Bob Dylan’s Whiskey: A Taste Test


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The label design of Mr. Dylan’s whiskeys is derived from the singer’s ironwork sculptures.

Credit
Lyndon French for The New York Times

Musicians and booze have long gone together, and in the last few years acts from the Pogues to Drake have put their names on whiskey bottles. This year, Bob Dylan joins them with his own brand, Heaven’s Door, beginning with a seven-year-old bourbon, a “double-barreled” American whiskey and a rye finished in French Vosges oak barrels.

Mr. Dylan and his team don’t make the whiskey; they buy it from undisclosed producers and add their own twists before bottling. When I recently sampled the three variations of Heaven’s Door, I was curious about what, if anything, set it apart from other notable whiskeys. Here’s what I found.

Straight Tennessee Bourbon

$49.99

750 milliliters

90 proof

On the nose, this is a classic, no-fuss bourbon, though with more oak-derived notes — think caramel, vanilla and wood char — than you’d expect from a seven-year-old. I also smelled sandalwood, leather and linseed oil. And there’s a creamy cola note that suggests a good bit of rye in the mash bill. (Mr. Dylan and his team say they use just 70 percent corn, leaving a lot of room for other grains to show their influence.) The palate opens with a soft cocoa and buttercream note, then sharpens toward black pepper and cigar tobacco. The finish is slightly bitter, with the sweet spiciness of an Atomic Fireball. My favorite of the bunch.

Double Barrel Whiskey

$49.99

750 milliliters

100 proof

More restrained than its stable mates, the Double Barrel — in which different whiskeys have been blended and further aged together in another cask — smells of cake batter, fresh berries and children’s cough syrup; as it develops in the glass, its nose turns darker and woodier, with a hint of sweet fortified wine lurking in the background. It tastes surprisingly astringent and medicinal, given the nose, with a thin mouthfeel and notes of tobacco, allspice and wood smoke, resolving in ground pepper. The wood influence on this one is strong, perhaps too much, but it would make a nice substitute for a rye in a manhattan.

Straight Rye Whiskey

$79.99

750 milliliters

92 proof

Most rye whiskey on the market these days is made at a distillery in southern Indiana called Midwest Grain Products, then sold to brands like George Dickel and Bulleit. Some brands then “finish” the whiskey by placing it in a used or new barrel to give it a twist — in this case, the rye goes into toasted Vosges oak barrels, which are often used to age pinot noir. Heaven’s Door doesn’t reveal where its rye comes from, but its nose is rich with MGP’s trademark dill and herbal notes. There’s also a sweet grassiness, cocoa powder, tobacco and a slap of leather. It opens deceptively smooth on the palate, but builds to a sweet spiciness before finishing with a burst of spicy, bittersweet chocolate.

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Bob Dylan’s Latest Gig: Making Whiskey


[Read a Times taster’s review of Bob Dylan’s whiskeys.]

The marketing of celebrity alcohol tends to lean on the perceived lifestyle of its mascots. Drink George Clooney’s Casamigos tequila, for example — sold last year to the beverage giant Diageo for up to $1 billion — and acquire some of his movie-star glamour. Want to party like Jay-Z? Buy an $850 Armand de Brignac.

“It’s about fairy dust,” said Michael Stone, the chairman of the brand licensing agency Beanstalk, who is not involved with Heaven’s Door. “People are looking for some of the fairy dust to be sprinkled on them from that celebrity’s lifestyle.”

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Two Heaven’s Door executives, Marc Bushala, left, and Ryan Perry, sometimes puzzled over Mr. Dylan’s comments about the whiskey samples he tasted. “It should feel like being in a wood structure” was one.

Credit
Lyndon French for The New York Times

Heaven’s Door is meant to conjure a broader idea of Mr. Dylan that is part Renaissance man, part nighthawk. The label design is derived from his ironwork sculptures, with rural iconography — crows, wagon wheels — in silhouette. And in promotional photos lighted like classic movie stills, a tuxedo-clad Mr. Dylan, 76, gazes off in a dark cocktail lounge or lonely diner, glass in hand.

Like his recent albums of standards, they portray Mr. Dylan as an urbane but still gritty crooner — one who might well wind down his day with a glass of bourbon.

“Dylan has these qualities that actually work well for a whiskey,” Mr. Bushala said. “He has great authenticity. He is a quintessential American. He does things the way he wants to do them. I think these are good attributes for a super-premium whiskey as well.”

Mr. Dylan is entering the craft whiskey market as the business is exploding. Helped by a craze for classic cocktails, sales of American whiskey grew 52 percent over the last five years, to $3.4 billion in 2017, according to data from the Distilled Spirits Council.

But for those who have been listening closely, whiskey has been a decades-long thread throughout Mr. Dylan’s music, going back to the early outtake “Moonshiner” in 1963 and to Mr. Dylan’s version of the song “Copper Kettle (The Pale Moonlight),” on the 1970 album “Self Portrait,” which describes the distilling process in detail. (“Get you a copper kettle, get you a copper coil/Fill it with new made corn mash and never more you’ll toil.”)

Mr. Bushala said that over four or five meetings — always at Mr. Dylan’s metalworking studio in Los Angeles — and a number of phone calls, he had learned that his partner has a sophisticated whiskey palate.

Yet communication was still a challenge. Mr. Bushala and Ryan Perry, the chief operating officer, struggled to interpret Mr. Dylan’s wishes. Often they came in the form of enigmatic comments or simply glances.

“Sometimes you just get a long look,” Mr. Bushala said with a laugh, “and you’re not sure if that’s disgust or approval.”

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Mr. Dylan performing in Britain in 1962, the year before he recorded the outtake “Moonshiner.” Whiskey has been a musical thread throughout his career.

Credit
Brian Shuel/Redferns

He and Mr. Perry recalled Mr. Dylan’s tasting a sample of the double-barreled whiskey and saying that something was missing. “It should feel like being in a wood structure,” he said.

They struggled to decode the remark. What kind of wooden structure? A church? A railroad car? A barn? That led Mr. Bushala and Mr. Perry first to probing discussions about the nose — the liquor’s aroma in the glass — and then to experiments in how they toasted the barrels in which the whiskey is aged.

Months later, the men returned with a sample that they felt embodied “that sweet, musty smell of a barn,” Mr. Bushala said, and presented it to Mr. Dylan, who commented approvingly.

His oblique feedback, Mr. Perry said, “really helped us think about barrel finishing in a different way.”

The first batches of Heaven’s Door were developed with Jordan Via, formerly of the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado. Together, the team tried various novel finishes. The rye, for example, was aged in cigar-shaped oak barrels made from wood harvested in the Vosges region of France.

To preserve Mr. Dylan’s original name for the whiskey, the company will issue an annual Bootleg Series in limited editions, in ceramic bottles decorated with his oil and watercolor paintings. The first, a 25-year-old whiskey, will be released next year and cost about $300. (Heaven’s Door’s standard line goes for $50 to $80 a bottle.)

The idea of Mr. Dylan’s being connected to a commercial venture always activates some level of outrage, as it did in 2014 when fans cried “sellout” for his involvement in two Super Bowl TV ads: one for Chobani yogurt, which used his song “I Want You,” and another for Chrysler, in which Mr. Dylan recited a patriotic script about the car industry.

▶ A 2014 Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler featuring Mr. Dylan. Video by Brenner Chrysler Jeep

But Mr. Dylan has never shied from commercial deals, and in the long run they have barely grazed his reputation. In 1994, he allowed Richie Havens to sing his anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in an ad for the button-down accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand. Ten years later, Mr. Dylan was mocked for appearing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial (in which he tossed his black cowboy hat to a supermodel wearing angel wings). Since then, he has done spots for Apple, Cadillac, Pepsi, IBM and Google.

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Heaven’s Door labels were inspired by Mr. Dylan’s ironwork sculptures.

Credit
Lyndon French for The New York Times

Mr. Dylan has also made a novel licensing deal for his full song catalog to be available for use in a television drama now under development.

Bill Flanagan, a veteran music journalist who has interviewed Mr. Dylan, likens him to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash — self-made entertainers who saw no conflict in joining the marketplace.

And then there is simply Mr. Dylan’s talent for provocation.

“Dylan has always resisted any attempt to fence him in,” Mr. Flanagan said. “As soon as people start calling him king of the folkies, or patron saint of the counterculture, or beloved anticommercial leftist icon — he almost always does something to thwart that.”

Whether Heaven’s Door can compete is another question. Mr. Bushala was one of the founders of Angel’s Envy, which was introduced in 2011 and sold to Bacardi four years later after developing a reputation for quality and innovation. Yet the whiskey aisle keeps getting more crowded. According to Nielsen, more than 20,000 kinds of spirits are sold in the United States, and last year there were 27 percent more whiskeys on sale than in 2013.

Mr. Bushala said that in their first conversation, he had told Mr. Dylan that “whiskey drinkers are a very cynical crowd” and that the success of their enterprise would depend on the quality of the product, not Mr. Dylan’s image.

Yet a few months after their first meeting, Mr. Bushala said, he had a scare when Mr. Dylan was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature — and then waited weeks to acknowledge the honor, leading to speculation that he might not accept. “Oh, no, a P.R. nightmare!” Mr. Bushala remembered thinking.

But then he realized that defying expectations was “very much on brand” for Mr. Dylan, and likened the Nobel episode — ultimately, a success — to their whiskey deal.

“For people who are surprised that he did a whiskey,” Mr. Bushala said, “I guess they don’t really know Dylan. People who know him expect him to do things they would never expect.”

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Even the Doors From the Chelsea Hotel Are Icons


One of the owners, Ira Drukier, said last month that 48 long-term tenants remained. He said the goal was to open rooms on the upper floors in a few months.

“We started from the top down,” he said. “We hope to have 10, 9, 8, 7 in operation before the end of the year.”

Last month the renovations reached the restaurant on the first floor, El Quijote. It will remain closed for several months while workers install support columns in the kitchen, among other things. And the tenants who are living through the renovation come and go through an unstylish vestibule that leads to a lobby that has all the charm of a construction site, although the ornate front desk is a transplant from the hotel’s earlier days.

Mr. Georgiou said he lived in the Chelsea from September 2002 to April 2011. He said he had been a principal in an internet start-up company, living on Chambers Street downtown, and witnessed the Sept. 11 attacks from his apartment. He moved out amid health problems and a financial drain, and ended up at the Chelsea.

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One of the owners, Ira Drukier, said the goal was to open rooms on the upper floors in a few months.

Credit
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

“When you move in there,” he said, “without getting ethereal about it, there is a sense of energy in the building.”

There was also what he called its “utopian spirit.” “They were running a business, for sure,” he said, “but there was eccentricity, kookiness, darkness, light, all of it colliding to make it a very interesting place.” That began to change after the longtime manager, Stanley Bard, was ousted in 2007 in a power struggle among the owners.

Mr. Georgiou said he had occupied Room 225, and of course it had a history. “I lived in Bob Dylan’s room,” he said. One of them, anyway. “He lived in three rooms: 211, 215 and 225,” he said.

Mr. Georgiou said he visited the building after renovations began and construction workers were in the corridors. “I said, ‘Do you guys realize what you’re doing here?’ ” he recalled. “I said: ‘This is history. I realize the building needs work, but tread lightly.’ One day I asked, ‘What are you doing with this stuff?’ They said, ‘Oh, we’re throwing it away.’ ”

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Bob Dylan Sings About Gay Love


To secure the right to perform the songs with altered lyrics, permission was required from the songs’ publishers. “The response was completely positive,” said Rob Kaplan, the project’s executive producer.

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“Universal Love” on vinyl.

