The email arrived just three days after the article ran.
“I read your article and immediately thought that you have been duped,” it began.
In February, I wrote about a liquor tasting with Chapel Hill-based Topo Organic Spirits at the Marshall Free House in Greensboro. Owner Esteban McMahan had poured vodka from a larger vodka producer into a small plastic cup, placing it besides his own organic product for comparison.
And now, in the email, the Austin, Texas-based competition hit back.
Bert “Tito” Beveridge of Tito’s Handmade Vodka alleged that it seemed I’d been tricked.
“It wouldn’t be the first time a competitor put crap in a Tito’s bottle and did a tasting, so maybe you should be aware and buy your own bottles to do your articles,” he wrote. “Please try a real bottle of Tito’s just so you know you got set up and taken advantage of.”
And he offered to mail me a bottle to prove it.
This may sound like competitors picking at each other and intra-industry trash talking. But there’s more at stake than that — McMahan is the assistant secretary of the North Carolina Distillers Association, and if he’s going around with bogus product lying to consumers, that’s a big problem. And Tito’s isn’t a small-batch operation, at least not anymore — you can find the vodka at most any bar.
Either way, I couldn’t turn down the challenge, especially with Beveridge asserting that I’d fallen for a simple ruse.
Jay Pierce, the acclaimed chef at Marshall Free House who’d invited McMahan for the event, balked at the claim from Tito’s.
“I stand by what he said,” Pierce wrote on Twitter, doubling down on his backing of McMahan. “Tito’s Vodka can’t compete with Topo Distillery.”
In the initial column, I reported that the Tito’s “smelled strongly of rubbing alcohol” and that the Topo vodka possessed “a much more appetizing aroma, as if the liquid had been filtered through a couple butterscotch Werther’s candies.” Beveridge claimed in his email that Tito’s doesn’t smell like anything.
But immediately after opening the bottle that arrived at our office, I smelled the same familiar scent of harsh alcohol.
Drinking is never quite the same at home as it is at a bar, and the Tito’s vodka didn’t smell as pungent as I remembered. But three months had passed, and more importantly, the allegation that Tito’s is odorless clearly didn’t hold up.
But the Topo didn’t taste quite the same, either. I sampled both again without re-reading my February piece first, and wouldn’t have said anything about a butterscotch flavor without the prompting. Indeed at the event, McMahan suggested the flavor profile to the attendees, which at the time I tried to pinpoint as Werther’s on the butterscotch spectrum.
It isn’t that the vodka McMahan poured at Marshall Free House is any different — after looking over what I’d written previously, I tried the Topo again, and immediately tasted it. My second Topo home tasting easily bested its predecessor— the power of suggestion is strong. By the same logic, McMahan’s studied accounting of Tito’s flavor almost certainly colored our perceptions without altering the substance.
McMahan chose Tito’s for the event, and for other gigs he hosts, because the Texas spirit is a standard-bearer for crafted vodka these days. But that may not be the best comparison — after all, Tito’s is produced using corn while Topo utilizes wheat.
After tasting both and clearing my palate, I reached in my liquor cabinet for a sweet potato-based vodka, Covington Gourmet Vodka from eastern North Carolina. It didn’t taste much like either of its predecessors, which was fine by me — I preferred Covington out of the trio in part because of its smoother finish.
Tito’s isn’t terrible, which is contrary to what some attendees said after smelling and sampling the vodka at McMahan’s suggestion. Without outside influence, the tasting gap between the two liquors shrank. But Tito’s still didn’t register as “good” in my book, let alone great. I’ll finish what’s left in the bottle, sharing liberally with friends who are more partial to it, which is more than I can say for plenty of booze I’ve come across.
I’m no Topo fanboy. I don’t stock it at home, and I don’t particularly like the distillery’s Carolina moonshine whiskey (though its aged whiskey suits me better). I can’t say I love Topo’s gin either, preferring the likes of Sutler’s Spirit, Cardinal and Hendrick’s. His up-sell attempt didn’t work on me; I do prefer his vodka to Topo, but at $28.95 a bottle at the ABC store — $7 more than Tito’s, mind you — I’m more inclined to pass on both and snag Covington for just $1 more. That is, if I’m buying vodka at all.
But more importantly, Beveridge’s claim that I’d been duped, that I’d tried something other than his “tasteless” product, is a fiction. It’s laughable and insulting, but more than that, it appears to be flat-out wrong.