Why are there still disappointing whiskies?January 22nd, 2009
This is my “Worldwide Whiskies” column for the next issue of Malt Advocate, due out in about a week. I’m posting it up here early for two reasons: 1) As a teaser to for those of you who aren’t subscribers to consider doing so. because you’re missing out on some great information (find out more here), and 2) I thought it would make a good discussion topic, so feel free to comment.
Whisky companies are much smarter these days. They know more about the science behind whisky-making now than ever before, and they’re using this knowledge to improve their whisky. I’ve met many of the people in charge of making the whisky. They’re really smart.
So why are we still drinking whisky that could be—and should be—better?
I just took a look at the whiskies that I have tasted and reviewed over the past couple of years that disappointed me, and I found a common thread with just about all of them. It seems that they were all trying too hard to be different or distinctive.
Call me a purist, but I thought the goal here was to make great whisky, not to be unique. If you can do both, great. But don’t be different just for the sake of being different. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about.
You are getting older
Just because you have a 50 or 60 year old whisky doesn’t mean you should bottle it and charge an extreme price for it. The goal here is to make a good whisky, not to see who can bottle the oldest whisky. I’ve had some older whiskies that were great, but I’ve had others that I would have been very disappointed with if I spent thousands of dollars on a bottle.
There have been several replica bottlings that distillers have put out over the past decade, both in Scotland and the United States, attempting to replicate a bottle (or style) of whisky that was produced during a previous era. But what if the original bottle or style wasn’t good? Do you really want to replicate it?
I’ve been in whisky-makers’ blending rooms and had the privilege to taste some of the original bottlings, dating as far back as the mid 1800s, that were going to be replicated. Some were quite tasty. Others had serious flaws, like being too young, too woody, or too oxidized. Why would you want to replicate something like that?
Smoke for peat’s sake
If you make a Speyside whisky that isn’t peated, that doesn’t mean that you have to. Sure, smoky whiskies have been all the rage, and Speyside whiskies have been sorely lacking in smoke. I’m happy to see more peat smoke-infused whiskies on the market—from Speyside or anywhere else for that matter. But if you’re going to experiment and make a smoky whisky, give it enough time to age and mature properly, rather than rushing the product to the market just to follow the crowd. There have been a lot of new releases of smoky whiskies over the past few years from brands that never were smoky before. Some have been good; others have tasted too young and immature. Patience, guys! We’ll wait for it to get good.
(I would like to add the new record-breaking peated whiskies from Islay to this discussion: Bruichladdich’s Octomore and Ardbeg’s Supernova. I haven’t tasted either of them yet, but I sure hope that the purpose for doing this was to make a great whisky, not to see how smoky we can make a whisky.)
I think it is great that so many distillers are thinking outside the box (or should I say outside the barrel) when it comes to the type of cask you’re aging or finishing your whisky in—especially all the new wine-finished whiskies. These days you really need to know your wine to be able to know your whisky. That’s fine. I’m game. I love wine, and I love whisky.
But it seems like for every good whisky I’ve tasted that was aged in an esoteric wine cask, there has been one that I was disappointed or indifferent with. And it’s not because it’s a new flavor that we just need some time getting used to. The flavors just don’t work. No one wants to spend their hard earned money being a guinea pig.
Amber waves, or was it chocolate?
I see the next trend coming. All the cutting edge distillers are now experimenting with the types of barley and the types of malted barley they use. Get ready for words like crystal malt, chocolate malt, roasted malt, and just about any other type of malt that brewers have been using for decades, if not centuries, but have been largely ignored by distillers.
I have just one word of advice for all of you distillers exploring this new frontier: don’t try to make a whisky that is different than everyone else’s. Try to make a whisky that’s better than everyone else’s. Then we’ll all be happy.