All posts by Scotch & Ice Cream

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Under The Wire: Angel’s Envy Cask Strength 2013

The final whisky for 2013 is one gaining late praise. Angel’s Envy has been around for a couple years, and I’ve covered both the standard offering and the rye. Both have been fun twists on an otherwise boring and increasingly overpriced sourced whiskey formula.

It seemed inevitable that we’d see a cask strength release, and here it is. After all, nothing screams “brand extension” like small batch/single barrel/cask strength.  There was a more limited release of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength that was positively received among those who tried it; this release presently on shelves — in a marketing narrative sense of the phrase “presently on shelves” — is a much larger release. It’s been called a “must-own” and has made some year-end best lists, but at its heart, we’re dealing with a familiar problem: Bourbon of uncertain source sold at a premium, justified by higher proof and a novelty finish.

Of course, I will say I thought the previous two releases more or less justified their prices as a novelty; I enjoyed them but they certainly weren’t of the type that I’d find myself enjoying on the regular. But I’ve definitely come back to the bourbon once or twice since I drained my bottle.

The Cask Strength changes the economics. It’s about twice as expensive as the standard line, roughly 20% stronger, still port finished and still of uncertain vintage and provenance. Effectively you’re paying $4.50 for an extra 10mL of ethanol per 50mL drink, assuming it’s apples to apples.

This is of course an unfairly reductionist approach to a whiskey; higher proof is generally taken to be a good thing. Perhaps it’s time to start expecting higher proof sourced whiskeys are going to cost over a hundred bucks. Of course, in Scotland, we know how old those sourced whiskeys are and where they were distilled – and generally the age is pretty damned old. Here we’re getting…. something… from… someplace in Kentucky. That effectively narrows it down to 99% of the bourbon made in the US by volume.

And to be honest, if I’m just looking for an enjoyable cask strength bourbon kick, I’m going to keep it simple and buy a $49 bottle of Jack Daniels Single Barrel (not bad) or Four Roses Single Barrel (pretty good) and pocket the extra $90 and put it towards my Berluti Andy fund. (Or maybe something else pointlessly consumery). Haunting liquor stores like some sort of ghost of Dean Martin waiting for limited edition bottles of whisky just doesn’t really seem fun anymore.

Here we are again. A glass of whiskey, some deconstruction of marketing (in the classical 4P’s sense) and a reexamination of the ever-changing situation the whisky buyer faces. It ain’t 2009 anymore, guys. The proof is in the glass. We don’t get to just throw cash down and walk out with a showstopper.

The nose of Angel’s Envy Cask Strength is a mix of toasty wood, some chestnuts and pecans,  a sweet-and-sour hint of corn, a hint of cinnamon, some nutmeg, and a little leathery port. To my nose there’s something a touch funky on the port side of things, perhaps a bogus cask slipped in?

The palate has some younger bourbon corn sourness; some fruity port notes and then they’re immediately followed by a punchy, aggressive and hot note of cinnamon. The finish is hot wood and cinnamon, but there’s some sour corn there, as well as some port fruitiness.

It’s got a lot of hallmarks of youth, with that heat and sourness. Adding some water may give us more clarity; it could just be a bit strong at the bottled strength.

Water chases down the heat a bit, but brings up some raw sugar notes and gives a funky bad hair salon smell (perms? barbicide? Not sure – it’s gross) – a note I’m going to put at the feet of the funkiness I detected on the nose, and assume is a port thing. Water doesn’t really improve anything.

It’s a bit of a letdown from Angel’s Envy who I thought normally put together unusual if worthwhile bottles. It’s got signs of youth that don’t seem to be balanced by age or the finish. I’d gladly trade this for two bottles of the standard offering; I’d have two bottles of superior booze.

At the end of the day, this represents two ideas for me.

1. Higher proof is not universally better.
2. Year-end awards shouldn’t be a de-facto thing done out of obligation yearly but given out as deserved.

Also, it should serve as a reminder that just because it’s limited and released at the end of the year, it doesn’t mean it’s a slam-dunk, must-buy whisky (see also the Woodford Master’s collection which will be falling off your local retailer’s shelf until mid-September).

Happy new year, everyone. Let’s hit 2014 with clear heads. There’s good stuff out there, but “limited” and “cask strength” are no longer sufficient to be good signposts.

At a glance:

Angel’s Envy Cask Strength (2013 edition, Port Finish) 61.5% ABV Batch 2C
Nose: 
Toasty wood, a light chestnut/pecan aroma; some corn, a hint of cinnamon and nutmeg; a leathery port note.
Palate:  A mix of slight corn sourness and some fruity port notes with heat and plenty of cinnamon hot on its heels. Water settles down the heat (as expected), brings up some raw sugar, also brings up a funky hair salon smell. (Fried perm smell? Barbicide? It’s gross).
Finish:  Hot, wood and cinnamon with a slightly sour corn note followed by fruit.
Comment:  Hints of a younger whiskey masked by the finish and the strength. Not up to the mark set by the standard offering.
Rating: B-

If you factor cost into rating this would be a mid-C at best.

Whisky Advocate; Diageo Tell Us It’s Raining

Whisky Advocate’s end of year awards are always a predictably silly affair, and like all awards, are really scarcely more than link bait. So for the second time this year, I’ll take the bait.

Whisky Advocate’s distiller of the year was a small craft operation you may never have heard of, Diageo. Diageo owns small distilleries like Lagavulin, Caol Ila Clynelish, Talisker, Oban, and so forth. Little operations you’ve never heard of. They also have the stocks for closed distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora.

The most interesting point in the writeup is when Whisky Advocate talked about the Special Releases. The Special Releases that set enthusiasts jaws on the floor and proved the point about escalating prices on whisky. Some may accuse me and others of being idealistic. Maybe it’s true. I tend to think I look at things dispassionately and I know if I was in the producers’ shoes I’d be looking to take some of the money on the table.

However, WA and Diageo (through the word processor of Jonny McCormick) have decided to piss down our backs and tell us it’s raining. Those massive price increases on the Special Releases? We’re no longer referring to them as “price increases” but they are now the latest salvo in “the war against flipping”.

So when you see those prices jump, just remember, that’s Diageo looking out for you and nothing more. Your best interest is at heart – even though it’s just business, they’re trying to keep it in the hands of people who care.  Er, sorry, that “purchasers are truly venerating the single malt whisky in the bottle.”

Really? I’d love to see consumers sharpen up to how much the industry thinks they’re saps, but I’d personally be hard pressed to buy less scotch than I have been of late.

In WA’s defense, the Scotch industry has been out of ideas for some time now so it’s not surprising that this went this way. You can only talk about “cask management” and “wood selection” at LVMH so many times. Kudos for not taking the expected path of citing Ealanta as an example of grand innovation.

Happy holidays!

2013 Wrap-Up and Gift Guide

It’s been a weird 2013. Sku said it better than I could. In brief: American whiskey is getting ridiculous; Scotch has completely lost connection with reality and Japan is going to balloon up to the stratosphere next. I reviewed the 30 year old closed distilleries, had some of my grail whiskeys, made fun of a wine critic’s bad research and fell out of love with the culture emerging in whiskey-dom this year.

I have no idea what’s going on and care little about sorting it out. Despite the fact that everyone with a brain in their skull knows that this stuff is subjective, the economic backdrop seems to have induced some previously lucid people to act like jabbering fools, holding up certain absolute truths on things. (After all, that whisky can’t be any good, Serge only gave it an 85…) If everyone has decided to take leave of their senses, I’m not going to push it.

While pondering this and trying to figure out what I was going to do for the end of the year here, I received an email from a PR contact trying to back their way into suggesting that I cover some random bottle of booze. At first, I thought it was the most laughable yet offensive insinuation – you think you can buy my integrity for a few free bottles of booze a link to some press-ready product JPGs?

Then I realized this was the prime opportunity to unveil the 2014 direction for Scotch & Ice Cream while delivering a wholly commercial (though utterly uncompensated) gift guide and retrospective on 2013. After all, this year is nothing but a triumph of marketing style of product substance.

