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Divers Spirits

The intelligent man is always thirsty. He stretches his gaze ever outward; he is never satisfied with his body of experience, but instead pushes his horizons as far as resources will allow. He raises himself above his peers, always; first he conquers the fruits of his native land, and then he moves on—the heathen Chinee, the savage, noble Swede—all men, and all cultures are grist for the mill that is our man’s throbbing, pregnant brain. He thirsts ever for knowledge, and for booze.

And why not for booze? For booze, that great deadener of the brain cells, loosener of limbs, deepest joy to loins and a sure cure for an over-keen awareness of the paper-thin materiality of this life of ours, is also an aesthetic joy, because it is a boundless and granulated field, and its ranks are populated from every nation that has roamed the earth. The fermented mare’s milk of the Khazakh steppes, the honey wine of the old Norse—we are surrounded by a boundless bounty. It is our duty and our joy to take sip from every booze we may find.

I might say controversially that I have utterly lost, as of right now, any interest in that art, so popular around these parts, mixology. The science of cocktails, the knowing of them, the skill in mixing—-mere distractions to me. I have been surveying the liquors of the world, and what I need from them is to taste them, fully. The shades and varieties of bourbon in this world are of no less enticing variety and richness than your Bordeaux, your fancy cheeses, and to adulterate them with ginger ale or even a couple ice cubes—I will not censure my colleagues for it, but it is not where my interests lie. I will say merely: to me, the richness and craft that one can experience of a distillery’s potential centuries of art and stewardship outweigh by far the mere minutes of effort put in by even the most skilled bartender (and let’s face it, neither you nor I are likely to be that bartender).

To continue: as well as whiskey, I myself have been of late making a survey of the world’s digestifs, and bitters. Let me say this first: as medicines, they are fantastic. I hadn’t expected it, as the pre-Modern approach to medicine has usually yielded some embarrassing results, but these drinks, alcoholic preparations of dozens of different goofy herbs, generally work absolute wonders at settling and soothing a full and troubled stomach. This is miraculous; it is also a little troubling, as the novel utility of these drinks is also a novel enticement to dependency, addiction, and death.

I started with Fernet Branca, a (quoth wikipedia) “bitter, aromatic spirit” from Italy. It got its start in 1845, and I won’t bore you with all the lore. You have, I assume, internet access. I first had it last year, when I was out at a fancy Italian dinner and decided to take the ultimate luxury of an after-dinner drink. I didn’t recognize any of the digestifs, so I chose this one at random. It was utterly beguiling; the taste was composed mostly of things I don’t like. There was a strong peppermint bite on the front, and some licorice background radiation, and licorice and mint are two flavors I despise. And yet. Perhaps it was the ameliorative effect it was working on my strained stomach. Perhaps it was simply the age old Fernet recipe, a hidden, passed-down secret, where all things good and evil are mixed in perfect proportion. All I know is I liked it. And that my girlfriend liked it, as have several other unlikely candidates whom I’ve introduced it to. It’s got that effect on people, those who normally wouldn’t be introduced in a straight liquor, let alone a pitch black concoction whose dominant notes tend to suggest themselves as cough syrup, peppermint and glass. Again, we find ourselves appreciating the balance, the fine proportion that its makers have bestowed. And we appreciate the 42% alcohol content as well.

In Argentina, they drink it mixed with coke. In San Francisco, they shoot it with a ginger chaser. I sip mine, neat.

After that, my next acquisition was a bottle of Unicum. Unicum has several things going for it: it is from Hungary, who have a pretty good cultural record so far, myself being an appreciator of Franz Liszt, paprika, and the Hungarian language; it comes in nearly ominous (but certainly, at least, old world) spherical bottles with big ol’ crosses on them; and accounts of the experiences of others tend to be littered with phrases like, ‘smells like a hospital corridor’, and ‘I really can’t recommend this to anyone’. I am a big fan. Instead of the minty freshness of the Fernet, we are presented with a wrapped mixture of bitter and sweet—but under the bitter there is another bitter, a bizarre sensation that invariably suggests non-food phrases like ‘tar’, or ‘bicycle grease’, or ‘someone’s ass, stuffed inside someone else’s ass’ (I found that last one particularly hurtful). Like the Fernet, it’s not cheap, but I am these days hard pressed to find myself in a situation which is not measurably improved by a leisurely finger or two of the black stuff.

I recently bought myself a bottle of Chartreuse. It’s certainly not a bitter, but I feel like it falls close enough into that category of strange old European spirits. I’ve only had a little so far, and I must say: it tastes very strange. Stranger, anyway, than the above two, to my tongue.

There are others to come, other old mixtures, the result of regional tradition percolating through hundreds or a couple thousand years. Boozes I have had, sure, but to really know a booze, to understand it, and have it understand me, I need at least a bottle. Boozes like Brennivín, the caraway-flavored ‘Black Death’ of Iceland, and the aqvavits of its Scandinavian neighbors. Then there those that I have read about but indeed never seen: the Danish Gammel Dansk; Beerenburg, from the Netherlands. And Strega, Underberg, Benedictine, and the rest, the infinite rest. Clearly, there is much work to be done. And it is glorious work indeed.

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