Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Who's Your Daddy? A review of Stagg Jr Bourbon

This review contains spoilers for the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you haven't seen it, where have you been for the last 30 years?

How do you improve on a classic character like Indiana Jones? He's witty. He's handsome. He's intelligent. He's brave. He's ressourceful. He's....named after his father? In the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, we discover that Indy's real name is Henry Jones Jr, named after his father, portrayed by the inimitable Sean Connery.
"We named the dog Indiana!" Connery exclaims. And in that moment of levity, the origin of the eponymous hero's name is de-mystified. The Last Crusade is undoubtedly my favourite film in the Indiana Jones series, in no small part because the on-screen chemistry between Connery and Ford was so good. We discover that Indy has some hang-ups regarding his relationship with his father. Junior replies to his father's chiding with an exasperated "I know, dad!" more than once. Not to play armchair psychologist to a fictional character, but these issues may be at the root of Indy's desire to be the best in his field. Can a son be as good as, or better than his father?

Who is your daddy, and what does he do?

Stagg Jr. is a product of the Buffalo Trace distillery. The name comes from another product, George T. Stagg Bourbon, a whiskey named for the über-successful Kentucky  salesman/business man/distillery founder. The annual release of George T. Stagg as part of the Buffalo Trace Antique collection is a highly anticipated event. George T. Stagg is a vatting of bourbons that are at least 15 years old, so a limited number of bottles are produced and released every year, usually in the fall. I wasn't fortunate enough to "win" the chance to buy a bottle in the LCBO's lottery this year. Stagg Jr. is made from the same mashbill as George T. Stagg, but is not quite as aged, reportedly containing 7 to 10 year old whiskey. Stagg Jr. is still somewhat limited, but is not a lottery product like its parent product. It tends to come around several times per year, and is more affordable than  George T. Stagg. The mashbill is the Buffalo Trace Mashbill #1 (low rye: less than 10 % rye) and this bourbon, from Batch 8, is bottled at a hefty 64.75% ABV. This review is from a sample generously provided by a friend. His bottle was opened Oct 17, 2017,  and the sample poured on Nov 8, 2017.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): lots of brown sugar, sour cherries, oak, vanilla, dark toffee, classic bourbon on steroids
Palate (undiluted): rich arrival, waxy feel, more cherries, deep barrel char, rye, cloves, a bit of caramel corn
Finish: long, oaky, and warming, with some tannins making an appearance near the end, like over-steeped black tea, ending on cacao beans and more dark cherries.
With water, the fruitiness is pushed back. Caramel pops out of the glass on the nose alongside a freshly-shucked corn note.  With a bit of time, the nose becomes much oakier and an aroma of fresh pipe tobacco emerges. On the palate and finish, there is far less fruitiness with water added. It’s replaced by rich, sticky toffee and floral vanilla, while the chocolate on the finish becomes more like milk chocolate.This is terrific both ways.

I've never had George T. Stagg, so I can't comment on the quality of Junior's parent bourbon. It may be the Henry Jones Sr/Sean Connery of bourbon, or it may be Danny Tanner/Bob Saget of the Buffalo Trace family for all I know. However Stagg Jr. is excellent on its own, much like Indiana Jones. It's a bruiser, but even with water added the nuance and wide range of flavours shine through and the bourbon maintains its exceptional quality. Recommended.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches
Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.
Mark Twain

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Walk the Line: A review of Johnnie Walker Black Label

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black
Why you never see bright colors on my back
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone
Well, there's a reason for the things that I have on

"The Man in Black" is one of Johnny Cash's signature songs. In it, he describes the social iniquities that led to his choice of wardrobe. Becoming the man in black was, then, a form of protest against injustice. According to Rolling Stone magazine, however, the choice was far more practical; an all-black wardrobe was easier for band members to match and keep clean on a long tour. In fact, during his early years, Johnny Cash was teased and nicknamed "Undertaker" by other artists. Nevertheless, the gimmick worked and just about everyone knows who "the man in black" is.

Cash is also one of the rare artists who has been able to transcend genres. He is revered (rightfully so) for his contributions to country music, but he was never content to stay within the boundaries of that style. Cash recorded a duet with Bob Dylan, performing the latter's "Girl From the North Country". He covered the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" and performed a duet with Fiona Apple, covering Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on his 2002 album, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash also teamed up with icons such as Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and many others. He recorded albums with his wife, the talented June Carter-Cash. No matter how much time goes by, no matter how "mainstream" or popular his songs get, Johnny Cash's music remains relevant. I'll go out on a limb and say the same timelessness and versatility applies to Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old Blended Scotch. Hear me out.

Walk the Line

Johnnie Walker is undoubtedly the most iconic scotch brand in the world. It sells 10 million cases of whisky more than its nearest competitor (Ballantine's). The company was started by grocer John Walker, who sold spirits in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, Scotland in the 1820s. John Walker had some success selling spirits, but it was his son and grandson, both named Alexander, who grew the brand into the giant it is today. Johnnie Walker's square bottle and 24 degree angled label were introduced in 1860, and both served to distinguish the brand from its competitors. Today, the brand's lineup is distinguished by its colour-coding. The Black Label is created from approximately 40 malt and grain whiskies aged for a minimum of 12 years. This is, in and of itself, pretty impressive. All whiskies have batch variation, but Johnnie Walker Black has, to my palate, remained remarkably consistent. There are a lot of reasons for this success. The Walker brand is owned by one of the biggest alcoholic beverages company in the world (Diageo), giving the master blenders access to a large number of whiskies with which to work. For those who don't know, there is no Johnnie Walker Distillery. Their blended whiskies are created using whiskies from Diageo-owned distilleries, such as Cragganmore, Caol Ila, Talisker, Lagavulin, Cardhu, Oban, Glenkinchie, Clynelish, Linkwood, and others. Blending is an art unto itself and Diageo employs some of the best.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): raisins and dried fruits, apricots maybe, light smoke, sherry, vanilla
Palate (undiluted): medium bodied, vanilla, toffee, a bit of pepper, orange peels, oak
Finish: Medium length, earthy peat, wood smoke, raisins, and malted barley.

Adding water tones down the sweetness a bit and pushes the smoke to the tail end of the finish. It may be denounced as whisky heresy by some, but Johnnie Walker Black Label is terrific with club soda or any sparkling water, like Perrier. I like to call this cocktail the Hitchslap, as it was reportedly the late Christopher Hitchens' favourite drink. Say what you will about Hitchens, but he was erudite, entertaining and always unabashedly honest. I have two minor quibbles with this whisky. The first is the 40% ABV bottling. I'd like to see it bottled at a minimum of 43% ABV, or even 45%. I'd also like this whisky to have a bit more smoke and peat, but for some reason whisky companies don't want to base all their business decisions on my personal wishes. Oh well.

Forget those who deride blended whisky. Johnnie Walker Black Label is a consistent, well put-together whisky. It's a testament to the skill of Diageo's blenders. It is remarkably consistent and works in just about any context, much like the man in black himself. Johnny Cash was honest and no-nonsense, and so is Johnnie Walker Black Label. This whisky is worth your time. I almost always have a bottle in my cabinet. 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 !!

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Back In My Day: Old Grand Dad 114

If you're reading this blog, you shouldn't be surprised to find I'm a sucker for anything old-timey. Moustachioes, top hats, bicycles with enormous front wheels, suspenders (or braces, if you prefer) are just the bee's knees. Perhaps I associate whiskey culture, rightly or wrongly, with more mature, refined individuals. Maybe I erroneously idealize the late nineteenth century, the roaring twenties, and the past in general, but this isn't the time or place to pontificate about the systemic problems and injustices of the past. I'm told it won't boost a whiskey blog's readership numbers...
Sweet bike AND facial hair !

Besides, focusing on the good things from the past, like old-time slang is a welcome distraction from the tommy-rot of our present realities. "Tell it to Sweeney" is more creative and fun than "You are fake news!". Whiskey makers know this and appeal to tradition and "the old ways" all the time.

Back in my day !

Old Grand-Dad was a real person. Basil Hayden made his name by distilling a bourbon whiskey made with a higher percentage of rye. Basil Hayden passed along the art of distilling to his son and then, in turn, to his grandson. It was the third generation distiller, Colonel R.B. Hayden, who honored his grandfather by naming his justly famed whiskey “Old Grand-Dad.”

During Prohibition, Old Grand-Dad was produced by a pharmaceutical company, the American Medicinal Sprits Co., and was one of the few distilled spirits permitted to be prescribed as medicine. It was a popular time to be sick.¹

OGD 114's attitude
Depending on which internet source you trust, the mashbill is 60%-63% corn, 27%-30% rye, and 10% malted barley. The age is, again according to internet speculation, somewhere between 4 and 7 years. Old Grand Dad 114 is, then, a high-rye bourbon, bottled at a powerful 57% ABV (or 114 Proof, hence the name). It isn't readily available in Ontario, but I obtained a sample from a friend who can get it in the United States for $23-$27.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): very fruity at first, cherry blossoms, a bit of vanilla and brown sugar (though much less than I expect from a bourbon) developing to oak tannins and rye spice in the background, maybe just a hint of mint in the tail end. There is very little alcohol prickle on the nose. I would never have guessed this was bottled at 57% ABV. As this sits in the glass, a slightly vegetal note appears in the background. Dried leaves. This is a terrific nose.

Palate (undiluted): WOW !!! There’s that 57% ABV ! Very hot arrival, though not unpleasant at all. It isn’t “spiky” (like a hoppy beer) as much as it’s big, bold and warming. Lots more cherries. Sour cherries, with a bit of vanilla frosting. The rye spice is present, but it isn’t the star of this show at all.

Finish: medium-long with some toffee notes popping through and the oak tannins returning. There’s a slight tobacco/leather note peeking through at the very end of the finish.

Adding water pushed the fruity notes way back. Fresh corn (still a little green) pops out of the glass. The nose actually seems to be “hotter” with the addition of water. Oak and tobacco notes next. The cherries are still there, but they’ve been pushed way back. Given some time to rest (5 minutes or so), the fruit comes back, but doesn’t dominate the way it did at full strength. The arrival on the palate is more typically bourbon-esque with water. Toffee, vanilla and oak notes dominate with the fresh corn next and that lovely fruity note pushed way back. After some resting time, the flavours feel like they’re getting a bit muted, relatively speaking. With water, the finish becomes far more vegetal (fresh tobacco?) though not much shorter. I prefer this one at full strength.

I really wish Old Grand Dad 114 was available in Ontario. This is a bourbon I would love to keep in my liquor cabinet at all times. It's terrific on its own and I'm sure the bold flavours and higher proof would stand up wonderfully in cocktails like (what else?) the Old Fashioned. This whiskey is proof that low price does NOT equal low quality. I highly recommend you pick up a bottle if you see one near you. Try it and you'll undoubtedly exclaim "Now you're on the trolley !" Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go see a man about a dog.
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"

¹taken from "The Olds" website.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Revisiting the moustache rating system

I know I've written about it before, but for those who don't want to go back and find the last entry on my somewhat jocular system of evaluation, here's an updated version of my moustache rating system. It's not really analogous to a points system, but rather my interpretation of what the whisky's strengths and best uses are. Every whisky has strengths and weaknesses. This system is just, like, my opinion, man.

The moustache abides

1 moustache

Vodka. Not much lavour here, you're simply adding alcohol to your drink. I haven't had any whiskies at this level yet. A whisky rated this poorly would not be recommended. At all. But vodka is alright, if that's what you're into. No judgment here. Besides, you need vodka for white Russians, right?

Example: Absolut Vodka

1 1/2 moustaches

This whisky is suitable strictly for mixing. And not even that great as a mixer. I'd probably avoid any whisky rated this low, and I'd recommend you do the same. Again, I'd remind you that my ratings are a matter of personal taste, but anything rated this poorly isn't worth drinking, in my opinion.
Example:  Fireball ? (maybe)

2 moustaches

Still strictly a mixer, it's neither great or terrible. You probably don't want to make Manhattans or Old Fashioneds with this whisky. It's an average "rye and ginger" or "whisky and coke" type of whisky. That said, it may still be a decent sipper (on the rocks) if you're in a pinch. This is not a category of whisky to overlook, as these whiskies should have their place in your collection.
Example: Grant's Family Reserve Blended Scotch

2 1/2 moustaches

Respectable mixing whisky. It might even be decent neat or on the rocks. Works in a cocktail, but there are probably better whiskies for the job. Again, these whiskies are primarily mixing whiskies, in my opinion. But that doesn't mean they're bad.

Example: Bushmills Original

3 moustaches

Now we're getting to a high quality, versatile whisky. I suggest keeping several "3 moustache" whiskies on hand at all times. They tend to be more affordable and are usually terrific in cocktails or as mixing whiskies. They're also enjoyable neat or on the rocks.
Example: Alberta Premium Dark Horse

3 1/2 moustaches

This whisky is a quality sipper. Outstanding in an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan. These whiskies are very versatile, yet you may be loath to use these in a cocktail. But you shouldn't be. Many of these whiskies will turn a good cocktail into a great cocktail.
Example: Wild Turkey 101

4 moustaches

This is terrific sipping whisky. I would consider anything I've rated 4 moustaches as a personal favourite for neat sipping. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. I probably won't want to mix this with anything. But you can do what you want. Your whisky, your rules.
Example: J.P. Wiser's Dissertation

4 1/2 moustaches

Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. I refuse to mix a whisky I rate this highly with anything, other than a cigar, if I've got one. You do what you want, but don't let me see you dilute one of these with ice. Or Coke. Please.
Example: Lagavulin Distillers Edition

5 moustaches

Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. Very few whiskies are rated this highly, and that should not be an indictment of the "lower" levels. And lest I become too repetitive; these are game-changers for me. Your experience may differ. And that's ok.
Example: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Unplugged: a review of Caol Ila Unpeated 17 Year Old Cask Strength

Do you remember the 1990s? I do. It was a time of radical change; the Soviet Union "fell/was dissolved" in 1991, the internet gained widespread popularity as the decade progressed, and less seriously, popular music changed from the saccharine party anthems of the 1980s (hi Def Leppard!) to more angst-fuelled anthems of disillusionment and alienation (hi Seattle!).  Some dismissed the gritty dirges of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Nirvana, yet at the heart of grunge was some damned fine songwriting. The 1990s also saw MTV launch its Unplugged series; a forum where musicians could showcase their songs in a stripped-down format. 

There were some odd performances (Korn anyone?) but many were terrific. Seattle grunge groups like Nirvana and Alice In Chains proved that their songs worked even when stipped of the noisy guitars and screaming vocals. Eric Clapton's contribution, however, remains my favourite Unplugged album. Clapton had long established his position as one of the most influential guitarists in rock history, and Unplugged showed his mastery of blues guitar playing wasn't limited to the iconic Fender Stratocaster. Some things work beautifully, regardless of context. Clapton's Unplugged is one example, Caol Ila 17 Year Old Unpeated Cask Strength Single Malt is another.

Un-what now? Or "What is peated whisky?"

When making malt whisky, the barley must be malted, aka sprouted or germinated. Traditionally, the barley is steeped in water and left for germination on malting floors. Unless the distillery has outsourced the process to a larger, more automated "maltsters", the barley must be turned over by hand in carefully timed intervals so that all grains germinate equally. Germination takes about five days. After the barley grain has opened and the germ has reached approximately 2/3 of the length of the grain, the starch has turned into sugar. Now the germination process is interrupted by spreading the still wet barley on grids in the kiln and drying it with hot air from below. This stage contributes significantly to the character of the whisky. If you add peat to the fire, the malt gets a smoky peat note.¹ Caol Ila traditionally peats their malted barley to a phenol level of about 35 ppm (parts per million), but this 2015 Special Release from Diageo (the ownership group that Caol Ila belongs to) uses unpeated barley malt. So how does this whisky taste when the smoke and peat are removed?

Tasting notes

This review is from a single sample provided by a friend. The whisky is bottled at 55.9% ABV. It was opened September 20, 2016, and gassed (with Private Preserve) after each use. It was decanted to a smaller bottle April 25, 2017, gassed after each use, and the sample was poured November 5, 2017, with the decanted bottle being 2/3 full.

  • Nose (undiluted): this may be unpeated, but there is still an unmistakable vegetal note present. It isn’t smoky, but there’s a mossy note, damp leaves perhaps. It's also surprisingly fruity. Ripe pears. Charred lemons. Kraft Caramels (the little, individually-wrapped ones). A bit of iodine. A touch of black pepper. Briny as it opens up. Complex and expressive.
  • Palate (undiluted): opens on a mineral note, almost chalky at first, wet slate maybe. It’s quickly replaced by a pleasant fruitiness; ripe pears and toffee with a black pepper kick near the end, yet it doesn't feel hot for a whisky that's bottled at 55.8% ABV. With time, there's a pleasant waxy feel to the body of the whisky. It's very enjoyable, especially combined with the green apple on the finish.
  • Finish: fairly long, more toffee, some brine returning and a very prominent green apple note (sweet, not sour) developing at the very end of the finish. That last note took me by surprise but it’s unmistakable.

With water, the maritime brine comes forward on the nose immediately. But it’s still not smoky. Which makes sense; it IS unpeated, after all. There’s also more black pepper and oak spice with water added. The taste is sweeter, but less fruity with water. Green apples and lots of caramel. There's also a strong cereal note (oatmeal?) coming through with the addition of water. The finish doesn’t change much with water. That green apple hangs around forever. And it’s very enjoyable. I would never have guessed this was over 48% ABV. Very approachable and “friendly”.

Caol Ila's Unpeated whisky reminds me of a successful Unplugged session. Like Eric Clapton re-inventing "Layla" and nailing the solo, or belting out "Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out)", Caol Ila's 17 Year Old Unpeated Cask Strength shows how terrific this whisky is, with or without the screaming smoke-show. Highly recommended (if you can find 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.”

Slainte !

¹information taken from

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Going Solo: a review of Crown Royal Blender's Select

Neil Young is a Canadian icon. Regardless of how you feel about his music, there is no doubt that his contributions to popular music have secured him a place in the history books. He was a founding member of Buffalo Springfield, he wrote many of the hits for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, such as "Helpless", "Ohio", and "This Old House". His solo work, however, has surpassed his work with other artists. Harvest is, without a doubt, one of the best albums ever recorded. It's easy to take the album for granted, since we're so used to hearing it, but listen to "The Needle and the Damage Done" or "Old Man" as though it was your first time, and you can't help but be impressed by Young's songwriting prowess.

Crown Royal Blender's Select might be the Neil Young of the Canadian whisky world. Crown's signature blend Crown Royal Deluxe is so ubiquitous, that it's easy to take it for granted. But what happens when you remove on of the key components and allow that component some time in the spotlight on its own?

An Ontario Exclusive?

For all the negatives associated with being a whisky lover in Ontario (absurdly high prices, limited selection, etc.) there are some perks. Being a huge market in Canada, we sometimes get whiskies not offered to other Canadians, or to Americans. J.P. Wiser's Dissertation, one of my favourite whiskies of all time, is readily available here (albeit in a limited-edition run) while it is much harder to find in other jurisdictions. Crown Royal has also released whiskies in Ontario that aren't readily available everywhere else. Crown Royal Blender's Select is an exclusive release at the LCBO and is a vatting of 9 year old rye whiskies and 7 year old rye whiskies from the famed Coffey Still in Gimly, Manitoba. Note that the Coffey still is named for the Irishman who improved the column still (Aeneas Coffey) and has nothing whatsoever to do with Tim Horton's or Starbuck's. The Coffey rye was aged in Virgin oak barrels, for more of those vanilla, toffee and caramel flavours. This whisky is produced from a mashbill (grains cooked and milled together before distillation) which is different for Canadian whisky. Canadians usually cook, mill, distill, and age each grain whisky separately and blend before bottling. The mashbill here is 64% Corn, 31.5% Rye, 4.5% Malted Barley, according to Jason Hambrey of In Search of Elegance. The Blender's Select is a type of rye whisky that is often used in other Crown Royal products. Mark Balkenende, Master Blender for Crown Royal, said on a recent podcast that there are five types of whisky that make up Crown Royal Deluxe. The Coffey Rye is one of the key "flavouring whiskies" used. It's rich and flavourful, and it's the star of the show here. Blender's Select is the Coffey Rye's solo album.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): buttery toffee, maple sugar, a bit of oak, sawdust, cedar, rye and oak spice (cloves, nutmeg) and a slight orange zest note
Palate (undiluted): rich arrival, caramel popcorn, butterscotch, banana, a bit of coconut, vanilla and cinnamon
Finish: medium length, sweet, yet still drying at the tail end, a hint of white grape juice, banana, and a bit of rye and oak tannins return.

With water, the banana notes become much more prominent with some hard toffee and milk chocolate making an appearance as well. I found the banana notes overwhelming with water added, so I prefer this one neat. I feel as though this whisky is best served as an after-dinner sipper, in lieu of a dessert.

Crown Royal is catering more and more to the "sipping whisky" crowd. Its Northern Harvest Rye remains, in this writer's opinion, one of the best values in whisky anywhere. Blender's Select is something different. You've undoubtedly tasted it before, albeit not in its pure form. Blender's Select is a very good sipping whisky, though it treads perilously close to the "too sweet" line for me. I think it would work brilliantly in a cocktail like the Old Pal, where its sweetness would be offset by the bitterness of the Campari and the dry Vermouth. How does one make an Old Pal?

Mix equal parts Crown Royal Blender's Select (or any other bourbon or rye whisky), Campari and Dry Vermouth in a mixing glass filled with ice, stir for 20-30 seconds and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and voilà! An Old Pal. Try it and let me know what you think.

As for the whisky itself, I have at least one not-so-minor quibble: I'd love to see it sold at cask strength. I appreciate that 45% ABV is higher than the standard 40% we usually get from Crown Royal, but IF you're producing a whisky for afficionados, it seems logical to release it at cask strength. This whisky isn't trying to appeal to the "Crown and Coke" crowd. I feel this should have been released at a higher proof. Despite that, this is still a good whisky.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

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

Slainte !