Wine Geek and Spirit Savant Steve Olson: On What We're Drinking Now and What We'll Be Drinking in the Future

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Steve Olson

Chef Salad is taking a detour this week and next, interviewing four of the country's leading beverage industry experts, all of whom will be speakers at seminars held at the Hotel Valley Ho for the second annual Arizona Cocktail Week, February 16-22. Their excitement about cocktail culture is infectious and their knowledge of wine, spirits, cocktails and the history behind them is beyond impressive.

See also: -- Small-Batch Spirits Dazzle at Micah Olson's Bar Crudo -- AZ Cocktail Week Kicks Off Feb. 16. Expect a Carnival, Competition and Seminars. Better Line Up a Designated Driver.

Geeky? You bet! But they're also down-to-earth hospitality types who started out behind the bar (Olson excepted) and still love being there. Today, you'll hear from Steve Olson (background after the jump). Come back Tuesday for Charlotte Voisey's take on bartenders versus mixologists and how Prohibition affected cocktail culture.

Before Steve Olson was THE Steve Olson -- one of the country's foremost experts on alcoholic beverages of every stripe as well as the wine and beer consultant for Bon Appetit Magazine -- he was the wine sommelier at the former Christopher's and Christopher's Bistro, a one-time local boy who made it big. These days, he traverses the country teaching, lecturing, consulting, writing about and celebrating wine, beer and spirits.

Trends you're seeing in wine-making: More food -friendly, balanced wines, with a trend towards less oak, and less alcohol (thank God!).

And what are people drinking?: Riesling (finally) is the darling of somms, especially Austrian and German Riesling. Rose (FINALLY!) from the Mediterranean regions of Spain, Greece, Italy and Southern France---people are really, actually drinking Rose! Greek wines such as Moschofilero, Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko, and especially Assyrtiko from Santorini are also becoming popular.

Spanish wines: Sherry is the hottest dry wine today as well as the choice ingredient in cocktails, adored by bartenders, somms, and chefs; Priorat wines are hotter than ever; Godello is the new/old white wine, amazing me and some of the most in-the-know wine geeks out there; Toro is up and coming, and Bierzo is the future.

Chile is actually living up to former expectations, and now is finally making some world-class juice, namely Carmenere blends, and working ever further south into even cooler regions. Argentine Malbec continues to blow up all over the US, and there is some seriously amazing wine being made there (besides all of the ones that are inexpensive but delicious)

Small Italian producers from formerly obscure regions all over the country continue to produce really good wine at crazy low prices. (Sicily, Puglia, Trentino, Campania, Molise, Sardegna)

Can cocktails ever be as food-friendly as beer and wine?: They can absolutely be matched with food, and we have great success doing so, but as long as the overall alcohol profile remains high, cocktails cannot be quite as "food-friendly" as wine or beer, which obviously have lower alcohol, making them more food-friendly.

You're going to talk about Cognac at AZ Cocktail Week. Is there a resurgence in Cognac's popularity?: Americans are embracing the spirits of cocktails of our past more every day, and Cognac plays right into that. We are enjoying Cognac as much as ever, perhaps more than ever, as a spirit to be savored, perhaps in a snifter, often after dinner, but recently, bartenders and consumers have been coming back to Cognac cocktails in a way that we haven't seen in many years. We're seeing Sidecars on many menus, but, as we will explore in our seminar, Cognac cocktails like the original Sazerac, Juleps, punches, Crustas, and combinations like the Vieux Carre (Cognac and Rye), are making their way back in a big way.

Other spirits you predict will become cool again: Right now, the coolest spirits are without a doubt the handcrafted Mezcals from Mexico, especially Oaxaca, although other regions are finally also coming into the US, made from various wild agaves.

Pisco is growing, and awareness is picking up. I am a huge fan, and I believe its day is coming . . . soon. The Pisco Sour is a favorite of bartenders all across the nation, but the most exciting Pisco news is that bartenders are creating new original recipes with Pisco.

I'm a big fan of artisanal Cachaca, and although there is not a lot of great Cachaca in this country, awareness is up, some good brands are coming in, and demand is increasing, so the best ones should be right behind.

Gin is probably the hottest spirit in America now. We carried 5 or 6 gins at Christopher's back in the early 90s, and that was considered crazy overkill, but that was all that we had available to us. Tanqueray Ten was released in 2000, followed by Hendricks, and the renaissance began, but in the past four years we have jumped from about a dozen Gins to over 200 available currently. In fact, Tanqueray recently distilled a one time only limited release of their coveted Malacca Gin, from the late 90s, only because of bartender demand.

Bourbon has never been hotter than it is right now in terms of both quality and in terms of sales, and American RYE Whiskey has become the bartender's favorite whiskey for making cocktails.

Irish whiskey -- not in cocktails much but sipped and shot -- has expanded from a few brands available in the US to dozens in just a few years, including some amazing, rare, special whiskeys, and the category has literally blown up.

Enjoy this Chef Salad? Check out Nikki's previous interviews with: Steve Olson of Valley Ho Dough Robson of Gallo Blanco Edward Farrow of The Cafe at MIM Greg LaPrad of Quiessence & Morning Glory Cafe Joshua Johnson of Kai Joshua Johnson of Kai Todd Sicolo of T.Cooks Josh Riesner of Pig & Pickle Lester Gonzalez of Cowboy Ciao M.J. Coe of Federal Pizza Steven "Chops" Smith of Searsucker Aaron Chamberlin of St. Francis Michael Rusconi of Rusconi's American Kitchen Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot Lynn Rossetto of The Splendid Table Cullen Campbell of Crudo DJ Monti Carlo Pete DeRuvo of Davanti Enoteca Chuck Wiley of Cafe ZuZu Justin Beckett of Beckett's Table Bryan Dooley of Bryan's Black Mountain Barbecue Silvana Salcido Esparza of Barrio Cafe Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar Bernie Kantak of Citizen Public House James Porter of Petite Maison Johnny Chu of SoChu House Neo Asian + Martini Bar Stephen Jones of Blue Hound Kitchen & Cocktails Chris Gross of Christopher's Restaurant and Crush Lounge Chris Curtiss of NoRTH Arcadia Payton Curry of Brat Haus Mark Tarbell of Tarbell's Josh Hebert of Posh Kevin Binkley of Binkley's Restaurant Lori Hashimoto of Hana Japanese Eatery Larry White, Jr. Lo-Lo's Fried Chicken & Waffles

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