Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Simple but significant: a review of Wild Turkey Rare Breed

In the world of whiskey, taste is paramount. However, the greatest whiskey in the world will not sell if it doesn't have a great story. It may anger some and annoy others, but the stories and the images of a whiskey (and its parent distillery) are incredibly important when consumers reach for their wallets. A distillery can make the finest product in the world, but if no one knows about it, or if the marketing isn't captivating, the product will not sell. As Don Draper might tell you, "Make it simple, but significant".

Don loves a simple Old Fashioned
Some scottish distilleries present themselves as luxury brands as they aim to "premiumize" their product, capitalize on scotch whisky's reputation, and maximize profit. Whether the quality of these products justifies the higher price point is a discussion for another time. Bourbon marketing tends to lean more on tradition, southern charm and "authenticity". The latter term has been bandied about and overanalysed, but "authenticity" is significant for a lot of bourbon drinkers. Many product lines are owned by large multinationals, and there is often little to distinguish one brand from another save the name on the labels. Wild Turkey is different. They've been making bourbon for a long time. This isn't just a catch phrase or clever marketing. Wild Turkey's Master Distiller Jimmy Russell really has been making it "the old way" for over sixty years. He would tell you Wild Turkey makes bourbon "the right way". That's simple, but significant. While Russell's statement is significant, the bourbon itself is anything BUT simple.

The Buddha of Bourbon 

Dubbed the “Buddha of Bourbon” and “The Master Distiller’s Master Distiller” by his industry peers, James C. “Jimmy” Russell knows Bourbon like he knows breathing. For an astounding 60 years, Russell has been making whiskey at the Wild Turkey Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and today, is the longest-tenured, active spirits Master Distiller in the world. Growing up five miles from the distillery, he followed his father, who taught him the traditions and techniques of Bourbon craftsmanship. From his first position at the distillery sweeping floors, he reached the apex of his career as Master Distiller in the 1960’s learning how to make Bourbon the right way – from the inside out and everything in between. No job too small, no task too tedious. -from the Wild Turkey website

Looks like very enjoyable work
In an interview with Dave Broom, Jimmy Russell notes that the yeast strains used for fermentation back when he started working at the distillery over sixty years ago were "the ones Wild Turkey had been using forever, even then." Russell states that the ratio of corn in the mashbill is "in the low seventies", allowing for more small grains (rye and malted barley) to contribute to the final flavour of the bourbon. Wild Turkey also goes into the barrel (after distillation) at a lower proof (alcohol percentage) so that less water has to be added to the final product. Of course, Wild Turkey Rare Breed is bottled at "Barrel Proof" meaning no water was added at all to the final product. It is reportedly a vatting of bourbons between 6 and 12 years old. This one weighs in at a muscular 58.4% ABV (116.8 Proof). So how does it taste?

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): freshly sawn oak, cherries, orange peels, corn husks, light rye bread and a touch of light brown sugar.
Palate (undiluted): very clean arrival, rich mouthfeel, yet it doesn’t come across too thick or heavy. Lots of sour cherries, vanilla, caramel, more oak spice, barrel char, and fresh corn. Despite the high ABV, this is a very easy-drinking whiskey
Finish: long, clean and fruity. There's a mingling of sour cherries, toffee, a bit of coconut, some dried tobacco and vegetal, earthy rye spice. Terrific.

Adding water dampens the fruitiness quite a bit. Water brings out more brown sugar and barrel char aromas. The flavours change with water; the texture becomes waxy and the rye spice comes forward a bit. The barrel notes are more evident on the finish with oak spice (nutmeg, cloves, black pepper) being the most apparent. Fantastic with or without water. There is a "clarity" to the flavour of Wild Turkey that I absolutely love. There's no murkiness, no haziness to the order of flavours. I'd also point out that this is one of the best whiskeys for making an Old Fashioned. I realize it isn't the cheapest option, but the quality and strength make it a worthwhile experiment. Trust me, you won't regret it.

Davin de Kergommeaux spoke briefly about Jimmy Russell on a recent podcast. He encouraged new distillers to follow their own path rather than trying to copy what other successful companies are already doing. Davin emphasized his point, stating "you aren't going to out-bourbon Jimmy Russell, so you shouldn't try to do what he does". That's pretty high praise, considering the source. Eddie Russell, Jimmy's son, was named Master Distiller in 2015, after 35 years with the company. I can only hope he continues to make things "the right way". Doing things "the old way" might be a common marketing pitch in bourbon, but it also seems to be true in the case of Wild Turkey. Simple, but significant. Wild Turkey Rare Breed is a fantastic bourbon, and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.5/5 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".

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: Redbreast Lustau Edition

I've long been a fan of David Bowie. Few other artists have re-invented themselves with the consistency and brilliance of Bowie. From the experimental glam of his Ziggy Stardust phase to the "plastic soul" of Young Americans, to collaborations with artists as diverse as Bing Crosby ("Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy"), Stevie Ray Vaughan (Let's Dance), Brian Eno (the "Berlin Trilogy") and Queen ("Under Pressure"), Bowie touched all the musical bases. He even collaborated with Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails on "I'm Afraid of Americans" in 1997. Bowie also had several roles in film, from the Goblin King in Labyrinth, where he created a look Axl Rose would later copy, to Nikola Tesla in The Prestige.

Welcome to the Labyrinth
Like David Bowie, many whiskies attempt to re-invent themselves, or at least branch out from their standard offerings. Some succeed, but many are more David Hasselhoff than David Bowie. Redbreast is considered by many to be the embodiment of Irish Single Pot Still Whiskey. Their standard line presents a good variety with a 12 year old, a 12 year old Cask Strength, a 15 year old and a 21 year old offering. Redbreast has also released a more heavily sherried Redbreast Lustau Edition.

According to their website, Redbreast Lustau "is initially matured in traditional bourbon and sherry casks for a period of 9-12 years. It is then finished for 1 additional year in first fill hand selected sherry butts that have been seasoned with the finest Oloroso sherry from the prestigious Bodegas Lustau in Jerez." So Redbreast Lustau is a vatting of whiskies between 10-13 years old, it is unchill-filtered and is bottled at a respectable 46% ABV. On paper, there's a lot to like. But the $64 000 question is: How does it taste?

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): sweet with plenty of dark fruit; figs, dates, prunes, also some slightly brighter notes, blackberries perhaps, dark toffee and toasted oak

Palate (undiluted): very rich arrival, thick and full-bodied, sweet and buttery, more fruit (apricots?) with a hint of raw almonds and hazelnuts. With time in the glass, I also get a very slight note of unripe banana. Seriously. It's there.

Finish: medium to long, more dates and figs,  some "green"  notes (unmalted barley?), oak spices and fresh tobacco lingering.

Adding water mutes the fruitiness of the nose significantly. The oak and almonds dominate with water added. The flavour becomes much flatter. The texture becomes less like butter and more like low-fat cream. Or like skim milk. Adding water thins out the body and changes everything I love about this whiskey. I'd say avoid water altogether. It's bottled at 46% ABV, which is fairly close to my sweet spot (I prefer 48%-50% ABV for neat sipping) so water isn't necessary. One of the wonderful things about Redbreast is its rich, thick texture. There's no reason to change that. To paraphrase an expression I heard somewhere else, adding water to Redbreast is like putting a child-safety seat in Grave Digger. You can do it, but it just feels wrong. Like if David Bowie had released an album of Nickelback covers.

Redbreast's stellar reputation is well-earned. The Lustau Edition does not disappoint. It's everything I love about Irish Single Pot Still (richness and slight spice) with the dark fruit kicked up a few notches. The 12 Year Old Cask Strength is still my favourite Redbreast (full disclosure: I've never tried the 21 Year Old), but I like the Lustau  Edition. It's a nice addition to the Redbreast family. 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 !

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Killing Me Softly: A review of Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity 17 Year Old

Big and bold is all the rage these days. We have super-sized portions and super-sized vehicles. We tune in to hear loudmouth politicians ignore facts and avoid nuanced civil discourse because compromise and complexity are boring. Subtle details require too much time and attention. Even whisky aficionados fall into this trap from time to time. I've been guilty of it too; ignoring "subtle" whiskies in favour of cask strength whiskies, peat-bomb whiskies or even sherry-bomb whiskies. Does subtlety still have value? Of course it does. Some things require patience, perseverance and attention to what may seem like minutiae. However, putting in the time and effort can pay dividends to those willing to invest.

Northern Border Collection Rare Releases

Back in October/November 2017, Corby announced a limited release of four premium Canadian whiskies. Two of these whiskies attracted more attention than their brethren. J.P. Wiser's 35 Year Old caught our attention with its age and Lot No.40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old excited those of us who already love the "standard" Lot No.40 with its boisterous "it goes to eleven" nature. The other two releases, Pike Creek 21 Year Old Speyside Cask and Gooderham & Worts 17 Year Old Three Grain, didn't draw as much immediate fanfare. Whisky enthusiasts ignoring the latter two are missing out. Gooderham & Worts' Four Grain is a Canadian whisky that has grown on me over time. It's an excellent whisky to drink neat, on the rocks or even in a cocktail. If you haven't tried that one, you should. My experience with the Four Grain enticed me to buy the 17 Year Old Little Trinity. The name honours Little Trinity church, a church founded by William Gooderham in 1842 for his mill and distillery employees who couldn't afford the high pew fees in the area. So, how does this whisky taste?

Tasting Notes

Before imbibing this one, I strongly suggest you let it sit in your glass for at least twenty minutes. The Little Trinity needs some time to open up. The flavours are subtle at first, but they develop beautifully with time.

