Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Evolution of Taste

It was 1977.  David was an exceptional teenager.  He was maybe 15.  I was 10.  Wherever he went, there always seemed to be a buzz. . . of conversation that is, not of the Cheech and Chong variety.

"David is reading Thomas Mann," one rather stout and bespectacled mother said to another in the driveway, as they watched approvingly while he cut across a well manicured lawn in the direction of downtown.  Headed to the library no doubt.  When I took a shortcut across the neighbor's lawn, in a furtive effort to get to school on time, all I heard was an angry yell.

"Death in Venice no less," chimed in the other, more slender mother with the Jackie-O hairdo, flared jeans and too much turquoise jewelry.

A few yards away, I was playing in a flower bed that was still awaiting flowers, as my parent's house was new construction.  I used that patch of earth as a sandbox.  Had my Deetail army men arranged in the dirt, where I staged battles between the Desert Rats and the Afrika Korps replete with my whistling sounds of bombs exploding and gunfire.

I noticed the stiff gazes of Betty and Wilma settle upon me, and one of them rolled her eyes skyward, probably not out of fear of incoming armaments.

. . .

A couple of years later, when I was about 15, I decided to better myself and be more like David.  After all, I wanted parents to talk about me in hushed and reverent tones too.  So, I stopped re-reading my favorite post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, The Tripods, and try my hand, or rather my mind, at Death in Venice.

I didn't understand it.  I read words on a page, but I couldn't understand what the author was trying to convey.  It was just one giant snorefest.  I tried some other tomes, like 1984, Animal Farm and Siddhartha with no success.  I quickly slinked back to John Christopher young adult novels, as well as the high octane/easy reading thriller works of Jack Higgins with great titles like: The Keys of Hell, Midnight Never Comes, The Last Place God Made.

Not much changed for me between the ages of 15 and 45.  Maybe I moved from Jack Higgins to Robert B. Parker.  I read all those Spenser novels and damn they were good.  Nice light brain candy.  They fed a need.  Work involved heavy reading and high stress.  So, when not at work, Mai Tai reading was the order of the day.

"Sex So Good . . . Your Neighbors Will Change Their Zip Code"

"15 Foods That Fight Fat"

"Strip Away Stress!"

Yeah, I still indulge in Krispy Kreme reading like "Men's Health," but lately something has changed.  I have a growing appetite for content with a little more fibre.  Maybe not as wholegrain and organic as  Death in Venice, but less formulaic and simple than the high-fructose corn syrup pulp my mind has been gorging on for the past twenty-five odd years.

So, recently I have been enjoying and even understanding some quirky short stories and essays that turn up in off-the-wall, hidden from public view, low circulation journals like:  The Believer MagazineMcSweeney's Quarterly, and Lapham's Quarterly.

McSweeney's Quarterly describes itself as a journal that at one point published only works of authors who had been rejected by other magazines.  What an attitude!  I like it.  Eventually they abandoned that strategy, but hey, to even go there is admirable.

. . .

Initially, my tastes in whiskies were exclusively devoted to the light, the sweet, the honeyed and super smooth.  There were no Hermann Hesse malts in my midst.  I placed an enormous premium on blended scotch, Canadian and Irish whiskies because they were smooth, not biting, and pretty much devoid of smoke and peat (elements that I found offensive).

I remember being at a whisky festival many years ago and taking a big gulp of Laphraoig.  I started to gag and my eyes watered while I did my best not to projectile vomit all over the display booth.  Given that experience, no wonder I did not like peat, smoke, and iodine elements.

Anyhow, I was thinking that was the worst stuff.  Matter of fact, at that festival, I tried a number of single malts and they all were just 'awful' in my novice opinion.  Too strong, rough, etc.  Ardbeg was 'poison.'  So, I spent the rest of the evening bear hugging blends and was happy to note there were no long line-ups of patrons for Famous Grouse, Chivas, Johnnie Walker and others.

The first scotch whisky to hook me was Johnnie Walker Black Label.  I was playing cards and wanted something to drink, anything but beer.  Beer uncomfortably puffs me up and gives me the munchies (not a winning combination for someone struggling with their weight and a body-type similar to John Belushi).  Someone said they had Johnnie Walker Black.  I said ok.  I loaded a tumbler up with ice and poured a double.  Let it sit while I played a few hands and then I took a sip.

I was hooked.  I was expecting something nasty, but that was not the case.  The ice had diluted the whisky such that it delivered a nice caramel, orange rind taste with a bit of smoke.  Wonderful.  A little sip went so far.  Put the glass down and continued to play.

Having had a positive experience with Black Label, I would buy it repeatedly for a few years.  It had punch, but with some ice, I could tame it to something I could enjoy.  I had a real aversion to strong tastes, and that is why ice played a big part of my early experience with whisky.

After a while I ventured on to other whiskies.  Bushmills with its light nutty flavors.  Cutty Sark's apples and limes, and then onto malty/grainy Famous Grouse.  Chivas Regal 12.  And then there was Teacher's Highland Cream.

Chivas and Teacher's were a bit of a revelation because they introduced a lot more texture and nuance to the flavor experience.  I was starting to enjoy the nip, the slightly coarse or unruly flavors.  Experimenting, I reduced the amount of ice from something resembling the polar cap to a single cube.  And then, I would run out of ice, too lazy to go upstairs from the basement for more, I began sipping neat and never looked back.

Transitioning from Teacher's and Chivas, I tried single malts for the first time.  Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie Doublewood 12, Macallan 12 and then Cragganmore.  Cragganmore 12 neat with maybe half a teaspoon of water unleashed the complexity of flavor I read about elsewhere, but for the first time understood.  Where blends seem to meld all the flavors together so nothing is dominating or distinct, Cragganmore was a single malt that was subtle but layered and woven.  Plus it was a wild honey fiesta with a dash of peat and smoke, which was and remains one of my favorite flavor profiles.

From Cragganmore, I moved onto Dalwhinnie, Oban, Highland Park and many others.  Eventually, I developed an appreciation of the Isle of Skye and Islay.  Developing an appreciation of smoke and peat bombs like Laphroaig took many years.  After spending a lot of time with powerful Speyside malts I was able to move on to Islay.  The key for me and Islay is to take the tiniest of sips.  A little goes a very long way.

. . .

So, my taste in scotch whisky has evolved from a passion for gentle, smooth, honeyed blends to include the smokiest briar patch fires lit on Islay.  But, a question remains.  Do I still like those first loves or are they like high school?  Happy you went, but glad you never have to return.  Let's look at those blends again.

Johnnie Walker Black - You're still the greatest of blends.  The gold standard against which I measure all the others.  Always in my cabinet.

Famous Grouse - I recently picked up another bottle of this sweet, malty, pencil shaving scotch.  It is far too grainy for my tastes now.  Can't stand it, and deep down there is a part of me that is really embarrassed forever being enthusiastic about this swill.

Chivas 12 -  I still like Chivas 12 and think it doesn't seem to get the street cred that Johnnie Black enjoys.  Chivas and my enjoyment of it has a lot to do with my mood.  It usually surprises me as to how good it is.

Bushmills (white label) - I haven't bought a bottle in ages, but it still is in my mind the ultimate starter whisky.  So, gentle and alluring, before you know it, half the bottle is gone and you are pouring out your heart to the bartender who has heard it all before.  Would I buy another bottle?  Maybe not, but I would never turn it down.

Cutty Sark - Oh my G-d this is simple stuff.  Pleasant enough, not bad, but I have moved on.

Teacher's Highland Cream -  Still love it as much as the first bottle.  Not much on the nose and what is there can be confused for a petrol barrel in Siberia, but the taste is like biting into a bacon and tomato sandwhich.  I always have this in the house.  My go-to comfort scotch.

. . .

Now, will I read some Thomas Mann or Robert B. Parker?  Hmm I think I will opt for the latter with a dram of Teacher's to keep me company.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Photo credits: Army men in sandbox photograph taken by Mike Sperlak, and used with his permission.  No reproduction is permitted without the express permission of Mr. Sperlak who holds all world copyright and intellectual property in said photograph.  Photograph of Johnnie Walker Black Label appearing at the top of this post. The photograph was taken by James Calvey and it is used here with his permission. No reproduction of his photograph is permitted without his consent. Mr. Calvey is the holder of all copyright to said photo. Check out more of his great work at his Flickr account.  Photograph of bottle of Bushmills taken by Flickr member Pedro.cali.  No reproduction permitted without obtaining permission of Pedro.cali.


  1. Great retrospective, thanks for this. You really covered the feeling of what it's like to grow up--people tend to forget that we still mature, even when we're older! (Not that I have much room to talk, being twenty-three, but you get my drift.)

    I had a similar experience with Teacher's. I'd been on my scotch journey for maybe eight months, had gone through the Glenfiddich 12 & 15, Glenlivet 12, and Johnnie Walker Green Label (the latter two bought on a cruise--thanks, duty-free liters!). I loved them, but especially JWGL (R.I.P.). So, I thought, it was time to try something smoky! So I went to my local Total Wine and bought a bottle of Laphroaig 10. I was not, as you can imagine, ready for it. I could appreciate an aspect of it, a kind of briny sweetness, but getting through the bottle was a chore (and I felt that I had to finish since I was leaving for Spain at the end of the summer; didn't want to leave a bottle to oxidize!).

    So here I am in Spain, and wanting to try something with a bit of smoky/peaty bite to it, and what to I find at the Hipercor? Teacher's, for under 10 euro. Done and done. All I had ever read was that it was The Blend of Cheap Blends, but I was still blown away by the flavor. Absolute surprise. My appreciation for smoky elements has skyrocketed recently, and I thank that bottle for that change.

    I've been on a quest for smoky/salty combinations, and have found both Talisker 10 and (especially) Springbank 10 to scratch that itch. (Your review of Springbank 10 really sealed the deal for me, by the way.) But I really don't think I would have evolved to the point of craving that kind of whisky without first trying Teacher's. Baby steps, you know? I think I would next like to try the Laphroaig Quarter Cask (and have seen it in the Madrid airport....) because I have heard it has a nice smoke/salt ratio. Do you have any recommendations?

    Keep up the great work! (One request? More posts, please? :D)


    1. Hi Chase,

      I would humbly ask you to hold off on Laphroaig Quarter Cask and instead please consider "Isle of Jura Superstition." It is gentler but with plenty of intriguing peat, smoke and sea brine. Much more approachable than Laphroaig.

      "Smokehead" is a young (ie. 6-8yr old) Islay malt like Ardbeg or Laphroaig, but again easier drinking than the Quarter Cask.

      For a real soft touch that you will never have a problem delighting in, please try economy blended scotches: (1) White Horse; (2) Black Bottle. If you live in the US, you can find these at crazy cheap bottles. Not a ton of complexity, just great lip smacking Islay enjoyment.

      Please don't take my suggestions as condescending, it has nothing to do with your age, just with regards to the length of time you have been enjoying whisky. As you say, baby steps is the rule. Finish the Isle of Jura and Smokehead, and Laphroaig Quarter Cask will be a delight. By the way, it is better than the 10yr old.

      As for the frequency of my posts, I wish I could post more frequently, but working full time, family and all that jazz can get in the way of posting regularly. I am for once a week though.

      Thanks for commenting. Other readers will benefit from your comments too!

    2. No offense taken. I've actually got a bottle of White Horse now, and it's...okay. I was initially really impressed, but the more I drink it the more "processed" it tastes. Like syrup or something. It's enjoyable given its sub-10-euro price, of course, but I'll be buying Teacher's next time I go for a blend, I think. I've had my eyes open for Black Bottle but haven't seen it anywhere around here. I'll have to look when I'm back in the States.

      Thanks for the Jura/Smokehead recs. They're now on my list! (Which seems to get longer by the week.........)

    3. White Horse is a gentle blend that is for sure, and if you are looking for complexity or robustness of flavor, I suppose it is not the place to look.

      I just was making the suggestion as a good place to explore and climatize to the Islay flavors. I think if you find White Horse a little simple, Black Bottle may not impress either. Certainly Teacher's is not simple by a long shot.

      No offense taken!


  2. Hello Mr. Jason,

    Really dug this post. I must agree with your current-impressions-of-old-favorites listing of whiskies, for the most part. It's been over a year since I last tried the Grouse- that one I perhaps recall being a Bit more fond of, then your current impressionos of the blend are. Certainly at least bordering on being a bit cloying, though.

    I don't know what it is, but I seem to be alone in this camp of thinking JW Black is becoming a bit stale. I recognize the recipe has gradually changed a bit, veering a bit into more speyside dominated flavors and keeping the peat on the light side. What I am finding increasingly dissapointing about it, is it's once great layered nature seems to be thinning out, and is tasting more and more like little beyond a somewhat more refined version of JW Red. Maybe I'm just a brute with a not so great palate. That is quite probable! But I do notice a change, and to me and my palate, it seems to be getting a bit stale.

    1. Hello Yochanan!

      I don't know if it is your power of persuasion, but I do recall that years ago, Black Label seemed much more peaty and smokey (the unmistakable taste of Talisker). Today, it seems to be getting gentler, leaning to the Speyside.

      Nevertheless, I find it incredible. I have not had a bottle in three months or so.

      I think I will review it in the next month or so, as I am intrigued by your observations. Has it lost some of its complexity and become thinner? Great question!

      Always a pleasure to hear from you.


    2. Jason, I've personally found (by accident one evening) that I preferred JWBL a bit better slightly less smoked, but not because of any change in botlings themselves. That is, I poured a dram from bottle and allow it to sit overnight, for enjoyment the following evening. The fruit and floral nature comes out in spades, a real makeover. The ashy-ness (and I'm typically a lover of peat's additions of smoke, ash, iodine and brine) recedes; it takes to a smaller role, which in the blend's case actually serves it better - for me, anyway. Try it ! JK

  3. Jason, Nice post. Tastes do change, well - at least they can change, if one tries new things and if one's nature permits change to occur. What I noticed (as you seem to have captured as well) is how taste can change either quickly or slowly, but usually without advance warning. For me, it's often Bang - something's different than it used to be. Welcome to the small, murmuring group of the curious, the ones in the far corner. We're continually willing to try new things, to retest old things, to re-think old impressions, and discard old favorites when they no longer impress in the old ways. Be it thoughts about food, wine, spirits, travel, or pastimes, there's nothing like being a taste vagabond. Cheers. JK

    1. As you have pointed out, it is important to stretch our palates a bit by trying different malts because every once in a while we encounter a real gem (like Springbank 15). Gotta keep trying new stuff and celebrating the classics that endure.

      I am always in search of the equivalent Andy Kaufmann or Sara Silverman of whisky who is pushing the envelope and succeeds at the same time.

  4. Great analogy between changing tastes in reading and liquor as well as the willingness to explore new tastes.

    While I still enjoy Clive Cussler and Louis L'Amour I am increasing drawn to classics, especially from the Victorian era such as Moby Dick and the books of Charles Dickens. Their lush, evocative writing is an increasing delight.

    In a similar vein, the mild, rather bland whisky of my youth (Canadian Mist)has evolved to a preference for stronger, more complex tastes. Lagavulin was my favorte from the first sip. That didn't keep me from trying, and enjoying, Teachers Highland Cream, which I learned about from your blog, or Glenmorangie. The 80 proof bourbons I started with have given way to stronger, richer libations like WT Rare Breed and 101 Rye. And the journey is just starting.

    Jeff The Bear

  5. This is one of your best entries. A great go to.

    Part of the wonder of whisk(e)y is the diversity (accompanied by quality) allows you go follow your moods. It's why expert reviews should not dictate everything. For example, I am at the moment, obsessing on the simple sweetness of smooth Irish whiskeys. It's all I want. There are times when I could have a fancy single malt scotch, but I just want Johnny Walker Black. etc etc....This lays it out really well. I bought a cheap bottle of Tullamore last week, and it's not very good. Tastes too young. But it still is delivering that light caramel sweetness that Irish whiskey delivers, and again, for now, I'd take over any scotch, even though I know scotch is "better".


  6. Tonio Kröger soll man lesen.

    1. Thanks for the suggested reading. I am not familiar with that particular work by Thomas Mann.

  7. Your blog and your writing style remind me of James Lileks.

    Sincere compliment.