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Alice Lascelles: Variety in the glass is great, but there’s a limit

At the start of a new year, do you resolve to expand your vinous horizons or to delve even deeper into what you already know and love?

Words by Alice Lascelles

wine varieties
The Collection

Would you prefer to know a lot about a little, or a little about a lot? I was asked this question in my entrance interview for Cambridge University. I can’t remember what answer I gave (a lot about a lot, surely?), but it’s haunted me ever since.

Some days I’m definitely with the little/lot camp, because as a journalist I’m innately nosy. Then again, as a drinks writer, I’m also a specialist of sorts – in which case, lot/little would apply.

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It’s a dilemma that’s always turning over in the back of my mind, but it’s taken on a fresh urgency ever since I read Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, Oliver Burkeman’s thought-provoking inquiry into the modern obsession with productivity. If Burkeman is right, I’ve got less than 2,000 weeks remaining to taste all the wines, mix all the cocktails, and visit all the bars, distilleries and wine regions that I have ever planned to – and that’s before I find time for all the non-drink things I’d like to do. Clearly, this is completely impossible.

So how do I make the best use of the time I have left? Do I spend it doubling down on those things that I already know I love: the whiskies, the grape varieties, the regions, the cocktail recipes? Or should I cast my net wider than ever before in a bid to gain the greatest breadth of experience?

I’m pretty sure I could die content knowing I’d never tasted a Slippery Nipple

You could spend an entire lifetime getting to know the malts of Islay, or mixing ever so slightly different Sazeracs, or tracing the history of a single Burgundy cru. A case of just one well-chosen wine could provide many contrasting experiences over the course of its evolution. (And that’s before you take into account the fact that, over the same period, you would be evolving, too.) Would it be more enriching to commit to drinking just a few things, getting to know them intimately? Or would it be better simply to enjoy the moment, cache the memory and then keep moving along?

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I’m pretty sure I could die content knowing I’d never tasted a Slippery Nipple, or blue Prosecco, or the world’s best baijiu. My curiosity does know some bounds. But while I can absolutely see the virtues of taking a deep dive into a few specific genres, there’s always a little voice in the back of my mind that’s asking, Where to next? With every month that passes, we get word of new distilleries or rare grape varieties or lesser-known regions that are on the up – the horizon, for the adventurous drinker, continues getting wider. And those are just the known unknowns.

The specialist does, of course, have one major advantage over the generalist: they are far less likely to waste their money – and their Friday night – on ill-advised purchases that taste like crap. Sticking to familiar terrain reduces your risk of disappointment, which in turn saves you time. And as Burkeman cheerfully reminds us, we don’t have a second to waste.

Alice Lascelles might never taste the world's best baijiu, but that doesn't mean she's not in for a year of exploring the drinks world

In one of my favourite passages, Burkeman argues that, in many respects, the real time-sucks aren’t the toxic friendships or the failed projects; it’s the ones that are just so-so. Those things that are just pleasant enough to keep you contented and therefore prevent you from ever getting round to the things that really matter.

If it’s not too much of a philosophical mangling, I can see this also applying to drinks: in reality, it’s not the truly terrible drinks that are the problem. Even the real stinkers usually teach me something, and if they don’t, they’re good for a column or two. No; it’s the far more insidious bog-standard drinks that are the biggest drain on my money and time: the gluggable wine, the passable G&T, the pint of tasteless lager I drink just because it’s there…

Perhaps the real choice I’ve got to make isn’t whether to be a specialist or a generalist in the remaining weeks of my life but whether to drink with intention or simply not at all. Skipping the drinks that don’t matter – now that would be time well spent.

Alice Lascelles illustration
By Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles is a drinks writer, author and presenter who writes about drinks for The Financial Times and is one of our regular magazine columnists and spirits experts. She is also the Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019.