Wednesday, 28 March 2018

What's in a name?

I've changed the title of my blog to "Whisky Joe". Why? Scotch was the focus when I first started this blog almost a year ago, but a lot has changed since then. I've discovered a lot of terrific whisky from all over the world and I think the title should reflect that. I won't change the address of the blog since that seems fairly involved and the four people who regularly read this might not find me at a new address. Same content, new name.

Since we're on the topic of names, I thought I'd address something that came across my radar a few weeks ago. Crown Royal is selling a new whisky in the United States and it's causing a stir. Why? Because it's called "Crown Royal Bourbon Mash Blended Canadian Whisky". Why is that cause for outrage? The word "Bourbon". It seems the US Treasury Department's Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau (and many bourbon enthusiasts) have taken exception to the use of the word "bourbon" on a product that is not bourbon. It's odd that the Tax and Trade Bureau takes exception now, since it is the regulatory body that granted Crown Royal the Certificate of Label Approval (COLA) in the first place. Crown Royal can sell the product in the United States for one year before the label has to be changed or the product must be withdrawn. Why use the word in the first place?

Most Canadian distilleries produce and age their corn, rye, barley, malted barley and wheat whiskies separately, preferring to blend them later on to create a flavour profile. Bourbon, or American whiskey in general, uses a mashbill; a mixture of grains that are milled, cooked and distilled together to create their flavour profile.The majority of the whisky used in Crown Royal Bourbon Mash comes from, no surprise, a whisky that was distilled using a mashbill, rather than separately distilled and aged grain whiskies. Ergo, the name is apt.

Some have accused Crown Royal (or Diageo, the parent company) of "misleading" consumers into thinking they're buying a Crown Royal Bourbon. I disagree. The label is fairly clear. It says "Blended Canadian Whisky" right on the front. Further, I've never heard these critics chide Springbank for releasing their Springbank 14 Year Old Bourbon Wood. They never derided Glenrothes for their Bourbon Cask Reserve. There was no protest over the Glenfiddich 14 Year Old Bourbon Barrel Reserve. So why is Crown Royal a target all of a sudden? I'm perplexed. Reviews for the whisky seem wildly varied as well. Tastes vary, to be sure, but Davin de Kergommeaux has rated this one at 4 1/2 stars, while one Amercian blogger (who shall remain nameless at this point) rated it 20/100 points. I have to wonder if the label controversy negatively impacted the latter's views. Davin doesn't publicly award points to whiskies, but he states that 3 stars is a top mixing whisky and 5 stars is a beauty like Alberta Premium 25 Year Old Rye. So I'd say 4 1/2 stars is a strong endorsement. Crown Royal Bourbon Mash hasn't come to Ontario yet, so I'll have to reserve my judgment for now.

Totally fine
Anyhow, I hope the blog's name change doesn't cause as much controversy as Crown Royal did. Although it might be a good thing if it did. How does the saying go? "All publicity is good publicity". Maybe Diageo will send me a free bottle of their Crown Royal Bourbon Mash for a review. I mean, all free whisky is good whisky, right?

Slainte !

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Summertime: A review of Lagavulin 12 Year Old

Summertime, and the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin'
So hush, little baby, don't you cry

It's hard to choose a favourite Ella Fitzgerald song, but "Summertime" has to be among my favourites. Fitzgerald's version of the Gershwin classic is soothing, lulling, and has just the right amount of melancholy to make it an absolute classic. Full disclosure; I've never seen Porgy and Bess, the musical whence this song originates. No matter, the song stands on its own. It's one of the most covered songs ever. And I'm not talking about quasi-ironic garage band covers. No, "Summertime" has been recorded by some big names including Billie Holiday, the aforementioned Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke and even the incomparable Willie Nelson. I don't want to wax too philosophical about the balance between bliss and melancholy, yet the two are intertwined. All good things must end, as the saying goes. It is probably this knowledge that makes every happy moment just a little bittersweet. Ok, enough. What does that have to do with Lagavulin? Read on.

