Whiskey’s Ecology of Welcome — on curiosity and the (in)curious advent of tater haterism

“The right way to drink whiskey
is the way you like to drink it.”

This sentiment is often expressed, in variations, by people in the whiskey community and industry. It’s marketing. But it’s also a genuine ethic, a welcoming comment in favor of possibility, and a discouragement of exclusionary attitudes that might seek to limit anyone’s enjoyment of whiskey.

I appreciate this sentiment very much. It speaks to something I value, not just in the water of life but life in general. The fact that people can experience the same things in even radically different ways from one another is an opportunity for curiosity to work its humanizing magic.

While comparing tasting notes, for example, people often pick up on very different flavors from one another, then end up talking about the associations the whiskey conjures—memories of childhood, that summer road trip with your best friend, that great family-run bakery where the staff calls everyone darlin’. Prompted by a whiskey’s flavors, people with differing tastes and backgrounds share stories and get to know each other.

A different example, outside of whiskey. Two people watch a controversial movie together. One loves it and the other hates it. Now they have something to talk about! Neither of them need attempt converting the other, as if only two options exist—consensus to love versus consensus to hate. Rather, they can let their differences stand, and use a conversation about them to get to know each other better. Good art doing what good art does: spurring nuanced conversations.

Of course, if one person in this example does try to convert the other, their need to do that itself reveals something about who they are—what, exactly, is interpretable—and this is also a potential subject for curiosity. Why might it be so important to someone that another person feel or believe as they do about a controversial movie? What is at stake for them? What is lost if their experiences differ? And what is to be gained by arguing their perceptions into alignment?

A more complex example. Two friends, a woman and man—we’ll call them Jane and Dick—are at a bar and overhear a male customer ask the female bartender for a cocktail recommendation. She makes a suggestion. He says, “Sounds girlie. Maybe your friend can help me out,” and flags down a male bartender. Jane bristles and comments to Dick about the man’s misogyny. Dick says, “Oh, it’s only a cocktail.”

At this point the conversation could go any number of ways. Does Jane now point out to Dick where casual misogyny can lead? Is that her responsibility? Was Dick actually intending to put Jane at ease, albeit rather clumsily? Done well or poorly, is that his responsibility? Indeed, there are many conversations to be had here about the various ways one might perceive and respond to this incident. And if Dick and Jane are curious people, they might get somewhere in terms of understanding one another. But if even one of them is not curious, they won’t likely get very far.

Curiosity—exploring it, developing it, fanning its fire—is a key aspect of the pleasure I personally take in whiskey. It’s key to the pleasure I take in any art form, whether movies, music, paintings, theater… Exploring things like art or whiskey provides opportunities to practice curiosity. Curiosity is a very close cousin to empathy. It’s difficult to be empathetic if one lacks curiosity. And history has demonstrated repeatedly what a lack of empathy in a society’s cultural ecology can eventually lead to.

Photo Matthew Mead/AP

“Taters gonna tate!”

How often does this pop up in whiskey social media comment streams and memes?

“Tater.” The word’s purpose is to deride and exclude, an intent devoid of curiosity. Though primarily a reference to people who perpetuate hype by loudly scrambling to buy up the most widely sought-after whiskeys at whatever price, sometimes then flipping them for even higher prices, I’ve noticed “tater” is also increasingly conflated with references to people who are new to whiskey. In addition to being unwelcoming, calling people “tater” is arguably at least a bit hypocritical.

Why hypocritical?

Firstly, because we all were new to whiskey once. We all walked into a liquor store and asked if they had any Pappy, only to get laughed or sneered at. We all didn’t know quite what to buy at first, so we bought whatever just won a big award because articles on it popped up highest on our Google search. And many of us thought that selling bottles on the secondary market for hiked prices might be a way to pay for this pricey hobby.

I did all those things. I wasted a lot of money. (That still happens sometimes!) I bought things I didn’t want, but thought I should want because other people seemed to want it. (That still happens too.) I tried selling things online for hiked prices, but quickly found it soul sucking. I’ve foamed with FOMO. I’ve clicked “Add To Cart” too soon. I’ve drunk my regret.

These were all steps along my learning curve. A big part of learning is making some gaffes along the way. And though many bottles were killed on my learning curve, nobody died. Now I know more than I did before. And in particular I’ve found whiskey to be an interesting enough pursuit that I’ll always have more to learn. In that sense it’s a journey without end. No final outcome, no graduation ceremony, no point when the learning stops—unless one chooses to stop learning.

The other reason I consider it hypocritical to call others “tater” has to do with the aspect of buying sought-after bottles, then flipping them for hiked prices. In social media whiskey groups, one can read quite a number of “tater” accusations leveled by people who themselves are also flipping bottles regularly, often for outlandish sums they even deem “good deals by secondary standards.” (What a secondary “standard” is I have no idea.)

What are the tater haters concerned with, exactly? Is it really the notion that taters drive up prices? Are taters actually any more to blame for high prices than the tater haters themselves? Is it that taters are an embarrassing reminder for tater haters of their own past naiveté? Or is it a territorial concern, that the more people are interested in whiskey the harder the rare stuff will be to obtain? That’s logical, and yet there actually seems to be no shortage of good whiskey, even at good prices, and an increasingly unlimited number of “limited editions” to choose from. Or is tater haterism merely an adult holdover of that adolescent impulse to haze the new kid? A playground power play?

Whatever their reasoning, I can’t reconcile the derision behind something like “taters gonna tate” with the welcoming sentiment expressed by “the right way to drink whiskey is whatever way you like to drink it.” In having this conversation with one acquaintance, I was told I was making too much out of something small. I reminded this person of that old dating advice: Pay attention to how your date treats the server in the restaurant, because that’s how they’ll eventually treat you. Like grains of sand in a landslide, small comments add up and eventually alter the landscape.

Comments, quickly tapped out online or blurted in person, are all a part of society’s ecology of ethics. And just as nature does not value the weeds any less than the mighty oak, but recognizes each to have their own function and contribution, so too do “small” comments matter in relation to “big” statements—like the sort people in power make.

“Everyone is welcome in whiskey.”

This is also something often said or written in variations, by whiskey companies, social media influencers and whiskey fans alike. It’s both marketing and a legit ethic. It’s a great sentiment and I’m all for it.

Is it true, though? Often yes, in certain whiskey community social and social media circles that actively look after inclusion, it’s true. Distilleries like Du Nord Social Spirits, Freeland Spirits and Republic Restoratives immediately come to mind. And I follow a great San Francisco Bay Area FB group that’s very inclusive, not tolerating even “casual” hate speech. But anyone paying even the most tangential attention to whiskey news—or any news—must know it is as often not true. Because if it were consistently true:

The Black Bourbon Society would not have published an open letter to the American whiskey industry in June 2020, insisting silent industry members speak up in support of Black lives and against racism.

Whiskey journalist Becky Paskin would not have posted the Tweets she did in September 2020, calling out Whisky Bible author Jim Murray’s long history of misogyny as an example of the pervasive sexism in the industry.

Way back in 2012, Seán S. McKeithan would not have thought to pen the article, “Every Ounce A Man’s Whiskey?” for Southern Cultures magazine, articulating his relationship as a gay man to what is arguably among the most traditionally masculinized spirits, bourbon.

These examples are three drops in an ocean of similar examples.

When I post on Instagram about a Black or Women-owned distillery, and suddenly lose a clutch of followers, a part of me thinks good riddance. But another part of me thinks, dang, now those people and I have one less connection to a point of view that’s not our own. The co-existence of multiple contrary points of view is vital to the ecology of a healthy democracy.

To be sure, hating on whiskey “taters” is very low impact when compared to racism, sexism, homophobia, or the systematic toxification of masculinity. “Tater” accusations are like weeds to the oak trees. Relatively small digs like “tater” are simply a part of our society’s wider ecosystem of exclusion, which we perpetuate if we don’t exert some effort against it. If “everyone is welcome,” then everyone needs to actually be welcome. Our integrity is only so much as our deeds match our words.

All to say that the days of “manly” and “girlie” drinks are done. Drinks are gender fluid.

The days of bourbon as a “Southern gentleman’s drink” are done. We know that means the Good Ol’ Straight White Boys Club.

Nostalgia for any history or tradition that we know involved exclusion, oppression, and injustice, is done. Those old days were not a “better” time, they just weren’t caught on iPhone cameras.

And if someone is selling whiskey on the online secondary or in a retail store for hiked prices and you think that stinks, don’t buy from them and don’t follow their lead.

And, if someone is new to whiskey, we can welcome them wholeheartedly, learn from their fresh insights, and encourage their curiosity with our own.

Cheers!

Other 🥔🥃☮️🔎 Resources

In the spirit of multiple perspectives, here is a short list of other online articles—each as debatable as my own—on the subject of whiskey taterism:

  • Gear Patrol article on “wannabe expert” slang.
  • The Tater-Talk Blog, with a range of interesting and often provocative articles, and an infamous list of 92 reasons why one might be a “tater.”
  • Vinepair article about a sourced bourbon brand, built by tracking bourbon community social media to glean what lingo and imagery diehards (taters?) might respond to on a label. And it worked!
  • Whiskey Wash article advocating (sort of) for kindness toward taters.

Here also are some online resources offering hope for a kinder, more curious society:

  • BBC article on what psychologists are discovering about kindness and mental health.
  • Harvard Business Review article on the benefits to businesses that encourage curiosity among their employees.
  • Kindness.org – using scientific research to design kindness-based practices, products, and partnerships for business, education, and other aspects of society and daily life.
  • Our Whisky – global campaign championing diversity and inclusion in the whisky industry through online events and info sharing.
  • Can’t find the words for that kind thing you’d like to say? Visit the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation for words and other resources around kindness.

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