A few months back, SF cocktail blogger Camper English blogged about tequila being the new vodka on his site Alcademics. This led me to eventually write this series of columns about Old School/New School spirits. I'm not the only one who was inspired, however, as this article turned up in the Washington Post. Read on! This article works well as a pairing piece to the previous OS/NS Part I. Simply more information about the current state of tequila.
When my father in law comes over to visit we usually have at least a few glasses of tequila while we sit and talk. I always have something new for him to try and he enjoys testing them out. Most of the time however we disagree about which ones we like most. When I pulled out the Charbay Blanco last week I could tell that it was too strong for him, yet I think it's perfect. "You can feel it as it goes down," he said as he pointed to his chest with a slight frown. When we sipped the Don Julio 1942 however he was thrilled. "So smooth and you don't even notice the burn at all," he replied. I was not as impressed. There is a vast difference between the two tequilas, mainly the fact that the Charbay is a vibrant, spicy, unaged tequila and the Don Julio is an añejo so it has been smoothed out and sweetened by spending some time in the barrel. The most important difference for me however is that one tastes like tequila and the other does not.
Imagine you feel like eating pizza so you head over to Amici's and you order their best Italian-style pie. When the pizza is finally served it's covered with chicken, bean sprouts, broccoli, and carrots with a Thai ginger sauce mixed into the cheeze instead of marinara. You take a bite and it tastes great. In fact, it's very easy to eat because the flavors are so appealing, however, you still flag down the waiter because it isn't what you were expecting. When you explain the problem to the waiter, he asks, "What? Did it not taste good?" You elaborate about how you felt like something traditionally Italian and that's why you came to a pizza parlour - the mozzerella, the basil, the garlic, and the tomato sauce all freshly prepared and baked quickly on a thin, crispy crust. "I love those flavors because they remind me of a summer I spent in Napoli," you say, but instead of nodding in understanding, he replies, "The point of food is to taste good. Who cares how we make it or what we put in it as long as we make it taste good?" "But this isn't really pizza!" you exclaim. "It has cheese and dough, but you've completely manipulated the flavor into some asian-fusion thing that has nothing to do with real pizza!" You can see where this analogy is going.
If you replace the pizza from the above story with tequila and set the location in a bar instead of a pizza shop, you could probably witness the same scenario. Tequila more than any other spirit is in danger of losing its soul and identity because producers are changing its flavor to fit the general American palate. So many Americans have terrible memories from college dorm rooms or juvenile trips to Tijuana that even the smell of tequila can make them queezy. This has been a difficult hurdle for the distillers to jump over until a few guys got together and said, "Hey, what if we make it taste more like vodka?" From a capitalistic perspective, it was pure money-making genius and it got even better when those same guys said, "And while we're at it, let's make an aged version that tastes more like Johnny Walker black!" The money came pouring in and tequila empires sprouted up over night. Millions of Americans decided to try these brands littering the pages of fashion magazines and billboards everywhere and they said, "Wow, I had no idea I liked tequila so much!" Guess what America? Most of you still don't like tequila.
When you take any fermentable substance and distill it multiple times until it becomes soft and neutral, the possibility of it offending a specific taste becomes less and less. It's like white walls in dentist's office or boiled chicken and potatos for dinner - let's keep this as inoffensive as possible. However, when one looks to include everyone by excluding no one, they usually end up with something incredibly stale and boring. When you hear about mixologists trashing vodka cocktails, this is the reason. Sure it tastes fine, but there's nothing to it! Where's the originality, the talent, or the pizazz? Tequila is a delicious spirit that is distilled from the agave plant, so it should therefore retain some of the flavor of its source. If people are turned off by this flavor, then they don't like tequila and that's perfectly fine. I don't like cream cheese or mayonnaise and I also have a tough time with melted American on burgers and nachos. Those are foods I simply don't like to eat. The problem with manipulating a substance to make it appeal to the masses is the threat of losing the original product. This is not about progress or evolution, but rather about society's tendency to forget about origins - like the words "ironic" or "literally," no one seems to understand what they actually mean. This is happening already with tequila.
With the exception of a few stores in the Bay Area, it is very difficult to find a decent bottle of traditional tequila at a reasonable price. If I'm on vacation and have to shop at a grocery store then forget it. Without a doubt, my favorite thing to do at K&L is watch our customers reactions when they approach the tequila section because I know that if they're new to the store they might stare in complete confusion. Where are all the normal brands? There is hardly a recognizable bottle on our shelves because I've done my best to weed out what I feel constitutes the new school of tequila and worked hard to locate small, traditional tasting bottles that express the true flavor of the spirit.
While I feel it's important to give people what they want, I also feel I have a responsibility to carry the best products from the most talented distillers. In this day and age there are a mere handful of tequilas that are actually made by the company selling them. Anyone can hire a distillery to make them a tequila and then slap their own label on it. Most distilleries have mastered the popular new school flavor and have completely abandoned the traditional, old school style. When there is no one left to make old school tequila, then we will have lost one of the great gems of the spirits world. Today you don't need to know anything about tequila these days to sell it. Justin Timberlake and Paris Hilton have their own tequila brands! That should be all you need to know. Why would anyone buy JT's reposado, you might ask? Because not only is it popular at the club, it's so smooth and there's no burn whatsoever.
There are people in this world, as my buddy Luke told me a few days ago, that love to drink, but pay no real attention to what they are drinking. They simply want whatever goes down easiest. We've all been one of these folk at some point in our drinking careers and at some moment we stopped and thought, "this is really interesting, as well as intoxicating." For many of us, that curiosity ballooned into a love for distilled spirits that went beyond what was smooth and tasty. The smoky, salty, spicy, briny, tangy, earthy, and powerful came next. So many interesting things to drink, so many intriguing flavors, and so little time! However, to those who drink for drinkin's sake, this eclectic dance is neither enjoyable nor exciting.
There is a comparable divide in the world of wine, which we call old world vs. new world because of the ways the wines are made. Old school wines are those from old Europe (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti, etc) that are admired for their terroir (their sense of place), their ageability, how they pair with food, and the care given to the vineyards. In the new world of California, Argentina, and Chile, wines are admired for their taste - period. Rombauer Chardonnay: full-bodied, buttery, and sweet. How was it made? Who cares! It tastes great on the patio on a hot day according to tens of thousands of adoring fans. There is nothing wrong with liking alcohol that tastes good because it was made to taste good - just like Cheez-Its, Hostess Cupcakes, and Chicken McNuggets were designed to be delicious.
Over the next week I will be focusing on the ever-growing divide in the booze world between what I call old school and new school spirits. There are many examples of how this trend is threatening the last of the serious distillers and it needs to be addressed. Stay tuned.
THE BARBARY COAST CONSERVANCY OF THE
AMERICAN COCKTAIL ANNOUNCES
FOURTH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO COCKTAIL WEEK
September 21-27, 2010
SAN FRANCISCO – August 25, 2010 – San Francisco likes nothing better than to celebrate itself, in the sunshine, with a cocktail in hand. Natives and visitors alike will once again enjoy equal parts soiree and symposium from September 21-27 as the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail (BCCAC) hosts the Fourth Annual San Francisco Cocktail Week. Tickets are available at www.sfcocktailweek.com.
In the first Barbary Coast Era, barmen such as Duncan Nicol, Jerry Thomas and Bill Boothby cut their teeth in San Francisco saloons slinging the best cocktails in the land; then came Trader Vic and Tony Abou-Ganim, two unrivaled talents in cocktail lore. Now, the Millennial Barbary Coast boasts hundreds of barfolk as talented and sophisticated as any in the world. It’s these maestros of spirit who are the living legacy of the bygone Barbary Coast.
“The World’s First Cocktail Week” is produced entirely by volunteers, and will once again showcase the variety and depth of San Francisco’s liquid culture. The BCCAC, a not-for-profit organization co-founded by cocktail entrepreneurs H. Joseph Ehrmann (Elixir), Jeff Hollinger (Comstock Saloon) and Duggan McDonnell (Cantina), is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of saloons and their cocktails in San Francisco while also celebrating California’s culinary philosophy and traditions with special events, publications and educational seminars.
San Francisco Cocktail Week kicks off on Tuesday evening, September 21, with the formal dedication of the Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts, the new home of the Conservancy and future hub of beverage education in San Francisco. The week’s festivities continue through Monday evening, September 27, with numerous events including the Farmer’s Market Happy Hour, a Barbary Coast-era card and gaming night co-presented by Cocktail Lab, an under-the-sun Cocktail Cookout and the deliciously delightful Gala and Cocktail Carnival co-presented by The Bon Vivants, replete with circus and burlesque acts and more punch than anyone can swill. Additional events include Cocktail College seminars, after parties, tastings and more.
“True to our philosophy, we’ve created something entirely original for San Francisco,” said McDonnell. “Everything we’ve done to create San Francisco Cocktail Week, we’ve done so on our own, without a model or an example. Like San Francisco itself, we’ve carved our own original path.”
San Francisco Cocktail Week showcases the most talented bartenders paired with local farmers, chefs and distillers, along with San Francisco’s authentic, grassroots passion for enjoying a great drink and celebrating the heart and soul of its beverage culture.
San Francisco Cocktail Week 2010
Schedule of Events
Tuesday, September 21
Inauguration of the Boothby Center
6 to 8 p.m.
Celebrating the debut of the “Cocktail Bill” Boothby Center for the Beverage Arts: the new community center, conference room, event space and “beverage lab” with a fully functional bar. “Cocktail Bill” Boothby was a turn-of-the-century San Franciscan barman, author, philanthropist and civic leader who connected the fabric of the City with his wits, his grit, and his cocktails. The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail dedicates their home office as an homage to this historic San Franciscan and all those alive today who honor his work. Highlights of the evening include a silent auction and presentation by co-founders of the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail (BCCAC), H. Joseph Ehrmann (Elixir), Jeff Hollinger (Comstock Saloon), Duggan McDonnell (Cantina).
$25 per person (Ticket includes cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.)
Address: 1161 Mission Street, Suite 120, San Francisco
Wednesday, September 22
Farmer’s Market Happy Hour
6 to 8 p.m.
The country’s first market-inspired happy hour is back at the Ferry Building! Featuring the City’s best farm-to-table bars, the evening benefits the BCCAC and Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). Enjoy bites from six San Francisco restaurants, creations by 12 talented bartenders and tunes by DJ B Love.
$40 per person (Ticket includes cocktail tastes and hors d’oeuvres.)
Address: CUESA Kitchen at the Ferry Building Marketplace, San Francisco
Thursday, September 23
Ragtag Rabble Gaming Soirée
Co-Presented by Cocktail Lab
8 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Games of chance such as craps, blackjack, roulette and poker played out by dealers dressed in ye olde Barbary Coast-era attire! Join us in the Burritt Room as it’s littered with bars and ragtag tables along with Cocktail Lab’s signature innovations of classic, turn-of-the-century cocktails, live music, and a buy-in cocktail mixoff. Festive attire encouraged.
$60 per person (Ticket includes cocktails and hors d’oeuvres)
Address: Burritt Room, Crescent Hotel, 417 Stockton St. (at Sutter) San Francisco
Friday, September 24
Second Annual Epic Happy Hour
5 to 8 p.m.
Friday Sunshine along the Bay: the perfect way to start the weekend. This Second Annual Happy Hour at Epic Restaurant’s Outdoor Patio features tunes by DJ B Love, hearty hors d’oeuvres from Executive Chef Jan Birnbaum of Epic Roasthouse and culinary cocktails from such all-star bars as Rickhouse, Comstock Saloon, Cantina, Rye and 15 Romolo.
$45 per person (Ticket includes cocktail tastes and hors d’oeuvres.)
Address: Epic Roasthouse, 369 The Embarcadero (at Folsom), San Francisco
Saturday, September 25
Cocktail Carnival Gala
Co-Presented by The Bon Vivants
9 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Location, guest chefs and details to be announced.
$95 per person (Ticket includes punch and hors d’oeuvres.)
Sunday, September 26
Cocktail Cookout on the Island
2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Bay Area bartenders and chefs team up for a meaty, boozy outdoor festival, pairing barbecue with tableside bars under the sun at the Distillery in Alameda.
$50 per person (Ticket includes plate of barbeque, cocktails and other beverages.)
Address: St. George Spirits Distillery (AKA Hangar One), 2601 Monarch Street (on the former Naval Base), Alameda
Please stay tuned for further release of information regarding the Cocktail Carnival Gala, daily Cocktail Colleges, nightly After-Parties, Saturday Symposium schedule, Karaoke Gong Show and the Barbary Coast Bar Crawl.
All events are ticketed and attendees must be 21 years of age to participate. ID will be checked at the door.
For tickets, additional information and updates, please visit www.sfcocktailweek.com. Advance purchase is recommended. Many San Francisco Cocktail Week events sell out and there are often limited tickets available at the event.
Net proceeds from all San Francisco Cocktail Week events benefit the Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail.