Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Highway to the Danger Zone: Craigellachie 17

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you aren't tired of my 1980s references yet. That's great because I was just thinking about the 1986 Tom Cruise classic Top Gun the other day. I'm sure I didn't see it when it came out, since I would have been six or seven years old at the time, but I did see it at some point, and it was everything a kid could want; fighter jets, rivalry leading to friendship, and some kick-ass songs by Kenny Loggins. Fun fact: Toto was originally supposed to perform "Danger Zone" for the Top Gun soundtrack. While I've never been anywhere near the danger zone, much of Craigellachie's marketing hits close to my personal danger zone. Why? One word: sulfur (or sulphur if you prefer).

What's this about sulfur? Or 'sulphur'?

Worm tubs reportedly produce the "good" sulfur
According to the excellent Whisky & Wisdom article posted here, sulfur in whisky can come from two sources: "One is natural, desirable, and is present in every malt whisky; the other is an accident, pretty much undesirable, and occurs only in some sherried whiskies." The first type of sulfur, desirable to some people, is a by-product of fermentation, and much of it stripped out of the whisky from contact with the copper in pot stills and in condensers. What remains is often described as "meaty". The second type of sulfur is usually caused by tainted sherry casks. Well, not directly, but since sherry cannot be exported in casks (it must be bottled in Spain), there are no more "transport casks" left for the whisky industry to use. Ergo, whisky producers order sherry "seasoned" casks from cooperages in Spain and then have them shipped to Scotland. Problem solved, right? Wrong. The casks are (or were) often treated with sulfur candles to sterilize them. While this kills off any harmful bacteria, it can also taint the maturing whisky, by imparting aromas and flavours of rotten eggs, spent matches, burning rubber, boiled cabbage, and raw onions. Some websites claim the practice of using sulfur candles is no longer the norm, and at least one website has claimed the practice has been "outlawed", but I can't confirm that. Either way, the perception of these sulfur notes is largely genetic. It's not a skill or a sign of refinement if these notes jump out at you; it just means you're genetically prone to perceive those aromas and flavours. And sadly, I cannot get around a strong spent match or rotten egg type of sulfur present in some whiskies. But why does this matter? Well, Craigellachie is one of the few companies that is forthcoming about sulfur in their whisky. They use old fashioned worm tub condensers which minimize copper contact and allegedly maximize the first (good?) type of sulfur, resulting in a more "meaty" final product. Being sensitive to sulfur, I was hesitant to get a bottle of Craigellachie 17, but a friend came through with a sample which allowed me to try it. So I didn't have to go right into the danger zone; I could visit it temporarily.

Tasting Notes

Nose (undiluted): red grapes, Welch’s grape juice, icing sugar, underripe honeydew melon, oak, vanilla, very slightly sulfur of the spent match variety (uh-oh). No rotten eggs, and not enough spent match/gunpowder to detract from the overall experience. You could strain credulity, get a little creative, and call it “smoke”.
Palate (undiluted): rich, sweet arrival, a bit hot for 46% abv, pineapple, mangoes, sultanas, ginger, and a bit of actual woodsmoke.
Finish: medium length, vanilla bean, oak, more icing sugar, slightly green and herbal with oak spices and a light woodsmoke lingering.

With water: there are more green aromas on the nose, cardamom perhaps, while the fruit gets pushed back on the palate and overtaken by a vanilla crème brûlée flavour with grape jelly hanging around as well. The finish gets some green apples, lemon, and a peppery, oaky kick with water added. I think I preferred this neat.

Overall, this is a really good malt. It’s different from your run-of-the-mill Speysides (honey, cinnamon, raisins) yet it doesn’t venture too far into wonky territory. I was worried about the spent match on the nose, but it seems to dissipate with a good rest in the glass. I’m not sure I’d pay the Ontario asking price for this but I’d gladly accept a gift bottle. Craigellachie seems to be a real "maverick" of a distillery by reveling in their sulfury malts.

