Love, war and whisky

Love, war and whisky

Michael Jackson has a few drinks with Buffalo Bill

Musings with Michael Jackson | 04 Jun 2004 | Issue 40 | By Michael Jackson

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So long as red-haired women walk the earth and John Jameson distils whiskey, I can be sure of staying in trouble. Only if those normalities ceased would I consider advertising for a girlfriend.I would regard such an advertisement not as a matter of shame, but perhaps of discretion. I would probably not tell my male buddies. Would you?One of those self-same buddies, known to one and all as Buffalo Bill, took the opposite view.“Did you see my 'lonely hearts' ad in The Bay Guardian?” he asked us all. ‘Chronicle reader preferred,’ it specified. ‘Possibly Jewish’.“Everybody in the San Francisco area reads The Chronicle,” I suggested. “Why not advertise there in the first place? And why Jewish?”For a cerebral edge, he replied. The lonely hearts episode did not embarrass Buffalo Bill at the time, and I do not intend that it should now. I have not asked him, just in case. I'm darned if I will risk a good story by raising the question. Bill always has a project, powered by enterprise and enthusiasm, which he hopes his buddies will share. If his hopes are confounded, he offers a disarming shrug.The man has charisma, and no need to advertise for a prospective trouble'n'strife.That was a project. Others have included a celebrated book of photographs, a pub, a beer and a whisky.You could call Bill an urban cowboy, but his folks came from Oklahoma. His first 15 minutes of fame dawned while he was working as a photographer for a local newspaper in the East Bay in the 1970s. His photographs of the ‘ordinary lives’ of suburban people have been compared with the work of Diane Arbus, Weegee and Walker Evans. They were published in a book called Suburbia under his real name, Bill Owens. His photography is still exhibited from time to time. In the 1980s, true to American tradition, he reinvented himself.He wrote a simple manual on how to start a brewpub. He started his own, one of the first since Prohibition. It was called Buffalo Bill's, and was in the East Bay suburb of Hayward. Bill tried to trademark the term ‘brewpub’, variously to the irritation or amusement of his handful of contemporaries. There are now almost 1,000 brewpubs in the United States. At a conference we both attended, he gave a lecture on the subject, in which he noted that customers could be tiresome.“If you become fed up with them, throw them out,” he proposed, to laughter from the working brewers and disbelief from the suits. Later, he created a beer for divorced men. It was called Alimony Ale, purportedly ‘The Most Bitter Beer in America’.At Buffalo Bill's in 1995, manager Lance Winters offered me an experimental whisky distilled from the brewery's Extra Special Bitter and aged in new oak.At one year old, it was soft, sweetish, and reminiscent of an eau-de-vie, I noted in my little black book. Nearly a decade later, I tasted for the new edition of my Malt Whisky Companion a commercially produced descendant, fruity and nutty, made at the St George eau-de-vie distillery, on an industrial estate in a World War II shipyard at Alameda, California.A couple of weeks ago, I tasted a smokier version at the distillery. The military bleakness of the site clearly does not worry Lance, who trained as a nuclear engineer, and worked on the aircraft carrier Enterprise.A planned expansion will add to the military background. The distillery is moving into a hangar on the former Alameda Naval Air Station.Meanwhile, Buffalo Bill has reinvented himself yet again, in the form of what is called the American Distilling Institute. His resource directory lists 39 pot stills in the United States. I remember when there were only that many brewpubs.
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