One way to be certain we’re in the midst of a whiskey boom: tastings are springing up everywhere and marketed to the ever-more-casually interested. The other day during the KCRW pledge drive, I heard a whiskey-related premium up for grabs, which went almost immediately. Whisky is undeniably mainstream.
However, as we all know, whisky can be insanely expensive, and unless you’ve openly declared war on your liver, a bottle can be a long-lasting commitment. Sure, you can swap samples with friends or do group buys, but that can be slow going until your whiskey-mania sets in, or until you’ve found many more people to trade with.
One of the best options to survey if you have some similarly whiskey-curious friends is to run a tasting, or to all submit to one. However, a good tasting is more than just grabbing five bottles at random and splitting the costs with several friends. The best whiskey tastings have some sort of narrative to them. It’s not necessarily a deep structure, but having an aim in mind before you start will help you get the most out of the tasting.
First things first: Is this a class or a group adventure?
Some tastings are instructional. One person has a depth of knowledge on a particular subject and presents the key things you should take away on the topic – which can be both gleaned from the experience of drinking, as well as facts imparted during the tasting. If you’re leading a tasting, make sure you’re familiar with what you’re pouring! You don’t want to be discovering a whiskey as everyone else is and trying to weave it into the narrative.
Others can be a group adventure: someone may have an idea about something they’d like to learn more about, and the group at large learns. The “leader” in this case may discuss some bottles they’ve sourced or what gave the idea, but in all likelihood, everyone is on equal footing. There’s an element of risk here, but like attending a Pearl Jam, Phish or Dead show, part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming next.
What Story Do You Want to Tell?
There are several easily-told stories that you can go to and will teach you a wealth about a given subject.
The Effect Of Age
Taking one distillery’s standard range, assuming age is the only variant (Macallan Fine Oak and Macallan Sherry Cask ranges are good examples), this can show you the effect of age on a particular distillery’s character. You can stick strictly to official bottlings, or you can make it interesting and go with independent bottlings as well – a chance to find “in between” ages or especially old/young bottles from a given distillery.
Sample: Macallan Fine Oak 10, Macallan Fine Oak 15, Macallan Fine Oak 17, Macallan Fine Oak 21
Distillery Deep Dive
Taking a broad array of official and independent bottlings, you can sample a range of casks and ages by augmenting official offerings with independent offerings of unusual age, cask provenance, or especially notable vintages. For certain distilleries, this can almost be a whole series of tastings unto itself. You can have the opportunity to find “off-profile” casks which is a great point for discussion. This can teach you a great deal about what the distillery does outside of official bottlings – how it can be altered by casks, age, how it’s changed over time, odd casks, and so forth.
Example: Glen Elgin 1976 “Green Elgin”; Glen Elgin 1975 “Perfect Dram”, Glen Elgin 1971 Cadenhead’s 19y; Glen Elgin Centenary (1981) 19y; Glen Elgin 1991 Signatory 19y; Glen Elgin 16 (OB); Glen Elgin The Manager’s Dram 16y; Glen Elgin 1985 The Bottlers; Glen Elgin Manager’s Choice 2009 (OB). Note: This was a LAWS tasting.
Distillery Style Evolution
Sometimes there’s an interesting question in tracking the evolution of a distillery’s profile over a long period of time and (ideally) holding age statements constant. That’s not always easy to do, but you can ballpark it. Some distilleries showed rapid changes over a short period of time and you may not need to survey multiple decades – others are interesting to track over a long period of time.
Example: Macallan 15y 1952 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1956 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1959 Campbell Hope & King. I covered this very tasting a while back.
Mashbill Variation (primarily American)
The more free regulations regarding mashbill in American whiskeys allow for some interesting experiments in understanding how variance in the grain content affects taste. Ideally try and keep it to a single distillery in an attempt to control the yeast variable. Do this one and spend time with it and you’ll start being able to pick out things that you see in wheaters but not rye, rye but not wheaters, and so on.
Example: Old Weller Antique (wheat – no rye); Buffalo Trace (low rye); Blanton’s (high rye); Sazerac (straight rye)
This is one that I was initially made aware of during a High West tasting in which we tasted an array of whiskies differing by yeast only. There was a distinct difference in each of them. Since then I’ve tasted several (but not all) of Four Roses’ yeast recipes and it’s been similarly interesting. You’d be surprised what yeast can do to a whiskey.
Example: Four Roses Single Barrel OBSK; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSQ; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF
Deconstructing A Blend
This is not necessarily an easy one – with very few exceptions, blend recipes are fairly closely-guarded secrets. However, various blends have had aspects of their makeup hinted at strongly if not outright divulged. Tasting the original blend and the component whiskies, then returning to the original, can show you how sometimes multiple whiskies come together to make an entirely new thing.
Example: Johnnie Walker Green; Talisker 10 (or better yet, 18); Caol Ila 12; Linkwood 15 (Gordon & MacPhail); recap with Johnnie Walker Green
These are just a handful of options. If you think in terms of themes or bigger ideas, you can really take yourself to interesting heights or in unexpected directions. You’ll learn a lot more about where your whiskey comes from, its place in the whisky landscape, and so forth. You might even be able to find interesting and unexpected opportunities if you keep your eyes open – sister casks from a closed distillery, for instance.
Other good options would include a look at similarly-aged sherry-matured whiskeys; a brief survey of the peated whiskeys on Islay (pay attention to how it changes from one location to the next); the effect of cask finishes on peated whisky; North American single malt whiskeys; closed distilleries; etc., etc. The list is endless.
Of course, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes it’s fun to just have a potluck with basic guidelines on the bottles brought (“independently bottled whiskies from the Highlands region, max $200″) if you’ve had a series of themed tastings. You can also up the ante by doing the tasting blind.
The bottom line is push yourself and your knowledge. There’s a lot you can learn, and all you need to do is step beyond shelf-talkers and alphabetical displays or categorization at your store.
It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve posted a review. I’m in the middle of fighting a bug that has me taking plenty of meds and sweating like a malaria patient in Southeast Asia. I’m hoping to have something new up this time next week. Until then, enjoy what you’re having and drop a comment about it so I can live vicariously through your enjoyment.