Coda: The Big Tent & Parkerization Begins

It’s been a week since I posted my reaction to Robert Parker’s entry into the bourbon world. I’ve seen that post take on a life of its own and garner stronger and more sustained reactions than I would have imagined. To some extent, this is a final reaction and a summation of a week’s worth of back and forth.

I’m happy to hear from David Driscoll that wine drinkers are tacking the occasional Noah’s Mill or Eagle Rare on their orders. Hopefully people who have overlooked whiskey in the past find something to like in it. If nothing else, it’s a nice change of pace – and who doesn’t need that from time to time?

If Parker’s influence simply spurred a greater appreciation for one of America’s unique products, I’d be thrilled. I’ve known so many people who admit they thought bourbon was the sloppy, toothless cousin to the refined professional brother it had in scotch whisky. When they have that bourbon that’s not a bottom-shelf option primarily meant for mixing or degreasing engine parts, the light goes off. We can only hope that’s the outcome – as if the market expands, we may see more high-quality whiskey make its way to the shelf in the next decade.

Most bourbon drinkers are happy to share their knowledge and their whiskey – even rare bottles. It’s a very giving culture, one that welcomes newcomers and is happy to dig up that odd bottle of something discontinued to share with a new and curious palate. If this culture continues, it’s a great thing and we all win. What I hope we don’t see is an increasingly disengaged culture of takers – people who capitalize on the generosity and don’t pay it forward at any point in time. Where’s the enjoyment in greedily consuming the stuff by yourself? I’m not saying we don’t have special bottles we’ve set aside for particularly momentous occasions, but even the Macallan 30 I opened to celebrate the birth of my son was shared with a few close friends (Thanks, little dude: I doubt I would spring for that bottle now given recent price increases).

However, if there was any doubt of the power of Parker’s imprimatur, I think the last few days might dispel that. Maybe Parker will always be the guy who spent a ton of time talking about the bottles versus the contents. However, the merchants have already taken notice. I’ve seen two local wine shops rearrange their bourbon selections to put Parker’s picks more or less at eye level. I’ve seen shelf talkers sprout up with his scores and notes. And one, ahem – enterprising – local store has decided on an alternate pricing strategy. The bottles of Thomas Handy rye that languished on their shelves, unloved and forgotten at $80, have now been priced to over $200. I should say “bottle” as two sold already. I doubt the third will last through the end of the month.

Others have sold whiskeys on the apparently unthinkable merit of outranking Pappy 20. Hey, it makes for fantastic copy. If you hook a few people, so much the better. I’m not going to re-litigate the “Stitzel-Weller in general and Pappy in particular are overrated” debate. I’d suggest if you’re sitting on some Stitzel-Weller, you ought to unload it on Facebook since apparently even old Cabin Still is going for inflated prices.

Bourbon is sure to see some more upward pressure on prices in the coming months, if it doesn’t become more allocation-based. It’s not much different from Scotch whisky, which I’ve laid out my frustrations with previously. Perhaps Scotland is playing a long game, packaging the bottles in wooden boats and metal stag heads, expecting that a new generation of higher-paying consumers will place a higher value on the packaging than the contents. While I think it’s a misguided effort, I can’t blame producers for trying to make hay while the sun shines.

I’m still in the same spot I was a month ago: I’m realizing that I am less interested in chasing the new, more expensive white whales of whiskey. I’m burned out on chasing new bottles strictly on the basis of novelty and not quality. I’m also realizing that I’m not a fan of the “darker side of capitalism”, as my friend Adam said when we chatted recently. I managed to get in while the getting was good, and I’ll enjoy my bounty for some time to come. Yes, I’ll buy new bottles here and there and gladly share them, but the days of seriously eyeing new Port Ellens or independent Ardbegs is probably over (even Serge says the same).

I hope that the newcomers to the whiskey fold take more time to learn about our generally mellow culture. I hope they take time to savor, share with friends, and find their own preferences instead of relying on critics (especially not an amateur blogging bonehead like myself). I hope the culture of giving continues, and doesn’t become one of taking. Despite the appearance of cellular-level hate I may have heaped upon Parker and wine drinkers, I generally think wine lovers are totally cool people. As with everything else, it’s the highly visible self-interested and arrogant subset that spoils the image for everyone.

And here’s the secret to remember as well: despite what Parker says, there probably isn’t a perfect whiskey to be found out there. Certainly favorites, but mood and circumstances change. I’ve had whiskeys I would have never dreamed of having even a decade ago, and I’ve never found anything quite up to perfection. But I’m not one of those who has tasted thousands upon thousands of malts. I’ll let a couple of those names speak for themselves:

My friend Adam of the LA Whisk(e)y Society:

“Whisky only gets so good. 

The rest is about the people, the experiences, the memories, which become more important the more whisky you try. You taste and taste and taste, and then you start checking off the Big Boys (legendary and/or ridiculously expensive or both), and you realize… it’s just a beverage. It only gets so good. And some days it tastes better than others.

The rest is just fluff, mythology, nonsense, arrogance, pretentiousness, and whatever else you find people blabbering about in the various online forums. Most folks out there [...] think there is some Godlike creation out there that they’re always just a hair away from being able to taste. But it actually doesn’t exist.”

Or, if you regard Americans (or just us Angelenos) with suspicion, take it from Johannes of Malt Maniacs:

“It took me a decade and more than 1,000 different whiskies to discover that such a ’perfect malt whisky’ does not exist – but by that time I was ‘hooked by the hunt’ and I just kept sampling away. After yet another decade, my ‘malt mileage’ had grown to 3,500 different single malt whiskies and I finally felt that I should perhaps slow down a bit.”

In short: have fun, share, and try new things. These are the same lessons I’m teaching my toddler lately.

And seriously, don’t sweat not being able to find that bottle of Pappy.

With that, the long, dull month of introspective navel-gazing is over and the focus returns to actual whiskey, not talking about whiskey.

One thought on “Coda: The Big Tent & Parkerization Begins”

  1. Arrgh, I’m really dismayed that curious oenophiles and/or Parker zombies are picking up bottles like Eagle Rare and Noah’s Mill. Eagle Rare is so boring, and Noah’s Mill might have been good several years ago, but I have tried bottles in many bars and every one has sucked, a simple hot mess with no nuance. Given sourcing issues with everyone, I highly doubt it’s going pick up in quality in the future.

    I’m afraid that this will lead to a lot of people deciding that bourbon isn’t for them, even as they nod sagely at each other when they see the bottles at bars, or when making small talk at a party and name-dropping the bottles as the best bourbons ever. All the time, the bourbons sit half-empty in the back of their bars.

    This would be an awful development! If they try what they have been told is the best, and they secretly don’t like it, how many will branch out and see what else that Kentucky (and a few others) has to offer? Very few! This could stunt a generation of liquor lovers!

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