April 3, 2009

I figured tonight I'd post a rant...

I am, I'll admit, a child of the 80s. I grew up thinking that the pinnacle of cool in 1987 or so was Rude Dog, that ALF was hilarious, and that candy cigarettes were fun but didn't especially make me want to start smoking the real ones (ultimately I did start, and then quit, but I don't blame the little sticks of peppermint-flavored chalk). There were two flavors in my childhood; sweet and...everything else. Now, I did like a number of things in that "everything else" category, but like so many kids, the sweet things were vastly more desirable. Even for non-kids in Reagan's America, sweets were what we wanted. The Gipper had a thing for jelly-beans, after all.

So I suppose it's no surprise that the liquor industry, being paradoxically slow to change but quick to jump on new bandwagons, felt that what Americans wanted in their spirits was an abundance of candy-like flavors. Even most domestic beers, with their reliance on things like rice for a "clean" taste, are far sweeter than those you'd find in Europe. We like our candy, and we like our alco-pops, the failure of Zima notwithstanding.

Now I've commented here before that I like a multitude of flavors in my cocktails. I like it when one ingredient plays off the other in some magical, alchemical way. And I'm not averse to infusing liquor with essences of various things. I like a good Sailor Jerry Rum or complex gin as much as the next guy. I prefer, however, that my flavors come from things I can actually see, touch and squeeze in the real world, rather than the labs from which so many liquor flavorings emerge. By and large, the flavorings in that rum or vodka you're mixing with are synthetic. They may taste like the real thing, or some platonic ideal of the real thing, but they're about as genuine as Michael Jackson's current nose (the pop star, not the late and much-missed beer expert).

And while I'm thinking of it, why are there about 60 linear feet of shelves at my local grocery's liquor department containing vodka of various types and flavors versus about 5 feet of rye or maybe 15 of rum (when the rum's not being mixed in with the tequila, that is)? How did a spirit whose main claim to fame was its absence of flavor suddenly explode into countless permutations whose labels proclaim, via text and color-coding, what flavor they'll impart? Do we need 15 different Smirnoff Twists? Do we need well over a dozen Absoluts, each as inscrutably clear as the last, regardless of what flavor the label tells us it is? If we want flavors in our liquor, why not extract them ourselves out of real, tangible ingredients rather than some compound that imparts something that only resembles what it purports to taste like? Have we grown that reliant on convenience that we'd take a handy simulacrum over a legitimate, slightly more laborious reality? If you macerate a handful of strawberries and plop them in vodka, you can stash in the back of your fridge for a week, strain off the solids, and have a spirit that not only tastes of real strawberry, but also has the coloration to prove it!

Believe me, the irony of a 20-something railing against the inexplicably clear flavored spirits like a buggy-whip manufacturer railing against the automobile owner is not lost on me. I'm not against progress at all. I love my computer, my iPod, my house's HVAC system, and indoor plumbing. But I'm a foodie as much as I'm a...drinkie? Well, I suppose it's better than "alcoholic," but... I like knowing where my food comes from, and that the flavors I'm tasting are genuine. I don't think that the artificial alternatives are bad, or are poisoning my precious bodily fluids, I just think that they're not as good as the real thing. To use something less for expedience or price seems unthinkable to me, especially if the savings is negligible. Would you rather have real vanilla that's been extracted from a pod that grew on an orchid, or imitation vanilla extracted through various chemical processes from oak chips, when the difference is less than a dollar a pint? Why settle when you don't have to? After all, the fermentation and distillation of spirits emerged from the advent and evolution of agriculture, doesn't it seem appropriate that the further refinement and augmentation of liquor should continue that tradition?

Oh, and tonight's cocktail is bourbon with a couple dashes of bitters. How's that for simple, honest flavors?


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