Morgenthaler wrong on spirits buying?

I want to state unequivocally that I have a lot of respect for Jeffery Morgenthaler.  The man is a Portland icon, bartender of the year, and has been at the bleeding edge of cocktail innovation for years.  I bought his book, I visit his site, and you can occasionally see me in the comments there talking about accounting and cocktail costing.

Last year he wrote this article for Food Republic.  It’s taken me some time to get back to writing my own blog but I want to respond to a couple of his points.

The core of his article is when buying spirits: “Liquor made from grain is better from large distilleries, while liquor made from fruit is better from small producers.”

He breaks it down into a couple of points but I think you will find more in the exception to his rule than in the observance.  A lot of grains are commodities.  They are big bulk things that don’t differ very much from one place to another, there isn’t a sense of terroir like you get in wine because you’re generally not getting single small farm lots when you get your grain to the distiller.  You’re getting giant truck load lots that have been mixed and blended and homogenized.  This is not true all over the world.  A lot of craft distillers are now using estate grains, grown on the property of the distillery.  Or single farm batches where they know exactly where the grain is coming from and what kind of conditions shaped it.  Distilleries in Washington, Idaho, Montana and elsewhere are all doing this and others are trying to where they can.  In these cases the grain can make a great deal of difference in the finished product, good or bad.

Another point he makes is that liquor is in general a big industrial process.  For producers like Jack Daniels, Heaven Hill and Bacardi this is often true.  For craft producers it is almost never true.  Even the largest craft producers are still doing a huge amount of their work by hand, and using equipment that doesn’t have anything like the level of control that you are likely to see elsewhere.  The upside to that, is they are using equipment that would be impossible for larger producers to use and still make a profit.  Alembic stills and pot stills are only two of the types of stills that are far more common in craft than they are in major corporate producers.  These stills often make much more complex and flavorful spirits, and are consequently more common among producers of brandy and other fruit liquors than they would be otherwise.  Trying to make flavorful brandy on a column still is hard.  Like P = NP hard.

Lastly I want to cover something that Mr. Morgenthaler doesn’t.  Just because something is “craft” doesn’t mean it was made using base ingredients.  The untold story on a lot of craft products, (as well as some major labels *cough*bulleitrye*cough*) is that they source their spirits from major producers like MGP.  Which means unless you do a lot of research, the juice in your bottle of craft, could be exactly the same as the juice in your bottle of top shelf corporate.  What happens after the still strips out all the fluff can have as great an impact as where the grain came from first.

Some of the best made gins in the world right now aren’t starting from wheat.  They start with neutral grain spirit made in the same plant that cranks out Bulleit Rye, Angel’s Envy Rye, and hundreds of other producers.

Craft producers are more likely to take chances on products that won’t find an audience globally.  They’re also far more likely to use seasonal fruits, nuts or herbs.  They cycle their products frequently, make mistakes into products and make things that you won’t find on the back bar at a dive.  They are making some of the best products out there from Balcones Single malt, to Oola Gin.

I think my own rule of thumb would be, “For risk and adventure try Craft.  For consistency and price, stay with corporate.”
In the end really Mr. Morgenthaler’s first point is his best.  “when it comes down to it, it’s all about what’s in the glass, right?”