Up Spirits

As many who study the history of distilled spirits know, various national navies used to dispense a “rum ration”. It is one of the more curious corners of the endless mass of absorbing social and cultural detail offered by such history. (Well, here, it was the subjects of the history who did the absorbing).

The Royal Navy ceased the practice in 1970. The Canadian navy, in 1972. New Zealand’s went all the way to 1990. The U.S. stopped it during the Civil War. Australia, it seems, never had a similar practice.

The practice derived from the time workmen were allowed drink for their work, it was assumed necessary both for strength and morale, probably optimistically in terms of the former. Yet, treated responsibly it probably did more good than harm.

This practice was of a piece with farm workers expecting alcohol in early New England or Upper Canada which simply followed a practice imported from Britain. The idea of brewery or distillery workers being permitted a drink was similar, although more understandable in their case.

There is a surprising amount of information available on how the rum ration was stored, dispensed, consumed. I’ll use just a couple of references here to illustrate. The website of the New Zealand naval museum gives good detail, except that the statement the rum was 98% alcohol when undiluted can’t be right.

The Imperial proof figure given,148, translates to 84.4% abv, in effect overproof rum.

As this was cut 50-50 with water, a 42.2% dram amounted essentially to 43%, a standard retail strength for spirits in British commerce or circles connected to it. The N.Z. museum account offers good detail as well on who was served the dram. Officers did not receive it, they had access to their own bar.

Ratings did, junior ones had to consume on the spot, senior ratings including petty officers could take the dram (undiluted) to drink in their quarters.

The minimum age was 20. Sailors had the option to receive a cash payment instead of the tuck.

Interested readers can peruse this link from the Torpedo Bay Museum in New Zealand for the full history. The lore about Admiral “Grog” is repeated and it’s always enjoyable to revisit this history. The rum ration actually started with beer, always the first drink in Albion’s affections.

Fleet assignments on the Eastern Station and other hot climates caused a switching to rum as it kept much better.

Canada’s navy followed a practice similar to the Royal Navy’s and New Zealand’s. It began in 1910 with the establishment of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve, and ended in 1972.

This link, from U.K. Parliamentary deliberations in the 1930s, will interest those curious about the composition of the ration. A blend of Empire rums was generally used including some Jamaican:

Navy rum as issued to the Fleet is a blend of rums bought on the London market, all Empire products, including Jamaica when price permits. The blend is in such proportions as long experience has shown to produce the flavour preferred by the men. The blending process is carried out at the Deptford Victualling Yard, where the rum is stored in vats before issue to ships. This procedure is the most economical and the most practical.

In Canada, Seagram, then in Waterloo, ON, supplied rum to our navy, but whether this was imported or domestic I can’t say. It was likely a blend of both, as much bottled rum sold in Canada still is.

This 1972 CBC clip shows in fine colour the last service of rum in our navy. The officer conducting the ceremony, I believe Commander Jim Creech, drank rum with the men (on the mess from what I can tell).

Consumption by officers with the men was not traditional but the event was ceremonial, as shown by the consigning of the last dram to the sea. The Commander spoke well and the clip in general is affecting, it speaks to a different time, one we can learn from in more ways than one.

For more information on Canada’s history with the rum ration, I refer to this excellent article of some years ago in The Minute Book, a blog dealing with Canadian military history.

See also this informative piece by Captain Norman Jolin, RCN (Ret’d.) on the website of the CFB Esquimault Museum in Victoria, B.C.





Alcohol and the Academy

A Salutary Article in the Graduate Journal of Food Studies

The other day I came across via Twitter an academic journal called Graduate Journal of Food Studies (GJFS), published digitally by the Graduate Association for Food Studies.

The latter’s website states:

The Graduate Association for Food Studies (GAFS) is the official graduate student caucus of the Association for the Study of Food and Society (ASFS). GAFS is an interdisciplinary academic community founded in the spring of 2014 with the goals of connecting graduate students interested in food and promoting their exceptional work. The Association publishes the digital Graduate Journal of Food Studies and hosts the Future of Food Studies conference for graduate students to present, discuss, and network. Our first Conference took place in 2015 at Harvard University.

The most recent issue of the Journal, its sixth, includes an article by Gretchen Sneegas, a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia. You can read it here, entitled: “Dry Campus, My Ass: An Autoethnography of U.S. Academic Drinking Culture”.

(I perused a number of the other articles as well, you can find them here. The range covered is impressive, and while all articles are referenced and peer-reviewed they have interest for a broader audience than the professional-academic).

Sneegas’ article is very good, combining an academic approach with a compelling personal story, her testimony of U.S. grad school’s pervasive alcohol culture. Her style reminded me of the lapidary yet impactful tone of Mass Observation, the social research project that operated for about 30 years in Britain from the late 1930s.

In brief, she explains how social events tied to conferences and other off-campus professional activity often involve drinking in some way. Whether at a meet-and-greet, after-party of a conference dinner (or after after-party), or post-field trip gathering, alcohol of some kind makes an appearance.

The implied pressure to participate is omnipresent. She notes that women, often smaller than the average male, may handle the same amount of alcohol differently, with different implications therefore for them.

In effect she queries, and very properly, why this culture exists, one that seems to appear whack-a-mole style, even at campuses that advertise a dry culture that is.

