Saturday, 4 May 2013

Becoming a bit of a snob, am I?

When I started writing this blog I think my mission statement was to focus on the enjoyment of alcoholic drinks with none of the elitist snobbery that enjoying fine alcohol seems to bring. I’ve noticed though over the last few months, that my tastes and preferences are changing, and I’ve started to wonder; am I becoming a booze snob? Is booze snobbery just a matter of having accrued more knowledge and experience? Is it even anything to be ashamed of?

If the answers to the first two questions are yes and yes, then the answer to the third question must be… no. And that must mean that people who perceive others as booze snobs are just ignorant of the knowledge and experience others possess, and perhaps even slightly jealous of it. Oh christ; I’m totally a booze snob. But hang on a minute!

Let’s start in the same way I started every single essay I ever wrote and every exam question I ever answered at GCSE and A level – by defining the terms. It would normally go a little something like this:

How far it could be said that I am becoming a booze snob very much depends on how one would define the term booze snob. In order to do that, one must first determine the meaning of the word snob.

Let’s return to the present day now, and make a start with Wikipedia:

A snob believes that some people are inherently inferior to him or her for any one of a variety of reasons, including real or supposed intellectwealth,educationancestryclasstastebeautynationality, et cetera. Often the form of snobbery reflects the snob's personal attributes. For example, a common snobbery of the affluent is the belief that wealth is either the cause or result of superiority, or both.

So a booze snob could be someone who thinks he is superior to someone else because of what he drinks or how he drinks it, and that this is important. Now, I wouldn’t say I’m inherently superior to anyone in any way (that doesn’t mean I like everyone), though you could say my earlier assertion about accruing knowledge and experience falls under the category of ‘real or supposed intellect …[or] education’. Nevertheless, just because I’ve learned one or two things that some other people may not have, it doesn’t mean a thing. I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to know in any case, and if you haven’t learnt it already, it is still there to be learned – if you’re interested.

And I don’t think my alcohol preferences mean anything in particular. They’re just what I like. So what am I getting at? What has caused me to start asking these questions? I mean, does it really exist? Do people really sneer at people that drink (and profess to enjoy) Bells and Teachers? You shouldn’t really, because their booze budget is going to be a fraction of yours, and since they know what they like, they probably enjoy their drinks more than you enjoy some of yours. Do people laugh at you for taking your Laphroaig with ice? Do they look down on you because you don’t add water to your scotch? How would they react if you offered your guests a blended scotch at your special dinner party?

There are it seems, people who drink single malt scotch and consider blends to be substandard, though I have to say I’ve noticed a trend away from this kind of thinking of late. That could just be that I’m meeting the right people and reading the right blogs and books… but I would go so far as the say the blend is making a comeback – not that there haven’t been expensive, premium blends available all along, but when you first start getting into whisky, and you want to sound knowledgeable, you profess to like single malt. Later though, you learn that there are blends that are more expensive than any single malt you’re ever going to buy – unless you are a serious collector.

Where do I stand on any of these issues? Well, in terms of Bells and Teachers, I wouldn’t tend to buy either, unless I really wanted a whisky, and they were the only options available – like on a budget airline flight, or in a working men’s club -  but that’s just because I don’t particularly like them. But yeah, I also don’t think they’re particularly good. That’s purely personal opinion though.

My own personal feeling on blends in general is that they are a genre of whisky that is there to be explored, and I’m not done exploring it yet. I do consider some to be bad, but I’ve also experienced bad single malt. Since getting hold of a copy of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible however, and seeing the respect he gives the humble blend, I’m more inclined to withhold judgement until I know what I’m talking about. I suppose I probably prefer a nice single malt, but I always keep a blend in stock, and maybe one of these days I should make that blend that’s in stock a Bells or Teachers, and see what I think of them now. They were always the brands that old people drank (I inherited one when my grandma passed away), or that you drink as a teenager when you want to get pissed quick, so maybe they would benefit from the proper tasting procedure… Probably one of these days, I’ll find a blend that I absolutely love, however much it costs.

