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On the virtues of spring drink.

19/04/2010

For those of us in the American Middle West, the arrival of spring has been nothing short of revelatory. The winter of 2009-2010 has been brutal, with snow and ice storm after ice and snow storm, pellets flying at 40 miles per hour, stinging the cheek even through cashmere scarves. Though winter is an occurrence we’re all acquainted with, seldom has the procession from our lamentably short autumn to our painfully short spring been so disagreeable.

We’ve pined for barbeques, asparagus, asparagus pee, cold libations and the sight of a mysterious orange ball in the western sky.

Some of us have given in to temptation. The impatient man went to Ace Hardware to purchase charcoal and grill brushes in the middle of March. He was rewarded for his restiveness with yet another snow and ice storm and the Kansas Jayhawks embarrassing themselves in Oklahoma City.

The most restless of us actually did the unthinkable: drinking gin when the mercury was below 70 degrees. Some, myself included, maintain that 80 degrees is official gin weather, with the exception of a New Year’s Eve French 75 — which is mandatory — and the odd martini. For the sake of being agreeable, I’ve dropped the requirement to 70 degrees. The vagaries of climate in the 21st Century demand our flexibility in matters of importance. There is also, along with the French 75, an exception for Old Raj Gin, which, due to its superior flavor characteristics, falls into the yearlong quaff category. As for Pimm’s No. 1, it is still up for debate. If we could get the other seasonal offerings from Pimm’s in the United States, then, obviously, there would be no need to combine Argentine cucumbers and conglomerate Club Soda with the summer favorite. As it stands, Pimm’s No. 1 is the only Pimm’s available. This falls into a gray area. No one enjoys a gin and tonic more than your dutiful doggerel spinner, but partaking in it when your nipples can cut diamonds is something, as Keith Olbermann might say, up with which we should not put.

At the risk of taking up the cause of the Bermondsey Good Templars, we must exercise abstinence from gin drinks when the weather turns.

It is difficult, naturally, but it can be done. With the host of winter brews, whiskys (to say nothing of whiskeys) and rum concoctions available, even the dreariest of gelid hellscapes can be endured.  This doesn’t replace the crispness of a Hendricks and Stirrings or a Hampstead Halfie… Hampstead Halfie? you say. What is this? I’ll explain. My good friend, one Mr. Davis, introduced me to the drink, which has origins at Lawrence’s Pachamamas. Where they got the idea, we’re not altogether clear on. This isn’t the point. The point is that it may well be the warm weather drink of 2010. At the aforestated restaurant, it was called the Havana Donkey, owing, as the recipe did, to the Moscow Mule, which is as follows: 2 oz. vodka; 2 oz. lime juice; 8 oz. ginger ale. Give or take on the ginger ale. While ‘Havana Donkey’ is a worthwhile moniker, I humbly suggest that ‘Hampstead Halfie’ is a far better one. First, there is far more gin produced and consumed around London. Second, ‘Havana Donkey’ belies the Moscow Mule connection (connexion, for those of you in Hampstead) by eschewing the alliteration. Third, a mule is a cross-breed, i.e., a ‘halfie.’ I believe that settles that. As to the Halfie itself…

Davis brought over the raw ingredients, along with the idea, one afternoon a few weeks back when it was passably balmy. In fact, it was the first barbeque I’d hosted that year. The second I’d attended, which puts the day squarely in gin territory. He used a shaker, and still does, while I find the drink delightful enough stirred. (I’ve had enough of cold hands during the winter.) The Halfie is a few jiggers gin, the juice and remaining rind of a quarter lemon and four ounces of ginger beer. Reed’s works best. More than one g-t enthusiast has made the heretical conclusion that the drink indeed surpasses the old colonial classic. One thing that gets noticed immediately is how well it pairs with cigars. Many were smoked while putting down the lion’s share of a family sized gin bottle and three four packs of ginger beer. It was absolutely delightful, enough to rival bourbon or even coffee as a cigar complement.

We took a White Star break with our meal, thanks to Mr. Farley, and continued with more cigars and our Halfies on the porch. That story may be worth telling, but as all things that happen when spring drinking, it was far better worth living. After three more Halfie sessions, it is evident that this trendy blend will endure.

Now, if you’d tried this while the snow was blanketing the ground, you say, you would’ve loved it just the same. Be honest, you bastard. In truth, I would not, and nor would you. Just as citrus is essential in our ongoing battle against scurvy, Vitamin D is an absolute requirement for Her Majesty’s preferred quinine delivery system. A drink is no more just a drink than a good cigar simply a smoke — or a woman is just a woman, come to think of it — because it requires more than gin, ginger beer and a lemon to provide one with full absorption. The breeze counts. The birdsong counts. Fellowship counts, though all these sensations can be suitably duplicated by oneself with the assistance of a fertile imagination, and food counts. Why bother to dull one’s sensations in a manner that divorces the subject from the rhythms of nature? In failing to recognize our animal perceptions we risk becoming truly beastly.

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The word, revealed.

15/04/2010

In the beginning, the Caribbean Sea was composed of rum and tobacco seeds. This was before mankind. And Pepín saw it, and said it was good. Knowing that the people to come could not handle the octane of the rum, or digest the tobacco seed for sustenance, Pepín drank in the sea and fertilized the fields. And lo, he gave the tobacco seeds to the farmers to use. Verily, they planted them.

More from the book of Pepín to follow…

Myth and mystique

13/04/2010

The Epicurean quest is one filled with many truths and truisms. Among the self-evident: Épernay had better be your entrepôt for a wine that bubbles; the best whisky hails from the Speyside region; the finest cigars come from Cuba; one cannot duplicate the Vidalia onion in Oklahoma.

The fourth example is included because it is presumed to have more in common with the third than the others. While consumers in the United States and worldwide are becoming increasingly aware of the quality cigars made in countries other than Cuba, the belief persists that, somehow, there is no comparison to be made. It hovers in the a priori mode for a number of reasons which, though examined by many, tend to go unchallenged based on a combination of psychology, politics, misapprehensions and observable data. Why is the Cuban cigar so distinct and different?

First and foremost, it is a matter of agriculture.

Cuban tobacco comes mostly from the Vuelta Abajo region, where a combination of factors, mainly those of climate and soil, make for ideal tobacco. The clay is brimming with minerals, notably lithium, that could be compared to Champagne terroir in terms of uniqueness for a specific product. To deny the primacy of Cuban tobacco — as a raw agricultural product that is the first step in a pains taking process from seed to stick — would be foolhardy. It would be equally unadvised to confuse primacy with supremacy.

Cuban cigars are those by which others are measured because they are the cigars by which others are measured. Compare them, for example, to peaches. It wouldn’t be very controversial to say that the peach we judge all others by is the Georgia freestone; yet, South Carolina and California are larger peach producers. Couple this with the (admittedly uncomfortable for this author) fact that the finest, juiciest and sweetest peaches out there are organically grown in the state of Colorado and you begin to see the correlation. We judge by history, even in matters of taste. Georgia’s peach production officially commenced a year before Colorado’s statehood. The potential for peach cultivation in the latter was completely untapped. Is it possible that the ideal climate and soil for a peach orchard is nearer to Palisade than… well, Peach? That would take an agronomist with a fine palate, qualifications of which I may only boast one.

The peach comparison is offered to dispute the notion that if something is ‘the original’ then it is inherently better than its competition. This claim is frequently made for Cuban cigars and is seldom challenged. It would seem like a straw man to knock down: combating the notion that Cuban cigars are the best, no others compare or can compete, this is an objective finding which is closed to further discussion. That isn’t a reasonable position, is it? No. Why, then, is it held by so many cigar smokers, even here in a country where they are still illegal?

One reason is illegality itself. Forbidden fruit, whether grown in Pinar del Rio, Macon or Durango, is always the best kind. It has long been this scrivener’s belief that the only reason Eve took the fall for that apple business is that Adam had effectively obscured his apple brandy still. It makes little difference that most people seem to be unaware of just why Cuban cigars are contraband in the U.S. (They myths are myriad, the suppositions run the gamut from jocose to bewildering. ‘There’s weed in ’em.’ ‘We can’t obtain product from nations with national health.’ &c.) Coincidentally, our embargo on Cuban goods elevates their prestige both here and abroad. Nothing tickles a European (or Asian, or South American, or African…) more than having a leg up on the auld city on the hill. Give him faster broadband speed and a better secondary education system and he will enumerate with delight the small victories over the American colossus. Offer him a Winston Churchill or a La Aurora Cien Años and observe the combination of conceit and false sympathy as he declares that he only smokes Havanas. On the other hand, tell an American that those French painters were really on to something– something he couldn’t get — and watch as he clandestinely cultivates grande wormwood in the back yard.

What happens, then, when the finest Havana puros share a shelf with products from Honduras, Nicaragua and The Dominican? We shall have to wait. Judging from President Obama’s first year, the likelihood of opening up relations seems low. Risk-reward matrices on doing it are akin to a Stupid Fight pitting Kim Kardashian against Stephen Hawking. Let’s visit that magical world anyhow…

