Monday, July 6, 2015

Stop Fetishizing Whiskey!


I spend a fair amount of time criticizing whiskey producers for some of their practices that hurt the whiskey world, but we consumers sometimes deserve some criticism as well. One problem that has become particularly acute within the last few years is the fetishization or even idolization of certain whiskeys. People become so enmeshed in the crazy whiskey world, especially the secondary market, that they forget that whiskey is simply a beverage.  When it becomes more than a beverage, it hurts those of us who just want to enjoy a drink.

Whiskey fans are paying too much for whiskey, and I'm not talking about rare, older bottles that might justify ridiculous prices. There are people who are literally paying thousands of dollars, sometimes many thousands, for bottles that were on the shelf for less than $100 ten years ago.  Others are willing to pay 200% mark ups on current releases that they can't find. If you are doing this, please stop. It's bad for you, and it's bad for whiskey.

Here's the problem with spending this amount of money on a beverage. First, it makes it less likely that you will ever drink the whiskey. If you start to spend big money, you inevitably start to think about monetary value, and the resale value of an opened bottle of whiskey is exactly zero. This means that you are more likely to hold onto it without ever drinking it. So congratulations, you are the owner of a beverage that you will never drink. How grand!

Now, some folks are simply speculating on the whiskey market and hoping to turn a profit. Some of them will, but at that point, it's not really whiskey anymore in any real sense. It's just a nameless, fungible commodity.  It might as well be soy beans, cattle futures, beanie babies or whatever.  The transition of whiskey from a beverage to an investment commodity is something that has hurt what once was a hobby about enjoying beverages. What's good for speculators is almost always bad for actual whiskey drinkers.

Second, even if you plan to drink the whiskey as soon as you get it, it is still a mistake to spend thousands of dollars on a bottle. Simply put, no whiskey is that good, and you will very likely be disappointed. Most of the sexy bottles (Pappy, A.H. Hirsch, Port Ellen, Brora) are quite good, but they aren't thousands of dollars good. I suppose if you're a tycoon and a few thousand dollars here and there is nothing to you, you won't be disappointed, but for the rest of us, spending a mortgage payment's worth of dough on a whiskey is almost always a bad idea.

But wait, if people are paying this much for whiskeys, they must be that good, right?  The market has spoken!  The problem is that whiskey idolization combined with the secondary market has created a vicious circle of fetishization. When you pay big money for whiskey, there is no advantage to admitting that it wasn't worth it. For one thing, you feel like an idiot, and for another, widespread criticism could reduce the value of the whiskey for future sales (since, as noted above, you are unlikely to actually drink it), so criticizing a whiskey you overpaid for is a lose/lose situation.  

So this is my plea to everyone to stop.  Stop spending thousands of dollars on bottles of whiskey. It's not worth it, and it's bad for whiskey!


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Whiskey Law: Distilled from Mash


Under the United States federal regulations defining classes of spirits, bourbon, rye whiskey, malt whiskey and wheat whiskey must be stored in charred new oak containers.  But what happens if you make what would be a bourbon or a rye and store it in used barrels?  Then it becomes a different type of whiskey, known as a "whiskey distilled from bourbon (or rye, or wheat or malt) mash."

Under the TTB regulations, whiskey distilled from bourbon (or rye, or wheat or malt) mash is defined as "whisky produced in the United States at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn, rye, wheat, malted barley, or malted rye grain, respectively, and stored in used oak containers; and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type." 27 CFR § 5.22(b)(2).

Sounds simple enough: if you age it in new, charred barrels, it's bourbon; if you age it in used barrels, it's whiskey distilled from a bourbon mash. However, there is one additional complication: corn whiskey. Corn whiskey is a whiskey made from a mash of at least 80% corn that is unaged or aged in used or uncharred barrels, so a bourbon mash that is 80% corn and aged in used barrels would potentially qualify as both corn whiskey and whiskey distilled from bourbon mash. The regulations address this by stating that "Whisky conforming to the standard of identity for corn whisky must be designated corn whisky." 27 CFR § 5.22(b)(2).

To summarize, a whiskey composed of at least 51% rye, wheat or malt whiskey aged in used barrels is a "whiskey distilled from (rye, wheat or malt) mash." A whiskey composed of at least 51% but less than 80% corn and aged in used barrels is a "whiskey distilled from bourbon mash," and a whiskey composed of at least 80% corn and aged in used barrels is a corn whiskey.

Got it?


Monday, June 29, 2015

Blog of the Month: Whisky Israel


This month's Blog of the Month is Gal Granov's Whisky Israel.  Since late 2009, Whisky Israel has been consistently posting several reviews per week, mostly of single malt Scotch but occasionally of other whiskeys or other spirits.  Granov's reviews are thoughtful and succinct and his scores are uninflated.  He's been blogging for long enough now that Whisky Israel has quite the library of reviews, including 27 BenRiach reviews, 31 Ardbeg reviews and many more.

Check it out!


Friday, June 26, 2015

New Whiskey Labels from India and Ireland


This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

I don't believe we have previously seen whiskeys from Indian distiller Paul John in the US, but this week, labels cleared for Paul John Classic, Edited, Peated and Brilliance.

Irish bottler West Cork Distillers cleared a label for The Pogues, billed as "the official Irish Whiskey of the legendary band."

Speaking of Irish Whiskey, someone must have decided there were not enough Irish Whiskeys using tired stereotypes on their labels. Thankfully, there seems to be an effort to remedy this situation with new labels like Drunken Sailor and Flaming Leprechaun.

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Old Standbys: Highland Park 18


Sometimes it's good to go back to basics.  Highland Park 18 year old has long been a staple of single malt lovers everywhere.  It was one of the whiskeys I tried early on that really turned me on to Scotch, but like many of those old favorites, I haven't tried it in quite a while, passing it up instead for flashy new releases.  The price of this one has gone up over the years making it less of a staple and more of a splurge.  Nonetheless, I thought it was time to try a current edition of the old standby.

Highland Park 18 yo, 43% abv ($130)

The nose brings me back to all those nights with Highland Park.  It's got well balanced malt and peat with some fruity notes in the background.  The palate is grassy with just a touch of peat and maybe a bit of sulfur.  The finish is salty with some very light sherry on the nose.

Is this everything it once was?  It's hard to say as I didn't have the opportunity to do a side by side with an earlier batch.  It doesn't have quite as much complexity of mouthfeel as I remember, but even if it's not everything it once was (and hardly anything is), it's still a good, balanced malt.  It has elements of peat, sherry and bourbon cask malt with none being overly dominant.  I'm glad to see it's still such a reliable, drinkable malt, and I'd still recommend it without hesitation.


Monday, June 22, 2015

NAS vs. Aged Scotch


On Dramming.com, whisky blogger Oliver Klimek ran a blind tasting comparing entry level aged and non age statement (NAS) Scotch from the same distilleries.  It was an interesting experiment that essentially ended in a draw.  I participated in the tasting and thought I would share my own results.

I was part of tasting group A.  I was given five pairs of samples to compare that were labeled only with a code.  The only thing I knew about them was that each pair included one NAS and one age statement whisky from the same distillery.  We were asked to indicate which one we liked best.  I did so but elaborated on how much better I thought each one was.  Here is how I compared each whisky in my sample set along with the results for the group as a whole:


Sample 1: Glen Moray 12 vs. Glen Moray Port Cask Finish

I thought these were fairly comparable but had a slight preference for the age statement, though I actually thought it tasted younger.  Also, I tend not to like port finishes, so this may have impacted my preference more than age.  The age statement won this one for the group as a whole, but only by one vote.

Sample 2: Dalmore 12 vs. Dalmour Valour

On this one, I preferred the NAS Valour. I felt the 12 year old was bland and the Valour was richer with a drier finish.  This one was a draw for the group as a whole.

Sample 3: Glenlivet 12 vs. Glenlivet Founder's Reserve

I had a very strong preference for the 12 year old over the NAS Founder's Reserve, which I found raw and new makey.  It was probably the one I liked least of the entire tasting. The group as a whole also preferred the 12 year old by 8 votes.

Sample 4: Cardhu 12 yo vs. Cardhu Amber Rock

On this one, I had a slight preference for the NAS, which I found bolder and more complex than the 12 year old. The group as a whole also preferred the NAS by 6 votes.

Sample 5: Macallan 10 yo Fine Oak vs. Gold

I had a strong preference for the 10 year old which had a spicy/fruity nose, an earthy palate and a peppery finish. The Gold had a decent nose but the palate was overly perfumy and floral; it just didn't come together well.  The group as a whole, though, preferred the NAS.


So over these five samples, I preferred the age statement in three cases and the NAS in two. However, I should also note that in both cases in which I had a very strong preference between the two samples, it was for the age statement expression.  In the cases where I preferred the NAS, it was a much closer call.  To my mind, this demonstrates that while it is possible for distilleries to make NAS that is as good as their entry level age statement whiskies, it's not easy to do.

This was a fun and educational tasting. Many thanks to Oliver for putting it together.


Friday, June 19, 2015

New Whiskey Labels: Bowmore, High West, Wasabi (?!?) and More


This week's most interesting new labels from the federal TTB database:

Bowmore cleared labels for the third edition of their Devil's Casks, a blend of Oloroso and PX sherry aged whiskies and for a Mizunara cask finish.

High West issued a new label for Yippee Ki-Yay, a wine cask finished version of their Double Rye. The back label has some great copy on it too.

St. George Spirits cleared a label for a Kentucky bourbon bottled for K&L's Faultline label.  It is NAS and the distillery or distilleries are not disclosed, but maybe one of the Daves will let us know some details in the comments.

I'm not a big fan of corn whiskey, but I do love these cool, retro labels for Cobb County Corn Whiskey and Georgia Mountain Dew from the folks at R.M. Spirits in Georgia.

There have been a lot of whiskey related lawsuits lately, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before we saw a label for a truly Litigious Whiskey.

And what's the newest label from Sazerac, makers of George T. Stagg, E.H. Taylor and Blanton's? It's Sabi, a wasabi flavored spirit whiskey.  Well, at least they didn't resort to silly cliches.  Oh, wait, the label has a dragon and a samurai on it and is said to be "like a smooth ninja kick to the face."

Note:  The fact that a label appears on the TTB database does not necessarily mean it will be produced.  In addition, some details on the label, such as proof, can change in the final product.