With every new Naked Old-Fashioned and Jalisco Hound, the artisinal-cocktail renaissance reveals that this is no longer just a rum-and-whiskey world. It's a grappa, mezcal, bitters, punch and Xtabentún world in which liqueurs are made with saffron, ginseng, prunes, violets, chili peppers, licorice, tea, hibiscus, betel nuts, unripe walnuts, lemon grass, gold leaf, caraway seed, rose, lychee, grape blossoms, and plants of which most of the world has never even heard.
Granted, these revelations have been sitting for hundreds of years under our noses and those of our forebears, but they remained outside the mainstream's purview because most distilleries are small and independent and lack the resources for attaining worldwide attention. A New York-based company is now changing that -- and the side benefits include a wider array of organic drinks available to consumers and improved conditions for farmers who grow the raw ingredients.
Imagine: a pesticide-free piña colada.
Founded by husband-and-wife wine connoisseurs Paolo and Allison Domeneghetti, Domaine Select partners with producers to familiarize American consumers with lesser-known brands. Assembled last year, their Classic & Vintage Artisanal Spirits collection includes nearly a dozen different brands. Among them are G'Vine Gins de France, whose intensely floral gins are made from the rare green grapeflower, collected at cognac vineyards. Munich-based The Bitter Truth -- its German owners chose an English name because English is the cocktail-culture language -- produces celery bitters, chocolatey xocolatl-mole bitters, and more. Family-owned, 160-year-old Rhum J.M produces rum from estate-grown sugarcane that grows at the base of an active volcano on the northernmost tip of the island of Martinique.
"Each of these has a story," Allison Domeneghetti told me this week. For isntance, Sombra is a micro-batch, single-village mezcal whose bottling is sourced from 8,000-foot Mexican mountains.
As far as public awareness is concerned, "artisanal spirits are now where wine was six years ago," Domeneghetti mused. Because the spirits have been around for centuries, "we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We just want consumers to know that they have a choice, to know that there are products out there of higher quality than what the megabrands are offering.
"For example, everybody knows rum. Everybody drunks rum. But if you took a poll, very few people would know all the nuances that distinguish one rum from another.
"The idea becomes much more profound when it comes to agriculture and economics," Domeneghetti said. "More and more of the megacompanies are using modified ingredients," which many independent artisanal-spirit brands refuse to do. "So in an ironic way, spirits are reversing some of the unhealthy farming developments that the rest of the food and drink industry has seen in recent years." Several of the producers in the Classic & Vintage portfolio are 100 percent organic; all are sustainable.
"They don't take any shortcuts," Domeneghetti said.
Made in small batches in copper pots from organic hard red winter wheat, barley and botanicals and wild juniper berries on Wisconsin's Washington Island, Death's Door makes gin, vodka and an unusual white whiskey. Azuñia Tequila Platinum Blanco is 100 percent certified organic. Producing whiskey, bourbon, rye and malt from locally farmed Hudson Valley produce, Tuthilltown Spirits makes its distillery as green as possible, using the steam from the distillation process to heat the facility itself.
High standards about what goes down your throat don't have to stop at the swizzle stick.
Follow Anneli Rufus on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AnneliRufus