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Picture selected based on the artist’s misunderstanding of when the USA was founded and when bards and swashbuckling pirates existed. 

Recently, I had a birthday dinner at a local restaurant here in Minneapolis.  It was French.  It was delightful. It was serene.  The most wonderful part of it though was the fact that this restaurant was offering half-glasses of wine (2.5oz instead of 5oz) on their menu of any wine they poured by the glass.  Even better, the price of that half-glass was exactly half the price of the full glass.  It was brilliant.  I was inspired.  I wrote a ballad about it:

 

The Ballad of the Half-Glass Pour

As I sat down at the restaurant,
Menu soon in hand,
I was craving bubbles from a Francophonic land.

But as my eyes danced merrily,
From savory small plate to sweet,
My wine desires multiplied, how would my cravings be complete?

But what was this? Could it be true?
I spied in the margin,
Half a pour for half the price? A fair and even bargain.

How else could I sample them all?
Mix and match as I pleased,
This restaurant was offering half glasses of wine, it seemed like such a tease.

Unlike the up-marked volume sales of the airport,
Where they offer you 6 ounces or 9,
I’ll take variety so 2.5 will be fine.

In the end a similar volume
Will probably be consumed,
But who can choose just one flower, when the entire field is in bloom?

Bubbles to start
Then I selected a Cab Franc rosé
Could have gone on to a red, but I’d already had a glass that day.

For dessert, I had the Byrrh,
A digestif to settle all that food.
Having only just half glasses had put me in the mood.

Satiated, satisfied,
I sat back in my chair with a delighted sigh.
It felt as though Utopia had finally drawn in nigh.

If you chance upon a restaurant
Whose menu begets a paradox of choice
You’d best hope they have the half-glass pour, and if they do rejoice.

For the wine flight is constructed
Meant for comparing and not completing
The option for the half-glass pour however, is certainly worth repeating.

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Taken in Lyon, France…not the bottle I drank from the night of the half-glass pours. 

 

I really do hate to keep bringing up wine producers that I’ve mentioned in the past because there is a megaton of wine in this world and I have a secret goal to experience 75% of it.  Alas, I only have access to an estimated 10% through my local wine shop, a paltry 45 additional percentage points through the internet, and perhaps a lousy 2.5 percentage points more through my worldly travels.  That’s only 57.5% of completely made up figures!  The point is, we all live in a bubble.

Anyway, I had a smashed burger and a glass of Washington Chardonnay so I’m winning at life.

4oz of not so lean ground beef, divided in half and rolled into balls.  1 cast iron skillet perched atop a burner set to 11.  2tbsps butter thrown into the skillet and melted which was immediately absorbed by the two halves of a delightfully fluffy hamburger bun and then toasted.  Oh yeah, you gotta roll that bun in the butter and make sure a little gets on the outsides too.  Just toast one side of each bun half though, let’s not get too crazy.  When the skillet was smoking, the two meat ball were thrown on and smashed as skinny as I could make them.  After they browned in their own fat (Le Burger Confit, no?) in a couple of minutes, they were flipped.  Salt and pepper were then applied.  A 2yr aged cheddar was put on one of the patties because every burger should have cheese.  Once the Maillard reaction had set in on both sides, the patties were scooped a placed on the bun.

Wine: Dusted Valley Chardonnay 2014

IMG_5925Notes:

OK, yes I had a side salad made of who cares and that was nice too.  I just want to get that out of the way for anyone worried about my health.

I don’t know why people still assume red wines pair better with burgers.  Maybe it’s the whole red meat, red wine thing? Regardless, I’m pretty sure everyone who has done it is completely on board.  Why does it work?  Well fat flavor begets fat flavor, for one. The trick with Chardonnay, and we’re talking the MLF, maybe some oak kind*, is always to find one with that delicate balance of butteriness and acidity, primarily in the form of green apple flavors.  Chablis is always the standard-bearer for this style and exemplar of balance, but they are certainly not alone in producing quality Chardonnays.  The best Chardonnays I’ve had are generally from cooler climates than central California, don’t carry too much oak, if any, and pack enough acid to make you not think you’re drinking a stick of butter.  Then when you mix that balanced Chardonnay with a fine cheeseburger to bring out the fact that you’re ingesting some delicious fat, protein, and carbohydrates…well, then you’re just living on the edge.

