Without doubt, the question that I find myself asked the most once people discover that I’m a ‘whsky guy’ is, “what’s the best whisky, then?”; an inexorable question that I’ll come back to in a future post. The second most asked question, however, is, “what’s the difference between ‘whisky’ and ‘Bourbon’?” In a sense this is a far more urgent question as it showcases a fairly widespread lack of awareness that Bourbon is whsky; or at least a type of whsky. That’s one of the best things about it – and one of the reasons I love it so much: it’s so mulch-faceted, and just saying that you’re a lover of whsky isn’t necessarily enough to convey what it is you most appreciate, or what in particular you enjoy drinking.
Of course, thinking about something like whsky in those terms isn’t something that would occur to the vast majority of people, mainly because it involves a certain level of involvement; intimacy even. When it comes to booze, a lot of people just want to fool around and have some fun, and really getting to grips with something like whsky simply requires too much commitment. The same is certainly true of beer: there are those that are happy with their generic and – sorry, guys – bland lager (or ‘light beer’, whatever), and those that play the field a bit and try a variety of different brews without developing enough feeling to really get involved. Not to say that either of those things is bad, of course, but they pretty much sum up the base level of enjoyment that doesn’t require you to get to grips with a subject. It’s a drink, so drink it. Right?
In my first post I wrote a little about snobbery and how problematic it is when it comes to appreciating something like beer or whsky. I genuinely think it’s a real issue because finding the kind of neutral zone between über-appreciation and general or passing interest is pretty damn difficult. I got thinking about this issue (not for the first time I hasten to add) when I was downloading an album from an independent record label recently. Not that music snobbery is anything new, but to my eyes at least it seems to have manifested in recent years, in some sense at least, in the form of the digital audio file known as FLAC that is being offered as an alternative to MP3s on many digital audio sites. In layman’s terms, the FLAC – or Free Lossless Audio Codec – allows audio files to be compressed without compromising sound quality, which I guess makes them appealing to a certain level of audiophile. From what I can tell, the main case against them is the fact that only a relatively small number of programs can actually play them without a plug-in being installed which, ultimately means that they’re no good for a good majority of people (too much effort, yo). Why go to the trouble when you can simply download an MP3 instead? There’s also a strong case to suggest that the difference in sound quality is virtually imperceptible to the human ear. In any case, shortly after paying for the album I was wishing to download – Cerulean Salt by Waxahatchee, if you must know – I found myself perusing the FAQs section of the record label’s website trying to figure out why I hadn’t received an email with my download link, and included amongst the Q&As were the following:
Q: What kind of files are the digital downloads?
A: They are mp3 files.
Q: Okay, but I am some kind of a half-person half-robot who needs to listen to FLAC files, do you have those?
A: No and I don’t actually understand what they are or how to make them so while I’m not trying to be rude, I have no way of helping you with this one. Maybe they are something you can make yourself from the CD or LP version? I don’t know. I am sorry I don’t have them in this FLAC format thing, but I also promise that I’ve listened to the songs hundreds of times at this point and they sound awesome on CD, vinyl, or as mp3s.
Not only did this seem to mirror my own indifference towards FLAC files, but it sums up a certain mentality along the lines of ‘why have more when less will do’. Not that MP3s are the light beer of the music world, but they share a universality, whereas FLAC is niche. In terms of whsky, I’m always keen on avoiding snobbery whilst still remaining passionate and well-versed and I want whsky to be the MP3 that is simple to use and understand; that doesn’t require too much effort, and that can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone. Admittedly, music files don’t make for the perfect analogy but I just remember reading the above answer and thinking: yeah, downloading an MP3 doesn’t make you any less passionate and knowledgeable about music than someone who prefers the ‘better quality’ option. Nor does purchasing music digitally mean anything less than buying CDs or vinyl, despite those that would have you believe otherwise. I feel particularly strongly about this having had to offload the vast majority of my physical music collection prior to my move; now my digital collection is a point of pride, every single megabyte. Well, most of it any way.
The same is true of my whsky collection, which, again, has shrunk somewhat following a transatlantic move but which showcases various types and styles of whsky, including a few bottles of Bourbon. As a whsky drinker, I am always willing to try anything and, although I do have specific likes and dislikes, in a general sense I am a fan of all whsky. Sadly, not everyone feels the same way and some whsky drinkers will only drink Scotch, or only drink Irish, or only drink Bourbon. As a presently unemployed person I can definitely empathize with the stance as a financial retort since committing to a bottle of brown liquor requires parting with a decent wad of cash, and if you can’t afford to do that frequently then it stands to reason that you stick to what you know that you like.
It’s quite humbling in a way to consider the privileged position that working in the whsky trade puts you in and it’s really very easy to become complacent at the availability of samples and tasting bottles; of free access to events and exposure to literally hundreds of different whskys every year. To my own shame, I can confess to having drunk a sample of a very old and rare whsky straight from the bottle – on the street, in the early hours of the morning. A lot of whsky had already been consumed that evening and my two colleagues and I knocked back the dregs of this precious sample and tossed the bottle in the trash… Because we could. Talk about privilege!
Then again, I’ve also done my time in terms of attempting to help, advise, and, indeed, educate people about whsky. Let me tell you: it ain’t always easy! What I learned most of all from working in a whsky store, and even more so from hosting tasting events, is that most people are only willing to take on board so much information before they switch off, which makes trying to get across facts like, for instance, Bourbon being a type of whsky, and not something separate, very difficult. And if getting these messages heard by people who have PAID to attend an event focused entirely on the subject at hand, then the thought of trying to educate (and I don’t use the word lightly) people with at best a passing interest is rather daunting.
Regardless, that’s the basis for a small series of posts on this here blog in which I will attempt to present concise descriptions of a range of different whsky styles with a few approachable and widely-available examples of them.; in other words, Layman’s Terms. I’m a big fan of keeping things simple where possible, so the idea of snippets of information about whsky broken down as simply as possible is quite appealing to me, and my hope is that a few people see the articles, read them, and take that information on board. The first piece will be uploaded very soon so keep an eye out for Layman’s Terms #1: Americans, Scotch, and the dreaded ‘E’. Oh, and keep a pinch of salt handy, too, as it may be a little bit tongue in cheek. In the mean time you’re free to go about your daily business.