Which Set You Claim, Punk?
There is a polarizing argument that flows through the world of food and wine, a debate that really seems to irk traditionalists and forward-thinking activists alike. It's a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, future and past (at least according to the participants), with each side placing itself among the righteous and correct. It is a dangerous topic to raise at the dinner table with foodies or cork dorks because everyone has likely chosen their allegiance and has armed themselves with the latest talking points. While working in this titan of the wine industry, I've been privy to many a snooty conversation concerning terroir and regionality. I have leafed my way through Alice Feiring's puritanical crusade to save the soul of her beloved vino, and read Neal Rosenthal’s musings on the ethics of wine merchantdom. Living in the Bay Area, I've learned to love Alice Waters and her philosophy of cooking only with local, freshly-picked, organic produce, while scouring through the farmers markets in search of humanely-raised meats. I shop at grocery stores with signs that say “bio-dynamic” and “cage free,” while giving me the option to pay more for the privilege. I do this happily because of what I believe concerning haut cuisine. I’ll be perfectly up front with you: I’ve chosen sides, I’ve been initiated, and I put in work for my clique on the street. I buy local to support local business and I buy organic to keep pesticides out of my body. I've watched animals so pumped full of hormones they can't even support their own weight. For me, it's a moral decision, but I don't dismiss others for not doing so.
If you’ve been reading this blog at all lately, you’ve probably seen a few posts referencing Anthony Bourdain – the opinioned, outgoing, traveling chef who has written some explicit accounts of his food industry experiences. I love the man, and really get a kick out of the way he does things. In fact, the idea for this article comes from a chapter in his book The Nasty Bits titled “Are You a Crip or a Blood?” Bourdain, unlike me, remains firmly planted in the middle of this debacle concerning food – he’s all about taste and nothing more. The turf war he describes is the battle between fusion and tradition. Do you dare add exotic herbs and spices, cilantro or thai chili even, to a traditional French meal? If it tastes good, Bourdain’s answer is yes. In his mind, while the grass-fed cow enjoyed a happier existence, the corn-fed steer tastes better on a plate, and when his reputation is on the line as a chef, the choice is a no-brainer. Many of our customers feel the same towards their wine selections. “Just give me something that tastes nice and smooth,” they say. Most could care less about terroir, tradition, or typicity, and rightly so if they’re just looking to sip on something simple at the end of the day. Many of us however, the oh-so-jaded staff, have moved beyond flash and instead look for classic versions of substance that will mature into perfection. We don’t want new oak in our Bordeaux and we don’t want Merlot in our Tuscans. Why would you mess with hundreds of years of excellence?
As I read Bourdain’s take on this, I began to ponder an analogous debate in the whisky world. Was there such a fierce divide among my malt enthusiast customers and friends? There is a bit of an old-school mentality concerning the recent trend of wine-cask finishing, but nothing that really polarizes anyone. It wasn’t until I began talking to a vendor about the 1990 Sheep Dip that it hit me. There is a giant chasm that cuts through Whiskyville, and it does very much concern taste and purity, it’s just that the majority of drinkers all stand on the same side. In this divide I am without allegiance and stand firmly in the middle with Bourdain, because when it comes to whisky, as long as it tastes great I’m all for it. I’m speaking, of course, about Single Malts vs. Blends, and the vitriolic barbs that I hear from fundamentalists on both sides are sometimes frightening. Single malt drinkers want nothing to do with Mr. Johnny Walker, or any of his friends for that matter, while Chivas Regal drinkers think Glenlivet tastes like battery acid. In this vicious war, I’m here to play peacemaker because I think that both sides are going to have to get along if the whisky business is ever going to progress.
My good friend Rich Trachtenberg, head of Pacific Edge Wine & Spirits, was in earlier to taste me on some of his latest acquisitions and we discussed in detail the direction we both felt the industry was heading. We both agreed that producers needed to get creative if they expected their audience to continue growing. I’m personally no longer impressed by cask enhancements, or barrel strength, and I’m even less interested in tradition. However, if you want to talk tradition, the history of Scotch whisky is built on the backs of the blends. Mixing and matching flavors to create the perfect dram was always the goal of whiskymaking, however today it is distillers who receive all the kudos. Choosing the right casks and marrying them properly hasn’t become only a lost art, it’s become a rather dubious one. I’ve been stared down, laughed at, vented upon, and scowled towards after recommending a fantastic blend to some of our customers; I've experienced that harsh reality of the street. Rich told me of a retailer who trash-talked the Willett bourbons he represents, purely on the fact that they weren’t actually distilled by the Willett family. “Who wants bourbon they didn’t even make?” was the response. Taste never factored into the equation, I guess.
Meanwhile, while I taste the latest releases from the best distilleries, I’m seeing the same thing over and over again, except it usually carries a higher price tag. What gets me excited as a whisky buyer, you might ask? Flavor, first and foremost, but a bit of creativity and risk-taking never hurts. The Big Peat, for example, is one of my favorite bottles we currently have on the shelf. A blend of four Islay powerhouses, Ardbeg, Caol Ila, Bowmore, and the defunct Port Ellen, this unchillfiltered malt is a smoke-filled, seaweed-soaked, medicinal beast that would please any single malt drinker were it presented to them blindly. The modern imagery on the label only adds to the fun factor – it’s clear this bottle is plenty short on pretense. My absolute top choice of the moment is the previous-mentioned 1990 Sheep Dip “Old Hebridean,” a blend of individually aged Dalmore, Fettercairn, and Ardbeg that were vatted, and then aged together again. Unlike virtually all single malts, the 1990 refers not to the date of distillation, but to the year of the initial blending. The flavor after 15 years together in a bourbon cask is simply outstanding. The malt is beautiful mixture of caramel, dried fruits, and toffee with hints of spice from the 25 year old Ardbeg. If this whisky is any testament to the virtues of barrel-aged blends, then please keep them coming!
Despite the ingenuity and obvious talent involved making in some of these bottlings, there’s absolutely no convincing some single malt purists. Most detest simply the idea of polluting their palate with such a pedestrian beverage, much like the Jets detest the Sharks, or the Bloods loath their rival Crips. To me, that’s unfortunate because it’s my job to introduce people to what I think are the tastiest whiskies, and the need to think about such reservations before I speak seriously handicaps my ability to do so. I’m not looking to jump into a gang fight or incite a riot. This obviously works the other way too, with Dewars drinkers who I think might benefit from having their whisky world infinitely expanded, but it’s usually just an old-timer who’s set in his ways. He’s been drinking Walker Black for forty years, so who am I, some punk kid, to tell him what he should be consuming?
What is interesting, is that few established writers and critics have eschewed such a bias against the blended malt. While most of the big names are serious single malt fans, I’ve rarely read a derogatory remark against the multi-whiskied. There are clearly allegiances towards particular distilleries, but not necessarily towards single malts as a category. Maybe the lack of press regarding vatted malts constitutes a grudge being held, but that’s a far cry from the hate speech I hear in the store. However, if anyone catches John Glaser or Dave Broom talking smack about the East Side Blends, make sure and let me know. I’d be curious to know where some of the so called experts stand. As far as gang membership being “for life,” I’m hoping to convince some of our polarized whisky customers to come to their senses and leave their thuggish intolerance behind.