I sample a lot of whisky for this blog that is new to me. At weekly spirits tastings at K&L, miniatures sourced from online trades and Master of Malt samples, the occasional glass of something new at a bar, or a glass swiped from a new bottle purchased by a friend or relative – I’m continuously trying something new and improving the range of experience for my palate. This requires a constant re-evaluation of what I consider to be “good” – it’s no longer enough to classify everything as either “my new favorite” or swill. There are fine gradations – this bourbon is a little too woody, that one’s a little too sweet. The peat on this release doesn’t balance well against the malt, while on that one it’s bordering on bland. Sometimes it feels like the act of sampling has broken down into a simple finding of fault. My tasting notes often look like I’m trying to justify reasons NOT to drink a particular whisky, instead of extolling its virtues. A lot of that comes from a fear of rating everything a “Must Try” and boring my readers. I do want to be able to suggest you drink Talisker 10 and avoid Johnnie Walker Black Label, but the simple fact is that MOST single malts are worth buying and drinking. Unless you’ve become jaded and can’t enjoy a malt unless it’s scored at least 95 by Jim Murray, pick any $40 or higher bottle of single malt scotch off the shelf and you’ll be able to sip it neat and savor it. (Assuming you like the taste of straight whisky, of course… if you don’t, make sure you try these steps before dismissing the whole category!)
Last night I was poking around my open bottles and found a single pour left in an old bottle of Oban 14. It’s been open for almost a year, and chances are it’s already well on its way to oxidizing. Not looking for an analytical experience, I splashed it into a glass and continued with my evening. My motivation was more about freeing up a space in my cabinet by polishing off an old bottle than about actually tasting the Oban. Until, that is, I took a sip.
There’s nothing particularly special about Oban. It’s a well-made, well-aged Highland malt owned by industry giant Diageo, who claim they make single malt to go into Johnnie Walker, not to sell single malts. Jerks. It’s not rare like Brora or Port Ellen, it’s not particularly old like Glenfarclas 40, it’s not revolutionary and experimental like Glenmorangie Artein, and it’s not a cult-backed geek-forward upstart like Kilchoman. It’s just Oban, and I had honestly forgotten how damn GOOD it tastes until I drained that old bottle last night. It reminded me why I like drinking whisky. It’s not to analyze the relative wood content, to detect which bourbon distiller made the juice, nor to judge whether something is $20 over- or under-priced. I like drinking whisky because of the indefinable, uncategorizable combination of smells, tastes, and feelings that it provides. I can’t say I liked this glass of Oban because it had or didn’t have honey notes, because I could or couldn’t detect heather, or because it did or didn’t finish bitter. I just liked it because my eyebrows went up when I tasted it, and my eyes rolled back when I let the finish warm my throat. I liked it because it tasted good, and reminded me of a time when every new glass was an exciting opportunity of discovery, instead of another chance to turn up my nose and dismiss something as “not quite good enough.” I think I need more reminders like that.
Next time you’re feeling jaded about all the new releases, unobtainable single-cask bottlings for $200+, black label this and devil’s cut that… get a glass of something that once opened your eyes to the joys of whisky, and let it open your eyes to the joys of old favorites instead.