Nil satis nisi optimum.
I understand that high expectations are the mother of disappointment. In most cases, I try to approach a whiskey realistically (some might say “skeptically;” yet others would call my approach “cynical”) by not letting my anticipation get the best of me. After all, it’s just distilled grain matured in oak, right?
Across the globe, the worlds of whisky and whiskey are stuffed full of superlatives. How many unassuming casks have been anointed with the words “only the finest?” How many commonplace bottles have been awarded bronze, silver, gold, and double gold medals at pay-to-play spirits “competitions?” How many barrel pick clubs, high off the experience of selecting “their own” whiskey (thrice rejected by prior selectors), have applied a sticker proclaiming it “The G.O.A.T. Epic Nectar of the Gods?”
In each of these cases I understand the motivations of all involved, whether it be to sell bottles or simply to stroke one’s own… um… ego. Most hyperbole is likely the product of marketing fluff or excess enthusiasm, rather than actual malice. As such, it can typically be mocked gently and then promptly forgotten.
Sometimes, though, the static of the whole world’s opinions coalesces into a drumbeat that cannot be ignored. In certain situations, the praise for a given expression is both effusive and universal enough (including from usually evenhanded and trustworthy sources) that it points strongly to the whiskey in question being something truly special. In rare instances, the “p” word starts to get thrown around.
If whiskey perfection were commonplace, it wouldn’t be noteworthy. Therefore, when I encounter a whiskey which – on the basis of reputation or specifications – might be a contender for the critical equivalent of beatification, I am of two minds.
First, that aforementioned cynicism kicks my spider senses into high gear. Like the psychedelic ultra-realism of an Ivan Albright painting, I start to experience each nit as an irredeemable flaw, each slightly off flavor as a justification for blanket condemnation. Now I am become critic, the destroyer of whiskies.
On the other hand, in these instances I am secretly hopeful that the dram at hand really will be the promised whiskey. To quote Oscar Hammerstein: “If you don’t have a dream, how are you going to make a dream come true?” Great whiskey is out there, albeit in dwindling quantities.
Though I am far from the most assiduous “hunter” (I imagine that the murderers of lions and mastodons in millennia past would look askance at the application of that term to fat suburban dads who spend their Saturdays pestering liquor store clerks… but I digress) of fine and rare whiskey, every occasionally this blind pig finds an acorn, usually with the help of a kind friend.
I am continually amazed at the generosity of this whiskey community. For all the carping I do about taters camping out all night in folding chairs solely to procure a bottle to flip on Facebook, I am spared regular interactions with them. Rather, the folks with whom I commonly fellowship (in reality as well as virtually) open their bars to me as though I were family.
Thus it was that I came into possession of the whiskey that I have been dying to try since I learned of its existence (thank you, Scott). On paper (specifically the shiny gilt label that gives this bottle its cognomen) this is Limited Edition Wild Turkey Twelve Years Old 101 Proof. To the Wild Turkey cognoscenti, however, it is referred to as “Cheesy Gold Foil,” or “CGF” for those in a hurry.
As always, I will defer to my betters as regards matters of classification. In the case of Wild Turkey, my friend David Jennings is the go-to authority on this particular expression, as well as all the others from the Pride of Lawrenceburg. Though the nickname mocks the oh-so-80’s aesthetic, the reverence in which this bottle is held – by both Turkey fanatics as well as bourbon lovers more generally – puts it among the ne plus ultra of American whiskey.
The honor paid to this whiskey by all (as far as I can tell) who have tasted it is what has made it my personal Holy Grail (to borrow David’s characterization) of bourbon. If this doesn’t end up being one of the best whiskeys I have ever tasted, then either every whiskey connoisseur I know is an idiot, or else I have horrific taste in everything. Either way, the stakes are as high as ever.
I have no idea what this bottle sold for on release (a pittance, most likely) and can only guess at the price of a bottle today (multiple thousands of dollars, probably). Still, if it is actually perfect, that means it will have transcended space, time, and Malt’s price-sensitive scoring bands. A segment of Malt’s peanut gallery frequently exhorts me to consider (and score) a whiskey on its own merits, irrespective of price. I’m deferring to those loquacious legumes today, and giving you my opinions on this whiskey without respect to cost.
Cheesy Gold Foil – Review
Color: An incredible dark brown with a tawny hue.
On the nose: Holy smokes. I haven’t even picked the glass up yet – my face is probably still 18 inches away – and I am already getting wisps of mocha and chocolate fudge ticking my nostrils. OK, here we go, proper sniff… this is glorious. Rounded and rich, it smells like an entire room paneled in freshly varnished wood. There’s a gooey, sticky sweetness to this that suggests hot fudge syrup, or perhaps maple syrup matured in a bourbon barrel. Some spicy elements of kola nut and a resinous touch of pine bough are subtly integrated. Interestingly enough (and perhaps a sign of my suggestibility), I actually sense a little cheese of a very rich variety here; think of a creamy goat cheese warmed to the point of melting slightly. There’s a touch of the funkiness that I normally associate with dusty whiskey here, but it’s quite subtle and exceedingly well-integrated. On the nose, at least, this is perfect.
In the mouth: At the front of the mouth, this starts with a spicy bite of wood that turns into a slightly bitter, astringent note of dried flowers as the whiskey progresses toward midpalate. There, it meets with a mentholated note of eucalyptus as well as some tart cherry notes. With time, I start to taste a sweet and spicy note reminiscent of Mexican Coca-Cola. That menthol aspect really blooms as this moves toward the finish, where it takes on additional “dark” notes of cigar ash, black licorice, and bitumen. These yield, slowly and gradually, to a chalky minerality that creates a drying sensation on the tongue and roof of the mouth. More time and additional sips reveal that initial polished woodiness coming back for an encore around the molars and gums, bringing with it another flavor of freshly muddled mint leaves. The aftertaste and residual heat pulse in the mouth, receding as slowly as possible.
I wrote a lot there, and yet I’m not really certain I got it all down. A half-ounce pour of this entranced me for the better part of half an hour. The nose was immediately winning, but the palate took time to come around. When it did, however, it wouldn’t quit moving; each time I pinned down a flavor note, I sensed another one to chase, and so on endlessly. While not as plump as the nose, the palate makes up for its lithe character by having so many diverse and fascinating flavors to offer.
Setting aside my intellectual considerations and embracing the hedonistic sensations this whiskey elicits in me: I crave it. To say that I “want” another bottle, another glass, even another sip of this, is like saying that a man crawling through the Sahara “wants” a cool glass of water. If I don’t get it, I’ll perish.
OK, that might be hyperbole of the type I excoriated above, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the best whiskies I have ever tasted. It stands up there with Hibiki 30, the 1973 Old Weller Antique 107, and the 2017 George T. Stagg. At almost any price, I’d be (at least) tempted to buy a bottle. I wavered only momentarily before deciding that this is, in fact, perfect whiskey.
I can describe this whiskey to you, however inartfully, but I am not capable of describing the sense of relief that I feel at being able to report that this lived up to the hype. It was probably my most desired pour before tasting this sample and is definitely my most desired pour now that I have tried it. If you have the means to taste it for yourself, I’d strongly urge you to do so. If you don’t, well… there’s always friendship, which can bring you whiskey like this, and far greater things besides.
Photos courtesy of David Jennings/Rare Bird 101.