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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Tractor

The song “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” always made me physically ill.  It was easy enough to dismiss it as just hating sell-out schlock country.  But I didn’t hate it in the way that I hated, for example, the Toby Keith song “Who’s Your Daddy?” which was by any objective measure much worse.  I got really anxious and felt something at the pit of my stomach.  I never knew why.  

When I was six I loved tractors.  I loved the woods, I loved trails.  The idea of riding a tractor through wooden trails was as close to heaven as could be reasonably obtained for the white trash six year old me.  When I was seven that all changed.  I didn’t grow out of liking tractors in the way that I grew out of liking GI Joes.  It was taken from me by a very sick man.

My step grandfather was a mean spirited alcoholic.  As far as I know he had no friends, and most of his family had disowned him.  As far as I could ever tell my grandmother just tolerated him, for some unknown reason.  I can’t picture what his face looks like any more, thankfully.  All I can remember is that he wore glasses, a metal stretch band watch, what would now be called a trucker hat, that he had a beer gut and a back brace from an accident at work before I was born.  

He was also a child molester.  

Because my mom was a drug addict and my dad had to constantly move around, as his profession was in the large plant construction field, I ended up living with lots of different family throughout my early life. I’d spend a couple of years with one set of grand parents, then a couple of years with my dad, then a couple years with another set of grandparents, then a few years with my aunt and uncle.  I guess looking back all this made me “at risk” or something.  

I remember the first time it happened, he asked me if I wanted to go on a tractor ride to pick up some hay for the goats.  It was a blue Ford tractor with enormous white back wheels.  It sorta reminded me of Big Foot, a monster truck I was obsessed with as a kid.  My grandparents lived on a small farm, though I have no idea if it ever actually made any money of any sort.  I was too young to really understand any of this, but I believe they mostly lived off a settlement he had gotten from injuring his back at work years before.  

The ride there was uneventful.  He drank an entire six pack of Milwaukee’s Best over the course of the twenty minute tractor ride.  He offered me some sips and I took them.  I wouldn’t say that I had liked him before, though I didn’t necessarily hate him, but at this moment this was the closest I had ever come to liking him.

We stopped at a barn to hook up the trailer that would carry the hay, or something.  He asked me if I knew that women made milk.  I said that I was aware of that, for feeding their kids.  He told me that men made milk too.  

Luckily I remember very few of the actual acts.  But I remember coming home after that.  I felt scared, and I felt dirty.  I jumped in the shower.  He had drank another six pack of beer on the way back and was drunk at this point.  He got angry that I was “using all the damn hot water” and went under the house and turned off all the water.  I stood in the shower freezing, with shampoo burning in my eyes that I couldn’t wash out.  I have no idea how long I stood there like that, but regardless of whether the actual measured passage of time was a few seconds or several hours, it was an eternity.  

At some point it got easier.  I started to think it was normal.  I knew he was sick, but I was a people pleaser by nature and I really didn’t think I had any other options anyway.  It still made me feel sick.  But for the time being eight year old me coped.

This lasted for about two years.  Then my grandmother died.  My grandmother, along with my aunt, were the two most significant figures in my life and losing one of them was absolutely devastating.  I’d cry for hours on end.  I’d never hug her worn soft gowns, never eat her perfect biscuits again.  But at some point I realized that this meant that my dad would be moving back and that I’d never see my step grandfather again.  A wave of relief flooded over me the minute I realized that.  It was in Wal-Mart.  I was holding a Ninja Turtle action figure.  My dad told me I could have it.  I felt enormous guilt for being relieved that my grandmother had died, but I did.  

Things didn’t end there though.  That’s the problem with sexual abuse, the actual act is only the beginning.  As a nine year old I began to wonder if I was gay.  There was a girl in the trailer park I lived in that was pretty and, looking back I’m pretty sure was also sexually abused.  She’d find magazines that her mom and dad left out.  We’d go out into the woods and copy them.  Thankfully they were relatively soft core, as evidenced by the fact that for a while I thought sex was rubbing stomachs together.  We had a lot of oral sex.  I guess I liked it.  I liked her, she was pretty and made me feel good about myself.  But mostly it made me feel not gay.  My dad caught me with her once and it was probably the worst trouble I ever got in.  But I didn’t care, she wanted me physically, which to me having her desire me was more important than any actual physical enjoyment I might have taken out of it.  I was nine.

As seventh grade approached, physical, temporal and emotional distance had grown to the point where when I thought about it at all, I wondered if it had ever really happened.  I remembered hearing about how memories could be implanted, especially false memories of sexual abuse.  For some reason this comforted me.  My dad had to go to work in Indiana, and I moved in with a different set of grandparents in a different city, as my dad didn’t want me moving around all over the country as he changed job sites every 4-5 months.  

