Friday, December 24, 2010

Holiday Scotch Whisky Suggestions!

The holiday season is now in full swing, crowds fill stores, people are smiling, children are giddy with anticipation of Santa, and well you . . . if you are a guy . . . probably haven't bought a gift yet.  Maybe you have to buy the father-in-law a whisky, then again it might be the mother-in-law.  The boss?  You need advice.  You need an opinionated blogger.  You need me. 

Bottom Shelf Blended Scotch Whisky
Where do you start?  Blends, vatted malts or single malts?  Do you buy the high end spirit or take a deep breath and grab some bottom shelf fire water?  Lets start with the bottom shelf and progress from there. 

The great appeal of bargain priced blended scotch whisky is that it is very affordable.  These are tough times.  The economy is not very nice to the hard working people of this world.  Not everyone is a Wall Street stock broker, financier or hedge fund operator.  Most of us have an honest job that pays just enough for us to make it from one pay check to the next.  And there is no shame in that.  Honest work is admirable, no matter what it is.  If you can only afford the lowest priced blends on the market, have no fear, there are some great blends available.  I cannot survey all of them, but I will point you in the direction of a good one, and suggest two terrible bottles to avoid. 

Three of the cheapest blended scotch whiskies that come to mind are Bell's Blended Scotch WhiskyGrant's Family Reserve and Teacher's Highland Cream

Grant's Family Reserve
This blend is sweet, thin in flavor, a flavor profile that consists of cinammon stick, stale cloves, nutmeg and grainy as the Zapruder film of the late President Kennedy.  As attractive as the triangular bottle may be, don't cave into the urge to heft it and think "this is alright."  No, don't do it.

Bell's Blended Scotch Whisky
This is another cheapie to stay away from.  The nose is malty, peppery and reminiscent of thyme.  The flavor profile is very sweet malt, green onion grainy, maybe a little lemon grass and lentils that belong in a Middle Eastern soup.  Cloyingly sweet brother.  The finish is malty again, moving to pepper and ending with grain that tries in vain to be smokey.  Drop the bottle! Who cares if it falls to the floor and shatters.  You just saved a fellow whisky drinker the pain, suffering and disappointment, much like what poor Liza Minnelli experienced everytime one of her marriages crashed and burned.

Teacher's Highland Cream
This is also probably the lowest priced scotch in the store.  The label is ancient and needs to be updated (which apparently will be rolled out shortly).  You read the back of it. 

"All blended scotch whiskies are made of two kinds of whisky - malt and grain.  But Teacher's Highland Cream has an exceptionally high malt content - at least 45%.  A feature which contributes to its unique character and flavour."

It is true that most blended scotch whiskies have a much lower malt whisky content, but does it make a difference?  The experts say yes.  All I know is the flavor is there.  What separates Teacher's from Grant's and Bell's is that there is 'flavor' as suggested in the following old ad:

Grant's is especially thin in terms of flavor, requiring you to suck it back like a Cherry Coke.  Bell's too, but with Teacher's there is a punch of bacon, sea salt, a little iodine and a big malty background that fills the palate.  While the nose of this scotch is close to petrol, the taste is not.  Take little sips if served neat.  I prefer a teaspoon of water to a double measure.  It works with ice too.

As a gift, I think this is good quality for your dollar.  If the person receiving your token of generosity is a scotch enthusiast, s/he will know and respect this spirit.  If s/he isn't very knowledgeable on the topic of spirits, well, a surprise is about to be sprung.

Premium Blended Scotch Whisky
You can afford more than the economy blended scotch category?  Ok.  This will be simple. 
I have two suggestions.  Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 years and Chivas Regal 12 years old.  You can't go wrong with either suggestion.

Ultra Premium Blended Scotch Whisky
Royal Salute 21 years.  That's all you need to know.  Never mind Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Ballantine's 17 year old.

 Blended Malt - Pure Malt - Vatted Malt
Or whatever you wanna call it, all you need to reach for is Johnnie Walker Green Label.  Middle of the road, honeyed with a flourish of peat to please the more sophisticated palate that wants complexity.

A Holiday Single Malt?
A Christmas single malt for me is one that is powerful and at the same time has a very rich, velvety flavor that is comparable to a great fruit cake in a bottle.  For the Christmas season, I have a couple of suggestions:  Highland Park 15Highland Park 18, 25 years and Clynelish Distiller's Edition 1992.  All are rich and luxuriant treatments of sherry, toffee and heather.  A delight to the serious whisky lover.

Final Thought
I'm gonna go now, but I want to leave you with a song.  Please contemplate its message over the holidays.  Have a safe holiday, and I'll be in touch in the new year!

Merry Christmas and have a Happy New Year!

Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved.  Poster owns no copyright to music or video, which is posted for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review: Old Pulteney 12 years Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Old Pulteney 12 years old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

I bought a bottle of this a little over a year ago and really didn't like it.  Read my previous review here.  I wasn't nice.  Adam Morin is a regular reader and takes issue with my review.  He likes it.  So, I thought I should post his review of this single malt, and that way you have two views of the same scotch.  Of course, you will have to ultimately judge for yourself.  Here's Adam's review:

The Highland whisky producing region in Scotland, that country's second-largest (next to Speyside), is marked by great variation in the whiskies produced. Unlike Speyside or Islay, each of whom produce in an instantly identifiable whisky style, Highland whiskies roam the map, literally and figuratively; sherried bruisers like Oban to heathered-honey drams like Dalwhinnie, or the soft dulcet tones of a Glenmorangie are all lumped together in the same category. Describing a whisky as being "Highland" is about as instructive as describing 7-Up as a carbonated beverage. While Old Pulteney is technically a Highland dram, its characteristics, location, and style make it, in many ways, the embodiment of a Coastal whisky; it is not known as "The Manzanilla of the North" for nothing.

Founded in Wick in 1826, a godforsaken, windswept coastal patch of northern Scotland, Old Pulteney holds the distinction of being the most northerly distillery in the Scottish mainland, just twenty-five kilometres south of John 'O Groats. Both the package and the bottle prominently display a steam-powered transport vessel, giving homage to a time when everything, from the barley to the finished product, had to be shipped by sea; indeed, many of its early employees doubled as fishermen in the summer. Aging barrels, though nearly airtight, are not immune to the effects of decades spent being buffeted by salt wind, and so the final product in all Coastal whiskies, Old Pulteney at the forefront, presents a briny, rugged character. Indeed the distillery itself, like its whisky, is not the model of grace and beauty; at the corner of Huddart and Rutherford streets in Wick, it presents a long, grey, crumbling wall to the street, located in a rubbly field strewn with trash surrounded by public housing. This is a blue collar whisky if ever there was one, and I'm loving it already - let's take a sip now.

Surprisingly gentle. Honey, vanilla, and almond notes mingle, like a freshly baked pound cake - this has clearly been aged in both bourbon and sherry casks. Behind it is a fresh, salty component, which is intensified if water or ice is added. Lovely - no trace of alcohol whatsoever. The colour, too, is nice, presenting a light amber, golden hue. But wait now, what's this? A closer look on the bottle reveals the tiny words "Mit farbstoff", in German, and beneath it in Danish, "Farven justeret med karamel". Uh oh. It's well known that many distillers use E150 caramel to darken the colour of their offerings, as marketing gurus have shown that a darker-coloured whisky is assumed to be, by the consumer, more aged, flavourful, and rich. I can live with that. What gets me is that they had to hide this fact in tiny letters, in Danish and German, on the English bottle. Although Germany and Scandinavia require the declaration of added colour by law, forcing their primarily English consumers to have to ascertain that by consulting a language dictionary seems disingenuous. And the final product is not even that dark anyway. Seems kind of pointless to me.

Light bodied. What was honey and almond on the nose turns to sweet malt and marzipan notes on the palate. However, upon transition to mid-palate the salty brine element becomes abundantly clear, marked by a noted tanginess, while the malt moves from sweetness to more fruity, citrusy notes. Tropical fruit is a term used by many reviewers to desribe the tangy, semisweet flavour some whiskies present mid-palate, and I can see that; slightly unripe mango is what springs to mind immediately, for me. That said, your mileage may vary, and the true joy of sipping whisky is in experiencing the interplay of different flavours it provides on your own terms. That tropical zest is something you can find in a lot of Speyside whiskies, but the mixture of salt found in Old Pulteney provides an extra layer of complexity and balance, which I've only ever tasted before in a Glen Scota 15-year old, another noted coastal whisky from Campbeltown. The addition of water tends to eliminate most of the sweetness leaving a harsh, salty drink in its midst, so I would recommend staying away from that, especially given its light body and 40% ABV.

The lightness of body is unusual even by Coastal whisky standards. This is due in part to the unique shape of the wash stills at Old Pulteney, as they lack the distinctive swan-neck at the top that concentrates the first distillation (producing what is known as low wines). It's rumoured that when the original stills were delivered in 1826, they were slightly too tall for the stillhouse and so the manager at the time ordered that the swan-necks be cut off. Subsequent generations of distillation equipment were modified like the original to maintain the distinctive flavour Old Pulteney had by then established. Modified stills are by no means unique to them, though; Glenmorangie boasts the tallest stills in Scotland at 26 ft. 3 inches, which they claim produces their trademark light, fresh quality, and the original stills at Cragganmore were modified by distiller Big John Smith to have a flatter top than usual, and subsequently maintained. But with the dozens of independent factors inherent in single malt production, it's hard to tell exactly what role a slight manipulation of the stills plays, and subsequent generations of distillers typically keep the stills as-is out of fear of inadvertently altering anything; a dented still, when replaced, will have a new dent hammered into it, in exactly the same place, by the cooppsersmith. Roddy MacKenzie, manager of the LInkwood distillery in the 1930s, refused to even clear out the spiderwebs in his stillhouse for that reason. This combination of the vast amount of independent factors that lead to a whisky's final taste is known among single malt makers by the term provenance - an expression of the sum total of the production process. Provenance is the reason that Balvenie, though literally across the street from Glenfiddich and using the same water, barley, barrels, aging and expertise as the latter, produces an entirely different whisky altogether. Why is that? Nobody knows.

This is an example of Oak Done Right. Aging in bourbon and sherry casks gives the finish a nutty, slightly honeyed feel, with the oak providing a clean, unobtrusive dryness. While apparent, it never overwhelms the spirit (remarkable for one so light-bodied as this), and merges with the salt element to provide a quick, yet graceful exit that finishes very clean and zesty, almost like a gin and tonic. That said, this is no long, drawn out finish by any means, and is almost entirely gone within a few seconds, making this offering an excellent aperitif if so inclined.

"Unashamedly excellent and deserves so much more recognition around the world." - Jim Murray, whisky guru, as quoted on the box

Though often given to hyperbole, Jim Murray is right; there's no question that Old Pulteney is not among Scotland's more celebrated drams, and the unique whisky it produces should receive greater recognition. It's perhaps the quintessential Coastal dram, with a brazen saltiness some find off-putting but I, personally, love. What's great, though, is that the salt is kept in check the whole way - in the nose and opening palate by bourbon and sherry aging, and in the finish by the oak, with the pleasant result that the salt is a welcome passenger along for the ride. The fact that they can accomplish this fine balancing of flavours in such a light-bodied whisky is, well, providential - a slight tweak in one direction or the other could send the whole thing off-kilter; these distillers, despite the aged, dilapidated facility they work in, know WTF they're doing. That said, an increase to 43% ABV might give the whisky a little added weight, and for such a light-bodied light-coloured spirit the addition of E150 caramel is simply unacceptable, and unnecessary. One wonders what the spirit looks like prior to colourization - must be no darker than a Pinot Grigio- but I'm an open minded guy, and would accept it as is. Especially considering the bottle is encased in a solid box. I had no idea what the spirit even looked like until I got home. But I digress. This is a wonderful whisky for novice fans, or hardcore veterans, with something to appeal to each. If you're looking to try something decently-priced, that is a clear reflection of its geography, Old Pulteney is a good way to go.
Adam Morin

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crystal Decanters and Emperor Caligula

My Mother kindly gave me a crystal whisky decanter that I had been eyeing for a long time.  The occasion was my birthday.  I, ever the whisky nut, thought it would be great to store my finest single malt in, and dispense on special occasions (typically every Friday night!).

And then I discovered that my whisky decanter shared something in common with a depraved ancient Roman Emperor, no not Silvio Berlusconi, but the other one: Caligula.  You know, that really degenerate creature who tried to make his horse a senator, when he was not having people killed for his amusment.  Example: one day at the games, intermission proved boring as there were no criminals left to feed to the wild animals, so he ordered his guards to toss a section of the crowd into the arena in order to spice things up a bit.

Roman coin depicting Emperor Caligula

Enough of the history lesson.  So, what does the above noted wicked emperor share in common with my crystal decanter?  Answer:  Lead.

And therein lies the rub.  Lead is a key ingredient of fine crystal like my decanter.  It makes crystal sparkle brilliantly, bends light in a manner that pleases us, and in general, amuse our eyes.  The more lead in the glass, the more brilliant it becomes.

Caligula was described by a number of ancient historians as being insane.  While the first couple of years of his rule were relatively calm and productive with only the occasional needless execution (after all, he was a Roman emperor), it would not last as his mental health began to decline.  Started thinking he was a god (yes, hedge fund founders weren't the first to pull that one!) and building temples (no, not in the Hamptons) in his honor all suggested that poor 'ol Little Boots (a nickname from childhood) was losing his mind. 

Recent studies of Roman wine drinking habits have claimed that lead levels in the wine were dangerously high.  The Romans were in the habit of boiling their wine in lead pots.  Alcoholics like Caligula, so the theory goes, were literally suffering from lead poisoning.  This might explain his extreme paranoia, lack of good judgment and basically all of his murderous and perverse foibles.  The History Channel has a great series of programs entitled "Ancients Behaving Badly" (again, no, it is not about Berlusconi and nubile 18 year old ladies) and one episode is devoted to Caligula.  On that particular segment, the lead poisoning theory is explored quite convincingly.

The point I am trying to make is that my lead crystal decanter imparts lead into the whisky stored in it.  Just like the Roman lead pots and other vessels that poisoned Caligula.  Don't believe me?  Check out what the United States Library of Medicine had to say about the use of crystal decanters in a lovely little article entitled: "Potential Lead Exposures from Lead Crystal Decanters" (click here).  Or how about the Canadian government's take on the situation in an aptly titled article: "Lead Crystalware and Your Health" (click here). 

The above references too scientific for you?  I hear ya.  For an easier read, free of scientific geek speak, try the New York Times article "Storing Wine in Crystal Decanters May Pose Lead Hazard" (click here) or the Washington Post article "Crystal Decanters - Off Limits" (click here).

Too lazy to read the article and want me to sum it up in a couple of choice sound bites.  Ok, I can do . . .

Wine, whisky, water, basically any liquid will become contaminated with lead at detectable levels following as little as 24 hours in a crystal decanter.  The longer your choice spirit or wine is stored in the decanter, the higher the unhealthy lead reading will be.  Old crystal can have higher lead concentration (ie. 32%) whereas new crystal is now no greater than 24%.  The manufacturers have voluntarily limited lead content to 24%.  Still an unsafe level if you intend to store your choice drink in a decanter for a long period of time.

So, what can I do?  Based on what I have read, I apparently should fill my decanter just before guests arrive, serve it, and empty my decanter back into the original bottle after they leave.  The articles I read stated whisky in crystal glasses or decanters for a couple of hours during a meal or social event was within safe limits. 

I guess I am not so envious now of the super rich lad who paid $460,000 US for a 64 year old Macallan single malt in a Lalique crystal decanter! (click here)  While he may have over paid for the whisky, his spendthrift ways are to be applauded, as it was for charity.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2015.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Canadian Whisky Awards - 2010

When you hear the words "Canadian whisky" what comes to mind?  For me, as of late, it has been the fictional character, Don Draper, of the television show, Mad Men, reaching for a bottle of Canadian Club.  Ohh, Don, you're such a lovable 'ol SOB.  Even when you hold a tumbler of CC, you're poking a stick in the eye of Canadian whisky's reputation.  There are so many other Canadian whiskies that are far better.  CC is good with 7-up and that's about it.

Americans buy more Canadian whisky than anyone else.  During Prohibition, that dark time in history when alcohol was banned in the United States, enterprising Canadians were more than happy to meet the US market demand for whisky.  Consumption was strong and the whisky was not great.  Times have changed.

There are now many great Canadian whiskies.  The best site on the web to learn about them is operated by a fellow Canuck, Davin de Kergommeaux (pictured above in a most pensive pose).  Davin's site is aptly entitled "Canadian Whisky" (click here).  He has recently posted the "Canadian Whisky Awards" which recognizes the best Canadian whiskies.  

Check it out!


Jason Debly

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Ballantine's 17 years old Blended Scotch Whisky

Ballantine's 17 Years old Blended Scotch Whisky

Each year, in late November and early December, whisky and scotch bloggers across the internet start posting their 'awards.'  'This whisky is the best or that one is the best.'  Often the 'winners' are very expensive, limited release bottlings that are not obtainable by the average Joe or Jane (in case you are a lady whisky fan).  

Anyhow, I have no such list, awards, ribbons or medals to decorate certain bottles that I am mighty passionate about.  Why?  Laziness mostly.  It takes time and a lot of thought (and maybe a wee little arrogance too) to declare that this or that whisky is the best. 

People do like lists.  They are helpful, a guide of sorts.  Especially during the holiday season.  I must receive a minimum of five emails a month asking me what are the best whiskies.  I always respond by first asking:  what do you like?  Smokey, peaty whisky?  If so, I have my Islay recommendations ready for you.  If you are a honey, cinammon nut with a flourish of smoke, I have a list of Speyside, Highland and other suggestions.  Maybe I should post my suggestions.  I'll get to work on that . . .

In any case, the reason I am posting today is to acknowledge that I, like you, read those lists, and cyber award ceremonies that the online experts state are the best of the best whiskies.  Probably the first whisky authority to make that declaration this year was Jim Murray.  (Jim, if you're reading this, I hope it is ok for me to refer to you by your name, as the write-up on you in Wikipedia states you have trademarked your name.)

Jim Murray in a pensive moment

If you go to Mr. Jim's website (click here) you will note that on October 12th, 2010, he wrote that Ballantine's 17 years old blended scotch whisky is the 2011 "World Whisky of the Year."  A blended whisky that is better than all those wonderful single malts?  Yep, according to Jim that's the facts.

I must say I was very sceptical about such a claim.  Why?  Well, for starters, Ballantine's Finest, the standard bottling of blended whisky is about one of the worst I have ever tried.  More candied than Donny and Marie Osmond crooning on their show of the same name that ran from 1976 to 1979.

Jim is undeterred by my opinion.  You see, he also declared that Ballantine's Finest was the best, no age statement, standard, blended scotch whisky.  Truly baffling to me.

Returning to Ballantine's 17 years old, Jim wrote:

"This currently marks the epitome of great blending, indeed, great whisky: nowhere else can you find balance, texture, and content come together in such a sensual, graceful way.  It really is the nectar of the gods, except even they might struggle to get to the bottom of its labyrinthine complexity.  It needed something out of this world to see off the two Buffalo Trace whiskeys . . . and this was it." 

(emphasis added)

"Nectar of the gods" and "out of this world" . . . how many times have you read those trite, overused phrases?  Jim, you are setting the bar very high.

Jim reviewed the 2010-11 release pictured below:

My bottling is from the year before.  Blended scotch tends to be very consistent in flavor profile from year to year.  Ballantine's have been at it a very long time.  So, there should not be much deviation in flavor from my bottling and Jim's.  That would be the underlying assumption of my review.  Here goes my non-expert opinion:
Ballantine's 17 years old blended scotch whisky

Nose (undiluted)
Soft peat, Oriental tea, wet cedar.

Palate (undiluted)
Sweet at first.  Peat, limes, green tea, turning to slight tangerine entwined with very sticky honey.  The effervesence of lime Perrier and other citrus notes will delight the palate.  Grain is sweet and very good.  The palate is easy, rounded and displays a classic blended scotch style.  Very mellow.

Finish (undiluted)
The lasting flavors change up from mellow to give a little kick of interest.  Malty, oak laden and tangy sea salt hang and dries a little, which is an interesting twist on a common theme.

General Impressions
This is a very good blended scotch whisky.  Frankly, one of the better blends.  Ranking among blends I would put it a little ahead of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, but behind Royal Salute.  In my mind, Royal Salute is simply the best blended scotch whisky.  Ballantine's 17 years is a very close and respectable second place.

Ballantine's 17 years will meet all the basic attributes that the mainstream consumer requires from their scotch whisky.  It is smooth yet interesting.  Pleasing to the senses (ie. eye, nose, taste).  No bite or offensive qualities.  Makes a super holiday gift for the casual drinker seeking a pleasurable whisky without taking any risks in terms of flavor.  You cannot go wrong buying this for someone you know who likes other premium blends like Johnnie Walker Blue, Chivas Regal 18, etc.

So, with respect to Jim Murray's remark that Ballantine's 17 "marks the epitome of great blending . . ." I agree.  This is one of the finer blended scotch whiskies available.  Well, maybe not the 'epitome,' but yeah it is a very good blend.  However, it is by no means the "nectar of the gods."  That would imply that this blend is superior to all other whiskies, including single malts.  This is the point where I and Jim part ways.  Of course you might think: "Jason, you are not reviewing the same bottle release as he.  You are not comparing apples and oranges."  I hear ya, and I can appreciate that there can be deviation in taste in blended scotch (rare as that may be, but not so unusual in single malt), but Mr. Jim makes claims that go beyond this.  Jim is of the opinion that this blended scotch is superior to all single malts this year!

Whisky Intelligence (click here) is a website which posts all the press releases of the whisky industry, and so naturally it had also announced Mr. Murray's selection of Ballantine's 17 years as the "Whisky of the Year" for 2011 (click here).  Perusal of the press release indicates that Jim is of the opinion that Ballantine's 17 outshines all other whiskies.  I would refer you to the last two sentences of his tasting note:

"One of the most beautiful, complex and stunningly structured whiskies ever created.  To the extent that for the last year, I have simply been unable to find a better whisky anywhere in the world."

Mr. Murray describes Ballantine's 17 as one of the most complex whiskies ever created. 

To my mind, 'complexity' refers to the ability of a whiskey, when upon the palate, to display numerous distinct flavors simultaneously.  This is where a good single malt leaves blended scotch in the dust.  Think of Clyenlish 14, Cragganmore 12, Glenlivet 18, Glenfiddich 15 years and others.  These are whiskies that have complexity: delicate flavors that you can count and pick out with considerable clarity, as if each flavor was the footstep of a tiny dancer on your tongue.  The flavors are fresh and easy to delineate. 

Now, think of blended whisky, whether premium or not.  Start with Johnnie Walker Red Label, Teacher's Highland Cream, Ballantine's Finest and then step up to the premium blends like Chivas Regal 18yrs, Famous Grouse 12, Ballantine's 17 and even the mighty Johnnie Walker Blue.  Here all the flavors are what I term 'rounded' or 'generalized.'  These spirits deliver a melding or melting pot of flavors where none dominate, and all share a slice of some generalized flavor pie diagram.  Rarely can a blended scotch escape from such mainstream mellow mediocrity when compared to single malts.  Nor do they want to.  Blended scotch exhibits the flavor profile I have described for good reason: this is what the vast majority of casual whisky consumers prefer.  But, for Mr. Murray to say that Ballantine's 17 is "the most beautiful, complex and stunningly structured whiskies ever created" simply defies logic.

And so, I also have to disagree with his statement:  "To the extent that for the last year, I have simply been unable to find a better whisky anywhere in the world."  What he must be drinking cannot be even remotely in the same flavor profile as what I am drinking.

Talk about hyperbole!  Can't find a better whisky anywhere in the world he says?  There are several single malts that are, in my opinion, stunningly complex, beautiful and awesome:

Highland Park 15 year old Earl Magnus

Highland Park 25 years

Laphroaig Cairdeas (2010)

Or how about an awesome blended whisky:

Royal Salute

Hibiki 17years

. . . and frankly, Johnnie Walker Black Label 12yrs.  I prefer Johhnnie Black to Ballantines' 17.  Maybe some will disagree, but if so, I think a sip of Hibiki will settle any argument that that fine Japanese whisky out classes Ballantine's 17 any day.

Bottom Line
I fail to understand how Jim Murray can declare Ballantine's 17 years to be the overall whisky of 2011.  Truly baffling.  This whisky is an excellent blend.  Pleasing, enjoyable, a tad expensive but not disappointing so long as you do not compare it to some stellar single malts or the fine Japanese blend mentioned above.  Now, I am drinking the Ballantine's 17 from the year before, so it is possible that there is a huge improvement in taste, but somehow I doubt that is the case.  But even with a huge improvement, the claim he is making is incredulous.

With the upcoming holiday season, you will read many 'must buy' lists and award winning whiskies, but a healthy dose of scepticism is useful too.  Remember in the end, only your opinion truly counts!

Until next time . . .


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved except for image of Jim Murray, a photograph that is in the Public Domain  according to Wikipedia and therefore free to be used by anyone.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

15th Annual New Brunswick Spirits Festival

Recently, I attended the 15th Annual New Brunswick Spirits Festival held in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada at the Delta Hotel.  I thought I'd post a note as to how it was.  Maybe you might attend in the future?

First of all, you get a lot of value for your hard earned money.  Let's consider the costs of attendance. 

$25 buys you a ticket to a tasting of whisky and cheese pairings, five whiskies and cheese to be specific.  And get this:  the tasting will be lead by Martine Nouet, a renowned whisky critic and the first editor of Whisky Magazine in France.  If you visit the Whisky Magazine website you will note that nearly every whisky tasting note is by Martine.  Her tasting notes are well written and in the same league as those of the late, great critic, Michael Jackson. 

Her current passion is pairing whiskies with cheese, as well as cooking with the spirit.  She resides in Islay and may be launching a cooking school in the upcoming year. 
(Below is a picture of your whisky blogger and Ms. Nouet.)
Needless to say, her astute views on whisky are worth hearing.  I can confirm this, as I was an attentive listener on Thursday, November 25th:

Ms. Nouet commenced the tasting by suggesting people pour a tiny little bit of whisky on the top of their hand and note the scent.  I never heard of that before.  We all got a kick out of that and then moved on to what she terms the three moments of pleasure:  eye, nose, palate!

Glenfiddich 15 years old Solera
Ms. Nouet selected Camembert, a soft creamy cheese of Normandy.  It certainly complimented the classic, and always impressive, Speyside taste of the Glenfiddich 15yrs.  She also suggested a bite of oat cake or apricot as a suitable pairing for this scotch.

Tyrconnell Irish Whiskey
This light and very sweet Irish whiskey was paired with Brie.  I could not appreciate the pairing, as I found the whisky too sweet for my liking.  However, no one else in attendance seemed to mind.

Balvenie Portwood 21 year old
Wonderful sherry nose ushers in a most memorable taste experience.  Rich sherry with delicate braids of dark red fruit, developing complexity as it dries upon the palate.  The Balvenie was paired with Canadian cheddar.

Highland Park 15 years
An excellent single malt having plenty of heather which Martine thought was best complimented by smoked Gruyere cheese.  This whisky and the smoked cheese worked well.

Laphroaig Cairdeas
An incredible whisky!  The complexity that we, whisky lovers, forever seek.  A real show stopper!  A tiny sip explodes upon the palate with peat, smoke and rich citrus like grapefruit and limes.  Wow!  Ms. Nouet made a mind blowing cheese pairing:  Shropshire blue.  This is an English cheese that can be best described as cheddar infused with Danish blue.  Take a sip of whisky and then a bite of this cheese and you are in heaven!  Needless to say, the whisky promptly sold out the following evening at the Festival's on-site liquor store.

. . .

Ms. Nouet is a person who genuinely loves whisky.  You can tell that she is not in it for money.  There is nothing slick or commercial about her presence.  Just integrity and European sophistication.  A refreshing change from 'brand ambassadors' who flash megawatt plastic smiles, in sharp suits and the latest coiffure while recounting the minutiae of whisky production without any real understanding of what he or she is talking about.

. . .

So, for $25 you were able to attend the above noted tasting.  A bargain right?  How about this?  For $10 more, you could attend another whisky tasting held following Martine's expert seminar.  I chose the Highland Park tasting, but I did have choices.  Gordon & MacPhail or Chivas & Glenlivet.  $35 for two scotch tastings!  I chose Highland Park.  Mind you, it was not an easy decision as I have always admired Gordon & MacPhail, an independent bottler, that seem to always have great scotch to tempt the serious whisky nut.

Marc Laverdiere is the Highland Park brand ambassador, and again like Ms. Nouet, is a genuine whisky fan.  I think the story on him is that he was a retired civil servant who approached his favorite distillery, Highland Park, about being a brand ambassador, and convinced them with his charming French accent!  People like him and Ms. Nouet make the best brand ambassadors because their affection for their respective whiskies is genuine.  They make a connection with the consumer that newly minted MBAs simply can't achieve.  Take note spirits industry.

Mr. Laverdiere walked us through Highland Park 12, 15, 25 and 30yrs.  The whisky that stopped me dead in my tracks again was the 25yr old.  Just simply one of the greatest single malts widely available today.  I bought a bottle the following evening and will provide a more detailed tasting note once I have had a chance to become acquainted with it.  But for now, I can say you will taste concentrated caramel, hickory, toffee and smoke.  The ultimate whisky gift for the holiday season.

Mr. Laverdiere spoke about the blending process of Highland Park whiskies.  The distillery chooses fifty casks that are blended to make various bottlings (ie. 12, 15yrs, etc.).  He pointed out that while the single cask or barrel whiskies have lately been in vogue, there is a risk.  You are at the mercy of a particular cask.  If it isn't great, you will suffer for it, as I can attest with Jack Daniel's Single Barrel.  By blending fifty different, high quality casks, the distillery is able to achieve a high standard of quality that is more elusive for distilleries working only with a single barrel.

. . .

The showcase of the Festival takes place the following evening where for the price of $60 in advance you can sample as many different whiskies as you wish.  Technically, you can purchase a ticket at the door for $70, but that is provided it does not sell out, as it has for the past three years.

For me, this was the great discovery of the evening.  Clynelish Distiller's Edition, 1992.  Sherried greatness with some cranberries, oak and spices ending in smoked mackerel.  Excellent complexity of sherry flavors.

