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 !

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Tall Tales: a review of Ardbeg Corryvreckan

"General Sherman". They say he's five hundred pounds of bottom-dwelling fury, don't you know. No one knows how old he is, but if you ask me, and most people do, he's hundred years if he's a day.

 And, uh, no one's ever caught him?

Well, one fella came close. Went by the name of Homer. Seven feet tall he was, with arms like tree trunks. His eyes were like steel, cold, hard. Had a shock of hair, red like the fires of Hell...

I love it when two of my interests intersect. The exchange above is taken from an episode of The Simpsons that references Ernest Hemingway's classic The Old Man and the Sea. Anyone who's ever been fishing or knows someone who fishes has undoubtedly heard some fish tales about "the one that got away". Tall tales are a long and proud maritime tradition. Homer (the Greek poet, not Simpson) had his hero, Odysseus, face a grueling choice between two sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, in his epic poem The Odyssey

Scylla is most likely a rock shoal, though it was described as a six-headed sea monster, and Charybdis, described as a monster living under a rock, was likely a whirlpool. Of course, real whirlpools, while dangerous, are nothing like like what Homer describes or what Pirates of the Caribbean taught us. Whirlpools can and have caused shipwrecks, but maelstroms that suck large ships down to the depths of Davy Jones' locker are naught but tall tales. So what should we make of Ardbeg Corryvreckan; a Cask Strength Single Malt Scotch named for the world's third largest whirlpool? Is it more fierce than Calypso's wrath? Does it put up a fight worthy of General Sherman?

Ardbeg Corryvreckan

Corryvreckan was launched to replace Airigh nam Beist (arry-nam-BAYsht) and it was a controversial move. "The Beastie" was loved by a lot of Ardbeg fans, so Corryvreckan was viewed with some skepticism. It's tough to find reliable information on what types of Casks are used to mature Corryvreckan, but the Ardbeg website informs the reader that ex-bourbon casks and new French oak casks are used. There are also pretty well-founded rumours of ex-burgundy wine casks  from France being used too. Corryvreckan won "World's Best Single Malt Whisky" at the World Whisky Awards 2010 and the controversial Jim Murray once named it "Best No Age Statement Scotch". But what you're dying to know is, how does it taste TO ME? Gather round ye landlubbers, and there's a tale I'll tell ye.

Tasting Notes

  • Nose (undiluted): big, earthy Ardbeg peat and smoke, a fruity aroma of dark cherries, a touch of vanilla, and some oak
  • Palate (undiluted): very rich and oily, lots of cherries, thick smoke, a touch of brown sugar, oranges
  • Finish: long and lingering, cinnamon, cloves, cigar smoke, toasted oak, dark chocolate, dark cherries, and some black pepper

Tall tales are unnecessary here. This is an excellent whisky. It’s big, it’s bold, and incredibly balanced. No element dominates, and they’re all  very clear. I’d heard great things about Corryvreckan, yet this still exceeded my expectations. It's a shame the pricing in Ontario is so crazy, because I'd have this on my shelf more often than not. Corryvreckan is more reasonably priced in Alberta and in pretty much any other jurisdiction in the world, so I have no qualms recommending it. Sailors and fisherman may be prone to exaggeration, but the folks at Ardbeg who created Corryvreckan have produced a whisky worthy of its name.

Rating: 4.5/5 moustaches (93/100 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, 3 April 2019

The Bottom Line: Lot 40 Cask Strength 11 Year Old 2018 release

Austin 3:16 says I'm right and you're wrong
Who is the greatest hockey player of all time: Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, or Mario Lemieux? Is Muhammad Ali greater than Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis? How about basketball: Jordan or LeBron? Heck, even staged events like professional wrestling can bring about arguments. Who was the greatest all-around performer: Hulk Hogan, Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, or John Cena? The way you answer these questions says more about the time and environment in which you were raised than it does about any objective facts. Comparing athletes (or anything) from different eras is not a scientific undertaking. But for the record, the correct answers are: Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, and Stone Cold Steve Austin. You're entitled to your opinion, just know that if you disagree with mine, you're obviously wrong. 

Everyone has at least one drunk uncle
Even in the niche world of whisky, there's a lot of disagreement (and heated debate) around what the "best" whisky is. Any whisky enthusiast who's ever been to a wedding has undoubtedly encountered a drunk uncle, usually named Gord, who slurs at length about how Single Malt Scotch is "proven" to be the best whisky in the world. Now it may be tempting to enlighten Gord on the finer points of individual palates, the subjectivity of taste and so on, but drunken Gord won't listen to you anyway, so you may as well save your breath. Just nod and back away slowly. When Lot no.40 12 Year Old Cask Strength was released back in 2017, I didn't think any rye could top it. I was late getting my hands on the 2018 release of Lot no.40 11 Year Old Cask Strength, and reviewers were divided on which release was "better". This is clearly another case were individual tastes will vary, but if you're reading this, there's a good chance you know my opinion is the right one.

Lot no.40 11 Year Cask Strength 100% Rye

If you haven't heard about this Canadian Rye, you've probably been living under a rock. According to Dr. Don Livermore, Lot no.40 Cask Strength is produced from 100% rye grain, is distilled first in a column still (like all spirits produced at the Hiram Walker distillery) and then distilled a second time in a copper pot still. It was then aged in charred virgin oak casks for at least eleven years (for the 2018 release). Now some more astute readers may be saying "Hmmm, first column distilled, then copper pot distilled: isn't that like bourbon or American rye?" The short answer is "no". A copper pot still is different from a "doubler" or a "thumper" used in bourbon and American rye distillation. If you want a more detailed description of doublers and thumpers, you can find one here. Now, I'm such a huge fan of the "regular" Lot 40 that most people are probably tired of hearing me (seeing me?) write about it. But Lot 40 was the whisky that opened my eyes to how great Canadian whisky can be.

  • Nose (undiluted): much deeper in flavour than the 2017 release. Lots of deep dark toffee/brown sugar up front, there’s something suggestive of a good quality dark rum, the rye grain and clove notes are present, but are farther back. There's also a floral (violets?), slightly fruity aroma (blackberries?) in the background that really rounds out the nose. With time in the glass, there’s some toasted oak aromas developing. Delightful.
  • Palate (undiluted): rich on arrival, sweet, dark caramel, black pepper, deep barrel char
  • Finish: long and warming, cloves, a slightly herbal note (spearmint, maybe?), fresh tobacco, black tea, toasted oak, sweetened coconut and caramel lingering.
Adding water brings out more floral and spicy aromas on the nose. Even with water or (dare I write it) ice, the whisky retains all of its rich, full-bodied character. The finish isn't quite as complex with ice added, but I tend to drink my whiskies neat. Adding ice is usually just a move to make my drinks last longer so I don't get carried away. And while I'm confessing my whisky sins, I admit I have made an Old Fashioned with this whisky and it was glorious! I'm not even sorry.

With Lot 40 Cask Strength poised to be a regular occurance, the debate will no doubt rage on about which year's release is "best". It's hard to choose one over the other since they're both terrific and I see no reason to think the 2019 release will be anything short of exquisite. But life is full of hard choices. To my palate, the 2018 Lot no.40 11 Year Old Cask Strength Rye is an even more satisfying whisky than the outstanding 2017 edition. And that's the bottom line, because Stone Cold I said so.

Rating: 5/5 moustaches (95/100 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 !!