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Smoke Blog: The Relativity

When there’s work to be done. #jameson #caskmates #irishwhiskey #whiskey #smoke #cigar #foundrycigars #therelativity #writing A post shared by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on Aug 13, 2017 at 4:08pm PDT The good thing about these cigars is they burn for a long time. The bad thing about these cigar is they burn for a long time.

New Kitten, New Lessons

Meet Tenacious C. I’d never been a cat person, but if we don’t have a cat around we get a lot of mice from the corn field behind our house. Since then, cats have grown on me. Even though they tend to be assholes. Our first two cats, Ninja and Ghost, were pretty cool, but

Distillery Tour: Blaum Bros

I dig distillery tours. I’ve been on two now, and while they were very similar, I enjoyed seeing their processes and comparing their business plans, as well as sampling their products. If you pay close attention, it’s an educational opportunity, too. There’s a science lesson in the chemistry and physics of the fermentation, distillation, and

Booze and a Book: Bourbon and Bikers

The Booze: Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon I’d heard a lot of good things about Michter’s, so I snagged a bottle while I was at a local shop picking up a cigar for a friend. I cracked it open shortly before writing this, and I quite enjoyed the sweet smell. First little taste, neat, carried

The Amateur Mechanic

SHE LIVES! (And miraculously is not on fire after I performed minor maintenance.) #motorcycle #honda #shadow #bike #vtwin #lenore A post shared by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on Jun 14, 2017 at 6:18pm PDT I find working on my motorcycle both satisfying and humbling. Some of my friends, including those who also ride, are often surprised

Smoke Blog: The Relativity

The good thing about these cigars is they burn for a long time.

The bad thing about these cigar is they burn for a long time.

If you have the time to commit, Foundry has another winner in The Relativity. I have the Churchill size (7″x58), and every stick has burned for a good two hours or more. Very enjoyable, but try to rush them and they bite back.

This cigar claims a Sumatran wrapper with a blended Nicaraguan/Dominican/Honduran filler, giving them a bold, leathery flavor without the oily taste or feel that comes with some darker blends. They are rolled tight, sometimes resulting in a tough draw at first, but a little extra poking and fiddling cleans it up nice, especially toward the end. What surprises me most is the gentle finish: there’s very little aftertaste given the strength of the smoke.

I’ve paired them with several different bourbons, a couple of ryes, and Irish whiskeys, some spicy and some sweet, and it’s worked out well every time. The Relativity is strong enough to hold its own against the whiskeys, yet doesn’t overpower them, either.

All told, The Relativity is a bold but relaxing smoke for cigar fans. If you’ve got a couple hours to kill in your favorite spot, or you’re catching a game or hanging out at a cigar lounge, you could do a lot worse. It’s not one I’d give to casual smokers, or those who tend to get impatient with their cigars.

New Kitten, New Lessons

Meet Tenacious C.

Camouflage! #cat #kitten #catstagram

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I’d never been a cat person, but if we don’t have a cat around we get a lot of mice from the corn field behind our house. Since then, cats have grown on me.

Even though they tend to be assholes.

Our first two cats, Ninja and Ghost, were pretty cool, but they had that feline aloofness many of you are familiar with. Ninja showed an “I own you” rather than “I need you” attitude. Unfortunately she wasn’t ninja enough to dodge a car in the street. Ghost, meanwhile, fought everything that moved, and he killed a whole lot of birds. He disappeared, and I assume he picked a fight out of his weight class.

Then we adopted an older cat from my in-laws, and she was a crabby old lady. She made a decent lap cat, but she couldn’t be bothered to chase things anymore. We figure she was about 21 when she died in June, so she had a good run.

A local shelter offered free cat adoptions (including neutering) in July, so we got the little guy pictured above. So far, he’s a little different. He loves being around us, being handled, and sleeping on or near us. He played a lot when he came home, but once he got over a cold he’d picked up at the shelter, he turned into a coked-up toddler.

