On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe examine the role of sweetness in the beverage alcohol industry. Why is it that drinks professionals tend to see sweetness as less-than? What types of sweet wines, beers, and cocktails are out there? And will sweet drinks ever break away from recent taboos ingrained in American culture?
The three discuss the possible historical and evolutionary reasons behind our love of sweet things, and debate whether these saccharine sippers should be taken seriously.
Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” We’re still remote. It’s still early days here.
Z: It’s early days, late days.
A: Who knows what’s going on these days? I’m hoping we’re getting towards the end of days. Not like that.
Z: That’s a very different tone for our podcast than usual.
A: It’s the end of times.
Z: What will you drink after Armageddon?
A: I don’t know.
Z: This is a silly topic, but what a good time for it. I was having a conversation with Caitlin the other day about what you would do in an Armageddon-esque scenario. Like if an asteroid destroyed the Earth, unless Bruce Willis or Ben Affleck were available. We talked about a lot of things, but I was like, “What do you drink?” This is a fascinating question to me because I feel like it’s connected to the ubiquitous, “What would your last meal thing be?” Tim McKirdy likes to ask his guests on “Cocktail College” if they knew it was their last drink, what would they have? I don’t know. I have been grappling with this. Do you go for something that’s super high-proof and just knock yourself out and hope that you know you just never have to face the Aerosmith song that plays over Earth’s destruction?
A: That’s an old reference there.
Z: Is there a more modern “world is completely destroyed” threat movie? Probably.
A: Yeah, “Don’t Look Up.”
Z: I haven’t gotten around to that one yet.
A: It’s good, it’s funny. It didn’t get a lot. The critics didn’t like it, but I found it quite funny. Joanna, did you watch it?
J: Yes, I watched it. I liked it a lot.
A: Yeah, I found it quite enjoyable. Well, it depends what kind of apocalypse you’re talking about, because if this is a zombie apocalypse, then I want something that can also be a weapon later. I think I want to saber a bottle of Champagne, chug it, and then I have the saber and the bottle. Whereas if it’s an asteroid hurtling towards Earth and there’s nothing we can do, maybe the nicest Barolo I have lying around.
J: I’d quality over quantity here, or proof.
Z: In a zombie apocalypse, in addition to the notion of having a weapon that you could use, you need a Red Bull vodka. You need a little bit of booze but some energy just in case you have to run or fight or whatever. In the case of an asteroid impact with Earth, you’re just looking for the finest bottle down in the cellar.
A: I don’t know what else it would be.
J: Luckily, we’re not there yet.
A: We’re not there yet. So what did you guys drink this last week instead? Joanna?
J: I haven’t been drinking a ton, but over the holidays I was in Canada for a little while with Evan’s family. I had a number of interesting Ontario beers. We had some Rouge River, from Side Launch Brewing Company, and Waterloo Brewing Company as well. They were mostly hazy IPAs, but I like to try out different beers when I’m there.
A: All the rage now.
J: Yeah, so that’s pretty much it. I’ve been drinking a lot of non-alcoholic beer since we last chatted, actually.
A: Wait, really? Are you just getting through that Athletic?
A: You’re like, “It’s here, I might as well drink it.”
J: Pretty much. What about you, Zach?
Z: I have had one or two NA beers since we last chatted. Not only are they in the house, but as we said on that episode, it’s something that I can drink that feels like an adult beverage without being boozy. This might anger Adam even more than some of the things I say on this podcast, but the other thing I’ve been drinking a lot of is tea. Which I really only drink in January with a few exceptions.
J: Adam, do you hate tea?
A: It’s just not a tea podcast, you know?
Z: It’s not a TV show podcast, either, but you bring them up every episode.
A: It’s because it’s my right. You’re the beverage professional here.
Z: Tea is a beverage, in case you didn’t know.
A: I guess, whatever. It’s dirt water.
