What’s shakin, cocktail fans?
Welcome to Episode 174 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast! I’m your host, Modern Bar Cart CEO, Eric Kozlik,
Thanks for joining me for this first Bar Cart Foundations episode of 2021, where we take a deep dive into one very specific aspect of spirits and cocktails so that you can walk away from the episode with a veritable crash course in the subject matter.
This episode is actually pretty special to me because I’ve been dying to do a deep dive on what you might call geographic designations or denominations of origin. Sounds boring, right? Sounds pretty legalese and bureaucratic. And in some respects it is – there’s no way to make government-mandated label claims sexy, right? But in another sense, if you can zoom out far enough and take in these debates from the 35,000 foot view, there’s actually a pretty simple set of forces at work, and those large-scale trends are precisely what we’re going to focus on.
Featured Cocktail: The Stinger
But before we do all that, let’s take a moment so that you can make yourself a drink. This episode’s featured cocktail is the Stinger, To make it, you’ll need:
2 oz Cognac
1 oz Creme de Menthe
And that’s it. Some recipes call for a dash or two of mineral water, and some don’t. But to mix this drink up, all you need to do is combine your ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice, shake vigorously, and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. This cocktail is actually a pre-prohibition classic often served as an after-dinner digestif, which means that if you’d like to garnish it, well…just take the lead from the creme de menthe and add a nice, gently activated sprig of mint.
I felt like a Cognac cocktail was appropriate to feature for this episode, since it’s one of the most well-protected geographical regions when it comes to spirits production, but Cognac itself is a topic for another episode, so with that, let’s dive right into this Bar Cart Foundations episode on Geographic indications.
What is a Geographic Indication?
The main problem I encountered during the early phases of researching this topic is that it’s REALLY hard to pin down exactly what to CALL the thing we’re talking about. When you come across signals of geographical indications on physical bottles, they almost always have different (and foreign-sounding) names. The French appellation d’origine contrôlée, for example, or the Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. A mouthful or words that almost requires a mouthful of booze before you even attempt pronunciation.
Floating around out there are also terms like “Denomination of Origin,” “Protected Designation of Origin,” and a bunch more besides. These terms all have different shades of meaning, but basically, what you need to know is this:
At some point, some group of people came together and said:
“Hey! I heard that someone’s making some cheap knock-off version of the thing we make and pretending it’s genuine! We can’t have that. It tarnishes our collective name. Let us band together and create a set of rules that establishes quality and that can help consumers distinguish between a genuine product and a cheap reproduction.”
Now, embedded in this conversation that has taken place in many locations around the world at many different points in history are a few assumptions. Namely:
There’s something special about OUR product that can’t be reproduced.
Some part of that “specialness” resides in either the land or the time-honored practices that generate the product.
Therefore, anyone who uses “our” name for this product but makes it somewhere else or using different methods or materials is violating both our heritage and the cultural intellectual property inherent in our genuine product.
Out of this somewhat predictable and often-repeated series of events generally arises the impulse to regulate agricultural, fermented, distilled, or otherwise grown and manufactured products that originate in a specific region. Classic examples include pretty much any recognizable wine or cheese product from France or Italy (including Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Chianti, Roquefort, Camembert, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and many more besides). The French and Italians are VERY good at protecting their food and drink products. But then, when you get into the spirits world, you see lots of geographical indications popping up around the world in pretty much every spirits category: Whiskey, Brandy, Rum, Agave Spirits, and yes – even gin.
Now, I’m not going to bore you with the difference between a geographical indication and a protected denomination of origin. And partly, that’s because I’m not qualified to. But that’s okay because you don’t need a law degree to understand the large-scale forces responsible for creating the current regulatory landscape that affects what is available for you to drink wherever you may live in the world. So think of this episode as a survey course in Geographical Indications, with lively cameos from the absolute best of our previous podcast guests.
First up, let’s talk about the constraints that some regions choose to place on where a spirit is made and what materials are used to make it.
Constraining Place and Materials
Melanie Asher on Grape Varietals Allowed in Pisco
That’s Melanie Asher, founder of Macchu Pisco, describing some of the different grape varietals that can be used to create Pisco in Peru. And compared to makers of other types of spirits, aving half a dozen or more different variants for your distillate base might seem like a luxury, but the Pisco denomination of origin also has some pretty strict geographical and process-related rules that balance out the bountiful grape varietals permitted.
Now, sometimes, this restriction of materials is a product of a negotiation between interested parties who might have historical opinions about what grapes should be used in a particular brandy category. And other times, in other places, it’s Mother Earth who is responsible for drawing the line.
Here’s Effie Panagopoulous speaking about her innovative Mastiha, KLEOS, and its indivisible ties with the Greek isle of Chios.
Effie Panagopoulos on the Natural Range of the Mastiha Tree
Sometimes when I think about a spirit as a masterpiece or a work of art, I’m reminded of that trope about the artist standing before a block of marble and knowing that the sculpture is already in there – it’s just a matter of taking away all the excess. This, in essence, is one of the positive effects of constraining materials in a spirit: you’re effectively telling a distiller: here’s what you have to work with, now go to town and show us what you can do. And as we just heard from Melanie and Effie, that instruction can come in the form of a written regulation, or it can come from the fact that your agricultural input refuses to grow anywhere but in a specific area.
Constraining Process and Character
But once your inputs have been selected, there’s still a lot of regulation that can occur at the process level of manufacturing a spirit. Here’s a clip from distiller RB Wolfensberger about some of these rules in the vodka world.
RB Wolfensberger on Process- and Character-Related Constraints in Vodka
Now, it’s important to note that this interview was conducted several years ago, and the TTB has recently amended their definition of vodka so that the whole “neutral” thing isn’t nearly as stringent or exclusive. You still have to distill up to 190 proof – so the process hasn’t changed, but there’s a lot less funny business when it comes to allowing flavor to shine through the product.
The Importance of Leverage and Collective Action
To me, this shows that although geographical indications and other process-related regulations can truly feel restrictive, we do have the power to influence them. Right? The TTB isn’t sitting around bored saying, “hey, you know, we should really take a second look at vodka.” No – this change is absolutely due to calls for reform from producers and consumers. And this begs the question: who has the power to make or modify geographic indications in spirits, and what does that process entail?
Here’s Matt Pietrek’s thoughts on both the recent surge of geographical indications in Caribbean rum producing countries, as well as the economic forces that underpin a country’s ability to have its rules recognized and respected elsewhere in the world.
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Who Is Truly Protected by Geographic Indications?
Now that we’ve covered most of the basics about geographical indications, it’s time to transition from being merely descriptive into perhaps a more evaluative mindset where we present some possible stances you can take relative to the regulations we’ve been talking about. And before I give you these last two clips, I want to explain how I think about rules in the spirits industry and whether they’re good or bad.
When I walk up to a rule, I ask myself: “who does this rule benefit from a financial standpoint?” And there can be more than one answer to that question, but there’s almost always one answer that’s best or most apparent.
The next question I ask is: “Who is this rule protecting?” and that, too, generally yields a pretty clear answer. In most cases, rules are in place to protect the people who make spirits or the people who consume them, so it’s pretty cut and dry.
Once you have these two pieces of information, it’s generally pretty easy to understand if a rule exists to protect people who need protecting, or if it exists to maintain a status quo that benefits a few very large or wealthy interests.
A great example of this is agave spirits, where the Mexican government has come in and said:
“Hey, from now on you can only call it Tequila if it’s made in this specific region, using this specific type of agave.”
And at the time when this regulation came out, it seemed like a great thing for American drinkers because now we didn’t have to question if something was [Quote Unquote] REAL tequila, or some cheap mixto. If it said Tequila on the label, along with 100% de agave, you knew without a shadow of a doubt that you had something like a genuine article.
But since then, the Mexican government has also taken ownership of the word “Mezcal,” in a sort of Trademark-like fashion, and that has had real consequences for people who are making traditional agave spirits all over rural Mexico. Here’s Lou Bank and Chava Periban from the Agave Road Trip podcast with their takes on why this government ownership of the word “Mezcal” isn’t necessarily a good thing for distillers OR consumers.
Lou Bank and Chava Peribán on Diversity in the Agave Word
Listening to this clip, I come back to a point I like to make in the spirits and cocktail world about “robustness.” A robust category or industry sector is one that benefits from diversity, and this mindset often clashes with a nationalistic agenda that wants to draw a line around a spirits producing region and chant over and over, “we’re number 1!”
It’s one thing to have a tradition and to try and protect that tradition, but if in the process of protecting something you end up trapping it in amber so that it can no longer evolve, well…at that point you’ve kinda killed the tradition – or at least made it so that it can no longer change with the times.
I’d like to conclude this intro-level survey on Geographical Indications by giving the final word to St. George Spirits master distiller Lance Winters. Around this time last year, I had the chance to sit down and speak with him about the American Single Malt category, which revealed some cool insights about the relationship between regulation and creativity. Take a listen:
Lance Winters on Creativity in American Single Malt
I wanted to wrap up on this idea about having space and the freedom to experiment because I think it underpins what you might call the “American” approach to spirits regulations and the “European” approach. Folks in Europe have been bumping up against each other geographically for millennia prior to the colonization of the Americas, and that generally reinforces the importance of clear borders and very well trodden rules and definitions.
But here across the pond, we’ve got the luxury of a lot more space. And when you don’t have a rival grape producing region right across the river constantly competing with you for prestige, you tend to be a little looser with your regulations.
These last three clips about geographical indications in Rum, and Agave, and American Single Malt are also very tied up in money, and who deserves it. Poor farmers and distillers in parts of Mexico that can’t call their products Mezcal are a great example of innocent victims who fall on the wrong side of an invisible line, as are the scrappy rum producers from all over the Caribbean who have a hard time getting their rules acknowledged by large trade entities like the US or the European Union.
These are clear instances where people of low status and power are missing out because they have very little influence over commercial activities in the larger world. Where do American Single Malt producers stand in relation to this? It’s a little harder to say, but one thing’s for certain – the multinational conglomerates who own all those lucrative Scotch distilleries probably aren’t lobbying for any regulatory relaxations or expansions that allow American single malt producers to gain market share.
I’m Modern Bar Cart CEO Eric Kozlik. Thanks for joining me on this romp through the complicated world of Geographical Indications and the people and industries they affect. If you have any questions or feedback, we’d love for you to drop us a line at [email protected], and if you have the chance, I hope you’ll take a minute to learn about the rules that govern your favorite spirits.