Wine and Whiskey: The Common Language… The Common Challenges

By Bob Johnson

I have taught journalism classes, English classes and bowling classes at various intervals of my life. But the only time I’ve ever encountered an entire roomful of blank stares is when I taught a beginning wine class.

In preparing my presentation, I tried to keep things as basic as I could. I wanted to make sure that my students were not even a little bit intimidated by the subject, since a walk down a supermarket’s wine aisle can be daunting, to say the least.

But I quickly found that even the most “obvious” (to me, anyway) of terms could be like a foreign language to wine newcomers. A perfect example is “dry.” I can’t tell you how many times wine class students have asked, “How can a liquid be dry?”

Then there are the fruit aromas and flavors that wines exhibit. To many people, that concept is a head scratcher because, after all, shouldn’t something made out of grapes smell and taste like… grapes? Yet a “grapy” impression actually is considered a negative in most wines.

As a full-time writer and part-time educator, it has always bothered me that my words alone were not getting through to my students.

The Pasadena whiskey bar's namesake adorns one of the walls.

The Pasadena whiskey bar’s namesake adorns one of the walls.

What to do? The answer became obvious when my S.O. saw an ad for a whiskey bar in Pasadena, Calif., home of the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl football game. We decided to pay a visit to The Blind Donkey with the idea that I could place myself in the role of a newcomer to a particular product — in this case, whiskey.

I wanted to know what it felt like to try to learn about an adult beverage that I knew nothing about. Perhaps experiencing that feeling would help me become a better wine educator.

It didn’t take long for “that feeing” to engulf me. I quickly realized that I knew… and understood… less about whiskey than any of my wine students knew about wine. But thanks to Blind Donkey staffer Travis Mills, I learned a lot — perhaps just enough to be “dangerous” when talking about whiskey — but I also knew that our 90-minute session at the bar had barely scratched the surface of whiskey knowledge.

Mills took us through three flights of three whiskeys each, the first consisting of a single-barrel bourbon, a wheat whiskey and a rye whiskey.

Travis Mills knows a lot about whiskey, and is happy to share it with customers of The Blind Donkey.

Travis Mills knows a lot about whiskey, and is happy to share it with Blind Donkey customers.

“A lot of people equate a good whiskey with a sweet, smooth experience,” Mills said. “Depending on the type of whiskey and where it’s made, you can get a lot of woody sweetness and cinnamon or, at the other end of the spectrum, a smokier flavor. It’s all about what it’s made with and how it’s made. There are lots of variables.”

Indeed, The Blind Donkey stocks more than 300 selections from around the world, and divides its whiskey menu into three sections: The Americas, The Irish and the Scottish. For the adventurous, or for a newcomer to whiskey, there also are three flights, each consisting of sample-size pours of three different selections.

Even with Mills talking about what made each selection unique, I found it challenging to identify the specific characteristics he mentioned. The only real commonality I experienced was a burning sensation in the back of my throat from the high alcohol level of the beverages.

That was the moment I understood how daunting “wine appreciation” could be for those with little wine-drinking experience. I did not doubt what Mills was telling us about the nuances of each pour; my palate simply could not connect with his words.

That said, there are similarities between how wine and whiskey are perceived and consumed.

“There’s definitely terroir when you talk about whiskey,” Mills said. “And the terroir contributes to what we experience in the mouth — everything from yeasty to smoky to briny to medicinal. I suppose it’s the same with wine: The only way to learn about whiskey and the differences between the various types and brands is to do a lot of tasting.”

Whiskey also lends itself to food pairing, although the possibilities may be somewhat more limited than with wine. Among the whiskey-friendly food Mills suggests are dark chocolate, desserts with nuts or spices (such as pecan pie) and a New York strip steak with a nice char.

“Because we’re a whiskey bar, we get a lot of customers who come in and know exactly what they want,” Mills says. “We also get a lot of people who don’t know what they like, and we’re happy to help them go through the menu or go through one of our flights.”

Flights of three sample-size whiskies can help customers figure out what they like.

Flights of three sample-size whiskies can help customers figure out what they like.

And there is an order to the education, just as there is with wine (which goes something like White Zinfandel to Moscato to dry white wines to rosés to fruit-forward red wines to dry red wines).

“I usually start people with Bourbon,” Mills says. “But if they’re still a little faint of heart, I’ll recommend a cocktail.”

And the cocktail list at The Blind Donkey is creative, blending various whiskies with other ingredients to create enjoyable, sippable concoctions that beginners like us could enjoy. There’s even one — the California Sour — that blends Bernheim Original and lemon with an ingredient I actually know something about: Pinot Noir.

Mills knows his stuff, as do the other staffers at The Blind Donkey, and that contributes to an atmosphere that is invigorating for whiskey veterans yet non-threatening for whiskey newcomers.

That, perhaps, was the greatest lesson I learned during our visit. When attempting to educate anyone about anything… be it journalism, English, bowling, wine or whiskey… it’s critical that the student or the customer, first and foremost, feel at ease. After that, the words may or may not be understood, but at least the door would be open for learning.

And when it comes to learning — be it about wine or whiskey — nothing beats tasting.

Practice… Practice… Practice.

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The Blind Donkey
53 E. Union St.
Pasadena, CA 91103
626-792-1833

Mills says a new Blind Donkey location is being planned for Long Beach, Calif.

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