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
Nose: 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.
Palate: 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.
Finish: 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.
Comment: 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
Nose: 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-)