A Whiskey Journey Part 4 – on Weller Antique 107 and the Art and Practice of Letting Go

The start of a new year always seems a good time to check in on a whiskey journey, to take stock of what’s past and what might be to come.

The year 2021, like its twin 2020 before it, was rife with themes worth reflecting on. Some are political and continue to play out on a national and international scale. Some are very personal, playing out privately in one’s own life. The multi-directional pressures of the pandemic push these personal and political motifs right into each other. We are experiencing a great hinge-moment of human history. What insight into this time will hindsight eventually grant us?

One personal theme for me, which did not come about during the pandemic but has certainly been emphasized by it, is the art and the practice of letting go. I waver between calling it a “practice” versus an “art.” A practice is something concrete, an explicit process, you can wrap your mind and hands around it. An art is more mysterious, its process more implicit, not so easy to put your finger on or explain. Letting go, as an endeavor, seems like both of these—a tangible practice and an ephemeral art.

This dichotomy came up during interviews I had this past year with Mike Steine of Woodinville, Jill Kuehler of Freeland Spirits, and Christian Krogstad of Westward, each of whom spoke in their own way about the difference between “art” and “craft,” the latter being a cousin word of “practice.” When artists speak of their “arts practice,” they are referring to the identifiable nuts and bolts of how they go about doing what they do from day to day. Similarly, when whiskey makers talk about “craft,” they’re often referring to the hands-on mechanics of production, the repeatable “practices” they keep up to make the whiskey. This was very much Steine’s perspective as senior distiller of Woodinville.

In whiskey, the term “craft” also carries connotations around a given distillery’s size and scale, its specific location, and certain production choices. Kuehler spoke to these things with regard to the sociopolitical mission of Freeland Spirits, which impacts everything from their grain selection, the farmers they work with, their public spaces and the overtly political initiatives they support.

In all these regards with respect to “craft,” Krogstad’s open wrestling during our interview with how to define it was particularly interesting for his gentle refusal to nail the word down to one meaning versus another. I sensed in him a desire to let go of any need for final definition, that to lock “craft” in would be exclusionary, and, as such, against the grain of his personal commitment to inclusive hospitality within the spirits industry.

In my own primary art, theater, this dichotomy between the need to define and its counter—leaving things open ended—has been a rolling theme. How much does a play or performance need to spell things out for an audience? What about a character’s intentions might actually be best left implied rather than explained, in order to compel an audience to engage more with the story? What are the artist’s and audience’s distinct and shared roles in creating the meanings of the experience?

The Black Rider, a musical by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits, which I directed in 2017

I once attended a public interview with the American theater director, Robert Wilson, and he said something about the commercial Broadway theater that stayed with me. He said that in a good Broadway show, every ten seconds, maybe every twenty seconds if the show is really good, the show is saying to its audience, “Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you get it? Do you understand? Do you understand? Do you get it? Do you understand?” He kept saying this for what felt like a full minute, and it got funnier and funnier as he drove the point home—that the sum total aesthetic of a commercial Broadway show is designed to be as easily understood by as many people as possible.

Why? Because commercial Broadway shows are exceedingly expensive to produce. A Broadway show must charge high prices and play to near capacity each night in order to even begin to make its money back, before eventually making some modicum of profit. Like commercial Hollywood blockbuster movies, commercial Broadway theater is subject to the highest demands of capitalism. Neither can afford to be niche entertainment. Only broad appeal can make them financially viable.

This fact has always brought their status as “art” into question, whether it’s Wilson’s comment about Broadway or film director Martin Scorsese’s comments about the Marvel movies not being cinema. And here the very idea of “what is art” gets into a clot of class issues relating economics, education, and cultural demographics.

Image from Max Meyers’ online article at Elliot Mag.

