Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Sleeping Beauty

Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years.

-  Charles Perrault, The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood (1697)

“Sorry to interrupt, but what does this have to do with whiskey?”

“I’m going to compare a state’s whiskey history to Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty.”

“Sounds like a lot of work to me.  Why can’t we just do whiskey reviews like everyone else?”

Once upon a time, there was a king and queen who desperately wanted a child.  One day, their wishes came true.  The queen gave birth to a daughter.  A grand christening was held, and all the fairies in the kingdom were asked to be godmothers to the little princess.  The fairies bestowed upon the child tokens of perfection.

Tennessee is a very religious state.  In a recent poll, over 70% of respondents categorized themselves as “highly religious.”  Even before entering statehood, Tennessee was known for its religious fervour.  Methodist “circuit riders” would spread the gospel from town to town on horseback.  Baptist preachers also combed the countryside, looking for souls to save.  Methodists and Baptists formed the backbone of what became known as Evangelicalism, a deeply passionate offshoot of the Protestant faith.  Evangelicals place a great deal of emphasis on virtue and purity.  They are born again in God’s image.  For them, the Bible, as written, is the ultimate authority.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

-  Matthew 5:48

The king and queen forgot to invite a fairy to the christening.  She was an old fairy who hadn’t been seen for quite some time.  Being snubbed made the old fairy angry.  Instead of giving the child yet another perfect attribute, she put a curse on her.  One day, the princess would prick her finger on a spindle and die.

Evangelicals in the 1800s, as you might’ve guessed, abstained from drinking alcohol.  It was a sin, an evil that blackened the lives of all who fell under its spell.  The world was a much different place back then, especially for women.  They couldn’t own property or vote.  Their lot in life, for the most part, was to serve (whether they wanted to or not).  They served their children.  They served their husband.  Now, throw alcohol into the mix.  Divorce was a non-starter.  Prohibition, for those who supported it, would free so many from the shackles of despair.  It would save those who couldn’t save themselves.  If Dr. Jekyll can’t drink the potion, he can’t become Mr. Hyde.

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

-  James 4:17

The king, in an attempt to avoid his daughter’s unfortunate end, forbade all subjects, under penalty of death, from using a spindle.

As the Evangelical population grew, so did their influence on power.  In 1838, Tennessee prohibited the sale of alcohol in stores and taverns.  It was the first such law in US history.  A decade or so later, they took it a step further.  Alcohol could no longer be sold within a 4-mile radius of any country school.  A few years after that, alcohol was banned in towns with less than 5 thousand people.  Lastly, in 1909, all distilleries (unless they were making alcohol for baking or medicinal purposes) were ordered closed.  The state, on paper at least, had gone dry.  National Prohibition was still a decade away.

Despite the king’s best efforts, the princess found a way to prick her finger.

Countries that don’t devolve into chaos are minor miracles in my opinion.  We all have varying degrees of tolerance when it comes to government involvement in our lives.  If a country wants to succeed, it must endeavour to find “the middle way.”  Prohibition wasn’t the middle way.  For every person who loved Prohibition, another person hated it, especially in urban centres.  People like alcohol.  You can put up all the roadblocks you want, if someone wants something badly enough, they’re going to get it.  When the distilleries closed, moonshiners and crime syndicates gladly filled the void.  Once the government stopped regulating liquor, it went from something that was potentially harmful, to something that was potentially deadly.

The princess didn’t die though.  She fell asleep for 100 years.  Another fairy cancelled out the last part of the old fairy’s curse.

In 1939, Tennessee handed control over to the counties.  Many chose to stay dry.  Moore County, where Jack Daniel’s is located, is still dry.  (You can drink at the distillery.)  After 1909, Tennessee whiskey, the legal kind, no longer existed.  Once the state banned distilling, everyone either moved or quit.  Jack Daniel’s went to St. Louis and Birmingham (Alabama).  George Dickel (Cascade) had their whisky made at Stitzel distillery in Louisville.  Jack came back in 1937 (the year Tennessee repealed Prohibition).  Dickel returned in 1958.  For 60 years, the Tennessee whiskey industry consisted of Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel.  That’s it.  Pritchard’s, a Lincoln County distillery that doesn’t use the Lincoln County Process, joined them in 1997.

After 100 years had passed, a handsome prince knelt beside the sleeping princess.  She awoke.

Prior to 2009, distilling in Tennessee could only take place in Lincoln (Pritchard’s), Moore (Jack Daniel’s), and Coffee (Dickel) County.  In 2009, after 100 years of slumber, Tennessee opened its doors to distilling (kinda).  Counties that sold liquor could now make whiskey.  And they all lived happily ever after.  The road to hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.  Time has shown us, over and over again, you can’t legislate morality.  If you do, someone will always pick an apple off the tree and take a bite.

Happy dramming,


Monday, September 25, 2023

All Of This Ends When We Say No

I’ve had full-bodied whiskies before, but this was different.  It was as though warm wax was being poured on my tongue.  Thinking an intruder had invaded my mouth, my salivary glands sprung into action.  But this was no intruder, this was the best whisky experience of my life.

-  Ryan, moderately popular whisk(e)y essayist, on trying Clynelish for the first time.

A relationship ending on good terms leaves you in emotional no man’s land.  You don’t hate the person, nothing really triggered the break up, you just grew apart.  Every serious whisky drinker understands this all too well.  The more you drink, the less you love the stuff you used to love.  My first crush was Cragganmore 12.  I won’t get into how we first met, I’ll save that for another day, but that whisky truly changed my life.  Sadly, that Ryan no longer lives here anymore.  Truth be told, I’ll probably never drink it again.  We’re no longer a good fit, but the feelings still remain.  Cragganmore 12, and the rest of the Classic Malts of Scotland range (Dalwhinnie 15, Lagavulin 16, Oban 14, Talisker 10), showed

“Wait, you forgot Glenkinchie.”

“I know what I wrote.”

As I was saying, the Classic Malts of Scotland range showed me how drinking could be more than just a holiday from my worries.  Each year, when Diageo announces their Special Releases lineup, I can’t help but think back to those early days when everything, except Glenkinchie, was exciting and new.

The Diageo Special Releases have been around since 2001.  At first, it was just a spattering of offerings.  A couple Taliskers and a Port Ellen.  They sold out in hours.  The following year, they released a 12-year-old from Lagavulin.  The 12 was whisky in its purest form.  Refill American oak, no water added.  In 2019, everything changed.  That’s when the marketing department stormed the capital.  The classic, iconic Lagavulin label was ditched for an image that looked like it belonged on the cover of a children’s book.  I get it.  People buy with their eyes.  That logic though, in this instance, is flawed.  People don’t buy $200 bottles of booze because they look “nice.”  They may buy $30 bottles for that reason, but not $200.  You know what type of person buys a $200 bottle of booze?  You.

This year, the bottle that excited me most after seeing the Special Releases list was the Clynelish 10.  It ticked off all the right boxes (for me anyway).  It was simply matured (just ex-bourbon), and presented at cask strength (no water added).  Like the Lagavulin 12 from days of yore, it was whisky in its purest form.  The best part?  The age.  10 years.  There’s no way it’ll be over $150 dollars.  How could it?  It’s only ten years old.  Last week, the Diageo Special Releases were made available for purchase in Canada.  Are you serious?  $250?  For a ten-year-old?

“I can’t.”

“You have to.  It could be one of the best whisky experiences of your life.”

“That price is ridiculous.  After shipping it’ll be $300.  For a ten-year-old.”

“That’s just the way it is now.”

“I can’t.”

I wasn’t alone.  It didn’t sell out in seconds.  If it was $100 cheaper it might’ve, but it wasn’t.  It was $250 ($300 after shipping).  Days later, it was still available.

“C’mon Ryan, you’ve spent $300 on a whisky before.  Aren’t you curious?”

“Of course I am, but not at that price.  I just can’t.”

We, as whisky buyers, are at a fork in the road.  We can accept these prices and just keep on keeping on, or we can stop buying (and start drinking our stash).  Demand for whisky has never been higher, and whisky, especially scotch, has never been more expensive to make.  I understand the economics of the situation, but all of that will change if we just say no.  One last thing.  There’s no way 29-year-old me would’ve taken a chance on Cragganmore 12 if it would’ve cost me the equivalent of a day’s worth of work.  Even if it had a flashy label.

Happy dramming,


Monday, September 18, 2023

Curb Your Enthusiasm

On a recent episode of Pawn Stars, someone brought in a Star Wars figure that was still in its original package.  It sold for hundreds.  I had that figure as a child.  I didn’t stash it away in my sock drawer hoping it’d one day be worth more than what I (my mom) paid for it, I played with it.  It made me think of all those poor Pappy 23 bottles out there that’ll never be opened.  Never be played with.  They’ll just get bounced around from owner to owner to owner.  Pappy is made by Buffalo Trace, the distillery that can do no wrong.  They could make something that was matured in a sardine barrel and people would line up for it.  Meanwhile, perfectly drinkable bourbons are left to slumber on the shelves, waiting for their prince to come.

“Kinda like you in Junior High.  Remember when you’d sit on the sidelines waiting for someone to ask you to dance?”

“Thanks for sharing that with the world.”

Baker’s is an overlooked and underappreciated whiskey (at least where I live).  It was launched in 1992 as part of Beam’s Small Batch Collection.  In the 1990s, bourbon was still deep in the undertow of the great white liquor (tequila, vodka, gin) wave.  It was seen by many as a drink for a certain class of people (I wrote that as diplomatically as I could).  The small batch range was an attempt to make bourbon look more exclusive, like scotch.  The phrase “small batch” came from Booker Noe, Beam’s master distiller for 27 years.  Some of you might be wondering what “small batch” even means?  It means nothing.  Small batch is a marketing angle.  A couple hundred barrels were used to make Baker’s Small Batch.

Baker’s Small Batch was 107 proof (53.5%).  In the early 90s, bourbons rarely eclipsed the 100 proof (50%) mark.  Back then, bourbon wasn’t something you analyzed, it was something you drank from a tumbler with ice.  Crafting an optimal sipping experience wasn’t really a priority at the time.  Baker’s was made to be enjoyed all by itself, no assembly required.  It also had an age statement.  7 years.  Very few bourbons come with an age statement, especially these days.  It really backs you into a corner.  You can’t have a single drop of whiskey younger than the age on the label.  This explains why most distillers (in the US) use (at least) 4-year-old whiskey, and leave their labels ageless.  In America, you only have to disclose the age of your whiskey if it’s under 4.  A few years ago, Baker’s went from a couple hundred barrels to just one.

I find most whiskey websites to be a complete waste of time.  Page after page of predictable, mind-numbing clichés.  Baker’s is one of the better ones.  After you enter your bottle’s serial number (found on the neck), the site will tell you where your barrel was matured, for how long, the fill month, the dump month, and the hottest and coldest temperatures your barrel had to endure.

My Baker’s Single Barrel:

Clermont campus

6th Floor, Rack 43

Filled on January 2014

Hottest temp. 98 degrees Fahrenheit

Coldest temp. -5 degrees Fahrenheit

Dumped on February 2022

8 years, 1 month old

Busy nose.  Herbal, fresh cracked pepper, crème brûlée.  A dash of oak.  Reminds me of a Tennessee whiskey, especially on the palate.  Decent mouthfeel.  Baker’s Single Barrel is a solid product worthy of your time and money.  A whisk(e)y enthusiast should be someone who’s interested in collecting experiences, not trophies.  Is Baker’s a good whiskey?  I think so, but if you want to know for certain, you’re going to have to try it for yourself.  In the meantime, I suggest the following:

Walk into a liquor store, close your eyes, and grab a bottle.

It might be good, it might be bad, but at least it won’t be Buffalo Trace.  (If it is Buffalo Trace, put it back and try again.)

Happy dramming,


Monday, September 11, 2023

Diamond in the Rough

I enjoy travelling.  Going somewhere new is like being reborn.  New shops, new restaurants, and, most importantly, new liquor stores.  Whenever I see the words “liquor store” in a strange new land, a bolt of excitement surges through my body.  Who knows what treasures are lurking behind those burglar-proof doors?  I don’t gamble, but buying a lottery ticket must feel the same way.  What if I win the 50 million?  I can quit my job, move to Hawaii, and just hang out on the beach all day.  More often that not, liquor stores, like lottery tickets, turn out to be a big disappointment.  But, as the saying goes, someone’s gotta win, and sometimes, that someone is you.

On a recent cruise with my family, the liquor stores were few and far between.  In most places, the glaciers outnumbered the people.  Our last port of call, however, was overflowing with potential.  It was a town, and it had liquor stores!  Like a kid who got up a little too early on Christmas morning, I excitedly stood next to the gangplank until I was given the OK to disembark.  A nearby crew member engaged me in conversation:

“You off to see the lumberjack show?”

“No, I’m going to go check out the liquor stores in the area.”


It’s hard to put into words the look he had on his face.  I learned a valuable lesson that day.  Honesty isn’t always the best policy.

After navigating my way through what felt like a maze of fridge magnet, hoodie, and keychain shops, my eyes happened upon a most beautiful sight.  Liquor Store & Bar.  My pace quickened.  I felt like one of those Olympic race walkers.  The whisky section greeted me as I opened the door.  Damn.  Nothing special.  I approached the cashier:

“Excuse me, but where’s the other liquor store?”

“About a mile, that way.”

She pointed in the direction of the store’s wine section.


A 20 minute walk.  In the direction of the store’s wine section.  Should I?  Absolutely!  I felt like Lewis and Clark.  I was about to leave the comfort and safety of the fridge magnet stores for the prospect of something greater.  There was only one road.  I followed it.  For roughly a mile.  Without incident.  There it was.  Liquor store #2.  It was a fair bit larger than the first one.  The door bing-bonged as I entered.  So many bottles.  Is it?  It can’t be.  It is!

Yamazaki distillery is the birthplace of Japanese whisky.  The company was initially called Kotobukiya.  It was renamed Suntory in 1963.  The “tory” is for Shinjiro Torii.  He was the man who founded Kotobukiya.  Torii’s first “whisky” was a blend of God knows what from God knows where called Hermes Old Scotch Whisky.  His first actual whisky (and the first-ever Japanese whisky) was released in 1929.  It was called Shirofuda (“white label”).  Japanese people, at the time, wanted a whisky that was sweet, fruity, and approachable.  White Label wasn’t that.  Many described it as “burnt.”  Changes had to be made.  Torii found the sweet spot in 1937.  Kakubin (“square bottle”) was a much better fit for the Japanese palate.  It’s still available today.

I couldn’t remember the last time I saw one.  How on earth did a case find its way up here?  Yamazaki products have been virtually extinct since Jim Murray made Yamazaki Sherry Cask his World Whisky of the Year in 2015.  Whisky is a real guessing game.  It’s not like beer.  Beer is made for today.  Whisky is made for tomorrow, and the future in the present is nothing more than a guess based on the past.  Yamazaki 12 is matured in American, Spanish, and Japanese oak.  It drinks rather well for a 43% product.  The nose is gorgeous.  Sweet, fruity, and floral.  Vanilla.  Honeydew melon.  Nice tannic bite on the finish.  Very clean.  Very meticulous.  Very Japanese.  Best cruise ever!

Happy dramming,


Monday, September 4, 2023

An Ounce of Common Sense

I just returned from a cruise.  It was a Disney cruise (I have 2 pre-teen children).  Disney feels more like a religion than a brand.  The ship was filled with loyal devotees, and they all seemed to have a never-ending supply of wearables honouring their King of Kings, Mickey Mouse.  I hid in the bar for most of the week.  Like most bars, the whiskey section was filled with the usual suspects.  “Alright Ryan, which one of these do you hate the least?”  Then, I saw it.  “Wow.”  I said to myself.  It wasn’t just any whiskey, it was the whiskey, the patient zero, the one that turned bourbon into a commodity.  It was also $325 US ($430 in my dollars) an ounce.

When I think about the life of Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, Sr., Forrest Gump springs to mind.  Forrest Gump found a way to be involved in every defining moment in American history during the 1960s and 70s.  Pappy started out as salesman for William Larue Weller in 1893.  A decade or so later, he (and a fellow salesman) bought the company.  For several decades after that, he ran day-to-day operations before handing things over to his son, Julian Van Winkle, Jr., in 1964.  He, like Forrest Gump, saw it all.  Pappy’s distillery, Stitzel-Weller, was known for doing things “the right way.”  It uniquely (at the time) used wheat instead of rye as a secondary grain.  (Most bourbons use corn, rye, and malted barley.)  Their flagship whiskey was something that’s next to impossible to find today, Old Fitzgerald.  Pappy bought the brand for $10,000 shortly before Prohibition was repealed.  To give that number a dash of perspective, the cheapest Old Fitzgerald I found while bourbon hunting in California last fall was $1,300.

On the label of every Weller product today, you’ll find “The Original Wheated Bourbon.”  Nope.  W.L. Weller was a blender and wholesaler.  One of his products was an adulterated neutral grain spirit called “cologne.”  In the mid-1800s, whiskey could be whatever you wanted it to be.  Straight and altered whiskies weren’t clearly defined until the Taft Decision in 1909 (more on that another time).  Using wheat in the mash bill came from the Stitzels.  When Weller and Stitzel merged in the 1930s, they were in better shape than most to serve a thirsty post-Prohibition population.  Both supplied medicinal whiskey to pharmacies during America’s 13 year tiff with alcohol.  One company that almost went under was Brown-Forman (Old Forester).  Despite being active during Prohibition, they were out of money and out of whiskey by the early 30s.  Pappy and his partners gave them whiskey to sell on credit.  Without that gesture of kindness, Old Forester, the first bottled bourbon, could’ve been erased from existence.

The Stitzel-Weller dynasty came to an end in 1972.  The shareholders, without the blessing of Julian Jr., decided to merge with an imports company out of New York.  Bourbon was struggling.  It was seen by many as an “old man’s drink.”  In the early 1980s, Pappy’s grandson, Julian Van Winkle III, started to warehouse and bottle whiskey.  His first expression was a 12-year-old.  A few years later, he launched a 20-year-old.  An $80 20-year-old.  The price didn’t sit well with most.  In those days, bourbon was rarely more than $20.  Then, 1998 happened.  That’s when Pappy 20 received a 99 out of 100 at the World Spirits Championship.  It was the highest score ever given to a whiskey.  Pappy 20, the “near perfect” whiskey, was featured in newspapers and magazines.  Bourbon had finally broken free from the shackles of its reputation.  It was now a premium spirit, which meant it could now command a premium price.

Buzz is an effective marketing tool.  I remember when the movie, The Blair Witch Project, came out.  It was dubbed, “the scariest movie ever made.”  I felt as though I had no choice but to act:

“There’s no way Blair Witch is the scariest movie ever made.  I’m gonna go watch it and see for myself.”

The same principle applies when it comes to Pappy:

“There’s no way Pappy’s the best whiskey in the world.  I gotta find some and see for myself.”

Which leads me to last week.  Did I pay $325 US for an ounce of Pappy 20?  Are you crazy?  I could get 3 bottles of Glen Scotia Victoriana for that price.  I bought an ounce of Lagavulin 16 for 17 bucks instead.  I did take a selfie with the Pappy 20 bottle though.  It’s not too often you get to see a celebrity in real life.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...