What should wine lovers look for in a Bourbon? Is Scotch really that intimidating? WE Editors Kara Newman and Dylan Garret pull up to the bar to talk to two experts—Flavien Desoblin, owner of Brandy Library and Copper & Oak, and New York Times spirits writer Clay Risen—about America’s favorite brown spirit, whiskey.
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Read the full transcript of the episode “Getting Frisky Over Whiskey”:
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Hi I’m Dylan Garret, Associate Digital Editor, and recovering bartender over at wine Enthusiast Magazine, and I’m here with our Spirits Editor, Kara Newman.
We’re at the Brandy Library in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City, ready to trade in our wine glasses for rocks glasses, as we talk about one of our other favorite alcoholic beverages, whiskey.
We are currently settled into a couple of plush leather sofas, literally surrounded on all sides by countless bottles of some of the finest spirits in the world, covering every surface imaginable here. Literally what my apartment looks like in my imagination, if I won the lottery and had any sort of sense of taste when it comes to interior design.
The after-work crowd is already filtering in. We’ve got a fantastic sound track of jazz and big band to go with some Boulevardiers they just put in front of us, and we’ll soon be talking with the Brandy Library’s owner, Flavien Desoblin about how whiskey has shaped this bar’s path over the years. He also teaches classes here on the subject, that have become quite popular.
And later on, we’ll also be chatting with Clay Risen, author and Spirits Writer for the New York Times, who has an upcoming book on Scotch he’ll tell you about, along with his take on the future of whiskey and general revelry.
So hopefully, you’re in a position to pour a couple of fingers of the good stuff yourself, while you listen along because it’s not nearly as much fun to talk about whiskey as it is to drink it.
Flavien Desoblin: Flavien Desoblin, Brandy Library, and Copper & Oak, Owner.
Kara Newman: So, we’re here at Brandy Library. We are sitting here in the middle of these beautiful shelves full of Brandy, of course, and plenty of whiskey, and this is actually one of the places I came first when I moved to New York, and started learning about whiskey.
What made you decide to start the Brandy Library?
FD: Well, in a nutshell, the market had a need for education along with the service of the more fancy spirits. But back then, it was really just single malt scotch whisky, so I wanted to make it a lot broader and nobody really knew what brandy was. The general public did not know. Single malt scotch, of course, rang everybody’s ears, but brandy … People thought it was just brown spirits, or fine spirits.
So for me, it was kind of a catch-all name, and it’s really just out of realizing that so many, so many people wanted to drink well, and could drink a few, and at a high price, but needed to know.
So there was this growing, in-the-know clientele. That was a very simple proposal, and actually, it’s been working ever since.
KN: What do you say to people who come in and don’t know much about whiskey? How do you guide them?
FD: Well, clearly, we start by telling them that there’s a huge variety of whiskeys, and just like brandy, it’s only an umbrella term, and there’s certainly a whiskey for every occasion, and every palate, and we always try to get some of their background first. Whether they’re wine drinkers, or beer drinkers, if they had an experience with scotch, for example, or bourbon, in the past, and from there we take them on say a bourbon and rye path, or a non-peated scotch path.
Usually, we’d keep it in the single grain, or blended grain, if it had to be a soft entry into the scotch category, just to make sure that easy notes of vanilla, and caramel, and butterscotch, would please them, because it’s really hard to not like all that.
And then we build in the different maturation styles. It seems to be both an easy approach, and one that makes a lot of sense for all to talk about the ex bourbon cask, and the ex sherry cask, and the use or not of peat during the malting of the barley when it comes to scotch whisky.
And then for bourbon and Japanese whiskeys, we’ve got different approaches.
But for scotch, which still represents a large chunk of the whiskey consumption here, this is our approach, and it’s been working very well.
DG: What do you look for when you’re trying to guide someone who’s not necessarily familiar with whiskey? If I was a customer, one of our listeners, who loved, let’s say, a very bold, dark California Zinfandel, what would you think when it comes to suggesting a whiskey for them?
FD: So, we’d go into the deep, the rich, almost hurtful … and I don’t say it in any negative way, but a cask strength, a rye whiskey, a first fill sherry, but matured single malt, or bourbon that’s been matured for maybe a little too long on top floors of those rack houses in Kentucky.
DG: Is there any particular trends that you see here at Brandy Library that are influencing what you’re looking for, what you’re buying, or anything recently that you’ve especially gone in and said, “I don’t think I’m stocking this one. This is going into the private collection.”
FD: Well, trends, even though everybody is always quite open to anything whiskey, they’re far from taking over. But brandies in general, are getting there. I mean Armagnac is getting so much traction now, and it’s still so affordable. The younger generation is waking up to it like it’s the last pot of gold.
But keeping in the world of whiskey in general, of course, a Japanese whiskey is all the rage, and we can’t have enough of it. It’s a little tough, because we can’t supply customers with enough of that.
But we make sure to give the education and to guarantee that people know it’s not all amazing, and they shouldn’t just be drinking anything Japanese. So that’s important.
Now, I think, is the time to realize that this is a world with a great variety of styles and price points, and values. When it comes to scotch whisky, I want to say that a couple of years ago, that the trend for peat had slowed down, and now it’s coming back up. Now, they want more peat again.
So, it seems to be in sort of waves, when it comes to trends for peated scotch, but now peated scotch is high again, only you can’t just present any sort of peated scotch. It’s got to have something in the background. It’s got to give the personality of the distillery. Otherwise, they just don’t buy it, and they think, “Ah. It’s just another smokey scotch. Right?”.
The American malts are probably still a thing of bar owners and industry-related liking. I think it’s going to take another few years for the consumers to really enjoy a category that’s still in the building, outside of a couple of big brands, but certainly it’s fantastic to see what Westland, for example, is doing, but American malt is becoming a category on its own. That’s beautiful. That’s what the market needs, another category, actually.
Otherwise, the finishing is almost assumed, and that’s a little bit of a problem, I think. Every scotch drinker wants to know what it is finished in. In their mind, this is what makes a final product, when up until a few years ago, a few distilleries were doing this, but it was certainly not part of the DNA.
Now, they even look down at a whiskey if it’s not finished in something, and we see most distilleries using those finishes, or actually maybe mentioning them now, and I think it’s a bit wrong. It’s a bit wrong of doing so, because there’s such a variety of takes on the finishing, from the months in the barrel that’s been used so many times, to first fill barrel for six months, I think it has become a catch-all phrase, and really just marketing is using this to justify a higher price, so that’s not good.
KN: There’s so many exciting whiskeys from around the world, I just heard about one from India today that I hadn’t heard of before. There’s whiskey from South Africa. There’s whiskey from New Zealand that just crossed my path. It’s a whole brave new whiskey world out there.
FD: And thanks to the new generation of drinkers, thanks to basically, the 25, 30-year-old currently, being open minded and being aware of everything, they know it can be a great whiskey wherever it comes from. So it’s beautiful. For us, it’s like, “OK. That’s it.”.
It’s been almost 13 years of waiting for this, and now it’s happening. Because they don’t see any whiskey with a negative preconception. So that’s perfect.
DG: Can I ask you, for the classes, when you sit all these people down in a room, and you’re kind of walking them through Scotch from nuts to bolts, how do you like to start and help them on their whiskey journey?
FD: Well, we actually make sure to liquor them up before they sit down to the survey. They’re getting an easy introduction to the category with either a highball, or what we call a mix-it, just a little bit of a syrup with the scotch, or Japanese whiskey, or whatever it is, with a couple of ice cubes, and with some food.
Then we sit them down, and we gauge the crowd to see who’s drinking what, and then from there, knowing how much they know, we build on. Sometimes, we spend the first five minutes to go over the very basics, because it’s clear that some of them are not up there yet.
And then we actually go into the technical stuff, because they want to know how many gallons of bourbon will expand in volume between 40 degrees fahrenheit to 120 degrees fahrenheit of a temperature swing. They really dig this.
But, it’s going to be entertaining, so we make them laugh, and we make sure that after seven whiskeys, they don’t remember the whole night, so we do it again soon enough.
But we always make sure that there’s a large part of the education, so to speak, on the wood, on the importance of oak, and what’s the differences in between the oak species, and the styles of maturations, and the climatic conditions, and all that, are doing to the overall final profile.
When needed, we show them a video of the barrel making. We show them some diagrams of distillation, and all that, but no PowerPoint presentation, nothing annoying, nothing boring.
DG: We’ll let you get to your class. Thank you so much for having [crosstalk 00:12:41]
FD: That’s an empty glass.
FD: That’s not right.
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Clay Risen: My name is Clay Risen. I write about spirits for the New York Times, and I am the author of American Whiskey, Bourbon, and Rye, A Guide to the Nation’s Favorite Spirit, and I am working on a book about single malt scotch.
DG: How long have you actually been doing the spirits beat at the Times, now?
CR: I edit op-eds, and then I write about spirits and pretty much whatever I want to say, which is wonderful. I just had a piece on regionalization of American whiskey, and focused on an effort here in New York to create a standard by which rye producers, in particular, would essentially be, not required, but could buy into a regional identity.
It’s cool that it’s happening here in New York. New York’s really a leader with that kind of thing with craft spirits laws, and with the industry generally, but you’re seeing it around the country, where people are doing things to say, “You can make bourbon anywhere, and you can make rye anywhere, and you can make single malt anywhere, but what is it about our place that makes it special?”
So, how do you define an American single malt in the Pacific Northwest, that may be different from what you might make in Texas, or in New York? It’s a lot like beer, where you kind of had a wave of everyone’s got a microbrewery, and everyone’s doing the craft thing, and suddenly, everyone’s doing the craft thing.
So, what does it mean to have Pacific Northwest style of beer, or a West Coast style of IPA, that might differentiate it from what someone would make in New England.
KN: What’s the difference? I know we were talking about Empire Rye, New York Rye, in your case. Is there a flavor profile that says, “This is a New York whiskey?”.
CR: Well, so there are kind of two things. One is the standards that on one level, just elevate and kind of create strictures to age it longer, to put it into the barrel at a lower proof, sort of requiring people to be a little more conscious of what they’re making.
The big thing, really, is that it also requires you to use New York Rye, in this case, New York grain, generally. It takes advantage of a trend that’s already going on, which you find in all kinds of culinary pursuits, and people really paying attention to where their products are coming from, and taking advantage of local traditions, and reevaluating what their [tarawera 00:15:49] is, whether its with food or with drink.
And drawing on things that people have done with wine for a long time, starting to say, “Well, what does it mean to grow a particular varietal of rye?”. And what’s exciting to see is that people are saying, “Yes.” To that, not just in New York, but in the Pacific Northwest, in Texas, in the Southeast, starting to really pay attention to the possibility that something that had been treated like a commodity before, rye, corn, wheat, you just get it on the spot market anywhere, and it all is kind of the same thing.
Maybe it makes a difference if it’s grown in a particular region, in a particular soil, under certain climactic conditions, that even after you distill it and age it, that it’s going to produce a different spirit, than if you made it exactly the same way, but using rye from California, or from Montana.
DG: Do you find in the current market here in America, that it’s now a majority of producers who are using locally grown ingredients, or are people still kind of buying things across state lines as far as the bulk purchases go?
CR: The fact remains that 90, 95% of this, whiskey in this case, out there, is made by the big establishment distillers. What I think is encouraging, is that some of these distillers, and particularly Jim Beam, are paying more attention to this kind of varietal and going back to a way that whiskey was made a long time ago.
Part of it is also market-driven. It used to be enough to say, “Hey. We’re one of the only craft distilleries in the Southwest.”. Up until recently, there weren’t that many. Now, all of a sudden, there are dozens. So how do you say, “Well, this is what we’re doing that’s different.”, both to differentiate yourself from the big guys and from craft distillers elsewhere, but also from the Johnny-come-latelys around you?
How do you say, “Well, no. What we’re doing is not just bourbon. We’re using local grains, and maybe you’re smoking it over mesquite, that you source locally, and you’re creating something that can only be made in your region.
KN: What are your thoughts on the new range of American single malts? I’m excited by a lot of them.
CR: I’m really excited. It’s something that, if you look back at the deep history of American craft distilling, in the 80s and 90s, the first things being made were single malts, because they were generally by people who had a decent amount of money, who really liked whiskey, and at the time, bourbon was not cool, and so they were looking at scotch as the source.
So in some ways, this tradition has been around for a while, but then bourbon became hot, and rye became hot, and then a second generation, and it really was generational distillers starting to say, “Well, what if we did a single malt, and to differentiate ourselves from what everyone else is doing, and also because it’s fun?”.
There are all kinds of things to play with, and a lot of people sort of work from the premise of beer in saying, “If you make a beer, and instead of adding hops, you distill it and then you age it, that’s a single malt. And we also don’t have the strictures that you have in Scotland, so we can call it a single malt regardless of whether it meets a Scotch malt, or a Scotch whisky association definition.”.
And there’s all kinds of cool things that are being done, and so that’s the appeal. What I think is really fun to watch is that these distillers, who five or six years ago were just kind of getting started with it. A good number of them have really come through, and made some beautiful, wonderful whiskeys of late, like Westland, or House Spirits, or Balcones, and they say, “You know what? Let’s try something totally different, because we just want to play around with it. And if you want to call that single malt, or you want to call it whatever, we don’t care, because we’re going to have fun, and we’re going to make something we think is pretty tasty and different.”.
It’s one of the really exciting things about craft distilling, that over the last decade, or even less than a decade, really, you’ve seen whiskey distillers who started with an idea that was different, and maybe a little weird, maybe just not something … and a lot of them didn’t work out. Let’s be honest.
But the people were willing to take a risk and say, “Yeah. What if we just took a commercial beer, and we distilled it, and we stuck it in a barrel, and we sold that as a whiskey? What about that?”
To see that sort of thing play out, and to be successful and delicious, is just … It’s life affirming, to be honest.
DG: Was there ever a moment for you, whether you were working on a story, or sitting around a bar watching someone order a drink, and thought, “Man. Like this is the turning point. Someone’s asking for something that I’m not used to seeing. This isn’t a Jack-and-Coke world any more.
CR: Probably not one moment. I was working on a story, or I’d started thinking about a story, about the demand for American spirits in Europe, and started talking to boutique importers in London, and Paris, and Germany, who were starting to look at American spirits.
And not importing huge amounts. No one was making bank on importing craft distillers from the United States, but even … This was four years ago, and the feedback from the distributors, but really the bartenders, over in London, and Paris, and in Berlin, saying, “Yeah. We want to get in on this thing. We think that American craft spirits are where it’s at.”.
For me, that was this kind of validating moment. For a distributor and a bartender to say, “You know, we don’t want this stuff that we can always get. We want that from Chicago.”.
That, to me, was a turning point, where that signaled … I think things are really here to stay.
KN: So, Clay, you’re currently working on a book about Scotch whisky, and that’s one of the most popular categories out there, and one that people always want to learn more about. What should people know about Scotch whisky? How would you introduce somebody to scotch?
CR: One of the reasons I wanted to write the book, was that even though scotch is very popular in the United States, it has this kind of stigma about it, or a stereotype that, a. It’s for rich people, and b. It’s really hard to understand.
Neither of those is true. Yes, there are $100,000.00 bottles out there, and yes, there are some incredibly arcane aspects to scotch, but when it comes down to it, you can also go to Trader Joe’s and buy a bottle of single malt branded by Trader Joe’s, that is one of the best values on the market.
And you can go get a Glen Moray, which is a beautiful distillery within the city limits of Elgin, right there in Speyside. You can go and get a Glen Moray for 25, 30 bucks. And Glen Moray makes beautiful whiskies. There are so many whiskies that whatever your price point is, you can have a pretty good single malt.
Now you can go up from there, but it’s absolutely not the case that you have to spend three paychecks to get a decent bottle of whisky.
So that was one thing. And the other is that it’s not complicated. It’s not complex. I am freaked out by French wine. It scares me. I don’t get it. I love wine …
DG: To be fair, me too…I don’t think I should be saying that.
CR: … but the number of times that I have tried to sit down and say, “OK. This year, I am going to learn French wine.”. And I have been turned away by my wallet, by my eyeballs, by just my brain size.
Scotch isn’t like that. There aren’t that many scotches out there. There aren’t that many categories. What’s beautiful about it is that it’s fairly simple to get into, and then it opens up from there.
So part of the book was really to start with that and to say, particularly to an American audience, “This is not intimidating. It’s not expensive. It’s something that everybody should be able to appreciate.”.
KN: Speaking of red wine, and non-red wines, too, can we talk a bit about all these wine finished whiskeys that are coming out?
CR: It’s cool. Traditionally, largely for convenience reasons in the 19th century, a lot of scotch was aged in sherry barrels, because sherry was enormously popular and you’d get these barrels, these shipping barrels, that would arrive in Scotland, or the UK, and people didn’t have a use for them, except, “Let’s age our spirits in them.”.
So you associate sherry and to some extent, port, and some other fortified wines from the continent, with scotch. But what you’re seeing now, is people starting to branch beyond that and to say, “Well, this doesn’t have to be sherry. It doesn’t have to be port. It can be chardonnay.”. Glen Moray, they make a chardonnay finished scotch, which is beautiful, and also by the way, is less than $50.00 a bottle. It’s a wonderful thing.
And there are a couple of other distilleries that are either owned by French companies, or have an affinity one way or the other with wineries, and they’re starting to play around with that connection.
And this goes to marketing as well. It’s a great opportunity to say, “Here’s something different. Here is a whiskey that is aged in French chardonnay, or some other white wine or red wine.”
In fact, right now I’m drinking a Talisker Distillers Edition finished in amoroso barrels. Beautiful. It’s such a perfect … and you wouldn’t think. Talisker. You think of Talisker as having almost a peaty, very, very saline, very kind of thick turtle neck sitting, standing against the waves, wind in your face …
KN: I love this description.
DG: Sorry, can we just do this for the next 30 minutes, because I’m pretty sure we could sell that as an audio book on Amazon.
CR: Exactly. But you take that, and you put it in this Italian wine barrel that’s just beautiful, supple, wine barrel, and it makes for a color on it is just … I don’t know if you can see it.
KN: It’s lovely. It’s dark.
CR: Sorry for those at home. You can not see it, but I would recommend if you’re ever in a store and you see it, you don’t have to buy it, but just look at the color of this Talisker. It’s beautiful, and it makes for this unexpectedly wonderful mixture of both that seaside, sort of pursuits fishermen sort of whisky, and this wonderful, sort of vineyard softness.
And the more distillers play around with this, I think the more fun and the broader the category becomes.
DG: Do you feel like you’ve noticed that scotch [inaudible 00:27:10] who’ve been kind of traditionally by-the-book, very strict set of rules for producing, are kind of being influenced by American producers now, as far as reaching out and experimenting with different barrels. Is it more just a general trend of people willing to reach a little further now?
CR: I think part of it is generational, in that you now have a younger generation of master distillers and executives and people throughout a company were coming around and saying, “We’re willing to grow the book out and try some new.”
But yeah. Absolutely. Different markets are influencing each other. This is the good side of having international ownership. At the same time, I think you’re right that the American market and the desire in the United States for bourbon, bourbon being the thing, is definitely having an influence back on the continent, back in Scotland.
Everyone, I think, learns something from the beer experience, where you have big beer that didn’t see craft coming, and even when it saw craft beer coming, ignored it. And all of a sudden, you had a category that was nowhere in terms of volume in the late 90s, suddenly, within a decade, had 16, 20% of the market, and now most of the growth is in crafts, and the big guys are flat-lining.
