Oysters and beer. Oysters in beer?

Upright Brewing, one of the best new breweries operating today, has an intriguing new beer coming out tonight: Oyster Stout. Made in collaboration with the soon-to-be-open Alchemy Brewing, the new beer is a traditional stout made with oyster liquor and fresh oysters cooked right in the brewing kettle. It sounds crazy, but this style of beer has been enjoying a small revival this year. Brewer Alex Ganum describes it as “a distinctly full-bodied and creamy stout with a touch of brine on the finish.”

The natural pairing with this beer is of course oysters. Oysters and stout go well together, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the brine in this beer matches them even better. If you’re in Portland you’ll have at least two chances to try it. Tonight is Upright’s release party from 4:30-9 in their tasting room at the Left Bank Project. Then on Thursday, March 4 at 7:00 pm, we’re bringing a keg to Branch Whiskey Bar on Alberta St. Branch will have fresh oysters, housemade sausages, and plenty of whiskey to go with the oyster stout. I’ll be working a guest shift behind the bar as well, serving up beer and cocktails for the first time since Carlyle’s closure. Both events should be a lot of fun, so I hope to see many of you there to try this unusual ale.

Previously: Upright’s Flora Rustica Saison made an appearance in a tasty drink at our NovemBEER for Charity cocktail event


Demon rum, demented tax code

I get a lot of liquor press releases every day. Usually they’re about new products or horrible, horrible cocktails designed for marketing efforts. Today’s batch includes a release that’s all about trade and taxes:

MERCEDITA, Puerto Rico–Destilería Serrallés released the following statement from Roberto Serralles, Vice President, in response to a 13-page invective issued by Diageo yesterday claiming a conspiracy to “kill” the Captain Morgan Rum production deal between Diageo/U.S.V.I.

“Destilería Serrallés has consistently highlighted the dangers of permitting that unreasonable and excessive rum subsidies be given to any corporation. Our main focus has been, and continues to be, for Congress to hold hearings and to study the merits of HR 2122. This legislation seeks to responsibly regulate the rum cover-over program by placing an-across-the-board 10% cap on subsidies to the rum industry. This is exactly how Puerto Rico has self-regulated itself for over 40 years. All we are asking is that the playing field is kept level, that fair competition prevails, and quite simply, that everyone plays by the same rules,” said Roberto Serralles, on behalf of Destilería Serrallés. “Assertions to the contrary are just delusional conspiracy theories.”

This is the latest salvo in a long-running battle between industry giants Bacardi and Diageo and by extension Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Understanding the conflict requires delving into some bizarre aspects of the tax code, so let’s break it down. (And if you want to read Diageo’s lengthy statement, click here.)

For background, there are three main spirits industry players involved in this dispute. Destilería Serrallés is a Puerto Rican distillery owned by Bermuda-based Bacardi and best known for its DonQ rum line. Diageo is a British-based spirits company whose many brands include Captain Morgan spiced rum. Diageo contracts with Serrallés to distill the base spirit for Captain Morgan. The contract expires at the end of 2011 and Diageo announced three years in advance that it would not renew the contract. [Correction 2/25/10: Serrallés is independent, not owned by Bacardi. Bacardi’s involvement is alleged by Diageo.]

Virgin Islands Governor John deJongh, Jr. successfully courted Diageo to open its own distillery on St. Croix. Among the incentives offered by the USVI are a brand new distillery funded by public bonds and marketing money to promote Captain Morgan; in exchange, Diageo promises to stay in the territory for 30 years and hire local workers. The Wall Street Journal places the value of these subsidies at $2.7 billion over the 30-year deal.

So far this sounds like fairly standard competition between jurisdictions to offer sweetheart deals to corporations, but it gets more complicated. At issue is a strange US tax provision called the rum cover over. This law requires that most of the rum excise taxes collected in the US be remitted to the governments of US rum-producing territories. They receive the funds in proportion to how much rum they produce. Importantly, it doesn’t matter what countries the taxed rum comes from. If you buy Puerto Rican rum, the revenue goes back to US territories. If you buy Jamaican rum, the tax money still goes to US territories. Territories benefit no matter where rum sold in the United States originates.

This is what has created such perverse competition between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Puerto Rico knows it’s not going to be distilling Captain Morgan much longer, but where Captain Morgan ends up is of huge importance to Puerto Rico. If Captain Morgan goes to a foreign country PR will still reap the benefits of the rum cover over. But if Captain Morgan goes to the Virgin Islands, USVI will become a proportionally larger distiller and get a correspondingly greater share of excise tax revenues; this is the money USVI is counting on to pay back the public bonds it issued for Diageo.

According to the Miami Herald, the loss to Puerto Rico could be as high as $6 billion over three decades. Thus the territory has enlisted legislators to block the Virgin Islands deal, resulting in a heated battle between the territories and the liquor giants.

It’s hard to put any of the parties involved on a pedestal. Serrallés itself receives significant subsidies from the rum cover over program, about 6% of Puerto Rico’s take (again according to the Herald). Nor is it really fair for Puerto Rico to begrudge the Virgin Islands greater allocation of excise tax revenues, given that the alternative is Puerto Rico taking lots of money for rum it doesn’t even produce if Diageo moves to a foreign country.

The real problem is our insane tax code that sends revenue to territories for rum they may not produce and with no strings attached. Thanks to the rum cover over provision, US taxpayers may soon be funneling their money through the Virgin Islands government directly to Diageo. If you’re Diageo you call that a “historic and innovative public-private initiative.” If you’re a libertarian you call it corporate welfare.

My inclination is to side with Bacardi/Serrallés on this one and support a 10% cap on rum subsidies. Or better yet, we could eliminate rum subsidies entirely, a proposition neither Bacardi nor Diageo is likely to support.


Recent reading: A trio of tobacco books

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading related to tobacco policy in preparation for some upcoming writing projects…

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, Christopher Snowdon — I link to Chris’ blog of the same name frequently here. He’s one of the best critics of paternalist excesses writing today and one of the few journalists exposing the shoddy science put out by many anti-tobacco researchers. His book-length review of the anti-smoking movement goes back all the way to Columbus and is essential for putting the current movement in historical context. His coverage of secondhand smoke and bibliography of ETS papers is also very valuable. Highly recommended and lively written.

Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, Richard Kluger — A 700+ page doorstop of a book chronicling the history of the American cigarette business. Though a little dated by its publication prior to the Master Settlement Agreement, the book presents a remarkably balanced view of the players involved. Though by no means a tobacco apologist, Kluger manages to portray Big Tobacco executives with enough sympathy to make them human and sometimes admirable businessmen working in an embattled industry. Reformers, too, are shown in a balanced light. (Only John Banzhaf appears completely without redeeming qualities; he manages to come off as an ass no matter who is profiling him.)

Kluger fairly describes the progress of science, from when tobacco companies could legitimately claim skepticism of cigarettes’ health effects to when their denials became absurd. Similar scrutiny is given to the overblown claims of secondhand smoke by their opposition. In the final pages he even comes close to predicting the MSA, though in the details he fails to guess how the tobacco companies would use it to raise prices and create a legally protected cartel.

Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, Gene M. Heyman — The title is a bit off-putting, suggesting that the book accuses addicts of choosing to have their disorder. That’s inaccurate. Heyman, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School, is actually offering an economic model of addiction, explaining substance abuse in terms of individual decisions and the way they can be distorted by addictive substances. Specifically, addictive substances tend to offer immediate benefits and long-term costs (exacerbated by withdrawal symptoms), to induce intoxication, and to undermine the value of more productive activities, all making habitual use hard to break.

Heyman is primarily concerned with illegal drugs but cigarettes do get a mention as a partial exception to the pattern. They don’t intoxicate the user and don’t interfere too much with other valuable activities, making the choice to smoke in any given situation very easy. This suggests that a useful approach to treating cigarette addiction would be to develop safer products that fill the same niche. This perspective is of special interest now given the development of e-cigarettes and research suggesting that nicotine alone can only partially explain cigarette addiction.


MxMo absinthe and the Atty cocktail

Atty cocktailMixology Monday is back and this time it’s hosted by Sonja at Thinking of Drinking, who chooses absinthe as our theme:

The topic for February is Absinthe. That much maligned, misunderstood, mistreated spirit, suddenly plentiful again in the US and other parts of the world. Absinthe played a role, whether large or small, in a variety of great cocktails from the 1800’s and early 1900’s – the Sazerac, Absinthe Suissesse, Corpse Reviver No. 2… I’m getting thirsty.

So let’s celebrate absinthe’s history, and it’s future, with all manner of cocktails using absinthe.

I tend to drink absinthe most often as an accent in cocktails rather than on its own and even then I don’t turn to it very often. So lacking inspiration this month I turned to Difford’s Guide #7, a massive book that includes recipes and photos for more than 2,250 cocktails conveniently indexed by ingredient. The drinks are of decidedly mixed quality but there are some gems in there, including the Atty cocktail:

2.25 oz Plymouth gin
.75 oz dry vermouth
.25 oz absinthe
.25 oz creme de violette

Stir (not shake!) over ice and optionally garnish with a lemon zest, though the aromatics of the absinthe and violette are strong enough that it’s not strictly necessary. The recipe is adapted from the Savoy Cocktail Book, which to my shame I don’t have in my library yet. Erik Ellestad posts the original recipe here.

The interplay of the absinthe and floral flavors is really nice here. It’s similar to the absinthe and lavender combination in Neil Kopplin’s Envy cocktail, though much more restrained. I like this drink a lot, and the color is fantastic (as you could see if I was a better photographer). Definitely recommended.

Incidentally, Difford’s Guide is available online as well, but the physical book is great to have on hand to browse through for ideas. The new edition #8 is available now.


On “careers”

Jason Zengerle’s New Republic profile of Tucker Carlson is worth reading in full, but it’s this paragraph that stood out for me:

More than three years later, Carlson is still defending his “Dancing With the Stars” turn, if not his dancing ability. “Oh, I loved it,” he insists, professing that his recent trajectory has not bothered him in the slightest. “I never take the long view on my own career. I don’t even know that I have a career or have ever had one–and I’m not sure I would ever want one.”

This reminds me of an anecdote from Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin, whose interests had meandered from learning magic to playing the banjo to performing stand-up comedy, was finally earning his first appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as host:

I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. On one of my appearances, after he had done a solid impression of Goofy the cartoon dog, he leaned over to me during a commercial and whispered prophetically, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” He was right; twenty years later I did my teenage rope tricks in the movie ¡Three Amigos!.

Perhaps this is just rationalization — my income this week: a few bucks in Google ads — but I think there’s something to be said for doing whatever one finds most interesting at the time and accumulating a diverse set of skills. At least twice I’ve thought about settling into more stable careers and looking back I think I’d be missing out terribly if I had. As for whether I can make this erratic approach work long-term, well, that remains to be seen.

[Carlson link via TMN.]


California cracks down on craft cocktails

Eater San Francisco reports on how outdated California liquor laws are getting in the way of serving good cocktails:

Now, these spurts of [Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control] enforcement happen every once in a while and eventually things go back to normal after a quick flurry (i.e., bars make extra sure to have no drinks on the bar post 2AM, they watch out for stings with minors), but this time around, it was different. Maybe ABC workers are under pressure, maybe the state needs to generate cashflow, but whatever the conspiracy theory, it’s been more vicious than usual, especially among some of the city’s high-profile cocktail joints. […]

… the one garnering the most outcry from the cocktail bars is the crackdown on elixirs, bitters, and similar infusions. Technically, it’s illegal to modify liquors, per a Prohibition-era law that was put in place to ensure the public that bars wouldn’t tamper with the alcohol, unbeknownst to the customer. Obviously, nowadays, pretty much all of the well-known “artisanal” cocktail places make their own house syrups and whatnot, and it’s unlikely that a yuzu bitter (or whatever is in that 10-ingredient drink) is misleading the public. It’s one thing to crack down on underage drinking, but it’s another to take aim at the outdated laws, which one bar owner described as the equivalent of issuing multiple jaywalking tickets all of a sudden. It’s salutary neglect, you see.

Details are scarce, but this looks like another example of archaic post-Prohibition laws failing to keep up with modern drinking culture. The law was probably written to prevent fraudulent practices such as refilling expensive liquor bottles with cheap hooch to fool customers, but applied literally it apparently also forbids the creative use of spirits as raw ingredients in infusions and such. Uses like these do not mislead or harm consumers in any way; only the government benefits from suddenly enforcing these old regulations by collecting the associated fines.

The nanny state vs. egg drinks
Virginia’s Archaic Beverage Commission


“The chemists’ war of Prohibition”

Writing in Slate today, Deborah Blum shines light on the little-known Prohibition horror in which the US government deliberately poisoned the nation’s industrial alcohol supplies:

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

Read the whole thing here. Like Blum, this is an aspect of Prohibition I’d heard about but never read a full account of, so I’m grateful that she’s giving it the attention it deserves.

The wrong lesson to take from this is that we’re more enlightened now. Poisoning the alcohol supply was an egregious abuse, but it’s a small step from that to forcing terminally ill AIDS and cancer patients to give up the marijuana that suppresses their vomiting, to mention just one of the most tragic casualties in the War on Drugs. With prohibition of any kind, grotesque absolutism often leads the government to choose killing its citizens over letting them get high.

[Via Coldmud.]


So goes Bulgaria, so goes the world?

Though bans just get worse here in the US and UK, they’re still meeting resistance elsewhere. Bulgaria is having second thoughts:

Bulgaria’s ruling party has proposed watering down a new smoking ban in the country with the second highest percentage of smokers in the European Union.

The centre-right GERB party, which won general elections last July, said its proposed relaxation of a ban on smoking in all public places would avoid hurting the tourist industry during tough economic times. […]

According to a draft submitted to parliament, restaurants and cafes smaller than 100 square metres (1,000 sq ft) in size will decide whether to allow smoking while larger establishments would be required to designate separate non-smoking halls.


One more menu disclaimer

It’s a safe bet that I won’t like any article that begins by praising bans on smoking and transfats, and Ming Tsai’s piece for The Atlantic on Massachusetts’ new allergy regulations doesn’t disappoint. The law starts with yet another requirement for restaurant menus:

First, there has to be a blurb on every menu that asks customers, “Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy.” In addition to promoting safety, this only makes it easier for restaurants to service customers. We’d much rather know about allergies in advance. It becomes a service nightmare when you have to redo a whole meal.

Well, pardon my language here, but no shit. If you’re dangerously allergic to a food item you should tell your server this when you order. This statement doesn’t need to be mandated. Between this, the calorie labels, the admonition to consume no more than 2,000 calories per day, and the warnings about raw meat, fish, and eggs, one wonders what page space will be left for food by the time every health lobby gets their way.

At least this is mostly harmless. The other aspects of the measure might even do some good, adding basic allergy and cross-contamination education to the safety course some restaurant staffers must already take. And Tsai’s optional binder system for tracking allergens in a restaurant’s dishes is a positive contribution. But does the fight for greater allergy awareness deserve inclusion in this paragraph? You be the judge!

Everybody should have the right to be able to eat safely in any restaurant. Going back in history, it used to be that if you had a certain color of skin, you couldn’t go into certain restaurants, then it was if you were a handicapped person you couldn’t go in, and now if you have allergies, you can’t.