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Spirits

Let’s Talk About “Smooth”

June 18, 2021

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Mallory Heyer

Spirits

Let’s Talk About “Smooth”

June 18, 2021

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Mallory Heyer

It may be the most ubiquitous descriptor in drinks. Is it also the most reviled?

The Bordeaux-bred, Brooklyn-based spirits importer Nicolas Palazzi traffics in stories—of the alchemists along the river Charente, whose Cognacs capture the essence of the surrounding vineyards and microbiota; of the artisans in northwestern France, whose Calvados express the nuance of dozens of cider apple varieties via a single bottle. Palazzi’s company, PM Spirits, identifies itself as a “provider of geeky spirits.” Part of the job, indeed, involves geeking out, luxuriating in the details and conveying them to potential buyers. It’s an arrangement that hinges on dialogue, governed by the imprecise linguistics of wine and spirits. Descriptors and analogs form bridges to connect one’s palate and sensibility to another’s. But all it takes is one word to dissolve the connection entirely.

“If their reaction is, ‘Oh, that’s smooth,’ it just tells me that I probably have not identified my customer as well as I thought I had,” Palazzi tells me. “I’m not upset at the person saying ‘smooth.’ I’m upset at the waste of life—it’s basically a sign that says ‘You just wasted your time.’”

Harsh words for a word that literally signifies the opposite. But language matters. The lingua franca of booze is inherently nebulous, and it requires calibration. A trained nose and palate can instantaneously identify a range of aromas and flavors and free-associate memories and feelings, which all become pinpoints tracing a constellation, giving shape to a ghost. The term “smooth” effectively erases any point of reference. Even as an adjective, “smooth” functions as a verb: It is the buffing out of character, the sanding down of the distinctions that make great spirits great. In the quest to triangulate the specific qualities of a spirit, “smooth” instead forms a binary of acceptability. It is a value judgment on whether or not one finds the spirit drinkable, one that can easily be impressed upon an unwitting consumer. This is exactly why the term is so ubiquitous in the marketplace, and—for decades, if not centuries—a red flag among connoisseurs.

“The man who remarks, ‘Pretty smooth,’ after gulping down three glasses of a fine Scotch is simply a wallflower,” wrote an editor of the 1940 Consumers Union’s Wines and Liquors report, one of the earliest guides of its kind in the United States, published less than a decade after the end of Prohibition. “About 80% of the cost of the drink (the portion accounting for the bouquet and the body) is wasted on him.”

Even as an adjective, “smooth” functions as a verb: It is the buffing out of character, the sanding down of the distinctions that make great spirits great.

The use of “smooth” as a modern crutch feels inextricable from the purported golden age of advertising in the 1950s, which capitalized on the sense of postwar abundance. In a single October issue of Time from 1955, at least 20 ads dropped the word “smooth”: in reference to Jack Daniel’s famously charcoal-filtered Tennessee whiskey, in a plug for a lingerie-focused Christmas shopping guide, for Old Charter bourbon and Oldsmobile, for a bottle of Vat 69 Scotch and KenFlex Vinyl Asbestos tile.

It’s as if these brands’ marketers were attempting to sell a painless experience. For those seeking alcohol as a means of social lubrication, “smooth” is understandably the only selling point they’d need. But it’s also why “smooth” rankles those who have staked their livelihood in the spirits industry. “Smooth” centers the absence of pain rather than the joy in discovery. It’s a fundamental difference in perspective: You’re either a wallflower or a barfly, the Consumers Union editor would say. And while the word “smooth” has carried vaguely positive connotations for centuries, it didn’t always.

In my research, the earliest instance of “smooth” as a descriptor of spirits appeared in Sir Francis Bacon’s posthumous Sylva sylvarum, or, A natural history in ten centuries from 1627. In a chapter on the clarification of liquor, he issued a warning: “An extreme clarification doth spread the spirits so smooth, as they become dull, and the drink dead, which ought to have a little flowering.”

I shared Bacon’s wisdom, now roughly 400 years old, with Palazzi. “That’s really cool, the fact that there’s a gradient of smooth,” Palazzi said. “Now the question is, how much more than smooth is dull?”

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