Rating: 89/100 (4/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Mature Beyond Its Years: a review of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt

Remember that scene in The Matrix when Neo (Keanu Reeves) goes to the Oracle to find out if he's The One? He meets a young man who delivers a pearl of wisdom:

 "Do not try and bend the spoon, that's impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth...there is no spoon. Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." 

In the virtual world of The Matrix (or Plato's Cave, if you prefer), this young one is clearly mature and wise beyond his years. With single malt whisky enjoying a surge of popularity in the last 10-15 years, companies are trying to find ways to make their whiskies appear mature beyond their years as well; we've seen smaller casks, different cask finishes, and the downplaying and disappearance of age statements altogether. I remember rolling my eyes at a salesman's, er, a brand ambassador's statement that "maturity and age aren't the same thing". He was defending a move by a major distillery to do away with age statements in their core range and replace their age-stated bottles with the names of colours. He went on to compare choosing the whiskies that were ready to bottle to "picking an apple when it's perfectly ripe as opposed to when it reaches a certain age". The whole thing reeked of pretentiousness and condescension to me, but Isle of Arran's 10 year old has made me somewhat re-think my stance. Peated whisky often gets a free pass for younger age-stated releases since their peatier flavours are stronger at a younger age. But unpeated whiskies are often (mistakenly) perceived as getting better with age. So what does a young Arran taste like?

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): pineapple, mangoes, oranges, vanilla, cinnamon, wood varnish
  • Palate (undiluted): soft, floral, creamy, ripe red apples, lemon, orange, and a bit of grapefruit
  • Finish: medium length, a bit waxy, then croissants, butter, honey, vanilla and toasted oak

Water doesn't really change much at all. I'd skip it altogether, unless that's your thing. Arran's 10 Year Old single malt has no sharp, bitter, spirit notes and is wonderfully balanced. It's not the most complex whisky I've ever tasted, but it's no one-hit wonder either. I can't remember what I paid for this, but I think it was about the same price as Glenmorangie 10, and Arran is bottled at natural colour, is not chill-filtered and is presented at 46% abv. Now there are troubling rumours that Arran is planning on discontinuing many of its age-stated whiskies in favour of non age-stated malts. That's terrible news as far as I'm concerned. This whisky shows that younger malts can be complex and enticing; there's no need to sell mystery malt. It's a losing proposition in my books. Isle of Arran is one of the younger distilleries in Scotland and I believe they should keep doing things the right way. I believe this age-stated Arran 10 is an ideal whisky for introducing someone to Scottish single malt. Recommended.

Rating: 86/100 (3.5/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Top Five: Whiskies of Summer

Summer is upon us ! Rejoice, friends and fellow whisky enthusiasts ! It's time for swimming, camping, celebrating long into the night with good friends, and watching the greatest summertime movie of all time: Point Break. Yes, the original. I refuse to engage in discussions of the Swayze-less remake. After a long winter and a wet, moody spring, enjoy some carefree days with great whisky. But what defines an estival whisky, you ask? Well, I think the whiskies of summer should be easygoing, not insanely complex, and they should be whiskies you're comfortable leaving "in the background" so to speak. Whisky doesn't always need to take center stage. Summer whisky is a backdrop for good conversation on a patio, or the fuel to keep your fire-side guitar jam going. So here are my top choices for the summer.

5. Jim Beam Bonded

For whatever reason, I equate summer with bourbon. There is no rhyme or reason for it, but that's just where my brain goes. Summer means heat and humidity, and that means bourbon. Some of the more prominent bourbon intelligenstia (the bourbonati?) may scoff at my recommending a "mass market" bourbon, let alone a bourbon from one of the  biggest bourbon producers in the world, but at $36 CAD, Jim Beam Bonded is literally impossible to beat in terms of value-for-your-whiskey-dollar. You'll find plenty of vanilla, candy corn, along with some dried cherry notes in this bourbon. Think of it as a summer treat for grown-ups, bottled at 50% abv. It's delicious as a treat, straight-up, or on the rocks if you prefer. Don't let the purists shame you.

