Two new cigarettes, now authorized for sale

This week the FDA sent out a press release boasting that its Center for Tobacco Products has finally issued a few decisions on new tobacco products:

For the first time since the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 gave the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products, the agency has authorized the marketing of two new tobacco products and denied the marketing of four others through the substantial equivalence (SE) pathway. [...]

“Today’s historic announcement marks an important step toward the FDA’s goal of reducing preventable disease and death caused by tobacco,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D. “The FDA has unprecedented responsibility to protect public health by not allowing new tobacco products under FDA’s authority to come to market without FDA review.”

To put this into context, when I wrote about the FDA in March the agency had received about 3,500 new product applications. The most reasonable interpretation of the law giving the agency authority over tobacco implies that these reviews should take only 90 days, and certainly no more than 180, yet some of these have languished in a bureaucratic quagmire for years. Issuing only six decisions since 2009, with more than 100 employees at work reviewing them, is hardly an accomplishment worthy of praise.

(If you’re wondering, Hestia Tobacco, the brand I profiled for The Atlantic, remains tied up in the review process with no end in sight.)

It’s also worth emphasizing what these approvals don’t mean. They don’t mean that these two new cigarettes are any safer than products already on the market, only that they don’t raise any new questions of health. In other words, they’re just as lethal — though no more so, we are told to believe — as other cigarettes. New cigarettes like Hestia, which by any sensible standard also raise no new questions of public health, continue to be blocked. It’s difficult to see what good is accomplished by requiring them to go through this lengthy approval process.

And in the midst of this, the future of e-cigarettes remains unclear. As I explained at The Umlaut this week, this product that is indisputably safer than real cigarettes may soon fall under the same heavy-handed regulation that has brought the tobacco industry to a standstill. If that happens, the FDA will have even less to brag about that it does today.

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

Who’s killing the electronic cigarette?

That’s the topic of my article for The Ümlaut, a new website published by Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado:

Since no one seriously disputes that using e-cigarettes is far safer than habitually inhaling cigarette smoke, allowing them to compete should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the law allows the FDA to ban new tobacco products even when they are irrefutably safer than what is already for sale. The agency evaluates applications based not only on the risk to individual users, but also on how they impact smoking cessation and initiation in the population as a whole. If the FDA decides that these effects outweigh the health benefits, it could ban e-cigarettes not because they are dangerous, but rather in spite of their safety.

I feel obliged to make one update to the story. In it I say that the nadir of fear-mongering about e-cigarettes is a doctor from the Mayo Clinic telling journalist Eli Lake that the propylene glycol used in some brands is “similar to antifreeze.” He was recently outdone by a North Carolina doctor who appeared on a local news segment to warn viewers that e-cigarette vapor could be “several thousand degrees” when it hits your lungs. The physics of this would be rather remarkable, as would e-cigarette users’ ability to endure the product if it were true. Michael Siegel has the details and you can watch the segment here.

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.]