Slow Spirits

Paul Blow

Last week San Francisco was abuzz with the extravaganza of Slow Food Nation, the first “American collaborative gathering to unite the growing sustainable food movement and introduce thousands of people to food that is good, clean and fair,” as the press release put it. While food was the big-name slow attraction, drink managed to sneak in there too. Amid the pizzas, pickled carrots, Mexican dark chocolates, and raw-milk cheese in the mobbed Taste Pavilions, wine, beer, and cocktail stands eked out some space.

With strong traditions of “local and sustainable” in organic/biodynamic wines and the microbrewing movement, the concepts of slow wine and slow beer have an obvious resonance within the context of slow food. The cocktail booth was a bit of a surprise, however, as the world of booze is not something that falls neatly under the rubric. Allen Katz, spirits expert, employee of megadistributor Southern Wine & Spirits, and member of Slow Food’s international board of directors, admitted as much in the opening to his “Slow Spirits” seminar. “It was a challenge to get spirits and cocktails included in Slow Food Nation,” he told an audience of about 60 gourmands. “There is a disconnect in culture, generation, and understanding between the idea of spirits and cocktails and slow food. Most people don’t think of spirits and cocktails as slow or sustainable.”

Katz tried to close this disconnect. First he referred to 19th-century bartender and drinks innovator Jerry Thomas as the “Alice Waters of the cocktail,” which elicited gasps of surprised pleasure from the orthodox foodie audience. Then he presented liquors to further his point. Unfortunately, these examples weren’t terribly convincing. First he presented Prairie Organic Vodka, whose down-home-looking package is squarely at odds with the image of an electric-haired fashionista flanked by two coyotes on a rooftop set against the Manhattan skyline that appears in the product’s advertising. While, as Katz asserted, the vodka may be made from number 2 yellow corn sourced from three farms within 50 miles of the distillery, there’s also the fact that Prairie is only one small product in the huge line of Phillips Distilling, which also makes tons of UV Flavored Vodkas, neon-hued Sour Puss Schnapps (available in raspberry, apple, tangerine, grape, mango, and “blue”), and many other nonorganic spirits.

He then presented us with Maker’s Mark, one of the country’s most popular and highest-production bourbons. Maker’s, he told us, is made from non-GMO grains (this got a round of applause) that “probably come from within 175 miles of the distillery.” It’s not organic grain, because there’s just not enough to account for the volume of bourbon needed. The entire campus of Maker’s Mark is a nature reserve, he added, because the company needs to protect the health of its water supply, which is a lake at the distillery. What’s funny, though, is that none of this is advertised on Maker’s website. In this era of rampant greenwashing, you’d think that a big business would emphasize its sustainable credentials. I’m suspicious as to why Maker’s Mark does not.

Finally, we were given 4 Copas, the self-proclaimed “world’s only certified organic tequila.” Though its website tells us the tequila “uses only organic nutrition on its certified organic plants and no chemicals,” that seems to be about as far as 4 Copas wants to go in detailing its organic methods.

All three were tasty, but none seemed to me to particularly strengthen Katz’s argument for the inclusion of spirits in the slow food pantheon. I believe spirits should be included, as there’s a great tradition of microdistilling. But I’m curious why, to make his point, Katz didn’t feature more representative choices, such as Junípero or No. 209 gins, which are made in small quantities within the city limits of San Francisco. Or something interesting like the Eau de Vie of Douglas Fir made by Oregon’s Clear Creek Distillery, which is flavored with hand-foraged springtime Douglas fir buds. Or why not a Del Maguey mezcal, which is not only made by small village farmer-distillers in Oaxaca, but is now also certified organic.

Spirits can be slow, local, and sustainable, but to celebrate and promote them it’s necessary to promote the right ones and not the corporate booze that’s quick to jump on the slow bandwagon.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.