Right then, class. Who’s in the mood for some metaphysical recreation? Warm your brain up with a few philosophical star jumps, and get your grey matter round this: when is a whisky your whisky? By your, we are assuming you are the owner of a bricks-and-mortar distillery, or the commissioner of a hyperbolic, misleading Irish press release insinuating such.
The natural and obvious answer, of course, is that whisky is your whisky only when it has slobbered through your washbacks, flobbered through your stills and the three-year egg-timer has gone ping. Otherwise, it isn’t your whisky, really, it’s someone else’s whisky, the same way I couldn’t run a few bottles of Ardbeg through a nutribullet and truthfully announce that the artisan micro-distillers of Glen Central-Berkshire had knocked up a corker.
I muse, obviously, on the abstract and slippery nature of non-distiller-producers and “sourced” whisky. In Scotland, on the whole, sourcing is a fairly straightforward affair. The name of the distillery (or a wink-wink, nudge-nudge insinuation) goes on the label, and it’s called an independent bottling. Essentially, it’s yours … but not yours. Make sense?
In the USA and Ireland, however, whose collected distilleries of significant size and age can be counted without running out of fingers and toes, everything becomes a little more cloak-and-dagger. These days the out-and-out liars are thankfully thinner on the ground than they once were – customers tend to find out if you don’t actually own a distillery – but the industry is still a petri dish for imaginative embellishment and creative euphemism.
Take this, for example, perhaps after swallowing a judicious sedative: “the same water that fuels our champion thoroughbreds, also cuts the rich spice of our rye, creating a spirit as revolutionary as Americas risk-takers and history-makers. Our story is one of passion, of old meeting new, and crafting a timeless American straight rye whiskey, strengthened by the xxxxx spring.” That’s from a real back label. The “xxxxx” is mine. The rest I am happy to credit to their copywriters. Do you feel you’ve been given a useful description of the benefits and qualities this whisky will offer you? Or do you feel as though you’ve walked in on a fellation?
It’s not even the sourcing I object to. For goodness’ sake; anyone with more than a cursory interest in American whisky will have tasted gorgeous sourced whiskeys galore. Van Winkle. Michter’s. Willett. Old Scout. Hardly bottom-shelf bilge. No, it’s the dishonesty that gets me. It’s so puerile; so knowingly, childishly, tawdry and sly and reductive.
Say I’m an unwary only-every-so-often consumer, Bambi-stepping my way through some bamboozling booze aisle and I pick up that bottle. Either I go away thinking that whisky’s diluting water is of the utmost importance, in which case I have been wilfully misled … or I go online, discover myself to have been wilfully misled, dismiss the whisky industry for a pack of dissembling shysters and abandon the drink entirely in favour of something more honest. I hear rum bottle labels are pretty trustworthy …
There is also, of late, a tendency for sourcers (sourcerers?) – indeed for whiskmakers in general – to imply (or state outright) that the last touch they have applied to a whisky – be it a finish, be it added water, be it a celebration bottle top – is the product’s be-all and end-all. And here we do find Scotch to be a recidivist culprit – though Ireland and America are no better. Three months in a sherry cask after twelve years in fifth-fill ex-bourbon? Oh, that’s our Sherry Edition that is. Three months more and it’ll be our Sherry Reserve Edition. Ditto Port, ditto virgin oak, ditto literally any wine we can get our hands on, so long as it starts with a nice, long-nosed, snooty “Château”.
Perhaps this is simply my not-particularly-latent cynicism but, to me, this obsession with the final flourish implies any one of three scenarios, each one grubbier than the last. Either a. the sourcer is disrespecting the maker and supplier of the whisky, incongruously implying that it wouldn’t be half as good without their added cherry on top. b. They actually did buy some pretty rotten barrels, and the less said about the whisky’s prior history, the better. Or c. The distillery isn’t interested in educating the consumer on the vital processes that have taken a few handfuls of grain and turned them into the world’s most dizzyingly complex, deeply-flavoured drink. Instead, they’re happy with dumbing down the discussion into a couple of wishy-washy, catch-all soundbites, and if they’re grotesquely over-generalised or flat-out wrong, who cares? The coffers ringeth nonetheless.
Just a few musings before I dive into the pours du jour, which – would you believe it? – are sourced rye whiskies, one of which has been given a finish. Actually, I’ve no beef with WhistlePig on the sourcing front – they’re completely open about it. And whilst their pricing is largely on the naughty step side of pooterish, the juice, in my experience, is usually pretty palatable. (In Jason’s experience it’s the devil’s own nose-dribbling, but Jason’s experience where American whisky is concerned wouldn’t fill a gerbil’s pipette.)
I’m not supposed to be reviewing whisky at all, to be honest. I’m supposed to be semi-retired from Malt and flattering myself that I’ll write a book about cider. But Billy Abbott kindly sent me a sample of the Whisky Exchange’s new Amburana Finish barrel pick, and if the ninth circle of hell is for betrayers of trust, the tenth is for people who are rude to Billy Abbott.
It’s a 12-year-old rye, sourced from MGP in Indiana, and finished for an interminable ten days in Amburana casks. No, I wasn’t sure either. But the press release tells me that Amburana is some sort of rare wood from South America. So this whisky probably isn’t aimed at members of Extinction Rebellion. It’s bottled at 43% (slightly penurious if you ask me) and originally cost £215 a throw, but has now been reduced to £175.
Just in case you don’t hold with all this woody exotica, and your tastes run more to tie-die pantaloons, jazz hands instead of clapping, kale-and-quinoa sandwiches and reducing carbon emissions, I’m also reviewing a WhistlePig selection by the British Bourbon Society (BBS). It’s another MGP rye, aged for 13 years and 10 months, and finished in the same virgin oak barrel it started in. Regular readers will know that I used to help the Society pick their casks, as I’ve said so on Malt at least twice, but I’ve not done any for about two years now, so my only involvement with this one was to buy a bottle for £95. Which, for a 60.7%, 13-year-old MGP rye in today’s market seems a lot less mad than it would have done five years ago.
So. Two picks by independent merchants from a company who has sourced its rye from a separate distillery. And everybody’s names are on the labels except for the people who actually made them. Returning to my metaphysical opening, who on earth do these whiskies belong to? Who do we credit if they’re smashing? Who do we blame if they’re rotten? When did whisky become such a labyrinth? Does any of this even matter?
Shall we get on with it?
Whistlepig Amburana Rye 12-year-old TWE Exclusive – review
Colour: Old Gold.
On the nose: This can be filed straight into the “mad shit” cabinet. In a good way? Er … um … er … I’m actually not totally sure yet. Woody – but in a sort of mulchy, first-step-into-the-greenhouse sort of way. Coconut and chocolate; I’ve seen this described as “liquid Bounty Bars” and I don’t disagree. Tonka bean, cardamom, mango, vanilla and polish. Lots of floral pot-pourri.
In the mouth: The palate is less odd than the nose – it couldn’t possibly be odder – and here the lack of booze shows up: it’s a little texturally thin. Chilli heat is sweetened by loads more coconut, vanilla and caramel. More woodiness – sandalwood, for me – with black pepper and clove, as though it has just remembered that it’s supposed to be a rye. Finishes to milk chocolate and peppermint tea.
WhistlePig British Bourbon Society “The British Landrace” 13-year-old Rye – review
Colour: Cola bottle sweets
On the nose: Ooft. It’s a beast. And where the Amburana was weird, this is as classic as they come. Huge caramels, brown sugar and dill. At nearly 14 it is moving into that almost-slightly-vegetal, rancio phase of rye which I personally love. Black cherry jam and polished mahogany.
In the mouth: If I have one complaint on the palate it is that the booze is just a little too fiery. A bit too untamed. It slightly impedes the flavour and is a bit uncomfortable. I know a lot of US whisky nerds are of the opinion that the higher proof the better. In my mind this should never be at the expense of balance. That nit being picked, this has massive, massive flavour, and is very tasty indeed. Caramel fudge brownie, nutmeg and vanilla. Pine and dark fruits and sawn wood and leather. Again, this is as classic as MGP rye of this age gets. But who’s complaining about that? It may be a known tune, but it’s a greatest hit.
I’ve been watching a bit of Great British Menu recently (desperate times, I know) and this pairing reminds me of when a classically trained chef harmlessly roasting some pheasant or other faces one of those slightly unhinged souls who take dry ice and liquid nitrogen and crushed rubies and the egg of a Santa Claus reindeer and beat the lot with a vinegar-dusted TV aerial until it turns into something that looks like a clotted Picasso and apparently evokes essences of a medieval furrier’s morning breath.
The Amburana is meant to make those on the whisky spectrum coo and gasp. It’s chosen by proper whisky wonks and aimed at other proper whisky wonks. It’s the whisky you buy for the lady who has tasted everything. And I sort of get that, and I admit that when I saw this I said: “oooh, Amurana” and wondered what it would taste like. I can also confirm that, whilst ten days is less time than it takes to finish a jigsaw puzzle and – yes – I smirked at it too, the impact which the Amurana has clearly had is genuinely profound.
But is it tasty? Well. Sort of. It’s certainly different. I’m tempted to deploy a bear-poking, tautological “most unique”, just to make a certain breed of person grind their teeth. It has absolutely succeeded in its aim to be dramatically removed from anything you’ve ever tried before. But I wonder whether the object of making it unorthodox and striking has been held more important than a whiskymaker’s fundamental remit: to make something that simply tastes nice. I wonder whether it has aimed too much for the brain, rather than the palate. Calling it the Emperor’s new clothes is probably unfair, but it may be a case of the Emperor’s Milan Fashion Week.
Some people may love it. Some people may hate it. I’m on the fence, but its sheer bizarreness makes scoring a challenge. I can really only go on intensity, complexity and balance, with an extra point docked for value. There’ll be those that say it’s a fair price for a unique experience; on the other hand, there’s also nothing to compare with getting kneecapped or drinking from the toilet. My tip: try this whisky if you can. But for God’s sake don’t chuck £175 at a bottle without tasting it first.
The BBS bottling is the polar opposite, and more or less what I’d give a visiting alien to explain what MGP rye in its early teens should taste like. But only if it was a benevolent alien whom I liked the look of, because this stuff is too tasty to share with people you don’t really like. Best BBS pick yet? It’s certainly better than the two I had a hand in, and I was pretty proud of those.
I suppose the bottom line is that even – perhaps especially – hardened whisky acolytes, present company included, can be easily dazzled by a sufficiently flashy finish. By “different”. By “weird”. Also that finishing/mucking around/call it what you will can have a dramatic effect on a whisky. But if you’ve spent all that time making something taste decent in the first place, do you really want it to?
Right. Done. Back to apple juice.
As stated, a sample of the Amburana made its way to us from The Whisky Exchange, along with this article’s lead image. There’s a commission link here should you fancy some woody experimentation – TWE aren’t yet selling small samples of this release, but our information is is that they will be shortly.