Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Whiskey Impossible


In the world of food and beverage there are certain experiences that exist which we fetishize and put on a pedestal above all else. For example, in the culinary world a trip to Spain’s el Bulli when it was still in full swing, or a supping of sea weed soup at Noma in Denmark are the sort of dining experiences that one would partake in not just for the cuisine itself, but also (perhaps unadmittedly) to make our friends and colleagues projectile vomit with jealousy - here in this age of self branding and remarkably public consumption.

And of course in beer, one could snap a selfie while sipping a Heady Topper, Hill Farmstead, or Pliny the whatever for a similar experience, but last week I had the bourbon equivalent: a tasting of every bottling of Pappy Van Winkle in addition to William Larue Weller twelve year old bourbon and EH Taylor’s bourbon bottled in bond. Commence drooling, prostration, and the gnashing of teeth.

I won’t go into the history or backstory of why Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is significant enough to have a tasting of because there already exist virtual tomes, written by those of greater dedication than I, on the internet already. Instead, I’d like to convey a casual (occasionally professional?) bourbon drinker’s experience tasting through an entire line of impossible to obtain whiskeys.

This tasting was a great exercise in not just critical assessment of a spirit, but of acknowledging preconceived expectations and bias. The bias I held entering the tasting is a product of week after week, year after year, fielding requests by consumers (particularly around October/November) thirsting for this oh so rare, and cyclically more rare every year, whiskey.

Having to say politely, “We can’t get it from our supplier and as a result we are unable to get if for you,” to a couple hundred people a year can cause one to become rather weary and jaded.

Specifically, a jaded mentality created by the quest for whiskey that is so rare, so coveted, that we as merchants no longer taste the whiskey. We simply sell it to a corn-frenzied crowd who idolize this whiskey above all others, regardless of how it actually tastes. It’s hard to get so it’s better, right?

How good could it actually be? This was the bias I entered the tasting with, but it’s good to be humbled sometimes.

The Pappys themselves were, I almost hate to admit it, a rather impressive line of whiskeys. I found the ten year old bourbon to be a bit raw, though it did contain rather appealing fruit flavors. The highly sought after fifteen year old bourbon struck me as a bit hot before the addition of water, rather pleasant afterwards though; the fifteen year old also contained many of the dried cedar/cigar box flavors I often find so appealing in whisky (and the odd Pomerol).

The twelve year old bourbon had a nice balance between the two, drier in style, and is realistically more available than the fifteen. Though that really is an availability that is more relative than realistic.

The twenty and twenty-three year old whiskies were really quite special: soft, smooth (I hate that flavor descriptor), and possessing qualities that reminded me of twenty year tawny port. Neither of them showed their alcohol, and they both struck me as world class whiskeys, even though I was hoping for the opposite, just so I could tell people in the future that they weren’t as good as people made them out to be.

Blasted well made whiskey.

The final whiskey in the lineup was the Pappy thirteen year old rye whiskey, which to me was the outright winner in the bunch in terms of value and possible availability. The “fair” market price would put this whiskey around $100 (plus or minus a few dozen dollars), and its price combined with the fact that it is often less sought after than the bourbons makes it a more obtainable and appealing whiskey. Additionally, it is just a very well made rye, bolding on very.

All of that being said, are they worth it?

If these products were regularly available and sold for fair prices, I would say that they certainly would be worth it. But that’s if. No, instead what these products have going for themselves is their scarcity. While a fair markup would put the 23 year old whiskey these days around $250 - $300 a bottle, I can instead obtain it from less scrupulous retailers or grey market vendors between $2300 and $4500 a bottle. That value rye whiskey around $100 a bottle can be found in the world between $500 and $1000 a bottle.

I bought a motorcycle which cost less than a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon.

I’m very glad that I had the chance to taste these whiskeys and I am of the opinion that they are very well made products. Would I ever recommend anyone ever seek one out and buy it? Ultimately, no.

There are many good whiskies available that can be purchased any day of the week, under a hundred dollars a bottle. If money is no object, and collecting scarce and rare curios (bourbon, stamps, crystal skulls, etc…) is more your speed, then please by all means collect these whiskies.

For those of us mere mortals who don’t opt to spend our time hunting white wales, literally or figuratively, I would encourage enjoying whiskey as a regular beverage, worthy of our attention, instead of being treated as a soulless commodity.

*If at any point you noticed a variation in the spelling of whisky, whiskey, whiskeys, whiskies it is simply a flip flopping I opt to do since there are multiple accepted spellings for whisk(e)y. And yes, I realize that the American spelling and the spelling associated with bourbon is with an ‘e’, but who am I to bash the letter ‘e’ into a word that the Scots have been doing a fine job with for so many years.

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