Gluttony seems to be getting attacked from all sides these days. There's always the standard Christian aversion to it, but recently we've been informed (yet again) that having too many choices does not lead to happiness and that we (Americans) have a tendency to fetishize, well, anything we can. Apparently, we no longer value simple enjoyment, and in our constant search for "the best" we've managed to lose touch with that which is really good. Meh. When confronted with this line of thought, I like to recall Wallace Stevens's dictum: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." In fact, I'll do Mr. Stevens one better "...and you should really ask him if you can try every flavor."
This was my mindset when I stepped into Whiskyfest 2005, a virtual Baskin Robbins (times four or five) for adults that was held in the Marriott in Times Square a few months ago. Two friends and I forked over $95 each for the pleasure of wandering from table to table (over fifty all told) trying sample after sample of whisky (or "whiskey," if you prefer - the "e" is common in the American and Irish spelling of the word) for about four hours. None of us come close to qualifying as aficionados. I would place us all squarely in the "eager beginner" category; we each have three or four bottles at home, we like to drink it, and we want to taste a whole lot more of the stuff.
We came up with four rules for the night:
1 - Eat beforehand. Food would be served there, but it couldn't hurt to get something in your stomach.
2 - Drink plenty of water.
3 - There are buckets at every table: use them. The point is not to get drunk, but to taste as much whisky as possible. Drink enough to make a judgment and dump the rest. Seriously. I mean, unless it's really good or something. Or, you know, you just want to drink it all. Okay: Don't get too drunk.
4 - Don't drink anything you have already tried. Unless it's really good, or, you feel like it or whatever.
We entered the ballroom, holding our goodie bags (a copy of Malt Advocate magazine, a small glass with "Whiskyfest 2005" etched into it, two little hotel room bottles of booze, and a small book with a map of the tables and space to write reactions), and immediately became bewildered. Any notion we'd had of where to begin evaporated. Scotch or bourbon? Which Scotch, which bourbon? We wandered for several minutes, open-mouthed and dumb, skimming tables but unable to take a taste for some reason. We eventually settled (for no good reason) on the Isle of Jura table, which was manned by a smiling older gentleman in a kilt. We approached and I snuck a look at his nametag: Willie Tait. A Scottish guy named Willie. My brain immediately turned into a Simpsons quote generator ("What do ya mean, there's no such thing as Scotchtoberfest?!" "Willie hears ya, and Willie don't care.")
He handed us each a small pamphlet explaining the different whiskies from the Isle of Jura. "There are tasting notes here for each of them, but you can ignore them...It's all what you get out of it. Your individual palate's response to it." He turned his pamphlet to a map of Scotland and pointed.
"Here's Jura. It's next to Islay. Do ya know what the best thing about Islay is?"
We all shook our heads "no."
"Ya can see Jura from it!" He laughed and we joined in, then he squinted one eye, looked around and said, "Oh, he's a mean bastard, isn't he? And he hasn't even had a drink yet." I typically don't cotton to people speaking of themselves in the third person, but Willie pulled it off. He then went on to explain the differences between Scotches from Jura and Islay. Islay Scotches are much smokier. We tried the three different Scotches at the table (a 10 year, a 16 year, and one called Superstition, which was far smokier than the other two). The 10 year - the most straightforward of the lot, was my favorite. This is why I am an amateur. "If you want to get a sense of Islay," Willie told us, "try the Laphroig over there." We thanked him, happily, and headed for Laphroaig (pronounced "la-froyg").
"Willie is awesome."
We tasted Laphroaig (too smoky for me, almost "mesquite-y"). We made our way to Suntory, and much to my amazement the poster behind the table said "It's Suntory time." I giggled. It also said, "(c) 2003 Lost in Translation." While I felt like neither an ennui-ridden, aging actor, nor a disaffected, youthful nymph after drinking them, the whiskies were quite good. A note here is necessary: Where advanced drinkers would likely have been able to tell if a whisky had been sitting in its casks for a day too long, or had been smoked for 30 seconds too little, our amateur responses were essentially: 1) "Wow, that's amazing." 2) "Yech, too [blank] for me." 3) "That's weird...but good." 4) "Yep, tastes like whisky."
We went up to the empty Lombard table, and were met by a stone-faced guy. We looked at the selection, waiting for Stone Face to break the ice. When he didn't, my friend asked, quite innocently, "So, uh, which of these is your favorite?"
"That's a ridiculous question," Stone Face replied.
"'Cos it depends on when you're drinking it. It depends on why you're drinking it. You have a few girlfriends...which one of them is your favorite?" On one hand, Stone Face had a point. On the other, Stone Face was a jerk. And not just a jerk, but a jerk who puts together poor metaphors. And a jerk who is supposed to be acting as a salesman. We tried some of the whisky. It could have tasted like ambrosia (the food of the gods, not the dessert) and we wouldn't have liked it. You're a jerk, Stone Face.
This brings me to the three types of whisky pourers at Whiskyfest:
1) Pretty girls in little, black dresses.
2) Knowledgeable people who work for the distillery.
3) Salesmen who are very excited.