I’m sure I could regale you with standard tales of kitten cuteness, but here’s what’s been different for me with this guy:

  • We’ll hear something scurry behind us, then turn around and there’s nothing there. Then we’ll hear it behind us on the other side. Again, nothing. It’s like living in a horror movie.
  • If something moves, he’ll attack it. If something is stationary, like a chair leg, he’ll attack that, too.
  • Eating is now take a bite, drop the cat on the floor. Take another bite, drop the cat on the floor.
  • Cooking is now stir what’s in the pan, block the cat from jumping on the stove. Stir what’s in the pan again, block the cat from jumping on the stove again.
  • We’re dicks for not sharing whatever’s in the cup we’re drinking from.
  • Nothing tests your power of concentration like a kitten attacking your toes on the third rep of a heavy bench press set.
  • “He won’t be able to climb that.” Yes he will. Except my barbell tree. That’s his Kryptonite.
  • Onions are toys. (I’m waiting to see if this changes after he bites one.)
  • Cats learn from their mistakes after all. After one disastrous leap, he knows to make sure the toilet lid is down before he jumps up on it.

We’re going to try to keep this guy indoors, see if he outlasts his predecessors. Our vet agrees. He says, “Letting a cat outside is like letting a teenager out after midnight: nothing good comes of it.”

Fair enough. Here’s hoping he’ll be teaching me new things about cats for a long time to come.

Distillery Tour: Blaum Bros

I dig distillery tours.

I’ve been on two now, and while they were very similar, I enjoyed seeing their processes and comparing their business plans, as well as sampling their products. If you pay close attention, it’s an educational opportunity, too. There’s a science lesson in the chemistry and physics of the fermentation, distillation, and aging, yet there’s also a strong sense of craftsmanship in the final product. You learn about their marketing and advertising, from the business plan through the branding and the design of the labels. There’s even a bit of career education as you’re touring an actual workplace and seeing the labor involved.

And of course there are souvenirs

A local friend has visited Galena, Illinois several times, and when he heard I was planning a short trip to the area, he told me about the Blaum Bros distillery. My family had no problem indulging my curiosity, so I hit the Blaum Bros website and snapped up some tickets. (Some distillery tours are free, some charge a modest fee. Blaum Bros will set you back $10 per ticket. It’s worth it.)

The distillery’s on the main drag on the way into town from the south, a small building with a white spire reminiscent of an old, rural city hall. You enter into the gift shop, but they have a nice lounge and bar area with some huge leather chairs and a gorgeous bar.

We were a good twenty minutes early, and I’m not exactly known for my patience, so I ordered an Old Fashioned and chatted up the bartender. I watched him closely as he put it together, as I’m still getting a feel for mixing up my own Old Fashioned cocktails. He served it up with fresh-peeled orange zest, something I may have to add to my Old Fashioned game.

Also, he nailed it. I’d only had a few Old Fashioneds at average bars, but his was easily the best I’d tasted so far. That sold me on a bottle right there.

The tour started in the lounge with a brief history of the company, and the guide confirmed some of the things the bartender already told me: the distillery had been there about three-and-a-half years, so their own bourbon was not quite mature enough for release. However, they blended their initial offerings with spirits distilled in Indiana and they dubbed them Knotter Bourbon and Knotter Rye. Say it quick and you’ll hear it as “not our bourbon.” Once their home-grown product is ready to go, it’ll be released as Galena Bourbon. I look forward to trying it.

The still

We moved into main distillery, where we learned they’d imported the still from Germany. This one was much bigger than the other I’d seen, with extra columns for distilling vodka, and they had juniper and coriander on hand for making gin. As with my last distillery tour, they discussed their mash bills and manufacturing process, and we got to see all of their equipment.

I’m not a vodka or gin guy, but I enjoyed learning how they’re made. Those tall columns in the photo above are used for the vodka distilling, where it’s refined down to a much lower proof and then mixed up to its bottle proof. I half expected there to be sacks of potatoes around for the vodka, but it turns out vodka is mostly distilled from wheat and other grains these days.

Next we moved on to their barrel house, which has more of a simple warehouse feel. Barrel houses are not climate controlled, as the seasonal fluctuation in temperature helps with the aging process. Fortunately we were there on a relatively cool day.

Here we also got to see the distillery is working on some experimental barrels and blends in addition to their planned releases.

