Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Highway to the Danger Zone: Craigellachie 17

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you aren't tired of my 1980s references yet. That's great because I was just thinking about the 1986 Tom Cruise classic Top Gun the other day. I'm sure I didn't see it when it came out, since I would have been six or seven years old at the time, but I did see it at some point, and it was everything a kid could want; fighter jets, rivalry leading to friendship, and some kick-ass songs by Kenny Loggins. Fun fact: Toto was originally supposed to perform "Danger Zone" for the Top Gun soundtrack. While I've never been anywhere near the danger zone, much of Craigellachie's marketing hits close to my personal danger zone. Why? One word: sulfur (or sulphur if you prefer).

What's this about sulfur? Or 'sulphur'?

Worm tubs reportedly produce the "good" sulfur
According to the excellent Whisky & Wisdom article posted here, sulfur in whisky can come from two sources: "One is natural, desirable, and is present in every malt whisky; the other is an accident, pretty much undesirable, and occurs only in some sherried whiskies." The first type of sulfur, desirable to some people, is a by-product of fermentation, and much of it stripped out of the whisky from contact with the copper in pot stills and in condensers. What remains is often described as "meaty". The second type of sulfur is usually caused by tainted sherry casks. Well, not directly, but since sherry cannot be exported in casks (it must be bottled in Spain), there are no more "transport casks" left for the whisky industry to use. Ergo, whisky producers order sherry "seasoned" casks from cooperages in Spain and then have them shipped to Scotland. Problem solved, right? Wrong. The casks are (or were) often treated with sulfur candles to sterilize them. While this kills off any harmful bacteria, it can also taint the maturing whisky, by imparting aromas and flavours of rotten eggs, spent matches, burning rubber, boiled cabbage, and raw onions. Some websites claim the practice of using sulfur candles is no longer the norm, and at least one website has claimed the practice has been "outlawed", but I can't confirm that. Either way, the perception of these sulfur notes is largely genetic. It's not a skill or a sign of refinement if these notes jump out at you; it just means you're genetically prone to perceive those aromas and flavours. And sadly, I cannot get around a strong spent match or rotten egg type of sulfur present in some whiskies. But why does this matter? Well, Craigellachie is one of the few companies that is forthcoming about sulfur in their whisky. They use old fashioned worm tub condensers which minimize copper contact and allegedly maximize the first (good?) type of sulfur, resulting in a more "meaty" final product. Being sensitive to sulfur, I was hesitant to get a bottle of Craigellachie 17, but a friend came through with a sample which allowed me to try it. So I didn't have to go right into the danger zone; I could visit it temporarily.

Tasting Notes

Nose (undiluted): red grapes, Welch’s grape juice, icing sugar, underripe honeydew melon, oak, vanilla, very slightly sulfur of the spent match variety (uh-oh). No rotten eggs, and not enough spent match/gunpowder to detract from the overall experience. You could strain credulity, get a little creative, and call it “smoke”.
Palate (undiluted): rich, sweet arrival, a bit hot for 46% abv, pineapple, mangoes, sultanas, ginger, and a bit of actual woodsmoke.
Finish: medium length, vanilla bean, oak, more icing sugar, slightly green and herbal with oak spices and a light woodsmoke lingering.

With water: there are more green aromas on the nose, cardamom perhaps, while the fruit gets pushed back on the palate and overtaken by a vanilla crème brûlée flavour with grape jelly hanging around as well. The finish gets some green apples, lemon, and a peppery, oaky kick with water added. I think I preferred this neat.

Overall, this is a really good malt. It’s different from your run-of-the-mill Speysides (honey, cinnamon, raisins) yet it doesn’t venture too far into wonky territory. I was worried about the spent match on the nose, but it seems to dissipate with a good rest in the glass. I’m not sure I’d pay the Ontario asking price for this but I’d gladly accept a gift bottle. Craigellachie seems to be a real "maverick" of a distillery by reveling in their sulfury malts.

Rating: 89/100 (4/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Mature Beyond Its Years: a review of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt

Remember that scene in The Matrix when Neo (Keanu Reeves) goes to the Oracle to find out if he's The One? He meets a young man who delivers a pearl of wisdom:

 "Do not try and bend the spoon, that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth...there is no spoon. Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." 

In the virtual world of The Matrix (or Plato's Cave, if you prefer), this young one is clearly mature and wise beyond his years. With single malt whisky enjoying a surge of popularity in the last 10-15 years, companies are trying to find ways to make their whiskies appear mature beyond their years as well; we've seen smaller casks, different cask finishes, and the downplaying and disappearance of age statements altogether. I remember rolling my eyes at a salesman's, er, a brand ambassador's statement that "maturity and age aren't the same thing". He was defending a move by a major distillery to do away with age statements in their core range and replace their age-stated bottles with the names of colours. He went on to compare choosing the whiskies that were ready to bottle to "picking an apple when it's perfectly ripe as opposed to when it reaches a certain age". The whole thing reeked of pretentiousness and condescension to me, but Isle of Arran's 10 year old has made me somewhat re-think my stance. Peated whisky often gets a free pass for younger age-stated releases since their peatier flavours are stronger at a younger age. But unpeated whiskies are often (mistakenly) perceived as getting better with age. So what does a young Arran taste like?

