Does Whiskey Bias Get the Best of Us?

Bias is not necessarily bad or good.  Bias simply is. 

We all have biases.  While a bias may not be a good thing nor a bad thing, it is usually based on a positive or a negative thing.  

Music can be an example of positive bias.  You’ve enjoyed previous albums from a band, so when they release a new one you are naturally more likely to buy it (or download it) based on the bias created by your past experience.  That can, however, burn you.  See: The Rolling Stones fans and “Dirty Work” or Metallica fans and “St. Anger”. 

Certain food choices can be an example of negative bias.  Say it’s 2 AM, you’re hungry and the only place open is Taco Bell.  Then your next day is spent on the toilet trying to make deals with God.  Experiences like this have created many a bias against late night chalupas or fast food “Mexican” altogether.

In this article I’m going to focus on the negative biases that we have in whiskey and why it’s important to overcome those.  Or at the very least, not let a bias rob us the opportunity of trying new and interesting spirits.

Being Blind Beats Being Biased

One of the best ways to beat a bias (positive or negative) is a blind tasting.  I’ve led many blind tastings and seen where people who “didn’t like rye” found out that they really did.  Or someone that thinks Pappy or Blanton’s is the whiskey holy grail actually prefers a much more affordable and obtainable brand of bourbon.

On a recent episode of Bourbon Turntable (a show I host with Drew Crawley) I led four of the guys in my bourbon group (Bourbon Fellowship) in a couple of blind tastings.  You can follow along here, if you want to watch (like, share subscribe and comment while you’re there, please).  The blind tastings start around the 4-minute mark.

Pacific FlyWay by Golden Beaver Distiller

The first whiskey they tried was Pacific Flyway Whiskey from Golden Beaver Distillery out of Chico, California.  Kris Koenig is the owner and talented distiller there.  The bias that Golden Beaver has to overcome with Pacific Flyway, a rice whiskey, is the non-traditional use of the grain in the mashbill.  When someone hears that the spirit set before them is produced from rice, the first (and erroneous) thought is “sake”.  The timid whiskey drinker with a flat palate might scrunch up their nose and pass on the pour.  As our blind tasting panel’s notes would reveal, however, the timid drinker would be missing out.

Drinking blind, the Bourbon Fellowship guys gave us tasting notes like cocoa, sweet grass, fresh-cut hay, a dark chocolate Three Musketeers as well as fruit notes of peach and pear.  As a lower proof whiskey (86 proof) it didn’t seem to be one that they would use in a cocktail, but could sip on it neat all day long.  The group unanimously agreed that this was a very good whiskey and one they will drink again and again.  However, it is not one they might have reached for previously due to the bias against the rice.  That’s one win against bias.

Buzzard’s Roost Peated Barrel

The second whiskey our panel tried blind was Buzzard’s Roost Peated Barrel. Buzzard’s Roost is led by founder and master blender, Jason Brauner.  (For more details on Buzzard’s Roost, go here).  Before this iteration of Buzzard’s Roost was released, Jason admitted he didn’t like peat.  I don’t like peat, either, at least not a heavy peat.  As a matter of fact, lots of people shared this reaction when a bottle of Peated Barrel is put before them.  A lot of so-called whiskey enthusiasts let their Ardbeg-fueled nightmares get the best of them and they avoided this version of Buzzard’s Roost.  Our panel can let them know what they’ve been missing.

The first note mentioned was Chamomile tea and honey.  A hot toddy.  Tropical fruit, apricot and mango.  Was it finished in a secondary barrel to give it those fruit flavors? 

When I disclosed to the group what they were drinking, they were all surprised because they didn’t taste anything like peat.  At all.  There is a subtle smoke on the back end, but you need to spend some time with it to pick up on it or have it pointed out to you.  However, the aging in the peated barrel brings out some unique flavors not found in other Buzzard’s Roost products.  Each of the guys loved it, even though none of them like a peated scotch in the slightest.  Another victory over bias. 

To overcome the bias against peat, Jason has said that future releases will be labeled as “Smoked Barrel” rather than “Peated”.  You can’t get everyone to try it blind, so a name change is a good way to defeat that incorrect, negative bias.

Dealing With Bias of My Own

Like all of us, I have my whiskey biases, too.  I’ll try just about anything (even Malort…gross).  By being open-minded about trying new things or even revisiting old things, I am able to discover that I like things I thought I didn’t.  I also find, on the other hand, that sometimes my bias is reinforced.  Here are examples of both.

Finished whiskeys is a category that I long avoided.  I believed that putting whiskey in a wine cask for a few months is a way to mask a whiskey mistake.  I also think the labeling on many finished whiskeys is deceptive.  If a bourbon is put into a secondary barrel to add an outside flavor (as does occur in a wine cask, for example) then should it still be called a “bourbon”?  I don’t think so.

I would roll my eyes at a finished whiskey thinking “if you made a good whiskey to begin with, you wouldn’t have to put it in a wine barrel to make it drinkable”.  In some cases, I still believe this to be true.  However, by trying more products in this category, I have found that some finished whiskeys are quite delicious and very well done. 

One such finished whiskey – the one that started my turn around on them – was Unpretentious, a limited release from Alan Bishop and Spirits of French Lick. Unpretentious is a high rye bourbon finished in a port wine cask.  When Alan first told me about this, I thought “Why would you do this?  Your whiskey is fantastic as it is.  Just give us more of that”. 

Once I tried it, however…heck yeah.  Unpretentious was a tremendous, expertly-crafted spirit and received universal rave reviews.  Now, sadly, it is only available through trade on the dark web.  The last bottle went for the Elephant Man’s bones and an original pressing of the single “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf.  Unpretentious, while being a uniquely terrific whiskey, was also a tongue-in-cheek poke at the “machinery making modern bourbon” by Alan Bishop.  My satirical review of this intriguing whiskey is found here.

Recently, I found another finished whiskey that I really enjoy is Oloroso Wheat Whiskey from Middle West Spirits.  It is a five-year old wheat whiskey aged in American white oak and then further matured in Spanish Oloroso sherry casks.  It is plum, almond, dark chocolate and cinnamon.  The sherry finish does not overpower the wheat whiskey at all.  It’s a winner. 

Another bias I have is against George Dickel whiskey.  They make a lot of it.  I can say that for them.  But, I just don’t like it.

I have had some Dickel that is blended with other whiskeys or finished in a wine barrel that were tolerable to me, but not good enough to buy.

I’ve had a bottle of 15-year George Dickel single barrel sitting around the house that I received as a gift a couple of years ago.  So, in the spirit of overcoming bias and trying (and re-trying) things, I opened it today.  It has a beautiful bright, copper color in my glass.  The nose has a promising sweet brisket aroma to it, but there’s something underneath that hints at trouble.  Then when I taste it: Flintsone’s Vitamins.  It is cliché, but it is true.  The extra age only adds some astringency to the “yabba-dabba-do” unpleasantness I always seem to get from George Dickel Whiskey.  Bias confirmed.  If you’re a fan of it, I will gladly leave more of it for you on the shelf.

Benefits of Beating a Bias

I’m not suggesting that you drain pour the whiskey that you currently love (unless it’s George…well, never mind).  I am challenging you to expand your whiskey horizons.  Be willing to try new things.  And by “new things” I don’t necessarily mean the latest brand of sourced, six-year MGP on the market under another label.  Because if you happen to miss out on that one, there will be another one on the market next weekend.  (I may have a sourced-MGP bias, too).

I also don’t mean try expensive things.  If it is a pricey pour of something you’ve never had, then that’s between you and your budget.  I’m all for trying new things, but there is some risk involved when the brand thinks a lot of their bottle.

What I do mean is: be willing to experiment in whiskey.  Try a unique mashbill (see this Bar Cart YouTube show for ideas). 

Try a different brand.  When I look for a different brand, I typically want to find one that is doing their own distilling.

Try a different spirit.  Bourbon, and to a lesser extent rye, can be stupid sometimes.  The hype around the bottle too often far exceeds what is actually in the bottle.  Try a corn whiskey.  Try an American single malt.  Try a white whiskey.  Try a scotch (they aren’t all peated).  Try an absinthe. 

What you’ll find is there are a lot of creative distillers out there making flavorful whiskeys that you’ll love while, at the same time, expanding your palate. And when you go back to that daily drinker you love, you may find yourself picking up on different notes that help you enjoy it even more than before.