My Round: Say my name

Asking for a particular brand of vodka is fine when you want a Martini, but not when you're drowning it with mixers
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A source at a swanky New York restaurant tells me of a customer who has achieved what must be a new record in idiotic brand-calling. This customer asked for Ketel One vodka not only with orange juice but with ginger ale as well. The story reinforces my firmly held belief that New Yorkers are both the world's most demanding consumers and the world's most idiotic consumers. They insist on believing that they know best in all matters, and they will stop at nothing to prove it to you. This is equally true whether they're a connoisseur or a world-class blockhead.

A source at a swanky New York restaurant tells me of a customer who has achieved what must be a new record in idiotic brand-calling. This customer asked for Ketel One vodka not only with orange juice but with ginger ale as well. The story reinforces my firmly held belief that New Yorkers are both the world's most demanding consumers and the world's most idiotic consumers. They insist on believing that they know best in all matters, and they will stop at nothing to prove it to you. This is equally true whether they're a connoisseur or a world-class blockhead.

The contradictions are shown as clearly in brand-calling as in other areas of modern consumer culture. The term brand-calling refers to the specification of a particular spirit when ordering drinks (for example, not just "Scotch with ice" but "Famous Grouse with ice"). Americans are the world's biggest brand-callers, and New Yorkers are the US champions.

Sometimes brand-calling is a true sign of sophistication, or at the very least a sign of commitment to consuming principles. When I ask for a Beefeater Martini, I do so not because of certainty that Beefeater is the best gin on earth - though I could certainly be persuaded that it is - but because I know that this gin is of excellent quality and always produces a good Martini. My brand-calling Beefeater is a way of saying: "I want a very good Martini, and I know that I'll get it from this brand."

Brand-calling when you're just ordering the spirit and a mixer is an entirely different matter. In a Martini, the quality of the vodka makes the difference between delight and disaster. If you're mixing the stuff with OJ and ginger ale (buy that lady a new set of taste buds), you won't be able to distinguish between Ketel One and Battery Acid Two. And you should not waste your money on a vodka costing twice as much as the house pouring brand. Indeed, some might argue that you shouldn't be allowed to drink alcohol in the first place.

In recent conversations with New York bartenders, I've had factual corroboration of the informal reports. Vodka is still king in New York, brand-calling is as big as ever, and some customers do indeed go to absurd lengths to get exactly the drink they want. Some bar owners can barely conceal the contempt they feel for people who order the ultra-fashionable Grey Goose in a Cosmopolitan "where you can't taste the difference". They feel differently about aficionados of whisky, whether Scotch, Irish or American, who order the drinks in a form that makes individual qualities vital in the glass. And they all had a good chuckle over a recent New York Times blind tasting in which humble Smirnoff scored equally or superior to several vodkas costing over twice as much.

Brand-calling is not nearly so well advanced in Britain as it is in the US. At some of the bars where I've enquired about it, the bartenders barely knew what I was talking about - and they are not clued in to satisfy the demand, sometimes insisting that only a specific spirit can be used in a particular cocktail. But it's getting here, albeit slowly. And I'm right in there rooting for it, as long as it's done for the sake of drinking excellence, rather than to prove your sophistication to the world at large.

Well, maybe proving yourself is a temptation that can occasionally be indulged. "I sometimes order Tanqueray instead of Beefeater, even though I like Beefeater better", says a bar-owner of my acquaintance, "because Tanqueray has a cooler image. And I want the people around me to see me ordering that kind of drink." Everyone's allowed to take a dive for fashion once in a while. As long as it isn't a dive into Ketel One with orange juice and ginger ale.

Top Corks: Three big South Africans

Graham Beck Railroad Red 2003 (£4.99, Tesco and Asda) Sixty per cent Shiraz happily dominating the Cabernet Sauvignon; good spice from the Shiraz and lively cassis from the Cabernet.

Stormhoek Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (£5.98, Asda) A big wallop of Cabernet fruit, but fine acidity pulls it from the edge of over-ripeness. Generous on the palate, crying out for a steak.

Diemersfontein Carpe Diem Shiraz (£10.99, Waitrose) From an estate better known for its Pinotage, a distinguished Shiraz. Substantial but well balanced, and worth keeping for a few years.

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