Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Whisky Can Be F.U.N.: a review of Glenfiddich 15 Year Solera

Glenfiddich is the best-selling single malt scotch in the world. Some will repudiate anything popular, but I happen to have a soft spot for the distillery. It remains an independent, family-owned business. They operate their own cooperage right on site. I'll also give William Grant & Sons' marketing department some credit. I'm often hard on marketing people but I'm no hypocrite. I'll give credit where credit is due. If you're surfing social media, you'll find that the brand ambassadors for William Grant & Sons (owners of Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie, and more) are some of the friendliest, most accessible people around. When interacting with these folks (or with anyone, really) please remember the sage advice of my favourite post-modern absurdist philosopher, Spongebob Squarepants: Don't be a jerk. If you're on Instagram, you can follow Beth Havers (@whisky_beth), Canadian Brand Ambassador for Glenfiddich and see what I'm talking about. The whisky is presented in a variety of ways, even some that are *gasp* FUN !! Single malt is no longer the exclusive domain of wealthy, reclusive misanthropes like Mr. Burns. We should allow ourselves to experiment unapologetically and enjoy whisky any way we see fit.

According to Glenfiddich's website, the 15 Year Solera Reserve is "aged in European, American, and New American oak". No word on the proportion of European/American/New Oak, nor whether the European and American oak casks are first-fill ex-bourbon casks, first-fill sherry casks, refill sherry casks, etc. It's better than no information, but the whisky geek in me would still like more information. After that maturation, "the whisky is then mellowed in our unique Solera vat before being married in Portuguese oak tuns." Again, interesting, but no word on how long the whisky is mellowed in said Solera vat or married in the Portuguese oak tun. We are told that the Solera vat is always at least half full, so that some of the whisky is "older than 15 years".

Tasting notes

Neat, from a Glencairn glass

  • Nose: red apples, raisins, honey, cinnamon, a bit of toffee
  • Palate: medium bodied, honey, cinnamon, raisins, oak, apples, ginger, almonds
  • Finish: medium length, slightly tannic and drying at the end, plenty of red apples, oak, toffee, ginger, and cinnamon
  • Thoughts: Water kind of drowns everything out. I would stick to sipping this one neat or with a large ice sphere, if you like your whisky cold. This might be a good whisky to gently ease someone into sherried malts. It's not fully sherry cask matured but there are some sherry casks in the mix. The fruitiness is gentle rather than bombastic.
  • Rating: 88/100

Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered to me? Sure. It's a nice social whisky
Would I order this in a bar or pub? Yes. Interesting but not so complex as to be a distraction on those rare occasions I'm trying to be social.
Would I purchase another bottle? Maybe. The price is starting to climb in Ontario and that's never a good sign. Nevertheless, $85-$90 isn't a bad price (here) for a 15 Year Old Single Malt.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Golden Age? a reveiw of Redbreast 15

Can we get an "Elizabeth" movie starring
Dame Judi Dench?

I'm a history teacher by trade. Since I majored in history, I tend to be "that guy" any time I read historical fiction or watch a period drama on tv or on the big screen. I can suspend my disbelief most of the time and enjoy a "creative" telling of a historical event, such as the Zack Snyder fantasy-action film 300. I don't have the time or energy to outline all the historical inaccuracies in Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven here, but I suppose we shouldn't be looking to Hollywood for history lessons. Queen Elizabeth I has been represented many times on film, and I think the most accurate representation of her temperament and personality was Dame Judi Dench's portrayal in Shakespeare In Love. While many viewers might prefer Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth or Elizabeth: The Golden Age, historians have criticized the two films starring Blanchett for portraying the Tudor queen as flighty or easily manipulated by the men around her. Hint: she wasn't. Elizabeth was intelligent, clever, insightful, witty, and had a fiery temper.

I've found the same type of phenomenon in discussions with fans of Redbreast Irish whiskey. Just about everyone seems to adore Redbreast 12 Year Old, but fewer appreciate Redbreast's 15 Year Old expression. I've heard all kinds of reasons for this preference, from the price difference (which is fair) to the difference in flavour profiles. Some have said Redbreast 15 isn't as smooth as Redbreast 12, but if you know me at all, you'll know that smooth isn't something I look for in a whiskey. In fact, when someone describes a whiskey as smooth, I'm hesitant to buy it. Water is smooth; whiskey should let you know you're drinking something stronger. Calling a whiskey smooth is akin to telling me I have a great personality: you may think it's a compliment, but it's not really something I want to hear. And in the case of my "great personality" it's also completely untrue.

Redbreast 15 Year Old is bottled at a higher abv than Redbreast 12, which might explain why the latter is more popular. The 15 Year Old is bottled at 46% abv, it is chill-filtered, and has added caramel colouring. I wish it was presented unchill-filtered and at its natural colour, but I won't let those details prevent me from buying a whiskey.

Tasting Notes

March 4 2020 Neat from a Brilliant Highland Glass

  • Nose: classic Single Pot Still spiciness, herbal, Thai lime leaves (for real, I promise), orange zest, figs, brown sugar, a touch of butter
  • Palate: rich and oily, dark fruits (figs, raisins, and plums), a bit peppery, becoming a touch waxy, hard caramel candies
  • Finish: long and warming, more dark fruits, cinnamon, caramel sauce, a touch of citrus returning, perhaps a hint of high quality, fruity olive oil. The tail end keeps the sweetness from becoming cloying. Wonderful.
Initial Rating: 91/100

April 24 Neat from a Canadian Glencairn

  • Nose: spicy with pepper and cloves, herbal, oranges, figs, toffee, butter
  • Palate: rich and full-bodied, creamy texture, dark fruit (figs, dates), flax seeds, caramel, a touch of cinnamon, a bit of fennel, black pepper
  • Finish: long and warming, with caramel, butter, cinnamon, some citrus near the very end, and then a pleasant touch of orange zest bitterness (Very subtle)
  • Final Rating: 91/100

All subsequent tastings revealed similar notes. This bottle didn't really change much with time and air exposure. I can safely say that I've never tasted a Redbreast I didn't enjoy. If I had to class them by personal enjoyment, I'd rate them:
  1. Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength
  2. Redbreast 15 Year Old
  3. Redbreast Lustau Edition
  4. Redbreast 12 Year Old
While many enthusiasts prefer Redbreast 12 Year Old, I prefer the 15 Year expression. It may not be as easily accessible as the 12 Year, but the 15 Year's vigour and complexity are better suited to my palate. I suppose you could say Redbreast 15 is Dame Judi Dench's Elizabeth whereas Redbreast 12 is Cate Blanchett's Elizabeth. Both have their charms, but I prefer the more fiery presentation.

Would I accept a glass of this if someone offered me one? Without a doubt
Would I order this in a bar or pub? Yes
Would I buy another bottle? Only if I could get it at a better price than it goes for in Ontario.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Yes Man: Alberta Premium Cask Strength

My youngest son is a huge fan of WWE. I've taken him to several live events, and I have to admit that I was probably just as entertained as he was. I grew up watching Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Ricky "the Dragon" Steamboat, Ultimate Warrior, The Undertaker, and it didn't take much convincing to get me to watch it with him. One of our favourite current superstars is Daniel Bryan. He's a bit of an underdog: Bryan is only about 5'10" and about 210lbs. Now that's not small compared to an average couch potato, but Bryan seems diminutive compared to other superstars like Roman Reigns (6'4", 265lbs) or Randy Orton (6'5", 255lbs). Nevertheless, Bryan makes his way to the ring to enthusiastic "YES ! YES ! YES!" cheers from the crowd. The enthusiasm is infectious and you can't help but cheer for the guy. I had the same reaction when I heard that Alberta Premium was putting out a cask strength rye.

Canadian whisky is finally "becoming mainstream". While some obstinate whisky snobs refuse to try the fine sipping whiskies Canada has to offer, the rest of us are being treated to a real whisky boom. J.P. Wiser's/Corby puts out the Northern Border Collection Rare Releases every year, Canadian Club puts out a deluxe forty-something expression every year, and more Canadian craft distillers like British Columbia's Shelter Point and Yukon territory's Yukon Brewing (makers of the Two Brewers single malts) are gaining widespread popularity. 

Alberta Premium released a 25 year old rye and a 30 year old rye back in 2011 (I think). Perhaps the world wasn't ready for top shelf Canadian rye, since Alberta Premium didn't really continue to court the connoisseur market...until recently. Of course many industry insiders, the people "in the know", were well aware of how good the people over at Alberta Distillers (ADL) are at making rye whisky. In fact, Davin de Kergommeaux states, in his new book "The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries" that "Alberta Distillers is almost certainly the greatest rye distillery in the world." That's pretty high praise from the expert in Canadian whisky. But you may already have tasted some top shelf stuff from ADL without even knowing it; WhistlePig uses ADL rye extensively and so does Masterson's.

It seems as though the decision makers at ADL or at Beam Suntory (ADL's corporate overlords) are finally giving us what we want. In late 2019, Alberta Premium released Alberta Premium 20 Year Old and Alberta Premium Cask Strength. Both are 100% rye whiskies and both caused quite the stir in the Canadian whisky community. Rye fans channelled their best Daniel Bryan impersonations and gave Alberta Premium a resounding "YES!!" chant by scooping these expressions up by the case.

Tasting Notes

Alberta Premium Cask Strength
65.1% abv
Bottle opened November 3, 2019
7/8 full when the sample was poured November 21, 2019

Neat from a Highland Whisky Glass

  • Nose: sweet butterscotch jumps out right away, followed by peppermint, dark brown sugar, salted butter, this smells like dessert, there's an "almost rum" note in here that's really interesting.
  • Palate: rich, rich arrival, salted caramel, toasted and buttered rye bread, brown sugar, something slightly vegetal and "green", then black pepper
  • Finish: long and warming, rye bread, toasted oak, cloves, brown sugar, a touch of peppermint lingering
  • Rating: 91/100

With Water

  • Nose: even sweeter and "rummier" with the addition of water. I may become diabetic while nosing this. Maybe it's the "rum, brown sugar, and butter" combo working through the power of suggestion, but I think I'm smelling raisins here. Did I mention butter and brown sugar? Also more oak, cloves, and a bit of spearmint (or peppermint, I can't really differentiate the two)
  • Palate: not as sweet with water, slightly spicier; cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, oak tannins, black tea, rye bread, orange zest, red apple skins
  • Finish: long yet somewhat drying, rye spices, cinnamon, red apple peels now, oak tannins, a hint of peach or apricot fruitiness, peppermint appearing like a depth charge. The finish goes on and on and keeps developping with time. Just wonderful. I think I might actually like this one better with a touch (1/2 teaspoon) of water. Maybe. This is excellent either way. Just wow.
  • Rating: 93/100

Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered to me? Gratefully
Would I order this in a bar or pub? Without hesitation
Would I purchase a full bottle? Based on this sample, I did.

I really hope ADL treats us to a release of Alberta Premium Cask Strength every year. This just ticks all the right boxes for a rye lover. It's big, it's bold, and in a most "un-Canadian" manner, it's unapologetic. Every sip just leaves you saying "YES ! YES ! YES !"

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Avast! A review of Pike Creek 10 Year Old Rum Finish

All I'm offering is the truth
What comes to mind when someone says "rum"? I'm willing to bet you picture warm, sunny days, Caribbean beaches, fruity cocktails, and possibly pirates. Pirates? Of course ! Johnny Depp's (historically questionable) portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow is replete with references to rum; its absence, his fondness for it, and so on. Allow me to channel my inner Morpheus for a second and ask you this: what if I told you rum wasn't most pirates' favourite drink? Well, it's true. Or at least it was at first. In Dave Broom's excellent "Rum: The Manual", he dispels some of the mythology around pirates' affinity for rum, stating that in the late XVII century and early XVIII century, pirates would have prefered Cognac or Brandy when they could get it. Rum didn't gain popularity until the "golden age of piracy" had already waned. Of course, once the British Navy started giving their sailors rum rations, the spirit's popularity took off. Rum also gained popularity because it was more affordable in colonial New England than French brandies were.

There are plenty of misconceptions around Canadian whisky as well. Most are based on hearsay, ignorance or pointless comparisons. Those who criticize Canadian whisky often complain about what it isn't. Canadian whisky isn't bourbon, it isn't single malt scotch, nor is it Irish single pot still. To appreciate Canadian whisky, you need to appreciate it on its own terms. If someone complained about Laphroaig because it is nothing like Jameson, you might slap your forehead and exclaim "Well d'uh ! Of course ! Laphroaig and Jameson are completely different !" Yet this understanding isn't always extended to Canadian whisky. I suppose I shouldn't complain, since these misunderstandings keep the price of most Canadian whiskies lower than that of other whiskies.

So what's the connection between rum and Canadian whisky? Glad you asked. Corby's "Northern Border Collection" is comprised of the following three regular releases:

  • Lot no.40 rye, a spicy, oak-forward rye that I've mentioned many times on this blog.
  • Gooderham & Worts 4 Grain, a whisky that skillfully displays the character of (you guessed it) four grains; corn, wheat, rye, and barley.
  • Pike Creek 10 Year Old Rum Finish, a blend of corn and rye that showcases how much flavour barrel finishing can impart.
Pike Creek used to be finished in Port Barrels, but I never got a chance to try that version so I can't compare the Rum Barrel finish to the old version. "Whence come the rum barrels ?"you ask. Well since Corby bottles Lamb's rum at their Hiram Walker facility in Windsor for the North American market, I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the rum casks used to finish Pike Creek were previously used to hold and transport Lamb's rum. Pike Creek 10 Year Old is bottled at 42% abv.

Tasting notes

Nose: brown sugar, caramel, pepper, faint rye spice, some cardamom, a bit of vanilla, corn cobs, slightly musty corn (not unpleasant in this case)

Palate: medium-bodied, vanilla, caramel, plums, a touch of orange zest, a subtle "rumminess" (yeah, it's a word), old oak, a touch of unsalted butter

Finish: short to medium length, vanilla, dark 
molasses, burnt sugar, rum, raisins, black pepper, oak char

While other reviewers seem to be lukewarm on this release, I have to say that I really enjoy it. Pike Creek 10 Year Old is reasonably complex, and while the rum finish is prominent, this is no one-trick pony. Perhaps my burgeoning love of rum has biased me in its favour, or perhaps my bottle is from a really good batch. Either way, this bottle has ahem "evaporated" much more quickly than many other open bottles I have. Inasmuch as I cautioned against asymmetrical comparisons earlier, I have to say that anyone who likes whisky and rum will probably enjoy Pike Creek 10 Year Old. And considering it sells for about $35 here in Ontario, Pike Creek 10 Year Old is undoubtedly one of the best values in whisky. But don't tell too many people or we'll see the price tag skyrocket.

Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered to me? Absolutely
Would I order this in a bar or pub? Without hesitation
Would I purchase another bottle? I have no doubt that I will

Final Rating: 88/100