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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

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.

Tri-Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

Dec.11.17

Tri-Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

by Jason Avant

Wine in Santa Barbara

It had been a few years since I’d gone wine-tasting in the hills above Santa Barbara. I had good memories: meandering country roads that led to decent wines and excellent tri-tip sandwiches. I’d gone through a divorce and gotten remarried, coming out the other side fitter and happier. Kelli, my new person, and I were both looking forward to going back to the Santa Barbara wine country; she had spent time there in her previous life and we were keen on making new memories. The Santa Barbara wine country, meanwhile, had gone through Sideways.

I left the wines to Kelli. My task and purpose: find a good tri-tip sandwich. Tri-tip is the great mystery meat of Central California, a particular cut of sirloin that most non-Californians have never heard of. I knew just the place. R Country Market, a tiny grocery store located on the edge of the town of Los Olivos. I’d been there on previous trips; my memories were of huge slabs of beef slowly roasting over a wood fire to still-bloody perfection, then sliced and served atop delicate French rolls. I remembered the sandwich costing five bucks; if memory served, that was also what the wineries charged for tastings, if they charged you at all. The plan was to grab a couple of sandwiches and eat them over a tasting at the Zaca Mesa winery.

My first clue that things had gone, well, sideways: the big grill outside of the R Country Market was unlit. Walking past it, it looked like it hadn’t been fired up in a while. We ordered two tri-tip sandwiches at the counter at $12 a piece, and they were handed to us, foil-wrapped, from beneath a warming light. “Maybe they were carved just before we got here,” I said to Kelli. I also noticed lots of people wandering up and down the streets of Los Olivos. It was a Sunday. Shouldn’t they be at home?

The Zaca Mesa winery had a bit of a crowd as well, people who weren’t there to merely taste, but to drink—open bottles were at every occupied table. The tastings were $15 a person. Inflation and Hollywood, I thought. We unwrapped our sandwiches. The meat inside was cooked to the greyish color favored by hospital kitchen cooks and the current President of the United States. It was served on what appeared to be slices of grocery store garlic bread. My fond memory had become production-line food, tourist grub. At least the wine was decent. I sipped at it, trying to stretch those 15 dollars. As we left, a guy from one of the crowded tables yelled out “I’m NOT drinking fucking Merlot!”, to the delight of his companions. It was the fifth time I’d heard Paul Giamatti’s signature line that day, and happy hour was still two hours away.

A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West

Dec.05.17

A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West

by Fil Corbitt

Picon Punch in Nevada

Anna Lekumberry pours barely a drop of grenadine over ice in a small highball glass. Her dad and aunt own the place. The high ceiling is covered entirely in dollar bills. On the walls, there are mostly old cowboy hats signed with Basque last names—some from people who died decades ago, some from people still grazing cattle and raising sheep in this corner of northern Nevada.

The JT Basque bar and restaurant is on the edge of the high desert, at the base of the usually snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Lekumberry pulls the next ingredient from behind the bar—an aperitif called Torani Amer—and explains (as most bartenders making a Picon Punch might) that this isn’t the real stuff. You can’t get the main ingredient, Amer Picon, in the U.S. anymore.

The replacement for the bitter, citrusy, French liqueur is made by a syrup company in San Francisco, and it takes up about half of the small glass. Though it’s a substitute, Torani Amer has been adopted by most Basque-American bars since the 80s or 90s or 50s, depending on who you ask.

The Picon Punch is not a measured cocktail. In whichever Basque house or bar you pick in the Great Basin (or parts of Northern California) the drink will taste different, and since the recipe is passed down by word-of-mouth, it tends to take on the personality of the bar in which it’s made.

They say the Picon in Winnemucca is friendlier and smoother. One in Reno might be simultaneously rough and a little flashy. The Picon here in Gardnerville swaps the traditional stemmed glass for a short highball glass, which either means it’s more down-to-earth, or that it’s a couple inches closer to falling asleep on the bar.

Basque houses are a staple of the high desert, and since the early 20th century have been hotels, restaurants, bars, and community centers for both immigrants from the Basque country and for their descendants, whose culture is entirely woven into the West. Striking up a conversation in one Basque house, it’s not rare to find someone who has tried a Picon in every other Basque house in Nevada.

After the Amer, Anna adds a squirt of club soda. The Star in Elko, NV, on the eastern side of the state, is famous for skipping the club soda. That makes for a harsher, more bitter drink, says Marie Lekumberry, co-owner of the JT and Anna’s aunt. “When you think of Elko, you’re a little more isolated out there, it’s a little tougher.”

After a stir, Anna adds a float of brandy. From the lacquered bar wood up through the grenadine, Amer and brandy, there’s a rich gradient of browns. Right before sliding it across, she adds a touch of yellow in the form of a lemon twist.

Despite the variations across the Great Basin, there’s an atmosphere that ties them all together. The high desert is harsh and bitter, burning and sweet. And looking closely enough, there’s depth and nuance in the shades of brown.

The Democratizing Effect of a Collective, Punishing Headache Caused by Strong AF Spirits

Nov.29.17

The Democratizing Effect of a Collective, Punishing Headache Caused by Strong AF Spirits

by Kaspar Loftin

Pitu in Recife

The first time I was offered Pitu (pronounced ‘Peetoo’) was at one of Recife’s many outdoor events: a protest party in downtown Boa Vista. As the tropical rain fell on the northeastern Brazilian city, I gazed around the crowd, catching the eye of one of Recife’s many drink-vendors. These guys pull large polystyrene ice chests of alcohol around the city, somehow always managing to find their way to cultural happenings no matter how remote or late at night. The vendor shouted to me and, smiling, waved a can in my direction. “Nao!” I responded.

I had heard stories of this lethal drink: a cachaça with more than 40 percent ABV, popular with heavy drinkers and rumored to be the undoing of a famous local street poet. At only US$2 a can, the drink is so cheap that for the price of a beer you could end up under the table. Pitu seemed like Pernambuco’s answer to White Lightning, a strong, budget cider found in my native England. Pitu’s slogan, ‘Mania do Brasilero’ (Brasilian mania), plays on the drink’s infamy. Even the brand’s logo looks deadly. Its colors—black, red, and yellow—are the same as the poisonous coral snake, indigenous to Brazil.

The experience at the protest party was early on in my stay in the northeast, long before I realized Pitu’s wild popularity. This liquor transcends social boundaries. Outside of the region, Brazil’s first-choice cachaça is the famous 51. However, most people in Pernambuco embrace Pitu. The state is one of the poorest in the country and its people have a history of hostility towards outsider interference, and this seems to extend to their taste in cachaça. In Recife, the capital, the iconic red shrimp of the Pitu brand adorns T-shirts, baseball caps, shop fronts, and bar walls.

At noon at the hectic and colorful Casa Amarela market, fruitsellers share a can of Pitu under the hot, blue tarpaulins. Later in the day at one of the beachfront kiosks in wealthy Boa Viagem, an exhausted street-cleaner drinks from a large plastic cup with a big wedge of lime, and the barman pours from a can with frivolity—Pitu. At night in the trendy bars of downtown Recife, Pitu is mixed with fruit, ice, sugar, and condensed milk to create a delicious cocktail enjoyed by middle-class partygoers.

In the morning, they all wake up with the same punishing headache.

Pale Ale and the Indiana Banana, Together At Last

Nov.28.17

Pale Ale and the Indiana Banana, Together At Last

by Laura Marie

Pale Ale in Kentucky

Taking a break from a long interstate journey for a small libation, we walked into Ethereal Brewing Company in Lexington, KY. The building is an old distillery that went under. Now, the industrial décor fills a brick-walled space and a big chalkboard announced the typical offerings: some IPAs, some stouts, a pilsner or two.

