Whether you realise you're doing it or not, we can all get a bit precious about what we drink; whether it's justifying the choice a pricey dram from the top shelf, or defending our right to choose the generic tap beer over an imported one.
I recently overheard a self-confessed 'connoisseur' deride one of his colleagues for ordering a common blended whisky instead of a more robust single malt. He summed up his argument thus: "Some of us have acquired a sense of taste, some obviously haven't."
Setting aside the sheer arrogance of his comment, it got me thinking: how do you actually acquire "a sense of taste" in the drinks you choose? Which selections indicate good taste? Is it even possible to say that some people exhibit a better sense of taste than others?
Our physical sense of taste is unique in the world of aesthetics and appreciation. It's not like appraising or purchasing a watch or a car, a piece of art or the perfect suit; you can't simply hang it up on a wall, wear it or drive it around. It's something you take into yourself and react to in an individual and visceral way. As such, if someone remarks we have poor taste when it comes to what we drink, it's hard not to take it personally.
It's the real thing
Whether you like it or not, you're sending off signals when you choose a particular drink. Not only can the type of beverage we choose condemn or endear us to peers or colleagues, but it can also be a minefield to navigate through the sea of brands out there.
Marketers have a field day with this, creating powerful, playful and attractive content that targets our uncertainty around which drinks might represent an enlightened palate. One of the main reasons this is so successful is because so many of us are unsure which beverages and brands give us real or imagined cachet.
Why? Because taste, in a drinking sense, is very subjective. One so-called connoisseur's manna from heaven might be dish water to another. , but when in a bar or restaurant it's always best to get an understanding of what the establishment does well. Ask them what their focus is, and if there's a unique product that best displays it.
Throw-away lines about an industry, beverage or brand will almost always bring you unstuck. The chap I mentioned earlier might indeed prefer the variety of flavours that single malts offer. But a greater understanding of the Scottish whisky industry reveals that single malts exist to supply the enormous demand and popularity created by blends such as Johnnie Walker, Ballantine's and Chivas Regal. Both styles are designed for different purposes. Without blends, many of our favourite single malts wouldn't survive.
So unless you actually are very knowledgeable, ask questions and avoid statements. A curious mind is always better received than a didactic one.
Who decides which drinks represent a cultivated palate? Producers? Marketers? Or do we trust the writer or critic who dedicates their time and energy to determining the best from the rest?
It is often lamented that the preferences of influential critics such as Robert Parker (wine) and Jim Murray (whisky) can influence our collective palate to the detriment of a variety of unique and interesting products.
The important thing to remember is that every palate is unique, and that also applies to the critics. Some good advice I've received is to find critics with similar likes and dislikes to your own and use them as a tentative guide.
What if you simply can't come at the drinks everyone says you should? The straight spirit sipped with ease; the bitter, dry aperitif meant to stimulate the palate? We've all encountered a drink we loathe at first, and some of us will never enjoy the taste of particular alcohols, or even alcohol in general, for a variety of personal and even physiological reasons.
I use to have a rough time enjoying the herbal bitterness of Campari, an Italian aperitif. But I persevered, and came to enjoy its refreshing, citrusy bite either neat or mixed. To acquire a liking for a particular food or alcohol, you often have to revisit it many times. But why persist with something you initially find repellent?
A hard-earned thirst
Taste is something you have to work for. It's not something you can easily click on or purchase. It should develop as you do, by the evidence of your own senses, rather than on the hearsay of a marketing department.
But why, you might ask, should we even bother? Because it's rewarding to do so. Just like eating challenging foods, you get to discover intricacies of flavour that represent and connect you with people and places from all over the world. And, perhaps more importantly, it's fun.
Interacting with new and different flavours is a creative, liberating experience. Australia has emerged into a more curious and experimental age. It's time to get amongst it. It would be in poor taste not to.
Have you acquired a taste over time for a drink that didn't grab you at first?