Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Top Five: Whiskies For Autumn

No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace 
         As I have seen in one autumnal face. 
John Donne "Elegy IX: The Autumnal"

Autumn is my favourite season. With the oppressive summer heat behind us, October brings crisp nights, changing leaves, and sweater weather. It's got a bit of melancholy but not the depression-inducing cold of winter. Fall brings its share of rain (and snow more often than not), but it's not as wet, soggy, or malodorous as spring. Autumn is the Goldilocks season for me. And in that spirit (bad pun intended), I'd like to continue my Cusack-inspired musings with my top five choices for autumn whiskies. What the heck makes a whisky fit for a particular season? I'll explain.

5. Highland Park 18 Year Old (Single Malt Scotch)

Image result for highland park 18It's hard for any whisky to beat Highland Park 18 at any time. It's an incredibly well-balanced whisky. There's fruitiness reminiscent of the orchard, a bit of smoke, and a little honey sweetness all in perfect harmony. It's the Goldilocks of whiskies; it's just right. After at least 18 years in oak, this one is autumnal in the "mature" sense of the word. It doesn't come cheaply, but this isn't a malt you'll be using for shots. Rather, Highland Park 18 is a whisky you might sip on your porch while pondering Robbie Burns' The Fall of the Leaf

Apart let me wander, apart let me muse, 
How quick Time is flying, how keen Fate pursues!

4. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (Canadian Whisky)

Image result for crown royal northern harvest ryeOk, maybe this one is too obvious. I mean, the word "Harvest" is right in the name. But it feels appropriate. While I disagree with whisky critic Jim Murray on the "World Whisky of the Year" honours this one received, it is a really good whisky. I almost always have a bottle on hand. It's bottled at a respectable 45% ABV and is 90% of the whisky in this bottle is distilled from rye grain. This gives this Crown Royal a spicy edge perfect for autumn. You'll find cloves, cinnamon, ginger, walnuts and maybe even a bit of orange in this bottle. It's good to sip neat, or even in a cocktail, if that's your thing.

3. Four Roses Single Barrel (Bourbon)

Image result for four roses single barrel lcboBold and spicy, oaky and nutty, this is a fantastic fall bourbon. Four Roses Single Barrel typically features a mash bill which is 60% corn, 35% rye, and 5% malted barley. I associate a high rye content with "autumn spices" like clove, cardamom, and cinnamon. It's bottled at a hearty 50% ABV to keep you warm when the nights start to get cool. Sip this one neat, or mix it in to one of the best Old Fashioned cocktails you'll ever have. If you're so inclined, I reviewed this bourbon here.

2. Blanton's Gold Edition (Bourbon)

Blanton's Gold is a travel retail exclusive that's a perfect fall sipper. It's made by Buffalo Trace from their "high rye" mashbill (sense a theme here?) but "high rye" for Buffalo Trace means about 15% rye. Still, this rye has some nice autumnal notes of barrel char, tobacco, alongside some nice caramel and vanilla. It may not be the easiest whiskey to find, but if you happen to be traveling for Thanksgiving, this may be an ideal bourbon to bring as a gift. And if your host doesn't appreciate great bourbon, well then bully for you. Bring this Blanton's home with you. If that isn't something to be thankful for, then I don't know what is.

1. Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength (Single Malt Scotch)

Oh Springbank ! How I love thee ! It may annoy some people to hear (read?) me sing Springbank's praises incessantly, but it is worthy of reverence. This one has wonderful aromas of hay, barnboards (for real!), along with flavours of raisins, ginger, clove, and maybe a bit of apple crumble. It would not be out of place alongside a Thanksgiving dinner or dessert. And like a long, multi-course meal, Springbank 12 is meant to be savoured slowly, lingered over, and enjoyed with company. It's a shame that it isn't available more often, though like large, family meals, Springbank 12's limited availability may be part of what contributes to the longing it inspires. This whisky, more than any other, really projects a bucolic image of harvest season. Maybe it's marketing, or the no-nonsense presentation, but I think of Springbank as whisky the way it "used to be" or "before it was cool". There's a sense of tradition, pastoral tradition, or maybe even intransigence to Springbank. It's hard to define exactly why it evokes those feelings, but it just does.

The right whisky is the whisky you like best. The best time to drink it is when you want to drink it (responsibly, of course). These whiskies remind me of autumn in their character or in the images they inspire. And after all, as many companies will tell you, the story is almost as important as the whisky. Luckily, the aforementioned whiskies deliver on the promises the marketing department makes.

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, 19 September 2018

Supporting Role: Canadian Club Classic 12 Year Old

In every walk of life, there are stars and there's the supporting cast. It doesn't matter if you're talking movies, music, hockey or whisky. When you think of a classic like The Silence of the Lambs, the first name that comes to mind is Jodie Foster or Sir Anthony Hopkins, not Anthony Heald. If you think about Simon & Garfunkel, you can probably name quite a few Paul Simon solo hits (You Can Call Me Al is probably my favourite thanks to The Office), but unless you're a big fan of Art Garfunkel (or one of his former math students) you probably can't name a Garfunkel solo hit. 
A candidate for the Moustache Hall of Fame
How about Hull & Oates? No, not "Rich Girl" Hall & Oates (although John Oates' moustache is the stuff of legend), I'm talking about St. Louis Blues tandem Brett Hull and Adam Oates. While Oates is well respected in the hockey community and known by fans, even people who don't follow hockey probably know who Brett Hull is. Brett Hull had a famous hockey player father, Bobby "The Golden Jet" Hull. Brett Hull was the player who came closest to beating The Great One's 92 goals in one season. In the 1990-1991 season, Hull netted 86 goals and 131 points. But consider this; Adam Oates had 90 assists and 115 points that year. Were 86 of those assists on Brett Hull goals? I was 11 or 12 years old, so I don't really remember. Oates also played 17 fewer games than Hull in 1990-1991, and Oates' points per game average is actually higher than Hull's. Hull's PPG that year was 1.68 while Oates' was 1.89. Add to this the fact that Adam Oates was never drafted and you might think him an unsung hero. What does this have to do with whisky? Well, Canadian whiskies are often thought of purely as mixers, or supporting cast, but some are stars in their own right. While sipping Canadian Club 12 year old, I kept asking myself which category this particular whisky fell into. 

Canadian Club Small Batch Classic 12 Year Old

Canadian Club is one of the most iconic brands of Canadian whisky. It's popularly known as CC, and mixed with ginger ale, cola, or into a cocktail. But Canadian Club has been making a foray into the "sipping" world in the last few years with their Chairman's Select 100% Rye, they released a Sherry Cask-matured whisky, and even released a 40 Year Old whisky in 2017. Looking at their website, Canadian Club seems to target their 12 year old to the mixer crowd, but that makes sense since most whisky is mixed more often than it is sipped neat. While the Canadian Club brand is owned by Beam Suntory, which also owns Alberta Distillers, all Canadian Club products save the Chairman's Select are made at the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor.

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): Rye spice right away, leather, brown sugar, flat cola, a hint of corn husks
  • Palate (undiluted): very soft arrival, almost rum-like with Kraft soft caramels, molasses, cloves, and raisins
  • Finish: medium length, plums and blackberries at first, then slightly bitter and drying but not unpleasant. Somewhat reminiscent of grapefruit juice or tonic water.
With water the rye and leather all but disappear from the nose. They are replaced by brown sugar and raisins, with a touch of walnuts. Much of the “rummy-ness” of the palate disappears with water and this Canadian Club 12 becomes more of a sweet, dessert sipper with a bit of maple syrup making an appearance. There’s also less fruit and more oak on the finish with water added, yet that bitterness hangs around. It's interesting, but it may not be for everyone.

As a neat sipper, Canadian Club 12 is acceptable but not outstanding. It is interesting as a mixer if you enjoy a little bitterness to offset the sweetness that sometimes overwhelms cocktails. I like to add a dash or two of Angostura bitters to a good ol' rye and ginger, but with Canadian Club 12, this practice is unnecessary. The CC12 makes its presence known without overwhelming the cocktail. It also works nicely in a Manhattan, though I find it a bit underpowered at 40% ABV. Thinking about my earlier analogies, I'd be loath to call Canadian Club 12 the Adam Oates of the whisky world. Canadian Club 12 is more akin to Anthony Heald, or Christopher Lloyd (Emmett "Doc" Brown of Back to the Future fame) ; good, even above-average in a supporting role, but not quite a star in its own right. Canadian Club 12 is reminiscent of the News without Huey Lewis; pleasant, decent in the background, but it doesn't quite have the 1.21 gigawatts needed to power my tastebuds' Flux Capacitor. Try before you buy.

Rating: 2.5/5 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".


Scoring may be interpreted as:

1 moustache: vodka. No flavour, just alcohol. Any whisky rated this poorly is to be avoided. 0-50 points
1.5 moustaches: Flavoured whisky. This stuff is not in my wheelhouse, or I find it to be really bad mixing whisky. 51-60 points
2 moustaches: best suited to mixing, though can be sipped in a pinch. 61-70 points
2.5 moustaches: Respectable mixing whisky. Acceptable neat or on the rocks. 71-76 points
3 moustaches: Versatile whisky, above average quality. Good neat or in a cocktail 77-82 points
3.5 moustaches: Good quality sipper. Outstanding in a cocktail. 83-87 points
4 moustaches: Terrific sipping whisky. A personal favourite. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. 88-90 points
4.5 moustaches: Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. 91-94 points
5 moustaches: Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. 95-100 points

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Battle of the Bombs: Glenfarclas 105 and Aberlour A’Bunadh (Batch 53)

Every sport has its great rivalries. As an avid Boston Red Sox fan, it is my duty (and pleasure) to hate the New York Yankees. With my Pittsburgh Steelers fan hat on, I despise the Baltimore Ravens. As a loyal Montreal Canadiens fan, I have nothing but contempt for the Boston Bruins (and also Marc Bergevin and his management team, but that's a whole 'nother story).
In the boxing world, there's no doubt that Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier had the most intense rivalry of all time. Heck, Ali vs Frazier may be the greatest rivalry ever, in any sport. To be fair, the rivalry between the two men went beyond sport because of the social context in which it occured. That's outside the scope of this blog post though. And although Muhammad Ali won the final tiebreaking bout, the Thrilla in Manila, it went down to the wire. While they doesn't carry nearly as much socio-political importance as Ali-Frazier, similar rivalries exists among scotch whisky enthusiasts. There are online rivalries between Laphroaig fans and Ardbeg fans, feuds between Glenfiddich fans and Glenlivet fans, and two leading contenders for the title of "Best Cask Strength Sherry Bomb". Allow me to present them along with my tasting notes.

Glenfarclas 105 (60% ABV)

Glenfarclas is one of Scotland's few truly independent distilleries. John Grant bought it in 1865 and it's been in the family ever since. They have the largest stills in the Speyside region, which produces a unique spirit. Glenfarclas doesn't ever add any colouring to their whisky, which is a nice touch. The colour is always the result of the interaction between the whisky and the casks. While Glenfarclas is quite popular among whisky enthusiasts, it's definitely the underdog,  the Joe Frazier in this fight. So how does it taste?

  • Nose (undiluted): raisins, green apple, pears, walnuts, nutmeg, toffee, and a bit of a maple note.
  • Palate (undiluted): very hot arrival, medium bodied, Christmas cake, nutmeg, cloves, toffee, oak, raisins, walnuts
  • Finish: not as long as I expected, medium length, with some red grapes, nutmeg, toffee and green apple returning

With water there’s the tiniest bit of wood smoke on the nose. It’s faint, almost imperceptible, but it's there. Darker fruits appear with water, prunes or dates maybe. It doesn’t get much gentler on the palate with water, but it gets much more cake-like, and the spices are actually more prominent than the fruit with water added. After the bottle’s been open for a few weeks, the heat on the arrival calms down a bit. It also feels a bit “rounder” and richer, if that makes sense. This is a terrific whisky. 

Rating: 4/5 moustaches 

Aberlour A‘Bunadh Batch 53 (59.7% ABV)

Aberlour A'Bunadh is like Muhammad Ali; widely known, incredibly popular, loud and bold, often celebrated as the greatest of all time, even if somewhat controversially. Aberlour is owned by Chivas Brothers, a subsidiary of spirits giant Pernod Ricard. Aberlour A'Bunadh is a bit complicated. It is regularly released in numbered batches, and the flavours as well as the alcohol percentage can vary from one batch to another. The reviewed batch is number 53. A bit of controversy exists surrounding the colouring issue. German websites stocking A'Bunadh sometimes indicate "mit farbstoff" which means it's coloured with e150a. However, sources directly from Aberlour state that A'Bunadh is NOT coloured with e150a. Perhaps the Germans can't be bothered to verify the information. Maybe they're just playing it safe. For what it's worth, I tend to believe the folks at Aberlour.

  • Nose (undiluted): a big hit of oranges right away, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, dry Sherry with a bit of a savoury/umami note in the background
  • Palate (undiluted): rich, very thick and full bodied, cherries, dark chocolate, orange zest
  • Finish: medium-long, sweet cherries with some dark chocolate and oak spices lingering with a pleasant drying tannic note at the very end

With water there’s more oak on the nose, maybe even some cranberries, and the oranges take a back seat. It feels a bit spicier and more drying on the palate and finish, more Sherry-like. There’s also some raw almonds on the palate and finish when it’s diluted. Maybe a bit of a balsamic vinegar note at the tail end. I expected this A’Bunadh to be much sweeter, but it’s quite balanced. I really like it a lot.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Let’s get ready to ruuuummmmmbbblllllle!!!!

So a cursory glance at my ratings doesn't solve anything. These two are incredibly well matched. However, their characters are quite different. The Aberlour is much darker, oakier and more drying while the Glenfarclas is brighter, a bit “hotter” and simultaneously sweeter. Both seem to have different strengths: the A’Bunadh Batch 53 feels like it could be sipped alongside some sharp, well-aged cheese or a charcuterie board, much like a good Sherry, while the bright, sweet fruit notes of Glenfarclas 105 make it feel like it could be a dessert (or digestif) all on its own. Or maybe I’m the highly suggestible type, like Homer Simpson. What would Homer do, faced with such a difficult decision? Who is the winner?

Well, I'm glad I don't have to sacrifice one over the other, because both are terrific. But if I have to pick just one, I'd have to forget the Thrilla in Manila and crown Joe Frazier, I mean Glenfarclas 105 the winner. I love the balance of bright fruit and sweet notes that Glenfarclas offers. That's not to diminish the beauty of A'Bunadh's dry sherry character. I'm sure it's not the last time these two titans will meet.

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 !!

Scoring may be (roughly) interpreted as:

1 moustache: vodka. No flavour, just alcohol. Any whisky rated this poorly is to be avoided. 0-50 points
1.5 moustaches: Flavoured whisky. This stuff is not in my wheelhouse, or I find it to be really bad mixing whisky. 51-60 points
2 moustaches: best suited to mixing, though can be sipped in a pinch. 61-70 points
2.5 moustaches: Respectable mixing whisky. Acceptable neat or on the rocks. 71-76 points
3 moustaches: Versatile whisky, above average quality. Good neat or in a cocktail 77-82 points
3.5 moustaches: Good quality sipper. Outstanding in a cocktail. 83-87 points
4 moustaches: Terrific sipping whisky. A personal favourite. There's a good chance I want this whisky on hand at all times. 88-90 points
4.5 moustaches: Top quality sipping whisky. These are special occasion sippers for me. They're at the top of my favourites list. 91-94 points
5 moustaches: Life-changing whisky. Any whisky I rate this highly has fundamentally changed the way I think about whisky. 95-100 points

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Top Five: The Scottish Distillery Bucket List Edition

I've written about styles of whisky. I've reviewed my fair share of whiskies. I'd like to do something a little different in this installment of my John Cusak-inspired musings. I'd like to present the five Scottish distilleries I'd most like to visit. After all, the distillery is where the magic happens. Without these wonderful places, we'd all be living a miserable, whisky-less life. A whisky writer who hasn't visited a single distillery? Yes, it's true. In my defense, most of these places don't offer specialized children's events, so I'll likely have to wait another ten years or so before planning a visit.
Also, Scotland is pretty far away from Ontario, and my wife seems to think that expensive trips should include our children. I imagine I'd feel like a child, like Charlie Bucket at the gates of the Wonka Factory, if I ever visited any one of these distilleries. Of course, rather than Gene Wilder greeting me, I imagine a stereotypically dour and taciturn Scot opening the door, but the specifics are unimportant. This top five is by no means a permanent list, rather it's a snapshot of today's malt hopes and peated dreams. I present to you:

5. Ardbeg (Islay)

Ardbeg has been called “as close to perfection as makes no difference”. It’s a whisky distillery that’s worshipped around the world, online, and maybe across the whole universe. In the past ten years, six different Ardbeg expressions have won World Whisky of the Year, Scotch Whisky of the Year and World’s Best Single Malt.
-From the Ardbeg website

Ardbeg is one of the more adventurous distilleries around. They experiment with wood types (An Oa), sherry casks (Uigeadail), and they've even sent whisky to space (Galileo). Dr. Bill Lumsden, director of distilling, whisky creation & whisky stocks, is the captain of this ship. Oh, and he also oversees operations at Glenmorangie as well. Not content to let these distilleries rest on their laurels, Lumsden is always innovating, looking for new ways to make Ardbeg a leader. It's also a distillery that boasts a number of tour options, from a £6 Distillery Tour and Wee Taste, up to a £60 Festival Fun at One that includes "Islaylimpics to Under the Sea, taking in Archaeology, The World Cup, Our Bicentenary and Smuggling… Taste the flavours of our festival bottlings from 2012 to 2017." Heck, Ardbeg even offers an option for distillery visitors to stay at a cottage on site (for £250 per night with a minimum stay of 2 nights). They'd have a hard time getting me to leave !!

4. Glenfarclas (Ballindalloch)

What a site to behold !
Glenfarclas means "valley of the green grassland" in Scots Gaelic. It is one of the few Scottish distilleries that is still family owned and operated. John Grant bought the Glenfarclas distillery in 1865 and his descendants still maintain ownership of it.  Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to open a dedicated visitor centre, back in 1973. They offer several tour options from £7.50 to £100. They even offer tours in French, which may not be important for most people, but I think it's a nice touch. Without encouraging excessive consumption, they hint at what one might expect at the more expensive tours and tastings with this warning: We strongly recommend that those participating in the Connoisseurs Tour or Five Decades Tour make transport arrangements to avoid the need to drive after the tour. Now that sounds like you're getting your money's worth! Glenfarclas is highly sought after by those who prefer a more traditional approach to distilling. Their stills are direct fired, their whiskies are always sold at natural colour, oh, and it tastes fantastic!

3. Springbank (Campbeltown)

Where the magic happens
If it's possible to have a crush on a distillery, I confess to having a crush on Springbank. I don't see their whiskies too often in Ontario, but I get really excited when I do.  Springbank, like Glenfarclas, leans heavily on the traditional aspects of distilling in Scotland (and the marketing that goes along with "craft" presentation). Every aspect of production, from malting the barley through to the bottling of the whisky, are carried out by hand in the traditional manner at the distillery. The Mitchell family founded Springbank and maintain ownership of the distillery and brand to this day. This isn't just a marketing pitch, Springbank really "walks the walk". For true Springbank afficionadoes, there's a whisky school wherein acolytes pay to work at the distillery for a week and thereby learn all aspects of whisky production. Besides saving on labour costs, this option really sets Springbank apart from other distilleries. There's nothing "hidden" or mysterious. Springbank is an open book, letting their fantastic whisky speak for itself.

2. Lagavulin (Islay)

Located in the village of Lagavulin, about 2 miles from Port Ellen, is the place where the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. No need to travel over the rainbow, but it would be other-worldly to step into this magical place whence comes the rich, decadent, smoky spirit. Lagavulin is the malt of choice for luminaries such as Brian Cox, Nick Offerman, and his alter-ego Ronald Ulysses Swanson. Even Captain Jack Sparrow himself (aka Johnny Depp) has stated that although he doesn't drink hard liquor anymore, he sometimes orders Lagavulin in a brandy snifter, just for the aroma. I can't imagine not drinking it, but I'm not Depp. Some may be apprehensive about visiting a distillery owned by a mega-corporation like Diageo, but I wouldn't be. Regardless of who pays the bills or pockets the profits, Lagavulin is a classic. Some of the staff, such as warehouseman Iain McArthur, have been there for over 40 years. That's authenticity if ever there was such a thing. This video features McArthur talking about his time at Lagavulin and life on Islay. There are three tour options from £6 to £35. Definitely a place I need to visit.

1. Laphroaig (Islay)

If there is a heaven, I hope it looks like this.
Some people make pilgrimages to sites of spiritual importance. Others visit the graves or birthplaces of musicians, actors or historical figures. Laphroaig distillery in Port Ellen is the distillery I'd choose if I could only visit one of them (heaven forbid). The price of tours runs from £10 to over £200 but the options seem limitless. A four and a half hour tour of the distillery, peat bogs, and water source may not be for everyone, but I know I'd love every moment of it. Laphroaig claims to be "the most richly flavoured of all scotch whiskies". A bold claim, but one that is hard for me to dispute. Forget crossing the Rubicon or being re-born in the waters of the Jordan; I'd love to bathe in the Kilbride Stream, the source of Laphroaig's water. Ok, so nobody wants to picture that, and I might be arrested for doing it, so I'd settle for a visit and a picture. I also "own" one square foot of land at the distillery (I've told you before, I'm kind of a big deal) and I'd love to set foot on it. I'd also love to meet distillery manager John Campbell and personally thank him for creating some of my all-time favourite whiskies.

This may have been the hardest "Top Five" list I've ever put together. There are many distilleries I'd love to visit that didn't make the cut. Talisker, Glendronach, and Bruichladdich immediately come to mind, but the aforementioned five all offer something unique. Reading online reviews isn't always helpful as people will complain about the strangest things. I read a negative review of one particular distillery that mentioned the lack of reliable WiFi several times. Maybe it's the fact that I've never been to Scotland, but I can't imagine WiFi being a big priority during a distillery tour. Everyone expects something different from a distillery tour, but for me, the whisky is of utmost importance. Looking back over my hypothetical Top Five, I stand by my choices. I'd be curious to hear about your experiences visiting distilleries.