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): pineapple, mangoes, oranges, vanilla, cinnamon, wood varnish
  • Palate (undiluted): soft, floral, creamy, ripe red apples, lemon, orange, and a bit of grapefruit
  • Finish: medium length, a bit waxy, then croissants, butter, honey, vanilla and toasted oak

Water doesn't really change much at all. I'd skip it altogether, unless that's your thing. Arran's 10 Year Old single malt has no sharp, bitter, spirit notes and is wonderfully balanced. It's not the most complex whisky I've ever tasted, but it's no one-hit wonder either. I can't remember what I paid for this, but I think it was about the same price as Glenmorangie 10, and Arran is bottled at natural colour, is not chill-filtered and is presented at 46% abv. Now there are troubling rumours that Arran is planning on discontinuing many of its age-stated whiskies in favour of non age-stated malts. That's terrible news as far as I'm concerned. This whisky shows that younger malts can be complex and enticing; there's no need to sell mystery malt. It's a losing proposition in my books. Isle of Arran is one of the younger distilleries in Scotland and I believe they should keep doing things the right way. I believe this age-stated Arran 10 is an ideal whisky for introducing someone to Scottish single malt. Recommended.

Rating: 86/100 (3.5/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Top Five: Whiskies of Summer

Summer is upon us ! Rejoice, friends and fellow whisky enthusiasts ! It's time for swimming, camping, celebrating long into the night with good friends, and watching the greatest summertime movie of all time: Point Break. Yes, the original. I refuse to engage in discussions of the Swayze-less remake. After a long winter and a wet, moody spring, enjoy some carefree days with great whisky. But what defines an estival whisky, you ask? Well, I think the whiskies of summer should be easygoing, not insanely complex, and they should be whiskies you're comfortable leaving "in the background" so to speak. Whisky doesn't always need to take center stage. Summer whisky is a backdrop for good conversation on a patio, or the fuel to keep your fire-side guitar jam going. So here are my top choices for the summer.

5. Jim Beam Bonded

For whatever reason, I equate summer with bourbon. There is no rhyme or reason for it, but that's just where my brain goes. Summer means heat and humidity, and that means bourbon. Some of the more prominent bourbon intelligenstia (the bourbonati?) may scoff at my recommending a "mass market" bourbon, let alone a bourbon from one of the  biggest bourbon producers in the world, but at $36 CAD, Jim Beam Bonded is literally impossible to beat in terms of value-for-your-whiskey-dollar. You'll find plenty of vanilla, candy corn, along with some dried cherry notes in this bourbon. Think of it as a summer treat for grown-ups, bottled at 50% abv. It's delicious as a treat, straight-up, or on the rocks if you prefer. Don't let the purists shame you.

4. Wild Turkey 101

Like I said, summer equals bourbon. WT 101 is relatively inexpensive and is widely available. It is probably the best multi-purpose bourbon on the market. It's terrific neat, on the rocks, in an Old Fashioned or in a Mint Julep. There's plenty of rich cherry flavour, candy corn, and floral vanilla. Do yourself a favour and forget any negative association you may have made between Wild Turkey and "rednecks". I'm not sure where this started, but I think it may have come from the 1989 Christmas classic National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) tells Clark (Chevy Chase) "I got a daughter in the clinic, gettin' cured off the Wild Turkey." Now I love Christmas Vacation, but people have got to stop acting as though Wild Turkey is "redneck mouthwash". Jimmy and Eddie Russell are bourbon royalty as far as I'm concerned and Wild Turkey makes some of the best, most affordable bourbon on the market.

3. Bushmills Black Bush

What's this, a blended whiskey? Yes, I'm including a blended Irish whiskey on my list. Rumours abound about this one. It is supposedly about 80% malt whiskey from the Bushmills distillery (blended whiskies typically contain much more grain whiskies than they do malt whiskies), mostly aged in Oloroso Sherry casks for 7-11 years, with the remainder being matured in ex-bourbon casks. Allegedly. This whiskey doesn't carry an age statement so all of that is hearsay, but this is a tasty whiskey at a friendly price. Plenty of chocolate-covered raisins, apples, and honey make this a terrific, carefree summer sipper. Great on its own or on ice. At about $35 CAD, you really can't go wrong.

