Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In Defense of Rocky V

Rocky V is widely regarded as the worst Rocky film, even worse than Rocky Balboa, which features a 60 year old Sly Stallone returning to the ring.  It may be the worst of the 6 films, but for me I still enjoy it.   The premise of Rocky managing an up and coming fighter from Oklahoma—or “Orlando”, as the Rock says—is a good one.  The concept of the Balboas losing all of their money due to Paulie giving away his power of attorney is a bit unrealistic, but it sets the stage for Rocky to return to the streets of Philly, where he cut his teeth in life.  It makes for a decent dynamic.  The film features the character George Washington Duke--an over the top caricature of Don King, who, though ridiculous, is entertaining.  And stars Tommy Morrison as Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, Rocky’s protégé.  
Some of the highlights
Rocky getting so involved in Tommy’s ascent to the top that he neglects his own son (played by Stallone’s real life son Sage) is a good cautionary tale.  Of course it's a false dichotomy, like there is no way to train a fighter and raise your own son at the same time?
The flashbacks to Mickey, like everything else in the film, are a bit overdone but still can fire you up: “If you ever get hurt and you feel that you're goin' down this little angel is gonna whisper in your ear. It's gonna say, 'Get up you son of a bitch 'cause Mickey loves you'. Okay?”
The “Heart and Fire” montage.  While it loses points for using cheesy newspaper headlines to speed the plot point of the decaying relationship between Tommy and Rocky, e.g. “Rocky’s Robot”, watching Tommy Morrison tear up some bums interspersed with Rocky teaching him to punch by blowing bubbles is amazing cinema.
Rocky breaking out his street fighting moves from his loan sharking days.
Some of the lowlights
Rocky lives at the end.  Director John Avildsen, who directed the 1st film in the series (Best Picture 1976), has stated that Rocky was supposed to die at the end of the streetfight.  But the studio execs said, “Batman doesn’t die, why would Rocky?”  Of course keeping him alive also keeps alive the hope of sequels.  But maybe Rocky dying would have been contrary to the film franchise’s message of hope for the underdog?  Stallone has said as much in interviews.
Take You Back “hip hop” version (just bad)
Rocky envisioning Ivan Drago when he fights Tommy Gunn at the end.  Why Drago?   I guess it’s because they are both white and it was the most recent fight, the one that causes his brain damage?  But it seems hokey.
The woman that George Washington Duke uses to seduce Tommy Gunn is not even all that hot.  I mean, don’t get me wrong…Just sayin’, they must have been able to find someone hotter?
That same woman has the single cheesiest line in the film.  George Washington Duke tells Tommy, “No one remembers second place.”  And the woman says, “I know I don’t.”  As if telling someone you would drop them like a bad habit if they ever lose is a turn on.
Also, George Washington Duke says Tommy will live in regret if he never fights Rocky, thinking he only got a shot "because of his skin tone."  It's racial commentary that is totally without any context or apparent rationale.
At the end of the movie, George Washington Duke (can't get enough of that name) is telling Tommy to get up during the streetfight, after begging him to fight Rocky "only in the ring."  Why would Duke want his asset to get further bloodied?
A minor inconsistency-Rocky's kid sees him smoking early in the film, but later Rocky tells him that as he grew up, he "wised up" about smoking and other "bad things." 
Neither high or lowlight
Tommy Morrison’s acting.  It’s not good.  But somehow I believe that this ripped boxing champ is some punk kid from Oklahoma.  Flip a coin between his and Antonio Tarver’s performance in Rocky 6…
 For all its flaws, I feel that the story told in Rocky V has a rightful place in the character’s history.  I still can’t resist it when it’s on tv.  And because you’ve probably seen it the least of any of the Rocky movies, when you do sit down to watch it’s fresher.

Friday, February 28, 2014

My Favorite Whiskies

This list is in no particular order.  It represents a mix of rare and widely available whiskies that frequent my liquor cabinet. 
 
Laphroaig-Perhaps no whisky is as evocative of a place as Laphroaig, albeit a place I’ve never been to.  Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg are the “big 3” of Islay scotch, but for me Laphroaig is the quintessential.  Smoky, yes, but so rich and complex beyond the initial soot.  Seaweed and iodinie are common descriptors, and, in addition to the peat content, the reason most scotch fans either love it or hate it.  I’ve had several of the expressions, but for me the 10 year is the most in your face, in a good way.  Bonus points for being a great floater for the Penicillin cocktail.
 
Pappy Van Winkle 15-A rare case where something lives up to the hype.  Hard to get?  Yes.  Worth the hunt and $$$?  Yes.  Pappy manages to be both fiery and gentle at 107 proof.  All the roundness and softness that wheated bourbons are known for but not lacking in flavor, bite, or spice.  It’s so rich that even if the stock were unlimited and cheap, this would not be an everyday pour for me.  Now, every Sunday night…that I could wrap my glass around.
 
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon-This is a special yearly release from Brown Forman, makers of Woodford Reserve.  It comes out each fall.  It’s perfect for fall as it has a lot of the apple cider type flavor that Woodford has but typically at a higher proof.  I usually find a bottle of Birthday Bourbon for my wife, as her b’day is around the same time.  If you can't find it you could do worse than the standard Woodford Reserve offerings, which include the original 90.4 proof, Double Oaked, and now a Single Barrel Double Oaked.
 
Buffalo Trace
The Buffalo Trace distillery makes a ton of great whiskies--including the aforementioned Pappy--but be sure not to overlook their flagship label, Buffalo Trace.  The ideal everyday pour.  Simple and straightforward bourbon, perfect for a Tuesday night in front of the television, or with a good book.  No shame in drinking it any night though, as it does have some interest and could hold its own as a nice digestif,  or with a pipe or cigar if you’re so inclined.  At $25 dollars a bottle, you can’t go wrong.  Use it in an Old Fashioned, or put it out at a party and not worry about those among us who mix bourbon and cola or ginger wasting your pricier pours.  
 
Rittenhouse Rye 100 Proof Bottled in Bond
This one is hard to find at times due to the rye boom, but seems to be in good supply at the moment.  For just over $20, this one is what I use all winter for making Manhattans and Old Fashioneds.  And when I am running low on other stuff, I drink it neat, and am always amazed at what a solid pour this is in it’s own right.  It’s spicy, and rich, has interesting chocolate notes, and is juicier than a lot of ryes.  The screwtop bottle and BIB label brings coolness to the brand, and I like the name, too.  Though it’s made in Kentucky, it’s a tribute to old style PA ryes.  Another cult favorite rye worth a mention is Wild Turkey, but NOT the 81 proof rye.  Gotta be the 101, but good luck finding it. 
 
High West Rendezvous Rye
There are a bunch of great “sourced” whiskies, many of them ryes from LDI in Indiana.  An example is WhistlePig, which puts out a great 100% rye whisky that’s fantastic.  But for my money, Rendezvous is the best rye I’ve had (with the possible exceptions of the two ryes in the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, which I did not include on this list for purposes of length).  Rendezvous is spicy and minty and so pleasant.  The cheaper rye they put out, Double Rye, is similar in profile but not as good on the whole.  Another interesting whisky from High West is Campfire, a blend of scotch, rye, and bourbon, but if I could only have one bottle of High West in my cabinet it would probably be the Rendezvous.
 
Four Roses Single Barrel
This one has been climbing my ladder of favorites for some time.  It's replaced Woodford Reserve as my favorite whisky in the $30-40 range.  It’s so juicy and rich, yet floral and delicate.  Rich, honeyed mouthfeel, a bit of brown sugar and cinnamon spice, and a nice soft finish.  There are specialty bottlings of this as well.  I had a store selected barrel bottled at a higher proof.  It was nice, but I think the standard 100 proof widely available bottling was better.  A little out of my budget for an everyday pour, but has the right mix of mellow and complex to be in the regular rotation.
 
Balvenie
The Balvenie I’ve had most frequently is the DoubleWood, due to price constraints.  But I’ve also had the Caribbean Cask, Single Barrel 15, and a friend was generous enough to share some of the 21 year old PortWood finish.  All fantastic whiskies, with a great house style.  Like honey in a glass.  A great scotch that oozes luxury not only in concept and packaging, but in the contents of the glass.
 
George T. Stagg
A yearly staple of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, this beast of a bourbon is hard to come by but will knock your socks off if you can find it.  Did you ever have the concentrate of a fruit juice?  To me, Stagg is like bourbon concentrate.  All of the classic bourbon flavors of vanilla, caramel, spice, and oak, ramped up a notch (or 2 or 3 notches.).  Even more so than Pappy, this is not an everyday pour, regardless of availability.  Just too overwhelming.  For those of you more into scotch, Aberlour A'bunadh may be the counterpart to Stagg across the pond.  It's big and rich and high proof, as well.  There are other cask strength whiskies that are easier to come by than George T. Stagg.  Stagg Jr. came out last year and will probably come out again.  Also Elijah Craig 12 year Cask Strength was a bargain at $40.  Tons of flavor, hoping that one will be a yearly release.

What are some of your favorites?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Shot and a Beer, on Steroids

In Philly, a lot of bars serve boilermakers of different sorts.  A typical shot and a beer special is Jim Beam and PBR for $5.  A variant would be tequila and tecate.  If you are drinking on a budget, you can get pretty far in the City of Brotherly Love.  But this past Thanksgiving, we took this concept to new and extravagant heights. 
My brother in law brought a bottle of Westvleteren 12, one of the rarest and most highly rated beers in the world.  And I cracked open a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle 15 year old bourbon, one of the rarest and most highly rated bourbons in the world.
It was a great tasting.  The Westy, which had been aging for a year, had a raisin-y, dried fruit quality to it, which was in harmony with the dried fruits and toasted oak notes of the old wheated bourbon.  It was a once in a lifetime experience.  I have the photo evidence of this ridiculous experience:
 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Craftiness

Jim Beam, the best selling bourbon brand in the world (if you don't count Jack Daniels, which, though called "Tennessee Whisky" meets the requirements of bourbon, but that's a debate for another day), were trendsetters in the game of premium whiskies; their small batch collection has been around for years and features some great bourbons, e.g. Knob Creek.  But those bottlings didn't feature the Jim Beam name, most commonly associated with the white label "shot and a beer" 4 year bourbon.  Jim Beam Black has been around awhile, it's "double aged" meaning it's an 8 year, and in my view it's the best of the Beam bourbons which are actually called "Beam."  Beam Black has been favored heavily in my rotation of late, similar to Buffalo Trace in that it's at the perfect intersection of cost and quality.  Beam Black is a fine bourbon, but doesn't seek to be trendsetting or super creative.  Enter the Jim Beam Signature Craft line extension.
 
In a seeming answer to the "craft" movement that has a full head of steam across the country (beer, spirits, cheese, etc),  Beam recently debuted two new whiskies under the label "Jim Beam Signature Craft."  Chuck Cowdery has a great post about what it means for a huge multinational business to use the word "craft."  In a nutshell, Cowdery explains that the claim of craft in this case is referring to barrel selection and management, and finishing.  The line extension includes two whiskies, a 12 year that will be available indefinitely, and a one-off that is a bourbon finished with Spanish brandy.  They don't finish it in brandy barrels, rather they actually add a bit of brandy to the whisky itself.  I've had the pleasure of trying both of these products.  The 12 year is in line with all Jim Beam products.  If you've drank any of the Beam namesake products, you'll find the flavor profile very familiar, that yeasty whisky that hits you in the back of the mouth.  For me this one may be a bit too old (read: oaky and dry).  But it's a nice boundary pusher and worth trying for sub $40 a bottle.  As far as the brandy finish, I was very skeptical but have been enjoying the hell out of it.  The brandy seems to marry the Beam flavor profile with this amazing fruitiness, for a fresh, refined pour.  It goes to show the limitless possibilities if you go beyond the typical definition of what makes a certain thing a certain thing.  It's no longer bourbon as we know it.  The brandy one off will be available this year, when they will debut a new one off.
 
Another interesting whisky I have on my shelf right now is Quinoa whisky made by Corsair, a small craft distillery (here goes that word again) that pushes the envelop in it's on ways.  In this case, they use quinoa as a flavoring grain in addition to barley in the mash.  They claim it produces a nuttiness in the taste, and I'd agree.  For me, this one is not worth the $55 price tag.  It is fun to try, and a creative idea.  But a more interesting craft whisky worth that price for me is Balcone's Brimstone, made in Texas using Hopi Blue Corn and smoked with Texas scrub oak.  It tastes like BBQ in a glass.