Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Catcher Sans the Rye: A review of Maker's Mark

"Because you never get a second chance to make a first impression". So goes the tagline for a 1980s anti-dandruff shampoo commercial. It's catchy, and the smiling faces lend credence to the assertion, but I'm not sure it's true. Well, I guess it's technically true, but the idea that first impressions become permanent opinions is flawed. When J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" was released, critics panned the novel for its use of "vulgar language", for undermining "family values", and for its "promotion of blasphemy and promiscuity." Despite the criticisms (or perhaps because of them) readers embraced the novel. Holden Caulfield became iconic of teenage rebellion, of a struggle for identity in a world where "traditional" values were shifting. I mean, Elvis Presley was singing (stealing?) black music on television and gyrating his hips ! Ach du lieber !! Won't someone think of the children ??!!



Despite criticism, despite being banned or censored for "being a communist plot" (really!), "The Catcher in the Rye" endures and has sold more than 65 million copies. That's more than "Twilight" !! With all of this talk of censorship and mystique surrounding the book, you'd think I would have been thrilled to read it. But my first impression of the book when I read it as a teenager (in the mid-1990s) was disappointment. It wasn't bad, but it didn't live up to the talk surrounding it. At least, not to my 16 year old brain. I'm not sure how apt my literary sensibilities were at the time. Things have changed somewhat in the intervening years. I have read Salinger's classic a few more times and I've gained an appreciation for its importance to the modern American literary canon. It's still not my favourite American novel, but I like it more than I did at first. My experience with Maker's Mark, the ubiquitous wheated bourbon, is similar to my experience with Holden Caulfield.

What is a Wheated Bourbon?


If you recall from my review of Four Roses Single Barrel, bourbon’s mash bill (mix of grains cooked and fermented together) must contain at least 51% corn in its mix. As bourbon ages, the corn notes tend to fade into a general sweetness. Barley is used for the enzymes it contains. These enzymes convert starches to sugar, which the yeast feeds on. While the barley adds some flavour to a bourbon, it’s primary used for fermentation purposes.

Last but not least are the flavouring grains. Rye is used to add flavor to bourbons; it brings a unique spicy note to the whiskey and flavours of pepper, clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. Wheat is different. While not as bold as rye, wheat allows more of the corn's sweetness, as well as vanilla (and often coconut) notes from the barrel to come through. So a wheated bourbon (or wheater bourbon) still contains at least 51% corn, but the balance is divided between barley and wheat. Sometimes, both wheat and rye are used for flavouring, but it's usually one or the other.

Hitting the Mark


The following is from the Master of Malt website.

Maker’s Mark began with the Samuels family. In 1783, Robert Samuels began to distil whiskey for personal consumption. The operations continued down the generations until a commercial distillery was eventually established. This was sold by T W Samuels during the mid twentieth century. He then founded a smaller distillery in Loretto, Kentucky and focussed on creating an artisan product, distilling far less, but with a greatly increased quality. 

It was decided that a new mashbill was required, rather than going through the costly and time consuming process of distilling varying recipes, Samuels chose to bake loaves of bread with differing proportions of grain. The finest tasting loaf was chosen; a loaf with a high barley and red winter wheat content and no rye. It was Bill Samuels Sr who destroyed the ancient family recipe and in 1958, the first bottles of Marker’s Mark were sold. 

There are no age statements on the wax dipped bottles, for Maker’s Mark is not bottled by age, but by taste, when the Master Distiller deems it ready for general consumption. Each bottle is emblazoned with the letters SIV, the ‘S’ stands for Samuels and ‘IV’ is four in Roman numerals, honouring the creator, in the fourth generation of the family. There is also a star on the logo, a reference to Star Hill, the location of the distillery.

Baking loaves of bread seems odd to me, as bread and whisky are usually consumed under different circumstances and with different goals in mind. But it seems to have worked. Maker's Mark is one of the world's best-known and best-selling bourbons.

Tasting notes


On your mark

Nose (undiluted): vanilla, brown sugar,oak
Palate (undiluted): medium bodied, slightly waxy, lots of vanilla, coconut notes, brown sugar and toasted oak
Finish: medium length, icing sugar, vanilla and toasted marshmallows

Adding water to Maker's Mark toned down some sweetness but didn't really bring forth any new notes. Adding ice toned down some of the oakiness and allowed the vanilla and marshmallow notes to shine through. I wasn't crazy about using Maker's Mark in an Old Fashioned. I prefer higher rye bourbons or straight rye whiskies for that particular task. This whiskey was simply too "nice" to make its presence known in a cocktail.


Conclusion


To be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed when I first tried Maker's Mark. I'm a fan of big, bold flavours such as higher rye whiskies and heavily peated, smoky whiskies. After I adjusted my expectations, however, I found Maker's Mark to be well-crafted and well-presented. It's incredibly creamy and mild for something that's bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV). It can serve as a wonderful introduction to wheated bourbon or served to someone who doesn't like the spicy flavour of rye. My only real complaint (and it's an admittedly subjective one) is the price of Maker's Mark here in Ontario. I purchased my bottle on sale for $42 CAD. It normally sells for $49 CAD. For that price, I can get Knob Creek Small Batch 9 Year Old Bourbon. Now, Knob Creek has a flavour profile I prefer, and my complaint is not really an indictment of the quality of Maker's Mark. There's no sense criticizing J.D. Salinger if you prefer reading Kurt Vonnegut or Cormac McCarthy (and I do). If you temper your expectations of how a bourbon should taste (remember, this is a wheater- no rye) Maker's Mark is a solid addition to your whisk(e)y collection.


Rating: 3/5 moustaches (I would rate my "enjoyment" at 2.5/5 moustaches, but this gets an extra moustache for what I perceive as a good quality product)




May we all have the chance to prove that money can’t make us happy!

Slainte mhaith !!


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Siren's Song: a review of Laphroaig 10 Year Old

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favourite writers. I say "one of" because it's impossible to choose only ONE. Vonnegut's writing sometimes appears simple, but his humour and his perception of human nature are so keen, an astute reader knows the author  worked tirelessly at his craft.  If his prose comes across as terse, it's done with a goal in mind. In his novels, the reader (or at least this reader) is struck dumb every so often by a powerful passage brought into sharper relief by the apparent simplicity of its presentation. One of the most well-known is this section of Vonnegut's most famous novel, "Slaughterhouse-Five". If you haven't read it, you should. My favourite Vonnegut novel is "The Sirens of Titan". I hesitate to call it pure science-fiction since terms like chrono-synclastic infundibulum are playful and coy rather than an attempt at plausible, futuristic science. Sirens addresses morality, free will, sexuality, religious paradoxes and the meaning of life in a novel you could probably read in a weekend. It's easy to overlook it, and easier to forget how talented Vonnegut is (was?). Sometimes you take things like Vonnegut novels or Laphroaig Scotch whisky for granted. Then they cross your path anew and it's a stark reminder of how good they are. Wait, Laphroaig Scotch whisky? Wasn't I just talking about Kurt Vonnegut? Like the ending of The Sirens of Titan, it all makes sense, I promise.


The most richly flavoured of all Scotch whiskies


Laphroaig (la-FROYG) has a great website (click here)....when it works. I won't re-iterate all of the information contained therein, but check it out if you have the chance. Using a browser other than Google Chrome seems to deliver the best results. Laphroaig draws its soft, peated water from the Kilbride stream. The stream itself was the object of a court battle, which Laphroaig won, in the 1930s. I think the litigation was resolved in a trial by combat using only the ancient Scottish martial art of  ¡ Fa-cue ! Maybe not. Then there's the Laphroaig peat. Oh ! The peat ! Islay whiskies are known for their smoky, peaty profile. But the peat on the little Hebridean island is different than that of mainland Scotland. In fact, the peat on Islay varies from one location to the other. The Glenmachrie peat bog, has a particular mix of heather, lichen and moss responsible for Laphroaig's smoky, iodine-like and medicinal profile. The peat is dried for three months before being used. Unlike the majority of distilleries, Laphroaig peats the malt before they dry it. In a process lasting around 17 hours, the smoke or ‘peat reek’ rises up through the perforated drying floor into the kiln. The vaporised oils – the peat’s phenolic compounds and other wood-based smoky flavours – are absorbed by the damp barley. Laphroaig burns their peat at a relatively low temperature, a ‘cold smoking’ process that is responsible for the tarry note of Laphroaig. This may not sound appealing to the whisky initiate, but Laphroaig's flavour makes me feel like Bill Murray did in that dinner scene in "What About Bob?"



I'm sure my friends and family members are glad that I keep this reaction (mostly) to myself. But make no mistake; inside my head, I'm doing this the whole time I'm drinking Laphroaig.

Tasting notes


Smokier than Darth Vader's funeral pyre
Nose (undiluted) : smoke, mineral peat, earthy sweetness, very medicinal (iodine) with vanilla, citrus and floral notes underneath
Palate (undiluted): rich and full bodied, oily and mouth-coating, sweet and briny arrival developing some slight bitterness before returning to a briny and earthy sweetness with hints of vanilla and pear (really!)
Finish: long, campfire ash and smoke, with some sweet floral earthiness lingering

Adding water to Laphroaig 10 really pains me. It's just so perfect when sipped neat; adding water seems criminal. Maybe not criminal; uncivil perhaps. But I added water, you know, just to be thorough. With water, the nose shows much more fresh seaweed/iodine and vanilla. The smoke is pushed into the background. The palate becomes much more medicinal, developing toffee, black coffee before finishing with sweet vanilla and cigar ash. With or without water, this is an absolute treat.

I should note that the version of Laphroaig 10 in my cabinet is bottled at 43% ABV. Some expressions of this malt are bottled at 40% for some cruel yet unknown reason. I guess we're fortunate here in Ontario...despite paying much, much more for our whisky than other jurisdictions.

Conclusion


It's easy to take things for granted. Much like reading (or re-reading) Kurt Vonnegut's novels, I'm always taken aback when I drink Laphroaig. I think to myself "Why don't I buy this more often?" or "Why do I need to try different whiskies when Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg are all I really need?". Now, appreciating Scotch whisky is a journey and no journey is truly complete if you never venture beyond the tried and true. But it's nice to come back to what you know. If you haven't been there in awhile, you might just be surprised. I highly recommend you try Laphroaig 10 or re-visit it if you haven't had it in awhile.


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 mhaith !!

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Ambushed: A review of Bushmills Black Bush


Please note that this review includes spoilers pertaining to the movie The Departed. I don't feel bad for doing this, though, since that film was released 11 years ago. If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for?

Hollywood movies can be boring and predictable. Most "blockbusters"  rely on a handful of clichés. Woman meets man, they hit it off, someone discovers a secret about the other, they call it off, miss each other, end up together. There, I just saved you the trouble of ever having to watch a Hugh Grant or Sandra Bullock movie ever again. You're welcome. Action movies are no different: the grizzled, jaded hero goes on one last quest (usually against a bunch of "ethnic" bad guys), meets the token "attractive" female (who is usually 25-30 years younger than him), watches his best friend (usually Kevin Pollak or Paul Giamatti) die, and completes quest by blowing things up real good. Sometimes the "twist" is that the best friend was the real bad guy. Yawn. But every now and then a movie, even within a clichéd genre, does things very differently. In 2006, Martin Scorsese gave us The Departed, a violent cops-and-gangsters movie. Instead of the Italian mobsters of his fantastic Goodfellas, Scorsese focused on Boston and the Irish mob. The Departed features a stellar cast (including the criminally underrated and underappreciated Ray Winstone), unexpected twists (Billy Costigan's unceremonious death), great dialogue (Mark Wahlberg's accent and prodigious use of vulgarity is a treat for the ears), and a plot that focuses intensely on identity. While the viewer knows that Sullivan (Matt Damon) is "the rat" who helps mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), we don't find out until later that Costello himself was a rat.


Wahlberg's performance was wicked awesome.
So what does this have to do with Irish Whiskey? I'm glad you asked. I take jabs at Irish whiskey all the time, but I don't really worry about offending anyone, since, as far as I can tell, the Irish don't get offended. Or, at least not by a silly French-Canadian like me. Jocularity aside, I've always found Irish whiskey acceptable if somewhat dull and predictable, like action movies or rom-coms. Irish whiskey is good in a pinch, I thought, but it doesn't merit the same reverence Scotch whisky commands. A good friend changed my mind somewhat with a tasting of Green Spot, and while it's good, the price of it also buys a nice bottle of Old Pulteney 12, Glenfiddich 15, Laphroaig 10 or Highland Park 12. All of those suit me better than the Green Spot. But on a recent family trip, I purchased a bottle of Bushmills Black Bush and found an Irish whiskey that outperforms just about anything I've found at that price point (approx. $37 CAD).


A word about Bushmills


Bushmills claims to be the oldest distillery in Ireland; King James I granted landowner Thomas Philips a license to distill in 1608. The distillery has survived fires, tax increases and prohibition. The whiskey was even mentioned by James Joyce in his magnum opus, Ulysses. It's in Episode 18-Penelope, in case you're wondering. The Original Bushmills is a light, floral and completely unoffensive blended whiskey. It's fine, but not particularly noteworthy in this writer's opinion. Black Bush is different. It contains a high proportion of malt whiskey that was aged 8-10 years in Oloroso Sherry casks. If you remember from previous reviews, this imparts a fruity, sweet flavour to the whiskey. What is "a high proportion" of malt whiskey? I don't know. I've read it's as high as 80% malt whiskey, but I can't seem to confirm this anywhere. Also, remember that Irish whiskey is, in general, triple distilled; Scotch whisky is distilled twice. Thus, Irish whiskey is generally thought to be "smoother" than Scotch. So how does Black Bush taste?


Tasting notes


Also wicked awesome
Nose (undiluted): citrus (lemon), red fruit, red grapes, apples
Palate (undiluted): medium-bodied, very little tongue-burn (bottled at 40% ABV), lots of red fruit (cherry, raspberry), malty, nutty, biscuits
Finish: medium length, red fruit developing to milk chocolate, cinnamon with a licorice note lingering.

Adding water didn't change much in the character of this whiskey, but adding ice brought out more fruit and toned down a bit of the malt sweetness. I prefer this one neat, or maybe chilled. I would like to try chilling the bottle or even the glass. At 40% ABV, it doesn't need to be diluted any further, but tasting it cold was quite nice (heresy!!!). I was surprised that the finish was as long as it was. Bushmills Original has a fairly short finish and I was surprised that the Oloroso casks had such a prominent influence. Or maybe it is close to 80% malt whiskey after all. I'm not quite sure where the longer finish comes from, but it's a treat.



Conclusion


Just when you think you've got things figured out, the elevator door opens and Leonardo DiCaprio gets shot in the head. Ok, maybe that's just The Departed. But sometimes surprises are far more pleasing. When I bought Bushmills Black Bush during a recent family vacation, I only hoped it would be good enough to keep my brother pacified (he drank some of the whiskey I bought while I drank quite a bit of the beer he bought). However, I believe I discovered a whiskey that is fit to occupy a regular space in my whisk(e)y cabinet. It's not outrageously priced, it's readily available and it's really, really good. Surprises can be good.


Rating: 3/5 moustaches




May you have the hindsight to know where you've been, the foresight to know where you're going and the insight to know when you're going too far.

Slainte !