2. Pike Creek 10 Year Old Rum Barrel Finish

Summer conjures images of tropical destinations. Tropical destinations remind us of pirates. Pirates love rum, right? So why not a rum barrel-finished whisky? Now you may be thinking "Joe, why don't you just sip rum?" Well sure, that seems like good summertime fun at first blush, but most rums available in Ontario contain gobs of added sugar, which is something I'm not too keen on. My solution is simple; find a great whisky that's finished in rum barrels. Everybody wins! Pike Creek 10 Year Old Canadian whisky gives you plenty of brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, figs, plums, along with some oak spices. Pro-tip, while the regular price of about $34 is reasonable, Pike Creek 10 Year often comes on sale for $29. Drink up, me hearties, yo ho !

1. Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley

This Scottish single malt is summer in a glass. I rated it about 86/100 points when I first tasted it, which is a pretty good mark, but this just gets better with each bottle I go through. It's got lovely floral notes, some briny notes that will conjure images of the seaside, some nutty barley, a little citrus and some honey. Don't be frightened by the 50% abv; this whisky is eminently approachable, and retains its bright, maritime character even if you serve it on the rocks (oh, the horror!). It's complex enough to sip attentively while reading a book, but easygoing enough to serve at a summer barbecue with friends. Heck, even the bottle looks more summery and friendly. No, I'm not sponsored by Bruichladdich and they don't send me free whisky (at least, not yet...*rubs hands together maniacally, moo hoo ha ha ha), but I really like this one, and I enjoy it even more during the summer months.

There you have it; my Top Five picks for summertime whisky. Take it easy, drink responsibly and enjoy the sunny weather! Slainte! Let me know if I've unfairly left your summer favourite off the list.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Thunderstruck: A review of Compass Box Peat Monster

I've been drawn to music, and especially to the electric guitar as long as I can remember. I think I first got the urge to play the electric guitar after watching Lou Diamond Phillips portray Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. Not the most glamorous rockstar origin story on my part, but what do you want? I was seven or eight years old when the movie was released, and Phillips looked totally rockin' as Valens. As I got older, the draw of big guitar rock got stronger. Puberty approached and I was drawn to heavier offerings from Metallica, Guns N' Roses, and AC/DC. Looking back, AC/DC seems tame compared to some of the heavy music that has come out since. Even compared to Metallica, the Aussies seem good-natured and fun. While "For Those About To Rock" was anthemic, it was never as threatening or aggressive the way Metallica's "Battery" or "Master Of Puppets" was. At least not to serious metalheads. Don't get me wrong; AC/DC is a terrific rock band who puts on a terrific live show, but their music is only "heavy" compared to Willie Nelson or Frank Sinatra (both of whom I love, btw). Compared to heavier bands such as Metallica, Slayer, or Pantera, AC/DC is a little "light". What am I on about here?

Well, Compass Box's Peat Monster Blended Malt may have a name that's intimidating to some, but is it a monster to dedicated peat-heads such as myself? What's in the bottle anyway?

Some Kind of Monster

Here's the breakdown of the malt whiskies in Peat Monster, according to Compass Box's fact sheet:

  • 40% of the total volume is Laphroaig aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 20% of the total volume is Ledaig aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 13% of the total volume is Caol Ila aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 26% of the total volume is Ardmore aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 1% of the total volume is Compass Box's oft-used Highland Blend (Clynelish, Teaninich, Dailuaine) which is given a second, 2 year maturation in a toasted Burgundy French Oak hybrid barrel.

What is a Hogshead? Is Compass Box aging whisky in pig's heads? How metal would THAT be? The reality is far less gory. A hogshead is a cask used to mature another type of spirit or wine; cognac, brandy, sherry, or something else. Hogsheads usually hold 230 to 300 litres or liquid, so they're a bit larger than standard ex-bourbon barrels (200 litres). "Refill" hogsheads have already been used to mature whisky at least once, possibly twice, so the wine (or other spirit) influence isn't as pronounced.

Tasting notes

  • Nose: smoke, peat, butter, meaty, bacon, honey, lemons and red apples
  • Palate: medium-bodied, slightly waxy texture, honey, brine, Oolong tea
  • Finish: medium length, ashy peat returns, very buttery, fresh croissants, more fruitiness, apples, sweet, vegetal Oolong tea turns to dark espresso with black pepper lingering

With water: aromas of strawberries and cream as well as graham crackers pop out beneath the smoke, there’s more honey on the palate and the finish is a bit brighter. Interesting both ways.

Compass Box's Peat Monster is more AC/DC than Metallica. It may come across loud and aggressive to the uninitiated, but it won't blow the seasoned peat-head away. That's not to say it's a bad whisky. It is very enjoyable and the fruitiness offsets some of the peatiness for a "balanced" whisky experience. It's also bottled at 46% abv, is unchill-filtered and is sold at natural colour. There's a lot to like here. Recommended.

Rating: 86/100 (3.5/5 moustaches)