"Is It The Best Or Isn't It?"

Towards the end of the evening yesterday I helped an older gentleman who was in search of some New Year's Eve Champagne. He had read about the increasing wave of grower-producer options (our specialty) and wanted to pick out a few interesting selections. While he was excited about the possibility of heightened character in the wines due to the smaller production and older blends, he was also skeptical about the whole thing. He was heading into uncharted waters and wanted to get it just right.

"If you were going to pick four–your four favorites–in order from the best on down, which four would you give me?" he asked. I proceeded to select a bottle of Pierre Paillard, Launois, Bruno Michel, and Ariston: four of our absolute best grower-producer options and exclusive bottlings to K&L. "Are you sure about those?" he asked again. "If I were to ask that gentleman at the counter would he pick the same four?"

"Probably not," I answered. "You'd have to ask him. He might like some of these other bottles instead." This halted the customer in his tracks. No longer was he confident in my decisions.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Are you saying these aren't the four best?"

"Those are my four favorites," I replied, "because you wanted to know which bottles I personally liked. I can't speak for my colleague, however, but let's ask him to see what he thinks."

After another twenty minute conversation with Gary, our Champagne buyer, the man was satisfied in our selections and headed out the door a happy customer. Sometimes it's difficult to separate taste from property. There's often a very fine line between personal opinion and inherent quality. Basically, you've got four different options when it comes to differentiating between the two:

- I recognize that the wine/whiskey is well made, but I don't personally like it.

- I think the wine/whiskey is well made and I like it.

- I don't think the wine/whiskey is well made, but I still like it for some reason.

- I think the wine/whiskey isn't well made, therefore I don't like it.

Navigating between these four options can be a minefield because, in the end, all four of them are still open for debate between any discerning appreciators of booze. When we as consumers become dead set on a fail-safe bottle of wine or whiskey (one that can't possibly go wrong and that we will absolutely enjoy because it's absolutely the best) the idea of standard deviation can be frightening. Yet, there's no way around it. Our recent Faultline bottling of Royal Lochnagar is a great example:

- I gave a small sample of the whisky to one of my closest customers who said, "That whisky just isn't for me." He didn't think it was bad, but he was happy he didn't purchase a bottle.

- I received an email from another customer who was overjoyed with the whisky. "The Royal Lochnagar is amazing," he wrote. "It's so light and refreshing, unlike any other whisky I own. I love it. Thank you for bringing it in."

- Personally, I think the hogshead barrel that matured the whisky was probably on its last legs, therefore offering little richness to the malt itself. It probably isn't the best expression of Royal Lochnagar, but I still think it works on so many levels and I love drinking it because of how purely I can taste the distillate.

- Another customer I know well wrote me an email to say he found the whisky bitter, astringent on the back end, and out of balance.

Right there: four completely different takes on the same whisky (following the four examples precisely) from four people who drink whisky often and understand its potential for variance. Different people can like different things. It's going to happen. It might even disappoint you tremendously (like when you buy a special bottle for a special occasion and no one likes it but you). It might cause you to call into doubt your own credentials as a taster (like when you like something and an online review gives it a low score, or vice versa).

Sometimes we allow the personal tastes of others dictate our own views of inherent quality. For that reason finding someone whose opinion you know and trust is important. I have many customers here at K&L whose palates are completely in tune with mine and will buy (and enjoy) what I personally like. I have many more whose palates are not, but I know what they like and can help them to find it. I've likely given many customers bottles they've gone on to hate and for that reason they'll likely never trust me again, but that's how life works.

As "The Dude" Jeffrey Lebowski would say: "Strikes and gutters." Just do your best.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll