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The first time I visited a sake brewery (or kura, as its called in Japanese) I worried I wouldn’t be able to drive home afterwards. The owner wouldn’t let my glass drain. Every time I thought I could get away with sneaking into the next part of the tour without a refill, he would appear, smiling, generously pouring more liquid into my sample cup.

Later, I discovered he wasn’t just trying to get me drunk, but was following the Japanese tradition called oshaku, where it’s impolite to fill your own glass, and equally as rude for your host to let your glass sit empty. Sake is a social drink, so oshaku is seen as a way of making new friends.

In America, this social custom hasn’t caught fire when it comes to sake consumption (and for future reference, the polite way to refuse additional servings during traditional Japanese social engagements is to leave a tiny bit of sake in your glass, to not encourage refills). In fact, sake has long been considered a cheap, boozy beverage only suitable for sake bombs and cheap sushi dinners — an image many sake enthusiasts and certified specialists are working to change.

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The first thing Azeb wanted to know about me was if I was on Facebook. After that she got to the less important stuff: Where I was from, if I was married, had kids, believed in God — and what was I doing in southern Ethiopia? Azeb, a 25-year-old business student with big glowing eyes and long dark hair, was born and raised not far from where we were having breakfast. We ended up sitting together when we realized we were the only people in the dining room at the Lesiwon Hotel in Yirgacheffe, the namesake town of a region known to coffee cognoscenti for producing some of Ethiopia’s highest-quality coffee beans.

As Azeb scooped up pieces of her omelet with torn-off hunks of bread, as is the Ethiopian custom, I stabbed at mine with a fork and told her about my travels thus far in her country. But it was something I mentioned in passing that seriously broke the ice. Until this trip — specifically the day prior to our chance encounter, when I had driven down from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to the southern part of the country — I had never seen a coffee tree.

Azeb’s mouth fell open, her head tilted heavenward, and she let out a high-pitched laugh. “You’d never seen a coffee cherry before?” she said, and then she just stared at me, her mouth still agape, as if I’d just casually asked her if airplanes drive on invisible roads in the sky.

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There was a plate of sliced mangoes on our table. Yet again. For probably the twentieth day in a row. This was the tradition for as long as I can remember; mangoes were daily essentials during the spring and summer months in my Indian household.

“Eat mango every day so your body can stock up on fiber for the year!” my mom said to me. She said it like fiber was a tough thing to come across. Plate after plate, mango after mango. By the end of the season I was absolutely sick of them. My taste buds have been repelling mangoes, when taken in excess, for years. By day three of the three-month-long stretch, I’m usually scolded if I don’t finish the golden fruit.

“Finish your mango! They’re expensive and ripe only this time of year!”

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“Gimme a lager.” Where I’m from, speaking this phrase at your average neighborhood drinking establishment results in a very specific response: a glass of Yuengling Traditional Lager placed in front of you. No options listed, no questions asked, just lager. To us native Philadelphians, the word lager is just shorthand to refer to the most popular beer from America’s oldest brewery. The real definition and expansive reach of the style are unknown by many.

This isn’t just a Philadelphia problem. Across the country, the word “lager,” and most especially the sub-style pilsner, conjures up images of cheap beer in cans from big name corporate brands. But lager brewing at its full potential is much more. In fact, the lager brewing process has been responsible for some of the most richly flavored, deeply layered, and perfectly balanced beers ever made. But what is a lager, anyway?

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You may have noticed that $8 malbec you’ve been buying for years just doesn’t taste as great as it used to. I’ve noticed, too.

Malbec used to be one of every wine drinker’s go-to bargain reds, a section in a wine store where great value was so easily found. You could pick almost any bottle under $10 off the shelf and chances are, you’d be relatively satisfied. But now, malbec is too often hit or miss. The same malbec I loved three years ago tastes too jammy, too oaky, and not at all complex. Finding an enjoyable one for under $10 has become mission impossible.

Of course, when we talk about malbec, we’re almost always talking about malbec from Argentina. The country capitalized on this lost French variety, which was brought over from France in the mid-19th century. It’s still the main grape grown in Cahors and is allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wines, but it was Argentina that finally put malbec on the map.

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Yeast is everywhere. Taking refuge in wall and rafters, on the skins of hanging fruit, and even floating along the breeze, it’s an omnipresent and essential element of any location’s native ecosystem. For centuries, beer relied on this. Left out in the open or stored in a vessel that held the previous batch, fermentation was a process uniquely tied to the environment of the brewer. As science moved forward, however, the invisible yeast cell was discovered and reliable, controllable lab-cultured organisms took over the brewing world.

But, in one small corner of Belgium, this spontaneous fermentation technique persisted. With its intense sourness and layered complexity, the style known as lambic is one of the most prized and desired exports of its native land. And until recently, that native land was the only place where it was made. The risky, time-consuming nature of the brewing process has kept it at home in Belgium’s Pajottenland for much of history. Now, with a perfect storm of adventurous brewers, a changing public palate, and an intense focus on locality hovering over the beer world, the processes used in lambic brewing have found their way across the Atlantic and into the repertoire of today’s most cutting-edge beer producers.

The iconic vessel of the lambic process is the coolship. A large shallow pan usually made of copper, the coolship does exactly what you would expect: it cools things. After the unfermented beer, called wort, is mashed and boiled, it must be chilled down to a more hospitable temperature (generally 60°-75˚F, depending on the strain) so the yeast can begin its alcohol-producing duties. These days, this task is usually performed by a heat exchanger, but before the advent of refrigeration, every brewery had a coolship to get the job done. The hot wort would be pumped up to the coolship on the roof or in the rafters and left overnight, exposed to the wild microorganisms in the night air.

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Take Your Child To Work Day gets a little dicey when one’s work involves writing about spirits. I can’t exactly take my two boys — 11 and 9 — out to a professional tasting or to interview the hipster mixologist at the latest, greatest cocktail bar. (“Daddy, why does that man with the weird mustache keep talking so much about mezcal and his homemade bitters?”) Besides, it’s a little boring for them to watch the writing part: Boys, go sit over there and play a game on your phone while your old man bangs out his column. I’ve not even let my children read my book, Boozehound, not that they’d have the slightest interest in it anyway.

Still, over the years I’ve found a few age-appropriate ways for them to join in. I’ve written, for instance, about their love of mocktails, using fresh fruits and juices. That mocktail column actually received a ridiculous amount of negative comments, which probably made me even more gun-shy to involve them in anything remotely drinks-related.

But a couple winters ago, I traveled with Wes and Sander to Brussels, where we spent three days gorging on frites, mussels, and of course chocolate. During that cold trip, all of us had a sort of hot chocolate epiphany. We’ve been trying ever since to create our own perfect version at home. What could be more innocent than that?

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It must get a little desperate in the marketing departments of booze companies after Christmas and New Year’s Eve. How else to explain the mix of half-baked party ideas and strange events that fills up my inbox every winter?

I know it must be January, for instance, when I receive invitations to three Robert Burns Night suppers as part of the Scotch distillers’ annual marketing campaign. Here’s what I can say about Burns Night (it was January 25, by the way): It settles once and for all the burning question “Does haggis really pair with Scotch?” Yes, but only if you’re a whisky or two in the bag, wearing a kilt and reciting a poem, in Scottish, entitled “Address to a Haggis.”

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For the past few weeks, I’ve been enjoying red wines made from the indigenous grapes of Greece. I’ve tasted mostly xinomavro from Naoussa, in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, and agiorgitiko from Nemea in the Peloponnese, but also little-known varieties such as limniona, mavrotragano, and mavrodaphne. While you can certainly find bottles of xinomavro and agiorgitiko on American shelves and wine lists, let’s just be clear: These are obscure wines.

Why would I recommend such obscure wines? A few weeks ago, I might have simply said: These obscure wines are fascinating and strange in the best way, and they repay an adventurous wine drinker by providing good value and deliciousness. But apparently, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, I’m all wrong.

Just the other week, while I was tasting these Greek reds, Mister Parker called out me and my kind as “Euro-elitists” and “absolutists” whose wine recommendations are “the epitome of cyber-group goose-stepping” and “Kim-Jung-unism.” Yes, seriously. He did. Right on his website, for anyone who paid $29 (for a 90-day subscription) to read.

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Beware: Using your favorite wine in cocktails is a surefire way to scandalize the “serious” wine snobs in your life. Which, of course, is always fun. Mix up your wine routine with more than 40 new recipes from top mixologists in Planet of the Grapes Volume 3: Wine Cocktails, available now on Amazon. In this excerpt, author Jason Wilson explores the ever-underappreciated sherry.

Everybody’s talking about sherry these days. At least everyone snugly inside the bubble where sommeliers, bartenders, wine educators, and drinks writers reside. It’s the same place where grower Champagne, mezcal, and white whiskey are really popular, and ambergris (otherwise known as whale excretion) is used in cocktails. The other 99 percent of the world usually doesn’t get the memo. Which is sometimes just as well.

In the case of sherry, however, this lack of awareness beyond the bubble is truly a shame. Sherry is one of the most versatile, and best value, wines in the world. You can almost always find high quality for under $20, and often for under $15. Taken by itself, sherry has always been the perfect wine to pair with many difficult-to-pair foods such as olives, artichokes, nuts, asparagus, cured meats, sushi, as well as wine-unfriendly Chinese food.

Behind the bar, sherry has been a staple since cocktails first appeared in the 19th century. The sherry cobbler (sherry, fruit, and ice) was the Appletini of its day, and early 20th century classics like the Duke of Marlborough, the Bamboo, the Adonis, and the East Indian — all of which are varying combinations of sherry, vermouth, and bitters — wonderfully showcase the wine.


Even the most unrefined palate can tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a bad cup of coffee. I’m well aware that the fine line between the two can easily affect the outlook of an entire day.

After years of enjoying my store-bought coffee in blissful ignorance, I started to wonder what I was really paying for when I threw down three dollars for a cup of hot bean water. I found that even with hand crafted Japanese kettles, meticulously weighed beans, and the never-ending list of “the best” brewing methodologies, we have little control over our own brew. Not even the most well-equipped coffee connoisseur does.

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Italy is one country where sparkling wine cocktails are part of everyday life. Go into any Italian bar during happy hour and you’ll find a big bucket full of chilling bottles of prosecco, a rail full of Aperol, Campari, and vermouth, and bartenders churning out a steady stream of spritzes.

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When I think about port, I think of my earliest, clumsy attempts at seeming — with requisite air quotes — “sophisticated,” or at least “fancy.” Back then, in my 20s, port seemed like the fast track to connoisseurship. “I’ll take a glass of the ’85 Fonseca,” I’d say to a waiter as everyone else was simply ordering dessert.

I admit I was kind of insufferable. But I did grow fond of port, and it did end up being the first wine I truly came to know, from drinking a lot of it as well as making several visits to the famed port lodges in Porto, the Portuguese city from which the wine takes its name. Yet over time, my love for port waned. Like everyone else’s, it seemed.

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“Do y’all have good food up there?” That is the question I most often get asked when I go back to my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. They don’t know how I survive in the North without barbeque, fried veggies, or a million different kinds of cornbread. And because it’s often the case that Southerners stay right where they are — in the South — surviving without these and many other foods just seems impossible.

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Ah, the holidays. They’re a special time for giving thanks, giving gifts, and enjoying the company of loved ones. Oh, and they’re also a time for spiked egg nog, champagne, mulled cider, punch bowls, Manischewitz, and birthday shots for Jesus. There’s nothing quite like alcohol to keep your bones warm, your disposition cheery, and your get-togethers enjoyable. And when it comes to holiday drinking options, nobody has you covered like the beer industry. At this time of year, beer stores are packed with rows and rows of bottles with seasonably corny labels representing a broad spectrum of different styles. You’ll see anything from pitch black imperial stouts to mahogany-hued abbey-style quadrupels to bright golden IPAs. At first glance, it’s hard to find any common ground among these beers, but in fact, they are all variations on a tradition that’s deeply rooted in the holiday spirit.