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.