Tuesday
Sep172013

Why We Care

I could probably write twenty pages of material by distilling my thoughts from the past few days, but I'm short on time at the moment -- and in general -- so I'll try and summarize these feelings quickly. This past weekend was a busy one: we were short staffed on a hectic Saturday shift, I had to run the Good Food Awards judging committee on Sunday, and Monday was full of errands, but Nic Palazzi did come by my place in the evening to kick it with me and my dad. I also found myself diving back into Burgundy Sunday night, going through my Clive Coates books and revisiting the selections in my cellar. Why the sudden desire to drink this particular wine?

I think it's because the more I drink, talk, and think booze, the more I'm narrowing my interests with what I want to personally enjoy. I was driving with my dad back from Modesto yesterday and I was trying to explain the difference between "enjoyment" and "appreciation" when it comes to alcohol -- how you can have one, both, or neither of these two facets when approaching a beverage and why they're definitely not the same thing. You might be able to appreciate that a whisky is rare, well-made, or interesting, but you might not want to drink it. That's appreciation without enjoyment. Someone else might like how easy a cheap whisky is to drink, how it tastes pretty good, but then never really gives it a thought beyond that. That's enjoyment without any real appreciation. However, when you both enjoy and appreciate something it simply takes drinking to an entirely different level -- one that creates a high we long to revisit.

When it takes a high level of understanding to appreciate a wine or spirit, I think my enjoyment of it is exponentially enhanced by the amount of work I put into understanding it. Burgundy might be the most terroir-driven wine in the world, both the red and white versions of it. I enjoy drinking Burgundy perhaps more than any other wine because I'm fascinated with the idea of the land dictating which wines are good before they've even been made! The lines have been drawn, the maps plotted out -- if your grapes are not being grown in a particular type of Kimmeridgian soil, then they've already decided that your wine will never be great. Good, perhaps, but never great. That's where good Burgundy begins -- in the vineyard. It all comes from the quality of the grape, which is determined by the location of the vine. All you can hope for after that is competency in the winemaking cellar.

The amount of work it takes to truly appreciate what these Burgundians have gone through to make their wine is staggering. The more I read about it, the more I realize how little I actually know (but the more I am blown away!). Each grower is his own unique situation with his own particular particulars. You'll never really be able to lump Marsannay wines into one category and Morey St. Denis into another, like the guide books try to help you categorize them. Even within those village communes you have to take each wine, each grower, and each producer individually because they may share certain geographical similarities, but that doesn't mean their wines will taste the same. It's impossible that you'll ever master all of this information, so there's no point in trying, as each generation of producer may bring a new style of winemaking to the table that completely obliterates everything you've already learned. Maybe the father picked by hand, but the son now uses a machine to harvest. That changes everything, so you have to keep on learning, and learning, and learning, and learning.

What's the point? The point is that this uncertainty, this inability to lump alcohol into easily understandable categories, the fact that you'll never really be able to know everything about this subject is what excites me about booze. It's always changing and there are so many permutations of potential that it's almost panic-inducing. It's no wonder that the longer I do this, the more I gravitate to the products and producers that clarify what they do and explain how these processes create the flavor of their liquids. That's what allows for both appreciation and enjoyment. Tequila, Armagnac, and Burgundy are my three current beverages of choice -- is it a coincidence that they all involve agriculture first, then careful, hands-on production where the goal is to remain as faithful to the original base material? Is it also a coincidence that all three products involve small producers that I can meet, talk to, and gain more insight from on a personal level?

The Good Food Awards tasting was more of this same idea -- small growers or sourcers of responsibly-farmed grains and produce, making delicious spirits that reflected as closely as possible the quality of those base materials. We had clean, bright, and vibrant gins. We had fruity, ethereal eau de vies. We had juicy, supple fruit liqueurs. And we had round, wonderfully-matured brandies. Whiskey was not the big winner at Sunday's tasting, mainly because we haven't found that sourcing responsibly-farmed corn or wheat is making for a better spirit, but we like that there are people out there trying. When I saw the list of winning producers after the blind tasting, it was no surprise. Almost all of the winners were people I know well -- producers who really take the time to do things the right way, from the orchard, field, or vineyard all the way into the bottle.

As I sat with Nic and my dad last night, sipping a variety of spirits from the patio table on my back deck, we talked about the producers who made the products we were enjoying. Nic talked about his appreciation for Laurent Cazottes and his extremely esoteric eau de vies. We asked my dad what he thought after tasting the Cazottes Mauzac Rose and he said, "Well, I'm enjoying it much more now that you've told me all this background information." We discussed David Suro, the Vivancos, and the new understanding we had for the Siembra Azul blanco tequila. We sipped Armagnac from Darroze and compared the various Gascogne farmers on each vintage. And after Nic said farewell, and I had dropped my dad off at his hotel near the airport, I went back to my apartment and buried myself in more Burgundy text.

There's a reason why we do this and why we care so much about good booze. Good booze often comes from good people who take the time to explain why they make it so well. Often times, good booze can't be made just by anyone, anywhere, with any level of talent. Making a fine Chablis takes an understanding of nature, of the land, of the fermentation process, and many other lessons that can only come with patience, time, and experience. I respect this ability because I am incapable of doing it myself. I have no understanding of farmwork and even less patience for doing it properly. When I meet producers who do understand it, and can help me understand it as well, I am always more excited to drink their products. And, of course, help others appreciate them as well.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Sep142013

Tapatio 110 Está Aqui

Tonight I'll be getting out of work early, driving back to my house, meeting up with my in-laws and co-workers, breaking out the brand new Tapatio 110 proof tequila (distilled masterfully by Carlos Camarena -- see our conversation from last week's blog post), and tuning in to watch Canelo Alvarez knock out Floyd Mayweather for the first time in his life. Canelo is from Jalisco, the home of tequila, so what drink could be more fitting? I've got grapefruit Jarritos and salt to make Palomas and plenty of snacks. The higher proof of the Tapatio is just what we'll need to make sure the vibrant tequila flavor doesn't get drowned out in a sea of sweet soda. I'm really excited to try it in a cocktail.

If you've never seen what I look like before, Canelo Alvarez could be my brother – hence why all the boxing fans at K&L call me "Canelo." Therefore, I share a certain kinship with the undefeated Mexican champion. When I was younger, and still did have red hair, I really looked like Canelo. It's almost scary. 

We've got a big night ahead! Tapatio 110 and the biggest fight of the year! Víva Canelo! Víva Tapatio! Viva Jalisco!

-David Driscoll

Friday
Sep132013

Drinking Diageo – Part V: George Dickel's Tradition

What does it mean when a traditional distillery is owned by a larger conglomerate? Does it mean that the whiskey no longer has street cred as a serious brand? Now that Bruichladdich is owned by Remy, do the last ten years of edgy, independent, well-crafted booze no longer matter? George Dickel is a traditional Tennessee whiskey distillery that's still operated much in the same way it has been since the late 1950s. The fact that it falls under the Diageo umbrella, however, has some people thinking differently. I recently spoke with Dickel Brand Ambassador Doug Kragel to gain a bit more insight into this idea and see how he felt about Dickel's role within the larger empire.

David: Thanks for taking the time to talk Doug. What is your position at George Dickel?

Doug: I am the national brand ambassador for George Dickel.

David: To give you some context, I've been doing a set of articles this week for our website about breaking down stereotypes concerning large-production distilleries that may be unfair. Maybe certain brands get unfairly catagorized simply because they fall under the umbrella of a larger corporation. Could Dickel possibly be an example of that?

Doug: I like that your bringing this idea to light. I think it's definitely important to talk about this.

David: How long has Diageo been involved with George Dickel?

Doug: When you follow the line of the large companies in the liquor industry, Diageo wasn't around when George Dickel distillery was relaunched in 1959 -- Dickel was owned at the time by Schenley. But if you trace back through some of those mergers, between the bigger spirits companies, Diageo has, in some incarnation, had their hands on George Dickel since 1959.

David: So Dickel was a distillery before 1959, but had just been non-operational?

Doug: It was, back in George's day. They began making whiskey back in the 1870s, but what happened was, when Tennessee prohibition came down in 1911 -- statewide prohibition came down before the federal -- they actually tore the distillery down and the family -- George Dickel's family, he had already passed away at this point -- but the survivors of his family decided not to get back in the game when repeal happened. So George Dickel didn't exist from 1911 until 1959, when a man by the name of Ralph Dupps, who worked for Schenley -- he was actually from Louisville, but had a lot of family down in the Tennessee area -- he pioneered and spearheaded the project of bringing George Dickel back -- doing the research and gathering all the information he could to make the whiskey as authentic as possible. The current distillery is actually located about a couple hundred yards away from that original site. If you ever get a chance to go down there, you can actually go and see some of the old foundation from the original distillery just down the road.

David: Do you think the production of Dickel has changed since 1959 with higher production levels? Has Diageo been able to control quality despite these increases?

Doug: Well, production methods really haven't changed since 1959. That's a big part about what I like to stress to people when we're talking about the brand. So since the reopening they've figured out how to make good whiskey and we really haven't had any reason to change or to update the distillery more than any regulation would force us to. For example, when we weigh our corn -- which we do on-site, and that we get locally, we actually have our own hammer mill on-site that we use to mill the grain -- we use 11,000 pounds of corn for every mash that we do. We then weigh it on an old counter-balance scale. So we actually have a guy working that grain room all day long, monitoring that scale to make sure we get to that exact measure, but it's not a digital scale because we don't need it to be that way. That scale is as accurate as we need it to be to have a good tasting liquid come out in the end.

David: What do you think is the key characteristic of Dickel? What makes it different from other whiskies?

Doug: I think there are a few things. The first is that corn is a very big part of American whiskey, but very important for us in particular because we have a high corn content mashbill and I think that creates a unique quality. It's 84% corn, so especially in our number 8 and number 12, you really taste that full-bodied, creamy sweetness that comes out of a high-corn content whiskey. The other thing that really sets us apart from whiskies is, for Tennessee whiskey, the Lincoln County process is very important -- that charcoal mellowing process. For us, we do a couple of things differently that I think really smooth out the finish of the whiskey. We actually chill our whiskey down to forty degrees before we put it through the leecher. So before we put it through ten feet of charcoal, that we burn onsite and dry onsite at the distillery, we actually chill it to forty degrees allowing it to pass very slowly though the charcoal, allowing it to pull out all the impurities we don't want in the whiskey, to make for a real soft, smooth, sipping quality.

David: Dickel kind of has this "working man's" whiskey reputation, simply because they never release any kind of expensive top-shelf, super-limited, special edition expressions. Obviously there are older stocks of Dickel that are getting released in this new single barrel program, so why do you think Dickel and Diageo have never chosen to release anything older in the past? Was it never seen as something marketable?

Doug: Well, we definitely have old liquid, but typically we don't really let the liquid in our warehouses go past 14 years. In our master distiller John Lunn's eyes, and his previous predecessors's, that's about where the liquid starts to change in the barrel into not what we want for the George Dickel profile. So fourteen years is about as much as we want before the wood takes over and it becomes a little more robust, and lends itself more to the Bourbon category -- which wouldn't be a quality that sets us apart from other producers. Also, it's not necessarily that it's not marketable, for us it's more that it doesn't hold the quality that we want. We want the general, easy-drinking whiskey quality. The older the whiskey, as you know, the more the wood can overpower it and it becomes more complex than we want for the casual, everyday whiskey.

David: I love that there are people out there dedicated to "everyday" whiskey only. It seems like today no one is comfortable with "everyday" anything. Every release has to be super special to merit any attention. With the #8 and #12 expressions, can you shed a little light on how they're created and what makes them different? Are they single age whiskies or are they comprised of different ages married together?

Close up of a Dickel column stillDoug: They're made from whiskies of various ages. Our number eight is five to seven years old and 80 proof. We're only running one spirit off our still at Dickel, and so it's going to grow up to become either the #8, the #12, or the Barrel Select. For the #8 we want the younger whiskey to show the marriage between the high-corn content and the charred oak barrel -- those vanillas and caramels that really come out at the beginning of the aging process. As opposed to the #12, where with a couple more years in the barrel and at 90 proof (we do allow the proof to be a little higher) the wood mellows out just enough into a sweet spot where the corn really highlights the flavor and pops out. We're mingling a lot of barrels together within those age ranges, but it's all about the flavor profile rather than the age, which is we call it the #8 recipe and the #12 recipe instead.

David: So if they're only using these age ranges, what was the point of holding back older whiskies? For the Barrel Select?

Doug: We do use the older whiskies in the Barrel Select.

David: But that's a relatively new release compared to the other two, right?

Doug: The Select itself is newer, but it originally came out in the mid to late 90s as a limited edition. We started holding whiskies back a little before then, but it became so popular that we retooled the package a bit and re-released it as an extension to the line, so the core now consists of those three. We only use ten barrels for every bottling of the Select from within a ten to fourteen year age range. And now we've started the single barrel program you were talking about, which uses specific age statement barrels for an offering of something limited with an extra connection to an already down-home, easy-to-relate-to brand.

David: Is there anything else you think I should know that I haven't asked you and that you want to tell me?

Doug: You know, one of the big things to highlight, since we're talking about the brand as being that "working man's" brand, that easy drinking whiskey, is to make sure people understand that there are only twenty-five employees involved in the production of George Dickel. They make all the Dickel in the world. There are about thirty-five employees total that work at the distillery and some of these guys have been there for over thirty years, so when you think about the turnover rate it's obviously one of the best jobs in Coffee County. There's an intimacy in knowing that, with no computers, there is a man at every step in the whole process really taking care of the production of the whiskey.

David: And that kind of runs against what people think of when they think of Diageo. In Scotland there has been a lot of technology put into the whisky-making process, so it's good to know that some distilleries under Diageo have remained the same in favor of tradition.

Doug: Yes, it's great that they've recognized that this brand is something that needs to be preserved, just like the location where it is. There's a reason they own 600 acres around the distillery, because it needs to be preserved as what it's always been.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Sep122013

Drinking Diageo – Part IV: A Life in Letters

Remember when people would write each other letters? Like in old history books where we learned about important figures of the past through their correspondence with other famous names? This is definitely not one of those conversations, but I do appreciate that type of format as a means to educate, so I've decided to post a series of emails from earlier today between myself and Nathan Keeney, writer of the blog Scotch Noob, and a dedicated whisky enthusiast. Nathan shops frequently at K&L, but also overseas where he seeks to increase his exposure to the vast selection of malts unavailable stateside. I like hearing from Nathan because he's a very good writer, makes inquisitive points, and he always keeps me honest, but with a wink and a smile, rather than a sarcastic quip. Here's a snippet from our email conversation today concerning Diageo and NAS whiskies:

David -

You know whenever you mention the age vs quality issue on the blog, you're going to get a bunch of emails like this, right? ;)

I think the oft-discussed NAS issue comes down to this simple fact: When you remove the age statement (whether to cheapen the blend and satisfy your shareholders, or to make a blending masterpiece (like Beal's wilted flower perked up by water), you remove the last vestige of factual credibility that you have with your (generally jaded) informed customers. (The uninformed customers don't matter to the discussion, most of them probably didn't know JW Gold was 18 years old, or that Maker's is supposed to be 45% ABV))

My frustration with the "but I can make it better by blending in younger components" argument is that you can solve your credibility issue by providing MORE information on the label, but nobody does it. My guess is that if you tell people that your new blend contains 66% 18 year-old Clynelish, 25% 18 year-old Cameronbridge, 5% 4 year-old Caol Ila, and 4% other stuff, then informed customers will buy it in droves, especially if you tell them WHY you chose that blend. As you always say - tell a story and your customers will connect with the product... as long as they feel they can trust you.

However, if you just drop the age statement (especially in the current market climate), nobody is going to believe your claims that it's to improve the whisky's quality. Nobody. Until people can walk into a liquor store and slap down $5 for a few sample pours, the whole "quality vs age statement" debate isn't going to end. In lieu of first-hand experience, information is the key, but these bureaucrats and the small distillery execs who are trying to emulate them think that giving customers information is like giving them the key to your front door.

-Nathan

To which I replied:

Hi Nathan

I agree with you 100%. But what if they were transparent and told you that they did use younger whisky? Would you really approach that whisky with an open mind, even if it did indeed taste better? That's what I think the larger companies are afraid of and their jobs are on the line.

The more I work in this business, the more I realize that many customers care only about age statements and not about flavor. It’s really, really frustrating sometimes. I can see why some bigger companies just don’t want to risk it. When the majority of people use a number to frame their purchasing decisions, it come sometimes be the safer bet to not include one -- regardless of the goodwill it might generate.

-David

To which Nathan replied:

David,

I can't say whether I would be objectively open to a product that disclosed its proportion of younger whisky, but I can say this: I would rather buy a product that disclosed its proportions (young and old) than an equivalent product that simply *dropped* a previously-declared age statement. Macallan, for example: I might be willing to go for "Amber" (or whatever) if I knew what was in it. Without that knowledge, I have to fall back on my assumption that they're doing it to stretch stock. Without buying something, I know what a $50 12 year-old sherry-finished scotch should taste like (quality-wise). I don't know what "Amber" should taste like, or if it will be worth $50.

There are so many people that get caught up in this whisky frenzy and lose their sense of proportion. If Pappy had never been allocated, it probably never would have become so popular (or at least not to this degree).

People *should* take personal taste above anything, but I can count on two hands the number of bottles I've bought because I tasted it (somewhere) first and enjoyed it. The vast majority of (my) purchases come via recommendation. When your average customer doesn't have a trusted source for recommendations, and doesn't have a reliable and well-stocked tasting avenue, he must fall back on age, points, or word of mouth, none of which are particularly reliable. Take age statements out of that equation and what do you have?

-Nathan

To which I replied:

Hi Nathan,

You wrote:

Take age statements out of that equation and what do you have?

But what do you have with an age statement? You know that it’s old. But maybe it’s old and it doesn’t taste good and you just paid $150 because it was old (i.e. some newer Bourbon releases). What’s happening now is that some producers are using age statements against consumers – putting mediocre whiskey in a bottle with a "21" on it and adding $100 to the price.

 I think no matter what happens – points, reviews, age statements – you’re always going to fall back on a recommendation. That’s all you can do, as you say.

You also wrote:

However, if you just drop the age statement (especially in the current market climate), nobody is going to believe your claims that it's to improve the whisky's quality. Nobody.

I don’t think anyone is pretending anymore that they’re dropping the age statement to improve quality. We all know why it's happening now. The problem is that the insider crowd feels this is exploitative when it’s really just a business necessity – no one has the supply anymore to keep up with current demand. The only reason we have older whiskies in the first place is because supply was far greater than demand, so it all just sat there. Now that whisky’s popular again people are outraged. Why can’t you just keep making more whisky at the same age for the same price? Because people are buying it too quickly, that's why. Therefore, the whisky companies are trying to adapt and come up with a new solution that works for them, but some people are so hung up on their age statements that they won’t listen (and maybe sometimes it is bullshit). They want their old booze back at the old price and they feel like anything less than that is unacceptable. But those days are over. Long gone. And they’re not coming back. I think it’s important to taste each NAS whisky on its own merit now and see what it’s really bringing to the party. We can’t lump everything into the same pile, even if they reveal the blend components or not.

Back in the day they were dumping older stocks of Lagavulin into the standard 16, but they didn’t tell you that either.

-David

To which Nathan replied:

David,

I've made this argument before, so I apologize for the repetition. I think the situation we're in is a factor of the type of product we're talking about. If Coke puts out a new product that's made from cheap ingredients and tastes like ass, everyone can buy it for $1.99, discover it tastes like ass, and the product fails. Conversely, a whisky producer can put crap back-of-the-warehouse leftover "old" whisky in a bottle and sell it for a premium OR dump barely-legal young malt from a fifth-fill cask into the vatting of "Macallan Marigold" and sell it for 20% more than the 12 year-old to cover "branding costs". The first product will sell because it's rare (and probably most of it won't even be opened), and the second product will either be dumped over ice in Holiday Inn hotel bars, or sold to people who heard somewhere that Macallan is good. Whereas "Coke Cheap" will fail in a matter of weeks, enough people will be duped into buying "Macallan Marigold" that it will never fail, even if nobody becomes a repeat customer -- all because whisky is booming and most people can't taste before they buy. It's as if everyone had to buy a car without test-driving it and lacked the ability to return or resell it. Sure, you could read reviews, maybe find a friend who has one you can try, but in the end of a lot of crap cars are going to get sold, because people can't "vote with their wallets" until it's too late.

Corryvreckan convinced me that NAS whisky can be (really) good, even with very young stock in it, but only because I had an opportunity to try it first. I think everyone (including me) would love to taste each NAS on the market and determine for themselves whether the price justifies the quality... but nobody has that opportunity. You lay down your $50 (soon $75?) and you take what you get. Or if you're like me, you order a giant box of Master of Malt 30ml miniatures from the UK and pray they get through customs. ;)

-Nathan

To which I replied:

I think those are all fair and valid points. I think what I’m looking for is a certain open-mindedness regarding the situation rather than a knee-jerk opposition that searches for outrage when there may not be any needed. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tasting something first. That’s what you should do. If you miss out on something by waiting, then so be it -- there's always something else! I don’t think anyone is asking consumers to take the risk on their product outright, but just to listen to what they have to say. If you don’t like it, then you don’t like it. The majority of whiskies I've tasted that are taking “back of the warehouse” crap whiskey and putting it into bottles are either from independent bottlers (who ironically do tell you exactly what’s in the bottle), or a handful of smaller craft producers who are trying to sell you their story over their quality. The guys who are being the most secretive and the most closed-door about their cepage are usually the guys bringing decent whisky to the table. At least from my tasting experience. That’s why I feel the need to share that.

We always suspect the quiet ones first, but it's usually the loudest people you have to watch out for. Like me. :)

To which Nathan replied:

Agreed. Closed-mindedness goes hand-in-hand with the trend-following and one-upsmanship endemic of some whisky consumers today. I guess I believe a lot of the under-handed producer behavior would be harder to get away with if tasting were more feasible. With most independent bottlers, most special releases, ALL limited or allocated releases, and most everything over the age of 21 (or so), it is downright impossible for a consumer to try before buying. Since the laws aren't likely to change, I think we're stuck with the situation we're in. The best most of us can hope for is to find someone who knows what they're talking about (like you), and learn to trust their recommendations. It's certainly worked out well for me, but not everyone has a K&L within driving distance. ;)

I'll let you get back to work.

Cheers!

-Nathan

I doubt this conversation will go down in the history books, but I thought there were some interesting things to think about in that correspondence -- both for myself, other customers, and the producers, too.

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Sep122013

Drinking Diageo – Part III: From Gold into Platinum

I think the first whisky that comes to mind when people think of Johnnie Walker is the Black Label, simply because it's so ubiquitous. Every liquor store has the Black Label, right? (according to Christopher Hitchens, every dictator too). It could be the Blue Label, however, that pops into your head – that lofty, top-shelf bottle that adorns the back bar of every steakhouse from here to Atlantic City. That's what some people immediately think of. Maybe you cut your whisky-drinking teeth on the Red Label, or maybe you even went the "pure malt" route and sought out the Walker Green. Maybe you're one of the few who went further than Black and Blue, and stepped up to the King George. Walker's Gold Label, however, – the color that seems to be forgotten here, yet represents the finest possible achievement in the Olympic games and most other sporting contests – is the crown jewel of Johnnie Walker's colored rainbow, in my opinion. Yet, personally, I only know one other whisky fan besides myself who loves the Johnnie Walker Gold. You never hear anyone talk about it. It's not something we focus on here at K&L because we're not a store that puts much effort into the blended market. We're not the lowest price nationally, which is usually what people look for with Walker products, but we have it in the back room just in case someone wants it. That's as far as we go.

Still, I'm totally obsessed with this whisky (as I wrote yesterday: industry people are often captivated by what it is they're not exposed to). I drink it regularly at home, but I don't push it on K&L customers because I know it's not what they're looking for. Most of our clientele are interested in single malts, single casks, and rare collectables – that type of thing. If I walk out with a bottle of Walker Gold and say, "Try this," they'll look at me like I'm crazy. "I can get that anywhere!" Therefore, I don't often bring it up. But, secretly, in the privacy of my own home, shrouded in camouflage, hiding underneath a blanket in a dark room, this is a bottle of whisky that I really look forward to enjoying most nights. I'm on my second bottle in the past three months because I simply dump this into a glass, hit the couch, and relax after a long day at work. The warm, rich, fruity, vanilla-laden Walker Gold tastes so fucking good. And there's a reason: it's loaded with 18 year old Clynelish – perhaps my favorite whisky in the vast Diageo canon of superstars. I love Clynelish whisky, so it makes sense that I like the Gold too.

Trends tend to go in waves, and the trends of the booze world are no different. First we like to lambaste boring old booze for being run-of-the-mill, stressing the need to improve quality and education, and bring back the serious craft mentality. But eventually we start to get annoyed with the pretension – the fact that people are constantly talking about how we need to appreciate everything to the finest and avoid the mass-produced in favor of the boutique. This cycle happens because there are always those guys (rarely gals) who take these trends to extremes – people who try so hard to epitomize a certain aptitude for the rules that they annoy everyone else around them. "I don't drink vodka." "I hate merlot." "I only drink single malts, not blends." That type of stuff. Eventually this type of behavior becomes so ridiculous that people start doing the opposite, simply not to be lumped in with this crowd – like drinking Pabst out of a can, or wine in a box, just to show that you're not as uptight as these other clowns. And a new trend starts – one focused on not taking things so seriously and having fun (I think that was called the 1980s, which was of course met with the backlash of the 1990s – where everything was so serious and melodramatic we got depressed).

In between the flux of cherry Jello shooters and pre-Prohibition potions, the cheap bottom-shelf blends and esoteric single casks, lies Johnnie Walker – whisky for people who care enough to like good whisky, but not necessarily enough to focus on where it comes from. Yes, there was a time when whisky wasn't taken all that seriously. Yes, there was a time when you didn't have the opportunity to drink the whisky of a single distillery. Yes, today we have more single malt options than ever before, with all kinds of creative cask enhancements and cutting-edge technology. But all of that comes with a price because the more seriously we begin to take our whisky, the more people we create who seek only to understand it, not necessarily enjoy it. The more seriously we begin to take our whisky, the more people we create who decide to follow popular culture's mindset that blends are somehow inferior, and choose not to waste their time with more than a century of tradition.

In reality, people who tell you they don't drink blends as a rule are like people who tell you they only read books and never watch TV. They feel like it's one or the other, like a line needs to be drawn in the sand that distinguishes them from this other type of creature. But you can read books and watch TV! Both are enjoyable. I do both almost every day! You can also drink both blends and single malts (I do both almost every day!). Johnnie Walker Gold is going out of commission this year (being replaced by another delicious blend that I recently got to try – the Platinum) and I couldn't be more upset about it. As my friend told me last year, "Walker Gold is what made me want to try Clynelish, it's what started my love affair with the distillery." What a pity. Unfortunately, 18 year old Clynelish is in high demand right now within the Johnnie Walker empire and there's simply not enough to go around. But then again, no Johnnie Walker expression is ever set in stone – Diageo is always looking to expand on what works and what the public responds to.

