Bourbon Heaven In Fredericksburg

A bourbon barrel at the A. Smith Bourbon Distillery performs double duty. [Click photo for larger version]
A bourbon barrel at the A. Smith Bourbon Distillery performs double duty. [Click photos for larger versions]
Large, commercial distillers busily convert corn-based products into glorious bourbon.
Large, commercial distillers busily convert corn-based products into glorious bourbon.
Over 700 full barrels sleep their days away while slowly imparting unique personalities to the bourbon inside.
Over 700 full barrels sleep their days away while slowly imparting unique personalities to the bourbon inside.
Anyone for a taste? The varied products are available for tasting after you finish touring the facility.
Anyone for a taste? The varied products are available for tasting after you finish touring the facility.
A small production line for their hand-crafted products  can be found within the main visitor's building.
A small production line for their hand-crafted products can be found within the main visitor’s building.

I must confess that even when having lived here for a long time, the good, old state of Virginia just keeps on surprising me.  It seems that everywhere you turn, you’ll find someone making some great product that you’ve never heard of before.  This week for me it was bourbon.  Now, I do know that in some parts of Virginia little details like Prohibition have never dampened the local’s taste for liquids other than water, but bourbon is something that we all tend to (and by default, I’m afraid) associate with the folks in Kentucky.  This probably has more to do with ignorance than with taste, though.  Well, no more.  From what I experienced at the A. Smith Bowman Distillery in Fredericksburg recently, Virginia is definitely a bourbon state, and in a big way.  We’re talking about the hand-crafted, small batch stuff here, not the gallons coming out of a mega-distillery partially owned by some European investment group.  And while I was familiar with the famous saying, “All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon,” this was the first time that I had a chance to walk in to a facility where I could smell the perfume bourbon scent in all its glory.  One hour touring the distillery and there was no doubt in my mind that if you are a bourbon aficionado, this place has to be on your radar screen, and pronto.

 

How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil’s Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon, and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter.   (W.C. Fields)

 

Tucked away right off Rt. 17 South right past the town of Fredericksburg, the A. Smith Bowman Distillery has to be one of the best kept non-secrets in Northern Virginia. The distillery not only produces an impressive variety of bourbons locally (have I mentioned the great aroma yet?), but they also provide some extremely informative tours of the place before you get down to the “business” of sampling their products. Unfortunately, and to my chagrin, I happened to find myself there without a designated driver and had to pass on the tasting portion of the tour (which required serious depletion of my residual self-control supply). But, there’s always next time, and in the words of the great Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back.”

 

The Yards: An Old Neighborhood Reinvents Itself

The most prominent architecture at The Yards is its modern footbridge. [Click photos for larger versions]
The most prominent architecture at The Yards is its modern footbridge. [Click photos for larger versions]
The Yards are characterized by lots of open, quiet spaces where friends can hang out.
The Yards are characterized by lots of open, quiet spaces where friends can hang out.
While still somewhat urban, the views from The Yards are some of the best in the city.
While still somewhat urban, the views from The Yards are some of the best in the city.
Lost of places to sit and enjoy a quiet lunch while the rest of the world is going crazy.
Lost of places to sit and enjoy a quiet lunch while the rest of the world is going crazy.
Young, eager entrepreneurs have discovered the area's potential early on.
Young, eager entrepreneurs have discovered the area’s potential early on.
Creative urban planning has totally redefined the character of an old neighborhood.
Creative urban planning has totally redefined the character of an old neighborhood.
With the Federal Transportation Department in the background, The Yards are a great example of livable urban spaces.
With the Federal Transportation Department in the background, The Yards are a great example of livable urban spaces.

They often say that if you want to really get to know a city, that you must first familiarize yourself with its neighborhoods. I kind of agree with that and have made it a point to visit distinct neighborhoods whenever I travel. But sometimes you don’t have to travel very far to see how new neighborhoods transform the cities in which they sprout. As old continues to give way to new, places like The Yards in Washington, DC continue to redefine the city’s urban living landscape.  Sure, not everyone is happy to see an old way of life disappear, but shinny, new things also have their attraction.  And in a city that has experienced significant population outflows in the past, authorities are quite eager to attract those taxpayers back to the new neighborhoods.  The bait: open spaces, shinny new apartment buildings, trendy restaurants, and above all, quick access to the Metro. Oh, and should I mention that a Major League baseball park and a New York Trapeze School are within walking distance too? Well, that surely must help.

This recently-developed, waterside area of Washington, DC is sandwiched between the Navy Yard and the Washington Nationals baseball park. Major construction projects are still going on out there, so the place still has that “work in progress” feeling about it.  And if the area has not been totally discovered by locals yet, this probably has more to do with its somewhat off-the-beaten-path location than with anything else. Sure, you can get there via metro, but if you drive, prepare to pay at the few parking facilities there (and even on Sundays when most of DC does not charge for parking). Enough reason to stay away? I don’t think so. The Yards are one of the few places in the city where the lack of crowds, traffic, and noise allow for the perfect evening stroll, or for enough quiet to concentrate on that great book you’ve been meaning to spend some time with. Trendy restaurants, coffee shops, and an all-natural ice cream shop round up the good news about the place. Who knows, this may end up becoming one of the best kept secrets in the city after all.

 

Cherry Blossoms Mark The Arrival Of Spring

The pre-dawn hours along the Tidal Basin showcase the Cherry Blossom trees at their best. [Click photo for larger version]
The pre-dawn hours along the Tidal Basin showcase the Cherry Blossom trees at their best. [Click photos for larger version]
The annual ritual brings people to the Tidal Basin in droves and allows for great photo opportunities.
The annual ritual brings people to the Tidal Basin in droves and allows for great photo opportunities.
When the blooming of the cherry trees, a city not known for public displays of affection, momentarily displays a decidedly Parisian flare.
With the blooming of the cherry trees, a city not known for public displays of affection, suddenly shows a decidedly Parisian flare.

It is a yearly ritual, but it never ceases to amaze. The annual spring blooming of the Cherry Blossom trees along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC is one of those unique gifts of nature that no matter how many times you have experienced it in the past, the sheer beauty of this blooming spectacle is something not to be missed. Sure, the photos by now have all started to look the same, and the crowds will always descend on the place as pilgrims on a pilgrimage, but it really doesn’t matter. Has anyone ever tired of looking at a pretty face? Or has anyone ever wished for less happiness in their lives? Impossible. In the early morning hours of a perfect spring day, the blossoming cherry trees along the undulating shores of the Tidal Basin are the stuff of fantasies. The pink and white colors of the blooming flowers appear to fight for everyone’s attention, while the cool, misty fog along the water’s surface gradually gives way to the lazy, yellow light of a morning sun. It is a spectacle like no other, and year after year, it will bring us back to see and feel the coming of a new spring. A reminder of how beautiful life can be, and how great it is to be alive.

 

Seeing Differently By Adjusting Your Visual Gyroscope

Sometimes all it takes to see things differently is to climb a set of stairs and look down.
Sometimes all it takes to see things differently is to climb a set of stairs and then proceed to look down.
Using a different lens could lead to new and creative ways of seeing in the urban environment.
Using a different lens could lead to new and creative ways of seeing in the urban environment.
Common urban scenes familiar to most folks can prove to be quite interesting if observed from a different perspective.
Common urban scenes familiar to most folks can prove to be quite interesting if observed from a different perspective.
Curved lines will always add a different architectural perspective to the landscape.
Curved lines will always add a different architectural perspective to the landscape.
A lone and otherwise insignificant street lamp acquires a new personality as a result of empty space.
A lone and otherwise insignificant street lamp acquires a new personality as a result of empty space.

There is something to be said for purposefully changing the way we see. Not that there’s anything wrong with the “panning field of view” approach that characterizes the way we see most things on a daily basis.  Rather, the point is that within all those daily panoramas there are endless opportunities to adjust our visual gyroscopes in order to add a little spark to our visual enjoyment of life.  This take on our visual world is nothing new. After all, most people already do this, albeit somewhat unconsciously.  It happens whenever they adjust their positions to “get a better view,” or when they take the elevator to an observation deck in order to see the world around them from a different vantage point. Something deep inside us all gives rise to the desire for visual adjustment, and whether it is the result of simple curiosity or much deeper emotions, it nevertheless represents a transition from a less-fulfilling state to a more fulfilling one. It is positive energy at its best, and we all know that we could use a lot more of that.

Seeing differently, however, does not come without some effort. Just like it is imperative to climb a set of stairs before enjoying a view, there are some stairs to climb when adjusting the way we see in that crazy world around us.  But what really matters in the end is that the rewards of such climbs are incredibly satisfying.  They just take a “change in latitude,” like the common saying says.  The few photographs on this week’s post are the result of some of those changes in latitude–simple attempts to see the familiar differently.  As if out of nowhere, the old became new, and the familiar revealed itself in a brand new light.  I immediately came to the realization that these scenes were there all the time for someone to see them, provided that someone took the time to look.

 

A Visually Chaotic Order

Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Friends enjoy the magnificent view out of the second floor at the National Portrait Gallery.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Service attendant at one of the many help desks inside the Washington, DC Convention Center.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
Man dines alone at the Ceviche bar at the trendy Oyamel restaurant downtown Washington, DC.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.
A bride appears to be running late for her photoshoot inside the National Portrait Gallery.

I will be the first to admit that today’s post has somewhat of a random quality to it. In fact, that’s precisely my goal. You see, I have come to believe that most of the beauty of life has to do precisely with this randomness concept–the multitude of seemingly disconnected activities that characterize our everyday living. For lack of a better term, I like to refer to this phenomena as the chaotic order of society. Everyone pursuing his or her own activities totally different from that of others, but in some strange way, in an orderly, life-synchronous way. Yes, it all kind of falls together quite nicely, even if at first impression these activities appear to be ricocheting all over the place. Contemplation, stress, joy, and pain all seem to come together as if by necessity and disorderly design.  For some, this sense of uncontrolled living is the root of all problems in society; for others, it is nothing but randomness beauty, a symphony orchestra tuning their instruments before the greatest performance of their lives.

Is this what fascinates so many street photographers out there? Perhaps, and while I wouldn’t dare pretend to be speaking for this community, there’s got to be something in this chaotic order of our human ecosystem that proves to be irresistible to so many of these photographers. That something is there, and it always is, in an endless succession of juxtaposing micro-events that is both chaotic and orchestrated. To be able to witness them is pure joy, a confirmation that whatever occupies us in our daily lives is intrinsically intertwined into a larger, colorful quilt that is more obvious when observed from a distance. Remember the last time you sat down to relax and to engage in a little “people watching?” I’m sure that the world around you acquired a somewhat different dimension, an unexplainable revelation that highlighted everything you’ve been missing when looking at life through a panoramic lens. Contrary to the old expression about the devil being in the details, for those who aim to feel the pulse of that chaotic order out there, heaven is what lies in the details. A bride’s hurried steps on her way to a museum photoshoot, a lonely man sitting at a restaurant, friends looking out of a window, and a lone public servant waiting for someone to ask her a question. Details. Different worlds. One fabric. Beauty.