Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Much Ado About Bottling: A Review of Black Bottle

The item in question

 "Let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me."

Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, Scene III

Scotch drinkers are a curious bunch. From the highly specific and odd vocabulary used to describe their drink of choice (cigar ash? carbolic soap? smoked kippers, anyone?) to their strong opinions on caramel colouring, "malt-heads" can come across as fickle, fussy, and some might say downright pretentious. But these discriminating tastes and expectations are reserved for pricey single malts, right? Changing the formulation of an inexpensive blended scotch could never cause dissension in the scotch whisky community, right? It appears as though an inexpensive blend CAN be as conniving as a Shakespearean antagonist. To some, the "new" Black Bottle is the scotch equivalent of Don John; intent on ruining the happiness, not of Hero and Claudio, but of those who loved the previous, peat-rich version of this dram.

the don john of whisky
Keanu smiles at no man's jests


Full disclosure: I never tasted the previous, smoke and peat-rich version of Black Bottle. I will be judging this blend on its own merits. Hopefully the more experienced scotch-sippers will not think me a starry-eyed Claudio. Alright, enough with the Shakespeare already !

Gordon Graham's Black Bottle is an intriguing blended whisky. It claims to be "smooth, rich and slightly smoky". We'll get to those claims in a moment. For the 2013 bottling, owners Burn Stewart elected to return the brand to its 1879 roots, complete with a return to the "old style" black bottle. This is the reason, according to the fine people over at The Whisky Exchange, that there is less of a focus on peated Islay whiskies in the blend. Some of the critics claim that Burn Stewart could no longer afford to keep Islay malts in the blend while keeping the price of Black Bottle down. I don't work for Burn Stewart, so I shan't speculate on the matter.

Here are my tasting notes (undiluted):

Nose: Oak, green apple, brown sugar, acetone notes, slight citrus in the background

Palate: caramel, oak, milk chocolate, nutmeg, nuttiness (almonds?)

Finish: more caramel, oak, a touch of cinnamon and lingering nuttiness, maybe a hint of saltiness.

Adding a teaspoon of distilled water toned down the sweetness and allowed more spice (nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger) to come through on the palate. With the whisky diluted, I was able to detect some slight smoke and peat on the finish, but it was incredibly faint. Your experience may differ.

Overall thoughts

When consumed neat, I did not find this whisky "slightly smoky". I could not find any peat or smoke in this blend until I diluted it with water. I did not find it overly biting or spicy, though adding water brought out some spice. I would place this scotch firmly in the "sweet" category, appropriate for an after-dinner drink. That said, this is a great value for the money. While it's not the most complex blend I've ever tried, it is inexpensive yet does not taste cheap. It tastes young (which it is), but that's not unusual for a blend in this price range. This scotch is very smooth and easy to drink. Be warned: you're wandering into a minefield if you ask blend-loving malt-heads what they think of this new Black Bottle. Some are still irate that the peat and smoke are gone from the "new" version, though this version is now in its fourth year, so it isn't all that new. With Islay Mist 8 Year Old residing in the same price range as Black Bottle, I fail to see how this newer, less peaty version is a problem. If you want a budget blend with smoke and peat, get some Islay Mist 8. Judging Black Bottle on its own merits, I award this wallet-friendly blend a solid two moustaches.

Rating: 2/5 Moustaches


Slainte !

Monday, 24 April 2017

Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Scotch....but were too lazy to Google

Highland. Speyside. Lowland. Islay. Campbeltown. Islands. Whence cometh these appellations? Well, besides being geographic areas of Scotland, they are the six whisky producing regions of Scotland. There used to be four. Some say there are only five. Some say "there can be only one". No wait, that's Highlander. Fret not, ladies and gentlemen, I'll explain. Each region's whisky has its general characteristics, but variations within each area can be significant. Below you'll find some history and descriptions of each region. Kindly note that my opinions are just that: personal opinions. Oh, and like a good scholar, I've even cited my sources at the end. My university professors would be so proud.

Actual photo from my undergrad days

A Very Brief (and mostly true) History of Scotch


Scotch whisky evolved from an elixir known as uisge beatha, which means "water of life". How fitting, since I'm pretty sure uisge beatha is what confered immortality upon Connor Macleod. Maybe. The earliest documented record of distillation in Scotland was in 1494, as recorded in the Exchequer Rolls (records of royal income and expenditure). A friar produced enough uisge beatha for about 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distillation was well-established by the late 15th century. The dram was used as medicine and as a "reviver" during the cold, Scottish winters.

Scotch whisky was first taxed in 1644, leading to an increase in illicit whisky distilling. It was also the year the Scots army marched on York and joined Parliament's army. I'm not saying the whisky taxes caused the revolt...but I'm not saying they're unrelated.




By 1780, there were approximately 400 illegal distilleries in Scotland. If you've ever visited Scotland, and I haven't, you may notice that some distilleries are in remote locations. There's a good chance this was done to avoid frequent visits from the taxman, the lawman, and obnoxious neighbours. The modern era of scotch distilling was ushered in by the Excise Act of 1823. The Act eased restrictions and regulations on licensed distilleries and made it harder for the illegals to operate. In 1824, George Smith founded The Glenlivet, and was the first man to obtain a legal distilling license in Scotland. His friend the Duke of Gordon was kind enough to gift Smith two pistols for protection, as Smith was hated and was often threatened for going against popular sentiment. The pistols are still on display at The Glenlivet distillery's visitor centre. Perhaps I'll start a GoFundMe campaign to pay for my trip to examine the aforementioned pistols. You know, for educational purposes.


George Smith's pistols

The Regions


The Highlands


This is the largest geographical whisky producing region in Scotland. There is quite a variety among the flavours of Highland whiskies, owing to the way the soil, water and proximity to the ocean all combine to affect taste. Highland malts are often smoky, though not nearly as smoky as Islay malts. They are sweet, but not as sweet as Speyside whiskies. Most are light to medium bodied and tend to have a dry finish. Well-known Highland Malts include Oban, Ardmore, Glendronach, Dalmore, Ben Nevis and Old Pulteney. Contrary to popular Hollywood opinion, there can NOT be only one.

It's pronounced "PUHLT-knee"

Speyside


Speyside was once considered part of the Highlands, but like a blue-faced Mel Gibson, it cried out "FREEDOOOOOOMMMMMMM !!!!" and seceded from the yoke of Highland oppression. Ok, maybe it wasn't that dramatic. "The Speyside region was defined in The Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009.  Under the new regulations, distilleries including Glendronach, Ardmore, Tomatin, Macduff, anCnoc and Royal Brackla, previously considered by many to be Speyside distilleries, became officially classed as Highland." (taken from The Whisky Exchange) The Speyside region, which gets its name from the River Spey, houses more than 60 distilleries, the most in any area of Scotland. Speysides generally fall into two categories: smooth and sweet or light and fruity. Rich malts like The Macallan, Glenrothes and The Balvenie are examples of the first type while The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich are typical of the second.
Was this the founding of Aberlour?

 Lowland


Most Lowland malts end up in blends. They are typically much lighter and fruitier than other scotches. As a general rule, Lowland malts are not peated. A few distilleries still produce single malts from this area. With Lowland scotch you shouldn't expect a big, bold taste, but rather something light and smooth; an ideal breakfast pre-dinner dram. Distilleries still producing single malts are Auchentoshan, Bladnoch and Glenkinchie. If you don't like big peat or smoke, a Lowland scotch might be your thing. I found Auchentoshan 12 a little too mild for my taste. Not bad or unpleasant in any way, but not remarkable. Kind of like mild salsa. Or Brendan Fraser. Then again, Auchentoshan 12 is an "entry-level" single malt. I've not tried any of their older (i.e. more expensive) expressions. I would have no problem recommending Auchentoshan 12 to someone new to single malt whisky. Or to someone who liked Encino Man.

Islands


Ok, so the Islands are not an officially designated whisky region. They're technically classified as Highland malts, but I'm told they resent this subservience the way a third of the Québécois population resents being a part of Canada. Whiskies from the Islands tend to be peatier and smokier than other Highland malts, often with a note of brine on the finish, but they aren't as bold or powerful as their sisters on Islay (with the possible exception of Talisker). Islands scotches are Venus to Islay's Serena. Island distilleries include Highland Park, Isle of Jura, Talisker and Ledaig.

You're good, Islands, but Serena, er I mean Islay is just better

Islay


The "Queen of the Hebrides" IS an officially designated whisky region. Owing to its harsh, stormy climate and flat, peaty terrain, most Islay (pronounced EYE-la) scotches are generally smoky, peaty and dry. Islay's smoky style comes from malting the barley over burning peat. This imparts flavours known as phenols. The smoky Islay malts can overpower the unsuspecting and inexperienced enthusiast. Islay is the Daenerys Targaryen of regions, savvy? There are seven active distilleries on Islay, each producing whiskies so wonderful you might not realize how easily they can kick your ass and steal your lunch money. Note that two Islay distilleries (Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain) do produce some unpeated malts. Peated Islay whiskies are not for the faint of heart. The seven active distilleries on Islay are Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila (cool-EYE-la or cool-EEL-ah), Bruichladdich (uhm, go with "brook-LADDY"), Bunnahabhain (BOON-a-ha-bin), Bowmore, and Kilchoman (kill-HOE-man or kill-OH-man). The Port Ellen distillery "went silent" back in 1983. Islays are my favourite whiskies.

Don't underestimate Islay, lest you get burned

Campbeltown


There were once over 30 producers in this region, there are now only three: Glen Scotia, Glengyle and Springbank. Whisky video blogger extraordinaire Ralf "Ralfy" Mitchell claims that "Springbank is Scotland's finest distillery, bar none". That's a bold claim. Of course, Ralfy strongly objects to caramel colouring (Springbank doesn't use any) and chill-filtering (Springbank is unchilfiltered) because they are "not natural". I like and respect Ralfy but in my humble opinion, the "not natural" argument is irrelevant. Whisky Jedi Sir Richard Paterson insists that many tests have been done and that caramel colouring and chill-filtering do NOT affect the taste of whisky. Some insist that chill-filtering changes the texture or body of the whisky. Distilleries don't release the same expression with and without caramel colouring, or chill-filtered and unchilfiltered. Ergo, we will never be able to compare these processes directly, rendering this a moot point. Now you could argue that caramel colouring and chill-filtering are purely cosmetic and are therefore unnecessary. And in this case, I'd probably agree with you. Most people who are concerned with a consistent appearance are probably drinking cheaper blends (many of which are fine whiskies, btw) and not high-priced single malts. Single malt afficionados tend to cherish diversity and variation, even with different bottles of the same expression. Campbeltown malts are usually full-bodied, with toffee, vanilla, smoke, peat, and a briny finish. From all the chatter on whisky blogs, it appears as though the malts coming out of this area are the real deal. The only down side for those of us in Ontario is that these whiskies can be hard to find. That said, if you can find a bottle in stock at an LCBO elsewhere in the province (check online), your local LCBO can often have it brought in for you. As much as I criticize the LCBO, I feel it is fair to point out the things they do well. No need to drive across the province to buy a bottle of Springbank 10 Year Old.


campbeltown whisky
As scarce as hen's teeth

So there you have it: the important stuff you need to know about scotch. If you have any questions you don't feel like Googling, don't hesitate to drop me a line. If you got a kick out of this little article, please share it with others.

Slainte mhaith !

Sources

1. Scotch Malt Whisky http://www.scotchmaltwhisky.co.uk/
2. Master of Malt https://www.masterofmalt.com/
3. The Whisky Exchange https://www.thewhiskyexchange.com/
4. Whisky Advocate http://whiskyadvocate.com/
6. Scotch Whisky Association http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/

Friday, 21 April 2017

Why so serious? A review of Laphroaig Select

When is a door not a door? When it's ajar. Drum roll. Why the lame dad joke? Identity seems to be a recurring theme in politics, literature....and in scotch whisky. Laphroaig has built its reputation on its incredibly smoky, peated whiskies. In fact, the Islay distillery brands itself as "the most richly flavoured of all scotch whiskies". Their signature 10 year old malt is described by a reviewer on their website as "smokier than Darth Vader's funeral pyre". The description is apt. So perhaps it isn't completely surprising that their "Select" expression is causing a bit of a stir among the brand faithful. Many scotch enthusiasts are angry and suspicious, often with good reason, of NAS (No Age Statement) whiskies. Some Laphroaigophiles' (yeah, I just made up a word, so what?) reaction to this lighter offering from Laphroaig is a bit over the top. Seriously folks, it's not as though the PTA has disbanded. Everyone needs to take a deep breath and calm down. Laphroaig 10 is still available. It is easily distinguished from Laphroaig Select by following these 8 steps:

  1. Go to the LCBO (or your local purveyor of fine alcohols)
  2. Curse the inflated prices*.
  3. Go to the scotch section.
  4. Repeat step 2.
  5. Pick up a bottle of Laphroaig.
  6. Read the bottle.
  7. If it says Laphroaig Select, it is NOT Laphroaig 10.
  8. If it says Laphroaig 10, it is Laphroaig 10.
Ceci n'est pas un Laphroaig 10

The backstory


Let me tell you a little story. My parents spend a good portion of their winter in the United States. As such, they can obtain alcohol at a much lower price than I can (even after fully complying with every international law and tariff). After asking me to name some scotches I like, they chanced upon a bottle of Laphroaig Select on sale for about $39 USD. During one of our weekly FaceTime sessions, my father showed me the bottle and asked "is this a good one?" to which I replied "I've never had it, but it's Laphroaig so it must be good". Then, like any obsessive and impatient man-child, I proceeded to Google the hell out of this dram. I was NOT expecting a scotch to cause more anger, bitterness and resentment than the last American Presidential election. It seems I was mistaken. Actual comments include the following:
  • "This is a betrayal of a once-great distillery" 
  • "Why are you trying to kill your brand with this rubbish?"
  • "This is a rip-off. A pale imitation of the real thing."
  • "This is very sad. The Laphroaig brand has died."
Less controversial than Laphroaig Select
Allow me to retort to those deriding this particular Laphroaig expression. Poppycock. Balderdash. Horsefeathers. Or in the now-famous words of the current POTUS: Wrong. Laphroaig Select is NOT Laphroaig 10. But then, it never claimed to be. Reading the Laphroaig website informs us that Select is matured in six different casks for a lighter, more laid-back offering from the Islay distillery. Make no mistake: the smoke and peat are still present. If you've never had an Islay malt, let alone a Laphroaig, you still might find Select overwhelming. But if you've tried Islay Mist 8 and liked what was on offer, you might start exploring Islay single malts with this Laphroaig (or with a Bowmore 12 if you like a little more sweetness).
 
 

My experience with Laphroaig Select

 
 
The colour is a bit lighter, as the fine folks at Laphroaig have not added any caramel colouring to this whisky. Some people care about that kind of thing: I do not, so this is a non-issue for me. The nose (smell) is distinctly smoky and peaty with undertones of sherry and green apple. Very pleasing. The palate (taste) is peat, ginger, vanilla, nutmeg at first, then developing dried fruit (sherry? dates?) undertones with some pine  and ash taking over, albeit not overpowering. The finish is peat and smoke with hints of oak, medicinal notes (iodine?), coffee and ash. Furthermore, adding a touch of distilled water "opened" different flavours in this dram, highlighting some different characteristics, especially the subtle fruitiness. Having imbibed enough of this whisky to form an opinion, I don't understand what all the fuss is about. I prefer the Quarter Cask (one of my absolute favourites) and the Ten (my favourite Laphroaig) to the Select, but this is a respectable whisky. It may be fair to say that Select is overpriced compared to Quarter Cask (Select retails at $78.20 and QC goes for $86.20) , but some may prefer this lighter expression to the bold QC. If you blindfolded an Islay malt lover and gave them a dram of Select, I'd bet dollars to donuts they'd speak highly of its lovely balance. But tell them it's from Laphroaig and all of a sudden, it's identity politics, murder and betrayals. It's not life and death, it's scotch. It's supposed to be fun. It would be a boring world indeed if every scotch was the same, or if distilleries only produced ONE expression. Keep an open mind. Relax. Have a drink (if you're of legal drinking age and won't be operating a motor vehicle). Don't act like you're Groundskeeper Willie and you've just found out that there is no such thing as Scotchtoberfest. Laphroaig Select is a fine addition to this iconic brand.





 
 
Rating: 3/5 Moustaches 
 
The reaction of some online reviewers
DAMN YOU LAPHROAIG !!! DAAAAAAMN YOUUUUU!!!
 *The LCBO claims that prices are kept high enough to "discourage excessive consumption", among other reasons. You know, as a social responsibility. You are too impulsive, too childish, too unreliable to regulate your own alcohol consumption. If a bottle of Lagavulin 16 was $90 instead of $125, pandemonium might ensue in Ontario. Prices have gone up since my last blog entry, rendering my price brackets inaccurate. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Moustache Rating System Explained

Before I begin reviewing scotches (and possibly other whiskies), I suppose I should explain my entirely subjective rating system. All opinions expressed herein are the sole purview of this blog's author. Your enjoyment of a particular scotch may differ from mine. I have chosen the moustache over the star, as the moustache represents manliness, civility, dignity and fortitude, like great scotch should. Also, many great men throughout history have sported moustaches: Ron Swanson, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sam Elliott, Carl Weathers, well, you get the point. "But what about great women?" you ask. Shouldn't scotch be "womanly" as well? Well, I'm a man, so I'm not in a position to decide who the world's greatest women are, nor can I dictate what is or is not "womanly". Scotch can be both manly and womanly. It is an equal opportunity spirit. I realize that the whisky professionals use a more precise scale, based on 100 possible points (points awarded for colour, nose, palate, finish, body, smugness, self-importance, etc.), but I'm going with a simpler, albeit less precise 5 point scale. I've even included totally subjective celebrity equivalents for each level.
The 'stache abides


