Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Reach For the Skye: A review of Talisker 10 Year Old Single Malt

It's easy to dismiss something popular. Mass appeal must equate to mediocrity, right? I mean, does any film critic think Toy Story is fine cinema, the equal of Bicycle Thieves? Doubtful. I was fifteen or sixteen when Woody and the gang entered our collective psyche, but I still remember deriving a guilty pleasure from the feel-good story. And Randy Newman's catchy "You've Got a Friend in Me" is arguably the best movie theme song ever. I'm sure I publicly derided the children's movie at the time, but I didn't mind watching it with my then eleven year-old brother. Fast forward to the present day, and I don't have to hide my enjoyment since I have three kids with whom I can enjoy the franchise. Well, two anyway. My oldest rolls his eyes at Woody's endearing "Howdy, Partner. You're my favourite deputy" quote. Is it possible that some things are popular because, well, they add something to our collective experience? Is it possible that some things endure because they are important, deserving and just darned good?

Reach for the sky(e) !!!
It seems anything associated with big corporations is unfairly labeled bad, bland or soulless. I've likely been guilty of these sweeping generalizations at times. While I'm sure massive multinationals don't need my pity, or my help, their products should not be  dismissed as  mediocre by default either. Within these big, "empty" machines, are passionate individuals. The individual artists who worked on Toy Story undoubtedly love their work and believe in what they're doing. I feel the same way about multinational-owned distilleries. Diageo and Beam-Suntory may be the big dogs of the liquor market, but the distilleries themselves employ individuals who put time, effort and pride into what they do. I'm all for keeping big business accountable in their practices, but I want to try and remain as objective as possible when discussing the product of others' labour.

*stepping down off my soap-box


Skye's the limit


In 1825, Hugh and Kenneth MacAskill moved to the Isle of Skye with their flock of  sheep. They leased land at Carbost where they built Talisker Distillery in 1830. Teetotaler and former parish Minister, Rev. Roderick Macleod strongly opposed the construction of the distillery. He declared whisky distilling  on Skye "one of the greatest curses that... could befall it or any other place". Macleod must have been fun at parties. He probably supplied the angry schoolmaster's vocal track for Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2." If ya don't eat yer meat, ya can't have any pudding. How can ya have any pudding if ya don't eat yer meat? In "The Scotsman's Return From Abroad", Robert Louis Stevenson refers to Talisker as "The king o' drinks, as I conceive it". Heady praise indeed. The distillery itself is unique. From www.thewhiskyexchange.com


Talisker's two wash stills, carefully recreated after the 1960 fire, are unique. The lye pipes leading off from the main neck are U-shaped, to trap vapours from the first distillation before they reach the outside worm tubs, whilst a small secondary copper pipe carries the vapours so trapped back to the wash stills for a second distillation.
Faithfully following the original design, it is believed that this double distillation ensures that all of Talisker’s rich, deep character is captured the first time. So there is, indeed, nothing withdrawn or reserved about Talisker – a fact confirmed for visitors whose first experience before they take the distillery tour, is a taste of the malt itself.

Can't make it out to the Isle of Skye this weekend? No problem. Using this link takes you to a Google Maps virtual tour of the distillery. Criticize Diageo (corporate owners of Talisker) all you want, that's a cool feature. Joining the "Friends of the Classic Malts" gives you free access to twelve of Diageo's distilleries AND a complimentary dram of their single malt. Not bad at all. But how does the "standard" Talisker 10 taste?

Tasting notes
Talisker 10 Year Old Single Malt
The king o' drinks


Nose (undiluted): brine, smoke, bonfire by the sea, dried leaves (tobacco?), mineral water, damp peat, pepper, this is one of the most inviting and unique noses I've encountered. You could spend hours simply nosing this beauty.

Palate (undiluted): medium to full-bodied and rich, white pepper, sea brine, smoke, vegetal yet subtly sweet peat drying fairly quickly, ginger notes 

Finish: medium-long, warming, peppery (though more like black pepper on the finish), more subtle ginger, subtle hints of ripe pear, lingering. You don't want this to end.



Adding a bit of water (1/2 teaspoon or approx. 2.5 ml) brings out more smoke on the nose and accentuates the seaweed and dried tobacco aromas. This is sublime. The white pepper is really thrust forward on the palate, developing to a nice, dry, vegetal peat with that ginger still hanging around. Talisker is great with or without water, but note that it's bottled at 45.8% ABV. Talisker is NOT for the faint of heart, nor is it a "beginner's whisky". But to someone who's never had Talisker, it is a must have. Calling this whisky exquisite is an understatement. This malt is complex and worth lingering over.

Conclusion


Diageo is the bête noire of many malt enthusiasts. They're often accused of "ruining malt whisky in the name of profit". This charactarization may contain a kernel of truth, it may be an exaggeration, or it may be outright false. I truly don't know enough about the whisky business to be pro or anti-Diageo, though they did answer my emails fairly quickly and honestly. I heard rumours that Talisker was no longer warehousing and aging their malts at the distillery on Skye. When I emailed them regarding this, I was informed that the Talisker distillery does not have the capacity to warehouse all the casks of spirit Talikser produces, therefore some of it is stored at other locations across Scotland. Now, you can accuse Diageo of misleading consumers with Talisker's "made by the sea" tagline, but they aren't hiding anything. If you don't know, just ask. Does warehousing the malt "off-site" affect its character? I don't know. The briny character of my Talisker suggests it doesn't, but I'm not an expert. All I know is I enjoyed this whisky. A lot. I'm not sure if it has usurped Lagavulin's position as my favourite whisky, but it is a legitimate contender to that title. Highly recommended.


Rating: 4/5 moustaches




Slainte mhaith !!



Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Swept Away: A review of Dave Broom's "The World Atlas of Whisky"

This week's post is a bit different. Rather than reviewing a whisky, I'm reviewing a book with a wider appeal than any whisky could ever hope to possess. Many whiskies have a polarizing effect on drinkers (Ardbeg, Johnnie Walker Blue Label), but this book will appeal to all, even those who don't drink whisky. Dave  Broom's stated goal when writing this book was to survey the world's whisky landscape. He provides the reader with information on the various whisky-producing regions, the different processes used for distilling whiskies and even tasting notes for hundreds of whiskies. While my edition of this book contains some out of date information, it's impossible for any book to be completely current. The whisky landscape is ever-changing and it's impossible for print to keep up.

A broad brush


First impressions


Before reading a single word M. Broom has written, take the time to leaf through this book and admire the photography. I realize it doesn't tell you anything about whisky, but it speaks to the caliber and quality of this tome. If the photos don't stir up your wanderlust, especially the photos of Islay, Ireland and Japan, M. Broom's prose certainly will. The section on "terroir" moves beyond whisky and into the realm of identity and, dare I say it, philosophy. I realize that M. Broom has a team of editors working with him, but this is simply great writing. Should you doubt his talent, spend some time watching this video (opens in a new window) of Dave Broom explaining some history and guiding a group through a whisky tasting. The man knows his stuff.

 

The Flavor Map


Putting whisky on the map
One of my favourite features of this book is the flavor map. Developed with  a group of distillers, the flavor map (my edition of this book adheres to American spelling conventions) helps those new to whisky describe, in broad categories, the flavour characteristics of whisky. It also helps you map out your preferences. The x-axis (East-West) goes from light to rich and the y-axis (North-South) goes from delicate to smoky. In his description of whiskies, the author refers to the map by describing which "flavor camp" a particular whisky falls into. For example, if you read the description of Lagavulin 16 Year Old (my personal favourite), you'll find it in the "Rich and Smoky" flavor camp. The Glenomorangie Original 10 Year Old is close to the center, but slightly on the rich and delicate side. Neither quadrant is "better" than any other. The graph is simply a useful reference point. Each whisky is categorized into a flavor camp even if it is not represented on the visual map.

Also of note


Lagavulin Bay, Islay, Scotland
This is where happiness is made
The author has taken it upon himself to act as your guide. The book begins with some clear, well-explained diagrams of the various distillation processes of the world's different whiskies. This makes for some interesting comparisons and allows the reader to better understand their favourite drink. In every section  (and even sub-section in the case of Scotland), you get a bit of a history and geography lesson on the region as well as the distillery. This helps you better understand and enjoy whisky. A whisky is not simply a product, but an expression of time, place and yes, identity. Japanese distillers were strongly influenced by the Scottish distillation process (the first two Japanese distillers, Masataka Taketsuru and Shinjiro Torii, completed apprenticeships in Scotland in 1918) but Japanese whisky is not mere imitation. It reflects the Japanese fusion of old and new, of respecting tradition while championing innovation. Full disclosure: I've never tasted a Japanese whisky, much to my chagrin, but after reading the section on Japan, I could almost smell the aromas and taste the flavours of Hakushu, Yamazaki, Nikka, and Hibiki., such is the strength of M. Broom's writing. As much as I'd like to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, it won't likely happen any time soon. This chapter certainly furthered my interest in trying their whisky, if nothing else.

Broom goes beyond description and recommends a "next step" at the end of each series of tasting notes. For example, if you read his description of the Talisker 10 Year Old (an absolutely wonderful malt), you'll notice that his recommendation for "where to next?" is Springbank 10 Year Old (another delightful scotch). These malts share similar characteristics. This thoughtful feature allows you to build and develop your palate while knowing you won't be too shocked by what you find. Someone who has tasted naught but Glenfiddich 12 would undoubtedly feel overwhelmed by a Laphroaig 10 Year Old (aptly described on their site as a "Peaty Slap in the Face"). Someone who enjoys something as smooth as Redbreast 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey might be put off by the spicy rye flavour of Alberta Premium. Dave Broom's encyclopedic knowledge is here to guide you along.

