Biting the Appellation
Certain words, when placed side by side, just sound wrong.
It's rather jarring, for example, to encounter phrases such as "French soldier" or "irrefutable evidence" or even "Bush administration"--phrases that, while grammatically correct, confound logic.
In the same manner, we accept Tennessee sour mash or single-malt highland scotch. Should Yoichi, a Japanese whiskey barrel-aged for 12 years, appear on the shelves, however, we may suddenly perform one of those Warner Bros. double takes.
Yep, Japanese whiskey--and it doesn't stop there. Oregon produces Momokawa, a premium sake. Tequilas distilled in Europe appear under such unlikely names as Blue Tarantula and Silver Gunmen. And while the Mexican government complains about..."Mexican government," now that's funny...the authenticity of such items, the Burning Question crew found--and disposed of--a bottle of Don Pedro brandy during a particularly lengthy "important interview" at Ciudad.
It wasn't bad, actually: a bit sweet at the start, followed by a wollop of spiciness and a citrus finish. Couldn't think of a better way to dispose of the stuff.
Mexico's battle to protect the regional identity of tequila is not unique. Congress established rules regarding the use of bourbon to describe American whiskey. The European Union recognizes ouzo as a product specific to Greece. And most people are familiar with the distinction between champagne and sparkling white wine.
So, is it right to produce alcohol in the wrong country?
"The reason why an alcohol is associated with a particular country or region is because the people of those countries used local resources and perfected a process over hundreds of years," explains Chris Michael, bartender at Nikita and other venues. Thus the Greeks developed ouzo based on anise and fennel, while the Scots used grain and peat to create their distinct liquor.
"But at the same time, it's absolutely possible to make a whiskey in Japan," he adds.
"Look at the example of wine," Mike Tanner, bartender at Abacus, points out. "Grapes that started in France are now grown in California and everywhere else, and some people argue they're doing it better."
Case in point: vodka. Versions distilled in the traditional countries of Poland and Russia barely resonate in the market. Meanwhile, says Shawn Egerton, Candle Room's standout bartender, "France didn't really make a vodka until Grey Goose, but it's the most popular brand we sell."
"As long as you have the right ingredients, they're fresh and the climate is right, you can duplicate almost anything," argues Ian Green, bartender at The Londoner.
Foreign vodkas may be drubbing the Russian brands, but name-brand whiskeys still dominate the market. In general, alcohols created and bottled outside a traditional region abandon heritage and mystique for the sake of, well, change and expansion. It often takes awhile for an unusual item to beat down popular perceptions. The Japanese whiskey industry has been around for 80 years. Other distilleries around the world--India, New Zealand--also produce the brown liquor. European merchants sold at least 3.5 million liters of knockoff tequila varieties annually in the late 1990s, just a few million liters less than Mexico exports in one month. ("Do they even know what an agave plant looks like?" asks Ciudad's Leann Berry of the European tequila, which may, in fact, be alcoholic aloe vera.)
"Ultimately, it's the expertise that matters more than the ingredients," contends Danny Versfelt, bartender at Al Biernat's. "It's not the same without the tradition, passed down through generations." Phil Natale of Sense concedes that sake produced in California and Oregon holds up against those imported from Japan--almost. "It's missing those generations upon generations of expertise," he echoes, "so typically it isn't going to be the same."
In other words, it's the idea of a Japanese whiskey or American sake, rather than the actual flavor, troubling consumers.
Still, American goods, at one time synonymous with quality, eventually bowed to "made in..." labels. In the food service industry, access to ingredients and chefs willing to blend tastes from different regions worked to broaden consumer palates. Once freed from traditional snobbery, non-French wines exploded in popularity. Beer and vodka also lost much of their regional claims to superiority. Other alcohols are now engaged in the same process.
"Sometimes meaning develops spontaneously," says Matthew, poet laureate of Dallas nightlife and bartender at Passport. He points to cognac, once a haughty and urbane reward, now a part of hip-hop culture. "It's not a matter of authenticity, necessarily," he says of the relationship between alcohol and place, "because who is it authentic for?"
And that's a good question--not one worth pondering after a night in which the Burning Question crew visited Dragonfly, Republic, Passport and Seven, but...um...this was going somewhere.
"Probably there are certain things that belong to one region," Green points out. "But the world gets smaller, and things change."
This week's Burning Question, then, is a matter of learned expectations vs. the forces of change. "There's an evolution," says Michael--who clearly meant to say "biological changes over time." He doubts that patrons reference a particular country when ordering Belvedere or Vox or Turi. "How long does something have to be widely available before the country of origin no longer matters?"
Some find value in tradition and appellation. Others, like Shana Stephens, bartender at Tucker, consider people "too uptight" when it comes to such things.
Now, we've visited Eastern Europe and barely stomached its versions of brandy and whiskey (ending up with a Lithuanian custom official's hat--don't ask how--and a carload of brides), but we still must agree, in the end, with Michael's well-considered assessment:
"All I know is I've never had a bad drink from anywhere."
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