Whisky Advocate

Guest blog #7: The journey toward knowing whisky

September 7th, 2010

Guest blogger, Jason Young takes you along on his journey toward knowing whisky. He blogs along the way at www.discoveringdionysus.com and asks for your guidance here.

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When John posted the question ‘What do you know,’ I thought it was perfect because it is a question I have been asking myself for awhile now. Or, more specifically, I have asked how people like John have come to know what they know, and how I might gain some of that knowledge and experience. You see, I am a mere 24 years old and am just beginning to explore the wonderful world of malted beverages. As I continue this exploration, I have become more interested in appreciating their many nuances and this, in turn, has led me to scour the many great writings and reviews out there by people like John. While these writers have taught me a great deal, I often wonder how they managed to achieve the level of expertise that they now possess. In this blog post I wanted to share my own strategy for gaining tasting ‘expertise,’ in the hopes that I might spark a conversation about how others have learned to better appreciate and understand their drams. Hopefully some of the comments will help me and other young whisky lovers as we fine tune our palates.

Obviously, the most effective (and enjoyable!) way for me to better appreciate a good whisky is to try as many different whiskies as I can… nothing beats experience. Since college my whisky collection has steadily grown from a young bottle of Glenfiddichto now include aged malts from around Scotland and the rest of the world. However, this can get quite expensive, particularly when you want to taste some of the older or rarer varieties (and who doesn’t?!?). So, lately I have been looking for ways to expose myself to a larger variety of whiskies for a lower cost. One strategy is to go out to a good whisky bar, but, unfortunately I haven’t found a great one around me. Instead, I recently came across Master of Malt’s sample collection, which allows me to buy a handful of miniatures for a fraction of the cost of a full bottle. I purchased about half a dozen samples from them a few weeks ago, and I have to say that it was a great experience. Lately I have also been thinking about joining For Scotch Lovers’s Whisky Explorers Club, which sends out 24 50mL samples a year to members. I’m curious what other strategies people use to get their whiskies? Obviously, receiving free official samples from distilleries would be nice, but I don’t see myself becoming lucky like that anytime soon…

In my mind, though, it isn’t enough to simply taste a dram… drinking, and its appreciation, is a social phenomenon and I find that sharing the tasting enhances the experience and leaves everyone with new perspectives. Nothing is better than getting a couple of friends to bring over their own bottles, put them all up on the table with a couple of glasses, and make a night of it. However, even when friends aren’t around, I have found another way to socialize my drinking experience—writing. Very recently I started my own blog (www.discoveringdionysus.com), where I am attempting to explore the process of growing a better appreciation of various wines and spirits. I find it has been extremely helpful, if only on a personal level, to write down my thoughts on whatever I am drinking. I often then go out and find other reviews of the dram, so that I can directly compare my experience with other people’s thoughts. At times my own notes correlate closely with others, and at other times I swear that some flowery reviews must simply be invented as part of a poetry project… But, at any rate, not only have those comparisons been very rewarding in themselves, but throughout the process I have encountered many new blogs and magazines that have helped me hone my tastes and expand my knowledge. So, perhaps another question for discussion is, what are your favorite sources of whisky knowledge (aside from What Does John Know?, of course)?

Finally, there are more institutional ways to expand one’s palate. I will admit that this is an area that I haven’t explored much, but I would love to learn about any good opportunities. For example, in college I took a semester-long wine tasting course, and I strongly believe that those classes did more to evolve my relationship with wine than anything else I’ve ever done. In all likelihood the techniques I learned in that class probably highly influence the way in which I taste other beverages. I would love to take a similar class created specifically for whiskies. I am even interested in the whisky nosing kits I sometimes see advertised, which supposedly help me identify the scents in my whiskies. I would also love to visit more distilleries, or perhaps participate in some of the society events that I sometimes read about. In the past I have only ever been to the Jameson distillery, but it was a blast, so I’m hoping to save my pennies for future international outings.

So, these are a few of the ways that I’ve thought of to increase ‘what I know.’ Hopefully I have gotten you to think a little bit about how you have come to know what you know, and hopefully you will share your journey with me. I would love to know about great places to buy or drink odd drams, obscure magazines I might subscribe to or books I might find, or classes and events I might look forward to attending. I will say with utter certainty that the one thing I do know is that I am very excited to be a new member of this great community!

17 Responses to “Guest blog #7: The journey toward knowing whisky”

  1. Hi Jason,

    Loved your article, and since I am not too old either I am coping with the same problems, and have more or less followed the same path (even to the Master of Malt website).

    I find it very helpful to expand my knowledge of whisky is indeed tasting (events, whisky fest, bars, friends, clubs). I have joined a few clubs and societies to get access to more whisky events and whisky. Here, in NL, many clubmembers have websites on which they offer samples of their bottles.

    Also, to increase knowledge is to read about whisky as much as possible. I have subscriptions to all whisky magazines I can get my hands on (5 at the time), I read blogs and websites on a daily basis and try to meet with fellow aficionados as much as possible.

    What I have recently done to enable myself and others to taste more whiskies is organize a ‘bottle share’. I found 12 other guys willing to part with a bit of money, bought then bottles of whisky and mailed/brought them all a 50ml sample of each bottle. That way you get to taste more whiskies, and taste some stuff that usually is out of an average price range!

  2. G-LO says:

    Jason,

    Thanks for the tips! We are faced with the same dilemna from time to time, i.e. how to get our hands on some rare whisky without breaking the bank. Attending some of the events sponsored by the Malt Advocate, the Whisky Guild, and the Single Malt Whisky Society are also great ways to try alot of different whiskies for a reasonable price. I have been to three SMWSA events in Philly, and we have always had a great time. The Society bottlings are particularly interesting.

    Keep up the good work!

    Slainte!
    G-LO

  3. Texas says:

    ..It ticks me off that I started my whisk(e)y journey so late. I was of legal age by 1982, but did not start drinking single malts until 2007, and really did not appreciate bourbon until 2008. Think of all the great whiskeys I missed! I highly recommend adding bourbons and ryes to you journey as well, maybe at a lter date.

    • Don’t worry about the drams you missed, try to get hold of the drams of today, that you kick yourself in a few yeatrs you didn’t stock up on, while time was !!

      /Macdeffe

  4. Very good post. I have to say for me it is not enough to merely appreciate the dram in front of me on its own merits. I want to know the story behind the whisky too. For that reason when we do tastings in our group, the BUMS (Bureau of Malt Sippers) I put together notes on the history of the distillery and the major players there that shape how and why they make whisky the way only they do…the reason why one dram tastes so different from another. The reason we got our group together in the first place was to share the costs of bottles. In that way we can afford at least one expensive bottle per tasting, while also exploring whisky that is more affordably priced. I envy that you are starting out so young.

    Resources I use to decide what to taste are the usual sources such as the Whisky Bible, Hansel’s reviews, Malt Maniacs and WhiskyandWines.com for distillery info, among others.

    Enjoy the journey.

    Slainte! Mark

  5. Thomas Chen says:

    I find in the bigger whisky events, the masterclasses are a great way to taste some old whisky and learn about the distillery and it’s history. Another hands-on approach is to join local whisky club or simply team up with your whiksy buddies to share the cost of whisky and tasting notes. These are always good ways to try new whisky and not break your wallet.

  6. two-bit cowboy says:

    Howdy Jason,

    Thanks for peeling back the surface of the onion and letting us see inside you. I enjoyed the thoughtful and eager words you shared.

    A guest of our inn this summer shared his philosophy on how to get good at something, anything: “You must do it ten thousand times,” he said. Applied to whisky, I’m sure he did NOT mean drink ten thousand drams as quickly as you can, but I’m sure it’s the many thousands of drams John and other insightful writers have patiently sipped throughout their many years of enjoying whisky that has resulted in their wisdom.

    Some folks suggest the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. You’re reading the blogs, the magazines, and the books already. Try Mark Friedman’s idea (from above):

    “… I put together notes on the history of the distillery and the major players there that shape how and why they make whisky the way only they do…the reason why one dram tastes so different from another,”

    and offer your friends a short (or long) class about each expression you’ll taste in an evening. By putting yourself in the role of teacher/mentor/leader/guide you’ll retain more of what you’ve read about each distillery and expression. After repeating this process *ten thousand times* you’ll realize John’s (and others’) knowledge didn’t pile up because they’re lucky, but rather because they were dedicated to learning.

    Final thought about access to special releases: you might establish a relationship with a local retailer and ask if they’d be willing to special order expressions they don’t routinely handle. You might have to prepay or agree to buy a case at a time (six bottles to a case in many instances) to make it work, but if you have enough friends interested in the prospect, you might start a trend that would benefit both you and the retailer.

    Enjoy your quest.

  7. JWC says:

    As others have suggested, try bourbon and rye whiskey. Some great ones out there and they are easier on the pocket book than single malts (price/quality ratio). Since I’ve been gravitating to bourbon lately, besides this site, I have been visiting straightbourbon.com.

  8. George Jetson says:

    Jason, you live in a world of instant information access and many more sponsored events than when I was cutting my eye teeth during my journey of whisky discovery. Take advantage of that. Network like crazy, virtually and in real life. You’ll absorb many different perspectives and biases that way, that will help you chart your own way. Form your own club, if you don’t have one near where you live. Clubs and events are the best way to turbo charge your experiential stockpile.

    My personal method probably won’t work for you. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit Scotland every year for 6 years in a row. Chats with shop keepers, industry people and strangers in a pub whilst sharing a dram or two were instrumental in advancing my education and piquing my interest. Then I hooked up with a bunch of fellow self-styled whisky connoisseurs who call ourselves PLOWED and the rest is history.

  9. Kevin says:

    About 2 years ago I started a group (The Whiskey Society) that meets every couple of months to taste whiskeys. We typically assign a theme (our meeting in November will be Wild Turkey). Members will bring their bottles that fit the theme and we have a great time. In addition, a few of us in the group will often buy some bottlings and split them. Most recently 3 of us bought 8 Willett bourbons and split them up. Rather than one person spending nearly $600 – we each spent less than $200 and had eight new whiskeys to enjoy.

  10. Dubs says:

    I got into scotch less than 2 years ago while on tour with my band. Luckily for me, it started with the promoters footing the bill. For years we had a bottle of Jameson on our rider and one day before we started some UK dates, our tour manager said we should add a bottle of single malt scotch just to see if promoters would go for it (we’re not the kind of band that can expect to get whatever we ask for). I initially voted against it thinking it was wrong to make a promoter spend the extra money when Jameson was (and still is) fine with me, but I was outvoted and we added “Single Malt Scotch e.g. Glenlivet 12 or similar” to the rider.

    Most nights Glenlivet 12 was what we got (or Glenfiddich 12), but every once in a while we got something different like Oban 14, Laphraoig 10, Talisker 10, Dalwhinnie 15, Balvenie 12, etc. It was the island ones that really got me hooked, even though I didn’t like them much at first. I was just so interested in what could be responsible for the weird flavors and what could make one malt taste so different from another. So that’s when I started reading more about scotch and buying some bottles here and there to try malts from the different regions and from different distilleries. Now I’m even a little upset when I see Glenlivet in the dressing room. Nothing against it, I’d just rather get something I’ve never tried before. Before the next tour I might even amend the rider to say “anything but Glenlivet or Glenfiddich” to increase the chances of trying more new malts for free. What a shameless victim of irony I’ve become.

  11. maltakias says:

    If you’re into samples this is another great site to order and taste tons of things. (http://whiskysamples.flyingcart.com/index.php?p=home)

    A different approach to try older things or cheaper than the market (but you have to keep a constant track of good chances and prices) is through http://www.whiskyauction.com/ .

    Please don;t take it as an advertisment,i just say my approach to taste diverse malts in a relatively good price.

  12. Dram, read, talk. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  13. Jason says:

    All, thanks for all of the great comments! I am very excited to be a part of this community and to learn more from you (and the occasional dram!). I will confess, most of my bourbon/rye drinking thus far has been in the form of the occasional Old Fashioned, so I will have to expand my palate in that direction in the near future. Otherwise, it looks like I just need more local whisky buddies!

  14. Hi Jason: I enjoyed your post tremendously, perhaps due in large part to my empathy for those first formative and eeply personal years on the whisky trail.
    I would advocate George Jetson’s approach: go to these places. I was lucky enough to holiday in the Speyside region in 2007 and just dropped by The Glenlivet. I had always quite liked the taste of whisky but knew nothing of the process or the environments in which it is made. Following my tour, I was obsessed. As a 17-year-old, I hadn’t the funds to go crazy with this new passion, so hoarded miniatures (5cl or 20cl bottles). Michael Jackson was my guru, and his writings on Scotland inspired me, when my enthusiasm only strengthened, to do something truly immersive and challenging.
    In April and May of this year, I got on my push bike and pedalled round Scotland; from Glenkinchie to Highland Park, Talisker to Bladnoch. I toured 42 distilleries in six weeks and the people I met, landscapes encountered (often painfully) and extensive insight into the process gained, have done more than I ever could have wished to further my appreciation of this magical spirit.

  15. Bret Carr says:

    I recommend reading anything you can get your hands on by the late great Michael Jackson. His Guide to Single Mats are amazing reads!

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