Best Gin That A PR Person Suggested I Recommend To You
This award indirectly suggested by (though not compensated) a fine PR firm. 
Beefeater Gin. I don’t really drink the stuff (I’m more of a Hendrick’s guy, and I think St. George’s makes a fine couple gins), but they offered to send me some JPGs of the bottle. Since my integrity is totally for sale for a few JPGs, I’m ready to suggest that you buy Beefeater like crazy. Buy it by the case. Hell, go to Costco and get a whole pallet of the stuff. It apparently is great for any cocktail enthusiast. None of these claims have been tested for accuracy, and certainly do not represent my opinion since I don’t really have what you’d call a strong opinion on gin. But I’m sure the fine folks at Beefeater do. And they’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. So, Beefeater.

Most Limitedest Opportunity:
This award was not suggested by anyone.
Oh, I’m sure you though this would be a dogpile on K&L, but I have no desire to retread. Heck, I like David Driscoll and we have deep heart-to-heart conversations from time to time. (His eyes are kind of dreamy even though he’s not my type)
Nope, you should probably go to The Whisky Shop in the UK and buy the most expensive thing they’ve got in stock. Currently it’s a 1919 Springbank selling for £50K but when that sells out you should probably buy that 1964 Dalmore that costs £20K and was finished in a cask containing stale Raisin Bran. Don’t have five figures to throw at whisky (you poor, pathetic plebe)? They’ve no doubt got an overpriced investment-ready Glenlivet with your name on it.

Most ‘Murican Whiskey:
U! S! A! U! S! A! U! S! A!
Without a doubt, you’re still looking for Pappy Van Winkle. You’re not even a serious bourbon fan without it. I don’t have any but, hey, let’s gin up some excitement here (Speaking of gin: Beefeater!).
I mean, this isn’t where it needs to be until we get stories about beatings and whatnot in pursuit of a bottle. Some serious Black Friday stuff. A simple heist isn’t good enough: that’s just shrinkage in the sales channel.

Best Idea For A Substandard Canadian Whiskey That I Just Came Up With

Awards are about mutual back-scratching. I am scratching my own back.
Maybe our fruited plain will have some of the more storied whiskeys from the Great White North, but until then, sup thee upon some amazing though currently fictional whisky: Trebek’s Treat. 40% and with a blandly sweet glow. Quietly knowledgeable but compassionate with you even when you make a complete idiot of yourself in view of others – at home or on national TV.

Best Pancakes I’ve Had In The Greater LA Region This Year
You have any idea how hard it is to do a quasi-relaxing breakfast with a hyperactive toddler?
Hands down this one goes to Du-Par’s at the Farmer’s Market on 3rd. You can only eat two, maybe three if you haven’t eaten in a week, but they’ve got something unique going on. It’s probably a bunch of cake flour and maybe a dash of vodka for a high-rising cake with very little gluten development, but the things are like crack. Do it.

Things You Ought To Get That Whiskey Lover That Don’t Necessarily Make Them Look Like A Raging Alcoholic, Even If They Are

1. A better shave. This one is primarily directed at the fellas, but ladies certainly can benefit. Tired of chewing your face up on some electric razor? Only hitting the Mach 22 every six weeks to help preserve your $14,000 investment in three blades? Maybe it’s time to take a look at a straight razor. Yeah, there’s a learning curve; I nearly sheared my upper lip off, but it’s a hell of a close shave if you’ve got steady hands. For those of you who have claimed I’m a hipster idiot, add this to your quiver. For those still on board though, you might want to consider Thiers-Issard for a touch of luxury and Dovo or Boker for a good, no-fuss blade. You can get into this for less than the price of a higher-end single cask scotch.

2. Relief from aching feet. I was a firm Chucks guy for the longest time (still love ‘em), eschewing nicer shoes because I thought the random pairs I bought for $80-100 were equivalent in comfort to more upmarket options. Wrong city. Swing by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom’s (to start), find something that tickles your fancy and try on the options. I found a pair of John Varvatos that rocked my world and changed everything. They’re no John Lobbs (or even Crockett & Jones), but it’s like walking around in slippers. Well holy hell: the women in our lives were onto something with the shoe obsessions.

3. Experiences and not necessarily stuff. If you’re of the age and economic status that you’re able to indulge a high end whiskey habit, you probably don’t have a lot in the way of material possessions that you really want for (beyond the crazy if-I-won-the-lotto stuff). That nice bottle of malt might be a great dinner out with family or (if it’s especially costly and what isn’t) a pleasant extended weekend getaway. If you’re chasing ever-more-exotic whiskeys for the experience, you’re clearly an experiences kinda person, so indulge that. Drive out of town and check out the stars. Do whatever.

Things You Might Get That Whiskey Lover That They Can’t Enjoy While Driving

1. Beefeater Gin. Again, I’m not compensated, but they asked, so why the hell not. Remember, by the pallet.

2. A whiskey that’s on their bar. I can’t tell you what this would be: I’m just looking at a composition screen here, not their bar.

3. No ideas? Well, I like Four Roses Single Barrel, Yamazaki 12, Masterson’s, Laphroaig 10, Old Weller Antique, and Port Ellen among others. That’s probably not super helpful. I don’t know that I’ve ever really been much on the helpful side though.

2014
Expect some Banffs next year, a bunch of non-whiskey writing and other silliness. Remember how I claim repeatedly to be little more than a court jester and that I write this mainly for my own enjoyment? The proof will be in the pudding. If you’re along for the ride, great; if not, vaya con dios. Whiskey isn’t gone from here, but it’s definitely going to play a reduced role. I have less than ever and I really can’t stretch the blogging meta-criticism out longer.

I’m sure someone will cover you with a piece on their strongly-held opinions about ratings soon though, right after the next Survey Of Why Dalmore Isn’t Even A Good Punchline Anymore or whatever.

This post was in no way sponsored or underwritten by the people associated with Beefeater Gin. I just decided to have fun with their PR person’s offer. Sorry I didn’t display any luxe bottle photos. Imagine a clear bottle with a glass and ice and shit near it I guess. I think it’s got a red cap too.

Whither Canada?

It’s no secret that Canadian offerings have been relatively underrepresented at Scotch & Ice Cream, with the bulk in a three-way comparison between Jefferson’s, Masterson’s, & WhistlePig. (You know, those “American” brands. Made in Canada.) The truth is, I haven’t had much interest, since as we know, most liquor stores have Canadian Whiskey in an uncomfortable ghetto near the collected industrial output of DeKuyper. Hey – if that’s your thing, I’m not gonna call you out for your love of 4 proof melon ball shots.

Several weeks back I had a phone call with Clay Risen and we were discussing the Canadian whiskey scene in America. To be honest, I didn’t feel like there was much to talk about – it’s the same story over and over: Great if you wanna be a quasi-baller and roll big with your Crown Royal (sorry, if it’s maple finished, I’m going to have to cut you), or do some kind of weird midcentury DDB/Leo Burnett sendup with Canadian Club. But for whisky enthusiasts, it’s been kind of bleak. Crown Royal offered their XR releases, some overpriced old rye trying to trade on the closed-distillery cachet that was more Brutini than Berluti. They weren’t bad… they just were middle of the road and certainly not worth the money.  Clay covered a lot of that ground in his recent piece on Canadian whiskey.

I was interested when I heard Lot 40 was coming to the US and had finally touched down in California. Lot 40 was on a short list of things that had my interest, so the opportunity to grab it was a welcome one. I went to the store, strolled over to the Canadian section, confidently made my way over to the Canadian section, ignoring the bargain-basement schnapps just over my shoulder, and scanned. And scanned. And scanned. Wait. It’s not here.

I looked in the case. It’s a premium whiskey, surely it’ll be alongside such amazing whiskies as Crown Royal Maple, Crown Royal Black, and Crown Royal Tarragon, Chive and Onion finish. Nope. I stepped back, less confident, and re-approached the shelf as if for the first time, and scanned looking for it. It wasn’t there! I figured the online inventory could be wrong, even though that was lame.

I rounded the corner and browsed bourbon for any interesting entries, while trying to hold back my urge to vomit at the sight of Jacob’s Ghost. Predictably, the bourbon shelf wasn’t stocking much of interest, and the case was the usual set of stuff. Until: Lot 40. In the bourbon case. Right next to WhistlePig.

This is a problem and will be a problem for Canadian whiskey in the US. This felt like one of those “separated by a common tongue” moments, even more so than the tendency to say “zed” or add the letter u to “color”. I’m not sure if the problem lies with the retailer, the distributor, or the industry in a larger sense. There’s almost a chicken and egg problem here.

