The Whiskey Notebook
Lots to talk about! I’ve had a breakneck couple of weeks of Whiskey and I want to tell you all about it!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this is a very fortunate time to love whiskey. From the burgeoning golden age of American Craft to the continued dominance of Scotch to the Bourbon boom, Whiskey is in the spotlight like never before. As the poet Christopher Wallace said, “If you don’t know, you better ask somebody.”
A Very Charismatic Glaswegian
A few weeks ago, we hosted our World Atlas of Whiskey Dinner with Dave Broom. For those who don’t know, Dave Broom is the heir to Michael Jackson (the whiskey writer, not the King of Pop, though upon reflection I never actually met either man so they could very well be the same person in which case I have a whole new respect for both Thriller and The Complete Guide to Single Malt because THAT, my friends, is multi-tasking). Dave is, without hesitation, the best and most cogent voice writing about whiskey in the world today. His new edition of The World Atlas of Whiskey is a Must-Read for anyone even remotely interested. He certainly keeps his Whiskey Geek cred with detailed descriptions of the variations on individual distilleries still construction, and how that affects the ultimate style. But he can also wax poetical.
Here he is speaking about a subject close to my heart, the craft whiskey movement:
“When the philosophies of these new distilleries emerge, you can see that this not simply a pioneering 21st century approach, discovering what is possible, but also a palimpsest of American whiskey, redressing an imbalance. Craft is breaking new territory by rediscovering what was lost, recasting what whiskey in the USA migh have looked like were it not for Prohibition, the Depression, and war. Here’s the country that perfected The Brand now witnessing small-scale revolution, where distillers are establishing new links with farmers, who themselves have existed outside of the agro-industrial system, preserving heritage grains and a holistic relationship with the land. Craft is America asking questions about itself. It can be dismissed as nostalgic, looking at the past through sepia-hued glasses, but if it is true to itself, it is a deep examination of what is possible.”
That is the most beautiful and precise explanation of the excitement which surrounds and invigorates Craft whiskey as I have ever read. It was an absolute thrill to have him as our guest host at Bouley last Monday guiding us through 12 of the world’s greatest drams with the incomparable cuisine of David Bouley. The first 2 courses were Scotch with the third course being international followed by a fourth of American. We focused heavily on Independent Bottling for the Scotch, specifically some excellent releases from Gordon & Macphail. For anyone who has ever talked to me about Scotch, you know I think the best way to go is Independent.
Jim Murray, author of The Whiskey Bible, recently released his list of best whiskey in the world and there wasn’t a Scotch in the Top 5. He called it a wake up call.
“Where were the complex whiskies in the prime of their lives?”, he asked.
With all respect to Mr. Murray, I reckon one of the great oversights of the whiskey critic community is not coming to terms with Independent Bottling. A VAST majority of the 100+ Scotch distilleries are owned by massive spirits corporations. That doesn’t necessarily make them poor in quality but a corporate structure tends to favor homogeneity. They push towards market trends, like a hunting dog pointing its nose at a rabbit. There’s a great big reason so many Single Malts are heavily sherried these days. That’s what the market wants so that’s what the market gets. The Master Blenders of major Scotch houses have to take thousands of highly individual barrels of whisky and make them into something that tastes the same, year after year, batch after batch. Independents don’t have to care. They release what they want to, when they want to, how they want to. This can be maddening, no doubt, because if you fall in love with a specific release, as I have with the Gordon & Macphail Mortlach 15, you can’t be guaranteed it will ever be the same, once the current run is gone. But if you want an answer to Mr. Murray’s question, “Where were the complex whiskies in the prime of their lives?”, then pick up a bottle of G&M (or Signatory, or Rattray, or Chieftains, or Black Adder).
Quick Plug…if you’d like to hear more about the jewels we have from Independent Bottlers, or you just want to talk whiskey, e-mail me!
On a personal note, I can’t tell you how proud I was to be a part of the World Atlas of Whiskey Dinner. To my knowledge, no one in New York City had ever attempted a Whisky dinner on the scale we pulled off last Monday night. It was a tremendous pleasure to be able to sit, side by side, with enthusiasts who share a passion for the spirit we love so dear.
So, you’d think such a dinner would be enough for one week. Not for JT. WhiskeyFest, the massive tasting/celebration of all things whiskey related, was held two days later. Jean-Luc and I bought tickets ages ago, never imagining we would still be recovering from a giant whiskey dinner less than 48 hours before. But we’re professionals and we do all this for you, gentle reader.
To be honest, WhiskeyFest can be a bit of carnival. It can’t be helped. Put a couple thousand people in a giant room able to sample just about every whiskey produced on Planet Earth, things are bound to get a bit rowdy. That being said, it is always a ball. I’m always struck by how much of a community there is around whiskey. It’s an amazing thing to walk around a whole floor of the Times Square Marquis-Marriot and feeling like everyone you pass is in on the same secret. We were all there for the same reason. Everyone B-Lines for their favorite style, their favorite producer or region. They revel in the opportunity to talk to the Master Distillers who make their all-time top drams. I, myself, pulled Harlan Wheatley, Master Distiller at Buffalo Trace, aside and told him the story of a 22 year old JT, working as a stock guy at Martin’s Wine Cellars in New Orleans, tasked with cleaning up after an EPIC bourbon tasted hosted by Harlan himself. At the time, it seemed a shame to me to let all those glasses of Eagle Rare 17 or George T. Stagg or Pappy (yes those were those days when they poured Pappy at tastings) just get thrown out. So, I tasted them. All of them. Repeatedly. And 2 things happened. I got about as drunk as I’ve ever been and I fell in love with Bourbon. It’s an amazing thing to be able to look a man like Harlan Wheatley in the eyes and say, “Thanks for doing what you do.”
Finally, I’d like to reference a very neat article just put out by the whip smart folks over at Punch.
Without demanding you read the whole thing, the main thrust of the story is to put out into the open the vast gulf between how whiskey is marketed and the reality of its provenance.
“The practice of sourcing whiskey, acquiring whiskey from one distillery and bottling it at another location under a different name, isn’t inherently a problem (and is a common practice of top distilleries including High West, Willett and Jefferson’s). But lying about origins in an attempt to capture a continually growing obsession with craft everything is what rubs the whiskey crowd the wrong way.”
This is an issue very close to my heart. I won’t carry any whiskey which isn’t transparent in its sourcing and I very strongly believe this should be an issue which even the casual whiskey drinker should be aware. There are a lot of people in the United States right now, and the whole world for that matter, who are putting their hearts and souls into making genuine Craft whiskey. But that word has to mean something (which is why I capitalize it). I have no intrinsic problem with sourced whiskey. We carry the Willet Pot Still, which is sourced from Heaven Hill, but the guys at Willet (or KBD as it’s actually known) don’t try to disguise that fact. They aren’t coming out and saying they’re making whiskey according to a recipe they found from their grandpa or Al Capone or dug up with E.H. Taylor’s bones. They’re sourcing quality whiskey and releasing it to a thirsty public. I have no issue with that, as a consumer or a retailer. But there should be a differentiation made between what is made at a distillery, start to finish, and what is bought, then packaged as a brand. Otherwise, it does a grave disservice to the distillers who are only releasing what they make and suddenly everyone’s saying to me, “This is a 2 year and it costs $45 and this is a 6 year and it costs $30. What’s the difference?” The difference is the 2 year was actually made by a distillery and the 6 year was bought from either Heaven Hill or LDI (in Indiana), then bottled like it was made in Vermont or Utah or California or wherever. REAL Craft whiskey deserves our support. It’s going to be more expensive than the cynically branded “Craft” whiskies but if we get behind these now then in a decade we’ll be awash in a renaissance of American spirits.
Try reading the Punch article and, for your own reference, if something says “Bottled In….” and not “Distilled In…”, that means they didn’t make it.
Conclusions & Random Musings
Over at Balcones, there’s lots of bad juju going on.
Balcones, with owner/Master Distiller Chip Tate, has been at the forefront of the new wave of Craft whiskey. It’s looking not very likely Chip will be making whiskey at Balcones anymore, which makes the juice currently on the market not only a piece of history, but a serious collector’s item!
Pappy Van Winkle was released a few days ago. The demand is insane! Average Price of the 23 Year on Winesearcher: $2,432!!!
Finally, I just want to thank everyone who came out for our World Atlas of Whiskey Dinner. We’re trying to program more and more whiskey related events so if you have any ideas or feedback, please let me know!