Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday Scotch Whisky Recommendations!

I receive a lot of email during this holiday time of year from people seeking a good Scotch whisky gift recommendation.  Many of these emails start with bewilderment that I have not already posted a top-ten best whisky list, must-have, desert island, drink-before-you-die list on this blog.

You, the regular reader, can appreciate that Scotch whisky is extremely varied. But, to the holiday shopper folk I correspond with, they just want to know my favorites and don't care about different regions of Scotland and how there can be a dramatic range of flavors.  They want safe bets that hopefully will be well received by the beneficiaries of their holiday generosity.  And you know what?  There is nothing wrong with that.

So, indulge me as I engage in what some of you may regard as bread and circuses to present the following list.

Honey Tasting Scotch Whiskies
To my mind, there are Scotch whiskies that fall into a couple of categories in terms of taste.  I figure everyone likes honey and if I had to buy for someone, not knowing if they like sherry, port or briny/peat/sooty smoke flavors, I would probably play it safe and gift with a single malt or blend from the honey flavor camp.  So, I am going to list some whiskies that I think make excellent gifts because they taste like honey, maybe some wax, lemon zest, and a slight whiff of smoke, but only the slightest. Moreover, I am recommending whiskies that are widely available, affordable, and most importantly: very approachable and not in the least bit offensive.  Smooth yet nuanced.  We want to be as mainstream as say Bob Barker when gift giving for someone else during the holidays.  So, here goes:

(1)  Cragganmore 12 years - Not well known, but one of my all-time favorite single malt Scotch whiskies.  I love this whisky for its' subtlety, the waxiness, the heather, and delicate floral notes.  A wonderful whisky that I just never tire of.

(2)  Glenfiddich 15 years Solera - If you can't find Cragganmore, there is a widely available alternative.  Moreover, it is very affordable.  Please do not confuse this with Glenfiddich 12.  The 15 is much more complex in terms of flavors.  A real treat that everyone likes!

(3)  Glenmorangie 12 years Nectar D'Or - This is an amazing single malt!  This distillery has taken their standard spirit and aged it for two additional years in Sauternes casks, a delightful French wine, and the result is breathtaking!  Honey, lemons and almonds come together with great complexity!  Buy this and whoever is the beneficiary of your generosity will be in your debt forever!

(4) Dalwhinnie 15 years - For some unknown reason, Dalwhinnie never seems to get the respect it so richly deserves.  Why this whisky is not making the lists of must-buy for the holiday season is beyond me.  Dalwhinnie delivers an interesting twist on the honey flavor profile by way of heather and a nice little complexity.  Lovely, lovely, lovely!

I hope this helps all those last minute shoppers of fine Scotch whisky.  Readers, I know there are many other great whiskies, especially in terms of sherry and peat/smoke flavors, but for those not prepared to take risks, I figure the honey flavor profile is the most conservative option.  Chime in with your suggestions for the holidays if you have time.

Happy Holidays Everyone!



Jason Debly

P.S.  When I originally posted this list, there was a fifth suggestion: Royal Salute 21.  But, reader JK is my whisky conscience who pointed out it is ridiculously over priced for what you get.  The more I thought about it, I knew he was right.  And so, five suggestions became four.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Holiday Gift Suggestion: The Balvenie Portwood 21 years

Quite a few years ago I read Jack Nicklaus' autobiography.  I was struck by his tremendous ability to recall virtually every shot he made in major championships.  I mean he recalled the wind direction, the angle of the sun, time of day, the type of grass, the club he had in his hand, and how the speed of the greens affected the ball as it landed and invariably curled toward the pin.  He remembered it all.

Give me a golf club and I have difficulty remembering how many strokes I had on a single hole (yeah, there are that many!).  But, hand me a dram, and if it is a great one, I can tell you exactly what it tasted like, the lighting in the room, who I was with, the garish neck tie you were wearing, and the name of the waitress.  The Balvenie Portwood 21 years is such a memory evoking whisky.



















The first time I tasted The Balvenie Portwood was in a non-descript hotel ballroom.  An accordion partition had been pulled across half the room, as there were not many of us on that inhospitable Canadian winter night.  Outside, the evening wind howled over the snow capped parking lot and whipped the ballroom windows with ice pellets.  Above the frigid winds was a vast inky sky with not a cloud just stars twinkling back.

Inside, I was underneath harsh, unrelenting fluorescent lighting with the faint odor of fresh carpet glue rising up.  A whisky tasting was underway.  It started with Tulamore Dew.  A thin, listless, vapid, acrid Irish whiskey that missed it's true calling: skyscraper window cleaner.  I and others greedily stuffed ourselves with the apple and mozzarella cheese that accompanied it, in an attempt to banish the horrid taste to the cellar of our minds, never to be revisited again.

With the food pairing gone, we ravenously popped crusts of bread in our mouths and washed it down with plenty of water.  I drank water with the fervor of a hippie attempting to dilute the chemical impurities of his body, in a futile effort to prevent the return of an acid flashback.  Please God, I promise to be good.  I will go to church.  Just don't let that bad trip or Tulamore Dew ever happen again.  I promise to be good!  I mean it!  Every Sunday I will be there!

Fortunately, the tasting moved to Laphroaig Cairdeas.  A huge step up in quality.  I enjoyed it.  Beautiful stuff.  The Cairdeas was paired with some creamy English Stilton cheese.  Suddenly, the fluorescent lighting was not so annoying.  The phenolic nose of this brilliant Islay took away any memory of the carpet glue smell emanating from the floor.  Maybe I and the others would not slash the youthful looking brand ambassador's tires after all.  He was starting to redeem himself.

The Cairdeas disappeared and was replaced by Laphroaig 18 years.  It was served with pungent Danish blue cheese.  Take a sip and then a bite of cheese instructed the ambassador from the lectern, who I noticed was comfortably out of boxer's reach.  The Laphroaig 18 was a big dog!  A flood of intense, complex peat, black earth, peppercorns and wood smoke that would make any Halloween witch cackle with delight or at the very least generate a bemused look from Joy Behar.









The ambassador twitched at the mic, as he adjusted his Buddy Holly glasses.  His white shirt stuck to his chest oddly with a twist like someone had thrown a pale of water on him.  He could have easily won a Revenge of the Nerds themed wet t-shirt contest.  The thin black leather tie provided ghastly contrast to his undertaker pallor.

"Next, we are going to try Balvenie Portwood.  It is a 21 year old . . ."

I stopped listening to him.  I was in shock.  Whaddya mean you are serving Balvenie Portwood next?  WTF?@*&$#^???  This tasting started with a mild, watery, acrid Irish whisky, then moves to a nice Islay.  Follows that up with a more robust Islay, and now he is pulling a u-turn off the peat and smoke whisky tasting lane and is crashing over the meridian and headed for the oncoming, bone-crunching traffic disaster of a hulking transport truck of a portwood bomb?  Who is this guy?  Slash his tires?  Hell yeah!  He better not have a convertible because I will slice it up like Zorro!

So, there appears a Glencairn of Balvenie Portwood 21 years in front of me.  It is soon joined by an appetizer plate of strawberries and dark chocolate, but not too dark.  60% cocoa.  I am skeptical.  I stare in disbelief much like a JFK conspiracy theorist who is reading the Warren Commision.  I am thinking my palate is ruined.  I just tasted two daisy cutter Islay bombs. and now I am supposed to be able to taste this delicate, very expensive port cask aged single malt?  I pad down my pant pockets to see if I have a jackknife.  No luck, so I pocket a butter knife.  I can already hear the air hiss out of his tires.

The bread basket is empty.  Fortunately, the water pitcher had maybe half a glass worth.  I grab it before anyone else.  You snooze you lose I almost mutter at the college kid in drab gray Aeropostale sweats to my left.  Having bathed my palate in water, I waited as long as I could, and then lifted the Glencairn of Balvenie and take a sniff.

Nose (undiluted)
Orient spices, nutmeg, wine, chocolate and port notes. Very impressive and fragrant.

Palate (undiluted)
Heavy body.  Dark fig, crisp black grapes, cinnamon, and so much more than I can articulate.  It is slightly sweet in the beginning but midpalate becomes drier.  Definite French Pinot Noir taste where you taste the soil, earthy but in a very elegant way.  There is a wine complexity to this spirit that I had not tasted before.

Finish (undiluted)
Waxen, rich with walnuts, oak, tobacco leaf that hang for a very long time.

. . .

I leaned back in my chair.  I knew this was an amazing whisky, and at the same time I was an amazing a--hole for even considering doing undue harm to that brand ambassador's tires.  Maybe the Balvenie 21 would have been even more amazing if it had been the first whisky of the evening.  Maybe.  All I know was I felt like a total schmuck.  So, after the tasting was over, I went up and shook his hand and said he had done a great job and hoped to go to his tastings in the future.

Whether or not his order of whiskies presented was by plan or accident, it worked and demonstrated that a tasting does not necessarily have to start with the gentlest and gradually move towards the most robust.  He also demonstrated that you don't have to stick to just Islays, but that you could jump around and throw in a portwood that would be enjoyed by sherry bombs fans.

I have had The Balvenie 21 year old Portwood several times since then and it has never disappointed and consistently ranked in my mind as a number one pick when budget is not a concern.  The price is not cheap.  Anywhere between $150 and $250 US, but this is one of those rare malts that I think is actually worth it.  You do not see a lot of port cask finished whiskies from other distilleries for a reason.  Working with port casks is difficult because the results can be unpredictable.  To my mind, port casks in whisky are as fickle for a master distiller as the Pinot Noir grape is for the wine maker.

People who enjoy very sherried whiskies like Macallan 18, various Glenfarclas, Aberlour and GlenDronach are going to really enjoy the Balvenie 21 years Portwood.  While the Balvenie is not technically sherried, it shares many of the characteristics of sherried drams.  Port aged whiskies offer more of the sultana and wine notes that are not readily available in the sherry heavy whiskies.

The holiday season is fast approaching.  So, now is the time to think about gift giving for Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa and even the season finale of Duck Dynasty (if you are so inclined).  The Balvenie Portwood 21 years is expensive, but for the true malt fan in your life, this would be a great, great gift.  Highly recommended!

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Monday, November 4, 2013

Review: George Dickel Rye Whisky



"You see doc, I got this burning sensation in . . ."

I notice the good doctor defensively fold his arms over his chest and recoil ever so slightly while I am mid-sentence.  Before he can scribble "penicillin" on his prescription pad, I add: " . . . in my throat."

I was going to refer to another region of my anatomy to get a laugh, but he didn't seem to share my sense of humor or anybody else's for that matter.  Certainly not Eddie Murphy's.  Ever see his stand-up routine captured in Raw?  You know, the skit about "fire shoot out of my d---! . . ."  No?  My doctor didn't either.
















"It's like I have a sore throat all the time" I continue.  "Or the beginning of the flu where your throat gets sore.  And, I am burping a lot."  I think for a nanosecond about conjuring up one, but then thought better of it.  If only I had downed a can of soda before the consult.  Dr. Pepper works every time.

I will spare you the next fifty questions and answers, and give you the diagnosis.  "Acid reflux."

I left the doctor's office with instructions to take 150mg of Zantac daily, give up tea, coffee and maybe lay off the alcohol too.  It took me two weeks to wean myself off coffee and tea.  Head aches and tiredness were the chief withdrawal symptoms.  Supposedly, my acid reflux symptoms would lessen.  No such luck.

I also stopped drinking any alcohol for like an eternity.

Okay, two weeks.

Like I said, an eternity.  Mind you I only have 2 ounces an evening from Friday through Sunday nights.  Yeah, two ounces.  Strangely, as I get older, I drink less.  I am also keenly aware that excessive alcohol consumption can damage one's liver.  In any event, my medically directed libation moratorium didn't lessen my symptoms.

At a follow up with the good doctor, he said there is something in coffee and tea that aggravates the condition.  Maybe acidity.  I dunno, I just start thinking about my golf swing when the medical jargon gets trotted out.

I have this tremendous ability to totally detach from a boring chat, but always nod and make the perfunctory "yes" or "really?" at the ideal pause in conversation such that the speaker thinks I am engaged in what they have to say, like a rottweiler is to a mailman's pant leg. In addition to medical lingo, certain other words or sentence fragments seem to trigger my disconnect when used in conversation:

"Coronation Street"

"I had a great vacation Jason, let me tell you about it!"

 "What?  You didn't see that movie?  It was so funny, especially when . . ."

"You are the wind beneath my wings . . ."

. . .

Fortunately for me,  scotch is not carbonated, nor is it acidic.  If I keep it in moderation there should be no problem.  Apparently there is a 'valve' of sorts in my esophagus and if I become intoxicated it could relax and allow more stomach acid up.  Just don't drink enough to relax it and everything is cool or at least Gaviscon minty cool.




So, I had time on my hands.  A lot of time to decide what I would review next.  After much deliberation, I settled on George Dickel Rye Whisky.

Now, I have to tell you I was worried about this review.  Think about it.  Ever go a long time without a favorite food or beverage and then you have it.  It's special, it's glorious or at least that is how you perceive it.  Why?  Because it has been so damn long.  You are so attuned to the flavors that you are overflowing with satisfaction with your chosen food or beverage.  This has happened to me.  My fear?  After two weeks without whisky, if I sipped the dreaded Ballantine's Finest or Drumguish Single Malt, I might think it is great.  My judgment would be skewed and you misled for relying on this fool's review.

So, to guard against such worrisome risk, my bottle of George Dickel Rye was subjected to repeated sampling over a couple weeks to ensure you received the most accurate review, and I can look myself in the mirror in the morning.

Price
$24-$25 (New Hampshire)

ABV
45%

Body
Light, crisp and dry.

Nose (undiluted)
Cloves, grapefruit, charred oak and rye bread.

Palate (undiluted)
I taste fresh water, thin orange rind, grapefruit, and lemon seed before the rye notes come to the forefront.  The mid-palate is crisp, refreshing and very dry.

Finish (undiluted)
Tingling clean mint and lime with some charred oak and balsa wood.  Balanced, pleasantly sawdust dry rye and delightfully bitter apricot to the end.

General Impressions
I purchased this whisky in New Hampshire for the grand sum of $24.  I had somewhat low expectations given the cheap price.  I am impressed!  Once again, this whisky dispels the myth that the more you spend, the more you get.

The mashbill is 95% rye and 5% malted barley.  Needless to say this whisky is clearly a rye and well done because in spite of the 45% ABV, it is remarkably smooth.  The high ABV contributes great intensity of flavors and some subtle complexity.

You could add water, but I find it becomes too oaky for my tastes.  Drink it neat!

This is a must buy for any rye whisky lover.

Misleading Labeling?
When I bought this, I assumed I was picking up a bottle of Tennessee whisky.  George Dickel is a reputable brand of Tennessee whisky distilled by the Cascade Hollow Distillery in Cascade Hollow, Tennessee.  If you visit their website you can view the various impressive Tennessee whiskies they offer.  But, if you look closely, you will not find any mention of George Dickel Rye.  How come?

I have a theory.

I read the bottle label pictured above.  It  left me with the impression that this rye whisky is Tennessee, but once home I read it more carefully, and I soon learned I was mistaken.

"Our smooth rye whisky is inspired by the the timeless traditions and small batch craftsmanship that make our Tennessee whisky world famous."  (emphasis added)

So, the rye whisky is 'inspired' by the Tennessee whisky that bears the George Dickel brand.  Inspiration and location of distillation are separate realities.  Hence, the failure to reference the rye whisky on the website.

