markets, spirit possession

Raising the Bar for the Wine Dep?

An article this week in La Presse has finally substantiated the rumours I have been hearing that someone was going to open a natural wine-focused bottle shop in the old space on across the street from NDQ which used to house Preservation Society and La QV. Your first reaction might be “So what? There are wine shops all over this goddamn city, I can get it from giant booze monopolies or grocery stores or by accident when I’m buying string cheese and smokes, it’s in the lift and the lorry and in the bond wizard and what are you talking about who cares?”

However, for all that QC has one of the most liberal approaches to booze access in Canada, there remains a wealth of products that are available only via the comparatively circuitous route of private importation. In this case, wines which for whatever reasons (quantity? volatility? weirdness? the spiteful arbitrariness that seems to be the ab initio of Québec bureaucracy) the SAQ allows to be imported into the province but refuses to stock on its shelves. If you’ve ever had a wine you loved at a restaurant and inquired as to its availability only to be told it’s importation privée, thus not available at the SAQ, this is what we’re talking about. Now the private import world is not actually all that hard to navigate for the lay shlub – one just has to 1) find out who the importer is, 2) get in touch with them and make an order, then 3) pick it up at an SAQ a couple weeks later once the order has been processed. The down side of this is that, with some exceptions, private importers are not allowed to sell in quantities smaller than a case (6-12 bottles, typically), so in addition to the wait, unless you’re a fancy Monopoly-man type you have to find some friends to go splits on the order.

There are any number of reasons that an importer might have difficulty getting a wine on the SAQ’s shelves, which may be best left for another time, but the long and short of it is that there are some truly brilliant (or even merely pretty brilliant) wines that are only available via private import. What this new shop of Juneau’s aims to do is make such wines available by the bottle by exploiting the what aspect of our labyrinthine liquor laws that apparently permits the sale of such individual bottles with the accompaniment of a meal, as if you were getting a drink with your restaurant takeout (but at the same time for some reason precludes just selling it off the shelf as one would at a regular dep). It is indeed a tangled regulatory web, but one which has intriguing potential for rendering many of these wines slightly more accessible.

The big question, however, will be what kind of markup will be applied. It is standard practice to mark up a bottle of wine by at least 100% in restaurants, in the hopes of making it even marginally profitable, but if we’re talking about wines that are already in the 18-40$ range, that sort of thing is not likely to fly for takeout. Juneau references the smaller system of cavistes in European countries as an inspiration, although what immediately comes to mind for me are the little caves à manger that have popped up in France (and spread more widely) which reside somewhere between a traditional caviste and a wine bar – a bottle shop with a small by-the-glass selection and a limited menu, where you have the option of drinking your bottle on premise for a hopefully reasonable corkage fee. Because of the peculiar regulatory situation in QC, however, it seems that Junueau’s Cul Sec would potentially have to operate on the inverse principle, with customers paying a markup (in addition to buying food?) in order to take the wine to go. The details so far are scant, but a similar operation exists already in Québec City, run by another private importer, Les Importations du MoineNot having been, alas, I can’t comment on how their system works.

As should by now be obvious, I am cautiously optimistic about the project, while finding it faintly sinister that this will constitute the third business (along with resto / winebar Pastaga and specialty grocer Le Petit Coin) Juneau has opened in a one-block-radius of Beaubien and St-Laurent in the past year or so. It certainly speaks to the recent “rejuvenation” of Petite-Patrie, if one chooses to interpret the term less in the sense of “making young again” than “filling with literal youths,” but in the long run I don’t think that the conversion of a space previously housing a wine agency and a specialty conserves company into a boutique wine dep is that much of a transition.

What I am hopeful about is the potential of the shop to contribute to what I guess I am calling the désinvoltation of good wine. I say désinvoltation in lieu of the English “casualization” pointedly, because it better captures the sense of undoing something that has been made inaccessible and rarefied. Likewise, I say “good wine” rather than “fine wine” because the latter has particular connotations that I wish to avoid, and the former gets at how much of the wine that has been impressing me in the past few years – much of it “natural” wine – has had a charming directness about it. Whether frank or elusive in the mouth, it is not grand wine, it is fresh, vital, good wine. And while because of the exigencies of small-scale agricultural production and the international export thereof, it will likely never been truly cheap, but I believe there is much work, much good work, to do in the rendering of such wines more culturally and emotionally accessible. There is, of course, much more to be said about this, and I probably will, but not right now.

So we’ll see what happens with this Cul Sec thing.

In the meantime, however, this spirit of désinvoltation is very much what drives the SMALL SECRETS x BAR BARBARA project (to which I contributed the sickening bit of wordplay “Wine Bar Barbara Bar à vins) I have been collaborating on, and which is slated to have its next instantiation in a few weeks (May 16th. Keep your ears open). Details to follow, but it’s basically an illegal wine bar that serves as a forum for my pal Jordan and myself to share wines that we’re stoked on, at a negligible markup, with anyone who is interested in wine or wants to be interested in wine but basically has no idea what is going on, and to use this activity as a basis for tracing a slightly different kind of conviviality than normally prevails at a private party, a bar or restaurant, or an organized tasting. And it rules. And it’s named after my foolish cat.



pastaga empire

refashioning of beaubien to mile-endification of petite-patrie




spirit possession

On Natural Wine, Punk Rock, and Too Easy Analogies.

But the shadows have foes, and like weeds, among weeds, we will grow.

Moving in wine circles one often hears natural wine described as the ‘punk rock’ of the wine world, whether in reference to individual enfant terrible producers (such as Andrea Calek, most often) or to the prevailing anti-establishment ethos of a ‘movement’ which, depending on whom you ask, may not actually exist as such. Tim Atkin, a noted British wine writer, recently published an article to this effect which I was pleased to see attempted to pursue this analogy further than usual:

Punk was a reaction against bloated prog rock or packaged pop like Olivia and John. It promised to return to the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Natural wines are a reaction to over-manipulated wines made to impress rather than to drink. They hark back to some sort of prelapsarian past where wine was pure.

Natural wine, like punk, can be understood as a threat against the established orders of taste and cultural production. Its provocation straddles the aesthetic and moral divide, wielding “authenticity” as a weapon in (potentially irrelevant) battles over what even deserves to be considered “wine.” And, as is to be expected, there is an appropriate amount of vitriol and polemic to be found on both sides of these debates.

Atkins goes on to speculate as to whether the decline in relevance and appeal of punk rock contains a lesson for us about the future of natural wine. After all, claims of music journalists aside, was not punk merely a trend fueled by an able hype machine and the seductive allure of youthful iconoclasm, of which only a few credible scraps remain:

In my opinion, punk’s influence is best heard in bands that took the spirit but not the music such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Pogues. But natural wine is surely also, like punk, clever marketing no matter how much the organisers of the various natural wine fairs try to deny it.

This is where I think Atkins’ comparison falters – not however on the grounds of the weakness of the analogy but on his ultimate ignorance of his chosen analog. Like the majority of popular commentators on the history of punk, Atkins makes the mistake of conflating the demise of the phenomenon with the expiry of its time in the limelight. Only in recent years have music critics and wider audiences come to be vaguely aware that long after the Ramones and the Sex Pistols burned out or graduated to stadium shows and Spector Sound, there remained growing legions of disaffected, irritated, impassioned youth who continued putting on shows, piling into vans and releasing shitty, brilliant records (or, as often, tapes) for other shitty, brilliant kids.

Where is the emergence of hardcore punk in Atkins’ analogy, or Riot Grrrl? The founding of Ebullition Records and the publication of Maximum Rock’n’Roll and HeartattaCk, to say nothing of the uncountable thousands of DIY zines and labels? Where are Fugazi and Bikini Kill, His Hero is Gone and Los Crudos in this narrative? They are invisible precisely because the account presumes the significance and the relevance of punk rock were coterminous with the attention paid to it by mainstream music journalism.

So what does a revised, better-informed understanding of punk’s history (and present) contribute to such an analogy? While I don’t disagree with Atkins’ suggestion that “Time will tell which producers turn out to be the Boomtown Rats and which the Pogues,” I think that there is an interesting lesson about taste and appreciation to be considered. Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of natural wine, on an intellectual and aesthetic level, may be to destabilize and encourage reconsideration of what it means to be a “good wine” (as punk did with the idea of being a “good band”). While there are numerous natural wines that are excellent by even the most traditional standards, whether it be the turbidity of an unfiltered wine, a whiff of animal funk or the slight spritz of latent fermentation in the bottle, many natural producers have helped to create a space for appreciating qualities otherwise proscribed as faults or flaws – new avenues for experiencing and making sense of the pleasures of drinking, like feedback and screaming, outside of the conventional register of taste.

