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In Defense of Fireball, PG and Good Journalism

pg

The Daily Beast published a highly relevant story a few days ago, slamming Fireball and propylene glycol. Fireball is a hugely popular “Cinnamon Whisky,” and a recent label approval is here. The story explains that Fireball contains propylene glycol, commonly known as PG, and in the most alarming way that could probably be set forth without a big lawsuit, the article heaps scorn upon PG and Fireball. As of today, Google has more than 81,000 stories about fireball propylene glycol, but the Beast story was one of the first.

The article trots out alarming buzzwords such as: recall, antifreeze, swill, Prestone, Low-Tox, disease, health risks. It says:

One key ingredient of the stuff: Propylene glycol, a synthetic liquid that absorbs water. The Centers for Disease Control note that it is used to ‘make polyester compounds, and as a base for deicing solutions.’ In food production, the CDC adds, the syrupy stuff also can be used to “maintain moisture… It is a solvent for food colors and flavors.”

I called on a few experts in writing this blog post because I think Tim Mak’s article may be unfair to Fireball, its producer (Sazerac) and the important food chemical known as propylene glycol. Kevin at Nutrevolve sums it up pithily: “Anyone who has compared propylene glycol to anti freeze to inspire fear has done nothing but demonstrate a lack of chemistry knowledge. … Notorious for regular application of the Precautionary Principle, even CSPI gives the propylene glycol derivative, propylene glycol alginate a green light – see here.”

I talked it over with Kate Ratliff. Kate is the Technical Director at Flavorman, a leading flavor and beverage company headquartered in Louisville. By the way I think Tim is a great writer, and he picks great topics, such as this gem about beer labels. But the Beast article seems like a prime example of junk science; it is sensationalist and it actually makes readers and consumers dumber. It does no favors for the Beast’s readers, or for anyone who cares about science, or high quality foods. The tenor of the article is inconsistent with the fact that propylene glycol has been widely and safely used in a large percentage of foods and beverages, over more than 50 years, around the world. Many food products would not be as good without this key building block. Even if you are looking at an ingredient list on a food label, and PG is not noted, it may well be in the package and probably is. This is because PG is used in thousands of flavors, and there is no requirement to show a flavor’s ingredients on any food label. Moreover, most alcohol beverage labels do not show any ingredient list at all, and ShipCompliant’s amazing LabelVision system shows not even one label that mentions PG (among over 1.5 million indexed labels, and hundreds of thousands of alcohol beverages that probably contain this substance).*

When I talked it over with Kate, she said “Robert, don’t be silly. Everything has established toxicity levels, even things like water and vitamins. Yet, we are encouraged to drink lots of water and supplement our diets with multivitamins. PG is fine.” I happened to be down the street from Sazerac’s plant yesterday, at Kate’s office, whereupon she offered me a shot of propylene glycol, straight up. With assurances from her colleagues (and FDA) that it’s safe for human consumption, I sipped the PG. It seemed oily and bitter, and wholly without any smell. The bitter aftertaste lingered for a few minutes and later I tasted a small amount of sweetness. I am pleased to report that I woke up just fine this morning without any apparent effects. For the record I note that the city and her plant are full to brimming over with some of the finest beverages in the world, but Kate only offered me the PG and a bottle of water.

We thought it was important to respond to Tim’s article because it seems clear that it is aimed at low-information consumers such as your typical frat boy. The article is replete with references to “Bummer, Dude” and Total Frat Moves, not exactly paragons of nuance or subtlety (and yes, the Food Babe also has it wrong). We think they are likely to take away precisely the wrong message — for example the entirely incorrect idea that PG is worse than too much alcohol, or too much sugar, or too much junk food. Or, the entirely wrong idea that Fireball is somehow worse than any of the next 10 cinnamon whiskeys, which probably contain PG as well. The Beast story also tends to suggest that US regulators such as FDA and TTB are asleep at the switch here, and once again this is highly misleading or wrong.

Flavor expert Vince Ficca explained that it is important to use PG as a solvent where alcohol is not a good choice; for example, to bring down the flashpoint, or for countries (such as Muslim countries) where alcohol is not legal. Vince also pointed out that nobody should confuse PG with its toxic cousin, ethylene glycol. Good old Wikipedia explains:

Propylene glycol … is considerably less toxic than ethylene glycol and may be labeled as “non-toxic antifreeze”. It is used as antifreeze where ethylene glycol would be inappropriate, such as in food-processing systems or in water pipes in homes where incidental ingestion may be possible. As confirmation of its relative non-toxicity, the FDA allows propylene glycol to be added to a large number of processed foods, including ice cream, frozen custard, salad dressings and baked goods.

Fireball does a nice job of injecting some reason into this discussion here:

Fireball does not contain any antifreeze at all and the suggestion is ridiculous. Sadly, this is the media’s way of crafting attention grabbing headlines, but it simply is not true. We would not dream of putting antifreeze in our product. … PG is a clear, colorless liquid with the consistency of syrup. It is practically odorless and tasteless. It is the ideal stabilizer and clarifier for a large variety of flavors that give most of today’s food and beverages their distinctive taste. … Flavor companies use it to carry flavor ingredients through to the final product, to preserve the integrity of the flavor and to ensure it is shelf stable. We understand that very few flavors can be made without it.

Food scientists tell me it would take many ounces of PG at a sitting to induce a harmful effect in an average person. A bottle of Fireball has less than an eyedropper full of PG. Please don’t take any of this as medical advice. But, now that the Ice Bucket Challenge is passe, I want to publicly call out Tim for the PG challenge. He should put up some examples of ill effects from PG, or drink a shot of PG forthwith.

* Stop the press. LabelVision did find one lonely label unabashedly declaring the presence of PG, and it’s here.

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alcohol beverages generally


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Umami Spirits, with Mushrooms and Durt

durt

This one caught my eye as quite a bit unusual. It is spirits with added mushrooms, sea lettuce, parsnips and other root vegetables. It is Durt-brand spirits, produced by Melkon Khosrovian, and is not to be confused with Root-brand spirits. I don’t see much on the label or on the web to suggest what it tastes like, or how it is to be used, except where the label says “packed full of the umami flavor.” Wikipedia explains that umami is one of the five basic tastes along with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, and “can be described as a pleasant ‘brothy’ or ‘meaty’ taste with a long lasting, mouthwatering and coating sensation over the tongue.”

Not to be left out of the umami-fest, here is a beer with plenty of umami, and a wine/sake “bursting with umami goodness.”

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distilled spirits specialty


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Malort

malort

On a long drive recently, NPR held up Malort as the gold standard for what tastes bad, as if this had been firmly decided. So, after hearing about this concoction over the years, it was time to see what all the revulsion was about. The New York Times said “The taste has been compared — by advocates and detractors alike — to rubbing alcohol, bile, gasoline, car wax, tires and paint thinner.” One “Malort face” is here, a collection is here (and NPR’s audio reaction is here).

Malort is Swedish for wormwood, a key ingredient of this liqueur. The same mischievous plant (also known as Artemisia absinthium) also provides a key ingredient and the name for absinthe and vermouth. Recent Jeppson’s labels do not mention the following, but the writing seemed so distinctive that I wanted to capture it before it recedes further into the past:

Most first-time drinkers of Jeppson Malort reject our liquor. Its strong, sharp taste is not for everyone. Our liquor is rugged and unrelenting (even brutal) to the palate. During almost 60 years of American distribution, we found only 1 out of 49 men will drink Jeppson Malort. During the lifetime of our founder, Carl Jeppson was apt to say, “My Malort is produced for that unique group of drinkers who disdain light flavor or neutral spirits.” It is not possible to forget our two-fisted liquor. The taste just lingers and lasts – seemingly forever. The first shot is hard to swallow! PERSERVERE [sic]. Make it past two “shock-glasses” and with the third you could be ours…forever.

I am not sure if it sounds more like a sales pitch or a threat. Other than the Wikipedia article, I could not find much to verify that this text appeared on labels. Apart from the shock value of this product, as per usual, legal issues abound. First, I wonder how this comes to be classified as a beverage (subject to taxing and licensing as an alcohol beverage). If this is not non-beverage or unfit for beverage purposes, it starts to get really difficult to make this distinction (as between potable and non-potable), so crucial to much of the law around alcohol beverages. Malort may underscore that it’s okay for one purveyor to elect to be regulated as a beverage, even when the liquid tastes awful, and even though it would not be okay for another purveyor (of drinks with “rugged and unrelenting” flavors) to capriciously elect to be regulated as non-beverage.

A second law-related issue arises from the ownership of this brand. Carl Jeppson was an immigrant from Sweden and brought Malort to the U.S. during the Prohibition era. Before Jeppson’s death in 1949, he sold the recipe to a Chicago lawyer, and he left the company to his secretary, Patricia Gabelick. As of 2012, Ms. Gabelick was a “69-year-old retired secretary who runs the company out of her condo on Lake Shore Drive” in Chicago. The Wall Street Journal explained:

sales climbed last year by more than 80% from just a few years ago to 23,500 bottles, with annual revenue of more than $170,000. … Ms. Gabelick seems a bit baffled by the interest in Malört, which was a hobby for her boss, George Brode, a Chicago lawyer who left the company and its one product to her when he died in 1999. … “All my life I wish George had made a product I could drink,” she says. … Jeppson’s Malört got its start when Mr. Brode landed one of Chicago’s first liquor licenses after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. He added Malört to his stable of liquors when approached by Carl Jeppson, who had a recipe for a spirit favored by the city’s Swedish immigrant population. Mr. Brode eventually exited the liquor business for a career as a lawyer, but kept Jeppson’s Malört.

Even if this blog can’t help you with what to drink this holiday season, we wanted to do our part toward informing you what not to drink.

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liqueur


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Cigarette Flavored Rum

cigarette

First we saw tobacco vodka. Then, a bit further down the same smoky trail, we saw this — cigarette flavored rum. I am still not sure whether it’s a dare or somebody actually wants to drink it. The cigarette flavored rum was actually approved a few weeks prior.

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distilled spirits specialty


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Stout Brewed with Bull Testicles

rmo

Not so long ago, beer with (actual) oysters seemed unusual. But Wynkoop’s beer goes quite a bit further. It contains no oysters. Instead it is brewed with bull testicles.

Denver Westword reports:

head brewer Andy Brown secured 25 pounds of Rocky Mountain oysters, a local delicacy, which the staff in the Wynkoop’s kitchen hand-sliced and then roasted.

“Initially, [TTB] wanted us to provide some information on bull testicles as a food additive,” Wynkoop spokesman Marty Jones says of the [TTB]. “I am not sure they were aware that bull testicles are an actual food and that they are a regional delicacy out west.”

TTB not only was concerned about Wynkoop’s “oysters,” but also about the manner in which they were described. For example, the term “oysters” should not be larger than “Rocky Mountain.” And it’s ok to describe the nutty, ballsy “notes” but best not to talk about their “flavors.” For many more examples of beverages made with — meat — see here.

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flavored malt beverage


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