The one hundred and twenty-three euro bottle of wine

I was prowling around in a wine shop in Paris in October, looking at the pretty liqueur bottles, when I heard the proprietor say, “That’ll be 123 euros.”

I was curious to see what cost 123 euros, so I came around, and saw –

A single bottle of wine.

The buyers were an older couple, probably around my age. I’d heard them a few minutes before, asking the proprietor advice on what to buy.

Evidently the proprietor had conned them into buying this gold-plated bottle of nectar. “So,” he said. “This is for dinner tonight, you said? What time?”

“Around seven,” the husband said, a little nervously. “Maybe seven-thirty.”

“It makes a difference,” the proprietor said huffily. “Are you going to drink the whole bottle tonight? You should. It won’t be good tomorrow, if you open it tonight.”

“No, of course not,” the husband said, and he and his wife both giggled nervously, and glanced at me, as if to say: Isn’t this fun?

“All right,” the proprietor said. “I’ll open it right now. You come back in ten or fifteen minutes, and I’ll recork it. If you serve it at seven – or even seven-fifteen – it’ll be just right. No later than that, mind you. All right?”

“All right,” the couple said meekly.

And they paid their one-hundred-and-twenty-three euro, and they left.

I noticed that the proprietor was in no hurry to decant their wine after they left. He turned and waited on me, and we chatted for a while. (He told me that it was too much trouble, too much micmac, to ship things to the USA, what with the duty fees and the paperwork.)

And, as I left, I glanced back and saw the one hundred and twenty-three euro bottle of wine sitting on the counter, glowing with promise.

I hope it was worth the money. I hope it changed the lives of the people who drank it.

Or at least that it wasn’t as sour as hell.


One of my favorite composers, Erik Satie, was born in Honfleur, a little seaside town in Basse-Normandie. Normans love their seafood, and their apples. From the apples, they make a liqueur called Calvados. Here is some information on Calvados:

In Normandy, locals rely on apple brandy as a digestive. Le trou Normand, or the Norman break, is a fiery shot of Calvados right in the middle of the meal. It hits hard and fast, yet is inexplicably effective as a palate-cleanser and appetite stimulant. It’s yet to be determined whether it has as successful an astringent property on one’s palate as it has on one’s wits – but either way, it works.





We saw bottles of shockingly expensive Calvados everywhere we went in Normandy. Finally I bought a nice bottle in the duty-free shop at De Gaulle Airport, just as we were leaving the country, for a maidenly sixteen euro.

At a recent gathering of Partner’s family, we opened the bottle and shared the experience.

A few loved it. Partner’s sister Pearl took a tiny sip and poured the rest of her shot into my glass. Partner’s three nephews appeared to enjoy it very much.

As did I.

It’s fiery, but smooth.  It’s not the same as grappa (the Italian apple liqueur) at all. Grappa is thick and hot. Calvados is fierce, but sophisticated.

And, if you close your eyes as you drink it, you can see the apple orchards of Normandy.

Look for it in your local liquor store.

Absinthe: the review


As I wrote some months ago, I bought an adorable little bottle of absinthe some months ago. It was called “Le tourment vert,” and it held about three ounces of what I hoped would be the authentic Green Fairy. (I’m a big fan of fin-de-siecle Paris, and wanted to find out more about what exactly Rimbaud and Verlaine and Debussy and Satie and Picabia and Apollinaire were slugging down all that time.) I even bought a box of designer sugar-cubes to prepare for the Big Moment (you’ll understand why after a bit).



But I waited for a special occasion to drink my absinthe.



Well, what’s more special than a hurricane?



The hurricane came and went. It was, apart from a hiccup in our electricity, a big nothing. I mostly napped through it. As evening fell, I remembered my little bottle of Tourment Vert, and decided that this was, in a word, le moment de verite.



I looked up the instructions online: one part absinthe to five parts cold water. No ice in the drink. Absinthe in the glass first; the water is to be dripped slowly into the glass, preferably through a sugar cube held in a special slotted absinthe spoon.



I did not invest in an absinthe spoon. Maybe when Partner and I tie the knot, I’ll put it on the wedding registry. I used a salad fork. I did pay almost seven dollars for those bloody designer sugar cubes, though.



Absinthe is green. When you add water, it becomes cloudy – as we Francophones say, “louche.” This did in fact happen as I dripped the water over the sugar cube / salad fork. Aha! Paris 1919, here I come!



I took a sip. I’d been warned that the stuff was bitter, which was the reason for the sugar. It was not at all bitter, or only slightly so. The sugar was a pleasant addition. But the absinthe itself –



It tasted just like Pernod.






They can’t make this stuff like they used to, full of wormwood-based toxins. So they make a green-colored simulacrum and flavor it with anise, which – of course – turns cloudy when you add water to it.



Well, that was a third of the (tiny) bottle. Time for another experiment: this time I tried flaming the sugar-cube and dropping it into the absinthe. No luck; the absinthe was (supposedly) 100 proof, but it wouldn’t catch fire. I did a sort of creme-brulee thing with the sugar-cube and stirred it into the absinthe, and dripped some water in, and –



Well, what do you know? A nice warm feeling was creeping over me. Not like regular inebriation this time. Sort of a warm universal benevolence. I was getting very French by this time, and my Mallarme was coming back to me: “Une belle ivresse m’engage, o mes divers / amis . . .



Yeah, whatever.



Just a little left in the bottle. Back to Method #1, with the salad fork; I was more skillful at it this time, and the sugar dissolved more quickly. The flavor wasn’t unpleasant.



But now I was getting a headache.



I drink with some regularity, and I know the various phases of inebriation. And normally I do not get a headache after three rather small drinks.



Evidently there’s some thujone in this stuff after all.



Morning after: head throbbing like the sound of car-horns in the streets of Montmartre.



Memo to myself: Forget “Le Tourment vert.” Buy a better brand of absinthe.



Beer hunters


I am not a huge beer-drinker. I like it once in a while; I like it when Partner and I have Mexican food, because I like saying words like “Tecate!” and “Dos Equis!”, and I have convinced myself that Mexican beers are light and crisp and appropriate with Mexican food. I also like it when we have Chinese food, but again, I do enjoy saying “Tsingtao!”, even though the waiter always corrects my pronunciation.



My work friend Apollonia was on a beerquest the other day. “It’s this French beer called Adelscott,” she said. “It’s supposed to be wonderful.”



“Did you dream this?” I said. “Or is this on the level?”



She cuffed me. “It’s real.”



Okay. Once I know a thing exists, I have to seek it out. Apollonia knows this, monster that she is, and she knew I’d go skulking around to find this stuff, if only to find it before she did.



There’s an elite little liquor store squeezed right between my local snotty health club and my local snotty grocery store. So, after my treadmill session recently, I went traipsing into the liquor store to explore the world of beer.



They had everything. They had American microbrews, and European bizarreries like lambic beer (made by putting the beer in a wading pool in the basement of a Belgian monastery and opening the windows to let the yeast spores in) and Weissbier (made with wheat instead of barley). I couldn’t remember what Apollonia had said – Scotteldrott? Adeltrott? – but I figured I’d know it when I saw it.



I didn’t, of course, but I found the most cunning little bottle of something called Christoffel Nobel, brewed in the Netherlands (see photo above).



I bought a bottle, for $4.99 plus tax, and presented it to Apollonia. She was delighted, even though it wasn’t exactly what she was looking for.



We shared it at lunch one day. Interesting. Creamy, dark, bitter. We were having pizza (an incredibly rich pizza, with pepperoni and caramelized onions, from Catanzaro’s in Cranston, Rhode Island), and the Christoffel was perfect with the flavor of the sauce and the cheese and the pepperoni. Sometimes a strong bitter no-nonsense beer is just what you want.



Now – what? Do I have to go back to that liquor store and sample all 700 of the other brands they sell?



I don’t have the time or the patience.



But it would be fun.



And, as Apollonia pointed out after we finished lunch the other day, the bottles make really lovely vases.



Bar people


Partner and I wanted a light dinner one evening on the Cape, so we stopped in at a local bar & grill. It was cheap and cheerful, and very airy, and mostly a local crowd. (You can always spot tourists on Cape Cod: they look – well, they look like us.)


We ate, and we took in the local color:


The young(ish) couple at the bar. He’s sitting on a stool; she’s standing right over him, her face maybe ten inches from his. She’s wearing a little too much makeup. He’s got his knees open, and she’s standing right between them. She’s talking a mile a minute, staring into his eyes, never for a moment looking away . . .


The young(ish) guy at the bar, maybe three or four beers gone, telling a story to the bartender, so excited by his own story that he’s standing up, almost hopping up and down, getting louder and louder . . .


The old guy sitting at the bar, weathered-looking, with a hat and a shaggy mustache. (“He looks like he’s been here continuously for two weeks,” I whispered to Partner. “Are you kidding?” Partner said. “He’s been here continuously for forty years.”)


The gruesome-looking couple emerging from the back room. He’s big and bearded and looks either angry or constipated, and she looks either despondent or completely out of it. I look away for a second, and suddenly she’s alone at the bar, and he’s nowhere . . .


And most memorable of all:


As we were leaving, a woman was getting out of her car. She gives us a nervous grin, turns, and says in the direction of her car: “I’ll be right back.”


I look at her car, and I see a little dog, maybe a papillon, perched in the back seat, its face pressed to the window, watching her go into the bar. “Look!” I say cheerfully to Partner. “How cute!”


Partner looked at me sadly/wryly. “You didn’t see,” he said. “The dog’s not alone. There’s a little girl in there too.”




The dog was foolish enough to watch Mommy go into the bar, hoping that she’d be back soon.


The little girl didn’t bother to look. She knew better.


Happy Wednesday at the Sand Dollar Bar and Grill, everybody!









Drinking poison

I bought the most darling little bottle of poison the other night, and I’m gonna drink it one of these evenings soon.



No, I’m not talking about suicide.  I’m talking about absinthe.



I’ve been reading about it for years; I’m a great fan of the French writers and composers and artists like Satie and Debussy and Mallarme and Verlaine and Manet, and they were all absinthe drinkers. Absinthe is the “fee verte,” the Green Fairy. It is an odd liqueur, full of herbs, including wormwood. Wormwood contains an odd little cannabinoid called thujone. Thujone is a hallucinogenic, and a poison. It is supposed to send you into a dreamy trance that the French called “l’heure verte,” the Green Hour.



That’s for me!



Absinthe was illegal in the USA for a long time. We’re such prudes. It became legal again a few years ago (so long as the thujone levels are very very low), and hipsters have brought it back into fashion. Did I mention there are elaborate absinthe-drinking rituals? Naturally there are. You can use a special slotted spoon to infuse your absinthe with sugar and cold water, drop by drop. You can set your absinthe on fire. You can pour your absinthe over a lump of sugar, then set the sugar on fire, then stir the caramelized sugar into the absinthe . . .



Oh, who cares? It’s a toxin. It makes you drunk and kills your brain cells by the kajillions. But if it makes you write music like Satie and Debussy, or paint like Manet, or write like Mallarme, it’s for me.



The full-sized bottles are atrociously expensive. I bought a little nip-sized bottle down at the local liquor store for $7.95, and it is adorable, very 1890s. The brand is “Le Tourment Vert,” the Green Torture.  



I haven’t tried it yet. I want to buy some sugar cubes first. I need to do this right.



If it kills me, I’ll let you know.






Hey, Bulldog

I used to like gin best, but I progressed to vodka over time. Now, vodka is really nothing but grain alcohol and water; if it’s correctly made, it should be completely flavorless. The idea of “quality” vodka is really pretty silly.  People always swear that Grey Goose is best, or Belvedere, or Stolichnaya, but when the companies run taste tests, people always end up picking Store Brand or Guckenheimer’s.



And still people buy the expensive stuff.



Well, the bottles are prettier, anyway.



But gin is nice too.



A friend sometimes gives me interesting bottles of liquor. He’s given me Plymouth gin, and Magellan; there was a mesquite-flavored gin from Oregon which was pretty interesting.



But this year he gave me something very interesting.



It’s called “Bulldog.” It comes in a dark bottle with a funny collar-shaped ornament on the neck. It’s a botanical gin, but it doesn’t have the perfumy unpleasantness that some botanicals have (a few, like Hendricks, are like drinking cologne).



I noticed that, after drinking a shot of Bulldog, I got very sleepy. And, when I finally went to bed, I slept like the dead.



There had to be something in the gin that produced the effect. What could it be? Chamomile? Valerian? I checked the label again.









Shades of the Wizard of Oz!



Sleepy now.  ‘Night.




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