Five moustaches

This is the highest possible rating. I haven't even tasted a five-moustache scotch yet. "But Joe, you said Lagavulin 16..." Yes. Yes I did. But there are quite a few scotches I haven't tried yet and I'm trying to stay open-minded. I'd imagine Lagavulin 21, Highland Park 25, Bowmore 25 and Dalmore Selene 58 would earn a perfect score. This is the stuff of legends. Celebrity equivalents: Audrey Hepburn and Ella Fitzgerald


Probably a 5 moustache malt:
Dalmore Selene 58 Year Old valued at approx $35 000 USD

Four and a half moustaches

This is Lagavulin 16. Any scotch that earns four and a half moustaches is as good as Lagavulin 16. That's incredible. Do NOT use this scotch to make mixed drinks. I would not use ice in a scotch at this level (but you do what you want). Add a little water, if anything. A scotch this good will make your moustache grow a moustache. An undisputed champion. Celebrity equivalents: Robert Redford and Meryl Streep

Happiness in a Glencairn glass


Four moustaches

Wonderful scotch. This is a dram you should drink neat, or with a bit of water. There's a good chance it's not cheap, so you probably won't drink this every day. A four-moustache scotch will please all but the most discerning (read: fussy and nitpicky) scotch enthusiast. Examples from my personal taste would be Oban 14, Laphroaig 10, Craigellachie 17 and Aberlour A'Bunadh. Always a crowd pleaser. Celebrity equivalents:  Helen Mirren and Denzel Washington.

Don't trust anyone who doesn't like Oban




Three and a half moustaches

Respectable. Eminently drinkable. Mix this in a Rob Roy or Rusty Nail if you absolutely must, but these scotches should be enjoyed on their own. I'd prefer you didn't mix these with anything save perhaps good friends and a nice cigar. An after-work dram or an end of the week treat. Glenmorangie 10, Aberlour 12, Bowmore 12 and Ledaig 10 exemplify this level. Scotches at this level are unfairly underrated by many people. Celebrity equivalents: Tilda Swinton and Alexander Siddig


Wonderful indeed



Three moustaches

These scotches are good, not great. Or, rather, not great for all tastes. Full disclosure: I've never had a scotch I HATED. These are often reasonably priced, but you may still want to try before you buy. Johnnie Walker Black Label, Glenlivet 12, Auchentoshan 12 all fall into this category. You may find this category hit and miss. Celebrity equivalents: Edward Norton and Halle Berry.

Still respectable


Two and a half moustaches

You're now firmly in "budget blend" territory. Nothing wrong with that. You can mix these, drink them neat or on the rocks. Two and a half-moustache scotches still have some character. Think Islay Mist 8 (my budget go-to), Teacher's Highland Cream, and Té Bheag (chey vek) in this bracket. Many of these scotches do one thing pretty well. Celebrity equivalents: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Melissa McCarthy.

It's not a "tea bag"



Two moustaches


Budget blends with a bit less character than the category above. These are ideal for a Rusty Nail, Rob Roy, or a Godfather. Ballantine's Finest and J&B Rare fit the bill here. These are reliable, talented supporting cast members, but not megastars themselves. You will, however, find them pretty much everywhere. Celebrity equivalents: Mary Steenburgen and Kevin Bacon.

Don't let the name fool you:
it's not that rare


One and a half moustaches

I'm not sure I would ever rate a scotch this low, but I like giving myself some wiggle room. This would be a scotch that has an unpleasant taste, unsuitable even for mixing unless there is absolutely nothing else available. The taste of a scotch this poorly rated is as appealing as the $8 sixty-ouncer of rye whisky you buy at the duty-free shop. Its taste makes you wonder what the hell went wrong. Celebrity equivalents: Gary Busey and Randy Quaid.

The face you'll make drinking this scotch



One moustache

Irish whiskey. Avoid*.


A "good" Irish whiskey:
for $100 you could just buy Ardbeg

*I kid, I kid. I know a lot of people like Irish whiskey. I've had really good Irish whiskey. I like single pot still whiskey. I just can't bring myself to spend big bucks on "the good" Irish whiskey on the regular when I can get a really nice scotch at that price point. And while you CAN get inexpensive Irish whiskey, Jameson is not even comparable to Teacher's, in my opinion. Please don't get too worked up over a little joke.

Slainte mhaith !!