Boutique Spirits and Micro-distilleries

If you spend any time wandering liquor stores you will have noticed three trends in the spirits world (Give me back my golden Gimlet!) in the last two decades.

The first was the gigantic wave of vodka, sold to the public seeking a brand that suited their “identity” and self-image. Sorry folks. Vodka is vodka. Differences, yeah, but more money is spent on the ad layouts than on the recipes.

The second was the rapid growth of tequila and whisky, particularly Bourbon and parallel to this and the tail end of the vodka craze was the rise of micro-distilleries. As Scotch was adopted as the official world spirit of the sophisticated and successful the demand grew geometrically. This rise coincided with the rise of wealthy populations in the Far East. (In very rough figures approximately 2 billion people in India, China and East Asia saw their incomes grow tenfold between 1990 and 2010.) E.G. I love Lagavulin. In 1994 it cost me $48 a bottle, less than 8 year old Glenfiddich. By 1998 it was up to about $70. By 2002 it was over $100 and today sells for about $135 worldwide.

The Third and current wave was a real rise in micro-distilling and the spirit du jour is Gin, a logical outgrowth of the vodka craze.

Now before you rush out and buy the latest greatest bourbon you need to go back and read the numbers on my example of Lagavulin. The cost of Lagavulin product was essentially unchanged between 1995 and 2010, maybe up by 10 per cent. But the wholesale and retail value went up 300 per cent. These kind of numbers got peoples’ attention. They leave a lot of room for profit.

Micro-distilling was a bunch of geeks fooling around to see what they could make. Surely they could produce a marketable product somewhere under say $135 a bottle… Couple curiousity with a desire to support local business and eat local food and you have a powerful marketing combination.

The other thing you need to understand is people buy stories, no matter how fictional. So if I write on a label of booze that it was carefully handcrafted by my grandpappy, hiding in the woods while taking the occasional shot at the McCoys, it sounds ever so romantic.

The kicker is Bourbon like scotch needs to be produced in Kentucky…

Enter the world of Boutique spirits. Big Distilleries have huge inventories of aging liquor. Many of them will monetize this by selling off some of the inventory. More than a few “local” distillers are buying product of big distillers, bottling and branding it and selling it on with a good story.

The single most cost effective way to distill is the coffey or column still. It produces neutral grain spirits. Almost all micro-“distilleries” (but not all your honour) buy neutral grain spirits to craft liqueurs, vodkas etc. If you’re doing otherwise your product costs more; maybe a lot more, more than consumers care to pay. (Tanqueray Gin is a fine product and sells for well under half of most micro- and boutique spirits.)

So before you jump on that bottle Al Capone Whisky, or Movie Star Tequila take a hard look at the price. And try to taste the stuff with your tongue rather than your wallet. There are a ton of products out there that are either crap (more than a few come from micro-distilleries) or hugely overpriced and ought to come in a plastic jug and sell at Wally-World for half the price of Jim Beam.

Don’t get me wrong. I love supporting locals. I love talking to them about their products and how they’re made. But I have two rules: 1. I want the truth (“Yeah we bought neutral spirits from NNN and ran some through our still again with some herbs.”) 2. I reserve the right to drink the cheapest spirit on the shelf (Cuervo anyone?) if it tastes better than your product, even though your whisky was carefully hand-crafted in Glen McStinky when they were dodging the revenooers.

I suggest you as a drinker hold these rules close to your heart. Now go forth and drink.

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Caorunn Gin

caorunn martiniBecause every now and then a man needs a martini…

Tried out Cao Runn (pr. kow-roon) gin today. This is a “scottish” gin, meaning like many boutique distillers they’ve changed up the botanicals for some locals and kept some imports of the London Dry. In this case the Juniper is dialled well back as is the citrus. For me this is a martini that needs a twist rather than an olive, although the saltiness of an olive certainly brings out some great stuff in the CaoRunn.

My bottom line is I’d rather have this than Hendricks – another “scottish” gin designed and marketed for women – even though it costs more. On the other hand I’d also rather save $20 and have a Citadelle or a Tanqueray.

Nice gin, but not a home run.

