Ingredients for a Drinkhacker: an Interview with Christopher Null
Christopher Null is a writer by profession and — lucky for fans of strong drink — by passion as well.
He writes a technology blog for Yahoo!; founded Filmcritic.com in 1995, has written two books, founded one magazine, and has contributed to many publications, including Wired, PC World, and San Francisco magazine.
But, most importantly to beverage enthusiasts, he’s the founder of Drinkhacker, a blog that tags itself as “Essential for the Discriminating Drinker.” It’s definitely become an essential part of my reading habits; I discovered Drinkhacker only recently and very quickly became a fan. It’s a valuable resource, super-entertaining to boot . . . and it’s making me want to spend money. (Okay, it did: one bottle of Buffalo Trace is only the first of likely many casualties to my wallet inspired by Mr. Null and Drinkhacker).
Mr. Null took the time to answer our questions about Drinkhacker’s origins, what he’s learned in chronicling his spirited adventures, and why just about anyone should be confident when reviewing a $4,000 bottle of scotch.
Osmosis Online: What’s your background with booze? When did you discover a passion for such, and how did it develop?
Christopher Null: In college I became interested in wine, to the extent that a kid in college can. That interest developed especially in grad school as I and a few equally curious friends of mine would pitch in on wine and steaks and cook dinner, usually every weekend. I have some really great memories of those days, drinking Caymus for $20 a bottle, which we thought was outrageously expensive! But I was also interested in mixology at the same time, and found myself wanting to learn how to make all the classic drinks at home. As well, I was a martini drinker at the time so I was experimenting with different vodkas (in the early ’90s, the market was nothing like we have today), and over the years that all just sort of grew. I started collecting recipe guides and building my collection of spirits. If a classic recipe called for something and I didn’t have it, I’d buy a bottle, maybe expanding the collection one bottle each month. I am sure I have bottles of crème de banana or crème de menthe stashed around from that era that remain unopened… or if they are opened it was only on a “let’s flip through a recipe book and see who’ll drink this” dare. Basically I would say my “passion” for booze grew mainly out of simple completionist obsession.
OO: I love the line “finicky proprietor of what has been called ‘the best home bar in San Francisco.'” Can you reveal who gave it that name, or in what context? Can you describe this home bar? Does it favor any particular type of alcohol, or really run the gamut?
CN: I can no longer remember the origin of that moniker – it is at least a decade old — but it has been so oft repeated over the years, including in Wired, so it must be (basically) true – I am sure there are other cocktail writers and multimillionaires who can outdo my collection. Mainly it is a comment on the size and breadth of the bar stock. Back when it was originated that probably meant I had 50 bottles of various spirits – unthinkable to your average San Francisco hipster. Now I would guess I have 200 bottles, not including the wine cellar (another 400 bottles), representing everything under the sun. I go deep on things I love and collect curiosities too (Pistachio liqueur, anyone?). The collection is of course self-replenishing: I receive samples daily so the best things I review become part of the permanent collection and the rest gets passed along to friends… though the pass-along volume is so high that even they are tiring of getting my cast-offs and many have asked me to stop. (Still, I can’t bear to pour it down the drain.) When not reviewing whatever comes in the door, I am mainly a whiskey drinker, followed by cognac and tequila. I probably have 60 whiskeys here and 30 tequilas and could easily have 100 or more if I wanted. I give away more tequila – by far – than anything else.
OO: You review wines — which I think are ultra-challenging in themselves — and complex spirits as well. I’ll point to your recent entry, where you sampled a $4,000 bottle of scotch. My reaction was: holy crap! But, undaunted, you told the tale of how it held up, and educated and entertained the reader.
How did you develop your palate to appreciate the finer points of all these, whether ultra-rare spirits, wine, or otherwise? Is it an innate sort of sense, or did you have to develop as a connoisseur in some methodical manner?
CN: Well let me be clear that I don’t think I have any sort of special palate, and if I do it is certainly not universal in what I can best appreciate. I like coffee but can’t dig deep into it like so many other people can, for example. But I think with whiskey and most wines I can get to the heart of what works and what doesn’t. I think anyone can do this. Really I just have a deep interest in the subject, a lot of experience with these liquids, access to lots of different stuff, and have done the research needed to understand what I’m drinking. I am perfectly happy to just quaff a glass of wine or a beer at dinner and not overanalyze it to death. I am fine with an analysis that says “I like it,” or “I don’t.” I do that all the time when I’m not “on the clock.” You don’t need to go hunting for violets, heather, and flinty characters in a wine. That stuff is scenery and it’s fun to do, but quality and taste are so subjective none of it really matters. The only major reason to worry about the so-called “flavor profile” of a wine, for example – beyond just figuring out if those are flavors you actually like — is pairing it with food.
Education is a big part of Drinkhacker, and I’m always trying to find fun facts, little nuggets of wisdom, and obscure trivia to put into the post. I came at drink blogging as a novice compared to many of the experts out there, and I try to honor that in my writing by helping others learn about what I’m having the luxury of drinking.
That said, if you want to buy a bottle of Highland Park 1968, I am happy to pore over it with you and we can talk palate development all night long to see what we can discover…
OO: Drinkhacker kicked off in September 2007. What was the impetus to start Drinkhacker? What’s changed in these 2+ years?
CN: I started the site originally to do wine reviews and original cocktail recipes — I wanted a place to write all this stuff down so I wouldn’t forget it in case I wanted to make a drink that I’d designed again.
I was also going to do a “recipe of the week” thing, usually pop culture driven. The first one I did (before the site launched) was in honor of the iPhone releasing, and that got a lot of coverage and linkage, so I thought I’d keep it up. But a funny thing happened: Within weeks of launching the site, spirits companies began bombarding me with samples to review, so the site slowly morphed into a venue primarily for reviews. I still do recipes, but not as many as I’d intended. Wine remains the category on the site with the most posts and I doubt that will ever change. Now I get so many samples for review I can’t really keep up with them all. People always make the joke, “Oh I’ll help you out!” thinking it’s nothing but $4,000 whiskey every night. Alas, in reality it often means drinking your way through a whole lot of Splenda-filled mixers . . . sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t.
OO: Is there a favorite or go-to drink when you’re at home? How about at a bar?
CN: The Sazerac and the Casino — those are my favorite drinks and I make them at home often. I still tinker and try to come up with original recipes often, too. So it’s not often the same drink is served twice at Drinkhacker HQ. The best of these make it into the blog. At a restaurant, I almost always order off the cocktail menu — whatever the specialty cocktails are — because they’re usually something I haven’t had before. If I don’t like the sound of any of those I usually scour the bar for a rare or unusual Scotch. It is hard to pay $20 a glass in a bar for something I have at home.
OO: I’ve recently been getting into Rye — what are your thoughts on this near-extinct American spirit? Am I exaggerating? Or is “American Pie” truly one of the few cultural touchstones keeping Rye in the conversation?
CN: Rye is coming back after years of neglect. The problem is rye is almost never great on its own, but it usually is better than Bourbon in a cocktail. I’ll usually take a Rye Manhattan over one with Bourbon. With more high-end bars opening around the country, I think Rye will get its due, albeit on a smaller scale than Bourbon or even Canadian whiskey. I certainly think it will be “bigger” than other “up and coming” spirits like Cachaca or Pisco.
OO: In the context of your proprietorship of Drinkhacker, have you learned anything especially surprising — whether about alcohol, human nature, or otherwise?
CN: I have learned so much since starting Drinkhacker I don’t really know how I could put it all down. Like many interested-yet-casual drinkers, I didn’t know much when I got started about how various spirits were made, I just knew what I liked. Now I’m immersed in the pros and cons of column vs. pot distillation, chill filtering whiskies, phenolic levels, grain vs. potato vodkas, and the like. But meeting people more experienced than I am has been the most valuable part of Drinkhacker — I’ve not only learned the craft and concepts behind the spirits, I’ve learned how to drink them to more fully appreciate what they have to offer. I’ve heard the stories behind them from the people who craft them. You just can’t get that kind of experience out of a book.
Thanks for the time, Mr. Null. We encourage anyone reading this to check out Drinkhacker — ASAP!