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Cleaning Out The Liquor Cabinet
Some thoughts on hopes, dreams, and obscurity. And some complaining about the spirits industry.
Before I went to Bar Convent Brooklyn last week, I had to clean out my liquor cabinet in advance of some much-needed home renovations. This cabinet would be what you’d call a semi-deep archive, mostly not bottles in the usual rotation. Many aren’t all that obscure: maraschino liqueur, pisco, unaged apple brandy, Old Tom gin, anise-flavored spirits like ouzo and sambuca—stuff I enjoy but rarely drink or mix with on a regular basis. As I dug deeper into the dusty cabinet, I started turning up some bottles that I hadn’t thought about in years.
I acquired most of these bottles as a cocktail ingredient for some newspaper column or other during the late aughts. For instance, I still have about 1.5 ounces of absinthe in a bottle dating to 2008. That was an era when many of the spirits we take for granted today simply did not exist or were not available in the U.S. The spirits market was ecletic, the wild west, and people were willing to buy and try anything weird and new. The small handful of craft spirits importers seemed more apt to bring in crazy, off-the-beath-path products, with few hits amid many misses.
How about a stone pine liqueur from the Alps? How about a peanut rum liqueur from St. Lucia? How about Dutch genever in heavy clay bottle? How about a root-beer-ish-flavored “amaro” meant to historically recreate early American root tea? How about a Polish vodka made with bison grass that’s banned in the U.S. because it has a chemical that causes blood thinning?
As I dusted off bottles of Zirbenz, Castries, Bols Genever, Root, and Zubrówka, I remembered an era when a small liquor brand could host a party for every person who attended Tales of the Cocktail in one hotel suite. Bourbon was still incredibly affordable. There weren’t a million “new gins” on the market. Which is to say it was a moment when the Diageos and Pernod Ricards and Bacardis of the world still hadn’t completely and utterly co-opted the craft cocktail movement.
Then, I started to dig into the really obscure stuff: a strawberry liqueur from Amsterdam; Peanut Lolita, the whiskey-peanut liqueur that pre-dates Skrewball by five decades; Carlshamns Flaggpunsch, a traditional Swedish punsch made with Indonesian batavia arrack; Cordial Campari, a syrupy, raspberry-anise-tinged digestivo made by the producer of the famed Italian bitter, discontinued in the 1990s. I acquired these bottles from my own forays into what I termed “liquor store archaeology,” scouring old liquor stores shelves for finds.
So I guess we can officially call this cabinet clean-out a walk down memory lane. Still, it was three particular bottles, way in the back, that summed up the era for me. All three were made by Combier, a Loire Valley liqueur producer founded in 1834. The first bottle, Combier Liqueur d’Orange, had been pitched in the early 2010s as “the world’s first triple sec” and a competitor to (or substitute for) Cointreau. The next, Élixir Combier is a 76-proof herbal-spiced liqueur—redolent of aloe, nutmeg, cardamom, saffron, and myrrh—that surely was created to rival yellow Chartreuse. In 2012, no one needed a yellow Chartreuse knock-off. But these days, given the current Chartreuse Crisis…maybe it’s time to rediscover Élixir Combier?
Finally, I found a bottle of kümmel, Combier’s 1850 recipe for the cumin and caraway liqueur with origins in Germany and Holland. This is what I wrote about Combier Kummel in the Washington Post in 2012:
“I recently got my hands on a bottle of kummel, made from a mid-19th-century recipe, distilled from caraway seed, cumin, and fennel. All I can say, is: Wow. We are not in a world of Justin Bieber and Walmart and whipped-cream vodka anymore. The pungent, spicy-sweet aromas and flavors deliver a funky tasting experience that feels pre-modern, elemental. Now, what exactly one does with kummel is still something I'm experimenting with.”
At some point, apparently, I gave up trying to figure out what to do with kümmel—having never found its signature cocktail—and stuffed the bottle far from the light of day for more than a decade. (Note: I will give a free lifetime subscription to the first person who sends me a quality kümmel cocktail.)
Have you ever tried any of the Combier products? These liqueurs strike a chord in me now, in 2023, because a decade ago they seemed like sure winners, poised for success. The Combier triple sec, in particular, seemed like a no-brainer as a slightly lower-priced alternative to Cointreau. I might have even argued that, in a serious quality/price/taste comparison, Combier would come out on top.
But that’s never really happened. These days—at least in my neck of the woods—I rarely see Combier promoted in stores or mentioned on bar menus. Not that Combier has gone away. The company that first imported the Combier liqueurs has changed names to CNI, but it’s still around. You can still buy it at stores like Total Wine. But Combier still lags far behind Cointreau as a triple sec in the consumer consciousness.
So what happened? It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. Combier just doesn’t have the resources or reach to compete with the likes of Cointreau (owned by Rémy Cointreau, riding shotgun with Cognac giant Rémy Martin ). This is especially true in a category like triple sec, generally a secondary or tertiary ingredient in a cocktail. Distribution and sales forces and deal-cutting play huge factors in what stores and bars stock.
I always remember seeing Combier’s importer, Scott Goldman (a Philly guy who’d gotten into the booze business after playing pro hockey in France) hustling by himself at industry events, bottles in his backpack, working hand-to-hand trying to make Combier happen. Meanwhile, Cointreau could simply invite hundreds of bartenders and buyers to drink for free at a lavish burlesque event featuring Dita Von Teese.
So I was thinking a lot about Combier as I wandered through the vast exhibition hall at the Bar Convent Brooklyn industry show last week. I thought about all the bottles I cleaned out of my cabinet while passing by dozens of booths full of hopeful, small spirits brands—many of them squeezed between elaborate, noisy exhibitions by much bigger brands.
At the Faccia Brutto booth, I tasted delicious artisan versions of more famous, big-brand amaro, fernet, and red bitter apertivo. While I love Cynar, Faccia Brutto’s Carciofo might better. And its green herbal Centerbe could be an Abruzzese answer to the Chartreuse Crisis. But I could barely hear the Faccia Brutto guy talk about his products, because he was drowned out by a brand ambassador shouting at the nearby Fernet Branca booth, pouring shots from a bottle directly into the mouths of a cheering crowd. I gave up, took a business card, let someone put a temporary tattoo on my arm, and moved on.
There’s an odd vibe at this kind of spirits event. The low-key desperation of the startup booze entrepreneurs contrasted by relentless corporate fun put out by the bigger brands creates a weird energy. This dynamic is hard to put a finger on, but I believe it’s having an effect on the world of spirits and cocktails.
In 2023, I don’t know how you can look at American mixology or bartending (or whatever you want to call it) and not see it as something that calcified in the 2010s. There’s a certain pervasive style of cocktail-making around the world that just feels stale. I’m not saying it’s any one thing in particular, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that something like Diageo World Class, which has “trained and inspired over 400,000 bartenders, across 60 countries” has been around for about a dozen years. Does it really matter how many tattoos and piercings and hats you rock if you’re suckling at the Diageo corporate teat?
Look, I don’t want this to seem like an anti-big-brand rant. I like Fernet Branca as much as the next guy—I cleared two bottles of Fernet and one Branca Menta out of my own liquor cabinet. I enjoyed the free cocktails at the William Grant party like everyone else (“free” as part of the $130 I paid for my BCB ticket). And I took my requisite shot of Jägermeister at an event promoting its commendable Safe Spaces project.
I guess what I’m saying is maybe I can see why Gen Z just wants a cocktail in a can. It might be time for a new cocktail movement? Sorry, but I have no idea what that looks like.
At Bar Convent Brooklyn, I spent a lot of time at the Emerging Brands Pavilion, where a couple of dozen startup booze brands poured their products. There, I saw a favorite of mine among the “new-wave gins,” Isolation Proof—which I’ve recommended here before, and still highly recommend. Founder Jake Sherry kept in good spirits, hustling to get his excellent gin into the mouths convention-goers, who may or may not remember it amid tasting hundreds of other liquids. As we chatted, I could feel Sherry’s palpable exhaustion. As someone trying to run an independent business by myself in an industry dominated by behemoths, I have all the empathy in the world for people like him.
Next to Isolation proof was Sông Cái, the Vietnamese distillery that for me was the discovery of the convention, particularly their incredible dry natural rice wine that we will soon see distributed widely (more on that later). But I also loved Sông Cái’s flagship products, its super unique gins made from local botanicals. Still, I wondered and worried how they will rise above the clamor of the gin category.
I felt the same fear just around the corner tasting another lovely new gin, Linden Leaf. This one touted itself as an “organic molecular spirit” created by three Cambridge University scientists and engineers. It made a great gin-and-tonic, no question. But with so many other new gins launching every year, we all know that taste isn’t going to decide which ones succeed.
In the end, you can’t only taste booze from startups. So I spent plenty of time with the bigger players, too. When it came to liqueurs, I really enjoyed Pierre Ferrand’s Late-Harvest Yuzu Curaçao, one of the more interesting spirits to pop up in the past year or so (they launched it last summer). Yuzu being a citrus, this liqueur is firmly in the same category as its orange dry curaçao, and would have similar cocktail applications as Grand Marnier, or Cointreau. Ferrand has only produced yuzu curaçao in a limited run, so I’m thinking I will buy a bottle to experiment with.
Which means I’ll likely have a few ounces left when I clean out the liquor cabinet again in another decade.