Imbibe Column – March 19
Some folk can get really caught up on labels: remoaner, millennial, snowflake, nationalist, woke – something that a Northern Irish upbringing literally hammered home.
My mother used to say “Nothing unites people like a common enemy.” And you know, she’s never been more correct. We use labels to identify ourselves and others. We need them to help navigate our way through the world. They can be thrown around in defence, or in attack. Sometimes they stick, sometimes they don’t. Either way, they are an extremely powerful tool. Simply put, we have an innate need to define and classify.
Perhaps what is even more powerful, however, is those that manage to redefine a label, to defy classification, the attributed words bending and transforming under the weight of nonconformist actions. Those that do find themselves all too often derided, and celebrated all too infrequently: Bowie, Grace Jones, and the like.
The world of booze is no different. Labels as definitions offer reassuring classifications that extend beyond production, and into expectation. Consumers and guests believe they know what Gin is (it’s served with tonic, right) or what what champagne is (the best sparkling wine, right?). What’s fascinating, is how distorted the message can be. Ask a Scotch drinker what makes a Scotch, Scotch, and I dare say they’ll be wide of the mark.
These rules had a place once – protecting the traditional producers. However, as time has gone on, and the long arm of the law has stood unwaveringly firm, a sort of paradigm shift has occurred. Production merits protection dictates production.
So, in today’s nimble market, how necessary do these labels ‘Gin’, ‘Rum’ etc remain? Frankly, I can walk into a bar and order a Gin and Tonic and the spectrum of flavour and complimentary garnishes that could be served is vast: berries, grapefruit, cucumber, rosemary, sage, oranges, lemons, the bells of St Clements. Flavoured tonics, too: orange & rosemary, lemongrass, coriander. These are not interchangeable, they’re too different for that.
So what, if anything, does a ‘Gin and tonic’ really mean?
The same could be said for ‘Rum’. As an umbrella term, is it really fair to classify El Dorado 12 and Plantation 3* as the same thing? Goslings and Bacardi? And these are just commonly available drams.
What happens when we widen the net? Clairin and Foursquare? Not even close. Gin Mare and Beefeater? Chalk and cheese. Redbreast 12 and Kilbeggan Grain? Who are you fooling? Though that’s why it says ‘Pot Still’ or ‘Grain’ I hear you cry. Show me a bar full of consumers that understand these terms, I defy you. They are obsolete.
What’s more is the rise of the pioneer spirit – those that defy conventional classification. The Empirical Spirits team from Copenhagen are releasing koji fermented spirits that have no place in legal definitions, their defiance of labels evident literally to the point whereby their bottle labels are as minimal as possible. Even the much lauded Compass Box flouts the rules whilst obeying them, probably best encapsulated with their release of ‘3 Year Old’ which had less than 1% 3 year old malt in the blend to command the age statement, showcasing the flaws in the labelling system.
Indeed, plenty of ‘Gins’ produced across Europe don’t accurately conform to the strict legislature that their ‘Gin’ label in particular demands. Have they been distilled to a minimum of 96% during production? Not on your nelly.
Though who really cares? Does ‘Rum’ actually mean anything when it no longer communicates flavour? Does ‘Gin’ when the spread of botanicals offers a plethora of contrast? It seems to me that where once the labels of ‘London Dry’ and ‘Caribbean Rum’ were essential tools to shift bottles, cuddled up in reassuring invisible rules that kept us safe from rip-offs without us ever needing to know what these rules were, there is now only the brand and the flavour. The brand, fuelled by social media channels, online branding and unconventional advertising, word-of-mouth and celeb endorsements is now where consumers put their faith (and cash). The idiosyncratic flavour in the hands of a skilled bartender is communicated immediately.
In the end, those of us who wish to identity as edgy early adopters, drink the edgy and unclassified. Those that want the sophistication drink the classics. Those that are brave enough to eschew the long worn path of convention deserve to be celebrated. The legalities surrounding the definition may have once had a role to fulfil, a role that is now obsolete.