Tasting whiskey with Triple Eight’s master distiller, Randy Hudson, before he heads of to judge the International Spirits Challenge in Scotland.
It’s not everyday that you get the chance to taste a glass of $800 whiskey, so when Randy Hudson slides me a snifter with a generous pour of his award-winning, eight-year-old single malt, I raise it to my lips without even checking my watch. In times like these, Jimmy Buffett said it best: “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
Most of the whiskeys I know, I know on a first name basis: Jack, Jim, Johnny, and Jameson. None of them, however, have been very good friends to me. They’re the kind of guys who pick a fight in the bar and then leave you behind to get beat up. Hopefully, this little guy in hand is not so mean spirited.
Randy Hudson’s whiskey goes by the name Notch — a play on Scotch from Nantucket — and if its price tag doesn’t say enough about it, there are a slew of awards to pick from. Just this year it was named the best craft whiskey by the American Distilling Institute. Last year, it was the best American single malt at the World Whiskey Awards in London. I’m here today to see for myself what all the fuss is about.
I plunge my nose into the glass. “It’s an enjoyable, aromatic experience,” I venture. “It’s not aggressive like most whiskies I’m used to.” Hudson nods approvingly. Although I’m pleased not to have misspoken about his pride and joy, what the Whiskey Bible called “Liquid Gold,” I know whatever my nose is picking up in this glass is just the tip of the iceberg of what the creator himself can smell. If I’m a pug, Randy Hudson is a bloodhound. It’s this cunning sense of smell and taste that earned him a plane ticket to Scotland this spring to judge the illustrious International Spirits Challenge (ISC), what many consider to be the most respected and influential spirits competition in the world.
Held in Edinburgh, the ISC gathers eleven top master blenders to taste and judge hundreds of whiskies from around the globe. Revered master blender John Ramsay is the chairman of the ISC and leads the whiskey competition. Formerly the master blender of the Edrington Group (Macallan, Highland Park, and Famous Grouse), Ramsay helped Hudson bring Notch to the world stage and has been instrumental in enhancing the product ever since.
When Knob Creek’s master blender dropped out of this year’s judging, Ramsay invited Hudson to fill his spot. He’s the only American on the judging panel. “I don’t know what I bring,” Hudson says of his role on the panel. “I know that those guys think I bring this fresh, hipster view point. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but that’s their perception. They’ve dubbed me the ‘cool guy’.”
Indeed, Hudson is a pretty cool guy. Fourteen years ago he poured his passion for brewing Cisco beer into distilling, and now he’s a self-taught phenomenon in the competitive world of whiskey. “I’d never realized that I’ve learned so much until I started talking about it,” he says. The success of Notch, however, might have as much to do with where it’s being distilled as it does with who’s doing the distilling. Hudson thinks Nantucket’s water supply plays a big role, perhaps giving Notch that intangible quality that pushes it to the top of the pack in blind tastings.
It’s still quite a bit of a mystery of what’s happening in the barrel as the whiskey matures,” he says. “There’s this kind of serendipity that I love. You can’t really know what it’s going to be, you just have to wait and enjoy it.”
Hudson talks about his whiskey like a mad scientist poet. He tells me that a whiskey can reflect not only the type of wood it was aged in, but also what section of the tree its barrel was hewn from. While these subtleties are lost on most imbibers, connoisseurs like Hudson obsess over the delicate matrix that can create a fine liquor. For that reason, he will be tasting alongside some of the top palates in the world in Scotland.
Hudson’s first whiskey trip to Scotland came last year with his wife, Wendy, owner of Mitchell’s Book Corner, Bookworks, and founder of the Nantucket Book Festival. Hudson was selected to be the United States representative at the International Whiskey Competition, which served as his introduction to blind tasting marathons. After day one, Hudson came back with his tongue in a doggy bag. He’d tasted eighty whiskeys, and the crash course experience was overwhelming. “It can start ripping your tongue off,” Hudson says. Eventually he settled in, learning to water down each shot and tasting more with his nose before his mouth. This year’s challenge will be a gauntlet of over five hundred whiskeys in four days.
“I’m excited to drink Japanese whiskeys,” he says. “Japanese whiskeys are probably far superior than the body of work in Scotland. They’re so fastidious and meticulous in how they do things.” As for the competition itself, Hudson says, “I have mixed feelings about the whole judging and awards. It’s great for the people that get the recognition and shine, but it’s almost too bad for the others that don’t get the recognition or get lumped with a bunch of losers… I tasted some absolutely stunning whiskeys that just didn’t win anything.”
Of all the whiskeys he will be tasting in Scotland, one in particular will be the most important for Randy Hudson to identify — his own. Notch will be in the running for Best American Single Malt. If Hudson’s whiskey from Nantucket beats out the best in the world, now that would certainly be something worthy of a toast.