Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Top 5: A Bold Statement

Prince was a musical genius: Kurt Cobain was not. This may seem like a bold statement, but allow me to explain. I like Nirvana. I liked them back in the 1990s and I still like quite a bit of their music. I think Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter. But he was not a musical genius. Mozart was a musical genius. Rachmaninoff was a musical genius. So was Prince. I don't love all of Prince's music, but that's neither here nor there. His abilities as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, composer, arranger, and proficient multi-instrumentalist are without equal in the modern era. So musical genius then, is not above average ability in one area, but an overwhelming mastery of many areas. Prince understood music the way Einstein understood physics, or the way Shakespeare understood the English language.
Prince was always bold
Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson are masters of the electric guitar, Les Claypool is a master bassist, Buddy Rich was a master drummer. Prince was a musical genius. What does this have to do with whisky? Well, when thinking about bold whisky, people often associate higher proof (ABV) whisky with bold. The whiskies in this category often go well above the minimum 40% ABV, but having a high alcohol content does not make a whisky bold in and of itself. Just like being a good songwriter does not make a person a musical genius. See, it all makes sense. Here then, are my Cusack-inspired Top 5 picks for best bold whiskies.


5. Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon


I reviewed this one awhile back, and I can't forget it. Clocking in at a powerful 50% ABV, this one packs a punch. Yet for all its rye-forward power, it's still balanced with vanilla sweetness, herbal (rye) notes and a silky, mouth-coating texture. Four Roses Single Barrel is even great in a cocktail (I love it in an Old Fashioned) since its personality doesn't get lost in the mix. If you think scotch is the only game in town when it comes to big, bold flavours you really should check out this bourbon. There are also some Canadian whiskies which are tragically overlooked, but that's a blog post for another day.




4. Laphroaig Quarter Cask



Laphroaig Quarter Cask Single Malt Whisky
Quarter Cask, full flavour
What's this? A No Age Statement (NAS) whisky in my top 5? Didn't I criticize these anti-age labelling decisions? Yes, yes I did. And my criticisms of NAS whisky still hold true. The ambiguous labelling and fuzzy marketing around these whiskies are deserving all the criticism directed at them. Perhaps the real tragedy is that the debate created by dropping age statements has overshadowed some really great whiskies. Distillers and their corporate overlords have only themselves to blame. Despite all the hullaballoo, I'm still recommending Laphroaig Quarter Cask as one of my go-to bold whiskies. I actually prefer the standard Ten Year Old expression, but it's medium-bold, if that makes sense. Quarter Cask is an aggressive punch in the mouth. To make a movie analogy, Laphroaig 10 is Walter 'Monk' McGinn; it's got some guts and is quite able to fight with the best of them, whereas Laphroaig Quarter Cask is Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting; hard, rough and completely merciless. Quarter Cask is bottled at a sturdy 48% ABV. There's big, medicinal Laphroaig peat and smoke, cigar ash, oak, toffee and I get lots of dark roast coffee on the finish, though I've never really seen any other reviewers reference this flavour. Master Distiller John Campbell talks here about Quarter Cask. It's worth clicking the link just to hear his great accent. Oh, and he's pretty darned knowledgeable about whisky too, if that kind of thing matters to you.

3. Aberlour A'Bunadh


Another NAS whisky? I must be losing it. Not really. I freely admit that I have a crush on all things Aberlour. I've enjoyed everything I've ever tried from this distillery. Their bold NAS release is no exception. The batches of A'Bunnadh are numbered and you can find reviews for pretty much all of them online. I've tried A'Bunadh twice and though I didn't note the batch numbers, both were outstanding. They are bottled between 59% and 61% ABV, depending on the batch, but it isn't just the high alcohol content that makes this a bold whisky. According to Aberlour, the whiskies which make up these batches are matured exclusively in Sherry butts (stop laughing) for 5 to 25 years. I'd venture to guess that most of the casks used in A'Bunadh are closer to 5 years old than to 25 years old. Nevertheless, this is an excellent whisky. The dominant flavours are dried fruits (dates and raisins), cherries, ginger, orange, dark chocolate, oak and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice). A magnificent whisky with or without the addition of water.

2. Ardbeg Ten


Not just another pretty face
Ardbeg has been called “as close to perfection as makes no difference,” by whisky connoisseurs. At least, that's what it says on their website. Ardbeg's flagship Ten Year Old expression has been praised extensively by pretty much everyone. Jim Murray named it World Whisky of the Year in 2008. The incomparable Ralfy named it his malt of the year in 2016. If you don't know him yet, check out his YouTube channel. Ralfy is kind of a big deal in the whisky world. At least, I think he is. Ardbeg Ten is big, peaty and smoky, with citrus notes, salted caramel, coffee and liquorice notes. It is non chill-filtered, and bottled at 46% so it's a bit above average in the ABV department, but it's the huge flavours and the intricate balance of said flavours that make this one noteworthy. The finish goes on for a really, really long time. If you like big peat and smoke (and I do), this one will get you hooked. If I could only drink one whisky for the rest of my life, Ardbeg Ten would make the short list. It really is that good. And I know we aren't supposed to care about packaging, but their bottles, labels and such really are among the coolest in the business.

1. Lagavulin 16 Year Old

OK, maybe I'm predictable. Maybe you think I should have chosen the Limited Edition 12 Year Old instead of the "standard" 16. I have never tried Lagavulin's 12 Year Old expression, so I can't name it number one on my bold list. If Ardbeg Ten made the shortlist for my top whisky ever, Lagavulin 16 is the malt to beat. Lagavulin is Rocky to Ardbeg's Clubber Lang. I'm not sure who would win on any given day, but I pity the fool who passes on either whisky. Lagavulin's balance of earthy peat and full, rich tobacco smoke make it a whisky you need to sit with for a long time in order to enjoy properly. You'll also get dark chocolate notes, dates, vanilla, some fresh cigar and a bit of brine. If this sounds unbelievable to you, chances are you haven't tried it. Heck, this whisky is so good, Nick Offerman spent ten hours drinking Lagavulin 16 for a Yule Log video. You can watch it here. Now lest you think I only love Lagavulin because of my bro-crush on the talented Mr. Offerman, let me put your fears to rest. I've loved Lagavulin for a long time. I loved Lagavulin before I was aware of Offerman or Parks and Recreation. Did the fact that Lagavulin 16 is Ronald Ulysses Swanson's drink of choice draw me deeper down the rabbit hole (or mash tun, as it were)? Of course. But it would never have happened if I didn't already love this whisky.

Conclusion

Depending on your personal experience, your opinion of a bold whisky may differ from mine. If you've had Ardbeg Corryvreckan, you may find it much bolder than their Ten Year expression. You may find my omission of William Larue Weller Bourbon to be a criminal oversight. Sorry, I've never tried it and therefore I can't comment on it. The whiskies mentioned herein are my choices for Top 5 Bold Whiskies. Your opinions may differ, and I'd love to hear them. Drop a comment below. Did I overlook any great, bold whiskies? "Top 5 Overlooked Whiskies", hmm that could be a fun blog post. Until next time, thanks for reading and feel free to share.
Slainte !


Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi'tippeny, we Fear nae evil;
Wi'usquabae, we'll face the devil!
From Tam O'Shanter by Robbie Burns


Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Top 5: Stuck in the Middle With You

I love Quentin Tarantino movies. There's just something about the way he writes dialogue and puts scenes together that hits all the right notes. The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs where  Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) dances to the Stealers Wheel hit "Stuck in the Middle With You" while taunting and torturing a police officer is disturbing, yet it fits the tone of the movie perfectly. The fact that the D.J. on the radio (K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70s) happens to be my favourite comedian of all time (Steven Wright) is an added bonus.
 

I got the feeling that something ain't right.
Yet for some, the violence in Tarantino's debut proved too gruesome, too vulgar, and perhaps too realistic. I guess you can't please everyone. This applies to whisky as well. You can't be all things to everyone. The second installment in my John Cusack-inspired "Top 5" series is stuck in the middle. These whiskies won't be all things to all people, but they are more potent than the mild quintet from the previous installment. If you're hankering for something with a bit more "oomph", these whiskies may be for you. They aren't "peat bombs" or "sherry bombs" by any means, but they are more Mr Blonde than Mr Pink. And I'd much rather be stuck with a bottle of these 5 whiskies than tied to a chair with Mr Blonde singing to me.

 

5. Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Solera Reserve

 
 
A real trooper
I'm going to risk drawing the ire of whisky snobs right away. Yes, I'm recommending a "common" scotch. How mainstream ! How pedestrian ! Well, let me tell you something, you hipster-doofuses (hipster-doofi?); this is, in my humble opinion, one of the best values in scotch whisky today. It currently runs about $80 here in Ontario and it outperforms many pricier malts.  Using a Solera system common in the maturation of sherry, 15 year old malts from three different types of casks are married together in a wooden vat, which is constantly topped up to ensure the quality is maintained. Glenfiddich 15 is rich (but not too rich) with cinnamon, ginger, sherry notes, oak and almonds. As an added incentive, when you buy Glenfiddich 15 here in Ontario, two dollars from the sale of each bottle of is donated to Wounded Warriors, a program that helps soldiers in need. Great whisky and a great cause. You should buy a bottle of this for yourself, and maybe get a bottle for your favourite whisky blogger.


4. Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey



Hits the right spot ! (That's what she said!)
I almost put Yellow Spot's little brother, Green Spot, on my "born to be mild" list. Yellow Spot carries a 12 year old age guarantee and can compete with many wine-casked single malt scotches. Eat your heart out, Glenmorangie Lasanta ! The Yellow Spot is a single pot still Irish whiskey which has been matured in three types of cask: American Bourbon cask, Spanish Sherry butts and Spanish Malaga casks for a sweeter flavour. This one is rich with butterscotch, peaches, grapes, lemon, almonds, and some barley. Rich, but not overly bold, even if it is bottled at 46% ABV. Highly recommended.


3. Knob Creek Small Batch 9 Year Old Bourbon



If you aren't careful, you'll be seeing double

Knob Creek is made/owned by Jim Beam. This bourbon is supposedly named for a creek near the childhood home of Abraham Lincoln. Rumour has it that Honest Abe was almost drownded in the creek as a child. (Yes I wrote "drownded" on purpose. Read "The Lord of the Rings" would ya!?) I guess Scotch whisky hasn't cornered the market on clever origin stories. Regardless of the veracity of the story, this is a fine bourbon. It isn't as mild as a wheated bourbon, but it is still considered a "lower rye" bourbon. I don't know what percentage of the mash bill is rye, as that information is not readily available. Nevertheless, this is a tasty bourbon at a reasonable price. Knob Creek 9 Year Old is nutty, oaky with a bit of spice on the finish. It's fairly friendly for a bourbon at 50% ABV, and that could get you in as much trouble as swimming in a creek. Rumour has it that the age statement is going to disappear from this bottle soon. That's a sad state of affairs; I guess Knob Creek is not as patient as it once was.

 

2. The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask




Sea turtles, mate
It's hard to say anything negative about The Balvenie. Their offerings are among the most consistently good in Scotch whisky. At least, that's been my experience. Their 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask is no exception. It's rich, sweet and slightly fruity from a final maturation in ex-rum casks. Vanilla is the dominant note, with some nutmeg, raisins and honey rounding out this lovely single malt. If you're a pirate captain who has been viciously mutinied upon and marooned on a desert island, this beauty might be a nice discovery while you wait to be rescued, or while you wait to rope yourself a couple of sea turtles. Just make sure not to leave this Caribbean Cask unattended or you may find yourself asking why the rum (or scotch, as it were) is always gone.
 
 

1. Benromach 10 Year old


If you see it, buy it
I reviewed Benromach 10 here. Looking back at my review, I was surprised at my ranking. Three and a half moustaches is a fine rating, but as of this writing, my bottle of Benromach 10 is about 7 months old and is even better now after being exposed to air. There is more peat character than there was at the time of the review. If you're just dipping your toe in the peated whisky pool, fear not: this is NOT Laphroaig-esque campfire in a glass. The peat note is much softer and more subtle than the Islay whiskies I love. Benromach 10 is currently out of stock (or very difficult to find) at the LCBO and it's no surprise. It's still listed (as of September 2017) at $59 per bottle. That's a ridiculous steal of a deal for a whisky this good, by Ontario pricing standards. There's lots of vanilla, raspberries, charred oak, peat smoke and some shortbread biscuit notes in there. If and when the price goes up, I will still buy this malt. It's the type of whisky I always want to have on hand. But unlike Highland Park 18 or Laphroaig 15, I can actually afford to keep Benromach 10 around for casual sipping. I can't possibly praise it enough.


So there you have it, my friends. Whiskies I consider "Top 5" for middle of the road. They won't blow your face off, but they're all terrific. Some of my other favourites  didn't make the cut because I wanted a bit of variety in my picks (sorry Craigellachie 13). Each whisky here has a different character, a different strength that they bring to the table, like the colourful characters in Reservoir Dogs. No matter which one you pick, you can't go wrong. Unless you start telling people you don't believe in tipping.


Mr Pink has the world's smallest violin and it's playing its
heart out for the whiskies that didn't make the list




Slainte mhaith !!!





Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Top 5: Born to Be Mild

Remember that John Cusack movie High Fidelity? I'm convinced every angsty guy in the early 2000s saw himself as Rob Gordon (Cusack's character) in some way. Yes, that included me. The incessant self-indulgent navel-gazing, er I mean introspection, the existential questions about what it all means, the smug sense of superiority; yup, this was pretty much every male 20-something in the early part of the new millenium. At least, this was the template for the people with whom I associated. But then, I was (am?) a musician and we definitely tend toward self-importance. The fun thing about Cusack in the film is his tendency to compile "Top 5" lists for pretty much everything. So in that spirit, I've decided to compile my own "Top 5" whisky list. I decided to start on the mild end of the spectrum because many of my friends have asked for recommendations, often emphasizing they don't like the "bonfire in a glass" stuff I drink.


What came first: the whisky or the misery?
So, here are my "Top 5" mild whiskies for those who don't like big, bold flavours. They aren't necessarily my favourites (though some are) but they are more accessible and pleasant whiskies for people who find peaty, smoky scotch as appealing as I would find a 4 hour Jerry Bruckheimer film starring Jack Black, Ashton Kutcher, Nicholas Cage and Steven Seagal, which is to say, not at all.




5The Glenlivet French Oak Reserve 15 Year Old Single Malt Whisky 

 
Would Leon trade his cognac for Glenlivet?


