Friday, 16 February 2018

Singles: A review of Knob Creek Single Barrel Bourbon

Is there a Citizen Dick reunion in the works?
Some things are better as an idea. Or as a memory. Being born at the tail-end of Generation X, I love grunge music, but I was never really a member of the grunge scene. I was 14 years old when Kurt Cobain committed suicide. I always liked Nirvana, but I was (and still am) more of a Pearl Jam fan. I remember seeing the movie Singles, and I'm pretty sure I liked it a lot, but I was probably late to the party. The angsty, somewhat aloof Cameron Crowe rom-com was released in 1992, and I'm sure I didn't see it as a twelve year old. I was probably sixteen when I finally saw it, and the fact that Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell and Alice In Chains all appeared on screen was probably enough for me to love it. But I re-visited it recently and, well, it was a bit underwhelming. It's not a bad movie, but it's not as thrilling as it was twenty-plus years ago. Some things sound great in theory, but don't always pan out in practice. (Insert communism/capitalism/marriage joke here) Knob Creek Single Barrel may suffer from the same trappings.

What is Knob Creek?

Knob Creek is produced by Beam Suntory at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky. It is one of the four Jim Beam small batch bourbon brands targeted for the high-end liquor market. There are many references to Knob Creek as a "pre-prohibition" style of bourbon. What does that mean? According to their website:
What is Pre-Prohibition Style whiskey?

In short: It’s whiskey that refuses to cut corners. But since you’re still here, we’ll give you the longer version.

When the Prohibition was lifted in 1933, bourbon makers had to start from scratch. Whiskey takes years and years to make, but the drinking ban was overturned overnight. To meet their sudden demand, distillers rushed the process, selling barrels that had hardly been aged. Softer, mild-flavored whiskey became standard from then on. Full flavor was the casualty.

But we brought real bourbon back. Over 25 years ago, master distiller Booker Noe set out to create a whiskey that adhered to the original, time-tested way of doing things. He named it Knob Creek. We age every batch in maximum-char barrels to pull every bit of natural sweetness from the oak. Then we bottle it at an uncommonly balanced 100 proof.

Knob Creek is whiskey the way its supposed to be: full flavored. We make every drop count so that you can make every minute count.

Without ever having to cut any corners.

Clear as mud, right?

So 100 proof (50% ABV) is the standard for Knob Creek and the Single Barrel offering is a big, bold 120 proof (60% ABV). And while the standard Knob Creek 100 Proof Small Batch has recently dropped the age statement, the Single Barrel expression still guarantees the whisky is at least nine years old. I was a fan of the 9 Year Old Small Batch. I still enjoy the NAS, 100 Proof version. So how does the Single Barrel taste?
Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): Toffee, vanilla, maple syrup and oak
  • Palate (undiluted): toffee, vanilla, sour cherry chewing gum, coconut and oak
  • Finish:  surprisingly short, nutty, more vanilla, coconut and oak 

Sipped neat, I would NOT have guessed this bourbon to be 120 proof. There is very little tongue burn or "prickliness" to Knob Creek Single Barrel. Adding some water brought out more oakiness, and made the whiskey surprisingly "hotter" and sharper. Drunk neat, the sweetness isn't overbearing or cloying, and it's pushed a bit further back when diluted. But the balance of this whiskey is just a bit "off". It tastes like a generic bourbon, with the toffee, vanilla and oak out of balance. The vanilla isn't gentle or floral, either. It tastes more like an artificial vanilla flavouring.

 Despite the 120 Proof, I prefered this one neat. But with the alcohol content being that high, Knob Creek Single Barrel is definitely a whiskey more suited to a single serving. It is NOT a session whisky. It works surprisingly well in an Old Fashioned, as the simple syrup, water and ice don't drown out the flavours present in this bourbon.

It's difficult to make any kind of definitive pronouncement on a single barrel whiskey. Each barrel is different, so the next batch could have completely different tasting notes. "Single barrel" is a bit of a catch-phrase that appeals to enthusiasts and purists. But as is often the case, it is not without its possible pit-falls. This bourbon was good. Not great, not surprising or incredibly unique. My first impression of it was "This tastes like bourbon". Obvious perhaps, but I was expecting more. Nevertheless, this is a quality product, and you probably won't be disappointed in it if you like bourbon. If at all possible, try before you buy.