She explains how stratagems are necessary such as brandishing drinks that look like alcohol but aren’t, or simply by declining to attend some parties and functions. She states at the end of her article:

We are all pressured in ways both subtle and flagrant into accepting, and reproducing, an occupational culture of alcohol use (and abuse) that is indirect, elusive, nearly invisible. Invisible, that is, to those who partake. We drinkers are the ruling class, imposing our values and expectations and worldviews so that they become the cultural norm. Our careers and campuses are steeped within an ideology of alcohol.

To non-drinkers, those for whom the spaces of departmental happy hours and conference after parties are not designed, these unwritten rules and guidelines are far from invisible. They spring sharply into focus. They are explicit. They say, incredulously: You’re not getting a drink?

Earlier in a footnote she writes amusingly of a culture-studies semester spent in Freiburg, stating:

I am hard pressed to describe precisely what kind of culture one experiences as an American student dancing to the sound of a Mexican mariachi band while pounding Irish Car Bombs at an English-style pub in a 900-year-old German city.

Sneegas writes that today’s alcohol customs at university seem to descend generationally: students see professors and administrators at mixers and other events where alcohol is used; they in turn adopt similar practices for their own socializing; they continue them when they accede to such positions later. And on it goes.

(Speaking of Germany, it may be noted German students were infamous for a fantastical attachment to beer and its customs. An American journalistic testimony from 1895, relatively mild in the context of the known literature, can be read here. Sample phrase: “studying is the last thing he does”).

Her point is not so much that such use causes disfunction and particular social problems (although it surely does in some cases, as drug abuse does), but why alcohol pervades this space at all. And it’s true: looked at ab initio, why is drinking, or very much of it, a factor at all on or around campus?

Alcohol is a known stress alleviator, that of course is one reason, and she refers to this aspect. But also, booze has old academic associations, it goes back not just to strange German student customs of the 1800s but to English colleges* and their special ales or wine dinners. Indeed the ancient symposia in Greece underlined a (perceived) link between wine and wisdom.

One of the best consumer books on alcohol is George Saintsbury’s Notes on a Cellar-book (1920). He was a noted literary critic and scholar who taught at Edinburgh, and took an in-depth interest in wine and other alcohol, both lore and palate. Indeed he is better remembered for that book than his conventional oeuvre.

Of course too, the university is a sub-set of society in general. What Sneegas describes about a segment of university life can easily be said of business life. And no doubt too of socializing at conferences and other events held by governmental, sports, and political organizations.

The impact of alcohol is a societal datum, of which university life is one illustration, highlighted in her article.

The world-historical impact of alcohol is probably millennia-old, and where necessary was sub rosa or substituted by equivalent practices, drug use in particular.

Sneegas is right to draw attention to alcohol-and-the-university as it is not something to be viewed as inevitable, to be taken for granted, just as in the broader society.

To be sure alcohol has had more or less impact on academe over time, depending on the period, region, and prevalent mores.

When I first attended university, in the late-1960s in Montreal, alcohol was peripheral to student life, at least from my vantage point. There was no student bar on campus with one exception noted below. The drinking age was 18 by about 1970 and alcohol could be purchased in grocery stores or at taverns, but I don’t recall it being present at undergrad club or other social activities.

There was a bit of it at the Greek organizations, yes, I had friends in some of these and recall some drinking, but nothing ostentatious. There was some beer or flasks at football games, but again not fetishistic at least by my recollection.

By the time I got to law school in the early 1970s, I noticed that sherry appeared at some student-faculty events. But not everyone took it, and there was always Coke or juice to carry in one’s hand.

On a summer studies program at the University of Manitoba in 1974 I recalled seeing a bar at the Student Union, with considerable surprise. I used the bar too (why not!) but I used the swimming pool more. The rest of the time was mostly in the library, or sampling strawberry pie at a diner on Pembina Highway.

I remember re-visiting the lower part of the McGill campus in the later 1970s and noticing a bar had sprouted at the Student Union. I remember my surprise on seeing that and it brought back the bar in Winnipeg, that we were finally doing the same in Montreal.

In the early 1970s at least, the McGill Post-Graduate Students Society had a bar for its use at its McTavish Street headquarters (pictured above from the McGill Archives), a handsome 1930s limestone building on a slope of Mount Royal.

We sometimes went there since law and med students were ex-officio members. But it was considered something apart from normal school socializing, it was just a once-in-a-while thing – although I know I went more often in my last school year.

The PGSS bar was in tune with the academic inclination to wine as both stimulant and relaxer and subject worthy of study unto itself. After all, the scientific, cultural, social, toxicological and other history of drink can be absorbing, as this blog attests, I hope!

The Canadian Anne Dowsett Johnston, in her excellent book from 2013, Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, points out how alcohol’s footprint in the university widened in subsequent decades. She notes it as part of a greater visibility for alcohol in modern society (especially in advertising), something that surely ramps up addiction and other drink-related illness.

At any rate the party atmosphere in undergrad seems fairly intense today, and Sneegas describes well how an alcohol culture operates in the further sub-culture of the “department”.

Her article is salutary as she points out the need to think about this, not accept it unthinkingly, and where necessary take appropriate counter-measures. It’s not just a question of avoiding undue dependence, it’s a question of not being co-opted into a culture at best peripheral to what the university is for: at least that’s my conclusion from her article.

These lessons apply equally to all spheres of human life.


*See e.g., this article on the history of the Oxbridge audit ale by John A.R. Compton-Davey, from issue #128 of the U.K.-based journal Brewery History.



Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Years Old

A big step Forward for Hiram Walker

With the release of Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Years Old, Canada has a rye whisky that stands with the very best whiskeys of any style anywhere. Previous to this, I’d include Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye in that pantheon as well as J.P. Wiser’s 15 years old (subject of a later review).

