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From Corn to Barley, Part 2: Private Collections and Single Malts Beyond Scotland

Some of the bottles "Ken" pulled out for us. Red Solo cups not required for a whiskey collection. Samson (background) also optional.
Some of the bottles "Ken" pulled out for us. Red Solo cups not required for a whiskey collection. Samson (background) also optional.
Nath Pizzolatto

You should not be surprised to read that, as a native of south Louisiana, I love a good crawfish boil. When my friend "Ken"* invited me to his, I thought I'd catch up with him and a few others, and maybe discuss our upcoming fantasy football season. What I got on top of some good crawfish and conversation was a look into a culture I knew very little about.

* - I changed his name to protect his anonymity. He reminds me of Ken Marino, which seems like as good a reason as any to choose a fake name.

See, Ken was a whiskey collector and trader. I knew this in the back of my mind somewhere, having briefly discussed it with him in the past, but I didn't fully realize the extent of his collection. When we got to talking whiskey, I mentioned I really liked the Balcones Baby Blue, but had trouble finding it in stock anywhere. He offered to bring out a bottle-- among others-- and he told me he knew where to get more. As we got to talking, he explained that he was part of a network of whiskey collectors and traders, a small group that keep each other informed on rare and limited releases, value purchases, and where to find them. He knew which out-of-the-way liquor stores tended to get bottles that were rare and that their ordinary clientele didn't recognize. He could get bottles through the network for prices that were generally a slight markup on the retail price, but still below the true after-market value. He knew which bottles were worth drinking now, and which ones he should save to let appreciate in value.

Ken offered to break out some of the bottles from his collection that he thought would be good for a tasting, and he showed us a couple of rarities he kept as investments. We got a chance to both taste a wide variety of whiskeys and to marvel at some of his rarer items.

We started off with both the Baby Blue and the Makers 46, a smoother, woodier version of Makers Mark that was better than its large-batch namesake would suggest and a fine baseline to compare the others to. My friend/whiskey partner in crime Marc brought a bottle of Glenmorangie Lasanta, which is part of a relatively recent line of Glenmorangie 12-year Scotches that are finished for two years in different barrels after aging for ten years in Glemorangie's usual American white oak casks. (The Lisanti is finished in Spanish sherry casks; the Quinta Ruban in Portuguese ruby port casks; and the Nectar d'Or in French sauternes casks.) As fans of the Macallan 12, we were quite inclined to like the Lisanti, which offers some of the smoothness and fruit notes of the Macallan but with different and more complex flavors underneath.

Ken chose a couple of sweeter bourbons to bring out for comparison, the Johnny Drum Private Stock and the Black Maple Hill red label. The Johnny Drum was more traditionally smooth and sweet, while the Black Maple Hill's sweetness was accentuated by a nutty finish. In addition, he had the Abraham Bowman limited-edition whiskey from the Bowman distillery. This was a more tradtionally balanced bourbon, flavorful but with a little more bite to it than the first two.

The most impressive bourbon of the bunch, though, was the Col. E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof. A tremendously flavorful whiskey, all the more impressive for having such quality of taste while remaining so high-proof. Sure, two-thirds of it was pure alcohol, but the remaining one-third was rich with flavors of caramel, vanilla, and other sweet notes. I found it truly impressive how much flavor was packed into each sip (once you got past the burn of the alcohol).

As far as the investment bourbon went, the Four Roses 125th Anniversary was an impressive piece to his collection, given its rarity and the general high quality of the Four Roses line. But the real highlight of his collection was the Old Rip Van Winkle 23-year-old Family Selection, in a wood case with two tumblers and a letter of authenticity.

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The Old Rip Van Winkle 23, complete in set with certificate of authenticity.
The Old Rip Van Winkle 23, complete in set with certificate of authenticity.
Marc Rosenthal

Of course, we didn't get to try that, as its value was already into the thousands and he wasn't going to cash in his investment when we had ten other good whiskeys. We did, however, get to sample the best whiskey I'd had yet. And it comes not from the moors of Scotland nor the corn fields of Kentucky, but from a small distillery in Japan's Ozaka prefecture.

Though the Yamazaki 18-year single malt comes from Japan, it is made with the same peat-dried malted-barley base as any notable Scotch. The Yamazaki struck a balance of light and fruitier notes on the nose with a healthy peat finish. The remarkable thing about the peat flavor wasn't just in its strength or texture; it was in the way it continued to linger and unfold well after the first sip had finished. This was a new dimension of taste, flavor and mouthfeel now being complemented by time. Even a small sip left a rich peat aftertaste that lingered and changed for several seconds before fading. Sure, I was familiar with lingering flavors and aftertaste, but this was different, as the flavor actually continued to open up well after I had finished a sip. I was blown away by this exquisite experience and vowed to find a bottle as soon as possible.

The Yamazaki 18 Year Single Malt, the finest whiskey we've tasted to date.
The Yamazaki 18 Year Single Malt, the finest whiskey we've tasted to date.
Marc Rosenthal

Now that we had a much greater idea of what was possible in the realm of boutique whiskey, Marc and I renewed our search. Not long afterward, we took Ken's advice on whiskey-shopping. By looking in a liquor store off the beaten trail, we are able to find two bottles of the Balcones Baby Blue as well as two bottles of Black Maple Hill. We may be late to the punch on being traders, but we can still collect some rarities and finer spirits for our own enjoyment. I still haven't found a bottle of Yamazaki 18, though.


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