Below the misty eyed prose, that would make any lovesick high school student tear up, in capital letters the label reads: "DISTILLED IN LAWRENCEBURG, IN" and "BOTTLED BY GEORGE DICKEL & CO., NORWALKD, CT."

I thought this rye was bottled in Connecticut.  I was wrong.  Read carefully and the label states it is bottled by the George Dickel & Co, who are based in Norwalk.  I have read elsewhere that it is bottled in Plainfield, Illinois at a facility owned and operated by Diageo.

My initial impression that this rye was Tennessee whisky was also due to a failure to carefully read the side label:

The label gives a little history of George Dickel and how he crafted his Tennessee whisky.  So, reading it quickly, the average consumer would assume they are holding a bottle of Tennessee whisky.  Not!  Check out a great site on bourbon: The Bourbon Intelligencer for his observations on this point.

So, I guess what ticks me off is the lack of transparency and what appears to be an attempt to trade on the reputation of Tennessee whisky.  This rye is great.  There is no need to imply it is something else.  I am sure marketing people would tell me otherwise.  They are probably right from the perspective of maximizing sales, but wrong in terms of banking on the consumer not being a bloody Philadelphia lawyer when reading the label.

If you surf the web, some people vent about the fact that this whisky is not a true Tennessee whisky.  Me, I am not so disappointed that it is not that type of whisky.  All I care about are two features:

    (1) taste

    (2) price.

I am satisfied on both counts.  About the only connection between this Indiana rye and the Tennessee whiskies of the Cascade Hollow Distillery is the chilling of the spirit followed by the use of the same sugar maple wood charcoal filtering.

Anyone who is overly bothered by the fact that George Dickel Rye is not technically Tennessee whisky needs to visit a doctor for a check-up from the neck up!

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Review: Crown Royal Cask No. 16

The most famous and best selling of all Canadian whiskies is, without a doubt, Crown Royal.  A brand that has been around for a long time.  It was created by Canadian entrepreneur Samuel Bronfman, who was in his day, kinda the equivalent of Donald Trump.  Astute businessman, shameless promoter, who could be generous, kind, philanthropic, nasty and ruthless.  A real piece of work.

One of the ways he left his mark in this world was through his obsession with developing a great whisky, and the result was Crown Royal.  Mr. Sam, as he was known, introduced Crown Royal to mark the state visit to Canada of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939 (In my You Tube video review I incorrectly said the state visit by the King and Queen took place in the mid-1950's).  Clearly, Mr. Sam was a master of marketing, light years ahead of his time.

Sam Bronfman
















Davin de Kergommeaux, in his authoritative tome, Canadian Whisky, wrote:

"Bronfman was wealthy and well connected by that time and managed to have the whisky placed aboard the trains carrying the royal couple across Canada.  It was billed as whisky fit for royalty, but there is no evidence that either of them ever tasted it.  Still, it was an instant success with Canadians."

Bronfman continued to play up the tenuous connection to royalty by selling Crown Royal in dark blue/purple faux velvet bags.  What a card!

Brand Variations
While Crown Royal was introduced in 1939, it would be a long time before extensions of the brand would appear in the marketplace.  But, when they did, the sales were impressive, which meant more brand variations.

Crown Royal Reserve appeared in 1992.  Basically it was Crown Royal with a few older whiskies and additional rye in the mash bill for added spice.  Nice.  In 2008, the Special Reserve was re-launched as Reserve.  Other than changing the label, it was the same whisky.  Pretty poor marketing strategy.  They should have taken a page out of Mr. Sam's playbook and linked the launch with a newsworthy event in 2008.  Maybe the election of President Obama?  Or maybe the worst film sequel of 2008: Saw 5

In 2006, Crown Royal XR (extra rare) appeared on the market.  A very expensive release that continues to be bottled to this day. Good hooch, but too rich for my pocket book.

2010 brought us, Crown Royal Black and well, I don't like it.  Tastes like rum.  I like rum, but not when I buy a bottle labeled Canadian whisky.  For those occasions, I want to taste Canadian whisky.  In any event, I reviewed it here.  I was not kind.

2012 saw the release of Crown Royal Maple.  I have not tried it.  It is Crown Royal finished in maple toasted oak.  I understand sales have been very strong, much like the success of Crown Royal Black.  But remember, just as age statements are not a guarantee of quality, neither is robust sales growth.

The Main Event
Crown Royal Cask No. 16 came to market in 2007.  This whisky is basically standard Crown Royal that has been finished for a period of time in oak Cognac casks.  The number "16" refers to the forest region or district of Limousin, France, from which the oak is harvested for the barrels.  I think that is the back story, but if I am wrong, please advise in the comments section.

ABV
40%

Body
Medium body.  Rounded, creamy mouth feel.

Nose (undiluted)
Some faint rye notes, chocolate, brandy, warm fruitcake.

Palate (undiluted)
Rye bread, warm plum pudding, stewed prunes, nutmeg, oatmeal drizzled with brown sugar.

Finish (undiluted)
Dark rum soaked fruit cake.  Subtle spiced oak.

General Impressions
A beautiful Canadian whisky!  Incredibly smooth, balanced, but not boring.  The Cognac cask aging process really imparts the darker fruitcake character of this whisky.  The taste has a slight winey note that works very well.

The smooth character makes this whisky very easy to drink.  Well done!

And now for the bad news . . .
Crown Royal Cask No. 16 has been discontinued.  Production ceased in 2013.  Accordingly, once it is gone, it's gone forever.  Presently, Cask No. 16 still appears on shelves in Canada and the US, and retailers in the US are cutting the price on this great whisky.  I have seen it advertised for $52 a bottle.  A great price.

In Canada, it normally retails between $80 and $100, which is quite expensive for Canadian whisky.  Nevertheless, I paid those prices and I am not disappointed nor feel cheated.  So, if you can get it for less, you are doing well.

Why was it discontinued?  Diageo and I are not on speaking terms.  I send them emails.  They ignore them.  So, I am left to my own devices, which means talking to others in the spirits industry for their theories.  One knowledgeable source speculates that the demise of Cask No. 16 was not due to poor sales, but rather the spectacular sales growth of Crown Royal Black and Maple.  Someone in the company decided to take the resources devoted to Cask No. 16, and devote it to the growth areas of the product line.  Another theory is that the sourcing of the cognac casks might have become problematic in the future.  Who knows?  All I know is that this whisky will be gone forever, except for the bottles I manage to scoop up now.

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: Johnnie Walker Swing Blended Scotch Whisky

Johnnie Walker Swing is one of the lesser known offerings in the Johnnie Walker brand product line.  This no-age-statement blended Scotch whisky was first launched in 1932.  You would think a blend that has been around that long would be as famous as its sibling: Red Label.

Not so.

Why?  I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that it is usually only available through Duty Free shops at airports around the world.  Oddly enough, this particular bottle was picked up for me by a good friend in Orlando at a regular brick and mortar store.    But, that is a rare exception.  Generally, Duty Free is where you will find Johnnie Walker Swing.

Why the name Swing?
If you visit the Johnnie Walker web site, view Ralfy's video review on You Tube, and a number of other websites, you will get basically the same story behind this blended Scotch.

The legend behind this blend is that Sir Alexander Walker (grandson of John Walker), on one of his transatlantic voyages headed to or returning from New York, spent time in the bar and noticed how the bottles would move and shift due to the movement of the ocean liner upon the seas.  The bartender struggled to keep the bottles in racks in an effort to prevent breakage.  Sir Alex got to thinkin' that there has got to be a better away.  So, he thought and thought, and ordered his minions to design a bottle that would not be caused to fall  over in such a nautical setting.











Remember that childhood toy: Weebles?

C'mon, you remember.  How does that song go?  Weebles wobble but they don't fall down.

That song basically sums up Sir Al's solution or the one delivered to him by his hardworking staff.

The base of the Swing bottle is convex.  So, it rocks back and forth, if there is any movement of the surface it is resting upon, but nevertheless remains upright, at attention, if you will.  Kinda like me, as I think about doing a whisky and food pairing episode with Nigella Lawson.









ABV
80 proof.

Nose (undiluted)
Invitingly floral with gentle sherry notes, followed by a wisp of smoke.  Malty too.

Palate (undiluted)
Sweet wild honey smeared on dark toast.  Light sherry notes (think dark red fruit) make an appearance before a transition to spiced vanilla and butterscotch.

Finish (undiluted)
Sherry still there.  Some oak comes to the forefront before fading to a final dark red fruit note (due to the sherry influence) .

General Impressions
I drink this and I immediately think of Cardhu.  An unexceptional 12 year old single malt, if there ever was one.  Cardhu, by the way, is a core malt of this blend and really dominates on the palate.

Johnnie Walker Swing is sweet, smooth, with some honey and sherry accents.  I taste a bit of old oak, and wonder how great the selection of casks of the single malts making it into this blend were.

The nose was the best part of this blend.

Highly quaffable and not offensive in the least, which leads me to believe that this is targeting a very mainstream, non-connoisseur whisky segment.  Nothing wrong with that, so long as you fall within that market segment.

Value for Money?
I paid $60 for this bottle.  About $20 too much in my opinion.  At this price point there are a lot of great single malts that come to mind that are in the same flavor profile (Speyside honey delight) that do a far better job.  I am thinking Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or, Glenfiddich 15 Solera, and Cragganmore 12.

In terms of blended Scotch whisky comparisons, Johnnie Walker Swing is similar in taste also to Dimple Pinch 15, Chivas Regal 12 and 18.  The 12 is cheaper than the Swing.  Chivas 18 is overpriced, but it probably comes out on top in a heads up competition with Swing.

In a post I made on You Tube, I said this was good value for $50.  I think I regret that statement.  $50 is too much.  $40 is fair.  Below $40 is good value.



So, Why Buy This?
I would buy this for the Johnnie Walker fan, a person who likes all things Johnnie.  I know quite a few people of such a disposition.  I think they would be amused by receiving a gift of a Johnnie Walker offering that they are not familiar with.

I would also buy this for someone who likes blends a lot, and does not enjoy the taste of peat, big smoke and other classic Islay flavors.  Swing plays it real safe with the consumer.  Nothing offensive here.  Nothing super interesting either.  We are talking pancakes with maple syrup.  No blueberry Belgian waffles here with English cream.

Comparison to Other Johnnie Walker Products
I prefer the discontinued Green Label to Swing.  I prefer Black Label to Swing.  Swing is better than the newly launched Gold Label (no age statement), but not as good by any means as the old Gold Label 18 years (which naturally has been discontinued).  18 year old Platinum beats Swing and so does Blue.  Mind you, those are far more expensive.

Conclusion
Would I buy this again?  No.  Why?  I became bored with it quickly.  I like blends, but this one is a little too simple and mainstream.  It lacks complexity and pizzazz that I expect at $50-$60 price point.  $40 and below makes it far more attractive.  Hell, I think if I took a bottle of Cutty Sark and a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, I could create a Johnnie Walker Swing with a little zip and pizzazz much to my liking!

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Photo credits; Photograph of Nigella Lawson widely available on internet.  Photographer is unknown  If you know, drop me a line and I will give credit.  This image appears purely for entertainment and educational purposes.  Well maybe a little titillation too.  All of other photographs taken by yours truly and can be reproduced if you give me credit and link back to this blog.  Cheers!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: Bunnahabhain 12 years old Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky

"I am taking the kids to the cottage for the weekend."

I am standing in the kitchen.  Hands in my pockets.  Still listening.

"You don't have to come, if you don't want to.  I know you have some chores to do."

And then she added with a wry smile, "please try to contain your excitement."

I sputter, trying to hold back the biggest smile spreading across my face with all the subtlety of a Howard Stern interview of  a porn starlet that reportedly slept with Charlie Sheen.

You see, two of my kids, ages 5 and 7, were in the habit of hanging on the French door, separating the dining room from the kitchen, by the door knob, and swinging back and forth like shutters in a Kansas tornado.  My other daughter is 15 years old, and far too cool for such nonsense.

Anyway, the door was in need of repair, as it was partially pulled off the hinges.  A carpenter was coming in to replace with a new one that would also have to be painted.  Plus, he was going to nail some flashing that was loose on the roof.  It would be really great if the kids weren't around to interfere with all that, I suggested in a low and hopefully hynotic voice over morning coffee to the wife (she hates being called "the wife").  I let my highly persuasive argument percolate in her mind, employed Jedi knight mind tricks, tried to put her in a superconscious state of mind that Reveen would be proud of, and other mental slight of hand, before gradually giving serious thought to bribery, as I stirred my coffee.

Fortunately, I didn't have to open my wallet (her's is fatter than mine anyway).  By Friday night, she had come around to my way of thinking.  So, while she would spend weekend evenings gazing at a seaside sunset (see above), I had my work cut out for me.  I had to do what I like best.  Organize a whisky tasting, but on very short notice.

 Islay Whisky Tasting & Suggested Hors d'oeuvres
A couple of late night emails, frantic phone calls, and madly typed texts, and I had my fellow whisky dogs trotting over for Saturday night.

I always try to have a theme for a whisky tasting, which is generally determined by what I have on hand or members of the whisky club can bring.   I settled on an Islay theme.  I had Caol Ila 12, Bunnahabhain 12 and whisky dog Ken would bring Laphroaig 18.  But, it takes more than a few good single malts to make a successful whisky tasting.  You need suitable food  or hors d'oeuvre pairings.

Since the whisky tasting was taking place at 8pm, there was no need for serious food pairings.  What was a prerequisite for a successful evening were light appetizers that compliment the featured whiskies. Crusty French bread  and water might be appreciated by prisoners on Devil's Island, but not by I and the whisky hounds.

So, I have an easy- to-make hors d'oeuvre for you to consider.  Simply take a plain cracker.  I use Carr's Table Water Crackers.  Spread some plain cream cheese on it, place a slice of smoked salmon on top and finish with a single caper, as pictured above.  Take a sip of a nice Islay malt, and then a bite of that properly dressed cracker and you have a nice melding of marine flavors.

What I like about this appetizer is that it does not overpower the taste of the whisky.  It would be a mistake to take a bite of Danish blue cheese, and then knock back some Caol Ila or the even more sublime Bunnahabhain.  The strong cheese taste would overpower the malt and muddy its subtleties.



Bunnahabhain 12 years Islay Single Malt

ABV
46.3%

Color
Natural.  No caramel E150a here.  Surprisingly light gold, hay.  Why surprising?  I guess so many 12 yr single malts are colored darker.

Nose (undiluted)
Light peat, garden fresh mint, piping hot brewed black tea, and a touch of loam.  Sherry lurking in the background.  Sherry?  Yeah, in an Islay malt?  I know.  Bewildering, but more about that later.

Palate (undiluted)
Spicy dark red fruits of plum, Moroccan dates, figs delivered courtesy of aging in fine sherry casks.  But, this is not simply a sherried dram!  The sherry notes are lightly peated.  The peat action is not your usual over-the-top Islay blast but rather evoking pleasing dry, flint-like, weathered beach stone, graphite taste.

Finish (undiluted)
Sweet malt lingers with oak, tarragon and rosemary.  Wet wood beach bonfire smoke too.  A faint echo of peat.

General Impressions
Whisky dog Ken astutely pointed out that in a blind tasting this would not easily be recognized as an Islay malt.  A lot of sherry that melds perfectly with peat and sea salt.  That alone does not suggest the stereotypical Islay that is enormously dominated by notes of phenols, hospital bandages, ointment, iodine and powerful, in-your-face beach bonfire smoke.

