How the FDA will snuff out innovation in cigars and e-cigs

I awoke yesterday morning to the news I’ve been dreading for years: The FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products announced that it will extend its authority over cigarettes to all tobacco products, including cigars and e-cigarettes. When I last covered this topic, the FDA was considering a proposal (“Option 2”) to exempt premium cigars from some of the agency’s more onerous regulations. I was optimistic that the agency might take this path, allowing it to concentrate resources where they might do more good and avoiding conflict with politically vocal cigar smokers. unfortunately, as a write at Reason, that optimism was misplaced:

As of yesterday, Option 2 is dead. And so, perhaps, is innovation in the cigar business.

Cigars that were on the market in 2007 will be allowed to remain for sale, but any cigars introduced since then will have to endure the same sort of regulatory hassles as Hestia tobacco. If they can’t prove they’re substantially equivalent to existing products—not just in their composition or their effects on smokers, but in their essentially unknowable potential health impacts on the population as a whole—then they will be ordered off the market.

It’s hard to predict what those applications will cost, but the most likely outcome is that the market for cigars will soon become a lot less diverse and a lot more boring. (Cuban cigars, which by definition were not legally on the US market in 2007, will obviously not be grandfathered in.)

Read the rest here.

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New at Reason: The latest threat to mezcal

This week at Reason, I look at the proposed Mexican law that threatens small producers of mezcal:

That legislation is NOM 199, a proposal that would place additional restrictions on some of the least advantaged producers of agave spirits just as just as mezcal is finally beginning to receive the global acclaim it deserves. These distillers are already forced to compete without using the word “mezcal” on their labels; the term is governed by Denomination of Origin (DO) regulations that limit its use to just seven states in Mexico. Producers outside of those regions make spirits historically and informally known as mezcal, but they’re not permitted to call it that on their labels or when exporting. Instead, they must market their products as “destilado de agave,” or agave distillate.

This is a truthful description of their product, though many producers resent being excluded from the mezcal DO and make the case that use of the word has precedent in a much larger area than current law recognizes. But all definitions of spirits by geographic borders involve some arbitrary demarcation, and if this were only a debate about where to draw the line for where the word “mezcal” can be put on a bottle, it would be a less interesting story. NOM 199 goes even further, banning producers not only from calling their product mezcal, but requiring them to abandon use of the word “agave” as well. A new word, “komil,” would be forced upon them. Critics assert that this would further marginalize the producers of these spirits, many of whom are poor and live far from the central Mexican government.

Read it all here.

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Friday Drinks: Collaboration Beer Fest in Denver

collaboration

Until a few weeks ago, the last time I’d visited Denver was 2013. And the last time I’d been to the city with exploring beer on the agenda was even longer, going back to my move across country in 2008. That’s a long time to be away from one of the country’s best beer states. So when I was invited by the organizers of the Collaboration Beer Fest to fly down as a guest and visit a few local breweries, I gladly took them up on the offer.

As the name implies, the concept of the festival is beers made collaboratively among two or more breweries. What’s really impressive is the scale at which they pull it off: The 2016 fest featured more than 85 beers from almost 150 breweries, with the only limitation being that at least one partner on each beer come from Colorado. Some paired with other in-state brewers, but the enthusiasm for this event is strong enough to bring in brewers from all over the country and even a few international entrants.

The scale and concept puts it in fairly unique territory among beer festivals. It’s theme-driven, but it brings in a massive number of beers and brewers, spread out within the halls of an NFL stadium. (This comprehensive list gives an idea of the breadth and diversity of beers available.) It also makes it a tricky fest to write about. By the nature of the event, most of the beers are one of a kind and may not ever be made again, so recommendations to seek them out aren’t helpful. Instead, this is more of a snapshot of Colorado brewers and what they find interesting at the moment. (Short answer: Lots of big IPAs, sour fermentation, and barrel ageing.)

Wrangling that many breweries to work together is an organizational feat, but the entire event smoothly. Even at peak times, the lines for the most popular beers only required a few minutes of waiting. Having all inclusive passes rather than having to constantly trade tickets or tokens helped as well. And one of the best touches were notebooks with information on each beer, a five star “enjoyment meter” to pencil in, and space for several lines of tasting notes. It can’t have been easy to get all this laid out and printed, but they were great for making organized notes to remember what you’re trying — which, lets be honest, isn’t always easy at a beer festival.

The beers below were the best I tried at the festival. The recommendations for these specific beers may not be useful — though who knows, they could be made again — but if you’re visiting Colorado, perhaps they will steer you to some good breweries to try. And should you be in town for next year’s Collaboration Fest, I highly recommend attending.

Baere Brewing Company, Mockery Brewing, Inland Island Brewing “Mocking Baered Episode II La Isla Se Esta Quemando” — Possibly my favorite beer of the event was this collaboration between three different breweries, a “tropical saison” flavored with fresh and smoked pineapples. I’m partial to smoked beers in general, and smoking pineapples with applewood for this beer was inspired decision. The fruit, the robust smoke, and the saison-style ale came together perfectly for my tastes. The only thing missing was a glass of mezcal on the side.

Blue Spruce Brewing Co. and Rock Bottom Brewery “Petrified Spruce” — The biggest surprise of the fest was this unassuming India Pale Lager made with an unnamed experimental hop. At a festival where so many brewers are showing off barrel aged beers, sour ales, hop bombs, or unusual flavor additions, this collaboration played it safe. Yet the brewers knocked it out of the park. Sessionable, moderately bitter, and with a pleasantly piney aroma, it was the beer I could most happily drink all day.

Baere Brewing Company and Mother Road Brewing Company “Mother Baere” — Baere really was the standout brewery for me at this fest, with their second collaboration — this rye saison aged in for six months in rye whiskey barrels — being another of the best beers I tried there. I’ve had a handful of rye beers, but can’t remember any others with so much of that distinctive rye spice coming through.

Crazy Mountain Brewing Company and Stillwater Artisan Ales “Neoteric” — On a personal note, it was fun running into Brian Strumke from Stillwater, who I got to work with on a Kopstootje project with Bols Genever a few years ago. The itinerant brewer’s collaboration was this IPA made with wort soured by wild yeasts and hopped with Sauvie, Citra, and Mosaic hops. It wasn’t overly sour and had great aroma. (As with many of Brian’s beers, the name might need some explanation. For what it’s worth, this one means “modern.”)

Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project and Evil Twin Brewing “L ‘Brett D Lil B” — Of all the ways breweries can make a collaborative brew, this might be the simplest: Taking one beer from each brewery and blending them together. If I remember correctly, that’s what these two did with barrel aged beer from Crooked Stave and Evil Twin’s Lil B Porter to make a “dark sour.” It’s a combination that works, with a strong raspberry aroma and a pairing of berries with dark, roasty malt.

Denver Beer Co. and DC Brau “Peanut Butter Lunchbox” — As a former resident of DC who moved away before the city had any brewing scene to speak of, I was excited to see a brewery from the District taking part in the fest. This Elvis-inspired ale is made with the malt bill of a brown ale, is fermented with Weizen yeasts for banana notes, and has local peanut butter from Boulder added to the brew. With a very strong peanut aroma, it was sort of reminiscent of dan dan noodles, in a good way. It was one of the most interesting beers of the fest, and it had consistently long lines to try it. It was intriguing, and I enjoyed it, though it may a little too out there for drinking regularly.

Little Machine Beer and Bull & Bush “Mechanical Bull” — I was a little wary of this dark lager aged in syrah barrels, but it ended up being one of the highlights of the fest. With light smoke, notes of stone fruit, and a roasty bitterness, they hit the nail on the head with this one.

Falling Rock Tap House and Star Bar “Rock Star” — This beer breaks the mold of the fest a bit, being a collaboration between the owners of two of Denver’s best beer bars rather than two brewers. Chris Black from Falling Rock and Justin Loyd from Star Bar (my favorite place to end a night in Denver) create this custom blend from New Belgium’s “Foeder Forest,” the breweries collection of wooden vessels for sour ales. This is the third year the bars have made a blend, with this one falling on the lighter side of the spectrum. It’s tart, funky, and really good — definitely one to look out for in successive years.

Oskar Blues Brewery and Horse & Dragon Brewing Company “I Smoka” — Oskar Blues is one of the best known Colorado breweries outside of the state, whose offerings I enjoy fairly often in Portland. For this collaboration, they stayed local with additions of chocolate and coffee. That’s is a solid combination with stout, and it came together really well with roasted coffee aroma and fruity chocolate on the palate.

Weldwerks Brewing Co. and Snowbank Brewing Co. “Barrel-Aged Mocha Stout” — This was another beer with consistently long lines. And with good reason: This was one of the richest beers at the fest, very decadent and chocolaty, approaching the edge of being too sweet. But it was excellent, and a moderate pour would make it the perfect night cap.

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A tour of Reykjavik’s craft distilleries

Despite my obsession with all things aquavit, I’d never set foot in any of the Nordic countries until last month when I was invited to Iceland as a media guest for the second annual Reykjavik Bar Summit. The event brings in bars from all over Europe and the United States for two days of friendly cocktail competition and is also a great opportunity to showcase Iceland’s emerging cocktail, beer, and distilling scenes.

I wrote about my favorite spots to drink in Reykjavik for Eater, so head over there for tips if you’re planning a visit. In this post I’ll write about the local distilleries, three of which I got to visit on a tour around the city. I’d arrived fortuitously on the morning of “Beer Day,” the anniversary of the day Iceland finally fully legalized beer on the surprisingly late date of March 1, 1989. We celebrated with cans of Bríó on a northbound bus, learning about the country’s long, strange relationship with the temperance movement along the way.

Langjokull cave

The most famous Icelandic spirit is Brennivín, an aquavit flavored with caraway, for whom I do a bit of work in the United States. We didn’t have the opportunity to visit the distillery, but the Bar Summit arranged an even better setting for imbibing it: inside the ice cap of Langjökull glacier. Man-made tunnels allow visitors to hike down into the ice, where caves, gathering rooms, and even a small wedding chapel await. No marriages occurred among our group, but we did enjoy a celebratory toast of ice cold Brennivín.

From there we went on to enjoy a few more drinks in hot tubs under a spectacular display of the Northern Lights, followed by a late night cocktail dinner that had us back at the hotel around 4 am. That allowed for just a few hours sleep before the next morning’s tour of three distilleries local to Reykjavik.

64° Reykjavik Distillery

64 Reykjavik

I’ll confess that I was still feeling the combined effects of jet lag, aquavit shots, and a post-midnight four-course cocktail dinner when we made the drive over to 64° Reykjavik, so I wasn’t quite as up to enjoying their wares as I would have liked to be. Co-founder Snorri Jonnson had prepared combinations of desserts topped with his fruit-forward liqueurs that looked amazing. Fortunately I was able to take a few of the elegantly designed bottles home to try later.

The liqueurs feature local Icelandic ingredients: blueberry, rhubarb (“rabarbara”), and crowberry. The pale pink rhubarb liqueur is bright and lively; I could see it going great with brut sparkling wine, and it worked well in a tequila cocktail I mixed up at home too. The crowberry liqueur is made from small, black berries that grow all over the country; it’s richly colored, with dark, jammy fruit notes balanced by a touch of tannic bitterness.

The distillery also makes three dry spirits: a vodka, gin, and aquavit. I was most interested in the last of these, of course. Their aquavit is flavored with caraway and angelica seeds. It’s clean and crisp, with assertive caraway flavor that doesn’t excessively dominate the spirit. You could keep it in the freezer, but it’s soft enough to enjoy neat and unchilled.

Eimverk Distillery

EimverkOur next stop was Eimverk, where a glass of tonic water revived me to life and put me back in the saddle for more spirits tasting. Eimverk is best known for their Flóki malt whiskey made from 100% Icelandic barley. Their lightly aged young malt is currently on the market and their fully aged single malt will be out in limited quantities soon. I also got to sample a batch made from barley smoked and dried over burning sheep dung, the Icelandic equivalent of a peated Scotch. It was deliciously smoky, and I’ll absolutely buy a bottle when it’s released to market if I ever get the opportunity.

Eimverk also makes a gin called Vor and aquavit called Víti. The aquavit is also distilled from malted barley, which comes through on the nose with the familiar graininess of new make whiskey. The brash notes of young malt combined with unusual botanicals — Icelandic moss, kale, meadow sweet, among others — make this one of the most unique and interesting aquavits on the market.

Foss Distillery

Image via Foss Distillery on Facebook.
Image via Foss Distillery on Facebook.

Our final stop was Foss Distillery, where the distillers transform Icelandic birch into enchantingly complex spirits. The mildly astringent, woodsy Birkir snaps is made by infusing birch into neutral spirits lightly sweetened with local birch syrup. The more approachable Björk is more heavily sweetened, though not at all cloying. Both are finished with a small birch twig in every bottle, and both are well worth picking up; I already have plans for Birkir on an upcoming cocktail menu.

Foss also just unveiled two new products, Eimir vodka, which is vacuum-distilled with birch, and Börkur, an intense birch bitter. I enjoyed all of their spirits; with Birkir and Björk both available in the US, I’d recommend picking up Eimir or Börkur if you’re traveling through the country.

A note on buying spirits: The duty free shop at Keflavik airport does a great job featuring Icelandic spirits, and everything mentioned here is or will be on sale there. Given Iceland’s high taxes on alcohol, your best bet for buying these is at the airport on your way home.

DESIGNER CELEBRITY EVENING DRESSES
View from the wing of Greenland on the flight home.
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Crony capitalists of craft beer

My latest story for Reason looks at how some of the biggest names in craft beer are raking in millions of dollars in public subsidies to fund their expansion:

“Virginia is for beer lovers,” Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) proclaimed at a recent press conference. He was obviously not referring to a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of an antiquated “habitual drunkard” law to jail indigent citizens without due process, but rather to $3 million in corporate welfare from the state’s Commonwealth Opportunity Fund that he approved to lure Bend, Oregon based Deschutes Brewing toRoanoke for the construction of their first East Coast brewery.

For those of us who follow the beer industry, the announcement stirred feelings of déjà vu. It was less than two years ago that McAuliffe was tapping a keg from San Diego’s Stone Brewing and putting Virginia taxpayers on the hook for a $5 million grant to bring Stone to Richmond. That was in addition to a $1.5 million economic development grant, a $500,000 sustainability grant, and $31 million in bonds from the city to build a brewery and bistro.

Read the whole thing, which includes many more breweries, including Stone’s new operation in Berlin.

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Cocktail videos for Tales

aquavit Victoroa

A few months ago I shot a few how-to videos for Tales of the Cocktail at my friend’s new bar in Portland, Victoria. The videos detail a couple of my favorite techniques.

  1. How to make a very old school Flip using a metal loggerhead and a torch.
  2. How add a touch of hoppiness to tropical drinks, as in my Mai Ta-IPA.
  3. How to mix aquavit, demonstrated with a Dill Collins.

Speaking of aquavit, I’m also interviewed on the topic in the April issue of Wine Enthusiast.

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Flip out!

Today my publisher, Abrams, re-printed an excerpt from my book on the Colonial era Flip. Made with ale, rum, and sugar, the drink was originally prepared by plunging a red hot metal poker into a tankard with all the ingredients. That’s a really fun way to do it — here’s a video of me demonstrating the method for Tales of the Cocktail — but you don’t need a poker and a blowtorch to enjoy a Flip. You can borrow a technique from the Spanish Coffee to get a similar caramelized sugar flavor. Read on at the Abrams site get all the details and some history of the drink.

Photo by David L. Reamer.
Photo by David L. Reamer.

And as a reminder, I’m giving away one copy of the book to a reader of this site. Just leave a comment on this recent post by midnight on Saturday to enter.

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Four days in Berlin

Back in October, I was invited to Bar Convent Berlin to give a presentation on beer cocktails. It’s a great convention, and I highly recommend going if you get the opportunity. It also gave me a chance to write a drinking guide to the city for Eater. There was no way to get to every bar I wanted, but I gave it my best shot! Thirteen of my favorites are mapped out here.

Wunderbar
Me IRL.

Unfortunately, a wave of fog left me stranded in Amsterdam for a day on the way there, cutting my trip a bit shorter than intended. (Being stuck in Amsterdam isn’t such a bad thing, but most of that time was spent at the airport trying to figure out when I’d be leaving. Thanks KLM!) That meant I didn’t get to do much in Berlin that didn’t involve drinks and didn’t get to any of the museums I wanted to visit. Nevertheless, there is more to life than bars, or so I’m told. Here are a few of the other places I enjoyed visiting and recommend if you’re in the city.

Atheist Shoes

AtheistYes, it’s a shoe store for atheists! Does the religious affiliation of one’s shoe store really matter? Not really, but I’d shop here regardless of the owners’ beliefs; the fact that some of their shoes come with “Ich bin atheist” etched into the soles is just a bonus. I picked up a pair of their blue “Das Petrol” boots and they’ve become one of my favorite pairs of shoes; I’m wearing them as I type this, in fact. The store is tucked into a courtyard but worth the effort of seeking out. They also ship to the US and occasionally do pop up shops here, so don’t let the lack of travel plans to Germany dissuade you shopping. Pet owners should also consider commissioning a pair of their “Walkies Forever” for when their furry friends pass on (offer valid only on the first of April).

Zeha

I was also coveting the retro athletic sneakers at Zeha, which has multiple locations around the city. They were a little outside this freelance writer’s budget for one trip, but I expect I’ll be taking advantage of their online store sometime soon as well.

Imbiss 204

ImbissThis cozy kitchen came highly recommended on the Berlin Food Stories weblog. It’s so good I went here twice, despite having such a short time in the city. It’s simple, well-executed German food, and it’s irresistibly good. Great meats, delicious sauces, and tremendous portions. Just go.

Le Boui Boui

Boui

I ended up here needing a bite to eat after a visit to Monterey Bar, a craft beer and rock-and-roll bar I recommend in my Eater guide. Delicious flammkuchen prepared on the spot in a tiny, charming space make the perfect post-drink snack, especially if you’ve already had your share of currywurst or doner kebab.

Dr. Kochan Schnapskultur

KochanAny time I travel abroad, I try to find a unique spirit or two to bring back home in my suitcase. This geeky liquor store was the perfect place to shop. It’s almost all unusual spirits; I think they carried just one brand of vodka. I left with an amazing Swiss single malt called Santis Edition Dreifaltigkeit, which is aged in oak beer casks and carries a tremendous, meaty smokiness. Had I the luggage space, I could have picked a lot more of interest here.

Cafe CK

This coffee shop is co-owned Cory Andreen, who I used to work with back in barista days in DC. I went to Portland, he went to Berlin. As much as I love Portland, I’m starting to think he made the better decision. He opened Cafe CK there a few years ago and has been elevating the local coffee scene (here’s an interview with him on the topic). He’s also become known for serving draft coffee on nitro. I’m normally a skeptic of cold coffee, but Cory’s is brewed hot and then rapidly cooled, which allows bright acidity to come through. His draft coffee stand at BCB fueled my time on the floor there, and Cafe CK was my regular stop post-convention.

Soul Objects

celebrity dressesThis is the kind of shop that would be very hard to open in the US, given our restrictive liquor licenses. It’s an eclectic shop with art, barware, home goods, personal grooming products, and a selection of very high quality spirits, including rums from Samaroli. I especially liked this collection of porcelain inspired by nautical tattoos, though with my limited luggage space, I only took home a couple of the shot glasses (pictured above with an appropriately nautical bottle of aquavit from my home bar).

Street Food Thursday at Markthalle Neun

Should you happen to be in Berlin on a Thursday night, head to this market hall for a massive selection of street food vendors. It’s packed with people, global food offerings, and plenty to drink.

Thai Park

I didn’t actually get to experience this one. I’d planned to make this my first stop when I landed, but my flight delays led to me missing it entirely. It’s a spontaneous gathering of Thai expats who cook in the park on Sundays when the weather is good, selling to anyone who comes by. I didn’t make it on this trip, but it’s number one on my list the next time I make it to Berlin.

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Make blogging great again

This site has been overdue for a design update — the last time I made significant changes was 2012 — and yesterday I took the plunge into doing a major overhaul. The old look was starting to feel a bit dated. And in one important aspect, it was very dated. It wasn’t mobile-friendly, with some of the elements being static and rigid. A lot of reading on the web has shifted to mobile devices, and last year Google started putting greater weight on mobile accessibility in its site rankings, so fixing those problems was vital for getting search traffic. The new design is flexible, minimalist, and should read easily on whatever device you’re using.

The last time I re-designed the site I celebrated with a book giveaway, and that seems like a tradition worth keeping, especially now that I have a book of my own on the market. I’ll send a signed copy of my collection of beer cocktail recipes, Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer, to one lucky commenter on this post. Just leave a comment here by midnight this Saturday, February 27th [date corrected], and I’ll randomly select one winner to receive the book. (One comment per person, obviously, and be sure to include your email address so I can contact you. It won’t be published.)

CocktailsOnTap

A few design notes: The last two times I redesigned the site (which has been running for thirteen years!), I had to use feature-loaded themes like Genesis and Thesis to get the flexibility I wanted. This time I tried out the free, default WordPress theme for 2016. Recent default themes have tended to place more emphasis on large photos or magazine-style layouts. This one feels a lot like a return to a classic blog format, with a simple header, a main column for content, and one sidebar. There’s plenty of room for photos, but I’m liking the way it handles text-heavy posts as well. And the minimal design — perhaps too minimal — transitions very easily to a mobile display. (This retrospective on default WordPress themes is interesting reading for blog nerds.)

Twenty Sixteen is by far the easiest out-of-the-box design I’ve done so far. I do wish it had a few more customization options, however. To get the site where I wanted it, a few tools came in handy:

1. This custom CSS tool makes it easy to tweak design elements like text size and color without having to make a child theme.

2. Finding the right CSS elements to modify can be tricky, but this post covered 90% of what I was looking for. Combine it with the tool above for easy editing.

3. This trick for creating a drop-down navigation menu cleaned up the masthead.

That covers most of the changes I needed to make. If you notice anything I missed, please let me know!

Update 2/29/16: And the winner is Tim T.! Thanks to everyone who commented.

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The blend that dare not speak its name

Today at Reason, I write about antiquated liquor laws that forbid producers from being completely honest with consumers:

Like many other whisky brands, Compass Box doesn’t distill their own spirits. They source whisky from other producers to create unique, proprietary blends. And like most companies making blended whisky, they tend to keep their precise recipes secret.

But for these two blends they took the unusual step of posting infographics on their website that provided detailed breakdowns of every component whisky, including the source distillery, tasting notes, the exact proportion each takes up in the blend, the type of cask used for ageing, and the length of time each whisky spent in barrel.

For the type of whisky drinker who’s willing to shell out three figures for an exclusive bottle, Compass Box’s complete transparency is a welcome departure from brands that obscure the provenance of their spirits with varying degrees of honesty. But at least one competitor viewed Compass Box’s openness as a violation of liquor marketing regulations. An anonymous distiller contacted the Scotch Whisky Association, a trade group for Scotch, who in turn informed Compass Box that its detailed disclosure was illegal.

The article covers not just whisky in the European Union, but also gin and aquavit in the United States. Read the whole thing.

I was also quoted in The Wall Street Journal this week in an article about reviving hot drinks made with beer. Readers interested in trying these drinks at home should pick up my book, which has an entire chapter dedicated to “hot helpers.”

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Benny and Hot

Benny and Hot

Unlike my East Coast friends, I’m not buried in snow at the moment. I do have a cold however, which has made this weekend the perfect time to try out one of the drinks that’s been on my list for a while. My friend Jacob Briars mentioned it on Twitter, noting that it comes from the Burnley Miner’s Club in northwest England. By some reports the club goes through more Benedictine than any other bar in the world, all because of this drink.

The cocktail couldn’t be simpler. It’s just Benedictine, hot water, and a slice of lemon. Traditional proportions are 1:1, but twice as much water seems to be a popular recommendation. It’s a great way to highlight Benedictine, an herbal liqueur that’s typically used as more of an accent in a cocktail. In this take on a Toddy it gets to play a more prominent role. The drink has won me over and is going into my rotation of winter favorites.

1 1/2 oz Benedictine
3 oz water just off the boil
lemon wheel, for garnish

Combine Benedictine and water in a heated mug, garnish with lemon, and serve.

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2015 blog in review

Cocktails on Tap blue 250

As in 2014, I spent little time blogging this year in favor of working on long-form writing projects and non-writing work. 2015 did see the publication of my first book though. Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer, debuted in March, with photography by David L. Reamer and an introduction by Stephen Beaumont. Reviews have been positive and it made the long list of nominations for a best book award at Tales of the Cocktail. If you’ve yet to pick up a copy, get on it.

I wrote a few pieces for other publications this year: On vape bans for The Oregonian, on beer cocktail bans for Reason, on drinking hot beer for The Atlantic, and on smoking bans, aquavit, and Berlin drinking destinations for Eater. I’ve been writing spirits reviews for Distiller. Here at the blog, I wrote a skeptical take on tobacco death tolls, explored why Georg Riedel would make a fine illusionist, explained the Affordable Care Act’s impact on infrequent smokers, and discussed dirty hands and raw meat. I’m also about 20,000 words into my next big publication, which I’ll hopefully have out in the year ahead.

Despite rarely updating the site, this turned out to be its busiest year of traffic ever, with 200,096 visits. That’s up from 64,993 visits last year. The bad news: More than 70% of this year’s page views came from my dumb stapler post from 2007, which has proven to be the gift that keeps on giving. That post received 50,000 visits on one December day alone thanks to a post on Reddit.

Top posts of 2015
1. The stapler’s secret
2. Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut arrack
3. MxMo Retro Redemption: Harvey Weissbanger
4. My coffee smells like tuna fish
5. Using a jigger? You’re doing it wrong
6. Mixing with the Mad Dog
7. How grilling meat really is like smoking a cigar
8. Defining “tobacco use” for cigar smokers
9. Camel crickets invade DC
10. How to get rid of camel crickets

Search traffic is too low to be of much interest anymore.

Top search referrals of 2015
1. weird fish
2. apple cider gastrique
3. arrack
4. coffee bitters
5. coconut arrack
6. how to get rid of sprickets
7. Jacob Grier
8. arrack Sri Lanka
9. cider gastrique
10. apple gastrique

The countries with the most visitors is not much changed, though Sri Lanka, India, and France fell out of the top ten.

Top visitor countries of 2015
1. United States
2. Canada
3. United Kingdom
4. Australia
5. Germany
6. Netherlands
7. Sweden
8. Singapore
9. Philippines
10. New Zealand

There are no surprises in the city list either.

Top visitor cities of 2015
1. New York
2. London
3. San Francisco
4. Los Angeles
5. Chicago
6. Toronto
7. Portland
8. Sydney
9. Houston
10. Seattle

Reddit and Buzzfeed dominated this year’s referrals.

Top non-search referrals of 2015
1. Reddit
2. Buzzfeed
3. Facebook
4. Twitter
5. Alcademics
6. Home Brew Talk
7. The French Exit
8. EcoSalon
9. Liqurious
10. Velvet Glove, Iron Fist

I don’t expect my output to increase here for at least the first half of 2016, so hopefully the stapler post will continue to excite the internet in the year ahead.

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End of year catching up: Books

If I was bad at keeping up with drink blogging this year, I was way worse with books. These have been piling up on my coffee table for a long time, some since 2014. In the interest of clearing that space, some recommendations…

Cuisine and Empire by Rachel Laudan — Laudan’s essay “A Plea for Culinary Modernism” received much deserved attention this year. That article, which came out in 2001, is a good introduction to this much longer work. It’s culinary history without the fuzzy-headed romance of so much contemporary food writing, and a useful corrective to the hostility to modern agricultural and processing techniques. Highly recommended. (And see also Maureen Ogle’s In Meat We Trust, which I reviewed here.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop by Radley Balko — I have no excuse for not having read this sooner, but this year finally brought overdue attention to unaccountable police violence. If you want to know how we got here, and how the War on Drugs in particular has led to the militarization of American police, Radley’s book is a must read.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker — Recommended for writers, especially if you feel in need of permission to break the rules handed down by purists. I also finally got around to Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, his massive book on the global decline in violence. It’s 700 pages on what would be a very dry topic in the hands of a lesser author, but I couldn’t put it down; I can’t give a better endorsement to his writing advice than that.

The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel — One of the most beautiful books I own, and one of the most enjoyable to read too; an enlightening history and exploration of glamour and how it creates desire, dissatisfaction, or the will to shape a better self. I especially liked the punctuating essays on various glamour icons such as the aviator, the superhero, or the striding woman.

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell — I’ll confess up front that I’ve never read Montaigne directly. But this intellectual history makes me want to read him, at least in parts. Its unique conceit of telling Montaigne’s life story via twenty answers to the question of how to live is apt and works surprisingly well.

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik — An unexpectedly fun book on materials science, covering everything from silica aerogels to chocolate.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber — When I went shopping for this book, I forgot the title but remembered that it had something to do with a guy stranded in space sending messages back home to Earth… and that’s how I ended up reading The Martian. A fine sci-fi book, but this is something more. There is space travel and aliens, but the heart of the story is the protagonist’s fraying relationship with his wife on Earth, with whom he can communicate only by e-mail. The pacing builds slowly, but the gradually unfolding mysteries of the book make it very hard to put down. Faber’s literary style is impressive too, constantly creating expectations and then defying them. The novel is difficult to classify, but it was my favorite fiction read of 2015.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters — Your standard detective story, except for one thing: The giant meteor poised to wipe out all of humanity in just a few months’ time. Winters’ tale is a trilogy, with each book set a little closer to the date of annihilation, with the world falling apart more in each one. It’s a great premise to explore, and the books deliver.

Honorable mentions: I enjoyed E. O. Wilson’s ambitiously titled The Meaning of Human Existence. I’ve always found macroeconomics more mysterious than micro; Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist Strikes Back was a fun primer. I’m glad I read Beauty is a Wound, but I didn’t love it. In comics, I’m missing Grant Morrison’s presence at DC, but Snyder and Capullo’s arc with Jim Gordon as Batman has been the surprise I don’t want to see come to an end.

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End of year catching up: Drinks

Working as a beer and spirits writer, I get to try a lot of cool drinks throughout the year. I don’t always get around to writing about them, either because of other work demands or the products just not fitting in to current projects. The bottles end up piling up on my desk waiting for me to make time for them (and making anyone who sees my work space assume I have a drinking problem). So at the end of the year, here are a few of the things I liked but haven’t had he chance to cover elsewhere.

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Schlafly Eleventh Labor — Living in Oregon, I don’t have much experience with St. Louis based Schlafly brewing. Eleventh Labor is an entry in their limited edition Ibex Series. This one’s a Berliner weisse flavored with apricots and aged for at least six months. I liked everything about this beer, from the striking packaging to the beer’s bracing acidity. I enjoyed it on Thanksgiving, where its brightness and low abv made it perfect for appetizers. The only catch is the price, which at $20 for a 750 ml is getting high for a Berliner weisse. That aside, it’s a great beer and bodes well for the increasing popularity of the style.

Tariquet XO and 1993 Vintage Armagnac — These were pitched to me for cigar pairing. Though I rarely turn down the opportunity to a light up a good cigar, I haven’t an opportunity to try these with a smoke yet. The XO, aged 12-15 years, is light and very oaky. The 1993, aged 17 years, is more full-bodied and carries more fruit notes, along with a higher proof. I enjoy them both, though I lean toward the latter. Come better weather I look forward to taking a glass outside to try them with a stogie.

Amaro Lucano — It’s possible that the day will come when I decide that there is enough amaro on the market, but I doubt it. I’m always excited to try ones that I haven’t had before. Amaro Lucano has been around since 1894, but it was new to me this year. Its recipe includes more than 30 herbs and spices, including wormwood, angelica, and gentian. It’s pleasingly bitter, but not so much so that it would scare off drinkers new to amaro. I’ve been enjoying it neat at home. I also came across it during Aquavit Week at Angel Face in Portland, where it was featured in their Tesoro Frio cocktail, made with Krogstad aquavit, Amaro Lucano, Dolin dry vermouth, and Real Tesoro PX sherry, which was very nice and rich.

Tanqueray Bloomsbury — The latest limited edition gin from Tanqueray, following Malacca and Old Tom, is Bloomsbury, based on an 1880s Tanqueray recipe. It’s strongly juniper forward, and at 47.3% abv it’s great for mixing. It’s been my go-to lately in Martinis. It’s reasonably priced and won’t be around forever, so gin lovers should definitely pick up a bottle.

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Two new cocktails for Aquavit Week

The fourth annual Aquavit Week celebration is now in full swing, which is the kind of thing I would have blogged about if keeping this blog updated in a timely manner was still a priority. The site is still good for posting cocktail recipes though, and I have two new aquavit drinks for you today. There’s also still time to catch Aquavit Week cocktails at more than forty bars and restaurants, and to attend our closing party in Portland at La Moule on Saturday night.

Ringlefinch

The first cocktail, which we’ll be serving at La Moule, is the Ringlefinch, a wintry sour that uses a new aquavit barrel aged tea from local teamaker Steven Smith. For this holiday release black tea was aged in a Krogstad aquavit barrel and flavored with mulling spices, cranberries, and roasted hazelnuts. The tea is wonderful on its own. For the cocktail, I’ve used it in a strong tea syrup. The drink is loosely inspired by Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Norwegian Wood, but taken in a citrusy direction.

1 1/4 oz Linie aquavit
3/4 oz calvados
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz aquavit barrel aged tea syrup
1/2 tsp Clear Creek Doug Fir eau de vie

Shake all ingredients and serve up in a chilled coupe.

This particular tea is only available in limited quantities, but other black teas made with mulling spices could also work. For the syrup:

4 tsp Steven Smith aquavit barrel aged mulled black tea
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

Bring the water just off the boil and steep the tea in it for about four minutes. Strain and combine with one cup sugar to make a syrup.

Nordic Holiday Punch

The next drink is a punch I created for Portland Monthly’s December magazine feature on Scandinavian cooking. It gets its festive color from hibiscus tea (Steven Smith once again makes a great choice here). For the aquavit, go with a crisp, unaged spirit. I’ve made this with both Brennivin from Iceland and Skadi from Montana with great results.

4 sachets hibiscus tea (or loose leaf equivalent)
4 cups water
3/4 cup honey
2 cups aquavit
1 cup Meyer lemon juice
2 cups sparkling wine, chilled
Meyer lemon wheels, for garnish

Bring the water just off a boil and steep the hibiscus tea in it for about five minutes. Remove the sachets (or strain if using loose leaf) and stir in the honey until dissolved. Allow the mixture to chill. Combine remaining ingredients in a punch bowl right before service, slip in a large ice block, and ladle into punch glasses.

Check the Portland Monthly feature for a much better photo and some great recipes to complete a Nordic menu.

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The case for home smoking bans, Voxsplained

This one headline perfectly encapsulates why Vox.com’s coverage of tobacco policy is terrible:

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That’s a lie, actually. Vox’s tobacco coverage is bad for more reasons than can be encapsulated in one headline, and it’s not really much better or worse than any other publication’s, but I’m trying to keep with the current form of writing on the internet. “Not that the old way was perfect,” writes my old school blog pal Jason Kuznicki, “but nobody fisks anymore, and for that we ought to be ashamed.” I agree. So how about some fisking? Perhaps my rank on Technorati will go up if you link to this.

Here’s Vox’s German Lopez writing on the Department of Housing Urban Development’s announcement that it will be banning smoking in all 1.2 million of the nation’s public housing units. “One major problem with this policy is it seems to single out low-income people,” writes Lopez, providing a glimmer of hope that he might think twice about intruding into 1.2 million homes of the less well off. “But there’s an easy solution to that: Indoor smoking should be banned everywhere — inside bars, restaurants, your home. Full stop.”

Never mind the casual authoritarianism behind the sentiment, or the constitutional issues it raises. (Has the Commerce Clause been interpreted so broadly as to allow this sort of thing? Eh, probably.) And never mind whether enforcing this particular ban by evicting some of the poorest members of society from their homes is a humane idea — Megan McArdle covered that here. Let’s just look at some numbers, the stock in trade of explanatory journalism. Lopez supports his advocacy for enforcing a smoking ban even in privately owned homes by noting the scope of the problem:

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data, smoking kills 480,000 people each year. Secondhand smoke alone kills nearly 42,000 people. To put that in perspective, that’s around 8,000 more people than die to either car crashes or gun violence.

The 480,000 deaths figure got picked up in just about every story about the smoking ban in federal housing, including additional Vox posts this weekend from Julia Belluz and Dylan Matthews, from whom I’d expect better. (Matthews also seems to wish that we could ban smoking in private homes, but regrets that people would “freak out” if we tried. Imagine!) Both the total number of deaths and the number attributable to secondhand smoke are dubious, however, and none of the writers appear to have put any effort into understanding where they come from.

Let’s take the total number first. As Belluz notes, the smoking rate in the United States has dropped from 21 percent of Americans in 2005 to 17 percent in 2014. The decline gets more significant the farther back you look. Yet the CDC’s estimates of mortality caused by smoking don’t seem to reflect this. The CDC currently tells the public that smoking kills 480,000 people per year. That’s nearly 40,000 more annual deaths than it attributed to smoking from 2000-2004, when it claimed that smoking killed 443,000 people. And that’s more than the 438,000 deaths per year the CDC assigned to smoking from 1997-2001.

It’s worth asking why smoking mortality seems be increasing even as smoking rates are doing down. This is partially due to population growth and demographic changes; mortality rates would be a far more useful metric for comparison over time. And since smoking is associated with chronic diseases, some lag in the figures is to be expected. But still, the 480,000 figure is controversial.

Unlike deaths due to car accidents and gun shots, which are discrete events that can be tallied, there’s no direct way to count deaths caused by smoking (or especially deaths caused by secondhand smoke). Death certificates don’t say things like, “Bob died from heart disease made marginally worse by his cigarette habit.” Instead, researchers compare the prevalence of causes of death that are associated with smoking to the rate of smoking among different age groups, attempt to account for other confounding factors, and give their best shot at an estimate of how many people who died would still be alive in a tobacco-free world. Exactly how the current guess of 480,000 deaths is arrived at isn’t really clear.

The CDC’s numbers have been criticized in academic journals. A 2007 paper by Brad Rodu and Philip Cole in Nicotine and Tobacco Research offers a different model, which Rodu summarized in an article for Cato’s Regulation that criticizes the lack of transparency in the CDC estimates. With the Rodu-Cole model, you see the good news you’d expect from fifty years of declining smoking rates: “The U.S. mortality rate attributable to smoking declined about 35% between 1987 and 2002.”

OK, that’s just one paper, and from a source you may consider less reliable than the CDC. But in 2012 the same journal published another paper by Brian Rostron, whose affiliation is with the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products. Rostron is also critical of the CDC’s methods, noting that they “have not been substantially revised since their introduction in the 1980s.” Rostron’s revised estimate for annual smoking-related deaths in 2004 is 380,000. The paper concludes, “we have estimated smoking-attributable mortality over time and found that the number of estimated deaths has peaked and finally begun to decline for both men and women in the United States.” If that’s correct, then we should have experienced a decade of declining deaths since 2004, and the CDC’s 480,000 figure is wildly off target.

[Update: German Lopez brings up a new paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, which suggests some excess mortality missed by earlier figures due to diseases that have not yet been definitively linked to smoking. Some of the relative risks are low, and there may be confounding variables, but the sample size is large. If those links bear out, then the sets of estimates above would be revised upward.]

That’s the total number of deaths attributable to smoking. How about the fraction attributed to secondhand smoke? If it’s difficult to figure out how many smokers are dying because of tobacco use every year, guessing how many people die from secondhand smoke is even more problematic. The CDC currently pegs the number at 41,000 deaths per year, of which a little over 7,000 are due to lung cancer and about 34,000 are due to heart disease.

Let’s tackle lung cancer first. If you want a rigorous, scientific indictment of secondhand smoke as a cause of lung cancer, you probably can’t do better than the 2006 report from The Surgeon General. The report concludes unequivocally that environmental tobacco smoke increases the risk of lung cancer in non-smokers. But by how much? This is expressed as a relative risk. A relative risk of 1 would indicate that people exposed to secondhand smoke are no more likely to develop lung cancer than those who are not exposed. (People who smoke habitually have a relative risk in the neighborhood of 16, which is huge.) What would you guess is the relative risk for non-smokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke over the long-term at their home or workplace?

If you guessed barely greater than 1, you’re correct. The report’s table of meta-analyses puts the relative risks of exposure at home for non-smoking spouses or at work for non-smoking employees in the range of 1.12 at the low end to 1.43 on the high end. That’s really low! Low enough to be sensitive to bias in how various studies are weighted, and low enough that it can’t be reliably detected in studies of secondhand smoke exposure. (One of the meta-analyses of childhood secondhand smoke exposure even suggests that children who are exposed to tobacco smoke are less likely to develop lung cancer. As they say on Twitter, “Whoa, if true!”)

How you interpret this ambiguity likely depends on your political priors. With that in mind it’s interesting to see the Journal of the National Cancer Institute publishing a headline like “No Clear Link Between Passive Smoking and Lung Cancer.” That’s a 2013 story about a cohort study of 76,000 women that “confirmed a strong association between cigarette smoking and lung cancer but found no link between the disease and secondhand smoke.” To go on:

The incidence of lung cancer was 13 times higher in current smokers and four times higher in former smokers than in never-smokers, and the relationship for both current and former smokers depended on level of exposure. However, among women who had never smoked, exposure to passive smoking overall, and to most categories of passive smoking, did not statistically significantly increase lung cancer risk. The only category of exposure that showed a trend toward increased risk was living in the same house with a smoker for 30 years or more. In that group, the hazard ratio for developing lung cancer was 1.61, but the confidence interval included 1.00, making the finding of only borderline statistical significance. […]

But many studies that showed the strongest links between secondhand smoke and lung cancer were case–control studies, which can suffer from recall bias: People who develop a disease that might be related to passive smoking are more likely to recall being exposed to passive smoking. […]

However, Silvestri finds some reassurance in the passive-smoking findings. “We can never predict who is going to develop lung cancer,” he said. “There are other modifiers. But you can say, with regard to passive smoke, it’s only the heaviest exposure that produces the risk. We kind of knew that before, but it’s a little stronger here.”

“We’ve gotten smoking out of bars and restaurants on the basis of the fact that you and I and other nonsmokers don’t want to die,” said Silvestri. “The reality is, we probably won’t.”

The study has not, to my knowledge, appeared in a journal, but if you’ve followed debates about secondhand smoke at all, then the candor in the commentary above is refreshing. The association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer has never been as scary as anti-smoking advocates make it out to be. Read Christopher Snowdon for a sense of the numbers; the ten studies with the largest sample sizes find risk ratios of 1.29, 1.11, .70, 1.03, 1.53, 1.10, .90, and .96. This is hardly the stuff of nightmares, and it’s difficult to imagine basing an accurate model of secondhand smoke mortality on such tiny risks.

How about deaths due to heart disease? Economist Kip Viscusi provides what I think is a fair summary in his 2002 book Smoke-Filled Rooms: “Despite the central role of lung cancer in the ETS [environmental tobacco smoke] debates, the heart disease linkage may be greater, and the risk levels much larger.” This accords with the CDC’s higher attribution of deaths due to heart disease than to lung cancer.

Studies on the short-term effect of smoking bans, however, are not encouraging. In the early 2000s, a wave of research conducted in small cities that had implemented smoking bans concluded that they could drastically reduce heart attacks. Skeptics criticized these studies for relying on data from small populations. Newer research confirms that they were right to be doubtful. The most notable example is a 2014 study of the state of Colorado in The American Journal of Medicine which was co-authored by researchers who had previously published papers showing that small towns in Colorado experienced declines in heart attacks after banning smoking. In their new research, they write:

Although local smoking ordinances in Colorado previously suggested a reduction in acute myocardial infarction hospitalizations, no significant impact of smoke-free legislation was demonstrated at the state level, even after accounting for preexisting ordinances.

Further:

These analyses support the hypothesis that small study populations may be more likely to find dramatic changes in acute myocardial infarction incidence, whereas increasing the study sample size attenuates the magnitude of the reduction. Also, review of the studies in aggregate reveals data asymmetry that suggests the potential for publication bias or heterogeneity not entirely explained by a random-effects meta-analysis. […] Overall, a review of published research shows that acute myocardial infarction RR reduction appears inversely related to sample size. […]

Available evidence suggests that acute myocardial infarction incidence has been decreasing dramatically, unrelated to smoke-free ordinances. […] This emerging evidence highlights the importance of accounting for secular trends in acute myocardial infarction incidence before definitive attribution to smoke-free ordinances can be made. […]

Overall, available evidence suggests that the decrease in acute myocardial infarction incidence associated with reductions in secondhand smoke exposure may be substantially lower than originally estimated.

The decline in hospitalizations due to heart attacks is an important factor to consider. From the same paper:

Data from the Centers for Disease Control National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network recently evaluated secular trends in 20 Network states from 2000 to 2008 using a longitudinal linear mixed effects model. The authors documented a statistically significant overall decrease in age-adjusted acute myocardial infarction hospitalization rates, with most states showing more than a 20% decline during the period. This temporal reduction in acute myocardial infarction incidence is of a magnitude that exceeds the reduction observed in many smoking ordinance studies. Despite this, some analyses have not accounted for secular trends.

This reduction in heart attacks doesn’t get much attention, but it comes up in Rostrom’s paper as well: “Deaths from ischemic heart disease for persons aged 65 and over decreased from 201,000 in 2000 to 158,000 in 2007 for U.S. men, and from 233,000 in 2000 to 170,000 in 2007 for U.S. women.”

And you see similar downward trends in the UK. A study of Scotland from 2002-2010 found that deaths from heart disease declined by 43%. Nearly half of this decline was credited to improved treatment. Changes in the rate of smoking were credited for only 4% of the decline. One has to wonder: Given all the advances of the past decade or so, why is the CDC’s estimate of secondhand hand smoke deaths caused by heart disease still so high?

The decline in heart attacks and deaths due to heart disease has occurred over a similar time period as the spread of smoking bans. The best source for information on the adoption of smoking bans in the United States is Americans for Nonsmokers Rights, who maintains a database of smoking restrictions. According to their tracking, the number of jurisdictions in the United States with 100% smokefree laws in all workplaces, restaurants, and bars has increased from two in 1993 to 790 in October 2015. Estimates of the number of deaths caused by secondhand smoke, however, have been strangely consistent. The current estimate from the CDC is 41,000. That’s a little less than the 2006 Surgeon General’s report estimate of nearly 50,000. And if you go back to 1990, you can learn from The New York Times that:

The newer understanding of the health hazards of passive smoking were underscored in a report at a world conference on lung health in Boston last week. Dr. Stanton A. Glantz of the University of California at San Francisco estimated that passive smoke killed 50,000 Americans a year, two-thirds of whom died of heart disease.

Sound familiar? It’s almost as if the claim that secondhand smoke kills around 50,000 Americans per year is based on its political utility rather than any firm grounding in epidemiology.

To review: In the past two decades, the rate of smoking has substantially declined. Treatment and prevention of heart disease, which allegedly causes the vast majority of deaths associated with secondhand smoke, has improved dramatically. Doubts about the magnitude of the association between secondhand smoke and both lung cancer and heart attack incidence have spread to mainstream academic journals. And exposure to secondhand smoke has been greatly reduced thanks to declining smoking rates, the proliferation of smoking bans, and changing social norms. Yet the number of Americans dying from secondhand smoke exposure has, supposedly, barely nudged downward over twenty-five years. These facts don’t hang together.

So how many deaths does secondhand smoke cause per year? I’ve been writing about tobacco policy intermittently for nearly a decade and in-depth for the past year, and I’m reluctant to commit to a number. I can tell you that I’m extremely skeptical of the CDC’s figure of 41,000, and I think that any responsible journalist ought to be skeptical too.

This brings up problems with contemporary reporting on tobacco policy and with explanatory journalism in general. In the old days of tobacco reporting, a policy announcement such as the ban on smoking in public housing would have gotten just as much coverage as it did this week. But reporters covering it might have also sought comment from pro-smoking sources. A lot of what those sources said would have been total spin and bullshit of the sort satirized in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, but some of what they said might have been valid criticism that pointed writers to legitimate weaknesses in their stories. That dynamic has been much reduced since the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 that dismantled pro-tobacco organizations.

