Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Campbeltown Promises: a review of Hazelburn 10

Let's play a little game of free association. If I say "mob movie" what comes to mind? I'm guessing it's The Godfather, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, or Casino, right? The stereotypical, if somewhat fictionalized, Italian mafioso makes for great Hollywood blockbusters. But Italian mob movies don't have exclusivity on great crime dramas. The Russian mob movie Eastern Promises is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated films in recent memory. David Cronenberg's crime drama earned plenty of award nominations, but it's not part of the cultural zeitgeist the way Goodfellas or The Godfather are. It's a shame, since Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen give brilliant performances in Eastern Promises. Vincent Cassel's performance as Kirill, the son of the Russian mob boss Semyon is brilliantly nuanced, adding depth and complexity to what is an otherwise despicable character. Anyhow, this isn't a movie review (a job for which I'm even less qualified than whisky reviewing), but suffice to say the plot twist in Eastern Promises is the icing on the cake.

This IS the mobster you're looking for
In a similar vein, when someone talks about triple-distilled whisky, Ireland usually comes to mind. If you specifiy triple-distilled single malt scotch, someone might name Auchentoshan or the silent (but soon to be revived) Rosebank distillery. Unless you're a real Campbeltown afficionado, you probably didn't know that Hazelburn, produced at the Springbank distillery, is triple-distilled. (Well, you do now). It's also unpeated, unlike Springbank which is lightly peated or Longrow which is heavily peated. It's no secret that I'm a big fan of everything Springbank does. Just about every Scottish distillery leans heavily on tradition in its marketing, but at Springbank it's more than a slogan and a bunch of Gaelic names. As far as I know, Springbank is the only distillery to perform every part of the whisky-making process in-house, from malting the barley using a traditional malting floor all the way to bottling the finished product. They also use worm tub condensers which are reputed to be more fickle to work with but supposedly produce a richer, oilier, more characterful spirit. I'm far from being an expert on such matters, but I know that Springbank's whiskies tend to have a unique character that people either love or hate. All of Springbank's whiskies are bottled at a minimum of 46% abv, presented at natural colour, and unchill-filtered. More distilleries need to get on board with this approach.

Without further ado, here are my tasting notes for Hazelburn 10 Year Old. According to the Internet (which never lies), this is 100% ex-bourbon cask maturation, which is a big plus for me.

November 26 2019

Tasted neat from a Glencairn glass

  • Nose : honey, vanilla, icing sugar, brine, pears, a bit of ripe banana, and an umami note I can't quite place, mushroom broth perhaps (it sounds weird, I know...but it's pleasant)
  • Palate: medium bodied, slightly oily, toffee, classic Springbank minerality but a little toned down, a bit of oak spice (mostly nutmeg)
  • Finish: medium length, minerality lingering, then turning a bit dark and somewhat earthy like a dark roast coffee 
Thoughts: I’m going to take my time with this bottle, as it’s not as simple and straightforward as I thought it might be.

Rating: 88/100

December 29 2019

Tasted neat from a Glencairn glass

  • Nose : floral vanilla and honey upfront, stronger pear notes now, with less overripe banana than before, salted caramel in the background. The umami note is all but gone and a more generic oakiness has taken its place
  • Palate : still pleasantly oily, toffee, oak, not smoky per se but reminiscent of the smell that lingers after you've burned a pile of dry leaves. Yes, I'm aware that I'm talking about smells on the palate, but it's all connected (google retronasal-olfaction if you don't believe me) and that's where this image comes in.
  • Finish: medium length, warming, a slight but enjoyable "chalkiness" I find in all Springbank whiskies, sour green apples, banana, brine, vanilla, a touch of peat, and the umami note making an appearance. The dark roast coffee note is still there albeit less present than it was before.
Rating: 89/100

January 30 2019

Tasted neat from a copita
  • Nose: pears, honey, vanilla, icing sugar, the mushroom-esque umami note is totally gone, replaced by a more faint earthiness. Still quite interesting.
  • Palate: oily, medium-bodied, apple skins, toffee, a touch of smoke
  • Finish: medium length, toffee, slightly nutty, a touch of brine, darker and earthier than the palate, like strong coffee.
Final Rating: 89/100

You might not think of Russia or London when someone mentions mob movies, but you'd be crazy to skip out on Eastern Promises if you've never seen it and you love crime dramas. Likewise, triple-distilled whisky may conjure up images of Ireland, but you should do yourself a favour and check out Hazelburn. Heck, even if you aren't a fan of triple-distilled malts like Bushmills or Auchentoshan, Hazelburn is worth your time. You won't regret it, я обещаю

