Posts filed under Thoughts

Always Coca Cola?

The Coke Side of Life by Liam Higgins on Flickr.

Robin Williams once said that coke was God's way of telling you that you've got too much money.

Sorry, wrong Coke.

I can't claim it was a New Year's resolution, given I started in February, but the cold, dark and fizzy, the world's #1 soft drink - even in Scotland - is no longer part of my life. I've given up Coca Cola.

The first few weeks were tough. Part of the problem was working in a bar, where the stuff is literally on tap. Sure, you could drink water, just like those parties where you could chat to that girl from your workgroup while those lingerie models are chilling at the next table. But here's the thing: that girl from your workgroup is way cooler than you think she is and probably much healthier for you in the longterm. You'll miss the crazy parties and the exciting stories but you'll skip the crashes and hangovers and tortured, overdeveloped metaphors.

Coke might not be everyone's favourite drink, but it's an icon of Western civilisation. Cutting it out of my life means no more Cuba Libres (which is a shame), no more Long Island Iced Teas (uh, not so much), no more rum-and-Coke-floats (jury's still out) - and for what? I can't say I feel noticeably better physically. It's more about making a choice, and making it stick.

Coke's one of those products that provokes mixed feelings in a bartender. On one hand, it's pretty tasty. On the other, it represents the lowest common denominator; mix a spirit with Coke and you get a Coke-flavoured spirit that you can sell to almost anyone who likes Coke-flavoured things. I always get a pang of regret after discussing the merits of different vodka brands with a customer, only for them to ask for it with Coke, but then some spirits - rums, particularly - sing with it. As a customer, I don't miss Coke that much but as bartender, it's a useful product.

So, after a long relationship - does anyone remember their first Coca Cola? I don't - we've finally broken up. It's one of the classic "it's not you, it's me" scenarios but at least I'm not staring vending machines, wondering if I've made a huge mistake.

Actually, I still do, but these days I can do it without stopping.

Posted on March 11, 2010 and filed under Thoughts.

Adventures in space, time and vodka

Here's a thought.

Cocktails destroy good spirits.

It's not my thought. It belongs to a man named Börje Karlsson, one of the master blenders involved with a new Swedish vodka called Karlsson's Gold (rated B+ by Drinkhacker!), in an article in the Washington Post. It's an interesting thought, not least because it comes from a vodka producer and vodka, well vodka is a bit troublesome.

NO COCKTAILS?... by Metro Centric, licenced under Creative Commons.

Imagine we've got a time machine, and rather than using it to buy last week's winning lottery ticket, we travel back to somewhere near the sixteenth century, somewhere in Eastern Europe, where the bouncing baby vodka tradition has just started walking and saying its first unintelligble words. Assuming that no-one burns us as witches on account of our strange fashions and bizarre future talk, we'll find a spirit that has mostly slipped past its origin as a medicinal elixir and is gaining popularity among the masses, flavored with herbs, honey and berries, and among the aristocracy who compete to create the purest liquid from their state-of-the-art pot stills. Skip forward a few hundred years and we'll find this spirit embedded in the culture, adding punctuation to any event, from weddings to birthdays to funerals and everything in between. Vodka becomes the lifeblood of the community, used and abused by the powers that be as something approaching a rum ration for an entire empire through the middle part of the twentieth century.

We should take in a little context. Travelling back to 15-whatever, when Western Europe raises a glass, it's likely to be brandy. The Scots and the Irish have started doing remarkable things with malted barley, but they're probably a good fifty/hundred years off hiding their distilleries at the end of obscure valleys in the most innovative and insane tax dodge ever. The Dutch have, by now, discovered a wonderful little berry that can transform a distilled spirit, but they'll have to wait until the eighteenth century for it to blaze through English society and emerge, smouldering, on the other side as something we'd recognise as gin. Over the next five hundred years, the various spirits of Western Europe will have their successes and failures. Cognac will emerge as the upper classes' drink of choice, only to be decimated by a hungry bug in the second half of the nineteenth century. Taxation, rebellion, famine, war and slavery will a play their part in the respective fortunes of gin, whisky, rum and whiskey, and things will continue in much the same vein until just after the world explodes in rage, hatred and a splatter of atoms.

The second half of the twentieth century sees vodka slowly seeping out from behind the Iron Curtain. It is not an entirely unknown quantity, largely thanks to a man named Smirnov. The right to produce his vodka eventually land with Heublein Inc. in the USA and the rest is, as they say, history.

In 2004, vodka sales surpass those of gin in the UK. In 2007, vodka outsells Scotch whisky. In Scotland.

And so, the trouble with vodka. It's simple, really. Western Europe and America do not have a vodka-drinking tradition. The way in which these cultures drink evolved alongside the spirits that they created and traded and vodka has been slapped onto it like go-faster stripes on the space shuttle. That's not to say that vodka doesn't have a part to play in the community of spirits, it's rather that the integration has been a little forced. The definitive original vodka cocktail remains the Moscow Mule (anyone who's just said "Martini"? Taxis are out front) because, on the whole, it doesn't sit well with structure of mixing drinks that evolved from the era of Jerry Thomas.

Börje Karlsson makes a good point from outside my - our - experience of spirits and cocktails, even if I think he's being a touch hyperbolic. Realising that there's a separation between the various spirit-drinking traditions can only be a good thing, because the really interesting stuff happens in the space between.

Posted on June 25, 2009 and filed under Mixology, Thoughts.

One Perfect Moment: Vodka

Tucked away in a little corner of the Internet, away from the hustle and bustle, you'll find Scans Daily - or its most recent incarnation, after the original fell victim to alleged grumpiness - where comic fans trade in snippets from their collections. Sometimes pages are posted because they're flat out awesome. Sometimes they're posted because they're really, really bad, or obscure, or intriguing, or weird. Sometimes, they fit to the week's theme. Last week, the community started posting scans of their favourite characters' One Perfect Moment - the essence of the character expressed as eloquently as possible in a couple of pages or panels. It's an absolute treasure chest of potential reading material. So far, so geek, but we're not really into drink territory. So here's the thing: working in a bar, you'll come across those same elegant moments that express an idea perfectly. For example, Scottish vodka drinkers...

Customer: What vodka do you sell?
Bartender: We've got [house pour], [insert super premium brands here], and maybe a bit of [random, appallingly expensive boutique brand] somewhere.
Customer: You've got Grey Goose? That's a great vodka, it's my favourite.
Bartender: No worries, one Grey Goose. On the rocks?
Customer: Yeah. With Red Bull.

Posted on June 16, 2009 and filed under Open Mic, Thoughts.