2015: Crisis & Quest – Part II

My wife is a professional when it comes to gift giving. She takes the task incredibly seriously; seeking out interesting, beautiful, yet practical items to bestow upon loved ones. She was completely on point for Christmas this year. I think my mother was the most delighted by my wife’s gift to her yesterday morning: a set of wine tools that were both darling and incredibly useful. There was a steel bow tie version of a drip stopper (the ring that sits around the neck of the bottle to prevent leakage), a metal top hat that also happened to be a Champagne stopper, and a larger metal top hat that, when turned upside down, became a bottle chiller. Form and function. Art and practicality. Two diverging poles that have been tamed and met in the middle.

Part of the reason spirits are enjoying such a renaissance at the moment is due to the public’s newfound discovery of quality. People have learned that a bit of research can go a long way in improving their experience and relationship with booze. Oh, how many times I’ve heard people tell me something along the lines of: “I’ve always been a ________ drinker, but since discovering Glendronach I’ve never looked back.” There has been reward awaiting those brave enough to take a risk, and enlightenment for those seeking a new path to intoxication. The big brand monopoly on our collective attention has been breached and broken. We’ve discovered there are superior alternatives to Bacardi, or Jack Daniels, or Remy Martin that are twice as tasty, but no more expensive. For many of us, once we made that discovery, we went full throttle in that direction.

I’ve found that extremism usually causes an equal and opposite extremist reaction. Kids who were incredibly sheltered in their youth tend to go absolutely wild once they’re given a taste of freedom, for example. 90s grunge was a serious, melo-dramatic, and depressing counter to the bright lights and neon bubble gum of the 80s. In the end, however, the revolution itself becomes a newer version of the same old thing: a lack of balance. Americans are exceptionally prone to this phenomenon, in my opinion. We eat, eat, eat. Then we have an epiphany and we decide to work out, work out, work out. One minute we’re all about being vegan, but then we decide it’s healthier to eat nothing but meat. We like to be “all about” things. We like to make bold commitments to ideas and trends, but eventually apathy leads us back to the middle. Booze has followed a similar trajectory for me. Back in 2007, when I originally discovered all the micro-brands lining the shelves at K&L, I went buck wild. I bought and tasted everything. I threw away all my “corporate slop” and rededicated myself to the smaller brands. Five years later, however, I ended up in a bit of a crisis (which you can read in yesterday’s reposting of that original 2012 realization). 

There was a point in time when choosing sides in the booze world was important to being cool (at least in San Francisco). If you ran a bar, for example, you had to make a commitment to either big brands or small brands. It was like becoming a punk in the late 70s. People made bold choices and went all the way in one direction. Now, however, I see the same ultimate resolution on the horizon that I’ve seen in every other extremist reaction: a settlement on the middle of that spectrum. If you had asked a hipster bartender in 2009 to pour you a glass of Jim Beam or Crown Royal, you probably wouldn’t have had much luck. Today, however, there’s a realization that many of these big brands we once rebelled against are actually pretty darn good for the money. We’re not as obsessed with being so serious at this point. Part of this rebound is, like I said previously, the natural progression of polarization. Another part, however, is a reaction against the exploitation of small booze. Once it became clear that Americans were becoming interested in “craft” spirits, the money machine went into full-blown micro-mode and began pumping out “small batch”, “limited edition” products with reckless abandon. Bottles became harder to get. Secondary markets began to thrive. The prices went up, and the quality went down. Revolution over, right?

Yes and no.

We’re about to move towards a very special place, in my opinion; a more moderate political view that is the love child of shitty mass market hooch and ultra-geeky pretense. It’s a place where you can take your booze seriously and have fun, simultaneously; it’s a wonderful hybrid of “drink your booze” and “drink good booze”. If you’ve been by the Redwood City store lately then you’ve likely seen the silver cans of Oregon pinot noir sitting on the front counter. “Wine in a can?” exclaims every third person who rings up with us. Yes, my friends, wine in a can. You take the fun, functional form of an aluminum can and you fill it with something delicious and of high-quality. The beer geeks started doing this years ago. Why not add wine into the mix? And, while we’re at it, let’s start working on the booze shelf. Creme de Menthe? Gross; that’s the neon green crap that my grandmother drinks. Not any more, thanks to Tempus Fugit. Oh my god, look at that ridiculous packaging. You know you’re only paying for the box when you buy something like that. Not any more, thanks to Glenmorangie; who just began to update their packaging without increasing the price or decreasing the quality of their single malts. We’re beginning to enter into a stage where all of the stereotypes we’ve taken for granted are being re-formulated and re-evalutated by hip, smart companies.

Fancy bottles and excessive packaging = low quality spirit inside. So why not make a great product in a beautiful package and have both?

Wine in a box/can = low quality wine (why put something good in a box or can?) But why not put something good in a box or can?

Whisk(e)y that costs less than $20 = bad whisk(e)y. So why don’t we start making good good whiskies for less than $20? 

Four years ago all you could get at fancy bars in San Francisco were ridiculously pretentious snacks like pate or rabbit terrine with a piece of lettuce and a crostini. Today, I’m seeing deviled eggs almost everywhere. Not ironic deviled eggs, mind you, but really high-end, thoughtful, delicious deviled eggs. Again, the food and beverage scene is going back to the drawing board to take our new-found desire for high quality and apply it to things that are fun and functional. That’s where I see booze headed in 2015, and that’s exactly where I want to be heading. Drinking well no longer means you can’t have fun. Fuck all this “sip it, don’t shoot it” bullshit. That’s just one extreme to the other. How about just “enjoy it”? No one's saying you have to drink $5 vodka, but you don't have to have a stick up your ass, either.

Now, how long do I have to wait for Diageo to make me a Port Ellen-in-a-box?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll