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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

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

by Clementine Wallop

Sharp’s Atlantic in Margate

Six years ago, Margate, a seaside spot on the Kent coast and formerly a family favorite for summer holidays, was among Britain’s top ghost towns.

Guesthouse rooms were given over to asylum seekers rather than holiday makers, the amusement park was shuttered, and around a third of shops were boarded up after the recession hit hard. Many of Britain’s old-time coastal resorts do a nostalgic line in faded seaside glamour, but this was more spectral than sentimental.

Now the lights are back on: the Turner Contemporary gallery and an influx of artists and designers have helped drive a renaissance, and Dreamland, the amusement park, is back open for business following a trippy, camp, technicolor makeover. Old shops have new incarnations, many of them selling old things that are newly fashionable again.

This doesn’t feel like somewhere that hipsters and long-time residents divide or where there’s a bisection of what’s available to newcomers and what’s accessible to those already there; it’s a place whose people are united in their excitement about the second coming, pleased they’re no longer the poster child for the decline of the British seaside.

Here in a twinkly boite in Margate’s Old Town, I am drinking a pint of Sharp’s Atlantic. To my right there’s a guy with a mustache dressed like it’s 1880; the woman tending bar is a punk rock star in a torn up t-shirt; at the table across the narrow room are two retirement-age couples on a double date. Shining on the walls are signs straight from the fairground: Funky Swirl, Helter Skelter, The Love Tunnel.

In London, it’s the kind of bar that makes some people roll their eyes: repurposed bits of hairdresser kit, fairground signs, old posters, part of a carousel sporting that curly, gold-trimmed script reserved for seaside towns. Here it’s what now, gloriously, a local looks like: both a little bit now and a little bit then. It’s for cool kids, for grannies, for the holidaymakers like us once again in Margate for the weekend.

We finish our pints and I get up out of the salon chair. It’s a cold night and there’s a warm light from pub windows and restaurant doorways. Out by the harbor arm there’s a rosy glow, a message written in pink neon across the front of the visitor center by British artist Tracey Emin, who grew up in Margate. “I never stopped loving you,” it says.

The Rarest, Most Coveted Beer in the World

Feb.03.16

The Rarest, Most Coveted Beer in the World

by Janelle Bitker

Westvleteren 12 in Brussels

It happened by accident.

I was shopping for beer, as I often did while living in Brussels. But instead of handing over a few euros and being on my way, I noticed a strange look in the shop owner’s eyes. He carefully scanned the empty bottle shop before leaning in close.

“I have some beer in the back,” he whispered.

I raised my eyebrows.

“Westvleteren 12,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. I just stumbled upon the rarest, most coveted beer in the world. With a mere nod, I pulled out another 11 euros and walked away cradling my unlabeled, yellow-capped baby.

Westvleteren 12 is a Trappist ale, brewed by monks at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in western Belgium. Specifically, five monks. Production is extraordinarily low—lower than any other Trappist brewery by far—because the monks only brew as much as they need to maintain their quiet lifestyle. It’s been more or less that way since 1931, which was still nearly a century after the brewery began.

Profit? Notoriety? Being named the world’s best beer time and time again? Those matters are of no concern to the Saint Sixtus Abbey.

With so many beer fans keen on trying Westvleteren and so few bottles available, there are, of course, many rules. I didn’t follow any of them.
You are supposed to call and place your order in advance. Sounds easy enough, but according to Reuters, as many as 85,000 calls are made per hour. If you somehow get through, you can only order one case every 60 days per phone number and license plate number.

Of course, this breeds a black market, which the monks are extremely displeased about.

Alas, I didn’t know all of this when I first held that Westvleteren 12. I just knew its reputation and that I was very, very lucky to have found it. And when I finally cracked open the bottle, I felt nervous. What would I think? Did my lack of beer expertise mean I wouldn’t enjoy it? Wouldn’t understand it? Did I deserve Westvleteren 12?

Probably not.

I grabbed a glass anyway. It poured a dark, russet brown with a thick, creamy head. Notes of cherry, plum and fig mingled with spices and caramel. Its maltiness was assertive, but not overwhelmingly. And it was sweet, but not cloying. Most of all, it went down smooth. At 10.2 percent alcohol, dangerously smooth.

Still, I considered other Belgian quadruples I’d tasted in the past, namely Rochefort 10 and St. Bernardus Abbey 12. Both are fabulous, rich brews with similarly bold and complex flavor profiles. They are also less than half the price, and readily available both in Belgium and abroad. Does Westvleteren 12 only have its cult following because of its scarcity? Is it the darker version of Pliny the Younger, another winner of the World’s Best Beer title that draws seven-hour lines once a year to Northern California’s Russian River Brewing?

I felt my face: toasty warm and pleasantly drunk. Sometimes, it’s best not to overthink things.

Viking Graves and Drinking Outside in Freezing Weather Sounds Like Peak Norway

Feb.02.16

Viking Graves and Drinking Outside in Freezing Weather Sounds Like Peak Norway

by Carol Patterson

Cocktails in Leikanger

I couldn’t pronounce it, but within hours of arriving in the municipality of Sogndal in western Norway, I experienced friluftsliv. Roughly translated as “open-air living,” it is a point of pride for Norwegians. Learning outdoor skills is enshrined in the school curriculum and the law guarantees people rights of access across open land. Stores close mid Saturday afternoon in rural Norway and don’t open again until Monday. Weekends are for exploring the outdoors with family: hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter, or gathering berries if your knees are shot.

I had started my day with yoga outside, holding a triangle pose in the cold, in the rain and in the dark; the sun doesn’t come up until almost 9 am in late November. I followed it with a few hours kayaking on Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. I wasn’t surprised to find dinner at a farmhouse built in 1760 would start with cocktails outside. Where better to experience friluftsliv?

Norwegians have a long history of open-air living. Until the 1960s, their dependence on agriculture and fishing meant people spent lots of time outdoors. I even overheard some locals claim friluftsliv was better if the weather was bad, claiming it made for bigger challenges and greater satisfaction. That may be how the Norwegians roll, but I prayed for mild weather for my outdoors cocktails.

At the appointed hour, our group made our way to the community of Leikanger, arriving as the sun set a mere seven hours after it appeared and the temperature dipped below freezing. We walked past baskets of apples gathered from nearby orchards and settled around a small fire in a drafty, wooden shelter. The fire provided welcome warmth for my chilled hands.

Our hostess told us there were Viking graves nearby as she passed out goblets of champagne and recalled her family’s history. Her father told her the graves contained bodies from a 13th-century battle between Vikings sailing the fjord; however, carbon dating of the burial site had disproved that theory. Scientists said the bones were not old enough by several decades to have been the people in the battle.

Our hostess seemed dismayed that her father’s tale was not true, but a man in our group announced he was an expert on carbon dating and that due to diet deficiencies he had observed in the region, the carbon dating could have been off by the amount of time in question. Everyone cheered at having solved the mystery, and we raised our glasses in a toast to Vikings and friluftsliv.

Talking to Old Drunks at the Greatest Honky Tonk in Nashville

Feb.01.16

Talking to Old Drunks at the Greatest Honky Tonk in Nashville

by Winona Dimeo-Ediger

RC Cola and Rum at The Nashville Palace

“Are they bothering you, honey?” the bartender asks, nodding her head toward a pair of giggly, white-haired men sitting next to me and my friend Celeste. We’re perched on stools at the raised bar looking down at the stage, and these two elderly Casanovas have been earnestly trying to pick us up for about an hour, mostly by slurring the words “pretty girls!” in our ears at top volume.

I smile at the bartender and shake my head no. They’re on the verge of being annoying, but for now I’m writing them off as part of The Nashville Palace experience. Most of the people here are in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. It’s always like this: silver perms and bolo ties twirling on the dance floor, grandfatherly men greeting me with “Hi, little lady” on the way to the bathroom. A few minutes ago the band took a break from their set to announce that today is their steel guitarist’s birthday: he’s turning 91. “Please tip accordingly,” the singer says, holding up a giant mayo jar stuffed with dollar bills.

The bartender is clearly unconvinced by my answer. She glares at the two men as she wipes down the counter where they just spilled half a beer. “Well, let me know if you change your mind and I’ll take care of ‘em.” It’s a genuine threat wrapped in a warm southern twang. I believe her. The band starts playing a Buck Owens ballad and I order another RC Cola and rum. Celeste laughs and asks for another beer.

We make a toast. “To the best honky tonk in Nashville,” we say, plastic cup clinking against beer bottle.

The Nashville Palace is 10 miles away from the craziness of downtown, across the street from the Grand Ole Opry and a sprawling outlet mall. The thing I love most about it, besides the flirty retiree crowd, is that it’s always busy but never crowded. I used to love going to the honky tonks on Broadway, but as the crowds have gotten bigger and rowdier, my visits became less frequent. I hit my breaking point a couple years ago when a tiara-wearing bachelorette hit me in the head with a blow-up doll while screaming “VIVA NASHVEGGGAAASSSS!”

It’s common knowledge that Nashville has changed a lot, that Nashville is still changing. We’re an “it city,” reaping all the benefits and detriments that accompany that title. Historic brick buildings are coming down. Glass luxury condos are going up. I’ve lived here for three years, which means I’m unquestionably part of “the new Nashville,” but it’s a testament to the insane pace of change here that even I’m nostalgic for “how things used to be.”

The Nashville Palace is where I come to indulge that nostalgia, as unearned as it may be. The bands here play classic country. The tourists are more likely to arrive in RVs than party buses. Dolly Parton’s leather jacket is displayed proudly on the wall. There’s a sign hung in the lobby that says, “Randy Travis: former Palace cook, dishwasher, and now famous star.” There’s a piece of paper taped to a table by the stage that says “Reserved for Burt and Carol.” If you order Pepsi, they give you RC Cola.

Earlier tonight, Celeste and I stopped into the Willie Nelson Museum next door to get our fortunes read by an old Zoltar machine that had been re-accessorized Willie-style, with grey braids and a bandana. My fortune said, “There are more old drunks than old doctors so pour yourself another one.”

The two old drunks next to me are about to get kicked out, but they don’t know it yet. “Pretty girls!” they yell again, but I can barely hear them over the sound of another old man, the one playing the hell out of that steel guitar.

A Little Corner of Earth and a Big Box of Wine Can Make Anyone Smile

Jan.28.16

A Little Corner of Earth and a Big Box of Wine Can Make Anyone Smile

by Meghan Nesmith

Boxes of Wine in Southern France

Five o’clock is Van Gogh hour in southern France, when the light pales in the vineyards such that you are suddenly convinced you could be a master painter. The swallows are doing their ritual evening dive-bombing, careening to the surface of the pool with a singular, ferocious precision. Someone pops a bag of Casino brand crisps—France’s catastrophically salty, wafer-thin potato chips—and we fill our glass tumblers from one of the “bag-in-box” wines that have been unceremoniously shoved in the fridge. We drink on the terrace, a single ice cube mellowing the subtle, honeysuckle-scented viognier, the slight tart pinch of the rosé.

We’re deep in Rhône country, Provence’s quiet, un-showy sister. One of France’s largest wine-growing AOCs, the Côtes du Rhône region benefits from the highly alkaline soils around the bed of the Rhône River, which runs from Switzerland down to its silty, humid end in the Mediterranean, and which allows winemakers to produce the rustic, easy-drinking grenache and syrah blends commonly known as Côtes du Rhône Villages. In the hushed burnt-stone hill towns, the vendors at the local brocantes break for lunch by laying out a white, embroidered tablecloth and topping it with two glasses, a bottle of unmarked red in the center.

We’ve arrived in the stop-gap before high season, and on our first day we walk the lane to our neighbors’ in the petit hameau, who produce a modest 2000 hectoliters of Côtes du Rhône annually. We’ve been told to buy our wine in bulk, in the bag-in-box (or “bib”) cases that have become popular in France in the last decade as wine by the glass became an acceptable way to drink in restaurants, and owners found it a more economical way to sell and store. While the best vintages are never boxed (wine won’t age in plastic), table wines are happily dispensed in the cardboard bibs. It’s the kind of wine you pony up with at a picnic, or bbq; this is France, they won’t judge. Rosé fares the best; reds are hit or miss, although for the less refined palate they’ll do just fine.

While boxed wine is gaining a small toehold in the American market, it remains mostly relegated to the bottom shelf of the supermarket wine aisle. So we’re nervous, and yet still convinced we’ve misheard when they quote us 14 euros for the five-liter box.

“I’m sure three boxes will be enough,” we say, and return two days later, heads down, to buy three more.

The viognier is a perfect match for the great oozing hunks of Tomme de Savoie; the rosé tastes somehow even better over ice. Even the red is satisfying, dirty yet without bite, a perfect match for ratatouille. We drink and drink and drink. The baby eats cherries for the first time: we pick them from trees and feed them to her like birds, removing the pits with our teeth and tongues before handing her the flesh. Later she pukes cherry all over the rented car seat, the carnage shockingly red.

One of us used to work as a florist, so she gathers great armfuls of broom and wild poppies and arranges them in bottles around the house. The May afternoons are hot but broken by the as-yet-unhurried early breezes of the mistral. The Latin phrase etched in stone on the turret of the villa (loosely translated by the vigneron next door from his shaky Latin to French, and from our shaky French to English) reads, “This little corner of the earth, more than any other, makes me smile,” and, as we return to the fridge for another glass, we do.

When Your Plans Are Thwarted by the Extended Stay of a Che Enthusiast

Jan.26.16

When Your Plans Are Thwarted by the Extended Stay of a Che Enthusiast

by Anna-Catherine Brigida

Mixta at El Portal

Oscar doesn’t seem surprised when I sit down at a bar and ordered a mixta, a mixture of light and dark beer, alone on a Monday at 4 pm. He seems to know exactly why I’m here. Tourists often visit El Portal with questions about Che Guevara, who supposedly frequented the bar in the 1950s. Oscar, who tells me he is 73, claims to remember Guevara from serving him years ago. But his full head of night black hair gives him away. As he leans against the mahogany bar, he confesses he’s actually decades younger and he never met the legendary Che. But the myth of the young revolutionary is as strong among the barstaff as tourists. Oscar even points out where Che usually sat, as described to him by his co-workers from 20 years ago who actually did serve the revolutionary.

El Portal is the second and last stop on my mini-Che tour through Guatemala City. I also visited a hotel a few blocks away where the young doctor lived during his nine months in Guatemala. My plans to stay in his old room were thwarted by the extended stay of a Che-enthusiast and the warnings of a Guatemalan friend that the price seemed too cheap for a decent hotel. But the receptionist assured me that the Pension Meza mainly caters to tourists and backpackers. He tells me I am welcome to come back and stay once the room is vacant again.

This is where I should confess that I haven’t even seen Motorcycle Diaries, but after months living in Latin America, it’s hard not to be fascinated by Che and all the contradictions his legacy brings. His name is used to sell products and experiences all over the world, from his hometown in Argentina to communist Cuba, even though he despised consumer culture. But his time in Guatemala is less well-known and not highly publicized. Che spent nine months in the Central American capital city when the Marxist government of Jacobo Arbenz was in power, but then fled to Mexico in 1954 after a U.S.-backed coup. He later wrote in his diary, “In Arbenz’s Guatemala, I realized a fundamental thing: to be a revolutionary the first thing there has to be is revolution.” As the more well-known part of the story goes, Che then met a young Fidel Castro in Mexico and became a key part of the Cuban Revolution.

Decades later, Guatemala is undergoing what some have called, “The Guatemalan Spring,” although I’m not sure it’s exactly the revolution Che was talking about in his diary. From April to September, Guatemalans filled the central plaza for months calling for the resignation of corrupt officials. They succeeded in pressuring the president and vice-president to resign, but Guatemala’s newly elected president Jimmy Morales is far from a Marxist. As I sit at Che’s old hangout, I wonder what he would think of the country’s supposed revolution. Or tourists spending $9 a night to sleep where he once lived. Or the tour group with cargo shorts and cameras dangling from their necks that just entered the bar.

Photo: Manuel Roberto Sánchez Portilla

Have a Drink and Be Grateful You Don’t Write About Oil Concessions

Jan.22.16

Have a Drink and Be Grateful You Don’t Write About Oil Concessions

by Alexa van Sickle

Pisco Sour in Belgravia

My first pisco sour was not in Peru, or even in Chile, a country that also claims the fiery drink as its own. It was in London on a rainy November night, a long time before pisco, or, for that matter, ceviche, became popular in London.

It was at Canning House, a grand, chalk-white Georgian terrace sandwiched between the German and Portuguese embassies on Belgrave Square (also home to the Syrian embassy) that functions as a kind of cultural diplomatic forum for British-Latin American relations, and holds debates, parties, and even language classes. (I took three months of Brazilian Portuguese lessons there, and retained precisely one useful phrase: the exclamation Nossa!).

I was a new-ish reporter for a business magazine covering legal and political developments in Latin America: I mainly wrote about legal cases involving multinationals, mergers, IPOs, oil and gas issues, and the law firms who led these deals. But I also got to cover some of Evo Morales’ first antics as president of Bolivia, and Hugo Chavez’s nationalization spree, plus my favorite piece, on the ruling that Peru had to pay the $5m bounty cash to the person who tipped them off on Fujimori’s former intelligence chief’s whereabouts.

My editors thought it would be nice for me to see Canning House—all high ceiling, creaky staircases, and maroon carpets—so they sent me along to cover this event: a coming-out party for Peru’s new oil concessions in the Amazon. There were reps from the state oil company and from the Peruvian government. There was a presentation, with overhead projectors and maps. It was a fairly bland affair, and at age 24, I resented wearing business attire (or anything other than flip flops, which is no less true today in my 30s).

Two things improved the evening. The first was the trays of pisco sours making their way around the room. The drink was tart and strong, and a welcome change from plastic-glassed Chardonnay. The second was the tall, skinny interloper with blonde hair who infiltrated the sea of suits and back-slapping diplomats after the presentation. He was from Survival International–an NGO lobbying for the rights of tribal groups–and started handing out flyers and lecturing about the indigenous groups that were being displaced in the lands that Peru was so eagerly auctioning off. I watched him break into clusters of people, spreading small ripples of awkwardness. He was not disruptive enough to throw out, but just enough to make people uncomfortable. It was a very British protest.

I spent most of December 2015 in Peru because, to quote Calvin Trillin, I never let a decade go by without renewing my assault on Spanish. (Although I have given up on Portuguese, for now). One of the perks of the trip was enjoying the pisco sour at the source and every time I drank one, I was thankful that I no longer write about oil concessions in Peru, or the lawyers that make it possible.

Photo: Dtarazona/Wikipedia Commons

There’s One Place Left Where You Can Get Your Steel-Pail Drink On

Jan.21.16

There’s One Place Left Where You Can Get Your Steel-Pail Drink On

by Dave Hazzan

Makgeolli in Seoul

In a back-alley off a back-alley in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Central Seoul sits one of the oldest extant bars in the city. Its real name is Jongno House, but nobody knows that, at least no one I know. They call it The Makgeolli Shack. And as Seoul has lurched ahead, developing at ludicrous speed, it has left behind a bent 75-year-old woman, who potters around long, white Formica tables, serving great bowls of makgeolli.

Makgeolli is a milky, fermented rice drink, between five and ten percent alcohol, and consumed by the gallon, particularly among older Koreans. It is typically served either in a large bowl or a copper kettle, and served into smaller drinking bowls with a ladle.

In nicer, and especially more touristed, bars and restaurants, it is presented in an ornate lacquered bowl, often with historical carvings, calligraphy, or other fine art drawn on it. The ladles are often fine-hewn pieces of art in themselves.

Not at the Makgeolli Shack. Here, where they haven’t seen a tourist since the 1988 Olympics, you get it in the same steel pail someone’s grandfather went fishing with. The waitress—call her grandmother, please—scoops it out of great clay urns that stand by the wall. There is no ladle, but rather a small plastic soup bowl for you to help yourself with.

There is no need to order. Makgeolli and an order of fried mackerel will be brought to you whether you like it or not. If you want to add something—a bottle of beer or soju, a plate of fried pork and kimchi—that’s up to you, but it’s only the grandmother working, and she’ll be with you when she’s done making sure everyone has their makgeolli and fish.

The Makgeolli Shack is not really a shack, though it has the structural integrity of one. For starters, it’s big, holding maybe 80 seats. It also has a second floor for those easy with risk.

It’s hard to say what it is exactly. The illegal addition on the building next door? A clapboard shed with just over five-foot-high ceilings that droop in some locations? A boarded-up carnival tent?

What it is is a beautiful museum piece, yet to be relegated to the museum. When the grandmother retires, will another replace her? Or will the fancy neighborhood around consume the Makgeolli Shack and its environs, and turn it into another overpriced experience for tourists?

There is a lot of debate over what authenticity means, and whether anything can really be authentic. But if the low ceilings, long white tables, graffitied walls, and steel pails at the Makgeolli Shack aren’t authentic, then the word has no meaning. And if it does close, another piece of the old Seoul will be gone with it, leaving nearly nowhere left to get your steel pail of drink on.

Photo credit: Jo Turner

Time to Party Like It’s 1989

Jan.19.16

Time to Party Like It’s 1989

by Olga Kovalenko

Soviet Champagne in Ukraine

It’s the Christmas holidays in Ukraine and I curse my fate as I walk around a crowded supermarket, scanning shelves for a bottle of sparkling wine. I am on a mission: I have to buy a gift for Galyna, an elderly friend of our family.

“Should I get her a bottle of good Argentinian wine instead?” I ask my mother on the phone, but she is adamant: it has to be good old Soviet champagne, called Sovetskoe Shampanskoe, “Galyna wouldn’t want anything else on her table,” my mother says.

Costing an equivalent of two U.S. dollars, Soviet champagne occupies the lowest tier of the wine department. Wildly popular in Soviet times, it is now the preferred drink of those flat broke or nostalgic for the past era.

Before the Soviet Revolution of 1917, champagne was the drink of a privileged class, and the Communist party decided to make it accessible to workers. The winemakers were given the assignment to create a drink equivalent to French champagne but faster and cheaper in production. The result was Soviet Champagne: a sparkling wine produced in the span of one month. It was a blend of various grapes from Moldavia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Central Asia, processed in numerous wine factories around the U.S.S.R. using identical recipes.

The quality of Soviet champagne was low and gave its consumers terrible headaches. But walled from the capitalist world as the U.S.S.R. was, there was nothing better on the market. Bottles of Soviet champagne embellished every table during every celebration up until recently, when other kinds of sparkling wine became more accessible and affordable in Ukraine. The popular drink was often faked and one had to be careful not to buy a bottle of shampooed water.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., Soviet champagne was produced in the ex-Soviet countries under old and new names. In Ukraine, the Kyiv Factory of Sparkling Wines produces the drink according to traditional recipes under its original brand name: Sovetskoe Shampanskoe.

When Parliament passed a de-Communization law banning Soviet names and symbols last year, the factory tried to save the brand and added just one letter to the drink’s name, turning Sovetskoe into SovetOvskoe. The change seems to be good enough both for the government and the older generation, sticking to its habitual festive drink.

Galyna is not a radical pro-Soviet babushka. Originally from Lugansk, in Eastern Ukraine, she is against Putin and the war in Ukraine. She enjoys the delights of a capitalist world, like supermarkets and the ability to buy a car or go abroad. But she is a bit nostalgic for the old times. “The Communists gave so much to Ukraine—such buildings, such factories—and now it is all in ruin!” she says. “And look, instead of bringing the country to order, they now spend money on dumb laws. Who needs a new street name when people have nothing to eat?” She finds it strange to see street and city names changed and the statues of Lenin demolished all over Ukraine just because they are a reminder of the Soviet past.

As we say our goodbyes, Galyna still cradles her gift of Soviet champagne and complains about her teenage grandkids, who don’t participate in family celebrations anymore. They also buy Soviet champagne for their student parties, they say, but only because it’s cheap.

It’s Open Mic Night at a Speakeasy in Afghanistan

Jan.15.16

It’s Open Mic Night at a Speakeasy in Afghanistan

by Ivan Flores

Vodka in Kabul

There are a couple of spies sitting off to the side by the makeshift stage in a cozy bar: clean shaven, slick-backed hair, Western clothes, and expensive leather shoes that aren’t covered in Kabul’s signature brown mud. People start to shuffle in, Afghans in traditional clothes, journalists in every shade of khaki and earth toned utility shirts, aid workers in button up-dress shirts, and students dressed in a mix of traditional and Western clothing.

Bars in Afghanistan are hidden inside a spiderweb of unmarked streets and 12-foot-high blast walls adorned with razor wire. The bar, like most, is in a residential area, down a curved road with open sewers on either side. The constant hum of a generator cranking through the night fills the air. Inside, it’s dark. Couches lean against walls covered in a mix of old rock ‘n’ roll posters, yellowed photographs of Afghanistan, and paintings by local artisans. There’s music playing over cracked speakers, something soft, something by Coldplay. I can’t make out the song. Alcohol is prohibited in Afghanistan in the same way that smuggling is illegal and bribery non-existent: everyone turns a blind eye but sticks out an open palm. Always carry extra U.S. dollars. I order a vodka neat.

Back to the spies; they’re leaning in over the table deep in conversation. The journalists are sitting around another table, lighting cigarettes and laughing. A few hours ago there was an explosion outside the diplomatic district, some small-arms fire, but it was quickly dealt with. The journalists reported on it, tomorrow the story will be buried in the back of the international section in most major newspapers. The aid workers sit at another table whining about office politics and about their supervisors, which coworkers they’d like to date and what they were doing for the weekend. A waiter in all black comes to take their orders. Slim and baby faced, he doesn’t smile or look up from his notepad.

My drink arrives and I feel it wash over me. More people start to shuffle in. Expats, smugglers, and professional peace-makers who are here to try out the latest and greatest in sustainable development, gender equality, and nation building all walk through and start to plop down on the lush couches. Dust and cigarette smoke fill the room. Outside of the bar, ISIS, Taliban, IEDs, VBIED (Vehicle Borne, because a bomb on wheels keeps everyone on their toes) have taken their toll. Inside the bar the music stops. People start to cheer. It’s open mic night. The waiter saunters to the journalists with their drinks.

An Afghan takes the stage with a guitar and plays a traditional Pashtun song. There is passion and longing in his voice. The Afghans in the room sway and sing as loud as they can. Goosebumps roll over my arms in waves. I don’t understand the words, but he was proud and true. The song ends. The crowd cheers. A group of expats gets up and starts to jam on the old instruments that are on stage.

Tomorrow, another explosion will go off; the students will hope it’s not along their route to school and the journalists will rush to the scene and document the destruction. Tomorrow is looming and uncertain, but tonight there is a sliver of Afghanistan in this bar relaxing and enjoying a small respite from the war outside. The spies leave. A couple slow dances by the bar. A bottle of vodka has appeared on the journalists’ table. And in a small bar, in a place like no other, the band plays on.

Photo: Step

Can You Call It Paradise Without Wine?

Jan.13.16

Can You Call It Paradise Without Wine?

by Noah Lederman

Wine in Curacao

When most people think of a winery, they think of endless farmland, twisted vines, and clustered fruit. Not Boeing-777s. Not reminders of the slave trade. And certainly not the Caribbean.

But on Curacao’s largest former plantation, with the Hato International Airport’s runways less than a mile away, sits the Curacao Winery. Three-foot, slave-built walls delineate its old corrals. It’s the first winery on the island and one of the first in the Caribbean. One winery in the Dominican Republic has just popped its corks, and another is set to open on St. John.

The Curacao Winery completed its first harvest this past November and prepares to release its inaugural bottles this April. What was once thought impossible—growing quality wine grapes in the Caribbean—is being attempted. Rare microclimates scattered across the vast archipelago, with just the right combination of heat, breeze, and sunshine, are now thought to have the right recipe for yielding drinkable tempernillos, cabernet sauvignon, and a few other varietals.

Dutch winemaker Roelof Visscher, along with a pair of German advisors who specialize in growing wine in the tropics, had searched the island for that environment. When they found the loamy soil at Curacao’s largest former plantation, where naturally-sourced water with a high mineral content and low salinity ran from the mountains, Visscher bought the land.

It took Visscher’s team a year and a half to cut back the desiccated brush and the stubborn cacti, leaving the vintner with another great task: preserving the relics of history discovered on his property. Besides the walls, there is an 18th century family cemetery on site. Scattered about the property are three slave-dug water wells, which are graves, too, as many lives were lost during excavation. And down a path littered with almonds, past junked cars and rusted engines, is a crumbling 17th century slave prison tinged with oxidation, neglect, and tragedy. Visscher is deciding whether he will open the building on these historical and hallowed grounds to tipplers or preserve the site for posterity. Regardless, it’s left him with more to consider than just growing grapes in this unpredictable climate.

As a winemaker from the Netherlands, there were a number of variables that he had never before considered, like iguanas getting to his crop. (This explains the two-foot corrugated steel walls surrounding his vines.) The amount of personalized attention his vines would need, had also never crossed his mind. Because of all the sunlight, Visscher has to constantly walk the property, pinching off leaves for his grapes to grow.

There are great benefits, however, to growing grapes in the Caribbean, like the three growing periods in one calendar year, (though, in order to rest the soil and vines, the winery will only use two.) And because growing grapes in the Caribbean is still only a skilled winemaker’s best guess, Visscher has planted a dozen experimental vines, hoping to find a wild card that will thrive in the Caribbean.

Back at the patio, where bottles are served from Visscher’s winery in Holland, drinkers watch planes skid into paradise down the airport’s runways. Beyond that the island drops to the sea. The afternoon imbibers are mostly European. If farming grapes in Curacao was a challenge, perhaps getting the locals to like his wines would prove an even larger one.

“They are very proud of us,” Visscher said. “But they like sweet drinks. I don’t think locals will drink so much of our wine.”

A Glass of Wine and a Shibboleth For Transplanted Peoples

Jan.12.16

A Glass of Wine and a Shibboleth For Transplanted Peoples

by Alexander Theodosiou

Rosato in Apulia

Apulia is one of Italy’s largest wine-producing regions and, my family being oenophiles, we relished the presence of good wine during our visit. Accompanying the excellent Pugliese food were a number of regional wines, but the most memorable was a Salice Salentino rosato, made from the Negroamaro grape.

We tried the wine in the town of Calimera, which we visited in order to experience Griko culture. The Griko are a small community in Southern Italy of Greek origin who retain their Hellenic culture and language. Having Greek heritage ourselves, we visited Calimera (which means “good day” in Greek) to ascertain how recognizable this culture is today. The largest concentration of Griko people is in Apulia’s Salentine peninsula—Italy’s heel—and Bovesia, in Calabria, the toecap of the boot. They represent the last clear living proof of a Greek presence in Southern Italy that dates back to the 8th century BC.

I had no idea what to expect. Would it be ouzo and ‘opa’s around every street corner, or only the hint of a Hellenized surname here and there? Upon entering the town’s environs, a sign read ‘kalos irthate’, (Greek for ‘welcome’), which boded well.

Calimera has a makeshift museum dedicated to preserving and showcasing Griko culture, and it was to this we headed. The small town was bathed in lazy, golden afternoon sunshine. A middle-aged, balding man with sun-weathered skin greeted us in the entrance hall, seemingly surprised to see any visitors. His Italian welcome was met by a Greek response, and, while evidently taken aback, he smiled and extended another greeting, this time in the Griko language. As he began explaining the museum’s layout in a vernacular both bizarre and familiar, we realized we could understand one another. His name was Gaetano, and he left us to inspect the collection of exhibits—farm tools, traditional and festive clothing, and, most enlightening of all, letters, poetry, and songs, written in Griko—crammed into the few rooms available.

Soon after, he beckoned us into a small garden and was eager to offer us each a glass of chilled local Salice Salentino rosato: ruby quartz in color, fruity, and simultaneously refreshing and full-bodied. We managed to a hold conversation, which represented an instantaneous marker of kinship, a kind of shibboleth we’d been subconsciously hoping for.

It was clear that Gaetano was proud of his heritage, and also of the rosé he had offered us. While undoubtedly both man and wine were local, very much products of the Salentine Peninsula, they share a foreign root. Viticulture in Southern Italy was introduced by ancient Greek colonists in the 8th century BC, the cultural forebears of Gaetano and his kin. Like the wine, the people have developed in their own way into something unique and Italian.

But sadly, there is a sense of loss, almost decay, which pervades the culture. Gaetano claimed that the Griko identity has been eroding for centuries as a result of gradual Italianization, and more recently due to Mussolini’s aggressive nationalism and the onset of mass media and globalization. Consequently, the number of self-identified Grikos is dwindling. The population today stands at around 80,000, he told us, swirling the last of the rosato in his glass, and far fewer that actually speak the language. But Gaetano also spoke of a popular movement to introduce Griko language classes into the school curriculum in Griko villages across Italy’s deep south, in a bid to preserve and strengthen the culture.

Leaving Calimera, I surveyed the scene: a sleepy, sun-bleached town, rows of gnarled, ancient olive trees, cicadas chiming in arrhythmic, atmospheric song. In the town’s quiet, leafy park stands an ancient Attic burial stone, a gift from the Greek government to recognize the region’s Hellenic heritage, inscribed with the words ‘Zeni su en ise ettù sti Kalimera’ (‘You are not a stranger here in Calimera’). After such a fine welcome, I felt as if the words were directed right at me.

An Elegy for Beijing’s Late, Great Dipsomaniacal Dog Whistle

Jan.11.16

An Elegy for Beijing’s Late, Great Dipsomaniacal Dog Whistle

by Robert Foyle-Hunwick

Nasty Old Fashioneds at The Den

Since 1997 in Beijing, it’s been possible to answer, “Where can I get a really nasty Old Fashioned and a two-pound burger at 5 am?” “Who’s showing the goat-wrestling qualifiers?” and “What happened to my phone?” with the same words: The Den. Alas, no more: Seventeen years after President Jiang Zemin ordered the People’s Liberation Army to give up its illegally owned commercial enterprises, local units in Beijing have begun to reluctantly comply. As The Den turned out to be one of those innumerable illicit PLA holdings, the city’s only 24-hour all-in-one sports bar, restaurant, short-time hotel, crisis-counseling center, divorced men’s networking club, Pattaya tribute venue and dipsomaniacal dog whistle is already a gutted shell, its sinful daylight-blotting red curtains now the only remaining fixtures.

“A continuing expansion of competition and a slowing economy may both be playing a role in the changing of Beijing’s bar scene,” reckoned local listings rag the Beijinger, when news of its imminent demise surfaced some weeks ago. Competition? Slowing economy? Changing bar scene? All that seemed grist to its mill; The Den was not only recession and puke-proof, it was the kind of place people went to because they were unemployed. One doubts its patrons ever gave much of a passing care about “scenes,” artisanal infusions or whatever pop-up concepts suffer the long, hard-seat journey from the West to Beijing. The craft beer revolution was something that just happened to other bars; The Den was popularizing gastro-enteritis long before the gastro pub humped its way into the local consciousness. To the world outside it may have been 2015, but over in the People’s Republic of Denezuela, it was perpetually 2007.

That kept the regulars happy, but for years The Den had been a party whose goers are amazed why no one’s called the cops yet. The bar’s defiant location, at the foot of a faded hotel on the corner of some of Beijing’s swankiest, soulless real estate, had made The Den an object of intense speculation, long after the pitiful stalls hawking cheap booze in plastic cups that once surrounded it had vanished in a cloud of development dust. It’s fitting that Xi’s corruption crackdown should have sounded the last call, as a major stroke of bad luck was already accelerating it: the accidental triggering of a nearby fire alarm during preparations for October’s military parade. Surviving the impromptu safety inspection would have required a complete overhaul, on top of a hefty six-figure fine. Better an exit with the dignity of political victimhood than a hopeless fight against the inevitable, like one of The Den’s own early-morning evictees.

For a long time, I didn’t get the appeal of the place, finding it always populated by aging sports enthusiasts whose faces had exploded. My mistake was timing: I was coming in at sane hours, like lunchtime or 11pm on a Thursday. You needed to hit The Den at a very exact sweet spot. Peak Den was between the clubs nearby closing on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday morning and the rest of the world getting up and going about its respectable business: say, 4-7 am. This was when the magic happened. There aren’t many bars in Beijing where it feels dangerous to get chummy with the regulars after a certain hour, but The Den firmly ranked as one. For all its friendly aggression, actual fights were rare, though the staff were regularly called upon to remind emotional patrons where the door was. Closing time: You don’t have to go home but maybe you should, because it’s midday and you’re hitting on barstools and frightening children.

Tributes began pouring as soon as the news broke, ranging from pithy (“Wut?”) to prosaic (“Fuck”). So what was it about this place that inspired such poetry? What was the Definitive Den experience? Sure, there was the half-price pizza, the five-hour Happy Hour, the football, the fact that it was open. But for many, it was about the people: you’d get the full gamut, and gamut is definitely the word we need here.

Tourists would wash up at three in the morning and not believe their luck. Surly Eastern European dancers and Gongti shift workers, Aeroflot crews on recreational layover, Chinese students dining in the mistaken belief that this was a suitable venue to bring someone you hadn’t slept with yet, visiting scholars, Tier-88 entrepreneurs pressing business cards into the hands of elderly Australian men, borderline schizophrenics, saturnine Germans who arrived alone at midnight to watch Munich Bayern battle for the third-place playoffs of the Hofmeister Cup, expat sporting societies almost as old as The Den, angry Russians who’d been exiled from the Russian exile community: all were Denizens.

And because The Den never closed (and everywhere else did), it invited the most ridiculous benders: benders seemingly without end, benders that would leave the taste buds numbed for a week. Twenty-four hours in The Den? Child’s play. I knew an Icelandic guy who spent nearly three days there, before his girlfriend finally stormed in to retrieve what was left of him.

This bloke-ish appeal was not lost on others and a slightly scandalous reputation for hookers was probably the most overplayed aspect of Den life. Sure, in the wee hours, there was usually someone happy to meet your glassy-eyed gaze and steadily hold it; the odd brass; the occasional strumpet or two. But The Den wasn’t exactly the Red Mansion. More a last-chance saloon for Nigerian baby mamas on their way to a sweet retirement gig jacking-off pensioners.

