I go to a whiskey tasting, find one that’s new and different and sort of blows my mind, and spend several hours over the next several days intermittently a.) thinking about getting my hands on a bottle and b.) nursing a newfound motivation to research “flavors of whisk(e)y” and, more importantly, how they map – to each other, and other things.
We fill up glasses with grapes, with wheat, with rice and hops and barley. We come at these things and want to like them, and at first we don’t, but then we do. And then we’re living and also dying, though we were already living and dying either way.
On the spectrum of travel down so many different paths, it is actually – apparently – quite common that our palates in one place intercept or complement our palates in others. A preference for richness, earthiness, and smoke lends itself to dark-roast coffee (black), cabernet, dried fruit, dark chocolate, wood-fire and planks. Those who prefer freshness – the delicate, even the precious are instead drawn to florals, herbs, grass, pinot grigio, light roast, fresh fruit (especially citrus.) You can map the flavors against the seasons, with spring representing one end (floral, herb and grass) and winter at the other (metal and wood, leather, tobacco and smoke), bridged by summer (leafiness, ripe fruit) and then fall (dried fruit and pepper.) And also somewhere in there, things like toffee and honey; vanilla and clove.
It might not be so far-fetched to imagine that these preferences might transcend our flavor palate and seep into many other things – that those adjectives used to describe one thing can reliably lead us to suitable discovery in many others. (As the jokes go, after all, “I like my __ like I like my __.”)
Those that enjoy the light, delicate end of the spectrum might describe the appeal as “polite,” “discrete,” “subdued,” “harmonious,” “nice” and “clean,” with the other end of the spectrum tasting “dirty,” “overpowering,” “aggressive,” or “offensive.” Those who prefer the “rich” end might describe their values as “complex,” “bold,” “strong,” “deep,” and “unique” with the “delicate” qualities seen as “trite,” “superficial” or “austere” at best; “sterile” or “stifled” or “simple-minded” at worst.
Oddly, the “rich” end, with its decay, can taste a little like “death” but also a lot like earthiness and “dirtiness,” which offers the environment for new growth, while the “delicate” end can come off a bit like sanitizer – i.e., a fake fresh, actually meant to subdue if not destroy. Soil lives at one end; at the other, tile and fake florals.
And this spectrum that we just defined is actually a gross oversimplification. There are at least two spectrums that are commonly used for single malt whisky alone (light vs. rich, delight vs. smoky), and endless others offered for whisk(e)y in general. And these, I am trying to learn.
I like whiskey, as many do, and when I find the words to describe each whiskey I find that many of them are similar, if not the same.
I often find myself wandering through a field. It’s all nice but all sort of the same – the bright, light, itchiness of wildflowers, the prickliness of thistle and nettles, the smoothed scratchiness of hay bales, their flat flanks patted down, the metallic echo of tin. There’s a tidy lightness to it that can seem astringent, even chlorinous – all sanitization without sensation. This is much of American whiskey.
And then I come upon Defiant, and it’s this usher into a forest from a wash of field; a beacon in the night. I find it at a whiskey tasting event and then it’s the only thing I want to drink; the only thing that still even tastes drinkable towards the end of the night. (And apparently I’m not alone – Rebecca Orchant wrote “Defiant whisky is the first one we’ve ever wanted to drink straight.”)
And the difference with Defiant begins right from the start: it smells like… something.
This happens to me a lot, with smell. Something hits me and latches on to something, somewhere – I know there’s a memory without knowing it, like when you stare at a face without recalling a name; point to a thing but unable to utter its word.
I smell it again. Something.
It’s got a soil sweetness, a warm decay. A “sweet” putrid in the way moss and mud are putrid – the sensation of lifting a log from a forest floor, rolling it from its hollowed place on the earth, watching as earthworms wiggle away, and there’s a smell there – a richness. Something happy. On the spectrum of “sodden earth” and real sweet dirtiness alone, where so few whiskies really play, Defiant is one of the few in the direction of having it, in the direction of Laphroaig, which defines some of the fullest saturation, though Defiant is not nearly that far on the spectrum (and, of course, not on the spectrum at all when it comes to peat.)
(As an aside: it’s interesting for me is that the flavors of peat and earth and moss apparently wind up as neighbors with the cleaning agents – “medicinal,” “astringent.” The chemists and whiskey experts can organize them however they want, but to me these flavors drastically contrast each other – a thing is either dirt-like or sanitary; decaying or clean. My favorites are all earthen; my least favorites astringent.)
And yet, back to Defiant, there’s something else. The forest floor decay is the closest I get on my first pass, but it’s still not quite the right place in my mental mapping, and I do the thing we do when we’re mental scrambling in the dark, feeling for something we’re certain is there. You get as close as you can and then hold on to it, watching for the thing as the water continues to rush around you, clutching this root amid the current, waiting for it to present itself so you can take hold.
I don’t finish it right away. I carry it with me and wander to another table; holding the tiny, stemmed tasting glass with my arms crossed, the glass resting against my other elbow. And I’m listening to someone talk about some other whiskey, scarcely thinking about the one in my hand when the smell finally registers and hits me. Brewery.
It smells like brewery. More specifically, like brewing. More specifically, Summit County.
There was the micro-brewery I used to frequent, all seasons, in Summit County, Colorado. I had been there dozens of times, had eaten, drank, laughed and listened to stories, and the scene was always, sensory-wise, more or less the same. But one day I walked in and was hit with this olfactory bombardment. Something new; something “wrong.” It was a smell that violated my olfactory canvas, broke it down, began restructuring – it overpowered everything; simultaneously offensive and let intoxicating; almost sensual, a bit like sweat. And I turned to somebody and asked, “what is that?” and they told me: “that’s the barley.”
And it was that smell, that putrid violation, that I was now holding in my hand; this glass of Defiant.
A reviewer wrote that Defiant “tastes a bit youthful and rough around the edges.” And it’s “youthful,” sure, if what’s meant by “youthful” is not so quickly discounted as “childish” or “naïve” (other reviewers describe it as “summer camp locker room” and “saturated blue jeans”) but instead recognized as the “rough and tumble” recklessness just beyond boyishness. It is the deliberate rather than mindless muddying of clothing from pioneering off a beaten path; the smell of body and sweat; the adolescence quality of experimentation and gall; the eschewing of convention. (And on the finish, the faint appall from the traditionalists, aghast at this indiscretion.)
The breaking down and rebuilding; decomposition and creation. A putridness; a sweetness; something new.