Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6

I’ve had plenty to say about how great I think Balvenie’s Tun 1401 releases have been. Batch 6 has just been released in the US and I had my first pour this week. I don’t have a greater backdrop for this one, but wanted to pass along my impressions of it very briefly while you can still find it.

Balvenie Tun 1401 Batch 6 49.8% ABV
Nose:  Lighter and more delicate than previous batches. This has gentle hints of damp clay on a gray, slightly rainy autumn morning. A faint hint of leather, but it’s balanced upfront by the lighter and sweeter fruit notes. This batch shows some light passionfruit, a faint hint of peach, soft wood, a gentle bit of tobacco. The maltiness develops after a bit and some toffee shines through. Sherry notes emerge after even more time, giving hints of ripe red fruits.
Palate:  Nice mouthfeel, lightly oily. A bit of sweetness led by oranges with a hint of toffee behind it. A little light leathery quality; think of a new Coach wallet. A little lemon perks it up; there’s a hint of ripe cantaloupe adding some body. Light vanilla creaminess and some very gentle malt. A touch of tobacco and white pepper adding spice. Some wood adds a little firm body to this palate.
Finish:  Drier on the finish than the palate would suggest, tobacco and white pepper with oak that runs slightly bitter upfront and stays that way.
Comment:  Definitely one to sit with and let evolve. Tun 1401 doesn’t disappoint. The nose continues to evolve and hold surprise; the palate is a delightful mix of sweet and creamy. The finish is unfortunately off a bit with the bitter wood but it’s still really nice.
Rating:  B+

Bottom line? It’s still a great whisky, but it’s not at the level of Batch 3, which I still think is a world-beater. If you’re fortunate enough to find a bottle of #3, grab it. Otherwise, Batch 6 is still likely to be one of the better whiskies you’ll have this year. This will likely start hitting retailers soon so keep your eyes open. Now to wait until sometime next year for the next batch! LAWS has other perspectives on this but it’s unanimously B+ to this point (which is an impressive feat all by itself).

So Long, Port Ellen

I knew the day would come that the closed distilleries started pricing themselves beyond what I was willing to pay. Sure, Ben Wyvis and Kinclaith had long been outside that, but those were easy enough to disregard – I’ve never heard anyone raving about that one legendary Kinclaith that they wish they had just one more pour of.

Port Ellen, on the other hand, has been the go-to example of a closed distillery that is almost always good to great and generally in a fairly predictable profile. If you like it, the odds are that you’re going to find plenty of Port Ellens that really work for you. And, for the longest time, given the realities of the situation, the price has been fairly reasonable. After all, the distillery has been closed 29 years; most whisky being released under the name has seen three decades or more in oak, and the stocks dwindle while awareness continues to rise. It’s a perfect storm for price increases.

Fortunately for producers, we happen to be in a period of increased demand for the stuff, and it seems like no price is too much to ask. Last year, Diageo’s official release of Port Ellen was hovering around $500 – definitely high, but it didn’t require an inordinate amount of back-bending to plausibly justify.

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

After a year of seemingly endless one-offs, exclusives, and special editions (which still seemed to find audiences and sell through), we’re truly in Cabbage Patch Kid season: the end of year seasonal releases. Diageo, the Van Winkles, Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, Parker’s, Jefferson’s One-Horse Open Sleigh Aged, etc. While these are normally tricky to come by, this year the insanity is already boiling over and we still have a solid two months left in the year. The best example? Thomas H. Handy, the criminally underrated member of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sold out in under five minutes at The Party Source’s sale. I’m sure Jim Murray’s stamp of approval didn’t hurt, but even last year you could casually walk into your favorite liquor store even into January and grab a bottle. The party’s over, it seems.

This time around, the producers seem to be charging a premium on what the market can bear. I remember the critiques last year – Port Ellen was instantly snapped up and sold on the secondary market for $800 – that said that Diageo should jack prices up to stop the speculators. They did – oh, how they did.

If you were fortunate enough to find a Port Ellen release this year in the UK, you would have been paying over a thousand dollars once all was said and done. I don’t know about you, and perhaps it sounds a bit rich coming from the guy who’s bought a couple expensive Macallans (never again), but I was definitely out of the market at $1000.

A couple days ago, K&L announced their last cask of the year – a Port Ellen! I was excited and ready to spend – I figured it’d be $400 absolute maximum. The announcement did the usual bit of story-weaving, but there was clearly an undercurrent on the economics both in the announcement and in David’s writing over the last couple weeks. Their $300 (retail) Ladyburn from last year, as Driscoll noted, would have cost $900 wholesale per bottle. The punchline of the announcement was that the K&L exclusive Port Ellen, a coup for any shop trying to cement itself in the upper echelon of whisky retailers, was going to cost $600 a bottle.

I was out of the market immediately.

It’s nothing to fault K&L or Diageo for that matter – people are as mental for Port Ellen as they are for Pappy – but this does seem to mark a point where Port Ellen is moving out of “splurge bottle” and into the price category dominated by the very wealthy. No doubt the next five years (perhaps next year, being the 30th anniversary of the closing), will bring us an oligarch-focused release that cracks into the vaunted five-figure barrier. Obviously it’ll need a special decanter and a wooden box, but the supply chain is clearly firing up in the “deluxe whisky decanter” and “deluxe whisky decanter velvet-lined box” cottage industries.