Something special

The 37 Year Old Port Ellen

Lagavulin 12 Year Old? Isn't the "regular" Lagavulin 16 Years Old? What makes a 12 year old version special? Diageo has a run of "Special Releases" every year, and the Lagavulin 12 Year Old is probably the most affordable one. Most of the Special Releases are thirty-something year old whiskies from mothballed distilleries that mere mortals cannot afford. The 1979 37 Year Old Port Ellen shown on the right would set you back about $4800 CAD. That's strictly Mr. Burns or Elon Musk  territory But why a twelve year old? This whisky is aged entirely in American ex-bourbon barrels, whereas Lagavulin 16 is aged in a combination of American ex-bourbon barrels and European ex-sherry casks. So the 12 year version is a tad less fruity, a bit sharper and a little less rich than its 16 Year Old sister. Oh, and the 12 Year Old is also released at Cask Strength (56.8% ABV in the 2015 iteration) so it's quite a bit feistier than the 43% ABV of the 16. But how does it taste?

Tasting notes

This whisky is reviewed from a single sample, provided by a friend. Keep in mind that there is variation from year to year.

Lagavulin 12 Year Old, 2015 Edition 56.8% ABV.
The bottle was opened May 21/2017, was gassed after each pour,
Was 2/3 full when my sample was poured on Nov 5, 2017

  • Nose (undiluted): brighter than Lagavulin 16, rich vegetal peat and smoke (obviously), with some citrus notes, pear and cereal sweetness. Think of smoking a cigar on a patio in the summertime. Others are having fruity drinks, but you, Lagavulin drinker, are not. The bright notes are there, but don't dominate in any way.
  • Palate (undiluted): rich, full-bodied, yet there's a gentle arrival, developing to fiery black pepper, oak spices, burning leaves, a minerality reminiscent of an ocean breeze (really!), damp and brine-soaked earthy peat and seaweed.
  • Finish: very long, vegetal (moss, dry leaves), cigar ash, more black pepper, black licorice, some green fruits (very ripe pears perhaps?) a toasted oak sweetness appears well after the other flavours have dissipated

Adding water turns up the volume on the citrus notes and the brine on the nose. It's like charring lemons on an ocean-front beach. Cliché? Perhaps, but it's there in spades. After it rests a few minutes, the sweetness returns to the nose, but it's no longer cereal sweetness;  it's more like a salted toffee. Water doesn't tone down the pepper or barrel notes, but the mouthfeel becomes oilier with water. There's probably a scientific explanation for this, but I don't know it. Probably because, uhm, molecules. Yeah ! Science !

With water, the finish becomes more medicinal, with menthol becoming more prominent, but in a very good way. If you love Lagavulin, like I do, you know what I mean. This whisky is wonderful either way, but I think I prefer it neat. In a funny way, this reminds me more of Laphroaig 10 than Lagavulin 16. Perhaps it's the fact that this Lagavulin is matured exclusively in ex-bourbon barrels, like Laphroaig 10, as opposed to the combined ex-bourbon and ex-sherry of Lagavulin 16. Either way, this is a phenomenal whisky. It's hard to find any fault with it whatsoever.

Tasting a sample of this whisky is a bittersweet experience. I'm incredibly grateful to have had a chance to try it, but I'm saddened by the thought that no other whisky will evoke as many images or feelings as this one does. It also makes me wonder how much better Lagavulin 16 could be if it were bottled at a higher strength. I guess I'll never know. If you have a chance to purchase or sample Lagavulin 12 Year Old (the 2015 release), do it. You won't regret it. It's not perfect (nothing is), but it's so close that I have no choice but to award it my highest possible score.

Rating: 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 !

Thursday, 22 March 2018

A review of Jameson Black Barrel

James Joyce. Leprechauns. The Blarney Stone. Shamrocks. Guinness Stout. Conor McGregor. U2. Jameson Whiskey. All things that may come to mind when someone says Ireland. But one of these things isn't originally Irish. That's right, it's Jameson Whiskey. Heresy, you say? Hear me out. Jameson's founder was John Jameson, a Scot from Clackmannanshire. When Jameson married Margaret Haig in 1786, he moved to Dublin with his new wife to manage the Bow Street Distillery (which had been established in 1780) for Margaret's uncle. This explains the use of the year 1780 in Jameson marketing, as the Bow Street Distillery was where Jameson Irish Whiskey was born. Ok, so maybe the whiskey itself has always been Irish, but the brand's founder wasn't.Today, Jameson is far and away (see what I did there?) the best-selling Irish whiskey in the world, but it was not always so.

