Enjoy this very incomplete list of drinks, ideas and bases spirits to test your menu.
October 4th is national vodka day. I thought I would take this as an opportunity to discuss an important part of my bar philosophy: If you don’t care about vodka, that means your vodka choices are that much more important.
It’s popular and easy in the mixologist/bar craft/cocktail community to deride vodka. Such sentiments are lazy and derivative. If you have chosen a career in the branch of the hospitality business that deals in drinks, you should know that vodka is 32% of American spirit sales. If you don’t enjoy reading stats-packed trade journals, I would point you to Don Lee and the creation of the very true T-shirt “vodka pays the bills.”
Disregarding the value of vodka for a restaurant is stupid, ignoring what the consumer wants is doubly so for a “business.” It is the cultural equivalent to saying, “I don’t care about beer, wine or tequila.” If you read my blog, you already know that I take this shit too seriously. For me, the spirits that a bar chooses to put on their back bar, or on their cocktail menu, is a mission statement, a thesis and their ethos in liquid form.
All too often I see too cool for school fernet chugging “cocktologists” only stocking the three biggest brands of vodka. “We don’t really care about vodka,” might be spoken as they reach for brands that they don’t care about. Why would you tell me that you don’t care about Grey Goose and also buy Grey Goose? If you don’t care about Grey Goose don’t buy Grey Goose. Tell people, “I don’t care about it so I don’t fucking buy it.” Conversely, a person like me would be proud if you said “I appreciate that Grey Goose as a well-made vodka for the money and I appreciate that I can charge a premium price for it and I appreciate making money and I appreciate having an option I believe in on my back bar.” But a counterpoint to that is quite simple, if you only carry it because it sells then how do you ever make any of your decisions, only on sales? Pinnacle whipped cream flavored vodka used to be the best selling vodka in Washington state, but I didn’t see that in a lot of white tablecloth restaurants.
Buy what you like, think about what you like, and believe in what you buy.
I think that Grey Goose is a good vodka. I think that Ketel One smells like the dumpster of a Thai restaurant. I enjoy potato vodka even though potatoes didn’t make it into the hands of the white man until the 16th century and vodka existed long before it was made from potatoes. I like craft brands with full flavor and think that there are plenty of other craft brands whose “full flavor” is “poor distillation.”
Vodka may be Voltaire’s blank slate, but vodka says more about you and who you want to be.
Take Tito’s vodka for example. It’s a darling in the young people’s bar scene. Why? Because it’s handcrafted? Because it’s gluten-free? Because it’s a great price? Or because people believe that it is some sort of important brand? All vodka that doesn’t have a slice of toast floating in it is gluten free. Tito’s vodka is an 850,000 case per year business, that takes a lot of hands that go into making a handmade vodka. Tito’s vodka is neutral grain spirit that is re-distilled, you know, like engine cleaner. Tito’s vodka was fined in 2010 for not properly disposing of industrial waste. Tito’s vodka is currently being sued for misleading consumers about their “craft” vodka. So I ask you, when you stock Tito’s on your back bar does this matter to you? No, is a fine answer. I respect the shit out of that answer. Who wants to think about this bullshit when you’re sitting down to have a relaxing cocktail. But, it does matter to me. And I want to be crystal clear when I say, “I think that Tito’s vodka is 100% marketing horse shit.” But that is just my opinion. Go get your own fucking opinion.
It’s easy to pick on Tito’s. But plenty, if not most, vodkas are made this exact same way. And I bet most of those vodkas are good. But, there are literally thousands of choices out there. If you wanted to support a vodka brand that was made by a 9 fingered, dyslexic man named “Julius” I bet one exists. That is how many vodkas are out there. I bet there’s one out there for you. They may or may not lie about it.
But this is something that you, a beverage industry professional, should consider when you make your choices. You can not write-off an entire spirits category as unimportant. And if you don’t believe in the products that you sell, and the products that you mix your cocktails with, you are just as lazy as the guy who muddles through ice, shakes his Manhattan, and never refrigerates his vermouth.
Who do you want to be? The person that cares about vodka or the person who doesn’t?
P.S. Reminder, these are my personal views and not the views of any of my co-workers, pets, peers or anyone who has ever written me a check. Do your own research and click on the links if you don’t believe me. If those news stories aren’t true I’ll take this down and apologize because I’m not a lying jerk.
I type this from my porch, literally while bird watching; I am now old. With context now set, I want to thank Campari for being a really good sport about Negroni Week.
9 out of 10 Negronis I saw on menus this week were bereft of Campari. At the risk of expressing a very unpopular opinion amongst bartenders and being a starfucker, I’d like to go on record and say I believe in branded cocktails.
Kick that around for a minute before I back pedal.
Fuck Pusser’s rum for picking on a little bar and fuck Gosling’s for insisting a truly shitty rum is required for a Dark n’ Stormy. But brands carry cocktails forward. It is the bartender’s duty, and Dave Wondrich’s job, to research the origin of these cocktails and understand the intent & flavor of the original cocktail. If you had to choose between the most authentic Dark n’ Stormy, or an “unnamed cocktail” of your favorite dark rum, artesian ginger beer & a $5 lime wedge, what would you choose? Keep in mind, you are not in Bermuda when you decide.
History & imagination shows me a Negroni starting with high proof gin, sweet Italian vermouth & Campari on likely large craggy rocks. This is a provincial & conservative view, in my brain, it glows like a stained glass window.
I can recognize that is too conservative in modern times. I won’t send back a Negroni in a V-shaped cocktail glass or one made with with French vermouth. But I also won’t insist or believe that Carpano Antica is a better choice simply because it is Italian. That’s like saying: roses smell better with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.*
I believe that we are lucky to live in in a world now where we can over-catalog a cocktail’s origin. The Penicillin Cocktail is a great example of this: I’ve seen it on bullshit consultant cocktail menus made with Jack Daniel’s. Without keeping our culture, what’s to say that barfolk 100 years from now wouldn’t know that is an abomination? Luckily we can ask Sam Ross, the progenitor of the Pencillin, and he’ll tell you that the recipe started with Compass Box Asyla & Peat Monster. Are those brands important to the drink? Compass Box would say, “yes” but it’s Sam’s drink so go ask him.
I believe there is an implicit agreement when ordering a Negroni that you will receive Campari. The Bacardi Company, for evil or awesome, would have to agree to this- their 1936 New York Supreme Court case requiring the use of Bacardi in a Bacardi Cocktail sets a precedent. Another precedent is easily set with the simple rule- NEW INGREDIENT-NEW COCKTAIL. Who knows what a Boulevardier is?
There is a difference between a Negroni and a Negroni template. Both are great, but they are unrelated at their core, they are just cordial to each other, like a divorced couple that got married in their 20’s.
Times change and believe it or not, I actually don’t want to be the Negroni Police. I’d rather just get “Negroked**” with the rest of you. With one last thanks to Campari for being a good sport where others have been jerks, here are my expectations in order of importance. After the first 3, which are REQUIREMENTS, the rest are all up for grabs.
*a gin that can stand up to Carpano Antica is not a gin I want to drink
**drunk on fancy drinks, specifically the Negroni
Moonshine is a term that many say comes from the illegal production and or transportation of spirits that often took place at night. It is a tradition that farmers have carried out since farmers have had surplus grain. Moonshine is a reason to not pay taxes, start racing stock cars and even fight the government.
Despite recent rumblings that the TTB will acknowledge something like moonshine as a category, it is currently just “any distilled spirit” that is filed with the TTB as a specialty spirit.
Moonshine is not necessarily a white whiskey. What you see in stores can quite literally be anything. Most of it is high proof NGS or cane spirit with water added and packaged in some faux redneck mason jar package perfect for your bullshit faux pinterest wedding. Some moonshine, likely 1 in a thousand bottles, is a distilled product by an artisan that just doesn’t fit within a spirits category, for example, it could be an un-aged whiskey of an oddball mash bill. But this product is really moonshine is spirit only.
I highly recommend buying illegal spirits from illicit distillers. Of all the felonies, moonshine is the most delicious. However, stuff that says moonshine, infused with cherries, purchased in a grocery store is as much moonshine as Starbucks is methamphetamine.
If you thought this suite was boring, you are right. I hate acronyms and I really do try to use them less. I find them to be exclusionary and often, not really time savers, like any acronym with a “W.” This is why I wanted to explain some spirits basics.
The NFG – less a list of Non Functional Garnishes and more of a thought exercise on creating cocktails deliberately
NOM – the rules of agave production in Mexico, for better or for worse and how to identify tequila distilleries- a stunning transparency not known to many other countries
LDI and MGPI– the mother distillery and the company that owns it
The FNG –Try not to be the FNG by recognizing we are all the FNG -from the Tao of Fucking New Guy
The TTB -your big brother who’s heart is in the right place even if he is over protective and slow
GNS or NGS – as Voltaire would say, “the blank slate”
Now that we all know these terms, I can use them freely going forward and not feel like an asshole.
Cheers, something more interesting next
If you were a little kid with an oblique sense of humor like me, you likely thought that the ATF was the funniest thing ever. Alcohol, Tobacco AND Firearms & Explosives? Why not just make a “Bureau of Fun & Danger.” Anyway, after the homeland security shakeup, the department was reshuffled and the Alcohol Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau or to shorten it, the Tax & Trade Bureau or the TTB was born.
While they do a lot of things and cause a lot of pain & suffering, (for example, in 1997, they murdered Joe Camel) they are a pretty amazing government agency.
On the bad side, all spirits coming into existence in the USA must be approved by them, from label to formula. This is frustrating, because sometimes the TTB’s stubbornness or lack of cultural awareness cause a kink in the hose of America’s booze. For example, not recognizing cachaça as a spirit until 2013. But, for any pain and suffering they do a few other things quite amazingly.
Most notably, their website is fucking amazing. Enjoy TTB Online, a searchable database of every alcoholic beverage in America. This database often includes the home phone numbers of importers and distillers in case you’d like to thank the good people at Kentucky Bourbon Distillers or ask the people at Absolut, ”
“Why can’t I get a recycled glass Absolut for Seattle made out of quinoa, flavored with a mild sense of superiority?”
Or, stop arguing about if absinthe, real absinthe, is legal (it is) with a handy TTB press release! Yes, the TTB knows all the laws and, they keep all the secrets.
The TTB requires recipes and samples for products being served to Americans. Downside: no tonka beans or really authentic eau di vie (too much methanol) but, upside: no one dies from drinking too much methanol! The TTB is the keeper of secrets and thusly, there are no secrets. Is chartreuse a secret recipe? Not in a country with as much bureaucracy as America! I’d start looking for the recipe online now.
Another thing the TTB helps with is advertising in booze and tobacco. Compared to the punishing regulations for tobacco advertising, liquor advertising is quite loosely regulated by a handful of government agencies. One of the guiding principles of those agencies to to not market to children, not always easy to enforce because of the infantilization of alcohol.
What is a NOM? Here is a quote from: Official Mexican Standard for Tequila NOM-006-SCFI-2005 Alcoholic Beverages – Tequila – Specifications:
This NOM applies to all processes and activities related to the supply of agave, production, bottling, marketing, information and business practices linked to the distilled alcoholic beverage known as Tequila, pursuant to the specifications of this NOM. Said beverage is subject to the process detailed below, using Agave of the species tequilana weber blue variety, grown in the federal states and municipalities indicated in the Declaration.
Furthermore, this NOM establishes the technical specifications and legal requirements for the protection of the Appellation of Origin of “Tequila,” in accordance with the current General Declaration of Protection of the Appellation of Origin of “Tequila,” the Law, the Industrial Property Law, the Federal Consumer Protection Law and other related legal provisions.
EVERYONE, RUN OUT THE DOOR AND GO HIGH-FIVE A FUCKING LAWYER RIGHT NOW!
But seriously, what does all of that mean? The NOM is a little number on the back of every 100% agave bottle of tequila. If you are drinking a mixto, close your computer right now and ask yourself,
“Why don’t I have any standards? Why am I human garbage?”
See the NOM pictured below:
The NOM is the Norma Oficial Mexicana or, in English, the Normative Number. It is a seal guaranteeing that this tequila or mezcal is made to government standards. Read all of those rules here and learn which tequilas are made at the same distillery on tequila.net .
The NOM rules are basically a book report on how to make tequila and the NOM number names the tequila’s distillery.
The number designates the owner of the distillery and each brand leaving that distillery, will bear that number. The NOM is a little number that graces all of Mexico’s agave bottles that decided to pay taxes or legally be recognized as tequila. The NOM is the best friend of the realist and the worst enemy of the marketer. The NOM defines tequila:
This does not mean that every tequila brand from the listed NOM is the same distillate or the same agave harvested from the same farm; but it could. At the least, NOMs produce tequilas that are quite similar and when a brand moves to a new distillery, the flavor changes. There can be many exceptions to expected rules in tequila:
A famous example of this is how Patron is made at 5 or so different distilleries these days. The brand originated at NOM —,the distillery where 7 Leguas is made now. Tequila nerds often point this out in discussing a more authentic brand, but in reality it’s a completely different brand. As for Patron, I dare you to do a blind taste with it VS other blancos. If you are a Patron fan, you might find that it’s lighter than you’d remember. If you are a Patron hater, I’d first point out, you have 5 or so distilleries to narrow your hatred down too, and that Patron is likely both better and more expensive than you remember. Also, remember, tequila isn’t always what it appears to be. You need to ask the hard questions.