22 and Working

It’s 1786, and the world is changing.  It’s been a decade since the British colonies in the New World became their own nation.  You’re living in the capital of Sardinia, a major Italian state, ruled by the Savoy, an old and powerful family.  Business is burgeoning all around you: the cagliarese, your currency, is flowing, and you want some of that sweet, sweet cash.  You’re a distiller, and in Italy, that means you know your wine. You’re 22 and working.

You know the ladies are tired of all the red wines out there.  They’re too heavy, they’re too dark, they give them the wine teeth look.  You know that there is a long medicinal history of adding spice to wine.  You know about mulled wine, from the Romans, and even about that germanic vermut, where they used wormwood.  You know that in 1733, a fellow named D’Alessio was making a “wormwood wine,” and you know, heck, this could be a goldmine. You’re 22 and working.

So you, Antonio Benedetto Carpano, start mixing together white wine and spices.  You take the French pronunciation of vermut and label your bottled drink.  You make over thirty varieties of the stuff. You start vending it – and everyone starts buying.  Soon, your little shop in Turin is bustling around the clock.  Literally.

You’re Antonio Benedetto Carpano.  You’ve just invented vermouth.  You’re 22, and working.

Vermouth & The House Savoy

Our upcoming July Episode is on the Martini.  To tide you all by, here’s a story about one of your most ubiquitous and finicky ingredients: Vermouth.


Vermouth is one of the hardest ingredients to keep well in a bar. The persnickety concoction just won’t keep.  For that reason, it either has to be replaced often, or stored in small containers to maintain its taste.

And why not?  Vermouth itself is the product of nobility and innovation, of expansion by diplomacy, marriage, and conquest.  Its earned a right to be a princely drink, all thanks to the House of Savoy.

A 17th Century Silk Banner of the House Savoy.  Find it and more like it at www.metmuseum.org
A 17th Century Silk Banner of the House Savoy. Find it and more like it at http://www.metmuseum.org

Vermouth’s history starts several hundred years before the concoction came to be, as two brothers began a dynasty in the background of remarkable events. It was the dawn of the second millennium, wine production was under control of the Church, and largely produced by monasteries in England, or else made for peasants in southern europe. Byzantium was at war and the Papacy was in the midst of the pornocracy, in which the Pope took part in orgies, mutilations, and affairs of state. Meanwhile, a pair of Saxon brothers, Humbert and Amadeus, used marriage to claim a strategic mountain pass in the Alps.  From this humble beginning the House Savoy would rise.


Fast forward five hundred years.  Wine is finding a resurgence in France, thanks to monks around europe, and a mid-1500’s ice age which crippled English production.  France is also enjoying the lands of House Savoy, thanks to a few Italian wars and one Charles the VIII.  However, Emmanuel Philip, a member of the nearly fallen House Savoy, aims to reclaim his home.  Emmanuel takes up arms as governor of the Netherlands, and leads a Spanish invasion of Northern France, reclaiming the Savoy lands Charles had taken.  With other opportunities arising, Emmanuel reclaims much of the old Savoy lands, and moves the capital to a little town called Turin.


Fast forward another two hundred years, and we find the Savoy at a particular height.

It is 1786, and the House of Savoy has claimed the Kingdom Sicily, exchanged it for Sardinia, and is taking part in the thorough enhancement of Turin.  Part of this advancement includes the mixture of white wine with an infusion of spices which will come to be known as Vermouth.

Fast forward again to your own bar, your own stock.  Centuries have hurtled by, and still people want this persnickety spiced wine concoction in their cocktails.  From the Gin Craze in London to the Cocktail Party era of the American 1960s, vermouth has mixed its way into many of the most popular cocktails: Martinis, Manhattans, Negronis, Rob Roys.  Meanwhile, the Savoy name might call to mind your go-to cocktail book from the 30’s, the ballrooms in Chicago and New York, or the impressive family that still exists in Europe today.  So mix up your Vermouth, that most noble and demanding of drinks.  Mix in a Martini, a Manhattan, or even straight – and raise a glass to the noble House of Savoy.


The Ghost Story of Mary Surratt

Today we bring you a ghost story.  A little odd for mid July, but timely in its own context.  A good story to tell amongst your regulars.

Now, when it comes to regulars, there are many you love, and some you cannot stand.  They’re the folks who love the culture, the climate, the location of your bar.  They bring you business, they give you stories.  Some good, some bad.  But no one has had worse luck in their regulars than Mary Surratt.

Now, your regulars may know Mary Surratt’s place.  They may have eaten there.  They may have passed by in the wee hours.  It’s a little house on H street, right in the thick of Chinatown.  They may have felt, as they passed, a chill run down their spines.  They may have seen a woman upstairs, in antebellum attire.  They may have heard the sound of chains.

Whatever the case, you can tell them, this was the boarding house of Mary Surratt, one of the most controversial victims of the Civil War.  Hanged as a conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln, her death reads like a moment out of Julius Caesar.

In the play, a poet is torn limb from limb by the mob, torn for the mob’s fury at the death of their ruler. The poet is slain for his performance, his bad verses.

In real life, the woman, a tavern keep and landlady, was tried and executed for being an auditor, a hostess.  Mary Surratt was hanged on July 7, 1865.  And you may say she was innocent, that she was convicted on the consistency of her regulars.

In many ways, Mary Surratt was an everyman. Life happened to her. A Catholic who married young, Mary found herself paired with a complex man.  Her husband, John, made money selling land and building property.  He lost it to drink, to debts, and for his frustrations, became violent. What was more, John was a southern sympathizer.  The tavern he built in Maryland became a safehouse for confederate soldiers.  Dangerous regulars in a union state.

John’s life would be a swing of ups and downs, building his debts, then squashing them, and building a small town by the name of Surrattsville.  Eventually, he used his means to purchase a townhouse on H street in Washington, DC. John’s luck ran out at the end of August, 1862, when he died of a stroke.

Mary moved to the townhouse on H street, tired of managing all of her husband’s properties, and moved in with her daughter and son.  It was 1864, and the civil war had ended. But for Mary, the real trouble was about to begin.  Mary’s son had taken up with Conspirators, among them John Adzerot, Lewis Powell, and David Herold, and one John Wilkes Booth.   These became Mary’s regulars.

After the Lincoln assassination, authorities local and federal would visit Mary’s boarding house.  Due to the items they found there, likely stored by the conspirators, Mary was arrested.

Among the eight persons tried simultaneously, Mary’s case was found to be the most controversial.  On one hand, she must have heard the conspirator’s stories, she must have known their plot.  On the other hand, the main witnesses in the case against her were a drunkard and a liar, and all evidence against her was circumstantial.  Nevertheless, she was convicted of abetting, aiding, concealing, counseling, and harboring the seven men in court beside her.

Even as she was about to be hanged, one her regulars pleaded her innocence.  Nevertheless, her feet floated as high as his.  It was July 7, 1865.

In the weeks after her appearance, there were sightings of her ghost at the boarding house and at her tavern.  People said they heard the sound of chains.  Who is to say if Mary felt vengeful, or if, perhaps, everyone just felt a bit guilty?

Whatever the case, as you chit chat with your regulars, or about them, count your blessings.  Well behaved, poorly behaved, humorous or hectic, they never brought you half so much trouble as the regulars of Mary Surratt.


America’s First Whiskey

As we all recover from Independence Day, I am going to give you the story of America’s first whiskey.

We're all ears. Photo by João Silas

First, let’s look at that guy.  You know the type: the nice guy, the next door neighbor, the smug so-and-so with the wife and the kids and the real estate business he runs (thanks to some money from family and friends).

That guy is George Thorpe, and he — and the drink he may have made — is the focus of our story.

However, I would love to give you this story not as it comes from a long line of historians with access to the Ferrar Papers and other documents from the Virginia Company of London, but through the eyes — the odd, indigenous eyes — of a man named Opechancanough.

Yeah, it’s a tough name. But Opechancanough is a tough fellah.

You also know him.  Maybe you have been him.  You’re a local, you do your thing, and you are damn good at it.  And by the way, your thing, as Opechancanough, is warfare.

Now, you’ve been living in the shadow of your brother, or half-brother, whose name, Powhatan, is also the name of your whole tribe.  In fact, it’s the name of like thirty tribes.

Now he’s passed on and you, friend, are in charge of foreign relations.

And in moves George Thorpe.

Not only does he move in, no, he says he gets ten thousand acres that you can’t use anymore.  Which, I mean, these settlers have been doing for a while. They don’t really get farming.  They don’t get occasionally moving to let the land recover.  They’re kind of religion nerds.  And they’re struggling.

But this guy George Thorpe, sure, he’s fine, whatever, but he’s that new neighbor who Loves You and that thing you all do, and he Wants You to Join Him at Church.

He’s making a school, he says.  He wants to introduce your kids to Jesus, he says.  He invites you over to dinner every Sunday. And I mean, every Sunday, and oh, do bring those kids.  He had one in England, you know, an indian kid.  Yeah, it knew Pocahontas.  Poor thing.  It got sick or something.  These savages just can’t handle the english rain, eh?  No offense.

George, now, George loves real estate.  He has his hands, his money, you know, in few ventures here and there.  Oh, and he likes you so much, by the by, he wants to give you, personally, your own house.  As a gift, you know.  Which he can give you.

Oh, and by the by, you have to try this new distilled corn stuff he made, in a still, isn’t it the craziest?  I mean, he’s never really made this stuff before, but like, try it, man, it’s a fun thing he’s trying – better than beer!

So you are Opechancanough.  What do you do?

You get a party together.  You go over to Thorpe’s on March 22, 1622.  You laugh, you schmooz, you try out that distilled stuff, America’s first whiskey, you know. Then you kill George Thorpe and 347 of his friends. You go home.

Because you’re Opechancanough, and, like the rest of us, you could not stand that guy.

– K