André Simon Awards: ‘By the Smoke and The Smell’

In the run up to the André Simon Awards this February, the drinks business will be publishing an extract from each of the shortlisted books in the drinks category. First up is Thad Vogler’s ‘By the Smoke and The Smell‘ published by Ten Speed Press.

Each time Craig, Eric, and I connect with Charles Neal in France, it’s at the McDonald’s in the American Terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in Paris. Nowhere are cultural differences more palpable and exciting than beneath the golden arches in a foreign country. The smooth, manufactured surfaces with their familiar palette of cantaloupe and tangerine are grounding, but the menu bears unfamiliar tidings: Le Menu Maxi! Nos Steak Haché!

We see our own culture reflected in a funhouse mirror. We drink café crème from stenciled, eight-ounce Styrofoam cups and use the free Wi-Fi while we wait for Charles. He will be late this morning. Once we’re in his care, we will be late to every appointment and every tasting for the next week.

Craig, our head barman at Bar Agricole, sits alone with a half-finished cup of coffee and bent over his phone in a familiar posture; I know he is preparing playlists for our trip. He is dressed in many layers today, like a big-game photographer, wearing two thick, collared shirts over a turtleneck with a warm flannel coat encompassing the whole ensemble. Craig is a sweet man with whom I’ve worked for fifteen years in numerous places. He is lean, handsome, and fashionable; a devout indie rocker, he always dresses the part. Despite a restless youthfulness, middle age is imminent, evident in his discreetly thinning hair and a less visible assortment of skin and abdominal maladies that become apparent as you spend more time with him. He was at my wedding.

For two years around the time he was getting divorced, after each of our shifts together, I’d stay up and talk with him until two in the morning. That he works for me is probably my most impressive credential as a bar owner. He is an artist and music enthusiast who has found real meaning in our work at the bar.

Devoted to the craft, Craig works harder than anyone I know to make this job something we can feel proud of as we move from our forties toward our fifties. Our parents used to wonder what we were thinking when it came to this bar stuff; we had spent tens of thousands of dollars on liberal arts degrees that were not being put to use at all. We were underachievers; now we get mentioned in the New York Times.

Craig has a beautiful softness to him, and he’s also a little bit of a lush in the best sense of the word. On a given night, he might go a little too far, speak a little too freely. You wouldn’t think he’s an asshole—just a bit careless in how he speaks. At these times, there’s always a sorrow to Craig; he can fall into despair. Craig and I are glad to see each other. We shake hands,’70s style, locking together the way you would if you were helping up someone who’d fallen over.

If Craig is here, Eric can’t be far away. On these trips he is always the curious child, wandering at the periphery or falling behind, where a cat or an old photograph has caught his attention. Eric is my business partner in Bar Agricole as well as Trou Normand, our second place, named for the brandies we taste on this annual trip around France. He put his life savings, including the money his father left him upon his death when Eric was very young, into our first place. Eric arrives right on cue, carrying two-liter bottles of Badoit mineral water, one of which he tosses to me with a smile.

I can see a baguette sandwich emerging from his windbreaker pocket. The jacket fits him snugly and complements his winter scarf, adeptly folded in half then draped in half again over his neck, the twin tails pulled snugly through the loop end; this scarfmanship is something he learned when he lived in Belgium as a younger man.

Eric, like Craig, is slim, maintaining a European gauntness that aids him in his passion of motorcycle track racing. He is a devout vegetarian and benefits from that flattering kind of male pattern balding. You may see him in a belted leather jacket enjoying a coffee and feel certain he is Italian or French. He is unilaterally positive and, to my great approval, actually once attended a Tony Robbins seminar.

I’m off to the counter of McCafé, adjacent to the McDonald’s proper, to order my first café crème of the trip. McCafé is a still greater departure from our domestic McDonald’s, with its macarons and elevated pastry offerings. Walking to the counter I’m keeping an eye out for two more from our party whom we haven’t met, two representatives from Marx Importers, a wine wholesaler in Los Angeles.

Returning to our table with my coffee in hand, I see my guys have found the Marx Importers contingent. I arrive just in time to finish out the round-robin of handshakes. The first of them is the nephew of the owner and appears to be twenty-one or twenty-two. He wears a sinister beard. I’ve never met him before, but I don’t trust him. This probably tells you more about me than him; I can be inhospitable. He is young, and moments after shaking hands at the airport McDonald’s, he is gracelessly working shoptalk into our first conversations.

The other is in his mid-thirties and is called Leon. He’s a likeable guy with a lot of tattoos. From the tattoos and the full Victorian beard, you can tell right away that he’s a bar guy. His hair is messy, and he has a soft, kind quality that reminds me of my stepfather.

Our party complete, now all there is to do is wait for Charles Neal, owner of Charles Neal Selections. I have been buying his spirits for years, and of late we have grown our relationship to the point where Charles and I travel to France each year to choose barrels of grower-producer brandies—spirits that Eric, Craig, and I will use in mixed drinks in our bars in the coming year.

I am a restaurateur. I own two bars that serve food and have pretentious French names. My colleagues and I are in France to buy brandies that will furnish these locations. Our bars participate in the Bay Area tradition of meticulous sourcing. We are known for mixed drinks and they are good because we source our base spirits very carefully, not because we are particularly inventive or talented. Our goal on this trip is to select and purchase single-barrel and blended selections of calvados, armagnac, and cognac. These bottlings will keep us in business for the next year until, if we are lucky and Charles will have us, we repeat the drill. For me, this trip is the high point of the year. Craig and Eric claim to feel the same.

At my places, Trou Normand and Bar Agricole, we use these French brandies as the foundation for as many of the drinks we serve as possible. We scour the thousand-and-one drinks books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for recipes featuring brandy in its various forms. I suppose brandy is one of our few specialties because these liquids have real provenance. Sadly, spirits with this sense of identity are available in only a few places around the world. These brandies are crops, grown and harvested by the same farmers who ferment them and distill them. They are not well-known spirits and they are not affordable, but we love them dearly and they give our work, our lives even, meaning.

So here we begin, exhausted in a French McDonald’s in the early morning. Exhausted and late. Kermit Lynch has already written elegantly about the work of tasting trips in Adventures on the Wine Route. People who have read that book or hear what I do for a living never believe me when I tell them this is work; they joke that they wish they had our job. They’re not wrong; our job is great, but this will be work—we’re running from the moment we begin.

 

Reprinted with permission from By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail by Thad Vogler, copyright © 2017. Published Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”

All these books have been shortlisted in the drinks category for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2017 Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein. www.andresimon.co.uk

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