This was a point of reflection for me, and it seems that the Port Ellen I own at this point is the last Port Ellen I’ll buy. Maybe there will be some sample swaps, and maybe something will catch my eye at some point, still at a more reasonable price, but for all intents and purposes, the new release purchasing is over for me. Funny; I’d have thought it would have been Brora first.

Instead of being bothered by it or by running out and laying my hands on every Port Ellen I could find, I decided to recall the absolute best Port Ellen I’ve ever had. I fortunately had a small amount of it remaining, and this sort of “farewell” seemed like a good opportunity to revisit it.

This particular Port Ellen was an older bottle from James Macarthur – you’ve seen them, they’re usually sitting in the semi-anonymous lower shelves and are all too easily confused with the various mystery malts. This particular Port Ellen was bottled at 12 years old, at 62.7% ABV.

The nose on this one is a great mix of lightly tarry notes, a little light leather, lemon and young malt. It has a faint minerality to it, as well as a little faint pepper prickly quality. It opens up and evolves while it breathes, revealing fresh Red Delicious apples, white pepper, hints of tangy barbecue sauce. Eventually you even get into lighter fruits – peach and apricot with a touch of a briny quality. All of this still happens with that great Port Ellen peat happening.

The whisky has a nice, full, and rich mouthfeel. There’s a moderate heat to it even though at 62.7% it could be off to the races and super hot. There’s moments of wood here and there, but it’s not out of balance. White pepper and chili oil form the basis of the heat; light lemony notes run around the heat. There’s a malty sweetness and tarry smoke as expected, and some organic earthiness, with a gently insistent ashiness. There’s a really enjoyable mix of sweetness, heat, and a little ash to keep the palate interesting.

The whisky finishes on tarry smoke, a pronounced lemon note which seems to have a quick Earl Grey tea chaser. It’s got a touch of malt and dry wood, and it dries further to barley with a little lemon at the tail end.

My words feel like they don’t do this one justice. Honestly, if I could have no other whisky for the rest of my life, I’d be OK if I only had this one. It’s got such a great balance of tastes.

Apparently there’s another version that was released before this one which was more heavily sherried which got a ridiculous rating like 98 from Serge. I’d love to try it but the fact is, these Macarthur bottles are exceedingly uncommon and seem to only show up as minis on the secondary market in Europe. If you want one, you’re going to have to be prepared to hunt and pay.

Who knows where things will go from here. I’m still pretty convinced prices are going up for some time yet; I wish I could keep pace and enjoy things like these new Port Ellen releases, but they’ve now gone out of my range. So, the day has come to say goodbye. Any future Port Ellen reviews you see here are likely from bottles I have on hand, unless I specifically call out “a great deal on Port Ellen that I recently found…”. Given the current climate, I don’t expect to be writing those words anytime soon.

At a Glance:

Port Ellen 12y James Macarthur 62.7% ABV
Nose:  A great mix of lightly tarry notes, a little leather, lemon, young malt. Ever so faintly mineral. A little prickle with faint pepper. A faint touch of fresh Red Delicious apples in the background. White pepper and a little light, tangy barbecue sauce. Over time, lighter fruits evolve – hints of peach, apricot. Faint brine.
Palate:  Nice, rich, full palate. Moderate heat despite the high ABV. A little wood on the body; white pepper, a touch of chili oil, some light lemony notes. Malty sweetness and some tarry smoke. A slightly organic earthiness, but there’s still a gently insistent ashiness.
Finish:  Nice tarry smoke, a definite lemon chaser, and perhaps a bit of Earl Grey tea right behind that. Lightly tarry, a touch of malt, a touch of dry wood and barley. Lemons pop up again after a bit.
Comment:  Honestly, this would be the one whisky I’d have if I could have no other. A great balance of all the tastes.
Rating: A

Strong Fundamentals Are The Basis For Quality – New Holland Whiskeys

Over the last few weeks I’ve devoted a fair amount of time and thought to writing about craft whiskeys, most recently with a step-back look at the recent Lost Spirits discussion. There are times where I feel like I must come across as carrying water for large distilleries, and the fact is, I’m not and I couldn’t care less who makes my whiskey, as long as it’s good.

It occurred to me that what separates the good distillers from the less interesting and successful ones is a command of the fundamentals of their craft. It’s not enough to fill a barrel every week or so and call yourself a “craft distiller” because you’ve got low volume. That just means you’re a small distiller. Totally cool.

Craft, while generally having implications of small scale, also carries with it a connotation of some degree of skill and aptitude with the work being done. In a sense this is kind of another extension of the “master distiller/blender” title in the slightly more honorific sense that marks its use in Scotland. You can say Charbay and Balcones have exhibited a clear focus on the craft of their whiskey making, but you could also easily apply this to Glendronach, Glengoyne, and Balvenie. The whisky is just so incredibly good that clearly care went into it, not just production targets.

The problem I have (and I’m sure others do too) is using it as a self-applied stamp of legitimacy. We’re led to respect those who use artisan and craft methods, but the loose and more euphemistic application of these terms by the market in general have devalued them. It makes it difficult to seek out and find the true artisans, and the people who truly have focused on developing their craft.

This weekend in my practice studio I was cleaning up and setting up mics on my drums again after not having had them set up for a couple months. Through trial and error I’ve learned a method for setting up microphones that results in great sound quality, though the actual act of setting up microphones and the recorded output is almost the point of the least effort.

Most microphone sets targeted at beginners have too many microphones and they encourage a really faulty belief that you need one or more microphones per sound source. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that drums are a stupidly difficult instrument to keep sounding good as you add more microphones. Without getting stuck in the weeds of the science, the basic problem is that the microphones getting sounds at slightly different times can lead to the recorded result sounding really mushy, distant and weak.

If you look at old recordings, say Blue Note photos or Memphis soul sessions, you’ll see only a handful of microphones – and those recordings sounded insanely great. Why? A focus on the fundamentals and everything ahead of time. The room sounds good. The instruments have been tuned and treated so that you can put a really sensitive microphone inches from them and you won’t hear strange buzzes, rattles, rings, or other unwelcome sounds. And most importantly, the person who is playing the instrument understands how the microphones “hear” their instrument (which can mean playing the instrument differently than the “natural” way).

As I set up the mics, I started with a single overhead and found the spot where it had a good coverage. I adjusted the gain and opened up the pickup pattern so that I got a little more open and airy sound. Playing while hearing the output, I was pleased – I could pretty much have usable results with a single microphone. However, I had some specific goals and needed a little more snap on the snare drum, presence and low end on the kick drum, and a better spread. I added the second overhead and tilted it so I had a wide stereo field available. Once I was happy with the results, I added the kick drum. The bass drum had a bit of a floppy sound coming from the front head so I retuned it a bit and adjusted the position a little more. Bam – perfect. Finally, the snare drum. Taking an utterly unglamorous workhorse microphone, I spent about five minutes finding the absolute sweet spot that gave me some body and punch, but also accentuated the snap of the stick hitting the drumhead.

Without having spent time trying to understand how and why each thing worked in the process of learning to use these microphones, I’d just be setting things up willy-nilly and hoping for the best result. Odds are, the result would be an unusable mess with tons of leakage, phase cancellation, and probably very poor tone as a result of inferior placement.

The fundamentals aren’t the fun things to work on. It’s far more fun to have everything set up and start playing… but the fundamentals are, as the name suggests, the building blocks that all flourishes must be built upon. They’re the foundation for everything that follows in terms of learning a craft. I had a teacher remind me many times that if I couldn’t play something slowly, I truly didn’t have command over it (… but playing fast is so much more fun!). Taking the time to stop and pay attention to every little detail that goes into the final product, no matter how slow and unenjoyable the process is the first few hundred times, is what lets you cruise more smoothly through those details in the future with mastery and confidence.

Certainly there’s science and mechanics to be learned in the craft of distillation. However, there are certain things that need to be in place before you can bottle a young whiskey that’s either peated to the Nth degree or finished in some questionable wine cask. As Jason Pyle mentioned on Sour Mash Manifesto, Jim Rutledge – master distiller at Four Roses – is fanatical about the quality of the corn that goes into his bourbon. So what? It’s just corn, you’re just making a distiller’s beer, it can’t be that important, can it? Maybe not, but the fanaticism that surrounds Four Roses (I include myself in this cadre) is because of the quality of the final product, not the image it portrays or its market segment.

It’s been said that one challenge that faces small distillers is the learning curve. Some are likely facing the cold realities of a high burn rate and their business model dictates that they must start seeing ROI as soon as possible. I would argue that ROI doesn’t mean you should barrel or bottle the very first thing you distill.

The point that drove this home for me was in tasting New Holland’s Brewers Whiskeys recently. They are clearly the result of a distiller who is paying attention to quality of the raw material. New Holland, for those who don’t know, is a Michigan craft brewer who has been doing small runs of spirits as well. I had long been dubious about trying them – craft distillers have not been kind to me, and the malt whiskey proudly stated it was aged for six months in oak. Great – that dark color means that we’re dealing with undersized casks and it’s going to be a splintery, bitter, astringent mess.

The nose on the New Holland Malt House malt whiskey confirmed my initial fear – there were light new-make hints under a fairly hefty wood presence. There was a little white pepper and some more raw alcohol notes. Disappointed again.

The palate was initially sweet, with a moderated presence of the more pure white dog sugary sweetness and a more straightforward malt sweetness. After a second I noticed a presence that seemed like a light hoppiness – more oily, dry and earthy than the big floral notes. This was in the background and as textural as it was a taste, but it added some intrigue. Behind that was wood.

The finish led with the hop character and was almost chewy. There was a malty sweetness that almost seemed beery as well as a little wood. For six months, this had a lot going on and considerably more nuance on the palate than most ultra-young, small-barrel craft whiskeys. I could be imagining the hop presence on this one but it seemed to be there, and with the later sweetness, it had a certain beery quality to it that was a little more in check than other whiskeys. Honestly, this presents at least one compelling alternative to bourbon as a style that could become uniquely American – at least given the love here on the west coast for heavily hopped beers. I’d welcome it. The standard-bearers for the style remain the Charbay first and second releases, but this has a pleasing element to it.

The other whisky being tasted was the New Holland Walleye Rye. Younger ryes aren’t at all uncommon with all of the LDI rye being bottled fairly young, and rye seems to carry itself fairly well at a young age, assuming it had some decent aging on it – the floral and spicy characteristics of the rye seem to be able to act almost like a less-intense crutch sort of like peat does in other whiskeys.

The nose was, as expected, young – sharp and piney at first, with some wood and a Pine-Sol like cleaner/solvent note. Not exactly pleasant, but the Malt House didn’t have a great nose either.

The palate led with some bitterness and was fairly oily. There was some more young rye, a little light pepper. It was slightly bready and had a light malty sweetness, as well as a dimensionless and flat wood presence.

The finish had a little white pepper, some of the youthful rye, and a curious presence of the oily hop note that I caught on the Malt House. There was also some light wood. All in all, it wasn’t bad, despite the sharpness of the nose. The finish was pretty enjoyable in fact.

What intrigues me about both of these whiskies is that there’s clearly some work here to develop a profile. I haven’t had more of New Holland’s whiskey, but this is more than the usual questionable white dog that’s overoaked at a young age and reeking of vegetal notes. While this is clearly young and the product of small barrels, the oily hop character really speaks to some deliberate efforts in the distilling process. In fact, this is one of the more interesting craft efforts I’ve seen in a while. While it’s not quite ready for the mass market, I think more adventurous palates will find this to their liking. Certainly these didn’t merit a bottle dump or an uneasy use in hot toddies or other mixed drinks to try and kill their flavor.

I’ve said this for other craft whiskies, but in this case I’m actively searching for their next effort. This stuff doesn’t really make it out to California and it’s a shame, because it’s definitely better than a lot of the craft offerings on the shelf right now.

At a Glance:

New Holland Malt House Brewer’s Whiskey (6mo), Batch 1 45% ABV
Nose:  Light new-makey hints under a pretty hefty wood presence. A bit thin. A little white pepper and some raw alcohol notes.
Palate:  Sweet upfront, kind of a mix between a pure white dog sugary sweetness and a bit of a more developed malty flavor. There’s a light hoppiness to this as well – kind of the oily, dry earthy hop character. (In light measure.) Some wood underlies it.
Finish:  The hop character continues and has a little chewiness to it. Some malty, almost beery sweetness. A little wood.
Comment:  It’s only been aged 6 months and the nose could use some work, but I actually kind of enjoy this. The hop influence is so subtle I could be imagining it but it’s got a distinctly beery heritage to my tastebuds.
Rating: B-

New Holland Walleye Rye Brewer’s Whiskey Batch 1, 45% ABV
Young rye, fairly sharp and piney at first. A bit of wood and a little cleaner (like pine sol)
A bit bitter initially, fairly oily. A little youthful rye presence, a little light pepper. Slightly bready, and a lightly malty sweetness. A little flat-tasting wood presence. 
A little white pepper, some of the youthful rye, a bit of the sort of oily hop-like presence found in the Malt House. Some light wood. 
The whisky’s not bad; the nose is a bit sharp. The finish is fairly enjoyable. 

For the recording nerds: 2x AKG 414 B-XLS stereo pair in XY configuration; Shure Beta 52 on kick; old faithful Shure SM57 on snare.

That Was Not The Whisky Bubble Popping

Recently I discussed the pre-Sputnik Bowmore 1957, limited to a handful of bottles. With a positively ancient whisky inside a stunning bottle likely fashioned from narwhal tears and pixie dust, this was expected to fetch £100,000 (or slightly north of $162,000 for those who don’t convert currencies). Yesterday was the auction date for bottle one in Edinburgh, and the bottle… did not sell.

Early reaction on twitter was a mix of surprise and schadenfreude. Some even hoped this was a bellwether event that signaled the end of the whisky bubble and extremely high pricing. It could be, but I’d be willing to bet it’s not. And with that, I find myself with strange bedfellows on my position – the people who are speculating and driving up the value of these things.

I wasn’t in Edinburgh when the auction happened, but I can only surmise that the reason it only made it to £85,000 (USD: $Too Much) was for a relatively benign reason – Mahesh Patel had to run to the bathroom or his paddle fell under the chair in front of him at the critical moment and he couldn’t reach it to make the victorious £100,000 bid… or possibly the anonymous wealthy businessmen who apparently fly through Singapore Changi were still busy working their way through their Dalmores.

Bonhams suggested that “The skill and patience that has gone into the production of this product has not been appreciated by the market” – which is possible. Bowmore themselves noted that the auction remains open for another week, so it’s possible this may sell at the asking price.

