Fighting the Urge

I'm probably the humanistic manifestation of knee-jerk, off-the-cuff behavior. I'm impulsive, spontaneous, and impatient by nature. There is little forethought put into my blog posts, believe it or not. I usually just sit down and it all starts spewing out. While there are advantages to a quick-thinking, rapid-fire mentality, there are just as many drawbacks. You put your foot in your mouth constantly because you say things without thinking about consequences. You rush an important detail that needed more extensive planning. You continue to think about what's next, rather than focusing on enjoying the moment. When it comes to working with the public, these personality traits need to be suppressed and restrained because patience and listening skills are key. More importantly, when it comes to evaluating a wine or whiskey, rushing to a quick conclusion is the absolute worst thing you can do. In order to better understand distilled spirits, I've had to completely remake my personality and fight against all of my instinctual urges.

Despite my attempts to slow down and consider numerous view points, we're living in a society that continues to reward those who think quickly. The modern 24 hour news cycle is a gigantic panic attack of round-the-clock competition to be first. That's turned our internet culture into a similar phenomenon, with brownie points for the first person to post something to Facebook, the first to tweet on Twitter, and, of course, the first reviewer to blog about a certain whiskey. When people report quickly with opinions based on knee-jerk reactions, it usually results in a chasm of polarization, which is why most Yelp reviews about K&L either paint us as the best store in the history of mankind, or the worst place to ever spend your money. Very few reports are based on a history of multiple visits, but rather one quick trip that has not resulted in a balanced opinion over time.

I've rarely found that my thoughts about whiskey are conclusive after an initial sample. There are so many factors that can influence my feelings and my taste buds at any given moment, so it's difficult to know anything from just a few sips. New information or experiences can also change my perspective. A great example happened just this weekend at Anchor's distillery when we tasted the fermenting rye mash. I've never been a big fan of Anchor's rye whiskies, but after dipping my fingers in the tank and getting a taste of the sweet grain, I had a completely different tasting experience afterward. I understood the Anchor whiskies on an entirely different level because I saw how accurately and purely they reflected the flavors of the malted rye. It was similar to my experience at Glen Garioch when I realized how the whisky tasted exactly like the entire town of Oldmeldrum smelled.

One of my favorite customer stories at K&L involves a man who was absolutely livid with me for my review on the initial batch of Kilchoman's Machir Bay. He thought I had completely oversold the whisky and was very unhappy with his purchase. I wrote him back in an email, telling him to wait a few days, take a few more tastes, and if he still felt displeased to come by the store with the open bottle; I was willing to buy it back from him myself. A few days later the customer sent me an email, writing "I don't know if it was psychological or just that the whisky had changed, but I tried the Kilchoman again on Friday and I absolutely loved it. Am I crazy? Or can the flavors of a whisky change with oxidation? Thank you for bearing with me on this." No, sir, you are not crazy! Whisky can definitely change with oxygen, as it can change depending on what you've eaten that day, or the type of mood you're in. Rushing to a final analysis rarely results in any form of truth or helpful information.

Yet, I've sat on tasting panels where "experts" plowed through a trough of whisky samples like they were oysters, wrote down definitive notes, and awarded medals to brands based on an hour's worth of oversaturated sampling. This is no way to understand whisky, which is why it's often silly to purchase a bottle based purely on accolades and awards. But, of course, the market rewards the fastest buyer as well. We're becoming quick on the review, quick on the response, and even faster on the purchase. If you don't buy a hot new bottle when you see it, you might never get a second chance. It reminds me of my current experiences with house hunting. We've been unsuccessful with all of our bids because we're not willing to overpay and remove contingency.

"You've gotta move quickly," the expert realtors tell me. But that's exactly what I've learned not to do. Being first might initially get you what you want, but you may find out later that what you wanted wasn't exactly what you thought it to be. That's why I'm fighting all of my Pavlovian urges in favor of more careful consideration.  There's really no point in getting something if you're getting it wrong.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll