Wednesday, 14 November 2018

A Star is (re)Born: a review of Tomatin 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
Oscar Wilde

Style is a funny thing. Bell-bottoms, leggings, mullets, moustaches, actors, and even musicians ride waves of popularity and suffer through doldrums. Frank Sinatra lived through a career slump from 1946 to 1952. John Travolta was an idol in the 1970s but few would argue that the 1980s were kind to him. Travolta wasn't officially "back" until his performance along side the amazing Uma Thurman in Tarantino's 1994 hit Pulp Fiction. Whisky is no different. Some distilleries maintain their popularity, such as Glenfiddich or The Macallan, while others experience boom and bust cycles.
Tomatin distillery once produced more malt whisky than any other distillery in Scotland, yet you rarely see it mentioned on whisky appreciation websites, Facebook pages, Instagram, and blogs. So what's Tomatin all about? Are they due for a Travolta-like renaissance?

Tomatin distillery: the cheat sheet


Tomatin distillery is located just South of Inverness. It's almost a Speyside distillery, but remains classified as a Highland distillery. What's the difference? Very little these days. Regional designations are less important than they used to be. I mean, technically all Speyside whiskies are Highland whiskies, though not all Highland whiskies are Speyside whiskies. Got that? In the late 1980s, Tomatin was the largest malt whisky producer in Scotland. Production has been scaled back since the 1990s, but they still produce about 2.5 million litres of spirit per year. Although about 80% of their whisky goes into blends, Tomatin's parent company, Takara Shuzo, has been investing more time, energy, and resources into marketing Tomatin as a stand-alone single malt whisky. Fun fact: there was a shortage of skilled labour in the area when the distillery was built, so houses were built onsite. About eighty per cent of Tomatin's employees still live in these distillery houses. According to a marketing blurb on their website: 

WORKING AT TOMATIN IS MORE THAN JUST A JOB FOR OUR EMPLOYEES; IT IS A WAY OF LIFE. THIS IN TURN  IS REFLECTED IN THE QUALITY OF WHISKY PRODUCED; EVERY BOTTLE OF WHISKY WE MAKE IS DISTILLED WITH PRIDE.

Heck, this might even be one of those "great marketing pitch that happens to be true" moments. Let's see what the whisky says.

Tasting notes


This 12 Year Old sample is my first ever taste of Tomatin. It's a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. The bottle says "finished" in sherry casks, but who knows what that means? Finished for how long? 2 years? 10 Minutes? Somewhere in between? Well, let's see what this is all about.
  • Nose (undiluted): Lovely! Quite surprising given my complete lack of expectations. definitely a dry Oloroso sherry note, red licorice (cherry NIBS), almonds, a bit of vanilla, some hints of oak and barrel char, very reminiscent of Glendronach 12 (a malt whisky I appreciate more with each tasting).
  • Palate (undiluted): medium bodied, more red fruit, baked apples, more nuttiness
  • Finish: short to medium length, vanilla, coconut, pears, a bit of barley sugar, hazelnuts, more oak

This was an easy drinking sample, so I didn't see the point in adding water. It's bottled at 43% ABV, and any lowering it further is unnecessary. Tomatin 12 isn't ├╝ber-complex, but it's more interesting than just about every entry-level offering I've tried. I'm pleasantly surprised and impressed by this malt. At $59 per bottle in Ontario, I'll definitely be purchasing a full bottle. Although perhaps I shouldn't be proclaiming my new found affection for Tomatin too loudly. The last time I did that, with Benromach 10, the LCBO jacked up the price to the tune of an extra $20 per bottle. Truth be told, I don't think it had anything to do with me. I doubt I have that much influence.

Entry-level is often code for "inexpensive, ordinary, and boring", but it doesn't need to be this way. Tomatin 12 is a high quality single malt that won't break the bank. I've often heard Glendronach 12 refered to as a "poor man's Macallan 12", although I prefer Glendronach to Macallan regardless of price. Tomatin 12 might be considered a "poor man's Glendronach 12" in some quarters, but I feel this is an unfair characterization. Take price out of the equation altogether and Tomatin 12 remains a solid, dependable, lightly-sherried single malt worthy of your time and appreciation. This sample was a real moment of discovery for me, not unlike an entire generation who (re)discovered Frank Sinatra after 1953 or John Travolta in 1994. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches (86/100 points)

May the winds of Fortune sail you
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me"

Slainte !!