Nose (undiluted): honey, oak, butterscotch, cedar, vanilla bean, golden raisins, maple syrup, and a hint of lemon

Palate (undiluted): a contrast from the bright nose, rich arrival, thick mouthfeel, maple, butterscotch, oranges, sweet and spicy (ginger?), hot peppers, more oak with a hint of rye spice

Finish: medium length, a slight nuttiness, just a bit drying and tannic, with the sweet and spicy notes lingering along side the oak.

Adding water, even a little bit, really brings some complexity out of this whisky. The vanilla becomes more prominent on the nose, and some thick, floral honey appears on the palate. I recommend adding water, even a tiny bit, to this whisky. It is subtle, but very complex. It’s not a belter like Lot 40 Cask Strength, but it will seduce you slowly, without you even noticing.

Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity 17 Year Old Three Grain may not blow your socks off right away. There's no peat or sherry and it isn't a rye-bomb either (there are some subtle rye notes). Little Trinity is very complex though. It requires punctiliousness,  and it is worth the effort. This is a rich whisky. It's a terrific sipping whisky. Maybe it's the packaging affecting my perception, but this feels like an Old Timey whisky; like something Mark Twain would have sipped while writing Tom Sawyer. I don't know what whisky tasted like in the 1870s, so this is just a feeling, a guess. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this whisky. It's unlike anything I've tasted before.

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"


Wednesday, 4 April 2018

This is Islay! A review of Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength

Hollywood films aren't renowned for their historical accuracy. "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story" the saying goes. I have to admit that, inaccuracies aside, the film 300 is one of my favourite action movies. I won't waste time pointing out all of the film's ahistorical content, but there are some elements of truth to it. For example, one scene dramatizes the training Spartan boys underwent beginning at approximately age 7 or 8. Spartan boys were, in truth, sent to the agoge (a-GO-ghee) for a brutal and rigorous "education" which focused on military discipline, physical endurance and duty to Sparta. The constant military drilling, and the physical violence the boys suffered ensured that when they "graduated" at 20 years old, they were ready to become part of the most feared army the ancient world had ever seen. Laphroaig is much like the agoge. 
Laphroaig does not suffer insolence
It can be brutal and demoralizing to those not prepared for its bold and unforgiving nature. And like Leonidas shouting "THIS ! IS ! SPARTA !!" at the messenger who threatened him and disrespected his queen, Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength is merciless and it will kick the unprepared or impudent into a bottomless pit. Luckily, if you like Laphroaig 10 Year Old, as I do, the Cask Strength version will prove itself battle-ready.

Opinions Welcome

Laphroaig is unapologetic. Their whiskies aren't for everyone and their cheeky marketing reflects this brilliantly. Their promotional videos emphasize the truth of their slogan "Opinions Welcome"; at one point in this one, a man says "That's good" to which the woman standing beside him replies "No, smells like sweaty workmen and tar." At the end of the video, an old Scot says "would ya really like ta know? It's like a Highland cow's horn up your arse." Many whiskies divide opinions, but Laphroaig seems to be the most divisive of all. 

Tasting notes

Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength is not readily available in Ontario. I was fortunate to obtain a sample from a friend for this review. This sample is from Batch 005 (57.2% ABV). The bottle was opened May 20, 2017, gassed after each use, and was 2/3 full when the sample was poured on Nov 5/2017.

Prepare for GLORY !!!
Nose (undiluted): very briny (sea salt), the seaweed (iodine) note is front and center, with the smoke hanging around in the background. There's also a rich vanilla note. With time in the glass, the smoke becomes more pronounced with a mineral note appearing as well. A bonfire on a rocky beach. Later still, aromas of salted caramel start competing with the smoke. The nose has a great development. This is how scotch should smell.
Palate (undiluted): surprisingly sweet arrival, very friendly for a 57.2% ABV whisky,  rich earth, ashy peat, some restrained black pepper notes with the salted caramel popping in again.
Finish: long, sweet and earthy, black pepper returning with a medicinal, menthol and iodine note lingering.  Hints of barbecue smoke (meat). I don’t want this to end.

Adding water made the nose far more medicinal and antiseptic. The smoke retreats a bit before coming back and bringing the salted caramel along for the ride. The vanilla aromas are toned down with the addition of water, but a ripe pear note I often find in Laphroaig pops in. The arrival in the palate is actually hotter with the addition of water. Black pepper comes forward but retreats quickly as the sweetness comes back, which develops to a rich, thick cigar smoke. The finish becomes less medicinal with the addition of water. The earthy peat dominates the finish with some briny seaweed hanging around. This might be, to my tastes, a perfect whisky. It is on par with Lagavulin 12 Year Old Cask Strength in my books. This is great with or without water.

There is so much going on with this whisky. It's a shame it isn't more readily available in Ontario. This is not a session whisky; rather Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength is a whisky to linger over and savour. If I had a study with a fireplace, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a large, leather chair, Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength would likely be my whisky of choice whilst I pondered whatever people with those studies ponder. This is a magnificent whisky for those of us who love big peat, iodine and smoke. Very highly recommended.

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 !