Wednesday, October 31, 2012

WhiskyFest Weekend – Day 1



This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending WhiskyFest Weekend in New York City.  The event was a pleasure for two reasons:  for one thing, because this was the first time WhiskyFest had ever been held over a weekend; usually, it is just one night and as a result, you don’t get the opportunity to visit as many whisky manufacturers – there are so many present that trying to obtain a sample from each and every one is a daunting task, to say the least.  Therefore, holding the event over two nights gave you the chance to visit more companies and in general, move at a slightly slower pace. 

WhiskyFest Weekend NYC 2012

For another thing, this provided an excellent occasion to get your party on before all hell broke loose – by the time the weekend concluded (and WhiskyFest was long over), Hurricane Sandy decided to pay us a visit and wreak all kinds of havoc.  The 2012 report on WhiskyFest Weekend New York will be in two parts, each one covering a single night.  This blog post is part one, which describes my experience on the first night of WhiskyFest Weekend in New York City, which took place on Friday, October 26, 2012.


This year, I started off my WhiskyFest tasting by visiting the Jack Daniel’s table.  As I began with sampling the utterly luxurious Gentleman Jack, I did something very dangerous, although I didn’t know it at the time:  I asked one of the company representatives what I thought was a rather simple and straightforward question:  “What’s new?”  What followed was a most devilish glint in his eye as he smiled, proudly giving an answer for which my unsuspecting ears were totally unprepared.  “In January of 2013”, he began, “we’ll be introducing an unaged rye to the market”.  I almost did a spit-take.  While I was still choking after his announcement, he continued:  “It’s made up of 70% rye, 15% corn and 15% malted barley”.  Being the naturally curious type, I asked if they were pouring some – which it turned out they were – you can see it in the clear bottles from the photo above, which were clearly marked “NOT FOR SALE”.  As you might expect, it had a most pungent moonshine aroma, with a distinct spiciness that hit you immediately.  This might be interesting to experiment with to start the new year.

 Chivas Maple25Next, I proceeded to the Crown Royal booth, where they also surprised me with something new – Crown Royal Maple!  Having just arrived on the market this week, it’s an 80 proof Canadian Whisky – definitely NOT a liqueur, as you can tell by its alcohol content.  Please don’t be fooled by the appellation “Maple” on its label – it is absolutely not sweet.  You might understandably assume that it’s made from maple syrup, but that’s not the case; that would add a good deal of sugar and make it considerably sweeter (as well as lowering its alcohol content).  The way it is made is by taking their Crown Royal Deluxe and finishing it in barrels that have a level 4 char; these barrels have been laced with sap from maple trees.  Its aroma has a most distinct maple smell to it but there is an unmistakable whisky taste.  It was served shaken on ice, then poured into a small cup neat – it was great!  If you can ever find this, I highly recommend trying it this way. 



Lastly, I stumbled upon a booth setup by a company called Single Cask Nation.  I had never heard of this company before, or its product, so I chatted with one of the company representatives for a while and learned that they have an interesting business model.  As much as you might like their whiskies having sampled them at WhiskyFest, you cannot buy them in any liquor store because they are only sold on their own Web site.  And even then, not just anyone can make a purchase because in order to buy a whisky from their site, you first have to be a member.  They have a multi-tiered annual membership ranging from $180 to $960 that has increasing levels of privileges with the greater cost; once your membership is up for renewal, you only pay $36 for the next year.  Also, there are no minimum purchase requirements each year – if you don’t find anything that suits your needs, you don’t have to buy anything and there is no penalty.

In part two of my WhiskyFest Weekend report, I’ll provide a summary of my activities on Day 2.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

“Chasing Ice” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw the new documentary “Chasing Ice”. 



An experienced nature photographer spends years photographing various icebergs around the northern hemisphere in order to illustrate the impact of global warming on the planet. 


Photographer James Balog certainly never started out life wanting to be considered an environmentalist – but that seems to have been the life path that he wound up taking, as accidental as it may have been.  With a background in geology and a passion for photography, he wound up combining two of his greatest interests by forging a long, successful career as a professional photographer of many outdoor scenes.  But it was one particular shoot from a few years ago that eventually sent him off on a new obsession – one fraught with great controversy.   

During a photographic expedition to the arctic region in order to capture climate changes, he gradually became a true believer regarding the issue, despite having a great many doubts previously.  This experience inspired Balog to the most ambitious project of his or any other photographer’s career:  to obtain visual verification that the earth’s temperature is increasing by showing the melting of massive icebergs around the world. 

Balog then set out on his mission with a team to help him set up photographic equipment in Iceland, Greenland, northern Montana and elsewhere.  This equipment included new and as yet untested technology for time lapse photography techniques in an environment that was as unfriendly to the technology as it was to humans.  Despite frequent challenges and occasional failures, Balog was able to successfully obtain evidence that the increased use of carbon emissions over the centuries has had a direct impact on icebergs receding and glaciers rapidly melting. 



Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Chasing Ice” is the number of stunning visual images that were captured both on video and in still pictures.  Among these include an event referred to as “calving”, which is where huge chunks break off from icebergs and then become glaciers, which then aimlessly float throughout the ocean, eventually melting if they wind up managing to travel far enough to the south.  Additionally, evidence which proves over a period of time – usually years, but in some cases months – that ice caps are shrinking in size at an alarming rate. 

There are parts of the film that are quite dry, specifically when much of the technical and statistical details are delivered – so from that standpoint, viewers can certainly be somewhat grateful that the documentary is under an hour and a half.  However, the filmmakers do make an effort to humanize the subject matter by showing the effects of Balog’s extensive travel and adventurous behavior on his family as well as how health problems occasionally limited his active participation in his own project. 

Following the screening, our instructor interviewed both Balog and the documentary’s director, Jeff Orlowsky, who was also a member of Balog’s team.  Orlowsky explained that originally, the plan was not to shoot a documentary to be released in theaters, but instead, to act as the project’s videographer in order to record the actions taken on this expedition.  It was only after a certain amount of footage was recorded did he go to Balog and tell him that it appeared as though they had the makings of an actual film on their hands.  Balog talked at great length about the technological advances that have occurred during his long and illustrious career as a photographer and how that has changed how he works;


Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Glenlivet Gathering



Single malt scotch, classic jazz and tasty hors d’oeuvres.   Well, if all of that sounds like the makings of a great evening, you’d be absolutely right.  That’s exactly what I enjoyed during a recent tasting of The Glenlivet at Union Square Wines & Spirits.  We were treated to a total of six Glenlivet expressions, plus one cocktail made with the scotch.  Guiding us throughout the event was Glenlivet Brand Ambassador for the Northeast, Craig Bridger, who was able to greatly enhance the tasting by explaining to the group the background of each item on the menu. 


Upon entering, we were immediately greeted with a cocktail – the classic Rob Roy, made with Glenlivet 12 Year.  As you may know, the Rob Roy is a cousin of another classic cocktail called The Manhattan – except it is made with scotch instead of rye or bourbon; it also includes sweet vermouth and a dash or two of Angostura bitters.  Typically, it is garnished with a cherry, however, this time, an orange peel was used instead; this was done to enhance the citrus notes in the scotch, which are easy to detect on taste, but not quite so much by its scent.  Craig told us that he decided to use this particular single malt because it’s got a slight smokiness to it, which tends to offset what would otherwise be sweet. 

Jazz_PortAfter that, we tried the single malt on its own.  An 80 proof scotch that comes in the iconic green glass bottle, this is the #1 selling single malt in the entire United States and as such, is regarded as the company’s flagship product.  Produced legally since 1824 (and illegally well before that), it is always worth revisiting even if you’ve tried this one in the past.  While most of its aging is the American bourbon barrel that is standard for scotch, it is finished in Spanish sherry casks.  This imparts it with fruit notes that include apples, pears and peach; on its finish, you will find a bit of honey and possibly some heather as well. 


Next up was Glenlivet’s French Oak Reserve, aged 15 years in former brandy and cognac barrels.  Both spicy and creamy on the palate, this has, without a doubt, a considerably more complex taste.  If you are a big fan of bourbon, you’ll probably love this. 

We then moved on to the 18 year old; at 86 proof, this has a slightly higher alcohol content than the first two.  With a silky feel on the tongue, one person even described it as “sexy”.  It is characterized by a rosy color due to being kept in Spanish sherry casks; the wood of these casks is not charred, but lightly toasted.  It tastes of dried fruit and dark chocolate, with a long, lingering finish on the tongue.  If the tasting had ended right here, I would’ve picked this as the best of the evening.  But then came a surprise.


At 108.6 proof, the 16 year old Nadurra was easily the best scotch of the evening; this is the one I recommend (and yes, I even bought a bottle at the conclusion).  It gets its name from the Gaelic word for “natural”.  Craig described this one as “the 12 year old on steroids”.  Made in small batches, it bears a label that not only displays its alcohol content, but also, the date of bottling and which batch number it was from.  The alcohol content can range from 54% to 59%; because of that, it is highly recommended that you do not drink it neat – in fact, our samples were served with a little water delivered via an eyedropper.  Nadurra is aged in first-fill bourbon barrels, which means no scotch was ever aged in the barrel previously.  Its taste has hints of fruit with what Craig informed us was ginger root on its finish. 




Friday, October 19, 2012

“Cloud Atlas” – Movie Review



This week, my movie class began with a screening of “Cloud Atlas” by The Wachowski Siblings (formerly The Wachowski Brothers), starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Grant.


Over the course of the vast history of the world – including visions into the future – a group of mysteriously related people are followed throughout the centuries showing how their actions are ultimately interconnected and influenced by their ancestors. 


“The Cloud Atlas Sextet” is a piece of music that was composed during the 1800’s and somehow manages to resonate throughout six centuries.  In each century, we are told a story of the individuals who most influenced the particular event for their given period of time in the history of the world:  the composer of the piece, a lawyer on an ocean voyage, an investigative journalist in the 1970’s, a book publisher and, in the future, a restaurant worker and a tribe of survivors following a devastating event that leaves behind a barbarian civilization. 

While the story of each individual continuously bounces around and ostensibly seems somewhat disjointed, we are periodically reminded of a most unusual hereditary trait that maintains a thread which provides an unexpected – and inexplicable – continuity that ultimately ties everything together, although the characters may not know or understand this while in the midst of the tumultuous events that not only define their present existence, but also, shapes the future of the world and how it is defined by their descendants. 

Ultimately, events lead the future of mankind to decide whether or not its proletariat has the will to not only survive, but to survive without the encumbrances of either enslavement by the powerful or oppression of the mighty.  Will the future generation either comprehend or heed the advice and information supplied to them by their predecessors or will they merely act as so many sheep to follow whatever they are told to believe? 



(/muhnj/)  A derogatory term meaning to imperfectly transform information.

Throughout the course of writing this blog – and the portion that contains the movie reviews in particular – I am occasionally stumped at how to describe something.  This is especially evinced in the story details of certain motion pictures I see in my class.  Never has writing a film’s story explanation been so challenging for me as it has with my viewing of “Cloud Atlas”.  Literally, I don’t know what to say.  Take that for what you will, which may not be a very clear or well-written review.  Nevertheless, it is quite sincere. 

The Wachowski Siblings (formerly The Wachowski Brothers, until one of them decided to have a sex change operation) are perhaps most famous for giving us The Matrix Trilogy in all its cinematic grandeur and flaws (I only found the first installment of this trilogy to be particularly worthwhile).  Nevertheless, they have decided to embark on an even more ambitious project (and I use the word “ambitious” as a rather severe understatement) by giving us “Cloud Atlas”, which is based on a book which many considered impossible to make into a movie. 

In our class discussion following the screening, it would seem that the movie may have made a greater impact on those who have already read the novel on which it is based.  For the rest of us, we are either left completely puzzled or totally stupefied, as if we had all been collectively intellectually tasered.  People who will appreciate “Cloud Atlas” are likely those who enjoy stories of fantasy, science fiction or philosophy.  Just know that going into it, you will not see a traditional film designed for a mainstream audience.  No movie has ever been made like this before and probably no movie will ever be made like this ever again.  The problem is that I can’t decide whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing.  


Sunday, October 14, 2012

“The Sessions”–Movie Review



This weekend in my movie class, we saw the comedy-drama “The Sessions” starring Helen Hunt, John Hawkes and William H. Macy.


When a man in an iron lung decides to hire a sex surrogate in order to lose his virginity, he begins to fall in love with her – but will her professional ethics keep her from reciprocating?



At the age of 38, Mark (Hawkes) has had a challenging life – diagnosed with Polio when he was only six years of age, he has spent most of his life in an Iron Lung to assist his breathing.  With his muscles completely atrophied, he can only be transported when a hired attendant pushes him in a gurney.  Deeply religious – after a fashion, anyway – he is taken to the local Catholic church periodically to meet with Father Brendan (Macy), the parish priest who hears his confession and eventually becomes a confidante.  Knowing his time on earth will be severely limited due to his condition, Mark reveals to Father Brendan that he has hired a professional sex surrogate named Cheryl (Hunt) in order to help him lose his virginity before it’s too late. 

Upon receiving Father Brendan’s blessing, Mark begins to see Cheryl, who informs him that they are strictly limited to six sessions together.  While it is common for many men in Mark’s situation to have difficulty achieving and maintaining an erection, this proves to be no obstacle for him – his problem, however, is that he instead suffers from premature ejaculation, causing his first session with Cheryl to finish abruptly.  Subsequently, however, she teaches him to relax, to calm down and to re-focus his attention elsewhere so that he can both enjoy and prolong the moment.  Eventually, a mutual trust develops between the two, culminating in Mark confessing to Cheryl that despite knowing that she is married, he has fallen in love with her and wishes to develop a real relationship with her outside of his therapy sessions. 

Normally, Cheryl would know how to handle situations like this because she’s an experienced, well – trained professional.  In the case with Mark, however, this turns out to be more of a challenge than she had suspected because his revelation has caused her to acknowledge that she has also developed feelings for him, as well.  As a result, she violates her own rules by allowing Mark to see her outside the context of their professional relationship, as well as to contact her at home.  When Cheryl’s husband Josh (Adam Arkin) discovers this, a huge argument ensues, but Cheryl is determined not to let Josh’s jealousy interfere with her treatments with Mark.  But will Cheryl allow Mark to come between her and Josh or will she be able to maintain her professionalism all throughout their remaining sessions together?



Based on a true story, “The Sessions” takes place in  the year 1988, by way of explaining how a 38 year old man could be debilitated by the disease Polio, which was long-ago wiped out.  Although the above poster clearly states that this movie is based on a true story, the film itself does not admit to this until the end; this winds up having an impact on how you experience the story, as our class wound up discussing after the screening.  For one thing, it was mentioned, since you don’t learn this at the outset, you may find yourself questioning the likelihood of certain events in the movie.  However, if the audience is informed up front that the film is based on a true story, then you are in a sense viewing this film through a prism of reality, thus lending it greater credibility. 

This is where the disconnect I had with “The Sessions” begins because I found it difficult to believe that a man in an iron lung could get women to fall in love with him – especially when the woman in this case is a professional sex surrogate, whom you would expect to be fully equipped to deal with a client’s matter of what is known in the world of psychology as “Transference”.  Yet it was apparently all completely true.  If you can somehow manage to get yourself past such admitted skepticism, then you will likely enjoy “The Sessions” as the bittersweet love story that it sets itself up to be. 

There are good performances in this movie, by Hunt and Macy especially.  Even if the film does not manage to be commercially successful, some members of its cast may wind up getting noticed come awards time.  That said, given what we now know about a number of Catholic priests, it seemed to me to be a little creepy that Macy’s character is enjoying a vicarious sex life through one of his parishioners; and yet, the irony is not lost on us that just as Cheryl is Mark’s sex surrogate, Mark is – in a sense – Father Brendan’s sex surrogate, too.  I expect that Mr. Skin will have a field day with this one given that Helen Hunt has quite a few full-frontal-nudity scenes. 


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bourbon & BBQ



Since 1787, The Buffalo Trace Distillery has been hard at work producing one of the nation’s best bourbons out of their facility in Frankfort, Kentucky.  The distillery recently sponsored a tasting of the whiskey manufactured by The Sazerac Company at New York City’s Union Square Wines & Spirits, also providing attendees with some rather scrumptious Kentucky barbeque for dinner to accompany the tasting while we were treated to the musical talents of a jazz trio that played throughout the night.  With a variety of bourbons and ryes available for the asking, we were given the all-too-rare opportunity to try each of their American made whiskey products to enjoy and contrast their various distinctions. 


Beginning the evening with Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, I was surprised at how unlike a typical bourbon it tasted.  Upon my initial sampling, I actually thought it was a rye due to its strong spicy flavor.  While it technically has to be called a bourbon because it contains 51% corn, I learned that its spiciness is attributable to the fact that its recipe is made up of an unusually high concentration of rye, which accounts for the considerable burn on its finish.  At 100 proof, it is aged for a total of eight years in charred new American Oak barrels. 


My dinner for the evening consisted of pork ribs with bean stew and a side of corn bread (the requisite wet wipes were of course provided alongside the food). 


Next up was Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.  Aged for five years, this 100 proof bourbon is between 60 – 65% corn, as compared to the much sweeter Buffalo Trace, which is around 70 – 75% corn.  While Buffalo Trace might be considered something of an everyday bourbon that could also be used in cocktails, Taylor is more special, designed to sip on its own.  Personally, I found that the couple of drops of water I added to it from the dropper that the company representative had handily available definitely opened it up both in its scent and in its taste, making it considerably more accessible.  This is the preferred method of tasting the bourbon due to its high alcohol content. 


Last – and the one I recommend – was Blanton’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon.  Aged for eight years, it is very sweet on the nose and contains a hint of vanilla on the palate with a nice, soft finish.  Another distinguishing feature is its exquisitely crafted bottle, which is somewhat reminiscent of the look of Chambord.  Blanton’s has been compared to some of the finest VSOP Cognacs and Single Malt Scotches – and once you’ve tried this one, you’ll completely understand why the comparison is so deserved.  This company has been producing its bourbons aged in a single barrel for nearly a century.    


The reason why the single barrel aging is important is because it distinguishes the spirit from other whiskies that are blended from different barrels; Blanton instead bottles each of its bourbons at the peak of its maturation after it has extracted the maximum amount of flavor possible from the lone barrel in which it has lived.  I enjoyed this one so much, I purchased a bottle at the conclusion of the evening’s tasting.