Saturday, November 28, 2009

Suntory Single Malt Whisky "Yamazaki" 12 yr old

"For relaxing times . . .
make it Suntory times." This famous line comes from the quirky and highly entertaining film, Lost in Translation. Bill Murray portrays an American actor in Japan for the purpose of doing an advertisement for Suntory whisky. The film gave tremendous exposure for the Yamazaki whiskey to the rest of the world, particularly, North America. Suntory have always run a lot of whisky ads with film stars too like Sean Connery. If you go on "You Tube" and search Suntory Advertisements you can see them for your self. Really quite entertaining. Getting back to the movie line above, I can personally attest that Suntory's Yamazaki 12yr old makes for relaxing times!

Single malt whisky can be distilled outside of Scotland! As much as scotch afficionados think only Scotland can deliver the finest whisky in the world, there are contenders elsewhere within grasp of taking the title.

Japan is home to a great distillery, Yamazaki, owned by the Suntory conglomerate. Matter of fact, this distillery was the first single malt distillery outside of Scotland. It was founded in 1923 in the Vale of Yamazaki, on the outskirts of Kyoto. The site was selected for its access to fresh air, pure water and ideal humidity for aging whisky in casks.

The Japanese love their whisky and like most endeavours that they attempt, they succeed when it comes to producing a great single malt whiskey. It is the Yamazaki 12 year old. My tasting note is as follows:

The aromas are a little different from what I expected. At first a little strong waft of alcohol, but sniffed more carefully, I detect malt and cereal. The nose is not impressive. Hard to read and so I really had no idea what would unfold upon tasting.

This is medium bodied to heavy. It has a viscous texture releasing malt, chocolate, sweet spice and some peat. It starts out sweet but by the finish starts to dry across the palate. Incredibly smooth dram of honey and cinammon. Could easily pass for a 12 year old Speyside single malt in a blind tasting test.

Nice length of flavors. Lingering cinammon/burnt toast and faint echo of peat, black tea and mint.

General Impressions
I like this a lot. It is interesting and totally inoffensive. Tastes like scotch and if I was conducting a blind taste test, I am sure it would pass for a Speyside as I mentioned above. Sophisticated, silky and reasonably priced too. You buy this and can be assured that you are receiving value for money. I rank this better than other 12 year old single malts like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, but not as complex as say Cragganmore 12.

This is a sweet whisky with drying qualities upon the finish. Dalwhinnie is a good reference point for comparisons with this whisky.

What you will not taste in the Yamazaki 12 yr old is: sherry, tobacco and peat beyond a little tease.

The Yamazaki 12 yr old has made a new fan! I hope you will give it a try sometime. You will not be disappointed.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

2004 Pio Cesare Barolo

Barolo - Popular with the Wine Fanatic
If you ask most people what is their favorite Italian wine, the response invariably involves a painful rehearsal of Anthony Hopkins' line in Silence of the Lambs where he mentions a "fine Chianti."

Italy produces a wide variety of wines. Some very great and others very poor. Besides, Chianti, there are others which make for interesting drinking like: Bardolino, Valpolicella, and Brunello di Montalcino. The first two are easy drinking, light bodied and great for parties and light hearted get-togethers. Brunello is a poweful red that is comparable in intensity and concentration to Napa cabernet sauvignons.

A non-mainstream, fascinating wine that evokes plenty of debate is Barolo. Barolo is not easy-drinking. No idle chit-chat with the stewardess, about her failed college plans, aboard the plane to the Bahamas for this one.

Barolo is a wine known chiefly by wine aficionados. College students and rummies aren't reaching for these bottles for a couple of reasons. First, the price will be out of their grasp and secondly, this wine is usually behind glass, lock and key.

The price for a good bottle of Barolo starts at $50 and goes up to about $150. A lot of variables can drive the price even higher if you are trying to buy from certain producers of an excellent vintage.

So, what's the big deal with Barolo?

If I ask you what is your favorite wine, you may think of Napa Cabs like Silver Oak, Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Screaming Eagle and Cakebread. All can be wonderful and all are somewhat similar. They are fruit bombs. Lots of cherries, rasberry, dark fruit, and jam flavors that might be spread on breakfast toast. As great as those flavors are and within the hug of oak, they can get boring, and when one wants a change, Barolo is there to meet that need.

Barolo is produced by a single grape variety, the nebbiolo. This grape produces a wine that provides flavors of black tea, spices, roses, anise and a hint of tar. A young Barolo usually is fiercely tannic and bitter, but with age can become soft, yet powerful with flavors of tobacco and mushroom that are gratifying and simply not available by any other grape. This is a grape that has proven very fickle and attempts to cultivate it outside of the tiny region of Piedmont, Italy have all failed.

Barolo secured its name from an Italian town located nine miles south of Alba in the Langhe hills. Alba does produce Barolo and Pio Cesare is one of the most respected producers.

The summer of 2004 was exceptionally hot and there was a fear initially that the grapes would suffer. Hot weather can produce flabby wines that lack a sufficient level of concentration of flavor. Fortunately, while 2004 was hot, it cooled off in the late afternoon and the end result was a wonderful vintage.

So, now lets turn to the tasting.

Serving Recommendations
A word about stemware. Use crystal red wine glasses made for bordeaux. Spieglau or Riedel are excellent manufacturers. You cannot use those thick drinking glasses that were a long ago complimentary gift from the gas station with the purchase of a fillup of your grandmother's 1976 canary yellow station wagon with the faux wood planks on the sides.

The Pio Cesare Barolo is not in the least bit similar to your garden variety Australian red wine that has a screw cap that you simply twist off and pour. This Barolo must be decanted for three (3) hours. Why? By pouring into a decanter and leaving it for three hours, the wine will react with the oxygen it has been exposed too. This reaction results in a tremendous softening of the wine, yet at the same time will enable some of the flavors to soar (I know this sounds a bit over the top, but its true.). How do I know this? By painful trial and error. I too, scoffed at some wine critics demand for decanting and recall pouring a glass of barolo after opening and being confronted by sharp, acidic red wine that I could not fathom what all the fuss was about. People were over, we were chatting, I did some cooking return to this wine three hours later and low and behold, guess what? The wine had transformed from a sharp, acidic harpie of a red into a luxuriant (like I imagine Salma Hayek), soft yet soaring powder dry cherries and tobacco. So, as Dennis Miller used to say, "I don't mean to go on a rant but . . . ." decant, decant decant for three hours before sampling.

The other important serving suggestion is that barolo is to be enjoyed with food. It is not suitable for drinking on its own. It compliments roast (top sirloin), steaks, in gravy, and osso buco divinely.

In the glass, it is pale red, ruby. Similar to pinot noir, but that is where the similarity ends.

Pio Cesare Barolo is always exciting to nose. There is always a wonderful bouquet of wild flowers and strawberry.

Take a big sip and let it roll over your palate, and you will be surprised by the taste of soft tannins, dry cherry, strawberry held in a gentle embrace of black licorice, creamy acidity, anise, portobello mushrooms and tobacco. Nevertheless, this is a big bodied wine in spite of its subtle flavors woven together in perfect harmony.

The taste that lingers is powder dry cherry. It is as if the wine has dried in your mouth to the point of a powder black cherrie. Not puckering dry though. Wonderful length.

This is a big, robust red wine of great oppulence.

General Impressions
If you are tired of California Cabs, Australian and Chilean reds, this wine will offer a very different wine tasting experience. As you can see from above, it offers up unique flavors not found in other wines elsewhere in the world. I am not exagerating. This is why it is so expensive. In fact, in a poor year, some great producers will not bottle anything. 2003 was such a year.

Some critics have written that Barolo is an intellectual wine. A fairly elitist and snobby comment but there is a grain of truth to what they say. What they mean is that it is a wine that will intrigue some while confound others as they contemplate the taste.

When I first drank Barolo, I had read so much about it and expected to be knocked off my feet like I was when I discovered great Napa Cabs like Cakebread. This was not the case with barolo. Instead, I was intrigued, but unsure what to make of it, but days later I was still thinking about that wine. Learning to decant the wine for a long time and pairing it with a rich red meat brought me a deeper appreciation of this wine. Take a drink after a fork of red meat and the acidity that critics speak of is a zingy, spicy cream that completely compliments the food.

I served this wine to serious wine drinkers and they enjoyed it greatly because it was different, interesting and of course, a joy to drink. I would never serve this to people who no great affection for red wine or are the type who like reds that taste like cream soda. Those people will not enjoy this wine.

Pio Cesare is a wonderful winery and this standard bottling of their Barolo is no exception.

P.S. A quick note on the life span of this wine. Barolos like great Bordeaux can be stored for 10 to 20 yrs. As the wine ages, it will become less tannic, soften and improve. 2004 vintage drunk now is very young, and if you can afford it, I would recommend buying a case, and open one a year. Although the 2004 can be drunk now, most Barolos should not be opened until they are nine or ten years old from the vintage. This particular barolo is an exception.

It will hit its zenith around 2014.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved.

2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo - The Barolo Wars!

The Barolo Wars
Did you know that during the 1980's there was a fierce civil war raging in the Piedmont region of Italy? On one side were the old school vintners of Barolo, a wine made from the immensely tannic nebbiolo grape, who made their wine by making the ‘must' (freshly pressed juice of the grapes) undergo a minimum of three weeks of fermentation upon the grape skins. The result was a massively tannic wine that, even after aging in Slovenian oak casks, could still be virtually undrinkable at the time of bottling. These old schoolers' or "traditionalists" as labeled by the press insisted that only this process would yield the famous Barolo wine. Following bottling, the wine had to age for roughly ten years before the tannins softened sufficiently to make the wine enjoyable. At fifteen years post-bottling, the wine may become stellar. Flavors of rose petals, big drying cherry, licorice, anise and tar combine to make a very unique wine drinking experience that cannot be copied elsewhere in the world.

Pitted against the "traditionalists" were another group of Piedmont vintners in and around the town of Alba (the only place in the world where the nebbiolo grape produces this incredible wine). This group of vintners, well aware of the world wine appetite for fruit-forward wine styles, wanted to take Barolo in this direction. They claim for the love of the wine, but I suspect more for the love of increased sales. In any case, these Italian vintners, including Poderi Luigi Einaudi, discovered that they could produce a Barolo with a more fruit driven flavor profile by reducing the fermentation period from a minimum of three weeks to a maximum of ten days! The result was a Barolo that could be drunk five or six years post-vintage. These innovating vintners were labeled the "modernists" by the press.

The press declared the clash between the traditionalists and the modernists to be the ‘Barolo wars.' The traditionalists declared the modernists were traitors and producing a wine that was not Barolo. The modernists spewed vitriol at their opponents calling them dinosaurs.

A ‘Modernist' Barolo - Introducing the 2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo
The 2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo is a beautiful example of a modernist Barolo. On the nose, you will experience the equivalent of a bouquet of wild violets and roses, a floral scent that will bring you back again and again to the rim of your wine glass. On the palate, you will be very pleased by a big aromatic cherry mouthfeel, delivered on a bed of smooth, ripe tannins, followed by rose petals, tar, tobacco, spice and a little anise. The finish is stellar. Lingering in your mouth are flavors of red fruit, oak, spice box, and tobacco which cover the entire palate and seem to pucker dry in a wonderful fashion. This wine has it all. The word "perfume" comes to mind, a "perfumed" wine, but not in a cheap way. Think Armani.

Cellaring Recommendation
Drinking well now and can be enjoyed up to 2020. Yes, "2020." This is one of the few wines in the world that has the ability to improve with time, a long time. As it ages, the fruit orientation will become less prominent and the tar, anise, and rose aspects of the flavor profile will become increase.

Decant, Decant, Decant . . .
Never uncork, pour and drink. This is a big wine, actually one of the most robust red wines in the entire world (I am not exaggerating). Decant for a three hours, and time it so that your dinner of rosemary encrusted leg of lamb, osso busco, or homemade lasagna is ready at the same time. This is a wine of great acidity that needs a heavy rich, meat based or tomato based entrée.

Price Point
Horribly expensive. No doubt about it. This is not a wine that I would recommend for the casual drinker. You must love red wine, having tried a wide variety, over a number of years, before you can properly appreciate this wine. I know this sounds incredibly arrogant, but it is indeed true. Even though the 2004 Poderi Luigi Einaudi Nei Cannubi Barolo is made in the modernist style, meaning it is fruit-forward, remember, it is fruit rich when compared to traditional Barolo. If you put the modernist Barolo next to a Napa cab, you will correctly regard the Barolo as austere, dark, and certainly not fruit driven. Some people try Barolo, and don't understand what the fuss is all about. Others are obsessed. If you are only a casual wine drinker, I would stay away from this one. It's very expensive and has a flavor profile that is not mainstream.

Part of the reason for the very high price is due to the fact that the Nebbiolo grape has not been successfully cultivated anywhere else in the world, outside of Alba, Italy and a couple of close surrounding Italian communes. The Cannubi vineyards are among the best if not the best in the Barolo producing area. The price reflects this scarcity.

So, Who Won the War?
There was no clear victor. There are still Piedmont vintners making wine in the very traditional way. Their wine takes much longer to mature than the modernist's wines. But even at maturity, the traditionalist Barolo is more austere, much less cherry fruit than the modern style. Who won? Well, that is for you to decide!


© Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved

Sterling Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Hey! Isn't this a Scotch Blog?
I know, I know, the title of this blog makes no mention of wine reviews. Nevertheless, I do stumble upon great or note worthy bottles from time to time, and the 2005 Sterling Vineyards Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is one of them. So, here goes . . .

When I find myself in a restaurant . . .
Whenever I am in a restaurant and unfamiliar with the wines appearing on the wine list, and not in an adventurous mood, I usually choose a Sterling Vineyards wine. With Sterling Vineyards, I am comforted by the knowledge that the wines they produce meet certain fundamental benchmarks of quality. By 'benchmarks' I mean, the wine will have a pleasant nose, decent body and a pleasant flavor profile. The other reason I choose Sterling wines is because they are the number one best selling wine purchased by American restaurants. So, I know it will probably be on the wine list before I even crack it open.

Entry Level Napa Appellation - Reasonable Price
The practice of restaurateurs is to double (at a minimum) the regular price of a bottle of wine and some times mark it up even more. So, ordering a bottle to share with a guest can get pricey. When not partying like it's 1999, the Napa bottling by Sterling wines enables me to stay within some semblance of a budget as they are reasonably priced.

Sterling also puts out another bottling branded as their Vintner's Collection which are also very common in restaurant wine lists. Some good value there too. They are even cheaper than the Napa brand by Sterling. Nevertheless, I'll save my comments on the Vintner's Collection for another review.

Minimal Decanting Needed
In high-end restaurants, if you know the establishment, know what you and your guests will be ordering from the menu (or possibly off menu), you can select a special wine, and they can decant it for 30 minutes or the appropriate time prior to your arrival and so it will be ready for consuming as those lovely appetizers land in front of you. If you are like me, and do not dine in such fine restaurants often, but rather are in more humble haunts where the food is good, but knowledge of decanting is limited, well again, Sterling Vineyards is a good choice. I find most of their wines benefit from a bit of air, let it oxidize in the glass for 10 minutes or so, and you will get more rounded flavors to compliment your meal.

Sterling Vineyards Napa Bottling
Under the Napa brand by Sterling are several different offerings. They are: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Each can be great depending on the vintage, but even in an "off-year" they still work to satisfy.

The 2003 vintage was the first of the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon I tried. It was a show stopper! I couldn't believe how great it was and for the price! Since then I have regularly purchased it in restaurants as well as for home.

Thinking of Cellaring? Think Again
I liked the 2003 vintage of Sterling Napa brand for the Cab so much that I bought a case and thought well it's so great, I am sure I will enjoy it for many years to come. I contacted the vineyard and inquired about the aging capacity and they assured me that I would be able to enjoy it for a good ten years from the date of bottling. Well, my personal experience indicates otherwise. While the 2003 was fabulous when I drank it upon release in 2006/7, it started to fade fast in 2008. By fade, I mean it lost its powerful flavor profile, went from concentrated to flat. I have known this to be true of other Sterling bottlings and their respective vintages. Bottom line: These wines are intended for immediate consumption, not cellaring in the hopes that they will improve with age. Now this statement applies only with respect to their Napa and Vintners brands. Their Reserve label has great potential for improvement by way of years of cellaring, but again, that is a subject for a separate review.

Overview of the 2005 Sterling Vineyards Napa Cabernet Sauvignon
The 2005 vintage delivers what you expect from a Californian cab, which is lots of dark berry fruit, nice aromas, some oak, a little jam sweet, a finish without alcohol or water detectable on the palate. It works! A good middle of the road, mainstream crowd pleaser. When you order a cali cab, you have a certain expectation as to the flavor profile and it meets and maybe exceeds. For the price you will be satisfied.

Now that we have an overview, lets turn to my tasting note.

Chocolate, anise and some vanilla. Very nice.

Sweet, ripe, black cherries/black berries moving into some creamy American oak, silky tannins which do not offer up any resistance, and medium bodied weight in the mouth with a little zing of peppercorns ever so soft.

The length of flavor remaining once the wine has left the palate is moderate. Great cabs will leave the flavor lingering like Big Foots footprint in Alaska. Not the case here, but that is acceptable given the price.

General Impressions
I like this wine. It goes well with food, cheese or on its own. It does what it sets out to do, provide a cali cab at the price point stated. It is not the finest cali cab out there but you are not paying the finest price either. Online this can be purchased for as low as $15 approximately. At that price, it is an absolute steal of a deal!

A truly great cali cab could be distinguished from this effort in terms of concentration of flavors. The great ones like Caymus and Cakebread are very concentrated beams of berries and fruit dancing upon your palate while Sterling's taste profile is a little jammy or a little too sweet. I am now speaking as a serious wine nut. The Sterling is by no means flawed or offensive in any way, but not in the league of the great ones for the aforementioned reasons. Mind you the great ones come at a much greater price too!

Still good stuff, that I will not hesitate to buy when casually dining in restaurants across America! While this review pertains to the 2005 vintage, I think it would serve as a basic guide to subsequent vintages as the wine is fairly consistent year to year.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Knob Creek Bourbon

Rodney Dangerfield & Bourbon
The late, great comedian, Rodney Dangerfield, and bourbon share at least one common characteristic: “No respect.”

A lot of my scotch drinking friends and the whisky media regularly scoff at the idea of bourbon being a spirit that can be used in the same sentence as scotch. “Why?” you ask. They claim bourbon lacks the ‘complexity’ of flavors that scotch can deliver. While I will concede bourbon is probably less complex than top end scotches, nevertheless, it can offer complexity that beats out many scotches and provides a most enjoyable drinking experience.

It all comes down to how much you want to spend. Famous Grouse or J&B blended scotches are hardly complex in terms of flavor profile. Similarly, Jim Beam White Label is not complex. However, if you move up the Jim Beam product line (premium bourbon aged 8 yrs), complexity emerges. Jim Beam Black has some complexity but not a lot. Move into the ultra premium bourbons like Knob Creek (owned by Beam Global Spirits) and you will discover impressive complexity.

Knob Creek bourbon is aged nine years in new charred American white oak barrels. Nine years is around the very high end of aging for bourbon. There are very few bourbons aged longer than nine years. When bourbon first goes into the barrel it is white, crystal clear. The longer it ages, the darker it becomes, taking its’ color from the wood of the barrel. Those barrels are subjected to fire in order to char the wood. This is done because sap or sugars of the wood become absorbed by the bourbon resulting in color change and that charcoal / caramelized sugar taste that is unique to bourbon. Hence, the longer it ages, the sweeter the bourbon.

Bourbon Ingredients
Barley, corn (at least 51%) and rye grains make up bourbon plus pure water and a particular strain of jug yeast (the type of yeast is unique to each distiller and contributes to the signature taste). In the case of Knob Creek, a much higher percentage of corn is used than the minimum 51% requirement. No other additives are permitted. Also added to such a mash is a bit of mash (called the ‘setback’) from a previous distillation, which functions to ensure consistency of flavor and a signature flavor profile. These basic ingredients, by law, must originate in the United States.

All of the grains used in this bourbon come from within Kentucky. Specifically, within about 80 miles of the distillery.

Ultra premium bourbon like Knob Creek is about twice the price of its entry level brethren. However, even at its price, it is still cheaper than most, if not all, entry level (ie. Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12yr) scotch. From that perspective, it’s a bargain, as entry level scotch does not have the complexity exhibited by Knob Creek.

You also have to appreciate that a standard bottling of bourbon only has to be aged for two years. Naturally, aging additional years drives up costs.

All 2009 Knob Creek has been sold by the distiller. Apparently, no further orders to the distillery can be filled. Next year’s Knob Creek bottling commenced in October.

The Jim Beam group that owns this brand ran advertising in the Wallstreet Journal and the Washington Post about this ‘shortage.’ Much was made of this shortage, but I would not read too much into it. Their definition of such scarcity is a little self-serving. Oban, Lagavulin and many other single malt scotches have a limited production run each year and typically sell out too within the same calendar year. These distillers do not describe the sold-out situation as a ‘shortage.’ I guess the Jim Beam people just have more creative advertising/marketing people.

Nose (undiluted)
Sniff deeply, tilt the glass, so the bourbon almost touches the bottom of your nose. Big yellow dandelion flower up front, followed by minty, honeyed, rye and orange scented marmalade aromas. Southern refinement and sophistication is what you are enjoying.

Palate (undiluted)
The secret to drinking bourbon (and enjoying it) is a tiny sip. Very tiny! Take a big swig of this and you will instantly regret it as you feel a nasty burn triggering thoughts of air sickness. By taking a little sip the burn is limited or eliminated and in its place are many warming flavors to savor like: sweet corn, crème brule, maple sugar, slightly burnt caramel (but in a most pleasing manner!), a little dark chocolate, big oak, expansive smoked hickory and of course classic Jim Beam charcoal and vanilla.

Finish (undiluted)
Sweet honey/caramelized sugar and vanilla play a tug of war with drying charcoal/oak that eventually wins, as it evaporates across the palate with impressive spiciness.

Add Ice?
Add ice and you have a great party drink! I had a little Christmas party and was pouring this with ice and it was the surpsise hit of the night. Most of the guys were skeptical, but I urged them to try it and within a couple of sips I was hearing "That's good . . ." I must admit that drinking it neat is more for the serious bourbon fan, but with ice, it becomes enjoyable by anyone who likes a little hard stuff on the rocks.

General Impressions
A total pleasure! Big bodied with larger than life flavors of smoked hickory, vanilla, oak, charcoal and maple sugar just impress the heck out of me. This is refined, sophisticated, and balanced. Every element of the flavor profile fits. I wouldn’t change a thing, even if I could.

That being said, I think if you are new to bourbon, this would not be suitable as your first ‘toe in the pond.’ Why? For the novice, if they make the error of taking to big a sip of this spirit, they will likely find it revolting and forever after never try bourbon again. That would be a terrible mistake! I want you to discover the secrets and wonderment of bourbon. So, if you are novice, start with Jim Beam White label or Wild Turkey, add a little ice and take a sip. Once you become accustomed to the standard bottling, it will be time to move on to Black label and other premium bourbons before finally arriving at Knob Creek, Wild Turkey 101, Woodford Reserve and others. A process that would take several months in my opinion if not a year.

Woodford Reserve is direct competition for Knob Creek. I tasted them both side by side and preferred the Knob Creek by a wide margin.

Bottom Line
A fantastic, big bodied bourbon, serving up maple sugar, vanilla and charred oak flavors with sophistication and charm that the American south is known for! This is the reason Knob Creek is the No.1 selling ultra premium bourbon in the world.


© Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review: Oban 14 year Old - Single Malt Scotch Review

A tiny town . . .
. . . is Oban where Gaelic is still spoken by some of the residents in the course of their day. The population is a little over eight thousand but swells in the summer to around twenty five thousand, as it is a favorite coastal tourist resort.

Lots goes on in the little town from the soccer games to "shinty," a field hockey sort of a game played with wooden stick and ball. But for us, we are interested in this little Scottish town because of the distillery, founded in 1794, bearing the same name.

Oban Distillery
The Oban distillery was established by John and Hugh Stephenson. It changed hands many times over the years, built, taken apart, rebuilt, financial troubles, prosperous times, and lots of drama. But, that is not our concern. We care about the magic spirit that is produced by this seaside distillery in a horseshoe bay.

Oban is Expensive
The chief reason for the high price is due to a limited natural water supply that has been negotiated with the local government. The water, of course, imparts the unique flavors of this single malt scotch and gives it dignity.

Multiple Expressions
The most available expression is the 14 year old, but there are three others: Distiller's Edition; 18 year old and a 32 year old. The latter two bottlings are very difficult to obtain. I have not tried the 18 or 32 year old, and so this tasting note is limited to the 14 yr old. And now let's move on to the main event.

Nose (undiluted)
Malty, smoke, citrus, and Florida oranges. Very refined.

Palate (undiluted)
This is big bodied, very malty, single malt scotch. Upon entry it warms the mouth with lots of cereal and malt flavors. Other flavors slowly emerge a little from the background, but more subtle. Flavors like anise, orange chocolate and lemon zest waltz across the palate in a sensuous and careful fashion.

Finish (undiluted)
Swallow this and you will be left with flavors of Grampy's big cigar smoke, more of that malt, glazed brown sugar, chaperoned by soft, slight wafts of peat. The lingering smoke, malt and teensy weensy bit of peat couple to produce a semi-sweet tang offspring. As much as I like the inital and mid-palate flavors, I really look forward to the subdued smokey-malt/peat finish. I also enjoy the lack of over-the-top sherry notes in the flavor presentation. I find lately that too many single malts rely to heavily on sherry casks for aging and the result is an over sherried spirit. Oban is a refreshing departure from the hackneyed practice of overly sherry imbued scotch.

What happens if we add a little water?
Some single malt scotches do not benefit from the addition of water, while others flourish, revealing greater complexity of flavor, and generally sing like a chickadee. Oban is one of the latter such single malts.

Palate (diluted)
To one standard shot, I added half a teaspoon. The water makes the scotch more creamy. The smoke and malt are still there, but now I am picking up milk chocolate shavings, peanut brittle, more pronounced honey and a little heather.

Finish (diluted)
After swallowing, the palate is left with rich cigar smoke, brown sugar and that malty flavor that only a great single malt can deliver. The last impression upon the palate is heavy malt with pepper. More peppery finish with the addition of water.

General Impressions
I am very fond of this single malt scotch. It is very malty, chased by brown sugar, Cuban cigar smoke and a little, very little peat. If consumed neat, I am surprised by the delicate citrus flavors hidden in the background. Well done! While medium bodied and not overly complex (if drank neat) in terms of how the various flavors are weaved together, this is definitely a repeat purchase. Balanced! I really cannot criticize this single malt.

Sometimes I can get in a little bit of a rut with my scotch choices. Generally, I like big bodied, dark caramel and cinammon toast flavor profiles. Trouble is, they can get boring. Oban 14 falls within that category, but is not boring. It has a heavy malt taste with smoke and orange rind that is simply great. It is a superb starter whisky for the single malt newbie, yet very pleasing to the veteran like me who seeks variety on a classic flavor profile.

There are only two possible criticisms of this single malt. First, consumed neat, the flavor profile is not what one would consider "complex." There may be the odd connoiseur who demands greater complexity for the price point charged. I do not regard the lack of high level complexity as a flaw. The flavors are held in such a balanced fashion that it is very enjoyable and pleasing. Besides, if you want more complexity, just add a little water.

The second criticism that could be leveled relates to the price charged. Sometimes deals can be had for this single malt, but they are far and few between. If you see it in the $40's buy as much as you can. Unfortunately, much of it is sold at $60 and above in the United States. In Canada, its close to $90. I will admit the price is heavy and if "value for money" is an important consideration when buying scotch, this may be a reason not to by Oban 14 years.

In any case, I like this and will certainly buy it again! I am still thinking about that initial malty flavor that transitions to orange chocolate and from there becomes smokey and ends with that sweet tang finish! Damn! This is good!


