What is taste? Is it the sum of our neurological responses to environmental stimuli, or is it more significantly focused through the lens of cultural, experiential, and intellectual context than we are sometimes willing to admit? In other words, do things taste good, or do we simply decide to enjoy them?
The reason I ask is: I don’t really like the taste of alcohol. Yet I like tasting it.
This is the inherent paradox that shapes my perspective on the world of alcohol, a world on which I have suddenly and unexpectedly found my attentions focused. I do not enjoy alcohol under the most common and direct definitions — I don’t really like the way it tastes, I don’t particularly enjoy the experience of being drunk, nor do I seek such experiences out — and yet I enjoy alcohol very much by a wholly different set of standards: the experience of tasting different alcohols for comparison and understanding, exploring the history and context of different types of alcohol, and the social and aesthetic circumstances in which alcohol is enjoyed by others.
So do I actually like it, or am I just fooling myself?
Well, the real question is: are we all just fooling ourselves?
One person may like vodka but not gin. Why? Give either to a baby and they’ll probably spit it out. It’s not like either one tastes “good” in the same way that a strip of bacon or a ripe piece of fruit tastes “good.” And for a long time gin was the preferred spirit, especially in the good ol’ days of the roaring 20’s, when much of our cocktail culture was formed. Is it just that vodka tastes “less” bad? But if that’s the case, and people are spending more and more money on higher quality vodkas that increasingly strive towards the flavor of “nothing,” then isn’t that in itself a betrayal of taste? After all, if we really like the stuff, wouldn’t we prefer it to taste like something?
Unless we’re just trying to get drunk, collectively, as a culture and a species, in which case taste is secondary to effect. That premise alone goes a long way to explain the origination of every booze institution in the world: you like the effect a substance has on you, so you start augmenting your perception of that substance to make it about something more than just the effect you were originally chasing after. So, in the case of alcohol, we like getting drunk, but we also like getting drunk off different categories, styles, and quality levels of alcohol, and we especially like talking about and sharing with others the things that get us drunk. Entire sub-cultures rise up out of simple experiential pleasures: as a species we are not content to simply enjoy the things around us, we must endeavor to make them complex and nuanced and regionalized and hierarchical. Hence the mixologists and sommeliers and cicerones of our modern era: there would be no place for them in society if people hadn’t heaped a mountain of culture on top of their desire to get wasted.
Whether or not this one dimensional and highly generalized explanation for an entire planet’s interest in alcohol is at all accurate, I’m glad there’s more to drinking than getting drunk (whatever the reason), because it’s the complexity of alcohol that makes it interesting, not its effects. I had to learn to enjoy alcohol initially — and “learn” is used literally here as it involved a fair bit of study — but now that I have, my enjoyment is at least as pure as the average Joe who just wants to have a pint after work and would rather not sit around for a few hours writing an essay about the reasons why he enjoys alcohol in the first place.
For me, though, the pint alone isn’t enough. I want to know where the beer in the pint came from and what traditions lead to it’s method of production. I want to watch the bartender and see what kind of glassware he or she serves their cocktails in, and what proportions they use in making them. If someone hands me a glass of wine, I want to take a moment to ponder what’s in the glass and try to deduce something about the wine before I quaff it down. What’s the varietal, where’s it from, is it made in a traditional method or is the winemaker trying something modern or experimental? And how are other people reacting to what they’re drinking? How is alcohol influencing the social setting? And for that matter, what do people enjoy, in general and on an individual level, and why? How can I take the vast number of conversations I’ve had about taste and alcohol and integrate them into my own overall understanding of the subject? And how can I use those bits of context and understanding to elevate my own enjoyment?
As you can see, the calculations involved can be complex, but I try to never stray from the most fundamental and foundational principle of alcohol, whether I’m approaching a 1er Cru Bordeaux or a Long Island Iced Tea:
It’s meant to be enjoyed, regardless of what enjoyment means to other people. Anyone who says otherwise has missed the point entirely.