Last night I hosted a dinner with whisky pairings at the Draeger's Cooking School along with my co-worker Melissa Smith who did all the cooking. It was a fantastic evening and the people who came were very interested in both the cuisine and the booze. While Melissa cooked, I educated about whisky. When we sat down to eat each course, Melissa revealed her techniques in the kitchen. It was a back and forth cooking class and whisky seminar that seemed to work really well. This is the type of experience that excites people about alcohol. It seems like there is an endless array of information to be learned and of flavors to be analysed. There is something romantic about this research into what makes each spirit unique, and what makes it taste so good with a meal. Besides the idea of booze, there is the practicality of fun involved and having a solid background of understanding only enhances the fun even further. I think one reason some people geek out about alcohol is grounded in the extension of a good time - intoxication with information is doubly rewarding.
In my opinion this is the most enjoyable and honest form that an interest in booze can take. It does manifest itself in other guises, however. There is also the enthusiast who has little time for education and wants someone else to do that work for him - i.e. Wine Spectator or Robert Parker. There is too much wine available and not enough time to try them all, so some people turn to lists, rankings, and points to help guide them towards the sure thing. I want to stress before I go any further that I am so passionate about this issue because I too used to rely on these publications for my wine and spirits education. I thought learning about wine meant drinking what other people said was good because how would I figure it out on my own? Let me stress that when I speak of this particular form of interest, I speak from my own personal experience (which I revealed a bit in the last entry) and not as an elitist trying to point out what constitutes a "real" afficionado.
Using the Chronicle's top wine selections, or Jim Murray's Whisky Bible is a good way to try something new that you wouldn't normally have selected. Expert opinion is always interesting to read and even more fun to disagree with. Commentary always brings more perspective to any passion, but I have found that it is often misinterpreted as a guide or system to a better appreciation of booze. It isn't. When I started to get interested in wine, I decided I should read a bit about what was happening in the industry and I turned to the Wine Spectator for some guidance. What eventually happened was that I would look at the ratings in the back, found the best scores with the lowest prices, and then scoured the interest looking to see which stores carried them. Every month I drank what they thought was quality wine, and I formed my opinions based completely on the reviewer's notes. "This wine got 90 points from the Spectator," I would tell my mom when we got together and she would say, "Oh wow!" and I would smile and feel happy because I knew she was impressed. The pride I felt however was based on no real knowledge of my own, only my ability to hunt down the trophies of the month and show them off to people I knew. That is embarrassing, don't you think?
Because so many people engage in this form of alcoholic interest, it has taken a completely legitimate form. I have heard of people having parties where everyone brings a wine that got 90 points from Parker. While I admit it can be a fun way to bring people together behind a theme, it doesn't really constitute an interest in wine or spirits, or does it? If we only are interested in drinking the "best" then are we really interested in what's in the glass? It seems to me like chasing points and highly-rated products reveals more of an interest in one's self - and I say that in full admittance of having done so. It's only because I've known that form of interest that I feel I can speak so candidly about it.
Over the past few weeks I've received close to fifty phone calls regarding either the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection or the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons, all of which are among the most highly regarded whiskies available. They are released every Fall and will be making their way to our stores shortly. I know however that, while these are quality spirits, most of this interest is generated by trophy hunting. Because these bottles are hard to get, it makes them even more desirable. Many people hoard them, buying two or three of each if they can just to be able to look at them and know they are in their possession. I too have found myself in awe of these bottles, and understand this desire. As much as I like these whiskies, I don't consider my interest in buying them to be founded in my passion for whiskey. These bottlings tap into my desire to own something collectable and to buy for the sake of buying because I may not have the opportunity later. They create a sensationalistic frenzy with no one wanting to be left out in the cold. "You have to get one!" people tell their friends, so in the end they do and it makes them feel good. This isn't an interest in booze, is it?
I may have to do a third round before I get this all out of my system. More later.