Friday, 17 November 2017

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Wild Turkey 101

Look at this picture. What do you see? A smiling woman and a chess board? Do you know who she is? Your neighbour maybe? Your tenth grade science teacher perhaps? This is Judit Polgar; the strongest female chess player in history. Polgar became the youngest Grandmaster ever at 15 years, 5 months. Various sources place her IQ between 170 and 180. For comparison's sake, Stephen Hawking is rumoured to have an IQ of about 160. So much for the notion that women are somehow weaker or inferior when it comes to logic and math. Oh, and she has also beat champions such as Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. Well played, Ms. Polgar. Assumptions often lead us astray. In another lifetime, Judit may not have had the chance to learn chess, much less master it to the point where she could kick the proverbial ass of those who think of women as "the weaker sex". I'm no chess master, but I know better than to make assumptions. How does the saying go? When you assume, you make an "ass" out of "u" and "me"...This brings me to this week's dram: Wild Turkey 101. Bear with me. I know, you probably thinking "Wild Turkey, isn't that the drink of choice for toothless banjo-playing hillbillies like Cletus Spuckler from  The Simpsons?" I certainly thought so. The name sounds like something you want to avoid. To be fair, we should never judge a book by its cover.

Talking Turkey

Wild Turkey takes its name from Wild Turkey Hill in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky whence the Ripy brothers opened their family distillery in 1869. Wild Turkey Bourbon got its name after a distillery executive shared his bourbon with friends on an annual hunting trip — of course, they were after wild turkey. Master Distiller Jimmy Russell joined Wild Turkey in 1954; his son Eddie Russell joined the company in 1981. Jimmy Russell is the world's longest-tenured active master distiller. Eddie was named master distiller after 35 years with Wild Turkey. This is not your cousin Zeke's barnyard bourbon. Wild Turkey uses the deepest barrel char (no.4 "alligator" char) which is, according to them, responsible for their bourbon having more character than others. I'm really not an expert on the relationship between char levels and their effect on flavour, so I don't know if this is true. How does it taste though?

Tasting notes

Let's talk turkey
Nose (undiluted): an initial hit of white glue, settling to a deep floral vanilla and some oak spice.

Palate (undiluted): hot arrival, medium-bodied, sweet candy corn, toffee, developing to a sour cherry candy flavour. Yummy.

Finish: medium length, vanilla returns but develops a slight coconut note at the end. Interesting.

Adding water brings much more oak and vanilla forward on the nose. The fruitiness is dialed back on the palate. Much better neat, to my tastes. This is a medium-ish rye mashbill, though I still don't get much in the way of traditional rye spices from this turkey. Not that I'm complaining. I LOVE rye, but this is a really nice, fruity bourbon.


If you're anything like I was, you probably think Wild Turkey is redneck mouthwash. But you're wrong. The name may lead you to think this is the libation of choice of folks like Cletus Spuckler, but don't forget that Cletus had a well-hidden talent for calligraphy. You may think Wild Turkey is this

But in reality, the taste of Wild Turkey 101 is much closer to this

I highly recommend you get a bottle of this relatively inexpensive bourbon and experience it for yourself. It runs about $36 here in Ontario; about $4 more than Jack Daniel's Old No.7. Wild Turkey is, to my palate, much, much better than JD.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

Slainte !!

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Wednesday, 8 November 2017

More Than the Sum Of Its Parts: Compass Box Oak Cross Blended Malt

I love the Montreal Canadiens. The worship of La Sainte-Flanelle and Les Glorieux are literally a part of my DNA. My father proposed to my mother shortly after the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1973. When the Stanley Cup was awarded to the Habs on May 21, 1979, I was celebrating in utero. So I was devastated when my hero Patrick Roy and his team were bested in six games by the Calgary Flames in the 1989 Stanley Cup finals. I was convinced that Roy and the Canadiens were unbeatable that year. Number 33 was, to my 10 year old brain, the greatest goalie in the history of hockey. We* had guys who could score in players such as Mats Naslund, Bobby Smith and St├ęphane Richer. We had guys with skill and guts, like Shayne Corson and Guy Carbonneau. We had players who could get under the opposing team's skin, guys like Chris Chelios and Claude Lemieux. But the Flames proved too strong. Perhaps it was the grit and gumption of Dougie Gilmour, or the power of Al MacInnis' slapshot or maybe, just maybe Lanny McDonald's moustache emitted too much power for the Habs to even have stood a chance. 

Lanny's 'stache has its own Stanley Cup ring
Just don't tell me Mike Vernon outplayed Patrick Roy (even though he probably did). To be fair, the Flames finished first overall that year, with 117 points to the Canadiens' 115. Were the Habs less than the sum of their parts, or were the Flames more than the sum of theirs? I don't know, I was 10 years old. But it makes for a great segue into my review of Compass Box's Oak Cross, a blended malt whisky.

What's a Blended Malt? What's a Compass Box?

For those who don't remember or who are new to Scotch whisky, a Blended Malt, which used to be called "Vatted Malt", is a blend of malt whiskies (i.e. whisky made entirely from malted barley) from different distilleries. There is no grain whisky (i.e. whisky made from wheat, corn or rye) in a blended malt whisky. Compass Box, the brainchild of former Johnnie Walker marketing director John Glaser, makes blended scotch whisky (contains grain whisky) and blended malt scotch whisky (does not contain grain whisky). One is not better than the other; they are simply different. And Compass Box doesn't really distill whisky, as it were, but they are Whiskymakers. How does that work? Glad you asked.

According to their excellent website, 

A Whiskymaker is someone who feels a need and an obligation to make things better - to ask questions, to challenge, to experiment. When it comes to whisky and its enjoyment, we keep our minds open to new possibilities - new production processes, new combinations of flavours, new ways of sharing and enjoying great whisky. As Whiskymakers, we work with a range of partners to explore the interaction between maturing Scotch whisky and oak over the course of time. From sourcing the best cooperage oak in the world from the Vosges forest of France and the woods of Missouri, to individually sampling almost every cask we use in each of our blends, we are fanatical about quality and believe that every stage of the process has the potential to add to the finished blend.

Put plainly, Compass Box buys casks of whisky from other distilleries, blends them in precise ratios, ages them further in different casks (different cask sizes, char levels, different wood types etc.) and blends them again to create a unique flavour profile.They never use E150A (caramel colouring) and they never chill-filter their whiskies. They also provide an infographic (link here) so you know almost everything about what's in your bottle. They don't disclose the age of the various components because the Scotch Whisky Regulations only permit the disclosure of the youngest component whisky. Allegedly. It's kind of complicated. Compass Box isn't perfect, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a company that discloses more information to their consumers (Bruichladdich might be neck and neck with CB). So you can probably guess why Compass Box has been called "blended whisky for true whisky geeks". 

Tasting notes

So what's in Oak Cross? According to the previously linked fact sheet, its volume is malt whisky from Clynelish (60% of total volume), malt whisky from Dailuaine (20% of total volume) and malt whisky from Teaninich (20% of total volume). How does it taste?

Nose (undiluted): very floral at first (honeysuckle?), vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, citrus
Palate (undiluted): medium-bodied, poached pears, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and toasted oak
Finish: Oak tannins, waxy - almost like melted candle, but  in a pleasant way, a hint of ginger, cayenne Pepper.

Adding water or ice brings forth more floral notes and tones down a bit of the Oak “bite”. This whisky is pleasant either way. In fact, I think I prefered it in this order:

  1. Neat
  2. With ice
  3. With water
Oak Cross is pleasant when chilled. It doesn't feel weak or thin. Good job, Mr. Glaser.


John Glaser, the man behind Compass Box, has been called many things; a New World visionary intent on shaking up the Old World status quo, a blustering, self-serving opportunist, and a clever marketing guru among other things. No matter your perspective on the founder of this company, Compass Box has produced some incredibly interesting whiskies. They've managed to get people talking about openness, transparency and honesty in a business that thrives on mystique. I contacted Compass Box for more information on my bottle of whisky, and they answered all my questions. I won't re-post their answers here, per their request, but they were more open and accomodating than any other whisky company. They also answered my questions in less than 24 hours. I'm very impressed with this company. Oak Cross Blended Malt is good, but like the 1989 Montreal Canadiens, it isn't championship level. Would I buy this again? Absolutely. The price is very reasonable and the whisky is pleasant, refreshing and original if somewhat one-dimensional. It's mostly vanilla and oak spices, albeit pleasant ones. Your mileage may vary. I've had people tell me there was a note reminiscent of "baby throw-up" in here. I didn't taste that at all, but you may want to try before you buy.

Rating: 3/5 moustaches

Slainte !!!

*For those who are wondering, true Habs fans refer to the team as "We". We feel we are part of the team, even though we aren't on the ice. It's silly, but it's true.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Make It Right: A review of Glenfarclas 12 Year Old

Everyone makes mistakes. How we react to our mistakes says a great deal about our character. Take home renovation contractors. Anyone who's ever watched HGTV knows Mike Holmes. He's made a name for himself with his intolerance of incompetence and his never-ending desire to "make it right", whether the problem is big or small. He's even been satirized on the Canadian socio-political comedy show "This Hour Has 22 Minutes".

Kitschy comedy aside, no one likes to be taken for a ride. Scammed. Lied to. So when things go wrong, what can we do? You can contact the Better Business Bureau. If you're Canadian, you can always call CBC's Marketplace and hope your story makes for good television. You can write a scathing online review. Or you can take the most obvious and direct route; contact the company itself before taking any of those other steps. What does this have to do with whisky? Stay with me.

Origin Story: my first Glenfarclas

All of the whisky world's cool kids talk about Glenfarclas. They're still family-owned and family-operated. They're independent. They don't ever use E150A (caramel colouring) in their whisky. All but one of their whiskies carry an age statement. They're consistently good or great. Wait, hold the phone. They had me until that last statement. After reading and chatting a lot (too much?) with folks online, I decided to buy a bottle of Glenfarclas 12. When I opened it and poured a dram, its aroma was odd. Different than anything I had ever nosed. So I left it for half an hour to "open up" and when I came back, it was still "off". I tasted it and was dismayed. Something was wrong with this whisky. How could the hipsters sing the praises of what, to my palate, was fizzy vinegar? I put the bottle away for a few weeks, thinking it might need some time to settle down. I came back after two weeks and it was worse. Now I was puzzled.

It's a 'ig'land malt, with no "h" becauses "h"s are EW !!
I took to the interwebz in search of answers but everyone seemed as puzzled as I was. Few people had heard of a bad Glenfarclas, nevermind tasted one. I had some people mention the dreaded "s" word (sulphur), but I've tasted sulphured whiskies and this wasn't one of them. Sulphur tends to smell and taste of spent match and/or rotten eggs to my palate, and this was fizzy vinegar.  I emailed Glenfarclas to inform them of this situation, but I returned the bottle to the LCBO as I was not willing to "chalk it up to bad luck" and cut my losses as one online acquaintance suggested. As much as I abhor the LCBO on an organizational level, the employees of the store I most frequently visit are quite helpful and accomodating. They accepted the nearly-full bottle as defective and gave me a refund, which was "re-invested" in libations for this blog. About a week later, I was contacted by Glenfarclas who went out of their way to make this right. Glenfarclas was shocked at my experience as this has not, according to my source, ever happened in Ontario. This might seem unbelievable to some, but the whisky blogosphere seems to confirm this impression. Nevertheless, I was very impressed with the way Glenfarclas handled this unfortunate situation, which may or may not have been their fault. A lot of things can affect whisky which contains many volatile compounds.

Tasting notes

I'll spare everyone my notes from the bad bottle. They aren't worth remembering. The notes which follow are for my second bottle.

Let's make it right !

Nose (undiluted): a big hit of red grapes, bright sherry, a slight lemon note, some fresh tobacco and a very slight, almost imperceptible smoky note. I may have imagined the smoke.

Palate (undiluted): a hot arrival for a whisky bottled at only 43% ABV, medium-bodied, bright sherry, not too sweet, walnuts, raisins, a touch of milk chocolate and a bit of cloves.

Finish: medium length, a bit of caramel, more citrus brightness, and a bit more baking spices

Adding water toned down the tobacco on the nose and brought forth some green apple, a bit of toffee, and cinnamon. The taste with water was a bit less nutty and a bit spicier, but the mouthfeel was not as pleasant when diluted. Interesting for analysis, but when drinking strictly for enjoyment, I'll take it neat, thank you very much.


I'm not delusional. My first bottle really was spoiled, somehow. I'm also not arrogant enough to think that this blog could permanently damage a much-lauded brand. Not that I would want to use my (laughably limited) powers to such nefarious ends. From a business perspective, it makes more sense to keep customers happy than to ignore them. My first bottle of Glenfarclas 12 was undrinkable. Whether this was a faulty cork, improper storage by the LCBO, or some other ethereal alchemy is irrelevant. My whisky was bad and Glenfarclas has handled this situation as well as any business could. I've kept my review of this second bottle as objective as possible. I like this whisky. I think it would be better with a few more years in the cask. I think this 12 Year Old would go from good to great if it was 15-16 Years Old and if it was released at 46% to 48% ABV. My impression of Glenfarclas as a brand and business is high. My impression of this bottle of 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch is very good, but not great. At the current LCBO price, however, there are few bottles that can rival it. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

Slainte !!

