On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by VinePair’s Tim McKirdy and special guest Sean O’Leary about the messy divorce playing out between the Sazerac Company and Republic National Distributing Company. Plus, Zach and Tim get a bit cheeky and drink Sazerac Sazeracs and discuss the iconic whiskey cocktail. Tune in for more.

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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.

Tim McKirdy: In VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Tim McKirdy.

Z: This is the Friday VinePair podcast. Tim, as you and the listeners can hear, I’m plain sick this week. With Adam out, Joanna out, just got to come through for the team. Apologize to everyone for the audio quality on my end, just getting over a head cold, which is always a delight for this kind of work. We’re making do. I wanted to ask really quick before we get into today’s episode, though, how are you feeling? First week on the second job, got through the first set of episodes, you’re feeling a little more settled, little more comfortable with this gig for a little bit?

T: Yes. Getting there, Zach. Getting there. I think some early nerves, like preseason nerves, as I was telling you offline. Last week, first game of the season, just finding my swing again. I think we’re plain sailing now from here on end.

Z: Good to know. It probably helps that you also host a weekly podcast. Hopefully, it didn’t take too long to get used to just adding a couple of more episodes to the routine.

T: I’m just basically camped up in the studio here 24/7. No, it’s been fun. It’s a lot of fun.

Z: Tim, why don’t you introduce us? We’ve got an exciting guest for this week’s episode and a topic that I think we’re both interested in talking about. You want to set things up for us?

T: Sure thing. Today we’re thrilled to be joined by Chicago-based Sean O’Leary, better known, for some at least, as the Irish Liquor Lawyer. From my own perspective here and background, Sean’s been my go-to source when it comes to all questions of a legal and boozy persuasion for a good few years now, Sean, is that right? Maybe two or three years at least now. The topic that we’re talking about today is this incredible divorce that’s playing out in front of our eyes and in the courts between one of the nation’s largest producers of alcohol and one of the nation’s largest alcohol distributors. It is, of course, the case of Sazerac versus RNDC. Sean, welcome. Thanks a lot for joining us.

Sean O’Leary: Thanks, Tim. It’s great to be here. I think you and I first connected on cocktails-to-go when that was going on, when I was a radical and presented the idea of having people deliver cocktails and the sky was going to fall in, and the alcohol world changed for the better. Thanks for your coverage at that time.

T: No, incredible work you did there. Also that did get passed. How’s the sky holding up there in Chicago? It hasn’t fallen down yet, right?

S: No, that’s the least of our problems in Chicago. It saved a lot of businesses and it’s really been a positive. When I tell people my involvement was, sometimes I meet bar owners and it’s really rewarding. They say, “Thank you so much, that saved us during that period. We’re able to survive.” That’s really what it was all about, right? We had to save businesses during that time.

T: Yes, no, fantastic work you did there. So definitely raised more than at least one glass to you over time on your achievements there and the folks that you did that good work with. I’m going to set up here just this case that I alluded to at the beginning. Give some of the background, and then, Sean, if you want to jump in and maybe highlight anything I’ve missed, or we can take it from there. Essentially this starts playing out in public, at least, at the end of last year. It’s Friday the 30th, so holiday weekend. In the afternoon, reportedly, the distributor, RNDC, receives notice from Sazerac that they’re going to terminate their working relationship, which, if I’m not mistaken, is around three decades long by this point. Within an hour, Sazerac then allegedly sent out an email to its large list of industry contacts, trade people, media people. This is a daily newsletter that goes out from Sazerac CEO Mark Brown. I subscribe to this and I actually do recall getting that email on that time and thinking this is weird that this is going out at the end of the day, and this day being Friday the 30th of December. Sazerac cuts ties and then quite quickly follows up with a lawsuit in January, claiming that RNDC owes them money, among some other claims. Last week, I believe it’s the end of last week or earlier this week we saw a counterclaim come in from RNDC essentially claiming that Sazerac is trying to circumvent the three-tier system of alcohol distribution. Off the bat, Sean, any context I’m missing there, or has that set things up nicely for us to move on?

S: Yes, it sets things up. You make an interesting point about the date, Tim, but when you read this case, there were problems before then. RNDC canceled the agreement. First of all, it’s really ironic that they didn’t have an agreement for 10 years, and then they had an agreement about, “We’re only going to pay you $8 a case,” or something to that nature.

T: Yes, I was just highlighting there, sorry, how this is played out in public. I think it would be good for us now to maybe just go through the cases in a little bit more detail and provide that context too for the listeners who, I’m assuming for many of the listeners, this might be the first they’re hearing of this. What are some of the standout claims for you in the initial Sazerac lawsuit from January? Because as I mentioned, there are those potential or alleged monies owed, but then there were some other aspects to the case, the claim, too, that I think are interesting and would love your take on.

S: The interesting thing obviously is the money, and it’s a breach of contract. You have to remember, in a lot of states, you can’t extend the payment terms around 30 days, 60 days. Even with states where it’s not clear, if you’re a supplier and you’re extending payment beyond 90 days, that may be considered a consignment sale. You have issues to deal with of that nature. The other stuff about the claims that Sazerac makes, I think a lot of this is going to be in discovery. Because if you read both complaints, you come to two radically different conclusions. Now, none of us know which one is right, or whether the truth is in the middle because we don’t know, and that’s what the proceedings for. You have Sazerac basically saying, “RNDC was so incompetent we had to start up our own new sales force, and then they were bad-mouthing us. They were not paying us for product, and then they were also canceling discounts and selling at a higher price.” Now, if you read the complaint from the other side, they’re basically saying, we’re stranded on a desert island and we can’t sell any products. As the reader, you’re like, “Which one is it?” Is it, they were selling it for a higher price or they couldn’t sell it at all? It’s fascinating to see two different sides of the story here.

Z: Sean, one of the things that was really interesting to me in this initial lawsuit from Sazerac and then the countersuit, is this point of contention around Sazerac’s efforts to build its own marketing team functionally, and their claim in their suit that basically they had to do so because RNDC was so derelict in their responsibility to sell Sazerac products. What’s interesting, I guess, about this is that A) it seems like this might be quasi-illegal, at least in some places. There are laws in certain states that basically prevent the producer from actively attempting to solicit sales for their product, even if it is technically distributed by a distribution company in that state. More to the point, why is this a point of contention? You would think that for RNDC, even if, okay, maybe it chafes a little bit, that Sazerac is operating outside the bounds of their previous agreement or doing something without running it through their channels, more sales are more sales. Obviously that money has to flow through RNDC legally. Why is this such a point of contention?

S: It’s almost like kind of cry me a river on the three-tier system argument they make because, come on, if you read this thing, according to RNDC, and I say according because I don’t want to say any of these facts are sacrosanct and clear because I don’t know, you can’t sit there and say, “Okay, well they’re violating the three-tier system.” You self admit that you allowed them to use this system and they were ordering the product and telling you what to do. Then they also said they allowed their sales team to come in. If the three-tier system was so important to hold up, you basically have admitted you enabled this. Now they said they were trying to comply with the laws, but you can’t have your cake and eat it. Sometimes you can in life, but not so much in this thing, I think.

T: In terms of that, just to pick this up, having your cake and eating it. I’ve got a question for both of you in terms of how notable you think it is that this case is playing out, or this case involves Sazerac. I ask that because again, I don’t want to make any claims here, but I would say that those who are aware of the three-tier system, some of the workings of it, and also Sazerac’s allocated products and the very nature of some of the brands within its portfolio, there is this notion that exists out there, that again, I’m not saying is true, that Sazerac or perhaps its distributors has leveraged those highly allocated products and the demand for them to therefore ship other items and sell other items within their inventory. Does this just happen to be a coincidence that that is said to be true of Sazerac, and they’re not alone in that, or is that a part of this case that we’re discussing today?

S: If you look at Sazerac’s claim, one of the things they are saying is that RNDC was actually doing this, and again, this is the allegation. I’m not saying this is true, but this is what’s alleged. That they were basically stating that RNDC was using Pappy Van Winkle, and then selling cheaper stuff that wasn’t even Sazerac branded products. It’s a really interesting allegation on the sales issue, really like RNDC rounding it about on this.

Z: Yes, and I would add that one of the things that’s interesting about this is whatever the legal findings are, whatever the actual practices were in this case, this is something that is longstanding. Sean could speak to this more completely than I could, but this is something that I’ve seen firsthand as a buyer at times where basically, whether it’s highly allocated desirable wines, spirits, et cetera, there is either an explicit or implicit, basically like, “Hey, you want to get your hands on some of this stuff, the stuff you really want? Well, you got to play ball with us too. You got to put bourbon from this distillery on in your well, or you’ve got to carry a glass pour from this distributor producer to get access to the allocated wines.” Some places are more or less explicit about that. It’s my understanding that probably all of this stuff is largely, at least in spirit, if not in letter of the law, a violation of the way these systems are supposed to work, but again, this is one of the many things that’s challenging about the three-tier system. The laws are different in every state. They’re differently enforced. They in some cases are more protective of, I guess for lack of a better word, consumer access, in other places more protective of the middle tier, the distribution tier. I think that, Tim, a thing that keeps coming back to me in looking at this lawsuit, is we’ve talked about it in terms of a divorce. What’s interesting to me is I don’t think either party in this case should have much of a vested interest in airing their dirty laundry publicly. We just saw in a different sphere how sideways things can get for big beverage companies in lawsuits. With the Constellation lawsuit against or with AB InBev over whether Corona hard seltzer is beer or not. You take things in front of a jury and who the fuck knows what’s going to happen? But even outside of that, you put all this stuff on public display. In some sense, it’s surprising to me that this is being handled. Maybe not that lawsuits have been filed, but if this goes beyond that, if this actually goes to trial in some way, I don’t know, Sean, would that surprise you to see this actually in court?

S: I think everyone says that once something gets passed a motion to dismiss, it’s like game on. I would imagine cooler heads would prevail. This is a divorce of epic proportions. For the liquor industry, to have an analogy to the layman, this is like Brad Pitt and Angela Jolie or Princess Diana and Charles back in the day. This is the two big players, but the point that has to be made is these disputes happen all the time. The problem is the supplier is always smaller. They’re having issues with their wholesaler and they can’t afford to go and take the steps Sazerac has. Do we have other cases out there that are very similar to this? Are we only seeing it because there’s a big player? We also saw RNDC has the Provi lawsuit. RNDC hasn’t had a good year lawsuit-wise because they’re going against two well-funded parties and the opposition, and there’s a lot of dirt flying in these two suits.

T: Yes, it’s really wild. There’s, to Zach’s point, this playing out publicly, I would urge the listeners who are interested in this case to download the most recent RNDC counterclaim, because some of the language in there is very interesting. There are some points that might make you chuckle if you’re aware of some of what’s going on. There’s something I wanted to ask you though, Sean, because I’m sure a lot of our listeners are engaged in the alcohol industry, but some might have lesser knowledge here. There was one phrase that stood out to me in this counterclaim, which was that RNDC claimed that it was basically being treated as four wheels and a truck by Sazerac i.e, that its only function was logistics and distribution of product. To most people’s minds who aren’t familiar with the industry, isn’t that all a distributor’s supposed to do? What other functions are the distributors supposed to perform? Because to my mind, yes, distributor, you get something from point A to point B and that’s your job. What’s the issue with that?

S: I think they’re trying to make it an issue. So what, they called them, was it four wheels in a truck?

T: Four wheels and a truck.

S: Yes. They basically told them to deliver your product. We don’t know what the record was before. Maybe RNDC was failing to meet a lot of the goals. Maybe they just got sick of — we’ll find out in the discovery process. The sad lullaby from RNDC that our role’s been demeaned to that. Well, maybe that’s what Sazerac thought the role should be. I think it’s trying to gain a little sympathy in a lawsuit. I don’t know how sympathetic judges are, but between that and the three-tier system, I thought the term was kind of funny.

Z: Yes, there’s definitely no doubt that a lot of the relationship that most people have with a distributor, even if they’re on the buying side, is that logistical function. They’re the person who gets you your beer, wine, spirits at your restaurant, your bar, your retail shop, et cetera. Yet to come back to something you were saying before, Sean, about how this is a lawsuit of sort of equal-sized partners, not a much larger distributor and a smaller producer. It may be the case that RNDC is mostly used to being able to dictate more terms to their producers because they’re so big and they’re nationwide and so they control a lot of market share. They can maybe with many producers say like, “Hey, do you want to be in all 50 states? Do you want our massive, not just logistics, but sales, et cetera, team behind us? That’s the reason to come do business with us.” Sazerac we just see now, especially more than a decade or two or three ago, maybe they don’t need RNDC. Maybe they feel like they don’t. Obviously, legally in this country, they need some sort of third-party distribution. They can’t sell directly to bars, restaurants, et cetera, nationwide. It could be the case that basically they — The RNDC countersuit does really read to me more like hurt feelings than — I’m not a lawyer for sure, but a lot of this stuff, I don’t think it’s necessarily legally substantiated that a distributor should be the only engine of marketing of a product. In my time, again, as a buyer, had lots of product reps from producers come through. They bring their spirits, their wine, et cetera. It was what the producer’s market support role was supposed to be. Because a distributor both has its own, in some cases, limited ability to provide that outreach to accounts, but also because presumably, the person who works for the producer is going to be the real subject matter expert. Their job is to come in and say, “Hey, look, here are the wines from this winery,” or, “Here are the spirits from this distillery, or whatever. If you want to order them, my buddy from RNDC or whatever is here. They can take your order, but I’m the front person for the product.” Maybe Sazerac perhaps took it farther by, as it mentioned in the claims, basically taking the orders and just entering them into RNDC’s system. Again, these are, as you said both, that’s admitting to culpability on RNDC’s part for letting that go on, but also, other than just hurt feelings, it’s hard for me to see like, “Your argument is that they weren’t letting you sell their product exclusively, Sazerac’s not supposed to market their own product to their consumers?” That seems preposterous. You might as well say like, “They can’t advertise.” Of course, they can. It’s their job to sell their product. If they have to do it through the channel of distribution, by law in this country, they will, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t have other ways of connecting with their potential target audience.

S: You bring up two good points, Zach. One is, did RNDC enable these four wheels in a truck? They basically said Sazerac took over everything, and that was the agreement. The other thing is when you talk about small brands, if a small brand just gave their stuff to the distributor, hid behind the curtain, never did anything, they would be nowhere. In fact, the small brands marketing help the distributors because the distributors have hundreds of brands, and the small brand could go out and do the legwork and the distributor could deliver the product. This thing that everyone has to keep separate, why would Sazerac even have a sales force and a marketing team if they could never do anything?

Z: Good point.

T: To the marketing thing here, and the points you both made there. Reading this, it reminded me of an interview I carried out last year with Guillermo Erickson Sauza, who’s the founder of Tequila Fortaleza, and Guillermo was telling me that when he was first able to get Fortaleza into the U.S., into California, he accepted a meeting at a leading national distributor, he walked into the office. The person in front of him at a desk said, “Of course, we will take on your product, and we’ll get you in all 50 states. However, we need $1 million dollars for marketing materials.” My question is this, to whom does the responsibility of marketing fall? Because if you don’t want to be — and I’m not saying this is RNDC. I’m not naming the distributor here, but if you don’t want to be simply four wheels and a truck, then why are we seeing instances where brands are being told that they need to be doing the marketing? Is that just because Fortaleza was a very small brand at the time, versus something like Sazerac, which is a spirits group? Or is this a case where maybe distributors are trying to have things both ways?

S: You want to take it first, Zach?

Z: Oh, sure. I mean, I think it’s the attempt to have one’s cake and eat it too, as Sean said at the beginning. A distributor is going to — my feelings on the distribution channels in this country, the three-tier system are pretty well known to people who’ve been listening. I think, probably mostly shared by John and probably by you too, Tim, but, that they are a business that exists because the laws in this country require a three-tier system, and as such, they kind of have collectively a monopoly on access to the places where people buy and consume alcohol. So it doesn’t surprise me that they’re sort of willing to be like, “Yes, sure, pay us a million dollars and we’ll take on your product.” Who knows how long it takes you to make back that initial outlay? It probably depends on how successful your brand is, and if it’s not successful, well, tough s*it, you’re out a million bucks. I just think that it is a little bit like, well, what can you get away with in that position? And if you are, in that situation, as we’ve been describing, negotiating on the distributor side, from a position of immense strength, you are the person who has access to all the channels, and this small tequila brand is coming to you saying, “Hey, I want to get in.” Well, of course, you’re going to say like, “Great, here’s the cost of entry. Let us know. We’ll tell you where to send the check.” There’s just no incentive on their part with a not established brand to bend. I think what we’re seeing is Sazerac’s portfolio, Sazerac’s premium spirits are perhaps more valuable than RNDC believed, because you have to imagine it does not help RNDC to lose one of the biggest spirits companies, one of the most highly prized sets of especially whiskeys in the marketplace. Regardless of how much else they have to fill in the gaps, losing this product, especially losing it to presumably one of their large competitors, is going to hurt. There’s no way around that.

S: Yes. I think Zach brings up the point that’s very relevant in the marketplace. If you’re a small producer, you have no leverage. Sazerac has leverage, and RNDC is the second or third biggest distributor. Outside of Southern, probably no one has more leverage than them. You’re talking about mismatches. You see these disputes happening really at lower levels. Suppose this tequila company didn’t have the million dollars, and they went out and they hustled and they went out and got clients, but they were fourth or fifth on the list for a distributor, and they didn’t have the million dollars, it’s really hard for them to get their distributor to act and to market things for them. You’re talking about Sazerac, you’re talking about the elephant, meaning the elephant in the room. With the tequila company, it’s really the elephant versus the mouse here.

T: Right. While we have you on the show here, Sean, one final question for you from myself here. I’m going to ask you to speculate, and I’m not sure whether that’s something you like to do as someone who’s in the legal profession, but obviously, we’ve spoken about this does have huge financial ramifications, both the lawsuit itself for whoever wins, but also on RNDC’s bottom line, now that they no longer have these products. To what extent did you get the sense that the counterclaim was also filed with the greater intention of trying to bolster and protect the three-tier system and the importance of the distributor tier of that network, and basically — yes.

S: I think RNDC really, when you look at this, they did focus a little bit on the three-tier system, but they also focused on themselves, because not only did they lose this claim, they got hit with that they were dishonest and they were breaching contract and they weren’t doing their job. They had to save face a little bit and say, “Hey, there’s another side of the story.” We look at this, and none of us here today can sit there and say who’s right or wrong because we don’t know the facts and they’ll come out in discovery, so I think they had to come out and do something because with the first lawsuit, it looked bad for them.

T: That’s very interesting stuff. Yes, no, I appreciate your context there and sharing with us. Definitely is one of those I think we will see continue to evolve. I’m like the Michael Jackson meme eating popcorn here. Like I said, we don’t often get these things playing out in public, so when we do, for those of us who cover this and follow these things quite closely, it’s been an interesting week.

S: I always say with this and the Provi lawsuit, the world hasn’t been this exciting since Al Capone ran liquor in Chicago.

Z: Fantastic. Well, Sean, again, thank you so much for your time and your insight. Thank you so much for joining us.

S: Thanks, Zach. Thanks, Tim.

Z: All right, Tim, to finish up here on Friday, I thought it’d be fun, sometimes on the Friday podcast we taste things. Given that this lawsuit involved Sazerac, which is both of course a spirits company and a famous cocktail, and you are of course the host of “Cocktail College,” I thought it would be fun to talk about the Sazerac. In my case at least, and I think in yours, to make a Sazerac, whatever, that’s always fun. Tim, can you talk a little bit about the Sazerac? And you’ll maybe plug the episode where you covered it, because it’s a great drink.

T: It’s a fantastic drink. On a personal level, it’s my favorite whiskey cocktail. I know there’s a lot of big contenders in there, just thinking of Manhattan and Old Fashioned, but for me personally, it’s a drink I love. Has got this real iconic history. It’s a New Orleans cocktail, as so many of the greats from this country are. Basically, yes, for anyone who’s maybe less familiar, this is rye whiskey-based, generally mixed with some kind of sweetening agent. If possible, I like to go for a rich Demerara simple syrup. Then it’s served in an absinthe-rinsed glass with an optional lemon twist garnish. I’m missing two of the most important factors of the drink, which are Peychaud’s Bitters and Angostura Bitters. Just an all-round great cocktail. I think one of the reasons I love it compared to the Old Fashioned is that it’s served down generally speaking, but without ice.

Z: When I was bartending and learning cocktails, one one of the interesting things to me about the Sazerac, it’s a very rare cocktail that’s served not over ice, but also not served in a coupe or in a Martini glass or something like that, that it is very classically served in a double rocks glass. No ice, garnished or potentially not garnished. I think in the episode you guys have a long discourse about what one should do exactly with the lemon twist, whether it should be dropped into the cocktail or served alongside or whatever. Those of you who don’t already listen to “Cocktail College,” it’s that content for sure. Lots of incredible details. Arguably a little bit of minutia, but that’s what we come to it for.

T: We get into the weeds at times. I will say I did really love it, so the guest was Neal Bodenheimer who’s based in New Orleans and runs a couple bars that are really good. I liked how he said he likes to place his garnish on the rim of the glass and then leave it up to chance to see whether that makes its way into the glass or not. I do have a little take for you here, Zach, as you know, I generally do have takes, when I make this drink for myself, I serve it in a coupe. I enjoy it more when served up than down. I think it’s a really wonderful — I hope I’m not getting that terminology wrong. I’m quite above myself here.

Z: It sounds good to me here.

T: Basically, I just think this drink lends itself a lot more to being a spirit-forward whiskey cocktail that’s not on the rocks. I want to see it in a nice coupe glass. That’s how I’m enjoying mine today.

Z: I would think that the only argument in favor of serving it in a rocks glass is that if you do a proper absinthe rinse, some of the absinthe will stick to the glass above where the wash line is for the cocktail, and therefore you get more of the aromatic component from the absinthe as you nose the glass, as opposed to in a coupe where you’re going to fill it essentially to the brim and have not much room for that absinthe to hit your nose before you taste the drink. That would be, to me, the only argument in favor of this classic presentation.

T: No, that’s a good point. We have had some bartenders on that show too, also when talking about absinthe rinses, being like, why not actually incorporate that absinthe into the build of the drink rather than just a seasoning on the glass? Which I think is an interesting concept, but perhaps food for a different discussion.

Z: It comes back to what you’re intending for the primary purpose of the absinthe to be. If it’s to integrate it into the cocktail more fully, then yes, you should probably put it into the build, and if you want it more for its aromatic components, which I think drinks a call for an absinthe rinse, that’s really what you’re going for, then it makes more sense to me to actually do that. You made possibly the world’s most expensive Sazerac. Tell us about it.

T: Yes. Just so happened that over here at the VinePair office, we’ve run out of the standard Sazerac Rye, which is a fantastic product and is also, side note here, like basically almost responsible for the resurgence or the fact that rye maintained its presence in America for many years. We didn’t have a bottle of that, but I was lucky enough to have a small sample bottle here of the 2022 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, 18-year-old Sazerac Rye. I thought, why not enjoy that in a cocktail?

Z: Yes. My goodness. I just have the 6-year classic Sazerac, which as you said is a great ride, but definitely doesn’t blow up the pricing of the drink quite the same way. But anyhow, cheers to you, Tim. Let’s taste here.

T: Cheers, Zack. Yes. Get these aromatics from the coupe.

Z: You’ve said, Tim, that this is your favorite whiskey cocktail, and I know that maybe part of it is the presentation, but what is it about the way that the flavors in this cocktail come together that make it more appealing to you than other kinds of classic whiskey cocktails?

T: I think that the closest example to this is probably the Old Fashioned when you just look at the build and the ingredients. Generally speaking, I find the Old Fashioned to be a delicious drink, but not too much — it’s not all that different from basically drinking whiskey neat. You have some extra sweetness and you introduce aromatic bitters and a garnish. I think that A) the introduction of absinthe and all those incredible aromatics that brings to the party, as you mentioned, that helps the cocktail for me. I don’t generally like cocktails served on the rocks, I like things that are served without ice. Maybe that’s also part of my reasoning there.

Z: I want to add a piece to this that I think is important because I was thinking about it when we were discussing doing this for this episode. I think the other critical function of absinthe in this drink and one that helps explain why maybe you and I think even I maybe prefer a Sazerac to an Old Fashioned, is that the absinthe, even as just a rinse or as a wash, dries the cocktail out a touch, obviously in concert with the bitters. It just tweaks the balance slightly. I think about an Old Fashioned is like, to me an Old Fashioned is a great drink, but it is very hard to keep a properly made Old Fashioned from just slightly or perhaps extremely tipping over onto the sweet side. Yes, if you use a very austere rye and very little simple, you can kind of avoid it. Functionally, an Old Fashioned to me is like a slightly sweet drink. Not aggressively sweet, but slightly so. A properly made Sazerac I think really does not tip into sweetness at all. In fact, you really need the sugar, however you’re adding it, whether it’s your rich Demerara or simple or whatever, to keep the cocktail from being aggressively dry, frankly. It’s that properly made balance point where you get all of the flavors that come through from the rye, from the absinthe, from the bitters, and the sweetness that you’ve added just keeps that from being slightly unpleasant. To me, I think the other reason is that you can introduce this additional flavor in aroma via the absinthe and you can strike I think, to me, a slightly more palatable balance, and because you’re stirring this drink and slightly diluting it, you are getting a little bit gentler expression of the whiskey than just drinking said whiskey neat. Now maybe if you’re drinking Sazerac 18-year rye, drinking it neat is probably just fine and dandy, but if you’re drinking a younger rye, it does tend to need a little tempering. It’s just the reality of rye.

T: I think so. Definitely. Hearing you lay out that equation there and how all of these different ingredients and flavors come together, I do find it surprising that something as intense as absinthe can have the effect of actually bringing everything together in more harmony here. I guess that’s the magic of cocktails.

Z: It truly is. Tim, this has been a lot of fun. I look forward to hearing more about the next incredibly ostentatious cocktail you make, and again, please, go ahead.

T: I was just going to say, there will be people out there listening who think I’m just doing that as a flex. I’ve long been of the belief that fancier, older, more expensive spirits should be used in cocktails when it’s possible if it’s financially viable, and that they should be able to hold up. People being like that’s a waste of Sazerac 18. No, it’s only a waste if the product doesn’t hold up in the cocktail, and in this case, I’m happy to confirm that it does.

Z: Yes. Absolutely it’s a case where I think also it’s an ideal kind of cocktail for that expression. That it still is very obviously very spirit-forward. It allows you to see just another dimension to the rye as opposed to potentially obscuring it with the other ingredients, which is a perfectly valid thing to do with lots of cocktails, but maybe not one you’d want to use an ultra top-shelf spirit on. Anyhow, Tim, lots of fun, super informative. Thanks again to Sean O’Leary for joining us, and I will talk to you again on Monday.

T: Thanks, Zach. Chat to you then.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.

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