The Unbearable Uncertainty

I started reading a book this week that my wife recommended to me called This Close to Happy, a painfully illuminating autobiography about clinical depression and the ways it can rip you apart by author Daphne Merkin. What I found interesting was a section where she remarked that throughout her life people have given her advise about how to deal with her depression; like "get more exercise" or "maybe you should get outside more," as if her condition were that easy to fix. It also speaks to the way people think about depression, as if it's not a disease or a real ailment like alcoholism or addiction. I've found throughout the years of doing my job that there's often a serious misunderstanding in wine and whiskey drinkers about the way the human body works. There's this mindset that we're all the same and can be treated with identical solutions evenly. We all have our own unique chemistry, however, which means we all react differently to various input, such as:

Some people can eat ten doughnuts a day and never gain a pound, while others can exercise for hours, eat nothing but lettuce, and yet struggle to stay thin.

Some people can drink ten beers and be completely sober, while others get flush and overheated after one sip of alcohol.

In the case of depression, some people can find success with anti-depressants and go on to live a happy life, while others struggle with the medications and never reach that equilibrium.

Unfortunately for us humans, there's no one way to treat anything. There's also no one sure-fire way to lose weight, to eat healthy, to exercise, to meditate, to teach your kid, and—in the case of alcohol—to drink. We all have our own chemical make-up that causes us to react to and appreciate flavors differently. I know people who hate chocolate, yet it's considered the best thing in the world by millions. I know people who can't stand pizza, even though there are few things better in my mind. I think most people understand that human beings like different things. Our bodies are made differently even though we're all from the same species. Yet, when it comes to wine and whiskey, things seem to become black and white, cut and dry, right and wrong. For some reason, all of our life experience goes right out the window when we talk seriously about alcohol. We seem to forget that we're different people with different palates.

In a world filled with nothing but grey areas, there's been a clear path towards certainty in the realm of alcohol over the last decade. There's a section of the audience that wants to do away with subjectivity because it frightens and confuses them. If only someone could give them a clear answer as to whether something was good or not, as to whether it was worth their time and money; that would solve everything. I've watched grown men argue at a whisky tasting about whether one Bourbon was better than another, when it was clear they each had their favorite based on their own individual tastes. I've talked with customers in the store who felt miserable inside because they didn't like a wine that "everyone else" said was good. I've even read articles online where the writers used points, letters grades, or other rating systems based on personal taste to assign objective values of rank to both wine and spirits—as if there were only one way of looking at these things. It's like drinking with Sheldon Cooper. 

I've said a hundred times that I hate the line: the best whisky is the one that tastes best to you. I think it needs to read: the best whisky for you is the one that tastes best to you. I believe that quality is an entity that exists whether we're able to recognize it or not, but in no way do I think that it exists in a singular form. There are high quality buttery chardonnays for people who like rich white wines and there are high quality oaky cabernets for people who want big, rich reds. There are also high quality chardonnays that are lean, clean, and mineral-driven, as well as high quality cabernets that are earthy and lighter in body. No matter what you like when it comes to wine, there's probably a high quality version of what you're looking for. I think that analogy applies to most things.

Yet every day in the world I hear comments like:

I tried that diet and it doesn't work.

You mean it didn't work for you.

I tried taking that pill for my headaches and it didn't work.

You mean it didn't work for you.

I tried that whisky and it didn't taste good. 

You mean it didn't taste good to you.

There's an answer for everyone out there ultimately, but it's not necessarily going to be the same one for each of us and there's no guarantee we'll ever find it. That's part of the reason we read books. We either find comfort in the fact that someone else's experience was similar to our own, or we're intrigued by how completely different it was. It's that desire for comfort and the joy of connection that leads serious wine and whisky drinkers to share their passionate opinions with each other. It's a fear of uncertainty, however, and the possibility that perhaps there is no answer that results in absolutism. It's almost like cementing a value to these things denies the existence of doubt, a false light that seems to shine through the greyness.

But the world doesn't work like that. If there's one thing I'm certain about when it comes to humans (and whiskey), it's uncertainty.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll