Saturday, July 31, 2010

Holy crap

I think some people out there are missing the point of whisky. I read several months ago that Diageo, the world's largest spirits company, had released The John Walker, an ultra-super-mega-ridiculous-premium brand of blended Scotch whisky. It was apparently introduced in order to give rich stiffs a chance to blow their money faster than before. I guess cocaine is out of style. The John Walker retails for $3000 a bottle (yes, U.S. dollars) and comes in a hand-made Baccarat crystal decanter, complete with a 24-karat gold neck collar.

This is nuts. This is the Lamborghini of the whisky world, except most people don't even know what it is, so you won't actually be able to impress anyone.

I remember seeing the Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V in a duty free shop, retailing for about $400, and thinking THAT was expensive. Then again, I believe it only came in a non-hand-made crystal decanter, and just a silk-lined box or some crap like that. So pedestrian.

Well, I'm now going to go back to drinking my Old Pulteney 12, which I just bought for $34.99. Hey, I saved $2965.01!

Friday, July 30, 2010

My favorite whiskies

I'm unabashed about it: I won't pretend there aren't crappy whiskies out there, because there are. (For example, I got ten free miniatures from Douglas Laing, the independent bottler, and nearly lost my stomach on a few of them. Ever had a 31-year-old whisky that tastes like you're licking the floor of a coal mine?)

So I'm going to put here a list of my top five whiskies, not in any particular order. My tastes will change over time, so this list might change. I'll let you know when it does.

I'll also include the typical 750 mL bottle prices here, since it's good to know how much dough one of these things will cost.

Ardbeg Uigeadail ($80-90)
Ok, probably a little cliched here, since Jim Murray also listed it as one of his top two whiskies of all time in his Whisky Bible 2010. But I would have to agree - at cask strength, it lets you know it's there (and you might forget where you are as well). Massive peat, but with a background of dark and juicy fruit, owing to the marriage of bourbon and sherry casks. A concert of flavors going on, and I'm not even going to try to describe it. I'd rather just drink it.

Old Pulteney 12 ($35-40)
This is probably where I will lose a few people. What the hell is "Old Pulteney" and why doesn't anyone else ever talk about it? "The Pult," as it's known in my house, is the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland and makes a whisky that gives you the urge to go whaling. It is salty. I get the impression of steel. It proclaims itself to be the "genuine maritime malt" and I think it's right. When I was new to whisky, I was searching for exactly this flavor. I bought a bottle of The Pult 12 on a whim and, immediately upon my first sip, I actually audibly exclaimed "Yes!"

Just such a distinct flavor, and one of the best values out there, I think. It's the whisky I drink most.

Laphroaig 18 ($130-150 in MA, $70-80 elsewhere)
Peaty, fruity, floral, smooth. Much better than the 15, which it replaced, and more complex than the 10, which was the whisky that initially got me hooked on scotch.

Port Charlotte PC7 ($110-120)
I had this for the first time at the Brandy Library in NYC with my wife and we were both struck by it. This was after trying 11 other whiskies, half of them peated. This one blew our socks off. Heavy peat, and the cask strength is like the spur on the peat boot. You can hold a little in your mouth and feel it work around, getting into every crevice, and then sending spikes into your tongue. More of an experience than any kind of a describable flavor.

Highland Park 12 ($40-45)
Another one, like The Pult, that just has a very unique flavor and is easy on the wallet. This thing has honey, peat, floral/grassy ("heather" if you know what that is) notes...the list goes on. Some salt too. And leather. And other stuff.

