Monday, August 17, 2020

Whiskey Yoda Says, "There Is No Best, Only You Like Best"

Au Cheval, a restaurant here in Chicago, makes a double cheeseburger that Food Network’s 'Top 5 Restaurants' program named the best burger in the U.S. There have, of course, been many ‘best burger’ lists, also best pizza, best candy bar, best breakfast, best ice cream, best cereal, best barbeque, best snack, and of course best whiskey.

While I’m happy for the folks at Au Cheval, and I think it’s great when people are applauded for their accomplishments, I despise these lists, all of them, especially the whiskey ones. I believe the people who make them and the people who believe and rely on them have a serious character flaw. At least one. This is, therefore, just a vent. I am under no illusion that this will change anyone’s mind. At best, it might give a little comfort to others who agree with me.

'Best’ is an illusion. There is simply no such thing without some sort of objective criteria, like weight, length, or height. Biggest burger is a real thing, best burger is not. It’s subjective, the judgment of one person or, maybe, a group of people. They certainly didn’t sample every burger in America, or even a small fraction of them. They say they have found the best burger in America but that's a lie. They have done no such thing.

The people who commission and make these lists are engaging in a tremendous act of hubris, choosing their favorite of something and declaring it ‘the best.’ Tallying the subjective opinions of several people does not render them objective. Everyone is entitled to have favorites but declaring that your favorite is ‘the best’ is narcissistic. Who are you to judge? Your taste is superior to mine? You've eaten more burgers than I have? Get over yourself! Better to tell the truth.

With whiskey, “what’s the best bourbon?” is the question I'm asked most often, usually followed by “what’s your favorite bourbon?” when I demure on the first question. When asked these questions I am friendly and polite (usually) and try to give a satisfying answer, naming four or five personal favorites, but what I really want to do is turn and run away, lest I start to lecture them about the need for a complete life change.

If you really could determine the 'best bourbon,' you might regret it. I like to try new things but if I know what the best is, why bother? Taste a new whiskey because it just might be better than the best? What are the chances? What a desolate life, either eating or drinking only one thing, albeit somebody's idea of ‘the best,’ or eating or drinking various but always inferior things. Don't rank, enjoy the splendor of diversity.

The 'quest for the best' is a cheat. Drinking something because you've heard it’s ‘the best bourbon in the world’ (you know which one I mean), and telling everyone that’s why you drink it, doesn’t tell me you're an accomplished bourbon connoisseur. Just the opposite. It tells me you're lazy and want a short cut route to this and probably everything else. You're unwilling to do the work of connoisseurship, which is also its greatest reward. Your judgment is of no interest to me because you have shown none. I should feel sorry for you because you're missing the best part, but in fact I think you're a jerk.

I read some of these lists, because I might see something I’d like to experience, but the ‘b’ word always turns me off. It continually gnaws at me. Are we such children that we would find a program called ‘Five Really Good Hamburgers and Where to Find Them’ insufficiently compelling? Guy Fieri may be irritating but I respect the fact that every program is filled with “the greatest diners, drive-ins and dives.” He never feels compelled to rank them at the end of the season. He loves everything. Sure, some diners, drive-ins and dives aren't so great. That’s why they're not on the show.

At law, calling your company, service or hamburger ‘the best’ is considered ‘puffery.’ That’s the actual, legal word for it: ‘puffery.’ It is defined as a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no 'reasonable person' would take literally. The Federal Trade Commission defines puffery as a "term frequently used to denote the exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined."

Let that sink in for a moment. You can't claim you're the oldest or the biggest or the most popular unless you are and can prove it, but you can claim you're 'the best' even if you have nothing to back it up. The puffery rule means that if you say you're ‘the best,’ no one can sue you by arguing you're not, no matter how bad you are. The claim is not subject to proof and is, therefore, not actionable.

I could get serious for a moment and suggest that people who believe there is a best hamburger or best bourbon may also believe there is a best way to solve any problem, as in only one right way. They may also believe there is only one right way to configure a family, educate children, govern a country, make love, art, or tea. They may believe there is only one true God. And there is a good chance that anyone who does not prefer the one true hamburger is apostate and not to be trusted.

Off with their heads.

‘The best’ sounds serious, important, hard to ignore. A similar meaningless claim you hear all the time is 'none better,' as in, "no one beats our prices." While that seems like a superlative, it's not. What it really means is, "our prices are about the same as everybody else's."

Despite all that, 'the best' attracts eyeballs in our clickbait world.

By the way, I no longer judge whiskey competitions, mainly because I don't enjoy it.

When you're doing it in a group, the social part is fun. If you're doing it by yourself at home it is tedious. Having been on the inside of major international whiskey competitions does not make me take them more seriously, just the opposite. I'd rather be drinking Wild Turkey.

But I'm just venting. Nothing to see here. Move along.


Steve said...

Amen Chuck! Rave on brother.

Mark Harr said...

I do agree with you that "best" is puffery. However, I just substitute the work "best" with "favorite" (as you almost suggested). Then I look as the "favorite" list and see if there is something there that I have not had, and should try. That's it, nothing more.

In my recommendations to friends and family, I consciously try to not say "best", but use "very good" or "favorite".

When someone else says this or that is "the best", I always reply back with "Really? Have you tried ...?" and name something obscure or remote that they likely have not tried. Then when they say No, I say that "You're "best" ranking does not stand up very well, doesn't it?" Yeah, I'm not the life of the party. ;)

Shoepoo said...

Small Chuval is pretty good though.

Billy said...

This has to be your #1 bestest blog yet. It even tops your Tito's blog, which now falls to #2.

Anonymous said...

...and Wild Turkey is a very good place to leave it...

Donald Sink said...

"Don't rank, enjoy the splendor of diversity."

This says it all, Chuck. Thank you for your candor (some call it 'rant', but I call it 'honesty'). Diversity is the operative word here. I don't have a favorite -- I have a favorite five or six, all less than $30 (on sale, of course). Being retired and living on modest savings and SS, I feel lucky that I have half-a-dozen pretty-good bourbons in my pay grade.

Agent SJ said...

The best bourbon is the bottle opened with friends.

Richard Turner said...

Great Post, Col. Cowdery!
Using clear and logical thinking to refute BS . . . What a Concept!
A shame we don't see more of such "Yoda" advice at large in the world, my friend.
Keep up the great work.

Oh, and Wild Turkey? HA! Absolutely!

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Couldn't have said it better myself, Chuck. Best lists are pure click-bait (often intentionally full of preposterous rankings just do encourage arguments, IMO). I feel similarly about all the "You're doing it wrong" articles.

Clients and friends often ask me what's the best/your favorite bourbon. I tell them I don't have "a favorite" and there is no "best". One of the beauties of bourbon is the vast majority of them are very good.

Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

I appreciate your venting and fell it's spot on.
My favorite quote on this topic is "My favorite bourbon is what I have in my glass right now."

Anonymous said...

Great post Chuck.
For a sec there while reading, I thought this column was going to go in a political direction (given time of year), particularly with regard to someone who uses superlatives a lot without any basis in fact. (Not that I disagree with you were you to do so) Well done, you hinted at the truth, with out stating it or anything else that could offend unjustifiably for a whiskey blog. The only blatantly offensive part is that what people think is 'best whiskey' is not really that at all. Those with a head that can still contemplate things, understand that there is nothing offensive here, just well spoken truth.

Josh said...

Amen Chuck! I've made these lists in the past, but always use the word favorite instead of best and that's a crucial distinction.

Far too often people look at whiskey competitions or "best bourbons" on Esquire, etc. and think there is more behind them than just someone's opinion. I hope more folks who need to understand that read this wonderful rant.

Sam Komlenic said...

Josh et al,

Keep in mind that at some of these competitions up to 85% win a medal, so what's the purpose? I'd likely not want to get very cozy with the shunned 15%, though.

Anonymous said...

Chuck, you literally have a book called "The *BEST BOURBON* You'll Never Taste"!!! So you know as well as anyone what this sort of language is really about. When you incorporate bombast into a headline (or, ya know, the TITLE OF YOUR BOOK) you're not trying to deny the concept of subjectivity (were you?), you're just trying to attract eyeballs. And then once people click over, you have an opportunity to instruct them on something that they perhaps never would have learned otherwise. The fact that you would even take the time to rant derisively on the exact practice you employed to peddle books is intellectually dishonest at best and flat out hypocritical at worst. Either way: not a good look, my friend.

Anonymous said...

What really struck me was the part where you wrote "... It tells me you're lazy and want a short cut route to this and probably everything else. You're unwilling to do the work of connoisseurship, which is also its greatest reward." Nobody can understand what makes good whisk(e)y good until they have had something truly awful. I find reviews of bad whisk(e)y more informative than good. Perhaps it is like Chekhov's line about how happy families are all blandly similar, and how only one (to my knowledge) spirit has been reviewed as "rancid robot piss".