Oh no! It’s New Year’s Eve. What drinks can I serve?!?

With New Year’s Eve coming up quite soon, I’m being asked once again for some last-minute, drinks-related hosting advice. Start with the usual beer, wine and pop (be sure to offer a diversity of options within each category, too – soft drinks both diet and regular; lagers and dark ales; red and white). Then consider fancying things up with the following options — none of which involve splashing out on pricey champagne.

For the sparkling wine: REMEMBER the ALTERNATIVES to CHAMPAGNE

Champagne — by which of course I mean the dry sparkling wine produced by the traditional method in the north of France — is fantastic, but it’s also famously expensive. What to do? Pop the cork on some tasty sparkling wines that don’t cost nearly as much. Continue reading “Oh no! It’s New Year’s Eve. What drinks can I serve?!?”

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Fifteen Basic, Practical Things Most People Don’t Know about Drinks

1• A martini should contain gin, not vodka, and for a garnish you’ll probably find a lemon twist tastes better than an olive.

2• (Meaning yes, James Bond is wrong to ask for his martinis shaken.)

3• Fancy cocktail bars use such big ice cubes because it melts slower, thanks to a smaller surface­-to-­volume ratio. (That being said, there’s certainly evidence that this nugget of scientific wisdom, common among bartenders, is exaggerated.) 

4• Sherry, vermouth, port and madeira are all varieties of wine. When opened, you keep them in the fridge to preserve flavour. (That crusty old vermouth bottle on your bar? It’s stale. Pitch it.)

9780143111269[Cough] You’ll learn all of these things and more in my book, Drinks: A User’s Guide

Continue reading “Fifteen Basic, Practical Things Most People Don’t Know about Drinks”

A couple of reviews for Drinks: A User’s Guide

My book was released on Tuesday, Sept. 20 and it’s been really gratifying seeing people open up those delivery packages and copies (that’s my friend Lara’s copy above …).

A couple of publications have also weighed in, and here are their reviews (with some tl;dr synopses). 🍸

“While other books offer in-depth guidance on wine or beer or cocktails, [Drinks] provides blunt yet witty comprehensive guide to all … highly recommended.”
— Library Journal Continue reading “A couple of reviews for Drinks: A User’s Guide”

Toronto Star interview, with quick martini lesson!

The Toronto Star‘s Katrina Clarke interviewed me for the Sept. 17 paper, and (fellow former National Postie) Rene Johnston shot the photos and a little video of me demonstrating how to make a martini. Thanks to both of them for making it so fun to do, and to The Harbord Room for lending us their beautiful space.

Check it out here! 🍸👍🍸👍🍸👍🍸

Stuff you’ll learn from my book: James Bond is wrong. Here’s why you stir a martini, never shake

Until my upcoming book Drinks: A User’s Guide is officially released on Sept. 20, I’ll be previewing some tips, lessons and other bits of boozy knowhow contained therein. Am I trying to persuade you to preorder? You bet I am. Voilà some links to purchase Drinks through Amazon USA, Amazon UKAmazon Canada; and if you live in Canada and aren’t into the whole Amazon thing, how about McNally Robinson

9780143111269People ask me why I stir a martini as opposed to shaking it, and the answer is simple: clarity. If you shake a cocktail, you end up with little bits of broken ice stuck in it. These cause cloudiness, and more tragically, they will quickly melt and dilute the drink. The person making the martini will have a difficult time taking this into account. The result: A minute or two after being served, the ice melts, and darn it all, your shaken martini is too watery.

Stirring, on the other hand, leads to a cocktail that won’t dilute any further once it’s poured into a glass. And it will remain transparent as a mountain stream every step of the way.

Clarity is the martini’s job. A well-made martini is clean and elegant like a Japanese sword; you might not even mind so much if it were the last thing you saw because it is such a beautiful way to die.

And it’s fitting that a martini ought to be clear as glass because culturally speaking, we use it as an empty vessel. It’s the generic cocktail in Western symbology, a blankness onto which we project countless ideas and aspirations. The martini is above all not just a cocktail, it’s a symbol for what cocktails mean. In the book Martini: Straight Up, the academic Lowell Edmunds enumerated a litany of messages that we’re all crystal clear about even if we never openly express them: The martini is sophisticated. It is optimistic. It is a drink of the past (and somehow always was a drink of the past). It stands for urban life, devil-may-care abandon, glamour. And unless the person holding it is James Bond — who was dead wrong about the whole matter of shaking versus stirring, you’ll note — the martini stands for Americanness.

Many people have a general familiarity with the idea of a martini without knowing what one tastes like. When they take that virgin sip, they discover that the martini is not just one of the best known cocktails, it’s also one of the least forgiving. The standard reaction is a recoil and a grimace. “It’s all booze!” the poor novice exclaims. (And what did you expect?)

But all of this is more useful to the screenwriter or novelist than it is to the drinker. Aren’t we concerned about the practical applications here? What is a martini really for?

Once again the answer is clarity. The martini is not softened by any sweetness — there’s no sweet vermouth, as in a Manhattan. Nor is there sugar, as in an old fashioned. So the first sip hits you like a cold block of ice to the face. Feeling clear yet? Science has yet to furnish us with a more efficient way to signal to your body that you mean to get down to serious business. It doesn’t matter what kind of business — flirting, sex, danger, or maybe actual, literal business — the martini will prepare you. Normally I pooh-pooh the notion that different alcoholic drinks affect the body in different ways, but I don’t know of any other cocktail that actually increases alertness like the martini seems to do.

Well, the first one does, anyway. Dorothy Parker had a terrific ditty about that:

I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host

Before we go further, we have to run over some definitions to make sure everyone’s absolutely clear on what we’re talking about when we discuss the martini.

A martini consists of gin and vermouth, is stirred until ice cold, and may contain orange bitters. Several garnishes are permitted, including an olive, lemon twist or pickled cocktail onion. You can draw an olive if you’re just doodling; I admit it looks better. But try a martini with a lemon twist and one with an olive and see which one actually tastes better. I’m willing to bet most of you end up on Team Lemon.

There is such thing as a vodka martini. But I mean, feh. It’s just cold ethanol in a glass. Tasteless. It’s like a chicken burger compared to the gin martini’s cheeseburger: second-best and everyone knows it.

All of which is to say this formula, my personal formula, is one of many possible “right” ways to make a martini. Use it as a starting point.

Recipe for a wet, correct martini

• 2 oz. quality gin  
• generous 1/2 oz. of fresh dry vermouth, or more, to taste
• 1-2 dashes orange bitters
• lemon and vegetable peeler, to make a twist

Method: Fill a mixing glass around halfway with fresh-smelling ice and add the gin and vermouth. Do one dash of orange bitters for now, try two dashes next time around and take note of whether you prefer one or two. Stir until ice cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon peel. 

Now, what to do for music? John Coltrane. Done.

Illustration, from the book, by Kagan McLeod.

Your tweets about Fort Mac and karma make baby Buddha cry

I’ve been a Buddhist for most of my adult life but I almost never talk about it publicly, and only very rarely around my friends and family. I worry it will make me sound like a sanctimonious granola. I’m running that risk today because apparently people are throwing around the term “karma” to describe what’s been going on in Fort Mac — and brothers and sisters, karma ain’t what you think it is.

I’ve especially been thinking about this National Post column by Jen Gerson which (correctly) takes aim at those who call what’s going on in Fort McMurray “karma.” Alas, she’s also using the term karma without understanding it.

In light of the disaster continuing to unfold in Fort McMurray, we need to have a talk about the word “karma.” … The word is steeped in supernaturalism and superstition. It suggests there is a great universal law of cause and effect; that the energies put out into the world are returned via some invisible etheric channel we can neither measure nor see. This is nonsense. If there is one universal constant, it’s that almost nobody gets what they deserve.

Yes, we do need to have a talk about the word karma. This word does not mean what most people in Canada think it means and you should probably consider not saying it.

First off, it bothers me, too, that people are using the term karma when what they really feel is schadenfreude, and I’ll get to that in a sec. But it also bothers me to see karma, a key concept in my faith, dismissed as mumbo-jumbo “steeped in supernaturalism and superstition.” Gerson is relying on received Western ideas about karma, which badly misapprehend the term.

Karma is a complex concept and a simple one at the same time. I’m not really qualified to explain it (neither is Wikipedia, by the way; its definition will only confuse you). I’m not ordained to teach, and I’m such a bad Buddhist, too — I seldom go to my local Zen centre, I sometimes distract people with jokes when I do, and I’ve been known to dabble with the alcohol from time to time. But what I do understand is that karma isn’t a superstitious concept.

Gerson pooh-poohs the idea of great universal rule of causes and effects. But in our universe cause and effect do go together as a rule, when you think about it.

These aren’t the workings of some mysterious force. The channels through which karma works are ordinary and visible, not etheric and invisible. “Karma” literally just means “action,” and we talk about it because the Buddha observed that our positive (and negative) actions have knock-on effects: If I do good things today, it will enable and encourage others to also do good things, and tomorrow better circumstances might land on my doorstep — and my neighbour’s. That will facilitate us both doing even more good things, and life gets a little easier to deal with. When Buddhist teachers talk about good karma, they focus on dealing responsibly with the circumstances you’re handed. For example, in Buddhism it would considered a smart idea to be generous to Fort McMurray residents, regardless of what you think of the oil sands.

Come to think of it, given the ordinary rules of our universe, it takes superstition and irrational faith to imagine effects without causes (babies born to first-century Judaean virgins, for example), or causes without effects (like expecting to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and somehow miraculously escape the scientific consequences).

Anyway, yes, it’s true that it’s hard to predict which individuals are actually going to catch the effects of the positive or negative actions today or tomorrow. This is where karma gets a little confusing, and where I tread carefully (because again, lousy Buddhist), but: Buddhism as a faith is designed to evolve, and in my experience most contemporary believers don’t hold that karma has much to do with individual people getting what they deserve. Often they do, but often they don’t. We all see bad things happen to good people; Buddhism doesn’t deny it. It’s not that hardly anyone gets what they deserve, it’s that we never know whose desserts we’ll get and when.

The important point about karma is that actions have consequences, and that means we all face a collective responsibility — and a shared incentive — to be good. We’re all in this together, we’re all linked. That’s how our universe works. Nothing cosmically superstitious there.

I might quibble with Gerson’s use of the term karma but I can get behind her main thrust, which is about responsibility (i.e. karma proper): All Canadians are responsible for oil production and its consequences, since we all use oil. As a citizen (and a Buddhist) I think that’s absolutely true.

Especially because the activities of oil patch workers are taken on our collective behalf and to our mutual benefit, I’m begging you not to use the term karma to smugly take pleasure in their current misfortunes. It’s an un-Buddhist, un-karmic way to think. The Buddha would have called these thoughts akusala — “unwholesome.” I call them shitty, and I’ll thank you not to drag my faith into them on social media.

Buddhists don’t believe in simplistic karmic punishment à la internet**, as in something bad happens to someone perceived to be bad, and presto! It’s #karma. The heavens raining fire down on Fort McMurray as payment for CO2 emissions frankly sounds more Old Testament to me than anything in the sutras. Monotheists, it’s your God who does all the smiting.

Tell you what: If you’re really dying to use the word “karma,” I suggest running it through this check first. See if your sentence/tweet/column would still make sense if you used the phrase “collective responsibility” instead. I know, that’s going to break Twitter’s character limit, but try.

For example: “Fort Mac is getting what it deserves. #Karma.” Does that make sense if you do the swap? “Fort Mac is getting what it deserves. #CollectiveResponsibility.” See, your tweet is nonsense now: If responsibility is collective — and again it is, because consequences are shared — then it’s not Fort McMurray that deserves the flames, it’s all of us. Or none of us. Or maybe when flames happen, dealing with it responsibly is more important than assigning blame.

All right now, how about: “We should all donate to Fort Mac residents thru the Red Cross. #Karma.” I’m sure you’d baffle a lot of people if you tweeted that, but it’s sound Buddhism — well, at least according to this terrible Buddhist.

But really, if you want to discuss the contemporary issues of oil sands and climate change, I suggest using the contemporary language of science, which is equipped for the task. If you can get your head around the ancient spiritual philosophies and their difficult terminology, they’re better for answering the simpler question: What’s the responsible way to react to all this?

(**Some very traditional Buddhists may believe that misfortune will befall evildoers, but this is not part of the contemporary experience of Buddhism in developed countries any more than you’d expect a Catholic priest in Canada to give a sermon about the torments of Hell. In 16 years of being a Buddhist no one has ever tried to persuade me that bad things happen to those who deserve it. The subject simply hasn’t come up. Not once. There are more important things to focus on, like who’s writing what in the next temple newsletter.)

Some easy drinks for New Year’s Eve

champagne-cup1

With New Year’s approaching, I’m already getting the annual round of requests over social media asking me to suggest drinks to prepare for friends and family (and foes?) over the holidays.

Here are some suggestions from years past, which still works this year … and will work next year, and the year after …

First, a big thingy of champagne cup (pictured) never fails. People love it; I think what grabs them is the beguiling hint of Grand Marnier and maraschino. Here’s the old Savoy Hotel recipe, lightly tweaked and modernized.

Champagne cup is terrific for cheapskates because you end up producing a lot of liquid for not a lot of money. As a general rule, cups (which are light punches) and cocktails are clever ways to stretch sparkling wine. Fix the hordes in your house a round of champagne cocktails, perhaps? Or how about one of these beauties? I’ve tested and proven all of these on actual human guests and they have no idea I’m just being economical.

About a year ago, meanwhile, I did a segment for The Social about holiday punches; while fun overall, the setup was a massive pain in the ass — you should have seen my kitchen at the end of prepping what seemed like 20 litres of punch to lug to the studio. Please do have a look, and make use of the recipes, so that the hassle was not in vain. Making vintage punch is simpler than you think, I promise. (Just don’t repeat my mistake and make four different ones in one day.)

Finally, the best stupidly easy winter cocktail is the powerful and minty-fresh action of a stinger. Official.

Update: Here’s my latest National Post column, which has more tips for entertaining on the cheap, including making a round of sparkling, tasty seelbach cocktails and jugloads of cheap-but-good Italian wine.

See you in 2016. Now leave me alone!

Spring drinks: Chianti, Bacardi, saison

Hey, look! Three recent National Post columns:

Saison beer is delicious, but you’ll never find out unless you run out and grab some. (Well, at least if you live in Canada, where shortages and empty liquor store shelves are a way of life, à la pre-1989 Poland.)

• Congrats to Vancouver bartender Mike Shum, who won some sort of Bacardi-sponsored contest for this lovely creation, the Chan Chan cocktail. It’s a daiquiri twist that’s really worth making for yourself at home.

Chan Chan BacardiSM

• Finally, get yourself some Chianti and cook up some red-sauce Italian and fuhgeddaboutit.

St. Patrick’s Day for curmudgeons and introverts

st pat social 1

“Spike it, McDowell. Spike it good!” 

As I wrote in the National Post last Saturday, it’s the practice of wise imbibers to avoid going out on St. Paddy’s Day. Crowded pubs, long waits for a pint, green foam hats: Call me a spoilsport, but it’s all pretty stupid and I’d rather just stay home and enjoy Irish stuff in peace.

Some options: On The Social last week, I shared a few Irishy drinks with the ladies; that was a good craic (on second thought, don’t say things are “a good craic” unless you’re actually Irish), and it was nice that I didn’t set Lainey Lui on fire. (I apologized in advance in case of mishap, and she just shrugged and said a burning incident would at least get her a day or two off. That’s how to be a good sport in show business.)

In the Post, I took a little closer focus on the black velvet (Champagne + stout = delicious), and threw in a recipe for a Tipperary cocktail. It’s bit of a rarity and odd, but tasty in a cough syrup sort of way.

Slainte, or whatever it is.

black velvet