The Great Bourbons of Kentucky

I was out and about yesterday, making the retail rounds, when I overheard a whiskey customer tell his companion:

“You know, there are a lot great whiskies being made all over the country right now, but everyone still seems obsessed with Kentucky.”

Yep. See my post from yesterday for an explanation as to why.

When it comes to particular brands, most people seem to get that flavor isn’t necessarily the most important factor when making a purchase. The folks I know in the booze business bemoan the popularity of the cult whiskey phenomena and wish more consumers would expand their focus. But Kentucky as a state is also a brand. Bourbon is its culture and for a number of drinkers—myself included—that culture is a big part of what makes drinking Bourbon so fun. To expect consumers to disassociate their desire with that connotation is asking a lot.

There’s a lot of Cabernet grown in France that isn’t from Bordeaux, but I don’t many people who care about it.

-David Driscoll

The Great Wines of France

“No one past the age of 35 wants to hear new music,” my wife said to me this past weekend, in response to overhearing someone in the bar next to us ask the cover band if they planned on playing any new material. We were at Idle Hour in North Hollywood, kicking back with a few Bloody Maries, listening to a guitar and fiddle duo crank out a Bluegrass-inspired version of “Fly” by Sugar Ray—and loving every minute of it. The person next to us, however, found it rather cliché.

“There’s a certain period in your life where music imprints on to your brain, and then that’s it,” my wife continued; “You get old and just want to hear the same songs over and over.” She clearly did not want to hear anything original from these two. She wanted familiarity. She was basking in the nostalgia vibrating from those strings. She wanted to hear the hits, and I was in complete agreement; especially when they broke into “Last Dance With Mary Jane” by Tom Petty.

It reminded me of my early retail days, back when I was first learning how to work with wine customers. Being a novice in the industry, the only advice I could share with our clientele was based on my own experience, of which I had very little. One day an old timer came into the store and began asking me about our classified growths from Bordeaux, and I didn’t know a thing about any of them. Never one to shy away from an opportunity, I tried my best to steer the conversation over to the few wines I did have experience with, namely some of the less expensive wines from Spain and Italy, along with a few California Cabernets. The guy looked at me like I was alien, then proceeded right back to asking about the wines of Margaux and St. Julien.

After he finally selected a bottle and left the store, my colleague Thornton Jacobs leaned over and said to me: “David, there’s a reason the great wines of France are the great wines of France.” Then he walked away without saying another word.

It took me a few days to understand what he meant, but I eventually figured it out: no matter how much great wine is made elsewhere in the world, there’s something about the great wines of France that continues to draw people in. You have to make peace with that as a wine professional. You can always lead customers to new waters, but you can’t necessarily make them drink. The hits are the hits for a reason. Try as you might to diversify the playlist, the masses like dancing to familiar tunes.

And listening to them while we drink a Bloody Mary.

-David Driscoll

Wheated Bourbon

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About three years ago, I predicted the end of the American whiskey boom, assuming the fervent fanaticism surrounding cult Bourbon and rye had reached its peak and a softening of the market was in order. 

I was dead wrong.

As I drive around LA these days, moving from retailer to retailer, the Pappy Van Winkle phenomenon remains incredibly powerful with prices continuing to hover around $2000 for the 20 year old in most places. The biggest difference between when I was a retail buyer and now is that price gouging seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I wouldn’t have dared consider marking up my rare Bourbons to the public, lest I face the wrath of a thousand whiskey nerds on social media. Today, however, a certain acceptance of reality seems to have settled upon geekdom; an understanding of how supply and demand ultimately works, for better or for worse.

If you’re new to the whiskey scene, it wasn’t always this way. How did we get here? I can tell you fairly quickly. When I was working retail back in the late aughts (circa 2008), you could get a bottle of Pappy 20 year old for $100 whenever you wanted it, right off the shelf. Then one day the entire world decided that Bourbon was the drink du jour (the Mad Men effect, we sometimes call it) and curious consumers began Googling things like “Best Bourbons” on the internet, looking for some quick advice. Given that the Van Winkle expressions were some of the oldest and most expensive on the market (at a fraction of what their Scottish counterparts were charging, no less), they were at the top of many a list. As an added bonus, much of the juice still came from the old Stitzel-Weller distillery back then, thus the attraction of historical authenticity combined with sweet, saturated, high-proof brown water was too much for grown men to handle. It was like catnip for executives, looking to bypass all the starter sets and get right to the good stuff.

“What makes Pappy Van Winkle so good?” people would ask me almost every single day thereafter. I knew the whiskies were tasty, but beyond that I didn’t have the answer. Not one who enjoys looking clueless on a daily basis, I decided to reach out to Julian Van Winkle and Buffalo Trace distiller Harlan Wheatley, who joined me as guests on a podcast about spirits I was hosting back then (Buffalo Trace is the distiller for the Van Winkle products today). I asked them the same question: what made these particular Bourbons so special? Both men told me the exact same thing: wheated Bourbons, as they age, taste sweeter than traditional rye-flavored Bourbons—those that use rye as a flavor grain alongside the corn. That sweetness makes them immediately approachable.

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A Bourbon mash bill, by law, has to have at least 51% corn in the recipe, although many contain somewhere between 60-70%. Most distillers use some malted barley as well, usually 5-10%, just to get the fermentation going. That leaves somewhere between 20-30% for the “flavor grain,” which has traditionally been rye considering that its peppery character acts like a ballast against the sweetness of the corn. The Van Winkle family, however, dating back to the Pappy’s days at Old Fitzgerald, liked to use wheat instead of rye because it added a creaminess to the Bourbon, while eliminating the rye-based herbaceous notes.

That was a good enough answer for me. I ran with it.

I began sharing that information with my customers, along with Harlan’s note that Pappy and Weller were made from the same wheated Buffalo Trace recipe, and just like that I was selling cases of wheated Bourbon in mere minutes. If we were out of Pappy, I’d sell Weller 12 year. If we were out of Weller 12 year, I’d give people the Weller 107. Eventually we couldn’t keep that in stock either, so we were down to the Weller Select Reserve. There was no putting the genie back into the bottle at that point. It was like a runaway freight train and I was one of dozens of retailers shoveling coal into the engine.

Surprisingly (or maybe not if you know how trends work), the unbridled passion for wheated Bourbon didn’t cross over to other producers. Maker’s Mark, for example, has used a wheated Bourbon recipe since its inception in the 1950s, but customers didn’t seem all that interested in the red wax seal as a Weller alternative. Heaven Hill decided to release Larceny as a viable competitor, but even those efforts fell flat against the relentless Weller wave. Breaking down the Pappy popularity into a series of simple marketing factoids definitely helped to sell more Pappy, but the a priori approach to creating new alternatives fell short with consumers. The craft scene began pumping out its own wheated Bourbons, even 100% wheat whiskies, hoping to capitalize on the craze, but they too fell short of expectations. It turns out that there was more to the Van Winkle/Weller magic than just a recipe.

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Having stepped away from the booze industry for a year, I’d lost track of the micro-distilling scene and, to be honest, I’d given up hope on its success. Considering the Bourbon boom ultimately fed the foundation of several hundred new craft whiskey distillers around the country, you’d think at least a dozen of them would have launched a compelling Bourbon by the year 2018, but most of the attempts I’d tasted over the years were thin, woody, and forgettable, not to mention expensive. “You can’t expect whiskey consumers to drink a mediocre Bourbon just because you made it in small batches,” I told producers repeatedly. Once again, a priori reasoning was fueling the craft market (small, local, and scarce = good). Once again, that logic was soundly rejected by consumers.

