Blind-tasting with Whisky Advocate’s Jeffery Lindenmuth.
All right, here we go. It’s a real road trip this time, because it’s summer and I’m like Snake Plissken trying to Escape from New York, because America is still the Beautiful, because I’m raising children in a big city and every once in a while, for the good of their minds and their bodies, we have to rent a car and dive into the interior, smell the mountain air, and let them kick the tires on farm life, while I drink brown liquors closer to where those liquors were born.
For the next four weeks, The Trip Podcast will be on a road trip through Appalachia, and for all the 14 hour flights and far flung travels this show has brought to me, I am very amped for this journey. We’ll be talking with a Spanish-inspired chef in Carolina, an (alleged) moonshiner in western Virginia, an outspoken cook and writer in West Virginia. But first, we start, as I often do when I’m escaping New York City, in Allentown with my old friend Jeffery Lindenmuth, the Executive Editor of Whisky Advocate and one helluva qualified drinking buddy. We sat in his offices in nearby Emmaus and did a morning blind tasting of bourbon, and were better men for it.
Here is an edited and condensed transcript from my conversation with Jeffery. Subscribers can listen to the full episode here. If you’re not on Luminary yet, subscribe and listen (and get a 1-month free trial) by signing up here.
Nathan Thornburgh: So, Jefferey, we are here in the offices of Whiskey Advocate, Emmaus branch. You have kindly decided to make an exception to your regular whiskey tasting structure, protocol because that usually happens in the office on the west side of Manhattan with a panel of esteemed tasters.
Jeffery Lindenmuth: Yeah, that’s right. Well, we don’t get many visitors in Emmaus, so I thought we could make an exception for you. We’re not going to do an official tasting. Our tasting all happens in the New York office because we have a tasting coordinator, and we receive samples there, and we have a panel of myself and some of the other editors that taste the whiskeys blind, meaning we don’t know what they are. And we don’t discuss them. We record our notes. We record our scores. And that’s what goes into the magazine.
Thornburgh: So, this is fucking science. This is a scientific panel of experts assigning a number, and that’s why it’s so specific in the way that you do it.
Lindenmuth: Yeah. I mean, I think the blind guide—for us, as well as Wine Spectator, and Cigar Aficionado, which are are sister magazines—that’s really how we earn our keep. It’s the integrity of the buying guide, and the integrity of the ratings that’s most important to the readers.
Thornburgh: Now, as a feature magazine writer, isn’t it the feature articles? Isn’t it the new travel section that you have coming up featuring the best whiskey cities on earth?
Lindenmuth: Well, we get good feedback on that, and we put a lot of love into it, but the buying guide is a lot of heavy lifting. Just getting the samples, rating and scoring the whiskeys, and sometimes they’re tasted multiple times. If there’s something that is an anomaly, or that we’re uncertain about, we can mark it retaste. So, if there’s a whiskey that’s known to be high quality, and it doesn’t do well, it’s not that we want to change the score, but we want to retaste it, and say, you know, let’s be certain that we’re making the right call here. Let’s give it a fair shake, and establish some consistency.
Thornburgh: I love that. I’ve got an image of myself at the Tracks Bar underground at Penn Station just sliding a note across the bar to the bartender, and it just says retaste.
Lindenmuth: Maybe revisit would be good in that context.
Lindenmuth: I’d like to revisit that whiskey.
Thornburgh: Now, the real crux of that is whether that’s a complimentary retaste, which I don’t believe exists in actual bar world. But you guys have the fortune in your place of just kind of drowning in whiskey.
Lindenmuth: Well, we make an effort to taste everything that’s released really. Right now, there are so many craft whiskeys coming out. There’s a deluge of craft distillers are just flooding us, and they’re putting out a lot of young products in some cases, and just throwing a lot of things at the wall. And the diversity, and breadth of quality there is much greater than in traditional American distillers.
How many times can I write caramel and vanilla on this page?
Thornburgh: Is that a nice way of saying there’s some real shit ones out there, and some real great ones?
Lindenmuth: There are, yeah. There’s some of both, for sure.
Thornburgh: How do you avoid just despair? In the face of so many whiskeys, all of which must be somewhat bunched on the spectrum somewhere, and the idea of cataloging, and categorizing, and assigning a numerical value to that world must be overwhelming.
Lindenmuth: Yeah. It can be. And, you know, certain categories are much more narrow on the spectrum. Scotch, for instance, you can have smokey, heavy scotch. You can have more delicate scotches. So, there’s a pretty big breadth of flavor in writing a scotch note. In the New York office, we do a lot of rye, and a lot of bourbon, and all bourbon is at least 51 percent corn. It’s all aged in new oak barrels. Almost all are around four years-plus of age. So, when you’re trying to slice and dice bourbon, it’s like some days you’re just like, Wow. These are so similar. How many times can I write caramel and vanilla on this page? But those are sort of the hallmarks of bourbon, and the trick is to try to pull out and discern the other nuances, and the things that really make it special.
Thornburgh: So, if I’m trying to make it through to the top of your bourbon list, do I need to just chuck some cardamom in there to stand out? Or are you still just going to find the best vanilla note?
Lindenmuth: The ones that rise to the top are the ones that offer complexity, right? Because if it’s really simple to sort of dissect, and deduce the flavor, it’s like, okay, there’s good quality. That’s a good bourbon. But to rise to the top, it needs to be sublime, you know? It needs to serve up something different every time you smell it. Every time you put your nose to that glass it’s different. There’s so much to discover. You put water in, and it changes. And then it’s this sort of intangible thing that you just go, this bourbon is somehow magic. It’s balanced. It’s complex. It’s got more to give than what your basic $20 bourbon might.
Thornburgh: When you come out with your rankings and your ratings, I’m thinking of a chart, and you’re charting the ranking, and you’re charting the price. How similar is that line?
Lindenmuth: That’s a good question. Surprisingly, they run pretty parallel, and when we’re tasting, we do not know the price. There could be a $700 bottle of bourbon in the flight, and there has been, and there could be a $3 bourbon, and we don’t know the producer. We don’t know the price. We don’t know the proof. Really all we know is these are six bourbons, or these are six ryes. That’s about the extent of it. And most of our tasters could tell that without even being told.
Thornburgh: Otherwise, they shouldn’t be at the table.
Lindenmuth: We’re briefed on what we’re tasting that day, and that’s about everything we know. So, that $700 gets no bonus points for being $700, or being rare.
Age equals cost, and age equals rarity, but there is a point of diminishing returns where age doesn’t always equal greatness
Thornburgh: Right. And rarity, that’s also a driver of cost, but not necessarily of flavor. You could have a rare, an exquisitely rare, deeply shitty bourbon. There’s only one of this really crappy bourbon available.
Lindenmuth: Well, where that often happens is with really old whiskeys, especially very old bourbons, which are not really to my taste. They tend to be too woody, and taste really tired. There are some excellent bourbons still at 20 years of age, but there are bourbons being released that are over 20 years of age that I don’t especially like. I can taste immediately this has seen better days. This is over the hill.
Thornburgh: And is that because distillers sucked back then?
Lindenmuth: No, it’s because it’s been in the barrel too long. And so, age equals cost, and age equals rarity, but there is a point of diminishing returns where age doesn’t always equal greatness.
Thornburgh: All right, well, we have a tasting here.
Lindenmuth: Yeah. So, this is a little simulation of a blind tasting that we normally do in New York. I just had our managing editor pour a couple samples for us, and I thought we’d taste through.
Thornburgh: Beautiful. All right. So, tell me what we got.
Lindenmuth: We’ve got three bourbons here. I don’t know what they are.
Thornburgh: I’m glad that you told me they were bourbons.
Lindenmuth: I don’t know the proof on them. I don’t know what they are. I don’t know the proof, but they’re not cut with water at this point, so approach with caution. They could be anywhere from the minimum 80 proof up to the barrel strength, which could be 120 or something.
Thornburgh: I am no professional whiskey drinker, people. I’m losing my shit over here just from the fumes alone. Fumes is not a word. That sounds a little pejorative. You wouldn’t use that.
Lindenmuth: We would say aroma, but yeah. You’re definitely detecting alcohol coming off of here. So, these are room temperature, warm, neat whiskeys, and that alcohol is lifting off.
Thornburgh: I will say, not as a tasting note, but one thing these three all have in common is they’re all breakfast whiskeys because it’s still 11-something in the morning.
Lindenmuth: Do you want to tell me what you smell on these? I usually nose them all first. I would nose them, jot down my first impression, and then I would take a small sip of each. Again, just progressing through, take a small sip of each at its natural strength to see how it presents, and then we have water here. I would then add water, which releases aromas, and it would also help you a lot by cutting down that hot, ethanol burn that you’re getting.
Thornburgh: Wow. Yeah, right.
Lindenmuth: So, adding water will help eliminate that, and you’ll be less focused on the ethanol, and able to focus more on the flavors.
Lindenmuth: A lot of master distillers when they taste, I mean, they might dilute heavily. They might dilute this with an equal amount of water.
Thornburgh: Because then they can really dive straight into the flavor of it.
Lindenmuth: Exactly. It’s going to really show if there’s anything funky going on, or anything great going on. But it will show the flaws.
Thornburgh: Whiskey, as one of these Ron Swanson-esque man codes, is this something where it would not be unusual to have somebody mansplain to you that whiskey should always be drunk neat, or always with a single, chiseled ice cube, or something? Do you at Whisky Advocate have a code that you endorse and enforce?
Lindenmuth: No, not at all. I drink it all sorts of ways, and many master distillers drink their whiskey with ice, or drink it with water. That’s not unusual at all. And people that like to lecture on those finer points of consumption, one, I disagree with, and secondly, I think it’s unfounded because most whiskey has water added to it before it goes in the bottle. Unless it’s barrel proof, that whiskey didn’t just happen to appear at 43 percent alcohol. That wasn’t a random thing. Water has been added to that whiskey to go into the bottle, and the vast majority of whiskey is cut with water to a specific proof. So, I don’t think adding more water is anything that hasn’t already been done.
Thornburgh: Take that, Ron Swanson. All right, so I’m going to give you some nosing notes. Okay. One, two, three from left to right. Number one. This is going to be the worst word cloud ever. Pine.
Lindenmuth: Yeah, I get that.
Thornburgh: Is that possible?
Lindenmuth: Just some like, pine and resin. I mean, I clearly get a lot of oak on this. This is wood forward.
Thornburgh: Got it. So, it’s another kind of tree I’m looking for.
Lindenmuth: Different tree. No, well, you can also get pine needle, and pine resin, and forest floor kind of things happen a lot. I mean, this definitely has oak, a chocolatey oak-type note. And, you know, it’s a very typical bourbon. Parsing the flavors in bourbon is a little tricky because they’re quite similar. And do you also get sweetness? There’s clearly sweetness there. There’s some dense caramel and crackerjack, flan.
Thornburgh: Some flan. Pine flan.
Lindenmuth: The pine is there, sort of herbal. There’s a herbal quality to it. Fresh herbs. All right, let’s take a quick nose on two.
Thornburgh: Nose on two.
Lindenmuth: Now, this smells more mature to me. This has this sort of a varnish note. I often call it like wood shop. So, there’s wood, and then there’s this varnish-y type thing that I equate with age. There’s also, I think, a lot of flower here. I’m getting both rosewater, and lavender. And some spice, too. A lot of baking spice.
Thornburgh: Your nose has a wider vocabulary than mine does. All right. We’re going to number three.
Lindenmuth: Now, this, I think this has some real fruit drive to it. I would say I get some marmalade, and a little bit more tropical, almost some grilled pineapple quality here.
Thornburgh: This is Caribbean bourbon. Fascinating. Yeah, that’s pretty good. Uh-oh, you started to taste.
Lindenmuth: Yeah, I had to taste that one.
Thornburgh: To see if your nose was lying to you?
Lindenmuth: Yeah, that happens a lot, and actually, that’s something that I would normally dock a whiskey for. I think a good whiskey should have some consistency, and it’s like the nose is the promise, and the flavor needs to keep it. So, if it doesn’t follow through on the flavor, or if it has a great nose, and then the flavor’s a letdown, I’m like, oh, man. That’s a bummer. It just breaks your heart. You’ve got to take a few points off, and say this doesn’t deliver on what the nose promised. It should feel consistent from aroma to flavor to finish. It should feel well stacked, and everything follows through.