A Bloody Butcher barrel

They dubbed one of those blends “Bloody Butcher” and stamped the barrels with a small haunted house logo. Bourbon must have at least 50% corn in its mash bill, and for this one the brothers decided to try red Indian corn. I have to admit, I’m curious if it will turn out to taste any different from regular bourbon.

The tour ended back in the bar with samples. They served up three of their products: the Knotter Bourbon, their gin, and their Hellfyre vodka. As I said, I’m not a gin fan, but I could taste and smell the hint of orange in it. The Hellfyre is made with peppers for easy mixing in a Bloody Mary (or, as the tour guide suggested, in hot chocolate), and I picked up a strong taste of jalapeño. This stuff is hot enough that it has its own dedicated machine for bottling to prevent the peppers from contaminating other products.

I would have chosen to try the rye if given an option, but I decided to take my chances and buy a small bottle of rye. I brought home both the Knotter Bourbon and the Knotter Rye, and my first impressions of both are good. I’ll try to write up some separate reviews in the near future. The Knotter Rye neat is excellent.

I found it interesting to compare the Blaum Bros business plan with that of our local East Peoria distiller, JK Williams. Because bourbon must, by law, be aged for at least two years, it takes some time before a new operation has something to sell. If a business is going to pay the bills and keep the lights on, they need product.

JK Williams solved this problem by releasing some unaged product for mixing, as well as some fruited whiskeys. They also released their “Young Buck Bourbon” which is made the same but simply isn’t aged as long and thus isn’t officially bourbon.

Blaum Bros, on the other hand, expanded into vodka and gin in addition to the Knotter Bourbon and Rye made with someone else’s spirits. I thought that was a good approach, as it gives a sense of the taste the brothers might be looking for in their own product.

Overall, it was well worth the hour or so we spent there. Whether you’re a whiskey enthusiast or are just looking for something to do in the area, drop in and check it out.

Booze and a Book: Bourbon and Bikers

The Booze: Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

I’d heard a lot of good things about Michter’s, so I snagged a bottle while I was at a local shop picking up a cigar for a friend. I cracked it open shortly before writing this, and I quite enjoyed the sweet smell. First little taste, neat, carried a similar creamy vanilla sweetness.

On ice it changed a bit, as if the cold dulled much of the sweetness. It’s still pretty great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not getting the same unique flavor. I’m going to come back to this one neat sometime before passing judgement.

The Book: Freedom: Credos from the Road by Sonny Barger

This is another one I read a few chapters at a time between other books. I bought it partly out of curiosity, partly for inspiration while noodling on some characters in Lucifer’s Swords from The Pack and possible spin-offs.

On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable book. Barger shares a lot of insight and life lessons, and the biographical side is interesting reading. His perspective of The System and The Man may be skewed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that need to be addressed. He even shares a bit of advice and philosophy, usually conveyed through riding metaphors.

On the down side, Barger—like way too many people today—has a very selfish idea of freedom. There’s a lot of my freedom is more important than your freedom, and if yours doesn’t jive, then to hell with you. He demonstrates patriotism for an American ideal, but also some entitlement. Essentially, “I served my country, I should be able to do what I want”. It tends to fall somewhere between Libertarianism and anarchy, with a healthy dash of might makes right. Brotherhood over law, freedom over justice.

It all sounds good until one realizes the mightiest won’t remain so forever. When the top dog ignores others’ freedoms for his own, and someone within a brotherhood divides its loyalties, it’s only a matter of time before that top dog hits rock bottom.

The Amateur Mechanic

I find working on my motorcycle both satisfying and humbling.

Some of my friends, including those who also ride, are often surprised I do some of my own maintenance. It’s simple stuff, mostly, like changing the oil and filter, changing the brake fluid, or swapping the brake pads. This week I changed the battery, and I hope to put new spark plugs and cables on her soon.

My mechanic friends, on the other hand, stop just short of patting me on the head and saying, “That’s cute, kid.” I don’t have the tools or the right combination of skill and desire to get much fancier than that. I don’t need the front wheel falling off the fork at 60mph, or the whole thing going wobbly because I didn’t align the rear axle.

Also, I find it’s the little things that kick my ass. Consider this negative battery terminal:

Designed by Satan

The access hole to get to it is just a hair bigger than the terminal block itself, and the cable connection blocks the view of the nut. To make matters worse, the cables and the chassis make it impossible to go at the nut straight on with a screwdriver. What should take seconds becomes several clumsy minutes of cussing and dropped screws.

I also have a superpower: I can banish screws into the fifth dimension, never to be seen again. When I first removed the positive screw port, it tumbled into the chassis somewhere. I heard it *clink* against metal, but it never made it to the ground. I searched all around the gap it fell into, rocked the bike to shake it loose, all to no avail.

Knowing my luck, I worried it was sitting neatly in a gap in the drive chain, waiting to get pulled into the sprockets and tear them apart. This led to a new experiment: opening the sprocket guard to double check. No screw, just more lost time and an opportunity to remove some chain lube build-up.

Another screw disappeared from the battery cover some time ago (probably when I installed the battery minder cables). This one was 25mm (about 1″) long. You’d think it’d have been easy to find. Nope. Fifth dimension, man.

I’d also been searching for the radiator fill cap for some time. As in, since last season. Yes, you can laugh. The coolant reservoir is easy to spot. Even after consulting my trusty Haynes manual, I just could not find the damned fill cap. Someone even tried to tell me my bike doesn’t have coolant, just a radiator fan, because it’s “only” a 600.

I looked it up again this week while I had the manual in hand, noted again that it said “behind the passenger foot peg” and consulted the photos. No, still not making sense. But then I shifted perspective a little, saw a knob, leaned down farther. . .

“AHA!” So loud my daughter came outside wondering if I’d broken something, or if I’d tipped the bike over on my head. (She has such confidence in her dad.)

The cap was tiny, it was camouflaged, and it’s probably also a fifth-dimensional object only visible when the stars align in proper configuration.

Okay, maybe not. But the tube itself is no fatter than a #2 pencil, so it probably just didn’t register as a the reservoir fill in my mechanically-challenged brain.

(Side note: I felt a lot less stupid when purchasing the coolant today. I hit an auto parts store and told the clerk I just needed coolant for my motorcycle. He looked at me like I was speaking Greek, and no shit, I had to repeat it twice and say, “You know, the stuff that goes in a radiator?” before he pointed me to the right aisle.)

There’s a lot of satisfaction in saying, “I did this!” Even for simple tasks. It reminds me I’ve got a lot to learn, too. It’s kaizen: continual improvement. Just like my wife, Lenore’s pretty good at keeping me in my place.

Now on the Summer agenda is flushing the whole coolant system. This requires removing the gas tank, which the Haynes manual rates as two wrenches (of five) in difficulty. We’ll see.

Hard to believe I’ve had Lenore for eight years now. I’d like to upgrade before long, but in the meantime, she’s been a great practice bike. If I can keep her running, I should be able to do the same for the Harleys and Indians I’ve been eyeballing.

Right?

Smoke Blog: Rocky Patel Strada

It’s National Bourbon Day. Cheers! #bourbon #whiskey #straightedge #cigar #rockypatel #strada #nationalbourbonday

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It’s National Bourbon Day, so I’m sitting here enjoying a tasty glass of Straight Edge bourbon, enjoying a mild thunderstorm and a break in the heat, and hoping this cigar will match its quality.

I usually like the Rocky Patel labels, but never have I had a more uneven box of cigars than the Strada. I’ll come back to flavor in a moment, as the quality is where they suffer the most. One cigar will burn fine, but the next will have burn issues and either fizzle out or burn unevenly. Two of them spat and sputtered, as if burning into pockets of moisture, and one popped a few times and sprayed small bits of burning ash onto my table. I thought it might be a problem with my humidor, but none of my other cigars have had these problems.

The Strada is billed as a medium-body smoke, but I would rate it closer to full. The draw gives up pleasant hints of pepper, but the finish is leathery. Those that burned well, I mostly enjoyed. Those that did not left a very dry, ashy finish on the palate that required a strong drink for balance. Avoid sweet cocktails; that’ll just be a mess.

