Notes on Whiskey Notes

Meta? It’s at least a bit meta, for sure. (Aren’t most things in the iEra?) But the purposes of whiskey notes intrigue me.

Clearly they do. This blog is full of them!

Whiskey notes come in many forms. Books and magazines in both hard copy and online. New capsule reviews appearing by the second on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Numerous whiskey related YouTube channels offering the ease of TV-style consumption, and podcasts their conversational accounts. And there are the blogs, like this one, a less common form now since the rise of YouTubers and swipe-oriented social media apps.

I enjoy all these formats, and consult each of them regularly. For my own contribution I chose blogging because I’m a writer by trade, mostly theater related. I’m also a casual photographer. I enjoy the freedom blogging offers, un-beholden to publishing execs, ad-space layouts or set page counts. A whiskey friend called what I do here “long form,” which I suppose it is compared to most online writing today. One social media commentator called it “long winded.” 😒 🤷🏼‍♂️ What can I say? I’m not a guzzler of life. I like to take time to sit (sip?) with things. 😉🥃

Arguably the first, simplest and most obvious reason to publish and to read whiskey tasting notes is consumerism. Is the whiskey worth buying or not? Readers might find their tastes or other sensibilities align with those of certain whiskey commentators, and continue to read them to help make their consumer choices. I do this all the time. In addition to posting my own notes here, I’m often consulting other writers when deciding whether to pick up a bottle, or to get another perspective on a bottle I already have.

Probably the second main purpose for writings on whiskey is for hobbyists to explore their curiosity beyond consumer decisions. For most whiskey fans, our interest started with the taste of it. From there we learn about the process of making it taste the way it does. The explicit science of the craft, in relation to the art that comes about more implicitly from a distiller’s experience. Also terroir, how region impacts taste and process. The histories behind the regions and their processes. The stories of the people who made and make whiskey.

From there, it’s likely fair to say a quite distant third reason for whiskey notes lies in the broad realm of the philosophical. Having gotten into regionality and history, it’s just a short step onward into culture and politics. That this third step is so seldom taken as compared to steps two and one is itself interesting—if only to those few interested in taking the step!

Whiskey doesn’t obligate anyone to go any further with it than they care to do. Some people just want a drink now and then. Some want to explore and develop their palate. Some want to travel across time and space through their whiskey glass, getting to know people and their cultures and histories, occasionally transcending the material world into the realm of imagination and the philosophical. There are whiskey notes out there for all levels of interest, and room on the Internet for all Google’s creatures.

So pour yourself a glass of something that would seem to pair well with whichever of these interest levels resonate for you most. Or pick a different whiskey for each—it may well be a three-pour read! I’ll do the same, and sip through each in turn.

Level One:
Consumer Questions
paired with a $20
Evan Williams SiB Vintage 2005

I paused before writing this section…

How exactly to talk about whiskey consumer questions separate from questions to do with terroir, process, or especially philosophy? They would seem all bound up together.

There’s the basic question of taste. Do I like how the whiskey tastes or not? If I buy it without yet knowing, then if I find I do like it I’m happy and if not I’m disappointed. For some whiskey fans, taste is the beginning and end of their consumer consideration. Perfectly legit.

Yet the material question of what I’m willing to spend my money on is arguably more than a simple ratio of taste to cold cash. The price tag on a bottle certainly impacts my perception of it, as does availability. Is it expensive or cheap? Common or rare? What meaning do those factors carry for me? My perceptions of these things connect to the question of what I value, and how much?

In addressing value—or, more specifically, valuation—a materialist might refer to notions like “supply and demand” or “what the market will bear” as practical considerations, matters of “dollars and cents” and not dollars and sense, not philosophy. Materialism favors the tangible and clear over the philosophical or complex. Yet our money is personal, its use or abuse utterly subjective.

Consider my bank account, starting with the objective question: How much money is in it? By which I mean, what is the number listed online as my Available Balance? How much of that number must I subtract each month for rent, the electric bill, food, and other practicalities I cannot go without? Those objective needs accounted for, what’s the number remaining for my subjective wants and whims?

vintage Fort Knox postcard

These are numbers on a screen. What is their value and how do I calculate it? There is no physical bank account for me to visit and measure out these questions, no little metal box assigned to me with bills and coins stacked neatly by denomination to a height that represents, in real time and space, that flickering digital number in my iPhone’s banking app. Now that society has reached a point where money is not ultimately a tangible material object—the U.S. went off the gold standard in 1971 and gold bricks in Fort Knox are long since not the grounding weight beneath those auto-adjusted online numbers—how do we actually measure money’s worth?

And here I don’t mean “we” the U.S. government, but we the actual people. Do we measure money’s value objectively? It’s not an object, so, it must be subjective. Subject to what? To my own reasoning, my own sense of need versus want, of fiscal responsibility—how I prioritize the various things by which I busy myself from day to day in the hopes of leading what I calculate to be an enjoyable life.

At this point in the history of currency, where does my process of valuation actually begin—with the money, or with the things I might trade it for? What do I ultimately value most? Is a bottle of Remus Repeal Reserve V worth $100, or is $100 worth a bottle of Remus Repeal Reserve V?

The materialist might argue this question is mere wordplay, i.e. not practical, that the Remus is a consumer product, a tangible object that has been valued by someone at a set amount of money. Clear. Simple. Practical. Make the trade or not. But don’t get philosophical about it.

I would argue with the materialist that their practical notion itself assumes a philosophy: That money is ultimately of greater value than the things for which we trade it. My reasoning is that the materialist is essentially advocating that we not question any stated price. That implies that a stated price is somehow inherently right, that it is beyond question merely because it has been stated. Accept it or be quiet and move on. This is a very logical, and convenient, philosophy for anyone with something to sell. Within it lies the assertion of capitalism as wholly (holy?) good.

But a person might value other things more than money. Subjective things like an experience, a memory, an association, or clout, prestige, popularity. What are these things worth?

Keeping to tangible objects for the moment, let’s go back to that bottle of Remus Repeal Reserve. Someone gives their money to get a bottle from someone else. They valued the Remus more than they did the $100, otherwise they’d not have made the trade. And the person who took their money valued the $100 more than the Remus, otherwise they wouldn’t have let the Remus go.

So, despite the object involved, and regardless of whether it was paid for in cash (objective?) or digitally (subjective?), there is arguably no objectivity, nothing practical in the material sense, at work here. The chaos of subjectivity rules the day when it comes to value, rendering money ultimately less important than one’s own point of view. Value something and it has value. Don’t value it and it doesn’t.

In short, the gold standard has been replaced by one’s own. Someone can tell me that a bottle of George T. Stagg is worth $800, and I can tell them $124 is worth a bottle of George T. Stagg, and we’re both right. We won’t make a trade though. We value money and George T. Stagg too differently.

This volatile subjectivity is precisely why I believe it’s whiskey consumers who ultimately have the power to set prices. But we won’t summon that power! We lack a working combination of collective organization and individual will. So we let the distributers, retailers, and secondary pirates go on controlling prices. We’re fools holding all the cards without the wherewithal to deal them.

Now, that statement assumes there is a widely shared desire to temper the whiskey boom’s massive price hikes. I actually don’t believe that desire is widely shared. If it were, prices would be coming down. And they are so very much not coming down. Not at all.

Consumer questions carry undeniable heat. Matters of money matter to us beyond practical trade transactions. It’s easy to tap out variations on “It’s just whiskey, calm down and move on,” as many thumbs daily do in social media commentary streams. But that’s too easy a dodge. I doubt “it’s just whiskey” for Jimmy Russell, who has devoted over 65 years to perfecting Wild Turkey 101. I doubt it’s just whiskey for Fred Minnick, who initially embarked on his incredible career in whiskey journalism as a means of grappling with PTSD after serving in Iraq. It’s clearly not just whiskey for even Chad and Sara, the singular every-couple behind the It’s Bourbon Night YouTube channel, who are steadfastly a-political in their content and, as such, underscore their recognition of the emotional pull of consumer and other sociopolitical matters on whiskey.

So this simple consumer question—What do I value, and why?—is actually very complex. And I haven’t even got into things like the online secondary whiskey market, ABC (alcohol beverage control) states versus free enterprise liquor laws, or capitalist thorn bushes like wealth distribution inequity or the morality of the “free” market… We’ll save those for a long night at the pub with a bottle of something high proof.

Okay. So I utterly failed to address consumer interests separately from philosophical interests. Two points for not getting into terroir or process yet?

By the way, this $20 bottle of Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 2005 tastes great. I’d even pay $35 for it, but that’s about it. Although if you value it at $100, DM me. 😉💸🥃

Level Two:
Terroir & Process
paired with a $76
Home Base Cask Strength Bourbon

The science of terroir and the mechanics of the whiskey-making process have been written about extensively elsewhere. Here I’m interested in terroir and process as they relate to people.

When I taste Japanese whiskies I cannot help but reflect on the time I lived in Japan. I was twenty-three and had thrown myself into the adventure of living abroad for the first time in my life, seeking new experiences and a stark separation from anything familiar. Banal aspects of daily life were suddenly new—cooking, laundry, taking a bath—and I was often the only White person in the room, the store, or on the street. Immersed in constant unfamiliarity, my senses were in a heightened state every day.

(Me in Ota, Japan, 1994/5)

Something I noticed very early on was how the general personality of the Japanese people echoed the natural landscape. This was my first conscious experience of how a culture evolves in response to nature.

For example, the weather would be very still and peaceful, and then quite suddenly there’d be an earthquake or torrential storm, which just as suddenly would end. Similarly, I found the people were generally polite and reserved, and then on a holiday there’d be wild drunkenness in the streets—in one case with men carrying chariots and crashing into store windows. Even without a holiday, on an average Friday or Saturday night, the drinking could be quite literally explosive—evidence of which was sometimes difficult to not… er, step in… the next morning when I’d make my way through town to the train station. So while the Japanese demeanor was generally contained, when they let loose they really let loose. It was not uncommon that I’d be sitting in a bar with my dainty cup of hot sake and the Japanese guys would each have their own bottle of Jack Daniel’s!

Japanese whisky itself seems most often to reflect the ideal of stillness and subtlety, more so than the explosiveness of earthquakes or anyone’s Saturday night release. Like other Japanese arts, Japanese whisky leans into the beauty and the pleasure of carefully selected nuance. How much of it one then pours into one’s Highball cocktail is another question!

The saltiness of scotch and the salty humor of the Scottish people. A bright and lively Irish whiskey and the bright and lively music filling an Irish pub. The hearty flavors of an American bourbon and the hearty laughter at an American BBQ picnic. These broad clichés ring true. The more detailed nuances of a culture can likewise be found when one takes the time to explore the detailed nuances of a bourbon from the Pacific Northwest versus a scotch from Islay versus a pot still whiskey from Dublin. The whiskey becomes a starting point for getting to know someone else and their culture, oneself and one’s own.

Terroir is not only the local landscape and weather. It’s also the intentions of the people responding to that landscape and weather, and how they apply their response to making their whiskey. And so process likewise evolves from the necessities and happenstance brought about by terroir and culture—factors that evolve with time.

Kentucky is arguably the single most famous whiskey-making region in America, doing the most to define bourbon culture, so much so that some people still assume bourbon comes only from Kentucky. Tradition runs deep in Kentucky, with many distilleries operated by generations of the same family.

Wild Turkey is certainly one of Kentucky’s cornerstone distilleries. And Jimmy Russell has made whiskey at Wild Turkey for so long he’s been witness to many changes to the whiskey-making process. These changes have sometimes come in conflict with his intent to not change a thing!

Russell accepts some change, of course. “Everything was done by hand when I started,” he said in an interview. “You had to open and close valves by hand, you had to sit right on top of the steel with one hand on the steam valve, one hand on the flow valve. Now you can sit with computers and open and close those valves by pushing buttons.”

Having spent years pre-automation, monitoring things like temperature and humidity with his own five senses, Russell developed a deep practical understanding of the Lawrenceberg, KY, terroir where Wild Turkey is made. Year by year, his commitment to consistency had to contend in real-time with shifting weather patterns, as well as shifting technologies.

Famously, in the 1990s when financial concerns forced the issue of replacing the distillery’s old cypress wood fermenting tanks—originally installed in 1925—with new stainless steel tanks, Russell insisted on what ended up being an eight-year period of transition, during which time he carefully monitored the impact of the stainless steel on the whiskey, making adjustments to ensure the Wild Turkey flavor profile would not be compromised.

The intentions and resulting process of the maker must be in continual conversation with bottom-line business needs, their impact on process, and the combination of dependable and surprise variables in the local terroir.

The folks at Woodinville Whiskey Co. in Washington state understood this when they set up shop in 2010. By situating their distillery smack dab in the middle of mountain forests and multiple wineries, they knew the open hatches of their fermenting tanks would take in all that local bacteria, create a chemistry with their mash bill and yeast, and yield flavors only to be found in that location.

When I asked senior distiller Mike Steine about flavor during my August 2021 visit to Woodinville, he said, “If we switched our corn supplier tomorrow, I could probably taste the difference and people with highly attuned palates probably could. But the majority of casual bourbon drinkers probably wouldn’t pick up on it. Moving facilities, however—say, if we moved this distillery fifty miles away from here—that would absolutely effect the flavor… Here in Woodinville with all the wineries, there are lots of wild yeasts and bacteria floating around. All of those falling into our open fermenters, they get in there and eat the sugars, they produce esters, short-chain fatty acids, things very unique to them. We wouldn’t be able to replicate that impact anywhere else.”

It’s no surprise then that Woodinville Bourbon often does well when aged in wine casks. With transient wine bacteria having an incalculable influence on the whiskey from the start, the distillery has had great success finishing their bourbon in port, sherry, moscatel, and other wine casks. By working consciously with what the local terroir offers, and purposely inviting the happy accidents offered by the surrounding landscape and wineries, Woodinville created a whiskey brand with a distinct flavor identity and an articulate direction for ongoing experimentation.

There are other examples one could offer—as many examples as there are distilleries. In whiskey-making, the possible relationships between terroir, process, and people are endless, and endlessly fascinating.

I chose Home Base Cask Strength Bourbon to pair with this topic because it is made by Home Base founders, Ali and Sam Blatteis, with a heightened consciousness of the northern California terroir, as well as a set of ethics around sustainable farming and production practices that directly influence both the bourbon’s flavor profile and its presentation. Home Base products are local local local, from the grains in their mash bills to the artists who design their labels.

Level Three:
The Philosophical
paired with a $206
31n50 Barrel 6

In speaking to consumerism I’ve already got into philosophical questions around capitalism. With terroir and process I touched on philosophical matters of regional culture and people’s decision making. So, clearly it’s this third area I am personally most fascinated by.

It’s also the area some whiskey fans avow against, specifically when it comes to political philosophies—or, more bluntly, politics. Getting to know a region’s culture on a broad philosophical level, not yet an overtly political one, is comparatively more welcomed. Or exploring the mind-body aspects of whiskey—the zen of whiskey drinking, whiskey as a sensorial meditation on the aesthetics of color, light, and taste, etc… Or more grounded philosophical questions around how much and why we drink, how whiskey impacts physical and mental health, and so on…

But get into overt politics?

I picked up these three books a while back. Each approaches this third level of whiskey interest from a different angle.

With Whiskey & Philosophy, editors Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams have gathered twenty ruminations by a range of whiskey writers, academics, and philosophers. The essays are grouped under five umbrellas: history and culture, beauty and experience, metaphysics and epistemology, ethics, and the role of place and region. Writers are as likely to reference Hegel or Heisenberg as they are Hakushu or hangovers.

Some of the writing is decidedly academic and a bit difficult to follow, especially if one takes up the editors’ suggestion to enjoy a dram while you read! But the majority of the essays are thought-provoking, good humored, sincerely curious explorations of their subject—be it questions of authenticity, the psychology of whiskey selection, whiskey and the American history of feminism, whiskey-making methodologies as cultural practices, whiskey and identity… The list goes on.

Personally, I was delighted to come across this book. The intersection of whiskey and culture was the inciting impulse for this blog, after all. And I’m a big fan of those sprawling late-night conversations over a few too many drams, in which you and your friends solve the world’s problems, if only for the fleeting moment of the whiskey flight. And sometimes we actually do swim down through our pours to a deeper, meaningful understanding of something or someone. It’s a great reward when that happens.

Distilled Knowledge is not a book I would particularly recommend. I bought it because I wanted to educate myself on what my whiskey hobby might do to my physical and mental health. I was disappointed to find the book’s content was ultimately as deep as its cartoony cover. In attempting to make the science of drinking accessible to the non-scientist reader, author Brian D. Hoefling’s approach errs on the side of pop-culture a bit too heavily. The layout is eye catching. But the depth of information isn’t anything one can’t locate with a quick Google.

When I realized my whiskey interests were not a passing phase but a serious pursuit, I really wanted to understand the risks involved. I found it difficult to get beyond the slew of biased propaganda out there for and against alcohol. Though Distilled Knowledge didn’t add much more to my understand than Googling already had, at least it gave me something non-digital to hold in my hand for reference.

Finally it took a blackout, and my partner expressing concern, for me to properly check in with myself, and to realize that any one book or article wasn’t the neat and tidy answer. Understanding risk needed to be an ongoing practice, not a one-time study.

In Drinking In America: Our Secret History, Susan Cheever explores the intricate connections between American whiskey and American politics. Subjects include the Mayflower voyage, the American Revolution, the real Johnny Appleseed, Prohibition, Senator McCarthy’s political witch hunts, and the Kennedy assassination, among other significant chapters in the American story. In each instance, Cheever illuminates the role alcohol played in how and why events unfolded as they did.

As the child of an alcoholic and a recovered alcoholic herself, Cheever’s exploration is informed by the dark side of drinking. Yet her book’s aim is not at all to advocate against alcohol. Rather, she shares with us her fascination with the evident fact that American culture, politics, and history are quite literally soaked in booze. The book is surprising, entertaining, thought-provoking, and exceptionally well-researched. It dovetails historical accounts with a lively cultural investigation into the complex relationship Americans have with alcohol.

When it comes to distant past politics—like the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in the newly formed United States, the early 20th Century Prohibition era, or even to an extent the still resonant history behind Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey—these are generally embraced by those venturing into this third level of whiskey interest. Reading up on these political moments in history is largely a matter of curiosity led by nostalgia. Very distant, very safe.

Whereas more current politics—like people using Rittenhouse Rye to celebrate the 2021 Kyle Rittenhouse trial verdict, or the way sociopolitically active distilleries like Du Nord Social Spirits and Republic Restoratives use spirits to recognize, celebrate, and further awareness around social justice issues—these more present and pressing matters are often greeted not with cozy nostalgia but rather with the reactionary binaries typical of our current era. Gathered around a bottle, whiskey fans tend to either be for talking about these things or against doing so.

To leave politics at the door is a common habit—one might say, ethic—in the whiskey community. It’s the logic of “there’s a time and a place,” and for some people a glass of whiskey is neither the time nor the place. Yet even anyone advocating this logic must understand politics don’t go away simply because one has closed one’s metaphorical door to discussing them. Arguably, politics are especially present at a table from which they’ve been banished.

And that’s an assertion that might be very worth debating over a glass of Du Nord Mixed Blood Blended Whiskey. Or Uncle Nearest 1856. Or Republic Restoratives Madam Blended Whisky. Or Journeyman “Not a King” Rye. Or any number of whiskeys with ties to important events in history that still have heat today.

Or perhaps it’s the power of aesthetics you’re interested to mull over, so you line up a trio of pretty packages like Old Fitzgerald BiB, Old Man of the Mountain, and Hughes Belle of Bedford, to assess how one might judge a whiskey by its bottle.

Or maybe it’s a metaphysical cultural exchange you’re after, an opportunity to consider people and places in the world you’ve not met or visited, so you arrange an international flight of Japanese, Irish, and American single malts.

The realm of the philosophical is a mighty vast place.

I chose 31n50 Barrel 6 to pair with this section because of its sum total combination of price (consumerism); that it was intentionally made of a common distillate aged in common barrels to discover what would be uncommon about the impact of the weather where it was aged (terroir and process); and because it is so particular a labor of love for its maker, Cris Steller, that he won’t just sell it to anybody but rather interviews people who inquire about purchasing a bottle, to ensure their plans for it align with his own (philosophy).

Also it’s dang strong! At 140.4 proof, like many of the philosophical questions one might take up grappling, 31n50 Barrel 6 is a whiskey to contend with.

Last Call

There was something frighteningly honest about Facebook changing its corporate name to Meta. It was as if they’d decided to just call the 21st Century for what it is.

In the 21st Century metaverse, something has value if I value it. Something is true if I say it is. I can “feel” connected to people because of what I tap out on my iPhone screen, not because I am shaking their hand. I can have “friends” I’ve never met who “follow” me on Facebook, though they cannot follow me into a bar to share a glass of whiskey. There is nothing objective in this metaverse, subjective perception having deleted any object that displeases. Even in response to verifiable changes in the world, I need not change my actual self anymore, just my algorithm.

Whiskey goes against the tide of such a world. Whiskey itself, I mean, not the debates about pricing or distribution or what to leave at the door. Whiskey can only be experienced live, the glass in your hand. Thoughts and conversation flow from there. The decisive impact of terroir and process gives rise to further associations, like work ethics, tradition, history, questions of sustainability and the future. Aromas and flavors conjure memories from the past that might prompt considerations of the present. These considerations then veer into our values, cultures, fears, and hopes.

These things can be ephemeral—debatable, changeable, transient. The whiskey is always real—water, grain, yeast, wood, and time. Subjectivity and objectivity in perpetual conversation. Can we keep in touch with the objectivity of things as we further embrace the subjective world we’ve constructed?

There’s a lot to take notes on in life. The whiskey helps!

Cheers!

2 thoughts on “Notes on Whiskey Notes

  1. A very interesting and enjoyable read, covering thoughts many of us have pondered. The world is definitely a more accessible place, but sometimes lonelier and more confusing. The disparities of information on alcohol consumption, influence of territory and a whiskey’s value are all good talking points. But we must realize the truth which you alluded too in that value is estimated worth and something or someone is only worth the price the purchaser is willing to pay. So even the perception of what’s good to drink or good for me to drink is entirely based upon each person’s perception, taste, value/worth and sometimes unknown to us our influence’s.

    Like

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