Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year!

No scotch review today!

Just a wish.

"Have a Happy New Year!"

Unfortunately, saying so, is much easier than doing so.

You may be on top of the world, with the stars lining up and all your troubles behind you.  A fat bank account, loving spouse, nice home and a satisfying career.  You are truly fortunate, and I wish you every success in the New Year.

However, many people have burdens in life.  Maybe the wife got up and left (that's supposed to be a bad thing guys!); or maybe you have been laid off, and now are doing the type of menial work that you last did when you were 16 while the mortgage slips into arrears; or maybe you have run out of money and have to leave college.  The problems people have can at times seem insurmountable and vary widely.  Some people though have it much worse.

Syrian women hold vigil for loved ones - December 2011

As New Year's Eve approaches, some people are under the heel of a regime that will not let go of power, and will not heed the demands of its citizens for change.

The United Nations reports more than  5,000 unarmed Syrians killed by their own government.  In the city of Homs, government snipers, enforce a curfew to prevent protests, by sitting on rooftops and shooting anyone on the streets between 4pm through 9 am the following morning.  That has meant a pregnant lady who ventured out one morning into the street during the 'curfew' to do some shopping was killed.  Her brothers had to wait some agonizing time before they could retrieve her body from the street while risking being shot too.  Don't believe me.  Click here for the story on CNN or go to Twitter, type in 'Homs' (major Syrian city) and see the horrific video uploads and first hand accounts from ordinary citizen's cellphones.

Those, my friend, are problems.

I am not trying to trivialize the problems of people elsewhere in the world.  Your problems that involve health, employment or loved ones are also very significant.  And guess what?  There is hope.  Good triumphs evil.  Eventually.  A better job will come one day.  Your health will improve or stabilize.  The economy will bounce back.  Bashar al-Assad's regime will fall.

At this time of year, you will hear on the radio Auld Lang Syne, in band halls and bars.  Not my favorite New Year's song.  Mine is different.  Redemption Song

The opening lines of this plaintive ballad sums up the hope of all people and the conviction that good always triumphs evil.

Old pirates, yes, they rob I
Sold I to the merchant ships
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit
But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the almighty
We forward in this generation

Bob Marley was singing about the misery and the hopelessness of blacks in the slave trade.  He could have been writing about the Syrians protesting in the street in the face of troops firing at them.  He could have been writing about you and a crippling disease that is taking, each day, a little more of your breath away.  But, always remember:

But my hand was made strong
By the hand of the Almighty

I don't know your conception of God and I am not here to impose one.  Maybe God is justice, doing right, the triumph of good over evil.  For me, it is akin to Hindu version of karma.  If one does good, one reaps good.  If one does evil, one reaps evil.

Syrian protesters - December 2011

Just as one day, the hands of the slaves were made strong by the hand of the Almighty, the hands of the Syrian protesters, and yours, will be made strong, in whatever plight you and they face.  That's my New Year's wish for you.

Jason Debly

Photographs: Reuters
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved except for lyrics and music of the song 'Redemption Song" by Bob Marley and released on Island Records.  Copyright and all other rights belong to the estate of Bob Marley and/or his music publisher.  The song is reproduced here for educational purposes only.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best Scotch Whisky of 2011

Santa is coming soon.  What will he bring you?  Santa, if you are reading this, please take note.

Over the past year, I reviewed a number of blends and single malts.  Who were the stunners that would make excellent gifts to good boys and girls the world over?

GlenDronach 15 year old Revival ($75)
This is a sherried dram.  Bursting forth with lots of frothy red fruit, blackberry, orient spices and tobacco.  Powerful, leaving a long taste of smoke and plums.  Highly recommended for the boys and girls who like sherried whisky.

Te Bheag Connoisseur's Blended Scotch ($35)
This is not a well known blended scotch.  Very hard to find in the US, but available in Canada and the UK.

Probably the best blended scotch whisky discovery in my opinion of the past year was Te Bheag (pronounced che vek).  It's reasonably priced and delivers great flavors of tobacco, peat and sherry, woven well, with no bitterness, bite or alcohol peeking through.  I was amazed by this blend and frankly I think it disappeared off my shelf in about two weeks!

Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky ($20)
Another blend makes Santa's list this year:  Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky.  Incredibly affordable at around $20, but damn impressive if you like peat and smoke from Islay to tickle your taste buds.  Sweet peat, gentle fire smoke of damp spruce tree branches by the beach on an overcast day.  Wow!

Highland Park 15 years ($72)
Highland Park 15 years was a discovery of mine in 2010, but I revisited it (click here) again in 2011.  Simply an expensive and brilliant shining diamond of a single malt.  This malt brings together what is magical about whisky in one bottle.  You have peat and heather, honey and toffee complimented by smoke.

Johnnie Walker Green Label ($50)
Sometimes Santa needs to give a gift that he is sure is a well recognized crowd pleaser that gives a taste of all the regions of Scotland.  Johnnie Walker Green is soft honey, drizzled over toast with lemon zest, sea spray and a hint of peat that always makes those good girls and boys happy on Christmas day!

Hopefully, we have all been nice and not naughty, so that ol' St. Nick will bring us something we can enjoy over the holidays!

Jason Debly

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Scotch Whisky Appreciation is Empiricism Tempered by Subjectivism

Prague Castle and Straka Academy at night from Cech Bridge, Prague 

I received a visitor from the Czech Republic.  Well, he did not actually visit me, but rather this blog, which is kinda like an extension of my home.  If you like whisky, I welcome you into my online abode.  In any event, my Czech visitor wrote the following email:

Hi Jason,

I just want to give you my big thanks for how you unflaggingly keep your blog alive which is immensely inspiring for a whisky newbie like me. I  tripped over your blog when searching for a good whisky I could present my friend with on the occasion of his 30`s birthdays few months ago and based on your reviews I chose Highland Park 15. Another friend of mine, also now in his 30`s, was gifted Macallan 12 cherry oak and, luckily, Hibiki 17 and so we decided to conduct our very first collective tasting. To make it even more interesting I had listened to you and contributed to this event by buying a bottle of Cragganmore 12 and, just for comparison, I also brought a recently opened bottle of Tullamore Dew 12. The order was following:

 1. Tullamore
 2. Cragganmore
 3. Macallan 12
 4. Highland Park 15
 5. Hibiki 17

 I have to say that until this tasting I was a 60% bourbon drinker and 40 % Irish whisky drinker, all I have  tasted so far from scotch was Johnnie Walker Red and Black several years ago, so I was honestly a little afraid if I could appreciate this excellent, but to me quite unknown stuff. I felt kinda like cast pearls before swine, meant me :) To my relief I can say, that there wasnt any whisky I didnt like.

 Started with Tullamore we agreed that it was a nice stuff, maybe still a little harsh but overall easy drinking. We were still musing about Tullamore while I was pouring us the Cragganmore and when we raised our glasses to our noses it caught us utterly unprepared to what arrived. The nose was, compared to Tullamore, so rich, complex and pleasantly overwhelming (it felt like smelling a jug of honey to me) that we just unbelievingly stared at each other and I was silently  praising you for having reccomended this whisky as a good choice  for newbies. Tullamore was immediately forgotten because we were kicked several stores above. And the finish was so long, the taste of oak went on and on and on, great! With anticipation we proceeded to Macallan.  I was personally anticipated quite a lot from this whisky but honestly it didnt WOW me. Do not take me wrong, it was a good experience, the nose and the palate were in my humble opinion very nice, smooth and all the tastes well refined together, but then, right after swallowing it, it was gone. Nothing. Compared to Cragganmore, Macallan did quite poorly speaking about the finish. The another day, when we gave Macallan another chance, the finish improved a bit (maybe because the air inside the bottle did some work?), but still, quite short. 

Anyway, the next one was the Highland Park and I remembered your post about being in the presence of greatness :) Well, I have to admit that I could detect the quality hidden inside the bottle, the nose, the palate and the finish didnt dissapointed me a bit, but I just wasnt able to recognize so much flavors and scents out of it like for example from the Cragganmore.  Highland Park left me with a feeling that there are plenty of flavors, very well refined and mixed together, but due to my inexperience out of my reach its still a very long distance I have to make on my whisky-knowledge path before I will be able to detect them all. Anyway, an excellent whisky and I am looking forward to my next encounter with it! The last, but definitely not the least was Hibiki. The nose was absolutely fantastic! I couldnt help myself but I could mainly detect some punch-like cherry tones, strong yet smooth, something I definitely didnt expect to scent from any whisky. The taste was also very pleasing, no unpleasant notes there, blenders masterpiece I would say. The finish was very satisfying and we couldn agree if it was longer than in Cragganmore case or not. After various tastings here are the winners:

 1. Hibiki
 2. Highland Park
 3. Cragganmore (I still wonder if I didnt like it even more than Highland
 Park, but as I said, there is that definite quality hidden in HP I cannot deny
 4. Macallan
 5. Tullamore

 To conclude, this was a wonderful experience for all of us, like when you open a hidden door and find another world behind that you never new about before - the world of single malts (forgive me Hibiki) and since then we are all on the quest of discovering and relishing all the good things which whisky producers have prepared for us :)

Jason, thank you very much again because as my favorite blogger you have contributed greatly to this new hobby of mine and I will definitely stay faithful to your blog and will be looking forward to the post that you place there in the future!

Keep writing!
It is worth reading ;)

Best regards,

. . .

I am very flattered to have received that email!  Sure, it is always nice to hear someone likes what I am writing, but the real reason I post the email from David is to argue that whisky appreciation is not simply a matter of beauty in the eye of the beholder.  Moreover, I wish to challenge the generally held belief of most people that one's likes or dislikes of a given whisky are purely subjective and have no empirical/objective basis.

Absolute Truths
I believe that there are some absolute truths in this world of ours:

(1)  it is always wrong to torture children;

(2) never drink wine from a paper cup; and

(3) knowledge of good and inferior whiskies is obtained via sensory perception.

And guess what?  David's email is support of that final immutable proposition.

If you gave me the very same line-up of whiskies that he and his friends tasted and evaluated, I too, would have ranked them in the very same order.  So would most of my friends.  That's not a coincidence.  But, let's say someone would rank Hibiki second to say Highland Park 15, I could accept that and still believe my argument holds water that there are objective criteria distinguishing great from not-so-great whiskies.

The Myth of Subjectivism
If the beauty of whisky was truly in the eye of the beholder, then it would be true and self-evident to all that Ballantine's Finest or Bell's Blended Scotch is just as good a scotch whisky as say Royal Salute 21 years or Johnnie Walker Blue Label.  No one seriously believes that, nor does the fundamental economics law of supply and demand support such a view.

Why?  The two cheap blends are grainy while the latter two are not.  The two bottom-shelf residents are terribly sweet with no relief or flavor development.  The reasons are endless.  In other words, the high-end whiskies provide a much more pleasant tasting experience.  So, it is a myth to say that the merits of a whisky are solely in the eye of the beholder.  With so many examples of great versus terrible whisky comparisons that we can all agree on, it can't be true that it's all just in the 'eye of the beholder.'

The Reality of Subjectivism
Having said the above, let's not dismiss entirely what we, ourselves, bring to the tasting experience.  We bring our own opinions, some held critically, while others dogmatically (i.e. Islay peat bombs are simply superior to Speyside honeyed malts).  A peat and smoke freak will invariably rank Laphroaig 18 higher than say Hibiki 17.  They are two very different whiskies.  So are Hibiki 17 and Highland Park 15 years.  A person who derives more delight in robust toffee and heather flavors will rank the Highland Park higher than the Hibiki.  Is this wrong?  I would say 'no.'  Am I contradicting myself?  No.

You might be thinking:

"Jason, you can't have it both ways.  Whisky appreciation cannot on one hand be based on objective criteria that we can all agree on, and on the other, be based in part on our subjective thoughts and feelings."

. . .

And, that my friend is exactly what I am saying.  Appreciation of great whisky is a two-step approach.  First, objective and then subjective.  

Hibiki 17 versus Highland Park 15 yrs
These are both fantastic whiskies.  Which is better?  It's kinda like saying my Mercedes S-Classs sedan is better than your BMW 7 Series sedan (by the way, I own neither).  One vehicle is not better than the other, just different.  One vehicle might accelerate half a second quicker, but the slower luxury sedan has a quieter engine.   They are both majestic automobiles.

At the same time, we can easily agree that the Mercedes S-Class is superior to the Hyundai Accent.  We have objective, sensory based data that we can measure.  The Mercedes drives quieter, has more horse power, all-wheel-drive versus front wheel drive, softer leather, greater aesthetics (ie. wood grain dash versus plastic).  Like the Ballantine's Finest versus Royal Salute comparison, the list of reasons goes on endlessly too.

However, when we compare the Mercedes S-class to a BMW 7-series, it is no longer readily apparent that one vehicle is better than the other.  Both have beautiful leather seating, quiet ride, immaculate handling, etc.  The vehicle you rank higher will now depend on your second phase of analysis that involves your own personal preferences, like an affection for sports car performance (BMW) or placing a premium on a serene driving experience like floating on a cloud (Mercedes).  Whichever one you end up ranking as the best is just as valid as my own opposing view.  

The Hybrid Approach
Similarly, in the appreciation of whisky, there is an objective basis for declaring some whiskies are great (Royal Salute 21) and others not (Bell's).  But, between two great whiskies, the competition becomes based upon the likes or dislikes of the individual.  Between two great whiskies, the beauty in the eye of the beholder view has merit.  Accordingly, we need to recognize that we practice a two-phase or hybrid approach to whisky appreciation.  First, there is an initial objective review followed by a secondary subjective review.

What can we take away from this discussion?

I think it is fair to declare some whiskies are not as good as others.  We can make that determination about other consumer goods, why not whisky?  Of course, once a whisky meets a certain benchmark of excellence of craft, the decision of whether or not one is better than the other is not verifiable, except by reference to your own likes and dislikes.  Hence, I can declare with authority that poor old Bell's or Ballantine's Finest cannot hold a candle to a great many other scotch whiskies, but not authoritatively state Royal Salute is better than Johnnie Walker Blue, without relying heavily on my individual likes and dislikes.  Difficulties arise when we try to decide which whiskies among the great are better.  This is because we have a differing sense of where the 'certain benchmark of excellence' a whisky must obtain is located.

For me, a whisky can be great where it exhibits the following:
  • smooth but interesting;
  • no raw alcohol taste;
  • no nasty bite or bitterness;
  • there has to be an evolution of the flavor profile;  It has to go somewhere.  It can't be just smooth and sweet.  The whisky needs to transition from sweet to big sherry or big peat or slight sherry, slight lemon or whatever.  It can start sweet but become drying by the time of the finish.  
  • There needs to be some texture, tapestry of flavor woven in with that smooth overall character;
  • Finally, a great whisky needs to be 'complex';  The meaning of this term is most elusive, but I will try anyway:  an intricacy of flavor that is original, attractive, and takes time to understand. 

How's that for a stab?

And for the record, the Hibiki 17 years is superior to Highland Park 15, but only by the slimmest of margins!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for the photograph of Prague and various automobiles.  The photograph is used with permission of the photographer, Vlastula.  He retains all copyright and license to this photo.  Please click on his name for a link to Flickr where you can enjoy more of his great photography.  Photographs of Hyundai and Mercedes were taken by Wikipedia user IFCAR.  All rights to these images have been released into the public domain.  Photograph of BMW 7 Series was by Wikipedia user Mariordo who has granted a license for its image to be used here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

New Brunswick Spirits Festival 2011

The appreciation of whisky does not have to be a solitary experience with a Glencairn glass or a tumbler at night in your book lined study.  Whisky can be paired with food and enjoyed with a crowd, resulting in a most pleasing experience.  The trick of course is to make the right food pairing.

The 2011 New Brunswick Spirits Festival started for me with a dinner on a Wednesday evening at the Fredericton Delta Hotel.  The hotel chef worked with whisky critic, Martine Nouet, to bring to life the recipes she sent him from Islay (her current home).  It was at times frustrating for the chef who strained to decipher the peculiar recipes supplied by Martine and revised via long distance phone calls in her heavily accented English.  The chef's frustration though was well worth the price of admission.   Read the menu pictured above by clicking on it.  The food and the whisky was fantastic!

Initially, I was thinking to myself that this meal is very expensive and I cannot fully appreciate the whiskies because of the food.  I was getting too caught up in the feeling that I was missing some profound nuance of the whiskies being featured.  I was brought back to earth by an astute observation from a friend (pictured above on the right) who pointed out that a whisky dinner and the festival for that matter are more about mixing with people than the whisky itself.  Of course the whisky is a focal point, but it's not the only one.  Just as people make a workplace great or not, so do people at an event like the N.B. Spirits Festival.  So, should one engage in the cold cost benefit analysis whereby one thinks "for that amount of money I could have had a couple of great bottles added to my collection?"  No!  Banish such thoughts from your malted mind.  Whisky festivals are, first and foremost, about people.

Pictured above were some fellow scotch nuts that I hung out with at the event.  We tried a number of scotch whiskies.  Some great and some not so great.

Highland Park 21 years
A very good malt that was quite powerful.  Wood spice, cardamon, leather and dark cherry.  A little sip goes a very long way.  A finish that went on for minutes.  Wow!  The only aspect of this single malt that none of us enjoyed was the price: $280 a bottle!

The Macallan 18 years Sherry Oak
Some whisky festival participants use the event as an opportunity to try new whiskies that they have never had before.  Me?  Not necessarily so.  I always make an exception for the Macallan 18 years Sherry Oak.  On this evening it was a little underwhelming.  I found it too smooth, and not terribly complex, as it should be given the price point.  Nevertheless, it disappeared from my glass mighty quick.  The Macallan 18 years has lately been less complex than I recall in years passed.  Accordingly, as much as this whisky has a special place in my heart, I am only buying it when on sale at a steep discount.

Ardmore Traditional Cask
Ardmore, as you probably know, is one of the core single malts composing the great economy blended scotch: Teacher's Highland Cream.  I like Teacher's a lot.  Unfortunately, the motley crew I was hanging with were less impressed.  They're just wrong.  In any case, I thought it would be fun to try the single malt, Ardmore, and it did not disappoint.  A malty, chocolate-like whisky that did not let us down.  Maybe a little smoother than expected and not overly complex, but at the price point of $41 I was not complaining.  I would not hesitate to buy this one.  If you like Teacher's, you will love Ardmore.

Oban Distiller's Edition
This malt was good, but the consensus amongst the posse I was riding with was that the standard bottling of Oban was better.  The experience brings to mind the consistent opinion I hold on all 'distiller's edition" regardless of the distillery:  Don't think for a second that a distiller's edition is necessarily better than a standard bottling.  It is just different.  Not better.  Just different.  Try to remember that when you have this or any DE in your hand and weighing the decision of whether or not to plunk down the extra money.  Our observations of a Talisker Distiller's edition were the same too.

Glendronach 15 year old Revival
We tasted a few other whiskies that were not so good, but we were all very impressed and surprised by GlenDronach 15 years.  A concentrated punch of juicy red fruits and berries, sherry, toffee and wood smoke.  We all really liked this one, placing it second to Highland Park 21.  Go buy the GlenDronach 15 if you like a sherried whisky.  Tastes much older than 15 years.  Probably the best whisky of its class and even the 18 year olds this year!  Highly recommended!

What I took away from the evening is this:  whiskies over 18 years are not necessarily better.  Just different.  Same goes for Distiller's Editions.  Matter of fact, human nature being what it is, we generally prefer familiarity (ie. standard bottlings of say Talisker or Oban) as opposed to exotic distiller's editions.  They tend to be a little out of balance (ie. over-oaked or too much of another taste depending on what the spirit was finished in).  As the Master Blender attempts to make something great, he also runs the risk of over-doing it.  And Finally:  Good friends sharing a dram with you make any bad dram you encounter, not so bad after all!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Crown Royal Black Canadian Whisky

Colonial Tavern, Toronto, Nov. 21, 1977 Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin

Let's say I have the opportunity to jam with B.B. King on some blues classics. And let's go further and say Mr. King will graciously play rhythm guitar and while I lay down some lead with my trusty axe.  The notes I hit have to be within the framework or the accepted scales (ie. 12-bar blues) or conventions of blues music.  Otherwise, the jam session will not be a blues jam, just a cacophonous disaster similar to the sounds of flying metal of a Russian satellite hurtling towards earth or Judge Judy chewing out a poor, hapless litigant.  Of course, I can take some chances and toss in some flamenco or maybe bluegrass, but I can't deviate too far.

For example, I cannot, midway through The Thrill Is Gone launch into chunks of a Randy Rhoad's guitar solo taken from his spellbinding performance of Suicide Solution with Ozzy Osbourne.

I just can't do that!  I have too much respect for Mr. King (and the memory  of the late Mr. Rhoads) and besides, the Blues jam would be ruined.

I'm all for innovation, but hey, ya gotta work within a certain framework or paradigm (I can't believe I just uttered that pretentious word).  If you completely disregard your context, you may succeed (very remote chance) or fail miserably (sadly more than likely).

Crown Royal Black Canadian Whisky

Crown Royal (click here for my review) is a towering classic Canadian whisky.  Enormously popular in Canada, the US and UK for its light, delicate fruit, vanilla, slight oak and a zing of rye that is smooth and satisfying to the casual drinker and the whisky nut.  A classic right?  So, why mess with a classic?  Well, if you are multinational company like Diageo (owner of the brand), you are always looking for ways to make more money.  Hence, product line extensions.

Currently, there are six brand variations available: Crown Royal Deluxe (standard bottling); Crown Royal Black; Crown Royal Limited Edition; Crown Royal Reserve; Cask 16; and Crown Royal XR.  Obviously there is money in extending a brand line.  Just ask the suits that own the Famous Grouse brand.  Trouble is . . . you have to make every new edition a little different, innovative, but not to the point that you disconnect from the conventions of your beverage that put you on the map in the first place.  Kinda like my imaginary jam session with B.B. King.

Crown Royal Black is the latest extension of the product line.  Introduced in April 2010 in the United States.  

The concept behind Crown Royal Black is to deliver a robust, full-bodied Canadian whisky with heavy helpings of oak, higher strength (90 proof) and bourbon notes.  Bourbon notes?  Yeah.  But before we address that attempt at innovation in Canadian whisky, let's deal with the most alarming issue when you pour yourself a drink.

It's dark.  I mean seriously dark, amber, and opaque, like divining your significant other's reason for the blackest of moods without the use of words.

What's going on here?  I think serious amounts of E150 (spirit caramel) were added to create the dark near coffee color.  I am not aware of any Canadian whisky or scotch for that matter that is dark as this whisky.  Even 25 year old single malts are not this dark.  An additive was used to get it that dark.  No doubt about it.  That being said, my first reaction is "so what?"  Adding caramel is usually in amounts that is not discernible to taste.  It is done to make the spirit more appealing to the eye and imply considerable aging.  In any case, I think they went over board on this one.

Nose (undiluted)
Cherries, vanilla, floral and perfumed.  Pleasant, masculine, but not what I would call 'refined' or 'memorable.'

Palate (undiluted)
Molasses, dark Christmas fruit cake with lots of rum in the recipe, vanilla, oak and then . . . WTF!(#*@Y*$(:  bourbon?  Yeah, serious bourbon notes.  That sure threw me for a curve.  It is down right odd to taste this amount of bourbon in a Canadian whisky.  If that is not weird enough, you get serious coca cola flavors and that unmistakable soda fizz too.

Finish (undiluted)
The finish is rum like.  I am talking Havana Club 7 years with more of that coca-cola-esque fizz/nip.

General Impressions
If this was served to me in a blind tasting, I would guess it was either an aged, dark rum or a bourbon of some kind.  I would never think of it as a Canadian whisky.  Matter of fact, if they lifted the blindfold off me, I would be shocked to see that I was drinking from a bottle labelled "Crown Royal," as Crown Royal Black has no connection with the standard Crown Royal flavor profile.  None, zero, nada.  The only similarities between these two spirits is the sharing of the same brand name, bottle shape and multinational corporate parent (Diageo).

Crown Royal Black strikes me as a genuine attempt by the master blender to break new ground, by blending a more robust Canadian whisky.  The trouble is that the bourbon notes are over the top, followed by dark rum tastes that goes too far from what makes a Canadian whisky great.  It is not wise to tamper with the immutable conventions of Canadian whisky, but unfortunately they have to their detriment.

I drink this and I am truly baffled.  Does this spirit want to be a rum or a bourbon?  A real existential crisis of sorts is going on.  An unpleasant exorcism is needed from my liquor cabinet.

In general, Canadian whisky is a medium bodied, smooth with a flourish of the spices of rye spirit.  Sure there can be variations where some whiskies are heavier than others or more spiced, but the paradigm does not permit huge bourbon flavors or rum notes.  If you want rum, buy rum.  If you want bourbon, buy American bourbon.  Drink Crown Royal Black and you will not know what to make of it.

On the positive side: (1) it is not biting, in spite of being 90 proof, (2) relatively smooth; (3) works as a party drink on the rocks or with mix.  If you visit the Crown Royal website, they even recommend drinking this on the rocks.  This is a party drink.  It is not intended as a companion to profound fire side chats to be consumed neat as the flames lick the logs and cast off interesting shadows.

For me, Crown Royal Black is an experiment that has failed.  It is baffling, like trying to figure out the meaning of REM lyrics.  The master blender needs to take note of how Randy Rhodes took the conventions of heavy metal guitar to new bounds by gently stretching with a few classical guitar landmarks (scales, minor keys, etc.), but not to the point of confusing the listener.  They still knew they were listening to a great heavy metal song.  Me, I am confused.  I am not sure I am drinking Canadian whisky, but rather some horrible bastardization that can't decide if it wants to be bourbon or dark rum.

There are fans of this whisky, but clearly I am not one of them.  For an alternative opinion try the Canadian Whisky site (click here) for a review by it's critic, Davin de Kergommeaux.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Of course, the song "Suicide Solution" belongs to Ozzy Osbourne and the Youtube link is posted merely for nostalgic and educational purposes.  Moreover, all rights concerning the photo of B.B. King are held by the photographer, Jean-Luc Ourlin.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review: Isle of Jura Superstition

Isle of Jura - by Rob Woodall

Travel Writer
I bore easily.  But, I don't think I would ever tire of being a travel writer.  I am not a travel writer, but if I were, I am damn sure I would be a good one.  Think of me as the Anthony Bourdain of scotch and world whiskies, instead of featuring excellent cuisine in far off and obscure locales, as seen on Bourdain's entertaining television program: No Reservations, I'd visit Japanese whisky bars, down-and-out Danish liquor stores, up-and-coming whisky distilleries in India, and that piece of rock jutting out into the inhospitable Scottish sea called: Isle of Jura.

Another view of Jura - by Rob Woodall

Isle of Jura
Barren, jagged, windswept, that's Jura.  A 2001 census placed the island population at 188 and I don't hear that it has changed much.  There is one church, store, and hotel, and a distillery. One little settlement: Craighouse.  That's it.  No traffic, subdivisions, light pollution, urban sprawl or other manifestations of modernity.  Just you, the wind, sea, rock and deer.  Ain't that great!  I mean it.  I'd hike all over it, find a spot that no one has visited, settle down, reach for a flask and take a sip as I gaze out to sea.  And what I would sip would be some of the local spirit: Isle of Jura Superstition.

Isle of Jura Superstition Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Nose (undiluted)
Slight peat, a wee smoke and grass clippings. Wet cedar bushes.  Maritime.  Do I see a clipper on the horizon?

Palate (undiluted)
A light bodied scotch serving up smooth tastes of angel hair weight peat, light malt and the gentlest of mint and phenolic compounds.  Lightly smoked kippers.  Do I detect sherry?  Yes.  Very restrained.

Finish (undiluted)
Ginger, camphor enveloped in mild corona cigar smoke.  Becomes a tad medicinal upon repeated sips, but somehow does not prevent me from reaching for more.

General Impressions
This is a no-age-statement single malt and that's ok.  I am not hung up on age statements.  I just care about taste.  The taste of Isle of Jura Superstition is surprisingly not young, cheap or bitter.  No bite, just a caress that leaves you wanting another drink.  Very drinkable.

Flaws? Complaints?
As I mentioned above, it's a tad medicinal on the finish.  Repeat sips will reveal that hospital bandage with heavily scented ointment experience.  It's a minor complaint, and somehow doesn't bother me.  Strangely amuses me actually.

Overall, Isle of Jura Superstition is a very pleasant, no-age-statement, single malt that delivers a light scotch treatment of slight smoke, easy peat and some other maritime flavors.  Just understand that this is not a show-stopper, one of the all-time great malts like Lagavulin and Talisker.  You get what you pay for.  Pay a reasonable price, you get a reasonable malt.  I am not unhappy with my purchase and sure that I would truly enjoy it out in the wilderness, much to the chagrin of my imaginary film and sound crew.

Peer Review
While this single malt is not technically an Islay malt, it is located adjacent to Islay, and so it is no surprise that it enjoys a similar style.  At the same time, Superstition has common flavor characteristics with Talisker, a malt from another island.  Isle of Jura Superstition is much less peaty and smoky than say Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig.  It is more like a younger brother to Talisker, or a poor man's Talisker.  A faint, wispy malt sprinkled with peat and smoke (instead of being heavily laden as the case with many Islays) that is very pleasing, not terribly complex, but no apparent flaws either. When you factor in the low price of Superstition, I have to say I am a fan.  Good value for money here.

So, if you are a Food Network exec, contact me and let's shoot an episode on the Isle of Jura . . .


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Note:  Photos of the Isle of Jura are by Rob Woodall and he retains all copyright to said photos.  They are used here with his permission.  Other photos by this great photographer are available at Flickr.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Scotch Whisky Search Continues . . .

I am a man on a mission.  Lately, all the scotch and other whiskies of the world I have been reviewing have been quite unexceptional, middle-of-the-road, take-no-chances, snore fest, white Oxford button-down shirt kinda stuff.

I need some tire screeching, Ferrari engine red-lining, acid flashback memories of a shouting match with an ex-girlfriend in a French, white table cloth, restaurant in front of all those nice diners in their hushed conversations, Brooks Brothers navy blazers and Prada dresses, while I wear a fine barolo tossed in my face by some screaming harpie that I thought was normal and turned out to be about as well adjusted as Sybil! (all the while I am thinking we're gonna make up and in her fury she is nevertheless beautiful!)  Yeah, gimme some of that excitement and tension!  What scotch can deliver that kind of roller coaster ride of the palate?  I need some plaid jacket style whisky with a wild paisley lining!

I know what you are thinking.  Highland Park 12, 18, Macallan 18, Hibiki 17 and a few others deliver that excitement.  Yes, I agree!  Wholeheartedly, but I want a new discovery.  Those aforementioned nobility of the spirits world are obvious.  I need to find a single malt or other world whisky that is not so obvious.  Kinda like my discovery of Jim Beam Black.  I still marvel at how damn good that bourbon is even though it costs $19 a bottle!

I am not looking for a bargain.  I figure that one day I will be dead a long time, so damn the cost!  I am desperate for an explosion of flavour that leaves me speechless, stuttering and totally stunned.  So, to that end I will attend this year's New Brunswick Spirits Festival held in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.  There will be a 'master class' where they pour twelve of the most expensive whiskies featured at the festival.  By the way, I am not affiliated with the festival in anyway.  I just find this festival and others as a good starting point in this most difficult of quests that I now undertake.  The festival main event takes place on Friday, November 18th, and between now and then I will continue to review whiskies, as I search for the truly good amongst the bad and the ugly.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for images above taken from the film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" as they belong to Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.    I do not own any rights to this film which is posted for the purposes of nostalgia and entertainment.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: The Dalmore 12 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

When I was recently in Vancouver, I picked up a bottle of The Dalmore 12 years, which is the subject of today's post.  I also purchased a bottle of Chivas Regal 12 judging by the above photo, but that is not the subject of discussion today.  I just happen to like the photo, and Chivas just happens to be in it.  Confused?  That's ok.  It is a state of being for me.  Bear with me.

How's this pic?  The Chivas bottle is gone.  Is that better?  Hope so.  Ok, let's deal with the matter at hand.  Is The Dalmore a worthwhile purchase?

Nose (undiluted)
Damp leaves, moist earth, like a walk through the forest after rainfall.

Palate (undiluted)
Initially, a sweet taste of Oloroso sherry is delivered.  Taste of orange zest and pomegranate soon follow.  While this single malt is sweet, it still manages to have a slightly dry, oak laden, crisp mouth feel by the time of the finish.

Finish (undiluted)
Drying thinly across the palate with a nice flourish of spice.  Gentle warmth, as it disappears from the palate leaving in its wake: subtle Virginia tobacco smoke and dusty oak.

General Impressions
When I first opened the bottle of The Dalmore, poured a measure and took a sip, I was blown away by the crisp flavors of sherry and dark fruit held in perfect balance between the opposing forces of sweet and dry.  In the following days, when I would revisit the bottle, it had settled down a little and was less complex.  The initial crispness upon the palate had dissipated a great deal.  So, initially the malt was damn incredible, but settled after exposure to the air to a much more gentle, easy-going sherry dominated highland malt.  It is still a nice malt, just not leaving me God-smacked (probably not a real word, but oh whatever) like that first tasting.