A couple years ago I interviewed Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University School of Health who formerly worked for the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health, and he was blunt about the deterioration of scientific integrity in the anti-smoking movement. Siegel is generally in favor of indoor smoking bans, but has become a vocal critic of how anti-tobacco groups’ exaggerate the dangers of secondhand smoke. He blames this in part on the loss of an adversarial process:

The current state of tobacco control I would describe, quite sadly, as misguided. It is now guided more by ideology and politics than by science. Ironically, I think one of the reasons it has lost its way is that some time around 2000 or so, the tobacco industry relinquished its watchdog role. Organizations in tobacco control used to be very careful because they knew the tobacco industry was watching and would call them on it if they exaggerated or distorted the truth. But after around 2000, the tobacco companies stopped playing this role and basically allow the tobacco control groups to say anything they want.

Good journalism is more than regurgitating a scary-sounding number from an authoritative source. It’s understanding the motivation and reliability of your sources, and seeking out potential opposition to see if there’s a counterargument that they failed to mention. Reporters know to be skeptical of tobacco companies. They haven’t learned to be skeptical of anti-smoking sources, and given the changes in the regulatory landscape of tobacco it’s long past time that they do. It’s the only way to avoid uncritically reporting that a smoking ban can decrease heart attacks by 60% in just six months, or that smokers are “contaminated” and “actually emit toxins,” or that people who use e-cigarettes are “inhaling Chinese-made antifreeze,” or that 41,000 Americans are dying from secondhand smoke exposure in 2015.

The past few days of coverage at Vox, with three different writers repeating the same dubious statistic and none of them investigating it, doesn’t raise my confidence in their model of explanatory journalism. This is explanation divorced from skepticism. The current media environment makes it easy to find numbers to support one’s political view with just a few minutes of Googling, appearing to write from a perspective of data-driven empiricism, and harvesting those all-important clicks. (Is Vox’s “The case for banning smoking indoors — even in your home” any less dumb than Slate’s recent piece arguing that spooning is sexist?) But when those numbers are taken at face value and without context, the writers are just one bad statistic away from calling in the cops to search for ash trays on your kitchen counter.

I like Vox. I really do, even if I find myself turning more often to their entertainment writing than their policy pieces. I view the site as a generally useful source of information about complex topics that it’s difficult for any one person to know in detail. Yet occasionally the site covers a topic that I do know in detail. And when it does, I have to wonder how much of their other coverage is equally superficial and credulous.

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Mixology Monday: Cocktail Chronicles

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It’s not unusual for a new cocktail book to come out. These days, it’s not even unusual for a very good cocktail book to be published. But a new book that I’ll not only use regularly in my own home, but also unhesitatingly recommend to friends who don’t make their living in the drinks industry? That’s a rarity. Paul Clarke’s newly released The Cocktail Chronicles is that book.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you might remember Paul from Mixology Monday, the monthly “cocktail party” he initiated years ago to inspire creativity and exploration within the community of cocktail bloggers. Paul was one of the first to make a go of cocktail blogging, launching The Cocktail Chronicles blog in 2005. (My own site launched in 2003 — take that, Paul! — but he beat me to blogging about mixing drinks.) The cocktail world was a much smaller place back then, and a lot of the writers in it were brought together by these monthly blog round ups. (Looking back, some of the drinks from those days should stay in the past. I believe my first MxMo contribution was a combination of Scotch, amaretto, and cigar-infused whipped cream, which I don’t think I’ll be reviving any time soon.)

As Paul notes in his new book, few of those early blogs rarely, if ever, update anymore, though some of the writers have moved on to bigger things. Blogging itself has declined in importance. Or depending on how you look at it, blogging is more important than ever, having infused itself into mainstream journalism and popular social media. We’re all bloggers now. But at a minimum, blogging has lost its cachet as a distinct medium and the esprit de corps that united the people that wrote in it.

The publication of The Cocktail Chronicles seems like an apt occasion to revisit some of the traditions of the early days of cocktail blogging. I’m going to indulge in three of them: Participating in Mixology Monday, getting excited about a new spirit, and writing very much past deadline.

This month’s Mixology Monday (which was actually last Monday), is hosted by current MxMo chairman Fred Yarm. For the momentous occasion of MxMo C, the 100th edition, the theme is “Cocktail Chronicles, a fitting tribute to the guy who started it all:

But what does Mixology Monday “Cocktail Chronicles” mean? I figured that we should look to Paul’s magnum opus and digest the theme of it all — what is timeless (or potentially timeless) and elegant in its simplicity. Paul commented in his interview, “[it]’s wonderful to see that level of creativity but simplicity is going to be the glue that continues to hold interest in the cocktail together. The moment that we make cocktails too difficult or too inaccessible to the average guest, the average consumer, then we start losing people.” Paul does support a minor tweak of a major classic as well as dusting off a lesser known vintage recipe like the Creole Contentment; in addition, proto-classics like the Chartreuse Swizzle and the Penicillin intrigue him for their potential to be remembered twenty years from now. Moreover, he is a big fan of the story when there is one whether about a somewhat novel ingredient like a quinquina, the bartender making it, or the history behind a cocktail or the bar from which it originated. Indeed, I quoted Paul as saying, “If I write about these and manage to make them boring, then I have done an incredible disservice. So I feel an incredible obligation not only to the drinks themselves, but to the bartenders who created them, and also to the heritage of cocktail writing to try to elevate it.”

There’s a lot to like in Paul’s new book, but what stands out the most is how accessible it is. I enjoy reading a lot of the recent cocktail books, but they’re often not the sort that I can casually flip through to find a new drink to make. The Cocktail Chronicles features more than 200 recipes. While they’re not basic, they use bottles of spirits and bitters that any enthusiastic cocktail drinker is likely to have on hand or be able to easily acquire. They rarely call for much homemade preparation, esoteric liqueurs, or overly specific identification of brands. It’s the kind of book that works as both a guide to standards of the modern cocktail renaissance and as a jumping off point for discovering overlooked drinks.

Skipping through the book, one of these for me was the Savoy Tango. I was recently sent a new bottle of sloe gin from Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol, California. (Sample bottles seemed to show up with more frequency in the golden age of blogging.) When I started writing about cocktails, good sloe gin made with real sloe berries was impossible to find. Cocktail bloggers would have been ecstatic to try it. Just a few years later, we enjoy an embarrassment of riches when it comes to well-made spirits. This is a really nice sloe gin, with a bright fruit and acidity, and I wanted to find a new cocktail in which to take it for a spin. Thankfully The Cocktail Chronicles features two sloe gin cocktails, neither of which I’d encountered before. The Savoy Tango, from the Savoy Cocktail Book, particularly caught my eye:

1 1/2 oz sloe gin (Spirit Works)
1 1/2 oz applejack (Clear Creek apple brandy)

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

With just two ingredients and no garnish, this sure doesn’t sound like much. But it’s a surprisingly good drink, the kind one could easily pass over unless a trusted guide recommended it. That’s exactly the sort of cocktail one finds in Paul’s book, which is full of these accessible and delicious recipes. The book doesn’t get too deep into history, technique, or rare ingredients, but it’s perfect for finding easy-to-make drinks that stand the test of time, along with just enough background and instruction to introduce them. For readers looking for one book to guide them through the new standards of the cocktail renaissance, The Cocktail Chronicles is the one I’d recommend. Cheers, Paul.

(And thanks also to Fred for hosting and keeping Mixology Monday alive. I’ll try to be on deadline next time around.)

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