...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Whisky with Florin - Part One: Getting Started

Last November, I had the great pleasure of meeting Florin, a contributor to a great deal of the online whisky discourse. I’ve always appreciated Florin’s modesty in an arena wherein we all consider ourselves experts. Though he is a font of whisky wisdom, he is always asking questions, open to others’ thoughts.

Florin welcomed me into his Southern California home where I had the opportunity to meet his lovely wife and the first two (there are now three!) of his beautiful children. He and I talked a lot of whisky and drank a lot of whisky. It was an excellent afternoon, one I hope we can repeat sometime soon.

At the start of our whisky session, Florin introduced me to a blended malt he had designed in his down time --- The GlenPhroaig. It is excellent. I’m not exaggerating when I say someone should bottle this stuff and get it on the shelves. I had originally intended to just interview him about the blend, but we wound up getting into a bit of a whisky exploration via email. With Florin’s permission, I’m presenting our (December-to-January) conversation this week, culminating in a review of The GlenPhroaig.

MK: Looking back on your whisky journey, was there a specific dram that started it all? If the catalyst wasn't one whisky, was there an experience or moment that ignited your interest?

FV: As a whisky lover it's always fun to look back to that first drink that started it all, isn't it? For me, this trip started 12 years ago, and it was in fact two drinks. I was 33 when I had my first single malt & bourbon. (If I was Jesus or Buddha I would have died without ever trying it, isn't that scary?).

Growing up in Romania, I had plenty of wine from an early age, at social events or hanging out with my
friends. The local spirit is plum brandy - we call it tzuica, you probably know it as sliwowitz. I enjoyed that too, it was always artisanal, made in hilly country by somebody's uncle or neighbor, and often very very good! We should have some together next time you visit!

I came to the US at the age of 25, for graduate school, so I was spared the usual college experimentation phase, with drinks that you know you'll never touch again in your life. I did once have a Johnnie Walker Red, which put me off whisky for a few good years. If that's what whisky was, then it was not for me. But by 2001 I was ready to expand my horizons, also prompted by a good friend who moved to Scotland. "Don't tell me you are now drinking whisky!" I told him over the phone. "Well, single malt is actually really good!” This intrigued me, so I got my hands on a book on spirits published by Beverage Testing Institute. It said there that a certain Pappy van Winkle was the best whisky in the world, scoring 100/100. I did not want to spend a $50 fortune on that, but I picked up a bottle of Rip van Winkle 107 proof, which had scored 97 or 98, and somehow also a bottle of Talisker 10yo. At under $30 each, these were still a major investment for me at the time. Boy, was I in for a treat! I just could not believe how good these two were! I would pour myself every evening a nice snifter of either one or the other, and I would just nose that glass and smile, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary! I was completely sold! The Talisker had a nice map of the island on the label, I understand it's a collector's item now; the RvW107 I had last year was nowhere as good as the one of my memory. Having had such a beautiful start with these hardcore whiskies, I don't buy the idea that one has to begin gently, try your Chivas Regal or Jack Daniels first to see if you are worthy, and then move on from there.

One year later, in 2002, I had the chance to visit Scotland for work for two months, but that's a different story...

MK: You bring up a interesting point about the old thought that everyone needs to start with blends and cheapies. I've found many blends and cheapies unappealing when served neatly since they're "designed for mixing" (read: made from the youngest stuff possible).

On the other hand, you have a considerably different palate than the newest generation of consumers whose palates have been formed by drinking Kool Aid, Coca Cola, and Coors Light -- drinks engineered not to challenge. Starting with wine while young (as my wife and I had), could you have unintentionally prepped your palate for more immediately demanding experiences, like sliwowitz (or Laphroaig Cask Strength!)?

Going back to the first hand: JW Red Label, Dewars White Label, and Cutty Sark are unpleasant starters. They make even less sense as starting points buried under sugary mixers. I had my start with Glenfiddich and Glenlivet; they're priced well and have had their edges rounded. I had Talisker 10 early on too, too bad it isn't $30 anymore! I know a lot of folks who were sold on whisky via Macallan 12yr.

All that aside, I'm jealous that you had your start with Van Winkle and Talisker!

Okay, now that you've teased it, you must recap your Scotland 2002 story! I was there in November 2002, but had not yet hit my whisky stride.

FV: I've never thought of the effect of growing up with Coca-Cola on the average American whisky consumer! You are clearly right: that must make a big difference in terms of what people like and don't like. On the other hand, you & your wife grew up in the US, I believe, and you don't have the average American palate either. Let's keep in mind that the single malt drinkers are a minority among consumers, 1-3% among whisky drinkers and a fraction of that among drinkers at large, whose top choice is vodka. So there is clearly some self-selection at work here. (Oh, I don't want to put down vodka, my wife is Polish and they make great “wódka” there. I always have a bottle of Zubrówka on hand! The one in Poland tastes better, something to do with bison grass being banned in the US; apparently it makes a very good rat poison. The Poles are not worried.)

Your start wasn't bad either; Glenlivet 12 is one of my favorite whiskies, which for some blessed, crazy reason I can buy here in California at less than half its price at the distillery shop in Scotland! On the right night, Glenfiddich 12 is a great session whisky. There is a reason that those two are the best selling single malts in the US and in the world.

But returning to Scotland 2002, who knows, we might have rubbed shoulders! I spent October and November there, visiting University of Glasgow. I fell in love with Glasgow and Scotland, despite the abominable weather - remember? My feet were wet and cold at all times! My story is anticlimactic: I really enjoyed driving a car with the steering wheel and stick shift on the wrong side on roads the size of back alleys, and visiting Oban and Edradour distilleries; but I was in the middle of a spiritual search, which meant reducing my drinking and ultimately stopping altogether. Talking about bad timing! I went dry for three years, 2003-2006. So you can say I didn't take full advantage of my visit, but the seeds were planted, I got a clear sense of that vast world of immense possibility!

I'm posting this pic again since it always makes me happy.
MK: Like you, I didn't take advantage of the whisky potential when I was in Scotland. I drank the cheapest blends I could find, along with gallons of beer. And absinthe. I remember that soggy weather well. With all of my hiking and wandering, I remained soaked for a month. I was actually in Scotland on my own personal search as well, though I definitely did not stop drinking (see the photo to the right).

Three dry years requires some tremendous discipline and focus. I admire your ability to commit to that.

Since you re-integrated whisky in your life (sorry for the horrid segue) you have built up a tremendous collection. How did you expand your whisky knowledge and assemble The Bunker? Did you go to tastings? Buy or trade samples? Or was there a lot of blind-buying supported by research?

FV: After my self-imposed dry phase I rediscovered whisky gradually. Caol Ila 12 was a revelation, then others slowly followed: Glenlivet 12, Glenfiddich 15, Dalwhinnie 15, Glen Garioch 10, Old Pulteney 12...

Common as they may be, I could live a happy life drinking nothing but these! Then, in the Summer of 2010, I went to Scotland with the family, and this time we made sure it was about the whisky. We spent one week touring, with two nights on Islay and two in Speyside. After a few distillery visits my 9-year old son would ask clarifying questions about the wine stills and the spirit stills. He visited Kilchoman before Kilchoman was cool. Been there, got the t-shirt - seriously, it's a very nice t-shirt! In any case, since that Scotland trip I became committed to whisky. Back in the US I didn't have many resources for sampling, and among my whisky friends I'm the most fanatic; San Diego where I live is off the radar for touring brand ambassadors, and driving to LA or flying someplace for a whisky tasting or festival did not seem worth the effort. So this meant buying a lot of bottles! In 2011 I discovered whisky blogs, which were my guiding light, and then the Malt Advocate (now Whisky Advocate). They led me to American rye, which was a huge discovery for me! Then I wanted to learn more about bourbon. I've been playing the field, but I've also stocked some of my favorites, out of fear of the crazy price increases that we saw lately. I'm really grateful for having the income to support this extravagant hobby so far - and especially for being blessed with an understanding wife. After having opened about 200 bottles in the last 2.5 years I'm ready to slow down now and to live a little off the bunker, which may not be as impressive as you make it sound.

Speaking of impressive, you have accumulated a lot of whisky experience for your tender age; I haven't seen your collection, but from what I've read on your blog, I'm sure you have a nice line-up yourself! Maybe you can share some of your own experience...

Tomorrow:  Part Two - The Whisky Market...