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Bourbon and the Blues


I spent the holiday weekend (President’s Day) up at Stratton Mountain in Vermont with my family and my brother-in-law’s family.  We had a really great time.  The wee ones (three in each family) were able to hang out and frolic with their cousins, ski, go snow tubing and generally wreck havoc on the tiny hamlet of Winhall.  Us grown-ups had a blast, too.  Skiing, snowmobiling, shopping and – the most important part – après ski!

Owing to injuring my knee earlier this year, I was under doctor’s orders to refrain from skiing.  The bad news in this good news/bad news sandwich is that I had to play Sherpa and watch everybody’s junk while they were out skiing.  Actually, it was not so bad because I was getting real-time updates on my iPhone as to each new member who joined Single Cask Nation over this momentous weekend in the Nation's infancy.  Thanks to all of you who have joined thus far, and remember that our Nation will be even better when all your whisky-loving friends join, too! But apart from that exciting pastime, I was able to ditch the boot bags and run up to the bar early “in order to save seats” for our party.

Anyone who has been to Stratton for skiing will know that Stratton Mountain’s mascot is a black bear.  But playing I suppose on the average American’s lack of interest in biology, the après ski bar on the top floor of the main base lodge is inaptly named “Grizzly Bar.”  Never mind, too, that grizzlies are not indigenous to the northeastern United States.  I find that, when it comes to locating a passable watering hole, it is best to suspend one’s belief in reality and to roll with the themes they’re hocking.  Black bear…grizzly bear…I suppose my reaction to stumbling upon either one in the wild would require roughly equivalent trips to the laundromat, so why should the zoological distinction matter when it comes to which type of bear is serving me up a libation?

Stratton is one of the closest big mountains to the New York metropolitan area, so it is highly commercialized, but in a quaint, neat way.  There is a little shopping village at the base that mimics Aspen or Vail, yet is all smartly controlled by the Stratton resort realty juggernaut.  On any given holiday weekend at Stratton, there is a huge sum of northeastern money exchanging hands.  Vacation homes start at $750,000 and work their way into the millions.  Wealth abounds and one senses this is one of the playgrounds of the truly privileged.

So it is that the Grizzly Bar at Stratton Mountain, with its geozoologically inaccurate name and its small stage, attracts really talented live bands from Boston to New York; Vermont to Connecticut.  And this holiday weekend was no exception.  I dutifully dragged my leg with my ski-preventing injury upstairs to snag a good table in this packed joint so that my family would have great seats when the bands started to rock out.

On Friday night this really swanky band out of Boston hit the stage, named Love In Stockholm. They were all up-tempo rhythm and blues rock tradition with some cool zydeco, Beatles, Doors and funk influences percolating through and a mini horns section that put a Galactic groove on it all.  If you’ve ever been to the New Orleans Jazz Festival you’d know about Galactic and their funky jazz-rock hybrid.  I was really digging this band and wound up buying a couple of their CD’s. I decided that Love In Stockholm went well with a Bombay Sapphire Martini, dry, with a twist of lemon. Although the Grizzly Bar had the appearance of serving mostly college kids, I was surprised at the sophistication displayed by the bar tender.  Not only was the drink prepared well and nicely balanced, but he even added the preferred touch of rounding the rim of the glass with the lemon twist.  This allowed me to sip the drink from every arc of the glass and get a fresh lemon zest with each sip.  Classy.  Upbeat.  Crisp.  For the sake of research, I took a hit for the team and doubled up, sipping away on my martini and taking in the great music.

Then, on Saturday night, a Blues guitarist hit the small stage, styled as “The Dave Keller Band.” If you have not had the pleasure of watching a blues guitarist perform live, especially up close, then you need to get to one of these shows.  I was always a bit bored by the blues, but when you see a guy wailing away on his guitar, and you study the craft at work, you become mesmerized and it is hard to not be converted into a blues enthusiast.  This is directly analogous to learning what goes into the crafting of a great whisky.  There are grains, water and aging processes at work, but also experimentation, improvisation, thought and passion go into the master distiller’s plan when designing a whisky.  Blues, like Jazz, is a pure American invention.  In the whisk(e)y world, there are a couple American-made counterparts: Rye and Bourbon.

Cognizant of the headier, guitar-forward ramblings of the Blues form, and the American-made nature of the genre, I chose an American icon to accompany my Blues: the Bourbon Manhattan. But not just any Manhattan.  I love to load mine with Knob Creek Bourbon.  Knob Creek is so rich and sweet, it seems made for cocktail use, even though it is also superior straight up or on the rocks.  Yet, its higher alcohol content and bold, robust Bourbon character stand up nicely to the Sweet Vermouth.  Prepared well, this is one hell of an exquisite cocktail.  It rolls around like the ramblings of a blues guitarist, hitting different notes in different parts of the palate and tongue.  It warms.  And it rocks.  Dave Keller was pretty impressive, too.

I took in the scene at Grizzly Bar, replete with its crowd of Rolex watches and Uggz boots.  Everyone was nodding and tapping along with the music, their appreciation for these talented musicians growing as each evening wore on, and as each band felt out each crowd’s preferences and hit their stride.  The food on the menu was good, the drinks were poured by some folks with a modicum of skill, and the owners put some really good talent out there for everyone’s enjoyment. I dig the Grizzly Bar and can’t wait to get back there for some more après ski hijinks.  Its atmosphere gave me pause to marvel at how music and cocktails can put everything right.  Even one’s attitude.  Even in a crowded bar at a packed ski resort.  It also allowed me to observe, perhaps for the first time in such stark terms, how music, like food, can serve as a basis for pairing cocktails.


Bonus Material from Stratton Mountain:

Here are a couple great cocktails to warm the cockles of your heart if you’ve got the mid-winter blues –

Grizzly Bar makes a hot drink called the Broken Arm, which consists of hot cider spiked with apricot brandy.  Add a cinnamon stick for flavor.

Mulligan’s Restaurant at Stratton raises the ante for their version, entitled the Bun Warmer.  Take the Broken Arm and add a shot of Southern Comfort.  NOW we’re talking…

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