Wilson’s and Scorcese’s distinctions about commercial theater and movies are of the kind Krogstad resists making about the spirits industry. His view is that a big operation like Wild Turkey is as much a “craft” operation as a little place like Westward, in that somebody makes the whiskey and they’re putting their heart into it. Similarly, for Krogstad the art and the craft of whiskey making are inseparably bound up together. By letting go of any need for certain definitions and distinctions, Krogstad maintains his freedom to practice the art/craft of what he does with the full range of influences from his history in whiskey, beer, wine, and food—related hospitality industries that all impact what he’s now doing at Westward.

So what does any of this have to do with Weller Antique 107?

WELLER ANTIQUE 107
Single Barrel #213 selected by San Francisco Wine Trading Co. (2019)

MASH BILL – 70% corn, 16% wheat, 14% barley

PROOF – 107

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Buffalo Trace

PRICE – $65

WORTH BUYING? – Yes, but…

I thought my last post on Weller products would indeed be my last. The Weller brand doesn’t really need any more reviews online. Its fate is pretty much sealed. And guessing at the future of that fate doesn’t interest me any more than further bemoaning its unicorn-defining rise from a bottom-shelfer among many to top-shelfer second only to the bourbon that caused all this, Pappy Van Winkle. At this point, why post about Weller ever again? It’s good bourbon and a boring subject.

So when I uncorked this single barrel bottling of Weller Antique 107, I had no intention of writing anything about it. It is one of the five Weller Antique 107 single barrel store picks I currently have bunkered. And, currently, it is my belief that when these run out I’ll be done with Weller Antique 107. I’ve let go of my former desire to hunt them down and pay their annually hiked prices. Once they’d hit $65 I figured I would enjoy what I’d gathered up to that point and put my hunting boots toward other game.

Having made that decision, my enjoyment of Weller Antique 107 actually increased! Opening a bottle no longer felt like I was tempting a dangerous scarcity—as if being without Weller was akin to death by dehydration. That delusional hoarder’s fear of being caught bereft was gone. Letting go of Weller’s “unicorn” status also allowed it to come back down to earth from the gaudily flashing marquee where it had been relegated in my mind. Now it was all and only about enjoying the bourbon in front of me. And I did!

So stupid. Such a total and obvious mind trick. But there it is.

There was a nice ripple effect as well. The choice to let go the need to hunt Weller opened the door to my committing to bunkering less in general. And as with Weller specifically, since making that commitment I’ve found myself enjoying whiskeys that I’d sat on for even years! That exceptionally dusty bottle of Blade and Bow was delightful! That 2017 Smooth Ambler Old Scout 12 Year is so good! Of course it’s great that I get to enjoy them now. But I could as well have enjoyed them when I first bought them.

With all this in mind, after enjoying several pours of the current open bottle, I sat down with it to take some formal notes. I tried it in a traditional Glencairn, a simple tumbler, a 5-ounce brandy glass, and a Cibi tumbler. I wanted to try it side by side with itself, in glasses meant for all occasions, from casual drinking to formal tasting to celebratory toasts. These brief notes are compiled from these various sippings.

COLOR – honey-amber, bright copper highlights, straw turned burnt-orange by Autumn sunset light

NOSE – salty and bright caramel, buttery cherry turnovers, gooey pastry dough with a fresh sugary glaze, maple, toasted brown sugar, oak and baking spices, butterscotch

TASTE – sweet caramel, tannic oak, some vanilla icing

FINISH – oak tannins and spices dominate, then the pastry dough and icing, some lingering caramel…

OVERALL – a solid bottom shelf bourbon, bringing to mind other solid lower-shelf pours like Evan Williams BiB or (formerly) Henry McKenna BiB.

I’ve had more preferable Weller Antique 107 outings than this, offering more fruit and richer caramel notes. But I’ve had more astringent Weller single barrels as well. Here, the oak tannins make the most prominent through line, with an array of baking related notes adding detail and helping to soften the wood.

Interesting to try it in four very different glasses side by side. It shows itself best—meaning with the greatest variety of notes at once—in the Glencairn and brandy glasses. And though the nose came across more reserved in the Cibi tumbler, in all four glasses this was the most satisfying stage of the tasting. Each glass revealed additional aromas, whereas the experience was far more consistent from glass to glass on the taste and finish.

I mentioned Evan Williams BiB in my notes above. That perfect little mixer and easy sipper can still be had for around $20 on average. In more respects, this Weller Antique 107 SiB reminds me of Henry McKenna. That brand has skyrocketed in price as well, also without any apparent improvement to how the product is crafted. Like Weller Antique 107, McKenna’s bottle did go from screw cap to cork. But that’s aesthetics—and not even artful aesthetics, just a marketing department’s pretense of higher quality. Prior to winning the award that thrust McKenna out to unicorn pasture, it was already famously inconsistent from SiB to SiB. Weller Antique 107 is like that as well. For a higher price, I expect more consistency from a whiskey.

And so, having had better, worse, and similar experiences with this brand in the past, my lack of interest in sweating over future releases or paying any higher than $65 is reaffirmed. I’ll leave the Weller quest to those for whom it remains a more consistently satisfying brand, and those who want it for FOMO reasons. For me, letting Weller go still feels right. I’d rather put my time and money toward other new or more dependable experiences. We’ll see if I succeed, or get swept into the Weller whirlpool again!

The Shakespearean character, Hamlet—which regular readers of this blog will recognize I can’t seem to get away from, ever since playing the role myself back in 2002—that character, Hamlet, realizes something about letting go. After wrestling for most of the play with the dire question of life versus death, “To be or not to be?” Hamlet eventually realizes that death has no set schedule. It will come when it does. In the meantime, one would do best to not make so much noise fretting over being versus not being, and instead, as Hamlet finally says, just “let be.”

Hamlet’s zen-like epiphany comes and goes so quietly and briefly toward the end of the play, one might miss it amongst the spectacle of sword fights and teeth gnashing. True to its own suggestion, Hamlet’s two-word revelation is itself content to be, and for us to respond as or even if we will.

After directing a production of Hamlet in 2016, I could not forget that line. It had struck me in 2002 as well. But with fourteen more years of life under my belt, this time it really stayed with me. Two little words—”let be”—left me with so much to reflect on.

I thought again about something an old friend once wrote to me: “I will always love you with an open hand.” Wordier than “let be,” but no less a gift of a comment, and certainly more personal. That generous and vulnerable gesture of an always open hand, committed to perpetual possibility rather than clutching into place any single idea about friendship, love, or life…

I’ve always struggled with letting go, be it a hope, a grudge, a regret, sometimes even as I recognized my grasping on to such things only served to hold me down and back. But as Hamlet observed, life is now, death is who knows when, and when I get there I absolutely do not want to be still hoping, begrudging, or regretting. So I tattooed a reminder on my wrists—both the gesture and the words—where they’d always be handy should I need a nudge.

Letting go. Living life with an open hand. In addition to being personal, it’s political, and arguably also ultimately spiritual. Letting go can have a tangible process, a series of concrete choices. It need not be so mysterious, nor have any outward showiness one might associate with art. It can be a private practice. And yet there does seem to be something artful about it, something difficult to explain. Why can it be so hard to let go? Why do we cling when we do—to past passing comments, out of date political ideas, naive notions even after they’re made clearer by experience?

Weller is just whiskey. It’s not important. Any of us who have the means of time and money to fret over whiskeys like Weller online, in shops, on our shelves… Well, we live privileged lives. We’re doing fine.

What a whiskey can aspire to do, or rather what we can aspire to do with it, is to toast our friends, families, and lives. A dear friend of mine passed away this year. Her passing gives me no choice but to let go of any possibility of seeing her again. I must let her physical presence go, and enjoy the memory of her spirit. On the day I learned she’d passed, I opened a bottle of Maker’s Mark, her favorite bourbon, to sip while I reflected on her life and the impact she had on mine. That’s what good whiskey is—not a bunkered unicorn, but a meaningful moment, as fleeting as it is heartening.

Cheers!

Past Whiskey Journey Posts

Part 1 – Getting Started

Part 2 – Checking In

Part 3 – Why I Whiskey

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