“Whiskey’s not dead.”
I’ve recently come to see more parallels between the world of whiskey and the realm of punk rock. As I turned the two over in my head, analogues emerged that made me think that the (relatively brief) history of punk might hold some lessons for those of us currently grappling with problems in the whiskey “scene.”
These musings were prompted by Kelefa Sanneh’s recent New Yorker piece, in which he reminisced about his journey with punk rock. Malt has always had a somewhat of a punk rock sensibility, perhaps deliberately. I was certainly a fan of the genre as a teenager, as I know other contributors to the site were. One particular line from Sanneh’s piece jumped out at me as being relevant to thinking about what we do here:
“This was a quasi-religious doctrine, turning aesthetic disagreements into matters of grave moral significance. Punk was good, and other music was bad, meaning not just inferior but wrong.”
There’s been no shortage of reviews on Malt (my own included) written with a tone that could be described as “moralistic.” However, the actual amount of wrongdoing – narrowly defined, in the legal sense – in the world of whiskey is far less than a casual reader of this site might intuit from reading our throaty complaints about… well, almost everything.
Oh, sure, there’s plenty of stuff to moan about in whiskey. A comprehensive list of examples would exhaust the patience of even our most devoted fans. To summarize briefly: prices increase, quality decreases, and consumers are expected to pay more for less. This losing trade becomes more egregious with each passing year, as more and more pedestrian whiskey is dressed up in elaborate packaging and dubious narratives meant to justify the inexorable upward march of prices.
However: none of this is illegal, or even necessarily morally wrong. Disappointing? You bet. That said, the ancient maxim “caveat emptor” does not apply uniquely to whiskey. The aforementioned shenanigans are also Malt’s raison d’être, as we are in the business of letting Joe and Jane Consumer know when the emperor is actually buck naked. “Sticking it to the man” – in the form of impartial reviews and honest scoring – is what passes for whiskey punk in the current era. It might therefore come as no surprise that – like Sanneh observed – our subjective assessments sometimes take on the mantle of sanctimoniousness.
It should perhaps also not shock anyone, then, that the responses to our reviews sometimes tack equally self-righteous. I’ve personally had my palate, intellect, and integrity impugned on this site, simply because a reader – and I pause here for emphasis – disagreed with my score. Consider that for a moment: I liked a whiskey better (or worse) than someone else did. Rather than choosing any number of more charitable interpretations, some portion of the commentariat has decided to conclude that this means I am a tasteless, corrupt idiot. I believe the punk rock terms would be “poseur” or “sellout.”
Disputes occasionally spill over into social media, where they metastasize into bigger conflicts. If I were to describe them using tasting notes, I might choose to highlight “the sour aroma of disaffection” and “a pungent flavor of hatred.” Reflecting sadly on these squabbles, I am often reminded of Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.” To paraphrase Sayre further: the fights about this money-losing, hobbyist-run (and definitely not professional) whiskey blog are so bitter because the stakes are so low.
This again nods to the punk scene, which Sanneh characterizes as factional to an extent that would make Monty Python’s Judea look as united as wartime Britain. Whiskey cliques (I hesitate to use the term “tribes,” for fear of bringing unintended retribution down upon myself) are no less insular and defensive than the ones in the hardcore or crust punk genres. Slights (real or imagined) to one member of the group are slights to all, and the buzzing response is predictable as a swarm of hornets whose nest has been disturbed.
Another cautionary tale from the realm of punk is that of the “scene veteran.” You know the type: usually male, full of tales about how much better things used to be, heaping scorn on his juniors, and always demanding – not commanding – respect. This is not limited to those that formerly frequented the mosh pit; aging frontmen are no less sad spectacles to behold. Consider “Never Mind the Bollocks”-era Johnny Rotten, and compare that energetic incarnation to John Lydon, the wizened “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!” contestant, sitting on a couch with one-hit wonder pop stars and Page 3 models.
In recent years, I was so saddened by the idea of a bloated and wrinkled Glenn Danzig that I forewent the opportunity to see a reunited Misfits show, something that would have been unimaginable to a younger me. The whiskey equivalent is probably well-known to all, given how hard they are to avoid, and I’ve made repeated mental notes not to become that guy. This is not ageism – there are plenty of elder statespeople of whiskey who have my genuine respect – but rather a pushback against an especially pernicious type that slinks venomously around the periphery.
Another parallel occurred to me during a recent conversation about whether the current unbridled enthusiasm for whiskey was sustainable, or whether it was actually turning off new fans. “Punk’s not dead” is a self-defeating irony; anything with an undeniable vitality would be in no need of reassurance. I recall this whenever I see an offhand mention of “peak whiskey” met with protestations that, to the contrary, whiskey is as popular as ever and only getting more so.