Rating: 3/5 moustaches

Here's to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.
If you cheat, may you cheat death,
If you steal, may you steal a lover's heart,
If you fight, may you fight for a friend, 
And if you drink, may you drink with me.

Slainte !

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Wednesday, 7 February 2018

It Goes To Eleven: Talisker 57 Degrees North

If you're a musician or you know one, you've undoubtedly heard (or made) references to the greatest mockumentary of all time: This Is Spinal Tap. If you don't know the film, it features film-maker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) documenting the U.S. tour of "England's loudest band" and the subsequent release of their record "Smell the Glove" (later re-titled "None More Black"). There are so many great, quotable moments in the film, but perhaps none as memorable as Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), guitarist extraordinaire, showcasing his collection of guitars and amplifiers to DiBergi. The collection features some incredible guitars and amps, but none is as impressive as the Marshall amplifier that "goes to eleven".
As Tufnel explains "You see, most blokes will be playing at 10. You’re on 10, all the way up, all the way up...Where can you go from there? Nowhere. What we do, is if we need that extra push over the cliff...Eleven. One louder." Of course, DiBergi is incredulous, asking "Why don’t you just make 10 louder and make 10 be the top number, and make that a little louder?" After pausing for a moment, Nigel delivers, in his "Squatney" deadpan: "These go to eleven." Sometimes, the most obvious explanation is the right one. Which brings me to this week's whisky review: Talisker 57 Degrees North.

The North Remembers

According to their website: Talisker 57° North takes its name from this remote, rugged and windswept distillery’s latitude. And rightly so, because this is an untamed, natural expression of the Talisker’s full power: a volcanic, intensely appealing flavour that most drinkers will have only experienced in a cask strength bottling.

Cask Strength? Yes, this is bottled at 57.8% ABV, so it packs a wallop. Why would anyone want a whisky that strong? A cask strength whisky gives you the full spectrum of flavour and allows you to control how diluted your whisky is. If you want an easy sipper, add water until it's dialed down to your liking. But if you need that extra push over the cliff, drinking undiluted cask strength whisky will do the trick.

Talisker is a whisky I could identify blindfolded. Its distinct aroma and flavours are unlike anything I’ve encountered so far in my whisky journey. There’s no age information I can find on this whisky, but after tasting it, my best guess is that 57 North is a vatting of 8-14 year old whiskies. But that's just a guess. I won't go full potato on an anti-NAS rant here, but the information on the age of this whisky isn't available. Why take a chance on a non-age-stated whisky, then? Well, I love Talisker, and this one "goes to eleven". I should note that this review is based on a sample provided by a friend. Talisker 57 North sells for $175 in Ontario and that's more than I'm willing to spend on a malt that doesn't disclose any age information, especially before trying it. To be fair, other jurisdictions have far more reasonable prices on this malt. Proceed with caution.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): friendly for something bottled at 57% ABV. Classic Talisker minerality, vegetal iodine (more seaweed than medicinal), slight chalkiness, brine, black pepper, moderately smoky. There are some notes reminiscent of grapefruit (the "meat" not the pith). As this sits in the glass, there are some cinnamon, oak and wood varnish notes popping through. Very complex nose.

Palate (undiluted): hot, peppery arrival, prickly, almost hoppy on the tongue, the slight chalkiness returns, developing some citrus, with the cinnamon, black Pepper/chili pepper and oak tannins popping back up.

Finish: Medium length and somewhat drying. This was a bit shorter and more drying than I expected. A bit of brine remains with some smoke and fruitiness lingering.

With water, the wood varnish (cask?) notes come forward on the nose, as does the brine and seaweed. the smoke retreats to the back, as a kind of echo.

As the whisky sits, a kind of industrial machinery aroma lingers (if that makes any sense). On the palate, with water, the smoke becomes more evident as does the cinnamon and spice. The finish is not quite as drying with water, but shorter than I expected. Very pleasant nonetheless.

I nursed this pour for about 2 hours while doing laundry and with time, it got more interesting. At the very end of the finish, I was detecting a bit of unripe banana. I really enjoyed this whisky, but I’m a Talisker fan so make of that what you will. I’ve been fortunate; I’ve never hit a bad bottle of Talisker. This sample was no exception. I highly recommend this whisky IF you can get it for a more reasonable price. As much as I liked it, I would NOT pay $175 for it.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Here's to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.
If you cheat, may you cheat death,
If you steal, may you steal a lover's heart,
If you fight, may you fight for a friend, 
And if you drink, may you drink with me.

Slainte !

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Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A Fine Balance: a review of Aultmore 12 Year Old

There's something of a paradox in the world of Scotch whisky. The brain-trusts who market malt whisky lean heavily on the allure of "Old World" charm, Scots-Gaelic names and the lore often associated, rightly or wrongly, with Scotland. There are frequent appeals to "age-old" family traditions, legends of self-made men, defenders of kings, reaving Viking founders and so on...While these stories aren't always outright fabrications, they're often just partly true (at best). Single Malt whisky, as we know it today, is informed and inspired by tradition, but has benefited from being a product of the industrial age. Producers have kept some age-old traditions; the Romans were barrel-aging wine 2000 years ago, and the pot-still is hardly a modern innovation. but there's an equal amount of modern efficiency and precision in the world of scotch. Not that it's a bad thing. With the popularity of single malt scotch these days, some malts that were once the sole purview of blenders are being bottled and appreciated in their own right. Such is the case with Aultmore 12 Year Old. What was once only found in the blended whiskies of John Dewar & Sons (Dewar's White Label, Dewar's 12 Year Old, Dewar's 18 Year Old) can now be enjoyed on its own.

A Nip of the Buckie Road

A glance at the bottle of Aultmore 12 reveals the following text:

A secluded site once known for smugglers and illicit stills, the FOGGIE MOSS, conceals our water's source and filters it through gorse and heather, purifying it to the profit of AULTMORE'S refined character. Our malted barley has no hint of peat smoke, ensuring the smoothest, cleanest taste.

This rarest of SPEYSIDE classics has been distilled in handmade copper pot stills since 1897, yet for over a century it was only sold in limited editions aimed at collectors.

Sometimes a sly taste of AULTMORE could be found in a few local bars, but only if you knew to ask for "a nip of the Buckie Road."

Scottish distilleries: the expectation
Evocative prose, indeed. You would be forgiven for thinking the distillery looked like something right out of Outlander. Mayhap you can picture the Fraser clan hiding precious casks of whisky from a garrison of redcoats hell-bent on invading Lallybroch. Jamie playing it cool, Jenny giving no ground and refusing to be intimidated, Claire trying to be sensible. Something like this picture? Am I close?

The actual Aultmore distillery doesn't offer tours. It was re-built in 1971 with a more functional goal in mind; producing a consistent, reliable product to serve as a workhorse in Dewar & Sons' blends. If the marketing types want you to imagine the embodiment of scotch distilling as a brooding, quick-tempered, six foot, three inches tall, red-headed Scot like Jamie Fraser, the reality is rather mundane and less provocative. Aultmore distillery is less Jamie Fraser and more Frank Randall.

Aultmore distillery: the reality
But how does Aultmore taste? That's the important part, isn't it? Stories and imagination are all fine and good, but the quality of the product is paramount, in my humble opinion.

Tasting Notes

I have to say I was thrilled to see this bottled at a respectable 46% ABV, not chill-filtered and left at its natural colour. These may seem like little, inconsequential details, but those little details provide a very favourable first impression to this enthusiast.
  • Nose (undiluted): this is a classic Speyside, light and floral with some green fruit notes (pears, green apples, green grapes), there's a touch of vanilla, but it's balanced by a clean citrus note. It's not a bruiser like Laphroaig, but it's very well-balanced.
  • Palate (undiluted): slightly sharp arrival, medium-bodied and creamy, with more pear and green grape notes, there's a hint of cereal (barley) sweetness, but it's subdued and doesn't dominate
  • Finish: clean, medium length finish, with a slightly drying astringency, there's a bit of lingering floral honey-sweetness at the very end which makes this very easy to sip.

