It’s a word you’ve doubtless seen repeatedly championed throughout the Malt universe, be it through Malt’s various social media posts, Jason’s live streams or YouTube clips, or touched upon and examined in many of our articles. It’s a value each Malt contributor (and its readers) holds themselves, and their whiskey sources, accountable for exhibiting. In fact, I‘d wager it’s a foundational principle of most of the team’s favorite distilleries. Personally, while the last decade’s whiskey boom has benefitted us in the States with an extensive roster of in-house produced and sourced whiskies to purchase and enjoy, the Westland and Wilderness Trail distilleries don’t have to compete for my attention amongst the crowded whiskey market due in large part to their dedication to transparency.
Wilderness Tail we will talk about another time, but let us just look at Westland’s website. It’s out of character for me to speak for the rest of the Malt team as we all have differing viewpoints and opinions on many topics, but I suspect that Westland’s site would garner a unanimous Malt seal of approval for their emphasis on “transparency”, “provenance”, and “terroir”, regardless of whether or not they find the distillate itself palatable. I mean just take note at the detailed specs they provide on mashing, fermentation, and distilling. It nearly brings tears of joy to my eyes if not for the fact that I don’t have tear ducts. Or a heart.
However, I have come to realize that because I tirelessly research all things whiskey, these outwardly recondite details have meaning for me. I can understand (to a layman’s extent) how they contribute to the resultant whiskey and why they matter.
In fairly recent Malt history, our resident hipster Adam penned a piece which I can only poorly summarize as that of being an ode to barley, or perhaps rather an entreaty to readers on acknowledging the critical importance of barley as the vital source of whisky’s flavor (I will take the liberty of assuming he means any dominant or non-dominant grain present in a whiskey). Not as simply a vehicle for other downstream variables and processes in whisky production to impart flavor. While this article largely drew high praise — and rightly so in my biased opinion — it also prompted comments and blog posts of a contrary opinion to Adam’s. Many thoughts and viewpoints where exchanged, many ‘facts’ were sloppily fabricated, and many Wikipedia excerpts were copied and pasted to forge a counter-argument. Despite the offensive and cringe-worthy repeated usage of inaccurate statistics and pseudo-science, the most personally upsetting instance in this twitter exchange — possibly even more upsetting than the constant Adam/Taylor mutual ego stroking and verbal make out sessions that take place on said platform — was the statement from one user that “99% of whiskey drinkers don’t even care about the barley or wood”. I wasn’t upset at the person who said this, but rather at the fact that he may very well be right.
If I was to oversimplify and overgeneralize the population of whisky drinkers, I would divide it into two categories. Those who covet most in the hobby of drinking whiskey the intangible things like ‘status’ and ‘prestige’ and take embarrassing pains to project a lifestyle of ‘luxury’, and so seek to achieve this by advertising to everyone that they are a whisky drinker. I’ll even venture they may call themselves “whisky connoisseurs” on Instagram. Then there are those whisky drinkers who place the importance and weight on flavor. The former group we obviously need discuss no further. As for the latter, if it is flavor that they pursue and value, then how could they be dismissive or unappreciative of the very factors that contribute to and shape it?
Now it is entirely plausible that when handed a good thing, some people happily and graciously accept said “good thing” and don’t question the wonderful and seemingly mysterious alchemy by which it is made. For others we can speculate that lack of transparency and information offered by brands about their production techniques and the ingredients employed to make their whisky inhibits a wide spread appreciation for these exact inputs and methods. And I largely would agree with this. However I would take it one step further by saying that being furnished with the raw data is not enough. Merely providing the abstruse details will fail to impart any real, substantive meaningfulness. Not all whiskey enthusiasts are highly versed in all the complexities of whiskey production and not all of us have the time to commit to this sort of research. Looking upon a jumble of cold, business-like looking technical data on its own does not explain to one its relevance or importance on the resultant whiskey. It’s like being presented with an algebra equation that needs solving without also being educated on the basics of arithmetic or the order of operations. The numbers and variables in isolation mean nothing. The individual components need to be structured and shaped through rules, context, and storytelling.
The reason why the often useless and ridiculous marketing hoopla for many whisky brands is successful is because it is understandable. It needs no further translation or explanation. Companies get away with filling the precious real estate on their labels with dramatic and grossly inaccurate historical re-tellings, stories of mythical sky and sea creatures, excessively romantic imagery of Scottish landscapes, or overemphasis on age or tired wood because these things are inherently understandable. A person does not need to be familiar with Norse mythology in order to be entertained by an absurd story about a warrior bear man, or what have you. These labels are like the kids’ cereal boxes of whiskey. The tangentially relevant, whimsical, and engaging nonsense to mindlessly read while munching on your Apple Jacks, or in Phil’s case Lucky Charms. People don’t want to deal with a label that reads like an Ikea instruction manual which discusses the strike water temperature as opposed to the placement of those god damn 6 wooden peg things that are supposed to hold the 2 panels of imitation wood together… WHY CAN’T I PUT THIS THING TOGETHER!? I digress…
And herein lies the problem. How do you go one step beyond transparency, and into education? How can companies educate drinkers on the importance of all these technical whisky details on a wide scale while still being engaging? How do they deliver meaning out of the data (no, this is not a data analytics seminar) so that the everyday whiskey consumer can reap value from, and gain an appreciation for, these infinitely ranging variables and specs? This is a larger question I could not begin tackle on my own, and likely requires a multi-channel approach. Website overhauls, informative YouTube videos, better labeling, more workshops and seminars, podcasts, a new way of approaching brand ambassadorship – and none of these nonsense overhyped pitches on cask finishes!! But I simply refuse to believe that earnest whiskey enthusiasts, new or old, would continue to not care about the very factors that are critical to flavor once being illuminated on the significance of such things. If so, I’d have to ask are you buying the whisky, or are you buying the accompanying story and image?
And yes, I realize many distilleries/brands don’t want you to be too privy to such details as it would expose their subpar production practices and highlight their laughable and deceitful marketing ploys.
Onto the whiskey that is supposed to be reviewed today. FINALLY!
Per Westland’s description of today’s selection:
Introducing Westland Cask Exchange, a series of single malt whiskey bottlings driven by demand for casks by Washington brewers. Instead of selling these casks to local breweries, we sought to loan casks to like-minded brewers from our region. We offer no requirement for what type of beer fills these casks – only for them to be returned after use. Beer finishes are far from novel, but this program isn’t about being unique, it’s about forging partnerships and making something together that couldn’t have existed before.
Westland Kulshan Cask Exchange – Review
Color: Galactic Sparkle Cats
On the nose: Toasted bread, chocolate, brown sugar, and caramel apple come to the forefront before notes of banana, cinnamon, and baked red plums with vanilla ice cream unearth themselves.
In the mouth: The toasty-ness is certainly the most dominant flavor right off the bat. Borderline burnt toasted bread. Bitter raw cacao chocolatey-ness (I decided I’m fond of using ‘-y-ness’ today). Roasted peanuts. A bit of a phenolic burnt rubber/burnt hair note that I have occasionally detected in some craft brews. Dominant oaky-ness.
I’m on the fence between a 5 or 6 on this one but the faint and slightly off-putting burnt hair taste sometimes fights the more pleasant flavors and therefore knocks it down to a 5. Not my favorite Westland offering but I certainly love the idea of the Cask Exchange program and will be trying the coming releases in this series.
TRANSPERANCY: My shady bourbon dealer Tony the Turd (IG: @glassofwhiskey86) bought and shipped this whiskey to me. I paid him accordingly.