If you want to know someone, ask them about their politics. Their job. What they think of Woody Allen’s latest effort. But if your goal is to understand someone—how they think, what they value, how they view the task of moving through this life—ask them what’s in their liquor cabinet. Personalities and one’s choice in drink can go hand in hand.
At first blush, such a statement seems like clickbait-style hyperbole (really: alcohol as identity? Cocktails as character?). Then again, food and drink are more than just the mechanism by which we keep ourselves alive; what we choose to put on our plate or pour into our glass has always been an important affirmation of both national culture and personal style.
Not that everybody sees it that way. When I was growing up in a B.C. mill town, booze was more a social lubricant than a social statement. We kept wine in the fridge. Granny’s rye made its home under the sink. Beer belonged in the kitchen, the rec room, the garage, and (not infrequently) the back seat of the car. As for the liquor cabinet, no matter where our downwardly mobile family moved, it was always the small cupboard above the stove. Its residents were three: the sickly-sweet cream sherry Mom enjoyed, the bottle of vodka that never seemed to become empty (it was always replaced before that happened), and the pennies-on-the-dollar dark rum, used for making Christmas cake and (at least once, to my memory) to encourage excitable children to finally go to sleep.
Moving to the big city, my first trip to the liquor store was a boastful declaration of personal independence. For years, the collection of colourful bottles that lived above my own small stove in my own small apartment was a way of smugly proving to myself and to guests how cultured and cosmopolitan I was, how far I had travelled from that small mill town.
If your goal is to understand someone—how they think, what they value, how they view the task of moving through this life—ask them what’s in their liquor cabinet.
Over the years, the scope of my life expanded. So too has my liquor cabinet, into several cupboards, each of them full of bottles and flasks from the four corners of the world. This expansion echoed a broader cultural shift: over the past 20 years or so, North Americans have moved away from mass-market beer and wine, and have developed a taste for spirits. In the U.S., sales of beer fell by about 8 per cent between 2000 and 2015, while sales of spirits rose by just under 7 per cent. Across the pond, a 2018 study of more than 2,000 British drinkers noted that fully 20 per cent identify themselves as “cocktail aficionados”, while another 25 per cent declared they wanted to master the art of cocktail making sometime in the future.
Today, we live in a golden age of mixed drinks, with highly crafted creations made from increasingly exotic ingredients muscling out the standard “liquor-plus-bubbly water” highballs, and the local watering hole giving way to the über-hip cocktail bar with the all-too-cool name. In popular culture, shows such as Sex and the City and Mad Men (to say nothing of Daniel Craig’s effortlessly stylish take on the world’s most famous Martini fan) have given the cocktail drinker a sort of cultural mystique—shorthand for a particular kind of well-cultured, well-styled, worldly-wise individual not afraid to live life on his or her own terms, be that shaken or stirred.
Walk into any liquor store and you’ll realize there has never been a better time to join the cocktail cognoscenti. Exploring the aisles is an exercise in curiosity, and perusing the various flavours on offer is all part of the fun. As for collecting, it doesn’t matter whether it’s old coins, rare cars, or fine spirits—the pursuit of one’s passion is a distant echo of the thrill of the hunt. The curation of a well-appointed home bar is a testament to the depth and breadth of human experience, a celebration of an art that is both rich and strange.
Perhaps most importantly, it is also a tonic for the times: in an age of screen swipes and sound bites, reaching into the cupboard over the stove and mixing oneself a drink is a small but significant ritual, something that takes time and effort, a deliberate thumbing of the nose at everything quick and shallow. Much like that landscape hanging over the fireplace, that signed first edition sitting on the shelf, or that jazz album that makes you feel kind of blue, a well-stocked liquor cabinet is the sign of a deliberate life: of choices made, of distinctions noted, of some roads taken and others not, of taste refined and values shaped through actual experience, rather than an Instagram feed.
But don’t take my word for it: take up the mixing glass yourself. Gin or vodka, shaken or stirred, olive or a twist, whatever you like. Sit back, take a sip, and think about—well, anything really. You’ll see: there really is no accounting for taste. But you most certainly can do an accounting of taste itself.
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