Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Merry Christmas Wheels.

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The Worst Whiskey I’ve Ever Tasted

Royal Challenge Indian “whisky.” I put whisky in scare quotes bc/ this is a blend of malted barley and distilled molasses, or what amounts to rum. I thought it might be an interesting cross of a blended scotch and rum. I have heard that there are some decent whiskies from India. This is not one of them. It tastes awful. Like a blended scotch with a terrible aftertaste, but much worse. I can’t even put it into words. I can drink cheap whisky, and sometimes even enjoy it. I think the key is, if it lacks flavor, it has to be smooth, and if it’s harsh, it has to have something in it that tastes appealing. This tasted terrible and finished harshly. I was going to save it for a party trick, but I dumped about 75 percent of the bottle down the drain. It couldn’t even be drunk with a mixer. Stay away from this one. Luckily it only cost about 15 bones.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Whisky Party 2011

If last year’s party was a campfire, warm and slow burning, this years was more like a fireworks show, big and loud and then it was gone. Was it the inclusion of the women? Was it the high proof whiskies? The introduction of cocktails? We may never know, but it was still fun. Here’s a quick rundown of the whiskies that were sampled and the response. I put out a bunch of ryes to compare with our main selection, Sazerac 18, and some other folks brought other styles.

Rittenhouse Rye 100

This was a hit. Being a “cheap” whisky can help or hurt a whisky’s image, but if you think more in terms of value, there are none better. It has a rich, chocolate-like flavor to complement the rye spice and alcohol burn. Those that indulged in the manhattans seemed to like it in that format, as well. For the record, the manhattans featured Dolin sweet vermouth and Fee Brothers whisky barrel aged bitters.

Willett Family Estate Rye (110 proof)

This is a young rye (3 years), but it doesn’t lack character or flavor. One party guest in particular was raving about it. At 30 dollars, another stud value.

High West Rendevous Rye

This was barely tasted. But I know some folks tasted it back at the Beer, Bourbon and BBQ fest and others on other occasions. It’s a great rye, minty and crisp. Who knew good rye could come from Utah?

Penderyn Welsh Whisky

Another bottle that barely got touched. It probably didn’t help that the first person who tasted it ripped it pretty hard. With others to choose from, it seemed silly to get intoxicated on one that was inferior. I myself thought it a bit aloof, and am eager to give it another run.

Clynelish 14 year

This one didn’t go over that well. A coastal highland whisky, this has all the flavors of scotch—smoke, mellow sweetness, and so forth, but somehow comes across as harsh. I tried it again a couple of days later, it grew on me, but not a whole lot.

Sazerac 18 year (2011)

This was supposed to be the star of the show. Supposedly the first release of this came out when Buffalo
Trace “found” barrels in their rickhouse of 18 year old rye and it was great, so they bottled it. I love it. It’s like drinking bread. I usually think 90 proof is a bit low for most American whiskies, but I really like the mellow and subtle nature of this one. I think others really liked it but didn’t rate it as the best of the night. For those that felt it lacked bite, I would recommend the Thomas Handy Sazerac, which is also from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and is barrel proof.

William Larue Weller (2011)

Another entry from Buffalo Trace Antique collection, it’s their wheated bourbon. It’s in the vein of the Van Winkle bourbons. It has a ton of flavor, it’s very sweet and round but packs a punch at 133 proof. This one probably was more liked than the Saz 18, or at least about the same.

George T. Stagg (2010)

This is like drinking bourbon concentrate. George will probably always be the star of any party he is invited to, but he kind of ruins it by getting folks too drunk at 144 proof.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Cognac Finished

This whisky is the same recipe as Evan Williams Black Label, Single Barrel, and the Elijah Craig 12 and 18. After 10 years traditional aging, they move the whisky to cognac barrels for a few months. The result is distinctive. The cognac mellows the whisky and adds that “wineyness” to it, but not in a bad or overpowering way. The Heritage Collection has some cool entries, one from a couple of years back mingled whiskies from all five decades of Parker Beam’s distilling career.

Throw in a couple of Bell’s Best Brown Ales, a gin and rosemary cocktail called the Rubicon, and you have one hell of a night.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why I love Baseball

There will surely be some whisky and other alcohol related posts after this weekends 2nd annual Whisky Party.  But after watching the Eagles latest debacle the other night, I thought I'd take a detour into the sports world. 

First, let it be known that I am a true homer when it comes to sports.  I follow the Phillies, Eagles, and Sixers (sorry Fly-guys, I'm not much of a hockey guy).  I don't watch ESPN.  I have no idea, for example, of the record of the St. Louis Rams, and I don't play fantasy football (though I have in the past and might again sometime).  On the collegiate level, I do really enjoy watching college basketball, especially any of the local teams.  I'll watch Temple football here and there, as my wife is a Temple student.  But at the end of the day, it's Phils, Eagles, Sixers.  Not necessarily in that order.  Now it's football season, and I'm no dummy, I know that in many ways the NFL is now our national pastime.  And for good reason.  The Sunday scheduling, importance of each game in a 16 game season, and bone crunching thrills amount to a pretty good show.  But in my heart I still prefer baseball. 

Everyone tells me how football has so much action and baseball is dull.  No one likes how the batter can step out of the box, the pitcher can throw to first base multiple times, right-left-right pitching changes, etc.  Some folks feel there should be a time component to the game.  But the beauty of baseball is the lack of time component.  Each game has its own flow.  The most memorable game of the Phils season last year for me was the 19 inning game.  I was at the park that night, and left after the 9th bc/ I had a job interview the next day, but then stayed up all night watching it bc/ I couldn't sleep.  Watching a position player pitch--and pitch well--was surreal.  And there was plenty of action, in that game and all season long.  Watching JRoll leg out a triple, or flip a double play, is even more exciting to me than a moonshot from Ryan Howard.  And when the Phils hang on by a gut wrenching save by Ryan Madson, the win afterwards is that much sweeter.  Even the "boring" parts of baseball are interesting to me, like watching a pitcher like Roy Halladay set up a batter to strike out in his next plate appearance.  Or watching Charlie Manuel refuse to make his players bunt in a clear bunt situation.

Does football really have all the action it's hyped up to have?  In a 3 hour game, there are 60 minutes of gameplay.  Of that gameplay, there have been studies that show there are only about 15 minutes of real "action."  The rest of the time the clock just ticks, while I am supposed to be content staring at Andy Reid's fat stomach.  I guess the action is more intense, from a physical perspective.  (Aside: I won't even debate which sport has more strategy, bc/ I like the strategy aspect of football as well as baseball.  As much as I was rooting for the Eagles, it was incredible to witness such an amazing Bears gameplan on Monday night, as they contained Vick and punished the Birds).  Watching football can be a bit boring.  Minutes upon minutes of giant men just standing around, waiting for the next play.  Commercials after every freakin' kickoff return, time out, and injury.  In baseball, I know when the commercial is coming, so I can time my beer run, bathroom break, or dog walk accordingly.  And speaking of injuries, there are so many in football.  It's "part of the game," but for me it kind of ruins it.  So many key players miss time on every team.

I also love the long season of baseball.  It's like a friend for the summer.  When I walk around South Philly during a game, there are still some folks listening to the radio broadcasts on their porches (some even set up tv's outside) so I can soak up the gist of the game.  I can watch a couple of innings here and there and get the general idea of the game.  Or I can sit and watch all 9 if I have the time, and I often make the time.  And as the fall chill looms on the horizon, there is nothing like a pennant race to keep things heated up. 

This baseball season was a huge disappointment.  But it was still a hell of a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Value Whisky (20 bucks or less)

Maybe it was a subconscious effect of the recession, or maybe the thought that I was going to be laid off.  But in the past couple of months, i've been into cheap whisky.  Everyone likes a bargain, so I thought I'd share some results from my product testing.  Believe it or not you can find some flavor and character for not a lot of coin.  As usual, in the sub $20 price point you can get more in an American whisky than you can in scotch, for the most part.  That said, I've taken my fair share of journeys on the Cutty Sark, and gone on quite a few hunts for the Famous Grouse--which has a nice depth of flavor for a blend.  Tamdhu is a decent single malt right around 20 bucks.  But on the whole, at that price you are mostly dealing with blends that are drinkable at best. 

On to American whiskies.  I'll start with my all time favorite best value in the business.  I've read that is used to be priced even lower, but at $20, Rittenhouse Rye 100 proof is fantastic.  It's one of the few whiskies that I stock consistently.  It is just so versatile.  It offers the complexity of ryes that are almost twice the price (read-Michters, High West, Russell's Reserve, etc.).  It has a finish that taste like a chocolate bar.  And unlike other bargain ryes, it makes a mean Manhattan.  That's the best part--it's a decent sip but you have no guilt in mixing it with other ingredients, and it more than holds its own.  I knew it was a bargain but didn't truly appreciate it until I saw that Jim Murray rated it very highly in his acclaimed Whisky Bible.  Also Jason Pyle over at Sour Mash Manifesto gives a nice video review here

Okay, now a few bourbons.  Early Times 354, at 14 bucks, gives a lot of flavor, lots of fruit and caramel, no harshness.  Don't be fooled and pick up the regular Early Times, which I don't care for.  The 354 is an actual bourbon, whereas the regular Early Times is not.  Unfortunately I've only seen the 354 in Maryland it hasn't made it's way up to PA/NJ just yet.  Old Grand Dad from Jim Beam is some nice stuff, with three bottlings (80, 100 proof bottled in bond, and 114 proof), coming in between 15-22 bucks.  The bottled in bond 100 is probably the best known, and I do think it was the best of the 3.  (Aside: Old Grand Dad is Basil Hayden himself, of the small batch bourbon also from Jim Beam).   Evan Williams black label is another classic value pour.  It doesn't have tons of flavor, in my view, but it is very pleasant and inoffensive.  That may sound like damning with faint praise until you see the sticker: $12 a bottle. 

If you want to push the envelope a bit, Buffalo Trace is another stellar entry, the cheapest I can get it for is 21 bucks a bottle.  It makes for an outstanding "house" bourbon, something you can be proud to serve a friend but know in your heart you are still being thrifty. 

One value brand I do not care for is Old Crow.  It was General Grant's favorite but it's not good, at least not anymore.  I've had both the white label and the reserve, and they both have a taste that is, well, off putting.  Unlike $8 a bottle Heaven Hill, which I could get a taste for if I ever landed on skid row, Old Crow does not fly with me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Buffalo Trace Single Oak Project

Sometime, I might write a post comparing the world of craft beer to craft distilling.  For the purpose of this post, I would like to point out what I see is the key difference.  In the beer world, the big guns may sell the most, but they trail craft beer in terms of creativity.  When craft beer gained a foothold in the industry, BudMillerCoors tried to get in on the act.  The results are Blue Moon, Shocktop, Leinenkugel, and other beers that you might think are craft unless you knew better.  In the whisky world, the craft guys are lagging well behind, largely because of the time it takes to age whisky, but also because the big companies have been creative and ahead of market trends.  Jim Beam created the Small Batch collection, and now you'll see Knob Creek on any given bar in America.  Brown Forman, makers of Jack Daniels, the best selling whisky in the world, did not rest on their laurels but instead put out Woodford Reserve, a favorite of both novice and experienced whiskey drinkers.  But no company has been as forward thinking as Buffalo Trace.  From their sought after antique collection, to the Van Winkle line, to their experimental collection (think bourbon aged in wine barrels), they are the standard in American whisky innovation.  Nothing evidences this more than their Single Oak Project.  Here is a link to the press release explaining the single oak project.  In short, a decade or so ago Buffalo Trace took a bunch of trees, cut them in half for two single barrels, taking into account their rings per inch (aging speed), and then seasoned and charred them differently.  They then filled the barrels with a few different recipes of differing proofs, for a seemingly limitless number of combinations of final products.  The actual result is 192 barrels with 7 different key variables.  The idea is that folks will review the bottles before knowing the variables in their particular bottle, giving Buffalo Trace a better idea of what folks like and what makes their products tick.

Long story short, a couple of buddies got me a bottle for my birthday.  Wow, what a great gift (I'll save you some guys).  Once you have a bottle, you go online and follow a 12 question rating questionnaire as you taste the bourbon.  I had a little trouble reading the barrel number as the marker they wrote with rubbed off of the sticker on the bottle, but I'm pretty sure it's barrel 36.  I wound up rating mine out to about an 8 out of 10, and it turns out that it's the wheated recipe, probably the same one that makes Pappy 15, my favorite all time bourbon.  What a boon!  I wish I could say I knew it was a wheated before clicking "done."  I had my suspicions based on the luxurious mouthfeel and soft, round flavor profile. 

My only complaint about the project is the interface of the website.  It's kind of glitchy, e.g. it's saying I've reviewed 18 different barrels and giving me a different number of points than I've actually amassed (you get points for the number or reviews, creating your profile, and other functions, which leads to fun titles, I'm currently (and probably finally) a "barrel cooper."  Other than that, it's a fun project, and as an aside, a fantastic bourbon!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Book Review: Chasing the White Dog

Chasing the White Dog: An Amateur Outlaw's Adventures in Moonshine, was a birthday gift from my wife (she knows me well).  It is one part history, one part experiment.  The history is the story of moonshine, or white lightning, and the folks that make it.  Watman destroys a lot of stereotypes about moonshiners and their customers.  Did you know that Philadelphia consumes most of the moonshine made in the country?   And some of it is some pretty toxic stuff.  Watman takes us through early American whisky history and through Prohibition.  He even introduces a fascinating theory: "the main result of Prohibition--whether that result was gained willfully or accidentally--was to destroy a liquor trade that could not be controlled and replace it with one that could be."  As he moves into modern moonshining, he introduces us to the Illegal Whiskey Task Force, and takes us through the 2008 Federal trial of accused moonshiner Joey Alton "Duck" Smith.  He loses me a little bit when he gets into the NASCAR story and it's connection with moonshine; I think he veers off course just a bit too far into the world of race cars.  But even that chapter has it's bright spots.

Intertwined through the history is the experimental portion of the book--Watman's efforts to make his own moonshine.  We get to go with him to his first tentative encounter at the homebrew supply story.  Then we journey into his basement where he sets up his still and produces the first few disgusting drops of liquor.  We rejoice when he actually has a bit of success.  But like all good moonshiners, Watman tells us he's done with it.  I even believed him when I read it, but upon reflection I'm not so sure...

Chasing the White Dog was a great read thoroughout my summer.  And nothing went better with it than a shot of whiskey, preferably some white dog.  Heaven Hill Trybox series, perhaps?  It tastes like corn syrup with a harsh burn, but at least it's legal. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

EPCOT: Drinking the Countries

Epcot is the second theme park that was built in Disneyworld, where my dad just took us for his retirement celebration.  It is also my favorite park in Disneyworld.  I'm not just saying that because they brought back Michael Jackson's Captain EO in 3D last summer, although that didn't hurt.  Epcot is split into two sections: Future World--consisting of a bunch of pavillions with themed attractions--and World Showcase--consisting of a loop of "countries" from around the world, with restaurants and attractions focusing on the culture (or at least stereotypes) of each country.  I think Walt Disney had originally envisioned Epcot to be something greater than a theme park--the acronym stands for stands of Experimental Prototypical Community of Tomorrow--and in some ways it is.  Take the Land boat ride, and see the world's first tomato "tree" that produced 36,000 tomatoes in 16 months.   Epcot has a lot of cool stuff to see and do, but on this trip, I had one objective: to drink the countries of the World Showcase.  My wife and I decided to try it in a very limited window, during Magic Hours on the only night we'd be in the park.  Magic Hours are times when the Disney parks are only open to Disney resort guests.  (Magic Hours and Fast Pass are like a Disney-fied classism; the provide a  feeling of elitism as you jump lines and stay in the park after it closes). 

World Showcase consists of 11 countries, each with food and drink--and employees, or "cast members," from those countries.  Let me take you on a tour of the world.

After taking the pleasant boat ride through the faux Mexican plaza, we hit the tequila bar.  We decided up front to split each drink, as we didn't want to ruin the rest of our trip with a killer hangover.  But when we ordered a tequila, the bartender gave a recommendation for a better tequila--El Mayor Blanco--for the same price as the El Jimador that I had ordered--and poured us each a shot (maybe the communication barrier?)  Oh well, down the hatch. 

We took the Norway log flume ride (don't anyone try to deny the thrill of being chased by the troll), then hit up the beverage cart.  The cart had Carlsberg beer (not from Norway, damn sponsors) and Linnie Aquavit, which is more or less a spiced vodka.  No communication barrier here, we shared one shot of the Norweigen Aquavit.  I can't say I really enjoyed it, but it was interesting to try.

We split a Tsingtao beer.  If you've ever had it, you know that it's a pretty straightforward mass produced lager.  It uses rice as an adjunct grain, which somehow seems more acceptable in a Chinese beer than in Budweiser, which also uses rice because of its key property: being cheap.

The German beer cart was out of control, there were these folks from New York who were obviously also trying to drink the countries.  I really appreciated their spirit, as they seemed to want to try everything and not just get hammered (though that was obviously on the agenda, too).  The cart had a couple of liqueurs, including Jager, and one of the guys from NYC tried to get me to order the liqueur that none of us could pronounce so he could see if it was good.  I opted instead for an Altenmunster Oktoberfest.  It was smooth and malty and typical of the style.

We shared a glass of wine in Italy.  I'm not ashamed to say we chose the cheapest red blend that they had.  It wasn't half bad.

This is where we ran into some trouble.  Most of this country was closed, and no one was serving any booze.  I was starting to think that Magic Hours are a fraud.  But we pressed on.  And two days later came back and had a Sam Adams Summer Ale to fill the gap.

Also closed.  We just missed the chance for some sake, and again had to get some two days later.  At this point we felt the quest was doomed and that the rest of the countries would be shutting down.

We were renewed in the quest in Morrocco, as two gentleman from a cart were serving Casablanca, or "Casa beer."  It wasn't bad, in fact I ordered it again when we went to Morocco for lunch a few days later.

Another cheap wine.  I think it was a white, sweet one, but I'm getting hazy by now.

United Kingdom
The party lived on in a pub that looked like many I hung out in while studying abroad in England.  We bumped into the NYC folks, and that same guy was asking for "Whatever is the most British.  Prefferably a shot."  The bartender recommended gin or Pimm's.  That would have been a good call, as we were so full from dinner and beer, but we had already ordered our Boddington's.  Cheers!

Now it gets weird.  The steakhouse bar was closed, no Mooseheads or Molsons in sight.  There was a beverage stand, I don't know if it was actually in "Canada," or just adjacent.  They were serving frozen Bacardi Mojitos.  Gross.  But we had to do it, and did.

In case you think that what we did didn't count, as we drank Japan and the U.S. on a different day, consider this.  For dinner just before arriving in Epcot, we ate at an African restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge called Jiko (translation: the cooking place).  We had each had a different Ethiopian beer, and a glass of South African wine.  Perfect math!  Those two countries replaced the two we missed, the quest wasn't in vain!  As I mentioned we still went back to the two missed countries for good measure.  I do have to question the sense of closing some countries before others, and believe me if they were open we would have drank them.

As far as sharing most of the drinks...Like I said we had beer and wine before even arriving and didn't want to be smashed.  Also, we were on a tight schedule, having only a couple of hours to complete the loop.  I'd say we did a damn fine job.  But if you think you can do better, I'd like to see you try.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Col. E.H. Taylor Bourbon

As a nightcap to a wonderful birthday planned by my wife, she took me to a BBQ joint on South St. bc/ she knew they had Col. E. H. Taylor Bourbon.  I knew I married her for a reason.  Col. Taylor is a 9 year special release bourbon from, you guessed it, Buffalo Trace distillery.  They basically gathered up a bunch of old heads and retirees who helped them recount an old method of sour mashing that is no longer in use, and then recreated it to honor Col. E. H. Taylor, whisky pioneer and one time owner of what is now called Buffalo Trace distillery.  Apparently it's one of their standard rye recipes and the same yeast they use, but environmental factors are manipulated to create a slightly sour effect, and a less sweet in your face bourbon that may appeal to scotch drinkers (I am paraphrasing Chuck Cowdery for some of this info, his post about the bourbon can be found here).  The packaging is very cool, as they've taken cues from retro Taylor bourbon bottles and put them in canisters like the ones we see often with scotch.  I've never seen it on the shelf, and while it retailed for around 60 bucks you can only get it on ebay for more than twice that.  So 18 bucks for a shot is not all that bad.  And we enjoyed the hell out of it.  It kind of reminded me of Pappy a bit, though it's not wheated.  It was very mellow.  The finish is where the unique version of sour mashing might be noticeable.  I couldn't quite place the taste, a bit of tartness and dryness.  It was very nice stuff.  Thanks honey.

I got other info for this post here- Bourbon Blog

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Best Pizza

Here are my top five favorte pizzas of all time.  I don't have a scoring system, just a, ahem, gut feeling about them.  Places don't get extra "points" for having more or less toppings, or for any specific style, though I do prefer thin crust.

5.  Mama Nuccio's, Somerdale, NJ-I haven't had this in a while, who knows if it's the same as when I lived near it, but for me this was quintessential South Jersey pizza.  Thin and gooey, with the sauce not too sweet not too salty.  I honestly prefer this to much of what I can get in South Philly.

4.  Chicago-I don't remember the name of the place, I'll have to track it down, but though it's not my typical preference Chicago style pizza can be awesome, and if a good version was available on the East Coast I might get hooked. The crust is ridiculous, like a bakery pie crust, with cheese resting inside of the lip.  Very filling.  I got out eaten slice by slice by a friend half my size who lived in Chicago and was used to putting that stuff away. 

3.  Osteria, Philadelphia-This is an upscale Italian joint on North Broad St..  The pizza is wonderful.  Cooked in a wood buring oven, super thin and crispy.  We got the polpo, which had a spicy sauce and octopus on top.  It was sensational, maybe the single best pizza I've ever had.  The others rank out higher bc/ for me, at the end of the day, pizza is more of a takeout experience.

2.  Slice, Philadelphia-Slice is amazing.  Great ingredients and toppings, like clams casino, grilled eggplant, fresh basil.  The crust is "well done," which I love, as it's all crackly and a bit burnt.  I could order from this place every night, money and calories aside.

1.  Mack and Manco's, Ocean City, NJ-This is my favorite favorite favorite.  Is it the salt air?  The perfect sause that they shoot on out of those weird tube things?   The brick oven?  Thin crust?  Salty cheese?  The overall effect is that I am always so sad after the last bite, as it's generally a once a year meal for me.  There's a place in Philly called Mack's Jersey Shore pizza, but I promise you it's not the same.

Honorable mentions: Pizzeria Stella, Philadelphia.  Celebre's, Philadelphia. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tequila Old Fashioned

You may have noticed an absence of photos on Urban Grain.  My digital camera has been broken since New Year's--it's a long story--and I'm figuring we'll probably join the smartphone society when our upgrade comes around in the fall.  So for now, you'll have to be entertained by my smart and witty prose alone.

I made a new drink last night, the Tequila Old Fashioned.  I picked up some Bittermans Xocolati Mole Bitters at DiBruno Bros. in the Italian market the other day, and sought to put them to use.  They are made in Brooklyn.  They make all different flavors that look interesting, e.g. their Grapefruit bitters uses hops to ramp up the citrus flavor.  I've read a bunch of compicated recipes using mole bitters, but the natural match has got to be tequila, right?  Mole is Mexican, Tequila is Mexican, you get the point.  The recipe I found is pretty straighforward but you could experiment.  The bitters quotient may seem hight but the Bittermans comes with a nifty dropper that allows for maximum control, so 6 drops is probably more like 2-3 dashes of another brand.  It's a neat recipe in that it's a mirror of a traditional old fashioned, which uses rye, sugar, and bitters.

Tequila Old Fashioned
2 ounces reposado tequila
1/4 ounce agave syrup
6 drops mole bitters

You could garnish this in different ways, I used some cilantro.  But maybe a jalepeno pepper?  An orange slice?  Or maybe some cactus!  If you want to get real cute you could infuse the tequila with jalepeno for a spicier version.  I was pretty happy with this, I used slightly more than 1/4 ounce of the syrup, which made it too sweet.  If anything I would round down on the syrup, maybe even 1/8 of a ounce to be sure not to over-sweeten.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Summers Old vs. Old Weller Antique 107

I missed my chance to restock my Pappy Van Winkle 15, my all time favorite bourbon.  Apparently it comes out in the spring and fall, and maybe not at all this coming fall, as the stock used to make it was from an old distillery called Stitzel-Weller, and there is none left.  Buffalo Trace is making the recipe now for the Van Winkle family, but it may be a couple of years before another bottling of the 15.  I hunted for a "dusty" bottle of it in a bunch of local liquor stores, but could only find the 20 and 23 year Pappys, both being more than I want to spend.  So I figured I could cry over spilt milk or try some other bourbons from the Van Winkle line, which are available.  I picked up a bottled of the Old Rip Van Winkle 10 year and one of Old Weller Antique 107.  These two bourbons are probably the same recipe, with the Weller being aged a few years less and the Van Winkle being selected by Julian Van Winkle himself.  Thus the difference in price: 20 bones for the Weller vs. close to 40 for the Van Winkle.  Theoretically the Van Winkle 10 should boast the same flavor profile as Pappy 15, which is also the same whisky, but do those extra 5 years make all the difference between mediocre and superb?  We'll get to that, but first the comparison.

The Weller was nice, nicer than I remember.  It's a wheated bourbon, so it has that soft, round mouthfeel that you get from Maker's, but at 107 proof, a bit more heat and bite, in a good way.  It poured an amber-brown color, the Van Winkle in the glass next to it looked quite red compared to it.  I'm not one for a ton of descriptors but the Weller had a nice mellow flavor, easy to sip but not so simple that you almost forget what you are drinking, as you do with some bourbons in this price range.  The finish on it was substantial, maybe a little longer than even the Van Winkle, which surprised me.  Overall, solid bourbon at a solid price.  Maybe not my favorite $20 bourbon, but a nice entry point to wheated bourbon.

Now, the Van Winkle 10.  Wow, from the nose to the first sip, this boasted of quite a bit more complexity and intrigue than the Weller, both of which come in at 107 proof.  The Van Winkle 10 tastes exactly like Pappy 15 to me, at first, but it's not quite as honeyed and rich.  Pappy has an almost syrup-like nature where this Van Winkle is a bit thin by comparison.  But it did indeed have the same flavor profile and many of the same characteristics, rich and fiery yet soft and round, sweet, lots of vanilla, some spice, and easy to sip at 107 proof.  On the whole I liked it quite a bit more than the Weller.  Is it worth twice the price?  Probably, but there was a part of me that wished with each sip that it would magically barrel age 5 years in front of me and the picture on the bottle would morph into Pappy with his big cigar.

Yes, the 5 years was a huge difference.  But, I think the 10 year is a great whisky in its own right, and well worth adding to your collection.  There's something to be said for availability, too.

I'll have to try the 12 year Van Winnkle Family Reserve next, but that comes in at 90 proof, so I worry that what you might gain from 2 years of age you lose a bit of by watering it down.  Only one way to find out.  It'll be my next bottle.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I previously stated that Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout is the Breakfast Stout aged in bourbon barrels.  It is aged in bourbon barrels but it seems that the beer recipe is not the same as the regular Breakfast Stout.  I might as well also note that it is in the top ten beers on BeerAdvocate.  One of the beers ahead of it is Founders' own Canadian Breakfast Stout.   Here is a description of CBS you can find online in several sources: "Founders Breakfast Stout aged in Kentucky whiskey barrels that were also used by a small maple syrup maker. The beer is then aged underground in the town's local mine. Maple & whiskey soaked wood, Sumatra and Kona coffee beans breakfast stout. Damn. What else can you say?"

Apparently they had it at Kite and Key, but not when I was there.  Damn.  At least I had the regular KBS.  I don't know if I've ever had a BeerAdvocate top 10 before.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Beer Catalogue Update

In the past 2 months I've added 20 beers.  Good pace, due to Beer Week.  I've blogged about a lot of the fun beers I tried during beer week.  One fun highlight was Brotherly Suds II, a collaboration beer from Sly Fox, Troegs, Victory, Stoudts, and Yards using Schmidt's ale yeast--I'll have to tell my grandpa about it.  I gave Summer Love from Victory another go round and really enjoyed it.  The best beer I had during Beer Week may have been Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout.  If you like their stout and you like bourbon, you would love it. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Beery, Beery, Weekend

I managed to make it to 5 Beer Week events over the weekend, the final weekend of Beer Week.  Let me just say off the bat that I love Beer Week.  The slogan is "America's Best Beer Drinking City" and I'd say it's hard to argue that.  I'm sure a few places tried to just get in on the act by throwing up some cheesy last minute events but all of the events I went to were well thought out, featured special beers I'd never otherwise get to try, or were just plain fun.  Here's my final four events reviewed:

Breckenridge Brewery Night at Devil's Den
First let me say that Devil's Den has one of the best happy hours I've been to.  It's from 5-7 (many end at 6) and ALL of their drafts are 1/2 off.   Even the special one off beers for this event were half price during happy hour.  Additionally, they have some great snacks in the 3-4 dollar range, including fantastic chick pea fries that my wife has been raving about for months and I didn't get it until I tried them on Friday--they were fluffy yet creamy, spicy and delicious.  Nothing on the snack menu quite filling enough for a dinner probably, but cheap snacks to go with discount beer, who can complain?  Now, the event.  They were tapping a bunch of specialty beers.  I first tried the Double ESB aged in whisky casks made for Breckenridge's 20th anniversary.  I had never heard of a Double ESB, much less one aged in whisky casks.  But as I told the Breckenridge rep who we met, I love ESBs and I love whisky, so it's a match made in heaven.  Truth be told, I had a whisky aged beer later in the weekend that I think was better, but I'm getting ahead of myself.  After that I had a collaberation beer made by Stillwater (known for saisons) and De Strusse (from Belgium).  It was a dark saison, very malty but still saison-like.  A bit strange but fun.  My wife had the Breckenridge Tripel, a pale ale made with a belgian yeast strain.  It was tasty.  She also had Weyerbacher Que?bec, a summer beer from their Brewer's Select Series, with names based on the NATO phonetic alphabet.  (It's the "K," it's hard to explain.  I have a buddy who can explain it to you if you like, but it has to do with the locals calling it Ka-bec).  Anyhow, Devil's Den was fun.

Beat the Heat Wheat Night at Brauhaus Schmitz
Brauhaus is a great German beer hall on South Street.  Authentic food, costumes, music, the whole nine.  I've eaten there but have been meaning to go back to get beer served by the liter, like we had in Germany.   My wife and I both had a liter of Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat--the beer wench warned it would be "a lot of tangerine" but for me it was great.   I enjoyed every drop.  It's not typical to drink wheat beer from a giant mug but it seemed fitting given the name of the event.  We also had some German cheeses and meats and shared a fantastic pretzel. 

SPTR Extreme Beer Brunch
We only had time to stop for one drink with friends at the Taproom's end of Beer Week party.  They had a bunch of Russian River regulars and rarities.  But I was there for one beer: Founder's Kentucky Breakfast Stout.   Breakfast Stout is at the top of a lot of folks' all time beer lists.  I don't feel I've had it enough to make the claim that it's in my top five, but I know it's damn good, why not put some in bourbon barrels and taste the results?  It was great stuff.  Barrel aged beers can tend to have a strange finish, and this was no different, but it was a great overall balance and interplay of the sweetness of the stout with the vanilla and "whisky-ness" of the bourbon barrel. 

Shel Silverstein Brunch at P.O.P.E.
For my final event I went to a children's brunch with a toddler.   And it was great fun.  Pub on Passyunk East had a brunch featuring readings and songs from the famed children's author.  A representative from Ommegang was there, she called their Hennepin a benchmark American saison, but I still think Helios from Victory and one or two others I've had may be better.  The brunch burger was very good, featuring bacon, chedder, and an egg.  They even cut the roll so you can see the egg, if you can picture what I'm saying.  The guy that played the guitar and sang poems from Where the Sidewalk Ends was very good, and got the kids into it.  A few people read poems and stories, including the Ommegang person.  Fun for all.  A fitting end to Beer Week.  Oh wait, I almost forgot...

Beer Gelato at Capo Giro
The walk from POPE to our house goes right by Capo Giro, a gelateria that makes delightful flavors such as basil, sea salt, as well as more standard flavors.  This week they made beer gelato.  I had a Rogue Chocolate Stout, perfect in ice cream form, with the bitterness from the hops making for an interesting but welcome sensation.  I had it with tiramisu, which was a great complement to the stout flavors, with bitter chocolate dust swirled throughout.

And after all that beer, I went home and had a nap as the Phils handled the Cubbies one more time.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Beer Week Events: DiBruno Bros. and Hawthornes

I went with my dad to the Phils game last night--two games in one week--and figured it would be a nice chance to squeeze in a couple of Beer Week events beforehand rather than shell out 7 bucks for beer at the game. 

Our first stop was DiBruno Bros., who were sponsoring a free beer and cheese tasting.  A distributor representing Stoudt's Brewery from Adamstown was pouring 5 selections.  Apparently Stoudt's is the oldest craft brewer in PA, "craft" meaning all-malt (Yuengling is older but uses corn, a cheaper grain, to supplement it's mash).  It's also the first female owned brewery.  On to the tasting.  The beers were as follows: Karnival Kolsch, Munich Helles, Scarlet Lady ESB, American Pale Ale, and Blonde Double Maibock.  The best beer may have been the maibock, but I got the dregs and it was a bit warm.  I like their ESB, too.  The DiBruno cheesemongers paired each beer with a cheese, I can't remember the cheeses.  They were generous with the portions, I wish they would have been a little more into explaining the reasons they choose which beers.  I could have asked, I guess, but the beer guy would explain the beer and then the cheese guys would just hand you a piece of cheese, maybe saying a comment but not much.  Still, a fun event, and who can complain with the price?

For dinner we walked over to Hawthorne's, a cafe/beer takeout joint with growler service.  Their growlers are cool bc/ they pressurize them so you can keep it in the fridge for a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days.  Their event last night was a Dark Horse tap takeover, with 16 taps from the Michigan brewer, apparently none of which have been in Philly before.  I had the Crooked Tree unfiltered IPA to go with my open faced falafel sandwich.  The sandwich was good, though my wife's hummus is better.  The IPA was very good.  If we had more time I would have tried their Belgian tripel.  I tried to get them to pour me a taste but they were not giving tastes of that beer to preserve it for paying customers.  Oh well. 

Another great night for Beer Week 2011.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Beer Week Event: SPTR with Firestone Walker

The other night before the Phillies game, my wife, friend and I went to The South Philadelphia Taproom for their Monday Beer Week Event.  Firestone Walker is a central California brewer that is new to our region.  They are famous for their pale ale styled beers, and have a "fascination with wooden barrels," according to their website.  The Taproom had several of their beers, bottles and drafts, available and their chef cooked up a few menu items using the beers.  I had the New England Style crab roll using Pale Ale 31.  It was solid, as is almost everything I've ever had to eat there.  The beers themselves weren't jumping out at me from the glass, but they were decent.  The Pale Ale 31 had a great aroma but then was a little flat in the delivery for me.  But it could be that it was a bottle rather than draft.  I don't really like drinking bottles at beer bars--especially 12 oz bottles--when I am surrounded by folks drinking creamy, bubbly tapped beers.  But the bottle selections called my name this time.  The porter on tap was good, and I liked the Double Barrel Bitter, too, even though that was a bottle, too.  Their double ipa (Double Jack) from their reserve series was our last beer, strong at close to 10 percent and very good.  The fun part was that one of the owners of Firestone Walker was there, and he chatted with us about the beer.  He said that Pale Ale 31 won't be distributed out here, as it's too "subtle" to make the journey.  The regular IPA, Union Jack, will be though.  He said their bitter is what "keeps the lights on" at the brewery.  He was a friendly guy and though the beers weren't standouts at first taste I would definitely give them another try, especially as I am a pale ale guy. 

Another great event from SPTR.  I'm planning to close out Beer Week at their extreme beer brunch on Sunday; hoping to get a taste of Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Philly Beer Week Opening Tap

Last year for for Philly Beer Week my friend and I went to Philly Beer Week Opening Tap, with the mayor tapping the first firkin with the Hammer of Glory, which is relayed through the city like the Olympic torch.  This year we decide to piece together a few separate events rather than buy the ticket for the Opening Tap, which was a lot of fun but essentially a beer fest featuring local beers.  Here's what we did:

Christ Church Burial Ground Brew N' History Tour
This tour costs five bucks and came with a taste of Yards' George Washington's Tavern Porter at the end.  I had met the tour guide before, as he is the historian of Christ Church, where my wife and I attend.  He put together a very well thought out selection of stories of folks buried there who had connections to beer and other types of booze.  For example, the burial ground has the remains of the son of the man who supposedly invented porter beer in England.  The son supplied beer to George Washington.  Before the little tasting, the final stop on the tour was Ben Franklin's grave, who is said to have uttered these famous words, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Chemical Heritage Foundation Beer Talk and Tasting
The Chemical Heritage Foundation is like a grown up science geek's dream, with a beautiful museum dedicated to the history of chemistry and halls used for, well, science parties, I guess.  And talks and lectures.  They did this free talk and tasting for Beer Week.  Beer historian Rich Wagner gave a history of craft beer with a focus on Philadelphia brewing.  I always think of Yards, est. 1994 as the beginning of the Philly beer renaissance.  But Wagner's history started in the early 80s and included some failed breweries and brewpubs, as well as Dock Street, all of which contributed to the eventual bounty of craft beer now available to us.  I learned that Henry Ortlieb played a role in this; his family name is a famous old Philly beer that was sold off to a company in Baltimore--my grandpop still asks me if they are making Ortlieb's again.  Ortlieb got back into the beer business by way of a number of ventures, including the Manayunk Brewpub, before his passing a few years ago.  The talk concluded with a tasting led by Left Hand Brewing Co.'s Mid Atlantic sales rep.  He explained the Philly connection but it's fuzzy to me now.  The beers he had were decent, Good Juju was our least favorite, a ginger spiced pale ale that was a little watery for me.  The rye pale ale was very nice, as was the milk stout.  All in all, it was a great value, FREE, and at this point we'd had the equivalent of a full pint of beer for a total of $5.

Troegs Tap Takeover at Kite and Key
I love the name of this place, recalling Ben Franklin's famous electricity experiment.  I haven't spent much time in the Fairmount section of the city, but it's a very nice neighborhood.  The crowd at this place was strange to me, none of the hipsters that you would see at similar bars in my 'hood.  Almost like a Main Line type crowd.  Not sure if that's representative of other Fairmount spots.  The bar was nice, with a lot of old Philly beer trays hung up--including Ortlieb's.  We had to wait a while for a table, and there was some confusion about it.  The food was okay, nothing special, though I did quite enjoy the veggie burger, something I wouldn't usually order but the website and waitress both swore by.  It was very tasty and cheesy.  Now, the beer.  They had a solid taplist but the whole point of the night was the Troegs special "one-off" beers from their scratch series, as well as their collaboration beer called Brotherly Suds II.  We arrived at 7 (the party had started at 2) and several of the kegs had kicked already.  We did get to try a Quad that was very good.  But the other specialties had all kicked.  On the one hand, it was frustrating--if you advertise your beer week event you need to follow through with supply.  But if you take into account the nature of scratch and experimental beers coupled with the thirst of beer geeks on opening day of beer week, it's sort of understandable.  I did get to have some Mad Elf 2010, one of my favorite beers, and kind of fun to have a Christmas beer in June, even if it probably just means they are unloading their stock.

I think we spent less than we did at Opening tap last year, and got a larger survey of events.  I wouldn't say it was better, just different.  A great way to start Philly Beer Week, and I hope to hit a few more events.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Summer Beer

I have one friend whose favorite beer style is "summer" and we always talk about--and imbibe--plenty of summer brews together.  I was challenged by another friend to name the ideal summer beer, one that is refreshing and light but not without flavor, and with a low enough ABV to drink a few of while at the beach, during a ballgame, or at a backyard cookout.  Of course, that made me think, top 10 list.  Ten may be too many to name, though there are bunches of beers out there that could potentially fit that bill.  So here's my top five.

1.  Fransiskaner Hefe-Weisse-This is a case of a strange three way intersection-popular, inexpensive, and fantastic.  There are many other hefes out there, but for me this is the quintessential.  Cloudy with aromas of bananas and clove, not thin in the mouth but still sessionable at 5% ABV.  This one would make almost any beer list I would make, not just summer beers.

2.  Flying Fish Farmhouse Summer Ale-4.6 ABV.  Refreshing but not without flavor.  Contains pale malt, wheat malt, and pilsner malt.  The webstite says it's modeled after the "every day" beers of French-speaking Belgium.  It's definately an every day beer, and in the Philadelphia area it's a good summer go to if nothing else on the tap list calls your name.

3.  Weyerbacher Blanche-A classic belgian witbier.  I think some Belgian wheats, pardon the pun, pale in comparison to their German cousins when it comes to flavor.  But this is a good example of a flavorful yet mellow Belgian wit, creamy yet light and citrusy.  If you like Blue Moon or Hoegaarden give this a try.  4.6 ABV.

4.  Troegs Sunshine Pils-Any German or Czech pilsner can be a nice, easy going refreshing brew, and there are other good local Pils, e.g. Victory Prima Pils gets a lot of recognition.  But I like this one.  Mostly because it's available in my section at the Phillies games.  Refreshing but with a few extra hops than your average pilsner.  5.3 ABV.

5.  Victory Summer Love-When this came out last year, they made it hard to find to generate demand, and when I actually had it, it was a bit of a letdown.  But I still picked up a case of this this summer to give it the old college try.  I have to say I really like it.  It tastes to me like a pale ale, it calls itself "golden ale."  I really like the label with all of the activities we love about summer in cartoon form.  I had a few at a tailgate for the Philadelphia Union game last weekend and it hit the spot perfectly.  5.2 ABV.

Honorable Mentions

Brooklyn Summer Ale-based on English table beers.  Nice malt backbone and breadiness.

Sam Adams Summer-with grains of paradise, widely available

Victory Helios-fantastic saison but too high ABV for this list.  It's funny, bc/ saisons used to be low ABV to rehydrate farm workers, but I don't know many modern saisons that are lower than around 6.5%.  In general, saisons are great summer beers, though.  But two or three over a long summer dinner party will be enough.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Angel's Envy

I tried a new bourbon last night, Angel's Envy.  The name is a play on the term "angel's share," which is the whisky that evaporates during aging.  The idea is that they've made a product out of the remaining whisky that the angel's would covet.  It's from a company run by former master distiller at Woodford Reserve, Lincoln Henderson.  It's a new project and they just recently started distilling, so obviously they are sourcing their barrels from another distillery for now.  But they take the sourced whisky and then finish it in port barrels.  So I guess it's not technically bourbon, but "bourbon finished in port barrels."  Let me tell you, this stuff was fantastic.  Very mellow.  It was like bourbon concentrate, lots of vanilla.  I don't know that I tasted port wine specifically but I think that the port adds another dimension to the whisky.  It almost has the mouthfeel of a wine in the way it coats your mouth.  It has a lot of fire going down, too.  My only small complaint about it is the port barrels seem to hide some of the ryebread spice that you can get in most premium bourbons.  It's a tradeoff, I guess, but I've read a couple of reviews that hope that they come out with a barrel proof edition to maximize the flavor potential. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Pub Review: Pub and Kitchen

We checked out this spot as part of our day spending time with friends at PIFA, the arts festival in Philly last week which concluded with bizarre ten story acrobatic/musical act on a shut down Broad Street.  PIFA left a bit to be desired--though I did enjoy the free performance of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings--but I won't get into that.  Let's talk about food and drink.

Pub and Kitchen has a great vibe.  It really feels like the pubs I went to in England, with the wooden bench seats and the decor--lots of wood and blue paint.  The beer list was solid.  I had an English session ale made in collaberation with Pub and Kitchen and Sixpoint up in NYC.  It was a solid beer, maybe on the hoppy side for something advertised as "sessionable."  They had a few local-ish beers and some others from Sixpoint, Bells, etc.  What grabbed me about the drinks menu is the cocktails.  They had two barrel aged cocktails, where they mix the drink and then age in in wood for a few weeks.  I had the barrel aged manhattan, which I think suffered a bit from the use of Jim Beam Rye but was still a solid drink.  My wife and friend had tne barrel aged cocktail which they called Dahlia, a tequila based drink with mole bitters.  It was fantastic.  Good strong flavor but still somehow refreshing.  Our waitress warned them it was a bit stiff for a late afternoon drink, but my buddy said he was already three sheets to the wind so bring it on.  They had a bunch of other cocktails as well, fairly priced for Center City as all were less than $10.  Beats a mediocre manhattan at a Stephen Starr restaurant for $12.  Not a lot of gastropubs get too into the cocktail scene, and I like that here I had the option of beer or cocktails.  I opted for both.

The service was okay.  The menu was clear to a point, but I was still confused when the fries did not come with the dipping sauce--some kind of aioli--advertised when you order fries separate from a sandwich (I told you I was confused).  They were charging extra for condiments on the burger; they should have just had in the menu that the sauce could be added for $2, which the waitress told us when we asked for some.  The thing is, she never brought it and it still wound up on the bill.

The food was great.  The sauce debacle notwithstanding, the fries were perfectly done, crispy on the outside warm and soft on the inside.  Now let's talk about the Churchill burger, which made the final in Foobooz's burger bracket squaring off against Village Whiskey, besting my favorite burger, the Royal Tavern burger.  So I was stoked to try this burger.  They get the custom meat blend from La Frieda, a famous meat supplier in NYC.  Here is the description of the burger from Foobooz:

•Pub & Kitchen is Philadelphia’s first restaurant using a custom blend from La Frieda

•Contains dry-aged beef


•Glazed with bone marrow butter

•Topped with sauted onions

•Served on a Metropolitan brioche
•$18 and accompanied by fries

Sounds incredible, and it was, almost.  The meat was so flavorful and rich, and the butter was, well, buttery.  The overall effect was fantastic.  I like that it's focused on the meat, whereas the Royal burger is a bit more about the toppings.  What held it back from true greatness is an unneccesarily common mistake:  I ordered it medium rare and it came out almost well done.  I swear I'm going to start ordering my burger rare, so nothing can be lost in translation.  I feel the Churchill burger could have been the best I've ever had, but overcooking ruins even the best meat blend.  The South Philly Taproom uses a grassfed patty, hardly able to provide the flavor of a fatty, grain fed custom meat blend, but it is always cooked perfectly to my order, so the flavors it does have are not lost and therefore it can still compete with the others. 
Long story short, I really liked this place, I hope to go back again but 20th and Lombard is not my usual locale.  I would like to give the burger a second run, though...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


I love Weyerbacher.  I think it may be the most underrated Philly-area brewer and thought I'd show them some love.  They are known for making "big" beers.  It's funny that I love them since some of my favorite styles are low ABV, e.g. pale ale, German pilsner, ESB.  According to their website, they found the big beer niche kind of by accident, as they originally set out in the mid 90s to make mainstream styles like ESBs, pale ales, etc.  When their Raspberry Imperial Stout got some good buzz, they changed focus.

Weyerbacher makes one of my favorite beers, Merry Monks.  I have reviewed it on this blog before (Merry Monks if you want to read it).  It has won the bronze medal for Belgian tripel at the Great American Beer Fest, pretty high praise.  It's 9.3% ABV, a nice strong, but drinkable, golden ale.  I love the Belgians, don't get me wrong, but I love that for a few bucks less I can pick up a cork and cage bottle of this and really jazz up a Tuesday night dinner.  It's fantastic stuff.

I actually haven't had their barleywine, imperial stout, or double IPA, which they are also known for.  But I have had Heresy, which is their imperial stout aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels (they sell the empty barrels, too, but my wife would probably kill me).  The Heresy was fantastic, adding just the right amount of vanilla and oak without dominating the stout's roastiness. 

A few other Weyerbachers I've had-

Imperial Pumpkin Ale-a very good pumpkin, I like it better than Dogfish's but maybe not as much as Riverhorse's pumpkin stout

Verboten-This one wasn't my favorite when I had it.  But it gets good reviews, and it sounds interesting as it's a Belgian pale with American hops.  Maybe I'll give it another go.

Blanche-Solid wheat beer

Tiny- I had to pick this one up, as my dog has the same namesake.  Tiny, a "Belgian inspired" imperial stout, comes in at a whopping 11.8% ABV.  But it was smooth as silk with good flavor.

Long story short, Weyerbacher is great.  I'll have to give some of their others a try, the high ABV always makes me hesitate when I'm actually in the store bc/ I like to invest in more versatile beers.  But I should mix a six or grab a few big bottles to have with dinner--the high alcohol is like drinking a glass of wine.

I'm going to stop overlooking Weyerbacher, and you should, too.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Beer List Update

I have to stop waiting 5 months each time between updates, bc/ it takes me forever to look up the locations of all the beers I've jotted down at bars, fests, and dinners.  I am now up to over 520 beers after adding more than 65 entries.  I added a bunch at the Philly Navy Yard Craft Beer Fest, which was a lot of fun.  For some reason on the page with the list the Indiana breweries won't line up right but I added a bunch over winter break in Indy.  Here are a few interesting ones:

Victory Headwaters Pale Ale-Not the best pale ale I've ever had but another solid offering from Victory.  I kind of wish they'd just stick to the German styles they seem to be a bit more known for, though.

Brewdog Punk IPA, Storm-The Punk IPA was a solid pale ale, and the Storm was that same ale aged in Islay whisky casks.  Interesting, if not sessionable.

Innis and Gunn-Scottish ale aged in whisky and rum casks.  I liked the whisky one better than the rum aged one.  Shocker for me haha.

Stillwater Stateside Saison-I had this solid saison at the now defunct Fork and Barrel.  It was still winter when I went but now saison season is in full swing, I love it.