Obviously we have made many good whiskeys in recent years, but only those three in my view stand at the peak especially when viewed internationally. I include in this Masterson’s and that other group from the U.S. that originate from Alberta Distillers – good products but not in the same league as these other three.

I am not of the group that was delirious with the original Lot 40 release some 20 years ago. A bold and innovative move it was for Canada, and it was good to have something so different, so out there. But from a taste standpoint – all that counts in the end – the product was IMO rather harsh-tasting.

It was aged in reused whiskey barrels and not for a super-long time either for a whisky of that character, around seven years if memory serves.

I always felt it could achieve greater potential by being aged longer and in new charred oak. This is the genius of a spirit distilled in a traditional manner: when young it can be difficult to drink but with good age it acquires in the same measure fine qualities down the road.

For North American straight whiskeys the new charred barrel is virtually essential unless one will age the product 15-20 years, a practical impossibility especially in today’s market.

(Reused barrels will work similar changes but you have to wait longer. Think of the typical age range for quality Scots malts and Irish single pot still).

This is precisely what happened to Lot 40. For many years after the first release it appeared off and on, in unchanged form. A few years ago a version came out aged in virgin oak as the term goes today – new charred oak barrels. This improved the spirit, although the changes from the original were not greatly marked, a function in this respect of decent but not prolonged aging.

Lot 40 now too is made from 100% unmalted rye as I learned on my tour of Hiram Walker last year. The conversion in the mash is effected by commercially-available amylase enzyme. The first Lot 40s included some malted rye, a minimal amount yet that probably contributed some flavour elements and body.

So little malt was used though that moving to a 100% raw rye grist probably didn’t make much palate difference especially with advanced age.

And so behold the cask strength Lot 40 released this autumn: aged in new charred oak from such a grist for a full 12 years. It shows a powerhouse yet stylish palate that retains the innovation of the original release – the distillery character effaced from a grain whisky mash at almost 95% abv off the still – but further modified by the virgin barrel and extra years in the wood.

There is a spicy smoky fruity thing going on, a complexity that reminded me of 1950s Old Overholts tabled at private Kentucky tastings years ago. The smell off the frame of the emptied glass is a treat in itself.

The result is what Lot 40 always could have been, it’s just taken 20 years to get there, understandable given where the distillery came from, a specialist in blended not straight whiskeys.

The truth is, the flavouring Canadian whiskies, distilled that is at a proof traditional for straight U.S. whiskey or Scots or Irish pot still, need the charred barrel where sold on their own. At least this is so where made from corn or rye as most are. Where made from barley, malted or raw, the reused barrel makes sense but you need long time to get a good result, think again of the typical age range for fine Scots or Irish pot still.

Where used for blending though it is a different story: you are using whiskies to ramp up a much greater quantity of fairly neutral but aged grain whisky. When used that way, the acetone or other youthful features are a plus as they perk up a bulk of whisky that might otherwise seem too bland. The addition of a touch of sherry or brandy or caramel can wrap the whole thing in a pleasant package.

This is another odd truism of whisky blending: things that seem lesser tasted on their own acquire a synergy, a new quality, in blended form. The sum is greater than the parts.

But for unblended rye or corn straight whiskies you want good age and the new charred barrel. It’s true that excellent bourbon and straight U.S. rye can emerge at four to eight years old but I’m convinced the extremes of the Kentucky and Tennessee climates contribute to that.

Canada’s climate is less extreme notably on the hot side of the equation. It means to get similar results we need usually to age longer. The cask strength Lot 40 shows the benefits. At 12 years it offers a similar richness of palate to many American whiskeys I know years younger.

At the same time the new charred barrel contributes desirable “red layer” notes, the toasted wood gums and charred notes that make bourbon and U.S. rye in large measure what they are. Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye also is aged 100% in new charred oak.

(Somehow it achieves a maturity comparable to good U.S. straight whiskey at about eight years old. Perhaps the Alberta summers explain this, or some other factor).

If you dilute the C.S. Lot 40 to about 40% abv – the best way to drink it IMO – those charcoal notes emerge especially in the finish. They are also evident on the side of the glass when emptied. There is no obligation, or very much history by the way, of drinking cask strength whiskey neat.

Adopting the new charred barrel for Lot 40 was an inspired move by Hiram Walker. What I foresee as regular-issue Lot 40 in the years to come is a 40% abv version perhaps not aged 12 years, but 10 years would be good, perhaps even eight years but with enough 12-year blended in to enrich the whole.

Finally, would a 15-year-old C.S. Lot 40 trump the almost perfect 12-year expression just released? There is only one way to find out…


Southern Comfort Veers North

Southern Comfort, the sweet, brightly-flavoured drink famously favoured by Janis Joplin in the 1960s, has been re-invented. I just bought the one sold in Canada for a try-out.

SoCo belongs to the arcana of drinks in that its original composition and current formulations are rather misty. As best I can tell, it was originally a compound of young whiskey (maybe bourbon), fruit, sugar, spices. At some point neutral spirits substituted for the whiskey.

When the bourbon renaissance gathered pace in the early 2000s the domestic (U.S., Canada) product was neutral spirits and the fruit, sugar, spice. Yet a version that included bourbon, stated on the label as such, was sold in some export markets.

I bought it a few times in the Caribbean. It was somewhat deeper in flavour than regular Southern Comfort but not that different.

Finally, the brand was sold to Sazerac Brands, of Buffalo Trace bourbon fame and more.

Its version seems to use whiskey since the term is all over the website. I think SoCo is probably not 100% whiskey, at least for the 35% ABV product, since whiskey must be bottled at 40% ABV. The labels too don’t call it whiskey as such.

Some SoCo is 100 proof or 80 proof, but I’d think all are made broadly the same way. The 80 proof is badged “Black” for a “bolder” taste, perhaps it uses more whiskey. In Ontario we only get the 35% ABV version. It is termed on the label in small print “liqueur” but the back label states it has the “flavor of whiskey”.

So it’s a whiskey-flavoured liqueur, presumably in the U.S. too. The fruity element is probably from a concentrate with sugar added, peach- and apricot-based judging by the taste and some published reports.

The reason for the current insistence on whiskey is that some dissed the brand in the past for not being a whiskey while still conveying the image. So that’s changed now, the website and labels makes clear the formulation involves whiskey of some kind.

The whiskey might be distilled at a higher proof and therefore fairly neutral, unlike bourbon that is, but I’d think some bourbon probably enters the composition. Could the spirit used be grain neutral spirits given some barrel aging?

This is possible but I’d incline against as the website uses the term “whiskey” repeatedly and this term means in U.S. law something distilled under 190 proof (95% ABV), so not quite neutral that is.

The Manitoba liquor authority describes the drink this way:

Southern Comfort is a New Orleans Liqueur made from neutral spirits with fruit, spice and whisky flavorings. It is a full bodied, full proof spirit with light citrus and stone fruit notes, touch of warm spice, cinnamon and herbal notes, with hints of caramel.

The taste of the current product, as sold in Canada, isn’t radically different from the circa-2000 one but it isn’t quite the same either. It seems less sweet and has a faint tannic/woody finish, showing the whiskey element.

I wonder if the whiskey, at least in Canada, is actually a non-spirit food flavouring, given too the term above “whisky flavorings”. The wording of the U.S. website seems to suggest real whiskey though; unless the product differs in Canada it should be the same here.

Still, it’s interesting that the Canadian rear label states SoCo is “blended and bottled in Canada”, maybe that means the formulation differs here.

It’s all delphic but this matters little except to a tiny coterie. The market will just want to drink it, or not, and I hope they do because it’s good stuff, a classic old taste.

I’d advise to blend it with bourbon, something not too old and woody. A standard Canadian whisky would work well too, or vodka for a yet lighter taste.

The brand was clearly in for a new look as sales were declining from the halcyon 60s. It’s been 50 years since Janis Joplin brandished that bottle in publicity shots. Sazerac Brands is good at what they do and I have a feeling SoCo may be in for a revival.

It’s a famous old drink, dating from the time a frankly sweet drink was admired. It retains its place in the world drinks pantheon. Grander days may yet await.


Great Cabernet, Great History: Inglenook

Francis Coppola Recreates the Great Cabernet of Inglenook Legend

This is, I think, my first second wine review. The first was on Virginia’s Horton Vineyards Norton the other day.

I don’t plan to have many wine discussions, not because of any particular focus to this blog, but because I don’t drink that much wine.

Why is that? It’s not that I don’t like it. I like most examples of fermented and distilled beverages, wine included. It’s just that both budget and a rational weekly drinks limit exclude wine for the most part.

For the drinks I permit myself, they must be mostly beer and a little spirits.

Wine features therefore only where I have a particular interest, usually historical as for the Norton, or there may be some other reason, perhaps something I find on holiday.

For the wine pictured above, I wrote recently about a dinner in 1954 at which all-Inglenook wines were featured. The event was the inaugural dinner of the Wine and Food Society of Pasadena, its menu is shown below, sourced from the chapter’s website. I outlined some of the winery’s history in my post mentioned.

Inglenook had a high reputation in the 1950s and 60s as it did in the years following its establishment in the 1880s by pioneering vinifera grower Captain Niebaum. With restoration of winemaking after Prohibition, 1940s Inglenook Cabernets were particularly esteemed and acknowledged in wine circles internationally.

The post-1935 winery (year of passing of Niebaum’s widow) achieved a high pitch of excellence especially for estate reds.At the 1954 dinner a 1946 Cabernet Sauvignon was served, possibly made 100% of that grape or blended with Merlot or another grape. It was eight years old when the neophyte Pasadena branch of the Wine and Food Society held its first dinner.

1940s Inglenooks were legendary, also pictured is the 1941 vintage put up for auction with similar items some years ago as chronicled in this 2011 Decanter article by wine writer Adam Lechmere.

What did 40s Cabs taste like? What did Captain Niebaum’s acclaimed early noble wines taste like? He grew Cabernet Sauvignon among other European varieties and it’s not clear (from my reading) how his early wines were composed. Given he admired Bordeaux red it’s likely though he was seeking the character of the French classified estates whence his cuttings issued.

Inglenook after its 1950s-60s upmarket heyday went into a relative decline by being passed through different hands and focusing ultimately on the supermarket category. Its European-style wines were good average quality, good value for table wines, but the halcyon vintage days were passed.

Francis Ford Coppola, now in his late 70s, bought parts of the winery in stages from the 1970s and finally rescued the Inglenook trade mark. His wines today come out under his own name and a few years ago he issued a premium “1882” as a tribute to Niebaum’s groundbreaking work in California viticulture.

The all-Cabernet Sauvignon wine is issued, as further tribute, under the Inglenook name, clearly as an attempt to restore lustre to the brand. The name indeed is hard to find on the label, but presumably will get a ramp-up as time passes.

