The best value in kitchen knives

One big way to save money, and build useful and attractive-to-others skills is to cook for yourself. To do that, you need some good kitchen knives. Most people have a drawer full of ten or twelve low-quality, dull knives that they bought as a set, instead of just two or three knives of good quality. 

90-100% of your knife needs can be handled by two implements: A Chef’s knife and a paring knife. As a bonus, you can throw in an excellent bread knife too.

I recommend and use these high-quality knives from Victorinox, which makes them at very reasonable prices for the quality:

3.25″ Paring knife:

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8 Inch Chef’s knife:

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10.25″ bread knife (use with caution: very sharp!)

Make sure you get a sharpening steel as well such as this one from Henckels.  This is so you can sharpen the knives yourself when they inevitably lose some of their edge.

An introduction to bourbon whiskey: America’s great spirit – Part 1

What is whiskey?

Whiskey is any fermented grain beverage (aka beer) that has been distilled, which concentrates its alcohol and removes the sugars and many other flavors of the original product, but keeps enough of them to still have the distinctively sweet whiskey flavor. Fermented fruit beverages, such as wine or cider, that are distilled are called brandy or eau de vie. The latter is French for water of life, and that same phrase in Latin, ‘aqua vitae’, became uisce beatha in Gaelic, which eventually turned into the English word ‘whiskey’.

Similar to brandies like Cognac, whiskies today are almost always aged a few to several years in oak barrels. Oak happens to be an excellent wood for barreling spirits because it doesn’t leak or poison you, and aging in wood improves the flavor by contributing toasty, wood-y & vanilla-y notes. Charring the barrel, which is required for bourbon, also mellows and purifies the whiskey, removing harsher flavors over time, as well as adding unique flavors. Think of this charred inner layer of the barrel as a charcoal filter that also adds deliciousness. Mmmm….

Non-American Whiskies

Scotch, Irish, and Japanese whiskies are made principally of barley, which is also the primary grain in beer. Malt whiskies such as Single Malt Scotch are made entirely of malted barley, whereas blended whiskies can be made of neutral grain spirits (aka vodka, usually made from corn because it’s cheap) or other grain spirits. The ‘Single’ in Single Malt Scotch refers to the requirement that the spirit be made in one distillery over one distilling season (as opposed to combining whiskies from multiple distilleries or whiskies from different years of distillation.) Canadian whiskies are somewhat similar to American ones in the grains they use, especially their frequent use of rye, but they are often blended with tasteless neutral grain spirits, and thus not as characterful as American whiskies.

What is bourbon whiskey?

American whiskies include bourbon, Tennessee, rye, wheat, and malt whiskies. Depending on the style, they are made of corn (maize to those of you outside of the United States), rye, barley malt, and sometimes wheat. Bourbon is the most popular type of American whiskey, and it must be made in the US to be called bourbon (but not exclusively in Kentucky, where most whiskey comes from, which is a common misunderstanding.) Bourbon is required by law to be made of at least 51% corn, with the remainder being rye, wheat, or barley. In practice, most bourbon is made with 60 – 80% corn, 10 – 20% rye (sometimes substituted with wheat instead), and 10 – 12% malted barley. Malted grains convert the starches in the other grains into sugars during the beer brewing process so that the yeasts can turn those sugars into sweet, sweet alcohol.

Bourbon must also be aged in newly-charred oak barrels. Since these barrels can only be used once for bourbon, they are often sent to Scotland to be used to age Scotch afterwards. The fact that they are used barrels is why Scotch has a mellower wood flavor profile than bourbon.

What bourbons should you try?

Now that you have some idea of what you’re drinking, let’s move on to what bottles to buy in Part 2.

An introduction to bourbon whiskey: America’s great spirit – Part 2

General Buying Guidance

Unlike a good single malt Scotch, which will set you back at least $40 – $60, and can run up into the hundreds (or even thousands) for something in the 18 – 30 year age range, bourbon is an incredible bargain. Some of the best bourbons in the world cost only $45 – $70, and there are many great buys to be had in the $20 – $30 range, which is where I recommend you do the bulk of your purchasing at first. There’s plenty of drinkable American whiskey below $20, including stuff you could mix or pass off on your unsophisticated friends for less than $15, but for just a few dollars more you can drink really tasty stuff, so why settle for less?

If you’re new to bourbon, stick to bottles labeled Kentucky Straight Bourbon (or Rye) Whiskey. This means the whiskey will adhere to the minimum standards for good bourbon, and will come from the state where it originated and was perfected.

No age statement on the bottle is fine, or any age statement 6 years or greater. Like Scotch, longer aging of bourbon is generally a sign of quality, but many bourbons today are losing their age statements to keep up with demand for their products, which means they’re likely including some younger whiskey than they did before. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because a distilleries’ #1 priority for their product is to keep the flavor consistent.

Another reliable marker of durn good bourbon is the words Single Barrel. Unlike Small Batch, which is essentially meaningless, Single Barrel means that the whiskey was made from one distilling ‘season’ at one distillery, and came out of one particular barrel. The ‘Single Barrel’ version of a particular brand should be a particularly tasty barrel, which is why the master distiller has chosen it for a special bottling. For example, Evan Williams black label or the bottle-in-bond version are nothing special in my opinion, but Evan Williams Single Barrel is delicious stuff, and a fine value at around $20.

Recommendations (prices are pre-tax and represent good deals commonly found in California)

Bottom shelf/Entry-level: It’s worth tasting a couple of these after you’ve bought a few of the Middle Shelf options so that you can appreciate paying a little more for the jump in quality. Try at least one of the two best selling bourbons* in American: Heaven Hill’s Evan Williams black label or Jim Beam’s white label. Four Rose’s yellow label is actually quite tasty, and worth buying. Stay away from the really bottom shelf stuff including Ten High, Ancient Age, and Old Crow. (On the other hand, these are worth a taste for comparison, but just a taste: I wouldn’t want to be responsible for drinking a whole bottle…)

*Jack Daniel’s is the world’s best-selling American whiskey, and not bad at all, but technically it’s a Tennessee whiskey, even though process & taste-wise it’s practically identical to bourbon.

Middle Shelf: There is some great value here, and it’s where I spend most of my bourbon budget.

  • Sazerac’s Eagle Rare continues to be a steal at 10 years of age and $25. Smooth, sweet and reasonably complex, it’s both a crowd pleaser and a nice dram for the initiated.
  • From the same folks who brought you Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace‘s flagship bourbon is also very good ($20)
  • From the Beam people, Jim Beam Black Extra Aged is not bad, but Jim Beam Single Barrel if you can find it on sale is excellent. Knob Creek (100 pf) is also very good.
  • Evan Williams Single Barrel vintages are a favorite of mine (skip Evan Williams 1783, however), as is another fine product from Heaven Hill Distilleries, Elijah Craig.
  • The proprietary yeast used by Wild Turkey in their flagship Wild Turkey 101, or the milder and more-refined Russell’s Reserve 10 year, give their whiskies a distinctive dry spiciness that I enjoy.
  • Four Roses’ entry-level ‘yellow label’ is fine to start with, but look for Four Roses Single Barrel if you can find it on sale.
  • Old Forester 100 pf is perfectly quaffable, but the really good stuff is in their Top Shelf line listed below.
  • Try a ‘high rye’ whiskey like Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond or Old Grand Dad 114 pf. (Their entry-level Old Grand-Dad 80 pf is supposed to be inferior to the bottled-in-bond, but it’s been a while since I’ve had it, so I won’t pass judgement here.)
  • For rye whiskey, try Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond or Knob Creek Rye 100 pf if you can find them for less than $30

Top Shelf: These whiskies make a wonderful gift for a bourbon aficionado, or a treat for yourself (but don’t waste them on the uninitiated.) Move on to them after you’ve decided that bourbon really is your thing with the Middle Shelf purchases.

  • Kentucky Spirit from Wild Turkey if my favorite bourbon to date (around $45 – 50)
  • Booker’s is reputed to be excellent, and is made by Jim Beam.
  • Blanton’s is Buffalo Trace’s top shelf bourbon, and comes with a collectible plastic horsey on top…
  • Old Forester 1897 Bottled-in-Bond is delicious, and has the distinction of being my father’s favorite bourbon to date. They also make Old Forester 1920 and Old Forester Statesman, all of which are supposed to be very good. The entire fancy pants Old Forester collection is in the $40 – $60 range.

Tasting Whiskey

Tasting whiskey is similar to tasting wine & beer. Pour a small amount (0.5 oz) in a small, aroma-concentrating glass and stick your nose in there to smell it gently at first, and then more thoroughly. (Try to be as obnoxious as possible about it. You’ll enjoy the whiskey more that way.) Next, take a small sip and swirl it around your tongue before swallowing. You can also do the wine thing and breath in through your mouth while you do it, but don’t choke!

Next, dilute the whiskey down to around 30 – 35% abv (60 – 70 proof) with a little room temperature water. Cold water or ice won’t allow you to taste the whiskey quite as well. Use a pipette or small creamer pitcher to make sure you don’t pour in too much water too quickly. (Pipettes are perfect for hosting a tasting since everyone can have their own, and you can just toss them afterward.)

After diluting, take a bigger sip and hold the whiskey in your mouth longer this time, getting it all over your tongue, including the back and sides, before swallowing. Notice the initial flavor, the body or ‘mouth feel’, and after swallowing, notice which tastes linger and for how long. At the right strength, the alcohol should neither burn while it’s on your tongue nor be so watered down that it doesn’t have much flavor. Pour a little water in, sip, dilute more if needed, repeat until you get it to your taste. For me, I tend to keep diluting as I taste, perhaps because the alcohol on my tongue starts to accumulate as I keep sipping. You can always add more whiskey if you get too much water in there…

As bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery told me, “there’s a difference between tasting and drinking”, so once you’re done tasting, feel free to relax and just drink. I often find that I need to have a full glass of a single bourbon to really get to know it, which is a very convenient excuse to give to your wife. (You can get to know her after another glass.) For good whiskies like those in the Middle and Top Shelves above, I recommend sticking to adding only a little still water, or if it’s warm out, a small piece of ice. But if you just wanna kick back and make your whiskey a ‘longer’ drink, go ahead and add that single large ice cube/sphere, or even some club soda, but please, hold the Coca Cola.

Enjoy, and tell me about your favorite whiskies in the comments!

(If you missed the introduction to what bourbon and whiskey were all about, check out Part 1.)

Picking the perfect diamond – how to buy a wedding ring

 

While diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, shopping for them is many a man’s worst nightmare.  Combine bewildering choices, fickle female tastes (no offense ladies), high prices, and high pressure salespeople, and you have a recipe for a pre-marriage meltdown.  Thanks in large part to De Beers’ marketing campaigns, about 4 in 5 American women go with a diamond ring for their engagement hardware.

(Haters: if the idea of an expensive piece of jewelry as a prerequisite to declaring your everlasting love makes you feel slightly nauseous, you’re in the minority in America, but definitely not alone.  About 20% of women don’t get diamond engagement rings.  Here’s an article by a woman who makes a gender equity argument against expensive engagement rings.)

Buying an engagement ring is a big financial decision.  I’ve put together this guide to help you and your future spouse  get a high-quality ring without going broke in the process.  You might wonder what the heck a financial advisor knows about diamond rings, so let me give you my credentials: I spent some time in the appraisal and retail jewelry business in my youth, and have also been through the ring selection process prior to popping the question to my then-girlfriend and now-wife.

How to buy a diamond

Shape of main stone

 

 

The first thing to decide is what shape of diamond you’re looking for.  Traditional shapes include the ’round’ and square ‘princess’ cuts.  The more adventurous might consider a cushion, radiant or emerald cut.  (If you opt for the emerald, get a stone with high clarity; flaws show up much easier in this cut of diamond.)  While this is a personal decision (hint: if you’re a man, it’s not yours), you can’t go wrong with classic cuts like the round and princess, which should always be in vogue to some extent.

Also consider whether the future ring-wearer wants a ‘solitaire’ (one stone all by itself) or something with either small or medium-sized diamonds (or other gems like sapphires) surrounding the larger main stone.  The easiest way to determine what kind of ring you want is to go out with your betrothed and try on several of them.

The Four C’s

Everyone who has considered buying a diamond has probably heard of the four C’s.  While each may vary in its importance to you, I’ve given some ‘minimum’ guidelines for each ‘C’ to help you buy a high-quality diamond.

1) Carat often gets too much of the focus among novice diamond purchasers.   The carat determines the size (technically, the weight) of the stone itself.  Size is only part of what makes a diamond look nice.  Too big a stone, especially on a slender finger, can look gaudy (to me anyways.)  I recommend a smaller stone if it allows you to buy a higher-quality diamond in terms of the other C’s below.  A brilliantly cut, clear 3/4 carat stone will look nicer than a dull, flawed 1 carat.  To me, buying anything with a main stone weighing over 1 carat is overkill (but I’m sure more conspicuous consumers would disagree.)

Also, buy a stone that’s slightly under than the standard carat weight.  For example, if you’re looking for a 3/4 carat stone, buy one that’s 0.73 or 0.72.  Want a whole carat?  Go for 0.95.  This can save you a couple to several hundred dollars on an otherwise identical stone.  (When they ask you how big it is, go ahead and round up, no one can tell any differently.)

2) Cut helps light shine out through the diamond’s many surfaces and determines the stone’s brilliance.  This is one of the most important characteristics in a diamond, so don’t scrimp here.  You want that rock to sparkle!

‘Ideal’ (equivalently  ‘Excellent’) is the highest grade, reflecting nearly all the light that enters the stone.  ‘Very Good’ is a close second to ‘Ideal’, but at a lower price.  ‘Good’ reflects most of the light, and is much less expensive than ‘Very Good’.  For a high-quality minimum, stay at ‘Very Good’ or above (avoid the ‘Fair’ and ‘Poor’ categories.)

3) Clarity tells you how few and small the imperfections are within the stone.  These flaws fall into two categories: inclusions (inside the stone) and blemishes (on the surface of the stone.) Inclusions take various forms including ‘feathering’ (small dull lines in the stone) and minute black specs of carbon.  The clarity scale ranges from Flawless (no imperfections visible with 10 times magnification) to Included (imperfections visible to the naked eye.)  Grades are determined using a 10x magnification jeweler’s lens called a ‘loupe‘.

Source: Wikipedia

Very Slightly Included (VS1 or VS2) stones will generally not have any flaws visible to the naked eye, and it will be difficult to moderately easy to find any flaws at 10x magnification.  VS1  or VVS2 is a good reference point for a very high quality stone.  Going any higher than VVS2 won’t likely make any difference in how you (or your jealous friends) judge the ring.

You could go down to SI1 if you’re looking for something less expensive (but no lower, and look the stone over carefully with both your naked eye and a jeweler’s loupe before buying.)

4) Color determines just how ‘white’ the diamond is.  Lower-grade diamonds with yellowish-brown color traces were ingeniously marketed as ‘Champagne diamonds’ (not to be confused with ‘fancy colored’ diamonds like ‘Canary Yellow’ ones.)  While I’m personally not a fan of these off-color stones (except perhaps faint yellow ones for jewelry other than wedding rings), those who like their tint can find some good bargains. The highest color grade is D, and grades D – F are deemed ‘colorless.’  Grades G – J are ‘near-colorless’, and really look colorless for all practical purposes.

Stay at ‘J’ or above (anything less will have faint yellow traces to it.  You can often see this by looking at the stone while placing it flat against a white piece of paper.)   Use ‘I’ as your high-quality guideline.  Color has a pretty big impact on price, and anything above ‘I’ won’t make much (if any) difference in how you perceive the diamond.  For that reason, I recommend sticking with ‘I’.  You can go with ‘J’ if you’re on a tighter budget.  The difference between J and I can be about 10-15% in price, with a similar difference between I and H.

More information on the 4 C’s

BlueNile.com has a good guide to diamonds located here if you want more info (I used it in fleshing out the above descriptions.)

How much should you expect to spend on an engagement ring?

After you get an idea of what style of ring you want, think about what price range you’re trying to stay within.  Don’t pay any attention to the ‘two month’s salary’ industry-driven nonsense.  You can get a very nice 3/4 carat solitaire ring for about $3,000 at BlueNile.com, my preferred choice for diamond purchasing.

Think about what’s most important to you and your fiance(e): a larger downpayment for a house, extra money to spend on a wedding or honeymoon, or a bigger/nicer diamond ring.  Weigh these things when deciding how much to spend.  In general, don’t buy a ring that you’d have to finance.  If you can’t save up enough to buy the ring in cash, it’s probably too expensive for you (or you need to go back to financial basics.)

Diamond prices rise exponentially with size, meaning that you pay a big premium for a big rock.  See the graph below to get an idea of the price changes for stones of varying sizes (keeping quality constant):

Steps to making your purchase

1) First, go online and look at diamond shapes and settings to get an idea of what you want.

2) Then, go to jewelry shops to try on these types of rings until you know EXACTLY what you want (take notes and ask questions; anyone that really wants to sell you something will be very helpful.)  Figure out your ring finger size as well (your non-dominant hand fingers will be slightly smaller than those on your dominant hand.)

IMPORTANT: when you go shopping, tell yourself your are NOT going to buy yet.  (Leave your checkbook and credit cards at home if you don’t trust yourself.)

