...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 14 year old Unpeated (2012)

Five years ago, my buddy James brought a bottle of Caol Ila to the inaugural Anderson Business School Whisky Club meeting, held at our old Hollywood apartment.  It was my first Caol Ila (G&M bottling, BevMo exclusive) and one of my first positive peaty experiences.  Kristen remembers it as if it'd happened yesterday.  Not so much smoke on the nose and palate but once the drinker exhaled, the finish filled one's head with campfire smoke.  It was dense and lovely.  It could make a drunk feel like a dragon (though, I'm sure a cigarette and mezcal would do the same thing).  Sometimes I wonder if that was the last time my wife drank a peated whisky for fun.  Nowadays, when I hand her a glass of something only slightly peated she says, "Smells like smoke," and passes it back to me.  Overhand.

Anyway, that was a good start for Caol Ila and I.  On Monday, I posted a report on the officially bottled 12 year old.  On Tuesday, it was a post on the official 18 year old.  Today, it's the 2012 limited release of a cask strength 14 year old, that was unpeated.

Yep, unpeated.  In the 1980s, the distillery started experimenting with unpeated malt runs and continued to do so off and on until 2005 when the market's demands for peated malt ended these trials.  In 2006, they started an annual limited edition bottling of the unpeated Caol Ila.  The positive response has kept the releases going ever since.

In most of the reviews of the early bottlings, you'll see that folks tend to still find peat notes in the "unpeated" whisky.  One explanation is that while the malt itself was unpeated, phenolic residue that wasn't scrubbed off the stills wound up transferring itself back to the spirit being run through.  Another possibility I've been wondering about comes from the label on all of the bottlings (see above), which reads with quotes "Unpeated Style".  Those quotes and the addition of the word style makes one ponder the possibility that perhaps the malt was peated at much lower level, 3-5ppm for instance.

I'll tell you ahead of time, I didn't find any peat from my sample of the 2012, but I can definitely see why some folks refer to these releases as Caol Ila Highland.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 14 years
Maturation: European oak casks
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 59.3%
PPM: ???
Chilfiltered? No need to with this ABV
Colored? Probably

The color is gold, just a smidgen darker than the 18.  Lots of ethyl burns one's nose as the whisky announces its high ABV.  Interesting that this comes from European oak because I get tons of vanilla from it, but more on that in a sec.  The other main notes are swimming pool chlorine, cocoa powder, butterscotch, and roses.  But there's also an intense vanilla and brown sugar combo that smelled strikingly like Johnnie Walker Black Label.  Then there's Nilla Wafers, which I usually find in Canadian blends.  Then (to confuse you further) the floral note combined with a lot of coconut cream hits, reminding me of high strength single grain whisky.  The palate was more straightforward: digestive biscuits, charred wood, brown sugar, sea salt, and a brief savory note.  It's a bit hot and toasty, but simple.  Lots of malt arrives in the lengthy finish, followed by salt and toasted wheat bread.  Again, focused like the palate.

The nose starts with swimming pools filled with caramel and roses.  Salted caramel ice cream with Cool Whip on top.  The palate is now reminiscent of a toasty malty blend.  All sugar and spice, maybe some nutmeg and vanilla bean.  Reminds me of Compass Box's Great King Street Artist's Blend.  It finishes mildly with salt and malt.

I apologize for all of the comparisons in my notes, but the whisky continually reminded me of other whiskies.  Which was kind of weird.  I also found very little of the classic European oak notes, other than maybe the toast and spice.  Adding water made it a better drinker but also did not make it stand out in any way.

No actual criticisms come to mind, other than this version of the "Unpeated Style" of Caol Ila seems interchangeable with a number of inoffensive single malts and high malt blends.  Its benefit is its high strength which allows for the expression of the full power of the malt and also allows for toying around with water.

With and without water, I tried it alongside the regular 12 year old and always preferred the peated version.  It could be a case of my nose and palate preferring the phenolics, but I did find the peat bringing more depth and variety to the experience.  As for other opinions, Serge liked this unpeated version slightly better than I, though he found lots of vanilla and not much sherry as well.

If you can find it in the $75-$85 range, then it'll be what currently passes for a good deal on a cask strength bottling at its age.  I do recommend trying it first, just to make sure your expectations are in the right place.  For me, I'll stick with the bacon, barbecue, and campfires of the peated version.

Availability - A couple dozen specialty retailers in the US, more available in Europe
Pricing - $75 to $100 in the US, much pricier in Europe
Rating - 80

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 18 year old

Yesterday it was Caol Ila's 12 year old.  Today, their 18 year old.

Time to set the Fawning Meter to Full Toady.

But first, some totally useful Caol Ila trivia!

The Caol Ila distillery was originally built in 1846.  In 1879, it was rebuilt; or, as per Alfred Bernard's report in 1885, the distillery was "much extended and improved, and is arranged in the most modern style and possesses all the newest appliances used in the art of distilling."  In 1972, DCL (proto-Diageo) thought it needed to be further extended and improved as it was no longer arranged in the most modern style, nor possessing all the newest appliances used in the art of distilling.  So they knocked it down and built the current standing edition of Caol Ila.  In the years since the rebuild it has become one of the most technologically advanced of Scottish distilleries with many of its processes being run by computer hardware and software rather than by humans.

Caol Ila has been a favorite of blenders for well over a century, so it was an important addition to DCL's holdings when they bought it in 1927.  From 1970 to 1974, during the distillery's shutdown and new construction, DCL needed to make up for the missing peated malt for the their blend brands.  They addressed this by upping Brora's peat levels during those years.  So when you see the plaudits for Brora single malt from that era, know that the nature of Brora's whisky did actually change for a short period of time due to Caol Ila's rebuild.  Once the Islay distillery was up and running again, Brora's peat levels were lowered and their mash-house was rebuilt.

But enough about Brora.  Let's get back to Caol Ila and its 18 year old offspring.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 18 years
Maturation: refill ex-bourbon American oak casks (I think)
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
PPM: 30-35
Chilfiltered? Yup.
Colored? It is decidedly so.

Many thanks to Florin for providing a sample of this increasingly scarce whisky.

The color is of a darker amber than the 12, but not reaching the Johnnie-Walker-Gold-Hue(TM).  So I'm thinking/hoping they went easy on the colorant.  So many more ripe fruits on the nose when compared the younger CI: apricots, peach skin, orange peel, and lots of pears.  But these fruit notes are very reserved at first, taking their time to eventually revealling themselves.  But after twenty to thirty minutes, it's a summer fruit salad.  Secondary notes include a soft muskiness and a whisper of smoke.  The palate is very toasty, like toast in fact.  Smoked vanilla beans float in a creamy peach custard.  More ripe stone fruits, probably apricot.  There's also a slight veg note from the peat, like celery meets moss.  The fruits still linger in the finish, along with subtle mossy peat.  Some sweet clementines and a wee bit of salt.  The smoke is tongue-coating.

On the nose: Lots of perfectly ripe pears, which are a near mystery to me because I have little luck ripening them at home.  Elderflower liqueur and green grass.  The peating actually shows up more on the palate now, along with vanilla custard and white fruits.  It's soft as a pillow.  The finish is all distant smoke and vanilla creme filling.

This is the style I really enjoy.  The fruits, the cream, the moss, the salt.  It's probably even better at 46% ABV, but there's no way we're going to see that happen in this decade from CI's ownership.  Hell, it's not even easy to find a bottle of this as it is.  Sort of like Talisker 18, it's an irregular release.  When Diageo decides it's time, they bottle it again and raise the price 30-50%.  Good times.

But back to the positives.  This is graceful, classy, slightly raspy, and well delivered.  It's Tony Bennett's voice.  Old guy Tony Bennett, not young guy Tony Bennett.

Those fruit notes are very prominent, something I've tended to find in even older whisky that hasn't collapsed under too much oak.  The peat and smoke notes are quiet but persistent, showing up more on the palate than the nose.  It's not going to fight you like the young versions of the Kildalton malts, instead it's going to sing to you and keep you company in the evenings as you write about whisky things.

Availability - Increasingly difficult to find in US, look to Europe
Pricing - $110 to $150 (ex-VAT, with int'l shipping)
Rating - 91

Monday, November 25, 2013

Single Malt Report: Caol Ila 12 year old

Though it is a Diageo distillery, Caol Ila's near complete absence from this blog was not intentional on my part.  So, I'm going to correct this issue by posting three reports on the big Islay distillery in three days.  The first two I tried side by side (thanks to Florin for the samples).  Then I saved a little of the first (the 12 year) to give me a little perspective on the third (a purchased sample).

Today, it's the Caol Ila 12 year old.

First, some Caol Ila Did-You-Know?!

Caol Ila, Gaelic for "Sound of Islay" or more accurately "Islay Strait", has a production capacity of 6.5 million liters, making it the largest distillery on Islay.  It is so large, that its capacity is twice that of the next largest Islay distillery, Laphroaig.  At the moment, only Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Roseisle have larger production outputs, but Caol Ila remains the largest peated malt whisky producer in Scotland (and, likely, the world).  The vast majority of that whisky goes into Diageo's largest blends: Johnnie Walker, J&B, and Bell's.  In 1989, DCL (proto-Diageo) started bottling Caol Ila as a limited 15 year old whisky under their Flora & Fauna series.  In 2002, it moved to their "Hidden Malts" series, along with Clynelish and Glen Elgin.  Because it's not part of the original "Classic Malts" (though it's often lumped in with them), it can sometimes be more difficult to find a bottle of Caol Ila, compared to Lagavulin.

Distillery: Caol Ila
Ownership: Diageo
Age: minimum 12 years
Maturation: refill ex-bourbon American oak casks
Region: Port Askaig, Islay
Alcohol by Volume: 43%
PPM: 30-35
Chilfiltered? Yup.
Colored? It is decidedly so.

Now, enough with facts!

It has a mild amber color, which is comforting since so many of Diageo's whiskys are unnaturally brown.  Perhaps they went easy on the e150a with this one.  On the nose, honey on wheat bread leads the way.  Then bruised apple flesh and a hint of piney peat.  It's very fresh overall: light vanilla, fresh stone fruit, and a mint-like effervescence. All sorts of apple notes now, actually. And the smoke remains reserved.  Give the whisky some time in the glass and some woody notes arrive with some spice on their tail.  While the peat and smoke remain gentle on the palate, they are more present than they are with the Bowmore 12.  There's a subtle bacon note and barbecued veggie skins (probably squash?).  Lots of hay.  With some air, the palate becomes a well-controlled combo of mild vanilla, salt, tanginess, and wood smoke.  A little more barley registers on the finish.  But for me, the Caol Ila 12 finish always paints the same portrait when I close my eyes:  I'm overlooking the beach at night, chimney smoke wafting in the tangy salty air.  Every time.

The nose gets maltier and yeastier, with a light pleasant copper note.  Maybe some whole wheat toast and peaches.  It's slightly more candied now too.  The palate develops a note of mustard seeds but not too strongly.  Light peat, more obvious vanilla.  The finish is now briefer.  But it's creamy, peaty, and a little peppery.

While it won't blast your senses like the more famous South Islay trio (Ardbeg, Lagavulin, and Laphroaig), Caol Ila 12 is solid on every front.  The oak only pipes up every once in a while, but it mostly lets the mash, peat, salty air, and time do the talking.  What's interesting is that though Caol Ila is distilled right next to the sea, it is matured inland on mainland Scotland in one of Diageo's massive warehouses.  So that salty air note is not actually due to salty air exposure during maturation.  It's something that comes through in the peating or distillation process.  It's very effective, whatever it may be.

I'll admit, I've given Caol Ila the short shrift in favor of its sexier neighbors, and have unfairly looked past the indie bottles just because its distillery is owned by Diageo.  There are some elements here that remind me of similarly aged Ardmore (♥s!), except CI's malt seems to have more salt and bacon in the mix.  I've seen a wide array of prices on this one.  It's a well designed whisky, and can compete fairly well at the $50 price point.  But once it goes north of $70, it's difficult to recommend.

Availability - Many specialty retailers worldwide
Pricing - East Coast $45 to $65; West Coast $55 to $75 (boo)
Rating - 85

Friday, November 22, 2013

NOT Single Malt Report: Concannon Blended Irish Whiskey

This report is kind of a bummer for me write.  I really wanted to support this stuff.  It's inexpensive, $20.  It has a good story -- the Concannon family moved to the US from Ireland and as immigrants in 1865 established a vineyard that still runs today.  And it is finished in their own petite sirah barrels.  I love me some petite sirah (petite syrah, petit syrah, petit sirah, et cetera), so I was hoping this might turn into something interesting.  So purchased it blindly.

The first few glasses from the bottle weren't bad.  In fact I liked them better than Cooley's Trader Joe's single malt.  I couldn't find the wine notes in the whiskey, but something (the corn?) was definitely keeping the issues I usually have with Cooley in check.  Then, by the time the fill level dropped to near mid-bottle (two months later) something started going wrong inside the bottle.  Once I got to the last third, it was bitter and unpalatable.

The shift was likely due to two factors.  This whiskey doesn't take to oxygen that well in a Glencairn glass, so the oxidation inside the bottle definitely did it no favors.  I also kept the bottle out in our dining room.  That's where I often put our house whiskies, the Tier 3s.  The dining room is the warmest spot in the condo, so the bottle spent some time in 80-85 degree heat on some days.

In any case, the last third of the bottle went down the sink.  But before things went too terribly in the bottle, I archived a sample to review.  So this report comes from somewhere around the bottle's halfway mark.

DistilleryCooley (owned by Beam Inc.)
Country: Ireland
Style: Blended whiskey (malt and corn)
Maturation: four years in "small" ex-bourbon barrels, four months in petite sirah casks; and though it's an American company, the maturation took place in Ireland
Alcohol by Volume: 40%

Since the color is a light gold, I'm thinking/hoping the colorant is kept to a minimum.  Anise and rubber are the primary notes on the nose.  Secondary notes include blackberry jam, nail polish remover, toasted grains, and caramel.  After some air, the whiskey starts to take on some very different characteristics like coconut lotion, plastic bottle, and horseradish.  The palate is very Cooley, but grainier, rougher, and hotter.  Notes of cardboard cereal box, burnt plastic, and generic vanilla arrive first.  It's very thin and watery.  Give the whiskey ten minutes in the in the glass and the dull thud of bland spirit takes center stage.  The finish is mostly heat.  There's a burnt thing going on, cardboard, fresh red grapes, and mild bitterness.

The nose gets less synthetic once water's added.  The toasted grains and anise are still there.  But so is the nail polish remover, in the background.  A generic citrus note develops as well.  Lots of vanilla in the palate.  It's malty too.  But then something really wrong enters the picture and it makes me want to stop drinking.  I'm thinking it's the big bland spirit issue.  The finish is brief, spirity, and bitter.

I didn't finish my 1 ounce sample.  The whiskey was just going downhill too quickly for me to continue.

It's better neat.  The nose, though odd, isn't terrible.  The palate and finish indeed register as a cheap mild blend.  But I seriously do not recommend adding water.  With too many earthly elements reacting with the whiskey, it turns bad.

And keep in mind, I separated this sample before the whiskey got even worse in the bottle.  BUT, I'm giving the whiskey an extra half-star (or 5 or 6 points) in the rating because I know it had better days earlier in its life.  But I tell you this, if you open your Concannon Irish Whiskey bottle and like the stuff, you'd better not waste too much time getting to the bottom of the bottle.  If you open the bottle and don't like it from the start, I'm pretty sure it isn't going to get any better.

For a pair of more positive reviews see here and here.

Availability - many US specialty liquor retailers
Pricing - $15 to $25
Rating - 69  (ranging from 75 to 63 during the life of the bottle)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Single Malt Report: Connemara Turf Mor

Today's Cooley malt is the peatiest of their peated brand, Connemara Turf Mor.  Here's the Turf Mor (Gaelic for Big Peat) description per the Liquid Irish blog:
...a few years ago Cooley had trouble sourcing its usual amount of 20ppm peated malt from Scotland (malt made in Ireland is not peated). To keep the stills going, they bought a higher 58ppm malt and mixed it with the unpeated variety to moderate the intensity. 
As an experiment, however, they distilled some of the highly-peated malt on its own and that is what has appeared today as Connemara Turf Mór.
Liquid Irish's source of this information appears to be Brian Quinn, the Kilbeggan Distillery (also owned by Beam) manager, so I'll go with that tale.

As mentioned yesterday, my palate does not take to Cooley's malt at all.  So the thought of strong peating and wine finishes on their malt actually does give me some hope going in, hoping that "the Cooley thing" is covered up by other elements.  I found the regular Connemara Cask Strength to be very hot, woody, smoky, and well, that's it.  I was hoping this Small Batch edition of Connemara would bring about a better, more interesting experience.
Brand: Connemara (peated single malt)
DistilleryCooley (owned by Beam Inc.)
Country: Ireland
Style: Single Malt Whiskey
Age: around 3 years (2010 edition)
Maturation: probably ex-bourbon casks; its URL says "sherry finish", though I haven't read any mention of this otherwise
Alcohol by Volume: 58.2%
PPM: 58

I bought my 30mL sample from whiskysamples, a reliable European sample shop which is currently undergoing a website transition.

The color is amber.  The nose's strongest scent is that of new sneakers.  It permeates everything else.  Alongside there are rye-like spices, cinnamon rock candy, damp moss, black licorice, fresh apricots, and unripened peaches.  And lots of hot ethyl.  On the palate, I find a note that's like burnt hay meets brown sugar syrup.  The sneakers and moss show up here, along with something green (like live grains and grass), and "the Cooley thing" (aka vanilla-coated stale sugary breakfast cereal dunked in white vinegar).  It finishes sweetly.  Lots of vanilla beans as well as the Cooley thing.  The peat becomes very Lagavulin-ish with time.  The smoke isn't as heavy as I'd expected but it lasts the longest.

"Black licorice farts and a lot of them" (as per my notes) on the nose and "floral perfume trying to cover it up".  Balsamic vinegar reduction, a little turpentine, sugar cookies, and clementines.  Oh, and dog hair.  The palate flattens and blands out.  Bitter peat, generic vanilla, and a slight tang.  But then it finishes very sweetly.  There's a little malt mixing with peat ashes.  Then a weird vinegar tang that gets sourer after time.

My final note from this tasting: "WTF is going on with this whiskey?"

With water, the nose gets very odd and inconsistent, burping up clashing odors every few seconds.  The hydrated palate goes nowhere, but then the finish picks back up in its oddities.  The neat nose is a weirdo too, but easier to take and occasionally matches the palate.  It's quite hot while neat, but with the water it's just strange.  This could be a symptom of its youth.

There are definitely many characteristics pouring forth from this whiskey, and I can imagine it seemed kinda fun when the Cooley folks nosed the cask.  But the total package is totally off kilter.  I don't know why they were in such a rush to release a barely legal whiskey.  A few more years in a good cask wouldn't have hurt.  This could have been fun as an 8 year old, so I hope they held onto a few casks of the big peatin'.

Serge thinks it's "a curiosity" worth 79 points and Fuji of LAWS wasn't crazy about the stuff; meanwhile John Hansell thinks it vibrant and distinctive, Coopered Tot likes it a bit, and Murray loved it (natch).  I do think it's more interesting than the regular Cask Strength, but have my doubts that it makes for a better drinking experience.  It makes me think that Connemara has many miles to go before it can compete with its Beam brethren, Laphroaig and Ardmore.

Availability - Canada and Europe
Pricing - $90 to $120 (minus VAT, plus shipping)
Rating - 74

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Single Malt Report: Tyrconnell 10 year old Madeira Finish (a re-taste)

I used to feel a little guilty regarding my feelings about Cooley Distillery's malt whiskey.  For almost twenty-five years, Cooley was the lone representative of independently distilled Irish Whiskey.  In addition to their own brands (Connemara, Tyrconnell, and Kilbeggan) they supplied stock to at least a dozen different (even smaller) indie bottlers in Ireland.  On top of that, they even released some single casks to the Scottish independent bottlers, like AD Rattray, Cadenhead, and Adelphi.  It was Cooley alone against the mechanized whiskey factory that is Midleton.

But I REALLY (*eyebrows lifting dramatically on "REALLY"*) do not like Cooley's malt whiskey.  There's a specific thing going on with it that really turns off my palate.  In my tasting notes I usually refer to it as "the Cooley thing" or "the Cooley character".  It has taken me a year and a half to figure out how to describe it.  It's sort of like vanilla-coated stale sugary breakfast cereal dunked in white vinegar.  That's the closest I can get to capturing it.  And it is specific to their malt; it's not in their Greenore single grain.

My guilt was lifted last year when Beam Inc. bought Cooley from the Teeling family.  Now it is just another conglomerate-owned Irish distillery.  As soon as the ink dried on the sale, Beam decided to let all of their contracts with third party bottlers expire.  That means no more whiskey gets supplied to the much smaller companies.  As a supporter of small businesses, I should be joining with the rest of the mourners and declare that this is a damned shame.  But I REALLY do not like Cooley's malt, so it's difficult for me to get worked up about this in actuality.

I have tried twelve different Cooley-distilled whiskies in all sorts of formats: at pubs, official tastings, purchased samples, traded samples, and via my own bottles.  I'd like to think I've given their whiskies plenty of opportunities and have even been a little generous in my ratings.  But, unless I find something of theirs that's especially delicious and devoid of "the Cooley thing", I'm done.

Before tasting this week's lineup, I'd had positive thoughts about the Knappouge Castle 12 year old (with some bottle bottom oxidation), a Greenore Single Grain single cask, and the Tyrconnell 10 year old Madeira Finish.  The last of those originally received a booming four stars when I tried it 21 months ago.  With a wealth(?) of Cooleys consumed since then, I was ready to give it another try.  On the surface, it comes with two big negatives: 1.) Cooley malt; 2.) a sweet wine finish.  But maybe it's just crazy enough to work.

BrandTyrconnell (unpeated single malt)
DistilleryCooley (owned by Beam Inc.)
Country: Ireland
Style: Single Malt Whiskey
Age: minimum 10 years
Maturation: ex-bourbon barrels, then former Madeira wine casks
Alcohol by Volume: 46%

I received a generous sample of this whisky from Florin who was impressed with it at first but then less so later.  Another round of thank yous to him for the whiskey!  I had been considering buying a whole bottle for myself.  Did he save me from whiskey tragedy?

The color is a very orange-tinted gold.  It's possible this is its natural color, gaining hues from the wine cask.  The nose begins with strawberry preserves, warm nectarines, orange marmalade, and peach schnapps. Warmed dessert wine and sugar cane show up next.  In the far background rumbles the Cooley malt.  The perfumed palate holds flower kiss candy, blackberry and boysenberry jam, and lychee.  Vanilla and milk chocolate notes develop with some time.  It's a combo of sweet and tart along with a buzz of heat.  The blackberry and boysenberry jams stick around for the extensive finish.  Orange Tang and Pixie Stix cover the tongue.  The milk chocolate registers with more subtlety.  An odd fruit tone shows up sometimes; maybe bitter or underripe fruit?

Stinky cheese jumps into the nose first.  Then some milder cheeses, along with the aforementioned fruit preserves.  After that eases off, it's much similar to the neat nose, but mellower.  Maybe some orange rind and tart lemons.  The jams kick back in on the palate, followed by vague citrus and vanilla pudding notes.  It's very creamy with that Cooley thing keeping its distance.  Intense sugary sweetness on the finish.

This still holds its charms as a dessert drink.  But is it whiskey?  Technically, yes, but the malt only makes brief cameos.  Due to my feelings about the malt's quality, I wasn't terribly disappointed it remained evasive.  On the other hand, it is intensely sweet like a flavored whiskey rather than a finished one.  Thus in a blind tasting, one might guess it's a liqueur.

While it doesn't feel, smell, or taste like whiskey (to me), I do still like it, especially the jam and fruit notes.  I just don't love it the way I used to, nor at the level John Hansell does.  So, yes, Florin saved me some whisk(e)y coin.

I would recommend this whiskey to someone who isn't big on single malts but does have a sweet tooth, as the sugar is very aggressive.  Some of us just can't take the sweeties as much as we used to.

Availability - Many specialty retailers worldwide
Pricing - $75 to $100 (really unfortunate)
Rating - 81

Monday, November 18, 2013

Syd Field

In the autumn and winter of 1999, I had the privilege of attending Syd Field’s private screenwriting class at his home.  Like many young screenwriters, I was greatly influenced by his books during my early attempts at the profession, so this was an honor and a great opportunity to hone the craft with one of the master gurus.  Each session consisted of about six writers sitting around Syd’s dining room table, reviewing the pages written the previous week.  All the other writers who attended were of my parents’ age or older.  I was the kid.

After reading his books, I wasn’t sure what to expect from his personality.  From his writing I gleaned that he knew the mechanisms behind excellent script structure possibly better than anyone, and he was always able to walk the reader through each part, step by step.  And that was how his books had helped me.  They take a potentially overwhelming project and divide it into smaller and smaller parts, and then show how each part affects another.  His Workbook had been indispensable for my previous screenplay, so I reread that book again before attending his class.

The man whose work had influenced entertainment industry development departments for decades and now greeted his students with snacks and bottled water in his home every week was not a Hollywood guy, not a Type A, not a producer, not a snake oil salesman.  Syd was soft-spoken and very calm, a generous and sweet man.  In his personal life he loved to meditate and was, at the time, studying Hindu and Buddhist texts.

I had thought the whole class would be about structure, but instead we focused on characters and the human element behind each creation.  But the true lesson I took from his class was a lot larger than anything to do with screenwriting.

The script I was working on was about a crappy schlock journalist who took a last-chance assignment to uncover the truth behind a well-known messianic cult figure.  The assignment starts to awry right from the start when he discovers his ex-girlfriend love-of-his-life is now the messiah’s lover.  I was 21 years old at the time, the age wherein one clearly knows everything about the world and humans and God.  So my script was going to be a serious exposé, not on the messiah figure but on the miserable failure that was my main character.  And I struggled with the damn thing immediately.

Syd had me take a step back and spend a week doing writing exercises from the point of view of my main character and his ex-girlfriend.  It was a way to find their voices and personalities, and thus find out why they do things.  I had trouble cracking this part as well.  After a couple of false starts, I started writing about the terrible sex lives these two people had together and separately; the terrible stuff in the sack that screwed them up in their future relationships.  I thought it was sad and revealing, and I tried to make it a little witty, because bad sex is funny in hindsight.

I was nervous about reading it out loud to complete strangers and Syd Field.  So I chose to go last in the class with my pages.  When it was my turn, I decided to boldly dive in and not apologize for something I was already kind of regretting.   At first I heard some titters from the audience, then some chuckles, and then by the end I had to keep pausing because the laughter had risen to a roar.

My arms were buzzing with goosebumps.  I had never attempted anything comical before; all of my writing had been young-man’s self-serious DRAMA.  This project was going to be another heart-wrenching deconstruction of male delusion.  But because I could not figure out how to express this in melodramatic format, I took a look at my characters’ sources of failure and mixed it in some dick jokes.   And it worked.

Syd said to me, “Why try to keep forcing your story into a mold and tone that don’t fit?  Your characters’ voices clearly work the way you just wrote them.  The soul of comedy is failure and disappointment.  It’s okay to make people laugh, you don’t have to be serious all the time.”  I went home that night and saw my previous three screenplays in an entirely new light: how self-important, serious, and tragic I had tried to be.  I had always liked making girls smile, why not broaden my scope?  That’s of course the young man’s response.  The real lesson was I had to learn how to laugh at myself, at my failures and disappointments.  Sitting around moping about them and then weaving those feelings into screenplays was only going to perpetuate my problems.

Did that messiah script succeed?  In the sense that I learned something about myself, yes.  Or at least that seed was planted.  The lesson is something I’m still learning today.  One doesn’t usually find that level of personal clarity in a screenwriting class.  But this wasn’t a normal class and Syd wasn’t a normal guy.  We all wrestled with the characters in our stories for that handful of months.  Structure-Structure-Structure wasn’t the value.  The person, the voice, and the Why were what mattered.  And the kid in the class learned to not take himself so seriously.

Syd Field passed from this world yesterday.  His family, his wife, Aviva, and his friends were there by his side.  Though I can’t say I knew him very well personally, I do know how he approached life spiritually.  So I’m certain he saw this end as but another beginning.  Thank you, Syd.  May peace be upon you.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Single Malt Report: The Eagle Morning

Distillery: Eagle Morning anagram
Independent Bottler: D4P Whiskies
Type: Single Malt
Age: over 10 years
Extra Maturation: 64 days in 2-liter American Oak barrel
Limited bottling: 2
Distillery Region: Northern Highlands, Scotland, UK
Maturation Region: Long Beach, California, USA
Alcohol by Volume: somewhere around 46% to 52%
Chillfiltered: Probably
Colored: Probably

Yesterday, I wrote about the creation of The Eagle Morning single malt.  It was a labor of love -- okay maybe not that much labor, just waiting and rotating.  My hope was that it would be similar to its source malt, but different; perhaps some peppery spice and barrel char to go with the vanilla and oranges.  I also hoped for a wild card unknown maturation quirk to set in and create something unexpected.

I was also a little worried.  My first maturation experience, The Rye Storm, had resulted in a hot mess, emphasis on HOT.  There's a reason I haven't let anyone else drink it: I'm not entirely sure it's safe for consumption.  The barrel had, by my measurement, absorbed 64mL of the rye.  What the heck would that do to the soft cuddly malt in the second fill?

After the first 31 days in the barrel, The Eagle Morning's palate hadn't changed much; maybe a little more tannic on the finish.  But the nose had picked up a lot of barrel char to go with the malt's citrus.  A nice anise note had also developed.

