Essays on Technology and Culture

The Power of the Morning Cup

Mornings, to me, should not exist. When left to my own devices, as I’ve discovered multiple times, I will easily slip into a nocturnal mode. During my “lost year” I would find myself waking up at four PM, eating breakfast, going to my part-time job for three hours, and staying up until the crack of dawn. Even once I was working full-time, normal human hours, I’ve often delayed getting out of bed until the last possible moment, cramming a morning routine into as little as ten minutes. It helped when I lived above a coffee shop, though I would still get in a few minutes late most days.

For the past few days, I’ve started getting up on time and discovering the pleasures of leisurely, early mornings. I don’t know, specifically, what changed. I go to bed by 11, but I’ve done that most weeknights for the last two years. I track my sleep with Sleep Cycle, which I’ve had an on again, off again relationship with. I don’t sleep in a pitch dark room—we still need to buy curtains for the new apartment—and I don’t use magnesium citrate, though I’m considering it. My working theory, however, is that what gets me up in the morning is coffee.

I know coffee is what keeps me up in the morning. Without coffee, I can’t function for a few hours in the morning, no matter how well I slept. Since moving to New York, I’ve been self-medicating the expensive way, with a morning cup picked up before going into the office. I’m not a finicky coffee snob, though I have standards. Dunkin’ Donuts will do when it’s the only thing available (which it is, in my neighborhood). For a time, I was a regular at a fancy little shop on 37th Street in the Fashion District that made the third best cup of coffee I’d had in the city, [1] though now it’s closed. However, my usual choice is a Starbucks Blonde Roast—readily available, and tastes better than the standard cup. And I take it black.

In the back of my mind, I always knew that I could make coffee at home. I have a french press. I have a kettle. I have a stove, and I even have a bag of decent, medium-roast ground coffee in a bag in my freezer. I also can hear every coffee snob reading this scream out loud, but bear with me. I made a cup in the press one Sunday morning, after mulling whether to put on pants and walk to the local Dunkin’ Donuts. I put a kettle on the stove, scooped four tablespoons of coffee into the press, steeped, pressed, and drank. It felt good. The next morning, Monday, I got out of bed with one thing on my mind: making my morning cup. It’s kept me going this far.

I’m not fancy with my coffee. I don’t even grind my own beans, though I do have a hand-me-down blade grinder. I put water in the kettle, put the kettle on the heat, take the bag out of the freezer, scoop the grounds into the press, add the boiling water, steep for five minutes. It’s enough. During the week, the contents go straight into a thermal mug, and I nurse it through breakfast, the subway, and at my desk if anything is left. Maybe, perhaps, one day I’ll get fancy like Marco Arment, and turn coffee into a proper ritual. Maybe when I have a shorter commute, and more money to blow on coffee-making gear. For now, coffee is my MacGuffin—the little reward I give my brain for overcoming the soft, warm resistance of the bed, and facing the day.

  1. The best cup I’ve had in New York is from Culture Espresso on 38th Street. Worth the wait, and worth the price. Second best is Oren’s Daily Roast.  ↩

Notes on a Whisky Tasting

For four years, I lived across the street from a bar that specialized in craft beers and in whiskies. [1] During their first Whiskey Week, and the assistance of Kevin and Brian, the regular bartenders, I developed an appreciation for Bourbon and Scotch that has only continued to develop. After all, whiskey is an intimidating thing to appreciate. Cheap whiskies can be harsh, good whiskies can be expensive. There’s many styles, many price levels, many whiskey cocktails, and a lot to learn. I don’t claim to be an expert on the stuff, but I know what I like, and am eager to try new whiskies.

So, when I was invited to take part on a scotch tasting sponsored by The Glenlivet, I jumped at the chance. Scotch whisky is a complicated drink, and the few I’ve had I’ve enjoyed—preferring the peaty Islay single-malts [2] to blended, or less peaty single malts, but free whiskey is free whisky. The event began with a bar pouring glasses of the 12-Year, which I drank neat. It was great to have after walking in from a cold, winter evening in Manhattan. After three glasses, we were taken in for a proper seated tasting. We were kept in suspense by a twenty or so minute presentation on the history of The Glenlivet, and an overview of Scotch whisky and how to drink it, including stuff about tasting and top notes.

Honestly, I don’t need to be told how to drink whiskey. Or whisky. I’d argue that most of the people in the room knew about the fruity, floral, spicy, and smokey notes common to Scotches, and since Glenlivet’s barley is unsmoked, it was almost a waste of time to discuss it. Besides which, describing the taste of a spirit is an exercise in subjectivity. If you’ve ever read a spirit review where someone talks about “notes of prunes, tannin, and burning rubber in the finish,” and another of the same one mentions a completely different set of flavors, you’d understand. Everyone tastes different things when they drink a whiskey.

In either case, after the talk ended, I got a chance to taste a dram each of the 12-Year, 15-Year, and 18-Year Whiskys, both with, and without water. [3] They were all good whiskys for Speyside whisky. Sadly, I added a little too much water when tasting the 15-Year, and it fell apart—exactly what the guy overseeing the tasting warned us about. Having had three glasses of the 12-Year already, I didn’t get any surprises from that. The 18-Year, however, brought a tear to my eye. Spicy on the front, smooth in the finish, and absolutely incredible. I didn’t get much of a difference when tasting the 18-Year with water, but I was suitably impressed.

With some of my favorite writers and podcasters waxing rhapsodic about Old-Fashioneds, I think it’s important to step back and enjoy the base spirit. Whiskey, in almost all its forms, is a wonderful substance to be savored and enjoyed. If you’re whiskey-curious, The Kitchn has a great, simple guide that’ll help you develop your palate for the stuff. Try as many styles as you can find and afford. There’s bound to be something up your alley.

  1. A note on spelling. From my understanding, “whiskey” is the proper spelling when referring to American, Irish, Canadian, and other whiskies, while Scotch is spelled whisky. Therefore, I’ll be writing “whiskey” when referring to non-Scotch “whisky”.  ↩

  2. My favorite Scotch is Laphroaig, and I have a bottle of the 18-year.  ↩

  3. It’s perfectly acceptable to drink whiskey with a little splash of water, as it binds to the oils and changes the flavor. I prefer mine neat, but drinking some of the whiskys with a little water definitely made for an interesting experience.  ↩