I also tried the Highland Park Earl Magnus 15 yrs and was knocked over by it.  I went to buy a bottle but all sixty had sold out within an hour!

The NB Spirits Festival, as well as any festival enables its participants to sample a wide range of whiskies.  A great way to experiment a little without making the mistake of buying a bottle of something you dislike.  So, next time there is a whiskey festival, give it a go, you may make a great discovery!


Jason Debly

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Review: Jameson 18 year old “Master Selection” Irish Whiskey

Buying a bottle of whisky can be a lot like a first date. 

You're on your best behaviour.  Smiling, anticipating a good time, taking space out of your weekend to connect.  (You've got your clean crystal tumbler, Glencairn whisky glass or whatever out.  You pour a little, unsure but hopeful.)

She looks good too.  Maybe even grant you a sly smile, listen intently as you talk.  It's genuine.  You're both connecting.  (You sip and are pleased.)

Maybe a little dancing?  After all, you are really hitting it off.

You, of course, look like a total dufus, but hey everyone is having fun and no one is getting hurt. (The whisky tastes great!)

Maybe this can continue to a second date who knows?

Pulp Fiction was a great film released in 1994.  What I thought was probably some of the best acting and directing in cinema was that first date between Uma Thurman's character (Mia Wallace) and the character (Vince Vega) portrayed by John Travolta.  There was fantastic chemistry between the two.  The nervous conversation in the diner, stark and awkward at first, but gradually warming up.  Very tough to pull off a great depiction of romance in film.  It's easier to have action and suspense, but to convincingly portray romance, I think, is a lot more difficult.  Same with whisky.

My latest purchase was a bottle of Jameson "Master Selection" 18 year old Irish Whiskey (bottle no. JJ18-7).  The bottle was produced in 2008 and the labeling has since changed.  Jameson now labels their 18 year old offering as 'Limited Reserve.'  A week ago, I opened this bottle and my initial impressions were ones of enchantment.  Below is my original tasting note:

Nose (undiluted)
Subtle flower bouquet, lemongrass, malty and grandmother’s white bread just out of the oven.

Palate (undiluted)
Powerful. Sweet, mouth watering entry of dignified sherry in a malty embrace.  Rich oak. There is exotic cherry like fruit. Pomegranate emerges and takes centre stage.

Finish (undiluted)
Dries a little leaving finest Chinese green tea, lemongrass and limes.

I thought this was pretty good whiskey.  Maybe not the greatest of all time, but a good first date.  I was writing a bit like a highschool kid with a bad case of puppy love.  Here were my general impressions:

"Sherry is an integral part of the flavor profile, but take note, it is not a sherry bomb.  It is a flavor component that holds all other celestial objects in an orbit around it.  As I said in my review of Jameson 12 year old, the distiller could have resorted to making this whisky spicy in order deliver a complex flavor profile.   Again he has not resorted to such a trite shortcut.  Instead, Jameson’s Master Blender has melded flavors together in an uniquely Irish whiskey fashion.  It truly is a blend in the purest sense of the word.  You taste a limited rainbow of lemongrass, green tea, Oloroso sherry, pomegranate and limes.  Very mellow." 

Subsequent dates/tastings have not lived up to that original tasting note or first impressions.  You see things kinda went down hill once that bottle was opened.  Some whiskies never change from the first sip through to the last drop.  Others, once they come in contact with air can change as sharply as a lane change by a student driver. 
After repeated tastings, I revised my glowing tasting note to something much less enthusiastic.

Nose (undiluted)
Damp leaves, earth, weak sherry.

Palate (undiluted)
Silky sweet and rounded, medium bodied.  Sugar, lemon bread that is slightly under cooked.  No clarity of flavors, they are altogether as blended whiskey typically is.  Simple taste.  Kinda like gumdrops dusted with granulated sugar poured into a glass.  By the way, no value for money here.  Jameson 12 is better at half the price. 

Finish (undiluted)
Never dries much upon the palate.  Just a little.  Black ground pepper hangs, but not to the point of what one would call spicy.  And then there is a lime, mint, wine gum flavors that treads so close to the edge that it crosses the line into the lane that tastes of alcohol with lemongrass.  What a let down.  The final note is very close to plain alcohol.  The flavor profile flirts with the raw taste of alcohol, coming close then backing up to wine gums.  Just a mediocre finish for a very expensive whiskey.

It's not the worst finish in the history of whisky, that prize would go to Whyte & Mackay or Ballantine's Finest.  Nevertheless, a huge disappointment (for an expensive 18yr old Irish whiskey) along the lines of Mia overdosing on a baggie of Vince Vega's heroin she found in his overcoat.  Not cool, not a cool way at all to conclude a date that, at one point, held so much promise.


Jason Debly

Photo Credits and copyright holders:  Still images from the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, Miramax Films.  Gumdrop photo by Stevehdc entitled: "Glowing Gumdrops."  Photos of Jameson 18 bottle - Jason Debly.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved except for images credited to others.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Review: Jameson 12 year old Irish Whiskey

I am on a bit of an Irish whiskey kick lately.  I recently reviewed Jameson's standard bottling and wasn't terribly impressed.  Nevertheless, I will not give up.  I have a bottle of 12 year old Jameson and also an 18 year old.  I may not be of 'fightin' Irish' lineage, but damn I know those great people can produce good whiskey!  Let's see if the 12 year old can fulfil my conviction.

Nose (undiluted)
I’m not picking up much. Very subtle. Only some fleeting citrus notes and leather.

Palate (undiluted)
Delightful interplay between some citrus, sweet milk chocolate and hazelnut notes. Malty too. Silken texture. No jagged edges here. Nicely refined. You can taste the evolution from the uninspiring standard, bottom shelf (no age statement) Jameson into something pleasant. 12 years of aging makes a difference. There is a spiced buzz of sherry, cherries and other red fruit that gives the flavor profile some complexity too.

Finish (undiluted)
Not overly long. The flavors remain only briefly. A taste of drying, chocolate mousse, some salt and a little more malt/sherry.