When it comes to ice, well I used to drink all my whisky with ice, and to give it its due, that was instrumental in getting me into whisky in the first place. I suppose for a couple of years I bought a bottle of whisky only occasionally and when I could afford it – rather than making sure I could afford it – and most frequently that bottle was Aldi’s Highland Black 8 year old blended scotch. It’s perfectly nice with ice, but I haven’t tried it since (another future post, I think).

As a result, I probably started telling people I liked whisky, and then I think my sister started buying me a bottle for Christmas. First it was a set of miniatures from M&S, then a Laphroaig, a Tallisker, a Balvenie… and I kept on drinking them with ice until I started enjoying them so much that I realised it was a shame that the flavour had to diminish as the ice melted and diluted the spirit. I didn’t know then that the temperature also masks some of the flavours in the whisky.

So for a while I tried tasting whiskies neat before adding ice, but I found making the decision too difficult, and eventually just started taking everything neat. And here we are, present day booze geek. I’ve even got a spreadsheet, though it’s only for assisting with the blog…

So how do I feel about other people taking ice? Well, how can I look down on it, when that’s where I came from? I might be a bit annoyed if I offered you a glass of my best, most expensive scotch and you asked for ice with it – I’d probably say you’d be better off having something cheaper – but if it’s your whisky, it’s your choice, and you can do what you want.

I suppose that is a bit snobby:

Me: Ere’y’are, try some of the good stuff.
You: Have you got any ice?
Me: Hang on. Maybe this would be more suited to your tastes [putting the good stuff back in the cupboard.] Actually I haven’t got a cheap enough blend at the moment. Here’s some Bacardi.

It might sound like I’m being a snob there, but really, there would be no point in you trying that special spirit with ice because you wouldn’t taste what it is that makes it so special, so you may as well just not.

Which brings me to adding water. I’m always telling everyone that I don’t add water to my whisky (unless it’s cask strength – and even then, sometimes not), because to this day I’ve never added water to a normal strength whisky, and not felt that it has made it worse, and therefore been a waste of all that good whisky. I don’t mind obviously, if people do take it with water, and maybe one day I will too. I keep trying, but no. Actually, I find this whole water thing a bit annoying. If it wasn’t for the Scotch Whisky Association, you distilleries could decide how much water ‘opens up’ the whisky to its optimum level, and just add it during the bottling process. In some cases it might bring the alcohol down to below the minimum 40% level, but I think I would prefer that, because the decision would be taken out of my hands, and I wouldn’t always have to wonder whether I should add water, and whether I’ve added the right amount, and then discover I’ve ruined a glass I was enjoying by adding it at all.

Let’s think about another example. It’s generally thought that this (see left) is a whisky glass. I believe it’s also known as a ‘rocks glass’. It doesn’t take much to learn though, that that isn’t considered to be the right glass for drinking whisky at all (unless perhaps you do want to drink it ‘on the rocks’).


This (see right) is supposedly the right one, the Glencairn whisky glass. It is a completely different shape, and is fashioned so in order to help concentrate the aroma of the whisky and facilitate ‘nosing’ – which is something you might expect a snob to do. You don’t have to drink it from this glass – they can be quite difficult to come by – but if you want to get a similar (but not identical) effect, you can use a brandy glass or a small wine glass.

I mention this because in this last year I changed the type of glass that I drink my whisky out of, and I would contend that I enjoyed my whisky more out of the new kind of glass than I did from the other type. In fact, at a wedding in the summer I ordered a Laphroaig, and was a little too bashful to ask for it in a specific glass, so as a result it came in a small straight glass – like you might expect to receive with a J2O. I didn’t enjoy it.

I don’t really know if the glass was the real reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I expected to, but I do like Laphroaig very much, and I was disappointed. Consequently, whenever I’ve ordered a whisky since, I’ve been specific about the glass I want it in.

The thing is – and this is where I start feeling like a snob – why don’t pubs provide a more suitable glass than a rocks glass for drinking whisky? The problem I think, is that people don’t know about it, so not enough of them are asking for their whiskies in suitable glasses. Quite a few of my friends have a passing interest in whisky, and they aren’t aware there is a more suitable glass. But why don’t they know about it? I’ll tell you now, there are certain of my friends who will look at me like I’ve gone mad when I try to foist a glencairn glass on them. Fo’ sho.

If I ask for my whisky in a different glass in front of people, they think I’m being awkward. The server doesn’t mind, but sometimes I feel like people think you should accept something rather than ask for it the way you want it. I would contend that, if I’m paying bar prices, I want to make sure I have the best chance of enjoying it. I’m already paying more for it than I would if I was at home, so am I supposed to enjoy it less, too? But, if you want your whisky in a rocks glass, that’s absolutely fine by me.

I’m going to tangentalise a little, here. See, I like cheeseburgers, but when I have one in a restaurant I like to have the cheese on the side, and then put it on the burger myself. I’ve written about this before and deleted it but no, I’m going for it this time. Where was I? Yes, my feeling is that it is pointless having cheese on a burger if you’re going to melt it on the grill, but that seems to be the accepted method. I can see why it’s the accepted method; cheese melts, put it on the burger while it’s still on the grill, so it melts onto it. I contend though, that you can’t really taste the cheese on your burger unless it’s unmelted. I don’t know why it is, but I have proven it to be fact to myself several times – I wouldn’t make it up, because really, it’s almost more trouble than it’s worth. Now at least, one or two people are starting to agree with me… including the missus, and I think it pained her slightly to admit it, bless her.

The problem is that it is so difficult to get a restaurant or burger place to serve my burger the way I want it, that it makes me think about not having a burger at all, when I really want a burger. And don’t even get me started on the availability of mustard…

I started with asking if they could ‘not put the cheese on the burger while it is on the grill, so that it won’t be melted’, but that was far too complicated. Sometimes I just don’t know how to simplify things. Then someone suggested asking for the cheese on the side, which is fair enough. Pretty simple, right? Well… not entirely. You’d be surprised by how often it still goes wrong, and how it still goes wrong, and frankly how rarely it goes right.

There was one occasion where I ordered a deluxe cheeseburger. My friend actually went to the bar to order it, but I’d given him explicit instructions, and explained them, and he understood. I could see though that the barmaid didn’t understand and my friend was just shrugging, so I went over. Now, you have to understand the deluxe cheeseburger is so called because there are four types of cheese on it. Four. So lots of cheese. The barmaid asks me, “do you not want the cheese?”

Are you fucking kidding me? I’m not mental! Would I order the burger that had the most cheese on it if I didn’t want the fucking cheese? No, I just want the cheese on the side!

The last time I ordered a burger, it was one that came with mature cheddar, but you could also have stilton as an extra. I decided to give it a go, and asked if I could have a burger with the extra cheese and bacon, but could I have the cheese on the side? The waiter asked if I wanted the stilton on the side. Does it come with the mature cheddar, too? Yes. Then I want both on the side.

Now, I can understand the waiter’s confusion, but why would I want one cheese on the burger and one on the side?

On other occasions, after explaining what I want and why, the burger comes without any cheese at all. I can understand that the “chef” has a routine, and that by having to remember not to put cheese on during the grilling, he might forget to put it on the side, but when you’ve had to explain what you want and why, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to at least get some cheese with your burger.
Sorry, I’m getting carried away. My point is, if you’re paying restaurant/bar prices for things, you should be able to ask for them how you want them without everyone thinking you’re being weird or awkward – unless you are! Christ, I think my requests are at least reasonable. I’m not asking that my burger be blessed by frickin’ Bono., or my whisky be served in a slipper.

One of my friends loves burgers, but he’s intolerant to wheat, and he still orders burgers - in fact, he still goes to McDonalds. I’ve seen him order burgers without the bun, and the waitress looks at him like he’s offered to bath her children. He doesn’t bother in McDonalds, to be fair. He just takes the bun off himself – it’s quicker that way. It’s funny, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

So; is liking something a certain way a sign of snobbery? No, as long as you don’t look down on people for liking it a different way, or for liking something different. I don’t care what you like or how you like it, it’s just interesting to me. I don’t mind if you want to drink your whisky with coke, just don’t drink my best whisky with coke. I keep a cheap bottle for things like that. Having said that, I do recoil a little whenever I hear anyone on the telly order a ‘scotch rocks’.

So when my bother-in-law came to stay in advance of the wedding, and kept drying our dishes, I wasn’t being snobby when I asked if she would not dry the glasses I drink whisky out of. Drying them with a cloth makes them smell, and I could tell as soon as I held the glass under my nose that it had been dried with a cloth (I did ask nicely).