Construction varied as well. None unraveled during smoking, nor did any break or crack during cutting. The ash was often brittle, however, making them a messy cigar and a bit of a gamble to smoke while getting some work done at a laptop. Even a short ash might break off while puffing, which has happened to me twice while typing this post.

Like most of my sticks, they were on sale. Where I lucked out with the Gurkha Legend, the Rocky Patel Strada is a good reminder that in most cases I get what I pay for and I should probably stash away some extra pennies and stick to my favorites.

But hey, at least the Straight Edge is still killer, as I’ve previously written.

On to the next batch.

Booze and a Book: Scotch and Zen

The Booze: Monkey Shoulder Scotch Whisky

Scotch has been very hit and miss for me, with mostly misses. Some of them are overwhelmed by that smokey, peaty flavor Scotch is known for, and it generally turns me off. Fortunately that note is mellowed in Monkey Shoulder, allowing the malt and a bourbon-y sweetness to come through. It makes this whisky a mellower, more soothing drink.

Monkey Shoulder goes down smooth and easy, too, and I enjoy it both straight or on the rocks. I’m going to recommend larger cubes or whiskey stones for this one, though, as the melting ice waters it down quick.

At the moment I’m enjoying Monkey Shoulder with the last of my Gurkha Legends, and neither is overwhelming the other. Good times.

The Book: The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

“The Dude abides.” The classic The Big Lebowski character is a starting point in the conversations of life and Zen philosophy between actor Jeff Bridges and Zen master Bernie Glassman. In fact, the book is simply a transcript rather than a standard narrative.

I first ran into this book sitting at a friend’s basement bar. I was waiting for him to finish something upstairs, so I picked it up and read the first chapter, and I enjoyed it. A few days later, I saw several copies sitting on a remainder pile for around five bucks at our local Barnes & Noble, so I snapped up a copy for myself.

That was over a year go. It’s been sitting on my nightstand ever since, buried under my Kindle and a handful of martial arts-related books. I felt a bit angry and down the other night, so I pulled The Dude and the Zen Master out of the stack, dusted it off, and started reading.

In true Zen fashion, it was just what I needed, exactly when I needed it. It made me reexamine a few things and look at them in a new light, and it made me feel a hell of a lot better. A hundred pages later, I forced myself to put it down so I could get at least a little bit of sleep before my alarm went off later that morning.

I’ve harbored a minor interest in Zen philosophy while I’ve been involved in the martial arts these past ten years or so, but not so much its religious trappings. What I like about this book is it’s not preachy at all, and while Bridges & Glassman discuss meditation on occasion, they’re not telling the reader he must do this or that to reach enlightenment. It’s simply two guys discussing how they’ve found their paths and the things they’ve encountered in their lives, with a little sprinkling of The Dude for flavor.

Good stuff, and I’m looking forward to finishing it.

Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman on cigars in “The Dude and the Zen Master.” Word. #quote #cigars #books #zen

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Smoke Blog: Gurkha Legend

Who has two thumbs and can get more work done because he's not at the family reunion? THIS GUY RIGHT HERE WOOHOO

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I lucked into a special deal on the Gurkha Legend at Cigars International, and let me tell you, I’ve been pretty happy with them.

They’re not an awesome smoke, but they were well worth the couple bucks a stick I paid for them. They’re a light, creamy, good-for-any-time cigar and they have been easy to share around with friends. A non-discerning smoker was very pleased with his, and another friend who prefers lighter smokes was similarly impressed. I’ve smoked them solo, paired with straight bourbon, and paired with cocktails, and they never let me down.

Tonight I enjoyed one while getting a little writing work done at long last, and I’m a bit sorry to see I’m getting to the end of the box. Good construction, a fair bit of smoke, a smooth draw, and no vicious aftertaste. Consistent, and light without being overly creamy or sweet. All told, they’re a solid smoke I wouldn’t hesitate to order again if CI offers another great deal.

Gurkha has risen toward the top of my favorite labels. I’ve smoked a couple of their labels that just weren’t for me, but were still solid smokes. Gurkha has yet to make me say, “Wow, they really missed the mark on this one.”

If you’re trying to stock a humidor on a budget, the Gurkha Legend might be tough to beat. If you’ve got money to burn, I might still lean toward Avo, or the Romeo y Julieta Reserva Real.

