Greed, Gear, Grails

Rumors of my blogging demise are greatly exaggerated.

Over the summer I’ve had a host of conversations with people at various levels on the whisky enthusiasm scale – from self-doubting newbie to well-known names to whisky lovers. It’s been an interesting few months withdrawn from the active, frequently self-referential and repetitive online discussions. While I’ve drawn a distance that I’ll likely maintain from that (stick a needle in my eye if I do a twitter tasting, please), I’ve found some more interesting things to mine in general. I think there’s only so many times you can say “prices are up, quality is down”.

The interesting thing I’ve seen against the backdrop of rising prices is a sense of paralysis in the face of things you own suddenly being “worth” more. As I’ve detailed in the past, my mindset continues to be one of reducing my footprint and owning less. Thus, the few offers I’ve gotten I’ve been predisposed to take.

I was asked about someone who saw a bottle they owned being sold for $1400 in a liquor store back east. They’d bought the bottle years back at a small fraction of that, and here it was – worth $1400! What to do?

The truth is not so simple. Here’s some basic facts to remember. First, if something is on the shelf at a price that seems staggeringly high (and it’s rare), it’s likely to note that it isn’t generally believed to be worth that price, or else it’d be long gone from the shelf. That’s an asking price. Similarly, I have a 90 year old rare snare drum I restored. It’s not for sale unless someone was willing to pony up $25,000 today. Does that mean it’s actually worth 25 grand? No, it’s just my “go away” price unless someone is desperate to own one, in which case I won’t be totally ridiculous.

Second, it’s not worth getting wrapped around the axle of how much something is perceived to be worth unless you have an offer for cash in hand. If you have no intention of ever selling, then why even worry about what other people are getting for it?

Finally on this point, don’t let those high prices spoil your enjoyment. Let’s say you’re the proud owner of a bottle that you paid $100 for. You find out it’s worth $1400 right before you open it, and you’re now in the throes of indecision and feeling unworthy. If you wouldn’t take $600-700 for that bottle, then don’t worry about it. Just drink it, and pat yourself on the back for having found a bottle that time has smiled upon. The worst thing is to just lock it away and promise yourself to have it “one day”. Odds are you’ll deem yourself unworthy. Enjoy it. Things are meant to be used.

I have a camera that has appreciated in value by almost 40% in the last five years. When I sold off my camera gear, it was the last one standing, with the intention of using the hell out of it. Just because the market agrees with my choice years ago that something is high quality doesn’t mean I should suddenly feel like I shouldn’t use it and should lock it away, unseen, untouched and unused. What good is owning something that you’ll never use and never sell, and in essence never see a benefit from? It’s a curious materialistic quirk of the concept of ownership to take this view.

This leads me to the “gear” issue. As a musician, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in everything but the music. Entire forums are dedicated to just talking about the mechanical working of certain pieces of equipment, or pseudoscientific analysis of marketing claims. There are times when there’s an appropriate level of attention paid – researching a new purchase to address a genuine need, or dealing with defects or ideas for improvement. But when a musician gets tied up in getting the next must-have piece of gear, they stop paying attention to the music. You really don’t want to buy an album of someone just describing in exhaustive detail the construction of their instrument and the marketing speak that explains why it’s so much better than anything else that’s ever been created.

Whisky culture is dangerously close to mimicking that equipment-obsessed gearslut mindset. Part of the current hype is fueled is fueled by a weekly score of new “exclusive” and “limited” releases. It’s so hard to single one out – mystery bottles from Glenlivet; hashtagged Aberfeldys; Glenfarclases for wealthy Poles; Dalmores for wealthy people whose decisions otherwise must be made by power of attorney to avoid harming themselves;anything from LVMH. Throw something in a nonstandard cask, spin a submoronic story, toss a few samples to a couple bloggers and everyone goes crazy trying to obtain a sample. There’s no sense of perspective and all discussion centers around the new-release production line. It’s been the equivalent of seeing a new article online and just being the mouth breather who has to first-post it.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek out things we’re interested, but a degree of discrimination is useful. There’s a difference between “Boy, I’d like to try a 70s Ardbeg because I’ve heard so much good stuff about it” and “I’VE GOT TO TRY THE BOAT-ENCASED HIGHLAND PARK BECAUSE REASONS!” You want to try a Macallan distilled in your birth year? Have at it (bring your wallet!). But take some time to form your opinions and learn about your tastes at a more affordable level. 90% of the exclusives out there are just carnival huckster level ploys: This will be gone and never again available, act fast (…and if it sells well, we’ll start finishing more barrels this way and extend the line)! PT Barnum would be proud.

Having had some of my grails though, I will say the experience rarely lives up to the hype. I think in the last two years the only two that met my expectations were Tun 1401/3 and Lagavulin 21 (2007). Meanwhile I had Brorageddon, PLOWED Ellen, a host of old bourbons and ryes and scotches galore in that same time. Don’t get so caught up in the hunt for the rare and exclusive that you lose sight of the bounty available every day. As I said to Sku at lunch yesterday, “if you told me the only bourbon I could have was the standard off-the-shelf 100 proof Four Roses Single Barrel, I’d be totally fine with that”. Find your everyday drinkers.

As a proof of the “unholy grail”, here was one of my momentary pursuits. Glen Flagler was a distillery-in-a-distillery (a la Glencraig) – in this case located inside the Moffat grain distillery. A few years back I found an official 30yo bottling from a 1973 distillation. Why did I care about this one? Because it’s closed and rare! Of course, I should have learned the lesson that “closed and rare” does not necessarily equate with “good”. Here’s the play-by-play.

The nose starts somewhat predictably, with a relatively gentle honey sweetness and some nice barley notes. It gets a little more grassy and is also gently floral. It’s fairly standard stuff for a lighter-profile older whisky, with an overall feeling of a meadow that’s overdue for a visit from a few hummingbirds.

The palate leads with some grassiness and then gets woody. There’s a low-level oakiness underneath everything, it’s got some moderate but zippy white pepper notes and some barley sweetness. It’s also a touch musty.

The finish leads with pepper, followed by bitter greens and woodiness. It retains heat but dries expectedly to bitter greens and oak.

It’s fairly textbook overoaked lighter-bodied whisky. It’s got a nice presence on the nose but the spirit can’t stand up to the rough handling that 30 years in oak gave it. And here we go, another check in the “unremarkable closed distillery” column.

At a glance:

Glen Flagler 1973 (30y OB) 46% ABV
Nose:  Honey sweetness with some nice barley as well. Grassy; gently floral. 
Palate:  Grassy at first; moderately woody, a low level oakiness underneath some moderate and zippy white pepper. Some barley sweetness; faintly musty.
Finish: 
Pepper leading, followed by a mix of a little bitter greens, and some woodiness. Stays fairly hot, but dries a touch bitter and oaky.
Comment:  Nice sweetness and gentleness, but marred by a little too much out of balance oak and the grassiness doesn’t sit right for me. 
Rating: C+

4 thoughts on “Greed, Gear, Grails”

  1. This is the best article you’ve written (at least that I’ve read). It summarizes many great points with excellent analogies that make it easy to understand. Well done Tim.

  2. Last winter found a bottle of brora collecting dust on a shelf at the liquor store across from where i work. I started getting into whisky only a few months before that. I had been in the store a month earlier and laughed at the price. Then i was scanning through some Ralfy videos and it clicked. I also checked the malt monitor and whisky fun and saw Serge gave a similar bottle a 90 rating. I went in the next day and plunked down the $130 (obviously the 2004 price). Previously the most i had spent on a single bottle of whisky was $50. I knew i didnt have enough experience to pop it open right then so i put it away for a while. I plugged away at various different expressions and got myself up to speed on taking my time and enjoying the whole experience. I had a big stock of bottles in my closet and i stopped and said to myself im not going to get caught up in this. I stopped buying bottles until i finished off my stash. It was the best decision i made regarding my new hobby. Next test…of course, the brora! This bottle has to be worth $300-400 i should save it or look into selling it! Nope i opened the sucker up and it was awesome! I even swapped some samples with someone else and i had a lot of fun with it.

    I also have a similar story, i am an avid stand up paddle surfer and i like to go on long distance paddles when there are no waves. The big scene now is that the stand up guys are bad and its not surfing. I get a lot of dirty looks in the water. But i’ll tell you what i know that i am out there catching boatloads of waves (ill charge for any wave even if i am exhausted, i dont care if i look foolish) paddling up and down the lineup with ease (staying out of everyone’s way) and i’m just having so much fun out there. I’m pretty sure I’m having more fun than anyone out there. At least it feels like it. Ill ride a shore break wave as far as i can and if it means running right into the beach and getting pummeled then so be it, it’s fun. So what’s the big deal? It’s that my 8 yr old nephew is out there with me, watching me. It’s not about what anyone else thinks. It’s about knowing yourself and acting on the outside world based on that and not what other people think. Even if you are wrong and look stupid it doesn’t matter it is a learning experience. Every wall is a door. Can there be any better lesson to learn in life? That said i am conviinced that some people will never understand any of this.

    Your post resonates with me.

  3. Also, i thought you might be interested, that the highland park website has the audacity to call the wooden prison around loki “award winning.” Don’t ever doubt your view, its right, the industry (most of it, not all) is wrong. The industry has been perverted with vanity and groupthink. Its like high school all over again. Ardbeg and Macallan are the hot chicks, Laphroaig is quarterback of the football team, anything 30+ years (or 21 for Lagavulin, 18 for Talisker) or from a closed distillery are the milf teachers.

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