My passion may be beer, but my first real drunk was on whisky. Dimple Pinch Scotch Whisky, to be exact. A whole bottle of the stuff.
I was 14-years-old and spending the night with two of my best friends (and my best friend’s hot older brother and his best friend) under the supervision of my best friend’s grandparents. When they went to bed around 7 pm, the brother dug out his hidden stash of booze from under the bed. It was not a fancy spread, but it was alcoholic: Everclear, Pinch, and a fine bottle of Franzia red wine. I had sipped at my parents’ beer and wine on occasion, and one time got a serious buzz off of mimosas that I was completely unaware contained champagne (I just knew it was sweet and fizzy), but that was the extent of my alcohol experience.
So while my girl friends shared the bottle of wine and the boys went after the Everclear, I decided that Scotch was my drink. Because at 14, I was super sophisticated. Well, Scotch followed up by pixie stix. So much whisky, so many pixie stix. I managed to not only keep my booze (and an obscene amount of crinkle-cut french fries and nacho cheese) down, but didn’t die of alcohol poisoning. Bonus. I did, however, have a hangover that lasted most of high school. More on that in another post.
And as is so often the case for folks who get drunk for the first time on a strong-flavored beverage, I couldn’t even smell whisk(e)y for years without feeling sick. So when I landed a sweet gig at the Flying Dog Brewery giving tours and was told that I would also be giving tours at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, I felt some trepidation.
I so clearly remember that first sip of Stranny’s. The smell reminded me somewhat of the Pinch, but smoother, sweeter. The flavor reflected the scent with some solid vanilla and oak. I was transported from my friend’s basement to a cabin in the Tennessee woods, watching the rain drizzle down. It was transformative. But it was far from my favorite thing I tasted that first day, as it was still whiskey.
Oh how quickly tastes change.
The Stranahan’s distillers, Jake and Dave, taught me the history of whisk(e)y, the different varieties, how they were distilled and aged, how different grains and wood affected the final product, how to distinguish great verses crap.
Part of this education included Jake and Dave bringing in different whiskies for me to try. Bourbons, sour mashes, Scotches, Irish whiskies… as my palate became more educated, my love for the distilled beer grew greater. When I lost by job at Flying Dog, it was my parting with Stranahan’s that was the most difficult. Heartbreaking, even. I had completely fallen for them.
I have one bottle from each of the first ten batches of Stranahan’s. I have a poster signed by the original staff (speaking of which, I need to track that bugger down and frame it!). When my sister’s first daughter was born, I wrote her name on one of the barrels. I couldn’t believe it when Flying Dog moved to Maryland and left Stranahan’s in the lurch. I was impressed with their new space on Kalamath. I was sad when I heard the news that Dave left, then Jake. I was upset when Stranahan’s sold to Proximo, but I understand that there are times when a business must sell in order to grow. I loved that place.
And as much as I loved their whiskey, I loved the education more. It should come as no surprise that the more I learned about whisk(e)y, the more I loved whiskies of every ilk. It’s like so many things: tedious and foreign until that one moment when you say “aha” and it all is more wonderful and interesting and consuming.
That’s how I want people to feel about beer. I want them to keep trying different beers from different breweries, even if they are intimidated or going outside of their comfort zone, and to learn about brewing and beer history, until something clicks and they realize how beer is so much more than Coors.
But, back to whisk(e)y. Until Stranahan’s, there were no small-batch, hard liquor distilleries in America. They are small-batch distilling license number eight: the first seven are brandy distilleries. The original owners of Stranahan’s spent a huge amount of time and money working on getting federal, state, and local approval to distill. And their work paved the way for the micro-distilling revolution that we are so lucky to be in the midst of here in the US.
What about that crazy tree chart? It shows the parent companies of the majority of bourbons and sour mash whiskies. While I understand when companies sell into conglomerates, I also believe it’s wise to know who owns your beverage company so you know where the money is going. And so you don’t sound like a twit when getting into a famous “my whisk(e)y is better than yours” fight.
I plan on doing more educational posts about spirits, but when Jake posted this chart on Facebook, it prompted me to do a short post about my favorite of the distilled beverages.
It somewhat surprises me that, after downing enough Scotch to kill a reasonably-sized bull moose, I still can even be the same room as whisk(e)y, let alone love it as I do. I will admit, my inner hipster kind of likes the cachet of ordering a nice glass of whisk(e)y, neat (although I do like a couple of drops of water about halfway through, to get the beverage to open up a bit). I guess if I can come to love whisk(e)y, there are few things I can’t learn to love. Maybe, one day, I’ll even love labradors (doubtful).
My advice when it comes to whisk(e)y? Order some. If you’re at a decent bar, ask the bartender what his or her favorite is and give it a try. Maybe even start off with Irish coffee or a hot toddy or a Manhattan. And keep trying until you find something you like. Then try more until you have several that you like. Then drink some more until you have several you like and a couple you love. Then drink more until you say “aha” and your world shifts, just a little.
Today’s article lubricant: 12-year Highland Park Scotch whisky.