Sauced: A Collection

By Michelle Railey

Apple Buzz at the Oaken Barrel (2015)

When you see Obi Wan Kenobi walking out the front door of the Oaken Barrel, it can only mean one thing: Apple Buzz is here!

Apple Buzz is a seasonal hard cider that has gained a loyal, cultish, and dizzy following among those in the know in Greenwood, Indiana and the surrounding environs. The apples for the Barrel’s seasonal cider are sourced from local orchards (Adrian’s) and the release date always changes: because the date the apples are ripe in Greenwood, Indiana determine the date the hard cider is brewed and when it is ready. If this sounds wholesome and fresh and local and harvest-y, well, it is. And that’s why Apple Buzz has a Starting Day and a Season. Of course, even the brightest things have dark accompaniments. For example, on opening day of Apple Buzz in the past, it is rumored— and there is no way to put this delicately— that on two (!) separate occasions, two (!) separate women relieved themselves. In solids. On the floor. (Two have been confirmed by the staff; other incidents have been reported.)

The regulars refer to Apple Buzz Opening Day as Amateur Night: the high ABV (7.9%; your average Miller or whatevs is, like, 4.5%) of the Buzz catches some novice craft beer drinkers unaware. Needless to say, the parking lot is full.

Many regulars will not darken the doors of the Barrel on the first day of the Apple Calendar or its roughly ten-day limited run. One of the regulars has even, god love him, printed up his own t-shirt railing against the Apple Buzz. On the first day of Apple Buzz, there is a line stretching out the door of the Oaken Barrel at opening time in the morning (this was today, this year) and there are endless crowds. There is a two-drink maximum for the buzz (reference again: dangerously high ABV) and the cases of six-packs sell out quickly. Some of the regulars save six-packs and auction them off around Christmas time and make a tidy profit. Such are the dark arts of the Apple Buzz.

My beloved and I are regulars. We came here anyway, Buzz-crowd or no. The red one drank a mug-full of Buzz. He says it is pleasantly tart and crisp, not as sweet as in previous years, and is a pleasant alternative to his normal libation (the Gnawbone, which the beloved has switched to after the first mug of Buzz). The red one says the Buzz is like chili: the longer it sits in the vat, the better. He says this year’s Buzz would benefit (a bit) from sitting and getting stronger. For me, I sampled the beloved’s Apple Buzz. I thought it felt flat on the palate and I longed for something round on the tongue: meaning, it was thin to me and I needed hops. So after a couple of orchard-like swallows, which I did enjoy and reminded me of happily of orchards and apples and fall, I had the benevolent staff of the Barrel fill my own mug with Gnawbone (nectar of the gods).

It is crowded in here, as ever, for the Apple Buzz, and noisy. But no one has broken anything and/or emptied themselves. Though there was Obi Wan Kenobi (literally, the guy had suede lace-up boots and a full-length, hooded Alec Guinness cape and everything). He may have the Force with him, but he definitely had the Buzz.

I confess: I love Apple Buzz time. It’s like its own little holiday right before the real ones (you know, it’s like a little alcoholic rosary: Apple Buzz to Halloween to Thanksgiving to Oaken Barrel’s seasonal Epiphany [1] to Christmas to New Year’s to the next Amateur Night, also known as New Year’s Eve). The air at the Barrel is filled with excitement and people and, well, apple-flavored possibilities. I love the fact that every year’s batch of Apple Buzz has its own character just as every apple has its character: what the soil was, how the weather fared, was there rain? The brewer’s hands matter. The time in the vat and which vat matter. You can’t get more local or fresh or seasonal than Apple Buzz, not unless you grow things in your own yard. The Apple Buzz is Greenwood, Indiana, in the year it was made. It is unique and special. Like a snowflake or a finger print. My hop-craving heart just wishes it felt rounder on the palate and earthier in its vibe.

But judging from the lady in the filmy black lace top who just ran past the windows twice, I’m one of the only ones.

