The Whiskey Admiral's Lament

By Paul Cockeram

When it comes to pleasure, tell the whole story. Always speak in superlatives—the finest performance, the brightest note. I had my best drink, for example, a hundred yards down the beach from a most fascinating hole in the ground. This was the coastline of Skye, a Scottish island west of the mainland. It was late spring, and despite a steady breeze off the sea, plenty of warmth was available thanks to a blue knitted hat my wife made and the sunlight splashing gold across the seashells and grasses and whiskey. Its name was painted on the glass: “Talisker,” made on Skye in a distillery I had toured earlier that day. 

    Many servings of Talisker had passed my lips, but none good as this. Having settled into our bed & breakfast for the evening, my wife and I took backpacks and cameras to explore the peaceful cow fields and vistas of little Ashaig—a hamlet with a reputation for tranquility. We stayed close, ambling to a little cemetery near a low-slung stone wall that I imagined might surround an important tomb. Inside that wall, however, was a most fascinating hole lined by rocks, in which rested a pool of fresh water, some wispy ferns. Signs explained that this pool had a history of flints, a Neolithic stone axe going back 10,000 years, a parade of coins—all testimony to the well’s millennia of use.

    The land on which I sipped my spirit had attracted other religious devotions. Christians had carved a limestone cross from a nearby outcrop, then later in 673 AD, a ruddy-faced man with a bald forehead gathered his followers, fashioned a crude coracle out of animal hides stretched over branches, and crossed the sea to Ashaig from Applecross. His name was St. Maelrhubha, missionary to the highlands, and he regularly preached from the same outcropping where I sat on a cushion of grass and moss to enjoy my best drink. 

    Talisker has a very long finish, meaning its flavor lingers on the tongue. This effect can be magnified by carefully following a ritual that I liken to a magic spell: To properly taste a whiskey, one first inhales the aroma gently into each nostril until both sinus cavities are saturated, noting the aroma of flowers or fire. Second, one sips the whiskey, rolling it over and under the tongue, exploring the first explosions of flavor and the second or third waves that follow. Finally, one inhales through the nose, swallows the whiskey, and exhales out the mouth over the tongue, savoring the receding waves of flavor, witnessing the drama’s end. I am on record as exclaiming that if you don’t follow these instructions, the whole experience is bullshit.

    Tasting notes printed on the back of the boxes in which Talisker is sold compare its finish to a Hebridean sunset. I held my whiskey up to the sky against bands of blue and amber and orange, the sun reflecting a fiery arrow in the sea that pointed straight to me, and I pictured St. Maelrhubha’s fists clenched in ecstacy above his head, and I took another sip of the best drink I ever had. 


Not long after that, a group of scientists and economists began to suggest I was crazy. They implied there could be no difference between the Talisker I drank in my Pennsylvania backyard and the Talisker I drank in Ashaig, at the start of a Hebridean sunset that lasted almost until midnight. This war on pleasure did not start on Skye with me, but in the world of wine with its tasting experts. It began with experiments on the accuracy of wine tasters’ palates, experiments that led many different researchers to one alarming conclusion: experts cannot reliably define what makes a wine good, nor determine whether expensive wine is worth the price.

    Doomsday prophecies like that are bad news for wine snobs. The ratings and tasting notes on pricier bottles become less believable when the experts in a blind tasting can’t distinguish a ten dollar bottle from a fifty dollar bottle. Some can’t tell white wine from red.

    The results of these studies have inspired a lot of gloating.

    After all, the kingdom of wine can make the uninitiated feel like clumsy tourists. I peeked into that world when I met a man who used to work as a Wine Captain. His job title confounded me—where are the Beer Lieutenants, or the Whiskey Admirals? But setting asides the pretentions of his job title, I can tell you that the man knew his way around a corkscrew and served a perfect glass of red for every occasion. When he showed off his wine refrigerator, I had two thoughts: Who devotes a whole refrigerator to wine? And then, how can I get out of this conversation without looking stupid?

    In the digital age, where everyone pretends to be an expert on almost everything, wine has managed to preserve its insider culture. But the time has come when the inmates—those of us who don’t devote a liftetime of study to wine, who just want a nice drink from time to time—seem bent on taking back the asylum from its keepers. We are angry that too many of our wine fortunes seem to rise or fall with an expert’s nod or an insider’s tip. At the encouragement of scientists, who demonstrate that the experts can be fooled, we rebel against expertise and lift up our own opinions to replace it.

    The poor wine experts, who as a result of this push are increasingly becoming the butt of the joke, have responded with a variety of defenses. As far as I can tell, they never achieve a coherent argument. Therefore, having given the matter some careful thought, I am surprised to find myself sympathetic to the wine experts’ cause, wanting to speak on their behalf. The truth is, we outsiders have enjoyed our schadenfreude too soon.

    First, when it comes to this fight, consider that most of us are not actually outsiders at all. The wine tasting scandal hits everyone where we live, for those studies which doubted only wine tasting in the beginning have moved on to debunking the very concept of taste. I fear that when we mock the poor wine sipper, we put ourselves too quickly on the side of the scientists and economists, and their experiments. Living on that side of the argument may come at the terrible cost of flavor itself.

    The mistake scientists and economists have made in their calculations about wine tasting reveals cultural fault lines around the concept of taste. First of all, taste is the most deeply personal of domains, so scientific conclusions about taste threaten to blind-side us in a very intimate, presumably safe spot deep inside our ego. What do we take for granted more than taste? Our own taste fits us like a glove, speaks for us at restaurants and parties, on Facebook and Twitter. These days there are so many ways to express what gratifies us that communities of like-minded tasters have gathered around everything from My Little Pony to deep fried foods or intentionally obscure music. Such communities have the effect of insulating and protecting our tastes from criticism or review, and whenever our taste is called into question we get defensive.

    In fact, very few are asked to defend their tastes or to make arguments justifying them. Fewer still have been challenged to a blind tasting to determine whether their tastes are rationally consistent. That is lucky for them. If we were challenged to accurately identify the things we love most, after they were plucked out of all context and exposed by the cold, laboratory light of reason, most of us would fail. If you give the average person a blind sip of Coke and then Pepsi, without letting them know that Coke is on the table, they will usually prefer Pepsi. But if you let people know that Coke is on the table then they will prefer the Coke much more often. They’ll say, “It tastes like childhood.” Maybe that’s the effect of more than a century of heavy advertising, or maybe it’s nostalgia, or patriotism. The point is, it’s not strictly rational, and neither is taste itself.

    The irrational character of taste is only a problem for those who order their lives around reason and logic. They yearn to dispel the riddle of taste with science. “What’s the science behind the taste?” demands an Observer article from June 2013. The article goes on to conclude that wine tasting is “junk science.”

    But did wine tasting ever aspire to science? The article neglects this question in order to explain how a disturbingly large degree of chance, rather than reason, determines which wines take awards. However, handing over the whole dilemma to scientists and economists only encourages those very rational people to do what rational people always do: carve up the problem with the sword of analysis, then throw away the pieces they don’t know what to do with. And for most of us, as we walk and talk through our days, sipping coffee and reading our favorite web sites or newspapers, such pieces turn out to be quite valuable.

    When it comes to rationalizing taste, scientists and economists strip away everything but the mouth, pressuring us to limit our considerations to the buds lining the surface of our tongues, which send their signals of salty, bitter, sour, or sweet to our brains, creating flavor. By these standards, any honest appraisal of the data reveals that humans are capable of being fooled about the contents of our wine glasses. Adding a little red dye to a cheap white wine can trick experts into tasting oak and tannins where they could not possibly exist. 

    But the error is not inside the data. The error is what happened when those researchers sat down to interpret their data, when they missed important mechanisms within how flavor works. In figuring out how wine connoisseurs taste the drink, scientists and economists did a fine job accounting for the liquid, of accounting even for the glass; but when it came to figuring out what to do with the bottle or the price tag, or the leather chair, or the cigar smoke, or the view out that teak-framed window of the sun dipping behind a Greek Revival house, they saw variables rather than context. They missed the way flavor, like our true experience of the world itself, coalesces.


Sit at a table. To your left stands a decanter of red wine; behind it, an unremarkable bottle with a plain label. To your right stands a different decanter, a different red wine with a lovely bottle bearing an elegant label. A man in a lab coat tells you the wine on your left costs ten dollars, while the one to your right costs fifty. After a sip of each, the man asks you to rate which tastes better. Studies show that you will most likely prefer the wine to your right, the one in the fancy bottle, even if some trickster has switched wines on you, so that you claim to prefer what is actually the cheaper wine—or even if that trickster poured the same wine into both decanters. At this point, the scientist will say you have been fooled by the price tag. Other studies show that, when people are given a range of wines to taste without knowing their price tags or the design of their bottles and labels, the cheaper wines are rated higher than the costlier. What is going on?

    We demand an answer to that question because these experiments threaten our rational notion of value, offending a particularly capitalist commandment to maximize return while minimizing cost. Steven Levitt, the University of Chicago economist who co-founded the Freakonomics franchise of books, podcasts, and documentaries, makes an excellent example of this attitude. He considers himself blessed with a self-described underdeveloped palate, happily scarfing down beef jerky, dill pickles, and fast food. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful gift,” he says, “to like cheap food.” Those who prefer expensive organic vegetables and artisanal cheeses, he supposes, “are unhappy most of the time. Or they spend all their money on food.” Levitt doesn’t like wine at all.

    Levitt turned out to be a pioneer in the field of toppling wine snobs when he joined the Harvard Society of Fellows, an elite club of scholars and luminaries who regularly hold wine-fueled dinners. He grew distressed by the money being lavished upon the expensive bottles served at these dinners. When it was his turn to supply the wine, he bought some cheap bottles and decanted them alongside the expensive stuff. Levitt further complicated matters by including the same wine twice. The Society of Fellows tasted and ranked the wines, Levitt crunched the data, and it came to light that the Fellows did not prefer the expensive wines to the cheap. Furthermore, they rated the two identical wines as being the most different of all.

    After Levitt revealed his trick, the party naturally crashed. To Levitt’s delight one of the Fellows, a Humanities professor embarrassed by his apparent lack of wine acumen, made an excuse about a head cold and stormed from the room.

    The Freakonomics episode reporting this story went on gleefully to recount similar experiments in which wine tasting experts were fooled to various extents in humiliating ways. To explain what goes wrong when someone prefers a ten dollar bottle to a fifty dollar bottle, Stephen Dubner makes an analogy to houses: “A house that cost five hundred thousand dollars ought to be five times better, on some level, than a hundred thousand dollar house.”

    What that statement misses, however, is context: the universe of variables and unquantifiable factors that make up any single determination of value. Expecting a wine that cost fifty dollars to be five times better than a ten dollar bottle makes the mistake of expecting rational ideas like precision and proportion to rule the vagaries and associations that produce lived human experience. In the labyrinth of lived experience, any random association can shape or create our interpretation of what happened. Even an unfounded stereotype can determine how we perform.


The Seelbach hotel in downtown Louisville, Kentucky has served as a reliable watering hole for gangsters like Al Capone and George Remus, reputed “King of the Bootleggers,” as well as an inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I’ve spent a few June evenings there with friends and acquaintances, soaking up the ambience and reading aloud from Gatsby. During one such evening, waiting for drinks by the bar, a friend explained his respect for wine experts. “A sommelier gave me this glass of red wine,” he began. “Before I drank it she described the flavor as burnt silk, hazelnuts, soft fruits brightened by acid, all kinds of fancy talk. I took a sip,” he finished, eyes widening with a still intact surprise, “and okay, yes, this is what burnt silk tastes like.” He had never tasted burnt silk. Even so, that was the flavor on his tongue exactly. 

    A psychologist might explain my friend’s encounter with that sommelier as an example of priming, a recently discovered and hotly researched phenomenon that happens in the moments leading up to a new or unusual experience. By describing the flavor as burnt silk, the sommelier may have tricked my friend into tasting just that.