And bourbon is learning from that, and saying, “You know what? Let’s not wait until every craft producer out there making craft whiskey is capturing market share, and capturing all the growth in market share. Let’s start to innovate and do cool stuff.”.
And so you’re seeing even the big guys, even Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill, and Jack Daniels, doing innovative whiskeys. And as that happens here in the United States, and the American whiskey captures more of the market here, you see scotch distillers saying, “Yeah. We need to react, because not only are smaller producers coming around in the United States, they’re starting to pop up in Scotland, and doing innovative things. And the market is responding to that.”.
People don’t just want a decent blend to get them through the day, or their traditional single malt to get them through the day. They want to know what’s cool, what’s out there. When you show up at a bar like this, like Brandy Library, that really has the chops to present the range, you have people come to the bar and saying, “Well, what’s new this month? What’s interesting this month?”. They don’t want to ask for the thing they had last time.
KN: Ready to do a speed round. OK. So questions apply to both of you.
DG: Oh wait. I have to become knowledgeable now?
KN: Question number one. What bottle are you most excited about right now?
CR: Little Book from Jim Beam. So this is Freddie Noe. He’s Fred Noe’s son, Booker Noe’s grandson. Booker is the traditional, one of the big guy, barrel proof whiskeys from Jim Beam. This is Freddie Noe’s first product, and it is just supple, and fascinating, and big. It’s not a bourbon. It’s a mixture of a bunch of different whiskeys. It’s barrel proof and it is just … It is the thing that I reach for when I go home right now.
KN: How about you, Dylan?
DG: I’m firmly in love with the Jefferson’s Bourbon experiments, just as far as every time, they’re taking chances, but personally, I have more of a salty, savory profile. I don’t really care for sweet things, so the Ocean series, which just has salt and caramel toffee, is right up my alley, and strictly from a behind-the-bar, getting-in-front-of-the-masses standpoint, I actually really like the Jameson Caskmates series, just as far as it’s getting people who normally go to the bar and buy the same thing every night, it’s just kind of like a great entry point to get people to taking a risk, something they wouldn’t normally go for.
KN: OK. Next question. You’re desert island whiskey. If you could only have one, what’ll it be? Go for it, Clay.
CR: Oh, I won’t say one specifically, but I would take anything from Spring Bank. In an ideal world, Spring Bank would be understood to be the greatest distillery. They make just right down the line, everything you could want. Yeah. Spring Bank is where it’s at.
DG: That’s kind of a loaded question. Can we talk about the climate of the deserted island, or are we talking a desert island, like also take some…like a pallet of water would probably be really good, too.
KN: You may choose your island.
DG: I mean, look, I would love to name bottles that I’ve fallen in love with over the years, from the first time I tasted Auchentoshan, to hell, a bottle of Angel’s Envy and I would get along really well for a little while on a deserted island.
But honestly, if I’m there with no food and water, and there’s no way I’m getting off this island, I want that bottle of Power’s Gold Label because I’ve been drinking away my sorrows, and celebrating successes to that bottle since I was old enough to drink. And only since then. Never before.
But yeah, let’s stick with the classics.
KN: What is your favorite whiskey-based cocktail, and I’ll buy you a little time because we’re drinking mine right now, the Boulevardier.
CR: For me, I am a man of simple tastes, since my cocktail is an old fashioned is the way it goes.
KN: Solid. Classic.
CR: Classic, not hard. I am horrible at making cocktails, but I can make a decent old fashioned.
KN: How about you, Dylan?
DG: I’m actually going to riff off that, and say I would also go with an old fashioned.
KN: OK. I do love all of the Manhattan. I like a Brooklyn. I like a little Italy, all of those straight up, lots-of-vermouth, lots of other things thrown in there …
CR: You and I haven’t gotten to drink together nearly enough, but you definitely seem like a spirit on spirit on spirit kind of person when it comes to …
KN: I am. I like the stirred and boozy, yeah. And we can remedy that, that drinking together.
CR: Oh yeah.
KN: It’s like starting now. All of us. Thank you, Clay.
CR: Thank you.
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