Saturday, July 31, 2010

Review: Laphroaig Quarter Cask Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

I was in Ontario two weeks ago for a family vacation at my sister's abode.  Originally, the plan was that I and the family would drive up (16 hr road trip!), but the thought of mediating quarrelling children ages, 2 and 4 yrs, every couple of miles (for many hundreds of miles) was about as appealing as trying to resolve the Palestinian/Israeli conflict with a one week deadline.  Yeah, no thanks!  A fate worse than death.  So, I went to my local travel agent, took a serious shine off my credit card and scored airplane tickets to Ontario.  This meant I and the 'fam' were in Toronto in two hours instead of 16.  Now, that's my kind of math!

Ontario was nice.  Did the family thing, the barbecues, the dinners, chase kids, played golf and . . . . visited some liquor stores.  Staring at shelves of scotch on display is much like visiting a dog pound and trying to choose a pup looking longlingly through the bars for a home.  Hmmm . . . . one of the strays I took home was Laphroaig Quarter Cask Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Nose (undiluted)
As soon as you pull the cork on this one you're gonna smell big smoke.  I mean big!  The girl friend, wife, partner, whatever, will be whining and wrinkling their nose.  Ahh!  We don't need them (well, at least not right now).  Coal, peat and small brush fire smoke.  You know what damp wood smells like when it burns, that's what I am picking up. 

Palate (undiluted)
Oily mouthfeel. Make no mistake about it, this is a peat and smoke bonfire that is very representative of Islay whiskies. This malt starts out sweet, delicate, followed by towering peat and smoke. I mean big, skyscraper peat and smoke! But somehow, it is refined, not rough or sharp like Ardbeg 10 year old can be.  Mid-palate the American oak casks that once held first-fill bourbon comes through too.

Finish (undiluted)
Smokey, but not over the top. Again, reminiscent of a heap of damp branches set afire out in the woods on a fall day with the drizzle of rain overhead. Limes and ginger linger for a very long time. This finish is huge. These flavors linger for a very long time.

Add Water?
A teaspoon of water to a double pour will make this scotch malty and sweeter.  The water will tone down the salt/medicinal flavors too.  I prefer this single malt with a little water.  You should definitely experiment to see what suits you.

General Impressions

This is a fine Islay single malt whisky.  While there is no age statement appearing on the bottle, do not let that lead you to conclude it is a lesser quality scotch than it's competitors like Ardbeg, Bowmore and others.  This is worthy of your attention. 

Comparison to the Competition: Ardbeg 10yrs
It's superior to Ardbeg 10 yrs (click here for my review).  I find Ardbeg 10 a little young, fiery and peppery.  The Laphroaig Quarter Cask is not.  (Please note:  I consider it superior because I prefer a more lightly peated malt.  If you really like the huge gales of wind, sea salt, briar smoke and iodine explosion in your mouth, then discount my view accordingly.)

Laphroaig 10 year old
When I compare the Quarter Cask to the Laphroaig 10 year old bottling, I think the former is slightly better.  A little more finese and softer flavors.

Bowmore 12 years
Surprisingly, the Quarter Cask edges out the Bowmore 12 year old (see my review here).  I'm a little shocked.  However, if you take into consideration the considerably lower price of the Bowmore, the Bowmore is the better value for money play.

Should You Buy It?
Look into your soul, have a heart to heart with yourself, plumb the fathoms of your inner being and consider the following:  Are you a peat and smoke freak or Islay nutYes?  Then by all means run out and buy this immediately.  If you are not, I am not so sure you need this in your cabinet.  If you are not an Islay fan or enjoy peat and smoke explosive scotch, then look elsewhere.  If you are seeking a nice representative of Islay for just that moment when you are in the mood, the Quarter Cask will work.  However, Bowmore 12 years is probably the better value play in light of its substantially lower price.  Finally, if you are a scotch newbie, I doubt you will like it.  Most casual scotch drinkers don't like this.  For you this will taste very medicinal and unappealing, unless you are a peat freak and you just didn't know it.

Packs a Wallop!
At 48% alcohol/volume this is a single malt scotch to be consumed in very small quantities.  Despite the high alcohol content, it is not bitter, rough or any sort of unpleasantness.  This means it is a smooth dram that begs another far too easy and before you know it, you're clobbered like Fred Flintstone getting hammered by a club wielding Bamm-Bamm (or maybe Wilma!).  So, be careful.


Jason Debly

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

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do I feel Lucky?

In the classic 1971 film, Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood's character, Harry Callahan, utters one of the most famous lines in the history of cinema:

". . . you've got to ask yourself one question:  Do I feel lucky?"

"Well, do ya punk?"

My answer would be:  "Yeah!  I do because I received a great email the other day."

Here it is:


Just wanted to drop you a quick line thanking you for being a beacon of refreshment in the otherwise pretentious laden arena of scotch reviewing.

