Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Nose Always Knows!

Sometimes I receive email from readers asking how do they develop their ability to recognize the multitude of aromas that can rise up from a glass of whisky?  My usual response is that it takes time.  At first, the aromas may be impossible for the novice to categorize.  But, let a year or so pass, and on their fifth purchase or so of say that Macallan 12 or GlenDronach 12 years it gradually dawns on he or she what sherry smells like. 

Others are able to discern whisky aromas more quickly.  They may be like me.  A foodie.  Spend some time in the kitchen cooking and working with cardamon, thyme, rosemary, Kosher salt, Tahini and other exotic ingredients and before you know it, you'll be reeling off all manner of pretentious sounding terms.  I try to avoid sounding like a wannabe chef of a Michelin star ranked restaurant, but it does happen when I raise a glass and tell a friend that the whisky exhibits the aroma of fresh-from-the-oven apple honey swirl challah bread.

But, what if you are not a pretentious foodie fop?  What if you are, nevertheless, an inquisitive soul or whisky fool who finds the scents emitted by your whisky cause memories of summers long past spent at the beach looking for starfish, and pleasant childhood memories of camping in the little trailer your parents hauled behind their banana yellow Ford station wagon flooding your present thoughts?  

You think your glass of Islay's finest smells of damp leaves, that you last recall when you were five and rolling around in a big pile of leaves that your dad had just finished raking up in the backyard.  There's a part of you that wants some sort of validation that those scents you detect are as real as your memories, and not imaginary.  Help is available.  Help in the form of a whisky nosing kit. 

A nosing kit comes with miniature bottles of liquid whisky scents like caramel, smoke, floral, phenolic, sherry, etc.  You dip an aroma strip into one of the bottles, let it dry for thirty seconds and then sniff.  Practice every night.  Go through the twenty four sample scents every night for two weeks, and you will develop your whisky nosing skills beyond most people.

Obviously, the premise underlying a whisky nosing kit is that you can train your nose to recognize classic whisky aromas.  This approach to training your nose first started in the perfume industry.  Perfumers learn to recognize the important aromas of a perfume by using similar kits developed for their industry.

Don't know what a whisky critic means when s/he states that a whisky smells of rosewater?  No problem.  We got a vial of that.  Always wondered if you really knew what was meant by "malty?"  No problemo pardner, we got some of that too.  Or how about peaty, phenolic, woody, buttery and decay.  Got it covered.

These whisky kits are not cheap.  You are looking at between $250 and $300.  Are they worth it?  For me it is because I am obsessed with all things whisky.  For you, I am unsure.  So, I think you and a couple of pals need to pool your resources and order a kit.  Highly recommended if you really want to understand the nosing aspect of whisky appreciation.  Would also make a unique and much appreciated gift for your whisky loving spouse, friend, relative or friendly neighborhood blogger!


Jason Debly

P.S.  Where to buy?  I am in Canada and so ordered from a Canadian online vendor:   (This firm may ship internationally, but you should confirm same with them directly).  I have ordered Glencairn glasses several times from this vendor and found prices reasonable and shipping prompt.  By the way, I have no affiliation with this retailer and will receive no compensation, but thought I would mention where I sourced the nosing kit.

For those of you outside Canada, visit Whisky Aroma Academy for more info.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Malt Disorders of the Mind & Recommended Treatment

He looks like a straight shootin', astute whisky appreciatin,' sort of a guy.  He is, but suffers from a malt-based disorder that has not yet been recognized by the DSM.

George is a hoarder.  Not of the variety featured on television that have homes filled with all manner of  junk from everyday life.  He is a malt hoarder, single malt to be specific.

In his line of work (the sort that if you knew what he did for a living, and you saw him on a crosswalk, you might feel an uncontrollable urge to accelerate) he receives a lot of scotch whiskies as gifts.  Christmas presents, happy client displays of appreciation, opposing counsel grudgingly paying up on a bet, etc, all resulting in nicely boxed whiskies being left at reception.

Trouble is that he doesn't open these bottles because many are quite expensive, and he has this misplaced conviction that they must be saved for a 'special' occasion.  Of course, the special occasion never seems to materialize.  Instead they end up in his book case as bookends, and before he knows it, there is a veritable library of single malts competing in number with their hard cover brethren.

Space ran out on bookcases and so bottles ended up in drawers of dusty office desks.  I kid you not!  And they are all unopened.  This symptom of his affliction has made its presence known in his house too.  Fortunately, his very significant other, Lady J, has not allowed this condition to rise above the innocuous level in the home.  No bottles on couches, coffee tables or floor space.  They are around but tucked away in odd little places.  But, more on that later.

In any event, as you can see, this troubling malaise is a pattern of behavior that is characterized by excessive acquisition of and inability and unwillingness to open, consume and enjoy large numbers of scotch whisky bottles that can in extreme cases fill the living areas of home and even the work place.  This can cause significant distress for the sufferer.  George is not an extreme case . . . yet.  But, I do worry.

. . .

As you know, I am a compassionate person.  I have a big heart, so while I have no formal training in psychology, psychiatry or any health sciences for that matter, I am willing to come to the aid of a friend who is clearly suffering.  My therapeutic approach is subtle.  Put him in situations where he has to tap into his extensive malt collection.

. . .


"George, what's goin' on?" I ask.  I reach him at his office.  My wife left town with the kids, leaving me in an empty house with nothing to do on a bright Sunday afternoon.  I suppose I could have raked leaves, cleaned out the rain gutter or helped out with the laundry, but with a flick of my wrist, I banished such nonsense from my mind.

"Oh, just doing a little work."

"I was thinkin' we could go get a pop somewhere," knowing full well in our sleepy little town (that another friend describes as dripping in Victorian drool) nary a watering hole would be open on this sunny day of rest.

"Nah, come over to the house and we can have a drink there."

. . .

An hour or so later, I am kicking back on George's deck in the backyard.  The cool Spring air had a nip, but in his kitchen cupboard Lazy Susan there were bottles upon bottles of unopened single malts to keep us warm.  I was shocked at the condition of these vessels.  They were covered in dust, and clearly many had been sitting for a number of years.  I recognized some of those bottle labels from the 1980's.

After some not so gentle nudging from me, George pulled out a bottle of Balvenie Founder's Reserve 10 years.  I believe it was discontinued in 2008 by the distillery.  Lady J remarked later at dinner that the bottle was probably 15 years old.  George disagreed, but I defer to Lady J in all matters involving memory and mental acuity.

If you look at the bottle of  Balvenie Founder's Reserve pictured above, you will note it is empty and bits of cork are stuck to the glass wall.  Let me explain.  The bottle was so old that when attempting to open, the cap twisted clean off from the neck of the bottle leaving dry cork in the mouth.  Attempts to skewer the cork and pull it out cleanly with a knife were met with utter failure.  Failure meant dried bits of cork dropping into the single malt.  Emergency measures were taken.  A strainer was located, the whisky was poured through a strainer and into an empty mason jar.

A dried out cork is one of the terrible consequences of malt hoarding.  Cork, once dried out, can allow oxygen to infiltrate the bottle and over time ruin the flavor profile of the malt.  So, with great trepidation I took a sip of the 10 year old Founder's Reserve.  Held it upon my palate for a moment, swallowed, and began to smile.  My intervention had resulted in enjoying this bottle before it became irretrievably oxidized.  I had saved it just in time!

This discontinued Balvenie was surprisingly good.  10 years may not seem like a long time for aging of good scotch, but it was enough with the ingredient Balvenie malt whiskies, some of which aged in bourbon casks, while others aged in sherry butts, before being brought together by the Malt Master David Stewart.  Stewart produced a sherried malt that was rich in currants, orange rind, plums and a teensy weensy puff of smoke.  Hit the spot perfectly on a chilly Spring afternoon.

Next up was some Highland Park 25, but it was a new bottle, so nothing interesting to report.  It was good, but neither one of us was really in the mood for it.  What we were anxious to try was a bottle of Dalmore 12 years that looked like it belonged in a mid-80's GQ magazine advertisement.  Check out the label.

Anyhow, we pulled the cork and it didn't crumble.  I took a pull on this and it was so good!  Another delight!  Heavy sherry with complexity and great herbal notes.  Interesting and quite different from the current release.