Bunnahabhain takes the Islay malt classic and mixes things up with sherry accented by sweet malty action before a peculiar, what I can only describe as flint-like or stone taste, but all in a good way as far as I am concerned.  I think this stone/flint action is probably contributed to by the sherry and oak casks.  I like it because it is really different, but I am sure some readers may find it a bit odd.  Kinda like the humor of Andy Kaufman.  You are a fan of non-linear comedy or you aren't.

High ABV
At 46.3% I was expecting this to pack a serious wallop and be maybe a little too strong.  Not the case at all.  No raw alcohol or unrefined spirit taste to be found.  Bunnahabhain is remarkably smooth with a medium body, not heavy, but not light either.  You could add water if you want, but not necessary.

Not Well Known
Bunnahabhain is not a well known Islay malt.  Probably because it is one of the least peated Islays out there, and I suspect in the past much of the distillery production was for blends, most notably Black Bottle.  Nevertheless, you should seek this malt out and give it a go.  It does taste of the sea and other maritime flavors with the addition of sherry.  If you can get it for around $55-$60 a bottle, you are doing well.

Well, it's Sunday morning now.  I better head to the cottage and take in the Sunday evening sunset with my very significant other, otherwise I will be meditating on a view from the dog house come Monday morning.

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Reveen poster image is widely available on the web without attribution as to its creator.  Used in this post  for artistic and literary purposes only.  All other photos taken by yours truly. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Caol Ila 12 years Islay Single Malt

Do you ever form observations in your mind that you are sure are true, but afraid to voice in polite company for fear that you will find yourself committed to an asylum?  Okay, maybe not committed, but at least seriously shunned by practically everyone.  Yeah, I mean everyone.  Your life partner will look at you out of the corner of her eye late at night, while you slumber, and think:  He worries me.

Well, I do make such observations or connections via my chronically misfiring brain snapses.  Like all the time, and in spite of the risk of rejection and the stink-eye gaze from my wife,  family, peers, co-workers and even you, and living out my days in a straight-jacket, while listening to ABBA muzak in an egg shell white walled institution, I am gonna voice one right now.

I was thinking about adventure/thriller writer Jack Higgins and at the same time I was pondering the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and realized a profound insight about the two men of the pen from different centuries:  They both were able to come up with awesome titles for their entertaining tomes!

A Sampling of Nietzsche Titles

Beyond Good and Evil

The Dawn of Day

. . . and my favorite . . .

Twilight of the Idols

Check out these Jack Higgins Book Titles

East of Desolation

The Judas Gate

. . . and my other favorite . . .

The Last Place God Made

I was thinking about these titles and what they are about?  Truth!  It must be truth.  Beyond good and evil, there must be truth.  Right?  At the dawn of day, it is Mistress Truth who is there to remind you that your headache and upset stomach is the dowry you received when you became betrothed to one of Dionysus' maidens the night before.

East of desolation?  Surely it is the cold, hard truth that you face?  Surely right?  I think so.  So, what about truth?  Well, that is why you are here right?  You want the truth about Caol Ila 12 years.  Well, I am here to give it to ya baby!





Color
Straw.

ABV
43%

Nose (undiluted)
Gentle peat.  Still smoking, charred beach wood and a sweetness, grassy with a hint of seaweed.

Palate (undiluted)
Salty, cold orange pekoe tea, light peat notes, and smoke.  Think branches piled for a small beach-side fire.  Not overpowering.  Salted cod too.

Finish (undiluted)
Tart apple, tangy green seaweed, and the final note is salt.  Heavy salt.














General Impressions
Caol Ila is a distillery on Islay that is not as well known as the others like Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig.  Why?  Probably because their 12 year old single malt has only been available since June 2002.  You see, Caol Ila's principal business is producing single malt for the purpose of blending.  You will taste Caol Ila in two fantastically great blends: Johnnie Walker Green and Black Bottle.  Some say Johnnie Black, but Diageo aren't talking (well, not to me).  It probably is present in other blends too.

So, what is the truth about this single malt, as I stand at the twilight of the idols and east of desolation?

Price Point - Be Wary
I paid a lot of money for this bottle.  $80 to be exact.  So, my expectations were elevated. I was disappointed.  While Caol Ila is a pleasant smoky and peaty single malt from Islay, it lacked complexity of flavor.  If there is a word I overuse on this blog, it has got to be "complexity."  Seriously lacking here.

A regular reader told me he picked up a couple bottles on sale for $29 (he lives in the US).  At $29 I would be singing the praises of this malt as a great value for money play.  But, at $60 plus, I cannot say that.  On the plus side, it is smooth, balanced, with no bitterness.  Well put together, just missing a certain pizazz or Elvis Presley karate move that malts should have at the price point I paid.  Even you lucky Americans should be cautious about picking this bottle up if it involves paying in excess of $50.













Alternatives?
While I was drinking Caol Ila, I couldn't help but think to myself that Talisker 10 years is twenty dollars cheaper and delivers a similar flavor profile, but far more interesting and rewarding drink experience.

If you do not want to hop to the Isle of Skye from whence Talisker comes from, you can stay on Islay and try Laphroaig Quarter cask.  Again, cheaper and superior.  As for Ardbeg, it is saltier and more pronounced than Caol Ila.  The latter is really easy drinking.  No wonder it is used for blending.

Online praise is everywhere for this malt.  Ralfy rated this malt 89 out of 100 and was very pleased with it.   So were many others.  Me, I am going out on a limb here and probably will attract heaps of criticism, but oh well, comes with the territory, though I hope I don't end up instituionalized like Nietzsche.

Cheers!


Jason Debly

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: Johnnie Walker Platinum Label aged 18 years

Nose
Sherry, oak, chocolate fondue, wet leaves, loam, mint.

Palate
Blood oranges, sherry, rosewater, dark plums, raspberries.

Finish
Salt, very subtle smoke (methinks Talisker), and crisp red grapes.

General Impressions
The first couple of sips are accompanied by some feisty spiciness, but that settles down to a red fruit, sherry infused taste experience that is very satisfying.  Very quaff-able.  Very smooth.  Goes down way too easy.

Blended scotch consumers place a premium on smoothness above all other qualities.  Platinum Label delivers.  There are no sharp or pointed sticks here.  It's all velvet pillows and satin sheets.  Trouble is, when a blend is that smooth, it has to sacrifice complexity of flavor.  That's what has happened here.

Normally, I wouldn't hold a blended Scotch whisky up to a naked light bulb and handcuff it to the chair of tough questions of complexity.  But, Platinum Label is deserving of such an interrogation because of the price point.  In Canada, this blend retails for the borderline criminal  sum of $149.00.  In my opinion, any Scotch whisky, single malt or blended, has to display an appreciable complexity of flavor that makes me go "wow!" at that price.

Not happening here.

Don't misunderstand me.

This is good, solid, premium blended Scotch whisky.

I enjoy it.  But, the price of $149 is ridiculous (and maybe capable of tempting a prosecutor to lay a charge of larceny).

A good friend of mine, on his way to Isleworth picked this bottle up for me at Duty Free in Orlando, Florida for about $85.  I paid him back, so I am doing some serious Deep Blue value-for-money calculations, and I am still unsure whether or not it is worth it.  Well, actually, that is not entirely true.

Drinking Platinum Label brings to mind an old Barry Goldwater campaign billboard, that read: "In your heart you know he's right."  Similarly, in my heart, I know I'm right when I think I am paying too much for Platinum Label, even at Duty Free prices.  I think this should be priced at about $60.