4. Wild Turkey 101

Like I said, summer equals bourbon. WT 101 is relatively inexpensive and is widely available. It is probably the best multi-purpose bourbon on the market. It's terrific neat, on the rocks, in an Old Fashioned or in a Mint Julep. There's plenty of rich cherry flavour, candy corn, and floral vanilla. Do yourself a favour and forget any negative association you may have made between Wild Turkey and "rednecks". I'm not sure where this started, but I think it may have come from the 1989 Christmas classic National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) tells Clark (Chevy Chase) "I got a daughter in the clinic, gettin' cured off the Wild Turkey." Now I love Christmas Vacation, but people have got to stop acting as though Wild Turkey is "redneck mouthwash". Jimmy and Eddie Russell are bourbon royalty as far as I'm concerned and Wild Turkey makes some of the best, most affordable bourbon on the market.

3. Bushmills Black Bush

What's this, a blended whiskey? Yes, I'm including a blended Irish whiskey on my list. Rumours abound about this one. It is supposedly about 80% malt whiskey from the Bushmills distillery (blended whiskies typically contain much more grain whiskies than they do malt whiskies), mostly aged in Oloroso Sherry casks for 7-11 years, with the remainder being matured in ex-bourbon casks. Allegedly. This whiskey doesn't carry an age statement so all of that is hearsay, but this is a tasty whiskey at a friendly price. Plenty of chocolate-covered raisins, apples, and honey make this a terrific, carefree summer sipper. Great on its own or on ice. At about $35 CAD, you really can't go wrong.

2. Pike Creek 10 Year Old Rum Barrel Finish

Summer conjures images of tropical destinations. Tropical destinations remind us of pirates. Pirates love rum, right? So why not a rum barrel-finished whisky? Now you may be thinking "Joe, why don't you just sip rum?" Well sure, that seems like good summertime fun at first blush, but most rums available in Ontario contain gobs of added sugar, which is something I'm not too keen on. My solution is simple; find a great whisky that's finished in rum barrels. Everybody wins! Pike Creek 10 Year Old Canadian whisky gives you plenty of brown sugar, molasses, vanilla, figs, plums, along with some oak spices. Pro-tip, while the regular price of about $34 is reasonable, Pike Creek 10 Year often comes on sale for $29. Drink up, me hearties, yo ho !

1. Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley

This Scottish single malt is summer in a glass. I rated it about 86/100 points when I first tasted it, which is a pretty good mark, but this just gets better with each bottle I go through. It's got lovely floral notes, some briny notes that will conjure images of the seaside, some nutty barley, a little citrus and some honey. Don't be frightened by the 50% abv; this whisky is eminently approachable, and retains its bright, maritime character even if you serve it on the rocks (oh, the horror!). It's complex enough to sip attentively while reading a book, but easygoing enough to serve at a summer barbecue with friends. Heck, even the bottle looks more summery and friendly. No, I'm not sponsored by Bruichladdich and they don't send me free whisky (at least, not yet...*rubs hands together maniacally, moo hoo ha ha ha), but I really like this one, and I enjoy it even more during the summer months.

There you have it; my Top Five picks for summertime whisky. Take it easy, drink responsibly and enjoy the sunny weather! Slainte! Let me know if I've unfairly left your summer favourite off the list.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Thunderstruck: A review of Compass Box Peat Monster

I've been drawn to music, and especially to the electric guitar as long as I can remember. I think I first got the urge to play the electric guitar after watching Lou Diamond Phillips portray Ritchie Valens in La Bamba. Not the most glamorous rockstar origin story on my part, but what do you want? I was seven or eight years old when the movie was released, and Phillips looked totally rockin' as Valens. As I got older, the draw of big guitar rock got stronger. Puberty approached and I was drawn to heavier offerings from Metallica, Guns N' Roses, and AC/DC. Looking back, AC/DC seems tame compared to some of the heavy music that has come out since. Even compared to Metallica, the Aussies seem good-natured and fun. While "For Those About To Rock" was anthemic, it was never as threatening or aggressive the way Metallica's "Battery" or "Master Of Puppets" was. At least not to serious metalheads. Don't get me wrong; AC/DC is a terrific rock band who puts on a terrific live show, but their music is only "heavy" compared to Willie Nelson or Frank Sinatra (both of whom I love, btw). Compared to heavier bands such as Metallica, Slayer, or Pantera, AC/DC is a little "light". What am I on about here?

Well, Compass Box's Peat Monster Blended Malt may have a name that's intimidating to some, but is it a monster to dedicated peat-heads such as myself? What's in the bottle anyway?

Some Kind of Monster

Here's the breakdown of the malt whiskies in Peat Monster, according to Compass Box's fact sheet:

  • 40% of the total volume is Laphroaig aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 20% of the total volume is Ledaig aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 13% of the total volume is Caol Ila aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 26% of the total volume is Ardmore aged in a refill Hogshead
  • 1% of the total volume is Compass Box's oft-used Highland Blend (Clynelish, Teaninich, Dailuaine) which is given a second, 2 year maturation in a toasted Burgundy French Oak hybrid barrel.

What is a Hogshead? Is Compass Box aging whisky in pig's heads? How metal would THAT be? The reality is far less gory. A hogshead is a cask used to mature another type of spirit or wine; cognac, brandy, sherry, or something else. Hogsheads usually hold 230 to 300 litres or liquid, so they're a bit larger than standard ex-bourbon barrels (200 litres). "Refill" hogsheads have already been used to mature whisky at least once, possibly twice, so the wine (or other spirit) influence isn't as pronounced.

Tasting notes

  • Nose: smoke, peat, butter, meaty, bacon, honey, lemons and red apples
  • Palate: medium-bodied, slightly waxy texture, honey, brine, Oolong tea
  • Finish: medium length, ashy peat returns, very buttery, fresh croissants, more fruitiness, apples, sweet, vegetal Oolong tea turns to dark espresso with black pepper lingering

With water: aromas of strawberries and cream as well as graham crackers pop out beneath the smoke, there’s more honey on the palate and the finish is a bit brighter. Interesting both ways.

Compass Box's Peat Monster is more AC/DC than Metallica. It may come across loud and aggressive to the uninitiated, but it won't blow the seasoned peat-head away. That's not to say it's a bad whisky. It is very enjoyable and the fruitiness offsets some of the peatiness for a "balanced" whisky experience. It's also bottled at 46% abv, is unchill-filtered and is sold at natural colour. There's a lot to like here. Recommended.

Rating: 86/100 (3.5/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Prestige: A Mystery Tasting of Amrut Cask Strength

Now you're looking for the secret. But you won't find it because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.

I love movies that keep me guessing. I have a bro-crush on Hugh Jackman, so it should come as no surprise that I loved the 2006 movie The Prestige. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have a great onscreen rivalry and the movie even featured David Bowie as weirdo-genius Nikola Tesla. My future ex-wife, Scarlett Johansson, plays Jackman's wily, double-crossing (triple-crossing?) assistant which only served to further my appreciation of this movie. Don't leave, I promise this is pertinent to a blog about whisky. In the opening narration, Michael Caine's character talks about the three stages of a magic trick:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"."

This review is named for the movie that kept me guessing, since the whisky fooled me the way Jackman's character was fooled by Christian Bale's "Transported Man" stunt in Christopher Nolan's film. My tasting notes follow my thought process before I knew what this whisky was.

The sample, provided by a friend,  was from a bottle that was opened November 10, 2018, was 2/3 full when the sample was poured on Dec 2/2018.

