What it is

Late-breaking telexes from the craft spirit front by Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, columnist for Imbibe, and designated drinker for The Atlantic magazine.

  • And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails
    by Wayne Curtis

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Entries in trends (42)


Attention craft distillers: Sharp turn ahead

“We need to communicate to consumers what ‘real’ craft is.”

This is what people in the craft distilling movement have been saying loudly and often for the past two or three years — that there’s a dire need to separate out the “makers” from the “fakers,” those who actually use their experience and skills to produce excellent spirits, and those who merely buy in bulk and rebottle, then market and price their product as if it were handcrafted.

But the most debatable word in the quote above isn’t “craft.” It’s “we.” Because this was said to the Financial Times by Alexandre Ricard, the newly appointed chief executive of Pernod-Ricard, maker of Martell cognac, Absolut vodka, Jameson whiskey, among others, and the second largest spirits company in the world. This is the most high-profile acknowledgement to date that craft spirits may be eating into the bottom line of the major producers.

Recent financial reports from liquor conglomerates have shown slowing of sales in the U.S. market, and a likely culprit is the rise of craft spirits. A younger generation in particular seems to be looking for “local” and “authentic” and want to buy products that better convey who they are. And they emphatically are not a mass market brand.

The big players in spirits have been sniffing around the margins of the craft world for a few years, waiting to see what happens, and gathering up some low fruit. But I’d wager than in years to come, Ricard’s comment will be seen as the equivalent of the firing on Fort Sumter that launched the U.S. Civil War.

While craft producers have been fighting a low-key rear-guard war against the fakers, this opens a far larger and more fraught front, in which the major producers will fight to own the term “craft.” “I’m struggling with the definition of craft spirits,” Ricard said. “Does it have to mean small? Or an entrepreneur with a pot-still in his garage?” Or could it mean anything produced with an eye to quality, such as Jameson? He didn’t ask that, but he didn’t have to. Budweiser opted to mock craft beers in its current ad campaign, but big liquor will fight to own it.

This may also be seen as a turning point in the craft distilling world in another way. I just returned from the American Craft Spirits Association second annual meeting in Austin. Harry Kohlmann of Park Street Imports, in the best presentation of the conference, suggested that the next few years will see the Diageos, Pernod-Ricards, and Brown-Formans of the world acquiring broad regional portfolios of craft spirits. Each might acquire a half-dozen or more small spirits makers — say, one each in the Northeast, the Pacific Northwest, California, Rockies, etc. They could then flood the zone, and erect a defensive line against further encroachments from those garage-based pot stills. (This will work only if they can wrestle the definition of “craft” away from a focus on ownership and make it interchangeable with quality.)

This scenario seems completely reasonable. And it will signal the opening of yet another front in the fight over craft distilling: the battle to become the dominant craft distiller in each region, thereby inviting courtship from the majors and the potential for a huge payout.

Craft distilling was launched with a sort of boot strap mentality —“the entrepreneur with a pot-still in his garage.” The field was generally marked by congeniality, with regional producers helping one another out, since everyone was competing against the big guys.

But that era may be drawing to a close. We’ve seen much more serious money moving in and funding high profile distillery start-ups. And if there was a mantra at this year’s ACSA conference, it was “own your own backyard” — that is, focus regionally, not nationally. The unsaid part was: "Position yourself for buyouts."

Where's this all headed? No one really knows. But craft distilling looks as it will soon have more of a burn on entry, and a long finish dominated by persistent notes of redefinition.


Here's company! Craft distilling crowds the room

Everybody agrees that craft distilling is booming.

And that’s about the only thing everybody agrees on. How to define a craft distiller? How many have launched? How many are actually producing bottles for the shelves? That's all subject to quibbling.

Here then, in that context, is the latest round of figures, as compiled by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and released at this morning's annual state of the industry report:

DISCUS identified 729 distillers who produce fewer than 100,000 cases per year. (That's the most generally accepted defintiion of "craft.") Of these, the vast majority — 712 — are producing fewer than 50,000 cases a year. (Many far less — the average production in this group is just 3,000 cases.)

Of note: The group of larger craft distillers (which now average 80,000 cases per year) are growing. Seventeen were in the 50K to 100K cases per year in 2014; in 2010, only two fit that that category.

While total craft production remains fairly miniscule, accounting for just 1.7 percent of national spirits sales by volume, producers are typically selling more expensive spirits, priced at $25 or $30 or higher. DISCUS estimates that craft distillers are collectively now bringing in $400 to $450 million annually. "They've become a fairly sizeable part of the entire market," said DISCUS economist David Ozgo.


Big Shoe embraces Fernet Branca

I spent a week in Las Vegas on an assignment recently, working on a story about Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s $350 million roll of the dice to reinvent downtown Las Vegas. Slow Cocktails isn't about urban redevelopment, but I’ll link to the story —> here <— when it’s published next year. Fascinating things are happening in Las Vegas — if you’re curious, you should read this recent NYT Magazine piece about Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) and the Downtown Project.

This blog’s jurisdiction is liquor, people who make it, things to do with it, and places to drink it. So it caught my eye when walking through Hsieh’s apartment in a downtown tower just off Fremont St. — actually a warren of three linked units — and I noticed a Fernet Branca dispenser.

You might think that something like this would instantly leap out, but it didn’t. That’s because of the room where it was stationed. It was the jungle room, designed as a place for parties — a dim and grotto-like space, which was filled with plants.

Now when people say “filled with plants” this usually suggests a few potted palms and some hanging ferns. Maybe you thought of Henry Africa’s, San Francisco’s proto-fern bar.

But this room was more like a fern bar after a long regimen of XTC and steroids: basically every square inch of wall and ceiling was smothered with plants. The walls had been covered with permeable fabric covered with marsupial pouches, which were filled with soil and implanted with tropical plants with dense leaves and wispy tendrils. I met two women whose job it was to water the room every day.

What was I talking about? Oh, right, Fernet Branca.

The room had a bar along the far end, and at one end of the bar was the Fernet Branca machine. This was gift to Hsieh from friends and staff — they had acquired a Jägermeister machine, then spray painted and lacquered it with Fernet labels and tweaked the bottle holders to switch from square Jäger bottles to round Fernet.

I positioned a shot glass and pressed a button, and out came a cold refreshing shot of Fernet. Well, refreshing in that freakishly refreshing way of Fernet.

Fernet is apparently more than a one-room novelty at Zappos. It’s part of the corporate culture, especially if it involves Tony. I spent part of an evening at the Downtown Cocktail Room, where Zappos and Downtown Project staffers keep office hours after hours. When my tab came, somehow I had been erroneously billed for eight shots of Fernet. Random!

Later I attended a meeting of the Downtown Project, and during it they celebrated the first-year anniversary of several staffers. They were called up on to stage, whereupon each was handed a shot of Fernet to down. Hsieh joined in. I watched carefully. He drank it all.

When I talked with Hsieh later, I asked about the Zappos/Fernet culture. He smiled, and became far more animated than when he was talking about footwear.

He’d learned of Fernet when Zappos was still in San Francisco about a decade ago. “It was sort of the secret handshake of people who worked in the service industry,” he said. “When I first moved to Vegas it was impossible to find, but it’s been slowly migrating east.”

“We know the Fernet distributor in Vegas,” he went on. “The number one consumer of Fernet here is the Cosmopolitan, and then the number three is the Downtown Cocktail Room. The wholesaler who supplies my house is number four. But if you combine three and four, we’re actually number one.”

He seemed very pleased by this fact. Tony Hsieh is well-known for the epic parties he threw at his San Francisco loft, his early success in building one dot-com fortune, and then another. (He sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion.) But he may soon also be famous for this: introducing a generation of urban planners and economic development types to Fernet.

If the new downtown Vegas takes off, I’ll wager you’ll be seeing bow-tied urban planners nationwide asking for Fernet at neighborhood bars like bartenders just off a shift. Success breeds imitation, right?


Loggerhead, sugar cone, sugar snips. Must be time for a cocktail


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Something's been lost in contemporary cocktail culture. It’s no longer the subculture it was a few years ago, one of those hidden cultural cul-de-sacs filled with quirky individual passions — people obsessed about tinctures or 19th century history or defunct tiki bars or whatever.

Cocktail culture at some point in the last few years crossed the Rubicon, and now sits squarely in pop culture territory. Too often it attracts new adherents for no other reason than it’s where the cool kids hang out. I mean, who doesn’t want to hang out with the cool kids? So, to fit in, callow newcomers learn a couple of bartending tricks and then grow their Edwardian mustaches. They set their flame on low, and fuel it not with a deep-seated curiosity about bitters or the sociology of ancient saloon life. Rather, they're driven by a deep-seated desire to drink free liquor and get laid.

So last night, it was nice to see some old-fashioned flint-and-tinder flames again, both literal and metaphorical.

I’d gotten an invitation to stop by from Nathan Dalton, the bar manager for Felipe’s, a Mexican joint which has great margaritas made with fresh limes, but it's a place you don't see on those must-visit lists for craft cocktail pilgrims doing the stations of the cross in New Orleans. He said was hosting a small party at his house with colonial cocktails, and thought I might want to check it out.

Well... obviously. I got to his house about 10:30. It’s a eggplant-hued shotgun far out in the Bywater. I walked in, and then, in classic shotgun style, walked through the living room, the kitchen, the bedroom, and the bathroom. I turned left at the bathtub, whereupon I entered an extraordinary bar. A great collection of intriguing liquor cluttered tiered shelves, and there was an assortment of quality bar tools spread on a tall, long table.

And there was a loggerhead. And a sugar cone. And wonderful antique set of sugar scissors. (Read more about early sugar ritual and culture here).

Nathan was making up a Rattleskull when I arrived, with brandy, rum, wine, and porter, garnished with fresh nutmeg. He made mimbos and bombos, and grog and a lovely Stone Fence with a delicate hard cider and Appleton rum, with some sugar snipped off to round off the tartness.

I helped out with the second round of flip. The loggerhead — an ironmonger friend had crafted it for him and his wife — met the propane flame, and heated for about a half hour. We shut off the lights from time to time, and eventually the loggerhead's head glowed a soft crimson all the way through. It looked like Jupiter viewed through a powerful telescope. We killed the music, and then the loggerhead went into a pottery pitcher full of rum, molasses, and Guinness. It hissed and sputtered and put up a fight as will happen, but eventually it capitulated, leaving a cappuccino-like foam on top. (The liquid-to-loggerhead proportion was a bit too askew to properly caramelize the sugar and burn the grains. But it was still tasty.)

Sometime after midnight we got taking about Campari and then the conversation turned to cochineal, and Dalton got animated all over again. “I got some cochineal!” he said, having recently returned from a trip to Mexico. “You want to eat some bugs?”

He left the room and moments later returned with a sack about the size of three pound bag of flour filled with tiny dead insects. He said he paid $185 for it. We palmed a few — dried, they’re not much bigger than apple seeds — then popped them in our mouths. They were bitter, pleasingly so.

“You’ve got to watch this,” Dalton said, and then mixed some bugs into a cup of water. It instantly turned a deep ruby color, like a shot of Campari. “Now watch this,” he said, sounding more excited than Bill Nye the Science Guy, and squeezed in a bit of lime juice. And it instantly turned a golden yellow — the pH level could change the color, he said. Someone suggested adding baking powder to to try to turn it back to red. Dalton ran off to find some, but none was found. The liquid remained gold. We stared at it, thinking maybe hard looking would bring it back.

It didn’t — nor did the chalk we found. So I finished my Stone Fence, and departed a short while later. I bicycled six miles home through a warm New Orleans night. And I did so feeling more encouraged about where cocktails can take us than I have in a long, long time.


The Inebriator: at the intersection of brilliant and stupid

This has been getting some press since the end of summer, but I've been holed up in the woods. Yet that doesn't make me marvel less now that I'm out.

The Inebriator Arduino Powered Ccoktail Machine is equal parts fascinating and idiotic. A highball glass mounted on a sort of gurney that scuttles crab-like under upended bottles, returning from time to time to a gun station for mixers The drink demonstrated herein seems heroically unpotable (is that blue curacao added at the end?). Be scared:

I also liked the commentary from engineers about the device at the end of a recent article in Design News (“Serving the 21st Century Design Engineer”). It's a bit like eavesdropping on bartenders debating stepper motors and decelarators, although without well-wrought stories or the alcohol. Here's one:

The machine is very impersonal and I don't really see the point behind it. The entertainment behind it is loss by the robo-tech appearance. I'm an advocate for robots that perform tasks too dangerous for humans but making drinks for social events just doesn't seem right. Although the machine has no appeal to me, I agree with using the Arduino Mega2560 microcontroller platform in managing the Inebriator's extensive I/O.

All that being said, I want one.


Iceberg spotted off Manhattan

Next Monday Camper English and I are leading a seminar about exotic cocktail ice at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in New York.

I thought it would be a supremely clever idea to serve Zacapa rum over 10,000 year old ice, marking one end of the ice history spectrum. (On the other, more modern end, we’ve got two-inch pefrectly clear ice cubes and a demo of how to make hollow ice spheres, just like the cool kids at Aviary.)

And I thought, how hard can it be to have an iceberg shipped down to NYC? Right?

Well, it turns out that it takes some doing. Here’s the process:

1. Do you have a friend who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland? Good.

Convince them that it would probably be fun and a little adventurous to go to the coast near where an iceberg has run aground. This actually doesn’t require a lot of looking, because in the spring icebergs that have calved off Greenland glaciers head toward their certain demise in the warm Gulf Current. Around Newfoundland, they get all panicky and confused and run aground, just like those tropical sea turtles mesmerized by hotel lights. Once the icebergs get hung up, they start to break up into pieces ranging from the size of a suburban house to the size of a toaster. These are called “bergy bits.” Really.  

2. Have your friend convince a fishermen that it would actually be fun and a little adventurous to go to the mouth of the harbor and haul out a piece of ice about the size of a dorm refrigerator. This might involve the a bottle of rum or two. Screech is preferred.

3. Take the ice and hack it down so it fits in a big plastic picnic cooler you’ve purchased at Wal-Mart. Yes, they have Wal-Marts in Newfoundland.

4. Seal it with a whole role of duct tape.

5. Take it to the FedEx. Remain calm when the FedEx people shake their heads mournfully when you declare the contents as “ice,” then tell you that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires “prior clearance” for ice.

Call the FDA. Explain your problem to the nice lady who answers the Prior Clearance hotline. Your explanation will be followed by a long silence, then the lady will say “Do you mean iceberg lettuce?” When you explain further, the lady will say, “Oh, you mean like an iceberg floating in the sea?” Say, yes, and after another long silence, she’ll tell you that, no, you don’t need prior clearance for that. She'll say to have the FedEx person call her.

6. Back at FedEx the next morning, fill out four (4) additional lengthy, detailed forms involved in shipping an iceberg. This includes a form to be filed with the NAFTA people. Really. You’l know all about these forms owing to the increasingly aggravated and annoyed emails and texts from your friend, or former friend — it's not quite clear where things stand. Pay more than $300 to ship ice overnight to New York.

7. Track the shipment on the FedEx website. It’s being sent to a cold storage place in Queens, where you convinced someone that it would be fun and a litte adventurous to accept a cooler of iceberg ice and keep it in their walk-in frezer for the weekend. When the cooler misses the FedEx connection in Maspeth, slap forehead and say, “Shit!” Then be thankful when an afternoon van picks it up and delivers it.

8. A couple of days later, board flight to New York. Go to room where ice seminar will be held. Open the cooler and hope that enough bergy bit remains to hack up with ice picks and put into about 75 glasses. (If you're from the FDA and are reading this, these are "decorative" ice pieces, as per the form.)

Also hope it’s ice from the lower part of a glacier. Because then the air bubbles are so compacted from the sheer weight of the glacier that they pop and fizz as the ice melts. And then you can lean forward and inhale 10,000 year old air as it’s released from its icy tomb, where it’s been waiting for you since before written history began.

In a hotel ballroom. In midtown Manhattan.

Hope to see you on Monday at Manhattan Cocktail Classic.


Parade of Horribles: Not-liquors of 2012

Since I got home earlier this month I've been sifting through my notes from the Wholesale Wine and Spirits Association convention in Las Vegas, flagging some of best products I found as I staggered through hundreds of acres of liquor vendors. I’ve posted about a handful of my favorites over the past couple of weeks.

Now, for the other stuff.

Most of this comes under the category of Not-Liquor. This category arose one afternoon when I was shuffling my weary way across the convention floor and I spied a substantial sign at the end of an aisle reading “NOT LIQUOR.”

My initial thought was, “Well, thank god! An honest dealer!” It’s about time somebody selling some crappy flavored spittle made from neutral grain spirits manned up and admitted what they were actually selling: Kid drinks that will give you a hangover.

Then I neared and discovered that my aging eyes were failing me. This was, in fact, “NUT LIQUOR,” or what’s billed as a “69 proof peanut butter vodka... blended to taste like the inside of a peanut butter cup with no harsh aftertaste.”

Well, never mind.

From that moment on, however, the category of Not Liquor only grew larger in my mind. If a Nobel Prize was awarded for Valorous Attempts at Disguising the Taste of Liquor, these would be the nominees for 2012:

Wild African Cream. Sold in a bottle with a velourish leopardskin skin. (“The packaging incorporates an alluring, yet soft-to-the-touch leopard print coat that adds prominence in any setting. Through the tactility of the packaging, Wild Africa Cream aims to invoke the consumer to not only look at the bottle, but touch it …”) Tastes like Bailey’s, but, um, more African?

Desiree Cupcake Vodka. I'll let the marketing material speak for itself: “It’s like vanilla pound cake, but with a creamy, eggy finish.”

Creamy-Creation. These are frozen drinks (12.5% alcohol) sold in metal foil pouches that you unscrew and squeeze out like a frozen pop. I had root beer float, which tasted like a root beer float. But more so.

The pouches have a small hole in one corner to clip on to a lanyard, so you can affect the stylish conventioneer look while out drinking. A company spokesman explained to me that it was designed such that women could wear them around their necks while dancing. They don’t have to put their drink down on some skeevy ledge or table. “And they don’t have to worry about somebody slipping drugs into their drink.”

Trend-watch: roofie-resistent cocktails. Coming to a bar near you.

Choco-Lat: A “Deluxe Chocolate Liqueur.” Nominated for name alone. Sounds sort of French. But not.

Choco-Noir Chocolate Raspberry Wine Specialty: Berries. Chocolate. Red wine. In one bottle. All that need be done now is figure out how to add callow sex. Then tens of thousands of people could stay at home alone on Saturday nights and watch TV.      

Twist in a Glass: Winners of the Unclear on the Concept Award: cocktail glass-shaped beverage containers sealed with a foil covering and containing mixer with no liquor.

So… you buy the individual mixer in its own glass, then buy some liquor and stir it in. Except that these were all filled to the brim, so there was no room to add liquor without pouring out about one-third of the mixer. “I was wondering why everybody was holding them up and commenting on how full they were,” said a booth person. Also: winner of the Literally Not Liquor Award.

Skitka Vodka: It’s billed as “The Original Fruit Candy Vodka,” but don’t be confused: Skitka has nothing at all to do with Skittles® candies. Pay no attention to the promotional packages at the booth featuring little packs of Skittles. Nor that the vodka comes in five goofy flavors (Orange You Glad, Strawberry Feels, Grape Escape, Lime Wired, Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy), not unlike a best-selling candy.  

I asked about the genesis of the idea, and was told it arose from something the founder saw on Pintrest about how to mix vodka and Skittles. When she asked her college-aged kids about this, it turned out that — um, duh!everybody knew about Skittles vodka.  “Turns out it was all over the internet,” she said. “There are, like, 300 YouTube videos on how to make it. We created this because of demand.” (I know you’re curious. Here’s one.)

How did these vodkas taste? I don’t know. I wasn't offered a sample, and didn't ask for one. I was told, with portentously raised eyebrow, that only 10 bottles of Skitka existed in the entire known universe. And here they were right in front of me.

Whoa. I took a respectful step back.

When will it be more generally available? No word on that either. WSWA is all about lining up distributors and chasing the dream. But allow me to add one thing: I was at WSWA two years ago and made fun of a silly new product called Adult Chocolate Milk. It’s now available in 40 states.

Skitka Vodka: Winner, Not Liquor of the Year, 2012. Congratulations! Also winner, in a walk, of the No, Of Course We’re Not Marketing to Underage Drinkers Award.


Nutmeg adventures, cont’d

A couple of months ago I wrote about the curious side effects of large doses of nutmeg in The Atlantic. The magazine recieved a lot of letters about it. I'd like to be flattered by this, but the majority of missives were complaints about my choice of words when I noted that "Nutmeg will fuck you up." (This outpouring has caused me to recalibrate my mental image of the average Atlantic reader.)

Other letters have arrived directly via my freelance website. In fact, this one arrived last week, entitled "Man, Are You Ever Late to the Party!" More that 50 years late, evidently. It was from a man named Robert McManus. And he was OK with my printing his letter with attribution:

In 1959, a fraternity brother at Yale told me you could get high on "2 tbsp of nutmeg in a glass of hot water."  So I tried it.  I gulped this down in my room about 6 p.m. My buddies all watched with scientific interest for a while, but after half an hour or so, I pronounced this recipe a fraud, and we all went to dinner.

Around coffee time, I very suddenly felt as if someone had "slipped me a mickey" (as they used to say).  I barely made it back to my room and my bed.  My buddies all went out to a movie.

I then had alarming dreams, which I later learned to describe as "psychedelic."  Giant clanking machines made of copper!   Then, I was drifting down through the hole in a giant alabaster dome!  Down below, I could see pillows in vivid colors like turquoise, magenta and saffron! Not inherently scary stuff, but it was really scary to me at the time. (Think of the "Pink Elephants on Parade" sequence in Disney's "Dumbo.")

When my buddies came back from the flicks they woke me up and announced with some alarm that my face was green.  I staggered to the mirror and, I swear, it was true: I've never been, or seen anyone else, of such a hue. They insisted on taking me to Grace-New Haven Hospital (as it was then called), where the resident on duty in the ER announced it too late to pump my stomach, and asked me with little empathy WTF had I done this?

Me: "Gee, I wanted to see what it was like."

"Well, you're the only guy who knows," he sniffed.  He told me to check in at the Yale Infirmary in the morning if I didn't feel normal.

I didn't, and spent five days in the infirmary while nurses and doctors contemplated me, a medical oddity: tunnel vision, dizziness, yellow stools, low-grade temp.

Actually, the effects lasted for months, and arguably for years, because I was scared shitless that I had permanently scrambled my brains. (Obviously untrue, since I later became an international lawyer in Washington, DC, and was for a time general counsel of a major federal agency.  What could be saner that that??!!)

