Interview with Jason Johnstone-Yellin
This is the 9th interview in a serie of interviews with people who love whisky. This time I interview Jason. I found his site, Guid Scotch Drink when I was looking for new whisky sites. Jason has been tasting whisky and leading whisky tastings for over 13 years, he also lead whisky tours of Scotland in search of just that perfect dram. You can also find Jason aka @guidscotchdrink on Twitter where he of course tweets about whisky. Please put your hands together for Jason, a true whisky lover!
1. Tell me a little about yourself?
I’m a 36 year old married father of two living in Pullman in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington (I’m four hours east of Seattle). I was born and raised in the Southwest of Scotland (the town of Ayr is about 30 minutes southwest of Glasgow) and have lived in the United States for almost nine years. For the last seven and a half years I’ve taught philosophy at the University of Idaho but now I’m transitioning into being a stay-at-home dad while I build my whisky business, Guid Scotch Drink (private tastings, whisky lectures, whisky tours, and the blog).
2. How did it all start, what’s your first experience of whisky?
Growing up in Scotland my dad and all my uncles drank whisky; cheap, blended whisky that was either mixed with water, lemonade, or ginger ale. It wasn’t until my first semester at the University of Aberdeen that a new-found Finnish friend, Pete Piirainen, and I started exploring the world of single malts together. Our first purchase was at the local supermarket: a whisky boxed set featuring a bottle of Glenfiddich and two cut-crystal tumblers for maybe £15. The Glenfiddich piqued our curiosity and when we discovered Highland Park later that semester we were hooked.
3. What’s your favourite and worst whisky experience and why?
I’ve been fortunate to have had a healthy number of fantastic whisky experiences from bottling Glenfarclas in the dorms at the University of Aberdeen, to bottling my own sherry cask Aberlour at the distillery, to sharing a number of unique expressions with members of my whisky society. However, here’s a story that my regular readers are probably tired of hearing about. Last year, while I was leading a private whisky tour of Scotland, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Jackie Thomson at Ardbeg. She lead us through a quick tasting of a couple of Ardbegs but when she heard how interested we were in trying the sold out Supernova she scoured the distillery and found one unopened bottle. She didn’t hesitate to open it and pour some healthy measures. Tasting Supernova at Ardbeg was close to a religious experience!
I don’t like talking about worst whisky experiences as they’re so few and far between. Here’s one from the trip I just mentioned, though. I knew that our tour of Islay would coincide with the launch of Kilchoman‘s inaugural whisky release. I didn’t know that all 650 bottles allocated to the distillery shop for distillery only sales would sell out in four hours! I was at Lagavulin when I overheard one of the tour guides say to another that she’d just picked up the last two bottles of Kilchoman on the island. I quickly jumped in the car and drove to the distillery only for them to reinforce what I’d just heard. I did pick up a miniature of the inaugural release, just to salve my wounds!
4. What’s your opinion on today’s whisky rating systems (1-10, 1-100, stars etc.)?
There are people who like them, people who don’t, and people working on useful, alternative systems (I liked what the Scotch Hobbyist had started doing). I don’t like to use a rating system even though I understand their value and use. I’d rather just present the various flavors that I detect and let the reader judge whether or not that’s the type of whisky they’d like to drink.
5. How do you taste whisky? Do you use water, and when?
I use a Glencairn blenders glass most of the time (sometimes I’ll use a Scotch Malt Whisky Society glass or a short, uncut champagne flute in my society). I enjoy swirling the spirit, watching it dance in the glass, and then I nose it for a long time. When I finally take a drink I use the “spoon” technique: imagine you tongue is a spoon, pass the liquid over your teeth and into the bowl of the spoon, hold it for four seconds and then flatten your tongue and allow the spirit to pass over every part of your tongue, then lick your gums, the roof of your mouth, and the insides of your cheeks. Then do it again! I’ve been known to use water if the spirit is too closed without it. I drip one drop at a time off the bottom of a spoon or my finger. I’ve never found a dram that required more than four drops to open up and change it’s character.
6. How is the whisky ‘climate’ (bars, clubs, events & magazines etc.) in your country?
When you live in the US there’s a little something for everyone! We have Malt Advocate Magazine which is great, Whiskyfest and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Extravaganzas are great travelling events, and there are great whisky bars all of the place: The Highland Stillhouse in Oregon City, Oregon; The Whisky Attic in Las Vegas, Nevada; The Dundee Dell in Omaha, Nebraska; and many, many others. There’s also so many good US-based whisky blogs: Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society; The Casks; Scotch Hobbyist; Whisky Party; WhiskyWall; and, again, many, many more. It’s hard to complain about the whisky ‘climate’ even if I’m still 5000 miles from Islay!
7. What’s your opinion on different cask-finish expression?
I have nothing against them, they just don’t tend to fit my flavor profile. I don’t tend to like sweet whiskies so a young Islay, aged in ex-bourbon, and bottled at cask strength is normally my style. However, I’ve recently enjoyed The Balvenie 17 Year Old, Madeira Cask, Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or, Sauternes Wood, and a host of superbly crafted whiskies from Compass Box, so I guess I’m slowly coming around to cask-finishes having a future in my collection.
8. What is your opinion on the whisky snobbery that some are talking and writing about?
I think a certain amount of it is inevitable. Whenever any of us want to prove that we know a little something about a given topic it’s easy to go a bit overboard and sound especially pretentious. Once we feel more comfortable with our level of knowledge I think we calm down a bit and learn to have some more fun with the topic. I’m also convinced that the longer we hold on to the importance of “Tradition” in all things whisky the longer we’ll look down upon those who shirk certain traditions in whisky production. Look at the advent of wine cask-finishing, no age statement releases, and bottlings from whisky maker John Glaser. All good fun and worth a look. Whisky is about having fun and exploring new things. Why get all stuffy and bogged down? Relax and enjoy a dram!
9. Where in the world would you like to go to try whisky? Why, do you have a favourite place, distillery or country?
Getting back to Scotland to lead whisky tours means that I semi-regularly get to drink on Islay, in Speyside, and at great whisky bars in Scotland from which I’d otherwise feel horribly disconnected. Handling the malted barley at Laphroaig is a special treat, walking along the side of the Spey on a sunny day with a covert flask of Glenfarclas is pretty amazing, as is taking someone to Islay for the first time. So, with that taken care of, I’d love to tour Japan, visit her distilleries and whisky bars, and see the spectacular natural settings in which some of the distilleries reside. I’d also like to get back to Sweden in order to visit Mackmyra.
10. What whisky trends are you seeing, how does the future look like?
Obviously, no age statement releases are upon us and aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon. As mentioned above, I have no issue with this tradition-bucking trend but I hope the prices will begin to settle soon. Some recent Ardbeg and Bruichladdich releases have really broken the bank. While we’re talking about pricing, in the nine years I’ve been in the US I’ve watched good, entry-level whiskies move from just over $20 a bottle to just over $30 and now their creeping over $40 a bottle. I’d like to see every distiller have an entry-level whisky in the $25-$35 range (maybe I need the dollar to rebound as an international currency before this can become a reality!). As for the future, I love the international explosion in single malt whisky production (Amrut, Kavalan, St George — UK & US, Penderyn, McCarthy’s, and Mackmyra, to name just a select few) and hope that when non-Scottish whisky brands are banging on the doors of long-established Scotch markets we’ll see the Scottish distillers take their businesses to another level! I’m genuinely excited to continue my whisky journey in the 21st century.
Did you enjoy the interview? If you would like to be part of the serie or know someone else who would, please let me know.