The movie Sideways proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the wine industry. It centres around an aspiring author, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, with a real passion for wine. The screenwriters decided to take an interesting approach with this character. He loves Pinot Noir but hates Merlot. That doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, especially for someone who’s supposed to be a “wine enthusiast.” The Bordeaux region in France is home to some of the most sought-after wines in the world. Many of them contain a fair amount of Merlot. That’s not all. When Giamatti’s character is asked about his wine collection halfway through the film, he says his “star” is a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc. Cheval Blanc is almost half-Merlot.
“It’s a movie Ryan, take it easy.”
“Be patient, I’m going somewhere with this.”
The film spawned a whole new “type” of wine drinker. The Sideways drinker was only interested in Pinot Noir, and refused to drink Merlot. Shortly after the film’s release, Pinot Noir sales jumped 16%. Interest in Merlot plummeted. Thankfully, time heals all wounds (not really, but it did in this case). Sideways was released almost 20 years ago, that’s ancient history in movie years. Merlot is no longer the world’s most-despised grape. The whole thing was ridiculous anyway. It’s not like all Merlots taste the same. It’d be like me saying, “All Canadian whiskies are horrible.” Only most of them are horrible.
Ron Swanson was a popular character on the hit TV show Parks and Recreation. His drink of choice was Lagavulin 16. He described it as, “God’s chosen elixir” and “The nectar of the gods.” There’s even an episode where Swanson visits the distillery. Parks and Recreation averaged 3-4 million viewers a week. Let that sink in. Among that 3-4 million were thousands of people who not only loved the Swanson character, but wanted to be just like him. Wheaties paid Michael Jordan 2 million dollars to use his face on a box of cereal. Swanson gushing about Lagavulin 16 didn’t cost Diageo, Lagavulin’s parent company, a dime. Lagavulin happily, that’s not a strong enough word, gleefully, that’s better, went along for the ride.
Paul Giamatti isn’t a wine drinker in real life. When asked about his Sideways character during an interview on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Giamatti confessed, “I don’t know (rhymes with mitt) about wine.” Nick Offerman, the actor who played Ron Swanson, not only likes whisky, he likes Lagavulin. A couple years ago, Lagavulin and Offerman launched a YouTube series called My Tales of Whisky. The “Yule Log” episode is my personal favourite. Offerman sits on a plush leather chair next to a roaring fire. To the left of him is a small side table whose only occupant is a bottle of Lagavulin 16. Every so often, he sips from a tumbler nestled neatly on the arm rest. All he does is stare at the camera, without saying a word, for 45 minutes.
In 2019, Lagavulin gave Offerman his very own expression, the Offerman Edition. Like most celebrity collaborations, Offerman isn’t turning the barley or running the stills, but he does decide what goes into the bottle. Lagavulin sends him samples, and he chooses a favourite. The first three editions have all been 11 years of age and bottled at 46%. I’m always shocked when Diageo gives us poor serfs a little extra alcohol. Pretty much every Diageo core range product, with the exception of Talisker and Clynelish, are either 40% or 43%. Parks and Recreation went off the air 8 years ago. Offerman’s Swanson character, like all pop culture figures, will only remain fresh for so long. When that best-before date comes, what’s inside the bottle will matter more than the name and face on the label. To be continued.
Lagavulin 8 was launched in 2016 to commemorate Lagavulin’s 200th year of legal distilling. As Alfred Barnard points out in his book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, illicit or “moonlight” distilling was taking place at Lagavulin since the 1740s. Excerpts from Barnard’s book (Lagavulin cherry-picked Barnard’s chapter on Lagavulin to best suit their narrative) can also be found on the Lagavulin 8 label. Lagavulin 8 is matured in refill (reused) American oak, and presented at 48%. Smoke, coastal, citrus, vanilla, more smoke. This is a distillate-driven affair that needs time in the bottle to learn how to be behave in public. Have a few fingers and put it in “time out” for a few months. You’ll be glad you did.