Mr. Kaplan started his search for artists with Ben Gibbard, the frontman for Death Cab for Cutie, an alternative rock band from Washington State. Mr. Gibbard had expressed his support of marriage equality in a 2012 essay for The Daily Beast, inspired by his sister, a lesbian. “This was a cause at our family dinner table,” Mr. Gibbard said.

For the project, Mr. Gibbard elected to recast the Beatles classic “And I Love Her” to “And I Love Him.” “It’s a song my dad often played to my mom after dinner,” he said. “Also, it’s a song everyone knows.”

Kesha chose Janis Joplin’s “I Need a Man to Love” (“such a gritty, soulful song,” Kesha said), and changed it to “I Need a Woman to Love.” “For years I said that I’m not getting married until any two people can legally marry in this country,” Kesha said. She has since become ordained and has performed weddings for two gay couples.

Valerie June, a country and blues singer who attended her first gay marriage last year for her cousin, recorded a big-band version of “Mad About the Boy,” changing “boy” to “girl.” Ms. June believes it adds an extra layer of meaning that the song’s writer, Noël Coward, was gay and that the version he recorded in 1932 wasn’t released in its day because of prevailing homophobia.

“It brings the song full circle to know that it was written by a gay man who meant every single word of ‘Mad About the Boy,’” she said.

Mr. Dylan, who does not appear to have spoken out in favor of gay rights in the past, declined to be interviewed. But his choice of song, “She’s Funny That Way,” which has been recorded by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, gains a wink in its current guise; “He’s Funny That Way” can also be read as an antiquated code for a gay person.

Mr. Dylan’s warm and wry performance captures the mix of wit and sincerity favored by songs from the American standards era.

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Bob Dylan, seen here in a 2012 performance in Los Angeles, recorded “He’s Funny That Way” for the project.

Credit
Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

Mr. Kaplan said that when he contacted Mr. Dylan, he got a very quick yes. “And it wasn’t just ‘yes, I’ll do this,’” he said. “It was ‘hey, I have an idea for a song.’”

“Universal Love” arrives at an evolving time for same-sex pronouns in pop. Though major music stars started to come out in significant numbers in the 1990s, with artists including K. D. Lang, Melissa Etheridge and Elton John, rarely, if ever, did they use same-sex pronouns in their recordings.

Only in the last six years have younger stars slowly begun to do so, including Frank Ocean, Olly Alexander and Mary Lambert, who crooned the chorus of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Grammy-nominated “Same Love” in 2012.

“For a long time, queer people had to use the awkward ‘you’ in their songs to avoid outing themselves,” said Stephan Pennington, a professor of music at Tufts University who teaches a course in “queer pop.”

“There has also always been pressure from the record companies to not be exclusionary by using a same-sex pronoun,” Mr. Pennington said. “But heterosexual expressions are never thought of as exclusionary.”

Indeed, Sam Smith, arguably the most prominent gay pop star today, refrains from using same-sex pronouns.

Allison Zatarain, a producer of a new album titled “Instant Love,” which mirrors the mission of “Universal Love” by featuring female artists singing love songs to other women, believes the use of same-sex pronouns in pop songs “fills a massive hole in the world’s musical library.”

“To hear a woman sing to another woman, or a man to a man, lends the song a specificity that is so much more impactful than addressing ‘you,’” she said.

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This Movie Romance Scandalized a Nation. Now It’s a Drama Onstage.


Last August, Mr. Wright sat at the desk in his home office in West Austin. On a computer monitor was a document opened to draft No. 78 of “Cleo.” He was preparing for the play’s September debut. Then Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in late August and damaged the Alley, prompting the delay.

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The actors Lisa Birnbaum and Richard Short will play Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Cleo,” Lawrence Wright’s play at the Alley Theater.

Credit
Lynn Lane

In those seven months, Mr. Wright wrote nine more drafts, all while serving as an executive producer for the new Hulu series based on “The Looming Tower” and completing a new book on Texas politics. “Cleo” is now a drastically different play than it was when Mr. Wright conceived it, yet the theme remains the same.

“It’s in some ways a disquisition on love, and how dangerous it is, and yet how essential,” Mr. Wright said. “We’re condemned to have this riotous, unsettling element in our natures and we don’t understand it.”

Initially, Mr. Wright had focused on the affair between Joseph Mankiewicz, the movie’s director and co-writer, and Rosemary Matthews, the script supervisor. He was intrigued with the intertwined destructive relationships at play on the set: from Antony and Cleopatra, whose relationship shook empires; to Burton and Taylor, whose relationship ripped apart their marriages and ignited the gossip pages; to that more prosaic boss-subordinate romance.

Change came when Mr. Balaban got involved about seven years ago. He had met Taylor a few times through the actress Maureen Stapleton, and persuaded Mr. Wright to redirect the emphasis to her and Burton, the obvious stars of the show.

The script still does feature Mankiewicz, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who became overwhelmed with the enormity of the movie, a budget-buster that threatened to bankrupt Fox. Also in supporting roles: Eddie Fisher, the singer and actor who was Taylor’s husband — her fourth — at the time, and Rex Harrison, the actor playing Caesar, whose ego took a toll as his role diminished in the growing shadow of Burton’s Mark Antony.

The actors Lisa Birnbaum and Richard Short portray Taylor and Burton. They were cast, Mr. Balaban said, for their ability to embody both tragedy and comedy, and because they resembled their characters without ever appearing to do impressions of them.

The play starts with Burton arriving drunk to the set, in Rome, to replace the actor Stephen Boyd, who was no longer available after production delays. The idea of using Burton came from Fisher, who unwittingly invited a snake into his own den, according to Mr. Wright.

Burton and Taylor couldn’t keep their cravings secret and the nascent paparazzi captured every blatant minute of their sunbathing and petting.

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“The passion and the lust just spilled out all over the world,” said Mr. Wright, who is best known for his reporting on Al Qaeda and on Scientology.

Credit
Ben Sklar for The New York Times

“There was outrage,” Mr. Wright said. “Nobody had ever seen this kind of thing happening in public before. The tabloids were full of ‘homewrecker.’ ”

The pope condemned the couple, and a congresswoman from Georgia proposed prohibiting Taylor, a naturalized U.S. citizen, from returning after filming. Fidelity was a tightly held American value, yet the pair persisted in flagrant defiance and, in Mr. Wright’s estimation, helped to spark the sexual revolution.

“The Richard Burton Diaries,” published in 2012, was crucial to understanding not only the dynamic between Burton and Taylor but also Burton’s light and dark sides. Mr. Wright’s research also included interviewing sources close to the movie.

“The play ends with a rather brutal scene — a big, knock-down, drag-out fight that you would think would tear Taylor and Burton apart but is actually what ends up cementing their relationship,” Mr. Balaban said. “We wanted to present something that was probably like what really happened with them.”

A 2016 reading of “Cleo” that was part of the Alley’s festival of new works inspired Gregory Boyd, the former artistic director, to stage a production. Mr. Wright is not, however, new to theater. In his career, he has written four plays that have been produced (“Camp David,” “Fallaci,” “Sonny’s Last Shot” and “Crackerjack”) and performed in two of his own one-man shows, “The Human Scale” and “My Trip to Al-Qaeda.”

“I’ve written movies, but typically with a movie, as soon as the director comes on, the last thing he wants is the writer around,” Mr. Wright said. “So you get kind of pushed out. In the theater, the playwright is the final authority, and I don’t mind that.”

On April 17, he will publish “God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” based on reporting he did for an article in The New Yorker. David Remnick, the magazine’s editor, asked Mr. Wright to explain his home state; the writer playfully reminded the editor that he gets paid by the word.

Mr. Remnick was willing to take the risk.

“The secret to Larry is that he writes only about what completely grabs his attention and imagination,” Mr. Remnick said. “Nothing obligatory, nothing on order. He does what he’s going to do. And the results are invariably amazing.”

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