Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hell Hath No Fury: A Craft Distiller Responds

Last week, as part of my Craft Whiskey Week series, I published a review of two new peated whiskeys from the Lost Spirits Distillery in Salinas, California. I thought the whiskeys showed promise, but overall, I thought they were too young, possessing some of the new makey characteristics that are common in underaged whiskeys.

Distillery owner Bryan Davis posted a lengthy response in the comments that I thought was worth publishing in its entirety, both to allow him to have his say and because I think it's somewhat emblematic of the way that certain distillers respond to anyone who doesn't think their product is the best thing ever to pass through a still:

This morning I woke up after reading your blog post and contemplated closing the distillery that Joanne and I spent the last 3 years of our blood sweat and tears to build. Then I poured myself a glass of Leviathan and the forthcoming Paradiso and said HELL NO I love this whiskey. It was at that moment that I decided to write a short rebuttal to your opinion of my work.

The criticism that a spirit is too young is insulting.

A spirit can be too hot for your taste. A spirit can be too sweet for your taste. A spirit can be to bitter for your taste. You can find notes in it that you don’t like or find awkward. That’s fine and you’re entitled to your opinion, but to say its too young is an undefined criticism.

You owe it to your readers to say why you don’t like it. Hell you owe it me, the person who slaved for years to make the whiskey you panned for no defined reason. Its like saying I am in my thirties and therefore too young to make whiskey. I, like the art I created, stand or fall on my own merits, not my age.

I further take issue with the statement “its too young” since it pretends to be an objective statement when we all know opinions about whiskeys are inherently subjective.

I would also point out that many trained palettes that have sampled my work see what I see in it and love it and support it. I am not saying you have to like it but I am saying the criticism “its to young” pretends to be objective when its not, and is really just a vindictive and mean way of saying I don’t care for it.

Why I did it:
A spirit derives its reason for being based upon what it does that is new, interesting, and unusual. If Leviathan tasted like Laphroag it would have no reason for being since Laphroaig already exists. I made bold changes to the production process, the wood, the peat, and the techniques used to age it. The ester profile and flavor density is off the charts. Is it conventional NO – it’s not supposed to be.

I think Leviathan has a lot to say, you don’t have to like what it says, but don’t tell people not to listen because it’s too young to speak – say why you don’t
like what it says.

Why “it’s too young” is a dangerous thing to say. Big distilleries are pushing the message that craft products are too young… why because they are trying to bankrupt them by discouraging people from trying the whiskeys at all. When you repeat their garbage you are being played like a pawn of the multinational corporations that don’t want to see a world with 10,000 distilleries in it. For them this is business. For me this is art, and the world will be richer place if we don’t let them push their corporate PR strategy down our throats.

For my part, I'm confident that my readers understand what I mean when I say something is "too young" and "new makey," and I think Mr. Davis does too since in this interview with K&L, he himself admits of these whiskeys, "We don't really want to tell you how long they've been in the barrel...obviously they're relatively young and it's not our strongest suit."

So what say you good readers? Is Sku nothing but a shill for corporate whiskey (something that I'm guessing Brown Forman, among others, would have a hard time believing)?


Ben said...

Wow someone is sensitive. I appreciate the honest review Sku, I've found the same thing from other new distillers (like Kings County) and while I applaud their efforts, I'm not sure they're ready to compete with the established players...

Chuck Cowdery said...

Welcome to my world.

James said...

One middling review and you thought about closing shop? That speaks volumes about your lack of confidence.

Sku didn't even show his true, sarcastic self and even said it had potential. He didn't even mention the blatant self-advertisement of your whisky names (nice touch by the way) and didn't even mock the aggrandizing whisky names. What's next in the line-up, the Loch Ness Monster followed up by the Utopioso?

As a husband, you should be used to constructive criticism. At my house, my wife labels it "encouragement", while I call it getting torn a new one. Just do what I do--have a good man cry about it and move on.

The bottom line is that you need to stop being such a pansy and by pansy I really mean another P-word.

Unknown said...

I agree with Sku 100%. Be allow me to explain….and I apologize for the great length.

A friend was kind enough to provide me with a sample of Leviathan & Seascape. These were both bottled as American Peated Single Malt Whiskies. Below are my reviews and I can assure you they were performed over 3 weeks ago, well before this blog entry. They're posted on Twitter and other forums.

Lost Spirits Leviathan I American Peated Single Malt, 110ppm, SB, NCF, CS @ 54.25-57%. Matured in late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon casks.

Color: Pale yellow.

Nose: Heavy dose of smoke. There's a musky note like, wet, decaying bark. A strong, new make note begins to dominate.

Taste: Lots of grain influence. Young with a good dose of white dog. There's a spicy, peppery note that's introduced mid-palate right before damp, peat flavors kick in. New make lingers throughout.

Finish: Smoke combined with young floral and ripe fruits consistent with white dog. Contrary to the ppm rating, this would be a tame Islay.

Rating: What can I say? If this is what America has to offer for peated single malt, we are light years behind our brothers across the pond. Young, thin, immature, and brash. This one needs a lot of work. Score is a 71.

Lost Spirits Seascape American Peated Single Malt, 55ppm, SB, NCF, CS @ 53-57%. Matured in late harvest Cabernet Sauvignon casks.

Color: Very light yellow.

Nose: New make with a feint whiff of smoke. A hint of citrus with a strong yeast presence.

Taste: Young and bitter. There's a strong astringent note on entry. White dog notes dominate. Youthful and immature. Subtle smoke masked by new make. There's very little to like here.

Finish: Thin, muted, with very mild smoke. Slightly tannic with bitter apple notes.

Rating: Another failure in my opinion. These are far too young. Lost Spirits has a long way to go if they are to compete with Islays. This should have never been bottled. Score is a 65.

(Continued Below)

Unknown said...

Both of these were finished in wine? Really? For what, 10 seconds? Both were a disappointment in my opinion.

These are one man's opinion of two whiskies but you can be certain they are 100% honest. I have no affiliation with the whiskey industry or have any conflicts of interest for business reasons like some others might have. I am simply a whisk(e)y enthusiast. Plain and simple.

I received a fair amount of criticism from some fellow enthusiasts for my less than glowing reviews. But the point they kept repeatedly trying to make was “how much potential these spirits had” and “their new make is incredible.”

Ok? What does that have to do with the price of eggs in China?

My point is……I never disputed the potential for Lost Spirits. I was asked to judge a whiskey at face value. Both of these were bottled as “American Peated Single Malts”. Not “New Make”, “White Whiskey”, or anything else. Asking me to judge based on potential versus what’s in the actual bottle right now are two TOTALLY different questions.

As a single malt, they’re both FAR too young (yes young Bryan, it’s the exact descriptor we are looking for) and were rushed to bottling far too early. I understand (to an extent) the difficulties craft distillers face during startup with capital. But why not bottle new make? If several enthusiasts rave about it…..why not? Or make Vodka like so many others if you need quick cash. But rushing a whiskey to bottling risks giving off bad (and very important) first impressions. Will I try Lost Spirits whiskies again? Of course! But I already have a prejudice now of what to expect, and that cannot be undone.

Again, I’m not saying Lost Spirits should just give up and throw in the towel. Nor am I saying there’s not some great potential for the future. But right now, this very moment, what’s in the bottle is not ready for primetime. Is this just my opinion and might others disagree? Of course! This is all subjective like Bryan said. But I take offense to his condescending criticism that we don’t know what “young” tastes like or that it’s somehow not an acceptable descriptor. It absolutely is…..and in my opinion, one that I believe describes Leviathan & Seascape quite well.

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to start a craft distillery and all the uphill battles one must face on a daily basis. I’m sure it’s exhausting. I’m sure it’s also very difficult to pour your heart and soul into your work/craft and place it out in the open for all to judge and critic. But craft distillers, and large distillers as well, should take the unfavorable criticism with the favorable. Listen to your audience. Don’t berate them for sharing an honest opinion. Use their criticism to your advantage. There just might be something there of benefit.

After all, your critics are also ultimately your customers. Choose your words wisely.

Adam said...

Mr. Davis, you are an arrogant, pretentious, whiney douchebag.

I say that with a clear conscience, since you kicked open the door to personal insults by doing so to Sku, something he never did in his review.

Everyone knows what's implied by saying a whiskey is "too young." To say that whiskey enthusiasts use this term because of some corporate conspiracy disinformation campaign means that A) you must not know many whiskey enthusiasts, B) You're off your meds.

Furthermore, unless you live in a magical fantasy world, a spirit does NOT "derive its reason for being based upon what it does that is new, interesting, and unusual." Whiskey is made primarily to generate money for the distiller, and to TASTE GOOD to the consumer. Forgetting the former simply makes you a liar. Forgetting the latter makes you a moron.

Your booze also doesn't taste excellent just because you spent "3 years of blood, sweat, and tears" making it. That is, unless your bodily excretions are literally, physically in the bottle (which might explain the reviews). Otherwise, to the rest of us who have also worked hard at something and then failed, you just sound like a whiny little bitch.

Your whiskey is not "art," dude. It's a fucking beverage. Drink it and shut up.

ilium55 said...

