Monthly Archives: August 2014

Bluegrass State of Mind Part 1

Editor’s note: After I visited Kentucky last year, I wrote up a gargantuan piece on my experiences in bourbon country. I’ve decided to post it in installments to spare you from such an oppressive read.

Part 1: Beyond the Trail

As Kentuckians in the know like to point out, the Bluegrass State contains more aging barrels of the native spirit than it does people. And that’s no joke. As of the most recent tally, there are about 4.4 million people calling it their Old Kentucky Home, versus just shy of 5 million charred-oak aging corn-centric whiskey.

Of course, travelers can visit these wooden wonders, especially since distillers have spruced up their facilities to make them presentable for company. There’s the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, featuring distilleries such as Four Roses, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Woodford Reserve and the Heaven Hill Distillery’s Bourbon Heritage Center. As the name of the latter suggests it’s more a museum than an actual distillery. In fact, there’s really no distillation going on there. It’s not really the company’s fault. There was an epic fire back in 1996 that destroyed its production plant and many of its warehouses.

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Willett’s pot still

Don’t get me wrong, there’s stuff to see. There’s still a veritable city of tin warehouses dotting the grounds, each home to thousands of barrels of aging bourbon. And Heaven Hill remains the largest distillery that remains family- and Kentucky-owned, as the spirits market is tightly consolidated. As cool as it may be to enjoy such a seemingly down-home artisanal experience as dipping the neck of your own Maker’s Mark bottle in hot, red wax (yes, you actually can do this) keep in mind that Maker’s is now owned by multinational distilled spirits conglomerate Beam, Inc., whose annual revenue tops $3 billion. It, of course, does not diminish the quality of the bourbon. Maker’s Mark is some of the finest product out there. But if you’re trying to avoid busloads (and trolley-loads) of tourists descending upon each stop of your excursion like hungry locusts, then leave distilleries such as Maker’s or even the still-independent Heaven Hill off of your itinerary. Stop in the gift shop, buy a bottle or four, maybe some bourbon-infused mustard or hot sauce and be on your way.

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Amarula Saves the Elephants

Amarula pack shot with fruit and glass (LR)So this is pretty cool—not to mention timely since I just included Amarula in the latest video. The Amarula Trust, the brand’s not-for-profit, charitable arm, is supporting a new project to protect African elephants. Amarula drinkers and elephants have a lot more in common than they realize: Elephants are really big fans of the marula fruit, the source of Amarula Cream and its new line extension, Amarula Gold.

One of the more sobering takeaways from the recent safari was that humans have dramatically encroached on elephant habitats over the centuries and certain areas are becoming overpopulated with elephants that have gradually migrated away from domain of humanity. Overpopulation has meant decimation of many of the trees elephants rely on for sustenance.

The project being funded by the Amarula Trust involves collaring elephants in the eastern Okavango Panhandle, part of the delta, in Botswana, to better understand their movements, herd dynamics and feeding patterns. It is being run by an NGO called Ecoexist.another elephant

Ecoexist, which is partnering with Texas A&M University in the US, is monitoring elephant populations across three different areas within the Okavango Panhandle and working with 13 villages in the area. Its team of researchers includes a conservation biologist, an ecologist and an anthropologist, as well as post-graduate students and interns from Botswana’s department of Wildlife and National Parks. The plan is to collar 20 elephants over two years, with the Amarula Trust funding the collaring.

The aim is to develop sustainable solutions for not just Botswana, but neighboring countries as well.

Grab a bottle of Amarula, pour a little neat, on the rocks or in you coffee or tea (yes, tea, damn it) and let’s toast to the elephants.

Safari Sipping

I got back from an African safari a few weeks ago—trip of a lifetime! Here’s a short video with a couple of drinkable musings from my time in Botswana and ZImbabwe.

Izakaya Junkie

I have to admit that I don’t think I had even heard the term “izakaya” until about five or so years ago when I was heading to Vancouver. I’d asked a former local for some recommendations and she insisted that I check out the city’s izakaya scene as part of a true Vancouver experience (significant Japanese population there). It was also a good primer for a trip to Japan we’d be taking later that year.

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Sake Bar Shigure

When I got back to the East Coast, I discovered that there were actually several rather good ones in New York City that had never previously been on my radar. Some of my favorites are Sakagura in Midtown East (a bit on the upscale side and somewhat pricey), Sake Bar Hagi (dangerously close to Times Square, but tucked away in a secluded basement as if it’s hiding from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.-loving touristic throngs) and Umi No Ie in the East Village (which boasts some 60 different shochus to try—the staff will even keep an unfinished bottle with your name on it for the next time you stop in).

Last week on a research outing for my upcoming book, “The Year of Drinking Adventurously,” I was introduced to yet another one to which I’ll be returning frequently: Sake Bar Shigure in TriBeCa, which opened at the end of 2012. Dimly lit, with bottles of sake, shochu and Japanese beer lining the brick walls, Shigure offers a trendy, yet highly authentic experience, with pages upon pages of shochu, sake and beer to try, as well as an always-evolving list delicacies like pork belly and seared bonito with garlic and onion. Proprietor Takahiro Okada (a renowned shochu and sake expert) was kind enough to create the perfect pairings for the 4 or 5 shochus I consumed that evening. Shochu is one of the few spirits styles that has so many stylistic variations that are pronounced enough to be immediately detected by novice drinkers. A sweet potato shochu is noticeably distinct from a rice shochu, which differs from a barley shochu and a sugar cane shochu and so on.

Believe me, there are worse things to be doing with one’s time than researching a drinking book.