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Going Native

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: spirits

How can you not be enamored of a state that has more barrels of an aging spirit in it than it does people? That’s what drives my newfound love affair with the Commonwealth of Kentucky—Louisville in particular. I recently took a trip out to the Bluegrass State to explore a little bit of bourbon country, as well as Louisville’s Urban Bourbon Trail. I had always managed to idealize and romanticize the region in my mind, like I do a lot of places very beverage centric. But I have to say it really lived up to my expectations, and them some.

I was in awe of the sprawling operation that is the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Ky, with its industrial architecture and equipment that appears to have been largely untouched—save for some automated control and monitoring stations—since the period immediately following the repeal of Prohibition. But I also enjoyed the more intimate affair that is the Willett Distillery in Bardstown, where the scent of aging bourbon in charred-oak barrels inside tin warehouses knows no equal.

The bourbon renaissance has enabled 77-year-old Willett to resume distilling activities for the first time since the early ’80s (It was still aging and bottling in the interim, just not distilling at its Bardstown site).

Those were the dark ages for bourbon. The spirit had been seen as “your grandfather’s drink.” The spirits market as a whole was on a similar downward trend a couple of decades ago.  

But thanks in part to the premiumization trend, those days are very much over. Super-premium whiskey has been helping pull the spirits category up to the tune of 3 percent year-on-year. Whiskey alone was up nearly 7 percent last year, thanks not only to the single malt Scotches and Irish whiskeys, but to bourbon and Tennessee whiskey as well. The American offerings’ volume was up nearly 10.5 percent in 2012, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. Super-premium spirits in general enjoyed the greatest gain of all the price segments, up nearly 9 percent last year.

There’s no better time than now for consumers to celebrate bourbon and there’s really no better place to do it than Kentucky. No other region of the U.S. is more closely aligned with a beverage alcohol product than Kentucky is with bourbon. And before every California wine maker cries foul, I argue this because the varietals that are produced there, by and large, did not originate in the U.S. They don’t call bourbon “America’s native spirit” for nothing.

And no other American city showcases its signature beverage better than Louisville. Five years ago, the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau created the Urban Bourbon Trail, a network of bars and restaurants in which one can enjoy the native spirit, for just that purpose. There are currently 27 stops (and counting) across Louisville.

It’s clear that bourbon’s time has (once again) arrived and not just in Kentucky. The Urban Bourbon Trail is really just part of the global bourbon trail as aspirational and curious consumers worldwide embark on their own journey.    
 

Cause and Effect

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Category: General Blogs

My parents may be getting up there in age, but that hasn’t slowed them down just yet, especially when it comes to warning their children about the latest health “study” they heard about on the news or through some email chain.

Those of you who are regular readers of this column know by now I can be quite prickly when it comes to many of these so-called “studies.” It’s come up before in this space because, unfortunately, as anyone associated with the beverage business knows, this industry take the brunt—especially lately, but this has been going on for decades—of these ominous health warnings.

There are too many of them, and they are announced too frequently to even begin to summarize here. But it does seem that the so-called “experts” have smelled blood in the water when it comes to certain segments of our industry and they have converged on it like a swarm of feeding sharks.

The parental warning I refer to above was slipped in right at the end of a recent phone call with my mom, tucked in so nonchalantly I almost missed it as I was hanging up: “Oh, and don’t forget that drinking more than four cups of coffee a day can take years off your life!”

My reply was a typical, rolling-of-the-eyes, “What in the world do you mean?” as my fingers started automatically Googling the relevant keywords into my iphone’s browser (I’ve been to this rodeo before). Eventually, I did find the study, but a little more investigating immediately showed what I expected. The study itself lacked the standards that would support one that was respectable. I happened to have dinner with a friend later that evening who had studied statistics in college, and he explained the difference between a good study and a bad one. The good find causation between two things, the bad ones just correlations. Unfortunately, many of the studies we hear about today and get tossed around so often by the mass media are based on correlations, not causations. The coffee study is a good example.

In that case, it found that those who consume more than four cups of coffee a day and are under the age of 55 have a tendency to die at a significantly younger age than those who drink fewer than four cups of coffee a day. This was sloppily bullhorned by the media as showing a real link between consumption of more than four cups of coffee by those under 55 and early death. But a little more study of this study and you start to see it unravel. There was no real causation between the coffee drinking and the early demise, just a correlation. It just happens to be that those who drank that much coffee, in that particular age group, happened to die younger. The study didn’t take into account anything else: Did they have more trouble sleeping and needed caffeine to stay awake, for example? Did they tend to have extreme Type-A personalities?

Were they dealing with heavier workloads and have more stressful lives as a result? Did they consume a delicious donut with every cup of coffee?

If we as an industry are going to fight back against these poorly conceived studies, it’s important we know how to set their authors, the media—and, yes, even our parents—straight. I tried, respectfully, and as gently as possible with the latter, at least.

The $5 Milkshake

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Category: General Blogs

Summer cocktails are typically light and fruity and have fresh herbs like mint. They are colorful, light and refreshing, and easy drinking—think mojitos, margaritas, white sangria. But this summer I’ve turned to a different kind of warm weather cocktail that is quintessentially summer—milkshakes with a kick and cocktails made with ice cream and sorbet. While these indulgent drinks aren’t a new concept, I have been noticing more of them on menus at eateries across London.

Dining at an Italian restaurant called Fornata, instead of opting for a dessert, I chose one of the restaurant’s four summer cocktails made with ice cream. I sipped on the “Campari Sorbet” made with Campari, orange juice and lemon sorbet, while my friend Stephanie, still feeling influenced by her recent trip to Italy, chose “Affogato Al Limoncello,” a Limoncello martini with a scoop of creamy lemon sorbet served with an Italian almond biscotti.

At another restaurant, this time an American-inspired barbeque place, The Big Easy Bar.B.Q and Crabshack, grown-up milkshakes caught my eye on the extensive drinks menu. The restaurant, which serves up classic American barbeque dishes and lobsters imported from Maine, kept the USA-theme going with its hard milkshakes. Among them is the “The Dirty Girl Scout” made with chocolate ice cream, Oreo cookies and peppermint schnapps, and the “Spiked Pirates of the Caribbean,” made with vanilla ice cream, Captain Morgan’s rum, fresh mint and coconut cream.

Film buffs will probably recall the scene from “Pulp Fiction” when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) takes the boss’ wife Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) out to dinner and she orders the Durward Kirby Burger, bloody, and a $5 milkshake.

I recently visited a new American-inspired steak house in London called MASH (Modern American Steak House) that has its own version of the “5 dollar Milkshake” on its menu for £9.50 (about $15)—a must try for me. MASH puts its spin on the “Pulp Fiction” vanilla shake adding bourbon, amaretto, caramel and for garnish, salted popcorn. It’s served it in a wine carafe-style glass with, of course, a red-and-white-striped straw.

Burgers and shakes have been an American classic pairing for decades and remains a favorite among consumers—even abroad—and MASH takes that pairing to a premium experience.

In “Pulp Fiction,” Vincent questions the cost of Mia’s $5 milkshake and even after he tastes it, he admits that it’s good, but probably not $5 good (that was in 1994 by the way).

At a time when consumers are looking for that little something extra with their cuisine and their cocktails, this fusion of dessert and after dinner drinks offers just another option when dining out. Cheese plate, fruit, port or a milkshake with a kick—decisions, decisions.

Drink-In Movies

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: alcohol

When it comes to the beer-versus-wine-versus-spirits image wars, one need look no further than the local multiplex or the nearest home theater system. Wine traditionally has been put on a romantic pedestal with sprawling establishing shots of lush vineyard landscapes and dreamy little picnics in those idyllic settings, punctuated with clinking glasses of pinot noir. Even when the lead characters are severely emotionally and morally compromised, as in everyone’s favorite go-to grape movie, “Sideways,” wine still comes out of it with its religiously exalted status intact. But for every “Sideways” or “Bottle

Shock,” there’s a “Take This Job and Shove It” (I know I’m dating myself here) and “Beerfest.” Beer is relegated to the role of social lubricant for redneck layabouts and over-imbibing fratboys.

And you can forget about spirits. Anytime characters drink Scotch or bourbon on screen, they’re usually slumped over a bar, sipping to forget personal crises. Or they’re just plain evil.

