One of the best things about being a whiskey fan these days [using just the one spelling for consistency] is the sheer variety available to us at all times. There are several major categories to choose from. Within those styles are regional differences and within those regions are even more varying flavor profiles based on the grains, casks, and aging process used at each distillery. Simply put: there’s something for everyone out there. If you’re anything like me, though, you probably aren’t satisfied sticking to one or two brands. Depending on my mood, the company I’m with, and the occasion, I jump around from Scotch to bourbon to Irish whiskey and everything in between. Some nights are bottom shelf pours while others are full of old and rare bottles. I’ve brought many friends and family into the whiskey fold over the years and have had the pleasure of educating countless others about this incredible spirit. Reflecting back on my time as a whiskey enthusiast has brought about a few common themes that can apply to anyone, no matter where you are on your whiskey journey.
1. Limited editions aren’t all that limited.
I know this is a tough pill to swallow for many of us, but that certain limited bottle you’re seeking out is just one release in a long line of “special editions” that seem to come out in an endless stream throughout the course of the year. During the 2010s, I observed a clear shift in the whiskey market that brought in more collectors and fewer casual drinkers. Many of these collectors have a “gotta catch ’em all” mindset and seek out brand verticals or entire limited ranges for the sake of completeness. Others are less interested in complete sets and more interested in getting their hands on whatever they can find. Either way, the demand for these limited edition bottlings has never been higher.
What criteria determines whether a bottle is “limited” or not? If you trust the labels and marketing for most brands, everything is extremely limited and insanely rare. Let’s look at the Macallan Editions series as an example. Each Editions bottling came out just once a year but the bottle count numbers were hardly limited, despite what the label says. Every release in the series was made up of hundreds of thousands of bottles so if you look at that closed bottle of Edition No. 4 on your shelf and associate it with scarcity, think again. If we’re to define rarity solely based on the physical amount of liquid yielded, that honor belongs to single cask bottlings that come from one barrel and can’t be reproduced again.
In the case of releases that come out like clockwork every year, missing out on any one single bottle isn’t the end of the world. It’s so easy to get swept up in the flurry of activity associated with “bourbon release season” at the end of each year and social media has made it ten times worse. I absolutely love William Larue Weller but haven’t found a bottle of it for a remotely reasonable price in a few years so I’d rather wait it out. Before we know it, 2021’s release will be here right on schedule. The latest and greatest is always right around the corner so don’t sweat missing out on one bottle that doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things.
I know that won’t stop you from hunting. It certainly doesn’t stop me.
2. Never judge a whiskey by a single pour
There are a lot of factors that go into how a whiskey tastes. Some of it makes sense. A pour might taste if bit “off” if you’re feeling under the weather, if your allergies are flaring up, or if you ate a bunch of spicy food for dinner. Sometimes, though, there are factors that can have a legitimate impact on how a whiskey drinks such as your mood, the season, and a ton of other intangibles that play a role in the overall tasting experience. I’ve had plenty of occasions over the years where I’ve tried a whiskey I know I like and it fell completely flat only to absolutely love it again a week or two later. I’ve also experienced a phenomenon where I really like a whiskey out at a restaurant or bar with friends. I track down and try that same pour at home and find the it’s just not the same. It’s pretty amazing how much the setting matters. When I try a new release for a review, I always try it twice and often a third time to truly assess it fully. Sometimes I’m by myself. Other times, I’m in the company of others while working on my review. I try hard to give a whiskey multiple opportunities to give it the full review experience.
Sometimes, though, you only have access to a limited drinking experience such as a single pour while you’re at an out of town bar. In that case, hope that your palate is in tune with the whiskey you selected. Some of my most unique whisky experiences were “once in a lifetime” opportunities and I always seemed to love those whiskies. This brings me to my third truth.
3. Your tastes are dynamic and easily influenced.
As much as I want to say that my palate is completely objective, I know that it isn’t. In fact, it’s pretty amazing how easily one can be influenced before taking that very first sip. I’ve had plenty of experiences where I was with a group of friends and one of us pulls out a bottle that we all “NEED” to try. From that moment forward, the expectation has already been set that what we’re about to drink is going to be incredible. It’s equivalent to times where I’ve introduced a newcomer to a 30 year old single malt or a Van Winkle product. Our perception of something that we know has high monetary value almost always translates to an enhanced drinking experience.
If you want the whole truth about a whiskey, you must drink it blind.
Our minds are really good at influencing our perception of what we’re drinking. Take the classic example of a group of wine critics drinking a glass of $100 wine next to a glass of $10 wine. They couldn’t stop talking about the complexity, aromas, and taste of the expensive wine compared to the cheaper glass only to later learn that it was the same wine in both glasses. I’ve also read about a wine tasting where a red and white wine were served side by side. The tasting notes were completely different between the two glasses but as it turned out, it was the same wine in both glasses with food coloring added to one of them.
Knowingly drinking a 30 year old single malt or a bottle valued at $10,000 will elevate the experience in your mind no matter how hard you try not to let it influence you. I drank a mystery single malt scotch blind and gave it a respectable 89/100 score only to later find that it was a Glenfarclas Family Cask distilled in 1958. I’m sure that 89 would have easily been a 95 if I knew what it was ahead of time. Close friends and family who I see regularly often get the “hey, try this” experience from me where I’ll hand them a glass of whiskey with no details about what it is. It’s only after my guests give their thoughts before I reveal whether it’s an affordable and easily available bottle or a super limited release. Some of those highly sought after bottles don’t get great remarks from my friends when they’re trying it blind with no context to alter their initial perceptions.
4. There is no right or wrong way to drink your whiskey.
Ice or no ice? A splash of water, a single drop, or neat? Rocks glass, Glencairn, coffee mug, or Solo cup? Cocktail, mixed with Coke Zero, or straight?
There is absolutely no right or wrong way to drink your whiskey and you shouldn’t let anyone convince you otherwise. It’s your pour and you should enjoy it the way you like it best, especially if you paid for it. Are there benefits to certain options over others? It depends on the type of experience you want. If you’re at the beach or a backyard barbecue in the heart of summer, the nuances of glass style and shape doesn’t seem as important anymore and maybe a large rock makes sense over a neat pour. Are you having one or two friends over specifically to try some bottles in your collection? At that point, maybe it makes more sense to drink neat out of Glencairn glasses since the focus is on tasting itself and less on other factors. Even beyond the setting or experience is individual taste. One of my oldest friends and I see each other quite often and no matter what type of whiskey we’re drinking, I know that he prefers ice in his glass so that’s exactly what he gets when the brown spirits come out.
You know your own preferences. Trust them.
5. Sharing your whiskey experience makes the best memories.
I’ve had a lot of “big” whiskey related experiences over the years. I’ve tried a lot of really old stuff. I’ve tried a lot of “you’ll never see this again” stuff. I’ve tried whisky from bottles that are valued higher than most cars. What do I remember most about those pours? I remember the moment in time. The people. The location. The sounds. I remember the feel of the room. Tasting notes fade. Trust me on that. I’ve tried to remember specific notes from some of the rarest pours I’ve ever had. Flavors fade but that’s not what’s important when telling the story.
For example, the Old Crow Chessmen series is universally regarded as some of the finest bourbon of all time. When I tell the story of tasting it at Bourbon and Time 2019, I don’t talk about the spiciness or the oak influence or the mouthfeel. I talk about the fact that a bunch of like-minded enthusiasts from around the country converged in Kentucky to tried this legendary bourbon in a literal construction zone. I remember the people. I remember the genuine excitement on everyone’s face. I’m remember the pure energy in the room.
I tried a lot of Scotch whisky when I last visited Scotland. I tried samples straight from the barrel. I tried extremely limited edition Glenfiddichs, Balvenies, and a score of other distilleries during my visit. What do I remember the most about that whisky-driven week? The feel of being in the heart of Speyside. The extremely crisp October air. The absolutely heavenly smell of being inside Warehouse 24. The conversations I had with people from all walk of life from distillery managers to the local pub staff to TED fellows and North Pole explorers. I remember friendships made that stand to this day. I remember eating two dinners without the use of conventional utensils (here’s the full story behind that).
Whiskey brings people together. It has been a part of countless celebrations, holidays, memorials, tasting events, and casual gatherings during the course of my life and I can say one thing with 100% confidence. None of those occasions would have been the same without friends and family to share the experience with me. To those of you that have been a part of this whiskey journey with me so far, I sincerely thank you and I look forward to many drams ahead! Cheers!