In my latest Food Republic column, I train my swollen liver's attention on Bully Boy Distillers, a brotherly duo out of Boston who are reviving the city's spirits heritage. A century earlier, Boston was part of the Triangle Trade, which brought molasses from the West Indies to the city. Thus, the city was lousy with rum, an industry that gave up the ghost during Prohibition. Enter Will and Dave Willis, brothers who, in June, started crafting whiskey, vodka and, of course, rum. Curious about how they entered the spirits world? Check out the full story at Food Republic. Drink it up!
A few months back, I traveled to Panama to explore the pleasures of Panamanian rum—and, well, step on the foot of the vice president of Panama (not one of the prouder moments in my long, lubricated history of drinking). Finally, the fruits of my liquor labor have been published in Penthouse. I can only hope that my words do justice to the pictures in the magazine. Curious? Drink it up! It's totally safe for work, I swear.
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.
Sandwiches are the most fun I can have with two hands.
“In public,” my girlfriend would like me to add.
Lately, I’ve experienced a sandwich deficit. Too many sit-down dinners, liquid dinners or no dinners at all.
“Except for bags of Zapp’s chips,” my girlfriend would also like me to add.
“Quiet, you,” I muttered, eager to embark on a bread-chomping flurry. “Grab your bike, hon—it’s eatin’ time.”
“Where are we going?” my girlfriend wondered, as we left our house and pedaled to Brooklyn’s western edge.
“Shh, shh, don’t worry,” I said, in my coax-the-kid-into-the-van voice.
“Don’t take me to another Chinese restaurant.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. We locked up at Ferdinando’s Focacceria (151 Union St. between Columbia and Hicks Sts., B’klyn, 718-855-1545), a century-old Sicilian joint situated where Carroll Gardens kisses Red Hook. Don’t expect herb-slathered chunks of pizza-like bread; instead, this earlier-era eatery specializes in arancina—breaded, deep-fried rice balls stuffed with spiced ground beef and peas—and rarities like cow-spleen vastedda sandwiches.
“You know I’m a vegetarian,” my girlfriend explained.
“Try the panelle sandwich,” singsonged the counterman. That’s a toasted semolina roll encasing fried chickpea fritters topped with creamy ricotta and pecorino ($5).
“So good,” she said, enjoying crunchy, gooey, greasy goodness.
I oozed indecisiveness: meatball or sausage hero?
“Get half and half,” suggested the newspaper-reading owner, Frank Buffa.
Compromise. How wonderful. Who knew? My hero ($9) was a marriage of spongy orbs relenting to a fennel-flavored sausage snap. I sighed with pleasure.
“That’ll put you one step closer to a heart attack,” my girlfriend reprimanded. “And how did you get sauce on your cheeks?”
I turned the color of tomatoes as we pedaled home.
Smartly, the next night I left my sweetie at home when I visited my favorite African-American motorcycle gang clubhouse, Imperial Bikers MC (652 Franklin Ave. at St. Marks Ave., B’klyn, 718-789-2451). It was a Friday night. I was shooting atrocious pool with my French pal Bati. We were wincing down 150 proof-plus rum mixed with 2 percent milk ($3).
“Do you even like this?” he asked, his right eye involuntarily spasming
“Not really,” I said, “but it makes me feel tough—or at least drunk enough to comfortably hang out at the biker bar.”
I took a deep glug and missed my shot. Bati missed his. I lined up for another shot when my nostrils flared: chicken, possibly fried. I dropped my cue and peeked around the corner. Jolly, rotund men with names like “Chaos” were chomping golden chicken.
“Is that the Crazy Chicken?” I inquired.
“Mmhmm,” a pro-wrestler-size man answered, ripping off a crispy chunk. Months before, I’d noticed a poster featuring a raw chicken encased in a straightjacket. “Call for Crazy Chicken!” the sign touted.
“Can you order me some?” I asked, like a kid begging for a Nintendo Wii.
“Sure,” he said, whipping out his cellphone. “How many sandwiches?” I turned to Bati.
“Are you sure it’s good? Or safe?”
“No and no.”
“Two,” I ordered.
Done. I acquired another OP and milk, feeling much like Superman, if Superman was one drink away from urinating himself. Thirty minutes passed.
“Cory!” screamed Crazy Chicken, toting black plastic bags. “Cory!”
I pointed at my chest.
“No, I’m Josh. Cory used to be my roommate.” I’m sure scads of flour-white crackers look alike, but not Cory and I: He’s far taller, with a lumberjack-quality beard. And he’s vegetarian, for Pete’s sake. I explained the mistake.
“Well, how about that,” Crazy Chicken said.
Bati and I unwrapped our fried chicken sandwiches ($4). They stretched the very definition of sandwich: two slices of Wonder Bread smooshily encasing a thigh and leg. I peeled off the soft bread and bit into the thigh. The skin was skillet-hot and crispy, the meat peppery and juicy as a ripe orange.
“You like it?” Crazy Chicken asked.
“Yesh,” I mumbled, tearing the chicken bones apart like an archaeologist searching for buried treasure.
“All right,” Crazy Chicken said, slyly sliding me his phone number. “You just call me when you want more sandwiches.”
Readers, do you fully comprehend that I possess a fried-chicken maestro’s home number? On speed-dial? The dangers shall be documented in full greasy detail.