Author and Whisky Advocate managing editor puts the magnifying glass on the nation’s favorite spirit.
Across America, bars are selling whiskey like never before. Neat, on the rocks, Manhattans, blends, single malts, 18 years. While pop culture has certainly played its part in the spirit’s recent rise in popularity – the Prohibition-era nostalgia evoked on Boardwalk Empire or Don Draper’s seemingly endless carafe of brown stuff on Mad Men – there’s perhaps a bigger narrative at play.
Whiskey has emerged as a world unto itself. And for the uninitiated, a confusing one. It’s an example of sophistication (when served in a thin-stemmed cocktail glass) as much as it’s a barroom band’s pre-set ceremony. A perfect pairing with an evening cigar and the morning-after hair of the dog. The drink of choice for well-to-do’s, hip Millennials and third-shifters alike.
Author Lew Bryson’s October-released book, Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits, takes a stab at demystifying the wild world of whiskey. As its title implies, the comprehensive guide from the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine is a crash course in the brown “water of life,” spanning America’s heartland, Canada’s expanse, the Highlands of Scotland, Ireland’s pastures and the mountains of Japan.
Chatting with Bryson is easy. Formerly a librarian, Bryson himself is a library of whisk(e)y knowledge, the culmination of 20-plus years in the field, traveling around the world, filling pages of notebooks and, of course, sampling the product.
Mike McMonagle: With Wikipedia and the Internet being what they are, why compile such a comprehensive guide to whiskey for print?
Lew Bryson: I’ve had a foot firmly in print for a long time. I’ve been writing about whiskey since 1996-97 for Malt Advocate, which we’ve since renamed Whisky Advocate. And I was writing the beer books before that. But, to be honest with you, I did it because the publisher asked me to [laughs]. They already had a pretty successful book that Randy Mosher did called Tasting Beer, so they wanted to do one on whiskey. Whiskey is booming. And I think a print book like this works. The whiskey book that’s in the news now is Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible. Jim puts out a new one every year. It’s about 20 percent new material and it’s a lot of reviews. But there are new whiskeys every year. I know – I edit the magazine and every issue we have over 100 reviews of new whiskeys. So I deliberately avoided mass ratings and tasting notes and lists of craft distilleries that are currently open. I wanted to do something that wasn’t going to go out of date
MM: I remember back when I turned 21, I just told myself, “Mike, you’re going to drink whiskey now,” because I wanted to. Why do you think whiskey has such an allure?
LB: Well that was the same thing with me. But with me, it was my boss who told me I was going to start drinking whiskey [laughs]. We were originally a beer magazine, but craft brewing kind of plateaued in ’96 – they had stopped buying ads because their business wasn’t growing. Luckily we had started writing a little bit about whiskey. The founder and editor was an avid whiskey collector, and he’d been to Scotland a number of times. He said, “You know what? There’s no whiskey magazine out there right now. These guys have ad money that they aren’t spending. We’re going to be a whiskey magazine.” I thought, OK, I don’t know how to do whiskey, but alright! And one of the chapters in the book is all about that, about getting passed that. When you first take a shot of spirits, it’s hot. There’s no way around it. You just gotta get used to it.
MM: Is Tasting Whiskey comprised entirely of information you already knew?
LB: I already had a lot of it. I keep all my notebooks, so some of the stuff I was able to just go back to my notes. I visited my first distillery back in – good God – ’82? Just on a lark. That’s when Michter’s Distillery was still operating north of Lititz in Schaefferstown. It was kind of cool, but it didn’t change my life or anything. I really didn’t start paying attention to it until the ’90s. Back then it was easy to get access to the right people. You could just walk in the door and there’s [Jim Beam master distiller] Booker Noe just sitting at his desk. When we started doing the WhiskyFest events with the magazine in the late ’90s, the people behind the table were usually the master distillers, the distillery managers. I got information right from the source and built a big list of contacts early on.
MM: Did you do any traveling in collecting the new information?
LB: I realized I didn’t know as much about Canadian whisky, so I visited the major distilleries up in Canada. Then I tried to get up to speed on Japanese as much as possible. The year before I did the book, I lucked into a couple of trips to Ireland and Scotland, so I was largely up to speed on that. I needed to do a little bit more work in Scotland, however, so I put together a trip not to taste the whisky – I already knew what they tasted like – but I wanted to go to the places and see them. “Terroir” is an over-used term, but I’ll tell you what. I’d been drinking Dalmore since I first started drinking whisky, but I didn’t really get it until I went there. When I parked my car at the visitor’s center, I could turn in one direction and throw a stone and hit the stillhouse; in the other direction, I could throw a stone and hit Cromarty Firth, this big estuary. The smell in the parking lot and the smell in the warehouses, I was like, “OK, now I’m getting it.” Everything started to click.
“People talk about the mash, or the yeast, or the stills, and then they just completely ignore the barrel in the warehouse. Rule of thumb in the industry – at least 50% comes from the aging.” – Lew Bryson
MM: I’ve read that you recommend Irish whiskey as a good place for the uninitiated whiskey drinker to start.
LB: There’s a reason most Irish whiskey is drunk straight – it’s because you can. It’s sweet, it’s smooth. But if you ask an Irish distiller, “So what makes it Irish whiskey?” they might start telling you about triple distillation. But if you talk to people down at Middleton or Jameson, they might say it’s the raw barley. Bottom line: it’s whiskey made in Ireland [laughs]. I had a discussion with this guy Dave Quinn, who was the master chemist at Middleton, which is where they make Jameson, Powers, Red Breast, Green Spot. Dave said that a lot of it is that the Irish do not distill whiskey as “hard” as the Scots. It’s a longer distillation. He also believes that the Irish climate, being just as wet as Scotland but not as cold, creates a different atmosphere for aging. That’s one of the things I try really hard to get across in the book. People talk about the mash, or the yeast, or the stills, and then they just completely ignore the barrel in the warehouse. Rule of thumb in the industry – at least 50% comes from the aging. When he says that the climate has an affect on the aging in the warehouse, I’m buying that.
MM: Let’s jump across the pond. I’ve read bourbon described as an authentically American creation.
LB: Absolutely. There’s a lot of bullshit that gets slung in the industry. But that’s absolutely straight stuff. Nobody made whiskey like this anywhere else.
MM: What makes it so different?
LB: Well we have corn. Corn is huge in America. But the other thing is the new charred oak barrel. You only use it once, and then you sell it to the Scots, or the Irish, or the Canadians. In bourbon, every bit of color is coming from the wood, but a lot of flavor is, too. There’s a certain amount of charcoal purification you’re getting, but what’s really important is what you’re getting from what’s under the black layer – what they call the “red layer.” There’s a lot of sugars in oak. There are some acids that are flavorful. Some esters. But you’ll also have a fair amount of vanillin, which is naturally in the oak, which gives you the same flavor as vanilla extract. There are some caramel flavors. You’re getting a certain amount of smoke from the oak. You get sometimes fig notes in an older bourbon. Again, it’s all coming from the wood.
MM: I remember the a-ha moment when I first learned that the color of whiskey came from the wood. It seemed so obvious.
LB: I actually had one of those moments just two weeks ago at Bowman Distillery down near Fredericksburg, VA. Now I have a keen, albeit amateur interest in science. My wife’s a biologist. My son is studying biology. I’ve always been interested in plant biology. But it never even occurred to me that most of the evaporation in a barrel is coming out the ends. The capillaries still run along the grain of the oak, so the natural path for it is to go out the ends of the barrel – not out the sides. So they put a light layer of wax at the ends to cut down on loss. And I’m just standing there thinking, ”I’m an idiot.” [laughs]
MM: That’s interesting that you can still learn something new about something as old as the barrel.