3)  Next, go to BlueNile.com and find the ring you want for a better price than you’ll get at any physical store.  You can easily search tens of thousands of diamonds by very exacting criteria.  They have a 30-day return policy in case you don’t like the ring once you actually try it on (but try to be very sure before you buy anyway.)  My wife and I bought her engagement ring through them and are very happy with it.  Amazon.com also sells diamonds online.

Why you should not buy a diamond at Tiffany

Jewelry carries a HUGE markup at physical stores, the most egregious of which is at Tiffany.  Yes, Tiffany has high-quality diamonds (and fantastic salespeople and marketing), but if you use high standards like the ones I’ve suggested above, you can get a diamond every bit as good (or even better) for a much lower price at online stores, or at Costco.  While Tiffany does everything it can to convince you that their round, VVS1, H color, Ideal cut diamonds are infinitely superior to Blue Nile’s round, VVS1, H color, Ideal cut diamonds, they are spouting nonsense.  (For the socially conscious, all reputable diamond sellers, including Blue Nile, guarantee that they sell only ‘conflict-free’ diamonds.)

The fact is that when held to equivalent, independent standards, diamonds are a commodity product which can be sold at a low markup by efficient operators like Blue Nile or Amazon.  Take advantage of this and get way more diamond for your money by buying online.

Settings (rings)

One exception to why you might buy something from a non-online store would be if you wanted a particular setting that was unavailable elsewhere.  I would recommend finding out if that ring-maker will set a loose stone (purchased online) and set the stone & sell you the setting separately.  If not, you may want to look elsewhere.  Settings typically come in gold (white or yellow; white being more popular for women today) and platinum (looks like white gold, but is stronger.)

For gold, the Karat determines how much gold is in the metal, and impacts the brilliance of the color.  For women, 14K or 18K (out of a total of 24K, which is essentially 100% pure gold) is typical.  18K is roughly 75% gold (18/24) and 14 is about 60%.  White gold is coated with rhodium to make it look truly white.  You may have to get it re-coated at a jewelry store for around $20 – $30 every couple of years if and when the rhodium starts to wear off (the ring will look duller and slightly yellow when this happens.)

10K is the lowest concentration used in the US for jewelry and is typically reserved for men’s rings as it is sturdier than higher karats of gold.

When you buy wedding bands, I recommend using the same online stores as above.  However, because you’re not buying a large diamond, you might consider some physical stores, like Ben Bridge, for your band if you don’t like the available options online.  Prices will be closer for plain gold or platinum bands, or for ones with small diamonds in them, when comparing physical stores to online ones.  Also, the quality matters much less for small diamonds (but make sure they are shaped nicely, clear, white and sparkle well.)

For men, decide whether you even care about having a precious metal band, or if you’d rather go for cheaper, sturdier metal (gold is fairly malleable and can get dented, especially at high carat levels like 14K or above.)  Tungsten is one popular alternative, and can be bought for about $60 (6 mm thickness) online versus $150 for a 6mm 10K gold band.  Gun-metal gray titanium costs even less than tungsten (and feels light and cheap in your hand as well…)

Should you insure your ring?

The general rule of insurance is if losing something would cause you great financial pain to replace it, insure it.  Factored into this should be how careful the lady will be with her ring.  Is she the type that’s constantly losing her keys, cellphone or purse, or will she always keep her ring cemented solidly to her finger wherever she goes?

I would say that if your ring would cost you less than $3,000 – $4,000 to replace (at today’s market prices), and if you can pony up that dough without being sick or missing meals, you could consider skipping the insurance.  Anymore than that and it’s probably wise to add it to your homeowner’s or renter’s policy.  (Make sure the coverage is high enough and covers all possible loss scenarios, not just theft.  Jewelry is often listed as a separate item on homeowner’s policies and given a low dollar limit, typically $1,000, as the default.)

Alternatively, or if you rent and don’t have renter’s insurance, you can purchase a separate policy for the ring alone.  According to this, insurance will cost you between $0.30 – $1 per $100 of insured value, with some minimum premium per year.

Another way around needing insurance is to tell your loving wife that this is the only engagement ring she’s getting, so she had better keep track of it…

(My wife and I each have inexpensive ‘travel’ rings that we wear when going on trips to avoid the risk of losing our ‘real’ rings in a foreign locale.  [I got a titanium one for $15 on ebay.]  We leave the expensive hardware, along with other valuables, locked up in a safe while we’re away from home.)

– Happy shopping!

P.S.  Don’t forget to get down on one knee when proposing, you cad.  And for God’s sake don’t do it at a football game or the sports bar where you first met.