Real or fake: a question of what’s real enough.

by | Apr 13, 2023 | Opinion

You don’t have to spend a lot of time on social media or scrolling Netflix before encountering the ‘real or fake’ trope, mostly in the form of cake. In a strange way I enjoy the moment of tension as various D-grade celebrities try to determine if it’s actually a football delicately balanced on a ledge or a concoction of dense vanilla cake, buttercream and fondant. Because sometimes, I have to look twice.

Fake Booze is another social media account I follow (strictly for research purposes of course). It’s deeply ironic and layered with cynicism so thick you can barely slice it – pointing the finger at all manner of contrived customer behaviour, booze marketing ploys and general commentary on the industry that would bring out a belly guffaw in even the staunchest of bartenders.

Behind the bar, there’s a lot to be said for real vs fake. I once received a text message from a bartender who had moved to Queenstown, reporting that for the first time, he’d had a drink sent back by a customer. The drink in question? A Pina Colada made with fresh pineapple
juice, coconut cream, fresh lime and a well chosen premium white rum. It was sent back because the customer firmly believed a Pina Colada is meant to be made with Malibu Coconut Rum.

What’s real and what’s fake? You can make a perfectly acceptable Pina Colada with Malibu rum. The coconut flavour is derived from natural ingredients. There’s a marketing agency somewhere who’s greatest triumph is convincing a large swag of the drinking population that the only authentic way to make a Pina Colada is with a singular product. But is it real? Perhaps both are – after all, the essential ingredients may vary but the outcome is the same; does it taste like, smell like and give you the same joy as a Pina Colada? It must be a Pina Colada.

How about a Pina Colada inspired rum spritz in a can at 5% abv? What makes something authentic?

We rely on certain boundaries, regulations and frameworks to determine origin or provenance, to determine the use of certain ingredients, methods and processes and in some instances, we also rely on geographical indicators. But is that what makes something truly authentic?

We go to extraordinary lengths to protect the industry and trademarks associated with manuka honey, we’ve fought and lost costly free trade negotiations around how we name our cheeses, we rely on provenance to export our beef, pork, lamb and dairy. But we rely on a relatively flimsy shared agreement with Australia on food standards that are more concerned with packaging and labelling requirements than regulating authenticity and provenance.

Perhaps no more so than in the world of spirits. We rely on global superpowers with their hefty recognized GIs and badges of authenticity to ensure our Scotch, tequila and champagne are authentic. But New Zealand legislation is some of the loosest in the world – there are over 20 unique categories of rum recognized around the world. New Zealand is one of few places you can purchase whey ethanol, add molasses and flavouring and release a ’rum’ brand called Honest. Which part is honest? The intention and genuine naivete of the brand owners was honest, but nowhere else in the world would the product be recognized as rum. Is it possible that we’re making authentically fake booze? Is authenticity more than entitlement to a name?

Distilled Spirits Aotearoa defines vodka as “a spirit obtained by the repeated distillation of neutral spirits, treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or colour.” There’s no mention of source material or process. So the three step commercial distillation process that produces ethanol from dairy by-product qualifies as repeated distillation.

Let me be clear – there’s nothing wrong with this. Many of your preferred New Zealand gins start with big IBCs of whey or sugar-based ethanol before being infused or re-distilled with botanicals. A vast amount of this whey ethanol is shipped directly to bottling and canning
facilities where it’s mixed with flavour syrups before being bottled or carbonated and canned into those brightly coloured, visually appealing and social media friendly 10pks that we love to take to parties. It’s legal, it’s technically legitimate but is it craft? Is it quality?

Is it genuine enough and high quality enough to stack up alongside 10x distilled vodkas made from grain or other horticultural products?

Here’s a question for us to consider when it comes to authenticity – what makes something authentic? Is it an agreed regulation or process? Is it tradition or intentionality? What do you call blue weber agave spirit made in Golden Bay, New Zealand when you can’t call it tequila because of geography. The method, the ingredients and the intention are genuine but do borders alone have the power to dictate authenticity? How about the imported American bourbon with honey added? Does that truly constitute a New Zealand craft product?

This question about authenticity impacts many parts of our food system – from labelling, packaging, export and consumer education. It places demands on us ethically and professionally to determine a definition of authenticity if we are to champion it, rather than simply adopting a buzzword without clarity.

I find myself walking a line – where transparency is sometimes more important than traditional authenticity. Provenance is both source/origin and the process of making but in a world of emerging AI technologies, we need to separate authenticity from synonymity with traditional process.

I’m after real, even if real constitutes something different that what I’ve experienced before. But real means made with intention, thoughtfulness and quality. I’m not sure if I’ve figured out the full criteria for that yet. But we need to think about it as we judge and award
medals this season and as we make choices about what we promote as good.

Photo by David García Sandoval on Unsplash

About the Author

Tash McGill

Tash McGill works as a strategy consultant in tourism, hospitality and digital transformation. She is co-founder of The Feed, President of Food Writers NZ, Chair of the New Zealand Whisky Association.

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