Listening to our (now) two candidates for the presidency of these United States, you get a mixed picture of whether things are good and getting better, or we’re all going to hell in a handbag, and it will likely happen in December if you don’t vote the correct way.
Forget the Mayans and their predictions of apocalypse at that time. The Democrats and Republicans will scare the bejesus out of us with stories of how horrible it will be if we allow the other party to rule the land for the next four years.
I’m not going to wade into that morass of conflicted opinions and thorny issues. Why would you want me to weigh in when you have at least 18 television channels of talking heads who are at it 24 hours a day? Not to mention the additional tens of thousands of bloggers on the internet who are only too pleased to impart their thoughts which, according to them, are the final authority on the matter. They must be right. Just ask them.
Where I am going with all of this is that, in my liquid world, all is well, and not only is the sky not falling, but it is blue and cloudless. Peace and happiness reign over all the domains.
The deal is this: We are all living in a Golden Age of Beverages. In the history of the world, there has never been a better time to enjoy beer, wine, spirits and the allied diversions of cocktails. Every category is filled with products of great quality and, dare I suggest, value. Quantities are in abundance, and if you can’t find precisely what you like, then you can come pretty damn close, often without leaving the house.
A couple of factors have brought about this happy state of affairs. The first has to do with agriculture. Thanks to research and chemistry, we humans now know what grows best where. We even map the situation from satellites circling the earth. Soil types, sun facings, wind factors, drainage and annual moisture levels are not iffy guesses. We can nail them with amazing accuracy. Then we can put plants into just about any patch of ground that are ideal for those conditions.
Another factor that means something to the end result is the process. No matter what the beverage is, we can manufacture it using the raw ingredients we grow well and apparatus manufactured for the specific process to be implemented. We vinify wine in stainless steel. We distill in copper. We brew in both metals. And often we age the resulting liquid in the finest wood, which in the end develops better flavors and aromas.
(Reader Alert: if you prefer to read about problems or negative situations, you have come far enough. Today’s Happy Hour column contains only good news. You are probably already bored or disappointed. Stop here. For you who prefer the darker side of stories, the rest of this column will only get worse.)
Let me continue this good-news report by devoting a few words to hygiene. I tell winemakers all the time that I think the great contribution that America has made to the wine world is cleanliness. We learned, and we taught others, how important it is to keep the entire process clean. Several times a day the winery or brewery gets a thorough cleaning. Steam and hot water are used on all surfaces. Every barrel, tank and hose is cleaned often.
That attention to cleanliness has been picked up in every wine and beer region in the world. There are some old European wineries that are not quite as fixated on scrubbing, and you can tell it in the final product. Some consumers find this Old World approach attractive and that’s fine.
Truth is that wineries and breweries are excellent breeding grounds for all sorts of mold, thanks to the preponderance of yeasts which naturally occur on the fruit or are added during the manufacturing process. In most wineries and breweries today, and this is a relatively new practice, meticulous cleaning has practically eliminated contaminated batches of wine or beer caused by these molds. The resulting product is superior to just about everything that went before.
If you are still resistant to my Pollyanna attitude about this being a Golden Age of beverages, let me cite a few examples:
Never before has there been on the market such a breadth of spirits. Vodkas of every imaginable style, from all over the world, and many with flavorful infusions are on retail shelves and in bars wherever you go. Bourbons from the finest grains at all quality levels await even the fussiest taster. Rums are not the harsh swills of even a hundred years ago. They are smooth, flavorful and often spiced for another dimension of excitement. Even tequilas and mescals, formerly challenges to really enjoy, are incredibly nuanced, with delicate weight on the palate and full flavors for a long finish.
Cocktails are made of ingredients never before used or imagined. Elixirs from flowers and trees make for delightful additions and new flavors. The move towards fresh ingredients blends perfectly with the emphasis on spirits of depth and quality.
Some people who are “knowledgeable” about wine love to point out that certain publications devoted to wine have already proclaimed four “vintages of the century” – and we have only had 11 vintages so far in the 21st century. But it is not unfathomable to go so far with praise because, truth be told, there have been some outstanding results following amazingly ideal growing conditions. Today’s wines are almost universally excellent. The quality differences between wines are no longer measured by yardsticks, but by 6-inch rulers. You may not like all the wines with the same passion or appreciation, but you cannot deny that most wines on the shelves or on restaurant wine lists today are well-made, with a great deal of the fruit achieving levels of superiority never before achieved in the prior 7,000 years that humanity has been fermenting fruit.
It makes you a little bit angry when you ponder how wonderful beer is today, and how this all could have happened sooner if Prohibition had not been the Great Interrupter. Mass-produced beers are giving way to craft beers in every corner of the world. Small-batch beers made by amateurs and professionals alike are appearing every day. Even some of the large breweries are making and marketing niche beers that are snapped up by a thirsty public, eager for new experiences and new flavors. Home brewing is being done by untold numbers of aficionados. They want the satisfaction of creating their own brew, often to mixed results, but no matter. They now have a better understanding of this satisfying beverage whose origin may even predate wine’s beginnings.
All by way of saying, here’s mud in your eye, bottoms up, skål, sláinte, cin cin, prost, santé, na zdravje, salud. Drink to your good fortune. You are truly living in a Golden Age.