Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Quest for 'The Best,' and Other Myths


When someone hears you know something about bourbon, their next question usually is, "what's the best bourbon?"

"No best there is," says Whiskey Yoda. "Only like what you do."

Whiskey Yoda is right. Bourbon styles aren't as diverse as scotch styles, but they do vary. Some people like a lot of wood, while some prefer a balance of grain, yeast, and barrel. Some appreciate the spice and earthiness of rye, others drink wheaters to avoid it.

Some bourbons are clearly better than others. The cheap stuff on the bottom shelf is there for a reason. People buy them and they know why, but bourbon is a flavorful drink and most people prefer good flavor over bad, though it's hard to say what the objective criteria are. Should bourbon burn a little going down? Some say no, but some say yes.

Being able to drink whatever pleases us, regardless of what someone else thinks, is why we live in America, right?

Most readers of this space enjoy the search for a bourbon or rye that rises above the rest, but even when they find one they keep looking. "My favorite bourbon is the one I haven't tasted yet." The pleasure for them is in the hunt. Most veteran whiskey drinkers like some products better than others but most won't even entertain the 'best' question. They shrug it off with, "well, what I like is ..." or even, "well, what I'm drinking right now is ..."

The craziness that Van Winkle has become is driven by this rumor that it's the best bourbon. Lots of half-assed publications whose editors know nothing about bourbon and bourbon drinkers have published '10 Best' lists with Van Winkle at the top. It's the laziest form of journalism and, consequently, the laziest form of connoisseurship.

If you want to choose your next whiskey from a list, use this one.

The Van Winkle line, if you consider it as whiskey and not as Elysian nectar, has a wood-forward profile. You know that's going to be the case when you see age statements that start at 10 years and go up to 23. In another era, such long aging was considered bourbon abuse. The Van Winkles are genuinely remarkable for being beautifully balanced even for their advanced age, not that most of the people trolling for Van Winkles know or care about that. They just want to get their hands on 'the best' so they can proudly display it on their back bar while muttering something about Anthony Bourdain.

Bourbon is very popular right now so many people feel they need to serve or drink it. They don't want to invest any time or energy in learning anything about it, they just don't want to make a mistake and be embarrassed (you know, like when Robert Parker said Old Bardstown reminded him of Van Winkle 23), so they look for cover from an 'authority.' That's just human nature and will always be so.

But of you, young one, Whiskey Yoda expects better.

20 comments:

Mark Gillespie said...

Amen, brother...

jonnyd said...

I also hate it when people say "What's your favorite?". It all depends on what style of bourbon you're talking about.

Tim Read said...

From your lips to God's ears, Chuck.

The pleasure of bourbon (and whisk(e)y as a whole) is the journey and the people you spend it with.

I've had a half a dozen "bests" and liked them. I've had as many "bests" and thought they were overrated. At the end of the day I really remember more the circumstances around trying them.

Whiskey will come and go. Some will be better than others. Getting hung up on "the best" is getting hung up on stuff that doesn't matter.

Patrick J. said...

My introduction to whiskey connoisseurship came after I attended a talk given by David Pickerell at an event at a small distillery near Seattle, wherein he sorted out all the various types of whiskey and what makes each one unique. Bourbon didn't have to come from Kentucky? I was flummoxed.

Since then, I found this resource and have enjoyed reading the blog (and newsletter) and educating myself more and more about whiskey, particularly bourbon and rye. I've only barely (barley?) made it through the list of 10 suggestions for Bourbon Beginners, and I'm beginning to discover what I like and don't like.

I've never tried Van Winkle and I don't intend to. Instead, I value this resource to help me reach my own conclusions and, ultimately, craft my own '10 best list'.

Thank you.

Bas said...

For most people is it as with wine;they expect the most expensive bourbon to be the best there is. Think that also contributes to their legend.

Anonymous said...

"...Elysian nectar". That made me chuckle.

Seth said...

Great post. I've always wondered why bourbon, with such a range of possible mashbills has less flavor range than single malt Scotch, with, well, 1 possible mashbill. I know the wood plays a huge factor in this, but I still find it surprising.

Kyle Henderson said...

"How should I drink it?" is my other favorite question.

Anonymous said...

Gary Said:

Great post Chuck! I think you nailed it. I'm definitely in the group that considers my "favorite" to be the one in front of me at any given time, and the "best bourbon" doesn't exist. Best implies to me a zero-sum game, which isn't the case - at least for me. I've bought Pappy Van Winkle 20yr, and for my palate I would take a William Larue Weller from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection over it every time. That doesn't mean that WLW is better (it is just over half the price of PVW 20), but just shows "different strokes for different folks".

I urge folks to try a few that vary in age/mashbill to get some sense of their taste, and explore further from there. But don't expect to find a "best" at the end of the road. The journey is where the fun happens!

PM Summer said...

As an aside (what caught my eye first when I saw this post), it was Stanley Marcus' book (of Neiman-Marcus fame) "Quest for the Best" that reinvigorated my Bourbon love back in the early 1980s. My youthful career in Advertising/Public Relations had swayed me toward Scotch as my whisky of choice, and away from the Weller/Beam/McKenna/Dickle whiskies of my college days. Marcus forcefully made the the point that quality Bourbon was the equal to quality Scotch, and that if one was truly interested in developing a taste/understanding for what the qualities of "best whiskies" were, you shouldn't skip Bourbons.

Thank you, Mr. Stanley.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Marcus seemed to view 'the best' as a classification, the exemplars in any given field of which there could be many, and not as a competition to select a single 'best,' as seems to be the obsession today.

Anonymous said...

Richnimrod said;
Chuck, you hit the nail on the head, Dude. There ain't no "BEST" that will be the favorite of every single person at every single encounter. In fact, I'll go so far as to say my favorites change (and change back) with regularity. My taste buddies aren't the same every time I sample a dram, therefor each experience is it's own exploration of what tickles my fancy at that moment... and that's a big part of the fun!

sam k said...

Well put. It's not the destination, but the journey on the way.

P.S. There are a couple of bottom shelfers I love!

Justin said...

Back in April of 2008 I read a wise man's quote that has really become one of my whiskey mantras. When discussing the concept of "best" he concluded the following:


"So let's bury the concept of best, which is the search for The One. That's not what the whiskey enthusiasm is about. It's about luxuriating in The Many. And hoping for many, many more."

Thanks for sharing your wisdom Chuck.

T Comp said...

Your quips even caused a bust out laugh for my reading over my shoulder non alchol drinking 19 year old daughter...and can be said about too many things in our culture now.

Macdeffe said...

Great Post

Steffen

Florin said...

The quest for the best is over, Chuck. It's Pappy van Winkle 23yo, 100 pts by Robert Parker.

Seth said...

As temperatures hit 90 again, today on the east coast, my definition of "best" is very different from what it was a few months ago when it was freezing.

EllenJ said...

Chuck, you know how much I enjoy verbal sparring with you on ideas concerning bourbon (and especially on the marketing thereof). But this time I'm right behind you all the way.

I wish you were "preaching to the choir" but we both know you're not. Some of the readers here, and CERTAINLY some of the readers of other blogs and discussion forums we both know, have less personal experience with different bourbons than they have with reviews and material discussing them. Some have given undeserved trust to writers they consider "authorities" in forming opinions. You and I are among those, and both of us make a point to emphasize the need for personal experience rather than memorizing what we, or any of the other writers, feel they "should" be drinking.

My stock answer to the question, "what's your favorite bourbon?" has long been, "well, what's your favorite song?". It seems to get the point across in a way that even the most "objective-driven" can readily understand.

Then again, maybe they're just humoring me so I'll go away? :=)

SteveBM said...

QUOTE OF THE YEAR!!!

The craziness that Van Winkle has become is driven by this rumor that it's the best bourbon. Lots of half-assed publications whose editors know nothing about bourbon and bourbon drinkers have published '10 Best' lists with Van Winkle at the top. It's the laziest form of journalism and, consequently, the laziest form of connoisseurship.

If you want to choose your next whiskey from a list, use this one.

The Van Winkle line, if you consider it as whiskey and not as Elysian nectar, has a wood-forward profile. You know that's going to be the case when you see age statements that start at 10 years and go up to 23. In another era, such long aging was considered bourbon abuse. The Van Winkles are genuinely remarkable for being beautifully balanced even for their advanced age, not that most of the people trolling for Van Winkles know or care about that. They just want to get their hands on 'the best' so they can proudly display it on their back bar while muttering something about Anthony Bourdain.

Bourbon is very popular right now so many people feel they need to serve or drink it. They don't want to invest any time or energy in learning anything about it, they just don't want to make a mistake and be embarrassed (you know, like when Robert Parker said Old Bardstown reminded him of Van Winkle 23), so they look for cover from an 'authority.' That's just human nature and will always be so.