask–of gentrification, the area surrounding Weserstrasse had been a working class, partially immigrant, neighborhood with high unemployment, and it was even home to drug gangs and a brothel. Low rents, the central location, and a growing number of artsy bars started attracting a different group of residents in the last years of the 00’s, and then the rents skyrocketed: on several streets in Neukölln, they went up by 90 percent from 2009 to 2015.

We stopped to take in the scene and decide on the next bar. The number of choices was overwhelming, even to Google; a handful of the bars we walked past weren’t present on the tech giant’s map service. We passed a few hole-in-the wall places, a fancy wine bar and a tapas restaurant before walking into a dimly lit cocktail den.

On the opposite corner, people gathered in front of the dive bar Ä, one of the first hip bars to open in the neighborhood in 2007. Freie Neukölln, another frontrunner on the Neukölln bar scene, used to sit a few blocks down: the bar was evicted in 2014, and the owner decided not to open another bar in area. “It is no longer my Berlin,” he said in an interview with a local newspaper, in which he questioned if he’d created a monster and lit the fire of gentrification by opening the bar opening in 2006.

We ordered drinks from a carefully curated cocktail menu, a Tommy’s Margarita for me and an El Presidente for my boyfriend. A group of Danish youngsters paused in front of the bar, deciding on whether or not to come in.

“Are you sure this place needs more Scandinavian students?” my boyfriend asked with a wry grin, a reference to the Danish guidebook I was writing.

Like most longtime residents in Berlin, he loved hating on the influx of relatively affluent students and young professionals descending on Berlin from their more expensive home countries, only half-jokingly referring to Scandinavians as the new colonists. I couldn’t really blame him; the Danish newspapers I worked for paid me more for stories than my freelancing friends in Germany would ever get from German equivalents, and while locals complained about the rising living costs in Berlin, the price of everything from rent to drinks struck me as surprisingly cheap.

I kicked his leg and smiled back at him.

“You can’t tease me as long as the research budget is paying for your drinks,” I said. I asked for the bill, made sure to get the receipt for the publishing house’s accountant, and checked my list of bars to visit. “Two down, five to go,” I said. The Danish students entered as we left to continue our bar crawl.

Enter Man With a Gun on a Moped

May.10.16

Enter Man With a Gun on a Moped

by Matthew Bremner

Malbec in Buenos Aires

I looked up from the book I couldn’t read and saw a plump, middle-aged man holding a small grey revolver ten feet from my face.

I was seated on a terrace somewhere in the middle of the city, with a glass of boiling Malbec and a heavy head. It was a hot day in the middle of a relentless summer. The trees wilted, the air carried the heavy smell of molten bitumen, and pedestrians shrunk and oozed like melting wax as they walked with febrile confusion to wherever they were going. The economy, too, was feverish, buckled by the stress of a collapsing peso and a consistently incapable government. People were poorer and more desperate than they had been in a long time. There was no joy in the sun, nor in the society; just an unyielding, inescapable burden in both.

Around me cars burped thick clouds of burned diesel, horns honked in atonal symphonies, and mopeds zipped in and out of the mounting traffic like mosquitos. I vaguely noticed that one of these mopeds had stopped beside me and that its driver was shouting at someone on the terrace. At first, I didn’t pay it any attention. Buenos Aires was noisy: people drove fast, they took risks and they often ended up shouting. But as the yelling got louder and more aggressive, I reluctantly raised my head.

I reacted slowly or, rather, I didn’t react; I just watched. The man, dressed in a polo shirt, khaki shorts and a white motorcycle helmet, didn’t immediately appear to be the type to point a gun at a terrace full of people; he seemed too smart, too normal. And for a few seconds he just stood there, his brown loafers squeaky with newness and sweat, pointing his gun while the other diners looked on in disbelief.

I remember noticing that the man’s t-shirt was sticking to his belly in damp clumps of fabric. I remember that his dark Iberian eyes were clogged with tiredness and red with strain; and that the veins in his forehead pulsed each time he shouted. I remember the garlic on his breath and his deep baritone voice. I remember the shoddy tattoo of a crucifix on his left forearm and the long spindly scar on his right. I remember his chipped gold wedding ring. I remember wondering what his wife was doing.

And with this, I saw my middle-class preconceptions fall away. His neck was thick with rage. He swung his gun back and forth across the terrace in the stiff pose of a construction crane, while his accomplice dismounted his motorcycle and ran into a scrum of fearful diners scrambling from their tables.

A small, bald man of about forty ran to the door of the restaurant, leaving his 80-year-old mother stranded at the table, while another, younger, man jumped dramatically in front of his wife in a bid to protect her. The rest of the diners gawped and gasped in a mix of curiosity and fear.

The gunman’s accomplice was sluggish. He stumbled between the tables, disorientated by the choice of victims and the beating sun. For a moment, he seemed to forget what he was doing there. His partner shouted at him: ¿Por qué estás siendo tan lento?” (why are you so slow?), “Vos sos inútil” (you’re useless). Then, as if in an act of defiance, his eyes fixed on a German tourist sitting alone.

He strode over to the man’s table, commanding him to give up his wallet and his watch. But the German, emboldened by his inability to understand his assailant’s demands, did not abandon his watch quickly. As the robber lunged for his wrist, the man pulled his arms toward his body, so that the pair entered into a tug of war. Such was the force of their respective tugs that the German’s strap soon burst, and the watch shattered into tens of shimmering links.

The gunman swore with disappointment. The accomplice snarled back. The German nursed his bleeding wrist. And in the distance, police sirens sounded.

The robbers immediately became nervous. The accomplice stuffed the broken watch into his pocket, grabbed a few more wallets on his way back to the moped, and rejoined his partner. As the pair sped off into the distance, the small bald man picked up his chair and threw it into the exhaust fumes of the whining moped. He cursed and screamed after the assailants, his words fueled by regret, and in pursuit of his disappearing masculinity. He was the first to rush to the police car as it arrived on the scene.

After the German had made his way to the nearby constabulary, the rest of the diners on the terrace went quiet. They shied away from one another, leaning further into their conversations and further away from the scene of the crime. The man who had dived in front of his wife was now staring obviously at the waitress’s breasts. The small bald man was in deep conversation with his exasperated mother, and the kitchen was again sending out its orders. No one wanted to talk, no one wanted to acknowledge, no one wanted to remember.

I was more scared than when the gun had been pointed at my face. I went over everything in detail. I downed my wine. I downed my water. I tried to read my book. I just wanted someone to say something.

Then, one of the waitresses spotted my empty wine glass and walked towards my table. She was smiling. “It’s hot today,” she said, ignoring my expression of bewilderment. “I hope it gets cooler soon.”

Photo: Alan Levine

Things Take a Political Turn After the Second Beer

May.09.16

Things Take a Political Turn After the Second Beer

by Brady Ng

Leo Beer in Cambodia

Over the first beer, we speak about the usual things. Where is your family from? Why did you give up your job as a jungle guide? How serious is the drought?

I thought my host’s house was in Siem Reap. It was, but he relocated a couple days before I arrived. My stay became a few days in an unfinished hut: a bamboo frame, three walls, a roof, mattresses, a mosquito net. The compost toilet wasn’t functional yet, but there were bushes and trees nearby. The well water had a metallic tint. A car battery powered the house’s single light bulb after sundown, and charged my host’s Samsung smartphone.

Independent tour guides can’t find work now, he tells me. Cambodia is more likely to see visitors from China, Japan, and South Korea these days, and they tend to travel in tour groups instead of finding their own way. With dwindling income, he moved to the countryside. I still can’t pinpoint the location on a map, but it’s somewhere west of town. The plan is to start an organic farm, and maybe host a few foreigners every now and then. It’s the best way to support his wife and two children, he says.

The second beer takes a political turn. The Khmer Rouge may have disappeared, but the same guys and their protégés still run the government, only with a less genocidal bent, in suits instead of uniforms. They’re more likely to address the interests of the Vietnamese and Chinese governments, he says, instead of taking care of Cambodia. Dams are built and jungles are logged. Villagers are displaced but not compensated, so they protest, but the crackdowns hit hard and some are killed. It’s rarely mentioned because a popular broadcaster is run by the prime minister’s eldest daughter, and other media bodies face intimidation. The tycoons ship Cambodia’s organic produce to Vietnam and Thailand. In return, Cambodia’s neighbors export vegetables laced heavily with pesticides.

Four workmen continue to work on the hut as the sun inches westward. On most days, the heat dampens progress. Two work a saw as the others watch. A huge mound of dirt is piled before the hut’s open face, coating everything with a beige dust in the gentle late afternoon breeze.

We are quiet by the third beer. There is grit in our teeth. A neighbor’s plump chickens and skinny dogs brush by our legs. A few cows head home; they know their way. Kittens claw at tree bark, then ask for human attention. Our arms itch as flies land on them.

We’re drinking Leo beer, a Thai production. I ask about sraa, a traditional Khmer rice wine. “The village I am from used to have the best yeast for sraa,” my host says. The liquor used to be made by private households, and many families had their own mother culture. That is no longer the case. Corporate breweries have homogenized the drink, and people stopped making their own.

The rice paddies around us are dry. The calendar says it’s the rainy season, but none has come. The Cambodian government says the rain will be three months late. Many farmers have lost a harvest.

“When my jungle trekking business became bankrupt, and I decided to move here,“ my host says, “I only had 10 dollars in my pocket.”

It’s dark. Stars pierce through the black veil above us. Kids from a nearby farm switch on fluorescent tubes arranged around their father’s field. Crickets will hop toward the light and drown in plastic sacks placed underneath. When they collect enough, the kids will sell the bugs to street vendors in town. Before my host trekked the jungles, he worked as a cook. He saunters over to a makeshift kitchen. He can’t stop coughing. A quick slide of his blade silences loud animal cries. Dinner is chicken.

Having a Beer With the Only Rapper in São Roque

May.05.16

Having a Beer With the Only Rapper in São Roque

by Jonny Ensall

Cruzcampo on São Miguel

The island of São Miguel is the largest in the Azorean archipelago—a cluster of Portuguese islands dotted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—but in all other ways it’s a small place. A short drive down the coast from the capital, Ponta Delgada, is the fishing village of São Roque. It’s beautiful, with a streak of volcanic black sand at the sea front and alleyways between pastel-colored houses leading you up the hillside towards pastures full of miniature cows.

There are a few tourists who’ve come to surf and bodyboard and a handful more locals, mostly unemployed youngsters hanging out on the bonnets of battered hatchback cars smoking weed. The Azorean fishing industry is centuries old, but in the past few decades it’s crumbled. Commercial fishing stocks have plummeted, with the total catch declining by over half in the past five years. In the struggling Portuguese economy, jobs of all kinds are few and far between.

Diogo’s felt that struggle more than most. In his past he’s experienced crime, drugs, poverty, and the tragic suicide of his mother. For work, he’s hauled packages as an errand boy in a warehouse and served as a waiter in a port-side restaurant. But not any more. Now he’s a full time rapper.

We’re sitting at a table outside São Roque’s P3 café, overlooking the water. There’s a bottle of Cruzcampo in front of me (the only beer anyone drinks on São Miguel) and a coffee in front of Diogo, who prefers to go by his stage name, Swift Triiga, and doesn’t tend to touch alcohol these days. “I only smoke weed and hash,” he says.

Diogo’s spent all his life in São Roque. We’re a few meters away from the house where he lives with his dad, which in turn is just a stone’s throw from his grandma’s house, and his uncle’s beyond that. The community is close-knit, and as young Azoreans wander in and out of the café they all greet Swift. “That’s Billy,” says Diogo, pointing out a particularly wayward-looking teen. “He’s a cool kid. He hangs with us. But he’s into some shit.” By “shit” he means heroin. In São Roque some of the boats have found another purpose. “They use the fish to hide the drugs,” Diogo explains.

As Swift Triiga, Diogo raps about what he calls, “real stuff–the streets.” It’s hard to imagine any turf wars breaking out on São Roque’s picture-postcard-pretty streets, but Diogo’s verses (always in Portuguese, though his English is good) do resonate with the locals. He’s got a following. A group of girls approach us, giggling, and Diogo explains to them—with some pride—that he’s doing an interview. A few thousand hits for the two-dozen songs on Swift Triiga’s YouTube channel might not seem like a lot, but this is sleepy São Miguel, and Diogo’s the only rapper in São Roque.

Soon he’ll be playing the biggest show of his life at the island’s one and only music festival, Tremor. For Diogo, the show’s a symbol of how far he’s come. ‘I’m starting over again. Getting my mind right,’ he says, sipping on his espresso. It was the death of his mother when he was 21 that really knocked Diogo off course. “I was playing PlayStation with my brother,” he remembers. ‘My mum came up to say we needed some money, 200 euros to pay the bills. Twenty minutes later I heard my dog in the back yard, barking, barking, barking. I was like, damn motherfucker. When I went to the kitchen I saw her through the window. She’d put a hosepipe around her neck and hanged herself.”

Diogo blamed the anti-depressants his mother was on for her death, which is why he refused to take them himself in the aftermath. Instead he turned to street-level drugs. “I wasn’t depressed, just angry about life,” he says. “But my dad didn’t want his son to be a junkie.” Whether or not he makes it in the rap game, music’s been Diogo’s redemption, and with his dad coming to see his show tomorrow, he feels an infectious sense of nervous excitement. If this were 8 Mile, this would be Diogo’s one shot.

Gulp Quickly and Keep Glad-handing

May.04.16

Gulp Quickly and Keep Glad-handing

by Laurie Woolever

Negronis in Chicago

Recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel greeted a lightly-buzzing audience seated within the Ardis Krainik Theatre, home of the Lyric Opera, with a joke.

“Chicago is known for our cuisine, and the way we count ballots, so you might as well all go home: we won,” he said, acknowledging the city’s long, rich history of ethically-suspect-to-utterly-corrupt politics and politicians. “We vote early, and we vote often.”

The occasion was the James Beard Awards, an event that is many things to many people. Primarily intended to honor the achievements of American hospitality professionals, the ceremony and its dozens of satellite parties are also an increasingly elaborate series of opportunities to network, showboat, poach talent, peacock, gossip, and document it all, while eating bite-sized portions of things like abalone and avocado toast, wild squirrel sausages, and cookies made with foie gras. Naturally, the whole thing is awash in free booze, gladly handed to you by a friendly, smiling brand rep.

The Ardis Krainik Theatre is a stunning and well-preserved Art Deco masterpiece, built in 1929, but the crowded press room is little more than a hallway nook off the third-floor mezzanine stuffed with a handful of banquets and tables. It also contains the best seats in the house. Large television screens gave everyone unobstructed views of the proceedings, the winners were paraded through for up-close interviews and photos, and, most crucially, two (sponsored) bars kept the working journalists and assorted hangers-on in a steady supply of sparkling wine and gin-based cocktails, including a sweet Negroni variation that contained Lillet but no ice, the better to gulp it quickly and get back to the glad-handing.

The Light and Dark of an Overpriced Paradise

May.03.16

The Light and Dark of an Overpriced Paradise

by Michelle Arrouas

Caipirinhas in Vila dos Remedios

We were halfway through our drinks when the proprietor came to take our food order. He pointed at the plastic cup in my hand, dripping with dew in the heated night.

“Not too strong? More lime?” he asked.

I shook my head and covered the cup with my hand. The caipirinha was strong, but the melting ice was watering down the cachaça and the alcohol was welcome after a long day on a dive boat. The proprietor laughed.

“My wife makes them very strong. Too strong for me,” he said, before taking our orders and disappearing into the living room that doubled as kitchen.

We were spending a week in the tiny town of Vila dos Remedios on the small island Fernando de Noronha, located several hundred miles from its motherland Brazil in the vast South Atlantic. The tapioceria had quickly become our regular dinner spot. With its cheap, tasty tapiocas—Brazilian crepes made out of snow-white manioc flour—strong caipirinhas, and wobbly plastic chairs, the family-run restaurant offered a welcome respite from the generic, glitzy restaurants that made up the rest of the island’s dining options.

The tapioceria consisted of four tables on a tiny, weathered concrete patio opposite a crumbling church. When my boyfriend walked inside the restaurant to look for the restroom, the proprietor’s family looked at him in bewilderment; he had accidentally walked into their living room.

The only other patrons were a group of diving instructors from the neighboring dive shop. Like us, they came here every night for the crusty crepes filled with shrimp, cheese, and vegetables, accompanied by caipirinhas mostly consisting of pungent sugarcane liquor. Most other people at the island seemed to opt for the more upscale restaurants; they’d pass by the tapioceria, located at the bottom of the hill that makes up the town, in brightly colored dune buggies.

We recognized most of the tourists passing by, partly because we all seemed to use the same dive shop and partly because local rules allows a maximum of 200 daily visitors on the island. In 1998, the archipelago of 21 islands was declared a national marine park, which covers 70 percent of the biggest and only inhabited island. The consequences, good and bad, were profound.

The islands became more known to the world but less accessible to many Brazilians. The marine life benefited from the regulations protecting the marine park, and the wide and sandy undeveloped beaches and world-class diving began attracting more and more wealthy visitors. The result was a tourism industry focusing almost exclusively on the upscale market. Hefty daily marine park entry fees, a lack of budget accommodation options and the fact that the islands are only accessible by pricey flights further alienated many local visitors. Whenever my boyfriend and I had told Brazilians from the mainland about our trip to the archipelago, they’d look at us with big, dreamy eyes and tell us they’d always wanted to go but couldn’t afford it. We’d look at each other, slightly worried about what we’d gotten ourselves and our limited travel budget into.

When we arrived at Fernando, we found that we benefited from the restricted amount of visitors during the days, which we spent diving the arches, canyons, and grottos teeming with marine life or walking the deserted beaches that topped most lists of the best beaches in Brazil. At night, however, we’d have difficulty staying in love with the island. We’d discuss at which upscale restaurant we should bust our budget while walking down from our overpriced pousada, yet always reverted to that same tapioceria at the bottom of the hill.

The diving instructors’ gossiping and laughter was quelled by the music flowing from the church. We could smell the grilled cheese from the open window in which the proprietor’s wife was frying food and mixing drinks. The proprietor came over with the tapiocas, served in red plastic baskets and a napkin as white as the crepes. We thanked him and ordered one more round of caipirinhas.

Stop Instagramming Everything and Be a Human Being

Apr.28.16

Stop Instagramming Everything and Be a Human Being

by Shawn Whelchel

No-Frills Beer at Apple Jacks

Driving along the winding roads of Highway 84, through the lush green enclosure of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a relic stands untouched by the sweeping wave of modernity brought about by the tech boom in the Bay Area.

If not for a small, red, illuminated sign attached to a rugged wooden pole outside, you might just pass by the moss-covered log cabin that houses Apple Jacks in the small town of La Honda. But for the locals, groups of bikers out on their weekend runs and the occasional tourist coming home from a day near the coast, Apple Jacks is more than just a random stop along the highway. It’s an experience all its own.

With its secluded setting, an adornment of vintage license plates lining the roof, and the reputation for being a resting spot for various groups of bikers throughout its history, Apple Jacks is more of a roadhouse than dive bar. Don’t get me wrong. It has all the qualities that encompass a good dive as well: a rugged pool table that’s missing the cueball, a classic rock-churning jukebox, a food menu of assorted candy bars and chips, and a no-frills beer and liquor selection that is meant to get you drunk, not expand your flavor palate.

It might seem silly to make a trek all the way out to a secluded bar just for a basic drink. But Apple Jacks has a certain trait that the new-fangled industrial gastropubs in the Mission and Financial Districts only attempt to recreate: it has authenticity. The floors squeak from age. The interior looks almost unchanged from when it was built over 140 years ago.

A tight-knit community of bar patrons will immediately know you’re not from around there. But don’t worry, you’ll be accepted if you can adhere to their way of doing things. As my girlfriend tried to take photos of the front of the bar after we pulled up, she was immediately shouted down. “Come in and have a drink first,” yelled a tall, elderly man in a stern and affirmative manner. “Be a human being.”

By the end of the night, the principled veteran had told us all about his adventures riding motorcycles around the country, owning a bar at age 17, and had even invited us over to his house for a two-day party. All we had to do was cut our teeth in a game of liar’s dice.

Apple Jacks is an old soul trapped in an even older log cabin. Where drinking your beer and making conversation with the person on the barstool next to you is favored over taking a picture of it and putting it on Instagram. In the words of the tall gentleman, Apple Jacks is a place to be a human being.

Seriously Though, Someone Should Help That Goat

Apr.25.16

Seriously Though, Someone Should Help That Goat

by Jonathan Lipfriend

Jaguar in Alichur, Tajikistan

In the summer, the Pamir Mountains of autonomous southern Tajikistan are said to be lush and green. Full of yak, sheep, herders, and life. I’ve heard they can even be warm.

Not so the winter months. Winter in the Pamirs is neither for the faint-hearted nor the impatient. We had waited for four hours for the shared 4×4 to slowly fill with travelers. So far, our party consisted of myself and my girlfriend, tired, cold, and frustrated; a suave, Russian ex-pat, impatiently tapping the front seat; a serious-looking Tajik in army fatigues who sat in stoic silence; and our driver, looking cool as he slipped his mirrored Aviators over his eyes and pulled out of the dusty bazaar. All we needed to complete our unlikely fellowship was to collect our final passenger. And his luggage.

The two puppies were instantly adopted by my girlfriend, who commandeered the back seats for the three of them. The 100-pound adult goat, however, was the more pressing issue. After sizing up the interior (which already contained four passengers) the roof was wisely selected. Three men proceeded to hold and tie the struggling goat into a bundle of legs, hooves, and wool before heaving the animal onto the already well-laden roof rack. Our final recruit then jumped into the front seat and, clearly already drunk, took charge of the music while using his spare hand to open a can of Jaguar.

The newcomer turned to me and said in Russian “I know you.” An ominous start. He fished around in his camo-print holdall and showed me his Police ID. He had been based at the frozen, isolated Tajik-Kyrgyz boarder we had crossed two days previously and, due either to our foreign passports or the complete lack of other traffic, he had remembered us.

As we drove higher the road quickly deteriorated. What had begun as an asphalt road with minor damage had transformed into a part gravel, mostly ice obstacle course; one which our driver clearly relished. Snow whistled through the open front window, mingling with cigarette smoke as we flew over potholes and snow banks. On multiple occasions the driver was forced to stop, get out and check the goat was both still attached and still conscious after a particularly vicious jolt.

It is easy to see why, in the local dialect, the Pamir region is known as “the roof of the world.” The imposing mountains, icy valley, and barren outcrops would have left us breathless, if the altitude hadn’t already. We drove for over four hours through the mountains and I could literally count the markers of human existence on my right hand, the endless line of telegraph poles alongside the road our last true connection to humanity.

This said, it felt strange to see the village of Alichur materialize out of the snow and even stranger to step out of the car and into a warm stolovaya, leaving the goat shivering atop the car, icicles in its beard.

The Policeman, whose name I discovered later was Ayoz, placed two new cans of Jaguar on the plastic table; one for him, one for me. I examined them for clues. “Is it beer?” I asked. “No, it’s Jaguar,” came his unhelpful reply. Moods visibly lifted as our group sat together sharing tea, bread, fish, and noodles, the policeman and I occasionally tipping our cans toward each other solemnly as we knocked back our low-grade, miscellaneous spirits pre-mixed with energy drink.

Back in the 4×4 we miraculously found a new sense of compatriotism. What before had been just a car full of strangers now felt like a road trip for forgotten friends. The soldier and policeman sang duets in Pamiri while the Russian and I laughed and clapped along. As dusk approached it began to snow; large, heavy flakes which turned the world white in seconds. I thought about the goat stuck in the blizzard and how far we still had to travel before we arrived that night. “Jon?” the policeman’s voice caught me a little off-guard but I quickly accepted the proffered can of Jaguar with a smile. Ayoz flashed me a cheeky grin before swivelling back to turn the music up. Maybe it was just the Jaguar burning through my veins but the smile stuck on my face. The laughing strangers, the warm car and the loud Pamiri songs felt so right set against the world of snow, goats, and mountains.

Drinking Vodka in a Russian City Denuded of Russians

Apr.19.16

Drinking Vodka in a Russian City Denuded of Russians

by Dave Hazzan

Vodka in Harbin

Harbin is like a great Russian museum piece. Stuck in the far northeast of China, in remote Heiliongjang province, Harbin has the Russian weather, the Russian temperament, the Russian architecture. All it’s missing is the Russians.

They used to live here en masse. It was the Russians who built the railway to what was then just a godforsaken frozen fishing village on the Songhua River. In 1896, the Qing dynasty conceded a railway head to the Russian Empire, and laborers came and built a Russian city in this Manchurian valley.

A slew of Orthodox and Catholic churches went up, two synagogues, a conservatory of music, and plenty of drinking and eating holes. The place grew with domed roofs and long, colonnaded buildings.

The Tsar lost the rail rights to Harbin when Russia was pulverized by the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. But the Russians kept coming: following Russian Revolutions I (1905) and II (1917), the city was flooded with refugees. There were conspirators, spies, and soldiers, too; communists, anarchists, and royalists; Jews, Christians, and Muslims; business people and opium dealers. The riff-raff of Eastern Europe and northern China came here not just to flee persecution, but to make deals, hatch schemes, and watch the 20th century unfold.

Always done over a table. Neither the Russian nor Chinese dinner table should ever be trifled with. Each country lives to eat and drink with family and friends. Whether it’s planning the import of a trainload of opium, scheming a Communist coup d’état, or just securing funding for a Kosher butcher, it’s massed around a table piled high with blintzes, borscht, cabbage rolls, and, of course, vodka, that great deals are made.

Today the Russians are almost all gone. There are some students, some visitors—especially during the winter Ice and Snow Festival—but the synagogues and basilicas are now museums. But there is still Russian food and vodka, and for those tired of the same noodle and baiju, rice and beer combinations, God bless them for it.

There is still an old Russian charm at Lucia’s Russian Restaurant, on the top of Zhongyang Dajie pedestrian street. There are flowered tablecloths, framed photographs, carefully laid out silverware. The cabbage rolls are very good, the lamb stew tender, sharp, and delicious. And the vodka—a Russian variety called Ahnt is my choice—is a necessity with this meal.

In this Brave New China, it’s common to see difference swept away under a rolling tide of Chinese-style modernization, replacing the old and unique with a nation of mini-Beijings. So far, Harbin has adapted well; even the new buildings are done in a unique Russian/Harbin style.

So next time you’re here, head to a Russian restaurant, and raise a glass of vodka to what was, what is, and what will hopefully continue to be, a unique piece of the Asian world.

Oh, to Be Trapped Inside With a Beer on a Sunny Day

Apr.18.16

Oh, to Be Trapped Inside With a Beer on a Sunny Day

by Yuebai Liu

Ales in Shanghai

I had just gotten back to my apartment in Shanghai after a few months out of the city. It was 4:30 pm and I was eager to go straight back out. It was warm and I wanted to enjoy the last couple of hours of sunshine.

I immediately thought of one of my favorite spots in the city: Jackie’s Beer Nest. It’s a tiny, no-frills bar that serves the largest selection of hard-to-find beers in Shanghai. Owner and brewer Jackie Zhou built the 40-tap kegerator himself, and unlike other brewers who set up shop in glitzier and hip areas, Jackie has been operating from this tiny bar in Laoximen since 2008.

Laoximen is located south of People’s Square and east of Xintiandi, but unlike its neighboring districts, there aren’t neon billboards or shopping malls to be seen. Laoximen (老西门), which translates to Old West Gate, is the heart of the old Shanghai, and one of the few remaining traditional neighborhoods where Longtang buildings (弄堂), street food, and temples still coexist.

I hopped on my bicycle and headed southeast. I tried sticking to the calm and quiet streets, but these were often interrupted by sudden big crossroads, construction sites, and blocks of identical residential buildings. I notice Belgian beer bars, Korean bibimbap restaurants, and vape shops.

I arrived at the beer nest just a few minutes before five. Jackie had already opened up and took out an empty glass as soon as he saw me, ready to pour me a beer. There was a wide range of pale ales, IPAs, and DIPAs. New Zealand microbreweries 8 Wired and Yeastie Boys occupied a large number of the taps, but there were also IPAs from Chengdu and a Chinese date-infused IPA that Jackie brewed himself. I was tempted by Founders’ Double Trouble, an Imperial IPA with an abv of 9.4 percent, but decided instead to go for a lighter session IPA from 8 Wired. It was only five o’clock, after all.

I went to sit outside, but Jackie stopped me. “Tables and chairs are not allowed outside anymore,” he explained. Things change extremely fast in Shanghai, but the new rule still came as a surprise as Laoximen was famous for its street food and it was normal to eat and drink outside, surrounded by traditional Longtang houses. “We are now part of Xintiandi, so we have to follow the same rules,” continued Jackie.

Xintiandi is the neighboring district, traditionally composed of Shikumen houses. It was now a redeveloped entertainment area and a popular destination for tourists.

As I stood at the doorstep sipping my IPA, I sensed the imminent change in the air. I notice the big E-Mart letters on a large building nearby. I could hear the familiar sound of bicycle bells, but could also hear the noise of demolitions and construction works in the background.

For an Ancient Beer With a Locavore Ethic, Add a Boar’s Skull

Apr.15.16

For an Ancient Beer With a Locavore Ethic, Add a Boar’s Skull

by Jim Cavan

Gruits in New Hampshire

Animated by a deft hand, something as simple as a sip of beer can be rendered transportive, spiriting the senses to some faraway terroir. Say, a thatch-roof hut in mediaeval Scotland, adrift in knolls of chicory and elderflower. Or a Belgian abbey a levy away from seizure, long ago forced to alchemize drinkable whatever sprouts through the cracks.

Welcome to the wondrously weird world of gruits: shorthand for ancient libations that highlight herbs, flowers, and other botanicals in place of hops, and the steadfast focus of Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Earth Eagle Brewings. I shared a round with cofounders Butch Heilshorn and Alex McDonald on a recent rain-logged Thursday. Snugged at a corner table, the taproom’s mix of Southwest verve and taxidermist kitch alive as antique yeast, the two’s assurance—in what they do and how, yes, but the why and where as well—seems as matter-of-fact as the brewhouse blotches on their jeans.

Launched in 2012, this two-barrel, garage-convert curio quickly emerged as one of the most evangelized nanobreweries, coupling a mastery of well-worn styles (IPAs, reds, and stouts routinely chalk the board) with a gamut of gruits built chiefly around the region’s seasonal flora. Here and now, that means poplar buds, birch branches, dandelions, and whatever other wares Jenna Darcy, Earth Eagle’s dedicated forager, can coax from the land.

But while the locavore ethic certainly informs the brewery’s grand designs, it’s tapping into beer’s hidden past that has long been a creative flashpoint.

“I think the history is part of what we are and who we are,” McDonald says. “The energy we put into our work—that comes across in the beer.”

Ditto the catnip, wormwood, mushrooms, boar’s head (the severed skull, not the deli meat), and myriad other fodder common to the Earth Eagle bill of fare. Beneath the avant-garde whimsy, however, lies a measures more utilitarian consideration: unlike hops, which can accentuate beer’s more depressive elements, many of the ingredients marshaled by McDonald and Heilshorn boast what the latter calls “tonic, adaptogenic qualities.” Stimulants, in short, for all things limbic—libido included.

What emerges is a guiding ethos at once arcana-steeped and unabashedly rogue, indebted to time-dusted texts without sermonizing. McDonald and Heilshorn are happy to sing praises to the past … until you tell them they have to.

“There’s some very regimented thinking on the part of a lot of people,” says Heilshorn. “You gotta do this, and you can’t do that. You know what? It’s all bullshit. There are all sorts of little things you can tweak and pull, and I love that. That’s why I’m a brewer. There’s a rush with the risk.”

Whether it’s skipping straight from mash tun to fermentation, bypassing the boil completely (“People drank the shit out of it,” Helshorn exclaims), blasphemously exposing product to sunlight by asphalt-baking it in glass for summers on end, producing a Medeira-esque Frankenbrew (a second-hand account, but no less batshit): Such gambits, anecdotal as they are, speak to the sense of unimpeachable playfulness Earth Eagle has worked hard to hone.