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Rhubarb Vodka

Blushed LBLB (or Lucky Bastard) Distillery of Saskatoon has developed something of a niche in flavoured vodkas. Here’s a new fruit flavour that should warm the heart of every good prairie dweller – Rhubarb.

Rhubarb makes great cocktails. It has a flavour that is tart, slightly bitter and goes well with strawberries and citrus. I made a Gimlet last night (LB Black Label Gin and Rhubarb Vodka 50/50 with a half a squeezed lime) and it was great. Not sure I’d want just the Rhubarb and lime but I’ll probably try that tonight.

If you know what a great drink rhubarb is you’ll want to try outBlushed. And if you never have had rhubarb you have a treat coming.

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Tanqueray Bloomsbury Gin – First Look

If you aren’t a gin drinker (for shame!) you will only think of Tanqueray as the green bottle premium gin that has graced bars for the last half century plus. In the last two decades it has been eclipsed by Bombay Sapphire in popularity, mostly due to a bigger advertising budget. I drink both but I prefer the juniper in Tanqueray.

What neophytes need to know is that Tanqueray produces several gins. There is of course their No. 10, which aside from referencing the residence of the British Prime Minister (doubtless remembering the hogsheads of gin Sir Winston swallowed in and out of office) is an up market version, very intense, floral. Every time I drink it I think “Wow. this stuff is fabulous.” Then about a third of the way through the bottle, sometime in the course of a month or so, I think it is too cloying.

blog bloomsburyHowever Tanqueray also produces some limited releases like Malacca (Fruitier,a touch more bitter, and sweeter. Fabulous.), Rangpur(More citrus and aromatic. Equally fabulous.) and now Bloomsbury. All of these are worth seeking out and buying whenever you see them. If you don’t buy then, they’ll disappear from grasp for years at a time.

If ever there was a martini gin this one is it. The alcohol level is 47.5%, right up there with No. 10 and Special Dry (I haven’t seen this last one in years. May have been discontinued.) The palate is deep into juniper berry territory. (Think piney woods.)

While I buy basic Tanq over No. 10, I’d rather buy this any time. What’s more, local loyalties aside I’d buy it in a heartbeat over any number of similarly prices “artisanal” gins from boutique distilleries.

One last note. It’s only being released in a limited market, primarily up-scale bars and hotels in trendy places. You’ll have to hunt to get a bottle. Assuming you have good relationship with your local wine store, I’d beg and plead with them. And of course there is always the internet…

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Terroir

When you meet a vintner or a salesperson these days they will immediately start to effuse about their “terroir.” If you have yet to figure this out, the French came to the conclusion around 1800 that the best wines were made in very particular vineyards for reasons they did not quite understand. They therefore awarded various vineyards classifications like “grand cru classe”. Anyone who has been drinking for more than a decade will be aware that any number of designated “great” vineyards are capable of decades of mistakes, sloth and crappy wine. Yet the story of terroir lives on.

The story becomes even sillier when you consider what are the non-human inputs to wine. They are the the soil, the weather, vine clones, the grapes, and the yeast. In many AOC areas both the clones and the yeast (usually wild, having evolved with the vinyards over the centuries) are specified.

So far so good. Anyone who has spent time around farmers will have heard about the storied quarter section down the road that produces #1 grain when everyone else is lucky to pull animal feed off. There are micro-climates, and particularly well drained or watered pieces of land full of the nutrients for specific crops. However…

Before you swallow the fine fairy tale spun by the salesperson in front of you, remember to ask a few questions. In particular ask:

– Do you notice a particular mineral profile in your wine?
– if so do you irrigate? And what is the water source?
– Do you innoculate the yeast?
– if so how often do adjust the yeast strains? Do you EVER only use one strain on one block of land?
– How often do you change clones?
– Is this the same clone grown in 1970? 1990?

The attentive reader will know why I’m a cynic. If you irrigate, your mineral profile is from the river or the well from which you pump. If you innoculate you can change the flavour profile of your wine from year to year. And when you change clones you are effectively changing your terroior.

The number of vineyards I come across that can make the terroir claim with a straight face are less than 10 per cent and probably less than 1 per cent. Call me about your terroir when you can answer the above questions without turning red.

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