Z: In any case, I do get more into tea in January, typically. Tea does this thing I miss in wine, especially when I’m not drinking, which is that it does change in the mug a little bit over time. When you first sip it, some of that is temperature, some of that is tannins, depending on when you remove the leaves or bag or however you choose to make your tea. It has a complexity to it that coffee can certainly have, but honestly, the coffee that we have at home is fine. I’m not coffee obsessive. Our coffee is good, but I’m not breaking out the Chemex and getting out my single- origin beans to play with flavor in that regard. So tea, to me, scratches that intellectual itch that I miss with not drinking wine, and even spirits and beer as well. I’ll make different kinds of black tea in the morning, and then I will drink a lot of herbs in the evening. Mostly just in January, also because it’s cold out and it’s a comforting beverage when I don’t want caffeine. So that’s kind of been what I’ve been into. How about you, Adam?
A: During the holidays, I was in Maine and Vermont and went to some really cool breweries. I went to Oxbow, Fiddlehead, and Bellflower. Bellflower in Portland was really amazing. It’s a newer one, and they had my favorite hazy IPAs of the trip. They had really amazing saisons. So that was cool and fun. On New Year’s Eve, I popped a really amazing Etna Rosso from Planeta. That was a bottle I’ve been saving that we brought on the trip. It was a magnum, and that was a lot of fun. I’m only drinking on the weekends, so I haven’t had a bunch of adventurous stuff yet. But we’ll report back. As this month goes on, maybe only Friday and Saturday will move to Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays. But who knows? Joanna, do you want to set us up for today’s topic?
J: Yes. Today we’re talking about something that I find really interesting in the world of drinks. We’re talking about sweetness. What I wanted to ask or talk about is why the drinks world hates sweetness so much. Why is sweetness such a complex topic in the drinks world, specifically? I’ve heard countless times that Americans have a very sweet palate. Most conversations I have around sweeter beverages, sweet wines, sweet cocktails, anything like that, people in the drinks industry kind of turn their noses up at those drinks. I wanted to talk to you two about it because I’m confused. It’s a little perplexing to me. What do you guys think?
A: We have a lot of issues with sweetness. It’s a really interesting topic because it definitely is something that the professional beverage world struggles with. Yet some of the most popular styles of drinks in all areas of beverage, whether that’s non-alcoholic or alcoholic, have some sort of sweetness to them. For beverage professionals, a lot of people believe or have believed that sweetness equals not complex. You just like it because it’s sweet, you might as well be eating a candy bar. You might as well be drinking Coca-Cola. People aren’t willing to understand why someone might like something that tastes sweet. You could argue that certain hazy IPAs have a sweetness to them. That sort of juicy, sweet, orange-ish flavor. That is what has now finally made IPAs even more popular than they were before. It’s so interesting, because the beverage world embraces tiki cocktails, which are extremely sweet. And dessert wines like Sauternes, which are extremely sweet, and certain Rieslings. It’s really weird because it’s almost anti-sweetness when it comes to a way to go against styles of beverage you would never drink anyways. It’s like, “I don’t like sweetness, but only that kind of sweetness.” That, I think, is what makes it so hard to understand for most people looking at the beverage world. Sugar is sugar, sweet is sweet. Why are you telling me that a Sauternes is incredibly complex, but I’m not allowed to like a big red wine with residual sugar?
Z: Or a grocery store red blend.
A: Right, exactly.
J: There’s something about, your palate is more refined if you say you don’t drink sweet drinks. Or you like dry drinks only.
A: So interesting.
Z: Let me add a couple of thoughts to this topic here. We, as 21st-century Americans, are awash in sweet things. Sweetness is not something that we have to struggle to find. For most of human history, that wasn’t true. There’s a reason why, biologically, we respond so strongly to sweet things whether it’s food, drink, or otherwise. Sweetness in nature is relatively rare and seasonal, and it’s a treat. There’s a way in which our ape brains and taste buds can’t really grapple with abundant sweetness sanely, because we are kind of obsessed with sweetness, and fat, too. Obviously in both those categories, we now have access to those things whenever we want in a way that just did not used to be true in human history. There’s always a pushback to that in diet culture and things like that where sugar is the enemy. I want to weigh in on the merits there particularly; like everything there’s some good and some bad. But it’s undeniably true that since the time we were children onward, sweetness has become something that’s viewed with suspicion, if not outright vilified throughout all of consumables. That’s not a beverage-alcohol-specific thing. On top of that, you have this complex thing in beverage alcohol, where many of the things that were popular 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago were, in part, popular because they were sweet. Only relatively recently has the American palate, even in terms of what people buy, switched from preferring sweet wine to dry wines. There are still tons of people who like sweet wine. We’ve experienced this whether we’re drinking 19 Crimes red or Franzia or whatever. Sweetness still sells. Those are huge brands, right? And there’s a huge swath of the public that likes those wines, and part of the reason they like them is because they are sweet, undeniably. But I think that sweetness came to be viewed with suspicion and as a shortcut or as a way to generate interest and sales to get people excited about your product. In some of those cases, the sweetness came to you either through outright sugar additions or by adding concentrated grape must, things like that which feel like cheats to certain people. I’m not going to weigh in on that particularly, we’re not really talking about that. The last thing I will say is that we also struggle in beverage alcohol to talk about sweetness. Some of it is a thing that you and I discussed way back when on the podcast, when we did an episode called “Kill These Words.” I find the term “dry” to be such an obstacle to talking about sweetness in beverages because dry and sweet do not seem like natural opposites. It’s only in beverages that we use those, and mostly just in wine and some spirits. A consumer can say they like dry wines but mean they want a tannic wine that’s sweet, and it’s very confusing. They get told they’re wrong or they get told they don’t understand what they’re talking about, either directly or it’s implied. And they turn away from the category. So I think that there is a language problem here, for sure. But there is this broader cultural trend away from sweetness in all its forms. The sad thing about that is there is a big difference between soda and the sweetness that you get in sweet wines. How you arrive at that level of sweetness is so different. What sommeliers and others have tried to explain, often not very well, is that part of the beauty of these world-famous sweet wines is that they are precious because they are so difficult to make. Their very existence is tenuous because the market for them is small and possibly shrinking, or at least not really growing. Yet they represent this incredible part of wine’s history, of our history as a drinking species, because for so long, the most prized wines that you could find were sweet wines. Sweetness was so prized, and making a sweet wine was a way of preserving this naturally occurring sugar in grapes in a way that lasted for years, for decades, for centuries. That was a thing that was so prized. It’s not to criticize people for not caring about that now. Who the f*ck cares? We don’t face the same reality that people in the 1800s faced. But there is a reason why these things have been so lauded throughout history. It’s not just their ability to preserve sugar, it is their complexity and their uniqueness. But part of it is just understanding why they were so popular historically and maybe treating them with a little bit of deference, given that fact.
A: Interesting. That’s an interesting point, in terms of why there is an acceptance of those sweet alcohols and not the others. What’s interesting to me is, in the spirit or beer spaces, you can’t make that argument as easily. Tiki is not a super-old area of drink. It is much newer, and there’s lots of sugar in tiki. There’s lots of sugar in other cocktails. The Espresso Martini is one of the trendiest cocktails, now back on the come up. And it’s super sweet. I had one of those two weeks ago. It was my first Espresso Martini in a very long time and it was totally undrinkable because of how sweet it was, to me. But to other people, it might have been amazing. That’s what the cocktail is supposed to be. There’s all these really sweet beers that have come out, like smoothie IPAs. What is all the stuff with lactose? It’s crazy, right? Those are going for that same market of sweet, but then they would not drink others. I almost wonder if sweetness does come down to, as you said a little bit earlier, this dividing line between craft or mass production. Especially if you’re working in beverage or you’re working in food, you want to support the people who care about the craft. You don’t want to support mass production. There’s a person I really love on Instagram, his name is @newyorknico. He goes out to these really cool places. Anyways, he’s become friends with a guy named @meals_by_cug, and I quickly watched a video before jumping on this podcast. They were reviewing the Subway meatball parm. Basically what they’re saying is, if you live in New York City why would you ever go to Subway to get meatball parm? That’s a good example of a lot of people who work in beverages saying, “Why would you ever drink this kind of wine?” There are some people who toil over this. My long way to make this point is that I think sweetness becomes a very easy way to categorize that without just saying it’s a mass production, right? Because a lot of the mass-production stuff does use lots of sugar, because sugar is much more appealing. It’s why things take off. That’s in the spirits world, too. We see a lot of the massive vodkas and tequilas use sugar. One of the No. 1 tequilas in the world right now has tons of sugar in it, and that’s Casamigos. It’s a big, mass-produced tequila that everyone knows is adding sugar additives to make it even more popular than it already is. So I wonder if that’s almost how sweetness has gotten such a bad rap, because it has become identified with so many mass-produced brands that it’s an easy way to be like, “Don’t drink sweet stuff.”
Z: Joanna, I’m curious because of your experience in food media. My assumption is that we associate processed foods with sugar and other things, too, of course. In food media, there’s obviously a certain reverence for desserts and other chocolates, etc., things that are obviously very sweet. There is a healthy skepticism of, if not outright dismissal, of processed food as a category. Is that right?
J: I’ve had this conversation with Adam before. I think that’s definitely true. But then we also saw, more recently, this movement back towards processed foods and treats. You see very popular dessert chefs kind of reclaiming those types of foods and that type of processed sweetness. I don’t know if there’s like a wave towards it or something, but coming back towards the Twinkies.
A: The Whoopie pies and all that stuff.
Z: Do you mean their highbrow takes on those things or literally using a Twinkie in their dessert?
J: Highbrow takes on those things.
A: Highbrow, some of them are using the high-fructose corn syrup and flavorings. They really are. It’s interesting because it’s not just, “Hey, let me make this dessert, but I’m going to use maple syrup instead of corn syrup.” They are using corn syrup, but they’re still making it highbrow. The one that Joanna and I talked about the most is Milk Bar. Milk Bar is one of the best examples of this. All of those desserts are takes on grocery store aisle cake batter mixes and desserts. Christina Tosi is using a lot of those same sugars and things like that. It just is branded much better.
J: She found such extreme success with it because when she was first doing it as a pastry chef at Momofuku, it kind of felt like counterculture. You have fine dining and you would never, ever see something like that on a plate at the end of a $300 meal. But then she was doing something like this, and it felt so different and so fresh to have this perspective on fine-dining desserts. She launched this whole career out of it. To bring this back to drinks, I don’t know if you guys remember this, but maybe five or 10 years ago there was a cocktail bar in New York City that I can’t remember the name of, but they would build their cocktails in full cans of Fresca. Do you remember this?
A: Oh, I know about them, but I can’t remember the name.
J: It was supposed to be like a cool cocktail bar, and that was kind of their shtick. Which was building cocktails out of soda cans. We were talking about soda before; that’s such a no-no. Zach, in your discussion of sweetness and how we as a society have responded to it: A lot of this is really wrapped up in diet culture and the revolt against big soda and stuff like that. The reason why I don’t drink sweet drinks now is because my mom never drank sweet drinks. She was like, “I drink dry white wine, I could never drink a sweet wine.” She would never have a sweet cocktail, only drinks the driest Martini. That was something that was so instilled in me growing up. That’s why I find this topic so complex, because it’s so tied up in these other social and cultural issues.
A: That’s so interesting.
Z: I want to elaborate a little bit on something there, too, because I think it’s important. In the drinks space, sweetness suffers from these two elements. There’s the one that you just mentioned, Joanna, this connection or parallel to diet culture. People are, as we’ve talked about recently, looking for no-ABV and low-ABV cocktails for ostensibly health reasons, because they’re lower cal, etc. Sugar and sweeteners in beverages are often a hidden source of calories for a lot of people. If you’re trying to be conscious of that, then you’re going to seek out styles that you think are as low-cal as you can. That could be the Skinny Girl Margarita. At the same time, there’s this other piece we alluded to, but I want to hammer it home. Which is that sweetness has been treated in some of the drinks media as code for simple, pedestrian, or just beneath. That’s the part where I find it a little more difficult to grapple with. Beverage alcohol across most of its categories struggles a lot with this notion of how to talk about quality or premiumization, when so many of these things are intensely personal. And personal taste is hugely important. Someone whose personal taste in beer, wine, spirits, cocktails skews towards sweeter suffers the real risk of being taken as completely unseriously by a lot of drinks professionals. One of the most instructive moments in my sommelier career was when I had a person come into the restaurant who wanted to get some wine. I asked them what they typically like to drink. They said, “My favorite thing is Moscato.” And I said, “Great, we have some Moscato here and some other things that we can talk about.” We got them a glass of Moscato and found a bottle of off-dry Chenin Blanc that they were interested in. At the end of the meal, they said, “A lot of times when I tell people I like Moscato, they’re just like, “OK, great, here’s the sweetest wine we have. I don’t have anything to talk to you about, or they try to bring me port or something sweet, even though Moscato and port only have sweetness in common and nothing else.” They were very appreciative of being taken seriously as a wine drinker, even if their preferences are not necessarily aligned with what many people would consider the most serious wines. It was instructive to me, and it’s something I’ve tried to keep in mind. A person can like sweet drinks and be an incredibly astute, serious drinker and want to be taken seriously. The beverage world doesn’t always speak very well to those people.
A: It’s very true.
J: I’ve recently encountered a few people who are brave enough to admit that they have a sweet tooth, and I find that very refreshing.
Z: Well, that’s actually a great point, too. Because we treat liking sweet things as a character flaw. We treat it as like, “Oh, you don’t have much willpower if you like sweet things.” Obviously, everyone has their own preferences. In this era of ubiquitous sugar, it does take some willpower to resist. Whether it’s dessert or drinks or what you put in your coffee. There’s a lot of avenues to sweetness in modern society that are very easy, and to some extent do require some willpower in one way or another for most of us. That’s a good point that there’s a kind of virtue signaling in saying that you only drink dry drinks. You’re saying, “I am both this adult sophisticate, but I’m not weak-willed.” There’s no reason that you shouldn’t enjoy indulging in an Espresso Martini or a Mojito or a glass of Moscato. Those are not less worthy indulgences than the ones that a person who never drinks a sweet thing in their life indulges in. They just might be different.
A: This is totally anecdotal, but I do feel like most people crave some sort of sweetness. Whether that is via the beverages we consume, or lots of people who I know that don’t drink are big dessert eaters. I’m not someone who really craves cookies, cakes, and candies. But I am a drinker, and people I know who don’t drink as much really crave cookies, cakes, and candy. There’s something about how we’ve evolved as human beings that there is something that we crave in sweetness. I’m even saying that as someone who will sit here and say I only drink dry wine, but all wine has sweetness. Most cocktails have sweetness. Bourbons have sweetness. Your body is getting that sugar that your brain is looking for. It’s all so interesting. Sugar is something that we try as little kids, it makes you cray-cray, and it makes you crave it again. It’s crave-worthy. It just is. It’s a hard thing to then sit there and say, “I don’t do anything that’s sweet and you shouldn’t either.” Because at the end of the day, all of us are consuming something that’s sweet.
Z: I want to amend my answer from the beginning of this episode. If the asteroid’s coming, I’m cracking open my nicest bottle of dessert wine. I’m getting a pint of ice cream and I’m going out like that.
A: I love it. We’re going to end it there then. Joanna and Zach, I’ll talk to you on Friday.
J: See you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.