Tag Archives: Commentary

Whiskey Is For The People: Evan Williams 1783

Over on the K&L Spirits Journal, David Driscoll has spent the last several days discussing the parallel between whiskey and Bordeaux. His opinion, for those of you that haven’t been reading it, is that the price increases we’re seeing in whiskey are inevitable and irrevocable. Sku at Sku’s Recent Eats believes a “Silver Age” of whiskey is coming a few years after the current bubble pops. Reddit is predictably split on the issue.

Time will prove one of these two gents right. I consider both to be friends so I’m certainly not writing this for the purpose of taking sides, but it’s too tantalizing of an issue to let slide.

To cut to the chase, I disagree with David. And more importantly I believe we as enthusiasts have the opportunity to make the world we would like to inhabit to a certain extent.

We’ve seen an interesting pullback from the exuberance recently. While I don’t think it signals an end of the bubble, there’s a definite market resistance lately. Dalmore’s Constellation Collection was rightly mocked among enthusiasts, and the 1957 Bowmore failed to make its lofty goal of about $160,000 at auction.  While it’s possible in these cases that “the skill and patience that has gone into the production [...] has not ben appreciated by the market“, it’s also possible there’s a reaction to this trend of style over substance, and price dictating quality.

Van Winkle is the topic du jour among bourbon enthusiasts. This is partially natural – it’s fall, which is traditionally the limited and expensive release season; and partly because there’s no shortage of disgust at the additional hype the New York Post’s recent article on Van Winkle bourbons has engendered. Van Winkle happens to be an extremely interesting case study of this phenomenon.

For the five of you who aren’t aware of the lore, Pappy Van Winkle is the name that a very limited range of bourbons is marketed under. Historically, Van Winkle was the product of the Stitzel-Weller distillery, which closed over a decade ago. The Stitzel-Weller profile is a really nice one, though having tasted several old Stitzel-Wellers, I would not say the Stitzel-Weller profile is too dissimilar to the profile that Buffalo Trace’s wheated bourbons have. This is fortunate, because as the Stitzel-Weller bourbon is getting older and no more is being produced, the younger expressions are made up more and more of Buffalo Trace whiskey. Buffalo Trace tends to be a bit more wood-forward and not as overtly caramel sweet as Stitzel, but it’s still within range.

Van Winkle’s profile has been raising in recent years, buoyed heavily by mentions from celebrity chefs (Bourdain, Chang and Ripert among many others). Rising faster than its profile, however, is its price.

It’s no secret that the kitchen is big business, and we have a tendency to want to follow and emulate the recommendations of those we look up to. However, in a nod to David Driscoll, I’ve got to say that you should try and find what you like personally. I personally found in an extensive blind tasting of wheated bourbon this summer that I have a real soft spot for a beautifully crafted 90-proof wheater. Not all 90 proofers, but there are some out there that really kill it with an unbelievably balanced profile. To take this in a different direction, as a musician – we’re different physiologically than our heroes and teachers. I’ve never once used the same drumstick as my teachers – my hands are a bit smaller; I like something that’s lighter in my hand. If I was following my teachers or heroes, I’d be struggling with an uncomfortable 747, 777, 85A or SD1. Instead, I like the plain old boring 5A – the 90 proof bourbon of drumsticks. I’d never reach these conclusions without the willingness to toss aside the bourbon gospel of barrel proof uber alles.

I don’t have the depth of market history or insight that David does. I don’t know the ins and outs of the wine market or the whiskey market (except as an enthusiast and member of the chattering class). However, my experience with whiskey says that it – even scotch – is a different beast than wine. Whiskey is a drink of the people. Whiskey is a drink for the everyman. I just feel in my gut that whiskey is heavily riding the wave of a slightly tongue-in-cheek and superficial desire to reconnect to the rugged personalities we like to imagine existed in the 60s and before. I can’t help but feel like this will all be passé in a few years – which is then followed by a price collapse.

Maybe I’m wrong, which is also entirely possible. Maybe some whiskeys are going in the direction of Bordeaux and In five years I’ll never taste another Macallan again. If that’s truly the case, it’s a shame. I think we have the opportunity to fight against an elitist, collecting, hoarding and status-seeking mentality that only helps drive prices explosively higher.

People like to imagine scotch as a marker of high status, that you’ve really arrived when you’re drinking scotch. It’s a drink of the rich and powerful, and is best enjoyed in tweed jackets, in old leather chairs in a study. Hey, that’s a hell of a setting, but let me paint a separate picture, one of the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society.

LAWS is a group of guys who are by most any measure a fairly successful and sharp group of guys. Certainly there’s some socioeconomic advantages enjoyed among the group; you won’t see some of those ridiculous whiskies posted on the site if not. It’s nothing if not an intensely passionate group of whisky enthusiasts, so there’s definitely some nerdy discussions that are overheard – “I’m getting a real rancio note on this”; “This is a lot different than later Stitzel-Wellers”, and so on. However, the night drags on and what you have is a very boisterous room of friends reconnecting after a month(ish), talking about family, movies, music, random blogs and online stuff, work, and so on. That’s right: it’s not a quietly reverential, cold and analytical group that is some sort of whisky version of Inside The Actor’s Studio. It’s loud, it’s funny, the people are smart as it gets, but it’s never too serious. I hope I haven’t spoiled any illusions you may have.

Even when we’re tasting Strathislas pushing 50 years old, or incredible oloroso-matured Glendronachs, there’s always a grounded, earthy, joking presence. That, to me, is what is the core of the whisky experience. That, to me, is what we as a community (speaking much more broadly) need to foster.

Maybe we’re all going to be priced out and remembering the heyday when we could afford a 40 year old Glendronach split 15 ways. But even if we can’t, we can keep the spirit alive. This is what I mean when I say whisky is for the people: it’s the drink of tailgate parties at your college. It’s the drink your friends buy to wreck you after you’ve gotten blind drunk on your birthday. It’s a little more grown-up, but it hasn’t forgotten how to have fun. Your grandfather didn’t drink bourbon because he was old, he drank it because he enjoyed it. (And he remembers when Old Grand-Dad used to be great stuff).

Let’s not be afraid to visit the bottom shelf. Let’s not forget we’ve got friends to share and split with. And for crying out loud, after you’ve finished taking your tasting notes, tell your friends that story where you looked like a complete idiot this last month. It’s so much more fun when you’re sharing it over a glass of whiskey. Along with the experiences, whiskey is better when it’s shared – it’s scientifically proven to taste better. (Maybe not, but if you share your rare Brora, someone else might share their rare Glenugie…)

In this spirit of whiskey for the everyman, a quick peek at Evan Williams 1783, as requested earlier this year.

The nose on 1783 has a heavy caramel presence, a touch of wood with some furniture polish, a very faint hint of sourness that provides a nice counterpoint to the sweetness, and some vanilla creaminess, with a more grainy turbinado sugar sweetness also.

The palate starts light, but gains a little weight. It leads with some slightly bitter wood, but it’s nicely mixed with some big caramel notes and some toffee. It’s got some light sugar, but it becomes more vanilla-creamy, which sits nicely in complement to the caramel. There’s a light hint of citrus and some very slight black pepper. There’s also a late hint of black tea tannins.

The finish is sweet, dominated by caramel, turbinado sugar and buttercream vanilla with some light cinnamon and pepper heat. A faint sourness keeps the sweet in check, and it’s also got some faint black cherries.

1783 is a slightly more grown-up take on the standard black label Evan Williams. It mies well; it’s also great straight. For me, it might supplant black label as a worthy low-price bourbon to keep on hand.

As my friend Adam says:

Drink whiskey!

At a glance:

Evan Williams 1783 43% ABV
  Heavy caramel presence, a touch of wood with some furniture polish; a very faint hint of sourness in the nose in a way that provides a nice counterpoint to the sweetness; vanilla creaminess. Some turbinado sugar.
Palate:  Light. Slightly bitter wood up front, mixed well with caramel with some light toffee. More light sugar hints but it’s becoming a little more vanilla-creamy in nature which sits nicely against the caramel. A light citrus hint, and a very very slight dusting of black pepper. Hints of black tea.
Finish:  Sweet on exit, caramel, turbinado sugar, some buttercream vanilla with some light cinnamon and pepper heat. Faint sourness and faint black cherries.
Comment: A slightly more grown-up take on standard black label Evan Williams. A superb mixer, solid to enjoy straight. This might supplant black label as a worthy low-price bourbon to keep on hand.
Rating: B-

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-)