Dead end organic spirits?
Organic spirits are more of a recent addition to the global bar world and they ususally come with a hefty price tag. Rightly so? Buying organic spirits is like showing off says Philip Duff.
It doesn’t feel right to criticise environmental and organic concerns, does it? Somehow feels like kicking a puppy. So let’s do it! Because people who care about themselves and the environment do so because life for us these days is just too damn easy. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse do not gallop with any regularity through our lives. In our modern-day cosseted First World life, the closest we come to famine is Starbucks running out of salted caramel squares. We are organic, environmentally concerned, locally-sourced sun-reared line-caught air-dried assholes because we’re rolling in it.
I’m guessing there are few environmentally-concerned sub-Saharan African citizens, because many are so very poor. I imagine most of their concerns fall into three categories: 1. Not dying. 2. Trying to ensure family does not die. 3. Sending me emails to inform me some rich dude just died and left me $875 million in the National Bank of Umpopoland. See? Little room for worrying about how many air miles today’s tomatoes have.
We don’t know jack. There was an even bigger movement in the 1970s to change our polluting ways based not on global warming but on global cooling. Yep, the earth was all set to resemble the inner workings of a Hoshizaki unless we changed our ways. We laugh now, but those were the world’s best scientists. The current crop think we’re all going to fry like bacon. They might be right. But climate is, like Bjork, just too frickin‘ weird and complicated to predict. Hell, the best minds on the planet can’t tell you with any certainty what the weather will be tomorrow.A nd we are idiots. Many important things – the environment, your taxes, how women style their hair – are complicated and even the dumbed-down playschool-version explanations are complex and counter-intuitive. An example:
Delivery trucks belch C02 and burn oil, delivering out-of-season vegetables that have been flown in from the other side of the world to supermarkets, so you can have blackberries in December. Only eating locally grown fruit, in season, would conserve all those precious resources and Gwyneth Paltrow might drop by to give you a gratitude-BJ.
Counter-Intuitive Complex Truth
Delivery trucks (and, indeed, cargo aeroplanes and shipping containers) are run by delivery firms who try to squeeze every bit of efficiency out of every drop of diesel,on every trip – unlike you,who drives alone in your far less efficient petrol car to the supermarket to buy fruit. (Don’t high-five yourself if you cycle to Aldi either – those are calories burned that you’ll need to replace with food, probably featuring meat, which is far more wasteful than eating grains or insects). Efficient diesel motors are far more environmentally friendly than electric cars, because they are as efficient as electric, almost as non-polluting and can be recycled, unlike the enormous bloody batteries in electric cars. And, pray tell, just where do you think that electricity is coming from?
The world’s renewable sources of electricity don’t supply enough to power Luxembourg’s iPods for a week. Electricity comes from coal, oil or nuclear. Then the produce. It costs far, far less in irrigation water and electricity (for greenhouses‘ heating and cooling) to grow fruit & veg somewhere with an agreeable climate, than to grow it near to you. And because these agreeable climates may be on the other side of the world, it may be completely possible to have out of season fruit, because it’s in season wherever it’s from.
Forget About the Chicken
Distilling is unnatural. It does not happen on it’s own, whereas fermenting does. “Organic” is a much-used word now. It’s largest European champion is the UK’s Soil Association, who define “organic” as meaning:
- As few pesticides as we can get away with (note: not “none”)
- No artificial fertilisers
- Genetically modified (GM) crops and ingredients are banned.
- No animal cruelty
- Routine use of drugs, antibiotics and wormers on cattle is disallowed
Points 4. and 5. don’t matter to us here – animal cruelty isn’t an issue with spirits, unless you count the chicken that’s popped in the still when making pechuga mezcal, and I’m fairly sure they kill that first. Points 1. to 3. are pointless if we’re talking about spirits. Distilling is alchemy. You take beer or wine and turn it into something else. Everything changes so hugely it is fair to say there is nothing left of the original ingredients. Who gives a shit if they used a ton of artificial fertiliser on the rye grain that was mashed and fermented and distilled and bottled and mixed into my Sazerac? Nothing, no possible element of that original grain is still present.
If we choose organic spirits we are not basing our choice on taste. We are showing off: showing that we care, that we can afford to pay too much for something with a futile organic certification, that we don’t think farmers should use nasty fertilisers or too many pesticides. I am down with that last point. I’m a cheap date – tapwater is fine for me – and I neither need nor want the larger breasts I’d probably grow if too much cow growth hormone or fertiliser made it’s way into the water table.
Does Organic Equal „Premium“?
But “organic”, like “fair trade” and “biological”, is often used as just an excuse to up the price unreasonably. Why should organic be so much more expensive? Surely it’s cheaper to skip the fertilisers and GM seeds and minimise the pesticides, even if this gives you fewer crop rotations? (GM seeds from firms like Monsanto, by the way, cost more than natural ones). Here are the prices (in US dollars) of three grain vodkas:
Sobieski Vodka – 700ml $11,99
Rain Certified Organic Vodka – 700ml $12,99
Square One Organic Rye Vodka – 700ml $32,99
All look equally premium. The second two have organic as their only “hook”. How can one possibly be treble the price of the other? Grains really don’t vary a whole lot in price. K & L lists 13 American organic vodkas; there were 4 other organic vodka brands at $32,99 and 7 more priced at up to $37,99. Feeling screwed yet?
Fair Trade Doesn’t Work
Trade is fair when we all have the same opportunities, which is why Bill Gates can afford a helicopter made of gold and I’m driving a Nissan Primera. I am free to become a technology billionaire if I want to, and he is free to hang around bars and drink Negronis. When drinks brands talk about fair trade they always omit one little fact: unless you own the farm, and it’s a big enormous one with contracts for Aldi and Wal-mart, life in agriculture is shit, because you’re poor. Very, very poor in very, very screwed-up countries. A sample of prices from my local supermarket:
700g of evil capitalist bananas: 1,13 €
700g of Fair Trade bananas: 1,60 €
250g house-brand slave-grown* coffee: 1,82 €
250g house-brand Fair Trade coffee: 2,53 €
* Only joking!
A massive 40%! Now, my lack of a gold helicopter notwithstanding, I can afford to pay 40% extra for my food. But not everyone can. 40% is a lot, no?
And how much of that 40% extra filters down (pardon the pun)? I can tell you. Fuck all. Most of that nice extra margin is taken by brand owners, importers and retailers (who, let’s not forget, already earn a decent margin on non-Fair Trade products). Suppose they go mad and pay the farmer (who, remember, is not dear old Farmer John with six faithful labourers and a nice red tractor: he is a huge , rich employer) twice what he normally gets for coffee. How much will he pay his staff extra, do you suppose? Really? You are sweet-hearted. And naive. Even if he pays them an extra 20%, this does not help his staff very much.
Their lives are not just terrible because of their low income; they are terrible because they live in countries suffering under deranged kleptomaniac leaders, countries with insufficient infrastructure, property rights or even the basic rule of law to be anything other than hideous. And the best job they could get was farm labour. You can’t even count on that forever, because there is always a country even more hideous looking over your shoulder, looking to undercut you on price. These products are not called “commodities” for nothing. Coffee is coffee. Grain is grain. When it’s 5% cheaper to buy it from Hellhole 2 as opposed to Hellhole 1, then the former will get the contracts. Fair Trade is a form of charity and it doesn’t work. Africa’s exports (and only oil and minerals at that) amounted to $249 billion in 2006 – over five times the amount of all the charity and foreign aid it received that year? Last time I checked, Africa was still screwed. This is a problem money cannot solve.
Short version? Don’t believe the environmental hype, don’t pay through the nose for organic spirits (but do for beer and wine), buy non-Fair Trade products and donate the price difference (40 fucking percent!) to globalwitness.org or transparency.org and only buy local produce if it’s (a) good and (b) reasonably priced. Phew. Rant over! Now, where did I leave those puppies?
This article was first published in MIXOLOGY Issue 4/2011.