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.”

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

Share

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.

7056d5e1-03c9-4dcc-9885-Ibex

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.

Share

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.

Share

The case for home smoking bans, Voxsplained

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

Screenshot_2015-11-16-10-48-24

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.

Share

Mixology Monday: Cocktail Chronicles

IMG_20150831_173506

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.)

Share

Red Bull and Hennessy

IMG_20150819_174150

Inspiration for cocktails can come from strange places. This week it came from Jenny Lewis’ fantastic concert at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom, where she played a new song with the title “Red Bull and Hennessy.” Not a good cocktail, she noted. “Don’t drink that.” But she also threw down a challenge. This being Portland, there had to be a fancy mixologist in the house who could make Hennessy and Red Bull taste good. The friend I was with insisted — demanded! — that I take a shot at making this happen.

I didn’t have either one of these ingredients on hand, but after a quick stop at 7-Eleven and the dodgy neighborhood liquor store, I was in business. Before this I had only a vague idea of what Red Bull tasted like. It was actually better than I remembered, with some pleasantly fruity notes, bright citric acidity, and a touch of carbonation. Yeah, I could work with this!

The drink formats that came to mind were either a Paloma or a tropical swizzle. I ended up sort of combining the two, incorporating a little Combier pink grapefruit liqueur and serving over crushed ice. (Crushing the ice required the use, fittingly, of a Lewis bag.) Try this for a fancy Red Bull and Hennessy:

1 1/2 oz Hennessy VS
1 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz Combier pamplemousse rose
2 oz Red Bull
Angostura bitters
mint, for garnish

Fill a tall, chilled glass with crushed ice. Add the Hennessy, lime, pamplemousse, and Red Bull, and swizzle to combine. Garnish with mint sprigs and float Angostura bitters on top.

Cocktails made with energy drinks aren’t in my usual repertoire, but this was surprisingly good, proving that sometimes it pays to be more adventurous.

Share

Brookstone (Maple Daiquiri)

Maple Daiquiri

I usually ignore the endless number of marketing holidays that exist only to give PR people a hook for their press releases, but I’ll make an exception this morning for National Rum Day. That’s partially because I work in the rum business with El Dorado, partially because I’ve had this photo and recipe sitting in my post queue for months.

This is a cocktail I created a few years ago as part of a consulting gig for the Perfect Drink app. A few months before meeting the entrepreneurs behind the app I’d written an April Fool’s post about why bartenders should start weighing their drinks by the gram instead of relying on jiggers. Soon after I was recruited to work on a project to do exactly that. I was skeptical at first, but I was won over to how such a device could be useful in the right environment (home entertaining, for example).

The first retailer for the device was Brookstone, so we wanted to have a namesake cocktail for them. The company is based in Vermont, which suggested maple syrup as an ingredient. Hence this maple Daiquiri, a dark, rich take on the drink:

2 oz aged rum (El Dorado 8)
1 oz fresh lime juice
1/2 oz real maple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lime wedge if desired.

Share

Riedel, magic, and the Streisand effect

IMG_20150723_220547

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend a wine tasting led by Georg Riedel, current head of the famous glassware company. The tasting wasn’t about the wine itself. It was about the glassware it’s served in. Riedel markets an extensive line of glasses designed for specific varietals of wine that goes well beyond separate glasses for red and white: One glass for cabernet and merlot, another for oaked chardonnay, still another for syrah, etc. If you believe Riedel’s pitch, having the right glass for each varietal enhances the experience of drinking it, optimizing aromas and balancing tannins. If you’re a skeptic, you probably think this is a clever ploy to sell people more glassware than they really need.

My own experiences put me somewhere in the middle. When I turned twenty-one, my aunt sent me a basic set of Riedel glassware as a birthday present. They’re lovely, and twelve years later I’ve only shattered one of them. I’ve never laid out the cash for a broader line of varietal specific versions for home use. Though open to the idea that the glass shape matters, at least within some parameters, I’ve never felt that my wine drinking at home suffered in any way from an inadequate selection of stemware.

More recently, when I worked in what was Portland’s best wine bar, we served nearly everything in various glasses produced by Riedel. We even had two separate glasses for the same grape, pinot noir, depending on whether it was new world or old world pinot. This was arguably veering into affectation, but it’s the kind of thing you do when you run a wine destination. The varietal-specific glassware signals that a place puts thought into its service, just as a square white ceramic plate signals a different approach to food than a styrofoam tray. The aesthetic aspects of dining are important, and as long as one keeps a clear idea of what is truly functional, it’s fine to indulge in these details.

Going into the tasting a few weeks ago, that was pretty much my attitude toward Riedel glassware. The glasses are elegant, and I’m happy to use them, but getting deep into varietal-specific ranges struck me more as signalling extravagance than as a necessity for enjoying wine. But I also have a relatively undeveloped wine palate, so I was open to being convinced.

Arriving at the tasting, we were seated in two groups. On one side of the room were press and trade, and on the other were consumers. In front of us were five empty Riedel glasses, three plastic cups of wine, one empty plastic cup, and four squares of chocolate. (Disclosure: We were allowed the keep the Riedel glasses.) Over the next hour or so, Georg Riedel led us through a highly structured tasting featuring various wines, mineral water, and even Coca-Cola from his line of glassware, punctuated by chocolate pairings.

What did I think of the tasting? Before we get to that, why I am writing about in the first place? I posted very briefly about it on Facebook and Instagram, but hadn’t intended writing anything beyond that. The event was brought back to my attention this weekend because another wine blogger, Ron Washam, a.k.a. the Hosemaster of Wine, recently posted a biting, satirical, imaginary interview with Georg Riedel. The Riedel company responded with a cease-and-desist letter accusing Washam of defamation and threatening legal action if the post was not removed. Though Washam lives in California, the post was published on a site based in the UK, where there is less robust legal protection for satire.

Having just been through one of Riedel’s tastings, I thought the opening of the fictional interview was pretty funny:

“Riedel me this,” Georg said. “What’s the difference between drinking from my specially designed Sangiovese glass, and drinking your Chianti Classico from an ordinary wine glass?”

Silence.

“When you drink from my Sangiovese glass, your lipstick leaves a mark — on my ass!”

Other parts of the piece struck me as needlessly mean-spirited. Regardless, I’m sure I never would have seen it if not for Riedel’s cease-and-desist. Their law firm should have been aware of the Streisand effect, “the phenomenon whereby an attempt to hide, remove, or censor a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.” I suspect Washam’s post would have gone mostly unnoticed if Riedel had ignored it or simply requested that the site clearly mark it as satire; instead, the post has been widely linked and discussed in the wine media, with most writers predictably siding against Riedel’s heavy-handed tactics. The dispute has now been resolved amicably enough, with the site posting a disclaimer that the piece is satirical and Georg Riedel affirming his commitment to free speech.

I wouldn’t be writing about the issue, except that one paragraph of Washam’s fictional depiction of Riedel so closely mirrored my thoughts from the tasting:

In the beginning, Georg preached that his wine glasses, designed specifically for Bordeaux, or Burgundy, were designed to funnel the wine to the proper areas of the tongue to maximize the pleasure of drinking your First Growth or Grand Cru. It was misdirection. Magical thinking. But in a controlled situation, with Georg holding court, he could convince anyone that his wine glass was superior to any other for a particular wine variety. Much as an illusionist can convince you he can restore a bank note with your signature on it after he’s torn it into pieces. It’s sleight of hand, of course. Georg is the master of sleight of tongue. And it’s the reason his company is the legerdemain source for handblown, and overblown, glassware.

