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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 Timestaste 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 RFTfreelancer Andrea Noble, also 21. Two uninvited RFTstaffers -- 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.