Thursday, January 14, 2010

Johnnie Walker Blue Label - Revisited!

Note:  This is an update of my previous, more detailed review.  For the tasting note of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, click here.

Well, I am sipping some Johnnie Walker Blue Label. The bottle came from my wife, as a gift for Father’s Day, and I just got around to opening it a month or so ago.

I like this less and less, the more I drink it. It’s not bad, but gee, is it ever overrated or what? On the plus side, it is smooth, a bonus for hack amateur whisky critics like myself. It seems that only really strong, throat burning whiskies, at cask strength (read over 80 proof) attract the praise of whisky critics these days. If a whisky, scotch or bourbon is a mere 80 proof, it is somehow, automatically lacking in some way. Gimme a break! I hate dogmatism in politics, economics and religion and also in scotch appreciation.

I recognized a similar phenomenon in the world of wine criticsm a few years ago. Robert Parker, the esteemed wine critic, heaped praise on wines that were bold, robust and generally dominated by oak on the palate. So, powerful was he that sales of delicate, non-oakey (not a word, but I just invented it this very moment) languished while Napa Valley oak bombs like Silver Oak flourished. Delicate and complex French Pinot Noir (ie. Louis Jadot) sales suffered because ol’ Robbie Parker scored them lower due to a lack of oak and robust flavor profile.

Similarly, the scotch whisky critics like Jim Murray, (I really do pick on him too much, but he’s such an easy target) seem to heap the praise on those cask strength whiskies that are 114 proof and up! You need to water them down with a fire hose, otherwise you essentially sear your mouth with a flame-thrower.

So, on the plus side, the ol’ Johnnie Blue Label is smooth, which in itself is not a problem. What else can I say? I dunno. I taste white cake bread and caramelized onions. On the con side, I am really not impressed. There is some smoke and peat, but not very interesting. I would not buy this. If I am going to drop a lot of money for a high end blend it will be Ballantines 17yr old, Famous Grouse 18 or 30yrs, and Royal Salute. Famous Grouse 18 and 30 year old blends offer up more complexity and interesting flavor profiles than Johnnie Walker Blue. The difference between the Famous Grouse bottlings and Johnnie Blue is the amount of marketing dollars involved. I really believe that Johnnie Walker Blue is all about marketing. The silk lined box, blue-green colored glass bottle, the quaint little booklet, individually numbered bottles and the snobby advertisements are what sell this blended scotch. If you put those same marketing dollars behind Famous Grouse 18 or 30 year old blended scotch whisky, they would achieve the same level of sales, if not better, as they are better blends.

I want to review Famous Grouse 18 and 30yr old, but just don’t have the funds right now to purchase them. The 30yr old, in particular, blows Blue Label out of the water, based on my recollection. Anyway, that’s all I have to report for now.



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Basil Hayden's 8 yr old Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Great discoveries are often made by accident. Jeff Dufour wrote, in a 2006 article entitled, The History of Bourbon, a happy accident, (click here) that in the late 1780’s, Elijah Craig, a distiller of Bourbon County, Kentucky, took old fish barrels and used them for whisky that was to be shipped to New Orleans. In order to clean out the inside of the fish barrel, he observed the cheapest and most efficient way to do so involved burning the inside with an open flame. The charred interior of the barrel cured any smell or remnants of fish. Thereafter, Mr. Craig would send the barrels of Kentucky whisky by boat to New Orleans, a trip in those days that could take a couple of months. The whisky that arrived in New Orleans tasted better than when it left Kentucky. Suddenly, charring the insides of barrels became a must for Kentucky whisky distillers. The charred wood imparted flavors of vanilla, oak and smoothed out the roughness of the whisky.

What the above story has to do with Basil Hayden’s 8 year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, I do not know, but just felt compelled to impart that interesting anecdote to you. “Eric,” a reader of this blog, kindly provided me with a link to Mr. Dufour’s article that enabled me to learn this interesting tidbit in the history of American whisky. Thanks Eric!

