“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)





20 May 2015


Product placement and good TV
can smite thirst into those who don't even watch the damn thing

It was pretty hard yesterday to be unaware that something called Mad Men had come to a halt.

Everyone was talking about it. The chatlines on the cobweb were full of it. Even those of us who've never owned a television knew Mad Men was over, although there was still plenty of sickening madness being wrought by men.

That scarce cardre of diligent twitter cruisers without televisions seemed to suspect this closure had something to do with Coca Cola but I can't tell and I may never know. It wouldn't surprise me.

I've never seen Mad Men. Or Game of Thrones for that matter. Instead, I read books or stuff on the net. Power blackouts are perfect opportunities to rediscover the deeper chasms of my library while I take a quiet tipple. When I asked the famous USA Wine Spectator scribe, Harvey Steimann, what the Game of Thrones actually was he thought I was joking. I hear that it's like the Hobbit with a bunch of soft-core porn but you'd know better than me.

Hairy toes never were my favourite suck.

One thing I do know a bit about is international booze sales and as far as I can see, Game of Thrones hasn't done anything to the sales of anything other than maybe home-delivered pizzas, especially when compared to what the Mad Men did to whisky sales. 

While these new TVs that Federal treasurer Joe Hockey bought for us very small businesses are too thin on top to have pizza dribbling down the front, I know from the bean counters and television product-placement doctors that Mad Men was responsible for an unprecedented surge in the international sales of whiskies. Not only did the world rip into scotch whisky like never before, but Irish whiskey, as in Jameson's, suddenly boomed in the USA, followed by an astonishing guzzle of bourbon whiskey, rye, like Canadian Club, and anything else called dark spirits or the even more sinister bastards like black spirits, as in rum. Grrr.

This fever for the drinks that eventually make you sweat stuff that stinks of acetone was so intense, thanks to Mad Men, whoever they were, that it looked like the world was running out of cheap barrel oak. The white oak, Missouri oak, Quercus alba - it's all the same thing - that grows like balsa wood in the USA is suddenly a threatened species. Those who have never really had to fight over it before are fighting over it, and US whiskey makers are beginning to consider establishing their own cooperages and securing tranches of forest just to guarantee barrel supply.

They might even plant some trees.

This is a very big deal. It's never happened before.

If the oak forests of the USA can keep up with the barrel supply the whiskies will soon be outselling vodka. Whiskies are basically wood-aged vodka but the makers of them buy only cheap oak. The slower-growing, denser-grained, much more expensive French oak is beyond these blended whiskies; it's reserved for extravagent pure malts, and even then, only the very few at the absolute peak of that seductive but treacherous mountain are afforded such luxury. What renders this worse is the flavour such fresh wood imparts: whisky so aged bears little similarity to great spirits matured in old sherry butts, as we were sold through most of the last hundred years or so.

Because it needs no oak maturation, and can be sold pretty much straight off the still, vodka should be considerably cheaper than the whiskies. And overall, like right across the world, it usually is, although you wouldn't think so in many Australian shops or bars.

Naked for Satan's my favourite woddy shop, by the way. It's in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.

There was a bit of a waning of panic in the vodka world about a year back, as they thought for awhile they'd stopped the ebb of their business, but thanks to Mad Men, the whiskies soon got right back on with their triumphant march.

Whisky, the scottis sort, dominated world spirits consumption for hundreds of years. For a while in the swinging 'sixties, white rum looked like giving it a bit of a run, led by the Cuban Bacardi family, who understood marketing. Vodka was mainly locked behind the Iron Curtain in Russia and northern Europe - it was a communist drink. Then when Fidel Castro's catholic socialist revolution in Cuba turned communist when Raoul came back from Moscow and told his big brother he'd just  swapped their idealism for armaments Fidel nationalised bloody everything quick smart.

After the Bacardis ran for it to put their money in Bermuda and re-estabish their manufactory in Puerto Rico and Mexico, drinking Bacardi became a sort of cool anti-communist activity.

But vodkas like Smirnoff became prolifically manufactured in the west and rum never really got another look in. When the Swedes invented Absolut in 1981 vodka just creamed it. 

When Gorbachev dismantled the USSR it looked for a time that Russian vodka would surge fashionably, but nah. Instead vodka from nearly everywhere else boomed, being manufactured, because it's easy, everywhere from New Zealand to Alaska. Countries that can put a fair dinkum marketing plan together and stick to it. Russia can't market. And it obviously hasn't got the right sort of Mad Men.

Now, the biggest-selling spirit in the world is China's baijiu, the deadly sorghum-based white spirit we see here in the white Moutai bottle. China makes about 5 billion litres a year. Internationally, vodka's on about 3.5 billion litres. After Russia, the USA is the biggest vodka drinker, thanks to non-soviet brands like Absolut and Smirnoff.

Then come the whiskies at around 2.9 billion litres and climbing. Until the Mad Men went away.

When they were going nuts, Mad Men saw the Irish Jameson's whiskey growing at an astonishing 21% per annum in the USA; Johnny Walker whisky not far behind, although I think the Johnnies Red and Black Label still outsell Jammo's in volume. This US surge mirrored in Australia, especially in the hipsters. Between the beginning of Mad Men in 2007, and the end of 2013, Australian 25-35 year olds doubled their whisky/whiskey consumption.

It will be very interesting to see what happens now.

At Casa Blanca, we like to keep a foot in each camp when it comes to the vodka-whisky war. Apart from the odd stray shot of Jammo or Canadian Club, it's all scotch here.

Well, not quite. I'm convinced now that the best luxury malt whisky, like around $100 and up, comes from Tasmania and Japan. As web malt reviewer Ralfy Mitchell says, Japanese malt is made by design, where in Scotland it's made by default. I'd add Tassie to that appellation. Suntory Yamazuki is exemplary; in Tassie, Lark and Hellyer's Road are on par. These folks know how to use good new French oak.

But as far as everyday winter dramming goes, like realistically, it's the bargain blended scotch that's the staple. The current favourites are Teacher's Highland Cream or The Bailie Nicol Jarvie, both of which you'll get at modest rates in BWS or Hungry Dan's. Call it perverse, but I find their flavours a bit sophisticated and caramel, so I cut them with Absolut vodka, which is often on discount, too, but is extremely clean spirit, as Finlandia once was. I drink this considered blend with a splash of soda. Which I wouldn't do with a Suntory or Tassie dram.

Another wickedly cheap low-cal tincture of note is Absolut with a dribble of Bickford's Essence of Coffee and Chicory and a shoosh of .75c soda. If that's still too sugary, chill espresso coffee and use that in your vodka. Somebody's gotta maintain the capitalist madness lest Putin take over.

As for baijiu, nah. I can't see it. I've sunk it from one end of China to the other as the officials hopelessly queue up to outdo me, but nah. Not needed Down Under. We're not that mad.

The author in his Mad Men days: with Peter Crayford and Meredith O'Grady, late 'seventies

1 comment:

MeredithJean said...