Oola-la!

Oola-la! Oola bourbon, dry vermouth, Gran Classico, Seven of Hearts late harvest viognier.

It’s been a while since I posted a cocktail recipe here, so here’s one that was slated for a menu I never got to put together — maybe for the best, as the name is a bit too cute. It features bourbon from Oola in Seattle, a very nice bourbon made with a blend of aged bourbons and Oola’s own four-grain mash. A high rye content comes through in a pleasant spiciness.

The other Pacific Northwest ingredient I planned to use in this one is the delicious Seven of Hearts Ice Princess dessert wine pressed from frozen viognier grapes, which goes very well here. Mostly this drink shows once again the fantastic flexibility of the Alto Cucina and why it’s one of my favorite cocktails to play with:

1 oz Oola Bourbon
1 oz dry vermouth
1/2 oz Gran Classico
1/2 oz Seven of Hearts Ice Princess Viognier
orange peel, for garnish

Stir, serve up, and garnish with an orange peel.

These are fairly local brands, so feel free to make substitutions.

The costs of convenience

Abandoned liquor store

Over at Blue Oregon, politico and former pub owner Jesse Cornett argues against liquor privatization, satisfied with the system the way it is:

Bar and tavern owners obtain their liquor almost the same way that anyone in Oregon does: they buy it from a liquor store. It comes with a small discount and can include delivery. When I called in my order, they would ask when I wanted it. Right away? Sure. See you in 30 minutes. At a certain time? Great, we’ll see you then. Run out of a particular product late in their hours? Just pop by. Call on your way and it’s sitting at the counter waiting for you. The system works exceptionally well for Oregon’s pub, bar and restaurant owners. Obtaining liquor was much more convenient than any other product.

Jesse is absolutely right about this. Oregon’s system makes buying liquor simple. To stock the bar I manage, I make one phone call, receive one delivery, and write one check. Easy! In contrast, our wine buyer deals with more than a dozen distributors, taking separate deliveries and writing individual checks for each of them. Pain in the ass!

So yes, the current system is convenient for bar managers. But that’s a terrible reason to keep it in place. It leaves unaddressed, for starters, the cost to the bars. Licensees in Oregon receive only a very small (about 5%) discount off retail. The set price means we don’t spend time bargaining or making deals, or what is known in less regulated states as “doing your damn job.” It also means we pay more for our liquor, making it harder to put quality spirits in our menu cocktails.

The situation is even worse when we want to bring in relatively esoteric spirits from other states. Oregon distilleries benefit from the fact that the state’s monopoly buyer, the OLCC, gives them de facto favorable treatment. The agency is very likely to “list” their products, meaning it will purchase them in bulk and sell them at a lower price. That’s good for local distillers, but not so good for out-of-state producers and the consumers who want to buy their spirits.

As an example, I requested aquavits made in the Midwest as special order items this year. To the OLCC’s credit, they both eventually arrived, but our system renders the prices exceedingly high. The Gamle Ode Dill Aquavit sells in Oregon for $42.45 a bottle. In its home state of Wisconsin, I see it selling for $29.99. The North Shore Aquavit from Illinois? $47.25 in Oregon, $27.99 at Binny’s in Chicago. Shipping costs account for a portion of the difference, but not nearly all of it.

Advantaging local distillers over out-of-state producers shouldn’t be the goal of our distribution laws. It may even be unconstitutional. I have no doubt that skilled local producers will continue to thrive in a private market, just as they do in the privatized beer and wine system. And if there are some producers who cannot survive without the government buying their product in bulk, then maybe they shouldn’t be in the business.

(As a point of contrast, Matt Yglesias notes at Slate today that Washington, DC’s unique openness to importing spirits is part of what has made the city’s bar scene so fantastic. Oregon would do well to follow its lead.)

If Jesse’s argument were correct, there would be no reason not to extend it to restaurants’ other inputs. If a state monopoly on liquor is so great, why not monopolies on beer and wine too? Or on meat and cheese and fish and bread and vegetables? It would be so much easier on the chefs! But no one would take these ideas seriously, because we’ve long since figured out that essentially free markets are the best way to distribute normal goods. Liquor is a mostly normal good – and to the extent that isn’t because of negative externalities, taxes are a far better way of addressing that than inefficient distribution is.

As I never tire of reminding people when it comes to questions of distribution, markets are for consumers. Not only consumers who want local products, but all consumers – even the ones who just want stuff that’s basic and cheap. They would very much like to pick up a bottle for a few dollars less than they pay now and not have to visit a special store to get it. This is why privatization is likely to happen eventually, regardless of how it affects bar managers and local distilleries. Consumers are tired of dealing with a distribution system designed for the 1930s.

And this is where Jesse has a good point: There are going to be winners and losers with privatization, and distributors and large retailers are going to exert their influence to ensure that they get an advantage. This is one reason that Washington state’s privatization measure bars entry to new, smaller stores. If Oregon privatizes via ballot initiative, as appears increasingly likely, then we may end up with similar problems.

