Phoenix, You’re A Fine Girl

Wow. Just, wow. That’s about all I can say right now.

Since we’ve already secured me a place to live, that freed Laina and I up to have some fun the rest of my vacation week, and that’s exactly what we did today when we took Phoenix out for a 330-ish mile (530-ish km) road trip end to end today, on some of the most fun terrain I’ve ever driven any vehicle on.

We set out around 11:30 AM for Kerrville by way of Texas State Highway 16, a route I had ridden with her once before that I just knew I had to drive Phoenix through. Multiple elevation changes and twists and turns galore – some rated as low as 15 MPH “safe speed.”

15 MPH? Heh, is that some kind of a joke? Well, maybe not if you’re driving a big-ass pickup or SUV, but Phoenix in her low, sleek Jetta GLI profile? Try like 35-40 MPH negotiating those. Whatever the road threw at us she powered through consistently 20 MPH above the specced speeds, never leaving the demarcations of the lanes. Lots of down and upshifting, revving the engine hard, but never turning the wheel more than about 60 degrees in either direction. You could totally feel the G-Forces as we navigated the terrain, but at no point was she at the remotest risk of rolling over or tumbling down a hill.

We arrived in Kerrville for a nice lunch at their location of Fuddruckers (or, as we jokingly call it, “Ruddfuckers” :-P). Surprisingly, I’d never been to a Fuddruckers in my life. I went out on a limb and orderd an elk burger, on a gluten-free bun and loaded it up with various toppings. It was absolutely delicious.

After re-fueling our tanks (as Phoenix had gotten a full tank of Chevron Techron Supreme earlier in the day), we set back on the return trip, which I drove even slightly more aggressively than on the trip up. Again, she totally owned it, but we weren’t done yet!

On a total limb, we decided to take a side trip to make the loop known as “The Three Sisters” or “Texas’ Twisted Sisters” (which consists of Ranch Roads 335, 336, and 337). Let me tell you what – that name is no joke. Steep hills, tight turns, switchbacks and a hairpin all rolled into one. Once again, Phoenix never missed a beat as I dropped her into the lower gears, powered through the turns much faster than rated (including a hairpin rated at 10 MPH that she negotiated at 30 without blinking an eye), and powering up the steep grades, revving to the redline.

To say it was a total adrenaline rush would be a gross understatement. We lost cell signal in many places, leaving me wondering if we were really on the right path or we were just totally lost. I almost had a panic attack, but Laina (bless her heart) kept me focused through it all as I drove it in hard and made it stick. Sure, we had a couple of incidents of wildlife that we had to evade, as well as a construction zone, but never a hiccup through any of it.

Before I knew it we were right back to where we started, completing the loop end to end. High as a kite, and in desperate need of a piss, we stopped into a Family Dollar to relieve myself and then completed the journey back to home HQ (which I can now call it such as well).

Of course, all this going on while Laina blared her tunes in my CD as we sang along (well, she sang along and I made my pathetic attempt to, best described as caterwauling) shot the shit, punctuated by our ritual belching and throat clearing contests at times, and she totally entertained me by her facial expressions and random exclamations as I negotiated the obstacles. She even went so far as to tell me how impressed she was with my skill level, and I hadn’t even driven like that ever in my life! I guess it comes naturally to me.

Maybe I should consider a weekend gig of being a stunt driver for car commercials? You know, those car commercials that say “professional driver on a closed course – do not attempt.” I’m sure they make good money.

At any rate, needless to say Phoenix really impressed me today. This might be the first time she’s been driven for the purpose she was designed for. Make no mistake about it, the Jetta GLI is, for all intents and purposes, a sportscar even though it isn’t listed as such. It shares nothing in common with the “regular” Jetta and it might damn well be the best car VW builds (assuming, of course, the proper maintenance schedule is followed). After that outing, Laina and I ultimately agreed that despite the initial issues I had, I made the correct choice when I opted for her over the Honda Fit.

So as to what kind of trouble we’ll get into the rest of the week, we don’t quite know yet. All I know is this might be my best vacation ever.

 

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Cigar Review: Bellas Artes Maduro

This offering from AJ Fernandez features a Brazilian Mata Fina Maduro wrapper of a Mexican San Andreas binder and Nicaraguan long fillers. The size smoked for this review is a 6″ x 54RG box pressed Toro vitola.

The first light reveals a perfect draw producing thick plumes of medium/full bodied smoke. Heavy earth and black pepper dominate the first few puffs, supported by a soft creamy note.

The first third builds on the opening puffs with the introduction of a rich dark chocolate and espresso on the draw and adding a red pepper element on the finish. There’s a very subtle sweetness that ties it all together, but it’s a very heavy, dark flavor package. The smoke is very heavy on the palate also.

Getting into the second third the pepper and spice slightly diminish and the earthy note morphs into more of a leather. The final third drops almost everything but the leather and a slight spice – quite plain toward the end. Ending at 1 hour for an average burn time for the size and bringing in a matching medium/full nicotine strength.

Flawless construction throughout with an absolutely razor sharp burn line. Ash only held on for about inch or so chunks but didn’t upset the burn any. High quality self-adhesive bands that removed easily without damaging the wrapper.

I’m torn on this one. The first 2/3 of the cigar was great with lots of complexity. The last third, quite frankly, was boring. This cigar would have been much better had it been a more consistent blend (even as much as I enjoy cigars that have transition points and keep things interesting). Still a good option for a bold red wine, imperial stout beer or bourbon after dinner though. Priced fairly at $9/stick give or take. Rating: 3.75/5.

Full Review: MacLellan Revelation Bagpipes

revelations

Alright, now that I have a few playing sessions on these, I feel like I can give them a full review of this instrument (highlights, lowlights, etc.). Full disclosure: I am a huge fan of Roddy’s pipes, but I’ll do my best to be as objective here as I possibly can.

To save time, I won’t go much into detail of the unique features of this bagpipe, which you can read about in my previous post so you know what I’m talking about as far as that’s concerned. Also, for reference, my full test setup was as follows: Ross suede bag, tube trap, Kinnaird Edge drone reeds.

So let’s start off with the cellulose polymer lined drones and the silica cartridge stocks mentioned prior. How well do they really work? The answer: very well indeed. As mentioned prior, I completely removed my canister drying system and replaced with just a simple tube-style water trap. I am an oral firehose, so some kind of canister or dessicant system is a must for me, so reducing to just a tube trap was a real torture-test of the moisture resistance of this bagpipe.

After an hour long session of playing, I disassembled the bagpipe and noted the following: 1) ¬†absolutely no visible condensation on the drone reeds, and 2) only the slightest bit in the drone bores. There were no visible beads in the bores, but the polymer lining appeared to be slightly wet. Nowhere near enough to condense on the surface and dribble down into the drone reeds to cause tuning or stability problems. Though my tube trap was totally full and I dumped about a shotglass worth of water out of it, the silica and polymer did an excellent job of removing the rest. I’m so impressed I’ve decided to also just run my ABW set out of the silica cartridge stocks for the superior moisture control, thus removing the need for a bulky, heavy canister.

Drying out the stock cartridges couldn’t be easier – simply remove them from the instrument and allow them to air dry naturally. For quicker drying, a hair dryer on medium heat can be used for 20-30 seconds. You do not want to microwave these the way you would a canister system, for it could distort the shape of the cartridge and not allow it to be reinserted.

So we’ve established that this bagpipe does have superior moisture resistance, better than many wooden bagpipes I would imagine and definitely better than every other Delrin bagpipe out there. So what about the tone and air efficiency? Concerning air efficiency, it’s got the same air efficient profile of my ABW MacLellan, so I noticed no difference there (it surprised me initially when I got my first MacLellan how little pressure was required to produce a superior sound).

Tonally speaking, this bagpipe is a total winner. It lives up to the claim of sounding more like a wooden bagpipe. There isn’t any of the harsh, brassy, metallic tone that’s often found in all-Delrin bagpipes. The cellulose polymer lining does a fantastic job of tempering that, giving a more natural, wood-like tone. Compared to my ABW set, the drones aren’t quite as loud, but have more than ample presence. Maybe Robertson-esque or Lawrie-esque is how I would describe them (not quite as loud as a classic Henderson, but not as subdued as a classic Glen, MacDougall, etc.).

The bass drone features a great depth and richness of sound, which are complemented by warm, ringing, but not bright, tenors. The blend is steady, seamless and brought out many rich, ringing harmonics in the three chanter/reed combinations I tried with these pipes. Those combinations being: McCallum McC2 solo poly w/Husk reed, MacLellan standard solo delrin w/Apps G3, Dunbar/JM Aurora solo poly w/Troy McAllister reed, all 3 the same strength (about 23-24″ H2O – very light but necessary for me). The drones went well with all the chanter/reed combinations, and save for some adjustment of the tuning screws to pitch each on the tuning pins, I didn’t have to touch the reeds. Of course, each chanter/reed combo retained its unique tone and pitch, as to be expected, but all were a great blend. Though all chanters tested were solo chanters, I’m sure they would go equally well with a band chanter.

My preference was the JM, but that’s with any setup as it is slightly lower-pitched than the other two, which is my liking (probably the lowest pitched solo chanter around – Jim McGillivray and Dunbar did a great job designing it and it sounds fantastic. It also has a fairly narrow finger spacing making it very comfortable to play).

As far as downsides, there were a few to note, but I already knew these things going into it. The first thing to note is the weight. Delrin is a fair bit heavier than wood, and the pipes are noticeably heavier than my ABW set in the same drone profile and with very similar adornments. However, removing the canister system negated this effect and actually resulted in a slightly lighter setup than my ABW set with canister. The other is the blowpipe, which seems to have a small-ish bore and is slightly restrictive. In its place, as I have for the past several years, I play an aftermarket blowpipe from Peter Crisler, which is wide-bored, adjustable, and has absolutely no restriction whatsoever. Lastly, and this is very minor, but the cartridge stocks have a rather large outer diameter to accommodate the cartridge. This can make fitting to certain pipe bags with grommets/collars a bit of a challenge. I had to work to get them into my Ross bag, and I’m sure a Bannatyne or Canmore bag would be an even greater challenge.

All in all, color me impressed. Roddy really has elevated the Delrin bagpipe to heights beyond any other before it. Not only is it more moisture resistant, the sound is virtually indistinguishable from a wooden instrument, while retaining the durability and resilency of Delrin that make it the ideal material for playing extreme heat, cold, wet, dry, etc. environments that would likely damage a wooden instrument. Sure, there are production Delrin instruments from other manufacturers that are half the price or less depending on decoration, but the extra cost and wait is well worth it for a superior instrument.

I highly recommend these pipes.

PS: I tried to capture a sound clip, but I don’t have any professional recording equipment and my phone and computer mics were overpowered by the sheer volume. I’ll try to get one sometime if I can get some better recording equipment.

Cigar Review: Montecristo White Series

This offering from Montecristo La Romana features an Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper over a Nicaraguan binder and Nicaraguan and Dominican long fillers. The size smoked for review is the Rothschilde, a 5″ x 52RG Robusto vitola.

First light reveals a perfect draw. Good smoke output with mild/medium body flavors of salted nuts, a slightly sweet cream and a bit of a pepper on the nose.

Getting into the first third the creaminess comes up and the sweetness more pronounced. There’s also a yeasty bread note coming in. Everything is exceptionally smooth and very well blended.

This cigar was consistent start to finish with major transitions points, save for the pepper diminishing and being replaced by an effervescent slightly spicy ginger note on the retrohale. Ending at 50 minutes for an average burn time for the size and no detectable nicotine strength.

Excellent construction throughout with a near razor sharp burn. Ash holds on about half the stick at a time. High quality self-adhesive bands that removed easily without damaging the delicate Connecticut wrapper leaf.

A mellow smoke for sure. Nice enough for in the morning with your cup of coffee, but this one failed to wow me in any way. Not overly complex nor transitional, this might fit the bill for an average Connecticut smoker but I’m more picky about mine, especially for the price (approximately $11/stick). I’ve found a handful of better (IMO) Connecticut cigars for lower cost. With that, my rating comes out to 3/5.

The Newest Addition to My Musical Instrument Family

At approximately 1:30 PM CDT Friday, prior to my departure for San Antonio, I took delivery of these:

revelations

To supplement my existing 2008 MacLellan bagpipe in African Blackwood, I decided around the beginning of this year I wanted one of Roddy’s new “Revelation” instruments. This bagpipe is made of Delrin plastic, which is not an entirely new concept within the bagpipe world as Delrin has some distinct advantages over wooden instruments – mainly when it comes to playing outdoors in extreme heat, cold, arid, wet, etc. conditions. Wooden instruments are very sensitive to the environment around them, and any time you add in these factors, you risk cracking, warping, among other things. (To be fair, I’ve played my ABW set in some extreme conditions without ill effect, but it always left me nervous afterward.)

That said, Delrin isn’t without its drawbacks. Due to the density and hardness of the material, it often times results in a rather brash, hard, and unrefined tonal quality as compared to wooden instruments. It’s also not porous like wood, which results in moisture condensation from the player’s breath forming inside the drone bores much more quickly than with a wooden instrument. For these reasons, I’ve held off on a Delrin instrument.

Enter the new Revelation design from MacLellan. Debuting in 2017, this instrument elevates the Delrin bagpipe to a level beyond anything any other Delrin instrument has. Roddy has made some really unique innovations, bringing together the best qualities of Delrin while eliminating the drawbacks.

The first thing of note is the cellulose polymer lining inside the drone bores:

revelations2

Cellulose polymer is used extensively in the bagpipe world, as many synthetic drone reeds are made from it. Cellulose polymer adds two things to the bagpipe, namely moisture absorption more like a wooden instrument and, being a wood-based material, makes the air column resonate more like a wooden instrument, thus softening the often brash sound associated with a Delrin instrument.

The other thing is the incorporation of a silica gel cartridge inside the drone stocks (the stocks being the part that ties into the bag – for those of you who aren’t bagpipe people):

revelations3

These also have the cellulose polymer lining as you can see, but beneath the perforations lies a charge of silica gel desiccant. This also absorbs moisture, much like the various canister systems. For this reason, I plan to run both sets of pipes through the same stocks for that effect, so I can eliminate my heavy, bulky canister system and replace with a simple tube-style spit trap as a “first line” of defense against excess moisture and have these take over from there.

Between these two innovations and a slight tweak of the internal dimensions, MacLellan really has elevated the Delrin instrument. In addition to these benefits, due to the material these can be traveled with worldwide without issue, whereas most woods used in the making of bagpipes today are now listed as endangered per CITES and need special permitting to travel with.

Of course, as with all of Roddy’s instruments, they can be customized to suit your personal decor. This is part of what drew me to his instruments originally – they have a unique, distinct look in the world of “cookie cutter” bagpipes. They are works of art. My Revelations are no different, and I chose designs that I think are a reflection of me. My pipes are done in his chalice profile fully combed and beaded, with imitation horn button mounts and dragon knot engraved bronze slides, ferrules and caps:

revelations4revelations5

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So there’s that. Hope you enjoyed some of the eye-candy. I’ve been gradually getting them set up this week, from re-doing the hemp thread joints (as I do with any new set of pipes I receive), fitting the bag, cover, cords and reeds, and hopefully sometime this week I’ll get to calibrate the reeds and play a few tunes. We shall see though.

In the meantime, here’s a great video of Roddy explaining a lot of what I’ve explained above. It’s quite interesting.

Cigar Review: Micallef Herencia Maduro

This collaborative offering from Micallef and Gomez Sanchez family cigars features a Pennsylvania Broadleaf Maduro wrapper over an Ecuadorian Sumatra binder and Honduran and Nicaraguan long fillers. The size reviewed here is a 5.5″ x 52RG box pressed Belicoso vitola.

After two cuts with the Cuban Crafters Perfect Cutter, the first light reveals a perfect draw producing thick plumes of medium bodied smoke. Notes of rich cocoa and leather on the draw followed by an ample pepper and spice on the finish and retrohale.

Getting into the first third we see the same general profile with the exception of the initial pepper and spice blast dialing down a bit, allowing an aromatic bright cedar to join the retrohale.

The cigar was consistent start to finish in the flavor profile. Ending at 40 minutes for a rather short burn time and with a subtle mild/medium nicotine strength.

Excellent construction throughout with a near razor sharp burn. Ash holds on about a third at a time. High quality self-adhesive bands that came off cleanly without damaging the wrapper.

This was a nice enough smoke but man I was left wanting more time out of it. That’s the way it goes sometimes though. This would be a good option for a morning or lunch time smoke when you just don’t have much time to commit, but at $10/stick not exactly a good value for money. Great with a cup of coffee or a lighter red wine like a Pinot Noir. My final rating on this came out to a 3.5/5.

Gluten-Free Beer Review: Redbridge

redbridge

Staring in the face of the real possibility of gluten reactivity, the biggest hurdle for me to clear is going to be the beer issue. I’ve tried a few gluten-free beers in the past, but they were totally lackluster and not really worth drinking, let alone reviewing.

Alas, times are different now for the gluten-free world at large and things have gotten better. Maybe they’ve also gotten better in the beer world?

Anyway, Redbridge is a sorghum-based amber/red lager made by Anheuser-Busch. It weighs in a 4% ABV and an unspecified IBU rating. So what does this beer have to offer? Let’s find out.

Drank straight from the bottle so I can’t comment on color, but looking at the appearance of the beer through the bottle suggests a light golden color. Aromas of citrus hops come through the nose, as well as a glycerin-like sweetness from the sorghum. Flavors were very interesting and much more like that of an American pale ale than an amber lager – pale malt sweetness/breadiness supported by a bite of piney and grapefruit hop notes. Pretty thin/light in body and with high carbonation; this one is easy to kill several of.

Honestly, I found this beer to be very good. I got it to go with my gluten-free mushroom-Swiss burger at The Cove in San Antonio and it was a great pairing. The Cove is a great option in SA if you want a great gluten-free burger and fries, and obviously they have gluten-free drinks too. Oh, and the staff is super friendly and helpful. The bartender that day? As I paid out my bar tab and returned to my table, she noticed my lower half wear and gave me a pretty high compliment – “Oh, I love your shorts!” Never did I think I would get paid a compliment on my “Davy” Dukes but then again San Antonio and Abilene are totally different animals.

Anyway, I’m just glad I have at least one beer option should I have to make the commitment to gluten-free full-time. I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve not written a beer review in a long time, and that’s the reason – I don’t drink much beer anymore and what I have had recently in that respect are all previously reviewed beers. Alas, I might specialze in gluten-free beers in the near future as I try more. Bartender lady assured me she’d have some more different ones back in stock in a couple of weeks, so when I’m down there again it’ll be worthy of exploration.

Whatever the case, I’m giving this one a rating of 4/5. I would definitely drink this again.