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Ab Ovo #29: War, Whisky, and What We're Drinking
The Ukraine conflict prompts the resolution of a decades-old territorial spat, plus all the best things we're drinking this month.
A few weeks ago I was standing around with Alex Munch, co-founder of Stauning Danish Whisky, when he unexpectedly served up a war story. Munch was in NYC to launch Stauning’s new “El Clásico” whisky, a rye finished in Spanish vermouth casks that — thanks to generous red fruit and subtle bitter herbal notes imparted by the vermouth barrels — drinks like it’s already halfway to being a Manhattan cocktail (more one that below). I don’t remember how we got around to the subject, but at one point he asked me: “Have you heard about the Whisky War?”
I had not.
The conflict he went on to describe fits squarely into the category of cold wars. It involves a windswept, barren, half-square-mile arctic rock called Hans Island that sits directly in the middle of the 22-mile-wide channel separating Greenland (an autonomous territory of Denmark) and Canada’s Ellesmere Island. The dispute over the island is very real, reaching back to the 1880s when the British Empire unloaded much of its arctic real estate to Canada. At that point, nobody really knew whose sovereignty extended to Hans Island, and largely nobody cared.
The island lived in a state of ambiguous — and largely unchallenged — limbo up until 1973, when Canadian and Danish diplomats convened to establish an updated maritime boundary between the two states. The existing boundary passed right through the center of Hans Island, bringing to the fore once again the question of its ultimate ownership. By now, geologists from both sides had become interested in the potential for mineral exploration in the region, so the question of the island’s status became more than ceremonial.
In 1984, a small contingent of Canadian naval forces landed on Hans Island, planted the Canadian flag, and left behind a bottle of Canadian whisky — a small totem to remind anyone who might wander ashore exactly who’s turf they were standing upon. The gauntlet thus thrown, Denmark’s minister of Greenland affairs responded by visiting Hans Island that same year to lower the Canadian flag, raise the Danish one, and replace the bottle of whisky with a bottle of Danish aquavit. Raising the stakes, the Danish delegation also left behind a written note stating simply: “Welcome to the Danish Island.” The Whisky War was on.
This passive aggressive tit-for-tat went on for decades, with each side periodically visiting the island to raise its flag, deposit a bottle of its national spirit, and presumably consume whatever bottle the “enemy” had hospitably left behind. It proved a most pleasant and civil conflict.
In other contexts, the deploying of troops on disputed territory — and especially the raising of sovereign flags — has led to violent conflict. How charming, then, that the Canadians and Danes found a cheeky but congenial way to remind one another of their competing territorial claims while also buying one another an occasional round of drinks. When I started writing this post last week, I simply wanted to share this story. I thought it was interesting, a feel-good narrative for these feel-bad times. I had no idea the Whisky War was rapidly approaching its denouement.
Prompted in part by recent events in Ukraine, Ottawa and Copenhagen earlier this week agreed to split control of the island between them, a practical solution that someone maybe should’ve floated sooner. Denmark will get about 60 percent of Hans Island, and Canada will settle for the balance. The deal will solidify the line dividing Canada and Denmark as the world’s longest maritime border, stretching some 2,400 miles. It was sealed on Tuesday by the two states’ foreign ministers at a ceremony that included the signing of documents — and, yes, an exchange of whisky and schnapps.
This whole episode got me thinking back to something I wrote more than a decade ago about a 2010 incident in which a Google Maps error incorrectly adjusted the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica by a couple of miles. This prompted an opportunistic Nicaraguan military unit to briefly occupy a small, uninhabited Costa Rican island. The incident itself was mostly eye-poking by the Nicaraguans over a river-dredging dispute along its shared border with Costa Rica, and the troops withdrew without further incident. But it raised a lot of interesting questions about what it means when corporations rather than countries ultimately control how we make and maintain our maps. It might sound trivial, but just ask business owners in the Florida city that Google Maps temporarily “lost.” Or the Costa Ricans. Maps matter, as much when they’re wrong as when they’re correct — and sometimes even more so.
This has nothing to do with drinks, I just find it interesting and this is my newsletter and you get it for free ;)
In other fun map news, did you know what happens to all the data that your apps, Fitbits, and other GPS-enabled technology can’t properly geotag? Welcome to Null Island, ‘the most real of fictional places.’
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What We’re Drinking in June
Here at Ab Ovo HQ, we get to sample a whole lot of really great beverages. In this month’s extended What We’re Drinking, we’re sharing all the best things we’ve been sipping over the past few weeks, including a lovely Sloe Gin, a couple of ideal summertime wines, and a RTD cocktail that we actually like.
Stauning ‘El Clásico’
Stauning makes whisky on the edge of the North Sea, in the Danish village from which it takes its name. This latest entry in its experimental Research Series places a blend of 70% rye whisky (matured in new American oak) and 30% malted whisky (matured in ex-bourbon barrels) into Spanish vermouth casks to finish. The resulting whisky packs plenty of warm rye spice, but it’s also rich in brooding red fruit and bitter herbal notes unmistakably imparted by those ex-vermouth casks. If this doesn’t conjure memories of the best Manhattan you’ve ever had, you haven’t been drinking good Manhattans. [$90/available in US later this year]
Suntory ‘The Premium Malt’s’ Pilsner
We don’t cover beer very often on this feed, but it’s hard to argue with a crisp, well-poured pilsner. Japan’s Suntory has rolled out its delightfully foamy “The Premium Malt’s” (yes, that’s the proper spelling and punctuation; no, I don’t know why) pilsner alongside a complete rethink of the technique by which it’s poured. A new draught system developed by Suntory helps bartenders achieve consistent pours with a perfect 7:3 ratio of beer to creamy foam, resulting in a richer mouthfeel and an all-around more pleasurable drinking experience. Available now in select restaurants in NYC, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, The Premium Malt’s will arrive in more U.S. cities soon.
Ford’s Sloe Gin
Sloe Gin acquired a questionable reputation in the U.S. some years back, largely due to a proliferation of legitimately bad representations of the product during the 1970s. Even in the U.K., where sloe gin enjoys a more favorable status as a genteel beverage, the sweet-yet-bitter spirit has stagnated somewhat. But everything old is eventually new again, and Ford’s Gin — itself a go-to pour around Ab Ovo HQ — thinks this is sloe gin’s moment to reemerge. By steeping Ford’s Gin in sloe berries (red, slightly bitter fruits that grow readily in the hedgerows of England and France) and adding a little sweetener you end up with a nicely balanced mix of jammy red fruit, slightly bitter botanical, juniper, and citrus. At a time when consumers can’t get enough of the Negroni and Aperol Spritz, it’s a cocktail ingredient with lots of potential upside. [$34]
Planeta Nocera 2017
Nocera is one of Sicily’s many indigenous grapes, and within that subset it’s still something of a rarity, cultivated on only a few hectares in the province of Messina. Planeta grows these grapes on young vines in alluvial soils just 30 meters above sea level. Is that what gives this wine its maritime character? Depends on if you’re a believer in terroir, I guess. I can confirm this bottle has something interesting going on, with lots of young red fruit tinged with a little algae and sea spray (in a very good way). Pair it with scallops or other heartier seafood if you want. I did, to fantastic effect. [$40]
The GlenDronach Cask Bottling Series Batch 19
Every so often the absolute geniuses at The GlenDronach dig through the Highland distillery’s ample stocks of aged Scotch whisky and pull out a handful of choice casks for bottling. Batch 19 of this Cask Bottling series includes three casks laid down between 1992 and 1994 in either Oloroso or Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. Translation: This Scotch is very mature, and it’s been maturing in the best way possible. These are special bottles that won’t be particularly easy to find or inexpensive to acquire; they retail in the $600-800 range, depending on the expression. But it’s not a stretch to say they’re still fantastic values at these prices, particularly the 1992 vintage aged in PX sherry wood. [$600-800] Too rich for your blood? The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 10, a blend of Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso casked whiskies, also just hit store shelves at a much more manageable hundred bucks. [$99]
Batch & Bottle Monkey Shoulder Lazy Old Fashioned
I’ve had a really hard time finding ready-to-drink bottled cocktails that I like (because I’m a snob, I guess). The first step in RTD-making so often seems to be “sub out the name-brand ingredients for nameless commodity spirits and add several artificial flavors and preservatives.” William Grant & Sons — makers of Glenfiddich Whisky, Hendricks Gin, etc. — decided to bottle some RTD drinks that actually include things like Glenfiddich Whisky, Hendrick’s Gin, etc. And you know what? They’re not bad at all, particularly the Old Fashioned (made with Monkey Shoulder blended whisky) and — dare I say? — the Cosmopolitan. A bottle will pour out 3-5 cocktails. [$25]
Le Moné Meyer Lemon Apéritif
Built around a Finger Lakes Traminette wine augmented with Meyer lemon and then fortified with California brandy and organic agave, Le Moné defies conventional classification. It’s tasty though — a refreshing, citrusy, relatively-low-ABV cooler that begs to be consumed on a blanket in the sunshine. The brand suggests using it in all kinds of cocktails, which I’m sure are good. It’s plenty enjoyable alone, over ice, in the late afternoon. [$35]
Most of us pay little attention to white wines from Priorat, the Spanish region renowned for its punchy garnacha reds. NELIN makes a strong argument for placing Priorat whites on a pedestal. Made from white garnacha and macabeo, the 2019 vintage packs tons of fresh tropical fruit and a little orchard peach and green apple within a structure that says “I have been thoughtfully matured for just long enough in just the right amount of oak.” [$70]
Russia’s war on Ukraine threatens decades of winemaking progress • Why life as a millennial is so stinkin’ dull • Mezcal with a truly feminist spirit • Nothing is a spritz if everything is a spritz • Lords complain of ‘poor wine’ and too much salmon in Parliament • “Apocalyptic” hail storms hit French wine regions • ‘Fairy Tale’ Farms Are Ruining Hudson Valley Agriculture • Airbnb introduces new ‘Vineyard’ category • Whiskey sales will surpass vodka in the U.S. by the end of this year • California Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen has died at 78.