The solution to this is acknowledge that getting privatization right is difficult, but doable, and to demand that the legislature write a bill that learns from Washington’s mistakes and puts consumers first. The alternative is to wait for ballot initiatives written by retailers, one of which will inevitably pass.

[Photo by Joseph Novak used under Creative Commons license.]

[Disclosures: In addition to working as a bartender, I consult for several spirits brands and beverage-related products. I have not worked for retailers or distributors.]

New cocktail books — and a reader giveaway

In the past few months a slew of cocktail books have come out that share one detail commending the excellent taste of the authors: They all include a recipe or two from me. That’s all I need to know to conclude that a book is worth buying, but for those with more exacting standards, here’s a little more information about them.

901 Very Good Cocktails: A Practical Guide, Stew Ellington — For truth in advertising, it’s hard to beat the title of Stew Ellington’s book. It is what it says it is. Still, I didn’t know quite what to expect from it. The size is the first surprise. The book is big, with a nice hardcover, and spiral bound so that it lays flat while open. This makes it ideal for referencing while mixing. Like the title says, it’s practical.

After a brief introduction the book launches into “68 lists of the cocktails by type, flavor, theme, and more” to fit every mood, occasion, or whim, including “postprandial” and “expensive.” Then comes the meat of the book, 901 Ellington-approved cocktails presented in alphabetical order and given a star ranking.

My Shift Drink is one of the cocktails, earning a ranking of 4 1/2 stars. Before this goes to my head, I’ll note that other 4 1/2 star cocktails include the Surfer on Acid and the Goober. Part of the fun of this book is that it’s so eclectic and isn’t afraid to slum it with ingredients like coconut rum and Midori. These drinks appear right alongside mixologist favorites like the Brooklyn and Boulevardier. Stew is a passionate enthusiast rather than a professional bartender, and even if I question some of his selections, he reminds me to take off my blinders and try things I may normally overlook.

One of my frustrations with many contemporary cocktail books is that in the hunt for originality, they call for ingredients that are too esoteric or require too much preparation for easily trying things out. These books certainly have their place, and I enjoy them, but making complicated drinks is what I do for a living. When I come home, I want a book I can flip through to find something to try on a moment’s notice. Generally eschewing homemade or hard-to-find ingredients, 901 Very Good Cocktails is perfect for that. Anyone wanting a cocktail book that rewards casual and frequent exploration will be very happy with it.

Savory Cocktails, Greg Henry — Greg is a food and drink writer based in Los Angeles. His collection of savory cocktails rounds up mostly contemporary drinks in chapters focusing on sour, spicy, herbal, umami, bitter, smoky, rich, and strong. This is a very culinary approach to cocktails, and many of the recipes will require some shopping or preparation. They look like they’re worth the effort. A couple beer cocktails, including a take on the Dog’s Nose garnished with porcini mushroom powder, I have bookmarked for trying soon.

My own Golden Lion and Smokejumper are included, along with classics, Greg’s originals, and contributions from other notable bartenders. Greg is also a professional photographer and the book is very attractively shot. Definitely recommended for fans of strong, unusual flavors and those willing to put some work into making fantastic drinks.

Mezcal: Under the Spell of Firewater, Louis E. V. Nevaer — Where to begin with this one? A friend alerted me that my Mexican Train mezcal cocktail appeared in this book, so I ordered a copy expecting a solid introductory guide to the spirit. How could I have anticipated that Mezcal 101 would include a chapter on mezcal and sex?

You deserve just the right kind of mezcal. The kind that will make your nipples erect and irresistible to your partner. (Who needs ice cubes when you have mezcal on hand?) The kind that will make oral sex explode like fireworks. The kind that will mix with the taste of sweat, and salt, and the pheromones that emanate from each other’s nether regions to create something that, if it were to be bottled, would sell millions of flasks at Bergdorf Goodman.

If I’d written a chapter like that, perhaps The Cocktail Collective would have sold better. So maybe this book could have used a little editing, but in few spirits guides does the voice of the other come through so directly. It’s a slim volume, very offbeat, and you may find better resources for straightforward, factual information about mezcal. That said, it’s a fun book, and would probably be a useful reference if you’re visiting Oaxaca (which I’ve yet to do). The recipes for mixing and cooking with mezcal are also intriguing.

The Cocktail Hour: Whiskey, Brandy, and Tequila, Scout Books — You may remember Portland-based publisher Scout Books’ first trilogy of pocket cocktail guides, devoted to vodka, gin, and rum. They’re back with a sequel collection for the spirits above, once again featuring recipes from a bunch of mostly West Coast bartenders and writers, along with charming illustrations.

As with the first collection, I’m giving away a few sets of this new one to a few lucky blog commenters. To enter, just leave a comment on this blog post, one comment per person, before the end of the day this Friday (PST). On Saturday I’ll randomly select three winners and send them the set of books.

Mixing with Yogurt

In December 2011, when I wrote my annual year-end list, I included an item for the spirits product I most wanted to see in the US. It was Bols Yogurt liqueur, one of the handful of bottles I smuggled in my suitcase from Amsterdam. Strange as it sounds, this is a low-alcohol liqueur that captures the aroma and taste of real, tart yogurt. It’s unlike anything else on the American market and I was intrigued by the possibilities of using it in cocktails. It was a hit in Europe, but for various contractual reasons Bols was unable to bring into the US until this summer. Now it’s finally here — ironically, just as I leave my role as brand ambassador with the company.

Now that I can pick up a bottle any time I want, I’ve begun mixing with it. This has included a few obvious failures — my attempt at a “Yogroni” came out looking like Pepto Bismol — but also some really tasty drinks. One cool thing about this liqueur is that it doesn’t curdle with citrus. Mixed with lime or lemon, it gives a softer edge to tart cocktails. As a basic formula, complementary base spirit + citrus + fruit + Yogurt will make a drink that works pretty well, and that’s how I’ve been using it behind the bar with the great Oregon berries we get in the summer.

Another opportunity to use the spirit just came up with a cocktail competition from Veev, a spirit flavored with acai berries. I figured the fruit flavors in the spirit would play well with the yogurt and tried out a simple drink that I assumed would need some additional layers of flavor. As it turned out, it was good as is, and I didn’t add anything more to it. The use of trendy superfruit spirits and weird liqueurs might cause you to pass this one over, and it’s not something I would have tried if not for the competition, but sometimes deliciousness comes from unlikely sources. So here’s the Leite de Baga:

2 ounces Veev
1 oz Bols Yogurt liqueur
3/4 oz lime juice
berries or other seasonal fruit for garnish

Shake hard with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the berries.

Obligatory competition note: The first round of the competition is based on online voting, which I probably have no shot at winning since I won’t be clogging Facebook and Twitter with repeated posts about it. But the grand prize is a trip to Rio de Janeiro, so I will provide the link should you be struck by the urge to vote.

Navigation cocktail

Navigation cocktail at Metrovino: Reposado tequila, jalapeno tomatillo jam, Ferrand dry curacao, lime, and egg white. Cinnamon on top.

Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan Cookbook is a title that called out to me, especially after seeing many positive reviews for it. Though I don’t have any strong desire to move back to Texas (except on income tax day), I do miss the food. And while Portland’s restaurant scene is taking a few stabs at Tex-Mex, nothing I’ve tried has fully hit the mark yet. My best bet is cooking at home, and Lisa Fain’s recreations of Texas cuisine from her New York City apartment have been an excellent guide.

The recipes are consistent winners. One of the standouts is a tomatillo jalapeno jam spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and allspice. I made it to serve with chevre, but it’s so good that I knew I wanted to work it into a cocktail too. The Navigation, a play on the Margarita, is the result of that experimentation:

1 1/2 oz reposado tequila
3/4 oz dry curacao
3/4 oz lime juice
1 egg white
2 barspoons tomatillo jalapeno jam
cinnamon, for garnish

Shake the ingredients without ice to aerate, then add ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a dusting of freshly grated cinnamon.

We use Ferrand for the curacao at Metrovino, but other cognac-based orange liqueurs like those from Combier or Mandarine Napoleon would also work well. For the jam recipe you’ll have to buy the book. If you happen to be in Portland, this is on our current menu.

Tales itinerary 2013

As I do nearly every year, I’ll be attending Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans next week. This time I’m staying longer than ever before with a bunch of events lined up. If you’ll also be at Tales, I hope to see you there!

Toast to Tales of the Cocktail (2 pm Wednesday at the Hotel Monteleone) — I’ve never made it to town in time for the opening ceremony, but this year my drink was selected as the official cocktail, so of course I want to be there. Come be among the first to try the Portland Rickey.

Indie Spirits that Rock (12:30 – 2 pm Thursday in the Fleur de Lis Room at The Royal Sonesta) — I’ll be here with Dragos Axinte sampling Novo Fogo Cachaca and cachaca cocktails.

Ritual Drinking Spirited Dinner (8 pm Thursday at Sylvain) — Daniel de Oliveira, Jason Littrell, and I team up with Altos Tequila and Chef Alex Harrell for a Spirited Dinner to remember (or not). Sold out!

A Noble Experiment (5:30 – 7 pm Friday at Batch in The Hyatt French Quarter) — Come try barrel aged cocktails and Batch’s own house-aged Bols Genever while flappers dance to a live band.

Uncorked (Saturday 12:30 – 2 pm in the Fleur de Lis Room at The Royal Sonesta) — Dragos and I will be here once again with even more Novo Fogo Cachaca cocktails during the Sidecar by Merlet competition.

Spirited Awards (7 – 11:30 pm at the Celestin Ballroom in the Hyatt Regency) — Another first-time event for me, I’ll be wrapping things up at Tales here on Saturday night, then staying in town until Monday morning.

Dudley’s Solstice Punch

Solstice Punch: Raspberry infused aquavit, lemon, Pavan, sugar, and sparkling wine.

As it turns out, I didn’t have time for a proper midsommar celebration, but we made up for it with a party this past weekend at which we imbibed nine different aquavits, enjoyed Swedish meatballs and gravlax, and sat by a big fire. Before turning to the traditional schnapps, we kicked things off with an aquavit punch:

2 cups raspberry-infused aquavit
3/4 cups lemon juice
3/4 cups Pavan
1/2 cup sugar
peel of four lemons
2 bottles dry sparkling wine, chilled

Start by infusing the aquavit with a couple dozen or so raspberries. This can be a quick infusion; about an hour is fine. We used Krogstad Festlig but feel free to substitute others.

Then make an oleo-saccharum with the lemon peels and sugar — Michael Dietsch explains how here. Combine this with the aquavit, leaving the macerated berries in, along with the lemon juice, Pavan, and sparkling wine. Add a block of ice if you have it and ladle into ice-filled glasses.

Pavan is a new liqueur on the market. Made with muscat grapes and orange blossoms, it’s lightly floral, sweet, and tart. It’s an easy match with fruit and sparkling wine, and I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to use it. This punch turned out to be the perfect application.

Introducing Cocktails on Tap

The first lesson I’ve learned about the world of publishing: Publishing a book is hard! As many of you know, for the last few years I’ve been collaborating with Ezra Johnson-Greenough and Yetta Vorobik on a series of beer cocktail events called “Brewing Up Cocktails.” I realized early on that there was potential to create a book based on our exploration of beer as a cocktail ingredient. People love beer and people love cocktails, so this seemed like an easy sell. I wrote up a long book proposal, which was a learning experience in itself, and began the long process of pitching publishers and agents.

Unfortunately, despite getting great feedback about the content of the proposal, it turned out that traditional publishers didn’t agree with my assessment of the book’s potential. They deemed beer cocktails too niche — surprising when I look at the number of niche cookbooks that do make it into print — and weren’t confident that it would find a market large enough for their needs.

Not long ago, my only likely options from there would have been to either drop the project, settle for a small publisher with lower production values, or self-publish. Thanks to Kickstarter, I’m trying a new way to go forward. I’ve teamed up with Ellee Thalheimer of Into Action Publications to try a different model that combines some of the best attributes of larger publishers — ease of distribution, lower printing costs, and quality production — with the nimbleness of a small imprint. If we meet our funding goal, we’ll produce a book that looks fantastic and get it into stores faster than a traditional publisher would.

Of course, there are trade-offs. Had a larger publisher picked up the book, I’d likely have received a small advance and, if it sells well, modest royalties. It would have been a low-risk, low-reward proposition. In contrast, our approach is high-risk, high-reward. I’ve put in a lot of work and expense upfront. Even if our Kickstarter is successful, I may be working on practically no advance, with no income coming from the project for a long time. And if the book doesn’t sell well, none of that will be recouped.

But, obviously, I believe in the book and in its appeal to beer and cocktails lovers, so I’m taking the chance. And if it succeeds, I’ll have a much greater stake in the project than most first time authors ever do.

If you’re a regular reader of this site and enjoy the drinks I post here, I hope you’ll give it a shot too. For $20 you can be among the first to get a copy of the book as soon as it’s off the presses, and we have other rewards built into the Kickstarter for higher levels of support. Smaller contributions are appreciated as well. You won’t be charged at all unless we reach the minimum amount we need to produce the book — enough to cover printing, graphic design, photography, and the other costs associated with bringing a real physical book into existence. Please check out our Kickstarter here.

I couldn’t be more excited about the creative team assembled for the book. I’ve already mentioned Ellee, who’s also the co-author of Hop in the Saddle: A Guide to Portland’s Craft Beer Scene, by Bike. We also have the extremely talented David L. Reamer as photographer and Melissa Delzio as graphic designer. With them on board, I can guarantee this book is going to look fantastic.

Finally, I’d like to offer a few words of thanks to those who have helped get us this far, regardless of what happens from here: Yetta and Ezra for kicking off our series of events; author Diane Morgan for invaluable advice on getting started; Natalia Toral, Dave Shenaut, and Raven and Rose for letting us shoot in their Rookery Bar; our video crew, including Ben Clemons, for doing an amazing job; and Todd Steele, owner of Metrovino, for indulging my beer cocktail experiments over the years, even when they are of questionable cost-effectiveness.

