Notes on Philadelphia, the Author’s Life, and What Heaven Hill Means to Me

It’s been a while since I’ve put any voluntary words to paper, and largely it’s because I’ve been struggling on a particular topic.  A couple weeks ago I went down to the City of Cheesesteaks for some brotherly love, and with a serious need to get away.  It was my birthday, though aging plays only nominally into the story, as the other factors influencing me had a far more crushing effect.  In December I started a new job, the grown up kind with a salary and a 401k and a sense of responsibility that lingers in your dreams and has you waking up in the middle of the night thinking you’d forgotten some imaginary documentation.  Since I’d started I hadn’t taken a day off, and I was about to roll-over trying to hit the learning curve at top speed.  Paramount among my difficulties was an intrapersonal struggle, months in the slow deterioration.  Since my final semester of college I have been in a long-distance relationship with a lovely girl who lived first in New Jersey, now in Cooperstown.  We’ve visited as often as possible, but with her in graduate school and my responsibilities that became less often.  It was clear to us both what needed to be done, and after a fair amount of gut-wrenching and negotiating we decided to amicably part paths.  As Giles Corey said at Salem, “More weight.”  It was that weight that I dragged behind me as I left Dover, New Hampshire at 8pm after my shift.  It was that burden I needed to float off.

At 3am on arrival to Philadelphia Ben and I set the track for the weekend to come with a couple pours of cognac and bourbon until we crashed.  The next day was spent gathering supplies for the coming apocalypse and exploring the icy plains of Valley Forge. The evening was spent in fine company eating slabs of smoked meat and drinking whiskey at Fette Sau, then losing my bill roll at Frankford Hall.  Part of my goal for this weekend was to test how I felt as a newly single man.  While drinking whiskey and eating pork belly brought out the Hemingwayan masculinity in my liver my only attempt at talking to a strange woman found me downright disinterested in the sport.  In fact the only female company I enjoyed all weekend was the good naturedly flirting between myself and my good friend’s girlfriend, which was truly just part of the friendly ribbing between Ben and I we’ve always enjoyed.  Anyways, I fell asleep in the cab that night on the way home, drunker, broker, but still not fully cleared of life’s debris.

The next day Ben and a friend of his showed me a bit more of the central city of Philadelphia, the old part where Franklin’s heels clicked cobbles and where the American nation was born in bold treason.  It was a pleasant day, warm and relaxing for aimless strolling, and I always enjoy digging into a new place by foot.  That evening brought in another friend, a Gettysburgian like Ben and myself, who promised to bring a new element to our joint madness. With Ian folie a duex became folie a trois, and we immediately set about destroying our bodies.  First course, Dalessandro’s Cheesesteaks, mine slathered with some incredible hot napalm pepper relish concoction that I wish I was eating now.  Oh, and beer, Smuttynose Porter it was.  We drank and we chatted, we jested and we drank, and somehow we ended up still hungry, eating Utz chips and Ben & Jerry’s coffee ice cream and we ended up drinking whiskey by the glassful in front of the X-files in our old way.  I woke up the next morning on the couch and finished my drink before taking a desperately needed shower.

I emerged from that shower a changed man and with a purpose as I ordered the beginning of the next feast in my underwear, setting Ian to work at the bacon while I prepared myself for my filthiest pleasure, pancakes fried in bacon fat.  Went well with good coffee and gin and tonic.  Fortified we went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a remarkable place, massive with a brilliant collection.  Hours in, our minds became numb and drunk on art, overwhelmed by beauty and genius.  That night fell back to debauchery, with pizza and drunken game playing among Ben’s friends.  At one point Ben, Ian, Ben’s lady and I were all talking while laying on the dining room floor.  That night too ended with ice cream and X-files.  The next morning we came to in the rubble of ourselves.  Ben had to work.  Ian and I had to travel.  We talked and had coffee and groaned and sadly parted in our collective hangover.  On my way to Boston, where I was to celebrate St. Pat’s with my sister I got misled by my GPS and found that despite all my joys, my pains were still there. I screamed at the roads and turned up the music to shock my brain.  Most of all I missed her.  Eventually I made Massachusetts, where my sister lives and so close to where our departed grandparents once lived.  We ate dinner then bounced between a few Southie bars, but I had no heart left in it.  The next morning I wound my way home, dressed and went to work again to earn my stead.

