What you come to realise from reading “By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare and Sublime on the Spirits Trail” by Thad Vogler is that too few of us spend sufficient time considering where our drinks come from. A good number of us just don’t care, and a good deal of the spirits industry relies on our ignorance. Quite a few manufacturers hope you’ll never look too closely at what’s going in the bottle, and that you won’t ask questions about what they’re not putting on the label.
As a reader, you can empathise with his frustrations in discovering so many homogenous commodities when his quest is for artisanship, and you relish in his joy when he finds it. You also feel for the people whose lives depend on the next harvest and appreciate the uncertainty and variability in their lives, one vintage to another, one cask to another. And how the climate, the people, the location and the passage of time have such immense impact on the final product.
``With each older vintage you enjoy the greater interaction with the oak barrel and fungus of the cave, the cellar where their brandies are aged; the more you enjoy the changes with age, though, the more you come to grasp what’s at the heart of this flavor: the trees, the earth, and the still that are unique to this square mile.``
``The food, the sleeping winter fruit trees, the laughter, the dog under the old table, the medieval hearth, the Viking brothers, the brandies. This is all in the bottle. And when we pour calvados, especially Camut, we are connected to all this. This is the supply chain in which we want to be a link.``
Vogler wants to know exactly what he’s drinking. The history, the terroir, the people, the origin and interaction of everything. He is a barman and bar owner, and he is on a quest to find producers who still have an appreciation and respect for a holistic supply chain. He wants to know whether a spirit and the distillery it represents, is worthy of his time and money. And accordingly, is it worthy of your money and mine.
``I don’t want to be an expert; I want to be an enthusiast. With each bottle I choose, I am building community, connecting myself to people for whom I advocate every time I open one of their bottles to pour for a guest, like bringing a friend to a party at another friend’s home. I need to be sure of my companion’s character before subjecting the host to it.``
Vogler persuades you to consider, who is making your favourite tipple? What are the raw ingredients? Where are they being sourced from and who provides them? Are the processes sustainable? Are they ethical?
By meeting the increasing demand for quality spirits, is the push for higher production and efficiency driving the quality down? In the case of mezcal (Oaxaca, Mexico), increased demand may simultaneously revive and destroy old traditions.
“There are no true silvestres, only cultivados. The plants advertised as wild are always cultivated”.
You cannot grow a wild plant; it becomes cultivated once you influence its production. And yet the demand for mezcal worldwide will help sustain traditional methods of fermenting agave.
The situation is somewhat similar for Scotch – the expanding market in recent years has caused a resurgence in the number of distilleries operating but has driven many to be more efficient and speed up production cycles. Gone are the days of malting on site, with locally grown barley and wild/native yeasts with long fermentation cycles. Few distilleries remain in Scotland that can say they are still making whisky via traditional methods. Scotch whisky has been revived again thanks to an explosion in consumption and collection, but at what cost?
``People who chill-filter whisky should be shot because you’re murdering the whisky. If you chill-filter the likes of this, half the body is gone, and it’s the mouthfeel and that chewiness and the finish that’s different. It’s stripping the body out of the whisky, which is not good.``
He is at war with chill filtering and sadly it is a process that is becoming ubiquitous in Scotch. I find chill filtering transforms perfectly good spirit into a pale imitation of itself. In the last few years, I’ve noticed quite a few of my favourite whiskies turn mediocre, and I now realise that it’s almost certainly the result of chill filtering. Chill filtering gets rid of ethyl esters, so your drink doesn’t go cloudy if you add ice (ICE!) or water or whenever you’re reducing the ethanol to less than ~44%. But the esters play a considerable part in the flavour and aroma of whisky, so chill filtering sucks the character out of it too. You can read more about chill filtering here.
Vogler is also anti-caramel. Astonishingly, caramel colouring is one of only three ingredients allowed in Scotch whisky – the other two being grain and water (they don’t count the yeast used in fermentation). Spirit caramel an artificial commercial additive also known as E150a. It means you can take some young whisky or brandy and make it look like it’s been sitting in a cask for far longer than it has. It’s especially handy if you’ve used casks that are past their prime.
The problem for me is, I don’t want that in my drink, and other than in a handful of countries, there’s no requirement to list it as an ingredient. Even if you don’t mind a bit of artificial colouring in your dram, it’d be nice to know if it’s in there.
There’s a growing trend by many distillers to NAS (no age statement) in Scotch. Traditionally, you’d stick the age of the youngest whisky on the label, so at least you had a reasonable idea of how long your bottle was in cask. I have no issues with NAS, BUT when you couple NAS with chill filtering and caramel and slick marketing, you can get some lovely bottles that LOOK like they’ve got decent aged whisky in them, do you want to be paying premium dollars for something that only looks the part?
``Another thing is that there’s a lot more whisky being filled in crap wood because casks are getting used more and more. I have seen a lot of younger stuff we’ve been buying that looks like it hasn’t even seen a cask because the wood has just been filled until it’s nothing.``
Just chill filter and add some caramel, and I’m sure it will be alright.
I was aware of the growing chill-filtered E150a problem in Scotch before reading By The Smoke and The Smell – it’s not a new issue -but what I was horrified to learn from Vogler is that I’ve probably never had a cognac that wasn’t E150a enhanced.
The big cognac brands (and many of the small ones) use E150a to keep their products looking and tasting consistent. I bought into the ‘luxury’ perception of Cognac, dreaming up images of its illustrious French origins.
Reality is, for most, especially the big brands, their column stills kick out millions of litres of generic brandy ever year, and there’s not a lot to differentiate them other than the marketing campaigns.
``Over the centuries, merchants found that an easy way to control their product while maintaining the approval of the appellation was to encourage producers to make their brandy with Ugni Blanc, which is one of the more neutral-tasting grapes grown in the area. Double-distillation, dictated by the appellation, is another tactic; it can increase the alcohol by volume, which results in a more neutral flavor (the higher the proportion of alcohol, the more a cognac tastes of alcohol rather than the organic material from which it was made). Also, this pot distillation, as opposed to the single-column distillation in armagnac, allows for more precise cuts, eliminating esters that might obfuscate the clean spirit.``
``...these massive companies buy oceans of bland brandy from the distilling populace and hammer it with caramel before spending tens of millions of dollars to brand it and distribute it as widely as imaginable.``
Vogler has inspired me to broaden my spirited horizons and to take a hard look at what I’m drinking. Having lived on Islay and with a Bruichladdich employee for the past two years, I’ve become well acquainted with the importance of terroir, process and origin. I was delighted to read that Bruichladdich was on Vogler’s list of favoured Scotch distilleries and his high opinion of their whiskies.
He is concerned that the influence of parent company Remy Cointreau may negatively impact the brand, and we are both hoping this won’t be the case. While Adam Hannett remains in charge of the whisky making, Bruichladdich’s high standards and commitment to making un-chill filtered, absolutely no E150 whisky, will continue.
One big positive is that the Bruichladdich workforce has only increased with their acquisition and success in recent years, versus many other distilleries which have moved to almost entirely automated operations.
"This human scarcity was most palpable at Cameronbridge, where we wandered acres of the plant that produces hundreds of millions of litres and saw only six other people, five in the cockpit and one, who seemed to be there for our benefit, in the blending room."
I noticed a similar situation at Glen Ord which has 14 stills across two still houses, but there is only a handful of staff, mostly with the mechanical expertise to ensure they keep running. The number of tour guides on payroll often far outweighs the number of traditional distillery personnel nowadays.
Vogler’s trips to Cuba has me intrigued about the dark, oppressive history of Rum. I’m adding Spirit of the Cane by Jared McDaniel Brown and Anistatia Renard Miller, to my reading list for a start.
"Rum is slavery; to separate the two is irresponsible ... The religions of these disparate cultures collided and inseminated each other—Santeria, Voodoo, Umbanda; the cuisines and languages of the cultures combined as well. From the Spanish-speaking islands of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba to the French-speaking Haiti, Martinique, and Guadaloupe to the English-speaking Jamaica and Barbados—each place where rum was produced is its own unique entity but is united as a part of the African diaspora. The raw, fertile odors of the best rums are informed by, and linked to, the mayhem that is associated with a particularly painful chapter in human history that many would agree has not concluded."
Most of my rum experience has been as an Australian consuming the national spirit, Bundaberg Rum. I’ve found that ‘Bundy’ has gotten sweeter and sweeter over the years (or maybe my palate has changed?). I’m fairly sure it’s mostly E150 and added sugar, so it is now something I rarely drink other than for old times sake. Ralfy.com has done some very informative rum reviews of late, and both Ralfy and Vogler have got me keen to get my hands on some.
Interestingly “straight bourbon and straight rye do not allow for augmentation with caramel coloring or flavoring, ingredients that are virtually ubiquitous in cognac and often yield one of those spirits that taste like flat Coca-Cola. The term “straight” is important, though; if it’s not on the label, the whiskies might have additives. In fact, every other aged spirit in the world allows added caramel coloring or flavoring, so straight bourbon and rye are where we find the truest categorical representation of barrel aging, one of the most-prized characteristics in the spirit world.”
I have always found bourbon too sweet, but I’m now keen to try some of Leopold Bros’ whiskey, and also some from St George Spirits.
"Charles gives us fifteen minutes to drop our stuff in our room and take a shit or have a very quick shower."
The only downside to ‘By the Smoke and the Smell‘ is that Vogler’s writing style can be crass. I think it’s partly to be a bit sensational (look at me I have to shit!) and possibly he’s just trying to get the reader to understand that his trips are pretty rough, but some of it is just too much unnecessary information. While I couldn’t care less if he swears, there are a few sentences like the one above that just don’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the book. Vogler’s trips do sound exhausting, and I don’t doubt that the novelty of non-stop drinking and driving (sometimes together) would wear off fairly quickly.
Thankfully most of the book flows splendidly and is an engaging, educational and worthwhile read.
"This is the luxury goods business. Really it’s about quality. What’s the best. Not about being morally right. Just about being really good."
"I’m tempted to think then that my work is meaningless, because it isn’t political. But that’s the beauty of this stuff... It shouldn’t be political; it’s uniquely human, the inessential experience, the pleasure of tasting something for its own sake…"
By The Smoke and The Smell is well worth a read if you’re interested in where your spirits come from and how they’re being made. If you’re happy to drink any old pish, this book isn’t for you. But if you’ve got any sort of interest in what you imbibe, especially if you find yourself forking out reasonable sums of money on ‘quality’, then it’s in your interest to get a better understanding of what ‘quality’ actually is.
By The Smoke and The Smell - Thad Vogler
For spirit lovers who want to learn more about their favourite drink: the history, and the hidden ingredients.