Oh yeah, the next night I added a dab of duck fat to the pan for a “twist”.  Then the third night I didn’t, but I just used 6oz of beef instead of 4…I may have a problem.  Good thing I ran out of meat.

 

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In the first draft of this piece I began with a 1,000 word treatise on the history, sociology, and science behind why people care about a wine’s vintage.  It was really great and all but A). You probably don’t care and B). I’d rather tell you about this vertical tasting I did the other day instead of trying to convince you that I know a lot about trivial matters.  But if you want to drink wine and talk about it sometime, let me know.

Here’s the abbreviated version. You’re welcome.

Let’s face it, worrying about the vintage (The year the grapes are grown and harvested) of a wine is, to the average consumer, so 2009.  It’s passé. It’s behind the times. It’s outmoded, outdated, obsolete.  It’s antiquated. It’s…vintage?  There are some really good reasons as to why the year the grapes are grown matters to how the wine will taste:

  • Acid, tannins, sugars, and phenolics levels (all the things that affect the flavor of the wine) are in flux until the grapes are picked.  Weather, the microbiome, and the grape overlords (humans), which are commonly known as Terroir, can all affect these levels.
  • The resulting wine from these ever-changing grapes will therefore be different assuming winemaking practices are the same.

The fact that there are differences has led small groups of humans to declare that some vintages are better than others based primarily on subjective reasoning.  However, there are reasons why this is somewhat nonsense:

  • Winemakers have always tried to produce consistent wines from year to year.  It’s only been in the past 50 years or so that they are actually getting good at it.  Wineries are a business.  They want to have consistent product and generally try to avoid a “New Coke” situation.
  • Wine is constantly changing.  Therefore, when someone declares that one vintage is superior to another, they may think differently if they tried the two next year.  Therefore it’s impossible to constantly compare the latest vintage with all of the vintages that have ever been.  Additionally, you’re comparing vintages against how they are now, not how they have been or will be.
  • People have different preferences (As will be shown below).

I offer this background purely to color my hesitation in putting on what is known as a vertical tasting where you taste and compare the same wine from the same producer made in different years.  With this particular vertical tasting I wanted to bring up all of the topics that come up in the snobby versions: weather, geography, bullshit, stories about the winery, but give them appropriate context as to why certain things matter and others don’t.

Through a serious act of self-restraint I had 6 years of Yoakim Bridge’s Zinfandel sitting in my cellar.  Yoakim Bridge is a Sonoma, CA winery located on Dry Creek Valley road between Lake Sonoma and Healdsburg.  Because I was only able to find 3 other people to partake in this venture I only brought out 4 years: 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 for the tasting.  All the bottles were opened about an hour ahead of time as an attempt at providing some sort of even playing ground.  Since we were having Zinfandel, I made some Strawberry/blackberry/ginger barbecue sauce and slow cooked some beef in it, served along side  cornbread and collard greens because sometimes I like to remind people that I was born in the south.

Everyone had 2 glasses (same size and shape) so I poured the 2008 and 2009 first before we moved on to the 2010 and 2011 all the while discussing the historical weather patterns and the growth cycle of a grape.  Correction:  I lectured on those topics and they politely asked some questions and then we discussed a variety of non-wine related subjects while we ate and drank.  I even had a map and a couple of graphs comparing the weather year to year…I thought that was kind of cool.

Yoakim Bridge produces what I would call a typical Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel.  If you were able to taste all of the Zinfandels that were grown and produced in Dry Creek Valley you would find that they all have relatively similar characteristics which is now starting to be defined as Typicity in the wine world.  When doing a vertical tasting, you’re really learning about the Typicity of that particular winery.  But of course, as with statistics, you’re really only discovering what is typical about your particular sample (In our case the 2008-2011 Zinfandels as they tasted on that day).

Dry Creek Zinfandel will have a number of common Zinfandel flavor characteristics if you were selecting them from a flavor wheel: a mix of red and dark berries followed by a collection of baking spices for those that have spent some time in oak.  It differs slightly from the typical Zin in that the big, bold jammy and stewed fruit flavors don’t usually appear.  The Yoakim Bridge 2008 and 2009 were fairly similar in flavor profile; more prominence of the darker berries than red, a dash of baking spices, prime for drinking…which, by the way, what does that mean?