Final thoughts


Whisky can be intimidating and confusing. Many want to try it, but don't know where to begin. Not only has Dave Broom included a "How to drink whisky" (really) section in his book, but his hints and advice guide you seamlessly through your journey. Even those who don't like uisge beatha ( roughly pronounced ooska va) will find the history and descriptions fascinating, informative and eminently enjoyable. If you only purchase one book about whisky (and you should have at least one) it should be this one. Highly recommended.


Rating: 5/5 moustaches




Slainte mhaith !

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

My kingdom for a horse ! A review of Alberta Premium Dark Horse.

Canada's international reputation for good whisky is equal to its reputation for good rap. Exhibit A: "Rock'em Sock'em Techno" by Don Cherry.



You can see why Canadian rap (and Canadian whisky) is often the butt of jokes. Yet Canada is too polite to resort to insults and Canadians tend to grin and bear it. People praise Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, Bourbon whiskey, Tennessee whiskey and even Japanese whisky, but tell someone "This is the best Canadian whisky I've ever had" and they're apt to ask "yeah, but is it any good?" and guffaw loudly at their own aweless jape. But is this reputation for awful imitation warranted ? Is Canadian whisky good for anything other than mixing with Ginger Ale or Coke? Since Christmas 2016, I've tried my best to broaden my whisky horizons by trying more Canadian whiskies.


A very brief history of Canadian whisky


In his excellent book "The World Atlas Of Whisky", Dave Broom (with the help of Davin de Kergommeaux) describes Canada as "the whisky world's sleeping giant." In fact, up until very recently, Canada was the second largest whisky producer in the world (after Scotland). But various tax policies, by political parties of all stripes, have taken their toll on the Canadian distilling industry. Most Canadian whiskies are blends which contain a large percentage of corn spirit, and are typically lighter and smoother than other whisky styles. When Canadian distillers began adding small amounts of rye grain to their mash bills, people began referring to it simply as "rye". Today the terms "rye", "rye whisky" and "Canadian whisky" are used interchangeably here in the Great White North. Those terms all refer to the same product, which, incidentally, is usually made with only a small amount of rye grain. Canada's Food and Drugs Act require that whisky labeled as "Canadian Whisky", "Canadian Rye Whisky" or "Rye Whisky" be mashed, distilled and aged at least three years in Canada in wood barrels not exceeding 700 L capacity. During Prohibition in the United States, the Canadian whisky business was booming. Distilleries like the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario were a frequent stop for bootleggers.

A Dark Horse enters the race



Alberta Premium Dark Horse Canadian Whisky
Is this what Katy Perry was singing aboot ?
So what is this stuff? Alberta Premium is known in Canada for their high rye content. In fact, the "stock" Alberta Premium is made from 100% rye. Spicy stuff. It is also available exclusively in Canada. The Dark Horse, however, was available in the United States under the name "Dark Batch" for awhile, though I'm unsure if it still is. Dark Horse is a unique whisky. While some whiskies (and rums) are aged in ex-sherry casks for added fruity sweetness, Dark Horse has sherry added direclty into the mix. What? Heresy!!! Anathema ! Abomination ! Alright, let's calm down a bit. Why would Alberta Premium do this? Why to save money, of course ! What do you think happens when a single malt scotch is aged in ex-sherry casks? The sherry that had infused the wood is "re-released" into the whisky. The folks at Alberta Premium are saving you some money (and saving themselves some time). So it's just 99% rye and 1 % sherry? Well, not exactly. According to canadianwhisky.org, Dark Horse is a  "mingling of 12-year-old rye whisky and 6-year-old small pot rye, it has an 8% dollop of well-aged corn whisky added to flesh out the body. The whisky is aged in heavily charred American white oak barrels, and is bottled at 45% alc/vol." Dark Horse also contains 0.5%-1.0% sherry wine by volume. Rumour has it that the 8% corn whiskey is in fact Old Grand-Dad's Bourbon.


Tasting notes


Nose (undiluted): brown sugar, vanilla, toffee, raisins, rye, herbal notes
Palate (undiluted): a very bourbon-like arrival of vanilla and toffee, developing to brown sugar, maple, peppery rye, dark fruits (dates? dark cherries?)
Finish:  medium finish, rye spiciness, developing to an almost Dr. Pepper/Cherry-Coke flavour (in the most pleasant way)  

Adding water did NOT improve this whisky at all. In fact, with water most of the subtlety was lost and Dark Horse simply tasted like watered-down rye. I do NOT recommend drinking this with water. Others, including the venerable Mr. Broom, disagree. In his book, Mr. Broom gets more cherry-type fruitiness by adding water to Dark Horse. Perhaps our palates are different, or maybe mine is simply not as developed as Mr. Broom's. Probably the latter. Dark Horse does very well neat, or perhaps in a rye and coke. I'm just guessing about the latter since I don't drink rye and coke, but Dark Horse's finish leads me to believe it would work.


Conclusion


Don't let bad jokes and ridicule sway you from trying Canadian whiskies. There are some very good ones out there (or should that be "oot there"?) and they are priced very competitively. I think I payed $30 for my bottle of Dark Horse. It's better than any bourbon at that price and can compete with most budget blended scotches, especially for those who don't like smoke or peat. Definitely a winner.


Rating: 3/5 moustaches



Cheers, eh !



Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Experience Is the Best Teacher: A Review of Teacher's Highland Cream Blended Scotch Whisky

Value is an interesting word. It's a word everyone knows yet uses differently, like the words irony or fairness. Or intelligence. "Value" has moral connotations, economic implications and highly subjective personal meaning. When speaking of "value" as it pertains to cars, clothes or even whisky, most tend to interpret "good value" to mean "good quality....for something very cheap".  As in "the Honda Fit offers really great value". Others hear "good value" and interpret it as "low quality, but not expensive". Like the nameless hard candy your grandmother kept in a crystal dish in her living room. You know, the candies that stuck together and cut the roof of your mouth if you successfully pried one out and  dared to eat it. It's unfortunate that we  sometimes  equate "value" with "cheap" because Teacher's Highland Cream is a very interesting "value-priced" blended whisky, unlike that teacher from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" who was NOT very interesting. Come to think of it, I think that guy was my Grade 11 Biology teacher.

What's in Teacher's? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

 In their own words


It is said that William Teacher would not give his name to his blend until he had found perfection. Highland Cream is that whisky. It uses fully smoked peat single malt whisky from The Ardmore distillery as its fingerprint whisky. This gives it incredible depth and smoothness combined with a rich smokey undertone. Truly a masterpiece.


Experience is the best teacher
The above is taken directly from the Teacher's website. Masterpiece? That must be a bit of an exaggeration, right? I mean, we're talking about a blended whisky that sells for $26 CAD in Ontario. How good could it REALLY be? You might be surprised. Back in 2000, Whisky Magazine's Michael Jackson (not "Thriller" Michael Jackson) rated Teacher's 8.5 out of 10. Jim Murray gave it a 90 out of 100 in his Whisky Bible. Even the notoriously tough Ralfy Mitchell gave Teacher's a very respectable 84 out of 100 (Blend mark). That's the same 84 (blend mark) that Ralfy gave to Johnnie Walker Platinum 18 Year Old. And the Johnnie Walker Platinum sells for $150. Is Teacher's that good? Is Johnnie Walker platinum that ordinary? Are these guys just chasing controversy? Speaking of controversy, there was apparently some controversy when Teacher's changed their blend formulation a few years back. Some swear that the new expression is terrible, evil, and proof that end times are nigh. A little dramatic perhaps. I've had quite a few bottles of Teacher's and I have liked them all. However, I haven't had it often enough to confirm or deny the Grampa Simpson-like fist shaking and shouting "the old one was better because it's old and so am I !!!"


Tasting notes


Nose (undiluted): honey, pears, light smoke and peat, grain
Palate (undiluted): medium bodied, a big hit of honey, vanilla, toffee, apples, and a bit of peat smoke
Finish: medium finish, the peat and smoke come to the forefront, with a hint of  black pepper and finally giving way to malt sweetness (oatmeal?) with some oak lingering.


Adding water toned down the smoke a bit and allowed more fruitiness to come through, specifically peach notes along with a little nuttiness. I didn't like adding water to it at first, but the practice has grown on me. For an inexpensive (not "cheap", there is a difference) blend, the flavour develops very nicely after the bottle has been opened for a few weeks. Adding ice just killed all the flavour, so I don't recommend doing that.


Conclusion


Depending on your preferences, this may be the best "value-priced" whisky around. It's got a nice balance of peat, sweet and even a little heat on the finish. If you don't like peat or smoke, I'd recommend Whyte & Mackay Special Blend as a value-priced blended whisky as it's far more sherry-like and fruity. I can't rate Teacher's as highly as Jim Murray or Michael Jackson, so maybe there really is some validity to the "it used to be better" argument. Nevertheless, at $26 CAD, I highly recommend you get a bottle of Teacher's and learn a thing or two about value.

Rating: 3/5 moustaches

*I've reconsidered my position and I'm awarding this a full 3 mustaches

Slaìnte mhaith !