Would You Please Stop Calling Whiskey Smooth?
Our columnist refuses to use the term to describe spirits. Read on for his argument.
Some years ago I was commissioned to write a travel guide to northern New England. I spent weeks on the road. I visited a heroic number of inns and eateries. I submitted my book on deadline.
But the thing I’m most proud of? I never once used the word “quaint.”
Avoiding this word was a challenge I gave myself when I started the project. “Quaint” struck me as the bedbug of New England travel writing—it crept in noiselessly, was irritating and was impossible to eradicate. It was so overused that it meant nothing. So I vowed to avoid it. Writers are rarely celebrated with thunderous applause or satchels of cash. We must rejoice in our nano-accomplishments. This was mine. Don’t judge me.
Now, let me share my most recent lexical accomplishment. To the best of my knowledge, I have never described a liquor or a drink as “smooth.” (Full disclosure: a Google search revealed that I once used “smooth-sipping.” Sue me.)
When I started writing about spirits I avoided “smooth,” since it seemed lazy and meaningless—like “quaint.” In the decade-and-a-half since—during which I’ve been a judge at many spirits competitions, which are essentially festivals of adjectives—I have come to view “smooth” not just as a dull lump of lead that weighs down discourse. It’s become an indicator as to how much attention I should pay to someone else’s opinions. If an acquaintance takes a sip of a spirit, nods knowingly at me, and says, “smooth!” I find myself discounting their opinion by 20 percent. If they draw out the word by saying “smoooooth!”, then I discount it by 35 percent.
Am I proud of this? No, I am not. Am I an asshole for viewing “smooth” as a red flag? Yes I am. But I am an asshole with the capability of self-reflection. (Please do not dwell on this image.) So recently I went a bit deeper to see if I can figure out my Pavlovian twitch triggered by “smooth.”
To start, what does smooth mean? It turns out it’s one of those words that’s chiefly defined by what it’s not.
In general use, “smooth” describes “a surface free from projections, irregularities, or inequalities,” or so says the doughty Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the first reference regarding alcohol to 1743. When referring to liquor, the OED defines it as “soft or pleasing to the taste; free from sharpness or acidity.” Of course, “soft or pleasing to the taste” is not helpful. It describes both a meringue and a marshmallow. And smooth is again defined by characteristics it lacks—“sharpness or acidity.”
This happens time and again. A case before the New York Supreme Court in 1897 actually revolved around the word “smooth”—a barkeeper was sold five barrels of whiskey, the first of which he considered smooth. The rest he did not. The barkeep sued his vendor for the cost of the four barrels, arguing that the contract called for “a good, smooth whiskey.” The aggrieved went on to define such a spirit as one “that did not burn, make vomit or drive away…customers.” Absence of vomit: more than a century later, this definition checks out.
Interestingly, smooth has also been used as a derogatory term—a quality to be avoided, although often facetiously. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper trotted out smooth when describing preferred liquors in his 1842 book, The Wing-and-Wing or, Le Feu-Follet. A character was comparing “smooth wine” with stiffer New England rum.
“Nothing goes down our throats that doesn’t rasp like a file, and burn like a chip out of Vesuvius,” he exclaimed. This, apparently, was a boast.
And others have celebrated the rough edges of questionable liquor, at times equating aggressiveness with quality. British writer “Dornford Yates” (the pen name for Cecil William Mercer) wrote in a 1952 novel, “A good brandy will always just touch the back of your throat; if it doesn’t, it’s not a good brandy.” A character in his book insisted that if your brandy went down easily, “a hundred to one it has been adulterated.” This was because fashionable young folks “demanded that their brandy be ‘smooth.’” To accommodate them, producers added a sweetener (gum arabic) to comb out the burrs.
In recent decades, smooth has been something to be sought out and embraced. Based on a search of two centuries of newspapers and magazines, I’ve found that the word “smooth” used effusively had its heyday in the years following Prohibition. A search of Google Books shows that “smooth gin” in particular had a boom in usage in 1934, the year after Repeal, with “smooth” describing other liquors rising and falling in popularity through the end of the century.
For instance, in the 1980s, Windsor Canadian Whisky touted itself as “Canada’s Smoothest Whisky,” with an ad featuring mountaineers roped together and scaling a fearsome peak. “Rugged country. Smooth whisky. Both unforgettable” was the tagline.
My hunch is that Prohibition gave a boost to “smooth” as a positive descriptor. During the thirteen-year drought, America had fallen out of the habit of regular tippling. The return to alcohol was surely startling. Liquor tasted strong. It must involve sorcery. So manufactures adulterated their liquor with sugar, flavoring, or glycerin, which would make it literally easier to swallow. Something that didn’t taste like liquor was something to be lauded and applauded. That misguided belief continues to this day.
So what you’re saying when you say “smooth” is that you’re enjoying the absence of something unpleasant. This is of limited utility. If someone asks you, “how is your day?” you would not reply, “it is superb because I have not been attacked by feral dogs.” You would speak of something that had happened rather than something that had not. It remains a word with no distinct meaning, like the word “nice.”
Upon further reflection, I now find “smooth” to be a reasonable foundation stone for describing a liquor. It’s essentially saying that what you’re drinking is better than a glass of carpet tacks. You are saying: “I like it. It is not bad.” But this is not an actual description. It is priming the house. You still need to paint it.
Proclaiming something to be “smooth” does not necessarily show a lack of discernment. It is merely how one clears one’s throat. And when you clear your throat, people around you will wait in anticipation of your saying something insightful and sparkling.
I will continue to discount the acuity of anyone who declares a spirit to be “smooth” by 20 percent—but only if they subsequently neglect to paint upon it. So go ahead and pronounce that glass of amber goodness to be smooth. There’s an asshole listening for what’s next.