The current winemaker is French and is implementing a long-term plan for the winery including restoration of the highest quality for its Bordeaux-style wines.

We rarely get the chance to taste premium wine, Champagne apart at festive moments. But I have read acres of prose over the decades what fine Bordeaux and estate Napa red are like. So the first taste brought back, not so much personal experience, but all that reading.

The nose was, in a sometimes-derided cliche but it’s true, lead pencil. The lead more than the wood, with background notes of blackberry and dark-skinned fruit, also a tarry note.

The taste was plush yet dry, easily carrying the 14.5% ABV. The 1882 is easy to drink slowly, and no acidity seemed to build as for many red wines. It’s very good, let’s just say that. It gives me an inkling what the fuss was about when quality Bordeaux-style wine started to emerge from Napa, Sonoma, and Livermore valleys in particular.

It was interesting to compare it to the Norton of Horton Vineyards in Virginia. Norton is a North American grape once viewed as a contender in the international premium red wine stakes. It is somewhat acid (its nature) and offers a more frankly but non-foxy, I underline, fruit character.

The analogy of Norton is not really to Cabernet IMO but to Pinot Noir and perhaps more Gamay for Beaujolais, or to a cross of Gamay and Zinfandel.

Both wines were excellent but different. I’d serve them with different foods at different temperatures.

A good example of a beer analogue to the 1882 is Timothy Taylor’s Landlord from Keighley, England: every bit as good but on the malty vector. I could see a dinner at which just those were served serially (beer first) with Ontario ice wine to finish. Yes?

Coppola and his winemaker should be very proud of 1882. I’d guess it is on a par with the best superwines and so-called garage wines of California’s best wine regions (damaged as some were recently but they will come back).

The only California superwine I’ve had I’d put on a par with it is 1970s Mayacamus with its violet-scented nose and taste – softer and more flowery than 1882 but a similar level of quality.

Some years ago I had the chance to taste different vintages of Heitz Cabernet but this 1882 easily outclassed those, IMO, as for most other premium Golden State reds I can recall.

Note re images: the last two images above were sourced from the sites respectively linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Rustic New England food in Bright Lights, Big City

Welcome to the Hotel Pennsylvania, 1936

A fine vintage menu which points to the future of American dining and wine culture is the December, 1936 dinner menu of the Gourmet Society.

The full menu in beautiful reproduction can be viewed here, on the invaluable menu archive of Johnson and Wales University. Below is simply a portion.

The New York-based Gourmet Society, helmed by the gourmet and food author J. George Frederick, lasted from 1933 until about 1960; I profiled the group earlier and have discussed a number of their menus.

The 1936 dinner was held at Hotel Pennsylvania in New York, across from Penn Station and Madison Square Gardens. Then comparatively young, the hotel continues as a New York stalwart albeit the glamour has faded.

In the late 30s it was a stylish resort and the perfect place to host a creative dinner of the type pioneered by the Gourmet Society and its boon companion, the Wine and Food Society.

Although not styled as a New England dinner, that is exactly what it was. Each dish is typical of the coast or interior of the region, from the Vermont turkey pie to the Connecticut Oysters Casino and Maine stuffed potatoes. The conceit of combining state dishes was used, but it is evident most dishes are broadly regional.

The squash pie is a variant of pumpkin pie, as discussed earlier in these pages. It is as Yankee as they come, the cranberry sauce no less.

British readers will be forgiven for thinking the meal has an oddly familiar look. Oysters, crusted pie of poultry, mashed winter vegetables such as turnip, sweet sauce to accompany – think Cumberland sauce or even mint jelly – adorned English tables long before they journeyed overseas to new homes.

The treatment of green tomatoes and red pepper jam recall dishes with medieval or later east colonial influences (Indian, often)

Even the New England rum was English, or English Colonial, before it was American. But the dishes melded into the fabric of America and acquired their own stamp.

(Still, I suspect a dinner could be assembled, say, of dishes traditional to Yorkshire that would have a not dissimilar impact).

The “chablis”, a generic label from one of the California wineries re-established after 1933, was a good choice for such a dinner. Yet, it took imagination for a gourmet society to choose such a thing over Champagne or another French, or German, wine.

1936 is only three years after liquor comes back, in the darkest ages of the American wine business short of Prohibition itself. But New York 1930s culinarians had the imagination to go American.

The other choice that would have suited is cider. I’m sure George Frederick would have agreed at any rate it was a good option. Cider is an old New England specialty and is again today. Rum too is being made in different parts of the first colonies by craft producers.

Old Pilgrim rum was served at the 1936 dinner with coffee. It was a conscious attempt to recall the grand era of New England’s Medford rum – grand only in retrospect. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, as the popular song has it.

Felton’s rum revived after Prohibition and was made until well after WW II but the venerable distiller sold out to the Old Boston concern, known for liqueurs and cocktails, which closed the plant in the early 1980s. Thus ended the original New England rum business which had reached its apogee in the late 1800s but continued to Prohibition and even after.

Finally, what makes the Hotel Pennsylvania dinner foodism, a construct? Each component is a dish long known in the area, either very old or more recent: shellfish Casino dates from earlier in the century and the salad “moderne” seems a contemporary idea, but otherwise the meal is down-home Yankee.

What makes it what I said is, the menu was consciously planned as an investigation, an interpretation, an honouring of New England foodways. It wasn’t just tonight’s dinner, or a family dinner. It was a group of “cosmopolites” in the Society’s charming prewar vocabulary, viewing something in a new light.

