Recently, Ben Caudle, bartender at Hibiscus, challenged the Burning Question crew to shatter centuries of cultural indoctrination, shred the very ideals that define our country and ignore billions in advertising dollars.
Well, actually he mentioned something about inexpensive liquors comparing favorably to more popular and costly bottles, but we recognized the implications.
Our cherished American way of life hinges on a few things: a strong social-climbing instinct that limits any desire to break from the pack, a willingness to blindly accept marketing messages and a related equation of dollar signs or celebrity with value. Hell, if anyone actually listened to Kenny G or George W...
This modern cultural malaise is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. By regimenting behavior and establishing a class of ladder-climbing, backstabbing corporate types, the emerging business world encouraged Americans to fall in line. Hence when people order Grey Goose or Patron, some bartenders insist, they're simply following the masses, trying to fit in.
"No one is ordering based on research or taste," says Rodney Caprio, bartender at Sense. "Ninety percent won't be able to say why they drink a particular vodka."
Sure, they recognize brand names. Few, however, can argue the nuances of quality and taste.
"Like with anything, they don't take time to understand it," explains Nadia Lau of Shade. "America is such a branded country."
Now bear with us for a moment. We've alluded to the origins of modern culture. Recent generations, however, learned to associate personal identity with marketing presence. "What we drink is a status symbol," Caudle says. "How cool are you if you drink a $10 bottle of vodka?"
There's an assumption that quality is the sum of price and brand name, and often that's true. Yet behavioral research suggests labeling and pricing serve as cues for popular perception of taste. When test subjects tasted blindly, or with labels switched, results changed accordingly. "The marketers, they con us all the time," complains Ian Green, bartender at The Idle Rich. "'Triple distilled'--I don't know what it means, but I pay for it." There is a meaning, but such things matter only to discerning tastes. Besides, many people dilute their alcohol with a mixer--Coke, cranberry juice and so on--designed to mask the taste of alcohol.
"A Grey Goose cosmo, that's the stupidest thing in the world," notes Casey Powell, also of The Idle Rich.
Unfortunately, knowledge is dangerous. If people start examining things, entire industries might collapse: self-help, Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins, reality television, chain restaurants, blogs, conservative think tanks--just to name a few. The economic effect could devastate the country.
No problem, Caudle says, for "who's going to be adventurous enough to spend money on cheap bottles hoping they'll find a good one?"
The Burning Question crew drained dozens of bottles over a few days and...and...we can't seem to remember the results. So we visited a number of local establishments, gathering recommendations from bartenders.
Note: We priced everything at Goody Goody in Addison. The rest we stole from our editor's liquor cabinet.
The easiest category is vodka, the odorless, colorless and relatively flavorless spirit most subject to marketing whims. Monopolowa, at $11 a bottle, beats Grey Goose ($25). It's distilled and filtered only once, maintaining a bite of alcohol and noticeable hint of potato--the best vodka on the market besides XO ($46).
"Why would you pay $50 for a bottle of vodka?" Green wonders. "It's been filtered 27 times and comes from France? Snobs."
When it comes to tequila, we prefer Sauza Hornitos, a reposado. At $24 it compares favorably with Patron ($50). Bourbon is more difficult to pin down. We sampled Weller's and several other cheap bourbons, lost consciousness, sampled them again to be sure, then finally agreed with Phil Natale at Sense: "I think Maker's Mark is best for the price." Dalmore 12 Year ($27) ranks as the best of the value single-malt scotches. For Irish whiskey, try Power's Gold Label or Redbreast--both available at The Idle Rich. We never decided on a gin, although Boodles and Bombay--the regular stuff, not the sapphire version--stood out.
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Others exist, but how do you find them?
"Ask a bartender or one of the guys at a liquor store," says Mike Wallace of Meridian Room and The Old Monk. "Those guys know what's going on."
'Course, some of us just can't stomach the cheap stuff. On our visit to Shade, we urged Lau to sample some McCormick's, the swill spirit in any category. She wisely refused, adding: "Maybe I just have an expensive tongue."