Sunday, February 16, 2014

Whiskey in the jar

I once met Whistlepig founder and CEO Raj Bhakta, at a Whistlepig 111 tasting at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, DC. (Doesn't look like I'm going to get around to writing a stand-alone blog post about that event. My recollection is the "Triple One" (11 years old, bottled at 111 proof) is delightful; between the spice and the proof, it's sort of effervescent. I remember saying it tasted more than a year older than the 10 y.o., meaning I wouldn't have expected a single year of aging to produce a whiskey so different from the 10 (which is a great rye itself).)

Raj was charming, and told a good tale of choosing to make rye whiskey because rye is so flavorful. The existence of Canada was neither confirmed nor denied -- no, that's probably too strong. I think there was a very brief allusion to the fact that Whistlepig is made in Canada, although you may have needed to know that already to catch the allusion. (And I definitely got the impression that at least some of the aging occurs on the famed WhistlePig Farm in Vermont; maybe by now some does?)

Even in an industry that doesn't fetishize the truth -- and even in the Non-Distiller Producer sub-industry, where facts are often simply absent -- WhistlePig has a reputation for misdirection. In an interview with for Bloomberg TV the other day, though, I'd say Raj Bhakta achieves candidate-trailing-in-the-polls levels of dishonesty. (The best part is when one of the interviewers asks if he's aging the whiskey in bottles. I heard the interview before I saw the video, and I thought the interviewer was simply ignorant. But the video shows all those happy, fresh-faced Vermonters bottling WhistlePig without a barrel in sight (except in the soft-focus distance), so it's not such a foolish comment.)

Okay, no real news here; at most a difference in degree rather than kind. But in thinking about the flim-flamming -- in particular, wondering what the point of it all is, since WhistlePig is an outstanding whiskey --  it occurred to me that there doesn't seem to be much of a correlation between the quality of any given American whiskey and the amount of flim-flammery attached to it. There are low quality whiskeys stewed in malarkey, and there are low quality whiskeys that are frank and unashamed about what they are. There are high quality whiskeys that tell you which corner of the rickhouse the barrels were stored in, and there are high quality whiskeys that won't even tell you which country they're made in. All of this, of course, occurs against the background noise of mythical origin stories and yeast strains passed from generation to generation. (Apparently there was a time in this country when, to get a distiller's license, you had to be a storekeeper unwaveringly committed to making the finest spirit in the world.)

I suppose that, as long as a producer is honest about the who, what, when, and where of the whiskey in the bottle, whiskey people will give him a pass on the why. Discretion is allowed, but not at the expense of the buyer, and even that can sour into a distasteful coyness. In short, feel free to spin a yarn, just keep it out of my glass.

Dickel Rye (to choose an example at hand) can state on the bottle that it "is inspired by the timeless tradition and small batch craftsmanship that make our Tennessee whisky world famous." In fact, the whiskey is sourced from MGP to cash in on to the rye boomlet, and only gets anywhere near Tennessee if it's going to be sold there. But not only is puff like "timeless tradition" and "craftsmanship" a clear indication of conventional blarney, the bottle also states (in capital letters, no less), "DISTILLED IN LAWRENCEBURG, IN / BOTTLED BY GEORGE DICKEL & CO. NORWALK, CT." Whatever you think about the pretenses of inspiration and such, they do tell you what you're looking at.

It's not quite as simple as saying, "Oh, that's just marketing," either. WhistlePig's guff is just marketing, too. (One Bloomberg interviewer had an insightful summary of the lesson Donald Trump taught Raj Bhakta: "Market the hell out of it.") The problem is that it's not just marketing bunkum about the whiskey's backstory, it's bunkum about the whiskey itself, the stuff on the shelf in my local liquor store.

And it's probably not a coincidence that dishonesty about the whiskey in the bottle spills over into dishonesty about the whiskey in the other guy's bottle, as when Bhakta tells Bloomberg, "There is nobody else on the market who has an old rye." If you don't value the truth of your own product, why would you value the truth of someone else's?

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