Tag Archives: whiskey

How (Not) to Drink Whisky


The majority of this is pure silliness, it’s little more than whisky affectations gone to the extreme. To typical drinkers – meaning those of us  who go out to drink to have a fun night with friends where we spend time talking about anything BUT the quality of our drinks – there are only two bits of information here worth mentioned.

  1. For 22 year olds, its rare to have to add water make it smoother. Note, however, that I don’t say “You shouldn’t add water!”.
  2. Adding hot water to your drink will make it difficult to appreciate the subtleties of scotch whisky.

All of the other items are either nonsense, or tips for professional tasters and whisky critics.  For one, I’ve never run across a bartender who has heaped dozens of pieces of ice into a “scotch on the rocks”. It’s an exaggeration. Second, ice  in the drink is perfectly acceptable (albeit in a small amount), because it changes the nuances of the drink as the ice melts and the drink goes from cold to room temperature.

Also, I don’t think bars would look too kindly on folks, either customers or bartenders, who swirled whisky in a glass and then flung the spirit upon the floor.

Yes, great whisky can be poorly handled. People mindlessly handle well made products all of the time. But even the consumer who desires to treat a great whiskey with respect should approach the drink that’s comfortable to them. Anyone doing 95% of what the gentleman in the video is doing is little more than a poseur in my eyes.

Whiskey Tasting Notes: Parker’s Heritage Collection

I haven’t done one of these in a while, as I needed to take a break from whiskey after going non-stop on them for nearly two months straight. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the recent trips abroad and at home, but too much of a good thing will quickly become a bad thing. Thus, the break. Meanwhile, I’m still putting in about 1000 words a day for the book, and will soon start the final editing process before handing off to my agent and publisher. But I’ll talk about the book later.

I got to taste this whiskey first hand at a visit to Heaven Hill, where Lynne and Dan led Krysta and myself in our own tasting event. Out of the several bourbons tasted, this is the one I migrated to, even though it was at cask strength.

What I’m about to say will likely tick a few whiskey folks off, but meh, I don’t think I’ve ever been too concerned about that. Cask strength whiskey is essentially a whiskey that has not had water added to it after aging. As a whiskey ages, a fair amount of evaporation occurs (to the tune of 2% a year), most of that water. So the whiskey will be stronger coming out of cask than it was going in.

This has become, what’s known in the marketing biz, a “thing”. Something to which they can upsell and mark-up the price of the whiskey by a few dollars and get even more profit from the customer.

The problem lies in the fact that, depending upon a consumers taste buds, alcohol is an anesthetic. Too high of a proof, and the taste buds, and nasal receptors literally become numb. And when these become numb, tasting…true tasting…becomes nigh impossible. The only way to rectify this is to add water to the whiskey, and bring it down to a point where the alcohol doesn’t numb the senses.

However, there are a few knuckleheads out there who don’t understand the above issue. So when water is added to a whiskey, they look at you as if you just spat upon a holy book. To them, let me say this clearly…if you want to taste a cask strength whiskey, you almost always have to add water. (As a side note, I’ve talked and drank with dozens of whiskey professionals, from master distillers to professional tasters to whiskey shop owners. Every single one of them added some water to their drinks. Not a one of them ever drank it straight. Of course the amount of water differed, but water was always added. Take that, you “purists”.)

So what is the big deal surrounding cask strength whiskeys? From my experience, once you deal with the excess alcohol, what is there is a whiskey that is far more complex in flavors than what one typically finds on the shelf of your liquor store. This is why I think that “Cask Strength” whiskeys deserve attention, not because they are a higher proof.

Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbon was the whiskey that caught my attention while at Heaven Hill, and I had no problem in shelling out the $120 dollars for a bottle. I find that some bourbons push their oak-y flavors too far, and in fact, many distilleries strive to keep their spirits out of the barrels due to this same fear. This bottle pushes that time limit as far as it could go, without becoming excessively woody in it’s flavor. Oak flavors are there, at least a little, but with them was a nice cola undercurrent, with a little raisin and of course the ever present dark sweetness that bourbons are known for. It wasn’t overly sweet, nor dry, and struck a real nice balance upon my palate.

Out of the several bourbons we had whilst in Kentucky, this was the one of three that stood out. I’ll get to the second and third in different posts.

If you have the money, and don’t mind working with Cask Strength Whiskeys, I recommend Parker’s Heritage Collection.

