Archive | January, 2012

How To Find The Best _____________

Over the course of the years, if there has been one question that has been asked of me more than any others, it has been this – “How do I find the best _______?” Sometimes whiskey fills in the blank, other times restaurants, and still other times it has been foods that I haven’t even delved into all that deeply.

When asked, I smile, and give some variation of the same answer I always give. What I like may be different from what you like. You will have to go out and determine what the best __________ is yourself.

And then I proceed to explain to them how to do exactly that.

Setting aside the restaurants (for they are really a different medium of food service), if you wish to find the best tea, whiskey, vodka, chocolate, or whatever, comparison is the key. And not just comparison over the course of several days or weeks, but one really needs to have items sitting side by side, and sampling them one after another.

Seth Roberts has a name for this process, calling it the Willat Effect, after his friend Carl Willat, who presented Seth with five versions of limoncello side by side in shot glasses, and then told him to drink up.

It sounds very obvious that one can determine the good from the bad in a scenario such as this, but it does more than that. Immediate comparison provides information that allows a person to conclude why one is better than another. And once a “why” is understood, it begins showing up everywhere.

For example, there are some whiskeys that very short finishes, meaning that the drinking experience ends very abruptly. If you were to drink these types of whiskeys by themselves, you may never know this. It is only when you have a drink with a short finish, and then soon afterward have one with an extended finish, can you determine the benefits of a dram with an extended finish.

Once you determine what is a flaw in a drink, that flaw becomes more apparent in many future tastings.

I suppose that the reason why this works is that our minds deal with satisfaction in very peculiar ways. Any experience we have when it comes to eating or drinking is primarily memorable if it was extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad. Everything else falls in the realm of some degree of “satisfactory”. Our minds play tricks on us when we try to recall satisfactory experiences, in that we will recall we came to that conclusion, and we may even recall some aspect of that experience, but we will be unable to recall the specific characteristics of the sensory experience that allowed us to that conclusion.

But, when you have an experience which highlights both flawed and exceptional characteristics, our memory changes. We will recall that metallic taste in the wine, that underdone chicken, or that pure aroma of chocolate. I find this with my drinking of whiskey and beer all of the time.

If you’re curious, and if your resources allow, buy several brands of chocolate and test this out for yourself. You’ll be amazed at the conclusions you draw, as well as how the results will affect your choices later on down the line.


The End of the Shackleton’s Whisky Story

Remember this from October of 2009?

CAPE ROYDS, Antarctica — This spit of black volcanic rock that juts out along the coast of Antarctica is an inhospitable place. Temperatures drop below -50 Fahrenheit and high winds cause blinding snowstorms. The only neighbors are a colony of penguins that squawk incessantly and leave a pungent scent in their wake.

But if you happen upon the small wooden hut that sits at Cape Royds and wriggle yourself underneath, you’ll find a surprise stashed in the foot and a half of space beneath the floorboards. Tucked in the shadows and frozen to the ground are two cases of Scotch whisky left behind 100 years ago by Sir Ernest Shackleton after a failed attempt at the South Pole.

It seems as if the fine folks at Whyte and Mackay have recreated the spirit and are now offering it to the general public. They took a syringe sample from the bottles found in Antartica, and then subjected the sample to analysis. Using that analysis, they went to work.

Whyte and Mackay’s master distiller, Richard Paterson, was able to delve into the wealth of warehoused casks and, with the help of his prodigious nose, blend a number of whiskies in exact proportions to replicate the Shackleton spirit. The re-creation, which is given a stint in sherry casks before bottling, includes some of the remaining whisky from the Glen Mhor distillery, which was demolished in 1986, supplemented with comparable liquor from nearby Dalmore. Benriach, Glenfarclas, and other Speyside whiskies lend their character, along with Balblair, Pulteney, and Jura.

The resulting blend was subjected to the same battery of chemical analysis as the original, and found to stack up quite comparably, their phenolics and esters finely matched.

I’m of two minds of this. First – similar does not mean the same. While I have no doubt that the folks at Whyte and Mackay have done their homework, the result is no more Shackleton’s whiskey than a recreated baseball is the same as the one that Henry Aaron hit over the fence for the 755th time. Invariably someone will sell this as Shackleton’s whisky, and some poor sap will buy it, believing it to be true.

However, all that being said, there’s something amazing about the amount of work that went into this whisky. I have no doubt in my mind that the resulting blend is eerily close to what was found in the bottle in Antartica. This speaks well of, not only the science of the chemical analysis surrounding the sample, but just how much skill is involved in being a master blender. That a blender can analyze any given whisky (single malt or otherwise), and then recreate it from their “library of barrels” , is nothing short of remarkable. Thanks to its novelty, I have little doubt that the resulting “Shackleton’s” whisky will be overpriced a tad, but I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t shell out some measure of money to have a taste.

All that being said, the best bit of the story was found at the end:

Finally, minus the milliliters of whisky that had been carefully syringed out through their corks, the original bottles were returned from Scotland to the Shackleton expedition’s hut, where they have been re-situated as part of the preserved environ by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something just right about this.


Would You Like To Help Promote My Next Book?

For those who didn’t already know, I have a new book coming out here in 2012, entitled Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy. This means that this year is one where I will be forced to promote myself and my book, and do it in such a way where the results lead to more sales than my first book, 99 Drams of Whiskey.

I’ve never been one to foist myself upon others. This is a character flaw if one is intent on making a living in a publishing world where promotion and *shudder* marketing are almost a requirement. So I find myself at a crossroads, one where I have to find a happy compromise with myself. It has to be a compromise where I don’t sacrifice my core principles, one of which includes not insinuating myself where I’m not wanted through promotional campaigns and e-mail spam.

One of the ways to do that is to promote in my own neck of the Internet woods only, meaning on my own web pages and social media feeds. The goal is to generate enough interest to help with sales of the book, something that’s quite difficult to do in the current market environment.

So, here’s the thing – if you want to review the book, and wish for an advanced copy, send me an e-mail here at KATE AT ACCIDENTALHEDONIST DOT COM. If you do this, I will promise you full access to myself, meaning that while you’re reading the book, and there’s something that I’ve written that intrigues you, confuses you, or excites you, I offer myself (via e-mail, twitter, and Facebook) to follow through with you on that. I would rather work hand in hand with book reviewers, than have one go off believing I was writing the next Julie and Julia (which happened several times with 99 Drams).

Sweet Tooth itself is a bit of a different book than 99 Drams, as it starts innocently enough, but enters territories that show the darker side of history of sugar and chocolate. The basic question that results from the book is “How do we, as adults, come to terms with a luxury commodity that is being sold to us and our children as an innocent treat, when the reality is that there are makers of candy who put greed over the greater good?” My research into candy led me to areas that were unexpected, and conclusions that were quite distant from where I thought I would end up. My only hope is that I did the subject, as well as the conclusion I came to, enough justice.

At any rate, this is what I am proposing, and if it sounds interesting to you, let me know, and I will forward the publishers your information. Over the course of the next several months, you’ll see more information surrounding this, as I try to do something different in regards to promotion, writing, and trying to find my way in a very unstable publishing world.

Many thanks!


What Happened to the Portuguese?

When it comes to the Spice Trade, the Portuguese were ground breakers. They used technology, both new and old, to find a way to become the premier traders of Europe, and were making money hand over fist, so much that they didn’t know what to do with all of it.

Yet their “empire’ barely lasted more than three generations. So the question is, “What happened?”

Some historians try to spin it as a tale of an empire that couldn’t sustain itself, but the truth is far more simplistic than that. In 1580, Portugal’s king, Sebastian I, died in battle at the age of 21, and left no heir. King Phillip II of Spain (a name you’ll see more of in the future), made claim for the throne, and because he was male, had huge military support, and had a fair bit of political backing from other monarchs on the European continent, his claim was eventually successful. Portugal was brought into the Spanish Empire under the Iberian Union, and soon Portugal’s issues with the spice trade became Spain’s.

That’s not to say Portugal didn’t have problems getting pepper, cinnamon, cloves, mace, and nutmeg into their ports. They did. But none of those difficulties led to their downfall. Simply put, a King died without an heir, and the Spaniards took advantage of this.

The fact that Spain was, at the time, having major difficulties with both the Dutch and the English would have a dramatic effect upon the trading landscape in less than a generation after Philip II took over the spice routes.


Dear Starbucks: About Your Croissants

I know you and I are on somewhat good speaking terms. You’re the only coffee shop open at 6am between my home and work, and your coffee doesn’t taste like ass. It’s not the best coffee, but at 6am, I can’t be choosy.

At any rate, since I am one of the few residents of Seattle that doesn’t hate you consistently, I thought that I would be the perfect person to tell you one of your biggest failures.

Your croissants? They’re fake. They’re insulting to anyone who has ever had a decent one. A good croissant should be light and airy on the inside, with a delicate, flaky, outer crust. Yours is little more than white bread, disguised like the French pastry.

I realize that you are looking for a croissant solution which provides the same croissant experience in Seattle that one can have in Miami, but the result of this provides a coffee house option which is either lazy or presumes that the regular American consumer doesn’t know what deliciousness that this little pastry can provide.

It’s a new year, Starbucks. How about we take a moment to make your coffeeshops just a little more bearable.