A man in a tailored suit stepped into the elevator, saw my media badge, then immediately reached into his pocket to brandish a sealed, single-serving drink he described as a “super-premium shot.”
It resembled a transparent Keurig pod filled with a clear liquid. What type of liquid and what flavor I failed to learn because, well… have you ever been in a plummeting elevator with a stranger waving a plastic shot of something in your face while excitably repeating “the next big thing”? Fight or flight kicked in, big time.
I was at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas this week for the massive annual Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America convention. I’ve attended several times in the past, and each time I felt as if I’ve suddenly stepped into a colorful, Oz-like land — one populated with vacantly smiling Amazonian models in slinky black cocktail dresses always proffering colorful drinks (except for the vacantly smiling models dressed in storm-trooper leather proffering rum shots). Also: guys in suits either hawking the next big thing, or in steely-eyed search for it.
The focus here has rarely been on the quality or authenticity or story behind the spirits, but on who has best arranged a forced marriage between alcohol and flavors of childhood. (It was here I was first introduced to Adult Chocolate Milk and Skittles-inspired flavored vodka. And cake-flavored vodka. Lots of cake-flavored vodka.)
Yet, despite my elevator encounter, my sense was that the annual gathering was starting to grow up. There were fewer cake and candy flavors, and a lot more flavors trending toward exotic and interesting.
Danny Brager, a senior-vice president at Nielsen, a firm that takes an unseemly interest in what you drink and why, said at one panel discussion a “broader revolution around generational changes” was underway. He suggested that Millenials are focused more on what’s local and what’s authentic. Essentially, they’re looking for the Etsy of liquor, he said — they’re drawn to smaller brands with a story and a handcrafted touch. Big Liquor doesn’t interest them so much.
Not that bro-booze, you-go-girlfriend! ready-to-drink cocktails, and cake and candy vodka flavors will disappear. (And don’t even ask me about Vodquila.) But in roaming the expo and getting lost in endless hospitality suites, I sensed that the industry was starting to recalibrate somewhat.
“There’s an overlap between what craft spirits offer and what Millenials are looking for,” said Tom Mooney, the president of new American Craft Distillers Association and a CEO of House Spirits in Oregon, at the panel. ”This is a fortuitous circumstance of Millenials coming of age and craft sprits coming of age, and hopefully they’ll stay together for life.”
I tasted more intriguing, challenging products here than in the past. That included Black Balsam, a Latvian-based fernet with a recipe dating to 1752 that’s now stepping up its efforts in the U.S. after lackluster distribution in the past.
And a new, complex two-year aged wheat whiskey coming off Germain-Robin’s antique copper pot still. And an exceedingly tasty barrel strength rye sourced by Redemption — with six years in wood and bottled at just over at 120 proof.
Even when flavors were involved, they seemed to venture beyond the nursery. I liked the Selveray Cacao Rum, an aged Panamanian rum with sophisticated dark-chocolate notes. Even the Stolen rum flavored with tobacco and coffee — which isn’t wholly original; remember Ivanabitch Vodka’s tobacco and menthol flavors? — had a challenging, slightly sulfurous bite that could do well paired up with a dense vermouth and offsetting bitters.
And the bottled cocktails I sampled stuck me as better and far more natural tasting than in the past. The Miami Cocktail Co. had bottled drinks (mojito, sweat tea, pina colada) made with all natural ingredients which managed to avoid the metallic taste of the New Jersey turnpike flavor-industrial complex. Even better were the three bottled cocktails created by Charles Joly for Crafthouse (Moscow mule, paloma, south side). At my first sip of the Southside, I thought, whoa, someone finally figured out how to preserve the crisp taste of freshly squeezed lime in a bottle. That’s no mean feat.
I didn’t see the Ivanabitch folks this year, nor the Skittles-inspired vodka. It seemed as if the party had been moved from the toddler’s nursery to the tween’s rumpus room.
Carving out a space in the liquor world demands a deft touch. If you’re just staring out, it’s not enough to copy a successful mainstream liquor, like Bulleit Bourbon or Appleton Rum. New producers will always lose the distribution and advertising wars, not to mention economies of scale. But neither can they jump the shark too audaciously, because that triggers ridicule.
This year, I didn’t notice as many sharks circling nor guys in suits jumping. The space between too-familiar and too-fatuous seemed to be growing a little more populated, a little more inclusive, a lot more interesting.
Still, be alert when you’re in the elevators.