A Very 99 Percent Holiday
Winter is a boozy, boozy season—the time of year for spiking the eggnog at the office party, tromping around in the snow with a flask of whiskey, and getting your relatives tipsy so they'll spill the family secrets. According to the Beverage Information Group, Americans purchase more liquor in December than any other month. (July is a close second.)
But the companies that own your favorite liquors might not be companies you want taking your money. A surprisingly small number of businesses produce a surprisingly large number of the bottles you see on the shelves of bars and liquor stores. Maker's Mark is made by the same company that makes Jim Beam, Knob Creek, Old Crow, Old Overholt, Laphroaig, Canadian Club, and other whiskeys and bourbons—as well as Courvoisier Cognac, Effen and VOX vodkas, Sauza and Hornitos tequilas, Cruzan Rum, Starbucks Coffee Liqueur, Pucker flavored vodkas, and more.
The company that owns all of those brands is Beam, Inc. Like many corporations, the company has a political action committee (PAC) that gives money to political candidates and causes. In this election cycle, Beam, Inc.'s PAC is funding Republicans at a three-to-one ratio against Democrats.
Likewise, Jack Daniel's, Canadian Mist, Early Times, Southern Comfort, and Woodford Reserve are all owned by Brown-Forman Corp., based in Kentucky, which also owns Finlandia Vodka, Korbel champagne, el Jimador tequila, and more. The majority of Brown-Forman's lobbying money in this cycle is also going to Republicans.
William Goldring, the chairman of Louisiana's Sazerac Company (Buffalo Trace and Pappy Van Winkle whiskeys, Peychaud's Bitters, lots of other brands you might think of as small and local) has been giving thousands of dollars to Newt Gingrich for his 2012 Republican presidential campaign. Gingrich has described Occupy Wall Street protesters as "self-righteous" freeloaders who need to "go get a job right after you take a bath."
But it's not just the major liquor companies' support of Republicans you should know about. Alcohol lobbyists have also defiantly opposed sensible and much-needed efforts to cool down the war on drugs. Last year, California alcohol distributors donated to campaigns against Proposition 19, which would have legalized marijuana. In 2008, they spent $100,000 trying to defeat California's Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act, which would have eased penalties for possession of marijuana and routed more drug-law offenders toward treatment instead of prison.
Apparently, the alcohol industry has forgotten the perniciousness of prohibition.
"Plus, you could be green," says Kent Fleischmann of Dry Fly distillery in Spokane. "How much energy does it take to get a bottle of Absolut from Sweden to Seattle?"
Thanks to a 2009 law passed by the Washington State Legislature, which opened the door for craft distilleries to start doing business here, you can buy bottles of vodka—and gin and whiskey—that were made entirely in Washington. One unique aspect of that legislation is that to get the craft license, distillers must buy at least 51 percent of their grains from farmers in Washington State. That provision prevents distillers from buying "neutral spirits"—Everclear and its industrial cousins—from out of state, then adding their own water, flavoring, and coloring, and marketing it as "local."
Crater Lake Vodka, from Oregon, is a classic example: The label on the bottle proudly proclaims that it contains "hand-crafted American vodka," but it's just neutral grain spirits put through a filtering process. Fleischmann says: "There's so much smoke-and-mirrors in this business. There are over 400 distilleries in this country, and I bet 75 percent of them don't even make their own alcohol."
The first distillery in Seattle was Sound Spirits, owned by Steven Stone, who points out the very simple benefit of hiring local people, buying from local farmers, and supporting local business. Other distilleries in the state now include Oola, Fremont Mischief, Sun Liquor, Woodinville Whiskey, It's Five O'Clock Somewhere, Bainbridge Organic Distillers, Sodo Spirits—the list goes on and on.
For anyone weaned on big-brand vodka, tasting a sample of the craft-made vodka at the Oola Distillery on Capitol Hill is a revelation in nuance. (Another benefit of the 2009 law: Distilleries can offer samples like wineries, so you can taste before you buy.) Oola gets all its wheat from an organic farm in Snohomish County. They mill it themselves—there's white dust all over the concrete floor near their milling machine—and you can taste the sweetness and roundedness of the grain in the vodka. Their gin is another revelation. It's piney and clean, a gin for people who think they don't like gin. Also, you can taste the original grainy flavor of the Oola vodka that went into making it. (Most liquor starts as vodka before being tweaked and re-distilled.)
Luke, one of the guys at the distillery, leads me from the tasting room to the back to show me the big still, its curlicues of copper pipe, and barrels full of wheat, mash, and liquor. A barrel of wheat mash that's been boiled and is now cooling smells both grainy and sweet, like a winter morning in New England, with hot breakfast cereal and brown sugar. It's the smell of sugar and starch separating in preparation for fermentation, but I tell him it smells like childhood. "Yeah!" he says. "Sometimes we want to get some ladles and bowls and eat it!"
Pretty much all of Washington's craft distilleries have vodkas and gins for sale this winter—some made from wheat, some from barley, some from potato. A few have whiskeys, but because the distilling industry is young in Washington, their whiskeys are also young. Traditionally, whiskey gets its color from sitting in large oak barrels for years and years. Some distilleries, like Bainbridge Organic Distillers and Fremont Mischief, are forcing the color and flavor transfer by using smaller barrels (so more of the liquor is touching more of the wood) with a heavier char on the inside of the barrel, so more of the color moves into the liquid more quickly. Others, like Woodinville Whiskey, are selling tasty clear whiskeys—they have a smoother, rounder flavor than you might expect for something that looks like white lightning. Woodinville Whiskey has also just released a bourbon aged in five- to eight-gallon oak barrels.
Washington State has tons of local distilleries where you can spend your money on bottles of exceptional alcohol—Dry Fly, Oola, and others have been winning national and international awards in the past few years—that won't compromise your conscience. What you get up to once you're drunk, though—that's your business.