Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mail Bag...It's Your Whiskey

Here's the latest question from the email bag:

Dear Sku,

My two favorite whiskies are Brora 30 year old and Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old. I like to drink the Brora with Red Bull and the Pappy with Coke (50/50). I know these are expensive whiskeys, but hey, it's my whiskey; I should be able to drink it however I want right?

Coke Fiend

Dear Fiend,

If you pose this question on most blogs or whiskey forums, the first response will typically be reassurance. "Yes," the responders all say, "it's your whiskey, you can drink it however you want."

I'm sorry, but that's bullshit. If I buy a rare Van Gough at an auction and decide to use it as toilet paper, that is not okay. I would be misusing a national treasure and being an idiot. I don't care if I paid for it, I'm still an idiot.

You want to buy whiskey to drink with Coke or Redbull? That's why God (aka Brown-Forman) invented Jack Daniel's. Hell, you can brush your teeth with it like Ke$ha for all I care.

What's the difference? Well, JD is plentiful and fungible. There is plenty of it and the spigot will never run dry; one bottle is the same as the next. Brora and Pappy, though, are scarce resources and international treasures, like the last dodo bird. And each annual release is somewhat different. Even as I write this, there are people wondering how they can get just one bottle of the latest Pappy release without having to go on ebay and pay exorbitant prices to some guy who happened to score a case.

So, no, it's not okay to buy this stuff because you have the means and then drown it in cola. It's your whiskey, but with these rare whiskeys comes a responsibility to the whiskey community to not be an idiot.


Ryan said...

I have noticed the annoying trend of "political correctness" in whisky blogs (as in everywhere... alas), however, I am going to hold on to hope that not "most" whisky bloggers would accept this disgrace!

Jason Pyle said...

Sku, I suppose sometimes you just have to cut with the BS and tell it like it is. I can't say I've had quite the balls to level with someone like this but you've certainly inspired me to be a bit more honest there.

While we're airing grievances let's add the "toss water in it without even tasting it" crowd. I've never understood that. Each whiskey drinks differently. That 100Proof Parker's 2011 release is smother than silk. Adding anything too it just rips the palate entry to shreds. It doesn't need it. And while some will say, "it's a personal preference", I'd argue that's the same with coke to whatever. Learn to at least appreciate the whiskeys at Bottle strength. Many of the American producers are offering things at barrel proof (the world is following). While certainly strong, take little sips and enjoy something that run across your tongue like syrup.

I'm not saying don't add water, just that you shouldn't go dumping water in a whiskey before tasting it and spending a little time with it at Barrel Strength.

Jason Pyle said...

Ryan, we whiskey bloggers will unite under SKU's stance on this subject. Fear not. He has led the way.

Regular Chumpington said...

@Jason the flipside though is that some barrel strength whiskies just do drink better with water (obviously). This for me is in the north of 60 territory - this year's Stagg is still better to me with a little water or a little ice, and this year's Weller is so good with water (in a different way) that I honestly could go either way on it.

I said that in some slightly altered form recently and caught some static on it. Hey, I love barrel proof - even some of the recent Willetts in a major Willett group buy were as strong as if not stronger than the average Stagg and they were phenomenal neat. But even as there is a philistine contingent that will drown their '77 Brora in coke, there's a ridiculous zero-tolerance, neat-only and neat-always contingent that's equally insidious.

I think that's why I tend to err more on the "your money, your choice" side even though I more generally agree with Sku's point.

Just my 2 cents of cours.

sku said...

RC, I think Jason's point is that people shouldn't assume added water is necessary. I do agree that we don't want to get overly assertive about no water or no ice, but adding water without tasting is like adding salt to a meal before tasting it, not only wrongheaded, but an insult to the good people who created the meal for you.

Regular Chumpington said...

No debate here on that point.

Jason Pyle said...

@Regular Chumpington, Sku is correct, I just wish some folks would try before splashing it in there. Though he said it much better with the salt analogy. I am certainly not against water or ice, I just think it's a good idea to give it some sips, let it open up. See what it needs. There's some that try to get it down to 30-35% abv. I just think that's silly.

As for the 2011 Weller - absolutely agree. This is an example of a whiskey that I think is just better with a good few teaspoons in a 2 oz. pour. There's a roasted quality to the whiskey that really flies with the addition.


Ryan said...

The water issue is interesting. I see many people who are vehement that you "must" add water to "open up" a whisky, otherwise you're not getting the whisky's full potential etc. Then they tell you about the mean old jerks who will look at you with the evil eye whenever you add so much as a drop of water to any whisky. The thing is, I've never actually seen one of those people! Sure, there are people that generally do not add water (like me), but I've never encountered someone who was staunch about it, unlike the "add water people" who assume you are no true whisky connoisseur if you don't add water.

I'm purely speculating here, but I think that the cause of the water issue is that the Scotch whisky community has seemed to taken the idea of "nosing and tasting" a bit too far. Some people are so focused on counting how many flavors they can find, they forget to enjoy having a nice drink of whisky! I'm all for tasting notes, but not at the expense of enjoying the whisky. I recently saw an official company video showing how to "taste" an under-$15 blended scotch - this involved adding about equal parts water and whisky into your special nosing glass to "open up" the whisky and unlock all its flavors. Rubbish!

Of course, I'm pretty new to the whisky world, so I may not have a handle on this whole thing yet.

David D said...

That's funny. I've never met one "must add water person." I've met a million "never add water" people which to me is ridiculous. If you're sipping 60%+ whiskey constantly, you're definitely losing taste buds by the second. If that's the only whiskey you plan on drinking for a while, the fine. However, if you're planning on another afterward, I would assume you'd like to taste it.

SteveBM said...

I do agree that we don't want to get overly assertive about no water or no ice, but adding water without tasting is like adding salt to a meal before tasting it, not only wrongheaded, but an insult to the good people who created the meal for you.

Heard that, brotha! There really isn't a better analogy.

Most of the time, I enjoy my bourbon neat, whether it's an 80-proof Basil Hayden or a 143-proof George T. Stagg. Agree 100% with David D that on the higher proof bourbons the tastebuds on your tongue are getting annihilated. However, that really only applies if you are sipping more than one. Sometimes, if I'm not in the mood for the heat but want the flavors of a high proofer, I'll add a little water or even a small cube of ice. In that sense, "it's my bourbon and I can do what I want to it", but I'm still leaving myself open to tasting the spirit itself.

Adding cola to a rare whiskey, well, Sku's last paragraph pretty much sums up my feelings on that too.

Nice post.

Ryan said...

To David D: I guess I should clarify. Like I said, I'm a whisky-world novice. I don't really get out and meet many whisky people, which is why I haven't met any "no-water" people. My whisky experience is based on reading whisky blogs over the past half-year or so. As I've read those blogs, I've never encountered anyone saying "never add water," but I've encountered a lot of people who insinuate that you're uncultured and uncivilized and who generally look down on you if you don't add water. Of course, those people are politically correct so they would never say flat-out that you must add water, but you can read between the lines. Comments like "in my years around whisky, I've never once seen any whisky professional taste a whisky without adding water." I've seen that a couple places, and other comments like it. That's where my statement came from: that if you're learning about whisky and read around the blogosphere, you will get the impression that you must add water, and that no-water people are mean, bad people. Of course there are exceptions, but that is the prevailing attitude around the blogosphere, as seen by someone like me who is new to this and getting out there and reading the blogs.

As for the strength - I generally only ever have one drink in an evening, so I don't have to worry about trying to taste a Glenmorangie after a glass of George T. Stagg (let's plan ahead a little, regardless). Last weekend I opened up a cask-strength Glenlivet, and loved it neat. I'll try it with water one of these times, but honestly, I don't want to, because it was great!

sku said...

DavidD, there is a prominent whisky tasting event, call it an extravaganza, in which those staffing the booths are famous for pouring large amounts of water into your glass without being asked. You practically have to throw yourself on the glass to so much as taste it without a huge pour of water.

Chuck Cowdery said...

This is just the pendulum swinging back in the other direction. "It's your whiskey" was a reaction to self-appointed whiskey purists who couldn't live in a world where people put ice in their Macallan. Steve, of course, makes a very temperate and reasonable case.

Ryan said...

I wanted to elaborate a bit more on this (Sku, sorry for going on such a long rant on your blog!). As I said, I feel like if you read around you end up with the general idea that you are "supposed" to add water to your whisky. As a more specific example, I was recently reading up on the Glenlivet Nadurra (cask-strength) that I recently bought, and came across this blog post about it:


The interesting thing is a comment below the post where someone from Glenlivet Distillery says "cask strength whiskies should be diluted, they are not meant to be consumed at that strength unless you absolutely insist! I always add at least one third water when drinking a cask strength whisky and that way the full range of flavours can be fully enjoyed." This is of course just one example. When I mentioned the tasting video for the bottom-shelf scotch, that was another silly example. There are many more. What I find is that the scotch whisky industry in particular and other whisky professionals promote this idea that you must add water to be able to "appreciate" whisky. That's why I commented that I think the "nosing and tasting" business has gotten out of hand. Whisky is no longer an enjoyable, relaxing drink, it's now a game (or a job) where you find as many flavors as possible. Forget about just drinking it for enjoyment! They make you think it's a waste to not add water - just like adding coke is a waste - because drinking neat you haven't "opened up all the flavors."

