We didn't do very many awards this year at K&L, mainly because we're moving further away from that kind of recognition. Most awards only honor new whiskies anyway. But what about the ones that have been around for ages? The faces you've always known? The standard expressions? "I've already had those, years ago," some people think. Are they still the same, however? What makes you so sure?
One thing I did touch on recently was how spirits will change on you - literally. Whisky can taste different to you over time for a number of reasons. Maybe you've had the bottle open for years and it's oxidized. Maybe the whisky company you love is now releasing a different batch (remember that few whiskies are exactly the same from year to year). Maybe that whisky without an age statement on the label is using younger whisky than it did last time. Maybe your own tastes have simply changed. Maybe you want something different, a new flavor, a more extreme version of what you already like. Maybe you want something more restrained.
What are your favorite spirits right now? Are they the same as they were a year ago at this time? We think we already know what Lagavulin 16 tastes like because we tasted it a while back. However, what does it taste like now? You've got to keep revisiting things to know for sure (that's why it's good to meet people who also collect single malt). No one would ever say, "I know what Lynch Bages wine tastes like," because you have to be more specific. Which vintage? 2001? Wines vary from vintage to vintage, so wine is spoken about within these parameters, but we rarely talk about whisky in the same way.
For example, Lagavulin increased production in 1997 and began operating all year long at a much higher volume. That whisky is scheduled to turn 16 years old this year and become eligable for the standard release. Is that whisky going to taste the same as the whisky from 1996? I don't know. Maybe it tastes better because they're no longer scraping the bottom of each barrel to keep up with supply. Maybe it tastes worse because the increased volume took away from quality. Maybe nothing will change!
Vintages are important to wine because the weather plays the ultimate role in how a particular wine will taste. It isn't necessarily playing a factor with single malt from year to year, but batches are indeed different (as the obsessive Aberlour Abunadh batch chasers will tell you). The whisky you had two years ago is probably not identical to what's on the shelf now for any number of reasons (age, warehouse location of the barrels, the palate of the master blender, etc). Weather can play a role, however, if a particularly warm summer resulted in greater oak extraction from the wood.
I've been going back and tasting a lot of standard releases lately. A lot of Glenlivet, Macallan, and basic expressions that I usually take for granted. It's greatly changed the way I look at our selection. I used to think I already understood what we had available. Now I'm methodically retasting almost everything so that I understand them now - as they taste today. It's forced me to take a look at where my palate is at, as well as the type of products I want to focus on. Here's where I'm at for February 2013:
Scotch Whisky under $50: Aberlour 12 NCF $49.99 - So we're only a penny under fifty bucks, but this is simply where my palate is at right now. I want chewy, I want oily, and I want viscosity. But I don't want too much sherry. I don't want it sweet. If I want sherry, I'll open a bottle of sherry. I still want the maltiness of the whisky to come through. This is a fantastic bottle of booze. Easy to drink and my friends who don't drink much single malt instantly adore it. Accessible, affordable, good.
Scotch Whisky under $100: Glenmorangie 18 Year Old $89.99 - This whisky actually took a price increase last year, so I bought in to protect the $90 retail sticker for as long as I can. We've got a good supply of this and it doesn't really sell off the web. I think most people don't know how good this bottle is. When's the last time you had this whisky? If you've never had it, you should try it soon. Very soon. I'm guessing this bottle shoots up to $150+ by January 2014. Mark my words.
Bourbon: Four Roses Yellow $19.99: I was on an Old Weller Antique kick like you wouldn't believe for months, but I'm starting to tire of the whole pencil shavings, extra wooded quality. I'm really into smooth right now. Yeah, I said it. Smoooooooooth. Don't be afraid to use that word. Sometimes you just want to take it easy. Four Roses Yellow is like Sunday morning, baby.
Gin: Berry Bros & Rudd No. 3 Gin $34.99 - This is one area where my palate has not changed. I have a lot of gin open at home, but there is still no better product on the market than this. No. 3 is still the benchmark.
Cognac: Ferrand 1840 1er Cru Cognac $37.99 - I've been drinking Cognac cocktails lately and I've been enjoying it on the rocks. The 45% really helps and the booze is simply clean and easy. You can sip it, but I've been on a French 75 kick like no other.
Tequila: ArteNOM 1079 Blanco $39.99 - Another spot where I feel exactly the same as I did a year ago. In fact, after a year of expanding my horizons, trying all the old brands, looking for new ones, I feel even more strongly than I did back then. This tequila just makes every other tequila look.......uh........really bad. The purity of the spirit, the delicacy of the flavor, and the restrained nature of the alcohol all perfectly in harmony.
Rum: Mount Gay Extra Old $34.99 - Part of the reason people love Bourbon cask-aged spirits is because the residue doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the spirit itself, unlike sherry-aged spirits. The Mount Gay is a perfect example of richness, depth, and spice for a relative bargain. Load up.