In the 1990s, I worked for a glossy, beautifully designed magazine named Coffee Journal, all about what was then the red-hot beverage trend: gourmet coffee. The publication’s stated mission, in fact, was to cover what it called “the coffee and tea lifestyle.”
It’s easy to laugh about it now, but back in those heady days, coffee was sexy. Almost overnight, Americans went from drinking sludge to being the sort of people who had an opinion about whether their coffee beans came from Indonesia or Nicaragua. They bought grinders and French presses, and struggled to pronounce foreign words.
I became the editor in chief of the magazine in 1998, just as the Starbucks proliferation went into overdrive. But even as outlets were opening in suburban strip malls, our publisher realized something troubling: The red-hot love affair, the lust for gourmet coffee information, had cooled considerably. The sort of people who breathe life into lifestyle trends had begun to get bored and look elsewhere for whatever it is that drives lifestyle trends. The publisher almost immediately shuttered the magazine.
I was thinking about coffee on my flight home from the ninth annual Tales of the Cocktail. This was my fifth trek to New Orleans for the spirits industry’s huge mid-summer extravaganza, which is part conference, part trade show and part summer camp for several thousand bartenders and booze aficionados.
Maybe it was my inevitable post-Tales existential hangover, but I must confess that a fear began to overtake me: Were cocktails slowly going the way of the coffee craze?
There is always so much hoopla and hype surrounding the event. Every hour of the day for five days, liquor companies host tasting rooms to hype new launches. It’s difficult, even for those of us who watch closely, to find products and ideas that are truly new.
So much of Tales seemed like deja vu. Funny mustaches on bartenders? Check. Discussions of house-made bitters? Check. Snide jokes about mustaches and house-made bitters? Check. Even the subversive seemed familiar: strippers giving lap dances at a product launch and porn legend Ron Jeremy in the house launching a new rum. Yawn. My own actions had a rote-seeming quality, too: The annual 4 a.m. downing of green Chartreuse at the Old Absinthe House and the annual ruining of seersucker pants were pure ritual.
In my last column, for instance, I spoke of the burgeoning white whiskey trend. Well, it seems every spirit now wants to be like white dog. Alexandre Gabriel, the president of Pierre Ferrand cognac, joked about possibly launching a white brandy he called “white poodle.” I went to a presentation by Glenlivet during which “gray dog” (unaged Scotch) was discussed, as well as a method of removing the color and oak components of aged Scotch. And I did a fascinating tasting with Enrique de Colsa, master distiller for Don Julio, of his anejo claro, a delicious aged-but-clear tequila that had been charcoal-filtered.
The parties thrown by the multinational spirits companies were as glamorous as ever. Meanwhile, the roster of craft distillers grows every year. If I walk through the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone, some small producer will inevitably shove a bottle in front of me, pour a little of its contents into a plastic cup and say, “Try this!”
If you poke around, you’ll still find gems. Pierre Ferrand is about to release its 1840, a bold-flavored cocktail cognac that’s higher-proof than most other bottlings. Wild Turkey just launched Wild Turkey 81, a surprisingly good lower-proof bourbon aimed directly at younger, newbie whiskey drinkers. Cocchi is now importing its outstanding vermouth from the Italian Piedmont.
All of that is wonderful. At this point, no one can argue that the past five years haven’t been a golden era 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. We’ve committed molecular mixology. And yet — and yet.
I’m not suggesting that those of us who’ve discovered the sublime pleasures of well-made cocktails will go back to the bad old days of awful cocktails, sour mixes and Long Island Iced Teas, just as coffee drinkers didn’t go back to Folgers and Sanka. But I can’t help but feel that the cultural moment might be passing.
Which, as I sat in my airline seat and gulped liters of water, I realized is probably a good thing. It means that good drinking has become, well, normal. Not just a trendy fad. Maybe we don’t need to obsess so much. Maybe we can drop the attitude and the snobbery. Maybe it means, after all, that my small contribution to better drinking has not been totally worthless.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2010). Follow him at twitter.com/boozecolumnist.
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