In any event, moving right along, lately, I have been sampling Basil Hayden’s bourbon. I first tasted it at a whisky festival in November 2009. I was impressed and decided I needed a bottle for further study and eventual posting of a tasting note. Unlike a lot of reviewers on the web, I try to only post tasting notes based on my sampling of a bottle. I do not think an adequate opinion of a whisky can be formulated from a tiny 200ml bottle or at a whisky tasting. I need a bottle that I can return to several times over different evenings before coming to a conclusion as to a whisky’s merits and defects.

Nose (undiluted)
Floral, vanilla, corn husk.

Palate (undiluted)
Light bodied, gentle corn and rye tang, distinctive of bourbon, graces your taste buds like a tiny dancer. Summer easy sweet charcoal, like a wheeping willow tree graced by a light breeze. Caramel flavors hang in the background throughout the tasting.

Finish (undiluted)
Sweet corn, a little rye warmth, and the flotsam jetsam charcoal/vanilla flavors culminating in some of the mildest spice I have ever experienced in bourbon.

General Impressions
My immediate impression of this bourbon is that it is very light bodied and consequently easy drinking. Very easy! This is not spicy. Yes, there is some spice, but it is so mild that the word “spice” hardly seems appropriate. It would be the perfect ingredient in mixed drinks calling for bourbon, except it is too expensive to be used as mix. It is a mere 80 proof and tastes like less. This bourbon is so mild that if you have never had bourbon or always added ice or water, well if there was ever a time to try it straight, it would be now.

As a general statement, it is fair to say that when bourbon is sweet, it is due to the corn grain used. Rye provides spice. Without checking Basil Hayden’s website (click here) I was sure there was less rye (meaning more corn) in this bourbon recipe than typically found in other bourbons. Well, guess what? I was dead wrong. There are exceptions to every rule and Basil Hayden is one.

A visit to the website indicates that Basil Hayden’s 8 yr old bourbon is based on a recipe of twice as much rye as corn when compared to the recipes of the remainder of the Small Batch collection marketed by Beam Global Spirits and Wine Inc., namely: Knob Creek, Booker’s and Baker’s. Trouble is: Knob Creek and the others are a helluva lot more spicy, robust and challenging than Basil Hayden’s, but I guess it is not due to the rye content.

Anyway, back to my impressions of this bourbon. I am a bit underwhelmed (is that a word?) given the premium price for a whisky marketed as an ultra-premium bourbon. Why? This bourbon just lacks pizzazz. It’s too smooth, no burn going down, so gentle that you can never mind all that advice about taking little sips I make in other reviews. It lacks any challenge or intrigue. It's belongs in the featherweight bourbon division (there is no such division, I just made that up!).

Something can be simple yet interesting or memorable. We see this all the time in music. Take the catchy guitar riff in Daytripper by the Beatles or Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. The music is simple but its gotta 'hook' that brings you back for more. Whisky may be understood the same way. Jim Beam Black, Johnnie Walker Black are not overly complex, but have that “hook” that brings you back again and again for another sip. Basil Hayden’s lacks that hook in terms of flavor. For that reason, I would not buy it again, not because it is bad but rather because it is not "great."

So, who should buy this? If you are trying bourbon for the first time, this would be worth getting to know before you try much more robust and superior bourbons of the heavyweight division like Wild Turkey 101 and Knob Creek. Trust me, the latter whiskies will knock you out with a punch you won't see coming!



© Jason Debly, 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Yamazaki 18 year old Single Malt Whisky

Recently, an anonymous poster, B. Linn, asked me to try the Yamazaki 18 year old again. In my review of this spirit’s younger sibling, the 12 year old, I mentioned that I had sampled it (the 18) on a couple of occasions with disappointing results. I was surprised because the Yamazaki 18 has enjoyed virtually universal praise from critics. So, when I sampled it and couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about, I did doubt myself.

Now, in fairness to the Yamazaki 18, the first time I tried it was at a whisky festival, in a poorly lit, cavernous hotel ballroom, with brand ambassadors of a multitude of distilleries hawking their wares to me as if they were working a bazaar in Aleppo or Beirut. It was a noisy, confused gathering of whisky lovers and wannabes. I fit right in. Nevertheless, I was underwhelmed with the 18. Mind you, I had been eating English Stilton cheese, and tasting other whiskies too.

The second time I had it was at a pub following some Maker’s Mark. Again I was not impressed and not quite sure what to make of it. I thought it tasted of fish oil and maybe some seafood recipe out of a dog-eared, yellow, sun-damaged copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I knew that I needed to purchase a bottle, have a clear head and palate in order to properly taste this whisky. So, this week I swiped a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki 12 year old Single Malt, took it home, and that evening, three hours following dinner, pulled it out of its packaging, poured a dram into a crystal brandy snifter, warmed it up in my hand, and prepared to sample it for the purpose of this tasting note.

Dark amber. One of the darkest whiskies I have ever seen.

Very Subtle oak, sherry and malty tones.

Upon sipping this whiskey, one is impressed by the weight and viscosity, which opens upon the palate with waves of warm baklava dripping in syrup, honey and pistachios. You will taste marzipan and Turkish Delight. Dried Moroccan dates and other dark fruit. There are sweet spices at play with broken cinnamon sticks. All of this caught up in a cloud of smoke.

The flavors evoke thoughts of the Mediterranean sea and all its ports. There are the Greek Islands, Istanbul and Larnaca to name a few. All provide patios of villas, perched high above sea level, where one might gaze at the calm blue sea and sip Turkish coffee in between bites of dates, baklava and other desserts in the dry, summer heat.

Upon swallowing, you are again feeling the sun’s warmth and the sensation of it drying across the palate. Lingering malty flavors with smokey salt and exotic spices. This warming, drying sensation is very memorable.

General Impressions
Smooth, rich, luxuriant, decadent, dried fruit with a scintilla of peat and smoke are all words that hint at what awaits in a bottle of Suntory Yamazaki 18 year old. It may be Japanese single malt whisky, but sure conjures up memories of Middle Eastern dessert for me.

In terms of single malt scotch, as a point of reference, this whisky shares flavor profile similarities with Dalwhinnie.

So, in conclusion Yamazaki 18 year old is very good! This is premium single malt whisky. I take back anything negative I have said about this whisky in the past. Matter of fact, I edited my review of Suntory Yamazaki 12 to delete any criticism. It was not correct, and I attribute my error in judgment due to my palate being corrupted by other spirits, food and those damn scotch brand ambassadors at that whisky festival.

It is expensive, but worth it.


© Jason Debly, 2010. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: Wild Turkey 101 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Before I ever tasted bourbon, I associated that particular type of American whisky with a stream of images like: the Alamo, tumbleweed, cowboys and late night John Wayne westerns. Countless great, as well as utterly forgettable, westerns have actors like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood saddle up to the bar and order a bourbon that came in a little shooter glass. They would gulp it down and promptly wince in pain that would flash momentarily across their face.

Nick Passmore in an article entitled “The Kings of Bourbon” for Forbes magazine recounts the history of bourbon following the end of prohibition:

When repeal of Prohibition came in 1933, people could start drinking again (legally), and the distillers could start making whiskey again (legally). But it takes a long time to make good whiskey. In the interim, imported Scotch, imported gin and imported Canadian whiskey all came flooding in, and imbibers soon developed a taste for them.

As its customer base deserted it, bourbon struggled. Instead of trying to refine it, distillers were forced push their whiskey out the door as quickly and as cheaply as possible. And pretty awful whiskey it was too

Given the above cultural mosaic that cluttered my spotted brain, coupled with the above checkered history of bourbon, it is understandable that I did not have an overly positive view of bourbon.

My opinion changed when I tried Jim Beam Black bourbon during a visit to the United States. I always make an effort to try the libations of the locals wherever I travel, and so I found myself, much like those cowboys in the western, sitting at the bar staring at amber liquid in a glass. Ahh, a legend in my own mind.

Besides Jim Beam Black, I have also reviewed Knob Creek. It get’s a big thumbs up too! So, when my brother showed up at my place at Christmas time with a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, as per my request, I knew I was in for a treat.

Wild Turkey 101

The ‘101’ in the name of this brand is an allusion to the 50.5% alcohol/volume or 101 proof! Not a trifling amount. Now, I know what you are thinking “. . . this is gonna taste like battery acid!” Not at all. You will be surprised if you give this Kentucky bourbon a taste.

At this point, I just have to tell you the quaint Norman Rockwellesque story of how the Wild Turkey 101 brand name came about.

In the 1940’s, Thomas McCarthy, the president of the Austin Nichols company (the company that owns this particular bourbon distillery), was going on a wild turkey hunting trip. He decided to select some choice 101 proof bourbon, from the company stocks, that would be shared with his friends during the trip. In subsequent years, McCarthy’s friends “always requested that Wild Turkey bourbon” and so a brand was born.

Nose (undiluted)
Classic bourbon bouquet of big time vanilla and sweet corn rising up from the bottom of my brandy snifter. The scent of red licorice also makes an appearance. I like this!

Palate (undiluted)
A rip roarin' entry of sweet corn and warm caramel, reminiscent of the hardened top surface of crème brûlée explodes across the palate. Mid-palate is where the spiciness of the rye says: “Hello!” or maybe “Whatcha doin’ there neighbor? C’mon over!” Besides the rye is that hickory wood smoke that is present, but not over-powering.

Mid-palate transitions to dark French toast drizzled with maple syrup, some old-fashioned molasses, charcoal, oak and of course, lots of vanilla. While the initial entry upon the palate was distinctly sweet corn, the middle and final stages of the tasting are dry, concentrated layers of oak, vanilla and cigar smoke.

Finish (undiluted)
The longest lasting flavors left lingering are of spicy rye, uncrushed peppercorns and, to a much lesser extent, vanilla. The flavors hang upon the palate for a considerable amount of time, about as long a rodeo cowboy on a bucking bull.

General Impressions
Big bodied, concentrated, powerful. Somewhat smoother than Knob Creek, but don’t worry, this is by no means a Plain Jane whisky. Plenty of flavors kick that palate into high gear. Please note, I am not saying Knob Creek bourbon is rough, but rather a more robust flavor profile than Wild Turkey 101.

Wild Turkey 101 delivers a robust, challenging bourbon to the palate that must be savored in small sips if consumed neat. In a nutshell, you will enjoy flavors of oak, vanilla and charcoal. Wild Turkey is among the most powerful bourbons, as opposed to the very delicate, ethereal ones like Four Roses and Basil Hayden’s.

As much as I like it, I would not recommend it to someone who is not familiar with bourbon. This is a big drink with a lot of punch. At the very least, if someone was interested in trying this as their first venture in the bourbon world, I would strongly recommend trying it with two big ice cubes in a tumbler, wait two to three minutes and then sip. The ice will tame the wild aspects of the flavors that roll into the palate like a Mac truck.

I am astounded that it is 50.5% alcohol/volume, and at the same time delivers an enjoyable taste without a nasty bite of alcohol. Matter of fact, you do not taste any alcohol. No need to add water in order to tame the flavor profile. If you prefer to add ice, it will be a beautiful marriage that you just arranged!

Value for Money?
Uh huh, you betcha pardner . . .” The price is very reasonable. Good value for your dollar spent. Wild Turkey 101 can be purchased for as little as $19.99. It does not come in a fancy, cardboard sleeve like many whiskies or scotches (i.e. Johnnie Walker Black), and so it does not carry the cachet or snob appeal of those others. The marketing of this bourbon no doubt is like the philosophy of many Americans of Kentucky, unpretentious, honest and to the point.


Jason Debly

© Jason Debly, 2010. All rights reserved.