Many of you have purchased a bottle of whisky at some entry point (Scotch, bourbon, rye). Some of you have even been to an official whisky tasting, where you wandered and engaged in some odd grown-up trick-or-treat rituals that opened your eyes to the world of craft and terroir. Far fewer of you have hosted your own tasting. This post is going to show you that you don't need to have a giant liquor collection to assemble one hell of an educational (and delicious) tasting experience for your friends. I call it my "Four Corners" tasting, and it is now my default hosting event for newer entrants into the spirit realm (it's a fascinating exploration even for the long initiated).
What you will need ahead of time to accomplish this sort of tasting:
The "Four Corners" Mission
The mission of the "Four Corners" tasting method is to introduce your guests to the importance of wood maturation in a whisky's flavor profile. Many newer entrants to the realm will not be aware of some very basic facts about "where whisky comes from". You don't need to sit them down and have the "birds and the bees" convo; by all means, just show them! It's more fun that way!
That's where this tasting comes in. As you set the stage for the tasting (ideally gathered around a table with whisky unpoured - I'll tell you why in a minute), introduce your guests to some basic "fun facts" to help get them up to speed:
The Players and the Order
This tasting is predominantly Scotch-oriented, but we are going to start with Death's Door White Whiskey, for what will soon become obvious reasons. The reason I suggest you leave your whiskies unpoured until you get to them is because - especially in large tastings - the spirit will effervesce from the glasses and subtle nosing notes will get mixed and confused. The crackers will also help here. In either event, it's best to keep it clean and simple as you go, especially since we start with the lighter spirits first and then work our way up to the sherry, peaty monsters.
Death's Door White Whiskey
That's it right there - clear as day. Death's Door is a perfect example of what a spirit is like when it comes fresh from the still. Double-distilled on Washington Island in Wisconsin from a mashbill that is 80% red winter wheat (yes, the same kind that makes Maker's Mark so soft and sweet) and 20% malted barley, this whiskey is aged for only 72 hours in virgin white oak barrels - the minimum required by U.S. law to be called a whiskey. This time is too short for the wood to impart any color (or indeed, much flavor profile), but that doesn't mean this tastes anything like vodka. Instead, expect huge cereal notes, light, fruity esters, and a hint of something like agave (tequila). For the experienced whiskey connoisseur this can be a bit rough, but where's your sense of adventure? This one - quite honestly - isn't meant to be enjoyed. Instead, it's supposed to allow you to savor what's coming and appreciate the origins of every great whisky. Not much need to add water to this one, as it's 40% ABV.
Don't want to order Death's Door online? That's okay, many famous distillers including Jack Daniels and Jim Beam ("Jacob's Ghost") are producing white dog spirits just like this. "White dog' is a common name given to new-make spirit by distillery workers. Just don't say I didn't warn you - this whisky (in my opinion) is really only suitable as a teachable moment, so don't drop tons of cash.
Glenmorangie Ealanta Private Edition
Glenmorangie: the unquestionable pioneers in cask maturation among the Scotch whisky industry. This private edition release made many people nervous; you see, it was aged 19 years in virgin American white oak barrels. Why is this unsettling? Because with a relatively neutral grain like malted barley, most Scotch whiskies prefer to age their spirit in ex-bourbon barrels. This is supposed to allow the bourbon to absorb all the harshest elements from the wood so that the barley will only retain the subtlety and softness that ex-bourbon oak tends to impart. Well, Glenmorangie said "to hell with that!" and went out to Missouri, searching the Mark Twain National Forest for only the best slow-growth American white oak they could find. Then they turned that oak into slats and air-dried them in the open weather for 2 years. Then they fashioned those slats into barrels. Then they filled those barrels with new-make Glenmo spirit and let them sit for the last two-thirds of my lifetime. Everyone expected this to culminate in a vicious, tannin disaster, like a bourbon that's breaking bad. Instead, you have the most exquisite, delicate vanilla-and-sugar-coated-almond flavor you could imagine, along with some orange-flavored milk chocolate. Bold, amazing stuff, throwing that white whiskey above into stunning relief. This is what wood can do to a new spirit in the right hands. A tiny bit of water added is preferable here.
Can't afford a 19yo private edition whisky? That isn't a problem, my friend. My suggestion is that you choose anything from Glenmorangie's line-up. Their original is a stunner in recent years; remember, the goal is to exhibit excellent wood maturation. Even with a 10yo, you'll definitely get the point across with Glenmorangie.
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
We're back to a younger whisky with Laphroaig's Quarter Cask. Still, this is a younger whisky that tastes twice its age. What new devilry is this?! It's because Laphroaig aged this spirit in a barrel only 1/4 the size of the typical whisky cask. Smaller barrel means larger wood-to-whisky-volume ratio, thereby "speeding up" the aging process. See how it's all tying in to this central maturation thesis? And boy, the results here are grand. It could also have something to do with the fact that we have some deliciously peated malt represented here - our third corner! Welcome to the peat monsters!
A cautionary note about how far we've come now. This whisky is deservedly dubbed a "peat monster", and I selected it because it showcases that Islay peat better than almost any other. Islay whiskies are... unique, and that's why they form fully 1/4 (oh SNAP!) of my Four Corners method. You get the idione, the smoke, the maritime reak - it's all there my friend, and no other whisky in the world comes close to this experience. This flavor doesn't come from the wood. Instead, it all comes from how the malt (barley) is treated before it's fermented and distilled. In fact, the wood tempers the harshness somewhat.
Some of your guests will be exclaiming "holy hell!" while others will have found their Shangri-La. You tell me if you can go back after this, but make sure you clear your palate before the final run. That peat smoke leaves an imprint, and you don't want to miss what's coming. A few drops of water will release the younger lemon-heather notes in this malt (which many guests will appreciate).
Your local liquor store doesn't stock the special releases? Not to worry - you just pick anything from Ardbeg, Lagavulin (a bit pricier), or Laphroaig and you're set.
Bruichladdich 1992 Sherry Edition
Sherry casks are totally de rigeur in the whisky scene nowadays, with just about every distillery releasing a "sherry matured" variant of their original malt. Sometimes this is a way to inflate price, sometimes it's just to follow the crowd (especially if the results are misguided and terrible), and sometimes this is just an excuse to get experimental. Enter Bruichladdich - the kings of experimentation. I purposely selected their 1992 Sherry Edition (a delicious concept whisky) over a rare (but superior) item like their 407 PX Cuvee because this is sherry gone wild. Specifically, we're talking Pedro Ximinez (PX) sherry, which is renowned as the most unctuous sherry to ever fill a barrel.
Your guests here will be treated to something diametrically opposed to that peat monster above. The flavor is rich, yes, but there's no peat reak, no botanicals, no lemony, heathery pepper spice. Here we have pots full of stewed fruits, rum spice and wine skin, oranges and sangria. That may sound really sweet, but sherry doesn't actually impart much "sweetness" - it's a dried plum or dried fig sensation that will coat your mouth on the finish. And of course there's that unmistakable Bruichladdich cereal note underneath.
About this time I surprise my guests by bringing out some New York Cheesecake to savor with this particular malt. While I have successfully paired this with a steak dinner in the past, I really think Pedro Ximinez sherry (unlike Oloroso or Fino) is well-suited to a fine dessert. Cheesecake always seems to fit the bill, but creme brulee or something with chocolate may not be off the table.
Dude, I am tired of you recommending malts that I'll never find in my local liquor store. That's okay, amigo! I would recommend Auchentoshan's Three Wood in a pinch (also exhibiting PX sherry on top of light malt), or possibly the Glenfiddich 15yo Solera Vat if you can't squeeze in the PX. Bowmore's 15yo ("Darkest") is just too similar to the Laphroaig Quarter Cask to draw a definitive "corner" here, but the smoke is subdued and it will definitely be different. Just look for something sherry matured, and then try to make it a special pick to really savor as the evening winds down.
To be continued...
So, you're disappointed that I started off talking about things like rye and bourbon and didn't even bother to include them? That's because there are really at least 2 more "corners" we can add here. However, why taste six whiskies when you can invite all you friends back for another round? A Four Corners Americana Tasting!, coming soon to a blog near you ;-)