Customers have not been presented with a really fantastic Canadian offering to date. Honestly, I look at whiskies like Lot 40, WhistlePig, and Masterson’s as incredible value whiskeys that don’t make much in the way of compromises. WhistlePig and Masterson’s try to obfuscate their origin and hang out in the American section, pretending they’re more or less the same as a Rittenhouse or a Sazerac. They’re not, but it’s great. They’re worlds ahead of most of the really sad LDI rye offerings, but by quietly adding the “Product of Canada” piece in the most hidden position imaginable, they undercut the quality of their source.

Retailers obviously have a bias to put things where they sell, and the Canadian whiskey section has not customarily been the spot where amazing whiskeys dwell — on shelves in the US at least. That probably explains the unbelievably odd decision to put Lot 40 next to a bunch of bourbons. Yes, it goes to to toe with a fair amount of them, but it’s different…. and that’s OK (Which consumers need to get comfortable with).

Finally, the question at the larger industry level: why keep apologizing for and obfuscating the source of a new crop of really fantastic whiskeys? Lot 40 is great in this regard, it declares itself to be a Canadian Rye Whiskey. No apologies. WhistlePig, Masterson’s and Jefferson’s would prefer to be lumped with the whiskeys produced south of the border. Perhaps they have longer-term plans to eventually be produced here (I know WhistlePig has made allusions to this), but if not, why bother?

Canadian whiskey is largely an inexpensive offering in the US, which makes it attractive against a backdrop of ever-more-expensive whiskeys from everywhere else. Part of this no doubt is due to an ocean of bad whiskey on the shelves: if all the rest of the world got from the US was Early Times and Ten High, perhaps perception would differ there, too. I’d imagine Canada is not immune to the industry-wide pressure on stocks. There’s an opportunity here though to land at 45-65 bucks a bottle with a good offering and absolutely own the “Premium Canadian Whisky” label among enthusiasts in the US. I’m always on the lookout for a better value, especially given the rising prices and outpaced quality of Scotch or the ever-younger bourbons. It’s different, and it’s staking out a new strategy, but that’s where you have the opportunity to make a land grab (which is far more rewarding, potentially, than being the eighth whisky from Scotland to “pursue a premium strategy” with dull, conservative presentation in margin-driving boxes and bottles).

This all leads to the whisky. I’ve tipped my hand that I think it’s better than the swill on most shelves in southern California. Let’s examine it.

The nose has an expected mix of spice – cinnamon and coriander; there’s some dry rye notes and a bit of cider that’s kind of lurking in the background. It’s not far off the mark of a WhistlePig but distinct nonetheless.

The palate is a little bitter at first; an odd mix of wood and an aggressive rye punch. It’s more oily and bitter rye than it is floral, but it works. There’s black pepper, cinnamon, and more of an oily quality overall. It finishes with an unexpected quick hint of savory sweetness – a hot, fresh doughnut with powdered sugar – which fades and lead to slightly bitter rye and a really pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle in the lips and tongue.

I think the single biggest surprise to me with this is how big it is overall given the 43% strength. When I saw the strength, I initially sighed to myself and said, “another thin Canadian whisky”. Only after considering it later did I realize this really big, bold whisky that packed a punch was a lightweight in ABV. Fantastic stuff: It’s great to have a drink that’s not going to put you on your ass in the first three sips. This is no doubt in large part due to the pot still distillation, which lends an oily quality – sort of like the pot still Irish entries.

This one was a little less sweet than Masterson’s and more focused on an oily bitterness that is great and adds complexity. For my money, I prefer the dessert-in-a-glass profile of Masterson’s and (to a lesser extent) WhistlePig, but this is a worthy contender.

Let’s hope we see more of this on the shelves in the future, and more like it.

Canadian distillers, we’re waiting.

Lot 40 Canadian Rye (2012) – 43% ABV
Nose: 
Nice mix of spice – some cinnamon, a hint of coriander, a little rye dryness, even a touch of cider sweetness beneath it.
Palate:  A little bitter at first; some wood and then a pretty full-on rye profile, more oily and faintly bitter than having the floral tones rye can have. Some black pepper, a touch of cinnamon again. Slightly oily.
Finish:  A bit of sweetness not unlike powdered sugar on a freshly made donut, but it vanishes quickly, leaving a slightly bitter rye profile, some sichuan peppercorn tingle on the lips and tongue.
Comment:  Very surprisingly robust for 43%, likely owing to pot still distillation, a little less of the sweeter notes I found in Masterson’s. Another really solid Canadian rye, though I prefer the quality of WP/Masterson’s more.
Rating: B

The Spirit of Movember

We’re in the dying days of November, which in the last few years has carried the “Movember” name. The general idea, if you’ve avoided reading about it, is that it’s a time where guys grow their best attempt at a non-weedy mustache for the month. It’s supposed to raise awareness of men’s health issues (notably prostate cancer), and like many things, has seen some efforts in the spirits industry to capitalize on.

