This is part 12 of a series on Mixology Basics.
Thank you for reading all of this. I hope it wasn’t too long, and I hope that it helps you. It is a work in progress and I am sure I will be covertly updating it for many months to come. As mastery goes, mastery of mixology is relatively easy to acquire, and it is a fun journey to take.
Now, having laid some really actionable knowledge on you, I’m going to wax philosophical. That’s my prerogative.
1st Meditation on Connoisseurship: The Secret Ingredient is the Narrative
In any connoisseurship, be it coffee, whiskey, wine, chocolate, cheese, or cocktails, the greatest part of our enjoyment comes, not from the thing itself, but from the story that surrounds it.
I have consumed many fine things from all of these categories, and while the low quality stuff is indisputably bad, the quality to price difference among middle and high tiers scales logarithmically; which is a fancy way of saying that large increases in cost and rarity correspond to ever smaller increases in quality.
In many cases “better and worse” come down to your mood, and the people you are with. Good coffee is good, good wine is good, but great coffee and great wine are mostly so because of the company you keep and the stories they tell.
If you want your guests or customers to truly enjoy your creations, you must tell them a story; you do this through the drama of the preparation, the setting in which you serve your drinks, and the lore that surrounds the ingredients, processes, and history of the drink.
This is the reason that cocktail history is a popular subject among booze nerds, and the reason that wineries brand themselves with history and tradition and stories about their grapes and their founders. Wine connoisseurs don’t drink wine, they drink stories. It is thus with any gourmandise.
2nd Meditation on Connoisseurship: Signaling Games
A trend I have noticed among enthusiasts of fine spirits is that the more deeply entrenched within in the hobby they become, the more strongly they cleave to most extreme offerings from within their milieu. Beer drinkers crave the bitterest IPAs, scotch drinkers the smokiest, savoriest islay malts, cheese aficionados the most pungent of fermented curds.
I think this happens for two reasons. The first is to win a signaling game, wherein the products that are off-putting to newbies demonstrate the credentials of the connoisseur to his fellows. Of course, one of the hallmarks of a signaling game is that you are acting sincerely, and you do not realize you are playing it.
As your circle of enthusiasts increasingly gravitates to more challenging ventures, you try to keep up with them and to one-up them; my beer is more strongly hopped, the cheese I enjoy has a fouler aroma than yours, the wine I pour is rarer and dryer and yet more tannic. I am not a beginner to this hobby, I can enjoy these off-putting things.
This is why gourmet restaurants and foodies are locked in an endlessly escalating spiral wherein chefs try to serve unfamiliar ingredients and techniques and foodies compete to be the first person to say, “been there, done that”.
Third Meditation on Connoisseurship: Rising to the Challenge
And yet there is a second, more wholesome reason for these spirals, and that is: everyone likes a challenge. If people take their first tentative steps into a hobby out of a desire to fit in with friends or to signal their high status, they surely stay, at least in part, for the element of challenge.
When you first try a bitter spirit, you may have a mixed reaction. There is something pleasant mixed with something abrasive, and that abrasion is intriguing. But once you become accustomed to it, you end up chasing that sensation, and a drink that once challenged you becomes mundane. In this way do our preferences creep.
On Naming Drinks
I am making space for this note only because it endlessly annoys me when amateurs mix up a mundane variation on a Tom Collins ora Manhattan and then post on cocktail forums asking for help “naming their new drink”. To be honest I wouldn’t name any of my drinks if it weren’t for the necessity to present them to the internet.
No one cares what you call your whiskey sour with lime instead of lemon juice. No one cares what you call your old fashioned that you made with a spiced liqueur and two (scandal!) dashes of boutique bitters. If your drink is a subtle tweak of a classic, it doesn’t deserve a name.
The Joy of Mixology
As a counterpoint to the above, the joy of mixology is the joy, not merely of connoisseurship, but of creativity. Most spirit enthusiasts can only enjoy their hobby by playing the role of explorer. This is not to discount the pleasure of discovery, but to contrast it to the yet more sublime pleasure of creation.