Friday, June 19, 2020

Rant: On Bourbon, or How a Decent Spirit is Being Ruined by its own Fans.

Disclaimers: The following rant is aimed at a stereotype rather than anyone individually. There are plenty of great and toxic individuals in almost any hobby. I’m going to be writing this while drinking a bourbon, it may get weird or crude.

Side note, bourbon definition via Standards of Identity … edu/cfr/text/27/5.22 (law) and a good summary is available here: https://en.wikipedia … y#Legal_requirements are worth reading through as good tidbits of information.

Lets get it out of the way, bourbon is booming, so I got interested and dipped my toes into that segment of whiskey market after being nearly-exclusive single malt drinker for 10 years or so, aka my entire spirits-drinking tenure. By law, bourbon is at least 51% corn, then the mash (recipe) is some sort of combination between barley, wheat, and rye with different yeast strains to bring it all together. For example, bourbon where wheat grain is second by percentage after corn is called ‘wheated’, and tends to be mellower/sweeter with longer after-taste. On the other side of things, high-rye recipes tend to be ‘bitey/spicy’ and are more pronounced on the nose and palate side of things. There’s also a notable difference between vintage bottles of the same brand vs their modern equivalents.
Overall, it’s impossible try every single variable of mash, bottling, or brand out there as new ones are constantly coming out and there’s long list of increasingly rare vintage bottles, so I’ll focus and extrapolate from my somewhat limited experience. As of this writing I’ve opened 13 bottles of different bourbon across several major distilleries, majority being cask strength and/or single cask and only 2 are truly worth keeping with another 2 or 3 being somewhat enjoyable to drink. I am not a fan of this ratio.

Taste Notes:
Spoiler alert: Bourbons taste mostly the same! Coming in from scotch this was the biggest shocker. Holy shit its same stuff every time. There are certainly slight variations here and there, but for the most part its… corn sweetness with rye/baking spice and a bit of wood. Sarcastic Yay! Opening a new bottle to try it is about as exciting as watching your pet dry-heave. It gets old fast since there’s very minor variations. Let’s not forget that pretty much 95% of all the bourbon by volume is distilled by like 3 distilleries so no wonder it tastes mostly the same.
The second shocker was in the fact that in bourbon the proof directly correlates to the taste concentration. Higher proof is more flavor! It is incredible how thin lower-proof bourbons taste, I’ve had 88.9 proof that tasted like MaiTai and only past about 100 proof the flavors are actually worth tasting… Except very few folks can actually drink 120+ proof fire-water and claim its delicious.
The last thing that shocked me as compared to scotch… If single malt taste can be separated into ‘nose — first_sip — middle_palate — back_palate — aftertaste’, pretty much every bourbon is… ‘nose — middle_palate’, there’s literally nothing to find there, before or after. Oh it smells ‘nice’, then there’s that palate and now its gone! This makes my review-writing particularly hard as I can only gush so many times ‘it tastes like wood and baking spices’, that’s not very exciting and gets repetitive fast!
For what it’s worth though; unlike single malt, bourbon goes really well with food. Steak and a decent bourbon are a fantastic combo, and so is anything Tex-Mex or Southern flavor profile. Scotch is actually at a disadvantage here as so much of its flavor profile is overwhelmed by food flavors.

Ten years ago, stores couldn’t sell bourbon fast enough. Bottles that are unthinkable to be store-bought today were literally gathering dust on the store shelves for years. Pappy Van Winkle 15 Single Barrel Store pick? Sure, its been sitting there in corner for last 2 years! That was not that long ago! I’ll summarize the current situation into one word: “FUCK!”… Pretty much anything that’s actually ‘good’ isn’t available on the shelf (see Community portion), so it makes it reasonably hard to get into tasty bottles blindly.
Yours truly may have dived into the deep end of the spectrum on his discovery journey and tied to ‘cover his distillery basics’ by buying an interesting bottle from every major brand/distillery. I don’t consider this an overall mistake as it was an interesting experience and is surprisingly hard to actually accomplish within two months without tremendous amounts of luck (and/or technical know-how). Coronavirus was a welcome boon to this effort as I’ve set up browser alerts for new bottles showing up in my favorite liquor store and was able to pick up a reasonably good amount of interesting bottles as per my modus operandi. Sadly, most of the bottles I’ve picked up were available for a very short amount of time as they come into stock and are immediately bought out. I’ve tried going to local liquor stores around my area to see what they have that may be of interest and the answer always is ‘nothing good’. When I ask store folks if they have Weller wheated bourbon, they laugh and tell me I’m 3rd (sometimes 10th) person just that day asking about it. There are dozens of folks roaming between liquor stores in their general vicinity at any given time in search for that dusty unicorn bottle.
In general, current bourbon availability can be split into 3 tiers:

  1. Always available and mostly undrinkable. Anything cheap and always on the shelves. Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, Fireball, etc.
  2. Obtaniums. Rarely available, sometimes findable and mostly drinkable. Bookers, good chunk of Small Batch variety, occasional Single Barrels like Four Roses. Large batches and middle-to-excellent quality here.
  3. Unobtaniums. These tend to be bought on sight by the first person that sees them and knows what they are. Small batch, very limited release. Allocated. Pappy. Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC). etc.

The unfortunate reality of the bourbon drinkability is that it starts somewhere in Tier 2. If someone new to bourbons were try bottles in tier 1… Well I strongly advise to not bother, as majority of Tier 1 is not worth pouring down the drain. The other unfortunate fact is that Tier 3 bottles oftentimes don’t even make it to the store shelves as clerks or owners already have buyers lined up for anything ‘interesting’ if were to arrive they they simply give a call to and its sold sight unseen. All of that keeps on shifting as time and market interest adjusts, for example: I’ve read comparison reviews between bottles from 70s and 80s, and modern versions where reviewers universally proclaim that the quality and taste of modern Tier 1 have deteriorated down to undrinkable levels versus tasty bottlings from 20-40 years ago under the same name. I guess demand and market forces producers to release sub-par stock and product in the name of profitability.

Its a fucking nightmare to find something good at MSRP.
As the common saying in bourbon fan clubs go: “Those darn Taters ruined bourbon!”. Who is a Tater you say? Well I’m certainly not! Note: A Tater is derogatory term for a person that follows bourbon fads rather than trying to understand what they are drinking and willing to spend greater than reasonable upcharge above MSRP for a bottle of bourbon or buy up any bottle of the month at any price they see regardless if it’s something they would enjoy or not.
The limited availability of fad bottlings and high demand creates an unfortunate side effect of secondary market that is grossly inflated and is also encouraging distillers to raise their prices, because “if the bottle with MSRP of $50 (Weller 12) is going for $200 on secondary, why aren’t we charging $150 and pocketing extra $100?!”. Don’t get me wrong the bourbon MSRP’s are mostly sane still but this will not last, many brands have been slowly increasing their price over the last few years. Example: Booker’s went from ~$60 to $80 in the last few years with the goal being $100 IIRC. Example of secondary: BTAC is 4 bottles with MSRP of $99 per bottle. The secondary price of the full set is ~$2000 or so. From the distiller’s, distributors, and store view point why should they sell things for $400 instead of $2000? That’s just bad capitalism. Meanwhile, hordes of profit seekers are out there combing through every liquor store they can find for that random old bottle that’s sitting in the corner at its MSRP that they would be able to resell to a Tater at 5 times the price. It’s easy money!
For the most part, the bourbon price/quality sweet spot is somewhere in $60-$100 range, but yet again none of that is well documented nor there’s a workable list of drinkable and affordable bourbons. A personal example of mine, I’ve posted about being interested in a small batch bottle from earlier this year that is mostly out of stock anywhere, it wasn’t anything special, or highly desired. Yet, someone almost immediately contacted me offering it me for twice the msrp price. This move irked me greatly, as the same individual posted few days earlier, bragging about finding that same bottle at MSRP price in a store. So I’ve politely declined out of principle, as they were clearly out to make a profit on their purchase rather than support and promote fellow community members.

Please see disclaimer above, this is not aimed at any particular group or individual but at some of the larger communities. The smaller groups tend to have nicer individuals and are more welcoming and inclusive, and I’ve met plenty of nice folk so far. Larger groups start to have more noisy, outspoken, arrogant outliers of the unsavory kind.
And here we are, the meat and potatoes of the headline and let me tell you bourbon community is borderline toxic. In short, larger bourbon communities are not friendly to newcomers. The larger fan communities are filled with snobs that buy fad bottles, often at secondary market prices, to show off to their friends and to post to social media how cool they are to be drinking that rare/expensive bottle. Fuck you! If I could punch everyone that says they’re a ‘professional influencer’ in the face, I would do it. Entitled assholes that think that their worth as a human being is defined by how many followers they have on whatever social network flavor of the month it happens to be. I’ve poked my head into a very large group of bourbon ‘fans’ on facebook… and I ran away. It’s terrible there, every post is essentially how much better whatever store pick they are drinking vs regular release, or how they have gotten X number of bottles of some rare bottling, essentially locking everyone else’s chances out. There should be no reason why any individual person should need 10+ bottles of the same batch of alcohol, not when the market is constantly producing new and interesting expressions. Live and let live as it were. Folks like those are why prices are skyrocketing and availability is plunging.
A lot of so-called ‘bourbon enthusiasts’ like to proclaim how much a special bottling is better than the regular bottling from the same distillery, thus reinforcing their feelings of superiority over those plebes that didn’t get whatever they’re drinking. It also establishes how much they enjoy being in the exclusive club that got a case of those bottles within about 60 seconds they were available, on December 26th at 1:30 am in the morning and you had be present in person in a corner store in Colorado to buy it as well be related to at least 3 people in the distribution chain.
The other thing that really bothered me for a while is a proliferation of abbreviations. There are dozens of obscure abbreviations and every group can have different, informally agreed-upon and poorly documented variations. For newcomers joining a new group this is all scary and intimidating, and trying to understand a post along the lines of “Score! 4 SR EXF DG BiB SiB SP @BTG 4$666.66! Hell yeah!” and new person is supposed to understand that how? It leads towards skewing the value of said bottle in newcomer’s eyes without trying it for themselves.
The brand and bottling combinations don’t help either. Is Knob Hill Barrel Select 8 better than Knob Hill 10 Small Batch? Shouldn’t 10 year old be more interesting than 8 years old? Is Dickel 7 better than Dickel Sour Mash? Nobody has that information documented, and vocal folks in those groups are more interested in trying to outdo each other in their superiority than helping or educating others.

Final Thoughts:
Overall I’m disappointed with bourbon. I’m disappointed at availability, taste, ease of approachability in the larger communities, price, and lack of transparency of different bottlings.
Do I regret dipping my toes into bourbon? Not particularly, I’ve met some great folks and I’ve tried a handful of truly tasty bottlings, and honestly the experience of having met those folks is much more valuable to me than the booze. But for the amount of effort and occasionally money that was spent chasing down bourbon bottles of interest wasn’t worth it under normal conditions. As we’re sheltering at home with COVID-19 pandemic out there, it’s unlikely there would be a better time to try a new hobby and I’ve clearly tried a new one for myself.
Dear reader, you clearly may have questions such as “Should I try bourbon?” and I will say “Yes! Yes you should! But, do not rush! Try it cautiously and in small quantities as paying ridiculous price or putting a effort into a bottle that you may not like after opening is rarely worth it. Find some friendly folks that would recommend you what you can try or offer samples. Forget about fads or rare limited bottling, or secondary market. Ask around for recommendations. Go to bars or tastings. Be friendly and talk to others. Try a few different things to establish what you like or don’t like in terms of flavor notes and start finding things down that route, or not, it’s your call!”.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Rant: Random Thoughts…

Lets talk

I was getting progressively more inebriated while writing this… This should be considered somewhat of a satire/drunken rant.

Whiskey or Whisky?

I. don’t. care! Both are correct.
Best Whisky

There’s none. If it tastes good to you its good whisky!
Do yourself a favor and try different whiskeys across categories and styles. What tastes ‘good’ now, could taste like a swill in comparison to something else. Don’t settle for first thing and definitely explore. You’re doing yourself a disservice by not trying new things here, just like most things in life: The more you try, the better you understand.

Means not interesting

Does NOT mean interesting. Could be just crap alcohol. Balance is important.
Drinking whisky properly

a) Whiskeys are not shot drinks. If you want shots, do Jack Daniels or some some other garbage. Whiskey is contemplative drinks to be drank without anything. Have a conversation. Have a sigar (and peated scotch). Discuss with friends. Look at the fire dancing in a fireplace. Stare at the stars. Write a ranting post on personal website where nobody will ever read it.

b) If you want to drink whisky as an accompaniment with food instead of shitty vodka? Sure. Don’t use good stuff. Get a bottle of generic blend, its cheap. Get a branded release of a major distillery that is under 12 years of age. Impress your friends or family with your fancy name of ‘Macallan 12′ (which you won’t taste at all if combined with food) bottle. Don’t overdo it. You can put ice tea and vodka into a Macallan 18 bottle and if you combine it with food someone will be invariably amazed by how good that ’scotch’ is. Don’t spend more than about $50.

c) Good stuff first! or ‘the fallacy of taste’. After about 3rd or 4th taste, everything mushes up together and it all tastes about same. If not sure, only drink one thing per sitting.

This one is controversial. I highly recommend glencairn or brandy glass or something similarly shaped. I’ve had whisky out of coffee mugs and out of champagne flutes. It’s just not as good. The whole dimension of smell and (surprisingly) some of the taste is lost. A wine glass works in a pinch as long its lip curves inwards. Rocks glass is okay in some situations.

If you insist on lots of crushed ice with whisky. Fuck you, you uncultured swine! Don’t be that pretentious asshole that has no idea what they are doing with scotch on the rocks.

If you want small ice cube to keep it cold/cut the burn… that’s occasionally acceptable. Almost no bottles are blindly filled from the barrel. There are many people between the still and the bottle in your hands, and they know what they are doing with the source material so it’s my strong opinion that whatever is in the bottle should be consumed as is, unaltered. Some bottles respond okay to few drops of water, most do not. Some times that same effect as water can be achieved by simply waiting.
Right way of drinking whiskey?

There really isn’t one. Do what works for you individually though respect others opinions.