The Entertainers



Tonight Kish and I throw our first party in our new house.  It’ll be a family affair, kicking off a weekend where uncles and cousins and sons and daughters gather to remember my mother.

Even though the guest list in this instance is limited to relatives, entertaining always brings a surge of angst — and particularly so when the event will be the first time your partygoers see your new home.  Obviously, we want it to look nice, so there has been a lot of shifting things around and moving “accent pieces” from here to there.  And because we’re planning to use our backyard as the prime gathering spot, we’re wondering whether Mother Nature will cooperate with some warm dry weather, too.

We want our family members to like our new place.  Having an ample supply of their favorite liquor on hand for tonight’s activities should help to achieve that goal.

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When Churchill And Stalin Hit The Bottle

The BBC has an interesting story about a World War II summit meeting that tells us a bit about how the world has changed, and also, perhaps, about how it hasn’t.

The story took place in 1942, when Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting with Joseph Stalin, the dictator who led the Soviet Union.  The two countries were new allies, brought together by their common foe, Nazi Germany.

The initial meetings between the leaders didn’t exactly go smoothly.  Churchill requested another meeting, which began at 7 p.m.  At 1 a.m. an under-secretary of the British Foreign Office was invited to join the proceedings and found Stalin, Churchill, and Russian Foreign Secretary Molotov sitting around the shredded remains of a suckling pig on a table covered with countless bottles of liquor.  By that time Churchill was just drinking wine and complaining of a headache, and Stalin made the bureaucrat drink a concoction that was “pretty savage.”  The meeting continued until 3 a.m., when the Brits stumbled back to their rooms, packed, and headed to the airport.

The drinking party was unconventional — although not unusual for the Soviets, whose reputation for long, vodka-saturated banquets continued for decades — but it did the trick.  Churchill and Stalin established a personal connection that helped the allies steer their way to victory over the Axis powers.

It’s hard to imagine our modern political leaders having drinking bouts and making bleary-eyed policy decisions at 2 a.m. after guzzling countless shots of booze.  We obviously wouldn’t want them to do so.  But the importance of making a personal connection remains as true today as it was 70 years ago during the dark days of a global war.  Summit meetings still make sense because we want our leaders to be able to take the measure of each other and establish relationships that can stand the stress when times get tough.

Chemistry Behind The Bar

It turns out there was a practical reason to pay attention during your boring high school chemistry class — it might have made you a better bartender.

IMG_3504Scientists are beginning to pay more attention to the chemistry of alcoholic beverages.  They note that mixing cocktails is a very elementary form of chemistry.  The bartender experiments with different combinations of chemical substances, looking to find just the right mixture of taste, appearance, and alcoholic punch.  Every mixologist understands that, of course — but it turns out that the chemistry of booze is even more interesting than that.  Most alcoholic beverages sold in America don’t have labels that identify precisely what goes into the liquor and whether, for example, the ingredients are natural or artificial.  That’s because, in the U.S., alcohol is regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and not the Food and Drug Administration, and the main focus of the labels is the alcoholic content.

There’s some logic to that, I suppose.  If you really like a flavored vodka, for example, will it make a difference to you if the flavor is artificial and the grain that is fermented to create the drink was raised through liberal use of pesticides?  Most people don’t drink to promote their health, they drink because it relaxes them and they have more fun when they’re loosened up.  The precise nature of the substances that get them to where they want to go without barfing onto their shoes really aren’t that crucial.

Anyone who’s worked mixing drinks knows that, to be a really exceptional bartender, you need to be a bit of a psychologist, relationship counselor, priest, character judge, and comedian, among other attributes.  Now we need to add chemist to the list, too.

Another Benefit From Space Exploration

Proponents of space exploration and development have always argued that there will be lots of benefits from being able to do things in zero gravity.  Form perfect spheres.  Create chemical and metallurgical compounds that wouldn’t be possible in Earth’s heavy gravity.  Experiment with positions undreamed of by the authors of the Kama Sutra.

Now there’s another item to add to the list — the Ardbeg distillery, which has been making whiskey for more than 300 years, has sent malt to the International Space Station to see how the malt, and some charred oak, mature and interact in zero gravity conditions.  The hope is that the process might lead to the development of new flavors or other discoveries that benefit the whiskey industry.

I’m all in favor of this use of the International Space Station.  The Station shouldn’t be limited to boring science experiments devised by the junior biology class at Shaker Heights High School.  Why not see if basic consumer products can be improved?

I can’t stand the smell or taste of scotch, no matter how much its afficionados rave about its subtle taste and scent and nuanced aftertones.  If the International Space Station can somehow help to develop a scotch that doesn’t smell and taste like lighter fluid, it will have been worth every penny.

The Dutch Debate “Drug Tourism”

The Netherlands, with its decriminalization of “soft drugs” like marijuana, has long attracted tourists who are interested in sampling illicit substances.  Now Maastricht, a Dutch city on the border with Germany and Belgium, is trying to crack down — in part — on “drug tourism,” and the country as a whole is trying to decide how to address the issue.

The Dutch approach to drugs has led to the development of about 700 “coffee shops” nationwide.  These establishments sell that sought-after combination of coffee and cannabis and are a typical destination for “drug tourists.”  Now Maastricht has decided to ban certain tourists from the “coffee shops.”  German and Belgian tourists can go in and partake of the wares; everyone else, not so much.  Scanners will check passports and ID cards, police will conduct random checks, and anyone not holding a Dutch, Belgian, or German passport will be required to leave.

Proponents of Maastricht’s law say “drug tourism” is a threat to public order.  Opponents of the law say it violates EU policies of equal treatment of citizens of member countries — and also hurts business and the city’s economy.  Why turn away those hard-partying Americans, Brits, and Italians, they reason, if you are going to allow Germans and Belgians to come in, chug a cappuccino, and toke up?

The struggle between trying to regulate social conduct, and the prospect of tourist dollars and tax revenue, has caused many American cities and states to revisit their laws about gambling and liquor sales.  The debate in the Netherlands about drug laws is the same debate in a different context.  In America, the lure of tax revenue and increased tourism usually proves to be irresistible, particularly in bad economic times.  How will the Netherlands come out on that debate?

Scotch On Ice

I enjoy the unusual news stories you see from time to time, like this one:  it turns out that, during explorer Ernest Shackleton’s unsuccessful expedition to reach the South Pole between 1907 and 1909, he buried two crates of scotch whiskey in the ice beneath his headquarters hut.  When the expedition was abandoned, the scotch was left there for 100 years.  It was discovered three years ago, and now they are getting ready to extract the crates from the ice.  The distiller of the scotch is interested in getting a sample to see how it was blended and whether the blend can be recreated.

All of this is very interesting, but what is most interesting is that explorers looking to reach the South Pole, in an expedition where every ounce of material had to be transported over miles of frigid, desolate wasteland, nevertheless took two crates of booze.  That fact is somewhat telling, because the expedition ran out of supplies only 100 miles from the Pole.  If they had taken two more crates of food or other necessaries, rather than the hooch, they might have made history.  In those days, however, an expedition without an ample supply of scotch apparently was unthinkable.