Can whiskey stop being a thing? You know what I mean… or you will, shortly.
Nobody used to care about whiskey. The people that drank regularly it were a minority, and they bought it by the plastic bottle or handle, one at a time, and replaced it when they ran out. Of that minority, a yet smaller minority – miniscule, particularly in comparison to similarly-inclined folks now – collected bottles and knew which brands came from which distilleries and why some tasted better than others. Most of us went on our merry ways, happily oblivious to whiskey as anything other than an ingredient in an Old Fashioned or a once-annual Mint Julep.
Then there was a period of time – not a single inflection point, but a gradual process – whereby whiskey transcended its utilitarian purpose and took on additional dimensions. It became a thing. People who recently didn’t know the difference between Booker’s and Blanton’s were suddenly discussing mash bills. It became not only reasonable but prudent to buy multiple bottles of the same whiskey at the same time. If these bottles didn’t make appearances on their owners’ social media feeds, it is as though they were never really purchased at all.
It reminds me of what happened to beer, and to wine, and to restaurants, and sneakers, and… well… everything. I blame the internet, which is as effective a tool as any for the atomization of interests into intense niches. Like-minded folks coalesce and geek out and reinforce one another, pushing themselves to further extremes of behavior. Seeing someone’s 500-bottle collection makes one’s own 100-bottle collection seem perfectly reasonable; restrained, even, by comparison (never mind that most casual outside observers would consider this to be “a lot of whiskey”).
In the way that beer drinkers abandoned so-called “macrobrews” (the Buds, Millers, and Coors) for the constantly shifting style du jour of the craft world, whiskey drinkers have widened their apertures to include a list of craft distilleries that grows daily. The shift has perhaps been less pronounced in whiskey than in beer – the “blue chip” limited edition bottlings still come from big distilleries like Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and Heaven Hill – but the better craft whiskeys are certainly as well-regarded as comparably priced offerings from the established producers.
So there’s increased competition for bottles, in which the chances of success are not sufficient when one just shows up at the store at the appointed day and time. No, being personally rewarded with an allocated bottle now requires a close relationship with the store owner or chain manager, and a steady stream of year-round purchases to stay in their good graces. Don’t even get me started on the “secondary market” which, for whatever defense is mounted in its support, remains unequivocally illegal under federal and state law.
On top of that, remaining conversant in whiskey requires constant exploration of new producers and novel releases from existing craft distillers. There’s also the enervating process of sifting through NDP or independent bottlings to parse which are truly differentiated products (not many) versus a standard MGP mash bill aged for four years and a day (lots).
Are you exhausted? I am, and – based on commentary I have heard and read – more and more of you are, too.
To be clear: this isn’t about a desire to return to the time when coveted bottles were just sitting there gathering dust. The days of Pappy on the convenience store shelf are long gone and aren’t coming back. Rather, it’s about a dawning realization that you don’t need great whiskey to have a good time. Heck, you don’t even need to have excellent, or very good, or slightly-above-average whiskey. You just need good friends. To go a step further: at some point, all of the energy and money spent engaging in the aforementioned shenanigans stops increasing enjoyment of whiskey, and in fact starts diminishing it, in my experience.
I’d like to propose a mental exercise for you: try not giving a shit about whiskey for some period of time. Don’t chase bottles, don’t track TTB filings for new releases, don’t say the words “mash bill.” Stop acting like a freak and pretend to be a normal person who can exist in society without boring strangers by hijacking conversations, interjecting stuff like “Actually, Four Roses has an eleventh recipe…” that nobody cares about.
If you feel personally attacked by the above, don’t @ me. I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to me. I have recently been admonishing myself for my folly, for letting the minutiae of this hobby overwhelm good sense. It’s time for a reset for me, and I suspect that many of those reading this might also be due for one. What does that mean, in practice?
For me, it has taken the form of a moratorium on bottle purchases. I have an embarrassingly large pile of samples and boxes full of bottles which I recently had to move across state lines. Some of these are real treasures – crazy off-profile barrel picks, or special bottles that I look forward to cracking open with my kids when they graduate college – but others are just symptoms of my compulsive collecting and FOMO and general lack of self-restraint.
Working down this backlog, I’ll be opening and reviewing a bottle from the latter category today: a Woodinville bourbon. I bought this on the recommendation of a store employee at a local joint that I liked to support. Per the label, it was selected for Bell’s 104 and the “Brown Water Social Club,” whoever they might be.
The less said about the sticker on this, the better. Of all the ills plaguing the world of whiskey in 2022, I sincerely hope that a whiskey bubble bust might rid us of stickers, at least the provocative sort laden with double entendres of the most sophomoric variety.
Final specifics before tasting: This is bottle #67 from barrel #3977. It is bottled at 122.1 proof (61.05% ABV; the sticker disagrees with the front label, which I presume means that the whiskey proofed up prior to bottling). Retail price on this was $71, above the $60 that I paid for my last Woodinville pick.
Woodinville Bourbon Private Select Single Barrel #3977 – Review
Color: Golden orangey-brown.
On the nose: Immediately fruity in a very inviting way, this has ample notes of grape soda and chewing gum, as well as additional nuances of brandied cherries. The barrel influence is evident in a creamy vanilla accent, and there are some pleasantly spicy whiffs of coriander, thyme, and cinnamon. More time in the glass reveals a rocky scent reminiscent of red brick or volcanic soil. Great diversity here at the periphery, but the core is all about that fruit.
In the mouth: The first sip echoes the nose, presenting generous grape and cherry flavors immediately. The whiskey is then propelled up the tongue by another jet of woody spiciness, this time incorporating all the aforementioned flavors plus a darker note of star anise. This dries out significantly at midpalate, though, turning into an ashy woodiness suggestive of a spent campfire. Moving toward the finish, I get a momentary nuttiness accompanied by a tingly texture that feels almost effervescent, the first time that I notice the comparatively high ABV. That fruit lingers on through the finish, coating the mouth with a persistent grape flavor in the manner of the residual aftertaste of fruity chewing gum.
Very different from the prior bottle of Woodinville I tried, not that one is better or worse than the other. This has more in common with that freaky “Quarter Pop” New Riff barrel, particularly the sugary grape notes. I’ve often posited that the point of the single barrel format is to provide off-profile or unexpected aromas and flavors, and this whiskey delivers on the promise.
That’s not to say that it is one note, though it does lean heavily into the fruit. There’s plenty more going on here, and the symmetry between the nose and the palate on this is a good thing. However, there are points in the mouth where this goes slightly astray; not enough to mar the entire experience, but enough to moderate an unqualified positive appraisal. Still, this is good, and the price isn’t crazy, so I’m bestowing a score above the middle of the range.
OK, so, maybe my prologue was an overreaction. Whiskey is a thing and, as annoying as that can sometimes be, it’s for good reason. There are great whiskeys out there, being made in the current day, and it is only the broad-based enthusiasm for the spirit that makes this possible. If there were no craft whiskey there would be no Woodinville, and thus no barrels like these for us to enjoy.
Tempering my prior plea: you don’t have to stop caring about whiskey, as I certainly haven’t. However, I feel that most of us enthusiasts could benefit from regular reality checks and continual assessments of our perspectives. Make you a deal: you keep me honest (through your feedback and constructive criticism) and I’ll do the same. Cheers!