Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Fool Me Once: a review of Douglas Laing's Rock Oyster Blended Malt

If you look at this picture, which square do you think is darker? What if I told you they're the same colour? Don't believe me? See for yourself right here. So why does A look darker than B? There are several factors at play. We have a preconceived notion of what a checkerboard should look like. We "know" that the squares on a checkerboard can only be one of two colours, but that's not the case here. Thus our reasoning is faulty. Logic fails us. Edward Adelson, the man who conceived the checkerboard illusion had a more detailed explanation relating to shadows, sharp and soft edges as they relate to vision science, and so on. You can read a detailed explanation here. What does this have to do with whisky tasting? What if I told you your perception of a whisky's flavours are totally subjective? Are you ready to see far down the rabbit hole goes? Consider me your personal Morpheus, sans the cool glasses and martial arts skills.

All I'm offering is the truth, nothing more.

Environmental Effects

Blind tastings can be fun, but they can be tricky. I accepted a friend's challenge to taste a flight of whiskies completely blind a little over a month ago. He gave me four samples and gave me no further instructions. So what's the problem with that? Well, as it turns out, the first whisky I tasted was the biggest, boldest, peatiest whisky of the bunch (Compass Box No Name). Ergo, every whisky I tasted afterward was affected by this initial peat blast. This led to a peculiar albeit not surprising effect: I was completely de-sensitized to the peat present in Rock Oyster, the second whisky in my tasting. I've separated this review into two sections. The first is based on the notes I took when tasting Rock Oyster totally blind and the second is from a tasting I did just over a month later. There are differences and similarities, but my initial guesses as to the components of this blended malt were way off. A bit embarassing? Perhaps, but I'm nothing if not honest. Take it as a lesson in humility and the importance of questioning your own fallible senses. Remember: There is no spoon (Whoa).

First Tasting (Blind)

Neat from a Glencairn glass

  • Nose: Light, bright, fruity, with a little grassiness in the mix. Red apples, strawberries, raspberries, cream. This is not familiar to me in any way, except for the grassy note that reminds me a bit of Highland Park, but I'm not really getting any smoke at all. With time, the fruits seem to get darker. Is there a Macallan component here? Dalmore maybe? No, I'm not getting oranges or cinnamon, so I don't think it's Dalmore. Perhaps some Glendronach, as the darker fruits come through.
  • Palate: Medium-bodied, fruity, with some malty cereal notes, honey, a very slight soapy note. Glenrothes? Aberfeldy? I’m really no good at this blind tasting stuff.
  • Finish: barley, chocolate, a little nuttiness (I want to say this is a nuttiness I recognize from Glen Garioch, but I can't be sure), gentle smokiness maybe, although it could be lingering smoke from the previous sample, more red fruits, some graham crackers.

Best guesses: Glenrothes, Macallan, Glen Garioch, Glendronach, Highland Park
First Tasting Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches (85/100 points)

This first blind tasting of Rock Oyster showed just how important context is. I had tasted Compass Box's No Name before this one, and the big Ardbeg smoke (the key component in No Name) and 48.9% ABV probably made me "blind" to the less prominent smoke in Rock Oyster.

Second Tasting

Neat from a Highland Whisky Glass

  • Nose : medium smoke and iodine that says "Laphroaig!", berry aromas, graham crackers, whipped cream. Reminds me of a dessert in the 1980s, when everyone smoked in their houses, even at children's parties. Delightful.
  • Palate : medium bodied, creamy texture, red fruit, graham cracker crumb pie crust.
  • Finish: smoky at first, developing to nuttiness (hazelnuts?), then strawberries and raspberries, and returning to the ashy, peat notes. A bit of chocolate lingering as the smoke hangs on.

This is an absolute treat. I like this a lot. It's even more enjoyable with a "clean" palate. It's more well-rounded and balanced when I can detect the smoke.

Second Tasting Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches (87/100 points)

I'd say the second rating is more conclusive as it was done under clearer conditions. Many things can affect the way we taste, so I'd suggest making sure your palate is "neutral" if you're going to try a new whisky. There are a lot of ways to do this: eat a few soda crackers, have a piece of dark chocolate followed by some water (or a tiny sip of vodka if you're a little more adventurous). Most importantly, don't jump to conclusions about a whisky based on a single tasting. I would buy a bottle of Rock Oyster without hesitation. It's interesting, hits the right notes for me, and is well-balanced.

May the winds of Fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me"


Wednesday, 20 March 2019

No More Mr. Nice Guy: a review of Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old 2017 Release

Welcome to Canada, eh?! He seems nice.
Canada has a reputation for being nice. Polite. Milquetoast. It's a bit odd if  you really think about it. If I told you there was a country that was home to polar bears, grizzly bears, wolverines, mountain lions, 11 1/2 months of winter, moose, and Mark Messier, you might not think "that seems nice". You'd say it sounds tough, rugged, harsh, bold, intense, aggressive maybe, but not nice. I'm willing to bet Eric Lindros doesn't think Scott Stevens is nice. I'm sure the two don't exchange Christmas cards.
Georges St-Pierre NOT being nice to Matt Hughes

So why does our whisky so often get dismissed as sweet, friendly, and polite? Why is our whisky perceived as George Stroumboulopoulos (with all due respect to Strombo) instead of Georges St-Pierre? Where is the lumberjack of Canadian whisky? Where is the Gordie Howe of Canadian whisky? Is there such a thing? Since 2017, there has been at least one Canadian whisky that fits that category (foreshadowing, anyone?).

Corby's Northern Border Collection Rare Releases

In 2017, Corby Spirits put out the first edition of their "Rare Releases" from the Northern Border Collection. The "standard" Northern Border Collection consists of Lot no.40 (100% rye), Pike Creek 10 Year Old (finished in rum barrels), and Gooderham & Worts Four Grain. The Rare Releases are unique versions of these expressions. The reviewed whisky is  Lot no.40 12 Year Old Cask Strength Rye. The standard Lot no.40 should be a staple of any serious rye lover's whisky cabinet. The 2017 Cask Strength version was the first cask strength release for Lot no.40 and it was such a smashing success that Corby released another (slightly different) Cask Strength Lot 40 in 2018. If internet rumours are credible, and I personally believe everything I read on the internet, Lot 40 Cask Strength is set to be a yearly release.

Tasting notes

  • Nose (undiluted): freshly cut oak, rye grain, ginger, cloves, black pepper, vanilla, cinnamon hearts, cardamom
  • Palate (undiluted): rich arrival, not overpowering at all for a 55% ABV whisky, cinnamon, toasted oak, salted caramel, black pepper
  • Finish: long and warming, chai tea, gingersnap cookies, salted caramel, a hint of coconut at the tail end, moreish and drool-worthy. A perfect dram on a cold autumn (or winter) night.
With time in the glass, there’s much more vanilla and a lovely, light floral note coming through on the nose. After the bottle has been open a few months, the finish becomes more dessert-like. There's more coconut and caramel on the finish. I have to be honest, I haven't brought myself to add water to this rye. It's delectable as it is. I did try a small serving with ginger ale, just to say I did it and thumb my nose at those who foolishly say Canadian whisky is only suitable for mixing.

Lot no.40 Cask Strength is unapologetic. It says "Yeah, I'm Canadian! Yeah, I'm all rye! Yeah, I'm bottled at Cask Strength! You got a problem with that?" I believe other Canadian distilleries should look at the success of Corby's Rare Releases, step up their game, and release some premium sipping whiskies. I'm looking at you Alberta Premium (a Cask Strength release of a well-aged rye?), Canadian Club, and Crown Royal (stop sending all those Hand Selected Barrels to Texas and send them to Ontario!). Enough with the "soft, sweet, approachable Canadian" stereotypes. Let's see some bold releases! To draw a quintessentially Canadian analogy, let's have more Mark Messier and Cam Neely-esque whiskies and fewer Alexander Daigle and Jeff Carter-esque releases. Less Anne Murray (with all due respect), and more Emily Haines. More big, bold releases from Canadian distilleries would be nice, don't you think?

Rating 4.5/5 moustaches (93 points)

May the winds of Fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me!"

Slainte !

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Waxing Poetic: Douglas Laing's Timorous Beastie

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,

 In proving foresight may be vain:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

         Gang aft agley,

 An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

           For promis’d joy! 

from "To a Mouse" by Robert Burns

Whisky, especially Scotch whisky, leans heavily on tradition, evocative images, and local legends to help their bottles stand out from the crowd. Single malts can appeal to their distilleries' long histories of illicit distilling, family rivalries or other tall tales, but how to independent bottlers and blenders market their offerings? They have no stories of Scottish Lairds riding twelve-pointed stags into battle against the Vikings. So what to do? Well, a simple story, and one that's true, can often work just as well. Douglas Laing & Co was established by Frederick Douglas Laing in 1948. The company specializes in single cask bottlings, and special vattings. Their "Remarkable Regional Malts" line of blended malts plays a bit into the lore associated with "regional characteristics". Although I'm not entirely convinced that stereotypical regional characteristics are accurate, the marketing makes sense. So how do Douglas Laing market their Highland offering? With a kilted highlander in full regalia? With a Scots warrior swinging a giant Claymore? With heavily muscled competitors throwing hammers and stones?
No, they've gone the cheekier route and chosen a mouse. The Timorous Beastie pays homage to the timid field mouse immortalised in Robert Burns' famous poem "To a Mouse". I received this sample from a friend and tasted it on two separate occasions. The first tasting was done blind; I had no idea what I was drinking. The second tasting was done after the reveal, with the second half of the sample having been exposed to a bit of air, which may have led to some oxidation.

Timorous Beastie (46.8% abv)

First tasting (tasted blind February 16, 2019)

I was told this was a blended malt whisky, but I was not told anything else.

Sample tasted neat, from a Glencairn glass.

Tasting notes:

  • Nose: fruity, tea sweetened with honey, something a bit sharp, lemon perhaps...with time the lemon mixes with a sweet vanilla note, almost like lemon meringue pie. (Side note: I don't like lemon meringue pie)
  • Palate: some richness, a little oakiness, a touch of waxiness,  more honey, reminiscent of Balvenie, there are Sherry casks in the mix, but it’s not a sherry bomb by any means...
  • Finish: raisins, oak, barley, somewhat sharp and nippy, almost like a young Glenfiddich
I wasn't super impressed with this whisky, but perhaps my perception was skewed by the fact that I had a heavily peated whisky before tasting this one. It tasted a bit immature and the finish was a bit too sharp for my liking. Not a bad whisky, but I didn't want to rush out and buy a bottle either.

My best guesses as to the component malts: Balvenie, Linkwood, Glenfiddich, Cardhu, Clynelish

Score after first tasting: 82/100

So the reveal was not uber-surprising. I don't have a ton of experience with the component whiskies. The malts listed on the label/packaging are from the following distilleries: Blair Athol, Glen Garioch, Dalmore, and Glengoyne. The second tasting was done almost a month later with the second half of my sample, albeit with a "clean" palate this time.

Second tasting (around March 10, 2019)

Sampled neat from a copita

Tasting notes:

  • Nose: multigrain toast with honey, pears, tea, some raisins, the lemony note is either gone or it's been subdued with time.
  • Palate: oak-forward arrival, a little thin but with some waxiness, honey, raisins
  • Finish: medium length, oak and vanilla, still a touch sharp, with a tannic bitterness at the tail end. That bitterness is not a positive thing.

It’s gotten worse with time and air; the nose is still pleasant, but the palate and finish fall short. I'd score it 78/100 based on the second tasting alone. I'd recommend you try this one before buying a bottle. I won’t be buying a bottle, as this is just not my thing. I see where Douglas Laing is going with this whisky, and maybe it's appropriate that they chose the poetic little mouse as an emblem for this whisky. It's not a bad whisky, but it's not what I look for in a bottle either.

Aggregate score: 3/5 moustaches (80/100 points)

May the winds of Fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me"

Slainte !

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Is Breakfast Whisky a Thing? A review of Bearface Triple Oak 7 Year Old

If you've read this blog at all, it should come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for anything 1980s. I've written about the hilarious fashion trends (mullets and parachute pants anyone?), the music (especially power ballads by bands who sported mullets), and the cartoons. This week, I'm looking back on that stellar nutritional powerhouse from the 80s: kids' breakfast cereals. Who could forget Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Trix, Cookie Crisp, or Sugar Crisp? I mean, at least they stopped pretending to care about our health with those last two. But the cereal I with which I have the most intense love-hate relationship is undoubtedly Cap'n Crunch. It's delicious, but man does it ever do a number on your mouth! Cap'n Crunch Crunchberries reduced the sting somewhat by including fruity oat and corn "berries" along side the jagged rectangles. Good times. So what does this have to do with whisky? Read on.

Hide Nothing, Fear Nothing

That's the tagline for Bearface, a new name in Canadian whisky. I only found out about it because I got an email from their sales rep/marketing person/brand ambassador. Maybe my blog isn't so invisible after all. That said, they didn't send me a free bottle so I've not earned the whisky street-cred of Davin de Kergommeaux or Dave Broom just yet.

From their press release, I found out that the makers of Bearface sourced "exceptional 7-year-old Canadian whisky from the shores of Lake Huron" and then "Mission Hill Family Estate Winery allowed Master Blender Andres Faustinelli to experiment with countless barrel and wood combinations with the objective of developing an expertly hand-finished process that would give BEARFACE a unique character, distinct from traditional Canadian Whisky."

From the Lake Huron mentioned in the write-up, I'm guessing this was distilled at Canadian Mist/Collingwood distillery, because I don't know of another distillery on the shores of Lake Huron.

More from the official write-up:

This single grain whisky starts life aging in ex-bourbon charred American Oak barrels for a minimum of seven years...It is then placed in tight-grained French Oak ex-wine barrels with over seven years of use for high end, rich Bordeaux-style wines that Mission Hill are noted for...The final with 3-year-old, air-dried virgin Hungarian Oak

Tasting Notes

  • Nose (undiluted): I'm reminded of Wayne Gretzky No.99 Red Cask right away. Fruity, with a strong corn whisky (sweet, soft caramels) presence. Maple notes, rose petals, and a few solvent/spirit notes at first. But the acetone notes dissipate within 5-10 minutes and some oak notes appear along side some icing sugar and vanilla.
  • Palate (undiluted): much richer than I expected from 42.5 % abv, and a bit darker in flavour too. Amber maple syrup, a hint of oak and spice (cloves mostly), red grapes, vanilla, roses, icing sugar. Very creamy, silky and soft mouthfeel.
  • Finish: medium length, silly as it may sound I’m reminded of Cap’N Crunch's Crunchberries with milk, and with the creamy vanilla and fruity notes lingering.

This whisky gets a bit less interesting with water, as the fruity and floral notes all but disappear, and the vanilla and caramel dominate. At 85 proof, there's no need to add water. This one is much better neat. I have no idea if there will be a Bearface distillery or not, but I've emailed the marketing rep for more information. They have yet to answer my query.

This is a very interesting whisky, but I don't think it will change the "sweet and friendly" image of Canadian whisky. The bite isn't huge or bold. Despite the "fearless" marketing and the bear claw marks on the bottle (which is actually pretty cool looking), this whisky is more teddy bear than grizzly bear. It certainly doesn't assault the mouth like Cap'n Crunch. That's not to say Bearface is uninteresting; it's sweet, fruity, and creamy, like a dessert or a 1980s breakfast cereal. It is much richer and more complex than I expected it to be, and it is very easy to drink. This could become one of my staples for casual sipping or even for introducing people to sipping whisky "neat". At $35-$40 here in Ontario, it's definitely worth your time. I'm 90% certain I'll purchase another bottle. Recommended.

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches (84/100 points)

May the winds of Fortune sail you,
May you sail a gentle sea
May it always be the other guy
Who says "This drink's on me"

Slainte !!