Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review: The Spice Tree Malt Scotch Whisky by Compass Box

Age Statements, much ado about nothing!
The average whisky consumer probably assumes that age statements (ie. 10yrs, 12yrs, 18yrs, etc.) on the labels of whisky bottles are indicative of quality.  Older the whisky, the better the taste, so goes the notion.  Not necessarily so.  While Glenlivet 18yrs is superior to the 12 years, there are also a number of younger siblings that outshine their older brothers and sisters.  For me, just one example would be Cragganmore 12 years which beats many 15 and 18 year old single malts.  Another example is Laphroaig Quarter Cask.  It has no age statement.  In a head to head tasting with the Laphroaig 10 year old Cask Strength, the QuarterCask comes out on top.

These observations were triggered by my reading the latest edition of Whisky Magazine (Issue 89 - October 2010) in which the editor, Rob Allanson, makes this point.  For him, he prefers the 15 year old bottling of Glenfiddich over the 18yrs, 21yrs and so on.

To hammer this point home, there are blended malts (blends containing a variety of single malts, but no grain whiskies) that have no age statement, but are superior to many single malts and blends that do.  "Name them Debly!  I want names damn it, you think to yourself."  Ok, consider:  Spice Tree.

Spice Tree is a blended malt made by the Compass Box Whisky Company.  The ingredient single malts making up this blend are all from the Highland region.  They acknowledge Clynelish distillery as one of the sources of the Highland malt in it.  I taste Oban (a great West Highland malt), but this is pure speculation on my part. 

Nose (undiluted)
Malty, sea air, harness leather, dulse, against a rich hot chocolate background.

Palate (undiluted)
Round and sweet flavors of almonds, vanilla, After Eight mint chocolate and poppy seeds which intensify by mid-palate.  Mid-palate the sweetness transitions to drying oak.

Finish (undiluted)
Rich, subdued oak and vanilla transitions into ginger, lime, lemon grass and spices (nutmeg).  Final tastes echoing on the palate are of toned down pepper steak spices and cigar.

Add Water
A little water is also very nice in this dram.  A teaspoon to 3/4 oz (2cl) brings out creamy oak notes.  Makes the whole taste more decadent.  You gotta try it with water and then decide.  As an acquaintance of mine remarked that Spice Tree "is a cracker!"

General Impressions
Impressive!  Reminds me a lot of Oban 14 years, a great highland malt.  Although it is high in alcohol strength (46% volume), it is never offensive.  A smooth, highly quaffable whisky!  A balance is struck between oak, vanilla and rich fruit.  Really drinkable and beats the hell out of some single malts.  I visited the website of Compass Box Whisky and they advise that all the ingredient malts are between 10 and 12 years.  I have no doubt.

Very little peat is present in the flavor profile.  Not a problem, just an observation.  There is smoke, but very restrained.  Sherry flavors are present, but do not dominate.  For someone looking for a step up from blended scotch whisky, without breaking the bank, this is an obvious choice.  It will definitely become a regular fixture in my liquor cabinet, so long as this blender can maintain the consistency of flavors presented in this current bottling.

Very Reasonable Price
This whisky is priced fairly and is even what I consider to be a bit of a bargain.  For example, Oban 14 years is priced nearly twice as much and I can't say it is twice as good.  I acquired Spice Tree for a little more than the price point of Glenfiddich 12 yrs and Glenlivet 12 yrs.  While they are considerably different flavor profiles, Spice Tree is superior.

I liked it so much, I bought two more bottles. 

So, while there is no age statement, don't let that deter you from buying it.

Until next time . . .


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

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey

I was recently out for drinks one summer evening.  I and some friends were sitting in a cafe, under an umbrella, waiting for the waitress to take our drinks order.

I sureveyed the spirits list and it was fairly short.  There was Glenfiddich 12, Glenlivet 12, Jim Beam White Label and Jack Daniel's Old No. 7.  The cafe is known for great nachos and appetizers.  Not whiskies.  I was ok with that.

"I'll have Jack Daniel's and a glass of water."  I like to sip water in between pulls of ol' Jack.

"Do you want that with ice?" she asked.

"No.  I'll be fine, but a glass of water also," I replied.

My fair waitress took all of my friends orders and disappeared only to reappear with another waitress who said, "You wanted ice right?"  Maybe the first waitress was new or it was her first night working.  Big sista had to clear up the mystery of my order.

"No.  Neat will be fine."

I could tell from the quizzical gaze from big sista waitress that using terms like 'neat' was creating confusion.

"No ice, just a shot in a glass and a second glass of water would be great."  I spoke slowly like I was asking for a phone number from an automated telephone directory assistance.  My voice had all the charm of Shimon Peres as I wanted to make sure I was understood.

Evidently,the two waitresses were not accustomed to neat Tennessee whiskey drinkers.  Anyhow, ol' No. 7 was a great compliment to a night of nachos, calimari and light conversation.  A lot of people, who are not familiar with this American whiskey, assume that it is a very strong drink that has a kick comparable to a roundhouse kick from Bruce Lee in his prime.  Not so.  Old No. 7 is a gentle giant that is quite smooth and pleasing for easy-going conversation on a summer's night.

However . . . No. 7's older brother . . . Single Barrel Select is another matter.  As the name implies, this Tennessee whiskey is not blended but rather drawn from individual barrels selected based on tastings by experts at the distillery.  Due to the fact that there is no blending, one can expect a considerably more robust flavor profile.  Single Barrel lives up to that expectation.  It is very powerful and I can say with absolute certainty that this is not recommended for the newcomer to American whiskey.  Don't start here!  Why?  It's simply too strong.  Let's move on to my tasting note and then we can return to this point.

Nose (undiluted)
Leather, vanilla and maple woven together with complexity.  Impressive aromas.

Palate (undiluted)
When I first opened the bottle and poured a drink, I found the whiskey to be very 'hot' and quite frankly 'burning' on the throat.  Two weeks later, the whiskey had become more rounded and lost most of the hot, sharp burn, but not entirely.  The softening of flavors was no doubt a result of exposure to a modest amount of air in the bottle, and that is a good thing. 

Back to the taste:  Not as sweet as Old No. 7, although there is still a sweetness initially detected.  Flavors of spiced rye make an appearance, arm in arm with vanilla, barbecued ribs and oak. 

Finish (undiluted)
Strong finish of wood, a little ash/char maple sugar.  Fairly long finish.

Add Ice? 
Adding ice makes this more palatable than served neat, but there is still that nasty burn.  Ever so faint as the ice melts, but it is present in the base of the throat.  Ice doesn't improve this drink.  The fact that ice cannot take away that burn suggests to me that it is simply too strong to drink.  It is not a mainstream American whiskey.  Maybe this spirit would work well as an ingredient in a cocktail of some kind?  I can imagine that, but until I actually try such a whiskey based cocktail, I am doing little more than speculating.

General Impressions
This is strong stuff.  You really want to take little sips.  Tastes, feels and intoxicates the way you expect Tennessee whiskey can.  It's packs a real wallop.  It leaves a lingering ash flavor in the back of the throat.  Nothing is flawed, but this is just not my cuppa tea or should I say dram.  This is just too much.  Little sips is not enough to minimize a slight discomfort of a burning sensation.  You have to add water or ice to make this more palatable.

The alcohol per volume is 47% and it can be tasted.  To be a stellar American whiskey I would not want to be thinking I am drinking something that strong.  This is where scotch whisky can shine.  For example, Highland Park 25 years is of comparable alcohol by volume, but as you drink it, you are not aware of such a high alcohol content.  This is due to the genius of the people at Highland Park.  Jack Daniel's fails on this point.  It's semi-smooth but take a little too much and you will quickly find your stomach doing some serious butterfly action.  If you have a weak stomach, pass on this one.

In light of the above, this is a whiskey for the serious drinker and fan of bourbon and/or Tennessee whiskey.  Not for the faint of heart.  Many of my readers are in Australia and New Zealand and they are serious fans of American whiskey.  In general, they will no doubt enjoy this more than my Canadian and UK readers who are casual fans of American whiskey.  If you are a casual fan of bourbon or Tennessee whiskey, I would avoid this one.

Price Point
Price obviously varies depending on where you live.  I bought this in New Hampshire for $46.00.  Not cheap, especially in a state that is known for low taxes, as well as the motto on vehicle license plates: "Live Free or Die" which probably should be interpreted as "Live Tax Free or Die" given the State's unrivaled attempt to keep taxes to a minimum.  Bottom line:  I find Single Barrel to be too expensive for what you get.  Wild Turkey 101 and Buffalo Trace are about half the price and better in my opinion.

For American whiskey, I am a big fan of Jim Beam Black, an 8 year old bourbon.  Interesting, smooth yet nuanced and affordable American whiskey is what Jim Bean Black is to me.  I also enjoy Knob Creek and Wild Turkey 101.  Basil Hayden's 8 year old Kentucky Straight Bourbon is also a pleasant, gentle tipple that everyone can enjoy due to its considerable smooth quality.  But, Jack Daniel's Single Barrel is just over the top for me.  It is up front very strong and I am fearful of upsetting my stomach.  I am not a fussy or sensitive fan of American whiskey, but this stuff would put the fear of God in me with every tiny, I mean tiny sip. 

If you surf the web, you can find many positive reviews of this whiskey.  For example, the has reader reviews that are very positive, but you have to factor in that those readers are all American whiskey aficionados.  You have to ask yourself if you are also a connoisseur of Tennessee whiskey?


Jason Debly

NoteSince this particular bottling of Jack Daniels comes from a single barrel, it is certainly possible that this just happened to be a particularly strong one.  The subject of this review was bottled on November 24, 2009 and came from barrel number 9-4870.  Nevertheless, somebody at Jack Daniels had to taste from this particular barrel before making the decision to bottle.  Maybe other single barrel bottlings (obviously from different barrels) will be softer and more approachable. 

Photo Credits:  All photos by Jason Debly, all rights reserved, except for photo of New Hampshire license plate, which belongs to: Amy the Nurse who holds all rights to said photo.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013.  All RIghts Reserved.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Strathisla 12 years old Pure Highland Malt Scotch Whisky

Remember when you were a kid and you played "red light / green light" with your friends?  You were on your friend's front lawn.  There was a line of children and a few yards in front of them was a lone kid with her back to you guys who shouted "Green light!" and you barrel towards her until she spun around yelling "Red light!"  You froze or if still moving got eliminated from the game.  Remember? 

Scotch appreciation runs along the same lines.  Ohh!  Those aromas wafting upwards towards the heavens are a big green light!  I take a sip, I am befuddled, unsure, big yellow light as the honey and limes turns to wasabi . . . lime . . . lye and by the finish, I am hitting the brakes as I skid through the red lights and expect to be t-boned by the freight train of bad taste!

So, let's play 'red light / green light' with Strathisla 12 years old Pure Highland Malt Scotch Whisky.  This single malt is owned by Chivas Brothers and not surprisingly is the core single malt found in the various Chivas Regal blended scotch whiskies. 

I like the Chivas Regal 12 years, a good blended scotch whisky.  I do not like Chivas Regal 18 years, not so good when you factor in the outrageous price point.  I am really impressed with the 21 year old Royal Salute by Chivas Brothers.  So, what's the core single malt found in all of these offerings like?

Nose (undiluted)
Sweet, perfumed, malty, not offensive but not overly attractive . . . Green light . . .

Palate (undiluted)
Initial sip delivers sweet malt, cereal and honey.  We're still 'green.'  Mid-palate you have some unmistakable oak and moderate spices of nutmeg and off-putting thyme?  Huh?  Green light is flickering . . .

Finish (undiluted)
Salted dark chocolate leaves the palate somewhat dry, but kinda like chewing a packet of Nutrasweet.  You got some chemical flavor almost.  Hit the brakes!  Freeze cause she's hollerin' "Red Light!"  What is that on the finish?  Oak?  Yeah, but spoiled oak or barrels that should not be used for aging whisky but rather for furniture!  The oak flavor on the finish is stale, old and somehow flawed.

General Impressions
When I first tried this malt, I liked it.  But upon subsequent tastings I found the flavors all kinda melded together like a blended scotch.  It lost clarity of flavor that is a key characteristic of single malt scotch whisky flavor profiles.  The more I drank this malt, the less I liked it till it became a chore to do.  Why?  Sweet.  This single malt starts out very sweet and mid-palate the malt struggles to rein in the sweetness with some dry flavor of oak, but that is a half hearted attempt as the oak tastes old and stale.  By the time of the finish, there is an unpleasant final note.  Only slightly unpleasant though.  So, over all, it's ok but nothing to write home to Mom about.

I personally would not buy this again.  I actually prefer the Chivas Regal 12 year old blended scotch to this single malt.  That being said, Strathisla 12 years delivers a flavor profile that is superior to the Chivas Regal 18 years blended scotch.  It is also substantially cheaper too. 

I can understand how some people would make this a repeat buy.  The reasons are:  (1) very reasonable price for a 12 year old single malt; (2) sweet and smooth flavor profile with the slightest of spice; (3) very mainstream, girl-next-door style dram.  Nothing exotic or interesting here.  Newcomers to scotch will like this malt because there is no bite, not a lot of peat and smoke in the tradition of Islay whiskies, and generally sweet and smooth.  Matter of fact, I gave away the remaining half bottle of this to a co-worker who is 60 yrs old.  I asked him what he thought of it and he considered it to be great.  He really enjoyed it and repeated over and over how smooth it was.  I also gave him the Chivas Regal 18 and he also was very pleased with it.  The lesson here is that the casual whisky drinker will be more than satisified with this whisky.  What you have to ask yourself is what category you fall within:  casual or serious?  For me, I am in the latter category so I demand more from a whisky.

Oh yeah, returning to the game, I personally would give this neither a green nor a red light but rather yellow!  Proceed with caution as this has got to be one of the most mediocre drams I have had in a while.  A tremendous snore fest.


Jason Debly

Photo credits:   "Stop" - Stop light with bird in New London Connecticut circa May 2007 by Tom Kaszuba;
Bottles of Strathisla on deck by Jason Debly;
Yellow traffic light by womble10791
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2010. All rights reserved. Except for the above noted photos.  All rights reserved by photographers and their permission must be obtained with regard to any use photos.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Scotch Whisky Recommendations for the Newcomer

Decisions, decisions, decisions . . .

When you first place your toe in the ocean of scotch whisky, you can be literally paralyzed with indecision.  Thoughts like: "Which one?  That's too much money!"  "Will it be too peaty?"  "I am looking for something smooth but not too smooth."

I received an email from a reader.  She was looking for suggestions of scotch to try as she was new to it all.  Here is her email followed by my response:

Evening Jason -

Hope you're doing well. I'm a mid to late 20 something that has been dabbling in scotch, and hoping to develop her palate. I made the decision to treat myself to my first bottle, rather on a whim. I walked in to my local LCBO after work yesterday and almost walked out with a Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or but the pressure of deciding on "my first bottle" without doing proper research was too much pressure. I didn't want to make the wrong call.

It was this quest for knowledge that led me to you. My googling for single malt reviews brought up your site, and I got lost in your musings and reviews on whiskey. In fact I covered the site from top to bottom. What I'm hoping for is a recommendation straight from the source (it would be very much appreciated!).

A bit of a background on my scotch dabblings, and normal liquor preferences (to give you a sense of my palate). My scotch drinking has been limited to night caps at family gatherings, the occasional dram with friends while sitting at the wood of a local bar, or a nip with the gents from the office after a tough week. I've had most of the basics, some Talisker, some better stuff from the Highlands, etc but have never had the wherewithal to actually log my samples. Not so helpful when it comes to selecting my first bottle. I've also never been to a formal tasting (though intend to attend Vancouver's scotch festival 'Hopscotch' this fall). I'm not at a level where I can enjoy my scotch neat yet. I generally have it with a rock (possibly two).