    In one study, Jennifer R. Steele and Nalini Ambady show how instrumental a stereotype can be in shaping our opinions—specifically, the stereotype that women are better at the arts while men are better at math and science. If the stereotype were true, college women would avoid math because it’s too hard, and for many years they did just that. The fact is, however, it’s not true that women are inevitably worse at math and science, so they have no reason to avoid those subjects—unless you remind them of their gender, which primes women by subtly reminding them of the stereotype. The result is that they express greater antipathy toward math and a greater affinity for the arts compared to women who were not reminded of their gender.

    In fact, it is generally accepted in research psychology that subtle reminders of a stereotype which applies to us will cause us to behave according to the stereotype, even when we’re unconsciously doing so. My grandmother called this the power of suggestion. If you remind the elderly of their age, they walk more slowly; remind women that math tests frequently display gender inequities, then give them a particularly difficult exam, and their scores will plummet compared to other women who were not primed with the stereotype. My father calls this a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

    I would argue that savoring a glass of wine is more like those women taking a math exam than a bunch of taste buds weighing expensive against cheap. It’s the same with every experience requiring interpretation. For scientists, it seems that the failures of wine tasting come from mistaking the wine with everything surrounding the wine. In other words, the taster has failed to separate the wine from the experience.

    However, by letting data do their thinking, scientists mix up the human tongue with human taste. Their error is assuming that the experimenter is separable from the experiment, that the observer can be disentangled from the observed. Iain McGilchrist, a scholar of the humanities and neuroscience both, puts it this way: “We cannot know something without it being known to us—we cannot see what it would be like if it were not we that were knowing it. Thus every thing we apprehend is the way it is because we see it in that way rather than another way.”

    Scientists have trained themselves to see the world objectively, to stand apart from the phenomena they study and the data they record. Their whole conception of truth follows from that training, and we can frequently find our culture borrowing that notion of truth for itself. However, by following the scientific notion of truth, what we accomplish is not objectivity but detachment. McGilchrist writes, “When science adopts a view of its object from which everything ‘human’ has as far as possible been removed, bringing a focused, but utterly detached attention to bear, it is merely exercising another human faculty, that of standing back from something and seeing it in this detached, in some important sense denatured, way. There is no reason to see that particular way as privileged, except that it enables us to do certain things more easily, to use things, to have power over things.”

    By focusing too much on abstracting the glass of wine from its context, we lose sight of the world beyond the wine that is already intertwined with the wine, as our consciousness is tangled with our brains, plugged into bodies, which consume food from the earth and return pieces of ourselves back to it. Even our five senses, so distinct whenever they are listed, blur together. Remember the notoriously porous border between our senses of smell and taste, the fact that those who lose their ability to smell report losing the taste of their food. Their meals become experiences of texture, not flavor. Likewise, our sense of smell is determined almost completely by our interpretation of what we smell—engineers of scent routinely gag people with the stench of vomit, then awaken their appetite with the aroma of an aged Parmesan cheese, without those people knowing it is the same scent.

    In other words, at wine tastings, what surrounds the tongue is always a body. And outside that body is an environment of factors—decanter, sommelier, a smiling date across the table who is beautifully dressed and gazing your way. Another relevant piece of the experience, surely, is the cost of the bottle. My mother’s German friend used to say, “The eyes eat too,” a remark on how we eat with our mouths and stories and identity, and perhaps the suggestion that we’re about to taste burnt silk. For any beholder of beauty, the moment is a tangled braid of lived experience.

    If there is a drawback to this sort of thinking, it probably has to do with a tendency toward chaos and relativism, which dovetails into the problem of subjectivity itself. Science, economics, and analytical philosophy deal very little with subjectivity, except to recommend avoiding it. The few psychologists and sociologists plumbing the mysteries of subjectivity are rewarded with derision, reminded that they practice “soft sciences” as opposed to the sturdy “hard sciences,” which gave us technology and medicine, garnering them great publicity and the highest salaries.

    However, while subjectivity is often confounding, its mysteries are solvable. Writers, artists, historians, even some philosophers have spent millennia on the case. They know that the right way to tackle problems like taste always accounts for the context. To the economist’s chagrin, we do not drink data. 

    We assemble pleasure from pieces. Some of these pieces are under our control, and we bring them to an experience like a child bringing toys to a play date. Others, however, are handed down by our culture, or the weather, or forces that have always controlled us. To mitigate those forces, we seek the assistance of the keepers of pleasure, who study how it is made and how best to perpetuate it, going by names like “artist,” “masseuse,” “party planner.” Surely there is room in that pantheon for the wine expert.


It’s not that wine can be enjoyed only in the presence of an expert. Rather, I would argue that experts can help, even if—especially if—they can be fooled under the right circumstances.

    To dismiss the experts’ mistakes, writers like Steve Heimoff take refuge behind opinion. “You’ll never see an article headlined RESTAURANT REVIEWS ARE JUNK SCIENCE,” complains Heimoff. “That’s because restaurant reviews don’t pretend to be offering anything but their opinion. Well, neither do wine critics.” I take his point. But he plays things too safe, taking refuge in that supremely spongy and unassailable word, “opinion.” He should take a bolder stand and assert that wine experts, like any expert engaged in any act of interpretation, offer a judgment about their experience. If a scientist argues that those experts’ judgments were wrong in their experiments, I would point out that such a valuation relies on incomplete notions of taste.

    When I studied for a semester at Cambridge University, I lived with a host family in nearby Histon. My host father was a road contractor with the soul of a poet, a tough man who borrowed the road crew’s cement saw to cut flagstones for a trellised bench he was installing in his back garden. One night I treated him to port and Stilton, which he said was the most English thing we could do together, and I asked about the best drink he’d ever had.

    He told a story from his time waiting tables at the university. “It was one of their fancy dinners, white jackets with black ties. My cousin was manning the bar, and he called me over, all excited like.” In his cousin’s hand was a small cordial glass with a mahogany-colored liquid. My host father gulped it down, suddenly aware that all eyes were locked upon him. “That was nice,” he reported to those assembled.

    “‘Nice’ is all you can say?” asked his cousin. “Do you know what you’ve had there?” My host father did not know that the tipple he’d just enjoyed was Louis XIII cognac. He didn’t know that empty bottles of the stuff sell for hundreds of dollars, or that the velvet-lined cases holding those bottles can sell for sixty, or that a full bottle retails for over two thousand.“It was nice,” my host father remembered. “Very smooth. I wish I’d known all that when I tried it.”

    More and more, people seem to understand how information about something enhances the flavor of it. The economics program Planet Money sold t-shirts that each tell the story of how and where they were made via a scannable bar code on the back. As a species, we seem to value more than anything else our most storied, preservative, eternal elements. Think of gold, honey, amber, and salt. We name value itself by them: He is worth his salt; she is worth her weight in gold; kiss your honey on the lips. 

    Poets have written about honey. Read their poems, then say whether the honey’s flavor is improved. You can taste honey without knowing of its ancient relationship with humanity, without knowing the apiarist who tickles bees with his mustache, with no sense that mead brewed from honey was historically the first drink that married couples enjoyed together and the tipple that provided our word “honeymoon.” The honey still tastes sweet—a hint of orange blossom or buckwheat. But by itself the honey connects us to nothing. Honey has a story but no language to tell it. That’s our job. Why not write that story on a scrap of paper and then glue that paper to the bottle? Take those first steps toward flavor, toward value, toward luxury itself.

    Or if you’re lucky enough to know him, call over the Wine Captain. His uniform is a tuxedo. He knows to pour correctly by giving the bottle a little twist at the end, which catches the dribble. The Captain was the only person ever to serve me a souffle with a fruit compote at a dinner party. We were poor graduate students, and we ate from his coffee table. He owned a wine refrigerator. He knew how to waste money like that—he knew it was a good way to live.

Paul Cockeram teaches composition, literature, and creative writing in central Pennsylvania's biggest community college. His essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and published in The Laurel Review, Borne on Air, and Confrontation.