Yes, I know it’s not wine. That doesn’t matter. For those of you who did not know it, I have seven years of bartending experience and recently recertified as a professional bartender. Yes, that goes along with my wine certifications as well. I feel that it’s important for me to be as well-rounded about the adult beverage industry as possible, and while I may never become a Master of Whiskey or a Cicerone, I can discuss whiskeys (or whiskies if European) with just about anyone.
That said, I was a little upset that I would not be able to attend The Universal Whisky Experience because of two reasons: one, it’s very expensive for the highest level of participant ($2400+), and two, that it clashed with my conference training for The Day Job™. However, I would have gone to the “Super Pours” event which is the Grand Tasting equivalent at wine events if I could have fit it into my schedule.
Whiskey is the American spelling of Whisky, which is the spelling given to brown distilled spirits in Europe, with the exception of certain Irish whiskeys. Whiskey is different from other distilled beverages such as Gin, Vodka, and Grappa, or even Rum and Tequila. Whiskey is grain-based (corn, rice, wheat) as is beer, and is distilled and aged in oak barrels, much like wine. In fact, whiskey has been called “distilled beer” because of the similarities in the way that both beverages begin their lives, diverging only at hops for beer, and various distilling and aging processes for whiskey. There are other differences, of course; for instance, the alcohol percentage is much higher in whiskeys and other distilled beverages than in beer or wine.
The Universal Whisky Experience is only a few years old, founded by a Ugandan expat, Mahesh Patel, in 2010. Raised in the UK, he decided to take his love of luxury whiskeys and develop a means by which he could communicate with others of like interests. It’s only natural that such an organization should have their showcase event at Las Vegas bastion of luxury, the Wynn.
I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to attend one of the events the evening before my conference training began. The tasting event was for Diageo’s Orphan Barrel Whiskey Distilling Co. The Orphan Barrel Company is a company that finds those “orphan barrels” – those barrels that have been forgotten in distilleries or warehouses, whether because they went out of business or for other reasons is what make these rare whiskeys. As Orphan Barrels states on its website:
Every Orphan Barrel is hand bottled in Tullahoma, Tennessee, to ensure that these rare whiskeys are treated with the care they deserve – because some of them will only be available once. And once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
There were two whiskeys tasted that will be available shortly in the retail market. You’ll love these names: Barterhouse Kentucky Bourbon and Old Blowhard Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey. The Barterhouse has been aged for 20 years, and the Old Blowhard for 26.
We were served four whiskeys: one was under-matured, two were the above-noted whiskeys, and one was over-matured.
The under-matured whiskey was 123 proof which is 60.5% ABV. It had been distilled and in barrel for only three months. This bourbon was interesting, light, and reminded me a little of a Fino Sherry. On the nose, it smelled like alcohol and brown sugar! On the palate, it tasted of brown sugar, alcohol, and a little popcorn. And heat!
The over-matured whiskey had spent about 22 years in oak in a Kentucky warehouse that had no temperature control and had absorbed everything that the American oak had to give. It was 148 proof, and had a far more complex nose than the under-matured bourbon. On the nose was dark chocolate, ripe cherry, and coffee grounds, which was reflected on the palate. And, of course, the alcohol. We were instructed to add a little water to it, and we watched the transformation take place. The plain amber color swirled and morphed into a shade of toffee. Instead of bakers chocolate and coffee grounds, the nose transformed into toffee, vanilla, and the unmistakeable aroma of sweet pipe tobacco. On the palate, the firm oak tannins came to the fore, this time carrying along tobacco, toffee, brown sugar, vanilla, and semi-sweet cocoa. We were told that because this bourbon had spent so much time in barrel with no control, it was overdone and bad. I didn’t disagree with them until after we tasted the showcased whiskeys because the addition of the water to this bourbon was transformational. Yes, there was a lot of tannin, but if you’re a big red wine drinker like me, that means that it’s going to be something worth pondering over.
And then we tasted the Barterhouse, which is 90 proof. Vanilla, toffee, toast, and allspice greeted you both on the nose and on the palate. After the water was added, the toffee and vanilla came to the fore, and mellowed the spice. In a word, delicious.
The Old Blowhard was next, and is a blend of corn, barley, and rye. The nose was more complex than the Barterhouse with toffee, cloves, honey, and vanilla. Once again, the palate reflected the nose and revealed an incredibly silky mouthfeel. After water was added, the first thing that I noticed was that it smelled like the finest peaty Scotch! Unfortunately, the water tamed the mouthfeel, making it much less silky than it was before the water. The cloves lingered through the mid palate, and the finish was long and slightly astringent.
I asked the panel why the over-matured bourbon was considered to be bad. Evan Morgan, one of the gentlemen who was giving the presentation, indicated that because of the uncontrolled nature of the aging process and the intensity of the effect from the oak, this was not a bourbon that would be bottled. I noted that after the water was added, the fragrance of sweet pipe tobacco and toffee came to the fore and that the tannins were softened as the bourbon evolved in the glass. I guess I wasn’t being PC, but simply expressed my observations.
After the presentation, a couple of people came up to me and thanked me for asking what they had been thinking – that the over-matured bourbon, just by the very nature of its age, complexity, mouthfeel, and tannic structure, was by far the most interesting of the lot. It was okay for me to bring it up I guess. I’m a wine person!
I really enjoy sipping fine whiskey, and although this may be difficult to believe, I have never become inebriated from enjoying whiskey. In my opinion, it is something to be savored and enjoyed – if the goal is to become drunk, then are quicker and cheaper ways to do so; e.g. cheap vodka, gin, rotgut, or moonshine.
The Barterhouse (my favorite of the two) and Old Blowhard aren’t available locally yet, but keep your eyes peeled for them at your local spirits shop.
I will be touching on whiskeys more often because I think that in many cases, they can be just as enjoyable as wine. Of course, I also feel the same way about beer, but beer as a beverage doesn’t have quite the complexity and cachet of a great whiskey. But that’s just how it is now.
Stay tuned – that’s changing even as we speak!