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.