Brandy and Soda

DSC_7413.jpg

The brandy and soda is a drink that seems to exist today primarily as a P. G. Wodehouse reference. It’s a basic combination that nevertheless occurs to no-one but those imitating Bertie Wooster. Surveying the internet, it appears that mention of the ‘B and S’ without reference to Jeeves and Wooster has been strictly outlawed. They do seem to be rather a Wodehouse special—Penguin describe their anthology of Wodehouse on drinking saying:

His imperishable writing displays a well-turned appreciation for all kinds of booze – cocktails, champagne, port, whiskey and brandy (with soda, of course) …

DSC_7418.jpgBut Wodehouse doesn’t have a monopoly on the combination. Pynchon (whose appreciation for booze I would argue far surpasses “well-turned”) gets in on the rather stuffy B n’ S action in one of his first published stories, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna.,” and then again 47ish years later in Against the Day.

“Mortality and Mercy” is Pynchon’s only published early story not included in Slow Learner. An anecdote (albeit a somewhat secondhand one emerging from a postmodern hall of textual mirrors) recorded here suggests that Pynchon wrote the story in an undergraduate class at Cornell in response to a first sentence provided by the professor. I will decline to summarise the plot and instead only endorse it as being a fun read and provide you with this one relevant sentence:

He would stand, therefore, out in some street, not moving, hanging on to the briefcase and thinking about Rachel who was 4′ 10″ in her stocking feet, whose neck was pale and sleek, a Modigliani neck, whose eyes were not mirror images but both slanted the same way, dark brown almost to fathomlessness, and after awhile he would drift up to the surface again and be annoyed with himself for worrying about these things when the data inside the briefcase should have been at the office fifteen minutes ago; and realize, reluctantly, that the racing against time, the awareness of being a cog, the elan — almost roguery of the playboy element in the Commission which went well with his British staff officer appearance — even the intradepartmental scheming and counterscheming which went on in jazz cellars at two in the morning, in pensions over brandy and soda, were, after all, exciting.

That passage almost undermines the above about brandy and soda existing only as upper class British affectation, except that it does still seem to be tied to his “British staff officer appearance,” does feel a part of the Commission’s toffee old-timey culture he fits so well.

In AtD, the brandy and sodas are again hovering in the vicinity of Britishness itself, this time expressed in the persons of who else but Neville and Nigel. They’re at a performance of Waltzing in Whitechapel, a somewhat meta “musical comedy about Jack the Ripper” (p. 679). At intermission, they run into a Colonnel Max Khäutsch, encountered earlier in the book escorting Franz Ferdinand. N&N are mostly drinking cough syrup out of a flask, but Khäutsch is getting into the local spirit “working on a brandy and soda,” (p. 680).

“Working” ain’t wrong—this thing is no fun. It tastes like a visit to grandma’s house. (Not my grandmas, they’re cool grandmas. A hypothetical stereotypical attic-dwelling cobwebbed grandmother.) Dusty, musty, staid, and dull. I may have mixed it too weak, but really very little promise was showing. I can’t say I’m surprised the brandy and soda has been relegated to affected Britishism status.

Mâconnais

dsc_6922“It’s like licking a bloody piece of slate tile” quoth my father post-quaff of this Mâconnais. He seemed to intend this as a compliment.

dsc_6913The Mâconnais is a Southern chunk of the Burgundy wine region, known for producing value-for-money Chardonnay. This bottle (Louis Latour Les Deux Moulins Saint-Véran) did indeed seem reasonably cheap for fancy-sounding Burgundy under a a classy-looking label. Whether it constituted value or not I am ill-equipped to judge.The shop claimed it was “rich and powerful” with “toasty brioche aromas,” as if it were some kind of boulangerie magnate / French mafia boss. I remarked at first that it was one of the blandest wines I’d ever tasted. But I remain something of a philistine regarding  white wine—it may have been just too subtle and elegant for me.

In Against the Day, Yashmeen’s posse of Lorelei, Noellyn, and Faun draw a bottle of Mâconnais while convincing her to dump Cyprian. Page 494:

“But he makes me laugh.”