As for my normal liquor preferences, I'm a bit of a purist. I enjoy my liquor pretty simply. An absolute favourite is a dirty gin martini (with extra olives). I'm also a self proclaimed wino. This summer, I've been enjoying the mineraly, grassy sauv blanc's from the Marlborough region (a change from last summer where I was enjoying dry Rieslings and pino's - my palate evolves/rotates). In the winter, I alternate between soft and smooth Californian zinfandel's and bigger bolder Cab Franc's. I also enjoy a little port as a night cap. My beer of choice is either an amber ale or a nice spicy ginger beer.

So now for my short list (with much help from your site), as well as the price point from the BC Liquor store's (pricing is atrocious out here). I'm looking to spend roughly between $60 - $90. I don't think I could appreciate anything better as of yet. A question first though - do you have any Glenmorangie reviews?

Highland Park 12 - $64.95
Highland Park 15 - $94.95
Glenmorangie Nectar D'or - $87.95
Glenmorangie 10 - $69.95
Cragganmore 12 - $75.99
Dalwhinnie 15 - $84.99
Dalmore 12 - $69.99

Apologies for the short novel I've left you here! Any advice or recommends you can make for me would be hugely appreciated.

Many thanks in advance.


. . .
My response:
Hi! Sarah,

It was a pleasure to read your email.

I looked at your list and I think some of the choices on there are not ideal for someone who is new to scotch and looking to develop a palate for it. What I mean is that some of the selections are quite bold and strong which might turn you off completely, not something we want to happen. My standing offer to friends of mine where I live (New Brunswick) is that they should start with Cragganmore 12 yrs old, and if they don't like the bottle, I'll buy it. So far, I haven't had to buy a bottle yet. So, my anecdotal experience is that Cragganmore 12 yrs is nice place to start. It is soft, gentle, yet interesting. A real crowd pleaser. If you drink your scotch with ice, Cragganmore would be great for experimenting 'neat.' I like it best with a teaspoon of distilled water to a double pouring.

After Cragganmore, another that I highly recommend is Johnnie Walker Green Label. It is a blend of only single malts (Cragganmore, Talisker, Linkwood and some others). It is a little more complex than Cragganmore and challenging. There is more peat, but by saying that I do not mean a lot of peat, just a nice intro. Johnnie Walker is so common in the market place that people think it cannot be good but this is not true. The Green Label is outstanding.

After these two I would also recommend Glenfiddich 15 yrs (sometimes labeled 'Solera'). This is another honeyed, heather cinnamon scotch that is a crowd pleaser. It will not disappoint.

All of the above suggestions are of the family of flavor profiles that are honeyed, cinammon, heather, sweet yet drying on the finish and simply great. If you like a little more sherry flavors in your scotch consider the following:

GlenDronach 12
Balvenie 12 yr Doublewood
Macallan 12 yr

These are a little more challenging and heavier in flavor than the others.

Highland Park scotches are excellent. I think they can be a bit overwhelming for someone new to them. At least that was the case for me. If you want to venture into them, I think ideally spend a couple of months sampling Cragganmore, Johnnie Walker Green Label and Glenfiddich 15, and then step up to Highland Park 15 yrs. It is gentler than the 12 yrs which I find a little too sherried for my liking. Another one is Dalwhinnie 15.

If you find yourself in a bar with not much in the selection of scotch consider the following gentle drams:

Crown Royal
Jack Daniel's Ol No. 7 - Yes, it is gentle and nice.
Gibson's Finest 18yrs
Jim Beam Black
Johnnie Walker Black (might prefer with two ice cubes).

As for the Glenmorangie, they have many offerings.  I recommend starting with the Nectar D'Or.  Honeyed, heather and complexity.  Gentle but fun!  Lasanta is sherried and again most enjoyable.  Another is Quinta Ruban where the spirit was finished for a year or two in ex-port casks.  It is outstanding but very powerful.  Big cherries, plums and dark fruit.  A show-stopper!

Hope this helps!

Thanks for emailing and visiting the blog!


. . .
Agree? Disagree?  Please comment.  I will publish all responses.
Take care,
Jason Debly

Photo Credit: Stephs Photo Story
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved except for photo which vests with photographer.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength / Batch 001 / Bot. 2009

Guest reviewer Ripley is back!  His latest peaty review is Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength / Batch 001 / Bot. February 2009.   I hope you enjoy his contribution to this blog as much as I have!  Please read on:

Right on the top of the bottle, in large font, is "Batch 001" on one line, and "Bottled Feb .09" just below. The first thing I want to say is that this kind of labeling on the bottle is super smart. For one thing, my 47 year old eyes can clearly see it! The other thing is you can compare the bottle in your hands with someone else's review. How often have you found the exact bottling of what you read a review about? It may be my 47 year old eyes, but I can't seem to find any indication on most bottles about dates - so how do you know if you are sipping a 2009 or 2010 bottling, or a 2009 or 2010 release, etc? Of course blog reviews are much more up-to-date than books, which is why I read Jason's blog regularly.

Well anyway, in the case of what is currently available for the Laphroaig Cask Strength, this is it, at 57.8% APV. Batch 002 has not been released yet. The reason they started numbering batches is because in the past, when they had multiple bottlings per year, the Distillery found it difficult to match % APV. This way they don't have to try and match alcohol level of the last bottling, and it is easier all around.

This whisky is not processed, just "barrier-filtered". From their website:

"We mature Laphroaig in seasoned oak barrels, charred before filling to impart a slight sweet vanilla nuttiness. Original Cask Strength Laphroaig is barrier-filtered only just, to remove the small char particles present. This means you will enjoy Laphroaig exactly as we made it."

When I first sampled a dram from my 1st bottle, I went into a hallucinogenic fugue...this whisky just blew me away. Next day, when I sampled another dram, I thought "what was I thinking...". I took a whisky vacation for a week and on my third sample I was seriously in love with this Laphroaig Cask Strength. This only goes to show (for me at least) that you need to spend some time with a whisky to get to know it, and that your taste buds will fluctuate from day to day, week to week, etc.... I think we develop tastes over time, so staying with one bottle for a while, without mixing it up with another, makes sense.

I remember reading an article many years ago. It said that children (and adults) need to taste something at least 7 times before they develop a taste for it or can honestly say they don't like it. I find that quite true in my life.

OK - this is an Islay, one of the core whisky makers from that wonderful island in Scotland. This is also some seriously powerful whisky - 57.8%! The bottle says to mix it with water in a 2 to 1 ratio, on the website it says "Adding a little water releases a rich aroma of peat smoke with some sweetness and strong hints of the sea.". I find that more than 1/3 water is too much. I haven't tried it with ice, but I will try that next time and add a comment on it. I like starting with 1/3 water and then working backwards to no water, to give you a nice spread on what this whisky is all about and not blow the taste buds on the first few sips. In some ways this is similar to the Quarter Cask, but not as richly sweet, it has more a whiff of elegant sweetness with definitely more peat and spiciness.

A thick, dark golden.

Swirl and sniff, swirl and sniff, swirl and ...wait a minute here...where's my big wallop of peat? I get hints of rich sweet cake with a distant slight whiff of smoke but I'm expecting CASK STRENGTH PEAT here... Oh, but add a little water, swirl, let it sit for a few minutes and voila: The sweet cake comes closer and the peat smoke starts drifting past your face. Still a little sweet, but not too rich.

Take a little sip and oh my, there is it, what Laphroaig is all about: Big peat smoke with beautiful Cuban coffee burnt banana sweetness while sitting on a beach chair near the ocean - can the balance get any better - I don't know, but I am in love. And oh this is chewy and grand, and then it knocks you out with spicy pepper.

There is the recent finish and then the finish finish - for which this whisky has none - it stays with forever...This has got to have the most staying and longest finish of any yet I have tried - big finish with nice after-effects. The peat is the longest sustainer, in fact you feel in in your pores and when you breathe, you taste the peat in your breath. It lingers with you like you are inhaling a distant campfire.

As I mentioned in a blog response to Jason, "There is something VERY special about this one. I can't nail it on the head but it it is big, beautiful, and complex". There is no other whisky that I thought was worth more money then I paid. I got this one on sale for $50 and then paid $52 for a second bottle. It's about $60 US where I live, and that is definitely OK. I'm on my 2nd bottle, and I still agree with myself!