The wagon

22 04 2011

I have quite a few teetotal friends. Granted, they’re not exactly in the majority amongst the circles I drift in and out of, but they’re there. Some have abstained upon doctor’s orders, some wish to disassociate themselves from a family history of alcohol abuse, some choose to live a straightedge lifestyle, others have set some strict health and fitness goals for themselves. All perfectly legitimate and respectable reasons.

"Moe, I've come here to make amends for my disgraceful behavior over the last twenty years... I broke barstools, befouled your broom closet, and made sweet love to your pool table, which I then befouled."

None of these friends harangue me over my regular raising of the wrist, nor do I bother with convincing them to hit the sauce. In his enthralling and entertaining memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens writes: “Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.” I know all this to be true (especially the first part…) although I certainly don’t attempt to stuff a booze-laden funnel past the oesophagus of my abstinent friends when they’re lackadaisically slumped in the corner of a humdrum nightclub complaining of boredom. The short of it is, nobody likes being preached to.

So, imagine how thrilled I was to open a Sunday newspaper the other week and come across an article spanning a broadsheet page-and-a-third about how a formerly habitually-shitfaced journo has seen the light, and now desires to share the wonders of “the illuminating glow of sobriety” with any sod (or sot, perhaps) willing to surrender their eyeballs for a few moments. The article can be read online: High Sobriety by Jill Stark. The Sunday Age isn’t the first outlet I’d typically turn to for thought-provoking social commentary, but even by their standards this is contemptible, obnoxious, sanctimonious tripe. Here are some samples of the absurdity being peddled to us:

I’d been a regular drinker since my teens and struggled to imagine how life could be anything short of dull and two-dimensional without it. Didn’t the best nights out usually happen after a skinful?

But I was about to turn 35. I had a grown-up job, a ridiculous mortgage and knees that now made a cracking noise every time I stood up. I could no longer afford to drink like I was a teenager.

That rush you get when a favourite singer hits a note that wraps round your heart and leaves you breathless is just as real when you’re drinking water.

But there was a bigger epiphany to come. That night I busted my long-held belief that alcohol is an essential element in any romantic connection.

Alcohol gives us a convenient safety net should the recipient of our truth-telling not react in the way we might like.

What’s harder, is finding a more constructive way to express your emotions.

Removing alcohol leaves you with no excuses.

One out of two ain't bad. I'd say it's just about right, really.

I was going to provide a little commentary for each of these extracted sentences, but I’ll allow you to draw your own conclusions.

As I see it, the article is a portrait of someone lacking in self-control, someone unable to take responsibility for their own actions, and someone who appears to be barely able to acknowledge, if not completely unable to find, the middle ground. The comments section is equally depressing, full of people who seem to have known only total sobriety and full-throttle dipsomania and nothing in between.

I drink most nights. I’m not drunk most nights. A whisky, or a beer, or a glass of wine of liqueur. To the best of my recollection, not since 2006 have I rocked up to work with a hangover. Some people appear to be astonished by the notion that alcohol can be consumed for its taste. As far as I’m aware, alcohol – or rather, alcohol as a product of fermentation and the subsequent potation in which it is present – is the only recreational drug that can still be enjoyed without its effects being necessarily felt. (A similar case could be made for tobacco in the form of cigars, but that’s a somewhat grey area).

On some weekends I’m no stranger to imbibing more liberal amounts; I’ve found that it can make an otherwise insufferable venue or crowd verge on tolerable, and often turn a decent night into a livelier one. I’m not some dewy-eyed cry-on-a-stranger’s-shoulder pisshead. I know my limits, I know when I’m exceeding them, and I’m rather proud of my capacity to stay vertical even whilst thoroughly slaughtered. Yet unlike the author above, never do I use the drink as a catalyst for barfing out a rainbow of emotions or effectuating romantic situations, nor do I use it as any excuse for acts of gross stupidity committed whilst under its influence (hey, it’s all me, baby). Alcohol may be a reason, but it’s never a justification.

The quintessential Japanese salaryman after a night out with the colleagues. Absolutely textbook example here.

When the author writes, “Moderation has always been a harder proposition than abstinence“, is this really true? Are people honestly incapable of driving out to a gig or a club, drinking one beer – or two, if they stick around long enough to space them out – and then sticking to non-alcoholic drinks for the rest of the night? (Bundaberg Ginger Beer is fucking delicious, by the way. Highly recommended as a substitute if you’re planning to get back home without wrapping your car around a pole). I don’t feel that I’m at all qualified to comment definitively on Australia’s drinking culture, but the article and the ensuing comments seem to be indicative of a substantial problem in this country. Er, one of many.

Perhaps the observation on moderation versus abstinence is true. Season 9 of South Park featured a savagely brilliant yet controversial episode entitled Bloody Mary, dealing with Randy Marsh’s worsening alcoholism. The final scene is a conversation between Randy and his son, Stan, in which the following exchange takes place (which can also be watched online here):

Stan: “Dad, you like to drink. So have a drink once in a while. Have two. If you devote your whole life to completely avoiding something you like, then that thing still controls your life and, ‘n you’ve never learned any discipline at all.

Randy: “But, maybe… I’m just the kind of person who needs to have it all or nothing.

Stan: “Naw. All or nothing is easy. But learning to drink a little bit, responsibly, that’sa disciprine. Disciprine… come from within.

Australia... what we need is a little disciprine.

I’m actually tempted to give up the grog for perhaps a fortnight or a month to see how I go – at least for some blog fodder, if for no other reason. But given the fact that I actually can moderate my intake of alcohol, along with the reasonably substantial amount of single malt whisky in my cupboard, I can’t ever picture myself in Jill Stark’s corner. Much like the classic Winston Churchill quote, “Always remember that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.

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Beer porn

10 04 2011

The beer orgy continues! A diversity of the ol’ barley pop has been swilled over the past few weeks here at Nondakure HQ. In a slight change of tack, this post will be more visual than textual. In other words, I’m just being plain lazy and can’t be bothered constructing a proper piece of writing.

Tosser's Real Dry. This is the first time in 12 years I've seen beer in a plastic bottle. Says a lot about the venue in which it's served... then again, it provides inebriated bogans with an opportunity to belt each other with their drinking vessels without actually causing serious harm. And don't even get me started on the jokes about the name of the beer.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

-Abraham Lincoln

Brew Dog Paradox. Now here's an interesting one... it's not exactly a secret that I enjoy whisky, so the thought of a beer matured in whisky casks - in this case, The Arran Malt - is a lip-smacking proposition. The only problem is that I've never actually tried Arran, so I'm not exactly sure what points of reference I'm looking for here (er, other than whisky) but it was delicious nonetheless. Chapel Street Cellars and Slow Beer here in Melbourne have a variety of other beers aged in whisky casks (including a number of peated whisky casks), although unfortunately the vast majority are beyond the sort of price I'm willing to pay for a beverage that, once opened, you have to drink in its entirety.

“A fine beer may be judged with only one sip, but it’s better to be thoroughly sure.”

-Czech proverb

Here is a comment left by user "Eddie murphy" on thebackpacker.net website concerning Phoenix Beer from Mauritus: "I had phoenix beer when i was in mauritius it was wicked. I got really drunk and i didnt care im telling you guys once you drink phoenix you wont drink another beer. I also like cool aid ma mama makes that for me all the time. i like to smoke weed and drink phoenix beer. Smoke de sensimiila an drink de phoenix beer!! i like to sing micheal jacksons song oh tito stop teasing, im telling mom. i also like cock." I'm actually going to Mauritius in July, so expect further commentary on this beer (and in all likelihood, the local rums) a few months down the track.

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.”

-Frank Zappa

L-R: HaandBryggeriet 'Norwegian Wood', Hitachino Nest Japanese Classic Ale, 3 Ravens Dark, 8 Wired 'The Big Smoke' Smoked Porter. All picked up from Slow Beer in Hawthorn. The Norwegian Wood was impressive (apparently it's a recreation of traditional Norse beer), quite a distinct spicy and smokey finish to it, and the first beer I've tried featuring juniper twigs and berries in the ingredients. Greatly enjoyed the Hitachino brew as well, the cedar barrels definitely impart a unique flavour. Definitely keen to try more from that brewery, might even be worth a side-trip next time I'm in Japan. 3 Ravens Dark has been the highlight of the last two Fed Square Microbrewery Showcase events I've been to (see my last post), and 'The Big Smoke' was a decent but balanced wallop of smoke, roasted coffee and dark chocolate. Good stuff.

“Milk is for babies. When you grow up you have to drink beer.”

-Arnold Schwarzenegger

Okay, so not booze, but I put in an order for some of Blair's sauces. Deadly stuff, and an absolute must for chilli freaks. On the Scoville scale, regular Tabasco rates about 2,500 to 5,000. Mega Death Sauce is around 500,000, Ultra Death is about 800,000. And I've learned to not inhale whilst taking in a mouthful of anything coated in Death Rain habanero powder.

“He was a wise man who invented beer.”

-Plato

Tusker. Significant mainly for the fact that it’s the first beer from mainland Africa (Kenya, to be precise) that I’ve tried. Not sure if the cheeky rogues who designed the logo intended to draw a comical elephant in blackface… well, at least that’s what I see, probably says more about me than the people from Tusker. Anyway, apparently the logo is a reference to the founder of Kenya Breweries Ltd who was killed by an elephant whilst on a hunt. Here’s to that elephant.

“Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”

-Henry Lawson

Mountain Goat Surefoot Stout. And you'd better believe it's stouter and as bitter as a North Korean despot. Okay, perhaps not reaching Arrogant Bastard Ale standards (I mean the beer, not the tyrant), but it's got some heft to it. The financial controller at my current place of employment also happens to be in a similar position at Mountain Goat... I really ought to ask if they need an extra pair of hands, so I can stand around looking lost and confused in a completely new place of employment.





A tribute to Bar:Colon

16 02 2011

(Head straight to the bottom of the post if you’re after Bar:Colon’s location/contact/website/etc.)

Those of us inclined to crapulence often fantasise about the perfect bar. At least I imagine others do; I certainly spent enough time doing so. And I say “spent” because I believe I’ve already encountered my perfect bar, or something very much resembling it.

From April 2009, for a period of about 10 months, I lived in the southern Japanese city of Kumamoto as an exchange student in my third year of university. At the commencement of Golden Week I’d emerged from the starting blocks a little too fervently, ending up a fraction worse for wear than I had expected, not to mention giving myself a subconjunctival hemorrhage in the process (click the link for some terrifying pictures of eyeballs). This was unfortunate, as an old accomplice of innumerable sozzled evenings and other disorderly mayhem from my earlier days in Tokushima was coming to visit. On his second night in Kumamoto I declined his invitation to trawl the downtown area for watering holes, however, later in the evening I received a message on my phone. It was a picture of a bar signboard saying “Bar:Colon”, accompanied by my friend’s comment of “nuff said”.

Not a chance we were going to let that slide. This presented us with an opportunity to carry on in the most puerile manner about entering the colon, wondering how many people could fit in the colon, discussing whether the colon had a brown interior, and a miscellany of other comments testifying to our sophisticated and erudite characters – all whilst blundering around town trying to rediscover the location of Bar:Colon the following night.

Diving into any given bar in Japan can be a bit of a gamble. You could be slugged with a seating charge, a charge for the snacks you thought were complimentary, a charge for the hostess who you thought was just a tap jockey, or end up generally paying an exorbitant (or extortionate) amount for what seemed like a couple of beers. Of course, you could ask if there are any such charges, but let’s face it, no one wants to look like a miserly skinflint. Then there’s also that unspoken belief that states, “If you have to be asking these sorts of things then you probably shouldn’t be here”.

All these trepidations were dashed by the time we’d parked our arses at the Bar:Colon counter, filled to nearly-overflowing with hundreds of liquor bottles (predominantly whisky) that didn’t fit on the shelves. The bartender handed us each a rolled-up oshibori, a moistened towelette. Something felt very comfortable about the venue; very intimate and clearly dedicated to the art of drink, but also relaxed, and not at all stuffy like a number of other bars where you’re petrified of ordering the wrong tipple, laughing too loud or leaving a fingerprint on the finely-polished counter.