This Speyside malt is finished in French Limousin Oak Casks. That's the same type of wood they use to age many popular cognacs. But even if you don't love Courvoisier as much as Leon Phelps, you'll probably like Glenlivet 15. It's fruity, buttery and mild. The finish is not super long and the whisky is bottled at 40% ABV, so it should be fairly easy to befriend this malt. It's also a pretty good value for a whisky of this age and quality. Very good stuff. You might even pair it with a fish sandwich, sweet thang !



4. Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey


The Emerald Mild?
I reviewed Bushmills Black Bush quite favourably and their Original Irish Whiskey fits the bill for something even milder. It does well in a cocktail, on ice and yes, even neat. Bushmills runs about $30 or so here in Ontario, so it won't break the bank. I've found it a bit less "acetone" on the nose (i.e. nailpolish remover smell) than Jameson, so I'm recommending Bushmills. There are mild notes of citrus, oatmeal and vanilla, but I emphasize mild. Bushmills is also, like The Glenlivet, bottled at 40% ABV. It won't set your mouth on fire, but it will take the edge off a hard day.





3. Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Hitting the Mark

My review of this bourbon may have been lukewarm, but that shouldn't suggest Maker's Mark isn't a quality spirit. I love big, rye-forward bourbons, so this wheater is not exactly my favourite. It is good, readily available and very accessible (i.e. easy to drink) to someone new to bourbon or whisky. The vanilla, oak and toasted marshmallow notes dominate, but I emphasize again that "dominate" is relative. Maker's is bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV) but feels like a 40 percenter. It's very creamy and unobtrusive. If you don't want a bourbon that will punch you in the mouth, this is it. Maker's Mark is less Theodore Roosevelt and more Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I guess I prefer my bourbons mustachioed. But I do encourage you to give Maker's Mark a New Deal if you've found bourbon too bellicose in the past.



If my preferred bourbons had a face, this would be it 
Or maybe this...

2. Glengoyne 15 Year Old Single Malt

Plain Jane or seductively sweet?


Glengoyne air-dries their barley, so there is nary a hint of smoke or peat in this whisky. It's aged in a combination of 1st fill sherry casks, ex-bourbon casks and refill casks. Glengoyne 15 is full-bodied and sweet with citrus notes, honey, green apple, cinnamon, butterscotch and oak. It's lovely and full-bodied, but not too rough around the edges. Some might call it "smooth", but whisky hipsters would chide you for using that term.  Some may complain that Glengoyne is "too nice" or "too plain". But if you like your whisky mild, this might be the malt for you.

 
 
1. Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old Single Malt



A gentle-dram and a scholar

This one gets people going. I've heard it referred to as "banality in a bottle", but I heartily disagree with that assessment. Here's the thing: Dalwhinnie is owned by the mega-corporation Diageo. And many pretentious snobs scotch enthusiasts hate anything associated with the liquor giant. I believe all big corporations do things we disagree with (*cough* NAS scotch*), but that's not necessarily a reason to lampoon all of their products. Dalwhinnie brands itself "the gentle spirit" and the tagline is apt. It's gentle, yet well-crafted. The flavours are delicate, but they are present. Dalwhinnie is floral, with pears, honey, cinnamon, walnuts and toffee making their presence known. This malt, bottled at 43% ABV, is part of Diageo's "Classic Malts" series. Jim Murray, the controversial author of The Whisky Bible, awarded Dalwhinnie 15 a score of 95 points (out of a possible 100). I don't know if I'd score it that high, but Dalwhinnie is a dram I would never turn down.




So there you have it, folks. Those are my "Top 5" whiskies for those of you who don't like the peat and smoky punch of Laphroaig or Lagavulin. They may be gentle, but they aren't boring. If you like something a little bolder than these, but not as bold as Ardbeg, you'll have to tune in next time for my "Top 5" middle-of-the-road whiskies. Until then, to borrow the wise words of Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod "Keep fit and have fun!"

You know you loved Participaction





Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Catcher Sans the Rye: A review of Maker's Mark

"Because you never get a second chance to make a first impression". So goes the tagline for a 1980s anti-dandruff shampoo commercial. It's catchy, and the smiling faces lend credence to the assertion, but I'm not sure it's true. Well, I guess it's technically true, but the idea that first impressions become permanent opinions is flawed. When J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" was released, critics panned the novel for its use of "vulgar language", for undermining "family values", and for its "promotion of blasphemy and promiscuity." Despite the criticisms (or perhaps because of them) readers embraced the novel. Holden Caulfield became iconic of teenage rebellion, of a struggle for identity in a world where "traditional" values were shifting. I mean, Elvis Presley was singing (stealing?) black music on television and gyrating his hips ! Ach du lieber !! Won't someone think of the children ??!!



Despite criticism, despite being banned or censored for "being a communist plot" (really!), "The Catcher in the Rye" endures and has sold more than 65 million copies. That's more than "Twilight" !! With all of this talk of censorship and mystique surrounding the book, you'd think I would have been thrilled to read it. But my first impression of the book when I read it as a teenager (in the mid-1990s) was disappointment. It wasn't bad, but it didn't live up to the talk surrounding it. At least, not to my 16 year old brain. I'm not sure how apt my literary sensibilities were at the time. Things have changed somewhat in the intervening years. I have read Salinger's classic a few more times and I've gained an appreciation for its importance to the modern American literary canon. It's still not my favourite American novel, but I like it more than I did at first. My experience with Maker's Mark, the ubiquitous wheated bourbon, is similar to my experience with Holden Caulfield.

What is a Wheated Bourbon?


If you recall from my review of Four Roses Single Barrel, bourbon’s mash bill (mix of grains cooked and fermented together) must contain at least 51% corn in its mix. As bourbon ages, the corn notes tend to fade into a general sweetness. Barley is used for the enzymes it contains. These enzymes convert starches to sugar, which the yeast feeds on. While the barley adds some flavour to a bourbon, it’s primary used for fermentation purposes.

Last but not least are the flavouring grains. Rye is used to add flavor to bourbons; it brings a unique spicy note to the whiskey and flavours of pepper, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Wheat is different. While not as bold as rye, wheat allows more of the corn's sweetness, as well as vanilla (and often coconut) notes from the barrel to come through. So a wheated bourbon (or wheater bourbon) still contains at least 51% corn, but the balance is divided between barley and wheat. Sometimes, both wheat and rye are used for flavouring, but it's usually one or the other.

Hitting the Mark


The following is from the Master of Malt website.

Maker’s Mark began with the Samuels family. In 1783, Robert Samuels began to distil whiskey for personal consumption. The operations continued down the generations until a commercial distillery was eventually established. This was sold by T W Samuels during the mid twentieth century. He then founded a smaller distillery in Loretto, Kentucky and focussed on creating an artisan product, distilling far less, but with a greatly increased quality. 

It was decided that a new mashbill was required, rather than going through the costly and time consuming process of distilling varying recipes, Samuels chose to bake loaves of bread with differing proportions of grain. The finest tasting loaf was chosen; a loaf with a high barley and red winter wheat content and no rye. It was Bill Samuels Sr who destroyed the ancient family recipe and in 1958, the first bottles of Marker’s Mark were sold. 

There are no age statements on the wax dipped bottles, for Maker’s Mark is not bottled by age, but by taste, when the Master Distiller deems it ready for general consumption. Each bottle is emblazoned with the letters SIV, the ‘S’ stands for Samuels and ‘IV’ is four in Roman numerals, honouring the creator, in the fourth generation of the family. There is also a star on the logo, a reference to Star Hill, the location of the distillery.

Baking loaves of bread seems odd to me, as bread and whisky are usually consumed under different circumstances and with different goals in mind. But it seems to have worked. Maker's Mark is one of the world's best-known and best-selling bourbons.

Tasting notes


On your mark

Nose (undiluted): vanilla, brown sugar,oak
Palate (undiluted): medium bodied, slightly waxy, lots of vanilla, coconut notes, brown sugar and toasted oak
Finish: medium length, icing sugar, vanilla and toasted marshmallows

Adding water to Maker's Mark toned down some sweetness but didn't really bring forth any new notes. Adding ice toned down some of the oakiness and allowed the vanilla and marshmallow notes to shine through. I wasn't crazy about using Maker's Mark in an Old Fashioned. I prefer higher rye bourbons or straight rye whiskies for that particular task. This whiskey was simply too "nice" to make its presence known in a cocktail.


Conclusion


To be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed when I first tried Maker's Mark. I'm a fan of big, bold flavours such as higher rye whiskies and heavily peated, smoky whiskies. After I adjusted my expectations, however, I found Maker's Mark to be well-crafted and well-presented. It's incredibly creamy and mild for something that's bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV). It can serve as a wonderful introduction to wheated bourbon or served to someone who doesn't like the spicy flavour of rye. My only real complaint (and it's an admittedly subjective one) is the price of Maker's Mark here in Ontario. I purchased my bottle on sale for $42 CAD. It normally sells for $49 CAD. For that price, I can get Knob Creek Small Batch 9 Year Old Bourbon. Now, Knob Creek has a flavour profile I prefer, and my complaint is not really an indictment of the quality of Maker's Mark. There's no sense criticizing J.D. Salinger if you prefer reading Kurt Vonnegut or Cormac McCarthy (and I do). If you temper your expectations of how a bourbon should taste (remember, this is a wheater- no rye) Maker's Mark is a solid addition to your whisk(e)y collection.


Rating: 3/5 moustaches (I would rate my "enjoyment" at 2.5/5 moustaches, but this gets an extra moustache for what I perceive as a good quality product)




May we all have the chance to prove that money can’t make us happy!

Slainte mhaith !!


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Siren's Song: a review of Laphroaig 10 Year Old

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers. I say "one of" because it's impossible to choose only ONE. Vonnegut's writing sometimes appears simple, but his humour and his perception of human nature are so keen, an astute reader knows the author  worked tirelessly at his craft.  If his prose comes across as terse, it's done with a goal in mind. In his novels, the reader (or at least this reader) is struck dumb every so often by a powerful passage brought into sharper relief by the apparent simplicity of its presentation. One of the most well-known is this section of Vonnegut's most famous novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five". If you haven't read it, you should. My favourite Vonnegut novel is "The Sirens of Titan". I hesitate to call it pure science-fiction since terms like chrono-synclastic infundibulum are playful and coy rather than an attempt at plausible, futuristic science. Sirens addresses morality, free will, sexuality, religious paradoxes and the meaning of life in a novel you could probably read in a weekend. It's easy to overlook it, and easier to forget how talented Vonnegut is (was?). Sometimes you take things like Vonnegut novels or Laphroaig Scotch whisky for granted. Then they cross your path anew and it's a stark reminder of how good they are. Wait, Laphroaig Scotch whisky? Wasn't I just talking about Kurt Vonnegut? Like the ending of The Sirens of Titan, it all makes sense, I promise.


The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies


Laphroaig (la-FROYG) has a great website (click here)....when it works. I won't re-iterate all of the information contained therein, but check it out if you have the chance. Using a browser other than Google Chrome seems to deliver the best results. Laphroaig draws its soft, peated water from the Kilbride stream. The stream itself was the object of a court battle, which Laphroaig won, in the 1930s. I think the litigation was resolved in a trial by combat using only the ancient Scottish martial art of  ¡ Fa-cue ! Maybe not. Then there's the Laphroaig peat. Oh ! The peat ! Islay whiskies are known for their smoky, peaty profile. But the peat on the little Hebridean island is different than that of mainland Scotland. In fact, the peat on Islay varies from one location to the other. The Glenmachrie peat bog, has a particular mix of heather, lichen and moss responsible for Laphroaig's smoky, iodine-like and medicinal profile. The peat is dried for three months before being used. Unlike the majority of distilleries, Laphroaig peats the malt before they dry it. In a process lasting around 17 hours, the smoke or ‘peat reek’ rises up through the perforated drying floor into the kiln. The vaporised oils – the peat’s phenolic compounds and other wood-based smoky flavours – are absorbed by the damp barley. Laphroaig burns their peat at a relatively low temperature, a ‘cold smoking’ process that is responsible for the tarry note of Laphroaig. This may not sound appealing to the whisky initiate, but Laphroaig's flavour makes me feel like Bill Murray did in that dinner scene in "What About Bob?"



I'm sure my friends and family members are glad that I keep this reaction (mostly) to myself. But make no mistake; inside my head, I'm doing this the whole time I'm drinking Laphroaig.

Tasting notes


Smokier than Darth Vader's funeral pyre
Nose (undiluted) : smoke, mineral peat, earthy sweetness, very medicinal (iodine) with vanilla, citrus and floral notes underneath
Palate (undiluted): rich and full bodied, oily and mouth-coating, sweet and briny arrival developing some slight bitterness before returning to a briny and earthy sweetness with hints of vanilla and pear (really!)
Finish: long, campfire ash and smoke, with some sweet floral earthiness lingering

Adding water to Laphroaig 10 really pains me. It's just so perfect when sipped neat; adding water seems criminal. Maybe not criminal; uncivil perhaps. But I added water, you know, just to be thorough. With water, the nose shows much more fresh seaweed/iodine and vanilla. The smoke is pushed into the background. The palate becomes much more medicinal, developing toffee, black coffee before finishing with sweet vanilla and cigar ash. With or without water, this is an absolute treat.

I should note that the version of Laphroaig 10 in my cabinet is bottled at 43% ABV. Some expressions of this malt are bottled at 40% for some cruel yet unknown reason. I guess we're fortunate here in Ontario...despite paying much, much more for our whisky than other jurisdictions.

Conclusion


It's easy to take things for granted. Much like reading (or re-reading) Kurt Vonnegut's novels, I'm always taken aback when I drink Laphroaig. I think to myself "Why don't I buy this more often?" or "Why do I need to try different whiskies when Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are all I really need?". Now, appreciating Scotch whisky is a journey and no journey is truly complete if you never venture beyond the tried and true. But it's nice to come back to what you know. If you haven't been there in awhile, you might just be surprised. I highly recommend you try Laphroaig 10 or re-visit it if you haven't had it in awhile.


Rating: 4/5 moustaches





May the winds of fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea.
May it always be the other guy
who says, “this drink’s on me.”

Slainte mhaith !!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Ambushed: A review of Bushmills Black Bush


Please note that this review includes spoilers pertaining to the movie The Departed. I don't feel bad for doing this, though, since that film was released 11 years ago. If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for?

