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.