I Don't Have the Time or the Money

Two things you'll hear people say about wine or whisky appreciation that really drive me up the wall are:

"I don't have time to drink bad whisky."

"I don't have the money to make a mistake and get a bad bottle."

That's why we love reviews that tell us what's good and what isn't. I only listen to albums that get an 8.5 or above from Pitchfork. I only watch movies that get an A- review or better from Entertainment magazine. I only eat at restaurants that get four stars or better from Yelp. That way I won't waste any time or make a silly mistake (mistakes are for pussies and idiots, by the way). This whisky is good, you should get it. This whisky is bad, you should avoid it. What more do you need to know? Let me tell you the drawback of an entire population that only buys what critics like Robert Parker says it should buy: homogenization!!!!

If you follow the wine industry you may be aware of what's happening in Napa, or in France's Rhone river valley: Parker points. Big points equal big money. Big money equals wine that strive for big points. Wines that strive for big points all taste the same. Big, oaky, rich, and concentrated.

"Hey Jacques, I know you were planning on making an old school, rustic, personally-styled grenache wine this year, but if you micro-oxidize, age the wine in new French oak, and extract more fruit during maceration, I'll bet you Parker will give you a better review. If you get 90 points or more you could make some serious money!"

"Really, Francois? Why is that?"

"Because that's the kind of wine Parker likes. And what Parker likes, people will buy."

All of a sudden the entire Cotes du Rhone has become one giant, homogenized, dark, inky, fruit bomb with a hot-shot review from the Wine Advocate. 91 points! Best buy! Deal of the year!

Except that all these wines are beginning to taste the exact same. There's no individuality. No variance. It's a sea of sameness. A vast wasteland of Parkerdom that has ruined the Rhone and negated much of Napa. Big oak, big fruit, big alcohol, and therefore big points.

And, believe me, whisky is next. Not necessarily because of Parker, but because the same whiskies are getting all the love.

There's a trend going on in whisky reviewing right now. Big sherry, big alcohol, and big peat are getting big scores. We can sell a 600 bottle barrel of high-proof, first-fill sherry Mortlach no problem (and that whisky was delicious by the way), but no one wants the more nuanced stuff anymore. Lighter, leaner, more delicate whiskies are slowly morphing into sherry-finished, extra-matured, Distiller's-Edition monsters that bring the richness right off the bat. Single malt whisky is getting the Napa Valley treatment and people are loving it. That's why Aberlour A'Bunadh is currently out of stock in California, while the far-superior 16 year continues to sit in squalor.

"Is it sherried?"


"Is it peaty and from Islay?"


"Is it rare or limited?"


Hmm....I'll just wait for something that is.

When retailers and bars can't sell a certain type of whisky, that style of whisky goes into retirement. It's called the free market: capitalism decides what can stay and what can't. It's like the tag-team division in the WWE or Arrested Development on FOX: it doesn't matter how good the product is. If no one will pay to consume it, then you've got squat. Big sherry sells. Big peat sells. Cask strength sells. Everything else simply isn't one of those three.

What happens, however, when every single malt whisky becomes a 59%, sherry-aged, super-rich monster? What happens when you can't get a single barrel, hogshead Clynelish anymore? Something with a delicate touch? Something that doesn't punch you right in the mouth? Homogeneity.

You also get fairweather drinkers. People who root for the San Francisco Giants when they win, but become A's fans when they lose. Like the people who wore Angels caps and waved the rally monkey in 2002, but are now wearing Dodger blue. Like the people who flock to Bordeaux for the 2009 vintage, then stay away for 2011 and 2012 because someone said those vintages "weren't as good." There's no comprehension of what "good" is. There's no understanding of passion or loyalty. There's simply a desire to side with the winning team, to drink the "best," to run with the pack, and to be considered "up to speed."

"Have you seen Bob's wine cellar? He's got only the best wines from the best vintages."

Guess what?! Bob isn't smart or sophisticated. Bob simply read a magazine and bought what someone told him to buy. You can do that. I can do that. Anyone can buy a San Francisco Giants 2012 World Series Champions jacket and wear it proudly. Does it actually mean anything to you, however?

Do you have time to watch a baseball game where your favorite team loses? I hope so. Because that's what creates a true connection in sports. The good times and the bad. The ups and the downs. That's why winning is so satisfying when it happens.

Do you have the time to read a book that bores you to death? I hope so. Because only by reading something dull and ordinary can you recognize good writing and talented prose, and therefore be enthralled by it.

Do you have the money to buy a $25 bottle of Weller 12 year old Bourbon? I hope so. Because Pappy will only taste amazing to you after you realize how the cask selection and extra maturation make such a huge difference.

If you don't have the time to follow a team through its ups and downs, then who gives a shit if you were there when they won the title?  If you don't have the time to make a mistake then how will you ever learn what constitutes value? If you don't have the time or money to drink wine or whisky regularly, to appreciate variety and nuance, to put the work in, to recognize quality and understand regularity, then how will you know a "good" bottle when you taste one? You won't. Which means you're simply buying what someone else told you was good.

There's nothing wrong with taking someone's recommendation. I do it all the time. What's a good place to eat in New York? What's a good place to get a drink in Chicago? That's called asking for advice. People ask for my advice when buying a whisky all the time. That's what I'm here for. What's annoying, however, is when someone uses that advice to avoid any attempt at understanding, and comes to the declarative conclusion: "I don't have time to drink bad whisky, that's why I only drink the best."

The irony of that statement is that these people would never know a bad whisky if they tasted one. So how do they know what's best?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll