Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Makes The Water of Life Whisky Event Extraordinary?

Matt Lurin hosts The Water Of Life Event
What is the best whiskey event in the world?  Indeed, what makes a great whisky event?  Great whisky to be tasted, to be sure.  But comfort, decadence, and camaraderie have evolved, for me at least, to be almost as important.  I'm going to make the case that Matt Lurin's Water of Life just might be the ultimate whisky event.  I'm going to lay out my reasoning in detail and back it up with photos and descriptions of last year's astonishing event and details of this year's which continues a dramatic evolution towards whisky event greatness.  This event is going down May 18th 2017 and you'll want to attend and pony up for one of the VIP ticket options (and there are more than one).  Read on.
Malt Maniac Peter Silver gets the story from Raj Sabharwal on the VIP Terrace
Why go to a whisky event at all?  The usual answer is - to taste a widely among current offerings - learning a lot.  The other reason is to reconnect with friends - and make new ones. The classic format, which I associate with the parent of modern whisky events: WhiskyFest, involves a large bourse with many tables each devoted to a given distillery, brand, or distributor.  People crowd around - Glencairn glasses extended - vying for a pour.  Presenters run through their spiel quickly - stating the same thing over and over to a disorganized swirl of people.  Over the course of such an evening, you spend most of the time standing.  Most of the drams are drunk too quickly - and too soon after the pour, lacking time to open up.  You run into friends, connect, lose them again in the crowd, and if you're lucky to reconnect.  Most whisky events - even the best ones (like the extraordinary Whisky Jewbilee) - tend to run like this.  They often have VIP sessions which are classroom style with sit-down tastings - but they tend to be at the beginning which means cutting out of work early to make them a challenge.

Diageo rep and fount of human warmth,
Joe Gratkowski, pours the extraordinary
Lagavulin 8.
The Water of Life is inherently different, and the difference comes from the central mission which is charitable.  Matt Lurin, the whisky enthusiast doctor who created it, developed it for a cause: helping cure a rare form of stomach cancer (GIST - gastro-intestinal stromal tumors) by supporting The GIST Cancer Awareness Foundation.  Every attendee is helping this charitable cause and this higher calling imbues the evening with a sense of celebration and meaning.

The main event (the non VIP ticket) is a sit-down format 'speed-dating' type of event where you sit with small group of 4-5 people at a table and at intervals move to a new table.  At each, you sit down and have the whisky representative's undivided attention for a chunk of time.  This eliminates the crush and creates a more leisurely comfortable tasting session that fosters real conversation, whiskies opening up, and a feeling of luxury and ease.  There are hors d'oeuvres, dinner, and dessert and the option to buy an additional ticket for cigars and terrace access (normally a VIP only perk).

This year, Matt has something special planned with different focuses available for both the standard and the VIP tickets.  You can choose either "The American Whiskey Trail"(which debuted last year) which is about Bourbon and rye, or the "Island Getaway" which is about Islay Scotch.  You can also choose "A little bit of everything" which omits the specific focus.  You can specify Kosher or non-Kosher meals.  The food was excellent in 2015 and 2016.  VIP adds special pours, a beautiful cut crystal glass and that cigar terrace (which has special pours).

Rare Japanest from Flavien's
private collection in the ultra-VIP sessions
If you want to really experience what makes The Water of Life amazing you need an ultra VIP ticket - even more than at just about any other whisky event.  It comes back to the charity angle again.   This basis of the event in charity motivates presenters in a special way.  At the 2016 ultra VIP sessions, extraordinary people brought extraordinary drams.  A 50 year old Dalmore was served at the apex of an extraordinary flight.  Josh Hatton, impresario of The Jewish Whisky Company, Single Cask Nation, creator of the Whisky Jewbilee, and also brand ambassador for Impex, led a VIP session with the very cream of Impex's offerings.  The impresario behind New York's greatest whisky bars, The Brandy Library and Copper and Oak, Flavien Desoblin brought an astounding array of Japanese whiskies from his private collection - most of which I had never heard of or seen before.  They were incredibly delicious.  And, most amazingly of all from my perspective, was Joe Hyman's session which included a pre-Prohibition Belmont Bourbon - one of my unicorns, and medicinal pints, WWII era Scotches and Canadian whiskies and more.  You just don't see whiskies of this rarity and caliber at ordinary whisky events.  Unlike Germany's dusty smorgasbord Limberg where rare antiquities are on sale by the dram, to be had standing, these VIP sessions were included with the VIP ticket and were convivial, seated, leisurely, and extraordinary.  These VIP sessions came out of the love the NY whiskey community has for Matt Lurin and his cause.  It evokes generosity and people came with their A-game and it really showed.
The view from the cigar table at the 2016
Water Of Life VIP Terrace

For 2017 the Ultra-VIP ticket gets a whole second evening (May 17th) dedicated to those amazing pours. That way ultra VIP session attendees don't have miss time at the speed dating portion.  There is also a separate kick-off party on May 17th.  Get the details here:
http://www.wateroflifenyc.org/ticket-info.html

Last year the VIP venue was gorgeous and the cigars were delicious.  I love that he has created a way for standard ticket holders to get access to this.

All this luxury and charity doesn't come cheap.  But this isn't a regular whisky event.  It's for a cause - and it's something special.  The standard tickets are $275 and the VIP tickets are $400.  Use this discount code to get $25 off standard tickets and $50 off VIP ones:  "gcaf2017"
Get tickets here:
http://www.wateroflifenyc.org/ticket-info.html

Here are a few more photos of the 2016 event.  Notice the smiles.  The warmth and joy are real.  It was the best whisky event I went to in 2016 and may have been the best I have ever attended.  I'm excited to see Matt's assault of whisky event greatness continue to evolve in 2017.



Extraordinary pours courtesy of Raj Sabharwal
of Purple Valley Imports on the VIP Terrace


Steph Ridgeway spreads HP joy.
This was standard pour at WOL
but not at any other show.

Prohibition medicinal half pint and 1950s dusties at The Water Of Life ultra VIP
Yoni Miller, Ari Susskind, and Josh Feldman
Ari Susskind pours Tomatin, and also something dusty and special in his copper flask.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Whisky Gets Glamorous Tomorrow Night in Harlem

That Harlem Rensaissance vibe... Photo by Clay Williams

 Jazz and dance.  Photo by Clay Williams
I'm headed to the Harlem Whiskey Renaissance 2017 tomorrow, Thursday March 30th, 2017.  It's a whiskey show - where you get an engraved Glencairn glass and can visit tables where brand ambassadors will take you through their lines - but you also get a lot more.  Live jazz music by Dandy Wellington and his Band with burlesque acts by The Maine Attraction and Calamity Chang.  Also an awesome raffle and charity auction, cigars, chocolate, food, and a great vibe.

There are a ton of whiskies on offer (I'll put the list at the bottom).  There are VIP tickets which include a master class tasting five different Heaven Hill mash bills and another contrasting Corsair, Leopold, and Charbay offerings.  Also, VIPs receive the book "Distilled Knowledge: The Science Behind Drinking’s Greatest Myths, Legends, and Unanswered Questions" by Brian Hoefling.

Last year's VIP tasting featured Alan Roth presenting Glenfiddich - photo by Clay Williams 


Proceeds from this event will benefit a worthy charity which helps kids in Harlem: The Boys & Girls Harbor. http://www.theharbor.org/

The venue is conveniently located right on 116th St at MIST-HARLEM, 46 W 116TH ST, NY, NY

Visit the event's web site to learn more:
http://www.harlemwhiskeyrenaissance.com/


Here is the link to get tickets:  http://www.harlemwhiskeyrenaissance.com/tickets

Dancer joins in - photo by Clay Williams 
Some of pours and other attractions will include:
Dandy Wellington and his band jazz up the joint.
photo by Clay Williams 


Aberlour
Andullo Cigars
Bain's
Bernheim
Black Bottle
Bunnahabhain
Crown Royal
Dad's Hat
Deanston
Elijah Craig
Evan Williams
Filibuster Bourbon
Four Roses
Glenlivet
Glenrothes
Glen Scotia
Jake Cahill pouring Four Roses Kentucky Bourbon.
photo by Clay Williams 

Harlem Chocolate Factory
Harlem Swing Dance Society
Henry McKenna
Hudson Whiskey
Johnnie Walker
Kavalan
Kinahan's
Larceny
Ledaig
Loch Lomand
Magnum
Meyer's Alsatian Whisky
Nikka
Old Portrero
Pikesville Rye
photo by Clay Williams 
Sonoma County Distilling Co.
Tomintoul
Tullibardine
Wolfburn


Sounds like a fabulous time.  Join me there.
That link for tickets again:
 http://www.harlemwhiskeyrenaissance.com/tickets




David Bailey pouring elegant Scotch. - photo by Clay Williams 

photo by Clay Williams 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

New Study "Proves" You Can't Taste The Difference Between Single Malts And Blends. Or Does It?

It is a classic truism in the malt whisky world that single malts are "better than" blends.  The usual reason given is that single malts are free of the "inferior" grain whisky.  It's been popular in the whisky blogosphere to debunk this conclusion, usually by pointing to certain high-end blends and grain whiskies which are so good they stand up to any spirit.  The point is valid: high-end grain and blended whisky can be as good as all but the most incredible single malts.  However, the reputation of single malts as a category remains, and for good reason.  Single malts have an extraordinarily wide gamut of flavors: from 'honey and heather', to 'richly sherried', to 'powerfully peated' and all sorts of distinctive flavors in between.  Alternately sweet, or dry, or phenolic, grassy, smoky, floral, shy or huge, malt is a chameleon which is a terrific carrier for flavor factors such as malting method, wood management, and terroir.  For many single malt enthusiasts, this wide gamut is the exactly the point.  Where bourbon, rye, rum, and brandy can often win out on richness and intensity of their distinctive flavor signature, no spirit can hold a candle to malt for such kaleidoscopic variety.

Could you tell single malts from blends if you were tasting blind samples?  Experience has taught me that it can be devilishly hard to identify what you're drinking when you aren't told anything up front.  (I did a double blind tasting of American and Canadian rye whiskies and failed to tell which was which.  Then, there was the time that I mistook a rye for a Bourbon (see sample #1 in a Smoky Beast blind tasting).  And, one time I actually won Dramming.com's first blind tasting competition - and I didn't get a single identification right, just attributes like ages and proofs.)  Still - single malts and blends and single grains whiskies.  You should be able to tell them apart, right?

Jennifer Lucille Wren (left) and Emily Ross-Johnson (right) at one of the USA tasting sessions involved in the research.
Recently a piece of formal academic research came out which takes on this question and hopes to settle it empirically.  The paper is called "The perceptual categorisation of blended and single malt Scotch whiskies" by Barry Smith et.al and it was published in a journal called "Flavor", put out by Biomed Central (sadly Flavor is due to cease publication after the next issue) - (DOI: 10.1186/s13411-017-0056-x).
http://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13411-017-0056-x

The paper notes that "a firm distinction exists in the minds of consumers and in the marketing of Scotch between single malts and blended whiskies" but asks "But does this category distinction correspond to a perceptual difference detectable by whisky drinkers?"  In order to tell, expert and non-expert tasters in three different countries (UK, France, and the USA) were asked to apply standardized descriptors to the nose and palates to the following whiskies tasted blind

Four single malts Scotches:
  1. Cardhu 12 
  2. Mortlach (Flora & Fauna 16 yo)
  3. Glenlivet 18
  4. Glenmorangie (10 - although erroneously stated as 12)
Four blended Scotches:
  1. Chivas Gold 18
  2. Ballantine's 17
  3. Johnnie Walker Black 12
  4. Johnnie Walker Platinum 18
and one grain whisky:
  1. Cameron Brig (6 years old) 
The standardized descriptors allowed the researchers to compare results across 92 different tasters in the three different countries and to chart the results.  Here are the charts for the results of nosing these whiskies by experts (top chart) and non-experts (bottom chart) for example.  Single malts are in blue, blends are in black, and the lone grain is in red.  Single malts and blends are all mixed up - although I notice that the experts and the non-experts put a number of the whiskies in the same general areas (although not the grain - which veers drunkenly).



I had the pleasure of sitting on one of the tasting panels, along with some very distinguished members of the New York whisky community at that time (September 2014), including Matt Lurin, the man behind what is probably the best whisky event on the planet at the moment, The Water of Life (more on this blog about that event very shortly - meanwhile click the link to buy tickets), Emily Ross-Johnson who, at the time, was the founder of the Astoria Whiskey Society (now she is the founder of the Portland Whiskey Society - and you should join if you're out there - click the live link), Jennifer Lucille Wren, a whisky blogger and event organizer then, who is now the West Coast brand ambassador for Glenfiddich, and Susanna Skiver Barton, whisky blogger, journalist, and now manager of the Whisky Advocate's web presence.  The experience of participating in the tasting gives me a personal perspective on how this study operated because I was there.
Lead author, Barry Smith, explains the tasting procedure to Matt Lurin (left) and Jennifer Wren (right)
Susanna Skiver Barton (left) and Josh Feldman (the author of this post) at one of Smith et al.'s NY tastings.  The blind samples in the study are before us.  Photo by Emily Ross-Johnson (thanks)

Smith et. al.'s conclusion is that people can't taste the difference between single malts and blends:

"The present study shows that the distinction between blends and single malts, which is central to the production, presentation and marketing of Scotch whisky, does not correspond to a clear cut perceptual distinction for tasters."

Barry Smith and his colleagues have structured an empirical blind study with a good methodology - so have they settled this topic?  In my opinion, absolutely not.  The problem has to do with the types of single malts and blends they selected for the study.  All of the single malts selected - with the sole exception of Mortloch, fall squarely in the "honey and heather" flavor profile, and that's exactly true of the blends selected too.  This isn't representative of those overall segments.  When you walk into a liquor store and peruse the blended Scotch, many of the options are considerably lighter and less distinguished than Johnnie Walker Platinum 18, Chivas Gold 18, or Ballantine's 17 - or even Johnnie Walker Black 12.  The likes of J&B, Johnnie Walker Red, Passport, 100 Pipers, Bell's, Clan McGreggor, Dewar's White Label etc... are far more grainy and less honeyed and floral than the unabashedly high-end blends in the study.  Conversely, many single malt enthusiasts will often opt for single malts well outside the "home plate" honey and heather flavor profile - going for sherry bombs like Glendronach, Aberlour, or Macallan, or peat monsters like Laphroaig, Ardbeg or Lagavulin, or dozens of different interesting variants (the rubber of Ledaig, the pheolic Strathspey, the salt and honey of Old Pultney, Springbank's fungal notes... etc...) rather than the gentle likes of Cardhu, Glenlivet, and the base Glenmorangie.  These single malts, delicious as they are, tend to be close to the center of the "honey and heather" "Highland" flavor profile that is exactly what the blenders at Diageo and Pernod Ricard are aiming for.

To some extent, there is no way to structure a piece of scientific research which adequately captures this broad flavor gamut - precisely because it would be so easy to pick them out blind which would muddy the central question of whether something specific about single malts versus blends is objectively detectable.  It's clear that the designers of this study selected whiskies for the blind tasting deliberately to have a very similar flavor profile with the specific aim of trying to see if tasters could identify the sole distinction with flavor signature held constant as much as possible.  And, in that aim they have succeeded.  I couldn't tell the difference.  The preponderance of the other tasters couldn't either.  And I bet you couldn't reliably tell the difference blind with this set of drams either.  But, I argue that these selections don't represent the nature of blended Scotch whiskies and single malt whiskies generally.  Looking at the segments as a whole, you and I would be far more likely to be able to pick out blends versus single malts when the full gamut of flavors is in the mix.  Select J&B and Bells as the examples of blends, and Laphroaig 10 and Glendronach 15 as the single malts, for example, and then taste those blind.  I bet I could pick the single malts and blends in that example that every time and you probably could too.  It's those real perceptual differences that gave rise to the generalizations that aren't always true - but are true often enough to make them commonly held - which is why whisky bloggers are still writing pieces about how good blends can make you question those assumptions.

So where does that leave us?  Is there some Platonic ideal of "single maltness" which can be differentiated from "blendness"?  No.  Barry Smith et. al. have scientifically proved that, when flavor signature is held relatively constant, tasters cannot distinguish between single malts and blends.  My complaint is that they left that qualifying clause out of the language of their published conclusion, and I find that omission misleading.  It implies, to someone not carefully reading, that all this whisky epicureanism is some kind of snobby mirage and that no one can really taste the difference between the carefully crafted and inexpensive bulk stuff.  That isn't the case at all - and it's not what Barry Smith et. al. meant to imply either.  But they left the door wide open to that misinterpretation.  In social media where many people will only read the headline, that incorrect message will be the one that people will learn most from this study.  In the real world, you can actually taste the difference between many many single malts and many many blends all day long.