Like honest Playboy readers in search of articles, many would argue they were there for the food: the “Denu.” This was no strip-club buffet: A multipage, black pleather-bound tome with a nice heft to it, covering a wide array of “cuisines,” The Denu was part of the venue’s core appeal. Solid. No nonsense. Unpretentious. If you’re down with The Den’s food, then you’re all right with me.

Unlike most restaurants, The Den’s picture menu was unafraid to dramatically lower customers’ expectations with blurred, two-megapixel shots of congealing sauces atop lonely cuts of meat, captioned with unpunctuated, unadorned prose describing the various ingredients. If a menu could be said to have a “voice,” then The Den was Samuel Beckett reading aloud government warnings from a carton of Mongolian filterless cigarettes. Thus, the actual quality of the grub was a consistent surprise. Hits included the pizza, fillet steak, sausages and mash, and, of course, “Eggs Norway,” the classy European breakfast choice for any true international Denizen. On the other hand, the “Lamb Turkish Pitta Roll” [sic] was more Donner Pass than doner kebab, a diplomatic incident waiting to happen.

For my final repast on closing night, I spun the wheel and chose the Corned-Beef Hash with Sweet Peas for the first time. Like a fry chef serving the condemned his last meal, The Den produced something thoroughly digestible that I would, like the venue, never revisit again.

This story originally appeared in The Beijing Cream.

Drinking Cheap Beer in the Ruins of Pablo Escobar’s Summer House

Jan.04.16

Drinking Cheap Beer in the Ruins of Pablo Escobar’s Summer House

by Natalie Thomas

Club Col at La Manuela Hacienda

Burned out graffiti-covered shells of buildings do not normally attract those seeking a cool afternoon beer. There are far more upmarket locations along the rolling green hills surrounding Lake Penol, a few hours drive from the city of Medellín. Nor does the Club Col beer which the smattering of guests are drinking differ from other Colombian bars. However, none has the same pulling power as this small complex jutting out on its own narrow peninsula into the lake. For nowhere else holds the clubhouse of one of the world’s most notorious drug dealers, murderers, and politicians, an extraordinarily wealthy man and philanthropist to many: Pablo Escobar.

La Manuela Hacienda, named after his much-loved daughter, was Pablo’s summer retreat, a place where Colombia’s most infamous son could relax amid friends and family. Built with security in mind, the house is accessible by one long single-track lane, although swift escape was always possible with speedboats, helicopters, and seaplanes ready to spirit the world’s most wanted man away. La Manuela now has just one building in use: Pablo’s clubhouse. The rest of the complex was blown up by a rival cartel in the 1990s and then thoroughly looted after the crime boss’s death in the hope of finding legendary caches of hidden drugs and money. Tropical plants from around the world—Pablo liked to import anything from eucalyptus to bonsai—now weave through holes in the floor, trying to reclaim the house for nature.

The clubhouse’s circular frontage opens out onto the turquoise waters of the lake. Once Pablo’s open-air drinking den, today the sweeping white balcony hosts a different type of clientele, the odd local student and groups of young travellers. Most relax with a Club Col in hand, a watery Colombian beer as forgettable as the location is infamous, whilst Marc Antony tunes with the bass turned up blare out from behind the bar.

The manager, once a young boy working for El Patrón here during his heyday, has seen fridges stocked with Cristal champagne, though rarely drunk by Pablo himself, replaced by rows of $1 beer. Some tourists light up joints on the clubhouse balcony, perhaps ignorant that Pablo’s first foray into the drug world was through the export of cannabis.

Cold Club Cols clutched in hand, they explore the rest of the complex hoping to see glimpses of the life of excess that once played out here. A small football pitch was where Pablo brought some of the country’s best football teams to play for his personal enjoyment, whilst plaster-strewn stables once housed horses for pampered guests.

Today, beers at the clubhouse bookend the main profit-making activity at La Manuela: paintballing. Brightly coloured splodges dot what remains of the walls of Pablo’s home, now host to those seeking the adrenaline rush of wielding guns in camouflage clothes through the relics of what was once a cog in the world’s largest cocaine business, making so much money that $2,500 alone was said to once be spent each month on rubber bands to wrap bundles of cash.

La Manuela may not have the fame of Pablo’s other summer home, Hacienda Napoles, now an amusement park and home to his flourishing community of imported hippos, but it was always his favorite retreat, a place where he hosted the most trusted and loyal. Today the glory days are long gone. Legal wrangles still prevent any decision on the future of the complex. While the bar makes little real money and the beer may be bland and forgettable, Pablo’s clubhouse is still a place for friends and foes of the crime boss, as well as the curious, to come together, remember, and reminisce.

Another Beer Found, Another Day Lost

Dec.29.15

Another Beer Found, Another Day Lost

by Wesley Grover

Craft Beer in Saigon

“Are you looking for something lighter or darker?” asks a twenty-something Vietnamese man from behind the bar. His name is “H” (like the letter, he tells me) and by the looks of him, H enjoys his beer. He doesn’t have the traditional slender frame of his countrymen, but carries a slight paunch that’s become increasingly prevalent as Western indulgences, such as craft beer, make their way into Vietnam.

H pours a few samples before I settle on one Saigon Saison from the Pasteur Street Brewing Company on the other side of town. After months of sipping nothing but watery lagers, it’s a revelation, with tastes of black pepper and lemongrass that sound more like the ingredients of a local dish than an ale. This beer pulls it off beautifully though, and at 7.2 percent ABV it makes the perfect antidote for the palpable heat that blankets Saigon year round. Just like that, the rest of my afternoon has been decided; I’ll be spending the foreseeable future perched on a barstool here at Bia Craft.

Saigon has long been a beer town. You can sit on the corner in tiny, plastic chairs and drink your fill without putting a dent in your wallet. But while the beer options did the trick, they didn’t impress. That’s all changed over the past couple of years, as a movement of microbreweries has taken hold across the city, spurred by expats, but fueled by both locals and westerners. Since it’s opening in August, Bia Craft is the latest on the scene, with 10 hoppy offerings on tap and plenty more bottled imports from around the world.

“Do you like Firestone IPA?” H asks. Hell yes, I like Firestone IPA. “This is the only place in Vietnam you’ll find it,” he beams. Like any good bartender, H is eager to talk about the product and explains that there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to introducing the Vietnamese to these “bitter beers.” Understandably, their transition from cheap, light lager to an artisan ale doesn’t happen over night, which is why he typically starts them with something on the lighter side, like Bia Craft’s homebrewed Lun Ma Lao (Short But Arrogant) Blonde Ale. It’s also pricier than what the locals are used to, as the longtime go-to lager, Bia Saigon, costs around 10,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) or less, not even 50 cents. A pint at Bia Craft can run up to VND 90,000. Of course, I’m more than happy to pay it, and as craft breweries continue to pop up around the city, it appears that so, too, are the Vietnamese.

The next day, I decide I better check out the Pasteur Street Brewing Company’s headquarters, just to see how it stacks up. As it turns out, they recently released a Pumpkin Spice Ale for the holiday season. There’s also a Jasmine IPA; that sounds interesting enough. Oh, and I have to try the Passionfruit Wheat Ale, the American bartender urges. Sounds kind of fruity, but better do what he says. Now, I’ve gotten pretty good at turning people down while in Vietnam; earlier in the day I flat-out rejected an adorable, pig-tailed little girl selling packs of chewing gum for the equivalent of 10 cents (and feel pretty shitty thinking about it while drinking $4 beers). But the point is, I oblige this overzealous bartender simply because the beer is that good.

Before I know it, the windows are dark, the floor is being mopped and another day is lost. Lucky for me, this innovative brewery is also responsible for introducing growlers to Saigon. Time to post up in a tiny, plastic chair on the corner.

A Welcome Sign of After-Hours Life in a Museum City

Dec.28.15

A Welcome Sign of After-Hours Life in a Museum City

by Jill Diane Pope

Spritz in Venice

Venice is a liquid city in every possible way. Even when you’re standing on (relatively) solid land you feel damp; the water that surrounds you seeps up, combining with the heat to give the effect of being in a giant glasshouse, a continuous cycle of evaporation and condensation. Like all forms of constant immersion, this produces the somewhat paradoxical effect of dehydration.

The only way to combat this is to do as the Venetians do and maintain a steady drip of fluids throughout your stay in the lagoon. This is somewhere that definitely subscribes to the “5 o’clock somewhere” principle: we’re talking about a place where wine is often literally on tap; a place where locals drop into their corner cantina for a beverage on the go whether it’s 11 am or 6 pm.

The ubiquitous Venetian remedy of choice is the spritz, perhaps unsurprising given that they claim to have invented it. The deceptively weak concoction is perfectly suited to the delicate art of day-time drinking: it calibrates the ideal hazy buzz without ever tipping you into the deep end of sunlit wastedness.

Unlike in other parts of the world where the spritz has become a high-end status item, the Venetian spritz is a working class staple, served without fanfare or flourish, often in tumblers or large, balloon wine glasses. The mix of wine and seltzer is rumored to have been introduced during Austro-Hungarian occupation, when the overlords found the local drops a bit too strong for their refined Northern palates. Rather than abstain, they opted to water them down. The Italians seemed to have added back in the extra booze to even things up a bit, resulting in today’s mix of prosecco or white wine, seltzer, and spirit.

The Aperol spritz might now be an international institution thanks to the advertising outlay of its parent company, but order a spritz in Venice and people will ask you “which kind?” There are in fact four different types. In Italy, the Aperol spritz is considered to be the gateway drug, the sweetest of the lot, they are popular with students and undeniably easy to consume. The other three options are Campari, the most dry; Cynar, made from artichokes; and Select, mysteriously unavailable outside of Venice. It’s the same radioactive vermillion as Campari and Aperol and somewhere in between the two in flavor profile. My favorite is the spritz al Cynar, the dark liqueur rendering the drink a murky brown with a distinct, earthy flavor.

The best spritz haunt I discovered in Venice was the Riccio Peoco, an unassuming place on the Campo Santi Apostoli that distinguished itself as I was walking home after dinner for the mere fact that it was open. That may sound like I have low standards, but Venice after midnight is a ghost town. Devoid of non-water borne traffic it’s eerily quiet; all you can hear are your own footsteps slapping the ancient flagstones, the hypnotic sound of lapping water, and the distant echoes of other people navigating their way through the labyrinth of tiny calle.

But that night, Riccio Peoco appeared to me like a phantom, a welcome sign of life (or afterlife) in the museum city. Thrilled by the prospect of some unexpected late night action, I promptly ordered my standard spritz al cynar and bonded with the bartender over our mutual irritation at the unofficial Venetian curfew. While I sipped happily away the regulars bogarted the TV, playing an eclectic selection of music videos from Celine Dion to Elton John while downing their own spritzes of choice and prosecco on tap. I took a seat, content to soak up the atmosphere. Smiling to myself I silently toasted the surprising flow of this slippery city, and where it will take you if you let it.

Having a Glass (Or More?) of Wine on a Hello Kitty-Themed Plane

Dec.23.15

Having a Glass (Or More?) of Wine on a Hello Kitty-Themed Plane

by Rhian Sasseen

White Wine on EVA Air

It began at the boarding gate: a gasp of pink within Taipei’s otherwise depressing Taoyuan International Airport. Though I had heard of EVA Air’s special Sanrio-themed flights, my boarding pass for flight 160 to Seoul, printed earlier that day at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, was sadly Hello Kitty-less. Here at the gate, though, all was pink, and decorated with half a dozen murals: Hello Kitty and friends throwing a picnic, Hello Kitty and friends observing a dragon dance, Hello Kitty and friends eating mooncakes beneath a starry sky.

Cuteness often gets a bad rap. We assume the infantile, the emotional, the weak; once on board the airplane, we were surrounded by a riot of cute. A short video, depicting Hello Kitty celebrating the upcoming Lunar New Year, played on the seatback’s entertainment system, while a pink bow topped the safety instruction sheet and decorated the seat coverings and pillows. A clear generational divide began to emerge: any passenger under the age of roughly thirty, myself included, was too busy taking photos to notice the rather bewildered expressions of our older traveling companions.

I read the pamphlet tucked away in the seatback in front of me as my neighbors, an elderly couple and a middle-aged woman I assumed was their daughter, played musical chairs. Hello Kitty, I learned, lived in London, and had a boyfriend named Dear Daniel and a twin sister named Mimsy. (The mythology had expanded since I was in the second grade.) This flight, one of seven Hello Kitty-themed flights operated by the airline, was known as the Hello Kitty Apple Jet, named so after the measuring system used in the Sanrio world. Hello Kitty, as it turned out, stood five apples tall and weighed a grand total of three apples; “How many apples are you?” asked the pamphlet, innocently enough.

Disturbed by the sheer number of apples I weighed in comparison, I quickly set the pamphlet down. We were now in the air, and a few weary flight attendants were making the drink rounds, each clad in pink aprons emblazoned with Hello Kitty’s face. “White wine,” the woman next to me asked, and gulped it down with a ferocity found only in those traveling with their families. She noticed me taking a photo of the Hello Kitty moist towelette and, perhaps emboldened by her free wine, asked me if I was a fan.

“Oh, definitely,” I said. “She reminds me of my childhood. I used to own a lot of Hello Kitty stuff, and this flight is making me really happy. Are you a fan?”

“No,” she laughed. “But she is very cute.”

She asked me why I was going to Korea (for Seollal, the New Year). I asked her where she was coming from (Singapore, a vacation with her parents). I asked her if she had enjoyed her travels; “Oh,” she said, and rubbed her temples as beside her, her parents bickered in Korean. We laughed, and when our flight attendants distributed our meals (complete with Hello Kitty utensils and vegetable garnishes cut into the shape of bows), I asked for some white wine of my own.

“Bon appetit,” I said, raising my plastic glass towards her. She furrowed her brow.

“What does that mean?”

Sometimes language fails us. I could tell my explanation, that this was a French phrase we also often used in the U.S. before a meal, sounded nonsensical; nevertheless, she raised her glass and wished me “Bon appetit” as well. As we ate, her parents argued. A girl in the aisle near us tried to convince a flight attendant to give her a pink apron. So often cuteness is regarded as immature, the domain of the very young or young-minded, but there’s something comforting to it, as well. Instead, an alternate viewpoint: cuteness as a means of communication, a refuge from the exhaustions of travel, of family, of day-to-day living. Hello Kitty, indeed.

Enjoy This Moment of Fatty Lamb and Cheap Beer While It Lasts

Dec.22.15

Enjoy This Moment of Fatty Lamb and Cheap Beer While It Lasts

by Asher Kohn

Anchor Steam in San Francisco

Do the old Italian men eating popcorn know what they’re missing at Chug Pub? Almost certainly. They brought in popcorn and have been coming here since they had black hair and broad shoulders. They were eating popcorn when this bar was famous for its multi-gallon “Chug Tower.” They will eat popcorn now that it has become San Francisco’s premier destination for Uyghur food. For the old men, all trends come and go. Unlike most San Franciscans, they remember back when bars like this weren’t covered in Golden State Warriors kitsch.

This Uyghur food, though, is something special. Like all good bar food, it begins with grease. Three dudes from Urumqi, in China’s far northwest, have rented out Chug Pub’s kitchen in the city’s perma-cloudy Sunset neighborhood and named it Uyghur Taamirli. To call it “unassuming” would be making an assumption. This is the sort of place with a hastily-walled-off smoking room, halogen lights, and old Italians eating popcorn. Men repair inscrutable machinery at the bar or on the sidewalk outside.

Central Asian cuisine is tough to find in the U.S., especially lowbrow greasy goodness. Uyghur culture is usually mediated through politics, since there have been violent spats between the northwestern Muslim community and their Beijing rulers for the past several decades. These political rifts are probably irrelevant to the popcorn-eaters but are visible on the menu, written in Latin letters and Chinese script. Uyghur’s Arabic-inflected lettering is left off. There probably aren’t too many Uyghur-readers who would find themselves surrounded by cheap beer and bigscreen TVs at Chug Pub.

Get a waiter’s attention and he’ll rise up from the video shuffleboard machine to take your order. It won’t take long because it all kind of runs together. Laghman: noodles with peppers, garlic, and lamb. Samsa: baked pockets of peppers, garlic, and lamb. Göşnan: fried pastries with…peppers, garlic, and lamb. The göşnan is delicious and literal. Göş (meat) + nan (bread). Have it with beer that’s only $3 and is probably the city’s own Anchor Steam.

This food won’t be here for long. The kitchen lease runs out at the end of December, and the Uyghur Taamirli trio are looking to get their own place in 2016. They will move on, and probably look back at their Chug Pub days laughing and reminiscing.

The göşnan-loving crowd will have to look elsewhere for their greasy beer nights. No good thing can last, not in San Francisco in the year 2015. This moment of fatty lamb, cheap beer, and utterly insipid conversation will pass. Decades from now, Uyghur Taamirli’s fans will be greying, eating popcorn, and talking about how great this city used to be. They wouldn’t be wrong, but the young men across the bar will be trying hard not to roll their eyes at the moment on which they’re missing out.

Surviving in a Ski Town With Help From the Hills of Oaxaca

Dec.21.15

Surviving in a Ski Town With Help From the Hills of Oaxaca

by Stephen Elliott

Mezcal in Telluride

In a decrepit old miners’ house delicately perched on an icy hillside, the sharply sloped floors made of bouncy, rotten floorboards can make even sober steps uncertain. Half a bottle of mezcal seems to straighten the crooked house, contrary to what the strong, alcoholic agave distillate would do in a home governed more strictly by right angles and sturdy floors.

I live in that tilting house, which sits in Telluride, Colorado. I get the juice from Mezcal Vago, a company straddling the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, and my own ski town.

Dylan Sloan and Judah Kuper met in 1994. They were both camping up above Firecracker Hill, just outside Telluride, and looking for more permanent places to live. They struck up a friendship and began to travel together during off-seasons, that time here between the busy ski season and the busy summer tourism season, when ski bums take off for Thailand or Peru or, as fate would have it, Mexico.

As the story goes, Kuper was living for a time in a small beachside village in the state of Oaxaca when he got an ear infection. He visited the small medical clinic there, fell in love with his nurse, fought off her fiancé, and convinced her mezcalero father that he was worthy of his daughter’s hand.

When Kuper tried his father-in-law-to-be’s mezcal, it was love at first sip.

The family, now his in-laws, has been growing agave and making mezcal by hand for generations in the hills above the village of Candeleria Yegole. Aquilino, Kuper’s father-in-law, made the mezcal on the side to sell to neighbors or cousins. He also grew corn and beans and worked construction to make ends meet.

But his juice was so good that Kuper and Sloan thought there might be a market for it back in the United States. By 2013, they were selling the mezcal in the States, and it’s currently available as far away as Australia.

“These people have lived in the same 100 square miles forever, and they’ve learned every trick along the way,” says Sloan over coffee in Telluride, our first meeting having been canceled in deference to a powder day. “They’re mezcaleros. That’s what their family does.”