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): Classic wine cask notes pop out at me; figs, raisins, prunes, cinnamon, then a little hint of fresh tobacco, a bit of alcohol prickle, probably a higher abv offering, christmas cake, walnuts
  • Palate (undiluted): a bit hot on arrival, spicy black pepper, terrific oily mouthfeel, cloves, ginger, red grapes
  • Finish: long and warming, dark chocolate-covered raisins, more walnuts, oak spices, cloves and cinnamon particularly

With water there's some sticky brown sugar on the nose with just a hint of something herbal (mint? rosemary?), the palate is very much chocolate-covered raisins upfront with the pepper and cloves coming into the mix later. The finish is just as long, warming and sweet with water as it is neat. Whatever this is, I'd like to get a bottle of it.

Guesses: Amrut Portonova, Amrut Intermediate Sherry, Macallan Cask Strength, Glendronach Cask Strength

Reveal: Amrut Cask Strength, bottled 2007, 61.9% abv

Are you watching closely? I was shocked to learn there was nary a wine cask in sight when this whisky was matured. So receiving the blind sample set the stage for me (The Pledge), the aroma and flavour profile had me guessing one way (The Turn), and the reveal showed that I suck at blind tastings (The Prestige). But I'm not mad. Tastings like this one keep us honest, judging whisky on its aromas and flavours, not on name recognition and marketing. Amrut Cask Strength is very rich, very fruity and an absolute pleasure to sip. I have no idea what this type of thing would sell for, but I'd be willing to pay top dollar (well, my version of top dollar) for it. Absolutely decadent. If I've learned anything from my tastings of Amrut Single Malt whiskies, it's "expect the unexpected". If you've ignored this distillery, you need to pay attention. Their malts are worth your time and money. Recommended.

Rating: 91/100 points (4.5/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

The Cult of the Picturesque? a review of Tomatin 14 Portwood Finish

When we talk about the Scottish highlands, we tend to think of independence, natural beauty, and bellicose, if often taciturn individualists. Some might picture the Cairngorms mountain range or castles such as Eilean Donan. I can't help but think of Groundskeeper Willie ripping his shirt off to reveal his rippling muscular physique. These images and stereotypes are integral to Scotch whisky sales as they sell ideas and stories as much as a product. Ok, so maybe Groundskeeper Willie doesn't really sell anything, but I'm a Simpsons geek so cut me some slack. But does Highland whisky share the harsh, rugged characteristics that the so-called "Highland cult of the picturesque" often promotes? I tend to think regional designations in scotch whisky are over-valued, but they do play into the story-telling, so I understand why they're still used.

The softer side to the Highlands

Tomatin brands itself as the "softer side of the Highlands", so they're not Grounskeeper Willie by any means. Most of their whiskies are unpeated and gentle. But don't mistake "gentle" for uninteresting. I'm a big fan of Tomatin's 12 Year Old whisky and the last bottle I bought came with a sample of Tomatin's 14 Year Old Portwood Finish.

So what's the first thing I noticed? Tomatin 14 Portwood is bottled at 46% abv. YES!!! Thank you, Tomatin! Not everything needs to be bottled at Cask Strength (though it would be nice if it were), but 46% abv is respectable for a single malt. According to their website, this is not an all-Port Cask maturation, but rather a “combination of ex-bourbon barrels and Tawny Port Casks which previously held Port for around 50 years.” Now this is rare, since it would appear that these are casks which were used for actual, drinking-quality Port, and not Port-Seasoned Casks. Ergo there’s less wood influence and more wine influence albeit a more subtle one. If you're interested in the difference between Port (or Sherry) casks and "seasoned" casks, you can read more here and here. That topic is beyond the scope of this post.

