WHO’S LOOKING OUT FOR YOU?

A schism in the whisky community is showing. It’s a play on the same battle that has been waging since Sumerians first haggled over goats… sellers vs. buyers, and the gloves are coming off.  On the seller side are the distillers, importers, auction houses, and yes book and magazine publishers.  On the buyer side are the millions of novices, experts, and investors who spend time at jobs they don’t like to be able to spend hard earned money on whisky that they do.
My clarified vision leads us back to our problem with Bonhams and a rather sad defense of their latest foibles in Whisky Advocate, Spring 2013 edition, page 26.   < Go read it and come on back>

Last summer blogs such as this one castigated Bonham’s for misleading and wrong descriptions in their whisky catalog.  As Adam Herz’s (LA Whisk(e)y Society) latest article suggests after thorough research, all mistakes were rather curiously in favor of Bonhams.  Where it gets worse is that not only is Bonham’s remorseless, but that their tool of defense was a sweetheart article by a magazine that many consumers mistakenly assume advocates for them.

A few of the weak excuses for Bonhams’ mistakes in the article, with my retort.

1. Sure we may have thrown out some dates for bottles that were inaccurate, but since the prospective buyers could have done their own research with the bottle photos and didn’t, it’s their fault.
If these details were so easy to spot then why didn’t you spot them?  Either you knew and were dishonest, or you didn’t and you should no longer bill yourselves as a world authority on whisky.  Many of the bidders are not experts and trusted Bonham’s over their own knowledge due to reputation.

2. “If this was an attempt at deliberate deception, it appears relatively motiveless, and would have been a colossal gamble on their reputation and clients’ trust, not to mention clumsily naïve…”
The motive is money.  Money can be a motive.  For reference see police records, any of them.  It was clumsily naïve and you have been called out.  At least have the decency to admit it and offer refunds.

3. “A single large consignment of bottles… arrived late at the warehouse, very close to the catalog print deadline.”  “Bonhams regret some lots were entered into the catalog using meager information gathered from initial discussions with the vendor prior to the physical receipt of the bottles.”

Mistakes were made because we were in a hurry?  I tried this on a cop once. Didn’t work.  Still illegal.  I lost.  The difference is my speeding was victimless but the auction buyers got screwed.  To save time this reputable agency asked the owner to provide the published information.  It would appear that the world class appraisals were often from a non-expert seller with the most motivation in the world to be biased or exaggerate.  Most respected auction house indeed.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

I only illustrate this one situation to illustrate the broader point:  Anyone in the whisky industry or anyone receiving financial support from the whisky industry should not be assumed to be completely forthcoming.  This isn’t part of a “grand conspiracy”, it’s not black helicopters, it’s a fact of life… follow the money.  Magazines, books, and other media who are paid by the industry through ads or with free whisky samples are going to naturally favor the hand that pays the rent.  Whisky prices are shooting up, and those on the sellers’ end of the sellers’ market want to ensure that momentum continues.  Big whisky can’t sell their new offerings at inflated auction prices if auction prices are stagnating, now can they?

ONE BIG HAPPY FAMILY?

The first scratch in my own naiveté came years ago during a phone conversation with an importer.  In our discussion I brought up the opinions of some well known whisky collectors and quite a bit of venom entered my earpiece.  I came to learn later that they had publicly disagreed on pricing and quality of the whisky being imported and had put a sour note on the importer’s storyline.  Truth was an unwelcome player.
Some of the kindest, politest, and most respectable folks on Earth hail from the whisk(e)y regions of Scotland and Kentucky.  When we read reviews we can almost hear a friendly drawl or brogue easing our hand toward a wallet.  The days of yokel whisky is over.  These are big multi-national businesses and their true voice is through strategic marketing.
We’ve grown up in a commercialized age.  We’ve seen ads on tv for years and have bullshit filters for everything we see there.  However, when we read glowing reviews and big ratings on a bottle, it’s easy to consider that the ridiculous price is justified because it’s from a respected whisky publication or institution, and not just some catchy jingle and graphic.  Don’t fall for the siren songs, know your malts!

KNOW, KNOW, KNOW YOUR WHISKY

Folks who get compensated to push a cause aren’t advocates, they’re lobbyists.  Everyone knows that a lobbyist’s purpose is to spin for money, so next time you hear or read anything about whisky, consider the source… and how they pay for lunch.

Of course there’s no need to punish yourself over this.  If you like whisky, buy whisky!  Buy from the big companies and buy from the little ones. Enjoy the magazines, enjoy the books, but know what you like.  Don’t let “them” tell you what to buy.  Trust YOUR palate.  Trust YOUR friends.  Trust respectable bloggers that earn it (not me, RESPECTABLE bloggers.)  If you love whisky, drink it.  Learn it.  Love it.  Then share that knowledge with your friends.  That’s our advantage.

WHISKY REVIEWS

I still have a sour flavor in my mouth, so I’m going to move on to a sweeter one.  Here’s some whisky reviews from bottlers I like.  Malt Trust is an American company run out of Florida.  They’ve got fair prices on good stuff. K&L is a well respected wine and spirits shop in Los Angeles.  They’ve begun a very serious program to personally select casks and sell them as shop exclusives. Single Cask Nation based in New York is also sourcing their own casks but are operating more on the SMWS model as a private club. Full disclosure, K&L and Single Cask Nation are friends, as are the Kilchoman folks in America and Scotland.  Still, I honestly think these are great.

Glen Grant 1975/2007 Malt Trust, Cask 3131 – Known

Price: $190

• Nose: Plum cake and hint of gasoline.  More of a dry sherry profile.  Not great but makes you really think there is something special to taste.
• Palate:  Yep, dry sherry.  Mulling spices and wintergreen minus the sweetness.  There’s some citrus in there but it doesn’t hit the forefront until the finish which is like that bit of a candy orange wedge lingering in your mouth 10 minutes after you ate it.
I’ll B+ this due to my soft spot for sherry, but if you don’t like sherry bombs, I’d shy away.

 

Glen Grant 1979/2008 Malt Trust, Cask 3136 – Known

Price: $180

• Nose:   Wow, pungent.  Leather being tanned.
• Palate:  Toasted oats and shoe leather.  Spinach leaves with a hint of sugar glaze.  Not for the timid.  Glen Grant just ages better in sherry casks.

 

Kilchoman 2007/2012 Single Cask Nation, Cask 378/07 – Known

Price: $95 (private)

• Nose:   Asphalt and rubber eraser. Muscled peat.
• Palate:  The color black.  Charcoal, tar, asphalt, Darth Vader.  Ashes on the finish.  However, there is a twist of lemon oil in there too. Does lemon oil exist? Somehow makes me think of coal mining.  This is for the peatophile.

Kilchoman 2008/2012 100% Islay, K&L Exclusive, Cask – Known

Price: $120

• Nose: Red hots meet red oak.
• Palate: Lacquer and more red hots.  A punchy sweet and sour finish.  Unique and fun.  Perhaps my fave from Kilchoman thus far.
B+/A-

Smart Shopper/Dumb Shopper

I saw a funny thing the other day. Or perhaps it was a scary thing: the Bonham’s auction results. I’m not going to beat up on Bonham’s this time, but the high bidders are going to take a hit. Scotch, and more recently, American whiskey prices are climbing for some reasons that are legitimate, and others that involve speculation and idiocy. I see a lot of bottles sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars and prices from store to store vary a lot. Now if you can save five bucks on Jack Daniel’s by driving 10 miles, you probably won’t bother; but if you’re searching for a 1955 Glen Ambrosia , then perhaps you should sniff the air before dropping your money like a teenager in Tijuana.
I’ve collected some pretty bad rookie mistakes from the recent Bonham’s, New York auction. Keep in mind that auction or private sale prices should always be less than retail. Note: European VAT removed.
Macallan Anniversary 25 year old

Retail: $1099 – Holiday Wine Cellar
Bonhams: $1428
Balvenie 1971- 33 year old

Retail: $720 – Sendliquor.com
Bonhams: $833
Macallan Select Reserve
1946- 52 year old


Retail: $4016 – Lion’s Whisky
Bonham’s: $7735
Glen Grant 1958- 49 year old


Retail: $435 – Arkwrights
Bonhams: $773
Springbank 25 yr- Millennium


Retail: $1002 –  The Whisky Exchange
Bonham’s: $1011
Bowmore Bicentenary 1964
Retail: $1596 – John Gordons Wine
Bonham’s: $3094
Mind you it did not take me long to find the retail prices.  The internet is a marvelous thing.  The world is interconnected, so use it.  I’m not sure how many specialized drink “searchers” there are out there, but my friends and I use http://www.wine-searcher.com/, and spring for the Pro version.  Search anywhere in the world immediately.  Cripes, this sounds like an ad but it’s not.  If you buy whisky and value your money, use it or something like it.
TIPS
• For Americans, some of the big shops like The Whisky Exchange, Royal Mile, Master of Malt, and WhiskyBase will remove the 17% VAT and ship overseas.  Some smaller shops won’t remove VAT or won’t accept credit cards.  Also, bottles are 50mL smaller in Europe than the US.  It’s a 7% penalty but often worth it.
• Don’t assume that a shop with traditionally bad prices won’t have good deals.  The whisky shop near my home has some prices that make me laugh, except when wine-searcher.com finds a bottle that’s the best price in the world.  That makes me happy.
• If an online shop lists in checkout that they are out of stock and can restock in 3 days, then forget about it.  They’ll never get that Laphroaig 40 in stock again, no matter what they say.
• The best gauge in the world for current whisky prices is whisky-auction.com.  Their “past auctions” search is difficult to use but the data is golden.
Please, please, please don’t be an idiot and drive up prices; unless of course it’s with a bottle I’m trying to sell myself.  In fact I think I might auction off that Macallan 1946 I’ve been sitting on for a long time.  I just hope that Lion’s Whisky can ship it to Bonham’s before the next auction starts.

“The Audacity of Note” or “How I Will Review Whisky” – Whisky Notes Part 4

I’ll be doing a lot of reviews on Whisky.com so you’ll need to know where I stand. As I said before, there are a lot of rating systems out there, and I have to choose one.

The System

We’ll be using the A-F rating system here, and just like school, C is average, without merit or demerit (except for grad school.) Because I’m likely to review whiskies of significance, you’ll probably see a lot of reviews of B or more. If you’re like me, then you’re more interested in better whisky and that’s where we’ll focus. You may also notice that although a C isn’t bad, I might get a little bitter about it wasting my time and liver.

My Scale

As stated before there is a lot of number inflation with some of the more commercial reviews. I’m not going to get too critical about that since a lot of that is conformity with what has become a standard. For better or worse, my livelihood does not hinge on my whisky ratings, so I do as I want. Many whiskies that the pros rate in the “low 90s”, I will put in the “B” range. It’s not because I’m snootier or have more experience, it’s just MY own opinion on how I want to scale my ratings, and I do try to stay true to the spirit of the descriptors. It’s also nice to have a little breathing room in the A range for the truly great whiskies.

Categories

There’s the old adage, apples to apples, and oranges to oranges.  I hope I used the right fruit. Being VERY simplistic, there are two major types of whisk(e)y that have taken hold.  The first is the barley-centric old-world whisky that is found in Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and elsewhere.  The second type is the bourbon/rye whiskey that sprouted in the United States.  Because these are different animals, I tend to rate them according to their peers. BTW, some whiskies made in America are malted barley, and I will tend to group them with scotch and such.My Notes

I appreciate good long notes, and may get a little windy myself on occasion, but for Whisky.com, I’m going to try to be quick and opinionated.  Most readers just want to know whether a whisky is good or not, and I’ll make sure I deliver that.  “Hey, this is great!” is a good note; far better than just a list of obscure European jams.  I will say what comes to my mind, even if I’m describing how a whisky reminds me more of an experience than something that once landed on my tongue.  Anything that can put you in the moment I’m in when I taste the whisky is fair game for print.  My rating will be a final overall whisky experience.  I don’t parse and tally sub-scores because I consider it more of an art than science.  Of course the nose matters, the finish matters, and the mouthfeel matters, but I lump it all up into one big drinking experience.  Color… don’t give a rat’s ass.

Knowledge Bias:One tidbit I’ll always add is the knowledge I had about the whisky I reviewed.

• Blind:  The ultimate review.  Whisky is handed over in a glass with no information offered.  No bias is possible.  This is the best type of review.

• Semi-Blind:  The reviewer is offered a whisky and knows it is one of a limited number of possibilities but not specifically which one.

• Known:  The reviewer knows exactly what is being tasted.

Guest Reviewers:

I have numerous whisky drinking friends.  On occasion I will ask them for a review, often blind.  I won’t hold them to my notes standards but will ask them to consider the ratings guide.  The more notes, the clearer the picture.

Alrighty then, let’s get to my first review ever (here).  Remember what I’ve been saying for a few months about professional reviews?  Well I decided to take on the granddaddy review of them all, the 2012 Whisky Bible World Whisky of the Year, Old Pulteney 21, which wasn’t easy to find because it was the #$%#$ Whisky of the Year and was sold out.  My plan was to get as many BLIND reviews as possible.  Unfortunately I could only try it semi-blind because I didn’t have time to wait for a friend to surprise me.  I had never had Old Pulteney 21, and hadn’t had any OB Pulteney for many years, so semi-blind wasn’t a bad plan.  My friend, Fuji, poured 3 glasses, an Old Pulteney 21 and two other cask samples that I’d never tried.  Of course I attempted to guess which was the Pulteney… and got it wrong.  So here it is… the 2012 World Whisky of the Year:

Old Pulteney 21 – Andy Smith/semi-blind

• Nose: Freshly tanned leather

• Palate:  Starts dull, then quickly heads into a warm minty rubber.  Oily sawdust. Little else going   on.  B/B-

Old Pulteney 21 – Andy Smith/known (tasted while typing this)

• Nose:  Wow, there’s a lot of vapor.  Reminds me of the fake leather seats of my family’s 1977 Toyota Corona on a hot day.

• Palate:  Mint, but faint.  Carpentry.  There’s an oily or melted butter texture.  Balloon.  This is pleasant but a tad pedestrian.  The finish is bitter.

Old Pulteney 21 – Friend #1/Blind

• Nose:  Banana bread and sour cherries

• Palate:  Bitter cinnamon, anise seed, a little leathery warmth

Old Pulteney 21 – Friend #2/Blind

• Nose:  Bubblegum, cherry, hint of soap.

• Palate:  Spicy up front.  Turns to a dry grassiness (heather?).  Reasonable finish.

Old Pulteney 21 – Friend #3/Blind

• Nose: Initial heather with honey comb and malt. Plenty of floral with hint of lemon oil. B+

• Palate: Heavy and thick mouthfeel. Dense golden honey with light tobacco. Nice oak influence, grass and heather make for a solid balance. Long honeysuckle finish. “A dessert of honey” A-/B+

Old Pulteney 21 – Friend #4/Blind

• Nose:  Sweet fruits and flowers mixed with creamy malt.

• Palate:  Licorice, wax, and peppers.  Bit of citrus and saltiness on a medium finish.  B/B-

And there you have it, the 2012 World Whisky of the Year from a different perspective.  Did Jim Murray have it wrong when he gave it a 97.5 (his A or A+)?  Well, if he believes in what he wrote, then no, because it’s his opinion.  I’m comfortable taking his word on it.  I would, however, like to politely disagree, because in my humble opinion Old Pulteney 21 isn’t a winner… but we do like it.