You’ve Gotta Keep Moving

They say Sunday’s supposed to be a day of rest, but that’s not been true for me for a long time. It’s the only day of the week I have no work obligations at either of my jobs, so it’s become a day I get my longer workouts done.

My family is gone in the morning, so that’s when I hit the dojo for practice. I always work kata or other elements of my style (Shuri-ryu), practice some kobudo, and sometimes work in some calisthenics or makiwara work. I do more teaching than practicing these days, so it’s become an important time to get my own practice in and work on corrections and advice from my instructors. In general, though, I’m aiming to get a good sweat.

Later in the evening, when there’s nothing going on at the school I work for, my eldest son and I to sneak into their weight room for squats and related leg exercises. My middle son and I have karate together, so this has the added bonus of spending time with his brother.

Legs: "This all you got?" Knees: "ARE YOU CRAZY!?" #legday #squats #bodybuilding #fitness #gym

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I’ve been lifting consistently for about five years, and now that he’s old enough, my son’s caught the bug. I have an Olympic bench and barbell set in my office, and we use that at home for separate workouts. We can do leg curls and extensions on my bench, but nothing beats squats, and I don’t have space at home for a power rack or squat stands.

I’ve thought about hitting the school gym on my own for some time now, but for safety’s sake I waited until I had a partner available. My son’s still a bit small to spot me, but now he’s there to call for help if I have an accident and go down.

Funny thing is, most people still tell me, “You’re too old for that stuff.”

I don’t claim to be a paragon of health, but I’ve seen results. I move better than most people my age. I can lift more than most guys half my age. My heart’s strong, and my doctor doesn’t ride me about my weight. My gut doctor remarked on how much muscle I’m carrying, and even my friends have noticed a difference.

My goal isn’t to get down to 5% body fat and compete in fitness competitions, nor do I intend to step into a cage and fight. I just want to stay healthy. Some of the martial arts instructors I train with are in their 60s and 70s, and when I get to be their age, I want to be active and moving like they are. They may have slowed down a bit, but they’re in far better shape than most of their peers. When people say “move it or lose it,” those are the men and women I picture. They stayed active and it’s paid off for them.

Meanwhile, the naysayers are all trying fad diets or cleanses. They don’t look for the shortcuts because they’re lazy, they just buy into the “you’re too old for that” bullshit and are looking for another solution.

 

A big part of cutting fat is exercise. It’s not just common sense, it’s proven science:

The other part of it is diet. My own diet can still use a few tweaks, and it doesn’t help that I’ve got a bum thyroid. However, fad diets and cleanses are unsustainable. What’s more is some of them prompt the body to tear down muscle, because muscle is expensive to maintain (calorically speaking). So while those weird shakes might result in temporary weight loss, they can also leave people in worse physical shape.

Most of us think about fat and muscle when we’re talking about fitness, but as we age we should also be thinking about bone health. I’ve seen several older folks with shattered wrists and hips after simple falls. Even moderate activity helps keep bones strong. It’s called Wolff’s Law, and the most obvious example of it I’ve witnessed is in the protruding knuckles of a karate practitioner who has spent a lot of time punching things.

You feel the difference when they punch you, too.

“Too old for this stuff?” Not by a long shot.

Find whatever makes you move and do it! Run. Hit a gym. Join a softball or soccer team. Play racquetball or tennis. Take yoga or spin classes. Ride a bike. Do you. The martial arts just happen to work for me, and it inspires me to dabble in other things like yoga and running so I can be better at karate and judo. There’s bound to be an art that fits your interests, and a good martial arts instructor can often double as a personal trainer.

You’re not too old. My oldest student is 69 years young and trains alongside his grandson. And yes, you have time.

Get to work.

Why Whiskey?

Short answer: Why not?

Thirst in Amber

The long answer: It turns out, in addition to my other food allergies, I’m allergic to barley. All those times I had heartburn after drinking a few beers with friends? That was the allergy kicking me in the guts. I can do ciders, wheat beer, or even sorghum beer, but no more standard barley beers for me.

The good news is, though, if you distill the stuff, it’s harmless. For years I’d only dabbled with some of the well whiskeys and bourbons if people bought me a shot, but then a friend turned me on to Jameson Irish Whiskey, and another friend turned me on to Woodford Reserve, and pretty soon I realized there was a whole new world out there to explore. Add cocktails to the mix and that world becomes even bigger.

I’ve enjoyed reading up on regional blends and flavors, and learning the differences in their histories and what makes a bourbon a bourbon and a Scotch a Scotch. I’m sure I’ll flirt with a few other liquors as well (I’ve had some really good tequilas), but for the moment I’ve barely put a dent in the bourbon selection.

Favorites right now include Four Roses Small Batch, Woodford Reserve, and, from right here in East Peoria, Illinois, J.K.’s Straight Bourbon. The bar where I enjoy my cigars has Knob Creek, which I like okay, but they’ve jacked up the price on it, which sucks.

It’s also given me a good excuse to do the Booze and a Book thing. Look for another entry next week.

Booze and a Book: Cocktail and Comics

The Booze: An Old Fashioned cocktail

I mixed this one up with Redemption bourbon, simple syrup, and spiced orange bitters from Beehive Bitters. The Old Fashioned has quickly become my go-to cocktail because it softens even the harshest of bourbons without completely killing the flavor. It’s also a great way to enhance a a low-grade bourbon and make it more enjoyable.

I rather like the Redemption bourbon straight or in a cocktail. It has a 21% rye mash, so it has just a bit of a spicy kick to make it stand out from some other bourbons.

A traditional Old Fashioned calls for Angostura bitters, but I won a small bottle of the Beehive Bitters through an online offer and it’s a much better flavor. I’ve been nursing the bottle along, and I’m sure I’ll buy one or two of their other flavors when this bottle is done.

The Book: Mage: The Hero Discovered by Matt Wagner

I first read Mage back in high school when two clerks at my local comic shop told me how much they loved it. It was already done and collected in three volumes by then, so I purchased the first one. Before the end of the week, I’d returned for the second two.

I’ve loved this book since. It’s a modern retelling of the Arthurian legend, and it’s just a very clever, beautiful book. It’s been ages since I’ve read it myself, so I’m long overdue for a reread. My sons have both read it, and if you look carefully you can see some of the pages have fallen out because they even re-read it a time or two. I may have to order a new volume.

The second series, Mage: The Hero Defined, is boxed up in single issues somewhere in my longbox collection. I kind of expected the boys to go looking for it, but they never did. I may have to pick up a collected edition of that, too.

The main reason I chose this book this week, though, is because it’s finally been announced that the final series, Mage: The Hero Denied, will be published at last. It’s hard to believe it’s been 18 years since Defined was published. I can’t wait!

What is a Life Worth?

Apparently about a hundred bucks.

As a gift card for a local burger joint, too

Last year in January and February, we had a lot more cold and snow than this year. A blizzard roared through one Saturday, and after it quit I went out to hang out with some friends. While I was out, the winds kicked up, the temps plummeted to about 8°F (below 0° with the wind chill), and snow started drifting across most of the roads. By the time I headed home shortly before 1am, things got messy.

I live in a rural area. The wind rips across the corn fields unimpeded, and the population and traffic is low enough in our county that the state’s plowing policy is to aim for 75% clearance. In effect, this means, “You’re on your own, folks.” Also, when climbing out of the Illinois River valley, the hills can turn sketchy quick.

I’ve lived here long enough to get a feel for which roads get the most care, so I gambled on a secondary route home. I also knew the north-south roads would be the worst, and I chose the one that would have the best chance of being clear.

I chose poorly. Once I crossed the county line, road conditions went to crap. A thick layer of snow covered the road about a half mile short of the next town, and when I spotted a pair of flashing taillights up ahead, I stopped.

A second later, this dude comes walking toward me. He’s tall and skinny, wearing nothing but jeans and a hoodie. I get him into the van to get warm, and he tells me his car’s stuck in the snow, maybe partly on the shoulder but mostly on the road. He lives in the town just up ahead, but there’s no way we’re getting through that way.

What’s more, he was getting ready to walk home. He has no phone. In my head I’m thinking this is how a lot of horror flicks start. But he’s about a buck fifty soaking wet, and he’s half frozen, so he’s less than a threat. He uses my phone to call his wife, and we discuss to another nearby town with a Walmart, where his wife can pick him up.

I tell him no way should she be coming out in this mess. I’m too stubborn to grab a hotel room or crash in the car somewhere, especially with a stranger in tow, so I tell him no worries, we’ll try the other route around to his town and see how the roads look.

Back down into the river valley I go. I circle around to my original route and up the hill, which is at least lined with trees before it levels out and cuts across the fields. Turned out it wasn’t such a bad climb after all. A little snow, but no drifts and no ice.

Now this guy, picture a skinny Tommy Chong with long hair—like, past-the-shoulder-blades long—and you’ve got the idea. He was on his way back from a gig with his band, and he works for a music shop in Peoria. Lots of “right on, man” in conversation. We talked about our jobs, our families. Cool dude.

So I get him to town. He lived just off the main drag, and the walk from his stranded car to his house would have been a little over a mile. Again, in sub-zero winds, wearing just a hoodie.

Yeah, he’d never have made it.

Even if he’d had a Tauntaun, it would have frozen before he reached the first marker. We did pass a squad car parked in a bank’s driveway to watch the road, but unless that officer was there the whole time and happened to see him walking by, he’d have dropped from hypothermia and I’d have been reading his obit the following week.

We agreed he was very fortunate. I don’t normally drive that way home, and if I’d been five minutes later, he’d already have left his car. If I hadn’t been stubborn enough to hang out with my friends that night, I wouldn’t have been out there at all. To me, that’s just dumb luck.

To him, it was a bit more than luck. He told his wife God sent him an angel. (Yes, me. Weird, I know.) He called me his angel a couple times, too, and insisted he’d do right by me and buy my wife and I dinner sometime.

I kept thinking, Let’s not make this weird, brother.

I tell him it’s no big deal, I live another ten miles past his town, so either route home still takes me past his place. Even if they didn’t, what am I going to do, flip him the bird and leave him to die? I’d have at least gotten him to a safe, warm place like the 24-hour Walmart or a hotel lobby.

So I get him home. Weeks pass. A thank you note from the guy shows up at work. He closed the note with, “I still owe you!” The Burger Barge gift certificate in the photo above was folded into the page.

Hey, great! My family digs burgers. I throw the card in my notebook and promptly forget about it for the next couple of months.

Summer comes. Kids say they want burgers. Hey, I got this gift card… To the Burger Barge!

My wife and I discussed how much might be loaded on the card. I joked ten bucks. She said maybe fifty, but we settled on $25. We ordered appetizers and let the boys go nuts on burger selection (these guys can eat when we let them). Bill comes to something like $80, and we hand over the gift card.

The waiter comes back, hands it back to me, and wishes us a good day. I automatically hand him my card to pay the balance, and he refuses it.

“You’re good, man. The gift card took the whole thing.”

Well that was unexpected. Jump ahead to this past January, and we used the rest of it. The whole thing was probably around $100.

Not too shabby for a night’s work. Like I said, apparently a man’s life is worth about a hundred bucks.

I kid, of course. Here’s the thing: I’m sure his life’s worth a lot more than a hundred bucks to his wife, who was waiting for him at home that night, wondering why he was so late and fearing the worst. I’m sure it’s worth more than a hundred bucks to their children, even if they are adults themselves.

I’m also sure he could have spent that hundred bucks on better things. I can’t imagine he’s making big bucks working for a music store and doing gigs on the side. That’s a lot of gas and groceries for he and his wife. Or a decent cell phone for next time he’s on the road.

I appreciated that he thought enough of my effort to send me the card, of course, but I’d have been just as content had I never heard from him again. I didn’t pick him up for the reward, and I wouldn’t have been shocked if he never got around to that dinner he’d promised while he was just happy to not be dead on the side of a road. For my side of it, I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I’d turned around and left him there, only to read about him in the paper.

What it comes down to is the value of a human life is what we put on it. With all that’s happening in the news these days, it’d be good if more of us remembered that.