Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ivy+ Fine Spirits Showcase: get your tickets now!

We've already sold 300 tickets to the first-ever Ivy+ Fine Spirits Showcase on Saturday, February 26th, 2011 at Royale in downtown Boston. I suggest you get your tickets soon if you're an Ivy+ alum or student, as they will only sell more quickly once the new year dawns! Space is limited.

We'll have a great lineup of all kinds of fine distilled spirits - Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, cognac, bourbon, tequila, rum, and more - for you to sample while you mingle with other Ivy+ folks. This event has been more than a year in the making and is not to be missed.

Whisky review: Cutty Black

I'm sitting in the open air on a balcony overlooking the beach at Isla Verde in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I bought this bottle of Cutty Black at the supermarket yesterday for $24, as I had never heard of it before (only the regular Cutty Sark, which is all over the mainland U.S.) but read online that it was supposed to be a peated version of the regular Cutty. I figured that, for this price, it was worth a try.

Cutty Sark is owned by Berry Brothers and Rudd and, though Cutty Sark is a popular brand with worldwide distribution, Cutty Black is not available in the continental United States.

Cutty Black, 40% ABV
Blended Scotch whisky

Appearance: Gold.

Nose: Brown sugar, raisins, tart plums, honey, dried apricots. A symphony of dark fruit and sugar-related scents, plus a hint of light wood.

Palate: Rock crystal sugar candy, apricots, very ripe red apples, and butterscotch. So smooth I almost didn't know it was in my mouth yet. Reminds me a bit of the Bunnahabhain 18 and Highland Park 12/18 (without the peat).

Finish: Some salt with lingering mellow and well-balanced sweetness.

Overall (of 100): 94. Damn. I think this is the best value whisky I have ever tried. Though it doesn't really come through with any peat for me, that's fine - there are a lot of great fruit and sugary notes that, even though I tend not to like the really sweet whiskies, do not seem cloying. This whisky just begs to be drunk all night. I believe I will have to oblige.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Whisky review: Glen Moray 12

I was visiting my family in Wisconsin and found this whisky on the shelf, boasting a rating of 91 by Jim Murray (of Whisky Bible fame). I thought I'd give it a try and bring it with me on a trip to Puerto Rico with my family. So here I am, enjoying the heat at the end of December and sipping on a single malt.

Glen Moray 12, 40% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Speyside)

Appearance: White wine.

Nose: Lemon peel, young oranges.

Palate: More young fruits, floral. Light honey, wax. Some bitterness develops late - reminds me of some nasty Bacardi I just tasted.

Finish: A hint of sherry in the finish, and a touch of peat.

Rating (of 100): 84. The bitterness knocks it out of orbit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Whisky review: Lagavulin 16

Lagavulin is another one of the Diageo Classic Malts, hailing from the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced "eye-luh"). It's typically revered as a quintessential Islay malt, meaning it shows off the island's peat and maritime character.

Lagavulin 16, 43%
Single malt Scotch whisky (Islay)

Appearance:
Orange tan.

Nose: Salt, seaweed, peat. Barbecued meat, tar. A seaside feast.

Palate: Full peat smoke with vanilla. Very smooth mouthfeel, but not oily. More salt. Shiver me timbers, matey!

Finish: Peat, smoke, and tar. Yar hardy har.

Rating (of 100): 92. I remember havin' this as one o' the first o' them thar peaty whiskies when I was just a wee scotch novice. She blew me away with her peat then; now, after I've tried some o' the true peat monsters, she seems more subdued. Still, she still has a solid peat backbone, fleshed out with the full wardrobe o' maritime flavors. This be Islay, indeed.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Whisky review: Glenkinchie Distillers Edition

Glenkinchie is the distillery representing the Lowlands region of Scotland in the Diageo "Classic Malts" portfolio. It's known as the "Edinburgh Malt" because the distillery is only about 20 miles southeast of Edinburgh. Like most Lowlands malts, Glenkinchie is typically light, grassy, with light fruit and/or floral notes; this was elucidated in my previous tasting of the Glenkinchie 12.

This bottling, the Glenkinchie Distillers Edition, has been first matured in a refill bourbon cask, and then finished in an amontillado sherry cask. (All of the Distillers Edition malts are finished in some sort of fortified wine cask.) Since Glenkinchie is so light, it's interesting to see what maturation in a sherry cask will do to it, as it's generally thought that light whiskies will not hold up too well to sherry aging.

Glenkinchie Distillers Edition, 43% ABV
Distilled 1991, bottled 2005
Single malt Scotch whisky (Lowlands)

Appearance: Dark gold.

Nose: Wow, a lot of great things happening here. Lively fruit with a toasty, malty backdrop. Sweet like a sugar cookie, but complex as well. Roses, hay.

Palate: A dry, tart, green apple-like flavor with rounded edges of darker fruits and wood. A bit of salt late in the game.

Finish: Dry with some more wood and fruit (apple, pear).

Rating (of 100): 88. Very interesting; the nose is definitely captivating and the interplay between dark and light is evident. Could have done with a fuller, more lingering finish. Either way, a huge improvement on the Glenkinchie 12.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Whisky review: The Glenrothes 1972 32 Year

The Glenrothes (prononced glen-ROTH-ess) is a Speyside distillery that is known for making vintage whiskies (instead of using age statements). Finding this particular vintage today is quite difficult; this bottle was given to me by a collector friend as a wedding gift, and it was a good gift indeed.

The Glenrothes 1972 Vintage 32 Year Old, 43% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Speyside)

Appearance:
Red-tan.

Nose: Spices (cinnamon especially), juicy fruits (red apples, oranges, pears), and sherry.

Palate: Fruity, sweet candy. Banana and light leather.

Finish: Some wood and spices lull me into never-never land.

Rating (of 100): 90. Just a great, old whisky that is sweet but not cloying and is packed with elegance. Perhaps a bit thin on the palate, though, which might be helped by bottling at a higher alcohol content. As if they're going to take my advice on a whisky that's no longer produced.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Whisky review: Highland Park 18

The Highland Park distillery is located on the Orkney Islands, off the northern tip of Scotland, and is the most northerly whisky distillery in Scotland. Highland Park is known for its use of Orkney's peat, a version that tends to be more laden with heather roots than that found on Islay; this difference is evident in the resulting whisky.

Highland Park 18, 43% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Islands)

Appearance: Reddish amber.

Nose: Honey, peat, wood, sherry, grass. Buttery and seductive, like a woman in a dream I once had. A definite beauty.

Palate: Great integration of wood, sherry, and light peat. Fruits and flowers abound, with some dark brooding qualities in the background. Fantastic.

Finish: An excellent grip on the way down; makes me want more. And I shall have it.

Rating (of 100): 95. One of the greats! I hear they've recently come out with a 50-year-old. I bet that's reasonably priced and easily accessible.

First-ever event announcement!

Announcing

The first-ever Ivy+ Fine Spirits Showcase, an afternoon in downtown Boston where attendees can taste from an array of over 200 fine distilled spirits, including single malt Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, cognac, armagnac, tequila, rum, and more!

This is a private event for the students, alumni, faculty, and postdocs of the Ivy League universities plus MIT, Stanford, Duke, and UChicago. The event is being held at Royale in Boston's Theater District on Saturday, February 26th, 2011, 2:00-6:00pm. Tickets are $39/person, with a $5 discount for students - an event like this in Boston normally costs $100+ per person!

Spirits list, more information, and tickets are now available at this website. Spread the word to your Ivy+ friends!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Whiskey review: Redbreast 12

Redbreast is made at New Midleton Distillery, the same distillery that makes Jameson and a bunch of other famous Irish whiskeys. Redbreast has the distinction of being "pure pot still," meaning it's made from a mash of malted and unmalted barley in a pot still, in the traditional Irish whiskey fashion.

Redbreast 12, 40% ABV

Pure pot still Irish whiskey

Appearance: Gold.

Nose: Sweet fruits, flowers.

Palate: Cherry? Juicy fruit, hint of sherry.

Finish: Fairly short and dry, some wood.

Rating (of 100): 84. Nice, but not anything too exciting.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Taking issue with this issue

I recently read in the December, 2010 issue (issue 90) of Whisky Magazine an article by Tim Forbes entitled, "New digital emperors." In the issue, Mr. Forbes states, "Your multi-million pound brand is at the mercy of a socially inept geek with a vicious inferiority complex." The article mostly says that there are a lot of tech-savvy whisky bloggers in the world who can get good Google page ranks, and that this can be bad because these people can overly criticize and subsequently destroy whisky brands.

Really?

This article could compete with the discharge coming out of the literary bowels of Fox News. Here are my reasons for completely dismissing this article:
  1. The curious masses don't just read a single blog and think the opinions stated there are the end-all opinions on whisky. I know I check a number of sources before potentially coming to a maybe-sort-of opinion about a whisky I've never actually tried myself. And I'm pretty sure that anyone who has a decent understanding of whisky would do the same. Even whisky novices would be smart enough not to only read one blog they found on Google and decide they hate a whisky they've never tried; if they're not smart enough to do this, they're also probably not smart enough to read in the first place.
  2. Big brands like The Macallan and The Glenlivet don't get brought down overnight by some dude with a blog - they have a global presence and a strong following, because they have good products. People with an obvious agenda against a brand will be viewed as fools, not as prophets.
  3. John Hansell over at Malt Advocate, for example, runs a great blog that is consistently top-rated in Google and I don't think he's just some socially inept geek with a vengeance. You have to be decently well-connected and respected to run a blog that people actually want to read, because you need access to the products and people that keep a blog interesting.
  4. A self-respecting blogger would not just rag on a brand for no good reason and expect people to keep listening.
  5. Please show me an example of a time when such a scenario has actually happened. The article makes no indication that this has any historical precedent. I believe this article is just wild speculation and should have been left on the editing room floor, or better yet, in the author's head.
I also viewed this article as a bit of an affront to people who are new to whisky and want to voice their opinions because they have a genuine interest in the products. You have to start somewhere, and I find this article to be a bit condescending toward those who want to get their foot in the door.

I personally took offense, too. I mean, I run a whisky blog and am not a socially inept geek with an inferiority complex. It's a superiority complex. Get it right.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Whisky review: Signatory Vintage Laphroaig 1999

This particular expression of Laphroaig was released by Signatory, an independent bottling company founded in 1988.  It was matured in a refill butt, which I assume means a refill sherry butt and not something slightly less dignified.  This means I would not expect a lot of sherry influence, since refilled casks lose the character of their original contents as they get used.

The whisky is seven years old and is bottle #343 of 778 from cask #2755.  Since it's a single cask bottling, this means there are only 777 other whiskies just like it in the world.  And, since my bottle is nearly empty, it's soon to be 776, at most.


Signatory Vintage Laphroaig, 46% ABV
Distilled 1999, 7 years old
Single malt Scotch whisky (Islay)

Appearance: White wine.

Nose: Peat, bacon.  Noses a bit like the Caol Ila 1978 25 yr.

Palate: Peat, some green veggies, more peat.  Coal.  Barbecue.  Lively and young, but deep with smoke and salt.

Finish: Peat, salt.  Very maritime-y.

Rating (of 100): 89.  Peat.  And other stuff.  But mostly peat.

Friday, November 19, 2010

MIT tasting: old and rare single malt Scotch whiskies

With the help of the MIT Club of Boston, we put on our second MIT scotch tasting of old and rare single malt Scotch whiskies last night. What a lineup! Over 240 total years of whisky maturation, with a selection of some of the finest single malts bottled by independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail. Thanks to Matt Chivian from Martignetti for leading through all eight whiskies, and to my personal friend Dave Russo for supplying an excellent bottle of Ardbeg 20.

Here's the lineup we tried ("yo" = years old):
  • Rosebank 1991 19 yo - A closed Lowlands distillery about which world-renowned whisky writer Jim Murray says: "If there is a God [it] will surely one day re-open."
  • Dallas Dhu 1982 24 yo - A closed Speyside distillery that is now a whisky museum.
  • Glenury Royal 1972 30 yo - A closed Highlands distillery that has long since been demolished.
  • Balblair 1966 37 yo - An acclaimed Highlands distillery that is producing very fine vintage whiskies today.
  • Glen Grant 1956 49 yo - The favorite whisky at our last Old and Rare tasting was a Glen Grant 1960 45 yo...so we're bringing in an even older one!
  • MacPhail's 50 yo - A half-century-old single malt from a "secret" Speyside distillery.
  • Surprise whisky - This turned out to be a Glen Grant 15 yo that only had ex-bourbon maturation, so it was in distinct contrast with the Glen Grant 49 yo!
  • Bonus whisky - Dave Russo supplied us with an Ardbeg 1974 20 yo that was a great complement to the evening, showing us the subtler side of peaty Islay whisky.
All in all, a great night, and I look forward to the next time we can do one of these...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

WhiskyFest New York 2010

Last Tuesday, November 9th, I was lucky enough to be able to partake in WhiskyFest New York, held at the Marriott Marquis Times Square hotel. I'm indebted to the folks from InterBev for getting me a ticket to the sold-out event.

Kevin with the InterBev angels, Brian Johnson and Sam Santos.

Besides being able to try pretty much every whisky under the sun, I think the main attraction for me was to meet a lot of the people I had previously only read about (or from): Evan Cattanach, the master distiller emeritus of seven Scotch whisky distilleries in the Diageo portfolio; John Hansell, the publisher and editor of Malt Advocate magazine and writer of whatdoesjohnknow.com; Lew Bryson, whisky writer and fellow Blogspot blogger; and Ethan Kelley, former beverage director at New York City's Brandy Library. I also got to catch up with other prominent industry folks I'd met before, like Richard Paterson, Simon Brooking, and Liza Weisstuch.

Kevin with three whisky magnates: Ethan Kelley (L), John Hansell, and a bottle of Old Pulteney 30.

The extra-fun part of it all was that I had to take the 10pm Chinatown bus back to Boston to make a meeting the next morning at 9:30. I made it, though I believe a few brain cells didn't. But it's all for a great cause!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Whisky review: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

This bottling is from Laphroaig, one of the distilleries on Islay that prides itself on peaty expressions. This particular whisky has been aged in bourbon casks and then finished in quarter casks (which are about a quarter the size of a typical bourbon barrel, or around 10 gallons). Quarter casks are said to have been popular back in the 1800s because they were easier for pack animals to carry than a full cask. I like to think it was because you could polish off a quarter cask and still make it to work on time the next morning.

Since the quarter cask has more surface area per volume in contact with the spirit, it imparts greater flavor.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask, 48% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Islay)

Appearance: Clear gold.

Nose: Peat, brine, barbecue.

Palate: Peat and smoke melting into some sweet vanilla.

Finish: Green grass or something else very vegetative. Lingering peat.

Rating (of 100): 88. It's like the suave cousin of the Laphroaig 10, though sometimes I prefer a little more brashness.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Whisky review: Johnnie Walker Black Label

Another Sunday night, another dram session. I love weekends.

It's Halloween, so I thought I'd go with something possibly spooky-sounding. Tonight's contestant is Johnnie Walker Black Label (ok, not spooky), a staple blended Scotch whisky in pretty much any bar across America. American whisk(e)y market stats from 2006 showed JW Black Label as the second-best-selling Scotch whisky in America, only falling behind Dewar's. Surprisingly, JW Red Label didn't have as large a market share as JW Black. At least that was in 2006...with a rather roughed-up economy now, JW Red might have the lead as people may have shifted to a more economical dram.

Or not.

Either way, Johnnie Walker Black Label is seen as a paragon of Scotch whisky, coming from Diageo and being a blend of who-knows-how-many whiskies that keep it consistent from year to year and decade to decade. And bar to bar to bar.

Johnnie Walker Black Label, 40% ABV
Blended Scotch whisky

Appearance: Medium-dark amber.

Nose: Walnuts, caramel candy. Sherry, salt. Some nice wood rounded out with fruit. Very good.

Palate: Some peat, yet smooth, with sherry. Gentle fruit and light wood. Not really a lot coming out at me, though.

Finish: Some lingering smoke but otherwise the finish is relatively dry and nondescript.

Rating (of 100): 85. I remembered this whisky being more flavorful and heartier, but it just seemed to fall a bit flat tonight.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Gordon & MacPhail tasting

I just found out there will be a tasting of the 8-year-old Gordon & MacPhail offerings, as well as the Benromach 10, this Friday, 11/5/10, 4:00-7:00pm at Atlas Liquors in Medford.

The G&M 8-year-old series was released in response to the global economic crisis, realizing that many folks no longer wanted to spend north of $50 for a single malt whisky. So these bottles retail for around $30, and come from three distilleries: Highland Park, Tamdhu, and Glenrothes.

I'm definitely interested in trying this lineup...

Ardbeg tastings in the Boston area

The Ardbeg folks are in town and they really want you to taste their whiskies! It's actually part of the Ardbeg chopper tour - they got an Ardbeg motorcycle made by Orange County Choppers and are showing it off around the country over the next few months. You can also enter a raffle to win the motorcycle...though I'd personally rather have its value in Ardbeg whisky.


Kevin with Ardbeg chopperKevin with Ardbeg chopper and a tiny dram of the whisky.

Here are the tastings in Massachusetts that I know about:

10/31/10, 4:00-6:00pm: Atlas Liquors in Medford, MA
11/3/10, 7:00-8:00pm: Julio's Liquors in Westborough, MA

They're only pouring the 10, Airigh Nam Beist, and Uigeadail, though, so don't go expecting to taste the full range...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Old Pulteney/Balblair/AnCnoc tasting

Had a great time last night at Umami, a new restaurant opened by my friend Noon, where we tasted the lineup of Old Pulteney, Balblair, and AnCnoc single malts.

Leading the tasting was Iain Baxter, Marketing Director of Malt Whiskies for International Beverage Holdings Limited, the operating company of the three distilleries from which we were tasting whiskies. Also attending was Liza Weisstuch, a freelance writer who has scribed articles for Whisky Magazine, the Boston Globe, and the New York Times, among others.

Kevin with Iain Baxter and Liza WeisstuchKevin with Liza Weisstuch and Iain Baxter.

Pulteney is still one of my absolute favorite distilleries, not just because it produces some awesome spirits, but also because it is decidedly unique. Located in Wick in one of the where-the-hell-are-we parts of Scotland, Pulteney is the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland. It produces only about 1.4 million liters (sorry, "litres") of spirit a year, which is fairly diminutive compared to what most well-known distilleries crank out. It also calls itself the "genuine maritime malt" and, I believe, rightly so - its aroma and flavors bring to mind the seashore and a fishing vessel...appropriate, since Wick used to be a prominent fishing port.

I was also turned on to Balblair and AnCnoc a few months ago, and you can see my reviews of a few of those whiskies on this blog here and here. I think these whiskies are even less well known than those of Pulteney, but I'm happy to help spread the word, as they are making some great products.

Thanks to Noon from Umami for hosting us all in her new venue, and to my friend Brian Johnson from International Beverage for working out the schedule so we could all meet!

Kevin with Liza Weisstuch, Iain Baxter, Noon, and othersLiza, Iain, Noon, and other folks enjoying the tasting.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Peat and Smoke Scotch Whisky Tasting

Just did our first-ever "peat and smoke" Scotch whisky tasting through the MIT Club of Boston - I had a great time! Here's a list of the whiskies we sampled:
  • Amrut Fusion - distilled in Bangalore, India from 25% peated Scottish malt and 75% unpeated Indian malt, this whisky was rated #3 in the world in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2010
  • Balvenie 17 Peated Cask - a new and limited release from this versatile Speyside distillery
  • Longrow CV - the heavily-peated offering from the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown
  • Compass Box Peat Monster - the peaty offering from this pioneering whisky blending firm
  • Ardbeg Uigeadail - a peaty whisky aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, giving it great fruity undertones
  • Caol Ila 1978 25 Year - a very complex whisky also aged in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks; this scotch is now very hard to find
  • Bruichladdich Octomore 2.1 - currently, the peatiest whisky in the world, with 140 ppm phenols (most peated whiskies are about 40 ppm)...though I understand they're making an Octomore 3 at 152 ppm
I think the motto for the night was "Smoking's bad for your health...so why not just drink it instead?" Well, in reality, we worked up from mildly peaty to extremely peaty, because after drinking the Octomore, most anything else tastes like water. Really lame water.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Whisky review: Caol Ila 1978 25 yr

It's 3:30pm on a Sunday and I'm drinking whisky. What an awesome weekend.

Caol Ila (pronounced "cull eela") is an Islay distillery, meaning it lives on the Scottish island of Islay, off the southwestern coast. Islay (pronounced "eye-luh") is known for producing peaty whiskies. Its land area is only 240 square miles and it has eight distilleries. Needless to say, this island has its priorities straight.

This particular whisky is a cask strength quarter-century-old peated offering, distilled in 1978 and aged in American and European oak (and I'm guessing this means ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, though American oak can be used for sherry as well). It's a distillery bottling, so it should be in the true Caol Ila style.

Let's give it a try.

Caol Ila 1978 25 yr, 59.4% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Islay)

Appearance: Golden straw.

Nose: Embers of a dying campfire, brine, sweet barbecue, bacon. Great nose for anyone who likes meat...and whisky.

Palate: A bit hot (due to its cask strength). Sweet fruits mixed with tar. Mouth-coating, oily, almost sticky.

Finish: More tar, more smoke, brooding, long with saltiness lingering.

Rating (of 100): 91. Great nose, and this is a thick whisky that makes me just want to light a grill and get cooking. Too bad I have no grill. But I do have whisky, and that will suffice.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Old Pulteney tasting with Iain Baxter

I just found out that there will be a tasting of Old Pulteney single malt Scotch whisky on Thursday, October 28th, 8:30-10:00pm at Umami in Brookline. The tasting will be led by Iain Baxter, the senior brand manager of Old Pulteney, and will also include a scotch cocktail and passed appetizers for $15/person. A very reasonable price for what is sure to be an excellent event! (If you've followed my blog at all, you'll know I'm a huge fan of Old Pulteney. I'm even thinking of starting a fan club called the Pult Cult. A bit drastic-sounding, I know...)

To get a spot at the event, please send an email to noon@umamiboston.com with your name and those of any guests you want to bring, as well as your phone number.

If you haven't had Old Pulteney, or even if you have, a chance like this in Boston is not common. I'll see you there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Whisky review: Old Pulteney 17

I've already raved about how much I like the Old Pulteney 12, the flagship whisky of the "Genuine Maritime Malt" that is Old Pulteney, and how I think it's one of the best value whiskies on the market. Maybe I was a sailor in another life. Either way, how does its older brother, the Old Pulteney 17, compare?

Well, it's a bit unfair to compare the two. The two whiskies are not meant to just be a younger/older combo. The 12 is matured solely in ex-bourbon casks, while the 17 uses mostly ex-bourbon casks with some ex-sherry Spanish oak casks. The Old Pulteney website touts the 17 as an after-dinner drink but makes no mention of the appropriate time for the 12 - I guess that means any time is appropriate! (In all seriousness, I think you should skip the dinner and get right to the whisky. Or make the whisky your dinner.)

Anyway, har she blows...

Old Pulteney 17, 46% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Highlands)

Appearance: Amber.

Nose: I can smell this from a mile away (the glass isn't even in my hand yet - it's on the table next to my computer). It has that great Old Pulteney saltiness. Now, after actually nosing the glass, I find raisins, cranberries, more salt, young wood, and green apples. Pepper. This rabbit hole just keeps going. Outstanding.

Palate: Honey, red apples, milk chocolate, light sherry notes, and some peaty/earthy tones. Soft and tender like a warm evening with a lover. But it's got a little kick left in it...like most lovers after a warm evening.

Finish: Maritime with sweetness (floral) - perhaps just a bit too sweet. Smooth and lingering firmly on the tongue. This lover will call back tomorrow.

Rating (of 100): 96. Just plain sexy. This bottle contains an excellent balance of pretty much every good flavor I've had in whisky - salt (which I like), sweetness, and some earthy tones. Clocking in at around $75/bottle, they are giving this stuff away.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Whisky review: Balblair 1997

Balblair is one of few distilleries that bottles vintage whiskies, i.e. whiskies that don't have an explicit age statement but instead are delineated by the year in which they were produced. This means that, once a specific vintage is gone, there will never be any more of it. Ever. So, if you really like the Balblair 1997, for example, you might want to stock up. Or just wait for the next vintage and hope it's good too.

This also means there is no real "core" for the whisky's marketing - most whisky producers have a ten- or twelve-year-old expression that is their primary product. People grow to know the whisky and the distillery does its best to keep that product the same from year to year. They market it to new drinkers to try to get them interested in the distillery and its other products. But this can't happen with Balblair, because their product will forever be changing. To me, while this might seem like a good idea for intriguing the discerning whisky drinker, the average drinker will probably be confused when they enjoy a Balblair 1997 one night and then, a few months later, find out that the whisky is no longer sold.

In the case of the Balblair 1997, the distillery manager, John MacDonald, actually selected only some (I believe about 75%) of the casks in the warehouse that contained whisky from 1997; the rest were laid back to rest, to potentially be bottled at a later date. This means the whisky in the Balblair 1997 should be hand-selected for its superb qualities, and its price tag - around $55/bottle (and it's only 12 years old) - means it had better be.

Balblair 1997, 43% ABV
Single malt Highland Scotch whisky

Appearance: Light honey.

Nose: Apricots, light syrup (like the kind used in canned fruits), light wood, vanilla.

Palate: Toasty wood, peaches and green apples, almonds, raisins. Great mouthfeel, and the flavors just keep coming. Maraschino cherries?

Finish: More lively fruit. Like a whole basket of it.

Rating (of 100): 90. Fruit explosion! Got my daily serving. Some other stuff in there rounds it out very nicely. Worth the $55.

[Note after tasting: the display box mentions that there is a flavor of pineapple in this whisky. I definitely notice this now...along with the rest of the orchard.]

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Whisky review: Springbank 15

Springbank is an interesting distillery. It has the distinction of being the only distillery in Scotland that does 100% of the whisky production at a single site - they malt all their own barley with traditional floor maltings, they do the production and maturation, and they even bottle. Most other distilleries outsource both the malting and the bottling to large companies (or some other subsidiary of their parent company).

Springbank also does not chillfilter their whisky, nor add any coloring, and it is the only distillery to sell three different single malts: Springbank (lightly peated), Longrow (heavily peated), and Hazelburn (unpeated). On top of that, it is one of only three functioning distilleries in Campbeltown, a distinct region of Scotland that once had many more (like, 30 more).

And, finally, Springbank is the oldest independent family-owned distillery in Scotland, founded in 1828.

Let's see if their whisky sucks or not.

Springbank 15, 46% ABV
Campbeltown single malt Scotch whisky

Appearance: Gold.

Nose: Light peat, salt, raisins, and some juicy vegetation like damp, thick grass. Whiff of bacon.

Palate: Light coal, moderate peat, dark wood, black grapes. A twinge of bitterness.

Finish: Dry sherry flavor lingers.

Rating (of 100): 89. This seems like a brooding whisky, with a lot going on behind the scenes that will take more samplings to figure out. The nose and palate are good but I feel the finish is a little bit one-dimensional. So, in all, this whisky does not suck.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Review: Compass Box tasting

As you may have seen from my post immediately prior to this one, there was a tasting of Compass Box whiskies last night at Federal Wine and Spirits in Boston. I attended the 5:00 tasting and want to share some thoughts about how it went.

Kevin with Compass Box founder John Glaser and Peat Monster ReserveGetting cozy with Compass Box founder John Glaser and a bottle of the Peat Monster Reserve.

In short, not my favorite tasting. That's not to say the product wasn't excellent - it's just that the crowd was too large for the space, and the space is something I have never been satisfied with (and I'm sure Federal isn't either). The basement of Federal, where this was held, is really a wine cellar, so folks are stuck into rows between wine racks, and John had to elbow his way onto a small box to stand above everyone. The rest of us were packed in shoulder-to-shoulder and had to relay glasses back and forth so everyone could get a sample. Not to mention a lot of people were disrespectful when John was trying to explain the whiskies (like the guy directly in front of him who would just talk to his friends at full volume while John was talking).

I felt a bit bad for John, and I think the situation of the room and the crowd caused me not to enjoy the whisky as much as I could have. A previous tasting, with Richard Paterson from Whyte & Mackay, was not nearly as packed and I enjoyed that one more. So this type of event is turning into less of a whisky tasting and more of a mood meter...

Of course, space in downtown Boston is at a premium and I really appreciate the efforts of Joe and Federal to bring John and many other big names in and sample us (for free!) on their whiskies. If anyone has any ideas about how to find a better space nearby for a very cheap price for these kinds of events, please let me know and I'll pass it on to them.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Whisky tasting: Compass Box

Sorry for the late notice - there will be two tastings of the Compass Box whiskies today (10/7/10) at Federal Wine and Spirits in downtown Boston. One tasting will be at 5:00 PM and the other at 6:00 PM.

Joe Howell at Federal never ceases to amaze, and this time he's brought in John Glaser, the founder and whisky-maker for Compass Box. John was a higher-up at Diageo for a while and then started his own whisky blending company, trying things others wouldn't. There were some bumps along the way...but he's pulled through and is now making some great concoctions. All of Compass Box's whiskies are either blended malts, blended grains, or just blends (malt and grain), but they tend to be rather singular and don't contain a large number of component whiskies.

Here's a list of what will be tasted, along with their retail prices at Federal, from Joe's email:

The Hedonism Maximus: Single Grain, very limited, comprised of 42 year old Invergordon and 26 year old Cameronbridge. Reg $299.99 Sale: $269.99

The Peat Monster Reserve: 1.75 L bottle, 48.9% ABV comprised of some Caol Ila and Ardmore, and rounded out with 2% Clynelish aged in French oak. Reg $154.99 Sale: $134.99

Asyla A 50-50 blend of malt whiskies from Linkwood, Glen Elgin, and Teaninich with grain whisky from Cameron Bridge all aged in first fill ex-bourbon casks and married together for up to a year. Carefully crafted to be a light, aperitif-style whisky. 40% ABV, not chill-filtered, no caramel coloring. Regularly: $44.99 Sale:$40.99

Hedonism 100% grain whisky from Cameron Bridge, Carsebridge, and Cambus aged in 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels or rejuvenated American oak hogsheads. Comprised of whiskies between the ages of 14 and 29 and bottled at 43% with no chill-filtration and no caramel coloring. Regularly: $104.99 Sale: $94.99

Oak Cross A vatted malt of Teaninich, Clynelish, and a distillery in Carron (perhaps Imperial) aged between 10 and 12 years in various American oak cask types and then married together in a mix of first-fill ex-bourbon barrels and custom American oak barrels fitted with French oak heads for a unique and mesmerizing flavor. Bottled at 43% ABV with no chill-filtration and no caramel coloring. Regularly: $53.99 Sale: $48.99

Peat Monster A vatting of malts from Ardmore, Caol Ila, and Laphroaig, the Peat Monster has a big burst of earthy, meaty peat balanced out by the sweetness of older Ardmore. All aged between 10 and 16 years in first-fill and refill American oak and married together before bottling. 46%, not chill-filtered, no caramel coloring. Regularly: $59.99 Sale: $53.99

Orangerie A blend of Highland malts and grain whisky from Fife, this is then infused with fresh, hand-zested Navalino orange peel, Indonesian cassia bark, and Sri Lankan cloves. 40% ABV, not chill filtered and with no caramel color. Regularly: $47.99 Sale: $42.99

Spice Tree A vatting of 10-12 year old malt whiskies, primarily Clynelish, aged in first-fill and refill American oak then vatted and racked into custom casks fitted with heavily toasted French oak heads and married for up to two years. Bottled at 46% ABV with no chill-filtration and no caramel coloring. Regularly: $74.99 Sale: $67.99

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Whiskey review: Maker's Mark

Instead of using prose to write this entry, I'm going with the bullet style. Why? Eh, mixin' it up.

Maker's Mark facts:
  • It's a "wheated" bourbon, meaning its mashbill is filled out with mostly wheat (instead of rye, like most bourbons) in addition to the corn and a tiny bit of malted barley
  • The company still has descendants of the founding family (the Samuels) working there
  • Bottle label typeface and red wax seal were designed by the founder's wife
  • The company recently came out with the Maker's Mark 46, which is regular Maker's Mark extra-aged for a number of months in barrels that have had seared French oak staves inserted
Now, tasting.

Maker's Mark, 45% ABV
Bourbon

Appearance: Golden amber.

Nose: Very fragrant flowers (not sure what kind - should've listened harder in botany class). Kind of like walking through a blooming greenhouse. Cherries, green apples, light oak.

Palate: Lets you know it's there! Vanilla, young fruit. Sweet and spicy.

Finish: More spices, a little hot. Hint of char.

Rating (of 100): 80. Though hot, sweet, and spicy sounds like the perfect recipe for a Saturday night, when it comes to whisk(e)y, I guess I just like them a tad bit mellower.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Whiskey review: Jack Daniel's Single Barrel

Tennessee whiskey is a denomination of American whiskey that I don't think most people understand is different from bourbon. Yes, it's made with the same mashbill composition (at least 51% corn) and aged in new charred oak barrels, among other requirements. But the difference is that it must pass through charcoal filtration, in a procedure called the Lincoln County Process (named after the county in which the Jack Daniel's distillery originally resided). The charcoal filtration process is supposed to mellow the whiskey and add additional sugars.

There are only two Tennessee whiskey distilleries - Jack Daniel's and George Dickel. You'll see a lot more of the former than the latter when you head to the store.

Here, I try the Jack Daniel's Single Barrel - this bottle has been taken from a barrel that was matured in the upper reaches of the Jack Daniel's warehouse, where temperature fluctuations between summer and winter are greatest (compared to lower parts of the warehouse). This imparts more flavor from the barrel to the whiskey as the barrel "breathes" more and gets the whiskey to move in and out of the wood's pores. Don't worry, it's all science-y.

And if you REALLY like this stuff, you can buy a whole barrel of it from the distillery. I mean REALLY like it.

Jack Daniel's Single Barrel, 47% ABV
Tennessee whiskey, rick no. L-25, barrel no. 9-3719, bottled 9/11/09

Appearance: Red-brown, and gold around the edges.

Nose: Reminds me of the sweet, pungent smell of large-grit sandpaper glue (which I like). Maybe something's wrong with me; didn't I just write a post about using common descriptors for whiskey? Other than sandpaper glue, I get molasses, charred wood, and lots of young fruit. And red licorice.

Palate: Quite the zing at first! Mellows a bit to reveal brown sugar. Faint char, like a honey barbecued piece of meat. And more red licorice.

Finish: Brown sugar, char, and bright fruit all the way.

Rating (of 100): 84. I like that it's very mellow (except on palate entry), compared to the mainstream Jack Daniel's Old No. 7. A bit on the sweet side for me, though - I can buy red licorice at the grocery store, and I don't.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Notes on Notes

I thought I'd put here a semi-random smattering of thoughts I've had recently about tasting notes.

1. I encourage you to keep tasting notes. People will poke fun at me when I'm at a tasting and whip out my little Moleskine notebook and start writing stuff down. Then they probably realize in a few weeks that they can't remember what they tasted or whether they liked it or not. Sucks when you realize that, and I got tired of it. Hence the book.

2. If you publish your tasting notes, write them in terms most people can relate to. Here are a few recent ones I read that struck my fancy with their lack of meaning in my vocabulary:

- "suet pudding" (I've only ever fed suet to birds)
- "highly polished oak" (at what point is it "highly" and what polish are you using?)
- "highly perfumed rye" (I guess this is rye that's going on a date)
- "wild silk" (this silk likes to PARTAAAAY)
- "crackling winter fires" (not those lame winter fires)

Ok, maybe I'm just jealous that they can actually come up with interesting things to say about whisky.

3. A few sources of tasting notes that I like are:

- the blog of John Hansell, Malt Advocate Magazine editor and publisher
- Jim Murray's Whisky Bible (contains many typos, though)
- the website for Whisky Magazine
- the whisky producers' websites themselves (but take them with a grain of salt)
- random webpages I find by searching online ("normal" people sometimes give good, honest feedback about whiskies)

It might be worthwhile to try to figure out what you like and then try to find a published reviewer who likes similar things. Or find someone who likes what you don't and mock them. Both lead to good times.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Whisky review: Yamazaki 18

The Yamazaki (or Slamazaki, as I like to call it for no good reason) is the only single malt out of Japan that's readily available in the United States. They make 12-year-old and 18-year-old versions; I got a miniature bottle of the 12-year-old when I was somewhat new to whisky and didn't think much of it, though I've been meaning to revisit it now that I have some more experience and have tried the 18.

The story of Japanese whisky is pretty interesting. A Japanese guy named Masataka Taketsuru went to live in Scotland for a number of years, studied organic chemistry, worked in a number of Scottish distilleries, married a Scottish woman, and then went back to Japan to start the whisky business there. He founded the Nikka whisky company on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan because he believed that area's climate was most similar to Scotland's. Nikka is still a functioning company today, putting out some great whiskies (which are unfortunately not available in the U.S), including a blended malt whisky appropriately named the Taketsuru.

Yamazaki 18, 43% ABV
Single malt Japanese whisky

Appearance: Dark amber

Nose: JUICY FRUIT. Not the brand of gum - the actual fruit...raisins, plums, overripe strawberries. A hint of smoke. Dark rum. Old (but good) wood. Leather. I want to live inside this glass.

Palate: More juicy fruit, but a little lighter - red and yellow apples (very ripe), raspberries. Mint, vanilla. Younger wood than on the nose. Puff of smoke.

Finish: Raisins, sweet sherry, light wood. Fills me with warmth. Still tasting it after several minutes...wow...

Rating (of 100): 97. Definitely going in my top 5 from now on. Buy this whisky. Or move to Japan. Or both.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Whisky review: Ledaig Sherry Finish

Ledaig, pronounced "LED-chig," is a single malt produced by the Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull. As the only distillery on this island, you'd think they would at least name the whisky after the distillery so you can keep your story straight, or at the VERY bare minimum, make the name of the whisky sound like how it's spelled. Not the case.

Also, who bottles at 42%?

The bottle proclaims that the whisky has "sweet peatiness" and that it's made from a "fine selection of fresh single malts." I guess that probably means young single malts, since there's no age statement. Let's see how it fares...

Ledaig Sherry Finish, 42% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (highland - island)

Appearance: Light honey

Nose: Fresh, wet hay. Grassy. Very farm-like with some sweet wood and young fruit notes in the background.

Palate: On entry, takes a while to get going. Then I get some peat and wood, and then something kind of bitter, like pure cocoa.

Finish: A twinge of sherry right at the start. Turns into pure bitter cocoa again after a few moments.

Rating (of 100): 82. This is another Pinocchio whisky - the nose is the most memorable part.

[Note after tasting: I was looking at Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2010 and he describes the Ledaig 12 as having "serious farmyard aromas." I swear I didn't read his entry before trying this whisky. But I feel good knowing I'm not completely off base...]

Scotch tasting: peat and smoke

We're putting together another MIT scotch tasting! This time, by popular demand, the theme will be "peat and smoke" and the evening will feature an array of ultra-premium Scotch whiskies, ranging from mildy peaty (but very complex) to knock-your-socks-off peat bonfire. The event will be on Wednesday, October 27th, 7:00-8:30 on the MIT campus.

More info and tickets for MIT students, alumni, and affiliates here. Please pass this on to any MIT-affiliated whisky enthusiasts!

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Update, 9/29/10: Tasting is sold out - only took three days this time. Looking forward to meeting all the peatheads!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Whiskey review: W. L. Weller Special Reserve

This marks the first time I've reviewed a bourbon on this blog. A bourbon is defined by American law as a whiskey produced in the United States from a mash of at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels. And, unlike Scotch whisky, no coloring or flavoring can be added (scotch can have caramel coloring added). There are also some other restrictions that I won't bore you with.

Due to the fact that the bourbon has to be aged in new (i.e. previously unfilled) oak barrels, the bourbon industry supplies a large flux of used barrels to the Scotch whisky industry. A bourbon barrel costs a scotch producer about one tenth what a sherry cask costs - ever wonder why Macallan started aging some of their whisky in bourbon barrels instead of sherry casks? Thank you, economics.

This particular bourbon is wheated, meaning that, in addition to corn, it has a significant amount of wheat in the mash bill. (Most bourbons use rye.) This is supposed to make the bourbon a bit softer than using rye; a more famous wheated bourbon is Maker's Mark.

W. L. Weller Special Reserve, 45% ABV
Bourbon, 7 years old

Appearance: Reddish tan

Nose: Vanilla, very floral, fresh oak, honey, char. Lively but gentlemanly.

Palate: Pear, char, red apple, oak, spices - a great concert of flavors.

Finish: Fairly quick and a little dry.

Rating (of 100): 87. An easy-drinking bourbon that, at less than $20 a bottle, is definitely worth the price.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Whisky review: Auchentoshan Classic

Auchentoshan is one of the few distilleries left in the lowlands of Scotland. They are unique in that they triple distill their whisky, like is traditional in Ireland, perhaps alluding to some Irish influence. In the case of the Auchentoshan Classic, this is a no age statement whisky that has been matured solely in bourbon barrels.

Auchentoshan Classic, 40% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Lowlands)

Appearance: Gold.

Nose: Nicely floral, with some fresh wood, vanilla, and honey notes.

Palate: Um, you lost me. There's an undertone of sweetness, masked by some harsher, bad wood notes pervading the whisky.

Finish: What I would expect from damp cardboard.

Rating (of 100): 65. Pretty damn dismal after the nose. This whisky puts the "ass" in "classic."

Single Malt Scotch Whisky Dinner

Kevin and Old Pulteney 17...a match made in ScotlandJust casually holding a bottle of Old Pulteney 17.

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of co-hosting the first-ever Ivy+ Single Malt Scotch Whisky Dinner at Om Restaurant in Harvard Square. (Ivy+ is all the Ivy League schools plus MIT, Stanford, and a few others, depending on who you talk to.) We had a great night, with two Scotch whisky cocktails prepared by Om's mixologist Noon, four single malt tastings, and a great three-course meal.

AnCnoc 12, AnCnoc 16, Old Pulteney 17, and Balblair 1997 - yummyThe single malt samplings for the night.

My partner in crime for the night was Brian Johnson, the Northeast District Manager for International Beverage Holdings Ltd., the company that distributes the fine malts we tasted...which were the AnCnoc 12, AnCnoc 16, Balblair 1997 (vintage, not age!), and Old Pulteney 17.

Brian Johnson, from International Beverage, with Old PulteneyBrian showing off his ability to lift an Old Pulteney 17 display box.

While most attendees were students or alumni of MIT, we also had a good showing from Yale and Harvard (and they played nice together). I'm hoping to be able to put on larger events so we can include alumni from even more universities.

Attendees at the Ivy+ Single Malt Scotch Whisky Dinner
Attendees enjoying their food, drinks, and my picture-taking.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Whisky review: Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or

Glenmorangie is a highlands distillery that's been doing some interesting work with various cask finishes. (A "finish" is when they mature whisky in a different cask than that in which it was matured for the majority of its life, and finishes usually only last for a few years at most.) They recently re-branded their finishes with more elegant-sounding names than just "port finish," for example. (The port finish is now called the "Quinta Ruban.")

This review is for the Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or, which is basically the Glenmorangie 10 Original (aged for at least 10 years in bourbon barrels), finished in Sauternes wine barriques (Sauternes is a French dessert wine) for two years. I'd suggest you sample this whisky and the Glenmorangie Original next to each other; the effect of the finish is pretty amazing.

I also had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie's head of distilling and whisky creation, in Boston several months ago. A nice person, and he got his PhD in biochemistry, studying yeast physiology. So this guy knows his stuff. (Then again, almost having a PhD myself, I can say that holding such a degree doesn't automatically mean you know what the hell you're talking about.)

Ok, less blab, more tasting.

Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or, 46% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (highlands)

Appearance: Dark gold.

Nose: Vanilla yogurt, peaches, young citrus. I also get a twinge of cherry. There is an absolutely alluring quality in the nose - it almost feels like it's coating your nostrils with butter. That probably wouldn't actually feel good, though.

Palate: Lemon, green apple, vanilla. Velvety but light.

Finish: Excellent turn to something a little darker/roasted.

Rating (of 100): 91. The nose and finish are great, but I feel that the palate is not very complex. Still, an excellent dram.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hey, I got published!

Even though my latest attempt at getting my PhD thesis research published may have hit a wall, it hasn't stopped me from getting SOMETHING in print! That's right - recently, the more-prestigious-than-Nature magazine Malt Advocate published a series of pictures of yours truly posing in Scotland with a copy of said magazine.

Here are a few they didn't put in...


Mash Tun Whisky BarAt the Mash Tun Whisky Bar in Aberlour


Rack of Malt Advocate Magazine issuesNice rack...of magazines at Cadenhead's shop in Edinburgh

Glen Grant distilleryStill reading at the Glen Grant distillery

Macallan Estate - Easter Elchies HouseOutside the Easter Elchies House on the Macallan Estate

Bow Bar in EdinburghAt the Bow Bar in Edinburgh

Balvenie distilleryWith our tour guide at the Balvenie distillery

At the Aberlour distillery tasting roomHanging out in the Aberlour distillery sampling room

Needless to say, I now know that particular issue backwards and forwards. What makes this series of photos especially interesting is that this specific issue of Malt Advocate had a section on the best whisky bars in Scotland. So, as I was posing outside the Mash Tun, for example, I was actually reading the article about the Mash Tun. And I was reading the article about the Quaich Bar in the published picture of me in the Quaich Bar.

It's all poetic and stuff.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Whisky: Hong Kong edition

Kevin and Kevin at the Canny Man in Wan Chai, Hong Kong
Of course, one of the first things I did after arriving in Hong Kong two days ago was look up the place's best whisky bars. The list was surprisingly short - actually, only one place came up: The Canny Man in the basement of the Wharney Guang Dong Hotel. From the reviews and the website, I was expecting something authentically Scottish. I was not disappointed.

Eileen and I stopped by on our way around Hong Kong island, intending to spend only an hour or so. We ended up meeting Kevin, the bar's owner/manager/founder, a Scot from Glasgow, and Eileen had to drag me out after well more than an hour. Besides having one of the best names in the world, Kevin was also one of the friendliest barmen I've met in a while. We talked for a bit about whisky in Hong Kong and he let me know that there are basically two other whisky bars besides The Canny Man. I managed to reach all of them in one day...so here are the at-a-glance reviews.

The Canny Man (Wan Chai, basement of the Wharney Guang Dong Hotel)
THIS IS THE PLACE FOR SCOTCH WHISKY IN HONG KONG. Not sure if I can be much clearer. While their selection doesn't reach into the stratosphere of ages or prices, the majority of us scotch fans don't and shouldn't really care. They have about 200 single malts on hand and you will be sure to find something you haven't tried yet, or an old favorite you would like to drink for hours.

Other good things to note:
  • Great atmosphere - well-lit and comfortable space with friendly and knowledgeable waitstaff that makes you feel like you're in a real, friendly Scottish bar (except for the Asian waitstaff)
  • Sociable manager/owner - Kevin is (or at least seems to be!) happy to talk about Hong Kong, the bar business, and whisky
  • Great location - in Wan Chai, at the center of the action on Hong Kong Island, and within easy walking distance of the ferry pier and the subway stop
  • The right attitude - Kevin let me have half pours of his whiskies at half the price; I wish more bars would do this so that those of us who want to widen our tasting portfolio can do so without breaking the bank
  • The right pour size - a half pour was still an appreciable dram! And they serve in Glencairn glasses so you can get an appropriate experience from the whisky.
  • Good food - I tried the "haggis balls" which, though not cheap (~US$11 for 5 balls), are a deep-fried delight that brought me right back to our trip to Scotland
So, if you're in Hong Kong and fancy a nice scotch and a good time, stop by The Canny Man. Tell Kevin I sent you...

NaNa Banana (Wan Chai)
A small Thai restaurant with a huge lineup of single malts collected by the owner and put up for sale. A number of them are price skyscrapers (~US$50/shot) and some are only available for purchase by the bottle (like the Macallan 1963 at ~US$2000).

Unfortunately, the huge collection of whisky is easier to look at than actually drink. I first asked if they could do half pours (their menu offers single pours and double pours); the waitress spoke little English so it took me a few attempts and some hand gestures to get her to understand what "half" means. She then asked if I wanted to drink half the bottle. Not sure what kind of customers they normally have, but I am not one of those. She finally understood and then told me flat out that no, they don't do half pours. Strike one.

I took about 20 minutes to figure out what I wanted and, after I ordered from their whisky menu, the waitress started looking through the bottles on the wall to try to find the one I wanted. After a while, I started helping her look. Neither of us could find it, so we gave up and I went back to looking for another one. Strike two. I took a few more minutes to find another one to try and ordered that one. She went back to looking for it on the shelf; this time, though, I had already found it myself and told her where it was (the exact opposite end from where she had started looking). After I finally got my "single" dram, I was unhappily surprised to see that it was more like a dramling - about what I would have expected from a half pour, had they been capable of doing such. And it was served in a rocks glass. Strike three.

The Chinnery (Central, inside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel)
I was told it would be pricey and stuffy, but I thought I'd check it out anyway. They wouldn't let me in because I was wearing shorts. Click here for Ace Ventura's summation of my feelings.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Whisky: Chinese edition

At Glen Bar in Beijing
I'm writing this from a hotel room on the Kowloon Peninsula in Hong Kong. Eileen and I just arrived from Beijing, where we did our best to find some good whisky bars and try some not-available-in-the-U.S. whiskies. The good part is that we did find one bar, Glen, in Beijing that had a great selection of whiskies. The bad part is that I was sick with a cold when we went, so I won't even bother reviewing any of the whiskies I tried (which included a number of Japanese whiskies, such as the Karuizawa 12 Pure Malt and the Hakushu 18).

The first thing to keep in mind if you try to look for whisky in China is that you should not get a cold when you go to a whisky bar. The second thing to keep in mind is that folks here are still generally only familiar with a few types of alcohol - primarily beer, wine, and bai jiu (rice wine). And, from what I can tell, bai jiu is good for removing paint and memories, but little else. If they're familiar with whisky, it's most likely blended whisky...like back in the old days (~1970s) when scotch was 99% blends.

Glen, the whisky bar we visited in Beijing, was not an easy find. Eileen had gotten the address from Google and we eventually located the building that bore the address number. When we asked the guard at the building's entrance gate about the bar, he said he had never heard of it. Luckily, we spotted one tiny sign above some dark stairs that had the name, so we went up. We wound through some halls and finally found the entrance; we pushed open the door to find a bar replete with many great whiskies and a very nice, mellow ambiance...but little else.

There was one bartender who knew what she was doing; the other three looked to be about 15 years old and had moppy hair and no brains when it came to bartending. (Ever seen three people try to simultaneously make one drink and still screw it up?) In addition to the four bartenders, a hostess, and us, there were a whopping two other patrons - not surprising, since even the building's guard didn't know the place existed. The bartender said the bar got its customers through referrals, and that it was somewhat exclusive. Yeah, exclusive of pretty much everyone, I'd say.

But at least they had a great selection of whiskies. Some of them, like the Balvenie Rose, especially got my interest. The Rose, as I found out on our trip to Speyside three months ago, is only available at the Balvenie distillery. (It retails there for 100 pounds and recently sold at auction for 250 pounds.) The bartender said the owner brings bottles back in his suitcase when he travels overseas; I think that, at the rate they seem to be doing business, he shouldn't need a very big suitcase to adequately serve his clientele.

All in all, a very nice bar with a good selection, but I would like to see it be better-advertised and create a little more buzz about whisky in Beijing. After all, it would be good for the bar's business, and it would be good for us consumers to see more interest among this booming country's population. A rising tide lifts all ships, and once China gets on board, this boat will pull up its anchors.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tokyo whisky guide

When we were traveling in Scotland back in June, we sampled some great whiskies in the Highlander bar in Speyside. Although the Japanese are a late comer to whiskey making, they nevertheless produce some fantastic whiskies.

The New York Times featured a great set of recommendations on whiskey bars in Tokyo over the past weekend.

Link to article

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Whisky review: Aberlour A'bunadh, Batch No. 29

"A'bunadh" is Gaelic for "the origin," referring to the way in which this whisky is supposed to represent a bygone style. The story is that workers at the Aberlour distillery found a very old bottle of Aberlour whisky in the walls of a building they were renovating and they wanted to recreate the style of that whisky. A'bunadh is the distillery's attempt to do so.

My wife and I toured Aberlour in June of 2010 when we took our grand tour of Speyside. It was our favorite distillery tour of the five we took - it turned out that our tour guide, Chris Brousseau, had gone to whisky school at Bruichladdich with another friend of mine, Joe Howell from Federal Wine and Spirits in Boston. Well, Chris and I were buddies from the start. I found out that he had moved to Scotland from Canada with his wife in order to pursue his love of Scotch whisky. Sláinte to that! He also had a great sense of humor and a wealth of interesting knowledge about Aberlour and Scotch whisky in general.

I even got to do a personalized bottling of a 15-year cask strength sherried Aberlour (for a price). Haven't cracked it yet and not sure I ever will.

Ok, down to the tasting. The A'bunadh is matured exclusively in sherry casks, unlike the Aberlour 12 and 16, which are "double cask" matured in both bourbon and sherry casks. A'bunadh is also cask strength and not chillfiltered, giving it quite the kick.

Aberlour A'bunadh Batch No. 29, 59.9% ABV
Single malt Scotch whisky (Speyside)

Appearance: Reddish-brown

Nose: Silky-soft after getting past the nose-hair-scorching alcohol content. Cashews, plums. Sweet leather. Maybe some pipe tobacco. I think I can taste it without even putting it in my mouth. Quite the thick nose.

Palate: A lot of bright, ripe fruit and spices - citrus, blackberries, cinnamon sticks. Rum. The high alcohol content makes it prickly.

Finish: Cherry cough syrup-ish. Not especially long or complex.

Rating (of 100): 84. Great nose, palate is good, but the finish is too sweet and one-dimensional for my likes.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Scotch Whisky Dinner!

If you're an MIT alum or current student, I invite you to come to the Single Malt Scotch Whisky Dinner, sponsored by the MIT Club of Boston, at Om Restaurant in Harvard Square. It'll be a three-course meal, with two scotch cocktails and three very nice single malts and a live tasting led by yours truly (as well as a distributor friend of mine). We've gotten a really good price on it - it's $60/person for Club members ($65 for non-members) and includes tax and tip, which is about what you would normally pay just for the drinks...