When you make a red wine and especially if you throw it in some oak afterwords, it’s going to have some very noticeable tannins (the cotton-mouth feeling you get in your mouth after consuming red wines, coffee, teas, etc.) and hopefully a sufficient amount of acid (Saliva rushing into your mouth after you swallow).  Over time, both the harshness of acid and tannin will degrade.  When tannins degrade of “soften”, your saliva still binds to them causing that rough feeling, but it’s like someone changed the sandpaper grit from 40 to 180 (That’s moving from a coarser grain to a finer grain for non-sandpapering people).  Concurrently, while the Total Acidity (TA) doesn’t lessen significantly, the composition of acids in the wine does change.  The harsher acids transform through processes like esterification and the overall perception of acid is that it’s softer.  The resulting effect is that a wine that starts off being bright and exuberant will mellow over time.

So could the tannins of the 2008 have been a little softer than the 2009? Sure.  Could the acid have felt a little tamer in the 2008 than the 2009? Sure.  But the differences were fairly negligible and what what most wine connoisseurs are looking for really is balance anyway.  Have the tannins softened an appropriate amount that matches how the acid has softened or is one of those items still sticking out?  Both of these wines were well-balanced and well into their mellow period, which I assume is like an artist’s blue period,  in this respect and that’s  why I would call them prime for drinking.  How long a wine will age depends on how much and how well balanced the levels of tannin, acid, alcohol, and sugar are when the wine is made.  It should also be noted that while numbers about how long a wine can age are thrown about with alarming degrees of authority and confidence, I would estimate that the margin of error to these guesses is probably somewhere between (+/-) 5-10 years.  Fact is, the science of aging wine just isn’t at the point where anyone can state emphatically what is going on and what the exact timeline will be for the aging process.

The atypical wine of the bunch was the 2010.  It was brighter (think acid) and the fruit flavors were slightly more skewed to the red berry spectrum.  While the typical flavor profile returned in the 2011, it was noticeably younger than the 2008 and 2009 in that it also carried stronger acid and tannins.  Why the difference between the 2010 though?  The official conclusion is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Looking at the weather charts I put together, you can see a slight dip in average temperatures in 2010 along with less temperature fluctuation during the growing period which could theoretically mean a higher level of acid, but the winemaker could very well have done an acid treatment slightly differently that year, or perhaps a wine used for topping off was slightly different, fertilizer regiments could have been different, or…well there are a myriad of variables that could have changed.  I did send a last minute message to the winery to see if I could get the pH and brix (sugar levels) from each of the harvest years, but they hadn’t responded yet at the time of the tasting.

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In terms of preferences, there were 4 of us tasting and 3 different answers to that.  Two people thought it was a toss up between the 2009 and 2011, one person preferred the atypical 2010 probably because they’re a bit contrarian, and I preferred the 2008 most likely because I subconsciously have been programmed to think that the older a wine is the better it will be even though I consciously know that’s not necessarily true.  By volume, in a bottle line up after the initial tasting had been completed, the 2008 had the least, the 2009 was the second most drained, followed by the 2011, and the 2010 still retained the most.  So I win.

What does one really learn when they do a vertical tasting?  You learn that wine changes over time and that those changes will either be negligible or stark depending on where that chemical cocktail is in its journey.  It moves in terms of spectrums, not definite steps.  In this vertical tasting it was fortunate that none of these wines had passed their “Point of Diminishing Maturity” as I call it where all the components go from being balanced to falling apart.  I’ve been in tastings with wines that have been 30-40 years old and while most were certainly interesting, I wouldn’t want to drink more than a glass.  I’m sure there’s a 50 year old wine out there somewhere that tastes divine, but honestly I doubt I’ll ever get to experience it due to access issues.

Yes, wine gets better with age, but at some point they just get senile and crotchety.  Depending on the wine, that point can be 1 year all the way up to who knows.   Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a point at which the wine is “perfect”.  Some people prefer the young and bright wines, while others prefer the more mellow experience.  Also like people, a balanced wine will generally stay balanced throughout its lifespan until it turns into a balanced vinegar…except that people don’t turn into vinegar.  Oh dear, my metaphors have reached their Point of Diminishing Maturity.

 

Weather data attained from the National Centers for Environmental Information

Total Wine

Unrelated image

I had an unfortunate experience a couple of months back and I’ve finally gotten up the courage to write my thoughts down about this horrific event.  Therefore, be warned, you may cry as I relate this to you.

It was a normal winter day in Minneapolis which means I was going about my innocent business of getting work done, deciding if it was too cold or not to go for a run around the lake, and determining what delicious dish I wanted to grace my kitchen with for the evening.  Naturally, my mind will wander to wine when food is involved and it is a wonderful coincidence that my go-to wine shop is directly across the street from one of the grocery stores I go to.  As an aside, yes it’s the plural “grocery stores”, because a man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.  Anyway, in a rare occurrence, I had my heart set on a particular Shiraz/Viognier blend and as I approached the door, I had already mentally mapped my path through the wine store as to where this particular bottle would be procured.  I would head to the back left corner where Australian wines could be found and find it located on the middle shelf which roughly denotes its price point.  As I opened the door, I was greeted by the familiarity of Italian wines directly in front of me, but something was amiss.  Between steps two and three into the store, which also include a slight pivot so I wouldn’t blast through Barolo, it hit me deep in the gut:  The shop was in mid-transition from a layout organization that made sense to some degree to one that now, quite frankly, I’m not sure if I can get over.  Disaster.  You can cry now.

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For those of the unimpassioned variety, let me explain:  There are two general philosophies when it comes to how wines, primarily focused on still wines here, are organized and displayed in a wine shop.  The first is by varietal which means you’d see signs for “Chardonnay”, “Cabernet Sauvignon”, etc. smattered across the store.  One big flaw in this philosophy is when you get to wines that are blended from multiple varietals.  The other major flaw is that there are thousands of grape varietals that are used to make wine.  Hopefully, they are listed alphabetically…

The opposing philosophy then is to organize by wine regions.  Italian wines, French wines, Chilean (or “Chilian” as I saw in a wine shop once) wines all get their section of the store and then their respective wine regions and appellations are gathered together within.  The flaw in this philosophy generally comes from American wine.

Unlike, what we term “Old World” wine regions, aka European countries, American wines can go ahead and put the wine region on a bottle (e.g. Napa) regardless of what kind of grapes go into that wine as long as those grapes were grown in the region*.  However, in a wine region such as Burgundy, Rioja, or Chianti, they legally cannot put the name of the region on the bottle unless it is only made from certain grape varietals which all had to be grown within that region.  Therefore, if your wine store is laid out by region, the pristine organization kind of falls apart when you hit America.

Obviously, the correct answer, or at least the answer to appease the most number of people is somewhere in between those extreme philosophies.  Even then though, sides are chosen.  Some wine shops opt for a primarily regional-based layout and then elect for varietal labeling for domestic wines and generally also include a miscellaneous reds and whites section for the odd-balls.  Others go for varietal labeling as the primary, then sprinkle some regions haphazardly in between and top everything off with a poorly named red blends and white blends section. I say poorly, because if they have specific regional sections, those are going to be blends too. Additionally, the flavor profile of wines in the blends sections are all over the place so it’s kind of like a random grab bag.  Personally, I am biased towards the former instead of the latter, but that is most likely because I have a general sense of what kinds of grapes are in a bottle that is only labelled with the region it is from.  But imagine my dismay upon walking into a wine shop that is switching from a primarily region-based layout, to one that is primarily varietal-based.  It’s horrible.

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Interestingly, smaller wine shops are generally regionally focused while the big, discount wine shops are going to be varietal focused.  This generally has to do with the kinds of people that the wine shop attracts.  Ironically though, the typical shopper going to the smaller wine shop is probably going to be purchasing a wider variety of wines over time than the typical shopper going to the big store.  The larger stores just attract a barrel-load (wine term) more people who are generally more concerned about the price of the bottle and less interested in going on a virtual world tour.

