Liquids: Drinking Trends in 2004

If Boston starts off the New Year with the same kind of momentum with which it finished the last, we’re in for an exciting vintage. Number crunchers and distributors are positively gleeful about the state of imbibing in the state of Massachusetts. That’s bad news for neo-Prohibitionists, but good news for just about everyone else. Bostonians are taking to spirits in record numbers in almost every category. Massachusetts ranks ninth among all states in total consumption of brandy and cognac (up 10.2 percent from 2001) and vodka (up 5.5 percent), according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Greater Boston alone ranks fourth in vodka consumption and fifth in rum consumption, meaning that the after-dinner snifter must be back in vogue and that the cosmopolitan still reigns supreme among cocktails.

We must be drinking a lot of negronis, too, considering that gin is up 1.3 percent, putting Boston in sixth place nationwide. Massachusetts is fourth in scotch sipping—neat, please—up 5.3 percent. A margarita renaissance is also under way, what with tequila sales in the state up 11.5 percent. And the highball set makes Boston the number 13 market for Canadian whiskey in the country, up 1.7 percent.

Boston leads the nation in consumption of cordials and liqueurs, accounting for a hangover-inducing figure of 603,000 nine-liter cases last year. (While this may make us the cordial capital of America, I’m not sure it means we’re leading the country in cordiality.)

It’s harder to track wine sales, so I spoke to two distributors who sell it to our city’s restaurants and bars. Chip Coen, director of sales for M. S. Walker, says elite Champagne is “sluggish,” referring to brands such as Veuve Clicquot la Grande Dame and Moët & Chandon’s Cuvee Dom Perignon. “The consumer is trading down,” he says. You’ve discovered that Italian prosecco, Spanish cava, and New World sparkling wines offer a practical alternative to Champagne when you crave bubbles but don’t want to take a bath.

Coen also sees an increase in interest in wines with less oak flavor and more natural fruit flavor. “This group continues the search for the Holy Grape,” he explains—“something without a lumber yard in the glass, and without lactic caramel weight.” Lactic caramel refers to the aromas and flavors that result from malolactic fermentation, a secondary fermentation that takes place in many wines, converting bitter malic acids into creamy lactic acid (think milk). This process also produces diacetyl, which has a heated-butter aroma and makes the wines softer and smoother. But all that richness diminishes the fruit flavor, and so now we’re seeing a backlash.

Richard Kzirian, founder of and wine buyer for Violette Imports, concurs. “In whites, the move away from oak is huge.” Your friends and neighbors are drinking less New World chardonnay and are instead opting for understatement. Such as? Both men say the same thing: Austria’s fabulously crisp, dry, minerally grüner veltliner grape; rieslings from Alsace (France), Germany, and Austria; and elegant chardonnay from France, a.k.a. white Burgundy.

How are we doing with red wine? Bostonians, says Kzirian, are “buying red wine by the bucketload, and that’s where the most fun is.” Fun? Kzirian gleefully elaborates: “If you want to live forever, enjoy your evening, have sex with the people you want to have sex with, then drink sangiovese, drink barbera, drink dolcetto.” Kzirian is, to say the least, passionate about red wines, especially little-known Italian grapes. That’s because, he says, “they have acidity, snap, fruit—all the things to go well with food when wine and food pairing matter.”

Coen agrees that while the new whites are exciting, red is where it’s at. “The New World impact on price and the proliferation of ‘jammy’ reds has invigorated an already hot category,” he says, referring to the term for superfruity New World wines. “Pinot noir seems to be establishing itself as a bridge from rosés [toward red wine] and a bridge back from heavy, tannic, out-of-balance reds.”

Most heartening to Kzirian is that Bostonians are finally experimenting with wines. “People are finally listening and willing to try new things, and that gives me hope that pinot grigio and merlot will not rule the world.”

I’ll drink to that. Happy New Year.