Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Conundrum: a review of The Macallan 12 Year Old Sherry Oak


1. A confusing and difficult problem or question.
e.g. ‘one of the most difficult conundrums for the experts

In my real life, I teach an Introduction to Philosophy class. One of the most fun activities we do is finding, identifying and analysing logical fallacies. Students create examples of fallacies as a project and the results can be a lot of fun. There's even a great website that provides a ton of examples here. My favourite example of a logical fallacy from that website is the example given for false cause, also called the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. 

Actual photo of me as a pirate
Pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the numbers of pirates have been decreasing; thus pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax.

I knew it ! Even when they said it was pollution and greenhouse gases, I knew it was the pirates ! Yarrrgh !!!

What does any of this have to do with whisky? Simple. How can I reconcile the fact that I don't care for a whisky that is loved by many? Am I an idiot who is just poor and jealous (ad hominem or personal attack fallacy)? Am I wrong since the whisky is so popular (argumentum ad populum or bandwagon fallacy)? Let's dig deeper.

Full disclosure

Forget Red Bull; THE Macallan turns you into Icarus !
I've often jeered at THE Macallan because of the ridiculous circus side-show that goes hand in hand with the brand (did you see the ridiculously pretentious "Would you risk falling for a chance to fly?" advert before it was pulled? Ugh...), but many have assured me that their 12 Year Old Sherry Oak bottle is the no-nonsense entry level Macallan that could give me a snapshot of what the distillery is about. Now to be fair, I've enjoyed some Macallan whiskies I've sampled: Macallan Rare Cask is excellent as is Macallan Sienna, but I would never pay the asking price for either of those whiskies. (Resist the urge to call me poor and jealous; that's another ad's just a personal judgment and not an indictment of anyone who thinks those whiskies are worth the asking price). I did NOT enjoy Macallan Gold, Macallan 12 Double Cask, Macallan Amber, or any of the Macallan Editions I sampled. To quote the inimitable Ralfy "Just my opinion, Malt Mates, just an opinion." The Macallan 12 Year Sherry Oak is available for about $60 USD in Florida (it is currently unavailable in Ontario, Canada), but I'm loath to spring for a bottle without trying it first. I'll do my best to remain objective, focus on the whisky, and ignore the marketing nonsense.

The bottle whence came this sample was opened June 9/2018, and was 2/3 full when the sample was poured on Dec 2/2018

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): a bit of spirity astringency, raisins, dates, walnuts, brown sugar, orange zest
  • Palate (undiluted): easy arrival, light-bodied, not as rich as I expected from the nose, more raisins, becoming a bit sharp, like balsamic vinegar
  • Finish: medium length, brown sugar, walnuts, oak spices (cloves, cinnamon), a little mint at the tail end turning to bitter wood tannins. Not a dealbreaker, but a little more bitterness at the end than I usually prefer.

Adding water brings aromas of red grapes and oak. It feels a bit fruitier and not quite as sweet with water added. The bitter wood tannins are more pronounced on the finish with water added though. So the nose and palate are better with water, but the finish is better neat. I believe that's what you call a conundrum. Nevertheless, this feels like a pretty straightforward sherried malt. It’s pleasant, but it's nothing extraordinary. It doesn't have a massively wide range of flavours. I guess you could call that "balanced". I feel like it might be an ideal "background" whisky but I don't feel like this is a star in its own right. I'm surprised by how light (watery?) it was, and I don't think it's just a function of the abv, since Glendronach 12, Tomatin 12 and Benromach 10 are both more richly-textured than this Macallan at the same 43% abv. 

The Macallan 12 is not as rich or even as complex as most bottles of Glendronach 12 I’ve tried, but my experience with the latter is more extensive than it is with this one sample of Macallan. I would be open to trying Macallan 12 Sherry Oak again, since every experience is just a snapshot in time, but given that Macallan 12 would cost me the same as Glendronach 12, I can't see myself buying a bottle. However, I remain grateful to my friend for his generosity in giving me the opportunity to try one of the best-known single malts on the market. It is almost universally loved, but Macallan 12 Sherry Oak just didn't do it for me. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's because of the lack of pirates. But I'd suggest you try before you buy.

Rating: 82/100 (3/5 moustaches)

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Top 5: Mythbuster Edition

Whisky myths are like The Terminator. No matter how hard you try, they refuse to die. They keep coming back until they accomplish their mission and kill Sarah Connor. Or John Connor. Or just drive you nuts. No matter how many people try to dispel these myths, or how often they're refuted, these myths live on, immune to all logical arguments, responding with a deadpan "I'll be back". Nevertheless, I'll try to do Linda Hamilton justice and kick some whisky myth butt. Here are the five whisky myths that make me want to say "Hasta la vista, baby" before blowing them away...knowing full well they'll be back.

Myth no. 5: Old whisky is better than young whisky

Let's get one thing straight; taste is subjective. Ergo "better" whisky is whatever whisky you prefer. That said, there's always some pretentious dude named Arlo or Rafe, who likely drives a BMW and takes up three parking spaces, that will insist that "everyone knows" older whisky is better. He probably can't tell you why, other than "everyone knows" it's true, and he may even drop a casual "older whisky is more complex and smoother". Now there's nothing wrong with having preferences, but insisting that a blanket generality be accepted as truism doesn't make a person smart, it makes them look like an ass. Four years in a virgin oak cask can make a more flavourful whisky than ten years in a cask that's been used three times. Age matters, but it's only one factor in the final product. And while older whisky is different than younger whisky, it's not always better.

Myth no. 4: Single malt scotch is inherently superior to all other whiskies

Ugh. I hate this one. I think I hate it more because single malt scotch is, for the most part, my favourite type of whisky. However, that's a taste preference. There are a ton of people who will swear that bourbon is superior to all other types of whisky. As long as you're expressing a preference, we're cool. But the minute you try to sell your subjective preference as unassailable "fact", you're wrong. Single malt scotch is just whisky made at a single Scottish distillery, entirely from malted barley, which is then matured (at least 3 years and one day) and bottled in Scotland. That's it. There's no reason to think any whisky is objectively superior to any other whisky. So the next time you're at a wedding sipping Wild Turkey, Lot 40, or Redbreast, and drunk uncle Gord tells you "You should drink this Glenblahblah instead of that crap! Everyone knows *hiccup* single malt scotch is the best. It's public knowledge!" You should respond as Ron Swanson would:

Myth no. 3: Blended whisky sucks

Don't be a buzzkill
This one really grinds my gears. There are amazing blended whiskies out there and the criticisms of blended whiskies are often so mind-numbingly stupid that you'd be forgiven for thinking they were uttered by Peter Griffin. I've heard them all. For example, "blended whiskies aren't as complex as single malts". What? How does that make any sense whatsoever? Comparing a bottle of Uncle Hamish's Bargain Blended Scotch to a Laphroaig 32 Year Old isn't exactly fair. But even a modestly-priced blend such as Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend can showcase how good blended scotch can be. Jameson gets unfairly dismissed as a "shooter" or "mixing" whiskey but serve someone Jameson Black Barrel in a blind tasting and I'll bet dollars to donuts they'll enjoy it. I've also heard "blended whisky doesn't change with age the way single malt does". Huh? Is there some wizardry afoot that prevents blended whisky from obeying the laws of physics? As far as I know, every whisky is subject to oxidation, esterification, and evaporation as it matures. Of course, the warehouse location, the cask type, the entry proof of the whisky, and other factors will affect how a whisky (blended or other) will change over time, but every whisky will change over time. There is a LOT of great blended whisky on the market. Turning your nose up at blends make you more boring than Buzz Killington. Which blended whiskies do I like? Glad you asked; I enjoy Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve, Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend, Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, Jameson Black Barrel, Bushmills Black Bush, J.P. Wiser's Dissertation, Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Year Old, Islay Mist 8 Year Old, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, Ballantine's Finest, Bell's Original. No, those last two are not included by mistake.