Back to why my preferences are better.  When I walk into a wine shop in search of something interesting, which can be defined as:

  • a varietal of grape not usually found in a particular region
  • a unique blend
  • a wine from a lesser-known wine region

…I’m generally not going to find it in a store that has a primarily varietal layout.  Let’s say I’m looking for, or even want the possibility of coming across, a dry wine from Hungary.  Which section would you search for it in each type of wine shop?  In the wine shop that is primarily region-focused, they might have a Hungarian, or perhaps eastern European section if they want to throw in places like Croatia too.  Probably not, but I can dream, can’t I?!  More likely, they would throw it in to the Miscellaneous White section, because dry, regional wines from Hungary are made from single varietals of grapes like Tokaji Furmint and Tokaji Hárslevelű.  How about in the varietal heavy layout?  First, we can guarantee that they don’t have a Furmint or Hárslevelű section, because it would only be stocked with 1 or 2 wines.  Second, it probably wouldn’t be under its own region header because those are reserved for the most popular wine regions.  Third, it’s not a blend of different grapes, so it doesn’t really fall under that White Blends category either.  Therefore, you could probably wander around the shop for hours and not find it before you finally give up and choose whatever is on-sale near the door (which is what they really want you to do anyway).

This isn’t entirely a random example, by the way.  After my wine shop reorganized, I later was looking for some Tokaji Furmint, which I knew they had previously, but couldn’t find anymore.  The employees didn’t know where it was either until we finally tracked it down as being found tucked in between the Sauvignon Blanc and the Chenin Blanc, because when you switch to a varietal-focused organization and still have interesting wines, you’re forced to throw them in random places.

So is there an ideal layout?  For me there is.  I want the region-focused layout where domestic wine is somewhat broken down by varietal and if they really want to get me, they’ll have a section in the middle with a handmade sign that says, “Cool and interesting shit here.” and then there would be an arrow pointing to a curated collection of obscure wines.

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If you use a wine pun in the sign I will cut you.

I get that most wine is purchased by people who don’t know or don’t care what grapes are grown where and I’m not saying everyone needs to only enjoy regional-specific wine.  I do think a region-based approach creates the most certainty for wine consumers though.  If you know which grapes you like, you can buy a wine from a region that uses those grapes with some degree of confidence that you’ll like it in addition to only buying wines with those grapes on the label.  How tough would it be for a wine shop to throw up a small map of a country and its major wine regions listing the major grapes found in those wines?  Sure you could, you know, talk to people, but I’m an introvert and generally avoid talking to strangers, so maps would be better.  Whatever the map situation, just tell my wine shop to switch things back please.

 

 

*“New World” wine countries like America, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and all the other non-European countries don’t have laws that dictate what grape varietals can or cannot be included in a region-specific wine.  The only relevant law in place is that if the wine is claiming to be a varietal, like Cabernet Sauvignon, it needs to mostly be Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.  Percentages defining “mostly” vary by country, but most are >= 80%.  Why you generally don’t see a plethora of varieties from “New World” countries in your wine shop is primarily due to the filtering process of condensing a whole country of wine down to a 5ft expanse in the wine shop.  Yes, more than Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir is grown and made into wine in Marlborough, New Zealand, but chances are, you’ll only see those two.  If you walked into a supermarket or wine shop in a different country, you might think that only Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in Napa and only Pinot Noir is grown in Willamette Valley.  Of course, if you find yourself in a Chilean supermarket, you won’t find any foreign wines at all…

P.S. There is a 3rd “Philosophy” that some wine shops are trying and that is to organize the wines by flavor profile.  You’ll see signs that say stupid things like “Big and Saucy” or “Light and Airy”.  The idea is to attract people who know nothing about wine, but know what sounds tasty to them.  It’s not inherently a bad idea, but in practice it doesn’t work in a shop that has more than say, 50 wines to sell.

2 1/4lbs of porterhouse lightly aged and seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, browned on a hot, hot, hot cast iron skillet, then wrapped in foil with butter, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, garlic, Meyer lemon zest and shoved in a low-temp oven to slow cook for an hour.  And in the last act, the steak rested before I ate it or even cut it.  Because you always let it rest.

Oh, there was a side too: A hybrid caprese/panzanella salad composed of toasted bread in olive oil, salt and pepper, with tomatoes, mozzarella, and dressed with thyme, rosemary, Meyer lemon juice/zest, and olive oil.

Wine: R. Lopez Heredia’s Viña Bosconia 2004

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Notes:

While eating red meat all the time is certainly frowned upon in health and environmentally conscious circles, I find it entirely appropriate and perhaps the most luxurious thing one can do to have a perfectly cooked steak once in awhile.  Once in a blue moon may be too much time in between, but certainly no more than once every full moon.  Vegetarian and Vegan concerns aside, there’s nothing quite like the taste of highly saturated animal fat melting in your mouth.

