Right now, everyone is up in arms about so-called “craft distillers” that don’t actually distill. But some spirits producers are getting it right. For example, last week I got a closer look at Woody Creek Distillers, located in Aspen, Colorado. Right now, it’s prime season for harvesting potatoes, which then are made into Woody Creek’s flagship vodka.
Tag Archives: vodka
The April issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is the annual “Italy issue.” That means a strong focus on Italian wine, food and travel. For me, it meant the opportunity to drill down into Italy-made spirits like never before, ultimately resulting in a feature story, “Beyond Grappa: a regional guide to Italy’s spirits.” And it was an incredible rabbit hole to fall down.
I thought that anyone who is currently learning about spirits (or wine, for that matter — or writing, even), might enjoy a peek behind the process that led to this article, since it’s kind of geeky and completely different from the usual get-out-on-the-road-and-see-what-you-find reporting approach.
It started with the reviews. Here’s what happened: we put out a deliberately wide-ranging call for “Italian spirits” — and I was completely unprepared for the volume of bottles that poured in. The only way to keep from losing my mind was to find a way to organize the spirits.
I started with categories. It was easy enough to identify the familiar bottles: the aperitivo spirits (Aperol, Cynar) the brisk and bitter amaros (Montenegro, Nonino) and even a handful of vermouths made from fortified Italian wines.
After that followed a parade of fragrant anisettes and sambucas. I used to think of Sambuca as a specific brand of anise-flavored liqueur, but no, it’s a rather large category of its own. Sunny limoncellos were segregated into a cheerful yellow pile, made with fruit from sunny Southern Italy. Fiery grappas, mellower aged brandies, and even a vodka distilled from Italy’s famed grapes also factored into the mix. And rounding things out came a pile of digestivos, lovely sticky sweeties flavored with fruit, coffee, chocolate, almonds and even Italy’s beloved biscotti.
This organizational system got me through the reviews, and safely to the other side. It was an exhilarating process.
At the end of it all, I realized there was another way to view all of these spirits: by region. Since so many of Italy’s spirits are made from the raw materials that grow nearby, they can be categorized by place — just as we do wine. And just like that, a map started to form among the bottles: the roots and herbs that grow in the northern Alpine regions are used to flavor amaros; the grape-growing regions contributed the grape-based aperitif wines, vermouths and brandies; the fruit of sunny Southern Italy are macerated into limoncellos and liqueurs.
I photocopied a map of Italy and started a crude visual system of sticky-note flags to indicate where each of the bottles were produced – at least, those where I could figure out the provenance. Then I removed a bunch, ending up with the map above. That became my feature article about Spirits of Italy, as I then drilled down to learn more about where and how each bottle was made. It also reminded me of previous visits to Italy — during my last trip, I had noticed how every village seemed to have its own very specific, very personal and regional take on pastries. So why wouldn’t spirits have similar regional tales to tell?
I learned a tremendous amount working on this particular issue, and I can’t wait to repeat this with another region. Though maybe next time, instead of backing in from the bottles, I’ll start by getting out on the road.
It’s that time again…time to gaze into the old crystal ball and predict what we’ll all be drinking in the year ahead. (I tried this last year as well – how did I do with my 2013 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2014:
1. Fun will make a comeback at the bar. I suspect the goofy fun factor of places like Golden Cadillac (retro 70s) and Butterfly (retro 50s) will start making its way into the mainstream – like the way tiki used to be fun. It’s not a coincidence that cereal is now a hot (if silly) drink ingredient. After years of super-serious mixology, we’re ready for some fun and decadence again.
2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I’m waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass.
3. The bartender will become obsolete. Okay, I’m exaggerating for effect. But in terms of format, definitely seeing more pre-batched kegged drinks (lookin’ at you, Derek Brown) and bottled & canned & other “batched” cocktails – even high-end Ready-to-Drink cocktails that are actually worth drinking. And I’m not the only one who sees this trend on the horizon.
4. We’ll fortify our drinks with sherry and other fortified wines (but mostly sherry). Sherry cocktails in particular are ramping quickly. But port, Madeira and others are not far behind.
5. Low abv and even no abv drinks will go mainstream. I totally admit to lobbying for this trend. But I’m hearing more about lower proof drinks, and seeing better and more interesting low-alcohol and no-alcohol drinks on menus. I foresee this going mainstream this year.
6. We’ll find hard cider cocktails in our glasses. Buzz is building. I think I was too early with this one last year.
7. Flavored whiskey will continue to expand at a rapid-fire clip before burning out altogether. And – what the hell – I’m already calling flavored tequila as a trend for 2015.
8. We’ll develop a heated affection for Asia whiskeys: some of the best products I’ve tasted this year have been whiskeys from Japan and – much to my surprise – Taiwan. Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.
9. Consumers finally will wake up to coffee cocktails. Some of the craziest, most euphoric, no-holds-barred experiments I’m seeing now all seem to involve coffee-cocktail hybrids in some way. (I’m still thinking about the experimental cold brew coffee made with White Pike Whiskey seen at the Dizzy Fizz Holiday Spirits Bazaar a few weeks back – and that’s just the tip of the highly caffeinated iceberg.) I suspect we’re not quite there yet, since the coffee flavor still seems to dominate the drinks in a clumsy way- but man oh man, we’re getting closer to something wonderful.
10. Vodka will develop character. Usually, vodka bores me. Most have been distilled and filtered to a very limp death. But lately, I’ve been seeing growth among new and interesting vodkas — no longer “odorless and flavorless.” Some have been single varietal vodkas, others (like Karlsson’s, for example), have introduced new vintages each year, reminding me of whiskey or wine. I predict that we’re about to see variety in vodka explode in coming months.
Okay, folks. Have a happy happy and a very merry. See you back here next year.
Drink.Think is going on the road…to San Francisco!
If you’ll be in the Bay area on Tuesday, Feb 5, I hope you’ll come out to Cantina to enjoy a drink and hear an amazing group of writers read from their work about beverages.
In addition, Karlsson’s Vodka and Santa Teresa Rum will be pouring samples of their products. (The regular bar also will be available.)
Date & Time: Tuesday, February 5, 2013. The bar will be open starting at 6pm – the reading starts at 7pm.
Location: Cantina, 580 Sutter St at Mason St, San Francisco, CA
Admission: FREE admission and samples of Karlsson’s Vodka and Santa Teresa. Drinks will be available for purchase.
Featured Readers: Curated by wine and spirits writer Kara Newman, participants include:
- Camper English, cocktail/spirits writer for San Francisco Chronicle, Details.com andFine Cooking
- Courtney Humiston, columnist, 7×7 Magazine and founding editor, TableToGrave.com
- Duggan McDonnell, writer, bartender and boozy entrepreneur
- Gayle Keck, food and travel writer
- Virginia Miller, food and drink correspondent, San Francisco Bay Guardian and blogger, ThePerfectSpotSF.com
- Jill Robinson, travel writer, San Francisco Chronicle, American Way and more
- Michael Shapiro, freelance travel writer, National Geographic Traveler and Islands magazine
- Stevie Stacionis, wine writer and Director of Communication at Corkbuzz Wine Studio
- Liza B. Zimmerman, editor-at-large Cheers and contributing editor to Wine Business Monthly
I hope to see you at Cantina on Feb 5 – come thirsty!
No, it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s what I did Tuesday night. Not a craft cocktail bar, not a fancy hotel bar, just an ordinary neighborhood bar on my way home. And I ordered what’s become my go-to recently: “A Negroni, please.”
“Certainly,” the bartender responded. “Would you like that with vodka or gin?”
That gave me a moment’s pause — no one has ever asked me that before!– and I stuttered out my response: “Gin, please.” As the bartender finished another order and then began mine — Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin –I thumbed out a quick post on Twitter:
Hmmm…first time a bartender has asked if I’d like my Negroni “with vodka or gin.” Should I run?
— Kara Newman (@karanewman) February 22, 2012
The responses flew in before I’d even finished my drink. “RUN!” urged @inukena. “YES, RUN!” echoed @feeedme. Emboldened by alcohol, I finally asked the bartender: “So…do people really order Negronis with vodka?” He nodded solemnly. “Oh, yes. It’s the vodka generation. But personally, I prefer gin.” I polished off the rest of my drink and posted again:
Ok, final result on that Negroni: false alarm. Guy knows what he’s doing; good Negroni. He’s just extra accommodating.
— Kara Newman (@karanewman) February 22, 2012
But clearly I had touched a nerve. The responses continued to roll in over the next 24 hours:
@inukena: (Collective sigh of relief)
@RobertOSimonson: He still should never ask that question. With a Martini, I’d grudgingly accept it. A Negroni? No.
@LegendofMyself: you can choose between the Negroni which is with gin, the Negroski with dry vodka and the “wrong” Negroni with brut champagne :)
@orpheum: People order Negronis with vodka? Shame on them. Shame!
@raelinn_wine: VILE! pffff vodka in a negroni.
@nikki_d: Vodka in a negroni? Yikes!
@SpiritManager: But if you make it with Vodka, is it still a Negroni? Shouldn’t it have a different name?
All this anti-vodka vitriol! OK. So cranky contrarian that I am, I couldn’t help it. Last night, I returned the same bar, and asked the same bartender: “Negroni, please. But this time….I’ll try it with vodka.”
He did a double-take, but quickly recovered, and made my drink. As he stirred, I explained my reasoning: My preferred gin for a Negroni is Plymouth, because it’s soft and neutral, and not overly juniper-y. But isn’t that just a step removed from vodka anyway? And wouldn’t bitter Campari overwhelm the nuances in gin, anyhow?
He nodded, clearly placating the babbling guest, and set my drink down.
So how was it? The gin-based Negroni was much, much better than the vodka version. I can’t explain why. Frankly, it’s not logical, and the best I can offer is some lame excuse about the alchemy between the three ingredients that make up the cocktail.
But the bartender understood when he saw me push away the barely-touched drink, and repeated his line from the night before.
“Personally, I prefer gin.”
Me too, barkeep. Me too.
Supposedly, I know a thing or two about spicy spirits and cocktails. But even I have my limits.
A press release just landed on my desk, announcing the launch of “the world’s hottest chilli vodka” (this is a UK brand; U.S. folks use “chile” to refer to hot peppers): “100,000 Scovilles – Naga Chilli Vodka, made by infusing vodka with the world’s hottest chilli – the Naga Jolokia. ” In other words, Ghost Pepper-infused vodka.
Fine. Those ghost peppers are mighty hot stuff. But I’ve had ghost pepper-infused spirits. That’s not the problem. Nor is the following warning on the label/web site (actually, I think this is funny):
By purchasing this bottle, you agree that:
1) I have been warned and fully understand that this product contains extreme heat and should be used and handled responsibly.
2) I use this product entirely at my own risk and I understand the potential danger if used or handled irresponsibly. If I give this product as a gift I will make the recipient aware of the potential danger if used or handled irresponsibly.
3) I accept that the retailer and manufacturer of this product will, under no circumstances, be responsible for, or liable for, any claims of injury or damage arising from the use or misuse of this product and by purchasing this product, whether for myself or as a gift, I acknowledge and agree to this fact without question.
4) I am not inebriated or of unsound mind and am fully able to make a rational decision to purchase this product.
No, what bothers me is THIS: drinkers are urged not to drink it neat, and “definitely do not have it as a shot.”
Simply put: If you can’t drink it straight, you shouldn’t buy it.
What? You’re going to buy it anyway? Masochist. Might as well buy a copy of my book while you’re at it to get some cocktail suggestions, since you’re so severely discouraged from drinking that vodka straight up.
Ever anthropomorphize spirits? You know, assign an animal or object (like liquor) human traits? Here’s an excellent, and hilarious example, from Dan Dunn’s recent rant on Food Republic, “Finally A Whiskey For Horrible People.”
It doesn’t matter what whiskey he’s referring to in the headline – THIS is the whiskey you want to know better:
Whiskey doesn’t care. That’s what makes it cool. The only other liquor that’s anywhere near as cool is Tequila. But Tequila’s always been too crazy to really be cool. Tequila will cut you for looking at its woman, then laugh while the cops drag it off to jail, and spit at you during the trial. And trust me you don’t want to pick on Vodka either. Dude doesn’t have much of a personality, but I swear he goes to the gym twice a day. You want the nerd of the liquor crew? Try Gin. You can give Gin an atomic wedgie and the worst it’ll do is scream that his daddy will have you banned from the yacht club.
Where else do we see anthropomorphizing? That’s right, fairy tales, where the wolf is Big and Bad, and the piglets are helpless but chatty. I want to read a fairy tale – or at least watch a cartoon – featuring these spirits as characters.