This single malt tastes a bit 'thin.'  Not a heavy or full bodied mouth feel by any means.  When I talk to fellow scotch nuts, this is the common complaint I hear repeatedly.  The lightness of this spirit somehow leaves these guys wanting more and dissatisfied on some level.

For me, mid-palate and on the finish it is a tad overly oak flavored.  This is a minor criticism though.  Over all, the malt is fairly well put together.

Price Point
The price of this scotch is reasonable.  Reasonable value for money.  This is especially true in the continental United States where great deals can be had.

The Dalmore 12 represents a worthwhile entry point into the realm of sherried Highland malts.  Want to know what sherry in scotch tastes like?  The Dalmore 12 is a good place to start.  It is gentle, refined, and not revealing any cheapness on the palate that I suffered with in my review of Aberlour 12 (see my previous post).  I recommend it so long as the price continues to be reasonable.  Apparently, the drinks company that owns the brand has made some efforts to give it a more upscale appeal along with a higher price tag.  So, be careful to comparison shop to ensure you are not over-paying.

Peer Review
The Dalmore 12, to my mind, is competing with other sherried single malts like Aberlour 12, Aberfeldy 12, GlenDronach, Balvenie 12 yrs Doublewood and Macallan 12.  It holds forth ok in such company.  Better than Aberlour 12 but not as refined as Balvenie, nor as great a bang for your buck as GlenDronach.  Dalmore is in the middle of the pack.

The Dalmore 12 year old is an unpretentious whisky that delivers nice, balanced sweet sherry flavors with the dry oak and spices that make it a logical choice for the newbie.  At the same time, this scotch does have some limitations.  The lack of great complexity prevents it from making any lists of 'must-have' single malts.  This is comfort scotch when you have a craving for some sherried whisky, balanced out by a heavy treatment of oak from the American bourbon casks that it spent time in prior to bottling.  It is not in the league of the truly great 12 year old single malts like:  Highland Park 12 years.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

. . . 

Scotch & a Good Story
Back in July of this past summer, I suggested that there was nothing quite like reading a trashy novel and having a sip of a nice drink.  Like most of you, I have read my fair share of pot boilers.  Unlike most of you, I tried my hand at writing one.  So, I did and posted my effort in the July 19 post (click here).  I started with the first chapter, thinking subsequent scotch reviews could be followed by another chapter of my book.

I did that for a while, but I started to receive email from people asking me to post the whole novel in a single post.  It would be easier to read at their leisure.  So, that is what I have done.  Click here in order to go back to the original post and read the novel in it's entirety.  


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: Aberlour 12 years Double Cask Matured Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Fall, Dark and Handsome
Well, it's that time of year again.  Summer is over, leaves are changing color, sunrise is later than usual, and sunset is earlier than I would like it.  The air is much cooler in the morning, crisp, if you will.  Your linen sport coat is traded for winter weight wool and damn, you know what is coming:  winter!

At this time of year, I crave sherried scotch.  I put away those light tasting malts like Cragganmore, Johnnie Walker Green Label, and Glenfiddich 15yrs.  Light honey taste must give way to something more warming.  Heavy, brooding malts that are warming with lashes of sherry, dark fruits and wood smoke that is not to be trifled with.  Balvenie Doublewood 12yrs, The Macallan 12yrs and maybe a real heavy weight will make an appearance like Highland Park 12 or 18yrs.

To that end, I reached for a bottle of Aberlour 12 years, a highland malt that undergoes aging in oak and sherry casks.  The result is predominantly sherried.

Nose (undiluted)
Cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks.

Palate (undiluted)
Initial spiced dark currants, cherry, over-ripe black grapes, transitions mid-palate to a teensy weensy bit raw, unadulterated alcohol.  Brackish water comes to mind.

Finish (undiluted)
Some smoke.  A little green and a tinge of bitterness accompanies the taste of sherry and oak at the end.

General Impressions
What I do like about this malt is how it starts sweet, but nicely transitions to a dry feel by the time of the finish.  That is to be commended at the low price point this malt occupies.  What I don't like about this scotch is the taste of alcohol mid-palate.  The sign of a good scotch is the ability to mask the underlying alcohol content such that the drinker forgets what a strong drink he holds.  A good blender of malts will achieve this.

Let me put it another way.  If this was a no-age-statement single malt, I wouldn't be complaining or frankly expecting as much of it.  But, for a 12 year old single malt, I am expecting a certain level of refinement which means no unpleasant surprises on the palate.  Aberlour 12 is a decent single malt, a go-to comfort scotch I suppose for some people, but not by any means an exceptional malt.

This malt also lacks complexity of flavor.  Buy this and you are getting a straight forward delivery of sherry, oak, a little heat and raw alcohol.  Oh yeah, there is some smoke, some spice, but not great smoke.  No Cohiba or H. Upmann here.  More like Vantage or Virginia Slims.

Some people are fans of this, but I suspect their affection has more to do with the reasonable price, as opposed to the actual taste.  Yes, it is quaffable, but so is Coca-Cola.

Add Water?
Add some water.  Some people think it will improve.  I am not so sure.  Might take a little of the green and bitter elements away leaving in its place the brackish water I mentioned above.  You will have to experiment.

In all honesty, I can't recommend Aberlour 12 years Double Cask Matured.  When I want a sherried scotch and I do not want to spend a lot of money, I will reach for GlenDronach 12 years every time.  Another alternative for a little more money is The Balvenie Doublewood.  No green tinge or young alcohol to contend with on the finish with these two suggestions.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I like Whisky . . .

I was thinking this evening why I like whisky.  I guess I liken it to great art.  Huh?  Yeah, great art, in all its forms, whether it be writing, film, dance or music.  There is a link.  Now, just bear with me.

I can tell you every great whisky I have had.  I can tell you where I was, what I was doing (or shouldn't have been doing), the color of the carpet, the angle the sunlight poured in through the window, and what we were talking about.

Great whisky, whether it be American, Canadian, Scotch, Japanese and Indian too, has the ability to crystalize a moment in time.  At times, it makes me pensive.  I think ever so briefly about the profound issues of life.  For a moment,  I realize my materialism is wrong, my career ambitions are not important, and what is important is time with family and friends, whether it be a barbecue, playing cards, sinking a long putt, and of course enjoying great whisky or even a cheap one.  Someone once said, "you will be dead a long time."

Great art can do the same.  Certain songs frame a moment in your life, make you reflect on the past, maybe something you don't want to do, but know at times it is important to do.  Have you been there?  I have.  Don't believe me?  Listen to Suspicious Minds, Bridge over Troubled Waters, Killing Me Softly or Wild Horses.

Why I drink whisky is not for the intoxication.  Nor is it exclusively for the taste.  It's something else, that intangible, the hard to express, maybe a catalyst for the occasionally needed melancholic introspection.

Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved except for photo of Aberlour A'bunadh which belongs to David S. Bloom. Video of Killing Me Softly by the Fugees is presented solely for entertainment and nostalgia purposes.  The song copyright belongs to Charlse Fox and Norman Gimbel.  

Saturday, September 24, 2011

First We Take Manhattan!

"Big Apple Manhattan" at the Yew Bar - Four Season Hotel, Vancouver

Ahh, well not exactly, and I sure as hell don't take Berlin next, as Leonard Cohen mysteriously once crooned in the late '80's.

I'm taking Vancouver instead!  I had to come here for work.  Got up this morning at 4 a.m., caught a flight out of Fredericton at 6:10 a.m., flew to Montreal, got delayed, eventually got on a plane to Vancouver, only to arrive at 11:15 am!  Ouch!  Jet lag!  By evening, I had been up like way too many hours to even do the math.  Hadn't eaten all day, other than those stale pretzels served by tireless stewardesses.  Anyway, I felt quite foggy before sipping that beautiful doll pictured above and below!

Just a little more whisky cocktail porn!  I couldn't resist!

Knowing that I had to come to Vancouver, I thought I would take the opportunity to develop a nice post for this blog.  I just had a general idea.  You see I am not big on structure, to-do lists, strategic plans, action plans, change management and all that MBA mumbo-jumbo.  I'd rather just wing-it.  So, I landed in this fantastic city thinking, I dunno what I am going to write about, but I am going to write something.

The first thought that came into my head was that I am not going to sip new single malts and review them.  That just seemed to damn obvious.  The second thought (I don't have a lot, so I can count them!) that just came out of nowhere, was to check-out some cocktails, and so here we are at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Maybe not splitting the atom, but damn, it's important work!

The Manhattan has been around a long time, like back to the late 19th century, and probably originated at the Manhattan Club in New York city.  It's has endured as classic cocktail because it makes rye whisky or American bourbon palatable for the non-aficionado consumer of spirits.  It's smooth, with a playful little bit and sometimes dry.  This cocktail takes the bourbon or Canadian whisky and showcases the black cherry and oak flavors with a great battle of sweet and dry vermouth for dominance.  Caramel and dark fruit are there too.  A supremely satisfying drink. 

Various Recipes
Surf the web, pick up a book, and you will get variations on a common theme.

  • 2 oz Canadian whisky (Alberta Premium is what they used at the Four Seasons);
  • 1/2 oz of sweet vermouth;
  • add a dash or two of dry vermouth;
  • marashino cherry
  • 3 or 4 dashes of Angostura bitters;

The barman making my Manhattan.

Mixing Instructions
  • stir all the above ingredients in your mixing glass with lots of ice;
  • let it sit for a moment so the flavors can meld well;
  • pour into tumbler, garnish with the maraschino cherry.
I like my Manhattans a little on the dry side and with some spiced bite of the whisky.  So, dry vermouth dashed on is a must as well as using good quality whisky.  Some Manhattans are made with bourbon.  Maker's Mark is what they used at a very hip and swank Vancouver eatery: Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar.

Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar - Vancouver

This is a fantastic restaurant for those seeking the finest seafood and sushi.  The sushi chef is Japanese (very rare in Canada) and makes his own soya sauce.  It's to die for.  Have a couple of tuna or eel rolls with a fine beer or light whisky, and after that you can shoot me because I just entered Heaven.

Besides the world class dining on sushi, this establishment takes great pride in relation to its 100+ single malts.  Sushi?  whisky? great ambience, my life's work is complete. 

Blu Water Cafe Bar - Vancouver

The Manhattan was good, but a little sweet.  I forgot to pipe up to the barman while he was making it that I like it more on the dry side, which would have meant just the addition of dry vermouth. 
. . .

The Manhattan is a drink that show cases Canadian rye whisky or bourbon.  Done well, it will be a little tart, a little sweet, but then becoming dry on the finish.  Every bartender has his/her own twist on this classic.  For example, at the Yew bar, the finishing touch of the barman was to place my drink in front of me, then light a wedge of orange on fire and drop it in my drink!  The carmelized and slightly burnt orange wedge imparted great flavors that intermingled with the black cherry flavors of the rye whisky very well.  Unique and flavorful!

Back at the hotel, following dinner I decided to have a final night cap.  After much deliberation, "The Elizabeth Taylor Cocktail" was the winner.  Getting to sleep was no longer a problem following that number.


Jason Debly
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.