Bottles weave along on conveyer belts as udder-like hoses dispense fluids of different hues. A sweet, boozy bouquet saturates the air.
It's just another day at St. Louis' only liquor bottler, explains Donn Lux, president and chief operating officer of the David Sherman Corporation. Lux says the company, headquartered in a smallish warehouse off South Kingshighway behind the Courtesy Diner, employs a staff of about 125, many of whom appear partial to the mullet-head look and all of whom seem immune to the temptation of a mid-shift swig.
"Sometimes we plant bottles and keep an eye on them," Lux confides.
Though nowhere near the production levels of big boys like London-based Diageo, which pours out Baileys Irish Cream, Smirnoff vodka and Captain Morgan spiced rum, among others, DSC, as Lux calls the company, owns or distributes about 60 brands -- about 2 percent of the booze consumed in the nation. That cheap margarita you quaffed at Chevy's? Mixed with DSC's Juarez tequila. The shot of David Nicholson 1843 bourbon at J. Buck's? DSC again. The hazily recalled Everclear-in-the-punch prom experience from high school days? Yep, DSC.
Then there are the knockoffs: Admiral Nelson's rums and St. Brendan's cream liqueur, for instance, which capitalize on the ubiquity of Diageo's Captain Morgan and Baileys. Or a sour-apple schnapps that mimics a pricier DeKuyper liqueur. At this very moment, in fact, staff scientists in DSC's on-premises "product development lab" are working to craft a Bacardi Blue Hurricane copycat.
But like a wallflower at a frat party, DSC is largely unknown as a brand. On many products, you'll likely need a magnifying glass to find any mention of the David Sherman Corporation. (Some don't mention DSC at all.) Many financial analysts who follow the industry say they've never heard of DSC. Experts familiar with the company peg annual revenues at about $100 million, a figure Lux says is too low.
"I suspect that they're successful. They've been around for quite a while. They've certainly weathered times of consolidation," offers Robert Plotkin, a writer for BarMedia, a beverage consultancy based in Tuscon.
"I don't know how a liquor company could not be profitable," echoes David Commer, president of Commer Beverage Consulting of Carrollton, Texas. "There's just so much profit in that product. The cost to make the product is pretty low, the selling price pretty high. I would think you're profitable unless you mismanage it."
Says Lux: "We're certainly beating the odds. There were 50 bottlers of our size 25 years ago, and now there are 10."
Lux's father, Paul A. Lux, founded the company 46 years ago along with his father-in-law, DSC's namesake. Last month the Lux family bought out the Shermans' interest and took over operations.
"That we're family-owned is a big selling point," crows Lux, showing off brochures that feature the company's slogan, "Cheers to spending time with our family." And the place does look homey, with dogs wandering around and employees horsing around.
But all that becomes suddenly moot when Lux says he'll provide four cases filled with everything DSC bottles for our own Riverfront Times taste test.
Let the drinking begin.
When we commenced drinking David Sherman Corporation liquor, it was warm and sunny outside. Four hours and thirty bottles later, it was dark, and our inner beasts had been unleashed. Our blood-alcohol content was in double digits, our blood-sugar levels were diabetic. We wanted to fight, maim and have unprotected sex with our high school prom dates. And then, five minutes later, we wanted to sleep.
The tasting took place in the south-side back yard of Randall "Drink of the Week" Roberts, a balmy affair of citronella candles, mosquitoes and cats. In addition to Roberts, panelists included RFT restaurant writers Rose Martelli and Michael Renner and a sommelier from a prestigious local restaurant. The sommelier -- currently in his second year of five required to become one of about a hundred "master" sommeliers worldwide -- was, understandably, unwilling to attach his name to this endeavor. Also, he could be fired. So we shall call him "The Wino."
In order to add a fresher palate to the proceedings, we also recruited two ostensible boozing neophytes: Spencer Young, a Washington University student who had turned 21 only days earlier; and RFT freelancer Andrea Noble, also 21. Two uninvited RFT staffers -- we'll call them "Jordan" and "Mike" -- crashed the party.
For purposes of the tasting, we sorted the beverages into six categories: Tequila, Whiskey, Rum, Vodka, Grain Alcohol and The Sickly, Syrupy Rest. (Perplexingly, the David Sherman Corporation does not bottle a malt liquor.)
Below are our highly scientific findings, rated on a scale of 0 (vomitaceous) to 4 (curvaceous). Unless otherwise noted, prices are approximate retail for a 750-milliliter bottle.
El Mayor Reserve
"If I don't shudder, it's good tequila," proclaimed Martelli, smoothly knocking back a shot of this cork-sealed "100% de Agave" tequila. Renner put it even more eloquently: "That's a brandy-quality tequila -- not the kind of tequila that you'd want to sip off a girl's nipples."
Margaritaville Tequila Oro
Way laid-back (perhaps comatose) croonster Jimmy Buffett lends his brand name to this tequila. David Sherman president Donn Lux is pals with him. ("He's a pretty private guy," Lux warns. "If you're going to write anything about him, let me know.") A little digging on the Internet procured a "Parrothead Handbook Margarita" recipe, which features a splash of orange curaçao. Roberts' tender hands whipped up a batch, which were quickly sucked dry.
"Perfect balance, sweet and sour," said the Wino, whereupon Buffett was forgiven for his musical transgressions.
Dos Tiranos Mezcal
Juarez Tequila (Gold)
Juarez Tequila (Silver)
The bottle of non-shudder-causing Dos Tiranos features, count 'em, two Atkins-friendly worms. Not realizing at first that the worms were dead, one panelist tapped on the bottle as one might at the primate house at the zoo.
By the time the Juarez twins were cracked, the panel was nicely buzzed. Suddenly, however, it was as though we'd warped to the absolute-worst level in a computer game -- the one with the fire-breathing dragons scalding your ass with torrid flames.
"You put out a cigarette in this, didn't you?" Young accused Martelli, in reference to the Gold.
The Silver was even worse, causing the Wino to eject his mouthful into Roberts' tomato patch. "This tastes like Off!" he complained. "Don't spit in my garden!" countered Roberts.
Young, meanwhile, teetered into a bizarre reverie. "Once we took a family vacation to Hawaii," he said to no one in particular. "I was knocked over by a wave, and my mouth was flooded with ocean water."
Rebel Yell Straight Bourbon Whiskey
David Nicholson 1843 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
We quickly got into the spirit of David Sherman's Kentucky-distilled whiskeys. Rebel Yell, after all, is said to be Keith Richards' drink of choice. Billy Idol named an album after the stuff. While the Wino likened it more to a finely tuned, hillbilly yodel than a yell, everyone agreed that this bourbon was smooth, complex and otherwise just right.
While Rebel Yell is "Especially for the Deep South," according to its label, David Nicholson 1843 is Especially for the Lower Midwest. It's distributed exclusively in Missouri and southern Illinois, explains Lux, because it's popular here; in other markets they concentrate on Rebel Yell and Ezra Brooks (see below). Weird!
But the panel liked the 1843 in a dry manhattan Renner whipped up. "Smoky, with an essence of cedar," quoth the Wino. "Clean as the ass of an eighteen-month-old boy," "Mike" put in. Actually it's seven years old.
Ezra Brooks Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Ezra B. Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Ezra Brooks appears to have been crafted to confuse hoosiers. Its black label suspiciously recalls Jack Daniel's (see sidebar), as does its otherwise inexplicable moniker. "Why, that's even more sophisty-kated than JD!" a DSC marketing genius must have envisioned south-side St. Louisans bellowing. "Let's buy us some!"
Unfortunately, our south-side panel panned it. "Smells like the corpse of Ezra Brooks," Young opined.
But where Ezra Brooks fell a bit flat, Ezra B. -- the upscale brand, twelve years old, 49.5 percent alcohol -- delivered. "More depth! More caramel taste!" Renner exclaimed. "It sort of smells like pickles," said a skeptical Young.
Admiral Nelson's Premium Spiced Rum
Admiral Nelson's Premium Coconut Rum
Admiral Nelson's Premium Vanilla Rum
Admiral Nelson's Premium Raspberry Rum
The panel grudgingly tolerated Sherman's answer to Jack Daniel's because, you know, Ezra Pound was a cool fascist. But our tasters absolutely would not stand for Sherman's march on Captain Morgan. Perhaps Martelli put it best: "Admiral Nelson needs to walk the plank."
Though some of the infusions were worse than others, all lacked bite, and the panel speculated that they had been conceived specifically for binge drinking.
Roberts suggested that the good admiral was a little light in the loafers -- "I would call him more like Private First Class Gomer Pyle" -- while Renner detected the essence of suntan oil.
"It's what rum drinkers drink when they're not drinking rum," "Jordan" concluded.
By this stage of the evening, all pretense of pouring samples into individual cups had been abandoned in favor of simply passing the bottle. Panelists were, however, sufficiently sober to discern that Pearl is David Sherman's "Premium" vodka, and the Wino appreciated that this Canadian-made spirit is distilled five times.
The coconut version drew even more raves. "Better than the coconut rum!" declared Martelli. "It's not bracing! It tastes like church wine in Key West!"
But the Wino spoke for everyone when he admitted that, at this point, it was all starting to taste pretty good.
Inferno Pepper Flavored Vodka
Inferno, another Canadian product, tore a deep schism within the group, a divide of the kind unseen since the "Tastes Great/Less Filling" debates of high school days gone by. While "Jordan" loved the potent, spicy flavor, Martelli detested it and Noble opined that it went down about as nicely as a noseful of freshly ground pepper. Young detected an essence of "recently burned-down yuppie Mexican restaurant" in what all speculated was an Absolut Peppar rip-off.
Still, everyone was impressed by the bottle, a mini-jug featuring a pair of three-inch cayenne peppers.
price varies by market
Though this distilled-from-grain vodka's vaguely Eastern-European label looked appealing in a retro, Cold War-era way, we made the mistake of stashing it in the freezer at the beginning of the night and completely forgetting about it.
Everclear Grain Alcohol
(perhaps the median age of its intoxicants)
Golden Grain Alcohol
price varies by market
Both bottles scream a warning: CAUTION: DO NOT APPLY TO OPEN FLAME, KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE, HEAT AND OPEN FLAME -- CONTENTS MAY IGNITE OR EXPLODE. DO NOT CONSUME IN EXCESSIVE QUANTITIES. NOT INTENDED FOR CONSUMPTION UNLESS MIXED WITH NON-ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE. Unfortunately, it doesn't warn those of legal drinking age to stay away from these chemistry experiments gone awry.
Those dumb enough to try straight shots were treated to vaporized esophagi, and the rest were left wondering why such potent stuff could be named after a breakfast cereal.
Everclear mixed with Vess strawberry soda (procured from Schnucks in a three-liter plastic bottle) was more in the homecoming-party spirit of this beverage, and also inspired one of the evening's many allusions to mouthwash.
"Smells like rubbing alcohol," Renner said. "Tastes like--"
"--Listerine!" Martelli finished.
Jakob Demmer Piesporter Michelsberg
8.5 percent alcohol
Barbella Pinot Grigio delle Venezie
11.5 percent alcohol
From Everclear to wine: What could be more natural? "I happen to like Piesporters a lot; they have a crisp acidity balanced with a nice sweetness, acid and base fighting it out, and they go really well with food," the Wino said, stroking his chin in a manner that can get you sentenced to life in prison if you're not a wine snob. "I didn't exactly get that from this wine, however."
As far as the other entry: "Pinot grigios are usually pretty uninteresting wines, but this one is especially bad."
Others in the group were further damning in their faint praise: "Keystone Light with Franzia," commented Young, drawing on his extensive vocabulary of dorm-room delights.
"It has the body of Mary Kate or Ashley," Martelli said. "Whoever is the anorexic one."
The Sickly, Syrupy Rest
$5 for four 12.7-ounce bottles
5 percent alcohol
Perhaps David Sherman's strongest foothold in the booze market is its line of gooey, artificially flavored concoctions. As John Kerry might ask, "Who among us did not sip Purple Passion in our youth?" Unfortunately, like cheese-filled hot dogs and Lik-m-aid, some things are never meant to be consumed in adulthood. While Noble and Young's barely legal palates and metabolic flexibility spared them, the rest of the panel experienced intestinal discomfort not seen since Girbaud jeans went out of style.
All except manchild "Mike," who chugged not just his own bottle of fermented Kool-Aid but everyone else's leftovers.
Caffe Lolita Lico De Cafe
Saint Brendan's "the Superior" Irish Cream Liqueur
The night almost completely black and her facility for measurement long obliterated, Noble somehow managed to splash some Pearl vodka, milk, ice and Caffe Lolita into a glass, and then pass that glass around.
"It's hard to screw up a white Russian," "Jordan" complimented.
All agreed that Saint Brendan's should be canonized. "Like a melted hot-fudge-sundae liqueur. If I were an alcoholic, this would be my half and half," Martelli said wistfully.
Yago Sant' Gria
7 percent alcohol
Arrow Sour Apple Smackers Liqueur
Arrow Spearmint Schnapps
The evening had ceased to look kindly upon our group. Taking more sugar into an already saturated bloodstream right now sounded about as appealing as an afternoon watching NASCAR with the Heinz-Kerrys. Yago Sant' Gria ("red table wine & natural fruit flavors") confirmed the panel's worst fears.
"This thing should have a diabetics' warning," Young moaned, while Roberts imagined he saw subliminal penises and vaginas on the label.
Two words for the Spearmint Schnapps, according to Martelli: "Cum Gum." (A reference, she explained, to Freshen-Up, which features a gooey center.) In an unrelated comment, "Mike" deemed the schnapps "as easy as Tara Reid."
Of the Pucker rip-off, the only positive comment came from Martelli. She'd have loved it when she was eighteen, she said, because it would have matched her lip gloss.
Salvador's Mango Margarita
Salvador's Blue Margarita
Salvador's Senorita Strawberry Margarita
Salvador's Original Margarita
(All varieties cost $6 for four 200-milliliter bottles)
It dawned on those assembled that nothing they could say could sway anyone's opinion about these "Tequila's in it" abominations: If you've got a fake ID and the girls in your triple aren't into screwdrivers, then by all means pick up a pack of Salvador's. Ranging in proof from 26 to 30, they taste like what Fisher-Price would make if Fisher-Price made cocktails.
A few sips into their 200-milliliter bottles, the majority of the group decided to abandon the entire enterprise and head to a nearby bar for a beer. A delicious malt beverage, free of artificial colors and sweeteners, one that would wash away the childish trespass into this fortified faux folly. "Salvador should stick to surrealism," the Wino muttered, lurching toward the bathroom.
Only Young seemed to have maintained his equilibrium, announcing breezily that he had a very late student-government meeting to attend to.