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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Half a Bottle of Wine and the Future Looks Blah

Jan.06.17

Half a Bottle of Wine and the Future Looks Blah

by Daniella Peled

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Israeli Merlot in London

Israelis don’t much go in for New Year’s celebrations. I spent this last one in a Tel Aviv flat with a handful of fellow media types and our assorted children.

We ate salty goat’s cheese and artisan bread and tried to last until midnight for form’s sake, indulging in typical left-wing ennui. The prospects for 2017 didn’t look good.

This year will mark half a century of Israeli control over the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the potentially apocalyptic presidency of Donald Trump, both facts likely to be celebrated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

None of those present were fans of Bibi, as he’s popularly known. They sighed over my luck to be a British journalist based in London, and there was much talk of who had an additional European passport. Most had spent time living abroad and all planned to leave again.

But the wine was good: an Israeli-produced merlot. We drowned our sorrows, and I took a few bottles with me the following day when I flew home to London.

And, as I clanked my way through Ben Gurion airport, investigators from the national fraud unit questioned Netanyahu in his home under caution as part of an enquiry into a potentially massive corruption scandal.

Not a fun way for Bibi to start the New Year, but it would be very, very premature to predict his demise.

What’s particularly depressing to contemplate, even after half a bottle of the merlot I slogged home, is how disturbingly tolerant Israel has become of suspicions of wrongdoing.

The case against Netanyahu, who has already survived multiple police investigations during his career, remains unclear. To start with, he’s suspected of receiving gifts and favors from an array of multi-millionaire businesspeople, although just what these may consist of is unknown.

An additional investigation is also ongoing, with even fewer concrete details, although it’s rumored to be far more serious.

Nothing, of course has been proven, and no proceedings have been launched. But hard as it is to now imagine, there was a time in Israel when even the whiff of scandal was enough to herald resignation.

Most famous was the affair that toppled then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1977. At a time when it was illegal for Israelis to hold foreign accounts, it emerged that his wife Leah had $10,000 in a U.S. bank.

Even though she made clear that it was her account alone, her husband took responsibility for this relatively minor offense and stood down as premier.

The so-called dollar account affair is now seen in semi-mythical terms as a display of honor in public service unthinkable in Israel’s contemporary political culture.

Let’s not forget that Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, is currently serving a 19-month prison for corruption. Nor that Bibi’s interior minister Aryeh Deri also served a similar term for accepting $150,000 in bribes during his tenure as—guess what?—interior minister in a previous government.

Israel ranks 37th out of 175 nations in terms of corruption, according to Transparency International, which at first glance doesn’t look too bad. But out of its fellow OECD nations, it comes 24 out of 34.

Self-serving officials, apparently enjoying the benefits of impunity, don’t provide leadership so much as pursue their own agenda. For a country like Israel, embroiled in a long-running military occupation as well as facing growing social tensions and a region boiling with violence, the consequences seem particularly dire.

Netanyahu heads the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, intent on strengthening the occupation and diminishing Israel’s democratic institutions. (In comparison to some of his cabinet, Netanyahu is quite a pussycat.)

Netanyahu has spun this whole affair as nothing more than a smear campaign by a leftist judiciary and media elites. He does seem to buy into a kind of messianic belief that he is the only Israeli leader who can save the re-born Kingdom of Israel.

But most of his maneuvers appear politically expedient rather than ideologically motivated.

Witness his reaction to this week’s hugely controversial conviction of Israeli soldier Elior Azaria for killing an unarmed and gravely injured Palestinian assailant.

A stiff drink helps as one contemplates the whole disturbing affair. Thank goodness for that Israeli merlot.

A poll last year indicated that some 65 percent of Israeli Jews supported Azaria’s actions, and the military court’s decision was accompanied by violent right-wing demonstrations and furious condemnation from Netanyahu’s rivals on the right. True to form, Netanyahu’s response was devastatingly cynical.

“I support a pardon for Elor Azaria,” he announced, going on to express sympathy for the soldier himself, his family, and all IDF soldiers, rather than backing the judicial process.

Amid a corruption scandal and with the right wing snapping at his heels, Netanyahu chose populism over statesmanship. He’s done it before; he warned on election day last year that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

He won that election, but who knows if such tactics will be enough to save him from his current woes. By the end of the week, police had questioned him once again. And I had drunk most of my Israeli wine, and 2017 still didn’t look too hopeful.


Photo by: Akash Mehra

A Shandy for the Wine-Lover’s Soul

May.25.17

A Shandy for the Wine-Lover’s Soul

by Charukesi Ramadurai

Tinto de Verano in Andalusia

It was lunchtime deep in the hills of Andalusia in the south of Spain and I was dying for something cold and refreshing. Naturally, sangria was the first thing that came to mind. But they had only red wine sangria at this tiny alfresco café in Ronda, and I could just see myself falling asleep—or wanting to—after a couple of glasses. And that tour of the bullring, one of Spain’s oldest, awaited.

As I vacillated, the waiter walked back into the café without waiting for my drink order. And then there he was, with a tall glass filled with something cold and pink. It was love at first sip for me; the Tinto de Verano had the perfect amount of booziness for a summer afternoon. I downed it in a few gulps and then asked for another.

Waiting for the food to arrive, I looked around to see glasses and pitchers of this drink on almost every table. The sun was climbing higher, the day was getting warmer. By the time we left, I was on a mellow high, combined with a mild sugar rush, ready to take on whatever Ronda had to offer.

Tinto de Verano means red wine of summer, and just as its name implies, is ideal for the scorcher months. It’s a wine spritzer served cold, equal parts red wine and sweetened lemon soda, sometimes with a slice of lemon. Yes, I can see purists purse their lips in disdain, even horror (ice in red wine!) but I am happy to leave them to their sniffing and swirling, as I continue to swig.

Tinto de Verano became my beverage of choice for that week-long drive through Andalusia. I began to think of it as the shandy for the wine-lover’s soul. One morning, I skipped my regular coffee for a glass of it during a 11 a.m. pit stop on the drive, and nobody raised an eyebrow.

Later, I read somewhere that the Tinto de Verano was born in Cordoba at the hands of a particularly creative pub owner, and soon became popular all over the country. Today, it is the drink that locals reach for in summer; ordering sangria marks you out as an outsider.

Back home to an Indian summer and the Spain holiday constantly in my mind, I reach out for that half bottle of red wine left over from a party and a bottle of Sprite.

Photo by: Arkangel

Is There Anywhere on Earth Where One Can Escape Craft Breweries These Days?

May.24.17

Is There Anywhere on Earth Where One Can Escape Craft Breweries These Days?

by Eli Meixler

Ale in Yangon

It’s a quarter to six in Yangon, and it’s finally getting cool enough to sit outside without sweating through my shirt. It’s April, the hottest month of the year, but the sun has mellowed into a fuzzy red orb and the mosquitoes have yet to marshal in earnest. There’s a breeze coming off the river, and the German-style Weizen in my hand is cold and sweet, with hints of honey and banana.

Two years ago, this warehouse-turned-brewery would have seemed like ill-fated venture: too much, too soon. But a lot has changed in Yangon recently. The streets are choked with traffic (steering wheel on the right), Uber has arrived, and the newest mall, with twin luxury condo towers, wouldn’t feel out of place in Bangkok or Singapore.

But not everything has changed. Since the earliest days of the military junta, the men in brass have kept a firm hold on brewing and distribution licenses. Despite dipping a toe in the tides of global trade, Myanmar’s thirst is still mostly slaked by the same few military-owned, watery rice lagers. The most common watering holes are curbside beer stations, where patrons pull up plastic stools, gesture at a waiter for a pint, and presumably try not to think about whose pockets they’re lining.

In a growing handful of upscale bars, foreign imports such as Singapore’s Tiger and Thailand’s Singha are starting to make an appearance alongside locally-brewed versions of international brands, which offer the same familiar swill behind a Heineken or Carlsberg label.

But tonight, I’ve abandoned my local beer stop to venture into North Dagon industrial zone, sit on the banks of Pazundaung creek and sip British and German-style ale. Burbrit (a portmanteau of Burma and Britain), Yangon’s new and only craft brewhouse, opened to nervous whispers earlier this year. How’d they get a license? Would it last? My fellow beer drinker takes a deep swallow of her Burma IPA, a rich, malty brew bursting with hops and floral notes.

Burbrit’s riverside patio, as well as the five varieties of ale, is a welcome respite from the congestion downtown, from the rising levels of air pollution and creeping disappointments in the democratically elected government. We sit in silence until our glasses are empty and order another round. The Irish Red Ale this time? Sure, why not.

Less Worried About the Blood Thinner Than the Bison Pee in This Vodka

May.23.17

Less Worried About the Blood Thinner Than the Bison Pee in This Vodka

by Cole Whitaker

Vodka in Poland

I had just finished a summer week at a winter resort teaching English to Polish business people outside of Wrocław, Poland and now, with the celebratory bonfire growing, it came time for my Polish students to teach me how to drink.

Vodka seems to be the only drink ever considered—the few beers on the end of the picnic table are ignored even by my fellow Americans. And Żubrówka Bison Grass the only vodka worth mentioning.

A couple of the English-learners have generously decided to show me and another native-speaker the ropes of Polish drinking. As any good teacher would, Emilia and Wojtek offer educational commentary while providing ample opportunities for hands-on learning, in the form of ceaseless refills from their stashes of vodka.

Emilia explains that real Żubrówka, the name bumbling off my lips before the drinking even starts, is produced only by the Polmos Białystok distillery, founded in 1928 in far northern Poland, and Wojtek, pointing at the bottle, cheerily adds: “This is not allowed in USA.” After some translation I learn that the liquor is outlawed—in its purest form—in the United States because it contains a natural chemical that acts as a blood thinner, which I deduce on my own translates to getting drunk fast.

The rye vodka is given its name, flavor, and slight tinge of color by filtering the vodka through the bison grasses native to the Białowieża forest of Poland, where the bison roam wild once again, having been hunted out of Europe in the early 20th century and successfully reintroduced in the 1950s. After the filtering process is complete and before the bottles are sealed, each one is decorated with the addition of a single slender strand of this mythical grass, which, according to Wojtek, “must be pissed on by real bison!” before being placed in the bottle.

I don’t have long to appreciate the earthy subtleties of the spirit itself, full of vanilla and almond flavors so rare for vodka, before everyone is drinking Apple Pie. While it’s been adopted and dressed up in bars around with the world, Szarlotka, as Emilia calls it here, is simple—Bison Grass
Vodka and apple juice. It tastes shockingly similar to sweet apple pie and goes down disconcertingly easy even as the vodka pours grow heavier and the apple juice pours grow lighter. I’m grateful for the slabs of bread, slathered thick with lard and topped with a pickle that my teachers hand to me regularly, to help keep me up for one more slice of Polish pie.

Tolerance, Tension, and Many Moscow Mules: A Dispatch from Beirut Pride

May.22.17

Tolerance, Tension, and Many Moscow Mules: A Dispatch from Beirut Pride

by Anthony Elghossein

Moscow Mules in Beirut

It’s 10:19 p.m. A woman honks her horn. (No reason.) A pack of young men, doubtlessly dreaming of conquests—or shawarma—guzzle beers outside of a store. In Mar Mikhael, a grimy district that has served as an enclave for Beirut’s pseudo-hipsters and garden-variety boozers since 2013, a familiar cacophony rises: beats, banter, horns, squealing tires, and roaring engines.

A crowd cheers. They’re at Radio Beirut—a bar, radio station, and performance venue—to celebrate Beirut Pride week, the first LGBT awareness campaign of this size and scope in the Arab world. An intrepid young man has scaled the balcony to hang the rainbow flag above the bar. Edging past a skeptical bouncer, I order an Almaza Draft—an unimaginative pilsner that means much to me emotionally, despite its generic taste. Comfort Brew.

This beer is weak. I order a Moscow Mule: vodka, ginger beer, and—in a Beirut twist—cucumber and basil instead of lime. Before I can take a sip, I spot Hadi Damian. He’s the frenetic, but friendly, Francophone who “initiated” Beirut Pride. “Are you having fun?” he checks, hugging me. “Alright, finish your drink. You’re coming with me.”

With his friend Danya, we race through half of the 23 bars flying the rainbow flag that night. At one bar, the flag seems to have gone missing. “It’s probably one of our younger folks,” Danya reassures me, though I’m more concerned about my next zesty beverage. “They’re all excited and keep asking about where they can buy a flag.” The flag causes some commotion at another bar. “The owner was incredibly helpful and supportive last night,” Danya explains, “but his staff, being macho men, huffed and puffed about it tonight.”

We careen down a nearby alley, stopping at another three bars—all owned by straight Lebanese men, all flying the flag and handing out bracelets. At Barclays, we order more Moscow Mules. Between asides on Paris, Seattle, and the merits of unisex fashion, Hadi explains that, “Beirut Pride is not a movement. It’s a platform. It’s collaborative, and is not affiliated with any political party or embassy. We don’t even take corporate money.”

That’s all great, though it sounds a tad rehearsed. Even so, people—gay, straight, Lebanese, foreign—must pursue self-fulfillment and self-expression under their state’s governing laws and society’s prevailing norms. Sure, Lebanese judges have sometimes interpreted laws progressively, but those laws, like Penal Code Article 534, which essentially criminalizes any sexual act that is deemed unnatural, make progress precarious—and subject to arbitrary and capricious courts.

Even in the Beirut bubble, far too many people—including activists, writers, and lawyers who should know better—often mistake consumerism, hedonism, escapism, or exhibitionism for liberalism. And they mistake separation for tolerance. Gathering in hedonistic hotspots, they put on liberal airs because, as my new-found friend “Q.I.” says, “they feel pressure to pretend like they’re open-minded. They want to drink and dance. But they’re not really liberal.”

S.P., the gay son of a Lebanese government official, chimed in: “Just look at the venues that agreed to host events, but cancelled under pressure, or for what they said were ‘commercial’ reasons. Garbage.” On May 14, under pressure for the League of Muslim Scholars, a hotel cancelled Beirut Pride’s launch—a full day of presentations and forums on LGBT issues and rights.

On the other hand, Beirutis enjoy and assert a robust sort of self-expression that just isn’t possible in most of the states and societies of the Middle East. Hundreds of people flooded Mar Mikhael—or turned up to events all week—to celebrate Beirut Pride. For all its faults, Beirut can be a tolerant place. It is, at least, a place that tolerates its tolerant spaces.

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

May.17.17

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

by Steele Rudd

Ginger Beer in Sydney

I’ve been to maybe half-a-dozen tastings in my life. A flight of whiskies at a Scottish distillery; a beer sampler at a brewery in Sydney; and a couple of cellar-door wine evenings.

Most of them have been shambolic affairs, although there’s a pattern to them. At first everyone’s a gourmand, sincere about the early vanillin note on this one and the woodruff aftertaste on that one. But after you’ve gone through 10 or 12 varieties of shiraz, it’s a bit different. Your teeth are redder than a betel addict’s, everything tastes like second-hand tea leaves, and you might as well have gone to the pub.

I’m hoping this one will be a little different, partly because it’s ginger beer on show tonight but mostly because my host is kind of a mad scientist. Dr. Cain is a microbiochemist with an alarmingly Biblical name and a sideline in brewing moonshine. (This ginger beer is not sweetened, carbonated soda, but the boozy kind, made from fermented ginger, yeast, and sugar.)

She’s agreed to talk me through her latest concoction. Apparently, there’s a connection between her day job and her beer job. “Being in the lab is very much like cooking,” she tells me, “and a lab protocol is kind of like a recipe.”

Except, of course, that home brewers are a less pedantic bunch than microbiochemists (without insult to either). “The first thing I did [when beginning to brew] was take a bunch of protocols, extract the relevant information, worked out the formulas and wrote my own.”

That kind of specificity doesn’t sound like my kind of fun, but I guess fun comes in different flavors—and I can’t argue with tonight’s. The good doctor cracks a bottle and decants it into a wide-bottomed glass like a brandy tumbler. The taste is definitely gingery without being overwhelmingly fiery; sweet but not sugary; sour but not in a scrunch-up-your-nose kind of way. There’s a very distinct flatness to it that I’m not used to, something syrupy that goes beyond the absence of carbonation. Another taster describes it as “not the teeth-fuzz variety of ginger beer.” It reminds me of nothing so much as a Spanish cider, and I could happily drink it all night.

“Being a microscientist,” Dr. Cain explains, “and being quite aware of sterility, winemaking is such an inexact process.” She uses the example of roasting lamb in an autoclave as illustration. She doesn’t agree that brewing is an art, calling that “flowery,” and is prosaic about fermentation. “When [the yeast] eat the sugar, they basically shit out the alcohol.” At this point I decide that Dr. Cain is the kind of brewer that puts the poetry in the bottle, not on the label.

When the ginger beer’s finished, we move on to wine (vermentino, a Sicilian white that’s been making headway in Australia) and the conversation spirals away. Dr. Cain tells me about Iberian grapes and Manuka honey; about the looming antibiotic apocalypse; about suicide genes in seedless fruit. We discuss transporting hazardous or delicate biosamples, and the cost involved; and enzymes that can slice themselves apart spontaneously or on command. It’s the most informative tasting that I’ve ever been to.

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