A Bit Of History (from The Whisky Exchange and Wikipedia)

By the turn of the 19th century, Jameson's Bow Street Distillery was the second largest producer in Ireland and one of the largest in the world, producing 1,000,000 gallons annually. Whiskey was the second most popular spirit in the world after rum. By 1805 Jameson had become the world's number one whiskey. By the mid-19th century, things changed. The Irish didn't adopt the more efficient column stills as readily as the Scots, as the Irish preferred the more labour-intensive (and arguably more flavour-intensive) Single Pot Still. This led to a decline in Irish whiskey's popularity. In 1966 John Jameson and Son (the company, not the individuals) merged with Cork Distillers and John Powers to form the Irish Distillers Group. In 1976, the Dublin whiskey distilleries of Jameson in Bow Street and in John's Lane were closed following the opening of a New Midleton Distillery by Irish Distillers outside Cork. The Midleton Distillery is an enormous modern distillery in County Cork built by Irish Distillers to streamline the production of its many brands.This distillery brought an end to nearly 200 years of Jameson production in Dublin, but the Old Jameson Distillery in Bow Street is now a visitor's centre. Tourists can also visit the Midleton distillery, which is home to many other brands beside Jameson, including Green Spot, Paddy, Power's, Redbreast and Tullamore Dew. The Jameson brand was acquired by the French drinks conglomerate Pernod Ricard in 1988, when it bought Irish Distillers.

What's a Black Barrel?

Jameson Black Barrel is aged in a combination of ex-sherry casks and re-charred ex-bourbon casks (hence the name). Why re-char the casks? According to the Jameson website:

Charring is an age-old method for invigorating barrels to intensify the taste. Jameson Black Barrel is our tribute to our coopers, who painstakingly give their bourbon barrels an additional charring to reveal their untold richness and complexity. Because every barrel contains secrets; the trick is coaxing them out.

Poetic license? Maybe. If you want to get more scientific:

"The recharred casks seem to produce more sweet and woody notes as refill casks tend to bring out the drier woody notes. In terms of flavour compounds the recharring promotes fast lignin breakdown and caramellisation of hemicellulose thus extracting considerably more guaiacols, isoeugenol and vanillin commonly associated with new wood barrels...A recharred cask with more guaiacol and vanilla extractives is more likely to promote smoky and sweet flavours of the spirit than a refill cask, although the sweet notes differ from those of the first fills as they are probably caused more by caramellisation products and vanilla than oaklactones. The charred layer is likely to remove some of the off-flavours, especially some sulphury aromas..." (taken from

TL;DR version: Re-charring casks contribute more sweetness in less time. At least, that's my simplified interpretation of it.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): bright Sherry, shortbread biscuits, buttered toast, honey
Palate (undiluted): Rich, medium-bodied, dark toffee, oak spices (cinnamon, nutmeg), marzipan, barley, brioche buns
Finish: medium length, red fruit, butter, some ripe mango, green apples

Adding water brings out lots of brightness on the nose. Lemons, green floral notes and cinnamon are all there. Unfortunately, the palate and finish are diminished by the addition of water. Even a quarter teaspoon of water thins out the body and diminishes a lot of the complexity. It becomes all toffee and brioche; the fruitiness and spiciness all but disappear. Skip the water. At 40% ABV, it really doesn’t need it. I found adding water also added a harsh spirit note at the tail end of the finish.

Jameson Black Barrel is one of the best deals at the LCBO. At $49, it's richer and more complex than many whiskies that cost twice as much. This won't be the last time I purchase this whiskey, though I shouldn't admit that, lest the jackbooted thugs at the LCBO raise the price, the way they did with Benromach 10 (a move I predicted here). I'll take my chances and strongly recommend you try this whiskey. If you've never tried Irish Single Pot Still, this may be the most economical way to get a feel for it before you plunk down $80 or more on Green Spot or Redbreast.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

May you taste the sweetest pleasures
that fortune ere bestowed,
and may all your friends remember
 all the favours you are owed.

Slainte mhaith !

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Wednesday, 14 March 2018

All Pleasure, No Guilt: A review of Glenlivet 18 Year Old Single Malt

Why should liking something popular make us feel sheepish? Why do we refer to certain things we genuinely enjoy as "guilty pleasures"? The whisky world is a funny place, and the further down the rabbit hole you venture, the weirder it gets. Many snobs, er, "enthusiasts", will turn their noses up at standard OB whiskies. What's an OB? That's code for "original bottling" (sometimes "official bottling") meaning the distillery bottled the whisky (or had it bottled by a sister company, let's not get too bogged down here) and released it under their own label. IB whiskies, or Independent Bottlings, are whiskies purchased from a distillery by a third party (Gordon & MacPhail is a well-known example) and released under the bottler's label. For example, you could get a Gordon & MacPhail bottling of Caol Ila's 17 Year Old Unpeated Single Malt. Unpeated Caol Ila Single Malt is hard to find from an OB. I'm not sure Diageo even sells it as a single malt. Independent Bottlings are all the rage with enthusiasts because they are rare, unique, interesting, and often released at a higher ABV strength, without added colour or chill-filtering. 
Distilled thirty six years before I was born

The Gordon & MacPhail Glenlivet 1943 pictured here is 70 years old, bottled at about 49% ABV, and sells for around $40 000.00 USD.  That's not the whisky I'm reviewing this week, however. No, this week's whisky is a "standard, OB" Glenlivet 18 Year Old. But why should I (or anyone) feel guilty about that? Standard, common whiskies, produced on a large scale, allow us serfs to try whiskies that might otherwise be out of reach. As I close in on the big 4-0, I'm making fewer apologies for the things I enjoy.

The Single Malt That Started It All

What can anyone say about the Glenlivet that hasn't already  been said? Glenlivet is an icon. It's the biggest selling single malt in the United States and the second biggest selling single malt in the world. Glenlivet produces approximately 10 million litres of whisky per year. Its origin story is one of the best in the business, and even has a bit of truth to it. George Smith, founder of Glenlivet, was reportedly the first Scot to apply for a legal distilling license following the Excise Act of 1823. The move to play by the rules was not a popular one, and Smith took to keeping two pistols on his person at all times for protection. These pistols are still kept on display at the distillery's visitor centre. The Glenlivet 12 Year Old has a special place in my heart, so I was eager to try a bottle of their 18 Year Old when it was on sale awhile back. I must have forgotten it in the back of my cabinet, because I didn't open it until a few weeks ago. A quick check on the LCBO website shows the price has almost doubled since then, so I'm glad I got my bottle back when I did.

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): Sherry cask influence is evident with dried fruits, but with more brightness than the raisins and dates profile I associate with sherried whisky. Dried cranberries and raisins. Cherries. Vanilla frosting, icing sugar, oak.
  • Palate (undiluted): gentle arrival, almost understated, medium-bodied, with bright red fruit, sugar cookies and a somewhat oily texture. "Chewing" the whisky (yes, actually chewing) brings out a bit of orange zest and vanilla.
  • Finish: this is where the whisky really shines. Cherries, dark chocolate and walnuts with nutmeg, cloves, oak and raisins lingering longer than expected. Very balanced.
Adding water brings out some sharper notes on the nose. Bright orange zest comes through and dark chocolate shines through on the palate. Water thins out the body of the whisky, but brings forth more spiciness. The addition of water is interesting, but I prefer this one neat.

In the end...

There is no reason to be ashamed of liking something popular, unless it's reality television. Then you definitely should feel guilty because you're contributing to the dumbing-down of society. I'm kidding. Sort of. The Glenlivet 18 may be a popular, "mainstream" whisky, but its popularity is justified. This isn't my typical flavour preference as I gravitate toward intense, peaty, smoky scotches or bold, spicy ryes. Yet this whisky is almost above reproach. I would prefer to see it bottled at 46% ABV or higher, and without E150a (caramel colouring) and unchill-filtered, but as far as rich, rounded, sherried Speyside whiskies go, this one is excellent. 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 mhaith !

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Top 5: The Apocalypse Edition

I love post-apocalyptic literature. I dig post-apocalyptic movies, video games, and television shows. There is something inexplicably seductive about the world of Fury Road, 28 Days Later, Cat's Cradle and others of the genre. Perhaps the word "apocalypse" itself offers a hint as to why these scenarios are so fascinating. The etymological origins of the word come from the Greek apokalyptein, meaning "uncover, disclose, reveal." It's possible that our fascination with the end of civilization has to do with uncovering or revealing truths about human nature. When all seems lost or hopeless, how do humans react? It may be easy for privileged first-world folks to hold to our moral ideals, but how do people react when survival is at stake? Would we be Negan or Daryl Dixon? Immortan Joe or Imperator Furiosa? With all the trappings of modernity stripped away, when things become more primal, how does human choice evolve? Imagining scenarios such as these is stimulating, and I got to thinking:

What whisky would I want to stumble upon in a post-apocalyptic world? If I could only drink ONE whisky for the rest of my life, what would it be?

I hope I don't have to face Furiosa to get some whisky
To most whisky enthusiasts, that proposition is more nightmarish than having to fight an army of T-800s. So here's a top five list of whiskies for the end of the world. These  are excellent whiskies I could drink forever (responsibly, of course) for reasons I'll describe. If I stumbled into a huge warehouse full of cases of whisky, I would want that whisky to be:

Number 5: Old Grand Dad 114

I'll have that drink now
What? An inexpensive bourbon?!! Yes, yes indeed. This is probably the only whiskey on the list that one might actually find in the event of an apocalypse. It's not all that rare in the United States and it's not a limited-release product. So let's assume that I had to leave Canada because of the dastardly actions of the Umbrella Corporation and I found myself in bourbon country, I'd love to find a warehouse full of OGD 114. Big, bold (57% ABV) and fruity, this bourbon would work well even in the worst circumstances. If we stay with the "Canadian had to escape to the South" theme, I could sip mint juleps made with this beauty while protecting the big, southern house I'd occupied from the zombie dogs/Cerberuses that would undoubtedly be hunting me. Heck, at this alcohol concentration, I could even use OGD 114 mixed with motor oil to make Molotov cocktails (note: Molotov cocktails are not recommended in non-apocalyptic scenarios).

Number 4: Lot 40 12 Year Old Cask Strength Canadian Rye

I realize this was a limited release, but we're suspending our disbelief for a few minutes, right? Cask strength means this rye can be watered down a bit to stretch out the supply. It means we can make cocktails and retain much of the rye's beautiful flavours. With this rye, there's the peppery bite of cloves, some gingersnap cookie sweetness, lots of oak notes and zero apologies. I could easily sip this until Agent Smith found me and destroyed me and have no regrets. Heck, if we are living in the Matrix, I don't want to live in a reality where there is no Lot 40. I'm with Cypher on this one, I choose the Matrix.

Number 3: Ardbeg Uigeadail Single Malt Scotch

I hesitated with this one. I asked myself "do I always want a smoky whisky?" And the answer, for me, is "of course, what a stupid question!" This whisky is rounded, rich, smoky, fruity and perfect for waiting out the end of the world in my Desmond-from-Lost-style bunker. There's so much going on with Uigeadail that I'd never get bored. I can't say the same for that song by The Mamas & The Papas. Uigeadail also a strong whisky, bottled at over 54% alcohol, so it would last longer than the average malt. Smoking a pipe or cigars wouldn't be a great option in the bunker, so a smoky whisky would be sublime.

Number 2: Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength Irish Whiskey

Ready for a drink yet?
I might not be alone in the post-apocalyptic world, so something a bit friendlier might also be a boon in the aforementioned hypothetical warehouse full of whiskey. While Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength is potent (sense a pattern here?), it has a very gentle side. It is rich, sweet and quite accessible, even for something bottled at over 57% alcohol. The toffee and buttered toast flavours could even make Redbreast 12 Cask Strength a suitable dessert, or breakfast. It's the apocalypse; no judgment here. This whiskey also works beautifully in a cup of tea (trust me!) and even with ginger ale, if someone is so inclined. A whiskey as friendly as Redbreast Cask Strength would be great for warming up your insides in the cold world of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Just make sure you don't get abducted by cannibals.

Number 1: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength

I need your clothes, your boots and your Laphroaig
Laphroaig Cask Strength is much like the future world and the eponymous assassin of The Terminator; harsh, unforgiving and relentless. In a world where humans and machines are engaged in perpetual warfare, there is no room for sweet, seductive whisky. It needs to be strong enough (this one is bottled between 55%-58% ABV) to keep people alert. You can't let your guard down when it comes to cybernetic assassins programmed to kill Sarah Connor. The smoke, peat and medicinal iodine make this whisky a salve for your soul. I don't know if a perfect whisky exists, but this one is as close to perfection as I've ever tasted. It isn't for the faint of heart, it demands a bold hero. Inasmuch as it resembles the T-800, Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength is also like Sarah Connor. It doesn't give an inch. It's hardened, battle-tested and always ready for a fight.

The End?

I'll grant that these scenarios are far-fetched. In an actual apocalypse, looking for whisky would be pretty low on my list of priorities. But these whiskies would be on the ones to bring the most joy to my world. Of course, in a truly grizzly 28 Days Later world, any whisky would be reason for celebration. So what are your Top 5 Whiskies for the Apocalypse?