I’ve noticed something of late. Any time I’m with a drinking rube (not a fine alcohol snob like myself) and I hand them something to taste that is just the best, he will often take a sip, contemplate it, look at me, and say just one word: “Smooth.”
Sometimes, he’ll even elongate the vowels—smoooooth—nervously, keeping his eyes on me to see if I agree with his assessment. And, the thing is, I don’t at all. Because smooth is an absolutely worthless flavor descriptor when it comes to alcohol. In fact, it’s one of the many pieces of drinking jargon you need to completely scrap from your life if you ever want to achieve any sort of alcoho-linguistic greatness.
As evolved lushes, we owe it to ourselves to do better. Here are the worthless terms that need to be retired from the boozing word bank.
Most great alcohol is unquestionably not “smooth.” The world’s greatest mezcals and Scotches sure aren’t. Neither are most of planet earth’s best imperial stouts and lambics. And anyone who thinks the brilliant George T. Stagg is “smooth” is out of his goddamn mind. Great liquor is complex, it’s rough, and it usually burns. It’s alcohol—and I like it that way! The burn is where a lot of the flavor hides before truly kicking in. It’s what let’s you know you’re drinking a 138-proof bourbon and not a glass of almond milk.
Instead, say: “This alcohol didn’t make me immediately wretch like the swill I usually drink. I think that means it’s good!”
Boozy is the polar opposite of “smooth,” and it’s what some people say when they can taste even a slight hint of ethanol in anything. But guess what? Anything you drink that will cause you to sing along to “Livin’ on a Prayer” and eventually pound pizza at 4am probably has ethanol in it and is thus, ipso facto, “boozy.” Except for, like, Cronut-flavored vodka, I suppose. That shit is smooooth.
Instead, say: “Bartender, could you add more Coke Zero to this Pappy? I’m not sure I can handle it otherwise.” (Photo: Liz Barclay)
Hops are one of only four completely necessary ingredients in beer. So, yeah, pretty much all beer is “hoppy.” But hops don’t just taste like one thing, and that’s why I find hoppy a fairly worthless term. Hops are usually bitter, of course, but aroma and flavor-wise they can express themselves in a variety of interesting ways: as citrus or tropical fruits, herbal and pine forest-y, or even dank and marijuana-like. There are even hops that taste of onions and garlic if you can believe that. (See also: “malty,” “yeasty”)
Instead, say: “This IPA tastes like someone just tied me down and squeezed a grapefruit into my damn face.”
I hesitate to put this term down because, unlike hops, peat does have one fairly distinct aroma and taste. The problem is, the term peaty is typically exclaimed only by someone who hates the fact that such an incredibly distinct smell has just singed his nose hairs and left him sprinting for the bathroom faucet. A real Scotch enthusiast doesn’t sip a Laphroaig 18 and go, “Yum…and peaty too!” It’s what someone says after sipping Ardbeg Uigeadail and hating that it doesn’t taste more like the “smoother” Johnnie Walker Black he usually drinks during free office happy hours.
Instead, say: “I’m just not sure I like drinking something that tastes like a junkyard tire fire getting extinguished by bog water.”
How often do a see a tough guy enter a bar and remark to his broseph or ladyfriend that he only drinks “dark” beers. “Eh, bartender, gimme something that’s dark. Nothing wussy.” But what exactly does that mean? Pints of ruby-red Guinness are in theory “dark.” (Yes, it’s ruby-red, look closely.) But they’re also a mere 4.2% ABV and a meager 125 calories and can be thrown back with abandon. On the other end of the spectrum you might have, say, Avery Brewing’s Uncle Jacob’s Stout. A pitch-black bourbon barrel-aged booze bomb, it’ll take you a good hour to polish off, and the world around you will quickly be dark if you drink a couple because, at 17.42% ABV, it’ll leave you staring at the back of your eyelids.
Instead, say: “I bet drinking this brown beer makes people assume I have a large sex appendage.”
Light isn’t as bad of descriptor as dark, but it’s still bad, especially if you’re strictly talking about the color of the beer. Yes, a lightly colored beer might be a 4%-ABV commercial lager you can order by the pitcher and still operate heavy machinery afterward. But it could also be a bright-yellow Belgian tripel, clocking in at around 12% ABV and packed with more flavors than a 15-course tasting menu at a place you can’t afford. It’s somewhat more acceptable to ask for something “lite,” though no one is forcing you to drink tonight. Go to Soul Cycle or something if you abhor calories so much.
Instead, say: “Water, please.”
Unlike the previous terms, you probably don’t use “quaffable” unless you’re being ironically amusing, but if you do use the term legitimately—stop. Quaffable brings to mind pretentious fops like Miles from Sideways, or Frasier and Niles Crane (in other words: overly-educated, balding white guys). Yet, even if it wasn’t a mark of pure arrogance, it would still be useless term. As I see it—and maybe I’m just a degenerate drunkard—anything you can throw down your gullet that doesn’t immediately poison you is inherently “quaffable.” Except Mudslides at chain restaurants. That shit’s just gross.
Instead, say: “Yo, I could destroy a whole carafe of this sherry—then order another!”
I’ve used the term spirit-forward to my advantage quite frequently. Yet I still feel it’s one term that might have overstayed its welcome. Unlike the previous words, which are mostly utilized by neophytes, spirit-forward is more of an industry term—something an “in the know” customer might say to a bartender when trying to figure out what to order when faced with a esoteric cocktail menu. What it essentially means is, a bold cocktail in which you can actually taste the base spirit(s), not one in which the bourbon or whatever is completely masked by sugars and fruit juices. But my thinking is, if I’m paying fifteen bucks for a cocktail, it damn well better be spirit-forward. I’m not paying for fresh-squeezed kiwi juice, barkeep!
Instead, say: “That super expensive cocktail with the funny name is gonna get me drunk, right?”
Most made up descriptors that end in -y
I’m highly guilty of this one and I’m not sure I’ll ever exonerate myself. There’s a sickness in the alcohol world when it comes to flavor descriptors and simply using common nouns with a tacky –y tacked onto them. So the porter is chocolate-y, the IPA is citrus-y, the stout is motor oil-y, the barleywine is dark fruit-y, the wild ale is horseblanket-y. And when I’m writing a piece about hooch, my entire document is packed with red squiggly marks under all these silly words—because they aren’t real goddamn words. We all need to try to find better descriptors that aren’t simply made up words forced into another grammatical category.
Instead say: “This wine tastes really grape-y and I really don’t care if Goldfarb claims I can’t say that because he’s totally douche-y.” (Photo: New Yorker)