Art without science risks self-indulgence. Science without art: heartlessness and drear. Three cheers, then, for places where where risk is its own reward and even the ancient tastes refreshing and new.

Winters That Can Last a Lifetime Require Heavy Drinking

Apr.14.16

Winters That Can Last a Lifetime Require Heavy Drinking

by Olga Kovalenko

Booze in Westeros

For a few months in winter, I stayed in Västerås, an industrial city located 60 miles from Stockholm. Despite it being the fifth-largest city in Sweden, Västerås feels more like a town. It is clean, quiet, friendly, and located in the middle of a typical Swedish landscape of forests and lakes. Like typical Swedes, its residents work a comfortable 40 hours a week, spend a big chunk of time with their families, have numerous coffee breaks, and enjoy sports, crafts, and foraging. But a peculiar thing about Västerås is its name. Instead of pronouncing it “Vasteras” or “Basteras,” as Spanish-speakers would insist, a Swede says: “Westeros.” Yes, just like the name of that bruised and torn apart land from the George R. R. Martin’s novel.

The name draws the imagination toward bloody battlefields and castles infested with intrigue. These parts of Sweden really have a troubled past, but it was a long time ago and the only reminder of those days is a circle of half-buried stones attributed to Vikings. Otherwise, the city is modern and the skies are clear of dragons. The only animals that venture into the streets are huge hares that jump across the city lawns after nightfall.

To my surprise, it was only hares that I saw after 8 pm in Västerås, except an occasional cyclist or a local, walking a dog. Even windows, which are traditionally left without curtains in Sweden, were bright but lacking people. It felt creepy to walk outside all alone at night, even though I was assured that Västerås is a totally safe place.

I doubt that Game of Thrones had anything to do with Västerås, but winters are so long that it does feel as if “winters can last a lifetime.” And when the winter is coming, as they say, we know what’s coming with it: heavy drinking.

I knew that Swedes, like true Scandinavians, drink a lot, but I didn’t see any signs of partying. People didn’t walk, sit or chat in the streets, and all bars were closed by midnight. It was on Wednesday that I saw an unnatural number of people gathered in the city center. “It’s Wednesday, you know,” a friend told me, “Swedes call it a Little Saturday, because they go out and drink, just like they do on Saturdays.”

Bars were indeed full of merry residents of Västerås who broke their week for a bit of partying till late into the night. And Saturday, since it was not a little but a proper one, was even merrier. Bars stayed open until 3 am and the streets were full of people who got more emotional and unsteady with every hour. Swedes spent all their money during their drinking days, I was told by locals, and by the end of the month bars got empty even on Saturdays.

As it happened, there were not only special days for drinking, but special places for various kinds of partying in Västerås. One can drink in bars and disco clubs, but it is only in clubs that one is allowed to dance. There are signs in bars explicitly stating: No Dancing. I guess the law was passed so that drunk people wouldn’t injure themselves or their fellow drinkers while moving their unsteady bodies around the hall. What I couldn’t comprehend was the fact that playing darts in bars was still OK. I had a sip of beer from my glass and fidgeted nervously as a dart whistled past my shoulder towards its destination just by our table. Västerås seemed to have many peculiar ways and in the end, I understood, I knew nothing of them.

Photo: Jukka

Taking Shots in a Car Outside of an Iranian Wedding

Apr.12.16

Taking Shots in a Car Outside of an Iranian Wedding

by Mark Isaacs

Arak in Mavdasht

Mavdasht is not a common destination for tourists in Iran. Most tourists will day trip from Shiraz to Persepolis, passing through Mavdasht without really noticing the place. My travel partner, Linda, has arranged a night’s accommodation in Mavdasht with a local guy named Reza. I decide to join her and see what will come of it.

Reza is a well-dressed man in his early thirties. He speaks English well and studies engineering in Amsterdam.

“Educating my way out of this undesirable situation,” he says.

Within an hour of meeting him, he has invited us to a wedding. Linda and I dress in our finest travelers’ attire; Reza dresses in suit and bow-tie.

“I’m going to contact my dealer,” Reza says. “Do you want anything?”

Reza clarifies he is getting alcohol called arak.

“Everyone drinks at weddings,” Reza says. “At least they do on the men’s side.”

This is when we learn that men and women are segregated at Iranian weddings. When we arrive at the venue, Linda disappears with the women and I don’t see her again until the end of the night.

Reza and I join 500 men in a characterless hall, which is probably the largest males-only party I’ve ever been to. From the other side of the hall we can hear women shouting and screaming and dancing. I see some men in t-shirts and I feel comforted knowing I’m not the worst dressed at the party. Reza introduces me to his friends and they kiss me gently on each cheek. The men are nervous to meet me. Most of them don’t speak English.

When the groom arrives he shakes hands with every man in the room. We are served apples, bananas, and cake. The music starts and the men begin to dance. They link arms and slowly move around the hall in a constantly growing circle. Then the free dance begins. Men rush into the circle twisting hands upwards into the air and gyrating hips. One man drags me around the dance floor trying to force me to dance with him. He stares into my face smiling with encouragement, which makes me feel uncomfortable.

Some men have been sneaking arak into the wedding in plastic water bottles and are quite drunk. Reza tells me it is the groom and his groomsmen who are expected to provide the arak. We sneak off to his car at one point and take shots of the potent liquid. After the arak, Reza’s friends are much more open with me.

“A man and wife can…?” one man called Farzad asks.

I gather he wants to know if my girlfriend and I have sex. Farzad asks what would happen if my girlfriend got pregnant. He also asks what I think of homosexuality. To all my answers he opens his eyes wide with surprise.

“I heard that in Australia a man was pregnant. Is this true?” he asks.

Reza explains that coming into contact with new cultures is rare for Iranians.

“We would like to travel but we can’t,” Reza says. “We can’t get visas anywhere.”

The men are also curious as to what I think of Iran. They are happy when I tell them I think Iran is beautiful but concerned when I tell them that many Australians think Iran is dangerous.

“We are good people. We are friendly people,” Farzad says. “You tell them this. You say Iran is safe.”

I tell them some Australians are concerned by what they think of as fundamental Islam.

“But we are not ISIS,” Ali says. “They are not real Muslims.”

Some of the men start breakdancing; the strobe lights come on and the groom is lifted into the air on our shoulders; and then the party is over before midnight.

I join a wide-eyed Linda afterwards. She tells me women wore short skirts, low cleavage, lots of make up, and lots of gold. Although Linda found the experience overwhelming at times, she feels like she was treated as an honored guest.

An Incredibly Frustrating Story About Not Drinking

Apr.11.16

An Incredibly Frustrating Story About Not Drinking

by Patricia Rey Mallén

Virgin Bloody Marys in D.F.

This is not a story about drinking. This is a story about not drinking. Or, more accurately, a story about wanting to drink but not being able to due to a technical glitch and a legislation experiment.

I am not much of a wine drinker (though that is not actually the story either, not really). If given the choice, I’ll always go for beer or a scotch, or maybe a mojito if the occasion is juicy enough.

It is not that I hate wine, actually; being from Spain, wine was a staple at the lunch and dinner table since before I could remember, I just didn’t have much of a taste for it.

Despite my complete lack of palate, during a Holy Week in Mexico City a couple of years ago, all I wanted was to crack open a bottle of red. I had just moved to the city a few weeks prior to be a foreign correspondent for a U.S.-based publication, and Mexico was a constant surprise. Hurricanes, arrested drug lords, fiery spicy food for breakfast; it was all a learning trip, and one I attacked with gusto.

What I did not see coming, though, was how seriously they would take the alcohol ban the capital had imposed for the holidays.

Good Friday, 5 p.m. It had been particularly challenging working Holy Week, which included the strongest earthquake the country had seen in years and the death of a very beloved Nobel Prize-winner in Literature. I had no alcohol at home except for a rogue bottle of red wine that my hosts had left behind when they took off on vacation. Fine, I conceded, knowing that the city’s decree would prevent me from getting anything else, and took out a wine glass and a corkscrew.

Scratch that. The apartment had a good assortment of wine glasses but no corkscrew. So I left for the supermarket on the corner (a chi-chi chain owned by Walmart but priced at a 170 percent markup, as I would learn later) in order to get one. But they wouldn’t sell it.

“Sorry ma’am, but there is no alcohol on sale until Monday,” the guy told me when I asked him if they had any corkscrews.

I glared at him. “I do not want alcohol, I just need a corkscrew,” I replied, wondering what the translation problem could be since we were both speaking the same language.

He pointed towards the alcohol section, which was an aisle over. There was yellow tape all around it, including the area with the glasses, paper cups, bottle openers, and corkscrews. He then shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, but no.”

Unable to say anything due to shock, I almost left the store empty handed. I can’t say the whole deal came out of left field, as I had reported on the alcohol ban: after all, it was the very first of its kind the city had undertaken, and it had caused quite a raucous protest among the hospitality industry. Holy Week is the busiest tourist time of the year, they argued, and how were people supposed to unwind?

But nothing in my week reporting had led me to believe that the corkscrew would somehow make it into the list of forbidden liquid fruit for the week.

I snapped out of my bewilderment right before leaving the store, with time enough to resort to buying some tomato juice, seltzer and lime. That Good Friday night in Mexico City, I made myself a Virgin Bloody Mary. It felt like the right time for one.

You Can’t Put a Price on Bonhomie and Good Cheer

Apr.06.16

You Can’t Put a Price on Bonhomie and Good Cheer

by Zamira Kristina Skalkottas

Rock Lobsters in Beyoğlu

The Rock Lobster had me at hello. Made of white tequila, vermouth, almond syrup, and pomegranate juice, and served in a lowball glass, it felt like a ripe fruit in my hand. The sprig of rosemary the barman torched and stuck in the drink wafted around the bar like a priest’s thurible in an underground church. Plus, it had the right kind of ice.

Discovering the place where they make this drink, a cave-like bar with no name in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district, was a godsend. This wouldn’t be true if the odds for a finding a good medicinal were a bit better in this town.

Turkey’s relationship with liquor is a checkered one. The recent law against the advertising of alcohol hasn’t helped. In spite of this, the raki culture seems to be holding strong and good wine can be found. Not so for the cocktail situation, which is pretty bleak. I have had some truly terrible drinks here, even when I thought that nothing could go wrong, as with a martini.

Sometimes the erratic nature of the scene might mean a lucky break, if that means getting a lot more alcohol than is normally put into one drink. This happened to me and a friend one summer when we wandered into an Asian fusion restaurant in Ortaköy, a neighborhood on the Bosphorus. The restaurant’s bar is perched over the water, the bottles lined up with the sea behind them, creating a stunning view. We each ordered a mojito, only there were probably the equivalent of three to four jiggers of rum in each drink. The rest of the afternoon was a woozy blur: nice, but unexpected.

I’ve read about the artisanal cocktail scene in other cities and seen pictures that speak to how mere alcohol can surpass itself to become artistry. But it was not something I believed I could find here. Nevertheless, in the hopes of a cut-above drink one evening, I went to the Orient Bar in the Pera Palace Hotel.

The men in our company wore bow ties, and the setting was faultless. I had a friend visiting from France, and he was impressed with the plush interior, with the talented piano player, and with the old elevator, apparently one of the oldest in Europe. But the prices were exorbitant, the drinks teeny, and they were not so much artisanal as strange, swanky-sounding combinations with names like “Russian Riviera” and “Greta Garbo.”

It was then that one in our party leaned in a little closer and almost conspiratorially whispered in my ear that if I really liked cocktails, I should go to this place just a few streets yonder. It didn’t have a name, though people generally referred to it by the owner’s name. I took detailed directions and off we went.

Apart from a few bottled beers, cocktails is all they do at this bar in a dark cul-de-sac off Istiklal Street. The drinks change seasonally but include some signature constants and are written out on slabs of wood that reside over the bar. The owner and his two barmen in their vests and ties are all about the craft of mixing, and they take themselves very seriously. The drinks are not cheap, but the bonhomie, warmth, and good cheer they create are well worth every lira.

How Many Rounds Does It Take to Feel at Home?

Apr.05.16

How Many Rounds Does It Take to Feel at Home?

by Lance Henderstein

Denki Bran in Asakusa

Kamiya Bar should have closed its doors long ago. It’s an anachronism. A Meiji-era bar in Asakusa, just around the corner from Sensou-ji temple and spitting distance from San-ya, Japan’s answer to Skid Row. Yet, there it sits in still frame as rickshaws rush past, blurring slow shutters.

The bottles that line the shelves are filled with Denki Bran, “Electric Brandy,” a blend of brandy, gin, herbs, and what-have-you. The name was meant to sound futuristic, and likely did in 1882, a time when electricity was still a novelty. Denki was the “cyber” of its day.

Denki Bran’s recipe is a secret and it has a mystique enhanced by the reputations (and drinking habits) of eccentric writers who rented rooms above the bar. Muses are often 80 proof. Films and songs have sung the praises of Denki Bran and it is forever associated with the Japanese intelligentsia of the past. Think absinthe, sans the paranoia and public backlash.

That retro-futuristic vibe has allowed an otherwise unremarkable bar founded in 1880 to continue serving boozy bachelors and occasional foreigners (like myself) to this day. And it is on this day, a cold, rainy afternoon, that I decide to enter Kamiya Bar and try some Denki Bran.

Inside, a table of white-haired Japanese men are repeating themselves at high volume. A fully gin-blossomed man sits in the corner with empty flute glasses lined up in front of him. It’s a geriatric atmosphere, like much of Japan these days. Gone are the young bohemian writer-types of the past. Japan’s slow decline has seeped into the cracks of this place, but the mood is light.

I buy a ticket for the stiffer edition of Denki Bran, 40 percent, to shake off the poor weather I’ve brought inside with me. My gin-blossomed friend is looking at me as I take a seat to his left. He senses an opening, but I avoid his attempts at eye contact. I plan to drink alone.

The Denki Bran tastes like what it is, a brandy based aperitif. It’s floral and pleasant, not unlike an Italian amaro, and it warms on its way down. I immediately feel better and get the urge to order another. I wonder if that’s how my friend and his nose got their start here. He coughs loudly as if to confirm my thought and takes another sip

The first Denki Bran makes its way to my head and I rise to order another. I’ve lived in Tokyo for seven years, more or less, and never felt more simultaneously at home and separate from a place. That emotion is being distilled under the artificial light and elderly company. Life in Tokyo is a pleasant purgatory, comfort and convenience served with polite detachment and dissociation.

Kamiya Bar feels like a microcosm: Western and Japanese and neither all at once. It has an uncanny normalcy that is both comforting and unnerving. It should feel weirder than it does. Less familiar. The waiters are overdressed. Bowties and black vests. The gin blossomed man has inexplicably donned a red beret when I return to my seat and I think the second Denki Bran might yet lead to a third. I wonder how many rounds it would take to feel at home here.

An Everyman’s Drink Descended From Ancient Royal Libations

Apr.04.16

An Everyman’s Drink Descended From Ancient Royal Libations

by Akinyi Ochieng

Tej in Addis Ababa

To the outside world, Ethiopia’s national drink is coffee, but, as my taxi driver tells me on my first day in Addis Ababa, the most popular local drink is tej.

In traditional lore, honey wine was the drink of Ethiopian nobility; legend has it that the Queen of Sheba presented it as a gift to King Solomon. But despite these noble beginnings, today tej is the drink of the everyman, and is particularly popular during festivals and celebrations.

Everyone has their own take on tej, which differs around the country, but a tour guide tells me that the best place to sample the drink is a tejbet, a small bar specializing in tej. At the tejbet, you’ll find the honey wine in mild, medium, and strong. Buyer beware: the stronger the tej, the more you’ll be left wondering if your head is swimming due to the altitude or the alcohol (which can reach up to 16 percent by volume).

Unlike beer or wine, which are becoming more popular due to the range of breweries that have set up shop in Ethiopia over the last decade, tej doesn’t require much equipment. Gesho, a local herb often called “Ethiopian hops,” water, and honey, one of Ethiopia’s largest exports, will do the trick.

If you’re really old-school, you’ll consume tej in an animal horn, in the way of the ancestors. But nowadays, you’ll most commonly find it served in a spherical glass beaker called a berele.