For producers who just a few years ago were giving their mezcal to friends and neighbors in old gasoline cans, Sloan says it’s a little strange for them knowing it’s being sold to consumers on the other side of the planet. I hope they know that a consumer some 2,000 miles to their north is using their juice—and its recollections of Oaxacan warmth—to fend off the harsh cold and deep snow of a new winter in Telluride.

Corporate Convention Centers Are No Place for Moonshine

Dec.17.15

Corporate Convention Centers Are No Place for Moonshine

by Jordan Siskind-Weiss

Mamajuana in Midtown

In search of an old friend and some Dominican rum, I arrive at the Javits Center in midtown Manhattan. In the early-afternoon heat of late June, I fight through packs of hungry people bound for the Fancy Food Show, North America’s largest specialty food event. Vendors and buyers are pouring into the conference center, eagerly awaiting the free booze and samples from Cheeseland Inc., Birch Benders Micro-Pancakery, the Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company, and the like.

Spanning four city blocks and overlooking the West Side Highway, the convention center exists on the margins of Manhattan culture; the sterile, corporate space is a meeting place for out-of-towners, clad in business clothes and identical lanyards bearing their event tickets. I am not here to buy, sell, or sample, although the mosaic of artisanal aromas is starting to make me wish I was. I’m here to meet with Jack Astacio, my former surf instructor and founder of Mamajuana Kalembu, the first mass-produced bottled brand of this traditionally homemade spirit. Jack spots me immediately; Rum Punch in hand, he points us in the direction of a vacant table.

What is Mamajuana exactly and why did he decide to bottle it? Initially called Damajuana (the name of the narrow-necked, wide-bottomed bottle in which this and many other fermented beverages were produced), the drink originated as a fermented, herbal tea. The Tainos (native inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola) would steep tree bark, roots, and herbs that they believed to have medicinal qualities. Over time, the D was replaced with an M, and water was replaced with rum. Still touted for its health benefits, Mamajuana is more commonly known as an aphrodisiac; “The tradition is that you drink Mamajuana with your woman and you are in love,” Jack explains, perhaps conflating love with lust.

According to traditionalists, bottled Mamajuana is to moonshine as the Javits Center is to Manhattan: vaguely reminiscent of the real thing, yet sanitized to a fault. The home-brewed hooch, requiring, at the very least, two weeks of aging, is bespeckled with pieces of bark and leaves. For many, the smoothness of the bottled stuff lacks the charmingly earthy grit of the moonshine; just add Kalembu to the list of artisanal bullshit that litters the convention center’s showroom. Some Dominicans even bring the herbal fixings back to New York in order to avoid its bastard sibling.

But Jack would argue that without the expertly bottled booze, the tradition would surely die out. The art of waiting has been lost on the millennial generation of Dominicans who are reaching adulthood in the instantaneous era of Facebook and Instagram; without pre-made moonshine, Mamajuana would be a relic of the past.

Perhaps it was the sterility of the scenery around our conversation, but despite Jack’s pitch for Kalembu and the free bottle I received upon my departure, the notion that someone could be making Dominican moonshine merely a few subway stops away peaked my interest. I soon scoured the city for homemade Mamajuana. I emailed friends of friends, I called Dominican cultural centers, I even inquired at a restaurant in Inwood called Mamajuana, all to no avail. For now, I’ll settle for the bottled goods, all the while, dreaming of the misty taste of authentic Dominican moonshine.

Stories of Eastern Ukraine From a Former Mercenary

Dec.16.15

Stories of Eastern Ukraine From a Former Mercenary

by Franco Galdini

Arak in Kyrgyzstan

“He must have been 19 or 20. He was begging me to spare his life for half an hour. I just stood there; then I shot him dead on the spot. I still dream of him, I cannot forget his face. He was Russian.”

‘Manas’ struggles to hold back his tears. This time, he doesn’t use a shot glass. He grabs the bottle of Kyrgyz aragi, a local brand of vodka, and downs a quarter of it in one go.

Manas is the pseudonym of a former mercenary who fought with the Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. He returned to his native Kyrgyzstan after realizing that Russian claims about fascists taking over Ukraine were mere propaganda.

Following weeks of negotiations, I came to meet him in a safe house in the northern city of Talas, where he took refuge after an interview with Radio Free Europe had turned him into a marked man. In it, Manas had exposed Russia’s role in the war in Ukraine, and this didn’t go down well with the country’s (mostly) pro-Russian elites. He has been on the run ever since.

When Kyrgyz aragi appeared on the table, I was served shot after shot. It would have been impolite to refuse. As day turned into night, Manas stopped pouring it for me as memories rushed through his head and vodka seemed to be the only remedy to soothe the pain. But it wasn’t enough: rapes, killings, and possible war crimes came gushing out during hours of vodka-filled monologue punctuated by many shots and few questions.

He said he had witnessed firsthand the actions of the rebel army, a band of marauders with little respect for civilian life and property. Vodka shot. The 19-or-20-year old Russian volunteer he killed in Stakhanov, a city in eastern Ukraine, had just raped a 40-year old woman and her daughter. Vodka shot. The woman had run up to him yelling hysterically and pointing at the young Russian. Manas hesitated. Then shot him dead. Vodka shot.

That wasn’t an exception. He says that once, they captured 15 people during a reconnaissance mission in Nikishino village. He was ordered to execute them. He did without thinking twice. Vodka shot. Another time, the rebels took 30 prisoners in Slavianoserbsk, who were told to unload military equipment from some Russian trucks. One prisoner managed to snatch a gun from a guard and kill him, so a Russian intelligence officer ordered to shoot them all. Series of vodka shots.

A few weeks later, I met Manas in a brothel in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital. Beer and vodka were on the table, in keeping with the Russian saying: “[if you drink] beer without vodka, you are wasting your money.” It is 2 pm. A lady is chatting on the phone by the window. Manas is sitting at the table drinking. He boasts that he can quit any time he wants.

He is a wanted man. He needs to leave the country and has come to the capital to purchase a fake passport. He claims he’d rather die than go to prison. Vodka shot.

Photo credit: Alex J. Butler

Nothing Starts a Party Like Liquor Without a Standardized Alcohol Content

Dec.15.15

Nothing Starts a Party Like Liquor Without a Standardized Alcohol Content

by Angelica Calabrese

Akpeteshie in Ghana

We could say with certainty that it was better than the gin sachets. We bought the clear liquor by the half-bottle, or by the bottle when we were feeling ambitious, from a shack in the alley behind Osu’s biggest supermarket. Sometimes they didn’t have it on hand, and the bartender sent the waitress hurrying down the rutted street to buy it from someone else. Sometimes we got it in clear, cheap bottles, the label scratched off; other times, in ornate, square green bottles. Sometimes we drank it during “dumsor,” Ghana’s increasingly frequent power cuts, sitting at blue plastic tables in the alley behind the supermarket in the dark while the generators thundered around us.

We were all in our 20s, recent and less-recent American college grads with grand aspirations who had all been, in some way, shaken into awareness of the futility of our various Ghanaian endeavors. So we drank akpeteshie. Sometimes, we were barely tipsy; sometimes, we barely managed to stumble our way home. It always burned going down.

Akpeteshie is the local gin, distilled from palm wine, usually in rusted barrels in the middle of the forest. The drink was dubbed “akpeteshie,” meaning “in hiding,” during British rule in the 1930s, when the colonial government banned the production and sale of locally-brewed alcohol, in part to curb drinking habits, but in larger part to favor their own alcoholic imports. Today, the gin is still often produced in hiding, distilled in the forest close to palm wine plantations. The clear alcohol drips into a plastic bucket or jerry can, and is usually bottled into recycled liquor bottles and sold throughout Ghana.

Traditionally consumed by fishermen and farmers, or in small doses at rural ceremonies, the potent liquor is finding a new audience among Accra locals and penny-pinching expats in search of a fun night. In some bars, bartenders mixed us drinks with sweet hibiscus and passion fruit and their own carefully distilled akpeteshie. But others still sold the more or less fiery, forest-brewed akpeteshie to whoever was crazy enough to stop in to buy a recycled half-bottle.

It wasn’t until I visited a distillery, hidden among the palm trees near a waterfall in the Volta Region, that I understood what went into those recycled bottles. Four copper barrels rusted underneath a palm-frond hut; green muck and algae floated inside the barrels in tranquility. Below the furthest barrel, chunks of charred wood simmered and crumbled into ash; above it, the freshly collected palm wine was heated until it vaporized.The vapor was piped around the copper barrels too cool it. It didn’t pass through the goop that was inside.

This was a minor comfort, though. Facing those rusted barrels, with no standardized way to regulate the production of the liquor, no metrics or measurements, I realized why some nights, a single shot did me in, and other nights, I could go on for hours.

Sitting in the dark at our usual spot a few nights later, we drank to send off a friend. The akpeteshie burned in my chest, a fierce punch. I was going home in a few weeks, leaving the heat and the dark nights. At home, I knew the effects of one shot of gin. But with the fiery akpeteshie settling and the first hint of lightheadedness swirling, I realized that I dreaded that certainty. I prefer the mismatched bottles, the wildly varying alcohol content, the murky waters.

Once You Go Kölsch, You Never Go Back

Dec.14.15

Once You Go Kölsch, You Never Go Back

by Eliot Rothwell

Beer in Cologne

I had always thought beer was best enjoyed as a pilsener in deep, hearty glasses. Perching on a bench adjoining a tightly packed bar in Cologne, my mind was changed. “We do things differently around here,” the bartender seemed to indicate with his bulging eyes, as he gripped a pencil in one hand and gestured for my bar mat with the other. After he scrawled two dashes on the mat, indicating the beers I had ordered, I was presented with two glasses of Kölsch, delivered in 0.2-liter glasses known as a Stangen, or rods.

In December, much of Cologne is dedicated to the famous Weihnachtsmarkt. Every square, courtyard, and spare patch of land in the city is given over to the festive celebrations. Sparkling lights are ubiquitous, and stalls selling everything from gingerbread houses to arts and crafts dominate public space. Here, the deep red glühwein has hegemony, along with sizzling bratwurst. But dotted in between the glühwein drinkers, the golden rods of Kölsch are still visible throughout the markets. Many stay true to the drink that serves the city the whole year round.

Moving inside the bar, I order two more, and then two more, each time having the requisite number of scribbles added to my beer mat. The tall, thin glasses are used because Kölsch is top-fermented, meaning that it flattens quicker than other beers. The incentive is to drink in short, sharp bursts, with more forthcoming almost as soon as one has been sunk. I oblige, and the evening starts to develop a golden hue.

The bartender is also drinking and starts to warm up, delivering the beer around the bar in circular Kranz trays, held by a handle that shoots out of the middle. He asks me where I’m from and, after a quick probing about the various merits of Manchester, begins to extol the virtues of Kölsch, rubbishing the pilsener that he also serves (with great reluctance).

Everywhere in Cologne, people are proud of their local brew. Germany has many regional variations in dialect, wealth, and geography, but drinking gets to the heart of local culture. On any street in the city, the trademarks of Cologne’s three main Kölsch companies—Früh, Gaffel, and Reissdorf—beam out from bars and kiosks. The drink is inseparable from the city.

After draining a few more glasses, I have to leave the bar and the bartender, just as he is set to launch into an exposition of the different Kölsch companies. I take the train to Gelsenkirchen, a small mining city in the Ruhr region, to watch Schalke, the local soccer team, take on Hannover in the Bundesliga. The journey hums along nicely and an extended stop at Duisburg station allows me to jump off and collect some more beer from a kiosk on the platform. But something isn’t right. The pilsener is heavy, the bottle is big and I find myself lost without the light taste of Kölsch and swift gulps of the tall, thin Stange glasses. I’ve changed, irreversibly.

A Quest for the Sacred Tears of Summer in a Colder Time

Dec.10.15

A Quest for the Sacred Tears of Summer in a Colder Time

by Chris Newens

Lacryma Christi in Naples and Paris

Perhaps it was out of a sense of self-preservation, but I never did see the Bay of Naples. Assuming the famous vista, ruled over ominously by Mount Vesuvius, spawned the saying “See Naples and die,” I chose to remain in the old town and eat. There, I figured, I was safely shielded from a sight so allegedly perfect it renders all others obsolete and makes further living a waste of time.

The locals say that Jesus Christ didn’t have such an option when he passed through Naples 2,000 years ago. But then, he was already on his way out. Legend goes that as Jesus was ascending into heaven he looked down to Naples and wept for the beauty of the world he was leaving behind. His tears fell on the volcanic slopes of Vesuvius, and from them grape vines sprung forth. Lucky for him, he didn’t also try the food, or he may not have gone so willingly.

For in the old town, within the sweltering bustle of Di Matteo’s, a deceptively basic pizzeria, I had accidentally found myself experiencing a kind of culinary zenith. I was stuffed: stuffed on wood-fired dough, on pomodoro, and on mozzarella like discs of white sunlight. People had warned me of the life changing capacity of Neapolitan cuisine, but this … Jesus wept!

Then Marco, my Italian guide, led me from Di Matteo’s, out onto the Via dei Tribunali. And he produced from his bag a bottle of Lacryma Christi: wine from the vineyards on the slopes of Vesuvius. Its name literally means “Christ’s tears.”

We shouldered down Naples’ medieval alleys, broiling with life in the summer dusk, toward the Piazza Luigi Miraglia, where the café terraces merged with the street drinkers. There, we found a place among the swelling crowds, and Marco opened the bottle.

He told me the story of Christ crying over Naples, and how the taste of Lacryma Christi is believed by wine experts to be the modern wine most similar to those drunk in ancient Rome. What a combination! Grown on the slopes of a volcano, fertilized by holy tears, and filled with the flavor of a fallen world. I must have been so overcome by the swirl of these tropes, or the swirl of the Neapolitan piazza, that I have since forgot the wine’s actual taste.

Summer’s long over now, and—to reach for an obvious, but nevertheless true, turn of phrase—in my adopted home of Paris there is more than a temporal chill in the air. In the past few weeks, we’ve all of us been painfully reminded that beauty is not the only thing that causes tears to fall. I decided to go in search of Lacryma Christi; I wanted to recall a warmer time.

Yet attempting to find a specific Italian wine in Paris is no easy feat. The French belief in the superiority of their booze runs deep. “World” wines are curios, seldom given the shelf-space dedicated to even a single minor region of France. In liquor stores across Paris, wherever I asked for Lacryma Christi, I was denied, flashed disapproving looks, told: “We do, though, have many excellent French wines.”

The search became a quest. Uttering the wine’s name to legions of unhelpful shop staff felt like speaking a Harry Potter-esque incantation: “Lacryma Christi?” I uttered. The most common response: “La crème de quoi?”

The possibility that I might taste the summer again grew fainter with every failure, and, of course, my imagined memory of the wine grew all the more spectacular. After three hours of fruitless flâneur-ing, I felt sure I was searching for the greatest wine ever created.

I found it at last in a store called Lavinia, not just the largest wine store in France, but in all of Europe. At last in my hands, the bottle had a magical weight. The minimalist illustration of Vesuvius on its label—a teardrop of lava escaping its summit—looked like a hieroglyph. Here was stoppered history.

I drank the Lacryma Christi with friends in an Oberkampf bar. The barkeeper—himself Italian—uncorked it for us in exchange for a glass. I know very little about how to write tasting notes. The official ones talk of cherries, of red fruits, and back pepper. To me, though, the Lacryma Christi tasted of smoke and of earth, of ancient empire and of the Piazza Luigi Miraglia at twilight in the height of a Neapolitan summer.

Photo credit: Sabine Dundure

The Illicit Pleasure of Secret Indulgences

Dec.09.15

The Illicit Pleasure of Secret Indulgences

by Florentyna Leow

Crullers in Petaling Jaya

Monsoons lashed the suburbs the September I went home to Malaysia, tropical thunderstorms that shook the trees daily. Violent, but without malice; just elemental downpours that soaked you thoroughly and left you with mud and gravel under your toenails. The mornings were dry but the afternoons were not. I was waiting to leave for Japan; with few friends left in the city I’d grown up in, I took to spending the afternoons in a café on the ground floor of a block of faded yellow apartments called Happy Mansion, trying to figure out why I mostly hated being home but also needed to hold on to this place. More often than not, I stared at my laptop and listened to the battering rains, the howling winds.

My father came to pick me up one of those evenings after the rains abated, and drove us to the Section 17 evening market a minute away. Before he had been diagnosed with a blocked artery, he would stop by a particular stall almost every day after work for yau zhar kwai—literally, oil-fried devils in Cantonese—and coffee. Mum hadn’t known, or maybe she’d just kept quiet. He’d invited me to share his illicit snacks on other occasions, but I had demurred until that day. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

It occurred to me, as we walked to the stall near the corner coffee shop, that in all my years of living five minutes away I’d never bothered to come here of my own volition. At 5pm the evening food market was still half-asleep, getting ready for the night of eating ahead. Older, pot-bellied uncles dotted the seating area, idly gossiping, or staring dourly at their drinks. At a stall nearby, a silver-haired uncle deftly flipped golden crullers bubbling away in a wok of oil. Dad ignored the array of deep-fried jianbing stuffed with flavored pastes, choosing a plain yau zhar kwai for a mere RM0.80 per stick.

We made our way to the coffee shop a few feet away: Restaurant Say Huat, which sounds more like the punchline to a bad joke. With a practiced brusqueness, he called for a cup of Nescafe. He took out a packet of tissue from his pocket, dabbed at the cruller in an effort to remove some of the grease. The coffee arrived, and he scooped out some of the condensed milk layer from the bottom of the cup. Diabetes had killed his mother. He tore the cruller lengthways, handing one half to me, still warm. 


“Must dip longer, then only nice.” He watched me dip my half clumsily into the cup. “More. Like that.” 


One bite, and I understood what kept him coming back all those years. It was chewy, with a slight saltiness augmented by the faintly sweet, cheap-bitter coffee-soaked dough. “Yau zhar kwai must go with coffee one. Or soy bean milk. Or hong dao. Red bean also very nice.”

He paused.

“Don’t tell mum.” 



Naturally I told mum later, who sighed in mock-exasperation. I thought about yau zhar kwai for days, months afterwards. A year later my parents visited me in Kyoto. I’d heard that the land in the centre of the square in Section 17 had been marked for development – yet another high-rise condominium – and the market vendors had been forced to move their stalls to a different street. I asked them where they’d gone to. 



“They’re in front of Caring now,” mum replied. 



“Caring?”



“The pharmacy… all the stalls have been moved there.”



I turned to Dad. “What about the the yau zhar kwai stall?” 



“Oh. No more already. Now I just eat at the mall.” 



“Kii ah!” Mum scolded him in Hakka. “Always tiu sit.” This one! Always secretly eating. 


Drinking and Biking Along the DMZ

Dec.08.15

Drinking and Biking Along the DMZ

by Matthew C. Crawford

Makgeolli in Goseong

Long-distance cycling trips in South Korea have a funny way of turning into the local version of a wine-tasting tour, with grapes swapped for rice and the vintage a milky beer called makgeolli.

This time, my friend Jared and I were riding north from Sokcho, a city on the country’s east coast. “75 kilometers to Mt. Geumgang,” proclaimed a road sign on the outskirts of the city. This was optimistic, as the mountain is on the other side of the militarized border—the infamous DMZ—that has separated South Korea and North Korea for over half a century.

