Tastemakers

Does atmosphere affect our appreciation of a drink?

The Burning Question crew gathered recently at Sevy's Grill in the middle of a workday for a...um...dental appointment. During our sojourn, bartender James Pintello mentioned something about atmosphere affecting the taste of a drink. "I'd order cognac if I was sitting in a library, with a leather chair and a fireplace"--his words, and clearly he attended a much more accommodating university than most of us.

But his comments piqued our interest. Could we indeed order a cognac while scrunched on a vinyl seat in SMU's library? Will we ever be allowed back? More important, does atmosphere truly affect the enjoyment of a particular drink?

We're all familiar with the interaction of location and moment and appreciation. We know, for example, that a hot dog at the ballpark tastes better than one microwaved at home. Turkey legs and sausage-on-a-stick appeal to us only at fairs and other schlocky family events. And we associate alcohol in the same manner. Cognac is a spirit for contemplation, sincere conversation, mellow cigars. To sit with a cognac at a crowded sports bar or cheesy chain restaurant may indeed hamper the taste. Port almost demands a prim, old-world atmosphere. Champagne is more versatile but generally fares best in intimate moments or festive occasions. Sake blends perfectly with Japanese dishes but might not stand up to a greasy taco.

"It's the ambience, the mood," say Jack and Beth, a couple biding time before dinner at The Old Warsaw. "A martini here tastes better than at home because there's no ya-ya of children, but a beer at Billy Bob's tastes better than here."

True enough, but the idea must be made to withstand the vicious scrutiny of research--and not your easy library-bound review of printed material, either. No, this week's Burning Question required comparative analysis, thorough examination of evidence and thoughtful consideration of each point and counterpoint.

It also gave us a legitimate excuse to drink--like we needed one.

We tested five liquors, ordering each at a traditional and a nontraditional venue, and invited a knowledgeable third party, Chris O'Hagan, Dallas aficionado of all things alcoholic, along to check our findings. To sample cognac, we visited Razoo's in Irving and Al Biernat's. We sipped port at Champps in Las Colinas and The Old Warsaw. Martini-tasting took us to The Old Monk and Capital Grille. We tried champagne at The Bone and Paris Vendôme. And our sake test involved stops at P.F. Chang's and Steel. We also followed O'Hagan's instructions, cleansing our palates between each test.

Vodka worked well in this regard.

CognacConnoisseurs observe cognac before tasting, tilting the glass to measure the spirit's "tearing," or how well it clings to the glass. Razoo's served Courvoisier VS in sturdy snifters crafted most probably out of glass cut from the Popemobile. Next, connoisseurs release the aromas, analyzing first the vapors of alcohol and then the less volatile layers lurking beneath that first whiff. No matter how deeply we inhaled, we picked up only the strange mixture of fried pickles and cheap perfume. Finally, proper enjoyment of cognac involves sipping for taste, roundness and body. As we sipped patiently on our VS, we watched other patrons maneuver around with fishbowls of Gator Punch, a sweet mixture of six liquors that tastes like--and there's no way to put this delicately--candy ass.

"We don't sell much cognac," admits Danielle Fontenot, Razoo's bartender. "People prefer our specialty drinks." Let's see...the specialty drinks taste vile, and the cognac disappeared into a background of noise, fried food and the occasional mullet sighting.

"The other senses combined have a lot to do with taste," says Danny Versfelt, bartender at Al Biernat's. "The stemware they're using, the noise level; it's the total experience."

PortA good port is complex in character, and connoisseurs decipher rather than merely drink. It also helps to know the language (do you want ruby, an inexpensive blend of recent harvests, tawny, aged tawny, white, late bottled vintage, vintage or any of the other varieties?) and the best harvest years.

We sat down at Champps, a spot with the greatest number of possible distractions outside of Dave & Buster's. We eased through a glass of port amid a confusing blur of music, TV screens, babes, golf shirts, stainless steel and O'Hagan's "girl in every port" jokes. Next we settled in at The Old Warsaw's dim, contemplative bar. "Port is something special," confirms bartender Rigo Cardoso, suggesting that it, rather than SportsCenter or the blonde across the room, should be the focus of our activities. In other words, sensory overload at Champps heightens the appreciation of beer or tequila shots, but crushes a port.

Oh. The Old Warsaw served a vintage port, 1994, and Champps poured a plain old ruby. Perhaps this influenced our enjoyment as well.

MartiniA typical English or Irish pub surrounds patrons with wood, stained deep and dark by years of Guinness dripping down glasses and accumulating in puddles on the bar. These are places at once comfortable and boisterous, where acquaintances greet with a slap on the back. These are places, explains Mike Fortune, bartender at The Old Monk, "more conducive to beers and ales." Naturally, we picked his bar to try the bourgeois martini.

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