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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

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

Sitting Outside of Mosul, Waiting for the Sugar to Settle

Jun.22.17

Sitting Outside of Mosul, Waiting for the Sugar to Settle

by Anthony Elghossain

Tea in the Nineveh Plains

The men stir their tea. They speak, stare, and listen. Then, they stir some more.

Some strangers—now fellow-travelers and, indeed, friends—and I have been traipsing around the Nineveh Plains all day. We’re on our way to Mosul. The Western journalists among us are covering the final act in the war to liberate the city, but I’m just here to understand how certain minority factions are positioning themselves for the politics of peace.

The exhilaration of the first few hours have faded, and I’m bored again. “Research” gets repetitive. Race down a road, wait at a checkpoint, sit in a circle, stir the tea, and listen to men with guns. Race up another road, wait at a checkpoint, sit in a square, stir the tea, and listen to more men with guns plot the future—without moving past the past.

I want to drink the tea. But I let it sit there, on a rickety table. They’ve brewed a pot of loose Assam tea: black tea, boiling water, a stick of cinnamon—but no mint, sadly. These folks have heaped mounds of sugar into tiny glasses, and now they’re stirring and stirring, but not sipping. I wonder briefly if the tea is poisoned.

Perhaps Louis, an Iraqi Christian with a soft spot for Saddam and the old Ba‘ath regime, will take the first sip. But he keeps stirring—and speaking.

“Baghdad can guarantee autonomy,” he tells the militiamen gathered in a tin tent outside a village that was home to tens of thousands of Assyrian Christians, before ISIS took over. Various forces—a U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi national army, Peshmerga, and the innocuously named “popular mobilization units”—cleared the area in October 2016. But folks have been slow to return. “You need to behave carefully over the next few months. Only Baghdad can give you what you want.”

Others aren’t so sure. “Jonathan,” a militiaman from the Shabak community, grimaces and confers quietly with a visiting lawmaker. A commander holds court. Meanwhile, a pair of prim UN staffers, with their pressed khakis and bleached shirts, take notes.

Across the tent, two Assyrians talk. I don’t speak Neo-Aramaic, but can tell they’re chatting about me: “Anthony,” “Lebanese-American,” “researcher,” and—to summarize—“what the fuck is he doing here?” A friend, who’s ushered me around Nineveh and Mosul, whispers: “Maronay”—meaning, Maronite, a largely Lebanese Christian sect. Surprisingly, the designation opens a door. The man smiles and asks me which of the rival Lebanese warlords I prefer.

I demur. He asks about the Mountain War of 1983. We’re outside of Mosul, where the man’s compatriots are fighting for their future, but he’s grilling me about Lebanon’s past.

“Don’t you have enough to worry about here?” I bite back, with a smile. He laughs.

I finally take a sip of my tea. Now I understand why no one is drinking it. This tea is as sweet as syrup. I add water, stir, and try again. I stir, clumsily, for an eternity. “You should let the sugar settle,” whispers a friend, “if you actually want to drink it.”

Too late. The commander’s watching. I keep stirring and begin to speak. “This is delicious, thank you.”

There Is No Period After the “St” in St Ives and Other Cornwall Stuff

Jun.21.17

There Is No Period After the “St” in St Ives and Other Cornwall Stuff

by Alessio Perrone

Cider in Cornwall

We had driven five hours from London to get to St Ives, on the western tip of Cornwall, England. On single-lane roads on which we were the only car, past cliffs looking over the Celtic Sea, under bridges with faded EU flags tied onto them, flapping in the wind—the last remnants of a referendum in which Cornwall voted overwhelmingly to leave.

In St Ives, we waited another 30 minutes to find a seat at the Sloop Inn, a small, crowded pub on the beach, established in 1312. St Ives is quiet; walk down its narrow alleys through the white houses, and you can even hear the wind blowing. But the Sloop Inn was noisy. Ale flowed, a busker played, a tourist took pictures of everything.

We ordered a local cloudy cider—a Rattlers Cyder, poured from a snake-shaped tap. Cornish cider isn’t much different from ciders you get elsewhere, just stronger. This one is fizzy and bitter.

We had just begun to taste it when Marshall arrived. A local man in his 20s, blonde, blue-eyed, with an incredibly round face and a blue hoodie.

“Mind if I sit with you, mate?” He’s had a few. “This is the best place in St Ives,” he said to nobody in particular. He started to ramble.

To Marshall, St Ives is the best place in the world: it has “the best” New Year’s celebrations, in which people dress up and head to the beach to watch fireworks (“Well, the best after London. And Edinburgh”); he thinks it has the best Cornish pasties, baked thick-crust pastries originally made for miners so they could eat their meals warm and with their hands (“Well, the best after the ones you get in the countryside”), and the best light to paint—a blade through your eyes when the sun is out.

“It is touristy, so you get all the shops and bars, but it doesn’t lose its Cornish identity, its character,” he said.

But it seems that Cornwall is changing. It’s still largely dependent on agriculture, but one by one, its sources of wealth have waned. Once, it relied on fishery and mining, but then, with foreign competition, those industries became unprofitable. Cornwall became one of the poorest areas in Britain. More recently, it has relied on tourism and EU subsidies. (Cornwall qualifies for poverty-related EU grants, but soon won’t be receiving those anymore.)

Tourism, though, doesn’t seem to be waning. In St Ives, the fishermen’s inns have given way to tourists’ residences and dozens of art galleries, as artists flocked here, lured by the light. Taverns have become bars and restaurants by the beach.

Some 45 minutes later, we still hadn’t had a chance to talk to each other. Marshall was telling us about an adventure he had in France with eight people in one car. Then he realized he’d finished his drink.

He mumbled something that must have meant “Nice to meet you and good-bye” and left us half-apologetically.

Our moment had gone. The busker had gone. The Inn was getting quieter, the wind chillier. The sun had disappeared behind the houses. We contemplated having another cider while we watched Marshall wobble away. Nah, not this time.

A Drink for Goa’s Hot Summer Nights and Torrential Rains

Jun.20.17

A Drink for Goa’s Hot Summer Nights and Torrential Rains

by Sonia Filinto

Urak in Goa

It was hot and humid. The monsoon season was still a few weeks away; just the right weather for downing a few pegs of urak.

Feni might be the more famous Goan brew, distilled from the cashew apple, but urak—the fruit’s first distillate—is the drink of choice for Goans in the summer months. Urak is distilled only from March to May, the cashew fruit-bearing season. It also has a short shelf life of four to five months. It has a fruity and mildly pungent aroma and flavor; it’s certainly an acquired taste. But it’s light and refreshing, and the cashew apple season coincides with the weather heating up, so it’s like the stars align to give Goans a drink to beat the heat.

One hot summer evening, a friend plugged in to the local bar scene suggested Joseph Bar. It’s an old hole-in-the-wall tavern in Fontainhas, the Latin Quarter in Goa’s capital, Panaji. Space is restricted, with patrons spilling into the narrow lane outside. The urak is excellent, so no one complains.

I happened to meet an acquaintance, who offered me his outdoor seat while my friend made himself comfortable on the curb. The waiter brought out our drinks. My friend drinks his urak with water, club soda, and a lime-flavored carbonated drink along with a sprinkling of salt and a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon. Old-timers like my father enjoy their urak the purists’ way—on the rocks or with water. I like both styles.

As I drank, a feeling of lightness took over—not to be confused with the alcohol-fueled light-headedness that feni might cause: urak is a milder brew. It absorbed all the tiredness from my day; I had been at work since 6 a.m. As the evening progressed, the conversations around us showed no signs of ending. The crowd—locals and tourists alike—spread across the road outside the bar.

The waiter brought us the last of the prawn rissois. I told him that he looked familiar. My instincts were correct: he had worked at Clube Nacional, a legendary old club and events venue in Panaji, which had for years been declining but still had a popular bar—until the building started to collapse and everything closed down. The waiter was himself somewhat legendary, both for his long tenure at Clube Nacional and for his knack for remembering his customers’ preferred drinks. After a few other gigs in between, he had ended up at Joseph Bar.

He promised to serve us hot snacks if we came in earlier the next day. I didn’t make it to Joseph Bar the next evening, but I will soon.

The Sahara, Johnny Cash, and Mint Tea Are a Surprisingly Good Combination

Jun.19.17

The Sahara, Johnny Cash, and Mint Tea Are a Surprisingly Good Combination

by Brian Fritz

Mint tea in the Sahara

We had been driving off-road through the Sahara near the Moroccan-Algerian border for what seemed like a day, but was probably closer to two hours.