We’ll see come October 28th when bottle #2 goes on auction in New York. Perhaps this was a one-time glitch, or perhaps more likely, Bowmore is not a name that has spent a lot of time burnishing its plutocrat-friendly image. Sure, you can go into a fancy liquor store and see that bottle of Black sitting on a shelf, mocking you with its $5000 price tag, but that’s still miles off the $160,000 mark.

And what of this claim of $150,000 being “the most expensive whisky” that was bandied about? Don’t forget that in 2010, a 64 year old Macallan sold for $460,000. Yes, nearly HALF A MILLION DOLLARS. To be fair, that was a 1.5L container, so I guess the adjusted price would be $230,000 – still nearly 50% in excess of the Bowmore mark – and this sum was actually realized.

In a world where a $90 bourbon sells for over $1000 in a single auction, one data point like this doesn’t signal the market giving up. There’s still the chance that the New York auction is the one that realizes the auction reserve price or more. Or, perhaps, this is just a sign that Bowmore cannot command prices that high – yet.

The leaders in high-priced whisky, Macallan and Dalmore, have had occasional hits in the six figures, but the bulk of that market lies below the six-figure range for now (even the most expensive Constellation was only $32,000). Time will tell if this came up short due to pricing ahead of the market, name recognition, or a burst bubble. However, I suspect that a bubble pop will be concurrent with a migration away from whisky as a “cool” thing – either due to changing tastes or fatigue from too many exclusives/rising prices/etc.

While I could be wrong, I think we’ve got a long ways to go still before we see a bubble pop and the inevitable market collapse that would follow.

Enough about whiskies we’ll never drink. Here’s a Bowmore you’ve probably passed up and should take the opportunity to enjoy. Several months back in a LAWS reserves cleanout, I managed to get a little more than half a bottle of Bowmore 15 Darkest. This is part of the standard Bowmore lineup and one I’d never had before. Honestly, it’s the whisky that opened my eyes to the possibility of Bowmore.

At $70, Bowmore Darkest isn’t the cheapest, but it’s not outrageous for a 15 year old whisky, and it’s a sherry casked, fairly lightly peated whisky. That combination of sherry and peat is one of the most sublime tastes to be had in the world of Scotch whisky, and it’s usually something that commands a much higher price.

The nose is a treat. There’s a well-balanced sherry character that has a lot of the expected qualities – dried fruit, a little nutmeg and cinnamon, balanced against iodine and a bit of tar. Plum and cherry, with a little claylike earthiness provides some great depth; it’s all rounded out by a light sweetness and faint maltiness.

The palate has a light to moderate peatiness and a little heat, which is balanced nicely by a cinnamon-spiced apple compote. There’s a little fig and a nice, rich, oily mouthfeel. It all has the hallmark of a strong sherry influence – really enjoyable. I really feel like there’s a shortage of whiskies that have a nice sherry influence like this at a young age.

The finish is momentarily warmer, and the peat comes into center stage initially. It has some nice tongue-numbing spice from cinnamon and pepper; it settles down and the dried fruit notes again come to the front.

All in all, it’s a really enjoyable and highly accessible Bowmore. Maybe if enough people buy the reasonable ones there will be less need for the high-end stunt whiskies.

Probably not.

At a Glance:

Bowmore 15y Darkest – 43% ABV
Nose:  Balanced sherry gives some dried fruit, nutmeg and a touch of cinnamon to iodine, earth and a bit of tar. There’s a touch of plum and cherry; a little bit of clay. Light sweetness and faint malt.
Palate:  Moderate peat and a little heat which is balanced well by a nice cinnamon-spiced apple compote. A touch of fig; nice, rich, oily mouthfeel.
Finish:  Gains heat momentarily and the peat comes to the forefront; a nice gentle tongue numbing spice in the form of some cinnamon and pepper. Settles down and leaves some more dried fruits.
Comment:   A really enjoyable, super-accessible Bowmore.
Rating: B

Failure MUST Be An Option: Lost Spirits’ Leviathan & Seascape

Once again, I find myself commenting on the ins and outs of the recent goings-on in the whiskey blog universe despite my desire not to. Fortunately, it’s again a springboard for a larger thought.

In the last few weeks, reviews of two new craft whiskeys from Lost Spirits have trickled in. The whiskeys are highly peated whiskeys distilled in a unique still – instead of going over it myself, I’ll let K&L’s David Driscoll (and Lost Spirits themselves) tell the story of the production of these whiskeys.

The reviews that I saw began with Sku’s Recent Eats, which summed them up as being young and more like a smoky mezcal than a peated single malt (the obvious reference points on a review such as this). Josh over at The Coopered Tot reviewed Leviathan and also commented on its relative youth. 

This is familiar territory and one which is common in the American craft distillery scene. Things are getting better, for sure, but for every promising whiskey, there are several too-young or otherwise flawed whiskies out there.

What made Lost Spirits’ story a little more interesting was the response posted on Recent Eats from Lost Spirits as well as reader response to that. Bryan of Lost Spirits took umbrage at the assertion that the whiskey was “too young”, and launched a fairly impassioned defense of his product. I think it’s an understandable response for someone who feels strongly about something they’ve put time and money into producing. I have no intent to jump on the dogpile; they’ve taken their lumps and likely wish that particular incident would disappear.