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I had to include this shot showing the marbling on the steak because it’s my job to make you jealous in an educational way.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with various forms of cooking a thick steak, which of course I’ve always had with wine. I can say emphatically that if someone tells you you have to pair a certain wine with a steak they are most certainly trying to sell you something.  A wonderfully cooked steak, that has a bit of semi-crunchy texture on the exterior from the Maillard reaction (Which doesn’t “seal in the juices” or whatever people tell you) and a juicy interior regardless of any additional herbs and spices that have been added can go with a myriad of wines.  This steak could have gone wonderfully with a heavier bodied white that carried lemony aromas, or a sparkling wine, or a dry rosé, or one of a hundred different red wines.  Having said that, this steak was wonderfully accompanied by the Viña Bosconia because it is also a fabulous wine.  It’s mostly Tempranillo, as all riveting red Riojas are, and this one was displaying more bright red fruit flavors while the earthier flavors played back up.  Surprising myself, I actually let this wine sit in a decanter for a full hour before even looking at it.  That’s willpower.

HappyHour

I feel like I should put up a big disclaimer on this post.  So before you rush to the comments to start calling me Mr. Judgey McJudgerson, you should hear me out.  It’s been my experience that there is a significant portion of the American population that doesn’t have a healthy relationship with the toxin known as alcohol.  I’m not necessarily referring to the college aged binge-drinkers and early 20-something over-indulgers who are just out to have a good time, man.  I think most of that can be chalked up to youthful exuberance.  Instead, I’m referring to full-grown adults who after a stressful day/moment/milliseconds of life turn to their friends and say something to the effect of: “Phew! I need a drink!” which is silently suffixed by a look that you would hashtag as #amiright?.  And before you can get both legs of your Offended Pants on, you should know that I’ve been and occasionally still am one of those people.  However, I’ve been doing some reading over the years…

In my other life, I travel around working with electronic health records for various healthcare organizations and I tend to meet a large number of healthcare professionals, both those of the clinical focus as well as those of the operational or financial focus.  To date, my clients have spanned from the Big Island of Hawaii all the way to the coast of Maine so I don’t think my experiences have been regionally focused.  As an aside, since I know you’re curious, yes, there have been a few that have taken advantage of my wine education sessions while I was with them as well.  But I’ve come to find that this Half-Joking-But-Definitely-Doing-It culture about using alcohol to combat stress is pervasive across the country.  Actually, let me put one caveat to that:  there’s a contingent that don’t actually drink, but they’ll make the jokes anyway and quickly follow them up with “But I don’t really drink.” and then look at you in a worried fashion in case you still believe that they would ever ingest alcohol.

You can see this cultural mentality just about everywhere.  There are the “Mom Blogs” that justify why their glass of wine at the end of the day is necessary, there are the constant references to drinking alcohol as a cure for stress in movies and television (Mad Men, anyone?), and the whole concept of Happy Hour revolves around needing a drink after a stressful day of work.  Here’s the thing though, from the medical research readings and hours of experimentation and observation I have done on this subject, I don’t think it actually works.  I may not be an expert on the subject, but I am a reasonably intelligent person with the internet at my disposal (Plus a Health Informaticist who synthesizes a lot of public health recommendations)  and one time I took that Stress Management class in college so I can at least have a reasonably and somewhat informed opinion on the topic.  Let me tell you how I arrived at this conclusion.

This isn't whiskey...it's creative juice.

This isn’t whiskey…it’s creative juice.

First, let’s define the major components of what happens when we get stressed.  Almost immediately after encountering a stressor, whether it be rush-hour traffic, a casual meeting invitation from your boss to review your performance lately, a tiger, or a tiger driving next to you in rush-hour traffic, your adrenal glands begin to produce two hormones: Adrenaline and Norepinephrine.  These two hormones get your body prepped for what is commonly referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.  Your heart starts beating faster, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tense up and your brain starts calculating whether you should get those fists ready or sprint as fast as you can away from the situation.  Around the same time your Hypothalamus begins producing Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH) and your Pituitary Glands start producing Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH).  Neither of these have much of an external effect, but the combination of them eventually produces the hormone called Cortisol.  Cortisol is the breaks to Adrenaline and Norepinephrine’s accelerator and it’s main purpose is to help regulate fluid levels in the body and control blood pressure so your body doesn’t spin wildly out of control.  In other words it is there so you don’t die.  However, Cortisol is also what we associate with the feelings of stress and in fact we can directly correlate our feelings of stress with the amount of Cortisol flowing through our bloodstream.

Meow.

Meow.

Once the stressor is no longer an issue, the body self-regulates and the levels of all three hormones begin to reduce.  These hormones aren’t unique to the stress cycle.  You may have heard of them in terms of other bodily functions.  For instance, the norepinephrine pathway is manipulated by a drug to maybe-but-most-likely-not-because-we-have-no-idea-what-it-is-actually-doing* treat depression.  Cortisol, is the hormone that helps us wake up in the morning.  And so on and so forth. So when thinking about managing stress, it is not a matter of eliminating these hormones from appearing in the first place, but allowing them to effectively balance themselves.  Acute stress, or stress that is endured for a short period of time and dealt with generally will not have any negative effects on the body.  Chronic stress, or constantly dealing with stressors and not managing them effectively is what leads to negative health consequences.

Now let’s put alcohol into the mix.  The amount of research on stress and alcohol is fairly limited, but there is at least enough to contradict one big assumption.  The general working theory that your average Happy Hour patron has is that alcohol can be used as a tonic to relieve stress.  Basically, the thinking is that alcohol applied to stress is like aloe applied to a mild sunburn:  Apply liberally and eventually the irritant will go away.  Unfortunately, it appears that mixing alcohol with stress is more like a two-way street than a topical application.  Not only does alcohol affect the stress hormones, but the stress hormones appear to have effects on the body’s reaction to alcohol as well.

When you are stressed and you take those first couple of gulps of your apple-tini, I think most people would report that you do feel better.  And why not?  Alcohol, in small doses, has a relaxing effect through stimulating the release of Dopamine and Serotonin.  Serotonin, consequently helps to mitigate Cortisol.  These two hormones don’t necessarily get rid of the stress hormones, but they make us forget about them for a bit.  However, at some point, that same alcohol begins to turn into another source of stress on the body itself.  What point is this?  The jury appears to still be out and I’m sure there are a myriad of variables that can affect this, but the threshold is probably lower than we all think.  Regardless, this means that upon reaching this point, the “medication” quickly becomes an additional source of stress piled on top of the stress that has built up in your body.  This is pure conjecture here, but perhaps “Angry Drunks” are just those who are really stressed out people who make themselves more stressed out by consuming copious amounts of alcohol.

From the opposite side of things, the stress hormones have a general effect on how our body responds to the alcohol consumed.  This is mostly seen in a dampening effect of our intoxication level.  Therefore, people tend to consume more alcohol when they are stressed out because that point where you feel intoxicated arrives later than it typically does.  How this happens is still not clear, but you could probably see this in your own drinking habits if you kept a journal of your stress levels while drinking (Doesn’t that sound like fun?!?!).  Consequently, if you are continually drinking while stressed out, your alcohol tolerance level will probably keep going up as well which could lead to chronic alcohol abuse/dependency, poor sleep, prohibition, and of course, more stress.  In other words, the very thing you are using to reduce your stress becomes the source of it.

Now who needs a drink after reading all of that? Just kidding! Don’t do that.  I think the lesson that can be pulled from all of this is that before we drink we should be aware of our stress levels and the reasons why we are reaching for a drink to begin with.  If you’re stressed, and you have a glass of wine or two with dinner, it is probably unlikely that you will suffer any consequences.  In fact, you’ll probably just enjoy it.  However, if your habit is to binge on a few drinks after a stressful day of work or child-rearing, that habit could be detrimental to your long-term health.  In fact, it might even be a good public health campaign to encourage people not to drink if they are feeling stressed and save the drinking for the happy or at least mood-neutral times.  I think there is some evidence to state that stress or just being in college could be a major contributing factor in the over-consumption of alcohol.  Stress can be better addressed through other activities like exercise or meditation which there is plenty of positive evidence to support.  Therefore, next time you get the invitation or inclination to indulge in some alcohol application to your stress problem, take a second to think about it, and then politely decline. Save the drinks for when you can enjoy them since that’s what they are there for anyway.

*This isn’t a joke, the drug commercial is legally obligated to state that they have no idea how the drug actually works.

Some additional links for more fun reading:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=emma+childs+alcohol+stress

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/19/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800.html

WhiskeyGifThere was a time, not too long ago that I drank whiskey neat because I was a man or something.  OK, there were actually some good reasons for this:

  1. If you order whiskey neat in a bar, there is a low risk of them screwing up the drink.  Plus, you know exactly how much alcohol you are getting compared to everything else that might potentially go in the glass.
  2. If I’m having a good tasting whiskey, I just want to taste the whiskey.  No accompaniment needed.
  3. I have a beard sometimes and therefore it’s required of me by society to drink whiskey neat.
  4. Everyone I’ve talked to generally agrees that I look BA drinking whiskey neat.  Some have even gone as far as saying I look like a BAMF, but they may be over-exuberant.

Over this past winter however, I did a little dabbling in the H20 realm, and now I’ve been adding a few drops into some whiskeys depending on my mood.  As a frequenter of high class bars all around the world, as I know you are, you may have picked up on this little technique and even perhaps noted that certain high class bars will serve a small dram of water alongside the whiskey.  This is not a suggestion that the bartender thinks you may be alcoholic or can’t handle your liquor as I once thought in my early twenties when asked if I wanted a glass of water alongside my whiskey.  The presentation of water alongside whiskey is more of a, “If you desire it…” offering.

A whiskey enthusiast might state that adding a few drops of water to the glass will “activate” the aroma compounds in the whiskey.   A logical and cynical mind might respond: “What the hell does that mean?” Usually, the whiskey enthusiast really has no idea, but hopefully is at least speaking from the experience they have had where they prefer the whiskey with a few drops of water opposed to the whiskey sans agua.  So what’s really going on?

In the simplest sense, the addition of a bit of water is masking certain aromas and enhancing others.  That fact is really the actionable part of any research that’s been done so far on the subject.  If you want to get really sciencey, (Which OMG, yes, do I) then you can read a nice little paper on it here.  If you want an educated professional’s nicer description, you can read it here.

Therefore, if you want to have a go at this little bit of scientific manipulation here’s what you do:

  1. Grab two glasses
  2. Pour an equal amount of whiskey into both
  3. Smell and taste both, perhaps with some water in between
  4. Drop, let’s say, 5-10 drops of water into one of the glasses
  5. Smell and taste both again.  Do they smell or taste slightly different?
  6. Proceed to drink both glasses of whiskey.  Don’t act like you weren’t going to.

If you truly want to be scientific about it, I would get someone else to apply the water for you, but you’re probably drinking alone again so don’t worry to much about it.  The key word in step #5 is “Different”.  Notice I didn’t say “Better” or “Worse”.  Just different. Different strokes for different folks.

In applying this new found knowledge, whenever you come across a whiskey that you like, but it’s perhaps not “Popping” for you; give it a few drops of water.  You can really keep adding drops of water until the point where you start telling yourself that “This tastes like watered-down whiskey.”  If you come across a whiskey you don’t like, you are free to use it for fire-based parlor tricks, a fuel source, or a disinfectant in the event of a bar fight.  Water dilution will never help a bad whiskey unless it’s diluted to the point it can no longer be tasted.

Additionally, that scientific research article mentioned above which you didn’t read also concludes that cooling down the whiskey (AKA: adding ice) may have a similar, albeit through a different mechanism, effect.  Personally, I haven’t found a whiskey I prefer at “Ice temperature” opposed to room temperature or slightly below room temperature, but I will leave that to personal preference.

For those that really want to be an annoying snob to their friends, I would recommend only utilizing water sourced from a location near the distillery of the whiskey you are drinking.  While there is certainly no proof behind it, some people do claim that utilizing the whiskey’s local water is truly the ultimate experience. I think something could be said for not using overly hard or overly soft tap water, or perhaps even the ice that has been sitting in your freezer for the past month, but here in Minneapolis, the tap water is just fine.

Think of this as an extra tool in your drinking tool belt and not something that should be done every time.  “Whiskey need a little sprucing? *Sprinkle in some magic water!” And remember, if you hide the water, people will think you’re drinking it neat anyway.

*Extra points for creative sprinkling technique.

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