UnReview: 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey

What’s an UnReview?  It’s an instance where I’ve been able to taste or sample a whiskey and render a general opinion but it wasn’t formal enough to call a review.

I had a glass of 2 Gingers Irish whiskey today while out on a business lunch.  I won’t write a formal review as I don’t believe that to be the ideal (or even useful) setting to do so.  We sat outside which makes it even more difficult.  For whatever reason, many whiskies smell the same to me when I’m outside.

Though I wasn’t able to really sit and savor it, I found 2 Gingers to be uninspired. It wasn’t bad, and was certainly smooth, but there was nothing about it that would cause me to want another glass.  It was light on the palate (as are most Irish whiskies), semi-creamy, and on the sweeter side.  There was some noticeable vanilla.  Overall, it was just ok.

I have read that it was intended for cocktails and that it is marketed to women, both of which would seem plausible given my experience with it.

As a fun part of this brief story, I went to the bar to view the whiskey selection before taking my seat.  I’d had everything else there (save the Talisker 10, but I wasn’t in the mood for Islay scotch) except for the 2 Gingers which I’d been wanting to at least sample.  When I asked for it, the waitress was fairly certain they didn’t have it.  I explained my earlier perusal but said, just in case I was wrong, Maker’s Mark would be fine.  Of course she returned with a small snifter of 2 Gingers and explained that it wasn’t even in the computer and what I saw on the shelf was only left over from St. Patrick’s Day.  The portion in my snifter was more than generous, I suspect as an attempt to get rid of as much of the whiskey as possible.  My benefit.

That’s the story.

UnReview rating:  I’ll drink it if you give it to me, but I’ll not be pursuing this of my own accord.

Review: Compass Box The Peat Monster

ThePeatMonster-Box-Bottle
(photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)
Compass Box The Peat Monster
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
46% abv (92 proof)
$48 – $58
Overall rating:  Nip/Bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Here we are at the fourth Compass Box (CB) expression from their standard lineup.  As per my previous CB reviews, this was part of a sample pack of 50mL vials.  I sat down to do the tasting with Jake, my go-to whiskey buddy (who provided the sample pack).

From the names of their whiskies, this was the only one that created expectation.  I know what peat is and the kinds of flavors it can impart, but will this prove to be a “monster”?  We’ll find out.

The eyes:
Light gold.

The nose:
Hey, peat.  How about that?  I wasn’t expecting that at all…  Sarcasm aside, it’s not a face punch of peat, but it’s gently assertive.  Fortunately, this isn’t a one note blend and there was more to be found as time passed.  Charcoal smoke.  There’s a red berry note that is hard to pinpoint but it reminds me of Apple & Eve’s Bert and Ernie Berry juice or raspberry gelato.  It has that sweet and tart raspberry character to it.  There’s a sweet note far below but I found I could only catch glimpses of it if I inhaled faster than normal (I typically just breathe slowly through my nose above the glass); when I did this, it would separate from the peat and would rise with hints of the berry.  There’s a note of birch beer and hints of melon (cantaloupe).  With time, the peat becomes less assertive and I pick up some hints of white flesh fruit (maybe more of that apple I’ve found in the other CB blends).

The mouth:
Peat (obviously).  The charcoal note carries over to the mouth and is sweet and smoky.  There’s a long, warming heat that carries a medium finish of mostly sweet peat with some malt.

Conclusions:
The nose on this blend was an enjoyable experience, much more nuanced than I expected from a scotch bearing this name.  That red berry note was enticing and kept me searching for more complexity, and the overall smell experience was nice.  The mouth had less complexity and seemed to center around a sweet, malty peat with little else detectable, at least by my palate.  Because if this, the Peat Monster experience peaked for me at the nose (which, to be honest, happens with a lot of whiskies).

So exactly how assertive is the peat here?  When I pour myself a glass of something called “The Peat Monster”, I have certain expectations.  I’m used to scotch like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Kilchoman that are, to me, peat monsters (though not at all one note whiskies).  With that in mind, this isn’t what I would call a “monster” per se, though it’s certainly the most peated of CB’s whiskies.  Relative to the rest of CB’s lineup, this is a monster.  Relative to the scotch world at large, it is not.

The aforementioned Laphroaig is a monster like Sully from Pixar’s Monsters, Inc.  It can be scary but it’s also sweet.  It might be able to beat up your palate but it won’t; it’s meek (power under control).  And because of these characteristics I find Laphroaig wonderfully aggressive and simultaneously approachable, and greatly enjoyable.

The Peat Monster is like a monster from Sesame Street.  It is gentle, easy to get along with, and much softer than its name suggests.  I don’t find these attributes to detract from the whisky and, in fact, I’m not surprised.  Delicate approachability seems to be CB’s style.  Where some whiskies do this in a predictable, boring manor, I don’t think The Peat Monster was boring.  The mouth may have been less complex than the nose gave hope for but it’s still a good whisky.  Like Grover, despite its gentle nature, I found it entertaining.

At an average of $53 a bottle, this wouldn’t be my go-to peated scotch.  There are cheaper options that are more to my taste like Laphroaig 10 year ($48) or Quarter Cask (around the same price as the 10 year) or Ardbeg 10 year ($48).  I think it’s fair to compare these because while The Peat Monster is a blend, it’s a blended malt.  That means it’s only a blend of single malts; no grain whisky added like with Johnnie Walker Black Label (JWBL) or most of the other ubiquitous blends (Famous Grouse, Chivas, Ballentine’s…).  If we were comparing blends, regardless of content, I find Peat Monster wholly more enjoyable than JWBL.  However, it’s difficult to justify the price difference considering that JWBL goes for $30-$35.  If I were to compare it to JW Double Black, which is more fair given that JWDB is JWBL’s more peated brother, I’d probably go with JWDB given the average bottle cost is $35.  I’ve only had JWDB once and it was a while ago, but I remember liking it.  And for $23 less, I would easily give JWDB a good chance over The Peat Monster.

My overall rating of The Peat Monster is Nip/Bar.  I came to this rating because I think it’s worth a try; you may enjoy its gentle Sesame Street monster character over more assertive peat monsters.  But I can’t justify recommending a whole bottle given its price compared to cheaper peated scotches that are as good, if not better.

 

Review: Compass Box Spice Tree

Image

(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Spice Tree
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
46% alc/vol (92 proof)
$55 – $65
Overall rating:  Nip/Bar

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Here we are at the third whisky in Compass Box’s (CB) gift pack.  I’ve already reviewed Asyla and Oak Cross.

A quick rehash, in case you’re only here for this review:  My friend Jake and I sat down to review the CB lineup from a gift pack that Jake had purchased.  There were five vials, 50mL each, of the whiskies.  Each whisky had an accompanying tasting video on CB’s website.  We tasted them in their order in the box, which is the same order of the videos.  We didn’t watch the videos until after we had tasted each whisky because we didn’t want our experience to be tainted by suggestion.  I really wanted to make sure that we experienced the whisky on our own before hearing the company marketing spiel.  I’m glad we made that decision as my tasting notes at times did not match up with John Glaser’s (the company’s founder and Whiskymaker).  Had we watched the videos before hand, I feel that I would have been looking for smells and flavors, rather than experiencing what was there.

Knowing what little I did about CB’s lineup going into the gift pack tasting, I really didn’t know what to expect from each of the 50mL vials. The one whisky I knew something about (aside from the obvious expectation of peat in The Peat Monster, being reviewed next) was The Spice Tree.  A little over a month ago, when visiting a friend at a local liquor store, I was given a sample of Brenne to try.  It was like no whisky I had ever tried before (and still isn’t).  Wanting to find out more information, I decided to look up some reviews.  Brenne is a French whisky first aged in first fill Limousin Oak then aged in ex-Cognac barrels.  I incidentally discovered through this review at The Coopered Tot (a whiskey blog I follow, so I trust Josh’s reviews) that The Spice Tree is aged in Limousin Oak as well.  So, given the fascinating whisky Brenne is, I was excited to see what the same oak would do to The Spice Tree.

The leaflet that came in the gift pack had the following information:

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky 46% [alc/vol]
Three Highland single malts from the villages of Alness, Brora and Carron.  Extended maturation in custom-made French oak casks with heavily toasted ends.

It goes on to break down the composition, and the reasons behind each choice:

WHISKY
A.  60% Highland (North) single malt – fruitiness
B.  20% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  20% Speyside single malt – meatiness

OAK AGING
1.  20% first fill American Oak – vanilla
2.  80% new French oak – clove spice, vanilla, mocha

I tried not to pay attention to the aroma and flavor benefits so as to come to my own conclusions.  Here we go:

The eyes.
The color is very similar to apple juice (Motts, I suppose…I’ve never really payed enough attention to notice if one brand of apple juice looks different from another; I suppose with kids in the house now I’ll be looking more closely so I can start reviewing them…)

The nose.
The nose is very subtle.  I don’t know that I’d call it delicate; more like faint.  There is plenty of spice here, like Christmas baking spices, but they seem to be hiding.  Like when you enter someone’s home the day after they’ve been baking.  You can tell, but it’s not very strong.  I can smell indistinct red berries and Christmas desserts.  I don’t know what it is that keeps me thinking of Christmas food here, but there’s something holiday-esque about the nose.  Like late autumn, early winter New England spices; nutmeg and clove, maybe, but there’s nothing significantly distinguishable.  Just Christmas.  There’s a light apple note, similar to that of Oak Cross.  After a little time, very slight notes of malt, vanilla, and peat emerge.  Toward the very end of my nosing time, I found (strange as it may sound), a plain macaroni note.  Like when hot elbow macaroni is sitting in the colander after it’s been freshly poured into it.  Maybe it’s the sweetness of the malt changing a bit?  I will say that, considering the 46% abv, I expected at least some noticeable ethanol, but there’s nothing.  That’s impressive.

The mouth.
This is a warm, spicy, oaky whisky.  I still detect no ethanol.  It’s hot on the throat and the spices are here, but even less distinguishable than the nose.  I wouldn’t even identify them here as “Christmas”.  I taste malt, light vanilla, and a very slight apple rolling over from the nose onto the palate.  The mouth has more volume than the nose but it’s still disappointing.  I feel like the base that is holding the flavors up is similar to that of Highland Park (if you were to strip away its flavor components and be down to the bare malt base).  The finish is medium, sweet, and semi-spicy.

Conclusions.
The nose, while delivering those holiday baked treats, was disappointing.  Perhaps it’s that my expectations were too high based on the name, the use of Limousin oak, and the color (given that CB uses no color additives), but everything here is just too faint.  When I first nosed those baking spices, I wanted them at a higher volume; they’re just too quiet.  Jake put it nicely when he said, “It seems flat, like nothing’s standing out.”  Some may call that balanced, but I found it boring.  I was really looking forward to seeing what Limousin oak would do with this blended malt.  The nose was the most interesting part but those Christmas baked treats were, again, too faint.  They would have wowed me with more presence and richness.  This package in its present form is just not enough for me to want more.  Had I $60 to spend on a whisky, this would not be on the list of candidates.  I think it’s worth a sample as the spice character isn’t like any whisky I’ve had before, but I can’t justify purchasing a whole bottle.  If you like lighter whiskies, and enjoy sweet, spiced flavors, you might like this.  It just didn’t have enough overall presence for me.

Review: Compass Box Oak Cross

(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Oak Cross
Blended malt scotch whisky
43% alc/vol
$45 – $50
Overall rating:  Friend

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review process.

Yesterday I posted a review of Compass Box’s (CB’s) Asyla.  As I stated there, it was a part of a CB gift pack with five vials (50mL each) of their standard lineup.  Today I’m reviewing the next whisky, Oak Cross.  After having tasted Asyla first, I was very excited to continue with the lineup, expecting good things.

I’m a little upset with myself that I didn’t take any photos of the gift pack or the whisky itself to post here.  While I appreciate readily available marketing photos, they can sometimes be inaccurate or, at the very least, misleading.  This isn’t always the case, and the CB photos on their website (that I am using here) seem accurate enough.  But there’s something nice about posting real photos of real whisky rather than relying on the brushed up commercial versions.  So for my oversight, I apologize.

As I said on my review of Asyla, I really appreciate the transparency of CB.  The leaflet that came with the gift pack has the following information about Oak Cross:

BLENDED MALT SCOTCH WHISKY 43% [alc/vol]
Three Highland single malts form the villages of Alness, Brora and Carron, with partial aging in French oak.

It goes on to break down the composition with the expected results from each component:

WHISKY
A.  60% Highland (North) single malt – fruitiness
B.  20% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  20% Speyside single malt – meatiness

OAK AGING
1.  60% First fill American Oak – vanilla
2.  40% New French oak – clove spice

So here we go.

The eyes.
Oak Cross is a light gold.  It has a clean transparency.  Additional generic phrase describing the liquid.

The nose.
The first thing I detect out of the gate is Jolly Rancher apple.  Jake, my tasting partner through the CB gift pack, described it as sour apple.  It’s very apparent and is assertive enough so as not to let other scents through until some time has passed.  After some time in the glass, I’m finding the nose to be light but not delicate, and it softens as time continues to pass.  There is a floral note (carnation).  I detect ethanol but only in extremely faint and infrequent doses.  There is a light peat behind it all, and some distant malt and fresh oak.

The mouth.
The apple carries over to the palate just as strong as it was in the nose.  There’s a light to medium mouth feel and it’s warm but not hot, and spicy on the tongue.  The oak, staves damp with apple brandy, is stronger in the mouth (not surprising given the name).   I was surprised to get little to no vanilla both on the nose and on the palate given the larger portion of first fill American oak.  That is the reason why I didn’t want to watch the tasting video for Oak Cross before I tasted it myself; I wanted to let the scents and flavors come to me, not seek out what I was told is there.  As with the nose, there is peat here but it’s very faint, almost like unintentional leftovers from the malting process.  The finish is medium length with plenty of that Jolly Rancher apple.

Conclusions.
Where Asyla has a delicate femininity and a complex white wine character, Oak Cross seems less intriguing of a whisky and I found the sour apple covered over a lot of what I had hoped to discover given the first fill American casks and the French oak which is known for its spice notes.  It was not a bad whisky by any means and, in fact, seems well crafted for a blend.  It was just too plain and uninteresting for me especially after the wonder that was Asyla.  And, given that Asyla is a blended scotch but this is a blended malt (meaning no grain whisky, just a blend of single malts) I had expected more from it.  John Glaser (CB’s founder and Whiskymaker) notes in the tasting video that the blended malts that make up Oak Cross are aged in American oak for about ten years.  After that time, about half of the blend is moved to barrels that have American oak staves with French oak heads (which explains why, to me, there is a lack of expected spice).  This is also one of the tastings where I disagreed with Glaser’s assessment of the whisky.  I did notice an overall sweetness, but found no “light clove” or “mocha” notes.

This is worth at least a sample, free if you can but don’t hesitate to spend a few bucks to try it if you get the opportunity (if you really like a light scotch that tastes like Jolly Rancher apples aged in oak).

Review: Compass Box Asyla

Asyla-Box-Bottle(Photo from Compass Box’s website; I hope they don’t mind)

Compass Box Asyla
Blended Scotch Whisky
40% alc/vol
$40 – $50
Overall rating:  Stock

If you haven’t, first read my Intro to help you understand my review system.

Your first review is of a blended scotch?  Not even a single malt?

Sigh.  Yes.  While my tagline says “Bourbon enthusiast,” that’s not where it ends.  I also enjoy scotch, rum, tequila, and brandy.  Really anything distilled and aged.  Let’s be adults and move on to the review, shall we?

Jake is my whiskey buddy.  He and I compliment each other well since he is mostly into scotch and I am mostly into bourbon, but we enjoy experiencing the other as well.  So we help each other out.  Fortunately I’m on the cheaper end of the spectrum so I get to benefit from his more expensive purchases.  Thanks, Jake.

A couple of months ago, Jake bought a Compass Box (CB) gift pack which includes five vials (50 mL each) of their main lineup.  The box (a well crafted, black, hinged wooden box that had me wondering how much of the pack price went toward it) included a leaflet with information on the whisky in each vial.  This week we sat down to sample them together and compare notes.  We went through them in the order they are in the box, as well as the order of the accompanying tasting videos found on CB’s website:  Asyla, Oak Cross, The Spice Tree, The Peat Monster, and Hedonism.  I’ll be reviewing all five, in order, starting here with Asyla.

My initial experience with scotch was with blends.  White Horse, Ballantine’s, Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal 12 year, Johnnie Walker Black and Double Black.  Each of them had a very obvious and distinct ethanol presence (like vodka; that smell and taste of rubbing alcohol).  I tried single malts shortly thereafter and never looked back to blends.  Even after I had heard great things about CB’s Great King Street Artist’s Blend, I still avoided it because of blended scotch’s reputation for being harsh and nearly unpalatable.  But one thing i’ve learned in life is to give second chances.  Whiskies change, and so do I.  So, despite CB being a blending house, I decided to give their expressions a fair chance.

I’m glad I did.

One thing I appreciated about CB immediately was their transparency.  The leaflet included in the box tells me about as much as I’d like to know about what I’m drinking.  As I’m used to some producers of American whiskey using fabricated history (*cough* Diageo *cough*), or distilleries being very hush-hush about what’s in the bottle, this is a wonderful breath of fresh air.  CB doesn’t tell me the exact distillery they source their whisky from, but they get awfully close.  About Asyla, the leaflet says:

BLENDED SCOTCH WHISKY 40% [Alc/vol]
Single malts from the towns of Alness and Longmorn.  Single grain whisky from Fife.  Aged in 100% first-fill American oak.

It then breaks the composition down even further, with the reasoning behind each choice:

WHISKY
A.  50% Lowland (East) single grain – fruitiness
B.  40% Highland single malt – perfumed
C.  10% Speyside single malt – fruitiness

OAK AGING
1.  100% first fill American oak – vanilla

As I mentioned above, there are tasting videos to go with each whisky.  Jake and I didn’t want to taint our own experiences by having someone else tell us what we should be smelling or tasting so we opted to watch the videos after we’d finished with each sample.  I found we agreed with John Glaser (CB’s founder and Whiskymaker) on some things, and disagreed on others (not just on Asyla, but the others as well).  I tend to think that a master distiller, or ‘whiskymaker’, certainly knows more about what they make than I do about what I buy.  So I might be inclined to give Glaser the benefit of the doubt and assume he can sense things I don’t.  But, that doesn’t detract from the fact that there were certain notes I just didn’t pick up.

Alright, let’s get down to it.

The eyes.
Asyla is a very light gold, almost like water with a little apple juice added to it.  It looks clean and crisp.

The nose.
I was immediately enticed by this whisky from the first scents.  It nosed much more like a white wine than it did a scotch.  A Sauvignon Blanc or a dry Riesling.  It is light and delicate.  There is white flesh fruit, like sour apples and a faint peat reminding me that this is, indeed, scotch.  Asyla’s nose opens up with a little time in the glass giving way to more of the fruit, and strengthening the white wine essence.  I detect not even a trace of ethanol.

The mouth.
Medium to heavy body, fairly creamy and velvety.  Soft.  Delicate apple carries over from the nose with the addition of a slight note of vanilla.  There’s a slight floral flavor like first spring flowers on the breeze.  There is faint oak here that I really had to search for.  There’s a sweetness here too, but light and far from cloying.  I found the finish to be medium and warm, certainly longer than I would have expected from the delicacy of flavor.  Perhaps it’s the creamy weight in the mouth that helps.  That sweet white flesh fruit carries itself from the nose to the throat.

Glaser suggested in the tasting video that this is a “Sunday afternoon in the garden” whisky, which I’m inclined to agree with.  For those beautiful late spring afternoons where the air is comfortably warm but still cool enough to want to be in the sun.  He also suggested that this could be enjoyed with ice, water, or club soda.  I found Asyla to be just too delicate and well crafted to want to add anything and chance washing away the clean, crisp structure (especially at the minimum 40% alc/vol).  I let it be and enjoyed it in its natural form.

Conclusions.
This is a beautiful scotch that doesn’t drink like a blend at all.  In fact, if I didn’t know, I would have sworn this is a single malt.  I typically don’t like delicate or lightly flavored whiskies.  I don’t want to work hard to find the scents and flavors.  Delicate whiskies can often mumble quietly to my palate and I’m left wanting to say, “Speak up, please!”  Asyla, while delicate, spoke softly but clearly.  It was a soft voice which, rather than presenting me with an experience, intimately invited me in for one.  In my three years of whiskey drinking, I have only once before called a whiskey “feminine” (Brenne), but here I find myself readily applying that adjective.  Asyla is graceful and elegant.  The white wine character is so intriguing as to draw me back for more.  In fact, the night after I sampled it I lamented at not having any more on hand and was already thinking about buying a bottle.  At its price point, this is a fantastic value.

But Things Change…

Drink:  George Dickel No. 8

I used to be a beer drinker.

My first experience was around age 14.  My dad, enjoying a sample pack with a firend, let me try a sip (I asked).  It took two glasses of Pepsi and a sandwich to get the horrid taste out of my mouth.  Years later, after reaching legal drinking age (I didn’t drink until I was 21, probably in part because of that disgusting first taste), I ordered a beer over my dad’s birthday lunch.  Freshly able to purchase alcohol, and having learned that my palate had changed drastically since my early teens (thanks to my culinarily ecclectic ex-girlfriend), I ordered a Blue Moon.  Mostly for the name, because I didn’t know a thing about beer.  It came in a glass with an orange slice perched atop.  “The hell?” I thought.  But surely this New Orleans styled pub knows what they’re doing.

So, as with all new foods, I leaned in for a smell.  The light spice of the beer was complimented beautifully with the fresh, soft citrus of the orange.  I took a sip, making sure I could smell the orange in the process.  “My gosh!” I thought.  “I get it!”  It was delicious.  The waitress wondered out loud when I would move the slice into the beer, but I was new to this and didn’t want to push past this first understanding too quickly.  I wanted to savor it.  Baby steps.

Years, and many beers and a few brewery tours later, I knew beer.  I can tell you now what I like, what I don’t like, and what I’d altogether like to avoid.

When I was in the phase of beer exploration, I read an article in the NY Times about Irish whiskey leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.  The author made it sound absolutely delicious.  Ever the curious explorer, I stopped in my local go-to liquor store to peruse their Irish whiskey section.  There were several options.  Most I’d never heard of.  In fact, I’d probably only heard of Jameson at that point.  Someone seeing the lost look in my eyes suggested I steer clear of Michael Collins as it was high on celebrity but low on quality.  I ended up purchasing standard Bushmills as it was relatively cheap and obscure (to me).  I took one sip and that bottle is still unfinished.  Gross.  I was pretty sure that whiskey would never be my thing.  But things change.

A few months later the NY Times posted another article on whiskey, this time rye.  It lead me to give whiskey another shot.  A driving factor in my decision was the article’s mention that it was Humphrey Bogart’s drink of choice.  As I adore Bogie, and my mom says we’re distantly related, I wanted to give rye a shot.  Back at the store, I asked an employee if they had any rye whiskeys in stock.  It was Old Overholt or something else I don’t remember.  My wallet being the deciding factor once again, I came home with the Overholt.  That bottle is also still unfinished (though it is less unfinished than the Bushmills).  Gross.  Now I was certain that I would never drink whiskey.  But things change.

After my visit to Louisville, I understood whiskey.  Now it’s a hobby that continuously outgrows its shelf space.

My palate isn’t the only thing that has changed over time.  I have matured.  I understand now that the future, by and large, is uncertain.  I was absolutely certain at age 14 that I would never consume beer again.  Ever.  I was absolutely certain after Bushmills and Old Overholt that I would never consume whiskey again.  Ever.  But things change, and here we are.

Please excuse this awkward transition.  I’ll circle back, I promise.

Wife and I decided together that four was an excellent number of children but we hadn’t decided when to start.  She, being the gracious wife that she is, left the decision to me.

In addition to learning that the future is uncertain, I’ve learned to trust my gut.  I knew that I wanted to marry my beautiful wife nine months into our dating relationship.  I knew that we shouldn’t purchase a house right away.  I knew, when the time did come, that the house we live in now was our new home before I even walked in the door.  The latter was definitely my gut because the amount of updating that the house needed (needs) scared buyers off for a while before we showed up.

Having listened to my gut, all of the aforementioned decisions (and plenty of others), though each came with its challenges, proved right for us.  So, when it came time to choose a ‘when’ for children, I listened to my gut.  Which was scary.

A few years went by after Wife gave the decision to me, and, despite my brain worrying about the passing time and our increasing age, my gut waited quietly.  Despite the future’s uncertainty, I can’t explain why I’m feeling at peace about one thing over another (except to say that it’s divine providence).  But eventually I come to understand why I was led in a particular direction.

About a year and a half into owning our house, we received a very memorable phone call.  It is amazing to me how two minutes into a conversation, your life can alter drastically.  I can’t go into detail but, suffice it to say, an infant member of Wife’s family needed a new home.  We were the prime choice.  Fairly young, semi-newly weds, a house in a great neighborhood in a very family-friendly town.  No children of our own yet to take our attention away from the needs of this helpless infant who was going to need a lot of special attention.

Buttercup has been with us for almost a year now and we’ve all adjusted well to the new rhythm of our family and our home.  I can’t imagine life without her.  Wife and I have grown and learned so much about each other through this process.  A year ago, I’d have never guessed that this is where our family was headed or that Buttercup would be joining us on our voyage through the uncharted and uncertain waters of the future.  But things change and our duo is now a trio.

And so it is with the whiskey world at large.  When the bourbon glut happened during the ’80s and ’90s, because national interest in the drink seemed to disappear, it was uncertain as to whether distilleries would even remain open.  Some didn’t.  But things change and our nation remembered its flagship beverage and interest returned many fold.

I started my hobby when sales were really picking up.  I didn’t know this, of course, because I hadn’t succumbed to marketing charm or my peers’ drinking preferences (after all, the drinks of choice here in Connecticut are vodka or beer).  I had discovered whiskey because I had visited its main source.  I didn’t know about the previous glut or the current shortage; I just knew that I liked whiskey.  I was walking along enjoying my bourbon, exploring the expressions available, and broadening my appreciation.  I had no idea of the changes happening around me.

But now I know.  I know that many of the blogs I read are by authors who experienced the wonderful glut (much great whiskey, aged good and well with the number of years right there on the bottle, and priced beautifully).  I know that sales have gone through the roof and now there’s a shortage (some great whiskey if you know where to look, aged less with the number of years gone from the bottle, and priced rather high).  And now I’m among the bloggers who see the current trends of bottles missing from shelves, age statements missing from bottles, prices reaching absurd levels, and large corporations disregarding the quality of the whiskey for quantity.  And I wonder about the future of this drink.

I’ve bunkered some bottles of my favorites, but when those are gone their replacements have gotten harder to find.  I managed to pack a bottle of W.L. Weller into my suitcase coming home from a trip to California two years ago, and since then I haven’t seen a bottle of it anywhere here at home.  I have half a bottle of Elmer T. Lee left and that’s nowhere to be seen around here either.  If things get bad enough, and prices get high enough, I’ll just have to ration my bunker and try to weather the storm.  I’ll have to trust my gut.

We could enter another glut period when people get fed up with corporate shenanigans and higher prices for lesser whiskey (if we do I’ll be dancing in the aisles as the prices drop and the ages rise).  But then, we could also see scarcity and rising prices continue.  The future of whiskey is hazy at best.

But things change.

 

What You Really Need To Taste

Drink:  Evan Williams 1783

With bourbon, as with any food or drink, before you can even try to commit to a preference or opinion, you try the product.

Children will tell you that they don’t like something just by looking at it.  They don’t like peas because they’re a vegetable.  They don’t like cauliflower because it’s on their plate.  In the whiskey aisle, you can be easily enticed or put off by a bottle alone.  But that’s not fair to the whiskey and it’s certainly no way to judge the liquid inside.  To form a reasonable opinion, you must sample it.  You must taste it.

At times, people in the whiskey world will tell you that tasting is easy, that anyone can do it.  Then they will tell you about the special glassware you can purchase and how it will help bring the scents right to your nose, or something to that effect.  The problem I see with this is that you can’t tell someone that something is easily within their grasp then follow it up with the special equipment they’ll “need” to do it.  I went skiing once and absolutely loved it.  To ski, however, there really is set equipment that you need.  Ski boots and skis come to mind.  You’ll not make an easy time of the slope on a pair of sneakers.  With whiskey tasting, you don’t need special equipment at all.  In fact, you probably have all the equipment you need already.

What you don’t need:
1.  A special, fancy, and/or expensive glass.
2.  An expensive whiskey
3.  A vast background in food and beverages
4.  A large vocabulary
5.  A 100 point rating system

What you do need:
1.  A whiskey
2.  A glass
3.  Eyes (optional)
4.  A nose
5.  A mouth

That’s it.

1.  The Whiskey:

There are plenty of options in most liquor stores.  As I live in suburban Connecticut, my options may be more varied and convenient than yours.  But somewhere relatively close to you, surely there is a liquor store that carries at least one whiskey.  If you’ve never done a tasting before, or consumed whiskey at all, it doesn’t have to be anything special.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming that cost directly correlates to quality.  It doesn’t.  Anything under $20 will do fine.  Even a nip will do and those typically go for only a couple of bucks and have the bonus of being the cheapest way to sample a product you’re interested in (except for a friend who’s willing to give you some of theirs for free).  You can even find a bar, or a restaurant with one, and try something there.

When trying to decide where to start, don’t make the mistake of asking someone, “What’s a good bourbon?”  The answer to that is wholly subjective.  A better question might be, “What’s a good bourbon to start with, and what should I expect from it?”  I might tell you, “Evan Williams 1783 might be a good place to start.  Around here it’s a mere $17, it’s fairly smooth, has a good depth of flavor, a noticeable oak influence, and while it isn’t ‘sweet’, it falls on the sweeter side of the bourbon flavor wheel.”  We’ll get more into that later.

2.  The Glass:

Many times in pictures, in reviews on blogs or on Youtube, you’ll see or hear about the special glass being used for the tasting.  Typically it’s a Glencairn glass, but it can be other types as well.  Even a standard wine glass.

I have a set of six Glencairn glasses that I purchased two years ago for when Jake, the only friend I have who really likes whiskey, and I do tastings.  As our journeys have begun to take different directions, he and I view the whiskey world differently.  Jake is more into Scotch and likes to try and be wowed by special releases, one-offs and rare spirits (and their price tags).  I tend to try and be wowed by the time-tested, bottom shelf, solidly produced products that sit quietly unassuming, waiting to be discovered by those in the know.  I have become very aware of marketing and just how much I succumbed to its song and dance, charming bills right out of my wallet and into someone else’s hands.  Like peoples’ houses you visit who have a few (or a lot) of those As Seen On TV products lying around collecting dust.  Borne of a weak moment in front of late night TV, they are now just a reminder of marketing’s siren song.  When I behold my Glencairn glasses now, occupying valuable cabinet space, that is how I feel.  It was a fledgling moment.  Fresh into the whiskey scene, I wanted to do it right.  All the big names used Glencairns in their tastings, so I had to do the same.

But after two years I’ve learned a lot about my relationship with bourbon.  I found that my nose gets claustrophobic in a Glencairn, and numbs quickly.  It’s almost like all of the smells are bottlenecked into a tight exit and, as they’re moving past, it becomes difficult for me to sort them out.  What helps me is a wider rimmed glass, like an Old Fashioned Glass, with enough surface area for the whiskey to spread out and gently drift its smell upward.  to that end I have a Jameson glass that I bought really cheap (that link is only to show you the glass; I paid like $1 at a liquor store when it was on sale).  I actually had the glass long before I got into whiskey, and it was convenient as I already had it on hand.  So it’s what I used and I found that, over time, I preferred it to the Glencairn.

Now don’t hear me saying that a Glencairn is bad, because it isn’t.  It’s just not my preference, which is what I’m getting at.  For now, if you’re going to start sampling whiskey, just use what you have at home.  Don’t buy something special just to taste whiskey in.  I found too that, even if I tasted a bourbon in my Glencairn, when I sat down to just have a glass I’d use the Jameson lowball.  So use what you’ll be drinking out of.  It’s ok.  It’s also convenient and cheaper.

Maybe this is because I’m a blue collar worker with one child in the house and another on the way and no second income.  On the rare occasions I get to try something new, I don’t have the time, finances, or inclination to grab for the fancy glass.  I just want what I have and what I like because that’s all the energy I have at the end of the day.  But even if I were a bachelor millionaire with ample time on my hands, my advice would still be the same:  Use what you have, and what you like.  Don’t get fancy.

3.  Eyes (optional):

While this isn’t an incredibly important part of tasting, it’s one of my favorites.  I enjoy looking at the color of the whiskey.  Bourbon, while it looks brown on the shelf, shows orange when held up to the light.  Like amber or burnt sienna.  One of my favorite scotches, Macallan 12 year, is pink.  It’s 18 year old brother is nearly purple.  If you want to get really fancy, you can swirl the whiskey in your glass and watch the legs (those streaks running back down into the liquid after you let it settle).  I tend not to because it enhances my tasting experience in no way.  It’s supposed to tell you about the sugars (not table sugar, but the natural sugars) contained within (the thicker the legs, the more sugars are present).  But they all look relatively similar to me, and they don’t tell me what the whiskey will smell or taste like, so I usually skip it.  You decide for yourself.

Oh, and while we’re at it, sometimes you’ll find reviewers who will include the bottle in their rating system.  I find this practice to be silly.  The bottle has no bearing on my experience of the whiskey in my glass and I therefore ignore it.  Some bottles I enjoy, others I find very ordinary.  Some I even find odd.  Corks and screw caps have their benefits and drawbacks.  But in the end, none of it matters.

4.  The Nose:

The nose, to me, is the most important part of a whiskey tasting.  In fact, it’s often the most rewarding aspect and far exceeds the taste.  If you’ve never smelled a whiskey before, take it slow and don’t get too close.  You’ll anesthetize your nose (meaning all you’ll be able to smell is what my wife describes as ‘rubbing alcohol’).  Start from at least eight inches away, slowly approach the glass while breathing through your nose and stop when you start to smell the whiskey.  You don’t want to flood your olfactory and overwhelm yourself.  I find slow, steady breathing through my nose, with the glass three to four inches from my nose, tilted so that the opening points toward my nose and mouth, helps to stir the air inside the glass and raise the scents up to me.  You may do this any way you want, but the end goal is to smell the nuances of the whiskey.

When you’re nosing a whiskey, you’re not looking for scents and flavors that are actually in the liquid.  When you read a review and the author says things like, “vanilla, maple syrup, baking spices,” I can assure you that, as the definition of bourbon disallows it, those flavors are not actually there.  The distillery did not pour in vanilla, maple syrup, and a dash or two of nutmeg and cinnamon.  What you’re smelling are the nuances imparted by the distillation and aging process.  The grain (corn, wheat, rye) and the barrel (charred American White Oak).  Corn and wheat tend to impart a sweetness where the rye imparts a spiciness and sourness.  Wheat can leave maple syrup, rye can leave briny pickle juice and mint.  The oak influence can leave a woody smell, along with some sweet notes of its own like vanilla and toffee.

There is no wrong ‘answer’ when smelling a whiskey.  It’s what the scents remind you of.  When smelling Rock Hill Farms and Jim Beam Black, I detect a large amount of cherry.  Jefferson’s Straight Rye smells like pickle juice and mint, with a sweet wood base.  Some bourbons leave a large impression of marzipan.  I’ll never forget the only glass of Elijah Craig 18 I was able to have (it’s no longer in production) had a note of honeydew mellon.  Again, none of these are actually there.  It’s just what the smell of the ingredients, distillation, and barrel aging have imparted.  So take your time, and see what you can find.

5.  The Mouth:

Here, the goal is much the same as the smell only, instead of using your nose, you’re using your mouth and ultimately your tongue.  You’ll be looking for flavors.  I find that this portion of the tasting is less enjoyable than the nose.  Some bourbons I can smell for hours and be completely content to never take a sip.  But inevitably, it should be tasted and consumed.  The best way I can describe drinking whiskey if it’s your first time is this:  The first sip sucks.  The second can be worse.  The third is wonderful (unless you’re drinking a terrible whiskey; then it never gets better).  The first sip is typically a primer for your palette, getting it ready for the strong liquid.  Once you’re used to it, typically by the third sip, you’ll start to taste the flavors.  Sometimes, before the flavors become apparent, there is a vague sense of sweet, spicy, sour, and/or dry.  Again, it’s not what’s actually there (though sometimes it is; rye really is sour), it’s the impressions left.  You may not be able to identify or describe everything.  For example, there are some bourbons I drink that have what I call a “grassy” component.  Especially if I drink them outside (I don’t know why).  I just learned today what it is.  Another blogger, reviewing a bourbon, mentioned a flavor they find, typically in younger bourbons, that they describe as corn husks on a hot, summer day.  That is exactly what I taste.  Sort of.  It’s one of those “this tastes like something smells” things.  It tastes like corn husks smell.  Smell and taste are closely linked after all.  

Take your time between sips (though not too much or every sip will be like the first).  Some people like to ‘chew‘ on their bourbon, and I do find that this helps sometimes to discover flavors I would not have otherwise noticed.  I found out about chewing by accident when I reflexively did it while tasting a rum at a liquor store (though much slower than Fred Noe), then saw a video like that one.  As with the nose, there are no wrong answers here (unless you say something like, “I taste the hull of the shuttle Endeavor,” unless you have licked the Endeavor’s hull and what you’re drinking does actually taste like it, then fine).

Don’t worry about being fancy, or comparing your drink to a million things.  Whatever you find is fine.  The ultimate goal in all of this is to enjoy the experience, and to enjoy the whiskey.

There is one factor here that can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted.  Some whiskeys draw you in for another glass.  They sit on your shelf and, when you find yourself in the mood, are just so easy to choose.  Lately for me it’s been anything with Evan Williams on it.  The standard black label, the 1783 “small batch”, the single barrel expression.  I don’t know what it is, I really can’t quantify it.  I find myself standing in front of my basement liquor shelves, ready to pour myself a glass, and there are select whiskeys that are just so easy to grab over the others.  It’s not that they smell or taste better, though some certainly do.  It’s just that…well…I don’t know, I just really enjoy sipping on them.  They just draw me in for more.  I suppose, if I do any future ratings, I’ll call that aspect “the draw”.  Does this bourbon have the draw?

So, as you sample and taste the various whiskeys available, take your time.  Enjoy it.  Don’t rush or you’ll miss a lot.  And if a whiskey has the draw for you, enjoy it all the more.

One more thing while we’re at it.  When you’re figuring out what you might like to try next, don’t look at ratings.  If a whiskey has a ?/100 rating, ignore it.  Find reviewers who take the time to describe what they’re smelling and tasting and see if it falls in line with the type of whiskeys you’re finding you enjoy.  I tend not to like high rye content bourbons, so if I find a reviewer describing “baking spices” a lot, I’ll usually skip it.  If, however, I’m hearing a lot of “vanilla, maple syrup, toffee,” and things like that, I’ll give it a try.  If you don’t like red wine, 98 points tacked onto a bottle won’t matter.  You probably still won’t like it.  Points are useless.  Tasting notes are much more helpful.  And do your homework.  Don’t buy into marketing hype and spend lots of money on whiskey.  If you see a bottle you are interested in, research it.  If it’s not there when you get back, don’t worry, there are plenty of other delicious options available.