Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Ask Me Anything!

I got tons of great questions in response to my Ask Me Anything post.  Here are answers to a number of them.

Years ago, you wrote an article for one of the whiskey magazines titled "Craft Whiskey Sucks." Now, many years later, would you write the same thing? Do you still think it mostly sucks? 
It was back in 2010 that I wrote on the Malt Advocate blog that "Most Craft Whiskeys Suck" (Whisky Advocate seems to have taken down the old blog archive but I cross posted the piece on my blog). For the most  part, I think that's still true. There are over 800 craft distilleries making whiskey in the US, but I can count the ones I've had anything good from on two hands: Charbay, Balcones, Cut Spike, Old Potrero, Seven Stills Tom's Foolery...maybe a few more, but not many. It's surprising because seven years ago, I assumed that the reason most craft whiskeys sucked was that they were too young, but now there are a number of four and five year old craft whiskeys, even BIBs, and they still mostly suck. If it isn't age, what's the issue?  I've heard lots of theories, from the stills to the yeast to the length of fermentation, but I can't claim to know.

Sku - at what point does a whisky that you own become too expensive that you don't open the bottle? For instance, I have a 2012 FR Small Batch that I'm told now sells for over $700 - that seems a ludicrous amount to spend on a bottle, and I wouldn't spend that amount on it and I'm happy I got it at retail back then. But now I find that decision to open is harder and harder, and I might not ever.

I do my best to ignore the secondary market. Every bottle in my closet is there to drink. I don't think of it as an investment except in my own happiness, so I don't hesitate to open anything.

Do Armagnac houses/domaines have recognizable profiles? For example are there specific differences in notes between Chateau de Gaube and Domaine de Busquet that you could expect to find despite the vintage?
I can't speak to your two examples as I've don't think I've had them, but Armagnacs absolutely have house styles. There are a number of variables which contribute to house style including grape varietals, types of barrels used and use of additives. Even within houses, there are recognizable differences, such as a Domaine de Baraillon Armagnacs made from Folle Blanche, which tend to be dry and earthy, vs. those made from Baco/Ugni Blanc. which tend to be fruitier.

How many spirits bottles do you tend to have in your personal collection at any given time (more or less)? of that group, what percentage consists of whiskey v. brandy v. other spirits at this point? do you have any favorite spirits categories other than whiskey or brandy (e.g. mezcal or Jamaican rum)?
I keep a list, so I can tell you exactly. I currently have 269 bottles of whiskey (115 of which are open), 55 bottles of brandy (25 open), and 14 bottles of rum (9 open). Beyond that I have a handful of Mezcals and  Absinthes and a dozen or so spirits I mostly use as cocktail ingredients. Other than whiskey and brandy, I love super-funky rums, and in the summer, I drink a lot of amaro (Aperol, Campari, Cynar, etc.).

1. in your opinion are micro-distillers pricing their bourbons too high?
2. is the bourbon renaissance a bubble?
2a. if it is a bubble how bad will the pop be?
3. are "tech" whiskies like cleveland viable? that is, in the long run, can a "whisky" that's aged for an hour really compete on price/quality with a bourbon that's aged for 10 years? in fact, i have seen cleveland priced higher than eagle rare and laughed all the way home.


1.  Yes.
2.  Not entirely, but there is a bubble.
2a.  Somewhere between Bordeaux and Beanie Babies.
3.  I doubt we will see amazing tech whiskey that connoisseurs will seek out, but eventually, technology will likely allow for the production of whiskey that is close enough to standard aged whiskey that it will sell successfully. I'm guessing one day there will be hour-old tech whiskeys competing with standard Beam and Jack Daniel's. Even if they aren't quite as good, if the price is significantly lower, they will be fierce competitors.

Simple: 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?
The duck, assuming I get to eat it if I win.

How does it feel to be the dean of American whiskey bloggers? How much longer do you think you'll keep going? Do you think blogging about whiskey is still relevant?

1.  I appreciate the accolade, but if there is a dean of American whiskey bloggers, it's Chuck Cowdery. He had already been at it for years when I showed up on the scene.
2. At least through the end of the week.
3. Blogging, in general, is much less relevant than when I started ten years ago.  These days, people spend a lot more time on social media than on blogs, but I still find blogs relevant and read them, both for reviews and information. That being said, it does seems like a dying books.

1. What is the next big thing in spirits and why is it Armagnac?
2. Do you believe that dusty bourbon/rye has a familiar profile that you don't find in today's products, i.e. "dusty notes"? If so, do you believe that's due to bottle conditioning or some other factor(s)?
3. Given the current boom and scarcity of anything allocated or limited edition, are there bottles you regret passing on years ago that you wish you would have bought more of?

1.  I love Armagnac, but I actually think full proof, additive-free rum is more likely to be the next craze. Serge at Whiskyfun recently compared Hampden Jamaican rum to 1970s Ardbeg which pretty much guarantees that thousands of malt-heads will be seeking it out, and they should. In terms of Armagnac, there's a new new generation of Armagnacs aged in new oak (e.g. Charron, L'Encantada) which may well catch on with the bourbon lovers.
2.  That's a great question. My experience, and I think most folks who drink a lot of dusties would agree, is that those bourbons definitely have a different profile and one that's changed through the years.  For instance, prohibition era bourbon tastes much spicier than today's stuff whereas '70s bourbon is like liquid candy.  I have no idea why the differences exist and how much of it is related to so-called old bottle effect. I don't think we will ever know for sure, since there were many differences between how they made bourbon and rye decades ago and how they make it now - lower entry proofs, differences in fermentation and distillation, etc.
3. There aren't really bottles I regret passing on because I didn't pass on much. I was lucky to get into this whiskey in the early 2000s when things were cheap and plentiful, so I had some great stuff at ridiculously low prices (some of which seemed ridiculously high at the time). In terms of bottles I wish I had bought more of, one of the first bottles of bourbon I purchased was the old Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve 10 year, 101 proof - that's one that I really miss, though not enough to pay secondary prices for it.

Why "Sku"?  
It's my initials.

We often talk about the downsides of the bourbon boom? From your perspective, what are some of the positive aspects?

Great question! With all the complaining about prices, loss of age statements and the secondary market, it's easy to forget that thirty years ago, almost no one was drinking bourbon, and there were only one or two ryes on the shelf, if that. No one bothered to do special releases, experiment or put out well aged whiskey because no one cared about American whiskey. Fast forward thirty years and there's bourbon everywhere. I just did a tasting of 20 currently available, affordable rye whiskeys, and we could have probably done 40. We have a diversity of mashbills, yeast, proof and nearly everything else. It's true that compared to ten years ago, prices are higher and well-aged whiskey is harder to come by, but there are more choices in the American whiskey aisle than there have ever been, and more is coming. Everyone talks about the craft distillers, but the growth of mid-sized Kentucky distilleries is what I find most promising. These larger distilleries like Willett, Michter's and New Riff are going to have the means and capacity to produce great bourbon and rye, and I'm betting they will.

Does MAO still make you swoon? 
-Jealous in Jersey
 Nah, that guy's annoying.

Do you ever have any regrets about spending so much of your life on this whisky hobby?
Not at all. On the contrary, I've met amazing friends, had a lot of great times, and I have been endlessly impressed by the kindness and generosity of the other folks in the hobby.

That was fun! Thanks to everyone who sent in questions.


Anonymous said...

Ignorance is bliss. I wish I could ignore the secondary values on some bottles like you, but I just can't. The economist in me can't. It's a means to an end to acquire more good whiskey for a lot of people. If you had a bottle of Pappy 15, would you turn down the opportunity to trade it for, say, several bottles of 10/101 Russell's Reserve instead? I argue it's one thing to get caught up in playing the secondary market, investing in bottles, etc. but another as a means to an end- market forces can be used for good.

Anonymous said...


Definitionaly, "to ignore," has nothing to do with "Ignorance". Intentionally disregarding speculative appreciation (of any personal property) is no less rational than the inverse. Sku and others like him have made their choice. You, like them, must make and accept your own choices.

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean ignorance as anything negative. That would be your interpretation. You don't have to participate in the market, but there are real market values. You can despise the people who take part in flipping bottles, but market forces are not inherently bad. And I disagree: a rational consumer makes choices given all available information. Nothing wrong with being irrational though. I'm just stating the economic argument for participating in a secondary market, tater stigma aside. If I had a bottle of Pappy, I sure as hell wouldn't pass up the chance to grab a dozen four roses selects instead.

Anonymous said...

Holier than thou appeals to some noble idea of abstaining from a secondary market sound great, but don't work in practice. I'm just explaining the realistic counterpoint here.

Anonymous said...

All I'm trying to say is not everyone has the luxury of forgoing the astronomical opportunity cost of drinking rare bottles. Participating in the secondary is not a bad thing. You don't have to be a serial bottle flipper to understand that.

Anonymous said...

There's another approach to taking advantage of the increase in secondary market: trading. I've found a lot of people who stockpiled Scotch have transitioned to the bourbon/rye bandwagon and are willing to trade some things I missed out on for things they want to try.

I have never had a large bunker of highly desired whiskies (I got into this hobby too late, circa 2011), but I have had the good fortune to trade things I've run across (like Weller12 or ORVW10) to people who really wanted them... and in return receive things I really wanted (like out of production Bruichladdich).

Decade-old bottles of Scotch haven't seen the same stratospheric rise as bourbons have, so there are some great trades out there if you love both bourbon and Scotch. And everyone wins... and it's the secondary-market values for both that help set the exchange rates. So I've been able to trade for some Scotches I never would have paid retail for, thanks to the rising value of bourbon.

sku said...

It's hard to figure out who's talking to whom when you are all Anonymous. You may want to pick a handle just to make this discussion easier to read.

Unknown said...

On the subject of craft whiskey not being good, I think you were right to point to age, but that's only part of it. To me, the obvious issue that will likely be around for quite a while is the issue of stock to choose from. How many of the craft guys have a big enough warehouse to go through and pick only the good barrels from? My guess is that most, if not all of the craft guys putting out 4+ year bourbon are bottling just about everything as soon as they can. The biggest advantage the big guys have is hundreds of thousands of barrels of different ages to pick from. They can toss a few 6-8 year old barrels in with the 4 and 5 year ones if they want to. I doubt any craft distilleries can do that.
The 2016 Saz 18 was a good example of the importance of barrel selection. It was much worse than the tanked stuff, and I suspect it's because BT only had a few barrels of 18 year old on hand, so they can't be as picky.
And also, how many 4/5 year old bourbons from the big guys are really that good anyway? Very few, most are entry-level. It's not like there are a ton of 4 year old bottlings that kick ass.
As for stills/yeast/ferment times being the issue, that's ridiculous. Craft distilleries are so varied, there's probably several all along the spectrum of all of those things.

sku said...

Excellent points Chris!

Anonymous said...

How much longer do you think you'll keep going?

2. At least through the end of the week.

Man, the clue was right there and we all missed it!

Unknown said...

I recently found a stash of Waterfill-Frazier 6 and 8 year old whiskey. Can you tell me when the company closed?

Sku said...

See here on Waterfill & Frazier: