Let’s talk a little more about “smooth”. Why? Because dragging a single topic out into two separate posts is a time-honored tradition among bloggers, and because I said so, that’s why.
Let’s get something out of the way, first. If you say “smooth” in front of me when talking about a whisky, I am not going to say something snooty to you. However, flawed human that I am, it might cause me to internally re-evaluate your whisky knowledge into the “entry level” category, and I might then proceed to condescend like an elitist jerk during the remainder of our conversation. I’m sorry, it’s not your fault, but I can’t help it. I say this because I want you to know that I’m not alone, and the quickest way to betray your whisky noobiness to, say, a whisky tasting club or acquaintances at a whisky tasting event is to use the S-word. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the word is part of unwritten Snob Law as an official Mark of Ignorance™ that will get every hipster, millennial, and whisky blogger in the room rolling their eyes at you.
Ironically despite (or maybe because of) this elitist coding of the word amongst aficionados, whisky industry marketing and PR people continue to use the damn word on every piece of prose they can get their hands on. Even with the inherent pretension of such works (if you think my tasting notes are flowery, read the back of a single malt bottle some time), writers of label and brochure copy can’t seem to stop themselves from inserting the word. It may be a calculated appeal to the uninitiated masses, or more likely just a habit – like a tic. Either way, at best it amounts to an information-less word (a “weasel word” as my 7th-grade English teacher would call it, like “interesting”), at worst a misleading promise of a low alcohol level or blandness. What I find funny is that the word appears in higher concentrations among two specific types of spirits: the bottomest of the bottom shelf, and the tippyest of the top shelf. I get the grasping at straws that must occur on labels for stuff that comes in plastic bottles with handles, but the word appears twice on the Johnnie Walker Blue Label website. Diageo might think they can get away with it by using the word “velvety” in front of it. They can’t.
Oddly enough, the antonym “rough” is acceptable in polite company, and implies that the spirit lacks polish, is especially hot for its proof, contains especially youthful-tasting flavors, or perhaps is eclectic and unpredictable in the “rough and ready” sense. “Hot” is another approved term, and specifically refers to alcohol “tickle” in the nose and “burn” on the tongue. A whisky can be “hot” either because it is bottled at a high proof, or because it has the characteristics of a high-proof whisky without the correspondingly high ABV. Just remember that if you sip and swallow quickly or – God forbid – shoot it, and then proclaim that the whisky is “rough” or “hot”, you might as well have just said the S-word, and you can show yourself out.
The even-more-absurd descriptor, “drinkable” (which I’m quite guilty of using) won’t earn you an eyebrow raise and a lesson on flavor. This, even though the word literally only means that it is possible to put the liquid in your mouth and swallow it.
Warning: conjecture follows. What I think people are really trying to say when they use the word “smooth” in earnest whisky-related conversation is “polished”. A whisky without many unusual flavors, hard edges, off-putting notes, and which tastes like it was artfully and professionally put together could be called “polished”, and is very likely to have a soft texture and a smooth, unobjectionable presence on the tongue. Not all good whisky is polished – some of my favorites, like Talisker 10, are rough-and-ready (Ooh, a motif! Look at me, being all literary…) – but a well-polished whisky is often a positive experience. Just remember that an overly-polished whisky is a possibility, and while also “smooth”, such a whisky can be downright boring. (See the aforementioned Blue Label).
Finally, a story. I was a fresh-faced 21 year-old with a shiny new driver’s license and I went wine tasting with some friends. In an effort to show my compatriots how cultured I was, I remarked upon the wine’s “nose”. Just slipped it into the conversation. Real smooth-like. The obnoxious d-bag behind the tasting bar (who could not possibly have been more than 25) promptly told me that “wine people don’t use the word ‘nose’ anymore.” Yes, he actually said those words, and in that order. Whether this is true or not (I’m not a “wine person”, so I don’t know), he outed me in front of my friends as an imposter – a pig with lipstick on – and himself as a self-righteous tool. I tell you this for two reasons. One, to hopefully prevent you from meeting a similar public shaming re: “smooth”, and two, as a cautionary tale for the rest of you, to keep your snobbery to yourself… even when someone uses an unapproved descriptor in public.