If You Only Care About The Booze, Skip Ahead

One of my tendencies I have to work to hold in check is a perfectionist streak. While it’s something that can be an asset, in the long term (especially in high-stress situations) it can damage your ability to function either in the capacity which engages the perfectionism, or in the rest of your life.

I’ve worked on and off in the technology startup world, and it’s very fast and free-wheeling, which can be a lot of fun. However, the startups tends to attract other highly-motivated, type-A perfectionists. Add to this cocktail a liberal dose of bravado and garnish with workaholic tendencies, and you have a recipe for burnout and disaster.

Startup engineers like to imagine that the social playlist sharing service they’re building or the mobile check-in application they’re updating are on par with the Apollo program in difficulty and importance. I myself referred to some projects as “moon shots” in the past. It’s completely ridiculous. I have no idea how in the hell you would actually put a man on the moon in real-world practical terms.

Eventually, as with virtually any business project ever conceived and executed, the project runs into snags, is behind time and over budget, and an executive or manager walks in and launches into their best faux-motivational (fauxtivational?) brow-beating crunch-time speech and most likely includes the line “failure is not an option”. Because, as we all know from Apollo 13, the next step after failure is death. If people don’t get their playlist sharing, they, too, will inevitably die.

Indeed, failure is viewed as one of the most unforgivable sins as opposed to a learning opportunity. This has been something I’ve wrestled with for ages personally. There are some movements in the startup world to adopt saner, real-world production techniques like Lean Production (repackaged brilliantly by Eric Ries as the Lean Startup) which teach us that failure, unintended consequences, setbacks, and so on, are a valid and expected result of experimentation and learning. They seek to improve things by constantly learning and improving, which seems to indicate that the largest automaker in the world knows that you will come up short and it’s nothing to freak out about.

It’s a difficult thing to trust that even if our efforts fail, things will be alright. If you place a huge bet on something that could drastically alter your outcome, you are placed in what may feel like a fight for your life. People don’t work well in prolonged struggles for survival. It’s not a stable state for any extended amount of time.

Much saner, then, to not make a series of feast-or-famine bets and test critical assumptions early on with low risk. In the startup world, this is finding your critical business assumption and trying to test it in a bootstrapped manner without having the burden of several hundred thousand (or even millions) of venture capital dollars riding on the outcome of your gut feel, intuition and maybe a hunch.

This model further says that if you fail, you do so in a way that you can learn from and you refine your approach the next time. It builds in failure explicitly as part of the learning process, as it is for every other endeavor in the real world. Failure is healthy. Failure is necessary.

I’m reminded of my son learning to walk, which he’s taken to quite well. Now he has decided that walking is pretty much the best way to get around, and crawling is a last resort. Not so even a month ago. The difference? Lots and lots of little experiments, lots and lots of trial and error, lots of failures. To this day, he still regularly misjudges his balance and lands on his butt. And then he fearlessly picks himself up and tries it again.

Back to “Failure is not an option.” I wondered about this phrase. Those five words are so cinema-ready. Were they really uttered at NASA in 1970?

According to Jerry Bostick, the flight dynamics officer at NASA on Apollo 13, those five words were not said. The actual way it went down, according to Bostick:

“… when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.”

According to the linked page, writers for the film were interviewing Bostick and in the car after their meeting, they said in the car: “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.”

An entire type-A culture uses as its cultural touchstone (and assumes as valid management advice) the words of a screenwriter (no offense to those screenwriters reading). That makes as much sense as basing our financial sector’s motivation on the words of an imaginary corporate raider from a movie. Oh well… I guess we all love a good line.

It’s important to understand Bostick’s meaning. Yes, “failure is not an option” makes for excellent cinema. However, replace the word “option” with “outcome” and you have a much truer reading of what Bostick was saying:

“… when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the [outcomes], and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.

I’ve added emphasis as well to underscore the real point: they never gave up. That’s the real takeaway point. You never plan to fail, but you accept that you may have failures and setbacks along the way. The advantage we have is our ingenuity and ability to adapt, overcome and improvise in the face of failures.

Another thought regarding failure from Brian Eno:

What would be really interesting for people to see is how beautiful things grow out of shit… Nobody ever believes [that it happens that way]. Everybody thinks that Beethoven had his string quartets completely in his head, that it somehow appeared there and formed in his head, and all he had to do was write them down… and what would really be a lesson that everybody should learn is that… things come out of nothing.  Things evolve out of nothing.  You know, the tiniest seed in the right situation turns into the most beautiful forest, and then, the most promising seed in the wrong situation turns into nothing.
And… I think this would be important for people to understand because it gives people confidence in their own lives to know that that’s how things work.
If you walk around with the idea that there are some people who are so gifted, that they have these wonderful things in their head, but you’re not one of them, you’re just sort of… a “normal” person, that you could never do anything like that, then… you live a different kind of life, you know?
You could have another kind of life where you can say, “Well, I know that things come from nothing very much and start from unpromising beginnings, and… I’m an unpromising beginning and I could start something.”

This longer quote necessarily presumes that one must accept failure. In fact, Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies includes one aphorism that says “Emphasize the flaws” – which presupposes the existence of failure as a part of a larger, hopefully more successful end. If things had to evolve, if things are not pre-existing in their final state, then there must have been a period of creation in which things were experimented worth, found to be in need of improvement, and improved upon.

It’s easy to assume that a healthier, more sanguine attitude about failure is simply laziness or a willing to settle. After all, some may argue, if you really cared about the outcome, you’d make sure things worked. However, if I’ve learned anything in my days, it’s that forcing an outcome leads to a brittle solution that will begin eroding in stability from day one. Furthermore, forcing an outcome offers little room for serendipity – and sometimes those serendipitous outcomes can be life-altering (if not life-saving).

The whole concept of embracing failure is one in which you realize that failures may lead you to a bigger, better outcome (or may teach you the unpleasant lesson that your intuition was just wrong). Maintaining this flexibility necessarily means that you’re able to adapt when the world shows you that your plan was not right. Take heed from Eno – a master if there was one – great ideas weren’t born fully formed and launched into the world. They’re the product of hard work, setbacks and adaptation.

You can take these setbacks and try and force a positive outcome from the negative, or you can revise and learn from them. It’s not aiming to fail, it’s being able to understand the positive role of failure and how it can lead us to better ends.

Pour yourself a drink. If you’ve been scrolling for this point and didn’t want to read everything else, top yourself off: back to whiskey.

Failure is a great teacher in the whiskey world. Buffalo Trace continues to launch all kinds of crazy experiments in its Experimental Collection and has even has noted its own failures (and even has a label online proving it!) while finding other interesting whiskeys in the collection. Under the guise of Single Oak, they’ll presumably release over 190 whiskeys that will not pass muster with consumers to be bottled. Even setbacks have proven to be opportunities disguised as disaster and failure – Glenfiddich and (of course) Buffalo Trace readily capitalized on their warehouse disasters to produce some interesting whisky. As to the role of serendipity – Ardbeg had a whole release around one of those oops moments.

Having worked in small, entrepreneurial environments and hoping to return to them again soon, I absolutely understand the stress that new distilleries are under. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have the padding in your funds and business model like the Daftmill distillery who continues to let their whisky mature over time, waiting for it to be ready, you have to compromise somehow. Kilchoman took lumps early on for releasing three-year-old whisky in the $70-a-bottle price tier. Fortunately in the last few years, Kilchoman has proven that they had the quality to back it up. Bruichladdich experimented with exotic cask finishes and released tons of whisky – some good, some not so good – to enable them to make it to their astounding sale to Remy. Along the way they were maligned for questionable whiskies and a completely confusing product matrix. It’s unsurprising to see now that they’re greatly contracting their lineup to a focused, understandable few.

In the US, there are less clear success stories yet. High West has defrayed some of the risk of a new distillery by taking the time-honored path of bottling sourced bourbons and ryes but creating something new and interesting in the process. Meanwhile, they have their own distillates which one presumes are gaining age. Fortunately for them, they’ve got a gifted blender with David Perkins and their results have been unusual but interesting and undeniably unique creations.

Balcones, who will get their due coverage soon, has decided to take corn whiskey (traditionally young, harsh stuff) in new and interesting directions. I never thought I’d care for an American whiskey so young, and yet the appeal of Brimstone especially is undeniable.

Finally, we have the path taken by distillers like Lost Spirits – the toughest of all roads to travel: no sourcing, and a whisky (single malt, barley only) traditionally preferred at an older age – three years minimum. This is a tough, tough sell.

At this point, the most reasonable thing to do is to try these two whiskeys and see how they stack up. Starting with the less-peated one, Seascape.

Seascape starts with strong vegetal notes upfront. It’s not quite as overtly evocative of corn husks on a hot summer’s day like many bourbons, but it’s a little more sour and green than the small amount of new make spirit I’ve had from Scotland. This quickly gives way to the peat, which is a more rubbery expression – reminds me of the children’s pack of fifty balloons, to be honest. Very rubbery. There’s a little prickle on the nose and some faint sweetness, but the nose is all about the rubber and the youthful, slightly damp vegetal notes.

The palate has plenty of upfront heat, a slight bit of sourness, but then the rubbery peat dominates. Heat builds up after a few seconds, but it’s uniquely expressed as Sichuan peppercorn. The palate is just dominated by the rubber notes with some light sweetness, and a nice, oily mouthfeel.

The finish is rubbery again with a touch of smoke, and a delightful slight show of more earthy peatiness. The heat continues from the palate, but subsides quickly, and instead of the slight mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn, it’s more of a chili oil coating heat. Again, faint vegetal notes come through.

Rubbery expressions of peat can be tough for me as they tend to feel artificial and chemical. I’ve had this problem with other whiskies (Caol Ila can go here as often as not) and it just doesn’t work. I tend to prefer either a more earthy peat or an industrial, tarry note. This whisky is unquestionably young and would greatly benefit from more time in wood to develop some complexity and integrate the flavors more, but it’s not bad. I’ll be interested to see where this one goes.

Leviathan, a highly-peated (110ppm) whiskey is obviously wanting to be held in similar company as Bruichladdich’s Octomore and Ardbeg’s Supernova. It may fare well; those high phenol concentrations can result in highly drinkable whisky – especially in the case of the wine-finished Octomores – at a relatively young age.

The nose on Leviathan is initially strong, with vegetal and slightly sour notes. It really kind of smacked me in the face right out of the gate. There’s a vaguely rubbery peat which comes in, and some malty sweetness – more sharp like a diastatic malt powder. It’s almost faintly piney, a surprising note for me which usually I associate with rye. After a while it settles and there’s more smoke on the nose, but the sweetness picks up and I just kept wanting to write that it was like a “sugary campfire”, whatever the heck that would mean.

The palate – hot and sweet! There’s chili oil, malty sweetness, cayenne and white pepper, and – yes – rubber again. There’s also light hints of powdered sugar. While it sounds simple, the interplay is pretty fun.

The finish is peppery, which is unsurprising after the palate. The balloon-like rubber notes continue; there’s a faintly vegetal quality underpinning it all, but it’s extremely mild, much less than on Seascape. There’s light chili oil and a moderate, lasting heat.

For my money, Leviathan is the better of the two. This doesn’t surprise me; the high peating level seems to hide sins but also gives the whisky its own personality. I’m surprised at how the maltiness came through on this one but not on the Seascape. Leviathan is a hot and young whisky, and it’s got that rubbery note I can find troublesome, but it’s not bad at all.

The truth be told, I think Lost Spirits overreacted to Sku’s review. I think the expectation when looking at a scale like the one LAWS uses especially is that the grades are going to cluster around A-/B+, which just isn’t the case. LAWS grades exceptionally hard and A-level whiskies are the ones that come around a couple times a year and generally make you want to reschedule your calls. More of LAWS clusters around B-/C+ – the difference between worth a try and drinkable though not necessarily worth seeking out. There are tons of decent whiskeys that I can drink in the C+ range; they’re just not ones I tend to want to spend a lot of time on. For me, Lost Spirits drops right in this cluster. I think Leviathan is on the cusp of being a B- (worth a try) whiskey; Seascape just doesn’t quite have it going on for me and just needs more time in wood.

I think these are both much better than I’d expected them to be given the recent uproar.

The challenge that craft distillers need to be cognizant of beyond the challenge of just making a good whisky is that you need time and room to stumble and recover. Rarely are first efforts home runs unless there is a lot of domain-specific knowledge and experience, which comes at a very dear cost. Sometimes, as I think this is the case, the technical skills are adequate (though the product is not quite ready yet), and the harder “soft skills” of running a business – dealing with negative reviews and those pesky bloggers – are the ones that need to be used and refined.

As I said, it’s a very tough road for a company like Lost Spirits who have decided to to model their business on the equivalent level of difficulty as a climb of Everest without a guide. Single malt whiskey has a very distinct set of expectations, even peaty young ones. Given that the American offerings to date have been questionable, there is not really as of yet anything that provides a compelling “other” option for the style when compared to the expectation of 3 years in wood. This means that stumbles – be they in the softer skills of people and public relations – or in the harder sciences of distillation and cask management, are inevitable. Indeed, failure must be an option in the business plan of a small, emerging distillery. The question for those distillers is, how do you handle a setback?

I hope they don’t give up.

At a Glance:

Lost Spirits Seascape 53% ABV
Strong vegetal notes upfront initially. This gives way to the peat which starts to smell like the variety pack of children’s balloons, very rubbery. A little prickle and some faint sweetness but this is dominated by rubber and a youthful damp vegetal smell. 
Plenty of heat upfront, a slight bit of sourness but the rubbery peat notes take over. Lots of heat after a few seconds, kind of a sichuan peppercorn type heat. The mouth is dominated by the rubber notes. Slightly oily and a touch of sweetness. 
Rubber with a touch of smoke on the end, ever so slightly earthy. The heat continues but subsides quickly, and has more of a chili oil presence. Faintly vegetal notes. 
Peat that goes more rubbery is a tough one for me because it tends to feel artificial and chemical. I’ve had this problem with other whiskies. It’s definitely young and would benefit from some more time in wood to develop some complexity but it’s not bad. I’ll be interested to see where this one goes.

Lost Spirits Leviathan (Cask 2) 53% ABV
  Initially strong with vegetal and slightly sour notes. A vaguely rubbery peat comes in after; some malty sweetness – like diastatic malt. Almost faintly piney. Like a sugary campfire…
Palate:  Hot! Sweet! Chili oil, malty sweetness. Cayenne pepper, white pepper, and – yes – rubber. Hints of powdered sugar.
Finish:  Peppery. The balloon-like rubber notes continue. Faintly vegetal, but very faint. Light chili oil, moderate heat that lasts.
Comment:  This is better than Seascape. Despite the higher peat, I get more nuance. It’s hot & young and has that rubbery note but it’s not bad.
Rating:  C+ (almost, but not quite a B-)