Likely at no point since the end of Prohibition has the adult beverage industry seen such dramatic change. For our discussion, let’s leave off the manner in which the business of the business is conducted. Only at the 7th Level of Dante’s Inferno would any of it make a bit of sense.
Rather, we will concentrate on the products themselves. Sure, at the core of everything are chemical processes that cannot help but happen with the combination of sugars, yeasts and temperatures. Fermentation and distillation are important and necessary stops along the manufacturing process for wines, beers and spirits.
Without the yeasts, already present on the fruit and grain or added to the mix, sugars would not convert to alcohol. With the yeasts it cannot help but do so. Without the fires heating the liquid into steam, the resulting process of distillation would merely be cold grain soup.
Whiskies, for example, used to be divided into fewer categories. There was Canadian, Kentucky, British. You could have whatever you like but it was coming from those core places, which also defined how it was processed and aged. Simple.
Today, you head for the whiskey counter and see if it is that straightforward. You will be confronted with different places of origin, different aging time periods, different raw materials, and even different distillation techniques.
That being the case on whiskey, let’s not even begin to delve into vodka, rum, beer or spirits from other countries. I hear all the time that consumers don’t drink wine because wine is so complicated to understand. The irony of that statement always hits home with me because there they stand drinking a 25-year-old Rye Whiskey from Kentucky that was aged, but not to 25 years, only approximating a 25-year-old spirit, in a barrel originally used for Sherry aging.
The phrase “All’s well that ends well,” is completely applicable to today’s wine, beer and spirits industries.
Let’s consider a few adult beverage items which your grandparents likely never experienced:
- Malbec Wine
Malbec wine from anywhere other than Bordeaux, France.
Malbec is a most wonderful grape to grow and ferment. It’s hardy, yields a lot of juice from each berry, loves sun and heat and is a reasonably early-ripening grape.
Malbecs come from all over. Argentina has made this grape their national standard-bearer. Another great point: the Malbec from Argentina are relatively inexpensive. Washington State and California are jumping into the Malbec game. But just try and find Malbec from its original home in Bordeaux, even in the classic Bordeaux 5-grape blends.
Years ago, rum was white or dark. And that was that. Now you can enjoy rums of different hues with different flavor profiles produced for different purposes. Some cocktails, calling for a light white rum would be overwhelmed by a darker rum, manufactured with molasses from the sugar cane stalk. There are experts who can comment on the terroir of the rum, fully understanding that point of origin is important, and borrowing a term from the wine industry to communicate the differences between cane stalks, as well as the weather and sea influences, particularly as applicable to Caribbean islands.
Many rum distillers use barrels for aging that were previously used in the manufacture of other spirits. Just came across a rum aged in barrels which were used to create Sherry, and the rum was subjected to the same aging processes as Sherry, namely the Solera method. The blend of flavors was most agreeable although this spirit has no business in a mixed drink. It’s best for sipping, as you would a Cognac.
Likely no spirit has undergone such a dramatic journey as vodka. Before Prohibition, the very idea of drinking vodka labeled you as unsophisticated. Today, vodka is made all over the world and in every place with advantageous manufacturing laws. Every product has its own story from the number of times the liquid is passed through the still to the addition of flavors not unlike those used on sno-cones.
At the end of the day, vodka brand differences are in the mouth of the consumer, and this spirit gets paired in cocktails with overwhelming accompanying flavors more often than not, making the subtle differences in vodka’s aromas and flavors insignificant. The range of vodka applications, from martinis to Bloody Mary’s, should determine how far you go up the quality ladder.
Whiskey is so well-defined by law as to ingredients, aging and processes that the changes here have been subtler than some other spirits. But the big story here is that whiskey has broken loose from its traditional birthplaces and now hails from the darndest places. Like Texas, Idaho and Louisiana. Europe has not seen the whiskey changes because their laws are so tight on the manufacturing standards, but America has been a true Wild West Show of non-traditional whiskey manufacture. Most of those products are quite good with surprisingly high-quality levels.
There is much to be said for experimentation and out-of-the-box approaches. For the most part, it’s worth your while to do a bit of research and see what tickles your fancy.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine.