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2010 a year of big news in spirits

The Red Hook cocktail, a variation on a Manhattan, originally created at New York's Milk & Honey.
The Red Hook cocktail, a variation on a Manhattan, originally created at New York's Milk & Honey. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)

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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 11:24 AM

Yes, it's that time again: to take a look back at the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of booze. In the interest of time, I will quickly sum up the obvious drink trends in seven words: pisco, mezcal, tequila is the new vodka.

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Wait, make that nine words: beer cocktails. Can't forget those. Are they still having the moment I declared when I wrote about them back in the spring? Well, at least on the spirits beat we won't talk about food trucks, cupcakes or bacon.

Anyway, now for the long version. 2010 was an exciting year in spirits and one, as they say, "of contrasts." White whiskey (or "white dog" or "moonshine") was the darling of the cocktail geeks. Meanwhile, "brown vodka" - a.k.a. Canadian whiskey - tried to make a comeback. But if the tasting I did in the summer is any indication, there's still some work to do.

Benedictine, the famed monk-created liqueur, turned 500. Concurrently, what seemed like the 500th new flavored vodka was launched. (Kidding. There are now more than 500 flavored vodkas on the market.)

In my own Department of Ranting, there were issues I took a firm stand on, such as the evergreen debate between free-pouring vs. measuring cocktails (In summation: Always measure) and the knuckleheaded quest, by people such as Hungry Girl Lisa Lillien, to engineer some sort of low-cal cocktail, even though the low-cal shortcuts almost always have more calories than the real way of doing it.

The rise of the American microdistiller was probably the most important story of the year in spirits. The number of licensed distilleries in the United States more than doubled in the past decade, from 300 to 725. In recognition of the significance of microdistilling, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States announced it will allow small, independent craft distillers under its umbrella.

A number of interesting questions arose during 2010. Here are a few of them:

-- Is tequila the new vodka? It certainly looks that way. We've already seen a Justin Timberlake tequila. Tequila was a major story arc in the HBO series "Entourage." Let's hope we don't start seeing acai berry or protein-powder-infused tequilas in the near future.

-- Will a fern bar revival supplant tiki bars and Prohibition-themed speak-easies as the hot new bar theme? Mercifully, no. The Regal Beagle will live only in "Three's Company" re-runs.

-- Can Americans ever truly embrace brandy? I hope so, though I'm not holding my breath. But it's certainly a fine time to try aged brandies such as cognac, Armagnac, white brandies such as pisco, plus other fruit brandies such as Calvados.

-- Are spirits a better investment than real estate or the stock market? If we look at the outrageous auction prices from earlier this year, perhaps. I'm very bullish, for instance, on cognac from the 18th century, three bottles of which sold for around $30,000 each.

-- Is this the year that Italian aperitivi went mainstream? Absolutely. Sure, cocktail geeks like me have been enamored with these low-proof bitters for years. But nothing has rivaled the rapid advancements this year.

In April, I bemoaned the fact that too few of my favorite Italian aperitivi were available in the States. Then, as if by magic, the quinquina Cocchi Aperitivo Americano reappeared. Also, after decades of Campari being the only red-hued bitter aperitivo to choose from, there are now two new alternatives here: Luxardo Bitter and Gran Classico Bitter.

And it only got better. I publicly pleaded for Zucca, a unique Milanese apertivo made predominantly from Chinese rhubarb. Well, whine and ye shall receive. Just three months later, at the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, the importer Haus Alpenz was pouring samples of Zucca and saying it would be available by year's end.

You can thank me for my whining and ranting by buying me a drink the next time you see me.

In fact, you can buy me the cocktail that I've returned to this season as my drink: the Red Hook. After all, it might be the iconic creation to grow out of the classic-cocktail revival of the past five years. I predict the Red Hook is a drink with an appeal that will transcend 2010, or any other year.

Wilson is the author of "Boozehound" (Ten Speed, 2010). He can be reached at jasonwilson.com.

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