About 3 years ago I set out to develop a taste for, and a competence in making, high-quality traditional cocktails like the martini, an adventure that I wrote about on this blog. It just occurred to me, as I mixed up a Manhattan perfectly to my taste in a natural and organic flourish of motions, that it’s been long enough that I ought take stock.
I grew up without much of an awareness of liquor. Of my two parents, one grew up Jewish in a functionally alcohol-free home, and the other grew up with two alcoholic parents. So although there was good wine around for special occasions, and cheap wine around for routine ones, and my parents had a wet bar they were proud of, nobody drank very much in our house when I was a child. Despite the wet bar, my parents weren’t really entertainers, and their friends who were didn’t do much educating as far as I was concerned.
So I went away to college without knowing much about liquor (without having really been drunk, in fact), and came back not knowing much more. My college friends weren’t big drinkers, and when they were, it was beer.
I learned a bit about wine in my early 20s (as one does), but it was while working with people in their early 20s, a generation later, that it really became clear how much cultural knowledge I was missing. I’d learned what a gin & tonic tastes like, and I could tell good gin or whiskey from the cheap stuff, but on the whole I didn’t have much of a taste for liquor even into my 40s.
So it was intimidating to me to work alongside younger people who not only claimed to have, but appeared to actually have, a nuanced appreciation of the difference between a good rye and a great one, and the ability to mix up complex cocktails out of a short list of basic ingredients. They were fortunate to grow up in a youth microculture that privileged artisanality and authenticity, but to be fair, every youth microculture thinks it does that—the one I lived through just applied it to different things.
In about 2010 I decided to fill the gap in my knowledge, and (to put it bluntly) started paying attention. I bought things and tasted them, and paid attention to what they tasted like. I read a lot about liquor and cocktail culture, both in the culinary (bibulary?) and the cultural-historical modes. I drank a lot, or a lot for me. I figured out what I liked (ryes, bourbons, whiskeys) and what I didn’t like (vodka, which gets you drunk with no point; sticky cordials and liqueurs).
In the course of all that, I developed a feel for what goes together and how to mix it, analogous to the food skill I have in the kitchen. (Walk me into any kitchen with a cross-section of ingredients and some wildcards, even leftovers, and I can make you a meal that isn’t disappointing.)
So now when I come home, I mix up a Manhattan—up if I’m feeling classy, or stirred over ice if I don’t feel like taking the trouble of getting out the shaker. I’ve tasted a dozen gins and a dozen ryes and bourbons, and know the difference. And, most importantly (I think), I don’t feel outclassed by anyone.
The real lesson here is that, in areas of human endeavor that have tens or hundreds or millions of participants, theres no such thing as knowledge or experience that’s closed to you, just knowledge or experience that you haven’t yet taken the trouble and the time to acquire. Obviously there are people who know more than I do (that’s great, otherwise who would I learn from?), but that’s not the point; I’ve gone from incompetent to competent just by putting in the time.