By Richard Thomas
“Whiskey just isn’t for old guys anymore” has jumped the shark and plunged deep into cliche territory. These days I think your are just as likely to find a whiskey snob among the ladies as you are a connoisseur of tequila, with plenty of casual whiskey drinkers in between.
Enter Jenn Wong, a popular Los Angeles cutlure blogger, voice-over actress, and self-styled urban ninja with a cultivated a taste for smokey bourbon and scotch. She writes about mixology on the one hand, but keeps a snifter of straight whiskey in the other. And as an observer of all things Los Angeles, she has plenty of advice on where to find a good dram.
RT: Jenn, you are a devoted whiskey-lover, with wide and deep tastes. But you had to start somewhere, so what type of whiskey did you get started on?
JW: Well, my father is a wine nerd who had converted my mother’s home office into a walk in wine cellar, so naturally I started with arguably the nerdiest of whiskies, Scotch.
RT: What do you look for in a good sipping whiskey? The sort of thing you keep on the shelf for just a step above every day drinking.
JW: Old Pulteney is my go to, but lately I have been obsessed with American distillers who have been making smokey whiskies, like High West’s Campfire, Balcones Brimstone or Bowen’s Whiskey made here in California. I love that their smoke is such an American smoke, like a campfire or barbeque, that sets it apart from the peated smoke of Islay Scotches. It is a unique flavor & may rub purists the wrong way, but I like it. I’ll also be happy with a single barrel bourbon, neat. Blanton’s comes to mind.
RT: How do you, with your a wide range of interests, go about appreciating whiskey? Is it free form and whatever grabs you, or do you have things somewhat categorized, like “smoky Islay is for this, cask strength is for that, etc?”
JW: I love trying new things all the time. I’ll drink whiskey neat or in a cocktail – as long as it tastes good, I’m game. If I’m at a Scotch bar or a whiskey bar, I’ll try something I’ve never had before, or I’ll let the bartender guide me to try something that he or she fancies at the moment. In Los Angeles, there are so many great bartenders who are making cocktails that play to the different flavors in whiskey that I am always open to trying twists on classic cocktails like ‘Old Smoky’ Old Fashioned’s with Islay Peaty Scotches or any number of bespoke creations using whiskey.
RT: The micro-distillery boom has taken whiskey-making to all manner of non-traditional places. As a watcher of Los Angeles things, what is going on in your neck of the woods? Anyone putting in some copper and making some whiskey?
JW: I wish it was easier for people to get into distilling spirits in California, then we might have more of a micro-distiller movement like the great micro-brews and wines that come out of California. There are just too many regulations. That being said, I think what the Charbay distillery is doing, making the R-5 Hops Whiskey from Racer 5 IPA & their soon to be S Whiskey distilled from Big Bear Stout, is super cool. Marko is a 13th generation distiller, so as he says, “no fruit no root is safe.” Since whiskey & beer have a similar base in grains, it seemed natural that an award winning beer would make a delicious whiskey.
RT: Let’s say you were trying to sell some bourbon-drinking buddies on having some Compass Box or Balvenie. What do you see in good blended and single malt scotch that would appeal to the devoted bourbon drinker?
JW: Some people like to drink easy whiskey, just like some people don’t like the leather/pepper/earthy terroir in a robust wine or some people don’t like a lot of spice in their food. I don’t think it’s better or worse, just that your taste buds aren’t accustomed to certain flavors. If I would introduce someone who is used to bourbons to Scotch, I would probably ease them in with a Speyside or Highland rather than start them right into something super peaty like Laphroaig or Ardbeg. Balvenie and Compass Box both have some great accessible whiskeys, but I won’t force anyone to drink anything they don’t like; that’s just a waste. It just means there’s more for me.
RT: As a resident whiskey expert of Los Angeles, what advice would you give to whiskey-lovers coming to visit your town? What is the best bar to go for a good dram, and what liquor store is the place to go to bring home a bottle of special and interesting whiskey?
JW: Haha, I wouldn’t say that I’m a resident expert here in Los Angeles, given the number of true experts in this fantastic city, but I would say there are a few places that are excellent if you would like to drink some whiskey. As far as bars, Seven Grand and The Daily Pint have really deep whisky collections & their bartenders are great guides to trying new things – particularly if a dram of Scotch is what you’re craving. Also notable: Thirsty Crow, Neat, and The Famous have great whiskey collections & bar programs. With those five bars, you can taste everything from the best bourbons the US has to offer, to whiskies coming out of Japan or India. Be adventurous, try the Amrut, or have your bartender make you a Yamazaki Old Fashioned.
There are also some clubs, The Los Angeles Scotch Club and The LA Whiskey Society, if you’re moving to LA and want to find a community of whiskey lovers or maybe they’re having a tasting event that is open to the public when you happen to be in LA.
As far as liquor stores, I would recommend The Bar Keeper in Silverlake. Joe Keeper has his finger on the pulse of the LA bar scene. He & his staff are incredibly knowledgeable & will always steer you toward something fantastic. As an additional resource, K&L has an amazing selection. It is a bit larger, so you may want to go in armed with what you’re looking for, but they will have a lot of things that your hometown liquor store may not carry & at a good price.