Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Beverage Deception

“Whether it has caffeine or not is not really important to me,” said the owner of a Manhattan donut shop, after being accused of serving decaf coffee and passing it off as caffeinated. “I like the flavor like I like the flavor of chocolate.”

This revelation came from a customer who had been drinking coffee there for a year. You want to think that they’d always suspected, but who knows?

It reminds me of a delicious (and expensive) cocktail I had at Pegu Club last weekend, a bar famous for meticulously made classic mixed drinks. It was called a “Whiskey Smash,” and I ordered it because it was their version of a mint julep (the Kentucky Derby was on, and a Southern cocktail seemed appropriate). It was very tasty, but I could barely detect the whiskey.

I had watched the bartender make it—sort of. And when I thought about it, I didn’t see him pour any booze. Was it possible that this highly skilled mixologist had skipped the most important ingredient? Or was it just so expertly proportioned that the alcohol flavor was subtle, even absent? To be honest, the reason I didn’t ask the bartender about it was because I didn’t want him to be embarrassed if he really did miss it somehow. This, I think, is a very Minnesota reaction.

The recipe, created by the famous mixologist Dale DeGroff, is online at the archived Gourmet Magazine site:
3 lemon pieces (cut a lemon in half and then quarter one of the halves, use three of the quarters)
5 mint leaves
1 ounce simple syrup
1 1/2 ounces Makers Mark Bourbon
Lemon wedge for garnish
1 mint sprig for garnish
I tried it at home, and...it tasted just like the one at Pegu Club, which is to say it was delicious, but not boozy. Who knew whiskey could be so mild?

My girlfriend told me a story once about a bartender at Bar Abilene, a Tex-Mex establishment in Minneapolis's Uptown neighborhood. The bartender, a bitter and work-averse sort, was upset by special orders: if a customer asked for a margarita frozen, instead of up, as it's listed on the menu, he would punish them by serving it without any liquor in it. No one noticed, of course. He apparently confided this with some pride to a fellow bartender at another Uptown bar.

This in turn reminds me of another beverage deception. In 2005, some food and wine critics at the New York Times participated in a blind taste test of 20 premium vodkas, with mid-market Smirnoff thrown in as a ringer. And it was Smirnoff, of course, that won, beating out all the Grey Gooses (it “was felt to lack balance and seemed to have more than a touch of sweetness”), the Ketel Ones (it “was felt to be routine and sharp”).

Wrote wine critic Eric Asimov, “What set Smirnoff apart, we agreed, was its aromas and flavors, which we described as classic.”

I chortled, vindicated, as I read this five years ago. Thinking about all the suckers who fell for the marketing of expensive but ultimately flavorless vodkas. (And then I thought about how excited I was to bring home a bottle of Russian Standard vodka from a trip to St. Petersburg. Okay, I’m guilty too.)

We all like to think that we'd be able to detect a placebo, to spot an ambush in a blind taste test. But the same problem exists in other categories, like art. How gleeful we become when we hear about art critics unwittingly praising the scribbles of children or animals as "genius" and "deliberate." Context is everything: marketing will fool us into thinking Coke tastes better than Pepsi, a desire to please will steer us toward one thing over another, and a high price or well-placed praise will boost the stature of the lowliest crap.

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