Saturday 28th November, 2009
When I smoked – and it’s something I did with enthusiasm between Spring 1988 and 13th October 2005 – I often wished that the packets carried tasting notes.
If you’ve ever been a smoker, you’ll know how difficult it is to describe what different brands taste like. The slightly sweet and edge-of-tongue flavour of a Camel is worlds apart from the crispness of a Player’s Navy Cut, which is somehow savoured in the nose. Likewise the toasted flavour of Marlboro or Lucky Strike has a very woody base, and to compare them to the louche heaviness of a Tor Turkish is like trying to find common ground between ripe Stilton and a Dairylea triangle. And as for Gauloises (yum) and Gitanes (yummier)…
Cigarette tasting notes
As you can tell from all this stuttering, writing about fags ain’t easy. But a few tasting notes would have saved me the horrors of John Player Special, Embassy No. 1 and – going back a long way here – Player’s No. 6. And I might have discovered my favourite brands a lot quicker.
Of course, the only things I read on the packets (and this is discounting the silly notion that the Marlboro logo spells ‘Orobljew’ when viewed upside down, or that the three red ‘K’ shapes on the packets are a reference to the Ku Klux Klan) were the following:
- An indication of tar content. Cigs could be High Tar (Camel unfiltered), Medium Tar (Benson & Hedges) or Low Tar (Silk Cut). I’ve even got a vague memory there was a Low to Medium Tar category, occupied by brands like Superkings – but that could be delusional. After a while, these generic categories were replaced by accurate figures for both tar and nicotine content – which was, to be fair, slightly more interesting and better for making comparisons between brands.
- Health warnings. When I started smoking you got a little box on the edge – a mild reproof from the UK Chief Health Officer to point out that fags can damage your health. When I gave up, most of the packet was given over to a funereal, black-edged box containing a death threat like SMOKING KILLS. These days you get pictures of diseased organs, which I think is unhelpful and patronising.
Again, in the very early days of my smoking career, you got cigarette cards. These weren’t the old-fashioned pics of footballers or cricketers, but money-off coupons or mini-flyers for special offers or giveaways.
Spluttering to a start
Cutting short the reminiscence, the point I’m making is that cigarette packets gave you no information that would help you make a discerning choice between brands. Instead, as time passed and social morality hardened like a smoker’s arteries, you got more and additional brutal information about the fact that you already knew, and couldn’t care less about – smoking cigs was likely to kill, cripple or maim you. And people around you.
The cigarette labelling trend is now slipping over into the world of alcohol. At the moment you’re getting information that’s allowing you to make a choice of sorts – but there’s a huge amount of it . Although wine labelling varies from maker to maker, and from supermarket to supermarket, you’re more likely than ever to see the following information:
- Units of alcohol per 125ml or 175 ml glass, plus units per bottle.
- Alcohol by volume.
- A little chart showing the ridiculously small number of units the authorities deem acceptable for you to drink daily.
- A label to indicate the wine is suitable for vegetarians.
- A label to show that the wine contains sulfites.
- Recycling information.
I could probably come up with a few more items if the empties hadn’t gone to be recycled on Friday. But I’ll come to the point instead.
What’s the wine like?
This is the bit of information that’s getting squeezed off a lot of bottles – particularly the cheaper ones. In some instances you’re lucky to get one sentence.
And I think it’s a shame. I enjoy wine. I want to know about flavours, textures and scents. I want to read brief comparisons with other wines. I want to know what kinds of food go well with the wine (or the other way round). I want to know why the wine is like no other.
It’s also a kind of copywriting I’d love to tackle. But as things stand, if I ever got a gig writing wine labels, I’d be drawing up charts to provide idiot-proof information about units. That would annoy me, especially as I can calculate it in my head after looking at the ABV percentage.
And there’s the irony. I’d be giving the consumer ‘choice’ by giving them information about almost every variable imaginable apart from the ones that mattered – why the individual wine is superb, and helpful reasons for buying it. I think that’s just stupid.
Note: please enjoy this post responsibly.