Tag Archives: complaints

Coda: The Big Tent & Parkerization Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whisky only gets so good. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking The Bait – Git Offa Our Property, Parker!

This morning, K&L’s David Driscoll posted noted wine reviewer/professional Napa douchebag Robert Parker’s authoritative stance on bourbon as he sees it. I’ll give Driscoll the link mojo that he doesn’t need, because I saw it on his site first.

I don’t drink wine, generally speaking. It doesn’t take long before it disagrees with me and I’m in a generally bad state. I have to resort to ultra-bland food for weeks afterwards. Who knows what causes it — I don’t particularly care, because it’s easily avoided by rarely drinking wine. As a result, Robert Parker hasn’t been on my radar for much, other than as an emblem of the whole wine scene that I think is ridiculous. In my wine-drinking life I was a fan of Sonoma and Italy; I always thought Napa was kind of the sell-out alternative.

Last fall I went to Napa and while I did have some truly outstanding wine, I was mainly struck by the sheer douchebag factor of guys in their 60s tooling around in Porsches with chinos and checked oxfords dangerously unbuttoned at the collar, made safe by the addition of a blazer. Perhaps a cable-knit pastel sweater was draped over their shoulders with an artfully-tied knot designed to look careless and casual, while saying all the while “I sweated the hell out of this knot”. On more than one occasion I heard a deferential and reverent mention to what Parker thought – as if his taste is more relevant than your own.

Parker has decided to put his loafer-clad foot in our turf and has deigned to tell the masses what bourbon everyone should be drinking. In an expected quiet condescension, Parker tries to connect with the everyman by explaining how he got interested in bourbon via a TV show. How great! It wasn’t the usual expected avenues of Bourdain/Chang, Treme or Parks & Rec, but Justified. In his words:

… the bourbon drinking antics of the many violent episodes of this sensational series that takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky are a prominent sideshow.

I’d discuss how his writing in that sentence alone offends my sensibilities, but who cares: Parker has made his living writing, I make my living doing other shit in spite of my degree in journalism. The Beat fan in me, however, cringes at the dissociated, cerebral and lifeless sound of what he’s written.

A little research had me on the chase for Pappy Van Winkle, the most difficult alcoholic beverage to find in the United States. If you think I’m joking, try and find a bottle, especially of the 20-year-old and the very rare 23-year-old bourbon. They are much more difficult to find than esoteric and limited production French wines such as Romanée-Conti, Montrachet or Petrus.

The little research that Parker mentions seems to have been typing into Google, “what is the best bourbon”. Result #2? Another Wall Street Journal hack-job telling us that we need to absolutely shit ourselves over Pappy Van Winkle, because, like, it’s hard to find. We see in that article name-checks of Buffalo Trace and its brands, highlighting Pappy prominently; Willett and Black Maple Hill also rate a mention.

Apparently the wine world regards scarcity as a measure of quality. I hope Parker very quickly clues into the rich-asshole-targeted Dalmore Constellation Collection; those are extremely limited and they must be fantastic since they’re so hard to find. (Have you ever seen one in the stores?) Also, Brechin isn’t common. You ought to stock up on that shit post-haste. It closed 30 years ago! BUY NOW.

Parker goes on to discuss how Bourbon, despite what all the Schwab branch office guys are predisposed to think, is actually perhaps worth giving some attention to. Apparently Johnny Reb’s firewater made from mostly corn is worth consideration, as long as it’s rare and priced highly.

Parker’s first set of reviews are a tedious exercise in identifying virtually every hyped whisky of the last half-decade or so, with a few “surprising” and “everyman” picks thrown in to make the list relatable. You can’t get in the good graces making aspirational lists of booze most people will never see unless you stooge for a few readily accessible whiskies, I’m sure.

I recognize that palates are unique and we all have our unique tastes. I’m not going to point fingers in general at his scores; we all have our preferences. However, there are themes that emerge – Parker seems to fall for the common trap that “older is better” and rates Pappy 23 a 100%, tacitly blessing all of the fanboy bullshit that surrounds Pappy, age in general, and the overrated mythos of Stitzel-Weller. Parker also tells us in his notes that “top bourbons” should never be “diluted or served on ice”. Oh, really?

Hey Bob, did you know that Van Winkle 23 is about 47% ABV which is considered “towards the low end of ABV” in our scale? Any clue that people regularly will drop a little ice or water in their blisteringly-high-proof single cask scotches or bourbons and find a massive explosion in flavor? It’s extremely common, and if you’d spent any time whatsoever learning the culture and truly tasting whisky and learning about the spirit, you’d know that it’s not at all taboo in those cases. Instead, you’ve taken what amounts to a five-minute noob-comment-driven crash-course on Reddit and are now spreading it to a bunch of uninterested assholes as gospel truth. Why don’t you hop on the “bourbon can only be made in Kentucky” bandwagon while you’re at it? It’s as tone-deaf and factually ignorant as what you professed. Maybe you saw Paterson saying he’d “kill you” for putting ice or water in your whisky, but that’s because Paterson’s whiskies are already pretty fucking watery unless you’re spending $2000.00 for a cask strength bottle.

Parker’s list includes a ton of random Buffalo Trace including experimental releases that have been off the shelf for two years. For a guy who seems to want to portray himself as Joe Average Guy who just happened to get into this stuff and hunted it down, he’s managed to find some bottles that a lot of bourbon lovers would beat each other up for. There’s an abundance of KBD and Buffalo Trace on his list. Worse still, in his discussion of KBD (or Bulleit), he seems to be utterly ignorant of the concept of independent bottling. He rates various KBDs confidently, giving Noah’s Mill an assertive 96 – a whisky I myself know to have incredible batch variation. Hey, it’s possible, but you need to note which batch that was because they vary so wildly.

Another tiresome thread is a seeming ignorance of what’s on the bottle at times, compared with a slavish devotion to the bottle itself. Frequently he mentions something about the bottle, as if the EH Taylor bottle conveys special taste to the contents, while completely missing big-picture stuff about the whisky contained inside. His Four Roses 2012 Limited Small Batch (highly regarded among those in the know) squeaks by with a borderline score of 92, and he states, “I assume this has been aged in oak a lot longer than the basic Four Roses, and that shows in its softness.” Oh, I don’t know, Bob, what do you think? The recipe is on the back of the bottle calling out years, this information could be Googled in about ten seconds — but fuck Google, that’s not Robert Parker’s style. The inimitable Parkerian palate has detected that it might be older, so we’ll state it as fact. Yeah, it’s older. Notice those tannins? That black tea quality? More than a little bit of wood? Pretty clear sign of age and cask influence. But palate aside, that bit on the bottle that mentions a 17 year old whiskey on the back should have tipped off your older-is-better palate (given your rating for Evan Williams 23).

There’s so much stuff that Parker mentions that could easily be answered with the most perfunctory of google searches, but instead, we’re left to accept his pronouncements as truth handed down from the heavens. Parker’s Heritage 2012 – “Apparently this is no longer being produced”. Yes, that’s right, Bob. Five minutes of searching even by an assistant would have turned this up. Woodford tips its hand to Labrot and Graham as the producer. It’s made by Brown-Forman, Bob, the people who make Jack Daniels. That’s probably far too declasse for the silver Boxster and salmon-sweater crowd, but it’s the truth.

Sure, I’ve taken the bait. The know-it-all wine critic has decided he is the arbiter of taste and quality on the American whisky scene while seemingly managing to not do even the most basic bit of research and self-education on the subject. We all suffer as a result: every halfway decent whiskey will be name-checked by him and the joyless farts who swan about at wine tastings will now be regurgitating Parker’s notes with no insight and nothing to contribute to the discussion.

It’ll be a great day for the distilleries, especially Buffalo Trace. Tons of dumb money coming in, flooding the market with cash, and buying up things we took for granted. Most of these guys will probably store these bottles horizontally, which is perhaps some small consolation – speculators, take note: store your whiskey UPRIGHT. It’s great for guys who run shops, it’s great for distillers who want to wow with a thousand labels sourced from a handful of mashbills or sourced whiskey. For the average consumer, it’s yet another crowding out at the hands of shameless trend-hoppers who saw this on TV, will make no attempt to understand the culture or the spirit, but instead will blindly make pronouncements in the absence of knowledge.

The end result of this for me is to call into question the worth of Parker’s wine ratings, given how spotty his foray into whisky has been. However, again, I don’t care much: I’ll continue to pull against my bunkered stock of whisky and private barrel buys that Parker will never have access to. I only hope he doesn’t wreck the market for American whiskey as well. Surely this will attract the “investment-grade-whisky” speculative douchebag market.

And that’s all I’ve got to say on Parker.

At a glance:

Pappy Van Winkle 23y, Bottle C8752. 47.8% ABV
Nose: 
Strong presence of old wood, light aroma of dark fruits. Strong alcohol initially. Soft sweetness. Alcohol eases in a few minutes and reveals toffee scent with a hint of caramel.
Palate:  Initially dry mouthfeel, warming, strong wood, dark fruits, pleasing sweetness like cotton candy or bubblegum but also vanilla. An evolving trace of caramel and toffee that never become too huge. Wood stays somewhat bitter but does not overpower.
Finish:  Vaguely bubblegummy and toffee sweetness and again wood. Balanced, some traces of grain flavor. Medium finish.
Comment: This is not the equal of the 20y or even the ORVW 23y selection. It’s out of balance and overoaked.
Rating:  B-

Scotland Has Lost The Plot

It’s a downright awful time to be a consumer if you’re interested in Scotch whisky.

There’s a lot of underlying causes that have made Scotch an absolutely horrible buy lately, especially for Americans, and I won’t rehash exhaustive analysis by others or my thoughts on the latest whisky to be sold in an imitation boat or the constant and ever more garishly nouveau-riche eye that guides brand identity these days. The fact is that two things have just utterly decimated my interest in Scotch these days – and as an enthusiast with some disposable income I suspect I am late to the party on this one.

The first is selection. What’s that? Isn’t choice great? Of course it is. However, “selection” has become just a proxy word for a ceaseless stream of one-offs released in stunt casks with novelty finishes. You only need to have so many wine finishes before you realize that a great many of them add very little to the underlying spirit. So much attention is delivered to single-cask releases or one-off limited runs or something similar and there seems to be virtually no attention given to distillers’ core range, short of tarting up the packaging every couple years and maybe bumping ABV up a hair. If you were one of those who felt they had to catch every new experience, it wouldn’t take long before you were tearing your hair out in despair of ever trying to try everything.

Even more tiring is the ceaseless stream of bullshit that accompanies these releases. If it’s not some impenetrably bizarre “legacy of stone” pitch (I’m sorry, what in the actual fuck was that supposed to mean?), then it’s something that tries too hard, like a hashtagged whisky. Intrepid distillers, take note: the correct answer is not to next release a QR-coded whisky. Here’s a general bit of advice – if you need three paragraphs to explain why you named your whisky “Dawn” in Gaelic and how that relates to what’s in the bottle, you are too clever by half.

For me, the breaking point came – to my surprise – from Glenlivet, of all distilleries. “Alpha” was first. $150 for a black bottle of… who knows what? Legally speaking it’s probably whisky, so we can guess at 3 years and at least 40% ABV, but who knows beyond that? What a tempting pitch.

I can have blind tastings with friends for less out of pocket and a higher likelihood of a fantastic whisky. If you see Alpha and think, “AT LAST! I, TOO, CAN HAVE A BLIND TASTING!”, I urge you to log off your computer right now and go meet people. This is a product that acts as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist for most reasonably well-adjusted people.

The last straw though was only a couple weeks later with Glenlivet’s Quercus. A 17 year old single cask – breathlessly and reverentially noted for its maturation in an “American white oak cask”. You know, a bourbon cask. There’s at least a million of them made a year in America and Scotland buys them by the shipping container. There are distilleries that use them exclusively for all new spirit maturation. Almost every distillery uses bourbon casks, and they are a common sight on the independent bottler market. Hell, even Glenrothes did this as a groundbreaking concept in their Alba Reserve and had the decency to charge about 60 bucks for it. Glenlivet has decided somehow that a single cask of 17 year old whisky in an industry standard cask now somehow merits $300. Three hundred dollars. What cast-iron balls!

That’s a perfect segue into the other side: price. In the last three years or so, prices have increased by 40% or more on some really standard malts. I remember buying Laphroaig 10 for $29. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find it much under $45. Macallan 18 went from $130-140 to now over $200 in the last three years. These are serious, serious increases in price. Certainly some of the old, closed distilleries will only rise in price, but when the bread and butter malts continue to skyrocket or get replaced by NAS editions, it’s hard to swallow. Apparently this is being driven by the East Asian market – best of luck to the distilleries of Scotland; I hope for your sake they can maintain that demand level. “Emerging markets” are also cited as a cause for why prices skyrocket – I guess that’s a good thing, but when customers in the US are starting to get uneasy, I wonder how it’s easily justified in these markets.

The price to consumers is only one aspect of this problem. The other is the up-until-recent practice of ordering direct from the UK. Due to local changes in UK law, shipping through Royal Mail is no longer possible and you’re limited to other carriers – which has made the cost of single bottle orders nearly prohibitive and more at risk of being held by customs.

Perhaps if the US adopted the 700ml bottle standard we’d see a wider variety of bottles and perhaps at a lower price due to Scotland being able to streamline bottling operations and by keeping a single range of labels as well. I’m not holding my breath though.

So what’s an enthusiast to do?

For now, the answer seems to be to focus elsewhere. I’m not a brandy guy, so don’t expect me to follow that recent trend; as far as whisky goes, my attention increasingly will focus on the US, Japan, and Ireland, with other international options here and there. In the meantime I will enjoy the bottles I bought when they were far less expensive. Hopefully by the time I’m done, things will come back to earth a bit. (Edit: Now I’m seeing Yamazaki 12 in a couple places for $80 and Nikka 15 for over $100 – maybe it’s already too late for Japan?)

I certainly won’t be buying much Scotch whisky for a while. Maybe some here or there, but at today’s prices, my purchases will be far less. I hope you’re not feeling the squeeze, but if you are, hopefully things will correct sooner rather than later. If not, I hope you have a stockpile you can work through! I do, and I will.