History’s Pantheon and the Importance of the Past
When Matt Cain pitched a perfect game for the Giants a few weeks ago, I watched grown men revert back into excited boys, tears welling in their eyes as the excitement of one of baseball’s rarest feats took hold within their own backyard. Announcers on ESPN shared their own opinions about how Cain’s performance held up in the annals of great pitching performances, while internet users voted in polls asking where this game stood amongst those of history’s finest hurlers. People love to discuss the athletic achievements of others. Part of our own idealized desire lives on every night when we watch our heroes take the field. As a kid, I used to practice catching a ball just at the edge of our backyard fence, robbing an imaginary batter of his chance at greatness, making my own Sportscenter moment that would become immortalized on highlight reels to come. Even at that age, I was aware of society’s reverence for excellence and how we love to recreate it, discuss it, and categorize its importance.
In college, my friends and I would make our own lists of top albums, argue over the AFI’s 100 Greatest American Films, lecture each other on the importance of Henry Miller to modern literature movements. In my lifetime, it has always been of great interest to consider where we stand in comparison to the past. Are we living in the greatest time in history? Is Justin Bieber as big a heartthrob as Paul McCartney? Is Eddie Van Halen the greatest guitar player ever? To many, these are serious issues that require honest deliberation and thought. If we can’t be a part of creating greatness ourselves, then maybe we can have our say in its recognition. Perhaps voicing our own knowledge about each subject will somehow make up for the fact that we were only spectators, witnessing something special before our eyes without the ability to participate.
What’s interesting to me about the best in booze is that it’s finite – it cannot be relived unless it’s physically in the room. Even though I wasn’t in attendance, I can continue to review Matt Cain’s perfect game online. I can command a Pink Floyd performance in London circa 1967 at the push of a button. I can pop the Godfather in on DVD at any moment I fancy. When we talk about the greatest wines of the year, or the best whiskies of all time, unless we’ve got the bottle in hand, talking is all that we can do. Taste is an experience that cannot be archived for later. It’s a here and now phenomenon, yet that hasn’t stopped people from trying. French Laundry meals are captured in photos, posted on Facebook, and texted to friends, but in the end they can only convey the aesthetics of a moment in time. We can’t taste the food in the picture, only look at it.
Even though we can’t use the internet to retroactively taste old Brora or jump back to the establishment of Malt Mill, we can use it to discuss and debate. There are websites that document the great bottles of the past, and there are forums where drinkers lament the draining of their own personal favorites. The pantheon of great single malts or Bourbons is full of expressions, all of which you had to have tasted to understand. Recently I had the chance to exercise an old ghost: the 1974 A.H Hirsch Bourbon from the now-defunct Michter’s distillery in Pennsylvania. After all the hype and everything I had read, I was quite underwhelmed by the experience. While some people consider this the “greatest Bourbon ever made,” the Hirsch wasn’t even the best Bourbon I had that day. At least I can now speak with some authority about its quality, however. As a professional, I’m expected to understand the great whiskies of the past and guide those in search of a similar experience towards comparable selections. Customers read online about these legendary bottles and they come to me, hoping I can offer them a chance at understanding what made these whiskies so great.
Because booze is finite, unable to be recreated, we’re in a race to get it before it’s gone, so you’ve got to be quick. Books about food, whiskies, and wines that you must try before you die are all the rage. Hurry up! Don’t get left behind because you only have one chance to sample one of the “greatest” wines ever before it vanishes. It’s called fear capitalism and it is entirely contingent on our obsession with greatness. It’s the same reason that the Giant’s offer a Matt Cain “Mr. Perfect” T-shirt to the first 5,000 fans who show up at the stadium – hurry up and get to the ballpark before these “must-have” relics are gone (and spend some money on beer while you’re here). This T-shirt will forever prove you saw something important to the history of humanity. Baseball can legitimately market that experience to everyone because anyone can participate – at the game, live on TV, coast to coast, we all saw what happened. Great whisky does not offer that same inclusiveness. It’s about scarcity, limitation, and access. Only the precious few will have a chance to appreciate it.
That’s exactly what today’s whisky market is exploiting: greatness and our obsession with participating in it. We want the ability to talk the talk. We want to discuss where Brora and Port Ellen fit in with history’s greatest single malts. We want to talk about Pappy, show off our stash, and relive the magical tasting that once wowed our palates. We document these experiences as badges of proof that we’re no slouch, that we know what’s what. But, in the end, how can another person ever understand the importance if they can’t taste it for themselves? There is no one true record of the greatest whisky achievements known to mankind and, if there were one, how would we know what to put in it? There’s simply not enough shared experience to create it, in my opinion. There’s not enough consensus. There’s not enough booze. There are only reviews written by a handful of experts, while the rest of the whisky fans dream of having this same access.
When we young drinkers long for the ability to taste old stock, it’s not that we’ve actually missed our chance to taste great whisky, but rather just the chance to participate in the overall conversation. Maybe that’s what makes the historical achievements of booze so different from other genres. You can’t watch a tape and you can’t analyze data. You can’t go to the library and check out old Port Ellen to catch up on your tasting experience. However, as much as I’m fascinated by the history of alcohol, the dying days of lost distilleries, I’m becoming more interested in shared experience. I’ve gone down that list, chasing the great wines of the year, the best whiskies from history, and it always ends with disappointment. Every great spirit I’ve ever tasted is linked to a very specific time and place. It’s never during an appointment at K&L or at home by myself. It’s been with David Girard in the French countryside, or at a staff party in Napa with my colleagues. While I love talking about the history of sports, music, literature, and film, I love doing so with a glass of Buffalo Trace or Bruichladdich, which to me are as good as anything could be at that moment . Greatness in booze isn't limited to the past. It's among us right now, available for anyone who wants to experience it.