*The title of today’s entry comes from the 1984 film Top Secret. This marks the first, but likely not the last time that I will apply insights from Top Secret to the world of whiskey.
Until about fifteen years ago, whiskey was simply something I consumed alongside co-workers while sitting at a bar, lamenting that the late-1990s tech boom hadn’t yet made us cartoonishly rich. Then, when our fragile little start-up company crumpled along with so many others, I suddenly lost both the will and the means to go out and buy drinks in a bar. But on my last day at the office, in the midst of the sadness and chaos of a business disintegrating, a co-worker handed me a box containing three unopened bottles. He smiled and whispered, “These were in one of the executive conference rooms and nobody claimed them. I know you like whiskey, so go ahead and take them.”
Two of the bottles in the box were familiar to me. They were Dewar’s blended scotch (still a favorite of mine) and Maker’s Mark bourbon (an early love, but a bit of a disappointment in recent years). The third, though, was a revelation – eventually. It was a bottle of 10 year-old Laphroiag single malt scotch. Because it had a very plain black-and-white label with little visual appeal, I put it away and focused on the Maker’s Mark. When that was gone, I opened up the Laphroiag, poured some in a glass, and took a sniff.
That first whiff of Laphroiag is still clear in my mind. It was so offensive, so aggressively unappealing that I imagined something terrible had happened to the bottle. Could whiskey, I wondered, go bad? It stank like asphalt. Incredibly, this brutal-smelling stuff was the color of straw. Based on its odor, I figured it should have been dark and tarry-looking, but it actually appeared quite pleasant to the eye. So I figured, what the hell, and took a sip.
And as all of us know who’ve learned to love Laphroiag and others like her, that first taste was surprisingly sweet. Sure, there was that unmistakable funk of roadway construction that first appeared on the nose, but overall, the flavors were actually pretty smooth and gentle. And the smoky elements turned out to be compelling, rather than appalling. From then on, I was smitten, and I spent a lot of time and treasure seeking out the latest and greatest peat-heavy releases from Laphroiag, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and the other Islay distilleries. (Along the way, though, some of my favorite peated whiskies have come from BenRiach, which isn’t on Islay.)
It’s been a good run but in the last year, I’ve found my tastes veering sharply away from peat-heavy scotches. I can’t explain why, but a lot of the whiskies I used to adore are starting to taste a little… much. Where I used to seek out a bracing smack of peat, now I find myself reaching for bottles of unpeated whiskey or even bottles of whiskey that have been finished in casks that previously held wine, or fortified wine, like sherry. I’d long found sherried whiskies to be unpleasantly sweet (and confusingly, sometimes burnt-tasting and ashy, as well), but I guess my tastes aren’t quite as resolved as I’d thought.
My point – and thank you for bearing with me – is that one of the beauties of the whiskey world is its variety. If you find yourself a little bored with old favorites, take a gamble on a bottle of something unfamiliar and new. If you’ve been drinking a lot of well-aged bourbon lately, try a bottled-in-bond bourbon for a a glimpse of a younger, angrier, yet still high-quality American whiskey. And although I find many of the new wave of American craft whiskies to be overpriced and underwhelming, there are certainly gems to be found, like the Leopold Brothers Maryland Style Rye Whiskey. Or, if you’ve been consuming the same brands of single malt scotch lately, alternatives call to you from far-away continents. There are some excellent Japanese whiskies available in the U.S., and a growing number of quality Indian single malts, as well. You may not fall immediately in love with any of these products — if I’m being honest, I haven’t — but they’re certainly fun for a change, and can be tried without spending an unreasonable amount of money.
I’ll do my best to walk the walk, and post some reviews of unpeated and sherried whiskies in the near future, beginning with a 22 year-old independent bottling of Mortlach from K&L Wines.