All posts by Matt

Founding Apostle

From Whiskey Boom to McConaissance

On the heels of the Matthew McConaughey’s New York Times interview, Richard asked me if I wanted to write a “Whiskey Manifesto” for the site after being long absent from the public discourse. Richard is right when he says the interview is crap and the video is damn good. I don’t know if the interviewer came in with a predetermined agenda or an inherent dislike for Mr. McConaughey or if everybody’s cooler older brother really came off that douchey. Also, like Richard, I bristle a little bit at the ad agency doublespeak about “selling.” Whether you’re selling a product, a story, or an experience, you’re still selling. Whether you hire a carnival barker or an ad (wo)man, you’re still trying to move product.

Most of my adult life, I worked at a place whose primary focus was selling “brand experiences” (not what I did there, but that was their primary focus). I spent a lot of time sitting in meetings where Creative Directors and Strategists would spout the same rhetoric about authenticity and not being “sold to” about Boomers and GenXers as they are now saying about Millennials. These are not generational affectations, this a fundamental human condition. No one enjoys condescension and a good portion of the buying public is smart enough to understand when you are talking down to them (and often when you’re talking down to other demographics as well). Rarely did the word-salad-faux-Ted-talk strategy sessions churn out anything but pandering and recycled ideas. There were a few inspired moments, but they were depressingly far apart. On the few occasions where I fell within the target demographic (whiskey drinkers for instance), the strategy often showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the already imbedded culture within the demo. These misunderstandings often went all the up the chain to the multi-national beverage conglomerate that hired us in the first place. Where the New York Times article feels like the Wild Turkey campaign is falling into the same traps I’ve seen a thousand times, the video suggests a deeper understanding, not just for the brand, but for the culture of whiskey drinkers. There seems to be a concerted effort not to alienate the market that already exists in an effort to chase one that may never coalesce. There is a reverence for the spirit and the heritage of Wild Turkey that feels genuine.

I’m not angry about the assertion that Millennials are the target audience for this campaign. Honestly, it’s their time. Aging boomers and rising GenXers gave us the whiskey boom, the micro-distillation rage, and the innumerable whiskey blogs. In a way, it’s up to that peer group to continue momentum from the initial ground swell. The ad agencies missed us while they were busy boosting birthday cake vodka, cherry flavored everything, and “whiskey for women”. I’m more upset that they missed the point the first time around than I am to be skipped over now.

I suppose, so far, this is more of a whiskey in advertising diatribe without much to do with whiskey itself. I agree with a lot of what Richard has to say, so I’ll try to be brief. He points out that “We founded Whisk(e)y Apostle on the belief that there is a whiskey for everyone,” and I still mostly believe that. I have only met a few people that have not been able to find a whiskey they enjoy and I think it largely comes down to a lack of willingness to try something. They have a predetermined opinion about what whiskey is (often built on a bad experience with some rotgut brand or other) and they are not interested or willing to give it another chance. It’s also quite possible that I’m wrong. I have a hard time with that though. I love whiskey in many styles and countries of origin. I love some that don’t even taste like what I would call whiskey and some I hate for the very same reason. Strangely, it’s often those weirdos that help me pick up the stragglers waiting to join the whiskey parade. Whiskey is such a diverse class of spirits, it’s hard to believe that someone could write it off in its entirety. I guess, when you are incredibly passionate about something, it’s hard to understand why someone else can’t find the same joy. Maybe McConaughey says it best when he says in the video, “If we’re for you, you’ll know.” I knew whiskey was for me on my first sip, but that’s not everyone’s experience. I’m also innately curious. When I find something I like, I want to learn as much as I can about it, I want try every variety, and I want to share it with others. Even if I don’t like something all that much, I sometimes test it out more that your average person would just to make sure I don’t like it. Not everyone has my sense of curiosity or experimentation. And that’s okay. I’m willing to do the research/testing and share my findings.

I only halfway agree with Richard about whiskey not being an acquired taste though. He’s right that people find whiskey when it’s their time. However, that first sip of whiskey that speaks to you often opens the doors to other drams (some you may have even tried before and didn’t like). Personal tastes change, but so does our ability to parse out flavors, smells, and mouth feel. That’s how you acquire a taste for whiskey, not from dogged repetition, but from finding the one you already love and branching out from there. Some folks will never branch out. They’ll be Jim Beam or Wild Turkey drinkers all their life and never try Four Roses or Old Forester or Buffalo Trace. That’s who the advertisers want; the lifelong, brand-loyal, everyday drinker. That’s not what I’m about, that’s not what Whisk(e)y Apostle is about. We are looking to share a dram with curious folk (in all senses of the term) and folks with a sense of adventure. If that sounds like you, pull up a chair and settle in. It’s going to be a long and beautiful night.

Whiskies of The World 2015 – Atlanta (pt. 2)

And now for the spirits part of my Whiskies of the World review.

My strategy for the night was to survey what the non-Kentucky Southern distillers had on offer. Does, as Andre Benjamin put it, “the South got something to say,” or is it just organized noise. Before I start talking about the spirits on hand, I want to point out that this type of event is not necessarily the best place to acquire detailed tasting notes on a variety of whiskies. There are a lot of distractions and you inevitably develop palate fatigue regardless of your degree of restraint.

The short form take away is what I expected, the best “craft” bottlings where (at least in part) MGP products. Most of the stuff actually produced on premises was very young and tasted like it. I’m always torn about craft whiskey. I support it in concept, but rarely is it executed well enough to justify the price tag. That being said, there were a few whiskeys that I enjoyed.

Thirteenth Colony’s Southern Rye Whiskey was a revelation. It doesn’t taste like any other rye on the market, but not so much so that it loses its rye-ness. There is the spice you would normally expect in rye, but the mint that usually hangs in the back like a ghost is very forward. The whiskey is finished with French Oak spirals which gives it an added sweetness. The end result is akin to a Mint Julep. Perhaps next Derby Day, I’ll skip the muddle and just throw some of this in a glass. Thirteenth Colony admits to mixing MGP in with their own make for some bottlings, but I cannot remember if this is one of them.

Palmetto Whiskey, located in Anderson, SC (coincidentally where I spent the first few years of my life), produces a line of flavored “moonshines” as well as three whiskeys (Whiskey, Rye, and Wheat). I tried a few of their straight “moonshine”, a couple of their flavors, and their Whiskey. The moonshine is what you would expect of white whiskey, nothing mind blowing. The flavored offerings, flavored with real fruit juice, were sickly sweet but that’s probably the point. The whiskey, however, was delightful. The nose on this was outstanding. It was very bourbon-y on the palate. There wasn’t a lot of complexity, but that could have been palate fatigue.

One last Southern craft whiskey that I’d like to talk about is John’s Single Malt Whiskey from John Emerald Distilling Company in Opelika, AL. They had two bottlings with the same label, but I was told that one had spent marginally more time in a barrel than the other. Oddly, to my palate, the younger one tasted better. Tasted excellent, in fact, for such a young spirit. Does this mean that John’s Single Malt will never get better or that it has a lot of potential? I’m not sure, but I’d like to find out. I want to keep checking in with these guys and see where it goes.

I’d like to give a shout out to Corsair’s Barrel-Aged Gin. It’s not whiskey, but it is from Tennessee and it’s pretty delicious.

Moving away from my central directive, I thought I’d check out the two Nikka offerings that Richard had recently reviewed. Richard preferred the Coffey Grain to the Taketsuru 12 year old. I felt exactly the opposite, but it was also the very last thing I drank. So, I’d like to do another side by side to make sure.

Thanks to Whiskies of the World and Becca at 360 Media for hooking me up with a press pass. I’m forever grateful.

For more information on Whiskies of the World and a schedule of future events go to their website.

If you are a distiller or represent one and would like for Whisk(e)yApostle to do a formal review on any of the whiskies in your line, please contact Richard.

Whiskies of The World 2015 – Atlanta (pt. 1)

It’s been a few weeks since the Whiskeys of the World event in Atlanta, and while I apologize to the event’s organizers for the lateness in my write up, it’s been nice to ruminate on the experience. I’ve been to a lot of these types of festivals over my whisk(e)y drinking life and they all have positive and negative aspects. I’m going to start off by talking about the event itself and then move on to some of the specific whiskeys and whiskies that spoke to me in some way.

(Edit: This post ended up being a lot longer than I intended so, I’m going to separate the event review from the spirits reviews, breaking it up into two posts.)

As previously stated, I’ve been to a lot of events like this one. However, this is the first one I’ve tackled since moving back to Atlanta. All my basis for comparison comes from my eleven years in New York City. From larger events like WhiskyFest to smaller events like Whisky on the Hudson and the Bourbon and Bacon Festival, I managed to keep busy during the festival season. I watched as the scene changed, as the consumers became more knowledgeable, and the faces in the crowd began to take on more diversity.

I bring all this up, not to tout my experience level, but to point out a short fall in the local scene. While Atlanta is certainly behind New York, the crowd is closer to catching up than the exhibitors. I saw men and women of various ethic backgrounds all coming to the tables looking to be educated, and many who were already educated and hungry for more. Unfortunately, many of the ambassadors where not that knowledgeable about the products on the tables. I thought we had advanced past the concept of “pour bunnies” and hired guns dressed in a kilts. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with having pretty girls or roguishly charming dudes pouring me a dram. I do, however, expect them to know a little about what’s in the bottle. I’m not expecting everyone behind the table to have encyclopedic knowledge of whisky in general, but if you are going to hire an actor to pour for you, give them a script (and a good one!). There are some really great ambassadors out there. I’d like to see more of them make it to Atlanta.

There were also a number of exhibitors who clearly did not want to be there. If the brand ambassador can’t get excited about the brand, no one is going to get excited. As is to be expected (or at least hoped for), the craft distillers tended to know the most about their products and to be the most excited. It was an all out party at the Palmetto table. I’m hoping that next year the rest of the exhibitors up their game. Otherwise, people are going to lose interest.

Now, with all that grousing, you would think I didn’t have a good time. Well, I’m just a curmudgeon. I had a pretty good time. There were a good number of whiskies represented. I enjoyed the smoking porch. And I realize that, to the brand ambassadors, we live in a lower tier market. Some folks don’t have enough faith that Atlanta can be a whisk(e)y city like Chicago, New York, or San Francisco. Well, frankly, those folks are lazy and full of crap. We here at Whisk(e)y Apostle proselytize as a hobby, and we turn people on to whisky all the time. Imagine the ground we could cover if we got paid for it!

Honestly, I want to thank the organizers of Whiskies of the World for bringing an event of this size to Atlanta. If you look at the other cities on their list, the only first tier market is San Francisco. I don’t know if this is an attempt to capitalize on the under served markets or if there is a legitimate desire to bring markets like Atlanta into the top tier. Either way, I think it’s awesome.

Thanks to Whiskies of the World and Becca at 360 Media for hooking me up with a press pass. I’m forever grateful.

For more information and news about future Whiskies of the World events go to their website.

Interview with Thirteenth Colony

In advance of the Whiskies Of The World event in Atlanta, I was given the opportunity to interview James Johnson of Thirteenth Colony via email. Thirteenth Colony is located in Americus, Georgia and has been winning awards with their whiskey since 2013.

Tell our readers a little about who you are and about Thirteenth Colony:

Thirteenth Colony Distilleries began as a casual conversation among friends about making whiskey for friends, family & employees. That conversation eventually lead to Thirteenth Colony Distilleries becoming Georgia’s first craft distillery. With each product offering we are determined to maintain the Thirteenth Colony commitment to producing only the highest quality, handcrafted spirits. We are committed to offering spirits in the southern tradition of pride in our products, great quality in every bottle, use of local ingredients and a personal and friendly touch in all we do. We began our spirits journey with the intent of making unique distilled spirits as gifts to our friends, our employees and our families. The saying “made by friends for friends” is more than a saying; it is how our journey in distilled spirits began, it permeates all our business dealings, it guides our product development and tells the essential story of Thirteenth Colony.

I hope you don’t take offense, but with all small batch and craft distillers, I try to get the ugly question of MGP out of the way early. Do you make all the whiskey in your bottles or do you source from MGP or other distilleries?

We both produce and source. For instance, we were recently introduced to some unique whiskey from our friends out west and decided we had to have it. We’re in the development process to launch new sour mash whiskey early next year. It’s delicious, and unlike any other we could create in our climate in. Private purchases have non-disclosure agreements, but among others, we have a few rare barrels of bourbon purchased years ago, on a lark before the bourbon boom. As they near the 10 year mark, we look to launch limited one time release. We pride ourselves on unique products, processes, flavors, and aim to continue bringing new and innovative brands to the market. We continue to produce spirits and look at options to address inventory and sales growth. Our goal now and always, has been to create the best tasting spirits possible at an affordable price for our friends and family to enjoy.

Tell us a little bit about your award winning whiskies:

Southern Corn Whiskey was our first whiskey release, and we couldn’t be happier with all of the accolades it has received since. Derived from a mash of 99% Corn & 1% Barley, we age our Corn Whiskey in used bourbon barrels for 3 years & bottle it at 95proof.

  • Gold medal – 2011 World Spirits Competition
  • 91 Points from Wine Enthusiast 2015
  • Featured in PLAYBOY magazine 2015, which listed 13th Colony’s Southern Corn Whiskey as the best spirit produced in the state of Georgia.

Southern Rye Whiskey was our second release. Southern Rye Whiskey is an American classic with a distinctive spicy flavor and a slightly sweet finish. Southern Rye is derived from a mash of 96% rye grain and 4% barley grain and aged in new charred oak barrels. Our distinctively flavored Rye Whiskey is finished with French oak spirals and bottled at 95proof.

  • Gold medal – 2013’s Fifty Best Domestic Rye Whiskey

Southern Bourbon is our most recent whiskey released in December of 2013. This traditional Bourbon is produced from a mash bill of 70% corn, 25% Rye, and 5% Malted Barley; then meticulously aged for 4 years in custom charred American Oak Barrels for a smooth, rich, and slightly sweet finish.

  • 90 Points & Gold Medal – 2014 Beverage Tasting Institute

Do you use full sized barrels in your aging process?

Yes, we use full size 53 gallon barrels to age our whiskeys.

What sets Thirteenth Colony apart from other distillers (both the big guys and the little guys)?

Thirteenth Colony Distillery is a family run distillery that consists of just a handful of wonderful folks that make all of the magic happen. We pride ourselves in the quality of our small batch spirits, and pay extra close attention to all of the little details that set our whiskeys apart. We even bottle & label all of our spirits by hand. Our whiskeys are truly small batch, blending only a few barrels together to make each batch. We take the extra time to make sure every bottle that reaches the shelf is up to our meticulous standards. None of our spirits leave our distillery, unless we would be proud to pour them for our families & friends.

For our readers outside of Georgia, what is your distribution like?

You can find our spirits almost anywhere in Georgia, but we also have distribution in: Florida, Kentucky, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Vermont. If you are attending the Whiskies of the World event in Atlanta, GA on Friday, October 23, be sure to drop by Thirteenth Colony and have a dram.

For a full list of exhibitors and what they are pouring, follow this link.

We’re All Full Of Sh*t

Wow. It’s been a long time. I feel like a guest blogger. Richard’s been doing a great job during my long sabbatical.

An article appeared on io9 yesterday entitled “Wine Tasting Is Bullshit. Here’s Why.”

The article cites multiple studies and anecdotes that prove the lack of objective science in the rating systems for wine tasting. This is not new knowledge. We all know that “taste” is subjective in all its meanings. Everything is different for everybody all the time. We’ve never said anything different on this site. We don’t even claim to be experts. Just enthusiasts with bad memories, so we have to keep a blog of our endeavors or else lose them forever.

Richard once played a trick on me. He sent me an unlabeled sample and asked me to guess what it was. Based on it’s color, I thought it had to be bourbon. So, I approached it as if it was bourbon. The flavor was great, but it was somehow wrong. Was it some strange bourbon aged in wine casks? Was it a single malt from some obscure region, left to age in a barrel long enough to have the color of bourbon? What is the origin? On the slab? Off the slab? New York? Oregon? Gallifrey? I knew it was whiskey. I wanted it to be whiskey.

It was brandy.

After years of tasting, the first test I received and I failed miserably. I will admit that I’ve tasted peat where the distiller claims there is none. The same with Sherry. Does that make my tastings less authoritative? The truth is, they were never authoritative, because they are (and always will be) subjective. Even for those who train their palates and immerse themselves in whisky tasting, things change. Some days, I can’t stand peat. Some days, it’s all I want. I sometimes taste bananas when I drink the Balvenie or Belgian beer. I will forever associate the smell of Jim Beam with frat house vomit. And the list goes on…

What I’m saying is this: every review we (I’m using the universal collective “we” here) write is tempered by every experience we’ve had. There are environmental factors to each specific sitting. There is what we know about the distillery. There are our expectations and a thousand other factors. So read the reviews, taste what you can taste, and drink what you like.

The most interesting bit of the io9 article is at the very end, where it shows an inverse relationship to price and enjoyment for the average wine drinker. Do you, dear reader, think this is true for whisk(e)y as well? I know we often adjust our ratings based on something being perceived as over priced, but does that mean we enjoy it less?

Matt