Like many air travelers, when I fly on a plane I like to tie one on. For me, drinking alcohol is the best way to endure a screaming infant two rows over or turbulence as rocky as a roller coaster. Look at it this way: If the airplane is going down, then I’d rather be flying high. My preferred liquid medicine is beer. Sadly, most airlines stick to wan offerings such as Budweiser, Miller or, if they’re feeling particularly thematic during international jaunts, Corona or Sapporo. Hey, you’re flying to Japan! Though I’m a captive customer, I can’t fathom paying Manhattan-bar prices for these weak, watery suds. Instead, I stick to the airplane-size bottles of vodka or whiskey, relishing the fact that every single sky-high sip is a rapid trip to inebriation. (That’s due to a one-two punch of altitude and low cabin pressure.)
But last week, the website CraftCans.com (yes, I’m the sort of man who spends his days perusing websites dedicated to canned beer) dropped this tidbit of titillating intelligence: A few select airlines had come to their senses and started to stock cans of quality craft beer. My world was rocked.
Which beers will I drink while flying high? Head over Food Republic to check out my picks. Drink it up!
Over on Food Republic today, I pen tale of my time spent drunkenly in China. At a diplomatic dinner, the host heard that I was a spirits and beer journalist. Thus, he demanded I knock back shot after shot of potent, rotgut bai jiu all under the guise of gan bei—a phrase that roughly translates to "bottoms up," and requires that the drinkers drain their cups. It's a ritual repeated, over and over, till intoxication is achieved. And then more booze is consumed. Curious? Drink it up!
The other night, after drinking far too much beer during my latest homebrew tour, I decided that I needed a little headbutt. I poured myself a bolt of beer. Then I poured myself a shot of Genever Bols. Not using my unsteady hands, I leaned over the table and slurrrrrrrped up the spirit. Satisfied, I slumped in my seat and proceeded to sip both inebriants till the night slipped away. That's called a kopstootje, the Netherland’s signature one-two combo of genever chased by a beer. I touched on the tradition in my latest Food Republic post. Curious? Drink it up!
The tale of how I got drunk with the vice president of Panama begins, most perversely, with porn.
Several months ago, an editor at a skin magazine asked me to pen an article on rum. This ain't strange. Porn mags are packed with stories on sports, video games and booze—even the horniest horndog will tire of gazing at endless pages of theatrically contorted women. This is where I, pardon the pun, come in. The article concerned itself with the rise of rhum agricole, a specialty of the French West Indies fashioned with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice, and aged rums. Taking cues from bourbon and Scotch, rum distillers such as Ron Zacapa and Mount Gay have begun releasing spirits that've slumbered in oak barrels for 10, 15 or even 30 years. Instead of being consigned to a piña colada, the heady, complex spirits are served on the rocks or straight up.
During the course of my, ahem, research, I kept circling back to Panama's Varela Hermanos, the makers of Ron Abuelo. For more than a century, familyrun Varela has been one of Panama's foremost distilleries, controlling some 90 percent of the market of Seco Herrano, a sugarcane-distilled spirit commonly mixed with fruit juice, soda or even milk. In the last decade, Varela has gotten into rum. Panama and rum? Isn't that like running a tequila distillery in North Dakota? I reached out to the distillery's reps to learn about the brand.
"We're planning a trip to Panama in a few weeks," the rep said. "Would you like to come along?" As a rule, I avoid press junkets. I'm an independent traveler. I prefer to land in foreign countries with little more than a fistful of currency and a faint understanding of the local language. Curiosity and unidentifiable street eats fuel my adventures. By contrast, orchestrated press trips lack foolhardy exploits and uncertainty. For seat-of-their-pants travelers, it's a little akin to a castrated man visiting a brothel. "You'd leave Tuesday evening and come back Friday morning," the rep wrote. Only two days being carted around like cattle? Sold.
Several weeks later, I found myself strapped into a helicopter, cruising over lush trees and sandy coastlines en route to Varela Hermanos' estate. There, donkeys dragged carts saddled with freshly sheared sugarcane. The air smelled of sweet rot. The sun beat down 93 humid degrees. Before sweat could roll down my neck, we were ushered inside an icily air-conditioned visitors room, where we found ourselves neck-deep in Ron Abuelo. The light añejo had soft notes of butterscotch, making it ideal for mixing. The seven-year-old Ron had an oaky aroma and plenty of vibrant cinnamon and brown spice notes, while the 12-year-old was a sweet and buttery vanilla-oak dream. But the masterpiece was Centuria, which was constructed from rums aged up to 30 years in oak barrels. It had creamy depth and a tongue-flooding sweetness filled with dried fruits, and a peppery, drying finish that left me lunging for another sip. "Can I have some more?" I asked the waiter, extending my glass. He obliged, and the afternoon and evening blissfully buzzed past.
The next morning, I dressed myself in shorts, slip-on sneakers and a T-shirt. We perused the canal (big ships!), the old city (stunning buildings!), then headed to a corner restaurant for lunch. Soon after settling into the bar, the restaurant's front door swung open. In strolled men wearing Secret Service earpieces. A cadre of nattily attired men, a stark counterpoint to my dirt-stained shorts and sweaty shirt, followed them. They strutted to our gaggle of writers. Gulp.
"Who's that?" I whispered to one of my journalists, pointing to the tanned center of attention. "That's the vice president of Panama," he said. "Juan Carlos Varela." Varela. Varela Hermanos distillery. The dots all connected. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Varela," I said, shaking his hand in a manly manner. He displayed his megawatt politician grin. "Care for a drink?" he said, sliding behind the bar and grabbing a Centuria bottle. It was as if Joe Biden offered to pour me a pint at my corner pub.
"I'm always thirsty," I said. Soon, I held a glass of amber Centuria ambrosia. I disappeared the liquid. The vice president filled it with more rum. I felt woozy. We sat down for lunch. Food didn't lessen my wooziness. "Another?" the vice president asked. I should've said no. It would've been a smart move. But who can say no to the vice president of Panama? A waiter topped off my cup with more rum, more rum than one man should ever drink during lunch. I toasted the vice president, then I proceeded to get smashed in a manner that'd make Americans proud.
Ahh, nothing like sweet alcohol to make you consider beastiality with an inanimate object.
Bachelor parties are indistinguishable from a death-row convict’s final meal: one last smidgen of pleasure before life is over.
The major difference is, the murderer likely enjoyed his repast, while there’s nothing remotely pleasure about these testosterone-soaked bacchanals that are equal parts expensive and predictable: a hangover-wreaking orgy of meat, beer and lap dances, a mystifyingly popular act that replicates the teenage dry hump’s rubbed-raw displeasure. Sadly, in my marriage-happy social circle, bachelor bacchanals are now as unavoidable as days ending in Y.
“You’re going to another one?” my girlfriend asks, incredulously. I returned home from my last all-dude shindig at 6 a.m., swaddled in smoke and possessing eyeballs the color of maraschino cherries. “How come I haven’t heard about this?”
“We just decided to have one today.”
“Do I have to worry about you?”
“I’m too cheap to get in that much trouble.”
“I doubt that,” she says, as I head out the door and head to Mudville 9 (126 Chambers St. betw. West Broadway & Church St., 212-964-9464). It’s a forgettable Tribeca sports bar with numerous flat-screen TVs and dudes with gelled hair. Our men gnaw meaty, sparsely sauced chicken wings and drink $12 pitchers of Bud.
“Just water for me,” I say, sipping from my Nalgene bottle.
“Are you not drinking?” one guy asks.
Nope, I’m just biding my time until we hit the Patriot Saloon (110 Chambers St. betw. West Broadway & Church St., 212-748-1162). It’s my favorite despicable dive. The bilevel roadhouse offers bar-dancing hussies, vomit-splattered toilets and “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?” as the theme song.
“Welcome to dirty heaven,” I announce, ordering $6.50 PBR pitchers. They’re served by a giggly brunette wearing an abbreviated dress and a push-up bra. Much to the crew’s appreciation, her preferred method of locomotion is skipping like an 11-year-old on recess.
“Please, never let her stop jumping,” one guy says, his eyes hubcap-size.
Whereas feminists might construe this as shameless and shameful, it’s instead an effective sales tactic.
“More beer?” the waitress inquires the instant we drain a pitcher. She bats her eyes, stirring up longings, liquid and otherwise.
Yes, yes, yes.
Within an hour, we’ve swallowed numerous rounds of Wild Turkey and Jäger. The world is blurry. The world is beautiful. “Gentlemen,” says a fancifully facial-haired friend, “we’re ready to ogle.”
Like a herd of horny sheep, we stumble outside and down West Broadway.
“Pit-stop at Raccoon Lodge?” a contingent member offers, spotting its neon sign.
On the surface, it’s a brilliant notion. That dark dive offers cheap Rolling Rock pints, a pool table—and one brutally rank memory. Once, a riotously inebriated friend was too sloshed to trifle with a toilet and instead urinated on the floor. We were 86’d faster than you can snap.
“Uh, no,” I veto, as we proceed to New York Dolls (59 Murray St. betw. West Broadway & Church St., 212-791-5261).
Dear readers, I despise strip clubs. They’re greasy mechanisms for stripping men of money. It’s a Pavlovian inevitability: Show men a nipple or four, and their hands automatically reach for their pants, whipping out thick, swollen billfolds. But as an example of the species, New York Dolls is a fairly swell boobie haunt. Well-mannered, well-muscled men check our IDs and take $10 entrance fees. The carpet is clean and vacuumed. The lounge’s mirrors lack suspect smudges. We settle into plush chairs while the entertainment gyrates onstage, but I’m too distressed to pay attention.
“How much for a beer?” I ask the lingerie-clad waitress. She hands me a sweaty Amstel Light.
I pay the topless surcharge and attempt to set a Guinness record for slowest beer sipped. All around, men are massaged and ridden like they’re broken-down nags. My pal Papa Chubby is not pleased. I flee to the toilet, where an attendant stands sentry. I attempt relief, but performance anxiety has vised shut my piping.
“Excuse me,” I say, vanishing into a stall. Locking the door unlocks my river of relief.
When I exit, I try faking out the attendant—head for the sink, then dash for the door—but he’s already running water and extending a paper towel. I wash my hands and exchange his towel for a wet dollar.
“Having fun?” he asks.
“Have some candy,” he says, motioning at the basket of candy.
My pockets soon bulge with Brach’s cinnamon discs. They provide a little sweetness as I return to the lounge where ladies and gents, bachelors and marrieds alike, grind away to—and on—their preferred end.
History is littered with hard sells like “elect Mitt Romney” or “enact congest pricing” or, when I was 16 years old: “Please touch me.”
However, it was ridiculously simple to convince six men to guzzle their weight in beer and embrace bromance.
“Ditch the ladies,” I said. “It’s a boys-only brewery adventure.”
Sold. Statewide, more than 40 New York breweries await in towns a short train ride on NJ Transit from NYC. Like Pearl River, home to Advil manufacturers Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Defiant Brewing Company. Though brewmaster owner Neil Acer cranked up his kettles in fall 2006, his tasty brews (like hoppy Muddy Creek Lager) rarely leave Pearl River. So, in our misguided minds, visiting Defiant was like frolicking in a drunkard’s forbidden Garden of Eden.
After the train deposited our testosterone troupe in Pearl River, we headed across the rusty tracks to a white warehouse: Defiant’s convenient headquarters. “Can we get a tour?” I asked cellerman Ben Blowers, a skinny, goateed guy with wire-rim glasses, earrings and lengthy fingernails.
“Here it is,” he said, gesturing to gleaming tanks and kettles, metal pipes and whirling doodads, lining the long room tall enough to fly a kite. Taped to the white cinderblock wall was a bearded angel cradling a sudsy mug. Now that’s my idea of heaven—if Jews had a heaven, I mean.
We sat at a blond-wood bar big enough for a high football team and pondered our liquid attack. Any mug of über-fresh beer (dispensed directly from storage tanks, not kegs) costs $3.25, and wine-size corked bottles filled with one-off oddities are $9.
“Uh, I’ll try the Belgian Abbey,” I said.
“Don’t have it,” Blowers replied.
“But it’s there,” I said, pointing at the chalkboard near the ceiling.
“It’s hard to climb on the tanks and erase things,” Blower explained.
Excuses, shmixcuses. We instead sampled the creamy stout; malty, chocolaty porter; caramel-esque Irish amber; and our favorite, the easy-drinking Muddy Creek Lager.
“Another, please,” a quick-drinking friend said, draining his ration in two gulps.
Yet these libations were as unique as Natty Light compared to the corked novelties. “We’re not the next Sam Adams,” Blower explained, “we’re an artisanal brewery.” Damn straight. The Lambchop Raspberry (containing 300 pounds of ’berry) was funky and sour, sunburn-pink and not cloying, while the double IPA was a baby smooth, bitter blast. My fave, the Belgian Tripel 3, was sweet, spicy and strong as Andre the Giant, with subtle notes of peach.
“I am,” I mumbled, “officially buzzed.” It was 6 p.m. Brooklyn beckoned. We lurched to the train while Aaron, ever the considerate enabler, bought 24-ounce Budweisers for all.
“Why waste money when you’re wasted,” he surmised.
We drank greedily and discussed offal so volubly (“You can spoon up brains like custard.” “Penis doesn’t belong on a stick.”) that we drove fellow riders into neighboring cars. Alcohol, I suspect, doesn’t make me as droll as I imagine.
The train ride home took us through New Jersey where our beer vanished: destination Penn Station. Smart men would’ve let their livers clock out. But since our common sense was anesthetized, we zigzagged to Chelsea Piers. It housed Chelsea Brewing Company’s inaugural Manhattan Cask Ale Festival, conceived by cask evangelist Alex Hall.
Quick tutorial: Cask ale is warm, unfiltered beer that contains live yeasts and low carbonation. They’re as complex and flavorful as fine wine—sippers, not instant inebriants. Not that most bargoers cared. Befitting Saturday night, Chelsea Brewing was ass-to-elbow with men wearing backward baseball hats and women painted like slutty clowns. People were raring to get fucked up and hopefully fuck. We elbowed through heaving throngs and reached a clutch of sedate cask lovers.
“Taste the nuance,” said one khaki-wearing gentleman, passing his cup to another.
Ah, beer geekdom, how I love your gentle ways. We acquired Blue Point’s grassy Spring Fling, Troëgs’ floral Hop Back Amber Ale and New England Brewing’s Wet Willy, a 10-percent Scotch ale “that’s like drinking straight liquor,” Aaron decreed. It was so lip-smackingly scrumptious, we ordered rounds that rapidly multiplied. The night should’ve died there, pickled as a Kosher dill, but I had one final dreadful idea in a day lousy with ’em.
“Let’s party with the motorcycle gang,” I urged, escorting our wobbly crew homeward to my local black biker bar in Brooklyn, where we drank jet-fuel-proof rum mixed with milk and created lasting memories that lasted only until our eyes flickered shut.