“Simplicity Is The Ultimate Sophistication"
-- Leonardo da Vinci
Promoting the simple and responsible enjoyment of whiskey/whisky is a core activity of the Irish Whiskey Society of America and my related company, All About The Craic, Inc. We’ve done that with hundreds of people at dozens of tastings in the past few years. By “simple,” I don't mean uninteresting whiskeys or cute, bland or dumbed-down information. Attendees actually learn that whiskey is less about which is the “smoothest” or “best” and much more about variety and complexity. They also get a good idea of the myriad permutations in style and flavor that come from grains, stills and wood.
We welcome whiskey newcomers as well as experienced whiskey/whisky drinkers and even non-drinkers (as "Pioneers"). We can get into phenol counts, still reflux, warehouse rotations all sorts of other ephemera for whiskey wonks when relevant. But we’re also relaxed about the things that can make the whiskey world confusing, confounding or intimidating to would-be whiskey drinkers.
Our Ireland v. Scotland duel matched Black Bush against Johnnie Walker Black Label (blends), Connemara against Bowmore 12-year-old (peated single malts) and Green Spot against Glenlivet 12-year-old. Ireland came out the winner that night.
Tasting notes and ratings are a good example. Either can be a helpful guide or they can be a distracting barrier. Nobody wants to spend money on what might be a “bad” or “not-as-good” whiskey. And they don’t want to look foolish just because they can't smell or taste toasted almonds, cardamom, sultanas, pixie dust or Cú Chulainn’s wet dog in any given whiskey. Aside from variations in individual tastes, your sense of taste can shift with time, place, mood, body chemistry and drinking companions. Geography matters too. For example, most Americans think of “Christmas cake” not as the tasty treat common in the UK and Ireland but as a dry, dense, unsatisfyingly sweet bread riddled with walnuts and candied fruit.
Accounting For Taste
At the tastings we’ll give a combination of notes from distillers, reviewers and our own experience when introducing a whiskey, describing nose, taste and finish. Each attendee has their own sheet on which we encourage them to make notes that mean something to them instead of following a specific form. Sometimes they leave their notes behind so we save them to study the reactions. The observations range from basic, to more-standard wording, to colorful and inventive, to what is best described as “unique.”'
By the way, we give each attendee a pipette and distilled water to explore how a whiskey/whisky changes with just a few drops.
Here are some of the more interesting examples:
-- At a 2011 Irish whiskey tasting, one person described Bushmill’s 10-year-old single malt as “smooth overall” while another noted that it “opens up with water, creamier with water.” At a 2012 tasting, one person said that the Cooley-made private-label Kellan Irish whiskey was “better without water” while another wrote “like with H2O.”
-- Not everyone takes notes while others are sparse in their observations. At a February 2013 Irish whiskey and chocolate pairing, one person managed to do both. They wrote “good” in their notes for the pairing of Jameson and Mo’s Dark Chocolate with Bacon (the favorite combo of the night). Next to the other five pairings they simply wrote the word “notes.”
-- Some combine notes with their own rating system. At a tasting of Island single malt Scotches earlier this year, one person described 4 of the 6 age-statement whiskys as “good,” (Arran 10, Jura 10, Talisker 10, Tobermory 10) one as “shit” (Laphroig 10 Cask Strength) and another as “best” (Scapa 16, which was the overall favorite of the evening). Another used a system reminiscent of a 80s-era men’s magazine that ranked pornographic videos using graphical representations of male genitalia. I’m not sure but I think he had Laphroig Cask Strength and Scapa 16 tied for first.
Yet another scored the same whiskys as follows, presumably on a rising scale from 1 to 10:
-- Others took a more conventional, descriptive approach. One noted the finish of the Talisker 10 saying, “Go long + get the sweet.” Another wrote that 4 drops of water in the Jura 10 “brought out the vanilla.” The Laphroig Cask Strength had a “good strong flavor, opens up w/4 + 8 drops of water, great aroma w/ 8 drops of water.” He liked all of the Island malts but the Tobermory 10 was best for him: “I would buy this.”
-- People make personal connections to whiskey. One person noted that the smell of Scotch had unpleasant childhood associations with a heavy-drinking father. Another said that the nose of an Irish whiskey (I don't remember which) reminded him of "an old girlfriend.” I’m not sure but he seemed to think it was a pleasurable scent.
-- At a January 2013 Irish whiskey tasting one person made the following notes:
Jameson Better than I remember from college
Bushmills Hot… dat feel
Kilbeggan Smells like fruit + biscuits. Opiate for the masses.
Teeling Poitin Yeeeah
Teeling Hybrid Malt DIB! Smoke dat. (love it)
Dingle Gold Smells like Play-Doh
Yellow Spot Damn fine whiskey
Another described Yellow Spot as “decadent without attitude.”
-- One of my favorite, unintentionally funny tasting notes is one of my own from an October 2012 visit to the Jura Distillery. There were many bottlings to try in a visit shortened by the ferry schedule. My notes on one of the Jura Boutique Bottlings end with the words “Hints of.” Now if I could only remember the hint.
The Art of Tasting Notes
Sometimes words alone can’t completely capture people’s impressions of a given whiskey. Instead they resort to other forms of expression, including drawings, to record their notes. In September 2012 one whiskey newcomer recorded her feelings about the Irish whiskeys we tried that night, including the heavy hitters Green Spot single pot still and Bushmills 21-year-old single malt. The picture below tells the rest, though I should note that her feelings about Green Spot and Kilbeggan were not widely shared:
Kilbeggan actually came in second on this night,
just behind the first-place tie between Green Spot and Bushmills 21
-- Finally, one of our more artistic drinkers used alternate versions of a picture-based rating system at a May 2013 Bourbon tasting. The “notes” may be hard to decipher, though the relative deadliness of the weapons shown corresponds to how well she liked each whiskey. I think. The other uses a sequence of birds indicating how well they liked each bourbon. I think.
The notes here are a small sample from the 50+ tastings we’ve done. They are not “sophisticated” per se. They won't be as widely used as Mark Gillespie’s notes at WhiskyCast, or in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. But they are no less valid, certainly to the people making them. And I think that’s the point of tasting notes and ratings.
As, da Vinci noted above, “sophistication” comes not from the ability to describe your perceptions of a whiskey/whisky, or in pronouncements of the “best” whiskey/whisky or the “right” way to drink it. It comes from “simple” enjoyment of the sharing of the drink and the stories that come from that. And that doesn't require any notes, only a little information, an open mind and one or more kindred spirits.
Let us raise a parting glass of Irish whiskey to mark the death, burial and banishment from memory of the twisted notion that there are Catholic and Protestant whiskeys.That's it. Done. Great. Now, what can I pour you? Oh yes, and sláinte!
California is known for a lot of things. Some of them are pretty good (San Francisco, The Beach Boys, craft beer), some aren’t so great: Hollywood, bankruptcy, Kim Kardashian. Whatever comes to your mind when you think of California, I’m guessing it isn’t whiskey. After all, the American whiskey reputation has been snatched up by Kentucky, Tennessee mostly. But this unfortunately leaves some great whiskey action happening right here in California that needs more attention.
Full disclosure: I’m a California-dweller (San Francisco to be exact) and am very much in love with my state. Maybe it’s for that reason that I thought it was important to bring the spotlight over here for a second.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn about some really cool distilleries and whiskeys coming out of the Sunshine State recently and thought I’d spread a bit of the love around.
"We certainly have the knowledge here because of the number of Scots who settled here and have brought their skills with them. Rye and bourbon were originally made by Scots and Irish immigrants," says Phil Elwell, from Ye Olde King’s Head pub in Santa Monica, a whiskey haven for southern Californians.
The west coast is known for its wine and beer, which is precisely why many believe locally distilled whiskey is also catching on. For some, it seems like California is ripe for such a movement, which is why it’s achieved a few drams of success - "People in California have grown up with wineries and microbreweries so they are already receptive to craft whiskeys," says Elwell.
What you can find here are whiskeys with very distinct personalities, whiskeys you don't find anywhere else.
St. George Whiskey, Alameda, CA
Jorg Rupf comes from a line of eau-de-vie distillers in Germany. Lance Winters has a brewing background, which is what did before coming to St. George in 1995. Together they run St. George’s Distillery.
St. George’s distillery is on the same premises as that of Hangar One Vodka, which is in an isolated airplane hangar in the old Alameda Naval Air Station.
Rupf and Winters bring certain beer techniques to their whiskey. For example, St. George uses a mixture of the toasted malts on their whiskeys that lend a rich, dark color to porters and stouts; they're the only West Coast distillers to do so. Some say this is why their whiskeys have such striking fruit aromas that make it so distinctive. Their Bourbon barrels also contribute to their signature fruitiness. They are also known to use smoked malts – smoked over hardwoods like beech and alder.
The product of their collaboration is like no other whiskey ever -- it has a rainbow of sweet fruit and flower aromas you can scarcely believe come from grain, and an amazing smoothness on the palate. Yes, it’s a single malt. Or, the “whiskey that wants to be a whisky” (2)
Charbay Distillery, St. Helena, CA
Charbay is known for it’s high-end brandies and eau-de-vie and produced near Napa Valley. More recently they got into the whiskey business and started to get wild.
When deciding how to build a great whiskey, they had a rather radical idea – embracing hops at a new level, featuring it in a similar way as some American beers. This, combined with aging in American White Oak barrels, creates a unique flavor profile.
Charbay Double Barrel Hop-Flavored Whiskey is impressive. Its aromas are vegetal – like grass and hay – and has a bitter finish (props to the hops). Heady, dry-grass aromas. More recently, Charbay has announced R5 Aged Whiskey, which is a new experimental whiskey distilled not directly from grain, but from Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA Beer, typically known to please very strong hoppy-beer fans across the west coast. It’s then aged for 22 months in French Oak.
Anchor Distilling, San Francisco, CA
In true American fashion, Fritz Maytag, the founder of Anchor, wanted to rediscover the way whiskey was originally made in America, the same kind George Washington used to make - 100% rye, sold straight from the still without barrel aging. He calls it “Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey”.
However, laws that still linger in America after Prohibition don’t allow him to sell it without aging it (which surprised me), like he originally planned. He does release one version aged for only two years – but he’s not allowed to call it “whiskey” due to California laws, and settles for “spirit” instead. Another version he makes is aged three years in charred Bourbon-type barrels.
In a tasting panel conducted by the LA Times, it was said that Old Potrero’s aroma is reminiscent of brandy-based liquer such as B&B. When water is added, notes of fresh hay come front and center.
Old Potrero Straight Rye Whiskey
Nose: Very smoky and Scotch like. Old leather and molasses with a hint of Alspice.
Taste: Molasses, spice. A bit of vanilla and leather.
Finish: Very sweet molasses and spice that lingers for a minute and then simply becomes a bit smokey.
*tasting notes from Bourbon Enthusiast
Perhaps it’s because California doesn’t have a strict whiskey tradition to limit experimentation, or maybe it’s thanks to typical California craziness, but it needs to be noted that there are unique and seriously interesting whiskeys being created right here in the Sunshine State. After all, if we elected this guy to be governor, isn’t anything possible?
Nose: The initial freshly mown hay aroma is given substantial depth by the typical Pot Still spices. Red bell peppers, freshly ground nutmeg, a tincture of clove oil and a splash of green tea, balanced with the sweet soft nose of honey and peaches contributed by the Malaga wine casks seasoned in Andalucia. An exquisite sensory experience.The pot still spice is very much there, along with a distinct yet subtle fruitiness that to me was evocative not just of red apple but red apple peel with both sweetness and a tannin-like dryness. The toasted oak was folded in there also. I'm looking forward to exploring it more soon.
Taste: The mouth coating sensation to be expected from this Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey is apparent from the first sip. Honey sweetness with Pot Still spices, slowly gives way to a spectrum of flavours, from the depth of freshly ground coffee, up through creamy milk chocolate to crème brûlée, picking up some red apples and toasted oak along the way.
Finish: Sophisticated and complex, the sweetness of the initial sip remains throughout, with a beautifully succulent mix of red grape and dry barley grains at the exit.