From one bourbon newbie to another…
Until a few days ago, the only Robert Parker (“RP”) I was aware of was the late author of the Spenser books. There is another: the influential and controverisal wine critic. Seeing as I neither drink wine nor read anything pertaining to wine, I had no reason to know that he created the 100-point rating system that is now mainstream amongst publications that have wine reviews. In his most recent newletter, RP crossed into new territory by, in his words:
What started as a fun distraction to see what was so special about Pappy Van Winkle led to a full throttle inspection/conquest of bourbon. To tell you the truth, I have never been a big fan of liquor, but I was blown away by the quality of the top bourbons. They are every bit as good as a great cognac or Armagnac … and I’m not kidding!
The responses from whiskey bloggers (Chuck Cowdery, Tim Read at Scotch and Ice Cream, Jason Pyle and Clay Risen ) range from hazing to harsh criticism. I think most of the criticism is justifiable. RP’s article has an obvious elitist slant. While I don’t fault RP for enjoying bourbon at all (good for him I say), when a person that has openly professed his or her inexperience with bourbon (1) seeks out one of the rarest and most sought-after American bourbons; (2) writes a review that appears fanboy-ish; (3) includes in his review list a number of premium, super premium, extremely rare or discontinued whiskeys that a sliver of the population can afford, it tells me that this is an article geared for the kind of people that hardcore bourbon enthusiasts blame for turning bourbons like Pappy Van Winkle into a status symbol. All the signs point in that direction.
James Joyner, who also provides good commentary on this issue, writes:
People who subscribe to wine reviewing magazines tend to be interested in rarity and building collections; introducing the notion that bourbon has these qualities likely piques their interest. And, while it may be insulting to bourbon enthusiasts, there’s a widespread misconception out there that cognacs and Scotch whiskey are the finer spirits while bourbon is cheap rotgut to be mixed with one’s Coca-Cola. Parker is helping to dispel the notion.
Like James, I consider myself a relative newbie. A couple of years ago, I was dabbling in single malt scotches and decided that a bottle of bourbon would make for an interesting change of pace. I didn’t think as highly as bourbon as I did of scotch. I admit that, and the first bottle of bourbon that I bought, 100 proof Knob Creek, was done on a near arbitrary basis. Had I known better, I would not have started with a bourbon with more complex characteristics than something like a Jim Beam White Label. Still, I learned and while I do enjoy scotch every now and then, I am well on my way to becoming a hardcore bourbon enthusiast. While I can appreciate RP helping to dispel certain notions about bourbons, at the same time, I dispelled that notion myself through my own experiences without worrying if others think bourbon is rotgut.
As a relative newbie that went from a complete know-nothing to a know-just-enough-to-be-dangerous, even if I can give credit to RP on a couple of points, it is my opinion that this article is not helpful for people that are new to bourbon and have a serious interest in exploring it. Here are a few reasons:
1. It’s not a beginner’s list. I know it’s not meant to be one, but a newbie may not know that. Chuck Cowdery has a very good list of recommendations for beginners here. I’ve had nine out of the ten, and I can tell readers that only are they all great bourbons, but there’s also a good amount of variation between mash bills, proofs and age. There are two other reasons why I think this is a great list. The first reason is that most of these are widely available and relatively inexpensive. The second reason is that even if one progresses past “beginner”, most if not all of these are good enough for me to want to keep around and enjoy. Chuck is right when he mentions that one does not have to start with Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam, but they are certainly worth the attention (as are Old Grand Dad 100 and Wild Turkey 101 in my opinion).
2. Not all bourbons are created equal. I’ll cut RP slack for including rye whiskeys in his bourbon “conquest” even though rye is not bourbon. While I wouldn’t have expected RP to spend a lot of time discussing the mash bills of the bourbons he reviewed, there are a couple of places where mash bill distinctions would have been helpful. The use of wheat as a substitute for rye has a very strong influence on the flavor characteristics of bourbons like Maker’s Mark or Pappy Van Winkle. In his Blanton’s review, RP discusses the complexity of the pour without mentioning the influence of having a higher rye content in the mash bill (oddly, he doesn’t mention rye at all). In some instances, this would have made his tasting notes more interesting.
3. A little humility is in order, no? There are a number of people that claim that the 23-year old Pappy Van Winkle is one of the best if not the best bourbon on the market. I have no problem with that. However, one should never make a claim like this:
Truth be told, it is everything one would want in a bourbon.
James Joyner did not seem to have as much of a problem with this as I did:
If you’re a true connoisseur of bourbon or Scotch or wine or whatever, you probably spend a lot more time learning about those products than the average Joe who just drinks the same brand all the time. Most newbies, myself included, are happy to be educated. There’s no call for condescension, though. Why wouldn’t Parker start with the assumption that Pappy Van Winkle 23 is the best bourbon on the planet? That’s a widely held view. So, it’s fine to tell him that there are a dozen bottles of easily obtainable bourbons that are as good or better at a quarter of the price. But sneering seems uncalled for.
I have read the opinions and reviews written by Chuck Cowdery and Jason Pyle. I have also watched Jason’s YouTube reviews as well as those by Whiskey Bitch and Ralfy Mitchell. As learning resources, I am more than grateful that this information is available to me. I get very informed opinions from people with enough humility to not make bold proclamations about what I would want in a whiskey. This is pure hype. How the hell does someone that admitted his own inexperience with liquor supposed to know what people want? As far as I’m concerned, he’s only evangelizing the gospel according to Pappy.
I’ve tried a number of different whiskeys and every time I have thought I knew what I wanted, along comes something else to challenge that preconception. Not knowing what I really want and being reminded of that when I try a new pour is what makes this adventure so fun.
4. The points system. I don’t mind the use of a points system, but for an article geared towards non-bourbon drinkers, the numbers are meaningless. While I agree with his about his opinion of Blanton’s, if a drinker does not like bourbons with a high-rye content in the mash bill, the 97 point rating may as well be a zero. On the flip side, if someone wants to experiement with Hudson Baby Bourbon because they actually know what they’re getting in a bourbon that is 100% corn and aged for only three months, the fact that it’s the lowest rated bourbon is also meaningless. Woodford Reserve gets 88 points, and why?
While very good, too much heat and sharpness emerge from this bourbon.
Woodford has a very long finish and that “heat and sharpness” are a function of the very strong oak presence. I happen to love this finish. He does not. We are entitled to our opinions. Again, this is a situation where one’s own experiences and tastes should dictate one’s own opinion.
5. In certain instances, he’s wrong. Whiskey is “to be sipped, savored and like all the top bourbons, never diluted or served on ice”? That’s a pretty serious error on his part. Many bourbons do wonderful things when a few drops of water or an ice cube is added. Barrel strength bourbons provide all sorts of possibilities to add water to bring the proof down to a level the drinker enjoys. That said, I would take a small degree of satisfaction seeing someone buy a bottle of George T. Stagg simply because RP said so and attempt to make it through a whole glass of 140 proof whiskey without cutting it.
In a couple of places, he also makes factual errors and omissions that should have been addressed prior to publication. He fails to note that Blanton’s is a single barrel bourbon and instead writes “this is either a brilliant master blend or a bourbon with some serious age”. It’s neither. Also, he could have easily used Google to determine the proof of George T. Stagg rather than wing it the way he did.
RP’s reviews are going to be well-received in a certain kind of crowd, one that may take him on his word and attempt to explore the premium end of the whiskey market. Maybe this eventually equates to a flood of dumb money pushing up prices and crowding out long-time drinkers of a given whiskey, as Tim and Clay fear. I chose not to get into this aspect too much because the two of them already do such a great job. It does bother me to a degree. I’d like to try the Pappy Van Winkle bourbons at some point, but I’m not going to pay out large amounts of money to do it. Still, I have too much to learn and have too many bottles available that I haven’t tried to focus my attention on limited-edition bottlings (although I did find a bar that had George T. Stagg so I could not pass it up).
While I have given several reasons why RP’s reviews are not best for newbies, despite a few flaws, given where I am in the learning process, I enjoyed reading them, especially where he and I have tried the same bourbons. No matter what, it’s always fun for me to see how other people’s experiences compare to mine. It’s a good way to measure how much I am able to learn. Just because I don’t find the article helpful for newbies now does not mean that it may not have value to someone at some point in the future. That’s not for me to decide. All I am trying to do is show the newbies of the bourbon world that there’s a much bigger and better world to enjoy, and it does not have to cost an arm and a leg. Hopefully, my work here is done.