On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter and Zach Geballe respond to a listener’s question regarding why drinking whiskey from a decanter on screen is so common and why more modern portrayal of drinking might be moving in a different direction. Tune in for more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair New York City headquarters. I’m Adam Teeter.
Zach Gabelle: In Seattle Washington. I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is The VinePair Podcast Friday edition. I have a question for you Zach. Production-wise.
Z: Lay it on me.
A: When we’re letting that sweet intro track just like run, am I talking right now over the intro music, you think?
Z: Yes. The people are hearing the dulcet tones of Darbi Cicci..
A: I’m feeling it. Anyway, we did a really fun package this entire week here at VinePair called Drinking on Screen. Where we published a bunch of articles all around like the movies and alcohol, and obviously that’s not a coincidence that the Oscars are this Sunday but if you want the entire package you just have to go to the homepage and there’s a huge box that says drinking on screen. You click on the box on the homepage it says drinking on the screen and you can see all the amazing articles we published this week. We thought that you and I were getting left out of this conversation because neither you nor I wrote a piece for drinking on screen. We want to have a conversation and it actually is just a great coincidence that a reader — no sorry, a listener. I keep saying, reader, man. I apologize to you listeners, but I hope you read as well. Wrote in with a question about drinking on screen. Zach, you want to give us the prompts and we can go from there.
Z: Absolutely. Yes. Thanks to Stephen for writing in a couple of weeks ago actually, giving us just the perfect amount of lead time to set this up. Appreciate it. As always if you guys have questions or topics you’d be interested in our take on firstname.lastname@example.org. Basically asked when you’re watching TV and movies and stuff like that there’s that somewhat iconic, almost trophy scene of one of the characters maybe they’re in their office or something like that and they grab the crystal decanter with something whiskey-hued in it, pour themselves some, maybe a glass for someone else. It’s just part of — I don’t know office life or like they’re just how we do it. We just drank whiskey at one on a Wednesday, and his prompt he says, “I’ve never seen this happen in real life.” He is like even if I was preparing a drink for someone, especially in a business setting, he never just assumed that they just want whiskey neat. Then the real prompt and I think this is the thing to get into is what is it that this whole scene is supposed to communicate to us, the audience. What is the show trying to tell us or the movie trying to tell us about those characters and the situation? To me, that’s I think the most interesting part of this because I think I agree. That’s not something that I’ve seen done in real life. I haven’t gone to a lot of high-powered meetings. You have definitely been to many more than I have, Adam. Maybe this is commonplace in the high-powered publishing world of New York City. You can let me know in a moment but I will also say that I fell victim to this in a way when I was in my twenties I was like, “Oh, I’m going to buy some decanters.” I’m going to put whiskey in it. It’s going to look cool and it looks cool but it is not great for the whiskey as it turns out. I think it’s too much light exposure. It’s just not the ideal vessel other than it definitely looks cool but if you want to enjoy your spirit I don’t think it’s really how I would store it.
A: In the decanter. I think first of all just anecdotally, I had a decanter when I was like 22 to 25 because of this exact example. I was like, “Oh I’m so sophisticated,” and I would transfer what I thought at the time — you know what’s really funny is I was actually talking about this today at lunch. When I first moved to New York maybe it was when I was like 25 instead not 22. I wasn’t there yet when I was 25 I had moved to the East Village and I was about to move in with Naomi because we got engaged when I was 26. I moved to this village and this restaurant had just opened in the East Village called Back 40. It was this farm-to-table restaurant. The chef is famous but I forget his name so my apologies, come at me. I was at the bar one night because we’d heard about how cool the restaurant was but we couldn’t afford the restaurants. We’re like let’s go have drinks. This bartender — it was like one of the first bars in the East Village to have a very deep bourbon collection. It was like the beginning of the tater movement. They have this deep bourbon collection and I thought this was interesting. Let’s try some bourbons. They turned me on to this bourbon. At the time they were like, this is the best value bourbon on the market. You should totally buy it. We only have it because they’re doing it for like $8 a glass or something. All I knew at the time was like I’d heard of Pappy but this was an $8 glass of bourbon. They’re like, I think you can get it at this place called Broadway Wine and Spirits for $25 or $30 a bottle. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go get this bottle of bourbon,” but I thought that I was being cheap by getting this bourbon. It was really good. I really liked it. It was a wheated bourbon, but I was like, “Oh, it’s so cheap. I’m going to put it in a decanter on top of my bookshelf so that no one knows that I’m the cheap dude that buys this bourbon because I don’t want anyone to know.” I should probably be buying something fancier. The bourbon was W.L. Weller, and I used to hide that I was buying it and put it into a decanter because it was only $30, but I think that the thing that’s so funny about this depiction is I’ve never had this happen to me in life. I’ve never been anywhere. The only place that I think I’ve ever been offered a drink in a work setting that’s not VinePair at the end of the day when we host someone in the office at our bar or maybe we have bottles left over from a tasting that happened during the day and people can sample them at 5:30 is maybe I’m trying, I think yes, after the closing on my apartment. Our real estate agent took us out for a drink, but I’ve never been somewhere where they’ve been like, “Oh, let’s bring out the Macallan. Put glasses on the table.” I’ve never been in a meeting where they’re like, “Oh, we got to,” but that happens so often in movies and TV. I think they act like people drink all the time at work. I think even at the height of — we’re trying to workshop an idea here at VinePair that if you have any thoughts on this, hit us up at email@example.com. We’re working on a story. We’re trying to get there about Silicon Valley’s war on alcohol which is very clearly happening. I think if you’re paying attention to all of the news right now and all of these very famous VCs who are all of a sudden saying that they’re going sober, it’s very much a Silicon Valley phenomenon, but they definitely have this weird war on alcohol. Now there’s this pseudoscience podcast bro, who happens to be a real scientist with a sleep lab, I think at Stanford. He’s a Joe Rogan character, but he has one of the most listened to by Silicon Valley bros podcasts of the last year, where all it is is anti-alcohol and how alcohol is the worst thing for you ever, but he is a huge fan of ketamine and psilocybin and stuff. Again, a lot of pseudoscience. He has this belief that if you change the way you’re breathing, you’ll sleep better and that you can change the way you’re breathing for your gut by a f*cking crazy sh*t but prior to all of this, them being anti-alcohol people. Silicon Valley was one of the largest embracers of alcohol culture in the office. That was the WeWork time when there were kegs in every WeWork and the idea was everyone was drinking. Even then, I don’t think that there was drinking at work at the level that you see depicted in movies. I don’t ever remember sitting down with Josh even the year before we created VinePair be like, “You know what, let’s hash this out over a glass of whiskey neat at 1:00 p.m.” I think it is because it happened so much because it is the easiest to shoot as our listener suggests in their email. It’s very easy to put tea or apple juice or whatever into a decanter and make us think it looks like spirit and let the drinker drink it. The other thing I think is very rare is how often have you ever seen in real life, Zach, a person throwing back a glass of whiskey like seen so often in the movies as well? A shot. We’re not talking about shots. Unless it’s a party movie. We’re talking super bad or whatever. You don’t see shot culture in movies, but you see so often that a glass of bourbon poured and then it just slugged back. I don’t know anyone that does that.
