A bevy of booze reviews

It’s hard to believe 2009 is almost at an end. Among my unfinished business is a stack of spirits up for review. Time’s a wastin’, so let’s get to it…

Gosling’s Ginger Beer — A few months ago I wrote about trademarking cocktail names, a discussion inspired by an ad run by Zaya touting its rum as an ingredient in a Dark ‘n Stormy (traditionally made with Gosling’s rum, ginger beer, and a squeeze of lime). It turned out the name of that cocktail is owned by Gosling’s, who defended the trademark. I sided with Zaya at the time and in response Gosling’s kindly sent me a six-pack of their ginger beer so that I could experiment with the drink.

The beer has a fairly strong ginger kick which is essential in this cocktail. And as they say, the Gosling’s rum makes a tasty Dark ‘n Stormy. But here’s the thing: So does Zaya. I tried them side-by-side and enjoyed them both. They’re different, with a bit more of the rum coming through on the Zaya, but I can’t imagine anyone getting turned off this drink because they tried it with Zaya instead of the original Gosling’s.

In defense of Gosling’s, I understand why they want to defend their trademark so that it’s not used by low-quality rums. And I’d gladly recommend its use in this cocktail, especially given that it can be found for one-half to a third of the price of Zaya. However I stand by my earlier general stance against trademarking cocktail names.

House Spirits White Dog and Barrel Strength Whiskeys — As microdistilleries have boomed across the country we’ve started to see releases of whiskey along with the usual vodkas and gins. While often interesting, I don’t always find that these new whiskeys are worth their boutique prices. Two that are come from Portland-based House Spirits’ newest additions to its apothecary line. The unaged White Dog, made of 100% malted barley, is hot and complex with an intriguing malty flavor, easily my favorite of the white dogs I’ve tried so far. Their cask-strength whiskey aged for 32 months in new American oak is good as well, with a big, spicy kick mellowed by caramel notes from the wood. With only 150 375 ml bottles of White Dog and 160 375 ml bottles of Barrel Strength released, these are hard to find and worth adding to one’s whiskey collection. (House has released a 750 ml Straight Malt whiskey too, but I haven’t purchased a bottle yet.)

Pernod Aux Plantes D’Absinthe Superiore — I’m by no means an absinthe connoisseur but when a bottle of Pernod arrived at my door I was happy to try it out. The first thing I noticed was the strikingly green color, the result, unfortunately, of adding artificial dyes. I suppose they’re doing this to meet customer expectation that absinthe is green but I’d rather see the natural results of maceration.

It louches predictably in a traditional preparation. Without sugar it has a lingering bitterness; with sugar it smooths out. I might use it as an accent in cocktails but with so many other absinthes on the market now it wouldn’t be my choice for drinking on its own.

Xanté Pear Liqueur — Given the sex-fueled marketing that used to attend this product I was expecting a cloyingly sweet, night club-style liqueur. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this is actually a well-balanced spirit. At 76 proof it’s not excessively sweet and the pear flavor is strong but not overwhelming. It’s enjoyable to sip with an ice cube or two and I could easily see it working in fall or winter cocktails.

Balcones Rumble — We’ll wrap up with a product from my home state. Balcones Rumble is distilled in Waco, Texas from wildflower honey, turbinado sugar, and mission figs. The nose is unique and the flavor has sweet, stone fruit notes. I like the initial taste but the lingering heat is a bit much, comparable to a cigar that burns too hot. I’d like to try this product again with a little more aging or perhaps a lower proof, but it’s nonetheless an original spirit I’m glad to have on my shelf.

Dark ‘n’ Sue Me

The Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a cocktail I like on a summer day. And like any good bartender, I know that it’s generally made with Gosling’s Black Seal Rum. What I didn’t know is that the name of the drink is a legal trademark:

That’s according to two trademark certificates on file with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which — in an exceptionally rare instance in the cocktail world — dictate the precise ingredients and amounts required to call a Dark ‘n’ Stormy, well, a Dark ‘n’ Stormy.

“We defend that trademark vigorously, which is a very time-consuming and expensive thing,” said E. Malcolm Gosling Jr., whose family has owned Gosling’s since its founding in Bermuda in 1806. “That’s a valuable asset that we need to protect.”

But a trademark-protected drink — especially one as storied and neo-classically cool as a Dark ‘n’ Stormy — seems anathema to the current bartending practice of putting creative individual spins on time-tested drinks. Drinks like this one undergo something like a wiki process: a tweak here, a substitution there, and the drink is reimagined.

As this article at Halogen Life notes, applying intellectual property to cocktails is a rare thing. (The article uses “patent,” “copyright,” and “trademark” somewhat interchangeably, but I think it generally intends to refer to trademarks.) An early example (non-trademark) is the Bacardi cocktail, which by court decision can only be made with Bacardi rum. This is understandable given the value of the brand name and the expectations of customers ordering it. Similarly, if a customer orders a Captain and Coke the bartender shouldn’t serve him a Sailor Jerry’s and Pepsi instead, at least not without asking. (Though I have to wonder if it’s possible to harm the Captain Morgan brand any more than one would do by actually serving Captain Morgan.)

Of the few cocktails that are trademarked, most are the gimmicky concoctions found in chain restaurants and tourist spots. The Dark ‘n’ Stormy is a rare trademarked cocktail that craft bartenders care about.

This would all be of merely intellectual interest if not for the fact that a competing rum company, Zaya, ran an ad in the most recent issue of Imbibe recommending its 12 Year Estate Rum in a Dark ‘n’ Stormy. According to the New York Times article quoted above, Gosling’s plans to take action protecting their trademark. Zaya responded with a press release arriving in my inbox on Monday:

Zaya Rum fully supports Mixology as an artform. By imposing a trademark or patent on a cocktail recipe one is suggesting to undermine a Mixologists’ artistic freedom. We applaud bartenders who put their personal thumbprint on a libation as an integral part of the artform; it’s what creates a recipe in the first place.

Gosling’s might be on solid legal ground, but as a craft bartender I’m firmly on the side of Zaya. I use Gosling’s in a Dark ‘n’ Stormy because it tastes good, but it’s hardly written in the fabric of the universe that no other rum pairs so perfectly with ginger beer. If another rum company thinks they’ve made a product that’s even better, I want them to tell me about it. Using unique ingredients in classic cocktails is part of what makes tending bar creative. For example, a couple weeks ago my pal RumDood wrote about his good results substituting different rums in the Painkiller, a cocktail marketed by Pusser’s Navy Rum. It’s that kind of experimentation that moves mixology forward.

Gosling’s contends that using any other rum in a Dark ‘n’ Stormy would leave customers unimpressed, decreasing sales of the cocktail and therefore of Gosling’s itself. Perhaps. The New York Times compares Gosling’s to Campari, but you don’t see bartenders throwing other Italian aperitifs willy-nilly into Negronis despite that drink’s not having any trademark that I know of. Or they give the drink a new name if they do, like the Cin-Cyn using Cynar; not because they’re required to, but because Campari really is distinctive enough to merit its own iconic cocktail. This kind of bottom-up market test is a working method of deciding when a recipe deserves a distinct name.

So when I see Gosling’s calling in the lawyers to prevent people from trying out substitutes, I start to doubt whether their rum is as good as they say it is. Hell, they’re a rum company. Would this kind of behavior impress Ernest Hemingway? Or would he mock them from his bar stool whilst demonstrating knife stunts and tossing back a daiquiri? The question answers itself!

Here’s the three-word response I’d rather see from Gosling’s: “Bring. It. On.” Dark ‘n’ Stormy competition, blind tastings by a panel of consumers and mixologists, sampled side-by-side. The loser pays for the winner’s ad campaign touting its brand as the ultimate rum for the Dark ‘n’ Stormy. What do you say, Gosling’s? Will you put your money where your mouth is?

No, of course they won’t. And I can’t say I blame them. They’ve got a good thing going with their trademark and no reason to risk losing it. But their actions have made me want to switch brands out of spite. If a “Dark ‘n’ Sue Me” shows up on my cocktail menu soon, you’ll know I found a winner.

Further discussion: Inventor’s Rock provides legal clarification and Vidiot at Cocktailians provides an excellent overview of coverage.

Update: It’s worth noting that Australian rum maker Bundaberg markets a bottled Dark and Stormy beverage. I have no idea if they have any plans to enter the US market, but keeping that particular bottle off of store shelves might be one reason Gosling defends its trademark so vigorously.