Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Provenance Versus Taste

If "provenance versus taste" seems like a false dichotomy, that's because it is. As whiskey has become more popular, provenance issues have arisen from time to time. Where was this whiskey made? How? From what? By whom? Is the label misleading?

Is it worth the price?

In the midst of all that, inevitably someone will declare, "I don't care about all that stuff, so long as it tastes good." To people trying to have a serious conversation about provenance, that sort of brush-off can grate, but it gets to a truth we enthusiasts often forget.

A good drink for a good price really is the bottom line.

I care a lot about provenance. The history and culture of America's whiskey makers is what attracted me in the first place. That is separate from liking to drink the stuff. While it may sound romantic to say knowledge makes the whiskey taste better, it doesn't.

I am musing about this because Beam Suntory's recent Legent Bourbon got me interested in the company's new Ao World Whiskey, just released in Japan, which led me to some of Dave Broom's writing about transparency issues in the Japanese whisky industry.

Does Japanese whisky made entirely in Japan taste different from 'Japanese whisky' that is 90 percent imported bulk whisky from Scotland or someplace else? Two whiskeys with different provenance may taste different, but provenance isn't the reason. Terroir? Maybe, but national borders don't have some magical effect on distillate. That it tastes a certain way is what matters, why it tastes that way does not. If you like the flavor, buy the product. You don't need the recipe. It's not like you're going to try to make it yourself.

One can easily get lost in the weeds on provenance questions. I'm someone who enjoys his time in the weeds, but not everyone does. This advice is for everyone who just wants a good drink for a good price. Don't trust anything you read or hear. It's all nonsense. Don't trust your friends. No, not even your bartender. Drink the cheapest thing that tastes good to you. If the label embarrasses you, use a flask or decanter.

Then if you also find provenance interesting, join the conversation.

What drives so much of this is that most people don't trust themselves, which makes them susceptible to the wiles of charlatans and quick-buck artists. Unfortunately, even well-meaning advisors can't offer much help because only you can decide what tastes good to you. Only you can decide how much you are willing spend.

Trust yourself, your own palate, and your own wallet.

There is no more to it than that.


Tom Murin said...

You hit the nail on the head. People like, or rather love - a narrative, but the bottom line is what works for the individual. I have some of the more expensive whiskey from time to time (on the corporate dime of some host), but I can't say it really tastes that much better. It's like being at a baseball game - sitting in the bleachers can be just enjoyable as sitting a few rows behind home plate - you're still in the ballpark.

Just a Bourbon Guy said...

Excellent article Mr Cowdery!! In my humble opinion the best part of my Bourbon journey.has been the echoes of freedom. The freedom to enjoy any bourbon anyway you care to.. Every palate is different. I like to use the analogy, some people enjoy Ghost peppers and some enjoy just jalapeños.. Their preference should not matter to anyone but thenselves. So let’s just create great memories of sharing America’s Native spirit with great friends who most likely don’t care about who made the Bourbon as long as the company is better!! Cheers!!!

Erik Fish said...

I always tell people just getting into whiskey that Rule No. 1 is:

"Don't ever be afraid to like a whiskey!"

No matter what the experts, nerds, and snobs like me may pontificate about. If Johnny Walker Red or Jim Beam White or whatever float your boat, great. You'll have a cheaper everyday slurper, and more money to explore more challenging options. If the only bourbon you like is Pappy, you better be related to Bill Gates.

schlimmerdurst.net said...

You are in a comfortable position with Bourbon. It's a highly regulated spirit, and the regulations are actually enforced. Therefore, the "provenance" is by far not as important as in other spirits, like tequila, or even more rum.

For rum, if I followed your advice, and buy the cheapest that tastes good, then I'm buying neutral spirit with sugar, glycerin and aromas added to it, with a label that lies to me about age, production process and anything else.

Anonymous said...


An interesting and insightful post, as always! Nonetheless, I believe that knowledge DOES make the whiskey taste better. For me, and I suspect for many whiskey drinkers (like you!), knowing the whiskey provenance adds to the overall enjoyment. That is, whiskey “tasting” is not just an olfactory phenomenon; it is an experience. This is true even if you are just knocking back a glass rather than straining to identify the notes of tobacco, dried leaves, coriander and treacle that a whiskey critic has described.

In the same way, enjoyment of museum paintings is enhanced by knowing the identities of the artists who painted them. That is, museum viewing is not just a visual phenomenon; it is an experience.

So, yes, if you like the whiskey, drink it! Even if you do not know who made it. Given a choice, however, between two whiskeys of comparable character, I prefer the one with known provenance. Especially if the other whiskey comes with a nonsense storyline about great grand pappy’s secret recipe and a micro font notice on the back label, “distilled in Indiana”.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with whiskey distilled in Indiana! But folks at MGP likely know nothing about great grand pappy’s secret recipe. How could they? It’s a secret!

Tom Troland

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I agree with nearly every word, Chuck. I also agree with shlimmerdurst, that good regulation makes most bourbon a pretty decent drink. I find there is much less of a crapshoot when trying a new bourbon when compared to many other alcoholic beverages. Yes there are products I don't take to. Whiskey that's been aged two years (or less) tends to stand out among the stuff I do not like. Ditto of there is a lot of malted barley in the mash (one reason why I like to see the mash bill if it is something new and pricey.)

But I can't take being lied to. I agree anyone should drink what they like, and those who have no real interest in providence probably don't need to pay too much attention. But I think we should all be interested in basic honesty (if not transparency) with everything we buy, and especially physically consume. Bottom line: Just don't lie to me.

I think you can be somewhat educated on what you consume without being snobbish.

Chuck Cowdery said...

That has always been my personal bottom line. Tell the truth. And not the dodgy truth, the real truth.

Anonymous said...

As a DSP I must sadly disagree with slimmerdurst. There is virtually no enforcement whatsoever in the whiskey industry in the US.

The TTB has advised that there is no funding provision in their budget for label, formula and age enforcement. They instead recommend that individuals who are aware of obvious violations, contact their state attorney general.

There is NO enforcement, and as such you as a consumer have absolutely no idea what you may be consuming. Period.

Caramel in your bourbon? Sure. Sugar in your rye? Yep. Fake age statements. You bet. NGS mash fortification in Straight Whiskey. Giddy up.

If you find fault with the system, the TTB is still accepting comments on proposed changes.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Unfortunately, your anonymity detracts from the credibility of your claims. If you are, as you claim, a DSP holder, you know that violators do get caught and punished, and punishment can include loss of license, which puts the offender out of business.

Anonymous said...

Agree with this post and many of the comments.
Here's my secret - I really like JTS Brown BIB and can buy a bottle for under $10 when I'm in Kentucky!
Awesome bargain, in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but TTB audits are Excise driven only. You can apply for and receive an "NAS Straight COLA" the day your whiskey is taken out of the still and slap it on whenever you feel "lucky". Meanwhile the blending that is going on with everything from " "orphan barrels" to refrigerated "old you know who" whiskey is rampant. There isn't even a protocol to stop check it. Read a little history on why the ATF/TTB did not require US whiskey to be a certain age before it could be sold in the US, like in most other countries. They have had their heads in the sand for years.

Most consumers don't even know what mash fortification is, and if it can be imported across state lines, then all considered "Straight" once it has been mash blended and redistilled.

You think the corn syrup Super Bowl beer add was an eye opener? Thats nothing compared to the games being played in whiskey.

Chuck Cowdery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chuck Cowdery said...

Dear Anonymous, you of "Sorry but TTB audits are Excise driven only" above.

Because your accusations are serious and, to the best of my knowledge, almost entirely false, no more comments from you will be posted unless you identify yourself and take responsibility for your words.

Rob said...

I agree with most of what has been said and I skew towards provenance mattering to actual enjoyment of the drink. With that said, I also must insist on provenance as much as possible because I vote with my dollars. If a company is putting out a product that is particularly detrimental to the environment, their CEO seems to be a complete ass, or something else, I want to make sure I am not giving them business. Maybe I am just a hippie though.

Andy said...

I agree with a lot of what you say, about trusting your taste and following your enjoyment. And not swallowing marketing hype. However, (it might be my millenialism showing) but it matters a fair bit to me who makes the products I buy and how they make them. If a spirits producer lies to me, treats their employees badly (way more craft offenders than I think most realize), disregards the environment or equality, I won't knowingly support them. There are a lot of great tasting $30 bottles in the world to choose from.

I know that the whiskey industry (here and in Scotland) has always involved sourcing/trading/blending and have no problem with it but there must be truth. If a restaurant says it's farm-to-table and their dishwasher tells me it's all Sysco, I won't eat there.

Chuck Cowdery said...

If anyone thinks I'm saying provenance isn't important, I'm not. I'm a big provenance guy. And I'm certainly not saying provenance shouldn't influence your purchase decisions. I'm just saying provenance and taste are unrelated, and if all you care about is taste (as some claim they do), then you don't have to pay attention to provenance.

Anonymous said...

Provenance informs taste. I like it when I can know that the bottle in my cabinet contains the same substance that was tasted by the person who recommended it to me. Although their graphic design is sort of the Dr. Bronner of whiskey, I must agree with the late Col. E. H. Taylor, Jr., viz. "Let the label tell the truth."

Taste requires provenance. If all you have tasted is Tang, how will you ever have the context to appreciate fresh-squeezed tangelo? If anyone can get away with labeling Tang as fresh-squeezed, who will ever provide the genuine article?

Anonymous said...

Great post, Chuck! To wit: "...most people don't trust themselves, which makes them susceptible to the wiles of charlatans and quick-buck artists." and also from Tom Murin above "People like, or rather love - a narrative" - this is EXACTLY how we get all the sourced bottles with made up stories about outlaws, etc. Lies are a "product", which follows the laws of supply and demand, and the credulous public only has themselves to blame, that a "demand" for lies exists. That's why they are called "brands" - don't be a dumb "consumer" and you won't be "branded" like cattle. Just look at Pappy Van Winkle - it's not even being made where the "famous" PPV was made AND routinely gets outdone by mass produced bourbons in blind tastings. But the madness is so feverish that other Buffalo Trace bottlings (mass produced ones, like Weller) are now harder to keep on the shelves, even the actual Buffalo Trace plain bourbon. So I just explore others!

Like you, I both deeply care about the real back-story and provenance AND I don't let it influence what I prefer to drink. I enjoy [some] cheap bottles, some mid-shelf stuff and some higher end. And occasionally I find some of the cheaper stuff to be better than the stuff everyone hordes. Whatever.

To use an analogy, I enjoy telling people how Jamón Ibérico is made. I like the story. But I don't actually enjoy the product all that much and wouldn't pay the price (though I'm not saying it's bad, it's just not my thing).

And as Ralfy likes to say, I seriously appreciate transparency and "integrity bottlings" - when the label tells me various geeky minutia. True, I don't need a recipe, I won't be making it at home. But knowing that a single malt Scotch is from bourbon or sherry casks is certainly important and helpful. There is absolutely nothing lost by revealing details but it projects honesty, transparency and confidence. One more analogy: it is not a coincidence that fast food joints brag about "secret recipes" while professional chefs usually do not! A professional chef can usually "decode" something they taste, there's no secret. So Haute Cuisine restaurants always tell you exactly what you're eating. They simply use high quality ingredients and good technique - everyone is welcome to "steal" that. Ok, one more analogy: in music there's no such thing as "secret chords" or notes. Authorship is important but then anyone can learn the tune by ear (if they are skilled). But when we go to the symphony or rock concert, we certainly want to know who is playing and to see them playing live and not use a recording.

Random musings over :) Thank you for the article :)

Jeff said...

Okay, I've been in this for 28 years, and I have to admit that I don't know what NGS mash fortification is. Can someone enlighten me?