The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Spiraling out of control

First, this chart:

And yet, there are so many other things going on today:

The one bit of good news? Evanston-based Sketchbook Brewing, who make delicious beers and whose taproom inspired the Brews and Choos project, will open a huge new taproom in Skokie tomorrow evening. And guess what? It's only 4 blocks from an El stop.

Three cheers for a friendly fungus

As this 2017 article from National Geographic explains, humans and yeast have had a tremendously successful relationship for the last 9,000 years or so:

From our modern point of view, ethanol has one very compelling property: It makes us feel good. Ethanol helps release serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins in the brain, chemicals that make us happy and less anxious.

To our fruit-eating primate ancestors swinging through the trees, however, the ethanol in rotting fruit would have had three other appealing characteristics. First, it has a strong, distinctive smell that makes the fruit easy to locate. Second, it’s easier to digest, allowing animals to get more of a commodity that was precious back then: calories. Third, its antiseptic qualities repel microbes that might sicken a primate. Millions of years ago one of them developed a taste for fruit that had fallen from the tree. “Our ape ancestors started eating fermented fruits on the forest floor, and that made all the difference,” says Nathaniel Dominy, a biological anthropologist at Dartmouth College. “We’re preadapted for consuming alcohol.”

Flash forward millions of years to a parched plateau in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. Archaeologists there are exploring another momentous transition in human prehistory, and a tantalizing possibility: Did alcohol lubricate the Neolithic revolution? Did beer help persuade Stone Age hunter-gatherers to give up their nomadic ways, settle down, and begin to farm?

The idea that’s gaining support...was first proposed more than half a century ago: Beer, rather than bread, may have been the inspiration for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to domesticate grains. Eventually, simply harvesting wild grasses to brew into beer wouldn’t have been enough. Demand for reliable supplies pushed humans first to plant the wild grasses and then over time to selectively breed them into the high-yielding barley, wheat, and other grains we know today.

Alcohol may afford psychic pleasures and spiritual insight, but that’s not enough to explain its universality in the ancient world. People drank the stuff for the same reason primates ate fermented fruit: because it was good for them. Yeasts produce ethanol as a form of chemical warfare—it’s toxic to other microbes that compete with them for sugar inside a fruit. That antimicrobial effect benefits the drinker. It explains why beer, wine, and other fermented beverages were, at least until the rise of modern sanitation, often healthier to drink than water.

Alas, the SARS-Cov-2 virus has made it nearly impossible to continue the Brews and Choos Project, which celebrates the ingenuity of yeast and the single-mindedness of humans.

Speaking of the B&CP, I may cautiously resume the project this coming Friday. Or tomorrow. It depends on the weather, because regardless of the state's official relaxation of distancing rules, I don't think going into a restaurant or brewpub makes a lot of sense until I can confirm my own immunity to and inability to transmit the virus. I have no idea when that will be, in large part because of the Trump Administration's endemic incompetence. But many brewpubs have outdoor patio space, and on a warm sunny day, risks seem to be lower.

A busy day

Last weekend's tsunami continues to ripple:

Just another quiet week in 2020...

Day 71

It's a little comforting to realize that we've only dealt with Covid-19 social distancing rules about 5% as long as we dealt with World War II (1,345 days from 7 December 1941 to 13 August 1945). It's still a grind.

In the news today:

Finally, perhaps jealous of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's memes, Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle put this out on Facebook recently:

Support craft distillers

The Covid-19 shutdown has driven people to buy mass-produced spirits instead of good spirits. The good guys are losing:

The coronavirus recession has left no industry unaffected, but the one-two punch of shuttered bars and mass unemployment has hit craft distilling particularly hard. In a survey of its members by the American Craft Spirits Association, more than two-thirds say they may have to close permanently in the next few months.

The crisis isn’t just threatening to decimate the industry; it is also reshaping its future. How can a sector that relies so heavily on bars, tasting rooms and face-to-face sales — not to mention customers willing to pay a premium for its products — move forward in an economy defined by social distancing and thinner wallets?

“There’s going to be a lot of dead distilleries coming out of this,” said Paul Hletko, the founder and distiller of FEW Spirits, in Evanston, Ill. “Even if you survive, the new normal is going to be punishing for small brands.”