The Best Scotch in the world is…Japanese??

From The Times:

Yoichi 20 years old, distilled on the shores of the Sea of Japan, has become the first variety produced outside Scotland to win the coveted single malt award in an international competition run by Whisky Magazine, the main industry publication.

I don’t want to diminish what Suntory has accomplished here, because I do think it is indicative of a larger trend- that of people understanding that Scotch isn’t the end all be all of whisky (let alone single malts). But I don’t believe this is a whisky version of the the Judgement of Paris.

For one, this idea that Whisky begins and ends in Scotland is an idea that is less than ninety years old. Up until the turn of the twentieth century, it was the Irish brands that held both favor and flavor, for it was the Irish who, for the most part, held on to the traditional distilling processes of pot stills whilst the Scottish made their money in the blends. It wasn’t even until 1963, when Glenfiddich released and mass marketed the idea of “single malts” outside of Great Britain, that single malts took off throughout the world. The reason why Scotland was dominating single malts was that there was almost nobody else making them for the longest time, certainly not on the scale that the Scots were/are.

Additionally, I am willing to bet that the scoring between the #1 and #2 whiskys was microscopic. There are many, many great single malts out there, and any one of them could have won.

Still, I am quite happy to see the folks at Yoichi (and at Suntory, who won best blend) win. Both clearly have shown an attention to production details which I believe is crucial to creating an amazing spirit. Anyone who believes that it is Scotland’s inherent destiny to make the best whisky in the world needs to get out a little more.

(Thanks to The Leisure Guy for the heads up)

The High Pricing of Whisky

Eric Asimov had a post on Friday that caught my attention. In it, he refers to a book by Robin Goldstein called “The Wine Trials”. In discussing the book, and a related article on Newsweek, he started speaking of the amount of money spent on wine, and how some use the excessive amount of money as evidence of the snobbery (and perhaps even classism) found in the wine world.

…in characterizing the behavior of wine drinkers, Robin is grounding his conclusions in economic and psychological studies that demonstrate a correlation between the pleasure taken in a product and the amount of money spent on it. He and his team wrote an academic paper, “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better” (Warning: PDF – Kate), based on their findings, which is now available for viewing on the web site of a group called the American Association of Wine Economists.

As you may imagine, this piqued my interest, as the status and purpose of expensive wines likely runs parallel with that of whiskies. In discussing the whisky book, several people have spoken to me about the $70,000 bottles of Scotch, and the $200 glasses of Rare bourbons and Irish Whiskeys being sold and bought.

Goldstein’s conclusion of his paper – essentially that those who are unaware of the high price of the wine draw no greater joy from it – runs similar to my own beliefs in regard to the whiskey world. I cannot speak for the wine world, but in the whiskey the high prices found in the industry can be attributed to two distinct forces – the collectors and the marketers.

The collectors are a weird breed, from the little I’ve dealt with them. They collect everything from mini bottles similar to those found on airplanes, to the bottles of distilleries long extinct. As with most every collectible community, the rarer the bottles, and the higher quality of the state of the bottle, the higher price that they will bring. Additionally, you’ll find that sometimes the first, 100th, or even 1000th bottle bottled of a run will bring a high price. In Glenturret in a display, there’s a first bottle of a limited run being sold for twenty five thousand pounds.

The marketing of the high prices is not a new thing either. In the mid 19th century, it was cognac that was afforded the high prices, as it was a drink that was supposed to connoted status, both in palate and in class. When the wine crops in France were decimated by the Phylloxera vastatrix bug in the late nineteenth century, cognac became scarce, and the upper class moved to whiskies, both Scotch and Irish, to fill the void. Since that time, status has always been inferred upon the rarer drinks, the older single malts. The rarity of, say, a twenty year old scotch, would not have been the first purchase of the middle to lower classes when cheaper alternatives were available. The status of some whiskies has been fully taken advantage of by marketers ever since. To buy that twenty year old single malt now, according to some marketers, denotes taste and class, regardless of whether that whisky is any good.

The pricing of whisky continues to intrigue me on many levels, as it plays in with the psychology of purchasing and even the psychology of drinking (If you want to give a conniption to someone, added cola to an aged single malt – it screws with them on so many different levels).

The Last Distillery

Canadian Club/Hiram Walker today, and I am DONE! WOOT!

The Bourbon Festival and the Missing Suits

There are some things you need to know when you talk about the current bourbon industry. Jim Beam is owned by Fortune Brands. Wild Turkey is owned by Pernod Ricard. Bulleit Bourbon is owned by Diageo. There’s a lot of money at stake in the bourbon industry, and multi-national corporations are more than happy to have a proven brand in their repertoire.

But if you’re a tourist exploring the whiskey trail in America, it’s unlikely that you will see many references to these corporations. Instead, you’ll be introduced to people like Fred Noe (pictured left), great grandson of Jim Beam. You’ll be encouraged to take the distillery tours and spend money at the giftshops strategically located at the end of each of these tours. You’ll be told about heritage and tradition, and made to feel as if you are “down home”. But somewhere in the back of your head, there will be this nagging suspicion that there’s something more here.

Perhaps it will hit you when you see the bottling lines fill up flasks of Canadian Club. Maybe something will ring when it is mentioned that bourbon sales are close to two billion dollars, and you think that that amount of money has to go somewhere. Because as charming of a town as Bardstown and the surrounding region is, it doesn’t look as if it’s the headquarters of a multi-billion dollar industry. Of course, I may be prejudicial, coming from the Seattle, home to Microsoft and Starbucks, and having seen just how much these companies have re-invested in their hometowns.

This is not to say that the people I talked to at the Bourbon Festival were not authentic. Quite the opposite was true. There is a huge community in Kentucky dedicated to bourbon, and who nearly worship the history of this whiskey. In fact, it’s this authenticity that I believe that the tourists to the area and fans of whiskey latch on to. The corporations behind these brands would be fools to put their faces out front, when the Fred Noes and the Samuel’s family (of Maker’s Mark) do a much more efficient job of selling their product.

As a side note, the Beam family does seem to be everywhere in Bardstown, even in other distilleries.

What caught my attention more than anything is just how “authentic” every one was. Whether it was a tour guide recommending mixing bourbon with Ginger ale, to Maker’s Mark pointing out on their tour that they hand dip their bottles, there was a concerted effort to make a connection to the people on the tours. It’s not a coincidence that nearly every bourbon distiller had barbeque sauce and scented candles for sale. The message being sent was clear: bourbon is for the average American family.

This approach to selling isn’t a bad thing. It is a business after all, and money must be made. But the underlying message I got from the bourbon festival (outside of the fact that there are really great bourbons being made), is that the industry is very aware of itself. What I mean by that is that the corporate suits who were very much behind the scenes at this festival must know that they can’t pull off authentic Kentucky Charm. But the folks down in Kentucky sure can.

What else did I learn?

  • Corn whiskey, right out of the still, smells remarkably like corn syrup. It does not, however, taste like corn syrup, but it’s still pleasant, albeit a tad rough around the edges.
  • I also learned that the fact that Jack Daniels is the best selling American whiskey is a bit of a sore point with the bourbon producers.
  • Bourbon and bread pudding were made for each other.
  • Ditto for sausage gravy.
  • It was noted by several people that Bardstown (where the festival was held) is unique for a small town in Kentuckky, due to the fact that it’s one of only a few remaining small towns that still have a “downtown”. Thanks Wal-Mart!

No one wanted to talk about rye. From what I could gather, several of these companies were caught by surprise by the recent rye revival. The question becomes, does a company invest in rye now, when in three to five years, rye’s popularity might be less than it it now? Watching a distillery make a change due to market demand is akin to watching a cruise ship make a left turn…i.e. it happens very slowly.

Quick note on the picture below. This is one of several buildings where they store the barrels of whiskey. The dark coloring on the bottom third of the building is mold.

Finally, I’ve found myself drawn to distillery tours for some reason. They are a tad hot, really noisy, but with the right tour guide, they are incredibly informative.

I’m planning on heading back next April, with the hope that I can see some smaller production lines and companies. What I think will be interesting is comparing these tours to the ones in Ireland and Scotland.

How to Taste Whiskey – Pt. 2

Yesterday, I touched on the eyes and nose of a whiskey. In regard to the look of whiskey, Matthew noted in the comments that there reputedly a fair amount of brands who put caramel coloring into the mix, in order to make their whiskey look more appealing.

This is true, to a certain point. Just this past Saturday I purchased a cheap bottle of corn whiskey (for research, don’tcha know) that has a orange-brown tint to its color. This clearly (no pun) comes from coloring that has been added to the mix, as the color of a whiskey comes from the wood in which it was aged. As corn whiskey is not required to be aged, and in fact, it is cheaper to not age whiskey, then it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to figure out that if this cheap whiskey was not aged, the color had to come from somewhere else.

There are bottlers of higher end whiskeys that color their drinks as well. From what I’ve read, all blends have coloring added. However, many of the single malt whiskeys who do not, explicitly say so somewhere within their documentation. A lack of caramel coloring is a selling point. For any whiskey you purchase and taste, a bit of research will likley be needed in order to determine if your drink’s color is authentic.

And yes, adding caramel coloring can affect the flavor of the drink.

But let’s move on from yesterday…

We’ve talked about looks and we’ve talked about nose. The question then becomes – what’s the best way to bring about both the look and aromas of the whiskey? A lot of this is determined by just how serious you wish to be about tasting. If you’re not that serious about it, old fashioned glasses will do just fine.

There are many, many professionals who will tell you that I am full of it when it comes to this. They will say that the only way to enjoy a dram is through the use of Single Malt glasses. They will say that these single malt glasses are specifically designed to not dilute the colors through the use of cuttings on the glass, and that the tulip shaped design of the glass helps keep the aromas. As Michael Jackson noted, a good nosing glass “is tulip-shaped, with a decent bowl (for swirling the spirit) and a narrow lip (to catch the aromas).” If you are serious about tasting (and nosing) whiskey, then yes, getting a decent single malt glass is probably not a bad idea. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the glass needs to be crystal, but the shape of a glass does determing how well one can control the aromas of the drink. (There’s scientific proof to back up this assertion. A 2001 paper called The influence of wine glass shape on perceived aroma and colour intensity in wines came to the conclusion that a major factor in enhancing aroma is the ratio of the glasses cup diameter to the diameter of its opening. But they had is no evidence that glass style had any impact on taste, flavor or mouthfeel. And while I am a bigger fan of whiskey than I am of wine, I’m not such a fan as to make an assertion that the characteristics of whiskey are any more or less special than that of wine.)

Okay, so you have your special glass, and you’ve poured in two ounces of whiskey and one ounce of water.

Well, first make sure you’re in a room that lacks any odors that may be a distraction. That means no drinking around wet dogs and/or teenage girls who just discovered perfume.

Then swirl your glass and take a look at the whiskey, using a well lit and white backdrop for your background. You may see certain characteristic such as oils, or may start to go a bit misty in appearance. Each of these are a clue as to how the whiskey was produced.

Place your nose in the glass and take a quick inhale. Take note of what aromas you find, either mentally or literally. As you judge other whiskeys later on down the line, compare them against these notes.

Be aware of what alcohol smells like (and how it affects you physically) so you can then separate that aroma from the others.

Then take a drink. Let it sit on your tongue for a moment or two. Note the primary taste. That’s the flavor that hits your tongue immediately. Then note how the liquid feels. Is it oily or viscous? Does it come across as dry? Swallow and note the flavors that play in the back of the throat (actually, these are aromas that are filtering up to your nasal cavity, but that’s quibbling at this point). Note these aromas, and how the taste finishes. Does the taste linger and decrescendo? Or does the flavor just quit suddenly? Finally, are there aftertastes to the whiskey? How long do they last? All of these are relevant and can help shape your opinion of the drink.

As I mentioned yesterday, there are no wrong answers here, just people who have a better vocabulary to answer the questions posted above.

As an exercise, read the tasting notes found here. Notice the differences of opinion here. Each taster either found or focused on completely different characteristics of the whiskey. If you start reading whiskey reviews, you will find this to be quite common.

My point in bringing this up is we all find different things in different whiskeys. Don’t worry that you tasted something different from someone else. Your experience matters, even if no one else had experienced the same thing. This leads us to the best part of this entire process – talking with other people about it. Some will agree with you, others will not. And you will likely find yourself saying something along this lines of “How the hell did you taste chocolate in that?”

This is not only normal, but some would say the best part of tasting whiskey. Because the real point in tasting whiskey is to discuss it with others who had also tasted it.

That concludes my “How to taste” series. It wasn’t too in depth, and should be considered more of an introductory course. I’m not certain if I will get into more detail later down the line, but it’s always a possibility. Tomorrow – my first tasting notes!