Ratings may be interpreted as follows:

1 moustache: No flavour, just alcohol. Any whisky rated this poorly is to be avoided. 0-50 points
1.5 moustaches: This stuff is not in my wheelhouse. Very bad whisky. Not recommended 51-60 points
2 moustaches: Best suited to mixing, not great neat. Try before you buy this one. 61-70 points
2.5 moustaches: Respectable mixing whisky. Acceptable if mediocre neat or on the rocks. Try before you buy. 71-76 points
3 moustaches: Versatile whisky, above average quality. Good neat or in a cocktail. Usually recommended. 77-82 points
3.5 moustaches: Good quality sipper, possibly outstanding in a cocktail. Recommended. 83-87 points
4 moustaches: Terrific sipping whisky. A personal favourite. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. A "must try" whisky. 88-90 points
4.5 moustaches: Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. A "must have" whisky. 91-94 points
5 moustaches: Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. 95-100 points



Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Sell Me a Tale: a review of Talisker Dark Storm

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
Oscar Wilde                 

Whisky's allure surpasses taste, texture and aroma. Stories matter. Legends abound when it comes to rare or expensive whiskies like a Bowmore 30 Year Old Sea Dragon, any Brora or Port Ellen. When enthusiasts, afficionados, and connoisseurs deny they've been seduced by a marketing pitch and insist they're "above all that", I posit it's either self-deception or an outright lie. We gravitate to stories; real ones or those conjured from the imaginative minds of sales reps...er, I mean "brand ambassadors". Bonus points if there's an element of truth in these yarns. Maybe the distillery's founder really was a viking warrior. Maybe the brand's founder really did ride a twelve-pointed stag into battle, bare-chested, to save the King of Scotland from Orcs, or Dementors, or something along those lines.

I can't wait for the Battlecat distillery's first release
Facetiousness aside, we're awestruck when sipping a whisky that's as old or older than we are. It's exciting to taste something from a legendary, now-defunct distillery. If you're a malt enthusiast, you can't avoid thinking "Wow! I was four years old (in my case) when this 35 Year Old whisky was distilled". So I won't denounce marketing here. I get it; it's all part of the experience. However, it's interesting to judge a whisky based solely on taste, and blind samples are the best way, possibly the only way, to do that. When a friend hands you a sample, labeled "Mystery #1", you're compelled to let your senses render a verdict. There's no tale to sell, no chicanery, no tales of long-forgotten lore. Quoth the blogger "Nevermore". Wait, wrong blog.

Tasting notes


I wrote these tasting notes without knowing exactly what I was drinking but I inferred whence came the aforementioned sample from the 45.8% ABV written on the label. That oddly specific number is a dead giveaway of the malt's provenance: the Talisker distillery on the Isle of Skye. So while this wasn't a total blind tasting, I didn't know which Talisker expression it was. I was fairly certain I'd enjoy it, because I've never met a Talisker I didn't appreciate.

  • Nose (undiluted): the Talisker peat and smoke are there, but it is not the lead player in this orchestra. Lots of fruitiness right up front. Plums, cherries, red licorice, balsamic vinegar, and a very slight menthol note.
  • Palate (undiluted): very soft arrival, more red fruit, developing to dry peat smoke (think burning leaves), and a little minerality.
  • Finish: medium length, dry smoke at first, with a cherry Halls (cough lozenge) flavour lingering. It's more enjoyable than it sounds, I promise.

With water added, there's a floral or herbal note that pops up, fresh thyme maybe. A bit of honey. The peat smoke is still there with water, but the fruitiness changes. It tastes more like pears, and maybe a touch of orange. With water, the chalky minerality that defines Talisker for me is more evident. I prefer this with water. I have to admit, the 10 Year Old Talisker is more my style. Perhaps I'm curmudgeonly, but I prefer my Talisker with less fruitiness and more pepper, brine, smoke, and wet slate.

The Reveal


The fruitiness of the nose and taste lead me to guess this was a wine-finished Talisker; Distillers Edition or maybe Port Ruighe (pronounced Port Ree). My friend informed me I was wrong on both counts. The sample was from a bottle only available, insofar as I know, in Duty Free shops. So what should we expect from a whisky called "Dark Storm"? Well, I would have thought Dark Storm implied Cask Strength whisky, deep fruit notes, a crescendo of brine, a backhanded slap of peat smoke, a real whirlwind of flavours fighting for dominance. Diageo describes it this way:

Dark Storm Single Malt Scotch Whisky is matured in heavily-charred oak casks for an intensely smoky flavour, designed to capture the wild, untamed spirit of a full-blown storm at sea.

Ok, so my imagination isn't far off. But herein lies the rub: I found this whisky milder and tamer than the standard Talisker 10 Year Old. Don't get me wrong: Dark Storm is a pleasurable sipper; well-balanced and harmonious. I would not have named it "Dark Storm". It's more akin to an ocean-side sunset. I guess that name doesn't tell as bold a tale. The name Dark Storm projects an image of Jack Sparrow drinking his fill (since the rum is always gone), possibly using some of the whisky as a disinfectant in a pinch, all while sailing the Black Pearl through a hurricane. The flavour profile delivers a different, albeit satisfying, experience. Nevertheless, I'd advise you to try before you buy.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

May the winds of Fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me"

Slainte

Ratings may be interpreted as follows:

1 moustache: vodka. No flavour, just alcohol. Any whisky rated this poorly is to be avoided. 0-50 points
1.5 moustaches: Flavoured whisky. This stuff is not in my wheelhouse, or I find it to be really bad mixing whisky. 51-60 points
2 moustaches: best suited to mixing, not great neat, though it can be sipped in a pinch. 61-70 points
2.5 moustaches: Respectable mixing whisky. Acceptable if mediocre neat or on the rocks. 71-76 points
3 moustaches: Versatile whisky, above average quality. Good neat or in a cocktail 77-82 points
3.5 moustaches: Good quality sipper. Outstanding in a cocktail. 83-87 points
4 moustaches: Terrific sipping whisky. A personal favourite. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. 88-90 points
4.5 moustaches: Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. 91-94 points
5 moustaches: Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. 95-100 points

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Take It Easy, Bub: a review of Alberta Premium

Wolverine has always been my favourite comic book character. He isn't your typical goodie-two shoes, always doing the right thing, smiling while doing it. Wolverine's conflicted. He's got baggage. And he's got one hell of a temper, Bub. So when the first X-Men movie came out, I was thrilled to see Wolverine in the previews. While I found it odd that an unknown Aussie who stands six feet, three inches was taking on the role of the diminutive, hirsute mutant (Wolverine stands five feet, three inches in the comics), I had to admit that Hugh Jackman's hair and mutton chops were on fleek, as the kids say. The movie did not disappoint, with Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen being, well, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. But that Aussie guy, Hugh Jackman, really struck a chord with audiences. He was given more prominent roles in the X-Men sequels (some of which were disappointments) and even got his own Wolverine films. Fun fact: the Wolverine role in the first X-Men movie was offered to Russell Crowe. He turned it down and suggested film-makers offer the role to Jackman, whose wife thought it was "ridiculous". She advised him to turn it down. Luckily, he didn't. The role provided Jackman with 17 years of income, er, I mean, artistic fulfillment.

Jackman's final portrayal of Wolverine, in 2017's Logan, received overwhelmingly positive reviews (93% on Rotten Tomatoes) with the general consensus being that it was the best movie in the X-Men franchise. Despite my love for all things Wolverine, some of the films were not received as well as Logan.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was sneered at by just about every comic book geek and received a very poor 37% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The reasons for their ire are unimportant. While I admit Origins wasn't as strong as the first or final X-Men movies, I still enjoyed it. No, it didn't make me re-think the superhero genre, there were no big twists or shattering of standard tropes, but it was entertaining and Hugh Jackman was awesome. I mean, the guy legitimately looks like Wolverine. Yes, I know there's movie magic afoot. But some movies are best enjoyed as is, without further thought. The same goes for certain whiskies. So which is Alberta Premium? Is it Logan or Origins?

From the heart of Canada's Rye Country


Alberta Premium has truly Canadian origins, like Logan. Not only is it distilled in Alberta; this 100% rye whisky is distilled from rye grain grown in the Prairies. While it carries no age statement, the bulk of the whisky used in this bargain-priced offering is aged for five years, mainly in ex-bourbon barrels with some of the whisky aged in virgin oak barrels.  Much of the rye produced by Alberta Distillers is shipped across the border to the United States, where it is often finished in different barrels, bottled under various other brand names (like, say, WhistlePig), and marked up to a premium price. Suffice to say, the team at Alberta Distillers knows what they're doing.

Tasting notes


Nose: Toffee, rye bread, orange zest, oak notes (pepper, cloves)
Palate: very gentle whisky, pleasant if somewhat thin bodied, more toffee, some rye spice, red apples, and a touch of vanilla
Finish: short, drying, with bit of bite from the rye spices (cloves, mostly) and a bit of orange zest lingering.

Not super complex, but pleasant and enjoyable. I didn't bother adding water since it's bottled at 40% ABV and doesn't pack an overwhelming punch. In most instances, Alberta Premium is used  as a mixing whisky. However, I'd not hesitate to recommend this to a neophyte as their first neat sipper. The spice and heat aren't overwhelming and there is no overpowering solvent (read: nailpolish remover) aroma. It isn't an excessively challenging whisky, and there's just enough sweetness here to prevent a noob from reaching for some kind of flavoured whisky du jour nonsense. Salted Caramel "whisky"? Maple-infused "whisky"? No thanks. Alberta Premium could also fit the bill as a casual sipper, for days when you don't want to over-analyse what you're drinking like some nerdy, self-important, condescending amateur blogger with delusions of grandeur.

Alberta Premium is a very good whisky at a bottom shelf price. It isn't the Logan of the Canadian whisky world. It won't force you to re-evaluate the genre. But it isn't X-Men Origins: Wolverine either. I doubt this whisky will polarize anyone. I can't imagine anything this middle-of-the-road and balanced evoking any kind of visceral reaction from people. In many regards, it is the stereotypical Canadian; polite, balanced, sweet but not cloying, with just a little bite. You'd be remiss not to have this wonderfully outmoded bottle on your shelf, Bub. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

May the winds of Fortune sail you
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me"

Slainte !!

Ratings may be interpreted as follows:

1 moustache: vodka. No flavour, just alcohol. Any whisky rated this poorly is to be avoided. 0-50 points
1.5 moustaches: Flavoured whisky. This stuff is not in my wheelhouse, or I find it to be really bad mixing whisky. 51-60 points
2 moustaches: best suited to mixing, not great neat, though it can be sipped in a pinch. 61-70 points
2.5 moustaches: Respectable mixing whisky. Acceptable if mediocre neat or on the rocks. 71-76 points
3 moustaches: Versatile whisky, above average quality. Good neat or in a cocktail 77-82 points
3.5 moustaches: Good quality sipper. Outstanding in a cocktail. 83-87 points
4 moustaches: Terrific sipping whisky. A personal favourite. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. 88-90 points
4.5 moustaches: Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. 91-94 points
5 moustaches: Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. 95-100 points

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

How Blue Can You Get? A review of Blanton’s Gold Edition

I've been down-hearted baby, ever since the day we met
I said I've been down-hearted baby, ever since the day we met
Our love is nothing but the blues, Baby how blue can you get?

I love B.B. King. No guitarist ever said more with one note than B.B. No guitarist's tone, attack, and vibrato is as instantly recognizable as B.B. King's. And his voice? Don't get me started about the power and passion of B.B.'s voice. As an awkward twelve year old learning to play the guitar, I just wanted to be Slash, Eric Clapton, or Jimmy Page. That is until my guitar teacher showed me "where it all started". He played some blues CDs for me (yes, compact discs were a thing in the early 1990s), and I was floored. Buddy Guy was performing soaring vocal histrionics before anyone knew who Robert Plant was. Listen to "Leave My Girl Alone" if you need proof. Muddy Waters had swagger and a bad-ass attitude long before Mick Jagger claimed to be a "Street Fightin' Man". See "I'm Ready" if you don't believe me. Heck, The Rolling Stones lifted their name from a Muddy Waters song. But B.B. King, well, B.B. was just something else. 
He played many of the same blues standards as other blues artists, but everything B.B. did was just different. Now most blues music isn't renowned for its complexity. It's usually just three chords, and a few repeated patterns, but the raw emotion is what gets you. In fact, the sense of knowing what's coming next and still being impressed by it makes blues music all the more exciting. Now before this becomes a 10 000 word essay on the blues, or a hagiography of B.B. King, allow me to get to the point. No music is as purely American as the blues. And no spirit is as American as bourbon. Sure, for awhile there was bourbon made in Canada, but the fact remains that our Southern neighbours have produced THE greatest blues artists and the greatest bourbons. Without getting overly political, the blues is a unique art form that's a direct result of U.S. history. Bourbon is also the direct result of U.S. history, albeit for different reasons. However, both are criticized, rightly or wrongly, for being "repetitive" or "a lot of the same thing". I agree that both blues music and bourbon feature variations on the same theme (up to a certain point) but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, Mark Twain once quipped "Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough."