“Starting a distillery is really hard. It takes a lot of capital up front — you’re in the hole for a long time,” said Maggie Campbell, the president of Privateer, an eight-year-old rum distillery in Ipswich, Mass. “If we were three years old, this would be a very scary time.”

This blossoming industry was therefore uniquely vulnerable to the ravages of the coronavirus crisis. To make things worse, the market for craft spirits is centered in large cities and among millennial and younger consumers — all of which have been especially hurt by the sudden economic downturn.

“We were poised for this awesome surge,” said Nicholas Jessett, a founder of MKT Distillery in Katy, Texas. “And now we can’t go anywhere. We’re stuck.” His distillery sold most of its products through its tasting room, and Mr. Jessett was in negotiations with a distributor to get MKT’s whiskey and gin into nearby Houston and other parts of Texas. But after the state shut down nonessential businesses, the distributor pulled out.

I have at least two open bottles of FEW spirits in my house at any point, and I'm also trying to pick up other local products, like CH and 28 Mile, when I can. But this could easily turn into the dystopian 1990s when the only spirits for sale came from giant companies and had no character.

FEW Spirits, Evanston

Welcome to stop #18 on the Brews and Choos project.

Distillery: FEW Spirits, 918 Chicago Ave., Evanston, Ill.
Train line: Metra Union Pacific North, Evanston–Main St. (Also CTA Purple Line, Main)
Time from Chicago (Ogilvie): 20 minutes, zone C
Distance from station: 200 m (200 m from CTA)

Disclosure: FEW Spirits has been a contributor to the Apollo Chorus of Chicago for several years. I serve on the Apollo Chorus Board of Directors, and separately as the Chorus's Benefit Committee Chair. I personally solicited FEW's donations on behalf of the Chorus, and because of FEW's generosity, I directed that we will feature their products and branding at our Benefit next month. I also attended law school with founder Paul Hletko. Despite all of this, I have not received anything of value from anyone in exchange for posting this (or any other) review on The Daily Parker.

When FEW's founder Paul Hletko told me years ago he planned to get out of law practice and into distilling, I wished him a lot of success. Wow, did that wish come true.

Paul named his distillery after the 19th-century abolitionist and Evanston resident Frances Elizabeth Willard, whose house just up the road still serves as the headquarters of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. (This history also explains the name of an Evanston brewery that will not be on the Brews and Choos project because of its distance from Metra: Temperance Beer Co.)

The distillery gives tours on weekends and has a tasting room open during the week. They open up on the second Friday of each month from May through September, adding a food truck and a band to the mix.

On a recent Friday evening, I stopped by to the tasting room to get some tastings. The bartender had mixed up a delightful sazerac. She also shared a sample of their limited-edition Alice in Chains Whisky, a 101-proof spirit aged in tequila barrels, which, drunk straight, hits you with pepper and alcohol. The Bloodshot Two-Barrel (just a few bottles left at this writing) came out a bit smoother but still with the peppery notes Paul is fond of. I also recommend the Breakfast Gin, a complex, smooth, juniper-forward gin with a hint of bergamot that makes an excellent martini.

They also have excellent taste in swag. I've got a foursome of their super-sturdy and classic-looking rocks glasses at home, and I routinely give people FEW-branded Cairns glasses.

Beer garden? Alley is open in the summer
Dogs OK? Yes
Televisions? None
Serves food? Food truck in summer; BYO year-round
Would hang out with a book? Yes
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

Rhine Hall Distillery, Chicago

Welcome to stop #13 on the Brews and Choos project.

Distillery: Rhine Hall Distillery, 2010 W. Fulton St., Chicago
Train lines: Milwaukee District North and West, Western Ave. (Also CTA Green line, Ashland)
Time from Chicago: 9 minutes (Zone A)
Distance from station: 1.3 km (1.1 km from CTA)

I found visiting Rhine Hall on a weeknight in February odd for two reasons. First, I didn't realize that they distill from fruit, rather than grain, so I didn't prepare myself for the flavors of their spirits well. Second, I used to work in the same building from 1995 to 1996, so walking around the place brought back a ton of 25-year-old memories.

Nothing like this existed in the building back then.

The owners, a husband and wife team, opened the distillery after returning from Germany, where he learned how to make eau de vie (fruit brandy). They have since branched out into a dozen varieties, including the ones I sampled:

From left to right, all 80-proof spirits: apple brandy, oak-aged apple brandy, cherry brandy, and Frenet Lola. The brandies had subtle characters reminiscent of their underlying fruit, and would make really interesting mixers for cocktails (which, incidentally, they serve at the distillery). The Frenet had strong licorice notes and, I imagine, tasted like a well-made Frenet. I have never had Frenet before so this was an experience.

This might be worth a second trip, to try their cocktails.

Beer garden? No
Dogs OK? Yes
Televisions? No
Serves food? No, but you can bring it in
Would hang out with a book? No
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

£53,676 per pour

A single 750 mL bottle of whisky sold at auction this week for £907,500, the highest price ever paid for a bottle:

A European buyer [won] the 1926 Macallan Valerio Adami 60 year old on February 17, 2020, setting a record for Scotland’s most expensive whisky ever auctioned.

It’s also the sixth standard-sized whisky bottle ever to achieve $1 million at auction, and the third-highest auction price ever achieved for a bottle of whisky. Even with the lower premiums charged by online whisky auction houses, this sale unambiguously surpassed the previous record for the Valerio Adami bottle, set in 2018.

That works out to £1,210 per millilitre, or £46,537 per ounce, slightly more than the highest-priced whisky at Duke of Perth (Macallan 25, $73 per ounce, $110 per pour).

Note that the whisky was already 60 years old when it went into the bottle in 1926, meaning Macallan distilled it about a year after the American Civil War ended.

I wonder what it tastes like? If I had a million dollars, I might find out.

CH Distillery, Chicago

Welcome to stop #9 on the Brews and Choos project.

Distillery: CH Distillery, 564 W. Randolph St., Chicago
Train lines: All Ogilvie and Union Station lines. (Also CTA Green/Pink lines, Clinton)
Time from Chicago: 0 minutes (Zone A)
Distance from station: 200 m (400 m from CTA)

CH Distillery (named after carbon and hydrogen, principal ingredients in alcohol) opened in 2013 with a mission to create "the only organic vodka made from Illinois grain and a variety of core and specialty spirits." They no longer distill much of their stuff at their downtown restaurant, having opened a much larger facility in Pilsen. But they still give tours on Randolph Street.

For $13, they will give you a flight of 4 spirits. I tried their vodka (smooth and sweet with a bit of harshness in the tail), key gin (made with lime and lavender, described as "like Hendrix" but not really), London dry gin (very dry and juniper forward, would go well with tonic), and their Bourbon (101 proof, 2 years old, MGP alcohol, not ready yet).

Because of its proximity to downtown and its upscale drinks and food, CH is a popular date spot. I quite like it every so often.

Beer garden? No
Dogs OK? No
Televisions? None
Serves food? Small plates, charcuterie
Would hang out with a book? Maybe
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes

28 Mile Vodka, Highwood

Welcome to stop #5 on the Brews and Choos project.

Distillery: 28 Mile Vodka, 454 Sheridan Rd., Highwood, Ill.
Train line: Metra Union Pacific North, Highwood station.
Time from Chicago (Ogilvie): 52 minutes, zone E
Distance from station: 300 m

Chicago has far more breweries than distilleries, even though the foundation of all spirits is beer. Also, Chicago's distilleries often congregate in far-out industrial parks away from train lines.

Fortunately, 28 Mile Vodka is exactly what it says on the sign, and only a 3-minute walk from the Highwood station (mile post 28).

Highwood has a colorful history, to say the least. It abuts formerly-dry Highland Park to the south and Fort Sheridan to the north, so for decades the wealthy elite from HP rubbed shoulders with the soldiers from the army base. Now that Fort Sheridan has scaled back to a few Army and government offices, and Highland Park allows booze, Highwood has gotten a better reputation.

Enter a brand-new distillery that produces really good spirits. I had 1-ounce pours of their flagship vodka and their new gin. They also have white whiskey, which I'm happy to pass on until it becomes Bourbon in a couple of years. The vodka had a lovely sweetness and smoothness that would make it great on the rocks or as a top-shelf mixer. The gin had floral and citrus notes and a clean finish, which I wouldn't want to sully with tonic but I would put a drop of dry Vermouth in and take it up with a twist.

I'd like to see the place on a weekend night. I'd bet it's fun.

Beer garden? Yes
Dogs OK? No
Televisions? None
Serves food? Small bites, including caviar
Would hang out with a book? Maybe
Would hang out with friends? Yes
Would go back? Yes