by Pameladevi Govinda
America’s love affair with vodka won’t be ending anytime soon. Accounting for 27% of all spirit volume sales in 2004, vodka showed a 3.5% hike among value brands and 38.1% in the super premium category. Yet despite the vodka times we live in, we’re also seeing other new high-end white spirits emerge. Mixologists are embracing a range of unique clear-spirits that offer more character to their cocktails.
The aromatic juniper-infused spirit that was favored by America’s near extinct Gimlet drinkers, was outmoded by vodka in the 1970s when practically all the gin classics, the Orange Blossom, the Martini, even the Gin and Tonic, were converted into vodka drinks and thus became the Screw Driver, the Vodka Martini and the Vodka and Tonic.
Consultant and cocktail stylist, Jerri Banks, whose signature Juniperotivo cocktail has gained fame, is optimistic that cocktail imbibers will increasingly re-embrace gin. She offers, “I remember the same thing happening in the white wine market. There was a point when the trade wondered when everyone would have enough of drinking Chardonnay. Now, we’re seeing sophisticated cities try different whites wines such as Sauvignon Blanc. I think the same thing will happen in the white spirits category.”
A more recent launch is the Dutch Zuidam Genever and Dry Gin, though 90% of the sales are generated from the Dry, has had fantastic reception since hitting the market in September 2004. Unlike most gins the two-generation, family-run master distillers of Zuidam use whole fruits and distill each component separately.
Beverage Director, Leo Zac, at fine dining restaurant Lovells of Lake Forest, about 30 miles north of Chicago, is a Zuidam enthusiast. He raves, “I like Zuidam because it stands out. It has a uniqueness that is perfect for introducing both gin drinkers and novice gin drinkers. When you get a quality gin such as this, I prefer to show it in simple drinks like a Martini or a gin on the rocks rather than mask it with too many flavors.”
A few years ago, the luxury wine & spirits company, LVMH, embarked on a mission to re-invent light rum. Posing as “Rum’s Redemption”, 10 Cane launched in select markets in April. Mixologists from New York to Miami are raving about the new super premium. Jean Baptiste Cordon, the managing director of 10 Cane, explains, “We really designed 10 Cane with bartenders in mind. They like to apply their creative skills to truly enhance a cocktail experience and that can be achieved much more vividly with 10 Cane.”
Cordon adds, “There is an intrinsic quality of sugar cane in our rum. While most rums use molasses, we use high quality raw ingredients, essentially pure sugar cane juice that brings a lively, fresh, fruit driven spirit that you don’t get with other light rums. Our aim was not to mask or add anything but to offer the unadulterated character of sugar cane.”
Stretch, the head bartender at China Grill in Miami, said he found 10 Cane had a very similar taste profile to another white spirit that he’s grown fond of - the Brazilian Cachaça. However, as with 10 Cane, quality is key and he pours top-notch cachaças.
He supports, “We now have super premiums on the market like Beleza Pura. That is my hands down favorite cachaça. Again, it’s made with the first press of pure high quality sugar cane juice and it works really well in our drinks, including one of our top sellers, a mix of Beleza Pura, Grand Marnier, a splash of OJ, freshly squeezed lime juice and sweet sour mix.”
We’ve all heard it, that tequila gives you an awful hangover, along with gin, rum and cachaca. But vodka? Never. Banks laughs at the myth and says, “Vodka has not been demonized the way other white spirits like tequila have been. The idea that people can drink vodka and not get sick is absurd. If you drink a large amount of anything, you’re going to feel rough the next day.”
Mixologists often subscribe to the theory that the better the quality of your white spirit the less likely you will feel poorly. A few Margaritas made the old-fashioned way with freshly squeezed lime and a base of premiums like El Tesoro and Milagro help dispel the myth.
In the face of vodka’s vogue, Stretch has a list of tequila drinks, along with separate menus for sake cocktails and variations on the Mojito. He explains, “Vodka is definitely the biggest spirit category but what is the point of offering another Cosmopolitan or an Apple Martini when everyone else is doing it? We have a huge tequila list that we call Tequilatinis that we’re particularly proud of.”
Rather than pour a high priced Anejo into a cocktail and charge an astronomical sum for the libation, Stretch prefers to use good quality Silver. He avers, “The tequilatinis are only made with Silver because I feel that once you start getting into the aged sprits they should pretty much be tasted solo. Whereas the white tequilas offer a fresh flavor profile that gives a drink that young, vibrant and green character.”
“Aquavit is flavored vodka. It started 900 years ago when vodka was then flavored with anything you wanted. It’s only recently that in order to be Aquavit it must contain caraway seed,” asserts Hakan Swahn, the owner of Aquavit Restaurant in New York.
The restaurant makes their own Aquavits with all sorts of infusions including oranges, saffron, peach, cucumber and white cranberry. He adds, “Vodka is so versatile as a mixing base and can offer a myriad of ways to make a cocktail. Our white cranberry will be a little bit more limiting but will offer more character. The caraway seed in Aquavit New York cannot really be detected on the palate right away but it adds a depth to the cranberry.”
Vodka’s place in bars is essential and at times a shot of pure, clean vodka is the only thing that hits the spot. However, for those who are a little tired of the eponymous spirit, there’s a whole world of alternatives out there to discover. As Jerri Banks says, “Playing with all spirits opens up a whole range of possibilities.”
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