Where Do Your Spirits Come From? On the Integrity of Our Drinks

Photo by Artem Pochepetsky on Unsplash

What’s your drink? Perhaps it’s a Jack and Coke or a cranberry vodka. Maybe it’s a Manhattan or a Bud Light. Whatever your answer, what you order at the bar says something about you.

Every time James Bond ordered his martini “shaken, not stirred,” he was saying, “I’m my own man.” Cosmopolitan in hand, Carrie Bradshaw telegraphed her status as a sexy single girl-about-town. Don Draper often opted for an old-fashioned, burnishing his image as a man of his time.

Call it the semiotics of booze.

So why, when alcohol is such a signifier of who we think we are and who we want to project, don’t we look more closely at what we’re drinking? Especially when so many consumers are deeply (and rightly) curious about where their food comes from and how it is produced, it’s bizarre that the average person rarely asks those same questions about spirits.

Thaddeus Vogler is not the average person. A veteran of the bar business and a global authority on spirits, Vogler is profoundly invested in the provenance and history of the spirits he brings back to his two renowned San Francisco restaurants, Bar Agricole and Trou Normand. He scours the planet in search of fine grower-producer spirits to share with his customers—essentially the alcohol equivalent of farm-to-table cuisine—and he recently chronicled his quest in a new book, By the Smoke & the Smell: My Search for the Rare and Sublime on the Distillery Trail. Equal parts bittersweet memoir and beverage industry primer, the book brings to vibrant life Vogler’s raison d’être.

Vogler isn’t looking for just any old spirits. He’s searching for the best, in places like France and Cuba and Scotland and Oaxaca, made in the traditional ways with meticulous care.

“I’m generally looking for stuff where the same person that grew the material, fermented the material and distilled the material,” Vogler explains. “Stuff where there’s a real personal connection, where there’s wildness in it, where the flavors are accidental and not determined.”

It was agricole rum, he recalls, that first set him on his path.

Most rum is an industrial beverage; it’s distilled from some byproduct—often molasses—of the refinement of sugar. But agricole rums are distilled from fresh-pressed sugarcane, and the finest of these are produced according to strict standards. To smell such rums, Vogler writes, “is to encounter the wildest, most vegetal qualities of fresh sugarcane and a startling array of smells and flavors: green olive, ocean floor, fresh cut lawn, salty pineapple mixed with fresh banana.

“My first tasting was revelatory to say the least,” he continues. “The connection of what was in the bottle to what had grown in the ground was so compelling that I would never think about spirits the same way again. Once you taste great terroir-driven booze, you will never go back.”

The sad fact is that the vast majority of today’s spirits are not terroir-driven. They are industrial products, disconnected from the plants from which they are made, the land on which those plants grow, and the history of that land and the people who live on it. A handful of giant spirit conglomerates own just about every label one can think of, including many that portray themselves as quirky, down-home family businesses. And yet, these conglomerates are far from household names.

Take Diageo. Most consumers have never heard of Diageo, but the company owns Tanqueray, Captain Morgan, Don Julio, Smirnoff, Ketel One, Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Talisker, Lagavulin, Oban, and Guinness, among many others. Among Beam Suntory’s holdings are Courvoisier, Cruzan, Sauza, Effen, Vox, Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Laphroaig, Skinny Girl, and Midori. Pernod Ricard’s portfolio includes Beefeater, Seagram’s, Malibu, Absolut, Chivas Regal, Jameson, the Glenlivet, and Kahlua. And so it goes.

Inevitably, the consolidation of ownership under corporate banners—and the growth of the market for spirits—has industrialized and standardized the way most spirits are made.

Significantly, most distillers are no longer grower-producers, meaning they do not grow their own base materials—barley, rye, or corn, for example. Instead, they buy them on the open market. (Most consumers would never accept this in a good wine; they expect that a quality wine will come from a grower-producer.)

Another factor is yeast, without which there is no fermentation. Once upon a time, distillers used what Vogler describes as “wild ambient yeasts” or “a yeast culture that was maintained on the property, akin to a sourdough starter.” Such yeasts were an important aspect of a spirit’s terroir. Nowadays, most rely upon industrial yeast.

Then there’s chill filtration, a particular bête noir for true spirit connoisseurs. Vogler explains the process this way: “If you had a glass of hot water and a glass of cold water, and you put a spoonful of sugar in each, the sugar is going to dissolve much more readily in the hot water, right? So the principle is that in cold solutions, solids are less soluble. That principle is taken to chill filtration where they’ll make the spirit incredibly cold, and minerals and fats and oils will resolidify in the very, very, very cold solution, and then they’ll filter them out. So it’s really the equivalent of making skim milk. For about twenty years all anyone drank was skim milk, and then when you start drinking whole milk or even raw milk, you’re like, holy shit! Milk is delicious! So what’s happening with these spirits is the equivalent.”

Effectively, they’re “filtering out all of these irregularities, which really are character.”

Another aspect of industrialization is the addition of food coloring, specifically caramel coloring E150a. That lovely amber color you attribute to the unique characteristics of certain grains, and to years spent in special barrels tended by whiskered old men with charming accents? It’s the result of an industrial additive.

“Everything has caramel coloring if it doesn’t expressly say it doesn’t,” Vogler says. “Everyone uses color, and it’s crazy—they’ll deny it, and if they’re found out, they’ll say, ‘Well, it’s a negligible thing, and everyone does it.’ But what’s amazing is if you consider the effects of peat in scotch [which is responsible for the smoky quality]—we’re talking 14, 15, 16 parts per million of phenolic content from peat that has that significant an effect on the way that scotch tastes. So you can’t say that disproportionally more burnt sugar isn’t going to affect the way these spirits taste.”

With each of these departures from traditional methods, character is sacrificed on the altar of consistency. Flavors have become “determined by intervention and manipulation rather than the happy accident.”

But corporations are not the only ones to blame. We the consumers are also responsible, because in so many areas of our lives we expect consistency above all else; this attitude is changing with regard to food and wine, but with regard to spirits, it remains entrenched.

“With alcohol we are slow to remember that the contents of this bottle are grown in the ground, are food, and may actually be more interesting if these contents don’t taste the same all the time,” Vogler writes.

Thankfully, some distillers still adhere to the old ways, prioritizing terroir, provenance, and character above consistency, market share, and even profits. But they are salmon swimming upstream, and unsurprisingly many feel pressured to sell when conglomerates like Moët-Hennessy or Bacardi Limited come knocking. No wonder Vogler titled Part One of his book, “A Category of Human Experience Is Becoming Extinct and It Is a Cause for Tears.”

One can only have faith that as consumers we will begin to apply to spirits the same curiosity and conscience we bring to food and wine.

Vogler’s working toward that goal one cocktail at a time. When he introduces a customer to a fine grower-producer spirit and he sees that customer’s face light up, he regards it as “a total high point.” He and his staff treat guests “like we’re having people over and sharing things that we like rather than teaching people,” he explains. “If someone was coming to your house for a dinner party and you opened a bottle of wine, you’d be a friend, saying, ‘Hey, this is something I like. Maybe you’ll like it.’”

That’s why Vogler’s work is significant, because the more we know, the better choices we can make, and our choices as consumers have meaning. They signify our values, who we are, and what kind of world we want to live in—hopefully one like that which Vogler believes in, a world of flavor and character, and full of happy accidents.