A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to take the exam for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 2 Award in Spirits. The exam followed a two-day intensive class that involved a pretty significant amount of hooch-geekery.
We studied the methods of production for different types of booze. We fretted over things like the subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) differences between armagnac and cognac. We strained our olfactory organs trying to smell past oakiness to the spirits themselves. We nodded in agreement when one of our classmates characterized a certain mass market Tennessee whisky as tasting of “poor decisions with notes of regret.” We chewed booze and we spit. [In full disclosure, I did not spit everything – some was too good to spit.] We used words like rancio, brandy de jerez and treacle.
It was glorious.
Now, as I anxiously await the results of my exam, I find myself reflecting on a few insoluble questions related to what I learned. These are the sort of things that keep me awake at night.
Consider, for example, Cognac. Cognac is a particular kind of French brandy which comes from the Cognac region in France. If it isn’t from that region, you can’t call it Cognac – even if you make it using the exact same process with the same raw materials. So my question is, would it taste just as good if the Cognac region were called something else? Can you picture yourself settling into a nice overstuffed chair in front of a roaring fire with a snifter of Anus? Seriously, Anus is a small village about 275 miles from Cognac. See what a difference a name makes?
Secondly, do they still use analogies in the SAT? And if they do, have they yet tested students using the obvious analogy that Cognac : Armagnac :: Tequila : Mezcal? If not, they should seriously consider using it. Then again, maybe that isn’t such a good idea with high school students.
And another thing – why is it that vodka has to be distilled to 96% ABV in Europe, but only 95% ABV here in the states? Are our tastebuds so much less sophisticated that we can’t tell the difference? And if vodka is required by the TTB’s standards of identity to be “without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color”- then why could I taste the difference between the four different kinds I
had the chance to was required to sample all before 9:00 a.m. on a Tuesday?
Here’s a stumper – how do I know that when you say you taste butterscotch, and I think I’m tasting butterscotch, we’re actually commenting on the same taste? Isn’t there some kind of Wittgenstein-ian Beetle in a Box problem there? And if we can’t know that we agree on what butterscotch actually tastes like, how then do we know whether the thing we’re tasting is any good? Did we just fall into some sort of epistemological crevasse, or is possible that I just had too much rum?
Lastly, why is it that even after twenty-one years of formal education – with exams throughout the process, and passing the bar in multiple states – a fellow can still get anxious about getting a good grade on an exam related to booze?
Man, I hope those test results come back soon.