Adding water opens up the flavour. The nose is a little less fruity, more floral while the water allows the sweetness of the malted barley to come forward a bit. The sharp citrus notes are subdued when drinking Aultmore diluted and the vanilla and floral notes are more prominent with water. I prefered it neat, as it's bottled at 46% ABV, right in my sweet spot (anywhere from 45% to 50% ABV). This whisky is subtle, but very well-balanced. "Clean" is a word that comes to mind quite often. There are no "off" or "stray" notes. This may be a positive or negative, depending on your perspective. It's not incredibly complex, but what Aultmore does, it does very well. If you only appreciate big, bold and complex whiskies, you may find Aultmore 12 worthy of the derision that gave rise to its detractors' pet name for it; AultSNORE. I disagree. It's nice to have something in the vault that isn't a punch in the mouth. It doesn't differ much in price from Glenmorangie 10, it has a similar profile, but I'll take Aultmore over the basic Glenmorangie any day.


This whisky will not be everyone's darling. Heck, my bottle was donated to me by an online acquaintance who happens to live in my town. He had the bottle for over a year and only took two or three drams from it before deciding it wasn't for him. He offered the bottle when I asked, in a forum, if anyone had ever tried it, as I was curious. Andrew, if you're reading my silly little blog, I truly appreciate the gift. Unlike my benefactor, I enjoyed this whisky. It may not be among the smouldering, sexy, powerful whiskies of the world, like Ardbeg Uigeadail, but it's a well-crafted, clean and enjoyable drop. I'll take a nip of the Buckie Road any time.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

Here's to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.
If you cheat, may you cheat death,
If you steal, may you steal a lover's heart,
If you fight, may you fight for a friend, 
And if you drink, may you drink with me.

Slainte !

If you enjoyed this post, share it, or leave a comment.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Better Get Used To It: A Review of Forty Creek Barrel Select

If you believe the chatter on the internet, most Canadian whisky is "brown vodka". At the risk of repeating myself, this is nonsense. Hogwash. Claptrap. Poppycock. Balderdash. Every time a Canadian whisky gains a measure of repute, the popular media, at home and abroad, treats the subject as a rare miracle. It is not. This country regularly produces fantastic whisky. It's time we stop acting surprised about it. Like Gordie Johnson from Big Sugar sang: "You better get used to it, baby!" Every whisky-producing country makes "mixer" whisky. Despite what we enthusiasts like to think, those are the big sellers. Wiser's Special Blend, Dewar's White Label, Johnnie Walker Red Label, Jack Daniel's Old No.7, Bushmills Original; these are the whiskies that "keep the lights on" for the distilleries producing our favourite neat sippers.

Gordie knows how great Canada is
But does a whisky's price tag reflect its suitability as a whisky worthy of examination sans mixer? Of course not. One of the advantages of living in Canada (besides our total domination of hockey) is the availability and affordability of our top shelf whiskies. Highland Park 18 Year Old single malt will run you $200, while you can get a Wiser's 18 Year Old for $80. Let me stop you before you respond with "yeah, but Single Malt Scotch". I'm a fan of malt whisky, but it is not "better" than other types of whisky. Single malt scotch has more prestige, largely owing to better marketing, but it is not inherently superior. Tastes are incredibly subjective. De gustibus non disputandum est. If I had a loonie for every time someone told me they prefered Lot No.40 or Forty Creek Barrel Select to my smoky Islay scotches, I'd be a rich man. Well, maybe not; I don't know that many people who drink whisky. I'd definitely have enough for a footlong Subway Club with bacon.

Editorializing aside, if you've never heard of Forty Creek, you need to pay attention.

Forty Creek: where's that? What's that?

From their website:

The Forty Creek distillery is located in Grimsby, Ontario –halfway between Niagara Falls and Toronto. The Niagara region is home to many beautiful and historically significant cities and towns – and Grimsby is certainly one of them. Founded in 1790, Grimsby was formerly named ‘The Forty’, since the river running through the centre of town was exactly 40 miles away from Niagara Falls. Today, that river is named Forty Mile Creek – and it is the body of water that inspired the name of our whiskies.

The Master, hard at work

In an era where clear spirits were all the rage and most whisky companies were playing it safe , winemaker John K Hall took a chance and brought his unique experience and perspectives to the whisky industry. He laid down the first stocks of what would become Forty Creek whisky in 1992. Hall's innovation and commitment to quality reinvigorated the Canadian whisky industry. His efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2001, whisky writer Michael Jackson (not the King of Pop) said Forty Creek was the “richest-tasting Canadian whisky” he had ever tasted  In 2007, Hall was recognized by Malt Advocate Magazine as “Pioneer of the Year”, and was the first and only Canadian whisky maker to receive such a prestigious award.  In 2017, John was honoured with the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Whisky Awards. That same year, he was inducted into Whisky Magazine's Hall of Fame. Barrel Select is Forty Creek's flagship offering. If you've ever seen Forty Creek in a liquor store, chances are it's been this one.


Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): lots of sweet notes. Butterscotch, very much like Werther's Originals, caramel popcorn, rich and  deep brown sugar notes, and light rye spice in the background. Take your time and let it breathe and you may notice some nuttiness in the background and a slight savoury note. Very full and inviting.
Palate (undiluted): Rich arrival, surprisingly rich for a 40% ABV whisky, more butterscotch/caramel, a bit of milk chocolate, very light rye and pepper notes in the background with a bit of a light citrus note throughout.
Finish: Medium length, buttery and sweet with hints of berries (blackberries, raspberries) making an appearance. This is a very friendly whisky.
Adding water or ice doesn't change much in the way of flavours. The sweetness is a bit muted, but that might be a function of dilution rather than temperature. Maybe it's a combination of both. Either way, this is a very easy drinking whisky. It makes for a great "background" whisky when you're having drinks with friends and you don't want to spend all of your time or attention on what you're drinking. But... sip it from a Glencairn glass and take your time, and there is some serious complexity here, albeit subtle. I can't help but feel this one would be improved at a higher proof, maybe around 46% ABV. But I'm biased towards higher proof whiskies. I'm also convinced this would be great in a whisky sour, where the sweetness of the whisky would be a nice contrast to the lemon juice. I omit the egg white in my whisky sours, but you do what you like. I'll also wager you'd like it in an Old Pal. "What's an Old Pal", you ask? An Old Pal is similar to a Boulevardier (which is itself a variant of the Negroni), but it uses Dry (White) Vermouth in place of the Boulevardier's Sweet (Red) Vermouth. The rich sweetness of Forty Creek balances out the dryness of the vermouth and the bitterness of the Campari. I'd recommend you start with the following recipe and adjust to suit your taste: 
  • 4.5 cl (1.5oz) Forty Creek Barrel Select
  • 2.2 cl (0.75oz) Campari
  • 2.2 cl (0.75oz) White Vermouth
  • Pour all ingrediends into a mixing glass, add ice to chill
  • Stir and strain into a cocktail glass (or an old fashioned tumbler, my preference)
  • Garnish with a lemon or orange twist


Some whiskies should be a mainstay in your cabinet. Forty Creek Barrel Select is one of those whiskies. It is affordable, versatile and inviting. It's a great whisky to use when you want to introduce someone to whisky sans the Coke or Ginger Ale mixer. It's terrific on ice and quite approachable neat. The whisky neophyte will not be intimidated by this whisky, but that shouldn't imply that the more seasoned sipper won't enjoy it as well. Forty Creek founder John K. Hall spent decades honing his skills in the wine industry and his skills as a blender are evident in the company's flagship whisky. Mr. Hall may be retired, but his legacy is evident in the quality of Forty Creek's whiskies. Barrel Select, to my palate, outperforms many whiskies that cost twice as much. Canada's whisky enthusiasts are fortunate to count Forty Creek among our own. Recommended.
Rating: 3/5 moustaches
Here's to cheating, stealing, fighting, and drinking.
If you cheat, may you cheat death,
If you steal, may you steal a lover's heart,
If you fight, may you fight for a friend, 
And if you drink, may you drink with me.