Vodka… Huah!… What Is It Good For?

What is the point of vodka? Someone needs to explain it to me. Because I can see no discernible purpose for a drink that tastes of… nothing.

Vodka fans, you can keep all your “subtle hints of” bullshit. You know, deep in your souls, that if you drink vodka on the rocks, you’re only really tasting any taint on the ice from your freezer. That’s why you put a twist in it. To make it taste of something.

That’s why people make flavoured vodkas, which are abominable and pointless in themselves.

I do not understand why you’d go to all the trouble of distilling wheat, barley, rye, winter wheat, apples, potatoes… milk, for God’s sake… and then strip the flavour out of all of them.

Which is why I feel this burning need to borrow from Edwin Starr to ask, what is it good for?

Getting drunk.

A vodka and orange is just an excuse to get drunk while drinking orange juice. A Bloody Mary is an excuse to get a little sozzled at brunch.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. What bothers me about vodka is that its an entire section of the market that is all about positioning and very little else.

What, exactly, is the difference between your ordinary Russian Standard and your fanciest bottle of Belvedere? Answer: positioning, and fuck all.

Posh vodka is a scam. And that’s all there is to it. I’d go so far as to say, if you’re in the market for a bottle of vodka, buy anything you like.

Except Smirnoff.

We’ll talk about why next week.

 

In Praise of Well Liquor #2 Old Overholt Rye

Having rather put the boot into some of the darker aspects of the rye whiskey business, it’s time to show some love to the stuff. Because, when done right, it might just be my favourite thing in the world. That’s over and above even rum, upon which I was practically weaned.

The problem with rye is that it’s scarcity makes it comparatively expensive. Even the excellent entry level Jim Beam Rye costs between £20–30, depending on where you buy it. (Amazon sells it for £20, then it’s upwards from there.) Rittenhouse, also delicious, shows a larger price spread of £33-45, the higher levels being more than double what you’d pay for it in the States.

And that’s before we even start to consider Sazerac, the rye at the heart of New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, at an eye-watering £50 a bottle.

The key question, then, is: is it worth it?

Well…

Yes… Emphatically so.

Especially when you pony up for the Sazerac. With its hints of brown sugar lurking within the caramels imparted by its time in oak barrels, not to mention its cinnamon, allspice notes and slight whiff of a ripe grain field after a fresh fall of rain about it, it is superior stuff — a whiskey of real distinction.

Sazerac’s even a little pricey in the States. They simply don’t make very much of it. But the great survivor, Old Overholt, is made in larger volume.

Old Overholt is a fascinating product. Now produced by Jim Beam, it remains one of the few consistently produced American whiskeys, Prohibition notwithstanding.

It is one of those curious quirks of history. When the last of the Overholts, Henry Clay Frick (grandson of the founder, Abe) died in 1919, just before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, he left the business to Andrew Mellon, who would become the Treasury Secretary in Warren Harding’s prohibition over-seeing administration. At which point the business was looked after by the Union Trust Co., who received something in the region of 2 million gallons of rye.

Whether or not such government connections helped Old Overholt remain distillers of “medicinal” whiskey, available on prescription under prohibition’s repeal in 1933, remains to be seen… What’s more interesting, historically, is that is the only rye whiskey still made to a traditional Monongahela recipe. It is the oldest consistent whiskey style in America.

In the States, it is also cheap. You should be paying about $15. Though not here, where you’re looking at about £30 for a litre. Of course.

But it is still worth it, and not just for the fact that you’re tasting an historical recipe and the favourite tipple of one Doc Holiday. It’s that it’s delicious. It’s clean and bright on the palate, without the sweetness that typifies its cousin, bourbon, and with pleasing notes of cloves and white pepper.

If you’re new to rye, Rittenhouse is perhaps the place to start. It’s friendlier than Old Overholt, which takes rye’s austerity of flavour very seriously. But, as with many of the taciturn persuasion, once it warms up to you, you’ll have found a stalwart friend.

If only there were more of it lurking in British bars.

Since it’s so damned cold…

… I thought we should talk about ice. This rather serious and bewhiskered gentleman is Frederic Tudor. And I’d like to suggest that he did more for the cocktail industry than almost anyone else in the 19th Century.

Why?

Because he pretty much invented the ice trade.

Tudor began his business in 1806, when he was just 23, buying his first brig to ship his first cargo some 1,500 miles from Charlestown to Martinique, and harvesting the ice from ponds on his father’s farm. “No joke,” said the Boston Gazette, when it left town on 10th February. “A vessel has cleared at the Custom House for Martinique with a cargo of ice. We hope this will not prove a slippery speculation.”

As you’d imagine, most of it melted.

But, despite incurring debts so severe that he spent a year in debtors’ prison in 1812, Tudor was onto something. Not least because he had the foresight to secure exclusive rights to supply ice to a number of Caribbean islands, including Cuba.

By 1825, thanks to his supplier Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, they had figured out how to mass cut ice, improving production, and they’d had nearly 10 years to improve insulation on his ships. By 1833, they were exporting to India. In fact, when the first ship arrived at the Ganges that year, everyone thought it was a joke. But 100 tons of ice survived the journey.

Tudor may not have been the best business man in the world — he lost a bunch of money in the coffee trade — but his insights about the ice business changed the world. Harvested ice was vital for shipping fresh foods west on the burgeoning American railroad system in 1870s. It allowed meats and vegetables to be exported for the first time. And it allowed for cold drinks.

It’s no accident that Tudor’s first successful markets are the party towns of Havana and New Orleans. Nor that India, original home of the gin and tonic, should become one of the biggest importers of arctic ice.

By the time Jerry Thomas opened his first New York saloon in 1851, the ice trade is well established. And without ice, his 1862 book How To Mix Drinks would have been very thin indeed.

Plant produced ice only really begins to supersede harvested ice at the turn of the 20th Century.

So, since you cannot have cocktails without a reliable supply of ice, it stands to reason that Tudor’s ice exporting innovation was a major motor under-pining the bar business.

Alongside the Industrial Revolution, which brought people into cities, created jobs that gave people disposable income and leisure and a desire for novelty for the first time, which in turn led to a different kinds of bars and drinking habits appearing in different ways around the world, ice is critical to modern drinking. You cannot have a cocktail bar without it.

So the next time you order a gin and tonic (India), a daiquiri or a mojito (Havana), a Sazerac (New Orleans), a martini shaken or stirred, hell, even your Campari soda (Turin), tip your glass to Frederic Tudor. Without him and his competitors, the drink in your hand would certainly be different.

No. It’s Not.

Every time I walk past a branch of Jamie’s Italian, I have this barely resistable urge to reach for the spray can and write “No, he’s not” underneath the sign.

However, when I saw this recipe for a port and rum negroni in today’s Guardian, I could resist no more.

It’s not a fucking negroni.

Stop.

Please.

For the love of Christ.

Don’t get me wrong here: it sounds delicious (unlike the accurséd apple martini). And 10 Greek Street is a lovely place. But this is not a fucking negroni.

It’s a valid drink. It might be a little sweet for my taste, but I bet it will sell like gangbusters.

But, dear bartenders, you are the heirs to such luminaries as Jerry Thomas and Harry MacElhone. Do you think they ponced about naming their creations an XX martini or a YY negroni. No they bloody didn’t. They used their imaginations and came up with great names for their drinks that survive to this day.

Give it a name of its own.

Because it is not a fucking negroni.

American Whiskey’s Dirty Little Secret

It’s not just the craft gin market that’s exploded over the last few years, but the craft spirit market in general. In terms of brown liquor, that means American whiskey, of which in Britain alone, we drink a million litres a month. (And not all of that’s quaffed by me…)

You can develop and bring a white spirit like gin or vodka to market in a little over six months. But, if you want to tap into the American whiskey boom — and why wouldn’t you, it’s one of the fastest growing bits of action on the market — you haven’t just the distilling and marketing hurdles to clear, you have to age the damned stuff too. Which means you’re looking at about three years before you see a return on your investment.

A lot of people have been prepared to make that commitment. In 2000, there were just 24 craft distillers in the US. Today, that figure’s pushing 500. Even Rhode Island has two of them. It’s six and a half times smaller than Wales, and the Welsh only have three.

(I know, I know—it’s facts like these that you keep coming back for…)

But a lot of other people aren’t. Which brings us to bourbon’s and, more especially, rye’s dirty little secret: the Third Party Distiller.

This is how it works: we’re going to create a rye or bourbon brand. Let’s call it Colonel Smellysox’s Old Number Seven. And we want to do it as cheaply as possible. So we’re not going to invest in a still, nor are we going to pay good money to employ a master distiller. We’re going to buy a bunch of raw spirit, but it in barrels and leave it in a temperature controlled warehouse until we can water it, bottle it and sling it out to the public. We’ll probably use some of the money we’ve saved to ensure that Colonel Smellysox’s Old Number Seven has a bottle and label designed to give it shelf presence. Then we sit back, and…

Cha-ching.

The biggest third party distiller is an outfit called MGP, based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Using a massive distillery site previously owned by Seagram, they pump out barrels and barrels of spirit for a host of clients who don’t much like to advertise the fact. But the biggest clue to who’s who is a whiskey that says it’s older than the brand selling it.

Egregious offenders have included Whistle Pig Rye — “hand-bottled in Vermont”, factory distilled in Canada, retailing at almost £75 a bottle — Bulleit Rye, High West, George Dickle Rye, Angel’s Envy (which also now employs a master distiller, so they could be weaning themselves off the teet) and Redemption, among others.

Templeton Rye actually over-reached and were busted for misleading marketing.

Now, obviously, there’s nothing morally wrong with this. With a little of the old Marketing Linguist Two-Step, none of them are actively lying to the drinking public. But I’d argue that they are passively lying to us. At the very least, they are abdicating half the job of whiskey making. They have no decision to make about their water source. They have no control of their mash-bill. And these are two vital components in the whiskey’s final flavour.

In this, they remind me of people who come up to you and say something along the lines of: “You’re a writer? I’ve got a great idea for a movie. If I tell you the idea, then you can write it and we’ll split the money.” To which I would reply either, “The idea’s the easy bit, you numpty,” or, “Fuck off.”

Buying from third party distillers is cynical and disingenuous. And it will continue for as long as there is no reason for brands to tell us where the spirit in the bottle actually comes from.

In the mean time, if you’re looking for something that has been loved from beginning to end of its creation, make sure the bottle tells you where it was distilled.

Review: Fever-Tree Madagascan Cola

I first learned of Fever-Tree’s Madagascan Cola when I interviewed Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow around this time last year. The mere idea of it was enough to make me feel really rather excited because I have long been on a quest for The Grown-Up Soft Drink™.

For me, The Grown-Up Soft Drink™ is, or rather should be, the ideal drink to have at a pub or a restaurant when you’re the designated driver. Not water. Not too sweet, which pretty much all soft drinks are. Something satisfying and refreshing. Something delicious.

Although the Fever-Tree chaps see themselves as being in the mixer business as opposed to the soft drinks business, they currently make what I consider to be the Aristotelean Ideal of The Grown-Up Soft Drink™. So when they told me about their then soon-to-be-launched cola, I hoped that it would be a worthy contender for the top spot.

And with good reason. I am a big fan of the Fever-Tree MO. They have since their launch thoroughly disrupted the mixer market by committing themselves to absolute quality. Their ginger ale and ginger beer contain three different types of ginger to ensure the full breadth of ginger flavours in the bottle. Their Lemon Tonic and Lemonade contain lemon oils of such quality that the only other people prepared to pay for them in their products work in the perfume industry.

They have set a high bar for themselves, a bar that their competition consistently fails to clear. And in this case, so have they.

And I’ve been trying to work out why.

Part of the problem lies in the very challenge of making a cola in the first place. As Tim told me when we spoke, you’re inherently entering into competition not just with Coca Cola, but with people’s very idea of what a cola is supposed to taste like.

You cannot, for example, point at a bottle of lemonade and say that it was invented by Mr. Ade in eighteen hundred and whatever, and it is supposed to taste like X. But with cola, you can: it was invented by John Pemberton in Atlanta, Georgia in 1886. And the public has a very clear idea of what it’s supposed to taste like. It’s a very narrow channel of expectation. So you can’t fuck about.

And this channel of expectation remains the other part of the problem. Fever-Tree’s goal was to create a cola that was less sweet than the others, driven by top quality Madagascan vanilla. And, as with all their other products, the sweetness would come from cane sugar. So I expected a not-quite-so-sweet version of Mexican coke. I was not expecting the flavours to combine in my mouth to create a taste akin to aspartame.

Yes, you read that right: this tastes of watery diet coke. I had to spit it out. And those are two sentences I have never wanted to write less.

When it is next my turn to drive, I shall mostly be sticking with the aromatic tonic water.

“Why Do You REALLY Like That Bordeaux?”

This piece, from Obi Wine Kenobi himself (aka Joe Fattorini), is really worth a read to find out why American wine drinks arguably prefer bigger, riper wines while Europeans… don’t.

The answer? Heuristics.

When you read his stuff, it’s easy to see why Joe was recently named Wine Communicator of the Year. It’s not just his knowledge of wines, grapes and winemakers, it’s his ability to make Freakonomics-like connections between things entirely unconnected to wine and, well, wine.

When I had lunch with him recently, he had me thinking about not only the subtle triggers restaurants use to encourage us to buy (more) wine, but also the psychology of the wine list itself, and the social pressure it brings with it.

Even so, connecting evolutionary psychology with our choice of tipple is rather inspired. I can’t help thinking that there might be a book in it.

Over to you, Joe.