During a recent two-week dry period, I continued on most evenings to taste three to five whiskeys, but spit them out in order to stay dry.
I’d taken this two-week break from fully ingesting whiskey not too long after one of my regular quarterly dry weeks, because my body gave me signals that I might have been overdoing it. (I’ll not trouble you with the nature of those signals, other than to say I’m now very familiar with the Bristol Stool Chart.) After my quarterly dry week, I had indeed been drinking more whiskey from day to day than I should. So I decided to take another full two weeks off, to allow my liver to rest up.
Although my symptoms eased up after a handful of days, I remained committed to the two-week break. I missed my tasting ritual, of course. So I began to taste again, now with a spit-cup in hand so as not to swallow anything.
It was pretty great! Certainly there were moments when I really wanted to have the full experience and feel the whiskey make its warm way through my system. But I do value my liver. We give the heart a lot of sentimental credit for what it does to keep us alive, but the liver does the unglamorous dirty work. No amount of whiskey is worth sacrificing it.
Tasting in this way for an extended period, I noticed what was the same and what was different from my usual tasting.
One similarity was that, whether I swallow what I’m tasting or spit, after about five or six whiskeys, depending on the various proofs involved, my palate fatigues. There is a sharp drop in nuance after that point.
One prominent difference is not surprising, and that is the role of swallowing the whiskey, how its move from the mouth into the stomach impacts the warmth, the finish, and eventually also the taste. Without swallowing the whiskey, the full effect of its finish is diminished. This then impacts the taste, since further sipping is not influenced by the whiskey coating the throat.
Yet although tasting without swallowing did feel a bit incomplete, still I could enjoy the color and nose thoroughly. The impact on taste was evident, but minimal. The finish was always literally unfinished—though by the third glass, with flavors accumulating in the mouth, this became less obvious.
But there is also the swallow’s role in the ritual. It’s the punctuation of a sip, marking the end of one moment and kicking off the next. Part of the pleasure of a good meal or a drink is how it immediately becomes a part of you. As with any food, taking a whiskey fully into your body changes you, both chemically and your mood. Here I’m not referring to the typical ill effects of alcohol, certainly not drunkenness or even tipsiness. I mean that subtle but palpable inner warmth, that cozy sense of slowing down and relaxing. Tasting while spitting, I was still able to slow down and relax. But that subtle warmth was missing, as well as that satisfying dual sense of integration and completion.
Overall, though, I didn’t miss what was missing that much. And it occurred to me this method will make a great way for me to continue to enjoy experiencing whiskey when I want and in the amounts I want, only without taxing my body nearly as much. If I’m tasting through a flight of whiskeys, I can select the one or two I enjoy best and fully experience those. This way I can more easily stay within the commonly recommended daily and weekly alcohol limits.
I mentioned the value of spitting to a friend recently, who wholly rejected the idea. Comparing fine whiskey to fine food, he pointed out that one would never go to a good restaurant, smell and taste the food, then spit it out. True. But the average finely crafted meal is not typically made of a toxin that in time will literally pickle your organs. For someone like me who has reason to taste whiskey frequently, spitting is worth the small sacrifice of the full experience if it means I will live to taste another day.
Spitting in public was actually very common in the United States up until around the 1930s, when cigarettes began to outpace cigars and chewing tobacco in popularity. Spittoon and cuspidor sales were big business, with attractive vessels set out in homes, banks, barber shops, offices, courtrooms, and of course saloons. And this was no low-class habit. The middle and upper classes also spat. Though frowned upon today, spitting counts among the significant customs in American popular history. It’s perhaps telling of the American character that anti-spitting campaigns from as early as the late 1800s, which focused on public spitting as a superspreader of disease, were not as effective as the pop-cultural shift to cigarettes. 🤔
Today, whiskey panelists at festivals spit as a matter of course. Same with spirits buyers at shops. You can’t taste through five to fifty whiskeys in any handful of hours and remain functional. Spitting is not only useful, it can be necessary.
I also understand the very strong association with spitting out food or drink as a messy, uncouth rejection. And in comedy there is the “spit take,” a guaranteed laugh. When I facilitate tastings, I always give my guests a cup and permission to spit, offering the reasoning. But to date not one guest has ever taken me up on it. Most of them immediately reject the idea. “I would never!”
I get it. Spitting out one’s drink is not generally considered good manners.
Yet as enjoyable as whiskey is, and as funny as a “spit take” can be, alcohol is a serious matter. I’ve kept this post pretty light. But the truth is I was unnerved by those symptoms my body was showing. In addition to taking a full two weeks off from drinking, I went down the online rabbit hole researching my symptoms and the stages of alcohol related liver disease. Early stages often show no symptoms at all. It’s usually either by accident in the course of a doctor visit for some other health matter, or after it’s too late, that liver disease gets diagnosed. Cirrhosis, the worst and final stage, is irreversible and you die from it.
So on my fifth day of symptoms I contacted my doctor to have blood tests arranged. For those factors related to liver function—e.g. ALT, AST, Alkaline Phosphate, and Bilirubin—my test results indicted only a slight elevation over my levels measured in 2022 and 2021. And all these levels were still well within the range of what is considered “normal.”
However, looking further back to 2018, or even further to 2012, the jump from either of those years to 2021 was notable, particularly for my ALT and AST levels—those measuring the enzymes produced by the liver to help process toxins. Back in 2012, whiskey wasn’t even on my radar, and my wine and beer consumption were light. By 2018, I was roughly two years into my whiskey journey and gradually ramping up. I’d say in 2019 I’d hit my stride in terms of consumption. Then in 2020, like many people, the stresses of the pandemic era had me gradually pushing my alcohol limits even further. So although the precise cause of my symptoms remains unconfirmed, and my latest test results did not indicate my liver was in serious trouble, when compared with past test results they do chart a possible journey in trouble’s general direction.
In my second Whiskey Journey post from early 2020, I wrote about a reckoning I’d had with how much I was drinking, and how easy it was to convince myself I was doing fine when in fact I was not. Our bodies may be mysterious. But they do not lie. Our organs signal to us in their own native language when they’re happy, worried, struggling, or traumatized. Since that reckoning, I thought I’d been doing well at keeping things balanced. I’ve always maintained a very heart and liver friendly diet—lots of oatmeal, berries, nuts, leafy vegetables, fish, prebiotics, probiotics, low salt, low sugar, etcetera. I’m very adept at keeping hydrated, usually with filtered water spiked with fresh ginger, cucumber, and some kind of citrus. And starting in 2022 I’d even been tracking my daily alcohol intake with an app I’d downloaded, so I knew the objective data of my drinking.
And although I never get drunk anymore, and rarely ever suffer hangovers—and when I do they are mild and I remain fully functional—by medical standards my recent drinking had crossed into what is considered alcohol abuse. My work, relationships, and daily life never suffered. Yet my valiant body was doing its best while signaling to me, Hey, maybe slow down a bit. I believe this most recent experience was my body saying: Hey! Slow… down… now. And from here on out. Got it?
Got it. And I want never to give my body cause to slap me upside the head—or, er, kick the sh*t out of me—again.
And so I will continue to invite my tasting guests to make use of the wonderful, if unusual and occasionally comical, practice of spitting. To make the practice more palatable, I will now welcome them to “transfer” the whiskey from their mouth into their “transit cup.” Maybe omitting the word “spit” will help convince them? And I will myself continue to make a practice of “whiskey transference,” in order to more consistently stay under the recommended daily and weekly drinking limits without sacrificing the pleasure I take in this wonderful journey.
Cheers, to your good health!
My various references in this post to medical and other scientific information related to alcohol consumption do not constitute advice. Here are a few good resources for anyone interested in more information about alcohol and safe drinking practices.
- CDC Alcohol Facts Sheet – basic information about the effects of alcohol.
- Almost Alcoholic – helpful article distinguishing alcoholism from drinking patterns that may very well be wending their way toward alcoholism.
- Alcoholics Anonymous – nationally organized support group.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – website and hotline: 1-800-273-8255.
A GOOD BOOK
Drinking In America: Our Secret History
by Susan Cheever, Twelve / Hachette Book Group, 2015.
STANDARD GOVERNMENT WARNING
(1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.
3 thoughts on “In Defense of Spitting (just whiskey, not other things)”
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Mark, I’ve had some of the same thoughts recently regarding over-consumption. “Spitting” seems to be widely accepted in the wine world especially at tastings – we need to adopt it for whiskey as well. Thanks for a well written article.
Thanks, Jeff, for reading the blog, and for sharing your thoughts. Cheers to you—whether spat or otherwise! 😊🥃