I sample the sweet honey wine for the first time at the tourist-friendly Yod Abysinnia Cultural Center, an Addis restaurant that locals recommend as one of the best places to sample injera and indulge in shiro, a delicious chickpea-and-white bean dish that makes my mouth water.

The Abyssinian mead, which dates back to the 4th century, has the texture of dessert wine, but a hint of spice. With its yellow-orange hue, it could easily be mistaken for mango juice.

Though Yod Abysinnia’s vibrant dancers and excellent food will draw me back in the future, its tej’s musky undertones will not. I resolve to keep and open mind about the varieties of tej, so I table my opinion as I go off in search of a local tejbet.

One Thing I Remember for Certain Is That I Ate More Bugs

Mar.31.16

One Thing I Remember for Certain Is That I Ate More Bugs

by Adam Nace

Whiskey in Tokyo

The microbars in Tokyo’s Golden Gai, Piss Alley and Nonbei Yokocho are on the beaten path. The pubs in these labyrinthine streets can squeeze in a handful of patrons at a time and the odds of the owner speaking English are never favorable.

My friend Clint and I waded through the sea of humanity in Shibuya, fruitlessly searching for a quiet pachinko parlor. As we bobbed through the crowds, an unassuming door beneath a little green awning beckoned us closer. After a short deliberation, we entered.

We ascended the vertigo-inducing stairs to a cramped, wood-paneled room. There was a counter with six seats and a booth that could comfortably accommodate four people of Japanese stature. A small TV adorned a corner near the ceiling and high shelves lined with dusty, half-drunk bottles of hooch ringed the entire space.

The room was deserted and had a dusty, lived-in feel. Its emptiness gave way to a feeling that we were somehow trespassing. I was about to suggest that we leave when an ancient sounding voice excitedly greeted us in Japanese.

The fragile figure of an elderly woman seemed to materialize from the walls. Her diminutive stature and threadbare kimono provided the type of camouflage necessary for hiding in plain sight in a room no larger than 100 square feet.

She quickly ushered us to seats at the bar while happily chirping at us and fussing to make us comfortable. To leave without indulging her hospitality felt unforgivably rude and thus our fate was decided.

Once she found her way back behind the bar, our hostess gathered a selection of crystal glassware for us to choose from. Talking all the while, she heaved a mammoth hunk of ice into a large bowl, grabbed an unopened bottle of Suntory whisky and popped the top off of a tiny bottle of sparkling water.

We readily accepted our task. Whisky flowed, kanpais were spoken, and we watched a baseball game on television.

Time passed, regulars trickled in, and the contents of our bottle vanished. As we all got acquainted, we learned more about our surroundings. The okami (owner) was 87 years old and had been running the bar for 50 years. The bottles that lined the walls belonged to regulars who came and went as they pleased. Many of the bottles were draped with photographs in plastic sleeves and wooden ornaments bearing mysterious kanji that supposedly bring the drinker good tidings.

Unbidden, snacks arrived. Our first course was a molehill of salted edamame pods followed closely (and inexplicably) by small cups of goopy potato salad that refused to cooperate with our chopsticks. The star of the makeshift meal was an outsized bowl of miso toasted locusts.

As I rinsed the grit of a dozen insects from my mouth with an immodest gulp of Suntory, our hostess laughed and said “oishii, oishii.” Delicious, indeed.

It’s right about here that my memory begins to fade. My phone contains photographic evidence of our continued revelry. Polaroids were taken and we took pictures of the pictures.

Here are a few things I know for certain:

-The SoftBank Hawks defeated the Hiroshima Carp.
-I poured the last of our bottle into Clint’s tumbler.
-I ate more bugs.

Predictably, Suntory got the best of us. The last dregs of whisky lolled around the bottoms of our glasses and it was time to settle up. Okami-san sketched out a diagram indicating that we’d swilled 9,000 Yen (about $80) worth of whisky. A pittance for the opportunity to enjoy an evening with a storied barkeep and handful of accommodating Tokyoites.

Descending the stairs in our state was perilous. As we lurched onto the noisy streets of Shibuya, the reality of Tokyo hit me full force. Out of 100 million doorways, we’d chosen wisely. How many more diamonds were squirreled away in the rough of this megalopolis? How many more could I ever hope to come by honestly and without the assistance of a guidebook cheatsheet?

A Little Rude, a Lot of Fun, and Looking for Excitement

Mar.30.16

A Little Rude, a Lot of Fun, and Looking for Excitement

by Tillman Miller

Cocktails in Havana

Late in February, when a front of unseasonable coolness blanketed Cuba, I spent a night drinking with the young, good-natured punks of Havana. It was one of those blown-out evenings on the island when the city makes you want to drink your face off, and the backstreets of Vedado were suffused in the kind of light that would flatter jineteras and rumrunners.

In the cool of the night, I began drinking at Bar Bohemio, a cocktail lounge operating out of a pre-revolutionary mansion in Vedado, the setting for contemporary Havana’s most vibrant nightlife. With a breeze sweeping in from Calle 21, Bar Bohemio felt like a place where ballerinas lounged on daybeds smoking cigarettes and drinking rum, which was apt, since the bar is owned and managed by ex-ballerinas from the Cuban National Ballet Company.

For an hour I drank glasses of calimocho and rum cocktails on the mansion’s quiet terrace, telling a friend of mine from the Bahamas about an email I received from a young Cuban novelist. In the email, the novelist claimed to be writing the “posthumous novel of the [Cuban] Revolution … the Cuban Book of the Dead … [which] must be finished before Fidel Castro dies, so he can officially order my assassination.” We drank to the novelist’s vigor and vainglory. And after a final drink of rum, we went searching for the captivating nightclubs of Vedado—King Bar, La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, and Bertolt Brecht Café Teatro—bars that were turning Havana into a destination for the Western hemisphere’s best parties.

It was well past midnight when we met a few friends at King Bar, and we found it brazenly alive with DJs and poets and sculptors and students. There were suburbanites from Siboney orbiting the dance floor and boho eccentrics from Miramar with cans of Cristal in their hands. Moving around from conversation to conversation I heard grad students talking shit on the Castros; twentysomethings denouncing the government’s minor reforms, alleging that the recent changes were merely a ploy to create a façade of progress for the international media; and filmmakers insisting that a transition to democracy was not ongoing, emphasizing that a transition could only occur when the regime allowed the public to participate in the government.

The young partygoers were a little rude, a lot of fun, and looking for an excitement that couldn’t be found in the uninteresting state-run bars that for decades had devastated Havana’s local soul. They bought cheap rums and vodkas, bent on getting smashed and moving on to the night’s next big thing.

In the likes of Bangkok or South Beach or Panama’s Casco Viejo, my night in Vedado would have seemed like any other Saturday night, but in Havana it was emblematic of a young generation who are reimagining what it means to be Cuban within a new global context. It felt as if the discontented brigades of Cuba’s youth were mobilizing their post-utopian rebellions towards something far more enjoyable than Castroism. And what that meant to me on that night in late February was that the Habaneros were throwing together a breathtaking party.

Toasting the World’s Largest Ungulate

Mar.29.16

Toasting the World’s Largest Ungulate

by Carol Patterson

Wine in Quebec

On summer nights in Quebec’s Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region, a few people remain at Zoo Sauvage De Saint-Felicien—roughly translated as Wild Zoo—while the animals run free. The people camp inside an electric fence that ensures the only midnight snacking involves marshmallows.

Our guide steered our mini-bus around grizzly bears, bison, and elk before pulling into the section of the forest that houses the campsite. Locking the electrified barrier that keeps animals with pointy teeth out, the guide led us through towering aspen trees and waist-high ferns, stopping suddenly to point at a dark silhouette hidden by bushes. It was the world’s largest ungulate, and our neighbor for the night.

Forest ranger Ghislain Gagnon started this facility in 1960 with two crows, envisioning a different kind of zoo. Standing a few yards from a moose that could look an NBA player in the eye, and with only mutual respect separating us, I felt Gagnon succeeded. The moose plucked shrub leaves with ruthless efficiency from a bush, its branches bouncing from the assault. Consuming pounds of vegetation each day meant the moose was more interested in eating than troubling us.

Carrying on, we reached a sun-dappled clearing in the forest. Clustered around a large fire pit were several prospector tents, stove pipes poking from each roof. A wooden paddock held two spindly-legged moose calves with mitten-sized ears. The zoo had rescued these orphans and later, we would feed them.

Wanting to build moose-size appetites, we dropped our gear and took a shortcut back through the fence for a pre-sunset paddle around Lac Montagnais. Our guide kept her canoe between shore and us lest we inadvertently annoy the Volkswagen-size muskox slumbering there.

Leaving the muskox as we found them, we scurried back to camp for cocktails. The moose banged their water buckets against wooden rails hoping for a bottle. We sat on camp chairs hoping for a bottle. Soon red and white wine flowed as foil-wrapped meals simmered over the fire. A blend of woodsmoke and pine tickled our nostrils, the air filled with stories retold in English and in French, the wine giving everyone courage to try a few words in foreign tongues.

Looking for the outhouse, I wandered into the shadows when a ghost-like creature glided into view. The caribou’s shy gaze collided with mine before it turned away, its silver-grey fur blending silently into the forest. I was locked in the zoo after dark and the only bad thing was how quickly night passed. I headed back to the fire to toast the wild zoo.

What to Drink While Eating the World’s Largest Rodent

Mar.28.16

What to Drink While Eating the World’s Largest Rodent

by Darrin DuFord

Poker Beer in Bogotá

When I was preparing to eat a slab of the world’s largest species of rodent, I knew I couldn’t reach for just any beverage. It’s a respect thing.

I also knew that no previous encounter with guinea pigs, pacas, or any of the other petite edible rodents of Central and South America could have prepared me to properly honor the corpulent, web-footed, Great Dane-sized king of them all, the chigüire, better known as the capybara.

I was sitting at a table spotlighted by a skylight in the boxy eastern flank of Bogota’s Teusaquillo locality. The neighborhood’s pragmatic concrete walls, near the bustle and gloom of Avenida Caracas, occasionally find themselves rescued by the work of the city’s street muralists, but otherwise suffer quietly in their drabness. Inside, however, I felt uplifted and reassured knowing that the restaurant, Chigüire 53, had named itself after the animal barbecuing on the round, bell-like parrilla grill at the entrance. Thus, I’d figured the chefs must know a thing or two about what drink goes with its signature dish.

The drink selection, resembling that of pretty much any other low-key eatery in Colombia, was dominated by beers such as Heineken, along with a few national beers that seemed to emulate the paleness of said ubiquitous import. There are now a few microbrews in Colombia, such as the German-styled offerings of Apostol and the hipster-friendly brews of Bogota Beer Company. But no micros appeared on the menu at Chigüire 53.

Such a selection made me recall a conversation I’d had, several days earlier, with a professor of philosophy who teaches at a university in Medellín. He had been staying in the capital for the week. “People in cities often lose their culture,” he told me in a soft, almost mournful voice, referring to how people move to cities from other places, joining a cultural cacophony, drowning each other’s competing cultures out. And here I was in Bogotá, about to dine on a creature brought in from the country’s eastern lowlands over a hundred miles away, while considering beers manufactured by the country’s largest brewery.

Colombia is not known for beer. Yet Colombian-made beer is ubiquitous in the country, in open-air ceviche stands and fine dining establishments alike. As far as hydration goes, beer can be a safer choice than bottled water, as the latter’s supposedly sealed plastic caps may or may not snap when they open, and thus may or may not give you the shits. And, especially on the coast, an easy-drinking beer refreshes and cools faster than an amber, funky-scented Belgian brew. So which national brand would it be?

That was when packaging took over. I’d seen the memorable red and yellow signs emblazoned with the words CERVEZA and POKER above entrances to bars and restaurants. The words were usually flanked by slick illustrations of playing cards. Beer and poker: two elements for a fun night out. But I’d quickly realized that they were the same element. Poker is the beer.

What little corn-like sweetness I detected in the Poker, pronounced “Poe-care” in Colombia, turned to a faint bitterness, yet the beer contributed the only bitter hint to the crispness of the chigüire skin and the rodent’s clean take on porkiness (it’s a vegetarian animal, after all). Poker was a willing companion, a gastronomic wingman, thin on personality, the forgettable kind of beer that beer hobbyists dismiss. But the beer offered deference, enabling the chigüire to strut its stuff—or swim, as the species is also wont to do in the marshes of the Colombian lowlands. Even in a zone of apparent culture loss, something else can be gained.

That made Poker a forgettable beer that I can’t seem to forget.

An Evening of Post-Football Desolation With the Steelers Nation

Mar.24.16

An Evening of Post-Football Desolation With the Steelers Nation

by Dan Morey

Beer at Z’s Tavern

From September through the Super Bowl, Z’s Tavern is the place to be on Sunday in east Erie. The Pittsburgh Steelers Nation is out in force, hollering, high-fiving, drinking Budweiser by the pitcher. But what happens after the final snap, when everyone packs up their Terrible Towels and goes into NFL hibernation? I stopped by one Sunday in late February to find out.

Two men were standing at the bar with twelve-packs. They paid the bartender, bantered a bit, and took off.

“That’s a lot of our Sunday business this time of year,” said the bartender. “Grab and go.”

He seemed surprised when I ordered wings. “There’s no game on,” he said. “Just Oscars crap.”

A TV announcer was blathering about the dress Jennifer Lawrence was going to wear to the Academy Awards. I sat down next to the only drinker in the room, a bearded, burly fellow. He remarked that the broadcast would benefit greatly if Ms. Lawrence showed up without any dress at all. Then he belched, and started texting.

Things got quiet. The bartender leaned against the wall with one leg up, nodding off like a flamingo. I listened to the traffic on Buffalo Road, and studied the sports cards under the plastic bar top. The plastic was yellow with age. Most of the players on the cards were probably dead. After a while, three college girls entered. This wasn’t unusual. Penn State’s Behrend campus is just up the hill.

“You can always count on Z’s to be open,” one of them said. “I love this place.”

I asked her how long she’d been coming to Z’s, and she told me since she was a kid, when her dad took her to watch the Steelers games. She pronounced Steelers “Stillers.”

Some actor was on TV, talking about his bowtie. I asked the other girls if they were regulars, too.

“I guess,” one of them said. “We all go to Behrend. But I’m from Buffalo.”

“Buffalo? You probably don’t come here for the Steelers then.”

“No. Ew.”

The Stillers girl gave her a shove.

A half hour later, a guy in a Roethlisberger jersey walked in. He looked up at the TV. His perplexed expression was that of a man suddenly and unexpectedly denied sports.

“Oscars,” I said.

He grunted, and grabbed a newspaper off the bar. The headline read “Oscars Mania.” He threw it back.

The girls were drinking some kind of fluorescent shots.

“Leo was awesome in that bear rape movie,” said one.

“Yeah,” said another. “But his beard was gross.”

The guy beside me put down his phone. “DiCaprio was okay,” he said. “But I’ll take Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Transgender is huge right now.”

“Ew,” said one of the girls.

A transgender biopic discussion? In Z’s Tavern? Lack of football will do strange things to a Steelers fan.

A Few More Cups of Ganja Tea to Get Closer to God

Mar.23.16

A Few More Cups of Ganja Tea to Get Closer to God

by Barbara Wanjala

THC in Nairobi

I have a friend by the name of D who is a practicing Rastafarian. He calls me Empress. A few Fridays ago, he invited me to a reasoning with the brethren and sistren of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, one of the groups of the Rastafari movement; the one, in fact, with which Bob Marley was affiliated. “What’s a reasoning?” I asked, as we watched a YouTube video of Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica. D poured me two cups of ganja tea, one with milk and one without. After a long, pensive sip, he launched into an explanation.

Members of Twelve Tribes meet every Friday to ‘reason’: exchange ideas, eat, smoke herb, and just generally chill out with fellow Rastas. They have a church here in Nairobi. I have been learning a lot about Rastafarianism from D, but he accuses me of having reverted to my Babylonian ways by wearing a weave and urges me to return to the Rastafarian path by going to the reasoning.

