August 11, 2020
First published in serial form in 1862/1863, No Name is not the book name (see what I did there!) that first pops up when one thinks of Mr. Wilkie Collins; instead, it’s The Moonstone, and then The Woman in White. Both of which have also had recent television adaptions. It makes some sense, too, especially as The Moonstone is in many ways arguably (gently, cause there is no need for a ruckus) the first, or one of the first, detective novels, kicking off a massive industry, and The Woman in White has a little of that action, too. However! Collins wrote many more novels, some good, some not as good, and strongly in the good column is No Name. It had been, maybe, twenty-odd years since I read this the first time, and on the second reading recently I was struck by just how good it is, and left wondering why more haven’t taken it up. It has, as you might expect, a fair dollop of Victorian melodramatics – meaning, lots of cliff’s edges or “oh that didn’t happen” ramped up moments, like a silent movie in a way, or like a fair amount of modern movies now that I think about it – and gets wordy at over 500 pages. But the story/stories of two sisters (Magdalen and Norah Vanstone) abandoned when their parents die, and left none of their inheritance due to the ridiculous legality of the times, and how they deal with it and the loss of standing and fortune (not to mention grief, degradation, all that) is done quite well, and gives us a heroine (Magdalen) that many readers at the time weren’t fond of, but which I quite liked in her “do whatever it takes” and “I’m not going to sit in a place others tell me to” attitude. It could, I think, also make a swell miniseries! Plus, it was Collins’ pal Charles Dickens favorite (of the Collins canon), and has a couple nearly Dickensian characters, including the rascally Captain Wragge, and his nemesis, the calculating Mrs. Lecount, who below gives us – along with cruel fool Noah Vanstone – our first of three Cocktail Talks from the book.
“The man has been drinking, sir,” said Mrs. Lecount. “It is easy to see and to smell that. But he is evidently used to drinking. If he is sober enough to walk quite straight–which he certainly does–and to sign his name in an excellent handwriting–which you may see for yourself on the Will–I venture to think he is sober enough to drive us to Dumfries.”
“Nothing of the sort! You’re a foreigner, Lecount; you don’t understand these people. They drink whisky from morning to night. Whisky is the strongest spirit that’s made; whisky is notorious for its effect on the brain. I tell you, I won’t run the risk. I never was driven, and I never will be driven, by anybody but a sober man.”
–Wilkie Collins, No Name
July 10, 2020
I hear you, don’t worry – it’s July, it’s summer, it’s hot, the sweat is pouring off your hard-working brow, the yard has yet to be mowed (again), the sun is so high and hot in the sky, a winter-ific, fall-tastic, chill-in-the-air idealistic, hearty, flavorful, Scotch whisky is perhaps the last slow sipper that comes to mind. But darn it, conventions are made to be chucked, and sometimes the last idea is the most needed, the best. Just like some days you realize that only a good whisky will balance out the hours. Lucky for me, I recently received not one, but two good ones in the mail (lovely mail!), and so quenched my summer Scotch thirst with Ardbeg Wee Beastie and Ardbeg Blaaack. And what lovely tipples they are!
Let’s start with Ardbeg Wee Beastie, a youthful number at just five years of age (“mellowed” as they say in ex-bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks), but packing a walloping taste none-the-less, like a powerful toddler you won’t want to ignore. Especially if you like some smoke in your sip – that smokiness is a fine match for summer, too, if you think about all the flame-y cooking happening. But even though it’s young and bold, it’s smooth, too, starting with a peat-y, pepper-y, fire-y nose that ends sweet with a hint of citrus. That folds into a taste that’s smoky as well, especially at the tail, but with loads of spice, a little vanilla, and herbs intertwined. A few drops of water are a neat addition, bringing the smoke, vanilla, and citrus notes more into play.
Right along the heels (it’s a two-Scotch day after all!) is Ardbeg Blaaack, the limited-edition whisky released to celebrate and commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Ardbeg Committee. What is the Ardbeg Committee? It’s a sweet fan club, really, one that spreads the good Ardbeg word as well as getting some neat stuff, too. But back to the Blaaack! New Zealand Pinot Noir casks (first time Ardbeg’s used these for those counting) held the lush liquid. New Zealand and Scotland’s shared sheep-ness add the extra “baaa” to the name! But what about the taste? Glad you asked! The aroma has a distinctive berry-ness (summery!), light smoke, and hints of flowers and oak, flowing into a flavor that’s more berries, baked fruit, cherries, a bit of oak and nuttiness, followed by a little spice and more fruit. Yummy. Add a little water here, and the cherry notes are unleashed even more, with an echo of citrus along for the ride.
And now you have two great reasons for believing me that whisky can be just the ticket, even in the height of summer.
March 24, 2020
When you’re sorta, oh, staying at home for an extended period as some are at the moment, it’s good to have a big, big book (or many). If you’re looking for a good big, big book, may I suggest what I’m reading, The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries? Cause it is very big (700 plus pages in the version I have), and very good (I mean, it features tons of heavy-hitters covering many genres), and very holiday-y, which brings a nice feeling these days. Christmas and winter holidays are mystery-story hotspots, if you didn’t know, probably due to balancing the cheer out with murder. That’s a guess, but I’m just happy there are so many good stories here! Including one by Robert Barnard called Boxing Unclever. I have to admit, I didn’t know Mr. Barnard well before this story (I know, I probably should!), but one of the fun things about a big anthology like this is discovering the writers new to you, alongside your favorites. And this story is an intriguing one, a story within a story, and one with some nice – and murderous! – cocktail-talking, in the form of the below quote:
And so it was time for a second round of drinks. I decided on that as I saw toiling up the drive the figure of my dear old dresser, Jack Roden. My once dear old dresser. I poured out a variety of drinks including some already-mixed cocktails, two kinds of sherry, some gins and tonic, and two glasses of neat whisky. There was only one person in the room with the appalling taste to drink neat whisky before luncheon. Pouring two glasses gave that person a fifty-fifty chance of survival. Depending on how the tray was presented. With my back to the guests I dropped the hyoscine into one of the whisky glasses.
— Robert Barnard, Boxing Unclever
March 19, 2019
I recently discovered Cyril Hare, the English mystery author and judge (his real name was Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, too, which is quite a mouthful), and have now read a couple of his books, and (like many of the best English authors of his time) they tend to be well-plotted, not-overwrought in any kind of distracting way, and full of characters written perfectly, as well as providing an insight into English small towns and such. When the Wind Blows
(which some consider the highest Hare) is a good place to start if the above entices you, or if you like orchestras, as it takes place around an orchestra in a mid-sized English town. Also, there’s whiskey (as the below shows us), and a few folks happy to take a tipple even if this takes place in the lean post-WW II years.
“I have never been able to understand,” said MacWilliam, looking meditatively at the glass in his hand, “why, in these days of shortages and rationing, it should be considered perfectly proper for guests to bring with them morsels of tea and sugar and disgusting little packets of margarine for the benefit of their hosts, while it is taken for granted that they should be supplied ad libitum with substances far more precious – if you will forgive my mentioning it – a great deal more expensive. Now I don’t much care for tea and hardly take any sugar, but I do – as you may conceivably have observed – drink an appreciable quantity of whisky of an evening. I repeat, therefore, I have left two bottles for you in the hall.”
–Cyril Hare, When the Wind Blows
December 23, 2016
I was recently able to re-taste a tasty trio (they call it the Ultimate Range) of Ardbeg Scotch Whisky
, 10, Corryvreckan, Uigeadail, thanks to a friendly postal person (how nice they sometimes are!) delivering them to my door. I could go deeply into a review of each one, but honestly there are many spots you can look at for reams (do people still use the word “reams” in this way in the digital age? I hope so) of words on these Scotches. Cause they’re delicious, and you should try all three. If not right now, then soon. However, even when I’m sipping such swell sippers, I always get the urge in the back of my throat or mind to try them in a cocktail – even when most would only have such swell sippers solo or with one dash of natural spring water, or maybe a small perfect ice cube. Call me crazy. You won’t be the first one.
Here, I went with Corryvreckan
. Its lush aroma (blackcurrant, cherry, vanilla, pine, and brine) and even lusher taste (more blackcurrants and other forest-y fruits, dark cherry, pepper, almonds, smoke, a hint of honey, an intriguing echo of the sea), just called to me. It could
be the legendary and dangerous whirlpool it’s named after, too. Cause I am a sucker for a legendary whirlpool. With such a layered and memorable nature (and admittedly a price tag that’s not crazy, but not low end, either), I always want to be extra careful in what I mix it with, and want to let it really shine, just adding small amounts of ingredients that will accent and meld nicely.
I decided first on Martini Gran Lusso Italian vermouth, 150th anniversary edition, which itself comes from a blend of Barbera and oak-aged Moscato, and which boasts rich fruit tones and a little sweetness. The only other ingredient is one I’ve wanted to slip into a cocktail for as long as I’ve had a bottle: Breckenridge Bitters. Made as you might expect in Breckenridge, CO, it isn’t a “bitters” in the traditional sense of the word, more an aperitif that uses local alpine herbs in a magical manner – it’s also a tiny bit sweet, but balances it beautifully with a bitter, herbal loveliness. It’s available in many spots now, and I strongly suggest it.
That’s a powerful trio! And this cocktail is a powerful one – so full of flavor it’s hard to be believed. It’s a force of nature. Like whirlpools and mountains.
All Mountains Are One
2-1/2 ounces Ardbeg Corryvreckan
1/2 ounce Martini Gran Lusso Italian vermouth
1/4 ounce Breckenridge Bitters
Wide orange twist, for garnish
1. Fill a cocktail shaker or mixing glass halfway full with cracked ice. Add everything but the twist. Stir well.
2. Strain into a cocktail glass, or something comparable and neat. Garnish with the twist.
A Note: Is this close in nature to other Scotch cocktails, including perhaps the most famous of them all? Sure! But every good drink deserves its own good name, even if only one ingredient changes. Really, even if an amount of an ingredient changes. Be creative yo!
March 10, 2015
Tales of Whisky and Smuggling is a fun read, full of stories that take a variety of paths, but at heart are all about the struggle between what we might call the revenue men, though in the book they’re usually referred to as gaugers or excisemen, versus the smugglers, the home-distillers operating outside the tax scheme much as their foreparents did, making their Uisge Beatha (water of life, or whisky). Neat, right! Even neater though, is when reading one of the stories I learned of the deoch-an-dorus, or a drink-at-the-door you give a guest as they leave. That’s a great tradition. I am in to that! Check out the below quote to see it in action.
‘Ach,well, you’ll just have a deoch-an-dorus before you go, I insist,’ their host said. Although feeling vaguely disappointed Holton and Muir were delighted to have this traditional Gaelic drink-at-the-door. James fetched glassed and poured them a hearty measure each and a smaller one for himself. The gaugers tossed off their drinks and said goodbye to their very convivial host, who was delighted to see how unsteady they were on their feet as they set off down the road.
–Stuart McHardy, Tales of Whisky and Smuggling
January 27, 2015
I’ve talked a pretty fair amount about my love of the writer Chester Himes, and pretty much everything he’s written. And have had a number of quotes from books of his featuring the Harlem detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. But I’ve never had a quote from the book All Shot Up? That seems almost unbelievable. But I’m here to rectify that (and might have more quotes from this book in the future, cause it is awesome) with the below from the very first page of the book.
His eyes popped. He knew he was sober. He hadn’t been drinking any whisky and he hadn’t been smoking any weed. But he didn’t believe what he saw. It was a mirage; but this was not the desert and he was not dying of thirst. In fact he was cold enough for his guts to freeze; and the only thing he wanted to drink was a hot rum and lemon.
He saw a Cadillac pass, the likes of which he had never seen. And his business was cars.
This Cadillac looked as though it were made of solid gold.
–Chester Himes, All Shot Up
October 13, 2011
As the temperature here in Seattle is coaxing its way down into downright chilly, I’ve been writing about switching into the darker, warming-er, drinks. Or, I just wrote about one of my regular fall/winter drinks, the Bobby Burns, for the always-good-to-read Good Life Report. You, actually, should go read my article right now, and learn how to make this Scotch, sweet vermouth, Benedictine combo cocktail, and learn a bit more about the poet Robert Burns, and learn a stitch of a poem of his about whisky, a poem excerpt you might want to read when having the drink, and also learn about a cigar salesman. That sounds like a lot of learning, but really, it’s painless (and tasty). So get going, and go read my Fall Poetics and the Bobby Burns cocktail article.