I found a collaboration beer between two local breweries, Ethereal and West Sixth, called Paw Paw Pale Ale. When it arrived, it was shockingly yellow; less the goldenrod of a typical light-colored beer and more like the color of a banana peel. It had a rich soapy foam on top, and was cloudy with wheat.

The first sip was beer-forward, tasting of Motueka and Citra hops. Then, notes of melon and mango and a general tartness came out. I had to look up what in the world a paw paw was, because for some reason I had thought it was a nut. I’d had nutty brown ales, but no nutty pale ales, and as it turned out, paw paws aren’t nuts at all.

Paw Paws are a soft and squishy native fruit that grows throughout the middle of the United States, but has rarely been cultivated and commercialized. Now that some farms are producing more of the fruit and breeding it to be hearty, beautiful, and delicious, craft breweries have quietly purchased the pulp to add to their fermenters. After all, yeast will eat many kinds of sugars, not just the grain-based ones.

The Paw Paw is one of the only tropical-flavored fruits to grow so far north. With hints of banana and mango, it has its own flavor but seems to fall in more with the fruits of the equator. (It is not the same as a papaya.) While limited quantities are available commercially and at very specific farmer’s markets, the most common way to get them is to forage in the woods of Indiana, Michigan, and other deciduous forests; that was how it became known colloquially as the Indiana banana.

As I sniffed my own beer to try to identify what made it different, I even got a whiff of grapefruit and custard, as well a bread-like must of wheat and yeast. I was happy that the beer was mostly hoppy, rather than a Paw Paw beer that was more fruit than beer, but with each swig of the foamy drink I noticed more of a sweet finishing aftertaste.

I basked in the unseasonably warm November air, and took in the refreshing twist on my craft beer preference of a good hoppy pint. It wasn’t a bad way to take a break from driving across multiple states in a single day.

Local Beer Over Questionable Tapas Is Always An Easy Choice

Nov.21.17

Local Beer Over Questionable Tapas Is Always An Easy Choice

by Lauren Cocking

Tzotzil in Chiapas

We hadn’t done much in San Cristobal de las Casas, the cultural capital and tourist darling of Chiapas. It’s a city with a remarkably measured pace of life.

It’s also flush with travelers, at the heart of a poor state with a reputation for individualism and political rebellion. In the city center, there are no guerillas anymore, just harem pants-wearing tourists mingling with locals.

On San Cris’ central pedestrian walkway, Real de Guadalupe, international drinking options abound, coffee shop culture dominates the center, and tapas bars, for some reason, are all the rage.

One of the most popular tapas bars on the main strip, Viña de Bacco, pumps out tempranillo for 20 pesos and gives free tapas with every drink (which is nothing to write home about, as it goes; think tomato sauce smeared on untoasted bread with a soggy slice of ham slapped on top).

Crowds spill out onto the pavement, huddled over barrels-turned-tables, perched precariously on stools as they enjoy their imported wine, while locals walk past selling handicrafts.

Given the ebb and flow of activity surrounding the place, we were naturally sucked in, and opted to sit in the doorway when the mezzanine appeared off-limits. As it turns out, we’d picked the perfect spot to people-watch.

We declined the tempranillo and instead ordered a Tzotzil beer. Named for the indigenous Tzotzil people of Chiapas, the beer is produced by a Tuxtla Gutierrez-based brewery, allowing for an added layer of ‘craft beer’ smugness when ordering, not to mention far more flavor than many commercial alternatives.

It was delicious. Better than a glass of tempranillo any day. We’d only split one, but after trying it we wished we’d ordered another. In the heart of a city notorious for being overrun with travelers, the Tzotzil was a pleasant reminder that San Cristobal and Chiapas are still there underneath it all. Even if the beer doesn’t come with free tapas.

Photo by: Tjeerd Wiersma

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