It’s 2020 and by now, ‘well’ ought to be a four-letter word.
We’ve all built drinks around ‘good enough’ well spirits, and it makes sense. With profit margins as slim as they are, well drinks seem to be a natural solution to the constant struggle of making a profitable bar program. But, as consumer taste levels seem to endlessly rise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify the incorporation of the workhorse spirits that are often relegated unceremoniously to “well” status. And while we do hate to be the bearer of bad news, cheap spirits come at not-so-cheap prices, especially when we start to look at the big picture.
The reality is that cheap spirits don’t suddenly become cheap when they get bottled. Producing inexpensive, well-friendly spirits requires that every piece of the production line be optimized with money in mind. This profit-driven supply chain creates side effects that can drastically -- and sometimes devastatingly -- affect everyone from the end consumer to the farmer.
Over the past several years, premiumization has hit the tequila market in a whirlwind of top-shelf agave-based spirits. This has meant that the prices of raw agave have skyrocketed, much to the benefit of agave farmers everywhere. But, what about the cheap stuff -- the well tequila? How does that fit in?
Manufacturers of cheap tequila have turned to alternative sweeteners -- often high fructose corn syrup -- to keep production costs low. They mix these sweeteners with their agave during distillation to keep their prices down. From there, they also fill the bottle with colorings, flavorings, and other non-agave products, further diluting the tequila. In Mexico, tequila made this way (with anything less than 100% Agave) is labeled “Mixto”. However, America has no such distinction, meaning that this corn-syrup tequila-ish liquor is sold right alongside true agave tequila. So, that well tequila in your Palomas? Chances are, it’s more corn syrup than agave.
Elsewhere, the effects of cheap booze are more devastating.
Flor de Caña is a popular well rum from Nicaragua, loved by bartenders for its price tag and its ‘good enough’ flavor. Unfortunately, this amicably-priced rum comes at a cost that most bartenders will never see.
The rum is produced in Chichigalpa, Nicaragua, a poverty-stricken town of about 60,000. Aside from the abject economic depression that plagues the town, Chichigalpa is afflicted by a deadly epidemic of CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease) at a rate that is 6 times higher than the national average. Those afflicted by CKD are usually men and almost exclusively work in as laborers in the sugarcane fields. These men often don’t live beyond the age of 40: In Chichigalpa, CKD is the cause for 75 percent of the deaths in men aged 35 to 55.
A 2015 study conclusively linked Chichigalpa’s CKD outbreak to inhumane working conditions in the sugarcane fields like those used by Flor De Caña. The study noted that long hours exposed to the sun without sufficient shade, rest, or water caused workers’ kidneys to decline in function, and subsequently fail entirely. It is estimated that there were between 2800 and 3200 CKD deaths between 1995 and 2015.
That’s a tall price to pay for a cheaper daiquiri, and it’s extremely hard to imagine Flor De Caña being the only spirits producer cutting costs at the labor level of their supply chain.
By contrast, expensive alcohol is expensive for a reason. From responsible sourcing of ingredients to livable wages for employees, high-end spirits can offer a lot of value -- before they even go into the bottle.
Aside from the ethical dilemmas involved in cheap spirits, taste is surely something to be accounted for. In an increasingly culinary cocktail world, it’s becoming harder to argue for a ‘one spirit fits all’ approach. Perhaps the robust flavor of a peated whisky can take your Irish coffee to new heights, while being less appropriate for a good ol’ Whiskey Smash. Today, consumers expect this level of attention to detail when it comes to drink-making. ‘Any-old-gin’ just doesn’t cut it for a G&T anymore.
Well spirits are an easy way to make a few bucks, sure. Business is business and profit margins are slim. But, in a globalized economy with a fast-changing consumer zeitgeist, we have to think -- perhaps its high time to move on from well drinks.
By Michael Claisse