Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year!

The above poster appears on the wall outside of the office of a colleague of mine.  She is a very kind lady who is an ocean of calm in a workplace that is often anything but.  She placed the poster on the wall one day simply because she liked it.  She did not know the history behind it.  I did.  

Back in 1939, the beginning of World War II cast a shadow over the lives of the British people.  The government of the day designed three posters that were intended to function to improve the morale of the citizens.  The first two posters were: "Freedom Is In Peril.  Defend It With All Your Might" and "Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory." These two posters were printed in great numbers (400,00 and 800,000 copies respectively).  Moreover, they appeared everywhere in the British public.  You have to remember that in those days posters were a major form of media consumed by the public before television, whose popularity was in its infancy.

The purpose of those posters was to improve morale and also serve as a message from King George VI to his subjects.

The third poster: "Keep Calm and Carry On" was printed up too.  Specifically, the British Ministry of Information printed 2.5 million copies, with the intention of posting it everywhere, in the event of a national catastrophe.  The posters never were put on public display even though the British suffered bombs dropped from above and of course the tremendous loss of loved ones.  If that was not catastrophic enough, I am unsure what they were waiting for.  Probably the Ministry of Information simply forgot about the posters.  The war ended and nearly all the posters were used for pulp.

However, in 2000, a bookstore owner bought a box of books at a nondescript auction.  Among the books was the old war time poster, the third one, that never got posted.  The bookstore owner's spouse liked it so much, she framed it, and placed it on a wall in their bookstore.  Soon customers were asking how much it was?

The bookstore owners printed up the posters and started selling them.  And how they sold!  Then other entrepreneurs got in the game and suddenly you see it on all manner of knickknacks. 

. . . 

"Get to the point Jason," I hear you say.  

I hear ya.  I do.  Really.

"Keep Calm and Carry On."

Really.  It resonates today, as much as it was intended to more than seventy years ago.  And, I guess that is my New Year's wish to you.  Hopefully, the New Year will be good for you.  But, if it is not, borrow some of that great British sentiment, and with dignity, persevere my friend.  Things are good and will get better.  You will encounter challenges, but keep positive, keep your head up, and you will be all right.  Every culture has some bits of wisdom worth embracing and this is one for us.

Cheers and all the best to you in the New Year!

Jason Debly

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Final Scotch Whisky Holiday Suggestion: Gordon & MacPhail's 'Linkwood 15 years'

Ok, suppose you are sitting on Santa's knee and he asks what you would like for Christmas?  What would you ask for?

I know what would be near the top of my list:  Linkwood 15 years, matured and bottled by independent bottler, Gordon & MacPhail.

Never heard of Linkwood?  That's okay.  Linkwood is not exactly a household name.  The distillery does not have a 'visitor' building.  Matter of fact, it is not open to the public.  Why? The answer lies in where we find this malt.  You probably have already drank Linkwood and not known it, as it is a favorite malt of master blenders.  Think White Horse and the Johnnie Walker product line too.  In particular, it turns up in the discontinued Johnnie Walker Green Label.  It is a core malt of that pure malt bottling.

The distillery doesn't help raise its profile either by its habit of releasing little, and selling the vast majority of its output to blenders (in the Diageo stable).  However, Diageo mercifully permits the sale of some of its 'new make' spirit to independent bottlers.

Independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail take the malt and age it in their warehouses and make decisions about how long to age in various wood casks.  The result can be delicious, but generally not well known, because such players in the drinks industry lack the enormous production, marketing and distribution capacity of say a Diageo (who by the way are the owners of the Linkwood distillery).  Nevertheless, these smaller players do make gems and Gordon and MacPhail's Linkwood 15 years Speyside Single Malt  is a prime example.

Nose (undiluted)
Slight and whispy smoke and peat.  Subtle floral notes.

Palate (undiluted)
Lightly smoked with burnt toast and drizzled wild honey.  But that initial taste gracefully yields to bourbon, dark red fruits, raspberries and cherries.

Finish (undiluted)
Nice drying lemon zest, strawberry cakebread and the glowing embers of morning smoke of last night's beach bonfire.

General Impressions
Linkwood 15yrs by Gordon and MacPhail represents all that I enjoy in whisky.  It is light bodied, delicate, fragrant and very floral and of course complex.  This malt leaves you with delicious notes of salt and peppercorns weaved in with the malty and ethereal strawberry.

Do Not Add Water
There is no need for water.  This malt is truly best served neat and would make an excellent introduction for the novice to single malt scotch whisky.

Peer Group?
If you like Johnnie Walker Green Label, Cragganmore 12, Glenfiddich 15 yrs Solera, Glenkinchie Distiller's Edition, Littlemill and Clynelish 14, I think you will be very pleased with Linkwood 15 years.

Independent Bottlers
Independent bottlers like Gordon and MacPhail make a valuable contribution to the consuming public by bringing to market malts that might not otherwise see the light of day.  For example, they currently have bottlings from obscure distilleries like: Aultmore, Balmenach, Caperdonich, Coleburn, Convalmore and many others.

The skill of independent bottlers is their vision to see a modestly aged spirit of a distillery has the potential to become great with the right amount of aging and wood management.  Sometimes the reason other distilleries sell their new make spirit to the likes of Gordon and MacPhail is because they consider it somehow inappropriate for use in their mainstream bottlings.  Their loss is our gain!

Possible Replacement for Johnnie Walker Green Label?
As you know, Green Label is no longer being made.  This Linkwood 15yrs tastes enormously similar.  I would imagine 1/4 teaspoon of Talisker to a double pour would make it almost identical.  Try it!

Holiday Wishes
Happy holidays!  Relax, take it easy, enjoy your family and friends.  Wishing you the best!


Jason Debly

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Canadian Whisky Suggestions for the Holidays

Well, it is that time of year again.  Holidays are upon us.  Christmas parties, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah observances too.  I am sure I am missing some other world religions and so please feel free to post a comment pointing out my omissions/ignorance.  Oh yeah, and then there are those atheists who do like a good party too.  They belong to a religion too, just one that affirms there is none.

I'm cool with whatever you are into as long as it is tolerant of others.  Okay, I sound preachy, but don't worry, the only sermon you are going to receive concerns holiday whisky recommendations.

Anyway, you know the deal, there are so many parties, the office Christmas party, maybe the service group you belong too (Royal Order of Buffalo type), the guys at the office want to tie one on, the wife has social engagements too, which of course you must politely attend.  Maybe you are a college student, well you just party all the time, even with exams looming.

In spite of our confessional differences, we do have spiritual commonalities   Maybe not the same Holy Spirit, but at least the need for gift giving and the appreciation of heavenly or divine objects: whisky!

What do I buy the boss?  The professor?  The realtor who shaved a point off his commission to get the deal done.  Maybe the doctor that did her job fantastically well (okay the mole was not cancer, but damn, I was scared).  What do you buy all these people that you understand like a little whisky?

Don't worry!  I am full of suggestions.  Today those suggestions are Canadian whisky.  This whisky is generally much loved by everybody because it is not offensive.  The holidays are all about easy, no-muss or fuss.  We want to avoid conflict.  Let's have a good time.  Canadian whisky is a very good choice in that regard.

Crown Royal
Always a safe bet.  Gentle vanilla, honey and oak.  You can't go wrong with this.  Everyone likes it, and it is superior to Canadian Club.   If you have always picked up a bottle, maybe it is time to try something with a little more punch.  Please consider Canadian Club 20 years.

Canadian Club 20 Years
While I am not a fan of the standard bottling of Canadian Club, and have suggested you reach for the Crown Royal as the safest, most mainstream, least offensive whisky flavor profile that comes to mind, that is not to say that you couldn't shake things up a bit.

Canadian whisky can be complex and impressive and this is available in the Canadian Club 20 years.  Concentrated flavors of sweet ginger, lime, and black pepper dusted Camembert.  The finish is composed of lovely oak, cinnamon and candy cane.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

I have one more Canadian whisky suggestion:  Alberta Premium Dark Horse.  More powerful than Canadian Club 20 is this little number that does not have an age statement.

This Canadian whisky was launched earlier this year and it is impressive.

Dark Horse is a return to what made Canadian whisky great in the first place and that is: rye!  91% rye to be specific and you can taste it on the palate.  Rich, spicy, powerful!  Flavors?  Think Morocco dates,  plums, figs, and the zest and  spice of rye laid over top with a good measure of oak.

This is a big whisky.  Lots of body and spice that can certainly be enjoyed neat or deliciously on the rocks.

. . .

So, there you have it, a couple of heavenly spirits to provide good cheer during the holidays!


Jason Debly

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

One Million hits and Counting!

This blog has recently hit the one million hits mark.  Look at the site counter half way down the page on the right.  I know you are shocked.  So am I.

I started this blog three years ago out of frustration with not being able to find reliable whisky tastings notes that delivered the straight goods.  Ahh, the hedonistic thoughts and ambitions I have seem to be shared by people around the world.

Now you may be thinking why am I trumpeting this fact?  "Jason, leave the trumpeting to Miles Davis," you say.

I will try to hit a few high notes, maybe not as elegantly as Miles, but please take a listen for a moment.

I believe the high traffic is a testament to how whisky seems to be of interest to a lot of people around the world.  Check out the pie chart of readers from around the world:

55.2% of the readers are from the United States.  Within the US, the top three states that tune in are:  California, New York and Texas.

11.4% of readers are to be found in Canada.

5.1% of visitors are in the UK, who are probably shaking their head at what they read and muttering to themselves: What a stupid "git" that Debly is.

Crikey! 3.6% of web traffic is from Australia.

The kiwis from New Zealand like American bourbon, and so I receive a lot of visits and email from them.

And then there is the rest of the world!  Too many countries to list, but I can tell you India ranks the next highest.  Germany, Sweden Finland, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey and Greece are growing too.

So, what do I take away from this?

I need to post more whisky reviews!  People want more info!

What can you take away from this?  You need to post more comments so that readers get your point of view also.  Well, you have actually been doing a pretty good job.  At the time of this post there were 2,010 comments.  Thanks.  Keep it up.  Whisky and your thoughts are important!

I always admired the American philosopher William James.  Why?  When he was at Harvard and chairman of the philosophy department, he had great influence as to the hiring of other professors.  He did something that exemplifies what university should be about.  He purposely hired professors who held views that were very different or even strenuously opposed to his own.  (It has been argued that others in similar academic positions of power were not as enlightened as James.  For example, I have heard compelling arguments that erroneous Freudian views would have been disposed much sooner if Freudian academics had . . . well not hired more Freudian academics.)

Similarly, I want to publish all comments (except for those ones about little blue pills and money making gambling schemes - I keep those for me).  Especially if those comments criticize or correct my errors as perceived by the critic.  Everyone benefits from this healthy discourse, regardless of how hedonistic the subject matter may be.

I suppose I have not threaded together notes as elegantly as Miles has done in his great career.  So, take a listen to the master in one of his more obscure recordings (1958 record, issued in France), but nevertheless great composition:


Jason Debly

P.S.  Next week I will list some holiday gift suggestions of the whisky kind.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.   Note:  All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.  Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Musings on Master Classes and the 2012 New Brunswick Spirits Festival

'Master Class' . . . . Those two words can be intimidating.  They evoke memories of post-graduate existentialism classes held in a dimly lit university classroom, where the keener students hang on every utterance of  a greying/Harris tweedy professor, who speaks cryptically from a red leather, wingback chair.  There is usually one student, attempting to appear pensive, who is actually staring blankly out a window at the ivy covered, red brick, Georgian architectural style campus buildings thinking "I haven't gotta clue what that old fart is saying.  I must be stupid.  I'm a poser.  I don't belong here."

When I scan the promotional agendas of various whisky festivals, invariably there are 'master classes' on bourbon, scotch, Canadian whisky, etc, which trigger deep in the gut, flashbacks of college-era dread (but maybe not Kierkegaardian dread, as I was the student staring out that window, not understanding Kierkegaard.  Hell, I could barely spell the Danish bore's name!).

Davin de Kergommeaux delivering a 'master class'
Canadian Whiskies Master Class
Anyhow, at this year's New Brunswick Spirits Festival, the agenda identified several ostensible post-graduate classes in whisky.  One of them was on Canadian whisky and led by an authority: Davin de Kergommeaux

Mr. Kergommeaux has written a truly definitive book on Canadian whisky.  With great trepidation, I paid the grand sum of $10 to attend the tasting.

Let's cut to the chase.  I have been to a lot of "master classes" on whiskies and Davin's was the best.


Yes, he put me and the audience immediately at ease with his deft use of humour and charm.  But, all those brand ambassadors earning their salaries do the same.  What Davin (not a brand ambassador) manages to do, that others do not, is actually create a learning environment.

I learned a bit about Canadian whisky.  I walked out of that room a little wiser.  He talked about congeners.  He explained that those chemicals, in minute quantities, deliver nearly all the flavor of distilled whisky.  I learned about key differences between Canadian whisky and American whisky (principally bourbon & Tennessee whiskies) like when blending of constituent whiskies takes place.  In America, the blending of whiskies takes place before transferring the spirit to casks for ageing.  In Canada, the blending takes place after years of ageing various whiskies in a multitude of differing casks.

Appreciating the Distinctiveness of Canadian Whisky
I listened to a couple of Davin's great insights too.  The most important one pertained to appreciation of Canadian whisky:  Remember that Canadian whiskies are different from single malt scotch and American whiskies (bourbon, Tennessee whiskey).  In Canadian whisky oakiness is generally positive as long as it is not overly bitter, as it often becomes in old Scotch or bourbon.  It is more important that the oak be in balance and accentuate distillery character.

While he did not mention it at his tasting, I have learned from him an important consideration when evaluating Canadian whisky.  Most of these whiskies taste lighter than scotch whisky.  One must not assume that heavier more concentrated flavors are better.  Light flavors can be just as complex and nuanced.

Yours Truly paying for a copy of Davin's book on Canadian Whisky
Autographed Book
My thirst for knowledge of all things Canadian whisky got me thinking that I should pull the trigger and buy Davin's book.  I mean, I got the author's attention and if I behave myself, I can probably get him to autograph his little piece of Canadiana.  So, I forked over some dough, he made change and boom, I had an autographed copy of his book.

Davin autographing a copy of his book
So, the moral of this story is to be bold.  Go to whisky master classes.  Do not be intimidated because you feel your knowledge of whisky is practically nil.  You know what?  The brand ambassador or whoever is presenting will do their best to make put you at ease.

. . .

Whisky Dinner

The NB Spirits Festival takes place over three days.  Hence, there is something going on everyday.  For me, the highlight is not the grand finale where everyone joins in a hotel ballroom and samples hundreds of whiskies.  Nah.  The highlight is the whisky dinner that takes place on the first night.  It's expensive I suppose, but hey I think to myself, I will be dead a long time, and suddenly I can rationalize the expenditure ($140) for six courses paired with six whiskies and a final one to send you gently into that good night.

Like the master classes, it can be somewhat intimidating to sit down with total strangers.  Dining on cream of chestnut soup with foie gras and sip 21 year old Balvenie Portwood doesn't necessarily come across as comfort food either.  But you know what, as awkward as you may feel, you gotta push yourself.  I guarantee you that by the second whisky flight, the conversation will start to flow and that other couple at the table that did not seem all that friendly are warming up.  They are incredulous at how gorgeous that whisky pairing of 10 year old Ledaig is with black pudding.  You chime in and before you know it, you have made new friends or at the very least great acquaintances for the evening.

This year, I was not going stag.  I recruited a couple of whisky dogs from the SPCA, I mean whisky club.

As you can see, it was pretty easy to twist their rubber arms to attend.  The organizer seemed to strategically position my table far from the learned whisky celebrities who hosted the event: Martine Nouet and Sam Simmons.

Martine Nouet is a veteran whisky critic who wrote about whiskies and the wonderful possibilities when paired with food, long before it was fashionable.  So, back in 1990 when Sinead O'Connor created a stir by her classy move to demand the American national anthem not be played before her planned concert at the Garden State Arts Center in New Jersey, Martine was writing about food and whisky pairings.  Good to see there is a God, as Martine is still doing her thing and well Sinead is where?  Or better should I say who?

Sam Simmons was the first whisky blogger on the internet (click here).  He was at that time a PHD student in English at an UK university when he became enamoured with whisky.  His blog is aptly entitled Dr Whisky and a great resource for those readers searching for tasting notes.  His blog and passion attracted the interest of William Grant & Sons, and now he finds himself the global brand ambassador for Balvenie.  Nice work, if you can get it.

Ledaig 10 years & Blood Pudding
In any event, these two luminaries walked the crowd through various whisky and food pairings.  My favorite was the pairing of the pungent and peated Lediag 10 with pan-seared scallops with black pudding (a type of sausage).

Wow!  The stars lined up for that one.  The peated, salty and smoked kipper palate of the Ledaig was married with the fresh from the sea scallop, who flirted with the earthy bridesmaid, blood pudding.  Wow!

Bunnahabhain 12 years
Bunnahabhain 12 was a nice discovery for me.  Molasses, blackberries with some Maritime notes.  A lot going on, and I need to get a bottle of this for further study and posting a proper tasting note.  All I know is I liked it.

. . .

Martine Nouet, Davin de Kergommeaux, Jason Debly
So, in conclusion, the initial feelings of dread passed and in its place was a good time.  Toss your shyness, feelings of inadequacy aside!  Attend a whisky festival where you are and I bet you will meet like minded people and have a great time!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve & Springbank 10 years

Whisky Dogs
The whisky tasting club, I and some other guys pulled together about a year ago, is called the Whisky Dogs.  We are mangy scruffs who sniff out the good stuff and bark at the bow-wow bottles.

The Whisky Dogs met this past Friday night at my house.  I set up a blind tasting of four bottles and served in the following order:

(1)  Johnnie Walker Green Label (pure malt)
(2)  Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve (blend)
(3)  Amrut Fusion (single malt)
(4)  Springbank 10yrs (single malt)

The order of serving was from slightest to most robust.

Only I knew what was being poured.  I conducted the experiment to see what the hounds would select as: Best? Second best? Dead last?

I always enjoy hosting blind tastings and noting the reactions of people to the mystery pours.  In my mind, I ranked the best to worst.  I'll let you know what I thought the ranking should be and whether or not the dawgs agreed, at the end of this post.

Johnnie Walker Green Label
We started off with this blend of single malts, and it showed well.  It's very good, but sadly being discontinued.  Enough said.  Tasting notes available: here.  The Dogs panted their approval.

Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve
Diageo, the owner of the Johnnie Walker brand has been tinkering with its product line-up as of late.  Besides Green Label getting the axe, they introduced Double Black and  relaunched Gold Label as "Gold Label Reserve".  Both are without age statements and the speculation is that there is an insufficient supply of aged malts to continue to meet demand.  So, drop the age statement requirement, add in younger malt and grain whiskies, and presto, problem solved.

Of course, for you and I, the consumer, there is a potential problem.  Taste and quality of blended scotch whisky may be at risk.

Johnnie Walker Gold Label, up until last year, had an 18 year old age statement and was one of the very best blended scotch whiskies.  (I reviewed it here.)  An explanation is provided on regarding the reasoning for abandoning the 18 year age statement and moving to the no-age-statement 'Gold Label Reserve':

The existing Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18-year-old and Johnnie Walker Green Label will begin to be phased out in the U.S. market during the summer of next year (the phase-outs will begin this summer in most other global markets). In their place, Diageo will introduce two new labels that have tested successfully in Asia—Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve (selling for around $63 a 750-ml.) and Johnnie Walker Platinum 18-year-old (around $110).

Diageo’s head of whisky outreach Nick Morgan told Shanken News Daily the revamp was meant to spread out the Johnnie Walker portfolio’s pricing in order to better motivate consumers to move up the brand ladder. 

"As we reviewed the brand offering, we found that the range wasn’t meeting consumer needs and providing the best consumer journey through the range as far as taste profiles and price points,” Morgan said. “Another reason for this change is to try and have, as far as is possible, a consistent range of prices and options for consumers wherever they go in the world—which, to be honest, we haven’t had heretofore.” (Emphasis added)

The new Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve is based on the same Clynelish single malt as Gold Label 18-year-old, but it has a less peaty profile and will sell for around $20 less. Removing the age statement from the Gold offering also enables Diageo greater flexibility in crafting the blend. Platinum 18-year-old, meanwhile, has a more intense, peaty Speyside character. The two new variants will sit between Black Label (around $40) and Blue Label (around $210) in the portfolio. “You can see how the ladder then stretches out,” Morgan said."

I do not agree with Mr. Morgan's statement underlined above.  Gold Label 18 years met mine and a lot of consumer's needs.

Let me tell you something about Johnnie Walker Gold Label 18 years.  It had a nose that was among the finest of any whisky.  Yes, any!  Single malts included, regardless of age or distillery.  The nose was incredibly floral in an amazingly realistic fashion.  Close your eyes and it was flowers, roses and peonies.  Fantastically well done.  Diageo must have spent a fortune to get those heavenly scents to rise up in the glass just so.  A lot of time and experimentation must have been spent to achieve such remarkable olfactory perfection.  

The axed Gold Label 18 years did not disappoint on the palate.   Luscious wild honey, English cream, cinnamon, interesting peat & smoke hidden amongst exotic spices just floored me.  This dram was interestingly peated. 

I bought several bottles in the past and they were all consistently excellent.

So, with that memory, I thought I would spring on the Whisky Dogs a real treat that would leave them salivating for more.

Nose (undiluted)
The glorious floral notes of the 18 year old predecessor were nowhere to be found.  In its rightful place was an unremarkable impostor serving up thin, faint tendrils of chopped mint, sea air and what passed for peat but more reminiscent of a pine tree air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror of an airport cab.

Palate (undiluted)
Sweet. Matter of fact. Let there be no confusion. Horribly, sticky Danish sweet. This is like a bag of sugar donuts that your local cop polishes off in his squad car, with a triple cream & sugar coffee, while secretly hoping he does not get trapped in morning rush hour gridlock before getting to the station to do his business. This flavor profile is a travesty that evokes childhood memories of Honeycomb and Corn Pops cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons.  I am really disappointed.

Finish (undiluted)
Short. Like Danny DeVito short. Somewhat grainy like your satellite TV reception in a snow storm. A little warmth, malty/oakey, a puff of cigarette smoke and a cheap shake of pepper.

General Impressions
Well, I was embarrassed to have included that in the tasting.  None of the dogs raised their paws.  Instead, they rolled over and played dead when I offered to pour more.  Needless to say, they were totally unimpressed.  The best one of them could come up with was that it was smooth.  Hmmm, so is lava as it oozes out of a volcano.  

Price Point/Suggested Alternatives
You know how I feel? Robbed! Robbed I tell you. I paid $79 ($62 in the US) for this bottle of sweet honey, Halloween candied, marmalade glaze concoction. I really am ticked off.  For that price I could have had a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15 that I consider to be in the same flavor style (ie. honey/nutmeg/cinnamon) and most definitely superior.

Diageo claims Clynelish is at the centre of Gold Label Reserve.  I am not tasting it.  What I do recognize is lots of Cardhu, which by the way is never a good thing.

Much cheaper and nearly equivalent renditions of this flavor profile are available. I am thinking Power's Gold for $22 or lets go cheaper to Cutty Sark.

Anyway, next up was a no-age statement single malt of India: Amrut Fusion.

Amrut Fusion Single Malt
Amrut Fusion is a single malt produced in India.  Some of the peated barley is sourced from Scotland and the remainder  is taken from Punjab.  When people learn this, I find they immediately turn up their nose.  

"India?  Single malt?" they say.

I know what they are thinking too.  Jason truly is out to lunch.  The rumours are true.

When I get this narrow-minded reaction, I try to convince them that Amrut Fusion is damn good.  But, it just falls on deaf ears.  I explain that this Indian single malt whisky is made in Bangalore. The distillery takes Punjabi and peated Scottish barley and makes an interesting single malt. Hence, the name: Fusion.  AND!!!!  It is good!  I also point out that single malt can be produced outside of Scotland.  Japan has been doing so successfully for many years.  Remember how 15 or 20 years ago people scoffed at the thought of Japanese single malt?  Well, guess what?  India is the new Japan.  At this point in the conversation, people usually peel away from me with lame excuses that they gotta make a call or it's getting late.

So, up against some single malt snobbery that I suspected had infected my pack of mongrels like a bad case of the fleas, I decided to include this Bangalore number in the blind tasting.

The reaction was wholly positive.  Everyone liked it and were taken aback by its huge flavor profile.  This is a big whisky.  Towering.  Tastes of saddle leather and mahogany.  Real old school.  Powerful horse kick of cedar, cloves, cardamon, spiced dark treacle, coriander. Dark chocolate that has a heavy weighting of cocoa. Some big peat notes reminiscent of Islay are also present.  At 50% ABV it is amazingly enjoyable neat.  Mind you, not for the novice.

When the tasting was done of all the flights, I revealed Amrut, and some were truly incredulous that India could produce such a quality whisky.  Nevertheless, the conversion process had begun.  

Springbank 10 years Single Malt
The last flight of the blind tasting was Springbank 10 years single malt.  

The dogs sniffed suspiciously.  They were unsure what to think of me any more.  I had started them off Green Label that they lapped up, but then did a U-turn and headed the wrong way on a one-way street with Gold Label Reserve, unleashed them in the park with Amrut Fusion, and now, they were going to splash around in the swimming pool.  Hopefully, there would be no Oh Henry! bar sightings in the water . . . .  Let's see how they made out with Springbank.

Nose (undiluted)
Heavy sea air, black smoke, thick peat, lemons.  Beautiful and unique.  Something very different.  Artisanal if you will. 

Palate (undiluted)
Brine, salty, lemon rind, green apple, Brazil nuts, an oily body, and sherry makes an appearance in a cloud of black smoke and sooty peat. 

Finish (undiluted)
Firm, drying oak, plenty of spiced balsa,  black tea.  There is a firm maltiness too on the finish that is very unique.  Enormously complex weaving of flavors.

General Impressions
All the dogs howled in approval at Springbank.  It's like the moon rose high in the night sky and we were going to croon to it all evening.  Wow!  Springbank 10 years is a great malt.  Not good.  Great!  A show stopper that commands your attention from the nose through the finish. Why?  Unique friend.  Very unique!

The magic of Springbank is how it can so deliciously present on the palate both peat smoke and sherry.  Very hard to do I tell you and rarely is it executed so well as here.  While the distillery employs mostly ex-bourbon casks to age this spirit, a few sherry casks are thrown in the mix.  The spirit is not surprisingly light in color, but don't worry, this is a rich, luxurious dram that displays the ying and yang of peat/smoke and a little sherry with great dexterity.  Make no mistake, this is greatness in malt form.  

Price Point
Not cheap.  A 10 year old single malt that costs nearly $100 ($98) to be exact better be good.  It is worth the high price of admission.  I have no regrets.  This is a memorable whisky that I will certainly be thinking about long after the bottle is long gone.  A classic if you will and living proof that age statements are not necessarily indicative of quality.  This 10 year old kicks butt, and beats the hell out of a lot of single malts that are 18 years.  In fact, as much as I like Springbank 15, I truly prefer the 10.

46% alc/vol
The higher than usual 40% or 43% abv doesn't necessarily mean you need to add water.  I like this neat, but some like water.  A matter of taste.  It is also non-chill filtered and no artificial colouring is added. 

Whisky Dog Rankings?
In my mind, I ranked the whiskies in order of greatness (#1 the most) as follows:

(1)  Springbbank 10
(2)  Amrut Fusion
(3)  Johnnie Walker Green
(4)  Johnnie Walker Gold Label

And the Whisky Dogs without my opinion came to the same ranking of quality.  They were quick to point out that Springbank was more complex than the Amrut.  But, they did love the Amrut too.  B-dawg member was really impressed with Amrut, and maybe I succeeded in showing him that great whisky is not geographically limited to Scotland.  He kept staring at the bottle after I unveiled it.

Another bit of wisdom I took away from the tasting was how a group of guys with varying preferences with respect to whisky nonetheless agreed as to the ranking of the whiskies.  This reinforces my belief that the discernment of great whisky and poor ones is not purely a subjective enterprise.  There are absolute truths in this world, and they apply to whisky too.

On the Look-out
I and the other whisky dogs are always on the look-out for other great malts.  We hope to report on many more shortly.  So, keep checking in from time to time!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission. Photograph credits: (1) First photograph is entitled "Hurworth Houngs - going for a walk in the snow" by Amy Fair - Hurworth Photography, who holds all world copyright.  No reproduction is permitted without permission of Amy Fair - Photography.  Used here with photographer's permission.  (2) Various photographs of scotch whiskies and Amrut were taken by Jason Debly.  (3) Final photograph of German Shorthaired Pointer Dog taken by Yourdogtoday's Photostream, who holds all worldwide copyright and reproduction is permitted without obtaining this copyright holder's permission.  Note:  All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.  Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Smokehead Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Lately, I have noticed quite a few of my friends have found true love online.  I'm serious, they were not meeting anyone in their day-to-day existence, and so created a profile with some online company and they were struck by Cupid's arrow.  I bull sh-t you not!  I can think of three couples who are married that met online.  Good for them!

The online dating trend got me thinking.  I long for some love too.  Love of a good Islay malt that is (and maybe a grammar tutor who can teach me not to end sentences with verbs . . .).  Anyway, I and the lasses of Islay generally have very stormy relationships.  Few are serene and delightful conversationalists like Ms. Lagavulin 16.

Instead, I end up meeting wild and peaty Laphroaig 10 temptresses who would just as soon slap you as kiss you.  The waters of those relationships can be dark, choppy and white capped at times.  Her salty tongue and raw hicky bites can be a bit too much.  I struggle with her moodiness and temper tantrums when I date other malts like that Speyside babe, Ms. Glenfiddich 15 Solera, who is so much more easy going.

Of course, if you talk to the Islay ladies, they will tell you another story.  They will tell you how I do not listen, and that sometimes they are just venting and they don't want to hear a solution to their problems.  And no, she is not dehydrated!  She does not need water.  She doesn't want to calm down her fiery and wood smoking mood.  Why can't I accept her ashy and sooty character for who she is, and blah, blah and before you know it I am thinking about football stats.

Clearly, I need relationship counselling.   I can't make up my mind about the ladies of Islay.  I mean I would definitely enter into a committed relationship with Ms. Lagavulin any day, but she won't have me.  I just can't afford to date her on a regular basis.  She is too expensive to hang out with.  The others ones like Laphroaig and Ardbeg are so unpredictable.  I need advice just like people in the online love world.

But?  Do I really want to part with my hard earned cash and hire an online malt dating consultant?  Especially one who describes himself as my "online dating wingman?"  You know that anyone who describes themselves as your 'wingman' is anything but that.  Naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!

So, I decided to post an ad:

SWM seeking Islay lady malt who enjoys hikes through the hills, romantic seaside camp fires,  has a taste for dulse, has a smoking body, and is not afraid to share it.

I got a response.

 Phone rang a couple of days later.

Me:  "Hello."

Lady Smokehead Islay:  "Meet me at the corner of Regent and Queen."

Me: "Who is this?"

Lady Smokehead Islay:  "You posted an ad right?"

Me: "Uh yeah.  Umm how did you get my number?"

Lady Smokehead Islay:  "I know someone in the police . . . or should I say I am 'known' by the police.  Be there! -click!"

. . .

I stood at the corner as directed.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Out of the distance I heard her first before I saw her arrive on a rumbling Honda motorbike whose exhaust had seen better days.  She skidded to a stop inches from my feet, clad in a black leather Barbour motorcycle jacket.  She motioned with a shake of her head for me to hop on.  The motorbike belched a little black smoke laced with sulphur, and we took off.  I held onto her tight little waist as her black hair blew in my face.

Scent/Nose (undiluted)
I nuzzled into the nape of her neck, as she leaned the bike into a turn, kicked it down a gear, while I took in scents of black tea, tar, fresh asphalt, peat and black sooty smoke.

We drove for the better part of a wind and rain lashed hour without speaking.  I had no idea where the hell we were when she braked to a stop by the side of the highway.  Below the guardrail, following her lead, we scrambled down the rocky hillside to the beach.

As we talked, she gathered some branches, some wet driftwood, and set it afire by the sea with a scratched chrome zippo lighter that she pulled out of the chest pocket of her jacket.

Ms. Lady Smokehead:  "What kind of music do you like?"

Me: "I am a bit of an insomniac.  Late at night I read and usually have some melancholic/pensive music playing, stuff like REM's Bang and blame or Drive while trying to figure out what the hell Michael Stipe is saying."

Ms. Lady Smokehead:  "I listen to Bowie's All the Young Dudes.  It sums up who I am."

I nodded, not really understanding what she meant, and unsure if I wanted to hear her particular existential explanation.  I suspected it might be painful for her to relate.  Some things are better left unsaid.

She reminded me of a youthful Francoise Hardy.  Fragile, slightly damaged, but rub beneath the surface and there is a hard, unyielding and beautiful diamond of a soul.  I was attracted to her like a moth to a flame.

She leaned in, like a black cat stretching, for a kiss.

Palate (undiluted)
A kiss of sweet peat, but thin with a hints of water, chimney smoke, soot and ginger root.  Young.  Not complex. Pleasant nevertheless.

Finish (undiluted)
A dusting of pretzel salt, seaweed, brine, drying, warmth before the bonfire smoke takes over.

Expensive Date
We got back on her bike and rode to a gas station.  I paid for the gas.  $50.  She dropped me off at the same street corner, and I never saw her again.

Ms. Smokehead was hard to explain.  I like her, what little of her I got to know.  She was an expensive date and left me somehow dissatisfied with her or was it with me?  But, for someone new to Islay courtship, Ms. Smokehead provided a smooth and intriguing introduction.  I like her.

Not sure, my friends agree.  They mostly think her Islay girlfriends like Ms. White Horse and Ms. Black Bottle are a lot more fun and lot less expensive to date.  For me, sometimes I just don't believe the geography of the heart can be broken down in economic terms.  I like her and will probably call on her again.


Jason Debly

P.S.  Unfamiliar with the music of Francoise Hardy?  Check out Tous les garcons et les filles on You Tube.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for photography not by the writer.  Photo credites: (1) image belongs to owners of; (2) My Online Dating Consultant image uploaded by Flickr member Mike Muson; (3) Smokehead bottle pic by yours truly; (4) "Close-up of a lit 1968 Slim Model Zippo lighter" photograph taken by David J. Fred and is made available by him via a Creative Commons licence; (5) Photograph of Francoise Hardy astride a mid-60's Honda.  Credit: Hulton Archives: Getty Images;  (6) Another close-up photograph of Smokehead bottle and packaging taken by the author. . Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unlocking the Secrets of Ardbeg 10 years

Unlock the Mystery
At 46% alc/vol, Ardbeg 10 is a big dog Islay scotch whisky.  I mean real big!  The smoke, sooty peat, sea salt and dulse rains down upon the palate like a tornado funnel cloud touching down in a Kansas wheat field.

For me, Ardbeg presents a mystery.  This malt is praised by critics, readers and friends, yet for the longest time I would draw a blank.

When I first encountered this malt, I could not understand what all the fuss was.  I mean I could appreciate it was a unique punch to the gut of peat, smoke and cracked black peppercorns, but little else.  I was missing something that all the critics and friends were raving about.  What was it?  Was I a little slow?  There was a renewed sting of those old school yard taunts of "sling blade."

So, in an effort to unlock the secrets of Ardbeg, I would take sip after sip and before I knew it, I had a foreboding feeling that either I would figure out the allure of the malt or be doomed to find myself lying face up in a grassy public park, inexplicably muddied, with my pants missing and rain pelting my face in the middle of the night . . . or worse on all fours barking at the moon, as the police approach with flash-lights drawn . . . and barking Dobermans.

Ok, maybe I am exaggerating.  Usually if I have a little too much, I simply fall asleep in the lazy-boy.  Ahem, anyway there is a mystery to be solved.

46% alc/vol

Recently, my newly formed whisky club met and Ardbeg 10 was on the table.  I sampled it and again was missing the boat.  At the end of the evening, I scooped the bottle off the table, into my overcoat, hopped into a cab and scooted home.

In subsequent weeks, I sampled and sampled and basically came to the conclusion that at 46% alc/vol it is too untame and wild. The flavors were too much for my palate to appreciate.  And then it dawned on me: add water.

Nose (diluted)
Phenol, mint, smoking damp wood bonfire, wet leaves.

Palate (diluted)
More subdued.  Smoother, softer, silken but still with plenty of smoke, tar and black peppercorns in the centre.  Smokey bacon too.

Finish (diluted)
This is where the excitement starts.  The malt started as sweet peat upon the palate, transitions in great form to a sea spray dry evaporation of flavors like:  white capped waves of salt, lingering green seaweed, tarred fishing boat ropes.  White cheddar and more ashy, soot and smoke leave you reaching for more.

General Impressions
The mystery of why this malt appeals to so many has been revealed to me.  Add a little water (ie. 1/4 to 1 teaspoon) to a single or double pour, and you will taste much more complexity of flavor and sweet smoke that was not available 'neat.'  For me, water makes all the difference.

I love Lagavulin and I think my addition of water to Ardbeg is my own way of bringing it closer to my favorite of Islay.

In general, I find any malt at 46% abv can generally benefit from a little water.   At such a high abv, you run the risk of numbing your palate, which prevents you from tasting all a whisky has to offer.

In conclusion, if the appeal of Ardbeg has been a bit of a mystery to you, try a little water.  Maybe you will be let in on the secret too!


Jason Debly

Photo credits: (1) Photograph of key in hole by Flickr member: Millerman737, who holds all world copyright.  No reproduction permitted without his express permission; (2) Photograph of close up of Ardbeg emblem by Flickr member: Thomas Alexander who holds all worldwide copyright.  No reproduction is permitted without his express consent; (3) Photograph of Ardbeg bottle on its side taken by Fallen Shutter Photography and may be reproduced if you comply with the creative commons license; (4) Close-up photograph of Ardbeg cork taken by Sonicwalker and is reproduced here pursuant to a creative commons license.  All other content subject to copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission. Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reflecting on Architects, Malt Masters and the Rules of Modern Courtship!

A colleague of mine, in the dating game, declares that upon meeting a lady of some promise, in one of his haunts (usually a bar or multi-faceted glass disco ball spinning nightclub), at some point in the conversation, invariably tells what he considers to be a little white lie.

"Don't worry J-Man!  I don't give them your name," guffaws Marc-Andre.

Somehow I am not appreciating the humour.  I also wince at his use of "J-Man" and what he is going to say next.  And then, of course, he continues . . .

"Dude, eventually they ask what I do for a living."

"Yes.  That would be logical."

"You know what I tell them?"

"No."  I felt like adding that if I knew, we would not be having this conversation, but decided to let it go.

"Architect!" he enthusiastically declares.  I stare at my drink.

"But, you're a lawyer," I mutter, trying to inject some reality into the conversation.

"Yeah, yeah, I know."  Marc-Andre pauses for dramatic effect, takes a sip of his Guinness and then continues.  "Jason.  Everyone likes architects.  Think about it.  They design skyscrapers, houses, lake-front cottages.  Everything.  I mean they do it all.  They are creative.  Think of Donald Trump."

"He's not an architect."

"True, but I mean he hires architects.  People like them."

"You mean Frank Gehry or Frank Lloyd Wright."


"Nevermind.  So, what was your point?"

"Architects!  Women love them.  Everyone loves them.  No one has a bad architect story.  But, everyone has a lawyer story affecting their family or someone they knew who had all their money or inheritance taken or something like that.  The girls get all dreamy eyed when I tell them I am working on a new hospital for sick children."

. . .

Like an annoying one-hit wonder (I am thinking Convoy by C.W. McCall) you hear on the radio while driving into work, I just couldn't get Marc-Andre's peculiar insights into the allure of being an architect out of my head.  "Architect!" I would hear him enthuse over and over.  So, I started to think about architects.  Creative?  I suppose.  Making beautiful buildings?  Sure.  I guess, but then I recalled a business trip to Boston a while back.

Me, the hapless suit, after an all day meeting, was in search of a decent restaurant in Boston.  It was a brutally cold November evening, and Boston may not be the ideal city to wander around in at night.  So, I asked a passer-by,  an elderly lady, for directions to Quincy Market.

"Keep walking up this street," she indicated with a bony index finger.  "Turn left at City Hall.  It's just below that."

"But, I don't know what City Hall looks like," I protested.

The little old lady smiled, gently tapped my arm and resumed her walk in the opposite direction.

I had no choice but to trudge on and follow her suggested route, and then I saw it . . . .

Hideous, gargantuan, grotesque concrete monstrosity that some architect surely regretted, as soon as it was constructed.  God knows the taxpayers did (click here).  I knew by the institutional style, a gulag for office workers, that it must be Boston's main municipal office headquarters.  I was not mistaken.

. . .

Master blenders and malt masters are architects of a different kind.  To my mind, these guys & gals are "architects of flavor."  They have a distinct advantage over their brick and mortar colleagues.  If a master blender or malt master erects a Boston City Hall monstrosity of a blended scotch or single malt, they can undo the damage in subsequent years by adjusting the recipe: whiskies chosen, tinkering with wood management (ex-bourbon, ex-sherry casks, European oak, American, etc), playing with ageing,  level of peat and many other variables.  Several distilleries have recovered from bad malts in this manner.  Others have taken something great and run it down a bit.  Take Lagavulin 16 years as an example.

Lagavulin 16 years
Some people will tell you that Lagavulin was in its hey-day in the early 1990's or even the 80's where a robust smokey, peat/medicinal attack upon the palate was delivered with utter elegance.

Today, they whine Lagavulin is less robust, softer and sweeter.  Gone mainstream.  Sold out to the masses.  I have noticed in the last six or seven years some variation in taste.  It seems to be getting slightly softer and less peated.  Sweeter too.

What happened?

Nobody can say for sure unless they worked at the distillery and if they talk I would imagine that would breach employee/employer confidentiality, and result in being litigated into the stone age.  However, we can still engage in some speculation.

Peating Levels
Thinking about Lagavulin back in the day and comparing it to today, I would say for starters somebody has tinkered with the peat levels.  Not as smoky.  Maybe the peat parts per million (ppm) have been purposely brought down.

On a Whisky Magazine forum (click here) a knowledgeable member (published whisky author) makes the claim that in the late 70's and into the 80's the peat ppm was 50, but by the 90's peating levels were reduced to a gentler 35 ppm.  I happen to believe this claim about peating levels.  If it once tasted of bigger peat and smoke and now less so, it would be logical to assume peating levels have come down.  The Laga of today is less peated, more in the vicinity of Bowmore than Ardbeg or Laphroaig.

Wood Management
Obviously if the malt master makes changes to the type of wood cask (ie. American oak vs. European) there will be a difference in flavor.  The same whisky author on the Whisky Magazine forum also claimed that a transition took place from ex-sherry cask usage to ex-bourbon.  This would explain the malt becoming sweeter on the palate.

Distillery Hours of Operation
The Malt Madness website claims that during much of the 1980's the distillery only operated two days a week.  However, by the 90's it was operating many more days per week.  Is there a correlation between expanded operating hours of the distillery and flavor?  Not sure but I do know that the pot stills can become over-heated when in constant operation and that presents a problem of foaming.

As you probably know, all whisky starts as beer at one point before being distilled into whisky.  Distillers do not want that frothy beer head to get into the lyne arms of the stills.  If that happens the whisky is ruined.  In order to address this problem distilleries use "anti-foaming agents."  And guess what that is?  Basically soap or detergent.  Click here for a more involved discussion on the Whisky Magazine forum that I initiated a while ago.  One commenter wrote:

"Most distilleries use defoaming agents. Some may not - i'm not sure - but many have defoaming arms that rotate above the washbacks. At Springbank they suspend a bucket that tilts when the foam rises and lifts it, which applies the defoamer. I'm not certain of what agents are used and by whom, but many use non-perfumed soap flakes. Occasionally these distilleries produce soapy notes in the whisky (Edradour for example), and many feel the soap flakes are responsible. However, soap flakes are widely used by distilleries with no such issues, suggesting that the defoamers have no influence beyond distillation. As i recall defoamers are used in bourbon production also (i may be corrected)."

So soap in my whisky?  Ouch!  That might explain the soapy taste I detect in some malts, albeit rarely.

I have never detected the taste of soap in Lagavulin.  But I wonder if the expanded hours of operation has affected the flavor profile.  I am not sure anti-foaming agents are used at the Laga distillery.  But, I give the example of anti-foaming agents to show that expanded hours may result in other measures taken that can possibly have an affect on flavor.  Some people think the use of such agents has no adverse influence on flavor.

Malt Master Leaves
Change the malt master in charge of final decisions with respect to casks, ageing, peat levels, water supply and G-d knows what else and you are going to impact flavor.  People come.  People go.  Every malt master will have his/her own style and tastes that will affect casks selected, proportion of blending, etc.  

. . . .

Change can be good!
Most of the whisky critics praise the Lagavulin bottlings of the 1990's and look back longingly for them.  Those super peaty beasts have won their hearts.  But you know what?  UDV/Diageo made a decision to change the flavor profile.  Why?

They were probably convinced that the average consumer preferred a less peated, less smoky/medicinal flavor profile.  And guess what?  They were right.  Demand for Lagavulin is in the stratosphere.  The distillery probably runs 24/7, certainly more than the mere 2 days it once did.  And guess what further?  I prefer the Lagavulin of today over the one of the 1990's.  I am in that crowd of preferring the softer profile.

So, what can we take away from this?  Basically that malt whisky is in the hands of the architect of flavor, and his/her decisions have as much impact upon you as the architect that designed the cold war/Stalinesque, concrete open wound upon the city of Boston.  The upside for the malt master is that if he screws up, he can fix it in a couple of years, by making strategic changes.  As for the brick & mortar architect, unfortunately Bostonians can attest to the visual/psychological pain of one architect's mistakes that cannot be undone so easily.


Jason Debly

P.S.  Marc-Andre is still a bachelor . . .

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved except for certain photographs taken by people other than the author.  Photo credits: (1) street level view looking to sky of Trump Tower taken by Jason Debly; (2) This is the cover art for the single Convoy by the artist C. W. McCall. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, American Gramaphone, or the graphic artist(s);  (3) Photograph of Boston City Hall taken by architectural photographer, Hagen Stier.  Please visit his website as well as his Flickr profile in order to explore more of his great work.  All world wide copyright of this photo vests with Mr. Stier, and no reproduction is permitted without his permission;  (4) Fantastic photograph of a bottle of Lagavulin taken by Flickr member Greune Stee.  All copyright and world intellectual property rights vest with this Flickr member and his permission is required for any reproduction;  (5)  Photograph of the Lagavulin distillery was taken by Flickr member take-m.  All worldwide copyright vests with take-m and no reproduction is permitted without his express permission.  As for the rest of the above blog post, any and all use is prohibited without permission. Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.