My Ten Favorite Whiskeys in the World – Part 1

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I became a whiskey drinker about fourteen years ago.  Before that, I could not have told one whiskey from another.  As far as I was concerned, any whiskey needed to be diluted with coke or tonic water.  The cheaper the whiskey, the better.

I have learned to love the taste of whiskey.  I love the savor of a wonderfully smooth Anejo Tequila or a single barrel Kentucky Bourbon or a Jamaican distilled Rum.  One of the great pleasures of the world is sitting around a fireplace talking to a good friend and sharing a superb whiskey.  However, until my run in with a waitress, I did not know anything about this magnificent pleasure.  Here is how I morphed from whiskey illiterate to whiskey cognoscenti.

images (3)When I grew up, we always bought the cheapest.  Karo syrup instead of Log Cabin, margarine instead of butter, bologna instead of capicola, Welch’s grape jelly instead of Smuckers, Velveeta instead of cheese and so on and so forth.  I survived high school on bologna sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and potato sandwiches.  Kids would always trade food in the lunchroom but in four years no one in the room would ever want any of my sandwiches.  In fairness to my mom, she did the best she could on the meager food budget my father provided.  He spent more money at the racetrack, or should I say with the bookies than he did on our household.  Thus, I developed no taste for the so-called finer things in life and this extended to my taste in whiskey.  As far as I was concerned and even knew, the cheaper the better.

images (2)A long, long time ago, (or so it seems now) and many whiskeys under the belt, Karen and I were returning from a trip to visit our daughter Megan who lived in Chandler.  We were at the airport awaiting a somewhat delayed flight.  We decided to pass the time in a restaurant near our gate.  We sat down at a table and I noticed a flyer on the table advertising three different Tequilas.  One glass sold for 2 dollars, another for 5 dollars and the third for 8 dollars.  I cryptically remarked that “This is a joke.  Only a sucker would pay 8 dollars since there is no difference between the three except the brand names.”  Our waitress overheard me and disregarding the caveat that the customer is always right, she intruded and piously announced “You are wrong, there is a big difference.  Would you care to try a flight with one of each?”  I could not let the challenge go and I warned her that I was not impressed by how much things cost, and I would let her know what I thought.  I assumed that I was getting the flight of three for free since it was her challenge, but she brought me the bill later and it included the cost of each drink.

I tried drinking one of each without looking at which one I was drinking.  One was smooth, one was sharp and throat burning, and one was in between.  When I looked at each drink I had tasted, the correlation with price was 1.0 or a perfect correlation.  The higher priced Tequila was the smoothest and the lowest price was the rawest.  I was chastised.  I was humbled.  I was dead wrong.  It was a valuable lesson and it started me on my journey to learn as much as I could about whiskeys.  I decided to start with Tequilas.

Over the years, I have gradually added Bourbon, Rum, Brandy, and the odd whiskey to my penchant for taste testing.  I cannot claim to have much knowledge of many other well-known whiskeys.  I once attended a Cigar dinner, and each serving was accompanied by a Scotch.  The cheapest Scotch was about 45 dollars a bottle and the most expensive was a bottle that retailed for 500 dollars.  It turned out that an in-between bottle that sold for 200 dollars was my favorite.

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I will tell you three more facts that affect my whiskey journey.  First is that I have never bought a bottle of any whiskey that cost more than 100 dollars.  I have bought plenty of low-priced whiskeys since I am always looking to find a diamond in the rough.  Such was the case with a bottle of Very Old Barton (VOB) which sells for about 12 dollars a bottle and as the bartender in the Kentucky Bourbon House told me, it is as good as many a bottle that sells for 50 to 75 dollars.  I bought one that day and have since bought a few bottles each time I get down to Bardstown, Kentucky.  You will not find VOB anyplace except Bourbon County where it is distilled and a well-kept secret to locals.  It is not the best bourbon I have ever had but it deserves the accolades that the bartender heaped on it.

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The second fact concerns how I taste test my whiskey.  I never taste test a whiskey unless I have a comparison to test it against.  For instance, I will test a Padron Anejo against a Don Julia Anejo or a Jose Cuervo Silver against a Camarena Silver.  I will ask my wife to pour me a shot of each and then with my eyes closed I will taste each.  I may sometimes taste a new whiskey against a number of similar whiskeys that I have in my pantry.  I have now had more than thirty Tequilas and over forty different bourbons.  I have only tested about a dozen rums.  Once I buy a bottle, it either gets finished off or I donate it to my wife to use as a mixer.  In my opinion, a good whiskey should be drunk neat and at room temperature.  No ice and nothing to dilute it, that includes water which some aficionados claim makes for a deeper taste.  As with many other contentions in the whiskey industry, I find this one to be bogus.  Every industry has their myths which are based more on emotions and less on logic.  The whiskey industry is no different.

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One example to demonstrate what I am talking about concerns aging.  In some types of whiskey, such as Tequila, Scotch, Bourbon and Rum, you will pay a premium for an aged or older bottle of whiskey.  I have had whiskeys from one day old to 30 years old.  Aging certainly makes a difference as it seems to help smooth out the bite that a younger whiskey will have.  However, as with any process, there is a point of no return.  Is a bottle of 25 years old Bourbon that may cost you 1000 dollars really better than a ten-year-old Bourbon that you can purchase for 35 dollars?  I think not.  Two years ago, the top-rated whiskey in the country was a Henry McKenna 10-year aged Bourbon.  This whiskey won the Gold of Gold award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2018.  It beat out every other type and brand of whiskey to win this award.  By the way, the prices almost tripled for McKenna and it is almost impossible to find this brand now.

The third fact I want to share with you concerns what I consider the factors that have influenced my selection of the ten best whiskeys.  They are as follows:

  • The level of alcohol that I prefer. Not all whiskeys come in different alcohol levels.  I have never found a Tequila at higher than 40 percent alcohol.  This seems to be the sweet spot for many if not most whiskeys.  On the other hand, Bourbons can go from 35 percent to 60 percent alcohol.  When it comes to bourbon, my sweet spot is between 45 to 50 percent alcohol.  You may prefer a Bourbon or a Rum with a lower or perhaps higher alcohol content.  Find what you like in a whiskey, it may make more difference than the price.
  • Small batch, large batch and single barrel are all used to demarcate Bourbons in the cask process. I have not found any of these to make a difference.  Likewise, the “Pure” Kentucky water seems like a simple marketing ploy to get you to stick with Kentucky Bourbons.
  • Many whiskeys are distilled with different formulas for ingredients. This may affect how well you like a whiskey.  I have not found a Rye whiskey or a Mescal that I like.  Bourbons and Rums may have a strict formula depending on where they are brewed, or they may be subject to a wide range of differences in terms of minor ingredients.  Taste will vary depending on ingredients and your preferences will depend on your tastes.  One of my favorites whiskeys is a wheat whiskey called Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey.  There are few whiskeys like this in the USA and given the amount of wheat we grow; you would think it would be as popular as corn or rye whiskeys.  Bernheim is a great whiskey for about 30 dollars a bottle if you like the taste.
  • The length of the aging process. I definitely believe that an aged whiskey “generally” tastes better than a younger whiskey.  The real issue is how much aging is enough to give me a smooth drink?  Is it just a matter of preference or does the aging process taper off at some point?  I subscribe to the latter hypothesis.  I do not believe that aging can continue forever and forever to keep making a whiskey smoother.  At some point, the benefits of aging either stop or taper off to the point that it makes no testable difference.   If you want to pay 100 dollars or more for a “older” whiskey, go right ahead, but I doubt you are paying for a better whiskey.  More than likely you are paying for the storage of the whiskey all those years that it sat in a cask.

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Next week, I will share with you my top ten whiskeys for sipping with a friend.  I don’t mind sipping by myself, but alcohol should not be used to cure loneliness or to drown out your sorrows.  I regard alcohol as any other treat in my life.  As the Greeks said, “All things in moderation.”  I like to share my drinks with a good friend, but I do not push alcohol on anyone.  I have a number of good friends who are recovering alcoholics.  When we socialize, we do it over ginger ale or coffee or tea.

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” — Mark Twain

“Whisky is liquid sunshine.”  — George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass—an agreeable interlude.” — James Joyce

Kentucky Music Week

Sorry about not doing any blogs last week.  Karen decided that she would like to do Kentucky Music Week and I thought “why not?”  We had the time and we had the money so we planned the trip and decided to camp out for six nights at My Old Kentucky Home State Park.  Karen took the car each day to the Music Week site and I took a bicycle to go touring each day.  The Music Week is really more of a music camp for adults, though there were several younger children there learning to play dulcimers, banjos, fiddles and a few other instruments.  Karen is a dulcimer player and also is learning to play the banjo.  She had five classes a day for five days and was excited about the prospect of “learning” all day and playing all evening.  I was excited about the prospect of touring museums, monasteries, distilleries and Bardstown historic sites.  If you are interested in seeing the pictures I took of the event and my adventures, go to my Facebook page and see my Kentucky Music Week album.  I posted the pictures that I took in an album but somehow each of the individual pictures also was uploaded under “photos.”  If anyone knows how to quickly delete 201 individual pictures from the photo section, please send me an email or comment to describe how. I want to leave the album but get rid of the individual pictures. 

Each night, Karen came back to our campsite and I made supper. Sometimes I cooked over the fire pit but more often over our old but tried and true Coleman two burner stove.  We had stuffed pork chops, catfish, tuna steaks, ribs, shrimp stir fry, and salmon on different nights.  In the evening, were the music jams and we would generally go to a jam together.  One night I went to the musical “Steven Foster” by myself.  It was wonderful music and a great stage production.  The last night of the week, we got together with folks at another campsite and we jammed until 2:30 AM.  I could not believe that I stayed up so late.  We shared a bottle of Evan Williams’s bourbon that I purchased at the Heaven Hill distillery and we ate a bunch of Pecan Turtles that I purchased at the Sisters of Charity Nazareth monastery. 

I found a new use for an IPAD.  I had brought mine along and fully intended to write a few blogs during the week.  In truth, I was having too much fun touring etc. to be disciplined enough to sit down and type.  However, I found that during a jam, musicians sometimes think of songs but cannot remember the tunes well enough to get started.  So I went to my tent, took out the IPAD, typed in the camp WIFI password and lo and behold, the music players ( I listen and do not play) would think of a song to play.  I would look it up on YouTube, play a few notes or bars and we would be off to the Camptown Races.  The latter is one of the songs we jammed that last evening.  It was also played during the Stephen Foster musical.  I had many memories of the South as these old songs were played.

The Camptown ladies sing this song,
Doo-da, Doo-da
The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long
Oh, de doo-da day

Goin’ to run all night
Goin’ to run all day
I bet my money on a bob-tailed nag
Somebody bet on the gray

When I was young, I remember my mother singing or playing many of Stephen Foster’s songs. I was born in Fairfield, Alabama, just outside of Birmingham.  We would go down “South” every few years to visit my mother’s parents on their farm.  I remember walking the country roads which were then still dirt and gravel and going by farms with chickens, pigs, goats and cows.  There were often disputes over whose chicken was eaten for supper each evening as chickens ran loose and were often “fair game” for the frying pan.  The last time I remember seeing my grandfather, his was the last farm in the midst of a new suburban development that wanted his old farm demolished.  However, he held some sort of a land grant or some other legal entity to the property and the city could not condemn or confiscate his land until he died.  He still had many goats when he passed away but I never did learn what happened to them.  He would often “pit barbecue” a goat when we came down to visit. I still remember how great they tasted.  I also remember being chased around the barnyard by some of his “un-barbecued” goats. 

Well, Karen would come back each evening and I would ask her “what did you learn today.”  She was always excited to talk about her day.  I thought that as the week progressed she might become more blasé or perhaps even bored with her routine of five classes each day and a special activities section. This was not the case. She loved each day and when the final day of classes came and went, she was ready for another week of classes.  She loved every minute of the music week. 

We would then turn to my exploits which I “showed” rather than “told’ Karen with the pictures you can see posted.  Something I did “tell” about was the various people I met each day.  From the retired military colonel “Mike” at the Civil War Museum, to the Director of Economic Development at Bardstown City Hall, to Peggy Jones at the SCN monastery, the most interesting part of each day was the people I ran into while on my travels.   Each day brought new places to see and new people that I would meet.  For me, the people that I met while out adventuring were the “icing” on the cake.  Peggy Jones, the volunteer at the monastery is a 75 year old blogger who taught me some things about blogging that I did not know. You can go to her site at http://www.dayofthelily.blogspot.com/ ; Peggy uses the Day Lily as a theme for her site and she says it is because:  “My namesake. Daylily, holds her head up high and gives her all for just one day.”  Such a positive wonderful and beautiful attitude about life and what better way to depict it then with a flower!  Everyone I met was friendly, helpful, interesting and often suggested new places to visit or sites to see. I learned something from everyone I met.

Well, all things had to end and it was finally time to come home.  I am now seated in front of my computer in my Frederic home and getting ready to go out for a run.  Next week, it is time for another biopsy at the Mayo Clinic but that sour note pales in light of the fact that summer seems to finally be here. It was cooler weather all over from Arizona to Wisconsin to Kentucky and some skeptics even wondered if we would have summer this year.  Everyone noted that the weather was much colder than in previous years.  As they say though, there is no place like home.  I am glad we went on the trip but equally glad to be back.  I love the little town up here and the people are so much fun.  If there is a moral or Morel to be drawn from this blog, I am not sure what it is.  I generally write something that I hope can inspire or excite or make a difference to the world.  Perhaps you will find a hidden message here or perhaps not. If you do, send me a comment and tell me what you found. I am sure I will be as excited about it as you are.

Time for Questions:

Do we need adventures in our lives? Can we find adventures closer to home?  Should we be more satisfied with the status quo? What’s the point of going anywhere?  Why leave our front porch?  Who needs to meet new people anyway?  Or do we enrich our lives each day by new adventures and new friends? 

Life is just beginning.

 

 

 

 

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