I have a theory that’s nowhere near anything original: all things cycle back to where they start from. Specifically, you kick off with a palate for alcohol and zero aspirations for lofty philosophising.
To drink for yourself, you must first question authority and learn to put yourself in a state of open-mindedness and, possibly, chaotic and confused vulnerability.
Unless wine drinkers had the fortune to be born into a winemaking family, chances are that they started with a love for the easy- drinking, uncomplexed stuff. Something fruit-forward, fresh and maybe even a little sweet. Eventually, they find their way to the big, bold reds; perhaps something from South Australia or – as spending power goes up – California and Bordeaux. Soon, they’ll be discussing crus, cults and allocations. They might be here for quite a while as this phase can intoxicate. Some never get out of it.
Spirit drinkers experience a similar journey. It begins with blended whiskies and then light, fruity single malts. The peaty liquids come later in this process and it’s here where some fall into a rabbit hole of peat-posturing. This is where producers and consumers enable each other to create and consume increasingly peated expressions of whisky until the spirit reaches almost masochistic levels of smoky and medicinal characteristics.
Beer geeks have a version of this too with the craft scene going through phases where brewers enter an arms race to introduce progressively bitter Indian Pale Ales or more sour, funky brews. You must like the bold stuff or you are not a true connoisseur. Such is flavour gatekeeping.
Eventually, though, fatigue and boredom will set in. You dial things back. Nuance and discovery become more desirable than just the pleasure or self- aggrandisement of one’s drinking habits. Perhaps it could be time to throw out the ego, the dispositions and the prejudices to approach alcohol with a childlike – as far as the minimum legal age goes – sense of wonder. That’s where things get interesting.
For one, there’s an entire world of wines outside of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Great whisky also exists beyond Japan and Scotland – as do the sublime expressions of spirits within the rum, cognac and even tequila categories. Beyond the established trade routes, negociants and marketing, a wonderful realm of delicious weirdness – from award-winning wines produced with pre-Bronze Age grape varieties like areni noir, to the hyper-modern, vacuum- distilled, and category-defying products of Empirical Spirits – awaits.
You can even flirt with danger. Want to speed-decant a closed-up wine? Author Nathan Myhrvold recommends chucking it into a blender for a quick whirl. The efficacy and results divide opinions, but there is only one way to find out: try it yourself.
For the whisky folks, why not start an infinity bottle? Top up an empty one with the last pour of every opened whisky and keep topping it up as you sample the bottle. It’s a dynamic, living expression of your drinking history and can evolve from the disappointing to the brilliant and back again – just like life itself.