Spirits: A booze columnist says goodbye

Saying goodbye is never easy. But when I started covering the spirits beat in March 2007, I figured things would eventually come to a close. Actually, if I’d been a betting man back then, I’d have given it six months or a year at most before last call; I’d wrung my hands at the beginning over whether there would be enough material to write about. Yet here we are, six years — and many drinks — later.

As you can imagine, tasting and writing about liquor isn’t the most sustainable occupation in the world; its life span feels slightly longer than that of an NFL running back. (Not that I’m complaining. As I’ve noted many times before, there is nothing worse than complaints from a guy who’s being paid to drink fine spirits.) But now is the time to take a step away, at least for the time being.

VIENNA, VA, JANUARY 9, 2013: Winter salad of shaved cucumber, radish and endive with lemon vinaigrette. Dishware courtesy of Crate & Barrel. (Photo by ASTRID RIECKEN For The Washington Post)

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What a ride it has been! When Food editor Joe Yonan and I brainstormed the idea of writing about spirits on a regular basis, way back in late 2006, the world of cocktails was a different place indeed. At that time, very few newspaper food sections committed much space to booze, and some readers objected to stories about “hooch” amid their recipes and baking articles and pieces on entertaining.

Not that there was too much, before 2006, that deserved to be covered in any serious way. Much of the bartending at that time still had the sticky residue of the 1980s, which I will sum up in 10 words: Fuzzy Navel, Jaeger shots, blue curacao, Tom Cruise in “Cocktail.” The main cultural reference point for cocktails in 2006 was still “Sex and the City” (which had actually ended two years prior). The drinks of the day were the Cosmopolitan and the so-called vodka martini. Anything, in fact, served in the V-shaped cocktail glass was termed a “martini.” Sour mix, soda from a gun, pre-made mixers and artificial juices ruled the day.

Squinting into the distance, however, we thought we might be detecting a cultural wave about to break. In the mid-2000s, you could see a small, relatively crazy cadre of bartenders, authors, bloggers, “cocktail historians,” importers, distillers and industry gadabouts doing something different and profound: trying to revive, reclaim and reinvent a traditional American foodway, the cocktail, that had nearly been lost in the decades since Prohibition. On one hand, this was ridiculous work that involved people insisting on calling themselves “mixologists” and others who liked to dress up like pre-Prohibition dandies with out-of-control facial hair. But on the other hand, this work was anthropological and philosophical and evangelical, with the same seriousness of purpose as that of any other early 21st-century culinary movement.

At this point, no one can argue that the past six years haven’t been a Golden Age of Booze. We’ve poked around the old cocktail guides and revived the classics. We’ve brought back nearly all of the long-forgotten spirits to make those classics. We’ve done the speak-easy and the tiki bar and the tequila lounge. We’ve made our own bitters and sodas and vermouth and syrups and tinctures. We’ve reclaimed the punch bowl. We’ve committed molecular mixology.

It’s a rare gift for a writer to get the chance to write about a topic at the exact moment of its cultural tipping point, and I feel honored to have helped chronicle the cocktail renaissance in all its glorious craziness. This column has been a work of love; even when I’ve tasted, say, chocolate liqueurs or whipped-cream vodkas, I wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything. I hope I’ve conveyed that love to readers.

Of course, as I type all of this teary sappiness, I’m reminded of Lucius Beebe’s foreword to my favorite cocktail guide, “Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion” (1941). Beebe writes, “It is only fitting that the subject of cocktails should be approached with levity slightly tinctured by contempt.” You don’t want to take cocktails too seriously. I have no illusion that what I’ve written will be anthologized in gilt-edged editions or taught in university writing courses. The Post will probably soon enough hire a young upstart spirits columnist who will just as likely argue against much of what I advocated for.

That’s because cocktails always evolve. In his book, Gaige writes what I believe to be the truest sentiment about drinks: “It is my honest and considered opinion that cocktails are living organisms like the cells in your body. They fluctuate like the tides. They are subject to the law of supply and demand, and are ruled and governed either by the caprice or creative instinct of each individual mixer.”

To that end, I want to leave readers with two rickey cocktails that show, once more, how cocktail evolution works. Both the Blickey and the Nice (by Way of Antibes) are theoretically rickeys, meaning that they consist of two ounces of base spirit, citrus juice, a sweetener, carbonation, a citrus peel and ice. In practice, I decided to take two of the more popular cocktails from the past six years, the Antibes (a rocks drink of gin, grapefruit juice and Benedictine) and Blinker (rye, grapefruit juice, raspberry syrup served straight up) and transform both into long drinks that would qualify as a rickeys.

Why? Well, the rickey, of course, is the official native cocktail of Washington, and every July the drink is honored by the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild in its annual Rickey Month contest. This coming July, rickey-mania will extend nationwide, as Tales of the Cocktail, the huge annual industry conference in New Orleans, has invited bartenders to submit rickey recipes for its Official Cocktail Competition.

Now that I will be retiring from my column, I intend to enter both recipes in the rickey competitions this summer.

Don’t worry, I’m not headed to rehab. No, no, no. I’ll still be enjoying cocktails, and sometimes I’ll be writing about them. I’m simply moving on to what feels like my next topic. I’m working on a book about wine, called “Planet of the Grapes,” that should be out in the fall. Just like cocktails, we all must evolve.

Wilson is the editor of TableMatters.com. Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.

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