Ten Speed Press
[ that's the spirit ]
Yes, Jason Wilson pokes fun at so-called "lifestyle journalism" in the introduction to Boozehound (Ten Speed Press, Sept. 21), his new combo travelogue/industry commentary/drink recipe collection addressing all that matters in the world of fine spirits. But while he humbly ridicules his own profession, claiming that his blue-collar ancestors are pulling sub-terra 720s in response his to job as a cocktail columnist, let's be clear here: the Washington Post spirits contributor and Drexel professor gets paid to drink amazing liquor, and we should hate him accordingly. We were somehow able to shelve our petty jealousies long enough to ask the Haddonfield resident (yes, the booze writer lives in a dry town) a round of stiff questions.
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City Paper: Let's start with the dreaded V-word: vodka. The masses love it, but most cocktail geeks loathe it. There's a great passage in Boozehound about two martini-ordering meatheads getting rebuffed at Philly's Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co., which doesn't carry vodka. Do you think the two sides of the debate will ever establish some common ground?
Jason Wilson: Even though I rant about it a lot in my book, I want to be clear: I don't hate vodka. There's enough hate in the world already. Drink whatever you want. I mean, it's a free country and vodka is the most popular spirit in the U.S. It's not like my humble book is going to counteract the more than 500 vodkas currently on the market. However, I think things are slowly trending away from vodka. I wrote a column a couple weeks ago that jokingly asked whether tequila was the new vodka. Look around: Don't you see more people ordering Patrón than Grey Goose these days?
CP: You write that spirits can be just as revelatory as literature, art or music, but I bet Volstead Act-clinging teetotalers would argue that those pursuits enrich one's knowledge, while boozing does not. Defend your drinking!
JW: I guess one of the teetotaling arguments against spirits as a plank of the humanities would be that spirits are dangerous? Well, didn't Picasso say that art was dangerous, too? Why, yes, he did. In fact, he said, "It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared." I'll let Picasso's quote stand for booze as well as art.
CP: You've traveled to multiple countries to witness production processes firsthand. Which trip most influenced your understanding, for better or for worse, of a spirit?
JW: I'd say my visit to Jalisco, Mexico. Early on, I visited a bunch of agave farmers and tequila distilleries and I was really struck by how many factors come into play when making spirits. ... I could see how small differences in production resulted in totally different tequilas.
More than that, I could see how much the raw ingredients mattered. I'd always thought about wine in terms of place — or, ahem, terroir — being very important, but this was the first time I really started thinking about spirits in the same way. Agave spends like seven to 10 years in the ground, and so much depends on how and where it's grown, when it's harvested, how it's cooked once it gets to the distillery. The agave was really no different than grapes in a vineyard.
CP: In the multibillion-dollar spirits industry, just how much influence do marketing dollars have on the critical reception of a new spirit in the market?
JW: Branding and marketing are obviously so huge when it comes to spirits. It's weird that many people don't realize most spirits brands are owned by a handful of multinational conglomerates, like Diageo, Bacardi, Pernod Ricard [or] Brown-Forman. These companies can throw so much money and so many PR people on the case. They can just give away product to people just to get it into their mouths. If you're a small distiller, how are you going to compete with brands that can send shots girls into every college bar in America?
CP: You discuss the "American palate," one that is skeptical toward bold spirits like grappa or chartreuse. Who or what is responsible for establishing our scaredy-cat drinking habits?
JW: Wouldn't you say it's more childlike? Like, people still stick to the comforting, sweet tastes of childhood. How else can we explain something like bubble gum vodka? ... I can't blame it on, say, George Washington or Ben Franklin or the other Founding Fathers. Those guys in the 18th century really loved their spirits ... drank them morning, noon and night. And what they liked was the real stuff — whiskey, applejack. Washington even ran a rye whiskey distillery. Americans also are responsible for inventing the cocktail. I guess if I'm going to blame someone, I'll blame the people who presided over Prohibition. This would be the U.S. Congress in 1919 — since Woodrow Wilson actually vetoed the bill. I'll just blame it on Congress, like everything else. Those rat bastards.
CP: Last question, and I'm sure it's one you get all the time: What are a few of your favorite Philadelphia places to get a well-made cocktail?JW: Cocktails in Philadelphia? That's pretty easy: The Franklin, Village Whiskey, Chick's Café and wherever Christian Gaal is bartending.