If whiskey is to be killed, in my opinion, it’s unlikely to be a sudden overdose of the type that claimed Sid Vicious. Rather, whiskey will be slowly poisoned by the toxic actions of the worst members of the crowd. I’ve mentioned a few of the especially noxious attributes of the current whiskeyverse before. Some of these are intrinsic to human nature; wishing an end to them would be as fruitful as wishing D. Boon or Darby Crash back to life. However, a great deal of it is a conscious choice made on a daily basis by people who have abandoned the principles who govern their conduct in normal circumstances. There’s a flavor of punk’s aggressive nihilism and some of its worst behavioral excesses in the attitudes of those willing to procure a bottle by any means necessary, regardless of the implications of their actions.
What does all that have to do with the whiskey I’ll be reviewing today? In the way that punk continually evolves to focus its criticism on the target of the time, Malt has to keep on top of chicanery in whiskey. In practice, this entails suspending knee-jerk dismissal and doing some critical evaluation of new brands, regardless of how bored we might be with banging the same drums.
Reviewing my pile of samples, I started to feel a sneer curl my lip as I noticed several bottles of Prohibition Craft Spirits’ NULU bourbon. NULU feels paradigmatic, in that basically everything I hate about American whiskey is captured in what this company does and how it does it.
This may feel like an exaggerated claim, but let’s examine the evidence. Prohibition’s site contains the following paragraph:
“There’s something special about rolling up your sleeves and getting “Back-to-Basics.” At PCS Distilling Company’s facility, we do just that; combining the ﬁnest ingredients in our recipes with hands-on, devoted attention to every step of the distilling process. Every batch is small-batch, made right here in our downtown Louisville location.”
You guessed it: they source bourbon from MGP. In fairness to PCS, they’re “transparent” about it in the way that if you go to their website and know what you’re looking for, you can find the following:
“We bring you these carefully selected barrels of MGP Bourbon uncut and unfiltered while our own distillate rests.”
Keep in mind that there’s no disclosure on the front of the bottle about this, based on the images I have reviewed. There might be “Distilled in Indiana” in tiny print on the back, but I wouldn’t know because the guy and gal who picked this slapped a huge sticker on the reverse of the bottle. Though no fault of PCS, this is a zero value-add which does not contribute anything to my enjoyment of the whiskey, and actually obscures some potentially relevant info. Finally, NULU bottles are topped with wax, which already looks absolutely terrible before it’s opened, and yet somehow becomes less attractive afterwards.
It’s enough to make a man wish for Anarchy in the U.S.A. That said, I’m trying to remain somewhat objective despite my many aforementioned misgivings. At least we know that MGP is capable of making good whiskey, which is why others source from them in the first place.
Some final specifics, before I dig in: This was a single barrel selected by It’s Bourbon Night, and the sample was provided to me by Ryan. This is barrel #B152, aged five years and four months, and bottled at 117.8 proof (58.9% ABV). This is available for $58 from Shared Pour, which actually seems like a decent price (I have seen 5-year NULU barrels marked up to $100, at which price they’d better cure COVID).
NULU Straight Bourbon Single Barrel #B152 – Review
Color: Medium-light gold
On the nose: Exceedingly light, aromatically speaking; it really takes a lot of focus and concentration to pick individual notes out of this. There’s a faint vanilla, a very hard-to-place woody note, and a mildly herbal accent. I get a curious note sitting somewhere between fresh lilac and grape hard candy as the main point of intrigue but, overall, this is somewhat of an introvert on the nose.
In the mouth: Immediately, that candied grape fruitiness is more front and center in a way that is very pleasant. There’s a richer, more buttery sweetness as this moves up the tongue. In the middle of the mouth, the whiskey evinces a piquant woodiness that imparts a nearly effervescent texture. Moving into the finish, I sense a fusion of rich sweetness, sharper wood accents, and an emergent stoniness that lends this some structure. The grape flavor lingers as an aftertaste on the inside of the cheeks and around the edge of the tongue.
Well, I’ll be damned. I may not like PCS, I may think that NULU is a silly name, I may be wary of yet another bottle of MGP bourbon dressed up in other livery, I may detest the wax and sticker aesthetics, but the bourbon itself is pretty tasty. Though the nose is a mostly a snooze-fest, in the mouth that surprisingly fruity note (in common with the New Riff “Quarter Pop” barrel) is pure deliciousness. In total, and in light of the price, I feel obliged to score this a notch above average.
Returning to my initial conceit: part of punk is growing out of punk, and then revisiting it later on to isolate the important parts. Only with some distance was I able to see beyond the mohawks and safety pins to appreciate the aspects of punk that matter: the do-it-yourself aesthetic, calling attention to things that matter to you (particularly when nobody else will), and speaking truth to power.
Translating that, again, to whiskey terms: I believe that the highest regard is to be reserved for folks that actually earn the “craft” moniker by making whiskey themselves. I believe that the current hype hurricane swirling around bourbon is not good for consumers, and I worry that, in the long run, it may not be good for the industry. I believe that, even if the sourced whiskey marketing folks and the Instagram influencers won’t tell you the truth about what’s in a bottle (and whether or not it’s any good), this is necessary information that is appreciated by some portion of our audience. I’ll try my best to keep bringing it to you here, for as long as punk and whiskey aren’t dead.
Photos courtesy of whiskeynoob.