Tasting Notes

  • Nose (undiluted): red grapes, strawberries, honey, oak, nutty (almonds, barley), vanilla
  • Palate (undiluted): rich texture, gentle arrival, honey, red fruit, and oak
  • Finish: medium length, warming, oak, chamomile, vanilla, grapes and strawberries 
With water the almonds and vanilla become a bit more pronounced on the nose. There’s also a very faint aroma of oak char with water added. Interesting. Water also brings out more spice on the palate, mainly black pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The finish becomes less floral/chamomile with the vanilla and strawberries becoming more pronounced with the addition of water. This whisky certainly doesn’t need water. At 46% abv as it is gentle and enjoyable, but Tomatin 14 gets more interesting with water. A few drops are all that’s needed. The longer this sits in the glass, the more interesting it gets. After almost an hour in the glass, there’s toffee wafting out and a little hint of dark fruits (figs, dates) as well.

I don't want all-peat, all the time. I’m a huge fan of peated whiskies, but sometimes it’s nice to switch things up. The thing I really love about Tomatin 14 Portwood is the balance the distillery has found between the wine Cask influence and the “intrinsic quality of the spirit”, to borrow a phrase from the venerable Ralfy. Big wine cask influences can  “cover up” mediocre spirit, or even overpower a well-made spirit if the Cask is allowed to dominate. Tomatin has found a way to get that balance just right. Tomatin calls itself “a softer side of the Highlands”, but don’t confuse “softer” with “less interesting”. This is an inviting and moreish whisky. Just don't expect it to make you want to rip your shirt off. Highly recommended.

Rating: 92/100 (4.5/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Just Desserts: Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Irish Single Pot Still

I realize that my posts are usually playful and quirky before getting to the whiskey review. They may even be mildly amusing (to some people) at times. But sometimes, life keeps you busy and you want to skip the preamble and get right to the point. Why not skip the vegetables and go right to dessert, amirite? 

My experience with Irish Single Pot Still has been mostly limited to the various Redbreast expressions. I've tasted Green Spot and Yellow Spot, but I've never owned a full bottle of either until I got the one I'm reviewing here (on sale!). Fun fact: Green Spot, Yellow Spot, and Redbreast are all distilled at the same facility; the New Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Ireland. The New Midleton Distillery is owned by Irish Distillers Ltd., a subsidiary of Pernod Ricard. The aforementioned spirits giant owns the Redbreast and Jameson brands, but the Yellow Spot and Green Spot brands are owned by the independent Mitchell and Son. Let’s see how Yellow Spot stacks up.

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): almost subdued at first. With time, there’s honey, peaches, lemons, apples, and a floral note almost like fresh spearmint leaves
  • Palate (undiluted): rich and full-bodied, sweet citrus fruit, oranges, bananas, a bit nutty (almonds?) with nutmeg and cinnamon developing
  • Finish: medium length, fades gently, buttery, croissants, shortbread, vanilla and just a bit of spice lingering, with a touch of flaxseed oil and bitter orange zest at the very end.

With water there are creamy coconut and banana aromas popping out. The texture remains rich and different tropical fruits burst forward: mangoes and pineapple. I think I prefer this one with a touch of water added. That does not happen very often. This whiskey is not “hot” when taken neat, but the flavour profile really does “open up” with just a few scant drops of water. The bitterness at the end is also diminished with water.

This is very friendly whiskey. Anyone who thinks they don’t like sipping whiskey should try this. Yellow Spot is fruity, friendly, moreish, and seductive. Recommended.

Rating: 88/100 points (4/5 moustaches)

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Forget First Impressions: Douglas Laing's Big Peat

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes, a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.

from "The Riddle of Strider"
 The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Appearances can be deceiving. If you take nothing else from Tolkien's magnum opus, you should at least retain that much. The hobbits, who are small and enjoy their creature comforts, show resiliency throughout many tribulations. Samwise Gamgee, a humble gardener, shows a resistance to the ring of power's grip despite calling himself a "ninnyhammer" many times over. Gandalf, dismissed by some as a trickster or a "conjurer of cheap tricks", hints a few time at his true form and power. We only discover near the end of the novel that Gandalf is one of the wisest and most powerful of the Maiar, a race of immortals. Even Aragorn, the eventual King of Middle Earth, wanders anonymously for years as a Ranger named Strider. His grizzled appearance inspires fear and distrust, but he proves himself a noble hero throughout the novel. First impressions are often misleading.

Some folks judge a whisky by its branding (like a Luxury Single Malt Scotch that claims to be "the peerless spirit", ugh, puh-lease....), others rely on the opinions of whisky writers and bloggers (vile and dissolute creatures, the lot of them), and some rely on the colour of the whisky to tell them something. But all of this stuff can lead you astray.

Claiming your brand is a "luxury" brand or even THE luxury brand is, more often than not, based solely on "advertising-enriched" perception. Now if it works, bully for you I guess, but consumers should be aware that these claims are just that; claims. There's no objective standard for a subjective (and some would say idiotic) concept like "luxury whisky". Whisky writers and bloggers are just people with too much time on their hands. Their tastes are no better and are actually less important than your own. Also, many writers aren't fully upfront with their readers. Some disclose when they've been given free samples by companies, but some don't. As for colour, I feel it can be completely ignored most of the time. Scotch whisky can be tinted with caramel colouring (E150a) so the colour of a whisky tells you absolutely nothing. It tells you as much about a whisky's taste and texture as the colour of a car tells you about its reliability, i.e. nothing at all. As the image shows you, E150a, which is 100% legally permitted, can fool you. It's like "the dress" all over again. Your eyes can deceive you. So tasting a whisky for yourself is the only reliable test. Of course reading this blog can be helpful, since I'm an unimportant nobody and I'm nothing if not honest.

Big Peat

Big Peat is a blended malt, sometimes called vatted malt, from Douglas Laing & co. The bottle features a bearded Scotsman (presumably named "Pete") wearing a cozy-looking sweater. It is unchil-filtered (yay!) and I don't think there's any mention of E150a, but this is so lightly coloured, almost clear, so I'd venture to guess it's bottled at natural colour. Which single malts are in this blend? According to the company's website:

With Caol Ila spirit bringing sweetness, Bowmore the perfect balance, Ardbeg the medicinal, earthy quality and Port Ellen, a degree of elegance, Big Peat represents all that is Islay in a bottle. Fred Laing tells us that of course, there are a couple of Blender's Secrets in Big Peat too – but even after a few drams, he won’t share that info – and so it remains our peaty little secret!

So what's the "secret"? Laphroaig? Lagavulin? Bruichladdich? Bunnahabhain? I guess we'll never know. But more importantly, how does it taste?

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): smoke, peat, with citrus fruits and sweet barley grain behind it. Graham crackers perhaps. Smells like a toned-down Ardbeg. With time in the glass, a faint bacon aroma develops. I like this.
  • Palate (undiluted): slightly oily texture yet still somewhat light-bodied. It's a bit briny, however there are lots of deep, dark flavours here; it's ashy on arrival, develops some pepperiness, and a touch of tobacco.
  • Finish: somewhat drying, black pepper, tarry, slightly antiseptic, with some very dark chocolate ( > 85%) and coffee flavours lingering.

I did not, at any point, add water to this whisky. It did not need it and I didn't want to add any. My only criticism, and it is an admittedly minor one, is that it didn't have an overly wide spectrum of flavours. Most of the flavours are deep, dark, smoky and ashy. There seemed to be a bit of "high end" lightness lacking, especially on the palate and finish. Now this isn't a dealbreaker for me, as it tends to be the type of flavour profile I gravitate toward anyway, but I feel people should be aware of it. Big Peat's "flavour colour" or "pitch of flavour" is closer to Laphroaig Quarter Cask than it is to Lagavulin 8 Year Old, if that comparison makes sense. There's a stark contrast between the colour of this whisky and its flavour. Judging from its colour, you might expect something light, crisp, and fruity...and you'd be dead wrong. Like dismissing Gandalf as a michievous trickster, or like thinking Aragorn was naught but a grimy ranger. I don't think Big Peat is currently available in Ontario, but I'd buy it if it were. Recommended.

Rating: 88/100 points (4/5 moustaches)