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Is 2012 going to be a good year for spirits?

By Jason Wilson,

So 2012 is finally upon us, dear readers. Some of us approach the coming year with trepidation, because this is when the Mayans said it’s all going to end. Some say it will be in a fiery doomsday cataclysm. Others prefer the sunnier New Age prophecy that a great spiritual awakening is in store. I guess we’ll find out soon enough which of those fates awaits — or whether the Mayans and New Age dudes just have their math wrong.

This also happens to be the time of year when people ask me to consult my oracle (or my divining rod or tea leaves or whatever) and suggest what cocktail spirits trends we’ll be seeing over the next 12 months. Will 2012 be a good year for spirits or a bad one?

I must admit that what I’m seeing so far has been inscrutable. Some days, goodness is all around — delicious new experimental American gins, for instance — and I feel positive that the Mayans are wrong. Other days, when the growing popularity of whipped-cream vodka and cherry whiskey is evident . . . well, I feel absolutely certain the apocalypse is upon us.

With that in mind, I’ve rated my five drinking predictions for 2012 according to how much they sync with the Mayan prophecy whose last-calendar day of Dec. 21, 2012, has been interpreted as an End Time.

The continued infantilization of flavored vodka. I would never have believed that Pinnacle Vodka’s whipped-cream vodka could become so god-awfully ubiquitous. But when a good friend (whom I formerly described as having “good taste”) recently served me her Creamsicle “cocktail” of whipped-cream vodka and Tropicana orange juice, I was seized by a sense of dread. That dread grew more profound when I tasted Pinnacle’s cake- and cotton-candy-flavored vodkas. Then, a couple weeks ago, I tasted Pinnacle’s Gummy vodka, with a red Swedish fish on the label. (Yeah, Pinnacle, you hit the mark. It tastes like “authentic” Swedish fish, all right. Congratulations.)

Flavored vodka is not new. The number of flavored vodkas on the market has more than tripled since 2003. I’ve certainly railed against them, completely unsuccessfully, for years now. But this trend toward childhood tastes is a new low. I thought sweet-tea- and espresso-flavored vodkas were bad enough, but they are XO cognac next to gummy candy and cherry whipped cream. “Grow up!” I want to scream.

Verdict: Yep, the Mayans were totally right.

Flavored whiskey. Piggybacking on the popularity of flavored vodka, a new heresy has been gaining steam. American whiskeys are often named after old-time distillers, whom I imagine to be grizzled and irascible and committed to tradition: Elijah Craig, Pappy Van Winkle, Old Fitzgerald, et al. I also imagine that those men roll over in their graves when they hear about products such as Red Stag (black-cherry-flavored bourbon from Jim Beam) or Tennessee Honey and American Honey (honey-flavored whiskeys from Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey). This month, Jim Beam will roll out Red Stag Spiced and Red Stag Honey Tea.

I know; these products are supposed to draw in an audience that does not usually drink American whiskey. But it still feels like pandering to the lowest common denominator. I want to say to Jim Beam and Jack Daniels: Why not just skip straight to the whipped-cream bourbon and save us the agony?

Verdict: Maybe the Mayans were on to something.

Lower-proof bourbon and Irish whiskey. I realize that younger drinkers don’t just jump from drinking sweet sodas to enjoying 142-proof George T. Stagg bourbon. There is definitely a training-wheels stage. But there is also definitely a more elegant way to bring new drinkers to whiskey than by just adding artificial flavors. To that end, some producers are rolling out new lower-proof bourbons, such as Wild Turkey 81 or Early Times 354, both 80-proof.

There has been more and more investment and marketing push behind Irish whiskeys, which are traditionally lower-proof and smoother. Jim Beam, for instance, last month acquired Ireland’s Cooley Distillery, maker of Kilbeggan and Connemara. I always steer wannabe whiskey enthusiasts to Irish whiskey and low-proof bourbon, and I hope the market rewards producers who cater to newbies.

Verdict: Perhaps the Mayans overstated their case.

Simplicity, modesty and hospitality. Yes, we’re finally seeing less and less of the waxed moustaches and speak-easy role playing. We’re also thankfully seeing the end of the imperious Era of the Mixologist. I see more edited cocktail menus with fewer flights of fancy, and I see bartenders turning their attention to putting a modest spin on simple, classic bar drinks such as gin and tonics, Old-Fashioneds and even rum and Cokes.

Innovation these days might mean serving a signature cocktail or a house-made vermouth “on tap.” Bartenders are again remembering that it’s not only about the drinks: High-quality ingredients, creativity and craftsmanship are still important, but so is hospitality. It suggests that well-made cocktails have become, well, normal. That is a very good thing.

Verdict: The Mayans never wore arm garters and vests. (Did they?)

The rise of the highly educated spirits consumer. In November, astute tequila drinkers brought a lawsuit against Skinnygirl Margarita for allegedly lying on its label. Skinnygirl, the wildly popular pre-mixed “dieter’s cocktail” developed by reality TV star Bethenny Frankel and bought by Beam Global Spirits & Wine, claimed it was “all natural,” contained “no preservatives” and was made with 100 percent agave tequila.

Skinnygirl already had been booted out of Whole Foods Markets for containing sodium benzoate. This lawsuit was even more damning, because the consumers alleged that Skinnygirl did not, in fact, contain 100 percent agave tequila but cheaper, low-quality mixto tequila, otherwise known as the Hangover Maker.

The case hasn’t been heard yet, but to be clear, the liquor business has always been a source romantic half-truths, fibs and outright lies. (More than four years after launch, I’m still trying to figure out whether Frenchmen on bicycles pick the Alpine elderflowers that go into the popular St-Germain liqueur.)

But the lawsuit against Skinnygirl shows me that a growing segment of the drinking public isn’t going to swallow the nonsense often poured by big liquor brands. These days, plenty of people are on the lookout for top-quality, authentic products and are increasingly offended by the cheap, quick and dirty shortcuts.

Verdict: The Mayans were definitely wrong.

Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.

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