“Yes they are good for that,” conceded serious Noellyn, “though one does hear, more often than one would care to, this ‘he makes me laugh’ defense. There being laughter, this is, and laughter.”

“And if laughing’s what you fancy…” Lorelei held out one of the bottles of Mâconnais they had brought.

I personally didn’t find anything very humorous about the Mâconnais. It struck me instead as rather serious. But Yashmeen is a woman of unusual tastes I suppose. And perhaps I just didn’t get through enough bottles for the funny side to reveal itself.

dsc_6937

 

Absinthe Frappé

DSC_6761.jpgThis here is the fiftieth drink to join our digital cabinet of liquors! And a mighty fine addition it is too. If I were asked elect an emblematic spirit for each Pynchon book, some choices would be easy. White corn whiskey would represent Mason & Dixon. Lot 49 might be kirsch. And Against the Day would be absinthe.

The denizens of AtD take their absinthe in diverse preparations over the course of the book’s pages—soaked into cigarettes, louched with Champagne, cocktailed with rum and brandy. On this occasion, we find it in a frappé. Reef has wound up gallivanting around with Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and her crew under the assumed identify of Thrapston Cheesely III, but that whole arrangement’s about to go south. Page 368:

They finally parted company in New Orleans after a confused and repetitive headache of a night that began at the establishment of Monsieur Peychaud, where the Sazeracs, though said to’ve been invented there, were not a patch, it seemed to Reef, on those available at Bob Stockton’s bar in Denver, though those Absinthe Frappés were another matter.

dsc_6755Pynchon doesn’t quite get his Sazerac history right here. According to the (admittedly somewhat mythologising) Sazerac Rye website, Monsieur Peychaud was indeed the inventor of the bitters that go in a Sazerac, but this was in the 1830s/40s,  before Reef was born, and Peychaud didn’t have a bar—he was an apothecary serving it for friends after hours in his pharmacy. The Sazerac became established more widely primarily thanks to the Sazerac Coffee House, and that’s likely where Reef gets his sub-par version. Anyway, let’s save the Sazerac for another time. Reef much preferred the frappé, and I’m happy to take his recommendation.

Here be the contents of my Absinthe Frappé, mostly following this recipe:

  • 1.5 shots of Pernod Absinthe
  • 1.5 shots of soda water
  • However much sugar seems necessary
  • A few mint leaves
  • A bunch of ice

All blended up together and garnished with some more mint. They taste summery and sophisticated, bright and refreshing. They look cool. Good tip all round from Reef.

Here’s to the next fifty drinks! Thanks for joining me!

dsc_6747

 

Gewurztraminer

DSC_6702.jpgWe’ve just about hit 50 Empty Bottles here at Tom Pynchon’s Liquor Cabinet, but this post marks our first occasion revisiting a passage to pull out a second drink. November last year, Against the Day led me to some apricot brandy abandoned in a safe-house cupboard. (I remarked at the time that it was a bit rough, and I can now confirm that it has been pretty much abandoned in my cupboard too). That brandy wasn’t the only booze left behind there though. Here’s the passage again (p. 718):

By the unwritten rules of these transitory dwellings, the cupboards yielded a sketchy culinary history of those who had passed through—bottles of Szekszárdi Vörös, Gewürtztraminer and apricot brandy, chocolates, coffee, biscuits, tinned sausages, wine, boxes of dried noodles of various shapes and sizes, a white cloth bag of tarhonya from the previous century.

As I remarked in the apricot brandy post, most of that stuff is pretty (and, in context, suspiciously) Hungarian. Gewurtztraminer, though, is mostly French. It’s mainly associated with the Alsace region near Germany (which explains that name). The Hungarians might not be totally off the hook however: Wikipedia does say some of these grapes grow there too, known locally as Tramini. Complicating that further is Pynchon’s use of the German spelling with the umlaut, which the French omit… Anyway, I’ve gone with an Alsace version. DSC_6677.jpg

Gewurtztraminer is supposedly characterised by a “flamboyant bouquet of lychees” and maybe I’m just suggestive but I’m finding that a pretty convincing description not just of the aroma, but also the taste and even the mouthfeel. It’s reasonably sweet, and that residual sugar, combined with a lack of acidity, gives it a distinctively lychee-esque full fleshy texture. This particular one was Dopff au Moulin 2013.

Were I abandoning a safe-house, I might try not to leave this drop behind. It’s not particularly fancy, but pleasant and interesting enough that one shouldn’t have to search too hard for an occasion to polish it off. Plus internet wine people advise that Gewurtztraminer is suitable for ageing “only a very few years” if at all, so you couldn’t expect to go back and find it later in much of a condition…

Home-brewed Beer

DSC_6652.jpg
Pynchon fans can get a bit of a bad wrap—all pretentious weirdo dudes with neck-beards. Homebrewers have something of a similar reputation. In both cases of course, reality is far more capacious than the stereotypes. But you might expect some overlap between the two communities. Any other homebrewing Pynchonites out there?

DSC_6501Pynchon’s characters lean towards the grape when it comes to DIY-fermentation. Homemade wine of various kinds shows up in V., Lot 49, Slow Learner, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. But a little beer does get made too.

When Against the Day‘s Frank Traverse arrives in the hellish Telluride (in the chapter beginning around page 281), well-connected general store proprietor Ellmore Disco takes him lunching at the very popular Lupita’s, a Mexican place where “the menudo can’t be beat” and the homebrew probably ain’t bad either. Page 287:

Clerks and cashiers, birds of the night but newly risen, stockmen down from the valley, Mexican laborers streaked with brickdust, skinners waiting for the train sat alongside Negro newsboys and wives in their best hats, all indiscriminately filling the benches, grabbing and gobbling like miners in a mess hall, or standing waiting either for a seat or for one of the kids working in the kitchen to fill their lunch pails or paper sacks with chicken tortas, venison tamales, Lupita’s widely known brain tacos, bottles of home-brewed beer, sixty-degree wedges of peach pie, so forth, to take along with them.

Add Lupita’s to my list of Top Ten Pynchonian Bars & Restaurants to Visit Before You Die.DSC_6614 (1).jpg

Lupita isn’t the only brewing Against the Dayer either. On page 308, we learn that the tommyknockers also produce some DIY suds. I confess I had no recollection of who or what the tommyknockers were, AtD being swarmed with more forms of life and humanity than I can hold between my ears, but the internet reminds me (here and here) that they are the “little people of the mines,” the “underground spirits who guard the earth’s ores.” Of course. They’re hanging out down a Little Hellkite mineshaft—Page 308:

Not only had the tommyknockers found this sector of the Little Hellkite congenial—in the years since its abandonment they had converted it into a regular damn full-scale Tommyknockers Social Hall. … Those duendes were playing poker and pool here, drinking red whiskey and home-brewed beer, eating food stolen out of miners’ lunch pails as well as the pantries of the unmarrieds’ eating hall, getting into fights, telling tasteless jokes, just as you might find in any recreational club aboveground, any night of the week.

DSC_6587The only other homebrew in Pynchon’s books is way back in V., where a Willem van Wijk “waved a bottle of homemade beer” at Kurt Mondaugen, future Gravity’s Rainbow cast-member. Van Wijk has the right idea—in my experience, homebrew is often better for gesticulating with than drinking. For about the last year, Drunk Pynchonette and I have been fumbling out way towards brewing something halfway palatable. Results have been mixed. We’ve attempted four IPAs, three stouts, a brown ale, and a pale ale, with recipes derived variously from Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, Brew Better Beer, and Brewdog. The best, reassuringly, have been our most recent: two single-hop Ella IPAs. Before those, everything tasted mostly like pond sludge. But drinkable or not, the whole process is a lot of fun.

It’s also excellent preparation for an eventual batch of banana mead, perhaps the true grail (or Slothrop rocket) lurking in the background of this whole endeavour…

DSC_3066.jpg

DSC_4298.jpg

IMG_20160313_105754.jpg

Cactus Beer

DSC_5507Around page 82 of Against the Day, we learn a little backstory on Viekko, Webb Traverse’s potato-spirit bootlegging buddy. He and some comrades at one point had been rounded up for miners union activities and dumped in the southern San Juans deep in the middle of the night. They half expect to be executed, but are just left to walk bootless, warned to stay out of Colorado. Page 83:

It turned out they were near an Apache reservation, and the Indians were kind enough to take Veikko and a few others in for a while, not to mention share a bottomless supply of cactus beer. They thought it was funny that white men should act quite so disagreeably toward other whites, treating them indeed almost as if they were Indians, some of them already believing that Colorado, because of its shape, had actually been created as a reservation for whites.

The narrator goes on to mention that Webb has never seen patriotic Veikko raise a glass “that wasn’t dedicated to the fall of the Russian Tsar and his evil viceroy General Bobrikoff.” I’m much enjoying the image of him raising such a toast over a mug of cactus beer on the reservation, tumbleweeds passing.

DSC_5551 (2).jpgMy cactus beer is Otra Vez, a new addition to Sierra Nevada’s core range. It’s a gose with grapefruit and prickly pear cactus fruits. They seem to intend it as a hot-weather smasher, except with character. Gose’s have a bit of salt in the brew, so it’s practically exercise electrolite drink.

It’s a nice pale straw colour. Smells intriguing–sweet and grapefruity with some chewy vegetal thing that I’m telling myself is the cactus. The taste is slightly tart, lots of fruit juice, zero bitterness. Complex though. It tastes like some strange fruit you’re trying for the first time on holidays in a tropical country, proffered by a laughing stranger. I guess perhaps like a prickly pear fruit.

Gose is a traditional German style, so this very likely bears no resemblance to the brew Veikko shares with the Apache tribe. Actually, I think they’re drinking pulque, a beer fermented from the sap of the agave cactus. Pulque comes up several more times in AtD, and you can still get it in Mexico today. In a book with the tremendously AtD-relevant title of Alcohol and Opium in the Old West, the author describes how the Apache and Zuni tribes created the stuff and also introduced it to the Aztecs. So that’s almost certainly the cactus beer they’re getting stuck into. But I shall return to pulque in a future post! For now, this makes a very appropriate fusion of German tradition and the American frontier.

Dão wine

DSC_5165 (1)

Fleetwood Vibe, most mysterious son of that sinister household, recalls on page 168 his travels in Mozambique—then a colony of Portugal:

Debarking at Lourenço Marques, he spent a week in various local cantinhas, gathering information, as he liked to think of it. This required a tidy lakeful of Portuguese colonial-market wine, the rotgut rejectamenta of Bucelas and Dão, among puzzled looks from the locals who by tradition were its devotees. 

The only information he really seems to be gathering is on the limits of his own intoxicatibility. Somehow though, the lakeful of wine does lend him the inspiration to head to Johannesburg and make himself a fortune. Later, fortune made, he returns to Portuguese Mozambique, “turning up one day back at the old local saloon, standing rounds till closing time,” (p. 169).

DSC_5170.jpgProbably not the most expensive rounds to stand, given that the house specialty is “rotgut rejectamenta.”

The particular regions credited with producing the rotgut, Bucelas and Dão, are DOC-protected regions in Portugal. Dão, Wikipedia states, is one of the longest-established wine regions in the country. Being rejectamenta, I guess we shouldn’t expect Fleetwood’s rotgut Dão to reflect the finer possibilities of the terroir.

I wouldn’t classify the bottle of Dão wine in front of me quite as rotgut (how will I ever convince a wine store to sponsor this blog using language like that?). It was pretty cheap though. The shop had a pricier Dão that I faithfully eschewed. Rather than particularly corrosive, this just tastes a bit thin and bland. Enjoyable enough with food, but not very exciting. Insubstantial—almost like ghostly Fleetwood himself, detectable “only in the way some can detect ghosts…”