My Best Drinking Experience (So Far)

Our sister Wendi recently shared a letter our dad wrote to her many years ago, and it got me to thinking about what was the best drinking experience in my life. Believe it or not, it had nothing to do with beer or whiskey.  Or wine, for that matter.  Wendi lives in Biarritz, France, which lies where the foothills of the Pyrannees tumble down to meet the Atlantic coast just north of the Spanish border.  It’s a beautiful seaside resort village that was all the rage in the early 20th century, and is still very popular with tourists from around the world.  It’s a quaint, well preserved and remarkably charming place to spend a week, especially in the late spring, when the weather warms but the tourists have yet to swarm.

The letter my father wrote was thanking her for hosting him and I during a recent visit we had made, and recounted some of the highlights of our trip, which included time spent in Paris before flying home. It was an amazing trip, packed full of great memories.

But the one thing that sticks with me the most was the afternoon we spent at a sideria in the Basque country of northern Spain.  I remember the long oak tables with their rough hewn benches bolted to the plank floor. I remember the deliciously fluffy white fish and potato omelet we shared family style.  But mostly I remember the cider that flowed so freely from the enormous casks lined up one after another in the cask room.

Drinking cider in such a place is a novel experience. You are given a cup in which to catch your cider and head into the cask room.  The casks are at least eight feet tall and each has a wax plug which, when poked with a wire, emits a sideways stream of sweet hard cider.  You tilt your cup a bit and interrupt the stream before it hits the floor. When your cup is full, the wax is replugged with a mash of a thumb and the stream abruptly stops.  This is a hit or miss process (with more misses as you enjoy more cider) and the dank floor was sticky and the air was ripe with the smell of souring cider.  It was a wonderful aroma.

After a few trips to the cask room, I was approached by an older, bearded Basque gentleman who didn’t speak English.  You see, Wendi’s husband is from one of the oldest Basque families in the region, and it seems like he knows everyone from Lyon to San Sabastian, including the bearded fellow, who was the owner of the sideria.

Wendi told me to follow him, and I did. We walked into the dark cask room, and he fished a small key from around his neck.  It turns out he spoke at least two words of English, because he pointed to the key and said “good stuff” with a twinkle in his eye.  he lead me between two of the enourmous casks to a small door that was hidden in the shadows.  He opened it with the key to reveal a second, smaller cask room full of his secret stash.

The casks here were much smaller, probably three feet across, and contained the best hard cider I have ever had in my life.  It sparkled in my mouth like a revelation.  After having the good stuff, there was no going back to the everyday offerings in the larger casks.

A short while later, a soccer team came in for a post-match celebration, and the place started to get noisy.  We decided to call it day, and headed outside to be greeted by the bright blue Spanish sky.  It was one of those moments that you know is special as it unfolds, and I worked to remember every detail I could.  And 15 years later, I have to say that it was the best time I’ve had drinking in my life.  So far.

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Categories: Lifestyle


Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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6 Comments on “My Best Drinking Experience (So Far)”

  1. April 7, 2010 at 11:30 am #

    Wow, great descriptive post. Beverages should hearken us back to great experiences. The setting sounds fabulous. I love hard cider (the real stuff, like you had), and make it with apples from my dads orchard. Loved this post.

    • April 7, 2010 at 11:36 am #

      Thanks, Nate. I can still smell that sweet, sticky floor! The letter my dad wrote included a list of what we did in France. We visited the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower (typical Americans – I actually met someone from my hometown up there!), we cruised the Seine, etc. But what really sticks with me was that magical place outside of San Sebastian. Hooray for booze, I guess.

      I’d love to try some of you’re family’s cider. I haven’t had any since I was in France, figuring it couldn’t stack up.

  2. Jeff Schwartz
    April 7, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Great story, Jim! Its great how what started out to simply be a nice night out on vacation will turn into a life long memory for you.

    • April 7, 2010 at 1:12 pm #

      That’s usually how they happen, right? The ones you plan as lifelong memories are usually forced (like weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc.) and you usually wind up remember the stress leading into the event rather than the event itself.

  3. April 8, 2010 at 9:36 am #

    Great stuff Jim, and you’re right about the memory-making process!

    • April 8, 2010 at 9:45 am #

      The other great memory I have from the same trip is drinking a crisp pilsner on a warm evening in Dusseldorf. My dad and I were sitting on some cobblestone stairs outside a bar in the old town section and watching the people go by (mostly I was watching the German girls go by).

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