I know what you're thinking. It's probably the same thing that I was thinking when I first heard that Diageo was turning their Gold into Platinum: "It's probably an excuse for them to drop the 18 year age statement." But, lo and behold, the Platinum will also carry the 18 year old banner, so that's not the case. Unlike the Macallans of the world, Walker's golden glow will not be muted by a younger platinum sheen. I talked for a while with Steve Beal this morning, Diageo's malt master and brand ambassador, and we shared our views on the semantics of blending. I told him, "It's probably a good thing that Platinum keeps the age statement, simply because of the rather skeptical views out there concerning whisky right now." Beal's response was, "That's true, but we're talking about blended whisky here. While we're keeping a certain credibility, age statements can also handicap us because we're preventing ourselves from using our full arsenal of casks. It's like having a set of encyclopedias, but limiting yourself to only a few volumes."

Sure, when you're getting short on aged whisky – as every producer in the industry is right now – it's easy to start stressing the importance of flavor over maturity. But let me share this with you: when I had to blend our Fuenteseca tequila for K&L, I really wanted to keep all of the juice over 18 years old because I wanted that age statement on the bottle. I tried, and tried, and tried to find a combination of old casks that tasted like a top-quality tequila should – but I couldn't! I needed that four year old tequila, the one that was brimming with butterscotch and fat fruit, to make the Fuenteseca taste the way I wanted it to. The minute I added that younger spirit into the mix, everything came into balance. As Beal told me, "Sometimes adding a bit of young Caol Ila or grain whisky, like Cameronbridge, makes everything perk up, like a wilted flower does after getting a bit of water." While we'll never know for sure whether a producer is simply stating this fact out of truth or out of convenience, rest assured that it is indeed true. When you're blending, you're really limiting yourself by leaving out the younger options.

But, of course, by adding the younger whisky you lose the right to call your whisky "18 years old." So then you have to ask yourself: "What's more important? Age or flavor?" One thing that rather amuses me about the new age of NAS (non-age statement) whiskies is that it forces people to make up their own mind about a spirit – do you like it or not? "Well tell me how old it is!" No! You have to make up your own mind without the comfort of knowing the maturity. God forbid you come out in favor of a young whisky. Anything but that. You'll look like a stupid amateur! While we're going to see more age statements dropping within the whisky industry, as stocks continue to deplete faster than they can be replenished, we won't see it happen with the Platinum. We won't see much of a price increase either, as the cost should be about the same (obviously margins will differ from store to store).

By losing one 18 year old, $80-ish, delicious blended whisky, we're gaining another – perhaps more dominated by Dailuaine and Caol Ila, rather than the lovely Clynelish, but still rich and delicious, nonetheless. When I look at the field of 18 year old whiskies right now – Macallan 18 at $200, Yamazaki 18 at $155, Bunnahabhain 18 at $110 – I can't help but think how much more I enjoy the Walker Gold 18 year old for $75 than any of these other comparable single malts. I don't necessarily think the Gold is a better whisky, just one that I personally enjoy drinking more. That's if we're simply comparing age statements. Using the blend versus single malt argument to justify pricing doesn't work anymore either because even the grain whisky in an age statement blend has to comply. While it's easy to point out that the Walker Gold is loaded with 18 year old Cameronbridge grain whisky as well, my answer to that would be: "Find me a bottle of 18 year old Cameronbridge for less than $80."

While I told Steve that I was planning to buy a few bottles for the bunker, his reply was, "Yes, the Gold Label is going to disappear for a while and the let the Platinum take center stage, but I wouldn't be surprised if it comes out for one final bow later on down the line."

I hope so. It's a fine whisky for a reasonable price.

-David Driscoll