Hollywood movies can be boring and predictable. Most "blockbusters"  rely on a handful of clichés. Woman meets man, they hit it off, someone discovers a secret about the other, they call it off, miss each other, end up together. There, I just saved you the trouble of ever having to watch a Hugh Grant or Sandra Bullock movie ever again. You're welcome. Action movies are no different: the grizzled, jaded hero goes on one last quest (usually against a bunch of "ethnic" bad guys), meets the token "attractive" female (who is usually 25-30 years younger than him), watches his best friend (usually Kevin Pollak or Paul Giamatti) die, and completes quest by blowing things up real good. Sometimes the "twist" is that the best friend was the real bad guy. Yawn. But every now and then a movie, even within a clichéd genre, does things very differently. In 2006, Martin Scorsese gave us The Departed, a violent cops-and-gangsters movie. Instead of the Italian mobsters of his fantastic Goodfellas, Scorsese focused on Boston and the Irish mob. The Departed features a stellar cast (including the criminally underrated and underappreciated Ray Winstone), unexpected twists (Billy Costigan's unceremonious death), great dialogue (Mark Wahlberg's accent and prodigious use of vulgarity is a treat for the ears), and a plot that focuses intensely on identity. While the viewer knows that Sullivan (Matt Damon) is "the rat" who helps mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), we don't find out until later that Costello himself was a rat.


Wahlberg's performance was wicked awesome.
So what does this have to do with Irish Whiskey? I'm glad you asked. I take jabs at Irish whiskey all the time, but I don't really worry about offending anyone, since, as far as I can tell, the Irish don't get offended. Or, at least not by a silly French-Canadian like me. Jocularity aside, I've always found Irish whiskey acceptable if somewhat dull and predictable, like action movies or rom-coms. Irish whiskey is good in a pinch, I thought, but it doesn't merit the same reverence Scotch whisky commands. A good friend changed my mind somewhat with a tasting of Green Spot, and while it's good, the price of it also buys a nice bottle of Old Pulteney 12, Glenfiddich 15, Laphroaig 10 or Highland Park 12. All of those suit me better than the Green Spot. But on a recent family trip, I purchased a bottle of Bushmills Black Bush and found an Irish whiskey that outperforms just about anything I've found at that price point (approx. $37 CAD).


A word about Bushmills


Bushmills claims to be the oldest distillery in Ireland; King James I granted landowner Thomas Philips a license to distill in 1608. The distillery has survived fires, tax increases and prohibition. The whiskey was even mentioned by James Joyce in his magnum opus, Ulysses. It's in Episode 18-Penelope, in case you're wondering. The Original Bushmills is a light, floral and completely unoffensive blended whiskey. It's fine, but not particularly noteworthy in this writer's opinion. Black Bush is different. It contains a high proportion of malt whiskey that was aged 8-10 years in Oloroso Sherry casks. If you remember from previous reviews, this imparts a fruity, sweet flavour to the whiskey. What is "a high proportion" of malt whiskey? I don't know. I've read it's as high as 80% malt whiskey, but I can't seem to confirm this anywhere. Also, remember that Irish whiskey is, in general, triple distilled; Scotch whisky is distilled twice. Thus, Irish whiskey is generally thought to be "smoother" than Scotch. So how does Black Bush taste?


Tasting notes


Also wicked awesome
Nose (undiluted): citrus (lemon), red fruit, red grapes, apples
Palate (undiluted): medium-bodied, very little tongue-burn (bottled at 40% ABV), lots of red fruit (cherry, raspberry), malty, nutty, biscuits
Finish: medium length, red fruit developing to milk chocolate, cinnamon with a licorice note lingering.

Adding water didn't change much in the character of this whiskey, but adding ice brought out more fruit and toned down a bit of the malt sweetness. I prefer this one neat, or maybe chilled. I would like to try chilling the bottle or even the glass. At 40% ABV, it doesn't need to be diluted any further, but tasting it cold was quite nice (heresy!!!). I was surprised that the finish was as long as it was. Bushmills Original has a fairly short finish and I was surprised that the Oloroso casks had such a prominent influence. Or maybe it is close to 80% malt whiskey after all. I'm not quite sure where the longer finish comes from, but it's a treat.



Conclusion


Just when you think you've got things figured out, the elevator door opens and Leonardo DiCaprio gets shot in the head. Ok, maybe that's just The Departed. But sometimes surprises are far more pleasing. When I bought Bushmills Black Bush during a recent family vacation, I only hoped it would be good enough to keep my brother pacified (he drank some of the whiskey I bought while I drank quite a bit of the beer he bought). However, I believe I discovered a whiskey that is fit to occupy a regular space in my whisk(e)y cabinet. It's not outrageously priced, it's readily available and it's really, really good. Surprises can be good.


Rating: 3/5 moustaches




May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, the foresight to know where you're going and the insight to know when you're going too far.

Slainte !

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Lot To Be Thankful For: a review of Lot no.40 Rye

It is striking how history, when resting on the memory of men, always touches the bounds of mythology
Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)




I think she's older than 9
I love history. It was my major during my undergraduate studies. It is fascinating to discover the past "as it really was", devoid of any modern romanticism. That's the way it's done in an academic setting. Historical fiction can be interesting, yet many such novels and Hollywood movies present a very rosy picture of the past. At their least offensive, historical fictions change certain facts and ignore others to tell entertaining stories. I loved the 1995 movie Braveheart. There is very little historical accuracy in Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Scottish rebellion lead by the hero William Wallace; Scotland's King Alexander III died in 1296, not 1276 as suggested in the movie and there had been peace between England and Scotland for 60 years. The Scots of the time period would not have worn plaids. Primae Noctis (or droit du seigneur) was never a real thing. At the time of Wallace's rebellion in 1297-1298, Princess Isabella would have been about 9 years old and she was living in France; it is highly unlikely that she would have looked like Sophie Marceau and even more unlikely that she had an affair with William Wallace. But I can forgive these "liberties" more than I can forgive what I consider greater offenses: mythologizing and idealizing the past to suit our current beliefs and projecting our modern attitudes onto the past. Medieval Europeans did NOT believe the Earth was flat. The French, not George Washington, were largely responsible for the tactics and strategies that won the American War of Independence (links here and here), feminists NEVER publicly burned their bras. Historian Leopold von Ranke argued that the past should be studied "as it was", that is to say, in its own context. This does not always sit well with people, but it is logical. When someone claims they would have loved to live in another time period, they often assume their modern attitudes and opinions would still form the base of their character. This is a mistake, and it is why I'm thankful I live now. I'm not trying to judge or condemn the past, but I would NOT want to return to the days of prohibition. Sure the fashion was great, the music was swingin', there was no reality television, but dying of tuberculosis, measles or smallpox was probably not a good time. More superficially, trying to get some decent hooch (i.e. alcohol) was probably more difficult than Hollywood would have us believe. So while I had to drive to an LCBO a whole 20 kilometres away to find my bottle of Lot no. 40 Rye, I can't really complain too much.


What is Lot no.40?


The original Lot 40 (circa late 1990s) was the brainchild of then Master Distiller Mike Booth. It was an attempt by Hiram Walker to create three different premium whiskies known as the Canadian Whisky Guild. The success of these whiskies was limited, probably owing to the snobbishness of consumers when it comes to premium Canadian whiskies. Lot 40 was discontinued, much to the chagrin of Canadian whisky enthusiasts. In 2012, Corby spirits (which had acquired Hiram Walker) re-released Lot no.40. To ensure that they weren't just selling a venerated name and capitalizing on the (recent) past, Master distiller Dr Don Livermore consulted with the retired Mike Booth to ensure the recipe was authentic. This was the right move. Some companies would have been happy to cash in on a name, but Corby decided to produce a spirit worthy of its much vaunted reputation. Lot no. 40 is a 100% Rye whisky and rye can be tricky to work with, so we're lucky to have Dr Livermore contributing to this one. Lot 40 is produced in a single, 12 000 litre copper pot still at the Hiram Walker facility in Windsor, Ontario. Lot no. 40 won Canadian Whisky of the Year in 2015 (Canadian Whisky Awards) as well as Connoisseur Whisky Of The Year Multiple Markets and a Gold Medal in 2017 (Canadian Whisky Awards). So I guess you could say it's kind of a big deal. I'm often asked how Canadian whisky compares to single malt scotch or bourbon, and I can only come up with the following analogy:

Which is better?

  • Apple pie
  • Chicken pot pie
  • Tourtière (a traditional French-Canadian meat pie)
You can't fairly compare an apple pie to anything other than apple pie. Ditto for the other pies. Each must be compared on its own terms. And so it is with whisky. I hope this makes sense. There's a time and place for every whisk(e)y.

Tasting notes


Lot no. 40 Rye
Boozy apple pie

Nose (undiluted) : rye bread, oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper
Palate (undiluted): medium-bodied, rye spice, toasted oak, lots of baking spices, cinnamon hearts, hints of apple and caramel
Finish: medium-long, spicy, slight vanilla note, black pepper with oakiness lingering.

Adding water allows more complexity to shine through. Lot 40 may seem like straightforward at first, but it deserves your full attention. With water, more herbal notes come through and some pipe tobacco makes an appearance. There is also a citrus note that becomes more evident with water, perhaps oranges. This whisky is even great in an Old Fashioned tumbler on the rocks. Hey, not every whisky needs to be sipped from a Glencairn all of the time. If a vessel can deliver whisky to my mouth, it is an appropriate vessel. Nick Offerman drinks his whisky from an Old Fashioned tumbler, so it's acceptable in my books.





Conclusion


Nostalgia can be tricky. When a discontinued item is brought back, there will always be those who claim "the old one was better" or something along those lines, yet there are a whole lot of reasons to be thankful for the return of Lot no. 40. I never tried the old version, but this one is fantastic. It is another whisky which makes me reconsider what I thought I knew about Canadian whisky. At $40 CAD, it is quite affordable and the flavour profile is a nice change from single malt scotch. Not better or worse; different. I strongly urge you to try it. I like it almost as much as Dissertation, so much so that I can't even rate it a half a moustache lower, and that's saying a Lot !


Rating: 4/5 moustaches




Cheers, eh !