In Praise Of The Spirit Purist

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - August 18, 2006
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I was sitting at one of the bars in the Wynn Hotel, Las Vegas, last week watching an extremely professional bartender at work. With all the passion he could muster he was alternately pouring drinks and scolding customers for their choice of beverage.

“Why are you putting this stuff into such good vodka?” he asked of one trendy young man about to spend $120 on a round of Red Bull/Grey Goose cocktails. “Just drink the Red Bull - you can’t taste anything else anyway.” But still the drinkers paid up and ordered more, and Mr. Wynn was none the wiser to the bartender’s plea for purity.

When another gorgeous young thing walked up and ordered a shot of a beautiful Italian brandy he simply refused to serve it. “You do shots of things that taste bad,” he said sternly, “not something like this.”

I have to admit, I loved it. It’s hard to be a spirit purist. So many people are used to disguising the taste of alcohol with sugary sweeteners and juiced-up mixers that the excellence of some of the greatest spirits in the world becomes lost in a swallow of something that could just as easily be plantation iced tea.

A great cocktail is a thing of beauty. Well-blended, well-balanced and oftentimes color-coordinated (orange and red Mai Tai with sunset, olive green in a classic martini), classic cocktail recipes have been around for decades. But somewhere along the road between mojitos and margaritaville, junk, juice and a whole lot of hype got added to spirits to increase their marketability to a young audience.

It works. Holding the right drink at the right bar is as important in the night clubbing world as having the latest Cole Haan purse. Marketing a drink like Red Bull and vodka that promises to keep you up all night for under $10 is a powerful draw. Flavored vodka has now been around for years, and so commonplace are artificial flavors that there are some completely reasonable and respectable drinks created by bartenders around the country with these as their base. “Alco pops,” sugary mixers and a dozen other name brand boozy concoctions are marketed to young drinkers who have yet to develop their palates.

I loathe almost all of them. Spirits, particularly single malts, cognacs and vodka, represent some of the finest spirits in the world. Hand-crafted, blended and matured for years in wooden casks, they take on an element of their environment that simply cannot be replicated. The Japanese, for example, can make whiskey - but they can’t make a single malt scotch. At Laphraoig or Lagavulin distilleries on the windswept, isolated island of Islay, you can sip on whisky that is full of the characteristics of the island. Add a splash of soda and a heap of ice? Heaven forbid. I know someone who likes to drink The Macallan 18-year-old with a hefty splash of Coke, and I always cringe when I see it.

Why? Well, one of the reasons is you never develop a palate for spirits if you are unaware of what constitutes a great base. You’ll never be able to appreciate the sherry cask influence on the Macallan 25-year-old if it’s drowned in soda - and you’ve no hope of getting the heather and peat from a glass of Bowmore or the smoke from a glass of Laphroaig if you try and drown them with chemicals.

Of course everyone is entitled to drink what they like, but my favorite bartenders are always going to be the ones who stand up for the great craftsmen of the beverage world by standing up to their own customers.

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