10 puzzling new liquor products seen at WSWA

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) conference in Orlando, FL. It was my first time attending, and it was an eye-opener, to be sure.

I’d been warned ahead of time:  “It’s not a craft cocktail conference;” and “It’s not Tales of the Cocktail.” Which is is code for, “hey, liquor snob, don’t expect anyone to debate the merits of which vermouth is best in a Negroni.” Which is fine by me:  there’s a whole world out there beyond the speakeasy set.

But I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the products I’d find on the WSWA conference floor. Some have me outright baffled — why is there a need for cognac-flavored moonshine? and others have me scratching my head, but I can see the market. Take a look:

Penthouse flavored vodkas.

Penthouse-branded cherry-flavored vodkas infused with herbs intended to enhance libido, “for him” and “for her.” I learned later that the magazine has nothing to do with the product, by the way, it’s just a licensed brand.


Sinfully THINN whiskey: There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the media about how this is being marketed as a “diet whiskey” and isn’t that just awful. I have to be honest, no one said a peep to me about diet anything. Rather, they harped about how this is “light whiskey,” which is a new category no one has ever tried before. (C’mon, I can’t be the only one who remembers Kansas whiskey.) “It’s like white dog and we clean it up,” chirped the marketing rep. It tasted like vodka.


Chilled Dills pickle flavored vodka! I liked this one – had me thinking Bloody Marys and Picklebacks.


Jevo: Described as a “Keurig for jello shots.” It’s created by someone who has a background in technology rather than the hospitality industry. It has a big old electronic ad slapped on the front and they were already marketing this as a vehicle for Pinnacle flavored vodka. I suspect this is going to do very well. You can watch it in action here.


It’s alcohol butterscotch pudding. IN A POUCH. “It’s like Go-Gurt for grown-ups,” I was told. 


These are BuzzBallz. Premixed cocktails in ball-shaped cans. The container floats. The juice wasn’t bad, if a little sweet – they do both wine- and liquor-based versions. I can see this doing very well.

Cream liqueur in a sperm-shaped package. Tasteful, no?

Cream liqueur in a sperm-shaped package. Tasteful, no?

Vodka, in a bullet-shaped bottle.

Tequila, in a bullet-shaped bottle.

Vodka, in a grenade-shaped bottle. I just don't understand the weapons-hooch connection or why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

Vodka, in a grenade-shaped bottle. I just don’t understand the weapons-hooch connection or why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

And finally, presented without comment: Cognac-flavored Moonshine.

And finally, presented without comment: Cognac-flavored Moonshine.

10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2015


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 2014 predictions?) So….here’s what might happen in 2015:

1. Bars become more casualSpeakeasies aren’t going away, but they are no longer the center of the cocktail universe — they are not just one option among many. As many of the old-school cocktail dens celebrate the decade mark (hello, Employees Only), the new entrants to the bar scene are more casual (Boilermaker, the Happiest Hour, Midnight Rambler, Pastry Wars, etc.) and less overtly theme-driven compared to 2014. There’s still a LOT of effort going on behind the scenes – but the overall effect is a whole lot breezier now.

2. The Nordic food trend will spill over into cocktails. I think I was too early with this one last year. I’m (still) waiting to see smoked hay and sea buckthorn in my glass, but Scandinavian food is still ramping in the food world, plus I’m grooving on Baska Snaps lately. Call me when IKEA opens a pop-up bar, okay?

3. We’ll drink lots and lots and lots of shots. To be clear: I’m resisting this trend with every fiber of my being, because I think shots are about getting drunk fast, not about enjoying a cocktail experience. But I see it coming anyway, in the form of upscaled boilermakers (a drink with a shot dumped in it) and “backs” (beer + a shot on the side) and miniaturized cocktails served as “shots.”

4. Bartenders and budtenders will collide. That’s right: cannabis cocktails are in the offing. Considering the growing number of states legalizing and de-criminalizing marijuana and chef-driven experiments with gourmet edibles and potables, I’m expecting to hear more about weed-laced libations in 2015. Oh, and can we talk about the “marijuana-inspired” vodka that just landed on my desk?

5. Single-grain Scotch will attract attention. That’s single grain vs. single malt, not whiskey made from a single type of grain. New entrants to the field include Haig Club (that David Beckham-backed brand from Diageo), and Girvan (William Grant). Irish whiskey already has plenty of single grain options, but we haven’t heard much about single-grain Scotches to date. That will change in the year ahead.

6. Jetsons-style cocktails will come to life. Between flashy robot bartenders on cruise ships, Monsieur the “robotic bartender,” and Keurig-style “automated craft cocktail machines,” technology will complete its takeover of the world, one cocktail at a time. OK, I’m exaggerating. But just a little.

7. More flavored whiskey, less flavored vodka. This seems true of both unaged “moonshine” as well as the brown stuff. Can’t wait to see some of the over-the-top flavors. Speaking of which, I’m going to leave these press releases for Butterscotch Moonshine and pecan pie-flavored whiskey liqueur right here.

8. We’ll spring for cocktail accoutrements. The cocktail revolution has finally matured — and so has a generation that came of age during the craft cocktail movement. Think about all the now 30-somethings (yes, including “older Millennials,” for those of you obsessed with marketing to that demographic) that now have mortgages and babies, and now entertain at home instead of hanging around for last call. They’re the ones making nests (and wedding registries) that include coupe glasses and fancy bar carts. 

9. “Outlaw gin” will be in. I’m excited about the direction that gin seems to be taking. There seems to be more experimentation, more expression, more outliers. Not just the barrel-aged stuff, either (which I suspect has peaked, by the way). But I’ve had a quite a few “I didn’t know you could DO that” moments with gin lately:  gin made with extra juniper, with almost no juniper; no citrus; gin from sugar cane; from Yerba Mate; savory gin, sweet gin, gin from all corners of the globe, even one with an AOC. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. These gins defy the usual categories and I’m very excited about them.

10. Japanese whisky will skyrocket. Asia’s whiskies already were on the ascent in 2014, as Taiwan’s Kavalan and Japan’s super-smooth whiskies came to the forefront. But then, whiskey guru Jim Murray named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 as his top-rated pick in the latest edition of the World Whiskey Bible, catapulting it above even Scotch whiskies. This category will be unstoppable in the year ahead, and Suntory and Nikka will be flooding Western markets with plenty of good stuff. Enjoy it – by 2016, we’ll be declaring Japanese whiskey as “over.”

Celebrating a new book with the Redeeming Spirits cocktail

photo credit: Andrea Meyers

photo credit: Andrea Meyers

My always-inspiring friend Monica Bhide has a new book out, The Devil in Us. Although Monica usually writes thoughtful musings about food and her Indian heritage (with good reason, her work frequently is featured in the annual “Best Food Writing” compilations), this is her fiction debut, a collection of short stories.

I was honored when Monica asked me to create a spicy cocktail to celebrate the new book — and here it is, perfect for sipping while you read. There’s a non-alcoholic version too, at Monica’s request. Enjoy!

Redeeming Spirits 

A variation on the classic Moscow Mule, this drink is powered by the heat of pepper-infused vodka. Choose a good commercial brand (I like Oola, from Washington State), or marinate a sliced fresh jalapeno in one cup of unflavored vodka for a couple of hours. Note – a traditional Mule uses ginger beer; here the sweetness of ginger ale should help balance out the jalapeno spice.

1 1/2 ounces chile pepper-infused vodka

1/2 ounce lime juice (about half a lime)

4 ounces ginger ale

Jalapeno slice (to garnish)

In a tall glass, pour in the vodka and squeeze the lime wedges into the glass. Drop the wedges into the glass, and add a scoop of ice. Add ginger ale to fill the glass and stir.



4-6 ounces spicy ginger beer

1/2 ounce lime juice (about half a lime)

In a tall glass, pour in the ginger beer and squeeze the lime wedges into the glass. Drop the wedges into the glass. Scoop in ice and stir to chill.

A visit to Woody Creek Distillers

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.

Emma Farm, located in Basalt, CO

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Picking potatoes

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These are Rio Grande indigenous potatoes. It takes roughly 13 pounds of these potatoes to make one 750-ml bottle of vodka.

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The potatoes are loaded up here…

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…and dropped off here. This is Gabe, with the “potato-cleaning contraption” designed by Woody Creek (yep, that’s what they call it). Each bag holds 700 kilos (roughly 1500 pounds); during harvest season, enough potatoes are harvested to fill six or seven bags a day.

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Inside the distillery. Note the bag of ‘taters behind this gentleman, Mark Kleckner, who is one of the masterminds behind Woody Creek. Seconds before this photo was taken, he snapped that potato in half, “like jicama,” to show the moisture inside. Potatoes can dehydrate within one month, Kleckner explained, so they are digging and distilling vodka now: “By Thanksgiving, we’re done.”

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This next set of machinery cleans, peels and grinds the potatoes.


About 20% of the peel is left on for nutrients and yeast during fermentation.

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Distillation in the column still.

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Close-up – I couldn’t believe how much it looked like mashed potatoes.


In addition to the regular Woody Creek vodka, a Reserve (pictured here) also is made at the distillery, from Stobrawa potatoes.

Behind the scenes: my map of Italian spirits



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.

10 cocktail and spirits trends for 2014


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.

Literate drinking: Drink.Think heads to San Fran on Feb 5!

image courtesy Monica BhideDrink.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 ChronicleAmerican 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!