Nov 29, 2006

Becoming a Booze Expert

Doctors are experts at saving lives; lawyers are experts at arguing; architectural engineers are experts at designing buildings that won't fall down. If they screw up, someone dies or goes to jail, and that is why they go through years of training and get paid the big bucks. I, on the other hand, am an expert at drinking. If I screw up, I wake up in the morning with a wicked headache and a vague sense of guilt.

And yet I earn my living at it. I actually get paid to write about booze, and this damn well makes me an expert. My training consisted of years of barroom pool games, the occasional drinking contest, marathon drunkfests and lots and lots of tasting. Tasting carefully, with an open mind, reservedly sometimes and with gusto at others. My training consisted of reading—books, magazines, the backs of bottles—and talking—with fellow drinkers, fellow bartenders, distributors, brewers and distillers.

The trouble is, I may be an expert but I still don't know shit. The world of liquor, beer and wine is a vast and ever-changing one. There's the consumer-facing world of it (what's that taste like? what's in that cocktail or proprietary blend?) and there is the business end of it (what's popular right now? what's going to be popular? who the hell thought garlic vodka was a good idea?). Us experts tend to have our niche—I'm working on beer—and we protect it fiercely.

Now, the hairy eyeball I get when I tell folks that I write about booze for a living doesn't help my self-confidence any. The eyebrow goes up, a faint smile curls up one side of the mouth, and I can hear that question rattling around inside their brain: really, aren't you just a drunk that gets paid?

I suppose, in some ways, I am. There is nothing tangible that separates me from the casual drinker—no years of schooling, no apprenticeships and mentor programs, no certificate to prove I am fit for critiquing that expensive vintage. But I do have one thing that sets me apart—one thing that makes me proud to be a booze expert, one thing that allows me to continue to earn my living: I can probably drink you under the table.

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