I am not a Whisky professional -- nor do I have a "trained palette" but I understand what you mean by "young" or "new makey," While I haven't spent years fiddling around with those silly flavor wheels or aroma kits (I assume that's what "trained palette" means) I have tried whisky still warm from the still, and thus have a flavor image in my minds eye of what you mean by saying its young.

This is not an odd comment. Its used in wine criticism all the time. The difference being that a "young" wine might improve in the bottle. It seems to me that your review simply said that it seems like a basically solid product that could use more barrel age. That is not an out of bounds statement.

Joshie said...

Well said, Josh. Contrast Dave from Strong Spirits response to my snarky review of Redeption High Rye Bourbon.

I'm sure Dave was annoyed by my review. He responded by 1) Defending his product w/o attacking me personally or composing a melodrama and 2) Encouraging me to try their product again, even offering to send me another bottle.

That won't make me like the bourbon any more, but it does leave me with a positive image of the Redemption brand and more likely to try and review their other products in the future.

Just reading the Bryan's comments to Sku leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. With so many micro-distilled products on the shelves these days, it makes it very likely that I try something from an unknown distillery or something from a distillery I have a good relationship with (Corsair, Balcones, etc) rather than something from Lost Spirits. Lashing out at critics on the internet might make a person feel better, but it's counter-productive in the long run.

sku said...

Thanks everyone for the support and the great points.

While I certainly understand the indignation about this, I'd kindly ask folks to stay away from name calling or personal attacks on Mr. Davis. Let's keep it professional!

Anonymous said...

Well, if ever I would have tried their product I certainly won't now. Not the way to win new customers, my man.

AaronWF said...

I'd like to acknowledge that I think there is a valid point buried in Mr. Davis' otherwise whiney, inaccurate and self-aggrandizing notes. 'Too young' is not a description of taste per se, but rather a judgement based upon flavors an experienced palate may pick out. Of course, Sku did back up his too young statement with the flavor descriptors that led to his judgment, so the protests of this fragile artist nevertheless rely upon misrepresentations of Sku's review.

It annoys me when distillers who have been in business for only a short time pretend that they let their spirit age for less than a year because it achieved the exact profile they were going for. Is it too much to ask that you have the humility to admit that you can't afford to let your whiskey age longer? That you need cash flow for your business so you're selling your whiskey young? We live in the real world, don't insult us by insisting all of your choices are in service of your 'art'.

Really, if you can't let your whiskey speak for itself but instead have to tell us what we're supposed to be experiencing when we drink it, you're not successfully making the whiskey you want to make. Art is in the eye of the beholder, not in the insistence of the artist.

TimD said...

I, too, have been able to sample Lost Spirits product. I'd only shared my reviews with friends and "behind closed doors" as it were, but may as well share - let's see if Josh, Sku and I could all possibly be on the same page?

*this isn't to "pile on" - I have tremendous respect for the ethos of what Bryan is doing - but I think he's missing some valuable input from consumers...

Here's my notes:


Nose: Young and slightly farmy. Loads of youthful malt. Slightly spirity. Burnt candy corn. Other than the burnt candy, I get little to no smoke or peat!

Palate: Sour tannins and quite some "something" burned. Hints of rubber raincoats after being stored wet. Not very pleasant. Youthful malt overwhelms the smoke, leaving a burned farmy taste. Maybe even a hint of burned hair?

Finish: Burned rubber and sour - almost a black licorice vibe. A bit more burn going down than I expected based on nose and palate.

Score: 73

The sour and burned rubber aspects have worked in drams I've had before, but not so much here. I imagine this is what peated whiskey tastes like to those who typically don't enjoy it (and I'm a peathead). It's just terribly "funky." (and I usually like "funk").

Leviathan I

Nose: A bit less farmy than its sibling. Much more burnt Carmel, a hint of old cigars, and a bit of sourness (like almost too-old milk or cottage cheese). A mix of interesting, but also somewhat off putting smells. Good funk, in general...

Palate: Wow, burnt sour milk with anise and grass! The proof is high, but the smoke finish covers a lot of the alcohol zing. It's very smooth and complex, but I don't know that I really "like" the flavors that much. The smoke is much more present here - it's legit peat - "decayed earth" is very present.

It is a bit farmy, definitely young, but the burned smell is much further from
"rubber" and hair (the less pleasant flavors of Seascape are absent). A very rich campfire (with a bit too much green/funky wood) is in here. I'd almost swear the spirit was smoked in the still vs peat dried barley.

Finish: much more dry, and less tannic than Seascape. It's enjoyable in many respects, but the farmy youth is a still a bit off-putting.

Score: 79

Not sure if it's the proof that helps push this up score-wise, or just a better batch in general. The overall profile shows promise.

One thing is certain - this has nothing in common with Scotch or even other American "smoked" whiskeys. It's not even like MCCarthys it's closest neighbor in geography and (peated) spirit.

I believe both casks where wine-finished, but aside from a slight sweetness at the finish, I really can't detect that influence.

It's a noble experiment, and I think they've got a good distillate base moving forward, but I will pass on these and keep an on out in the near term to see if they can get it worked out a bit better.

I am still very happy to have tried it - certainly qualifies as 'interesting' if nothing else.

Steffen said...

Whisky is aged for several years, often more than 10, by a lot of producers simply because it improves the taste of it. It's a well known fact that whisky within it's first few years doesn't taste that good (normally, there's always an exception, but I'll ignore the few ones here)
I have experienced similar "problems" with a lot of products. They are simnply not matured long enough to please me as a customer. I would describe this as the spirit being too being too young. For my taste.
I don't mind "craft" distillers releasing young stuff. It's needed to provide an income. But don't pretend its the best thing the world of whisky has seen. Be humble about your products- And don't forget your costumers also have worked in years of blood, sweat, and tears to be able to afford the whisky.


Josh Feldman said...

For what it's worth, my recent review of Leviathan 1 also refer to the yeasty and wet hide notes as "young tasting". I made reference to recent positive reviews but conclude it needs more time in the wood. I linked to your review, Sku, as an example of one of the voices suggesting that Leviathan could use some more time.

There is a ton of innovative thinking and crafting going on at Lost Spirits Distilling. I think they will end up putting out a spirit that most us find satisfying. Meanwhile they are free to sell their very young product. There's a market out there for new interesting spirits and strong interesting fresh flavor profiles. I notice that K&L just sold out of Seascape. They have less than 6 cases of Leviathan1 left too. So, given the limited supplies, it's not like the negative attention is going to affect that fact that these will sell out soon. I know for a fact that Lost Spirits has built additional rack house storage space and is busy filling it up with aging juice. I suspect that the critical debate over these first releases will become a quickly forgotten "bump in the road"... unless Bryan gets into memorable flame wars.

Remember that Sku is a lawyer and argues for a living! Remember also that any protesting about the quality of one's own product is protesting too much. Just continue to make spirits that make you happy - and keep pushing and making those products better and you will be rewarded with loyal customers and commercial success. (I'm thinking involuntarily about Brown-Foreman and Woodford Reserve at this point) Critical praise becomes academic at that point. But, realistically, critical praise will come naturally at that point anyway if Lost Spirits stays true to its innovative vision and pushes that level of crafting into a mature line of spirits that taste mature.

Maturation is a funny thing. Looking across the spate of rapid maturation whisky triumphs that became stories in recent years we see some odd situations: Amrut & Kavalan's tropical heat, Tuthill Town's "sonic" maturation (loud bass riffs vibrating the juice in and out of the wood), the resurgence of the ancient effect of ocean maturation at Kelt, Jeffersons, and Amrut, and the mad combination of high heat, barrel management, and bong juice methodology at Balcones. Lost Spirits has a unique location in the cool misty seaside hills of California's Salinas coast. I bet whisky will end up aging gloriously there. Gloriously, but not rapidly.

I suggest we all learn some patience.

DavindeK said...

Not big thing, but I'd love to know how you train a palette and what you might train it to do.

Adam said...

Sku, the criticism that my post was not professional is insulting.

As you know, I am a successful writer with years of experience in name-calling and personal attacks. I adhered to the strictest professions of my craft, with the exception that time constraints prevented a thorough polish.

I would also point out that many trained palettes have sampled my work, and they subsequently adorned it with hues of fuchsia and burnt sienna.

BMc said...

I think "young" is as valid as "apple compote", "raspberry jam", "wet hay", and the like. Each of these brings to mind a set of flavors, and "young" or "new-makey" are excellent shorthand terms for a pretty unique, tequila-in-young-wood set of flavors.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of garbage PR...

Justin Victor said...

Mr. Davis,

We need craft distillers. I love bourbon, but we as a country can be too bourbon centered for our own good. The craft distilling movement has opened the doors to many great and exciting new styles of American whiskey and I do my best to support them when I can.

But this process is slow. Maturation of whiskey is not an overnight process. Some years back I tried a bottle of Stranahans Colorado Whiskey. At the time I described it as "young, but full of promise". I tasted something in that bottle that made me realize that while it was not aged to "my" satisfaction, it had great potential. I recently obtained another bottle that has obviously had much more time in the barrel because ALL of the immature and "young" notes are gone. It is a fully mature tasting and fantastic spirit.

When I read about your whiskies on Dave Driscoll's blog I was eager to try them. If you believe in your product, then stand behind it. Stand behind it today, tomorrow and in three more years. If you alienate customers today they will not be around in the coming years when father time has turned your very promising whiskey into a truly remarkable product.

Lazer said...

This reminds me of something Ralfy once said to the "Craft" distillers.

"You only have one chance to make a first impression."

To paraphrase: don't start selling your whiskey when its too young, people will not buy it again.

BMc said...

Balcones lost me with their True Blue, and Smooth Ambler lost me with their Yearling (1 year old). I'm not going to get fooled twice, and the unmitigated gall they had in charging exorbitant prices for that stuff is breathtaking.

It seems that some distillers really DO like young whiskey. I can't speak for them, but I've read quotes by, or attributed to, Todd Leopold and Tom McKenzie on that topic. If I'm wrong, of course, I'm sorry!

Steffen said...

I don't agree with the "You only got one chance". Not with people that are in the know whiskywise. If you have been around, which everyone on this forum have I am sure, you do for sure know that a 1 year old whisky is not gonna be the next fantastic whisky. I for sure don't expect it to. Most producers I have met are very humble about their young stuff. Some are not, and those will have a harder time getting a second chance. Smooth Ambler are very humble about their yearling, it's not very expensive and what you get is what you see. I am sure as their stock mature we will se better stuff, and if you have tasted their sourced bottlings, you will see they know what the good stuff is. Abhainn Dearg springs in mind of a distillery doing it wrong. 150£ pound for a whisky thats more or less undrinkable is a joke


sam k said...

I understand Bryan's frustration with the overall malaise that has tended to greet much of the first generation of craft whiskeys (including his own), but what really disappoints me about his reply comes at the end, where he starts playing the bigs against the smalls; Corporation vs. Entrepreneur, David, vs. Goliath.

I'm not tied as closely as some to the whiskey business overall, but I have yet to hear ANY major distiller say in ANY forum that craft whiskey sucks because it is too young. How could they make such a claim when every one of them is reducing the age of their own products as we speak?

I am aware, however, of more than a couple of instances where master distillers from the major producers have been enthusiastic mentors to those in the process of starting new craft distilleries.

This should not become an "us vs. them" situation. Every distiller is in this together, and what's good for the crafts is also good for the corporate distillers.

United we stand, divided we fall. Keep that in mind during your next political discussion, too!

Tom said...

As criticisms go, "too young" is both perfectly clear to people reading craft whiskey reviews and perfectly resolvable by the distiller.

And to my mind, "too young" doesn't imply "never buy from this distillery again;" if anything, it implies, "try it again in three or four years." Even when the whiskey isn't much older, the distillers will have a lot more experience.

Finally, I've had some nice whiskies they were a year old or less, so -- notwithstanding all the money multinational corporations pay people who review craft whiskies -- "young" doesn't always imply "too young."

Chuck Cowdery said...

My impression is that some of these new micro-distillers are so enamored of the idea of making their own booze that they haven't really thought much about dealing with the public. Some may be temperamentally unsuited for it. You just can't argue people into liking your product. As a grumpy old man, I think this has something to do with modern child rearing, where all of the children are above average and shielded from all but the mildest criticism. Sorry, but you get no points for making half a product. Whiskey needs wood. The sooner micro-distillers accept that fact the better off we'll all be.

risenc said...

By chance I've spoken with a lot of craft folks recently, and while this isn't universally true, many of them are starting to recognize the risk of quick-and-dirty whiskey making. They're putting money into 53-gallon barrels and accepting that they need time to make a good product. They seem to recognize that consumers are catching on, but more to the point, that the field is getting pretty crowded, and that the inevitable day of whiskey reckoning is coming. No one wants to see what happened to craft beer 10-15 years ago happen to whiskey today.

Anonymous said...

The response from the distiller alone makes me want to never try any of his product, which is too bad since it may (or may not) appeal to my tastes.
However, there are enough great whiskies in the world that I think I can live without ever trying one bottled by someone with no sense of allowance when it comes to others being able to play their own opinion, and particularly one which wasn't even the slightest bit hostile.
The distiller in this case had already stated himself that his product was a bit on the young side and that it was a shortcoming, yet attacked based on the same established premise.
I'll probably try these someday, out of curiosity, and if they're great will easily enjoy them, but unless they're absolutely sensational, will most likely never buy, since there are so many more civilized distillers to buy from.