Also at Fork and Barrel, a German Gose (wheat beer with salt), granitbock (made in stone tanks with hot rocks to get the boil going), Marston's Pedigree (a fantastic english ale).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bourbon V. Scotch

This is a battle of whisky heavyweights.  I know there are Canadian, Japanese, even craft and Welsh whiskies, etc.  But bourbon and scotch is like the bluecoats vs. the redcoats.  I want to be clear: let every man (or woman) have his own preference.  But my preference is bourbon.  When I first got into whisky, I was a scotch man.  I loved the cool bottles with hard to pronounce names, learning the regional differences, and the feeling that I was classy (or something like that).  I found I was drawn to the heavily flavored island scotches, peaty, salty, smoky, but also enjoyed the delicate honey of say, Balvenie.  The problem with scotch on a social worker's salary is price.  Don't get me wrong, I've had my fair share of journeys on the Cutty Sark, but blended scotch is just not the same as a fine single malt.  Early in my whiskey experience, I knew little of bourbon, and pictured it as a harsh, fiery spirit that I didn't think I would enjoy.  But the price point of bourbon had a heavy pull on me.  The first decent bourbon I really had was Bulleit.  Looking back, it's nothing special, but the great bottle design and smooth yet spicy qualities was very impressive to me at the time. 

Bourbon is much more a specific thing than scotch.  Scotch can be single malted or blended, finished in a wine, sherry, bourbon, rum cask, using tons of peated malt or none at all, aged any amount of time.  Bourbon has strict guidelines, e.g. 51 percent corn, aging guidelines, and requires brand new, charred oak barrels.  In one sense, it's an unfair fight, because the master distiller's creativity is quite limited with bourbon.  That's starting to change a bit, as distiller's like Buffalo Trace are coming out with experimental lines, e.g., they finish bourbon in chardonnay casks.  It's no longer bourbon, legally, but adds a new dimension to American whisky. 

Even granting the limitations of bourbon's range, and even if you put price aside, I still prefer it to scotch.  The price got me in, and I still appreciate that super rare high end bourbon is generally still less than $100 a bottle, and plenty of great stuff is under $30.  But the taste is what hooked me.  I really think it's the influence of the first fill oak barrel.  When you drink a scotch, you are getting wood, yes, but also whatever was in the wood first (sherry, bourbon, etc.).  That adds a level of complextity to scotch, but for me I love the taste of the wood (that's what she said).  The way that corn, rye or wheat, and barley melds with the barrel creates
a fantastic flavor profile.  I love the spicy cinnamon from the rye and the wood, but especially the vanilla flavors that you get from the pure wood.  It may not have the range of scotch but bourbon can be fiery or mellow, sweet or spicy, juicy and big or subtle and sippable.  I was recently ask what my "desert island" bourbon would be, one that would never disappoint.  A hard question to name just one.  My favorite bourbon may be Pappy Van Winkle 15, and I like a bunch of others, as well.  But Woodford Reserve, despite being a touch on the "corny" side, is mellow yet flavorful, simple yet sophisticated.  That type of balance could sustain you for a long time.

I have had several conversations with the whisky expert at my favorite local liquor store.  His family has been in the whisky business his whole life, as his father operated a still in Philadelphia.  He's met Booker and Fred Noe from Jim Beam, and taken several trips to Scotland.  He's even peed in the Glenlivet (he says the 1999 bottlings may be a bit salty).  He appreciates bourbons and ryes but whenever he points to the scotch section he says, "the real whiskies."  He says at his age and with his palate bourbons just can't offer the complexity of say, Aberlour A'bundh, Laphroaig, or Auchentoshan Three Wood.  Maybe my taste, or the needs of my own palate, will change.  But I don't see that happening anytime soon.  Set me up with a glass of Evan Williams Single barrel and I'm good to go.  For me, bourbon IS the real whisky. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bourbon list update

I am drinking Wild Turkey Rare Breed right now.  I think I'd break the 30-40 dollar price point in my list from the earlier post into two--Woodford would keep the $30-35 spot and Rare Breed the best in $35-40.  At that price, I do like Four Roses Single Barrel quite a bit, but Rare Breed is fantastic.  It's bready, fiery, and tons of bourbon flavor (wood, vanilla, etc.).  It's barrel proof, meaning it isn't cut with water--like most whiskies--but still sippable.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Beer, Bourbon, and BBQ fest 2011

Yesterday I went to this fest in Maryland for the second straight year.  It takes place at the state fairground, which is a nice venue.  This year it was indoors, in a building called the Cow Palace, which is essentially a giant warehouse.   It worked well in the cold and rainy weather, but I liked the outdoor space under the grandstands that they used last year a bit better.  We rented a van with 10 friends with one more joining us later.  We had the VIP tickets, which gets you into the fest at noon, two hours before the rest of the crowd.  For me this meant that we could try some of the higher end bourbons without waiting in line or worrying that they would run out of something.  Since the fest has 3 focuses, I'll break the review into sections accordingly.

I thought the beer list was average for a festival of this scope.  No big surprises or any real special beers.  I got to try some local stuff I haven't had before, a couple of decent entries from Oliver Breweries, based in the Pratt Street Alehouse in Baltimore--Coventry Cream, a northern English bitter, and one called Old Habit (brown ale).  Some other beers/brewers I saw or tried at the fest: Duvel Green, a few staples from Ommegang, other locals Duclaw and Gordon Biersch, Old Dominion Oak Barrel Stout, Sierra Nevada Glissade, Oskar Blues, Porkslap.  Some usual suspects--Sam Adams introducing their "Rustic" saison which was just okay, Guinness, Magic Hat.  The two best beers there may have been St. Feuillien Brune and Urthel.  I may have missed a beer table that would have changed my overall opinion, but I really wasn't there for the beer.

Here comes the good part.  Wild Turkey is my new favorite distiller because they gave me a free t-shirt.  Just kidding.  There were too many bourbons to name, let me just tell you some of the highlights.  I got to try two entries from the Parker's Heritage Collection from Heaven Hill.  The Golden Anniversary edition contains bourbon from barrels from each of the four different decades of Parker Beam's tenure as master distiller.  It was delicious.  The other Parker's was a wheated 17 year, also good, much sweeter in taste than the anniversary bottle.  I had some Maker's 46, their newish bourbon finished with oak staves attached to the inside of the barrel.  It's like Maker's but more complex.  The Maker's booth is famous for letting you dip your tasting glass into their famous red wax. The Knob Creek 9 year single barrel is the latest from Jim Beam, it was nice, as well, but I don't know that I'm in a rush to shell out 40 clams for it anytime soon.  Two of us attended a tutored tasting that came with a free sparerib and a few samples of whisky.  One of the bourbons you couldn't get in the main room--Jefferson's 17.  It was quite good, but this was at the end of a long day of drinking so I can't say I remember it clearly.  The tasting was still pouring Maker's 46 as well, though they had run out of it in the main area (I was glad bc/ my buddy missed it the first time around).  The tasting presenter gave a basic overview of bourbon and then had us taste some products.  It was really more of an ad campaign than anything; one of the products was sweet tea bourbon, which tasted good in my drunken state but took away all credibility from the session for me.  My wife would have given a better tutorial on bourbon, as evidenced by Nicole's bourbon lesson on this very blog.

Their were plenty of other good bourbons to try.  Elijah Craig 12 and 18, Evan Williams single barrel, Blanton's, Four Roses Small Batch and Single Barrel, the Jim Beam small batch line including Basil Hayden's, Booker's etc.  Wild Turkey had the 101, of course, but also Rare Breed, Russell's Reserve 10, Russell's Reserve Rye.  Woodford Reserve is one of my favorites, but when I went to get a second pour of it I saw the worker pouring some back into the bottle from someone's tasting glass bc/ he poured too high above the 1 oz. line.  Disgusting.  Pappy Van Winkle 23 would have been another highlight, but my friend Brad shared his Christmas bottle with us the night before--we compared it to the 15 year which I brought down.  In any case I think they ran out of the Pappy 23 at the Friday night session. The real highlight for me was the High West Rye table.  I've had their Rendevous Rye in the past, it's a blend of a 16 year 80% rye and 6 year old 95% rye (I think they get their stock from Four Roses), it's unmalted rye content gives it a cinnamony, herbal/minty taste.  At the table they had that, their Bourye (a bourbon rye blend), and one called Double Rye, which was my favorite.  I also got one of the last tastes of their 21 year old rye, of which they only brought one bottle.  They were also sampling their unaged Oat Whisky, which I just had at a promo at a liquor store near me.  The whisky guy in that store says it's kind of like a tequila, especially in the nose.  I concur, and I think High West is doing some interesting stuff, for sure.  But not just interesting.  Their whiskies are damn good.

BBQ, etc.
There were free samples of pig that you could pick right from the pig carcass, but everything else to eat was an additional cost.  I had a pretty solid pulled pork after already having a pig sandwich earlier in the day (you need to eat a lot to soak up all that booze, might as well be pig).  There were some pretty fantastic potato pancakes and onion rings, as well.  The event has some other entertainment besides just drinking and eating, including live music, trashy looking "cowgirls" walking around interviewing drunks, and beanbag toss, or cornhole.  All in all it was a great time.  I think the fests are a fun way to try a bunch of stuff,  the drawback being the feeling that you need to drink enough to get your money's worth, or drink certain bourbons even though they all start to run together after a few shots.  I think I'd generally rather spend the money on a decent bottle and sit with it over time, getting to know it, taking notes, etc., than taste 10 different bourbons over a couple of hours.  On the other hand, I can't afford to shell out 150 dollars for Parker Beam's hand selected finest stuff, so it's fun to say I got to try it.  And I didn't drink myself sick, though I was hungover at like 10 PM, not fun if you've ever experienced that.

I'll likely be back next year, but for now I've had my fill.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Green Eggs Cafe

This breakfast-lunch joint has been open in our neighborhood for a while but we just got around to going (they have two locations, Northern Liberties and South Philly).  Now we've been there the past 3 weeks, partly because brunch is so confusing I never know if I want eggs or a burger, so better just go every week and eat the whole menu.  On my first visit I had "The Kitchen Sink," which had peppers, eggs, and potatoes, cooked in a cask iron skillet, all topped with, drumroll please, biscuits and gravy.  I had read Craig Laban's review, he thought that the eggs were overcooked and the potato cubes too big.  Perhaps, but the biscuit gravy was incredible, and with such a fantastic overall effect I can forgive minor imperfections on a component or two.  The next week I had the creme brulee french toast, one of several stuffed french toasts on the menu (the peanut butter is next on my list).  The giant slices of bread had this fantastic vanilla sauce oozing on top of it, and it was all topped with fresh creme and berries.  I would have like the bread to be slightly more egg-soaked, but that's a minor complaint.  This weekend I had the burger.  A great burger with vermont chedder, slab bacon and onions, and a side of perfect fries, just the right amount of grease.  Here's the thing, my wife and I have ordered the burger on two different occasions, both time we asked for medium rare and both times it was close to well done, even though when I ordered it I said, "I really want pink, last time it was ovedone!"  I think the problem is that Sunday brunch is so hectic that the orders aren't coming out perfect.  I would almost rather they just not have a burger and focus on the things that they do so well.  But even overcooked it was a juicy burger with great ingredients.  Of the three dishes I've had, the Kitchen Sink is my clear favorite to date.

If you go to Green Eggs on the weekend, be prepared to wait.  We've waited 40 minutes or so each time, and last time they said 45 minutes and it was an hour and a half.  I do think they need to come a little closer on their estimate so people know what they are getting into as they don't take weekend call aheads or reservations, but it's nice to see the business doing so well.  They appear to have recently bought the rowhome next door and knocked out the wall to add a bunch more tables.  One week we saw unpainted drywall, the next a beautifully finished room.  The whole place has a great vibe, with lots of sunlight, nice artwork, and a nice fireplace and big leather couches in the waiting area.  The "green" in the name is because of their eco friendly approach, with no styrofoam takeout containers, no plastic soda bottles, etc.  One other note--they don't have a liquor license, but you can buy a carafe of fresh squeezed OJ for $30.  It comes with a side of Prosecco.  Enjoy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Best Bourbons at Any Price Point

I feel I've been drinking bourbon long enough to make this list of my favorites at any price.  I'm sure I have a few blind spots.  There are also probably some bourbons that might not make it simply because I haven't had it enough to really get to know it, as one does in the course of a bottle, e.g., a lot of folks like Basil Hayden's, but I've only had it twice--once at a friend's house and once at the Beer, BBQ, and Bourbon fest in Annapolis last year.  The prices are what I've generally seen these bottles priced at.

Under $20
You can't find anything special down here, the goal is something that is enjoyable rather than simply tolerable (or intolerable).
Winner: Early Times 354 Bourbon
This is not the regular Early Times that was not bourbon (as it was aged in reused barrels), this is a new release bourbon.  For $15 bucks I was surprised at the fancy packaging, with tasting notes and a cool picture that reveals itself as you drink the bottle down.  Was I swayed a bit by the marketing?  Sure, but it made drinking cheap bourbon fun, and I found the stuff in the bottle to be enjoyable, too.
Honorable Mentions: Evan Williams Black Label, Jim Beam and Jim Beam Choice, Old Forrester

Winner: Buffalo Trace
Jim Murray, author of Whisky Bible, calls this one of the world's great bourbons from one of the world's great distilleries.  I've heard that this is essentially the same whisky as Blanton's Single Barrel which is more than double the price.  Tons of complexity for not tons of cash.  This is what I would call my "everyday" bourbon.
Honorable Mention: Elijah Craig 12

Winner: Evan Williams Single Barrel
With price taken into account, this may be my all time favorite bourbon.  For just 25 smackers, you get the fun of drinking a 10 year old single barrel whisky, hand labeled bottle that is vintage dated, meaning it comes out once a year.  I have unopened bottles of the 99 and 00, with an eye for a future whisky party comparing vintages.  And it tastes fantastic, a lot of influence from 10 years in the barrel and a nice cinnamon finish.
Honorable Mentions: Maker's Mark, Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, Knob Creek

Winner: Woodford Reserve
This makes a lot of folks' list of favorites.  It's a nice price point when you want something a bit more special than your everyday stuff but not too pricey.   It's got just enough burn that rocks may come into play, but not necessarily, and a lot of flavor.  Also their distillery tour is great.
Honorable Mentions: Makers 46, Four Roses Single Barrel, Wild Turkey Rare Breed

Winner: Booker's
I love the wooden box, the high proof, and the note from Booker on the label.  Tons of character.  A lot of fire to it but not so much that I don't get some vanilla from the wood and some leather.  It mellows with ice in a nice way.  Sweet and spicy finish.
Honorable Mention: Noah's Mill

Winner: Pappy Van Winkle 15 year
Pappy is my all time favorite.  I described it in my tasting notes as "puckering."  Most wheated bourbons are known for being mellow, but even with 15 years in the barrel Pappy comes out red and fiery.  Another great bourbon from Buffalo Trace.
Honorable Mention: Blanton's (the entry level single barrel)

Winner: George T. Stagg
I had to hunt hard to find a bottle of this once yearly release from Buffalo Trace.  Would you believe if I told you you can actually sip it at 143 proof?  I won't judge you if you need some water, though.  The Buffalo Antique Collection is fun, next year I'd like to try another one, perhaps the Weller or the Sazerac Rye (which is incredible).
Honorable Mention: Wild Turkey Tradition

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pub Review: Fork and Barrel

On Friday night we made the trek up to East Falls to check out Fork and Barrel, an upscale gastropub from the owners of Tap and Table up in Emmaeus.   My wife and I decided to walk 5 miles from the subway to East Falls, to work up a nice appetite.  We walked along the river, it was bit chilly but a pleasant walk and certainly had me craving food and beer by the end.

The first thing you notice about Fork and Barrel is the lighting, the entire downstairs area is lit by candles only (luckily the fire department is right accross the street).  It makes for a dim atmostphere, but once your pupils adjust it's quite nice.  Next, the beer selection.  This was about the most interesting beer list I've ever seen.  The bar downstairs has about 8-10 taps, all imported beers.  We did a flight of 5 and then tried a few more throughout the evening.  Here are some noteables:  Hitachino Classic Ale-A Japanese IPA aged on cedar; a German granitbock cooked with hot stones in granite mash tuns, an Italian stout with a hint of chili pepper, and a fantastic British pale ale on nitro.  The pale ale was my favorite but that's just because I enjoy pale ales, especially when they are poured creamy as from a cask or on nitro (the beer name escapes me right now but when I update my beer list page I will get it in writing).  The granitbock had one of the most unique finishes I've ever tasted, which I can only attribute to the stone.  The bottle list was very impressive, as well, I didn't want to overwhelm myself by reading through every selection, but we did choose a nice Gose, which is a german wheat beer with salt and coriander.  Aside: Gose is one of the few styles that does not adhere to the German purity law because of the use of spices but gets a pass as a regional specialty.  In short, this place had a very special list of beers that could impress most beer geeks.  No pint was cheaper than 8 bucks, and the flight of 5 was $18.  Not cheap, but the beers were each pretty special. 

Now the food.  We shared the salt potatoes as an appetizer, they were these tiny baked potatoes that somehow were crunchy and came with a nice dipping sacue.  We were with two other couples, and each couple decided on the roast pheasant for two ($35) for dinner.  The pheasant was a lot of fun, we ripped it apart and made sure to get all of the "morsels" from it, as one friend called them.  I think game animals tend to be lean, and there were some dry bites, but on the whole it was a beautifully cooked bird.  The oyster stuffing was the best part, it was so moist and salty.  The brussel sprouts were fine but maybe could have been better.  Next time I'd probably want to try the lamb burger and/or the braised rabbit, but the "pheasant party" was a lot of fun; it was so funny to see them carrying three birds out of the kitchen to our seats.

After dinner we headed up to the upstairs bar, which is their casual area, serving a dozen or so different types of hot dogs and free peanuts.  The upstairs bar has one cask beer and then a bunch of American craft bottles.  We shared a Stillwater Stateside Saison, which I thought was fantastic.

I thought Fork and Barrel was pretty special.  It's not super cheap in relation to other gastropubs, but it's really more of a restaurant than a bar.  If I didn't hear familiar city sounds like car alarms outside I could have sworn I was in the British countryside.  I'm glad it's not in walking distance to my house, or I'd be tempted to see what's on tap on a regular basis.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Grilled Cheese and Oak Aged Beer

A coworker of mine has been making grilled cheese for dinner for it's cheap and nutritious quality, but I think mostly for the comforting gooey goodness aspect of it.  This gave me the idea to make a gourmet grilled cheese.  I decided to try to invent my own sandwich trying to use mostly ingredients we already had on hand.  Here's what I came up with:

Ezekial 4:9 sesame bread- If you've ever had sprouted grain bread, you'll know it's quite a mouthful, for me a little too much for a basic pb and j but perfect for grilled cheese due to it's sturdiness.  Initially I thought of getting a sourdough loaf, but the Ezekial was surprisingly perfect.

Jarlsberg-Basically swiss, not expensive but an upgrade than your deli counter garden variety. 

Carmelized onions

Bacon-no brainer

Arugula-next time I would put this on the side with a little oil and vinegar, it got soggy on the sandwich and didn't add a lot of flavor

Pears-I sliced them and baked them in the oven at 400 for 20 minutes or so.  I sliced them a bit too thick so that they weren't evenly distributed throughout the sandwich.

Honey-I used a creamy type honey, just a spoonful.  There may be a bit too much sweet on this sandwich for some people, with the carmelized onions, but I thought it pulled together quite nicely.  Next time I might salt the ingredients or trial a different cheese.

And of course, butter for the grilling.

The end result was an extremely satisfying meal.  I served it with some roasted red pepper and tomato soup, the type you could get at Trader Joe's or many grocery stores.

For the beer pairing I choose an oak aged imperial stout, Dragon's Milk from New Holland Brewing in Michigan.  It's a high ABV, richly flavored beer that stood up well to the buttery cheesy bacony goodness of the sandwich.  The roasted aspect of the stout matched up nicely with the carmelized onions.  My coworker also loves this beer, so I guess she should get a lot of credit for this meal.

Just another Tuesday night in our gourmet househould. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Next 15 Shows

Here is the second part of my top 25 shows.

11.  Seinfeld-This would never drop below 11, if anything it should be moved into the top 10.

12.  The Office (both versions)-I had the pleasure of watching the original while studying in England.  The American version took it and ran with it.

13.  Lost-Should be a top ten show, except there were too many throwaway storylines.  It seems like the writers never really knew what the hell they were doing.  Still, the result was a phenomenon of a show, a watercooler show like no other.

14.  Family Ties-Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, some smart political humor and a cheesy-as-hell 80s theme song make this one of my sentimental favorites.

15.  The Amazing Race-This could have been my reality entry in the top 10, except that a few of the seasons were kind of whack, and they only just started shooting it in HD.

16.  The Fresh Prince of Bel Air-I love the nonstop Carlton jokes and DJ Jazzy Jeff's acting skills.  The best episode is when Will's father (Ben Vereen) returns to his life.  I get choked up every time it reruns.

17.  The Cosby Show-One of my saddest memories is not letting my grandmother watch the Cosby Show bc/ my dad was taping something else and I didn't know you could change the channel without messing it up. The fact that my grandmother was hooked on the show says something interesting about race in the 80s.  I'm not sure what, exactly, but something...

18.  All in the Family-A groundbreaking sitcom, not just bc/ it's the first time a toilet flushed on a tv show.  This show manged to be funny and yet challenged the fabric of social norms.  When the Jefferson's moved into town, the show really got going.

19.  The Honeymooners-The original sitcom.  Nicole will probably say it's based too much on the comedy of one man and that disqualifies it ;) but I think it was pretty damn funny.
20.  House-Hugh Laurie's acting has kept this show watchable the past couple of seasons, bc/ otherwise it isn't very good.  The first few seasons were pretty neat, though, and the cases House and his team solved--and the way they solved them--made for some pretty intense tv.
21.  American Idol-I know this show is awful, but I can't get enough of the world's biggest talent show.

22.  Alias-The first two seasons of Alias are superb, but it jumps the shark quickly by letting too many cats out of the bag, if you can follow my metaphors.  Great spy show.

23.  Summer Heights High-This is hardly a show, but rather a one season story with three roles played by one actor.  It could be annoying but is actually a pretty clever Australian comedy.

24. Spaced-I have a feeling if I rewatch this it would jump up the list.  Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright deliver some solid laughs in their pre Shaun of the Dead days with Jessica Stevenson as co-writer/co-star.

25.  Everwood-This is a pretty cheesy family drama, but it is well acted and written, and tackles some pretty touchy subjects, e.g. abortion with an amount of finesse rarely seen on network tv.

Honorable mentions:

Survivor-I watch this show bc/ it's one of my wife's favorites, and I sort of hate it, but sort of think it's a great show.  I just couldn't let it crack the list, though.

Da Ali G Show-Sacha Baron Cohen's three-headed-character-monster show was at it's funniest before people knew what the hell was going on.  My favorite of his interviews is Newt Gingrich.

The O.C.-Season 1 is actually critically acclaimed and very entertaining.  It immediately becomes a caricature of itself after that.

The Simpsons-I've never been a huge fan but I think it's funny and respect it's run.

Law and Order-Every actor was a guest start on it, either on the way up or the way down.  Procedural crime drama at it's best.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Favorite TV Shows Ever

I'm going off the beaten path, i.e., away from a glass of alcohol. But everyone loves a good top ten list to spark a healthy debate.  I am going to list my top 25 televisions shows of all time.  The first post will be the top ten, then the second post will be the runners up, the next 15.  A show cracked my top 10 with roughly the following formula, 50% production value (i.e., it's level of greatness), 40% pure entertainment value (this allows me to pick favorites that aren't the most logical), and 10% striking a balance of genres.

Disclaimer, I have not seen the following critically acclaimed shows:  The Sopranos, MASH, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (or any other Joss Whedon shows), The Shield.  Also never seen Battlestar Galactica or much in the way of Star Trek.

For those of you who will ring your hands that Seinfeld didn't make it, you should know that it's number 11 as of right now.  I have been staring at this list trying to get it in the top 10.  I watch the reruns constantly and crack up.  I think the major drawback to the show is that it was a touch inconsistent, e.g. I really didn't care for the "show within a show" storyline and a few others like it.  Still, I'm pretty shocked it's not on here.  Maybe someone will make a good argument to convince me to put it in its rightful place.  Interesting side note: two of these shows feature Danny Devito.  Coincidence?  I think not.

Without further ado, the list, counting from 10 to number 1:

10.  Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights-It may seem like I'm cheating already, but these shows are still on their runs, and while both are incredible, only one will ultimately crack the list.  I thought the premise of Breaking Bad would be disturbing--a high school chemistry teacher turns into a meth dealer--but I am thoroughly hooked on this well-written, well-acted, well-directed AMC drama.  As for Friday Night Lights, it would be worth watching just for the spot-on argument scenes between coach and his wife; throw in a rotating cast of interesting characters, including a backup quarterback who takes care of his grandmother, and a bit of high school football drama, and you have one hell of a show.

9.  Freaks and Geeks-Can't be any higher than number 9 with only one season, but it was a perfect season of television.  It was the origin and perfection of the Apatow movement, with most of the stars moving on to bigger, if not better, things.  James Franco is the biggest talent to emerge, and is now one of Hollywood's biggest stars, and Judd Apatow has rattled off a string of blockbuster comedies.  Freaks and Geeks was a fantastic coming of age type show with touching stories and tons of comedy, and you can't go wrong casting Tom Wilson from Back to the Future as the gym teacher.  Also: lots and lots of awkward.

8.  Top Chef-This is my reality tv entry.  Cooking and eating is one of my big hobbies, so obviously this show is appealing to me.  But I really do think it's an excellent show.  It has a reputation for not coddling favorites through episodes in which they did not perform, i.e., the judges have more say than the producers.  They sent my favorite "cheftestant," Philadelphia's Jennifer Carroll, an early choice to win it all, home in the second week this season without even flinching.  The contestants and challenges are consistently entertaining, with the result being that when you finish watching you are left, well, hungry for more.

7.  It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia-Hailed as the next generation's Seinfeld, this show's innovation turned it from a low-rent, low-budget production into a cult favorite.  Danny Devito asked to be a part of it and the rest is history.   Learning that Charlie is dyslexic in the episode "The Gang Runs for Office" is of of the most hilarious moments on the show, and the way they weave that into the rest of the show is an example of the show's brilliance.

Here's another great moment from Sunny for all you Phillies fans: Mac's Love Letter to Chase Utley

6.  Dexter-This is the only show that I've ever paid extra for, i.e., I added Showtime to my cable bill b/c I couldn't bear to wait for the DVD release.  Season 1 is, for me, the best single season of television ever made.  Any show that has you rooting for a serial killer must be something special.  Unfortunately the next 4 seasons could not quite measure up to the standard set by the first, but they've still taken us on a heck of a run.  I think it's time to wrap it up on a high note, though.

The theme song sequence is incredible, watch it here

5.  Taxi-Danny Devito, Tony Danza, Judd Hirsch, Marilu Henner, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kauffman, Rhea Perlman.  A stellar cast.  This is my nostalgia entry, as I remember watching reruns with my dad when I was a boy.  Sitcoms always seem dated and corny decades (sometimes even just months) later, but if you can allow yourself to go back in time Taxi will give you some solid laughs.  Also Marilu Henner is pretty hot.  My favorite episodes involve the burned out "Reverend" Jim (Christopher Lloyd). The episode where he takes the driver's exam to be a cabbie is classic television.

Clip: Jim takes the driver's test.  (The 4:00 mark is the funniest part).

4.  Late Night with Conan O'Brien-I still love Conan's brand of comedy, and have followed him from his Tonight Show controversy over to his recently launched TBS show, which I DVR and watch pretty religiously.  But his Late Night was the birth of that brand, and it was where Conan was at his best and most free.  His self-deprecating comedy and ridiculous characters, e.g., the Masturbating Bear made his the funniest nighttime talk show of all time.

The Walker, Texas Ranger lever is my favorite bit ever: Pull the lever here

3.  Scrubs-The best sitcom of all time.  It's easy to forget in a world where every sitcom tries to be "quirky" just how pioneering this show was.  The first American sitcom not shot in traditional 3 camera format and with no laugh track, and their "sitcom" episode is an awesome wink at that fact.  Some of the camera work on this show is amazing in light of the style they chose to shoot this show.  I can't deny that there is a drop off somewhere around season 5, but the remaining seasons are still funny, and it's amazing this show had the run it did, as it moved time slots multiple times and stared down cancellation rumors on more than one occasion.  The dynamic between Turk and JD in the early seasons is hilarious and is the key to the whole show.  My favorite all time line from the show is from Dr. Perry Cox, "As I wake up each morning and wonder WHY I should put both my feet on the floor I find precious few reasons. Escaping Jordan's morning breath? Yes. Scotch. It's too early to drink it but people it is NEVER too early to think about it. Or the possibility I may happen across Hugh Jackman and be able to give him the present I've been holding for him.......BAM!"

Clip-Turk auditioning for the air band with his Poison dance

2.  Mad Men-This is the best show on television right now (possible exception-Breaking Bad).  It's the type of show where sometimes I have no idea what the hell is going on but continue to stare at the screen.  Maybe it's the pretty people, awesome costumes, or amazing set design.  But I suspect it's because I want to see what Don will have for his next drink.  Maybe a more amazing feat than cheering for a serial killer is the Don Draper phenomenon.  Despite the womanizing, anger issues, and drinking problem, women love him, and I want to be him.

1.  The Wire-I'd be willing to debate any other show on this list.  Maybe you could convince me to replace or change the order of a few of them.  But not The Wire.  It's the best show ever made.  Five almost perfect seasons.  Honestly the other shows on this list couldn't hold The Wire's jock.  The characters and settings seem real and not fabricated nor over the top.  And the storytelling is astonishingly tight.  Plot lines that would be throwaways on other shows lead to major climaxes on The Wire, and even if they don't they provide so much texture to the story.  Every layer of drug trafficking is analyzed without even a whiff of moralizing.  It's like you aren't even watching a show at all, but rather staring reality in the face.  The only consistent theme or motto is the loss of hope.  But the series somehow manages to remain more fascinating then depressing.  My favorite is season 4, which takes place in the school system.  My only small complaint is in regard to the final season.  I think David Simon, as a journalist, put a bit too much of himself in Gus's character, and therefore the portrayal of the demise of the newspaper business was a bit biased/over-the-top.  Literally that's the only thing bad I can say about the entire series.  The show is a creative masterpiece even down to the changing theme song.  In the words of the series most legendary character, stick-up boy Omar, "Oh, in-deed!"