Archive for the ‘Ramblings’ Category

Desk Whiskey

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

Author - Lew BrysonThere’s a lot of talk these days of how whiskey’s back; back in sales, back in fashion, back in cocktails. It’s great, and it means we can find good whiskey in so many more places, more than just the same five bottles — Jack, Jim, Johnnie, Jameson, and Crown — and almost every town of any size has a specialist bar. Whiskey’s on television, it’s in the movies, it’s all over the gosh-darn Internet.

But there’s one place where it’s not “back” like it was, and that’s a shame: the desk drawer.

The bottle in the desk drawer was a staple of hard-boiled fiction, like this:

He opened his desk drawer and lifted three glasses out of it and a bottle of imported scotch whiskey [sic]. ‘You two care for a spot of nerve medicine?’ he asked as he began to pour himself a shot from the bottle. — The Destitute, by T.R. Hawes

I took the bottle of Dewar’s out of my desk drawer and put it on the desk along with a lowball glass. He took a couple of deep breaths as if to steady himself and carefull poured some.” — Sixkill, by Robert B. Parker

It wasn’t just private eyes, either.

Now I moved to the third drawer, the bottom, where hard-boiled detectives keep pistols and hard-boiled editors keep whiskey bottles and hard-boiled reporters keep novel manuscripts. — Gone Tomorrow, by P.F. Kluge


“Pull up a chair”

Why, even my boss back when I was a librarian (it’s true; in a former life I was a librarian) at the Armor School Library at Fort Knox kept a bottle of Maker’s in the bottom right-hand drawer of his government-issue gray steel desk. Friday afternoons when it got toward quitting time after we’d had a long week of eager-beaver lieutenants and budget-cutting majors, Bill would catch my eye and broadly beckon me into the office.

He’d pull open the drawer, all the way, and reach in behind the hanging files of staff evaluations and loony letters (every library has them), and pull out the bottle and two glasses. “Pull up a chair,” he’d always say, and pour two glasses; no water, no ice, just two stiff pours of Loretto’s finest. We’d discuss the week, or the lieutenants and the majors, or the weather, and relax. We never had more than one, and we didn’t do it every week, and once or twice we did it during the week when things were particularly stressful or rewarding. But the bottle was there.

I don’t believe many people have a desk bottle anymore. Because as much as whiskey is back, it’s still not okay to drink it.

I remember telling people I loved landing at the airport in Louisville because folks there didn’t giggle when I said “bourbon.” That’s not such a problem anymore (some people react with a reflexive “Pappy!”, but I can get past that), but I’ll tell you, if you suggest having one drink at lunch…people look at you like you’re crazy, and they do giggle.

One drink? Open up the drawer, pull out the bottle — it doesn’t have to be anything amazing, because it’s going to sit in there, and you don’t know who might be in the office — grab two glasses and wipe them out with paper towels, and there you have an oasis in your day. One drink of whiskey.

What happens? You’ve brought a person into your confidence, you’ve strengthened a bond with them. There’s no harm done, and if the company policy is ironclad on no drinking; well, maybe you’re working for the wrong company. You’ve got a bottle in your desk, you’ve got something there to steady the brain and nerve the arm. Adults do this, and I believe that if we don’t giggle about it, we’re less likely to be silly about it.

…think of Ed Asner, as news director Lou Grant, occasionally pulling a bottle out of the drawer on the Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s. It didn’t seem irresponsible at all, did it? It was the way it was in newsrooms. — March 1939: Before the Madness, by Terry Frei

I am not saying you should start to drink on the job. But there are rituals to work, and there are rituals to whiskey. So I got Mr. Venn to draw you a diagram.

Desk Whiskey

Automated Whisky Dispense at Grane in Omaha

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Lew BrysonHow do you like your whisky? I don’t mean whether you like it neat, or watered, or in a cocktail; how do you like it socially, how do you like it served?

Grane, a new bar in Omaha, Nebraska, has a completely new way to serve whisky: by automated machine. Grane’s founder, Daniel Matuszek, explains that the whole bar is built around the system, developed by WineEmotion, a European company that developed the technology for wine dispense.

“We went to them over a year ago and told them about the growth of whisky,” Matuszek recalls, explaining that they were looking to use the technology for whisky instead of wine. “They resized and retrofitted the pistons that push the liquid. They used the same technologies, but remade for whisky bottles. We got an exclusive arrangement for spirits dispensing with this for a year, global exclusivity. We’re the first and only place to use this; not Chicago, LA, or NYC, not London: Omaha.”

Grane has a “speakeasy feel,” according to Matuszek, but the whisky dispensers are sleekly modern, hard-edged technology. A customer buys a smart card (see the video, below) and “loads” money onto it. It’s whisky, so you probably want to load heavy. Then you take a look at what’s on offer; there are currently 35 bottles available at any one time. “We have a world whisky machine, a bourbon machine, two Scotch whisky machines, and a high-end machine,” Matuszek says.

You choose a whisky, press one of three buttons (½, 1, or 1.5 ounce) above that particular spout, and the whisky pours into your glass. It’s quick, it’s accurate, and you can see the bottle directly below the spout. It’s all customer-operated; no bartender involved. “It breaks down some of the barriers,” he says about the direct operation. “People can read about the whiskies, and then they can try by themselves, at their own pace, their own judgment.”

You’re probably wondering the same things I was. Is there potential for the whisky to be harmed, or changed, or contaminated? Keep in mind that the same issues for whisky are there for wine: contamination, oxidation, and — prime importance considering the cost of whiskies — waste. The whisky is pushed by food-grade argon gas, with the uptake from the bottom of the bottle; the headspace fills up with argon. The spout will drip two or three drops, but cut-off is precise. There is very little to go wrong here.

“The majority of people have been hitting that half-ounce button; they want to try things,” Matuszek notes, which must not surprise anyone who knows whisky lovers. “We don’t keep them on for months at a time. we have a barrel of Dickel 9 year old we selected, and we’ll keep that on. But we go all the way from the biggest baddest Ardbeg to Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. We’re teaching people about Japanese whisky, Canadian whisky, and all that.”

Will people like getting whisky without a bartender? (Grane’s bartenders are fully employed making cocktails, of course.) Will automated dispense catch on outside of Omaha? Will this be the next thing where people will say they can taste the difference? Would you buy auto-dispense whisky?

Whisky Investing…the last time around

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonMy father died four years ago, and I have to say; he was a bit of a pack rat. More than a bit, really. It took us all day to clean out the garage (which hadn’t held a car since the Johnson administration); honestly, why did a man who rarely worked on his own car need five grease guns?

My mother’s been working her way through all the papers and letters he saved, and she found this one, and thought I’d find it interesting. Once I’d had a look, and chuckled, I thought you might find it interesting as well:




It was sent, by air mail (a 4p stamp at the time), to my father’s RD1 address, in April, 1973. To the best of my knowledge, my father never drank an ounce of Scotch whisky in his life, and in 1973, his life savings amounted to his teacher’s pension (which was out of his reach) and about $1,000 in a savings and loan account that we would spend two months later on a family vacation we’d been planning for ten years. We were hardly investors, and certainly not Scotch lovers…yet Strathmore not only found us, but sent a hand-addressed letter to us.

In less than ten years, Scotland would be awash in whisky (which in 15 more years would become the bounty of under-priced mature whisky that some of us swam in, joyfully, for a happy, golden time).

We are being encouraged to “invest” in Scotch whisky again. I feel like I should check my mailbox. And keep a hand on my wallet.

Happy 60th anniversary, Jimmy Russell!

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014
Young Jimmy Russell: all-Kentucky basketball player

Young James Cassidy Russell: all-Kentucky basketball player

Sixty years ago today, in 1954…


Jimmy Russell started working at the Wild Turkey distillery, at the age of 18.

We at Whisky Advocate, from founder John Hansell on down, our entire staff, would like to say: Well done, Jimmy!

We’ve talked to Jimmy over the years. Here’s some of his story, as we’ve reported it in previous issues.

“Really, my wife, Joretta, was working here before I was,” Jimmy recalls, “and my dad worked at the Old Joe distillery here in town. There were four distilleries here at that time. It was us, then where Four Roses is now was known as Old Prentice, the Hoffman distilling company, and Old Joe distilling, where my dad was. I was fortunate enough to get on here and haven’t been able to get away yet.

“This is really the only full-time job I’ve ever had,” he says. “It wasn’t hardly the same as it is now. They called it ‘Quality Control.’ Now you do Quality Control and people bring you samples and you sit there and run them. Back then, you went and got your own samples, and then you might be unloading a truck of grain after you run them. Unloading it with a shovel!”

Jimmy learned distilling from Mr. Bill Hughes (that’s how Jimmy always refers to him). “Mister Bill was a seven-day man,” as Jimmy puts it. “He lived up on top of the hill, and he was here seven days a week. He’d worked before Prohibition, here at this distillery.”

Real Wild Turkeys, real Jimmy Russell

Real Wild Turkeys, real Jimmy Russell

“When I started, about all bourbons were bottled at 100 proof, bottled in bond,” Jimmy notes. “But theirs had to be at 101, and it stuck, because that’s what they liked on this turkey hunt.”

The turkey hunt is the origin of the Wild Turkey name, enshrined in the brand’s back-story. The McCarthy family owned the distillery in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the McCarthys would take bourbon from the warehouses along on an annual turkey hunt with friends in the late 1930s. The friends asked for more of “that wild turkey whiskey,” and the McCarthys decided to sell it under that name.

That probably seems too easy, a story created in the marketing department, but Jimmy remembers hearing the story directly from Thomas McCarthy, who’d been on the hunts. Until the late 1970s, that 101 proof bottling of Wild Turkey was the only product the distillery made.

Jimmy Russell - high res in warehouse

Jimmy is perhaps best know for keeping Wild Turkey made the way he wanted it made, the way he learned to make it from Mister Bill. He has stuck to his guns, and while there have been some changes — additional products, like the rye, the Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit bottlings, and the whole Russell’s Reserve line — and the entry proof has been nudged up just a little to 57.5%, largely, Wild Turkey is still made the same way it has been for 60 years.

“Any time you have to add [water],” Jimmy says, “you’re going to reduce your lighter flavors. But, you know, all of us have different ideas, and we all make good bourbon.” He pauses. “But that’s how we make ours,” he said.

60 years ago, it was made the Mister Bill way. Now it’s the Russell way.

Author - Fred MinnickThat was then; this is now. Fred Minnick reports on a ceremony last week that honored Jimmy with a lifetime membership in the Kentucky Distiller Association, just one of the celebrations that have been taking place this year.

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell thought the Kentucky Distiller Association’s September 2 board meeting was just another meeting. He was wrong.

As Russell walked down the long, sloping Wild Turkey lunchroom entrance, a surprise-party audience stood on its feet, roaring, clapping, and ready to commend a friend, a bourbon legend, an iconic Kentucky figure who could win the state’s governor position if he ran. (At least, that’s what Kentucky governor Steve Beshear said.)

Jimmy and plant manager Rick Robinson

Jimmy and plant manager Rick Robinson

The first to embrace the “Buddha of Bourbon” was his distillery sweetheart and wife, Joretta Russell. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” Russell asked, embracing his wife to the sound of joyous clapping.

Russell was being honored with the KDA’s Lifetime Honorary Member Award, making him only the sixth person since 1880 to receive the honor. It’s the latest honor bestowed upon Russell. He’s in the Bourbon Hall of Fame, the Kentucky legislature passed a Resolution to honor the distiller, and Wild Turkey’s parent company, Campari, has practically shifted all of its 2014 Wild Turkey marketing dollars to promote Russell’s 60th anniversary. This private event was the industry lobby’s chance to recognize Russell, who joined the KDA board May 16, 1978, and remains Wild Turkey’s alternate director.

“If there was a Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, Jimmy Russell would be one of the first faces on it,” said Eric Gregory, the executive director of the KDA.

Jimmy and his brother, Dickie Russell

Jimmy and his brother, Dickie Russell

After a round of thoughtful remarks from KDA members, a few laughs and a documentary dedicated to Russell (see above), where I learned Russell was thought to be Kentucky’s best athlete during his youth, I caught up with the legend to ask a few questions.

Was this really a surprise?

This is one they put over on me!

What does the Lifetime Honorary Member Award mean to you?

This is unbelievable. Seeing all these distillery people, this is something I’ll always enjoy. Being here in Kentucky and in the bourbon business, we help each other all the time.

This honor is about your KDA role. Give me a KDA story.

There are a lot of them. Over the years, I’ve been a member for, gosh, I don’t know how long. But a lot of things went on. They’d get rowdy at times, but we all ended up agreeing with one another.

Any really intense meetings?

There have been several intense meetings over the years. When they had the sales tax in Kentucky, they first put it on the distributor. And then five or six years ago, they put another sales tax on the consumer. We went to the Capitol steps in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and poured out bourbon all over the steps.

Over the years, the KDA has been involved with lawsuits with Sazerac. What has it been like being a board member during these situations?

It’s one of those things. We all have disagreements we get into, but we’re all still friends in the business. Some people want to do it one way, some want to do it another way. Usually, the KDA resolves their problems and ends up working everything out.

What does the future of bourbon look like?

I hope great. If not, we’re in deep trouble. Our company spent more than $100 million over the last five years, and we’re putting away bourbon we’re not going to sell for another eight years. If it doesn’t keep going, we’re going to have a lot of bourbon seven to eight years from now.



Jimmy's family: his wife, Joretta, and two sons: Mike (on the left) and Eddie

Jimmy’s family: his wife, Joretta, and two sons: Mike (on the left) and Eddie

We’re lucky to have him. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Jimmy is the one his son Eddie pays him in the video. Here’s what he said. “The question I got when I first started going out on the road was, ‘How are you going to fill those shoes?’ And my complete and honest answer is, ‘I’ll never fill those shoes.'”

And Jimmy? We’re going to see him for a while, of course. He’ll be at WhiskyFest in San Francisco and New York this fall: he’s the only person in the industry who’s been to every one…and there are only three of us on the staff who can match that record! But when the celebrating and the honors of his anniversary year are over, he’s going to keep on working, making Wild Turkey whiskey the best way he knows how.

“I hope that’s the way it is when I leave here,” he says at the end of the video. “I’ll come to work that morning, and that afternoon, when it’s time to leave, just walk out. That’s the way I’d like it to — it’ll never happen that way, I think, but that’s the way I would like for it to happen.”

We hope you get your wish, Jimmy. You’ve earned it.

The Rush of Flavor

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonStick with me; this is going to be about whiskey, but first we need to make a detour. I’ve done some writing about vodka and FMBs — what’s an FMB? It’s like an RTD. RTD? Well, it’s an alcopop. You know: like Smirnoff Ice. An FMB is a “flavored malt beverage,” which is basically beer with all the beer flavor stripped out and replaced with a variety of fruit flavors. (“RTD” means “ready to drink,” which seems redundant to me, but then, I’m not a marketer.) Anyway, the vodka category is dominated by the talk and advertising of flavors (though unflavored vodka is still the dominant seller), and FMBs are, obviously, all about flavors.

To look at a backbar these days, you’d think that flavored vodkas were a brilliant move. They take up a lot of real estate, they’re available in a broad assortment of different flavors, from fruits to confections to spices to the simply bizarre, like tobacco, and meat, and “fresh cut grass.” The FMBs had a similar rush of flavors, and still maintain growth in the market with that strategy, albeit at a large cost of promotions.

But look back a bit to the beginning. There were flavored vodkas going back to the 1950s; often colored, and flavored with a heavy hand. They were cheap booze, usually for kids or novelty cocktails. (We’re overlooking the original flavored vodka — gin — deliberately, of course.) It was a similar situation with FMBs: beer with cherry flavor, a horrible citrus concoction called Hop’n’Gator, and again, the weird, like Cool Colt, a menthol-flavored malt liquor, and the gin-flavored StingRay.

It always starts small...

It always starts small…

Each category was changed by a singular product. Flavored vodka changed in the late 1980s when Absolut put out Peppar, followed quickly by Citron. Suddenly flavored vodka had solidity, it had subtlety, and it was supported by an ad campaign that won awards for its simplicity and artistic nature; people framed these ads. Other vodka brands quickly added similar flavors; some, like Three Olives, were focused on flavors.

FMBs had flash in the pan success with Two Dogs, Zima, and DNA (which was essentially an alcoholic club soda), but the breakout product was Smirnoff Ice, a citrus-flavored cloudy white beverage, followed by Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They were huge successes, and spawned imitators.

But a funny thing happened; people got bored. Whether it was the drinkers, or the marketers, or the squirrely guys down in the flavor labs driving it, the flavor introductions accelerated. Vodka brands became literal rainbows of flavors (and colored labels), and new ones popped out every month: cherry, raspberry, lime, pear, peach…and then whipped cream, Swedish fish, “Dude,” tobacco, and, no kidding, Electricity!! The FMBs went through the same frenzy, albeit mostly limited to fruit flavors; the latest from Seagram’s Escapes is “Grape Fizz.”

There was howling from the neo-prohibitionists that flavored booze was on the market only to attract underaged drinkers (I honestly believe that’s not true, but…Grape Fizz? You gotta wonder), there was a ton of money spent on advertising, and round and round things went. The categories are big, but they’re a churning mess, and there are only a few flavor brands that retain any consistent traction in the market.

So what, right? Let them do their foolishness, we drink whiskey!

Yeah. You know where I’m going now. Flavored whiskey. Or, thanks to Dewar’s jumping off the high board (followed by J&B Urban Honey), flavored whisky. Sorry, flavored “spirit drink,” though the front label of Dewar’s Highlander Honey says, “Dewar’s Scotch whisky infused with natural flavors; filtered through oak cask wood.” Which, I would argue, is actually a more honest description of what’s inside than “spirit drink.”

But I’m not here to make fun of the labeling hoops the SWA sets up for companies to jump through. I’m here to wring my hands about the possibility of whiskey/whisky sliding down that disgustingly slippery flavor slope that vodka is whooshing down now. Because it starts with honey, and cherry, and cinnamon, then it’s maple, and tea, and barbecue, and mango, and actual heather…and the next thing you know, we’re coating our young whiskeys in dipping sauces and sucking them down raw, still wriggling as they slide down our throats, and they’ll never get to be fully mature and beautifully naked.

Think I’m exaggerating? Does anyone else remember Vijay Mallya at the 2008 World Whiskies Conference (back when people still cared what he thought about whisky), suggesting that for Scotch whisky to attract more young drinkers it needed “a spectrum of flavors”? Yeah, well…turns out that not everyone was repulsed by that. The folks in the stillhouse, the warehouses, and the tasting rooms figured “that’s crazy talk,” made faces, and went back to making the real item, sure. But in the offices? The suits looked at the vodka market, and proceeded to think the unthinkable: Hey guys? That crazy stuff Vijay said? Why not?

They made it happen, and flavored the whiskey. Some of them sold like mad, to the point where almost half of last year’s whiskey category growth in the U.S. market was from flavored whiskey. Beam’s rolling out new flavors, Jack Daniel’s is rolling out new flavors, Canadian Mist is in on it, and who knows where it will stop? Or if it will?

I’ll admit my complicity: I didn’t hate Red Stag, I used a bottle of it to make faux Manhattans. I didn’t even hate the Highlander (maybe because I thought, there can be only one! Whoops, I was wrong). All I can say in my defense is that I had no idea how successful they’d be.

That’s the real issue. It’s not that they exist, it’s that they’ve picked up a sizable number of drinkers. We’ve all seen what that did to Irish whiskey: proliferation of brands, expansion of production facilities, more more more. Money chases success. Flavored whiskey is exploding; and so, money chases success.

There will be more flavored whiskeys. To make them, barrels will be emptied that would have otherwise stayed in the warehouses and become our 15 year old whiskeys and whiskies. Sure, the big distillers are expanding production capacity, but flavored whiskey was not part of the expansion equation, and I hear there’s maybe a barrel shortage. They’ll make the money while they can! It’s not that we’re drinking our young; someone else is drinking our young, and they don’t care about the consequences. Whee! Cinnamon shots! I’m drinking whiskey!

The worst thing? There’s not really anything you and I can do about it. Don’t drink it? Don’t be absurd, you’re already not drinking it! Do you think the people who are drinking it — by the bottle! — read reviews of it? Do you think the companies are going to be able to resist the profits? Do you think the brands will survive becoming a rainbow of flavors? I don’t think whiskey will become the punchline vodka is, but it’s going to have an effect. Paint and dress a Cabinet secretary like a clown for a year, and no one’s going to take them as seriously again.

What to do, what to do? I don’t know…like I said, I’m wringing my hands here. Appeals to decency aren’t going to work when we’re talking hundreds of thousands of cases of sales. But man…I hope they make enough for us. I’d like to be able to afford 18 year old whiskey in 2030. Unflavored 18 year old.

But Is It Malt Whisky?

Friday, January 24th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhat is malt whisky? Pretty simple question; almost stupidly simple. It’s whisky made from malt. If you put anything else in besides malt, it’s not malt whisky. That’s why single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky doesn’t have a “mashbill.” It’s 100% MALT. Just malt.



Well, then, what’s malt? We use the term generally to refer to malted barley: barley that has been wetted (“steeped”), allowed to germinate while being turned, and then kilned to drive off the moisture and kill the sprout (before it eats anymore of those valuable starches that will become the water of life).

But other grains are malted as well: rye and wheat, mostly, but other grains like oats and triticale can be malted, even corn. The Scotch Whisky Regulations wisely specify that barley malt must be used to make single malt and blended malt Scotch whisky, but the U.S. Standards of Identity have a few more loopholes for other malts. They note that “malt whisky” must be 51% malted barley and “rye malt whisky” must be 51% malted rye grain…but they don’t specify what the other grains must be. There’s also that odd little catchall phrase that they tuck in there: “…and also includes mixtures of such whiskies of the same type.”

I’m thinking that a whisky made from a mashbill of 51% barley malt, 35% rye malt, and 14% wheat malt would qualify to be labeled as “malt whisky” in the U.S., and that it could further have a fanciful name like “All Your Malts Are Belong To Us!” or “Malts-a-Million,” or simply “Malts Whiskey.”

If you’re wondering what got me thinking about this, it was a sample that came in for review from Wood’s High Mountain Distillery in Colorado, their Tenderfoot Whiskey. They’re calling it ‘our single-malt whiskey,” and it’s made with 77% barley malt, 10% wheat malt, and 13% rye malt. I guess it’s “single-malt” in that it’s all made at their distillery; me, I’d call it a “single-triple malt.”



It just makes me think. The Scotch Whisky Regulations were updated in 2009, and made some substantial changes. There have been no changes to the Standards of Identity in almost 20 years, nothing at all since the explosion of whiskey experimentation that has been taking place at distilleries big and small. We still don’t have good definitions to cover the unaged “white” whiskey (or the aged and filtered stuff, like White Owl and Jacob’s Ghost), the multiplicity of grains, and experimentation with wood.

So should the Standards of Identity tighten up, with sharper definitions designed to let consumers know more exactly what they’re getting? Should they stop insisting on new charred oak barrels for everything (everything with prestige, that is)? Should they have an outright “Experimental Whisky” category? While we’re at it, should they recognize that this is America, and start using the “whiskey” spelling in the regs?! There is increasing interest in changing the Standards of Identity: who gets to write those changes?

It’s Friday; have at it.


Barley image: © Lucash / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Rye image: © LSDSL / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / GFDL

Wax, Blood, And Crumbling Corks

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Author - Lew BrysonWhisky makers: while we want secure whisky, whisky that can be collected or consumed with confidence, we’ve got a problem with getting at the stuff in the bottle. We need less wax, and better closures.

I’m on the warpath. It all started with this furious Tweet I sent out just after the new year, one that was retweeted and well-commented upon:

I’m COMPLETELY serious: stop putting wax on goddamned whisky bottles! I almost sliced my hand, and your dumb wax is in my toaster!

What happened was that I was opening one last sample bottle to review, and it was waxed. Thickly. With that hard, resin-like “wax” that’s really more like some kind of plastic armor plate, and no pull-tab or scoring ring or zip-strip or even a single damned clue on where to start…just a forbidding navy blue cocoon.

The whisky, the wax, the toaster

The whisky, the wax, and there in the back, the toaster

I attacked it with the short blade of a waiter’s friend-type corkscrew. I tried to carve a ring around the top of the glass to separate the top from the cocoon, but the wax wasn’t carving, it was spalling: chips and chunks were flying off (and yes, one did flip into the top of the toaster), and the knife slipped and skippered about on the hard, slick surface. I gripped the bottle tighter, and bore down—suddenly the bottle shifted, wax cracked, and the knife shot past the knuckle of my thumb. Cussing ensued. I finished the job with a pair of pliers, and when I finally had the thing open, I was not in a generous mood. Luckily, it was quite nice; saved the day.

Look, I have nothing against the famous red wax top on Maker’s Mark. It’s pretty, and more to the point, it’s soft and zip-stripped and easy to open. They know how to do it. And I get why distillers do it. It looks “premium” and yes, it may even keep out oxygen and other taints.

Wax done right

Wax done right

But for every easily-opened bottle of Maker’s Mark out there, there are more annoyingly bloody difficult impenetrable damnable awful son-of-a— Yes, as I was saying, there are these poorly thought-out chunks of stuff. Baker’s, for instance, love Baker’s, a favorite bourbon, but the wax they use brings me to screaming, and there’s no excuse: it’s the same parent company! Go steal the Maker’s Mark secret wax technology, guys!

Craft distillers are terrible offenders; the bottle I wrestled with was a craft distiller’s. They use the armor-coat stuff, they use ugly colors, sometimes they use what looks and feels like candle wax. Yuck. I wind up scraping it off, or scoring it and twisting with a large amount of hope, and no matter what I do, there are scraps and shreds and slivers of wax all over. It’s a mess, and not conducive to happily sitting down with a dram from a fresh bottle.

Friends have told me I need to warm the wax (a good idea), cut it “the right way” (with a bandsaw?), and—my favorite—get a champagne saber. That’s all well and good, but wouldn’t it be easier and more consumer-friendly if we could just get rid of the wax altogether? Especially if the bottlers aren’t going to make it properly easy by using the soft wax with the nylon strip helper?

We still want to keep the cork in there with more than friction, of course. Shrink-wrap plastic works fine, and can be clear—nothing wrong there—or smartly clad in graphic style. Does it look anachronistic on a bottle of whisky? Take a look at the label; think that printing’s in 19th century style, especially that barcode? How old do you want the closure to look? Anyone want to go back to springtops? Two seconds work with a pen knife (which anyone should be carrying, in my opinion), and a plastic seal’s gone, whether it’s perforated or not.

Of course, then you’ve got the cork to deal with (unless you’ve got a screwtop, in which case, I hope it’s sturdy enough to thread back on when you’re done, and make sure it doesn’t get bent!), and that’s another sore point. We had a bottle of very expensive, very highly-anticipated whiskey that couldn’t be poured at San Francisco WhiskyFest this year because when it was opened…corked!

Cork taint from TCA is an ongoing problem, no matter what the cork producers say. We’re told by producers that tainted corks are down to 1% (or less), while people not in the industry say it’s closer to 3-5%. Even if it is 1%, that means that — statistically! — the fellow who stole 225 bottles of Van Winkle a few months ago may have gotten two corked ones! Serves him right, the jerk.

Even if the cork’s not tainted, I’ve encountered a disturbing number of crumbling corks lately, some in new bottles. Pull off the plastic wrap, twist the cork topper, and kluhbup…you’ve got the topper and about a centimeter of crumbling cork in your hand, and the rest of it is still in the neck (if you’re lucky and it’s not crumbled into the whiskey).

What to do about that? Buy better cork? Maybe, but here’s a thought. I’ve had a lot of craft whiskeys with synthcorks lately, and aside from an odd quality to the sound when they’re pulled and the odd look of them, I haven’t noticed a difference.

I’m sure there’s someone who will tell me they can taste the plastic (and the caramel, and the salt air, and the stillman’s lunch…), but I’m standing here with a $70 bottle of whisky in one hand and half a cork in the other; I’m willing to be the guinea pig for that. Otherwise, at this point, I’m left with buying replacement corks at the hardware store (quite reasonable, and I always keep five or ten in a little bag in the desk drawer), but that’s hardly the kind of thing I should have to do.

All I want is to get at that spirit, and once I have, to be able to seal it back up again for a bit till I can get around to finishing it. Wax gets in my way. Corks are apparently a fallible solution. Work on this, whisky industry, will you please?

Drinking anything special over the holidays?

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Please do share what it is. I always open up a bottle of something special between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I make myself do this, even though it’s fair to say I have enough bottles open already.

Why? I’ve seen to many enthusiasts’ whisky collections auctioned off by their spouse after they die, and I’ve learned from that. Better to open up that special bottle now and share with like-minded friends.

I haven’t decided which whisky I’m opening this year, but I have a few days to work on it. I’ll let you know what it is when I do decide.

What will you be enjoying? And while I’m at it, let me wish all of you the very merriest of holidays, and the best life has to offer in the new year. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to stop by and join in on the whisky discussions.


The proper way to drink fine whiskey: an anorak reality check

Friday, August 31st, 2012

It’s Friday, 5 pm. I’m about to enjoy a coveted Old Rip Van Winkle 15 yr. old 107 proof bourbon, which I purchased in the 1990s. Not a bad way to start the holiday weekend, is it?

Naturally, I’m going to savor  this rare treat it in a snifter (or nosing glass like Glencairn), at room temperature, with the careful addition of quality water, right?

Wrong! I just poured it into a plain small rocks glass and added ice to it, which you see pictured.

What? The Publisher & Editor of Whisky Advocate, a magazine devoted to enjoying fine whiskey and educating the consumer, drinking his treasured bourbon on the rocks? In a rocks glass??

Yes! If you’re one of those people who think that the only way to drink good whiskey is neat (or with a little water), in a nosing glass, then it’s time for you to take that extended pinky of your drinking hand and tuck it back in with the rest of your fingers.

There’s a time and place for everything, and there’s more than one way to drink fine whiskey. Sure, when I am reviewing whiskey for the magazine, I’m nosing and tasting in a proper nosing glass, at room temperature, adding water and repeating the process. But, there are other ways to enjoy the good stuff, and I’ll give you some examples.

Whiskey on the rocks is okay sometimes

When I’m drinking whiskey at the beach, like this weekend, I will be adding ice to my whiskey. Why? We like leaving the windows open to let the sea breeze in, and the room temperature of the house is warmer than my house back in Pennsylvania. I add an ice cube to bring the temperature back down to where I like to drink it.

Knowing this, what I typically do is bring barrel proof (or higher-proof) whiskeys with me when I go there. Adding an ice cube kills two birds with one stone:  it lowers both the temperature of the whiskey and the proof at the same time. Yes, in this instance, adding ice enhances my whiskey enjoyment and the whiskey tastes better than if I didn’t add any ice.

Good whiskey makes for better cocktails

I learned this first from my fiddling around with tequila and gin cocktails. The better the spirit–and ingredients–the better the cocktail. For example, I use 100% blue agave blanco tequila (preferably with fresh lime juice and Gran Marnier liqueur) when making my margaritas, and it kicks ass. The same goes for whiskey cocktails. You want an unforgettable Manhattan? Make it with good bourbon, good vermouth, and quality bitters!

Different moods, different glasses

I keep a variety of glassware on hand. Which one I use depends on my mood and situation. There is no one perfect whisky glass (contrary to what glassware producers will lead you to believe). If I’m evaluating a whiskey, then I will use a formal nosing glass. But if my whiskey is just part of an enjoyable experience, not the entire experience, and my attention is focused on other things–the company I’m with, the view in front of me, what I might also be eating at the time, or whether I’m smoking a cigar–then I might be more inclined to not be so damned picky about it.

In fact, one of my most memorable whiskey-drinking experiences didn’t involve a glass at all! It was just the three off us, alone on a frozen lake in Onterio in February, ice fishing, passing around a bottle of good whiskey and telling stories while we drowned our bait and entertained ourselves, because the fish weren’t biting.

It’s okay to have a fine whiskey with a quality cigar

Hey, if you don’t like cigars, fine. And if you don’t want me to smoke a cigar anywhere near you, fair enough. I won’t. But, don’t tell me that enjoying a cigar with a fine whiskey is a waste of good whiskey. It’s not.

True, I won’t be able to detect all the subtle nuances on the nose and palate of a whiskey like I would if I weren’t smoking a cigar. But that loss is made up by the contribution of new aromas and flavors a cigar brings to the table, along with the fun and enjoyment of marrying the flavors between the two. Kicking back with a fine cigar and quality whiskey (say a bourbon or sherried single malt scotch) can be a very rewarding experience.

The point I’m trying to make here is this: one thing that makes whiskey so treasured is its versatility. Try to keep an open mind when it comes to enjoying it. Only then, Grasshopper, will you become a true anorak.



The versatility of whisky

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Okay, things have gotten a bit serious here of late, what with all the Van Winkle Bourbon source talk and the Bruichladdich sell-out discussions. So, to balance this with a less serious side of whisky, I offer this link to a video about how some people have utilized whisky over the many years. See if you can make it to the end of the video. It’s only a minute long. You can do it!

And yes, this exact same thing happened to me six years ago. Unfortunately, I had no whisky at the time.