Within the past month or so, I have delved into the wonderful world of scotch - primarily driven by the direction of my professional life (got tired of being the odd man out when it came time for a dram as my earliest memories of scotch was back in high school when me and a buddy sneaked some of his father's one night - needless to say it was a mess and I never had tried to recover from it).

As I started looking into the various distilleries, types, ages, etc - my eyes glazed, then went bloodshot trying to figure everything out. So I figured the best approach would be to read reviews... I figured that if I could find a "generally accepted" scotch that, that is where I should start.

Well, after reading, oh I don't know, about 150 reviews - all which used terms like "hints of silicone, leather, and blackmary (is that even anything?)" My eyes started to glaze over again.

I finally got a foothold after going to a local liquor store and speaking with an employee. He started me on a sample box of small JW black, gold, and blue. It took a while to get through them, but as I did - I found your blog and have used it as a rough guide and it has truly served me well. The reviews just plain makes sense and I seem to have a similar tastes. I now have a very rudimentary understanding of locations and distilleries and also feel that I am starting to appreciate all the varying subtleties that lay within the drink.

Now that I am about 6 different bottles in I am really starting to enjoy the process and more importantly the taste of scotch.

Thanks again,

. . .
When I receive an email like that, I do feel lucky.  Hell, it "makes my day"  (to borrow another well worn Eastwood line from another one of his films: Sudden Impact).  It validates the experience I went through when I first started to develop an interest in whisky.  It is also exciting to meet someone who is starting to develop a keen interest in whisky!
I will receive an email of this nature every couple of months, which means that readers have a need for scotch whisky (and other whiskies of the world) to be de-mystified.  We are not talking rocket science here.  It's all about likes and dislikes . . . your likes and dislikes.  My aim is to get you to trust your own judgment! 
Read scotch reviews on the web and out of books, but if a reviewer consistently praises whiskies that you dislike, then stop reading his or her reviews.  Their tastes are not congruent with your own.  Find a reviewer's whose tastes match your's.  In my case, I find that I agree mostly with the reviews of the late whisky expert, Michael Jackson (not the late entertainer who needed a check-up from the neck up).  Conversely, I do not agree with many of the scotch reviews of Jim Murray, the world's current, best selling whisky authority.  Hence, I don't bother to read his reviews.  Mr. Murray is an enormous fan of the Ardbeg distillery.  Clearly, he enjoys the peat bombs.  While I like peat in scotch, it is not the most important aspect of the flavor profile. 
Anyway, you get my drift.  If my reviews and recommendations miss the mark for you, tell me so, and stop reading them.  Find a reviewer who can provide a road map of sorts during the scotch whisky journey that you are a part of.  Don't let some snobby SOB (how's that for alliteration!) in your workplace or at the golf club make your purchasing decisions for you.  Have faith in your own judgment.
My only caveat would be that over time, it is very possible that your tastes will evolve.  Be open to other points of view, but not dogmatically accepting them.
Until next time . . .
Jason Debly
Photo Credit:  Screenshot from the DVD version of the 1971 film Dirty Harry, extracted from Harry's infamous "do ya feel lucky" monologue

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

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Review: Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Summer vacation.  With the sun high in the blue sky, I, the wife, the kids and luggage loaded into my big black Ford and headed south, crossed the border into the US, continued south on the I-95, took exit 187 and a quick left put me on the Hogan Road.   Another left at a Honda dealership put me on the road to the Hilton Garden Inn, Bangor, Maine. 

After day spent spent entertaining the children in the pool, a science museum and supper, I found myself at about 8pm in the lobby while my wonderful spouse put the children to bed in the hotel room upstairs.  What's a fella to do for a while?

The well-appointed lobby has the burnished, dark wood walls, leather couchs and wing-back chairs, and most importantly a bar.  I pay a visit, scan the bottles along the mirrored wall and thought since I am in America, I should enjoy one of the great fruits of American industry, namely bourbon.  Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon to be precise. 

Once ensconced comfortably in a leather chair facing an LCD TV, I am in fine form.

Nose (undiluted)
Vanilla.  I am not able to discern much else. 

Palate (undiluted)
As lawless and unruly as Woodford Reserve can be, Maker's Mark is not.  Woodford Reserve can be fiery on first sip.  Maker's Mark is balanced, refined and even elegant.  This bourbon starts out sweet, a corn sweetness, followed by powerful oak.  The body of this spirit is rounded.  The flavors are soft.  Black cherry makes an appearance.  Oak re-enters with charcoal and makes for a cleansing of the palate in a very fresh fashion.

Finish (undiluted)
Nice and long.  I am impressed!  Oak and a little brown sugar/charcoal remain and zing for quite while.  There is no ugly burn in the throat.  Just warmth.

General Impressions
How does this rank in comparison with other bourbons?  Well, at it's price point, the small batch premium bourbon competition would include:  Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek.   While Woodford Reserve can at times be more complex, it can also be wilder and more alcohol infused. 

Knob Creek is more complex and more interesting when one seeks a real toure-de-force of flavors.  Nevertheless, Maker's Mark is a bourbon I will pick up from time to time when I am seeking a bourbon that is not offensive, refined, and a flavor profile that's a crowd pleaser.  A certain pick if I am having a party.

This is more interesting than Basil Hayden's, another small batch bourbon.

Value for Money?
Maker's Mark is not cheap.  I think the price is fair, but it is no bargain.  If you want a bargain bourbon, try Jim Beam Black.  Maybe a little simpler flavor profile but a lot easier on the pocket book.

What No Age Statement?
As mentioned above, Maker's Mark is a premium small batch bourbon with a high price to boot.  You would expect an age statement on every bottle.  Not so.  Competition in the same price range make age statements.  Knob Creek is 9 years old.  Eagle Rare is 10 years old.  Baker's Bourbon 7 years, and so on.  Maker's Mark has no fixed age.  Age is dependent on taste.  A panel of tasters determine when the barrels of bourbon are ready to be bottled as Maker's Mark.  No bottling of Maker's Mark that is less than six years, nor more than seven and a half years has taken place.

Age statements are not necessarily indicative of superior quality when it comes to whisky of any kind.  They mostly function as a tool of marketing to reel the likes of you and I in.  To believe that older whisky is better than younger is to be terribly mistaken.

Bottom Line
I like Maker's Mark.  I have been drinking it for years and have always found it to be reliable and pleasant like an old friend.  Highly recommended!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved except for photographs: (1) Maker's Mark in hand taken by Flickr member: Adie Reed.  Check out her great site for more photos: She has graciously granted a Creative Commons license which permits its reproduction on this blog.  (2) Photograph of line of Maker's Mark bottles taken off web but I could not find any credit for it.  If you are the photographer, please contact me so I can credit you, with your permission.  (3)  Photograph of Maker's Mark whisky glasses taken by Flickr member: thewhiskeyroad, who holds all copyright and no reproduction permitted without his permission.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Don't Judge A Whisky by its First Taste!

Just as you should not judge a book by its cover, neither should you judge a scotch or whisky by a single tasting of a freshly opened bottle.  I have found that when you first open a new bottle the initial dram may taste a little hot, tart and a little sharp.  The flavors will meld and sometimes improve after the bottle has been left for a week or two.  The reason why? 

Air.  Once that seal is broken on that bottle and the cork is pulled air will get in and affect the flavors offered up.  Certainly, some whiskies change very little from the first opening to the last drop, but there are many that do change.  Some improve and some decline.  Recently, I acquired a bottle of Woodford Reserve.  The first week of my sampling it was met by a lot of burn and raw alcohol on the finish.  Give it two weeks and the air in the bottle has tamed it considerably.  It's still a little wild and I stand by my review, but that awful burn has subsided considerably.

Highland Park 18 is another example.  Upon first opening, it seemed perfect to my tastes.  Flavors were very well defined.  Come back to it a week later and the sherry flavors had become a lot bigger, in fact a little unwieldly.  I prefered it upon first opening.

Ever notice how you pull that bottle out one night and it tastes fantastic, but when you reach for it on another, it is not the same?  It could have a lot to do with what you ate for dinner.  Did you scarf up your tongue with spicy Thai food?  Couple of tacos?  Wings with suicide sauce?  Guess what?  Your palate may be in less than optimal sensory function for the task of tasting the multi-stellar splendor of flavors that only whisky can deliver.  Same goes for that Cohiba cigar you just had to have after dinner.  Or maybe it was her mint jelly lipstick . . . ok, ok you get the picture.

Here's a suggestion.  If you intend to drink a fine single malt or merely your favorite good ol' stand-by,  have a bland supper and wait three or four hours before having a drink.  Give that palate of yours time to recuperate.  Nothing other than water should pass your lips between dins and drinking time.  And of course it goes without saying that you should not eat anything with your scotch/whisky.  If you think some dark chocolate would be a nice compliment to your scotch, make your selection an affordable blended scotch (ie. Johnnie Walker Black, etc.).  Chocolate and a host of other appetizers will only serve to marr your ability to taste.  Just say 'no.'  I know this is all the rage at whisky tastings in hotels where fellow whisky nuts walk around in tuxes or kilts that should only be worn at a Scottish Highland dancing competition, but trust me, it's a mistake if you are really trying to formulate an opinion on a given dram.

In between sips of your chosen malt or whisky, drink water and plenty of it.  Drink water at room temperature.  Ice water chills the palate and desensitizes the palate.  Not something we want.

Now my opinion here is totally irrational but I find that whisky of any kind simply tastes better from fine crystal.  Whether it be a tumbler, a brandy snifter or the Glen Cairn glass, so long as it is crystal, you'll be all right.  Sample your whisky from cheap old regular drinking glasses and I think there is a difference.  I offer no rational basis for this opinion, just experience.  Try it out.


Jason Debly

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