I’m actually at a loss to remember my first drink order at Bar:Colon beyond the fact that it was a whisky, although it may have been a Yoichi single malt. The man administering the amber manna introduced himself as Takeshi, and asked us how we managed to end up at his establishment this particular evening. My friend answered outright, “The name, Bar:Colon… it’s a little unusual”. Apparently Takeshi was aware of the English meaning of “colon” in the physiological sense, although he was after a name with a slight contemporary flair, hence styled the bar name after the punctuation mark featured in all internet URLs. Regardless, we persisted with our infantile quips until the well had truly run dry.

Takeshi igniting a glass of Pernod absinthe. Absinthe connoisseurs say you shouldn’t light it on fire. Then again, I’ve never been one to listen to self-professed bohemian types who have funny moustaches and revel in wearing ill-fitting rags. Not that I like to stereotype or discriminate, or anything.

A number of customers rolled in and stumbled out over the course of the evening. One particular fellow, with whom I am still in contact to this day, spoke particularly good English and was a regular face until his job took him to greyer pastures in Tokyo. Takeshi eventually let slip of a special Bar:Colon deal whereby you could have all the Johnnie Walker Black Label you could drink for 1000 yen ($12USD) as long as you took it neat with no mixer nor chaser. Had I been even more of a dedicated souse, this could have been financially ruinous for him given my affection for this particular blended Scotch. Only on one occasion do I recall visiting his bar without taking him up on this deal. At present I’m no longer certain as to whether this sublime arrangement with the Striding Man from Kilmarnock is still in place.

My whisky-related Japanese vocabulary was (and still is) disappointingly meager, but we managed to talk at length about our favourite drams. Takeshi showed me some photos of his visit to Scotland. Broaching the topic of glassware, he picked out a Glencairn whisky glass from behind the counter, etched with The Glenrothes logo, and wrapped it up in newspaper for me to take home along with an Ardbeg drink muddler. My friend elaborated on the current crop of sumo talent, expressing his fondness for the 265kg behemoth Yamamotoyama Ryuta. Takeshi rifled through a stack of papers, producing a banzuke for the upcoming sumo tournament featuring Yamamotoyama’s name, and handed it over as a small souvenir. We each also received a Suntory Kakubin bottle keychain, which plays an old whisky jingle when the cap is pressed down. Rarely had I experienced this kind of hospitality and generosity in such a situation.

We eventually sauntered back to our two-wheeled iron steeds. My university dormitory had a socially crippling midnight curfew, which could theoretically be circumvented by “signing out” for the night, although the overnight caretaker never appreciated being awoken by rowdy and thoroughly sauced exchange students at 3:00am. Nevertheless, it was an occurrence that he was all too familiar with, and I was certainly no slouch at playing my part in this recurring ritual.

Another refined and sensible night in at Bar:Colon.

For the remainder of my time in Kumamoto I visited Bar:Colon on a regular basis, and was treated extremely well by Takeshi and everyone else who frequented the venue. If the bar was quiet he’d close down for anywhere from thirty minutes to three hours, and haul me around to numerous other magnificent hideaways where he’d treat me to a drink or a snack. Particularly memorable was one evening when the conversation turned to things that could be steeped in liquor. Takeshi made a phone call, and barely a minute later he was dragging my English roommate and I out the door and into a nearby izakaya, where the owner pulled out a bottle of Suntory Kakubin whisky in which a small viper had been stewing for about four years. We were each poured a shot, accompanied by one of the snake’s organs placed at the bottom of the glass. Thankfully, after spending some time pickling away in alcohol, whatever venom was left behind in the snake had evidently lost its potency.

(Above is one of many videos on YouTube of Takeshi, in this one he’s discussing whisky trivia, such as the differing spellings of “whisky” and “whiskey”.)

Another great outing was to the local Suntory brewery, where The Premium Malts is brewed. Apparently this trip was Suntory’s gesture of appreciation to the Kumamoto Bar Society after they’d collectively purchased and bottled a cask of Hakushu 10 for a special “Kumamoto Bartender’s Choice” release, an event they managed to turn into a full-length documentary film. Foregoing a meeting with a representative of a local elementary school where I was scheduled to present a talk a few weeks later (the talk went down rather splendidly, if I may say so… I just have priorities) I accepted Takeshi’s invitation to accompany the group out to the brewery. A morning tour was accompanied by a remarkably civilised tasting session, followed by obscene amounts of beer with a barbecue lunch.

Such recollections, whilst standing as fondly-remembered testaments to one of the most tremendous guys I’ve ever met, are a mere fraction of the abundance of memories I possess of spending time in Bar:Colon itself; encountering a enthralling array of characters, such as the doctor who invited me to his home for dinner with his family, or the woman who was so utterly blotto she was convinced my name was “Mash”. Then there were those nights of blasting out new wave on the stereo when nobody else was around. Trying Johnnie Walker Black Label from a half-gallon bottle that was older than I am. Getting pied in the face on my birthday (or anyone else’s birthday, for that matter). Cognac tasting sessions, and being sent home with a complimentary bottle. Impromptu flamenco dancing demonstrations. I could drag this out extensively, as you can probably imagine.

Takeshi getting, uh, creamed in the face.

By the time it had come for me to leave Kumamoto, Takeshi was preparing to move Bar:Colon into a slightly roomier locale. I missed the opening night by a week, made all the more agonising by the fact that he was planning to open a 4.5 litre bottle of Ardbeg Mor for the occasion. Anyway, I was sent off with a grand multi-course, multi-booze feast at a nearby izakaya, attended by the Bar:Colon regulars, and then of course, one last round of drinks at the bar where it all began. Without wanting to sound excessively schmaltzy (or too much of a degenerate barfly), this place was my home-away-from-home in Kumamoto, and whilst I was looking forward to returning to Australia, having to say farewell to Takeshi and Bar:Colon was a mournful affair indeed.

Thus, I am ruined for other bars. Shoddy decor, heinous drink prices, impersonal service, abominably offensive and/or intrusive music, stagnant atmosphere, loathsome patrons; I sit there in petulance, quietly reeling off a list of grievances about whatever contemptible dive I’ve chanced upon. (Perhaps I ought to be a touch more discriminating in my choice of drinking establishments, given my indiscriminate willingness to drink any old gut-rot at times…) Melbourne has a profusion of outstanding bars – and I certainly don’t go to them expecting freebies from the owner – but I’m yet to come across one that echoes the intimacy and warmth of Bar:Colon.

I’m aiming to return to Japan sometime in 2012 for a brief visit, as I’ve been invited to participate in the 25th anniversary concert of a Kumamoto taiko drumming group that I joined during my time as an exchange student. I’m hoping there won’t be any early-morning starts, as it’s unlikely I’ll be in any state to deal with loud drums and intense physical activity with a prodigious hangover. No prizes for guessing where I’ll have been the previous night.

Myself with the man himself.

Here’s to Bar:Colon – kanpai! 絶対にまた一緒に飲もう。

Bar:Colon info

Website and contact details – http://www.barcolon.com/

Access map – http://bar-navi.suntory.co.jp/shop/0963566652/coupon_map.html

Bar:Colon blog – http://barcolon.seesaa.net/

Kumamoto Bar Society – http://www.ku-bs.jp/ (also featuring information on Kumamoto Bartender’s Choice Hakushu 10 including videos, plus a list of other great bars in Kumamoto)





Mad woman

8 02 2011

Christina Hendricks“We want [men] to order Scotch. It’s the most impressive drink order. It’s classic. It’s sexy. Such a rich color. The glass, the smell. It’s not watered down with fruit juice. It’s Scotch. And you ordered it.”

– Christina Hendricks

I’ve never actually watched Mad Men, much to the exasperation of a number of my acquaintances, although I think I may now have to give it a go. Not simply for the esteemed globular protuberances belonging to Ms Hendricks – sterling as they may be – but also due to a line I found particularly intriguing in a Cocktail Confidential article, claiming that Mad Men has “almost single-handedly introduced whiskey to the younger generation”. Then again, this article (link here) also uses the word “whiskey” in reference to blended and single malt Scotch… can you really trust a publication that can’t even adhere to standard “whisky”/”whiskey” spelling conventions?

Never mind, that’s just the neurotic in me. Don’t even start me on the line about drinking Oban 14 with ice cubes. Anyway, according to the article, it sounds like Hendricks knows how to throw one hell of a whisky party, especially with a little help from the folks at Johnnie Walker. Mind you, I’d never lay down my own money for a vessel of Blue Label (my preference leans towards Black Label), but I certainly wouldn’t scoff at the idea of being sent home with a complimentary bottle.