Again I'll iterate I'm not at all against adding some water, though I personally prefer not to about 98% of the time. It has just been my experience (through blog reading) that the "should (must) add water" crowd is actually much louder than the "never water" crowd.

Ryan said...

I wanted to explain my stance a bit more, but I think my post just got eaten by the spam machine since I put a link to a specific example in there... Since I'm too lazy to rewrite it I'll just summarize:

It has been my experience that the scotch whisky industry in particular say that you "have to add water to whisky to appreciate all the flavors." And there are specific examples of them saying this. I think that emanating from the Scotch whisky industry is this phenomenon of whisky for "nosing and tasting" rather than drinking for enjoyment, and if you just read around, these "should (must) add water" voices are really much louder than the "never add water" crowd.

David D said...

Interesting. See that's an industry POV vs. a consumer POV. As a retail buyer, no one tells me anything about how to taste it. They let me do my thing. As a consumer, they want to tell you how to enjoy it, I guess. I read a lot of blogs and talk to a lot of people, but I've never once, ever been told I needed to add water to enjoy a whisky. I have been told, however, repeatedly, over and over by customers, that adding water to whisky ruins it. I feel completely the opposite from Ryan. Most of the time I see customers returning cask strength bottles that weren't "smooth." Most of the public that I deal with has no idea that adding water is even something you should think about. It's interesting how different two experiences can be.

sku said...

Chuck, good point. There is a difference between being a purist (or whiskey Nazi) and helping people to optimally enjoy their whiskey.

I don't criticize anyone for wanting ice or water, even a fair amount of water as different people have different sensitivities to alcohol, as long as the goal is to taste the whiskey and not cover it up.

David D said...

Also, I don't think the salt analogy really works - unless you think people automatically cook their food too bland so as to allow people to season it themselves. I would say that most producers bottle at cask strength to give consumers an option on their preferred proof, rather than because they intended you to actually drink it this way. I remember Harlan from BT saying he never intended for anyone to drink the BTAC at full proof.

Jeff H said...

You know, I never would have thought of trying this before, but Pappy Van Winkle 15 and Coke DOES taste really good!

Thanks for the idea, sku!

Jason Pyle said...

David D, the salt analogy is dead on. People and restaurants cook their food one way - whichever way they make it. That might not be seasoned enough for you and you may need to add some salt or pepper to it. You may not, it may be just right. If you don't taste something how do you know if it needs salt or not?

Folks pour whiskey all the time and then add water to it before ever bringing it to their lips. It happens. As Ryan states, this to me is a Scotch and Single Malt thing. Frankly, I don't believe anything at 80 proof needs water added to it MOST of the time. Charles Maclean and Richard Patterson believe in getting it to 30-35% abv. I think that's bullshit and is probably responsible for wrecking a lot of whiskey experiences. By all means do it, if you wish - you bought it, but don't do it before trying it and sitting down with it for a spell.

Let's be honest here also about the average consumer. Whiskey takes a little work. Few people just grab a bottle of whiskey one fine day and say, "Mmm, I love whiskey". There are more wine drinkers in this world because it's a lower in alcohol product and easier for the average person to consume. With whiskey it takes some educating of your palate, trying different ones to see what you like, etc. More than likely the person that brought that whiskey back into your store probably needs to be educated on where to really begin a whiskey journey. That's a bit off topic, but I think folks hear about Pappy or Stagg and want to start there. Probably not a good idea. I think that's more of the "so and so rated it XXX so I have to try it" thing. Something you have written a couple of nice articles on. I think it's an education thing. Hard to tell Joe customer to put down the Stagg and try the Breaking and Entering first I realize. But anybody that bought a barrel proof whiskey and didn't know he could add a bit of water.......well he aligns with the above.

As for drinking barrel proof whiskey neat, not at least taking a few sips is missing out on one of the great pleasures in whiskey. Few things are more luxurious than a syrupy sip of a barrel proof whiskey. I will add a splash if needed - some do not. This is not an absolute - must add/must not add water.

Just taste it - go from there.

Sku, sorry for jacking this thing and taking it from a coke thing to an ice and water thing. Wasn't my intention, but an interesting discussion nonetheless.

David D said...

JP - Totally disagree on the salt thing. We're never going to agree on that but that's OK. I don't think restaurants cook food for you to then tinker with it. Whiskey makers definitely make whiskey with that intention. They don't think you should drink it straight out of the bottle at cask strength. No chef would put a plate in front of you he didn't expect you to eat!

David D said...

Nevermind, I'm an idiot. I misinterpreted what you meant. You mean DON'T add salt until you've tasted. That I agree with. I thought you meant that cooks prepared their food bland on purpose so that people could then add the right amount of salt, like people could add the right amount of water to cask strength. My bad.

David D said...

So my point would then be: cask strength whisky isn't a well-prepared dish not needing salt - it's an underprepared dish that need to be corrected. It's not meant to be eaten as is, like a good meal would be. OK, there it is. Can't believe it took three posts to get that right. This is fun Steve, we should post like this all the time!

Florin said...

This was a very enlightening discussion! I just added two dashes of salt to my whisky, and now it's excellent! I will never go back to those unsalted whiskies again...

Ryan said...

On cask-strength: many in the industry (esp. in Scotland) do say that your are "supposed" to add water to cask strength. David, you said that you've never heard anyone say you must add water to whisky - but obviously somewhere along the way someone told you that cask strength needs water. I don't think cask-strength deserves a special status here - I mean there's cask strength Stagg at 140 proof and there's cask strength Glenlivet at 108 proof. 108 proof is certainly not in the "must add water" range for me.

The thing is, there are lots and lots of people - probably experienced whisky drinkers rather than casual ones as Jason said - who enjoy it MORE at high strength. I recently purchased Glenlivet Nadurra because it is at cask-strength; I find Speysiders at 80 proof way too dull for me to spend my money on. So, even at cask-strength water is still optional. The general consumer probably needs more education on this topic. I frankly don't understand the purpose of buying cask-strength if you're going to water it down too much... why not let the distiller add the right amount of water for you and buy the lower proof version? I'd rather have the distiller's local spring water in there than my Delaware River tap water if I'm going to water it down.

SteveBM said...

Remembered reading something like this in "But Always Fine Bourbon" and then found this nugget Chuck dropped a few years back...

"Pappy Van Winkle always said you should pour water in the glass, then add whiskey. That way, he said, you were making a poor thing better rather than making a good thing worse."

David D said...

Ryan - cask strength whisky exists because some people like it at 40, 43, 46, 48, 50, 52, etc. These guys caught on to the fact that different people like different strengths and decided they could please everyone by doing it this way. It's an economic issue and it worked. If you want to drink it at full proof, then great because it's "your whisky." However, for someone claim that they intended for you to do so, like a "well-prepared meal" isn't true. That's my only point. No one ever told me that I "had" to add water to cask strength. It's a proven scientific fact that high proof spirits kill your taste buds and your stomach lining. As someone who tastes for a living, that's not in my best interest. I'll usually take a small sip before adding water, but then proof it down to 50 or less.

Ryan said...

David - makes sense!

Jason Pyle said...

Interesting discussions indeed. David I don't think the distillers care when they release a cask strength bottling. I think they do so in order for you to experience what a whiskey is like right from the barrel AND THEN add water to it to get it to where you need it to be.

Proof is probably THE most underappreciated weapon in a distiller's arsenal. It can regulate flavor delivery in varied ways.

Regardless, my point simply is to taste your whiskey. It may need water for you to enjoy it. It may not. Don't assume - even a cask strength.

I'm thirsty now.

sam k said...

Barrel proof whiskey (I'm an American whiskey fan) exists so you can taste barrel proof whiskey. Everything else has already had water added to it and doesn't provide an equivalent experience. If you'd care to add water to experience the various changes, that's simply an added bonus.

As far as your taste buds being annihilated, I would argue that, as Jason says, stronger whiskeys call for different approaches to sipping. At barrel proof, I prefer to literally let a few drops hit the front of my tongue and allow capillary action to pull it back between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. My taste buds seem to really love that rush!

I have a hard time diluting barrel proofers. There are too few out there, and they offer something unique and intense. Nothing wrong with that, or with whatever way you enjoy your favorite pour, Coke or otherwise.

Your money, your choice. My money, my choice. No wonder Al Quaeda hates us!

Chuck Cowdery said...

When I teach whiskey classes, the very first thing I talk about is adding water and because of the wrongheaded prejudice about it in the market place, I emphasize that:

1. Professional tasters always dilute.

2. Professional blenders always dilute, if they taste at all. Many work exclusively by smell.

3. Most published whiskey reviewers and whiskey judges dilute, at least some of the time.

In my classes, I distinguish between drinking and tasting. If you are drinking, do whatever you want, whatever pleases your palate. Your choices have no effect on me and are therefore none of my business.

But if you are tasting, dilution with room temperature water (and nothing else) is permitted and often recommended. Sip neat and then add water judiciously. This will allow you to smell and taste flavors that may otherwise be blocked by the alcohol bloom.

I encourage the use of straws for adding water, covering the top of the straw with your thumb to lift a precise volume of water from the water glass.

Drinking whiskey that is more than more than about 55% abv without adding water is actually dangerous.

People who say that no one should ever put water in whiskey under any circumstances are simply wrong.

sku said...

"Drinking whiskey that is more than more than about 55% abv without adding water is actually dangerous."

Chuck, dangerous how (other than being flammable)?