Saturday, September 13, 2008

Not all drink mixes are created equal

William M. Dowd photo

Consumer Alert: This entry contains opinions that may be contrary to those of cocktail purists, among whose ranks I usually place myself. However, the times they are a'changing, so broaden your horizons.

A recent story in The Wall Street Journal by one Eric Felten began like this:

"Williams-Sonoma, geared though it may be to ambitious amateur cooks, seems to think that its customers aren't up to the rather limited culinary demands of making cocktails. Why else the prominence the store is giving to a new line of bottled cocktail mixes? ... . The infantilization of drinkers remains the top marketing point for the prefabbers. The flacks for that supermarket standby, Rose's Cocktail Mixers, sent out a press release for their Mojito mix this summer touting it as 'a solution to complicated drink-making.' Complicated? Crush some mint in sugar syrup and fresh lime juice; add white rum, club soda and ice; stir. Is it supercilious to suggest that those for whom this is a task of surpassing complexity are better off not dulling their wits further with alcohol?"

Ye gods, Felten. I know you wrote the book "How's Your Drink?: Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well" (Agate Surrey), but lumping all such "prefabs" into one bucket of distasteful slop is neither accurate nor of any practical use to consumers.

I do agree that many of the pre-made drink mixes are loaded with ingredients one neither wants nor may even understand, but as in all things culinary there are exceptions. One such, in my view, is the line of Stirrings drink mixes. I actually like them. A lot.

As one whose cocktail-making resume dates from my mid-teens ("Oldies can still be goodies"), I understand and value the idea of fresh ingredients. I squeeze my own lemons and limes, wash and dry my own fresh berries, clip and macerate my own herbs, use different fresh ice in the shaker and the glass ... . But when I have tossed away the gazillionth lime because the only way I find them affordable is to buy a large bag at a discount grocer and can't use them up, or don't want to bother whipping up a batch of simple syrup (hint: agave syrup works just as well), or it's not growing season for my mint and thyme and basil, or if unexpected company drops in and expects a yummy cocktail or three, I see nothing wrong with using certain mixes if they have been pre-tested and found suitable.

Thus, Stirrings. I've tried the Fall River, MA, company's margarita, mojito, peach bellini and apple martini mixes. Excellent, all, with none of that "What's in this?" wrinkly-nosed result. Not yet tried: blood orange martini, bloody Mary, chocolate peppermintini, cosmopolitan, lemon drop, lemonade, pear martini, pomegranate martini, spiced apple and wild blueberry martini. Some of the latter I'd never try, simply because such concoctions do not appeal to me no matter whether they're made from a mix or made using ingredients just shipped from farm or factory. I refer specifically to the likes of a chocolate peppermintini and a wild blueberry martini. Blecch.

Stirrings was founded in 1997 by Bill Creelmann and Gil MacLean. Their philosophy is on every label: "We believe in using only the best ingredients -- fresh juice, triple-filtered water and a touch of imagination -- because after all, better ingredients make better cocktails."

The company has grown to include a line of cocktail rim garnishes, cocktail sodas, bar ingredients and a brand-new line of organic drink mixes that includes "The Dark & Stormy," a ginger mixer to pair with rum; "The Bellini," that includes apricots, lemons, limes, oranges, agave and natural bitters, and "The Gimlet," a sour mixer using organic lemons, limes, oranges, cane sugar, agave and natural bitters. Orders for that new line will begin being shipped in late September.

If the new line, and the originals I have yet to try, match up in quality to the ones I have tried, they're something to be anticipated. In addition to exposing people to cocktails they'd probably never otherwise attempt making themselves, they provide a nice assortment of alcohol-free drinks ready to be poured from the bottle over ice.

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To Dowd's Spirits Notebook
To Dowd's Brews Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Non-Alcohol Drinks Notebook latest entry.
To Dowd's Tasting Notes latest entry.
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