It’s a good meal, yes, but also something devised, to learn from.

It presages as I’ve often said an Anthony Bourdain visiting Cajun country or South America. It presaged the Time-Life cookery series, Julia Child’s work, or Ruth Reichl’s encyclopedic looks at American cookery.

It’s looking at food and drink intellectually, ideationally, call it what you will.

This way of dining gets the goat of some people, but it’s as valid an endeavour as anything else. Food and foodways belong to the world.

Note re images: the first image above was drawn from the original menu identified and linked in the text. The second was sourced via Pinterest hereAll intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Norton Virginia: Fascinating History and Taste

Pre-Civil War Grape Type Shines 

Earlier I discussed the Norton Virginia grape, a native American type discovered c. 1830 by Dr. Daniel Norton in Richmond, Virginia. It is of the Vitis aestivalis species, and of unconfirmed lineage. Some think it has some European heritage (Vitis vinifera) but it is considered of the wild American grape family.

Most American grapes, of the six or seven types native to the continent (labrusca, riparia, etc.), have the fox flavour. This is the wild grape taste, a funky, blackcurrant note that traditionally is eschewed for quality wine-making.

Some of the grape types or hybrids associated with the taste are Concord, Delaware, Catawba. These wines had local markets in North America for generations both before and after Prohibition, either for table grapes, sweet and dry wine or both.

With the introduction of European vinifera types to California where they were a marked success, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling (and now many other areas including Ontario), viticulture based on native grape varieties has slowed considerably.

For example, little of this type is grown in Ontario because the provincial retail liquor monopoly, Liquor Control Board of Ontario, only buys Vinifera wines from growers, who are incented in other ways not to grow native varieties.

While this structure to our modern wine system was felt drastically to improve wine quality here, it has resulted in viticulture based largely on European grape types and the few hybrids authorized by Ontario’s wine standards body, Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA).

In the U.S. many wineries persist with native grapes especially in the East where climate often is unfavourable to cultivating vinifera or the most popular sorts. I recall drinking Delaware and Catawba wine in the Finger Lakes region of New York years ago, and I’m sure some is still made.

A lot was sweetened but not all and winemakers are constantly trying to come up with the magic formula that will produce a widely appealing flavour albeit it might disclose some fox flavour.

Fox flavour characterizes many of the American-grown hops popular since the 1970s. Beer drinkers readily accepted these tastes, the wild fruit taste that characterizes Concord, say, which has relegated its use to sacramental wine, grape juice, and jam.

Welch’s grape juice typifies the taste to those reading who know the brand. Grape jelly for toast has the same taste.

Enter Norton Virginia, sometimes known as Norton or Cynthiana. While a charter member of the native grape group, it lacks the fox taste. This was noted immediately on production of wine from the grape in early 1800s. Three states are known for its cultivation historically, Arkansas, Virginia, and Missouri.

The absence of fox taste made it a star in the eyes of Europeans and those in their thrall making authoritative determinations of wine quality. Norton grape wine won  a gold medal at the Vienna world exhibition in 1873 and was even grown in France.

It was thought to be a first class “claret” wine and set to be a major international variety comparable to Bordeaux red, fine Burgundy, and other noble reds. See some background in this excellent precis of its history from the Appellation America website. A search of “Norton Virginia” will disclose many other good short accounts.

But that world stage never came. There are a number of reasons: California with its lush European variety wines, in the market since the 1880s after pioneer growers brought European cuttings, started to overshadow eastern winemakers.

Also, the Norton grape is difficult to propagate which inhibited its spread to otherwise receptive vineyards. Further, it requires a receptive climate, especially a long growing season albeit it is strongly resistant to the cold weather period and the phylloxera pest. Modern viticulture and science probably could find ways around the limitations, as they have for vinifera in many regions.

Finally, WW I and especially Prohibition ended any chance of a world greeting for Norton. The 1930s was period of transition where growers back in business were deciding what to grow and how to sell it during the Depression, then WW II came. Norton Virginia fell by the wayside.

So the grape has remained on the fringes of the wine world but a dedicated group of winemakers, most in its three heartland states, persist with it including Horton Vineyards in Virginia where Dennis Horton has grown the grape since 1989. I tasted his wine last night in company of an English guest.

We all agreed it was flavourful and interesting. The guest thought berry-like, an accurate view IMO and I’d add spicy, with good acidity. It is somewhat like Zinfandel but less “hot” and with no jammy quality – a cooler climate Zin with some resemblance to the best Beaujolais as well, Morgon, say, and Fleurie.

The type is said to age well – Horton on the label suggests 7-10 years – but drinking it fairly new showed appealing qualities all the same.

While I hold nothing against the fox taste as such on the theory of the relativity of taste and using the beer analogy again, lacking the fox taste can do nothing to harm Norton’s future prospects. The grape performs differently too depending on local growing conditions and this variety of character would broaden its appeal.

Perhaps it can be grown successfully in parts of Ontario. I’d think the southwestern corner may be apt, which has a warmer climate than other parts of Ontario.

Based just on this one bottle, Norton deserves to be much more widely known. It may one day become America’s answer to the red wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel (Zin of course is an American variety but its lineage is 100% European, effectively it is an import as the other three).

It may fulfill the destiny, finally, many forecast in the 1800s.


Origin of the Beer Sparkler

The Road to Wigan’s Pint – and the North’s

A beery controversy in the U.K. since the 1970s is whether the “sparkler” is good for beer. A sparkler is a perforated ball fitted to the end of the tap. It aerates and forces CO2 from the beer as the handpump draws it from the cask. The pint acquires a dense head and creamy texture.

Without the sparkler, cask ale pours fairly flat with a loose, thinnish head that dissipates quickly. Serving the pint sans sparkler is popular in the south of England. In the north the sparkler is generally liked (custom can vary by sub-region and pub).

You don’t read much today about “sparkler – is it good or bad?” but oceans of ink and bandwidth have been sacrificed in the past to a cause that seems delphic to non-initiates.

It’s not that the hard core has tired of the controversy. Newer issues arise and attention turns elsewhere.

Today the main issue facing cask ale is whether CAMRA, the U.K. beer lobby that saved real ale, should promote other forms of beer. The American style of fizzy, well-malted and hopped beer is now popular in the U.K. CAMRA will probably have to adapt to the new reality.

Meanwhile, the matter of sparkler and cask ale quality remains. For what it’s worth, I prefer the bitter style of cask without the sparkler. Its effect seems to blunt hop flavour and generally flatten out taste.

We used to see the sparkler at some cask ale outlets in Toronto but lately the beer is pulled without them. There is some irony in this as if a sparkler improves any beer it is probably American IPA – the blunting of flavour actually improves some of it.

The sparkler was referred to parenthetically in a 1949 brewing journal article by J.W. Scott, “From Cask to Consumer”. Initially I thought it was a post-1945 invention, or perhaps an expedient to make thin, wartime beer more attractive in the glass.

In fact, its use well precedes that date.

The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

The first ad I saw left off the “l” in Hotel, or the upload to Google Books did that, and I thought the “Ince” must be a misprint of another kind or imperfect uploading again. But no, Ince is a locality nearish to Manchester, Ince-in-Makerfield. (About 17 miles).

The above short article is from pg. 707 of the November 1, 1885 issue of “The British Trade Journal and Export World, Vol. 23”. It explained what Barker’s device does, indeed exactly as people describe the effect today. The sparkler makes flat beer seem more sparkling by agitating the beer and creating the creamy effect.

The ad above is from the same issue of the journal mentioned.

Anyone familiar with beer knows you can swirl the glass to pick up the foam, or use a stirrer of some kind – Barker’s invention did the same thing, but methodically.

Cask ale of course has no CO2 injected at the brewery or pub so as it pours fairly flat, the sparkler would have enlivened pints that looked unattractive. For some reason the south has never minded flat pints, it may be palate-related, it may be the desire to have a brimful glass.

I cannot find any trace of a Crown Hotel in Ince. But there was one – and is one – at 106 Wigan Road, New Springs, near the canal. Ince was a kind of suburb of Wigan, itself some miles from Manchester.

New Springs is only two miles from the centre of Ince. You see its Crown Hotel pictured, a handsome house that looks old enough to have been the locale where Barker did his field work.

Maybe he lived in Ince and worked at the hotel, or used the hotel as a business address. It’s a nice looking pub innit? It is still going strong and gets fine reviews, see some details here. It serves, need we add, cask ale, presumably through Barker’s Aerator, formal name of his device.

In this Google maps view, you see the route from Ince to the Crown Hotel. The route wends further to another Crown Hotel in Worthington. That is another old public house, now closed. I thought it might have been the place Barker did his testing.

But Worthington is seven miles from Ince, likely too far for Barker to have travelled there unless he did so intermittently.

I feel fairly certain his Crown Hotel is as pictured, at 106 Wigan Road – unless you sleuths reading – you know who you are – uncover a Crown Hotel in Ince. (If you do, a pint on me, but you must meet me in Toronto. Okay, two pints).*

And Wigan, for non-Britons reading, is Lancashire – up north you know, so that part ties in.

N.B. One has to admire the hyperbole of Victorians. The sparkler was said to be “the most ingenious invention of the age”. Well, not quite, albeit Barker did quite well anyway. Still, millions of frothy pints beloved by Northerners and other Britons mostly are due to him. He should be remembered, even if palate purists will grumble.

Note re images: the first two images above were sourced from the 1885 journal article linked in the text. The third was sourced from this Google Maps view, and the last, from the Google Maps view linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*In fact reader Roy Pearson has shown there was a Crown Hotel in Ince, tenanted by Barker, see his message in the Comments. Thanks to Roy for straightening this out.


Pint of Burning Gold

Bring Me Pint of Burning Gold, Laden with Green and Pleasant Hops

Having sampled Timothy Taylor Landlord, an English pale ale, in bottle recently it brought back the commanding heights of English brewing. The cask version in England would only be better.

The flavour of these beers – meaning old school bitter and pale ale – is often incomparable. While lower amounts of hops are used today vs. the 1800s, the balance and gastronomic quality resulting from using English hop varieties especially for aroma are evident. If you used 1800s levels of hops they would equal a typical modern IPA in intensity and might often be better, beer for beer.

This brings to mind the many local attempts, by which I mean, Canadian, Ontarian, American, to make an English beer similar to England’s surviving best old-school beers.

I’ve tasted many of them in the last 40 years. I am not talking here about English-inspired beers that use local hops for terroir and practical reasons – this ended by creating the American pale ale/IPA format – but where local brewers try to emulate the English taste. This means in part using English hops brought here, just as European brewers successfully use New World hops to create American-style beers there.

Rarely can I recall an English bitter or pale ale being successfully made here. They don’t really come close, in my experience. We can get the malts or use similar ones of our own; we can get the hops; we can adjust brewing waters; we can select an English yeast; we can do cask; so why can’t we make a Timothy Taylor Landlord?

The English-type beers I’ve tasted rarely have the right malt profile, often I get a kind of mixed or “cracker” grain flavour, as e.g. for Goose Island’s (quite decent) Bitter Half the other day. I wonder if it comes from using too many malts. Where brewers disclose the number you read often of 5, 6 or more malts being used.

Is this really necessary? 1800s pale ale used one malt. Modern bitter often combines just pale malt and caramel malt.

I’ve had English-style beers with wheat in them – Britain does this too now sometimes – and I cannot see why this grain is necessary. It seems often to thin the beer and leave a faint dryness that doesn’t belong in pale ale.

You want – or I want – a clean sweet maltiness, the Maris Otter Pete Brown writes so well of in his new book is ideal but I’ve had many North American beers with great malt qualities. Celebration Ale from Sierra Nevada, for example.

Use that malt profile with English hops and you should end up with something Hook Norton, Timothy Taylor, Shepherd Neame, or many other English brewers would be proud of.

I’m not complaining, as we have innovated many styles of beer that now form part of the Gambrinal pantheon. But a fine English-style beer should be part of many brewers’ ranges.

I did have the odd beer over time that did deliver the true taste. Once, at Russian River in California. Probably the odd one in Ontario or Montreal over the years.

But even when the profile is right it’s usually too timid. You can get a small burst of flowery hop that is clearly English but it should dominate the beer, as say it did years ago for John Martin’s Special Pale Ale, brewed at the time if memory serves by Courage in Bristol.

Where the taste gets close, in other words, it doesn’t take you all the way – for me, that is, and here we speak of course of our palate, our tastes, but I can’t imagine a true English beer wouldn’t attract followers here. For one thing it’s a market opportunity given the proliferation of IPAs and pale ales with the American stamp.

Europe is brewing our styles faithfully; we should be returning the favour, not just for Germany or Belgium – overdone! – but for England’s classic forms of pale ale, bitter, and strong ale.

Note re image: the image shown was sourced from Timothy Taylor’s website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historic purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Pasadena Makes Early U.S. food and wine History

As California’s population and economy grew post-WW II, new chapters of the International Wine and Food Society formed in the state.

The Los Angeles branch was the first, founded in 1935, and indeed 20 years later had reached a stage of maturity to warrant its first history being published as I discussed recently (in fact, two histories have appeared to date).

Two members of the L.A. group formed the nucleus of a new Pasadena chapter in 1954, as explained on its website:

… a second organizational meeting was held at the Stuft Shirt Restaurant. Each charter member was requested to invite a few good friends who enjoyed food, wine, and camaraderie to join the new Society. It was determined that there would be four annual dinners, a logo was designed , and annual dues of $50 per member were assessed. ($10 was allotted to each dinner, to include both food and wine). The minutes of the second meeting were closed by Mr. Goss, stating “the meeting was adjourned in a gentlemanly fashion, sans stagger.” The first full membership dinner of the Wine and Food Society of Pasadena was held at The Piccadilly Restaurant in Pasadena on 9 November 1954. It was titled “An Italian Dinner accompanied by Inglenook Wines”. Now, as we move along in the 21st century, the Pasadena Wine & Food Society anticipates many more opportunities for the best in wine, food and fellowship.

On the same website you may read the first menu, a simple affair as far as typography and design but setting out an authentic, inviting Italian dinner prepared by a local restaurant.

We are not certain if Piccadilly Restaurant was another name for Piccadilly Cafeteria which was part of a small southern chain, but no restaurants under those names exist today as far as we know.

All the wines at dinner were from Inglenook, the famed California winery that began in the late 1800s, founded by – in typical U.S. fashion – a Finnish seafarer and his American wife.

Inglenook had many twists and turns after the captain died. The winery was revived after Prohibition and became one of the four or five wineries of national scale to dominate the U.S. wine business. Its fortunes changed after hundreds of small wineries took the momentum from the late 1960s (will it happen that way in brewing??).

Francis Ford Coppola, who needs no introduction, bought the vineyards after a winding history involving notably Constellation Brands. Initially he did not own the Inglenook name but today owns that too.

Wines now appear again under its name from the original estate. Earlier he put out wines under the name Coppola-Niebaum, the latter was the founding Finn.

Almost certainly the Los Angeles chapter, today the Wine and Food Society of Southern California, had held Italian dinners and featured California wines with them or certainly in other contexts.

So the Pasadena group did not innovate that way, but to base its inaugural dinner on all-local wines was a sign of the growing confidence of the informed wine consumer and the California wine industry. Most new gastronomy societies would have selected all-French wines or taken another conservative vinous course.

Go gourmets go, you might say, and they did. Despite the quaint sound to some of the 1954 proceedings – for one thing it was an all-male affair – the group was forward-looking and intrepid for what counts, the subject matter. It could have selected mostly Italian wines with one or two local selections, but it went all out.

Charbono on the list is an Italian-origin red wine grape that goes under many names, it is still grown occasionally in California. It’s not the same cultivar as Barbera but offers some of its taste qualities, or Zinfandel, vigorous and rustic. It was and still is used in blending too, in so-called field blends, but sometimes just with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Inglenook’s Cabernet Sauvignon at the dinner speaks for itself and was a fairly vintage one. The other wines served mostly still resonate today as well.

In fact, you can buy an Inglenook cab sauv at the LCBO, one with an 1880s date in its name that suggests therefore a character going back to the winery’s earliest days. We like that, and will pick it up soon for an assay.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Pinterest, here. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.