Must You Know Scotch Lingo to Enjoy a Single Malt?
- J. Ryan Stradal
FOR SOMEONE WHO has thrown back a small pond of whiskey in my two decades as an alcohol consumer, I know depressingly little about it. Like a lot of people, I've selfishly enjoyed being served what I'm told is "the good stuff" but probably couldn't identify it in a blind tasting. I'm almost at the point where my blatant whiskey ignorance has devolved into a defining characteristic.
My previous attempts to seriously learn something useful about whiskey have been frustrating. I once attended a fancy Scotch tasting at the home of a friend far wealthier than I and found myself routinely shouted down by the experts in attendance. I couldn't get a word in, and even if I had, I would've been wrong. Once alcohol crosses a certain price, it acquires a recondite argot, which I imagine is meant to keep riff-raff like me out.
It won't stop me from loving the stuff. I know that whiskey tastes wonderful, and, further, that it can obtain enticing secondary and tertiary characteristics with age - even if I don't know the jargon to describe them. Linchpin of many a cocktail, whiskey is also a starkly acquired taste, and its variants earn regional fervor and rarified status for the depth of their attention to detail. In every city there are people, often old men, who are able to talk your face off about these ennobled specificities. Though I am not yet one of them, I was more than game to offer up some opinions when my editor at The Wall Street Journal sent me a bottle of Seattle-made Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt Whiskey to try.
If you're looking for the genuine article, you could hardly do better than Matt Hofmann, Master Distiller at Westland Distillery. Mr. Hofmann is one of those folks lucky enough to have discovered his life's path before he even left home, and to have developed the required skills early on.
Mr. Hofmann takes pride in the fact that the ingredients are almost entirely local. "Washington state is actually one of the best whiskey growing climates in the U.S., and perhaps the world," he said. More than one whiskey expert has already noted Washington's similarity to Scotland by virtue of its damp shoreline's proximity to an agricultural region suited to hardy crops, and the effects of a maritime climate on the production of barley. I cannot predict if Puget Sound will become the next Speyside, but in Mr. Hofmann's view at least, the key components seem to be in place.
One thing I didn't see on the label: a number indicating how many years the youngest whiskey blended into Westland Sherry Wood had aged in the barrel before bottling. "We don't put an age statement on the bottle because we want to get away from considering the age of a whiskey as the end-all-be-all," Mr. Hofmann said. He considers a blending of whiskeys of vastly different ages to be optimal, as he believes that a commingling of their various characteristics can create a truly outstanding spirit.
In the bottle, this whiskey's color is both vibrant and rich, a sort of neon bronze. Poured into one of my girlfriend's family heirlooms, a highball glass affixed with a Cleveland Browns logo, the liquor appeared somewhat viscous. As a wine nut, I have some idea what "legs" are - the droplets that adhere to the side of the glass during pouring - and when I tilted my glass about 45 degrees to the same side twice in succession, I was able to recite the last names of the first six U.S. presidents before the leg made its way back down the glass.
My plan was to not waste the Westland Sherry Wood on merely myself, but share it with a cadre of more discerning whiskey drinkers.
"That's good," said another guest, Laura, after her first sip. "I like it. It swells in the mouth. It's your summer whiskey."
"Buttery," said Meg. "But if you set butter on fire. Fire butter."
"Medium-intensity burn," said Michael, who I know to be an admirer of Ardbeg's peaty Scotches. "A little peaty. You can taste the sweetness from the Sherry casks."
"Why, it's quite delicious," said Rico, asking for more.
Though tempted to try it in a cocktail, I was promptly disabused of the idea. "It's too good," Meg said. Consumed neat on a hot summer evening, the bottle was nearly gone in under half an hour, to uniform acclaim.
Westland and Single Malt Lingo
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