Seventh grade was a period of adjustment, all of the kids there had known each other for years; social structures were in place and I was the new kid.  I made friends in my new neighborhood pretty easily, but there weren’t really any girls in my neighborhood my age.  As a seventh grader, not having a sexual relationship with a girl made me doubt my sexuality at times.  The girls in my class, like all seventh graders, were worried about popularity and new guys weren’t popular.  The bizarre part is that I never felt remotely attracted to any guy, but simply not having a sexual relationship with a girl was enough to make me wonder about myself.  

In ninth grade, just as I was starting to become moderately popular, and girls were showing interest in me, we moved again.  My grandparents moved into a much nicer house, in a much nicer neighborhood, in a much nicer school system.  It sucked for me, for the most part I hated all the kids there.  Luckily I lived directly next to the school, and could walk, so nobody knew that my grandparents drove a used minivan.  Everybody else was being dropped off in BMWs.  

Again, doubts about my sexuality crept up, again for no reason other than not having sex.  Towards the end of the year, one of the prettier girls started to, inexplicably, like me out of nowhere.  We both walked a similar route for the first part of the walk home and we ended up walking through the woods together a lot.  There was a large pipe that spanned a creek that could cut your walk time down a lot.  She was scared to cross it, and I’d hold her hand as she crossed it.  On the last day of school in ninth grade she kissed me after we crossed it.  I felt okay again.  I moved out of my grandparents house and in with my aunt and uncle the next week.  

I made friends more easily at my new school, but again tenth grade was mostly a lost year of reestablishing myself in the social structure of the school.  There were girls who thought I was cute, but for a while I was off limits for any of the popular girls, simply because nobody knew who I was.  

As eleventh grade approached, I was more popular and parties and alcohol also entered the picture.  No longer were my sexual longings weird, but now more par for the course.  Almost every person at my high school went to one of two large churches that were literally across the street from each other, competing with each other for dominance over the town.  It was considered a major slap in the face when one church bought land on the other church’s side of the road, the ultimate showboating of victory.  I went to neither of these churches.

In a lot of ways this made me something of an outsider, especially combined with only having went to the school for a year, whereas most of these kids had been together since elementary school and went to church together on sundays.  The preaching of no alcohol and abstinence only made a lot of young kids rebel, and we’d all have parties in the woods, under the power lines.  

And that’s when things started to get really weird.  Because sex for me had always been much more about the girl’s desire for me, a bunch of drunk girls just wanting to secretly rebel against their parents was literally disgusting.  Not in that I was disgusted by them, I cared very deeply for most of them, as they were my friends, but the whole idea made me feel literally sick to my stomach.  And it all came to a head one night under the power lines when an old man in a blue Ford tractor drove up and ran us off his land.  

It wasn’t him, he was dead, but for all the world I felt every ounce of fear, anxiety and a million other as yet unnamed feelings when he drove up to shoo us away.  I had an urge to throw a beer can at him.  The girl I was with saw it and stopped me, thank God, as jail would have been ugly.  I didn’t even know why I felt that way.  I didn’t make the connection until years later.  

I broke down for about a week, and nobody else knew it, I didn’t even know it.  I thought I was just scared because I almost got caught drinking.  I had been caught drinking before and nothing happened at all.  A dead man’s actions nine years prior were controlling large swaths of my life, and at the time I still didn’t know it.  

Sexual abuse is an STD, and it’s incurable.  You never get past it, you only maybe get better at coping with it.  And outbreaks happen.  Just this week I had an outbreak.  I was completely non-functional for two entire days, couldn’t eat or sleep, and betrayed the trust of my best friend.  I was angry when I shouldn’t be, I was ashamed of things I shouldn’t be.  And this will never completely go away.  

Sexual abuse takes things away from you as well.  Who the fuck gives a shit about tractors, but I’m mad as hell that they’ve been taken from me.  I’m mad as hell that barns make me feel anxious.  And I’m enraged that every sexual drought I have makes me doubt my sexuality, no matter how absurd I logically know that is. 

And that’s okay.  It’s not okay that it happens, but it’s okay that I’m broken and will never be completely fixed, because, well, there isn’t any other option, and I’m damn sure not letting him beat me.  I’m going to survive and do my best to help others facing this, and to do everything I can to prevent this from happening to kids in the future.  

But mostly I’m going to try to survive and do right.  I’ll probably never be able to listen to “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” or see a blue Ford tractor, but I guess that’s okay; John Deere tractors are more ubiquitous and John Deere Green is a better song anyway.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Throw In

As Marty's leather Sperrys carefully plodded their way down the hill, they were in perfect rhythm with his internal monologue, which was simply "no. fucking. way."  Left.  Right.  Left.  No.  Fucking.  Way.

Kelly's hair was lighter than he remembered.  It had always been blonde, but Marty's memory told him it had been more of a dirty blonde than the bright blonde on display now.  Her tight curls, however, were the same; they'd caught his eye from nearly a half block away.  She was running roughly in his direction.  Her hair was up in a ponytail just like all the girls in this game, as the warm, late summer Virginia air virtually demanded.  But somehow Kelly's ponytail managed to be different.  It had a life of its own, always gently brushing her face and neck in playful summersaults of tight, blonde ringlet curls.  It might as well have been a neon sign advertising her presence.

As she ran she stopped just short of the in-bounds line and let the ball fly; she seemed to be throwing the ball at him, which was preposterous, as he was a good seventy yards away.  Instead the ball found a streaking striker, who made one move before giving a crossing pass to a teammate who promptly beat the goalie easily.  It was a really good throw in.

Kelly was the same living Coca-Cola ad she had always been.  As she now jumped around with her teammates in celebration, you couldn't help but celebrate with her.  From a half football field away her smile still hit him.

He had photographed her smile a thousand times.  At least that many.  He had put one of those pictures on a stock photography website, and he still made roughly twenty-eight dollars a month from sales of it, mostly from small-time dentists.  It wasn't even a perfect smile, there were straighter teeth, brighter teeth, by negligible margins, but something about the way her lips framed them gave her smile a life that led many local dentists to pay upwards of fifty-eight cents to use it on flyers.

She was lightly sweating, and the big sulfur lights gave her a bit of an ethereal glow as the light bounced off her glistening, slightly flushed face.  He had a large Slurpee cup, it smelled more of Redbull and vodka than the cherry flavoring that was nominally on display on the cup's side.  He didn't have the slightest idea she'd be here.  As far as he knew, she still lived in DC.

Things might have worked, he was a decent guy by his own reckoning, but Hill workers and law students are a pretty unfaithful lot.  Everybody comes into both experiences with significant others, nobody leaves with the same ones.  He'd visited her a half dozen times, and she visited him maybe three times.  And by "maybe," deep down, he really meant "exactly."

In his moderately intoxicated state, it was just dawning on him that if she was playing on these fields, she must be a student at UVA again.  The game was now over and Marty didn't have anything so easily identifiable as a bouncy blonde ringlet ponytail to mark him; functional alcoholism, by its very nature, isn't easily noticeable from seventy yards away.

"Well," he figured, "I guess she'll tell me if she wants to."  It was the first big party of his last year in law school.  "There will be shit ton of first years there tonight, fuck it."

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Some Random Pro Tips For Picking Up The Ladies

Here is my basic strategy, in no coherent order:

1) Buy shots. Probably kamikazes.  (essentially just vodka and sour mix at most bars, upscale joints might throw in some triple sec)  Kamikazes are girly drinks without being girly drinks.  Buying a girl a purple hooter or something ultra girly shows a lack of respect.  The kamikaze is easy to put down, tastes good to most everybody, and says "yo, I think you aight, you ain't nothin' to be laughed at."  Lemon drops work if she is a bit more girly.  If you think you have a real woman on your hand, try a rattle snake (layered vodka, baileys and kahlua)

2) Ask her about herself.  Listen to her.  Girls like to talk about themselves (well, everybody likes to talk about themselves, but this is aimed at a certain type of social interaction, so please excuse the seeming stereotypes, they're more just general strategies, just go with it).

3) dance.  Yeah, you probably don't want to.  yeah, you probably look stupid.  So. Fucking. what.  Girls like to dance, on average.  If you don't some other dude will, who is probably a scumbag.  I have a theory that the reason why scumbags get all the girls and 'nice guys' finish last in many ways stems from the fact that 'nice guys' are too self conscious to fucking dance.  I hate it, believe me.  I'd rather chill the most to some Zep.  But there are worse things in life than having a girl rub against you while  seed 2.0 plays.

4) treat her like a real person.  again, the biggest reason why 'nice guys' have trouble with girls is that they treat them like they're some form of beautiful alien.  She's a person, just the fuck like you, but she has tits.  Yes, they're nice, but they're just fucking fat well proportioned.  She also has a vagina, but don't worry about that just yet.  Treat her like a real person, oddly enough she is.

5) touch her on the arm.  The butt is too much, the breasts, well, do you really want to get together with a girl who is cool with you grabbing her tits within an hour of meeting you?  The hair, I guess its okay. But the arm, gently, but not overly softly, is the best.  it says "hey girl, I like you, but I'm not about to rape you or anything."

6) Look her in the eyes.  Not like the whole time, that's just weird.  But make regular intermittent eye contact at key points in interaction.  If a girl is looking into your eyes, she'll often miss the ways in which you are otherwise ugly.  Most people have attractive enough eyes.

7) Bragging is dumb.  Nobody gives a fuck about whatever bullshit you've accomplished, most likely.  If they did you probably wouldn't be reading this.

8) don't try too hard to make her laugh.  Girls say they like a guy with a sense of humor.  what they really mean is that they laugh at every dumbass thing a guy they like says, regardless of how not funny it is.  Trying too hard to make her laugh gets you painted as a joker/friend.  Be funny in a natural sort of way.

9) if it's the summer, learn how to make a beastly good margarita.  Like this will serve you probably better than everything else above.  Like a margarita better than about any bar could make.  Yes, get real stuff.  Though don't spend too much on really smooth tequila.  Really smooth tequila isn't particularly great in margaritas.  Sauza or Jose Cuervo are good.  Buy really good triple sec.  fresh lemon juice.  some sour mix is okay (but don't over do it).  Shake it in a shaker.  On the rocks (blended frozen bullshit impresses nobody, no matter how much she says she wants it that way, that's just because she hasn't had your margarita).  With kosher salt.  Don't fuck this up.  every girl I've ever dated well out of my league, a margarita I made played into it in some way.

10) tell her she's pretty, but don't go overboard with that shit.  Its a fine line between being a dick and being a meat worshipper.  She's a girl, hopefully she's pretty, but she's still just a girl.  Treat her like that.  She may well be interesting, but if you treat her like some sort of beautiful alien that you're the most fortunate person in the world to have made first contact with her, you'll never find any of that out. Well, maybe like a year down the road as you become her bestie shopping buddy.

Now, take all this information with the knowledge that I'm a single 30 year old dude.  So I can't really say it's been terribly successful.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Creation v. Production and the future of intellectual property

As a photographer, I produce a lot of work.  What I mean by that is that the vast majority of what I do is take pictures that people pay me to take.  I show up at a particular place, at a particular time, and take a picture of something because somebody wants an image of that thing, person or event.  In order to do this properly, I must possess a certain set of skills and certain equipment.  I'm paid because there is only a certain supply of individuals with the time, talent and equipment to do that.  There is both a supply and a demand for these services.  I'm making a product.  It's not particularly different from somebody who produces any other product or service.  Sure, I have to have certain knowledge and skills and equipment, but so does a guitar luthier, for example.  

I don't have to worry about this work being stolen from me, because if I'm not paid, I simply don't take the images.  This is the key to producing a consumable product, you can demand payment because it's made to fulfill a demand, and it can simply be not made.  The laws of supply and demand can easily enough make a price that will either be paid or not.  

On the other hand, I also make some creative art as well.  A lot of it is moody cityscapes, but there are many other types as well.  These images are made simply because I feel a personal need to capture the feeling I felt at the time and place.  To capture something of myself in an image of the world.  The reward is in the capture and the release.  The capturing of that thought, emotion, idea.  The release of it to the world so that I might communicate a little bit of who I am to the larger world in a way that I can't just merely say out loud.  Most people will probably never care for these images.  But when they are appreciated by others, it's a special type of communication.  It's often a communication that can't be had with language and normal discourse.  It's a feeling that I made something of myself that somebody else gives their time and attention to.  When the creative art I make isn't appreciated, it's typically because these feelings aren't interesting, understood or otherwise valued, or perhaps I haven't the skill to adequately communicate through my visual images, or most likely some combination of all of the above.  But the first reward is the capturing and the release.  Sometimes the second reward is in the communication, appreciation and replication by others of something of me in the world.  A third benefit may be in the incidental payment from some other individual to me because of this artI made.  Perhaps they enjoyed it enough to want a higher quality print, maybe they want it signed, maybe they just liked it so much that they just felt I deserved some sort of monetary payment.  Those things are fine, but for real creative art they're incidental.  

Sure, download this image if it says anything to you.

This isn't to say that there is a firm, sharp dichotomy between creative art and productive work.  Many times things are a blend of the two.  When I cover a football game, I'm there for a purpose, to produce images that I believe the people paying me to be there will enjoy.  But I also use my eye, creativity and vision to that end, and I create images that I will like and enjoy creating as well.  But there isn't any secret or confusion about any of that.  

However, I think there can be a problem when creative art and productive work are conflated and/or confused.  If a woman in her mid thirties hires me to create a beauty shot of her, but I think her wrinkles are more interesting, and I take an image that brings her wrinkles to the surface, while she paid me for a standard beauty shot, I've conflated productive work and creative art.  I can argue with her all day long about which image would be better, but I've failed as a producer of work product.  She wanted X, she paid me to do X and I agreed to do X, but I did Y.  I failed.  Her tastes didn't fail.  I did.  

Then there's the idea of selling out.  We often enjoy the creativity of others.  We like to see them take something of themselves that's beautiful or interesting or empathetic and share it with us.  We don't so much consume that type of art as much as we experience it.  We learn something of ourselves and the artist.  It's both an individual and shared experience, when it's done right.  But part of the enjoyment of such art is the unstated agreement that we are experiencing something that's genuine, that they're not simply pandering to our tastes, but that the shared enjoyment and understanding is real and not them pulling our strings and pushing our buttons.  Part of the enjoyment of Pearl Jam's Alive is the belief that Eddie Vedder really felt this way, that those emotions were real, and we're having a shared experience every time we listen to it, that he wasn't simply applying formulaic emotive techniques designed to make us like it.  Part of the enjoyment of Duane Allman's fiery crescendo in the live at the Fillmore East version of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed is the belief that the fiery crescendo was his emotional release.  Not just a mindless replication of scales he practiced that he knew worked, but a musical expression of feeling and emotion.  It's that we like that we believe that they felt that way, and we appreciate it.  It's a connection, enhanced by the feeling that the music creates.  

But why doesn't anybody still really listen to Creed?  Or why won't anybody really listen to Nickelback in 20 years?  Because they made/make a product.  Because they're applying well worn formulas for music that a lot of people enjoy.  I don't really think there is anything wrong with that.  I can enjoy formulaic, pandering music.  You'd be hard pressed to really describe a technical way that the music of Pearl Jam and Creed differs (as Pearl Jam's critics often point out).  However, there is a difference and it's that Pearl Jam mostly (though not entirely) created music they liked and wanted to release, and if people bought it or enjoyed it, that was great (or not so great), if they didn't, they didn't.  Whereas Creed saw what Pearl Jam did, reduced it to a formula for success, and then created a product to be consumed.  The problem is that when you create a product, sometimes people want a different product.  People never tire of sharing genuine feelings and communicating real felt thoughts and emotions through art.  

To be fair, we don't really know that Pearl Jam didn't pander to our tastes and that Creed did.  However, that's missing the point.  The point is that that is how the two are perceived, and when it comes to art, perception is reality.  Creed was perceived as making a consumable product, while Pearl Jam was viewed to be making real art. It's a sticky line between the two.  Ultimately, this is part of the issue whenever you blend consumerist production with artistic creation.  If you're charging for your art you have no real grounds to complain when somebody accuses you of selling out or not being genuine.  Sometimes you get lucky and people view your calculated art as genuine, but more often your genuine art may be viewed as faked, a sell out.  Well, you are selling it, so you have no real way to refute such accusations.  If you're selling art, you give up all grounds to dispute that you're selling out, to whatever detriment such an accusation may be.

Today this issue is also becoming one of practicality as well.  When you charge for creative art today, you risk the 'problem' of it being 'stolen' and disseminated without payment to you or with your consent.  If I post a photo on flickr, and people love it, it can easily enough be downloaded and 'stolen' by just about anybody.  If I'm a musician and I produce a song, and people like it, it will almost certainly be illegally copied and shared.  

What's the solution?  Well, the solution is to deny the problem and quit trying to demand payment for creative art.  Accept that the payment for creative art is that part of you is out there in the world.  This doesn't mean that artists have to starve.  Almost every art can also serve productive purposes as well.  Musicians can perform live shows, where people pay them to produce a musical product for their enjoyment.  Because the performance, in real time and place, is the product, it can't be stolen.  Photographers will always be called upon to take great portraits that look a certain way.  Because you're better at it and have better equipment than most, there will always be some market for it.  Painters will always be called upon to make murals and paintings of certain things for certain purposes.  Because they're products with a demand, for a purpose, they can't be stolen.  Heck, you can even sell convenience and other aspects of the product.  A musician can sell a great vinyl record with a great cover image, with great artwork, and a great story, combined with the music.  A photographer can sell a signed print of some creative art you made, printed with special techniques.  Just realize that the age of selling creative art for the purpose of profit, to the extent that it ever really existed, is probably over.  We will never be able to put the genie back in the bottle of illegal downloading.  As long as images and music are able to be put in the digital world, they'll always be stolen easily, and be nearly impossible to 'punish' the 'theft' thereof.  And in many ways, that realization will enhance art, instead of becoming the ruination that many herald it to be.  If we are to create art, let it be for ourselves, and maybe we hope that others enjoy it, and maybe even want to just give us money, but realize if we want to demand money we should be making a product, and not creating art.  The two are different.  

Despite all the claims that illegal downloads will push musicians not to create, we have more music available to us than ever before today.  The amount of music I can find right now, produced within the last year, is greater than all the music available for easy consumption in the entire decade of the 1980s.  Despite the easy downloading of images on the internet, there are more photographers, producing more outstanding art than ever before.  There are more artists producing more art than ever before, not less.  Real art doesn't need a monetary carrot to be produced.  

If you want to make money you, like all other businesspeople and workers, must figure out how you will produce a product that people will buy.  If you want to create art, you must figure out how to express yourself in a way that satisfies yourself.  People just aren't going to pay for creative art any longer, unless you give them some reason why they might want to.  Then whatever caused that desire to give you money is the product, not the actual art itself.  If you want to sell a product, you need to make sure that it's something people want to buy and can't easily enough obtain without payment.  You can no longer really complain that your art is stolen.  At this point it's simply becoming an irrelevant, incoherent complaint.  The whole thing about creation of art is that once created, you don't really own it any more.  It's not yours to be stolen.  Sure, the physical vinyl record is yours.  The music that's on it isn't.  The platinum print may be yours, the picture and idea behind it isn't.  It belongs just as equally to anybody who has ever seen or heard it.  Whether they have a 'copy' of it is immaterial,  As soon as they heard it or saw it, it just as equally belonged to them.  

Creative art isn't produced and it isn't consumed.  It's created and it's experienced.  Conflating it with a consumed product only leads to problems.  I think we can view the digital revolution as a solution to this problem, not a problem to be solved.  We can get back to making products that people want to consume, and creating art for people to experience.  I think we'll all be better for it.  

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bourbon Review: Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel

Continuing this week's Heaven Hill Series

Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel - 90 Proof; Aged 18 years; Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$48

Preface: A single barrel bourbon, made from a barrel selected from the absolute middle of Heaven Hill's warehouse, this is probably the most affordable 18 year old whiskey of any sort you can buy.  66% of the volume in these barrels is evaporated away by the time this is bottled.  Meaning that for every barrel they mature this long, they only get 1/3 of a barrel's worth of bourbon.  Usually when bourbon is aged this long the oak turns it a bit bitter.  To avoid this, the barrels that were in the most stable temperature area were selected this, so that the bourbon didn't go as deeply into the oak as it would in an area where the temperature swings were more extreme.  Essentially three things happen when bourbon is aged: 1) Alcohol is evaporated off 2) water is evaporated off and 3) the bourbon draws more of the barrel flavors.  The primary flavors that are drawn from the barrel are caramelized sugar, from the charring of the sap; vanilla from a mix of the wood and non caramelized sap; and oaky-ness, from, well, the oak.

The surface of the inside of the barrel is where you get most of your caramel taste, so bourbon doesn't have to deep soak for that as much, even relatively young bourbons quickly pick up a nice caramel flavor.  The layer right past that is where you get the vanilla flavor, you can get this flavor from either large temperature swings or long aging.  Oaky-ness is the deepest layer and usually requires long aging and at least moderate temperature swings.

When whiskey evaporates, the two things that evaporate off are usually alcohol and water.  Especially water.  Thus, as a bourbon ages, it tends to have its flavors intensified.  It will also see a mild increase in its proof, since water evaporates faster than alcohol.  What typically doesn't evaporate are those caramelized sugars.

Putting this all together, what you will typically have from an older bourbon is a more intense bourbon, with more concentrated flavors.  Usually a powerful caramel flavor, with very present hints of vanilla and a very full feel in the mouth.  Unfortunately, if the barrels aren't chosen very carefully, a lot of older bourbon can also turn bitter, from the oak flavors.  While a hint of oak can be quite pleasant, when it is in extreme amounts, it isn't particularly good tasting (though some aficionados have convinced themselves to 'appreciate' extreme oaky-ness, most master distillers view it as a deep flaw of poorly made heavily aged bourbons).

Thus, not only does older bourbon lose a lot of its volume while aging, it also must be very heavily monitored or it can end up being a huge waste of money for the distiller.  The high price of older bourbon is only partially a marketing ploy, it really is very expensive to make, in both time and effort.  Sadly, on top of that, a lot of older bourbon simply isn't very good.  We are about to see if Parker Beam's Elijah Craig 18 Year Old Single Barrel can hold up.

Packaging: Lovely bottle, though a tiny bit feminine for my tastes.  Gorgeous mahogany top with a cork.  very soft contour to the bottle.  The label is very simple, but elegant.  the painted on lines are a nice touch, and from the back you can tell they even continue underneath the label.

Appearance: Medium dark amber.  One of the darkest 90 proof bourbons you'll see

Smell: Oak, Vanilla and caramel are all there.  Slightly odd to smell oak pre taste.  Usually that's something you can only pick up on after you've taken a sip or two.

Taste: Caramel is very present yet not overwhelming.  Not nearly as corn syrupy as a lot of heaven hill products are.  Vanilla is there throughout.  After about a second the oak comes in.  Tiny bit of fruitiness comes in as well.  Overall a very balanced, rich taste.  Smooth, without being boring.

Aftertaste: gets a bit spicy at the end, with oak.  The caramel stays for a while and is still there throughout the aftertaste.  Not at all bitter.

Overall: In my mind, this is right up there with the very best, if not the very best.  I prefer this to the other main heavily aged bourbons that are widely available, Jefferson Presidential select and Pappy Van Winkle.  That Heaven Hill was able to get such a complex, full bodied bourbon, without even a hint of oak bitterness really evidences Parker Beam's skill.  A lot of the ultra premium bourbons end up not even tasting like bourbon, as they try to get overly fancy.  That never happens here.  This just tastes like really, really, really great bourbon.  Even though it's not cheap, I'd still call it a bargain, as it clearly blows away most everything in it's price range and even bourbons that are much more expensive.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bourbon Review: Elijah Craig 12 Years Old

Continuing this week's Heaven Hill Series

Elijah Craig 12 Years Old - 94 Proof; aged 12 years; Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$27 (as always, price reflects a 750 mL bottle)

Preface: Elijah Craig is a famous name in bourbon, though likely mostly for apocryphal reasons.  Legend has it that this Kentucky preacher was the first to make what is legally considered bourbon today, by aging it in charred oak barrels.  The legend has it that a distillery fire (distillery fires are very real, even in modern times) burned some barrels, but without money to buy new barrels Craig put his bourbon in the least damaged barrels he had.  When he tried the product he was wowed and had thus found the secret to great bourbon, charring them, as an accident.  This is almost certainly not true in any sense.  First, how would the barrels become burnt on the inside without burning through the barrel first?  As I said in a previous post, the firing of the inside of the barrels was almost certainly done to either remove taste from a previous spirit that was stored in the barrels or to simply remove any bacteria or mold that had accumulated in the barrel. However, the fact that this tale most likely isn't true doesn't stop it from being a great name and story for Heaven Hill to tell in their marketing of Elijah Craig bourbon.

Elijah Craig is Heaven Hill's upscale brand counterpart to their cheaper and better selling Evan Williams Brand.  The 12 Year old is considered a small batch bourbon, meaning that it's blended from a choice af around 50-70 different barrels that are selected by Parker Beam, master distiller at Heaven Hill, they typically come from the middle of the rickhouse, where temperatures are more stable, which enables slower aging.  The grain mix is the same as Evan Williams, and it is a similar flavor profile.  It's somewhat similar to the approach Jim Beam takes with Booker's, except this is also aged for significantly longer than Evan Williams.

Packaging: The bottle is handsome, with a soft shoulder look under a wide mouth neck.  The top is plastic, with the Elijah Craig signature on top and a huge cork.  The label is simple, yet tasteful.  A raised glass Elijah Craig 'signature' is just above the label, classing the appearance up just a tad.  The red lettering of the number 12 really stands out, as everything else on the label is written in brown.  They're very proud of this being a 12 year old bourbon, or at least want to push that as the major marketing point. It's a nice bottle, but not one that is going to wow anybody either.

Appearance: Medium dark amber.  About what you would expect from a 12 year old 94 proof bourbon.

Smell: Vanilla, slight caramel

Initial taste: Smooth, caramel, corn syrup, vanilla.  Nice full feel in the mouth.  Oak comes in after a couple of seconds.  The oak is nice and balanced by the sweetness of the corn syrup and caramel flavors.  A lot of times oaky means bitter, but not the case here.

Finish: very long.  Oaky with some cinnamon spice.  The sweetness of the corn syrup and caramel still linger, though the vanilla is gone by this point.  Despite the oaky-ness it never got bitter.

