Over the years of participating in and watching the various culinary renaissances, an idea I call involvement has become more and more important to me. Involvement is basically the various degrees you are aware of and control variables in a project. Some people cook pasta and only really consider three variables, but when Dante cooks pasta somehow he can identify ten variables and he uses them all! Dante’s involvement is pretty deep. Unfortunately, it isn’t so straight forward that more involvement is better. When involvement gets too deep, chaos, chance, the duende, and so much that is endearing can be compromised and this often plagues mass market products. A big part of connoisseurship becomes understanding something and judging it relative to its involvement.
Modernist cooking, molecular gastronomy, or whatever you want to call it is in large part about the deepening of involvement. We are increasingly using scientific investigation techniques to continuously identify more variables and slowly learn to bring them into the normal fold and control for them. New organizational techniques are continuously allowing us to improve each generation of our products. As a recent phenomenon, the great chefs of the world are so successfully mastering involvement in their recipe development that they can write recipes for multiple high end restaurants from one central mountain top kitchen. Temperature controlled cooking and recipes written in baker’s scales probably are a big part of what makes this possible.
It has been really frustrating to watch the food media be absolutely oblivious to involvement. They really egg on the beverage crowd to attempt new things but never really master anything. The articles started with people making their own syrups but with little degree of consistency. Sloppy, brownish Grenadines were made slathered with orange flower water and runaway sugar contents. No one bothered to learn to use a refractometer yet people kept spouting the ideology “homemade is always better than commercial”. Nothing was endearing enough (or even delicious enough) about these products to trump many commercial versions. Don’t get me started on home made vermouth. Anyone that tried to make their own demonstrated near no involvement for what is one of the most involved products in the entire culinary world. Vermouth is the summation of oenology, distillation, and perfumology, but not a critic called anyone out on anything. Connoisseurship did not exactly come back with the culinary renaissance. Once we point out that someone is doing something we need to figure out if they are doing it well.
The rise of micro distilleries, and the eventual rise of the home distiller will require an understanding of involvement or we are pretty much doomed. A whiskey is not the product of one batch like a home distiller would make, but rather a string of interconnected batches dependent on the recycling of aroma precursors in the heads and tales. More or less, the only thing a home distiller can produce is appreciation for the large guys by realizing how little the small guy can practically control. The home distiller cannot even say that they have an advantage because the large guys use inferior ingredients (as is the typical rhetoric). There is no such things as bad bourbon, only good bourbon that got blended down to bland. The home distiller hasn’t really come yet but we need to make sure they don’t get out of control before they start.
At the same time, we need to cut the micro distilleries some slack due to limitations of their involvement. These limitations often turn out to the be the endearing ones. A mega-gin and a micro-gin are two different beasts, both to be loved for different reasons. The recipes for mega-gins have gone through vast amounts of recipe generations due to countless executions. Frequency of production allows the still to be tuned for the minutia of time under heat, relative equilibrium, sometimes partial vacuum, etc. Botanical/spirit interaction options are fully explored (gin heads, boiling botanicals, etc). The botanical charge can be standardized by someone with the full skill set of a PhD chemist. There is enough money to test all the source-able juniper in all the known world to find the preferred source. Mass spectroscopy and gas/liquid chromatography are employed at every step in the process. This probably only generalizes half of mega-gin involvement. Beafeater, Bombay, Tanqueray, and all the products in their tier are really wonderful stuff, marvels of involvement, and we can only bitch about their prices.
Micro gins are a challenge to make and when someone does it well we really should be in awe. Standardizing the botanical charge when you cannot viably perform batch by batch oil yield analysis is tricky. It is daunting to improve your product by fitting in the time to collect literature and read about the subject when your second full time job is also marketing the project. Man hours have to found to perform experiments as well as hours when the equipment is actually available. Micro gins and micro distilleries in general typically rely purely on organoleptic analysis (your own sense organs as opposed to chemical analysis) because they either cannot afford the analytic tools the mega-gins use or they cannot spare the time to learn to use them. Micro-gins test the adage constantly that life is short and the art is long. If you understand the distinctions this can all be endearing. True, some micro-distilleries churn out ignorant, insecure garbage but others, the best, grapple with their production, chaos sneaks in, and the results are thrilling. The batches of the best are somewhat snowflakes, but just as much as single barrel bourbons are. What is important is that they are still recognizable as gin and recognizable as their brand.
Understanding involvement is at the core of connoisseurship. We will need it to empathize with, evaluate, and review all the new fruits of the culinary renaissance. You just cannot judge everything by the same criteria, you need other criteria. Considering this criteria will also help us fragment the path to improvement. If those in the food media ever want to become anything significant and worth re-reading years later, they will have to capture this concept. The need for exposure and new content too easily turns the culinary arts in a circus that works against sustainability. The circus compromises involvement and all its associates like tradition and mastery. When culinary journalism should be looking to investigate and recognize new but diverse staples, too often it looses its way and sinks into an obsession with shallow fads. Developing an understanding of involvement will keep us on the sustainable course.