Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Ten Years of LAWS: An Interview with Adam Herz

Adam Herz preparing to pour
A decade ago, the whiskey craze was still in its infancy. Increasingly, people were drinking, writing and talking about whiskey. At that time, a group of whiskey fans in Los Angeles started meeting for tastings as the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society. Unlike many informal whiskey groups of the time, they also created a website to track their tastings.

LAWS was founded by a small group of LA whiskey enthusiasts, but the driving force was screenwriter Adam Herz (best known for the American Pie films) who held the meetings in his home. Today, I talk with Adam about his reflections on the tenth anniversary of LAWS. (Disclaimer: I have been a member of LAWS since 2010).

How and why did you and the original members come up with the idea for LAWS?

It was just instinctive. The original email that I sent to 9 friends in 2006 went like this: “Guys. We’ve been drinking a lot of whisky lately. It’s time to take things to the next level. I propose we form some sort of gentleman's club dedicated to the drinking of fine whiskies.” So, we all met and chipped in together to drink good stuff. It just snowballed from there. Enormously.

How experienced with whiskey was the original group that formed LAWS?

Most of us had been drinking malts for a year or two. There was some debate over whether that qualified us to do ratings. My argument was, “what you taste is what you taste,” and that we should assign ratings based purely on our enjoyment of each whiskey. Cut to 10 years later, that’s kind of the group’s mantra: all that matters is your personal enjoyment of the beverage.

In your opinion, is there a "right way" to taste whiskey?

The way whiskey is supposed to be tasted is by pouring it in your mouth, then swallowing it. Smell also matters. That’s about it.

What we expect to taste has more influence than what we do taste. Your brain is looking to confirm or reject whatever it’s anticipating. So I try to remove all the pomp and circumstance. It’s just a beverage.

That’s why blind tasting is so important. Today, nearly every “blind” tasting I see online goes like this: “We took these 4 specific whiskeys and blind tasted them to find out which we liked best!” That’s not a blind tasting — that’s just a guessing game.

Blind tastings are when you have no clue what’s coming, period. Many people don’t like to do those because they’re afraid of “not liking something that’s actually good.” And vice-versa. But that’s what you want to happen! You have to realize what’s in your mouth vs. what’s in your head.

There are lots of whiskey tasting groups around but few have such extensive websites. How did you come up with the idea for the website?

When we started, the few existing whiskey sites were difficult to navigate and there was no way to sort and filter. That drove us nuts. So we custom-built our database and interface to be what we wished existed.

Also, we wanted a different rating system than the 100-point scale — one that had more generalized categories, along with a sense of “Would I buy this?" Hence our letter grading scale, which has been widely adopted, which is cool to see.

What is the average LAWS meeting like (subtext: How geeky are you guys)?

Each meeting’s format is to open 5 to 10 new bottles along some theme. For the first few years, we always tasted blind, only knowing the style of whiskey to be tasted -- bourbon, malts, etc. Now we’re kind of half-and-half. We’ve hit on some classic formats, sort of how The Price Is Right has their classic games. So we spend the first two hours very, very focused on tasting the new bottles, sometimes in a pure blind tasting, and sometimes in a game or competition. Then, we relax and move to “The Reserves,” which at any given time are around 175 open bottles from previous meetings, member donations, and group buys/finds.

As for “geeky” — our conversation is very whiskey-heavy, so to an outsider, it would probably sound overly detailed and maybe obsessive. But to anyone who loves whiskey, it would just be insightful and informative.

What have been your favorite LAWS meetings?

Too many to count. The “battle” format is a big favorite: two or more collectors will donate bottles from their collection. The bottles are known only to them and can't already be on the LAWS website. The group then tastes/rates them all blind, and whoever’s bottles score the highest wins. It’s a lot of fun, because we take winning way too seriously. And because someone’s “ringer” bottle always ends up getting lousy ratings, and they get all butthurt about it.

What has been the biggest change in the whiskey world over the last ten years?

Increasing scarcity and prices, but that’s a given. After that, I’d say the preponderance of the trophy mentality.

What happened was, as whiskey blew up in social and traditional media, newcomers to the hobby became less interested in whiskey itself and wanted only to obtain the specific bottles they’d read about. And they wanted them quickly and at any price.

So, whiskey (particularly bourbon) moved from something pursued for the merits of its flavors, to being a piece of commerce that you could brag about owning. Whiskey forums transformed from places of friendly collaboration to virtual trophy rooms. Tasting notes and buying tips were replaced by photographs merely proving ownership of a bottle — or even just ownership of a sample! Who needs to see the ten-thousandth photo of yet another Pappy or BTAC stash? They all look the same. Show me something I haven’t seen before.

How has the group changed over time?

Experience, comfort, and pickiness. “Experience” because we really, really know our stuff and have tasted an enormous amount. “Comfort” because, for those of us that have been in the Society a long time, there’s no longer that crazy, on-overdrive push to taste everything, meet everyone, get new releases, go to events and distilleries, and so on. We’re kind of more relaxed now, I guess. And “pickiness,” because the bar is admittedly very high for LAWS meetings now… we’ve tasted so much that, for us to keep future meetings interesting, the lineups have to include some insane bottles.

Oh, and also, we rarely publish anything about our meetings anymore. We kind of lost interest in doing the writeups… like I said before, braggadocio has come to dominate so much of the US whiskey scene, we don’t want to seem like we’re trying to contribute to that. Many of us still publish notes/ratings, because it’s fun to do, and we do feel we’re contributing to the community by posting those.

Any advice for people starting their own clubs? Or about whiskey in general?

The fun of whiskey is in the pursuit, the journey, the rise up the learning curve. You know all those crazy bottles you’re dying to try? You wanna know what they taste like? Something else you’ve already had. Or at least pretty similar. What will begin to matter most is who you’re drinking with and what the occasion is. I still love drinking crazy stuff I haven’t tasted before — but the fun of opening those bottles is in doing it with friends.

Lastly, what will LAWS be drinking for its tenth anniversary meeting?

A wide variety. I’m personally looking forward to opening a 1965 Corti Bros Clynelish, and one of our last remaining LAWS Charbays. [Ed. Note: the LAWS Charbay is a Charbay Hop Flavored Whiskey bottled especially for LAWS].

Thanks to Adam for taking the time to respond to my questions.


PL said...

Man, what a fun journey. Here's to the next 10 years!

Adam D. said...

Once again, my invitation got lost in the mail. In any case, it's a pleasure to follow the site--thanks and slainte!

Anonymous said...

LAWS is a go-to for me, when I am looking for information about a whiskey. I hope the members will always continue to post ratings and write-ups.

politicalidiot said...

One of my favorite sites. I've been a single malt drinker since the eighties but I am still finding so many surprises in the world of whisky. Thanks for keeping LAWS going guys.