Saturday, 29 December 2012

Musings on the word “favourite” in a whisky context


Imagine you are in a bar/club, enjoying a dram from the wide range of whiskies available. You strike up a conversation with a fellow whisky drinker standing next to you. The conversation flows easily, as it tends to when two or more like minded whisky lovers meet over a glass or two. How long into the conversation will it be before the word "favourite" enters the frame? That moment when you have to sift through your whisky history and consider if there is a single “stand-out”dram that out-drams all others, the moment that provides you with an opportunity to wax lyrical about a topic close to your heart, to spread the gospel of ................ (insert your favourite drams/distillery here), to reminisce over good enjoy yourself. How often do you see the word "favourite" in relation to whisky when you're browsing Twitter or Facebook?
Think about your whisky history, in particular, whisky's you remember as being "special", significant, or memorable in some way. If you were asked the question “What is your favourite whisky”, how might you respond? My stock response is “I don’t have a single favourite, there are so many I could choose from” or “They change all the time but at the moment it’s.........”. This isn’t avoiding the issue, for me it’s a simple statement of fact. It also provides me with an “in”, an opportunity to spread the word, to affirm my position within the whisky community, to be passionate about something, to exert some small influence on the listener.....or maybe it’s just an opportunity to demonstrate my perceived breadth of show off maybe!
It was two pleasant experiences coming together (a wonderful evening draminiscing with a fellow enthusiast, followed by a "favourites" exchange on Twitter), that I began musing over the whole notion of the word favourite, and its possible role in my whisky experience. What makes something "a favourite"? Is it a memory, an association? Do we learn what our favourite is? Is it built up over time or is it the result of an epiphany, some momentous experience that colours all subsequent experiences in relation to that event? Is it simply the one we like best at that moment in time?
The following exploration is simply collection of musings born out of a passion to explore.

What do we mean when we say "favourite"? I suppose the first thing to say is that it probably means different things to different people. It's also fair to say that there are probably areas of commonality in the way we use the word. Look in any dictionary and you will find evidence of this common ground. The Collins online dictionary offers us the following:-

favourite or (US) favorite:
Adj      1. most liked; preferred above all others
Noun   2. a person or thing regarded with especial preference or liking

The Cambridge University Press offers a similar, more succinct definition, namely:- Best liked or most enjoyed

Consider how these definitions relate to your use of the word in relation to your whisky history.



Do we all have favourites?

If we start from the basis that none of the whiskies we drink are the same, it's logical to assume that, through tasting different drams, we come to prefer some whiskies over others - we have preferences. In many ways, one could argue that we navigate our way through life on the basis of comparisons, reflections on past experiences and their relation to the present, a building up of schemata that oil the wheels of our journey through our time here. In a whisky context, these comparisons and resulting preferences take many forms. e.g. Is this bottle cheaper than that one, will this taste as good as the one I had last year, do I like this wine finish in relation to other expressions from this distillery?, and so on. Admittedly, these preferences may change over time (in relation to mood, age, breadth of experience etc) but the existence of preferences is surely not open to question.

What interests me is the process whereby the vocabulary we choose to describe our preferences evolves to include the word “favourites”. A favourite has more power invested in it than a preference. To use the aforementioned definition; a favourite is “an especial preference”. The word “favourite” elevates a particular whisky into the realms of the personal, it has a particular meaning and resonance for you, and not only that, your favourites say something about who you are.

If you want to test out the power of the word, imagine spending 5 minutes extolling the virtues of a particular distillery or bottling (one of your favourites). You become passionate and animated in your description of the whisky, the age, the depth of flavour, the packaging and so on. You pause for a second. Your companion responds by saying something like “I really can’t get on with that distillery”, or “I didn’t like that bottle at all” or some other response that indicates his/her disagreement with your opinion. How might you feel? Locate yourself on a scale from 1 - 10 where 1 is “deep joy”, 5 is “totally indifferent” and 10 is “I hope you die in a bath of box jellyfish”. What did you score? I would be surprised if many of you scored 1 and slightly worried if many of you scored 10.

The beauty of human nature is that, as unique individuals, scores would be dotted all along the continuum. At a personal level, whilst I relish in diversity, individuality, and uniqueness, and value the challenges that this often brings, there are times when I enjoy having my opinions affirmed, my judgements corroborated, and the comfort blanket of being around like minded people (as I’m writing this I recognise that I do love a bloody good challenge!).


What functions do favourites serve?  

There are many possible functions of favourites. Indeed, from a psychological perspective the amount of word space one could devote to such an exploration would far exceed what is appropriate in a blog of this nature. Having said that, it seems to me that there are some clear and easily accessed possibilities.

Firstly, favourites have what one might call an "ego function", that is, they both serve to tell us something about ourselves, and also serve to tell others about who we are. They allow us to make connections with like-minded individuals (as well as alerting us to the presence of those who see things differently from us). They allow us to express both individuality and connectedness at the same time. In a whiskey context, my preference for sherry influenced drams doesn't mark me out as a unique individual, there will be millions of whiskey drinkers who feel similarly, but I also have a special preference for Japanese whiskies and if you put together the two preferences, you might begin to see the beginnings of a profile that has a foundation of individuality embedded within it. If you add in specific distilleries, age, ABV preferences and so on, you can see how our "favourites" are complex constructions that potentially affirm our individuality in what, to the outsider, might seem like a fairly one-dimensional grouping (i.e. whiskey drinkers).

The notion of outsiders also has relevance to the role of favourites in that "favourites" have a social function. They confirm our social connection to a particular group. Without going into huge detail, they allow us to be part of an "in group" and in doing so contribute to our sense of identity (i.e. we belong to the in group and share a range of similarities which make us different from others - the out-group, thereby enhancing our sense of belonging).

The fact that we have favourites implies that we have knowledge that goes beyond the experience of a single whisky. In this sense, favourites have a "knowledge function". Once you have chosen to respond to the question "what is your favourite whisky?” the follow-up question is usually "why is that?" This provides you with an opportunity to demonstrate the depth and breadth of your knowledge in relation to whisky.


The relationship between our favourites and our whisky judgements 

By and large, I believe that favourites are both inevitable, and that they exert a positive influence in our overall experience of whisky. However, we need to exercise a degree of caution when it comes to the relationship between those whiskies and distilleries that we have might have an especial preference for, and our striving to make judgements about the overall quality of a particular whisky. There are a number of concepts/phenomena within psychology that are designed to illuminate our understanding of the judgements we make (attribution theory, health belief models, halo effect, confirmation bias, association fallacy, to name just a few). I’ll briefly describe a couple of them below.

Halo effect: We have been aware of the phenomenon of the halo effect for centuries. In 1977, Nisbett et al wrote an article entitled “The Halo Effect: Evidence for Unconscious Alteration of Judgements”.I refer to the article not because it was groundbreaking or outstanding in an academic sense, but simply because the title is succinct, precise, and more or less tells you what you need to know about the nature of the effect in question. In essence, the halo effect is the tendency to generalise a positive (favourable) or negative (unfavourable) impression to an entire personality. For example, if we regard someone as being likeable and attractive, we are more likely to see them as being mentally healthy, more intelligent and more mature despite having any evidence to support this other than those two powerful impressions. This doesn’t directly relate to our judgements about objects but you may be able to draw some vague possible connections.

Confirmation bias: Given that the halo effect is primarily directed at interpersonal judgements, it may be more useful to call upon our understanding of confirmation bias as a mechanism for understanding the influence of "favourites" on our strivings for accuracy. At its simplest, confirmation bias is - "a tendency for people to favour information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way." In a whiskey context, in trying a new whiskey from a favoured distillery for example, your opening position would be one in which you were looking for evidence to support the beliefs that you already hold in relation to said distillery. Note that this need not be conscious process; indeed, it is highly likely that you will be unaware of the strength of your bias. Nevertheless, it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to see how confirmation bias works in practice in a whiskey context.

Think about your preferred style of whiskey or favourite distillery. Imagine tasting a new expression in your favourite style or from one of your favourite distilleries. Is your mind a tabula rasa (blank slate) on which you will etch your judgements in an objective and uncontaminated way? Absolutely not. You have a history of that style/distillery, you have expectations based on that history, you will probably be excited, you do not want to be disappointed, you have invested something of yourself in it, your whisky friends and the wider whisky community may know of your love of this distillery/style, you may even feel that you are in some way, a representative of that style/distillery, you don’t want to lose face, your cards are on the table and there’s money in the pot!

I must confess to experiencing a twinge of disappointment when I’m talking to someone who dislikes Japanese whisky (oh hang on.........I’ve never spoken to anyone who dislikes Japanese whisky, there are only those who have tried it and liked it, and those who have never tried it.....oops, there’s that damned confirmatory bias again!). Seriously though, I’m fully aware that there is probably a quality spectrum of Japanese whisky ranging from the “ultra-max sublimely stunning” to the moderately superb “not so good”. The point is that I come to the tasting table with my experiences, opinions, values, etc sitting squarely on my shoulders at either a conscious level or (perhaps more importantly), hiding in the recesses of my mind at an unconscious level. They cannot fail to exert some sort of influence.

There is much to be said for blind tastings as a tool for eliminating confirmatory bias, halo effect, association fallacy etc. In a quest for objectivity (an ultimately flawed journey which I’ll write about soon), the ideal blind tasting would be carried out in total darkness (I’m not forgetting the importance of colour in our overall “experience” of a whisky), total silence, in a room devoid of any contaminatory odour, and without the presence of others. For me, blind tastings serves to illustrate how limited my knowledge of whisky actually is. Nonetheless, they are thoroughly enjoyable experiences and I do detect a gradual increase in the accuracy of my judgements (albeit a very slow paced increase!).

At the end of the day you might have reached the end of this piece and feel that none of it really matters. You could be right, however, I hope that you might have found it in some way interesting. On a personal note, I don’t think I like Japanese whisky because it makes me seem “windswept and interesting” or “mysterious and dark” –I’m an overweight fifty-something bloke! The reasons for my “especial preference”are complex, but the core, the heart, the kernel has always been the taste. Does this mean that I prefer them above all others? Possibly. To date, do they represent my best liked or most enjoyed? Yes. Are there better whiskies out there? Probably.

I continue to relish my journey.
 © Alcock (2013)