As I write this I’m still unsure of whether that weekend did what was intended.  Did it soften the blow of 2 years ended?  Did it unwind the mechanisms within me, or just wring my liver a little tighter?  I’m not sure I’ll ever be sure.  All I know is that each day that passes things feel a little easier.  I’ve worked 10 straight days since then and have one more to go before a weekend, and the routine has found my nerves less wracked.  As I look back I am certain of one thing, that I had a damned good time.  Among my best college friends with food, drink, and fun to our limits I was able to live, if briefly, a carefree time that I’m not sure I ever fully enjoyed in college.  In honor of this, I shall post a review in tribute to a college staple that, in spite of all the finer whiskies at hand, floated our spirits that weekend as it always had.  Ladies and gentlemen, Heaven Hill.

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Old Friends


Heaven Hill.  Whether or not you realize it, if you’re a drinker, you’re probably familiar with one of their products.  Evan Williams, Old Fitzgerald, Fighting Cock (which I drank for the first time that weekend), Rittenhouse Rye, even Burnett’s vodka, Christian Brothers Brandy, and Hpnotiq—all Heaven Hill.  For me Heaven Hill has always meant Elijah Craig, highbrow, and Heaven Hill white, lowbrow.  In college I often started off highbrow until my taste buds weren’t too picky and there was Heaven Hill, basking in the glory of the bottom shelf at $9.50 a liter.  I always insisted it wasn’t bad.  “There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskies just happen to be better than others,” so Faulkner said.  I concur. Heaven Hill is a gentle and thorough lover, soft on the palate, non-existent on the burn at a mellow 80 proof and cheaper than any date in the history of mankind.  The flavors are dominated by corn sweetness, soft vanilla, a fair touch of rye spice, and a bit of char.  In college I often drank it with numerous dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, it’s pleasant with or without.  To me, Heaven Hill will always have a special place in my gut, and atop Heaven Hill there will always be a happy place I can return to when I want to take a load off.

Review: Knappogue Castle 12 year Single Malt Irish Whiskey or Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of the Floating Cork

Knappogue Castle lies abounding the verdant hillsides of County Clare Ireland.  The great stone walls darken by the year with the thickening centuries of lichen.  Built in 1467 the castle has survived centuries of war, rebellion and rolling fog.  Behind the exterior of this imposing structure is a thin layer of paper, beneath that, robust glass. At the center, the keep.  Whiskey.  Bobbing in this goldenrod liquid? A chunk of cork, and debris from the great disaster that lay it there—but alas! How?  What evil has fallen upon this noble kingdom?!  Okay, the title is misleading—there is no mystery.  My dad came into the living room laughing the other night, stating that he went to pour himself a glass and nothing happened.  The cork broke off into the neck of the bottle and, desperate, he resorted to stranding our little friend for eternity into the bottle.  Sorry for the dramatic vignette, but I needed something to fatten this review up. Back to the point…

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See the broken cork?

The whiskey.  Knappogue Castle 12 year single malt, Irish.  The title wasn’t completely misleading.  Price? $25, on sale.  Knappogue Castle isn’t one of your bigger selling Irish whiskies like the Jameson you probably shot down at some pub (whose price has been skyrocketing in recent years).  Knappogue, however, should not be overlooked.  Colored, and flavored, by 12 years in Bourbon barrels Knappogue develops a pale golden hue and highlighted by light vanilla flavors, strong lemon notes and a certain pleasant grassiness.  I guess that makes it lemongrass?  On the finish the tame 80 proof limits Knappogue’s burn to a slight warmth that adheres to the tongue and leaves you with just a hint of the robust charred interior of the barrel, which a sparking flicker of burn intrigues the upper throat. This is certainly pleasant, smooth and interesting Irish Whiskey.  In fact, buck for bloody buck, I’d say this is the best buy Irish Whiskey.  It’s 12 years aged, single malt, deliciousness is just a buck or two more than the simple and sweet Jameson, and makes each sip so much more interesting.  So what am I saying?  I’m saying St. Shitfaced…I mean St. Patrick’s day, is coming up  and you damn well better be drinking Irish.  So why not drink better Irish?