Spirits

Gut Instinct: Market Report

art20494narGet drunk, Josh. Get drunk! Pound it!

Let me be blunt: I loathe interviewing celebrities as much as I detest raw tomatoes, a vegetable barely fit for chucking at American Idol afterthoughts.

My hatred traces to Hugh Hefner.As a cub journalist in 2002, I took every bottom-barrel assignment. I penned trivia about Mr. T and wrote round-ups about flaming drinks and my demeaning medical experiments, subjects that endeared me to an editor at a trendy NYC mag. She hired me to ink articles on characters like Mary Carey, the porn star turned California gubernatorial candidate, who ended our interview by grabbing my berries and twig.

One afternoon, said editor called urgently.

“Can you come to California tomorrow and interview Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion?” Did water roll off a duck’s neck? I departed for JFK, armed with my tape recorder and overheated silicone-enhanced fantasies. Twelve hours later, a battalion of lingerie-clad starlets ushered me into the mansion. “Welcome,” one artificially enhanced specimen purred, her skin the color of boat shoes and red lips like inflatable arm buoys.The bionic women deposited me in Hef’s regal inner sanctum. Sweat blasted from my pores like a busted fire hydrant.

I needn’t have worried. No matter what I asked (“What’s Playboy’s role in the 21st century?”), I received boilerplate answers (“Playboy is an icon.”) and anecdotes as stale as week-old bread. The experience was not unlike interviewing a parakeet with a limited verbal repertoire. From that day forward, I swore off celebrity interviews. I succeeded. Until last week’s phone call.

“Josh, can you cover some events for the New York City Wine & Food Festival?” asked a non-Press editor.

Sure thing. Since launching last year, the Food Network shindig has grown into one of America’s preeminent culinary festivals, thanks to popular programming like the juicy Burger Bash and the sugarrushed Sweet. In lieu of those lip-smacking events, I was tabbed to cover Chelsea Market After Dark: the opening-night kickoff party featuring star chefs Guy Fieri and Sandra Lee.

“To be perfectly honest, this is not my strong suit,” I told my editor, begging off to wash my hair. “I don’t even own a TV.”

“You’ll do great,” the editor said, pumping me up like I was an insecure lover. “Besides, we’ve already put in your press pass.”

Checkmate. I grabbed my digital recorder and hit Chelsea Market, the Oreo’s birthplace. That night, the former Nabisco factory’s fancy-food marketplace became a pleasure dome for middle-aged couples with hairsprayed coiffures and the power to purchase the tasting event’s $95 tickets. It was a very specific, entitled form of hell.

“I need a stiff drink,” I told my curlyhaired photographer, reaching for a cherryequipped Manhattan.

My 40-watt mood brightened to 75. I was ready to tackle my first mission: Sandra Lee. In my mind’s eye, Lee was a large, loquacious Southerner who specialized in culinary atrocities like burgers served between glazed donuts. “Isn’t that her?” my photographer asked, pointing at a threadthin lady with long hair the color of California sand. Oh, shit. My mistake: I thought I was interviewing Paula Deen, not Lee, who specializes in style and “semi-homemade” food. Hence, ditch the question about deep-fried butter. Instead, we discussed pretty fall leaves.

“Well, that went well,” the photographer said.

“You can’t classify a train wreck as ‘going well,’” I replied, descending into the crowd. I fought through the wine-lubricated throngs, pausing to marvel at Jacques Torres: “Come inside! We will roll you in chocolate! We will cover you in chocolate!” he called to passersby. I bit the bait. “Even me?” “Only the ladies,” he replied, instead offering me a chocolate-chip cookie. It was a chunky, chewy consolation prize.

But my main target was Fieri. I entered his red-neon lair, greeted by nubile gals distributing Jägermeister swag. I scanned the room, my ears deafened by a white dude crooning Michael Jackson covers, when I spotted the supernova of attention: Fieri, his gelled hair like a blond porcupine, was ringed by fawning fans. I fought to the front and asked Fieri a couple questions about the festival’s success, softball questions with softball answers. I was going through the motions.Then journalistic inspiration struck:“I need a drink.What should I get?” Fieri passed me a plastic cup. I sipped the black liquid: Jäger, cold as an Alaskan Christmas.

“Come on, you have to pound it,” Fieri said, as if I were a failed frat boy.

I followed orders. Fieri grinned. “Now that’s not so bad, is it?” Fieri asked.

“Not so bad at all,” I replied, reaching for another icy, anesthetizing glass of what I called journalism.

Gut Instinct: Greene With Envy

art20437narShe encouraged me to drink so much. So much. So much whisky.

After countless forays to strip clubs, strip-club steakhouses and biker clubs, my girlfriend finally voiced an objection to my adventures in New York’s inebriated underbelly.

“You’re not going out with Glenfiddich’s female whisky ambassador,” she commanded. I swear steam issued from her ears, like a real-life cartoon. “I don’t want you hanging out with women wearing bikinis, dumping whisky down your throat.”

Though that mental image pleased me, I tossed water on that wet dream.This whisky emissary, Heather Greene, would wear pants. She held a respectable, enviable position: traveling the East Coast, guiding Glenfiddich tastings and proselytizing about the woodsy spirit. Plus, she’s an accomplished musician, with international tours under her belt.

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” my girlfriend said, reluctantly acquiescing to my plan: date night with a woman I wasn’t dating.

“Ready for some WHISKY?” Heather texts.

“Sweet heavens, I hope so,” I reply, arranging to meet at Tribeca’s temple of dark spirits, the Brandy Library.The Library is all leather and wood, liquor bottles glowing like amber jewels. Since the fairer sex is in short supply, I instantly ID one thirty-something Heather. She’s wearing a leather jacket and long tresses, and a warm, lip-glossed smile from which issues a good-natured ribbing. “You must be the writer,” she says, examining my gray grandpa cardigan.

“Indeed,” I reply, brandishing a pen and grabbing a bar stool. Heather orders dual drams of Glenfiddich 18.

“This is a clean, beautiful single-malt Scotch,” Heather rhapsodizes, swirling the snifter.We toast and sip the whisky, by turns rich and mellow, oaky and a smidgen sweet—a smooth lubricant for a conversation about her unlikely career. Back when the millennium was brand-new, Heather bartended at bygone music venue Tonic. Watching eclectic acts inspired her to pen tunes.The songs became her 2006 debut, the country-flavored Five Dollar Dress. Reviews were righteous. “I was written up in New York and Rolling Stone, and I performed on the BBC. Everything seemed poised for success,” Heather says.

After her European tour ended, Heather returned to town and rocked a Joe’s Pub gig. Then she went to an ATM to withdraw cab fare. Her bank account was bled out. “I’d been around the world, but I didn’t have money to get home. At that moment I had to redefine my idea of success,” she explains. “I was heartbroken by the music industry.”

The cure for heartbreak, as it has been for centuries, was found inside a liquor bottle. Heather moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, and began working at the venerable Scotch Malt Whisky Society. “I think they were excited to have a Manhattan bartender,” Heather says, laughing. At the Society, Heather discovered her knack for identifying scents. She took a test. “My percentile for nosing was crazy—like the 90th percentile,” she says. While Heather honed her whisky expertise, she began penning her follow-up, Sweet Otherwise, a delightful blend of pop and country, electronica and folk. Meanwhile, her whisky nose attracted the eye of Glenfiddich’s parent firm, William Grant & Sons.The company asked her to become its ambassador.

“Whisky was a hobby that got out of control and became my job,” Heather explains. And though there are far worse jobs, the spirits world is taxing on both mind and liver. “Last week was six days of whisky— morning, noon and night,” Heather says. She balances booze with band practice and musical side projects, like her electronica offshoot, Argon 40, featuring Powerman 5000 guitarist Adam Williams (and a killer “Free Fallin’” cover). “When the weekend comes, all I want to do is order in Chinese food.” But tonight’s Thursday, and there’s more drinking to be done.

We cab it to Flatiron Lounge, where seats are as rare as they are on rush-hour trains. “Forget this. Let’s go to Mansfield Hotel,” she says, as a taxi takes us to the Midtown inn’s M Bar (12 W. 44th St., betw. 5th & 6th Aves., 212-277-8888). It’s a cozy looker, styled with a domed skylight, mahogany bookshelves and jazz musicians.We circle the horseshoe bar. Heather orders polenta fries and whisky sours. My face wrinkles like a dirty dress shirt.

“Too sweet?” she asks. I nod. “Two Glenfiddich 12s on ice,” she orders. I assumed ice was a heresy, like ketchup on a kosher hot dog. “Not true. Ice condenses the flavor,” Heather explains. “It’s like a simple cocktail.”

We toast again, to this week’s release of Sweet Otherwise. Cool whisky warms our insides and creates a conversational intimacy. I tell Heather my girlfriend thought she’d be wearing a bikini. She laughs.

“I could still make that happen,” she kids, giving me every reason to end this story right now.