It might be a bad idea to admit that you imbibe any alcohol if intellectual sobriety is supposed to be your game. That said, I do love sipping on something tasty from time to time and the temptation only grows around holiday parties, family time, and the delights spending dwindling reserves of cash. Partly because my sense memory is imperfect, I prefer comparing drinks to just working on one by itself. (It can be beer, wine, whiskey, whatever.) Part of the fun, I think, comes from figuring out how curation leads to totally different experiences. This post will be about three questions, then: Will you learn something? Do you want to maximize the range of pleasures? Or do you want a more complicated experience?
Since the holidays still hang in recent memory, let’s aim those questions at something fancy like scotch. Will you learn something? A comparison of old/new versions or different ages of whisky from the same distillery can inform you about specific production factors. The fewer variables there are, the more likely you’ll learn something about the influence of different ages, wood types, ingredients, distillation techniques, and so forth. For example, some people have been collecting Kilchoman “Machir Bay” releases every year to compare them. The distillate and barrel mixture is basically the same each year, but it’s aged slightly longer after each release, or at least that’s the way they did it when the distillery started releasing its first bottles around 2010. It also helps if you like most of your samples okay, so that evaluation becomes less of a factor. In the case of Kilchoman, the spirit is distilled very slowly (meaning it has fewer of the yucky bits that transform into yummy bits after a decade or so) and highly peated (meaning it has a lot of smoke), which fans will say have made it quite drinkable from a young age.
Scotch distillers of single malts have historically done a better job than Americans at clarifying where their juice comes from and how old it is. That said, they always avoid passing on really specific details about particular barrels like some American companies do. (Big American distillers use differences like warehouse location to split up entire brands.) And when it comes to blends of scotch whiskies, you can usually forget about knowing which distilleries the ingredients come from. It took an American scotch producer (John Glaser of Compass Box) to experiment with keeping his customers informed about provenance, and it looks like none of the major producers of blended scotch want to play his game. Perhaps their goal is not to make whisky a nerdy learning activity, but to give drinkers a branded experience. In positive terms, it would be unified, consistent, and enticingly elusive. Or if you’re feeling indie, you could call those blends uninspired and (potentially) overpriced. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
In addition to limiting the variables, you could also compare a wide variety of whiskies. I find this to be a very different sort of experience. It’s more like an amusement park trip, filled with thrills and novelties. That’s the idea of the ever-more-popular whisky advent calendar. (Patton Oswalt was even pairing them with pieces of fiction.) To turn the calendar into a variety show, all you have to do is wait a few days to build up a stock. That would make it a fun social occasion too, assuming the point isn’t just to drink.
My favorite aesthetic effect, though, usually comes from sipping products that are just different enough so that identifying specific gaps between them is largely beside the point. For instance, take a Glenfiddich 15 year solera and a Balvenie 12 year “doublewood.” Any serious attempt at comparison gets too convoluted to remain a center of interest for long. But they have just enough similarity – a mixture of sherry and bourbon wood aging (plus virgin oak for the Glenfiddich), an unpeated Speyside base, ownership by the same parent company – that something might make you want to put them next to each other, and something might spark when you do. Throwing in a third whisky would complicate matters too much for my taste. It would become more about ranking (“this one is my least favorite”). But that’s an old habit, like choosing a favorite pizza place.