I don’t know much about wine, but I do know a bit about magic. I took it up as a hobby in middle school, continued through college, and now practice the art as an occasional street performer (as one does as a resident of Portland, Oregon). I have a couple yards of shelf space devoted to magic books and DVDs, crates of props stowed around my apartment, and have seen some of the best magicians in the world perform or lecture on their methods. Watching Georg Riedel conduct his tasting a few weeks ago, the thought I kept coming back to was that Georg cut the perfect figure of a Golden Age magician, an impeccably dressed and charming gentleman from Europe authoritatively leading his audience through an exhibition of wonders. As I followed along, pouring wines from glass to glass, I found myself thinking that some of the techniques employed by good magicians were at work in his presentation too. Riedel was expertly setting the audience’s conditions of perception.

Being good at this is essential to presenting magic well. For an audience to experience the full impact of a magic trick, the magician has to ensure that the audience is aware of the conditions that make the climax impossible. For example, let’s say a magician presents an effect in which a deck of cards is thoroughly shuffled and then magically restored to perfect order. For the conclusion to be magical, the audience must first be aware and convinced that the deck was shuffled. If the performer casually shuffles when the audience is focused on something else, or shuffles unconvincingly, they may not believe that the deck was ever shuffled to begin with. The trick fails because the conditions for appreciating the ending were never established.

When I used to do regular coffee cuppings, we tasted in silence and wrote our notes down for comparison later. That’s because we knew that if one us said we tasted a note of, say, blueberries, we’d all be primed to pick out that same characteristic. Independent tasting requires being free of that influence.

At the tasting, Riedel was happy to suggest what he wants the audience to taste or smell — fewer tannins, more pronounced fruit, whatever –often telling them what aromas or flavors they will taste before or as they’re tasting them. This creates expectations, establishing favorable conditions for what he hopes they will perceive.

Riedel is also very skilled at managing his audience. The tasting we did was complicated, with lots of liquids being poured into lots of glasses, and bites of chocolate in between. Getting an entire room of people, most of them under the influence of alcohol, to follow along is no small feat. As a magician, I know how hard it can be to direct volunteers so that they don’t grab a prop at the wrong time or spoil a climax prematurely. Georg Riedel is a master of audience direction, and during the tasting I remember thinking that aspiring magicians could learn a lot from watching him in action.

Finally, there’s the art of the miss. The purpose of Riedel’s presentation, obviously, is to convince the audience that they should buy Riedel’s varietal-specific glassware. To this end, the tasting is aimed at persuading guests that pinot tastes best in the pinot glass, cabernet in the cabernet glass, etc. There is one moment of self-effacement, however. For one of the wines, he has the audience compare the aroma when served in the wrong Riedel glass to its aroma in a disposable plastic cup. The cheap cup, he says, is better than the expensive Riedel glass. This shows that he’s not merely pushing his own glassware, that sometimes a plastic cup can be better than a fine crystal stem. (The properly selected Riedel glass, of course, turns out to be best of all.)

Magicians sometimes incorporate a similar strategy, especially when performing routines involving mentalism or mind reading. If a performer breezily recites whatever it is an audience member is thinking of, the effect can appear too perfect and suggestive of artifice. But if the mentalist struggles and occasionally gets things wrong, the performance looks more like “real” mind reading. Riedel’s carefully placed miss plays the same role, ultimately making the argument that one needs varietal-specific glassware more persuasive.

None of this is meant to disparage Riedel’s glassware or Riedel himself. Rather it’s intended to shed some light on the ways his presentation is structured to lead the audience where he wants them to go and taste the things he wants them to taste, from the perspective of someone who has some experience managing perceptions in a different field. Judging by the reactions of the audience, this is a skill he has finely honed. A woman seated one row behind me responded with increasingly vocal astonishment as the tasting proceeded — the kind of spectator every magician desires in a crowd!

When you’re led through a carefully designed tasting such as this, it’s hard not to be influenced. I was seated next to the wine buyer from a successful restaurant, and we did our best to taste independently. For some wine and glass combinations I perceived what Riedel suggested I would, for others I tasted the opposite, and for several I struggled to note any differences between the glassware at all. We both estimated that Riedel’s tasting notes matched our own with perhaps a 50% hit rate, even with his guidance.

The most interesting aspect of the tasting by far was the opening sequence drinking cold water, not wine, from each of the stems. This focused attention to where different glass shapes caused the water to land in the mouth, which is not something I had ever thought about. Unfortunately, Riedel tied this loosely to the old idea that different parts of the tongue are attuned to different elements of taste. The old “tongue map” idea is at best a drastic oversimplification and I was surprised and disappointed to see a professional taster making uncritical reference to it in 2015. Much of the audience had probably learned about it in school, however, and to them it likely added a veneer of science to the tasting.

Is varietal specific glassware necessary? I left the event not really more convinced than I was going in. I don’t have a particularly well developed palate for wine, and this tasting was designed to lead to a pre-ordained conclusion. I’d like to repeat it sometime in conditions more favorable to blind, independent tasting.

I don’t doubt that glass shape matters on some level, but how precisely this can be determined for different varietals or how many different glasses could plausibly be useful is a question I leave to the wine pros. At home I’m content with my own hodgepodge of mismatched glassware. At the end of the tasting, all I can say for sure is that Riedel makes some very nice glassware that I’m happy to use, and that if the crystal business ever dries up, Georg could likely succeed in a second career as a professional illusionist.

Share

Berliner weisse beer cocktails

Berliner weisse mit schuss. (Photo by David L. Reamer from Cocktails on Tap.)
Berliner weisse mit schuss. (Photo by David L. Reamer from Cocktails on Tap.)

The first half of my book on beer cocktails features on vintage recipes, drinks created before the modern rebirth of cocktail culture. My book proposal tilted much more heavily toward contemporary cocktails, but as I researched older sources, it became clear that beer’s use in mixed drinks had a richer history than I’d imagined. Most of these come from English and American sources, no doubt in part because those are the sources I’m able to read.

I did try to find drinks from other countries though. A couple from Germany made the cut. Despite the Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity law, Germans aren’t too averse to corrupting their beers with spirits, juices, and syrups. The most widely known German mixed beer drink is the Radler, combining beer and citrus, and currently enjoying popularity in America in various pre-mixed forms (with varying levels of success).

Somewhat lesser known is the tradition of mixing with Berliner weisse, the lightly tart wheat beer originating in Berlin. Up until a few years ago, the style was nearly extinct. It too has enjoyed a revival, both in Germany and in the US. (Read Evan Rail for a closer look at its history.)

Good Berliner weisse is delicious on its own, but it’s often served with additions of spirits or syrups to sweeten it. To enjoy the beer mit schuss, add himbeer (raspberry) or waldmeister (woodruff) syrup. For a stiffer drink, have it mit strippe, with a shot of korn or kummel.

This Friday we’ll be serving both of these variants at the excellent Portland German beer bar Stammtisch. We’ll have Professor Fritz Briem 1809 Berliner Weisse on draft, with options for mit schuss with the locally made B. G. Reynolds’ woodruff syrup and mit strippe with the excellent Combier kummel. I’ll also be there selling and signing copies of my book, Cocktails on Tap, which features the drinks. If you’re in Portland, join us from 5-8. Not in Portland? You can buy my book and a commercial version of woodruff syrup online.

Event details: 5-8 pm, Friday, July 31 at Stammtisch, 401 NE 28th Ave.

Share

Smokers and health insurance: good and bad news

Looking through my web stats the other day, I noticed that some of the common searches bringing readers to my site relate to smoking and health insurance. Cigar smokers in particular seem to be interested in this. And for good reason: The Affordable Care Act generally requires health insurers to treat applicants equally, but it makes an exception for smokers. Premiums for smokers are allowed to rise up to 50% higher than for comparable non-smokers.

I haven’t written about this topic since early 2013, but a recent post at the Cato Institute blog caught my attention. Aaron Yelowitz gathered data on premiums across states and concludes that much of the additional cost charged to smokers does not reflect actual risk, and that the additional premiums paid by smokers vary widely from state to state. In states with a large surcharge for smokers, such as Wyoming, this represents a substantial hidden tax on smoking:

Let’s consider a 27-year-old who doesn’t receive subsidies but is mandated to purchase health insurance. If a non-smoker lived in Cheyenne, WY, he or she could purchase Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wyoming – BlueSelect Silver ValueTwo Plus Dental plan for $334 per month. This plan has a $3,000 deductible and an out-of-pocket maximum of $6,600. If the 27-year-old smoked, the same plan would be $417 per month, or 24.9% higher. For a pack-a-day smoker, this represents a $2.72 per-pack increase in expenditure due to Obamacare.

For cigarette smokers, who tend to have lower incomes, that’s enough to threaten the affordability of health insurance. Interestingly, tobacco companies and many anti-smoking groups joined in opposing this aspect of the law for that reason.

That hidden tax is the bad news for cigarette smokers. But what about cigar smokers, or anyone who smokes only on occasion? When I wrote about this in early 2013, Health and Human Services had not yet settled upon a definition for who counts as a smoker for health insurance purposes. Most of the proposals for defining this status, including those from anti-smoking groups, asked only when a person last used to tobacco. One proposal asked only “Have you used tobacco in the last twelve months?” and “Are you currently using tobacco products?” As I noted at the time, this ignored frequency of use and was potentially very problematic:

A casual cigar smoker would have to answer yes to both questions posed by America’s Health Insurance Plans. Twelve months is a long time! Should someone who enjoys an occasional cigar have to pay 50% (or more) higher on their insurance premiums, the same penalty faced by pack-a-day smokers?

A sensible definition would address not only recency of tobacco use, but also frequency within that time period (and possibly the form of tobacco used).

Using the Wyoming example above, under this definition the annual hidden tax on a resident who smoked just one cigar per year would be nearly $1,000! Such an enormous penalty would clearly exceed any plausible estimate of risk.

Now for the good news. The final definition of who counts as a smoker (for plans that qualify under ACA) does take frequency of smoking into account. From the Federal Register:

In this final rule, we establish a definition of “tobacco use” that is based on the National Health Interview Survey, while setting forth the meaning of “some days” to ensure clarity for issuers and consumers. Specifically, for purposes of this final rule, we define “tobacco use” as use of tobacco on average of four or more times per week within no longer than the past six months

That’s great news for people who enjoy only an occasional cigar, who won’t have to face exorbitant penalties for low-risk behavior.

(This rule was published more than two years ago, by the way. I just now followed up on it, which says a lot about my commitment to blogging as a medium these days. But given that people find my site searching for this topic, it seemed worthy of a belated update.)

Share

Los Angeles book events

I’m headed to Los Angeles this afternoon for three straight days of book events promoting Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer. If you’re in the city, you’re welcome to join for any of the following…

Friday, June 19 — I’m flying into Long Beach and will immediately upon landing head over to 320 Main in Seal Beach, home to book contributor Jason Schiffer. They’ll be featuring a selection of beer cocktails from the book all evening.

Saturday, June 20 — At 4:10 pm I’ll be joining the beer cocktail panel hosted by book contributor Karen Grill at the LA Beer Week Kickoff Festival. I’ll also be wandering the grounds before then, testing out just how much beer I can sample while remaining in suitable condition for public speaking.

Sunday, June 21 — At 5:00 pm I’ll be back with Karen for the Cocktails on Tap LA release party at Sassafrass Saloon. We’ll have even more beer cocktails on offer, and Karen and I will venture behind the bar a bit to make some drinks ourselves.

I’m packing a handful of books to sell on Friday and Sunday and would love to return home with a much lighter suitcase, so if you haven’t yet picked up a copy, this is your chance!

Share

Cocktails on Tap comes to DC

Cocktails on Tap blue 250

I’ll be making the first East Coast stop on my book tour this weekend, returning to my old home of Washington, DC. Join me at Upshur Street Books and Petworth Citizen this Sunday evening for a reading and drinks from Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer. We’ll have the book for sale and some tasty beer cocktails on offer. (7:00 pm, Sunday, May 17, 827 Upshur Street, Washington, DC.)

