Is there a meal or specific food that you remember as if you had it yesterday, no matter how long ago? Have these experiences shaped your personal palate and influenced the food and drink you consume to this day? Surprisingly, after nearly fifty years, I almost understand how my neanderthal brain functions, and with that, I know I just love to eat. If you know me, this might be a surprise considering my pear-like dad-bod physique. Even today, there are some meals that I truly enjoy and crave which I can link back to memories from my childhood. These might surprise everyone and to many, some of these may be considered glutenous or outright, disgusting.
Often, after a celebration or holiday, my mother would make her mother’s traditional meal, Swedish meatballs. Thick and rich gravy, large, tasty meatballs, mashed potatoes, and something green that I would eat very little was commonplace. It was a feast fit for kings and never did a belly leave the table hungry. To this day I still crave that satisfying feeling of a full belly and droopy eyes yearning for a nap.
In my neighborhood growing up, there was a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant that everyone knew and was a mainstay for any afternoon or late-night meal. The flavors were bountiful, and the prices cheap enough teenagers could scavenge change for a meal from their car floorboards or between the cushions of their car seats. The taste of the tacos was almost as addictive as crack and even thou we knew these could not be good for us, based on the vast array of creatures that crawled the walls, as well as the evidence of the large green D from the health code notice, they were just too delicious to have only one. These were the tacos of the Gods and I could not eat enough. Even today, tacos are my go-to for personal gluttony and with that, I am prouder than you could imagine. Did I mention my pear-like shape?
My family heritage stems from very proud, Pennsylvania German and Dutch American immigrants. Although many of my family’s traditions have been lost on me, certain foods during holiday meals have come to be some of my personal favorites. Every year, my birthday occurs around the Thanksgiving holiday and sauerkraut has been a family staple for generations. As any other child, the idea of eating sauerkraut was up there with asparagus, broccoli, and Brussels Sprouts. To be fair, I love them all today! My grandmother was always the sweetest, and one of the sharpest, wittiest individuals I have ever known. Every year, Thanksgiving was a battle of wills, would this be the year I would partake of the time-honored family tradition? Would sauerkraut reign supreme or would I again thumb my nose? Often, the notion of my birthday and cake, (which is one of my loves), would surface and the temptation of not having birthday cake would be used as a bargaining chip to get me to eat sauerkraut. With conviction, my hatred of sauerkraut proved to be stronger and I held fast against consuming the fowl fermented cabbage. One year, my grandmother proved she was the greatest trickster of all time and taught me a very valuable lesson. It was that year, she made a vanilla-coconut iced, white cake. I returned for seconds and thirds, much to the laughter and enjoyment to my grandmother. What I did not know, the vanilla-coconut flavor was from various extracts and the coconut texture was compliments of sauerkraut mixed into the icing. Yes, the thought of this combination is still disgusting to this day, however, the cake was sliced directly from Heaven. Now, I am certain you are cringing at the thought but do not knock it until you try it. I learned several valuable lessons that day, including birthday cake and fermented products are quite delicious when consumed together.
As a teenager, I found myself turning to exercise in an attempt to gain weight for various high school sports. I loved to eat but I did not always eat especially healthy. Although most teenage bodies can consume anything without repercussions, I always struggled gaining weight. Clearly, that is a problem I have overcome with age. At the time, I was encouraged to eat a mountain of tuna fish daily, but tuna has never been a flavor I especially enjoyed. One day my father suggested mixing tuna fish with applesauce, which I believe was his way of joking with me to see if I would try something disgusting. Desperately, I tried the concoction and, as I often say, it did not suck. In fact, the combination was very palatable, and I continue to eat this unusual mixture to this day. Again, do not knock it until you try it.
Each of these examples represent a moment of my past which have influenced my personal palate and preferences. Now, if you are still reading this, you are probably wondering, what in the hell does this have to do with bourbon? Our experiences, good and bad, our likes and dislikes, all define our preferences and the flavors we obtain through our senses of smell and taste. For each of us, these are extremely personal and impact our unique opinions and preferences. It is not uncommon for individuals to discuss tasting notes regarding bourbons and have very different descriptions of how they would describe the flavor notes they are obtaining. These are often different because of their unique personal experiences. Because these experiences are different for all of us, how do you know you can trust the opinion of others, including myself, of what bourbons and whiskeys are good?
Cost and value aside, everyone’s opinion of what is good, is often quite different. This is not just about bourbon, consider if you will, food, music, art, sports … truly everything we enjoy, and dislike are shaped by our personal experiences and preferences. Yet, every day, across social media, Facebook groups, Instagram, and social gatherings, it is all too common to hear people blindly asking others about their opinion of various bourbons, and if they are any good or worth the cost? This always surprises me because these questions are being asked without any understanding of individual likes and dislikes, where their personal taste profiles lean, individual budget constraints, and answered without any knowledge of the individual asking.
The Dickel Distillery is well known for producing many amazing and high-quality products. For me, their signature trait associated with their yeast is the nose and taste of dill. For myself, I do not enjoy dill and because of this, I have rarely enjoyed whiskeys produced at the Dickel Distillery. Now, I am not, and have never spoken ill of Dickel products, many people enjoy them. However, for me, these is not pleasant and not something I personally enjoy. Does that make it a bad product? No, they are not products I purchase for myself. As I stated earlier, many people enjoy their products so am I doing them a disservice by just answering their questions based on how they ask? For myself, I always feel I must give context about my position on their products before I answer their question. They make great whiskey, it just isn’t for me.
How often do you ask the opinion about a product or listen to others talk about a product, good or bad, without any context of how they formed their opinion? Gathering intel and getting input from third-party sources is always a very good suggestion but make certain you understand the context of the source before taking each opinion as gospel for yourself. Even trusted sources can have diverse opinions. Ultimately, trying the product before you buy is always the best research anyone can do. Only then, can you determine if a product is good, or worth the cost for yourself.
Bourbon hunting is already hard enough. Brands are coming out with new releases and new single barrel selections continuously saturate the market. New and old brand names are being revitalized and re-released, using mash bills, ages, and proofs, already available at various price points. Some brands are just sourcing their products from other distilleries without much disclosure regarding their lineage. Before you spend your hard-earned money, get to know those individuals whose opinions are being solicited, make certain your palates align, and get out and try before purchase for your own bar. Armed with this information, you will begin to appreciate recommendations much more, and be better prepared to share your own
Until next month, Ciao and CHEERS!
This article was originally published in The Bourbon Zeppelin, the Bourbon magazine of the ABV Network. For more from The Bourbon Zeppelin click here.