Drinking Diageo – Part VI: Storm's a Brewin'

Fresh off an email exchange (which I posted a few days back) concerning NAS statement whiskies and the certain skepticism that surrounds their very nature, we're now learning about a particular NAS storm on the horizon -- both literally and figuratively. There is literally a new whisky called Talisker Storm that is due to hit American retail stores within weeks. There is figuratively a storm brewing around the fact that this new limited edition whisky is pricier than the Talisker 10, yet has no age statement to back up its bonafides. With an expected sticker price of $85 or so, how will Diageo excite those drinkers with an innate distrust of corporate authority? Is the Talisker Storm an exciting new marriage of top-quality casks, blended to perfection by Diageo's crack team of masters? Or is it perhaps just an excuse to sell young whisky with a higher price tag? After tasting it, and tasting it again, then tasting it ten more times on ten consecutive days, I've come to only one sure conclusion: this is going to be one controversial whisky.

Here's what I can factually tell you about the new Talisker Storm limited edition single malt whisky: it's bottled at 45.8% ABV.  That's the only piece of information regarding the content of this bottle that I know for sure. I've been told that the whisky is a special blend of various types of casks -- Bourbon, sherry, European oak, refill, rejuvinated, etc -- but there's no indication of that on the bottle. Basically, Diageo is asking the consumer to trust in Diageo, with the obvious understanding that the company does and should own the best stocks of Talisker whisky on the planet (thereby giving them the potential to make the best Talisker whisky expression possible). How they made this whisky, however, with which barrels, and with whiskies from which age groups, is a mystery. All we're being told is that the whisky was inspired by the rugged landscape of the Isle of Skye -- "an intense Talisker, with a profoundly maritime character, like a warm welcome from a wild Herbridean Sea." I can already see the eye-rolling and hear the sighs from many of you as you read this, but give it a chance.

To be clear, the Talisker Storm is only new to the American market. It's been available in the UK since the beginning of the year, but I had never taken the time to read any reviews about it. In fact, I had never received any input of any kind about its quality before tasting it myself about ten days ago. After my initial experience, however, I was definitely curious to see how it was being received abroad. To put it bluntly, Talisker Storm is the exact opposite of what today's casual whisky drinker goes after. It's restrained, mysterious, mellow, and subtle in a time when consumers are celebrating big power, big spice, and big smoke. It's like having a customer walk into K&L thinking about a big, juicy, California cabernet, but instead walking out with a bottle of 1997 Terry Gros Cailloux Bordeaux. If that analogy is lost on you, then imagine the expectation of a big, fat, rich, full-bodied, juicy red wine, but instead tasting a lithe, lean, brooding, mineral, nuanced red wine with little pomposity. It's a huge gamble on the part of Diageo because of the expectations associated with the Talisker name and the expectations we have for limited edition malts -- people are expecting a "storm" of flavor. In fact, it's so much a of a risk that I can't believe Diageo had the balls to even try pulling it off. In the realm of safe, crowd-pleasing, user-friendly whiskies that explode with obvious flavor, big alcohol, and loads of peat, this is a 4.2 on the Richter Scale. Complexity and flavor that doesn't simply scream 90 point whisky? I simply had to do a Google search to see what people abroad had been saying because it was going to be hilarious!

Just as I suspected, the results were totally uneven. Some people loved the Storm, praising its complexity and length, and its detailed, refined flavor profile. Others found it just plain terrible, calling it boring, lackluster, and devoid of complexity. How could the same whisky strike its audience in such a drastically different way? Easy -- with subtlety. It happens all the time at K&L when a customer comes in expecting big Zinfandel flavor, but walks out with a delicately, nuanced bottle of Rioja. Just like some California wine drinkers don't understand Bordeaux, and Sea Smoke lovers don't get the earthy flavors of Burgundy, there will be many a whisky drinker who doesn't appreciate what's going on in the Talisker Storm. The nose is straight-forward -- it's peatier than the standard 10 for sure with the smoke taking dominance over the vanilla. It smells like it's going to be pretty intense with big peat flavors. But then the strangest thing happens: the palate builds slowly with fruit and salt, the flavors begin to intertwine, and you brace yourself for the "storm" you've been expecting. But then the clouds pass over, the rain never hits, and you realize this whisky is more of a tempest in a tea pot -- but in a good way.

The Talisker Storm is "more intense" than the standard Talisker 10, if you expect a higher dosage of peat to bring added intensity. There is more spice, more brine, more salt, but these flavors are certainly not at the same level as Ardbeg or Laphroaig. They're also not balanced by the round richness we expect from Talisker. The fruit and saline notes are plentiful, but unclear initially, as the you kind of look around, wondering when the storm is going to actually hit. The smoky, ashy, salty residue lingers long on the finish, but only if you're really focusing on it. It's almost puzzling at first. But do you remember the first time you heard Radiohead's Kid A album after it leaked on Napster? I do -- the electronic keyboard and distorted lyrics from "Everything in its Right Place" evolving into a rather ghostly vocal. After the bold, and brash guitars of OK Computer, we thought maybe it was a joke -- like someone had uploaded an album called Kid A, but really it was music from another artist meant to fool eager Radiohead fans. It wasn't, however. We listened. Then we listened again. What the heck was going on? Do we like this? We weren't sure. Two weeks later, however, we thought it was the greatest thing ever. A similar thing happened to me with the Talisker Storm. First I was shocked. Then confused. Then intrigued. Then I became a fan. The more I knew what to expect, the more I was able to appreciate what was happening with the whisky. The depth is there, but you have to let it come to you. Even when it does, it still may not be what you're looking for.

The new Talisker Storm will be available at K&L very soon and it will likely sell quite well due to the Talisker reputation. But I would advise any potential customers to keep their expectations in check. In my mind, and in the minds of my colleagues, it is indeed a fine whisky -- we all ultimately enjoyed it -- but it's not a whisky for everyone. It's not rich and supple like the Talisker 18, it's not round and fruity like the Talisker 10, and it's not a "storm" in any sense of the word (unless there's a definition of "storm" that says a "storm" is nuanced, withheld, and unobvious). There's no age statement, no explanation of what's going in the cepage, and very little to go off of officially. It has all the makings of a whisky that critics skeptical of NAS bottles will certainly hate: lighter flavors, less richness, and higher-than-average pricepoint. Maybe that's what Diageo meant by Storm -- as in we expect to invite a "storm" of controversy when this whisky is released. I couldn't be more impressed, however. Not necessarily because it's the best whisky ever (because it isn't), but because a whisky company, the biggest whisky company at that, actually decided to make a product with innuendo rather than brute force.

When the dark grey clouds eventually blow over and the rain stops coming down, I really like the Talisker Storm. It's brooding, strange, and haunting in its nature -- three characteristics that I associate with the Isle of Skye. Again, it's also incredibly ballsy -- I can just imagine Diageo's master blender standing in his office, saying "I don't give a rat's ass that its not as bold or intense as you wanted, this is the type of whisky that I feel like drinking!!" The Talisker Storm has all the marketing of a next-generation sports drink, meant to excite all the young kids with flashy packaging and a force-of-nature-inspired power name, yet it tastes like an older man's idea of great whisky -- one that lightly gets its point across, without feeling the need to shout, play a loud, distorted guitar chord, or jump up and down to get your attention. It's almost ironic!

Some people are going to absolutely hate this whisky (some obviously already do). Much like when the Stones went disco or Johnny Rotten formed Public Image, Ltd -- to some -- it will seem like an abomination of what Talisker is supposed to represent. But secretly I'll be celebrating it, just like I really enjoy listening to "Miss You" or "Rise". Both songs are controversial because they're not what they're supposed to be. But years later, they're staples of the catalog.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll