Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Conundrum: a review of The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak

conundrum

NOUN
1. A confusing and difficult problem or question.
e.g. ‘one of the most difficult conundrums for the experts

In my real life, I teach an Introduction to Philosophy class. One of the most fun activities we do is finding, identifying and analysing logical fallacies. Students create examples of fallacies as a project and the results can be a lot of fun. There's even a great website that provides a ton of examples here. My favourite example of a logical fallacy from that website is the example given for false cause, also called the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. 

Actual photo of me as a pirate
Pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the numbers of pirates have been decreasing; thus pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax.

I knew it ! Even when they said it was pollution and greenhouse gases, I knew it was the pirates ! Yarrrgh !!!

What does any of this have to do with whisky? Simple. How can I reconcile the fact that I don't care for a whisky that is loved by many? Am I an idiot who is just poor and jealous (ad hominem or personal attack fallacy)? Am I wrong since the whisky is so popular (argumentum ad populum or bandwagon fallacy)? Let's dig deeper.

Full disclosure


Forget Red Bull; THE Macallan turns you into Icarus !
I've often jeered at THE Macallan because of the ridiculous circus side-show that goes hand in hand with the brand (did you see the ridiculously pretentious "Would you risk falling for a chance to fly?" advert before it was pulled? Ugh...), but many have assured me that their 12 Year Old Sherry Oak bottle is the no-nonsense entry level Macallan that could give me a snapshot of what the distillery is about. Now to be fair, I've enjoyed some Macallan whiskies I've sampled: Macallan Rare Cask is excellent as is Macallan Sienna, but I would never pay the asking price for either of those whiskies. (Resist the urge to call me poor and jealous; that's another ad hominem...it's just a personal judgment and not an indictment of anyone who thinks those whiskies are worth the asking price). I did NOT enjoy Macallan Gold, Macallan 12 Double Cask, Macallan Amber, or any of the Macallan Editions I sampled. To quote the inimitable Ralfy "Just my opinion, Malt Mates, just an opinion." The Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak is available for about $60 USD in Florida (it is currently unavailable in Ontario, Canada), but I'm loath to spring for a bottle without trying it first. I'll do my best to remain objective, focus on the whisky, and ignore the marketing nonsense.

The bottle whence came this sample was opened June 9/2018, and was 2/3 full when the sample was poured on Dec 2/2018

Tasting notes


  • Nose (undiluted): a bit of spirity astringency, raisins, dates, walnuts, brown sugar, orange zest
  • Palate (undiluted): easy arrival, light-bodied, not as rich as I expected from the nose, more raisins, becoming a bit sharp, like balsamic vinegar
  • Finish: medium length, brown sugar, walnuts, oak spices (cloves, cinnamon), a little mint at the tail end turning to bitter wood tannins. Not a dealbreaker, but a little more bitterness at the end than I usually prefer.


Adding water brings aromas of red grapes and oak. It feels a bit fruitier and not quite as sweet with water added. The bitter wood tannins are more pronounced on the finish with water added though. So the nose and palate are better with water, but the finish is better neat. I believe that's what you call a conundrum. Nevertheless, this feels like a pretty straightforward sherried malt. It’s pleasant, but it's nothing extraordinary. It doesn't have a massively wide range of flavours. I guess you could call that "balanced". I feel like it might be an ideal "background" whisky but I don't feel like this is a star in its own right. I'm surprised by how light (watery?) it was, and I don't think it's just a function of the abv, since Glendronach 12, Tomatin 12 and Benromach 10 are both more richly-textured than this Macallan at the same 43% abv. 

The Macallan 12 is not as rich or even as complex as most bottles of Glendronach 12 I’ve tried, but my experience with the latter is more extensive than it is with this one sample of Macallan. I would be open to trying Macallan 12 Sherry Oak again, since every experience is just a snapshot in time, but given that Macallan 12 would cost me the same as Glendronach 12, I can't see myself buying a bottle. However, I remain grateful to my friend for his generosity in giving me the opportunity to try one of the best-known single malts on the market. It is almost universally loved, but Macallan 12 Sherry Oak just didn't do it for me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's because of the lack of pirates. But I'd suggest you try before you buy.

Rating: 82/100 (3/5 moustaches)


Saturday, 11 May 2019

Top 5: Mythbuster Edition

Whisky myths are like The Terminator. No matter how hard you try, they refuse to die. They keep coming back until they accomplish their mission and kill Sarah Connor. Or John Connor. Or just drive you nuts. No matter how many people try to dispel these myths, or how often they're refuted, these myths live on, immune to all logical arguments, responding with a deadpan "I'll be back". Nevertheless, I'll try to do Linda Hamilton justice and kick some whisky myth butt. Here are the five whisky myths that make me want to say "Hasta la vista, baby" before blowing them away...knowing full well they'll be back.

Myth no. 5: Old whisky is better than young whisky


Let's get one thing straight; taste is subjective. Ergo "better" whisky is whatever whisky you prefer. That said, there's always some pretentious dude named Arlo or Rafe, who likely drives a BMW and takes up three parking spaces, that will insist that "everyone knows" older whisky is better. He probably can't tell you why, other than "everyone knows" it's true, and he may even drop a casual "older whisky is more complex and smoother". Now there's nothing wrong with having preferences, but insisting that a blanket generality be accepted as truism doesn't make a person smart, it makes them look like an ass. Four years in a virgin oak cask can make a more flavourful whisky than ten years in a cask that's been used three times. Age matters, but it's only one factor in the final product. And while older whisky is different than younger whisky, it's not always better.

Myth no. 4: Single malt scotch is inherently superior to all other whiskies


Ugh. I hate this one. I think I hate it more because single malt scotch is, for the most part, my favourite type of whisky. However, that's a taste preference. There are a ton of people who will swear that bourbon is superior to all other types of whisky. As long as you're expressing a preference, we're cool. But the minute you try to sell your subjective preference as unassailable "fact", you're wrong. Single malt scotch is just whisky made at a single Scottish distillery, entirely from malted barley, which is then matured (at least 3 years and one day) and bottled in Scotland. That's it. There's no reason to think any whisky is objectively superior to any other whisky. So the next time you're at a wedding sipping Wild Turkey, Lot 40, or Redbreast, and drunk uncle Gord tells you "You should drink this Glenblahblah instead of that crap! Everyone knows *hiccup* single malt scotch is the best. It's public knowledge!" You should respond as Ron Swanson would:


Myth no. 3: Blended whisky sucks


Don't be a buzzkill
This one really grinds my gears. There are amazing blended whiskies out there and the criticisms of blended whiskies are often so mind-numbingly stupid that you'd be forgiven for thinking they were uttered by Peter Griffin. I've heard them all. For example, "blended whiskies aren't as complex as single malts". What? How does that make any sense whatsoever? Comparing a bottle of Uncle Hamish's Bargain Blended Scotch to a Laphroaig 32 Year Old isn't exactly fair. But even a modestly-priced blend such as Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend can showcase how good blended scotch can be. Jameson gets unfairly dismissed as a "shooter" or "mixing" whiskey but serve someone Jameson Black Barrel in a blind tasting and I'll bet dollars to donuts they'll enjoy it. I've also heard "blended whisky doesn't change with age the way single malt does". Huh? Is there some wizardry afoot that prevents blended whisky from obeying the laws of physics? As far as I know, every whisky is subject to oxidation, esterification, and evaporation as it matures. Of course, the warehouse location, the cask type, the entry proof of the whisky, and other factors will affect how a whisky (blended or other) will change over time, but every whisky will change over time. There is a LOT of great blended whisky on the market. Turning your nose up at blends make you more boring than Buzz Killington. Which blended whiskies do I like? Glad you asked; I enjoy Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve, Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend, Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, Jameson Black Barrel, Bushmills Black Bush, J.P. Wiser's Dissertation, Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old, Islay Mist 8 Year Old, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, Ballantine's Finest, Bell's Original. No, those last two are not included by mistake.

Myth no. 2: Inexpensive whisky sucks


Some people when you don't fawn over their expensive whisky
This one may ruffle some feathers, but I don't care. Buying expensive whisky doesn't mean you have "more discerning taste" than those who spend less. And before anyone throws a tantrum and calls me "poor and jealous", let me say that I have no problem with people drinking what they like (responsibly). And I have no problem with people who buy and enjoy more expensive whiskies. One of my best friends has a much more extensive (and expensive) whisky collection than I do. No big deal. The myth that needs to die is that an increase in price corresponds to a commensurate increase in quality. I challenge people to do blind tastings and see if they can identify which whiskies are the most expensive. I bet most people can't do it. There are some very good whiskies that don't cost a fortune, and there are some expensive whiskies I don't personally care for. Weller Antique 107 sells for about $36 in Ontario right now, and although the price is set to increase to $50 soon, that's still a good deal cheaper than a LOT of other bourbons. Wild Turkey 101 sells for $40 and I prefer it to most other, more expensive bourbons. Maybe I'm a philistine, a plebeian, a dull proletarian, but there are some so-called bottom shelf whiskies I enjoy sipping. Ballantine's Finest, Alberta Premium, George Dickel no.12, J.P. Wiser's Triple Barrel, among others, are all fine by me. They may not replace my favourite Laphroaig Cairdeas or Caol Ila 18 Year Old single malts, but I won't turn my nose up at them either.

Myth no. 1: Whisky awards are objective


Finally, an award worth winning !
"You don't like X whisky? You mustn't really know anything about whisky. It won best whisky in the WORLD !!!" Go to literally any online whisky discussion forum or Facebook group, and you'll run across this type of comment...which is unfortunate since most whisky awards are as meaningful as the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. I'm not saying the results are fixed or that there's a conspiracy of shape-shifting reptilians controlling our minds and tastebuds (or am I?) but even supposed "experts" are individuals. As such they are subject to all sorts of biases and personal preferences. Judges at these competitions may have a ton of experience and know a lot about whisky, but that doesn't mean their taste preferences match yours. Some of these awards are a "pay to play" deal where every whisky that enters gets some kind of medal. Some awards state that the whiskies are tasted "blind", though the definition of "blind tasting" seems to vary depending on the competition. When I do a blind tasting from a sample a friend has given me, I know NOTHING about that whisky and I have to form a judgment based solely on my senses. Some spirits competitions will divulge the type of whisky (bourbon, scotch single malt, irish single pot still), the age if it is stated, the proof (abv %), and even the region (Islay scotch, Speyside scotch, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Kentucky Bottled in Bond Bourbon). Now that doesn't seem too blind to me, but what do I know? The goal of this little diatribe is not to castigate whisky awards so much as it is a call for perspective. Back in 2016, Jim Murray named Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye "Best whisky in the world" and a lot of people lost their minds. Some declared Murray a paid stooge while others rushed to the LCBO to stockpile Northern Harvest Rye in hopes of "flipping" the bottles later for a tidy profit. I liked Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye then, and I like it now. Is it the best whisky in the world? Not to me, but I really like it. Jim Murray was just making a judgment based on his perception of his tastings of that particular whisky. If he had tasted something else first that day, the results may have been different. Whisky can be expensive. You shouldn't let awards guide your purchasing habits since you don't know if your tastebuds are the same as those of the judges. The best you can do is trade samples with friends or find bloggers and YouTube vloggers whose tastes are close to your own. I don't always agree with Ralfy, but I've never disliked anything he's rated 85 points or higher. I thoroughly enjoy Horst Luening's reviews over at whisky.com but his tastes are very different from my own. Horst loves wine cask finishes and isn't big on cask strength whiskies, so I don't rush out to buy his favourites for my whisky cabinet.

If these myths have one thing in common, it's this: other people's opinions don't matter when it comes to something as subjective as whisky. Find bloggers or YouTubers whose tastes line up close to your own and use those resources as a guide, but don't rely on other people to validate your preferences. Your taste is what matters, the rest is just noise.


Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Exotically Canadian? J.P. Wiser's Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old

Canadia is rarely (never?) described as "exotic". Depending on where you are in the world, Polynesia fits most people's description of "exotic" with its tropical flowers, turquoise waters, and lush green islands. I love the novels of M.G. Vassanji, and his descriptions of Tanzania's bustling markets always made it seem "exotic" to me. Coupled with Vassanji's literary prowess is the fact that Tanzania also contains (parts of) Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and all of Kilimanjaro. I can't help but think of Tanzania as "exotic". Maybe that betrays a certain Canadian-centric view, but so be it. However, I'm hard-pressed to imagine any place in the world where you'd be greeted with "you're from Canada? Ooohhh, how exotic!". Canadians are generally described as "down to earth", "friendly", "a more polite version of the United States", or even "boring". Russian artist Anastasia Bulgakova produced a series of drawings which personify a variety of countries as sci-fi warriors...all warriors, except for Canada. Of my home country, Bulgakova said:
Are we Jughead to the USA's Archie?

 “Canada is simple guy with puppy eyes. He is kind and not conflicting. Prefers to be at home and not look for any problems in others’ battles. He only fights in sports- hockey. He finds it honest and cheerful.”

But the reality is that Canada is a multicultural nation. The hockey-crazed hoser, the lumberjack, and the Mountie are more stereotypes than realities. Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Toronto (among other cities) all have vibrant, culturally diverse restaurants, clothing stores, and art. First Nations people in Canada are becoming well-known around the world for their movies, music, and literary accomplishments. Heck, maybe we are more exotic than our "aw shucks" faux humility might lead some to believe.

Our whisky producers are also becoming less apologetic and cautious. The big producers are taking risks, and the whisky community is richer for it. So what is J.P. Wiser's Seasoned Oak? Is it a “simple guy with puppy eyes” or is it a multicultural mosaic?

J.P. Wiser's Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old


According to the interweb machine, this Canadian blend is mostly J.P. Wiser's double column distilled corn with a touch of double column distilled rye added for a spicy kick. The whisky is aged for 18 years in previously used (once? twice? thrice? I don't know) barrels and then finished for a year in virgin oak that was seasoned (i.e. left out in the elements) for 48 months. The whisky is bottled at 48% abv. What is "seasoned" oak? Why leave it out in the elements? Allow me to quote from the most reliable source when it comes to Canadian whisky, Mr. Davin de Kergommeaux of www.canadianwhisky.org

Workers cut the newly harvested oak into blank staves then stack it neatly but loosely, and leave it outside to dry. Stacking helps prevent warping while still providing full exposure to the elements.

As it dries, the wood in these stacks is affected by the weather. The outer layer of the stack slowly turns grey in the sun, while inside all the staves, microorganisms and enzymes very slowly change the composition of the wood itself. However, the real benefit is rainfall.

Many tannins and other undesirable wood components are water soluble and with each rainfall they wash out of the wood bit by bit as the rainwater percolates down through the stack. A little tannin adds structure to the whisky but too much and you think you are chewing on a bitter log.

Coopers call this slow natural drying process “seasoning” and it results in oakwood that is much gentler on the spirit. Thus whisky or wine can age longer without becoming over wooded.

Tasting Notes

  • Nose (undiluted): figs and raisins alongside some brown sugar, a hint of barrel char, a subtle floral note in the background
  • Palate (undiluted): rich and waxy, some rye spice, pepper, coconut, milk chocolate, fresh cut oak
  • Finish: medium length, sweet toffee returns, some vanilla, the barrel char notes return, with some cloves and fresh coconut lingering alongside the slightly perfumed floral notes

With water, this whisky gets much more floral, with a lingering hint of incense on the finish. It may sound odd, but it isn't at all unpleasant. The floral notes remind me of some exotic flowers I’ve never smelled before. That may sound ridiculous to include in a tasting note, but it’s the best I can do as I am no botanist. They may be flowers from French Polynesia or North Battleford, Saskatchewan for all I know. 

I’m curious which char was used on the virgin seasoned oak. I’m also wondering if this one would have been a bit “deeper” had they left it in the seasoned oak a bit longer or if it would have been too oak-dominant. But I guess I’ll never know. Then again, I’m not the guy with a PhD in whisky, so maybe the right decisions were made. I find this whisky a wee bit lacking in “low end” notes.

Wiser's Seasoned Oak is a very interesting whisky. I’m not entirely certain I’d buy another bottle, but I don’t regret this purchase either. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity and the sample of Collectivum XXVIII I tasted. All very enjoyable, very well made, but not necessarily something I’d reach for regularly. Make no mistake though, it was well worth the purchase price as the whisky evolved with time and air exposure. Each time I tried it, Wiser's Seasoned Oak offered a little something different. Recommended.

Rating: 89/100 (4/5 moustaches)



Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Weird Science ! a review of Diageo's Collectivum XXVIII Blended Malt Scotch

Does any director personify the 1980s more than John Hughes? I doubt it. Hughes' wildly successful catalogue of films include classics such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Home Alone. Ok, I know Home Alone was released in 1990, but you get the point. As a teenager re-visiting these films in the 1990s, I was more taken with Weird Science, one of Hughes lesser-known movies. Maybe it had something to do with Kelly LeBrock, I'm not sure; I was a weird kid. As ridiculous as the whole premise was (teenage boys creating a magical super-woman by hooking electrodes up to a doll and hacking a government computer system), the movie just worked. Or maybe it didn't; I honestly don't remember. But the whole (Kelly LeBrock) was certainly greater than the sum of the parts Gary and Wyatt used to create her. 

At first glance, this type of weird science seems to be exactly what the people at Diageo were thinking when they created Collectivum XXVIII. Or maybe it was a drunken dare:

  • "I know, let's mix whisky from every distillery we own, bottle it and sell it!"
  • "Yeah, but we need an awesome name too! Like Excelsior or something Roman-sounding"
  • "You mean something Latin?"
  • "Don't be a smart-ass, Bryce!"
  • "Maybe we could just use some latin phrase AND Roman numerals or something."
  • "Like Magnus XXVIII !"
  • "No, no, man...that Viking distillery is already using Magnus. Something that says 'big collection' or something."
  • "Ok then, Collectivum XXVIII!"
  • "Genius!!!"
Either way, the whole thing sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. But what the hell do I know? I liked the movie Weird Science. I also liked Weird Al Yankovic's movie UHF, so take my opinion with a proverbial grain of salt.


Wait, how many whiskies are in here?


Collectivum XXVIII is a blended malt that was released with the other Diageo Special Releases in 2017. It contains malt whisky from every single operational Diageo distillery (there are 28 of them, d'uh!), it carries no age statement, and it is bottled at 57.3% ABV.

*The 28 distilleries are: Auchroisk, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Dailuaine, Dalwhinnie, Dufftown, Glendullan, Glen Elgin, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie, Glen Ord, Glen Spey, Inchgower, Knockando, Lagavulin, Linkwood, Mannochmore, Mortlach, Oban, Roseisle, Royal Lochnagar, Strathmill, Talisker and Teaninich.

I received a sample of this whisky from a friend and tasted it on two separate occasions. The first tasting was done in a blind tasting session, and I had already tasted two other whiskies before the Collectivum. My notes for the first tasting reflect my thought process in trying (unsuccessfully) to identify the component malts. I felt like Sandra Bullock trying to steer a boat on a swiftly-moving river while blindfolded. My second tasting was done with a "clean" or "fresh" palate.


Tasting no.1(February 16 2019) Neat from a Glencairn

How it felt trying to identify the component malts
  • Nose: Sherry cask reminiscent of Highland Park, aggressively nippy nose at first, a bit of fudge, wet hay, cherries, walnuts, cinnamon, Tamdhu maybe. There's not really any smoke.
  • Palate: hot arrival, sweet fudge and toffee reminiscent of Glenfarclas 105, syrupy, with a bit of herbal bitterness, rosemary maybe
  • Finish: sherry, red fruit, sharp right until the end, herbal notes, a little bitterness, some very slight briny notes, Ben Nevis maybe?.
This one is interesting. I'd guess it's a slightly higher ABV offering (46% or higher). There are flavours here that are quite new to me.
Best guess: Highland Park, Glenfarclas, Tamdhu, Ben Nevis
Rating: 87/100 (4/5 moustaches)
The reveal: Collectivium XXVIII by Diageo, bottle code L7096DQ000, at 57.3%

Tasting no. 2 (April 29 2019): Neat from a Highland whisky glass


  • Nose (undiluted): cherries, slightly musty, old wood, herbal (eucalyptus), hay, walnuts
  • Palate (undiluted): lovely rich texture, fruity and syrupy arrival like a fruit cocktail, more cherries
  • Finish: sherry, red fruit, slightly herbal, a bit of cinnamon
This didn’t really change much with water, except the fruit salad on the palate was a bit more like oranges and pineapples with water and less grapey. This is very nice stuff. I think I enjoyed it a bit more on a “fresh” palate. My original rating was 87/100, and after a second tasting, I’d rate it a touch higher, maybe 89/100. But I'm not sure if I'm biased because I know this is a more expensive whisky; in Ontario it retails for about $275.

What I liked best about this whisky was the balance between the sweet fruits on the nose and the drying vegetal notes (eucalyptus, rosemary) on the palate and finish. It's not necessarily a whisky I'd reach for all the time, but I'd be happy to accept a glass of it anytime. Complex, interesting, and more balanced than you would expect with 28 malts in the blend. The idea may seem like weird science, and like the film of the same name it may not be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Rating: 88/100 points (4/5 moustaches)