It was her controversial White Walker piece that got me started. Like other readers, I found that it didn’t quite land for me. I got to thinking about what I liked in the MALT reviews I had read: the depth of research about distilleries, the adamantly independent divergences from the industry’s party line, and the personality and humor that distinguished each of the individual contributors’ viewpoints.
It also made me notice that Jason and Mark would take a chance on new writers. As they were willing to welcome diverse voices to the site, I thought perhaps I might find a place in the chorus?
I was a casual whisky drinker for around 17 years at that point. I had been writing out wine notes for nine years and spent around two and a half years recording my tasting notes for whisky. I had begun to take it seriously following a trip to Japan in which a whisky-loving friend had started to introduce me to the world “beyond the dram.” My knowledge was building like a snowball rolling down a mountain, moving slowly at first but gaining size and velocity at an accelerating rate.
I decided to start in my own backyard, with a review of a local store pick of a distillery in my area. In hindsight I made some rookie mistakes, including not visiting the distillery or reaching out directly to assemble some of the information I lamented not having at hand. Still, I thought it was reasonably good, and mustered the gumption to submit it.
With a slightly queasy feeling of excitement, I sent it to Mark and Jason with the subject “Unsolicited review” and braced myself for a (hopefully gentle) rejection. I was surprised and elated when they responded positively and slated the review for publication.
Little did they know, but they had opened a can of worms by uncorking a genie’s bottle inside a Pandora’s box. Before the review had even hit the site, I sent them another one followed by a regular stream every few days in the following weeks.
I was giddy with excitement when the first review went up. I quickly sent it around to all my whisky-drinking friends, begging them to say something complimentary in the comments section. A few of them obliged, but I also started to get welcomes and encouragement from the MALT family on social media. Each like or retweet was a little sugar rush for me, fueling my desire to taste more, to learn more, and to write more.
The first negative feedback came in response to the Japanese whisky article which, admittedly, re-tread a lot of well-worn ground in the preamble. I tried to push back by restating my case more directly, but it was a lesson that not everybody would be pleased. Fortunately, Mark and Jason have been consummately supportive throughout, always encouraging me to re-focus and to just write about what I want to write about.
The other really problematic early piece that jumps out is the Journeyman review. I agonized over this, particularly after actually visiting the distillery. The tour was given by a cheery and enthusiastic staff member, but also revealed some of the shortcomings and cut corners which resulted in some really bad-tasting whiskey. I looked around the distillery and bustling bar, noticing the hardworking employees and the customers enjoying whiskey dumped into tumblers full of muddled fruit and other sugary ameliorations. Self-doubt began to creep in; was I just a rotten crank, insistent on spoiling a good time?
I felt a twinge of regret, evident in that piece, at not being able to ignore the elephant in the tasting room. I learned a sad lesson: nice people can produce bad whiskey. Some writers might spare their feelings and discard a poor review, but that’s not the MALT way. Multiple re-writes produced a piece which hopefully justifies the criticism with some forbearance, empathy, and objectivity.
A year on, I am privileged to look back on a body of work which I hope has contributed something to the worldwide whisky dialogue.
I have reviewed 118 whiskies over the course of 71 pieces, which doesn’t even count the many expressions I tasted without a proper write-up. I’ve learned an incredible amount. Beyond mere names and dates, I’ve developed a number of soft skills which hopefully translate into me being a better person, in whisky as well as in life.
Humility doesn’t come naturally to me, but it has been important attribute to emphasize. Often, a better-informed reader or fellow member of the team will chime in to correct a misconception or point out a mistake. In my introduction to conversations with professionals in the whisky world, I make it clear that I am nothing more than an enthusiastic amateur. Jason is a superlative role model in this regard, as he is always quick to acknowledge when his considerable body of knowledge has been increased by a heretofore unknown fact. Opening myself up to criticism has sharpened my focus and made me a more attentive listener, a more careful reader, and a more judicious writer.
I’m also conscious that my opinion is just that: my opinion. I’m not the final word on any of the drams I taste. I feel a bit saddened when a reader responds to a critical review with a disappointed “but that’s my favorite whisky!” I’m in the business of writing about what I like, but my tastes and preferences remain my own. I hope that anyone who has read this site for long enough will remember that all of us, myself included, are just as flawed and fallible as humankind more generally. About the best I can say for us is that a good review is never the payback for financial or other compensation. If a whisky gets a high score, it’s because one of us thought it was really delicious.
I’ve also learned that my naturally skeptical (some may say cynical) approach is not only appropriate, but necessary in the contemporary world of whisky. Consumers are being sold substandard product at rising prices. Large distilleries (or their corporate owners’ marketing departments) rely on folderol to distract from the fact that the bottle often contains some truly undistinguished whisky.
The industry also plays fast and loose with history, concocting stories that might charitably be described as fantastical. The label of one of the world’s most highly sought-after whiskies claims that it is “distilled, aged & bottled” at a distillery that does not exist, nor has ever existed. My background research for this site has provided the opportunity for the type of journalistic detective work that yields a thrill when I discover that all is not what it seems. As the market gets increasingly crowded with expressions struggling to differentiate themselves and fighting for shelf space, I sense that this type of probing approach will become more essential in the coming years.
My photography has improved thanks to some good-natured ribbing from Jason. The winter months in Chicago are bleak, leaving little in the way of visually-stimulating backdrops. I had to make do inside my apartment from November to March, with some really stark results (apologies to Blaum Bros for especially clinical treatment). I’ve learned to emphasize natural light, to avoid catching my own reflection in the bottle, and to compose my photographs more artfully. I’ve also developed the foresight to snap a bottle before it’s open, to avoid the unsightly torn capsules and half-filled containers which mar a photograph.
More than these prosaic concerns, what stands out most of all is the relationships that have developed out of this process. Though I have yet to meet any of them in the flesh, I consider Jason, Mark, Adam, and Phil to be true friends. Any one of them could show up unannounced at my place with the guarantee of open arms and an open whisky cupboard (though, for the benefit of my wife’s sanity: please call first).
Beyond the MALT team, I now have an incredible global network of casual acquaintances. United by our shared passion for this remarkable beverage, we’ve swapped drams and stories. I have been floored by the generosity of readers who have sent me care packages full of samples and have tried to pay this back (and forward) in kind. Sincere thanks to all of you.
Though I’ve made mostly friends, there’s probably a few enemies lurking in the shadows. I’ve heard that I got an unnamed bigwig cussing mad with an especially critical review of a high-profile release. There are a couple craft distillers that no longer return my emails, and I’d be loath to visit a handful of distilleries without protective headgear. I’m comforted in the knowledge that all of this has been in the service of a greater good. When a reader writes to thank me for saving her a few dollars/pounds/euros/yen by giving an honest assessment of a subpar bottling, I am reminded of the paramount importance of independence and objectivity to what we do here at MALT.
What does the future hold? Your guess is as good as mine. The list of craft distilleries I haven’t tried still outweighs those I’ve experienced, and even that latter group is filled with expressions that I haven’t gotten around to. I’ve matured beyond simple reviews and have begun to wax metaphysical; this is an outgrowth of being able to step back and consider what a given whisky, but also whisky more generally, means to myself and others. Why does it incite such strong feelings? Why is it such a big part of some of our lives? These are the truly important questions, to me, and I’ll endeavor to continually inject a balanced dose of “why” into the “who,” “what,” “where,” and “how” that form the bedrock of a standard review.
I’ve also come to appreciate the power of voices other than my own and shall try as much as possible to let people tell their own stories. In practice, that means dispensing with paraphrasing and interpretation, finding a way to incorporate individuals’ own words directly as they spoke them. It requires a lot more planning and work, but I feel strongly that the final pieces are richer for taking this approach.
Speaking of different voices: the real intention of this piece is to prod and encourage others to take the same journey I embarked on 365 days ago. I have enumerated my joys and sorrows and documented my triumphs and mistakes as a means of enticing you to have a go yourself.
As noted above and reiterated here with humility: I am little more than a novice with unlimited curiosity and a capacity to type energetically. If I can do this then you can, too. If a dram has moved you (for better or worse), if you’ve got a story to tell, or if you’ve uncovered a bit of hornswoggling: by all means put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and share it with the world.
Looking back on the past year: I feel so many things, but nothing stronger than the most ebullient gratitude. Thank you to all who make this possible. You’ve been kinder to me than I have deserved, and it has been a daily pleasure to have this forum as a creative outlet. I don’t take it for granted and can promise that I’ll try my hardest not to disappoint.
Apropos of nothing in in the paragraphs above, here’s a review. It’s a whisky I bought when I knew less about whisky than I do now; several readers have since requested a review. It’s got associated sentimental resonance; Glenmorangie, in its 10 year old expression, was the single malt that got me started on serious whisky, or rather on taking whisky seriously.
I’ll be tasting the Signet expression, which sits in the range above the 18 year old but below the Grand Vintage Malt series. It’s packaged in a hefty wooden box, which seems to position this for gift giving. Jason tried it a few years back and had uncharacteristically positive things to say about it. Glenmorangie’s website provides a few nuggets of information swaddled in a bunch of vague, general adjectives:
“A fusion of unique and rare elements, and clouded in secrecy, Signet is the culmination of a lifetime’s experience. A blend of our oldest whisky and spirit matured in a selection of the world’s finest casks, this undoubtedly is the richest whisky in our range.
Of course, whilst the exact secrets of its production are known only to our whisky creators, we can tell you that Signet’s melting sweetness and explosive spiciness is, at least in part, caused by our unique roasted ‘chocolate’ barley malt and the ‘designer casks’ made bespoke for Glenmorangie from American white oak. Non chill-filtered.”
I could pick apart these conceits artfully, but I’m going to relax and raise this glass to you, the potential future MALT writer.
This is single malt Scotch whisky. I managed to snag a bottle a while back for around $170, though the prevailing retail price in my area has steadily risen to nearer $260. Interestingly, it is £126.95 in the U.K. from Master of Malt, around the same price as five years ago when Jason had a crack. Although the Whisky Exchange is asking for £145. It is bottled at 46%.
Glenmorangie Signet – Review
Color: Brooding burnt orange-brown.
On the nose: This is a great deal of fun to sniff. There’s a top note of lively fruit balanced against richer flavors of cocoa and coffee. Chocolate-covered candied cherries. Espresso, in one of its fruitier and more acidic variations. Dewy meadow flowers, lemon curd, underripe kiwi fruit, clover honey, coconut, and mocha.
In the mouth: Starts with a firm and stony mouthfeel, which transitions via a bittersweet note of dark chocolate to the midpalate. There, this dram bursts with a wood-inflected mocha and coffee bean roastiness. Turning somewhat stony again, this finishes with the slight aftertaste of café Americano and an off-bitter woody scent.
The roasted barley is evident throughout, making this a pleasant departure from the wood-forward style that characterizes modern Glenmorangie, as well as so much other Scotch whisky. There’s not as much of the nose’s delightful sweet fruitiness in the mouth, but there are added layers that emphasize the darker notes. More than anything, this sits up and says “notice me!” in a way that distinguishes itself from so much of the forgettable output clogging store shelves.
At the UK retail price, this is a nice treat and suitable for a special occasion. I’d be reluctant to go out and pay prevailing American retail prices, but if you can find a bottle in the mid-$100’s it’s worth a splurge.
(at UK retail prices; I’d dock a point at $200+)
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Image provided by the Whisky Exchange.