What To Do For the Winter Olympics

So I haven’t posted in about a month. What can I say? Travel’s a bitch. But not a bad bitch. It’s actually one of the betters ones. Except when you’re in coach. Then flying is miserable. Anyway, I spent two weeks in Chicago until New Year’s and then spent another two weeks in the 2010 Winter Olympic host cities, Vancouver and Whistler, BC. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but I’ll try and give you a decent recap.

Chicago:

Hopleaf: As I’ve said before, the Hopleaf is my favourite beer bar in the city. And they serve more brews than any other Chicago bar.  Check out my lengthier review for more. While there, I enjoyed the Delerium Tremens Ale, reputed to be the finest beer in the world. It’s good. Real good. But as Belgian sours go, it’s not too special.

Chief O’Neil’s: The Chief’s is our favourite Irish pub in the city. The have acceptable craic, and pour a good, but not perfect, pint of plain. Standard Irish pub fare and a good location for when we are out shopping round out what makes this bar good. They have a wonderful whisk(e)y selection with both old and new world distillates. Of course, they focus on the Irish whiskey but good selections Scotch, Bourbon, and rye can all be found behind the stick. Their pint of stout is quite good, and fairly opaque, but doesn’t compare to Nash’s in the Pale.

While there, I learned that Guinness is holding a competition for “best pint.” Their scoring rubric seems to have more to do with prominently displaying the Guinness logo than anything else. Of course, given Guinness’s long history of marketing genius, I don’t know why we should expect anything else.

Park 21: This new restaurant from the same people behind Carnivale, a restaurant sensation is practically the same. While the service is impeccable, the atmosphere pleasant and vibrant,  and the wine list good, the food is mediocre at best, and the bar program leaves much to be desired. I suggest if you must eat there, you stick with vine, beer, or neat spirits.

O’Hare Airport: It is a sad truth that while traveling, we must spend a good deal of unpleasant time in airports. For the drinking public, however, it is getting better. While Patron has become de regour at most bars, I saw many airport bars making a concerted effort to stock at least one premium offering in each category, including Hendrick’s gin, a variety of sippable rums, good Bourbon and rye and belike.

Vancouver:

The Chef and the Carpenter: We only spent one night in the city, and we went to this wonderful French restaurant after the old school. The Caesar salad is still made fresh, tableside, and with a real egg yolk. Quite possibly the best Caesar I’ve ever had. The rest of the food was equally good. Their cocktail program was outstanding. The maitre d’hotel was a competent barkeep, and while they did not have a bar menu, he could mix up all the classics with a practiced shake or stir from a surprisingly well stocked bar. If you find yourself in Vancouver, I recommend you visit this outstanding Robson street establishment.

Chow: While I was there a year ago, I never mentioned this fine and progressive restaurant serving the fine Pacific Rim fusion cuisine. Another restaurant with an impressive drinks program including fine beer, wine, and, of course, classic cocktails. You certainly can’t go wrong here.

The Cat’s Paw: Another gem from last year, this Granville Island bar has innovative cuisine and reasonable prices, and is, by and large, filled with locals. Another great place to take a load off.

Whistler

The Dubh Linn Gate: This has been our longtime apres hangout. The best beer bar in Whistler, though that doesn’t say much, with a good selection of Scotch whiskies as well, and excelent food, this is as good a spot for dinner as for taking a load off after a hard day on slopes.

Black’s Pub: A reasonably indifferent bar with little to speak for it. While it has good bar staff, an indifferent drinks program and reasonably standard beer menu, as well as non-distinct food doom this to my “eh” list (and not in the way the Canadians say it either).

Milestone’s: A step up from Black’s. A fairly nondescript cocktail menu at least is supplemented by interesting local microbrews and better food. They offer the Wild Horse Winter Ale a refreshing, medium bodied beer with just a hint of winter spice. It is much less spiced than most American winter offerings which is quite a bit more refreshing.

The Cinnamon Bear Bar: Hotel bars tend not to be good, and whether I hit them on an off day, or something else, this is no exception. There are literally no redeeming features to this bar. Avoid it.

Merlin’s, The Girabaldi Lift Company, and Dusty’s: These three mountain-owned bars are surprisingly good. While the beer selection isn’t what it has been in years past, they still stock the Alexander Keith’s Pale Ale, a reasonably standard pale ale after the British style, and their Amber Ale, a heartier, more flavourful brew on tap. This, combined with good food, make this a reasonable place to recover. Dusty’s is supposed to have wonderful barbeque, but I admit to never having tried it. Similarly, both Merlin’s and the GLC have distincive personalities and menus. All have live music and are steps from the slopes.

Ceeta’s Bistro: This bar has a reasonable beer selection, and good, relatively inexpensive sandwitches. We were there for the Canada-Russia game of the World Youth Hockey Championship, which was epic. We also had the Okanagan Spring Pale Ale, a relatively non-descript pale, and the Okanagan 1516, an even less flavourful brew. Unfortunately, Ceeta’s is likely closing soon, so Whistler will loose this quarter century old establishment.

Rim Rock Cafe: This is not somewhere you go for the drinks, not because they do not have a wonderful bar, outstanding wines, and good beers, but merely because the food is so good. One of Canada’s top ten restaurants, if you are in Whistler, and can remotely afford it, you need to try it. One of the best meals of my life.

Hope this list has helped you if you are traveling out there. There are a lot of positives on this list, but I have been to Vancouver and Whistler enough to avoid many of the bad apples, though not all, as the list suggests. Again, I apologize for the lack of pics.

May wind fill your sails,
The Scribe

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The Old Jameson Distillery

Silvio from Refined Vices contacted me the other day about a more in deapth review of my tour of the Old Jameson Distillery. I was happy to oblige. You can now read the review over on his site. It seems Irish whiskey has been getting a lot of play here recently…

Slainte!
The Scribe

The Session: The London Beer & Cider Festival, 2008

Hello all, and welcome to my blog. For those of you who are beer drinkers, and new to my blog, welcome. For those of you who are spirits and cocktail bloggers, and don’t know what The Session is, it’s basically the beer blogging world’s version of MxMo.

This week the topic of The Session is beer festivals. Being freshly legal at home, I haven’t really been to any beer festivals in the States. However, while I was in London, I did go the annual London Beer and Cider Festival. Let me just say what a blast it was. The festival was hosted by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. So-called “real ale” for those who don’t know, is ale that is unpasteurized and served out of the same container in which the secondary fermentation happens. The way this festival worked was there was an entry fee (£2.50 for non-CAMRA members), and you could either borrow a glass, or buy the festival glass for £3. The glass was really quite gorgeous, and it was large enough that there was room for head proud of the imperial pint line. Then there was a cost per beer.

Frankly, I would have much preferred a higher entry fee, like perhaps £10 or £20, and unlimited beer. I felt that charging by the half-pint meant that I was less willing to simply try beers, which I feel should be a large part of the festival, but only tried the beers that had flavor notes I liked and were types of beer I liked. While I tried a ton of different beers, I had a good recollection of two:

Enville Brewery: Old Porter – This was quite a nice mild porter. It had some slight sweet notes, with just a touch of bitter and lots of fruity complexity. I would love to get my hands on this fine porter.

Fox Brewery: Cerberus Norfolk Stout – This seemed like more of a porter to me than a stout, at least in comparison to Irish stouts like Guinness, Murphy’s, and so on. Nevertheless I enjoyed this beer immensely. It had nice chocolate and raison notes with just the barest hint of bitterness. It was also pleasantly light bodied for a stout, which is a nice change from the more traditional meal in a glass

Thanks for coming to my Session. Next week, I should be mostly moved in, and will be back to live posting.
Cheers!
The Scribe

The End of London and the Grenadier

On returning from Dublin, we saw even more sights: The Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrods (where we had an amazing vodka and blood orange juice), the Changing of the Guard, the Cabinet War Rooms and the Winston Churchill Museum (which I really enjoyed), and we also saw Chicago at the Cambridge Theatre.

We also had the opportunity to go to the Grenadier. The Grenadier is a pub by Hyde Park. It’s on an alley, off an alley, off an alley behind the French embassy. We stopped there for lunch on my father’s recommendation. Back when he used to work at Lloyd’s of London, the Grenadier was his favorite lunch spot. In his memory, I ordered the fish and chips. After a bad experience in Dublin, my companions weren’t willing to make the same choice. I also ordered a beer (and yes, there will be a mini-review at the end of this article). I discovered something I really should have learned earlier in the trip: To eat the food of the British Isles, you really need beer. With that said, the Grenadier was a great pub with friendly service.

While at the Grenadier, I enjoyed Fuller’s London Pride Ale. This bitter ale is the flagship beer in Fuller’s lineup. While it is sold in the States as a pasteurized bottled beer, on the other side of the pond it is served as a cask conditioned ale. It makes a gorgeous accompaniment to most standard pub food. To me at least, you need a nice bitter to cut through the oiliness of even the best fish and chips, and London’s Pride did that perfectly. It had a pleasant bitter tartness with just a little sweetness in the middle. While it is advertized as “mahogany” colored, I found my glass much lighter, perhaps a dark pine. Further, while I found this to be an outstanding accompaniment to my fish and chips, I think it is a bit more bitter than what I would ideally like to sip on its own.

An Irish Day in an Irish City

Three quick scenes for you all:

I went to the St. James Gate Brewery and the Guinness Storehouse. Now, personally, I think the tour was a little on the pricey side. You got to see how they make Guinness Draught Stout. The one really cool thing is that during the tour you get to taste Guinness that has not been through the secondary fermentation (“unconditioned”). You can taste the amount of flavor that the conditioning adds to the so-called “mild” beer. Afterwards, we were treated to the Guinness Storehouse annual St. Patrick’s Day festival. This involved all the Guinness you can drink, learning to pour the perfect pint of Guinness yourself (which may be available all the time, I’m not sure), and tasting random dishes like Guinness-bread with salmon, some dish based on Guinness sour cream, and so on. Not too much needs to be said on the brew itself. If you don’t know what Guinness tastes like, you should. It’s quite a heavy beer that reminds me of coffee with a bare hint of sweetness and a fair bit of bitter. An Irishman informed me that the whole “perfect pour” thing promoted by Guinness is a load of tosh (surprise! surprise!), but that there is one surefire way of knowing a good pint: Hold your glass up to the light, and if any regions appear brown or red, or anything other than flat black, you should order something else for your next round.

I also went to the Old Jameson Distillery. The distillery tour was even pricier than the Guinness tour, and shorter. However, I think from a functional point of view, it was a much more informative tour. They show you the process of fermenting the mash, distilling it in pot stills, and aging it. The aging was the most interesting as they displayed barrels that were aging Jameson at one, three, five, ten, and eighteen years. You can see the angel’s share (almost 50% for the eldest cask), and how the color changes, and also how the color is leached from the wood. Then we got to taste. Some members of our tour were given the opportunity to do a tutored comparative tasting of several products of Irish Distillers. The traditional drink of Irishmen (nope, it’s not Guinness) is whiskey. Unlike their neighbors to the east, they spell it with an “e.” This is a surprisingly good whiskey, given its price point. Sipping it neat, on the rocks, or with a little water was a completely inoffensive experience, despite the fact that this dram is a lot younger than anything any single malt Scotch whisky drinker would ever consent to putting in his or her body. As to how it tastes, well, let’s just say it was a nice, complex whiskey, and I may have had a few too many drams for anything more sophisticated than that.

Lastly, we went to the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the city center. There was a fun parade, though I saw far too many American marching bands for my preference (including the Fighting Illini!). Afterwards we went to the Irish Folk Music and Dance festival where we learned Irish dancing. We stopped in a number of bars, including the Palace, the Temple Bar, and Dublin’s oldest pub, the Brazen Head. However, the highlight was a little pub on Thomas Street known as Nash’s. If you have the opportunity, I would definitely stop in there for a bit of honest “craic.” Unlike the other pubs we visited in Dublin, where the only Irishman in the place was the publican, at Nash’s, the only ones in the pub who weren’t locals was us. There was a lot of singing. They’d sing us their songs, and then make us sing them ours. Unfortunately, coming from all over the wold, we didn’t have too many of our own songs to sing them, but it was still good fun.

And on that note, I take my leave. Next up: A review of some cider.
The Scribe

The Other Side of the Pond

Over my school’s spring break, I had the privilege of going to London to see a friend studying there. Since the timing was fortuitous, we also spent a few days in Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. We arrived in London early in the morning, which allowed us to clear customs and so on and get to central London (Kings Cross) by mid morning. The friend we were staying with met us and brought us to her dorm, and we took a mini nap before having lunch at a local sandwich shop. Then we toured the engineering building at University College London (UCL). I was somewhat underwhelmed. I will suggest that the facilities the engineers have at most schools in the States seem a bit nicer. While my friend was in class, my traveling companion and I went to the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square.

Okay. This whole thing isn’t working out too well. We need names. We’ll call the friend I’m staying with Jane, and the girl I traveled with Katie.

Now then, after the National Gallery, we rolled over to the 2008 London Beer & Cider Festival. It’s sponsored by CAMRA: The Campaign for Real Ale. For those of you who don’t know about CAMRA, they are the largest consumer advocacy groups in the UK. They advocate on beer issues. It restores my faith in humanity that the UK the biggest consumer advocacy group advocates in favor of beer. I’ll talk about the festival for my post for next month’s edition of The Session, since that happens to be the topic.

The festival was a blast, but we could only stay for two hours or so before we had to leave for dinner at one of Jane’s friends’ house. It was here that I was introduced to the English style of drinking whisky: in a shot glass neat. Now I am from a family that drinks our whisk(e)y on the rocks…Did I just alienate another reader? I think I just did. Too bad…Anyway, being used to drinking spirits on the rocks in a short tumbler, drinking whisky from a shot glass was an eye opener, literally and figuratively. I believe what we drank was Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old single malt. It’s quite a good dram. I found it quite spicy. In fact the spiciness overcame the alcohol. I wouldn’t say that this was particularly smooth, per say. However, the alcoholic bite was not bad at all. I found the spiciness frankly a bit overpowering, and by far the dominant note in the drink. This is a drink that needs to be paired, I think, with some other element. Perhaps sharp cheddar or a creamy brie would be a nice foil, or, as we drank with dinner, a more complex counterpoint could be chosen. However, the meal we had made this a less than stellar choice. I did appreciate the fact that he gave us something slightly more special than a simple glass of whatever the day-to-day Scotch was, and I think that idea of doing something special for a guest was perhaps more important to our host than an ideal pairing.

The next day, we sight saw around the south bank of the Thames. We saw a protest of the headquarters of Scientology. The protesters were wearing Guy Fawkes masks to conceal their identities. We also hit up the Tate Modern and the old HMS Belfast…Well we planned to hit up Belfast, but for an admission price of £14 (GBP), or around $30 (USD), I, as the one most eager to see her, decided that I had seen many World War II warships and perhaps didn’t need to see this one. We also went to Borough Market. Now Borough Market was perhaps one of the highlights of the trip. I, for one, really like public food markets, and whether it’s Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Granville Island Market in Vancouver, or any of dozens of others, I find them a lot of fun. Borough Market, however, was special, even among its own kind. First off, almost everyone was offering samples, and most of those samples were really good. Second, they had every conceivable sort of edible or drinkable. We sampled everything from cheeses, to hummus, to white truffle oil (and yes, free samples of white truffle oil is…amazing), to venison, to mulled (soft) cider, to beer. And almost all of it was yummy.

The beer, in particular was interesting. I went up to the nice lady offering out beer samples. I asked what she was offering, and she answered me by asking what sort of beer I liked. When I responded that I liked dark beers, in general, her thought process went something like “He’s a Yank. Yank beer is like making love in a canoe: It’s *ehem* close to water. He can’t possibly like beer that’s actually dark. I’ll give him an medium ale, and see if he’s for real.” After offering me said medium ale, and my comment that I generally preferred darker beers, she slowly took me darker into their product line, showing me first a darker ale, then a brown ale, and finally their imperial stout. I don’t remember the brewery, but I will say that the offerings were all quite nice, and I wouldn’t mind trying them again. We also tasted wine nearby, and cider. One of the stalls even offered Harpoon, which was quite surprising to me, since it’s hard to get even State-side outside New England.

That evening we went out for Ethiopian food to a place called Addis. Really, really good food. They also had an Ethiopian beer. It was on their menu simply as “Ethiopian lager” and had Ethiopian script on the outside, so I have no idea what it is. However, we all sipped it, and basically all simultaneously said “Sam Adams.” We then stopped at Tesco for rum and cider. One really weird thing over there is the fact that you’ll be looking at mixers in two litre bottles: Coke, Sprite, Strongbow, Pepsi…Wait! Strongbow? In a two litre bottle? With all the sodas? Yeah. It’s a shock. Though it seems appropriate after drinking a a fair bit of it, since the stuff is basically identical to soda with a shot of vodka. Also, Tesco brand rum? Big mistake, and at approximately $16/bottle, you’d think there would be something better. Gosling’s for example.

Anywho, after pregaming we rolled over to the student union. Can I just say how amazing these buildings are? Notwithstanding that we were there on £1.50 drink night, when everything was £1.50, it’s a great concept. It’s really good that there is a controlled place for students to drink. Further since the drinking age is lower, all the students can drink at controlled bars, as opposed to in the uncontrolled environment of a frat. I won’t get on my drinking age soapbox, but it was a pleasant contrast to what exists in the States. We whiled away the evening singing karaoke. Some of the people were really into it, including one guy who wore full evening dress for a Frank Sinatra number.

Well, that was the first half of my trip, the next two halves will be coming up. However, in the interim, I will be taking a trip next door and around the world. The blog should be set up to post automatically while I’m gone, at least until June 15th. If I’m still gone, well, the blog might take a little break.
Thanks for your patience,
The Scribe