You can tell a lot about a person by the liquor they prefer. Sometimes, you can also tell the whole story of your night just by naming the spirit you were drinking. In every one of those bottles lining the bar, there is a long history, hours of work and miles traveled through pipes and stills. Depending on the distillate, each spirit's base ingredient affects not only flavor, but the way the spirit makes you feel when it hits the bloodstream.
So we put the call out to the bartending community: to inhabit the spirit of all these spirits that make cocktails so delicious and interesting. Bartenders are, by their nature, creative people who can make conversation with just about anyone. Ask any bartender to give you their impression of a nightly red wine drinker, and most will paint an uncomfortably specific portrait of the regular who orders three glasses every time.
This time, it's up to them to paint portraits of the spirits they love to pour.
We took up brief residence in what I consider to be one of the best little bars in Indianapolis. In the tradition of great bars, The Wellington bears absolutely no signage other than a pane of frosted glass reading "Public Bar" wedged into a heavy wooden door, shielded from any visibility by the overhang of the building above. Attached to Corner Wine Bar, the tiny wooden enclave is clad floor-to-ceiling in polished wood and aging wallpaper. Their windows are made of rippled leaded glass with inlaid stained glass pictures of farm animals, and the carpet has been stripped out to expose scuffed, unpolished hardwood. There are dartboards on the wall, the lights are always low, and the food is excellent. More importantly, bartender Michele McAtee, who graciously opened early for our shoot, can make you a really good cocktail.
TEQUILA and MEZCAL
The Aztecs were fermenting agave pulp as far back as 1000 B.C., but the milky, funky finished product was nowhere near the tequila we know today. It wasn't until the Spanish arrived in the 1400s that distillation of the agave spirit into actual liquor began. Even then, the liquor was produced with mud stills and was fairly primitive.
Enter the Cuervo family. In 1758, the Cuervos started commercially distilling tequila, followed by the Sauza family in 1873. The Sauza pater familias, Don Cenobio Sauza, was the first to figure out that the blue agave plant produced superior tequila, and the commercial tequila market was born.
One other factor that sets tequila apart is that agave has some stimulant properties, which explains the old adage "gin gets you drunk, but tequila gets you pregnant."
Here's where the names come in: All tequilas are mezcals — defined as any spirit distilled from agave — but not all mezcals are tequilas, which must be made from Blue Agave.
Personified, tequila has two sides: the spirit of the Cuervo family, who first brought tequila to life in Mexico. Then there is the true spirit of the modern tequila lover, perfectly channeled in a Doc Sportello, Inherent Vice ensemble. You can feel the dry, hot wind in every sip of finely crafted mezcal. Or you can hear every note of the avant garde jazz ensemble you're listening to at 4 a.m. in the middle of a vice-fueled night of investigating yourself, man.
There are some things in life that are just finer: tailored suits, leather-bound books, rugs made of the furs of exotic animals. Cognac, like other excesses, has become somewhat of a favored son among those with expensive tastes.
However, the origin of distilling wine into brandy has much more humble beginnings. Way back in the 1400s, the Dutch were having problems shipping wine from France. They needed a more stable product that would make the trip back relatively unscathed by the shock of a rolling boat and temperature shifts, so the wine was distilled into brandy using the same methods farms did for distilling their excess grapes. Before this, farmers were the main consumers of the grape-based liquor, which was usually produced when there was a heavy grape harvest. More than they wanted to drink wine, the Dutch wanted to get wasted on French grapes, and so brandy was born.
At the time, it was just called "eau de vie," and was sold as a clear double distillate simply to economize room on the ships. It wasn't until the turn of the 17th century that producers began storing and shipping the eau de vie in oak barrels from the Cognac and Armagnac regions, which they noticed changed the taste and color of the product.
These days, cognac and brandy are often served all on their own, usually with a well-cut blazer or pantsuit.
SCOTCH, IRISH and CANADIAN WHISKEY
Technically speaking, "whiskey" is any spirit distilled from grain, whether it's corn, wheat, rye or barley. It's a heavily regulated spirit around the world, especially when it comes to regional differences in production that make Scotch and the rules surrounding what is or is not bourbon.
In Scotland, to become "Scotch," you have to adhere to similar rules that bourbons bearing the "Bottled In Bond" label do: They have to be made in a Scottish distillery and aged in a government-controlled warehouse for no less than three years. There are a few more strict rules about composition, but none more confusing than the terms "single malt" and "single grain." Confusingly, single malt is made with only malted barley and water at a single distillery in a pot still. "Single grain" is made with a mix of grains but at a single distillery.
While Scotland's distilling market is healthy with over 100 distilleries in operation, war in Ireland caused a major upset to their exportation, and only a handful of Irish distilleries remain open today, mostly owned and controlled by larger liquor conglomerates like Pernod's. Perhaps least surprising is that Irish whiskey is most popular in the U.S. than any other country, including Ireland.
And just like Canadian manners, Canadian whiskey is known for being a lighter, smoother version of its overseas cousins thanks to the addition of a lot of corn spirits. Canadian whiskey is also known to have quite a bit of flavorful rye in it, and most Canadians (including the government) use Canadian whiskey and rye interchangeably. It's smooth and unobtrusive, like a Canadian hello.
The process of distilling liquor from grains is literally as old as the Roman Empire, where we get the phrase "aqua vitae" or "water of life" (and "eau de vie"). The Romans knew what we still know today: whiskey makes you want to do stuff. Whiskey is famous for making shy people extra chatty and turning otherwise peaceful people into prizefighters.
GIN, RUM and ABSINTHE
Gin, like so many good recreational substances, began its life in the Middle Ages as a medicine. These days, the varieties of gin are separated by their production methods and sugar content. "London" gin is legally defined as having less than .1 grams of sugar per liter of finished product, which is why it's also known as "dry gin." The process of flavoring gin involves the precise yoking of science to the forces of nature that make flavor, so gin is the spirit of choice for those who studiously observe the wonder of nature.
And there's no better encapsulation of the spirit of rum than a white guy in a tropical shirt and sunglasses. Even in the beginning of the production of rum, the liquor was produced to send back to countries like Holland and England. These days, rum is the spirit of vacation, tiki bars and backyard barbecues, with its rich history often buried under a canopy of fruit on skewers and tiny umbrellas.
Finally, the Green Fairy once again finds herself having to be defensive, just like her long and unfair history. The delicious licorice-flavored wormwood spirit was blamed, along with marijuana, for the violent outbursts of criminals, artist and housewives alike. A little less than 100 years after it was first banned, absinthe is making a welcome appearance back on bar and store shelves, with a new Millennium awareness that the spirits' effects are from alcohol and not a psychoactive effect. The Green Fairy flies again.
Bourbon is the ultimate American spirit. We took spirits distilled from the finest corn and grain grown on Kentucky soil, we put them inside a charred oak barrel and then we waited. Even before we as a nation decided to protect the purity of our medicine, we passed a law that protected the purity of our bourbon. The Bottle in Bond Act meant that the government could ensure the purity of the spirit and the production origin, and hucksters trying to make a quick buck off grain spirits colored with tobacco wouldn't be able to sell their product as "bourbon" anymore. It was one of the first uniquely American products traded internationally, with a set of laws made by the U.S. government determining what was and was not bourbon.
Asian markets are seeing an explosion in collectible American bourbons. Even Prohibition couldn't put a true damper on the bourbon market, with doctors prescribing it as "medicine" and households being allowed to have a certain allotment every week. Our love of bourbon is so deep that we winked-and-nodded the entire nation into bypassing its own temperance law so we could all continue to have a little.