Friday, August 31, 2007

Of Freeway Construction and Idiot DJs


Yesterday morning, I awoke to hear the morning DJ on the radio station that I'm ashamed to say I listen to ranting and raving about the fact that the westbound Katy Freeway would be closed from Gessner to Wilchrest from 5:00 AM Saturday until 5:00 AM Monday so that steel beams of for the Beltway 8 overpass can be put in place. It was idiotic, he claimed, because it would interfere with people trying to get away for the Labor Day weekend. Good planning, TxDOT! If they weren't such a bunch of lazy idiots, they would be doing this during the week or in the middle of the night so that holiday travelers wouldn't be effected. Gee. If only we had more people like this nimrod running highway construction. The fact of the matter is that TxDOT is very good about working at night whenever possible. If this idiot had been paying attention during the West Loop or US 59 reconstructions, he would know that. He would also know that putting those giant overpass beams in place isn't a one-night job. Given that it's not, when is the best time to close the freeway: during the week when thousands of commuters are trying to get to work or get home, or over a holiday weekend? The holiday weekend, of course, especially when the closure doesn't start until Saturday morning -- most people who are going to leave town during the weekend will have done so by Friday night. It doesn't bother me so much that this DJ is colossally ignorant about the world around me; it's that he's too stupid and too arrogant to realize just how ignorant he is.

Today's Shoes

Gravati wholecut cap-toe bluchers in navy blue Lama calf with a double leather sole (15537, 640 last). This is one of the great patterns that Gravati makes. It's deceptively simple but entirely perfect. The toe cap and the eyelet facings have matching calfskin piping along the edges, which is an outstanding touch. The shoes have double leather soles, but they're thinned out to single-width at the waist. I could do this shoe in every color of Lama.

Last Night's Tipple

You may recall that The Rich Spicy One is 50% Tamdhu aged in ex-Sherry butts and 10% Tamdhu aged in ex-Bourbon barrels. If I hadn't enjoyed The Rich Spicy One and if I didn't know what went into its blend, chances are that I would never have bought the single malt bottling of Tamdhu. It hasn't gotten very good reviews, and as much as I like to disparage the usefulness of reviews and ratings, I do read them and I am influenced by them. And then there's the matter of the price. It's less than $20 for a fifth, and that's out of line for a decent Scotch malt that's 10 years old. If something is too cheap, I tend to think that there's a reason for it. But I did enjoy The Rich Spicy One, and I knew that Tamdhu is owned by the Edrington Group, which doesn't have any stinkers in its portfolio, so I decided to give it a try.

Tamdhu is a rarity among Scotch distilleries in that all of the malt that they use is produced on-site. The production of the Saladin maltings attached to Tamdhu is so large, as a matter of fact, that it provides malt for a number of other distilleries (including Highland Park, another Edrington property) as well. The distillery's production is almost entirely used as a constituent of blends, primarily Edrington's Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse. The bad ratings notwithstanding, I like the Tamdhu single malt. It has a nice dollop of sherry over top of a malty, grainy core. There is no peat here, just fresh, clean malt. Refreshing and very tasty. Sometimes a bargain really is a bargain.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Speaking of the Astros

This season has not exactly been great for the Astros, but today's game was just about perfect. It was low-scoring, which meant that it was over relatively quickly (around two and a half hours). The Astros won (2-1), which is always a good thing. Not only did they win, but they beat the noxious Cardinals while holding the noxious Albert Pujols hitless. Lance Berkman (a Rice alumnus) hit the go-ahead home run in the bottom of the fourth inning. Craig Biggio didn't start, but he did pick up a pinch-hit single in the bottom of the eighth. And Brad Lidge looked good in pitching a perfect ninth inning to pick up the save.

And I'm forced to observe yet again that if Mamacita truly loved her son Emmet, she would have selected Lance Berkman to be his Astro Buddy instead of stinky old Morgan Ensberg.

Today's Shoes

Gravati wingtip bals in walnut waterproof suede with combination leather/rubber soles (15902, 640 last). I thought the shoes were appropriate today because the waterproof suede works well with the forecast thundershowers and because they're the only shoes I own in Astro burnt orange. My company may be planning to lay a bunch of us off, but they sent us all to an afternoon baseball game. Yay, company!

Last Night's Tipple

Another dram of The Rich Spicy One, a vatted malt in the sherried style from the Edrington Group's Easy Drinking Whisky Company. I was thinking about giving The Smooth Sweeter One a try (because, you know, I like smooth and sweet), but I thought that it would be profligate to buy a bottle of that before I finished this one off. And it will probably be a while before I finish this one off, not because I don't like it but rather because I have way too much whisk(e)y.

I liked this second try better than I did the first time. With some time in the glass, some of that Scotch-y aroma that I noted before blew off; and I was able to enjoy it in all its sherried goodness. I have read more than once that this whisky is "good but not very complex," but I don't really understand where that comes from. To me, complexity means that one's experience with a whisky will vary from sip to sip and that different aspects of its character will become apparent over time. That's what happened with this whisky, so, yes, I would say that it has complexity. That's more than I can say for other Scotches that I've tried that cost more than it. It's a good whisky and a good value.

Note to Ben: If you recall, one of the constituents of The Smokey Peaty One is Ledaig, which is Tobermory Distillery's peated malt. I have recently seen two different bottlings of this, a 10 year old that's apparently aged in ex-Bourbon casks for around $47 a fifth and a sherried version without an age statement (so probably less than 10 years old) for around $30. You might find the sherried version interesting, although it has not gotten very positive reviews.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Advice for Soccer Fans


American soccer fans, it's okay that you like soccer. It's even okay that you honestly think that soccer is a better sport than such all-American classics as football, basketball, and baseball. However, you would be well-served to remember some important rules concerning soccer fan-dom:
  • Do not refer to soccer as football. You live in America. Use American terminology. I don't case that the rest of the world calls it football. We call it soccer here.
  • It's fine that your favorite team is European. Lord knows that MLS teams can't inspire much enthusiasm. But refer to the Eurpoean city where that team is based by its English name. It's Rome, not Roma and Seville, not Sevilla. You don't want to sound like you popped out of a bad Saturday Night Live skit, do you?
  • In America, when using a city name to refer to a sports team, we use a singular verb. For example, "Houston was unable to muster much effective offense, leaving 26 men on base while scoring only 2 runs." Using a plural verb makes you sound like a British poseur: "Chelsea were unable to mount an effective attack because the slow pace of the match and the general pointlessness of the sport caused them to fall asleep before the half."

Today's Shoes

Day

Gravati plain-toe five-eyelet blucher ankle boots with a toe medallion and double leather soles in Radica 01 calf (15950, 655 last). I had thought that it wouldn't rain today, or else I wouldn't have worn some of my "good" shoes. Blake-constucted shoes, like these are, are susceptible to letting moisture from rain or flood into the interior of the shoe because the stitching that attaches the insole to the outsole runs along the inside of the shoe and can act as a wick. That's why I wouldn't wear them in the rain, though: I'm not outside long enough for my feet to get wet in any event. I just don't like the ugly shade of gray that leather soles turn from wet-down sidewalk and road grime.

Evening

Gravati plain-toe saddle bals in medium brown peccary with a combination leather/rubber soles (15578, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

Another drink of Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond last night. Despite the fact that other Bourbons have a higher rye content than Old Grand-Dad (cf. Bulleit), OGD has the most rye-influenced nose and palate of any Bourbon that I have tried. 100% spice, lots of cinnamon, very enjoyable. I suppose that it would be impossible for Beam to turn a brand with a name like Old Grand-Dad into something super-premium, which is a bit of a shame. Though it would raise the price of this little gem, it might get it some well-deserved attention and respect.

Pot Distilled Vodka?

Yesterday, I saw an ad for a super-premium pot-distilled version of Smirnoff vodka in the British edition of GQ. I wasn't able to find a reference to it on the Smirnoff website, so perhaps it's only been released in Britain so far. I have to confess that it makes absolutely no sense to me except as a marketing ploy.

Consider what vodka is supposed to be: colorless, odorless, flavorless. Those characteristics are achieved by distilling something (usually a mash of grain, although some vodkas claim to be made from grapes) to a very high proof to remove almost all of the congeners that give alcohol its flavor and character. It doesn't matter what kind of still you use to produce the liquor if the spirit comes off the still at 190 proof. There's nothing left in the spirit at that point. That's why it's called a neutral spirit. Pot-distilled vodka is just another load of marketing hokum. Of course, I guess that it's no worse than a bottler buying 190 proof grain neutral spirits from Archer Daniels Midland, shipping it to Europe, diluting it with local water, packaging it in a fancy bottle, and selling it as a foreign super-premium vodka for $35 a bottle.

