It’s Tax Day, so how about a slug of Peanut Butter Vodka? Ivanabitch Gin? Scorpion Agave? Yep, It’s All Coming to a Store Near You
WSWA is not an event for either the timid or intemperate. But for those who can experience it, there may be no better way to try a whole lot of new wines and spirits—the good, the bad, and the simply ridiculous—in a minimum amount of time. Short for Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (who are essentially an industry political lobby and chamber of commerce), the 67th annual WSWA convention and exposition took place last week at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, though the real action was focused on two intense days of gatherings, judging panels and tastings throughout several convention halls and dozens of suites.
Most of the nearly 1600 attendees (everyone from heavyweights like Brown Forman and Bacardi to mom & pop shops touting their brainstorm boozes) were there to sell or be sold to, but for the few media allowed in, it was more of a forced bacchanal. Imagine being surrounded by every sort of liquid intoxicant conceivable (most of it very high quality) and trying to experience as much as possible before passing out.
We’re talking about literally thousands of different labels in every category— though offerings were dominated by vodka, vodka…tequila…and more vodka (wait, and some tequila). The sheer volume of vodkas emphasized both the distinctions between different source materials (wheat, rye, grapes, barley…though cocktail contest host, mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, noted that legally, vodka can be made from almost anything) and the range of marketing levels for our most popular, most neutral spirit.
Organic was, no surprise, the big buzz word, including Sweden’s small batch, local-wheat based Kanon (distilled only once, though you’d never guess), Italy’s Godfather Vodka (with water from Corleone, doncha know), American Blue Ice Wheat, and topping them all, France’s quinoa-based FAIR, the only one claiming to be not only organic, but also produced in politically correct circumstances (does it matter that it was also impressively smooth, with a noticeably creamy mouth feel?). Among other notables were the Filipino coconut-based vodka VuQo, Poland’s U’luvka (perhaps more for its suggestively artful bottle than its contents), Lithuania’s Lithuanian brand (filtered through gold, quartz sand and birch activated carbon) … rice-based Kai, gluten-free corn vodka (Krome), green and black tea vodkas (Lazy Eight), Villa de Varda Italian pinot grigio flavored vodka (not to be confused with a vodka-flavored wine cordial) … one with some unique properties being touted around rather secretively by a medical professional … and the root beer, grape and lemon flavor “Yo” vodkas endorsed by the NFL’s Tony Siragusa.
Hitting the biggest culinary trend smack in the face was Seattle’s Bakon Vodka, which, the creators themselves assured me, was actually vegan. And “almost” kosher. Finland’s sugar cane-based Moses Vodka actually is kosher—though honestly there was little else to recommend it (if observant Jews must drink, I would far rather steer them toward San Francisco’s 209 Gin—their kosher for Passover bottles are brimming with smooth character). Wait, I forgot to mention the peanut butter flavored vodka, shamelessly called “Nut Liquor.” Yes, I’m serious.
Among the far too many tequilas–all of which were of course 100% blue agave—Corrido was the rare one that stood out to me for smooth texture without a sacrifice in character. Apparently their anejo is aged in three different whiskey barrels. Also on the high end, Kah tequila, which comes in fancy hand-painted dia de los muertos style skull bottles (a nice complement to Dan Ackroyd’s Crystal Head vodka), also claims to be both organic and kosher. Marketing to another clientele, pre-made “Skinny Girl” margaritas–sweetened with agave nectar–were, I’ll admit, not really so awful. But the “agave spirits” category was bested, both in quality and style, by Scorpion Mezcal—a Best In Show winner–whose several varieties had a real scorpion in the bottle (the extra anejos, aged 5-7 years, retail well over $100). But if you miss the traditional mescal worm, they offer those ground up with salt as a rimmer, along with fried grasshoppers as bar snacks.
Of course there were absinthes (though not as many as you might expect) including Mephisto, Tabu, Trillium and Philadephia-made Vieux Carre, one of the most palatable green fairies for sipping I’ve sampled. Leblon cachaça and Veev açai liquor seemed to be enjoying their category dominance, though the former may be somewhat threatened by upstart Cuca Fresca’s fine organic small-batch anejo product, and the latter joined by both FAIR’s goji berry liquor and Absolut’s new “gotcha” Berri Açai flavor (yes, the major brands had plenty of new products; Bacardi’s Torched Cherry is one actually worth trying).
Certainly St-Germain elderflower liqueur had the most elegant presentation, with a small-scale mahogany bar surrounded by vintage erotica, promoting both a new St. Germain cocktail “Summer Soiree,” and the re-introduction of Crème Yvette, a 19th century fruit liqueur (an elixir of four berries and violet petals) unavailable for several decades. Cloying in its pure form, it’s nevertheless an essential ingredient in the classic Pousse Café and Stratosphere. Mixologists, start your engines.
Then there was just plain dumb stuff like “Ivanabitch” gin, tequila in bottles shaped like machine guns and machetes (how practical!), “bourbon crème liqueur” in Statue of Liberty bottles, alcoholic flavored whipped cream, and Hazzy Island Ices–6.2% alcohol popsicles.
As you can imagine, I quickly lost track of how many mini-drams I’d sampled Tuesday afternoon, while the professionals blind-tasted 150 spirits and wines for Gold, Silver and Bronze category awards. Don’t ask me how they could do it; by the time the evening party started, I’d imbibed so many different spirits that obviously I was starting to hallucinate, envisioning a trio of women in platinum blond wigs playing Pat Benetar’s “Heartbreaker” on violins on stage as an aerialist twisted aimlessly behind them. Wait, that was real?
On Wednesday, Abou-Ganim presided over a cocktail contest that could only be viewed as daunting. Three hours in, by drinks 33 and 34, the panel had lost a few judges, and the rest looked peaked. Of the three finalist concoctions, Leblon’s Brazillionaire was a clear standout—a spicy-sweet asskicker, complex and satisfying (it emerged as the popular favorite later that evening).
Remarkably hangover-free, I decided to focus more on wines my second day, easier to distinguish after awards were issued. Winning the show’s bronze medal for its category, Esenzia old vine Garnache was a deep, complex, but drinkable quaff. Australia’s Silver Wings Mourvedre-Shiraz (which won the New Entrant category last year) was another strong red. Portugal, which had a surprising number of offerings in the show, brought Vidigal’s Shocking Green, a 2008 Vinho Verde that was tart, crisp and even a little sparking—with a low alcohol content that makes it an ideal picnic wine.
Italy was certainly well represented too. Danny DeVito, who virtually created a serious sales category out of nothing with Limoncello, now has a respectable certified organic Prosecco under his name as well, and Cinzano has some lovely sparkling red Brachetto d’Acqui (The favored Italian liquor Aperol is also making a belated US push).
On the high end were remarkable items like Cognac Frapin’s recently rediscovered 1888 vintage and Bache Gabrielsen’s Hors D’Age 50 year-old Grande Champagne cognac. There were some nice Cote du Rhones that, shockingly, are still not (yet) available in this country. Even Bulgaria, of all places, brought some nice juice.
Oh…I neglected to mention that Sarah Palin gave a keynote speech before I arrived. Judging by various reactions, nobody seemed sure what the thrust of her appearance was, except that perhaps she’s conducive to serious boozing.
Here is the full list of winners:
BEST IN SHOW WINNERS FOR THE WINE COMPETITION:
Best Red in Show
Ca’Momi wines- Napa 2007 Zinfandel, Napa Valley USA
Best White in Show
St. James Winery, 2008 Vignoles, Ozark Highlands, USA
Best Tempranillo in Show
Bodegas Y Vinedos Tabula S.A. Damana Crianza 2005 Temparanillo
Best Sparkling Wine in Show
Solms-Delta Solms-Astor 2009 Cape Jazz Shiraz (sparkling), Franschoek, South Africa
Best Fruit Flavored Wine in Show
St. James Winery, NV Strawberry American
BEST IN SHOW WINNERS FOR THE SPIRIT COMPETITION:
Best Cognac in Show
Bache-Gabrielsen Classic VSOP 8 Years France
Best White Spirit In Show
Chairman’s Reserve Rum St. Lucia
Best Single Malt Scotch in Show
Best Brown Spirit in Show
Highland Park Single Malt Scotch, 18 years, Orkey, Scotland
Best Herbal/Botanical Liqueur in Show
Best Liqueur in Show
Pagès Parfait Amour France
Best American Whiskey in Show
Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey 25 Year Old USA
Best Agave Distillate in Show
Scorpion Mezcal Anejo 1 year, Oaxaca, Mexico
Best Crème Liqueur in Show
Tres Leches Crème Liqueur USA
BEST IN SHOW WINNERS FOR MIXOLOGY COMPETITION:
Le Blon Cachaca
Cocktail Name: Le Blon Brazillionaire
Mixologist: Tobin Ellis of Bar Magic
Made with: Leblon Cachaca, Cherry Heering, Passion Fruit Puree, Fresh Lime Sour, Cilantro Leaves and drops of Spicy Sriracha Sauce.
Don Q Rums – Serralles USA
Cocktail Name: Passion Potion
Made with: Don Q Crystal, Don Q Limon, Passion Fruit Puree, Lime Juice, Simple Syrup and fresh Basil.
Cocktail Name: Mayahuel
Mixologist: Drew Levinson
Made with: Herradura Reposado, Domaine De Canton, Orange Juice, Fresh Lime Juice, Agave Nectar, Orange Bitters and fresh Mint.