For someone who buys vegetables at the farmers’ market, is very picky about chocolate and prefers her tempeh unpasteurized, I’ve sure allowed myself a blind spot when it comes spirits. The thought has often crossed my mind, of course: Why does it seem okay to support massive, multinational corporations when it comes to liquor, but not with anything else I put on my plate or in my glass? Still, though, it’s easier (and cheaper) to order Jameson at the bar, and such brands have done a good job of making even conscious consumers feel an affinity toward them despite our otherwise more artisanal inclinations.
That question has become more and more prevalent in my mind as I’ve been covering small-batch booze made in New York City, from the gorgeous amaro of Forthave Spirits to Bushwick-made rice whiskey from Moto. When Thad Vogler’s book, By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail hit my mailbox, I knew that it was finally time to take these nagging thoughts seriously, and throughout the memoir, he makes a passionate case for why you should be as concerned with your booze as you are with your food.
“Good spirits are grown first,” he writes, and that’s why he cultivates relationships with grower-producers for the bottles he stocks at his San Francisco bars Trou Normand, Obispo and Bar Agricole. “The real artists, in our opinion, are not the bartenders but the distillers, the people who make the ingredients with which we work, and our distillers are generally farmers.” From France to Cuba, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Oaxaca and Kentucky, we meet these grower-producers and are treated to the ups and downs of seeking out the best the world has to offer despite the continued crush of corporatization. If you want to drink as seriously as you eat, the book provides a guide to starting the process.
But if you’d like to start that process immediately, we got Vogler to give us some recommendations. “Most important is to find something that has not been chill filtered and has no additives,” he says. “This is surprisingly hard, but any of the offerings from the following independent producers will be great.” Here, his picks:
Probably the most widely available of these suggestions, Springbank is one of the only distilleries in Scotland that does not add coloring or chill filter. A beautiful old distillery, they also do their own malting which is almost unheard of as well.
See Springbank: another of the very few independent operators in Scotland doing things the right way, but this time on Islay. Try their 100 percent Islay offering for an idea of what all scotch might have been and could be again.
Our favorite producers of Calvados, the rustic heirloom apple brandy from Normandy in the north of France. The large and strong Camut brothers are of viking descent and continue the century old tradition of simple pot distilling on the family property.
Martine Lafitte is the best distiller in Armagnac and we love her doubly because she is a brassy, confrontational woman. These spirits are among the best in the world and are curated impeccably by Madame Lafitte.
Graciela Carreño runs this Mexican and family owned distillery in the Minero region outside Oaxaca. Her single and mixed variety mescals are professionally produced while retaining the ancestral charm of the region.