Can we all just relax?
Recently I’ve been feeling the pressure of our uptight approach to whiskey here at Malt. Maybe this is because I’m reviewing mostly American whiskey, especially the types where misdirection is key to propping up the selling proposition. It seems as though I have been using a mental machete to hack through a jungle of half-truths and patent falsehoods, and it has exhausted me.
There are both philosophical and practical reasons for me to bristle at liberties taken by the folks who write label and website copy. As I have noted before, I love history but I hate the way it is used – or misused – in order to inject a shot of narrative color to whiskey produced in the most pedestrian of ways. While conjuring up long-dead preachers and founding fathers may prompt a novice consumer to make a purchase due to reflexive recognition, they create a morass of counterfactual sediment that accumulates over time. Given long enough, the truth is irretrievably buried beneath the silty layers of lies, beyond our capacity to excavate it. At the end, we’re left with more questions than answers about even that most elemental concern: where did the whiskey come from?
Setting aside my lofty ideals about truth and transparency, this state of affairs rankles me on a more experiential level. This is because I am still fundamentally the same guy I was when I started out on my whiskey journey. I’m not an expert, I’m not an influencer, I’m not a whiskey personality, or even a whiskey professional. I am a consumer, just like the vast majority of our readers. The lion’s share of the whiskey I enjoy is from bottles that I walk into a store and pay full price for, just like you. I want to be able to do so with ease, and without concern that I am overpaying for a middleman’s fanciful conceits attached to the same whiskey I can get cheaper directly from the distillery that made it.
Yet, I pass by – or, viewed differently, pass on – dozens of bottles of whiskey every week. My eye is caught by their shiny and colorful designs; I am intrigued by new brands from this-or-that “distilling company,” previously unknown to me. In what has become a cynical and depressing ritual, I slowly rotate the bottle until the back label is in view. I squint my eyes and scan from top to bottom. Below the purple paragraph, below the “distillery’s” address, below the government warning, below the barcode, I recognize what have become my three least favorite words in whiskey: “Distilled in Indiana.”
It could be worse, I guess. “Distilled in Kentucky,” for example, opens up additional possibilities: Barton, Brown-Forman, and Heaven Hill are the usual suspects. My obsessive-compulsive nature kicks in when I am confronted with these whiskeys for consideration. I feel the tension as my shoulders hunch and my fingers flutter across (OK, pound on) the long-suffering keyboard of my abused laptop. I scour producers’ websites, whiskey blogs, and bulletin boards looking for clues that will inform my assessment. This process leaves me feeling less like an enthusiastic consumer writing a review and more like a prosecuting attorney preparing an indictment. Oh, yeah, and eventually I get around to tasting a whiskey, a part of the process that regrettably seems like it is occupying a dwindling proportion of the time I’m spending on these reviews.
Today I’m going to chill out a little bit. I’ll be telling you what I know about this whiskey, as well as what I don’t. I won’t be wringing my hands about the mendacity of those that repurpose sourced whiskey. I will refrain from casting aspersions on those who concoct distilleries that exist only in the imagination of their creators and as names on labels of somebody else’s bourbon. I’m going to be deliberately relaxed about the stuff that usually gets my pulse racing, in both the positive and the negative sense. Here goes:
We know precious little about this. It’s bourbon, it’s 17 years old, and it was made in Kentucky. It is bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV). By way of hard facts, that’s all I’ve got for you.
The label provides some of the promotional language that we’ve become accustomed to, in Greatest Hits fashion: “handmade,” “very finest”, “hand-picked,” “strictest criteria,” “a few precious bottles,” “rare Vintage bourbon.” I should inform you that the vein on my forehead is increasing in topographical prominence as I struggle to fulfill my promise not to kvetch.
For those of you that can’t resist a scavenger hunt, here’s the (all caps) component of the label:
DISTILLED & BOTTLED BY HAND IN KENTUCKY
VINTAGE BOURBON COMPANY
BARDSTOWN, KENTUCKY 40004, USA
Some (extremely casual, not at all spastic) Googling informs me that “Vintage Bourbon Company” is a trading name of Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, also based in Bardstown. We can therefore ascertain that this came from the folks that bring you Willett and Noah’s Mill and Johnny Drum and Old Bardstown and Rowan’s Creek and a bunch of other brands that… actually, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. This is great. I am a cool reviewer, like a cucumber that is, umm… writing a whiskey review. [deep exhalation]
We don’t know where this came from. I don’t care. Do you? It was probably Heaven Hill’s Bernheim Distillery, though there’s speculation that some batches of this expression contained a wheated bourbon from Stitzel-Weller. If I hadn’t already ascended to a higher plane of consciousness, my heart would be thumping with excitement at the prospect of tasting more whiskey from this legendary, forsaken distillery. However, now that my mind has assumed the Buddha-nature, my consciousness is pure and I perceive this, and all whiskeys, as material illusions.
Original retail price of this was reportedly around $80; my go-to source (Get it? Oh, whoops, sorry) for secondary market bourbon pricing, Mr. Ryan Alves, informs me that these bottles now trade hands for $1,200. Nope, not going to say anything spiteful. Not. Gonna. Do. It.
This was another sample shared with me by Scott; I remain deeply grateful for his generosity. Finally, with a heart and mind unburdened by concerns (really, I promise), I am going to taste this whiskey.
Vintage Bourbon 17 Years Old – Review
Color: Rusty orange-brown.
On the nose: Superb. Immediately expresses a dense, rich, and meaty mélange of marmalade, honey-baked ham, nutmeg, firewood, and a citric burst of freshly squeezed orange juice. I get the chalky and milky nuance of chocolate nonpareil candies as well as an offsetting sweetly rich note of butterscotch. This is rounded out by some fresher scents of mint and green tea leaves. Some time in the glass releases the unmistakable sticky-sweet scent of maple syrup. With additional time to breathe, I am getting more sumptuous aromas of overripe apple, brown sugar simple syrup, and charcoal briquettes. In all, a promising start that begs for the first sip.
In the mouth: This is understated and relatively sedate to start. It enters the mouth quietly, before a vaguely woody-chocolatey note of mocha emerges as it moves toward the middle of the tongue. The most noticeable flavor on the palate comes directly before the finish, where a chalky note of limestone cuts through the overall muddled presentation this otherwise provides. Nondescript woody and earthy nuances linger toward the back of the mouth as the only aspects of what could be called the finish.
Texturally, this has the expected softness of a wheated mash bill. However, as both Sitzel-Weller and Bernheim produced whiskeys with this small grain, it’s hard to tell by this aspect alone which of the two ostensible sources this came from. There’s none of the telltale Stitzel-Weller funk, attributable (I’m told) to the yeast strain and the cypress fermentation tanks at that facility. About the closest I am getting to a “tell” is that orange juice note on the nose, which is reminiscent of the clementines I often pick out in Heaven Hill whiskeys. All-in-all, I’m leaning towards attributing this to Bernheim but am far from confident in my assessment.
I have previously made shows of fretting about how to score a whiskey like this, particularly when original retail price is a distant memory and secondary pricing is astronomical. My “relaxed” (one might say “lazy”) approach is to just forget about price and to rate this as though it were just, you know, whiskey… which it is. In terms of intrinsic whiskey-ness, this has a great nose and a disappointing lack of follow through on the palate. I’m knocking a point off of average as a consequence; I certainly won’t be seeking out more of this, nor advising you to do so.
So, has dispensing with the hand wringing (or at least attempting to do so) made this a better or worse experience for me?
I’ve realized that my appreciation of whiskey and my enjoyment of it are two separate things, often (but not always) overlapping, and paradoxically at odds on occasion. My maximum enjoyment of whiskey comes in the company of others, when it can be shared as an accessory to memory-making rather than as the focus of the experience. In these precious moments, there is no need to obsess over mash bills, fermentation times, barrel-entry proof, or any of the other marginalia. To do so would be to miss the point entirely. I would never think of reviewing a whiskey under these circumstances.
Second best is when it can be shared with my widening network of real and virtual whiskey acquaintances, and I have tried to be as generous with others as others have been with me (as in the case of this bourbon).
Then there are the bottles that I procure and savor in isolation, but which I am able to share with you via this virtual forum. That’s a more purely academic exercise, but I’m grateful for the forum and the attention you lavish on me as I walk down this road.
Finally, there are the experiences that add to my mental bourbon library without delivering me any hedonistic or emotional enjoyment whatsoever. These are the bad craft bourbons, the overpriced sourced bourbons, and those whiskeys that just fail to move me for reasons specific to my personal preferences. Sweating the small stuff, in these cases, can provide insights that point to why a particular whiskey missed the mark.
So, while I won’t be abandoning my nitpicking and obsessive collection of all the available details, I am going to try to be more mindful of which of the aforementioned models is most applicable. I don’t mean this to imply a devil-may-care nihilism so much as a check on extreme tendencies, tightly held preconceptions, and the ideological conviction that “only the best will do.” Hopefully, embracing this mentality will at least make me a more fair, balanced, and judicious reviewer. Watch this space and find out.
Lead image kindly provided by Whisky Auctioneer.