Blanton's Gold


Blanton's bourbon is distilled at the Buffalo Trace distillery. Buffalo Trace is a mega-giant, producing over 10 million litres of whiskey per year. That's about the same amount of spirit as The Glenlivet Distillery. What makes Blanton's bourbon special? Well, it's a single barrel bourbon, meaning each bottling batch is produced from the contents of a single aging barrel and not mixed with whiskey from any other barrels. It also means that each batch can vary significantly, depending on where it was stored in the warehouse. Blanton's uses Buffalo Trace Mash Bill number 2, which is thought to be 12-15% rye, 5% malted barley, and 80-83% corn. So while this is Buffalo Trace's "high rye" mash bill, it's a far cry from the rye bite of Four Roses Mash Bill B which contains 35% rye.

Tasting Notes


The following notes were gleaned from a single sample provided by a friend who is NOT associated with Blanton's or Buffalo Trace. Opinions are my own.

Blanton’s Gold 51.5% ABV, matured in Warehouse H, on Rick 29, from Barrel 328, Bottled 9/19/2014. The bottle was opened July 2016 and was 2/3 full when the sample was bottled April 18/2018

Nose(undiluted): a big hit of cinnamon and red apples, a bit of wood varnish, fresh tobacco, oak, cloves, vanilla, a little brown sugar
Palate(undiluted): a bit on the thin side with some waxiness, not at all hot for 103 Proof, toffee, rye bread, allspice
Finish: fresh, juicy red apples, rye spices, then cinnamon, a touch of vegetal mustiness lingers. The last note is a bit out of place, and while it doesn't dominate, it is distracting.

With water the rye really dominates the nose and the red apple is subdued. Curiously, the bourbon feels richer and thicker with water added, but the rye spices (nutmeg in particular) seem to dominate again on the palate. On the finish, the tart, juicy apples come back, but they’re followed by some sweet caramel and coconut flavours. The musty vegetal note disappears with the addition of water, but it’s hard to tell if the effect is from the added water or simply resting  time in the glass. But I think I prefer this one with a few drops of water.

Blanton's Gold reminds me a bit of blues music; there aren't a whole lot of surprises, not a ton of different notes, but still very pleasing. I wouldn't hesitate to buy a bottle of Blanton's Gold if it were readily available at a reasonable price. Sadly, with the LCBO being the LCBO, the odds of ANY whiskey being reasonably priced are somewhere between slim and none. Now there's a reason to sing the blues.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches
May the winds of Fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea.
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me".

Slainte !

Ratings may be interpreted as follows:

1 moustache: vodka. No flavour, just alcohol. Any whisky rated this poorly is to be avoided. 0-50 points
1.5 moustaches: Flavoured whisky. This stuff is not in my wheelhouse, or I find it to be really bad mixing whisky. 51-60 points
2 moustaches: best suited to mixing, not great neat, though it can be sipped in a pinch. 61-70 points
2.5 moustaches: Respectable mixing whisky. Acceptable if mediocre neat or on the rocks. 71-76 points
3 moustaches: Versatile whisky, above average quality. Good neat or in a cocktail 77-82 points
3.5 moustaches: Good quality sipper. Outstanding in a cocktail. 83-87 points
4 moustaches: Terrific sipping whisky. A personal favourite. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. 88-90 points
4.5 moustaches: Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. 91-94 points
5 moustaches: Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. 95-100 points