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Drinking “Well”: Should You Order the High-end Stuff at a Bar?



After work one day last week, a friend and I made an impromptu stop at the backroom bar at Cafe 1912. She ordered a glass of red wine, and I went for my standby, a gin and tonic. I saw my favorite gin, Hendrick's, in its traditional dark glass jug, gleaming from the "top shelf" area behind the bartender's station, but I hesitated, thinking about my bank account.

I couldn't justify springing for Hendrick's when I had three-fourths of a perfectly good bottle of it waiting for me at home. I pointed to another bottle on a lower shelf, which saved me a few bucks. And later that night as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered about my drinking preferences, and whether I was getting a lesser experience by drinking "well" liquor, the less pricey brands so-named because they're stored within the bartender's easy reach.

The medicinal, botanical flavors of gin complicate matters. If you enjoy Hendrick's or Tanqueray or Uncle Val's, you can certainly discern the nuances between the different notes — citrus, cucumber, or herbs added to the traditional juniper berry recipe — that differentiate one brand from the other. But opting for Gilbey's or Seagram's doesn't mean that you won't get a decent drink.

A circa-1980s study published by the British Medical Journal revealed the results of a whiskey-tasting experiment. Eight very lucky members of an academic surgical unit (some were whiskey connoisseurs; others were inexperienced drinkers) were blindfolded and given a flight of six whiskies. Each whiskey was tasted six times. The four regular whiskey drinkers performed about as well as the amateurs in identifying the different malts and blends. The former scored at 58 percent; the latter, 50 percent. They might as well have tossed coins before deciding their answers. And only once did a surgeon correctly identify where a particularly whiskey was produced.

Other booze-based academic tests have focused on "blind tastings" — asking drinkers to rate the quality of liquor solely based on taste. The results are fascinating: Cheaper whiskies score consistently higher than name brands, although signature Cognacs and gins do tend to rate as high as the off-brands.

Vodka has been under the microscope ever since Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published his 1865 doctoral dissertation, which examined the hydrate clusters formed in solutions of 40 percent ethanol and 60 percent alcohol — the standard mix for any vodka recipe. A few decades after Linus Pauling, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in the chemistry lab in 1954 (and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962), furthered Mendeleev's work on hydrate clusters, a group of scientists at the University of Cincinnati partnered with scientists at Moscow State University to identify the chemical basis for why people might choose one vodka brand over another. Their results were published by the American Chemical Society in 2010. As reported by Science Daily, "Drinkers actually may be perceiving this internal structure or structurability of vodka, rather than taste in a traditional sense." That means that, yes, people might prefer Grey Goose because of the chemistry involved, not because of the exclusivity of the brand.

Granted, a lot of things have changed in the beer world over the last 49 years. But at Stanford University in 1968, 60 regular beer drinkers were all served the same beer, albeit camouflaged in differently labeled bottles that indicated a variety of brands and price points. In the now-famous study published by J. Douglas McConnell in Applied Psychology, higher prices meant a perceived higher quality even though every bottle contained the same brew.

When ordering a simple cocktail, like my go-to gin and tonic or a Scotch and soda, choosing well liquor can be a prudent and tasty decision. In most cases — particularly whiskey and beer — science says so. With vodka and some other liquor, perhaps not so much.

After sorting through the research, my conclusion is this: When my bank account can handle it, I will choose Hendrick's. I will also hold my head high when I don't.

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