This old bottle of Dalmore got me thinking about how these malts really do take you back in time.  Some whiskies had great character, which newer releases may not deliver.  I liked the old Dalmore so much, I just may have to pick up a new bottle and re-evaluate this classic.

. . .

After opening these three bottles with George, I felt my therapeutic intervention was successful.  There are many other bottles to explore, but those will have to be done on another house call, like doctors did back in the old days.  I have not completed my recommended treatment regime for this patient.  I foresee several further consults will be necessary to bring his condition to a manageable level.


Jason Debly
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2013. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.

Friday, April 5, 2013

"Damn it Jim! He's Dead . . ."

How many times did Bones McCoy tell Captain James T. Kirk that the nameless starship engineer or lowly Starfleet security officer was dead?

According to Wikipedia, fifty-nine of those crew members who beamed down with the landing party to some dusty planet, didn't make it back to the Starship Enterprise.

This got me thinking.  You know, death and all, caused me to become pensive and melancholic (but not misty-eyed).  I started to have an uneasy feeling that I tried to suppress with about the success a high school student has eradicating pimples with a tube of Clearasil, as he stands in front of a mirror, hours before the prom.  So, an understandably poignant thought that came to my mind was: How long do my beloved opened bottles of whisky have before they are dead too?

As a whisky fanatic, I accumulate a lot of bottles, and they get opened quickly.  Before I know it, I can easily have 20 odd bottles open at any one time.  So, I am keenly aware of what oxygen can do to whisky.  And, what does it do?

Some whiskies are sharp, tight, almost tart or bitter when first opened, but come back to that bottle a few days or a week later, and the flavors have softened.  The discordant notes have disappeared leaving only pleasant flavors, a softening if you will, that is most pleasant.  I have noticed this sometimes with  Highland Park 12 years.

Other whiskies when first opened deliver a supernova flavor explosion that is quite magical, leaving you stunned and in awe.  Give them a couple of days and that pesky oxidation takes place leaving a slightly muted, even a little disappointing, distant memory of what had been fantastically good.  I notice that Islay peat bombs can lose some of their intensity after opening and may settle down within a month that lacks the grandeur of the first week or so.  This can also happen with sherry bombs like The Macallan and Highland Park 18 years.

Still, there are other whiskies that are great from the beginning, and never waver, in spite of air in the bottle.  I am thinking of various Springbank releases, Ledaig 10 years, Johnnie Walker Green Label, Black Bottle and White Horse.

There are No Hard and Fast Rules
So far, all I have told you is that there are no hard and fast rules with respect to the affect oxygen has upon a bottle.   Since air is a fact of life with the opened whisky bottle, the larger question is how long does a bottle have in your cabinet before most of the satisfying flavor is gone.  What's the optimal shelf life?

I will share with you some of my thoughts that hopefully will encourage you and other readers to comment, and maybe, just maybe, all of us will benefit from some insights into this most opaque of whisky mysteries.

The conventional wisdom is that a good single malt, Canadian whisky or bourbon can last for many years.  Technically whisky can last for years after being opened because it will not spoil in an organic sense.  Anyway, you know what I mean.  We all know somebody who pours for special guests an expensive whisky like Johnnie Walker Blue or Royal Salute every Christmas, and after five years or so, he has finally reached the bottom.

Yes, he has reached the bottom, but the bottom of what?  The bottle . . . sure.  Has he also reached the bottom of a once great flavor profile too?  Have those flavors flat lined for the past four Christmas seasons?  Is that what he was left with?  That's my worst nightmare.  To drink a whisky past its prime.

My dad had a bottle of Black Velvet in a cabinet and would pull it out and give my grandfather a tipple once a year at Christmas.  Gramps seemed to enjoy the Canadian whisky even though the bottle towards the end was probably ten years old!  My grandfather grew up in the Great Depression and so was not too picky about hooch.  If it had some bite and generated some warmth, it was good.

For those of us with more refined palates and undiagnosed gustatory obsessive compulsive disorders, ten years for a bottle is probably nine too many.  Some of us want to cut that time line down even more.

My Practice
While there are no hard and fast rules, I have some that I try to live by.  My experience is that it is best to finish a bottle within three months.


I said three months.

For certain more resilient whiskies that seem impervious to the affects of oxidation, I might let those bottles go six months but I am thinking, get half way down the bottle in three months, and finish it within the next three.

Why so soon?  For me, I want to enjoy my whisky in its optimal state.  Its zenith, followed by the plateau, before it falls into the Grand Canyon of muddy mediocrity.   When bottles are less than half full, oxidation will exacerbate the decline of the flavor profile to a point where it is lower than a snake's belly.  Not only TV test pattern boring, some become terrible.  There was a bottle of Royal Salute that I hung onto for far too long and it really became just slop.

Part of drinking whisky is to accept that oxidation plays a part, for better or worse or no significant change at all.  Do some bottles in my collection get past the six month life span and still deliver up a great taste experience?  Some may, but not many, and it is not a risk I am prepared to take.

An acquaintance of mine feels otherwise and notes that single malts that are cask strength or higher than the standard 40% ABV hold up better, for a couple of years.  I suppose it is possible and does happen, but I rather not take the chance.

Whisky Charity
So, surely I am not finishing off every bottle I open in the course of a year, especially where I review a new bottle nearly every two weeks.  What am I doing with them?

My favorites disappear within the three to six month time frame.  The ones that disappoint or are snore-fests (like many Piers Morgan interviews) are given away to people I know like whisky, but aren't  ridiculously crazed (i.e. have some inexplicable need to tell everyone via the internet about their whisky obsession).  Normal people you know.  Guys who, if not crazy about the taste of a given whisky, remedy the situation by adding ice or soda.  I feel good knowing someone is enjoying it, rather than have the bottle left to sit on my shelf, ignored, unloved and neglected.

When Will it Go Bad?
Let's say you are not going to polish off a bottle within three to six months, you may be wondering when it will go bad?  While the flavor may not necessarily be optimal, that is not to say the whisky is now bad or will be headed that way very shortly.  By following a couple of precautions, you can maximize the longevity of your whisky.

1. Cool Storage - Store your whisky in a cool environment that has a temperature of between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.  Heat is not good for whisky.  So, don't store it in your kitchen cupboard above the stove or in the lazy-susan next to the dishwasher.  Heat will do nasty things to your whisky.

2.  In the Dark! -  Sunlight is the enemy of whisky.  I am paranoid about artificial light too.  Keep your whisky bottles in their original packaging tubes or boxes to ensure the environment is dark.

Another benefit to making such use of the packaging is that it will protect the whisky bottle should you accidentally drop it or knock it off the shelf.  We don't want to see a grown man cry over spilled whisky do we?

3.  Watch the level!  How full is the bottle?  Once it is half full, you wanna finish it up quickly.  The lower the level, the more urgent is the need to polish it off.

4.  Do not store bottles on their sides!!!!!!  Whisky is not wine.  Long term storage of wine requires you to store the bottles on their sides so that the cork does not dry out.  If the cork dries out, air gets in and spoils the wine.

With whisky the ABV is too high for long term storage of the bottle on its side.  The higher ABV will damage the cork, causing it to disintegrate gradually depositing bits of the cork in the spirit.

One caveat though.  A learned whisky acquaintance of mine has an enormous collection of whisky.  Literally several hundred bottles, mostly unopened.  Once in a while he will reach for a bottle that could be 10 to 15 years old from the date of purchase.  Before opening it, he will put it on its side so that the cork will moisten. The thought is that older bottles are susceptible to corks that can dry out when opening, leaving cork in the whisky.  So, he moistens the cork by leaving it on its side for a week before opening.  The hope is that this bottle position will moisten the cork, revitalize it, and cause the cork to be withdrawn without falling into the whisky.

5.  Consider Pouring Whisky into Smaller Bottles - You know those airplane miniatures of whisky you gulp down when the wife goes to the washroom.  C'mon, you know.  The ones you discretely stuff in the airplane seat.  Well, stop doing that and start collecting them.  When your standard 750ml bottle gets below half full, transfer the remainder to those minis.  Hopefully, oxidation will be curtailed or stopped dead in its tracks.

. . .

Follow the above suggestions and hopefully your whisky will enjoy a long and fruitful life and not share the fate of a Star Fleet redshirt!


Jason Debly