Dennis Hopper’s “Pabst Blue Ribbon” exclamation may be the more iconic “Blue Velvet” quote, but one of the first lines Hopper’s sadistically depraved Frank Booth utters in David Lynch’s classic is “Where’s my bourbon?” Not exactly a clip the Kentucky Department of Travel is using in its tourism videos.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “What about ‘Sex & the City’ and its impact on the modern cocktail culture.” I’m not talking about mixed drinks that are so diluted by fruit flavoring and pretty colors that that the base spirit barely expresses itself. I’m talking about connoisseur-oriented distillates, enjoyed neat, on the rocks or in a carefully crafted classic drink that retains the notes and nuances of the high-proof liquid.   

Then you’ll say, “What about ‘Mad Men’ and the classic cocktail mini-renaissance it inspired?” Well, if you haven’t realized by season six that Don Draper is a functioning alcoholic with a therapist’s smorgasbord of issues, then I don’t think you actually have AMC.

Filmmakers (and TV show runners) just don’t seem to be capturing spirits and beer with the same flattering lens and lighting that they are wine.

But there is hope. I recently saw Ken Loach’s “Angel’s Share,” which combines a story about the strife of the Scottish working class with a bit of a mini “Ocean’s Eleven”-style heist and an absolute love letter to Scotland’s most venerated product. A must see, especially if you’re in the Scotch whisky business.

On the malt-and-hops front, next month brings the release of the indie romantic dramedy “Drinking Buddies.” Having already seen it, I must say, it really nails the vibe of the craft beer industry. Its main characters work in a Chicago brewery—Revolution, a real craft outfit whose name wasn’t changed for the film—and the opening title sequence featuring enormous sacks of malt, mash tuns, hop pellets, fermenting tanks, kegs and, of course, a delicious brew being poured is like porn for beer geeks.

Let’s hope that these two films are signs that the tide is slowly turning and that the cinema’s liquid love affair becomes a bit more inclusive.

Cold Glass

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Category: General Blogs

A green market recently started in the New York City neighborhood   where I live and while I’ve really enjoyed having it every Sunday, I have to say there were some products I just didn’t see myself ever buying there. One of them was dairy. Each Sunday the upstate New York based Ronnybrook Farm Dairy sets up a stall at our Market, like it does at many others across NYC. It’s a cute little stall brimming with milk, yogurts, creams, butter, etc. But having always bought all this at my supermarket I just didn’t see the reason to start getting it from the green market. After all, why change a good thing? Also, to be honest, I just didn’t trust it. Especially in the warmer weather, just how cold can they keep dairy in a farmer’s market stall all day?

But a couple of weeks ago, for no real reason other than I just had a few extra minutes to kill, I found myself again at their stall and took a closer look. And before I knew it, I had grabbed a quart of Ronnybrook’s milk in one of its old-time glass bottles, along with some yogurt, and was lugging it home. I really didn’t expect much. I figured it was worth trying, but I’d never do it again.

As the next Sunday rolled around, my bottle of milk and yogurt having run out days before, I was eagerly awaiting my next trip to the Ronnybrook stall. What had changed my mind? For those of you who regularly buy glass bottles of milk this will of course be preaching to the choir. But if you haven’t, I highly recommend it for several reasons. One, it’s damn cold, colder than any cardboard container of milk I’ve ever had. And that makes a huge difference. Second, the milk just tastes better. I don’t know if it’s the fresh, straight-from-the farm thing, or the way they process it, or the glass bottle again, but it just tastes great. And third, I don’t know if I’m old enough to remember drinking milk from a glass bottle as a kid, but the whole experience brings up some kind of nostalgia for me. Everything from twisting off the round lid, to the feel of the bottle in my hand, to noticing how the white liquid fills up less and less of the bottle every time I reach for it—it all just feels right.

And then there is the extra interaction with the Ronnybrook salesman at the stall every Sunday. Pleasantries are exchanged, and I even return the used bottle for $1.50 off my next one—how much more green can you get?

Coincidentally, the day I was writing this came news that the only bright spot in the carbonated soft drink market in the U.S. these days are sales of soda in glass bottles! That’s right—sales of soda in glass bottles rose 2.6 percent for the 52 weeks ended April 13, while plastic bottles fell 0.8 percent and aluminum cans fell 1.9 percent, according to Nielsen. Part of the reason, says The Wall St. Journal, could be that glass holds special appeal to millennials, baby-boomers and Hispanics. Lo and behold, glass is shattering its reputation as a package whose time has past. Its best days may very well lie ahead!