Would I accept a glass if was offered? Absolutely.
Would I order this in a bar or pub? Without a doubt.
Would I purchase another bottle? Yes. It's produced by Springbank. It's interesting. It's not drowned in wine casks. It's delicious.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Working Class Hero? a review of Bulleit Bourbon

A working class hero is something to be
John Lennon

Bob Dylan. John Lennon. Bruce Springsteen. Singer-songwriters often take up the mantle of the "working everyman" to imbue their songwriting and stage presence with a measure of street cred. Of course, "working class" is an image as often as it is a reality. Springsteen seems to have authentic working-class roots, but John Lennon was criticized for a song like "Working-Class Hero" since he was raised by his upper middle-class aunt, and was already a successful artist when he penned the tune. I'm not sure that financial success necessarily precludes the possibility of empathy, but it's an interesting idea, if somewhat outside the scope of a whiskey review.

I think of fancy rum and vodka cocktails as the Freddie Mercury of the drinks world; elaborate, showy productions designed to impress onlookers. Scotch often conjures images of classy crooners like Dean Martin or world leaders like Winston Churchill. Until recently, bourbon has been portrayed as a low-brow, blue-collar working stiff's drink of choice, maybe even a little déclassé at times. However the last 10-15 years have seen bourbon's stock rise exponentially. The "brownest of the brown liquors" is enjoying a huge renaissance that shows no sign of slowing down. Does this mean bourbon producers have moved away from their humble roots? Of course not. If anything, they're playing it up for all it's worth. Hey, if it ain't broke, right?

So where does Bulleit Bourbon fit in to all of this? They can be found on just about any bar menu, and they're usually not too pricy, so what's their deal?

Well, Bulleit's marketing blah blah starts like many other companies' spiel:

"Inspired by his (Tom Bulleit's) great-great-grandfather Augustus Bulleit, who made a high-rye whiskey between 1830-1860"

Yadda yadda yadda. Tradition, frontier spirit of independence and so on. How convenient that Four Roses seemed to have found ol' Gus' secret recipe and was willing to sell some barrels to Bulleit/Seagram's/Diageo to bottle under the Bulleit brand name. The rumour on the internet (and the internet never lies) is that Augustus Bulleit's recipe would actually be considered a rye whiskey today, since it was comprised of about 2/3 rye grain.

Wait, did I just say Four Roses? Four Roses? Well, you see, Bulleit Bourbon was sourced from Four Roses for a number of years (allegedly). In 2015 rumours surfaced that Four Roses was no longer the source for Bulleit bourbon. Whence came the post-2015 Bulleit bourbon? Who knows? Not this humble writer. The word on the street is that Bulleit is aged at least six years. Now since Diageo (the corporate mega-giant owner of the Bulleit brand...not so working class, eh?) only opened the Bulleit distillery in 2017, it's safe to assume there will be no actual Bulleit-distilled bourbon on the market until 2023. So is Bulleit really a rough-and-tumble "frontier whiskey", or is it another privileged kid posing as a working-class hero? Does it really matter?

I've had Bulleit many times but I've never really properly assessed it. A friend left a bottle at my place after our New Year's Eve party, and while I've used it mostly for cocktails (Whiskey Sour and Old Fashioned) I've done 3 focused tastings to see what's going on.

Tasting Notes

Two tastings were neat from a Glencairn and one was from a Libbey Bourbon Glass

  • Nose: cinnamon, peaches, floral vanilla, brown sugar, nutmeg
  • Palate: light bodied (I'd even use the 's' word here), sour cherry candies, barrel char, buttered corn on the cob
  • Finish: medium length, rye spice (cinnamon and nutmeg), oak char, a touch of summer flowers

I was surprised that there were no significant differences in my notes from the Glencairn and from the Libbey glass. The aromas were slightly stronger from a Glencairn, but it wasn't a wildly different experience.

Alright, marketing aside, Bulleit is a good bourbon. This one isn't over-the-top great, but there's nothing off or out of place either. It's really good in a cocktail, if that's your jam, and Bulleit won't break the bank either. I don't think I'll purchase a replacement bottle since Wild Turkey 101 is about the same price and that one is more my style. I can't really fault Bulleit, or any bourbon, for sticking to their workaday image in spite of their current success. I mean, Springsteen is as far from working class as can be these days, but "The River", "Darkness on the Edge of Town", "Born to Run", and "Atlantic City" are still amazing songs so who am I to judge?

  • Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered? Sure.
  • Would I order this in a bar or pub? Yeah, if there wasn't much else on the menu or if I wasn't interested in a really "focused" tasting.
  • Would I buy another bottle? I guess it depends. It's always good to have a cocktail bourbon on hand and this one fits the bill rather well.
Rating: 84/100 points

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Blanton-Mania: a review of Blanton’s Original

In February 1964, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was viewed by approximately 73 million people and established The Beatles as a massive cultural phenomenon. The Beatles were popular in the U.K. prior to their Ed Sullivan appearances, but Beatle-mania hit a fever pitch after Ed Sullivan. Teenagers at Beatles' concerts behaved in a manner that was described as "orgiastic" by shocked parents, clutching their pearls à la Helen Lovejoy (won't someone please think of the children!?). I mean, shouting? DANCING ? GYRATING THEIR HIPS ??? I'm fairly certain future historians will trace the decline and fall of Western Civilization back to the nihilistic sounds of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand". You heard it here first, folks.

Beatle-mania or a crowd trying to get their hands on
the latest release from Buffalo Trace?
Ok, so maybe parents overreacted to their kids frenzied, irrational love for the lads from Liverpool. But maybe, just maybe, teenagers got a bit carried away too. No, I don't hate The Beatles. No, I wasn't there. Maybe I don't get it. Heck, you could fill several libraries with the things I don't get.

The last 5 years or so have been dominated, in North America at least, by bourbon-mania. What was once a humble working man's drink, the Bruce Springsteen of liquor if you will, has become a collector's obsession du jour. Once a bourbon gets a reputation for being good, great, under the radar, or best of all, rare, a certain sub-section of bourbon acolytes lose their collective minds trying to locate and stockpile it. Blanton's is one such bourbon. If you read reviews from a few years ago, before the bourbon craze took off, Blanton's was rated as a good bourbon, usually readily available for about $50 USD. These days the price is higher, but availability (or lack thereof) seems to be the real kicker. Rarity, or the perception of rarity, seems to drive desirability and the folks at Blanton's (which is actually a Buffalo Trace product, in case you didn't know) have taken advantage of this. It's not uncommon to see Blanton's Original selling in certain U.S. states or on the secondary market for $100 or more.

What's the deal? Is it worth that much? Is Blanton's that good? Are Blanton's fans acting like crazed, orgiastic teenagers? Are people who criticize these mark-ups and those willing to pay  a premium for Blanton's the modern day equivalent of the old fuddy-duddies who shook their fists at "teeny-boppers" of the 1960s? In a bizarre situation, the LCBO still gets Blanton's Original somewhat regularly and charges what seems to be a reasonable price for it, $65 CAD, compared to the USA. I happened upon a bottle awhile back. While I tend to avoid any and all "hyped" products, I had to try this one to judge it for myself.

Blanton's Original fact sheet

Distillery: Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky
Mash bill: Buffalo Trace mash bill number 2 (believed to be approximately 75% corn, 15% rye, 10% malted barley)
Age: No Age Statement (believed to be approximately 6 to 9 years old)
Proof: 93 Proof (46.5% abv)

Tasting notes

Dec 18 2019 (neat from a Glencairn)

  • Nose : bright, lemons, oranges, cinnamon, light brown sugar
  • Palate: light bodied, dusty rye spices, freshly-sawed oak, a bit of cinnamon and ginger
  • Finish: relatively short, drying, plenty of vanilla lingering, and a farmy note reminiscent of an old barn (for real!)
Rating: 85/100

January 4 2020 (neat from a copita)

  • Nose : light cherries, a slight ethanol aroma/tingle, light brown sugar, oranges, wet hay
  • Palate: light bodied, toasted oak, light cherries, some rye spice, a bit of nutmeg
  • Finish: drying, more rye spice, slightly tannic,  a bit of bright cherries, those farmyard notes lingering.
After a longer rest in the glass, there are some aromas and flavours jumping into the mix, mostly blueberries on the nose and a bit of chai tea on the finish. The key to this bourbon might be letting it rest in the glass for a good half hour or so.

Rating: 87/100

January 11 2020 (neat from a Libbey Bourbon Glass)

  • Nose: ethanol, citrus, barrel char, cherries, blueberries
  • Palate: light to medium bodied, bright, slightly honeyed, barrel char (or a touch of smoke)
  • Finish: medium length, cinnamon, tea, floral, somewhat “farmy” (wet hay or old barn, not unpleasant)
This bourbon seems to have a strong, solventy, ethanol aroma for the first 10-15 minutes it’s in the glass. I’m understanding it better as I go through this bottle. I like it, but I’m not sure I get the hype surrounding it. At $65 per bottle in Ontario, I think it’s a bit overpriced and I would certainly never pay the crazy secondary prices some people pay on the US secondary market. For the same money, I prefer Wild Turkey Rare Breed. It's fuller-bodied, it's got a wider spectrum of flavour, and it's bottled at barrel proof.

Final Rating: 87/100

Would I accept a glass of Blanton's if it was offered to me? Absolutely. It's a good bourbon, especially after a good rest in the glass.
Would I order this in a bar or pub? Unlikely. Bar prices are already too high and the perception of Blanton's as a "luxury" bourbon put its price point beyond what I'm willing to pay when I'm out with friends.
Would I buy another bottle of this? I guess it depends. It's unlikely, but you should never say never.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Chivas Regal 12 Year Old: A Blind Tasting

What comes to mind when I say "Just Do It"? Nike, right? How about "I'm Lovin' it"? With that slogan, McDonald's capitalizes on Justin Timberlake's catchy little "ba da ba ba ba" to get you drooling over a Quarter Pounder. And how can you not love JT's winning smile and angelic voice? It's not easy to counteract or neutralize our biases. We all have them, and smart marketing people use them to their advantage. Slick logos, catch phrases, and celebrity endorsements all aim to part you from your hard-earned money. When it comes to whisky, anyone who tells you they aren't affected by marketing is either lying or clueless. I think it's the latter more often than not. This isn't some kind of fault or character flaw; it's the way our brains are wired. Even the most rational among us is subject to emotional manipulation, especially with our "fast thinking". Read Daniel Kahneman if you don't believe me.

Inasmuch as most reviewers love to proclaim their neutrality, certain brands have done such a great job of evoking luxury (The Macallan), viking warriors (Highland Park), or Scots Gaelic mythos (Bunnahabhain) that it's hard to assess the whisky in and of itself. The only way to truly assess a whisky "objectively" is to taste it completely blind. And that's what I've done here.

I'm giving away the fact that this is a pretty common blended whisky ahead of time, but I'll walk you through my thought process in the tasting notes. The Chivas brand is owned by Pernod Ricard, who also owns The Glenlivet, Aberlour, Longmorn, and Scapa. That's not to say those are the only single malt options, but it's likely that those distilleries provided most of the malt whisky in this blend.

Tasting notes

**Keep in mind that I had no idea what this was when writing down my tasting notes.**

Bottle opened Dec 9/2017, sample poured May 29/2019

Tasted neat from a Glencairn glass

  • Nose: It's a bit shy, and comes across as fairly light. There are equal parts red fruit, honey, and graham crackers. After a rest in the glass, a touch of spices come through, but they're a bit muted. There's something slightly floral developing; almost a light peat-smoke from a Highland or Speyside whisky or maybe barrel char from a North American whisky. There's also a slight maple cream aroma in the background. A blend perhaps?
  • Palate: light to medium bodied, fruity (strawberries? light cherries?), soft caramels, a touch of spice, a bit of cocoa powder, some black pepper coming through.
  • Finish: vanilla at first, a bit of oak, a slight nuttiness, some cloves, honey, and a touch of orange zest bitterness near the end of the finish.
This is sweet whisky, and it definitely feels light. I'd guess this is 40%-43% abv. With time in the glass, the red fruit aromas become more faint (which is disappointing- they were lovely) and the vanilla and caramel become a bit more prominent. I was convinced this was a single malt whisky at first, but I'm less certain with time. The bitterness on the finish has me thinking Forty Creek as many of their whiskies finish this way. It's delightful when it's well integrated yet when it's not, the bitterness is too prominent and becomes a distraction. This whisky feels a bit disjointed: the nose and first part of the taste profile feel like a  different style of whisky than the end of the flavour development and the finish. As time goes on, this whisky gets less distinct and more "generic" if that makes sense. There are some nice things going on for sure, but it's a bit out of balance or Koyaanisqatsi, if you're a Godfrey Reggio/Philip Glass fan.

I always enjoy blind samplings because they keep me honest. No preconceived notions, just honest scoring. I'm also grateful that this blind sample was an ordinary whisky. It's fun to see how we perceive "work-a-day" whiskies when we don't have the marketing blah blah to guide us. I didn't have a mouthgasm, but I didn't spit it out in disgust while cursing the heavens either.

  • Would I buy order this in a bar or pub? Sure. Especially if I was out with co-workers for a casual drink and I knew I wasn't going to nose intensely, this whisky is fine and dandy. Heck, I might even sip it on the rocks.
  • Would I accept a glass if offered? I would, and I have. My wife's cousin lives down the street from us. Her husband is a dedicated blend drinker (JW Black is his usual go-to) and he has this on hand every now and then.
  • Would I buy a bottle of this? Unlikely. It's $55 and for that price I can get Arran 10 Year old which I like better.

Rating: 80/100