Inviting new people into the world of whiskey can be a lot of fun. For some, it gives us the opportunity to show off what we have acquired over the years; not just in the very real sense of your bottle collection, but also of your knowledge, its depth and breadth, and possibly even welcoming them into your obsession.
Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, there was never a time that I can remember when a pretty vast array of spirits were not hanging around on some high shelf. While my parents were never by any means collectors of whiskey or spirits, because of their consistent Friday night friends-over, I quickly grew accustomed to how important it is to have a wide array of spirits available for yourself and guests. But it wasn’t until recently, while urging a close friend into the game of whiskey collecting and drinking, that I realized just how important to your own palate it is to have breadth in your collection, both within the niche of whiskey itself, and of other spirits on the whole.
Calling back to 2016, when I was first starting to grab as many bourbons in a week or month that my checking account balance would allow, I realized wat was for me – and for many in the social media groups I frequent, which are all bourbon-centric – is an issue for the beginning collector. I am as guilty as anyone of this sin against the whiskey gods, and I’m sure many a reader here will be, too.
As people with a long-term interest in whiskey, we often steer our younger or newer counterparts in a direction that can – and often does – negatively impact how they developing their palate, and which creates bias. I don’t think it’s news to anyone – specifically in the world of bourbon – to say that the majority seeks bottles from only a handful of distilleries. However, despite all the great things these few create for us as customers, steering those new to imbibing in whiskey – as well as potential collectors – toward them exclusively is a disservice to us both.
While this issue might seem obvious on its surface, I think the problems it creates are more wide reaching, and potentially far more damaging to both the industry as a whole, and maybe – more importantly – to us as individuals.
While I don’t wish to focus on the potential impact this could have on a larger scale just yet, I would like to spend time discussing individual choice and how it can negatively impact a drinker’s palate, and how that ultimately comes back on us: the torchbearers for all things whiskey.
Consider any platform which tries to assemble “The List” for those new to sipping and collecting, whether it be videos on YouTube, personal blog posts, or social media spaces that create a place for us to discuss whiskey. You almost always see some form of “10 bourbons everyone should have.” Usually this also includes some qualifiers such as price per bottle, price as a unit in terms of an entire “starters” collections, or maybe (most importantly for those of us not living within Kentucky, Scotland, or other traditional whiskey regions) availability. While these lists may help someone new to this hobby, what they certainly doesn’t do is create much space to encourage a developing palate.
For the sake of this conversation I watched several YouTube videos from all kinds of content creators. Some of these videos were made by some of the best known, internationally respected whisky advocates. Others, just your average Joe. Again, let me state that I do genuinely believe these are helpful to anyone looking to throw a whiskey-related party on the cheap, particularly if you’re not knowledgeable on the topic.
However, you have to think that if people are genuinely interested enough in the hobby to seek out content via YouTube or social media groups that are specific to bourbon and/or whiskey, we should give them to chance to find the real hidden gems of this hobby, and aid in developing their own palate by going outside the box. As you will often notice in many whiskey-related forums, the tastes of each whiskey are as unique as its drinker. Therefore, trying to unify definitive lists or singular suggestions will only be as successful as “trying to nail jelly to a tree” in the words of Dick Mitchell (jockey, horse trainer, whiskey enthusiast).
While I understand that many suggestions – whether they be a multi-bottle must-have list or just a one-off recommendation – are usually aiming to please the early, developing palate, it often comes at the expense of creativity. I’m not sure where the phrase was first used, but I often think of some iteration of “you don’t know what you like until you try it.” I would also argue that is where palate development should start: not at the expense of the new-to-whiskey, but at the expense of our own misinterpretation of what someone may want out of an experience.
What I often read as “approachable” – which is what many of the whiskeys that make up these “definitive” lists of early must-haves are – can also be read as “boring.” That alone can be just as much a reason for someone new to the hobby to turn away from it before they really start, as giving them suggestions of complex, and on occasion unknown labels, might be.
My reasoning for this is where my own desire to collect began. I grew up with squat Pappy being a mixer (no joke). It sat on shelves next to Fleischmann’s gin, Seagram’s 7, and just about any cola mixer anyone could imagine. In college, during the very beginning years of what is now the modern bourbon boom, you couldn’t give away BTAC.
As the hobby really started to ramp up and secondary markets became more influential, I was neck deep in the concurrent beer boom going on within every city on the United States. I even saw my own city of Louisville, Kentucky grow from only a handful of craft breweries to well over 20 in just four or five years. Close friends had latched on to the developing whiskey industry at this time and suggested many things, none of which were from the staple companies of the industry. Through those suggestions, I discovered my own deep appreciation for – and eventually obsession with – all things whiskey.
What the beer industry does for their upstart craft companies, we as whiskey collectors shun. The beer industry doesn’t have to fight the element of time and patience near as much as in whiskey; that much is obvious. The back catalogue of aging whiskey from our large distilleries is ever growing; nowhere is this more true than in Kentucky. But only so much palate development can be done, which goes hand in hand with appreciation, knowledge, and experimentation, whether you’re new to the hobby or a longtime fan.
Buying, drinking, and collecting from the same huge distillers, using the same or similar mash bills, yeast strains, aging practices, etc., time and time again, and throughout their history, can only allow for so much variance both within the product itself. Maybe more importantly, it only allows for a narrow experience in the development of our palates.
While I’m certainly not arguing against the importance of these longstanding traditions and the torchbearers for each of their respective companies, I find it rather problematic that those of us with influence do not use our knowledge to pass along to those new to the hobby a much more well-rounded and deep understanding of palate development, and how that can be done more thoroughly and expressly through thinking, buying, and drinking outside the proverbial box.
Ultimately, my suggestion to those of us that hold sway with our friends and family – and even with the community at large – as well as those of us that consider themselves new to collecting and drinking whiskey, is: to not be afraid to either suggest exploration and/or to explore in depth. While seems like common sense, judging by the whiskey communities at large, maybe it is not so common.
Almost every single person I know or see dabbling in the community via social media sites seems dead set on finding what we now consider “allocated” offerings, almost uniformly from one of the large distilleries. This is almost always due – in some form or fashion – to us, the men and women that have been more deeply involved in this community since before most of these low-to-mid-tier offerings became so hard to find, and (almost across the board) doubled or tripled in cost.
This call to buy, drink, and offer suggestions outside the norm comes at a great time for all of us, no matter the depth or breadth of our experience. The bourbon and whiskey boom has afforded us tons of great brands and labels that ultimately will help each of us build our palate range out and down, finding various mash bills, yeast strains, distilling styles, finishes, and single barrel selection committees that our personal palates agree with.
To put a fine point on this discussion: I think it is pertinent to go back to an earlier remark and expound upon personal experience. While I grew up around bourbon and had many a night enjoying it, it wasn’t until my early 30s that I found myself wanting to collect and share in the way most of us enjoy. That could be a function of aging and growing up, but what I really think did it for me was having a few friends offer me something totally new to me.
Nights by a fire, drinking things like High West’s Yippee Ki-Yay and A Midwinter Nights Dram – alongside staples like Eagle Rare, when it was still only offered as a single barrel – made the appreciation that ultimately turned to obsession real. It wasn’t that I always liked or enjoyed what was offered to me. Hardly. It was that they were creating nuance for me to see and appreciate in real time.
While I appreciate every glass of whiskey for what it is, it isn’t always the best ones that I remember the most fondly. It’s the ones that challenge my own personal bias. When the experience and changes to my palate – even ever so slightly – affect what I might be able to appreciate in the future; those are the whiskeys I seem to have an affinity for.
I dare you to be the friend, family member, or whiskey community member that brings something to the share, or offers advice against the grain, even though it may mean the people you’re suggesting it to might not appreciate the suggestion at the time. You never know what you like until you try it.
With that spirit in mind, I searched my stock of bottles for something that met a few personal standards that I would consider an equivalent to those pours circulating between 2014 to 2017. It could not be a distillate from one of the major players in Kentucky bourbon, and in fact this one isn’t from Kentucky at all, although the distillery has garnered quite the notoriety since my early days of dabbling in the hobby.
It was a plus that it actually came from a distillery that I had found to be fondly off-color at the time. I also required that it be distilled pre-2019. While that marker may seem rather subjective in nature, I did it so that whatever I sampled would be closer to the nature of the spirits I would have been imbibing in when my collection was first starting.