Mr. Jones walks into the humidor of his local cigar store. It is fully equipped with all of the finest boutique brands. José Pepín García is represented, as is his son, Pete Johnson, Dion Giolito, Guillermo León, Kurt Kendall… on and on it goes. On another wall, the megamanufacturers hold court. Lamentably, the clerk tells Jones, we have to carry 100 facings of Altadis to get the Habanos SA product. The back wall has a display that Jones could only dream about — or procure online with considerable malfeasance — up until today. They’re all there. Cohiba Siglos, Romeo y Julieta Churchills long and short, P2’s, D4’s, Juan Lopez No. 2’s, San Cristobal… name it. He has his heart set on that Cuban he’s been so egregiously denied, so he grabs a Siglo IV and marches to the counter and pays his $15.75 plus sales tax. An aside. It is difficult to determine just what a Siglo IV would sell for were it available at present. The aforementioned figure is only a guess, and probably a hopeful one. It does little good to see what they’re selling for at certain websites or in the Spanish or Chinese markets. Further, the Canadian prices can be misleading, as their government’s attitude towards cigars makes our own look like it is administered by Tony Hyman and David Savona. All things considered, the consumer can expect to pay at least fifteen dollars per cigar. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see them start at twenty or even thirty dollars, though. Jones puts light to the chestnut Colorado beauty — no digressions about the qualities of Colorado chestnuts, please — puffs, and begins his expedition into the wilds of Flavor Country.

In the beginning, the Cubans fly off the shelves. Jones has blown through a box of Siglo IV’s and has dabbled in Edmundos and Principes and even got a Partagas Lusitania to draw from start to finish. It is convenient here to disrupt the story again to examine the power of myth as it relates to the subject at hand. Cosmo Kramer was instrumental in how neophytes, nonsmokers and seasoned smokers alike look at the world of cigars. Few have forgotten the Dominican crepes episode. The Dominicans rolled the crepes too tight! was the refrain, as the pastries exploded on unsuspecting patrons. Say what you will about the tobacco, the history, the iconography… in today’s cigar market there is no doubt whatever that, in terms of construction, Cuba is far from first place. As an exercise to those of you who can obtain them: get five Partagas Lusitanias and five Don Pepín Blue Label Delicias. Smoke them over the course of a fortnight. Make notes, though you are unlikely to forget, on consistency and draw. The flavors are naturally quite different. So different, in fact, that one’s preference is a completely subjective judgment. Whether you can pull smoke out of it, however, is as objective as eyesight. The twin terrors of bugs and plugs are more prevalent in Cubans than any other country of origin, no matter what the popular mythology holds. Well, back to Jones, then. Jones has had a delightful month of smoking. His local cigar store has had an equally delightful month of separating him from just shy of a Grover Cleveland. Business is booming and tastebuds are blooming and it is spring again.

After thirty days of Triscuits, Jones begins to think back to the simple joys of Club crackers and even Ritz. At the time of this writing, neither Altadis nor Swedish Match have a lockdown on product comparable to Nabisco, who does still have Winstons and Salem Lights cornered. Tell me, he says to the friendly salesman, what have I been neglecting this month?

For starters, the gentle if big boned clerk opines, there is the García y León, a joint venture of Pepín and Aurora. We are in the future. And you’d do well to revisit the chalky and delicate flavors of the Illusione Épernay. And when has a My Father ever let you down?

Jones picks up the three at a damage of $30. He returns the next day to buy a box of My Father Le Bijous. A funny thing happens. As he works through this box, he notices that, while none of them get to that rare place found in the best Siglo IV, there is much more consistency from one cigar to the next. Every time he lights up the My Father, it is just as the last one. The complexity and depth of the My Father is no slouch, either. The size closest to an Edmundo is half as much and there is no risk of sacrificing a third of the box because of construction flaws or inconsistent flavor. Through this exercise he concludes that there is no way to deem one better than the other. When a Siglo IV is on, it is unparalleled. It is the finest pleasure a smoker can have. Conversely, Pepín’s cigars, along with Dion’s and Davidoff’s, all hit. To assert superiority is to say that he’d rather have a guard score twenty points than dish out ten assists. In conclusion, Jones tells his clubmates, who look nothing at all like a model in Club magazine, some days are Siglo IV days and some days are Special R days. And others are Cabaiguán days. Still others call for a Murcielago. They all deserve attention and Nicaragua is closer to Cuba, in terms of raw material to ferment and manufacture, than anyone is giving credit for. Besides, hasn’t it been asserted with considerable authority that the original cigar tobacco crop wasn’t even from Cuba, but Mexico?

This Jones, you say, is an asshole. Why, yes, he is. He ogles undergraduate girls, seeks discounts beyond what the market can withstand, defecates in public places and often forgets to flush. He abstains from wiping the piss off the toilet seat but never from drinking your beer. Throw the first stone, then, message board critic, by all means throw it, but he is right on this one.

Finally, realize that the Fable of Jones, Smoker, is one to recall and retell when the subject of Havanas arises. One day the market will be able to decide just which cigar makers deserve palme d’ors and plaudits. This observer will be redfaced and shocked if the Leóns and Fuentes, when forced to compete openly and equally with the great cigars from La Habana, will come close to requiring a bailout.

Through haze.

11/04/2010

A sufficient quantity of gin and bubbly, along with a half dozen cigars, has prompted me to start this site, where cigars, libations and literary theory will converge. To paraphrase a man wiser than myself, there may be perfect short stories, but a perfect weblog is an impossibility.