On a recent visit to Montreal, natural winemaker Olivier Lemasson commented in passing that in France for the most part no one knows or cares who he is – there he is a farmer, it is only in Montreal and New York and London that he is treated like a rock star. Indeed, it is notable that much of the furor surrounding “natural wine” is to be found among the wine critics and journalists, rather than the vintners themselves. So perhaps more important is what the story of punk rock suggests for the future of natural wine – the possibility that when the trend has subsided, there will nevertheless remain a community of committed producers and appreciators who continue to believe in the importance of a vibrant opposition to the standardized and soulless (or what they view as such).  Toiling in relative obscurity and indifference to the market as the primary arbiter of taste, making what they love and loving what they make. DIY or die.

 * * *

postscript: If you have no idea what I am talking about re: natural wine, you should just come out to the salon des vignerons naturels – Les Turbulents this Sunday afternoon, April 12th, at the SAT, and drink yourself informed.

another postscript: I do think that there are other ways of pursuing this analogy – the problem of “authenticity” and how its language is mobilized by punks and wine folk; the limitations of thinking of punk as seeking an earlier “pure” form of rock n roll versus wanting to destroy music altogether or interrogate the normativity and machismo of rock n roll tout court; natural wine making recourse to an older, “more” traditional approach to winemaking v. punk treating tradition as itself stultifying and oppressive, etc.

spirit possession

Adventures in Sabrage.

Two out of three ain't bad.


At least one of these bottles undeniably deserved a better fate than it was dealt. Indeed, I would under different circumstances than the 11 ½th hour of the New Year’s Eve probably choose not to sabre a bottle of crémant du Jura, because it is typically a wine with enough charm and complexity to merit saving / savouring any and all drops. Mind you, it is not a particularly expensive wine, but on its merits it can stand up to many a Champagne several income brackets above it, and certainly any of its peers. At a Christmas party not long ago a friend commented that he has never been much interested in sparkling wines, and views them as little more than a toasting prop. The usual response to this sort of sentiment is “Ah, but you have probably never had a truly good Champagne!”, which is both probably true and equally probably irrelevant, because there is really no predicting what kind of wine, at what price point or level of quality, in what circumstances, will speak to someone intimately enough to catch their ear and confound their prejudices, honestly acquired or otherwise. Also it makes you sound like an ass.

For my own part, I have probably tasted a good champagne, never a great one, but the comment made me realize how thoroughly turned-around on the topic I have become in a relatively short time. I had a place in my heart already for sparkling wines, but tended to favour cavas (Spanish sparkling wines made using a method similar to that of Champagne), because at the lower end of the price range, they tend to deliver the driest, cleanest, most satisfying and vigorously sparkling product. Such wines are ideal party wines, and the image they evoke of lusty and quarrelsome Catalan fishermen only adds to their appeal. Somewhere along the line, however, this changed, and sparkling wines went from a fun diversion or handy refresher while I decided what I really wanted to drink at a restaurant, to being a wine of avid interest for me. It happens, somewhat uncharacteristically, that I actually recall what was responsible for this change, and it was in fact a crémant du Jura. Crémant simply refers to a sparkling wine of a particular quality from a given region in France (crémant de Loire, crémant de Bourgogne, crémant de Die, etc.), Jura is a region in the east of France, sandwiched between Burgundy and the Swiss border, just a little north of where Geneva juts, Lance of Longinus-style, into France’s side. It is a relatively small wine-producing region, one of the oldest in France, and for weirdos one of the most exciting, because it produces truly singular expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and downright weird, wonderful shit with its main indigenous varieties, Poulsard, Trousseau, and Savagnin. But another thing they do is crémant du Jura, made (as far as I know) in the méthode traditionnelle of Champagne. So it figures that this was my point of entry; however strait the gate, I inevitably find for myself the side way.

And this crémant I had smelled like bread. Like, more like bread than anything that is not itself freshly-baked bread – or more specifically, unbaked bread just punched-down from a first rise – could ever be expected to smell. Astonishingly, intoxicatingly so. Bone-dry in the mouth, but with a lingering baked apple effect, although some of that apple quality I must admit may be as much an interpretive overlay as a genuine memory. Having since tasted four or five other wines from the producer – Michel Gahier – I have been struck by how fresh and vital is the expression of fruit in his wines. In discussing it with a friend who has roughly a lifetime more wine-drinking experience over me, he remarked that this, what he called the “bell-like clarity of the fruit”, is for him the hallmark of Gahier’s wines. Filtered thus through my subsequent experiences with the wines and the articulation of this theme, I cannot help but hear, when conjuring the memory of Gahier’s crémant, that bell pealing somewhere off in the distance. So sue me. The tension of memory, ephemerality, and the flesh is what wine is about (NB: also getting drunk).

So that was the first sparkling wine that truly got me. After which two things could have happened, and I am happy that it was the latter that did: I could have spent the rest of my days seeking out a reiteration of that experience, trying to recapture the taste of that wine in that moment, and perpetually dissatisfied because nothing quite satisfied, or I could have used the opening created by that experience as a space for the evaluation and appreciation of other things that had heretofore escaped my attention. You know, like wines. Like liking wines. I could use it to like more wines, more. And I have. It has turned sparkling wines into a matter of interest for me, sure, a great number of those I encounter are serviceable and uninspired/uninspiring, but some have really kicked my ass. Most recently, a crew of us got together to take advantage of the holiday swell in available sparkling wines at the SAQ to do a side-by-side tasting. There are currently five crémants du Jura available through the SAQ (none of them the Gahier, alas) and all cost less than $26. I won’t go into full detail on all five, suffice to say that the Baud Brut Sauvage was the driest and yeastiest, and perhaps my favourite, if not that of the group. The Baud Blanc de Blancs and the Rolet were unremarkable, and both the Domaine Labet and the André & Mireille Tissot were excellent. This last was (I believe) the only that I had tasted prior, and was for me the most exciting. Indeed, I was shocked by how complex it was, given that it had made only a favourable if not particularly memorable impression on me the first time. Now it opened with a bready quality, but far more restrained than either the Baud or Gahier. Like baguette or something with a sheer crust, not freshly-baked but cooled and not overwhelmingly fragrant, and along with it bruised apples and poppers, with a long, tonic (like tonic water and like anything healing for the brain), dry finish that betrayed none of the just-oxidizing apple sugar on the nose. It occurs to me only now that the former tasting was not only the wine of a different year, but also occurred before the Gahier-mediated sensitization of the Spring that had as it were opened up this space for the tasting of sparkling wines.

So it is sort of a shame that the other one got exploded, but it is simply a matter of fact that as the hammer of revelry falls, one sabres what one has on hand.

product review, spirit possession

Apples, As Rain or Tears.

Like the liveliness of death, is how it tastes, maybe.


I am totally infatuated with this calvados. I want to hold a cup of it between fantastically calloused hands as I wake up with the sun. I want to appreciate it in a yellow pavilion between rounds of Russian roulette with a jealous baron. I want to put too much of it away playing dice in the winter, drink it in my underwear while I look out the window waiting for summer to come. I want to and I do and I will. The nights are getting longer, it won’t be long.

Because this drink does something that I love in wine but which I don’t often encounter in spirits; it seems to speak to a life that it had before it became a drink. Maybe not of a place, per se, in the sense of terroir (if it speaks of a place I think it speaks of many places), but of a materiality prior to that artful abstraction that is potable alcohol (apologies for the alliteration). An earthiness, but also a worldliness, in the original sense of the word. For it tastes like apples. Apples in the world.

When one thinks of distilled spirits, one tends to imagine the essence of a thing, be it grain or grape or cane, shorn of its impurities and elevated, transformed. A pure expression. But a pure expression of what? It is difficult not to get entangled in metaphysical analogies, given the common vocabulary of spirits. In this case, however, the conventional (metaphysical) understanding of the spirit as prior to the flesh is confounded by a spirit that tastes so distinctly of apples, but not of some abstract or platonic ideal of apples, rather of apples of varying ripeness, the crisp and tart mingling with the already bruised and almost rank, in their blunt and volatile sweetness, apples that come from trees and hang on trees and eventually fall from trees, get kicked around in the dirt or covered with leaves or eaten by stupid pigs, that it can only be understood as a spirit of the flesh. Not a spirit that animates the world, but one which is animated by the world, an expression of all the impurities, failures, and accidents of life.

Note that this is quite at odds with Cartesian or transcendentalist notions of body and spirit being of irreconcilable and fundamentally different stuff. The soul in this picture is not confined for a time to this living hell of a meat bag, but rather is forged in and of that flesh. Essence follows existence.

The cheap, precious, aesthete in me hoped to find some greater insight by inquiring into the origins of the word “distillation,” however, all this yielded was a reminder of how reaching is the above metaphysical gloss. The purification of essence sense of the word seems to be of more recent vintage, rather than the animating spirit of its etymology. Distil refers, quite empirically, to the formation of drops; in fact, to the dropping or dripping of drops: destillare. Stilla = drop, the diminutive of stiria, for icicle (how cute). “To trickle down or fall in minute drops, as rain; tears,” the OED reads.

And so by speaking of distillates rather than spirits, we may be firmly back on materialist terrain, because yes, obviously alcoholic spirits are only metaphorically not metaphysically the souls of their source ingredients; but I am not above using booze as way of thinking through and around the materialist / transcendentalist divide. If the calvados may be said to be a pure expression, not of a platonic or ur-apple, but of a very worldly apple, so may I make use of these impressions to work toward some notion of essential qualities being not a priori, but contingent, accidental. And I may be congratulated for not even going the easy route and trying to talk about eaux-de-vie.

The calvados itself is Roger Groult Réserve, from the Pays d’Auge in Normandy. It is made by a small, independent producer (whom I have read employs eight people in total), an increasingly rare thing in the spirits world which is dominated by conglomerates well versed in the marketing of artisanality. In case you don’t know, calvados is simply an apple brandy made in a specific region (Calvados) in France. It is, contra something like cognac, known for its rough, unpretentious, working-class character. The Réserve is made from a dry cidre that is allowed to ferment for a year before distilling, and is then aged three years in oak barrels. I’ve tried the 8 year, 15 year, and the 20 year, all of which were fantastic, but it was the 3 year (which conveniently comes relatively cheap) that stole my heart. It is good. I don’t usually like saying that things taste like late Summer sun coming through the leaves, but there is certainly some of that. It tastes like Autumn and hay and butterscotch. It tastes like what you needed all winter.

Or I suppose to save time you could say “rustic, and a little funky.” You know, like The Band. But French.


resto oh oh, spirit possession

Across the Great Divide: Decentering the Organism and the Ontological Hangover.


Hangovers are funny things. In all of the usual laughingly lamentable, mind-stripped-bare-by-its-bachelors-even, sorts of ways, but also in how they present an opportunity for uncontrolled experimentation with ways of feeling – ways of feeling badly, yes, but sometimes involving new plains of badness, ways of being a body that foreground one’s corporeality with terrific and – if we’re lucky – fascinating immediacy.

What I’m thinking of right now is the consequence of a late development in my drinking life, my intense interest in weirder, wilder, (especially sour) beers, and to a lesser degree, the same (minus the sour) in wines. It is perhaps best described as waking up with the immediate feeling of a balance having been tipped, as if your body is not poisoned but occupied – become home and host to the microflora of wherever, Vichte and the Zenne, Anchorage or Greensboro Bend. There is a taste that seems not so much to linger in your mouth as be produced at the source, in your very saliva; it reminds you of all that you have taken in, drink upon drink, and inspires the suspicion that some perverse innovation in the typical food-to-energy equation might have been achieved, like an internal ferment has begun that might finally coax the self-identity of the flesh out of its jingoistic discretion. Like you might be taken and changed (I mean, we’re so much provirus already, I should think the ol’ human microbiome is just waiting for an opportunity to jump the rails and go all Brundlefly).

The second most recent time that I experienced this (come to think of it, I suppose I wasn’t even hung over yet. Jesus.) was a few Sundays back, after an fully engaged afternoon at Tørst, the Evil-Twin-affiliated Brooklyn beer bar helmed by Noma/Momofuku/Fat Duck alumnus Daniel Burns, and frequented, I discovered, by the kind of magnificent, munificent bastards with whom one can slide into that easy camaraderie founded solely upon the mutual enthusiasm for cool beers.  We (my newly acquired cohorts and myself) had all sorts of absolutely brilliant shit – Bayerischer Bahnhof‘s Pineus Gose (lautered over pine needles), Stillbow Oxtisanal (aged in blueberry wine barrels, which against all odds was wonderful), Crooked Stave’s Surette Saison, Evil Twin & Westbrook’s Justin Blåbær blueberry Berlinerweisse (also improbably excellent, in spite of the recurrence of blueberries), Tart of Darkness (sour stout!) – but by nightfall I was starting to feel that my already debauched constitution (it was Sunday, and I was on a “working vacation”) mightn’t be able to withstand even so pleasant a bacterial onslaught.

To provide a little context for the above ravings, one of the more exciting turns the international craft beer world has taken in recent years is the renewed interest in wild and ambient environmental yeasts, coupled with experiments in barrel-aging. Both are strongly associated with the Belgian tradition; while we have Pasteur to thank for elaborating the mechanics of open fermentation and laying to rest the idea of spontaneous generation (although ironically, pace Bruno Latour, in the process spontaneously generating a world of microbes around us), pre-Belgian Low Countrymen  had been fermenting beer in open vats, aging them in empty wine barrels, and letting all sorts of weird-ass bacteria get involved since the 1500s. Now you have all sorts of craft and kvlt breweries eager to experiment with the old traditions, combining a venerative and curatorial spirit with an almost postmodern iconoclasm (local notables including Dieu du Ciel, Trou du Diable, Hopfenstark, and Toronto’s Bellwoods, among others), and coming out with some fantastic beers. It may be pure biophilia (or biofetishism?) to say that these beers taste especially lively, because it already takes a certain orientation toward the messiness of life for descriptions like lactic acid, horse blankets and farmyard to come off as “lively” (as opposed to, say, foetid) in an aromatics context, but blast, I have such an orientation, and these beers have such a taste. And after a full afternoon of them that Sunday – the classic Belgians and their bastard diasporic interpretations alike – I was beginning to feel as if the tastes were tasting me.

Fortunately, my next stop happened to be a quiet little bar attached to a young distillery, where they have pink gin on tap, a gin named after Dorothy Parker, and a cocktail called the fucking CANNIBAL CORPSE REVIVER Nº 2 (which I didn’t try, however, because it is tall and I do not drink tall drinks out of a fear, perhaps, of going soft). They also produce an excellent take on a jenever tasting so smartly and directly of rye that one wonders if whisky might not actually be the best (liquid) expression of the grain. As I might have guessed, the administration of a succession of gins and bitters was precisely what was required to scour my insides and restore some semblance of order to the micro-flora and -fauna of my body, so that in short order I was feeling so much less yeasty and invaded, so merely human that I could have sang a song. The incumbent ontological hangover pre-empted by the more familiar and conceptually un-challenging regular hangover. Good old gin.

spirit possession

Merry Effing Christmas, or, Giving Rum Another Chance, or, Rum Gives Me Another Chance.


Recently, at a restaurant that I love very much and yet about which I have never written, I had a cocktail they were calling the Negroni Hivernal – basically a Negroni with rum in lieu of gin and healthy dose of Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. It was not something I had ever heard of, nor would have anticipated liking, but I trust their folks behind the bar sufficiently to give it a shot should they be convinced it’s a good idea. And it was, or is; it turns out it’s a good cocktail, with a lot of depth and activity and character. In a strange way, the rum disappears, which is to say that blind I would have known the red vermouth and Campari, but been damned had anything depended on figuring out what else was in there. Which at the least means that it was playing well and making plans with the other ingredients, for rum is not typically known for its discretion, and I cannot think of a single rum-containing cocktail that I would favour over any of gin or whiskey alternatives, under usual circumstances.

The bartender said he was pretty sure it already had a name, but he couldn’t remember it, so figured the hivernal lent a nice seasonally appropriate twist. I have since done a little “research” (the internet kind, not the drinking kind. Well, a little of both.) and discovered that the thing does have a name, several in fact. It is of fairly recent coinage, and seems to have been invented by several luminaries of the new New York cocktail scene more or less simultaneously (although I’m sure someone more in the know / less indifferent will disabuse me of this impression of simultaneity). Not that riffs on the Negroni are a rare thing; like most classic cocktails its simple composition cries out for substitution, elaboration. But when you do a thing and it tastes like A Thing than one tends to want to name it. Scott Fitzgerald (no F.) of Mulberry Project does something called the Man About Town, which uses white rum and orange bitters rather than mole, which ew (the white rum, not the orange bitters), but I like just because its name is a friendly nod to the bourbon riff on the Negroni – the Boulevardier – of which I am already a great fan. Joaquín Simó of Death & Co. now Pouring Ribbons specifies Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, no bitters, for his Kingston Negroni, and Michael McIlroy of Milk & Honey (now Attaboy) calls his version The Right Hand, which also uses dark rum and mole bitters, so arguably is the original, even if the name doesn’t quite do it for me.

Semi-authoritative origins aside, I think the Negroni Hivernal it will remain for me, because it captures something in spite being a little awkward. It’s a cute name, both appropriate and counterintuitive. Gin, which would usually anchor a Negroni, in spite of its summer-drinking and colonial associations has a wintry quality itself – cold, clear, coniferous and strange – at least I often think gin and think winter. I also think gin and think of drinking it on the rocks at a long-ago staff Christmas party in a four-story lesbian bar, because I had worn out my nerves on just about every other spirit available rum, and for the first time it occurring to me that gin might be a nice thing. Rum, on the other hand, is a hot country-of-origin spirit that nevertheless thrives in the winter by virtue of its brown sugar / caramel / molasses / spice profile. And so I have  associations with rum as well, and it feels right to make of this darker, deeper, spicier riff on the Negroni a cold-weather friend (although I suppose if the last half dozen posts are any indication, my seasonal cocktail criteria are pretty whimsical in their justification).

But what it really reminds me of is how I used to like rum. More specifically, and because it has been around Christmastime lately, it reminds me of what and whom I most often think when I think of rum and liking it, and of Christmastime and liking it (for underneath at all I am a grossly if intermittently romantic fellow). Once upon a long time ago, I decided that it was worth attempting to befriend this dude (a woman) with whom I had previously some passing but pleasant interactions. We knew one another from parties and through mutual friends and she had eyes that were kind of sleepy like cat’s eyes, but precisely in the way that cat’s eyes can be at once sleepy and burningly, terrifically alive. Tricky, intelligent eyes. I called her up one day and she said Yes she would love to hang out, but unfortunately was moving to another country the following week, but I should come to her going-away party (she lived, it turned out, on the same street as myself, but below the tracks, whereas I lived above). I did, and it was enjoyable, and I probably talked a lot about Frankenstein or not much at all and when next we spoke she said Hey how about this, how about next time we see each other we just pretend we are already good friends, and then let the getting to know one another happen from there?

What dispirited lump of a human could resist such a proposition? Not I, thankfully. When many months later she was in town, around Christmastime, she invited me out for a late night walk “with a bottle of brown in the neighbourhood she once slept in and now misses in slight brown ways” (the invitation was third persons all around), I was appropriately stoked. The bell rang sometime lateish, and when I opened the door, before I could even begin to utter words to receive her, she slipped and fell down the stairs, of which thankfully there were only three, but I assure you it made a genuinely charming impression. I’m not very good at telling stories, I realize, but this is important. She had with her a bottle of rum, and we sat on the floor in the dim, Christmas-lit living room, drinking brown liquor, eating snacks (I don’t remember what) and talking about theory and listening to, of all things, Telegram. Until we were very rum-warmed and somewhat drunk, and then we took an old saw and went into the touching, embarrassing, lazily falling snow to steal a branch out of which I could make myself a modest Christmas tree, in that neighbourhood where I too no longer sleep and also occasionally miss in what maybe I can call slight brown ways. Although I’m not sure I know what she meant by that.

I tend to look forward to the holidays, I’m not sure why. But this year I mostly felt a yawning blankness, a steady, sad, evacuation, that grew right up until New Year’s Eve, when against all odds, I had a very nice time.

(I sort of pooched the bouillabaisse though. Note to everyone, try not to crush all the whitefish under nine pounds of mussels.)

spirit possession

Christmas Spirits VI: Spur, Stirrup, Bridle, Sword.


(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)


THE BROKEN SPUR, a Classic Found in the Pergola of Leon Ellis, 2d Secretary of the American Legation in Peking, in the Year 1932, and before a Buffet Dinner of Utter Charm.

Imagine Peking then, just before Japan had screwed up brass enough to defy Britain, and the rest of Europe’s Legations, and ours too by the way! – and had quietly occupied most of Imperial North China while everyone sat back like a lot of spineless ostriches with head in sand . . . Imagine getting there our third trip, and knowing people, and with a fiancée who had already agreed to the banns, and the plum blossoms frosting the Summer Palace gardens where Old Buddha once strolled, before we re-entered our motor cars and went to the foot of the Western Hills where Ellis had sedan chairs and coolies waiting for the madcap, swaying, almost perpendicular climb to the very topmost ridge, past the American Minister’s temple, and the other Buddhist temples the Europeans rent, through this connivance and that with the willing priests – to Ellis’ Grotto of the Propitious Pearl. And there in the back of his living quarters was a cave in the hills, where he has to let the pilgrims go day or night, and where the mummy of a famous saint sits lifelike, covered with some sort of plaster tinted like real flesh. Imagine the view at sunset of the distant Tartar walls of Peking, just barely visible through the golden light, with everything powdered with dust which is older than time itself . . . There between the 500 year old red lacquer columns of that Buddhist pavilion we sat and though things about Jenghiz Khan, and fiancées, and sipped big 3 oz Broken Spurs served in hand engraved crystal champagne glasses. 

To 1/2 jigger of dry gin add the same of Italian vermouth; then 1 jigger of port wine, 1 tsp anis del mono or anisette, the yolk of 1 fresh egg. Shake briskly with big lumps of ice and serve cold in a champagne saucer glass, dusting the top with a pinch of powdered ginger at the last.

*  *  *

I’d like to say more about the startling pointedness of the name of this cocktail, in historical context, but I’ve got a bird to which to attend. But holy colonial nostalgia.

spirit possession

Christmas Spirits IV: Under A Glamorgan Moon.


(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)


After the tepid offering from Duffy (whom frankly I had come to in other related matters trust), we figured it was time to go traditional, and thought it worth seeing what Baker had to offer in terms of a Sazerac, now that we had already gone out of our way (up the street, to the mall) to procure some Absinthe. Lo and behold, a cool bounty was in store; the drink itself was a brilliant specimen of the breed, however much it seemed to differ from any number of the various “authoritative” recipes. Robust, complex, and punchy (not like a punch but like being punched); herbal, and, as a cocktail should be, genuinely intriguing, hinting at something just beyond the veil. Just beyond the North waves, perhaps…

As Mike saw fit to toast: “To good old American ingenuity, the first cocktail invented on American soil, and to us; this is apparently as good as it gets.”


THE IMMORTAL ZAZARAC COCKTAIL, which Takes us Back Many Years to the Old Days before the Drouth, & to New Orleans.

This is the famous original from the Zazarac [sic? God, as if I know] Bar. Since France outlawed abinthe much of the world’s best was made by French Creole New Orleans. . . Put 1 jigger of bourbon into a shaker, toss in 1/2 tsp of sugar, add 1 tsp of Italian vermouth and the same of absinthe, or lacking this, Pernod Veritas. Contribute 2 or 3 good dashes of Peychaud’s bitters – now obtainable in all big towns – shake with cracked ice and serve in an Old Fashioned cocktail glass, and end up with a twist of lemon or orange peel on top . . . It is also made by mixing in the glass itself, just like an Old Fashioned, using 1/2 lump of sugar, saturating this with bitters, and muddling well before adding ice and spirits.

* Note: improper glassware, oh well, and a grapefruit garnish that was a stroke of insipiration, I dare say.

spirit possession

Christmas Spirits III: “That’s A Good Colour”


(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)


We have taken a detour into the other available cocktail guide the house houses – in order to escape Baker’s rampant internationalism and egg whites – Patrick Gavin Duffy’s similarly opinionated yet less richly anecdotal 1934 Official Mixer’s Manualand have emerged girded with The Journalist. What girding it provides, however, has proven inadequately uplifting or organizing (and in this respect most unlike a girdle), for all that it is recommended by its pleasant cantaloupe hue. Initially puzzling, in the way that it hints at something almost tequila-esque (probably the fault of the citrus), while being fundamentally gin and vermouth-driven, the puzzle turns resolves in a flabby and underwhelming fashion, more a curiosity than a genuine intrigue.


Lemon juice, 2 dashes
Curaçao, 2 dashes
Angostura, 1 dash
French Vermouth, 1/6th
Italian Vermouth, 1/6th
Gin, 2/3rds

Stir  well in ice and strain.

Followed immediately by an unlabelled mystery beer in a re-used Grölsch bottle, due to impatience. Tasted like a good American pale ale. Curiouser and curiouser.

spirit possession, Uncategorized

Christmas Spirits II: Faded Glory


(This is part of a drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion)

(Apologies for the lengthy and uncharacteristic intermission between drinks, but two of our party were dispatched to retrieve “nacho fixins” and an N64 gaming system with 007 Goldeneye, both soon-to-be Christmas Day staples.)


Good rye, or bourbon, 1 jigger
Gomme syrup, 1 tsp
Curaçao, 1 tsp
Cognac, 1 jigger
Orange bitters or Angostura, 3 dashes
Absinthe, 1 tsp.

Mixing technique seems to be torn between stirring in a bar glass with ice, straining into a whisky glass, and adding a little seltzer topped off with a twist of lemon peel – or stirring in the same bar glass, and turning into an old fashioned glass, a squirt of club soda, and a twist of peel.

Again, opted for no ice because, again, we weren’t anticipating it would hang about long enough to be warmed by the ambience. Agreed by all in attendance to be a solid and respectable cocktail, although stock limitations demanded we substitute a cheap but serviceable 10-year-old Italian brandy for the cognac. Ultimately it conveys a surprising delicacy for all the brutish and elbowey spirits involved, although to its discredit there is a slight hint of Mr. Clean on the nose. Opted for classic Angostura in lieu of orange bitters, but upon further consideration suspect that orange was the way to go.