At the risk of getting horrible Karate Kid sound track theme music stuck in our heads we ponder the quest for the best (around!) whisky…
Efforts to determine and discover what the best is when it comes to whisky can only be described in an equally staunch manner: Impossible. There are some that will boldly proclaim on an annual basis what the best whisky in the world is – but it is not that simple. While whiskies can be and often are described with terms depicting a certain color, aroma and palate, the appreciation of a whisky is preferably interpreted as an experience drawing upon factors both from within and without the glass.
In this fashion, tasting notes of the ultimate whiskies are typically not what one regales others with in moments of nostalgia: it is the retelling of a whisky experience that better communicates what is best in whisky. The consumption of whisky is far more dependent on the particular tilt of any given whiskey drinker. What is the best whisky is too heavily dependent upon the palate and experience of the individual raising the glass, cup or as necessity dictates – the bottle. Because of this subjective aspect of whisky, it is difficult to come to a consensus on what constitutes the best whisky as our experiences are all different and always changing.
This is not to say that all whisky drinking is relative, but more that whisky drinking is less akin to the search for the perfectly prepared steak and more of a journey without a destination. That journey may lead the inveterate seeker of whisky on many a quest. One such quest is for the holy grail of peat. This is a point where few start their journey but many seekers eventually linger. This leg of the ultimate whisky experience typically leaves a trail of empty bottles with labels mentioning Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich and Ardbeg among others. It starts with attempts to see just how much of the fabled earth elemental one can savor in a single dose. While a denizen of bogs and soil, peat is released by fire, and fire never goes anywhere without his friends smoke and ash. Does the peatiest whisky mean the best whisky? To some it may, to those peat-adverse it will fall on the opposite end of the superlative spectrum – dare I say the worst?
While there are some whisky drinkers that have put down permanent roots in the area of a particular style of whisky, the majority of us are a bit more nomadic and continue on our quest for the best. And so it is with these various travels through grasslands and swathes of grain or more perilous wanderings along craggy coasts, buffeted by salt and iodine winds that our opinions of what is the peak or the trough of whisky expressions at that moment often changes.
In this sense, it is the drinker and their current point in their quest for the pinnacle-dram that determines the worth of any particular whisky. When I awoke one evening to find myself wandering the highlands, very much at the beginning of my search, I would have failed to appreciate the experience of seasoned veterans and their tales of wandering the paths of Isla or the alleys of Campbletown. Until, after years, I found myself haunting similar places, darkening peaty, salty shores. Only to wade back into waves of amber grain with a greater and changed appreciation for many fundamental aspects of whisky, be it elements of the soil and water, the barrel, or the muse of time and its aging process, sometimes enhancing a whisky, other times dampening its fire too much.
Sadly but perhaps fortunately, because the drinker is always changing, if you retained a favorite bottle from years past, you will return to that bottle to find that the spirit was no longer what you thought of as the best in whisky. But take solace in that although you might have lost that best whisky, you have discovered and moved on to another. In this manner, scaling the various peaks of whisky’s seemingly endless range, the whisky drinker is redefined and enriched a little with each ascent. I don’t think I ever want to find the best as it will mean that my quest is over. As such, a long and varied quest is perhaps the superlative whisky experience.