Your piece in The Atlantic indicated at the end that you wrote it while still Under The Influence.  I wish you well, but I certainly agree with your parting advice.

My parting advice? Deploy nutmeg principally as a garnish on punch, and leave large-scale ingestion to the young and foolish.


Mad Men drove the cocktail revival? 

File under: Britches, Too Big.

Mad Men star Jon Hamm got the star interview treatment in the April issue of Playboy. He talks about sex, stardom, blah, blah, blah, and a bit about cocktails:

“I live in a neighborhood with a nice bar with off-the-beaten-track labels, so you can be adventurous and try something new every night. In the past four years or so, due in no small part to the success of our show, I think the world of specialty cocktails has grown up. It's a lot easier to find a fancy bar where a bartender takes ten minutes to make one drink. There are a ton of places in L.A. that do that now.”

“Due in no small part to the success of our show?” Granted, Mad Men has done much to raise the profile of the martini and other classics. (See The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook for an inventory of drinks and recipes.) But as with many accounts of cocktail history, Hamm's analysis runs aground on the shoals of chronology, since the roots of the craft cocktail revival preceded the show's premier in 2007. I suppose the opposite case could be made: the cocktail revivial has fueled the success of the show. Not that I'm making that case. My britches fit me just fine.


New & notable: Iconic Brands 

Like goofy liquor packaging? You should come to the WSWA convention! Why do Russians keep trying to sell vodka in gun-shaped bottles? What's up with all the strange tequila bottles? A number of bottle manufacturers also hawk their services here, each promising to craft a unique bottle that will cause whatever new vodka it is you’re touting to fly off the shelves. It's hard to not get a little jaded.

Yet... I liked Iconic Brands, and purely for its marketing verve. They were rolling out three products in three very different bottles, all cool. And they’ve got some experience in innovative packaging — one of the Iconic principals was involved in the launch of Kah Tequila, which comes in colorfullly painted Day of the Dead skulls. (And is also embroiled in a longstanding lawsuit with Crystal Head Vodka over that packaging.)     

Iconic had three new spirit lines: Apocalypto Tequila (below left), playing nicely off the Mayan-end-of-the-world meme (um, maybe look for unsold bottles at a deep discount at Costco in early 2013). Three variations of Deadhead rum (above, left, spiced, three-year, and seven-year; evidently sourced from the Foursquare Distillery on Barbados). And Flashbang (at right), a quartet of similarly bottled liquors: tequila, whiskey, vodka, and an herbal liqueur. I only tried one spirit — the Flashbang herbal liqueur, which is a more refined Jägermeister.

The Iconic line somehow manages to walk the fine line between understated and over-the-top. The Apocaplyto was in a well-crafted bottle that looked like an ancient terra cotta Mayan head sculpture. The Deadhead rums were in wonderfully produced shrunken heads bottles. What do shrunken heads have to do with rum. Nothing! But I’d still love to have one of these on my back bar.

The most intriguing was the Flashbang line. The bottles look like hand-grenades. But not nasty combat hand grenades — rather, the civill unrest kind. The sort of greandes that produce noise and a bright flash to allow riot troops to move in and break up crowds. “They aren’t meant to kill,” said Neil Harris, the president of Flashbang. “Just to disorient. Which is pretty much what alcohol does.”

Harris said the idea didn’t so much come from street protests as from video games, which he said commonly employ these stun grenades. (I’ll take him at his word, not being a video game guy.) Doesn’t that put him at risk of charges that he’s targeting the underage market? He quickly pointed out that the majority of video game users are between the ages of 22 and 29 (something else I’m taking at his word). Which, as it happens, is exactly the market he’s trying to reach.

I can’t speak to the qualito of all the products (although the herbal liqueur was perfectly fine), but I can speak to the packaging: pretty damn great. 

[Note: this is one of a series of posts arising from the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers convention, held in Las Vegas April 2 to 5, 2012. For an overview, read this.]