It’s a commonly known pearl of wisdom and, generally speaking, a widely accepted practice that there are three things you never talk about in bars: politics, religion and race. When with friends or even strangers and within earshot of anyone offering alcohol in exchange for money, avoid anything that falls within those broad controversial territories and you’ll decrease your chances of getting into a screaming match. Or worse.
Over the last decade, as my journalism work got me entangled in the drinks industry, I came to learn there was a fourth thing you shouldn’t talk about in bars: the meaning of ‘craft’ in the alcohol business. I’ve seen a few too many people – bartenders, distillers, brand owners, ambassadors, ardent drinkers sporting Bud Light t-shirts (both ironically and not) – get heated about how loosely or strictly that term should be used in spirits. Or beer for that matter. The louder the voices get, the quicker I make an exit.
And as I got even further entangled in the industry, I discovered more and more beliefs that people clutch so tightly that trying to change their mind stirs up anything from dismissal to anger. Several leap off the top of my head – and I’m sure they’re the first to occur to you, too. Should you or shouldn’t you add water to your Scotch and/or Bourbon and/or Japanese whisky, etc. So? Do you, or don’t you? (Them’s fightin’ words.) Should you mix single malt Scotch in a cocktail? And, while we’re at it, let’s not overlook the enduring dispute over the ‘neck pour’ – the notion that the first pour from a whisky bottle is inferior because it’s more oxidised than the rest. (I’ll refrain from expressing my opinion that this is a ludicrous bit of comedy. Oops – did I just type that out loud?)
I recently conducted an experiment on Facebook. I asked people what the most ridiculous myth or inaccuracy was that they had heard about spirits; 98 people chimed in. Yes, of course, there are notions people called out that are actual errors, provably incorrect. For instance, Bourbon must be made in Kentucky. (Wrong! Exhibit A: Federal law.) All spirits are gluten free. (Wrong!) Clear alcohol doesn’t give you a hangover because it’s pure. (Wrong, wrong, wrong!) And there were the wise-ass friends who had to drop snark. (“Grappa tastes good,” said one. “Dry January,” said another.)
A few people brought up the ‘girly vs. manly drink’ absurdity. For the record, my Facebook friends know better than to debate that. My whisky career is very public, after all. But more to the point, I’m only friends with sensible people, thank you very much. Many on the thread are bar professionals, so they were mostly referring to what they’ve heard from guests.
As I expected, in a few instances, what some deemed myth others held as cardinal truth. Some insist on shaken Martinis, while others called that sacrilege. The ‘beer before liquor, never sicker’ adage touched off some debate, as did the matter I brought up above: what makes something a ‘craft’ spirit. (In case you’re wondering, I define ‘craft’ as an indication of quality, not something you can measure in scale or volume. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me how local your whisky is. If it’s not well made – well crafted, if you will – if it’s too young or the cut is off or it’s not bottled at a proof that best showcases the hooch, I can’t be bothered to debate how to classify it. You can find me on Twitter if you’d like to discuss at
I was thinking about this recently, as I’ve started going back to bars. In New York City, I first sat inside in early April, but it was just a friend and me separated by plexiglass from the people beside us. Places open to full capacity mid-May. I’m envisioning pulling up a stool at the mahogany for a few rounds and taking in what I can only imagine will be the disorientating feeling of sharing space with strangers. Maybe I might even talk to one or two of them. And you can bet that I’ll be so grateful to be interacting with people outside of my quarantine bubble that I won’t give their drink preferences a single thought. My wish is that everyone will toss their judgments and petty grievances aside, so we can all drink in unity for ever more. Let’s keep the ‘we’re all in this together’ vibe alive at the bar.