Rory Sutherland Rory Sutherland

Why cocktails are superior to wine


I often argue that, in theory at least, well-made cocktails are indisputably better than wines costing 20 times more. My argument runs as follows. In making a cocktail, you can mix, in any combination you wish, any of the liquids known to humanity. In making a wine, you are stuck with using grape juice harvested by grumpy Frenchmen from scrubland east of the Gironde. Mathematically, the odds that the best drink you can generate derives only from a few bunches of such grapes is so small as to be infinitesimal. Besides, almost no one drinks grape juice, and nobody has ever seriously tried to sell non-alcoholic wine. If it really tasted all that good, these things would have taken off by now.

Yet one reason people like wine is because our judgment is highly relative. When you say ‘That’s a great glass of wine’ you aren’t saying ‘Of all the liquids I could have drunk, that one wins gold’. Instead you are affirming that, compared with most of the wine you have drunk in the past, it is notably more pleasant than average. I drink and enjoy wine myself. I am simply arguing that its success as a drink is more down to peculiarities of human perception and phenomenology than a property of the drink itself. Wine has acquired a value detached from wider comparison.

The success of wine is more down to the peculiarities of human perception than to the drink itself

This notion that our conception of value is often arbitrary, comparative and socially constructed seems plausible. And, reading the work of anthropologists such as David Graeber and Gillian Tett, it seems to be more important than I thought. Both anthropologists explain how arbitrary conceptions of value become deeply embedded in the thinking of institutions and businesses, where they take on a bureaucratic life of their own.

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