Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Young whiskey: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate

John Hansell, the editor and publisher of Malt Advocate, has brought up an interesting question on his blog. Using Jim Murray’s ratings as a “springboard” he writes: “I see emerging, from various sources, [. . .] a paradigm shift where young whiskies seem to become grouped together as a style, and then rated and scored based on the relative quality within that style, not on an absolute quality.” He poses this as a question. Is young whiskey a style?

The idea, I think, is that young whiskeys might be undeserving of their high marks, because it is inconceivable that a young whiskey could stack up against an older one.

(There’s a whole other conversation to be had about rating whiskey, stacking things up against other things, and all that. It’s clearly a weird exercise, but I think the drinking public needs something.)

The real question: Do you like the whiskey itself? Or the oak of the barrels? Is the implication here that “absolute quality” is equivalent to “oak?”

Whiskey is an excellent oak delivery system, but the barrel is not the whole story. That’d be like saying that it doesn’t matter what kind of meat you use for barbecue (another excellent way to get the complicated flavors of wood and smoke into your mouth).

I know my bourbons much better than I know my Scotch. In fact, I’d have stayed out of the conversation entirely if they hadn’t mentioned American whiskey -- at least I’d have limited myself to dropping “Ardbeg 10 is Really Good” in the comments section.  American whiskey is mentioned, however, and so I’ll stay close to home and start by comparing three bourbons I like a lot: Buffalo Trace, Evan Williams 7, and Elijah Craig 12.

I’m assuming that most of the whiskey in a bottle of Buffalo Trace is four years and one day old, because it doesn’t have an age declaration. In a side by side tasting, I think the Craig and the Trace pull ahead of the Evan W (although there’s not a real clunker here). Certainly the Trace scores higher than the Evan W. and on the right day I think it would score higher than the Elijah. More to the point: they are in the same league. No one at this tasting would say “Wow, this one here, clearly the youngest, just isn’t standing up to the others.”

There are (at least) two things that make whiskey: the new make spirit (which is called white dog) and the barrels.

The two elements should match, is my thinking. If there was no flavor element coming into the whiskey from the white dog, then all the barrels would be full of vodka.

Sometimes, barrels get in the way.

Mr. Hansell, in the comments section, wrote: “If a whisky (or spirit) is already getting a 96 rating, how will it taste at 8 or 10 years of age? And what score will it earn? There’s not much more room for improvement between 96 and 100 points. Are these whiskies actually peaking at 1-3 years of age? I doubt it.”

A year ago I was sitting around with Jake Norris at Stranahan’s  and we had an array of glasses before us. He was pulling stuff out of barrels -- I got to taste a few of the Snowflakes well before they were released. One of the things we tasted was the oldest barrel they had. Probably eight years old by now. I thought it was really good and I told him so, and I asked him if he ever thought they might do single barrel releases of the older stuff they’ve got.

He said something like “Well, it might be good. But it’s not Stranahan’s anymore.” And we turned to our original glass of Stranny’s (which is blended from barrels 2 to 5 years of age). He was right. The flavors that make Stranahan’s what it is had been stepped on by the oak. All that chocolate porter malt, all that lively grain flavor had given way to something more like bourbon. I love bourbon, and I’d still drink a limited release Stranahan’s, but Jake was right. That whiskey isn’t bottled young because they have to get it out the door. It’s bottled when it’s bottled because that’s what they want it to taste like.