How to Drink Whiskey

What is it that makes a drinking experience pleasurable?

When I asked fellow drinkers this question, their typical replies were something like “savoring a whisky that I like,” “having a beer with character,” or “drinking a wine that is not boring or bland.” Their responses largely focus on the quality or the specific flavors of the drink.

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For this reason, it is not surprising that you can find countless drinks magazines (including Malt Advocate) and books by “experts” in the field telling you which whiskies taste great, which beers are boring and bland, and so on. I must confess that I generally stock my fridge with what I consider to be well-produced, characterful beers. The bar in my house is blessed with an array of complex single malt Scotch whiskies and single barrel bourbons.

So why then, at a friend’s party the other night, did I thoroughly enjoy a very ordinary and unexciting blended scotch—one I would never think of buying for my bar? Why did I find my favorite strong, full-flavored Trappist ale a burden to drink at a social gathering a couple weeks ago? It became obvious to me that increasing the quality of what one drinks does not guarantee that the experience will be more pleasurable. In fact, it can be counter productive, as I learned at these two parties I attended.

Know Thy Flow When You Drink Whiskey

It would seem that the drinker’s state of mind plays a much larger role in a pleasurable drinking experience than the actual drink itself. But in what way? If how we think when drinking is more important that what we are drinking for a pleasurable experience to occur, how then should we think? What can we as drinkers do to make drinking more fun? Does the same remedy work for every drinker in every circumstance?

In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests that the key to optimizing the pleasure of a human experience lies in the balance between the skills of an individual and the challenge of a given activity. When this balance is achieved, he describes the experience as being in the flow, which is shown graphically in Figure 1. When the challenge of an activity does not meet the skill of the individual, boredom results. Conversely, an activity that is beyond an individual’s skills produces anxiety.

Mr. Csikszentmihalyi’s findings were based on a study he conducted that consisted of spending hundreds of hours observing artists while they were working and interviewing them afterwards. When the challenge of their activity was balanced with their artistic skills—when they were in the flow—the artists became completely engrossed in what they were doing. When in this state, the results of the activity were insignificant. The artists didn’t care what became of the painting once it was done. Rather, the activity of painting itself provided its own rewards. The activity was autotelic—worth doing for its own sake.

“joy, deep concentration, a heightened sense of mastery…”

In an article in the Shambhala Sun (September 1998 issue), titled “The Man Who Found the Flow,” author Andrew Cooper describes Mr. Csikszentmihalyi and his research. Here, flow is described as a mental state which produces feelings of “joy, deep concentration, a heightened sense of mastery, a lack of self consciousness, and self transcendence.” Mr. Csikszentmihalyi explains that “moments of flow occur when our physical or mental capacities are stretched to their limits in pursuit of worthwhile goals.”

One might argue that enjoying a drink isn’t exactly a worthwhile goal. But I would argue that a pleasurable drink, like a pleasurable meal, is a worthwhile goal. Mr. Csikszentmihalyi believes that just about any activity can be made autotelic: “Flow is not something that happens to us, it is something we make happen… it is the result of our ability to focus, and thus give order, to consciousness.”

Drinks Will Flow

Referring back to Figure 1, I think it is fair to say that readers of Malt Advocate have developed greater drinking skills than the average person. By drinking skills, I don’t mean having the ability to drink a six-pack of beer or pint of whisky in one sitting. Rather, I am referring to having the ability to identify aromas and flavors and having a palate that appreciates the different flavors and subtle nuances of a particular drink.

Under a controlled environment, our increased skills require a more challenging drink to stay in the flow—a drink with multi-dimensional flavors and complexities that evolve on the palate. A bland, straightforward drink under normal circumstances falls below our flow channel and therefore bores us.

This concept of flow explains why the largest selling drinks in each beverage category will never be overly challenging to the palate—that is, until the drinking populace becomes better educated. The drinking skills of the average person remain low enough that for them to remain in the flow channel, their choice of drink can’t be too challenging, or anxiety will ensue. Sadly, many of the people who drink in our society drink for the buzz the alcohol affords them. Not only do they not have developed drinking skills, they don’t even want them.

Conversely, even the most skillful drinkers can be challenged to levels extreme enough to produce anxiety. When was the last time any whisky “expert” volunteered to identify, in a blind tasting, randomly chosen single malts in front of an audience? The pressure would be enormous! So, every individual has the potential to be on either side of the flow channel.

Finding The Flow

So, let’s revisit what actually happened to me at the two parties I attended. I typically drink alone (when I am reviewing products professionally), with my wife, or with a friend. Under these circumstances, I usually have plenty of time to focus my attention on what I am drinking. My skills are at their peak, and a challenging drink is necessary to keep me in the flow. But when I was at the parties, my attention was drawn away from what I was drinking because of all the distractions. In effect, my drinking skills were lowered and, to remain in the flow, a less challenging drink was appropriate. This explains why I was overly challenged by the Trappist ale and quite content with the ho-hum blended scotch.

So, how do we apply this theory to our every day drinking experiences?

First, we must realize that we don’t drink in a vacuum. Our mindset and its contributing factors—mood, the time of day, the weather, whom we are with, how much sleep we got last night, what we are eating, how thirsty we are, what we are watching, etc.—all play a role in our drinking skills level. I would add that we must accept the fact that no two individual’s skill levels are identical. For this reason, we must be accepting of the fact that just because you are particularly enamored with a given drink doesn’t mean that your drinking partner should be—even if they liked it the last time the two of you were together.

Second, we should select a drink based on our skill level to remain in the flow of a pleasurable drinking experience—understanding that the best drink for a given situation may not be the most flavorful or complex one. If you’re sitting alone in a quiet environment with a fairly receptive mindset, perhaps a big, complex single malt scotch is in order. If you’re sitting in a crowded noisy bar with a group of friends eating spicy chicken wings and watching beach volleyball, you might want to save yourself the expense and challenge and opt for a fairly straightforward lager, or something comparable.

Third, realize that each drink varies considerably in the level of skill required by the drinker, based on how challenging it is to drink (see Figure 2). For example, a cask-strength, peat-smoke infused single malt scotch from the island of Islay would rank very high on the challenge scale, while a typical supermarket brand blended scotch would rank fairly low. With beer, surely one of the most challenging styles would be the small group of spontaneously fermented lambic beers produced outside Brussels in Belgium, while the mass produced lagers so common throughout the world would dominate the lower range of the scale.

“…the range of challenge for a particular drink also varies.”

One thing that may not be so obvious is that the range of challenge for a particular drink also varies. A drink with a larger challenge range will appeal to a broader range of individual drinking skill levels. Put simply, these drinks are more versatile than others, because they appeal to a wider audience and will accommodate a wider range of mindsets of a given individual. From a practicality standpoint, they are also nice to have on hand, since regardless of the who the person is or what mood they are in, chances are that the intersection of the beer’s challenge level and the individual’s skill level for that moment will fall within the flow channel.

Some drinks that seem to express wide challenge ranges (and therefore greater versatility) include Highland Park 12 year old single malt scotch and Duvel, a golden strong ale from Belgium. If I were forced to live the rest of my life with only a handful of drinks to choose from, these two would surely be on that list.

In conclusion, there’s more to a drinking experience than the quality of the drink itself. We need to match the drink with what’s going on in our minds at the given moment for the experience to be truly pleasurable. Only then will we find ourselves drinking in the flow. And this is how to drink whiskey

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