Rye Whiskey

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Rye shows up in both Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland. In a weird coincidence, the paragraphs in the two books that mention the stuff both also mention Superman. Here they are.

Gravity’s Rainbow (p. 752):

Superman will swoop boots-first into a deserted clearing, a launcher-erector sighing oil through a slow seal-leak, gum evoked from the trees, bitter manna for this bitterest of passages. The colors of his cape will wilt in the afternoon sun, curls on his head begin to show their first threads of gray. Philip Marlowe will suffer a horrible migraine and reach by reflex for the pint of rye in his suit pocket, and feel homesick for the lacework balconies of the Bradbury Building.

Vineland (p. 134):

“Superman could change back into Clark Kent,” she had once confided to Frenesi, “don’t underestimate it. Workin’ at the Daily Planet was the Man o’ Steel’s Hawaiian vacation, his Saturday night in town, his marijuana and his opium smoke, and oh what I wouldn’t give….” An evening newspaper … anyplace back in the Midwest … she would leave work around press time, make a beeline for some walk-down lounge, near enough to the paper that she could feel vibrations from the presses through the wood of the bar. Drink rye, wipe her glasses on her tie, leave her hat on indoors, gossip in the dim light with the other regulars. In the winter it would already be dark outside the windows. The polished shoes would pick up highlights as the street lamps got brighter … she wouldn’t be waiting for anybody or anything to happen, because she’d only be Clark Kent.

In both cases, the rye is associated with a fictional character (and not one of Pynchon’s own characters). In Vineland, DL imagines herself as Clark Kent drinking rye. In Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s not actually Superman with the rye, but Phillip Marlowe from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, crammed into the same paragraph as Superman and with both characters slipping into uncharacteristic decline.

DSC_5043No one drinks rye in Pynchon, or even imagines themselves doing so. They imagine fictional characters drinking it. Maybe that’s because referring to someone “drinking rye” is more of a cute, quaint expression than something anyone would actually say. In reality, we’d usually just say bourbon or whiskey, even if the liquid in question was actually rye whiskey. The phrases “drinking rye” and “pint of rye” have the sheen of fiction–especially the kind of genre fiction where we’d find Superman or Marlowe. Pynchon isn’t so much playing with these genre tropes as deftly illustrating the way they play in his characters’ minds.

The bottle o’ rye I have before me here is the Sazerac Rye from the ever reliable (ryeliable?) Buffalo Trace. I first tried it during a tasting with a Southern gentleman wise in the ways of American whiskey. It was my favourite of the array he brought over that night, and it remains mighty enjoyable. Peppery banana, caramel and vanilla. I read someone say ginger. Definitely spicy, relatively mild—really entirely too pleasant to leave for the fictional characters.

Old Fashioned

I’ve recently embarked with the Chums of Chance aboard the good ship Inconvenience—and man, (isn’t this supposed to be some kinda kid’s book?) the air in here sure is alcoholic. My Against the Day list is already 50 drinks long, and I’m not even halfway through. Gravity’s Rainbow only has 45 or 46 all up. And now that’s as smooth a segue as you’re getting into this drink, hailing not from Against the Day but from Gravity’s Rainbow. The drink’s smoother than my segue. It’s as much an American classic as the book is. The old fashioned. Pynchon Old Fashioned I’ve not witnessed any Pynchon character actually drinking an old fashioned. Slothrop just eats the cherry from one. Or I presume he ate one at some point, given this catalogue from page 63:

Upstairs in the men’s room at the Roseland Ballroom he swoons kneeling over a toilet bowl, vomiting beer, hamburgers, homefries, chef’s salad with French dressing, half a bottle of Moxie, after-dinner mints, a Clark bar, a pound of salted peanuts, and the cherry from some Radcliffe girl’s old-fashioned.

Slothrop’s mouth harp then heads down the toilet too, and he’s of course obliged to follow right on in down after everything (see: Canadian Ale).

The fact that that Radcliffe girl had a cherry in her old fashioned is actually pretty interesting, mixologically speaking. That’s because the old fashioned has gone through a few very distinct phases in its evolution. It began as arguably the first cocktail, described in 1806 as composed of “spirits, bitters, water, and sugar.” By 1860, the drink was referred to as an old fashioned, and usually made with rye whiskey or bourbon. But after Prohibition, people seemed to have forgotten what a good thing they’d had, and the old fashioned mutated into a sweet abomination full of muddled fruit. That’s when the cherry appears, and that’s likely the sort of old fashioned Slothrop’s Radcliffe girl drinks. (Slate has a great 1936 letter to the New York Times from an old timer complaining about the new old fashioned.) The old-fashioned old fashioned without all the frivolity didn’t really make a big come back until the classic cocktail revival of the early aughts.

I Gravity's Rainbow Old Fashionedguess if I were going to be really faithful to the drink as it appears in GR, I’d mix myself up the fruity version with a cherry. But I’m a big fan of this drink, and I just can’t bring myself to do that to it. Instead, I’m following the sage advice of Old Fashioned 101 and doing it right. I used:

  • 3 teaspoons of simple syrup I made from light muscovado sugar
  • A good dash of Angostura bitters
  • 2 shots of woodford reserve bourbon
  • A twist of orange peel

In that order, no ice. And can I say right now I’ve never mixed myself a better drink. I love these old manly cocktails, but I imagined it’d take bartender skills more serious than mine to make a decent one. But no, the thing was beautiful. It’s all I can do to keep from making it a nightly habit.

Okay and we’re not done yet:Pynchon Moon Dog Old Fashioned

If there’s one field of alcoholism in which Pynchon tends to let me down, it’s good weird beer. Not that there’s nothing at all, but the books are just all set pre- our current glorious era of interesting beer. Very happily though, my favourite brewery, Moon Dog, just made an old fashioned in beer form. Even better: it’s two beers you mix together. One provides the “sweet, orangey, bourbon-y part” (a dark ale with a bit of citrus zest and orange bitters, aged on bourbon soaked oak staves) and the other the “cherry-ish herbally part” (an English IPA brewed with cherries).

Pynchon Moon Dog Beer

It was good. Uncannily like an old fashioned–especially just in the dark ale half for me. SO bourbon-y, with a great citrus-y bitterness. The cherry IPA pulled it a little far towards the fruity style old fashioned, though I guess that was maybe the idea. It was undeniably, as Moon Dog’s motto runs, “Really ridiculously fun beer.” Both beers on their own were excellent too. And hey look, I did kinda sorta get around to having Slothrop’s girl’s cherry (IPA) version!

Gravity's Rainbow Old Fashioned Weird Beer

Suntory Scotch

Hibiki Pynchon VinelandTom Pynchon’s Liquor Cabinet turned one year old on Wednesday. We started out drinking Chivas Regal with Winsome in V. A year later, it’s a very happy birthday sipping Suntory Hibiki 12 year old. Very happy.

My whisky knowledge has progressed not at all in the past year. My tasting notes for this might look something like:

The nose: whisky magic

The palate: delicious whiskyness.

The finish: more of this whisky please.

But even if I don’t feel qualified distinguishing the ripe orange scents from the marmalade overtones, I’m confident telling you that this stuff is great.

It comes to the Liquor Cabinet courtesy of Vineland. After Takeshi gets Vibrating Palmed by DL, he makes “an emergency appointment with one of the staff croakers at Wawazume Life and Non-Life.” The doctor is concerned, and Takeshi tells him about DL. From page 156–57:

He told the doctor about their rendezvous in the Haro no Depaato while he ran Takeshi through an abbreviated physical, grunting darkly at everything he seemed to find. Nothing really showed up, though, till the urine scan. Doc Oruni pulled a bottle of Suntory Scotch out of a small refrigerator, found two paper cups, poured them 90% full, put his feet up on the desk, and dolefully surrendered to mystery. “There’s no cancer, no cystitis, no stones. Proteins, ketones, all that — it’s normal! But something very weird is happening to your bladder!

Suntory Scotch Pynchon VinelandOminous indeed. And jarring now having tasted and loved a Suntory scotch to see it nestled in that paragraph surrounded by urine. Later, Takeshi leaves the doctor’s office reeling under the influence of the Suntory and the other chemicals he’d obtained howling “My own sleaziness — has done me in!”

About that word scotch up above. It seems an odd choice here, because, of course, Suntory’s not Scottish, it’s Japanese. It’s not un-scotch-like though, and Pynchon doesn’t seem to be the only person to have referred to it as Suntory Scotch. Japanese distilling did begin, says Wikipedia, as a “conscious effort to recreate the style of Scottish whisky.” Which I’d say makes it fit in nicely in Vineland—weirdly dovetailing Japanese and Western culture.

Ah and a little postscript: as if the Hibiki was not enough of a celebration, we had a cake too. Happy birthday Tom Pynchon’s Liquor Cabinet!

Pynchon Cake  DSC_1569

Boilermaker

20140613_211934Whiskey and Alement hides its vast whisky stores and careful beer selection behind a curtained door in a dead pocket of the Melbourne CBD. It’s a Pynchonesque place, in its way. Hardly lit, full of insiders to its secret and outsiders to the surrounding world. Stocked with mysteriously titled–or just numbered–bottles (“Sing along with Julie Andrews”, “Glamping in a yurt”) from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, an organisation that I just get an odd whiff of W.A.S.T.E. about. A perfect room for conspiracy hatching. The perfect place for me to emulate V.’s Roony drinking boilermakers.

Except I’m not actually emulating all that well–Roony’s sitting “at the bar of a neighborhood tavern on Second Avenue,” where “in the corner an Irishman and a Hungarian were yelling at each other over the bowling game.” Sounds like a perhaps less conspiratorial drinking establishment than Whisky and Alement. Anyway, he’s drinking boilermakers, to Rachel’s disapproval:

He ordered another boilermaker.

“Roony, you drink too much,” she said. “I worry about you.”

“Nag, nag, nag.” He smiled.

Despite a less naggy partner in bar crawling, I only had one boilermaker. But a great one it was.

20140613_202616 The menu actually had a selection of boilermakers, and the one I chose was titled “Peat & Pine Needles.” The whisky was the Bunnahabhain 8 year old peated. Google informs me that this is an independent bottling by Gordon & Macphail. The beer was Brooklyn Brewery’s East India Pale Ale.

Now, if you’ve read my Chivas Regal post, you know I don’t reallllly know anything about whisky. I can say I enjoyed this one, and thought it tasted plenty interesting, especially on the aftertaste. But did it have underripe bananas on the nose? Melon and apricot flavours? A milk chocolate edge? No idea. It did seem very nicely spicy to me. And then following a sip with a sip of the beer is just so good. My scribbled notes from the bar say something about how it’s like the whisky spiciness settles back into a cool embrace or a comfy couch or something. It’s a really delicious beer too. Unusually smooth for something so hoppy.

I’ll definitely be heading back to Whisky and Alement for more boilermakers. Next time I’ll follow Roony more closely and have a couple.

 

Update: Boilermakers also get a mention in Inherent Vice, where Doc’s maritime lawyer Sauncho sarcastically offers him one to go with his sob story. 

Chivas Regal

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We’re in the second section of Chapter five (in which Stencil goes west with an alligator) of V., and Winsome’s sitting on his “grotesque” espresso machine smoking something referred to as “string.”

 The string was from Bloomingdale’s, fine quality: procured by Charisma several months before on one of his sporadic work binges; he’d been a shipping clerk that time. Winsome made a mental note to see the pusher from Lord and Taylor’s, a frail girl who hoped someday to sell pocketbooks in the accessories department. The stuff was highly valued by string smokers, on the same level as Chivas Regal scotch or black Panamanian marijuana.

String smokers? Assuming Winsome’s not inhaling the fumes from a literal length of parcel string, what’s this actually about? I don’t smoke much of anything myself; maybe it’s common parlance among some in-crowd. Google mainly throws up Pynchon though, along with a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird, where “summer was Dilly by the fishpool smoking string.” The impulse is to link string to hemp rope and conclude he’s smoking pot, but from Bloomingdale’s? Likely not, even if this is 1956. The definitive record of the English language, despite listing umpteen noun definitions for string mentions nothing smoking related. Seems like it’s probably tobacco though, or a type of tobacco. (Edit: A friend of mine suggests that it might refer to ribbon cut tobacco, which I’m told is cut in really long strings. Thanks facebook.)

Anyway, we’re not here for the string, we’re here for the Chivas Regal its smokers value so highly.

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Yes, I had just about finished the whole bottle before I got around to writing this. Perhaps that’s the best review.

The idea here, by the way, is that I’m drinking everything mentioned however peripherally in every Pynchon book and jabbering a bit about what it’s like. So what is Chivas Regal like? I’m tempted to say that a screaming comes across the tongue. That it has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. (And actually, what do I compare a whiskey to? Other whiskey presumably–it has happened before that I’ve drunk the stuff. But only cheap stuff, and mainly quickly and in large quantities. I’m maybe not too well qualified to pass judgement on Chivas Regal.)

But no screaming comes. It’s just beautifully smooth and syrupy. Tastes warm and a bit spicy. A little banana-ey? Smells terrific too. I’m willing to endorse the taste of the string smokers. No comment on the black Panamanian marijuana, but Winsome and co seem to know where it’s at.

The passage of  V. mentioning Chivas Regal is from p.124 of my edition. I drank the standard 12yo on ice. 

Update: Chivas Regal also gets a mention in Vineland, where DL steals “a bottle of PX Chivas Regal for the sensei.” PX, as far as I can tell refers to the military shopping centre she steals it from. That’s page 125.