Ben Canaider has a couple of rounds in the ring with white spirits and finds they’re not that damaging after all.
If summer has taught us one thing, it is this: the power of white spirits. With beer becoming a little muddled from an expanding market and boatloads of imports, and when wine is a failsafe but often-uninspiring drink upon which to hang your holiday hat, white spirits are the place many drinkers have moved to—where drinks are long and filled with an explosion of citrus, fruit, mixers and exotica.
There’s also an element of danger and mystery when it comes to white spirits. And part of the reason for this is because so few people understand what a white spirit has to go through in order for it to become a good drink. Using the right raw ingredients and properly distilling them in a stringent process of sterilising and balance is the only way to end up with a high-quality clear liquor—which explains why a $20 bottle of vodka gives you brain failure, yet expensive drops like 42 Below or Grey Goose makes you taller, more handsome, slimmer, more intelligent, and undeniably richer… until you check your wallet. This is not rocket science. You just have to migrate towards better-quality drinks.
The key factor in white spirit drinkability is, strangely enough, the lack of flavour. Vodka, tequila and gin have a much softer and benign backdrop than dark spirits like whisky, rum or bourbon. White spirits, thanks to their lack of colour, are also blissfully lacking the harmful, headache-inducing congeners often found in dark spirits and red wine.
But, once again, the nature of the raw product and its distillation is the key.
First, take a good-quality grain—wheat or rye in the case of vodka and gin, or cactus hearts and sugar cane for tequila and rum—and then ferment it to make a base alcohol, before distilling the liquid to concentrate its flavour and aroma. A good distillation process enhances desirable elements like flavour and aroma, but loses the more harmful elements. This is why double- and triple-distillation—plus a lot of filtering through mediums such as charcoal—produces a purer, less damaging drink.
The end result is a quiet, mellow, yet powerful fuel for fun. And this is a world away from the ‘Captain O’Flaherty’s’ or ‘Montezuma’s Balls’-style brands of cheap white spirits, often made from rectified milk whey and distilled in a hurry, with flavours added to help it all along. No wonder the concoctions lead to such regrettable mornings-after.
The great thing about today’s reliable white spirits is their simplicity. A little bit of ice, a little bit of citrus, a little bit of some sort of mixer—like tonic or soda—and you’ve got what is arguably the most refreshing and uplifting long drink in the world. However, keeping it this simple can be a real problem for a lot of hospitality industry drinks professionals. And if you’ve ever employed a sommelier or mixologist (as bar tenders like to call themselves these days), then you’ll understand what I am talking about. Simplicity is often he first thing jettisoned in the hunt for modern spirits. Weirdo ingredients like candied ginger, lychees, gold leaf or rose petals are introduced to your bar—most of which end up being drunk by the staff for knock-off drinks. Keeping it simple and keeping it high-quality is a much better way to go. Why turn perfectly good white spirits into party tricks or circus performers when they have at their core their very own sense of style and sophistication?
But first things first: get your basic spirits in order. Check out what first-option-pour deals your distributors have going and make sure you get some good-quality white spirits in your bar. Sure, you can keep Gordon’s gin as your first option, but make sure you’ve got another brand on the shelves for your customers to trade up to and tell your bar staff to always offer them the choice. Tanqueray or Plymouth are as good as any gins for the top end of town.
Secondly, make sure you’ve got the service fundamentals right: offer customers short or tall glasses, more ice or less, a choice between lemon and lime. Rim the glass edges with the same citrus for extra effect, squeeze the fruit into the drink instead of just lobbing in a wedge, and try using mixers from bottles or small cans rather than the horror hose that is the post-mix snake. It’s the little things that can really set a simple mixed white spirit drink apart. Just like a glass without a chip in the rim can do wonderful things for some customers. If you convince bar tenders to act more like five-star chefs than petrol pump operators, well, you never know, you might get people coming back.
The art of simple yet classical long drinks have also dropped off the bar radar in recent times—many of which are worth rediscovering. Try the following concoctions at your bar and see if your usually bleary-eyed clientele grow up into high-paying repeat customers.
Over too much ice, pour 60mls of quality gin, add a massaged wedge of lime and three or four drops of Angostura Bitters. Then float about 15mls of soda water over the top. Her late Majesty of blessed memory, the Queen Mother, apparently used to drink one of these at about 6pm each night—and she racked up a century… Which makes one wonder: did she receive a telegram from her daughter?
White Rum and Lime
Stack plenty of ice in a tall, chilled glass, pour over 60mls of white rum, followed by the juice of a half a lime. Stir gently and then sip in a crowded bar on a hot night.
Vigorously shake 60mls of good vodka together with crushed ice. Pour into a chilled Martini glass that has had 10mls of Noilly Prat vermouth swished around in it. Purists will know that olive garnishes are a better option with Vodkatinis than with a straight Martini, too.
Now, all that’s left to do is line up a taste test of your impressive new spirits menu for all your friends.
Who said the profits were the fun part?