© Jason Debly, 2009-2012 All rights reserved.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Redbreast 12 year old

Upon opening (for the very first time) the bottle and pouring a dram, there was an initial strong alcohol scent, which quickly changed to lemon citrus with some malty undertones. These aromas are nothing special. However, if you let the whiskey breathe in a tumbler for a few minutes, the aromas rising up become much maltier and therefore quite pleasant. The initial unpleasant alcohol scents never return once you have opened the bottle.

Nose of dandelion flower, wet grass, early morning cool misty air against a malty background frame the aromas.

Palate (undiluted)
Initially, sweet ginger and thick honey dance upon the palate. Cinnamon and sherry emerge mid-palate.

Finish (undiluted)
Crunch of dark toast moving to spicy hot cinnamon, then sherry and finally the distinct taste of bruised Japanese tangerine on the finish. There is an interplay between spoilt sherry and spicy ginger and the former wins out in the end.

Palate (diluted)
Add one teaspoon of water and this whiskey reveals its complexity of flavor. It tastes more honeyed rather than the concentrated cinnamon and sherry revealed when sampled neat. Besides the honey being brought to the foreground, there appears rich cinnamon and ginger weaving a pleasing tapestry upon the palate. What I enjoy about the addition of water is that it subdues the sherry considerably. Drank neat, the sherry is out of balance, too dominant. The water beautifully remedies that imbalance. Besides the cinnamon, the other flavors of honey and ginger emerge as if drizzled on the dark toast I noted when drammed neat. Big, round flavors of maple syrup drizzled Belgian waffles participate at mid-palate.

The addition of water does not ruin the drink by any means. Some whiskies benefit enormously from the addition of water, while others do not. Redbreast 12 yr falls into the former category.

Finish (diluted)
Spiced butterscotch, toffee and the faintest of ocean spray emerges on the finish.

General Impressions

In a blind taste test, this Irish whiskey, if diluted with a teaspoon of water to a shot, could pass for a Speyside single malt scotch. It has all the classic flavors of honey, cinnamon, toffee and butterscotch without any peat. I am going out on a limb here, but I find considerable similarities (if diluted) with Cragganmore 12yr old.

Big bodied, round flavors of malt, cinnamon, and burnt toast. Consumed neat, this whisky has some complexity of flavors, but not on par with great Speyside single malt scotches. No grainy flavor, nasty bite or burn here. Just lots of rich chocolate, thick, spiced honey and cinnamon flavors bouncing off each other. Needs water to bring out the complexity of the aforementioned flavors.

It’s good but not great if enjoyed neat. The sherry has an alcohol imprint and the spoiled taste of bruised tangerines, ever so slight on the finish, cheapens an otherwise good Irish whiskey.

I would buy this if I could not locate Cragganmore 12. If I am in the mood for an Irish whiskey, I would probably pass on this and go for Bushmills Black Bush. To my palate, it is so similar to Speyside scotch that I would rather buy the real thing. That being said, this is a fine whiskey that would make an acceptable gift or serving to your whiskey loving friends.

The online reviews for this whiskey are almost universally positive, but I cannot give it an automatic thumbs-up. The sherry and bruised tangerine flavors result in a finish that also has a distinct alcohol flavor that unpleasantly cheapens the flavor profile. For that reason, I am put off by this Irish whiskey. It’s good but not what I would call "great" to borrow from 'Tony the Tiger' of childhood cereal advertising (Frosted Flakes). I am in a minority opinion on this point, but hey I call it how I taste it. I am fairly sure I would not buy this again because I keep thinking this is a lot like Cragganmore 12 yr old, and why buy the imitator when you can have the real thing!


P.S. I have been drinking this over the past few weeks and like it less and less. The off sherry and tangerine notes I mention above are ever-present. Not liking this very much and definitely would not buy again. This is one to pass on, especially in light of the moderately high price.

Update April 2010:  The above review was for a 2007-2008 bottling that did have problems with off notes.  Apparently this issue has been resolved and it is much better.  If those off notes are not in it now, it is a very good Irish whiskey to buy.  Trouble is, I have not been able to pick it up where I live.

Jason Debly

© Jason Debly, 2009 - 2011. All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to Drink Scotch

Throw Back Some Scotch with the Game on the TV?
I think not. There are a lot of beverages that can be casually consumed. Beer is a great example. Mow the lawn on a hot sunny day and there is nothing better than having a beer in a chilled glass afterwards as you survey your well manicured lawn. Watching football? Beer works great again. Especially when you consider marrying it with the salty potatoe chips and cheddar drizzled nachos. Barbecue? Beer is great to start with and then move into a nicely decanted Cabernet Sauvignon when you take charge of that t-bone with mushrooms and risotto, as you chat it up with the neighbors.

Scotch and other whiskies (ie. Irish, Canadian, bourbon, etc.) do not lend themselves to the above occasions. Why? No elitism here friend. There is nothing wrong with watching football or organizing a barbecue in your backyard. The problem rests with scotch itself. The stuff is very powerfull and if you sip too much (which is not very much in terms of volume) you'll be more than intoxicated. You'll probably embarrass yourself (which may not be a big deal to you), but more importantly you will embarrass your wife, and then you know it's a big deal. So, the solution? Stick to beer and wine for the casual get-togethers and reserve the scotch for yourself and a few choice friends.

Besides the lightning quick intoxication, the other reason it is not ideal to casually toss back this wonderful spirit is that you miss the great experience of pondering the complex flavor profile. So, what follows are some suggestions as to how to drink scotch and appreciate it in its splendor:

1. Find a Quiet Place. The den, the basement, beside the fireplace, your cottage overlooking the lake, you get the picture.

2. Get Comfortable. Kickin' back on my favorite, beat-up, ol' lazy-boy in the basement, the kids are in bed, the wife is reading in the bedroom or asleep, means this is my quiet time to unwind. Ya gotta be comfortable. If that means your adirondach chair facing the lake or the ocean with the dying embers of the campfire glowing near you, well then do it. Dad's Hideaway. That's what I call my basement den. Find your's.

3. The Tumbler. Lately, if you read an article on scotch, there will invariably be a reference to the Glencairn glass. The glass was designed and manufactured by the Glencairn Crystal company of Scotland and introduced into the marketplace in 2001. It is a rounded crystal glass at the bottom but, tapers inward toward the top of the glass in an attempt to trap some of the aromas of whisky. It somewhat enhances the drinking experience in the sense that the tapered body traps the aromas more effectively than a regular tumbler. It will not improve the whisky upon the palate. I think a brandy snifter is actually more effective for drinking scotch. If you just have a crystal tumbler, that will work too.  Just stick your nose deeply into the tumbler and sniff.

Bottom line friends is get a clean crystal tumbler, brandy snifter or Glencairn glass and get ready.

4. A Tall Glass of Water and a Spoon. You need the glass of water to drink in between sips of scotch. This assumes you are drinking the scotch straight. If you like it with ice, you should still drink the water to hydrate yourself and clean the palate in between drams.

The spoon is for experimentation. When trying a new scotch, whisky or bourbon, try it straight for starters, then with a teaspoon of water to each shot and finally ice. You will quickly learn your preference. If you always drink with ice, have one or two with ice, and then change to two teaspoons of water to each shot. You might surprise yourself. I used to always add ice, but over time on the second or third drink I would be too lazy to get out of my chair and get ice out of the fridge. So, I ended up pouring a shot straight and taking just tiny sips. Key word here is "tiny." I was surprised that I enjoyed it greatly. Eventually, I abandoned adding ice altogether. That was a shocker as I drank whisky with ice for many years.

Just a note on the water. Use distilled water or Brita filtered water. It makes a difference.

5. The Pour. When opening a new bottle, you can't just pop the cork, pour it and immediately sample. Well, technically you could, but I am going to give you a compelling reason not to. It has been my limited experience that upon opening a new bottle it is not uncommon to get a sharp flavors and even alcohol tastes upon the palate. Solution? Pour your dram and let it sit for a few minutes (ie. 5 - 10). You do not need to do this everytime you want a drink, just when it is a new bottle and you are opening it for the first time. Once the air reacts with the whisky in the tumbler, it will soften and generally improve. Some scotches don't need this procedure, but many do.

6. Take a Sip . . . Not a Big Gulp! A lot of people don't like scotch, whisky or bourbon. Why? Well, they made two fatal mistakes when drinking it. First, they probably took to big a mouthful, downed it, and promptly gagged or had a facial expression that no mother could love. So, the first rule of drinking whisky is to take a little sip, and I mean little, think tiny, think half a teaspoon to start. If you take a whisky, scotch or bourbon in such a small quantity your drinking experience will be quite different. You will not gag, grimace or have the urge to woof. Instead, you will note the flavors and upon tasting you will be ready to make a decision in relation to the second most common mistake of people new to the whisky world. The second rule to remember is that upon obeying the first, you need to determine whether or not you would prefer your whisky with a little water or ice. Of course this is only a decision that you can make. When I intitally started drinking scotch, I added two ice cubes and poured a dram to just cover the top of the ice cubes. With the passage of time there were occasions when I was too lazy to go to the fridge upstairs and get more ice. Accordingly, I found myself sipping some scotch neat, and I was surprised to discover that it could be quite enjoyable. Today, I have lost the desire for ice in my scotch, but do like to add a teaspoon or two depending on what I am drinking. You have to do the same experimenting to determine what you like best. When arrogant, self-proclaimed scotch experts declare that scotch must be consumed neat, you have to dismiss such pronouncements. It's all up to the individual

7. Have an Open Mind. When evaluating a scotch, don't get hung up on whether or not it is a blend or a single malt. Just enjoy it!


© Jason Debly, 2009 - 2011. All rights reserved.