Spirits: Tales of the Cocktail 2009

(Julia Ewan - The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NEW ORLEANS -- At the seventh annual Tales of the Cocktail, the massive spirits industry event held here last week, there was a great deal of chatter about "educating" the consumer. Of course, when people in the liquor business talk about "education," you can be fairly certain there's not going to be a quiz.

"In the end, it's about getting the liquor into people's mouths," said Antoinette Cattani, one of the "brand ambassadors" who sat on a panel to discuss "A Special Relationship: Running Your Bar With the Help of Consultants, Sales Reps and Brand Ambassadors."

And there seemed to be a special urgency this year about getting new, unique, obscure or downright strange spirits into the mouths of the influential bartenders and mixologists who flock to the event. I don't know whether it's the economy or just a creeping sense that the market for spirits may have plateaued. (Last year the industry recorded its first sales dip in 13 years.)

The first panel dealt with "Big Trends 2009" and was moderated by Seattle-based mixologist Ryan Magarian. In spirits, the big trends continue to be new craft-distilled gins, mezcals and tequilas, and rye whiskey, which Jim Meehan of the cutting-edge speakeasy PDT in New York called "the giant elephant in the room. We can't keep it on the shelf."

There was talk of "bartender proactivity" in getting people to try new spirits. Magarian suggested how important it is for a spirit to have something he called an "equity delivery vehicle." Tequila, for instance, is fortunate to have the popular margarita as its equity delivery vehicle. Perhaps, it was suggested, pisco and cachaca need better equity delivery vehicles to expand their appeal?

"What's new in fruits right now?" Magarian asked.

"In Europe, we're over fruit," said British bartender Simon Difford. There was talk of a movement to eliminate tedious muddling in high-volume bars. And it was agreed that grapefruit juice is still hugely popular.

Then, at 10:51 a.m. on the first day of the conference, the Whither Vodka issue was raised. "We needed to kill vodka in order to create a place for ourselves," Meehan said. "It wasn't about getting rid of vodka. It was about changing something." He also pointed out that serving resurgent and trendy spirits such as rye and applejack does have a bottom-line rationale: They're usually cheaper than premium vodka.

Vodka was a recurring theme throughout the event. Audrey Saunders, owner of New York's famed Pegu Club and one of the leading figures in the mixology renaissance, addressed the issue by telling the cocktail geeks to lighten up a bit. "If someone wants a vodka drink, give 'em a vodka drink," Saunders said. "Who are we making drinks for? Are we fascists? Vodka tonics pay the rent. Don't make the customer feel guilty if she orders a Cosmo."

One of the first big tastings I attended was for Castries, a surprisingly good cream liqueur from St. Lucia made with peanuts and rum that has been on the market for a few years. There I ran into several top bartenders from Washington -- including Derek Brown from the Gibson, Chantal Tseng from the Tabard Inn and Adam Bernbach, who begins this week at Proof -- all mixing morning cocktails made from Castries, such as Bernbach's nutty take on the whiskey sour. It made sense, because Castries is imported by Washington entrepreneur Clyde Davis, and it was nice to see our local mixology talent on display.

Davis and business partner David Jones were excited about a top-secret new product they were to unveil that afternoon: a bright-pink hibiscus liqueur with the working title of Clarendon Roselle. They've been tweaking the recipe for more than a year. "We had a rough run early in the year," Davis said. "But now it almost feels complete."

"We're coming in about a year before hibiscus is really in the consciousness," Jones said. "It's where pomegranate was in about 2003."

They introduced the hibiscus liqueur at an afternoon tasting event called the Raw Session, where producers showed off new and experimental products that aren't yet on the market; some were still in the tweaking-and-developing stage. It was an interesting glimpse of what's just over the horizon. Several tasty new rums from Venezuela and Jamaica were on offer. Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey was sampling a unique rye with a hint of hickory extract, as well as an unaged corn whiskey. Haus Alpenz was showing off Bonal, a new quinquina from France, and Cocchi Aperitivo Americano, sort of like a Lillet Blanc with more pronounced botanicals and quinine, a favorite of mine from Italy that until now has been unavailable in the United States.

As the Raw Session progressed and people began flocking to taste the new hibiscus liqueur, Davis stepped back with pride. "Seeing someone enjoy sipping your product is like someone handing you your son's football card after he's made the NFL," he said.

It felt like the wrong moment to ask him what the equity delivery vehicle might be.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.com or food@washpost.com.

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