Vodka is for Lame Babies -- Take My Word For It

Previously on this blog, I wrote about Caskstrength's troubling rules for drinking like a man. Today, we're looking at the first of those rules: No vodka. Vodka is not manly, says Caskstrength.

"How so?" you ask.

It just isn't.

I have harped on this for too long so I’ll make it crystal fucking clear, there is nothing manly about Vodka. Almost all domestic vodka is in fact industrial alcohol mixed with water. Vodka can only be sipped neat or taken as a shot, and even then, it is still kind of for lame babies.

This guy begs to differ:

Not manly. At all.

And that's pretty much the whole of Caskstrength's post. There's only two things you can think about when vodka comes up: James Bond, and patriotic Russian/Polish people. The first doesn't count because apparently he only drinks vodka in the movies and screws up the cocktail name -- obviously, this makes James Bond a total wuss, despite all the shooting and the sexing and the well-tailored suits. Wait, are well-tailored suits still manly? They weren't for a while, but now they're back, at least until I hear otherwise. Gender-specific trends are so confusing.

As for the Russians and Poles (and Finns -- shout-out!) who claim to love vodka, well -- they really just want an excuse to talk about their home country. Because all Russian people were born in Russia, and Polish people were born in Poland, and they have no business being born in America like real Americans are:

As for the Russians and the Polish, you know how every time one of those guys are telling you how great Vodka is there is a ton of, “do you know how great my country of origin is? Because I am proud of it and want to talk about it a lot.” Don’t be that guy, don’t listen to that guy.

In fact, the strangest thing about this post is what it leaves out: vodka is not manly because it is girly.

Evidence: vodka is the key ingredient in that most feminine of cocktails: the Cosmopolitan. My mother recently praised my love of vodka tonics, because they're low-calorie cocktails, relatively speaking. A friend once assured me with great authority that the Greyhound, a mix of vodka and grapefruit juice, was considered the diet cocktail of choice for some sorority or other. Flavored or infused vodkas are largely not considered "real drinks," which is to say they are effeminate, like chocolate martinis and such.

When Caskstrength says that vodka is to be taken neat or not at all, what he's saying is: don't drink vodka cocktails like many many women do. Unless it's a White Russian, of course, because of The Dude. Unless you're in a bowling alley, because then you've become That Guy.

So many rules -- how will I keep them all straight?

Rules to Write By/Rules to Drink BY

It is summer, I just got married, and I am a writer, so lately many of my days involve A) drinking, B) writing, or C) both. Lucky me! Lately everyone has advice about these activities! First, there is the NYT essay, which is delightful -- and now, a Jezebel article, which makes me want to take issue with a couple of the points they obviously think are hilarious.

Full disclosure: at present, I am writing this and also drinking some delicious local wine. Plus that Dry Fly gin and tonic aperitif before dinner. So, hey! Drinking and writing!

To begin, the New York Times.

Honestly, I've read a lot about wine, and booze, and history, and the history of wine and booze, and literature about wine and booze, and so on. I am totally behind Geoff Nicholson's point that fictionalized drinking (or history of same) is more fun than instructions on drinking correctly tend to be. (And hey! I had a recent post on that too!) His connection between drinking advice and writing advice strikes me as witty and revealing. In sum: I liked it, and have nothing besides more uninteresting praise to offer.

And now: the Jezebel article.

"The Cocktail Party," Sandy Skoglund

I read it. And the arguments marshaled themselves and marched full-tilt in the direction of this blog. This may get pedantic, but if I don't let it out my head will explode, so in the interest of, um, not-explodey, here goes:

1. The article's thesis: "This article makes an insightful connection between the uselessness of drinking advice and the uselessness of writing advice -- let's reduce this to a series of pithily described drinking games! Because writing a great work of literature ourselves would take too long."

2. The David Foster Wallace game could easily kill you. Seriously, ten pages or less.

3. Jane Austen: In college, some friends and I came up with a drinking game for the film version of Sense and Sensibility: drink whenever someone dies; drink whenever it rains; drink whenever Fanny says something horrible; drink whenever an engagement is announced; drink whenever Marianne cries; drink whenever someone mentions the letter F. We poured homemade wine into thrifted tea cups and sat back. Twenty minutes later, we had to slow the game. I did not go to the partiest college, is the upshot here.

4. Jezebel knows nothing about Sappho. "Hot or disgusting"? That's the best you can do for the foremost female writer of the ancient world? I mean, yes, there's the "don't prod the beach rubble" fragment, but that's way more poetic in the original Greek, and the few complete poems we have are just stunning . . . (rambles on about love triangles and splintered selves until everyone moves on to the next in the list . . .)

5. Or Homer: ancient Greek wine was thick and hugely alcoholic, like port or vodka if you could make vodka from grapes. It was watered down with strict proportion so that it resembled the red wine we know and love today. People who drank unwatered wine were barbarians, and not worth talking to, much less drinking with.

6. Or Twilight: seriously, there's not nearly enough blood-drinking in Stephenie Meyer for this rule to result in any drinking game worth playing

7. Any James Joyce drinking game is hilarious.

7. Any Dylan Thomas drinking game is in the poorest of poor taste.

The Drink-Like-A-Man Trap.

One night, four of us ended up at Seattle's lovely Mistral Kitchen for dinner, because the rumor mill had it that the cocktails were pretty good. The rumor mill underestimated by a mile.

The cocktails were more than good: they were fantastic. Maybe the best cocktails I've ever had: well-crafted, unique, and utterly delicious. And because the list was only eight items long, and because we'd all ordered different drinks in the first round, and because nobody was driving anywhere for the foreseeable evening's future, we managed to taste everything on the menu in the course of an hour and a half.

The bartender Andrew noticed, and graciously allowed us to taste something he was planning to put on the new menu due out the following week. It was something that had the smokey taste of whiskey, but none of the burn, and we just could not figure out how he'd done it. So we asked, and he was kind enough to explain the process and a bit of the chemistry and all of us were starry-eyed and dazzled.

It was a lovely evening, and as soon as I got home I subscribed to the feed on Caskstrength, Andrew's blog. For a while, it was perfect -- he talked about creating a Tom Waits-inspired cocktail, and chainsawing ice, and other such specifics. He introduced me to the word "dipsography," writing about drinking, which is a much-needed coinage in this new cocktail renaissance of ours. Then, just when I thought the blog and I were bestest buddies, or at least could talk intelligently between one another, this post came up, introducing a short series of posts: ten rules for drinking like a man.

Also known as: ten things you can say to make Alicia's head explode.

The only thing I can do is take them apart one at a time, beginning with the intro post.

Problem No. 1: Man = Ideal

When people say, "drink like a man," they never bother to explain that this is for a given value of "man." It's assumed you know this value already: a man is strong, rugged, powerful, successful, and so on. In a word, man is an ideal person. For a woman to drink like a man, she must first disown her own identity. She cannot be soft, quiet, passive, sweet, or fruity. Of course, she has to be all those things, because she is female, and those are the ideal feminine qualities. So if she doesn't drink like a man, she deserves scorn. If she does drink like a man, she deserves scorn.

As Caskstrength's Andrew has it:

The world of drinks, drinking and bars fit nicely into 2 small compartments: ” T.G.I. Mc Flingers in a strip mall,”  or, “Don Draper,” where do you stand?

No options there for a woman, because when Don Draper is the gold standard a woman will always be found lacking. (Especially by Don Draper himself.)

Drinking like a man: it is a trap.

Problem No. 2: Men drink, women don't.

A quote:

Men, It isn’t your fault no one taught you what to drink.  We are going to fix that now.  Ladies, if you see a man break any of these rules you can be assured he is egotistical, close minded, weak, lacks creativity and thusly a bad fuck.

Ah, the age-old double standard for alcohol consumption: men drink, and women don't. Women are not to follow these rules themselves, that sentence implies -- they should be occupied analyzing what a man's choice of beverage says about him as a person and a lover (by which we mean, ultimately, father). Because of course something like romantic compatibility can be reduced to the simplicity of a set of rules no more complex than your average teen-written internet quiz.

But I pose to you, evaluate the man who has placed a menu in front of you offering up an, “X-TREME MANGO MOJITO,” do you really trust him with with high quality and impeccable  taste?

This sentence brings up an interesting point: often, people order from a cocktail menu. A menu is pre-designed, pre-arranged, and the person ordering from it is discouraged from asking the menu item to be altered. What the woman is supposed to do is critique the man she's dining/drinking with (though, as we've seen, she's not really supposed to be doing any of the drinking). She's not encouraged to critique the person who put an X-TREME MANGO MOJITO on that menu in the first place, although there is a strong case to be made that it is the taste of the menu's creator that should be faulted. To fault the person who orders from the menu, and not the menu itself, seems to ignore the larger context in which the drink order occurs. The same goes if women are supposed to reward the person who orders a "manly" cocktail -- and we still don't know what that is -- but not to reward the creator of the menu. She is supposed to ignore the larger context, as if it didn't exist.

In the same way, she is supposed to keep herself clean and thin and mostly hairless. She is not supposed to ask why women have to be clean and thin and hairless, when there is no correspondingly significant pressure for men. She is not supposed to ask what this system does for her personally -- she is just supposed to follow the rules.

Telling women to focus on the immediate situation rather than the larger context is often also a trap.

Problem No. 3: Turns out all this is geared toward one specific dude.

I left a comment on Caskstrength, to this effect: "Hey, dude, this kinda leaves the ladies out in the cold, cocktail-wise. Know what I mean?"

And he replied -- very graciously, I might add -- that the series was directed at a personal friend, for personal reasons.

Which is very sweet, helping out a friend like that. I also have a friend, and this friend is terrified of kittens. So, rather than personally helping this person conquer their fear of kittens, or even writing a post explaining how to help this specific person conquer their specific fear of kittens, I have written a post that details all the ways in which kittens are harmful and should be thrown out the window of a moving train.

I have another friend, who is a woman. This woman -- let's call her "Balicia" -- has been on the wrong side of way too many "here's how to drink/think/read/write like a man, because we all know men are teh awesome" conversations. She doesn't mind learning how to drink/think/read/write better, but it really bothers her when "better" = "like a dude," because it is a very short step from "traditional masculine-coded areas of know-how are an ideal everyone should strive for no matter their gender" to "men are inherently superior because of a wiggly thing between their legs."

You see how this works. It's Refute-A-Thon 2010 all up in here.

Because if I don't try and speak out on things like this, they will drive me crazy. Andrew at Caskstrength is truly an authority on his topic. His knowledge is beyond vast. He may well be one of the best bartenders of our generation; he is certainly the best bartender whose drinks I have ever had the privilege to consume. And when someone whose work I admire turns around and says something so regressive and hurtful, well, it makes me feel like I've been stabbed in the back, just a little.

Here's the list of upcoming posts:

Rule 1: No Vodka Rule 2: No “Tinis” Rule 3: No Light Beer, unless… Rule 4: Jack Daniel’s Is For Pussies Rule 5: Read the Cocktail List Rule 6: Cash, the Etiquette of Dollars Rule 7: Own Your Drink and the Glass It Is In Rule 8: Order Champagne, Often Rule 9: Own a Flask And Good Home Barware Rule 10: Know Your Limits

I can hardly wait.

900 Bottles of Wine in the Truck: An Internet Mix Tape

Through the magic of the internet, I go to help bottle the 2008 vintages at Guardian Cellars on Friday, July 16. Guardian Cellars was founded not too long ago by a police detective, Jerry Riener, and the wines are unfailingly delicious and complex. I had no idea what to expect as a bottling volunteer, but this seemed like a good opportunity to see a side of the wine industry that most casual oenophiles never get to see.

Some thoughtful individual put on a satellite radio station for us volunteers, which meant the entire day had a commercial-free soundtrack, about which I have taken notes and the best parts of which I shall reproduce for you in this post.

We could fill, cork, foil, and label about 60 bottles a minute on average, which means that during that Pink Floyd song I saw about 360 bottles of Guardian's Gun Metal vintage go by me on the conveyor belt.

Imagine that someone has taken a taco truck the size of a semi, and filled it with H. R. Geiger's sleek modernist interpretation of the Crayola factory from that one Mr. Rogers episode. There is just enough room for a good-sized person to stand on either side of the central conveyor belt's long slender parabola. Two partially open-faced glass cubes with metal frames hold small, cylindrical platforms that cradle the wine bottles while they're being filled, corked, and foiled. Leading to these are large plastic screws to regulate how quickly the bottles on the belt enter the belly of the machines.

It works like this: bottles start empty on one side, are loaded onto a conveyor belt that runs them through the filling machine, the corking machine, past two people who put on the loose foil caps that are so annoying to get off at home, into the machine which seals the foil caps tightly against the bottle, around the corner, past the quality control person who checks to make sure the bottle is full and the labels are clean and accounted for and the foil cap is not askew, to the two people at the end who put them in cases of twelve and load those cases onto a long ramp of alarming slenderness and speed. A push, and a case of wine shoots out of the truck and into the waiting arms of other volunteers, who slap another couple of labels on the case and stack them carefully into palettes of either 3 or 4 cases' height. Then someone comes around with a very small, sleek forklift, and the palettes are taken, I don't know, presumably storage somewhere for aging, but I could never tell where they ended up.

I spent the first part of the day foiling. This is a fiddly business that is simultaneously tedious and terrifying, which made it actually very pleasant. Sort of like meditation with an adrenaline rush, though I know that's paradoxical.

You have in one hand a stack of delicate foil caps, which if you squeeze too hard -- read: at all -- will become useless and must be thrown away. The silver Guardian Cellars cap must be checked for spots and extra dribbles from the darker blue dye used to highlight the crest, which has a tendency to run. You must also check the crest on the top for flaws, and then put the foil cap on the bottle.

And you must do all this in the space of one second, as the bottles speed by you on the conveyor belt. It was repetitive, but there was always the looming chance that something would go horribly, catastrophically wrong, and always the sound of bottles clanking heavily together and reminding you that glass is fragile and red wine stains don't come out of anything.

Helpfully, the foilers were fairly close to the radio, which meant of course that I was singing along and dancing in place a little every time something I knew came up. The other volunteers, who were all a little older than me, gave me indulgent looks and assumed it was on account of the coffee. But it wasn't.

"Suite Judy Blue Eyes" has always been one of my favorite long songs, on account of the awesome. After the satellite radio played it, the radio host explained something about the album cover (which I had never seen until I looked up the Youtube video just now). Seems the names go Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the people are sitting in the order of Nash, Stills, and Crosby. They realized the error just before the album went to press, but when they went back to retake the photo, the house had been torn down. People were getting Crosby and Nash confused for years after this.

Also: the logo for Crosby, Stills, and Nash was designed by Phil Hartman, who was a graphic designer before he turned to acting. Learn something new every day.

Prompted by the memory, I checked once more to see if a karaoke version of the song were available, even though I'd checked before to no avail -- hey voílà! For the first time ever, it was!

After the first wine, I volunteered to be one of the people slapping labels on cases at the foot of the long ramp. Seriously, every time something plunged down the ramp, I expected it to slide heavily to the ground with a crash and an explosion of new red wine. One of the guys stacking cases (a heavy-lifting job) made sure I got an extra label slapped on the back of my t-shirt, which was fine with me because the Guardian labels are truly beautiful, with elegant type and a feeling of strength (as befits a cop-turned-winemaker).

Due to a time crunch, we were going to be bottling Baer Winery's 2008 Maia as well, which was just fine by us. Baer Winery uses wax rather than foil caps, and the waxing is done much closer to the release date, so for a change I volunteered to put the filled bottles in the cases. This turned out to be a fast-moving, muscle-y job that strained, peculiarly, the area right between my shoulder blades. Arms, check; hands, check; back, check; shoulder blades, ow ow ow ow ow . . .

The Maia bottles tapered inward from the shoulders to the foot, so that they were smaller at the base than where the neck met the body. This meant that if bottles got clumped together on the conveyor belt -- as was frequent at at least three points of the process -- the feet would slide closer together and the bottles would tilt, and sometimes the bottles would fall over. This was always startling, and loud. But sometimes, when the clump had yet to reach critical mass, you could hear the faint tinkling and look at the clattering feet and the bottles would appear to be tap-dancing.

With Gun Metal, Alibi, and Maia safely stowed and the palettes of crates held together by saran wrap, it was time to break for lunch. Jerry had gone around earlier asking whether we wanted tacos, burritos, or quesadillas, with steak, chicken, or veggies. These were all magnificent, with perfectly salted, warm tortilla chips and just the right amount of salsa. We retired to the tasting room, whose walls were covered in concert posters that hinted the soundtrack here was going to be a little more modern: Vampire Weekend, Broken Bells, the Decemberists, the Drive-By Truckers, Green Day, and Modest Mouse.

The other volunteers were mostly already known to each other, and all of them seemed older than me. Some, like Laurie, are frequent bottlers for many of the wineries in the area, to the point where it sounded like a full-time job on its own. Others, like Wayne, were fellow newbies. We settled pretty easily into a comfortable mode of conversation over our delicious, delicious Mexican food.

The day's final bottling was Grand Rêve Vintners Collaboration Series III, a pure Syrah made exclusively from Red Mountain grapes. I'd not encountered this vintner before, probably because it makes very exclusive, very limited runs of very high-quality wines, with very high-quality winemakers. Like the obscure author that every author you love has read and loved unbeknownst to you.

We ran out of foil caps before we ran out of bottles. This felt catastrophic at first, but then it became clear that nothing could be done, except mark the boxes with the unfoiled bottles once they came off the line.

After this last bottling, we returned to the tasting room in the front, where there were buckets of Gun Metal and Collaboration for the tasting. Jerry talked briefly about what the new wine was like now and what it might come to be in the future. We were each given four bottles of wine -- a common volunteer gratuity which I had nevertheless not expected -- but none of these bottles are drinkable right away.

I always forget: WINE = GRAPES + TIME.

The three Guardian wines (two Gun Metal and one Alibi) must wait a year until we open them. The Grand Rêve we have to cellar for -- and this is a quote -- 3 to 5 years. It has its own adorable little prison sentence. So I've locked it in a cabinet downstairs; in addition to being cool and dark and friendly for wine aging, it seemed appropriate.