How to Talk About Booze
One of the most common responses I get when I talk about particular kinds of alcohol is “bleh.” To which, first off, rude! But also, how interesting! I love this kind of reaction because I’m naturally a salty and argumentative person but also because it’s an opinion, rather than an objective judgment based on the physical or sensory merits of the beverage. That’s one of the great and terrible things about food and drink reviews, that they are so often rooted in feeeeelings rather than cold facts. I love when people are able to make a higher connection with drinks, when they move past the “bleh” or the “yassss.” It usually leads to great stories. But what if you can’t articulate your feelings well? What if you don’t know why you feel a certain way, but you know in your heart that gin is gross or brandy is for granddads or Jameson turns you into a frat boy? How do you learn to speak in a more precise way of explaining your experience without compromising your feels?
Have you ever wanted to become a robot? That’s the first step; surprise! Pretend you aren’t yourself anymore but rather A COOL ROBOT tasked with evaluating whatever drink is in front of you. It could be anything from some fancy cocktail to a shot of rotgut bottom-shelf liquor. Literally doesn’t matter! You’re a robot now.
Now evaluate that drink purely based on the 5 senses (human, not robot. I’m not an engineer; I don’t know how many senses robots have). If you are trying to think of them all but can only come up with like 3 or 4, don’t worry. Here you go:
Sight - how does it look? Is it clear or cloudy? What color is it?
Smell - how does it smell? Be as specific as you can. Sometimes it gets weird but that’s ok (I once described a beer as smelling like a dog bed because I couldn’t remember the word for “cedar”)
Touch - is it hot or cold or room temperature? What’s the texture like? (Don’t just say wet, lol)
Hearing - yes, listen to that drink, maybe not super obviously at the bar because someone (me) is definitely going to Instagram it and laugh at you, but if there’s effervescence or carbonation, the best way to describe it is by listening.
Taste - finally, hell yeah, taste that drink. It’s your reward for getting your ear wet after sticking it in a champagne glass. Use all those descriptive flavor words to describe it; sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami if you want to go there. Also describe absences of flavors! Think of taste as a balance - is the drink sour because it’s 100% sour? Or is that sourness contrasted against the drink’s lack of sweetness? As multiple Pinterest quotes say Leonardo da Vinci once said, nothing exists in a vacuum.
Next! Have you had this drink before? Can you compare this experience with previous ones? Try to contrast your sensory evaluations against those previous drinks. (Hi, yes, I swear I am fun at parties).
Can you speculate why there might be differences? Did the bartender use fresh juice instead of bottled? Is the temperature of the drink different? How about the temperature of the room? What year was it made? What kind of ice is in the drink? Is it in a different glass than the other ones you’ve had? Are you eating anything along with it? Etc etc etc all of these little changes can have a big effect on sensory evaluations! Best part, there are no wrong answers! This is data collection. Get specific, keep trying that beer/wine/spirit/cocktail at different places.
Thirdly, think about what the drink is intended to be. Did the brewer, distiller, winemaker, or bartender achieve what they meant to create? This may involve some internet research. That is fine, learning is good and education is often undervalued in our modern society. Work out the definition and parameters of the beverage “ideal” and compare that to the one in front of you. Is it meant to be bitter but you can’t taste that? Should it be dark brown but you think it’s more like amber? Is it traditionally a whiskey cocktail but for some reason this bartender chose tequila? Use descriptive words but try to avoid personal biases.
Ok now we can talk about the personal aspect of all of this, because by this point it’s only nerds left reading this article and you’re the ones I care about. Oh also, you aren’t a robot anymore, now you are You again. Magic! So once you’ve worked out a framework for objective sensory evaluation, you can start tying in your own opinions. You can say things like “I don’t like most lambic beers because the mouthfeel is too astringent and the high acid content makes my stomach ache,” rather than “me hate lambic, lambic yucky” like a toddler caveman who’s stumbled into a Belgian bar. This will make you 1) sound like an intelligent person and 2) able to order drinks you actually enjoy rather than sitting around grimacing and drinking Budweiser/Gordon’s/“house white” because it’s what the bartender gives everyone who doesn’t express a preference. By learning to use your words, you can get what you like, try new things, and sound smart (always a bonus).
When I was a baby boozehound, I had a little notebook and kept notes in it about different drinks when I tried them. This is mainly because I like cute stationery and also have the memory of a goldfish, but it’s generally a good idea when you are getting started. If you aren’t a notebook person or you feel self-conscious about it, use your phone and pretend to be texting some hot babe (husbands are hot babes too) while you type in the Notes app that some bonkers girl at a party just made you do a shot of Riga Black Balsam. (If you couldn’t tell, I am both of the people in this scenario. Just go with it - we were robots 5 minutes ago). TLDR: notebooks can be helpful, use them if you like.
Of course, all of this Thinking and Drinking and Using Your Words can have the result of making you the most obnoxious person in the bar/biergarten/sidewalk. However, this can be a good thing! Learning to express myself more eloquently with regard to drinking has made me a better conversationalist and more understanding of my own preferences. I’ve had to dig deep to get to the bottom of exactly why I like and don’t like certain things. I have had to examine and reject certain biases, some of which I wasn’t aware that I had. It’s spilled over into how I eat and choose particular restaurants. It’s made me think on an international level and consider how drinks and drinking fit into a variety of cultural and historical spectrums. I’m more inquisitive now and generally more polite as well. Plus, being obnoxious about drinking while filtering your words and actions through a lens of politeness usually translates into being passionate, which is a great thing.