...where distraction is the main attraction.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dusty Whisky Report: Windsor Canadian Whisky, bottled in...

Producer: Fortune Brands, with Beam Inc.
BrandWindsor Canadian
Region: Alberta, Canada
Age: minimum 3 years
Blend: corn, barley, and grain whiskies
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

Don't tell, show, bro.
I previously reported on Windsor Canadian here, last year, finding that it had a pleasant little palate but a harsher nose.  Windsor still has no online presence, aside from its single Beam Inc page.  Beam also bottles Canadian Club and seems to run with that more famous whisky in their marketing choices.

You can find Windsor down towards the bottom shelf in most liquor stores' Canadian selections, in black plastic bottles (whether 750ml or 1.75L).  As I highlighted in an earlier Canadian Club post, whisky doesn't hold up so well in plastic bottles.  And as Jordan (of Chemistry of the Cocktail) commented: "Alcohol should leech plastic much faster than water, being a comparatively non-polar solvent."  Yum.

Happily the handle of Windsor found in the Perry's liquor cabinet was made of the classic dark thick brown glass.  Had the whisky sat in plastic over these ages, I would not have risked a sip.  As I did with the previous two dusty discoveries, I attempted to get a bottling date on this thing.

This broken pink tax stamp affixed to the top of the bottle had the notations "TAX PAID" and "DISTILLED SPIRITS", so it was pre-'82.

I like these dark bottles since they allow for the best bottle pics.  Here, we can see the "79" on the bottom.  I don't know if the "55" means the 55th day of the year, but I'm relatively comfortable in saying that this Windsor was bottled in 1979......and has likely been open ever since. 

(The sources of my dating info are herehere, and here.  If anyone has any corrections to my assumptions/conclusions, please let me know!) 

The Notes:
The color is the classic Canadian blend shade of amber-tinted urine.  The nose leads with vanilla and molasses.  Then there's something vegetal going on, along with a dose of balsamic vinegar.  A big charge of grain spirit trails along at the end.  Then it gets a little farty (or pharty, per my notes) after a while.  Nillas(!) are big on the palate, along with some brown sugar.  Otherwise it's pretty rough, with some coarse ethyl and a light bitterness.  The finish is spirity too and drying.  But there's a vanilla note that lasts for a long time.

When comparing to my notes on the contemporary Windsor, this oldie has a softer nose but a tougher mouth, while holding fast to the Nilla note.  I was already getting a bit queasy from the Mr. Boston piddle sampled earlier, so I don't think that the resulting stomach troubles were related to the Windsor.  On the other hand, just to be safe, the sink should drink the rest of this bottle.

To conclude:
J.T.S. Brown Bourbon (bottled in 1969) = Yummy!
Mr. Boston's American Whiskey (bottled in 1980) = Vile
Windsor Canadian Whisky (bottled in 1979) = Similar to current version, but getting strong on ethyl

The JTS Brown Bourbon (and also not getting poisoned) made it all worthwhile.  Who knows what treasures hide in old liquor closets everywhere??????

Friday, December 28, 2012

Dusty Whiskey Report: Mr. Boston's Blended American Whiskey, bottled in...

Brand: Mr. Boston's
Current Owner: Sazerac Company (via Barton Brands via Mr. Boston's)
Type: Blended American Whiskey
Distillery: Old Mister Boston Distillery (amongst others)
Location: Boston, MA; Owensboro, KY; Albany, GA
Age: Zygotic
ABV: 40% ABV

There's Mr. Boston, looking every bit like a young Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life.  If you've seen the movie, you know I'm not complimenting the man.

But who was Mr. Boston?  Per Modern Drunkard Magazine:
The Old Mr. Boston distillery sprang to life in 1933, founded by Boston natives Irwin Benjamin and Hyman C. Berkowitz. There was no real Mr. Boston, the icon is merely an artist’s conception of what a genteel 19th century Bostonian who liked a bit of liquor might look like. He was formally introduced to the drinking community in the inaugural 1935 edition of the Old Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bartender’s Guide...
I really encourage you to read the whole MDM article on Alcohol Icons.  Hell, I really encourage you to read Modern Drunkard Magazine.  Bless their soggy hearts, livers, and minds.

The Mr. Boston company released very cheap flavored gins, brandies, and schnappses over 50 years or so.  At first the man was Old Mr. Boston, but then in the 1970s they dropped the "Old" (as if respect was what they sought with their Pineapple Gin).  In 1995, fake Mr. Boston and his regrettably real liquors were purchased by Barton Brands, who were in turn bought by Sazerac.

Yes, the company that releases George T. Stagg, also owns the rights to make this:

But they don't make it anymore.  THANK YE GODS.

Let's get to this bottle in particular.  Like I did with the scrumptious JTS Brown, yesterday, I did some snooping around to get a date for the bottle.

This broken pink tax stamp affixed to the top of the bottle meant it was from 1985 or earlier.  It was pre-1982 due to the strip having the notations "TAX PAID" and "DISTILLED SPIRITS".  And then there was the "80" on the bottom of the bottle.

My guess is that it was bottled in 1980.

(The sources of my dating info are herehere, and here.  If anyone has any corrections to my assumptions/conclusions, please let me know!)

I also noticed that Mr. Boston was determined to tell his buyers how grand his products are:

The "Finest" liquors of "Unequalled Excellence".  Right.

Let's go back to that last picture and zoom in a bit, shall we?

I admire the honesty.  I wish contemporary blenders were forced to show how much grain spirit fills out their blends.  Yet, I think there was considerably more than 70% grain neutral spirit remaining in this particular dusty bottle bottle of American Whiskey.

And when I say "Grain Neutral Spirit", I want you to think: "Cheap Vodka".  And when I say "Cheap Vodka", I want you to think watered-down ethanol.

No quotation marks on that last word.

The Notes:

The color is copper, with considerable floating debris.  The nose holds a little milk chocolate, a hint of sugar cookies, lots of imitation vanilla extract.  But mostly cheap vodka.  Vaguely nauseating.  The palate is ethanol heavy.  Maybe some corn syrup, light vanilla, sweat cream.  Starts sweet then ends (not vaguely) nauseatingly.  The actual finish is all ethanol/grain spirits/cheap vodka/whatever.  Perhaps the ghost of sweet cream and vanilla.

I couldn't finish 0.5oz of it, though I valiantly tried and nearly became ill.  The wallop of grain spirit was anything but neutral after a while.  The whiskey part was probably once made from corn and malted barley, barely.

Was this any better in the '80s?  Because, Jesus.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dusty Whiskey Report: J.T.S Brown 7 year old Straight Bourbon, bottled in...

Brand: J.T.S. Brown
Current Owner: Heaven Hill Distillers
Type: Straight Bourbon Whisky
Distillery: J.T.S Brown Distillery (possibly now Four Roses Distillery?)
Location: Lawrenceburg, Kentucky
Age: minimum 7 years
ABV: 43% ABV

Enjoyed by great real and fictional gentlemen like Chuck Cowdery and Fast Eddie Felson, J.T.S. Brown bourbon is one of those bottom shelf bottles you've sorta seen but generally disregarded because your better angels tell you to ignore $8 bottles of whiskey.

Fast Eddie, not Chuck Cowdery.
Or is it??????
(pic source)
Chuck writes in his great blog:
J.T.S. Brown was an early distiller and the half-brother of George Garvin Brown, who founded Brown-Forman, the parent company of Jack Daniel's. The J.T.S. Brown Distillery was established by his four sons and later continued by one of his grandsons. The last distillery to bear that name is the one in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, known today as Four Roses. J.T.S. Brown Bourbon is still made, by Heaven Hill Distilleries...
I'll be honest, I'd never tried J.T.S Brown before and only knew about it from The Hustler.  But there it was sitting in the back of my father in-law's liquor cabinet, with no more than 100mL of liquid remaining.

I knew it was on the older side, due to the broken pink tax stamp affixed to the top of the bottle.

That tax stamp meant it was from 1985 or earlier.  It was pre-1982 due to the strip having the notations "TAX PAID" and "DISTILLED SPIRITS".

Measurement-wise it only said 4/5 Quart, so they weren't using metric liquid measurements at the time of bottling, so it was bottled before the '70s.

Finally, and it's difficult to see in the picture, but there's a "69" on the bottom of the bottle:

So, I'm guessing this was bottled in 1969.

(The sources of my dating info are here, here, and here.  If anyone has any corrections to my assumptions/conclusions, please let me know!)

Though no one knows how long the bottle has been opened (probably around 40 years), my father in-law, Steve, has been using three tablespoons of the bourbon in each of his awesome Chocolate Walnut Bourbon pie over the last several years.

What remained in the bottle was a very thick and cloudy orange fluid.  Of course I had to taste it.


The color is a thick cloudy orange molasses.  Doesn't look anything like a drink anymore.  The nose leads with tons of milk chocolate, brown sugar simple syrup, orange zest, and vanilla ice cream.  Seems mostly corn and wheat whiskey.  The palate:  YUMMY!  Bourbon candy!  Corn syrup, brown sugar, a hint of rye spices, a little peppery zing.  Corn and rye reign high here.  It finishes on one enormous note of caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream.

WOW!  This the tastiest bourbon I've yet tried.  But is it still bourbon?

It was 43% ABV at the moment of its bottling.  Any hint of alcohol in the nose and palate has been oxidized into silence.  So I wonder if it's still over 40%?

In its current state, it's more like bourbon concentrate.  A bourbon liqueur.  All the edges and angles have been sanded down leaving the all the best parts in an dense syrup.  I'm bringing the last 2 ounces home with me.  Perhaps it could be poured on ice cream, drizzled on apple pie, or maybe just sipped neat, for breakfast.

What a lovely discovery!  Thank you, Steve!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Unexpected dusty treasures?

Every year Kristen and I spend the holidays with her family.  First we fly to Oneonta, NY, to spend a few snowy days at her parents' place, then we do (or her dad does) a 10 hour drive to Ohio, where we spend some time with her grandparents in Westerville and Canton.

We received a number of surprises during our trip this year.  One of them has been a VERY White Christmas.

Then there were these:

Up in my in-laws liquor cabinet sat three very used very dusty bottles of whiskey, all of which were bottled (and probably opened) before my wife was born.  I sampled them all.  And, having lived to tell the tale, I will report back on the discoveries this week...

Monday, December 24, 2012

Taste-Off: Dewar's White Label vs. Johnnie Walker Red Label


We all knew this was inevitable.

My past experiences with these two blends have been less than positive.  Specifically the one on the left.  But it's been a very long time since either of these whiskys found their way into my glass.  With time healing any wounds resulting from those previous drinking......events, perhaps it was time to match  up Dewar's White Label and Johnnie Walker Red Label and try them side by side.  Sort out the negatives and identify the positives.


That sound you didn't just hear was me sighing at my misguided optimism.

Here is a picture me, mid Taste-Off:

Kristen's mom took the picture then texted it to me with the caption:
This is what happens when tasting Dewar's.
I read that and immediately thought of the spoken wisdoms of one Walter Sobchak (of Lebowski fame), and decided to amend one of Walter's meditations to fit this event:

You see what happens, Larry?

You see what happens, Larry?

Do you see what happens when you drink Dewar's White Label?!
(your hair falls out and you wear a silver bow around your head while watching the Muppet Christmas Carol)

I'm going to skip the usual Taste Off pomp and circumstance, and go directly to the notes. Because.


Ownership: Diageo (boo)
Distilleries: 35 whiskys; though I was recently told by someone in the know that unpeated Caol Ila was the main malt element
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: at least 3 years, doubtful that it's much older
Blend: single malts and grain whiskies
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? a ridiculous amount

JW Red Label has been around since 1906, though for its first few years it was called Special Old Highland.  The blend's recipe and quality has certainly changed over the years, as noted by some Malt Maniacs (especially Oliver, see this post!).  I used to think that it was an eight-year-old blend, but I don't know why or how that misnomer entered my consciousness.  The JWRL malt is very very very young.

Selling millions of cases every year this is the highest-selling blend in the world.  I'm sorry, world.  :(

Color -- For infant whisky it is weirdly dark and reddish. How much colorant did they pump into this thing?
Nose -- Generic citrus, light sherry, rotting cream, vanilla beans, and maple syrup.
Palate -- Not peat smoke but more like old used "tobacco" rolling papers, vanilla, granulated sugar, a light bitterness
Finish -- Vanilla, light bitterness, light sourness. Leaves an unidentifiable funk on the tongue.

Nose -- Soil, apple juice, marshmallows, hay.
Palate -- Old peat ashes, dirt, cardboard, vanilla, and the light bitterness.
Finish -- Ashes, mouth drying bitterness, sadness.

Further comments to follow below.


Distilleries: many, main malt component likely Aberfeldy
Age: at least 3 years, doubtful that it's much older
Blend: single malts and grain whiskies
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

Last year at this time, I did a report on Dewar's 12 year-old Special Reserve blend and discovered that it wasn't terribly special.  But it's positively gorgeous when compared to White Label.  This quality problem is unfortunate since Aberfeldy (their main malt) is pretty good on its own.

Their website notes that Dewar's is The Drinking Man's Scotch.  Then I am clearly not a drinking man.

Color -- Apple juice
Nose -- Sour ethyl, apples, vanilla, fruit cocktail juice, wet cardboard
Palate -- Bitter, generic cereal grains, mild chocolate, mild vanilla, Bitter
Finish -- Bitter! Bitter. Oh so very bitter. Not interesting, palatable bitter. Instead, arsenic.

Nose -- Ethyl, gumdrops, generic cereal grains, a little sherry peeks out, whipped cream
Palate -- Bitter, but less so. A little maltier. Some maple syrup. Not much else.
Finish -- Just, off. A weird sweetness, like aspartame. And also bitter.

The nose isn't awful.  But I cannot imagine their blending team tasting this and saying, "Yes, this is how we would like to represent our brand."

Further comments to follow below.

After adding water to these two fine blends, I discovered that I couldn't bring myself to finish either of them, so I blended them together in even amounts (about 0.5oz each).  Yum, right?

Nose -- citrus, sherry, Red Label dominant
Palate -- vanilla, sherry, meh
Finish -- mercifully short

Still couldn't finish 'em off, so I dumped the remainder over some ice cubes.

Bland peat, imitation vanilla extract, aspartame, and lightly bitter

Continuing to drink this became too masochistic for me.  The sink was forced to consume the rest.

Final comments:

Johnnie Walker Red Label
What can I say?  It won the Taste Off.  Congrats.

The nose is more inviting than the palate.  The finish is pretty hideous, so much so that I would hesitate even recommending the use of this for mixing and cocktails.  Many of the blends at its price range are better, or for $5 more there's Glenfiddich 12yr or Tomatin 12yr.

This is light years from Black Label's quality.  But it is better than...

Dewar's White Label
Who is this for?  Seriously, who is this for?  Aside from its disagreeableness, and bitterness, it's also sort of......boring.  At its price range, I'd recommend buying anything else.  Even vodka.

If you were to receive a bottle of this as a gift, what is it good for?  Fending off home intruders.  The bottle glass is pretty sturdy and the whisky gives it some heft and momentum when braining a robber.

But the Red Label is even better for self defense with its right angles.

So, again:
Johnnie Walker Red Label  >  Dewar's White Label
Though that is faint praise.  There's not much that White Label betters.

Okay, I guess I thought of something:
Dewar's White Label  >  Tequila-induced Fire-Ass
But not by much.


Johnnie Walker Red Label
Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $18-$25
Rating - 66

Dewar's White Label
Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $17-$25
Rating - 58

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

NOT Single Malt Report: Ballantine's 17 year old blended whisky

Brand: Ballantine's
Ownership: Pernod Ricard
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: minimum 17 years
Alcohol by Volume: 43%

I'm embarrassed to say that I'd never tried any of Ballantines' range before this week.  I adore the old fashioned bottle and label of their Finest, but I learned long ago not to buy liquor just because the bottle looks good.  Ballantine's (the second best-selling Scotch blend in the world) has garnered considerable praise from Jim Murray, especially their 17 year old which won Scotch Whisky of the Year in his most recent "Bible" as well as World Whisky of the Year two years ago.  So upon Mr. Murray's recommendation, I bought a dram from Master of Malt.

On Sunday night I wrote my impressions of Murray's Bible.  Afterwards, I decided to continue the evening by tasting the Ballantine's 17 year.  But instead of using my usual tasting method, I decided to follow the procedure outlined on page 9 of this year's "Bible" edition.

I started the method, step by step, and then slowly......

very slowly......

I felt as if I were entering into another level of consciousness.....


sort of......Murray......

Ballantine's 17 Years Old (87.5) n22 the faintest of peat smoke spilling from chimneys on a late October evening in the Western Highlands. A veritable orchard of white fruits. Yet aren't those the stone fruits of Q.robur blossoming back there? Rosebud. t22 old grains in a silky vanilla knee-length dress. That stretchy toffee from the town fair, handed to you by a one-thumbed carnie. Demerara sugar swirling around morning sips of espresso. Ooooh, but with time that vanilla sex bomb dress has gotten shorter and I see you licking the molasses off the wooden spoon you naughty girl. f21.5 my second cousin's wife's great uncle's pipe tobacco. Sweet puckering Sicilian dessert wine at sunset. The sweaty muscled caramelized malt arm-wrestles the grains in a grand struggle only to end in victory for us all. Peace in our time. b22 I saved Bill Lumsden's cat from a distillery fire.  43% Chivas Bros.


And then I was back.  What happened?  Where did my whisky go?  And why am I warming my whisky glass to body temperature with my hands?

Then I looked at my notes...

Oh dear.

Well, in improper English, the whisky is good.  It reminds me of the best grain whisky I've tried, along with some very mellow very vanilla teenage Speyside single malts.  Overall, it presents a very solid front, like a well edited piece of prose -- no mislaid elements and all efforts aligned in the same cause.  Uh oh, I'm getting flowery again.

It's one of the better blends I've had and would take it over many single malts.  Though at its price range there are some tremendous single malts.  As far as blends go, it's about $20 more than Chivas 18 and $10-15 more than JW Gold Label, and I'm not sure if I'd place its value that much more (especially since, at Hi Time, I could get a bottle of Uigeadail and a Buffalo Trace together for the same $$$).  It's quite good though, and would make a nice fancy gift for someone who likes the Glens Livet, Fiddich, Grant, Goyne, and Garioch.

Availability - Some liquor specialists
Pricing - $85-$90
Rating - 87

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jim Murray's Whisky Bible

The very existence of Jim Murray provides a quiet quandary to many anoraks.  The scores from Murray's annual whisky "Bible" are touted by distilleries, blenders, bottlers, and distributors whose products are commended within the tome.  Those same people make not a mention of Murray if their scores aren't stellar.  His awards arrive in press releases, which in turn cause many bottles to instantly vanish from shelves, often purchased not by whisky enthusiasts but by those whose buying patterns are swayed by public announcements.  His annual winners frequently cause a bit of head scratching industry-wide (see Ballantine's 17yr, Old Pulteney 21yr, one batch of Ardbeg Uigeadail sold in Canada, etc.).  His anti-sulphur campaign, though passionate, seems to be fought by an army of one.  He has consulted for a number of companies, some of whose whiskies score quite well.  This all results in an otherwise well-informed "Bible" reader to be unsure what a score of 92.5 really means for that bottle he or she is considering buying blindly.

Murray writes in grandiose emotional (sometimes carnal, oft metaphysic) phrasings some readers have labelled "maltoporn".  He champions blends when most writers are praising only single malts.  Producers worldwide send him samples of everything from 3 year old Indian blends to new make bourbon to 70 year old Speyside malts.  And he may have tried more individual whiskies than any other human in history.

What perplexes me most about Murray is his self-celebratory, self-referential, self-promotional writing style.  To wit:
From Redbreast 12yr Cask Strength (2013, p. 267):
To think, had I not included Redbreast in Jim Murray's Irish Whiskey Almanac back in 1994, after it had already been unceremoniously scrapped and discontinued, while championing the then entirely unknown Irish Pot Still cause this brand would no longer have been with us. If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, at least I have that as a tick when St Peter is totting up the plusses and minuses... And with the Cask Strength, he might even give me two...
Who writes that?  That's not even a humble-brag.  (And this is after devoting another paragraph to this subject a few pages earlier.)  Even if it were true that he single-handedly saved Irish Pot Still whiskey, what sort of already-successful person pronounces that in a whiskey review?  Should that praise not be left to others?  Others should thank you, you shouldn't thank yourself when speaking about others.

Then there's the name-dropping and strutting:
From Glenfiddich 50yr (2013, p. 112)
William Grant blender David Stewart, whom I rank above all other blenders on this planet, has known me long and well enough to realise that the surrounding hype, with this being the most expensive whisky ever bottled at 10,000GBP or a 360GBP a pour, would bounce off me like a pebble from a boulder. "Honestly, David," he told my chief researcher with a timorous insistence, "please tell Jim I really think this isn't too oaky." ...... For the record, David, next time someone asks you how good this whisky is, just for once do away with the Ayeshire niceness installed by generations of very nice members of the Stewart family and tell them, "Actually, it's bloody brilliant if I say so myself! And I don't give a rat's bollocks what Murray thinks."
Is there whisky in there somewhere?
From Glengoyne 17yr (2013, p. 117)
Some of the guys at Glengoyne think I'm nuts. They couldn't get their head around the 79 I gave it last time. And they will be shaking my neck not my hand when they see the score here...
Ardmore Traditional Cask (2013, p. 35)
"Jim. Any ideas on improving the flavour profile?" asked the nice man from Ardmore distillery when they were originally launching the thing.
 Ardbeg Supernova (2013, p. 32)
...apparently this was called "Supernova" in tribute of how I once described a highly peated Ardbeg.
This is just from flipping through pages randomly.

As a writer, I don't understand the need for detailing one's importance when speaking of spirits.  Reading the reviews becomes like listening to hip-hop lyrics, full of self-grandeur.

I know he has thirty years and thousands of whiskies on me but his "Bible" makes me want to say, "Damn it Jim, you're a great writer, let your skills shine by writing about whisky and others will recognize your brilliance.  Otherwise, how are we to take you seriously?  Because when you pat yourself on the back, you motivate others to publicly contradict you."

I do not question his expertise.  Nor I have received any proof of dishonesty in his grading.  I admire his drive against substandard oak maturation and have no doubt that casks are not what they used to be.  He LOVES whisk(e)y, doling out 90+ ratings readily and highlighting the best elements of the 80+ entries.  I enjoy his unique style in so many of his reviews.  For example:
Port Charlotte PC 6 (2013, p. 68)
ohhhhh... arrrrrrhh... mmmmmmmmm... oh the peat, the peat... yessssssss... oh my god... mmmmmmm... ohhhhhh... first you get the smoky... ooooooohhhhh... arrrrrrr... then the sweeter... mmmmmmm... 
If you've had a good Port Charlotte you know what he's talking about.  Then, on the flip side:
Gordon & MacPhail Rare Vintage Glenlivet 1961 (2013, p. 128)
A very dear friend and colleague told me today that his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It was terribly sad news, and something she understood and accepted with fortitude, magnanimity and a courage which came so natural I doubt if she realised she even had it. "They are a different breed" said my friend with unaffected reverence, referring to the generation which survived a World War, so would take whatever low card fate was dealing them with the same innate stoicism. I have a mother who was 91 last week, is mentally sharp as a knife but unable to walk unaided, and a final remaining blood uncle also with Alzheimer's whom I visit whenever in London. So I know exactly what he meant. And in a far, far less important way, I feel something similar regarding the whiskies of yesteryear and today. I cannot see that many whiskies reaching 50 years with the kind of resilience that this whisky shows me here. The casks of today, both sherry and bourbon, are so much inferior - weaker - that we can only look upon this vanishing generation of malts, like the one in my glass before me, as we do our own kinfolk. So easily taken for granted. So dreadfully under-appreciated when with us. And to be painfully and immeasurably missed when they are gone.
A massive, sweeping statement; personal and maybe a little overreaching, but singular and grand.  And he even plugged his continuing qualm with cask management.  That's the sort of paragraph that brings me back to Murray's "Bible".

His passion about whisky is to be admired.  His passion about himself is amusing at best.  At worst, it makes the reader close the book prematurely.  And that's the last thing a writer ever wants.

In my next post, I will be reviewing Ballantine's 17 year old (Murray's 2013's Scotch Whisky of the Year and a former World Whisky of the Year) utilizing Murray's tasting method as outlined in this year's "Bible".  Let's see what happens...

Friday, December 14, 2012

Taste Off!!! Isle of Skye 8yr vs. Johnnie Walker Black Label


It's a head-to-head between two Big Blends.

In the challenger's corner, with the beige label, owned by Ian MacLeod Distillers Limited:

Brand: Isle of Skye
Distilleries:  Talisker and Glenfarclas (or sherried Glenrothes)
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: minimum 8 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

Produced by the same folks who make Smokehead and Lang's, bottle single malts under the Chieftain's label, and run the great Glengoyne distillery, Isle of Skye 8 year old is a thick, rich blend that weighs in at 47% malt whisky / 53% grain whisky.  With there being only one active distillery on the actual Isle of Skye, the peppery and lightly peated portion of the malt clearly comes from Talisker.  But that element is balanced out by a big sherry-oak pop; either Glenfarclas or Glenrothes depending on the batch.  My whisky senses are telling me my bottle has some significant Glenfarclas in it.

As I continue to look for something to topple Johnnie Walker Black Label from its shelf, I matched the blends up side-by-side, first neatly, then as a whisky & soda.

Neat: 1.0 fluid ounces of whisky in Glencairn glasses.
Whisky & soda: 1.2 fluid ounces whisky, 2.0 fluid ounces club soda, and 7 small ice cubes in a tumbler
I chose this Old-Fashion route as it really puts the blend through the ringer: it's chilled with lots of water in a wide-mouthed glass.

Firstly, the Isle of Skye 8.

Maple syrup in color.  My notes say it has a "bright and cheerful nose".  How do I explain that?  It's full of sugary citrus (think orange zest and juice), tropical fruits, dry sherry, new sneakers, and burlap.  With time there's a hint of the ocean, as well as some maple syrup.  The palate holds a light peat, more vegetal than smoky.  It's buttery, malty, and quite sweet.  Brown sugar and citrus sit in the center, while everything is held in sherry parentheses.  It finishes sweetly as well.  There's a brief bitter moment, but there's mostly tropical fruit, a little peat, and sugar cookies.

The malt element holds out well.  It remains buttery and very sweet, with overripe sugary fruits.  A blanket of vanilla sits on top of it all.

In the champion's corner, representing Diageo (boo), wearing the black and gold label:

Ownership: Diageo (boo)
Distilleries: 40 in all, including Caol Ila and Talisker
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: minimum 12 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

My considerable fondness for Black Label has been covered a number of times on this blog.  My gripes with Diageo have also been detailed plenty.  If I'm seriously going to do a Diageo boycott after they kill Green Label, I need to find a replacement for my favorite blend, thus these Taste Offs against other quality blends.

This Taste Off was educational as tasting the Isle of Skye alongside the Black Label really brought out the sherry side of the JWBL.  They both also have the single Skye malt in their makeup, but now I'm thinking there's more Caol Ila in Black Label than Talisker.

The color is golden caramel.  The nose holds sherried overripe tropical fruit, vanilla, toffee, and molasses.  Lots of molasses.  A wee puff of smoke.  The peat in the palate is heavier than the Skye's and smokier, while the texture is a little thinner (perhaps due to less malt?).  There's paper, pepper, espresso, soil, and a bunch of hearty vanilla (courtesy of American oak).  The finish is longer and peatier than Skye's.  Then there's vanilla-infused espresso and vanilla-infused black pepper.  My favorite part.

The peat smoke remains as does all the vanilla.  It's drier than its competitor, yet still carries some sweetness.  A bed of fresh grass and hay sits underneath.

After the Taste Off, I thought it was a good idea to finish off my Black Label bottle, figuring there was maybe a dram left.  There was more than a dram left.  It was a bad idea.  My first hangover on a work day this year.  :(

More to the point...

The Black Label had been open and less than half full for more than three months, while the Isle of Skye was opened about a month ago.  I think the Walker may have lost a touch of oomph via oxidation in that time, and its texture seemed a little thinner than usual.

The first couple of drinks out of the Skye bottle were packed with sherry to the point that I couldn't find the Talisker.  But over a few weeks and some breathing time, the whisky has revealed its island center.

While it is not a Black Label killer, it does beat the living daylights out of Famous Grouse.  It's thicker, maltier, more complex (oh, that word), and tastier.  Seriously, I'll never by the regular Grouse again.

If you're a sherry fan, then you may like this better than JWBL.  It may work well in cocktails too.  It's my second favorite mid-shelf Scotch whisky blend and something I would certainly consider buying a second time.  Their price range is very similar.  JW has the sexier bottle and it's easily found (though that doesn't count towards its ratings).

Ultimately, Black wins.  But it's closer than I had expected.

Did I not hear there's an Isle of Skye 12 year......?


Johnnie Walker Black Label's rating holds for now...

Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $25-$35
Rating - 88

Isle of Skye 8 year old:

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $28-$32
Rating - 81 (note: since finishing the bottle, I have downgraded this few points)

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Single Malt Report: Glenfarclas 105 (again) and the Bastard's Share

If you ever do a little sample swapping with me, you'll see that I electrical-tape the crap out of my sample bottles.  Whisky has a habit of finding its way out of a bottle, no matter what it takes.  When you hear about low-neck fill levels on dusty whisk(e)y bottles, that's due to the good stuff escaping through the factory-sealed cap over time (or it's due to fakery but that's a whole other post), and being replaced by oxygen.  As oxygen fills the sad empty spaces in the whisky bottle, oxidation begins.  And the whisky character changes.

The Angel's Share is the evaporation loss occurred during the cask maturation process.  The Devil's Cut is the loss caused by the oak absorbing the liquid.  I'm sure there's an official name for whisky loss via a poor bottle seal, but I'm going to call it the Bastard's Share.  Because, screw that bastard.

Case in point, my Glenfarclas minis upon purchase:

Note the slightly lower neck fill on the 105.  Sadly, I didn't notice it at the time (this past April).  What I also didn't notice is that the cap was a little loose.  Perhaps a little tightening along with some electrical tape would have helped.  But, again, I was much too excited about having these minis to study them more closely.

Zip forward to this weekend:

There was 39mL of whisky left out of the original 50mL.  A 22% loss.

Not only is it a whisky loss, but oxidation has slowly occurred since its bottling in May 2010.

So if you ever wonder why I tape up my sample bottles (and even some of my better big bottles) like crazy, this situation is the answer.  You must suffocate that whisky until it's time to drink it.

Now, way back in October 2011 I posted a single malt report on Glenfarclas 105.  It was only my ninth report and the tasting had actually happened before I'd ever considered posting whisky reviews.  I drank it out of a wide mouth tumbler in a loud bar.  Nonetheless, I loved it.

I bought this mini so that I could experience the 105 in a quiet home setting.  I also bought the mini because.  Because.

So let's give this oxidized 105 a try!

Distillery: Glenfarclas
Ownership: J&G Grant Ltd.
Region: Speyside (Central)
Age: 8 to 10 years
Maturation: ex-oloroso (and maybe fino) sherry casks
Alcohol by Volume: 60%
(Mini bottled in May 2010)

This thick viscous whisky's color is mahogany awash with ruby.  Considering its strength, the 105 has a surprising lack of burn on the nose.  Instead there's a whole box of plump raisins, along with dried apricots, baklava, and orange zest.  After a while there are some candy notes, like Skittles and bubble gum.  The heat arrives on the palate.  The sherry is so enormous it enters an entirely different dimension.  It starts with a brown sugar delivery, followed by rich thick swirls of dark chocolate, cloves, and pipe tobacco.  Some sweet maltiness still holds tight through all of that.  The finish holds a dry sandy sherry, dark chocolate, and pipe tobacco.  The sweetness lingers endlessly.

WITH WATER (approx. 44%ABV) --
Goes cloudy the instant water hits it.  Dry sherry on the nose, along with cherry cordials and molasses.  Maybe some citrus and floral notes.  The palate turns sweet like a liqueur.  Some molasses, sherry, and black pepper in there.  It finishes peppery and sweet.  A touch of citrus along with a floral flourish.

I liked it better neat.  But the question is, how much of the normal characteristics were corrupted by oxidation?  I'm not that bitter since I still enjoyed it.  My rating doesn't change.

A final note on price.  You should buy this via a UK retailer.  See below.

