Can’t decide what to drink? Here’s a few tips….

(Photo: Dan Engongoro)

(Photo: Dan Engongoro)

How does one decide what to drink?

Sounds easy enough. But the process can range from simply buying the cheapest booze possible to spending weeks of pensive contemplation picking the perfect bottle.

Gone are the days of loyal consumer brands. Today’s drinker is more adventurous and looking to experience all the possibilities because there is incredible access to products from around the world that could never have been imagined 20 years ago. The Internet has afforded us access to information, and therefore learning and sharing of experiences.

The challenge nowadays is deciding what to purchase in the vastness of shelves and product displays.  Who knows what all these bottles are? What if I waste money on the wrong thing?

First off, drinking should be fun. There’s alcohol in it for a reason, so relax. Here is a short course in making better choices when picking out alcoholic beverages:

It’s about context — the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW(s) of drinking.

WHO: Is it an intimate gathering with in-laws or a reunion of frat brothers?

WHAT: Are we eating a fancy meal or bar hopping?

WHERE: A private room at the cigar club or a back yard BBQ?

WHEN: Morning, noon or night?

WHY: Are we having a discussion about the dis/advantages of French vs. American oak or looking to catch a morning buzz over eggs benedict?

HOW: Are we using large crystal snifters or red solo cups?

Asking these questions and others helps make better beverage decisions by putting context in the proper perspective. While Chimay Blue might be a beer worth storing in the cellar to truly appreciate, a PBR makes more sense while floating on an inner tube down the Delaware River.

The second part of context is understanding the product via culture, geography, agriculture, and the cuisine of its representative region. Knowing a little bit about a place and its people can help one better understand what to expect. For example, in the U.S. we like “BIG”, so expect big beverages with strong flavors and high alcohol. We also like “clean” which translates to fruitiness in wines (sometimes with sugar, too), hoppy bitterness in beer, and the sweet flavors of vanilla and caramel in whiskey.

The same could be said for bottles coming out of the “New World” like South America, Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, “Old World” (i.e. Europe) beverages (particularly wine and whiskey) often have a characteristic funkiness or earthiness to them. Although this style takes getting used to, there is much to appreciate when you discover its nuanced nature. Of course, these are generalizations since New World producers nowadays are creating Old World-style products and vice versa. However, this rule of thumb generally holds.

A basic guideline used in food and wine pairing helps put this into practice — “What grows together, goes together”. Take the Easter meal, for example. People will be getting together for brunch or early dinner with family and friends. This is a good time to try something different, see how it complements your meal, and learn what your family and friends like. Spend a bit of time thinking about the origin of the meal you’ll be enjoying and about the types of things your company appreciates. For example, if your company enjoys stinky cheeses, they may enjoy an old world wine from France or Italy. If they prefer mild cheeses, try something from the new world, like the California or Australia.

Pairing beverages with your meal is a lot of fun, and when a good match is found, it’s immensely satisfying. It’s worth picking up this month’s edition of Food & Wine magazine as an excellent reference for pairings. Enjoy the process of exploring and don’t be afraid to make a “questionable” choice; that’s all part of the experience. Even Aldo Sohm, Chef Sommelier of Le Bernardin, New York’s internationally acclaimed four-star seafood restaurant, will try six or more wines with a new dish to find the perfect pairing; and he’s an expert.

So give it a try. After a few drinks, simply catch a buzz and enjoy it.

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