Every bump along the landscape became more pronounced. The rattling of the truck grew louder, drowning out the odd yet satisfying mix of music—Johnny Cash, Enrique Iglesias and Sting—favored by our driver. The air in the truck was stagnant and humid—opening the windows was not an option unless you wanted a sand shower.

As bleak as it was inside the truck, outside did not appear much better. Whirling winds made seeing anything through the flying sand difficult. The only signs of life were a few roaming camels.

So you could imagine our joy when our driver told us there was an oasis up ahead—which turned out to be a small, mud-brick guesthouse.

We were greeted by three men in djellabas who sought shade on wobbly plastic chairs under a tree. On a table in the middle of them rested a familiar sight: a traditional Moroccan teapot. After exchanging salams, one of the men raised his glass to us and said, “tea?” In Morocco, greetings are synonymous with mint tea.

Mint tea—or “Moroccan whiskey”—is the official drink of Morocco. But it’s a bit of a misnomer—it’s actually green tea imported from China. The name comes from the bushel of fresh mint added to the teapot during the brewing process—along with an obscene amount of sugar. It’s alcohol-free, but it’s a sugar-spiked glass of deliciousness.

One of the men got up and hurried to find chairs for us. Another went into the guesthouse to retrieve two additional glasses. The last of the men went about making more tea.

When the tea finished brewing (and not a second earlier), we were each served a glass—poured high in the customary way of aerating the tea and creating foam at the top. The first sip revealed something different, though— the tea tasted stronger, less sugary than the tea we had drank in Marrakech.

“Not as much sugar?” I said while holding up my glass. The men laughed and one of them responded, “Berber whiskey!” The men told us proudly how the Berbers native to this area prefer their tea stronger, unlike the sugar-infused tea of the cities. We also learned they drink tea throughout the day as a way to quench their thirst in the desert heat.

We needed to get going before dark, so we finished our tea, said our goodbyes and continued our journey. Our bellies burned with Berber whiskey while Johnny Cash took us deeper into the desert.

Now Craving Mezcal Distilled Under a Raw, Skinless Chicken

Jun.15.17

Now Craving Mezcal Distilled Under a Raw, Skinless Chicken

by Allegra Ben-Amotz

Mezcal in Mexico City

Upon moving to Mexico City, my husband and I immediately set out to determine our happy-hour spot, a place to cut through the smog that stuck in the back of our throats and watch the brilliant, dusty sunset.

La Nacional is a casual mezcal bar, not hidden away, cramped, or trendy like some of the more written-about mezcalerias. They’re serious about the stuff: the menu is an intersecting web connecting agave varieties to over 100 mezcals. It’s easier to just tell your waiter what you’d like—something smoky, sweet, or smooth—and have them bring two or three bottles to sniff and approve before pouring.

We take every visitor to one of the outside tables to get a mezcal education and a front-row seat to the orchestra of the city’s street vendors: the clack clack clack of the man knocking metal canisters inside his closed fist to sell you electric shocks; the ghostly recording of a little girl’s voice pleading for pieces to be broken down for scrap metal; the high-pitched whistle of the camote vendor peddling roasted sweet potatoes and plantains.

When our friends Justin and Melanie come to visit, we sample smooth mezcal de pechuga, alternating it with sips of sour orange juice. Pechuga means breast in Spanish, and indeed, the finished liquor undergoes a third distillation underneath a raw, skinless chicken or turkey breast, with seasonal fruits, grains and nuts added to the mix. The vapors that emanate from the spirit cook the breast, and it imparts some of its savory flavor to balance the fruit’s sweetness and mellow the earthiness of the roasted agave. It’s less smoky than some of its counterparts, and tastes nothing like chicken.

We’re savoring our pechugas when we hear the piercing squeal of carbon escaping the metal pipe of the camote cart, like steam from a teapot, and I grab my wallet. “Be right back.”

The camote vendor opens the smoking drawer of his cart that sits above a flame, revealing skinned, melty bananas nestled together with roasted sweet potatoes. Sixty pesos for two potatoes, halved and thickly drizzled with condensed milk. I run back across the street and set our snacks down.

We dig in; the skin gives way to soft flesh. “This is perfectly cooked,” Justin remarks. “It tastes like Thanksgiving,” my husband says, and I nod, remembering my aunt’s marshmallow-topped side dish. The four of us are quiet for a minute, trading kisses of mezcal for bites of sweet potato, thinking of home.

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