A Credent Clearwater Revival
If the term “renaissance” refers to a cultural rebirth, or the re-emergence of an established idea, then count me among the few folks who think a renaissance of clear spirits (or "white goods," as they’re called in the industry) is certainly on the horizon. With more and more people perusing the internet for information, participating in tastings and industry events, and eventually discovering the merits of high quality whiskey, it’s only a matter of time before that passion begins to spread towards other sectors in the spirits category. How can it not? There's so much out there to learn about, to taste, and to discover when it comes to alcohol that our collective fascination simply can't stop with single malt or Bourbon. That would get old quickly. However, if the term “renaissance” is taken to mean there will be a renewal or rediscovery of something lost that has simply fallen out of fashion, then count me out of that group. In 2007, people began rediscovering how delicious whiskey tasted. At that point, whiskey wasn't really any better or any different than it had previously been, it just happened to recapture our interest and people started drinking it again in large amounts. Clear booze, on the other hand, isn't being rediscovered; it's being reinvented, improved, and re-imagined in ways we've never thought possible. Today's modern versions of vodka, gin, mezcal, tequila, pisco, aquavit, and other regionally-distinct distillates won't simply be the recipients of an old passion we once grew tired of. What's happening today with clear spirits is unlike anything we've previously seen because clear spirits have never been made with the care and the craftmanship we're currently seeing in today's market. While whiskey continues along with its revival of romanticism—the repackaging of old brands our grandfathers used to drink, with old-timey labels and stories of long-standing legacies—the white goods market is creating an entirely fresh set of players primed to teach some old dogs a few new tricks, and bring unaged spirits the respect they're just now beginning to earn.
Now when I say that clear booze is primed to make a big impact, that's not to say it already hasn't come back with a vengeance. Across all the different genres of spirits there’s been an improvement in quality due to advancements in sterilization and technology. Spirits in general are cleaner, tastier, and more dynamic than ever before. More importantly, there are now actually enough people out there who care about this level of quality to support such a market. Ten years ago we carried Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s, and a handful of other big brand gins in 1.75L-sized bottles. Today, we have more than seventy-five different gins in stock from small producers all over the world. That's a big swing in the span of a decade. In the year 2005, we didn’t stock any mezcal—period. Today we have over sixty selections made from more than ten different types of agave. We also have amazing new aqauvits, groundbreaking grappas, and particularly-pleasing piscos (alliteration galore!!), the likes of which were never previously-carried at K&L in the olden days of booze retail. Clear spirits are definitely back in the spotlight. So when I say that clear booze is finally ready for its time in the sun, I mean they're ready to be treated as equals with whisky or brandy; not seen simply as cocktail ingredients.
I don’t know how many of you saw this article a few weeks back, but I read it and thought about it for days. If you don’t think taste is fashionable, then you obviously still wear Guess Jeans while listening to Vanilla Ice records and drinking Zima wine coolers. Trends go in and out, and the spirits industry most definitely has its own version of transient pop culture. It’s no coincidence that the resurgence of Scottish single malt and American whiskey happened to coincide with the success of the hard-drinking suits on Mad Men, and the Pappy-guzzling boys of Justified. I talk to people every day who want to “get into” whiskey. They’ve read all the trendy articles, heard their golfing buddies talking about it, and now they want to know more about this hot new movement. Whiskey is the current talk of the town (and has been for years), regardless of whether you were drinking it twenty years ago. You can sit here and tell me all day long about how you were a diehard Pappy drinker before the whisky renaissance hit (and, believe me, many people do), but the current success we’re enjoying on the retail side isn’t the result of long-established Bourbon customers suddenly deciding to collaboratively spend more money with us. It’s the clear result of a trend. A fad. The byproduct of a current craze. Whiskey is the beverage of the moment, and it's been wonderful getting to know it in intimate detail, but how much longer can it continue to capture our collective attention? I don’t know. In theory, things that are classic should never go out of style. But let me tell you something I do know for certain: fashion quickly changes when too many people get involved in the mix. Trends are easily played out and fickle fans will fade, or jump ship when the current fad becomes too homogenized. It’s inevitable. Just ask Louis Vuitton.
Culture, however, is the big wild card in this equation. Europe has long been the destination de jour for traveling cosmopolitans, which is why the wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, and Piedmont continue to hold a special place in the hearts of honeymooners everywhere. Traveling habits are changing, however, and as globe trekkers everywhere continue expanding their horizons, their eyes continue to be opened to the regional spirits of far-off destinations. Just ask Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who discovered a clear Bolivian distillate called Singani while shooting the film Che in South America. He fell so hard for the grape-based spirit that he started his own brand and his own import company just so he could drink Singani back here at home! Or ask the ever-growing number of Californians vacationing in Oaxaca what they’re into, like our general manager Jason Marwedel. He recently flew down for a bachelor party with friends and came back with a thirst for mezcal like I’ve never seen. “That stuff is amazing!” he exclaimed upon return. He’s been a clear spirits convert ever since. Context is a biggie for creating an interest and passion for booze. Taste and popularity are fleeting, but the right situation and the proper enjoyment can instill a lifetime of loyalty. My parents have been grappa diehards since drinking it in Italy decades ago. It wasn’t the 90 point rating, the bottle art, or the romantic ideal that got them into it. It was being in Italy, and the memories they created there that they'll always carry with them. Will expanded tourism to Scandinavia create a buzz for aquavit? Can an Eastern European road trip turn someone into a slivovitz addict? Possibly. As a society, we’re learning more about each other every day, and those introductions can be incredibly powerful.
Vodka will always be a tough sell in the modern age of flavor appreciation because it’s neutral by design, and people tend to shoot it rather than sip it. If there’s one thing that the last seven years have taught most spirits drinkers, it’s that certain spirits should be savored. Rather than mask the harsh flavors of alcohol with sugar or fruit juice, the pre-Prohibition style mixologists showed us how the inherent flavors of fine spirits could be utilized and highlighted. "The clear spirits of this modern era don't need to be drowned in a sea of simple syrup!" they exclaimed. This wasn't always the case, however. Prohibition led to the dominance of low-quality bathtub gins and bad associations with bottom-shelf booze. People wanted to get drunk, but they didn't want to taste the alcohol, so they looked for ways to ease that terrible burn. Even the central concept behind whiskymaking—putting the spirit into wood—is done for the purpose of mellowing the harsh taste of the unaged distillate. In this new age of micro-distillation, however, we shouldn't immediately fear the flavor of the clear, unmatured, white spirit. In fact, many distillers are touting the intricate flavors of their white spirits, inviting consumers to taste their products neat and to appreciate the nuance that they've created within them. With mezcal specifically, the push to recognize and respect the innate flavors in each type of wild agave have created a terroir-like concept, much like we see in today's boutique wine scene.
Just as American wine drinkers have graduated and gravitated over to unoaked, higher-acid wines, spirits fans are beginning to see the merit and the quality behind some of the finer gins, mezcales, and tequilas on the market and they don’t want the adulteration of oak. In fact, it’s often a point of pride that they don’t need it—that they can see the beauty of the spirit as is, without the added sweetness. In the wine world, the soft vanilla flavors provided by oak maturation are viewed as “training wheels”. It’s like putting sugar in your coffee. Now that oak is no longer "cool", there’s a growing movement away from barrel-aged Chardonnay and over towards cleaner white wines tanked in stainless steel; free from the toasty, buttery flavors often associated with a lack of serious connoisseurship. Oak also helps to mask mistakes in winemaking. It can add valued richness, but it can also over-simplify the flavors. Terroir, or the geographical specificities that make certain grapes taste the way they do, is something many wine drinkers want to taste. Oak ultimately gets in the way of that. If we're to take anything from today's modern wine movement, it's that consumers have more saavy than ever before. They want pure, unadulterated flavor. They want to taste what exactly makes each varietal taste the way it does. Therefore, they want wines that have not been barrel aged. How long before spirits customers begin demanding the same from some of their spirits?
But can unaged white spirits ever really demand the same price tag as elderly whiskey? That remains to be seen on a larger scale, but the spread of information online is helping to break down old barriers. It used to be the case that spirits customers needed age statements or some sign of maturity to justify spending more money. If something was aged for twelve years in oak, shouldn’t it be more expensive than something unaged? It makes sense. Why should something that took more than a decade to create cost the same as something that was fermented and distilled in the span of a few days? There are dozens of ways to answer that question, and the answer will ultimately depend on which spirit you’re talking about. It could be that the particular type of agave used to make a certain mezcal takes ten years to grow before it can be harvested. Does that not count for anything? It might be that the particular botanicals used to make a certain gin are rare, difficult to forage, or specific to a geographical region or place. Shouldn’t that mean something, too? Yes, of course it should. And it does mean something. Otherwise we wouldn’t be selling bottles of St. George Terroir gin like crack-cocaine. Monkey 47 and Casa Dragones tequila would never be able to command the prices they currently do. We wouldn’t be able to easily move $100 bottles of Vago’s cuixe mezcal if people didn’t think those details mattered. There are many awesome, incredible, and time-consuming processes involved with the production of many of today's boutique clear spirits that justify what we eventually spend on them. It's just that we're only learning about them now.
And every single day there are more and more people who think those details matter. Every day there are more people drinking gin out of a glass, rather than as part of a cocktail. Every day there are more people sipping on a small shot of tequila, rather than shooting it down and slamming their glass on the table. Every day there are people asking us for specific types of potato vodka, for specific species of wild agave mezcal, and new shoppers who are curious about what how exactly their clear spirits are made. The advantage that modern advancements and undertakings have given clear spirits producers over whiskey distillers cannot be understated; we get to taste that extra effort almost immediately. Any upgrade in current whisky production methods won't start influencing flavor until many years down the road when the whiskey produced has actually matured and is ready to drink. But will people still care at that point? When the whiskey revival began around 2007, anything in the bottle at that time was actually produced between the late-80s and the mid-90s. We were drinking whiskies that were already more than a decade old at that point, rather than something new and previously unseen. We were living out past glories. The clear spirits revival we're about to experience is not rooted in the past, however. It's a new beginning; a fresh start. It's progress, and in my opinion we've so far only seen the tip of the iceburg.