Z: For one, I don’t think so. I would like to add here an additional trope that I don’t like but is endemic also and I think has actually come up on this podcast before at least obliquely, which is, as movie characters often are, I’ll take like three fingers of whiskey and leave the bottle and then just sitting there just drinking straight from the bottle at the bar. Which again, I don’t know that there’s basically any bars that would ever do that. That’s not how drinking at bars typically works, but in this example, I think it’s fascinating to think about what they are trying to convey. I agree with you and with our listener that part of the reason this became a part of the visual lexicon film is that it is easy to shoot. If you want to convey something, it’s a lot easier to have the decanter and have the actors pour purported whiskey into a glass than it is to have them open a fine bottle of sparkling wine or Bordeaux or something and whatever. Just like that is both a busier act on screen and just a lot harder to set up and shoot and reshoot, et cetera. There’s a simple reason that I think it’s a filmmaking reason. TV makes a reason that explains it. I think there’s also this element of like, it is intended to show — I guess what I would say is we, especially historically, you think of someone who drinks spirit neat as being like both maybe a little bit maybe an alcoholic in some of these contexts. They’re just like, they’re maximally adult. It is the most adult way to drink as is commonly understood. I don’t need water. I don’t need ice. I don’t need a mixer. Just give me a hundred-proof spirit straight to the face and like-
A: Yes, leaving Las Vegas
Z: Yes. I think there’s a reason that you see it traditionally: It’s often men in a business setting and it’s macho, manly. I don’t need — yes. Get out of here with your frozen water and all that bullsh*t, just give me the strongest you got? Come on. I think that it becomes a convenient shorthand for that character or that way we’re supposed to interpret a scenario. I also think the other thing is like, I agree with you that I don’t think most business dealings ever were as booze-soaked as they are portrayed. I think “Mad Men” is a great example of — I’m not sure if that’s really what the hard industry was like. I think probably there was obviously plenty of drinking and lots of other bad behavior, I’m sure, the way in which it became again, a signifier for the characters on there — of their character about what they were intending to represent, that it has trickled back into mainstream consciousness because of that show. Of course, again, it predates that and has come since. It’s weird to me that it still carries through. That we still look at the person sitting there drinking whiskey neat and think like, “Oh my God, that person is just like, so grown up.”
A: Yes. I think that’s true. I think that there’s this belief that there’s some air of sophistication and being of a certain age that you can handle your spirits neat. I will say, though, that you are seeing this being mimicked in real life in the taters‘ embrace of higher and higher and higher alcohol with bourbon, where it’s like, give me as strong as possible. “I gotta put that hair on my chest, bro.” I definitely think that is something that you see once in a while, and that is what’s supposed to connote that you are someone who can actually appreciate real bourbon. Whatever real bourbon means. I think that is what we’re trying to do in a lot of these shows. You see this a lot in shows — “Yellowstone.” I’ve only watched the first season of “Yellowstone.” It wasn’t really for me. Where it is that straight whiskey all the time. I think also the drinking from the bottle, you see a lot more. Have you ever taken a swing from a bottle? I never in life have been like, “I’m going to swing from the bottle.” Look, I’m also not a natty bro, so I never took sways of water from the bottle either like the nats did, but — at least on Instagram. Always, to me, it was like a thing that was trashy. That is what I think they are trying to show when they do that in movies and TVs. That it’s trashy. That is again like, we’re trying to display this person as a dependence on a substance. It’s such a dependence that they don’t even look for the glass or they are so stressed or distraught, et cetera. They need the drink directly from the bottle because they can’t waste the time it takes to pour it into the glass. I think it’s interesting how spirits step in so much in movies to tell us more about the character. To give us a little bit of a glimpse into what the character could be going through in a way that doesn’t happen as often when they’re just drinking water or get, oh man, that guy really worked out. I guess that’s a lot of water they’re drinking. That’s basically all you learn. Whereas with spirits, you learn all these things you’re talking about, whether they’re sophisticated, whether they’re more “manly,” whether they are someone who has addiction issues or are depressed or are super stressed, and so they need these things. One thing I think the movie shows really well with alcohol, though, is our quest for it, even when we aren’t legally able to drink it. I think that the movies do a very good job and have for generations of showing young people’s desire to consume something that is prohibited to consume. I think you can’t do that with any other substance really. Sure. There’s like very iconic cannabis movies, you can’t show that anymore with cigarettes because we know all of the things that cigarettes really do. Although people still do show that a little bit. It’s like rebellion, but nothing displays youth and an experience that we all have like being in high school and trying to drink for the first time.
Z: Yes. I think it ties back into this question, into this theme, which is what those movies are really about is these characters attempt to transition into adulthood, and drinking is just one of the big cultural signifiers in our culture. Is a clear distinction between children or minors or even if you’re not legally a minor in the United States if your drinking age is 21 and you’re an illegal adult at 18, it’s still like a big barrier. Not just in terms of your ability to purchase alcohol legally. Again, as you were talking about the way that drinking is portrayed based on the age of the characters, it would be extremely weird to watch a high school party movie where everyone was like sitting around sipping Scotch. It’d be funny in a way. There’s a part of me that wonders, I was thinking about this a moment ago, whether some of these movie tropes and TV tropes are failing to keep up with the evolving drinks culture. In the same way that a movie that 10 or 15 years ago would’ve centered around the main characters in a high school party movie trying to get beer, probably now they’re trying to get seltzer or something like that. Maybe there would be a weird level of connoisseurship because it’s become more broadly culturally recognized and accepted that maybe there’s the kid in the group who maybe one of his parents is a tater and he gets in trouble because he opens the bottle of fancy whiskey. I feel like we are writing a script here. Any Hollywood folks want to get in touch with us, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re very available. I think it’s interesting to think about the ways in which TV and movies influence culture by showing a mass audience this image or these images or these scenes. Then you and I both internalize the like, “Oh, whiskey out of a decanter is f*cking cool.” That’s what an adult does and both did this individually and yet also movies and TV need to reflect what is going on in culture, lest they seem completely out of touch. I think this is a scene that maybe we’re talking feels more and more out of touch with how people drink both because that’s not how business is conducted if you’re familiar with it for the most part. Also because drinking and connoisseurship has changed. While of course there are still lots of people who swear by and enjoy spirit neat, I think now it would be better than a show that’s trying to say some of the same things about their character with sophistication, they should show you the labels. It should be a bottle of Pappy or it should be a bottle of Weller or something. They can get even geeky or should they care to, and that’s going to be the thing that’s going to, for the people who are interested in what that signifies the average person watching is they’re going to be like, “Oh, they’re drinking whiskey. Cool.” The people who are into it are going to be like, “Oh, they really did their research. We love to see that it’s fun.” In the same way that any show that portrays drinking and can get the details is going to have a degree of multitude and cachet with the drinking public. That a show that just is like “Well, I don’t know, it’s brown, they’re drinking it, what do you want? They’re grownups.”
A: I do think you were seeing that more. First of all, just an anecdote idea came to my mind while you’re talking, which is like, could you imagine if all of a sudden Silicon Valley wins its war on alcohol? The way that we’re going to show that people are trying to move from adulthood, from childhood to adulthood is like they’re just trying to figure out how to illegally vote. Anyway, what else would it be like it’s getting your car at 16 in a majority of states and 18 others? That’s really it. Drinking, I think that point is very true and why we see it so often in all of these movies and TV. I do think there was that conversation that happened a lot online recently about how well the show, “The Last Of Us” nailed wine in episode three, where it did not shy away from showing the wine labels. A case was featured in it, Jadot was featured in it. There was another Burgundy, but very much clearly showing the labels because this was supposed to be an individual, this character who had a true appreciation for food and beverage. They had just anything lying around. When they were raiding they would’ve gone for the good stuff and I think that is really a way that, again, you project who this person is and you tell without telling. That’s something that alcohol has this really beautiful ability to do that other things don’t. I think the way alcohol is just as integral when it’s brought into movies and TV to a character’s development as their clothing is, as their car is, as what we see in their homes. It is part of that broader picture of them as a person that other things are not as much. Weed just tells you they’re a stoner, but it doesn’t tell you okay they’re a stoner. Are they smoking weed, but you don’t know, are they sophisticated stoner or they’re deadhead stoner? You only know that if they’re smoking weed and there’s also Grateful Dead paraphernalia everywhere, but you know what kind of person someone is based on the alcohol they are now that we’re starting to show that more. You know this person, as you said, is a actual whiskey aficionado by the kind of whiskey they are drinking or wine aficionado by wine they are drinking or if they are just an alcoholic because they are drinking — I don’t know, Everclear out of the bottle on a beach somewhere.
Z: I couldn’t escape the thought of, if we get to the point some number of years down the road where marijuana consumption is more normalized and you could see in the same way that we look at someone drinking a beer versus someone drinking wine versus drinking whiskey versus drinking a Martini or whatever, as those are very different kinds of drinkers. It wouldn’t be about just the attendant lifestyle of the — what jam band you listen to, but the strain or way you consume cannabis being a tell for the character in a way that isn’t so heavy-handed the way it often is now, or just in the same way that we would think it weird if movies today portrayed anyone who drinks alcohol as being basically one character in the way that people who in traditionally have been smoked pot or whatever on screen have all been one. You’ve basically been one version of the stoner archetype or another. I don’t know. Alcohol is obviously the benefit of having been legal for much longer and also just having a broader social cache and understanding of what these different types of drinks say about a character. It’s still definitely a useful shorthand for filmmakers, for TV shows, for writers, et cetera, to say something about a character without having to just lay it out for you explicitly.
A: Before we go, what I’d like to ask you and ask the rest of our listenership here is hitting us up at email@example.com. If you had to pick, what is your favorite or what do you think is one of the better depictions of alcohol on screen?
Z: Oh, man. This is always really hard and in a way, I don’t think I can escape. Best depictions of it are hard for me to say because you get into this category of, who got it the most right? I’m going to try and avoid — I don’t want to avoid that, but I also don’t think it’s too difficult to say because — let me rephrase this one more time. I think the depiction that immediately comes to mind and everyone’s going to have their own and we actually did for those listening an episode about this last year where we — you, Joanna, and I — ran through some of our favorites on screen, so I’m not going to try and recreate too much of that because it was such a fun conversation and there are so many great ones and more and more, as you pointed out with the last of us, it becomes a bigger and bigger thing. I will say that one of my favorite scenes because it’s just so cool, is in the show “The Expanse” which is a sci-fi show and I won’t get too deep into the plot because this plot point happens relatively late on, but there is a very highly coveted bottle of tequila, which is Don Julio 1942-ish, but not exactly. There’s this whole back and forth with two of the characters tasting it and then basically negotiating over who gets the rest of the bottle and then eventually unfortunate things happen when the bottle meets an untimely end. I don’t think that stupid a spoiler, but it just was like the way in which even literally in space and in the future, this whole connection to these spirits carried forward, at least in this imagined future so — that was fun for me. I enjoyed it a little as someone who likes Sci-Fi and also obviously likes spirits and drinking generally, it was a fun little bit for me to enjoy as like, oh, yes, this guy is whatever the tequila equivalent of a tater is like 400 years in the future.
A: I love it. Yes, I think for me, obviously, I thought that “The Last of Us” did very well recently, as we’ve mentioned. I think one of the shows that fell off towards the end but I think was very brilliant in terms of seeing something happening way before it was actually to the level that it is now in terms of wealthy people and celebrities pouring in was Silicon Valley and the creation of their one character, this very wealthy we’re supposed to be billionaire tech founder and his creation of a tequila called Tres Comas or Three Commas. Right after that, Elon creates a Tesla Tequila and you have all these other people who are like, we’re going to all have tequilas. This was much much prior to that. The show has been off the air now for at least a few years. I was just like, “Wow, yet again, Mike Judge is very smart.” This was just seeing where everything was going and already understanding that tequila was having this massive moment with wealthy people where they all thought they should own one and that the one that they owned should have something to do with their personality so of course, a billionaire names their tequila after the Three Commas because they’re a billionaire, but tries to make it sound Spanish. So good. Yes, let us know what you think. Podcast@vinepair.com. Have a great weekend, and Zach will talk to you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast,” the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast. Whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere.
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Thank you as well to the entire VinePair staff and everyone who’s been involved in making VinePair as special as it’s become. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next week.