Liquid Linguistics

How much alcohol language do we need to know?

It's surprising at first.

Bartenders insist that knowledge of particular drinks is of minor significance compared with traits such as personality and consistency when measuring success at their craft. It's akin to universities hiring faculty based on fashion instead of academic reputation, football coaches stepping in front of ESPN mikes shouting, "Hell with his ability, we put him in for his trash-talking skills," or editors urging columnists to forget taste, grammar, relevance...Not a bad idea, when you stop and think about it.

Consigning knowledge to a lower tier contradicts traditional "knowledge is power" notions while confirming more trivial pop-culture aphorisms--things like "image is everything." We simply expect top bartenders to reel off flavor profiles, regional variations and other tidbits when asked about a specific alcohol. They, on the other hand, prefer to skim the surface.

"If you know a few key things, you can wing it," says Jimmy Hall, bar manager at Martini Ranch, echoing a sentiment popular with area bartenders.

Who can blame them? The fundamentals of alcohol become more complicated every year. Old-timers ordered mundane whiskey blends (Dewar's or Canadian Club), downed Jack Daniel's or called for generic tequila shots. Over the past few decades, however, bar patrons faced expansive trends: regional designations, aging, distillation processes and such. Consider the differences, for instance, between single malt scotch and blended scotch. Then select from Highland, Speyside or Islay malts, fermented in sherry casks or Madiera casks or French oak or whatever.

Oh, you could opt for cask strength versions as well.

"It's just like the language of wine," explains Leann Berry, bartender at Ciudad. "There's the region, the varietal, the age--knowing all of it is overwhelming."

Hell, even vodka, once the rough-hewn preference for those bent on a night of hard-core guzzling, succumbed to our newfound sophistication bent. Can't imagine General Zhukov celebrating yet another victory on the Eastern Front by demanding a bottle of triple-distilled, double-filtered French vodka and debating the subtleties of potato or grain or grape or...

Hence this week's Burning Question: Is it really necessary to know the language of alcohol?

"Personally, I don't think it's that critical," says Danny Versfelt of Al Biernat's. "We have to know what everything is in general, which scotch is smoky or peaty. If you're drinking it, you know what it is."

Not always the case, really. Or maybe that's just us.

Indeed, bartenders contend that most regulars learn a modicum about one favorite type of alcohol. Either that or they succumb to brand identification and peer pressure. Tequila aficionados, for example, understand the meaning of "100 percent agave" and recognize the characteristics of an anejo vs. a reposado. Novices to the mind-numbing fuel, however, order according to different parameters. Hang around local bars enough and even the least hip among us (an editor, perhaps) learns which brand carries status.

Vodka and single-malt scotch are perfect examples of the attachment of self-esteem to a brand or a perception of quality. Nothing wrong with single malts, of course. They just spurted to popularity during the '90s as Americans grappled with the perception thing. "A lot of people drink single-malt scotch not because they like it better, but because it's supposed to be better," says Lance Hickam of Lush. Dallas trend-followers place a value on "premium" vodkas--Grey Goose, Belvedere, Voxx, Ciroc--with very little consideration for such mundane things as flavor profiles. "What type of vodka is it?" Hall complains. "Rye? Potato? I've only met one or two people who can tell the difference." Upscale brands, after all, work hard to minimize the characteristics of the 80-proof beast.

"Most customers don't know," Hickam suggests. "Some base it on what the bottle looks like, or on marketing. Most just go with what they always drink."

He's not blaming the patrons, mind you. The time and effort required to learn the variations and traditions of Armagnac, sambuca, genever, vodka, schnapps and so on--well, let's just say there's very little call for that level of immersion. Or, as Kevin Nicholson, bartender at The Grapevine, points out, "You want to be sure it stays a hobby and not a lifestyle."

"I don't know shit about gin," Hickam readily admits.

But how much should a person know? That's when it becomes a bit frustrating.

"You need to know it," says Jose Del Corral of Seven and The Men's Club. Then he backtracks slightly: "Maybe not so much the territories, but the basic categories--single batch, blended." He approaches the question from a business perspective. The bartender provides a service to both the customer and the club by introducing people to a broader array of alcohol. Helps out the DUI lawyers as well. Anyway, he concludes, "The more you know, the better you are."

Our answer to this week's question is to just give it time. Expose yourself to different alcohols...no, we got that backward. Drink different alcohols, then expose yourself--that's how it generally works. Anyway, some of the language and tradition, some of the knowledge, eventually sinks in.

At that point, Hickam says, "You sound like you know what you're talking about."

And that's pretty much everyone's goal, no matter what. Although achieving that goal must take more than four years, from what we've seen. It's the perception of knowledge and confidence that matters, not the full mastery of a subject.

"I've been faking it pretty well for 20 years," Versfelt says.

 
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