Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: Islay Mist 8 Years Blended Scotch Whisky

The number one rookie mistake committed by many, who want to try single malt Scotch for the first time, is to reach for the most robust, famous or even infamous single malt that they have heard about.  Invariably they note the buzz about Laphroaig, Ardbeg, Port Ellen and many others, as being da-bomb in a Glencairn glass.  In a furtive effort to impress and gain instant street cred, newbies reach for one of these.

First-Time Islay Single Malt Experience
Many Islay single malts are seaside bonfires in a bottle.  Pull the cork and you will unleash redolent black smoke, soot and fresh road tar aromas that fill your room, and often drive your partner/spouse to another.  (We love our partner/spouse/live-in/cohabitant, but he or she has to respect our needs.  You see we have a greedy-love for whisky too that needs satisfying.  So, if they have to move to the kitchen, hey, that's a show of love.)

So, having unleashed the powerful aromas of your bottle upon your abode (who needs the wife's potpourri?), you are now ready to drink.  You take a tentative sip and the taste experience is along the lines of an exploding grenade of peat, iodine, seaweed and brine.  The finish can often be fresh peppercorns, coarse salt, eucalyptus and very pungent wood smoke that has the potential to leave you gasping and maybe frantically trying to suppress your gag reflex, if you accidentally take too big a sip.  (Meanwhile, you hear a passive-aggression query from the next room: "Is everything all right dear?")  Needless to say, it's an acquired taste for most people.  No, not your significant other.  But, maybe like your partner, very few people warm up immediately to Islay single malts.

So, just because you had a bad first date with some Islay lads/lasses like Ardbeg, Laphroaig and other peaty  malt beasts, that doesn't mean you gotta abandon the newly budding whisky courtship.  Enter Islay based blended Scotch whiskies.  Think of them as counselors for your newly strained relationship with your Islay malt beau/beauty.

Strained Relationship with Islay - Blended Scotch Counseling Recommended!
You found the smoke and tar barbs of the Islay single malt laden with sarcasm?  Was the peat sweet, yet a little tart, kinda like a backhanded compliment from you know who?  Was Ms. Islay patronizing you?  You don't understand her do you?  And you are afraid to say so, and maintain that everything is 'fine' when it is not.  As  I said above, help is available.

One of the chief reasons for aging malt whiskies is to make them more palatable.  Young whiskies can be rough, biting, and taste of raw alcohol. Islay malts seem to not need as much time when compared to their counterparts in other regions of Scotland.  Moreover, they meld well with grain whiskies.  This is a good thing, as they make valuable contributions to excellent tasting, affordable, entry level Islay blends like: White Horse, Black Bottle and Islay Mist.

The magic of these beauties is their ability to deliver up a very approachable introduction to Islay.  You get a taste of peat, smoke, seaweed and other seafaring phenolic notes in a very gentle, yet sweet wrapper thanks to the grain whiskies blended in.  Smoothness is paramount without bitterness.

Islay Blends that Provide the Proper Introductions to the Islay Heavies
Legendary Islay single malts like Lagavulin, Bunnahabhain and Laphroaig have a presence in blended Scotch whiskies that are far more attractive for the newbie during the early phases of Islay courtship.  Lagavulin is at the core of White Horse.  Bunnhabhain is a central malt of Black Bottle.  Standing at the center of the dance hall for Islay Mist is Laphroaig.  

While I am not a newbie to Islay single malts, I still enjoy immensely the above noted blends.  Sometimes I am not in the mood (or too light in the wallet) for the robust flavors exhibited by Islay single malts.  Islay blends have their charm because they are gentle, yet deliver the signature style of the region.  Couple that with the great price point and it is a cupid's match for me.

Speaking of price points, they are truly unbelievable.  White Horse and Black Bottle can be had for under $20 in many parts of the continental United States.    With respect to Islay Mist 7 years, I paid $21 at a grocery store in Bangor, Maine.  At that price, as I passed through the checkout with my purchase and only a few feet away from the exit door, I half expected two lumbering store security officers to appear from nowhere and wrestle me to the floor, and falsely arrest on the basis that I had tampered with the price tag.  Fortunately, the automatic exit door opened without tackle, and I made my way across the parking lot sans the indignity of public arrest.

Islay Mist Tasting Note

Nose (undiluted)
Soft phenolic notes.  Easy peat.  Freshly turned over black earth.  Slight eucalyptus and medicinal aromas remind me of hospital bandages and ointment.  Very good aromas for a $22 blend.

Palate (undiluted)
Smooth, sweet grain whiskies perfectly compliment the ingredient peaty Islay malt whiskies making up the blend.  Tastes of smokey seaside bonfire, a little ash and soot, and all these elements are graciously counterbalanced by some honey that prevents any bitterness.  Very well balanced.

Finish (undiluted)
Smokey, soft seaweed, and fir tree.  Faint ground black pepper with salty, green sea flavors.  Nice length of these nautical nuances.

General Impressions
Islay Mist 8 years is an excellent blended Scotch that delivers up the classic taste of Islay, and all the hard working people like the Master Blender and team are to be commended.  Moreover, the price point is so good that there is no room for disappointment.

Some people consider cheaply priced blended Scotch as not suitable to be drank neat.  Islay Mist is a stark challenge to that view.  No need for ice or water, as this blend is very smooth and drinkable.  There are no raw or biting elements to this whisky.

If you find Laphroaig 10 years or Quarter Cask too strong, start with Islay Mist.  The ingredient young Laphroaig whiskies of the blend do not bite, having been softened with the correct proportion of grain whiskies.  They only draw you in for more conversation.  But, can the conversation get a little boring?  It is very smooth.  Worry not!  When you want too change things up a bit, a little home based vatting is all you need to do.

Pump up the Volume!
If the newbie has thoroughly familiarized themselves with Islay Mist and thinks there are no more surprises, they are wrong.  Now, is the time to take two parts Islay Mist and add one part Laphroaig 10 (you may need to experiment and adjust to your own tastes).  The result is to transform your gentle Islay into a blend with more powerful maritime flavors.  How powerful you want the flavors to be will depend on how much Laphroaig 10 you add.

The other advantage of this vatting is that you have reduced the cost of your whisky date substantially and probably diminished the billowing black smoke filling the living room.  You can invite your partner back in and explain your compromise in the spirit of love!


Jason Debly

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

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Grant's "Cask Editions" Sherry Cask Finish

I am not a fan of Grant's Family Reserve.  A bottom shelf economy blend that brings to mind what it must be like to lick a rust encrusted copper pipe.  Besides the copper plumbing notes, it's grainy, thin and lacking in character.  Let me be more precise, it is a blend that exhibits the character of no character.  Capisce?

For a couple of years now, the people at William Grant and Sons Ltd. have been releasing what they call "Cask Editions."  The concept behind the Cask Editions is to take the not so delectable Grant's Family Reserve and age that blended Scotch whisky briefly (up to four months) in casks that previously held another alcoholic beverage (beer, sherry, etc.).  The aim of this finishing process is to hopefully impart interesting and pleasing flavors upon the exceptionally unexceptional Family Reserve.

So, their first experiment was to age Family Reserve in casks that previously held Scottish beer (Innis and Gunn - good beer by the way).   Hence, the release was unimaginatively entitled: Ale Cask Reserve.  An interesting experiment that improved upon the Family Reserve, but not to the point of lifting the blend out of mediocrity.  The most recent release is the "Sherry Cask Finish."  Given the genealogy of Grant's Cask Editions Sherry Cask Finish, I was not expecting much.

Nose (undiluted)
Apple juice & honey.

Palate (undiluted)
Lots of apples, sweet malt, and honey oats.

Finish (undiluted)
Grainy, off-putting heat, pearl onions, and some acrid smoke.

General Impressions
The nose on this entry level blend was not bad.  Basically apple juice.  That's okay.  Moving to the flavor profile, again, it was not terrible.  A decent delivery of apple pie, malt, honey, and some breakfast oats too.  What surprised me was that for a blend that was supposed to be finished in sherry casks, I did not detect a lot of sherry in the flavor profile.  Really quite faint.  Hell!  Very faint, practically absent!  For those seeking lots of sherry notes, look elsewhere.  Grant's Sherry Cask reads like a typo.  It really is a stereotypical Speyside fruit cup style blend.  Hardly sherried at all in terms of flavor.

Of the fruit cup in syrup flavors that are presented, the delivery is simple.  Very linear, but at this price point, such a style of whisky is not breaking any rules.  So, so-far, so-good right?  Yup, until you experience the 'finish.'  Once this baby is down the hatch, your plain-jane chevy sedan of a blend will suddenly veer off the highway, through a Do-Not Enter, One-Way barrier and straight off a cliff a la Thelma & Louise.

What happened?  This blend started out okay, but once swallowed you encounter a cheap, boozey heat, and stale cigarettes.  The interesting thing about this whisky was the longer the bottle was open, I mean as I returned to it a week later, and another week and so on, that finish became less grainy and acetone, but only up to a point.

I had two bottles of this blend.  One I purchased a while back and another given to me from a friend over the holidays.  So, the first bottle was gone. No review written as I pondered what to say.  My first reaction was just to trash this whisky and move on, but it did have some redeeming value.  I just found it hard to put my finger on it.  It was easy drinking as blended Scotch is purposely designed.  It had some charm, but what exactly was the charm?

I had to sort all of these thoughts out.  So, in order to be fair to the whisky and my review, I and the bottle went for a walk in the park, earlier this Spring.  No drinking involved on this jaunt to the local forest with groomed trails, just the bottle, a camera and myself.  Took a few pics and tried to figure out how to articulate the charm of this blend.  There was a piece to the puzzle that I was missing.

I walked for about 45 minutes, occasionally setting the bottle down, snapping a few photographs, attracting puzzled looks from passerbys, and then moving on.  I was getting warm, tired and thirsty.  And then I had an epiphany.  This whisky would probably be refreshing if paired with some fruit.  What fruit?  Apples?  Nah.  Over kill.  What could be paired with this whisky that would compliment it and take that nasty finish away?  Watermelon I thought.

Quick trip to the grocery store, and back home, I sliced up some watermelon and paired it with the Grant's Sherry Cask.   If I took a sip of this blend and then a bite of watermelon, there was no acrid finish to contend with.  Instead a nice, refreshing taste of honey whisky notes meeting watermelon.  A marriage worth celebrating.  It would make an excellent food and whisky pairing to start with before progressing into a meal of salmon with couscous.

A friend of mine and I made our way through much of the bottle with the watermelon pairing and concluded that this whisky is most definitely enjoyed with this fruit and probably others.  Tasted neat with no accompaniment was a mistake.  Mind you the website for Grant's suggest serving this neat or with a little water.  I think not.  Try it with watermelon.  Very quaff-able when having lighthearted conversation and contests to see who can shoot watermelon seeds pinched between fingers the furthest!


Jason Debly

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