Myth no. 2: Inexpensive whisky sucks

Some people when you don't fawn over their expensive whisky
This one may ruffle some feathers, but I don't care. Buying expensive whisky doesn't mean you have "more discerning taste" than those who spend less. And before anyone throws a tantrum and calls me "poor and jealous", let me say that I have no problem with people drinking what they like (responsibly). And I have no problem with people who buy and enjoy more expensive whiskies. One of my best friends has a much more extensive (and expensive) whisky collection than I do. No big deal. The myth that needs to die is that an increase in price corresponds to a commensurate increase in quality. I challenge people to do blind tastings and see if they can identify which whiskies are the most expensive. I bet most people can't do it. There are some very good whiskies that don't cost a fortune, and there are some expensive whiskies I don't personally care for. Weller Antique 107 sells for about $36 in Ontario right now, and although the price is set to increase to $50 soon, that's still a good deal cheaper than a LOT of other bourbons. Wild Turkey 101 sells for $40 and I prefer it to most other, more expensive bourbons. Maybe I'm a philistine, a plebeian, a dull proletarian, but there are some so-called bottom shelf whiskies I enjoy sipping. Ballantine's Finest, Alberta Premium, George Dickel no.12, J.P. Wiser's Triple Barrel, among others, are all fine by me. They may not replace my favourite Laphroaig Cairdeas or Caol Ila 18 Year Old single malts, but I won't turn my nose up at them either.

Myth no. 1: Whisky awards are objective

Finally, an award worth winning !
"You don't like X whisky? You mustn't really know anything about whisky. It won best whisky in the WORLD !!!" Go to literally any online whisky discussion forum or Facebook group, and you'll run across this type of comment...which is unfortunate since most whisky awards are as meaningful as the First Annual Montgomery Burns Award For Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. I'm not saying the results are fixed or that there's a conspiracy of shape-shifting reptilians controlling our minds and tastebuds (or am I?) but even supposed "experts" are individuals. As such they are subject to all sorts of biases and personal preferences. Judges at these competitions may have a ton of experience and know a lot about whisky, but that doesn't mean their taste preferences match yours. Some of these awards are a "pay to play" deal where every whisky that enters gets some kind of medal. Some awards state that the whiskies are tasted "blind", though the definition of "blind tasting" seems to vary depending on the competition. When I do a blind tasting from a sample a friend has given me, I know NOTHING about that whisky and I have to form a judgment based solely on my senses. Some spirits competitions will divulge the type of whisky (bourbon, scotch single malt, irish single pot still), the age if it is stated, the proof (abv %), and even the region (Islay scotch, Speyside scotch, Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Kentucky Bottled in Bond Bourbon). Now that doesn't seem too blind to me, but what do I know? The goal of this little diatribe is not to castigate whisky awards so much as it is a call for perspective. Back in 2016, Jim Murray named Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye "Best whisky in the world" and a lot of people lost their minds. Some declared Murray a paid stooge while others rushed to the LCBO to stockpile Northern Harvest Rye in hopes of "flipping" the bottles later for a tidy profit. I liked Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye then, and I like it now. Is it the best whisky in the world? Not to me, but I really like it. Jim Murray was just making a judgment based on his perception of his tastings of that particular whisky. If he had tasted something else first that day, the results may have been different. Whisky can be expensive. You shouldn't let awards guide your purchasing habits since you don't know if your tastebuds are the same as those of the judges. The best you can do is trade samples with friends or find bloggers and YouTube vloggers whose tastes are close to your own. I don't always agree with Ralfy, but I've never disliked anything he's rated 85 points or higher. I thoroughly enjoy Horst Luening's reviews over at but his tastes are very different from my own. Horst loves wine cask finishes and isn't big on cask strength whiskies, so I don't rush out to buy his favourites for my whisky cabinet.

If these myths have one thing in common, it's this: other people's opinions don't matter when it comes to something as subjective as whisky. Find bloggers or YouTubers whose tastes line up close to your own and use those resources as a guide, but don't rely on other people to validate your preferences. Your taste is what matters, the rest is just noise.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Exotically Canadian? J.P. Wiser's Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old

Canadia is rarely (never?) described as "exotic". Depending on where you are in the world, Polynesia fits most people's description of "exotic" with its tropical flowers, turquoise waters, and lush green islands. I love the novels of M.G. Vassanji, and his descriptions of Tanzania's bustling markets always made it seem "exotic" to me. Coupled with Vassanji's literary prowess is the fact that Tanzania also contains (parts of) Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika, and all of Kilimanjaro. I can't help but think of Tanzania as "exotic". Maybe that betrays a certain Canadian-centric view, but so be it. However, I'm hard-pressed to imagine any place in the world where you'd be greeted with "you're from Canada? Ooohhh, how exotic!". Canadians are generally described as "down to earth", "friendly", "a more polite version of the United States", or even "boring". Russian artist Anastasia Bulgakova produced a series of drawings which personify a variety of countries as sci-fi warriors...all warriors, except for Canada. Of my home country, Bulgakova said:
Are we Jughead to the USA's Archie?

 “Canada is simple guy with puppy eyes. He is kind and not conflicting. Prefers to be at home and not look for any problems in others’ battles. He only fights in sports- hockey. He finds it honest and cheerful.”

But the reality is that Canada is a multicultural nation. The hockey-crazed hoser, the lumberjack, and the Mountie are more stereotypes than realities. Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, and Toronto (among other cities) all have vibrant, culturally diverse restaurants, clothing stores, and art. First Nations people in Canada are becoming well-known around the world for their movies, music, and literary accomplishments. Heck, maybe we are more exotic than our "aw shucks" faux humility might lead some to believe.

Our whisky producers are also becoming less apologetic and cautious. The big producers are taking risks, and the whisky community is richer for it. So what is J.P. Wiser's Seasoned Oak? Is it a “simple guy with puppy eyes” or is it a multicultural mosaic?

J.P. Wiser's Seasoned Oak 19 Year Old

According to the interweb machine, this Canadian blend is mostly J.P. Wiser's double column distilled corn with a touch of double column distilled rye added for a spicy kick. The whisky is aged for 18 years in previously used (once? twice? thrice? I don't know) barrels and then finished for a year in virgin oak that was seasoned (i.e. left out in the elements) for 48 months. The whisky is bottled at 48% abv. What is "seasoned" oak? Why leave it out in the elements? Allow me to quote from the most reliable source when it comes to Canadian whisky, Mr. Davin de Kergommeaux of

Workers cut the newly harvested oak into blank staves then stack it neatly but loosely, and leave it outside to dry. Stacking helps prevent warping while still providing full exposure to the elements.

As it dries, the wood in these stacks is affected by the weather. The outer layer of the stack slowly turns grey in the sun, while inside all the staves, microorganisms and enzymes very slowly change the composition of the wood itself. However, the real benefit is rainfall.

Many tannins and other undesirable wood components are water soluble and with each rainfall they wash out of the wood bit by bit as the rainwater percolates down through the stack. A little tannin adds structure to the whisky but too much and you think you are chewing on a bitter log.

Coopers call this slow natural drying process “seasoning” and it results in oakwood that is much gentler on the spirit. Thus whisky or wine can age longer without becoming over wooded.

Tasting Notes

  • Nose (undiluted): figs and raisins alongside some brown sugar, a hint of barrel char, a subtle floral note in the background
  • Palate (undiluted): rich and waxy, some rye spice, pepper, coconut, milk chocolate, fresh cut oak
  • Finish: medium length, sweet toffee returns, some vanilla, the barrel char notes return, with some cloves and fresh coconut lingering alongside the slightly perfumed floral notes

With water, this whisky gets much more floral, with a lingering hint of incense on the finish. It may sound odd, but it isn't at all unpleasant. The floral notes remind me of some exotic flowers I’ve never smelled before. That may sound ridiculous to include in a tasting note, but it’s the best I can do as I am no botanist. They may be flowers from French Polynesia or North Battleford, Saskatchewan for all I know. 

I’m curious which char was used on the virgin seasoned oak. I’m also wondering if this one would have been a bit “deeper” had they left it in the seasoned oak a bit longer or if it would have been too oak-dominant. But I guess I’ll never know. Then again, I’m not the guy with a PhD in whisky, so maybe the right decisions were made. I find this whisky a wee bit lacking in “low end” notes.

Wiser's Seasoned Oak is a very interesting whisky. I’m not entirely certain I’d buy another bottle, but I don’t regret this purchase either. In that sense it reminds me a bit of Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity and the sample of Collectivum XXVIII I tasted. All very enjoyable, very well made, but not necessarily something I’d reach for regularly. Make no mistake though, it was well worth the purchase price as the whisky evolved with time and air exposure. Each time I tried it, Wiser's Seasoned Oak offered a little something different. Recommended.

Rating: 89/100 (4/5 moustaches)

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Weird Science ! a review of Diageo's Collectivum XXVIII Blended Malt Scotch

Does any director personify the 1980s more than John Hughes? I doubt it. Hughes' wildly successful catalogue of films include classics such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty In Pink, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and Home Alone. Ok, I know Home Alone was released in 1990, but you get the point. As a teenager re-visiting these films in the 1990s, I was more taken with Weird Science, one of Hughes lesser-known movies. Maybe it had something to do with Kelly LeBrock, I'm not sure; I was a weird kid. As ridiculous as the whole premise was (teenage boys creating a magical super-woman by hooking electrodes up to a doll and hacking a government computer system), the movie just worked. Or maybe it didn't; I honestly don't remember. But the whole (Kelly LeBrock) was certainly greater than the sum of the parts Gary and Wyatt used to create her. 

At first glance, this type of weird science seems to be exactly what the people at Diageo were thinking when they created Collectivum XXVIII. Or maybe it was a drunken dare:

  • "I know, let's mix whisky from every distillery we own, bottle it and sell it!"
  • "Yeah, but we need an awesome name too! Like Excelsior or something Roman-sounding"
  • "You mean something Latin?"
  • "Don't be a smart-ass, Bryce!"
  • "Maybe we could just use some latin phrase AND Roman numerals or something."
  • "Like Magnus XXVIII !"
  • "No, no, man...that Viking distillery is already using Magnus. Something that says 'big collection' or something."
  • "Ok then, Collectivum XXVIII!"
  • "Genius!!!"
Either way, the whole thing sounds like a recipe for disaster to me. But what the hell do I know? I liked the movie Weird Science. I also liked Weird Al Yankovic's movie UHF, so take my opinion with a proverbial grain of salt.

Wait, how many whiskies are in here?

Collectivum XXVIII is a blended malt that was released with the other Diageo Special Releases in 2017. It contains malt whisky from every single operational Diageo distillery (there are 28 of them, d'uh!), it carries no age statement, and it is bottled at 57.3% ABV.

*The 28 distilleries are: Auchroisk, Benrinnes, Blair Athol, Caol Ila, Cardhu, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Dailuaine, Dalwhinnie, Dufftown, Glendullan, Glen Elgin, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie, Glen Ord, Glen Spey, Inchgower, Knockando, Lagavulin, Linkwood, Mannochmore, Mortlach, Oban, Roseisle, Royal Lochnagar, Strathmill, Talisker and Teaninich.

I received a sample of this whisky from a friend and tasted it on two separate occasions. The first tasting was done in a blind tasting session, and I had already tasted two other whiskies before the Collectivum. My notes for the first tasting reflect my thought process in trying (unsuccessfully) to identify the component malts. I felt like Sandra Bullock trying to steer a boat on a swiftly-moving river while blindfolded. My second tasting was done with a "clean" or "fresh" palate.

Tasting no.1(February 16 2019) Neat from a Glencairn

How it felt trying to identify the component malts
  • Nose: Sherry cask reminiscent of Highland Park, aggressively nippy nose at first, a bit of fudge, wet hay, cherries, walnuts, cinnamon, Tamdhu maybe. There's not really any smoke.
  • Palate: hot arrival, sweet fudge and toffee reminiscent of Glenfarclas 105, syrupy, with a bit of herbal bitterness, rosemary maybe
  • Finish: sherry, red fruit, sharp right until the end, herbal notes, a little bitterness, some very slight briny notes, Ben Nevis maybe?.
This one is interesting. I'd guess it's a slightly higher ABV offering (46% or higher). There are flavours here that are quite new to me.
Best guess: Highland Park, Glenfarclas, Tamdhu, Ben Nevis
Rating: 87/100 (4/5 moustaches)
The reveal: Collectivium XXVIII by Diageo, bottle code L7096DQ000, at 57.3%

Tasting no. 2 (April 29 2019): Neat from a Highland whisky glass

  • Nose (undiluted): cherries, slightly musty, old wood, herbal (eucalyptus), hay, walnuts
  • Palate (undiluted): lovely rich texture, fruity and syrupy arrival like a fruit cocktail, more cherries
  • Finish: sherry, red fruit, slightly herbal, a bit of cinnamon
This didn’t really change much with water, except the fruit salad on the palate was a bit more like oranges and pineapples with water and less grapey. This is very nice stuff. I think I enjoyed it a bit more on a “fresh” palate. My original rating was 87/100, and after a second tasting, I’d rate it a touch higher, maybe 89/100. But I'm not sure if I'm biased because I know this is a more expensive whisky; in Ontario it retails for about $275.

What I liked best about this whisky was the balance between the sweet fruits on the nose and the drying vegetal notes (eucalyptus, rosemary) on the palate and finish. It's not necessarily a whisky I'd reach for all the time, but I'd be happy to accept a glass of it anytime. Complex, interesting, and more balanced than you would expect with 28 malts in the blend. The idea may seem like weird science, and like the film of the same name it may not be for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Are whisky writers and bloggers pretentious? A note on tasting notes.

Reading whisky reviews may cause the uninitiated to feel like Chris Farley did on that (slightly racist) SNL skit wherein he ends up on a Japanese game show. Farley repeatedly states "I don't speak Japanese" and is hilariously confused and horrified by everything going on around him. A whisky novice may feel the same confusion when reading about "aromas of exotic spices, Jaffa oranges, petitgrain oil, a complex junction of oak and spices on the palate with a rich and lingering treacle sweetness on the finish." I mean, what the hell is treacle, anyway? Apparently the English (and Scottish?) love the hell out of it, since it's in every tasting note by any writer from the island whose whisky greatness is inversely proportional to its multitudinous array of culinary failures. Jellied eels, anyone?

However, while some "poetic license" is used by professional writers and amateur wannabes such as yours truly, tasting notes need not be mysterious. And they're not necessarily as far-fetched as they might appear at first blush. Before you excoriate a writer for their mention of "horehound candy, strawflower, and Parma violets", there are a few things we should understand about the multisensory experience whisky provides.


The sense of smell evokes memories and emotions, possibly more so than any of our other senses.  Since our memories and our cultural references vary widely, how we relate those aromas to others will be unique. To wit, what smells like dark brown sugar or molasses cookies to me may be identified as "treacle" by an English writer. Parma violets are not flowers but a British tablet candy that apparently taste sweet, floral, and somewhat soapy. I'm sure if I included "Tim Horton's Cherry Timbits" in a tasting note, any German readers would find it unübersichtlich.

How to smell a whisky

If you don't already do this, you should. I promise it's not a trick. And while some may laugh at you, I promise it will amplify your enjoyment of any whisky. Aromas are best perceived from a tulip-shaped glass, such as a Glencairn, a Copita, or any other glass that's wider at the base than it is at the opening. You don't have to bury your nose in the glass right away, especially if you're new at "nosing" a whisky. Yes, you can use that word without sounding snooty. Start by holding the glass at about chin level, open your mouth and breathe in through your nose. Depending on the whisky and your level of experience, you may get some aromas or none at all. You can then move the glass to about the level of your bottom lip and breathe in through your nose again. If the alcohol vapours are too strong, give it five minutes or so to "rest" in the glass. Some of those aromas will dissipate and your senses should adjust. If it smells "like whisky" to you, perhaps start by consulting a flavour wheel like this one. It starts more general in the middle and gets more specific as you move to the outside. With a bit of practice, you'll get more comfortable with this process. I promise you won't sound stuffy to other whisky drinkers. Your spouse or friends may mock you but that's probably already happening anyway.


Taste refers to what is detected by receptor cells (taste buds) on the front and back of the tongue and on the sides, back and roof of the mouth.  The way our brains perceive these stimuli is what we refer to as taste, with there being five recognised basic tastes: salty, bitter, sweet, sour and umami. Kokumi is the object of more recent debate in scientific circles.  There is no evidence to support it being a basic taste in its own right, and is often described as a sensation; ‘richness’, ‘thickness’, ‘heartiness’. Taste and smell are intertwined. It's difficult to separate the two. In fact, much of what we refer to as "flavour" comes from our sense of smell. No matter though, because the overall experience is what matters. I find a flavour map like this one particularly helpful. If you're new, you can stick to the basic descriptors: Is the whisky smoky? Is it rich? Is it light? Is it oily? Make sure you're holding the whisky in your mouth for a few seconds to get the full experience. After you've swallowed the whisky, breathe in and out through your mouth and see which tastes linger. That's called the finish and it's often the best part of a great whisky, like Laphroaig 10 Year Old.

It may be tempting to write off (bad pun intended) tasting notes as pretension and affected sophistication, but there is something to it. Imagine how boring it would be to read "this Lagavulin 16 tastes very good. Believe me, it is very good. Tremendously good. It smells like smoky Lagavulin. Very good smoky Lagavulin." Whisky, and the tasting notes it inspires, is meant to be lingered over and taken in slowly. Sipping a great whisky is an experience that engages not only your sense of smell, taste, and touch, but it should engage your imagination as well. If that results in tasting notes like "sitting in a musty attic in London, reading an old leather-bound book on a rainy day in October" then so be it. I'm in. 

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Waxing Poetic: Top 5 Whiskies for Spring

AGAIN rejoicing Nature sees
Her robe assume its vernal hues:
Her leafy locks wave in the breeze,
All freshly steep’d in morning dews.

from "Song-Composed in Spring" by Robert Burns

Ah Spring! It there any season more poetic, more inspiring? It's the most hopeful of the seasons, isn't it? The snow melting, the first buds appearing on the trees. The smell of thawing dog droppings permeating the air. Ok, so not everything about springtime is worthy of a haiku or sonnet. But spring is about youth, about promise, and about re-birth. So which whiskies pair best with April showers and the "darling buds of May"? Which whiskies will make you want to sing "the HIIIIILLLLS are alive, with the sound of Griswold"? Here are my top picks:

5. Aultmore 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

This whisky was part of Dewar's The Last Great Malts range back in 2014. Aultmore hasn't always been available as a stand-alone single malt, but now that it is you should take advantage of it. Aultmore 12 is bottled at a respectable 46% and is unchill-filtered. "Clean" and "crisp" are words that I associate with this malt. There's plenty of flavour though, so don't think it a lightweight just because it's not peated or heavily sherried. Aultmore 12 has aromas and flavours of green apples, pears, honey, a little bit of citrus, and lots of lovely dried floral notes (think chamomile). Be careful, though, as that 46% abv can sneak up on you.

4. Forty Creek Confederation Oak

This gem of a whisky hails from Grimsby, Ontario's Forty Creek distillery. John K. Hall and Forty Creek are widely credited with "saving" Canadian whisky back in the 1990s, and with good cause. "Rich" is a word you'll often find associated with this blend. There are lovely spring flavours here: orange blossoms, walnuts, bananas, vanilla, raisins, dates and even a little maple syrup. I know, I know, how Canadian, right? This whisky is more complex than you might think. People really need to drop their pre-conceived biases against Canadian whisky. This country produces some stellar sippers, and Forty Creek Confederation Oak is one of them. It's ideal to sip while you're on a break from your spring cleaning or while you're watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs....which now includes exactly zero Canadian teams. Oh well, at least there’s a Canadian whisky fit for your cup.

3. Bushmills 10 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey

This is the adult version of Easter morning. Bushmills is known for its blends, but this triple distilled single malt is full of chocolate, caramel, and a bit of tropical fruitiness. There's some floral vanilla rounding out the flavour profile, and to top it all off, this single malt is more affordable than some scotch blends. Do yourself a favour and pick up a bottle of this pleasant sipper. Bushmills produces a lot of single malt for a lot of other brands too, and there's a good reason: the folks at Bushmills know what they're doing.

2. Isle of Arran 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

Arran 10 Year Old puts to rest the antiquated notion that old whisky is better than young whisky. It will disabuse you of the idea that a young whisky can't be complex and enjoyable. There are loads of tropical fruits, vanilla, cinnamon, and citrus. Another wonderful bottling from a distillery that seems to really "get it": natural colour, unchill-filtered, 46 % abv. YES !!! The whisky world needs more of this! Isle of Arran is a relatively young distillery, having been founded in 1995 by Harold Currie, the former director of Chivas. Perhaps because they aren't steeped in centuries-old tradition, they aren't reticent to try new things. Keep an eye on Arran!

1. Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey

Irish Single Pot Still is a beautiful thing. Rich, oily, slightly spicy, and that's just the spirit. The casks used to mature this complex whiskey only add to the delightful sensory experience Irish Single Pot Still provides. This whiskey is matured in three types of casks: American ex-bourbon casks, Spanish Sherry butts, and Spanish Malaga casks. The result is a whiskey full of bright flavours and aromas: peaches, apricots, fresh spearmint leaves, almonds, vanilla custard, and lemon. It brings to mind Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw's famous quote "Whiskey is liquid sunshine". Indeed.

If winter still has its hold on your neck of the woods, I propose you pick up one of these wonderful whiskies and enjoy a little taste of spring. But with Easter behind us, the season of rebirth and renewal is here. Enjoy it. If I've made an egregious omission, please drop me a line with your favourite spring whisky.

Slainte !

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Like Father, Like Son? Two versions of Highland Park 12

Western literature is replete with legends of father and son rivalries. These rivalries can symbolize the clash between old values and the new ones, between the stability of tradition and the excitement and growth that change promises. But stability does not always guarantee happiness, and change is not always synonymous with improvement. In Sophocles' The Theban Plays, perhaps the most well-known father-son rivalry, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills a prophecy by killing his father and marrying his mother, and bringing disaster to his city and family. Before his name was appropriated by Freud, Oedipus represented two common themes of Greek drama: humanity's inherent imperfection and the individual as a pawn of destiny in a harsh universe.

In Hildebrandslied, a Germanic tale, two warriors meet on a battlefield as the champions of their armies. The older man, Hildebrand asks his opponent to identify himself and his geneology. Hadubrand responds that he did not know his father but that he believes him to be dead. Hildebrand indirectly asserts his paternity, which Hadubrand believes to be a ruse. The two engage in a battle to the death, and....the outcome is not revealed.

Hollywood has gotten pretty good mileage out of father-son tension as well: Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Odin and Thor (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Marlin and Nemo (Finding Nemo), Vito and Michael Corleone (The Godfather).

We need not look only to myth either; real life has plenty of similar examples. Norse explorer Erik the Red (who has been somewhat mythologized) had a son, Leif Erikson, who felt it necessary to outdo his father by exploring beyond Greenland and becoming the first known European to set foot on North American soil. Allegedly. Of course, after a few skirmishes with Indigenous people, Leif decided he didn't want to stick around, but that's beyond the scope of a whisky article.

So what happens when an old whisky gets a rebranding, a rebirth of sorts? Can the new successfully replace the old?

A Viking Saga

In 2012, Highland Park started playing up its Viking roots, releasing some Viking-themed expressions. A Swedish importer apparently joked that Highland Park was the westernmost distillery in Sweden because the Orkney and Shetland Islands belonged to the Vikings until the islands were annexed by the Scots in 1469. Around 2017, Highland Park went full Viking, re-branding all their expressions with a theme that would make the All-Father proud.

I bought a bottle of the Highland Park 12 Year Old Viking Honour when it first came reaving, ransacking, and pillaging Ontario's shores. I had planned on getting one of the remaining non-Viking Highland Park 12 Year Old bottlings to do a head-to-head comparison, but alas, I was too late, so no older bottling of Highland Park 12 for me...until a friend got me a sample of the pre-Viking HP. Many thanks to him for the sample (from batch L0514W) whence comes the first part of this review.

Highland Park 12 (pre-Viking) Tasting Notes

The older bottlings were a bit more understated
  • Nose (undiluted): oloroso sherry is front and center, red fruit, orange zest, cocoa powder, soft peat smoke, floral notes, like little white spring flowers (hey, I'm not a botanist)
  • Palate (undiluted): gentle arrival, lots of red fruit, a touch of honey, floral peat, a bit of smoke, very rounded
  • Finish: medium length, somewhat drying, milk chocolate, roasted almonds, a pronounced minerality, a touch of dry smoke lingering
With water, there's a little brine on the nose. It gets peatier on the palate and finish with water added. More so than the new Viking 12, but it's really a subtle difference.

Whisky writer Michael Jackson (not the King of Pop) called this jack-of-all-trades whisky "the best all-around whisky in the world". The folks at Highland Park reportedly felt it was a mixed blessing as the "jack of all trades" whisky became synonymous (in some quarters) as a Master of None. For me, Highland Park 12 has always been pleasant and enjoyable, but it was not necessarily a whisky I craved often or dreamed about. This may seem like a negative description, but it's not. Highland Park 12 was (and maybe still is) the perfect whiksy to introduce someone to moderately peated whisky.

Rating: 85/100 points

Highland Park 12 Viking Honour Tasting Notes

This is part deux of my Highland Park head to head. The Viking motif has been jeered by some but I have to say it....the bottle actually looks pretty cool. We can poke fun at marketing all we want, but it would be boring if every whisky's marketing department branded themselves with the tagline "Buy our whisky; it tastes good." I admit it; I like the Viking theme, which overlaps with some Celtic symbolism. And Highland Park's combination of a quarter turn screw cap combined with a cork stopper is pretty neat too. So is this whisky significantly different than the non-Viking HP 12?

  • Nose (undiluted): subtle dry sherry, red fruit, soft peat smoke, dried flowers (chamomile?), and oh no, is it? Is it? Yes, there's definitely some sulphur here. Not the rotten eggs variety, but there's definitely some spent matches hiding in the background. It isn't overpowering, but it is present. (*edit: the sulphur became more pronounced as time went by, with a distinct smell of onions adding to the unpleasant spent match odour. I ended up giving most of this whisky to "sulphur blind" friends)
  • Palate (undiluted): slightly sharp arrival, lots of red fruit, honey, floral peat, just a whisp of smoke, a bit "grassy"
  • Finish: medium length, drying, red grapes giving way to milk chocolate, roasted almonds, a slight minerality, a touch of smoke lingering
Sipped neat, this is dryer than I expected it to be. Adding water brings out much more fruit on the nose while pushing the smoke back, but not mitigating the sulphur notes. The palate becomes creamy with more sweetness and the finish is peatier and smokier with water. Water improves this whisky slightly. Good (not great) both ways, but it's a shame about that subtle but present sulphur note on the nose. To the back of the cabinet with you! Maybe time will improve it. (edit: time did not improve it. It made it much worse.)

I didn't find any huge differences between these two bottlings, except for the sulphuric spent match aroma in the Viking edition. Maybe that's the smell of a burning funeral pyre. Nevertheless, any sherried whisky can occasionally present sulphur notes and I'm hoping this was a one-off occurance. Other than the sulphur, the differences between these two whiskies could basically be nothing more than packaging and standard batch variations. 

Initial rating: 80/100 points
Rating after 2 months of air exposure: 70/100 points

All the panic that surrounded Highland Park's re-branding seems to be a tempest in a teapot. Yes, my Highland Park 12 Viking Honour was sulphured. Yes, it's disappointing. But that's the chance you take these days with sherry-casked whiskies. I don't think this is a prevalent problem with Highland Park. It's the first time I've encountered sulphur taint in their 12 year old, and I hope it's the last time. Highland Park's expressions are always good to excellent (Highland Park 18 is truly outstanding) and the distillery does a lot of things right. But even the Vikings aren't perfect all the time. Here's to better experiences in the future! Skål !

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Slow Down: a review of Springbank 12 Cask Strength

I'm a fan of the slow food movement. I love to cook and I love to eat. Life moves at such a breakneck pace that finding the time to enjoy a meal, truly enjoy a meal, often proves difficult. The slow food movement was founded "to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us." Thus there's more to the movement than just eating slowly or avoiding fast food. Convivia (local Slow Food chapters) organize events ranging from dinners and tastings, visits to local producers and farms, and more. They encourage people to "shake the hand that feeds you", and while this isn't always possible, it is something we should strive to do more often. Springbank distillery applies this type of philosophy to whisky-making. They offer a 5 day "whisky school" program wherein students truly get immersed in every aspect of the process. 

You're about to get schooled

From their website:

As we are the only Scottish distillery to undertake 100% of whisky production on one site, you’ll participate in each and every step of the process, being hands on in everything from floor malting and distilling, to filling casks and bottling the finished product. There truly is no better experience for whisky lovers who are keen to learn the process of making Scotland’s famous liquid.

Now the more cynical among us may raise an eyebrow at spending £1200 (approx. $2080 CAD, not including airfare) to work FOR a company but the experience would be, in my opinion, worthwhile. I can't be the only one who thinks this way, as the "whisky school" sells out every summer (May through July).

Spring Fling

I've confessed my love for Springbank before. In this review of their 10 Year Old Single Malt, I praised Springbank for doing things the "right way". I enjoyed Springbank 10 so much that I awarded it my "Single Malt of the Year: Age Stated" in my first annual Totally Subjective Whisky Awards. Their 12 Year Old Cask Strength offering varies from batch to batch. The ABV percentage is always different, the mix of first fill and refill sherry hogsheads (a hogshead holds approximately 245 liters) used to mature the whisky varies, but the character of Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength seems to remain somewhat consistent. Not identical, but similar. Doing things the old fashioned way means variation. The bigger, more modern producers (like The Macallan or The Glenlivet) can offer consistency, and they do it exceptionally well. Springbank offers something different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

This sample of Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength is from Batch 11, and it was provided by a friend. It is bottled at 53.8 % ABV, was opened September 4, 2017, and was 3/4 full when the sample was poured November 13, 2017.

Tasting Notes

It goes to eleven! Batch 11.

Nose (undiluted): iodine, vegetal peat (no smoke though), a briny mineral note like sea-sprayed rocks, damp wood and dusty hay, reminiscent of an old barn (in a very pleasant way), raisins, some milk chocolate, orange peels. This is a complex nose that develops over time. After 15 minutes in the glass, there's a distinctive salted caramel aroma emerging.
Palate (undiluted): rich, oily arrival, full-bodied, spicy white pepper, fresh ginger, oranges and apricots, strong oaky barrel notes (cloves, pepper, barrel char) near the end.
Finish: fairly long finish, some peat returning with a bit of smoke and black pepper this time, a chalky minerality returning and ending on some raisin and cereal notes with just a touch of cinnamon and vanilla, (oatmeal cookies perhaps?)

With water the chalky, mineral note comes right forward on the nose, followed by a big wave of salted caramel. The longer this sits in the glass, the more the salted caramel takes over, and it's not at all unpleasant. The old barn notes are pushed back, almost imperceptible, as the raisins and orange peels rush forward. It's still good, but a bit of a disappointment to lose those old barn notes.On the palate, the oiliness is diminished with water; it feels a bit waxy, and the whisky's fruity notes again take centre stage. The smoke on the finish is slightly subdued, the chalkiness remains as some milk chocolate notes appear before ending on a sweet, pleasant cereal note. Later, there's a lingering fruity, green apple note with just a hint of cloves. Springbank 12 is very good with water, but I prefer this one at full strength.

This whisky is complex. It develops with time. Springbank 12 is not a casual sipper; it's more like a terrific three course meal. I spent well over an hour with this single sample.I was a bit disappointed that the iodine, peat, and old barn notes more or less disappeared with the addition of water, so I wouldn't add any next time. That said, I would NOT hesitate to purchase a bottle of this whisky. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5 moustaches (92/100 points)

The light music of whiskey falling into a glass—an agreeable interlude.
James Joyce, Dubliners
(yes, I know he was referring to Irish whiskey, it's still appropriate)

Slainte mhaith !!!

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Ask the Enthusiast: Frequently Asked Questions

If you know me in real life, you may be hesitant to ask me a question about anything, let alone engage me in a discussion about whisky, as I have a proclivity for circumlocution. I rarely give brief or direct answers. Ergo, I've created this handy-dandy reference guide for anyone who has questions about whisky but doesn't want to spend twenty minutes listening to me carry on ad nauseam with all my anecdotes and digressions. If you don't know me in real life, count yourself lucky; you can come and go as you please. If there are questions I don't address here and you're too lazy to Google the answer, leave me a comment and I'll do my best to find the answer for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What's the difference between "whisky" and "whiskey"?

A. The letter "e". Seriously though, it doesn't really matter much. A general rule is if the country of origin has an "e", so does the spelling of whiskey; no "e" in the name of the country, no "e" in whisky. So it's (mostly) spelled whiskey in Ireland and America, and (mostly) spelled whisky in Scotland, Canada, India and Japan. But anyone who gets worked up over the spelling of whisky/whiskey can be ignored. Make no sudden moves and back slowly away from them.

Q. What's the difference between rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, and scotch?

A. All are types of whisky. Each has its own legal definition, for example bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn and aged in new oak barrels (among other things). Rye is a grain often used to make whisky in North America. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland, Irish whiskey is (surprise) whiskey from Ireland. So while all rye, bourbon, Irish, and Scotch are whiskies, not all whiskies are rye, bourbon, Irish, or Scotch. Make sense?

Q. What does "Single Malt Scotch" mean?

A. "Scotch" simply means "whisky distilled, aged, and bottled in Scotland". "Malt" refers to a whisky made entirely from malted barley. "Single" means the whisky is the product of a single distillery.

Q. Is Single Malt Scotch better than all other types of whisky?

A. It depends on who you ask. The best whisky is the one you like best. Single Malt Scotch is not a homogeneous category either. Laphroaig Quarter Cask and Glengoyne 10 Year Old have very little in common other than the fact that they're both malt whiskies from Scotland. Laphroaig is big, bold and smoky while Glengoyne is completely unpeated, with a sweeter flavour profile. Think of it this way: Rory McCann, best known for his portrayal of Sandor "The Hound" Clegane on Game of Thrones, and Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are both Scottish actors, but have little else in common. A whisky's country of origin doesn't tell the whole story.

Q. What does the age on my bottle of whisky mean?

A. In Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, and Canadian whiskies, the age statement represents the youngest component whisky in the bottle. A bottle of Glendronach 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch might contain 14, 17, or 18 year old whisky (in fact, this was the case for Glendronach 12 bottled around 2012-2013), but if there's even a teaspoon of 12 year old whisky in the vatting, that's the age that must be indicated on the label if the bottle carries an age statement.

Q. Why doesn't my bottle of whisky have an age statement?

A. Many reasons. The simplest reason is that the company doesn't want to tell you how old the whisky is. There are a ton of marketing yarns about "age not telling the whole story" and "it's about maturity of flavour, not age". And while these answers may be true in a manner of speaking, it's a lot like a politician's clever play on words, and most marketing people are about as trustworthy as your average politician. Age may not tell the whole story, but it tells you a part of it. More knowledge is always better than no knowledge, in my opinion. When a bottle of Canadian, Irish, or Scotch whisky doesn't have an age statement, all you know is that it's at least three years old. A "Straight Bourbon" must be aged for at least two years, and it must disclose its age if it is less than four years old.

Some NAS-labeled whiskies may be "multi-vintages" of (for example) 5, 8, 12, and 17 year old whiskies, but without the relevant information readily available, there's no way to be sure. There are practical reasons some whiskies don't carry age statements as well. Eddie Russell, Master Distiller at Wild Turkey, has stated on a few podcasts that Wild Turkey 101 is "mostly 8 year old bourbon" but the consistent flavour profile is what matters most to him. So Wild Turkey 101 may contain some barrels as young as 6 years old and some barrels as old as 10 years old but the flavour profile should be as consistent as can be expected.

Q. Are age-stated whiskies better than non age-stated (NAS-labeled) whiskies?

A. No. The best whisky is the one you like best. Marketing shenanigans aside, there are great whiskies whose labels don't state an age; Laphroaig Triple Wood, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Wiser's Dissertation, Lot no.40, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Stagg Jr. and more. Trial and error, while expensive, is the only way to know what you like and what you don't like.

Q. Is older whisky better than younger whisky?

A. No. Some older whiskies can be too woody for some people's tastes. Some peated whiskies lose some of their peaty, smoky goodness if they're aged over 20 years. As with everything else, your taste is paramount. That doesn't mean age "doesn't matter". Age matters tremendously. Age affects whisky because of evaporation, esterification, interaction of the spirit with the wood, and a host of other factors. Older whisky is different, not necessarily better, than younger whisky. As a general rule, the longer a whisky is aged, the more influence the cask will have on the final product, all other things being equal.

Q. What does "unchill-filtered" mean? What is "chill-filtration"? Is chill-filtering good or bad?

A. The process of chill-filtration is fairly simple to understand. Before a whisky is bottled, it is chilled down to a low temperature then passed through a filter to pick up tiny particles. When a whisky is bottled at less than 46% abv (which is the case for the vast majority of whiskies on the market), it will typically form a ‘haze’ at low temperatures. It may also get cloudy or hazy if water or ice is added. This poses no health hazard nor does the cloudiness impact flavour, it may be off-putting to some customers¹.

The chill filtration process yields a clear whisky free of cloudiness, but some enthusiasts feel it also takes something away. A certain well-known YouTube critic insists, as he broadcasts from his cozy Manx bothy, that chill filtered whiskies have been robbed of some of their flavour, texture and mouthfeel. Blind tests have been done and people have argued passionately for or against the process. As far as I know, science has not fully explored this question, so you're best using your own taste as a guide. Just know that an unchill-filtered whisky may get cloudy, but that it's nothing to fear. I tend to prefer unchill-filtered whiskies, but most of my favourites are bottled above 46% abv, so I'm not sure the lack of chill filtration is the most important variable in that equation.

1. Source: Ask the professor

Q. What is a Pot Still? How does it turn barley into the nectar of the gods?

The glorious pot stills of the Laphroaig distillery
A. A pot still is a type of distillation apparatus or still used to distill Scotch Single Malt Whisky or Irish Single Malt Whiskey, or Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey. They're traditionally made out of copper, and their shapes and sizes play an important role in the quantity and  character of the final spirit. By law, Irish Single Pot Still, as well as Irish and Scotch malt whiskies must be distilled using a pot still. During first distillation, the pot still (or "wash still") is filled about two-thirds full of a fermented liquid (or wash) with an alcohol content of about 7–12%. The pot still is then heated so that the liquid boils. The liquid being distilled is a mixture of mainly water and alcohol, along with smaller amounts of other by-products of fermentation (called congeners), such as aldehydes and esters. Alcohol (ethanol) has a normal boiling point of 78.4 °C (173.12 °F), compared with pure water, which boils at 100 °C (212 °F). As alcohol has a lower boiling point, it is more volatile and evaporates at a higher rate than water. Therefore, the concentration of alcohol in the vapour phase above the liquid is higher than in the liquid itself.

During distillation, this vapour travels up the swan neck at the top of the pot still and down the lyne arm, after which it travels through the condenser, where is cooled to yield a distillate with a higher concentration of alcohol than the original liquid. This distillate, called "low wines" has a concentration of about 25–35% alcohol by volume. These low wines can be further distilled a second time in a pot still to yield a distillate with a higher concentration of alcohol. In the case of many Irish whiskeys, the spirit is further distilled a third time. However, most single malt scotch whiskies and some Irish single malt whiskies produced at the Cooley distillery  are only distilled twice.

You can read more about pot distillation here.

Q. What is a column still? How does it make whisky?

A. A more efficient alternative to the pot still, the column still (also called continuous still or Coffey still) is capable of continuous distillation by reheating the liquid, rather than requiring distillation in batches (as a pot still does), and can produce higher ABV spirits than pot stills. The column stilll consists of two columns which contain a number of compartments separated by heated plates. The plates are perforated with small holes to permit the upward passage of steam and spirit vapor, which is condensed to become spirits. Column distillation is widely used for making bourbon, Canadian whisky, rye, as well as Irish and Scottish grain whiskies. The distiller’s beer (or "wash") is fed into the column still at the top and begins descending, passing through a series of perforated plates. Simultaneously, hot steam rises from the bottom of the still, interacting with the beer as it flows downward, separating out the solids and unwanted substances, and pushing up the lighter alcohol vapors. When the vapors hit each plate, they condense, which helps get rid of heavy substances like congeners and increases the alcohol content. Eventually, the vapor is directed into a condenser. Column stills can produce spirit up to 95% ABV, although most whiskies are distilled to lower proofs.  (adapted from Whisky Advocate)

A fine example of
Single Pot Sill Irish Whiskey
Q. What's the difference between Irish Single Malt and Irish Single Pot Still?

A. Irish Single Malt is whiskey distilled, aged, and bottled in Ireland from 100% malted barley. Irish Single Pot Still is distilled (in a Pot Still...d'uh!), aged, and bottled in Ireland, but is made from a mix of at least 30% malted and at least 30% unmalted barley.

Q. What is "virgin oak"?

A. Virgin Oak is most often used in bourbon maturation, since it is required by law. Virgin Oak refers to a barrel (or cask) that has never contained any alcohol of any kind. Before it is used for whiskey maturation, virgin oak barrels are charred, usually for no more than 1 minute. A No.1 Char is 15 seconds, No.2 is 30, No.3 (more common) is 35 seconds, and No.4 Char is 55 seconds. Number 4 Char is known as the “alligator char,” since the longer charring gives the interior of the oak wood staves the rough, shiny texture of alligator skin. Virgin oak imparts a ton of flavour (vanilla, coconut, brown sugar, toffee, etc.) and is rarely used in Scotch  whisky or Irish whiskey because whisky makers there believe virgin oak can overpower the other flavours. Canadian whiskies use virgin oak to varying degrees in their blends. On the subject of virgin oak, Dr. Don Livermore, Master Blender/Distiller at the Hiram Walker distillery, has said that "60 days of aging in new wood will get more vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than 18 years of ageing in a used barrel." (source)

Q. What is a "Sherry cask" and what does it have to do with my whisky?

A. In case you didn't know, Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes that are grown near the city of Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. Sherry is produced in a variety of styles ranging from light versions such as Manzanilla and Fino, to darker and heavier versions that have been allowed to oxidise as they age in barrel, such as Amontillado and Oloroso. Sweet dessert wines are also made from Pedro Ximenez or Moscatel grapes.

Sherry used to be exported in large 500 litre Casks called "butts" ('s adapted from the Spanish bota). Wine merchants used to sell these transport casks to whisky makers who noticed that aging whisky in ex-sherry casks imparted fruity flavours to their spirit. However, Sherry must now be bottled in Spain before it is exported. Most of the Sherry casks used by the whisky industry are sherry-seasoned casks, which have never contained sherry destined for the parlours of British aristocracy.

Q. Should I drink more Sherry so the whisky industry has more sherry casks at its disposal?

A. I'm a fan of Sherry, but the answer to this question is "no". Why? Because the sherry you drink has nothing to do with sherry casks used by the whisky industry. Sherry sipped by the characters on Downton Abbey is generally matured using a solera system and the casks can be used for hundreds of years. Unlike other wine-makers, Sherry producers make strenuous efforts to avoid wood flavours in the wine. New barrels are useless for Sherry as they give off unwanted tannins and woody flavours. The Sherry casks used by the whisky industry are generally made through an agreement with a Spanish bodega. The process of envinado involves taking virgin oak casks, toasting them to whatever level the whisky makers  want, and then seasoning the casks with a Sherry-type wine for 12 to 24 months. This "sherry" is not fit for drinking and is usually made into sherry vinegar or distilled into sherry brandy. If you're interested in learning more about sherry casks, you can read more here and here.

Q. What is peat and what is its effect on whisky?

There's no such thing as too much peat
A. Peat is generally associated with smoky single malt scotch, but there are peated Indian, Irish, American, Japanese, and Canadian whiskies. Large parts of Scotland are covered with peat bogs which have been formed over thousands of years by decayed vegetation and can be up to several meters thick. People have been using peat as an energy source in Scotland (and many other parts of the world) for thousands of years. Peat is cut in small slices and piled up into small pyramids for drying. The water drains off the peat very fast and turns the soft slices into hard briquettes similar to coal. To create malted barley, the grain has to be soaked in warm water for about five days. It then needs to be dried. This is where peat comes into play. In many parts of Scotland, malted barley was traditionally dried using a peat-heated fire, which imbued the final product with a smoky flavour. The level of smokiness of a whisky, measured in phenol parts per million (usually abbreviated ppm) is determined by the time the barley grain is exposed to the peat smoke during drying.

Q. Is all Scotch peated?

A. No. In fact, very few Scotch single malts are peated. Some of the best-known peated malt whiskies are:
  • mildly peated: Bunnahabhain (3 ppm), Springbank (8-10 ppm), and Ardmore (10-15 ppm)
  • moderately peated: Highland Park (20 ppm), Talisker (25 ppm), and Caol Ila (30 ppm)
  • heavily peated: Ledaig (35 ppm), Lagavulin (35-40 ppm), Laphroaig (40-45 ppm), and Ardbeg (55 ppm)
  • insanely peated: the Octomore series from Bruichladdich (Octomore 8.3 tips the scales at 309 ppm).
Q. How do I pronounce those crazy names?

A. Brian Cox did a pretty good series of short videos on YouTube here. The excellent Aquavitae channel also did a few here and here. But in case you don't want to watch, here's a little cheat sheet of some of the more common ones:
  • Aberlour: ABBA-lau-er (rhymes with hour)
  • anCnoc: A-knock
  • Balvenie: bal-VENN-ee
  • Bowmore: buh-MORE
  • Bruichladdich: brook-LADDIE
  • Bunnahabhain: BOO-na-ha-ven
  • Caol Ila: cull EE-lah (according to the bottle) or cull EYE-lah according to other sources
  • Clynelish: KLEIN-lish or klen-LEESH depending on who you ask
  • Craigellachie: cray-GELL-a-key (hard "g")
  • Dailuaine: dall-YOU-inn
  • Glen Garioch: glen GEE-ree (hard "g")
  • Glenfiddich: glen-FID-dic (the last "ch" is softer and throatier than a hard "k" sound)
  • Glenmorangie: glen-mORANGE-ee (think of "orange" in the middle of the name)
  • Kilchoman: kil-HOE-man or kil-OH-man depending on who you ask.
  • Laphroaig: la-FROYG
  • Ledaig: le-CHIGG or LE-chick depending on who you ask
  • Oban: O-bin (rhymes with open)
  • Tomatin: to-MA-tin (rhymes with satin)
Q. What are your favourite whiskies ever?

A. That's a tough question. It changes all the time, but here's an idea as of this writing.

Scotch: Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength, Lagavulin 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Springbank 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Laphroaig  15 Year Old, Lagavulin 16 Year Old, Laphroaig Cairdeas Madeira Cask, Ardbeg Uigeadail (OO-gah-dahl), Laphroaig Triple Wood

Irish: Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength, Yellow Spot 12 Year Old, Redbreast 15 Year Old, Tyrconnell 16 Year Old, Green Spot, Jameson Black Barrel

Canadian: Lot no.40 Cask Strength 11 Year Old, Lot no.40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old, J.P. Wiser's Dissertation, J.P. Wiser's Legacy, Forty Creek Confederation Oak

Bourbon/American Whiskey: Wild Turkey Rare Breed, Stagg Jr. (any batch), Old Grand Dad 114, Weller Antique 107, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (any batch)

There you have it, the answers to some of the most common questions people ask me. If you've got more questions you're too lazy to Google, drop me a line below. Slainte !