So get to the Oaken Barrel while the Apple Buzz is still here. Get it while you can. (Buy a sixer and put it in your garage. Let it mellow. When the daffodils are in bloom, open one. The smoke of the fall will meld with the green of spring, and it will be like having the world on a damn string.) The Apple Buzz will sell out quickly; it always does (300 of 900 cases sold today. Today, people. FYI.). Just, you know, watch your step maybe.

[1] Epiphany is a dark seasonal ale hand-crafted by the good folk at the Oaken Barrel. It always comes out before Christmas. It never leads to a personal epiphany. Weirdly, people have not yet figured out that it has a higher (!) ABV than does Apple Buzz and so it does not attract newbies to flock to the doors.

The Brass Ring Lounge (2012)

The Brass Ring Lounge is a little gem of a place, just off Shelby Street a block out of Fountain Square in Indianapolis. Fountain Square has always been a bit artsy: historic (read: old) buildings, antique shops, duckpin bowling, and ethnic food. It had gotten a little sad, frayed more completely than just the edges. But after a couple of years of new investment, including a new fountain in the area, Fountain Square proper is rejuvenating in some wonderful ways. It’s still artsy. But now, seemingly, it’s artsy because it wants to be, not because it’s too poor to choose differently.

The Brass Ring is a lot like its Fountain Square home. Housed in a building that must once have been a Thirties-era filling station, it celebrates its garage doors by throwing them open when the weather’s nice. It celebrates the past in every corner—black and white photos from Vegas’ heyday, once-provocative pin-ups of Marlene Dietrich and Bettie Page, and TCM, exclusively, is showing on the two TV screens above the bar. Standards and big-band music play through the speakers, except on nights when there is live music. Oh, yes, there is a piano. They have live music. Not karaoke, not a band; when you’re lucky, there’s a pianist, a vocalist, and maybe a cool cat of a jazz drummer using those brushy things to provide rhythm on a snare. The place is artsy and hip and, not to anthropomorphize over much, very self-aware.

Just as an aside, there’s a goldfish, for life, and a plaster pink elephant, presumably mascot, oracle, muse, and occasional warning.

The Ring is staffed by attractive hipsters, happily of the welcoming kind and not the sneering variety. And this is all to the good. The clientele encompasses everyone: young, old, hipster, the emphatically and perpetually non-hip. The occasional professional has been sighted. Mostly it’s just normal folk. All of them are treated well.

The liquors are extensive, handsomely displayed and illuminated. The staff is knowledgeable about the selection, whether one is ordering a cocktail or a craft beer (also a good selection) or a soft drink. They have food, too, and what appears to be good food, (again, with the anthropomorphic language) as self-assured and aware as the place that hosts it (read for this: someone on staff is up on their foodie culture– sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, specialty cheeses. It’s elevated bar food: all wraps and hummus, et cetera, et cetera). Prices are reasonable, and gourmet bar food and sandwiches aside, let’s be frank here: you aren’t going to the Ring for food, regardless of how presumably wonderful it is. Though you certainly could do so. And without fear of ridicule.

Fine drinks and fine staff, the Brass Ring is a fine place. Best of all, to this reviewer, it’s got that magical ability to be anything you need it to be. It has the personality that chains or the local dive bars lack. Its affection for the past lends it what could pleasantly be termed “character.” There is no pressure at the Ring to look a certain way or be a certain thing. You just go in. If you’re with friends, it’s conducive to all manner of convivial conversations. If you’re alone, that’s fine, too, and you don’t feel gritty when you leave. The soundtrack and the littleness of the place manage to provide just the right amount of sound and anonymity without coldness to suit whatever need you’ve got going, be it brooding, socializing, or just a draught to pull you through.

Oh, W.L. Weller, You Had Me at Hello (2016)

That amber that Mr. Attenborough lifted up in Jurassic Park? Sure, it was pretty, it was clear, it had a mosquito in it. And it led to velociraptors and jello.

And Jeff Goldblum, who I think we all can agree is pretty dreamy.

Well, the amber liquid that is the bourbon known as W.L. Weller…it is clearer, cleaner, more amber-y than Attenborough’s walking stick. Which was, after all, in a movie.

Okay, let’s try this again: the author owns an amber heart pendant that she purchased in New Orleans. This pendant is a tiny chip of Baltic history. It reminds one of the Middle Ages, of Finns and Slavs and Celts trading pieces of yellow “glass” for coins, and fur, and wine; for British wool and Roman garum and Byzantine wheat.

The point is this: The author was, serendipitously,  handed a tiny glass of W.L. Weller’s bourbon. 12 year (aged) and “wheated.” The wheat, allegedly, makes the bourbon smooth.

The look of this bourbon, in the glass, has viscosity. Swish it around, it sticks on the glass just exactly long enough: not honey, not cheap.

And it is the perfect Baltic Amber. An amber color so pure, it approaches topaz. The light hits it and the edges turn blue. It’s autumn and sunlight and evening and warmth and fire glow. It’s amber, no Attenborough required. (Goldblum, as ever, is optional.)

The website states that W.L. Weller bourbon (12 year) has the scent of “lanolin, almond, creamed corn.”

No. Weller has the scent of all of the following: jasmine, marshmallow, and caramel corn. There’s probably more, but in the words of Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (wedding taxi scene)…”who cares?”

I’m not, generally speaking, a fan of hard liquor. I do not have bourbon and Kentucky and smoke running through my veins.

And yet. This bourbon, in its way, turned me into a pretentious snob: ” the front-end smells like…and it finishes with…” (Like a rosary: jasmine, marshmallow, and caramel corn.)

The truth is simple: it’s beautiful in the glass: the earth turned liquid. Plus viscosity. The bouquet/scent? Well, it takes a minute: but it’s smoky, floral, and as comforting as birthday cake. The feel on the tongue is, intially, smooth. It burns a little as you swallow, but not much. It’s just warm, like sinking into a beautifully-run bath, or standing near a campfire.

This is less a bourbon than a work of art. Which sounds pretentious.

Just drink a swallow, if you have the chance. It’s ridiculously good. Don’t, for the love of God, write about it. Just drink it.

But pause for a moment first: Look at the color, swirl it around the glass. Breathe for just a second. Then take a sip. It swallows like witchcraft.

In a good way. Blanton’s is great. Four Roses is good. And Weller’s? It had me at hello.

Go ahead and introduce yourself. (It’s delicious.)

Tropical Refreshments at the Lotus Garden: A Review By Number (2016)

1. I used to believe that the world’s best menu was at the Four Seasons (south side of Indianapolis). Their old (original?) menu advertised “Pearls of the Sea. And Other Waters.” Sheer poetry. But, alas, they ditched the old menu and the new one is slick and new and generic. But, luckily, Lotus Garden (a Chinese restaurant which opened in 1963) still has at least one original page from their menu:  the first page when you open it, entitled “Tropical Refreshments.” I wasn’t alive in 1963, but I’m pretty sure this menu page was. I’ve never seen anything like it: allow me to quote from the hymnal. “Dr. Wong’s Tonic, $4.75, A delightful prescription of Rum, Orange Curaçao, passion fruit juice and fruit juice. Island natives believe this Tonic is sure to kill your worries and cure your ills.” “Tiki Bowl, for one or two, $7.25. You don’t have to be a pagan to live like one! Cavorting cannibals get their cookouts rolling with this exotic brew, discovered centuries ago by the Island’s Tiki Gods, a truly remarkable drink.” [1] The Scorpion (for two) is “a famous tropical drink” and the Navy Grog, festooned with an American flag and Kodachrome ice cubes is “Light separate ingredients [2]  blended to make stout-hearted sailors out of the weakest men.”