On day 60, the whisky had started darkening, a reassuring visual.  Here were my notes on the rest:
The barrel's previous occupant has made a big impact on the nose. And the Original's citrus fruits are gone. Now there's cinnamon, vanilla, banana, dried herbs, and a little bit of floral bathroom spray. With agitation, an orange oil note arises. Surprising amount of heat on the palate. Lots of vanilla, gone are the oranges. The rye notes make the whisky seem spirity and younger now. It finishes quietly with vanilla and rye.
Four days later, with the evaporation rate climbing and all new notes forming in the whisky, I chose to bottle the stuff before the oak and angels took over.  Then I let it settle in the bottle for two months, as I've found many of my higher-ABV bottles improving with a tiny bit of oxidation in their first month or so.  I did a number of tastings throughout and then...well, here we are.

The color is an orangey gold.  The nose starts with spicy tangerines, orange peel, overripe peaches, and mint leaves.  There's quite an ethyl buzz making it feel younger than it is.  There's also a dollop of vanilla, tree bark, floral perfume, sugary cereal, and peach schnapps.  With some air, notes of toasted grains and dusty black pepper arrive.  Lots of the barrel in the palate.  Sweet at the start, a little spirity at the end.  Strong malted rye note.  Subtle vanilla, lightly tart, peach liqueur, and overripe peaches.  It finishes salty with the drying tannins rolling in.  Notes of chocolate milk, mild vanilla, newspaper and ink, malted rye, and a hint of the peaches.  Lengthy.

The nose steadies but flattens. Some more pepper notes appear.  The palate actually improves a little as it gets more sugary and creamy.  More vanilla.  The finish gets bitterer, and The Rye Storm has the last laugh.

Like The Rye Storm, the nose is the best part.  But unlike my rye experiment, The Eagle Morning is actually very drinkable.  It keeps enough of its light nature to still be a good summer malt and holds strong against some ice cubes.  Though it feels a little younger and stranger than its source malt, The Eagle Morning has been my go-to whisky during the late-and-extended summer heat.  While I don't think I improved upon the base malt, this has been a minor success.

Will there be a third fill?  I don't know.  The crazy malted rye notes have imbedded themselves deeply in the oak and I'm beginning to tire of them.  I also question the oak itself: its thickness, its porousness, and its cooperage.  If there is a third round, it's going to be goofier and cheaper than these previous two experiments.

In the meantime, I'm going to fix me an Eagle's Highball to fight the mid-November 94-degree heat.

Availability - Two bottles
Pricing - One's patience
Rating - 80

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Eagle Morning Single Malt has landed

Four months ago, I wrote about my rye spirit aging experiment, The Rye Storm.  To recap, I had poured two litres of Corsair's Wry Moon into a two-liter cask (an awesome gift from my brother in-law and his wife!) then monitored it as it matured for five-and-a-half months.

One result was an enormous hot fragrant woody rye-thing.  The other result was a hands-on education about the speed of the angel's share as I lost 61.5% of my batch to some drunk-ass angels in less than a half-year.

But one batch (er, one bottle) of aged rye spirit was never my lone, final intent.  An extra-matured single malt was the endgame.

The single malt I'd use was never in question.  I wanted something that had its own character, but was historically flexible enough to dance with fancy finishes.  I wanted a malt whose simple creamy orangey character might meld well with the cinnamon and peppercorn burst of the aged rye.  I wanted a malt whose Master Distiller/Blender was zany about oak but had yet to drop a rye-finished version onto the market.  Finally, I wanted something that would cost me less than $90 for three bottles.

Immediately upon the decanting of the single bottle of The Rye Storm, I poured two liters of the single malt into the barrel.

My main goal -- aside from creating a palatable whisky -- to lessen the liquid evaporation rate.  So I did three things differently with this barrel:

1.) Secured the spigot into the barrel more tightly.
2.) Replaced the bung plug with a newer tighter version.
3.) Kept the whisky barrel in a cooler darker corner of the condo.

And then I left it to do its thing on July 13th, rotating the barrel once a week.

From my notebook:

Day 31 - 10.2% loss to the angels.  The daily loss rate is 6% slower (.328% vs .350%) than The Rye Storm's at this point.  Potentially a good sign or potentially too soon to judge.  On the nose, a big charred oak burst, followed by some of the rye, along with citrus and anise.  The palate feels drier and more tannic than the Original malt, mostly similar though.

Day 60 - 22.6% loss to the angels.  The daily loss rate has jumped almost 50% from the first month's.  The room is only a couple degrees warmer, so perhaps evaporation speeds up as more air enters, a sort of self-perpetuating thing?  The loss rate is likely similar to the rye's rate now.  The whisky's color has begun to look slightly darker than its Original form.

The barrel's previous occupant has made a big impact on the nose.  And the Original's citrus fruits are gone.  Now there's cinnamon, vanilla, banana, dried herbs, and a little bit of floral bathroom spray.  With agitation, an orange oil note arises.  Surprising amount of heat on the palate.  Lots of vanilla, gone are the oranges.  The rye notes make the whisky seem spirity and younger now.  It finishes quietly with vanilla and rye.

Day 64 - I've made the decision to bottle it now.  With the loss rate now climbing to almost 0.5% per day (the sample's volumes are not part of the loss, fyi), which is more than the rye's around this point in time, I want to make sure I can still secure two bottles of this stuff.  Also in just four days, the whisky's character has already changed again.  I don't want this to get too oaky now.

September 15th.  The bottling begins...

I did not let one drop go to waste.

I had actually originally intended it to mature for two months, so I was okay with the timing.  The lack of change in the whisky after in the first month had me wondering if this was going to need three or four months instead.  The angels wasted no time in correcting that theory.

Yes, the slowing of the evaporation worked at first.  Then at some point during the second month it propelled upwards.  Its storage spot was five to eight degrees cooler than the rye's storage area from July-September, but......the rye was stored from January-July.  The rye was in a warmer corner during cooler weather and the malt was in a cooler corner during warmer weather.  If we compare the actual maturation periods, the night temperatures were likely very similar, but it's possible that while the malt may have experienced more consistent temperatures it may have been two to four degrees warmer during the day.

Again, there might be cooperage issues.  Or this was some very porous oak.  Or the surface is very thin.  If there's going to be a third and final fill, I'm going to wrap the barrel in plastic.  At the moment, I'm keeping the barrel filled with water to make sure the insides aren't compromised.  Even though it is mid-November now, the temperatures remain in the 80s (actually 90s today), so I'm going to wait a few more weeks in the hope that things cool off around here.

Oh yeah, I also had to name the thing.  As you may have noticed I have not named the distillery whose malt I used (but yes there are pictures of it).  Let's pretend for just a moment that I'm an actual independent bottler (WOOHOO!).  Indies aren't allowed to put the name of the distillery on their bottles unless they have permission from the distillery, thus Old Malt Cask's Talisker is Tactical, Exclusive Malt's Ledaig becomes An Island Distillery, and Caol Ila's and Lagavulin's draff becomes Finlaggan.

My whisky's name would be an anagram of the distillery's name.  My whisky's name would include a little bit of Americana being that it was extra-matured the US, within a cask that had formerly held an American spirit.  My whisky's name would promote something fresh and new after the tumult of The Rye Storm.

My whisky is The Eagle Morning.  Let's taste it tomorrow.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Single Malt Report: Octomore 10 year old (First release)

On Tuesday, the 3.1.
On Wednesday, the 5.1.
Today, the first release of the Octomore 10 year old.  Many thank yous go out to reader Eric S. for his generosity and yet another awesome sample bottle:

Five years ago, Bruichladdich released an Octomore Futures bottle, sort of an Octomore-before-1.1 edition.  It was from their first batch of very heavily peated malt.  Its ppm levels (80.5) were considerably lower than future editions (up to 169), but it still had the highest peating levels of any single malt next to Ardbeg Supernova (approx. 100ppm).  The Futures edition was five-and-a-half years old and aged in former Buffalo Trace barrels.

Scoot forward five years and now some of the barrels from that original Octomore batch were ready to be barreled at 10 years of age.  All previous versions of Octomore were 5 years old.  With more maturation time, lower ppm levels, and a lower ABV, this was a genuinely new approach to the whisky.

Daniel and I were looking forward to this one.  Because I was short a Glencairn glass, we went with a stemmed nosing glass instead.  The glass still delivered the goods.


Distillery: Bruichladdich
Brand: Octomore
Ownership: Remy Cointreau
Region: Islay
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: Bourbon barrels
Age: minimum 10 years
Alcohol by Volume: 50%
PPM: 80.5
Limited release: 6,000 bottles

The color is a light gold. It's darker than the 5.1, but lighter than the 3.1.  The nose starts out almost floral.  There's licorice, perfumed hand soap, gingerbread, and candied orange peel.  There are also hints of sugary breakfast cereal (that might have been Daniel's note) and vanilla beans.  With some time and air, the whisky develops notes of apples, almond paste, mint leaves, dried herbs, baked squash, and beets.  Peated sweet bread leads the palate.  There's a little sugar, and a little salt.  Not much smoke, but rather a leafy forest floor.  The sweetness remains light with further notes of mint, white fruits, and vanilla.  The finish gets toastier and ashier, with grimier peat.  It's very oceanic and extensive.

Ignoring price and whisky politics for a moment, I think this was the best of the three Octomores we tried.  Allowing it ten full years of maturation gave it a whole new set of characteristics and complexity (oh that word).  I wouldn't doubt that the lower peat levels made a difference as well, but we'll have to see how future batches turn out.

Now, here's where things get sticky.  I've been growing disgruntled with my ratings system and will be making changes in the new year.  While I have no regrets in giving this four stars -- it would register about a 90 out of 100 -- I agree with SKU from Recent Eats that this could have been even better had they released it at full cask strength as they had with the rest of the Octomores.  Instead they watered it down to 50%.  And charged nearly $300 for it.

A ten year old, not at full strength, with a $300 price tag.  That makes this a four-star whisky that is difficult for me to recommend.  At the same price, (with some research) you can buy two bottles of full-strength Port Charlotte PC7 and two bottles of Kilchoman Machir Bay -- all of which are also young small batches, all of which are comparable in quality to the Octomore 10 or possibly better in a blind tasting.

If finances are an issue for you (as they are for me), then you can feel safe knowing the Kilchomans and some of the cask strength PCs can stand their ground against the Octomores at a fraction of the cost.  If finances are not a issue for you then this is good stuff, unique stuff (until the second edition, I guess).  It's also easy to find since folks still haven't rushed out to swoop it off the shelves en masse.  Having now tried five of the Octomores, I can say that this one, with its age and somewhat lower ppms, registers as the least stunt-like of the range, and is my favorite.

Availability - Most specialty retailers worldwide
Pricing - $240-$300 (US); $320-$400 (Europe)
Rating - 90

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Single Malt Report: Octomore 5.1 / 5_169

Continuing with the Octomore three-for-all:

Yesterday, I reviewed the third Octomore release and gave a little background on the Octomore whiskies themselves.

Today, let us take look at the fifth release, weighing in at 169ppm.  If you're keeping track of the numbers, this release has the highest peated malted barley of all the Octomores so far.  Also, even though there's a ".1" after the "5", I haven't seen any subreleases.  Like the rest of the regular releases, this is a five-year-old whisky.  It sells for $200 (wut?) and had a "limited" release of 18,000 of its monolithic bottles.

Unlike the 3.1 end-of-bottle sampling from yesterday, this one came right from the top.  Daniel generously waited to open his bottle of 5.1 for this Taste Off.  He did make a very good point that because of the bottle's unique opaque glass, no one can tell what the heck the fill level is nor where drinky level is during its life after opening.  The style is cool -- and I guess it's there to help soothe one's mind about the price tag -- but it's not as useful as plain old cheap glass.  It's a whisky bottle, damn it!

OCTOMORE 5.1 / 5_169

Distillery: Bruichladdich
Brand: Octomore
Ownership: Remy Cointreau
Region: Islay
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: Bourbon barrels (likely re-fill)
Age: 5 years (bottled 2012)
Alcohol by Volume: 59.5%
PPM: 169
Limited release: 18,000 bottles

The color is the palest of the three.  The oak notes are the mildest as well which makes me think there are more refill casks in this batch than in batch 3.  The nose delivers a much sharper peat than the 3.1. One gets the smoke, the farmy veg, and fresh seaweed versions of peat notes.  A clean beach whiff.  Some fresh apricot and red hots candy.  Very spirity.  After some time opening up, the whisky releases a tiny bit of oak character in mild vanilla and caramel.  The palate starts out hot and needs some air.  It holds the farmy peat, but it's subtler than in the 3.1.  There's a sugary sweetness, that I believe comes from the spirit rather than the oak.  Lots of salty oceanic notes.  But still, most of the peat notes remain mild.  The finish gains a peppery spice.  More the of the salt and ocean.  A little vanilla and burnt wheat bread.  The peat gets mossier.

Where yesterday's 3.1 was loose and soft, likely from some oxidation, today's 5.1 is very tight, likely due to being from the start of the bottle.  I've been finding this top-of-the-bottle tightness from all of the young high strength whiskies I've owned.  I do think think the 3.1's larger oak presence also has a lot to do with its roundness, that's why I keep tying o-a-k in these paragraphs.

Still, the peat will not destroy your palate.  As Jordan mentioned in yesterday's comment section, Bruichladdich's tall stills may be responsible for softening and developing the phenols -- and actually Ralfy has a similar thought in his review of this 5.1, which I just caught this morning..

Like Kilchoman's products, Octomore is a young whisky that tastes and noses very well.  The financial quandary is this, you can buy 5-year-old Kilchoman single cask bottlings ($100, limited to 200-300 bottles each) twice over for the price of the regular 5-year-old Octomores ($200, limited to 18,000 bottltes each), and while a very small business runs Kilchoman, a large international corporation operates Bruichladdich.  Not sure if that influences your choices, but I think about that sort of stuff all the time.

Tomorrow, I'll review the Taste Off's concluding Octomore.  One that is not quite like the others...

Availability - Many specialty US liquor retailers
Pricing - $160-$220
Rating - 86

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Single Malt Report: Octomore 3.1 / 3_152

Octomore 3.1 / 3_152.  Its name looks like a eight-limbed military robot prototype.  But it ain't no war machine, it's a peat machine.  Let's break down that name.  Octomore is named after a farm that sits on a hill above Port Charlotte on The Rhinns of Islay (the peninsula on the west coast).  In the early 1800s, a distillery was built on the farm that utilized their own barley for malt whisky.

Today, "Octomore" is being produced at the Bruichladdich distillery by the same folks who make the "Port Charlotte" whiskies.  This particular version of Octomore is the Third Edition, thus the "3".  Many of the editions have sub-editions, usually with different maturation techniques, thus the ".1" designation.  "3_152" says that this third edition has a phenol level of 152 parts per million.

The Octomores are the most heavily peated single malts in the world.  That's been their calling card.  The ppm levels for the six regular editions have ranged from 131 to 169.  Compare that to the standard Lagavulin and Laphroaig levels of 35-40ppm.  Ardbeg's malt has 55ppm and their own peat experiment, Supernova, reached 100ppm.  I've been told the key to Octomore's extra high peat levels is moisture.  Manipulating moisture levels in the peat and barley allows more smoke to be generated and phenols to be absorbed.  (By the way, if anyone knows that I've been given erroneous info on this last part, please let me know.)

To me, the Octomores are a stunt.  They are experiments.  But they are also VERY expensive whiskies, as in $200 for a five year old.  And it's not a single cask whisky.  There are 18,000 bottles released for each expression.  My feelings about the pricing have, in the past, influenced my opinion of the whisky itself.  Also, my previous three Octomore tries have been in circumstances that did not lend themselves to full appreciation of any sort of whisky.

Thanks to two different readers, I was able to look past the pricing issues, sit down with THREE different Octomores side-by-side in my dining room and suss them out.  Daniel, a professional DJ and a well-versed whisky man, brought over two of the Octomores.  Eric S., a very generous anorak from the Lone Star State, sent the third Octomore I brought to the table.

Daniel and I dug into the Octomore three-for-all...

courtesy of Daniel's camera
OCTOMORE 3.1 / 3_152

Distillery: Bruichladdich
Brand: Octomore
Ownership: Remy Cointreau
Region: Islay
Type: Single Malt Whisky
Maturation: Bourbon barrels
Age: 5 years
Alcohol by Volume: 59.0%
PPM: 152
Limited release: 18,000 bottles

The color, a medium gold, is actually the darkest of the three, leading me to consider there's a large factor of first-fill or heavier-charred casks in the mix.  The nose is the most farmy of the three as well.  Quite some manure.  Ocean notes arise, but not of a clean clear ocean, rather something more like Long Beach: the waters of an industrial port.  There's a friendly back-and-forth between sugary lemon rinds and something meaty-savory.  Maybe some roasted nuts in there too.  A veggie peat note pops up at the end, reminiscent of bean sprouts.  Some very palatable peat on the palate, considering its levels.  Vanilla peat perhaps?  A little mild cheese, pleasantly bitter black tea, and a green herbal note as well.  Give it some time for some rich toasted oak and yeasty bread notes to appear.  The finish is mellow, but very long.  There's the vanilla and caramel from the oak, toasted peat from the malting floor, and a bright herbal-ness from the spirit.

Keep in mind, this sampling came from near the bottom of the 3.1's bottle.  It had been decanted into a smaller bottle, but there's a chance a little bit of oxidation was involved which may have made the ABV feel softer.  So that's my disclaimer.  Otherwise, this was darned good.

One thing I've noticed with all the Octomores I've tried is that despite their extreme PPMs, the drinker isn't cloaked in smoke nor blinded by iodine and medicinal sharpness.  You can actually experience more peat aggression in the official Laphroaig CSs or some Port Charlottes or The Corryvreckan.  It's almost as if there's so much peating going on with the Octomores that the drinker goes right through the peat wall and into the other side, finding a controlled, mossy, coastal, toasty Islay malt.  We'll see this happen with the next two Octomores as well...

Availability - Getting tough to find, maybe a dozen retailers around the world
Pricing - $170-$250 (still, unforgivable)
Rating - 88 (after further consideration, I've adjusted the rating from its original four stars)