Musings from Maine
Down East editors reflect on Maine's favorite drink,salary snooping, and more.
Why is Allen’s Coffee Brandy Maine’s favorite liquor?
Allen’s Coffee Brandy has been called the Champagne of Maine, gorilla milk, cheap thrill, and many other, less savory nicknames. Its popularity is legendary — one newspaper columnist suggested that its bottle should appear on the Maine state quarter. Its abuse is equally well known — it’s a slow Saturday night when a police report somewhere doesn’t mention Allen’s in connection with a violation of the law, from shoplifting to domestic abuse to car accidents.
Mill town bars, UMaine frat parties, and late-night kitchen gabfests wouldn’t be the same without Allen’s, which, at $19.99 for a half gallon, delivers a lot of bang for the buck. The liquor has been the best-selling booze in Maine for at least twenty years, according to various media reports, and last year it became the first brand of alcohol in the state to sell more than a million bottles. And no one seems to know why.
“Certainly it’s the most popular product we have,” says Michael Boardman, assistant director at the state’s Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations. “The distributors don’t really do any promotion. They never put it on sale. They apparently don’t feel a need to. The sales just continue to grow.” Despite popular belief that it is Maine made, the distinctive liquor is actually produced by M.S. Walker Inc. of Somerville, Massachusetts, by blending coffee extract with neutral brandy.
Yet the coffee brandy’s fan base is also unique. “Allen’s is nowhere near as popular in other states as it is here,” Boardman explains. “It doesn’t do nearly as well in other states in New England or in other parts of the country.” Last year Mainer’s bought 1,024,282 bottles of Allen’s in all sizes. The Allen’s half-gallon topped the list of sales in Maine, followed by the half-gallon Orloff vodka followed by the one-liter Allen’s.
Boardman suggests that Allen’s, which is commonly imbibed mixed with milk or light cream in a drink called a “sombrero,” caught on in Maine because coffee has long been a popular drink in the state. But people of Scandinavian descent are notorious coffee drinkers, and Allen’s isn’t the state cocktail of Minnesota. “We often get asked why it’s so popular,” Boardman says. “We have yet to come up with a definitive answer.”
In the meantime, the legend continues. According to M.S. Walker, many Mainers have tried to buy stock in the company over the years. (The family-owned business, however, doesn’t sell any.) Talk about putting your money where your mouth is.
A new Web site reveals the dirty details behind your tax dollars at work.
A Web site detailing who earns what and where the money goes in state government has become a secret addiction for everyone from policy wonks to neighborhood nosy Nellies and Neils. MaineOpenGov.org lists the names and salaries for everyone from Governor John Baldacci to the janitor in the Baileyville school, as well as who received how much in more than a billion dollars worth of vendor contracts in the last two fiscal years, such as the $403,903 the Secretary of State’s office spent for blank license plates from the 3M Company in 2007.
The searchable database attracted more than 32,600 different visitors who spent 5,309 hours browsing on it in its first six weeks to find out how much the Department of Agriculture spent on office supplies in 2007 ($19,089) and the Caribou school superintendent’s salary ($94,396). “I don’t think we realized how popular it would be,” muses Tarren Bragdon, chief executive office of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the Portland-based think tank that maintains the site. “We hoped that the people of Maine would find it useful, as well as government people who are working on budget issues.”
The organization spent about fifty thousand dollars on the Web site’s development, Bragdon says, “and we anticipate spending a lot more as we expand it over the years.” Eventually he wants to add municipal and county budgets and salaries.
Bragdon says the only problem the policy center, which takes a generally conservative approach to issues such as taxes and health care, had in collecting the information was that sometimes government agencies shared too much data. “We received some personal information about vendors, for example, that we had to return,” he notes.
Some of the state servants whose salaries are posted weren’t quite as happy. “When the site first went up, we got some outraged e-mails from people saying this [salary information] shouldn’t be available, that it was a disservice to state employees,” recalls Martin Sheehan, the center’s communications director. “Then we’d look at the return address, and it would be from a maine.gov e-mail account.”
Sheehan says the Web site “is a joint project with the Empire Center out of New York. We used a Maine company to build it.” He says the site, which includes discussion forums and comments, is unique to Maine. “No other state is doing it this way, with the ability to post public comments and such,” he says. Sheehan allows that the public payroll information has its fans, “but I find the spending data more interesting. Did you know some design company in Boston was paid about a million dollars for office design and furniture last year? I’m telling you, it’s addictive.”
Consider us hooked.
Thaw? What Thaw?
A weather myth blows away in the breeze.
January is the coldest month of the year, according to weather statistics. This isn’t news — snow falls along with the thermometer, ice thickens on lakes, and each breath emerges as an icy fog. Yet almost every year, often around the third week of the month, temperatures climb, snow banks melt, and water runs in the streets. It’s almost as if nature is giving the state a respite from bleak winter and a chance to feel the beneficence of the sun again. The January thaw has become an expected part of the winter cycle in Maine, as regular as sunny Groundhog Days and shrinking woodpiles.
Or has it? “It’s more a folk tale than anything else,” observes Eric Sinsabaugh, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Gray. A brief spell of warmer than normal temperatures can happen anytime during the winter. “It’s just part of the natural swing of the pendulum,” he maintains. His colleague, Steve Capriola, concurs, noting that, while January warm spells aren’t unusual, records show no particular rhyme or reason to them.
The problem, Sinsabaugh says, is that modern warming trends tend to mask what was perhaps once a distinctive winter event. “The period of warming we seem to be going through, especially in the last ten years, throws off a lot of weather trends,” he explains. Capriola notes that six of the ten warmest years on record have occurred in the last fifteen years. It’s not just in Maine, either. “Temperatures have been increasing worldwide,” Sinsabaugh notes, hastening to add, “I’m not saying it’s due to global warming.”
Folk myth or not, Mainers go into January confident that at some time during the month there will be a handful of days when the coats can be unzipped, the gloves can come off, and street corner conversations aren’t an invitation to frostbite. We won’t try to explain it. We’ll just enjoy it.
At Bangor International Airport, ducks are no laughing matter.
No one wants to hear the word duck at an airport, but at Bangor International Airport the word retains its original avian meaning. For the past several winters, increasing numbers of waterfowl have been taking refuge in a series of ditches and holding ponds just off the airport’s massive runway, and a state wildlife expert expects more this winter.
“In extremely cold weather, the [Penobscot] river freezes over, and the only open water around is at the airport,” says Brad Allen, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Last January it attracted up to seven hundred ducks. All those birds shuttling back and forth through flight paths were a little disconcerting” to the civilian and military aircraft that use the airport. Allen theorizes that the water, which is collected in a system of drains and culverts under the concrete runway, remains unfrozen because of the industrial deicer the airport uses.
Allen worked with the airport’s maintenance department and the federal Wildlife Services division to trap and move some four hundred ducks last winter. “We took some to Trenton, and they beat us back to Bangor,” Allen recalls with a laugh. “We finally took them down to Scarborough and never saw them again.”
The vast majority of the birds are mallards, which have adapted to urban settings in recent years. “They’ve learned how to sidle up to humans and survive,” Allen explains. “They don’t mind people, and they don’t mind handouts. They live long and prosper, so the numbers are improving. In the Bangor area we have hundreds year-round now.”
He expects more ducks to show up at the airport this winter. “The long-term solution would be to fence off the open water,” Allen offers. “That’s a big job, though.”
Allen says the airport ducks quickly learn how to share airspace with jumbo jets and military tankers, timing their own take-offs and landings to avoid the aircraft. That’s small consolation to pilots, though. Perhaps a way could be found to persuade the waterfowl to go through airport security. One experience with the TSA should be enough to keep them away forever.