Let's face it - we really do live in a golden era of drinks. Never before have we had so much choice, and so little of it is poisonous. That's just one of the conclusions from this entertaining, provocative, but light-hearted look at what we think is "good booze" from reformed barman Sam Bygrave created to help re-launch our What's In Your Glass tribe. Please, jump on and let us know what you're drinking (and whether it's a Fernet).
It’s raining medals out there. Every week there’s another email from a liquor brand boasting about the latest gold, silver, bronze — one suspects pewter would even get a run — medal picked up at the latest spirit tasting competition somewhere around the world from Tianjin to Toowoomba.
There are many spirits competitions, some of them great, many less necessary, and they all hand out awards that get proudly stuck to spirit bottles on bottleshop shelves. The idea behind it? Faced with two bottles, one with a medal and one without, the average punter is likelier to pick the one with a medal.
Brands know this, of course. One distiller I spoke to recently, who makes great spirits, estimates they spend $25,000 a year on competition entry fees alone.
But you’re not the average punter. All of us in the trade know what we’re talking about, have learned to trust our palates above all else, and know what is good and bad booze.
But I’m here to say - there is no bad booze.
Simply put, the distilling, brewing and winemaking standards have never been better. You don’t have to go back that far in the history of drinks to find stories of adulterated spirits, wines made with anti-freeze or the like. Good booze, all the time, is a new phenomenon.
(That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen at all, as the news reports that pop up every couple of years about methanol-laced arak in Bali suggest).
Ultimately, bad booze is a lie. Like the boogie man or Santa Claus, bad booze isn’t real.
We live in an era now where even inexpensive wine is well made (and palatable), where clever production techniques and spotless distilleries blur the differences between good and bad.
Without knowing it, it’s a world where our beverages are safer and likely better than in the past. So, yes, some stuff tastes great. Some taste less great. But If you think that there is a thing called bad booze, you’re drinking it wrong.
I’d wager you’re drinking with bad people. People, unlike booze, can be rather bad: boring, snobbish, dull, malicious — hell, they can be more toxic than what is poured from the bar in a Bali nightclub at 5 am.
The thing that matters here is context. Who you’re with, where you are, what you had for breakfast — all these things influence what you’re tasting from any bottle of booze. Ever been to a distillery and tasted something incredible, bought a bottle, and then brought it back home only to find it doesn’t taste quite the same? That’s because you’re not in the distillery with the distiller and your mates. You’re at home, alone, drinking another expensive whisky you don’t need.
You probably can’t even tell if that whisky is a single malt or a blend, by the way — whether you’re a novice whisky drinker or a seasoned pro. A 2017 study in the journal Flavour wanted to know whether punters could taste the difference between blended whisky and single malt whisky and showed that “the firmly established making and marketing distinction between blends and single malts corresponds to no broad perceptually salient difference for whisky tasters, whether experts or novices.”
So whisky tastes like whisky, and booze is just booze.
This is why spirit companies spend so much money convincing you that their stuff tastes good. Remember that $25,000 one distiller spent on entering spirit competitions each year? That narrowing of quality means that you just have to enter enough competitions and at some point, you’re bound to strike label-worthy gold.
It’s why they employ brand ambassadors, too. Big spirit brands know that what's inside the bottle is a good start, but when you send out a suited-up bartender to talk with and buy drinks for other bartenders, and you’ll see an uplift in volume in 9-litre cases.
We all want to be with the in-crowd, even those of us who profess we don’t. Booze marketing doesn’t work on you, you say? You’re just joining the marketing-sceptic club, my friend.
And marketers know that the best advertising that money can’t buy (I mean, it can and does, but hey) is word of mouth. Don’t believe me? Perhaps you like Fernet-Branca, but do you actually like the taste? There’s a distinction between the two.
I’ve drunk as much Fernet-Branca in my time as any bartender who owns shirt stays and arm garters, and I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the taste of all of them. But count me as a Fernet fan, and that’s probably because when I was bartending, it was the bartender’s handshake. Call it peer pressure, whatever, but I wanted to be in the club.
This leads me to one inescapable conclusion: there is no such thing as bad booze, but great marketing makes booze taste better.
Think about it. Think about pictures of Scottish distilleries. Islay. You can taste it. Be honest with yourself - can you avoid the visuals and miss the emotional hold?
For all of us who fall into this trap, I offer you a quote from Dylan Moran, “You’re not really an adult at all. You’re just a tall child holding a beer, having a conversation you don’t understand.”
Pour me another Fernet, would you?