Lastly, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t within my usual proof-point bias, which is currently between 112 and 127, with some leeway for even more showy numbers above 130 when the likes of Old Forester’s Barrel Strength program and Elijah Craig’s 12 year Barrel Ptrength hit the market.
Ultimately, I came to my seat with the Utah-bred High West Whiskey Co. Double Rye, although a slightly different iteration than you’d find on any average store shelf (although, in my opinion, those have often been just as kind). This bottle was from a single barrel (9602) which was picked and barreled for Bern’s Steakhouse (Tampa, FL), but not before it spent an extra two years and two months in Madeira wine casks.
While the original High West Double Rye was aged just two years – at least according to its label at the time of this distribution – the extra two years for this single barrel has really incorporated everything the wine barrel brought to the table before their marriage…. dangerously so. In this particular tasting I drank a glass of wine (Leelanau Cellars of Omena, Michigan Witches Brew) before tasting. After a generous palate rinse, I went into the rye whiskey headlong.
I actually recall when I first bought and opened this bottle (late 2020, years before this tasting and review) that the wine notes drowned out the whiskey, almost completely. Untrained, I think this could still be the case. However, two years deeper into the knowledge that a deep and dense palate exploration affords, I actually find the nuance here to be both balanced and exciting. Yes, it’s taking the best of those two years of the Madeira cask aging, but it’s not just taking from them. It’s exploiting the best parts of the wine and making both the whiskey and the wine more indulgent.
High West Double Rye Barrel 9602 – Review
Color: Maybe not so strangely, the color is remarkably close to that of any standard Meio Doce (medium sweet). Dark copper and elegant. When sitting in the right light, it tips the edges of the glass with light burgundy.
On the nose: The nose is many things. Both herbaceous and floral, it seems to take the best characteristic of the typical herbal notes of rye whiskey and dashes in the typical notes of a nice Madeira wine: peach and orange peel.
In the mouth: The taste and mouthfeel are a wholly different experience. Not necessarily from what you’d expect from what your eyes and nose experience, but from what anyone would come to expect from a two year rye with an extra two years to mature. While rye seems to have a penchant for outgrowing corn-based whiskey one to one (years), if a four-year rye can taste like this, it deserves notice.
Again, this bottle seems to exploit all the great things the finishing cask brought to the table, but it’s not to say that the whiskey’s own additions to the pour aren’t equally indulgent. The flavors are all the things you come to expect from both whiskey and the wine barrel used to finish it: caramel (delicate, not dense and lasting), peach (lasting and forward), orange peel (with a perfect balance of bitterness), and just a hint of burnt sugar that sits and coats the tongue long after you’ve swallowed.
All in all, to me I’d normally balk at the idea of scoring a whiskey after giving such a long preamble about why it’s so important, for many reasons, to shy away from many of the standards we uphold in the community. Hell, a year ago I didn’t appreciate this bottle. Although the Halloween party cocktail I made with almost half this bottle was a crowd pleaser (a “potion” that mixed a sweet red wine, High West Double Rye Madeira finish, and triple sec), upon returning to it, I feel foolish.
Again, this almost surely proves the point. No matter how deep you are into this hobby, never sell something short. While this offering underwhelmed me at first glance (nearly two years ago) at a price point near $70 after tax, now I would consider that price a steal.
Using the MALT scoring bands this is easily a 6/10, and is probably more closely approaching a 7. My only knock would be a slight imbalance of flavors that a wine connoisseur would find much more tantalizing than your average whiskey drinker. Again, I’m reminded: what you don’t care for today may just be your favorite bottle, or at very least your favorite story in a year or two.
Sitting here enjoying a Glen Scotia, you have almost persuaded me to try Ardberg 10 again – the only bottle of liquor I have ever been unable to finish. But that was 15 years ago, before I got much beyond Glen Moray and Glenmorangie’s entry level offerings.
*Ardbeg. Damn you WordPress and your no-edit policy.
“Ardberg” is their forthcoming Committee Release, inspired by the Titanic, which is appropriate given how their recent NFT launch did. 😉
There’s just so many times I’ve come back to something down the road and thought “I must be an idiot.”. But it goes both ways. Some have been amazing the next time around. Others, not so much. Always fun though.