There are of course hybrids (pretty girls who are quite knowledgeable) and subcategories (distillery employees who are jerks; distillery employees who are nice).
The hall was grew more and more crowded, and we had to stand in line to get to the tables for samples. Who crowded the hall? Middle-aged white men in good suits (I did spot a few women, a few minorities, and a few hipsters. The oddest sociological observation I can make was that the crowd was also very Jewish. Guys in yarmulkes were common, and there were even a few men in Orthodox dress). We wandered and tried the varieties of rye whisky that were available (Old Portrero, Michter's) and generally enjoyed it, but felt that it wasn't for everyday drinking. It was very "bright" tasting, and not anywhere near as "peppery" as I had assumed it would taste (Rye, it should be noted, seems to be making something of a comeback. It should also be noted that since Rye is a variety of whisky, Don McLean's Prom-ending anthem is both annoying and redundant.). Penderyn, the first and only Welsh whisky in a century, was interesting - both straightforward and quite delicious (and the Type 2 manning the bottles was extremely helpful). Michter's "American Whiskey" was very, very good. Then A Type 1 poured us massive amounts of a $500/bottle Scotch (the amount poured generally had an inverse relationship to the price of the whisky). We were giddy, then drank it, and my response to it, I am ashamed to say, was "Yep, that tastes like whisky." A 20-something Type 3 in a velvet (!) suit poured us three varieties of Speyside. He looked and acted like Max Fisher from Rushmore. Where's Bill Murray at?
We took a break.
We sat down at a table outside the tasting area with two gentlemen who didn't object to our presence. One got up, and the other introduced himself as a "real horse's ass when it [came] to whisky." At first I figured he was a novice like us, but it was just the opposite. He was a horse's ass because he was obsessed with whisky (like the way some of those people in Into Thin Air just needed to climb Everest. Except they died. And they served as a handy metaphor for man's hubris.). He was wearing a salmon-colored shirt and had a vague twang in his voice. If I had to assign a label to him, it would be "Rich Nascar Dad." We leapt on him for information, and he supplied it mostly by mocking our pedestrian tastes (I'd been downright awestruck by how good a John MacDougall single cask whisky had been. His response: "John MacDougall's a good guy, he's worked at a lot of distilleries, but I don't know if this stuff he's got coming out with, uh, the guy in the kilt is really worth it.")
"Did you guys try Suntory?" Salmon Shirt asked.
"Yes..." I said, unwilling to give away my opinion for fear of being mocked.
"Those Japs are doing really great things. I'm being facetious; I'm not racist. Really good things, though. Oh, and if you're not into, y'know, categories where it has to be single malt...it has to be from this specific place. You should try Compass Box, that guy is doing some great things with blends."
"Oh," I thought, "He's an anti-snob snob." We had in fact tried Compass Box and liked all four of the whiskies we'd tried (Hedonism, in particular). I was both happy that I apparently had somewhat refined taste, but also a little upset that I liked the same thing as Salmon Shirt, whom I was finding more distasteful with each passing moment. He quizzed us on what we had at home, and when one of us described Maker's Mark as his everyday whisky, Salmon Shirt responded, "I like Maker's Mark. Take some of that wax, put a dot on your forehead, pretend you're an Indian."
We re-entered the hall for a final circuit, and found a few more whiskies we liked. A Glengoyne 16 year Scottish Oak and several of the Glenmorangie 12 year olds. They're finished in different kinds of casks for very different effects - burgundy and sherry were my favorites). We tried good Irish whiskey (Clontarf and Knappogue) and Irish whiskey that did nothing for us (Tullamore Dew). There was an announcement: "We've found a cell phone." A pause. "We've also found a set of keys." "Someone drove to this, and they're giving him back his keys," I thought. The crowd was getting drunk(er). As I washed out my glass at the Glenrothes ("Yep, that tastes like whisky.") table a massive and massively drunk man thrust his glass at me for me to pour some water into it. When I hesitated at his rudeness he said, "We're all in this together." Hmm? I poured the water and didn't make eye contact.
The night wound down and our taste buds grew exhausted. We returned to the Isle of Jura table to get Willie to make us laugh again. It was an attempt at artificially bookending the evening (our own, mild version of "doing a cattleya;" Proust would not have appreciated it), but it misfired happily. Instead of Willie, we got the distillery manager for Isle of Jura. While he did not joke around, he did take a good five or ten minutes to explain why we were tasting what we were tasting. He explained the importance of the barrels used, the stills, the amount of smoke. It was a crash course in what makes Scotch Scotch. A CNBC cameraman shot us as we listened. I did my best to look studious, but I cracked a slight smile when I imagined a voiceover saying, "Whiskyfest attracts all kinds...from the rich and well-dressed [shot of someone rich and well-dressed], to the poor and ignorant [shot of me and my Old Navy khakis]." The distillery manager finished up, and we finished our last whiskies of the night. We exchanged handshakes and thanks with him, retrieved our coats, and staggered (though not too badly) out into the Manhattan night.
"This was," one of my companions commented, "one of those rare moments when the event lives up to your expectations of it." Take that, Barry Schwartz.