2016: Crisis & Quest - Part III
You have to wonder at what point you run out of new things to write about when it comes to spirits. How many new distilleries can you be excited about? How many new products can still be worth talking about? How much history can you be intrigued by after you've covered so much territory? How many trips can we continue to take in the hope of breaking new ground? I've had two crises (at least two that I've written about) since my time here at K&L (which you can read here (#1) and here (#2)) and they've been followed by some sort of quest based on my personal response to them. I've been having a third crisis as of late—namely, how in the hell do we undo some of the terrible, terrible damage we've done as serious spirits enthusiasts?
Do I mean the rising prices in the spirits business? No, those are just the result of simple supply and demand economics. More people want things, there are less of those things to be had.
Do I mean the obsession with rare, limited edition, special releases? No, that response is just Pavlovian at this point. On both sides actually.
Do I mean the saturation of the boutique market with all kinds of "artisan" brands that are really just expensive, yet inferior versions of long-established labels? No, that's just plain old opportunism. You can't blame people for trying.
What I'm talking about is the creation of a horrific scene—one that uses basic and enjoyable things like whiskey, wine, food, and cocktails as its system of merit. I'm talking about an environment where people use information about production methods like cultural currency, rather than as the means to a more satisfying enjoyment or appreciation. I'm talking about a dreadful terrain where bartenders, wine critics, and master distillers are not only treated like celebrities, they're acting like celebrities; affecting to the plebeian masses like their adornment and affection is expected rather than obliged. Bill Maher said something wonderful the other night about his awesome show Real Time on HBO: "I'm old school showbiz. I'm here for the audience. I don't expect the audience to be here for me." I wonder where that mentality has gone in the service and retail industry? I spend about three to four hours every single day answering my emails. Unless I simply forget or get buried under some monumental task, I will answer every single one of them (on average I get about 100-150 a day). Not only will I answer them, I generally enjoy it because I like working with people and helping them with their questions. Contrast that with the fancy new San Francisco bar opening I went to a while back where the bartenders looked miserable, the crowd even more so, and the snobbery in the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.
I guess borrowing Bill Maher's logic I would consider myself old school booze biz. I show up to work every day no matter what. I cut boxes, stock product, work with vendors, and generally try to be as amiable as possible. I ask customers if they need help when they're looking at the shelf. I ask them if they've found what they're looking for when they seem lost. I use my weekends and free time to write blog posts. I try to get better at what I do every day, not for necessarily for me, but to make our store more interesting and accessible for our customers. The information I provide and the stories I tell are meant to add enjoyment to your experiences at K&L and with the products you purchase from us. Yet I went to a bar in the city yesterday to grab a drink and watched some asshole bartender lecture a poor woman about the difference between gin and vodka and why she should switch over to the former. This type of nonsense is getting to the point where I want to drink vodka just to spite everyone.
Isn't that what counter-culture is, by the way? A way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm? What happened to that whole idea? Where's the counter-culture to pop music right now? Where's the counter-culture in fashion? What happened to real hippies, punk rock, and independent thought? Yesterday I watched a teenage daughter and her mother walk down the street wearing matching yoga pants and active wear tops. Twenty years ago we wouldn't have been caught dead dressing like our parents. And where the hell is the booze counter-culture? Ten years ago we all rebelled against big brand slop and started giving a damn about what we drank. We wanted more information, we searched out quality for the sake of it, and we exulted in the historic traditions of artisinal production. Now in 2016 the whole message has been co-opted and revamped into a cultural badge of honor (albeit often without the actual quality). Find me a fucking bottle of booze that isn't "hand-crafted." I challenge you!
Where is the response to all this? Who's going to make drinking to drink cool again? Where's Max Frost when you need him, lowering the voting age to fourteen and sending anyone over the age of thirty to an LSD concentration camp? (click below if that went over your head)
Please, please, please give me anything that will make drinking good booze fun again—and by that I mean something that doesn't require me to systematically create an artificial environment to prove to the world how sophisticated I am rather than provide pleasure and entertainment with friends. At least with big fancy brands I know what the message is: we're fancy. But at least fancy is fun!! I'd rather hang out and drink "fancy" big brand booze any day of the week than sit with a group of serious, straight-faced sycophants in a pissing contest of booze culture and information. I've seen too much of that nonsense already at this point. I'm ready to drink more vodka if that's what I have to do. I went to M.Y. China in the mall downtown yesterday and had two deliiiiiicious vodka cocktails—both interesting, flavorful, and ultizing cucumber-infused expressions. That's no problem, for me. There are people out there making vodka cool again. 50 Cent sent me a bottle of his new brand the other day. I've had a lot more fun making vodka drinks this past week with a Super Bowl-inspired, football-lined bottle of 50 Cent Effen vodka than I've had trying to figure out the exact warehouse location of our latest Four Roses barrel in an attempt to better understand the effects of specific temperatures in single cask Bourbon maturation. I'm sorry, but I just don't care about whiskey to that extent. I like whiskey because it tastes good and it makes me happy. If there's a reason behind all of that, I'm dying to know. If there isn't, I'm still going to enjoy it.
Speaking of flavor, isn't it funny how gin is having this renaissance while vodka is still getting buried as neutral and boring? I hear people say all the time: vodka is only about marketing. The whole situation is pretty ironic for a number of different reasons. First off, gin is really just flavored vodka. It's like an herbal vodka tea of sorts. Only about one out of every hundred gin producers even makes their own neutral spirit to begin with, let alone uses "artisanal" methods. So who's really getting fooled by marketing here, huh? Secondly, "craft" gin cocktails have become the calling card of today's drinking masses, so there's nothing interesting or unique about gin at this point. I love gin, mind you, but all I see nowadays in the Bay Area is a sea of scenesters drinking Negronis and talking about how lame vodka is. Meanwhile, I'm picturing 50 Cent in the club, partying it up in the VIP room with a bottle of vodka and an electric atmosphere that's 100% focused on fun rather than some authenticity grudge match. I know where I'd rather be.
Love your new vodka, by the way, Fifty.