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The domestic alcoholic beverage industry is in a bit of an economic crisis (crisis might be slightly too strong a word). Legal barriers threaten competition and the technical and artistic knowledge of production has been consolidated into giant multinational corporations. This all goes on while agricultural subsidies and high transportation costs of micro harvested produce has created agricultural surpluses that we don’t know how to use and are not legally able to in certain ways.
Change is simple. We can overhaul and amend laws in an effort to reduce barriers to entry. This will attract new competitors, many of whom may be putting to use our agricultural surpluses. Funding research initiatives will help these new producers make safe, smart, successful products. Pressure to get any of this done will hopefully keep coming from the sustainability movement. People are beginning to realize more and more that agriculture is often an environmental atrocity, therefore we have to distribute the agricultural load to be sustainable.
Distribution of production means smaller scale operations which laws at the moment do not make economically viable. Distilleries for example, require purpose-built facilities, licenses, and safety provision overkill. All the requisites, which are largely the product of prohibition era paranoia and ignorance, can make the cost of starting an operation approach a million dollars (I hear this number is coming down). This does not support the small grower who simply has a surplus of fifty bushels of apples and would like to make fifty bottles of apple brandy to be sold in a restaurant. Bureaucratic product label approval can also be enough of a disincentive to produce at the micro scale.
Sustainable and therefore smaller scale production, also requires the redistribution of knowledge. Alcoholic beverage technology is now intensely controlled by specialists, but if technology is going to be applied on a smaller scale, it has to be closer to common knowledge. The first modern books on small scale distillation have just been written, but they still do not answer enough questions to common scenarios to make a huge difference in redistributing knowledge. We also have no modern books on economically significant categories like liqueur production. The research such a book requires is more costly than the sales profits it could generate, therefore its not likely to come along without the support of a government organization or university.
Most all research stumbles in its lack of interdisciplinary approach. Nearly no one tackles the artistic aspects of production. Domestic newcomers to the market seem to have more art issues than science issues which definitely limits the competitiveness of their products. Vodka which many distillers started their businesses on might have required no art, but demand for it is on the decline and successful gin production requires more art theory than is common knowledge.
Hopefully our art deficit will change. The “greatest restaurant in world” just changed from one that invents new technologies to one that develops art techniques (creative linkage) to explain how to use forgotten native food sources from foraged produce to snails and fish that haven’t had a market in generations (a change from El Buli in Spain to Noma in Copenhagen). A larger focus on art theory which can be constantly reapplied will definitely increase apple to apple competitiveness as well as steer producers into unknown territory where there may be comparative advantages.
The most significant economic crisis the domestic American beverage industry has ever seen was prohibition. The Volstead act completely erased the legitimate market for alcoholic beverages. This was prolonged enough (thirteen years) that vast amounts of common knowledge was also lost. Alcohol went from often being a household product like backyard cider or blackberry brandy to something that was not even able to be produced as fuel in case it was re-purposed. The idea of “dual-use” is often championed by government as always beneficial, but the fear of alcohol’s dual-use nature has had its production stricken from our school curriculums. Ignorance of fuel production technology (via beverage production) has likely exacerbated our current fuel crisis.
The prohibition knowledge gap was filled by many efforts. Books on distillery science were written by former industry men like Irving Hirsch (Manufacture of Whiskey, Brandy, and Cordials, 1937) and prefaced with the goal of restarting the industry. The University of California at Davis rose to the occasion and started a viticulture and oenology program that translated and unified the worlds wine technologies under academic super stars like Maynard Amerine and James Guymon. The result of the research at U.C. Davis was the creation of the multi billion dollar California wine industry which offers global competitiveness and employs vast amounts of people. Dividends on continued research could still be massive when you look at the numbers of imported alcoholic beverages we still consume. In many categories we have yet to offer any competition.
Not all recoveries after prohibition were so successful. Despite many books on the subject being published, the cocktail never made a comeback (in quality) until recently. The cocktail is important because of the art concepts it holds. Mixologists never avoid the challenge of putting to use foreign ingredients which is important because to be sustainable we need to be able to use everything. The wine industry on the other hand has trouble selling a grape varietal that few consumers have heard of.