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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Nothing As It Seems: A review of Ardbeg Ten Year Old Single Malt Scotch

I love the movie The Big Lebowski. The 1998 Coen brothers film is funny, touching, dramatic and far more profound than it appears at first viewing. Maybe my eighteen year-old brain didn't have the prerequisite knowledge or popular references to understand everything that was going on in the film. Maybe I didn't have enough life experience to "like, really get it, man". But having watched it several times since then, I can see a lot of things going on. Intergenerational relationships, curious juxtapositions (could The Dude and Walter really be friends?), socio-economic commentary, it's all there. Or at least, that's like, my opinion, man.
I'm not reviewing white Russians.
So things aren't always as they appear. An apparently simple crime comedy can also be complex social commentary. Much like the Coen brothers' film, Ardbeg is often dismissed as simple. Big, bold and smoky. But there's a lot more to their "standard" ten year old expression than meets the eye, or nose, as it were.

Ardbeg: the untamed spirit of Islay

According to their promotional materials, Ardbeg is "as close to perfection as makes no difference". That's a bold claim. It's also similar to claims made by pretty much every scotch whisky distillery. So what sets Ardbeg apart from the others? Is it just the peat? Is it the cool, mysterious-looking packaging? According to Ardbeg, it's a combination of "the most phenolic malt in the business, soft pure water from our own water source plus dedication and passion". Fair enough. Ardbeg's malt is peated to a level of 50-55 ppm (parts per million). For a comparison, Laphroaig is generally around 40 ppm, Lagavulin is about 35 ppm and Caol Ila is around 30 ppm. Now keep in mind, this is a measurement of the phenols in the malted barley. The resulting whisky is affected by a myriad of other factors, such as the yeast type, the barrels used for aging, the cut points and the alcohol level of the final product. A younger spirit tends to display more a phenolic character (smoke and peat) than older expressions as the wood tends to mellow out some of the aggressive tones. Bruichladdich's Octomore series, a 5 year old whisky, is the most peated whisky I know of, with some expressions registering peat levels around 165 ppm. Over the years, Ardbeg has made some, shall we say, interesting marketing decisions. They've named a whisky in honour of a whirlpool (Corryvreckan), one in honour of the Loch whence they source their water (Uigeadail) and even one for a shape-shifting water-spirit (Kelpie). Their videos even wink at the confusion arising from the Scottish accent itself. See this video for their promotion of their new expression "An Oa" (which is named in honour of the Mull of OA near the Ardbeg distillery). So how does Ardbeg's "standard" Ten year old taste?

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): Sweet vegetal peat, charcoal barbecue smoke, seaweed (iodine), brine, a light citrus note, there's another grassy note in there as well. This is a well-layered nose that develops as the whisky sits in the glass.

Palate (undiluted): mouth-coating, yet light and bright, but not thin or watery. Very balanced. No rough edges. You wouldn't guess this is 46% ABV. There's citrus, pear and some malt/cereal sweetness under the big peat and smoke you expect from Ardbeg.

Finish: very long finish, cigar ash, dark roast coffee, licorice and a bit of pepper. If you're unsure about peated whisky, keep this one for later in your journey. You will taste Ardbeg for hours after you finish it, which, to me, is a wonderful bonus.
Adding water to Ardbeg Ten thrusts the iodine/seaweed and brine notes forward on the nose. It's like walking on a beach and smelling the remnants of a campfire. Delightful. The sweet malt notes and the pear flavours are also more apparent with some water added. Drinking Ardbeg is a gratifying experience with or without water.  There's a lot more going on than smoke and peat.


Pearl Jam's Binaural album was underrated. The chorus from the lead single, "Nothing As It Seems" sums up Ardbeg's Ten Year Old expression.

It's nothing as it seems, the little that he needs, it's home
The little that he sees, is nothing he concedes, it's home

Having a dram of Ardbeg is a small comfort at the end of a hard day. It's unmistakably, unapologetically Islay. But it is no one-trick pony. Pouring a dram and taking that first sniff, you'd be forgiven for thinking peat and smoke was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But Ardbeg is not as it seems. It's bold and complex, yet not without subtlety. Much like the eponymous character in "The Big Lebowski" was not the self-made man he claimed to be, Ardbeg is not the simple, straightforward smoke-bomb some think it is. Though unlike the movie's titular dour character, Ardbeg is more than it seems. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Here’s to those who’ve seen us at our best and seen us at our worst and can’t tell the difference.

Slainte !!