General Impressions
This is good whiskey. Not incredible, but good.  Dependable.  It is a whiskey that delivers an enjoyable, gentle sherry / Belgian chocolate mouthfeel and a warm, camp fire afterglow that reassures you that you are among friends.  It is not the greatest whisky I have tasted, but certainly an acceptable standard to be added to the whiskey cabinet.  Some critics have described it as a 'daily drinker' but I think it is a little too expensive to fall into that category.

As with many Irish whiskies, triple distillation means it is very smooth. The challenge for many Irish distilleries is to somehow make a smooth whiskey interesting or nuanced. The typical strategy of distillers is to create a dram that has a certain degree of spiciness. 

The master blender at Jameson has succeeded in distilling a spirit that is interesting, yet not relying heavily on a spiced flavor profile. How he succeeded is not easy to articulate. Nevertheless, I am never at a loss of words, so here goes: the whiskey represents a melding of sweetly contoured sherry and Belgian chocolate against a background of malt that dries upon the palate. Not a lot of spices other than the corduroy road of sherry and certainly no peatiness.

If I had to sum this whisky up in a couple of words, it would be textured sherry and milk chocolate.  Serve this at a party and it is a good way to Win Friends and Influence People

Price Point
The price is fair though not a steal of a deal.  Try to buy it when the price is discounted.

This whiskey is priced slightly under a few entry level 12 year old single malts.  I find it similar to GlenDronach 12 years.  Irish and scotch whiskies are different branches of the same tree.  It gets challenging to say which is better.  If you place a premium on silky texture then Jameson would be the choice.

Jameson 12 year old makes for a good whiskey gift.  It will impress newcomers to whiskey and please veterans.  I wouldn't describe it as the greatest of whiskies, but rather a pleasing dram that delivers the basics that most consumers require:  smoothness, no bite, some spice, gentle flavors and some interesting twists in the flavor profile.

Jameson 12 years versus Jameson 18 years
I prefer the flavor profile, as well as the lower price of the Jameson 12yrs, when compared to the 18 year old Jameson (click here for my review).  The 12 is more chocolate based whereas the 18 is tasting more lime and Chinese tea based.

Jameson 12 years versus Bushmills Black Bush
This whisky shares similarities with Bushmills Black Bush, but is slightly superior. Black Bush is impressive initially, but becomes quite simple and mundane upon repeat tastings. While Jameson is more interesting than Black Bush, it is not taking any chances.  It is a very middle of the road whiskey that could become boring to the more serious whisky enthusiast.

What about Redbreast 12?
In a heads-up, all-in Redbreast 12 years  versus Jameson 12 comparison, I prefer the former.  However, the one you prefer will depend on the general flavor profile of each.  Redbreast is honeyed, cinammon and zesty, though not a scotch, it does have many similarities with many Speyside single malts.  Jameson, on the other hand, is darker, more sherry and chocolate, in the genre of some Highland malts like Oban.  I can appreciate both, but prefer the former.  You have to ask yourself, what do you prefer?  And as you know, there is only one way to find out . . .


Jason Debly

Note:  The Jameson 12 year old as reviewed above has been referred to as the '1780.'  The date refers to founding of the distillery.  The '1780' has now been re-released as the 'Special Reserve.'  The whisky hasn't changed.  Just the labeling.
© Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Review: Sheep Dip Scotch Whisky

A key marketing task of every drinks company that owns a distillery is to 'discover' a quaint story that can somehow be related to their whisky wares.  Some companies do this very well.  The little story behind Wild Turkey is a prime example.  Other 'tales' are pretty weak like Diageo's suggestion that Johnnie Walker Gold Label is made up of a single malt (Clynelish) composed of water drawn from springs that run through veins of gold, hence: "Gold Label." 

The Spencerfield Spirit Company have come up with a charming tale of their own to associate with one of their scotch whiskies.  Settle down in that wing back, red leather, upholstered chair of mine, warm yourself by the fireplace, as it is story time:

A long time ago, way back to 1830, a George Wilson, developed an arsenic powder that when mixed with water was a great solution to dip sheep into for the purposes of ridding the creatures of pesky mites, ticks and lice.  The sheep were run through a trough of this nasty solution.  I am not so sure the depiction on the box for this whisky is accurate.  I would imagine it would be pretty hard to plunge sheep into a barrel.

If you visit the Spencerfield Spirit Company website (click here) and click on Sheep Dip for product information, they will mention that Scottish farmers were in the habit of marking their barrels of whisky as "Sheep Dip" in order to avoid paying taxes on it.  I guess barrels of sheep dip did not attract taxation, and the tax man was not going to taste the barrel to confirm it was sheep dip.  A drinks company takes a really big risk drawing any comparison between their whisky and a liquid insecticide, but hey, it's a free world.  If the whisky is bad the jokes abound . . .

So, is Sheep Dip any good?  It's a blended malt meaning no grain whiskies present.  Specifically, a blend of single malts aged 8 to 12 years.  Those single malts are sourced from the four major whisky producing regions of Scotland:  Speyside, Islay, Highlands & Islands and Lowlands.  The master blender is Richard Patterson, a fellow of well earned respect in the industry.  So, is it any good?  Or is tantamount to drinking liquid pesticide?

Nose (undiluted)
Malty and sherried.

Palate (undiluted)
Soft, sweet start.  Malty, cantaloupe, melon and some light tangerine.  Good quality flavored Oloroso sherry appears late.

Finish (undiluted)
A little drying malt while the sherry gathers strength and a fine line of sea salt and pepper tang at the very end.

General Impressions
 I enjoyed this blended malt.  Very friendly, slightly warming.  It would make an excellent starter scotch for someone who wants to explore this type of spirit for the first time.  It is also a nice graduation from blended scotch.  Want an affordable gift for the holidays?  Sheep Dip works.  It is reasonably priced.  Criticisms?  Virtually no peat in the flavor profile.  Flavor profile is not complex.  This is comfort scotch.

I stumbled on this through trading emails and chats with one of this site's readers, Adam Morin.  Adam has been working his way through this bottle and inspired me to pick one up.  Below is Adam's review:

Nose (undiluted)
Nothing whatsoever to write home about. A slight grassy graininess, tempered by the richness you'd expect from a malt comprised of sixteen single malts. Grass, shrubbery, um, juniper bushes. That's it.

Palate (undiluted)
A little more exotic. Ginger/clementine notes dominate what is a surprisingly light-bodied entry. You get the richness of single malts with none of the flavour differentiation. O Boy. It claims to use sixteen different single malts from the four distilling regions of Scotland, but there isn't the slightest hint of peat anywhere. Maybe R. Patterson used a Bunnahabhain, or a Cambeltown malt. Sugary, malted Speyside notes form the dominant palate expression here.

Finish (undliluted)
Not dry in the least. You can tell both bourbon and sherry casks are at work here, but it's hard to identify exactly which is which. The wetness of finish suggest a premium given to sherry aging, but as to the exact identities of each single malt, I'm in the dark.

Not dissatisfying, in the least - but light, airy, grassy and frankly inconsequential. If given sixteen single malts to play around with to my heart's content, even I could come up with something weightier than this. That said - the kind of milk chocolate flavour you get with blends is entirely absent, so Richard Patterson is true to his word. But it seems rather like he vatted the sixteen most inexpensive malts he could lay hands on, in an attempt to create something greater than the sum of its parts. You read every review of this stuff, including Jim Murray's, and they all say the same thing - "grassy". It tastes like a "freshly mown lawn". Well, Jim, that's fantastic. I could consume my lawn mower's shavings for a fraction of the price. Tell me something I don't know. Orange marmalade and ginger is something that is clear. There is also a clear cinnamon spiciness, which is not at all unwelcome.

Adam Morin
. . .
Adam has astutely pointed out that for a whisky that purports to draw single malts from all of the four major regions of Scotland, it sure doesn't taste like it did so.  For me and Adam, it is a big Speyside flavor profile with hardly any peat or smoke.  I would say there is no Islay presence at all in this dram.  It is better than Strathisla 12 years.  While the flavor profile is not very similar to Glenfiddich 12 yrs, I still prefer Sheep Dip.  So, that is saying quite a bit for this blended malt.  It is not every day that a blended malt trumps a few 12 year old single malts.  To put it in more perspective, this tastes like a young Glenfiddich 15yrs Solera or flatter Johnnie Walker Green.  Nevertheless, it is most enjoyable for the price if you are a big Speyside fan.  I recommmend it!  As for Adam, he is less enthusiastic.  He thinks it's just ok.
Jason Debly

Friday, November 5, 2010

Review: Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

A relative of mine who lives in Texas once said that for Americans, Thanksgiving is bigger than Christmas.  That's saying a lot!  Families travel long distances to be together to give thanks to God for their many blessings.  The food is traditionally turkey with homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, cooked carrots, turnip, squash, cranberry sauce and ohh that gravy!  My Mother makes the best gravy!  In Canada, Thanksgiving occurs earlier (2nd Monday in October) than south of the border (4th Thursday of November).  It is an important holiday, but I can't describe it as 'bigger than Christmas' (no disrespect intended to my American readers).

Whiskey Food Pairing - Bourbon & Thanksgiving Dinner
To my mind, bourbon is the ideal type of whiskey to compliment a Thanksgiving dinner.  While I usually enjoy my spirits neat, during this important holiday, I like it with ice or as an integral part of a cocktail.  Bourbon's rye spice, pronounced cinammon toast flavor profile compliments the turkey in cranberry sauce, as well as mashed potatoes covered in gravy made from scratch. 

On such an social occasion, don't drink your bourbon neat.  Focus on your family and the conversation.  The drink is to be a pleasant part of the background.  Bourbon with ice works well in this regard.

Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
This particular bourbon is aged 10 years which is a great deal of time for type of spirit.  Unlike scotch, bourbon requires less aging to reach its peak flavor profile.  Eagle Rare is produced by the same people who brought you Buffalo Trace.  Accordingly, your expectations are likely to be high.  Your expectations will be rewarded.  The following tasting note is based on a neat serving, but that's only for dessert with pumkin pie.  Not during the meal!  With the meal have it with some ice or in a Stone Fence Cocktail.

Nose (undiluted)
Lightly scented oak and vanilla.

Palate (undiluted)
Fantastically smooth (for a bourbon), yet interesting ride of concentrated sweet rye, vanilla and charred American oak.  Layers of spiced rye delicately unfolds upon the palate. 

Finish (undiluted)
Charred oak, ginger and cleansing, fresh Kentucky spring water.

Nose (with ice)
Mostly mutes all of the aromas deteced when neat.

Palate (with ice)
The trouble with ice is you tend to drink quick because if you take too long the spirit will be diluted too much.  Tasted a minute after the ice has made its presence known, you will enjoy complex oak, layered rye and nutmeg.  Yeah, nutmeg.  Ice just makes it so gentle.  When I first started drinking whisky it was always with ice and then I started drinking it neat and regarded ice as evil.  Now, I am coming full circle and realizing that dogmatic views (ice is always bad) are unhealthy and it's all about enjoyment.  I enjoy Eagle Rare with ice.  Purists will pooh, pooh me, but so what?  A man has to march to the beat of his own drum I say.

Finish (with ice)
Toasted cinammon bread and more RYE!

General Impressions
Eagle Rare Single Barrel Aged 10 yrs is very, very good bourbon.  Some people may consider adding ice to it as sacrilege, but I am not 'some people.'  I am an ordinary guy who likes my bourbon sometimes with ice.  Great bourbon with ice is . . . well . . . great!  I know that is trite, but hey that is how it is and who I am.

Like all bourbons, it is a very powerful spirit in terms of alcohol content and flavor. So, little sips are the rule. Try to sip the equivalent of a 1/4 teaspoon when enjoying it neat.  In a cocktail it will be very flavorful.  The price is more than reasonable for this product.  This is certainly an excellent choice gift for the bourbon fan.  However, if you are planning on presenting it as a gift to someone who does not drink bourbon, I would go with something gentler like Basil Hayden's or Four Roses.  Not a bourbon for beginners.

Eagle Rare has won plenty of awards and while I seriously question the International Wine and Spirits Competition manner of handing out medals, I will admit they hit the nail on the head with respect to this very fine bourbon. 

Try it neat with some pumpkin pie and a swirl of whipped cream.  You'll understand what I mean.


Jason Debly

Painting credit: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930): The First Thanksgiving.  Please note:  This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.  This occurs to works of art in the United States, Australia, the European Union and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

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