Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Almost Famous: A Review Of The Famous Grouse Blended Whisky

Budget-friendly blended scotch doesn't get much attention in the blogosphere. Most bloggers, yours truly included, don't pay much attention to the bottom shelf. We're passionate about our favourite single malts, peat levels, barley varieties and so on. We may be doing people a disservice though, since blended scotch whisky accounts for approximately 85 to 90 percent of all scotch whisky sales worldwide. All the hand-wringing and heated debates around age statements (or a lack thereof), chill-filtration and wine cask finishes, sulphured casks, is but a drop in the bucket (or barrel) of the actual scotch whisky market. The real money is in blends, and I'm pretty sure the brain-trusts at the big multinationals know this. I've reviewed a few budget blends and I have to say that most have been just ok. Save Teacher's Highland Cream, there are few blended scotch whiskies below the $35 mark (Ontario prices) that would cause an enthusiast to wax poetic. 

Not as outrageous as some actual things Axl has done
However, I'm nothing if not selfless, so I've decided to swallow my pride (and a lot of whisky) in order to help my ten or so readers make more informed choices, regardless of how much they're spending. Hopefully this review of Scotland's most popular whisky will be received better than Aldous Snow's "African Child" video was in the absurd yet hilarious Get Him to the Greek.  

The Famous Grouse

When it was first produced in 1860 it was just "The Grouse". This Grouse has been the No. 1 whisky in Scotland since 1980. Each year 43 million bottles of The Famous Grouse are enjoyed in no less than 94 global markets. According to their website:

It’s the magic of the cask that lends The Famous Grouse its unique flavour. The European oak we use in our sherry casks and the American oak in our bourbon ones make sure each dram is full of flavour. Each has its own qualities, and each adds its own subtle shades of character to the whiskies that go into The Famous Grouse. By choosing one over another, we can add a little sweetness, a rich, toasty undertone, or a bright fruity note.Our cask policy is key and one of the ways that we get consistent quality with every drop. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Not known for being subtle

So is The Famous Grouse a budget-priced champion, an unsung hero, like Stillwater's Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) in 2000s Almost Famous? Or is it a belligerent braggart like Axl Rose or Lars Ulrich? Will it gently caress you like a 1968 LesPaul Standard, or will it screech off-key like a vocalist reaching for notes he can no longer hit? There's only one way to find out.


Tasting Notes

Nose (undiluted): barley, red grapes, honey, light brown sugar
Palate (undiluted): medium-light body, malt, tea-biscuit-ish, honey, faint red grape notes
Finish: medium length, honey, a very faint hints of smoke and milk chocolate

Adding water did not change much about this whisky. The sweetness is cut a bit, and the milk chocolate notes become a bit more apparent, but this isn't any kind of flavour bomb. I wouldn't recommend adding water to this whisky. The Famous Grouse is light enough to mix in a highball, or a Rob Roy, but it doesn't make you sit up and pay attention the way some of the better blends, like Compass Box, do.


Blended scotch is incredibly popular, probably because of its price and accessibility. Not everyone is willing to drop $80 or more on something they've never tried. Canadian whisky is no different; Wiser's Deluxe easily outsells Lot No. 40, even though the latter is, in my opinion, superior dram in every possible way. The Famous Grouse won't change your life, but it is a solid introduction to scotch whisky. The single malt component is present, but it certainly doesn't dominate the blend. There is nothing unpleasant in the Grouse, but it didn't blow me away either. To further the musical analogy, Famous Grouse is far less Guns N Roses and more like Soul Asylum. While the former is (was) divisive, inconsistent, often great, often terrible, the latter was just kind of ok. I've never met any hardcore Soul Asylum fans. I've never met anyone who hated them either. The Famous Grouse, then, is a good all-purpose whisky to keep on hand. It's a solid, versatile, though not overly interesting, blend.

Rating: 2/5 moustaches

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

Slainte mhaith !

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Top 5: A Bold Statement

Prince was a musical genius: Kurt Cobain was not. This may seem like a bold statement, but allow me to explain. I like Nirvana. I liked them back in the 1990s and I still like quite a bit of their music. I think Kurt Cobain was a great songwriter. But he was not a musical genius. Mozart was a musical genius. Rachmaninoff was a musical genius. So was Prince. I don't love all of Prince's music, but that's neither here nor there. His abilities as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, composer, arranger, and proficient multi-instrumentalist are without equal in the modern era. So musical genius then, is not above average ability in one area, but an overwhelming mastery of many areas. Prince understood music the way Einstein understood physics, or the way Shakespeare understood the English language.
Prince was always bold
Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson are masters of the electric guitar, Les Claypool is a master bassist, Buddy Rich was a master drummer. Prince was a musical genius. What does this have to do with whisky? Well, when thinking about bold whisky, people often associate higher proof (ABV) whisky with bold. The whiskies in this category often go well above the minimum 40% ABV, but having a high alcohol content does not make a whisky bold in and of itself. Just like being a good songwriter does not make a person a musical genius. See, it all makes sense. Here then, are my Cusack-inspired Top 5 picks for best bold whiskies.

5. Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon

I reviewed this one awhile back, and I can't forget it. Clocking in at a powerful 50% ABV, this one packs a punch. Yet for all its rye-forward power, it's still balanced with vanilla sweetness, herbal (rye) notes and a silky, mouth-coating texture. Four Roses Single Barrel is even great in a cocktail (I love it in an Old Fashioned) since its personality doesn't get lost in the mix. If you think scotch is the only game in town when it comes to big, bold flavours you really should check out this bourbon. There are also some Canadian whiskies which are tragically overlooked, but that's a blog post for another day.

4. Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Laphroaig Quarter Cask Single Malt Whisky
Quarter Cask, full flavour
What's this? A No Age Statement (NAS) whisky in my top 5? Didn't I criticize these anti-age labelling decisions? Yes, yes I did. And my criticisms of NAS whisky still hold true. The ambiguous labelling and fuzzy marketing around these whiskies are deserving all the criticism directed at them. Perhaps the real tragedy is that the debate created by dropping age statements has overshadowed some really great whiskies. Distillers and their corporate overlords have only themselves to blame. Despite all the hullaballoo, I'm still recommending Laphroaig Quarter Cask as one of my go-to bold whiskies. I actually prefer the standard Ten Year Old expression, but it's medium-bold, if that makes sense. Quarter Cask is an aggressive punch in the mouth. To make a movie analogy, Laphroaig 10 is Walter 'Monk' McGinn; it's got some guts and is quite able to fight with the best of them, whereas Laphroaig Quarter Cask is Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting; hard, rough and completely merciless. Quarter Cask is bottled at a sturdy 48% ABV. There's big, medicinal Laphroaig peat and smoke, cigar ash, oak, toffee and I get lots of dark roast coffee on the finish, though I've never really seen any other reviewers reference this flavour. Master Distiller John Campbell talks here about Quarter Cask. It's worth clicking the link just to hear his great accent. Oh, and he's pretty darned knowledgeable about whisky too, if that kind of thing matters to you.

3. Aberlour A'Bunadh

Another NAS whisky? I must be losing it. Not really. I freely admit that I have a crush on all things Aberlour. I've enjoyed everything I've ever tried from this distillery. Their bold NAS release is no exception. The batches of A'Bunnadh are numbered and you can find reviews for pretty much all of them online. I've tried A'Bunadh twice and though I didn't note the batch numbers, both were outstanding. They are bottled between 59% and 61% ABV, depending on the batch, but it isn't just the high alcohol content that makes this a bold whisky. According to Aberlour, the whiskies which make up these batches are matured exclusively in Sherry butts (stop laughing) for 5 to 25 years. I'd venture to guess that most of the casks used in A'Bunadh are closer to 5 years old than to 25 years old. Nevertheless, this is an excellent whisky. The dominant flavours are dried fruits (dates and raisins), cherries, ginger, orange, dark chocolate, oak and spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice). A magnificent whisky with or without the addition of water.

2. Ardbeg Ten

Not just another pretty face
Ardbeg has been called “as close to perfection as makes no difference,” by whisky connoisseurs. At least, that's what it says on their website. Ardbeg's flagship Ten Year Old expression has been praised extensively by pretty much everyone. Jim Murray named it World Whisky of the Year in 2008. The incomparable Ralfy named it his malt of the year in 2016. If you don't know him yet, check out his YouTube channel. Ralfy is kind of a big deal in the whisky world. At least, I think he is. Ardbeg Ten is big, peaty and smoky, with citrus notes, salted caramel, coffee and liquorice notes. It is non chill-filtered, and bottled at 46% so it's a bit above average in the ABV department, but it's the huge flavours and the intricate balance of said flavours that make this one noteworthy. The finish goes on for a really, really long time. If you like big peat and smoke (and I do), this one will get you hooked. If I could only drink one whisky for the rest of my life, Ardbeg Ten would make the short list. It really is that good. And I know we aren't supposed to care about packaging, but their bottles, labels and such really are among the coolest in the business.

1. Lagavulin 16 Year Old

OK, maybe I'm predictable. Maybe you think I should have chosen the Limited Edition 12 Year Old instead of the "standard" 16. I have never tried Lagavulin's 12 Year Old expression, so I can't name it number one on my bold list. If Ardbeg Ten made the shortlist for my top whisky ever, Lagavulin 16 is the malt to beat. Lagavulin is Rocky to Ardbeg's Clubber Lang. I'm not sure who would win on any given day, but I pity the fool who passes on either whisky. Lagavulin's balance of earthy peat and full, rich tobacco smoke make it a whisky you need to sit with for a long time in order to enjoy properly. You'll also get dark chocolate notes, dates, vanilla, some fresh cigar and a bit of brine. If this sounds unbelievable to you, chances are you haven't tried it. Heck, this whisky is so good, Nick Offerman spent ten hours drinking Lagavulin 16 for a Yule Log video. You can watch it here. Now lest you think I only love Lagavulin because of my bro-crush on the talented Mr. Offerman, let me put your fears to rest. I've loved Lagavulin for a long time. I loved Lagavulin before I was aware of Offerman or Parks and Recreation. Did the fact that Lagavulin 16 is Ronald Ulysses Swanson's drink of choice draw me deeper down the rabbit hole (or mash tun, as it were)? Of course. But it would never have happened if I didn't already love this whisky.


Depending on your personal experience, your opinion of a bold whisky may differ from mine. If you've had Ardbeg Corryvreckan, you may find it much bolder than their Ten Year expression. You may find my omission of William Larue Weller Bourbon to be a criminal oversight. Sorry, I've never tried it and therefore I can't comment on it. The whiskies mentioned herein are my choices for Top 5 Bold Whiskies. Your opinions may differ, and I'd love to hear them. Drop a comment below. Did I overlook any great, bold whiskies? "Top 5 Overlooked Whiskies", hmm that could be a fun blog post. Until next time, thanks for reading and feel free to share.
Slainte !

Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi'tippeny, we Fear nae evil;
Wi'usquabae, we'll face the devil!
From Tam O'Shanter by Robbie Burns

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Top 5: Stuck in the Middle With You

I love Quentin Tarantino movies. There's just something about the way he writes dialogue and puts scenes together that hits all the right notes. The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs where  Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) dances to the Stealers Wheel hit "Stuck in the Middle With You" while taunting and torturing a police officer is disturbing, yet it fits the tone of the movie perfectly. The fact that the D.J. on the radio (K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70s) happens to be my favourite comedian of all time (Steven Wright) is an added bonus.

I got the feeling that something ain't right.
Yet for some, the violence in Tarantino's debut proved too gruesome, too vulgar, and perhaps too realistic. I guess you can't please everyone. This applies to whisky as well. You can't be all things to everyone. The second installment in my John Cusack-inspired "Top 5" series is stuck in the middle. These whiskies won't be all things to all people, but they are more potent than the mild quintet from the previous installment. If you're hankering for something with a bit more "oomph", these whiskies may be for you. They aren't "peat bombs" or "sherry bombs" by any means, but they are more Mr Blonde than Mr Pink. And I'd much rather be stuck with a bottle of these 5 whiskies than tied to a chair with Mr Blonde singing to me.


5. Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Solera Reserve

A real trooper
I'm going to risk drawing the ire of whisky snobs right away. Yes, I'm recommending a "common" scotch. How mainstream ! How pedestrian ! Well, let me tell you something, you hipster-doofuses (hipster-doofi?); this is, in my humble opinion, one of the best values in scotch whisky today. It currently runs about $80 here in Ontario and it outperforms many pricier malts.  Using a Solera system common in the maturation of sherry, 15 year old malts from three different types of casks are married together in a wooden vat, which is constantly topped up to ensure the quality is maintained. Glenfiddich 15 is rich (but not too rich) with cinnamon, ginger, sherry notes, oak and almonds. As an added incentive, when you buy Glenfiddich 15 here in Ontario, two dollars from the sale of each bottle of is donated to Wounded Warriors, a program that helps soldiers in need. Great whisky and a great cause. You should buy a bottle of this for yourself, and maybe get a bottle for your favourite whisky blogger.

4. Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey

Hits the right spot ! (That's what she said!)
I almost put Yellow Spot's little brother, Green Spot, on my "born to be mild" list. Yellow Spot carries a 12 year old age guarantee and can compete with many wine-casked single malt scotches. Eat your heart out, Glenmorangie Lasanta ! The Yellow Spot is a single pot still Irish whiskey which has been matured in three types of cask: American Bourbon cask, Spanish Sherry butts and Spanish Malaga casks for a sweeter flavour. This one is rich with butterscotch, peaches, grapes, lemon, almonds, and some barley. Rich, but not overly bold, even if it is bottled at 46% ABV. Highly recommended.

3. Knob Creek Small Batch 9 Year Old Bourbon

If you aren't careful, you'll be seeing double

Knob Creek is made/owned by Jim Beam. This bourbon is supposedly named for a creek near the childhood home of Abraham Lincoln. Rumour has it that Honest Abe was almost drownded in the creek as a child. (Yes I wrote "drownded" on purpose. Read "The Lord of the Rings" would ya!?) I guess Scotch whisky hasn't cornered the market on clever origin stories. Regardless of the veracity of the story, this is a fine bourbon. It isn't as mild as a wheated bourbon, but it is still considered a "lower rye" bourbon. I don't know what percentage of the mash bill is rye, as that information is not readily available. Nevertheless, this is a tasty bourbon at a reasonable price. Knob Creek 9 Year Old is nutty, oaky with a bit of spice on the finish. It's fairly friendly for a bourbon at 50% ABV, and that could get you in as much trouble as swimming in a creek. Rumour has it that the age statement is going to disappear from this bottle soon. That's a sad state of affairs; I guess Knob Creek is not as patient as it once was.


2. The Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask

Sea turtles, mate
It's hard to say anything negative about The Balvenie. Their offerings are among the most consistently good in Scotch whisky. At least, that's been my experience. Their 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask is no exception. It's rich, sweet and slightly fruity from a final maturation in ex-rum casks. Vanilla is the dominant note, with some nutmeg, raisins and honey rounding out this lovely single malt. If you're a pirate captain who has been viciously mutinied upon and marooned on a desert island, this beauty might be a nice discovery while you wait to be rescued, or while you wait to rope yourself a couple of sea turtles. Just make sure not to leave this Caribbean Cask unattended or you may find yourself asking why the rum (or scotch, as it were) is always gone.

1. Benromach 10 Year old

If you see it, buy it
I reviewed Benromach 10 here. Looking back at my review, I was surprised at my ranking. Three and a half moustaches is a fine rating, but as of this writing, my bottle of Benromach 10 is about 7 months old and is even better now after being exposed to air. There is more peat character than there was at the time of the review. If you're just dipping your toe in the peated whisky pool, fear not: this is NOT Laphroaig-esque campfire in a glass. The peat note is much softer and more subtle than the Islay whiskies I love. Benromach 10 is currently out of stock (or very difficult to find) at the LCBO and it's no surprise. It's still listed (as of September 2017) at $59 per bottle. That's a ridiculous steal of a deal for a whisky this good, by Ontario pricing standards. There's lots of vanilla, raspberries, charred oak, peat smoke and some shortbread biscuit notes in there. If and when the price goes up, I will still buy this malt. It's the type of whisky I always want to have on hand. But unlike Highland Park 18 or Laphroaig 15, I can actually afford to keep Benromach 10 around for casual sipping. I can't possibly praise it enough.

So there you have it, my friends. Whiskies I consider "Top 5" for middle of the road. They won't blow your face off, but they're all terrific. Some of my other favourites  didn't make the cut because I wanted a bit of variety in my picks (sorry Craigellachie 13). Each whisky here has a different character, a different strength that they bring to the table, like the colourful characters in Reservoir Dogs. No matter which one you pick, you can't go wrong. Unless you start telling people you don't believe in tipping.

Mr Pink has the world's smallest violin and it's playing its
heart out for the whiskies that didn't make the list

Slainte mhaith !!!

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Top 5: Born to Be Mild

Remember that John Cusack movie High Fidelity? I'm convinced every angsty guy in the early 2000s saw himself as Rob Gordon (Cusack's character) in some way. Yes, that included me. The incessant self-indulgent navel-gazing, er I mean introspection, the existential questions about what it all means, the smug sense of superiority; yup, this was pretty much every male 20-something in the early part of the new millenium. At least, this was the template for the people with whom I associated. But then, I was (am?) a musician and we definitely tend toward self-importance. The fun thing about Cusack in the film is his tendency to compile "Top 5" lists for pretty much everything. So in that spirit, I've decided to compile my own "Top 5" whisky list. I decided to start on the mild end of the spectrum because many of my friends have asked for recommendations, often emphasizing they don't like the "bonfire in a glass" stuff I drink.

What came first: the whisky or the misery?
So, here are my "Top 5" mild whiskies for those who don't like big, bold flavours. They aren't necessarily my favourites (though some are) but they are more accessible and pleasant whiskies for people who find peaty, smoky scotch as appealing as I would find a 4 hour Jerry Bruckheimer film starring Jack Black, Ashton Kutcher, Nicholas Cage and Steven Seagal, which is to say, not at all.

5The Glenlivet French Oak Reserve 15 Year Old Single Malt Whisky 

Would Leon trade his cognac for Glenlivet?

This Speyside malt is finished in French Limousin Oak Casks. That's the same type of wood they use to age many popular cognacs. But even if you don't love Courvoisier as much as Leon Phelps, you'll probably like Glenlivet 15. It's fruity, buttery and mild. The finish is not super long and the whisky is bottled at 40% ABV, so it should be fairly easy to befriend this malt. It's also a pretty good value for a whisky of this age and quality. Very good stuff. You might even pair it with a fish sandwich, sweet thang !

4. Bushmills Original Irish Whiskey

The Emerald Mild?
I reviewed Bushmills Black Bush quite favourably and their Original Irish Whiskey fits the bill for something even milder. It does well in a cocktail, on ice and yes, even neat. Bushmills runs about $30 or so here in Ontario, so it won't break the bank. I've found it a bit less "acetone" on the nose (i.e. nailpolish remover smell) than Jameson, so I'm recommending Bushmills. There are mild notes of citrus, oatmeal and vanilla, but I emphasize mild. Bushmills is also, like The Glenlivet, bottled at 40% ABV. It won't set your mouth on fire, but it will take the edge off a hard day.

3. Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Hitting the Mark

My review of this bourbon may have been lukewarm, but that shouldn't suggest Maker's Mark isn't a quality spirit. I love big, rye-forward bourbons, so this wheater is not exactly my favourite. It is good, readily available and very accessible (i.e. easy to drink) to someone new to bourbon or whisky. The vanilla, oak and toasted marshmallow notes dominate, but I emphasize again that "dominate" is relative. Maker's is bottled at 90 proof (45% ABV) but feels like a 40 percenter. It's very creamy and unobtrusive. If you don't want a bourbon that will punch you in the mouth, this is it. Maker's Mark is less Theodore Roosevelt and more Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I guess I prefer my bourbons mustachioed. But I do encourage you to give Maker's Mark a New Deal if you've found bourbon too bellicose in the past.

If my preferred bourbons had a face, this would be it 
Or maybe this...

2. Glengoyne 15 Year Old Single Malt

Plain Jane or seductively sweet?

Glengoyne air-dries their barley, so there is nary a hint of smoke or peat in this whisky. It's aged in a combination of 1st fill sherry casks, ex-bourbon casks and refill casks. Glengoyne 15 is full-bodied and sweet with citrus notes, honey, green apple, cinnamon, butterscotch and oak. It's lovely and full-bodied, but not too rough around the edges. Some might call it "smooth", but whisky hipsters would chide you for using that term.  Some may complain that Glengoyne is "too nice" or "too plain". But if you like your whisky mild, this might be the malt for you.

1. Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old Single Malt

A gentle-dram and a scholar

This one gets people going. I've heard it referred to as "banality in a bottle", but I heartily disagree with that assessment. Here's the thing: Dalwhinnie is owned by the mega-corporation Diageo. And many pretentious snobs scotch enthusiasts hate anything associated with the liquor giant. I believe all big corporations do things we disagree with (*cough* NAS scotch*), but that's not necessarily a reason to lampoon all of their products. Dalwhinnie brands itself "the gentle spirit" and the tagline is apt. It's gentle, yet well-crafted. The flavours are delicate, but they are present. Dalwhinnie is floral, with pears, honey, cinnamon, walnuts and toffee making their presence known. This malt, bottled at 43% ABV, is part of Diageo's "Classic Malts" series. Jim Murray, the controversial author of The Whisky Bible, awarded Dalwhinnie 15 a score of 95 points (out of a possible 100). I don't know if I'd score it that high, but Dalwhinnie is a dram I would never turn down.

So there you have it, folks. Those are my "Top 5" whiskies for those of you who don't like the peat and smoky punch of Laphroaig or Lagavulin. They may be gentle, but they aren't boring. If you like something a little bolder than these, but not as bold as Ardbeg, you'll have to tune in next time for my "Top 5" middle-of-the-road whiskies. Until then, to borrow the wise words of Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod "Keep fit and have fun!"

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