Just How Subjective is Taste?

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December 1, 2014 by Bourbon Empire

In 2013, I attended a spirits tasting where I tried one whiskey so disagreeable that it defied easy description. There were no notes of “fresh fruit,” “baking spices,” “summertime jam,” or any other pleasant comparisons. All I could think was, “iceberg lettuce that has wilted on hot asphalt,” but not even this did the whiskey appropriate justice. I just grimaced and kept the opinion to myself.

Several months later, I was visiting another distillery, run by a man who was friends with the distiller responsible for my disaster several months earlier. Our conversation was lively, about what makes a whiskey truly exceptional and what makes a whiskey mediocre. I told him about my earlier experience and, in defense of his friend, a fellow micro-distillery owner, he just shrugged and reminded me that, “taste is subjective.”

Yes, taste is subjective. This is true, and you can set it in stone. Some of us prefer certain types of music or food over others, and there is no way to objectively rank or categorize things that give some people more pleasure than others.

But there’s just one problem. What if something sucks? In life, there are a few undeniable truths about what is good or bad. Grilled cheese sandwiches? Everybody likes those. Spoken word poetry? Nobody likes that. The saxophone part from Careless Whisper? It’s totally sweet, and you won’t find anybody who disagrees. But what about George Michaels’ haircut in the Careless Whisper video? Well, that totally sucks and makes it look like his head was molested by a bottle of Vidal Sassoon.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. People who suffered horrific car crashes while Careless Whisper was playing on the radio probably don’t like that sweet sax solo, and George Michaels’ mom probably thought his haircut looked okay in the video. These are cracks in the argument that muddle the case for an absolute verdict. They are reminders that taste is ultimately subjective.

But all within reason, right? Like, if you prefer ham on your pizza instead of pepperoni, that’s cool. If you generally like 8-year-old bourbon instead of 12-year-old bourbon because you don’t like dry tannins, there’s no arguing with that. Likewise, if you prefer the 12-year-old whiskey because you love tannins, more power to you. There’s clearly no right or wrong here.

But aren’t there points when arguments about the subjectivity of taste stop making as much sense? Like, if somebody tries to argue that rotten fish heads from the garbage make for a better meal than something just plucked from the ocean because “taste is subjective,” I’m not sure I agree. If somebody tries to argue that a lunatic smashing a toy piano with a hammer sounds better than Vladmir Horowitz playing a Steinway because “taste is subjective,” I’m beginning to wonder if that person just has crappy taste.

When my distiller acquaintance rose to the defense of his friend’s horrible whiskey with a reminder that “taste is subjective,” I was annoyed. Not because I don’t think taste is subjective, but because I detected that he was using this argument simply as a way to change the subject. He was avoiding an honest and critical discussion about what distillers can do to make the best whiskey possible. He reminded me that “taste is subjective” merely as a way to justify questionable aging shortcuts that warrant critical scrutiny.

Granted, I’ve had a few fun, even inspiring, moments with the new whiskey landscape’s goofier aspects: faux-moonshine, small barrels, etc. But these are essentially just the cracks in the broader argument. They are the moments in the Careless Whisper video when creative camera angles and inventive lighting make George Michaels’ haircut appear a little less ridiculous. They are the fleeting instances when that haircut doesn’t suck.

Of course, these brief moments are also the things that make the debate fun and sporting. Discussing these things—and never with the intent to draw blood—are the best part of being a whiskey geek. And all are meant to help both producers and consumers get on their best game. It’s not mean, it’s just honest.

The most annoying kind of whiskey geek is that swaggering loudmouth who talks of rules and absolutes: drink it this way, don’t drink it that way, older is better, this is the only thing that works, that never works, blah blah blah. That guy totally sucks, which I think we all agree is an undeniable truth. But then there’s the second most annoying kind of whiskey geek: the opposite of the loudmouth—somebody with no point of view who refuses to take a stance and retreats from an honest and critical discussion by waving a white flag emblazoned with the words “taste is subjective.” Not that it isn’t a valid point, but when it’s used merely as an excuse or as a cop out…well, then it just kind of sucks.

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