Press so far for Cocktails on Tap:
Allison Jones at Portland Monthly
Anna Brones at Foodie Underground
Erin DeJesus at Eater PDX
Marcy Franklin at The Daily Meal
Jeff Alworth at Beervana
Mutineer
Imbibe
Drink Nation

Spirits for the solstice

If you write about spirits and cocktails, you know all too well that there a thousand manufactured holidays that can be used as excuse to drink. My inbox overflows with tone deaf pitches urging me to feature a client’s product in my “coverage” of “National Hot Dog Day” or whatever the irrelevant tie-in of the moment happens to be.

None of these pitches ever mention aquavit, because aquavit doesn’t have that kind of marketing budget. But this weekend is actually a real holiday and a real excuse to drink aquavit. Tonight is the summer solstice, AKA midsommar, the longest day of the year. If you live in Scandinavia, that’s a great reason to stay up all night with food, fire, and spirits. And if you don’t live in Scandinavia, just pretend that you do.

As it happens, I have two new aquavits to celebrate with this year, courtesy of Gamle Ode. Created by Mike McCarron, based in Minnesota, and distilled in Wisconsin, Gamle Ode produces a Dill Aquavit that I’ve mentioned here before; I named it “Best New Spirit” for 2012. Now Mike has two more aquavits on the market.

Before reviewing those, let’s pause for a moment to note how unique that is. There are only five aquavit producers that I’m aware of in the United States. All of the others make a range of spirits, most of them much more familiar, like vodka and gin. Even European aquavit distillers don’t view the American market as a growth opportunity. Yet here is Mike building an entire brand around the spirit. And he’s not just making one aquavit, he’s making three of them. That takes a special kind of passion, or maybe even craziness. I’m sure it helps that he contracts with 45th Parallel to distill them, thus reducing the initial investment, but to my mind that makes Gamle Ode one of the most innovative and imaginative craft spirit brands in the United States.

Here are Gamle Ode’s newest spirits:

Holiday Aquavit — Just like it sounds, the Holiday aquavit incorporates traditional winter spices. This is a jule aquavit, released once a year in the winter. From Gamle Ode’s own description: “The Holiday Aquavit builds on Gamle Ode’s unique dill, caraway and juniper recipe, adding a holiday mélange of orange peels, mint, and allspice.” After distillation it’s aged for six months in red wine barrels from Alexis Bailly Vineyard, imparting a rich hue for such a young spirit.

The flavor profile on this very interesting. The dill comes through in the beginning, then the orange and spice notes take over for a long finish. I like it on its own and I can also see a lot of potential for it in cocktails; I can see it working very well with fortified wines and a dash or two of bitters.

Celebration Aquavit — Gamle Ode’s Celebration Aquavit takes the prize for most complex aquavit available in the US. The list of botanicals includes fresh dill, caraway, juniper, star aniseed, vanilla, orange, and lemon. This is then aged in a mix of barrels to give it a pale straw color: The Alexis Bailly barrels mentioned above, and bourbon barrels from 45th Parallel Spirits.

Mike describes this as his “aquavit’s aquavit.” While the Dill and Holiday offerings highlight less common flavors, this one emphasizes the caraway and anise a little more. No single ingredient dominates, however. It’s very well balanced, complex, and lingers for a long time. This is just a great spirit, my favorite of the three Gamle Ode aquavits. It reminds me a bit of an Old Tom, though obviously with a very different botanical profile. I’m sipping on it now in a Martinez and it’s working wonderfully.

Unless you live in certain parts of the Midwest, you probably can’t find these spirits at your local liquor store yet. But I encourage you to request them and see if you can get them in your state. In the meantime, NPR has some tips for enjoying a midsommar celebration. And if you’re looking for aquavit cocktails, my drink archive has a whole page of them.

As I’ve said before, if you like gin, there’s no reason you shouldn’t like aquavit. It can be just as botanically complex and deserves much more exploration as a cocktail ingredient. This weekend is a great time to give it a shot.

Skaal!

[Image courtesy of Gamle Ode.]

Mixology Monday: Cherries

Remember the Maine, with Ocho Reposado in place of rye.

Today’s Mixology Monday theme is cherries, a flavor that seems to go wrong more often than it goes right. Says host Andrea at Gin Hound:

Singapore Gin Sling, Blood and Sand, and the Aviation wouldn’t be the same without them… But cherries in cocktails are also horribly abused, few things taste worse than artificial cherry aroma, and the description of how most maraschino cherries are made can make you sick to your stomach. So it’s my pleasure as the host of Mixology Monday… to challenge you to honor the humble cherry. However you choose to do that, is entirely up to you. You could use Maraschino Liqueur, Cherry Heering, Kirchwasser, Belgian Kriek Beer, cherry wine, or any spectacular infusions invented by you in a cocktail. Or make your own maraschino cherries for a spectacular garnish.

A few years ago my go-to cocktail was the Remember the Maine, a classic combining rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, cherry Heering, and absinthe. It fell out of my rotation for a while, then this winter I picked it up again using good reposado tequila in place of the rye. This substitution works. It’s on our current menu as the Anahuac, in keeping with the battleship theme:

2 oz reposado tequila
3/4 oz sweet vermouth
1/4 oz cherry Heering
2 dashes absinthe
cherry, for garnish

Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with the cherry.

North Shore for Negroni Week

This year Negroni Week, the celebration of the classic cocktail hosted every year by Portland restaurant Nostrana, spread out to include bars all over the country featuring variations of the drink. Metrovino took part, and unsurprisingly, I reached for aquavit. The cumin-forward, barrel-aged aquavit from North Shore works great in this cocktail:

1 oz North Shore aquavit
1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth
orange peel, for garnish

Stir with ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with the orange twist.

Don’t be quite like Washington

Today’s Oregonian editorial urges Oregon to make like Washington and privatize liquor:

It’s possible, even probable, that Oregonians will vote on same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization in November 2014, leaving the state one measure short of a following-Washington’s-footsteps trifecta. That spot may — and should — be filled by an initiative privatizing liquor sales. It’s time to drag booze regulation out of the 1930s.

I’m with them on this, but they oversell the case a bit in using Washington as a model. This paragraph in particular seems disingenuous:

Despite the initial price shock, Washingtonians bought more booze than they did the year before. It’s simply far more convenient to buy liquor at Safeway or Costco, as Washingtonians now can, than to make a separate trip to a state liquor store. And consumer choices have increased thanks to the appearance of popular store brands, says Gilliam.

I think it’s fair to say that the appeal of these “popular store brands” lies more in price than in quality. And that’s fine. I’ve said before that we shouldn’t force mainstream consumers to pay higher prices so that booze nerds can buy esoteric spirits. But let’s not pretend there’s no potential trade-off here. The OLCC, to its credit, has become quite good at placing special orders compared to other control states. (Trust me, I used to live in Virginia.) It’s also acted as an incubator for Oregon distillers. This seems at least partly because the agency is not a pure maximizer of profits. Depending on how retail licenses are structured in a successful privatization plan, the state may end up with a less responsive supply side.

The benefit of watching Washington privatize liquor first is that we can learn from its mistakes. So here are two to keep in mind:

Keep taxes reasonable — Washington gave privatization a bad name by packaging it with extremely high taxes, the highest in the nation. As a result, consumers associate privatization with price hikes instead of the lower costs they anticipated.

Allow small retailers — Washington’s initiative generally limits new retail licenses to stores that are at least 10,000 square feet in area. This is a classic “bootleggers and Baptists” dynamic: Temperance-minded voters didn’t want proliferation of liquor licenses, and large grocers didn’t mind restricting competition. This makes it difficult to open boutique stores appealing to consumers that Costco may ignore.

Both of these concerns will be a factor in Oregon’s eventual privatization, which may be broadly popular but will be driven by particular interests. The state will want to retain its revenue. Retailers and distributors will want to shape the law to their benefit. To get this right, voters and legislators will need to keep in mind that privatization is a means to the end of competition, not an end in itself.

Defining “craft” distilleries

Eastern Washington Wheat Fields

Following up on last week’s post about Oregon’s new craft distillery law that potentially violates the Commerce Clause, it’s worth mentioning that Washington may not be doing any better. But first, a couple articles that have come up recently about definitions of “craft” distilleries.

At The Atlantic, Wayne Curtis notes that right now anyone can call themselves a craft distiller, regardless of whether there is much craft to what they do:

It’s a little-known fact, but you don’t actually need a still to call yourself a distiller. The vodka makers I visited had adopted a simple and surprisingly common business model: buy a large quantity of potable alcohol from an industrial supplier (one vendor of neutral spirits offers it “in drum, truckload and railcar quantities”), run it through a tall charcoal filter to remove any trace impurities, cut it with water, decant it into bottles, and then slap on a label touting it as a local craft product worthy of its premium price.

At his excellent whiskey blog, Chuck Cowdery examines the so-called “problem” of non-distiller producers (NDPs), brands that simply repackage spirits under a new label with varying degrees of transparency. His suggested solution is a voluntary certification program:

Hence this modest proposal. The industry has several voluntary trade associations: the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), the Kentucky Distillers’ Association (KDA), the American Distilling Institute (ADI), and the newly formed American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA), to name a few. Several universities, such as Michigan State, have distilling programs. One of those entities, or a new one established for this purpose, could create a certification program. It would establish criteria, and a monitoring and enforcement system, and award certifications to producers who apply and meet the requirements. It would all be voluntary and funded by the participants. Then it is up to the participants to promote and support it, to imbue it with sufficient credibility so that concerned consumers will learn to look for and trust that designation.

I’m glad to see that both articles express some skepticism about using government regulations to address the issue. Washington is one state that has tried, and not surprisingly the state gets it wrong.

Washington law designates a special license for craft distillers. Qualified applicants pay a reduced fee, $100 per year instead of $2000. They’re also allowed to offer on-premise tastings to consumers. But there’s a catch: They cannot produce more than 60,000 gallons of spirits per year, and at least half of the raw materials used in producing their spirits must be grown in Washington. (Details on Washington’s various license types can be downloaded here.)

Like Oregon’s new law, the requirement that craft distillers use locally grown ingredients raises obvious Commerce Clause issues. It’s also an exceedingly narrow definition of craft. It practically* excludes the NDPs and instant vodka brands, which is at least arguably desirable. But it also excludes producers that most people would consider worthy. For makers of gin, aquavit, absinthe, or various liqueurs, the origin of the base spirits is often far less important than the distiller’s skill selecting and incorporating botanicals. And if a distiller wants to specialize in rum, forget about it: The banks of the Puget Sound are not known for their fields of sugar cane. (Washington absinthe distiller Gwydion Stone argues the same case.)

Craft distillers in Washington are making interesting, quality spirits from local ingredients, like Washington wheat whiskey or gins and vodkas distilled from local grains. But I wouldn’t say that they’re more deserving of the craft designation than an Oregon producer making quality gin from neutral grain spirits. How to source one’s base ingredient is a creative decision that should be left to the distiller, not codified into law to promote local agricultural interests.

Fortunately the advantages provided by Washington’s craft distiller license are not overwhelming, allowing distilleries that don’t meet the definition to still go into production. But it demonstrates the perils of letting regulators and legislators define craft instead of leaving it to the rapidly evolving market for spirits.

If the beer market, which has had more time to mature, is any guide in the matter, maintaining a meaningful definition of craft is going to get increasingly difficult anyway. Volume of output can be objectively measured. “Craft” means different things to different people. Beer writer Jeff Alworth offers a different list of brewery classifications that he finds useful, with no place for the c-word: “There’s really no use for the term and I am going on a personal campaign to eliminate it from my own vocabulary.” Legally speaking, at least, that may be the best advice going forward.

*Edit: Added the word “practically” to be more precise. As Gwydion notes, it may be possible to buy NGS or other spirits that comply with the local requirements. I’m not sure how this would be addressed.

[Photo: Field of Washington wheat, by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.]

Craft distilleries and the Commerce Clause

A new law in Oregon will allow the state’s distilleries to open additional tasting rooms and retail sales centers:

The bill allows distillers to offer tastings and sell their products at their distillery and five other locations. Current law allows distillers to perform tastings and sell their spirits one other location in addition to the distillery.

Distillers still must purchase their liquor from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the same way liquor store owners do now. And distillers must enter into a contract with the OLCC to sell bottles of their craft spirits.

The goal is to help the increasing number of craft distilleries continue to grow, though as it currently stands only two of them (McMenamin’s and Rogue) have enough locations to take advantage of the new opportunities. Spirits produced in Oregon now account for about 12% of the state’s liquor sales. That’s really impressive, and some of the spirits made in Oregon are fantastic. I hope this trend continues.

However this new law might not be the best way to help craft distillers. It may be nice in the short-run, but is it constitutional? I think that it’s vulnerable to legal challenge by out-of-state producers as a violation of the Commerce Clause, following the arguments that allowed wine producers to strike down discriminatory direct shipping laws in Granholm v. Heald. (I have no formal legal training, so take this as a layman’s reading. The case isn’t too complicated.)

Granholm explicitly addressed the balancing of the Twenty-first Amendment, which gives states broad authority to regulate alcohol, and the Commerce Clause, which generally forbids states from discriminating against out-of-state producers.

The Twenty-first Amendment reads in part:

The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

This has been interpreted to allow states great flexibility in deciding how to regulate alcohol, including the power of outright prohibition. The Court’s ruling in Granholm made clear, however, that these regulations must treat in-state and out-of-state producers evenly, not giving undue favor to the former. As Justice Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion:

The mere fact of nonresidence should not foreclose a producer in one State from access to markets in other States. [...] States may not enact laws that burden out-of-state producers or shippers simply to give a competitive advantage to in-state businesses.

The Twenty-first Amendment does not exempt states from this requirement:

The aim of the Twenty-first Amendment was to allow States to maintain an effective and uniform system for controlling liquor by regulating its transportation, importation, and use. The Amendment did not give States the authority to pass nonuniform laws in order to discriminate against out-of-state goods, a privilege they had not enjoyed at any earlier time.

In Granholm, the question at issue was whether states could allow their own wineries to ship directly to consumers while denying the privilege to wineries from other states. The Court ruled that they cannot. States can choose whether to ban or to allow direct shipping of wine, but they must treat in- and out-of-state wineries consistently.

The case doesn’t address liquor directly, but it’s easy to extend to the logic. Oregon’s new law allows in-state distilleries to open up to five retail stores, a privilege denied completely to distilleries from anywhere else. The law’s supporters say explicitly that its purpose is to promote local businesses:

“It takes advantage of Oregon agricultural products, it promotes tourism and it promotes small business development,” said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who is one of the bill’s sponsors.

The law clearly discriminates in favor of Oregon distilleries. For this to be permissible under the Commerce Clause, the discrimination must be necessary to achieve some other legitimate purpose. In Granholm, the states argued unsuccessfully that their laws were necessary for the collection of taxes and to keep alcohol out of the hands of minors.

It’s difficult to imagine either of these arguments faring any better for Oregon. All of the spirits sold in Oregon, including those in the new tasting rooms, retail at a set price through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC). The state has no sales tax. Collection of revenue, then, is not a concern.

As for sales to minors, it would be hard to argue with a straight face that local distilleries are uniquely qualified to sell only to adults.

So if Oregon distilleries can open tasting rooms and retail centers anywhere in the state, why not distilleries from across the river in Washington? Or from Kentucky? Or anywhere else, for that matter? It’s easy to imagine an out-of-state distillery suing for access to Oregon’s market on equal terms,

This hypothetical case may be strengthened by the fact that through its monopoly on liquor distribution, the OLCC can grant de facto preferential treatment to Oregon producers. Though the agency doesn’t explicitly do this, there’s good reason to believe that it has this effect. From a recent article about the state’s craft distillery boom:

OLCC officials stopped short of saying the agency shows a preference for stocking Oregon-made products at its warehouse — but it hasn’t created many obstacles for start-up distilleries.

“We make it easy. They get a listing,” said Brian Flemming, director of retail services for the OLCC.

The makeup of the Court seems favorable to extending the Granholm interpretation. As Garrett Peck notes in his book The Prohibition Hangover, dissent in the case was associated with age, with all of the justices who were alive during Prohibition siding with the states. Dissenters Rehnquist, O’Connor, and Stevens have all since retired. If a new case involving distillers does reach the Court, they may get a sympathetic hearing.

That’s a big “if.” Even if a case is brought, it may never go that far. And lower courts may decide that since Oregon’s law presents a different set of facts, the ruling in Granholm doesn’t apply.

Nonetheless, promoting craft distilleries through laws that discriminate in favor of local producers is a risky strategy that may backfire when and if they are challenged in court. There are other ways to open up the market for craft distillers that would rest on more secure legal footing.

[Photo: Still at Grand Traverse Distillery in Michigan, 2008.]

[Disclosure: I do contract work in the spirits industry, often with brands not based in Oregon.]

Liberating Libations

The other podcast I recorded in DC is now up, “Liberating Libations” on the American Enterprise Institute’s “Banter” podcast. Dan Rothschild, Brandon Arnold, Stu James, and I discuss three-tier distribution, beer purity, homebrewing, and other drink related topics. Listen here.

Achievement unlocked: One decade of blogging

I realized late this afternoon that my blog turns ten today. That’s like retirement age in blog years. Blogging isn’t quite as much fun as it was when I first started, back when bloggers would gather for happy hours based solely on sharing a publication format, subject matter inconsequential. Because we were bloggers! And that was reason enough. Much of what I used to post is now better suited to Twitter and Facebook, and the professionalization of the web makes it more sensible to submit longer content to existing publications than post it here. Nonetheless I’m grateful for those of you who do read this blog and continue to find value in posting, even if SEO has become a bigger consideration than trying to build a daily readership.

I could go on, but in adherence this site’s rules for good blogging…

Rule #1: Be meaningful.

Rule #2: If meaning is elusive, be amusing.

Rule #3: If meaning and amusement are both out of reach, be brief.

… I should probably shut up and post a cocktail recipe.

The Plantain Pisco Sour is exactly what it sounds like, a Pisco Sour sweetened with the spiced plantain syrup I like so much. This is an updated version of a drink I made for competition a few years, minus the foam. Use a good pisco like Campo de Encanto, the kind of pisco that actually tastes like it was distilled from grapes, for best results.

2 oz pisco
3/4 oz spiced plantain syrup
3/4 oz lime juice
1/2 oz Dimmi
1 egg white
bitters, for garnish

Shake everything without ice to aerate the egg white, then shake hard again with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with drops of aromatic bitters. Etch them into tiny hearts for that extra special mixologist touch. (I use Novo Fogo Cherribiscus Bitters that my friend Evan Martin made, but any colorful and aromatic bitter will do.)

And if you’re looking for more drinks to try, remember there’s a whole section of the site devoted to cocktails now.

[Photo by Will Ray.]

Links for 5/10/13

Cleared for Departure is one of our most popular cocktails at Metrovino, but I’ve been remiss in dedicating a post to it. The recipe is now up at the cocktail section of the site.

Italy meets Texas with Pecaño, a pecan liqueur that appears to be inspired by the bittersweet liqueurs of Italy. As a native Texas, this sounds very interesting to me. They launched a Kickstarter today to bring it into full scale production.

More than thirty years after federal legalization, homebrewing is now legal in all fifty states thanks to Alabama finally coming on board. Now on to home distillation!

Want to be a street performer in St. Louis? You’ll have to audition for the city first.