Medieval Birthplace Of Whiskey To Start Distilling Again

A medieval Scottish abbey that’s hailed as the birthplace of whiskey will soon be the site of a modern distillery.

Lindores Abbey near Fife, Scotland, is the first place on record to have distilled whiskey, when in 1494 it received an order from King James IV. The abbey, founded in the 12th century, has been a ruin for centuries, first being sacked by a mob in 1543, and then thoroughly destroyed by John Knox, founder of Scottish Presbyterianism, in 1559.

Now the Scotsman reports that the owners of the land have launched a £5 million ($8.1 million) project to build a whiskey distillery on the site. Water will come from the abbey’s medieval well and the barley will come from adjacent fields. The distillery will open in two or three years and will include a visitor’s center.

Of course it takes time for whiskey to mature, so landowner Andrew McKenzie Smith is also looking into making gin and flavored liqueur, which mature more rapidly. The Smith family hopes the abbey’s legendary status among whiskey aficionados will bring in business, and are looking into teaming up with Historic Scotland to restore the abbey.

Venice To Toughen Canal Rules After Tourist Dies On Gondola Ride

Venice is one of the few remaining car-free cities in the world, but the famous canals may soon be treated more like roadways following the tragic death of a tourist earlier this month.

A German man died after the gondola he was traveling with his family in was crushed between a dock and a vaporetto, one of the city’s many waterbuses. The vaporetto, which was reversing at the time, didn’t realize anything was wrong and sailed off without a second glance.In response, the city’s mayor has announced a battery of measures aimed at controlling Venice’s chaotic waterways. The canals will soon be treated much like a street for motor vehicles, with plans to ban cell phone use while operating boats, drug and alcohol tests for drivers and more stringent rules when it comes to turning or overtaking other boats. Plans to station police officers with whistles and signs at various points along the Grand Canal are also one of the 26 measures that have been proposed by the city.

For tourists, the new rules could mean more restrictions on when and where they can take a gondola ride. Gondolas will likely be banned from the Grand Canal before mid-morning, to make room for delivery boats. Gondolas sailing from one side of the Grand Canal to the other may also be forced to cut back.

Gifts From Estonia

When you ditch your wife and kid for a week to go off to Estonia in the middle of the winter, you better bring some cool stuff back. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to find interesting gifts from Estonia. I managed to get a variety of low-cost presents that gave them a taste of what the country is like.

And I mean “taste” literally. As you can see, I mostly brought back food. Estonian cuisine has its own distinct twist. One thing that really stands out is that the Estonians like to confuse their taste buds. That bottle on the left is Vana Tallinn, a rum-based drink mixed with various contrasting flavors to creature a sweet, syrupy drink with a taste I’ve never experienced before. That honey is mixed with pollen, the chocolate is mixed with locally gathered berries and that cheese is some of the smokiest I’ve ever had.

Two gifts were specifically for my kid. One is a book called “The Retribution of Jack Frost,” which includes two Estonian folk tales of the familiar theme of the poor stranger being refused help by a rich person and aided by a poor one. Guess who gets punished and who gets rewarded at the end! I didn’t see much of a choice in English-language titles, but he liked this one and the drawings really catch the Estonian countryside in winter.

He also wanted a cup with a castle on it, so here it is, complete with a picture of Toompea Castle and Pikk Hermann Tower in Tallinn’s medieval Old Town.

Last but not least is an odd wooden refrigerator magnet I found in a retro vinyl shop. Some weird Tom Waits-like figure dancing with crows. It isn’t actually from Estonia but rather handmade by a Lithuanian artist. Hey, you can never have enough refrigerator magnets.

Not going to Estonia? Check out what ended up in our home from Japan and Greece.

Read the rest of my series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

An Education In Mezcal

I inhale. The scent is earthy, smoky. I take a sip, rolling the liquid around my tongue, exploring its flavors. Per instruction, I gurgle. My mouth explodes, the alcohol transforming into a liquid fireball that burns the insides of my cheeks. It takes a few minutes before the sensation expires.

There is a saying: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”

For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, textiles and colonial architecture. Legend has it that a form of the tequila-like liquor existed prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but mezcal as we know it was first distilled by the conquistadors in the 17th century. It is a generic name for spirits distilled from the agave plant, or maguey as it is traditionally called, of which there are 11 types. The state of Oaxaca is the traditional home of mezcal, and the countryside is littered with small family distilleries.

But not all mezcal is created equal. There is a difference between artisanal mezcal and the touristy stuff sold in bodegas across the city. I learned the difference at the Mezcaloteca, a tasting library run by a group dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal production.

It turns out, pure artisanal mezcal isn’t brown – it’s clear. And those larvae at the bottom of the bottle? Pure marketing, intended to bait unassuming tourists with the promise of a G-rated “Fear Factor” experience. (“I can’t believe you actually ate the worm!” your friends back home will gape.)

No, the best artisanal mezcal is crystal clear and worm free. David, our bartender-cum-teacher, filled us in on some other ways to tell the difference.

  • Look for the words “100% agave,” which signifies that the liquor is pure and not mixed with cheaper additives.
  • Make sure that the stated alcohol content is 45% or greater.
  • Check the label for the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
  • Shake the bottle and see if bubbles arise – they should, unless it is a mezcal with more than 55% alcohol content, in which case the bubbles only arise when you stir it.
  • Do not buy mezcal that is reposado or anejado in barrels – the wood destroys the distinct flavors and aromas of the mezcal.
  • Rub a drop of mezcal between your fingers to evaporate it – the scent should be of cooked agave.

Now for tasting the mezcal.

  • Mezcal is traditionally consumed from a gourd or wide-mouthed cup.
  • Pour the drink from one cup to another to see the bubbles rise.
  • Inhale the mezcal. Try to find the aroma that you smelled when you rubbed the mezcal between your fingers. Then inhale with your mouth closed and try to discern other smells. You’ll notice that there is a difference.
  • Sip the mezcal and rinse your mouth for 10 seconds without swallowing. Exhale through your nose. Feel the flavors on your palate.
  • Take another sip, rinse your mouth for 10 seconds, then swallow and feel the burn.

According to David, these flavors are the essence of mezcal.

The Mezcaloteca is located at Reforma 506 in central Oaxaca. Tastings are available by appointment only, though you may be able to piggyback onto another group’s tasting if you swing by at the right time. Prices vary, but a basic four-pour tasting cost us 150 pesos (about US$12). Call +52-01-951-5140082 or email for reservations.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Panama’s Copa Airlines: Free Cocktails In Coach! And They Might Let Your Kids Fly The Plane

Leave it to the fun-loving Panamanians to know how to show their passengers a damn good time. I had some United miles burning a hole in my pocket this winter and wanted to use them for a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The only routing available for my preferred time window was on Panama’s national airline, Copa Airlines, a Star-Alliance member I’d never heard of before.

If I’m flying solo, I’m willing to board just about any aircraft with a logo and a couple of wings on it, but since this was a family trip I thought I’d do my due diligence and Google Copa before booking the flights. At the risk of coming off like a hopeless xenophobe, I should admit right here that I do not associate Panama with here-take-our-lives-in-your-hands-competence and efficiency.

If I was looking for someone who could get three outs in the ninth inning, I might turn to a Panamanian. But for an airline? I had no idea. But I was impressed to learn that Copa has been around for decades and has crashed just once, and that was way back in 1992. Sure, there was another incident when one of their pilots veered off the runway and wrecked one of their planes, but hey, no one died, so no harm no foul.

I also liked the fact that they have a really pretty girl named Ana who provides nuggets of valuable information on their website’s top ten questions page. For example, in response to the apparently very popular question, “Do you speak Spanish?” Ana assures us that sí, the Panamanian staff does indeed speak Spanish. (Now who would have guessed that?)

But we got off to a less than promising start with Copa at O’hare airport on Valentine’s Day.

“You will have to be very patient with us,” warned a clipboard-carrying Copa staffer who was directing travelers into two lines at their counter. “Our computers are broken, so we are doing everything by hand today.”

We arrived at 6 A.M. for an 8.09 flight and by 6:45 we’d barely moved in the line when we noticed that the young woman was directing several late arriving passengers into their business class line, which had been empty. I ducked out of the coach line and complained that people who arrived after us were getting served before us and the woman apologized, opened up a brand new line just for us and assured us that we would be next. I felt moderately embarrassed by the rock star treatment but I was secretly delighted.

After we boarded the plane, I brought my sons, ages 3 and 5, up for a peek in the cockpit and the Copa pilots seemed oddly delighted to meet them. They both doffed their pilot hats, put them on my sons and let them touch a few random buttons before suggesting I go fetch my camera for a few shots. After the photo opp, they suggested I bring the boys back again after the flight was over for a “flight lesson.” Huh?

The aircraft was ice cold and didn’t warm up even an hour into the flight. I’m the kind of person who is always hot, not cold, and I had on a polo shirt and a light jacket and was wrapped to the neck, mummy style, in a Copa blanket but was still freezing. I asked a beautiful Copa stewardess with coffee colored skin and high heels that were like stilts why it was so cold and she looked at me like I was crazy.

“You’re cold? That’s funny because I am perfectly comfortable,” she said with a smile before walking away.

Well, so long as she was comfortable and, let’s face it, so darn cute, that was good enough. A few minutes later, her colleague, a beefy, handsome Panamanian steward in a tight uninform who looked like he would have fit in nicely on Jersey Shore, came by with foil covered plastic tins of enchiladas. For breakfast.

“What’s in the enchiladas?” I asked.

“I have absolutely no idea,” he admitted, seemingly fielding this question for the first time. “Why don’t you try them and find out?”

My wife did just that and reported that they were very edible. (And filled with ham and cheese, let the record show) Around 11 A.M. they came around with a drink cart and I noticed that several passengers- in coach, mind you- were ordering cocktails. I assumed they paid for them and wrote them off as nervous fliers or incorrigible alcoholics.

We arrived on time, and on the way out, the pilots insisted that my sons come back into the cockpit to sit in their seats and horse around. (see video) An hour later, we caught a connecting Copa flight in Panama City bound for San Jose, Costa Rica, and, once again, noticed that quite a few passengers were enjoying cocktails in coach. (Cocktails in Coach- wouldn’t that be a great motto for this or any other airline?)

I didn’t even want one- after having risen at zero-dark thirty, I was shattered but curious. My wife ordered a rum and coke and I asked the stewardess to confirm that it was free.

“Of course it’s free,” she said, as though I’d just asked her a profoundly stupid question.

“And is alcohol ALWAYS free on Copa airline?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “For us, alcohol is always free.”

Now that, my friends, is what I call a damn good airline.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara and egm tacahopeful on Flickr]