Overall: among the very best.  Value wise it simply cannot be beat.  This bourbon has stood its own in tasting competitions with others costing four times it's price and with good reason.  Such a balanced taste, great feel in the mouth and a great finish.  It tastes the way bourbon should, sweet, perfect balance of vanilla and caramel, full bodied, with a hint of oaky-ness to give you something to think about.  Never gets bitter despite the age.  Parker Beam has created a star here and somehow manages to sell it for 25 bucks.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bourbon Review: Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2000

This week will be focused on Heaven Hill products, as after this review I plan on reviewing Elijah Craig 12 and 18 year old and Fighting Cock, which are all Heaven Hill products.  Heaven Hill is one of the big boys, and is also a branch of the Beam family with Parker Beam serving as the master distiller.

Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2000 - 86.6 Proof; aged 9.5 years (barreled 11-16-00, bottled 6-3-10); Distilled at Heaven Hill Distilleries; Price ~$25

Preface:  Evan Williams has long been known as one of the better selling cheap bourbons.  Many referring to it both lovingly and hatefully as "Evil".  The release of their single barrel premium bourbon under the Evan Williams name was a bit curious.  The traditional playbook for bourbon manufacturers when producing a premium bourbon has been to create an entirely new name for it, in order to distance itself from the reputation of the cheaper, more mass produced bourbons.  Heaven Hill does this already, where the Elijah Craig name is thought of very highly, and all but the most dedicated drinkers are completely unaware that Elijah Craig is essentially "just" an upscale version of Evan Williams (I mean this as no disrespect to Elijah Craig, which I believe is some of the best bourbon you can buy as you will see later in the week).

However, Jack Daniel's may have led the way here, with their Gentleman Jack proving that a relatively middle brow whiskey can create a higher tier product that does well, and actually elevates the brand's reputation in the process.  It's no coincidence that about the time Brown Forman (makers of Jack Daniels) began selling Gentleman Jack, the price of regular Jack Daniels went up in relation to chief rivals, Jim Beam White Label and George Dickel.

That must be what Heaven Hill is hoping for here, that putting out a higher quality bourbon under the Evan Williams name elevates the cachet of Evan Williams in the process.  However, it is a tricky play, as Jack Daniels had a much stronger brand image than Evan Williams to begin with.

The single barrel vintage series from Evan Williams aims to allow users to compare vintages.  However, unlike the previously reviewed Old Forester Birthday Bourbon, they don't aim for distinct bourbon from year to year, so any differences are going to be very subtle variations.

Packaging: A very attractive, simple bottle.  The label is very straightforward and is hand numbered on the back with dates it was put into barrels and then bottled.  The neck is hand dipped in black wax, very similarly to Booker's.  The top is plastic with Cork.  I could do without the faux rough edges on the label, but overall a very elegant, understated package that holds up well sitting next to much more expensive bottles.

Color: a slightly more red medium amber, fairly dark for an under 90 proof bourbon.

Smell: Vanilla, mild caramel; alcohol kick

Initial taste: Very smooth, a bit of rye/cinnamon kick.  Decent balance of caramel and vanilla, though less in amount than most Heaven Hill products.  Decent amount of oak comes in after a second on the tongue.  Not quite as corn syrupy as some Heaven Hill products, but that's not necessarily a good or bad thing.  Nice balance in the mouth.  Tiny hint of astringency at times, but not to a bad degree.

Finish: nice and spicy with a really oaky, very faintly bitter finish.  I'm not huge on oaky finishes, but this one is very nice.  Again, a much less sweet finish than I'm used to from Heaven Hill products.  The bitterness isn't negative by any means, but if you're looking for a sweet caramel-y bourbon with a sugar coated finish, look elsewhere.

Overall: Very good and excellent for the price.  I had to remind myself several times that I was drinking a $25 bottle of bourbon, not a $40 bottle.  It's not especially sweet, as compared to most of the Heaven Hill/Beam family taste profiles, but it is nice and smooth.  Nice oak taste to it, seems that it would have been getting on the verge of overaged had it sat in barrels much longer, as just a hint of oak bitterness was starting to find its way in.  Has a nice feel in the mouth for an 86.6 proof bourbon (usually I think that bourbons under 90 proof are too light in the mouth).  If you want something a little more oak-y but you don't want to break the bank to try it out, this is a good choice.  You really can't go wrong here given the price point.  They could easily put this under a different name and charge $10-20 more.

Mixing:  Mixes extremely well with coke and a sweeter ginger ale such a Vernors, which isn't a tragedy given the price point.