Another thing that bothers me about this is the assumption that pot stills are necessarily better than column stills. Well, they're certainly less efficient than column stills, but inefficiency doesn't necessarily translate into higher quality. The product of pot stills is different from the product of column stills, not necessarily better.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

In Praise of Hatch Chiles

Hatch, New Mexico is a small town of less than 2000 people in the southwest portion of the state whose only claim to fame is its chile crop. I don't know enough about chiles to know if Hatch chiles are their own variety or are simply an expression of another variety, but I do like them. They offer heat combined with a a base flavor that's very appealing -- no jalapeño grassiness, for example. If they are left to ripen completely, they'll be orange-red, but they're typically harvested green like those in the picture to the left at around this time (this coming weekend is the annual Hatch Valley Chile Festival). In celebration of the harvest, Central Market promotes the hell out of them, putting them in just about anything: cornbread, sausage, scones, rolls, hamburger and hotdog buns, tortillas, sourdough bread, and jack cheese. The jack cheese is my favorite (Hatch jack cheese quesadillas, yum), but most of them are very good.

Today's Shoes

Day

Gravati punch cap bal boots in dark brown calfskin (10278, 683 last). Have I mentioned that these boots have padded tongues? Well, they do, and it's a very good idea. I have high insteps, and laced shoes typically irritate me after a while on the top of my foot. (This is one of the reasons that I like side-elastic shoes: no laces to irritate my feet.) Padded tongues tend to minimize this effect.

Evening

Gravati wholecut plain-toe bluchers in caramel calf with a rubber lug sole (16368, 640 last).

Monday, August 27, 2007

In Today's Whiskey News

Noted Bourbon authority Chuck Cowdery, publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader and author of Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey, reports that Wild Turkey will release a Russel's Reserve Rye in September:
It is being bottled as we speak and will be on store shelves in late September. It is a U.S. release. It’s a six-year-old straight rye that will retail for about $24.00. An official press release should go out this week.

Recall that Jimmy Russel is Wild Turkey's master distiller and that Russel's Reserve Bourbon is a 10 year old whiskey selected by him. I imagine that the rye is the same sort of deal and that it's intended to compete with Sazerac Junior. Given that I like everything from Wild Turkey that I have tried and that I really like straight rye, I am very much looking forward to this.

Today's Shoes

Day

Gravati plain-toe side-elastic shoes in Radica 055 calf (16624, 683 last). Side elastic shoes are wonderful, and the deep burgundy of the Radica 055 calf went very well with my brand new olive trousers from Chris Despos.

Evening

Santoni two-eyelet chukka boots in caramel brown calf with a rubber sole. These are another pair of rain shoes, and it's stormy in Houston tonight.

Last Night's Tipple

Last night, I had another dram of Highland Park 12, followed by a small pour of Highland Park 15, just to make sure that my initial thoughts about the comparison between the two were accurate. As I wrote yesterday, the distillery was looking for a different profile from the 15 from what they had established with the 12 and accordingly included a larger proportion of ex-Bourbon barrels with the 15. Last night's experience confirms my impressions from Saturday night: I prefer the 12 year old expression, probably because it has more Sherry influences and more muted peat. That's not to say that the 15 year old isn't a very good whisky, just that the 12 year old is simply excellent.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Adventures in Canning

Ever-eager to try new things, Mamacita has made and canned a batch of plum ginger butter. I had never heard of such a thing, and I was deeply suspicious of the very idea of mixing plums and ginger. But I am helpless to resist the prospect of free food, and so I begged a jar from her this afternoon. I consumed some of it on a toasted and buttered English muffin this evening. It's really good. The ginger is not particularly pronounced but just sort of lingers in the background. It's not too sweet, either -- just a lot of fresh plum flavor. I like it, and I will happily eat the remaining three jars if Mamacita decides that she doesn't want them.

And no, Letitia, there is not a bit of smoke to be found anywhere. Maybe there would have been if Mamacita had dried the plums over a peat fire, but that would have made no sense. I don't think that she even knows where to find peat.

Why William Shirer Drives Me Nuts

Ben comments on last Thursday's post about the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939:
Incidentally, you might be very interested in a talk Max Hastings gave at Pritzker Military Library recently. At the end he gets asked some obnoxious question by a Stalin apologist and reminds the slug of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact to shut him up. The MP3 is here.

Max Hastings is a British military historian, and the subject of the talk was Armageddon, his book about the end of World War II. I have not read the book, but the talk is excellent; and if the war interests you at all, you should spend the hour to listen to the talk. In the talk, Hastings makes a number of points about Stalin, the Red Army, its leaders, and its conduct in Poland after the war. Stalin, he says, was a far more effective warlord than was Hitler, largely because the Red Army's debacle to start the war taught him to leave all but the highest-level military questions to the men who actually knew about them, whereas Hitler never realized that he wasn't a military genius. He was a much more dangerous man for a general to work for, though, because he had a propensity for shooting generals, both because they failed and because they succeeded too well; Hitler, by contrast, didn't execute many of his army officers. The leaders of the Red Army by the end of the war, especially Georgy Zhukov, were the most effective generals of World War II, but they were effective largely because they were brutal and utterly unconcerned about the lives and well-being of their men. The Red Army was the most effective of the Allied armed forces, killing far more Germans and destroying far more German materiel than the Western Allies. Of course, their conduct in Germany at the end and after the war was nothing short of bestial, and they conducted a similarly brutal campaign after the war in Poland to exterminate all Poles who might object to Soviet domination. Listening to all of this, strangely enough, reminded me of why I can't stand William Shirer.

Shirer was the German correspondent for CBS radio for many years, ending with his expulsion from Germany in 1940. His Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, first published in 1959, remains the most widely-read popular history of the rise of the Nazi Party and the German conduct of World War II. Critics at the time and since have dismissed it as crude oversimplification of the Nazi era, but it is extremely readable; and I think that Shirer's opinions about the why the war came, even if not particularly original, were at the time and remain influential among the moderately well-read and well-educated American population. For Shirer, the causes of World War II are very simple: Germany fell under the control of a bunch of ruthless gangsters bent on world domination, and Britain and France were too cowardly to oppose them and too benighted by anti-Communist prejudice to recognize that alliance with the Soviet Union was, by the late 1930s, the only way to stop German aggression. He's certainly right about the first part: Germany did indeed fall under the control of a bunch of ruthless gangsters bent on world domination. The other two parts of his formulation are much more problematic. His account of British and French motivations for the policy of appeasement is much too simplistic and cartoonish, but that's not what I want to talk about here. It's his portrayal of the Soviet Union as the last, best hope of averting war.

On one level, Shirer is probably correct that an alliance between Britain, France, and the Soviet Union would have averted or at least delayed the beginning of World War II: had Hitler thought that the Soviets would have fought him if he invaded Poland, he probably wouldn't have invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. But what Shirer doesn't really address is whether the Soviets were negotiating with the Western Allies in good faith in 1939, whether it was really possible for them to have concluded an alliance on terms that would have been acceptable to both sides, and what the consequences of such an alliance would have been on the countries of Eastern Europe.

Was Stalin negotiating with the Western Allies in good faith in 1939? I doubt it. Leave aside the fact that Stalin had contemplated an accommodation with Hitler as early as 1936 during the Spanish Civil War, the fact that there was a history of German-Soviet cooperation dating to the 1920s, when the Soviets allowed the German army to train on Soviet territory to evade the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles, and the fact that German and Soviet intelligence and espionage services began cooperating and sharing information as early as 1937. Stalin's sine qua non for an alliance with Britain and France was that Poland give the Red Army transit rights across Polish territory to engage the German Army, and he knew very well that that was a condition that the Polish government could never agree to. This reluctance by the Polish government to allow Soviet troops into their territory, far from being the obstinate ineptitude that Shirer portrays it as, was entirely rational. The Poles were in an impossible situation in 1938 and 1939. Their only legitimate hope to defend against German aggression was to get help from the Soviets, but they knew that Soviet help would inevitably mean Soviet domination. Shirer never mentions that the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1921 (Stalin was one of its commanders during that war) and that only a miracle comparable to that of the Battle of the Marne prevented them from taking the city, nor does he acknowledge that the Soviet domination that the Poles feared actually happened after World War II. And remember that almost half of inter-war Poland was territory formerly belonging to the Russian Empire. The Polish government knew that their position was impossible, and they chose to deal with their predicament with dignity: they refused to cave in to German bullying, and they refused to hand their country over voluntarily to the Soviets. It was stubbornness, I suppose, but it was a noble stubbornness, regardless of what Shirer says. An alliance with Stalin would have meant British and French complicity in Soviet aggression against Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It was one thing for Britain to agree to this when it was a fait accompli, as it was by the time of the Yalta conference in 1945. It was quite another for them to do so in 1939. A British government that agreed to such an alliance would have fallen, and it would have deserved to do so.

