I recently went to a “Great Whiskey Debate” (sponsored by Jim Beam) hoping to learn some interesting facts, figure out what Seattle’s favorite style of whiskey is, and get a lot of free booze. I got the latter. What was pitched as a debate was more a strange amalgam of marketing meeting, stand-up comedy, and a lot of cheap Seahawks-centric pandering. (Seriously, we got a two-minute discourse on Luke Willson, Seattle’s second-string tight end, who just happens to be from Windsor, Ontario, home of Canadian Club. Most of the crowd figured the guy just didn’t know Russell Wilson’s first name. But I digress.)
The most insightful takeaway for me? The current focus in the whiskey world, at least among major distilleries, is how to get their spirits to taste like anything besides whiskey. Whether infusing it with different flavors or lengthening the barrel aging to mellow the spirit and add more vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch flavors, the goal seems to be to make all whiskey taste more like bourbon. I guess that’s a win for the U.S.?
In comparison, I can’t help but think about what happened to the wine world. As highly concentrated and heavily oaked wines from the U.S. and Australia came into vogue, winemakers in many other countries followed suit, investing in expensive new equipment, barrels, and consultants. Suddenly you had wines from around the world that more or less tasted the same: rich, jammy, oaky, and high-alcohol. There’s a place for wines like that, just as there’s a place for bourbon. But that doesn’t mean I want Canadian, Irish, or Scotch whiskey to taste like it comes from Kentucky.
That’s just one of the many questions that could have been actually debated, instead of “How has your spirit driven sales of whiskey forward” or other PR pablum. Why no discussion about the rise of flavored whiskies? Or the fact that increased demand is forcing certain brands to reduce the time their whiskey spends in barrel? Hell, after the event I had a fascinating discussion with the Laphroaig representative about how they don’t put age statements on some of their product because consumers are so obsessed with older and older Scotch that they won’t buy a young 5- or 6-year-old bottle, even though it’s delicious.
In the end, the question of Seattle’s favorite whiskey (Irish, Scotch, Canadian, bourbon) remained unanswered. Bourbon got the most applause, but the “official” result was a four-way tie (which really bailed Canada out, honestly). The real issue is: Will those of us who like things besides sweet bourbon continue to matter to the major whiskey makers of the world? Now that would have been an interesting debate.