The first time I had to pour it into a glass that hadn’t been used for a while, and therefore not washed and then dried, because I do nose my whisky these days. I’ve started looking like a right tit, and I don’t really know why. I think I was trying to detect all those things that seasoned whisky reviewers can smell, and it just caught on – I still couldn’t smell those things until I got a glencairn glass.

I like the smell of whisky, but for some reason I’ve taken to trying to extract every last piece of enjoyment I can possibly get from every glass – almost like it’s the last glass I’ll ever have, like there’s been a zombie apocalypse, and I’ve found a drop of whisky left in a bottle in an abandoned house, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. And conversely, the more whiskies I try, and the better the whiskies I try, the less able I am sometimes to generally enjoy whisky as a whole.

In the old days, I could be drinking a cheap whisky, and just enjoy the fact that I was drinking whisky. “Here I am, drinking whisky”, I would almost be thinking to myself. There was no need to know anything about it, no particular need for it to be any good. By contrast, now I’m aware that this one perhaps isn’t as good as that other one, and I might be sitting there drinking it, knowing I’m not particularly enjoying it and actually asking myself: do I actually like whisky?’ or thinking, ‘’I would have expected to be enjoying this more, given how much it costs…”

It’s fricking crazy. But it’s like anything you get interested in, I suppose. You might like music, and get right into it, and devour music like crazy, but once you’ve had the first few amazing experiences, those experiences become less frequent, and it’s all because you’re consuming more, and consequently the proportion of what you consume that is great is exponentially smaller than when you were consuming less, and it starts to make you think that there isn’t that much great music about, and maybe music isn’t so great after all, but you have to consume even more to get to the great stuff. Or maybe it’s just me. In case you can’t tell, I’m a bit of an obsessive. I develop an interest in something, and then I let that interest consume me until I overdose on it and suddenly I’m not interested in it at all anymore, and I have to move on to something else.

And that’s what my interest in booze is like now. I understand it’s not just me though; that’s what guys are like, and I am a guy after all. I was a music snob. For a while I thought the music I liked was superior to the music I didn’t like, and would expend giant swathes of energy trying to convince people that it was. One day though I just realised that people should be allowed to like what they like – even if it’s because Simon Cowell has told them to like it. It almost pains me to say that, but I’m in my mid thirties now, and I’m past caring. Just because you like something doesn’t make it good, just the same as if you don’t like something, it doesn’t make it bad.

So I asked at the beginning whether booze snobbery was anything to be ashamed of, and now I think I can answer. It is - because snobbery is about your attitude to others, not what you enjoy or how you enjoy it, so knowing a little more about booze, and being a bit more particular about booze has nothing to do with it. You can have a preference for a particular style of whisky out of a particular type of glass, and it doesn’t mean you’re a snob.

I think I still approach my subject with a certain wide-eyed wonder. Sure, there’s a little cynicism, but mostly wide-eyed wonder. So I think it’s time to move away from notions of booze snobbery. All these things that I might previously have taken as indicative of someone being a booze snob are actually signs of enthusiasm, a real, deep interest in their chosen field and there’s nothing wrong with it.

I suppose my conclusion was always going to be, “no, I’m not a booze snob”, just as Charles Manson would always conclude, “I am not a murderer” or Jeffrey Archer, “I am a talented writer”. So I suppose all this doesn’t mean anything. Why don’t you just tell me what you think? That might be fun. Is there anything you have to have in a specific way that makes life difficult when you go to restaurants and bars?

Blimey, do you know how long I’ve been working on that? I actually thought I’d never bother posting it, but there it is. Now I can stop thinking about it and move onto something else. Big sigh of relief.

That’s it for this week then. Join me next week, when I’m intending to be a bit less silly, and talk a bit more about glencairn glasses. As for this coming weekend, it’s a bank holiday, so most of Britain will be either jamming up the A roads on the way to the seaside, or going out and getting drunk. I’ll be doing a bit of both with a parental visit on Saturday afternoon, a sausage festival on Saturday night, and a music festival on Sunday. Maybe I’ll see you at one or the other – not the parents, unless you’re Mrs Cake. 

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