Klink

Can’t make the event? We’re also teaming up with Klink, the innovative new alcohol delivery service, to bring a book and cocktail package right to your door. We’ll have a limited number of gift sets that include the book and everything you need to make the Harvey Weissbanger, a contemporary take on the Wallbanger made with Galliano, fresh orange juice, and wheat beer. Read about Klink here, and visit the website or download the app to start shopping.

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

Praise for Cocktails on Tap:

“Jacob Grier was at the forefront of the beer cocktail renaissance before many of us had ever contemplated the idea of a beer cocktail. His vast knowledge of beer and passionate dedication to this area of mixology is certain to push the craft of cocktails forward in a positive new direction.”
–Jeffrey Morgenthaler, author of The Bar Book

“Jacob Grier is a masterful guide through the wickedly creative terrain of beer cocktails, offering not just delightful recipes, but history and cultural commentary, too. Connoisseurs and neophytes alike will find much to savor, and the latter will appreciate Jacob’s tutelage in cocktail basics. Grab a copy and start mixing!”
— Maureen Ogle, author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

“As affable and inquisitive as its creator, the book ping-pongs from arcane, centuries-old recipes like eggnoggy curdled-cream-and-ale possets to contemporary beer cocktails gathered from bar pros around the country. A Breakside Brewery IPA, for instance, lends froth and bitter tang to a tiki classic or cuts the cachaça sweetness of a Brazilian “Caip-beer-ihna,” while Mexican lager branches out from the michelada to mingle with serrano-infused mescal and pineapple shrub. The takeaway is clear: it’s time to liberate beer from its bottle.”
— Kelly Clarke, Portland Monthly

Share

Beer cocktails finally legal in Virginia

My former home of Virginia is known for its archaic, overly strict alcohol laws, but there is some good news from the Old Dominion: Beer cocktails are finally legal. Well, some of them anyway:

Virginia law allows restaurants to mix spirits with beer or wine “pursuant to a patron’s” order, meaning that individual cocktails prepared for a customer are perfectly legal. Storing drinks that mix spirits with wine or beer remains illegal, however, unless that mixture can be passed off as sangria (defined vaguely by the mixologists in the state legislature as containing “brandy, triple sec, or other similar spirits”).

Most of the drinks I write about would therefore be legal in Virginia, but there’s a long tradition of batched beer punches that the state’s bars are still forbidden from serving. Ale Punch, a recipe from the great nineteenth century American bartender Jerry Thomas, or Blow My Skull, the favorite of an eccentric Tasmanian governor known for drinking his subordinates under the table, would both fall afoul of the rules. So too would “Beer Nog,” a contemporary take on egg nog that adds porter to the usual mix of brandy, eggs, and cream. And if any Virginians want to go wassailing in the winter, they’ll have to settle for low-proof versions of the beverage that do not fortify the warm ale with stronger spirits.

That’s good news for my book Cocktails on Tap. Read the rest of my article at Reason for a look at more of the country’s liquor laws, and also check out fellow Portland writer Niki Ganong’s new book The Field Guide to Drinking in America, which breaks them down state by state.

Share

Fika dinner at Broder Nord

Bron_Fika

I’m excited to be taking part in an upcoming event with the Portland Culinary Alliance on Friday, May 15, celebrating the release of my friend Anna Brones’ lovely new book Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, co-authored and illustrated by Johanna Kindvall. Here’s what we have in store for you:

– A signed hardcover copy of Fika, Anna and Johanna’s guide to the Swedish coffee tradition and the pastries that go with it.

– A demonstration from Anna on how to make kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon rolls.

– A selection of coffees from top Swedish roasters selected and brewed by the team at Sprudge.

– A Dill Collins cocktail made with Gamle Ode dill aquavit made by yours truly.

– A delicious Scandinavian dinner from Broder Nord, one of my favorite restaurants in town.

Tickets are a steal at just $35 for PCA members and $50 for non-members. Buy them here before they sell out.

Share