Riedel, magic, and the Streisand effect

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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Imperial Old Fashioned

Imperial Old Fashioned

The Craft Brewers Conference is taking place in Portland this week, so the city is overrun with brewers and more great beer events than anyone could possibly attend. We were lucky to host one of these at The Multnomah Whiskey Library with Widmer Brewing, who asked us to come up with a few cocktails using their beers.

This Imperial Old Fashioned is my favorite of the ones Michael Lorberbaum and I came up with for the evening. It’s a bit over the top with Clear Creek’s peated single malt whiskey and a 2-inch, crystal clear ice cube laser-etched with the Widmer logo. To sweeten it, we made a syrup with cane sugar and Widmer’s KBG Russian Imperial Stout, which has dark, roasted malt notes that complement the smokiness of the whiskey. (For a similar idea using genever and rauchbier, see Katie Stipe’s Vandaag Gin Cocktail in Cocktails on Tap).

2 oz Clear Creek McCarthy’s Single Malt Whiskey
1 barspoon Imperial Russian Stout syrup
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash Bittered Sling Malagasy chocolate bitters
grapefruit peel, for garnish

Stir over ice and pour into a rocks glass with a big ice cube (laser etching optional). Garnish with the grapefruit peel.

For the stout syrup:

1 22 oz bottle KGB Russian Imperial Stout
44 oz cane sugar

Combine in a pan and stir over low to medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, taking care that it doesn’t spill over. Let cool and skim any foam, then bottle and refrigerate. You should feel free to scale down the recipe and drink the remaining beer.

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Hangman’s Bier

Hangman's Bier. Photo by Paul Willenberg.
Hangman’s Bier. Photo by Paul Willenberg.

One of the frustrations of writing a cocktail book, rather than a continuously updated blog, is the long interval between writing and publication. In the time between sending the book to the printer and seeing it arrive on store shelves, you’re bound to come across drinks you wish you’d been able to include. And with Cocktails on Tap coming out tomorrow, I’m sure this process will only accelerate as I hear from bartenders and cocktails enthusiasts about their favorite beer cocktails.

This post is devoted to one of these that I’d love to go back in time and slip into the manuscript. My friend and colleague at the Multnomah Whiskey Library, Jordan Felix, introduced me to it, and it was a popular cocktail on the menu there this winter.

The “Hangman’s Blood” is a cocktail that reportedly first appeared in Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica. From Wikipedia:

Hangman’s blood… is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter… Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.

In the 1960s, novelist Antony Burgess offered an even more potent recipe to The Guardian:

Into a pint glass doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port, and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added, and the whole topped up with champagne or champagne surrogate. It tastes very smooth, induces a somehow metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover… I recommend this for a quick, though expensive, lift.

“This is a highly dangerous mixture and consumption is not advised,” warns The Burgess Foundation, who “takes no responsibility for illness or injury caused by following this or any other recipe by Anthony Burgess.” A fair warning.

Let’s be honest. Both of these drinks sound abominable. But part of the fun of exploring old cocktail recipes, especially those with a literary pedigree, is reviving them with better balance. Jordan’s Hangman’s Bier is a much simplified take on the drink, with lime and demerara standing in for funky Jamaican rum, and this version is a lot less likely to leave the imbiber awakening the next morning feeling like he’s been worked over by a gang of droogs.

1 1/2 oz rye whiskey (Wild Turkey 101)
1/4 oz rich demerara syrup (2:1)
1/4 oz lime juice
4-5 oz porter or stout
nutmeg, for garnish

Pour the whiskey, lime juice, and demerara syrup into a collins glass and stir to combine. Add ice and top with the beer. Stir gently and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Cocktails on Tap goes on sale everywhere on March 24. I’ll be doing a signing at Powell’s tonight, March 23, at 7:30 pm, followed by a party at the Multonomah Whiskey Library. Both events are open to the public.

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Cocktails on Tap release parties in Portland

My beer cocktail book, Cocktails on Tap, is now just a couple weeks away from publication. We’ve arranged a couple of fun events in Portland as we approach the official release.

March 17 — Is there a better holiday to celebrate a book of beer cocktails than St. Patrick’s? On March 17th, my friends at the Bull in China bar shop are hosting an informal toast to the book. We’ll be serving complimentary glasses of Abbey Street Punch, a recipe contributed by Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego. We’ll also have a very limited number of books available for pre-release sale, and Bull in China is offering special deals on their fantastic new mixing glasses too. Check out their recommendations in the new issue of Portland Monthly.