This past November, however, I was given a bottle of McKenzie Bottled in Bond Wheated Bourbon from Finger Lakes Distilling in upstate New York and asked for a professional opinion. I was familiar with the McKenzie whiskies, having worked with them in my retail days, but this Bourbon was an entirely new product in a sleek, updated package. At 4 and a half years of age and 100 proof, I decided to taste it against an open bottle of Weller 107 I had sitting on my counter. Mind you, I’m not one that breaks Bourbon down into commodities, looking to compare apples to apples. I just needed a control for my experiment, seeing that it had been at least ten months since I had tasted anything on a professional level. I tasted. Then I went back for seconds. Then thirds. I tasted the Weller, and then the McKenzie once again. It was the moment I’d been waiting almost a decade for.

“It’s taken off like gangbusters for us,” Brian McKenzie told me as we caught up over the phone recently. “We loved the whiskey and we knew it was going to be well-received, but it’s taken off more than we ever could have imagined.” It’s not hard to understand why. At around $50 a bottle, the McKenzie Wheated Bourbon is everything the craft distillation renaissance promised us, but rarely delivered. Using local grains from the New York countryside, the team at Finger Lakes Distilling has put together a mash bill of 70% corn, 20% wheat, and 10% malted barley that absolutely sings with richness, baking spices, and toasted vanilla. “We’ve been making wheated Bourbon for a while,” Brian continued, “but most of it was allocated to single barrel releases. We figured it was time to make it a standard release.”

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So why BIB? Why use the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, a definition meant to protect consumers at that time from adulteration and fraud, to make a craft whiskey in the modern age? “We think Bottled in Bond is a way to help differentiate serious craft producers from others. There aren’t many craft producers out there who have 4 year old Bourbon,” Brian added, noting that a number of small producers release their whiskies while still in their infancy. The BIB requires that a whiskey be the product of a single distillation season, of a single distillery, at 100 proof, and at least 4 years of age, which certainly gives the McKenzie a boost in its authenticity. What’s interesting is that the 100 proof bottling strength is the same potency McKenzie fills its barrels at.

“Our whiskey comes off the column still with the thumper at 130 proof, but we fill our casks at 100,” Brian continued. “We tasted a number of whiskies made in the fifties and sixties from our dusty hunting collection—old Jim Beam and Wild Turkey bottles from that era. From what I understand, they were filling at lower proofs back then.”

Why fill at a lower proof? Brian explained:

“Two things: a higher water content acts as a solvent so far as pulling flavor out of the oak. I don’t think we can scientifically explain exactly what that does, but it pulls out different flavors for sure. The second thing is we use less water to cut when it’s time to proof down for bottling, which means we add hardly any water when it’s time to bottle.” 

And what about the New York maturation conditions? Is there a hot and cold contrast between seasons, similar to Kentucky?

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“Our aging conditions are similar to Kentucky, but we do heat the rick house in the winter to make sure it gets ample cold and hot fluctuation, as our winters tend to last a bit longer. We’re right on Seneca Lake where there’s a microclimate that gets a little hotter compared to towns further north. It’s the same reason the vineyards around here do well, because they can survive the cold winter with the water helping to keep it temperate. The lake holds the heat from the summer time and the surrounding hills help to trap it.”

With all the care that Brian and his family put into the careful production practices, it’s clear that the wheated Bourbon mash is only one of many factors that contribute to the whiskey’s ultimate flavor. But I eventually asked Brian the same summative question that I knew most consumers would ask me: why does it taste so good? “We pay very close attention to the fermentation process,” he answered, alluding to the sweet and round flavors in the whiskey; “We make sure the conditions are ideal to prevent any negative flavors. That’s a big part of it since we don’t have much temperature control around here.” 

Given that we’re still in the midst of the Van Winkle era, the fact that McKenzie is selling a wheated Bourbon recipe certainly helps with marketing and sales, but it’s not the sole reason for the whiskey’s success. There’s simply no substitute for attention to detail, time in the barrel, and a little TLC, which is what I should have been telling customers back in my retail days. Good Bourbon comes from good producers. It tastes good because these guys know what they’re doing. The singularity of a secret recipe is always a sure fire marketing bullet, but the devil is really in the details. 

-David Driscoll

Wild Agave Mezcal

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I think most whiskey consumers today understand how maturity affects pricing when it comes to Scotch and Bourbon. They expect to pay more for a whiskey that’s older, and they justify the price by the time spent in the barrel. It’s an inescapable rationale that we just have to accept, even if those of us who work in the business know there are plenty of 12 year old whiskies that outshine a number of 18 year olds. That being said, I have to wonder what that same spirits consumer thinks when he or she sees the same price disparity between two bottles of mezcal, both of them unaged and as clear as vodka.

“The expensive one must be really smooth,” my electrician said to me the other day when I asked him what he thought the difference might be. He’s always in awe of all the open booze bottles around my condo, so we usually take a few minutes to discuss them when he comes by to fix something. His was a completely reasonable assumption. Delicacy of flavor is another reason why some spirits cost more than others. As I poured a shot from the $40 bottle of Yuu Baal Espadin and placed it next to a second glass of Yuu Baal Madrecuixe (about $130 per bottle), I asked him to tell me if that was the case.

“Neither of them are very smooth,” he answered after taking a sip of both, his face scrunched up in a ball of confusion. “I don’t understand why the Madrecuishe is so much more expensive.”

“Exactly,” I replied with a concerned look on my face. “This is the problem with wild agave mezcal. It’s not like eating McDonald’s fries for the first time. It’s more like a cigar. You might completely hate it the first time around.”

I remember speaking with dozens of customers who spent $100+ on a bottle of fancy mezcal without consultation, making the same assumption as my electrician, only to wind up with a spirit that tastes like plant water strained through a paper towel. “What do I do with this?” more than one of them asked me in response.

“Make some very expensive Margaritas,” I would usually say with a laugh; “Or let me tell you a bit more about it.” A bottle of wild agave mezcal is a lot like a fancy bottle of wine (in a number of ways that we’ll get to shortly). Understanding exactly why it costs what it does requires the buyer to dig a little deeper than a vintage or age statement, and once you arm yourself with that knowledge it’s a lot more fun to drink.

A wild Tepeztate agave in the mountains of Oaxaca

A wild Tepeztate agave in the mountains of Oaxaca

Part of what I love about mezcal is its diversity. No matter how many different expressions I taste, I’m continuously awed by the breadth of different flavors that can be coaxed from each species of agave, depending on where it’s grown, how it’s cooked, and the process of distillation. In the case of wild agave mezcal, the process is even more complicated due to the fact that most of them cannot be cultivated. Like truffles, they have to be found and foraged for in the wild, which is ultimately why the mezcal they produce is often so much more expensive.

Mezcal can be labeled, marketed, and classified in a number of different ways, giving the category a certain unruly freedom that calls out to the wild at heart. In no other category of booze can one find distillers making so many different versions of what is ultimately categorized as a single spirit, with so many variations of organization. For this reason alone, summarizing mezcal into a simplified overview is difficult and establishing a foundation for consumer expectations even harder.

Today one can find mezcal labeled simply by the producer or brand, by the species of agave used, as a blend or ensemble of different agaves, by a specific style or recipe, or simply by the village of origin. In this sense, understanding the basics of mezcal often has more to do with the world of wine than the world of distilled spirits. Much like a winemaker seeks to express the inherent nature of a single grape, a piece of land, or a region as a whole, a mezcalero seeks to translate the spirit of the agave into each bottle—be it a unique species of agave, the specific terroir of the countryside, or the singular style of village tradition.

While grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir share similar characteristics no matter where they are grown, there is still a multitude of factors that ultimately shapes the flavor of the resulting wine. These same factors—regionality, harvest conditions, fermentation, and processing—are what can distinguish one mezcal from another. Depending on where the piñas were harvested, the character of the soils, the cooking process used, and the distillation techniques chosen by the mezcalero, the results will differ from producer to producer. As an example, Espadin agave, while not a wild species, is generally cultivated in fields like Agave Azul in Tequila country. Where you plant it can make all the difference: in a valley, on the side of a hill, or in volcanic soils. Just like grapes on a vine, the flavors of an agave piña will differ depending on where it grows.

Espadin agave fields on the hillsides in Oaxaca look almost like Mediterranean vineyards

Espadin agave fields on the hillsides in Oaxaca look almost like Mediterranean vineyards

Most winemakers begin with certain expectations for their fruit—the vintage, the vineyard, the village, etc—and then carefully put their own spin on the resulting wine. Some winemakers use extraction and new oak maturation to make a richer, fuller style of wine. Others believe in minimalist, non-interventionist winemaking, where the goal is simply to capture the essence of what the land itself seeks to express using the grape as its vessel. The latter is the philosophy practiced by most mezcal producers I’ve worked with. In a sense, mezcal has much in common with French Burgundy, where producers are farmers first and winemakers second.

Talking this past week with Flor de María Velazquez, the director of Yuu Baal mezcal, it’s clear she thinks more like a vintner than a distiller. She spends far more time talking about the spirit of the agave itself, rather than the spirit-making process. That’s because the mission behind each expression of Yuu Baal isn’t just to create a fine tasting mezcal, but also to express the inherent nature of what’s inside the agave, bringing forth the individual character of each species with as little manipulation as possible.

In a sense, Yuu Baal is the Oaxacan mezcal counterpart to Burgundian wine philosophy. Each bottle constitutes the purest, most unadulterated expression of each species, delicately distilled to release the innate personality of the agave with every sip. Like Burgundian winemakers stress their vines, forcing the roots deeper into the earth in search of nutrients, Yuu Baal does the same with its agave plants—a process utilized by farmers who believe in the power of terroir.

But what exactly does each agave have to say to mezcal drinkers? What is so uniquely distinctive about each agave that merits further discussion and discourse? Let’s take a deeper dive into what specifically characterizes each agave species, according to Flor herself, and how those elements are present in each expression of Yuu Baal. I’ve added some tasting notes as well, just to give you an idea.

A group of farmers brings in a load of long, narrow Cuishe piñas for distillation

A group of farmers brings in a load of long, narrow Cuishe piñas for distillation

TOBALA

A wild species of agave, endemic to Oaxaca specifically, Tobalá is smaller and size and can take twice as long to mature as Espadin, nearly 12 – 14 years before reaching maturity. As a result, production is limited and prices for Tobalá are generally much higher than Espadín. Depending on where it’s harvested, the delicate flavors can range from herbaceous to sweetly-spiced, with an array of complexity that is unparalleled in the mezcal world.

Flor says: Tobalá reminds me of petate in its aroma, the woven palm mats used for sleeping in Mexico. It creates a dense mezcal that sticks to your lips on the finish.

My notes: Almost like a London dry gin, the Yuu Baal Tobalá is dry and clean on the initial palate with herbal notes that ultimately give way to saline minerality with a finish of citrus and quince.

MADRECUISHE

Madrecuishe is part of the Karwinskii agave family, another wild species that takes between 12 -14 years to fully mature and grows in a long, vertical stalk, often side-by-side other Madrecuishe agaves. The flavors of Madrecuishe are quite tangy with an earthiness that almost resembles bleucheese in character. It’s a robust flavor that allures just about everyone in Oaxaca over time. It is also the preferred mezcal of many Oaxacans.

Flor says: Madrecuishe is the belle of the ball, the woman in red who enters a party an immediatelycaptures the attention of every man in the room. It’s a straightforward, unmistakable expression that radiates personality.

My notes: Herbal and earthy up front, the Yuu Baal Madrecuishe gives way to potent notes of green apple, lavender, and savory spice, finishing in a flurry of scorched earth and sweet fruit.

TEPEZTATE

Tepeztate is an incredibly distinctive wild agave species that can take up to 35 years to mature and grow enormous in size with wide, wavy leaves jutting out from the center. Due to its long maturation process, Tepeztate is a rare mezcal that is difficult to summarize because of how long it takes to grow and the variance that maturation has on each individual agave.

Flor says: Tepeztate is jealous in nature. It demands your attention with its spicy, and intensely herbaceous character. If you decide to start with Tepeztate, you have to stick with it. It doesn’t pairwell with other mezcals.

My notes: Loaded with hot chili flavor and a supremely spicy kick right off the bat, the texture is simultaneously creamy with an oily mouthfeel that blends beautifully with sweet notes of cooked agave and more salty, savory chili pepper flavor on the potent finish.

ESPADIN

Like I mentioned before, Espadin is not a wild species. Rather, it’s the most widely-cultivated and distilled species of agave in Oaxaca, and has the most amount of variance between climate and region. Its flavor greatly depends on the process of production. In Matatlan, for example, the Espadin can be rather astringent, whereas in San Juan del Rio—a microclimate that supports endless fruits, vegetables, herbs, animals and plant life—the flavors can range from sweet and spicy to tangy and peppery. Generally speaking, most mezcal on the market is made from Espadin, so I’m including it here as a comparison.

Flor says: Espadin is like the table wine of mezcal: it’s versatile and can pair with anything. It’s whatyou drink on a weeknight.

My notes: Using the ancestral process of production (pit roasted agave, tahona crushing, and wood-fired copper pot stills), the Yuu Baal Espadin is clean and fresh on the palate with pure aromas of cooked agave on the nose. Honey, citrus, platano, caramel, and pepper come through on the finish.

Driving through the higher elevation mountains of Oaxaca

Driving through the higher elevation mountains of Oaxaca

Since I posted a photo of some wild Cuishe piñas earlier (the long, thinner agave that's part of of the Madrecuishe family), I thought I’d also talk a little about agave variation. Going back to wine as an analogy, variation in agave is consistent with that of grape varietals, often part of larger families of similar types. Muscat, for example, has many different versions and relatives in the wine world—more than 200 actually; Black Muscat, Muscat de Alexandria, etc—so it’s not necessarily the same around the globe.

In addition to Madrecuishe, there's also Cuishe and Bicuishe—each a little different than its close relative—and some distillers use them interchangeably. If you think wrapping your head around the variance within a family of wild agave sounds difficult, there's also a huge difference in the flavors of Madrecuishe depending on where it’s harvested: i.e. mountain madrecuishe versus flatland, valley-floor Madrecuishe. So not only do you need to know which type of Cuishe you’re dealing with in, you need to know where it came from. But how many consumers really know the difference between wild, flavorful mountain Cuishe and a mediocre Cuishe distilled from a less-flavorful, cultivated crop? Ten? Fourteen? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't know the difference unless I had two prime examples sitting side by side. That’s why top wine labels make sure to let consumers know the difference by designating the vineyard location right there on the label. Since they’re going to charge you more for the better fruit, they want you to have some sort of justification.

Napa, for example, has a region called Howell Mountain; an AVA known for producing powerful and long-lived Cabernets like Dunn. There's also Spring Mountain, where Keenan Winery makes incredible, structured wines with balance and delicacy. There are many reasons for the supremacy of mountain fruit, but much of it has to do with climate, drainage, and sun. When you grow crops on the side of a mountain slope, you don't have to worry about flooding because the excess water runs downhill. The grapes don't get too much sun because at some point during the day it will be on either side of the hill. Higher elevations also tend to be cooler, which allows for a longer and slower ripening process (you don't make a flavorful soup by boiling your vegetables in water for five minutes). The same is true for mountain agave: the longer they mature, the less they soak up water and the more they soak up complexity.

Better labeling is something mezcal producers can think about for the future. As more consumers better understand and appreciate the spirit, the more they’re going to want specifics as to what they’re drinking and what exactly they’re paying for as it pertains to quality. While I’m certain that some wine consumers will continue to buy $140 bottles of Dunn Howell Mountain, expecting a big silky Cabernet, only to wind up with a mouth full of tannins, we’ve come a long way in customer education. As time goes by, wine drinkers are becoming aware that expensive wines from the world’s top terroirs need time in the cellar before they’re ready to drink. I have to think we’ll see the same consumer evolution with mezcal.

As time goes by, more and more mezcal drinkers will know that a $100+ bottle of madrecuishe is an expression of a rare and wild species of agave, something of an acquired taste rather than a straightforward sipper. Not necessarily the smoothest mezcal, but definitely one of complexity.

-David Driscoll

A Priori vs. A Posteriori

When I was 22 years old, I decided I would go back to graduate school and get a useless masters degree in Philosophy.

I ended up with a useless masters degree in German instead, but I did learn one very important lesson before switching departments:

The difference between A Posteriori and A Priori reasoning as it pertains to justification and understanding. Both are Latin terms that most people associate with the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, but in reality they go back to Ancient Greece.

A Priori reasoning takes into account what we know independent of our experience. Our reasoning starts with what we factually know about something and it progresses from there.

A Posteriori reasoning, on the other hand, begins with our experience and then deduces from that point on.

I’ve always approached the appreciation of film, music, art, and booze using the latter of the two. I start by identifying what I like, and then I work backwards to better understand why I like it. I use A Posteriori reasoning to justify my opinions about quality, beginning with my initial sensory experiences before advancing to further investigation.

That being said, having worked in the wine and spirits industry for over a decade I’ve found that a large number of people work the other way around: using A Priori reasoning. They start by asking questions about production (Is it organic? Is it mass-produced? Is it distilled on a pot still? Etc.) and begin to form their opinions about quality based on factual specifics before tasting for actual flavor.

In order to illustrate why this is a problem, I’ll use a rock and roll analogy.

In 1991, when Nirvana broke on to the music scene and the grunge revolution began, people attempted to use A Posteriori reasoning in order to deduce what made the Seattle musicians so successful (they rejected popular culture, they sang about depression, they wore tattered clothing, etc). As a result, a number of terrible bands put those deductions into A Priori reasoning, assuming they could find success with the same formula. The result was a plethora of lackluster copycats, thinking that a wallet chain, a few power chords, and a trendy heroin habit would add up to a similar quality, but unfortunately they didn’t have anything interesting to say. It turns out one couldn’t recreate the brilliance of Nirvana by mimicking factual characteristics alone.

In an attempt to sell quality wine and spirits to the masses, the drinks industry is falling into the same trap. Rather than fetishizing quality first and foremost, we’re fetishizing rules. We falsely assume that adherence to organic and biodynamic farming will automatically equate to a superior wine, just like we incorrectly believe more time in the barrel will always create a superior whiskey. Today, an entire generation of producers is using A Priori reasoning to create a new market of craft wine and spirits that express little beyond an adherence to doctrine. It turns out one also can’t capture the brilliance of a great wine or whiskey in a few key bullet points.

The other problem with A Priori thinking when it comes to wine and spirits is that it requires drinkers of different interest levels to listen to the same spiel from beginning to end—from vine to bottle, or grain to glass—without taking into consideration whether they actually care or not. That’s where our industry gets a bad rap. We lecture consumers, rather than listen to them.

Using A Posteriori reasoning, however, you start with the most important aspect of drinking: do you like it? Is it good?

It is? Great. Do you want to know more? Fantastic. Then you work backwards from there, always taking into consideration the interest level of the audience.

The goal of this blog is to showcase products that I think exhibit quality, and then present them in a way that allows people to understand them to the limits of their own interest. I think knowing more about why something tastes the way it does is fascinating, especially if it’s not easy to make. Not everyone feels that way, however; and that’s fine.

Passion begins by understanding what you like and what you care about. You discover what you’re willing to pay for and why. And then you go from there.

-David Driscoll