Disputing Taste

I believe we should.

I’ve come to appreciate how whiskey is a conversation starter, an enabler of new understandings. It’s other things too, certainly. But whiskey’s innate combination of craft, art, history, material reality, alluring mystique, and taste, all seem to compel whiskey fans toward an obsession that seems in particular as compared to drinkers of other beverages. A passion for getting into the fine details is typical of whiskey fanatics. Amidst those fine details lies the potential to explore further understandings of not only whiskey but also oneself, others, and the world.

19th Century advertisement from the Atlanta-based Small-Grain Distilling Company, promoting “taste” as an arbiter, and also bringing into debate the origins of Kentucky-based Four Roses bourbon.

Sometimes we stop ourselves from fully taking up this opportunity, when expectations around the very notion of “taste” get in the way. We might close the door even further should questions of taste verge into questions of social, political, or other values.

But staying for the moment with matters of taste:

The old saying, “There’s no disputing taste,” originates from the Latin maxim, De gustibus non est disputandum. Latin. So, folks have been making this declaration for a very long time!

In a more recent derivative, “Everyone has the right to their opinion,” the emphasis on one’s rights and on the individualism inherent to opinion adds a particularly American slant, furthering the declarative stance of the gesture. 

A third variant, “Let’s agree to disagree,” is perhaps the most absolute. If a conversation comes to this, it may never have been a conversation to begin with. It may only have been an exchange of declarations. And if the hope was at all for mutual or further understanding, the parties involved had dashed it long before the moment they finally agreed to disagree.

We don’t always want to understand. Sometimes we wish only to be understood, to make our pronouncement and be done. Toward that wish, each of these old sayings is very useful. They might serve as a polite way to ease out of an uncomfortable confrontation. Or to avoid opposition in the first place. Whatever the intention, these stock exit lines make a very efficient means of shutting down potentially healthy conversation and debate, serving as micro-fascisms in antidote to micro-democracies.

Mountains out of molehills?

Perhaps not, if one believes god, the devil, or whomever, is in the details. How I treat a pet dog, the server at a restaurant, my partner, colleagues at work, strangers on the street—one can inevitably find commonalities. How my country treats another country? One can travel abroad and observe in the behavior of certain American tourists how America’s reputation for self-concern is not limited to US international policies or the politicians who back them.

The notion that people shouldn’t dispute their differences assumes the ancient binary of “right” versus “wrong.” It’s among the most stultifying yet popular binaries around. Yet I’d still like to assume that evolving one’s own personal understandings is a common goal. Who, after all, would claim that generally they do not wish for their understanding of things to expand? Who would claim a general lack of curiosity, empathy, or interest in learning, to be their basic position?

Have you ever gone to see a movie with someone and you each had a very different experience, one positive and the other negative? And so you “agreed to disagree”—one or the other of you bringing the portcullis crashing down on the conversation with “There’s no disputing taste” (i.e. Don’t argue with me) or “Everyone has the right to their opinion” (i.e. You’re not going to change my mind)…?

In such moments, what was the point of seeing the movie at all? Or of listening to the music? Or of lingering on the painting? Or of joining the book club? Or of going to the play? Or of watching the latest episode? 

Or of tasting the whiskey?

All these things exist to get us talking, interacting, debating, learning, enjoying… Until Opinion grabs the microphone and takes center stage.

Over the years I’ve gradually lost my interest in opinions—whether mine or anyone else’s. At a certain point I could no longer see their use. Opinions are cul-de-sacs that go nowhere. Opinions cannot be proven or debated. When we say that someone opines we’re suggesting an indulgence, a preaching perhaps, an oratory fascinated with itself and not interested in an exchange.

But this loss of interest in opinion has given way to a greater interest in points of view. Whereas my opinion spins my wheels in place, a point of view immediately gets me going. To have a point of view at all, I must be standing at some point viewing another point outside of me. A journey then happens between those two points. A point of view is a route from my own perspective outward into the world—the world of another person, another culture, another experience.

So when I arrange a whiskey flight for someone, for example, my hope now is not that they will like the same things I do in the same way—though when that does happen it can be momentarily satisfying. My hope, actually, is that our experiences might differ to some degree or another. Because it’s in these differences I find I learn the most about someone, and about myself. On both micro and macro levels in life, the challenge of difference has demonstrated itself to be more change-making than the ease of flowing with the familiar ever has done.

In all these regards a blog site comes with pitfalls. Like all social media, blogs are potentially useful and positive, or not. One inherent limitation of any blog—present blog included—is the great potential to amount to a series of opinionated monologues. Hopefully readers comment (😉) and a monoblog gives way to at least a bit of dialogue. Or, perhaps two people read a given blog post separately and then together, over some bottle or flight of whiskeys, they talk about it and eventually fly off from there into other related topics.

This is the hope. What I personally never hope is to add to the junk heap of opinion. I’m far more interested in getting into the muck with someone, digging down into their love of that obscure craft rye that simply makes my face scrunch up. Why do they respond to it so happily and I do not? After some conversation, it turns out the pungent aroma reminds them of their grandmother’s backyard, where all manner of fruits and vegetables were grown like some wild secret garden. It was in that garden they first learned how to plant a tree, shuck walnuts, know when a fig is ready to be picked. It was there as a kid they learned confidence in their five senses, and to appreciate the particular satisfaction of tasting fresh fruit picked off a tree they once helped plant. And they learned all this from a woman who’d been a single mom to their dad, in a time when that wasn’t generally supported, and money was tight so she grew her own food. In that and other ways she embodied what a strong, resilient, fiercely independent woman can be.

All this from trying to explain a response to some 100% rye, aged five years and bottled in bond.

Many folks in the whiskey community have reiterated the maxim that, when it comes to whiskey, there are no strangers. Everyone is a welcomed friend. I wholeheartedly embrace this.

Along with this sentiment also often comes the notion that true whiskey fans leave politics and other potentially divisive—in other words central—aspects of who they are at the door. And though I understand that impulse, whether in the context of whiskey, family, or other circles of friends or colleagues, I find it an unfortunate evasion of the opportunity to explore difference. If someone disagrees with me—whether about the latest Four Roses limited edition bourbon, digital-era capitalism, a movie, or the U.S. Congress “Squad”—rather than closing that door, what if I open the door to my curiosity and start asking questions? Who is this person? What is their life like?

And why not have that conversation while gathered around an open bottle of sweet, spicy, complicated whiskey? It might actually help!

In a way, in America at least, to separate whiskey from politics seems innately odd given American politics have been soaked in whiskey from the start—from Alexander Hamilton’s early Federal taxes to the first consumer protection laws, to the seismic impact of Prohibition to recent environmental disasters caused by distilleries.

In another example, American Freedom Distillery was founded in 2017 by a group of Green Berets who helped at Ground Zero in the immediate wake of the 9/11 tragedy. From the founders to the label on the bottle—made from steel recovered from the disaster site—politics swirl meaningfully in this bourbon.

So, something at once welcoming to all strangers as friends and steeped in politics? Such an opportunity!

Just as a bottle of whiskey, once uncorked, opens up and reveals itself with time and air, so might a person and their perspectives. I can’t count the number of bottles I’ve dismissed as “meh” upon uncorking, only to find weeks or months later that more of what they held inside was now coming out. Some of these bottles have become favorites, like Booker’s. Some I realized I hadn’t liked at first simply because they offered a flavor profile unfamiliar to me. But after more time I came to appreciate them on their own terms. Tom’s Foolery bottled-in-bond whiskeys were a great lesson in this regard. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t approach a person and their points of view in a similar way. I stand to lose nothing, actually, and to gain more perspective.

The more I drink and appreciate whiskey, the more I see it as I have done theater and other arts: a river—always there and always changing—with many streams one might glide along toward an ever-opening sea of greater understanding:

Understanding of one’s own experiences—their process and impact. 

Of other people’s experiences—what they value and why. 

The experience of diverse regions—how an environment shapes taste.

And, how we experience. How we process, think, and enjoy. How we converse, and debate. How we ask questions. How we understand.

All from an evening’s pour of whiskey…

And all a way of saying, yes, let’s do dispute taste. Not to convert anyone else to our own opinion, nor even to our own point of view. Not to determine who is “right” and who is “wrong.” But purely for the open-ended goal to learn, and to make the world a more congenial place pour by pour, question by question. 

Cheers!

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