Monday, February 27, 2012

Longitudinal Tasting: Wild Turkey 101

I'm told that a poor quality camera phone shot of your own bottle adds a certain whatsit to a blog post that an in-focus image borrowed from the distillery website lacks.

Well, we'll just see about that.

Here's a shot of my Wild Turkey 101 bottle, my ficus plant, and my cat:

The plant is there to play up the "wild" angle of the bourbon, and the cat is there because he wanted to see what a bottle was doing in the ficus pot.

I have performed a longitudinal tasting of Wild Turkey 101 proof Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey -- meaning I took notes on it multiple times.(You can't really do a vertical tasting of a single whiskey.) Here's the summary:

Nose: Sweet corn, a bit of vanilla and baking spices, maybe some resin. A little cherry and dried apple. After it's been in the glass for a bit, there's a medicinal, Scotch-like note, with more char, oak, and tobacco.

Palate: A pleasant, robust flavor, astringent and warm. Corn that's not too sweet, a bit of oak, medium body. After it's been in the glass for twenty minutes, a big mouthful of vanilla.

Finish: Peppery, rye, drying finish. Bit of a burn.

A little water sweetens the nose with something like a new make fruitiness, and brings out some saltiness. The finish is a little smoother, too. On the whole, though, it's a bit flat with the water, and I prefer it at bottle strength.

Wild Turkey 101 is an excellent choice for, say, warming up after an afternoon walk in early spring, or for your flask at the Old Ivy vs. Northern State football game.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Let the record show

At So Many Whiskies, Simon Seaton writes about the effect of location on enjoyment of whiskey:
Drinking a peated Islay scotch in Texas sometimes just doesn't work.... especially between May and October. This is one of the reasons it is so difficult to choose a "favorite" whisky. When I hear people talk about great whiskies, many times it accompanied by a story around the first time they tried it or how they discovered the distillery. This emotion all goes into the tasting experience and it is why two people can have entirely different opinions about the same whisky.
This is well said, and it brings to mind an idea I've had about how whiskey tastings are recorded.

I've seen a number of different forms to record whiskey tasting notes. Some are very simple, with space to write down your thoughts on color, nose, palate, and finish. Others are more elaborate, letting you mark on a scale of 1 to 10 how much smoke, citrus, honey, pepper, and so forth you detect. (Here's a pretty good blank one. McClelland's uses a "tasting wheel" to show how its blends differ.)

Let me offer the following tasting notes forms, which you may feel free to print and use as you like. These forms are not so much about the sense data collected while carefully and thoughtfully tasting a whiskey, as about deriving from that sense data a thought of where and when you'd like to be when you find that whiskey in your glass (or mug, or flask) again.

The first is a simple and obvious one, which already shows up one way or another in a lot of whiskey reviews. There's also a plot for recording what role the whiskey might play in your day. Then there's the question of how you might feel when you might feel like drinking the whiskey. And heck, even what you see yourself sitting on can say a lot about a whiskey.





That a whiskey is well suited for a porch swing in the fall can be as important to know as that it has a medium finish heavy on stone fruits.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Drink Yourself Fit!

While reading a health magazine in a doctor's office recently, I came across this tip in a list of 100 ways to lose weight without going to the gym:
If you go out for drinks with friends, try standing at the bar instead of sitting at a table.
Far be it from me to criticize something written on deadline, much less something that recommends drinking in a bar as part of a weight loss program.

In fact, reading that tip gave me the idea of building a complete exercise program around whiskey. Here are my Top Ten Tips:
  1. Always drink from good, sturdy glassware. They give you more of a workout than the lightweight, flimsy stuff.
  2. Order cocktails on the rocks rather than straight up. The ice will cool down the drink, causing you to burn calories to warm it up to your internal body temperature. (If you don't want to water down your drink, hold the ice. Literally. An ice cube in your non-drinking hand will also burn calories. It may burn your skin with frostbite, too, so don't hold it for too long.)
  3. Even better, use Whiskey Disks -- or whichever brand of whiskey stones you prefer -- to cool down your drink. You'll burn calories both warming the drink and lifting the weighted glass to your mouth.
  4. Between sips, set down your glass and lean back in your chair. Tighten your abs when you lean forward to pick up your glass for the next sip.
  5. Put the cork back in the bottle after each dram you pour.
  6. Alternate the arm you use to open bottles.
  7. You can fit in some biceps curls while waiting in line at the liquor store. Buy two bottles, and tone your arms in half the time!
  8. When admiring the color of your single malt whiskey, raise the glass to the light five times with each arm.
  9. Strut vigorously around in a circle between each shot.
  10. Selecting some Scotch in a plastic bottle for your in-laws' visit? Add some deep knee bends!
And need I dwell on all the money and time you'll save on gym memberships and changing into workout clothes?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revisiting a classic

I started drinking Scotch and soda when I started going to bars. I didn't much care for the taste, but I suppose I liked the sophistication of it, at least as compared to the Seven & Sevens and Long Island Iced Teas the people I started going to bars with were ordering.

That phase didn't last long, and I soon settled into Scotch on the rocks and Manhattans as my cocktails of choice.

A few decades later, I watched Ralfy's Whisky Review #264 Part 2, in which he offers three suggestions for drinking good blended whiskey:
  1. If it's a whiskey that needs time to open up, leaving a quarter of your dram in the glass when you pour another will help the second dram open up much faster.
  2. Adding a drop or two of good single malt whiskey to a dram of blended whiskey can help extend the experience of the (expensive) single malt.
  3. Adding muddled savory herbs and tonic water to whiskey makes a fine long drink.
The thinking behind #3 is that Coke overpowers the whiskey, plain soda water washes it out, but tonic water's sweetness pairs nicely with the whiskey's sourness.

Well, I have never cared for tonic water. But Ralfy's passing mention of using fennel in a whiskey and tonic brought to mind my recently-purchased bottle of Peychaud's Bitters, with its very pronounced anise flavor.

Just maybe, I thought, a few strong dashes of Peychaud's would make a Scotch and soda I would like to drink.

And, um, no. It still tastes like last night's Scotch on the rocks to me.

Now, I do like whiskey highballs made with soda water, but for me they need the one part sour/two parts sweet to go along with the three parts strong/four parts weak. Experimenting is a big part of the fun (like the bourbon buck I made the other night with key lime marmalade), and I will definitely try some non-mint herbs in the future.

But I think I made the right decision, way back when, to stop ordering Scotch and soda.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Good Whiskey Imperative

You've heard it before: Drink responsibly.

It's good advice, and not just in the narrow, PSA sense of "don't drive drunk." We are responsible for the consequences of our actions, and what and how we drink has consequences even if we never drive.

For example, one consequence of habitually choosing to drink lousy whiskey is becoming the sort of person who drinks lousy whiskey.

Now, whether there's ever a time or a place to drink lousy whiskey is a question for another post. Here I'll just assert as self-evident that the vast majority of times and places are not for drinking lousy whiskey. A night out with friends, a night in with friends, a drink with dinner: these are not for drinking lousy whiskey.

That may sound self-serving, or even snobbish, but it's really just an application of the ancient philosophical principle of the importance of a life well lived. (Flying Dog Brewery, following the same basic principle, uses as their tagline a quote from Hunter S. Thompson: "Good people drink good beer.")

In any case, it's a principle within the reach of all. If you can afford to drink whiskey, you can afford to drink good whiskey.

That's because there are some good, inexpensive whiskies available -- not to mention some very-good-to-excellent, moderately priced whiskies.

So the next time you turn down a rail drink, or buy a bottle of something you want to drink rather than something you're willing to drink, you'll be making a choice consistent with living a good life. And that's what I call drinking responsibly.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Island of Whiskey Drinkers

The other day, I proposed a "map of whiskey drinkers" that wasn't a map so much as a two-dimensional plot, with volume as one axis and variety as the other.

While I think there's something to be said for that view of whiskey drinkers, I have to admit it's not a terribly creative view. To the logic of Volume X Variety, then, let me add the myth of The Island of Whiskey Drinkers:

Click image for larger view.

Have time for a quick tour?

On opposite coasts sit the cities of Manhattan, where old fashioned cocktails are the norm, and Mixopolis, where the new -- new cocktails, new ingredients, new twists -- is the norm. (There are frequent air shuttles from Mixopolis to the Islands of Vodka and Gin.)

Overlooking Manhattan are the Subourbon Heights, where ice cubes are regularly drowned at dinnertime.

In the southeastern corner of the Island is the Great Snob Bog, where dwell a tiresome sect of prophets of the One True Way. (Intersectarian squabbles between the Nonicians and the Noblendians prevent these people from having wider influence.)

Residents of the Lone Islands, off the west coast, drink one, and only one, kind of whiskey, and don't much care what anyone else does.

And you can also see, at the bottom, Shelf. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Across from the Great Snob Bog sits the Highball Plains, through which flows the River of Coke to the city of Seltzer.

Just to the north is the Work Desert, where nomads work up quite a thirst. At the far end of the desert is the much loved Irish oasis Whiskey O'Clock.

In the center of the Island you'll find Convivia, the largest region of Whiskey Drinkers. The walled city of Oldboys is here, too, where each meal includes steak and a cigar. Despite its fame, it has to be said the city's economic and cultural importance has faded in recent years.

Folks living in the Shining Hills are easygoing and hospitable, though a little evasive around strangers. Along the Beerback Coast, folks are unfussy and always happy to correct your opinion about what the team needs to do in the offseason. But the less said about what goes on out on the Macho Moor, and what if anything goes on in the heads of those who live there, the better.

Regrettably, all roads lead to Binge, where shots ring out every night. On the upside, all roads lead away from Binge, too.

Running along the northern spine of the Island is the Sherried Finish Mountain Range, where adepts spend years scaling the heights of the Mysteries of Malt. There are plenty of seekers having a grand time in the foothills, too. Curious visitors may swing by to look at the ruins of the Old Malt Wall, built in a less enlightened time to keep grain and malt whiskies separate.

Many are enthralled by Mount Smokey, others can't stand it, but either way it dominates the landscape for miles.

Not everyone appreciates the rugged beauty of the coastline of the Neetoronda Peninsula, but to really understand the Island one should spend some time contemplating Neatoronda Rocks. (Granted, some ill-prepared newcomers who try this can wind up at sea.)

Now, I freely admit that I haven't explored all corners of the Island of Whiskey Drinkers, and some of the above is second- or third-hand and may well be wrong or out of date. (I have, for example, heard stories of new settlers from Asia who are changing the landscape in dramatic ways.) If there are any corrections or additions to be made, please let me know and I'll try to incorporate them into a later version.

A footnote on notes

If, as I wrote in my previous post, I particularly value tasting notes as an invitation to a conversation, it follows that I don't much value those factory-farmed tasting notes consisting of nothing more than the name of the whiskey, the abv, and a dozen nouns and adjectives relating to various foods and odors, strung together with words like "gives way to" and "lingering."

I don't say I don't value such notes at all. Some nouns and adjectives -- "ambrosial," say, or "fetid" -- will prejudice me one way or another.

For the most part, though, I value descriptions of smell and taste more when they are accompanied by descriptions of mood, overall impression, and future intent.

"Where was a fireplace and leather armchair when I needed them?" "An unexciting but drinkable option." "I know what will be on my Christmas list this year!" These sorts of things complete the thought that the phrases of smell-and-taste free association begin; they move tasting notes from subjective sense data to intelligible thought. I have tried recommended whiskies and thought, "I'm just not getting the sumptuousness." I've never thought, "Where is the tobacco ash? Dammit, I was told there would be tobacco ash!"

In that light, I also value ratings on 100-point scales -- not as categorical rankings, but as shorthand for the overall sense of what drinking the whiskey was like, compared to what drinking a whiskey could have been like. If you give one whiskey an 86 and another an 83, I don't expect to like the first whiskey 3 units more than the second, I just expect you to reach for the first whiskey ahead of the second, more often than not, when you're in the mood for something like the first whiskey.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A note on notes

The other day, Tom Vanek of Vanek Whiskey Events tweeted:
If smell & taste perception vary by person & can each day with the same person, what is the real value of anothers tasting notes?
That's a good question, particularly for people like me who are happy to pick out "fruit" when others are describing which Spanish province the tangerines in the marmalade came from.

As Tom Vanek points out, though, not only is another person's tasting notes no guarantee of what I would taste, it's not even a guarantee of what the person who wrote the notes would taste again. So if there is any real value in tasting notes, it's not the value of an objective description of smell and taste.

Let me run in the opposite direction, then, and propose that the value in tasting notes lies in that very fact. If we only value objective descriptions of smell and taste, then one set of notes is all we need, and we can get them from the distiller as easily as from any other source.

What tasting notes are, though, are a record of a personal, subjective, not-altogether-repeatable experience of drinking a glass or two of whiskey. For me, the word that adds value in that sentence is "personal."

Tasting notes are part of a conversation about drinking whiskey. The meaning of, "This is what I smelled and tasted," is not, "This is what you will smell and taste." That wouldn't be a conversation, that would be a lecture.

Rather, the notes are an invitation to reply, "Really? This is what I smelled and tasted." Whether we smell and taste the same thing, or different things, the comparison of our individual, personal, subjective, not-altogether-repeatable experiences gives us more to talk about -- and, quite possibly, an idea or two of what whiskey to compare experiences with next.

And that, for me, has value.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Toward A Map of Whiskey Drinkers

The world of whiskey is a vast and exciting place, filled with all sorts of interesting things to drink. Classic Malt's Single Malt Whisky Flavour Map gives a view of one part of this world, plotting thirty-one single malt Scotch whiskies on a two-dimensional map. One axis is light-to-rich, the other delicate-to-smoky.

The world of whiskey is also filled with all sorts of interesting drinkers, and I've been thinking about how they might be classified. Classic Malt's flavor axes could be used -- there are some rich, delicate people who drink whiskey -- but they may not be optimal for describing people.

We might instead use the two major kinds of enthusiasm people seem to have for whiskey:
  • Volume, the amount of whisky a drinker drinks in some representative time period
  • Variety, the number of different kinds, brands, or expressions of whiskies a drinker drinks during that time
To keep things simple, you can think in terms of low/medium/high and get nine classes of whiskey drinkers:

They drink whiskey like a bunch of...

The scales are relative, so one town's connoisseur could be another town's casual whiskey drinker -- or drunkard, for that matter, if the other town has a lot of very abstemious whiskey blenders.

More practically, if you're talking whiskey with someone, it can be helpful to know where you each fall on this map. And if you're drinking whiskey with someone who lives, so to speak, north and east of your usual haunts, you can expect the night to be more expensive and the morning to be more painful.