The Brooklyn Growler

"Life is all skittles and beer." — Tom Lehrer

Music to Drunk Your Halls & Fa-La-La

Having grown up in the Midwest and lived on the East Coast for the last decade, I have come to rely on the cold times of the year.

I’m spending my second Xmas out in Montana. The cold weather is a comfort. I have on thermals, jeans, a T-shirt, a flannel, and a wool sweater. The snow is about a foot deep. I might go fall down a ski slope later this week. There’s a fridge full of local and West Coast beers. Not too shabby.

Last year at this time, things were not going so well. I was looking at starting the New Year out of work. A writing project I’d been working felt stalled. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Being out of town helped me put some distance on cold reality.

I knew that if I allowed any of the psychic junk going on in my head to interfere with the holidays, I’d not only be a wreck that year – but every year thereafter.

The only way out is through, y’know.

Lately I’ve had that quote from Eleanor Roosevelt circling around in my head: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” And to that I like to add some David Bowie: “I’m not a prophet or a stone age man, just a mortal with the potential of a superman.”

So there ya go.

When it gets cold again, I can think. It’s when I can see how everything falls. This year, 2010, has been a year of incredible highs and incredible lows. I got married. I went to Spain. I got to spend time with a lot of friends and family. I drank some nice beers. Those were the best things.

The bad was bad, and I don’t see the point in dwelling on it. The same goes for the people in my life who make things suck. I have shoved them out the airlock of my brain and watched them explode.

So as December rolls around and things turn towards Xmas, I like to assemble a collection of music that will keep me going through the season.

Here’s some music for you to enjoy. It’s a zipped file. If you want to know what you’re getting into before you get into it, here is the track list –

  1. “Cosmic Christmas” – The Rolling Stones
  2. “Xmas Riff” – T.Rex
  3. “What Christmas Means to Me” – Stevie Wonder
  4. “Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas” – The Staple Singers
  5. “All I Want Is Truth (for Christmas)” – The Mynabirds
  6. “Home on Christmas Day” – Capt. Elmo McKenzie
  7. “Child’s Christmas in Wales” – John Cale
  8. “Getting Down for Xmas” – Milly & Silly
  9. “Christmas Time Is Here Again” – The Beatles
  10. “Little Drummer Boy” – Hoot Owl Boys Choir
  11. “If Christmas Can’t Bring You Home” – The Reigning Sound
  12. “It’s Christmas Time” – Yo La Tengo
  13. “Christmas in Heaven” – Monty Python
  14. “Auld Lang Syne” – The Black on White Affair
  15. “Silent Night” – Leonard Cohen
  16. “Little Drummer Boy” – Lindstrom

Enjoy. Deck some halls. Fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la- Fa-la.

Featured at the top of the post is a glass of Til Fra (To From) by Mikkeller. It’s on tap at the Double Windsor in Brooklyn.

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Annals of Homebrewing: Birch Oatmeal Stout Update

Oh, man, it’s good. This birch oatmeal stout is what Xmas tastes like. It’s one of those beers that doesn’t seem like much when it’s cold but as it warms up, it becomes fantastic – just what we wanted for the season.

It’s on tap at my friend Dave’s apartment. Stop by sometime, whydontcha?

Apologies for the brevity of this post. I’ve been hit with a lot of freelance work lately, and I’m a little fried. There will most likely be one more post to hit before I completely shut down for the holidays. I wish you and yours a very wonderful non-secular winter wonderland of joyous celebration.

Have a beer.

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Bourbons for the Apocalypse

Yes, OK, I take umbrage with Philip Gourevitch’s Ten American Whiskeys That Made the World News in 2010 a Bit Less Unbearable over in that New Yorker rag.

It’s not because I disagree with pairing whiskey with politics. No. As 2010 closes, the U.S. Senate has done its level-best to make drinking compulsory in understanding its decisions. If not for it. At least for me. The GOP has long been a party of monsters. It is now unafraid to stand revealed.

I digress.

At first I was heartened by Mr. Gourevitch’s blog post. I saw Four Roses and was excited. An unopened bottle of Four Roses was in my home, awaiting its deployment in some Friday-night Manhattans.

Four Roses is one of those cheap-ish bourbons that are always welcome. Prior to its Kentucky distillery being bought out by Japan’s Kirin Brewery, Four Roses was known as being little more than amber-colored paint thinner.

Today, it’s a fine mix of sippin’ bourbon. Straight, it runs a little hot. But with an ice cube or two, Four Roses releases its flavors of oak and spices and gold kryptonite and rich mahogany… It’s nice.

Gourevitch’s list stops at nine, and I’m OK with that. I also can’t argue with his taste in American whiskeys. I wouldn’t turn down a glass of any of them. Still, I stumble.

The list, which includes Noah’s Mill and Pappy Van Winkle, 15 year, has the caveat – “None of them costs much more than a night of beers at most American bars.” If you’re drinking those two, you’re having a pretty good night at the bar – even in New York. I think Gourevitch is drinking with Paul Rudd at nine-dollar beer night, every night.

You can do well for under forty bucks (thirty bucks even). There’s another list that can be made. I assembled my own. These are some bourbons (and its buddies) that aren’t very expensive and hold their own both straight and on ice, as well as in cocktails.

  1. Buffalo Trace
  2. Four Roses
  3. Wild Turkey
  4. W.L. Weller, seven year
  5. Evan Williams
  6. Rittenhouse (rye)
  7. Famous Grouse (scotch whisky)
  8. Bulleit
  9. Old Overholt (rye)
  10. Rebel Yell

Make haste to your liquor store. We have 2011 and its political horrors and world upheavals to look forward to yet.

