There are certainly plenty of (lucky) opportunities to try new spirits in the course of my travels, visiting bars, restaurants and rooting around in the liquor cabinet for something I’d overlooked. I recently found a bottle of Grant’s 8-year old Scotch my father brought to my wedding 19 years ago up there; I think he worried you couldn’t get Scotch in California. But if you want the full frontal assault of all the industry has to offer in one go, there’s nothing like a big liquor show.
Two years ago I had the opportunity to serve as a judge—alongside Junior Merino and Yuri Kato–in a vodka competition at the New York Bar Show. We had to evaluate thirty cocktails in about an hour. As we worked, I asked Kato, “So, what’s next for you after this?” She replied, “I’m off to do this again in San Francisco.” I was goggle-eyed, thinking, “You get paid to do this?! Sign me up!” Anyway, after the tasting I was interviewed on local TV. I had all sorts of trenchant comments about my favorite drink (The “Bing-A-Ling”) and the state of mixology generally, but all the TV station aired was, “I’m not nearly as drunk as I thought I’d be after that.” It sure made my patrons at IS Vodka proud. More on that here: http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-06-16/local/17925587_1_ling-edible-bing
Fast-forward to Wednesday morning, when I meet my friend Lincoln Salazar, who’s starting a proper spirits magazine with his editor John Shakill, and we line our stomachs—I had my second burrito in 12 hours (it poorly compared to Tuesday evening’s one-pound monster from Chipotle)—to tackle the Bar and Nightclub show in Las Vegas.
This show has warped and woofed over the years. While some major brands like Möet Hennessy, Svedka and Diageo have left the show, some genuinely big players—Patron Spirits, Beam and Brown-Forman among them—were back this season. The quality and mood of the exhibitors was higher than in several years past, though the floor wasn’t as raucous as the New York show, where at one time sloshed delegates had to be escorted from the premises. And, while we noticed fewer exhibitors overall, it still challenged us to cover them all in a day.
We started with the tequilas, which were conveniently segregated under the Spirits of Mexico banner, which holds a big tequila festival in San Diego each fall. By and large they were lovely, family run operations. Standouts were Corralejo Tequila, whose anejo had a pronounced but not unpleasant lilt in its finish from its aging in scotch barrels, smooth and subtle QV (Querido Viejo) Tequila, as well as a tequila that exhibited outside the Taste of Mexico, Baluarte. They make an excellent silver and reposado that come in a distinctive frosted (another trend) black bottles unlike the squat containers used for most tequilas. One company, Kah, gets unabashed double duty from using the very same skull-shaped bottle Crystal Head Vodka uses, but each bottle is hand-painted in wild Day of the Dead meets lucha libre colors.
Out on the main floor, attention must be paid to The Situation’s vodka, Devotion. With vodka, flavor can often be hard to separate from hype and there’s more than enough to go around here. I think the Situation must think himself a pretty lucky guy to have ridden to success in the spirits realm; no matter what people say about him and Jersey Shore, millions of prospective “Devotees” make their way to TV’s and DVR’s pretty dutifully Thursday nights. I was partial to the “straight” spirits from Michter’s of Kentucky. They boast a fine rye from the company’s history as America’s oldest distillery, founded in Schaefferstown in Eastern Pennsylvania. Now, the owner grouses about doing business in Pennsylvania, which used to be the largest single liquor account in the world.
We observed one strong trend: cream liqueurs. Perhaps chasing the success of Patron XO Café, offerings ranged from a vanilla cream liqueur to “hard chocolate milk” and cream limoncello. There was also NutLiquor—yep, peanut-butter flavored vodka. It was surprisingly good; the peanut taste fully suffused the spirit from aroma to finish; it didn’t feel glued on as an afterthought as lot of flavored vodkas do. Ironically, it’s made in Temperance, Michigan. It features an unfortunately named drink called Monkey Nuts, which consists of NutLiquor with a splash of something else called 99 Bananas. I didn’t try this. I also didn’t try Cougar Juice vodka, because, contrary to the brand’s call to action, the cougar just wasn’t in me. Cougar Juice? Tiger Blood? These poor big cats are getting milked for all they’re worth. I did try and loved 4 Orange, an organic vodka distilled from four kinds of Florida oranges from the owners of Sobieski Vodka. 4 Oranges is light, refreshing, not oily; the flavored vodka category succeeds best when the spirit really feels infused rather than “flavored.”
Most exhibitors strove mightily to get show delegates into their booths. One company that built portable bars hired a mentalist. Rums of Puerto Rico slung drinks from a 40-foot bar. Beam Brands’ booth oozed prosperity and elegance. Marlboro had a smoke-free trailer for sampling their snuff pouches called SNUS “like goose,” confounding visiting smokers looking for free packs (last year’s exhibitor Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, makers of American Spirit, were absent). Almost everyone had busty “booth babes.” There were booth babes in nurses’ uniforms, booth babes in Sue Sylvester Glee tracksuits, booth babes in angel’s wings, booth babes in coach’s outfits, you name it.
Lincoln and John and I politely made the rounds. But you can’t be polite and chat up exhibitors—many of them brand owners and boutique distillers—without sampling their offerings. And some of them have a whole range to try; tequileras, for example, always have a silver, a reposado and an anejo. So, no matter whether you spit it out or not, a hundred-plus tiny sips are going to lead up to something. Lincoln’s manifested itself in a growing, finally irresistible desire to visit Jimmy Buffet’s Magaritaville at the Tropicana (where I had my stag weekend). After about an hour of hectoring, his editor John Shariff and I finally gave in, and quit the show for the garish Stripside theme venue with papier-mâché penguins leering down from the rafters, the “parrot crossing next 3 miles” signs, and the rows of fake boats as seating booths with prominently branded Garmin sonar pods on their flying bridges.
As we tucked into margaritas and barbacoa nachos, the flat winter light sunk between the big new hotels but still cast a warmth over the Strip and favored those clinging to the rail outside for what for a moment felt like a little Caribbean sea spray…but maybe it was just water sloshing out of the hot tub in the back of a passing limo.