By Mark Gillespie

If you can't say anything nice...

Mark is a U.S contributing editor for Whisky Magazine
I try to look for the positive in things, I really do. Like most, I was brought up by people who spouted the old bromide: "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all". Not exactly the kind of career advice for a journalist, huh? Nor is it the kind of thing you tell a judge in a whisky competition, either. I recently served as a judge for the American Distilling Institute's annual competition for craft distillers, and the experience tested my generally genial nature to levels I haven't experienced since I covered Alaska politicians for a living. We were told: "the entrants will be receiving your score sheets, anonymously, of course, so please try to be positive with your comments." Let me be clear, there were some excellent whiskies in the competition. But there were many more that forced us to use our creative writing skills: Tasting note: "This whiskey is memorable, with a unique style and flavour." Translation: "Not only will I never forget tasting this thing, but I want to have my tongue sandblasted." Suggestions for improvement: "Your fermentation seems to be off. Possible contamination in the washbacks." Translation: "The only way this could be improved would be with a match." As we nosed and tasted blind samples around the table in semisilence, my colleagues and I would look at each other as one approached a particularly bad entry with a combination of schadenfreude and sympathy, waiting for the reaction. At the end of two days of tasting, the judges were allowed into the back room where the samples were being poured. We didn't go searching for the award winning whiskies, we looked for the stinkers. The pink whiskey, the hopped and smoked whiskies, the white dogs, and one that made the legendary Loch Dhu look outstanding by comparison. For those who might think these judgments too harsh, keep in mind that they're trying to play with the big boys and girls now… charging the same While wood, spirit and air do combine to create great aromas, the magic element is time prices for vastly inferior whiskies. To paraphrase the classic line from the 60s TV show Dragnet, the names have been changed, in this case, to protect the guilty…with one exception. The city of Cleveland, Ohio, has been the butt of jokes for decades, with insult upon insult heaped upon it. "The Mistake By the Lake." "I went through Cleveland one day and it was closed…" (Jay Johnstone) You get the point. However, a local entrepreneur may have dealt Cleveland the biggest insult yet, at least when it comes to whisky. Tom Lix is the latest in a long line of people hoping to make young whisky taste much older, and came up with a "secret" process that's said to use high pressure and temperature to force young Bourbon spirit through oak staves. Lix claims the result is a whisky with the colour, nose, and taste of much older Bourbons. He entered his whiskey in the ADI competition; it did not win a medal of any kind. While it certainly had the dark colour of an older Bourbon, the taste was resinous and unbalanced. What seems to have been forgotten is that while wood, spirit and air do combine to create great aromas in whisky, the magic element is time; it takes time to break down the chemical compounds in the spirit and wood to create those flavours and aromas. The problem I have: Lix named his whiskey "Cleveland Whiskey".Personally, I'd rather drink straight from the Cuyahoga River. Give Tom Lix credit for one thing, at least he doesn't refer to himself as a "master distiller," unlike many of those who enter ADI and other whisky competitions. The term has become an exercise in self-gratification for the undeserving. Robin Robinson of Compass Box recently posted a comment on Facebook that I wish I had come up with… since it speaks so well to the "master distiller" phenomenon: "Here's the test for "Master" distillers/blenders/ambassadors/etc: If you can stand in the same room with Jim McEwan and Jimmy Russell and refer to yourself as a "Master" without flinching and neither of them punch you out, then you win and can keep referring to yourselves as that... otherwise, please, drop it." Amen, brother… amen!