...where distraction is the main attraction.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why We Blog

Yesterday, David Driscoll -- one of my favorite spirits bloggers, K&L Wines spirits buyer, and Single Cask saint -- posted an entry entitled "The Future of Internet Whisky Blogging".  David isn't one to curtail his feelings and opinions, which is bold when one is doing business with the very companies one's critiquing.  He's been known to ruffle feathers and state unpopular opinions, so the K&L Spirits Journal can sometimes be a bracing read.

"The Future of Internet Whisky Blogging" ruffled my feathers gave me indigestion.  David was stating an opinion I not only didn't share, but I felt as if I was being called out.  Rather than using this site as a gripe machine, I decided to email him directly with my dissent.  He responded promptly via email, then posted a follow-up entry on the subject.

In the original post, David postulated that there are too many whisky blogs, with too much repetition, thus creating a staleness which was endangering the usefulness of whisky blogs.  He questioned the intent of whisky bloggers in general, issuing a challenge that we all must change or risk irrelevance.

Before continuing, I urge you to read the post here.  It's important to see the entire picture.

Here is my response (with links) :

Dear David,

I want to start by saying I have an enormous amount of respect for you.  The Single Cask work you and DO’G have done is incredibly generous.  In person, you are warm, brilliant, and honest.  Your blog entries are tremendous; in fact I am quite jealous of your well-written, educational, and candid posts.  But I disagree on a major theme in your recent post about whisky blogging.
Here’s the first paragraph that caught my attention:
Do we really need this much information about whisky, however? Is it filling a need? Why do so many people feel compelled to start a weblog about alcohol and share those opinions with the world? Most of it is pure ego, which is why I was ready to give it up a while back. My ego got me into this game and it was making me write things to boost its self-absorbed nature. Sure, K&L didn't have anyone writing about spirits so it did serve the customer base a purpose, but that wasn't what motivated me to do it. I wanted to create a reputation for myself and that seemed like a good way to do it. Anyone who writes a blog about whisky is in the same boat. Anyone who tells you they're not is lying.I'm not saying that blogs written by egoists aren't useful (because I think this blog can be useful at times), but I am saying that the rise of the ego is beginning to replace actual news and journalism. It's not much different than the twenty-hour news cycle – one hour of actual news, twenty-three hours of people talking about that one hour.
Let me introduce myself.  I am Michael Kravitz.  My blog Diving for Pearls is amongst that blur of names on Sku’s blog list.  I am a whisky blogger by accident.  My site was originally started in 2007 to keep my friends and family up to date when I was moving back to LA from the East Coast.  I posted mostly about personal stuff, film (my educational background), music (not my educational background), travel, and maybe a little bit about baseball.  Those posts drifted to a stop in 2008.

I restarted the blog in 2011 to chronicle my (then) new career as a full-time writer.  That career didn’t go as planned, so instead of complaining every day I went back to posting about the stuff I enjoyed (music, movies, sports, etc.).  The newest addition was The Single Malt Report.  I’ve loved whisk(e)y for some time and thought it would be a hoot to do little reviews once a week.  Somehow, through the miracle of Google algorithms, people started finding my site.  Many more people than I’d ever expected.  And they were coming for the whisky.

This was an unexpected joy.  People were reading my stuff!  So the whisky posts took over.  As a number of things went sour in my offline life, it was comforting to have folks from around the world regularly tuning in to read my generally unprofessional whisky musings.

Soon, the whisky blogging started to become more personal.  I started talking to readers, bloggers, and other malt geeks who were trying to break through the cold separation of the online life.  On Twitter some of these folks started a hashtag #WhiskyFabric.  On Facebook, the Whisky Bloggers group began.  We realize we all have so much to learn, so we share whisky news, knowledge, and samples.  Sometimes we talk about our families and work.  I’ve even gotten to meet people (in person) I would never have known had I not whisky blogged on Diving for Pearls.

Though I’d like to speak for everyone I’ve met, I shouldn’t, so I’ll speak for myself.  I’m not in it to build my brand.  I’m in it for the communication, people, and sensory exploration.  I know you truck on bigger roads than I do.  So perhaps you see things I don’t.  If some currency has evolved via Reputation, then that means there is a whisky blogging Scene.  I suppose I haven’t been invited to the Scene, which is okay with me.  I’ve found that most Scenes bring with them a sense of decay since the members of the Scene aren’t actually contributing anything.  Instead it’s a bunch of preening, rehashing, or oneupsmanship.

I can tell by your post you’re reaching a level of whisky-blog-reading burnout.  In the current whisky blogging world, there is certainly repetition in subject matter.  That’s one of the reasons I’ve resisted commenting on the big news stories.  People with better insight and deeper knowledge often beat me to it with better content.  And yes, sometimes there seems to be a bit of a glut in the number of sites.  I’ve stopped reading about half of my usual blog roll, specifically those blogs that seem to be industry-cuddle-happy.

But I still go to my usual blog haunts (your site is one of them) with the same joy as I had two years ago.  The Internet is an endless lifeless ocean, but great sites run by great people provide little islands of recreation.  Since I enjoy those little respites throughout my day, I will try to continue to run my own island to the best of my ability while working a 60-hour-a-week desk job.

Finally, per your paragraph:
Back in 2009, you couldn't be up to date with the whisky scene unless you were reading the whisky blogs. Nowadays, I'm not sure there's much more they can offer besides breaking news. The blogs have always been there to help educate newer consumers about the alcohol they're drinking, but there's so much information out there now that everything just seems like a rehash. We're recycling stories, travelogues, ideas, opinions, and rants like Lady Gaga recycles old Madonna schticks. There's nothing underground or cool about a whisky blog anymore because there's nothing underground about whisky. Whisky is the hottest thing out there. It's being pushed and sold at max capacity. It's so cool we can't get enough of it. You can't stay relevant, however, by following the current trend. You stay relevant by spotting the next one before it arrives.
What we can try to offer is the human experience.  Corporations can’t do this, no matter how much they pay for marketing.  Personal experience is relevant, chasing trends is not.  If a blogger does the latter, I promise you he’ll lose to someone doing the former.  And if many bloggers are really shedding their voices to grab for trends, then The Scene has begun and Whisky Blogging is indeed in decay. 

But I don’t see this in the blogs I read and I’m doing my best to keep my voice.  I have nothing to gain by building a whisky blogging reputation, so I’m not trying to.  You can call me a liar for MANY other things, but not for this.

Please continue sharing your voice on your spirits blog.  Reputation or no reputation, you’ve established something great there.

Michael Kravitz

And if you think that was long, you should have seen the first draft.  Okay, no you shouldn't.

If any of y'all think any element of my letter is untrue or exaggeration, please let me know.  I've been to known to get a little dramatic when arguing my side, and thus in the process choosing passion over facts.

David and I then traded a couple emails and with my permission he included my entire letter in his follow-up post, "Lighting a Fire".  I encourage you to read it, because (ignoring my letter) there's important stuff in there.

Ultimately, David and I agree.  If we whisky bloggers are abandoning the things we enjoy and instead writing what we think we're supposed to write, if we are chasing leads, if building our own brands becomes more important than who we actually are, then we have no future.  People, their lives, and their experiences are what's important.

I realize there are a lot of high-falutin' things in this post -- from the self-important title, to the posts referencing other posts referencing letters referencing posts -- but I'm only going there because I like whisky blogs.  I don't think we are in a state of decay, but I also want to make sure we never get to that point.

Thank you, David, for lighting a fire.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Edinburgh, 2002

Early morning during the first week of November, 2002.

See those red phone booths?  That's where I'd called my parents the evening before.  I was illuminated on a 1/3 of a bottle of absinthe, more lucid than sober consciousness allows, aware of the texture of every sound that entered my ears or left my mouth.

Down the street a bit, to the right in the haze, was a little grocery.  I'd stop by, once or twice, each day to pick up a can of beans, a bottle of water, and two small fresh crispy croissants.

Around the church, in the background on the left, there were a bunch of flyers advertising the night tours of Edinburgh's underground, emphasizing the crypts.

Further down the street was a potato jacket restaurant.  I'd order a potato and have them fill it with beans and cheese and chicken, or maybe a little curry instead.

Past the church, a Tesco.  Past the Tesco and over the bridge to the left was a place called, by locals, Dodgy Pizza.  It was open all night.

The day before was lovely.  Though the rain hadn't paused for my entire stay, I went out hiking near, around, and up Arthur's Seat.  Hours of mist and mud.  A little blood on my hands from rock scrapes.  I came back in the late afternoon, shaved off my adventure beard and took a hot shower in the tiny hostel bathroom.  Then I walked to Tesco and bought a bottle of Le Fee Absinthe.  I brought it back for my drinking buddies.

One of the best parts of hostel life is the international drinking crews that form randomly.  That night, a South African, a Pakistani Glaswegian, and I drank the green contents of the bottle.  THEN we went out drinking.

While they grabbed cigarettes, I placed the slightly enthused call to my folks.  Afterwards, we three then went down to the lower streets to the pubs.  There were pints.  There was a place that called itself a heavy metal bar.  It wasn't a heavy metal bar.  I had no issue with their music; I stood on tables, shouting the lyrics to The Yardbirds and The Who songs.  But we made a point to tell everyone in the building that this was not a heavy metal bar.  We were escorted out of the establishment.

We went to a couple other pubs.  There were pints.  Lots of footie on the screens.  We ascended back to High Street.  Each of us finished an entire Dodgy Pizza before finding our(?) bunks in the pitch black hostel dorm rooms.

I slept for a couple hours in my clothes.  Upon waking, I slid out of bed, crept out of the room, then up the stairs and outside.  Morning awoke before me, but not by much.  The rain never slept.  The restaurants and cigarette shops were putting out their sidewalk boards.

I realized I'd forgotten to take pictures during my travels.  Or maybe I'd chosen not to.  My disposable camera had at least 20 photos left in it.  Edinburgh was beautiful, even my $6.99 cardboard Fuji could see it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Whisky with Florin - Part Four: The Glenphroaig

(continued from Part Three, here)


FV: Here are the tasting notes. Let me remind you that this uses a different bottle of the Glenlivet Nadurra than your sample (that was batch 0112R, b 01/12, 55.0%) - but I'm happy to send you the new version too! [Ed.: Received, sampled, and noted below!]

GlenPhroaig 10yo Double Malt, 55.5% (batch #2)
--2/3 Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo batch 0410J b. 04/10, 54.3%
--1/3 Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength batch 1 b. 02/09, 57.8%.

Color: light amber.

Nose: warm and inviting, Belgian chocolate bakery, confectioner's sugar, freshly cooked bitter orange marmalade. Some nutmeg and cardamom. Much spicier than my earlier batch that used the 01/12 Glenlivet Nadurra! The smoke is well integrated, no peat reek here!

Body: supple but firm and mouth coating - elegant. (For some reason the body is important to me, it really makes or breaks a whisky.) This is so good at cask strength I don't want to add water!

Taste: the spicy bitter orange chocolate theme continues on the palate. More peat, but well coated in salty, mouthwatering sweet malt. This is peat candy, the high street version of salt water taffy.

Finish: lingers on forever, satisfying; continues to evoke the peat and bitter orange from the nose and palate.

With water: why would I want to do that?!?

Comments: wow, this is good! The blend retains all the high points of the Laphroaig CS, but with its aggro side polished off. No licking ashtrays here! This is the Chopin of whisky, cannons hidden beneath flowers and all that. I would have never thought of calling a Laphroaig-based whisky "elegant", yet that's the word that comes to mind. Surprisingly, it's really well balanced! The other intriguing aspect is how different this blend is from my first batch using a different bottle of the Glenlivet Nadurra, the 01/12. I really liked that one too, but it did not have the spice and bitter orange notes of this version. In Compass Box terms, if that was the Oak Cross, this is the Spice Tree. Unfortunately it's long gone, so I rely on memory here…

MK: It's funny you mentioned peat candy, I caught a hint of a peated whisky cocktail (with simple syrup and bitters) in the nose. As opposed to the bitter oranges in your batch, I caught lemons and apples (fully peat-infused)...but that was just Batch 1...

Ah, let's just get to the full notes:

Color: light amber with yellow and green highlights

(I've spotted this same tint in official Laphroaigs)

Nose: Peated whisky cocktail (malt, simple syrup, bitters), brine, nougat, bourbon(?), vanilla, peated apples, white oak infused with peat smoke. Complete peat integration.

Palate: Ashes then flowers. Cannons beneath flowers indeed! Maple syrup, then lemon lime soda. Cayenne pepper and peat moss. Very rich but not a bruiser. 

Finish: Lemony peat (or peaty lemons?), sooty fire place, and brown sugar. Those peated apples again. The strength of the Laphroaig CS carries the day. 

Color: Light gold with those green highlights

Nose: Candied and toasty peat, orange rind, bran muffins, apples and lemons, a little band-aid TCP note, a floral hint, and cinnamon custard.

Palate: Wood smoke floats above apple juice and fresh lemonade.  Brown sugar in front, malt in the middle, peated tropical fruits at the end.

Finish: Substantial again! Barbecue-smoked ripe apples, peated pineapple. Lemon sour candies infused with peppery spice.

Both batches are stellar stuff.  These vattings create a new single whisky from two very different elements.  I think someone needs to start up his own blending establishment. :)  How long do you let the elements marry? Do you give it a little shake once in a while or just let it settle? I'm taking notes here...

FV: I'm never too rigorous or serious about the blending. The result might improve over a few days, but I never have that much patience. I might try something new in sample bottles or in the glass, and if I like it I will ramp it up to a regular size bottle. At that level the bottle does indeed last longer and therefore it blends better in time. Shaking occurs naturally every time I pour. :) But once again, no lab coats here, this is just for fun. And I've never said "ooh, I really like this whisky, I wonder how it would taste mixed in with some Highland Park!", it was always about fixing or rescuing something I wasn't totally happy with.

MK: Do you have any home blends in mind for the future? Or do you think your next one will be born out of necessity like the GlenPhroaig?

FV: Here are a couple nice blends that I blundered into recently. I added some Laphroaig to a bottle of Springbank 10yo which was heavy on sherry and overly sweet for my taste. That made it much more interesting, a home-made Longrow of sorts. It certainly did not last long, in a few days it was gone!

By now you are probably thinking that I just add Laphroaig to everything, which is probably not a great general strategy. But here is an interesting combination: the other night I was drinking a 19yo Glendronach, single cask, cask strength. One of their sherry bombs, with the texture of balsamic vinegar, and tasting like pure dark chocolate. It feels more like an ingredient really, rather than a finished whisky you want to drink! So I poured some over a glass of Speyburn 10yo. The Speyburn tamed the attack of the Glendronach, without diluting the strength. The result was much more balanced and enjoyable, and it reminded me of the Glenfarclas 105, one of the best ex-sherry whiskies out there.

MK: I remember trying that Springbank 10yr and wondering why they were sweetening up their great malt.  The Laphroaig addition sounds like a good fix.  Do you have any advice for those of us floundering with our own blend experiments? Some Dos and Don'ts perhaps?

FV: Blending whisky is like cooking. Once you get a feel for it you don’t really need recipes, the ingredients speak to you and tell you what they need. Peated whiskies like Laphroaig seem to be good additions, especially in small quantities, but the base whisky needs to have a good backbone – medium/thick body, or a lot of personality, or at least high strength. I would not mix bad whiskies hoping to get something good, the original ingredients must have at least something going for them. You need to have a few open bottles to work with, you need enough colors on your palette if you want. And the best ingredients to work with are those that are not too processed already. You want prime colors: all-out peaty whiskies, like Laphroaig; all-bourbon cask whisky, like most 10yo and 12yo out there, or of course, single casks. The older distillery bottlings often already have a proportion of sherry casks blended in, in order to taste more expensive, so I wouldn’t use these, unless I want to fix them. But what do I know? Go out there, play with your whiskies, and let us all know what you found!

I just want to add here that I’m grateful for your very engaging and entertaining blog, and I’ve enjoyed very much this dialogue! Thank you Michael!

MK: Thank you, Florin. I'm indebted to you and all the great generous whisky folks out there who have shared, educated, traded with, and drank with me. Without you all I would still be sipping vodka on the rocks. Okay maybe that's a little severe.  But you all have helped enrich my life with all things related to the sensory splendor of aged distilled spirits. And to my readers, I can't thank you all enough!  You inspire me to raise my standards every day.  Happy Friday!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Whisky with Florin - Part Three: Blending Whisky

(continued from Part Two, here)

MK: Speaking of Glenlivet ;-) I am two-thousand miles away from a sample of your current house blend. It's going to be one of the first things I'll drink when I get home. Have you attempted your own blends often? How has your hit-to-miss ratio been so far? What inspired you to create this one in particular?

FV: My home blending adventures started a couple years ago, with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Green
15yo. On the side of the box they tell you the four key components of the blend: Caol Ila, Talisker, Linkwood, and Cragganmore. I really liked it, so I figured I'd try to reproduce it. I had the first two malts, but not the latter two, so I replaced them with Glenlivet 12yo as the floral component (instead of Linkwood), and used Glen Garioch 10 for body (instead of Cragganmore). It turns out that you only need a little of the Talisker (5-10%), and not much more of the Caol Ila - they can really dominate the blend. I was pleased with the results, but did not pursue this further. It was just a fun thing to do!

More recently, I started blending in order to "rectify" some malt that I wasn't completely happy with. The Trader Joe's Irish Single Malt is great on its own, but even better with some peated Connemara added on. The dry nuttiness of Speyside 10yo single malt was helped by the fragrant, citrusy Old Pulteney 17yo (but not to the point that I would love it). The butt of a Strathisla 12yo bottle mixed into some Compass Box Oak Cross improved both of them. The "baby" Sazerac Rye was bland on its own, and the 18yo Sazerac Rye too oaky - mixing them played up the strength of the two components.

But the blend that I'm most happy to drink - my "house blend" as you call it - was really a product of serendipity. I already told you I'm a fan of Glenlivet; this summer I tried a bottle of Glenlivet Nadurra 16yo, bottled on 01/12. Despite my high expectations, I did not like it at all! Depending on the day, it was either spirity (ethylic) or buttery (butyric). None of the floral, fragrant, soft, gentle elements that I was expecting based on my previous experience with this distillery were there! (As it turns out, a lot of this is batch variation - a second bottle I opened today, bottled on 04/10, is much better, closer to what you would expect a 18yo Glenlivet to taste like at cask strength.) I was ready to
give up on it completely, when I decided to mix it with some Laphroaig 10yo Cask Strength. The effects were amazing! I should say that I love Laphroaig (easily one of my top two distilleries, tied with Springbank), and I adore the 10yo Cask Strength, which I feel best represents the distillery, with its all-out, in-your-face tar, seaweed, and ship engine room notes, nicely balanced by some dark woody sweetness. But sometimes it can get really ashy!

Well, the mix of Laphroaig 10yo CS with Glenlivet 16yo Nadurra is for those days when you don't feel like licking the ashtray on the morning after the party! It retains the iodine and peat of the Laphroaig, but with its edges rounded by the sweet maltiness and floral overnotes of the Glenlivet. Since both malts are at cask strength, the flavors are really concentrated. When is the last time you had a cask strength blended malt? (There is some money to be made right there!) I found that a Laphroaig to Glenlivet ratio of 1:3 to 1:2 works best (25% to 33% Laphroaig). So these days I will buy the Nadurra for this blend
alone! Obviously, the idea of mixing peaty and floral whiskies is not new - besides JW Green 15yo,
John Glaser did it in his Peat Monster and Eleuthera (Clynelish + Caol Ila), and more recently in the Flaming Heart (Clynelish + Laphroaig?). There are other Laphroaig-based double malts on the market as well. Clynelish has an amazing body, which I find too oily on its own, but which makes it best suited for blends. As you know, it's reported to be the basis for JW Gold 18yo as well. The Glenlivet cannot supply that at 40%, but it really provides both body and floral character at cask strength. In a way, the "Glenphroaig", as you aptly named it, is the poor-man's Flaming Heart - I hope that's not too presumptuous! I'm glad you liked it, and I am happy to share it with you and with my other whisky-loving friends! Also, thanks for keeping us updated on your blog with your own blending experiments; I'm looking forward to learning from your hits - and the misses are fun on their own!

MK: I really appreciate Diageo listing the four Green Label malts. It's unusually generous and informative of the drinks giant. Of course they'll be killing Green off soon, so we'll have to design our own! Your interpretation of Green Label sounds fantastic.  I have to say, your blending choices are very bold. For some reason, I'd never considered doing my own blending until watching the Ralfy video where he combined Springbank, Longrow, and Hazelburn. "Outrageous!" I thought. "And probably delicious."

A bottle of Clynelish may be in my future, just to do some blending (and maybe some drinking too). As you mentioned, John Glaser is weaving magic using it in so many of his whiskys. He freely (and refreshingly) talks about most of the ingredients in Flaming Heart via his official tasting video. Laphroaig, Ardmore, and Ledaig -- three of my favorites -- are the peat elements. The only fully cask strength vatted malt I can think of at the moment is one by AD Rattray. It's $90+, a bit steep to buy blindly, but sounds pretty good. Otherwise, I think that market is wide open.

The Glenphroaig is great. It's very rich, which is not only due to that great cask strength power but also feels like it comes from the interplay of two excellent malts. It's not too large, instead it's quite moreish! It's its own whisky. Very well done. It has inspired me to take some more risks with my own blends.

I'm going to do some proper tasting notes tomorrow night. This evening, I'm too involved with a Buffalo Trace hot toddy to allow for focused examination. In fact, I'm afraid the bourbon is about to sabotage this email entirely.

May I request some official tasting notes from the Master Blender? You know your way around the Glenphroaig better than I, so you've likely found some unique nooks and accents in it......

Tomorrow: Part Four - The Glenphroaig

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Whisky with Florin - Part Two: The Whisky Market

(continued from Part One, here)

MK: Your Summer 2010 trip sounds great! Good to get your son in on the proper knowledge early. Kids learn quickly, while it takes forever to get adults to understand how a pot still works (I am one of those adults). I've spoken with a couple other whisky geeks recently who, like us, went to Scotland before their whisky discoveries began......then returned a second time (family in tow) touring the distilleries. My second trip is in the planning stage...

I have a bottle collection that I enjoy, but size-wise it's a fraction of most of the collections/bunkers I've seen. It's my sample collection that fuels my whisky education and my posts. I adore samples. Since my employment status hasn't been terribly consistent over the last two years, minis/drams/samples have been the more cost effective path to my journey. I also try to hit up as many tastings around town as possible.

My whisky tastes have been mercurial. I used to love all of the ex-sherry malts, not so much anymore. Once upon a time I was very sensitive to any hint of peat, now I'm just daffy about phenols. Aside from drinking with my cousin and a couple of buddies on the East Coast, I trod my whisky journey alone until 2011. It was: Glenfiddich --> Johnnie Walker --> Macallan --> Glenmorangie --> Oban --> Dalwhinnie. Two years ago, I tried an indie Caol Ila and an indie Bowmore; then the real fun began. The blogs, Maniacs, reviews, and (especially) books caused more good trouble.

When I find an interest in something I get obsessive. Then each small discovery creates an entirely new pathway. Like you, I have a wife who has been tolerant of this whole whisky affair. For that I am very thankful.

As much fun as discovering whisky alone had been (I'm not the most social person), meeting folks online and offline who are on similar whisky paths has opened the experience up further and made it more meaningful for me.

I'm glad you brought up your six classics (from OP12 to Glen Garioch), I have a few of my own too and would feel blessed to drink nothing but these. I have to remind myself of that from time to time. May their prices rise slower than the rest! :-)

Back in December, public discussion about rising whisky prices was triggered by a few posts between David Driscoll of K&L Wines and Oliver Klimek of The Malt Maniacs.

David considered the possibility that whisky prices will remain high because we're seeing a new

reality: People who have the means are willing to pay higher prices for whisky and will continue doing so without pause. He likened it to the Bordeaux market in '90s. Prices went up and have continued to rise for more than 20 years.

Oliver countered that we're seeing a whisky speculative bubble that, unlike Bordeaux, is pushing up the prices of everything including the cheap stuff.

To me, David's article was incredibly disheartening because I can see his point. I didn't agree with him, but mostly because I didn't want to agree with him. Also, having family members who've worked in Finance, I know that no market's pricing remains aloft forever.

I was wondering, where do you sit between these two sides? Do you think we're witnessing an unsustainable pricing bubble? Or are we seeing a new long term pricing reality?

Have rising prices effected your choices when you shop for whisk(e)y?

FV: There are so many things to say here... You'll be sorry you asked!

Let me start by acknowledging that you and I are spoiled. The prices in the US have been amazingly good. Some single malts still cost as much in US$ as they do in £ in a Glasgow supermarket. There is so much whisky to choose from, in particular American whisky, which is so hard to come by in Europe. If your shop doesn't have a whisky you want, you can check another dozen stores all around the country, or a dozen more in UK and Europe and have it shipped to you. While prices and availability vary across the US, in California in general they are the best. You can live a good life - and many do - buying all your whisky at Costco and Trader Joe's. Glenlivet 12yo for $22 and Lagavulin 16yo for $53? Thank you so very much!

This being said, the prices are clearly rising and the whiskies are harder and harder to find. My local BevMo is a depressing sight these days, the whisky cabinets look like they've been burglarized. The distilleries are running out of aged stuff and repackage their offerings so that they can ask for double the price for the same whisky under a different label. I opened a bottle of the Col. EH Taylor Rye today; to me, that's the "baby" Sazerac 6yo rye, at 2.5 times the price, definitely not worth the $70 I paid for it!

And yes, all this is affecting my buying habits. You had a sad, but very lucid and poignant post on your blog at the beginning of the year, where you stated that you are buying a lot out of fear these days, and that this chips away at the pleasure you get from this hobby/vice. I fully agree with you. I bought a lot out of fear last year! A lot of times it was buying some of my favorite whiskies from stores where the price increases had not reached yet. Other times it was trying to buy a bottle before it disappears. It's become such a competitive sport! I am not talking about Pappy hunting here, which is way more insane than I'm comfortable with! And this is all whisky that I bought in order to drink over the next few years, as soon as I get to it, not to leave to my estate or to finance my retirement with.

It is paradoxical that the more the prices increase and the more limited the offerings become, the more we buy! It's the equivalent of a run on a bank, where the customers lose their confidence in the suppliers. This is a temporary type of shortage, due to the instability in the market. This is you and me buying last year more than we needed to drink. But there is only so much whisky one can drink in a lifetime (500-2,000 bottles, depending whether you drink a bottle a month or a bottle a week), so it doesn't make sense to store too much, even if you can afford it. The supply should catch up with this artificially inflated demand pretty easily.

But there are other factors that change the supply-demand balance, in a more important and lasting way. A very important one is information. This very blog that you write is creating new consumers, every day; people who did not know what they were missing before reading your views and reviews, and now they want to try this bottle or that for themselves. Five years ago this source of information was practically inexistent! These readers are your new competition for that bottle of Springbank, and they are not going anywhere, now that they've discovered good whisky!

And then, of course, you have an entirely new category of consumers in the BRIC countries and elsewhere (my friends and family in Romania love the whiskies I bring them, and every year more are available for purchase locally). These are the consumers that Roseisle was built to deal with. You don't quite see them, but they are here, and they are not going away either! Most of them have a long way to go to single malts, but the 1% can surely afford them. And 1% of three billion is a scary number!

Roseisle at night (Source)
So from a pure demand perspective, things will never come back to "normal". You have more people vying for the same bottles from the same distilleries. If you want a bottle of Springbank or Laphroaig, today is the best time to get it. In five years you will compete with five times as many people for it. Sure, in five years maybe we'll all have moved on, to the new Kilchomans and the new Balcones, which is unlikely. Or Roseisle will shower us with whisky just as good as the Springbank, which is also unlikely. Or Laphroaig will have trebled its capacity, which is more likely, but also much sadder/scarier. The point is, your favorite single malt IS like first growth Bordeaux: a very special and specific product, with a great sense of place, character, and cachet, with limited production, and available to everyone who can pay for it. Oh, on the other hand, if your favorite whisky is Jack Daniel's or Ballantine's Finest, then you have nothing to worry. Right? I didn't think so!

The price will follow the same equation: more demand for the good stuff, which means higher prices. There will always be a vast range of prices. It's just that the definition of "good stuff" is going to change - and we see this happening under our eyes. Bottles that we still see today as regular, Old Pulteney 12yo, Glenmorangie 10yo, will climb one shelf up, with a price tag to match.

I'm not even getting into the fact that whisky is a quasi-monopoly, with a handful of companies producing four out of every five bottles in your bar.

The good news in all this is that whisky will continue to remain an affordable vice for you and me. If in the long run I drink, say, 2 bottles a month (much more than that and we should all be worried!), at $40/bottle this comes under $100/month. I could afford this even at $100/bottle. Also, for a low-priced alternative I put my faith in Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, that have been able to churn out single malts of excellent quality despite amazing growth in capacity. And that I can still buy for little money at my local Costco or Trader Joe's.

People like California for the mild climate, bountiful fresh food, and progressive lifestyle. I'm staying for the whisky!

Tomorrow:  Part Three - Blending Whisky

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Whisky with Florin - Part One: Getting Started

Last November, I had the great pleasure of meeting Florin, a contributor to a great deal of the online whisky discourse. I’ve always appreciated Florin’s modesty in an arena wherein we all consider ourselves experts. Though he is a font of whisky wisdom, he is always asking questions, open to others’ thoughts.

Florin welcomed me into his Southern California home where I had the opportunity to meet his lovely wife and the first two (there are now three!) of his beautiful children. He and I talked a lot of whisky and drank a lot of whisky. It was an excellent afternoon, one I hope we can repeat sometime soon.

At the start of our whisky session, Florin introduced me to a blended malt he had designed in his down time --- The GlenPhroaig. It is excellent. I’m not exaggerating when I say someone should bottle this stuff and get it on the shelves. I had originally intended to just interview him about the blend, but we wound up getting into a bit of a whisky exploration via email. With Florin’s permission, I’m presenting our (December-to-January) conversation this week, culminating in a review of The GlenPhroaig.

MK: Looking back on your whisky journey, was there a specific dram that started it all? If the catalyst wasn't one whisky, was there an experience or moment that ignited your interest?

FV: As a whisky lover it's always fun to look back to that first drink that started it all, isn't it? For me, this trip started 12 years ago, and it was in fact two drinks. I was 33 when I had my first single malt & bourbon. (If I was Jesus or Buddha I would have died without ever trying it, isn't that scary?).

Growing up in Romania, I had plenty of wine from an early age, at social events or hanging out with my
friends. The local spirit is plum brandy - we call it tzuica, you probably know it as sliwowitz. I enjoyed that too, it was always artisanal, made in hilly country by somebody's uncle or neighbor, and often very very good! We should have some together next time you visit!

I came to the US at the age of 25, for graduate school, so I was spared the usual college experimentation phase, with drinks that you know you'll never touch again in your life. I did once have a Johnnie Walker Red, which put me off whisky for a few good years. If that's what whisky was, then it was not for me. But by 2001 I was ready to expand my horizons, also prompted by a good friend who moved to Scotland. "Don't tell me you are now drinking whisky!" I told him over the phone. "Well, single malt is actually really good!” This intrigued me, so I got my hands on a book on spirits published by Beverage Testing Institute. It said there that a certain Pappy van Winkle was the best whisky in the world, scoring 100/100. I did not want to spend a $50 fortune on that, but I picked up a bottle of Rip van Winkle 107 proof, which had scored 97 or 98, and somehow also a bottle of Talisker 10yo. At under $30 each, these were still a major investment for me at the time. Boy, was I in for a treat! I just could not believe how good these two were! I would pour myself every evening a nice snifter of either one or the other, and I would just nose that glass and smile, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary! I was completely sold! The Talisker had a nice map of the island on the label, I understand it's a collector's item now; the RvW107 I had last year was nowhere as good as the one of my memory. Having had such a beautiful start with these hardcore whiskies, I don't buy the idea that one has to begin gently, try your Chivas Regal or Jack Daniels first to see if you are worthy, and then move on from there.

One year later, in 2002, I had the chance to visit Scotland for work for two months, but that's a different story...

MK: You bring up a interesting point about the old thought that everyone needs to start with blends and cheapies. I've found many blends and cheapies unappealing when served neatly since they're "designed for mixing" (read: made from the youngest stuff possible).

On the other hand, you have a considerably different palate than the newest generation of consumers whose palates have been formed by drinking Kool Aid, Coca Cola, and Coors Light -- drinks engineered not to challenge. Starting with wine while young (as my wife and I had), could you have unintentionally prepped your palate for more immediately demanding experiences, like sliwowitz (or Laphroaig Cask Strength!)?

Going back to the first hand: JW Red Label, Dewars White Label, and Cutty Sark are unpleasant starters. They make even less sense as starting points buried under sugary mixers. I had my start with Glenfiddich and Glenlivet; they're priced well and have had their edges rounded. I had Talisker 10 early on too, too bad it isn't $30 anymore! I know a lot of folks who were sold on whisky via Macallan 12yr.

All that aside, I'm jealous that you had your start with Van Winkle and Talisker!

Okay, now that you've teased it, you must recap your Scotland 2002 story! I was there in November 2002, but had not yet hit my whisky stride.

FV: I've never thought of the effect of growing up with Coca-Cola on the average American whisky consumer! You are clearly right: that must make a big difference in terms of what people like and don't like. On the other hand, you & your wife grew up in the US, I believe, and you don't have the average American palate either. Let's keep in mind that the single malt drinkers are a minority among consumers, 1-3% among whisky drinkers and a fraction of that among drinkers at large, whose top choice is vodka. So there is clearly some self-selection at work here. (Oh, I don't want to put down vodka, my wife is Polish and they make great “wódka” there. I always have a bottle of Zubrówka on hand! The one in Poland tastes better, something to do with bison grass being banned in the US; apparently it makes a very good rat poison. The Poles are not worried.)

Your start wasn't bad either; Glenlivet 12 is one of my favorite whiskies, which for some blessed, crazy reason I can buy here in California at less than half its price at the distillery shop in Scotland! On the right night, Glenfiddich 12 is a great session whisky. There is a reason that those two are the best selling single malts in the US and in the world.

But returning to Scotland 2002, who knows, we might have rubbed shoulders! I spent October and November there, visiting University of Glasgow. I fell in love with Glasgow and Scotland, despite the abominable weather - remember? My feet were wet and cold at all times! My story is anticlimactic: I really enjoyed driving a car with the steering wheel and stick shift on the wrong side on roads the size of back alleys, and visiting Oban and Edradour distilleries; but I was in the middle of a spiritual search, which meant reducing my drinking and ultimately stopping altogether. Talking about bad timing! I went dry for three years, 2003-2006. So you can say I didn't take full advantage of my visit, but the seeds were planted, I got a clear sense of that vast world of immense possibility!

I'm posting this pic again since it always makes me happy.
MK: Like you, I didn't take advantage of the whisky potential when I was in Scotland. I drank the cheapest blends I could find, along with gallons of beer. And absinthe. I remember that soggy weather well. With all of my hiking and wandering, I remained soaked for a month. I was actually in Scotland on my own personal search as well, though I definitely did not stop drinking (see the photo to the right).

Three dry years requires some tremendous discipline and focus. I admire your ability to commit to that.

Since you re-integrated whisky in your life (sorry for the horrid segue) you have built up a tremendous collection. How did you expand your whisky knowledge and assemble The Bunker? Did you go to tastings? Buy or trade samples? Or was there a lot of blind-buying supported by research?

FV: After my self-imposed dry phase I rediscovered whisky gradually. Caol Ila 12 was a revelation, then others slowly followed: Glenlivet 12, Glenfiddich 15, Dalwhinnie 15, Glen Garioch 10, Old Pulteney 12...

Common as they may be, I could live a happy life drinking nothing but these! Then, in the Summer of 2010, I went to Scotland with the family, and this time we made sure it was about the whisky. We spent one week touring, with two nights on Islay and two in Speyside. After a few distillery visits my 9-year old son would ask clarifying questions about the wine stills and the spirit stills. He visited Kilchoman before Kilchoman was cool. Been there, got the t-shirt - seriously, it's a very nice t-shirt! In any case, since that Scotland trip I became committed to whisky. Back in the US I didn't have many resources for sampling, and among my whisky friends I'm the most fanatic; San Diego where I live is off the radar for touring brand ambassadors, and driving to LA or flying someplace for a whisky tasting or festival did not seem worth the effort. So this meant buying a lot of bottles! In 2011 I discovered whisky blogs, which were my guiding light, and then the Malt Advocate (now Whisky Advocate). They led me to American rye, which was a huge discovery for me! Then I wanted to learn more about bourbon. I've been playing the field, but I've also stocked some of my favorites, out of fear of the crazy price increases that we saw lately. I'm really grateful for having the income to support this extravagant hobby so far - and especially for being blessed with an understanding wife. After having opened about 200 bottles in the last 2.5 years I'm ready to slow down now and to live a little off the bunker, which may not be as impressive as you make it sound.

Speaking of impressive, you have accumulated a lot of whisky experience for your tender age; I haven't seen your collection, but from what I've read on your blog, I'm sure you have a nice line-up yourself! Maybe you can share some of your own experience...

Tomorrow:  Part Two - The Whisky Market...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Single Malt Report: Glenmorangie Ealanta 1993/2012

What is this?  Diving for Pearls reports on a NEW whisky?


Hell's thermostat needle is dropping.

Yeah, well don't get used to this.

I won't.


Well then.  I have a number of samples in the queue, but I was definitely looking forward to this one.

Glenmorangie's newest Private Edition, Ealanta, was released in late January / early February of this year.  "Ealanta" is Gaelic for "skilled and ingenious" (not "modest").  The whisky is a single malt matured in heavily toasted new (or virgin) American oak for the entirety of its 19 years.  Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie's famous Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation, didn't actually lay down this malt.  His predecessors did so, and Lumsden discovered the filled barrels during his first year on the job.  It seems as if they had attempted all sorts of experimental casks, many of which were released during the past decade: Artisan Cask, Post Oak, Truffle Oak, Burr Oak, Chinkapin Oak, and Missouri Oak.

Like with Glenmorangie's Astar release, the casks were made from trees in the Missouri Ozarks.  Ealanta's trees were specifically from the Mark Twain National Forest.  (On a side note: I find it adorable that we can be told the latitude and longitude of the trees that make up casks, but not a single word about the yeast or barley variety.  Yes, this a recycled gripe, but it's a gripe nonetheless.)  The Astar casks were heavily toasted but lightly charred, while Glenmorangie is only stressing that Ealanta's casks were heavily toasted.  They're both non-chillfiltered (yay!), but the Astar is about half Ealanta's age and much stronger (57.1% ABV).  I love the Astar, so I've been wondering how this new older whisky tastes.

Distillery: Glenmorangie
Ownership: Louis Vuitton Moet-Hennessy (accents and umlauts not included)
Age: 19 years old (1993-2012)
Maturation: Heavily-toasted virgin oak from the Mark Twain National Forest in the Missouri Ozarks
Region: Highlands (Northern)
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Limited release: 3,433 cases
Chill-filtered: No
Colored: Possibly, but not much

While the color is gold, it's not as dark as one would think considering its life in new oak.  Perhaps this is due to toasting, as opposed to charring.

A lot of honey, corn flakes, and vanilla beans show up first in the nose.  Then fresh mint, white bread toast, and candied orange rind appear after further sniffing.  Give it 30-45 minutes, then it's cocoa and maple candy.  A minimum of spice arises from the oak, maybe some cinnamon.

The palate is full of creamy treats.  Eclairs, cream puffs dusted with cocoa powder, and whipped cream.  It even has a creamy texture.  Confectioner's sugar and barrel char swirl around the malt, then after some time Andes mint chocolate candies appear.

It finishes sweet and creamy.  There's the eclairs along with the Andes candies.  Sawdusty caramel sauce meets Phillies cigar smoke.

It's all very controlled.  I'm impressed that with all that new oak the whisky wasn't syrupy and liqueur-like.  Perhaps that's a result of the reduction to 46% ABV?  Or it has to do with toasting versus charring the barrels.  The downside to the control is a muted finish, a mere trace of spice, and a limit on its character.  It's a sweet treat, but nothing surprising or new, especially considering the relatively unique-for-a-Scotch maturation.

[Disclaimer Time!  I wish Ealanta was spicy.  Give me a spicy rye or bourbon and I'm a happy boy.  But in Ealanta, Sensei Serge Valentin does find some spice but little creaminess, while I find very little spice but heaps of creaminess.  So who are you going to believe: me or the guy who knows what he's talking about?]

A brief bit of price analysis:  If you do your research, you can find the Ealanta for $100-$110.  This is approximately $20 more than the 18yr in Glenmorangie's regular range.  Compared to the 18yr, the Ealanta has 3 more points of ABV, one more year of maturation within a unique cask type, and issued in a more limited release.  Also, in the current state of the whisky market, I have doubts that LVMH will allow Dr. Lumsden to keep such an unusual (but salable) whisky in the cask for so long next time.  So, if you find the Ealanta only $20 more expensive than the 18yr, then you're probably looking at good pricing for this "Private Edition".

Having never done a proper official tasting with the 18yr, I can't really speak for it other than to say it is good.  Instead, let me compare apples to apples, or new oak to new oak.  If the Ealanta's price equaled that of the Astar, I would still pick the Astar without a second thought.  But that's just my personal palate.  I like the youth, richness, bold spice, and power in the Astar.  I like it more than any other Glenmorangie release.

To me, Ealanta is a chocolate eclair of a whisky.  That is not a bad thing.  It just depends what your palate desires at this malt's price point.

Availability - Many liquor specialists, for now
Pricing - $100-$125
Rating - 83

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Single Malt Report: GlenDronach 21 year old "Parliament "

The Shadow of GlenDronach
After I received such a great surprise from the previous report's whisky, I decided to follow it up with another from the same distillery: GlenDronach's 21 year old "Parliament" single malt.  I've written about the rest of their regular range hereherehere, and here.

The 21 year old is a little harder to find than its younger siblings.  It's (obviously) pricier, though only 20-25% more expensive than the 18 year.  Compare that to Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and Macallan Fine Oak whose 21s more than double the price of their 17/18s.  GlenDronach's small bump up in price for the 21 year also includes the highest ABV of its regular bottlings, 48%.  While the 15 and 18 are solely from oloroso casks, the 21, like the 12, is from a mix of Pedro Ximenez and oloroso casks.

And the "Parliament" moniker?  It has nothing to do with government.  Rather, birds.  Yes, a parliament of fowls (or Parlement of Foules), as Chaucer once wrote.  In GlenDronach's case, the fowl in question are rooks, these sturdy birds:
When in a group, rooks (like owls) are called a parliament.  A parliament (or a parliament of parliaments) of rooks have made their home in that corner of Aberdeenshire likely long before the distillery was built.  So GlenDronach named this whisky after their neighbors:

Distillery: GlenDronach
Ownership: BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd
Age: minimum 21 years
Maturation: Pedro Ximenez sherry and Oloroso sherry casks
Region: Eastern Highlands (on the edge of Speyside)
Alcohol by Volume: 48%
Chill filtered? No.
Caramel Coloring? No.

As you may note from the pictures, the color is of a reddish maple syrup.

The bold nose leads with fresh stone fruits, especially apricots, along with dried cherries.  There's a sherry blanket surrounding everything, like Macallan 18 but larger.  Underneath the blanket lay raspberry jam, grape juice, pipe tobacco, and black cherry soda.  There are also highlights of bubblegum and fresh mint.  A wee peep of sulfur adds to bouquet rather than subtracting.

Cocoa powder leads in the palate.  It's followed by smoked prunes, ginger, and lots of salt.  It is very tart, dry, and tannic with sparse hints of sweetness.

The finish is very salty and dry.  Lots of tart grapes along with rich stewed raisins.  There's also a smoky note that is completely peatless.  But mostly it's dry and salty, like a dry Marsala.

What a grand pungent nose!  One could sniff this whisky all day long and never tire of it.  But it's whisky, so some folks may choose to drink it as well.  Had its flavors equaled its scents, then I would have written this entire report IN CAPS.  But the palate and especially the finish get tight, dry, salty, and tart.  Gavin Smith may note soy sauce in the nose, but I find drinking Parliament is like sipping a Kikkoman sherry cocktail (I hope that doesn't actually exist).

Having sampled the regular US range (yes there's a young NAS cask strength and a limited 33 year in Europe), I'd pick the 15yr first by a long shot, the 18yr second.  Meanwhile, the single cask releases are a league ahead.

But I'm not done seeking out GlenDronach.  I like their malt and their ownership, so I look forward to further exploring their whisky in the near future.

Availability - maybe a dozen liquor retailers in the US
Pricing - $120-$150 in the US, a little cheaper in Europe
Rating - 81

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A few words about Jess Franco

He wasn't as sadistic as D'Amato, dramatic as Argento, aggressive as Fulci, moody as Bava, or formally erotic as Rollin.  He didn't have the talent of any of those directors, save D'Amato.  But he was more productive than all of them put together.  He made movies, arguably more movies than anyone else over the last fifty years.

IMDB really isn't of much use when trying to get a count of Jesus (Jess) Franco's films.  It shows his directorial count at 199.  But for each Die Marquise von Sade, there was a Doriana Gray.  It wasn't just an alternate title.  It was a completely different film.  Same actors, same sets, more or less the same plot, but different scenes, different mood, different characters, different languages, different endings.

Then there are the title issues.  Female Vampire was known as Erotikill, Erotic Kill, The Loves of Irina,  Insatiable Lust, Bare Breasted Countess, Les avaleuses, La comtesse noire, and a dozen other names that all more or less depict the subject well.  Yet among these titles are at least four different versions of the same movie.  But more on this in a moment.

Franco's first very productive period was during the late 60's through mid '70s.  The Italian giallo genre was extremely popular throughout Europe, so he tried his hand at that.  The sex film went mainstream, so he tried his hand at that.  European spy films, women in prison films, slasher films, satanic films, zombie films.  He took a swing at all of those genres, sometimes all in the same movie.

The artistic merit of the script, photography, editing, and direction was never the motivation for his audience's attendance.  The women, from Soledad Miranda to Maria Rohm, were reason we watched.  They were the main characters.  They were the side characters.  They were the bit parts.  One of these women stood out in particular.  Franco's wife, Lina Romay.

Lina wasn't a classic cinema beauty.  She had a considerable overbite, a more considerable posterior, a round tummy, and yellowy pale skin.  But she committed to her art.  Fully.  Her pubic region was one of the most surveyed in the history of cinema, albeit in a poorly lit and out of focus fashion.  She ran barefoot and naked through forests and over rocks, tackling, pummeling, shrieking, and occasionally raping her fellow cast members.  (Not to mention what she did to the cast's members.)  She read every line as if it was written by Ibsen and directed by Bergman.  And did everything EVERYTHING the project called for her to do.  As a result, she commands the screen every time she leaps into frame, the rest of the mise en scene melting away behind her.  Even in Franco's weakest films, Romay always had something to offer.

"You want me to do what?"
Female Vampire, one of Franco's better known films, succeeds because of her.  The film's conceit: Countess Irina, the last of her vampiric kind, fellates men to death.  Simple idea, and simply foolish if one thinks about it for too long.  I have thought about it for too long. (This subject seemed to be of interest to Franco, as Romay's characters murder men in this fashion in a handful of his other films.)  One would figure a single bite would be sufficient, but instead an actual orgasm is required......though this is never fully explained.  (By the way, men aren't alone in this as Irina services a woman to death as well.)

All of this could be easily captured in a straightforward porn film, but the most widely distributed version of Female Vampire is instead a soft-core film.  This would prove to be quite a challenge for any director.  To (terribly) paraphrase the late Roger Ebert, once two actual genitals start rubbing against each other, a fiction film becomes a documentary.  It is extremely difficult to depict graphic sexual content without losing one's viewer to thoughts separate from the plot.

Franco demonstrates his ability to meet this cinematic challenge in the film's first shot.  The Countess Irina, clothed only in a cape and belt, stalks through a mist-cloaked forest.  She strides slowly towards the viewer, almost floating into the foreground.  Her sensual dark eyes lock on us.  She approaches predatory, confident, commanding.  Until she bumps into the camera.

The film's inability to capture the sadness and emptiness inherent in a life like Irina's doesn't render it limp.  Though the script, editing, and lighting fall short of many YouTube cat videos, Franco can still frame a shot and Romay takes his direction as far as emotionally and physically possible.

I would love to recommend Doriana Grey for Romay's genuinely bravado performance as a pair of twins engaging in sexual thrills while struggling with deep mental anguish.  But I can't.  It's not a quality issue.  Instead, almost all of Franco's films are unavailable in the US.  I spent a number of years going through Cinefile Video's Eurosleaze imports -- some of them were filmed with Spanish actors, overdubbed in Russian with German subtitles -- probably the best video store collection of Franco's work, and still got through only 20+ films.  None of them make for easy viewing, though Vampyros Lesbos is pretty cool with its slinky gals and groovy soundtrack.  Macumba Sexual has a solid and consistent visual style.  Venus in Furs can be a trippy treat.  Both "Eugenie" films keep to their stories well (and have pretty ladies).  And there's the aforementioned Female Vampire.  If you can find any of the stronger versions, they make for less (or more?) silly viewing.

But if you do like any of those filmmakers I mentioned at the top of the post, or enjoy flawed threadbare but aggressive filmmaking, and you find any of his stuff available to rent, give it a spin.  (You can drop me a line here too, in case you have any questions or if you know where to get some of the alternate editions.)
I may jest about the quality of Franco's work, but he was and is not merely a guilty pleasure for me.  He made movies.  Script, funding, and casting problems proved no match for this man.  Even if he didn't have any original footage, he'd re-cut a bunch of scenes from his other films into a brand new one and release it in a different European market.  That is bold.  That is commitment.  That is showmanship.  That is cinema without boundaries.  When Jess Franco passed away last week at age 82, having just directed another film (of course), the world lost one of its great filmmakers.  I encourage anyone with the means to get his work back out into the world for all of us to see.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Single Malt Report: GlenDronach 1991 18 year old Single Cask #2512

This one was a surprise on two levels.  I didn't really intend on doing another report this week.  And I've been having a sherried-whisky issue for a number of months.  Well, here's a whisky review.  And I've found a cure for the ailment.
Many thanks to Florin for the whisky that this once held!
For those new to GlenDronach, I did a four part post on their range here, here, here, and here.

In 2009, Billy Walker and the new ownership of GlenDronach not only gave their regular single malt range a facelift/refresh, but also started to release official single cask bottlings.  These small releases met with immediate approval by everyone from Jim Murray to the Malt Maniacs.  These single casks have continued ever since.

Each release spends its life maturing in sherry casks.  Some of them are from ex-oloroso, some are from ex-Pedro Ximenez, some are from butts, some are from puncheons.  They come different year groups -- 1971-1972, 1978, 1985, 1989-1996, 2002 -- and are priced accordingly.  Their big prices may give one pause, but they (at cask strength) are always cheaper than 43% ABV Macallans at the same age range.  They are rarer than those Macallans and better critically regarded.

Because they have different maturation lengths within different sizes of casks that had held different sorts of sherries, these GlenDronachs don't all taste the same.  I tried K&L's exclusive 1993 single cask, last month.  Two days ago, I tried this:

Distillery: GlenDronach
Ownership: BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd
Age: 18 years (August 1991- September 2009)
Maturation: former Oloroso sherry butt
Region: Eastern Highlands (on the edge of Speyside)
Alcohol by Volume: 51.9%
Cask: 2512
Limited bottling: 760

The color lies somewhere between maple syrup and well-steeped Earl Gray tea.

The density in the nose requires a bit of time (and a good nosing environment), but it's worth it, trust me.  First, there's digestive biscuits (the chocolate dipped kind, of course), then hay, fresh soil, unsmoked pipe tobacco, carob, and menthol.  Give it some more time.  Then there's maple syrup, clove cigarettes, orange rind, raisins, tropical fruit juice, and dark caramel sauce.  Finally, sherry gelato -- I don't know if it exists but it should.

The palate makes a direct progression from chocolate to cigar tobacco.  In between there's hazelnut cake with nutty frosting, a stone-fruity sherry, dried apricots, and anise.  The texture is very full and mouth-coating.

Then comes the big finish.  Spritely curlicues of sweetness spring up out of a dry sherry sea.  Nutella on toasted barley bread.  A little soil, a lot of menthol, with a hearty sweetness increasing with time in the glass.

An amazing finish, so dense it fills one's cranial cavities until one exhales sherry vapor through the nose.  This is the sort of sherry cask matured whisky I've been looking for, with the wine, oak, and malt working together as a team.  One can assume a lot of this quality comes from the sherry butt, though GlenDronach also produces a malt which compliments the barrel so well that we get this lovely union.

Of course, this particular cask is sold out everywhere.  Trust me, I checked immediately.  But from now on, Glendronach, I will be watching your butts.

Former oloroso sherry butts, that is.

Availability - Sold out, though other single casks are released annually
Pricing - similarly-aged GlenDronach single casks:  $140-$160
Rating - 92

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Single Malt Report: Bruichlaiddich Bere Barley 2006

Whisky is made from malted barley.  Wine is made from grapes.  If wine nomenclature is organized by grape varieties why do we NEVER hear about the barley varieties in our whisky?  In fact, there are a ton of different barley varieties out there, which ones are malt distilleries using?

For the vast majority of beverage companies, whisky is a business first, a craft second.  Thus they choose barley types from which they can distill the most alcohol, varieties like the two-row Optic and Chariot.  Strains that had been used in the past, like Golden Promise and Triumph, gradually became less cost effective as companies found other barley types that squeezed out 10 to 20 percent more alcohol from their sugary starch.  So the barley choices being made have to do with profit-and-loss sheets 99.9% of the time.

Meanwhile, every whisky producer invests considerable sums in oak casks.  Depending on who you're reading or talking to, 60-80% of a whisky's nose and palate come from the cask it ages within.  What about the rest of the character, though?  Many distilleries will reference their water sources (or you can figure it out via maps and the terrain).  But rarely is there any mention of yeast, let alone the barley!

This is a subject that a lot of whisky fans are currently discussing.  We're aware that grape varietals determine much more of a wine's characteristics, than barley does with whisky.  But still......if some whisky producers brag about the sherry that was formerly in their casks and the very forests from which the oak was felled......then how about a word or two about the whisky part of the whisky.  You know, the malted barley?

There have been a few barley words shared here and there.  Kilchoman, Bruichladdich, and Springbank have turning out limited releases of malts made from locally grown barley.  Glenlivet released a Triumph-only single malt a few years ago.  The Arran Distillery has a Bere Barley release, as does Bruichladdich.  Bruichladdich used to be quite open about their barley: see here for their 2011 harvest information; and here for some info on their 2008 harvest.

I don't think there's some huge conspiracy against the customer in terms of varietal transparency (we can always discuss other conspiracies though!).  Part of the lack of forthrightness came from the fact that no one really inquired into brands' barley breeds over the past 200 years.

But now things are different.  Craft distilleries around the world are cranking out distillate made from all sorts of grains, and proudly printing mash detail.  We, as drinkers, can now compare and contrast these whiskies and the grains within them, studying which mash bills we like the best.  For instance, I love the hell out of American straight ryes with a 95% rye 5% malted barley mash bill.  Love 'em!  And I purposely seek them out, handing over my cash to the companies that turn out the best stuff.  That mash bill openness results in revenue.

How about it, Scotch whisky makers?  Perhaps terrior may not dominate your product as much as it does wine.  But it has an effect on the final product.  Your distillers know this.  Your sourced farms know this.  Even if it turns out barley varietals make very little difference in the final product, there's a whole market to exploit here.  Give it to us.  We'll drink it up!

Here's an example.

Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2006.  I bought it blind......from Europe.  See, I'm part of that potential demographic.  I found the chance to own a bottle of whisky made from the oldest of old school Viking-toted barley breeds.  And I'd heard it was tasty stuff.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Bere (pronounced "bear") was likely brought to Scotland by Viking invaders back in the ninth century.  Mostly grown on Orkney, it's a dense grain and proves difficult to squeeze much alcohol out of it.

But the whisky Bruichladdich managed to make from it tastes unlike any other single malt I've had.


Barley variety(!)Bere from Kynagarry Farm in Achaba, Achfad Fields
Age: 6 years (2006-2012)
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels
Region: Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
Limited Bottling: 7,650
Chill-filtered: No
Caramel colored: No

The color is a natural light amber.  The first thing that strikes me about the nose is the similar characteristics to Corsair's Wry Moon -- the only White Dog in my house -- specifically bold bursts of cinnamon red hots and cracked white pepper.  From there the Bere switches to the Spice Channel (sorry): coriander, cardamom, and ground cloves.  There's also almond butter, fruit cake, and brown sugar.  And something that may just be a sniff of peat.  The cinnamon red hots and cracked white pepper are right there in the palate, followed by a pleasant IPA-like bitterness.  It's a little grassy, a little rough around the edges, and has that hint of peat.  But in front of all that, this is the barley-est whisky I've ever sipped.  I mean it's boldly out there with very little oak to hide it.  Toasted grains, toasted peat, toasted whole wheat bread lead the significant finish, along with that good Pale Ale bitterness.

The nose becomes more sugary.  The ethyl is a little stronger.  Fruit bread and menthol have joined the red hots and white pepper.  There's also a curious smoked fruit note in the background.  The palate is less bitter yet sweeter and more peppery.  Burnt grasses and anise notes arise after awhile.  The anise remains in the finish, joined by the pepper, red hots, a little soil, and a little citrus.

Yeah, this one is a lot of fun.  Its nose evokes different herbal notes with every new pour.  I love the fact that the oak remains waaaaaaaay in the back, the barley in the fore.  It's not an easy whisky by any means.  It is young and brash, 6 years and 50% ABV.  Frankly, it's a bit weird sometimes.  I have to switch off the "Scotch" preconceptions every time I pour a glass of it, even though this may be what some North Highland whisky tasted like a few hundred years ago.

For those in the US looking to explore this one, the good news is that it is now available in The States, though in a wide range of prices.  Because it's so unique, I recommend trying it before buying it, if that's possible.  As I can picture it not appealing to all palates, perhaps it's a one-time whisky for many folks.

Ultimately, I cheer on further exploration into Bere barley whisky.  Since it's quite a tough grain, I'm not sure if Remy Martin will encourage such experiments by the 'Laddie folks.  Perhaps they will, but at a considerable premium.  But there are many other distilleries out there with an ever-growing customer base.  Some of that base will be like you and me.  And they'll crave something they've never had before, something unique, and maybe a little more transparency...

Availability - a couple dozen liquor specialists in the US
Pricing - $55-$80
Rating - 88