Glenfarclas has released a 9 year old Movember whisky; there have been several bottles released under the Whisky 4 Movember label. As with all things whiskey, the whole thing tends to be a tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing celebration of masculinity. And of course, a way to sell some middle-tier whiskey and give a small percent to charity (or not).

The thing is, in the celebration of a temporary pursuit of a Selleck-’stache, the bigger point gets lost – that of “awareness” of men’s health issues. However, I think if you’re old enough to drink whiskey and nerd out about it online, you’re old enough to move beyond awareness and into action.

Health issues are a touchy thing to bring up in the context of a celebration of booze that whiskey blogs tend to be. In the back of our minds, we’re all aware that to some extent we’re ingesting something unhealthy and may have a tendency to consume a little too much (when compared to definitions of binge drinking and standard units per week). It’s also likely if you’re active in whiskey clubs you might be aware of people who have struggled with their consumption in the past.

No, no, this isn’t an about-face and entry about renouncing alcohol. Moderate alcohol consumption can confer some health benefits. The trick obviously is not bullshitting yourself that that 2 ounces of 72% bourbon counts as just one of your two “standard drinks” for the day. It’s also important to not bullshit yourself about your habits from day to day.

A few weeks ago, I’d noticed an odd spot on my arm that hadn’t been there previously. It was an unusual color for me and I’d noticed a little growth over about six weeks. I decided I couldn’t just ignore it and it was time to go in. My wife discussed with me about just getting a full physical, and after resisting for a bit, I decided it was time. As we talked about it, I read more articles online and realized that men’s wellness does tend to be neglected. For whatever reason, we as men have a tendency to carry the feeling of invincibility of our youth well forward into our adult years and neglect any sort of health screening beyond routine dental care (if that) until a problem presents itself. Meanwhile the women in our life continue having more or less regular interaction with a doctor through a large percentage of their adult life, which can help catch problems earlier (and hopefully, cheaper).

I was at a Pearl Jam concert last weekend and as the house lights came up, I thought for a moment about my tradition of hashing out the set after the show with my friend Brady. Usually we’d compare to other nights on the tour and recent west coast runs for the band. Right after that thought, I remembered I wouldn’t be having that conversation with him this time of year. Unfortunately, my friend Brady passed away in early 2012 after a very short battle with cancer. It’s hard to say if screening could have caught it earlier, but it wouldn’t have hurt.

In my case, my blood test results weren’t a huge shock – the long and short of my results confirmed what I knew: time to eat better, get a little more exercise and drop some weight. In my case this will be aided a bit by continuing with my reduced consumption of late. That’s fine: with so many questionable bottles, I haven’t felt like I’ve been missing much lately. And the spot on my arm? Nothing at all. Just a sign of getting older. A relief (generally speaking).

I’d had a feeling things weren’t too bad, but I’d done a screening with 23andme earlier this year (who are now under some sort of FDA order to stop selling; apparently people are fairly bad with understanding probability). That, too, didn’t pose much surprise: no real bizarre genetic markers, and a fairly high risk for heart disease: but wait, on average your risk is over 50% - so if you’re inclined to wager, the odds are heavy there.

All this comes back to the original point. It’s fun to grow a mustache, sure. It may even be a decent excuse to buy a younger independent whiskey. Have that Tom Selleck film fest. But what you really should do is schedule a physical if you haven’t been. Get yourself checked out — for the benefit of your loved ones if nothing else. It’s no more than about an hour of your time and you’ll know where you stand and can take some corrective measures if necessary.  Take care of yourself long enough and you’ll live to see the next golden age of whiskey.

 

Developing Your Palate, Redux; Courage In Your Convictions

Two years ago I wrote a general take on developing your palate. Based on some personal conversations and some internet silliness that continues to persist, it seems as good a time as any to revisit the subject in more depth. The old post is fine; if you’re curious about the basics of glass selection and so forth, it’s as good a place to start as anywhere.

Anyone Can Taste

Consider it a mark of fatherhood; the first thing that comes to mind for me these days on the subject of tasting is Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille and Gastineau’s cookbook, Anyone Can Cook. It’s a point of contention and a matter of interpretation in the movie. I’m not sure I agree entirely with the movie’s resolution of the debate, as given voice by the character of Anton Ego. I truly believe that anyone, given the inclination to try, the curiosity to learn and the willingness to be wrong and make mistakes can be a solid taster – certainly on par with any who blog about spirits. I’ve shared drinks with many and we all bring our own experiences to the table. This may manifest in different ways, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve gotten up and thought to myself, “that person has no clue what they’re talking about”.

The first and most important thing I would urge to anyone trying to taste is to resist the impulse to edit or discard. Just write what comes to mind. You’re going to start with a limited vocabulary. Accept it and don’t worry about it – the exercise is more important than the results for some time. As you build up a body of experience, you’ll taste things that make for slight variations on themes you recognize. Finding a familiar taste presented more prominently in a different drink may help you realize you’re tasting the influence of oloroso sherry, or perhaps unaged spirit (showing a lack of wood influence, for instance). Don’t worry what anyone else says about what you’ve tasted.

Second, it’s important to frequently live outside your comfort zone. When your experiences  are constrained to one narrow thing, you’re going to have a narrower set of references to draw from. Try other spirits – if you’re a scotch drinker, you’d do well to have some bourbons of various ages and mashbills; trying sherry will help you understand what it might impart. You probably would do well to try wines like port and sauternes which frequently shows up in stunt-casking. Keep your eyes on what things are finished in and make a note to try them. The variety isn’t huge.

Beyond that, try other drinks categories altogether. I can think of one particularly questionable whisky I had this year that could have passed itself off as a gin. I can think of one gin that drinks more like a whiskey. There are whiskeys that have notes in common with beer (in higher concentrations). And who knows – you might find something you like. I certainly didn’t miss whiskey this summer.

But that’s incomplete. You should be paying attention to what you eat and drink over the course of your days. You could take notes on it if you want, but paying attention is the important part. You can’t always be on, but for new things – or for very familiar things – it can help provide a little more dimension to the experience.

You Need To Go Deeper

I’ve seen some people toss aside the idea of critical tasting, as if it’s all made up. This is usually pursued along one of two lines. First, most commonly leveled at someone like Dave Broom, either a statement that “no one knows what xyz tastes like” or that “you can only discern so many tastes at once.” These are statements that are two sides of the same coin, a belief that someone takes a sip, gets some nondescript impression (e.g., “this tastes like whiskey”) and then makes up a bunch of adjectives that make for good copy.

I’m willing to concede to science which says people are only able to distinguish a handful of aromas and flavors. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t analyze those components for more clarity. If you taste apples, what kind of apple? Is it ripe? Is it a bit young? Explain it more. What about “wood”? It’s a common tasting note. Do you think of an old study? Does it taste like wet wood? Does it smell like freshly sawn lumber? Dry pencil shavings or something else? Going down this avenue of exploring the first level tastes in more detail lends additional detail. You shouldn’t be afraid of inspecting your first impressions closer.

On the flip side, there’s the impressionistic tasting note. Sometimes there’s an overall feeling you get from things that doesn’t map cleanly to a single set of descriptors. I remember Octomore Orpheus to me was the “Beach cookout at PCH”. Another scotch was “a rainy driveway with the car running”, and another was “beef barley stew cooking in the winter”. Sometimes it’s that Ratatouille thing: you take a bite, and analysis be damned, you’re transported to a different time or place, and no words suffice to paint the picture that is evoked in your head. Maybe you can hammer it out, but sometimes it’s best to leave room for the imagination of your audience.

The other avenue for disagreement is usually the, “I don’t know about all that, it just tastes like whiskey to me” response. This is a willfully ignorant stance to take. If it’s one you want to take, that’s fine. It’s the equivalent of saying “all apples taste the same” (how about Fuji vs Red Delicious vs Granny Smith?). Certainly there’s a rough bounding box that lets you say, “this is whiskey”, but  even “bourbon” is an awfully broad category for taste. It’s worth a willingness to go beyond the simple answer.

Don’t Forget To Live

There’s a boring achievement-driven, fear of missing out mindset that plagues a lot of discussion of food and drink. Take this practice of taking notes too far, and you’re the guy at the bar with friends who has to find a drink he’s never had, pitch a small fit about the way it’s served, and embarrass everyone by whipping out a notebook and writing down stuff. All the while, that guy expects the world to go on hold while you determine if he’s getting more diastatic malt powder or fresh barley on that independent Bunnahabhain.

I’ve been this guy. It’s nothing to be proud of. You have to ask yourself what you’re chasing? What happens when you have the notes for that Brora you’ve been hunting for? Does anything really change? Can you enjoy a moment anymore without quantifying it?

At the last few LAWS meetings I was at and in get-togethers this summer, I’ve made a conscious effort to be less notes-driven. I went three months without taking a single tasting note, and it was great. I’m able to be present, reflect on other things and connect with the people I’m with. Certainly we might discuss things related to the drink (Stone’s Enjoy By IPA has been a favorite; our consensus was that it’s continued to lean more malty and the hopping has gotten a little less floral), but there’s not a desperate analytical need to track down every trace of seville orange, mustard seed, and chewings fescue that might exist.

That’s not to say “I go back on everything I just said”, but to advocate for balance. If it’s a casual, fun encounter, then just go with a known quantity. Odds are that Scott’s Selection Lochside will be there next weekend. The strange, competitive undercurrent to gather the most tasting notes is really bizarre race. What motivates it? Why count it? As far as I know, there’s not a lifetime achievement for tasting the most whiskey.

Stand By Your… Notes

We are the sum of our experiences through the filter of what our bodies can perceive. Due to genetics, culture, our innate preferences and so on, our perceptions are different. Some people hate cilantro; others barely taste it. Some people hate bourbon, others consider it the only legitimate form of bourbon. These are individual preference. Trying to tease an absolute truth out of subjective opinion is a fool’s errand. Some people want to explain away differences in critical opinion by some scientifically quantifiable factor – a bad bottle, unclean glassware, a tainted sample container, light exposure, et cetera. It’s possible that these factors come into play in some cases, but at the same time, maybe one person simply doesn’t like an aspect of the flavor. Maybe it reminds them of something they ate once and hated. Maybe… it just tastes bad to them. It’s just the way they perceive things.

Needing to normalize humanity out of the equation is about as obsessive and ill-advised as the need to note absolutely every beverage that passes your lips.

Because of this subjectivity, it’s important to realize we all paint from a slightly different palette when describing our experiences. Taking the time to write down your impressions on your own will help you develop your facility to discuss them. It’s painful to see someone talk about something and then slip into long-established, “known” tasting notes. Some stereotypes exist for a reason, but I bet there are a fair amount of people who have tasted Bowmore and reflexively used “parma violets” because that’s just how people describe it.

The most painful example I’ve ever seen, and I almost cringed reading it, was when a person wrote their notes on a whiskey and described it in relatively unflattering terms, highlighting a relatively thin and estery profile. When they were informed it was a grain, they immediately backtracked and started talking about the vanilla and so forth – as if they were going from The Standard Book Of Grain Whisky Tasting Notes. An unpalatable drink suddenly became great just because of a person’s lack of conviction in what they said, and their apparent need to get the “right” notes for something.

It’s OK to like something no one else likes or hate things that people love. I thought K&L’s ’72 Glenfarclas was too woody and concentrated. People told me I was insane. I, like many in LAWS, have a deep fondness for Charbay Release I and Release II. I’ve heard tons of people say they can’t stand it. Who’s right?

By extension, it’s OK to have your own impressions because your body and mind are distinct from everyone else’s. Believe in what you say. And if you don’t know or are not sure, it’s fine to say “I don’t know” or “what’s that taste”?

In short: Practice and build your experience. Give yourself a wide variety of opportunities to learn from. Dig deeper beyond your first impressions. Don’t be afraid to struggle in finding the “right” words – sometimes a feeling says more than words could. Believe in yourself and your preferences.

If you want to improve your skills, you can, unless you tell yourself you can’t. The only dishonest approach is to use other people’s words and beliefs as your own.

 

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+