Soon we were passing beaches fenced off with razor wire, promontories topped with sentry boxes, and roads lined with camouflaged concrete blocks loaded with dynamite. Our goal for the day was the Unification Observatory, and we were hoping for a glimpse of North Korea’s beaches and peaks through coin-operated binoculars.

Alternating between the highway and a seaside bike path, we stopped for lunch in the town of Goseong. In the covered market, we happened upon a restaurant serving gamja ongsimi, a thick soup of potato dumplings, noodles, zucchini, and mushrooms. The proprietress easily convinced us to order a bottle of local makgeolli, then another. The brand was Seorak Raw Rice Makgeolli. Brewed with deep-sea water, it was refreshingly tart, with a hint of ocean salt.

The sentry path and bike trail began to blur during the next leg of the trip, and we passed soldiers patrolling the fence. The Korean cyclists we saw were often in groups of up to 20, all with top-of-the-line bikes. In their sunglasses and full-body uniforms, many resembled Power Rangers. The path took us through golden fields of rice, ready for harvest, and along fences strung with drying squid.

After passing the final village, Myeongpa-ri, then an abandoned shack named Last House Squid, we approached a roadblock and an arch marking the beginning of the “civilian access control line.” Three young soldiers blocked the way.

“Sorry, registered vehicles only beyond this point,” one of them said, polite but stern. We turned around, riding downhill back to Sokcho. The next day, we ended up having lunch in Abai Village, on a tiny strip of land near the harbor that was settled by refugees from North Korea.

Abai’s specialty is ojingeo sundae—squid that has been stuffed, sliced, battered and fried—and, once again, the drink of choice is makgeolli. We ordered a big bottle of Saimdang, a sweet local brew flavored with corn, and clinked bowls. The makgeolli had a yellow hue, like custard, and was a perfect match for the squid and side dishes like deep-fried shrimp.

As we sat in our plastic chairs, pleasantly fatigued and sipping on the hearty libation, it didn’t seem overly optimistic to think that we could someday continue this trip all the way up the coast to China.

Crossing a Continent for a Dark Beer

Dec.07.15

Crossing a Continent for a Dark Beer

by Alexander Schade

Stout in Harar

“Everything is about the khat here. All the cars coming, all the cars going, carrying khat. You see.”

Our guide Mohammed shouted at us as about the popular catha edulis plant grown in this region as our 1992 Hyundai passenger van careened up a switchback in the Dire Dawa mountains. The road was inching its way towards the low clouds, and the symphony of the transmission and suspension left little room for casual conversation. We stared out the window as the town melted away with the fading daylight and our guide continued to update our progress with sporadic facts and itinerary details. It had been a long day traveling to Diredawa, with connections from Bahir Dar back to Addis Ababa only to arrive late in the afternoon; wearily, we watched the mountain pass turn into sorghum and teff fields, khat crops and grass pastures. My thoughts turned to dinner as we passed street vendors selling roasted corn and cafés plastered in Harar Beer advertisements.

“Fifty kilometers, we go through Jelo, Alem Maya, through the khat town, and then to Harar and the brewery. Tonight it’s closed; tomorrow, you see.”
Traveling from my home in Morocco, I crossed the breadth of the African continent to chase down the rumor of an African stout beer. Anyone who spends enough time in Africa will notice that pilsner and lagers are popular and brewed often in many countries on the continent; yet a true local stout is a rarity. Mauritius, a volcanic island nation, brews its own Flying Dodo stout; Nigeria brews a version of Guinness with sorghum, and of course South Africa has a growing craft beer scene. What’s left to sample is the trifecta of Heineken, Guinness, and the local pilsners and lagers that, many times, feel uninspiring.

As we arrived in Harar, I could barely contain my excitement. Considered the fourth holiest city in Islam, with over 83 mosques, Harar sits in the eastern highlands of the oldest Christian region in the world, and it continues to be recognized as the home of khat production and Ethiopian beer brewing. At last I would get a chance to taste the Ethiopian stout made by the Harar Brewery.

The streets were already dark as our driver navigated the maze to the Harar Ras Hotel, which happened to be the only hotel in town. Enjoying the warm evening air, we settled into plastic chairs on the front veranda of the hotel, and watched Harari teens pick at plates of french fries and drink draft Harar pilsners. Our waiter placed a cold bottle of Hakim stout on the table next to a glass, and let me do the pouring. With a lighter head than I would have expected, the malty dark brown beer smelled of currants and dried fruit. Possibly one of the better dark ales that I’ve enjoyed in my life, and at minimum, the only one I’ve crossed a continent for. I took several long sips of the stout and settled back into my plastic chair, smiling.

Here’s to Better Rum and the End of War

Dec.03.15

Here’s to Better Rum and the End of War

by Tillman Miller

Mandalay Rum in Bhamo

On an evening in November, as night fell on Yangon, I set out from a dark bar with a paper cup full of rum. The tea shops and beer stations were coming alive, and my taxi cleared the outskirts of the city, taking a right on the road leading to Sule Pagoda, which was alight from afar. Teens were taking selfies as fountain jets sprayed over Maha Bandula Garden and there was something special in the air, an undeniable thrill. After five decades of being misgoverned by dictatorial military generals, the Burmese masses exerted their will and, a few days before my arrival, elected the democratic opposition to a landslide victory over the military.

Yangon radiated renaissance and it felt as though life in Myanmar had never been this full of possibility. The downtown streets were filled with the pioneers of Myanmar’s new democracy: everyone from chinlone kickers and beetle spitters to punk rockers and KTV singers to student activists and teenage dreamers flaunted their hopes and grand ambitions down Friday-evening boulevards. It was a great time to be drinking local rum in the back of a taxi, coasting through the city.

The rum required its own kind of honesty, and Mandalay Rum—the country’s oldest distilled liquor—was almost too sunny on its edges. The molasses taste was lashed with dark sugar and candied citrus, but adding a little lime juice and a soupçon of honey, as the Burmese were wont to do, made for a fitting drink to get me from place to place.

The place I arrived at was a cocktail lounge in a colonial heritage building, where I met some old friends who told stories of the days when I once lived in Yangon. When it was time to order drinks, I looked at the menu with great interest; but Mandalay Rum, which sells for around a dollar per bottle on the street, wasn’t one of the choice liquors at the expat-inclined lounge. I ordered a Negroni and remembered how I had heard that rum was the drink of the Burmese countryside, enjoyed against palms, water, jungles, and pagodas in the sky. It seemed unlikely that I would be sharing a bottle of Mandalay in Yangon that night, and before long the citywide 11 p.m. curfew shut down the bars.

A few days later I went to the countryside, heading up north to the country’s Kachin state where a putative civil war between the Burmese military’s Tatmadaw Army and the regional Kachin Independence Army was ongoing. I settled in Bhamo, a relative safe zone amid the conflict, and one of the northernmost cities on the Irrawaddy River. For a town with less than ten main streets, Bhamo had no shortage of beer stations with bottles of rum on hand.

They say rum is a stalwart of the Burmese workingman, and after laboring on the warm river jetties all day, fishmongers and stevedores started arriving to beer stations on their motorbikes, seeking out shots of rum. Shots at roadside beer stations cost anywhere from a dime to a half-dollar, and as I drank at a station called Sein Sein, men would stop by the bar, take a shot of Mandalay, and hop back on their motos to find their way home. As the aging jetty workers came and went, younger residents of Bhamo hung around the tables nursing beers and smiling into their smart phones. For the youthful drinkers of the countryside, rum dating back to 1886 failed to adequately express these changing times.

I drank at Sein Sein while the sun came down and the hills turned pink. Then I walked along the river to Shinbo Jetty and thought of the many reasons Myanmar remained so strangely alluring: bullets flew thirty minutes north of me, bombs were falling in Shan state, the center-left was replacing the militaristic right, and the young Burmese were decked out in gingham and Aviators, mixing seamlessly with the ever-modernizing social scene. In short, Myanmar had become a hip amalgamation of war, democracy, and parties. The hope, of course, is that there won’t always be war, and that the parties and democracy—and even the rum—will get better with the endless tang of the passage of time.

When You’re Hot, Drunk, and Stoned on a Bus, at Least Drink Good Beer

Dec.02.15

When You’re Hot, Drunk, and Stoned on a Bus, at Least Drink Good Beer

by Craig Ballinger

American Pale Ale in London

It’s the hottest day of the year and I’m on the top deck of a London bus. I’m with my photographer and friend Charlie Whatley and we’re melting. We’ve entirely failed in our journalistic task for the day, but I’m a little drunk and that’s all that really matters.

I’ve been trying to make it to Imbibe Live, a booze convention at London’s Excel exhibition centre. The Excel tends to host the most odious of corporate events, with this year’s highlights being a property fair targeting foreign investment at a time when the poor are being pushed out of the city and an arms fair at a time of wild warmongering.

The task was one I’d set myself: I was to go to the drinks fair, see what bullshit they were peddling, and write about it for a beer magazine. The idea was to see how much the exhibitors were getting into using buzzwords and piggybacking on popular movements to sell inferior products. I expected a lot of push on “craft” products that were nothing of the kind. A lot of beer writers want to bore us with the “what is craft?” question, but I won’t bother. I just think there’s good beer and not good beer.

Good beer is hard to avoid in the UK right now. Since the introduction of the Progressive Beer Duty in 2002, which gives tax breaks to small breweries, there has been an explosion of craft outfits all over the country. London in particular plays a big role in this new era for the beer industry, which is pulling in different directions. Whilst tiny microbreweries pop up in every conceivable space, the multinationals are still bent on total domination. Due to the constant mergers and acquisitions of brewery businesses, AB InBev and SABMiller now own most big beer brands and have recently agreed to a USD $104 billion deal to merge, making them responsible for one in three beers sold worldwide.

The big brands, however, have neither quality nor creativity on their side. Small breweries are said to be opening at a rate of one every other day, and they’re going against their corporate rivals by being collaborative rather than competitive. Each little brewery knows it can’t quench everyone’s thirst, so they rely on each other to maintain a sustainable scene that moves away from trend factors to a genuine change in how we drink. Despite most popular beer recipes originating from Britain and Europe, it’s the U.S. that has taken the idea of locally produced beer being a joyous thing, and with it, has given us a model that is economically sound.

One big U.S.-exported factor of modern beer is the aesthetic pleasures of wild artwork and 330ml cans. The small beer can wasn’t at all common in the U.K., its usage confined to a traditional barley wine called Gold Label (now the property of AB InBev, naturally). Now, everybody’s canning, and the leading light in all of this is Beavertown Brewery.

Beavertown is one of the largest small breweries in London. Started by Logan Plant from his restaurant Duke’s Brew & Que, the U.S. influence is clear. However, it’s a blend of British and American ideas that make it so successful. One of their first beers was Smog Rocket, a smoked porter, a style intrinsically linked to London; however, their other flagship beer was 8 Ball, a rye IPA that has a distinct U.S. flavor. Their most popular beer, and the one that saves the day on this return journey from journalistic failure, is Gamma Ray, an American Pale Ale. It’s a classic, super-hopped pale and all kinds of refreshing when served up fresh and cold.

Visitors from the U.S. are often confused by our “warm, flat” beer, but cask ale isn’t as bland as it once was. Styles fall out of fashion, some are reinvented. People aren’t drinking milds and best bitters, they’re drinking pale ales and IPAs stuffed with hops from around the world. U.S. hops are just more bold in their flavors than their British relations. Even as my day descended into a shambles, as we took wrong turns, lost things, got distracted, drunk, stoned, I realized the story was right here anyway. I didn’t need to see the horror to report the upside of things.

As I drink from my cold can, I look around the bus to see a Hispanic Hunter S. Thompson lookalike staring on from the back seats. He’s the only other guy on the bus, sucking on a carton of Capri-Sun. His tinted aviators stare back at me. Maybe the heat is getting to me. Maybe I’ve drunk too much. Maybe it’s still the lingering THC from those morning joints that started this mess. Either way, I’m telling the story. The Gods of coincidence have spoken.

Barley Wine in the Abode of Snow

Dec.01.15

Barley Wine in the Abode of Snow

by Doug Wallack

Chang in Ladakh

Chang is a kind of barley wine that is well loved in Ladakh, the region of the Indian Himalayas I was visiting, where the high altitude and harsh climate dictate that barley is a staple crop. Ladakhi kitchens are laid out like trophy rooms with metal plates, bowls, and pots arranged in elegant rows, propped up for full visibility. And there is usually a pitcher designated for chang, which comes down from the shelf for celebrations, though I came to understand that even a neighbor’s visit is often deemed reason enough to celebrate.

I had come to Ladakh to go trekking, and while I was there, I wanted to try this favorite Ladakhi drink. But despite its popularity, chang was nowhere to be found in Leh, the region’s largest town. Beer was common enough in restaurants, so this was a bit puzzling. The best explanation I was given for its conspicuous absence was that no one sells chang because everyone makes their own. I asked my guide, Jigmet, if we might be able to hunt down some barley homebrew on a trek, and he promised me we would.

We set out, with my friends Charlie and Brett, to spend a few days walking in the mountains. We left Leh early, and after a brief van ride, found ourselves at the trailhead. We walked. The sun beat down on us with a keen intensity through the thin air and lit up the faded tan and iron-rich red cliff faces. Snow-fed streams twisted down through the valleys, copses of bushy poplars and tall, slender willows along their banks. Each night we found room and board in homestays in the tiny villages along the way, and each day we walked through expanses of rocky moonscape. We could see miles in any direction, and the sky unfolded over us with a hugeness completely foreign to urban environments, which seemed about right, as we were a couple miles closer to it than usual.

In 2009, Ladakh was the setting for the wildly popular Bollywood film 3 Idiots, and since then the region has seen a drastic increase in tourism. But as well known and highly-trafficked as the region has become, it’s still not difficult to find areas of Ladakh that are almost completely remote from the rest of the world. On a previous trek, I had stopped for tea at the home of a woman who had beckoned to my party as we walked by. When we were leaving her house, we tried to offer her some rupees in return for her kindness. Her mystified reaction suggested not that we’d offended her sense of hospitality, but rather that she didn’t recognize the currency of her own nation.

On this visit, we arrived at our final homestay in the village of Shingo and I had pretty much given up on finding some chang. It was no great loss though. Brett had fallen sick earlier in the week, and I knew that Jigmet had been preoccupied with making sure the trek wasn’t too taxing for him. I decided not to bring it up, and went to bathe in a nearby stream. But later that afternoon when I was back in the house reading, Jigmet strode into the room and glanced about knowingly. “Hey guys, want to have some chang?” he asked.

We did. We gathered around the table and he brought over a gold-colored pitcher. He instructed us to mix in tsampa, a roasted barley flour often used to make porridge. The chang was a bathwater greyish brown, and I braced myself for something grim.

But the drink was surprisingly pleasant and mellow. The chang itself was slightly sweet and acidic, and the tsampa gave it a full-bodied thickness, cutting its faintly acerbic bite with warm, nutty undertones. We passed the pitcher around, relieved. The name ‘Himalaya’ comes from Sanskrit meaning “abode of snow,” and the mountains certainly earn their title. But this was a drink to soften the winter’s sting; a restorative to be quaffed with neatly folded momos and hot vegetable stews. A fine drink to mark the end of our trek.

Later, I went outside to wash my face. Jigmet had walked to the nearest phone to call the trekking company, and now he came winding back through barley fields around the house. As he approached, I motioned across the valley to the mountains that shot up from beyond the river, glowing auburn in the sunset. In a few hours, a full moon would rise and the entire valley would be awash in silver. It was mid-August, and Jigmet had already been in the field for over ninety days this season. “Does this ever get boring to you?” I asked. “Not really,” he laughed, and headed back inside.

Bemoaning Young Zealots Over a Drink Or Three

Nov.30.15

Bemoaning Young Zealots Over a Drink Or Three

by Jans Schaper

Vodka in Dagestan

We were lucky. Once we managed to get to the highway on the outskirts of Astrakhan the first car to stop after seeing our raised thumbs had the same destination as us: Makhachkala. Though it is the largest city in the Russian part of the Caucasus, it is little visited by tourists.

Dagestan’s reputation for excessive corruption, organized crime, and jihadism is not an attractive mix. But the region’s undeniable beauty and tradition of hospitality still manages to draw some people in.

The combination of the region’s push-and-pull factors made me decide that after several months of hitchhiking alone through Russia it was time to go in search of a partner, if not for my own safety then at least to help my mother sleep at night. An online trawl through several forums led me to Daryl, a Malaysian student attending university in Volgograd. His university had explicitly forbidden him from entering this part of Russia, but he didn’t know exactly why the decree had gone out; the warning itself was reason enough for him to want to take a look around. We crammed into a white Mercedes and introduced ourselves to Shamil, Haji, and Hussain.

As we made our way south, the guys gave us a choice: we could either wait till morning and go with them or we could continue by ourselves. We decided to stick with what we had, but soon started to regret it. While they caught up with old friends, we sat in a sparsely furnished small building without food, electricity, running water, a toilet, or any relief from boredom. With nothing better to do, we decided to go to sleep.

Not much later, we were woken up by a few men coming through the doors using their phones as flashlights. Somebody managed to switch on the power supply and soon enough we were sitting around a table eating little pieces of rotisserie chicken with flat bread as we took turns drinking vodka.

Between us we shared a liter bottle of vodka; not enough to let things get out of hand but enough to let the conversation flow despite a slight language barrier. Comic relief was provided by a guy bearing the nickname iPhone because he loves his phone more than his wife. At least that’s what his friends say: iPhone’s Russian is worse than Daryl’s or mine so he’s in no position to defend himself.

I tried to stay clear of discussing politics or religion but my curiosity got the best of me. I told Shamil the last thing I would have expected to be doing on my first night in Dagestan was drinking alcohol. In a region which has seen a more relaxed syncretic form of Islam lose a lot of ground to Wahabism over the last couple of decades, some convenience stores have taken to advertising the fact that they don’t sell alcohol in order to deter would-be attackers. Shamil bemoaned the young zealots and stressed Dagestan’s traditional tolerance. Besides, he said, he and his friends only drink a few times a year.

The next morning the guys were back, and after a quick visit to a Shamil’s uncle we were on our way to our destination. We were dropped off in town as they made their way to the mosque for Friday prayers.

The Mouth-Numbing Chill-Out Elixir That’s Better Than Booze

Nov.24.15

The Mouth-Numbing Chill-Out Elixir That’s Better Than Booze

by Avi Duckor-Jones

Kava in Togalevu

I had been dry for two months by the time I first tried kava. I was traveling in the South Pacific for work, and due to a number of understandable reasons, there was a strict no-drinking rule that blanketed the trip.

It was going great. My thoughts were lucid, my body sprightly, and I found myself leaping from bed each day with some previously unsourced energy. I can’t deny that I missed it, though; the camaraderie of clinking glasses and the ceremony that surrounds a few rounds spinning yarns with friends. But rules were rules, so I forged on without a brew in sight, unknowing that the camaraderie and ceremony that I was missing would come in the form of a ground-up root strained into muddy water, commonly known as kava.

I had arranged to stay in Togalevu, a small village on the eastern side of Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian Islands, where I would be doing some volunteer work. I knew that kava was a huge part of the culture here, and as my bus curved around the coastline towards the village, I wondered when I would get my first opportunity to try it.

As it happened, it didn’t take long. Upon arrival, I sat facing the entire village in the community hall, where the kava was being mixed in a big wooden bowl that stood on four short legs. One of the villagers, a young Fijian fellow with an enormous gap between his front teeth, strained the ground kava root through a T-shirt, turning the water a muddy brown. He kneaded the T-shirt with both hands, massaging out as much of the kava as he could. The villagers all watched, transfixed. After he had strained sufficiently, the young man stirred the water slowly, repeatedly scooping and pouring it from a halved coconut shell.

It was a lengthy ceremony. I was welcomed in rapid Fijian by enormous stern men. I then expressed my gratitude to the village for hosting me. And then we drank kava. I went first. The gap-toothed fellow poured a decent bowl of kava and it was passed to me. I clapped once, (a custom that was explained to me before the ceremony) drank it down, then clapped three times before pronouncing my thanks with a hearty “Vinaka!” After that, the spell was broken. Kava is a relaxant and its effects are felt instantaneously. As my lips and tongue began to tingle and my throat grew numb, the men, who seconds ago looked unshakably firm, broke into grins and clapped enthusiastically at my effort.

Kava became a staple part of my time in Togalevu. After a day laboring with the men, we would invariably lay down our tools and head to the community hall to mix our first batch. I learnt how to control my kava buzz through tidal increments, indicating I wanted a low tide for a shallow cup, a high tide for a full cup, and a tsunami if I was feeling brave enough to chug an overflowing and particularly deep shell. Into my second week, I became curious. This plant was such a pivotal part of the culture here. Kava ceremonies were performed in the most important of social and religious occasions. During my own welcoming ceremony, a bundle of tangled kava root was presented to the chief on my behalf. He took it, nodding solemnly and held it to his chest like a baby. I wanted to know more about its story and see the process for myself, from plant to kava cup. I asked my friend Abraham (the kava mixer from the opening ceremony) if he could show me. He grinned his gap-toothed grin and said tomorrow we would do just that.

Abraham’s kava plantation was cradled in a valley on the way up to Joske’s Thumb, a rocky mountain peak behind the village that juts out of the greenery and resembles, unsurprisingly, a thumb. We walked barefoot through the tall jungle in the weighty heat of day. After a few river crossings, we broke from the path and waded up a field towards the kava plantation. A member of the pepper family, it was thin-stalked and looked similar to cassava. Abraham handled the leaves affectionately and smiled down at me as I struggled to keep up on the steep climb in the midday heat.

“The reason Fiji kava is so strong,” he said, “more than Vanuatu or Samoa, is the sun. We let it grow longer, let it get stronger.”

We sat under the shade of the kava leaves and he walked me though the process from planting to the drink that I had come to enjoy every night after dinner. The plant must be matured for five years before it is cut, sun-dried, pounded, then strained and mixed with cold water. Abraham told me about kava‘s role in his family. Two of his brothers worked in the kava plant down the road. He laughed as he described how it was used as a sort of informal dispute resolution tool, something that, when shared, erases all animosity or conflict.

“My father was one of five brothers,” he told me. “Oh, they would fight! But then, when they mixed the kava and sat around to drink grog together, whatever they fought about, it was forgotten!” he laughed.

In the community hall, later that evening, I saw how this could be the case. Rather than the rage-fueling properties of, say, whiskey or rum, the numbing, sleep-inducing qualities of the root turned drinking buddies into friends rather than drunken rivals. With heavy eyelids I gazed around. One man lazily strummed at his guitar, another was already sleeping with his palm in his hand. The others told long, drawn-out jokes which were met with soft chuckles. At one point, Abraham leaned towards me.

“This is what we do.” He said softly. “We tell stories and we drink our kava.”
I listened, even though I couldn’t understand, as stories passed around the circle. Eventually, when my eyes could no longer stay open, I said goodnight and stumbled off in a haze to bed, for another dreamless kava sleep.

If You Don’t Like Beer, You Probably Won’t Like This Beer

Nov.23.15

If You Don’t Like Beer, You Probably Won’t Like This Beer

by Helen Wright

Craft Beer in Estonia

The line of craft beer bottles on the back wall behind the bar was intimidating. Not just because the room was so dark you couldn’t see the contents, but because neither of us were beer drinkers.

Over the throbbing beat of the music the bartender with a swinging blond ponytail explained to my friend and I what was in each bottle. Neither of us had a clue what to choose. I heard the words “brewed with blackcurrant” and opted for that, my friend a beer with rye.

My beer, dark and strong, was on tap and the bartender carefully spooned off the frothy head with a spoon – not just once but twice. The top was pried off the bottle of the other, and both were poured into glasses.

The small, candle-lit bar—actually, they fancy themselves a speakeasy—was on the cusp of Tallinn’s “hipster area,” Kalamaja, opposite the train station. It was full on a Friday night, so we sat on a step in the middle of the room and sipped our drinks.

Neither was a success. All I could taste were traces of coffee, the more subtle flavors going straight over my head. My friend described hers as “bready.” We aren’t beer drinkers and this was the outcome we expected, but I had insisted we try an Estonian craft beer anyway.

In the last few years, there has been an explosion of small breweries popping up and creating their own beer in the smallest Baltic nation. Using anything from wheat and rye to grapefruit and pumpkin, brewers have gone the extra mile to make their drinks original.

It’s a bit of a mystery why craft beer has taken off so suddenly as there have been no recent changes in legislation to give rise to the boom. But there is a long history of brewing in Estonia, and archeologists have found barley that was likely used to make beer in the country approximately 1,000 years ago. Wheat, oats, and rye have also been grown for a long time.

I moved to the tiny country—which has a population of 1.3 million—six months ago, and had seen the signs advertising craft beer outside almost every bar in the cobbled, picture-postcard pretty streets of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town. After trying the nation’s signature drink—Vana Tallinn liquor—and hating it, I wanted to see if I could find another beverage I could stomach.

The bar we were in is owned by Tallinn-based Põhjala Brewery, who helped lead the craft beer revolution. They were the first to start selling handmade drinks with new recipes in 2011. Their beers are some of the best rated on www.ratebeer.com and my flatmate had recommended their brews to me.

A crowd of people left the bar and we upgraded from the floor to stools. Alternating between taking baby sips and chugging back the cold liquids, we were determined to finish our glasses.

Ten minutes later, after trying to hide our screwed up faces as we sipped, we left both glasses, their contents still cold and only three-quarters drunk, on the bar next to a cluster of tea-lights and fled into the cold, dark autumn night.

A Night of Burma’s Finest Drink and K TV

Nov.18.15

A Night of Burma’s Finest Drink and K TV

by Mark Isaacs

Fermented Rice Wine in Lashio

“Safa malaf.”

My colleagues and I raise our glasses and pour the fermented rice wine, which they jokingly call “White Label,” down our throats.

“Safa malaf means to health and wealth,” they tell me and my throat burns and we laugh.

There are ten of us squeezed into a cluttered bedroom that sleeps five men on hard wooden boards. We are in the Ta’ang Students and Youth Union (TSYU) office in Lashio in the Northern Shan State of Burma. There is a community feel to the TSYU office, which doubles as a boarding house. Bedrooms can be found in attics and basements and behind little doorways, and when all the beds are full, mats are laid out for guests. My drinking companions are Ta’ang men who are all aged under 30.

“We are the indigenous people of Burma and South China. This is our homeland,” says Su Det, a wiry young man trying to grow a mustache, as he leans into me, breathing hot “White Label” air on my face.

“We believe that our father is the sun, and our mother is the dragon. Our history is of persecution. By the Mongols, and the Thai, and now the Burmese.”

Su Det raises his glass and we take another a drink. “Safa malaf.”

I take a handful of beef jerky from the table to mask the taste.

“Burma’s finest drink,” Chat U says and slaps me on the back, laughing wildly.

These young men work for TSYU: an ethnic community group providing support for the Ta’ang people. It may seem hard to believe at this moment, but during the day they provide education opportunities for Ta’ang youth and financially assist displaced and impoverished Ta’ang villagers.

“You want to K TV?” they ask me.

“What’s K TV?” I reply.

Chat U starts to sing ‘My Heart Will Go On’ in melodramatic fashion.

“Karaoke,” I shout out.

We ride three to a scooter. I am in the middle with my legs splayed out to either side. The cold wind whips our faces and we cheer and scream. Our private karaoke room is adorned with aluminum foil to provide a genuine space-age look. The men choose hit after Burmese hit, tirelessly screaming until three in the morning. They ask me if I’d like to hire girls and I tell them I have a girlfriend.

“It’s not what you think,” they say. “We are very innocent.”

The hired help pour drinks for the men, avoid small talk, and sing one song between them before leaving. My companions are happy with their performance.

On our return trip back to the college we are stopped at a road block on the highway by the Burmese military. The soldiers check my companions’ papers and ask a lot of questions about me. After twenty minutes we are allowed to proceed.

The next day I am asked to see Chat U in the TSYU office. He reminds me that the military are observing my movements and that I must obey my curfew, which is 10pm.

Follow the author’s writings on his website: www.markjisaacs.com.

Come for the Second-Best Water in the World, Stay for the Wine

Nov.17.15

Come for the Second-Best Water in the World, Stay for the Wine

by Kirsten O'Regan

Pomegranate Wine in Dilijan

I first hear about pomegranate wine in a village at the edge of the Iranian desert in the height of summer. The settlement, composed of mud-brick houses slowly collapsing into the dust, is fringed by a burst of green: a lush public garden, watered by underground canals, laden with as-yet-unripe pomegranates. “When they ripen, we send most for export,” my host says as we wander in the shade, “the rest we use to make pomegranate wine.” I rue my timing, months before this year’s illicit winemaking can begin, and give pomegranate wine up for lost, only to stumble upon it months later and a world away, in the mist-enveloped Armenian highlands.

Dilijan is hardly what one might expect from a resort town. Perched on verdant mountain slopes and renowned for the quality of its water (“the second best in the world,” as a line from an old movie has it), the village is damp and somewhat mildewed and very small. A visitor walking in the direction of the town center could be forgiven for striding right on by. There’s a traffic circle, and a small café. On a gentle rise nearby perches a modernist monument—all brutalist spikes and flat slabs of concrete—which, in lieu of any explanation, is presumably intended to commemorate the Armenian genocide.

With the light fading fast, a thin drizzle persisting, and no means of transport, there is nothing much to do but sample the (disappointing) local water from decorative drinking fountains and make appreciative noises. The night stretches out ahead of us. We—a rag-tag band thrown together by chance, including a Georgian (handy for his Russian conversation skills), and a Turk (whom we introduce as being “from Istanbul,” to avoid mentioning his nationality)—promptly decide to acquire something little stronger. A wine-oriented wander begins.

There is wine everywhere in Armenia. Perhaps you wouldn’t notice if you hadn’t arrived straight from a country where alcohol is at best invisible and at worst unavailable. But I had, and I did. As mellow Yerevan evenings lengthen languidly into night, women with crisp bobs and pretty sundresses saunter the sidewalks, past convivial tables of revelers spilling out onto the streets. Dark figures stumble home in ragged zigzags. Armenia boasts some of the earliest remnants of winemaking in the world: ancient grape residues clinging to fragments of pottery, detected by the presence of red pigment, indicate that the country has seemingly been getting drunk on the good stuff since at least 4000 BCE, although some scholars point out that the residual red could have been left by pomegranates.

Ah, the pomegranate! To a Classics scholar, the fruit is steeped in sex and knowledge and power and myth, situated at the interstices of life and death; between this world and another; the old and the new. A liminal, unstable signifier, the fruit is both gift and threat, promise and challenge. Crushed and fermented and bottled blood-red it becomes even more enchanted: a magical potion, an exotic object, a doorway into elsewhere.

Such poetic notions elude us in Dilijan. It’s raining. We’re bored. A tipple is called for. And we find it in a scuffed, stuffed grocery store tucked in next to a closing-up open-air market. In the musty interior, an elderly man and woman survey an aisle or two of commercial packaged cakes, pickles, and spices. I am dispiritedly surveying a dusty rack of unappetizing wine bottles, when the Georgian hails me over to a small glass case boasting crumbling homemade cheese amidst plastic bottles of inky crimson liquid. “This is what we’re looking for,” he says, eyes sparkling, as the proprietress nods sagely. “Noor,” she says. “Very special.”

If, to me, pomegranate is an exotic symbol of elsewhere—of myth and legend, Persephone and Demeter, Scheherazade and the Shahnameh—to Armenians, the fruit is a potent marker of home. Pomegranates saturate the country’s culture and history, cropping up in stone-carvings, architectural details, tapestries, manuscripts. Yerevan souvenir shops and markets are cluttered with pomegranate paraphernalia, while Armenian wedding venues used to literally drip with the fruit: brides traditionally flung a pomegranate against the wall, the ensuing splatter of seeds ensuring the union’s fertility. Such faith in the fruit’s fecundity contrasts starkly with ancient Greece’s reliance on pomegranate as a contraceptive; the fruit’s contrary nature—life/death, beginning/end, power/impotence—strikes again.

We buy a liter and lug the precious liquid home in a plastic bottle that previously contained some kind of soda, drinking incarnadine tumblers of the stuff alongside bread and salty white cheese, grapes, tomatoes, plums. Later, in Istanbul, my Turkish host is given a gift of pomegranate wine by an Armenian friend: a beautiful grenade-shaped glass bottle, bloated, wax-covered belly splitting in the centre to reveal knobbled glasswork seeds and the red gleam of liquor. She is instructed, Persephone-like, not to touch it, for luck.

In Dilijan, no such superstitions constrain us; we are travelers—outside of tradition, existing in our own in-between other-where—and our homemade concoction, encased in plastic, invites not reverence but revelry. Sweet-sour, rich, full-bodied, the wine is surprisingly strong, especially after two months of Iran-induced abstinence. Looking out over the darkening mountains from our chilly guesthouse balcony, we talk until late into the night, lips stained a deepening purple with each sip.

We Will Raise Our Glasses High and Drink Them with Joy

Nov.16.15

We Will Raise Our Glasses High and Drink Them with Joy

by Margaux Bergey

Wine in Paris

Drinking on the terrace of a café is what I need to do.

I couldn’t envision not being outside this Saturday, November 14th. After incomprehension, tears, and anger, after being at work all morning, I could not imagine going home.

It was midday when I left the office of the news channel I work for in Paris. No one had slept the night before. It was all shock, anguish, and sadness. The sky was slightly gray and it was warm. People were out and a couple of children were playing in a park. The metro was open and I headed over to a friend’s house because there was no way I could be alone. Walking past the shops and cafés, past people eating and drinking on terraces, I saw that this country wasn’t completely fucked, that this would all end one day, that it would take time but that they hadn’t completely killed us.

My friends and I ate pizza in front of the news, and at 6pm we headed over to Place de la République to light candles. Then we went to our favorite bars and cafés in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, freshly scarred by the attacks.

I never thanked my Lebanese friends enough for transmitting to me their strength and their capacity to move past tragic events simply by meeting up in bars—often less crowded than usual—on post-attack evenings. In Beirut, my other ville de coeur, I learned to move on with life, whatever happens. And so on Saturday night, I also raised my glass to Beirut, bruised by Thursday’s attacks in a popular neighborhood of its southern suburb.

Drinking on a terrace is what we do best on Saturday nights. Drinking a pitcher of red wine at Prune on the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin was our own way of saying merde to all of this, that we were breathing, that we were alive. Despite the knot of sadness in my stomach and the leftover adrenaline from work, being outside with people is what felt right. A glass of wine and a cigarette in hand, we joked about creating our own hashtag, #OccupyTerrasse. We even managed to talk about sex and, just for a few instants, to turn this strange Saturday night into a normal Saturday night. Drinking on a terrace was pretty much a political act that day.

We raised our glasses high to Friday night’s victims, the “vile perverts” like us, who enjoyed rock concerts and drinking at cafés. We raised our glasses high to life, to laughter, to friends, and to the fact that Paris will always be a party, despite the pain and the tears. And we will continue to raise our glasses high and to drink them with joy, because we cannot lose face in front of these criminals.

Drinking With Enormous Japanese Men Is No Joke

Nov.11.15

Drinking With Enormous Japanese Men Is No Joke

by Matthew Bremner

Lots of Alcohol in Osaka

The rikishi dressed in colorful kimonos and wore impish grins. Their backs were as big as barn doors and their stomachs as round and hard as oak barrels. They wore geta, wooden flip-flops with an elevated base, and sleek topknots that, in the traditional Japanese dining room, harked back to an earlier epoch. Their mood was boyish and eager as they gulped greedily from their beer glasses.

I, too, drank deeply from my bottle and listened while Goushi, a 21-year-old wrestler, squawked through a Japanese karaoke classic on a stage at the back of the restaurant. His voice buckled under the stress of the high notes. The light from the small TV screen flickered on his face, and he gripped the microphone tightly in his shaky right hand.

On the tables that surrounded the stage, fellow rikishi giggled at his efforts, attempting to hide their embarrassment in mouthfuls of rice. But they didn’t criticize too much. They knew it would be their turn soon.

I was at a pre-tournament dinner, near the wrestlers’ residence in Osaka. The dinner was a night of karaoke, food, and alcohol; but mainly the sake-soaked latter. It was a brief respite for the wrestlers, who for the past two months had been rising at 5am to the prospect of yet more bruises and bone-crunching impacts. Tonight, they could enjoy the sushi, Wagyu beef, and over-sized bottles of Asahi beer.

I sat among the stable’s benefactors. The men were slim and middle-aged with loosened collars, slackened ties, and shiny watches. They gossiped about the upcoming tournament, about who they thought might perform well and what might happen in the future. And they did this with the help of inordinate amounts of alcohol and strong cigarettes. Beer, sake, wine, shochu, and Japanese whisky were all gulped and guzzled amid bursts of laughter and mucus-y coughs.

Among these men sat the oyakata (the stable’s head trainer), Eji Suzuki. Suzuki had been a sumo wrestler of high rank, and like many ex-rikishi his face was saggy, stretched by years of preternatural heaviness. Now the size of an average Japanese man, he had the look of a crumpled plastic bag.

Suzuki drank white wine from Argentina. He drank it quickly and in large quantities. And by the time I got to speak to him he was drunk.

“When I was a rikishi we woke up earlier and trained much harder,” he slurred.” These days the wrestlers are treated too well.”

Also seated at this table was Sokokourai. He looked like a slouched boulder: 300 pounds, six feet tall, and hands the size of buckets. He smelled strongly of talcum powder and the binzuke oil used to keep his hair in a tidy topknot. His gut tumbled out in front of him, and his legs were as thick as tree trunks. Sokokourai did not drink and picked fussily at his sushi rolls. He was the only rikishi seated at the top table and was there because he was one of the top-ranked competitors in the sport. But when Suzuki motioned for yet another glass of wine, Sokoukorai served him obediently.

The night continued in clouds of cigarette smoke, beer-breath, and selfies. Diffident participants screeched out Oasis and Sum 41 with varying degrees of awfulness, and the benefactors compared wristwatches.

At around 10pm, the wrestlers got up from their tables and asked Suzuki-san for permission to leave the party. In spite of the night’s brief reprieve, they still needed to be up early for training.

Slurring and stammering from his chair, Suzuki-san warned them that tomorrow would be hard and that he hoped that they hadn’t drunk too much. Then, after a pause long enough to suggest he had forgotten what he was saying, he bade them leave with an effete flick of his wrist.

Nonplussed, the rikishi bowed, muttered their goodbyes to various people, and filed out of the room like a colony of penguins. The room went silent for a moment. Then, as the last wrestler shuffled out the door, the conversation resumed: new cigarettes were lit, new beers opened, and a towering glass of shochu was placed in front of me.

Following In the Footsteps of Brahms: Composer, Beer Swiller, Skinny Dipper

Nov.10.15

Following In the Footsteps of Brahms: Composer, Beer Swiller, Skinny Dipper

by Andrea Ratuski

Beer Beside the Wörthersee

A big, frothy glass of beer seems in order after a brisk hike up to the Gloriette lookout, high above the Wörthersee, a beautiful turquoise-blue lake in the southern Carinthian province of Austria.

It’s definitely what composer Johannes Brahms had in mind at the end of his daily excursions up into the mountains.

From the lookout, my composer-husband and I soak in the views in all directions over the 10-mile wide lake, trying to imagine how it looked in 1877, when Brahms first arrived at the sleepy little fishing village of Pörtschach. This was to be his composing retreat for three long summers.

Today, if you’re up at this lookout you can actually recline on a wooden chair and press a button to hear one of the magnificent pieces Brahms conceived here, like the Symphony No. 2 or his Violin Concerto.

Upon our descent back into town we seek out a watering hole to quench our thirst. Brahms’ favorite hangout was Weißes Rössl, the White Horse Inn. Today, it is sadly derelict and ready for demolition, much to the chagrin of Waltraud Arnold, director of the Brahms Competition that has been held in the town for the last 22 years, an event that helps to keep the memory of Brahms alive today.

Frau Arnold also takes us to other Brahms haunts, including Schloss Leonstain, where he stayed during his first summer, with a statue of a young and handsome Brahms in the courtyard.

Still in search of our refreshment, we make our way to a terrace on the waterfront at the end of what is now called the Brahms Promenade, the actual path he walked every day, and take in another of Brahms’ favorite views. In moments, we are drinking his preferred beverage.

I’m sure Brahms’ walk was more strenuous than ours on the less well-trodden trails of the day. His was certainly longer! And who knows if his beer was as refreshingly cold as ours? But it tastes so good as we take in the peacefulness of the lake and tree-covered mountains that surround it.
Today, Wörthersee, or Lake Worth, is still relatively free of motorboats, helping to keep the waters pristine, yet offers ferry service to and from various ports through the day. Water temperatures are remarkably warm for an alpine lake, reaching around 75 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. How inviting is that for an energetic hiker at the end of an excursion? Brahms took the plunge regularly, which was alarming to the locals who were not accustomed to recreational swimming, and definitely not prepared to see a composer, visiting from the big city, taking the plunge buck naked.

Another difference between Brahms and me is that I haven’t got the makings of a symphony or a violin concerto swirling through my mind as I march through the forest and along the lakefront. But is my composer-husband inspired? He won’t say.

We smile at each other, sip, and soak in the sights of the beautiful Wörthersee with Brahms’ sunny melodies dancing in our heads.

The Oldest Bar in Seville

Nov.09.15

The Oldest Bar in Seville

by Amrita Das

Beer at El Rinconcillo

After 12 hours of sauntering through the streets of Seville, my mind overloaded with information and history, I paced towards my destination: dinner.

I was so engulfed by my ambition, I almost missed it. Peeping from the window, I caught a glimpse of the oldest bar in Seville, El Rinconcillo.

“For heaven’s sake, it is a Tuesday evening!” I exclaimed. “This is the usual buzz every day,” Diego said, smiling. There was hardly any space by the bar, and the wine barrels—which served as tables—were occupied and bustling with conversation.

Everything here belongs to history. Established in 1670, this L-shaped tapas bar is supported by heavy, wooden panels. Mahogany was the dominant color here. Maneuvering my way through the crowd, I realized there were hidden doors opening up to more tables, like those olden places with secret tunnels!

The walls displayed some of the best wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but I wasn’t here to try the Spanish wine. My eyes narrowed at the tap.

Owned by Heineken, Cruzcampo is a popular Andalusian beer. A favorite among many here, the Cruzcampo Glacial is a cooler version of the pale lager. The trick, I’m told, is lining the interior of the tap with a special salt, which allows the beer to chill at -1˚C. By the time it surfaces to the glass, the ‘glacial’ temperature moves up to a warmer zero.

This I didn’t know until I felt my body react to the first sip. Evidently, experience precedes comprehension.

As I enjoyed the light, yellow lager from my glass, it eased me from my tiresome day. There was the refreshing burst that the chill brought with it, then the light froth and lacing on my glass. It wasn’t until the second sip that I tasted the mild sweetness. The old bartender gave me a smile.

What makes this bar still tick? The old decor, the aging bartenders, and the ever-crowded corners could definitely be seen as a deterrent. But the atmospheric bar has a charm like none other.

After an elaborate three-course meal, trying to justify my indulgence, I sheepishly asked Diego how many beers the average local Spaniard consumes. He explained that, owing to the hot summers, every meal is big, plentiful, and accompanied with beer in Seville. A minimum of five or six copa is a norm.

A large grin appeared on my face. “Not bad. Living like a local,” I thought, as I finished my fourth glass.

What Else Would You Drink in a Catholic Church?

Nov.04.15

What Else Would You Drink in a Catholic Church?

by Bridget Hilton-Barber

Laurentina Pretas on the Ilha de Moҫambique

We looked out through an alcove window in the ancient capela (chapel) onto a cross-shaped patch of sky. Outside, the eternal crash of Indian Ocean waves; inside, sacred gloom. We’d taken off our shoes and walked into the vaulted heart of the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, a stoic little chapel built by the Portuguese in 1522 on the promontory of Ilha de Moҫambique, a tiny island off Africa’s east coast. Underfoot, through the cool marble, we felt the presence of ancient souls, and in the salty walls and faded inscriptions, we heard their whisperings.

“Let’s have a drink!” I whispered to Darling, perhaps a little too quickly. And I don’t know why I was whispering either. Our guide was outside talking loudly on his mobile phone. This little chapel had stirred me. Sailors for the Portuguese crown Vasco da Gama first landed here in 1498, in search of the sea route to India, and it was not long after that the Portuguese built here. I was imagining a poor shipwrecked Portuguese sailor, for some reason, desperate, on bended knee—or a sea leg, perhaps—praying hard to God. I imagine him with nothing left but his faith and the stars above him (and maybe the spirits of all the Arabs, Goans, and Swahili sultans who were here before him).

I had intended to bring a bottle of beautiful red to the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. What else would you take to a Catholic church? I’d imagined a wistful cab sauv—perhaps we’d even remember to chill it to capela temperature—to go with the spirit of this tiny church and its island, wrought by an exhaustion of sultans and chiefs, explorers, shipwrecks, pirates, occupations, missionaries, slavery, colonialism, and civil war.

But I was giddy with travel and love and I had forgotten the wine, never mind my own name. So here we were, Darling and I, slugging on a couple of ice cold Laurentina Pretas that we’d bought from a beachfront barracas near the fort. It’s a lovely rich, dark beer and I immediately felt better about the poor sailor and the other hopeful souls in the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte.

The Cheapest Bar in New York

Nov.03.15

The Cheapest Bar in New York

by Jonathan Katz

Beer on the Staten Island Ferry

I don’t actually want to drink the day I take the Staten Island Ferry. I’m feeling vaguely queasy and my sweet tooth has been screaming for fruit juice the entire workday; beer feels like an imposition.

“But you have to drink on the Staten Island Ferry,” my friend told me. “It’s the cheapest bar in New York!”

The Staten Island Ferry lives a double life. On the one hand, it is one of the primary links between New York’s forgotten, suburban borough and the metropolis to which it is connected. Each ferry can fit thousands of people; the service carries 75,000 people every day. On the other hand, it is also a key tourist attraction. The ferry passes by the various famous sights of New York Harbor and the city’s skyline for the price of … zero. In a famously expensive city, it is also a steal.

It is also a bar. The “snack bar” on the ferry sells some of the cheapest beer in New York: three and a half dollars for a giant can of admittedly lowbrow beer. On Saturday nights, those who cannot afford the languorous and tacky nightlife of New York crowd the ferry, flirting and drinking on the decks. During the week, tired businessmen lean back in their suits as they sit and sip a can of lager.

I still don’t feel like taking advantage of this offer as I board the ferry on the way out. I arrive, I eat a cheap dinner in the neighborhood of the ferry terminal, and I board the ferry back. In the opposite direction of peak travel, the boat is almost deserted. The man behind the counter in the “snack bar” looks lonely. I go up to him and ask for a small can of beer. Any beer.

He hands me a can of Foster’s and I hand him a few dollar bills. I take the can and walk to the upper deck, by a window facing Manhattan’s brightly lit nighttime skyline. I open the can of beer and take a sip. Definitely not a night for drinking, I think. It is a mediocre beer I could get at any bar from Tottenville to Pelham Bay Park. But then I look up at the skyline: magnificent, artistic, and better than any bar’s décor.

This isn’t so bad, I think.

Photo credit: Norbert Nagel

From Wartime Relic to Drinking Den of Choice

Nov.02.15

From Wartime Relic to Drinking Den of Choice

by James Fixter

Astra in Hamburg

It’s not so much an optional activity as a hallowed tradition when my colleagues convene for a Friday afternoon beer. It’s time to put into practice what may as well be Hamburg’s official motto: work hard, then play harder. And so we find ourselves standing before one of the colossal concrete flak bunkers that still loom over the city. An unusual choice of venue, but one that certainly provides plenty of food for thought over a beer.

The entrance is uninviting. The path meanders through clammy corridors that once echoed with rushed footsteps as air raid sirens howled across the city, and the cold light of electric bulbs on bare concrete walls quickly induces claustrophobia. We stepped in from a chilly October afternoon, yet it actually seems to be colder inside as we crowd into the elevator.

We emerge on the top floor, surprised to find a sleek rooftop bar that now stands where the massive anti-aircraft guns once did. We seem to have beaten the Friday rush and have an unbeatable view of the city to ourselves as the waitress plants chilled glasses of Astra on the table in front of us. The name of this cult lager can be found everywhere here, whether stacked in stubby bottles on supermarket shelves, atop a sticky counter in a seedy bar on the Reeperbahn, or in the neon glare of a sign hanging off a pub wall. If any beer can be said to represent Hamburg, then this is surely it.

The venue for today’s session is more remarkable than our brew of choice, however. If Astra epitomizes the spirit of Hamburg, then so, too, does the old bunker in which we are now enthusiastically swilling it. Once used to repel Allied bombers in the World War II, it was later left standing as a crumbling and overgrown ruin after a botched demolition. Sixty years later, developers embarked on an ambitious project to transform it into a solar-power station and renamed it the Energiebunker. Photovoltaic panels now cascade down the southern wall and the stripped-out interior has been filled with machinery to harness the green energy.

“This kind of pragmatism is typical of Hamburg,” one colleague tells me with more than a hint of local pride. In fact, there is a track record of taking a pragmatic approach to the bunkers in Hamburg, where these unlikely contenders for beloved landmarks have found a new lease on life as apartments, restaurants, bars, music studios, and outdoor climbing centers. There are even plans to construct a modern interpretation of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon on top of the other remaining flak bunker in order to “alienate” it from its original purpose and create more valuable green space.

Civic initiatives have transformed these wartime relics into symbols of a thriving contemporary culture. Where else but Hamburg can you go to a poetry slam in a flak bunker or eat Portuguese food in a converted air raid shelter? Taking the leftovers of a reviled regime and putting them to good use makes a clear statement about the liberal Germany of today. It isn’t possible to rewrite painful history, but Hamburg can certainly teach us about coming to terms with it.

As I sit—beer in hand—I feel that this is something worth drinking to.

Try the Chicken Breast Pudding, It’s Delicious

Oct.29.15

Try the Chicken Breast Pudding, It’s Delicious

by Samuel Middleton

Boza in Istanbul

“This? Tavuk göğsü. Very good,” says the grinning grey-bearded man in a faded polo shirt behind the metallic counter of desserts.

“It looks delicious. Rice pudding?” I ask. It appears to have a similar consistency and color.

“Chicken.”

Turkey seems to specialize in delicious things to eat and drink that sound unappealing when they’re described. The dessert Tavuk göğsü, or chicken breast pudding, is a perfect example.

Another is boza.

It is the color of cream with a consistency that can be eaten with a spoon or drunk like a thick yogurt. It is made from fermented semolina millet, water, and sugar, and topped with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon and sometimes roasted chickpeas. At other times in history it has been topped with cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. My two friends were not particularly excited at the idea of fermented millet and gave a lukewarm response when I suggested we head over to Vefa Boza to sample some.

Vefa Boza was founded in 1876 in the Istanbul district of Vefa. The shop’s boza, with its thick consistency and tart flavor, became famous throughout the city, and it is the only one dating from that period still in business today. Only after visiting did I read that the shop features a mounted case displaying a glass from which Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, enjoyed a glass of boza. The company is run by the descendants of the founders. It is now a minor tourist attraction, featured in well-known guidebooks and foodie websites focused on Istanbul.

Variations of boza are found in most countries that border Turkey, and in Istanbul its history stretches back much further than this shop; a 17th century Ottoman traveler, Evliya Çelebi, reported widespread consumption of boza, with more than 300 boza shops in Istanbul alone. It was drunk by the Janissaries in the Ottoman army, tolerated because at 1 percent alcohol, it rarely caused drunkenness and was rich in carbohydrates and vitamins.

It’s easy to see—or rather, taste—why boza is popular. While fermented millet may not have sounded appealing to my friends when I first suggested it, it was a different story once they had tasted it. They had already ordered a second while I was savoring my first. For such a simple drink, it has an unlikely combination of delicate and contrasting flavors.

On first taste, it is sour and tart, very faint flavors of gooseberries or sour apples. This is heightened by the sweet cinnamon that has been sprinkled on top. Then the sugar in the boza fleetingly reveals itself the more it is consumed. Sometimes, the drink tastes mildly of soy milk, sometimes more like a rice pudding. It is the perfect blend of acidic and sweet. I can’t imagine how addictive the “tartar” version of boza produced in the 16th century tasted: apparently, it included opium.

Societies Change, but the Beer Remains the Same

Oct.28.15

Societies Change, but the Beer Remains the Same

by Mitchell Blatt

333 Beer in Saigon

Food vendors pushed three-wheeled carts down the street. Motorcyclists slowed and swerved around pedestrians who couldn’t use the sidewalk because it was filled with plastic stools and people drinking. As I walked along, drinking a can of 333 Beer, a massage girl handed me a brochure.

I sat down and ordered spring rolls outside a restaurant. Two more foreigners were stopped by the massage girl, and I could hear the tall one with a wooden cane trying to flirt with her. “Looking good,” he said. “Is the massage sexy?” When informed that it wasn’t, he said, “Then it’s not worth it.” Massage Girl slapped him with the brochure before he walked away.

That’s what Bui Vien Street, in the tourist district of Saigon in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, looks like every night. I was there to find out what Vietnam looks like 40 years after the fall of Saigon and the final conclusion of the war. I had my beer and my notebook with me.

“Back in the day, they killed and confiscated the land from the landlords,” Quan said, referring to the Viet Cong. He had invited me to sit at a table with him and his other friend, also named Quan, and he was telling me about how his grandmother suffered during the war. “They buried my grandmother in the ground up to her neck. By the time peasants rescued her, she was paralyzed.”

I took a sip of my 333. Produced by Sabeco Brewery, a state-owned enterprise that is the largest brewer in Vietnam, 333 has its own tale of survival throughout the upheaval in Vietnam. It was created in France in 1893, and in the early 1900’s it was known as “33.” Production moved to Vietnam along with colonial powers, but it was renamed 333 after the war.

Today, the Communist Party was still firmly in power, and they made sure you knew it; along the main street there were multiple propaganda posters, with Ho Chi Minh speaking into a microphone, doves flying around him, and workers raising their arms in salute. But Saigon is a relatively open city, Quan said, and its people have entrepreneurial spirits and more tolerant social attitudes. He is a Finnish citizen now, after leaving Vietnam at age 10.

He expressed his disdain for Hanoi, the capital, saying that Hanoi is too focused on politics. “It’s too communist in Hanoi. Every morning at 7:30 they have announcements on the loudspeakers where they tell everyone the party line,” he said.

His friend Quan Nguyen agreed. We clanked our cups together and said “You!”—cheers in Vietnamese.

It’s not just Quan’s view on politics that puts him in contradiction with the government and traditional views. When I sat down and they asked me which of the foreign men standing with their backs turned to us was hottest, I gathered that the two of them were gay, traditionally a taboo in a Confucian-influenced society where continuing one’s family line is viewed as an imperative.

But even in the area of LGBT rights, Vietnam is slowly opening up. While the government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, it did in January rescinded the ban on publicly holding gay weddings.

Quan Nguyen had just come back from the fifth annual Viet Pride in Hanoi, where he said gay Vietnamese were out in record numbers. “We are not shy anymore,” he said. “We are coming out.”

They were playing with a dating app through the night, exchanging their views on guys, and maybe they had a date or maybe it was getting late, but they had to go. We clanked our cups one more time and went on our ways.

Photo credit: David McKelvey

Don’t Agree to One Last Adventure With Vlad

Oct.27.15

Don’t Agree to One Last Adventure With Vlad

by Janelle Bitker

Rakija Outside of Bitola

I didn’t think twice when my host Vlad suggested we go see “the real Macedonia,” a mountainous 40-person village approximately 10 miles outside Bitola. I did think twice when I noticed his home had no plumbing, missing walls, and questionable electricity, but my thoughts were far too late.

Blue-eyed, red-faced Vlad explained winter was particularly cold and cruel. He hadn’t had the time to fix up the tiny abode, but he did have time to hunt boar. He promised “real Macedonian goulash”—none of that Hungarian stuff—and many, many shots of rakija. He delivered on the latter: lukewarm swigs of sweet, plum-scented brandy that go down like nothing. Then he fell asleep standing up; his slab of boar still defrosting on the kitchen table.

The next morning, Vlad looked too apologetic to ignore. We sat on the open-air second floor and watched the sun rise over little huts stacked against rolling green hills. He finally served that promised goulash and produced a bottle of rakija, because in the real Macedonia, it’s never too early to start drinking. With hunger subsided and cheeks rosy, I agreed to one last Vlad adventure before civilization: an innocent hike to an abandoned monastery followed by “a place for coffee.”

Hours later, I reached the top of a grassy hill. The only thing in sight was a tiny cabin, with a rainbow-painted partial picket fence and stacks of firewood. We descended—a downward sprint turned slide—and met several friendly faces from neighboring villages.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Heaven,” they said.

It was a house built collectively more than 30 years ago, owned by no one and for the use of everyone. Locals trekked there daily to sit in the sun, sip on the purest-tasting mountain spring water, and, naturally, compare raijkas. I found everyone darling and hilarious. More rajika. Group photos. Laughter. More rajika. Eventually, Vlad suggested we just spend the night in Heaven; he would run back to his house, grab some fish to cook on the fire, and we’d delight under the too-perfect stars until the too-perfect sunrise.

It was 3 pm and he was off, and soon, everyone else was off, too. I sat in complete silence, breathing in the idyllic surroundings and slowly sobering up when I realized, as the sun began to set, that Vlad probably wasn’t coming back.

With the last of the day’s light, I scoured the house’s interior: old photos, pots, a fireplace, a scratchy blanket. No food, no books, nothing to do but fuel the fire and gaze up at those too-perfect stars. A bottle of homemade, unfiltered wine lulled me into an early and deep sleep as I assured myself that, even if Vlad never returned, someone else would.

Vlad did return. I woke up to his even more apologetic face peering at me through a dirty window. This time, he did not request one last adventure before my return to Bitola. He took fish out of his backpack—I hadn’t eaten since the morning prior—but they had rotted. As it turned out, he suffered quite the night as well, passing out in the middle of the trail before stumbling home, drinking more rajika and falling asleep again. Shockingly, when I finally said goodbye to Vlad, he didn’t offer more rajika.

It Can’t Be the End of the World If Happy Hour Is Still On

Oct.26.15

It Can’t Be the End of the World If Happy Hour Is Still On

by Corinne Pinfold

Terremotos in Chile

On September 16th an 8.3 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, displacing one million people and killing five. On September 18th, Chileans toasted their Independence Day with earthquakes.

It takes a certain sense of humor to call a drink after a national disaster. It also takes a certain sense of humor to call ice cream floating in a liter of wine a national drink.

My first terremoto—earthquake—was at Santiago’s oldest bar, La Piojera, the name of which means “the place where fleas live.” Over the long years many fleas have lovingly carved their names and thoughts into the bar’s tables, chairs, and walls. A Peruvian woman with her eyebrows drawn on about midway up her forehead recommended that I have what she was having and instructed me to order a terremoto.

Given the eclectic bar and its eclectic patrons, I assumed that the eclectic drink I was given must be a La Piojera special. A liter glass of cheap white wine from a carton, a sundae’s worth of pineapple ice cream, and a dash of sweet grenadine syrup. I was partially right. The terremoto is traditionally topped off with bitter fernet liquor, not grenadine; that sickeningly sweet twist is La Piojera’s special. I couldn’t finish my first terremoto and left Santiago not particularly sorry to say goodbye to them.

When I got to Puerto Montt, the rainy, industrial port town I’d call home for the next few months, I found that terremotos had followed me, appearing on the menus of just about every bar, restaurant, and café. Turns out that the drink is ubiquitous along the whole of Chile’s 2,700-mile long stretch of territory.

Terremotos were first concocted by a Santiago barman who needed to entertain international journalists reporting on the earthquake of 1985. The drink’s potency and its association with this disaster, which left over a hundred people dead, gave it its name.

They ask for patience; they’re best drunk when the ice cream has melted into the wine, silkening the texture of the drink and balancing the sour, sweet, and bitter constituents into one. More often than not, they’re instead subjected to an impatient mangling, breaking the iceberg of ice cream down into clumps that can be skewered by a straw and eaten between slurps of sharp liquid.

September 18th is Chile’s Independence Day but the whole week surrounding it is fiestas patrias, a week where nobody expects to get anything done. Many businesses and schools close their doors for seven days of government-endorsed binge eating and drinking.

The school where I work held a staff fiestas patrias dinner on the 16th. Chicken, sausages, and pork grilled outside in the winter cold. The teachers stood around the barbecue, drinking home-made terremotos. As the resident gringa I was asked three times if this was my first one. The wine hit empty stomachs quickly and someone started playing the guitar from the day’s fiestas patrias assembly.

It was after the meal was done that phones started ringing like sirens. I was ignorant of this special ringtone for earthquake alerts. My Spanish is so poor that I assumed the terremoto everyone was suddenly talking about was the drink. I couldn’t handle another, so at least my stomach was relieved when the English teacher explained to me:

“There’s been an earthquake. We’re on tsunami alert.”

Images of the sea swelling up to overwhelm our port town immediately came to mind. I looked out into the street, expecting hordes of people carrying furniture and pets to higher ground, but it was empty. The teachers were calmly continuing to clear dishes and didn’t seem to be on alert.

“Should we evacuate or something?” I asked a teacher.

He dismissed that. “Let’s get a cocktail!”

My stomach had already been punished by terremotos and I was dreading a cold death by drowning, but I agreed. It couldn’t be the end of the world if happy hour was on.

An Uncomfortable Sundowner in a Palace

Oct.22.15

An Uncomfortable Sundowner in a Palace

by Barbara Wanjala

Guava Juice on Gezira Island

It is not every day that I get the chance to drink a sundowner in a palace, so when the opportunity presented itself, I seized it with both hands.

Many of Cairo’s hotels bear names that conjure visions of ancient legend and lore. Tourists are lured by the prospect of sleeping in the Cleopatra Palace Hotel, the Ramses Hilton, or the Semiramis Intercontinental. However, Cairo’s offshoot of the global hospitality giant Marriott has no such pretensions. Despite being a former palace, it is known simply as The Marriott.

It was a hot and humid evening on Gezira Island. A refreshing breeze blew in from the Nile. Here, amid the profuse greenery of the Garden Promenade Café, one could almost hear the words of Khedive Ismail: “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe.” He had built this palace to accommodate guests who came for the Suez Canal inauguration in 1869 (or to impress the Empress Eugenie, depending on who you ask).

Beset by anxiety over religious sensibilities, I declined alcohol. “Egypt is not a dry country,” said my Cairene friend, condensation forming on the tall glass holding his frothy Sakara Gold beer. Nevertheless, he suggested the guava juice. It was cool, thick, and refreshing. I surveyed the mixed cosmopolitan Zamalek set, a world removed from the “female-free” outdoor establishments in less affluent districts, where men sat on plastic chairs sipping viscous Turkish coffee and smoking shisha while haggling with the butcher next door over the prices of sheep for the upcoming Eid festivities. The divide between the rich and poor was glaring and experiencing both extremes caused me great discomfort.

“The Al Jazeera journalists were arrested here,” said my friend in conspiratorial tones. “Did you know that Amal Clooney was a lawyer in this case?” The evening was yielding more intrigue than I had anticipated. It seemed an inopportune moment to air my strong opinions about press freedom.

A Google search later in the evening would apprise me of the “Marriott Cell” case: Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste, and Baher Mohamed were arrested in December 2013 by Egyptian security forces for broadcasting “false news” and belonging to a “terrorist cell” (Fahmy and Greste were indeed arrested at the hotel). In February of this year, Australian Greste was repatriated, although his trial continued in Egypt. And just a few weeks ago, Fahmy and Mohamed were released after receiving a presidential pardon in a gesture of Eid-induced clemency. Greste is free, but yet to be pardoned.

I’m resigned to the fact that there are some things I will never understand about Egypt and its politics; this episode is one of them. Perhaps it is simply enough to know that the journalists who had been arrested at the Gezira Palace, where I sipped my guava juice with the haut monde, were now free.

Photo credit: Tim Lipscomb

Tea and Sympathy and Tales of the Taliban

Oct.21.15

Tea and Sympathy and Tales of the Taliban

by Teodoras Grigaliūnas

Chai with Sugar in Iran

While climbing the mountain north of Tehran with two Iranians, we met a shepherd. It was a dark night, and clonks of a bell were the first signal of his presence. The 20-year-old man was herding four loaded mules back home. We shook hands, and he introduced himself as Abdula. He noticed that we felt lost, and suggested we follow him along a rocky path to his place, to have some tea. His herd led the way, the mule in the front clonking away.

We entered Abdula’s home. It was a room with a bed, a gas lamp, a stove, and a heater for the cold winters. The floor was covered with a carpet, on which we took a seat. Abdula fetched a knife from under his mattress and started preparing us a late-night dinner. He took out bread, a big sack of walnuts, and started heating up the tea kettle. We indulged in cracking the nuts and thanking Abdula for his hospitality. Abdula whipped out a piece of delicious white Iranian cheese, to smear on the bread and eat with crumbled up walnuts.

Then came the tea. Sugar cubes were served, which were popped into the mouth before taking a sip. The hot chai would dissolve the cubes and send the sweetness around the tongue. There could not have been a better dessert.

While savoring the black tea, Abdula started telling us his story. He grew up in Afghanistan, where he was a shepherd in the hills. But the Taliban invaded his village. Our host was captured, severely beaten, and sentenced to die. Nevertheless, Abdula escaped the handcuffs and ran. After three days of racing through the mountains, he was finally free. He got to Iran and began the life of a shepherd here.

In the morning he escorted us down the hill alongside his now unloaded mules. Abdula rarely walked the mountainous path. He dashed through, climbing to the tops of trees to have a clear look of the area, jumping down and bouncing across the stones just to land a powerful kick on a mule that wandered off, then slowing his pace, preparing for the next sudden rush. Up or down, in dark or light, it did not matter to him. He did so humbly, without giving his immense strength a second thought. He reminded me of the wind rushing through. I was at all not surprised the Taliban failed to catch him a second time.

A few days later, I climbed Abdula’s mountain with one of the Iranians to visit him again. This time we brought some dinner, too. When we saw him, he was riding his mule, which he sent rushing towards us. We were happy to see one another. Abdula, a plastic bag of lamb liver in one hand, motioned us to come inside with the other. He took out a bowl from under his bed and started preparing jigar shashlik: lamb liver pierced with a metal rod. After grilling it above hot coals and sprinkling the pieces with some salt, we ate.

Afterwards we went inside. The kettle was set on the fire, and tea with sugar was about to be served.

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You’re in the South Now

Oct.20.15

You’re in the South Now

by Xavier Masson-Leach

Machete in Carcasonne

When Romain laughs it comes from the bottom of his chest, making his whole body shake with delight like an engine turning over. He takes me in his huge arms and kisses me roughly on each cheek.

“Ça va, cousin? Niiiice boy.”

He laughs again and squeezes my skinny shoulders, stopping just short of crushing them to dust. He has ragged, black stubble and his long hair is pulled back by a comb headband. His eyes are drooping and slightly slanted, one of them encircled by a pale purple bruise. He’d been in a fight with a soldier the night before.

It’s 3 pm; I’ve just left the restrained silence of the train from Lyon and we’re standing outside a dingy bar near the station, the blue turrets of la cité rising up in the distance. Carcasonne is a small city in the south of France best known for the perfectly restored medieval fortress that surrounds the center, and slightly less well-known for its rugby teams. My cousin plays rugby à treize, known as rugby league in Australia and practically unknown everywhere else.

“Let’s drink, putain!”

Romain throws his cigarette to the ground and I follow him through the screen door inside. We lean on the long wooden bar and he orders two shots of Machete. The barman grins like a wolf and takes down an unmarked bottle from the top shelf. Machete is a brown spirit of unspecified alcohol content infused with chillies, small lumps of which float ominously on top of the evil smelling liquid. It burns like acid all the way down and, as I lower my glass, I realize there’s already another one lined up and the barman is preparing us a couple of bottles of Pastis.

“You’re in the South now, boy. You have to drink la jaune.”

We head back to the table where his sister, Julie, and their friends are sitting. Pastis is an aniseed flavored liquor that turns cloudy yellow when you mix it with ice and water; hence, the nickname la jaune. Romain also adds a squirt of mint syrup, turning the yellow to a milky, unappetizing green. We sit and talk in a bastardized mix of French and English through the afternoon, as more and more of their friends turn up. Romain is greeted with equal parts wary respect and ecstatic affection. He is as charismatic and good-looking as his five siblings: his intimidating size is offset by his spontaneous, thunderous laugh. He moves through the crowd, filling empty glasses and clawing fistfuls of cash from his pockets to pay for more and more bottles of Pastis.

He drags me to the bar again for some snacks: small wooden bowls of duck hearts, lightly cooked in garlic and herbs. They are succulent and light and we eat ravenously, stabbing through them with toothpicks, then he picks up the bowl and drinks the blood that has collected in the bottom. It drips down his chin and into his shirt.

By this stage the spirits have caught up with me and it seems perfectly natural when he tells me that our next stop will be a tattoo parlor.

“I want to get My Brother’s Keeper,” he says, tracing a line underneath his collarbone. “Like the Bra Boys, but in French: Gardien de mes Frères.”

As we stagger through the cobbled streets, Julie relates the history of the Bra Boys to her friends in French. A semi-criminal gang of surfers from the beach suburb of Maroubra in Sydney, the Bra Boys are famous for fighting police and out-of-towners. They spawned a documentary narrated by Russell Crowe and members of the gang often get the slogan ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ tattooed across their chests.

“Our family are like them: we look after each other.”

The tattoo artist squints, delicately trying to clear a patch in Romain’s thick, black chest hair as we crowd around him in the cramped room, jeering and swearing in a drunken stupor. Impatiently, Romain snatches the razor from him and begins ripping into the hair, small slits of blood springing up across his chest. Everyone cheers.

An hour later we are out on the street again, the new tattoo covered in plastic cling film, swigging vodka on our way to the next bar. Romain puts his arm around my shoulders.

“Allez, let’s get this night started. Niiice boy!”

Photo credit: Elle Valentine

The Dream of the Blues Is Alive in Clarksdale

Oct.19.15

The Dream of the Blues Is Alive in Clarksdale

by Larry Keller

High-Octane Corn Whiskey in Mississippi

I find the old Mississippi Delta bluesmen compelling, both their music and their hardscrabble, mysterious lives. Those lives often were filled with drinking, womanizing, and performing at house parties and juke joints for whatever money they could score. Take Robert Johnson: dead at 27 after drinking whiskey, possibly poisoned by a jealous husband. Charley Patton, a little man with a big voice, bore a scar from somebody’s attempt to slit his throat. He married six to eight times before he died at 43. Son House reputedly killed a man and did time at the infamous Parchman Farm, now called Mississippi State Penitentiary.

That’s why I’ve come to Clarksdale, which proclaims itself the birthplace of the blues. Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil here for supernatural guitar prowess. “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy lived here once, and it’s where “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith died.

Clarksdale recreates and celebrates its blues history. The Delta Blues Museum dazzles in an old train depot and several clubs showcase the genre. They are evocative of the past, but I wonder if any authentic juke joints survive in Clarksdale. Red’s Lounge is my best bet. It’s in a squat brick building with slabs of wood and fiberglass slapped haphazardly over doors and windows. Three picnic benches and a smoker hog the sidewalk.

Inside, Red’s is cramped and dark except for the bordello-red neon musical notes clutching the walls. Musicians perform on open-floor space 10 feet from the audience. This, combined with the low ceiling and covered windows, makes me feel like I’m in somebody’s basement. Or a cave.

The crowd, if you can call it that, isn’t what I expected. It consists of 10 mostly white middle-aged people. They could be mistaken for slot machine devotees from the casinos 35 miles away. It’s a far cry from the sweating, whooping couples dancing wantonly to the “devil’s music” that I envisioned.
Owner Red Paden doles out $4 beers at the bar. He’s a burly, blustery man in his 60s, inexplicably wearing sunglasses. The two-man band is comprised of Mark “Muleman” Massey and keyboardist Billy Earheart. Red occasionally banters with them, pumps his fist or boogies briefly.

Muleman is soon joined by a kid on drums, and he invites a visiting Australian guitarist to sit in, too. Muleman is a force: his powerful, earthy voice could make birds fall from the sky. He learned the guitar from the son of a well-known bluesman while both were incarcerated at Parchman. This being the blues, some song lyrics are suggestive, of course. “I don’t feel like sleeping, but I feel like lying down,” Muleman growls.

A jar said to contain high-octane corn whiskey appears in front of Muleman. He invites anybody to come up for a swig, swearing it’s better than Viagra. A 50ish man eagerly does so.

By the end of the band’s second set the room’s vibe has changed. The audience has doubled. Younger people have straggled in. A couple dances slowly and ever more sensuously. They soon leave, to their hotel room, I presume. Maybe it’s contagious, because a middle-aged couple makes out at their table like horny college kids. The corn-whiskey sipper departs with his woman, looking confident. Me? My baby is back in Georgia and I also leave, feeling a bit morose. Still, I’m consoled by one thought: The blues is alive in Clarksdale.

The Best Little Ram Shed in the Karoo

Oct.15.15

The Best Little Ram Shed in the Karoo

by Chris Marais

Karoo Springbokkies in Nieu-Bethesda

Even in the middle of hunting season, you’ll want to go easy on the shooters in the Ramstal Bar on the outskirts of Nieu-Bethesda village, deep in the Sneeuberg Mountains of South Africa’s Karoo region.

Ramstal is the Afrikaans word for ram shed. In fact, this little square building once did duty as winter quarters for male Merino sheep when the snows fell. The ladies were housed right next door in more spacious quarters, which are now The Karoo Lamb, a central Nieu-Bethesda restaurant and gift shop.

But back to the infamous shooters. The one you really want to watch out for is the Karoo Springbokkie, a devilish brew of Amarula cream liqueur, peppermint liqueur, and Olmeca tequila. Too many of those and you’ll run off barking like a rabid meerkat into the nearby hills.

The Karoo Springbokkie is particularly suitable as a shooter with your beer while watching rugby on the medium-screen television set up in the corner.
Then there’s the Aardvark’s Gat (Burrow), a mix of brandy, milk stout, and, yes, a liberal dash of Amarula. Even a Bethesda Koffie has little to do with a cuppa Joe and more to do with rum and vodka dancing together in a little glass.

The others go by the dubious names of Karoo Longdrop, Bethesda Bomb, and Vuil Uil, named after the village icon, the owl.

Nieu-Bethesda was once home to an outsider artist called Helen Martins. Despite dwelling in the midst of a conservative farming community during the Apartheid era, Miss Martins indulged her singular tastes freely.

With the help of some local crafters, Helen Martins turned her home into what is now known as the Owl House, and the outside area into the Camel Yard. Mermaids, shepherds, kings on camels, birds, buddhas, angels and skirted ladies crowd the Camel Yard, all made out of cement and glass. And owls, owls, owls as far as you could see.

Helen Martins was regarded as an odd sort by most, beloved by some. But today, many decades after she look her own life, the Owl House is what draws visitors from near and far to this little mountain village.

The Ramstal Bar is just down the road, and on Friday nights you’ll run into lots of friendly locals drinking among clusters of garlic cloves, piles of firewood, and owner Ian Allemann’s cooking pots.

The rules of the Ramstal are pretty standard, comparable to say, drinking in the old Dirty Shame Saloon in the Yaak River Valley up in Montana, U.S. Don’t feed or annoy the locals, only begin singing after 10pm (when everyone’s so slotted it adds to the ambience), avoid bottled food displayed on the counter, leave politics off the table, and, if you’re a journo, take your notes back in the loo.