Target Market
So far, we have established that Johnnie Walker Platinum Label is a good blended Scotch whisky, very drinkable, pleasant and pretty solid.  Unfortunately, due to the high price, we whisky nuts demand some complexity.  This is because for the same amount of money there are other blends (ie. Hibiki 17, 21, Johnnie Walker Green, etc) that are priced lower and deliver magical complexity.  Moreover, for much less money we can buy single malts that deliver pixies who dance on our palates doing nude interpretive dances that leave nothing to the imagination.

So, who buys Platinum?

Probably not whisky aficionados seeking a good value for money proposition.

I know that there are a lot of affluent, casual consumers of Scotch whisky who would bring out this premium blend during the holidays or in moments of celebration (weddings!).  These consumers want a smooth, pleasant, non-offensive whisky experience, and at the same time they want to demonstrate to their friends and family that they have the means to buy the best.  The handsome packaging, the high price, the lofty age statement and the precious metals marketing slant all satisfy that expectation.  I speculate that this would be a very desirable bottle in countries whose economies have an emerging middles class who want to announce that they have "arrived."  I am thinking: China, Russia, Brazil, India, and many others.

I am also thinking so called mature economies like Canada, United States, England and others also have plenty of consumers who want the same assurances and a need to make the same declaration.

Good for them!  I just hope I get invited to their next wedding celebration where the Platinum Label flows!

Cheers!



Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved except for photograph of Barry Goldwater presidential campaign billboard.  Photographer unknown, and image appears widely on internet.  Photograph was taken in 1964, in Atlantic City, NJ, USA.  It states: "In your heart, you know he's right."  A sign placed below it challenges: "Yes . . . extreme right." All images on this blog 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, July 17, 2013

Heatwave Antidote - Add Ice to your Whisky!

The love that dare not speak its name in many whisky circles is the amour for ice with one's whisky.

Presently, I am living in the midst of a serious heat wave with temperatures approaching 100 degrees fahrenheit and 70% humidity contributing to sauna like air quality.  I love it though.  I dig the heat.  Probably because I am not working as a roofer hammering shingles or raking asphalt across driveways.  Moreover, I am on vacation.  Beside being poolside, what contributes to my good humour is drinking my whisky with ice.

Shocking!  The horror! Say it ain't so!

That would be the thoughts and attitudes of the whisky purists out there and the critics who get paid for what they write.  I don't care.  Those people are disconnected from you and I.  They make too much money, and are a little too arrogant for my liking.  They can have their 30 year old, limited release malts, and choke on them in this balmy weather.  I cannot think of anything less appealing than single malt Scotch whisky served neat at temperatures approaching a sweltering  noon hour in Doha.

When it is a really hot summer's day, I like to enjoy a good blended Scotch whisky and even certain single malts with an ice chip or even a whole cube!  Why?  Because it is so damn refreshing.

I just love reaching for a sturdy tumbler, tossing in an ice cube, pouring some Teacher's Highland Cream, Johnnie Walker Black Label, Black Bottle or other blend and waiting about one minute.  During that agonizingly long minute that little ice cube is knocking down the temperature of my whisky, and smoothing out the rough edges, and maybe allowing for a little nip, where there used to be some bite.

Finally, I take a sip, having exercised the patience of Job.  For my forbearance, I am rewarded by a delightfully refreshing taste of chilled whisky with snips of smoke, seaweed, brine, salt and whatever flavors make up my selected spirit.  Yes, I suppose it is not very complex, and nosing the whisky is pointless with an ice cube floating in my tumbler glass, but I do not care.  I am seeking Margaritaville, not a bookish, desperate for whisky nirvana, all-senses focused malt experience.  Save that for the winter time when I am hiding inside from the snow blown wind-chill factor outside.

In the first few minutes, your ice cube works wonders on your whisky.  But, there comes a point where your whisky has become overly diluted.  Worry not, it is now whisky slush.  Drink up!  Or dump it out and start anew.

I also like that there is something very casual about ice and whisky.  The combination seems to provoke casual, light hearted conversation.  Something we can all benefit from.

Ice and Single Malt?
Yes it does happen.  Don't be embarrassed.  You can admit to it.  It's not like I am referring to your experimental phase in college with your roommate.

I will add whisky to cheap single malts and expensive ones that I did not like neat.  For example, last night I had this bottle of Longmorn 16 that had been sitting on my shelf for about eight months.  Why?  Not a fan.  Just didn't really enjoy it.  So, I thought, Mr. Longmorn, you are a candidate for an arranged marriage with my ice tray.  The result?  Really nice!  The bite and rather barnyard action was taken away by the ice, leaving some nice nips on the tongue of pepper, chocolate are caramel.  It went down easy and was very interesting.

So, I challenge you to survey your single malt collection.  Is there one you have not been enthralled with?  If so, drop a cube in, set out on the deck, take in the sun, and your iced malt.

Whisky Festivals - Where's the Ice?
I have been to a few whisky festivals and I have not seen any buckets of ice, alongside neatly lined up legions of bottled water.  Matter of fact, even if there was some ice to be had, it wouldn't get past the mouths of those pouty Glencairn Glasses.  What gives?  Let's add some jolly, slack-jawed tumblers too.

Whisky festivals are supposed to be a celebration of all things whisky.  Spirits companies showcase their finest fire water with knowledgeable, smartly dressed and attractive brand ambassadors, who typically squeeze in an interesting tidbit of info as they pour you a dram.

"Aged in French oak, not American" declares an ambassador who could pass for an Armani runway model. She is just way too pretty to be a serious whisky fan, I think, and then I ponder if I am being sexist.  Anyway, my point is whisky lovers have an affinity for Harris Tweed jackets, tartan wool ties, pilled poly-cotton, navy pants with the built-in crease that all contributes to a certain disheveled, professorial look, without the academic accomplishment.

"Really?"  I say like I care, even though I just wanna taste the damn stuff as quickly as possible, while noting her androgynous sartorial flair, and wondering if this conversation may evolve into an awkward scene out of The Crying Game.  

"The French oak has a certain je ne sais quoi.

"Do you have any ice?"

"No" is Ms. Holly Golightly's arctic reply that sufficiently cools my drink, dampens my enthusiasm, and causes me to move onto the next booth.  Probably not what the drinks company wanted as an outcome of a potential customer interaction with their product.

. . .

Where is the ice for the whisky fan who drinks it with that frosty accompaniment?  Surely, they know that there is a large segment of the public that adds ice.  The marketing arms of these drinks companies research every aspect of their consumer with a view to attaining increased market share.   They know that many consumers like a little ice.  What's going on here?

I will never be a brand ambassador.  You know why?  I'd have tumblers and ice at the ready, at my employer's kiosk.  I'd ask you:  "Would you like ice with your whisky?"  I am sure some whisky snobs would regard such a question as akin to: "Would you like fries with that?"  A letter would be written to my employer and I would find myself unceremoniously kicked to the curb in my sartorially challenged powder blue polyester tux with black trimmed lapels and handy flap hip pockets.

Why can't the drinks companies get it through their thick skulls that some people like ice with their whisky?  They wanna increase sales, market share and all that right?  Well, get with the program and have it on hand at festivals.



I mean if I was representing Diageo, Chivas Bros, Edrington Group, etc., at a festival and proffered ice for those who wanted it, its not like I am doing something outrageous.  Well, to some my conduct would be tantamount to smearing peanut butter on my chest, rolling in shards of broken glass and then diving off a stage into a crowd  à la  Iggy Pop.



And, that's the problem.  The fear of taking a chance.  The fear of criticism.  Whisky companies for some reason are very conservative and are fearful of jumping into the mosh pit of whisky fans by offering the possibility of ice at festivals.  Funny how any bartender or waiter will ask almost immediately if you want that on the rocks.  They are more in touch with the ordinary customer.

Let's start a revolution.  At the next whisky festival, invariably held in a hot and sweaty hotel ballroom, ask for ice with your dram!

Cheers!



Jason Debly
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for photographs, as they are the intellectual property of the photographers, and may not be reproduced without their permission.  Photo credits:  (1) photograph of whisky and ice taken by Martin Price.  Please visit his site to explore more of his great work.  Martin Price holds all worldwide copyright and no reproduction is permitted without his express written consent.  His photograph appears here with his gracious consent; (2) Photograph of powder blue tuxedo up for sale on Etsy and taken by member Sugarshackvintage;  (3) Photograph of Iggy Pop at the 1970 Cincinnati Pop Festival.  This photograph is widely available on the internet, but unfortunately I have not been able to identify the photographer.  I would like to give credit.  If you know who it is, please drop me a line.  In any case the image appearing in this article is for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images on this blog 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.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review: Highland Park 12 years Single Malt Scotch

25 yrs ago I had a conversation with my mentor in this building.
"Rex, do you have a moment?"

"Sure."  He pushed himself away from his expansive desk, and leaned back in his chair, a battered, cracked brown leather number that had seen better days.  Being vice-president, he could afford better, but his personal sense of frugality blinded him to such unimportant matters of aesthetics.  

"Take a look at this."  I handed him a typed letter.  He scanned it and looked up with a quizzical expression.

"See here."  I pointed out a spelling error.  "And here, and that one too.  I must bounce back a couple letters a day to Joan."  

Joan was a 60ish secretary, with alarmingly unnatural blonde, Marilyn Monroe hair, who transcribed my dictation at a breezy 20 words per minute.  She was forgetful at times, failing to photocopy correspondence too.

"Jason, I hear ya."  He scratched his balding head and searched for the right words, and then added "but, . . . everyone needs a job."  

. . . 

Do you climb the corporate ladder with integrity?
25 years ago, those words went straight over my head.  I was fixated on the fact that I had a dud of a secretary.  Me, an eager-beaver, know-it-all, newly minted university graduate. What did I know?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

Over the years, I have dealt with people who take liberties with the truth, twist facts and situations to their own advantage, and generally just plain lie.  Sadly, sometimes they have been coworkers, bosses and senior management.  Today, at 46 years of age, I can finally look a man in the eye and tell if he has good character.  Unfortunately, the last time I encountered moral courage to do the right thing in the workplace was a quarter of a century ago. And this thought brings to mind Highland Park 12 years.

Highland Park 12 years Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Unlike men, whisky cannot lie.  If it is thin, weak, unreliable, you will know from the first sip.  Cheap, dishonestly young malt and grain whiskies cannot hide their shortcomings behind slick packaging, much like corporate weasels and c-suite yes-men using opaque jargon and jingoism to obfuscate the truth.  The listener knows the truth behind words like downsizing, streamlining, change management, finding efficiencies and other corporate Orwellian gobbledygook that always means the same thing: loss of jobs that impacts not just the person in the position, but his/her family.  Strangely the suit delivering the message always finds these "efficiencies" in the lower strata of the organization, not at his or higher levels of management.  

Nose (undiluted)
Fine sherry, Florida oranges, majestic Orcadian peat, subtle wood smoke, and a handful of stones.

Palate (undiluted)
The finest Oloroso sherry, orange rind, raspberries, wild honey, and a thin layer of pomegranate. Underneath all that is heather and subtle Montecristo smoke.  Great and a very unique floral complexity for a 12 year old single malt.

Finish (undiluted)
Dry, tingling pomegranate, Australian red licorice and the distinctive heather of this distillery that cannot be replicated by any other distillery.

General Impressions
Highland Park 12 years is a solid drink.  A single malt whisky that cannot be ignored.  It exemplifies all that great malts aspire to be.  For example, a lot of single malts trumpet that they age in Oloroso sherry casks.  If there was ever a word consistently over-used in Scotch whisky marketing, it is "Oloroso."    Oloroso sherry is a dry sherry.  Tends to be very dry and you taste that arid quality on the mid-palate to finish of Highland Park 12.

The Oloroso sherry casks used by Highland Park are exceptional to my mind.  They deliver a fantastic sherried Scotch whisky experience that other distilleries can only dream about.

Scottish Heather (Calluna vulgaris
The other feature of Highland Park 12 that I take note of is 'heather.'  What is heather?

It is a low lying shrub that grows all over Scotland and typically is mauve, lavender and purple in color.  Orkney Islands where the Highland Park Distillery is located has plenty of heather too.

I seriously believe that heather of Orkney does impart unique and rare floral notes that make Highland Park 12 special. The mechanics of exactly how this shrub influences flavor, I will admit is sketchy at best.

". . . water flowing over heather moors picks up floral characteristics along its way to the distillery, and exerts an influence during the steeping or mashing.  However, using peat that includes  heather, certain types of yeast, a particular distillation method, and oak aging may all impart heather characteristics to whisky."

Those are the words of Ian Wisniewski, a whisky writer, whose above comments appeared on page 32 of Whiskey by Michael Jackson, 2005 edition, published by Dorling Kindersley Limited.

I subscribe to Mr. Wisniewski's explanation.  There is a fascinating floral experience going on in Highland Park 12 that I attribute to heather.

Fair Price
At one time Highland Park 12 was cheap.  It didn't have the cachet of say Macallan 12 and others.  So, the price was actually very good.

Times have changed.  HP 12 is now recognized as a great single malt and so I have noticed prices creeping up.  I have been told that the higher prices reflect increased demand in India and China.  In addition, I think it has become a trendy brand in North America.  It is the name dropped most by people who know little about Scotch whisky but want to appear otherwise.  In any case, the price for HP 12 is still more than fair, in spite of recent increases.

Conclusion
Back in 2009, I wrote an enthusiastic and maybe a bit over-the-top review of this single malt (click here).  I still agree with it.  HP 12 has great character!  The question is: do you and I?

Cheers!


Jason Debly
© Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved except for one photograph.  The photograph of the bottle of Highland Park 12 with tumbler was taken by a member on Flickr Gary White who holds all world copyright.  The photo is used in this blog with his permission.  No reproduction permitted without Mr. White's express written permission.  All other photos taken by yours truly.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reader Email: Shabbat Dinner Whisky Pairing Advice!

I received an email from a reader, Alexandre.  I wrote back a response and asked him if I could also post his email here.  He agreed.  My original email reply is briefer than what appears below.  I added to it in an effort to maybe trigger a response from you too.  Please chime in if you are so inclined.

. . .

Hi jason,

I came across you whisky blog , which i find interisting, and I see you were giving well-pondered advices there, so I thought i may asking for some of your advices too. I really need it .

My first encouter with quality whisky was in a trip to Scotland (I know , how stereotuypic). we (me and friends) tasted some whisky at a distillery visit, but the real "shock" was when we' were offered a glass of Dalwhinnie 15. 


I was stunned, I never enjoyed a alcholic drink so much .

I returnerd form Scotland and brought with me a set of 4 small bottles of 5 ml of single malt scotch, I liked them all, but unfortunately i don't remember the names , except the talisker 10 which I liked the least.

A year after, I bought a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15.
I started to drink it on a weekly basis. I am jew, and we have a festive meal each week on friday night, and i like to conclude my meal with a quality drink.

I liked the smell of the Dalwhinnie (and i always like the nose more) , but i was a bit disappointed of it. I didn't feel it was as i remembered. It was more bitter than i thought it will be , and i didn't managed to sense the taste well.
I still enjoyed to drink whisky on friday night, but when i finished the bottle, i decided to try something else.

I saw the Laphroaig has a lot of love ont the internet , so i wanted to try it.
I bought the Laphroaig Quarter Cask
It was better that the Dalwhinnie 15. I loved the smell ,and I still love it .
I can sit half an our smelling it and enjoy .
I think I liked it for being strong. It does feel good after drinking it.
I don't know what to think about the taste , i enjoy the taste it left in the mouth, but like the Dalwhinnie , i'm not sensing all the flavors you are all talking about in reviews.

By the way , I read somewhere the Laphroaig QC nose has banana and coconut flavor in it . It is funny, but i hate banana and coconut and still am fond of this smell.

I happened to add a new bottle before i finished the Laphroaig , the Talisker 10 .
I still don't know if i like it better than the Laphroaig , i enjoyed to drink not less , and i think i managed to catch its taste better,but again when i like better the "after-drinking" that's when it is in my mouth .
One thing I'm sure of : I like the smell of Laphroaig more.

I finished the two bottles now , both Laphroaig and Talisker , I enjoyed drinking them but I'm thinking peraphs I'm missing something in this Single Malt drinking since I'm not sure I feel all of these wonderful tastes, peraphs I'm a bad whisky drinker .

Two things I may do wong :

- Drinking after an heavy meal
- Not adding water

I tried adding water and drinking before eating , that was not THAT better , but may be a good direction (thought i really like the drink-after-lunch thing)

One more thing ; when i drink something like a Chivas 12 , I do feel it's poorer than those single malts i drink , even if i its taste is not complex at all.

It's time for me to buy a new bottle , and I wanted to ask what do you think should be my next step : try something different , and what? continue drinking the laphroaig or the talisker until i get the taste ? stop wasting my money of drinking Single Malt ?

I you read it all , thank you for taking your time an answering me .

regards


Alexandre

Shabbat Dinner Appetizers by Flickr member: Julie
Shalom Alexandre!

Thank you for your email which raise a great many interesting questions.  Not sure I can respond to them all, but will try.

I presume that the meal you refer to is the traditional evening Shabbat meal.  I understand that it is a meal with many courses.  Accordingly, those present are going to enjoy a wide variety of flavors over a couple of hours, as various dishes are sampled.  These flavors will most likely interfere with the optimal tasting of fine Scotch whisky.  So, it comes as no surprise the glass of Dalwhinnie 15 you enjoy in isolation, is not as pleasant in the midst of a wonderful supper offering a multitude of tantalizing tastes.  By the way, Dalwhinnie 15 is never bitter on its own.  No doubt the food you enjoyed before affected your palate such that the Dalwhinnie tasted bitter.  For example, I can just imagine chowing down on some pita bread dipped in spicy baba ghanoush (Salat Hatzilim), and what that would do to my taste buds ability to appreciate any single malt, let alone one as delicate as Dalwhinnie.

Baba ghanoush
Shabbat meals vary depending upon the background (Sephardic or Ashkenazi), as well as the geographic location (ie. Brooklyn versus say Haifa).  The wide ranging flavor possibilities will mean there are no hard and fast rules for pairing with whisky.

The Sephardi of North Africa enjoy "chreime," a fish in a spicy tomato sauce.  However, to pair such a dish with Dalwhinnie would also be a mistake, and if there was ever a need for a 614th mitzvoh, it would to function as a prohibition on such a pairing.  Meanwhile, I can well imagine Talisker 10 or Laphraoig 10 being an excellent compliment to the spicy fish dish. 

                                              Sephardi-style fried fish
So, yes, drinking a particular single malt, after a heavy meal, may not work where the flavors of the meal do not compliment the malt.  How does one determine which foods work with which whisky?  Trial and error.  In time it can become more intuitive too.

Coincidentally Alexandre, in the same weekend that you sent your email, the whisky club I belong to had a barbecue.  There was a fairly extensive collection of bottles and the menu consisted of corn on the cob, steak, and lobster (clearly not Kosher!).  The disappointment you experienced with Dalwhinnie was similar to mine with Talisker.

When I landed at the barbecue, I chose Highland Park 25 years to start.  I figured, I hadn't eaten anything, so I should be able to enjoy the whisky without a palate that had been impaired by other foods.

The Highland Park 25 was mouth-watering, rich stabs of brown sugar, sandal wood and cinnamon.  Good?  Yes.  Great?  Nah.  While enjoyable I found it a little too woody for my liking and the price you pay.

I followed the HP 25 with a snort of Macallan 12 that seemed a little more flat than usual.  Just before the meal was served I moved to Talisker.  I couldn't appreciate the Talisker at all.  Didn't taste particularly good, but I knew otherwise from many tastings of the bottle without food accompaniment.  I didn't even bother to finish the Talisker.



















The food arrived and I just knew intuitively that what would work was a gentle Islay single malt or a good quality blend.

There was an old bottling of Bowmore 10 years that worked perfectly. A lightly peated, oily, easy seaweed wonder of an Islay malt that was not overwhelming, and no long finish. Exactly what I needed to compliment my meal. The Bowmore worked well with the corn, the steak and the lobster.  This experience defies the ordinary wisdom that steak must be paired with a sherried malt.

This particular bottling was released by the Opimian Society (a Canadian non-profit wine purchasing cooperative) that is better known for their catalogs, which enable members to order cases of obscure wines from around the world. Once a year they obtain some Scotch whisky through an independent bottler. The Bowmore in the bottle before me was undoubtedly in the opinion of the malt master too weak to make it into the offical bottles of the distillery, and so that bulk malt got sold to independent bottlers. The Bowmore was close in taste to say White Horse or Black Bottle.

So, Alexandre, yes, I think it can be a bit of a mistake to drink very expensive whisky at a Shabbat dinner comprised of several courses.  Too many flavors abound upon the palate that will prevent you from appreciating the full complexity and wonder of a good malt.  Save the expensive whiskies for another time.  Instead, switch to a gentler tasting blend or entry level single malt.  Selection will depend on what you are eating.

Whisky Dog member Bob studies label of my favored cheap malt.


One advantage to drinking an affordable single malt or blend is that you will not stress yourself out with questions in your head as to whether or not you are appreciating all the nuances of flavor, not to mention the feeling that you are being wasteful.  

Wastefulness is not next to G-dliness
Speaking of being wasteful, maybe expensive single malt at a Shabbat dinner is not a good idea.  I think there is some rabbinical thought suggesting wastefulness is to be avoided at a Shabbat dinner.  While it is acceptable to splurge on fine food, drink, china, crystal and linen, one should avoid doing so to the point of wastefulness.  My Gentile cursory surf of the internet found some authority for this notion.  Check out Gemarra (Berachot 39b) for the law of Eiruv Chazteros (readers, if I am wrong feel free to point it out).

Single Malt Scotch Suggestion
Alexandre, you conclude your email with a request for suggested future purchases.  In my original email to you, I suggested Bowmore 12 years, a nice gentle Islay.  I suggested an Islay based on your affection for Laphroaig.  I think the Bowmore will work well at Shabbat too, as it is gentle.

I have one more recommendation from Islay.  My favorite of Islay is Lagavulin 16.  Extremely exquisite, truly special and to be enjoyed all by itself (with water if you wish - by the way, adding water to whisky is not a mistake if you like what it does to your spirit).

But, whatever you do, don't drink Lagavulin with a cigar, as the latter will rob all the magical flavor angels dancing on your palate.  Please, do as I say, not as I do . . .

Whisky Dog Bob (left) looking immensely pleased with himself.
 Cheers!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Certain photographs appearing in this post are used with the permission of the photographers.  Their photos are not to be reproduced without their permission unelss they have granted it pursuant to a Creative Commons license.  Photo credits: (1) Shabbat photo taken by Flickr member Tim Sackton and used on this blog pursuant to a Creative Commons licence; (2) Shabbat appetizers taken by Flickr member Julie and reproduced here pursuant to a Creative Commons licence; (3) Baba Ghanoush by Flickr member Daniel Rigos who holds all worldwide copyright and moral rights to this photograph.  No reproduction is permitted without his written consent; (4) Sephardi Fried Fish by Tamorlan and published with consent pursuant to a Creative Commons licence.  (5), (6) and (7) taken by Whisky Dog Ken, and no reproduction without his consent.  I act as a liason to any such requests and my favors may be bought . . . cheaply.