Jeffrey Morgenthaler is Food Republic’s contributing cocktail editor and the author of the column Easy Drinking. He currently manages the bars Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko in Portland, Oregon, and is the author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.
Twenty years ago, when I started bartending, there were a limited number of liquor brands behind any standard bar. The selection at most establishments looked a lot like what you’d expect to see at the airport these days: the three most recognizable tequilas; four gins, maybe; American whiskey limited to guys named Jack and Jim; and that’s about it. But then this whole spirit and cocktail renaissance came along and suddenly it was craft this and small batch that. With all of the options facing you, the consumer, the options can be daunting.
There’s been a lot of recent debate about whether craft spirits are good or bad. On one side of the argument, you’ve got people throwing around words like “tradition” and “expertise.” On the other, you hear things like “handmade” and “local.” But words are just words, and when it comes down to it, it’s all about what’s in the glass, right? I’ve been burned by “high-end” leather goods manufacturers to the point where I won’t buy a wallet or bag that isn’t made by local artisans anymore. And on the flip side, I’ve had cheeseburgers at little mom and pop places that were so inedible they made me yearn for McDonald’s.
But if I’ve learned one thing in my travels and tastings around the world, it’s this general, if oversimplified, rule of thumb: Liquor made from grain is better from large distilleries, while liquor made from fruit is better from small producers. The easiest way to understand this lies no further than your breakfast table.
Like whiskey, cornflakes are made from a grain. We’ve all been lured in by those organic corn flakes with the drawing of a rainforest on the box at least once, right? They seem like they should be better than the big-brand stuff: no pesticides, non-GMO, made by a small company. But when you get them home, they just kind of…suck. They don’t have the texture, the flavor, or any part of the experience you had as a kid eating Kellogg’s. So what’s the deal? Well, with cornflakes, the raw material doesn’t have as much influence on the final product as the manufacturing method — there isn’t a massive disparity between good corn and great corn. But Kellogg’s invented cornflakes, and they’ve been tweaking their production methods for over a century. Their cornflakes just taste better than the rainforest ones, because like it or not, there’s a hell of a lot more to making cornflakes than just using really fancy grain.
But then consider orange juice. Despite claims of being all-natural, tasting “just like fresh squeezed” or being 100 percent juice, never from concentrate, orange juice from a large producer will never be as good as the stuff squeezed at your local restaurant or at home. It’s just not physically possible. Orange juice isn’t flavorful when it’s old, it can’t come from a large company, and the distance between the raw material and your glass can’t be more than a few feet.
These same rules generally apply when you talk about whiskey. Whiskey is a pretty industrial product made from grain, like cornflakes. The quality of the raw materials is not as important as the methods used to make it. So the stuff made by the guy who just started last year won’t be quite as good as the stuff that’s been made for over a century by the people who invented it.
But tequila is an agricultural product. It will always taste better when it’s made by small producers who know where their agave plants are coming from. It’s the same with Cognac. The few small producers left are making a really beautiful product because they’re growing their own grapes. That expensive tequila or Cognac you’re drinking in a nightclub will never be able to stand up to a small producer’s product, because the big companies have no idea where, exactly, their fruit was grown.
So the next time you’re at the liquor store getting the shit confused out of you by all those labels covered in buzzwords, just ask yourself: What is it made from? You might be able to save yourself a lot of hassle and possibly discover something really beautiful in the process.