Thursday, 22 March 2018

A review of Jameson Black Barrel

James Joyce. Leprechauns. The Blarney Stone. Shamrocks. Guinness Stout. Conor McGregor. U2. Jameson Whiskey. All things that may come to mind when someone says Ireland. But one of these things isn't originally Irish. That's right, it's Jameson Whiskey. Heresy, you say? Hear me out. Jameson's founder was John Jameson, a Scot from Clackmannanshire. When Jameson married Margaret Haig in 1786, he moved to Dublin with his new wife to manage the Bow Street Distillery (which had been established in 1780) for Margaret's uncle. This explains the use of the year 1780 in Jameson marketing, as the Bow Street Distillery was where Jameson Irish Whiskey was born. Ok, so maybe the whiskey itself has always been Irish, but the brand's founder wasn't.Today, Jameson is far and away (see what I did there?) the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world, but it was not always so.

A Bit Of History (from The Whisky Exchange and Wikipedia)

By the turn of the 19th century, Jameson's Bow Street Distillery was the second largest producer in Ireland and one of the largest in the world, producing 1,000,000 gallons annually. Whiskey was the second most popular spirit in the world after rum. By 1805 Jameson had become the world's number one whiskey. By the mid-19th century, things changed. The Irish didn't adopt the more efficient column stills as readily as the Scots, as the Irish preferred the more labour-intensive (and arguably more flavour-intensive) Single Pot Still. This led to a decline in Irish whiskey's popularity. In 1966 John Jameson and Son (the company, not the individuals) merged with Cork Distillers and John Powers to form the Irish Distillers Group. In 1976, the Dublin whiskey distilleries of Jameson in Bow Street and in John's Lane were closed following the opening of a New Midleton Distillery by Irish Distillers outside Cork. The Midleton Distillery is an enormous modern distillery in County Cork built by Irish Distillers to streamline the production of its many brands.This distillery brought an end to nearly 200 years of Jameson production in Dublin, but the Old Jameson Distillery in Bow Street is now a visitor's centre. Tourists can also visit the Midleton distillery, which is home to many other brands beside Jameson, including Green Spot, Paddy, Power's, Redbreast and Tullamore Dew. The Jameson brand was acquired by the French drinks conglomerate Pernod Ricard in 1988, when it bought Irish Distillers.

What's a Black Barrel?

Jameson Black Barrel is aged in a combination of ex-sherry casks and re-charred ex-bourbon casks (hence the name). Why re-char the casks? According to the Jameson website:

Charring is an age-old method for invigorating barrels to intensify the taste. Jameson Black Barrel is our tribute to our coopers, who painstakingly give their bourbon barrels an additional charring to reveal their untold richness and complexity. Because every barrel contains secrets; the trick is coaxing them out.

Poetic license? Maybe. If you want to get more scientific:

"The recharred casks seem to produce more sweet and woody notes as refill casks tend to bring out the drier woody notes. In terms of flavour compounds the recharring promotes fast lignin breakdown and caramellisation of hemicellulose thus extracting considerably more guaiacols, isoeugenol and vanillin commonly associated with new wood barrels...A recharred cask with more guaiacol and vanilla extractives is more likely to promote smoky and sweet flavours of the spirit than a refill cask, although the sweet notes differ from those of the first fills as they are probably caused more by caramellisation products and vanilla than oaklactones. The charred layer is likely to remove some of the off-flavours, especially some sulphury aromas..." (taken from

TL;DR version: Re-charring casks contribute more sweetness in less time. At least, that's my simplified interpretation of it.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): bright Sherry, shortbread biscuits, buttered toast, honey
Palate (undiluted): Rich, medium-bodied, dark toffee, oak spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), marzipan, barley, brioche buns
Finish: medium length, red fruit, butter, some ripe mango, green apples

Adding water brings out lots of brightness on the nose. Lemons, green floral notes and cinnamon are all there. Unfortunately, the palate and finish are diminished by the addition of water. Even a quarter teaspoon of water thins out the body and diminishes a lot of the complexity. It becomes all toffee and brioche; the fruitiness and spiciness all but disappear. Skip the water. At 40% ABV, it really doesn’t need it. I found adding water also added a harsh spirit note at the tail end of the finish.

Jameson Black Barrel is one of the best deals at the LCBO. At $49, it's richer and more complex than many whiskies that cost twice as much. This won't be the last time I purchase this whiskey, though I shouldn't admit that, lest the jackbooted thugs at the LCBO raise the price, the way they did with Benromach 10 (a move I predicted here). I'll take my chances and strongly recommend you try this whiskey. If you've never tried Irish Single Pot Still, this may be the most economical way to get a feel for it before you plunk down $80 or more on Green Spot or Redbreast.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

May you taste the sweetest pleasures
that fortune ere bestowed,
and may all your friends remember
 all the favours you are owed.

Slainte mhaith !

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Wednesday, 14 March 2018

All Pleasure, No Guilt: A review of Glenlivet 18 Year Old Single Malt

Why should liking something popular make us feel sheepish? Why do we refer to certain things we genuinely enjoy as "guilty pleasures"? The whisky world is a funny place, and the further down the rabbit hole you venture, the weirder it gets. Many snobs, er, "enthusiasts", will turn their noses up at standard OB whiskies. What's an OB? That's code for "original bottling" (sometimes "official bottling") meaning the distillery bottled the whisky (or had it bottled by a sister company, let's not get too bogged down here) and released it under their own label. IB whiskies, or Independent Bottlings, are whiskies purchased from a distillery by a third party (Gordon & MacPhail is a well-known example) and released under the bottler's label. For example, you could get a Gordon & MacPhail bottling of Caol Ila's 17 Year Old Unpeated Single Malt. Unpeated Caol Ila Single Malt is hard to find from an OB. I'm not sure Diageo even sells it as a single malt. Independent Bottlings are all the rage with enthusiasts because they are rare, unique, interesting, and often released at a higher ABV strength, without added colour or chill-filtering. 
Distilled thirty six years before I was born

The Gordon & MacPhail Glenlivet 1943 pictured here is 70 years old, bottled at about 49% ABV, and sells for around $40 000.00 USD.  That's not the whisky I'm reviewing this week, however. No, this week's whisky is a "standard, OB" Glenlivet 18 Year Old. But why should I (or anyone) feel guilty about that? Standard, common whiskies, produced on a large scale, allow us serfs to try whiskies that might otherwise be out of reach. As I close in on the big 4-0, I'm making fewer apologies for the things I enjoy.

The Single Malt That Started It All

What can anyone say about the Glenlivet that hasn't already  been said? Glenlivet is an icon. It's the biggest selling single malt in the United States and the second biggest selling single malt in the world. Glenlivet produces approximately 10 million litres of whisky per year. Its origin story is one of the best in the business, and even has a bit of truth to it. George Smith, founder of Glenlivet, was reportedly the first Scot to apply for a legal distilling license following the Excise Act of 1823. The move to play by the rules was not a popular one, and Smith took to keeping two pistols on his person at all times for protection. These pistols are still kept on display at the distillery's visitor centre. The Glenlivet 12 Year Old has a special place in my heart, so I was eager to try a bottle of their 18 Year Old when it was on sale awhile back. I must have forgotten it in the back of my cabinet, because I didn't open it until a few weeks ago. A quick check on the LCBO website shows the price has almost doubled since then, so I'm glad I got my bottle back when I did.

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): Sherry cask influence is evident with dried fruits, but with more brightness than the raisins and dates profile I associate with sherried whisky. Dried cranberries and raisins. Cherries. Vanilla frosting, icing sugar, oak.
  • Palate (undiluted): gentle arrival, almost understated, medium-bodied, with bright red fruit, sugar cookies and a somewhat oily texture. "Chewing" the whisky (yes, actually chewing) brings out a bit of orange zest and vanilla.
  • Finish: this is where the whisky really shines. Cherries, dark chocolate and walnuts with nutmeg, cloves, oak and raisins lingering longer than expected. Very balanced.
Adding water brings out some sharper notes on the nose. Bright orange zest comes through and dark chocolate shines through on the palate. Water thins out the body of the whisky, but brings forth more spiciness. The addition of water is interesting, but I prefer this one neat.

In the end...

There is no reason to be ashamed of liking something popular, unless it's reality television. Then you definitely should feel guilty because you're contributing to the dumbing-down of society. I'm kidding. Sort of. The Glenlivet 18 may be a popular, "mainstream" whisky, but its popularity is justified. This isn't my typical flavour preference as I gravitate toward intense, peaty, smoky scotches or bold, spicy ryes. Yet this whisky is almost above reproach. I would prefer to see it bottled at 46% ABV or higher, and without E150a (caramel colouring) and unchill-filtered, but as far as rich, rounded, sherried Speyside whiskies go, this one is excellent. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5 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, 7 March 2018

Top 5: The Apocalypse Edition

I love post-apocalyptic literature. I dig post-apocalyptic movies, video games, and television shows. There is something inexplicably seductive about the world of Fury Road, 28 Days Later, Cat's Cradle and others of the genre. Perhaps the word "apocalypse" itself offers a hint as to why these scenarios are so fascinating. The etymological origins of the word come from the Greek apokalyptein, meaning "uncover, disclose, reveal." It's possible that our fascination with the end of civilization has to do with uncovering or revealing truths about human nature. When all seems lost or hopeless, how do humans react? It may be easy for privileged first-world folks to hold to our moral ideals, but how do people react when survival is at stake? Would we be Negan or Daryl Dixon? Immortan Joe or Imperator Furiosa? With all the trappings of modernity stripped away, when things become more primal, how does human choice evolve? Imagining scenarios such as these is stimulating, and I got to thinking:

What whisky would I want to stumble upon in a post-apocalyptic world? If I could only drink ONE whisky for the rest of my life, what would it be?

I hope I don't have to face Furiosa to get some whisky
To most whisky enthusiasts, that proposition is more nightmarish than having to fight an army of T-800s. So here's a top five list of whiskies for the end of the world. These  are excellent whiskies I could drink forever (responsibly, of course) for reasons I'll describe. If I stumbled into a huge warehouse full of cases of whisky, I would want that whisky to be:

Number 5: Old Grand Dad 114

I'll have that drink now
What? An inexpensive bourbon?!! Yes, yes indeed. This is probably the only whiskey on the list that one might actually find in the event of an apocalypse. It's not all that rare in the United States and it's not a limited-release product. So let's assume that I had to leave Canada because of the dastardly actions of the Umbrella Corporation and I found myself in bourbon country, I'd love to find a warehouse full of OGD 114. Big, bold (57% ABV) and fruity, this bourbon would work well even in the worst circumstances. If we stay with the "Canadian had to escape to the South" theme, I could sip mint juleps made with this beauty while protecting the big, southern house I'd occupied from the zombie dogs/Cerberuses that would undoubtedly be hunting me. Heck, at this alcohol concentration, I could even use OGD 114 mixed with motor oil to make Molotov cocktails (note: Molotov cocktails are not recommended in non-apocalyptic scenarios).

Number 4: Lot 40 12 Year Old Cask Strength Canadian Rye

I realize this was a limited release, but we're suspending our disbelief for a few minutes, right? Cask strength means this rye can be watered down a bit to stretch out the supply. It means we can make cocktails and retain much of the rye's beautiful flavours. With this rye, there's the peppery bite of cloves, some gingersnap cookie sweetness, lots of oak notes and zero apologies. I could easily sip this until Agent Smith found me and destroyed me and have no regrets. Heck, if we are living in the Matrix, I don't want to live in a reality where there is no Lot 40. I'm with Cypher on this one, I choose the Matrix.

Number 3: Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt Scotch

I hesitated with this one. I asked myself "do I always want a smoky whisky?" And the answer, for me, is "of course, what a stupid question!" This whisky is rounded, rich, smoky, fruity and perfect for waiting out the end of the world in my Desmond-from-Lost-style bunker. There's so much going on with Uigeadail that I'd never get bored. I can't say the same for that song by The Mamas & The Papas. Uigeadail also a strong whisky, bottled at over 54% alcohol, so it would last longer than the average malt. Smoking a pipe or cigars wouldn't be a great option in the bunker, so a smoky whisky would be sublime.

Number 2: Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Whiskey

Ready for a drink yet?
I might not be alone in the post-apocalyptic world, so something a bit friendlier might also be a boon in the aforementioned hypothetical warehouse full of whiskey. While Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength is potent (sense a pattern here?), it has a very gentle side. It is rich, sweet and quite accessible, even for something bottled at over 57% alcohol. The toffee and buttered toast flavours could even make Redbreast 12 Cask Strength a suitable dessert, or breakfast. It's the apocalypse; no judgment here. This whiskey also works beautifully in a cup of tea (trust me!) and even with ginger ale, if someone is so inclined. A whiskey as friendly as Redbreast Cask Strength would be great for warming up your insides in the cold world of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Just make sure you don't get abducted by cannibals.

Number 1: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength

I need your clothes, your boots and your Laphroaig
Laphroaig Cask Strength is much like the future world and the eponymous assassin of The Terminator; harsh, unforgiving and relentless. In a world where humans and machines are engaged in perpetual warfare, there is no room for sweet, seductive whisky. It needs to be strong enough (this one is bottled between 55%-58% ABV) to keep people alert. You can't let your guard down when it comes to cybernetic assassins programmed to kill Sarah Connor. The smoke, peat and medicinal iodine make this whisky a salve for your soul. I don't know if a perfect whisky exists, but this one is as close to perfection as I've ever tasted. It isn't for the faint of heart, it demands a bold hero. Inasmuch as it resembles the T-800, Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength is also like Sarah Connor. It doesn't give an inch. It's hardened, battle-tested and always ready for a fight.

The End?

I'll grant that these scenarios are far-fetched. In an actual apocalypse, looking for whisky would be pretty low on my list of priorities. But these whiskies would be on the ones to bring the most joy to my world. Of course, in a truly grizzly 28 Days Later world, any whisky would be reason for celebration. So what are your Top 5 Whiskies for the Apocalypse?

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

If You Build It: Super-Sized Freedom Edition

Why aren't there any knock-knock jokes about America?
Because freedom rings.
Welcome to the third installment of my "how to" series on building a whiskey collection. In this article, I'll focus on the Land of the Free, my homeland's neighbour to the south. 'Merica ! The United States of America is a complicated and diverse country, but I'll try to keep this simple. As always, the TL;DR version is at the end. First, some background information.

Straight Bourbon, Straight Rye or American Whiskey?

All bourbon is American whiskey, not all American whiskey is bourbon. According to Wikipedia (may my university professors have mercy on my soul)

The Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits state that bourbon made for U.S. consumption must be:
  • Produced in the United States
  • Made from a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn
  • Aged in new, charred oak containers
  • Distilled to no more than 160 (U.S.) proof (80% alcohol by volume)
  • Entered into the barrel for aging at no more than 125 proof (62.5% alcohol by volume)
  • Bottled (like other whiskeys) at 80 proof or more (40% alcohol by volume)
Frank's drink of choice

There is no minimum age requirement for bourbon. Rex and Daniel over at The Whisk(e)y Vault YouTube channel have joked about putting white dog (new make spirit) into a barrel for 1 day and calling it "Technically Bourbon". If something is labeled "Straight Bourbon", it must be aged for at least two years, and it must carry an age statement if it has been aged less than four years. Also, straight bourbon can NOT contain any additives, not even E150a (caramel colouring). Bonus points for bourbon makers ! So what's "Tennessee Whiskey"? Jack Daniel's Old No.7, the best selling American whiskey in the world, meets all the criteria for straight bourbon...BUT, they don't label themselves as a bourbon because of one thing; the Lincoln County Process. The Lincoln County Process is an extra filtration step that proceeds as follows (again from Wikipedia, I'm going straight to academic hell): The charcoal used by Jack Daniel's is created on site, from stacks (ricks) of two by two inch sugar maple timbers. They are primed with 140 proof Jack Daniel's, and then ignited under large hoods to prevent sparks. Once they have reached the char state, the ricks are sprayed with water to prevent complete combustion. The resulting charcoal is then fed through a grinder to produce bean-size pellets. These are packed into 10-foot (3.0 m) vats, where they are used to filter impurities from the 140 proof whiskey. The whiskey is then reduced with water to 125 proof for aging.

What's a mash bill?

"Mash bill" simply refers to the mixture of grains that are milled, cooked and fermented to begin the bourbon-making process. In Canada, most producers  make corn, rye, barley and wheat whisky separately and blend them before bottling to achieve the desired flavour profile. Bourbon and American whiskey makers usually establish their mash bills ahead of time. Neither is better than the other, but the result is different. There are usually three grains used in a bourbon mash bill: corn, barley (often malted), and either rye or wheat. The last two are largely responsible for the flavour of a bourbon; rye-containing bourbons are usually spicier, with pepper, caraway, dill and nutmeg often showing up in the final product. Wheated bourbons are usually softer, with more vanilla, honey and (to my palate) toasted marshmallow.

American Rye Whiskey is different from Canadian Rye Whisky. Don't compare the two, as they are totally different animals, related in name only. In the United States, "rye whiskey" must be made from a mash of at least 51 percent rye. It must be distilled to no more than 160 U.S. proof (80% ABV), aged in charred, new oak barrels. American Rye whiskey must go into barrels at no more than 125 proof (62.5% ABV). So water might be added to some ryes before aging. American Rye whiskey that has been so aged for at least two years and has not been blended with other spirits may be further designated as "straight rye whiskey."

Enough with the technical stuff, let's get to building your American whiskey collection.

Level 1: Setting the stage

The base of any American Whiskey collection should be simple, iconic, classic. Before going over the top with fireworks and pyrotechnics, something simple is required. So which American whiskies should be the unsung heroes of your cabinet? Some may find my recommendation predictable, but I suggest keeping a bottle of Jack Daniel's Old No.7 on hand at all times. It was Frank Sinatra's favorite whiskey, Lemmy Kilmister drank it daily (with Coke) and I can't think of a better endorsement. Other iconic choices you might consider are Maker's Mark (wheated bourbon), Old Overholt Straight RyeGeorge Dickel Number 12, or Jim Beam. If you opt for Jim Beam, I would suggest you spend the extra two bucks for the Jim Beam 6 Year Old Black Label; it's a much more rounded whiskey. 

Level 2: When you need a strong arm

I'm a baseball fan and there's nothing more American than baseball. I'm amazed at the skill of outfielders, who make catching those fly balls look, well, routine. Great outfielders need excellent spatial awareness (which I lack completely), serious speed and a strong arm to make big throws. Whiskies in this category pack a slightly higher ABV punch, and are capable of some theatrics from time to time. These whiskies are not all superstars like Ken Griffey Jr, Carl Yastrzemski or Aaron Judge. Some are more "routine" like Yoenis Cespedes or J.D. Martinez. I'd recommend Wild Turkey 101, Knob Creek RyeOld Weller Antique 107Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, Rittenhouse Straight Rye or Old Grand Dad 114. 

Level 3: Speed, Agility and Accuracy

Second base and short-stop are tricky positions. They require a great deal of agility and athletic ability. Whiskies in this category are like Roberto Alomar; excellent at all aspects of the game. While Alomar could turn a double-play, produce clutch hits and steal bases, whiskies in this category work on their own, on ice or in a cocktail. Once you get to this level, you may also consider some unique whiskies that bring something special to the table. Whiskies like Balcones Texas Single Malt, Four Roses Single Barrel, High West Rendezvous Rye, Angel's Envy Port Barrel Finish and Stanahan's Colorado Whiskey fit the bill here.

Level 4: American Muscle

Serious muscle
Enough with the baseball analogies. How about muscle cars? While Europeans have produced sleek sports cars like the Porsche 911 GT2 RS, American muscle cars are big, loud and unapologetic. The 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle LS6 with its 450 Horsepower engine was at the top of the food chain. Whiskies in this category are big, bold and take no prisoners. Ye be warned ! I recommend Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof and Stagg Jr.

Level 5: Franchise Players

Don't ask AI about practice
We're getting near the top. The whiskeys at this level may be hard to come by, but they're worth it. They're the Aaron Rodgers, the Mike Trout, the Allen Iverson of American whiskeys. Just make sure that you've got enough practice before you take these whiskeys on. (Practice? We talkin' bout practice?) I'm talking about Michter's US*1 American Whiskey, WhistlePig 10 Year Old Rye, Old Forester Prohibition 1920, Pikesville 6 Year Old Straight Rye, or Jefferson's Ocean. That last one is aged at sea, allowing the different lattitudes, temperature variations and ocean air to affect the spirit. It may seem like a stunt at first glance, but the concept is pretty cool. You can check it out here.

Threat Level Midnight: The Ultimate Level

This is where few dare to tread. These whiskeys may be difficult to find. But they are generational talents like LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Joe DiMaggio,  and Michael Scarn. Don't know who Michael Scarn is? Shame on you. Michael Scarn is THE best top-secret agent in the business. Scarn saved the NFL Pro Bowl game, the MLB All Star game and the NBA All Star game from the world's most dastardly villain; Goldenface. Later, he took one day off to run a 20K with Robin Williams, which happened to be one year after the day his wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones Scarn, was killed by Goldenface at the WNBA All Star game. Michael Scarn believes he is part Bruce Wayne, part Bruce Willis and part Bruce Vilanch. OK, if you aren't a fan of The Office, that probably makes no sense. Sorry. The Unicorn, once-in-a-lifetime whiskeys I recommend are WhistlePig Boss Hog, William Larue Weller, Pappy Van Winkle 15 Year Old, George T. Stagg, and Pappy Van Winkle 23 Year Old,

A sample line-up, aka the TL;DR version

  • Jack Daniel's Old No. 7
  • Wild Turkey 101
  • Old Grand Dad 114
  • Rittenhouse Straight Rye
  • Four Roses Single Barrel
  • Angel's Envy Port Barrel
  • Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
  • Pikesville 6 Year Old Straight Rye
  • Old Forester Prohibition 1920
  • Michter's US*1 American Whiskey
  • Jefferson's Ocean
  • William Larue Weller
  • WhistlePig Boss Hog


Building a whiskey collection is a slow process. There's no need to rush. But there is something to be said for having a panoply of choices for all moods. Hopefully your American Whiskey collection is as diverse and expansive as the land of its origin. Happy collection-building !

To the United States, where everyone is protected by the Constitution regardless of whether they have ever taken the time to read it.

Slainte !