The typeface for “Tropical Refreshments,” the photography, the descriptions (see, you’re going to have to go there because how else will you read the descriptions for Wahine’s delight and the Lotus Blossom?), the prices…well, everything about this menu is everything that was awesome about the sixties. This menu is Elaine Stritch in knee-high white patent leather boots; this menu is a young Larry Hagman with a genie. This menu is innocence and astronauts and uncomplicated cultural exoticism. [2.5] And it wins Best Menu Ever.

2. The decor at the Lotus Garden, be it the bar or the main dining room, is essentially this aircraft photo from the late 1950s or early 1960s: gold! Smoking indoors (you can’t but somehow the ashtrays are there in spectral form)! Cosmopolitan traveling! More gold! And pleather! So much pleather. Doesn’t matter which culture is being represented: Polynesian (the faces of Easter Island on the little bridge over the indoor koi pond and “tropical refreshments”) or the Chinese (American-Chinese) of the rest of Lotus Garden, well, sure it’s a schmear of generalized “Orientalism”, exoticism, and general cultural pastiche as white American fantasy. But there’s something so purely innocent and well-meaning about it (and well-preserved), that I can’t judge it. I can only enjoy it. It’s like Disney’s Carousel of Progress and an Epcot China wrapped into one. With the Brady Bunch’s cursed tiki God thrown in. And alcohol. What’s not to love here? [3]

3. Badly painted stucco dragon on top of peach (!) painted plywood facing. I’m pretty sure the dragon dates to the opening of the restaurant (the same year that saw the release of the film The Courtship of Eddie’s Father) but that peach paint? I feel, strongly, that the paint choice goes back to the Golden Girls. But I could, of course, be wrong.

4. The sign for the Lotus Garden, a restaurant divided into a cocktail lounge, a buffet, and a “formal” sit-down restaurant. Good food, good service, good drinks, and a chance to sit in on every Asian-inspired movie from decades past: With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), or The Geisha Boy with Jerry Lewis (1958), or the 1961 film version of Flower Drum Song. No matter what, look at this sign and picture Lucille Ball or Doris Day. They match. It’s 1963 forever at the Lotus Garden. [4]

5. The Christmas wreath is proudly lit next to the Chinese-ish dragon. Well, in the bar, St. Patrick’s Day shamrock glitter garland sits above the bar. In the restaurant, above the koi pond, there’s a Japanese lantern festooned with “Happy Year of the Boar, 2015.” The past is never past at the Lotus Garden. If cultures melt together, well, so do the dates. And there’s something sorta beautiful and strange about that.

6. The jade-colored ceramic glass in which Mai Tai is served. Pretty sure this is the reason to get a Mai tai at the Lotus Garden. (eBay has one similar, and believe you me, pretty soon someone I know is also going to have one, because, ohmigod, nostalgia.) It should, here, be noted that the Mai Tai will set you back $4.75 and the menu offers no description. Apparently the Mai Tai is a Mai Tai all the world round.

7. Light fixture in the cocktail lounge portion of the Lotus Garden. One hundred percent 1963 and 2001. It’s Mork the Ork’s egg and Elaine Stritch’s boot and Continental flight You Can Smoke On Here. There’s also a truly excellent Miller Lite ad in the lounge that just has to date to 1989 or 1990: all crop tops and white and black and funny hats and Kool Moe Dee and Fresh Prince and racial diversity and Fly Girls. Time does not exist in the cocktail lounge. Just ask the light fixtures.

8a and 8b. This, dear Reader, is the Tiki Bowl (not to be confused with the Luau Bowl). If you look at the bottom left of image number 1, the Tiki Bowl is supposed to be served in a melamine or Bakelite bowl featuring three humanoid cannibals. Well, the Bakelite/melamine must have cracked and/or been declared poisonous, so in its place is this beautiful 1960s porcelain bowl featuring a volcano set in the middle and hula girls and palm trees around the rim. Well…the cup is fantastic and vintage and, while not Bakelite pagan cannibals, is still pretty wonderful. It’s a total time hop, full of character and whimsy and strange American colonial fantasies. But, lest your cultural biases bite you in the ass, well, the bartender lights the porcelain volcano on fire, the bowl is filled with maraschino cherries, ice cubes, orange slices, a 2-foot long straw, liquor and also some liquor. And it’s delicious. It doesn’t taste like Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid. It doesn’t taste like melted Jell-O shots. It just tastes like a Tropical Refreshment. And it’s great. Everything about it is great. If only the fire in the volcano would last just a smidge longer!

9. This is the Bolo. It costs $7.75 and it is “Fresh pineapple filled with fine Rum and tropical fruit juice.” Sure, you can get a non-alcoholic version for $6.00. But, frankly, I don’t know why you’d do that. For one thing, the bartender has to go the kitchen and find a pineapple. When he brings it to the bar, his maneuverings to remove the core and hold the damn hull while he fills it is a lesson in cut fingers and sorrow. You will regret ordering it, even though you’ve never had a drink in an actual pineapple (which is, I think we can all agree, totally decadent and sort of wonderful, kitsch not withstanding). But beyond the pineapple, there’s just nothing to this damned drink. No tropical; no refreshment; no flavor. Your best bet is to stick with the Tiki Bowl. Avoid the Bolo. Or order it just the one time because no human should go without a cool, semi-living, real pineapple with a straw and parasol stuck in it. So special. Even if the actual drink is not so good. (Oh my god, it’s a pineapple!)

In short, dear Reader, what I have not said about Lotus Garden is that the food is solid (a good thing because the drinks are, too). The restrooms are clean. The prices fair and the service efficient. There’s no wi-fi, which is a damned shame. But the lobby has a pond with koi and a turtle. There are Christmas lights everywhere plus Naugahyde and menus and linens and beliefs that date firmly to 1963 and everything you heard about but never before encountered.

The menu advertises “Tropical Refreshments.” And I intend to try them all. Two down, a page to go. And every mysterious, fantastic, kitschy vaguely oriental glassware to hold them each. I think Dr. Wong’s tonic is next. Or the Luau Bowl – for two or for four- which comes in a large dog-food dish, shallow but quite large and festooned with blue and orange dragons. I just hope it arrives to the table on fire.

Tropical refreshments should always be well-lit. And who doesn’t look good in the flames of a liquor-induced fire?

[1] All punctuation original to the awesome menu. I love here how the menu totally doesn’t tell you what’s actually in the drink. I love that “Island” is capitalized: which island? Doesn’t matter. It’s a tropical refreshment. And, after a comment, a truly remarkable drink. Don’t ask questions. Just drink it.

[2] But which separate ingredients, grasshopper? Tell me that.

[2.5] Actually, kinda complicated and sorta not great pseudo-exoticism with a colonialist twang. We’re just going to focus on the kitsch and pretend it’s not kinda racist. (Yeah, that whole sentence…this whole thing…oof.)

[3] According to the FAA and The Atlantic, in 1958 more than 80% of Americans had never been on an airplane. In 1965, two years after the Lotus Garden began serving Tropical Refreshments, no more than 20% of Americans had still flown on a commercial airplane. No wonder a generic exotic “eastern-ness” could appeal. Easter Island Plus China? Shrug. It’s all tropical. So refreshing!

[4] 1963 is also the year of the AstroPop.

As a Special Treat for Our Readers…

Here, friends, is that menu from Four Seasons.

What you see there is what was undoubtedly the finest menu in the world. “Pearls of the Sea…and Other Waters.” A more mellifluous title to dinner entrees will never again, I fear, be photocopied and placed into sticky vinyl folders.

Alas, this is the greatness that was. The menus at Four Seasons have now been replaced with glossy hateful things, pale imitations of the artful, graceful, most beloved previous versions. Gone, gone are the “Imperial Burgers,” the “Flavors of the World,” the “Saucy and Spectacular.” Gone are the “Pearls of the Sea and Other Waters” that filled the hearts of mankind and made all souls sing with joy.

Greatness is mourned when it is lost.

The new menu says simply “Seafood.” Poetry is dead.

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