Part travelogue, part philosophical musing, Thad Vogler’s new book, By the Smoke & the Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail, is also a candid memoir. In our Sept/Oct 2017 issue, Jordan Mackay profiles Vogler, and the accomplished San Francisco barman (Bar Agricole, Trou Normand and the forthcoming rum bar Obispo) talks about his appreciation for minimalism and his ongoing quest to showcase authentic grower spirits. In the following excerpt from By the Smoke & the Smell (out in September from Ten Speed Press), Vogler—while on a trip to France to buy Cognac—explains his appreciation for spirits that highlight the variation of true agriculture. —Penelope Bass
Spirits are food. They come from materials that grow in the ground (in the case of Cognac, grapes). At its heart, spirits making is just another way to put leftover produce to use before it spoils. If a farmer had too many pears at the end of the fall, she could ferment them and distill them rather than wasting fruit she’d spent a year cultivating. Like a bottle of vintage wine or a jar of pickles, a well-made spirit honors a certain time and place. The distillers I love share something with the best apple growers, dairy farmers, and cheese makers: they are makers, not scientists aspiring to a perfect consistency of flavor over millions of bottles that will be distributed over all seven continents.
If we really love the sensuous experience of eating, why would we want to put something in our bodies that can be found at any time of day, in any part of the world, and that always tastes the same? Self-described “foodies” avoid food and wine that fits this description, yet rely on brands of liquor that never vary in flavor and are available in any bar. The beauty of good tomatoes is that no two are identical; imagine if one farmer supplied 40 percent of all the tomatoes consumed in the world. You wouldn’t expect your chef always to have Del Monte peaches and Heinz baked beans in the kitchen. Why do you strain your eyes looking over your bartender’s shoulder to see what brands he carries?
If we really love the sensuous experience of eating, why would we want to put something in our bodies that can be found at any time of day, in any part of the world, and that always tastes the same?
The distillates I love vary from year to year, from barrel to barrel, even from bottle to bottle. When I was a boy, I loved McDonald’s and its assortment of sandwiches that tasted identical wherever I ordered them. Today I enjoy the opposite—the more varied a product each time I try it, the more interested I am, as the flavors are more closely tied to the rhythms and variety of the natural world, and we are assured that this is made by humans.
Cognac has some big players, owned by bigger players, and I’ve been tempted to vilify them; I suppose sub-textually I do. But there are two good things about these large brands. First, they support all the small, family distillers in the region who sell their brandies to the big houses. Small cognac distillers enjoy enviable financial stability compared to operators of an equivalent scale in other parts of the world, even as close as Armagnac or Normandy. Second, each bottle of cognac sold strengthens the appellation, ensuring all the grapes used in spirits with cognac on the label are grown in the region of Cognac in one of the six designated crus, or growths. (In this context, “growth” refers to a specific plot of agricultural land that receives its designation from the government.) So, by definition, cognac, even Hennessy, is an agricultural product of sorts, though the large producers work hard to eradicate the happy accident of agriculture at every stage of the process, culminating with the addition of caramel and the uniform dilution with water of every bottle. But sometimes you want a Big Mac and sometimes you want a Hennessy and Coke.
The drive to Cognac from Normandy is around six hours, which makes our dinner date with a producer at eight improbable. Of course, Charles [Neal] will drive the whole way with less sleep and more to drink than the rest of us, and once we get there, he will shoulder the lion’s share of the work, translating conversations with producers, soliciting relevant information, avoiding every lull in conversation with his boundless social energy. He is a juggernaut. Really, our business now depends largely on Charles and his inclusion of us in his community. We are selling amazing grower-producer spirits in our cocktail bars. Literally no one else can boast the same.
The more you study wine or spirits, the more you understand that you will never know it all.
For us, this trip is the opposite of a blind tasting. We look for as much context as possible, as much of a sense of place and person as we can assimilate. We surrender to subjectivity, willingly manipulated by the smell of the property, the charm of the children, how the cattle are cared for, the cheese they serve us. The blind tasting enslaves you to a myth of objectivity and expertise, the science of flavor. Almost inevitably, when tasting spirits blind, participants choose what’s sweetest, which is understandable, at least biologically, since rich flavors typically signify more calories, and calories are how we survive.
I believe the mind and all the senses must participate. One’s soul must participate. The more you study wine or spirits, the more you understand that you will never know it all. We do not strive to be experts, only enthusiasts, and we let passion and impulse guide our selections as much as possible. I do know people who are prolific tasters and give more thorough accounts of the distillers of each region. My friend David publishes a tasting journal that is exhaustive and nicely augments his travel in a number of producing regions. When I was younger, I would spend Sundays at the record store, plowing through white labels until one caught my attention. Tasting spirits is similar for me to choosing music; arriving at a decision is a bit of a mystical process.
Reprinted with permission from By the Smoke & the Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail by Thad Vogler, copyright © 2017. Published Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
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