The last decade has been a boom time for distilled spirits and the people who drink them: First, all our bartenders grew delightful handlebar mustaches and got really, really good at mixing cocktails; and now, a lot of state governments — including New York — are loosening distilling laws and regulations, which makes it much easier for people to open small distilleries, which in turn has made for a figurative explosion in craft distilling. (Probably some literal ones, too.) But we must be careful! One need only look at the indie-rock explosion of the eighties and the indie-film boom of the nineties to see the potential dangers inherent in being a fan of today’s “indiestilling” movement. (That term works, right? Let’s make this happen, people: OED 2012!)
Let’s be clear: We should champion this movement. It is relatively new and exciting, and a world where Manhattans can come made with dozens of different kinds of rye is a world in which I want to live. But while us cocktail nerds should celebrate this boom — more alcohol to try! — we must be careful and discriminating in our adoption. If indie rock has taught us nothing, it is that indie culture can make you look like a real dick. So let’s band together.
I. We will not let our passion turn us into a bunch of obscure-booze snobs.
Don’t get me wrong, I am one of the aforesaid dicks. I actively champion independent music, film, and coffee; I read Pitchfork; I have and will again spend $4 on a cup of black coffee; and when it comes to spirits, I have overhead myself saying, “If you like Knob Creek, you really should try this Hudson Baby Bourbon.” On paper, I probably wouldn’t hang out with me.
But a lot of the bartenders and distillers I spoke with talked about educating people, that this was in some ways why they were doing what they were doing. “I want to help consumers understand where the stuff they enjoy comes from,” Allen Katz, host of “The Cocktail Hour” and founder of the soon-to-be-distilling New York Distilling Co., told me. So, rather than look down our nose at the guy ordering a Jack and Coke, we should share with him our excitement about a really well-made Bourbon Smash — and then ensnare and convert and force a mustache upon his face when he tells us he likes it. But we must also know when to back off and accept that the dude ordering the Jack and Coke doesn’t deserve our scorn (unless of course he’s being jerky to the bartender, in which case open up a whole sixteen-ounce can of scorn).
We must use our enthusiasm for good, find those who will care, and tell them about this mezcal we know that’s distilled through chicken breasts.
II. We will not confuse “unique” with “good.”
Uniqueness can make a drink special. Take tequila, for instance. Cuervo is simply not going to be as gloriously interesting as Ocho Tequila, a tequila introduced to me by the bartenders at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch. Ocho is created by a Mexican distiller who has been playing around with the concept of vintage and terroir in tequila. Rather than make something that tastes the same every year, Ocho is trying to get at some essence of the land from which that particular agave plant grew. It’s a French wine thing applied to something most people associate with spring break parties and stories about why they’ll never drink tequila again. So score one for indie culture.
But uniqueness can veer very quickly into simply not being very good. I once saw an indie-music show where some guy sat onstage screeching while rubbing two pieces of glass together. And before you think that is a joke, let me assure you: I do not joke about such things. The same is true with booze: “Some of these micro-distilled spirits are trying so hard to be unique, they end up being one note or just bad,” Bourbon & Branch’s bar manager Jayson Wilde told me. “I won’t name names, but there’s a particular bourbon that is doing this hickory-smoked thing. It’s different, but it just tastes like hickory smoke.” While hickory smoke might not be unpleasant in the way that glass-rubbing music is, it also doesn’t necessarily make your bourbon good, and the argument can be made that its simple flavor profile makes it less interesting than something as mundane as Jim Beam.
Yes, we’re rooting for these brands to succeed, since all boats rise with the boozy tide. But let’s make sure we recognize the screechy glass players when we see drink them.
III. We will avoid the stereotypes.
You can grow a handlebar mustache and killer sideburns if you really want to, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to. The fewer of us have them, the less able people will be to make broad characterizations about the indiestilling fan base. That said, I’m totally down with the old-timey-bartender, rolled-up-short-sleeve thing. That’s just a solid look.
IV. We will acknowledge the fact that big brands have their place.
The small-batch spirits stand out against the big-brand stuff because small producers are often aiming for something one of a kind that big brands aren’t. In the case of something like Boyd & Blair’s truly smooth vodka from Pennsylvania, this is terrific; the producer is just trying to make the best possible product. But in the case of Boomsma Oude Genever, which is malt-based Genever gin that’s then aged in oak barrels, the weirdness goes too far and the spirit becomes unmixable (see: Tenet II).
Yes, people drink a lot of things neat or with a little water, but oftentimes the most interesting spirits are those with which a bartender can do something. Most spirits are designed to be ingredients, after all. When I asked Allen Katz about balancing uniqueness and mixability, he said, “We go for reasonable originality,” which is a great phrase, and probably applicable to most things. “We want our spirits to be fun and unique,” he continued, “but also useful.”
And you know who makes things that are really useful? Big booze companies. When I asked bartenders at Bourbon & Branch and Absinthe Brasserie & Bar what they used in their standard martinis, they didn’t rattle off the name of some obscure gin; they both told me Plymouth. Not only is it better for martinis, it’s also less expensive. And the whole reason cocktails were invented was to dress up inexpensive booze.
V. We will happily tell people about the good stuff.
One things indie-rock nerds do really well is share what they are listening to. As such, here’s a partial list of what we’re drinking (and loving):
Compass Box Scotch: Yes, there’s such a thing as an artisanal blended Scotch. And the stuff from Compass Box, made by an American living in London, harkens to the jokey, assertively flavored craft-beer mentality that’s big here in the States — see especially the Peat Monster.
Delaware Phoenix absinthe: The small-batch booze movement isn’t limited to whiskey and gin, as evidenced by this excellent absinthe distillery from upstate New York. (That said, Delaware Phoenix released its first-ever line of whiskeys this week.)
Del Maguey Mezcal: The makers of the aforesaid chicken-breast mezcal. (They make plenty of mezcals that are more accessible, too, but you know my rule: If someone makes chicken-breast mezcal, I must drink chicken-breast mezcal.)
Whistle Pig rye: If you haven’t hit brown-booze fatigue limit, this tiny brand from Vermont — and made by a former Maker’s Mark distiller — is the current cause célèbre of the whiskey community.
VI. We will accept sellouts as a natural part of the indie ecosystem.
Oh how I hate it when the stuff I love becomes popular! That’s an impression of me anytime something I love becomes popular. It is every indie nerd’s worst nightmare.
For instance: the Shins, a very talented and well respected indie-rock band whom I told everyone about when I first heard them. But have you heard that Shins song in that McDonald’s commercial? It’s horrifying. I mean, good for the Shins, but all of sudden my nerdy relationship with the Shins is compromised because I know for a fact that suit-wearing McDonald’s executives have now also heard the Shins and approved of using their music to sell Chicken McNuggets.
(The upside of course is that there are always tons of new things — bands included — to get nerdy about. Which is sort of the best part.)
As smaller distillers rise in popularity, so do the chances that they’ll either be bought by larger producers — even the venerable Hudson Valley brand (made by Tuthilltown Spirits) was bought by large Scottish company William Grant & Sons — or be forced to cater to more mainstream tastes. Arne Hillesland, distiller (and one of three employees) at Distillery 209, spoke to me about the reality of catering to more dominant tastes: “I’m going for that 21st century palate,” he said, meaning that Americans like sweetness and if he wants to sell his gin on any sort of scale, his recipe must cater to that. In other words, there’s not a lot of money to be made if you’re just trying to jam chicken-breast mezcal down people’s throats.
It’s dicey, though, because ultimately we want small distilleries to become popular enough to shift the mainstream taste, if for nothing else so that I can get a decent cocktail when I visit my parents in Oklahoma City. The good news is that at the moment that’s what’s happening: “Microdistilleries have raised the benchmark,” Wilde told me at Bourbon & Branch. “Sure, some are terrible, but for the most part, all these new spirits just mean that we have greater access to better ingredients.”
Now we all need to make sure we don’t fuck that up.