Excerpt from “Guide to Urban Moonshining, How to Make and Drink Whiskey”
by Colin Spoelman and David Haskell
When asked by the bartender to order a drink, you would be right to
order a whiskey, but you wouldn't be typical. Statistically, Americans are more
likely to order vodka. (This country drank 63 million cases of vodka in 2011.)
And among those average Americans, one out of every ten orders
a "super-premium" vodka, like Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ciroc, or Ketel One.
If you take anything from this book, I hope it will be that every
vodka order is a missed opportunity.
Vodka is a feat of engineering. By definition via American law, it has no
"distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color," and so vodkas differentiate
themselves by the vague characteristic of smoothness. This is not purely
marketing, but it is a narrow way to judge a spirit. Smoothness is achieved
not by trial and error, or experimentation, or happenstance, or tradition,
but by industrialized, scientifically rigorous, efficiency-optimized equipment.
There are no ghosts in vodka. It is the least lyrical of spirits, made to
be adulterated, covered over, diluted, and hidden.
If an invisible dose of ethanol is what you're looking for, then I suppose vodka makes sense.
It can be intense to drink distilled ethanol (which, incidentally, comprises 10 percent of commercial gasoline—don't think about that too hard) right from the still, so over time, distillers learned to dress up vodka in lots of different ways. Most gin and absinthe originate as vodka before being infused and redistilled with flavoring agents. Liqueurs such as triple-sec, schnapps, amaretto, and ouzo are vodkas infused through a process not unlike the Russian Samovar's, with sugar added. But vodka succeeds at being the most versatile spirit because it's the least interesting, which suggests that the astronomic sales of super-premium vodkas are one of the great advertising triumphs of modern history. Incidentally, this is true not only of big players like Grey Goose. I've seen several small distilleries bill their vodka as a sipping vodka pointing out the positive aspects of the taste of their spirits. This is by definition is impossible. If they are making vodka that has a taste, they are breaking the law.
Why not drink something else? Gin is flavored vodka by a different name. Rum can be an interesting spirit, but too often reminds me of its origin as a cheap alternative to whiskey and brandy, made by slaveholding colonialists out to create something intoxicating the easiest way possible. Tequila and its cousin mescal get closer to a true craftsman's spirit, but they can be made only in certain parts of Mexico. Brandy is, to my mind, the only other spirit competitive to whiskey as a rewarding quotidian drink, though for me it, too, sits at a far remove from American history and experience.
Whiskey, though—whiskey is steeped in America. It is the spirit that George Washington distilled at home and offered to his troops during the Revolutionary War, and the spirit Thomas Jefferson foresaw when granting land in western Virginia to corn growers. It is the spirit that defined the soul of the South after its defeat in the Civil War, and the spirit that was most easily manufactured (sometimes through grossly artificial means) during Prohibition, fueling the urban speakeasies of the Jazz Age, before the hangover of the Great Depression. And it is the spirit of Appalachian moonshiners throughout Prohibition's long and tangled aftermath.
Whiskey evokes the place of its making, as weather and climate influence its fermentation and aging. It measures time in degrees of color and taste, the liquid gradually darkening and mellowing in a warehouse full of wood ticking and creaking as shifts in temperature mediate pressure in the barrels through the seasons. It tastes of both past and present. It is, literally, a field of grain, cooked and fermented; distilled and aged; reduced to something of such great and abstract value that it is cherished next to art and literature. It is simultaneously inert and living, conservative and liberal, rarefied and common. Of all the spirits, it is the most challenging and rewarding to make, as well as the most personal. There is a reason why so many bourbons are named after people and so few other spirits are.
And so back to the metaphorical bar, and the question of what to drink. Let me offer some suggestions. Choose whiskey. Drink it neat. Try many kinds. Drink it outdoors if the weather permits, or near a fire if not. Drink it only on special occasions—though this is not meant to limit your consumption so much as force you to evaluate your blessings at any given time and consecrate them with whiskey. Whiskey is designed for company, and it is best shared. And the only proper way to consume it is to count your joys and acknowledge your sadness, and remind yourself of the ghosts of spirits past that live on in glass to glass.