The cocktail also holds the greatest ability to expand harmony. The tension that exists between elements of taste (sugar, acidity, alcohol, etc) and elements of aroma are larger than any other beverage medium therefore cocktails facilitate the acquiring of acquired tastes. The often celebratory experience of drinking cocktails also helps to add positive symbolic value to the sometimes dissonant instances of tension.
Sustainability requires the expansion of harmony. There will be no demand for more food sources unless there is more indifference to the different pleasures they create. Food can bend to our tastes but we can also bend to food. The cocktail illustrates the art concepts that facilitates both.
World War II
The next crisis that came was during World War II. We finally realized just how economically significant vermouth was and that we did not know how to make it when many European imports were cut off from the U.S. (vermouth was responsible for more than 50% of tax receipts on wine, though it is taxed at a higher rate). Filling the void was not exactly easy. Vermouth is a very complicated aromatized wine, but unlike other wines its production techniques were not common knowledge. Europeans producers protected their interests by the deliberate spreading of misinformation. Sensory descriptions of vermouth also seem to escape language which means that it is hard to share ideas on the subject.
Well established European producers made vermouth seem more sophisticated than it was by exaggerating the amount of botanicals that were used in their formulas. They also lied about their aroma extraction techniques. The claim was that high proof solvents were used like everclear, but the truth was that they used fairly low proof solvents and small amounts of heat and agitation to capture aroma while minimizing bitter principles. These small tricks of the establishment likely derailed the American vermouth industry by considerable amounts of time.
America quickly filled the production void during the war (albeit with low quality that luckily saw no foreign competition) and eventually grew and improved to make some of the best vermouth in the world during the 1970‘s (an estimate of their artistic peak gleaned from old Consumer Reports annual liquor guides). Domestic consumption was dominated by domestic producers like Tribuno and Gallo. This is not a well known history due to the gruesome demise of domestic production before we had a wine or a cocktail renaissance. Domestic production and its knowledge eventually reconsolidated only to be completely crushed under the weight of conglomerates that were the victims of Wall Street’s leveraged buy outs. The highly leveraged operations were too poorly financed to compete with the Italians who out advertised them twenty to one at one point in time.
The short lived rise of domestic vermouth only kicked off with domestic research initiatives. Maynard Amerine’s Vermouth, An Annotated bibliography, 1974 can be reconstructed into a time line that shows a great amount of mid century articles in trade publications like Wines & Vines that try to start a dialog on the subject. Authors collectively dispelled production myths so that the supply side of a market could emerge. The thought that multiple producers were necessary to create confidence in domestic production may have been the incentive for cooperation. The logic being that multiple producers leads to competition and competition is an incentive for quality which is worth putting up the money to consume on slightly less than blind faith.
In alcoholic luxuries, quality eventually becomes an artistic matter rather than one of functional utility. Vermouth started as a shelf stable wine product used in cooking for its acidity and generally “complex” and stimulating aroma, but eventually evolved into a sophisticated art object used to elevate or be elevated by gin or whiskey. Validating quality in art is not easy, but its even more difficult when you are the sole domestic producer and you get quickly denounced by the establishment as inferior because of your point of origin. Demystifying a product with transparent research is the only way to be evaluated without nationalistic bias. Not being the sole domestic producer also helps.
Amerine’s annotated bibliography was actually commissioned for a scholarship funded by the Tribuno’s (of domestic vermouth fame) to study and further aromatized wine. The science was becoming exhausted and research was likely to take a turn for the anthropological or artistic. The industry quickly collapsed at the time the scholarship started and so was re-purposed for the study of wine aroma. This is a shame because we would have learned more about aroma in general if we stayed with a medium where aroma could be moved and manipulated more easily.
The study of vermouth or wine aroma leads to classification of aromas which leads to the creative linkage of the classifications and eventually to symbolic value we places on aromas and their linkages. Understanding these things is the only way to be competitive in the highly established non functional luxury beverage market.
The current crisis we face is not having a legal framework to produce under and not being artistically competitive. The solutions to the these challenges is not particularly costly and the return on investment could be massive based on the past examples. This country could easily resemble Europe with ingenious uses for a diverse agricultural portfolio. Demand could be claimed to be more advanced than supply as evidence by all our imports.
The last thirty years has seen the legalization of home wine making and home brewing. Large amounts of home brewers have turned into commercial micro brewers and started the economically significant, rapidly growing, widely distributed, craft beer industry. The successes of the reform should be carried further into distillation. Every house hold should legally be able to distill whatever they are legally able to ferment. It will still be illegal to sell, but legal to share and most importantly legal to learn from doing.
Legalizing home distillation will redistribute consolidated knowledge enough so that entrepreneurs may acquire enough to build a domestic business. Numerous competitors whether active commercially or only at the hobbyist level, will lead to artistic advances that make us more competitive with highly established imports.
The Future Direction of Research
New research could expedite the entire process of becoming more competitive. The vast amount of past research needs to be re-popularized while new research needs to put to use new tools that have only recently become economically viable. Work in both directions needs to be interdisciplinary. More interdisciplinary work will increase the return on investment of research.
Past analysis which often starts with Louis Pasteur was only able to measure and find patterns between elements of taste (taste, or gustation only represents part of a flavor. Flavor is a synesthetic multi-sensory concept). The intricacies of aroma was beyond their reach. This analysis needs fresh interest because it has not yet been put through the interdisciplinary ringer. The audiences that can benefit from research intended solely for wine makers can be fairly large.
The anthropologist can turn food and beverage into metrics that define a society’s sense of harmony and measure changes over time. The wine maker can follow the anthropologists work and learn what directions to abstract wine relative to various markets such as the domestic market or various differentiated export markets. The liqueur producer can learn the abstraction techniques of the wine maker. The bartender would do well to learn the sanitation techniques of the wine maker and can also learn from anthropologists when trying to push the limits of harmony. The distiller who looks to create new products where there is a comparative advantage will try and fit within the new harmonies of the mixologist bartender.
Another emerging market is the “soda as acquired taste”. Producers create non alcoholic products that features dramatic tensions between elements like sweetness, acidity, and dissolved gas to replicate much of the emotional content of an alcoholic drink experience but without the alcohol. People get hung up on alcohol, but it does not define as much of the pleasure of drinking as one would think. It just so happens that alcohol is paired with these tensions and contrasts. The perception of something like dryness could be seen as a flavor bi-product of producing alcohol and to some degree that is what we often crave. Desired flavor bi-product structures do not have to happen naturally like in a beer or wine because we can use abstraction techniques to replicate them. This is not new as its been practiced with cocktails for quite a while, but it can always be refined especially if you want to confidently remove alcohol from the equation.
Aroma is the great frontier of flavor and powers much of the highly imaginative and memorable quotient of an experience. We can finally tackle aroma due to the increasing accessibility of tools like mass spectroscopy and gas/liquid chromatography. These tools can be used to finally develop a comprehensive olfactory construct that integrates into past research on elements of taste. This would be of interest to all of culinary art (integrated) as well as the perfume industry (emotional content of aroma only). One would think that the perfume industry has already figured these things out, but they seem to do more with creating synthetic aroma than categorizing and studying creative linkage. They are also secretive so who knows exactly what they have developed.
Botanicals are really important to learning the creative linkage of aromas. For starters they are typically power plants for small aroma sets as opposed to large sets like wine or meat which makes them useful for experimenting. The digestibility of botanicals also lets us study their impact on our sense of taste. Taste or rather gustation seems to be particularly important to categorizing aroma and this importance might be why perfumers have not developed categorization techniques that have trickled down to culinary. The study of aroma can only be furthered by integration into the other senses.
The categories we put aromas in need to have names, but because these names are arbitrary, it is hard to pick names which will seem intuitive. Names often begin with an analogy to another sense. One of the most significant sensory naming categories that has stuck is warm and cool in regards to color. This analogy might have been successful because for nearly every sensory input of perception another sense is also touched (co-experience?). Thermoception, from where the warm and cool concepts are derived, might be the closest sensory input to sight. In regards to olfaction, gustation is likely the most significant sensory input that is also activated. Aroma probably needs to be first categorized by its relationship to gustation.
The relationship between aroma (olfaction) and taste (gustation) means we can take our botanical aroma building blocks and create experiments that categorize them by their ability to stimulate gustatory divisions (bitter, tart, salty, sweet, umami, and piquancy). Unlike symbolism which forms the divisions of many olfactory constructs (good or bad aromas for example), this might not be culturally relative and might therefore be universal.
The most significant gustatory division that is stimulated by aroma seems to be sweetness. Many of our most highly regarded simple aroma sets (black tea and lemonade perhaps?, anise and wormwood?, juniper and orange peel?) create tension and pleasurable emotional content by juxtaposing aromas that could be said to have one increasing the perception of sweetness while the other decreases it. The aromas may also just create favorable tension by each solely stimulating separate gustatory divisions. This alternative idea would create tension that completely parallels the tension between gustatory divisions (sweet contrasted with tart equals the pleasurable sour concept) .
Even if we carried out tests to identify the simple aromatic building blocks of all known botanicals (the number is manageable) and then we created experiments to identify the gustatory stimulus of the building blocks, we still would not have a comprehensive construct. Further divisions would have to be made, but to be honest, I do not have an idea of where to divide next.
The most sophisticated botanical olfactory construct I have ever seen is Harold McGee’s from On food and Cooking. McGee starts with three categories (“light”, “warm-sweet”, ”other qualities”) and elaborates those to ten. (light: fresh, pine, citrus, floral, warm-sweet: woody, warm-”sweet”, anise, other qualities: penetrating, pungent, distinctive). In the chart, every botanical can be placed in multiple categories because they contain sets of aromas, but aromatic compounds themselves mostly only reappear in one category.
Besides the large “other” category, knowingly or not, McGee starts out using analogies from other senses though not the same sense. The next sub division looks like it tries to group a botanical around an iconic aroma that would face little danger of being unknown to a culture. Unfortunately the “other” category is very large and only broken down into very complex words that rely on McGee’s furnished definitions.
“Light” as a category does not have the most clear meaning. It could refer to a sensation of lightness but also the nature of the botanicals because everything in the light group is particularly volatile (terpenes) and therefore the first to be perceived (top notes in perfumer’s jargon). “Warm, sweet” and “other” are filled mostly with phenolic compounds which are less volatile and have different solubility than terpenes. The “penetrating” category is not clearly defined while “pungent” refers to botanicals that stimulate pain receptors like chilis (sometimes called piquancy). The distinctive category is for botanicals that are dominated (some more than others) by phenolic compounds unique to themselves (saffron is the only botanical producing safranal).
McGee’s construct definitely succeeds in helping one parse the aromatic components of certain botanicals. Knowing to look for something increases the schemas you have to break an aroma set down. The chart states a goal of helping people identify affinities between botanicals but offers no logic on how affinities arise. If you plug many large botanical sets into McGee’s construct which are considered complex and generally highly regarded, you do find a pattern of all divisions being employed (a vermouth formula for example or many spice rubs).
If we study many famous aroma sets using mass spectroscopy and chromatography we can identify more patterns of pleasure, especially between smaller sets. It would not be surprising to see the same patterns of creative linkage used repeatedly. New tools of analysis would also help us realize the role of aromatic timbre in creating favorable emotional content. When we create large aroma sets from botanicals there are many overlapping divisions touched upon in an olfactory construct. Tight linkages perceived as overtones might also be really important to aromatic affinities. The best experiments to demonstrate these affinities will likely be the aromatized wine and the cocktail.
A vast frontier of possibilities is open before us. We have overcome the challenges in the past and no doubt can continue to do so. A new legal framework with increase artistic quality by increasing competition, but research initiatives can always expedite the process as proven by the past. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that does not admire Europe for its agricultural diversity, its ingenuity in preparing the bounty of its harvests, and its contagious when in Rome ability to have people eat and maintain the regional specialties. There is no reason America could not eventually achieve the same.
The main difference between the culinary Economies of the U.S. and Europe is the distribution of knowledge. The U.S. has been negatively impacted by forces in the establishment which tries control knowledge and protect itself against affronts of competition. The only way to redistribute knowledge is to provide a legal mechanism that reduce barriers to entering the market thereby increasing the number of competing firms and funding research that creates a transparent understanding of the products produced. The only way to be sustainable is to redistribute knowledge so we can spread out production and to master harmony when applying our new diverse agricultural bounty.