Counterpoint: Thanksgiving is Actually a Bourbon Holiday

Note: If you haven’t yet read Ceetar’s wonderful new piece entitled “Thanksgiving is a Beer Holiday”, please go get your main course there first, then come back here for some dessert.

Turkey. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Green beans. Cranberry sauce. Fourteen kinds of pie (I hope, I hope, please please please let there be fourteen kinds of pie, pretty please).

While, in theory, a pumpkin ale sounds like it would be devoured in perfect harmony with the dishes that make up the classic Thanksgiving menu, I offer an alternative to you, gentle reader. I humbly posit that exchanging beer for bourbon might pair just as well with the food, and leave you not feeling so full that you wanna eject stomach gravy all over your granny’s shaggy living room carpet.

I’d be a damned liar if I told you that La Cumbre’s La Negra bourbon barrel aged stout or Marble’s Pumpkin Noir will not make an appearance at our Thanksgiving get-together. Like Ceets said, the day is long, start early. But when others zig for that IPA or another stout, I’m gonna zag my way on over to the bourbon shelf and do turkey day my way.

Since the drinking will begin closer to sunrise than sunset, it’s imperative to get out of gates slowly so I’ll start my Thanksgiving with the Basil Hayden’s Two-By-Two Rye. This is as close as you can come to a non-alcoholic beverage where bourbon is concerned (checks in at a measly 80 proof / 40% ABV). It’s as smooth as Sade, so you’ll still be able to talk to people without any slurring or mumbling (which will likely come later).

Ah, talking to people. A pitfall of Thanksgiving. We’ll all be happy to see our friends and most of our relatives, but sometime in the early afternoon, that vocal Trump-supporting in-law will show up (and in fairness, he’ll have to deal me, the “libtard craft beer blogger”), and that’s when Knob Creek is the best goddamn thing in the whole wide world.

This particular bottle I picked up last month on a motorcycle journey across the southern United States that culminated in a bourbon trail run through the beautiful state of Kentucky (with DD, I should add, the bikes were parked for this particular leg). I left home with an empty bag I planned to stuff with bourbon bottles and that bag came back full, gentle reader, same as my heart just now as I recall riding past mile after mile of cotton fields with a delicious liquid bounty tied down to my faithful iron colt. Sweet irresponsibility.

Anyway, Knob Creek, in my opinion, is always a little hotter than other bourbons, so this 115 proof / 57.5% ABV fire-breather (that was hand selected by none other than Jim Beam master distiller Fred Noe himself!) will drop me into a proper early afternoon buzz, and will allow me to torch a would-be political debater like I was Drogon flaming a bunch of digital extras in a Game of Thrones throwdown. That was a long sentence, I’m sorry. But it’s one of those bourbons that makes you shiver and shake a little after you swallow it. It’s distilled with the kind of attitude you need to shake off rivals, so it’s perfect for this time of day with disparate personalities arriving and cautiously intermingling.

Now it’s time for the big Thanksgiving meal. And with all the flavors competing for our taste buds’ affection and attention, a special bourbon will need to be summoned to meet the challenge. This is when I call on the Maker’s Mark Private Select Oak Stave by Bill Samuels, Jr. These Private Select offerings by Maker’s are pretty cool. Dig this from their website:

Beginning as fully matured Maker’s Mark® at cask strength, Private Select is created by adding 10 custom wood finishing staves to each barrel…
The finishing staves can be any combination of five flavor profiles chosen especially for this program.

The five profiles can be a combination of any of the following: Baked American Pure 2, Seared French Cuvée, Maker’s 46, Roasted French Mocha and Toasted French Spice.

This particular batch, Bill Samuels decided to ignore the four other flavor profiles entirely and devote all 10 staves in this batch to Maker’s 46, so we’re left with a bottle that has the subtle sweet of the 46, but in a 110.6 proof, 55.3% ABV monster. Any flavor on your beautiful Thanksgiving plate can represent the Yin, and this wonderfully complex bourbon will Yang it the hell back around. A truly resplendent spirit.

Dinner is done, the plates are cleared.  Trump guy is in the other room watching football even though he hates football, and the vultures are in the kitchen picking at the leftovers. We have to pace ourselves here a little bit, so I’ll switch now to the Weller Special Reserve, my go-to everyday type bourbon. Weller replaced the rye in the mash with wheat, and for some reason, that makes it the easiest thing in the world to drink. I already used “smoother than Sade” (which was was a lie, nothing is smoother than Sade), so “smoother than Steph Curry’s release” seems like a full notch or two below Sade. I need a Prose-inator filled with sexy smooth similes to help me through this piece. Regardless, the Weller is smooth like Giant Steps Coltrane, as you can see by this nearly empty bottle.

People are hugging good-byes now, speaking on how we’ll all congregate again at the December holidays, only then everyone’s stress levels will be exponentially higher. No four-day weekend like glorious Thanksgiving, and many of us will feel overburdened because we spent way too much money buying gifts for everyone when bloated commerce seems completely out of the true spirit of the holidays. I already miss Thanksgiving, my comfy sweat pants and watching football with Trump guy who can be alright sometimes in his own ways.

At this point I’ll be slurring, all warm inside and telling everyone how much I’ll miss them, and at that moment, I’ll actually mean it. I’ll close with an offering from Washington state – the BSB (Brown Sugar Bourbon) by Heritage Distilling. The only difference between this thing and a Cinnabon at the airport is nothing, there is no difference at all. You will get a massive sugar buzz from the delicious airport Cinnabon and this easy 60 proof / 30% ABV warm, liquid treat will sneak up on you even though it tastes not like booze at all, but like that yummy $8 dollar, 900-calorie demon of an airport terminal delicacy that will leave you in a heap of sweaty regret. This particular bottle, however, was purchased as part of a fundraiser for Seattle’s homeless community during Pearl Jam’s 2018 epic summer “Home Shows”, so the slothy regret is tempered by its good intentions, if only slightly.

And with that, I bid you a Happy Thanksgiving, gentle reader. Be it bourbon or beer, Lions or Cowboys, Trump or anyone else, let your day be filled with hearty foods and spirits, and stellar company to match. And if you have any Pappy Van Winkle on your shelf, hit me up. I’ll bring by some leftover pie.

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Death, Drinking and a review of a fine IPA from Estonia called Põhjala Virmalised

“That’s the problem with drinking, I thought, as I poured myself a drink. If something bad happens you drink in an attempt to forget; if something good happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen.”

—Charles Bukowski, Women

(This post was written in the wee hours of Tuesday, September 11th, 2018).

Say what you will about Bukowski, but the man was a expert on the subject of drinking.  An earnest examination of the reasons we drink are central to the thoughts I’m trying to get out of my brain in this particular writing.   We drink to be social (or antisocial), to help us relax or to be gregarious or to be any other thing we’re not when we’re sober.  We drink to get a little buzzed or even a little drunk, or maybe just because we love how whatever we’re drinking tastes. It seems we drink to change our current plight from whatever it is to something… else.  Same for you?

I write about beer on the internet (thanks for having me, dudes!).  But this is a piece about not drinking beer and the funny hole it can leave in the life of someone who is accustomed to drinking beer.  And then finding a suitable reason to drink a beer anyway.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  There is a beer review at the end of this, I promise.  But it’s likely that review will have little to do with this post. Or maybe it will, who knows.

My girlfriend and I love our neighborhood brewery (and a few nowhere near our neighborhood).  The modern craft beer culture has given birth to a new varietal of community hubs, these great taprooms we all love.  Talented people making delicious beer that doesn’t taste like the beer in the next city over. It’s uniquely local in taste and culture and style.  Neighbors, with their kids and dogs in tow, all congregating on patios in the sunshine, talking about things going on in our lives and our communities or on the block where we live.  Over a beer.  In some ways and for some people, the craft beer taprooms are the new piazzas, a 21st century place of congregation for neighbors.

I could count on one hand (or maybe two) the reasons I should probably drink a little less than I currently do.  But this particular self-imposed beer hiatus is purely vanity and gut-related. Six weeks to lose a few pounds and the two biggest things I figured I could cut to help my progress were beer (duh) and olive oil (for real!).

As I am a human and therefore flawed by design, I’ve not chosen a route of sobriety for these 6 weeks, but opted to substitute wine (and the occasional whiskey) for beer in the evenings, or with a meal.  Carbs, man.

The first day was a Saturday that went like any other Saturday.  But when the bright orange New Mexico sun started to wane, the brain’s default entertainment choice was to head to Bosque or La Cumbre or another one of our local favorite breweries for a tall, cold beer to extinguish the dying embers of the warm, late summer day.

But hold up, I’m not drinking beer.

What the shit am I supposed to do to entertain myself?  Watching the Mets will only make me want to drink more. I am allowing myself wine, but how many craft beer taprooms near you serve wine?  I don’t know either because I always have the beer.

I think we binge watched the new season of Ozark and a week went by. And when that week was up, like Bukowski, I had a beer to celebrate!  To celebrate a week of not drinking beer!  I’m currently drunk on irony.

Today is a day that again challenges one’s notion of “the why”.  For a lot of my friends that I’ve met through our shared love of the the New York Mets – east coasters and New Yorkers mostly – September the 11th is truly not like any other day. The sadness of losing a family member or spouse or loved one is a guttural, haunting pain, but still somehow different than the hurt of thousands of your neighbors (and maybe friends and loved ones, too) being killed in an attack on the place you live.  That morning of September 11th, 2001, I was on a Mets message board receiving news from a lot of those east coasters and New Yorkers I still communicate with today over all the same things we did back then – Mets baseball, politics and music, and yes, beer.

I lived in Long Beach, California in 2001 and call Albuquerque home now, so while I can lend my heart to any of those friends if they needed it, they touched an experience that day that I could never understand in the same way.  Still, the gravity of the day makes me want to drink something, not to forget, but just to not feel everything quite so much.  Or maybe to feel it all a little more, I’m not sure.

Today is also my father’s birthday.  But before “9/11”, September the 11th was already a somber day for my dad, as his brother had died on his birthday.  Can you imagine losing your brother on your birthday? And then years later, on your birthday, which is also the anniversary of your own brother’s death, fucking September 11th happens?   As you’ll understand, my dad didn’t celebrate anything on his birthday and when he remarried, his new wife’s birthday was September the 9th, so he quietly shifted his back towards hers, and they’d celebrate both their birthdays together, a couple days before they each had to navigate their own sadness, I’m sure.

My dad died on February 27, 2015.  That’s a sad day on its face for the obvious reasons.  When the anniversary of that day comes, I remember where I was when I got the call that he had a stroke, I remember when we all met in San Antonio at the hospital to be with him, and I remember how I cried as we waited for him to leave this earth after his breathing tube was removed.  His birthday should be something happier but it’s just not. There’s too much sadness in the nearest concentric circles of people in my life, but the sadness gets louder and heavier as the circles expand outward to people I don’t know and will never meet because of the pain of what this day represents.  Happiness or conviviality is a feeling that just doesn’t fit with today, even if I’d desperately like to feel something like it.

So I wanted to celebrate something this evening.  Or forget something. Or both, in my own peculiar way.  Bukowski, where you at?

I type this now while drinking a red wine and trying to stay true to my stupid diet in a way that makes little sense, but my girlfriend and I did share a beer tonight.  Like our neighbors at our favorite breweries, we congregated, talked about things in our lives that remind us that we’re, in fact, still alive, and we shared a moment over a beer as strange and unique as today is.

Warning: Actual beer review ahead.

In February, she went to Europe and somehow managed to bring a few unbroken bottles of beer back to America.  I think one or two still remain, but tonight we cracked the Põhjala Virmalised, one of the finest IPAs in all of Estonia.  Brendan Fraser approved, no doubt.

Weezin’ the juice

Reviewers online have things to say about it, like this:

“Samea, kuparin oranssi väri. Ei juuri vaahtoa. Tuoksussa raikas sitrus. Maku melko kepeä, raikas, vähän katkera.”

I cannot, with any integrity, say that I disagree.

We did drink it after the “best before” date of July 22, 2018, but today, for me, is about appreciating things that have expired anyway.

It was strangely sedimenty, a little bitter, a little floral and a little hoppy all at the same time.  A bunch of  components that might not work on their own, but they conspired to make this thing – an Estonia-made American IPA – a pretty good thing.  Seek it out next time you’re, well, in Estonia.

That’s the, um, flavor swimming around.

We had one 12-ounce bottle.  We shared it and raised a glass to my old man.  And this strange little beer somehow fit in nicely on a day when nothing else seemed to.

Happy September 11th, everyone.  Whatever happiness you can find, hold onto it.  Maybe drink it up.

~~~

Note – at the time of this writing, the author, clean of beer and olive oil, has lost 4 pounds, but is questioning his sanity and his current dietary roadmap.

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Trappist Westvleteren 12: The Holy Grail?

The decisions that lead us to determine what things we love in this life are (a lot them anyway) swimming in bias.  A book recommended by a good friend, or reliably tasteful media source? Yeah, I’ll buy it because I trust. A new Wilco record that I know I’ll love before it’s even released?  My own stupid (but correct!) bias.

But how do you taste and fairly evaluate a beer that many have asserted is the best beer in whole stupid world?  How do you tell your brain to not lend any credence to the beer’s assumed greatness simply because of its world-class rep?  Conversely, any beer that heralded is definitely not gonna live up to the hype, so how do you not dock points simply because it doesn’t taste otherworldly?  What if it just tastes like a good beer?

These are the dilemmas that come with drinking the Trappist Westvleteren 12.

The Westy 12 had all the OG hype that you’d now find swirling around a beer like Pliny the Younger. Similar to that out-of-print record I don’t give a shit about until I learn it’s out-of-print, the Westy 12, a Belgian quad, is not available at your liquor store or mine so that (artificially?) drives the demand.  It’s made by Trappist monks at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in, you guessed it, (West) Vleteren, Belgium. This is not a beer that gets pumped out to anything resembling mass production. They make enough to keep the monastery open and running and that’s it. You have to get it in person, or pay a criminal amount online ($150 + shipping for a 6-pack anyone?) and then hope it all shows up in one piece.  You also have to hope what you find online is not fake Westy like reported here or maybe here.  It’s less shopping for beer and more like collecting rare stamps.

I didn’t have to drop a bunch of Bitcoin buying bottles on the dark web or take out a second on the house to put a few in the fridge.  I got mine from my little brother who was living in Germany while working for the US Air Force. He’d successfully mailed two bottles my way in 2016, and when he and the wife and fam moved home to the US this year, they brought a few more back with them (at about 20 for a 6-pack at the Abbey, btw).  Fortunately, a couple of those bottles found their way to my home.

You wanna talk hype?  Dig this bottle. Paired with the proper Westy glassware, it looks like something the grail knights from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade should be protecting.

“You chose… wisely.”

No label.  Just a dark, chocolate-colored bottle with “TRAPPISTEN BIER” worked into the neck of the glass.

The cap is gold, features the logo, identifies the beer as 10.2%  and lists a stamped-on “best before” date. The Westy I’m about to drink was bottled on 27 Oct, 2016 and is “best before” the same date, 2019.  Today will do just fine.

Descriptions of the beer online read like letters to the editor in the back pages of Thanksgiving Food Porn magazine (which probably exists).  A sampling:

Aroma of fresh bread, raisins, hints of clove and allspice.”

“…flavors of brown sugar, dates, figs, caramel, chocolate, and spice.”

“Rich aroma with dark fruit, nutty malts, mild caramel/toffee, light Belgian yeast and a light herbal spice.”

Makes you wanna #GravyBoatAndChill no?

The internet and the hype machine have informed me that this beer is wonderful and I love it.  If I’d paid $150 for a 6-pack, I’d likely force my brain to only accept that it was great, maybe for no other reason than to justify the financial drop.  

A quick aside – I once had a chance to drink Pliny the Younger. I was in San Diego county and a friend who worked at a brewery told me a place in town had a keg.  We called and they confirmed they did have it. $14 for a 6-ounce pour, and there was already a 45-minute line out the door. How do you properly appreciate that? How do you not make up your mind that it’s the best thing ever, or it’s totally overblown? 

Back to the present.  This Westy poured beautifully and looks like a thing you want to brag to all your friends about (me, right now).  Without going full beer-nerd, I fully back the deep fruit notes described by the thanksgiving food porn guys. And while a decent comp, in my opinion, is the St. Bernardus 12, this particular Westy 12 is way boozier.  Hype or no, this beer, with all its dark, bursting fruit is phenomenal. A richer, fuller-bodied beer would be hard to find on any continent.

If you’ve got a trip to Belgium coming up, then definitely go to this place (duh).  If it tastes this good in my living room, I can only imagine how much better it would be in the monastery with all the vibes set to “Optimal”.  If Belgium’s not in the immediate future, but you can find the beer and the price is whatever “fair” is to you, then I still highly recommend it.  Otherwise, get that St. Bernardus 12 at the liquor store and enjoy a different delicious beer instead. 

Proost!

One final note – It’s advisable to not search electronic bay dot com for rare and/or out-of print vinyl after drinking rare and/or out-of-print 10% beers.  Your Chase card (and maybe your significant other) will likely hate you for it. 

I mean, just because no one else has a thing, does it make that thing any better?

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Come for the Chile, Stay for the Beer

New Mexicans, it can be safely stated, are culinary innovators. The Frito pie*.  The sopapilla. The green chile cheeseburger.  Borne of hunger and New Mexican ingenuity, with local New Mexican chiles chopped by precise New Mexican hands, the green chile cheeseburger is the most famous example of the edible imagination of the people of the 47th state.  Take a thing that is good and make it our own – bigger, bolder, spicier.

The Spanish brought chiles to the Native Pueblo tribes in what would become northern New Mexico in the 1580s.  Being ancestors to future New Mexicans who will want to amplify every last flavor they encounter, the Puebloans gravitated to a particular style of pepper, and modified it to the long, fiery chile pod generations of New Mexicans would masochistically devour, setting fire to our mouths while sweating through our insanely delicious meals.  We’re a little loco like this.

The New Mexico-style IPA follows in this tradition. We were drawn toward classic hop-forward profiles like Bear Republic’s Racer 5 and Green Flash’s West Coast IPA. While we thought the style was great, just like the chiles our forebears fell for in the 1500s, we needed MORE. The west coast IPA is cleaner and lighter by comparison. The Colorado-style (whatever the hell that is) seems something of a hybrid of west coast and New England styles. To drink an IPA in New Mexico, though, is not to drink a crisp or light beer, no. To drink an IPA in New Mexico is to submit your palate to an aggressive, punch-you-in-the-mouth, full-on assault by hops. See? We’re kinda loco.

That brings us to the New Mexico IPA Challenge, the Royal Rumble of IPA elimination tournaments. Preliminary rounds in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos led up to the championship, which was held on Saturday at the gorgeous new Bosque Brewing Co. location in Bernalillo, New Mexico.

the new Bosque North in Bernalillo, NM

The premise of the competition is simple. For 20 bucks, you are handed a tray with a dozen or so clear, plastic cups, each filled with 3-ish ounces of beer. You are also given an (empty) souvenir pint glass. You don’t know what the beers are. Under each cup is a number. Drink the cups of beer. On a piece of paper, write down the number of the beer that was your favorite and give that piece of paper to the bar-keep. They will pour you a pint of beer that corresponds with the number you chose and record your written vote. Drink that pint in your now full souvenir glass. Be happy, because beer. At the end of the day, the votes are tallied and the names of the beers are revealed, and you find out which you voted for, and which you roundly mocked like an arrogant jerk.

15 delicious, anonymous beers

We attended the Albuquerque prelim and final rounds in 2017 (won for the second year in a row by the excellent Boxing Bear Brewing Company and their Bear Knuckle IPA). We went to the first elimination round in Albuquerque this year, where 44 breweries submitted entries for the best IPA in New Mexico. There were, to me, a surprisingly high amount of hazies as the state has been a relatively slow adopter of this trend. Would our hop-heavy palates allow for this softer, fruity invasion?

NMIPAC standings before the final round

The previous 3 rounds whittled the 44 breweries down to a tidy field of 15 deserving finalists. At approximately 3 ounces per cup times 15 entries, plus an additional 16 ounces from the souvenir pint glass, each of us would be “tasting” the equivalent of a Super Big Gulp of boozy suds that day. Pretzels would reset our taste buds between sips. Lyft would cart our drunk arses home.

Aside from straight-up guzzling, there’s really no wrong way to do the blind taste test. I started sequentially, would jot down a few observations, work my way through all 15, and then start again at #1, noting the changes in each as both the temperature outside and the beer got warmer under the hot New Mexico sun.

Like a Joco Pastorius bassline, a few of Albuquerque’s premier beer makers have unmistakable hop profiles. In the elimination round, I knew La Cumbre the second that danky IPA hit my tongue (and also realized I spend way too much time and money drinking La Cumbre). It was the same in the finals with my #6 beer (which I guessed correctly to be Bosque’s bitter Just Bearly IPA) and #10 (AlbuMurky, the New England-style entry by the aforementioned Boxing Bear). I also guessed the Red River Bad Medicine Honey DIPA, but only because of the reddish color and caramelly finish. (We met the brewer later at the event and he described his recipe as the same hops used in Pliny the Elder, plus a ton of local honey. It’s not Pliny at all, but it tasted… unique.)

I liked the hazy #10 on my tray, but leaned more heavily toward the classic, hoppier offerings, deciding ultimately on #5, which was in this reviewer’s humble know-nothing opinion, the most well-balanced IPA on my tray. My brother went #5, too, and my girlfriend went on her own with #11. The votes were tallied and we walked through to the back of the brewery to await the results.

Wandering through Bosque

The announcer, shooting for some dramatic flair, slowly and agonizingly announced the third place winner as AlbuMurky, the hazy brewed by two-time defending champ, Boxing Bear. Another Albuquerque heavy-hitter, Marble Brewery, was announced as the second place finisher (my beloved #5 beer, which would turn out to be the Safeword IPA). Steve Harvey actually got the order wrong as it was Boxing Bear second, Marble third, but that was a small detail. He had one more chance with the winner yet to be announced.

So which storied Albuquerque brewery won the championship? None! It was Blue Corn Brewery out of Santa Fe (#4 on our trays, but apparently #1 in our hearts), the first non-Albuquerque brewery to win the competition since none other than Blue Corn back in 2013.

My girlfriend, to her credit, described the eventual champ as “not bad/top contender/got malty.” I described #4 as “bitter/too skunky,” proving definitively that I know jack shit about this beer-tasting thing. We did make the trip to Santa Fe on Sunday and stopped in Blue Corn to try a pint of the champ (named Gatekeeper IPA), but they didn’t have it on yet. Presumably, it’s a special or one-off recipe, so we’ll have to wait til they make a bigger batch before we can get reacquainted with it.

As for the hop versus hazy debate, Boxing Bear did comment in a classy concession post on Instagram that their hazy was a “risky” move. I can’t disagree too much with that and credit them for trying something different with a three-peat on the line.

The votes at the end of the day did lean heavily toward sledgehammer heavy hops, but like chile peppers, west coast IPAs, and tourists’ stolen cars, maybe the New England-style beer will be the next thing that New Mexico takes and makes her own.

*  the late, great Anthony Bourdain disagrees with the greatness of the Frito Pie

PS – Come visit us in New Mexico and drink our awesome beers!  New Mexico Ale Trail

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