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $80-$90 (US retailers) or $50-$65 (UK retailers, no VAT, before shipping)
Rating - 90

Friday, December 7, 2012

Single Malt Report: Glenfarclas 15 year old

Oh man.

Nutella.  Just me and a jar and a spoon.  Dinner.

Soooooo, whisky.

After the Laphroaigs, we go to the other side of the spectrum: the rich sherried Glenfarclas(es).

Glenfarclas is one my favorite whisky producers.  Owned by the Grant family since 1865, they specialize in ex-sherry European oak-matured whiskys and have a wide spectrum of releases: 10, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, 30, 40, 50, three high-strength 105 bottlings, and their vast single Family Casks.  Their regular range is well-priced in the UK compared to other companies' sherry bombs.  They have a large capacity that turns out best-selling product, yet have never sold their shop to a multinational corporation.

Some quick official history:
Robert Hay officially opened the distillery in 1836.  Upon Hay's death, father and son, John and George Grant, bought the distillery in 1865 and began renting it out to John Smith (of Glenlivet fame).  When Smith left to open up Cragganmore in 1870, John and George founded J&G Grant Ltd. and began to run Glenfarclas on their own.

Here's the family ownership tree since then:
John → (son) George → (sons) John & George → (sons) George Scott & John Peter → (son) John L S → (son) George S.

That's consistency.

Though I'm not the biggest fan of first-fill sherry-oak whisky, I do adore Glenfarclas 105  And when I've sampled a couple other 'farclases, I found the oak, wine, and malt very well integrated.  It was never like sipping a glass of 86 proof sherry; there was whisky in there.  Whenever Macallan decides to gut their 12yr in the States, I'd like to have a sherried replacement.  I've tried Glendronach, now let us go 'Farclas.

Distillery: Glenfarclas
Ownership: J&G Grant Ltd.
Region: Speyside (Central)
Age: at least 15 years
Maturation: ex-oloroso (and maybe fino) sherry casks
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
(Mini bottled in July 2010)

The color is dark amber.  The nose starts with sour fruit (apple?), stewed raisins, and rum raisin ice cream.  There's some balsamic vinegar in there too, along with carob and brandied cherries.  The palate is very fudgy.  The sherry is present but not overwhelming.  Prunes, cherry liqueur, a touch of salt, and whipped cream show up promptly.  The medium-length finish carries mellow sherry.  There's some salt, a little bit of chalk, brief bitterness, but also a fresh floral fragrance.

Water dries the nose right out, so it's mostly cardboard and sherry.  Some oranges follow, old sweat, and a slight metallic moment.  The palate is also mostly sherry with the malt stripped back.  A little fudge remains, along with caramel sauce.  The finish is mild with that metallic note, but mostly sherry again.

Do this.  For your own sake.
A bit of Nutella washed down with Glenfarclas 15yr.  Mmmm.  They mmmmmmerge into a BIG hit of hazelnuts and even a swoop of peanuts too.  I was standing in the kitchen upon the first try.  I had to sit down to fully process it.

Without Nutella, water seems to squelch most of the malt, so I recommend drinking this one neat.  Especially alongside Nutella.

Of course, I'm a total a**hole because the fifteen year isn't sold in the US.  But it is priced right if you're ever doing a UK order.  If you like sherried whisky, I'd recommend giving any Glenfarclas a try.  If you're on the fence about first-fill sherry casks, 'Farclas does a good job letting their malt live in the whisky, so perhaps you can give one a sip...

Availability - UK liquor specialists
Pricing - $55-$65 before shipping
Rating - 85

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Laphroaig like there's no tomorrow

So this happened:
Photo courtesy of the great Bino Gopal
Last Sunday at Beckham Grill with the LA Scotch Club, we embraced the Laphroaig Vertical.

Laphroaig 10 year
Laphroaig 10 year Cask Strength Batch 003
Laphroaig Quarter Cask
Laphroaig Triple Wood
Laphroaig PX Cask (Duty Free only)
Laphroaig 15 year
Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin
Laphroaig 18 year
Laphroaig 21 year Cask Strength
Laphroaig 25 year Cask Strength
Laphroaig 30 year
Laphroaig 40 year

Dios mio, that list looks even crazier in hindsight.  I took my samples of the 30 and 40 home for a quiet private tasting.  Plus I secured samples of my three new favorites from the above list so that I might provide full reporting.

In the meantime, in honor of Repeal Day, I will present my recap in corrupted haiku form:

Thanks Brandon Bartlett
Ye Protector of the Peat
(I won some glassware!)

Maker's Mark barrels
Big smoke on the malting floor
Beam's Islay spirit

Laphroaig 10 year
Old wet cigarettes
Molasses and salty peat
Meet my new old friend

Laphroaig 10 year Cask Strength Batch 003
Cherries peat and brine
Early morning bakery
Brown sugar and cream

Tremendous finish
Acres of Port Ellen smoke
Needs time, serve it neat

Laphroaig Quarter Cask
My bottle's open
But I'll always embrace more
Sweet and bitter this

Long lingering, bright
Anise, brown-sugar-wrapped peat smoke
A grand autumn malt

Laphroaig Triple Wood
Dried fruits and ripe fruits
Loads of peat and tobacco
Bitter in the mouth

Laphroaig PX Cask
Find anise and tar
Wrap it in salty sherry
Sell it duty free

Laphroaig 15 year
Young Ardbeg at best
Dare I ask, Who will miss you?
Stay in the barrel

Laphroaig Cairdeas Origin
Keer-dass or Kar-chiss?
Either way, a lovely thing
Cairdeas means friendship

Vanilla choc'late
Salty nutty peaty moss
Handshake and a hug

Laphroaig 18 year
Least peated of all
Or so my palate tells me
Cantaloupe mint brine

Wood smoke, still has zip
Molasses-ed lengthy finish
Not loved, don't mind it

Laphroaig 21 year Cask Strength
Single Malt Report?
This is fucking delicious.
You want to know more?

Think peated cognac
Coconut, candied white fruit
Vanillins in love

Laphroaig 25 year Cask Strength
Dry with light flowers
Coffee grounds, slightly sour
Leathery lovely

Laphroaig 30 year and 40 year
Who knows what awaits?
What have the angels stolen?
Time and oak, we wait

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Single Malt Report: Kilkerran Work in Progress 2 (2010)

Over a year ago I enjoyed my introduction to the miracle makers of Springbank.  I lined up a tremendous Taste Off of Hazelburn 8yr, Springbank 10yr 100 proof (UK version), and Longrow CV.  Since then I always spring for a Springbank if I see a bottle at a bar.  And there's always one (or more) of their whiskys in my cabinet, usually a Longrow.

As an introduction to that Taste Off, I posted a little piece about the history of Springbank and Campbeltown in general.

Kintyre Peninsula, Scotland's bait and tackle,
twig and berries, meat and potatoes, rod and reel.
Get it?
It's a peninsula joke.
In the late 1800s, thirty to forty distilleries packed into a little town, Campbeltown at Kintyre's tip.  Campbeltown was then the center of the whisky world.  But overproduction, logistics, and economics changed the whisky power structure in Scotland.  By the mid-twentieth century there were only two distilleries left in Campbeltown, Springbank and Glen Scotia.

In 2000, Springbank's ownership acquired one of the defunct (but mostly intact) distilleries, Glengyle, and began production -- using modified stills from the closed Ben Wyvis distillery -- four years later.  Loch Lomond Distillers owns the rights to the Glengyle name, so the new whisky's name was chosen, as per their website:
Kilkerran is derived from the Gaelic 'Ceann Loch Cille Chiarain' which is the name of the original settlement where Saint Kerran had his religious cell and where Campbeltown now stands.
In 2009 the distillery started releasing their young whisky as a sort of public archiving of the whisky's development (and I'm sure it doesn't hurt to get some revenue out of it too), labeling it "Work in Progress".  So, Work in Progress 1 was five years old, 2 is six, 3 is seven, and this year's 4 is eight, each limited to 12000-15000 bottles.  Once it hits 12 years in 2016 they will expand it to a full release.

Like Springbank, Kilkerran is lightly peated, but distilled twice.  They use Springbank's malt, but with much differently structured stills and fermentation times.  As a result a different whisky is born.

At the end of that post on Springbank last December, I wrote: "Kilkerran is still a baby, but they have released a malt that I will beg, borrow, and steal for before 2012 has finished. "

Done and done.

Distillery: Glengyle
Brand: Kilkerran
Age: 6 years (2004 - June 2010)
Maturation: ex-bourbon American Oak barrels
Region: Campbeltown
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Limited release: 15000

Please note: This one took a while to wake up, especially the nose.  The palate showed up first, but after 10-15 minutes in the glass the whisky switch was thrown and the nose appeared.

The color is a pale amber.  The nose immediately starts with new shoes, leather jacket, and a touch of peat. There's a hint of acetone at its edges which is the only element that belies the malt's youth.  There's some hay and tree bark in there too.  While there's some very subtle vanilla in the background, the main descriptor that I apply to the nose is: Outdoorsy.  The palate holds some surprising peat (both in vegetal form and resultant smoke).  Vanilla, cereal grains, more toffee than molasses, and some white fruit juice.  There's a little bitterness, but its very palatable, think black coffee or baker's chocolate.  The lengthy finish gets slightly sweeter.  The shoes and leather notes return here, as well as the pleasant bitter note.

More American oak sneaks into the nose now.  Coconut and some white sugars appear.  The leather and outdoor notes are silenced.  Okay maybe there's a little manure.   Yes, in a good way.  The palate gets very creamy and noticeably sweeter.  Brown sugar and fresh grass spring up.  The peat's still there along with a fragrant floral moment.  It's now insanely drinkable.  The finish is shorter, but holds that nice bitter note.  A bit of vanilla is awakened and there's some more grass (live and dead).

This one sits on the other side of the spectrum from Wednesday's Benromach Organic.  Where that one was huge sweet oak syrup, this one flexes more malt and is more outdoorsy (notice how few food-and-drink-related descriptors are in these notes).  Also, something makes this nose feel old fashioned.  Perhaps because it's a little more rugged than most popular single malts.

To use silly shorthand: If Springbank is Springbank's Campbeltown malt, Longrow their Islay-type malt, and Hazelburn their Lowland-type malt, then perhaps Kilkerran is their old school peated Highland malt?  I'd love to line Kilkerran up next to some good Ardmore to see if that theory holds up.  Heck, I'd love to line Kilkerran up next to some more Kilkerran.

Ultimately, this isn't a sweetie, though the sugars show up once water is added.  After doing some whisky review snooping, I've noticed that the newer releases of Kilkerran are getting sweeter and fruitier as the malt ages.  While I wouldn't say no to any bottle of Glengyle's malt, I do like this WIP2 version.  In fact this is really my jam (so to speak).  But your palate may differ from mine.  Remember, I like Lediag, LOVE Longrow, and would bathe in Corryvreckan if I didn't fear it would eat my soul.

Availability - Some liquor specialists (This edition is getting harder to find)
Pricing - $50-$65 (WIPs 3 & 4 seem to be going up in price)
Rating - 91