Spruce Beer

Long time no post! I’ve well and truly finished Against the Day (gaze upon the list and tremble), but this one’s actually from Mason & Dixon. It’s just been sitting in my fridge too long.

Spruce Beer Pynchon

Spruce beer is a not-always-alcoholic beverage brewed with buds or needles from spruce trees. Wikipedia reckons it was first drank by Indigenous groups in North America, who put European sailors onto the stuff. It appears in the 1796 edition of American Cookerywhere it’s made from spruce, hops, and mollasses fermented with the “emptins” or leftover yeasty sediment of a previous brew.

In M&D, it’s a local specialty of the Maryland/Chesapeake area. Reverend Cherrycoke’s travelling to Philadelphia (to act as chaplain for Mason and Dixon’s expedition) in a TARDIS-like coach with a small assortment of strangers. They don’t stay strangers long, and one woman relates the wonderful story of how her husband almost drowned in a hop kiln (p. 358: “they could only see his hand above the cones, releasing their dust and terrible fumes as his struggling broke them”) and found it a transformative spiritual experience. They get into a heated discussion of Maryland property laws, which not everyone appreciates. From page 360:

“Why,” Mrs. Edgewise demands to know, “must this subject rouse quite so much Passion?”

The Purveyor of Delusion confers upon his wife a certain expression or twist of Phiz I daresay as old as Holy Scripture,— a lengthy range of Sentiment, all comprest into a single melancholick swing of the eyes. From some personal stowage he produces another Flask, containing, not the Spruce Beer ubiquitous in these parts, but that favor’d stupefacient of the jump’d-up tradesman, French claret,— and without offering it to anyone else, including his Wife, begins to drink.

Spruce Beer Mason & DixonThe French claret will have to wait for another day; I’ve got Spruce beer. Drunk Pynchonette noticed it in a bottle shop when we weren’t even looking. And in honour of Dixon, this one’s not from Maryland but Scotland. It’s the Alba Scots Pine Ale.

The nose is bready and yeasty with fruity barleywine notes. HEAPS of sediment hanging in suspension. Tastes like a barleywine, alcohol and raisins and berries, with a chewy stickiness and some yeasty notes softening it out. There’s no real bitterness, but it is kind of spicy on the back. I can’t personally say where exactly the spruce sits in that mix. There’s a lot going on. I’m getting some what I want to call sap-like flavours as I get further in, but that could be entirely down to my increasingly drunk imagination. Weird beer. Fascinating beer. Thanks Pynchon.


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


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.


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.