By Dave Broom

Never turn your back on a friend

Is the globalisation of drinks causing a rejection of regionalised products?
At least George Dubouef had managed to do what Napoleon so famously failed to do – get through to St Petersburg. A Beaujolais Nouveau party? In Russia? Are you mad? I might be. It was hard to tell. I was on my second bottle by then and had already come to realise that in this magnificent city you should expect the unexpected.It meant that all the questions about vodka which would come on my return would remain unanswered. All I’d be able to say to them was that I spent two days talking to Russians about whisky... and drinking Beaujolais. They’d consider me a less than perfect traveller which in some ways is true, though in others the interest in whisky (and barely fermented grape juice) is actually getting some
understanding of what is happening, drink wise, in affluent, hip, Russian society – and vodka isn’t part of it.A week before I was with Martine Nouet in la Reunion to look at rum production. Here, despite a history of rum making, the young premium-oriented drinker prefers Scotch, the bizarre outcome of which was the sight of the pair of us at a whisky dinner trying to persuade people from a rum-making island that ‘their’ drink was excellent.Both are examples of a rejection of a local spirit in preference to an imported one. The same is happening in the Caribbean where to show that they have made it, the new affluent middle-class drinks bourbon or Scotch rather than rum, a strange post-colonial irony. Meanwhile, in Scotland (and the rest of Britain) whisky is rejected in favour of vodka and bourbon.In all these cases the native drink has lost touch with its roots. They have ceased to be a relevant part of the fabric of the culture. The question is, if we are dealing with global spirits – and a globalised world – does the local really matter any more?I’d like to think that it does, but the job of trying to achieve this has to be done in a fashion which transcends cliché or narrow nationalism. To be global you have to celebrate diversity, but if a spirit isn’t rooted firmly in its parent country’s culture then it becomes a downmarket commodity.This means that its place of origin has to find new ways to talk about the drink, perhaps by rediscovering deeper (older) ways of talking about it – and first accepting that it has a cultural dimension.The last song I listened to, while waltzing my daughter round the room before leaving for Russia, was Leonard Cohen singing Tennessee Waltz. It was also the first I heard when I landed in Russia, driving through the first of the winter’s snow.The song is universal, yet it is still rooted in a culture. It resonates in different ways to different people, but the vibration is loudest closest to the source, the greater the distance the more detail is lost. That means I can never appreciate Tennessee Waltz in the same way as someone from, hey, Tennessee might.The irony with spirits is that when we get close to the source there’s virtual silence. Go to a pub or bar in Scotland, Ireland or America and it’s likely that the bartender and the punter will be more keen to talk vodka than whisk(e)y. There are exceptions, but let’s face it, they are few and far between.How we can make them resonate once more is the big question. It will involve giving people the flavours they want in the serves they want and with the images which are relevant to them, but it should also involve ways of linking it to a wider culture: to literature, poetry, film, food, music and landscape. You need no longer be prescriptive about how you should talk about it, rather the field is open to many new ways of making it sing again.