Thursday, June 14, 2007

Malt Mornings

There have been a few comments posted that have congratulated me on leading such a lovely life. A life that allows me to enjoy a small whisky every morning and the time to write about it. Well, thank you. I have no complaints and am grateful daily; Thank goodness, Meharbaanii Hai, baruch Hashem, praise Jesus, Ahumdulillah, Waheguru, etc.

So this morning, after three "work" days (I only do this Malt Mission Monday-Friday) on the wagon, I will sit here with a healthy serving of an undisclosed malt (something decadent, don't worry) to celebrate 100 Malt Missions and try to address a few questions, items brought to my attention, things that pop into my morning mind...

1) Who are you?

My name is Sam. Without sharing too much extraneous detail, I will explain life factors that effect the whisky related folds of my existence and this blog.
I lived in Edinburgh from 2002-2006 where I became turned on to the water of life. I was fascinated by the simplicity of the recipe and the seemingly disproportionate varia
tions of flavours from distillery to distillery, expression to expression, and even mood to mood. I thought it was magical, mystical. Then when I learned the ways that Scottish whisky was interwoven with the monastic histories of the church, the French revolution, the invention of branded advertising, colonialism, U.S. prohibition, the fall of the Berlin wall, etc., I was determined to learn whatever I could. And of course, the way the spirit made me feel had something to do with the growing passion as well. I remember in my first year in Scotland, having 6 drams at a tasting and then going back to my flat where I read some pretty academic stuff for the state I was in, called my brother, and finished an article about Synagogue arson. Good times! The first night I attended the University of Edinburgh Water of Life Society, a whisky club that met a few times per semester and tried different malts, I distinctly remember the feeling of floating home; my head was clear, but I was weightless with inexplicable joy.

Over my years in Edinburgh, I became the poet laureate of
the whisky society, a position specifically created for me, and later became the president. With a group of passionate mates (some passionate about whisky, most passionate about passion) we developed the society into a group of 56 (capacity, 2 bottles, 28 25ml servings per bottle) men and women. We planned years of fortnightly tastings, special guests, distillery visits, charity fundraisers, sporting events, and group whisky tours of different regions of Scotland. I met a lot of whisky folks, was able to try many many different whiskies, converted hundreds to the heavenly elixir, and smuggled a good amount of spirits back to the liquor-oppressive regime that is Ontari-Oh-no-you-dont. In that time I worked quite intentionally to develop my knowledge of whisky history, distilleries, and actively worked to develop my senses for tasting. This is really nerdy, I know, but after being advised by two well known whisky personalities that nosing and tasting is highly sensory, but very much a skill of memory association and can therefore be learned, I began smelling and tasting things and saying out loud to myself "apple", or "sweaty shoe", in an attempt to actively create the sensory memory. It is embarassing, but I still do this. I think that is enough of an answer for today.

2) Why are you doing this?

Good question. In practical terms, the malt mission began as a challenge from friends. I had started this blog but posted only three times in six months. I couldn't find the motivation to thin
k of some new 'story' or reason to post very frequently. The internet already has dozens of very good whisky news sites and at least one brilliant commentary site. I didn't want to do a crappier version of those already great sites. I wanted something slightly different and I needed a structure.

For years, I have fielded the questions of friends and whisky drinkers in my proximity. Through the whisky society I became a sort of whisky educator and source of info and recommendation to friends and stangers, to strangers' friends, to friendly strangers. Even as recently as two nights ago I got a call after midnight from a friend in a pub in Edinburgh who had met a tourist who was heading back to his homeland soon and wanted to bring three whiskies. What would I recommend? (for the record, I answered Balblair 1989, Ardbeg Uigeadail, and Glengoyne 17)

So when the challenge arose at New Year's 2007, I decided it might be interesting to just try the whiskies we have open on our shelf, explain their histories, and share some tasting impressions, sort of as a way to convince friends (at that time the only readers of the blog) to come over to our new home in London. As time went on, I decided that I wanted to try whiskies that people actually drink, that WE drink, whiskies readily available, affordable whiskies. Not to knock the Malt Maniacs, but they already address the anoraks with their unbelievably dense website and obscure bottlings. I simply cant compete and would prefer not to be spending time on a redundant site. Additionally, I was happy to try a dozen cheap blends and standard bottlings. In fact, as shown yesterday, most searches that come to Dr. Whisky tend to be searching for Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse, Buchanans, Old Parr, Johnnie Walker, Bells, Chivas, etc. Though there have been quite a few hunting for info on Ardbeg 1975 Cask 1375. It has become a real joy to do this, and great fun working to source and taste new whiskies 5 times a week. And to have so many visitors from so many countries around the world clicking by to learn something new, find out what to buy as a gift, investigating some new release, leaving comments, is really amazing. I love whisky, and I hope whisky loves me.

3) Why don't you score the whiskies you try?

I guess this is a part of trying to be different than other sites online, books, etc. But it also relates to a fundamental flaw I find with grading systems, especially with something as subjective as whisky enjoyment, and that is just how arbitrary it all is. Yes, many people have tried to construct models of evaluation that are very scientific, but then where is the fun in that? How can the spirit have a chance to speak to you? Have you never had a whisky that you thought you didn't like that has just hit the spot? I mean, the whole 'two thumbs up' thing is so vapid. Dull. Tedious. Meaningless. A grade will always be taken out of context and by using only words, impressions, and opinions, I hope to minimize the grade bias. Think of the stir caused when Jim Murray gives a BLEND (woohooo, a blend) 97/100. Does anyone actually know what he wrote about it? Why it rated so well? No. But we all know the score...
(For more on scoring see THIS entertaining piece from the Scotch Blog. Also, Nonjatta faces the scoring the dilemma head-on HERE)

Also, I suppose this has something to do with the social responsibility aspect of this blogging life. Who the heck am I to give a 44/100 to a whisky that dozens of men and women have worked very hard to create, market, and ship to be sold? We are all VERY privileged to be able to enjoy these drinks to begin with, and should be grateful, even for the whiskies we dont like. Don't like it? Don't buy it again. But I refuse to intentionally go beyond the parameters of observation into evaluation and deter others from thinking twice about a given malt or blend with MY opinion, with a grade. Like how a good film review tells you as objectively as possible about the acting, the directing, the film movement, the dialogue, etc., so that even if s/he gives it two stars, you can see that maybe there is something in the directing style (or whatever) that this particular critic doesn't like that I do like in films. I try as much as possible to present some interesting bits about the distillery or the bottling, to note any flavour impressions in a descriptive, fun but not too frilly fashion, drawing a profile, NOT an evaluation of the flavours or "in my opinion this is good, bad, nice, not nice", etc. Forget my opinion. I am trying to find/present the essence of a given whisky considering a combination of history, production, flavours detected and impressions left. Try as I might, the whole process is subjective by default, and as much as I try to keep it objective, the summary (at least) is usually unabashedly subjective.

With this whole scoring thing in mind, Kristin challenged me, so we have a plan to have a tasting one week out of bottles I have already tried, but to try them blind and see what notes I make. The idea would be to compare them to the original notes. Potentially humiliating, but that doesn't really bother me. What, am i going to get fired? The challenge intrigues me.

4) There is no way you wrote all this in the morning.

No. You are right. That is why it is a late post today. Sorry. But I feel grrrreat!

5) Can anyone contribute to the Malt Mission?

Yes please. I would like to invite contributions from people who have found a dram about which they itch to share info and tasting impressions. In fact, I contacted several "professional" whisky folks to have guest tasters for this week of celebration(?), but initially only half of the folks responded, which was perfect for 5 posts, but by the end of last week, I had only 1 contributor. So, I decided to can the idea (Thanks anyways). But if you feel up to it, please send me your notes on something I have or haven't tried. I think it would be fun to have a week of other opinions. No guarantees I will use them tho, okay? If you are desperate to be heard, use this great site, For Peat Sake. Or even be in touch about dram exchange... you mail me some whisky in a wee sampler/mini/contacts container, and I will send you something in return.

Enough for a day.

Contact me about notes or if you have any questions.

MM100 Celebrations

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