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.

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?


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 .



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.

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.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Review: Jim Beam "Devil's Cut" Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Devil's Cut was launched in 2011 by Beam Global and represents an interesting extension of their Jim Beam bourbon product line.

The Story
Virtually every whisky on the market has a story, gimmick or marketing sleight of hand, to attract your attention, the consumer, and this recent release is no exception.

As whiskey ages in the barrel, evaporation takes place, and this loss is commonly referred to as the "angel's share."  So, whiskey casks that age for many years can lose considerable volume.  This drives up costs, in addition to the other costs of storage, monitoring by the master distiller's team and lack of revenue with everyday that passes in the cask.

Besides evaporation, whisky is absorbed into the very wood of the barrel it occupies.  I do not think the volume is very great, but the marketing folks for Beam Global have cleverly labeled this loss of volume as the "Devil's Cut."

But, There's More!
The Jim Beam people claim to have developed a "proprietary process" which extracts the bourbon in the barrel wood, after the bourbon barrels have been emptied.  This extracted spirit is then blended with six year old Jim Beam bourbon, bottled at 90 proof, and Devil's Cut is thus created.

To say that a "proprietary process" is used may be technically accurate, but don't be overly impressed.  If you think about it, what the Jim Beam marketing crew describe is actually the process of how Scotch whisky is typically made.  Think about it.  Oak barrels that formerly held sherry (port, bourbon, etc.) are filled by distilleries with very young distilled whisky, and left to age for a minimum of three years.  During the passage of time, the sherry, port, etc, is drawn out of the wood, and becomes a part of the young whisky, deliciously seasoning the spirit.  Is that proprietary?  I suppose every distillery has a different period of aging, utilizing different recipes for white dog (whisky that has not been barrel aged), or maybe heats it to a certain temperature before adding it to the barrel, etc.

There is also the possibility that the Jim Beam people are doing little more that cutting/diluting 6 year old bourbon with "swish."

Swish is a term referring to the practice of taking an empty barrel that formerly held rum or another spirit, filling it with water, laying the barrel on its side, turning it a little every couple of months, and after a certain period of time, emptying it and drinking it.  The once pristine spring water that went into say a barrel that previously held rum, will now be pretty strong drink, as it has successfully extracted the rum or other spirit from the barrel wood.  A visit to the Devil's Cut website does not make the process any clearer:

"A proprietary process pulls the rich whiskey trapped inside the barrel wood after they're emptied.  This barrel-treated extract is blended with 6 year old Jim Beam bourbon at 90 proof."

Well, enough of my speculation.  It is now time for an exorcism, and as your high priest of all things whiskey, my augury is as follows:

Nose (undiluted)
Oak, burnt almond and charred wood.

Palate (undiluted)
I am greeted by sweet, root beer flavored rock candy, followed by big lashes of saddle leather, spiced cedar, pecan pie, cocoa and vanilla.

Finish (undiluted)
No longer sweet.  Now seriously mouth watering blast of brown sugar, cinnamon sticks, cloves, fudge and oak.

General Impressions
I like this bourbon.

At $22 or so a bottle, the Devil's Cut offers up a great value for money proposition.  The ABV is 45%, but remarkably smooth and refined.  No raw, unadulterated alcohol taste.  I suspect the higher than standard ABV delivers the mouth watering sensations at mid-palate to finish stages of the drink experience.  In addition, the higher than average proof is probably responsible for the robust flavors.  The flavors are big, proud and demanding of attention, but in a good way.  This whiskey speaks to me.  Maybe not in tongues, but it does have something to say, and it is good.

Criticisms?  Some may find it a little too sweet initially, and a tad bit perfume-like.  At this price point, I can overlook that slight imperfection.

This bourbon is dominated by oak notes.  I do not have a problem with it as I do not consider it unbalanced.  If you don't like a lot of oak in your bourbon, you probably will not be a fan of the Devil's Cut.

Peer Review

  • I still prefer Jim Beam Black, an 8 year old, bourbon for maybe $5 more.  
  • For those seeking a punchy, robust American whiskey that will not break the bank, Devil's Cut beats out the far more expensive Jack Daniel's Single Barrel (Tennessee whiskey).
  • If you are looking for lots of spicy rye in your bourbon, you will probably prefer Wild Turkey 101 over Devil's Cut.
  • If you place a premium on refinement, gentle, smooth bourbon taste, Maker's Mark, Blanton's and Four Roses would be preferred by you.
  • Looking for maximum robustness of flavors and complexity at the same time, you need Knob Creek (mind you it is a lot more expensive).
  • Looking for a rich corn taste, Devil's Cut has none.  You need a Tennessee whiskey: Jack Daniel's Old No. 7.

Suggested Serving
Mix Devil's Cut with Coca-Cola, slice of lemon, ice cubes and you have a very nice poolside drink for those dog days of summer.  The oak notes become more pronounced with the addition of the Coke, yet there is a nice tart nip on the tongue that tells you rum is not the only spirit to add to Coke in the summer.  A nice change.

I think the Devil's Cut has some beatific qualities that may redeem it from a smoldering fate.  Besides, the keeper of the hell fires is busy with his latest visitor, who coincidentally is also from the Jim Beam fold: Red Stag Black Cherry


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