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On Bitters & Deadwood: Recreating an Old West Cocktail

There are days when everything is just too complicated. The only thing you can do is dump out your coffee and go back to bed for an hour. I had one of these recently. On my way back to bed, I grabbed my copy of Pete Dexter’s Deadwood and a stack of cocktail books.

Dexter’s 1986 novel could almost be confused as a non-fiction account of Wild Bill Hickok and Charley Utter’s experience in Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870s. For those familiar with David Milch’s Deadwood TV series, many of the real-life characters are here as well – Seth Bullock, Solomon Star, Al Swearengen, Calamity Jane, and E.B. Farnum – but the lens that they’re seen through is more Deadwood Historical Society than HBO. Nothing against HBO, of course. The series is, in my opinion, one of the finest television series ever made.

Both feature sex, guns, and drinking as characters themselves.

In Dexter’s book, the men of Deadwood spend their time at the saloons guzzling copious amounts of gin and bitters. Picture a hulking bounty hunter carrying a human head in his rucksack elbowing up to the bar. He then orders the first of many pink cocktails. Right there is Dexter’s vision of Deadwood saloon life.

Yes, there was also whiskey and beer, but gin and bitters was the new drinking fad for all of the miners and outlaws and cowboys of Deadwood. These were the years of the Gin Cocktail, which basically consisted of gin, bitters, and simple syrup (or gum syrup).

One notable cocktail that would have been available back when Wild Bill could sidle up to a bar in Deadwood was the Yellow Daisy. The Savoy Cocktail Book offers a recipe:

  • 2 Glasses Gin.
  • 2 Glasses French Vermouth.
  • 1 Glass Grand Marnier.
  • Before shaking add a dash of Absinthe.

The Yellow Daisy was invented by Richard William Clark (aka Deadwood Dick). It was his favorite drink. Savoy describes Clark as quite the raconteur. He was a “onetime Custer scout, Pony Express rider, Deadwood Gulch stage-coach guard, inspiration for all the (64) Deadwood Dick novels of E.L. Wheeler; friend of Wild Westerners, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Poker Alice Tubbs, Calamity Jane, Madame Mustache and Diamond Dick Turner of Norfolk, Neb.”

(The above recipe is enough for six people, says Savoy. For a more in-depth look at the cocktail, The Science of Drink has shaken one up.)

Now, gin and bitters as a cocktail (or pink gin, as it is often known), originated in the 1820s in the United Kingdom. The English would add a dash of Angostura bitters to their gin, thus giving the gin a pink hue.

Bitters are the mainstay of the current cocktail renaissance. Bitters are concentrated herbs, spices, and botanicals that are infused into high-proof alcohol. Many of these recipes were originally used to create patent medicines.* Bitters are also digestives. Today they are mainly used to enhance the flavor of cocktails.

The exact recipe for the gin and bitters cocktail of Deadwood is nothing more than a few ounces of gin and a dash of bitters. But let’s break it down and see if the exact cocktail can be replicated today.

Harry Johnson’s 1882 guide to operating your own bar – Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual and Guide for Hotels and Restaurants – lists the principal bitters that every respectable bar owner should have on hand. These include: Boker’s, Hostetter’s, Orange Bitters, Boonecamp Bitters, Stoughton Bitters, Sherry Wine Bitters, East India Bitters, and Angostura.

So it is very likely that the bitters behind the bar – I’ve not forgotten that Deadwood is a work of fiction, by the way – were Angostura bitters.

These are also the bitters that are most commonly used in pink gin. As are Peychaud’s Bitters, which Charles H. Baker, Jr. lists as an essential bitter for “every bar shelf, be it ever so humble” in his book The Gentleman’s Companion. Baker also notes that a dash of bitters can be accurately measured out to be three drops. The dasher top on a modern bottle of bitters will give you a dash each time you turn it over.

But for the Deadwood variety, there was likely a heavier addition of bitters. So rather than a dash, just start shaking out bitters until you have the color you want.

The English commonly used Plymouth Gin for their gin and bitters cocktail. But what kind of gin would be used in a saloon in Deadwood?

As David Wondrich notes in Imbibe!, his history of the cocktail, unsweetened English gins were not available or even widely distributed in the states until the 1890s. So it’s unlikely they were guzzling Plymouth in Deadwood.

English gins like Old Tom and London Dry were commonly available, as was Hollands (also known as Genever), says Wondrich. Some Dutch brands of the time also included Meder’s Swan and Olive Tree. These were the gins that were most likely used by Jerry Thomas who wrote the first ever cocktail book – 1862’s The Bon Vivant’s Companion.

Hollands is, in fact, the gin Wondrich says Thomas was most likely referring to in his recipes. For the sake of this belabored and wandering argument, let’s say that Bill Hickok was a Hollands gin man. Hollands has a much more malty taste to it than the English variety.

So if you’re looking to drink like they maybe probably would have in Deadwood in the 1870s perhaps or thereabouts, dump a mess of Angostura bitters in all of that.

In part two of this series, I will try to replicate the whiskey that Gus and Call drank in Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece Lonesome Dove, which was published in 1986, the same year as Pete Dexter’s Deadwood. In part three, we’ll look at Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian from 1985 in order to replicate the apocalypse.

*In one of my favorite passages from Lonesome Dove, the Texas Rangers Gus and Call come upon an abandoned wagon. While searching it, Gus finds some patent medicines. Says one of the other rangers, “What do you think it will cure, Gus?” Gus responds, “Sobriety, if you guzzle enough of it. I expect it’s just whiskey and syrup.”

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December 2010