Claiming a Seat at the Slow Food Bar

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; Page F05

SAN FRANCISCO -- Green and sustainable cocktails, the spirits industry's latest trend, were the beverage of choice here at the four-day Slow Food Nation conference.

The fact that spirits were represented alongside fair-trade coffee and organic honey seemed a big step toward respectability. Distilleries, after all, can be decidedly un-green polluters. And their reputation has not been enhanced by several decades of using artificial flavors and colors.

"It was a challenge to get spirits and cocktails included in Slow Food Nation," said Allen Katz, co-curator of the event's Spirits Pavilion and director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits of America, one of the nation's largest distributors.

Katz says one reason for the resistance to spirits is generational: "If you're over 55, you probably drank a lot of garbage in your life." But he also thinks the real reason lies deeper: "It's taken us 75 years, since Prohibition, to reclaim the tradition of spirits and cocktails."

Are there really such things as "slow" spirits? I was skeptical that the centuries-old culinary traditions of distilling would be recognized as I sat through panel discussions with titles such as "World Food Crisis" and "Re-Localizing Food."

That is, until activist and author Raj Patel suggested that spirits did have a place here. "Everyone in the world has a right to pleasure," he said, invoking one of Slow Food's main philosophies.

On that note, it felt like a good time for a sustainable drink. Fortunately, there were a number of brands at Slow Food Nation that filled the bill.

Curating the Spirits Pavilion with Katz was Greg Lindgren, who owns or co-owns several cocktail bars in San Francisco, including the excellent Rye. Lindgren and Katz said they followed Slow Food's tenets of "good, clean and fair" in choosing which spirits would be featured: organic products; those with a focus on artisan producers and traditional methods; and those with no genetically modified or artificial ingredients.

Spirits on offer included certified organic brands such as Square One Vodka and 4 Copas tequila, well-crafted spirits from artisan San Francisco producers such as eau de vie from St. George Spirits and gin from Distillery 209, and genever from Anchor Distilling.

"We also want to let people know about the craft of bartending. This is a group of professionals here, just like a barista or a cheesemaker or a baker," Lindgren said.

Of course, in this town, green drinking is hardly new. One of the local bartenders mixing drinks at the pavilion was H. Joseph Ehrmann, who owns Elixir, the first bar to become a city-certified green business. "In 2005, I made a commitment," he said. "I raised all my prices, across the board, by $1. I got rid of all my pre-made mixers. And I started using only fresh produce. The first year I did it, my gross revenue went up 60 percent."

Beyond the green marketing and fancy bartending was a more compelling argument for spirits to be embraced by Slow Food. "A spirit is an agricultural product," Lindgren said. "Producing spirits has always been a way for farmers to remain farmers. It's one of the best ways to diversify the farmer's economic situation."

Square One buys organic rye from North Dakota farmers to produce its vodka. 4 Copas and Siete Leguas tequilas begin with agave grown near the distillery in Mexico. The Aqua Perfecta Poire Williams made by St. George Spirits uses 15 pounds of organic pears per bottle.

On the final night of Slow Food Nation, Katz and Lindgren conducted a seminar on slow spirits that dealt with "The Cocktail as Food Justice and the Universal Right of Pleasure."

Oddly enough, one of the slow spirits we tasted was the ubiquitous bourbon Maker's Mark. There were some raised eyebrows in the room. "This is not a small distillery, but this is not an industrial distillery, either," Katz said. "They probably couldn't be organic if they wanted to be. There isn't enough organic grain in the country for their production."

But he pointed out that Maker's Mark is a leader in sustainable distilling, with its distillery situated on a state-certified nature preserve and with its state-of-the-art recycling and wastewater treatment. Recently, Maker's Mark began using anaerobic digestion, a process that turns waste into bio-gas that is used for energy, offsetting up to 30 percent of the distillery's natural gas use. Katz and Lindgren said a big company such as Maker's Mark could serve as an example for the Slow Food movement.

"We're getting a lot of converts," Lindgren said. "Spirits were a little late to the party. But I'm sure we'll be invited back."

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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