LB: I’m actually kind of pumped up on barrels right now. Yesterday we got a new book in to review about barrels, and it’s written by a master cooper. I’m already a chapter and a half into it and it’s blowing my mind.
MM: There was a barrel shortage recently, no?
LB: It was an odd circumstance that came together. All the new craft distillers all of a sudden wanted full-sized barrels. And it was horrible weather in the woods where they cut the oak trees. It just rained and rained. And they literally couldn’t get their heavy equipment into the woods. And on top of that, when the housing industry kicked back up, these guys – carpenters – were taking new jobs there. So you have fewer people working, bad weather conditions, and you have more people that want it. I actually just did a piece on this, and was talking to the president of Independent Stave Company, which makes the barrels for over half the industry. Jack Daniel’s has their own cooperages – two of ’em, actually – but Independent Stave makes most of the other ones. And he said it’s sorting out already. There’s plenty of wood, plenty of capacity to make them.
MM: How has Big Whiskey responded to the rise of craft distilling? I’ve noticed a lot of clear whiskeys all of a sudden.
LB: The odd thing is – Jacob’s Ghost is not unaged whiskey. It’s aged like a year and a half and then they filter the color out of it. There’s a whisky up in Canada called White Owl that they do that with, which has just become ridiculously popular. I think it’s now the fourth biggest selling whisky in Canada. I’m not really big on the unaged whiskeys, but Jacob’s Ghost makes a really interesting cocktail; it’s a guilty pleasure for me. I don’t go sipping it, but I would put it in the place of a white rum. It’s got that kind of character. Anyway, I don’t think the big guys are really excited about unaged because it’s not in their wheelhouse. I really think this is a blip and it’s going to go away pretty soon.
“Do not let anyone tell you how to drink your whiskey!” It’s your whiskey; you bought it. If you like putting a piece of ice in it, have at it.” – Lew Bryson
MM: I always just assumed they’d be laughing all the way to the bank.
LB: They’re selling it for more than the regular whiskey [laughs]. I can’t imagine there’s a lot of repeat customers for it.
MM: The small-batch craft distillers seem to be doing well with it, though. Have you been to Thistle Finch here in downtown Lancaster?
LB: He sent me some to review for the magazine. It was one of the better unaged whiskeys I’ve had. I’m using it in a tasting in February up at the General Sutter [in Lititz].
MM: They’ve developed some pretty unique cocktails with their product. Seems like a lot of bars are really pushing whiskey cocktails these days, many of them from that pre-Prohibition era.
LB: Cocktails have always been the way we drink liquor. Yeah, there are the purists. But screw ’em. There are always going to be purists telling you how you must drink single malt and all this shit. But you know what? Single malt is only about 50 years old. Before that, it was all blends. And now they’re like, “Oh, you have to do it this way…” Really? Who made that up? It drives me crazy. The bourbon distillers are great though – they don’t care how you drink it, as long as you drink it [laughs]. Scottish distillers have a saying: Horses for courses. You don’t put the thoroughbred on the plow; you don’t take the plowhorse out to the racetrack. So if you’re going to have a Scotch and soda, that’s what they make blends for. But, if you want to see what the 15-year-old Macallan tastes like in a Scotch and soda – by all means! I’ve done it. I made a Manhattan with a Sazerac 18 year old. I won’t do it again, but I wanted to see if it was good. Recently, I was doing a bunch of radio interviews out in L.A., and this woman was like, “I like Glenfiddich 12, but is it OK to put ice in it?” I said, “Do not let anyone tell you how to drink your whiskey!” It’s your whiskey; you bought it. If you like putting a piece of ice in it, have at it. If you like putting water in it, no problem. Now if you’re going to put ginger ale in a 40-year-old Glenfarclas, eh, we might have words [laughs]. But in the end, it’s yours; if that’s what you want to do, have at it.