Shirer's basic problem is that he doesn't regard Stalin and the Soviet regime as being evils on the same plane as Hitler and the Nazi regime. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to try to determine which was the more evil, but it is unquestionable that both were directly responsible for the intentional infliction of huge amounts of death and human suffering. It is perfectly natural that any government not evil would have shrunk in the late 1930s from allying with either regime, and Shirer's refusal to understand that renders him obnoxious and his book tendentious.

(I am too lazy to quote from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in support of my arguments, but see the chapters "The Turn of Poland" and "The Nazi-Soviet Pact".)

Today's Shoes

Gravati three-eyelet half brogue bluchers with a modified U throat in antiqued tan calf with a combination leather/rubber sole (16407, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

Highland Park first released the 15 year old version of its single malt in Britain in 2003. It's not the same as the 12 year old version only with 3 years more age on it. Rather, Highland Park was trying for a slightly different style of whisky. According to Kevin Erskine of The Scotch Blog, where the 12 year old Highland Park is aged in 90% ex-Sherry casks and 10% ex-Bourbon barrels, the 15 year old is aged in a 50%-50% split between the two kinds of wood. The natural result is that the 12 year old (and the 18 year old, too; it has the same wood treatment as the 12 year old) is more sherry-influenced, with more dark raisin and nut aromas and flavors; while the 15 year old has more of the aromas and flavors that one associates with ex-Bourbon malts (vanilla, etc.). This different style has not been a rousing success with some critics. Consider, for example, some reviews from Whisky Magazine:
Martine Nouet: 7 1/4
Nose
Fresh saw. Pine resin. Nutty. Hazelnut milk chocolate. A mineral touch. Wet pebble.
Palate
Mild and round. Vanilla toffee, with a distinct bitter oakiness.
Finish
Medium, salty feel, nutty.
Comment
Oak is present all the way. A bit dull. Lacks vividness.

Dave Broom: 7 3/4
Nose
Light peat smoke gives a perfume to a sweet nose: tablet, demerara sugar, dried fruits (mango as well as grape). Water makes it more phenolic.
Palate
Hot with sweet treacle, black banana, raisin, firm oak and that delicate smoke. Very sweet and honeyed
Finish
Gentle, long. Good balance.
Comment
Balanced, as whiskies of this age should be but just too sweet for this palate.

Just to give you some context, these comments and the scores that accompany them are unusually bad, particularly for a big-name Scotch whisky. Whisky Magazine scores on a 0-10 scale, but a whiskey that tasted and smelled like gasoline would probably still get a 6.5 from most reviewers. To be honest, not all reviewers had a bad opinion of the whisky. Here's what Jim Murray had to say in The Malt Advocate:
90 A new expression due out in March, positioned between the 12 and 18 year old versions. A fresh and enormously drinkable whisky; very silky, with honeyed malt, delicate citrus and berry fruit, floral notes (heather and lavender), and a hint of cocoa and sea spray.

(This review was written in 2006, and I think that his "new expression" comment derives from the fact that the 15 year old was only released in the US last year. The Highland Park website makes clear that it was released in the UK in 2003.)

Well, I am perfectly willing to stipulate that my palate is dead and unperceptive, but I don't get much out of this whisky that the reviewers mention above. Citrus? Not so much. Salt? Nope. Black banana? I don't even know what that tastes like. I can say this: my impression is that it is smokier than the 12 year old version, which makes some sense. Despite the fact that it's three years older and that peat smokiness tends to decrease with age, it doesn't have the degree of sherry influences that the 12 year old does. Those sherry influences can mask peatiness. Anyway, I got some vanilla, but for someone who drinks Bourbon frequently, that vanilla seemed pretty weak. I also get some of the honeyed character that I like so much in the 12 year old version. I thought that this was very good, but I think that I like the 12 year old better. I'll try the 12 again tonight to make sure; but if I do, it's good news for my wallet.

Incidentally, the Highland Park website says that 20% of the malt for Highland Park comes from maltings at the distillery, while the remaining malt comes from Tamdhu (another Edrington distillery) and Simpsons (a commercial malter). The Highland Park malt is peated to around 40 parts per million phenols, while the Tamdhu/Simpsons malt is peated to between 1 and 2 parts per million. By my calculations, that means that the malt used to make Highland Park is around 9 parts per million phenols. That's enough to make it smoky, but it's still pretty mild compared to Bowmore at around 25 parts per million or Laphroaig at around 40 parts per million. Ben would probably therefore reject it as pathetic and watery stuff, which is too bad. It's really good.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Today's Shoes

Mantellassi three-eyelet chukka boots in blue suede with a heavy rubber sole. These shoes have Norvegese construction, and I wish that the stitching had been done with brown or black thread instead of off-white. Leave it to the Italians to call attention to something like that, though.

Last Night's Tipple

William LaRue Weller's grandfather Daniel began distilling in Kentucky around 1800. His father Samuel became a distiller in his own right, and WL got into the business, too, founding the William LaRue Weller & Brother company to market whiskey in 1849. He remained in control of the company, rechristened WL Weller & Son, until 1896, shortly before his death. It was with this company that Julian "Pappy' Van Winkle got his start in the whiskey business, getting hired as a salesman in 1893. Weller was a whiskey trading company, not a distilling company, so they had to buy the Bourbon that they sold under their own label somewhere; and starting in 1903, that somewhere was the Stitzel distillery in Louisville. The Stitzel brothers leased the distillery to Weller in 1912, and that distillery had a license to sell medicinal whiskey during Prohibition. After Prohibition ended, Pappy Van Winkle and his business partner Alex Farnsley bought both Stitzel and Weller and merged them to establish Stitzel-Weller (oh, the originality!), and the new company opened a new distillery in Shively. Van Winkle in turn sold out to United Distillers in the 1970s, which eventually became Diageo after a series of mergers. Diageo shut down the Stitzel-Weller distillery in 1995 and eventually sold off the former Stitzel-Weller brands, including Old Fitzgerald and WL Weller. The former brand is now owned by Heaven Hill, the latter by Buffalo Trace.

The claim to fame for Stitzel-Weller Bourbons is that they were wheated. That is, their mashbills replaced rye with wheat as the secondary grain (after corn, of course). All wheated Bourbons currently on the market (WL Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, Maker's Mark) derive from Stitzel-Weller's wheated mashbill. The first three were S-W Bourbons that continued with the same mashbill even after Diageo sold the brands off. Maker's Mark, despite the company mythology about Bill Samuels Sr. creating the mashbill from bread-making experiments, uses the S-W wheat mashbill, too: Pappy Van Winkle gave it to him when Samuels was just starting out and needed all the help he could get. Where did the S-W wheat mashbill come from? Nobody really knows. There are extent company documents from the turn of the century indicating that the old Stitzel distillery made standard Bourbon with rye as the small grain. Sometime between then and when the new Stitzel-Weller distillery opened in 1935, someone had made the decision that wheat worked better to create the kind of Bourbon that the company wanted to create. It's undoubtedly the case that wheat had been used as a small grain in other Bourbons prior to S-W making a habit out of it in the early 20th Century. Early distillers probably used whatever grain they could get, and it stands to reason that they could often get wheat instead of rye. By Pappy Van Winkle's time, though, rye was the standard small grain.

In any event, the WL Weller brand today is anomalous just like the Old Charter brand is. All WL Weller Bourbons (except the 19 year old, which is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection) are middle-shelf offerings, and yet they have a good deal of age on them. The 12 year old costs less than $18 a fifth, which is just crazy for a Bourbon that old. I doubt that Buffalo Trace will phase out the brand or stop offering the 12 year old, but the price has to rise. The hallmark of all wheated Bourbons is that they're sweet and not bitter, and so it is with this one. It has a graininess on the finish that I don't particularly care for, and it's remarkably hot for a whiskey that's only 90 proof. Believe it or not, but I think it could probably stand a bit more age. It's not bad Bourbon, but I don't think that it will be one of my favorites.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Whole Foods Wins

I could lie to you and tell you that I was waiting to blog about the FTC-Whole Foods lawsuit until the case was for all intents and purposes over, but the truth is that I didn't notice that the Federal district court ruled last week on the FTC's request for an injunction to prevent Whole Foods from buying Wild Oats on the grounds that the FTC had a substantial likelihood of proving that the acquisition would be a violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act; and when I did notice it a couple of days ago, I was too lazy to write anything about it. Well, the virtue of my laziness is that the case appears to be over now.
A three-judge panel in Washington yesterday rejected the Federal Trade Commission's request for a delay of a lower-court judge's ruling in favor of the acquisition, which the commission opposed on antitrust grounds. The agency last week sought the delay pending the outcome of an appeal.
...
The appellate court ruled that, while the commission "has raised some questions about the district court's decision," it failed to make a strong case it could win on appeal. ("Court Clears Whole Foods Deal" by David Kesmodel, Wall Street Journal, p. A2)

The decision by Judge Paul L. Friedman that the FTC was seeking to overturn makes interesting reading. Although Judge Friedman did not adopt Whole Foods' arguments completely, he unequivocally rejected the FTC's case. The basis of that case was the claim that Whole Foods is a member of a market called "premium natural and organic supermarkets," which market includes only Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and two or three small regional chains. Because there are so few market players, argued the FTC, and because Whole Foods and Whole Oats are by far the largest of those players, it was extremely likely that Whole Foods' purchase of Wild Oats would give Whole Foods the ability to impose a "small but significant non-transitory increase in price," which, apparently, is one of the primary criteria by which the FTC is to judge the potential monopolistic implications of any proposed merger or acquisition. Whole Foods, and Judge Friedman, countered that "premium natural and organic supermarkets" market was a figment of the FTC's imagination, that in reality Whole Foods' most significant and dangerous competitors like Safeway and other mainline grocery store chains, which, in recent years, have been expanding their selection of Whole Foods-like items and altering their formats to be more like Whole Foods. To me, the most telling fact that was mentioned in the decision was that Whole Foods, which obsessively comparison shops all of its significant competitors, has not comparison shopped Wild Oats in years. Wild Oats is not significant competition to Whole Foods. Randall's and Kroger and Central Market are. If Wild Oats isn't even a viable competitor to Whole Foods, how can the combination of the two be monopolistic? I'm pleased to see that Judge Friedman and the Court of Appeals have agreed with me.

Sugar Refiners to the Queen

One of the nice things about the Spec's downtown warehouse is that they have a number of packaged goods imported from overseas in their native packaging. It's like someone went down the aisles of a British grocery store, shoved a bunch of items into his cart, and sent it all to Spec's in Houston. I doubt that it's completely legal because they don't have US-mandated nutritional labels on them, but whatever. The stuff comes from Europe, not some place with dodgy food safety laws. Anyway, Spec's has Lyle's Golden Syrup in the tin that they have apparently used virtually unchanged since it was introduced in the 19th Century. It's produced by Tate & Lyle PLC, who, the label assures me, have the Queen's warrant as Sugar Refiners. And what is golden syrup, you ask? Well, again, the label helpfully tells me that it's partially inverted refiners syrup. And what the heck is that? According to Wikipedia, it's sucrose syrup that has been partially broken down into glucose and fructose by acids or enzymes. The presence of monosaccharides (glucose and fructose) makes it sweeter than it would have been if it had simply been a made from a disaccharide sugar (sucrose). I gather that it's very similar to Karo syrup, which is a mixture of corn syrup (ie, sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup (ie, sucrose and fructose), but we shall see.

Today's Shoes

Mephisto four-eyelet plain-toe bluchers with a storm welt and rubber soles (Marlon model). There's no use denying it anymore: these are too loose in the heel, but I don't think that it's because they're too long but rather because they're too wide. I can spread my toes out as far as they will go and not hit both sides of the shoes. I guess the conventional wisdom about Europeans really is true: they really do have wider feet on average than do Americans.

Last Night's Tipple

The Buffalo Trace Distillery currently owns the Old Charter brand, and Old Charter comes in four expressions: 8, 10, 12, and 13 years old, the last also called Proprietor's Reserve. The 12 year old presents something of a problem for Buffalo Trace. It's old whiskey, and old whiskey is in short supply these days; but it's priced as a middle-shelf Bourbon at just a bit more than $20 per fifth. Every drop of it that they sell at a non-premium price is a drop less that they could put into one of their premium brands that sell for substantially more than $20 a fifth. Not only that, but there's also a bit of brand confusion going on here. The 13 year old Proprietor's Reserve is packaged, marketed, and sold as a premium product, and it's only a year older than the 12 year old, which is not. Now that premium, aged Bourbon is again booming, the 12 year old bottling of Old Charter makes very little sense for Buffalo Trace to continue. And so they're probably not going to do it. Alas. It's good Bourbon at a good price, and I've never seen the Proprietor's Reserve bottling down here.

Anyway, Old Charter is made from Buffalo Trace's high-corn, low-rye mashbill. And, in fact, there is no rye to be detected anywhere in the 12 year old. With some time in the glass, it develops some rich, dark caramel aromas, but the palate is still kind of woody. This latter fact makes me wonder if Ben might not find it noxious, since he seems to like Bourbons like Knob Creek that are predominantly woody. I wouldn't go so far as to suggest that he buy a bottle because I don't want a repeat of the swearing, spitting tirade that I got when he bought a bottle of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, but he might try to bum some off of some sucker.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

On This Day

On this day in 1939, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which, in its secret protocols, divided eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. This agreement gave Germany the assurance that they could invade Poland without Soviet interference (and Soviet interference was the only thing likely to prevent German aggression against Poland), in return for which the Soviets received the assurance that they could gobble up the Baltic states, eastern Poland, and parts of Finland without Germany doing anything to stop them. As such, this pact made the beginning of World War II inevitable (Germany started the war slightly more than a week later by invading Poland on September 1, 1939), as well as the Finno-Soviet Winter War of 1940 and the forcible incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and eastern Poland into the Soviet empire. It would be difficult to find a diplomatic agreement more cynical in its conception or more pernicious in its effects than the German-Soviet Pact. The only outcome positive to civilization of this pact than I can think of is that it served as a wake-up call for some Western leftists who had bought Stalinist propaganda through the '20s and '30s.

Today's Shoes

Day

Gravati cap-toe bals in red-brown Lama calf (16592, 500 last).

Evening

Gravati plain-toe bluchers in dark brown Lama calf with a combination leather/rubber sole (16493, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

One of the virtues of most whiskey (and whisky) is that labeling is very straight-forward. Most (but not all) of the better versions will have an age statement on the label, and that age statement reflects the age of the youngest spirit that goes into the blend. Now, age doesn't tell the whole story, of course. Different spirits in different locations and different barrels age differently. But it is better than nothing.

Leave it to the French to make things difficult. Most (but not all) of the big-name Cognacs and Armagnacs use a system of labeling that tells the consumer next to nothing. In this system, there are three grades: VS (Very Special), which must contain brandies at least 3 years old; VSOP (Very Special Old Pale), which must contain brandies at least 5 years old; and XO (extra old), which must contain brandies at least 6 years old. Wouldn't it be simpler and more communicative just to use the same system that the Canadians and the Americans and the Scottish and the Irish use for age labeling? Of course it would, but that's not the French way.
Cerbois is one of the more readily-available Armagnacs on the market, at least around here. I don't claim to know much about brandy in general or Armagnac in particular, but I have noticed that every Armagnac that I've tried has this interesting almost-burnt-toast aroma going on. It's not present in any Cognacs or other brandies that I've tried. I actually like it, but it is unusual. As for the rest, well, it smells and tastes like brandy. I enjoyed it, but there is a reason that I typically drink whiskey instead of brandy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Today's Shoes

Day

Edward Green bespoke bals with a U-throat and diamond cap done in pie-crust-style handsewing. I have mentioned before that I tend to wear down the toes of my soles faster than any other part, so I have started to get steel tips on my bespoke shoes. It stops that kind of wear in its tracks, but the downside is that it sounds like I'm wearing tap shoes when I walk on hard floors. Maybe if I had the grace of Fred Astaire, this wouldn't be a problem.

Evening

Gravati bal austerity brogues in red-brown Lama calfskin (14953, 640 last).

Last Night's Tipple

Continuing my recent rye kick, I had a pout of Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye last night. Yup, it tastes like rye, although the rye elements are muted compared to the others that I've had this week -- pretty much, the rye comes through just on the finish. The rest of the experience is very much like an aged Bourbon, and a dessert Bourbon at that. There's a lot of vanilla and caramel and a massive body in there.

So let's play the "Where'd he get it?" game. Van Winkle whiskeys are bottled and distributed by Buffalo Trace, but that doesn't mean that everything that goes into them was distilled at Buffalo Trace. The older Bourbons, for example, are largely composed of old Stitzel-Weller barrels that Julian Van Winkle owns. The 12 year old Family Reserve Bourbon no longer has much Stitzel-Weller whiskey in it (S-W closed for good in 1992; remember that the age statement on a bottle is the minimum age of the whiskey that goes into it, so it is possible that a small amount of 15 year old S-W Bourbon goes into the 12 year old bottling), and what I've read indicates that it's mostly Heaven Hill-distilled wheated Bourbon now. In any event, consider the possibilities for the 13 year old Van Winkle rye. Beam, Wild Turkey, and Barton all distill rye whiskey (Beam for the Jim Beam and Old Overholt brands, Wild Turkey for itself, and Barton for the Fleischman brand), but I know of no relationship that Julian Van Winkle has ever had with any of them. More than that, I have never heard of any of the three doing contract distilling for any rye label. Brown-Forman contract distills rye for Heaven Hill (for the Pikesville and Rittenhouse labels), but I don't think that they did any rye distilling before the Heaven Hill distillery fire in 1996, which means that they don't have any rye old enough for Van Winkle. That leaves Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill, both of which have rye stocks old enough (Buffalo Trace has stocks for the 18 year old Sazerac rye, Heaven Hill for the 21 year old version of Rittenhouse) and both of which have a preexisting relationship with Julian Van Winkle. So which is it? Beats me. I'd bet on Buffalo Trace, but I wouldn't bet much.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Today's Shoes

Day

Paul Stuart plain-toe four-eyelet bals with a floating medallion in dark brown calf, made by Grenson. At one time, Paul Stuart had some of its private label shoes made by Edward Green. Fed up with inconsistent and untimely deliveries, they dumped Green in the mid to late '90s and replaced them with Grenson. Grenson's actual corporate name is (or was, at that time) William Green & Son, so PS included that name on their label. They pulled it after getting complaints that it was a deceptive attempt to persuade casual consumers that the shoes were still made by EG. These aren't as well-made as EG shoes, but they are impressive -- the designs that PS commissions from Grenson are consistently unique and excellent.

Evening

Crockett & Jones Handgrade split-toe bluchers with a hand-sewn apron and toe seam (Cornhill model, 330 last). These shoes are actually private-label Tom James shoes (I believe that IAG, the parent company of Tom James has an equity interest in C&J, although C&J makes lots of private-label shoes for lots of companies), but it was easy enough to tell that they were C&J-made. The interior markings and the faux counter both give it away instantly.

Last Night's Tipple

Another dram of Old Overholt last night; and it was again a spicy, light, pleasing drink. A very good value for $13 a fifth, although it would probably be better at 100 proof than 80 proof.

It turns that I was incorrect the day before yesterday in identifying Jim Beam, Old Overholt, and Wild Turkey as the only widely-distributed straight ryes until recently. Apparently, Barton Brands' Fleischman's rye also had wide distribution at one point, although I have never seen it. Heaven Hill's Rittenhouse and Pikesville ryes also had a decent distribution, although I gather that it was always somewhat regional. Furthermore, since the Heaven Hill distillery burned in Bardstown in 1996, all of the rye that has been sold under Heaven Hill's labels has been distilled by Brown-Forman. Another day, another dose of whiskey trivia!

Hooker Barbie

Mamacita's neighbor Angela brought my attention to one of the newer versions of Barbie: Barbie Top Model. Of course, the eye makeup, short skirt, and fishnet stockings make her look like a streetwalker, or, as Angela says, "Barbie WHORE." I think that Hooker Barbie is more mellifluous, though. Given the Bratz dolls, nothing should surprise me anymore. Alas, that's not the case.

The Meaning of Bespoke

Every so often, a newspaper or magazine that caters to those who have a not insubstantial disposable income will run an article that fits into the "Gee, aren't bespoke suits neat?" genre. This month, that periodical is New York magazine, and the article is "Me, My Suit, and I" by Michael Idov. An indispensable part of this type of article is the rundown of the Cool Details that you can get in a bespoke suit:
The remaining two categories—the rich and the wannabes—often simply replace label worship with tailor worship: in the Lehman Brothers hallways, Henry Poole must get name-dropped more often than Ben Bernanke. For this type of buyer, there are some easy signifiers of bespokeness, what Tom Wolfe calls “status details.” The most famous one is working cuff holes. On most off-the-rack suits, that row of buttons on your cuff is simply sewn on, because this way you can move them up or down during alterations; once you’ve cut the buttonholes, you can’t make the sleeve shorter or longer without screwing up the look. Another area of obsession is the stitching. On the front buttonholes and the flower loop, it shouldn’t be too even; on the lapels, staggered “pick stitching” is a big plus. When laymen claim they can smell bespoke from a mile away, most tend to mean these little signatures. But focusing on flourishes betrays the big idea. That idea is that you can ask for anything—40 pockets, a sewn-in gun holster, a third leg—and, to a certain type of person, anything else is tyranny of the designer.

Surprisingly enough, Idov doesn't mentioned the ne plus ultra of status details that are used to sell "bespoke" suits: wild lining. You can get purple polka-dotted lining if you want to! Isn't that cool? Of course, nowadays, you can get working buttonholes and pick stitching on any number of down-market off-the-rack suits; and any manufacturer with a stock special or made-to-measure program worth its salt will offer a plethora of wild and crazy linings. Moving past the Cool Details, Idov moves on to the definition of bespoke:
Intrigued, I take a quick survey of top tailors with one dumb-sounding question: What is bespoke? Considering the marketing power of the word, it is perhaps inevitable that its meaning should depend on who’s talking. Olga Fioravanti offers the most cut-and-dried, if slightly reductive, definition: “A real bespoke tailor belongs to the Custom Tailors and Designers Association of America”—of which her husband is, incidentally, the president.

He then moves on to some obfuscation from a representative of Duncan Quinn and then a more intelligible definition from a guy who writes for the Oxford English Dictionary.

This is really not that difficult. To me, there are really two components. First and foremost, bespoke means what the client wants it to mean. If I want my tweed jacket with turnback cuffs, a throat latch and flapped patch pockets with billows, I should be able to get it. Angled hacking pockets and a half belt in back? No problem. If it's technically possible, the tailor should gladly make it. Now, he may think that what I want is a bad idea, and it's his responsibility to tell me so and explain why. But ultimately, it's my decision (and he can decline the commission if it offends him). If I'm confronted with a handful of models and can't alter them in a meaningful way, it's not bespoke. If I can't change the number and configuration of any pocket on the jacket, internal or external, it's not bespoke. And so on. Second is the method of construction. Bespoke garments are cut one at a time from a paper pattern individually created for a particular client. Period. This is not to say that tailors won't have various standard proportions (ie, if this measurement is this, then the length of this seam is that); the best will because it allows them to get the pattern right with less trial and error. However, if the tailor is altering a standard pattern, if every single seam length and measurement isn't up for grabs, then it's not bespoke.

It recent years, there has been a good deal of obfuscation about bespoke, and most of it has come from designers and their ad men who want to reap higher margins from glorified stock specials. Gucci? Tom Ford? Duncan Quinn? Not bespoke, no matter what their ad copy and slick salesmen say and how much free champagne they pour down your throat. Vincent Nicolosi? Chris Despos? Henry Poole? Bespoke, no matter how bad and threadbare their decor might be. As these sort of articles go, Idov's isn't that bad (although I don't much care for the trousers of the suit he got). It just is incomplete and doesn't really get to the heart of the matter.

By the way, the picture above is of a fitting that Will from A Suitable Wardrobe had with Thomas Mahon, a British tailor formerly a cutter with Anderson & Sheppard and Steed. Mahon, like most A&S alumni, does forward fittings, where the jacket is mostly made. This is significantly less dramatic than a basted fitting, where the pieces of the jacket are loosely stitched together with white thread. By the end of a basted fitting, the arms are likely to be torn off the body, the collar removed, and the back and front panels disassembled and pinned together again in a slightly different configuration. It's highly entertaining.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Today's Shoes

Day

Cleverley three-eyelet plain-toe blucher in medium brown Russian reindeer calf.

Evening

Gravati split-toe ghillie-tie bluchers in tan suede with a combination leather/rubber sole (13555, 500 last).

Last Night's Tipple

Since I had some Wild Turkey rye two nights ago, I figure that I might as well make another tour of all my ryes; and what better place for stop #2 than baby Sazerac. The picture to the right is a bit misleading; the flash has made it appear a lot paler than it really is. In reality, it's a deep, copper brown. It's also good rye, and easily identifiable as rye. It's less pungent than the Wild Turkey, but it still is very pungent, as most ryes are. The age gives it a good deal of vanilla and caramel. But we've been over this ground before.

The past few years have been a renewed golden age for rye. It has gone from a nearly-dead genre to a thriving one, with several new bottlings to try. Baby Saz is one of those. Another is the Rittenhouse 21 year old that has come on the market in the past couple of years. This latter is notable for something else: it's price. It's $140 a fifth. That's a lot of money, and a few years ago, it would have been utterly absurd for an American distillery to put that kind of a pricetag on any whiskey and expect to get it. That's no longer the case, although I doubt that I'll be rushing to buy this or other similarly-priced bottlings. What I do want to try is Rittenhouse 21's younger brother: Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond. The BIB, like the 21, is distilled by Heaven Hill, although it's yet another orphan brand that Heaven Hill picked up at some point along the way. It's reputedly an excellent whiskey, and it's slightly more than $20 a fifth. Alas, it's not distributed in Texas. Or, at least, I haven't found it. Hopefully soon.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hurricane Dean, Part II

By now, it's pretty clear that Hurricane Dean will not threaten any part of the Texas Gulf coast. It's currently pummeling Jamaica, will turn to the Cayman islands on Monday and the Yucatan peninsula on Tuesday, and will finally hit the Mexican mainland late Wednesday. May God protect the people who live where Dean goes: it's an extremely strong storm and will probably be a Category 5 hurricane by the time it hits the Caymans and the Yucatan.

A couple of general comments. First, I was struck by the traffic billboards that lie alongside Houston freeways. Starting on Friday, they began to carry the message "HURRICANE FORMING NEAR GULF; KEEP YOUR GAS TANKS FULL." Putting aside the fact that by that time Hurricane Dean was fully-formed and that it was nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico, it was good advice. Second, am I the only one who has noticed the disappointment in the voices of TV meteorologists when they're forced to admit that the hurricane isn't coming here? It's as if they're rooting for a disaster. Finally, there are a couple more good websites for those of you who are interested in hurricanes. The first is Brendan Loy's blog. He's a lawyer; but hurricanes interest him, and he knows a lot about them. The second is Eric Berger's blog. Believe it or not, he's employed by the Houston Chronicle, and his blog is hosted on the Chronicle website. It's really easy to criticize the Chronicle, and God knows that they deserve it. However, give them credit where it is due: Eric Berger's blog is excellent and very informative. Read it whenever there's an Atlantic hurricane.

Today's Shoes

Today's shoes are an experiment. They're Mephisto Allrounders (Arto model), and they're essentially laceless sneakers, with elastic gores instead of laces. I bought them somewhat as an impulse on Saturday at Harold's in the Heights, intending to use them as I would use casual loafers or driving mocs. On the plus side, these are very comfortable, and the elastic gores give a good fit without the pressure across the instep that laces sometimes give. On the minus side, they get a bit hot, and they're a bit ugly. I think that I like them on balance, but I'll have to wear them more to see.

Last Night's Tipple

Last night was the last of my bottle of Wild Turkey straight rye. There is nothing new to report about the taste experience other than to say that I will buy it again. Aside from the respect that it deserves for being one of the three generally-available rye whiskey options (along with Jim Beam rye and Old Overholt) during rye's wilderness years, it is a high-quality product.


A lot of single malt Scotch mavens talk disparagingly about American whiskey. In order to be real whisky (always without an "e"), they say, it has to be all-malt. Grain "whiskies" have no character or interest, and whatever flavor they have comes from the barrels they are aged in. (Please bear in mind that this is a bit of a caricature of what most maltheads think of grain whiskeys; but even if it is a caricature, it contains a good deal of accuracy.) Leave aside the fact that even though American whiskey and Scotch grain whisky might have some similarities in production, they are very different: Scotch grain tends to be distilled out to almost 190 proof where American straight whiskey is distilled to a maximum of 160 proof, and all American straight whiskey undergoes a secondary distillation in a pot-still-like contraption called a doubler where Scotch grain is only distilled once in a column still. Just consider Wild Turkey rye: it is hardly characterless, and anyone who doesn't get slapped around by the flavor and aroma of rye has no sensory perception. It's completely different from Wild Turkey Bourbon, or any other Bourbon, for that matter; and it would be silly to argue that the mashbill doesn't have a profound influence on the finished spirit.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

But It's Tax Free!

It's Texas's Tax Free Weekend today and tomorrow. Let the rejoicing begin! For those of you who don't know what this is, in recent years, the Texas Legislature has made one weekend a year (in August, right before school starts) sales tax free for most clothing items priced under $100. I have not cruised the malls today; but in years past, they have been absolute mob scenes during Tax Free Weekend. Why? Not charging sales tax amounts, in Houston, to an 8.25% off sale. Any store that ran a sale of less than 20% off would be laughed at. Why do people go bonkers for an 8.25% sale? I don't quite understand it.

One of the themes that Patrick O'Brian returns to again and again in his Aubrey/Maturin novels about the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars is how upstanding, dependable sailors who knew their duty would get a piratical gleam in their eye when Captain Aubrey's ship was chasing a potential prize. Almost every man, O'Brian said, loved to get something for nothing, and taking a prize was the easiest way for a sailor to get something for nothing. It didn't matter how much effort he had to expend or how close he came to death to claim his prize. It was the fact that he was getting something for nothing that so thrilled him. Perhaps it's the same sort of thing with the Tax Free Weekend. Sure, it may only be an 8.25% off sale, but in buying tax-free merchandise, you're getting one over on the government. It may be possible to get comparable merchandise for less money and effort at other times, but doing so would not have the added benefit of shafting the government, which, just like piracy, appeals to even the solidest citizens.

Today's Shoes

Brooks Brothers Peal & Co three-eyelet unlined chukka boots in light tan suede with a crepe rubber sole. In common parlance, these are called desert boots, and the design originated with boots that officers in the British Eighth Army bought to wear during campaigning in North Africa during World War II. They were popularized in 1949 by a man named Nathan Clark, a member of the Clark family that owned a shoemaking firm, who saw them on British Army officers and thought that they would make a great civilian shoe. They were a fabulous success, and just about every manufacturer has offered their own rendition of the boot. Mine, which were delivered yesterday, are from Brooks Brothers and bear the label Peal & Co. Peal was a celebrated British bespoke shoemaker, and when they folded up shop in the middle of the 20th Century, Brooks Brothers bought the trademark. Since then, Brooks has sold many, many shoes under the Peal & Co. label from a variety of English shoe manufacturers, including Edward Green, Crockett & Jones, and Alfred Sargent. If I were a betting man, I would bet that these are from Alfred Sargent. They're decent enough shoes -- the last is relatively shapely, the boots are cut above the bulge of the ankles, the crepe rubber soles make the shoes cushy and comfortable (for those who don't know what crepe rubber is, think rubber the consistency of those gum rubber erasers that you had in elementary school). I wish that there were a strap reinforcing the back seam, and I wish that the manufacturer had done a better job skiving the leather pieces at that seam (there's too much of a ridge, which should not be). But they were only $225. At the full price of $450, they would have been too much. At half price, I think I got a decent bargain.

Last Night's Tipple

Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich have the reputation for being the atypical Islay malts. Where the other five (plus Kilchoman) are all peaty, Bunnahabhain and Bruichladdich are not. Or, at least, they have not typically been since the early '60s. Bruichladdich has been experimenting with higher peat levels recently (including such peat monsters as the Port Charlotte and the Octomore), and, to a lesser extent, so has Bunnahabhain (pronounced Bunna-haaven, more or less) since Edrington sold it to Burn Stewart in 2003.

Bunnahabhain is one of two distilleries located on the east side of the island on the Sound of Islay (Caol Ila, located to the south of Bunnahabhain, is the other). Founded during the Golden Age of Scotch in 1881, it probably has the lowest profile of any of the Islay distilleries, never really having been marketed aggressively as a single malt but rather serving as a major blending malt for such mass market blends as Cutty Sark. Unlike most of the other Islay distilleries -- indeed, unlike most of the other Scotch distilleries throughout the country -- it has had a remarkably stable ownership. Its corporate parent has merged with others several times, but until the 2003 sale, the distillery itself had never been sold. Like most other Scotches, it began life as a robust, peaty malt, but it lost its peat by the middle of the 1960s as the world's tastes lightened. With the exception of two experimental runs of peaty whisky in the '90s (one in 1991, the other in 1997), Bunnahabhain was completely unpeated from the '60s until Burn Stewart started experimenting again in 2003.
In addition to being unpeated, everything about the Bunnahabhain distillation process is geared towards producing a light, clean whisky. Unique to Islay, the water used is crystal-clear spring water (most people agree that water doesn't have that much influence on the character of the whisky, but to the extent that it does, one would expect that peaty loch water as is used by the other distilleries would produce a marginally heavier whisky than clear spring water). The wort undergoes a very slow fermentation, the object of which is to produce a clear, acidic wash, both of which properties tend to make for a lighter, cleaner spirit. The still charges (ie, the percent of capacity that the stills are filled with either wash or low wine) are the lowest on Islay, producing more copper contact and a lighter, cleaner spirit. Also tending to increase copper contact are the shape of the stills (tall) and the speed of distillation (slow). And the spirit cut is relatively narrow, meaning that more of the congeners that make whisky heavy are left out.

In light of all of this, I expected my newly-purchased Bunnahabhain 12 year old to be peat-less, light, and sweet. I was surprised to find that this wasn't entirely the case. It's sweet, all right, but there's peat. I wouldn't go so far as to call it peaty, but there is noticeable smoke on the nose. The only thing that I can figure out is that some of that peaty 1991 run whisky is included in this bottling. The nose also has some nuttiness, probably due to sherry casks. Bunnahabhain uses some sherry casks, unlike most other Islay distilleries. I also get vanilla, which isn't typical for Scotch and which I can't figure out. Spirit caramel, maybe? That would make sense, especially because the whisky is much darker than most Scotches of its age. I don't know. Overall, this is a pleasant whisky, although for my money, I'd rather buy Bruichladdich.

Oh, and with this tipple, I have now tried whiskies from all of Islay's functioning distilleries (except for Kilchoman, which just started up and is extremely small, anyway). Rejoice!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Today's Shoes

Gravati plain-toe four-eyelet bluchers in navy blue waterproof suede with a rubber microcellular sole (15445, 433 last). Another rainy day, more rain-appropriate shoes.

Last Night's Tipple

Another dram of Highland Park 12. It's still really, really good. I got more smoke last night than previously, although it blew off after a while to reveal it at its honeyed, malty best. There is a fair amount of peat here, but it's a different kind of peat from, say, Laphroaig. Laphroaig isn't just smoky: it's also salty. I think that I compared it to alcoholic beef jerky. Highland Park doesn't have the brine, just the smoke.

Spec's in Houston has Highland Park at around $33 a fifth, which seems to make it the outlier nationally. The two big online liquor superstores (Sam's and Binny's, both of which have a physical presence in the Chicagoland area) have it at $43 a fifth, and they typically beat Spec's on price. I have no idea why Spec's price is so out of line (in a good way), but I plan to take advantage of it fully. I also plan to take full advantage of the wacky good price that Spec's has on the 15 year old version of Highland Park, which runs around $49 a fifth. This is supposedly is very different from either the 12 year old or the 18 year old: whereas those whiskies are predominantly aged in ex-sherry casks, the 15 year old is aged in a 50-50 split of ex-Bourbon barrels and ex-sherry casks, making for a lighter, more vanilla- and citrus-influenced spirit. Supposedly. Which is why I need to try it.

Hurricane Dean

Hurricane Dean just plowed through the Lesser Antilles islands and is expected to hit the Yucatan Peninsula by early next week, after which is will get into the Gulf of Mexico. Right now, forecasters say that it could make landfall anywhere from northern Mexico to the Texas-Louisiana border in a week or 10 days, but it's hard to say with any certainty what a hurricane will do that far in the future. Check the National Hurricane Center website, Weather Underground, or Boat U.S. for hurricane tracking and forecasting information.

Climatological Lesson of the Day

I realize that I shouldn't pay attention to what idiot DJs say on the air because, well, they're idiots by their very nature and even when they're not, they probably try to act like idiots to appeal to their audience. However, sometimes I get pushed over the edge. We had a lot of rain yesterday, caused by the outer bands of Tropical Storm Erin, and surprisingly enough, some areas got flooded. The idiot morning DJ had this to say about the flooding:
I moved here in 1979, and the highways have been under construction since I moved here. You would think that they would have figured out how to keep them from flooding by now.

Houston is not far removed from a swamp. It is flat as a board, and it's near sea level. Of course there is flooding when we get substantial amounts of rain in a short period of time. The fact that the below-grade portions of US 59 and I-10 don't flood when we get two drops of rain is a testament to the engineering skill of those who designed and built them. It's not indicative of the failure of man's ingenuity that we can't keep every street in Houston clear of water in every circumstance. And you know why freeways have been under construction almost continuously since 1979? It's because the Houston metropolitan are has been growing rapidly the whole time. I'm terribly sorry, idiot DJ guy, that the powers that were in 1979 didn't know exactly what the size of Houston's population in 2007 would be or where it would be concentrated, but them's the breaks. Why don't you concentrate on something you actually know something about, like drinking girly drinks at trendoid clubs and pretending that you're 20 years younger than you really are.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Today's Shoes

Day

Torrential rains today (thanks, Tropical Storm Erin!), so I wore one of my pairs of rain shoes: Crockett & Jones Handgrade wing-tip bals in antiqued tan calf (Downing model, 330 last). C&J Handgrade shoes are positioned to try to compete with Edward Green and John Lobb Paris, and there are a lot of people out there who try to convince themselves that they're just as good as these other brands but much less expensive. I think that they're kidding themselves. There's just something missing from the C&J shoes. The lasts aren't as nice. The finishing isn't as good. The design isn't quite there. Yes, they cost less, but I wear my EG shoes a lot more than my C&J shoes. So which are a better value?

Evening

Gravati monkstraps in dark brown peccary with combination leather/rubber soles (16371, 640 last). Another pair of rain-appropriate shoes.

Last Night's Tipple

Last night was the last of the Old Grand-Dad 114 proof, a bottle that must have lasted around 3 years. As I'm sure you have read here or elsewhere before, OGD came into the Jim Beam stable when Beam bought National Distillers in 1987. Before the purchase, Beam had one Bourbon mashbill. After the purchase, they had two: the rye-heavy OGD bill, now used for OGD 86, 100, and 114 and Basil Hayden's (who was the real Old Grand-Dad), and the regular bill, now used for everything else. I think that it's very interesting that Beam preserved the OGD mashbill. They certainly didn't for other acquisitions of old and storied brands like Old Crow and Old Taylor. Maybe the OGD brand carried a lot of clout in 1987, but it certainly doesn't today: at best, it's a middle-shelf brand that doesn't get much attention from boutique Bourbon consumers. OGD could very well have become just another orphan brand. I don't know that it made business sense for Beam to preserve the OGD mashbill, but it's fortuitous that they did. It's one of the most distinctive American whiskeys out there; and in this case, distinctive is good.

(Nothing new to report about my impressions of the Bourbon: lots of cinnamon and spice, very enjoyable, will probably buy another bottle at some point. It's a bargain at the $22 a fifth that Spec's wants for it.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Mmmm, Tres Leches!

Looking for a tres leches birthday cake? Go to El Bolillo Panaderia at 2428 Airline in Houston. Mamacita got a single-layer John Deere tres leches from them for Emmet's birthday last month, and it was very good. She topped that, though, by getting a triple-decker princess-themed tres leches (with strawberry filling on the lowest level) for Becca's birthday today. It's not dripping with condensed milk like the tres leches served in restaurants, but it would be hard to transport and cut a birthday cake dripping in condensed milk. The cake is moist and sweet and the icing is light and fluffy. It's some of the best birthday cake that I've had, and it beats the heck out of the dreck that most grocery store bakeries sell.

Today's Shoes

Day

Gravati five-eyelet plain-toe ankle blucher boot with a floating medallion in dark brown Radica 01 calf (15950, 655 last). It's been too long since I wore these. Among its other virtues, Radica calf is also very soft, which means that ankle boots made from it don't bind like boots made from thicker, harder leather.

Evening

Gravati wholecut plain-toe bluchers in caramel calf with a rubber lug sole (16368, 640 last). Since it was supposed to rain and I had to help move a freezer and I was going to a kid's birthday party (happy birthday, Becca!), they seemed an appropriate choice.

Last Night's Tipple

Last night, I finished my bottle of Russel's Reserve. There's not a whole lot new to report about the Bourbon: it was good, of course. I got more of the sweet, dessert-type notes than of the big, spicy-type notes last night, but there was nothing there that I haven't written about before.

Russel's Reserve started life as a 101 proof bottling, which made a lot of sense given that it is a Wild Turkey product and Wild Turkey is known for its 101 proof whiskeys. Three of four years ago, it was shifted to 90 proof. At the same time, the packaging was upgraded -- the original bottling was a tall bottle with the label painted on, and it looked a bit cheap; whereas this one has a thick glass bottom, which gives it some heft, and a nicely-designed, paper label, which makes it look more expensive. In any event, why would Wild Turkey have dropped the proof by 10%?

The period from the late '70s until the early '90s was very hard for producers of American whiskey. They overproduced at a time where the market was abandoning Bourbon. The result was a glut of whiskey: every distiller had huge numbers of aging barrels that they couldn't sell for a decent price. Ever wonder why we started to see lots of super-aged Bourbons hit the market in the mid to late '90s? It's because distillers had large stocks of old whiskey that they hadn't been able to sell previously. Well, the glut is over. There aren't huge stocks of extra-aged whiskeys anymore. Bourbon sales are picking up. Wild Turkey faced more demand for Russel's Reserve than they had stocks of good, 10 year old whiskey, so they were faced with a decision if they wanted to increase sales: they could cut the proof of the whiskey, or they could cut the age. They chose to cut the proof (and thereby also reduced the excise taxes paid per bottle sold). Other Bourbon distillers have made the other choice. Russel's Reserve is still very good whiskey.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Regional Jets

In my never-ending quest to recommend the best, most interesting articles that the Wall Street Journal has to offer, I call your attention to a front-page article in yesterday's paper ("Small Jets, More Trips Worsen Airport Delays" by Scott McCartney, p. A1). You probably have read about the fact that more commercial flights have been delayed this summer than for any period in at least several years. If you have flown, you have probably noticed that airports are crowded and flights are packed. You might also have noticed the rise of the regional jet.
At La Guardia, half of all flights now involve smaller planes, regional jets, and turboprops. It's the same at Chicago's O'Hare, which is spending billions to expand runways. At New Jersey's Newark Liberty and New York's John F. Kennedy, 40% of traffic involves smaller planes, according to Eclat Consulting in Reston, Va. Aircraft numbers tell the tale: U.S. airlines grounded a net 385 large planes from 2000 to 2006 -- but they added 1,029 regional jets -- says data firm Airline Monitor.

Air ridership has rebounded since the post-September 11 doldrums, with airline miles flown increasing 3.6% since 2002, and that's part of the reason things are so busy. But this increased ridership does not reflect the reality of the situation. Airlines have shifted a lot of those miles onto smaller-capacity regional jets, so the number of flights flown has increased much more steeply. More flights, more potential for delays, since the competition for airspace, runway slots, and gates increases in proportion to flights, not in proportion to the number of fliers those flights are carrying. Combine that with some days of very bad weather this year, the elimination in 2000 of the FAA's slotting system to limit the number of takeoffs and landings, and a creaky air traffic control system, and you have the potential for some outrageous delays.

The FAA wants airlines to have fewer regional jet flights and more flights with larger planes. The airlines don't want to do that for a number of reasons. First, regional jets cost less to operate because their flight crews earn less than flight crews on larger jets. Second, it allows airlines to have flights out of smaller airports to a larger number of destinations: there might not be enough passenger traffic to support 737 flights from, say, Birmingham to Houston, but there might well be enough to support Embraer 145 regional jet flights. Having more routes allow airlines to compete more effectively with one another, and they generally please the flying public. And, the airlines say, their reliance on regional jets need not cause the trouble that it does. One of the bottlenecks in the system that causes delays is traffic into and out of the Northeast. Airlines say that the FAA could do a better job of routing this traffic and that it systematically underutilizes the region's airports. JFK, for example, has four runways but typically only ever uses two at a time.

I am not qualified to offer an opinion about whether the airlines are right that the solution to the problem is the FAA doing a better job, but I can say that I like the trend toward regional jets. Say, for example, that you want to fly from Houston into Dallas Love (which is much more convenient to locations near downtown Dallas than DFW is). That route is Southwest's bread and butter; they dominate it. But the rise of regional jets allows other airlines to compete. Continental, for example, offers 10 daily regional jet flights from IAH to Love. If they had to use 737s, they would probably have to reduce that number to three or four, making them much less attractive to the fliers who shuttle between the two cities. And because of frequent flier miles, I prefer to fly on Continental. I believe that regional jets benefit me personally, even though I live near the hub of a major airline and could expect to have a wide array of direct flights regardless of whether regional jets were widely used or not. I imagine that regional jets would be even more attractive to me if I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, Springfield, Illinois, or Spokane, Washington. The purpose of commercial airlines is to transport travelers, and regional jets allow them to do so more profitably and more conveniently than an all-big-jet fleet would.

Today's Shoes

Gravati cap-toe bals with reversed seams and leather soles in Radica 033 (chestnut) calf (16496, 500 last). I ought to have this shoe made up in Radica 03 (caramel), Radica 01 (dark brown), and Radica 055 (burgundy). It's one of the great shoe designs that I have seen.

Last Night's Tipple

Last night, I returned to Pusser's Rum. You will recall that it is distilled in wooden pot stills in Guyana that at one time produced the rum that was given to sailors in the Royal Navy. Yes, that's what I wrote: wooden pot stills. I guess that it shouldn't surprise me that the ingenuity of man would arrive at a pot still made from wood. It certainly is cheaper than copper and is probably easier to fashion into a pot-still-looking thing. And it's not just rum where wooden stills were used: some of the small-scale Bourbon distillers in the early days of Kentucky would distill by "running the log," which was a pot-still-like contraption made by hollowing out a log, filling the cavity with distiller's beer, and heating that beer by running steam though copper pipe in the cavity.

One of the great arguments in whisky production is about the value of using wooden fermentation tanks (as opposed to stainless steel). Proponents of wood say that the wood imparts more flavor to the distiller's beer, which in turn imparts more flavor to the new-make whiskey. Proponents of stainless steel say that that is hogwash and that stainless steel is better because it's a heck of a lot easier to clean and maintain than wood. I don't know who's right. I do know that any influence of wood in the fermentation tank has to pale in comparison to the influence of wood in the still. Remember that the more copper contact alcohol vapor has in the still, the lighter and purer the resultant new-make spirit will be. This is because copper will react with impurities and congeners in the vapor, which has the effect of filtering out impurities. Well, wooden pot stills will have very little copper in them. That means that spirit coming out of them is likely to be heavy, full-bodied, and congener-rich, to say nothing of whatever flavor the wood directly imparts.

As logic would suggest, Pusser's Rum is heavy, full-bodied, and congener-rich. As I mentioned when I first wrote about it, it has an overwhelming musty aroma that doesn't blow off with time in the glass. I would never guess that this was rum from nosing it. Tasting it makes it more obvious what it is: it's very sweet, with some of the flavor overtones that I associate with rum. But there is no vanilla that I can detect, despite the oak aging. I still can't decide whether I like this stuff. Maybe it will grow on me.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Today's Shoes

Day

Martegani austerity brogue bal with U-throat, wing cap, and counter done in twin-needle stitching. I have written about these shoes before when discussing the Edward Green bespoke shoes that Tony Gaziano made for me based on this design. The inspiration for these shoes was a pair of Sutor Mantellassi shoes that I once saw a picture of. They were wholecuts, but they had a toe cap and other details simulated using twin-needle stitching. I thought that the idea was good but that the execution was off -- the last was too chunky, and some of the elements just looked strange -- and I decided that I wanted something like them, only better. Gravati wouldn't do it. Martegani would. They turned out very well, I think, although shallower penetration on the twin-needle stitching would have been better.

Evening

Martegani six-eyelet plain-toe bluchers with a floating medallion in dark English tan (Lucca 2 model). These were the first Martegani shoes that Ron Rider, then the shoe guy at Franco's in Richmond and now the US rep for Martegani, imported into the US, and it is still a mainstay of his Martegani business.

Adventures in Pickling

Not content to rest on her coco jam laurels, Mamacita's friend Letitia has done it again: bread-and-butter pickled jalapeño and lemon slices. Yes, you read that correctly. She pickled lemon slices. Apparently, she had an excess of the bread-and-butter pickling solution (or whatever you call it) after making some regular pickles and, rather than waste it, she pickled what she had on hand. And what she had on hand were jalapeños and lemons. I didn't have any of the jalapeños, but the lemon slices were excellent: a little bit sweet, a little bit sour, and a little bit spicy (from the peppers). I think that Letitia's on to something.

And the dill-y green beans were great, too.