Let me know
if you have questions. There will be at least one vegetarian option available for dinner, which you order at the event.

Hope to see you there...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Biofuel from Scotch whisky

Now you AND your car can enjoy a nice dram. Take one for the road.

Here's a video for the attention-impaired. Listen around the 0:40 mark when the boom mic apparently falls off in the reporter's hand...as he's holding it for the rest of the interview.

Also, draff is from the mashing, not the malting. And the butanol doesn't drive your car, it powers your car. Nice job.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Whisky review: AnCnoc 16

The older sibling to the 12 I just reviewed, but bottled at 46% (the 12 is 43%). It's interesting - on the label for the 16, it states twice that it was matured in bourbon barrels, but the 12 doesn't say anything about maturation. Maybe they figure the drinkers of the 16 care about how it matured, while drinkers of the 12 are just your run-of-the-mill throw-it-down sloshes.

Nose: Flowers and pears. A hint of cashews? I think I can smell some bourbon in there.

Palate: Toffee, vanilla, honey. Pretty much sweetness all around.

Finish: Changes a bit to reveal something darker and juicier, almost like it's been sherried (but it hasn't). I like it. Definitely a warming finish to be remembered.

Rating (of 100): 86. The finish is the best part. I'm sure it would be ranked much more highly if I were personally a huge fan of sweet whiskies.

Whisky review: AnCnoc 12

AnCnoc is the strangely-written name (pronounced "ah-nock") for the single malt produced by the Knockdhu distillery in Speyside. They changed the name of the malt from just "Knockdhu" because they were tired of people confusing it with Knockando, another Speyside distillery.

I just wonder how they picked a name that nobody can pronounce without hearing it first, and one that looks strange in writing. Well, I guess they wanted to be original, so why not go all out.

Nose: Nicely floral. Young red apples, citrus. A very fragrant, light nose.

Palate: Flowers, apricots, more apples...with a backbone of something hard like granite.

Finish: A little maritime-y? Relatively dry, but lingers a while. An interesting finish that's quite different from the nose, in a good way.

Rating (of 100): 92. This whisky tastes young but still complex. I had high expectations from the nose and it did not disappoint. It leads you to believe it'll be soft and cuddly, but then the teddy bear has claws. Very cool.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Whiskey review: Bushmills 16

This is my first review for an Irish whiskey, but I'm not going to go any easier on them just because they don't distill as much whiskey as Scotland does.

This whiskey has been aged in American bourbon barrels as well as oloroso sherry casks, and then finished in port pipes. It's a single malt as well.

Nose: Mandarin oranges, plums. Cherries. Raisins and dates. There is just a lot of excellent fruit in this nose. Reminds me of walking through a farmer's market in the summer. I could smell it forever.

Palate: More cherries, plums (perhaps a bit underripe?). Floral. Not quite as complex as the nose.

Finish: Plums all the way down; some port becomes evident after a few moments.

Rating (of 100): 89. The nose is awesome, but the whiskey becomes more and more straightforward as you progress through the tasting. Still, a dram I would happily drink on a regular basis.

MIT tasting: old and rare Scotch whiskies

I had a great time Wednesday night at the MIT old and rare Scotch whisky tasting, sponsored by the MIT Club of Boston. The event featured a tasting session led by Matt Chivian, a "keeper of the quaich" (scotch expert), and seven great whiskies by independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail.

The whiskies we tasted were:
  • Benromach 21 yr (a surprise malt)
  • Brora 24 yr
  • Port Ellen 27 yr
  • Old Pulteney 34 yr
  • Speymalt Macallan 35 yr
  • Strathisla 1963 44 yr
  • Glen Grant 1960 45 yr
If you're interested, keep your eyes open for another such event in November! (Send me an email if you want to be sure to get a notification when the registration link goes live.)

I'm very thankful the Club of Boston is sponsoring this event, as they have been awesome supporters of our fine spirits events on campus.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Talk about "old and rare"

Explorers found Scotch whisky trapped in the ice in Antarctica and finally managed to get it out...just to prepare to put it back again.

From what I know, the main person who will "analyze" the whisky is Whyte and Mackay Master Blender Richard Paterson, the same guy I mentioned a few blog posts ago. To be honest, I'm not sure why they really want to recreate this whisky. It was made at a time when the maturation's effects on whisky was not as well understood as it is today, and thus the whisky was probably not nearly as well-rounded and tasty as many on the market now. It's most likely for the hype, and to give Mr. Paterson something new to do.

Where to buy whiskey in the Boston area

There are numerous places in the Boston area to buy whiskey, but I'll just list here the ones I like to use. If you find something else that suits you better, go nuts! I'll also list the people at each of these locations with whom you should speak if you stop in.

Atlas Liquors (3 locations: Medford, Quincy, and Roslindale)
Speak with Jeff Fine, the owner and resident whiskey aficionado

Federal Wine and Spirits (29 State Street, downtown Boston)
Talk to Joe Howell, their extraordinarily knowledgeable whiskey guy

Julio's Liquors (Westborough, MA)
Check in with Ryan Maloney, the owner and whiskey guy

New Hampshire Liquor Stores (Um, all over New Hampshire)
You can conveniently check their inventory and prices online to use as a benchmark for other retailers' prices

If you can't find something you're looking for at one of these locations, it's probably not for sale within hundreds of miles.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Whiskey vs. whisky vs. scotch vs. single malt

A lot of people are confused about what "whiskey" is and what "whisky" is...and for good reason. Why would you have two names for the same thing?

The short answer is that there is no good answer. That's the long answer too. But basically, here's the breakdown:

"whiskey" refers to American and Irish products
"whisky" refers to products from anywhere else (e.g. Scotland, Japan, New Zealand, etc.)

There are a few American distillers that use "whisky" instead of "whiskey" (such as Maker's Mark) but they are rare and should be scolded for going against the trend.

Another point that confuses people is the use of the word "whisky" versus the use of the word "scotch." First, let me point out that I've seen it both as "scotch" and "Scotch" and I've come to the conclusion that the best usage is a capital S when followed by the word "whisky" and a lowercase s when only using the word alone.

As for the actual difference, scotch is a type of whisky - it's whisky that is produced in Scotland, matured in oak casks for at least three years, and contains malt whisky (i.e. whisky distilled from a fermented mash of malted barley). There are a few other legal distinctions that you can read about here, but those are the main three.

And, finally, folks are often confused about what the term "single malt" means. Break this down into two parts - first, the word "single" refers to a single distillery. It is a product from only one distillery, not blended with whiskies made at any other distilleries. Second, "malt" means it is produced completely from malted barley (not, for example, corn, rye, or wheat). So the two words don't really have any relation to each other, but they just narrow the scope of what is in the bottle.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dewar's has a new look

Dewar's revealed new packaging for its blended Scotch whisky collection. The collection includes Dewar's White Lable, Dewar's 12 Year Old, Dewar's 18 Year Old, and Dewar's Signature. The new design attempts to modernize Dewar's look and highlight craftsmanship through the use of vibrant colors and waves as well as a curved bottle shape.

Read more here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Whisky review: Talisker 10

Talisker is the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, a rugged, mountainous, and beautiful island off the west coast of Scotland. It was on this island in the late 1800s that the liqueur Drambuie was developed, using Talisker malt whisky as its base. Drambuie is short for "An Dram Buidheach," Gaelic for "the drink that satisfies." It is only appropriate that it was originally constructed from one of the most prominent single malts of Scotland.

Talisker is a medium-peated malt, being not as peaty as some whiskies from Islay but definitely letting you know there is some smoke in the mix.

Nose: Sweet peat, light grasses/flowers, light fruit (peaches or apricots).

Palate: A light mouthfeel, but with flavors of smoked bacon, asphalt, and dark cherries.

Finish: Peat on the finish, lingering and leaving a little grittiness. Dark and relaxing.

Rating (of 100): 92. A great mix of peat and other stuff. 'Nuff said.