January 9, 2008
Alcohol (n): Any of a series of volatile hydroxyl compounds made from hydrocarbons by distillation. We like to think of it as the silky liquid that gives our nerve endings a massage at the end of the day. Sometimes at the beginning of the day. What time is it, anyway? Alcohol cures diseases. It aids digestion. With the right touch, it tastes delicious. It can make Hillary Clinton look like Hilary Duff, and right now it’s at the peak of a renaissance. Never have there been so many quality boozes, so many small batches and single barrels. Herewith, the ultimate guide to sipping in style: what to drink, how to mix it, where it comes from, and how to deal in the morning.
Vodka: In the Clear
Why the Russian spirit conquered the States, Cold War be damned.
With 28 percent of the liquor market, vodka—that humblest of tipples—is the unquestioned king of booze in America. But as new brands seemingly arrive at your local every day, how is a self-respecting lush expected to tell one from the other? After all, it seems like every country in the free world has its own signature brand, from Stoli in Russia to Ketel One in the Netherlands to Grey Goose in France. Donald Trump has his own brand, as do Diddy and even freakin’ Ed McMahon. But while vodka can be made out of virtually anything (usually grain or potato; according to legend it was distilled from coal in Communist Poland), by definition the resulting spirit is both tasteless and colorless. Why, then, if all vodka is distilled using the same basic process, does one bottle cost $7 and another $70? Vodka isn’t aged like whiskey, lacks gin’s complex flavor, and doesn’t make you loco like tequila. But that all may be the point. Vodka mixes well and goes down easy; it’s practically the only liquor girls drink, and even at its priciest it isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg (although at its cheapest it might cost you a splitting headache, minor liver damage, and your self-respect). James Bond took it in both the Vesper and his signature martini; Keith Richards claims it keeps him alive. As the chart below makes clear, there’s plenty to choose from, regardless of your budget.
Gin: The Mixologist’s Choice
Gin was the crack of 18th-century London, fuel for the Roaring ’20s, and the social lubricant for the swinging ’60s. Today? The go-to spirit of high-brow bartenders.
There may be no booze that’s more polarizing than gin. Drinkers either love its unmistakable flavor and outlaw history or hate its “pine cone” taste and potent kick, using vodka as a benign substitute. “Vodka doesn’t offer shit—it’s just an alcohol boost,” says Duggan McDonnell, owner of San Francisco cocktail lounge Cantina. “Gin offers more flavor, more funk, more to work with.” Today each brand has its own distinct recipe using botanicals ranging from cucumbers to licorice. It’s that complexity that makes gin a part of so many classic cocktails, like the Tom Collins, the Negroni, and a proper martini—sorry, Mr. Bond. “I’ve never had anyone return a drink, even when they tell me they’re ‘allergic,’” says Jason Kosmas, bartender and co-owner of New York cocktail mecca Employees Only. “Gin drinks are just more interesting—even a martini.” With so much renewed interest in pre-Prohibition drinks, mixologists have rediscovered the spirit. So should you.
Whiskey: America's Booze
Maker’s Mark master distiller Dave Pickerell gives us a peek inside the bourbon life.
Folks think bourbon will blow your ears off. And 50 years ago, it would have; nobody cared what it tasted like. But everything on the market now is better than anything that was on the market in those post-Prohibition years. Bourbon is for modern sophisticates; small-batch and single-barrel bourbons are more and more popular. At Maker’s we do only one product, but I would like to release a case or two of what we call White Dog; it’s the clear spirit that comes off the still. Our business is such a brotherhood that Jimmy Russell, the Wild Turkey master distiller, has a White Dog bottle on a shelf next to all his trophies. One time I was at a tasting with him, and there was someone up in front talking about vanillas, caramels, tobacco, dark chocolate—on and on. Jimmy shakes his head and finally says to me, “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t put any of that crap into my bourbon.”
Rum: The Rum Diary
The extraordinary origins of every pirate’s favorite drink.
Back in the West Indies during the 1600s, molasses produced by sugar plantations was routinely dumped into the ocean. One day, a slave wisely thought, Hey, maybe I can use this stuff to get fucked up. Yes, rum started as the distilled essence of industrial waste. While it has come a long way since then, rum’s origins are appropriate for a drink with a sketchy legacy:
As we all know, rum and pirates go together like Siegfried and Roy. In fact, pirate captains used the promise of the stuff to lure away sailors grown disenchanted by their rum rations, leading to many a ship being plundered thanks to a crew that was too drunk to function.
By the 18th century, rum was such a hot commodity that it helped kick-start the slave trade: The colonies needed molasses to make rum, and the sugar plantations needed free labor to harvest it. Said a slave, “Remind me why the hell we invented rum in the first place?”
When Admiral Horatio Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was sealed in a barrel of rum to preserve it on the journey home. The crew promptly drilled into the cask and drank the rum dry, decomposing bits of the admiral and all. It was bloody delicious.
Tequila: Tequila vs. Mescal
What the hell is the difference, anyway?
Tequila is to mescal as Michael is to the Jacksons: in the same family, but very much its own beast. Mescal refers to any alcohol made from agave, a cactuslike plant grown everywhere in Mexico. Tequila, on the other hand, must be made from blue agave, and, like Champagne in France, may only be produced in a designated region (primarily the west-central state of Jalisco). Tequila’s blue agave is steamed in an oven, while mescal bulbs are roasted over a smoky pit. Finally, mescal is treated to lo gusano, a.k.a. the worm. Some distillers claim the slimy critters add to the taste, while others say it’s just a gimmick. One theory states that the better preserved the worm’s body, the higher the spirit’s proof. So if you want to get super effed, look for the prettiest worm.