Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For: a review of Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt

I've been a fan of The Simpsons for as long as I can remember. The animated sitcom has always been witty, biting, and insightful. The writers strike a balance between satirical social commentary and comic absurdity only made possible in a cartoon setting. The early seasons focused mostly on Bart's shenanigans, probably because the troublemaker is based on creator Matt Groening. However, my favourite episodes have always been the Homer-centric ones. And I'm not alone. Around Season 3 or 4, The Simpsons episodes increasingly featured Homer's (mis)adventures as central plot points. Despite being named for the Greek poet and Groening's father, Homer is a depiction (a mostly unflattering one) of the typical American man. He is lazy, reckless, impulsive, and woefully ignorant. Yet for all his foolishness, Homer's unwavering loyalty to his family makes him impossible to hate. Unless you're Frank Grimes.

Homer's hilarious impulsivity is exemplified in the first vignette of the Treehouse of Horror II episode. In it, Lisa, Bart, and Homer eat too much Hallowe'en candy and each has a nightmare. In Lisa's nightmare, Homer purchases a monkey's paw that grants the one holding it four wishes. After the three first wishes go awry, Homer wishes for a turkey sandwich. It's only after discovering that the turkey in the sandwich is a little dry that Homer has an outburst, cursing the monkey paw and throwing it out the window. Be careful what you wish for, Homer.

Monkeying Around

Blended malt scotch whisky is an interesting case study. Single malt scotch whisky is the product of a single distillery (hence the "single") made from 100% malted barley (hence the "malt"). Whereas blended scotch contains grain whisky (i.e. whisky made from other grains, such as corn or wheat), blended malt scotch whisky is made from 100% malted barley, just like single malt. The only difference between blended malt and single malt is the sourcing from different distilleries. Blended malt, a mix of different single malt scotches, supposedly allows for greater flexibility and a more complex flavour profile.

But what does Monkey Shoulder mean?

The name of this whisky is a nod to the men who used to turn the malted barley by hand. Many developed a repetitive strain injury in one shoulder, and the condition was dubbed "Monkey Shoulder".  This blended malt, the product of William Grant & Sons is a mix of three single malts; Kininvie, Glenfiddich, and Balvenie.
The folks at William Grant have also said that other single malts from undisclosed distilleries may find their way into the mix from time to time, but the KGB whiskies, as they're known, are consistent. Personally, I'd love to see some kind of amusing "In Soviet Russia" meme featuring Monkey Shoulder, but alas, I haven't found any yet. Nor have I found the exact proportion of each component whisky in the final mix, and I've never tried Kininvie as a stand-alone single malt, so I won't attempt to do any detective work here. Monkey Shoulder bears no age statement, so we can only assume it's at least 3 years old, which is the minimum required aging period for whisky in Scotland.

Tasting Notes

Nose (undiluted): honey, vanilla, fuzzy peach candies, floral notes
Palate (undiluted): hot arrival for a whisky bottled at only 43% ABV, somewhat creamy mouthfeel, barley nuttiness, a bit of vanilla and orange peels
Finish: fairly short, with more vanilla and some coconut notes

Adding water tones down the heat, but also drowns out the fruitiness, leaving only honey and barley flavours. There's a bit of oak on the finish with water, but not much else. So adding water (or ice) to this whisky is a bit of a trade-off. To be fair, the folks at William Grant market Monkey Shoulder as a mixing/cocktail whisky and it may work better as a mixer than as a sipping whisky.

Monkey Shoulder is a befuddling case study. It is a good quality (if somewhat mediocre) whisky, but not a great neat sipper. This is not a reproach, as the company plasters the Monkey Shoulder website with cocktail recipes. The quirk may be specific to Ontario: the pricing quirk. Monkey Shoulder sells for about $65 CAD, making it more expensive than many sipping whiskies. As such, I wouldn't really recommend it unless you can buy it for less money in a different jurisdiction. For $65 or less, I would rather buy J.P. Wiser's Dissertation, Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, Glenlivet 12 Year Old, or Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Your experience may differ, and if you live in a market where Monkey Shoulder is more reasonably priced, it's a good whisky for "background" enjoyment. Try before you buy.

Rating: 2.5/5 moustaches

Whisky is liquid Sunshine
George Bernard Shaw

Slainte !

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Top 5: Surviving the Internet Edition

We cannot get out. The end comes soon. We hear drums, drums in the deep. They are coming.

Whisky's global popularity continues its unprecedented growth. Scotch whisky exports, for example, increased by 9% in 2017. Financial experts are predicting a compound annual growth rate between 7% and 9% through 2020. While there are many benefits to growth in an industry such as (but not limited to) innovation, and a wider distribution of a variety of products, there are some drawbacks to growth. No, this isn't another rant against the preponderance of low quality No Age Statement (NAS) whiskies crowding our shelves, or a caustic tirade against rising prices, although those are valid concerns. The inspiration for this post, and the reason for the Lord of the Rings exerpt above, is more commonplace, yet just as vexing: the internet troll, specifically the Whisky Troll.

What's a Whisky Troll?

The Whisky Troll takes a variety of shapes, but usually displays the following characteristics:
  • The Whisky Troll is almost always male.
  • The Whisky Troll's natural habitat is the internet's various whisky-centric message boards or whisky-related Facebook pages.
  • The Whisky Troll rejects the validity of any opinions but his own.
  • The Whisky Troll has little capacity or desire for logical discussion; he prefers to mock or insult others.
  • The Whisky Troll equates price with quality. If it's expensive, it must be good, and if you disagree with him, he'll assert that you're simply poor, stupid and jealous.
  • The Whisky Troll may attempt to convince you of his authority by posting pictures of expensive bottles of whisky or sports cars and by regaling his unwitting readers with tales of his visits to scotch whisky distilleries. While these things aren't inherently wrong or condescending, the Whisky Troll uses these experiences as a basis for his expertise. E.g. "I've visited The Macallan distillery, so when I tell you their Macallan Reflexion is worth the $1600 they charge for it, you should shut up and listen."

How Does One Defeat the Whisky Troll?

One does not simply defeat a Whisky Troll. If you engage with the Whisky Troll, you will undoubtedly suffer the same fate as Balin and the Dwarves did upon their return to Moria. I refer you once more to the citation above. The Whisky Troll wants to waste your time, insult you, and make you feel bad. If you encounter a Whisky Troll, I suggest you cease and desist all discussion with him. I've tried to reason with them too often, and I assure you it is a fruitless endeavour.

What I propose instead is a Top Five list of easy-drinking, no nonsense whiskies. These whiskies are not the most complex, they are not the most expensive, nor are they the most prestigious whiskies. However they are enjoyable whiskies. They aren't devoid of complexity, but they don't require the attention and concentration of a Brora 37 Year Old, a Springbank 30 Year Old, or a Bowmore 1964 35 Year Old. The whiskies featured on this Top 5 list are whiskies that can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks, or even in a cocktail. These are "social whiskies" or "background whiskies". Nothing infuriates a Whisky Troll more than people enjoying their whiskies the way they prefer. Ignoring their rancor is the best way to ward off Whisky Trolls.

5. Pike Creek 10 Year Old Canadian Whisky

Pike Creek's 10 Year Old Canadian Whisky is finished in ex-rum barrels. It's got some brown sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, and rye notes which make it sweet and easy-drinking, but not without a little kick. Pike Creek is, for my money, a very nice "summer whisky" perfect for sipping on the rocks or with a bit of Perrier or other sparkling water. It runs about $40, so it's a no-brainer upgrade on your "standard" mixing whisky. Lot 40 is one of my favourite Canadian whiskies, but its big oak and rye flavours might be a bit too much for a whisky neophyte as a casual sipper. Pike Creek is softer, less feisty, but every bit as well put-together as its cousin (both are products of Windsor's Hiram Walker distillery).

4. Aberlour 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

This one is a Single Malt Scotch, but one that's eminently affordable, easy to drink, and unpretentious. There is complexity to it, but it isn't overwhelming. It's a whisky that's great to share with friends, and it is gentle enough so as not to overpower a cocktail like a Godfather or a Rusty Nail. It's also quite refreshing in a highball cocktail with club soda.

3. George Dickel Superior No.12 Tennessee Whisky

Yes, an American whisky that forgoes the letter "e". Shocking, I know. This a powerful weapon in the battle against the Whisky Troll. Dickel is inexpensive, widely available, and made mostly of corn (the mashbill is approximately 84% corn, the remainder being evenly divided between rye and malted barley). Dickel No.12 is also bottled at 90 Proof (45% ABV) so it has a bit more kick than that other well-known Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, but don't let that fool you. Dickel is very approachable, with lots of vanilla, toffee, and maple flavours. Dickel is one of the best values in whisky and it often flies under the radar.

2. Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve Canadian Whisky

Another Canadian whisky? Absolutely. Whisky Trolls often try to bait ordinary, open-minded whisky lovers by denigrating Canadian whisky. Don't let them fool you or dissuade you. If you ignore Canadian whisky (or any whisky based on second-hand information) you're missing out. Forty Creek's Copper Pot Reserve is one of the most consistent whiskies on the market. It's rich, sweet, and has just enough spice to make keep it interesting. There's lots of caramel, orange peels, apricots, some nuttiness, and a touch of rye spice and ginger. It's even bottled at 43% ABV which is a nice touch. This allows the richness and spice to shine through. Oh, and did I mention it's only about 30 bucks? Get after it then.

1. Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Scotch

The secret weapon in the fight against Trolls
Johnnie Walker Black Label is especially effective against a subspecies of Whisky Troll known as the Whisky Hipster (latin: Pretentious Doofus). Okay, so I don't speak Latin. But JW Black is effective against Whisky Hipsters because:
  • Johnnie Walker Black Label is a blended whisky. Whisky Hipsters tend to frown upon blends, unless they're expensive and/or from smaller companies.
  • Johnnie Walker Black Label  is produced by a huge mega-corporation. Johnnie Walker is owned by spirits giant Diageo, which makes it inherently repugnant to Hipsters.
  • Johnnie Walker Black Label is popular. Whisky Hipsters turn up their beards at anything that isn't local, organic, free-range and distilled in a home-made copper pot still  from barley the distillery grew themselves. Whisky Hipsters also hate anything that literally any other person has heard of.
Don't fall for it. Johnnie Walker Black Label is affordable, accessible and incredibly versatile. You probably won't find it featured at a Companions of the Quaich tasting, but it's a great social whisky. Figure it out.

Whisky is first and foremost about enjoyment. Your opinion of whisky is valid, even if you don't nose intensely or perceive notes of French lavender blooming in the July sun near Mont-Ventoux, or taste a faint whisper of Versos 1891 Amontillado Sherry in your whisky's flavour profile. Don't let Whisky Trolls intimidate you or make you feel sheepish about enjoying something inexpensive or commonplace. Don't forget that whisky was once the province of illicit home-distillers and smugglers (some of whom were probably my ancestors). Cognac and brandy were the spirits of choice for the upper class. Whisky should be unpretentious. Ignore the trolls, and drink what you like. It's all that really matters.

When life hands you lemons, make whisky sours.
W. C. Fields
Slainte !

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Origins: a review of Highwood Ninety Decades of Richness 20 Year Old

What makes a whisky rich, sweet, fruity, oily, spicy, or smoky? Whence does whisky derive its flavours and aromas? Some mistakenly assume that the region, or terroir, is solely responsible for the character of a whisky. Some believe every scotch is smoky, every bourbon is sweet, and every Canadian whisky is mild. Some slightly more knowledgeable people may point to the various grains as the source of whisky's flavours. The idea that provenance and grain type are the determining factors in whisky's character is passed on as received knowledge from the whisky sages. While there is some truth to this, it's far from a complete picture. Other factors that may influence the final product include cask types (Virgin oak, ex-bourbon barrels), yeast strains, intensity of barrel char,  cask sizes (200 litre bourbon barrels, 125 litre "Quarter Casks"), still types (e.g. column still or pot still), finishing a whisky in different types of wine casks (or cognac casks!) and a myriad of other factors.
This can get pretty complex, so Hiram Walker's Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore developed a Canadian Whisky Flavour Wheel to help identify some of the common flavours we taste in whisky, how these flavours might come to be perceived in a whisky, along with the chemical compound responsible for the flavour. If the image is too small, you can find the original by clicking here. Why the mini-lesson on flavour? Read on.

Highwood Distillers

Highwood is not known for its over the top marketing. You might call them the "anti-Macallan". The Macallan has recently unveiled a new visitor centre and distillery worth upward of £140 million (approximately $243 million CAD) that looks like it belongs in Hobbiton. The Macallan has an interactive website featuring 72 year old whiskies in crystal decanters, whereas Highwood's website features all of its whiskies on one page, and it gives you exactly two sentences about their 20 Year Old Decades of Richness whisky. Alberta's Highwood Distillers may eschew big, shiny marketing, but the distillery is known and celebrated for its fantastic line of whiskies. Highwood Ninety Decades Of Richness 20 Year Old is an interesting case study. Despite being labeled as a Canadian Rye Whisky, this whisky is distilled from 100% Corn. So why call it a "rye whisky"? Well, it's complicated. Canadian Rye Whisky refers to a style of whisky as much as it refers to the rye grain itself. Many of the notes typically associated with rye grain, specifically the spicy notes like cloves, can also be imparted into a whisky by barrel compounds. There is a long tradition in Canada of using the words "rye" and "whisky" interchangeably. In bars and backyard barbecues here in the Great White North, you'll often hear people ask for a rye and ginger or a rye and Coke, regardless of whether the spirit of choice was actually distilled from rye grain. People might be a tad puzzled if you ask for a Whisky and Coke. Canadian distillers are loath to change their nomenclature just because that's how someone else does it. So how does this twenty year old, 100% Corn whisky taste? Does bottling it at 90 proof (45% ABV) make it too hot to handle?

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): caramel popcorn, peppermint, oak spices (cloves and cinnamon) and a slight aroma of plums
Palate (undiluted): very rich arrival, full-bodied, brown sugar, oak spice, a bit of salted caramel, buttered corn, a bit reminiscent of a good amber rum near the end.
Finish: a bit drying, but still medium-long, maple butter, more oak tannins and a slightly herbal note at the very end.

With water, there is a big brown sugar note on the nose that quickly turns to barrel spices and tropical fruit. I’m thinking grilled pineapple. With water, the arrival on the palate is a tad spirity, but quickly becomes floral and pear notes appear. The finish is spicy, a bit tannic and pulling. I prefer this one without water, as the rich texture is thinned out a bit too much with water and the spirity arrival throws off the whisky's balance.

It may be anathema to some, but I tried a whisky sour made with Ninety Decades of Richness and I have to say it was magnificent. The rich, sweet and slightly spicy whisky perfectly complemented the lemon juice and simple syrup. There isn't quite enough spice for this to make an Old Fashioned to my liking, but I heartily endorse this one neat or in a whisky sour. This is a terrific whisky. It's a terrific Canadian Rye Whisky, even if it's made entirely from corn. Ninety Decades of Richness 20 Year Old is one of the most affordable twenty year old whiskies you'll ever encounter. Recommended.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Whisky is liquid sunshine
                                                         George Bernard Shaw