Many of the whisky tastings that I host are for strangers, be it fee-for-service clients, silent auction winners, or various fund raisers. Always interesting spending a couple of hours with new people; and I tend to be in “professional” mode and performing. My modus operandi stays fairly consistent: grab their attention, offer top shelf whiskies, provide some take home materials and own the room. Everyone leaves happy, more informed about whisk(e)y and, perhaps, brought over to the dark side…..
This past weekend I was in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts for my niece’s wedding. Ceremony on the dunes, pig roast back at the rented party house for about 40 adults and a smattering of young children. My own adult children were in attendance and this was a perfect opportunity to host a whisky tasting for them…no one had to drive and babies could be tucked safely into bed. The Masthead Resort & Cottages, where we were all staying, was right on the beach, offered spectacular views of the bay and a relaxing setting for a family whisky tasting.
Nine of us gathered including the new brides. Four of the nine, including myself, were familiar with scotch. Well, true, I am more than familiar! The remaining five were more or less new to whisky, several were excited to try but stated serious doubts…you know the ones who tend to prefer white wine. It’s OK, the whisky palate does take a while to develop, and not everyone will (shocking!) come to prefer whisky as their go-to drink.
I did spend some time thinking through which whiskies I should bring to the tasting. I wanted a spectrum that would showcase peat, no peat, sherry casks, light, bold, and American. Plus, this wasn’t going to be the occasion to pour the $100 plus bottles. Yet, wanted more than the everyday $30 to $50 range whiskies and no blends.
What I always find intriguing about pulling together four different whiskies is how the varied flavors impact each other in unexpected ways: sometimes good, sometimes not so much. The tasters immediate reactions to each pour and their comments about the nose, palate, and finish teach me more about the whiskies and how to proceed with explanations and descriptions throughout the tasting.
Thus, my selection was set to go!
First up, Bushmills 16 YO Irish single malt. My reasoning for choosing this whiskey for the tasting and for being the first dram was based on three factors: 1) being matured in bourbon, oloroso sherry and port wine casks spelled sweet and friendy to me; 2) the combination of being 40% alcohol and 16 YO would not overwhelm with an alcohol burn; and, 3) I thoroughly enjoy this expression.
The first time tasters immediately gasped at the alcohol taste. One said this is what he thought whisky would taste like – alcohol smell and taste. I listened to additional comments and nurtured their expectations by asking each one to taste and re-taste to try to understand what flavors came to mind and finally to save a little in their glass so it could be compared to whisky number two.
Number two was the oft-touted and award winning American Westland Peated Single Malt. The peat was quite evident on the nose and mellower on the palate. Everyone recognized the smokiness and it stunned several people who had no idea the flavor of peat and smoke could be tasted in a “drink.” When folks went back to #1, eyes widened and amazement stated on how different the whiskies were and how the sweetness of #1 now came through. The more experienced whisky drinkers were fairly quiet to this point in the tasting. They were gearing up for the two remaining heavy hitters.
I mentioned at the start of the evening while giving an overview of the four whiskies that #4 had “changed my life”, at least in the way that I consider the spirit of whisky. Feeling relaxed after three pours the group was more than ready to proceed to the Balcones Brimstone. Blue corn and Texas scrub oak smoked are not familiar “whisky” terms for us Scotch whisky drinkers. Brimstone boasts both and is audaciously in your face with its unique taste.
Palates were cleaned, new glasses readied, the pour distributed. I waited. The roar of the crowd burst across the room. Brimstone is different! To add to the experience we sampled Vosges dark chocolate with bacon. This chocolate is a decadent treat out of Chicago and coupled well with this Texas original. The Brimstone made an impact and was a fitting end to the formal segment of the tasting.
It was time to calculate the preferences. I quickly thought of my undergrad statistics class and fortunately for everyone the thought passed. As we all know, numbers can be manipulated to say most anything, and for this tasting I broke the number down into three categories: 1) overall preferences; 2) preferences of the four who had some level of whisky drinking experience; 3) preferences of the five who were completely new or minor level of whisky drinking experience.
- Brimstone ranked either first or second by eight of the nine tasters
- Laphroaig was a distant second choice
- Westland ranked either third or fourth by eight of the nine tasters
Preferences of the four some level of experience tasters:
- Three of the four ranked Brimstone and Laphroaig either first or second
- Westland was the first choice of one of this group of tasters
Preferences of the new/minor level tasters:
- Bushmills was ranked first by three of the five and second by the other two
- Brimstone was ranked second by three of the five
- Westland and Laphroaig ranked third or fourth all five
I was stunned by the clear top ranked choice of Brimstone and not surprised at all by the high ranking of Bushmills. The new tasters did not care for the peated Westland nor the Laphroaig while the experienced drinkers overwhelmingly enjoyed both the Brimstone and the Laphroaig. Interestingly enough, I actually went back for the Laphroaig when the formal segment of the tasting was over.
Everyone enjoyed their little foray into the world of whisky so much so that I am rolling around ideas for the next one. Again, the tasting did not disappoint; one never knows which way the rankings will go. Was it Spock who raised his eyebrows and exclaimed “fascinating?”
Whisky is an ever evolving beverage. Mood, atmosphere, weather, company, food all play into the experience for the taster/drinker. We all hear almost way-too-often that whisky is the “water of life” but I’m offering that it is a true joie de vivre (exuberant enjoyment of life.)
One last note for the PC people looking intently at the photo collage, Mommy with the toddler didn’t imbibe and little Garrett was safely tucked into bed after my introduction segment of the tasting. We abide by drinking responsibly.
I raise a glass to new experiences and learning while on the whisky path!