Featured in the punch will be Teeling Irish Whiskey and Deschutes Black Butte Porter, complemented by a blend of Jamaican rums, lemon juice, sugar, allspice dram, soda, and nutmeg. It’s a great punch, and a favorite of friends who tested the recipe at parties. We’ll also have Teeling an Deschutes on hand for when the punch bowl runs dry.

March 23 — On March 23 we’ll be hosting our big release party at two of my favorite places in Portland. The evening will begin at the iconic Powell’s bookstore on Burnside, where we’ll be hosting a signing starting at 7:30 pm. Then at 9 pm we’ll walk over to the Multnomah Whiskey Library, where they’re generously opening the doors and offering a special menu of beer cocktails and punches from the book.

I look forward to seeing readers at all three events. For those of you not in Portland, stay tuned for book signings and cocktail parties in additional cities and pre-order your copy now.

[Photo of the Abbey Street Punch courtesy of David L. Reamer.]

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Gasp! New Orleans passes a smoking ban

In my first contribution to Eater, I put the New Orleans smoking ban into a national context:

As in most cities, New Orleans’ smoking ban debate centered on the trade-offs between the interests of business owners who fear lost patronage and the interests of customers and employees in avoiding secondhand smoke. It’s an apt time to inquire into what’s really at stake with smoking bans. Will the sky fall for bars and casinos in New Orleans? And will banning smoking save as many lives as advocates promise?

The answers may surprise you!

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Vaping in the Oregonian

In today’s Oregonian, I look back at a column I wrote in 2008 and say, “I told you so.”

When the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Day 2009, Oregon ushered in its statewide smoking ban in bars and restaurants. I was at the Horse Brass Pub, one of Portland’s most notoriously smoky drinking dens, enjoying one last cigar with a bunch of other patrons who were none too happy about the new rules.

The ban, we were told, was necessary to protect employees and customers alike from secondhand smoke. Health researchers had conducted dozens of studies attempting to show that exposure endangered nonsmokers. Some of the results were medically implausible, but ban advocates at least made the effort of demonstrating actual harm to actual humans.

Many of us doubted that the evidence really mattered. As I wrote in The Oregonian/OregonLive at the time, “Protecting workers is simply the polite fiction by which nonsmokers have imposed their will on an increasingly unpopular minority.”

We suspected this, but how could we prove it? What if there were a device that looked like a cigarette and mimicked the effects of smoking, yet emitted a mostly harmless vapor instead of tobacco smoke? If authorities tried to ban that too, without bothering to establish that it endangered anyone, then our suspicions would be vindicated.

That device exists. It’s called an e-cigarette. And sure enough, the Multnomah Board of County Commissioners is voting on whether to ban its use indoors. The Legislature, too, may expand the state’s smoking ban to cover vaping.

Read the whole thing.

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Dirty hands and raw meat

There’s nothing the media loves more than an elected Republican saying something stupid, and Republicans this week have been happy to oblige them. Rand Paul has, thankfully, backed off his anti-vaccine remarks, but Senator Thom Tillis stepped in to fill the void. He casually remarked that restaurants perhaps shouldn’t be legally forced to require employees to wash their hands, so long as they post signage alerting customers to the policy. Any restaurants doing so would presumably go quickly out of business. The free market at work!

This non-story was the most read political item at The Washington Post, it’s been covered by tons of news outlets, and my Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of people piling on in mockery of this call for extreme laissez faire capitalism.

But the thing is, Tillis was sort of right. Not about this particular regulation, one that has precisely zero constituency calling for its removal, but about the idea that consumers often ought to be allowed to opt-out of restrictive health codes to eat and drink what they like.

Health codes governing restaurants exist to protect consumers from risks that they can’t easily ascertain by themselves. As a diner, there’s no easy way to know whether the back of house is clean, whether the food has been stored safely, or whether contamination is occurring. Instead we have codes that govern these things and inspectors that pop in periodically to make sure everything is at it should be. It’s not a perfect system, but it works tolerably well.

But while codes are uniform, consumers’ risks preferences aren’t. Often health officials have concerns about an ingredient or cooking technique, but some subset of consumers demand it anyway. In those cases, informing consumers of the risk before they proceed is a viable compromise. This happens in restaurants all the time and it arguably should happen even more.

The most obvious example is the cooking temperature of meat. Health officials are wary of serving meat, especially hamburgers, that has not reached temperatures sufficient for killing E. coli. They advise against eating burgers cooked rare or medium rare. Consumers who know the pleasure of a perfectly cooked patty are willing to take the risk. Fortunately, under federal codes they have a choice. Restaurants can serve meat at lower temperatures as long as they put a warning on the menu along the lines of “consuming raw or undercooked meats may increase your risk of foodborne illness.”

In principle, that’s not too far off from what Tillis was suggesting. Even in 2014, undercooked meat isn’t legal everywhere. North Carolina didn’t legalize rare burgers until 2012, and I’m unclear on the law in South Carolina. All of Canada is a apparently a hamburger wasteland unless you find a chef willing to take his chances with the law:

The official “safe” temperature for hamburger meat, as enshrined in municipal codes and provincial acts across Canada, is 71 degrees Celsius, eight degrees higher than the generally accepted threshold for medium rare. […] “Every so often a restaurant will come up and advertise pink burgers, and we will go in and talk to them,” said Anna Marie D’Angelo, spokeswoman for Vancouver Coastal Health, the city’s health inspection agency. If West Coast diners see even a tinge of pink, health authorities advise them to “ask it to be recooked for their own safety,” said Ms. D’Angelo. Health Canada takes it a step further: After sending back the offending burger, “ask for a new bun and a clean plate, too” reads an advisory on the federal agency’s website.

These are real people with real jobs backed by real government power! They make chefs wary of speaking on the record about something as mundane as cooking hamburgers.

“I’ve served probably 100,000 burgers and nothing’s happened,” said Greg, a Canadian restaurant owner who isn’t in fact named Greg but wished to stay anonymous, arguing that media attention could attract unwanted scrutiny from the health department. Greg sources his own meat and grinds it in-house, but he still treads a narrow legal line. “A lot of guys do it, but we do it under the radar. If we put our names out there … they’re going to stop it.”

As with meat in the United States, so with sushi, oysters, eggs, and many other foods that are often best prepared raw or with minimal cooking. Want to dip your fries in aoili? Want to drink a cocktail shaken with egg whites? Want to sip Scotch in one of the few remaining smoking lounges? Then be glad health officials deign to let us off with just a warning.

In the United States, raw dairy is probably the best example of a food we should be able to eat given a clearly stated warning, but currently cannot. As cheese lovers know, the FDA forbids the interstate sale of raw milk cheeses that have been aged for fewer than sixty days, keeping delicious fresh cheeses off the market. Some states allow the sale of raw milk with a suitable advisory, while in others it’s completely banned, forcing consumers to buy on the black market or find legal workarounds. Thus we have the spectacle of federal agents conducting sting operations and arresting farmers for selling milk and cheese. Wouldn’t it better to let people make their own decisions after being suitably informed of the risks?

If you think so, then you and Thom Tillis are sort of on the same page. If you enjoy sushi, “undercooked” meat, various egg-based sauces and dishes, or lighting up in a cigar room, then you’re on board with the principle Tillis was clumsily attempting to illustrate. If you’ve experienced a perfectly cooked steak pulled from a sous vide bath, be glad New York officials stopped fining the chefs who use the technique and worked with them instead to write regulations that effectively govern it.

If we didn’t push back against risk-averse health officials about what we eat, drink, and smoke, our bars and restaurants would be a dull culinary landscape of overcooked food and excessively sanitized interiors. Everyone’s laughing at Tillis’ hypothetical hand-washing scenario, but it was just a year ago that California was stupidly ordering every bartender in the state to wear disposable latex gloves. Of all the people saying Tillis is nuts, foodies especially ought to know better. (I’m looking a you, Eater.)

As an illustration of excessive regulation, requiring employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom is obviously a dumb one. Tillis deserves to be mocked not because he’s wrong about regulation, but because he picked such a stupid way to make his point. That this is the best example he could come up with is, as Thoreau notes, just the latest evidence of the GOP’s utter uselessness.

But the gist of the argument isn’t crazy. There is, thankfully, no consumer demand for cooks with filthy hands and this isn’t a legal change that we need to be remotely worried about. We do, however, have reasons enough to be concerned about overzealous regulators interfering with the choices consenting adults make about food and drink. The principle at stake is worth defending, and it’s unfortunate that it falls to people like Tillis do it so ineptly.

[Photo used under Creative Commons license from roboppy.]

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Hot take on beer

Today at The Atlantic, I have a literal “hot take” on beer:

If there’s one thing big beer marketers know, it’s that people like their beer cold. “It’s a simple fact that consumers love ice-cold beer, and we love providing it,” writes MillerCoors, touting their cold-activated labels with mountains that turn blue to indicate when beer “goes from cold … to Super Cold.” The problem of insufficiently frigid beer apparently plagues the American consumer and technology is here to help.

But since this is the middle of winter, consider an alternative suggestion. Why not drink hot beer?

Read the whole thing. If you find the drinks in the article intriguing, you should of course pre-order my book. There’s an entire chapter on these “Hot Helpers” with recipes for recreating them with modern ingredients.

[Photo courtesy of David L. Reamer and my publisher, Stewart, Tabori & Chang.]

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The Second-Best Amaretto Sour in the World

Aquavit Week is over, but the aquavit cocktail blogging continues!

When planning the menu for our Nordic Night dinner at Fenrir, I had one spot left to fill in which I knew I wanted to feature the Krogstad Gamle aquavit. I tried out a bunch of ideas, but none of them were coming together quite right. Worse yet, I was running out of aquavit. I needed an idea soon!

As I often do in such situations, I turned to The Flavor Bible, an indispensable guide to flavor pairings that work. Reading the pairings for the strong anise note in Krogstad, nutty flavors kept coming up. That got me thinking about amaretto, which got me thinking about The Best Amaretto Sour in the World™.

That drink comes from my fellow Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who combines amaretto with cask-proof bourbon. It’s an awesome cocktail. With a few adjustments, could it work with a barrel aged aquavit? The answer was yes, the drink worked on the first try, and I didn’t have to devote any more of the non-existent Aquavit Week budget to yet another purchase. In a nod to Jeff, our Nordic Night humbly offered The Second-Best Amaretto Sour in the World.

1 oz Krogstad Gamle aquavit
1 oz amaretto liqueur
1 oz lemon juice
1 teaspoon rich simple syrup
1/2 oz egg white
lemon twist, cherry, or star anise for garnish

Combine all ingredients in a shaker and give it a dry shake to aerate. Add ice and shake again. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish.

Below is the full menu from our Nordic Night, and here is a review from Portland Mercury restaurant critic Andrea Damewood, who happened to be in attendance that evening.

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2014 blog in review

In my annual blog review last year, I noted that 2013 was the first year in which traffic to this site dropped substantially. That trend continued in 2014, with traffic dropping 13% to just 64,893 visits. That’s not surprising, given how rarely I’ve updated this year. On the plus side, I’ve done more writing for external sites and more long-form writing, with at least one book slated to come out in 2015.

Here are the top posts of 2014, three of which were actually written last year. Staplers and camel crickets continue to grab the stop spots.

Top post of 2014
1. The stapler’s secret
2. MxMo Redemption: Harvey Weissbanger
3. Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut Arrack
4. Camel crickets invade DC
5. My coffee smells like tuna fish
6. Quick Little Pick Me Up
7. How to get rid of camel crickets
8. What proposed FDA regulations mean for e-cigarettes and cigars
9. Defining “tobacco use” for cigar smokers
10. Mixing with the Mad Dog

I used to get a lot more traffic from random searches. Today only a few search terms draw significant traffic.

Top search referrals of 2014
1. weird fish
2. camel cricket
3. arrack
4. coffee bitters
5. Harvey Weissbanger
6. coffee bitters recipe
7. apple cider gastrique
8. Sri Lankan arrack
9. spider crickets
10. shaker

As seen in the searches and country traffic, being one of the few English speakers writing about Sri Lankan coconut arrack has apparently brought in a decent number of visitors. I think this is the first year Sri Lanka has been in the top ten countries to visit the site.

Top visitor countries from 2014
1. United States
2. United Kingdom
3. Canada
4. Australia
5. Germany
6. Sri Lanka
7. India
8. France
9. Netherlands
10. Sweden

The list of cities is predictable except for tiny Boardman, Oregon. I don’t know how to explain that one.

Top visitor cities from 2014
1. New York
2. Portland, OR
3. Chicago
4. Los Angeles
5. London
6. Dallas
7. Washington
8. Seattle
9. Boardman, OR
10. San Francisco

No big surprises in the top referrers list.

Top non-search referrers from 2014
1. Buzzfeed
2. Cool Material
3. Facebook
4. Twitter
5. Reddit
6. Chuggin McCoffee
7. Alcademics
8. Liqurious
9. Overlawyered
10. Pinterest

I can also break down the stats to see which posts in the cocktail recipe section of the site are performing well. It’s interesting to note that four of the top ten are for ingredient preparations, not finished cocktails.

Top Cocktail Recipes from 2014
1. Apple Cider Gastrique
2. Clarified Lime Juice
3. Clubland
4. Shift Drink
5. Harvey Weissbanger
6. Aquavit Hot Toddy
7. Averna Stout Flip
8. Spiced Plantain Syrup
9. Swedish Punsch
10. Straits Sling

In the past few years social media has replaced blogging for conversational purposes and writing for other outlets has replaced much of my writing here. I don’t expect that to change in the short-term, but stay tuned for links to writing elsewhere and the occasional update.

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