Heads, Hearts and Whiskey Tales
Sharing stories of good whiskey, good friends, and good memories
At a recent whiskey tasting that Murray Small and I were leading for Whiskey America, we were to lead guests through a flight of four whiskeys. I always taste and become familiar with a new flight of whiskeys before I present it to a group, even if we will taste whiskeys that I am completely familiar with.
This time was no different; in fact, I spent three evenings with these whiskeys to learn exactly how they would work together. The reason is that when you taste whiskeys you are familiar with next to each other they often present themselves differently then when you drink them alone. In some cases, they can become a new whiskey all together. I had four whiskeys to present at this tasting, but I had a way that I was going to present them that would be like tasting five.
At all of the whiskey tastings I’ve ever been to there is always considerable effort made to try to isolate each whiskey as you move through the selection. There is water poured, crackers provided, and sometimes even spit buckets on the tables so that between each different whiskey tasters can cleanse their pallet, re-set their taste buds, or whatever they need to do to evacuate any remnants of the whiskey they just tasted from their mouth before moving on to the next. Basically, the idea is to try to taste each whiskey of the night as if it were your first whiskey of the night with no affect from the previous whiskeys.
If I were a distiller trying to show off my range of whiskeys that I had created, I, too, would want folks to be able to judge each one on their own individual attributes. I think that perspective is largely where the whole philosophy of resetting your nose and mouth after each spirit comes from. But that’s seldom the way anyone ever really drinks their whiskey.
When you go to a tavern, or a friend’s house, or even
reach into your own collection with the intention of
going through a few different whiskeys before the night
is out, do you ever set out water-crackers or ask your
friend to provide a spit-bucket? Of course not, and you have never had a bad night of whiskey drinking for the loss of these things. In fact, those nights were probably pretty good, and you probably really enjoyed those whiskies as they blended and crisscrossed in your mouth while you transitioned from one to the next.
One of the themes that is always stressed at any Whiskey America events is to emphasize the experience that surrounds the enjoyment of drinking good whiskey, not simply enjoying the whiskey itself. Everything about the event enhances the experience; the food, the cigar smoke, the fellowship of friends, the summer breeze or winter chill, everything about the night that goes to create an experience that will never be repeated.
To a Master Distiller that has spent the last 20 years making the spirit in the bottle we pour, he may not be too keen to think that the perfume of our waitress or the smoke blowing over from our charcoal grill is affecting his masterpiece, but that’s how it goes. All things blend together to create the experience.
At this particular event Murray and I were to lead a tasting intended to showcase the wonderful attributes of four great whiskeys. The selections for the evening were from Catoctin Creek Distillery of Virginia and Smooth Ambler Spirits of West Virginia. Scott Harris from Catoctin Creek brought his Mosby’s Spirit, an unaged 100% rye and Roundstone Rye, the aged version of the same. John Foster of Smooth Ambler brought their Old Scout Bourbon, a high rye bourbon and Old Scout Rye - both popular MGP selections. One way or another, rye grain was the emphasis of the evening!
I wanted to accentuate the differences of the whiskeys and show off the juxtapositions created during the transitions between them - what I refer to as the “in-betweens.”
I wanted each whiskey to support the next whiskey to be tasted and each following spirit to complement the whiskey just finished.
I didn’t want to try to isolate the individual whiskeys; I wanted to create a single, flowing experience.
The first whiskey of the flight was Mosby’s Spirit. It’s an all rye un-aged spirit and is surprisingly floral and fruity. For many of the guests, this was the first time they had savored an unaged whiskey spirit like this. Raising their Glencairns, the guests were really getting to smell the Mosby’s Spirit. I shared my notes of delicate fruit, green bananas, fresh cut grass and other nuances. Some really got it, and others just played along.
The second whiskey was the Roundstone Rye. It was really interesting to bring everyone along from an un-aged rye spirit into the same spirit aged a year and a half. People volunteered that they could smell the wood and vanilla. On initial sips the fruitiness of the Mosby’s could not be discerned in the Roundstone. “Where did it go?” I challenged. The Roundstone is the same thing as the Mosby’s with the addition of some wood aging. The wood is not that powerful that it would bury the other flavors.
There were puzzled looks and silence as we continued to taste. And then someone answered, “It’s still there… the fruitiness, it’s still there. I didn’t taste it at first, but now I do.” I smiled and offered my view that when you’re doing a whiskey flight, you don’t necessarily taste what’s in your glass but rather you taste what wasn’t in the previous glass. In other words, you taste what’s new, you taste the difference.
With the Roundstone the difference was the oak. And with that came the vanilla and the caramel. But the underlying fruit and flowers that were present was no change from that of the Mosby’s Spirit and so no one tasted it, at least not at first. Once everyone began to settle into this new glass of whiskey all of the attributes began to show. That was when we began to taste the fruit again. So, with two glasses of whiskey it was as if we had tasted three whiskies. The “in between” whiskey was the juxtaposition created between the two. It was fun to taste it this way, and as before, some got it and others just nodded and played along.
Next in the lineup was Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout Bourbon. This is an MGP bourbon that I really like because it really acts more like a rye than bourbon. It’s got a lot of spice and that slow burn that takes a while to sink in like a rye. Some might not think it a good flow to go from a full rye to bourbon. But with these two it worked. First of all, Roundstone has got to be one of the smoothest, nicest, young ryes that I’ve ever tasted. And Old Scout Bourbon, for a bourbon, has got some balls. It has a high rye mash bill and, in my opinion, it’s not cut to be delicate. If you’re a bourbon drinker I might recommend others to you. But if you’re a rye man (or lady), I would have you give this bourbon a try.
When we nosed it, I saw some eyebrows go up, even from some of my tasters that may not have been completely picking up what I was putting down in regard to the different tasting notes so far. All of the sudden they were presented with a huge new smell. Something that in the last two (three) whiskies was not present. And remember, what you taste in a flight is not what you have in your glass but rather what is new in your glass. And what was new in this glass was corn!
There was still a lot of rye spice and rye fruit, but nobody was discerning that right now and nobody was immediately remarking that we went from 18 months in the oak to 7 years. None of that was nearly as remarkable as the addition of the corn. For bourbon the corn in this whiskey is very under spoken but when following two 100% ryes, it stood out. From the first smell, the corn really jumped out at you. It added a dimension and a different kind of sweetness that even those that were not really buying into the descriptions like spring flowers or green bananas could plainly see there was something different here.
As we continued to sip, others stated that they could taste a deeper, lingering, flavor that stayed on the side of their tongue after the last of the sweetness left their mouth. I offered that they were describing the finish, that this was the taste of maturity and time spent with the oak. The heads began to nod as the jaws worked the up and down and the whiskey was swished and swallowed.
Slowly, as the newness of the corn and the years in the cask became more accustomed to the full profile of the drink came out and the spice and the rye fruit and the warmth continued to deepen. I remember it was at this point that one gentleman interrupted me blurt out “So this is why people spend money for good whiskey!” He was staring at his glass and then shifted his gaze to the others seated around him who were momentarily silenced as he circled his gaze finally around to me. “Yeah”... I responded with a laugh, “This is why we spend money on this stuff.” To be able to discern a thousand different attributes from the same three ingredients, water, grain and yeast. It’s a lot of fun. That’s why we do it.
The next whiskey was Smooth Ambler’s Old Scout Rye. This time the corn was gone so you could really taste the time the rye has spent in the barrel. By now all of the rye we had been drinking was beginning to offer that satisfying warmth that only the rye grain can give. Folks that were struggling with drinking whiskey neat at the start were now comfortable with the process. Those that were experienced with the process were really getting the nuances of the differences between the whiskies and combinations of the flight.
At this point everyone knew there were only four whiskeys present on the table at tonight’s tasting but then I professed that I had a fifth whiskey to present, a surprise whiskey. With high intrigue around the table I reached across and grabbed the bottle of Mosby’s Spirit again and began to pour the glasses. Murray poured the far end of the table with a knowing smile as we had done this before. And everyone else looked on with puzzled expressions.
We already tasted this one was the look on everyone’s face. I answered their unspoken question by restating that you don’t taste what is in your glass but rather you taste what was not in the previous glass, you taste the difference. “You are about to taste everything in Mosby’s Spirit that you couldn’t taste before.”
We had slowly evolved our way from a day-old spirit to one of seven years. One might think it was a progression to the top. The fact is each of these whiskeys is at the top. Each one has its own personality and attributes and qualities that make them all worthy of reflection. Just because we started at the youngest, don’t think that makes it any less dynamic or interesting.
So, I poured the unaged liquid for the second time, the one that everyone had already tasted. The eyebrows went up as it was nosed once again. It was clean and fresh and very different than before. I even got an “Amen” to the “green bananas” description I had offered for Mosby’s at the beginning of the tasting from a few previous non-believers. But the best description I had to offer was “It was like sitting on bright-white painted gazebo during a spring rain.”
Murray looked across the table at me when he heard me produce this description with a look like, “You have got to be kidding me, a freshly painted gazebo???” But some of the others in the group that were going through the flight got it. I got the nods and the “Yeah, it’s like rain, it’s clean, it’s fresh” and most importantly, it was different than when we had tasted it before.
Remember we had been adding dimensions on top of dimensions as we progressed through the last three whiskeys and when we came full circle back to this un-aged spirit it really presented with an entirely different profile then it did initially when we began the flight. It was flavorful and yet pure. Everyone agreed that this was indeed like tasting “a fifth whiskey.”