Jeff Cioletti has a job that many will envy. He’s a professional drinker. More accurately, he’s a professional writer who focuses on the drinks trade. A long-time magazine editor and journalist (and contributor to All About Beer Magazine), as well as a filmmaker and world traveler, the New Jersey native has just released his first book The Year of Drinking Adventurously and sat down over a few cocktails to discuss the state of the drinks world.
John Holl: Describe the book. What can people expect when they buy it and start to dig in?
Jeff Cioletti: It’s really a breezy guide—conversational, not pedantic—for people who want to expand their drinking horizons. We’ve all had that point in our lives when we either had no clue what to order at a bar or were just so overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar choices that we retreated to our not-so-exciting comfort zones. I decided to structure it across a single year. There are 52 chapters. Each one represents a different drink for each week of the year. It covers everything from the different whiskey traditions to more obscure beverages like Japan’s sake and shochu, China’s baijiu and Chicago’s Malört. There are also some chapters on beer that offer styles beyond what many consider “mainstream.”
You have an extensive professional background writing about drinks and spirits, but what surprised you while researching and writing this book?
How much there still was to learn! There were so many things that I’ve taken for granted, particularly about the history of some of these beverages. Take something as accessible as whiskey for instance. Whiskey’s in the midst of a colossal renaissance at the moment and the styles that most connoisseurs have been gravitating to have been things like bourbon, rye and Scotch. But interestingly, there was a time, into the early 20th century, when Irish whiskey was considered the best of the best. It kind of got overshadowed by Scotch by the mid-20th century. Luckily, though, it’s become one of the fastest-growing styles, led by Jameson, and now drinkers are looking to dive deeper into that category. That’s creating an opportunity for modern Irish distillers, enabling it to slowly return to its former glory. I was also surprised by just how much of a role context plays in the drinking experience. For instance, I was never much of a rum person, but get me in a tiki bar and I’m in love with it! Same thing with mulled wine. I was never crazy about it when we’d heat red wine on the stove and add spices like cinnamon and clove. But take me to an outdoor holiday market in Germany, Austria or Switzerland and there’s nothing I would rather drink than a steaming cup of gluhwein, standing at a highboy table when it’s 20 degrees out.
The title of the book, especially “drinking adventurously” seems to indicate that, by in large, people are timid drinkers. Is this the case and if so, why?
There are different levels of timidity, I guess. There certainly are well-rounded drinkers out there who are open to trying a lot of things. But for the most part, they still have their comfort zone. They gravitate toward one beverage more than others and often become experts on that particular drink. That’s kind of how I used to be with beer. When I first discovered amazing beer—craft, specialty, whatever you want to call it—I immersed myself in that world, learned as much as I could about it and traveled to many places overseas with the sole purpose of drinking good beer at the source. But at the same time, I was shutting myself off from spirits and other beverage categories. Ultimately, my tastes evolved and I opened myself up to other drinks. But before that I actually considered myself an adventurous drinker because I was always trying new beers in style categories that varied wildly. But I really wasn’t because I was still cocooning myself in that beery comfort zone. The same holds true for anyone who’s an expert on whiskey, gin, wine, cider—what have you. They may be so devoted to one category that they’re putting the blinders on about others. So that’s a form of timidness, whether we care to admit it or not. And then, of course, there are the folks who never gave much thought to what they were drinking or were too shy to expand beyond the simple, like a vodka tonic or vodka cranberry. That’s kind of the person I was in the late ‘90s. I was still new to the world of legal drinking and I wanted to break away from the really cheap beer I drank in college. So for me, a basic gin-and-tonic sounded like a grownup drink. Trouble was, it was a well drink. I really didn’t care what kind of gin was going in the glass and in those days, there weren’t many options anyway. And of course, since it was the cheapest drink you could by, it was incredibly watered down. I honestly didn’t even know what gin tasted like. I figured it tasted like quinine because all I was getting was the tonic and the ice water. And I was too timid to ask for a good recommendation. I was probably a little indifferent too. I didn’t think alcohol was supposed to be such a complex flavor experience. The fact that it very much is one of the key takeaways, I hope, in the book.
If someone spends the next year working through the book, taking each chapter as a lesson, what should they expect by this time next year?
They should have a better understanding of what they like and what they don’t like and perhaps be surprised by things they thought they’d never like. Believe me, no one’s going to like every drink in this book. Some of the drinks, I’d say, are actually pretty hard to like. But it’s more about taking that leap and trying something new, whether it’s the most delicious thing you’ve ever experienced, or gut-wrenchingly vile. By the time the holidays roll around next year, they’ll probably have a pretty impressive liquor cabinet for their home entertaining. When they’re out for a drink, they’ll probably find themselves scanning all of the bottles behind the bar. Some of what’s back there may seem like old friends by then. They’re also likely to impress their bartenders a bit being able to converse authoritatively about much of what the bar has in stock. That’ll lead to a better rapport, which often will lead to preferential treatment. That could mean better drinks. It also means that if they get a special bottle in that’s hidden below the bar or in the back room, they’re more likely to let you in on the action.
Getting into the busy holiday gathering season, what is one simple thing people can do to elevate their drinking experience or show off some great hosting skills?
On the entertaining side, I usually want to be best friends with the people whose assortment of bottles makes my jaw drop. I was at a Halloween party a few weeks back at the home of a couple I didn’t know too well. When I saw the vast and impeccably curated collection of whiskeys, beers, gins, bitters, ciders they had, I told them they should’ve been the ones writing my book! As far as going out and enjoying the season at a cozy bar, find a place that has, not just a printed wine list, but physical, well-appointed spirits and beer lists. (If it’s a place that only has a beer and wine license, make sure the beer gets the same kind of fanfare that the wine gets). Those are the types of places that take their beverages seriously and they love serving people who do as well. And, there’s probably no better holiday gift than a bottle of something amazing. You just have to drop the right hints to Santa.
John Holl is the editor of All About Beer Magazine.