I have to laugh, really. People dressed in suits and lovely dresses at a wine-tasting event – smelling, observing, pouring, sipping, commenting, exclaiming, celebrating. Or long articles about some remarkable new (or old) wine derived from a particular grape from a special vineyard in a certain country. And both the sippers and the writers employ a lexicon of special adjectives to describe it – like “impudent”, “woody”, “flippant”, “fruity”, “decadent”, “lazy”, “buttery”, “intellectually satisfying”, and so on.
Or people, maybe younger, maybe not dressed in suits and lovely dresses but in much less formal attire, perhaps in jeans and plaid shirts, extolling the virtues of the latest “craft” beer. Wow, that tastes really “accessible”, “aggressive”, “caramel”, “hoppy”, “assertive”, “bright”, and so on.
Or some mustachioed elderly gentlemen in tweeds and vests lounging in leather armchairs and sofas at their exclusive club, being served some expensive single malt scotch or Tennessee sour mash whiskey, either “neat” or “on the rocks”, and murmuring to each other as they sipped that it tasted “smooth”, “malty”, “peaty”, “youthful”, “oaky”, “mellow”, “austere” or “smokey”.
Oh, come on now. You are tasting or drinking this stuff mainly because it has alcohol in it, not because of any special flavor or “feel”. You there, wine sniffers, tasters and sippers, would you be gathering there in your finery, affectatiously tasting all of those different wines if they did not contain alcohol? Maybe you should just consider savoring and comparing the different grape juices before they were fermented. Or perhaps set up a “grape tasting” event comparing the grapes themselves. No, let’s be honest – the big reason that you wish to fancy yourselves wine connoisseurs is simply that the wine contains alcohol and imbibing the alcohol makes you feel good.
And you guys over there at the brewery sampling all those different craft beers. If suddenly the alcohol were removed from the beer would you be gathering together like this – laughing and carrying on, hoisting those embossed mugs and glasses to toast the brewer that created this marvelous stuff? What if it didn’t contain alcohol but still tasted more or less the same – would you really still be drinking it and enjoying it so much? Hey, then why not an O’Doul’s instead of that Kilt Lifter? Of course, if we’re honest, you are enjoying that rich craft beer or even that bland Bud Lite for one reason – they contain alcohol and the alcohol makes you feel good.
And you distinguished gents in the tweeds – you’re really enjoying that exclusive scotch or bourbon. You’re drinking it properly too – you’re moving it around in your mouth, letting the vapors penetrate the sinuses; you’re breathing minimally so you can appreciate the flavors and aromatics…..and savoring every sip. But honestly, gentlemen, if that expensive single malt or sour mash had no alcohol, would you be drinking it at all? I think not, because after the flavor and the aroma, both good, of course, you are drinking this stuff because it contains alcohol and the alcohol makes you feel good.
Readers, I’m not impugning our collective enjoyment of the myriad flavors of wine, beer or whiskey (or gin, vodka, rum, tequila, brandy and the rest). Sure lots of it tastes great and if our taste buds and palates are in good shape can truly be savored and enjoyed. But…..and I beg you to consider….if these libations did not contain alcohol, would we be drinking them? I mean would we seek out anything at all that tastes like gin if it did not contain alcohol and could not conveniently become a martini or a gin and tonic?
Humans consuming alcohol has been around since we homo-sapiens began to populate the earth. No one knows when man first squeezed some grapes to render the juice, then accidentally let it sit around for too long, finally drank it and noticed that he felt great, much better than when he drank the juice fresh, and then began to leave it around for longer on purpose, finally perfecting the process of wine-making.
Beer was purportedly discovered (or invented) by the ancient Sumerians and enjoyed in ancient Egypt as well. Now exactly how did this happen, do you suppose? Maybe some guy was cooking up a nice barley soup for supper, threw some handy herbs in for flavoring, but forgot about it, letting it cool down and sit for a few days or weeks. Then when he finally got around to consuming it, wow, it tasted a little different and made him feel good! Voila! – beer was invented (or discovered?).
While the discovery of wine and beer were perhaps fortuitous accidents, the varied family of liquors or spirits historically resulted from a purposeful process because all have one thing in common- the process of distillation. All were developed over the centuries by distilling alcohol from sugars or starches acted upon by yeast, producing the alcohol by the natural process of fermentation. Sugars yielded the rums, grains the whiskeys, other starches the gins and vodkas, berries the brandies and so on. And it’s worth noting that some of these distilled spirits were first used as medicines, particularly gin. And also, the triangle trade developed as the popularity of rum rose – slaves bought in Africa for New England rum, traded in the West Indies for sugar and molasses, and these to New England to make more rum. And the first licensed whiskey distillery in the world, “Old Bushmills Distillery” located in Ireland (how appropriate!) still produces whisky today.
A visit to a huge warehouse type of liquor store like “Total Wine” or “BevMo” is an incredible experience. There they are – hundreds and hundreds of different wines from all over the world, an astonishing number of different beers, also from everywhere, from small craft brewers to huge conglomerates, and a truly impressive array of spirits – dozens of different scotches, whiskies, brandies, gins, rums, tequilas and vodkas. And you know what? Everything in this bewildering array of beverages has one thing in common – alcohol – that substance that makes you feel good. Everyone who walks up and down the isles, dropping bottle after bottle into their shopping cart is buying the same thing, alcohol, only adorned in different trappings..
And I’m no different than these people. I enjoy a scotch on the rocks sometime around 5:00 almost every day. The scotch I drink is relatively inexpensive because it’s a blended, certainly not a single malt and is aged for only thirty-six months. But it’s still 80 proof so I drink it because it relaxes me and makes me feel good. Oh yes, I wish I could afford a more exclusive scotch to enjoy each day, but I can’t. So I have my House of Stuart, Scoresby or Clan McGregor, depending on what was on sale. And I pour it over the ice cubes, sip it and it tastes quite good. And because I get that nice relaxed feeling, I really don’t care that it’s not Macallan, Johnny Walker Black, or Glenlivet – although I do sometimes sacrifice and buy some of these to keep on hand for special occasions. But for my much-anticipated daily drink, my inexpensive blendeds do just fine.
And if for some reason I don’t have my scotch, I may drink some red wine, usually Charles Shaw merlot from Trader Joe’s, famously known also as “Two Buck Chuck” or Kirkland cabernet sauvignon from Costco, both actually quite well regarded. They both taste great, don’t give me a headache, go down well with whatever I’m eating and are reasonably priced. While comparatively inexpensive, they’re certainly not the cheap rotgut that’s shared by the unfortunate alcoholic vagrants gathered under our city bridges or sold by bootleggers on our Native American reservations, like Roma Tokay or some other cheap wine that may give you a buzz but also likely indigestion and a massive headache. But to further make my point, exactly why do they drink this stuff? I don’t think that groups of poor down and out inner city vagrants or poor native Americans on the streets of Farmington, Shiprock or Gallup, New Mexico, gather in groups and discuss the various flavors or bouquets of the liquid in the flat bottles stuffed in their back pockets. No, they could care less about the taste – they’re just trying to get that buzz, the good feeling that comes from the alcohol.
So friends – let’s not kid ourselves. It’s perfectly ok to admit why we enjoy alcohol – it relaxes us and makes us feel good. It’s not necessary to deceptively cloak that enjoyment in cloying rationales like aroma, taste, or feel, or attach any of the hundreds of picturesque adjectives to the beverage we’re enjoying. It’s ok to just say – it tastes fine and makes me feel good.