A Sideways View: Learning to Celebrate in the New Paradigm

Rough Rider Bourbon and North Fork Chocolate bar and Teddy Roosevelt in Montauk
What are we waiting for? Photo on right: Library of Congress

There are times when things go sideways. And so here we are. Such are the times when we look, more acutely than we might during “normal” days, for things to celebrate. Memorial Day weekend just came and went, and celebrations certainly did happen here in the Hamptons and across the North Fork. Most, at least those I heard about and witnessed while driving about, seemed small and safe and took seriously the parameters that are going to attend our first tender steps into the initial stage of reopening.

Glasses were raised, many filled with rosé, naturally, along with other local libations. We celebrated health and friends and visions of bright days to come, people who are part of our lives in ways big and small. Toasts were given to those who make life special here on the East End, to the interconnected world in which we are lucky to live, even as we remain separated.

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Steve Amaral, the man behind the magic that takes place every day at North Fork Chocolate Company, is an artist, both with a paint brush and with the cacao and sugar and imagination with which he plies his culinary craft. There is also an art to bringing a smile to people’s faces, to offering them another way to see the world. Without warning, he’ll send a video or a joke or a reflection on what the hell is going on around us. They are always a welcome surprise.

I was lucky enough to be there in his Aquebogue shop, countless months ago now, it seems, on the day he was making his first batch of Rough Rider Bourbon Chocolate Bars. For years I had admired how Steve had used various local ingredients, strawberry preserves and apple cider and blueberry port and such, in his bite-sized confections, but this was something else entirely. He and I happen to share a love of Rough Rider, made just down the road by Long Island Spirits. We have toasted to any number of things over the years, and Rough Rider has filled the glass on more than a single occasion. Because it is local, because we admire the folks making it, because it is oh so good, well, that was all reason enough.

Steve gave me one of those chocolate bars as a gift, before they were even being offered to the public. I’ve held onto it, waiting for that special occasion to open it.

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When Long Island Spirits opened in Baiting Hollow in 2007, it became the first craft distillery on Long Island since the 1800s, proponents of sustainable distillery practices and the innovative fermenting, distilling and blending techniques it has pioneered. From sourcing to finishing they have always been locally focused.

Rough Rider, of course, is named for Teddy Roosevelt and the band of soldiers who stormed San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. The Rough Riders became the stuff of legend, fighters who embodied the American spirit.

“In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt, a native Long Islander, organized the United States First Volunteer Cavalry, known as the Rough Riders. This disparate group of men cherished adventure, independence and excellence. Long Island Spirits is located just miles from where the Rough Riders were quarantined and then disbanded following their victory in the Spanish American War in a legendary summer they had in Montauk Point.”

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I have had a bottle of Rough Rider at home with me, unopened, here before any self-quarantine began. Given as a gift. I have been saving it for a celebratory occasion.

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The film Sideways has, in some circles, become the Memorial Day movie to watch and kick off wine-touring-and-tasting season, here and elsewhere. There’s no mention of rosé, at least not that I can remember, but the number of lines and images people shared with me from the movie over this past weekend prove it still pairs well with our local wine country. Sure, everyone can quote, in whole or in part, the “merlot” scene. And the pinot noir soliloquy is a thing of beauty. But I have become partial to another moment.

Miles, the oenophile, and Maya, the wine-loving object of his affection, are having a discussion about the bottles in their personal collections, the special ones. Miles mentions his one true prize, a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc, that remains tucked away in his home.

Maya: Seriously, the ’61 Cheval Blanc is peaking…it might be too late already. What are you waiting for?
Miles: I don’t know, a special occasion. With the right person.
Maya: The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.

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The Long Island Spirits line also includes LiV Vodka, Sorbetta and Pine Barrens Whiskey, but this spring they pivoted and added what has already become their most noteworthy product. With a need arising all around, they started making pharmaceutical-grade hand sanitizer under the U.S. Department of HHS, FDA and Centers for Drug Evaluation and Research Policy for Alcohol Based Sanitizer Production During a Public Health Emergency.

“By law, vodka needs to be distilled to above 190 Proof before it is blended down,” it says right there on their website, the first thing you see when you arrive. “Our LiV Vodka is distilled to 192 Proof, which only a small number of distilleries have the proper rectification columns to do this. We then are taking the equivalent of a full Liter of our LiV Standard Vodka Beverage Grade Alcohol (which would retail for $30 per Liter) prior to being blended with distilled water and producing the equivalent of 16 oz of Hand Sanitizer.”

They have provided the sanitizer to local hospitals and healthcare facilities, made it available to the public, partnered with Hampton Jitney for shipping to New York City. When you open a container, you are opening something special.

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Yes, people have been looking for moments to celebrate for months now, waiting for that big day, that special occasion. Governor Cuomo’s recent announcements about reopening phases have brought it for some, Memorial Day weekend brought it for others.

But such moments can be found, in truth, on any day we wake up on the East End among the creative, the giving, the inspiring, the caring who look out for one another. They can come on a holiday weekend, of course, but also on any random day when you sit back and start thinking about the people surrounding us and all they share, when you strike upon some thread-like connection between them, and you, that you didn’t notice before. Suddenly that can be reason enough to open a bottle of Rough Rider, to unwrap a chocolate bar, to raise a toast…

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