D believes that Haile Selassie I is God incarnate, the Messiah returned to earth. During our conversations, I have expressed my skepticism about certain aspects of the Rastafarian faith. I quote from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s controversial book The Emperor, which depicts Selassie as a tyrannical autocrat, leading to his overthrow in 1974. I recall my visit to his former palace in Addis Ababa, the Gannata Leul, where it is said that his remains were found under a palace toilet in 1992, almost two decades after his mysterious death. D rejects this. According to him, nobody knows where His Imperial Majesty was buried, which proves that he is still alive. Haile Selassie is the living God, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God and the Root of David. He stands up to remove his Haile Selassie portrait from the wall so that I can have a closer look. I take a sip from each cup. I like the milky ganja tea better.

D drinks ganja tea because cannabis is sacred and aids in spiritual meditation. He says the milky one is more potent than the green one because THC—the chemical responsible for the psychological effects of cannabis—dissolves better when steeped in milk, which has fat, rather than water. I find the green one slightly bitter and enjoy the milky one more despite its lack of body and briskness. I have two cups and while I enjoy the flavor, I experience no euphoria, achieve no transcendence. But neither does D. Perhaps I need a few more cups to get closer to God.

Drinking Home Brew With a Kalashnikov-Wielding Monk

Mar.22.16

Drinking Home Brew With a Kalashnikov-Wielding Monk

by Zac Crellin

Tella at Debre Damo

It’s said that when Abuna Aregawi, one of the nine Syrian saints who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia, set out to establish a monastery atop Debre Damo, a serpent descended to pull him up under the guidance of angels. Nowadays, the 6th-century monastery remains upon the flat-topped mountain; the snake, however, does not. In its place is a tattered leather rope, the sole connection between the all-male residents and the outside world.

Hiking up to the base of the mountain, I’m anxious for the sun to set. While any respite from the heat is welcome, transport stops after dark so I best be quick if I want to make it to the next town.

The monks on the ground nonchalantly wrap the rope around my waist and before I know it the monk at the top is pulling me up the 50-foot cliff. The smoothness of the rock means I’m not really climbing up, but rather being pulled, yet somehow I’m still exhausted at the top. Heat, heights, and exercise tend not to go well on an empty stomach.

As if by yet another act of divine intervention, two elderly monks wave me over to another cliff to eat dried chickpeas. The individual beans are as hard as rocks, yet the toothless monks devour them. It’s at this point that I’m reminded the clergy tend not to speak any English, though perhaps it was my Tigrinya which was lacking. As we sit, we smile and grunt and exchange what is effectively gibberish with one another over handfuls of chickpeas. The atmosphere is serene: no cars, no music playing, and no one speaking loudly. We wait as the sun starts to move lower.

After a while, another monk calls out and my two new friends beckon further up the mountain towards the monastery itself. As I wander through the gate, a man sitting on the veranda of one of the newer additions to the complex calls out to me. Same story: no English, no Tigrinya. This time legumes aren’t what’s on offer, but rather a suspicious-looking jug. And unlike the priestly robes of the other two monks, my new friend wears camo and has an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

This friend takes a large green cup and rinses it with murky-looking water from another jug. He then fills it to the top with a mysterious, opaque liquid with specks floating across the surface. With my friend watching eagerly for my reaction, I take a sip. Similar to white wine, except warmer, and with bits in it. It’s only days later that I discover that what I’ve been drinking is Tella, a traditional beer brewed from teff, a grain omnipresent in Ethiopian cuisine.

Three cups later and I’m full. My friend doesn’t notice, looking as if he’s been sipping away all day long. We gaze out across the complex, off the cliff and into the fading mountains. It’s not every day you get to drink a traditional homebrewed beer with a Kalashnikov-wielding monk at a 6th-century monastery atop a mountain in the middle of nowhere. We watch as the earliest signs of shadows began to form, exchanging finger points, grunts, and countless laughs. It was almost enough to make me forget that I still had to go back down.

Someone Needs to Teach You How to Pour Sidra

Mar.21.16

Someone Needs to Teach You How to Pour Sidra

by Hannah Greenwald

Sidra in Niembro

When I was an au pair in the province of Asturias, Spain, I spent weekends with my host family in a tiny coastal village called Niembro.

With only 190 year-round inhabitants, Niembro is a sleepy little town, but our weekends there always felt frenetic. Weekends in Niembro meant driving through green mountain passes to tucked-away villages, running shrieking into freezing-cold sea waves, and taking midday excursions to tide pools with an eight-year-old holding my left hand and a four-year-old holding my right. When in Niembro, my host mom was always whisking the family away to take a hike or visit some untamed shoreline or experience some local festival.

Generally, after we’d finished our daily adventure, the whole family would retire to a beachside bar where we’d relax with friends and drink sidra. I spent many long evenings in Niembro hanging out with my host parents and their friends while their young children ran and played around the bar. At regular intervals, my host dad would nod at one of the others and ask: “Sidra?” If they assented, he would raise a green glass bottle over his head and pour a steady stream of liquid into a cup that he held down below his waist. The lightly-carbonated sidra would fall several feet through the air, bubbling and fizzing as it hit the side of the cup. He would then hand the half-full cup to another member of the group, who would pound the fizzy, foamy cider drink in one or two gulps, toss any remaining liquid onto the ground, and give the cup back. This process would repeat until everyone around the table had been served.

This specific pouring-and-chugging technique is absolutely crucial to the enjoyment of sidra. The idea is to use gravity to create as many bubbles as possible, which teases out the light and pleasantly tart apple flavor of the drink. To do otherwise—especially in the province of Asturias, where most of Spain’s sidra is produced—is absolute blasphemy.

I would love to tell the story of how I learned to pour sidra in Niembro, but it would be a lie. Whenever I tried, the liquid generally ended up anywhere but the cup. In one particularly mortifying instance, I accidentally spilled a bunch of sidra on a stranger’s feet at a party. Other times, I managed to get the majority of the drink in the cup but my drinking partners kindly informed me that the sidra was too flat to really enjoy.

However, for a drink that’s so difficult to consume correctly, sidra sure goes down easy. It’s fruity, bubbly, and delicious. Asturian people warned me time and again that sidra is dangerously smooth and goes right to your head. They’re right—especially since tradition dictates that you chug the contents of your glass the second it’s in your hand. Plus, sidra is enjoyed in rounds and is as much a social experience as it is a beverage. If you’re with an enthusiastic group of drinkers, you might be shocked at how quickly you can put away a bottle or two of the stuff.

The ritual and social aspect was what I most loved about sidra, and it’s what I most missed about the drink when I left Asturias. Once, on a trip to Madrid, I found a sidrería and begged my friend to share a bottle with me. Excited, I sent my host family a picture of me executing what I thought was a respectable sidra pour.

My host dad’s response: “Someone needs to teach you how to pour sidra…”

Oh, well.

Photo: Nacho/Commons

Having a Beer at the Highest Brewery in Africa

Mar.17.16

Having a Beer at the Highest Brewery in Africa

by Bridget Hilton-Barber

Porter in Mpumalanga Province

We’re sitting in a cosy pub inside the highest brewery in Africa. I am in love with Colin the brew master, who is a handsome, cricket-loving Zulu. He recommends his Mac’s Porter, a beer which he formulated with women in mind. He says it has a “malty creamy fullness, smooth as silk.” My boyfriend is in love with the Bull’s Bitter, which he says reminds him of his native Wales.

Colin is in charge of the brewery at Hops Hollow, which is at the very top of the Long Tom Pass in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. Part of a fabulous and fast-growing trend in regional craft beers in South Africa, this organic microbrewery’s claim to fame is that it’s the highest in Africa. At more than 7000 feet above sea level, its location is as much its signature as its delicious home-brewed draughts and ales.

The Long Tom Pass is 35 miles long and reaches 7198 feet at its summit. This devilishly steep and winding road claws it way up the mountain from the small forestry town of Sabie (where there is another brewery) to the historic town of Lydenberg, an ancient outpost.

In the 1800s, the Long Tom Pass was the wagon route from the port of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) and the Lowveld wilderness to the town of Lydenberg and the Transvaal interior. It took several days and a whole lot of pioneering spirit to ascend the pass, and you can still see the wagon tracks, like claw marks, scoured in the rocks. These days it takes under an hour and at the summit, like a prize, sits Hops Hollow.

It’s all about homegrown organic beer and an easygoing atmosphere, says Jannie the barman and manager, who joins us for a round. The business of craft beer has boomed in South Africa, with most breweries in the Western Cape and Gauteng, but increasing numbers opening their taps in small towns. He is an Afrikaner from Voortrekker stock and looks about his rustic wooden bar with satisfaction. Hops Hollow was started in 2001, he tells us, and many travelers stop here for the views-and-beer combo.

He also tells us that the Long Tom Pass was named after the Boer-operated field gun that fired a 85-pound shell for six miles and was the bane of British generals and their brigades during the Anglo-Boer War. The Boers lugged this metal monster to the most amazing places, constantly surprising their enemy. We raise a toast to peace and cars.

Behind the bar with its paraphernalia, a glass wall looks onto the microbrewery. My boyfriend orders another bitter ale and gets misty eyed. I have another Mac’s Porter and sit purring as Colin explains how each batch of beer is handcrafted and absolutely nothing unnatural is used in the brewing process, and that the most important ingredient is the clear water that is drawn from these ancient mountains.

Drinking in the Bar Where Winston Churchill Ran Up a $100,000 Tab

Mar.16.16

Drinking in the Bar Where Winston Churchill Ran Up a $100,000 Tab

by Marcia DeSanctis

Gin in Marrakech

I had never, nor have I since, experienced so heady a sweep of history and atmosphere entering a hotel lobby as I did when I first crossed the threshold of La Mamounia in Marrakech. It was 1985, and unless you were a Getty or a Rolling Stone, Morocco was a quirkily far-flung place to travel, especially for young ladies from Boston like me. I had ventured to Marrakech on my parents’ coattails. My father is a cardiologist whose work, at the time, allowed him the privilege of traveling periodically to the kingdom. So they invited me, their youngest daughter, to join them for a week at the Mamounia.

When I arrived, I swooned at the dusky interior light, the fountains that spilled into pools strewn with rose petals, the pomegranate-red Berber carpets and the detailed woodwork on the lobby columns. I headed to the bar and in a brazen act of heartfelt cliché, ordered a coupe of the house champagne; Taittinger, I believe. My parents soon joined me. Dad is a Coca Cola kind of guy, but Mom ordered a gin and tonic.

I had read Edith Wharton’s On Morocco and a couple of books by Paul Bowles, the indisputable bard of the far western reaches of the Maghreb. But it was not them I channeled as I sipped in the Piano Bar. It was Winston Churchill.

Some hotels are forever graced by the presence of its most illustrious guest, and Churchill’s spirit lives on at the Mamounia. He fell in love with the place in 1935 and wrote beautiful descriptions of the snow-clad Atlas Mountains visible beyond his room. “The hotel [is] one of the best I have ever used. I have an excellent bedroom and bathroom with a large balcony twelve foot deep, looking out on a truly remarkable panorama over the tops of orange trees and olives,” he reflected in a letter to his wife Clementine. He returned often to paint the changing light on the mountains, setting up his easel in the Mamounia gardens amid rosebushes and 400-year-old olive trees. In 1943, he brought Franklin Roosevelt to see his favorite haunt when they escaped to Marrakech following the 1943 Casablanca Conference. Most notably, Churchill decamped to La Mamounia in 1947 to work on his memoirs. His entourage occupied an entire floor for five weeks, and their drinks bill exceeded $100,000. Years later in the Piano Bar, I pretended I could discern a faint remnant of Sir Winston’s cigar smoke, and we saluted him that day.

I returned to Morocco many times after that first trip and fell in love with the country. When I recently stayed there after almost twenty years, the hotel had been beautifully renovated. At last, La Mamounia has become what it was meant to be when it was built in 1923: impeccable, glorious, grander than ever.

After a walk through the beautifully unchanged gardens—20 acres of orange blossoms, bougainvilleas, and Barbary figs—I head for the Piano Bar. Only now, it’s the Churchill Bar, a lush space with an elegant barman behind the comptoir, above which spanned original 1930s frescoes of jazz musicians, dimmed perhaps by eight decades of smoke. With a dish of salty Moroccan almonds to urge on thirst, I order the obvious: The Sir Winston Churchill Cocktail.

The drink is made with gin strained over crushed marjoram from the Mamounia garden, shaken and poured into the glass. The bartender pours champagne over the herb-infused gin. The result is fresh and smooth, and the marjoram a delicate surprise. “It symbolizes Morocco and its aromatic richness,” Nicolas Everrard tells me later. He oversees the Mamounia bars and created the Winston Churchill Cocktail for the hotel’s 90th anniversary in 2013. “I chose this herb for its finesse, its subtlety, and for its ability to complement gin.”

I ask Lahcen, the bar manager, if he will show me the herb garden. It is just past dark, the air is scented with the honeyed perfume of flowers, and he leads me to a row of plants near the patio. He plucks bits of rosemary, geranium, and the potent marjoram, and I rub the leaves between my fingers. I am intoxicated by the aromatic plants, from the first sips of my cocktail, from the balmy dusk, but also from memory. I thanked Lahcen and he leads me back to the bar and my half-full glass.

I lapse into reflection. I am 30 years younger and my parents are, too. We are toasting my arrival, somewhere on this spot, with champagne, gin, and Coca Cola. We celebrate us and Sir Winston, who adored this place, its splendid location, its palm trees that floated over the gardens. I am alone this time, but I raise my glass anyway. To the grand hotel: may it never change.

Who Knew That Wales Makes Its Own Whiskey?

Mar.15.16

Who Knew That Wales Makes Its Own Whiskey?

by Lani Furbank

Wysgi in Wales

Half of the blood running through my veins is Welsh. That half comes from my father, who has been ordering drinks in Cardiff pubs since he was tall enough to see over the bar. Now a permanent U.S. resident, he jumps at any chance to re-live and pass down his memories of pub crawls, rugby matches, and mountain hikes in South Wales.

During my early childhood visits to Wales, I was never allowed to join in the activities that involved knocking back pints of warm Guinness or Brains. But nearly two decades later, I returned to the land of my booze-loving people, finally of the requisite height to see over the bar and order a pint. And order I did.

In between all the beer, my family and I managed to fit in a few of the obligatory sight-seeing destinations. I played the part of tourist and stopped in a gift shop at Caerphilly Castle. Nestled among miniature replicas of castles and catapults were little bottles of Welsh wysgi. I assumed it must be a marketing gimmick. Irish and Scotch whisky, sure. But Welsh?

A quick look at a brochure revealed, much to my surprise, that Wales does produce its own whisky, but it’s only been doing so for a little over a decade. We immediately decided that it was time for a break from beer, so the next day, we drove the thirty miles out of Cardiff to the outskirts of the Brecon Beacons National Park, where Penderyn Distillery produces single malt Welsh whisky using water from an aquifer in the rolling mountain range.

The tiny, traditional village of Penderyn isn’t a place you’d expect to find a liquor production facility. In fact, we almost didn’t find it. But, thanks to directions from a heavily-accented local, we arrived at the Visitor Centre and booked ourselves a tour, to include a tasting, of course.

Our tour guide was sweet and friendly, but possessed the classic British reserve, announcing the distillery’s accolades in the form of a question so as not to come off as presumptuous. (‘We’ve won a lot of awards, haven’t we?’)

We started the tour by strolling through an exhibition outlining the history of whisky in Wales, where we learned that the Evan Williams was a whisky distiller in Pembrokeshire back in the 1700s. This was before he immigrated to the U.S. to help found the Kentucky whiskey industry.

In her thick but charming Valleys accent, our guide explained that the last genuine bottle of Welsh whisky was produced in the late 1800s at a distillery in Frongoch in North Wales. Production had ceased as a result of the temperance movement, which put an end to legal distillation in Wales. This bottle is displayed in the tasting room next to Penderyn’s first bottle: the first whisky produced in Wales in over a century.

Penderyn uses a one-of-a-kind single copper pot still that is completely different from conventional two or three pot stills used in Scottish and Irish distilleries. The unique technology in the single pot still removes undesirable chemical compounds while producing a complex mix of flavors. Before blending, the spirit is 92% ABV. Each tour participant was given a chance to taste a drop of the fiercely strong, yet remarkably smooth liquid. A drop was all we needed.

The best part was yet to come: after our production lesson, we enjoyed abundant samples of the unique and flavorful finished whiskies, a result of meticulously monitored maturation in various casks, ranging from Buffalo Trace bourbon and old Islay whisky barrels to Madeira barriques from Portugal.

We left the distillery with armfuls of whisky bottles to enjoy later, very pleased with our decision to explore the world of Welsh distilling. It wasn’t until an hour afterwards, when we began our ascent of Pen-y-Fan (the highest mountain in South Wales) that we began to regret drinking whisky at 11 o’clock in the morning.

Nine Hours, a Republican Debate, and Plenty of Booze in the Salt Lake City Airport

Mar.11.16

Nine Hours, a Republican Debate, and Plenty of Booze in the Salt Lake City Airport

by Cara Parks

Wine in Salt Lake City

I’ve been sitting in the Delta Sky Lounge in Salt Lake City for hours. My first flight was delayed, I missed my subsequent flight, was rebooked on an alternate route through Utah, and am now waiting for a late-night connection to my final destination. By the time I leave, I’ll have been sitting here for almost nine hours.

The prospect didn’t seem so bad at first. I had plenty of work to do; I could do it here as easily as in a coffee shop in California. But as the hours wear on, my environment presses down on me. The wifi is shit. My traveling companion begins wandering around holding his laptop, hoping to stumble on the sweet spot where the New York Times homepage can load in less than 15 minutes. A woman seated in front of her own computer sees what he’s doing. “It’s not going to happen,” she tells him flatly. He returns, deflated. An elderly man seated a few chairs away is taking calls for a company called “Elite Tours,” talking loudly to what seem to be disgruntled customers. His loud, pop music ring tone and nasally whine begin to wear on me. He tells one caller he will be in Salt Lake City until Saturday. It’s Thursday. What the fuck is he doing at the airport?

The old man can’t stop sneezing and coughing. After awhile, the younger man seated across from him begins to sneeze as well. I am about to get SARS. “It’s like a live-action science demonstration of how you contract a disease,” my fellow traveler moans. I decide I need a glass of wine. I convince myself this is ok because it is after 5pm on the East Coast, the time zone I’m still sort of operating on, a little.

There’s a Republican debate on tonight, which I decide to watch in the lounge. There’s a couple sitting next to me drinking what appear to be cranberry and vodkas.

“I think he would make them pay for it,” the man says as Bill O’Reilly plays silently on the screen. He is referring, of course, to Donald Trump’s financing plan for his infamous wall. Later, he mentions that the U.S. let’s people “over the border, gives them jobs and welfare, and lets them vote. What’s in it for you?”

I decide not to weigh in. What’s in this for me is another glass of wine that is somehow both sweet and sour but has the benefit of being free.

As the debate begins in earnest, our section of the lounge is filling quickly. “I’m just waiting for a head-butt,” says the man behind me as the candidates take the stage. A man with dark curly hair and a thick Spanish accent sits next to me. When Trump makes note of how much fun everyone has at his rallies, we both snort with laughter.

He raises his beer to me. “It’s entertaining, no?” he says with a smile.

The room is packed now. The seats are filled so people stand in small clusters around the television. After Ted Cruz obliquely swipes at Trump as the son of a businessman, a man sitting across from me exclaims, “He’s shittin’ on Trump!” as many in the room titter.

The next Republican debate will take place on March 21 not far from where we sit now, the first time Utah has hosted a presidential primary debate. One municipal official has described the upcoming debate as the biggest thing to happen to the state since the Olympics. Our band of travelers will be long gone by then, dispersed to Austin and San Diego and Twin Falls and Pocatello. Tonight, however, we stare at the screen together, sipping our bad wine and light beers and whiskies. When it concludes, the man next to me turns to me again and raises his beer once more.

“As I said, entertaining, isn’t it?”

I raise my glass of wine back to him. He collects his suitcase, drains his glass, and walks away.

What Happens Behind the Temple Stays Behind the Temple

Mar.10.16

What Happens Behind the Temple Stays Behind the Temple

by Marco Ferrarese

Skol in Penang

Right when the nearby offices call it another day, the end of Muntri Street beside the God of Mercy Kuan Yin temple turns into an open-air lounge for degenerates. Cheap red plastic chairs of made-in-China quality sprout on the street next to tattered metal tables that would look at home in a morgue. This is Antarabangsa (translated not coincidentally as ‘The International’), George Town’s most infamous watering hole, a decaying traditional shop house manned by two generations of a Chinese family responsible for selling the cheapest alcohol on the island. The boss—a bad-ass, plumpy man in his mid-thirties—waits behind the bar next to a standing fan, no shirt on, his man boobs glistening with sweat. Towers of cigarettes, small packets of nuts, dried plums, and collections of the most gut-turning Southeast Asian whiskeys are his halo. He’s the pusher of an international array of beers neatly displayed before him in a wall of refrigerators. Skol, a European beer introduced in Malaysia by Carlsberg in 2004, has the lion’s share. Three cans go for 11 ringgit, the equivalent of mere $2.62USD.

In Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim nation where spirits are costly imports and other brands, like Singapore’s Tiger, sell for a minimum of 7 ringgit ($1.70) a can, we will never know where such cheap booze comes from. Some say it’s smuggled from nearby Thailand, others from the tax-free island of Langkawi to the north of Penang. What is certain is that you won’t find it cheaper than Antarabangsa. By 10 pm, hundreds of golden cans shimmer in the street corner’s dim lights, littering the autopsy tables as proof of each drunken group’s intoxication level. An Indonesian woman makes the rounds to collect the empties in a plastic bucket, saving them for the recycling shops that pay a few cents for aluminium.

For years, this twisted corner of Penang Island’s World Heritage Site was shunned and feared by locals because of the populace of drunken Indians and the area’s reputation for fistfights. Slowly, however, thirsty and penniless backpackers discovered the cheap Skol cans and made Antarabangsa a truly ‘international’ evening hangout. Seeing the white faces of these foreign kwailos (‘white ghosts’) sitting among the Indians, even the Chinese were convinced that Antarabangsa couldn’t be as bad as they had been told. In a predominantly Islamic nation where ethnic identity is a marker of everything, finding Chinese, Indians, and foreigners from all parts of Asia and the West rubbing elbows over beer is quite an accomplishment. Especially when Skol beer, another international champ, is the clincher.

The other side of the coin is that these days, Antarabangsa has become so flooded by backpackers that Lonely Planet should consider including it within its budget nightlife options. But with all the drunken locals swaying from the tables to the temple’s wall to pee—and sometimes vomit—in the drain, that’s hard to happen. Kuan Yin, however, keeps turning her merciful eye across Harmony Street towards the cleaner alleys of Little India. She also believes that what happens every night at the back of her temple is better kept a secret.

A Love Letter to Lagos

Mar.09.16

A Love Letter to Lagos

by Clementine Wallop

Bitter Lemons in Nigeria

It’s been a long day in Lagos and this is a small moment of slowness in a city unable to do calm.

Lagos and I, we’re sweet on each other, though my God she’s got a funny way of showing it: she bursts my car tires, holds up my meetings, wrecks my plans, throws my schedules to her warm winds. But I still love her. And, in my three last Lagosless months, I had missed her. London offers no substitute.

The noise, the rush, the incessant movement, the chatter: information here is more valuable than the ever volatile naira. I had a hundred rumors in my back pocket by lunchtime today, a thousand bits of maybe golden, maybe garbage information tucked into my handbag come twilight.

Sitting in this first-floor bar I see Nigeria’s green and white flag flapping in the breeze; sequins skintight across bodies getting ready for a night of dancing; cheery yellow motor trikes zipping past on the nearby road; huge trucks heavy with broken rocks; ladies in high heels starting their hours long commute home; security guards lolling against gate posts as a night of sitting and arranging rammed car parks stretches ahead. It’s a blue evening, freckled with rainbow dots from the swaying disco light overhead.

One friend is on the beers; here it’s usually Star or Heineken, maybe a syrupy Gulder. I’m drinking Bitter Lemon; it’s not jazzy but it’s as much my Nigeria drink as anything else. Car headlights are shining through the bottle as drivers fight for parking spaces; the turquoise plastic filter lends a near-romantic glow to proceedings.

Another friend is sipping on a Zombie, recalling the Fela Kuti song you’ll hear leaking from bus windows while you’re stuck in evening traffic, its speedy, jangly beat at odds with the static traffic.

“Zombie no go go unless you tell’em to go/Zombie no go stop unless you tell’em to stop/Zombie no go turn unless you tell’em to turn/Zombie no go think unless you tell’em to think.”

Zombies are much bastardised cocktails and here they come with a scatter of dried cinnamon from a kitchen spice pot and with an orange plastic flip-top. The barman holds a lighter over the drink, shakes the cinnamon; it burns and smells like Christmas. Our table lights up with a quick blue flame from the alcohol. Even drinks are on fire in Lagos.

It’s Not a Party Without Beer, Ham, and Automatic Weapons

Mar.08.16

It’s Not a Party Without Beer, Ham, and Automatic Weapons

by Jake Romm

Niksicksos in Kotor

Sometimes, but only rarely, good fortune comes in the form of a malevolent goat. After hiking around the Castle of San Giovanni, an old Venetian fortress located high in the mountains surrounding Kotor, Montenegro, a friend and I spotted what appeared to be a small café on the back portion of the mountain. Exhausted, sweaty, and covered in more cow dung than we were accustomed to (the portion of the mountain behind the castle is positively covered in it), we walked toward the building hoping to have a beer and take a rest before continuing our hike.

As we approached, we saw that the café was packed to the brim with people, and rather than deal with the crowd and the incredibly loud Montenegrin folk music blaring from the speakers, we decided to just keep going without our beer. That was when we ran into the goat. The goat and I eyed each other warily, then walked towards each other on the only path available. It quickly became clear that one of us was going to have to yield.

Proceeding slowly, my friend and I continued to walk, feigning indifference. Just as we were getting near the bend in the path that led up the mountain, the goat lowered its horns and broke into a trot; needless to say, the goat had won this round. Fortunately, this meant that we had no choice but to turn back towards the café and grab that beer.

But when we got to the door we were met by yet another obstacle, this time in the form of a man who told us in broken English that there was a private party going on and that we couldn’t come in. Just behind the door, however, we noticed a man who, based on his seat position and the copious amounts of rakija—desert wine—and Scotch bottles surrounding him, seemed to be the guest of honor. He yelled something in Montenegrin at the man bouncing us from the party and made an emphatic “sit down” gesture (one that we would see many more times that afternoon) with his arms.

We were allowed in and immediately served two Niksicksos (the national beer of Montenegro). Before we could take a sip, an elderly woman extended a platter of ham and cheese our way, which we initially refused, but after she began placing pieces of meat on our plates (and after the guest of honor yelled “eat!” from across the room) we acquiesced.

Sitting with our beers, more than a bit bewildered, we were able to get some information from the man sitting next to us, the only one at the party who knew any English. He informed us that the man who had demanded that we stay had just had his first child and that this was his celebration (all the more reason to celebrate because the first child was a son, a fact we were reminded of numerous times).

We smiled and toasted the new father. We were eager to climb down the mountain in order to beat the rain that been threatening to begin since morning,so we drained our beers and got up to leave and offer our congratulations. The host would have none of it, and made the same emphatic sit down motion as before. We obliged, and were immediately given two more beers and some more ham and cheese, food made just a few yards away by the host’s mother, on whose farm we were currently celebrating (the ham had that wonderful, elusive quality not often found in American meat – you could tell that it had come from an animal).

We made a couple more attempts to leave, all of which were denied. Eventually we settled in and stopped worrying about the rain. When we were finally allowed to leave, the rain had starting pouring and we were both a little drunk, but there were no more goats to harass us and the music and laughter bouncing around the mountain kept us warm on the way down.

It was a hospitality and joy at once both particular to the time and place (it isn’t everywhere that you get to watch men, drunk on rakija and ham, gleefully fire automatic weapons into the air, a proper Balkan celebration) and universal, transcending any cultural or linguistic barriers. A simple “cheers, my friends” were the only words the new father and I had exchanged, but nothing more was needed.

Starting Afresh With New Drinks and New Insults

Mar.07.16

Starting Afresh With New Drinks and New Insults

by Kiki Aranita

Jell-O Shots in Hong Kong

The phases of my Hong Kong are delineated by drinks and the places in which I consumed them. Towards the end of Year 10 and shortly after the Handover, I downed Jell-O shots with my friends in Lan Kwai Fong, perched on little stools that spilled out onto the street the way dai pai dong stools used to but seldom do now that the government has run them into near extinction. The shots came in standard Jell-O flavors, like lime and raspberry, and were delivered to us in tiny disposable cups by a man who was mostly irritated by having to serve Jell-O shots to loud-mouthed international school kids.

In Year 11, I drank cheap Chardonnay and dodged American sailors and chatty, lonely Cathay pilots passing through Soho. On less exciting days, we bought beers at Park-n-Shop, which we cheekily called “PK,” shorthand for pokgai, the Cantonese curse meaning “fall on the street!” It’s lame in translation but has as much venom as “go to hell.” We cracked the beer bottles open on the edges of escalator stairs and sipped them, only a little discreetly, on benches at Festival Walk.

My last year of high school was punctuated by nights at Staunton’s, where you can watch people tripping down along the Mid-Levels Escalator through enormous windows. Sanmarie and I hit the peak of our somewhat embarrassing amaretto sour phase at Staunton’s. Jimmy and I were sent off to college from the bar with Midori-branded rugby shirts. It is amazingly still open after all these years and still teems with gweilos.

As kids, we treated the city like a very fun sinking ship. I’ve long since moved on from amaretto sours and away from Hong Kong. In my absence, Hong Kong has evolved and in many ways, the relatively safe city to get into trouble in no longer exists.

I’ve now lived long enough in America that it’s been years since I’ve needed to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius to know if I need a coat, HKD to USD to figure out if it’s worth the money, and miles to kilometers to tell you how far I’m going. They’re also kilometers now and no longer kilometres. When I return home at Chinese New Year, it takes me a few days to acclimate, to find the right Cantonese words to use, to figure out where to go at night. To find my sea legs again.

Speakeasy-style cocktail bars are now dotted all over Soho and their offerings range from the respectable to the totally absurd. At the Envoy, I catch up with my friends over mezcal cocktails in cactus-shaped glasses. Other drinks we’ve had there: a blood-red beet juice cocktail served in a blood bag and one that comes in a bird-shaped glass tied with a tiny scroll bearing a poem. A few streets away, the Quinary serves a pyramid of foam that is their Earl Grey Caviar Martini.

In Hong Kong, nostalgia runs deep. At Little Lab in Soho, you can get an alcoholic version of yuanyang, the classic cha chaan teng combination of coffee and milk tea.

Some of the Envoy’s cocktails reach deeper into my childhood than Jell-O shots in Lan Kwai. I order a Coco Candy Old Fashioned, infused with the caramelized coconut flavor of that old-school Chinese New Year candy dish staple. The cocktail has an origami crane folded from a coco candy wrapper perched on the rim of the glass.

I’m terrible at giving directions to tourists in Hong Kong since I get around by tracking how it feels passing certain fixed landmarks. Storefronts, restaurants, and bars can be unreliable and barely factor into my mental city map. They change too often, turning over more rapidly than anywhere else. New facades and new hurdles need to be learned with every passing year. Shuttered businesses quickly fade from public consciousness, kept alive only by being glued to our memories of celebrations and sadnesses, among the background noise of momentous occasions.

In Hawaii, my other home, it is the opposite. It can feel like closed businesses never fade. On Oahu, people give directions according to where the old Arakawa store used to be, where the Liberty House was, and where Don Quijote is, but which some people still call Dai-Ei or Holiday Mart. In Hong Kong, we are constantly starting afresh, relearning the landscape and defining new phases with new Old Fashioneds.

Like a Love Affair, Drinking Moonshine Is All About Trust

Mar.03.16

Like a Love Affair, Drinking Moonshine Is All About Trust

by Shirin Bhandari

The Super Sub in Manila

“I don’t know how I got home…”

A standard line after waking from the after-effects of the Super Sub.

It was well over a decade ago in Malate—along the seedier, south side of Manila—that I first encountered this lethal concoction. The struggling bohemian lot, myself included, would brave the traffic to hang out in quaint hole-in-the-wall bars and cafés enjoying eclectic local music and good vibes. You could sit and chat with strangers without worrying about your safety.

A lot has changed since then, and finding a decent place to get a drink in one of Asia’s fastest-growing cities is close to impossible.

We all have our favorite bartenders. It’s like your first real love affair. They know what you want, when to listen, when to give, and you will never forget them. Richard was all that to me. A wiry, diminutive man, you’d be surprised at the amount he could get done behind the counter. A shot glass would be presented and filled up with Lambanog, a Philippine version of coconut vodka. It could go from 80-160 proof depending on the distillation. “You can handle it; try,” he’d smile. Like any trusting lover you’d take a swig and put on a brave face.

He had his own contacts, sourcing the arrack, as the liquor is more generically known across South Asia, directly from the northern island of Luzon. The island sits in the province of Quezon, where most coconut plantations and Lambanog distilleries from the time of the Spanish still exist. The real McCoy invariably comes delivered in an unlabeled bottle or emptied gallon of mineral water.

It’s all about trust.

There are newer versions infused with fruit and synthetic flavors, hoping to push blue-collar tastes toward high-end gastro-pub infusions. But honestly, none can come close to Lambanog in its purest form.

Little is known about the origins of The Super Sub; it was likely handed down from one great bartender to another. Drunk and passed through word of mouth, it rarely appears on any local Philippine drink lists. Richard was well known for this crudely simple mix.

A shot glass is filled with Lambanog. Then, using a water glass it is inserted upside-down into an empty, liter-sized beer mug. The upside-down shot glass is then submerged, like a submarine, with the beer of your choice. Traditionally, it calls for Red Horse (San Miguel’s extra-strong beer) or one of the lighter local variants.

One can mistake it at first glance for a regular pint, but the kick is instantaneous. As you get close to the halfway mark, the shot glass filled with moonshine starts to move. You can hear it click and clank against the mug, slowly mixing into the beer. The potent mix of the coconut arrack and beer allows for no ambiguity: you either like it and live to tell the tale of your hangover or never want to try it again. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with it through the years, as you would with an old persistent lover.

Richard has since retired. We sometimes talk when time permits. He’s settled and happy with his life at home. He’s left a small mark on the Malate drinking scene, finally handing down The Super Sub to the last bar he worked for, The Oarhouse Pub of Manila.

It’s still good, but it will never be like the first.

“Who started it?” I ask him for the nth time.

He replies with a laugh, “Why? Don’t ask, kumare. Just drink!”

The Best Little Beer Shop in Taiwan

Mar.02.16

The Best Little Beer Shop in Taiwan

by Dana Ter

Ale with Dried Longan in New Taipei City

I roll my eyes each time I read an article touting Taiwan’s street food. The food scene has become synonymous with being cheap and fast. This perception has spilled over to drinks, too. Some of it is true. Like most 20-something expats, I’ve had my share of drunken nights chugging watery Taiwan Beer on the stoop outside of a 7-Eleven. It’s a rite of passage. But a visit last summer to Pasteur Street Brewing Company in Saigon left me wondering where in Taiwan I could find craft beer.

I returned home on a mission. Henceforth, I was only going to drink locally-brewed craft beer. My friends thought I was crazy. My editor thought it was genius. My newspaper column was born out of this idea: uncovering the best bars and breweries in town to show that Taipei isn’t just a cheap city.

The sudden expansion of the craft-beer industry can be attributed to the slow food movement. People want to know more about where their food is coming from. This is largely due to Taiwan’s “gutter oil” scandal: vendors and restaurants using recycled oil collected from drains and grease traps to cook dishes. Luckily for craft brewers, the demand for healthy food has also led to a demand for good beer.

The first microbrewery I visited was in an old double-story house nestled between warehouses in the industrial district of Xinzhuang in New Taipei City. Strict laws confine most breweries to remote areas and explain the absence of brew pubs in Taiwan. Opened in late 2014—around the same time as many other breweries such as 23 Brewing and Redpoint—55th Street Craft Brewery is just a 45-minute metro ride from downtown Taipei.

Jack Yu and Johan Yan, the husband and wife who run the microbrewery, unlock a little blue door to let me in. Downstairs is a mash tank, a kettle, and six fermentation tanks. Upstairs is a room to store malt, another room containing a small miller which Jack and Johan dub “the Terminator,” and a tiny office space where they crack dried longan shells—a subtropical fruit native to Taiwan that tastes like lychee, but drier and less sweet—to make their signature Amber Ale.

Like many other craft brewers in Taiwan, Jack, a former psychology student, and Johan, a model, began brewing as a hobby before taking the leap. The name of their brewery—a reference to 55th Street in Bogota, Colombia, where Jack’s parents ran a Chinese restaurant—represents their own promising start in a nascent industry.

When Jack and Johan began brewing, they wanted to create a beer that consumers would associate as being from Taiwan: something brisk, refreshing, and reminiscent of the island’s subtropical climate. Hence the dried longan.

They explain how they peel the longans, which are sourced from a farm in Miaoli in western Taiwan. The shell goes in the mash tank along with the crystal malt they import from the UK, and the fruit’s meat goes in the kettle. The resulting Amber Ale, with a 5.5% ABV, is surprisingly not too sweet as the yeast eats away most of the sugar. The caramel taste from the malt is evident, along with delightful hints of nut and honey, and a delicate, smoky finish created by the dried longan. It’s technically early autumn when we’re drinking this but the air outside is still a little humid, and the dry, biscuity texture of the Amber Ale helps quench my thirst.

Although Jack and Johan plan to expand, for now they don’t mind being called a “cute brewery,” as I had described it. They joke that one of the benefits of being small is that they get to measure their brew cycles by the number of movies they watch while waiting.

As for the promise I made to myself, I’ve stuck to it, and won’t be popping open a can of Taiwan Beer from 7-Eleven any time soon.

Taking Shots With the Ski Bros in Tahoe

Mar.01.16

Taking Shots With the Ski Bros in Tahoe

by Kerri Allen

PB&Js at The Slot Bar

“No Snow Talk” is printed on a flimsy sheet of paper and tacked up on the wall behind a blonde, dreadlocked bartender. That’s a hefty edict here at The Slot Bar in North Lake Tahoe, where snow is what’s on everyone’s mind all day, every day, and into the night.

The 500-square-foot dive bar in Olympic Valley, CA was named in honor of a ski run at Squaw Valley Ski Resort, the site of the 1960 Olympics. Roughly 30 people can squeeze in at once, even fewer when a pair of chilly hounds bound in off their leashes from the frigid outdoors across the carpeted floor.

True locals know to go here, including people like pro skier/avalanche-survivor JT Holmes, who is bellied up to the bar. It’s hard to see, but he likely has a “PB&J,” The Slot’s go-to order: a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon with a shot of any liquor beginning with “j.” The two 50-something skiers next to him are getting loud, and the bartender is into it. Like a momma bird, he obliging pours Jameson directly into one of the men’s grey-bearded mouth.

The Slot blessedly operates outside of the moneyed quarters of Tahoe, where the mighty San Francisco tech dollar subdues bar owners and restaurateurs into packaging up mini, snowy Silicon Valley experiences. But this bar is hidden in plain sight in a strip-mall of mediocre restaurants and shops at the base of the Squaw Valley ski hill.

A girl named Connie and I order up two PB&J’s and out comes a “shotski,” an actual ski with tiny boot-shaped shot glasses glued in a row. This way, two or more people can down their shots simultaneously, theatrically (and thematically). I’ve only had a few sips of the PBR so far and don’t know what to do with this thing. Connie does. We raise the ski to our chins and flip our heads back like two Pez dispensers. Everyone in the bar turns their attention to us, including the dogs, and sloppily cheers. It feels like a college basement party, in the best possible way.

Naughty By Nature’s old rap anthem “OPP” is playing. Nearly a quarter of a century after it topped the charts, I still know every word. I’m singing every word. That’s fine because we’re in Tahoe and everyone is a ski bro and can’t justly judge a 36-year-old white lady rapping along with a song from her youth.

The East Coast beats pulse through the dank western air while a professional ski video—a kind of ubiquitous athletic porn in every ski town—plays on loop next to the “No Snow Talk” warning sign. Go ahead and look. Just don’t talk about it.

A Traveler’s Toast to Dead, Drunk Men

Feb.29.16

A Traveler’s Toast to Dead, Drunk Men

by Jen Kinney

Chacha in Georgia

The tombstone near the top of Albano Pass was the most elaborate so far. Further down the mountain they were just metal plaques strung on posts between the mile markers. Shepherds, probably, who had fallen off the road’s sheer edge while guiding their herds from Tusheti, the mountain region we were headed to, down to Kakheti, the lowland wine region we’d come from.

Twenty miles and over two hours in, we were just half way. The highest pass in the Northern Caucasus range was almost 10 miles ahead of us, the town of Omalo 20 miles beyond that—almost at the Russian border—the valley floor dizzingly far below. Uri was calm in the driver’s seat, easing the car around hairpin turns; Christine was chatty. But Yuval and I clutched our hearts every time Uri threw the Jeep in reverse to let another car pass. The road was barely 12 feet wide, and clung hoveringly to the mountain as though static electricity held it there. Herds of cows swarmed our car at the narrowest passes.

We stopped to rest at the stately tombstone on its windy ridge. It was sheer black marble and embossed with the silvery likenesses of four men: youngish, paunchy cheeks, thick eyebrows, vaguely haloed. At the base of their tombstone was the fender of a car and a bottle of chacha.

A clear alcohol made from the grape skins and stems leftover from winemaking, chacha is the Republic of Georgia’s version of grappa, a Georgian moonshine that burns in the sinuses and doesn’t easily loosen its grip the morning after. Before we even set out on this road, supposedly one of the most dangerous in Georgia, we heard about this tombstone. The men apparently died driving off the road, drunk. Tied to one of posts of their gravestone is a khantsi, a drinking horn, central to Georgia’s culture of ritual toasting. By tradition a toastmaster, the tamada, announces the topic for each round, and the assembled drink up, the whole horn at once.

Travelers are meant to toast here, too; to the dead, drunk men or to their own safe passage, we weren’t sure. We didn’t take the chance. On the way up Uri and Yuval—an Israeli couple in a rented Jeep with whom we’d hitched a ride just that morning—had told us it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In Jewish tradition, it is the day God writes every living being’s name in the Book of the Living or the Book of the Dead.

We left the grave and trundled on for hours instead—our stomachs jilted and empty, the gas tank dwindling—to Omalo, a town of about 50 Georgians with a nearly equal number of Israeli travelers. We toasted chacha to the road from the safety of our guesthouse, while Uri and Yuval told us about life in Israel, about state-issued gas masks, climbing onto rooftops to watch missiles explode like fireworks during the Gulf War. The town below us was silent in late October, nearly the end of the season for tourist and local alike. The road would close by November, impassable in the snow.

Photo: Christine Armbruster

Happy Hour at the Grand Budapest Hotel of Himachal Pradesh

Feb.24.16

Happy Hour at the Grand Budapest Hotel of Himachal Pradesh

by Brian Patrick Eha

Whisky at Toshali

The bar has to be unlocked for us—that’s the odd thing.

The staff of Toshali Royal View Resort are, naturally, surprised by our presence: two white guys strolling into a hotel in the lower Himalayas, sweat cooling on their skin, monkey sticks in hand and camera bags slung across their chests. But does no other patron of the hotel—indeed, nobody else for miles around—have a thirst?

It’s April, and I’m spending several days with a close friend and fellow writer in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Our rented house is a veritable aerie, perched on the edge of a cliff at about 8,000 feet, despite which rhesus macaques think nothing of leaping onto the overhanging patio to join us for breakfast. (The caretaker keeps a loaded air rifle within easy reach to discourage this overfamiliarity of lesser primates.) The house is owned by a wealthy Indian couple who live much of the year, when not traveling abroad, in New Delhi. The man is a retired executive of British American Tobacco and, in his wife’s estimation, a born hotelier—a compliment he plans to put to the test by building a retreat of two dozen rooms somewhere not far from his own home.

For now, though, Toshali’s is the only nearby bar, and so on our second night we make the steep, half-mile walk to have a drink.

The bellhop leads us through the hotel, down a flight of stairs, and out to a sort of back porch or balcony—a long uncovered walkway overlooking a ruined garden. Densely forested mountains spread out to the horizon. A sign elsewhere advertises the area, notable for its alpine beauty, as “40 Acres of Switzerland.”

But we have scant time to admire the view. Farther down the porch, the attendant has stopped to unlock the bar.

Is “bar” the right term? You expect a place of laughter and talk, conducive to social activity. But inside it’s a time capsule, airless and dead. Images of Elvis and Marilyn grace the walls. Drooping potted plants do nothing to freshen the room, which is crowded with low armchairs. In the center stands an uneven billiard table and there is a rack of pool cues on the wall.

We make the best of it. The bellhop steps behind the bar and my friend and I order a couple of whiskies: Johnny Walker Black on the rocks. We set down our gear and start a game of pool.

It’s when a second attendant suddenly appears to join the first that I begin to be unnerved. With nothing to occupy them, they stand idly behind the bar, not speaking. We order a second round and go on playing, trying to ignore their stares. But we don’t stick around for long.

As I write this now, the receipt is in front of me. The whiskies—”Black Lable” [sic]—were 300 rupees apiece, but our final bill came only to 960 rupees, thanks to a 20 percent discount for … happy hour.

Strange as it is, however, the hotel does have a forlorn charm; and besides, it’s the only watering hole around. So we return two or three times to cool our heels in between hikes. It’s always the same story: no matter when we arrive, the bar has to be opened for us, and no other patron ever enters.

Yet invariably we are served by not one, but two bartenders. They seem ill-equipped for the job. Once, we make the mistake of ordering the so-called signature cocktail, a highball concoction of vodka, orange juice, pineapple juice, ice, and other elements, which order compels one of the barmen to vanish into the bowels of the hotel for upwards of twenty minutes on a hunt for the ingredients.

On first sighting, the resort struck us as a spectacular, old, layer-cake hotel, like something out of a Wes Anderson film. Yet now it seems deserted, desolate. Upstairs, walking the halls, we encounter not a soul, only an uncanny emptiness. The walls are hung with framed and faded images of American presidents and first ladies, each one numbered and accompanied by a history lesson—”Although it seems hard to believe today, there was a time when our presidents felt safe traveling without a host of Secret Service agents or policemen to protect them”—as if it had been torn from an old textbook.

By now we’re joking about it: the ghost hotel with no guests, a sort of Flying Dutchman of the hospitality industry. But the atmosphere is truly spooky.

Back down in the bar, intending to make light of the whole thing, I begin playing The Grand Budapest Hotel soundtrack on my phone. The game of pool drags on, the uneven table giving us fits. The barmen stand, watching as silently as ever, but crowding close now, almost at our elbows, following the progress of our balls on the smooth baize.

My friend, after an interminable stretch of shooting at the eight ball, knocks it into the wrong corner, forfeiting the game.

A Drink of Wine-Colored Flowers Spiked With Whiskey

Feb.23.16

A Drink of Wine-Colored Flowers Spiked With Whiskey

by Barbara Wanjala

Bissap in Dakar

Bissap, a purple-red juice made from dried flowers of the hibiscus, is the national drink of Senegal. I had arrived in Dakar in mid-July as Ramadan was drawing to a close. I received a warm welcome, for which I soon learned the Wolof word. Téranga meant hospitality; the Senegalese are renowned for their warmth. I received plenty of hospitality in the form of endless glasses of chilled bissap. A cold drink on a hot afternoon is always a delight, and bissap was the perfect tonic for Dakar’s heat and humidity.

I first had bissap three years ago in Addis Ababa, at the house of my Senegalese friend Marie. We had met quite randomly in Arat Kilo in the heart of Ethiopia’s government district, two magpies drawn to a jewelery stall on the side of the square. United by our mutual interest in African history—the Arat Kilo monument was built to commemorate Ethiopia’s liberation from Italy—and common language—she was from Senegal and I spoke French—we became fast friends. A few days after we met, she invited me to her house for a meal and offered me a cold glass of bissap to go with it.

The hibiscus is a tropical plant whose many virtues are celebrated from Haiti to Malaysia. Big, red hibiscus flowers were in bloom everywhere I went on Gorée Island off the coast of Dakar, where I had visited the House of Slaves, the monument to human suffering was Senegal’s most popular tourist destination. During a walk in search of wax-print fabric in the HLM quartier, a new American friend and I stumbled across an old woman selling dried hibiscus beside a street barber. The wine-colored flowers spilled out of the tattered sack onto the tarmac.

Upon my return to Nairobi, I sought out authentic Senegalese bissap. I found it at Le Palanka, with a twist. The cocktail menu at the aforementioned purveyor of fine African cuisine had some interesting and inventive mixes. I asked Stanley the bartender for a bissap-based cocktail. He proposed Évasions, made from bissap, whiskey, and lime juice. At first sip, I tasted the slight tartness of bissap, which is easily remedied by a sweetener. Stanley sweetened the drink. Now it was perfect. I highly doubt that my Senegalese friends would welcome the addition of whiskey to their national drink, but Évasions is true to its name: escapes. After two drinks, I was on the other side of the continent, frolicking in the Atlantic. Perhaps Stanley should have been less generous with the whiskey.

The Point of Diminishing Returns for Adult-Beverage Enthusiasts

Feb.22.16

The Point of Diminishing Returns for Adult-Beverage Enthusiasts

by William Whelan

Pear Brandy on Alameda Point

Through rusted hangers and wide, unpainted parking lots that used to be the Alameda Naval Air Station, I can barely make out the city’s skyline. A dense layer of fog is settled across the San Francisco Bay.

Once the fog deepens, nearly covering the western span of the Bay Bridge, the deserted base looks more like the abandoned movie set it was than the burgeoning home of alcohol innovation it has become.

On October 17, 2014, then-Alameda Mayor Marie Gilmore christened a half-mile stretch of Alameda Point “Spirits Alley,” home to two wineries, America’s first eau de vie distillery, the newest incarnation of Hangar 1 Vodka, and a brewery. This is why I’m here: to conquer the gauntlet of three tasting menus open to the public.

When I nearly moved to the island ten years ago, nothing about Alameda Point suggested it would ever become such a buzz-worthy spot to catch a buzz, or even to get satisfactorily wasted.

“It was a bit of a ghost town,” says St. George Spirits proprietor and master distiller Lance Winters. “The biggest change is the influx of life. We’ve gone from having a few people on weekends to close to 40,000 visitors a year to our tasting room.”

There are no tour limousines or grand road signs here. The grape vines, ornate drive ways, and pervasive pretentiousness of Napa Valley tasting rooms, which Winters feels can seem hollow in their pursuit of gravitas, feel more distant than the 45 miles that lie between us.

In 2004, St. George Spirits opened its doors in Alameda Point after 34 years due north in Emeryville, following which they released the first legal absinthe in America since the 1912 ban was lifted on its domestic production. Kent Rosenblum, known best as the man behind Rosenblum Cellars, now calls the neighborhood home for his latest venture. Faction Brewing and Building 43 Winery also set up shop before the ribbon-cutting ceremony back in 2014.

The first thing I notice inside the doors of St. George is a gigantic, terrifyingly life-size shark—used as a prop for Samuel L. Jackson’s finest work, Deep Blue Sea—sitting just beyond the tasting room’s glass windows across the main distilling floor. A multitude of stills sit in the background. Our energetic hosts welcome visitors to try the lineup of specialty distillations in the sleek, modern tasting room.

The spirits are many and mouthwatering, not to mention effective on this writer’s empty stomach. In particular, the Dry Rye Gin and Pear Brandy shine through as favorites.

Next door at Faction, the beer flights fly out from behind the wooden counter. The tasting room is half the size of St. George’s but opens up into the main hangar area, where the women’s restroom is a quick 100-yard dash across the building.

There’s an IPA or two, alongside a variety of other ales and specialty brews. At this point, though, even the most valiant of adult-beverage enthusiasts reaches the point of diminishing returns. Promises of winery visits just down the street ultimately go unfulfilled—promises that, according to Winters, should be made for a separate visit, depending on the “willpower of the individual” in question. Directions given to designated drivers trying to find their way to Alameda Point become less and less precise. The need for seared meat and buttered potatoes has never been more dire.

In the darkness, the fog settles on ghostly runways left to overgrowth, a reminder of Alameda Point’s past amid promising signs of its future.

“I enjoy the juxtaposition of being able to make these spirits in that sort of an industrial environment,” Winters says. “There’s a lot of beauty in having that kind of wasteland expanse and have the distillery be a part of it.”

What Sort of Monster Would Put Mint in a Drink Made With Chicken

Feb.18.16

What Sort of Monster Would Put Mint in a Drink Made With Chicken

by Noah Schumer

Pájaro Azul in Bolívar Province

It took four men to haul Tobías Azogue’s sugar mill onto the truck bed, its tap dripping liquor on their hands. I climbed up after them, grabbing onto a banana plant to keep myself stable. To the right, tourists tip-toed on the Salinas salt mine. To the left, there was mayhem in the town plaza.

It was a Monday in early February, the peak of the Carnival celebration in Ecuador, and the relative order of that morning’s parade was giving way to something more anarchic as the afternoon wore on. Teenagers took up strategic rooftop positions, dropping water balloons on unsuspecting pedestrians. Kids armed with canisters of foam sprayed people and things at random. Borrachos trampled on half-eaten potatoes scattered across the ground. A round man in a dress danced alone with a baby doll, his identity hidden by a black Mama Negra mask. Azogue and his friends prepared to set off for another town; their work here stirring up good-natured trouble—distributing a homemade brew of Bolívar Province’s most famous spirit, Pájaro Azul—was apparently over.

Before taking off, Azogue, a carpenter from La Palma, described to me his process for preparing Pájaro Azul. He’d picked up the hobby four years ago on a trip to a hacienda in Echeandía, a subtropical canton one hour to the west, where the Andes meet the Tropical Lowlands.

“We spend eight days cutting the sugarcane, milling it, and turning it into guarapo,” he said, using the word for sugercane juice. “After the whole concoction ferments, we return again to cook the venilla”—the leftover sugarcane rind—”and out comes the puro.”

Azogue’s friend leaned over, reminding him to talk into the tape recorder.

“Then we add oranges, strawberries, grapes, apricots, plums, and apples,” he continued. “And some people”—he said the words with a hint of disdain—“like to add coconut and mint.”

Various herbs are also crushed and mixed in, including anís. Bits of beef and chicken are added near the end (“vitamins,” as Azogue called them, and also the inspiration for the name pájaro, or bird).

He poured me half a shot in a disposable medicine cup.

“You like it? he said.

Given all the ingredients, I was surprised, to be honest, that this version of Pájaro Azul tasted pretty much like a standard aguardiente: vaguely poisonous licorice.

“Que chévere,” I said.

Then we were done. I took Azogue’s picture and left the truck. His friends hopped in the cabin to drive away, Azogue still sitting next to the mill, grinning and waving.

My girlfriend Maritza and I walked back to the plaza, ducking grenades of foam. Soon clouds rolled in, blinding the town at 12,000 feet above sea level, and we took cover from the rain under a cafe awning on the edge of the square. We watched as neighborhood groups from around the province danced, and from a nearby stage a panel of judges waited to assign a cash prize to the day’s best performer.

If You’re Going to Order a Negroni in January in Paris, Just Do Whatever You Want

Feb.17.16

If You’re Going to Order a Negroni in January in Paris, Just Do Whatever You Want

by Andrew Durant

Apéritifs in Paris

Apéritifs are a serious concern in Europe; they are meant to be consumed during a specific time of day and for a specific purpose, and they serve as a benchmark for the continent’s long-established and sophisticated drinking culture that is heartbreakingly lacking in North America. So when my wife and I strolled into a Paris bistro around midnight and ordered two Negronis, we were already conspicuously out of place.

It wasn’t only that it was well past the appropriate hour for apéritifs, but the cool, early-January rain that had been falling all day suggested almost anything but a refreshing, crisp tribute to summer. It’s one of my true failings as a drinker; when I’m in the mood for Campari, it’s all that will satiate my palate, situational relevance be damned.

We had been in Paris over New Year’s Eve, and the tangible reluctance to reverie surrounding the holiday so soon after the November terrorist attacks certainly made an impression. What I hadn’t anticipated was that so many restaurants would still be closed on the Monday after New Year’s weekend. The bar just a few short blocks from our rented apartment in the 3rd was chosen more out of necessity than anything else.

After a harried waiter set two Negronis on the table, I received my first genuine surprise of the evening as I tasted the exceptional bitter, strong, and sweet components. Because of my prejudices and memories of previous trips to the country, I still didn’t often expect great cocktails in France, especially not at an unassuming neighborhood joint. This, however, was among the cleanest, most well-balanced Negronis I’ve ever tasted.

As we sipped, a group of locals seated at the bar stools and some tables nearby took turns passing around a guitar, playing short songs and singing in French as though this section of the bar was their own personal studio. It was difficult to tell just how closely connected they were, and although they numbered only about ten people, their liveliness made the room seem on the precipice of being packed.

The guitar was finally passed to a man next to me, and after listening for several minutes, I eventually asked in my shamefully unpracticed French if he knew any American songs. While his response was, “Oui,” his expression read, “Surely you have something specific in mind?”

A jovial man with gray hair, a thick, gray beard, and a suede sport jacket soon suggested Elvis, and I remembered that “Suspicious Minds” is particularly well-suited to my key. Our guitar player launched into the chords without hesitation, the first of many songs I would hear him play from memory with startling precision. While the bearded patron and I didn’t exactly harmonize, our performance drew an appreciative response from the rest of the crowd.

Following another round of Negronis for us and beer for our new friends, we stumbled through renditions of Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” more Elvis, and some Elton John. I discovered that, through some combination of the Negronis and my unreliable memory, I couldn’t summon the verses of most of these songs with nearly the accuracy with which our guitar player could conjure the chords. This hurdle had little effect on the group’s spirits, thankfully.

Right as we were about to leave, the guitar savant asked with his thick accent if we knew any “Simon et Garfunkel,” and I smiled, wondering how I could have forgotten about two of my favorite artists of all time as he began strumming the melancholy intro to “Sounds of Silence.” I never knew to whom the guitar belonged, but its appearance made after-midnight apéritifs in Paris seem like the most natural decision ever.

Photo: Geoff Peters

Drinking a Liter of Rocket Fuel on Valentine’s Day

Feb.16.16

Drinking a Liter of Rocket Fuel on Valentine’s Day

by Charlotte Allan

Umqombothi in Gugulethu

Mzoli’s is deafening. Kwaito and African house music are blasting out the door on a Sunday afternoon while I’m waiting for my bottle of Umqombothi. I’ve spoken to a stall holder. He knows a guy who knows a guy who’s gone to find me some of this home-brewed beer. Soon I have a liter and a half in a Stoney’s Ginger Beer bottle.

I’m in a township on the Cape Flats called Gugulethu and I’m armed with my bottle of moonshine. In we go. The smell of meat cooking wafts through the air at Mzoli’s and bodies are wiggling. My crew finds a table and sits down to taste this chalky, mealie drink.

Kwesa!

Mouths pucker into emoticons of distaste; however, on the second gulp I realize I rather like it. Swiping the bottle, I decide to take a look around. Empty green bottles cover every surface. There’s a black girl singing “watch me whip, watch me nae nae” and giving the side eye to a circle of white girls making awkward hip movements. This is one of the few places in Cape Town where people that live in the townships and people that live in the Cape Town suburbs almost mix socially. Gugulethans travel into Cape Town daily, but Cape Townians don’t often travel in the other direction.

I’ve drunk up to where the label starts and realize too late this stuff is rocket fuel. I chat away, smashed, on the dance floor, while lugging round a liter and a half of Umqombothi in a Stoney’s Ginger Beer bottle that’s almost the same size as I am. Figuring out my origins, a local woman tell me she loves Manchester City football club. She says she’d love to play football but her church will call her a lesbian and she’ll be thrown out of her community if she sets up a team. Thump thump thump goes the music.

Gay boys are popping shapes over to the side, loud and proud and entertaining the crowd. I meet a bunch of lady farm laborers from Verbouw who thought it would be fun to come to town for the weekend. Would they like some Umqombothi? “Ahahahahaha, no man,” they say, which makes me realize that if alcohol is a social status, then my offering is at the bottom of the pile.

I sit in a plastic chair watching people watching people. There are a few casual inter-racial chats but everyone goes back to their groups mostly, shoulder to shoulder in their disinterest.

However, to the side there’s a black boy and white girl kissing gently. As I sit drinking my home brew, they are lost in their own time and space, two teenagers trying to find a private corner in which to have their own romantic moment on St. Valentine’s Day.

A Neutral Bar in a Divided City

Feb.10.16

A Neutral Bar in a Divided City

by Michelle Arrouas

Wine in Mostar

I quickened my pace as I left the fishermen’s spot below the Ottoman bridge, seeking shelter from the rain that had just begun to fall and the incessant pickup artists that had appeared before sunset. I walked into the first bar I stumbled upon after climbing the stone stairs to the cobblestoned alley.

It was a typical pub in an atypical setting, and at first that was the only thing that struck me. With its small stage, wooden tables, stickers from unknown blues bands, and ceilings covered in flags from all over the world, The Black Dog Pub looked like any other expat pub in the Balkans, but it didn’t look like any other bar in Mostar. The area surrounding the bridge, the Stari Most, had been destroyed during the Croat-Bosniak War in the early 90s and was still being rebuilt. It seemed to consist mainly of touristy wannabe Ottoman restaurants in rebuilt Turkish houses. The pub was a stark departure from that.

I took a seat in the bar and ordered a glass of white wine, quickly realizing I should have gone for a craft beer from the local Old Bridgz Brewery instead. The bartender Stephen struck up conversation; he was the owner of the bar, a 40-something expat from Seattle. He’d come to the country in 1994 to work in emergency medicine, married a woman when the war was over, and decided to stay after the divorce.

Unlike the rest of the city, the bar was busy. I asked Stephen how he managed to draw such a crowd despite the tourist season being months away and the streets nearly empty.

“Locals come here, it’s the only foreign-owned bar in the city,” he shrugged before leaving the bar to welcome some regulars.

It took me a moment to connect the dots. I knew Mostar was divided by more than the river that cut though the city; the ethnic and religious divide runs much deeper than the Neretva. More than 20 years after the war ended, the west bank is still held by Croats while Muslim Bosniaks hold the east. Both parties have resisted foreign pressure and initiatives to reintegrate. The city, with a population of just over 100,000, has two universities, two postal networks, two electricity companies, two phone networks, and two utility services. As Stephen told me when he returned, it also has two sets of bars: those that Croats frequent, and those that mainly cater to the Muslim Bosniaks. He welcomed everyone, and that’s why he was always busy, he said. A young guy behind the bar nodded supportingly.

“Because the owner is foreign, not Muslim or Croatian, everyone can come here and they don’t need to worry about anything,” the bartender, Saša, an Orthodox Serb, said. “It’s different times now; the city isn’t as divided, but sometimes we still worry when we go to a bar on the other side of the river. We still go, but we do worry.” The Black Dog Pub is popular for another reason, he added when Stephen had gone to greet another regular; it’s one of only two or three bars that stay open throughout the winter.

I emptied my glass of wine and left the bar. The rain had increased while the pickup artists had either gotten lucky or gone home; the streets were all but empty. I paused for a moment when I crossed the bridge, its wet stones slippery from the rain. They were bright and clean, their pristine state revealing how new they were. The bridge had been rebuilt 10 years after it was destroyed by Croatian artillery shells. When it reopened in 2004, UNESCO hailed it as a symbol of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. The cultural divide, which dated to long before the destruction of the bridge, would take longer to mend.

A Love Letter to Britain’s Top Ghost Town

Feb.09.16

A Love Letter to Britain’s Top Ghost Town