Here are some other whiskies that I really enjoy and are close to making it in my top 5:

- The Balvenie 12 DoubleWood
- The Dalmore 15, King Alexander III
- Glenmorangie 10, Nectar D'or
- Gordon & MacPhail Imperial 15 Year Port Finish
- Jameson 18
- Johnnie Walker Gold Label
- Lagavulin 16
- Laphroaig Quarter Cask
- Port Charlotte PC6
- Signatory Laphroaig 1999 7 year
- Suntory Yamazaki 18

I'm working on adding some independent bottlings to my knowledge bank, so maybe they'll make it on soon.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Distillery pronunciations

I remember when I was a whisky novice and I went with my wife to a whisky bar to "do some whisky-related research." I had never tried Glenmorangie, an excellent highland malt, so I asked the bartender for one...or I thought I did. He gave me a weird look. I tried again - maybe it was pronounced "glen-mor-AIN-ghee" instead of "glen-mor-AN-ghee."

Wrong on both counts.

It's "glen-MOR-an-jee." Accent on the second syllable, with a soft "g" sound. But who the hell would know that a priori, unless you're a native Scot? (If you are, you're wasting your time reading this blog. You should get back to drinking whisky.)

I got a call from a friend the other day who said he was interested in buying a cask of scotch directly from the distillery. So I asked him which distillery. "Uh, is it...Brew-itch-lad-itch?" Uh, no. Before you drop thousands of dollars on a cask of whisky, let's get the name of it down first. It's "brew-ick-LAHD-ee" or "the Laddie" for short.

Here are a few others that aren't intuitive. If you want a decent guide to pronunciation, try this site. I have heard other pronunciations for some of the distilleries (such as Caol Ila, which I hear as "cull-EE-lah" but this site says as "cool-EYE-lah"), but this will at least get you very close to the generally-accepted pronunciation.

Aberlour = "ah-ber-LOU-er" (the "ou" like in "couch")
Auchentoshan = "ock-en-TAHSH-en"
Glenfiddich = "glen-FID-ick"
Glen Garioch = "glen GEER-ie"
Glen Rothes = "glen ROTH-es" (you pronounce the "es" as a separate syllable)
Laphroaig = "lah-FROYG"
Lagavulin = "lah-gah-VOO-lin"
Ledaig = "LED-chig"
Pulteney = "PULT-nay"
Tomintoul = "TOM-in-towel" (I know this isn't correct syllabic breakdown, but it's because a Scot once told me he remembers it by thinking of a cat getting out of the shower...tomcat in a towel...I think he had too much time on his hands)

Some of these pronunciations make a lot more sense after you have ingested several glasses of their product.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Recent Dalmore tasting - corked whisky

A week ago, I went to a tasting of the Dalmore at Federal Wine and Spirits in downtown Boston. It was a great tasting, save one fact - the Dalmore 15 was "corked." Luckily, they had a fresh, uncorked one on hand.

How do you know if a whisky is corked? (Did you even know whisky could be corked? I did, but I didn't believe it.) If you've never had the particular whisky before, it could be somewhat hard to tell, especially if you're new to whisky, as you might think that's just the flavor of the whisky.

But, basically, what I got from the whisky was a nose of something musty - like wet rocks in a basement. The palate was even worse, with a distinct flavor like seafood (very fishy fish). I had tasted the 15 before, so I knew that it should be a very velvety, sweet dram. Not like a wharf worker's closet.

This is a good lesson for me personally - from now on, when I lead a tasting, I'll always taste the bottles I'm going to pour beforehand. Maybe I'll taste them a couple of know, just to be sure.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Green energy technology for Scotch whisky distilleries

Check out this article that describes a novel concept for Scotch whisky distilleries - algae bioreactors to recycle energy lost in their exhaust! Gold medal.

They don't say what the conversion efficiency is, though...

Thanks to Melissa Webster for sending the article.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Don't judge a book...

Amid the daily headlines about discrimination in various organizations, I have to admit that I also feel it as a young whisky drinker. But I understand why it happens.

I'm 27 years old, and while I'm male, I'm still not part of the typical whisky-drinking demographic. (I need to be about twice this age to be part of it.) So, when I go to whisky tastings, master classes, stores, shows, etc., it's always interesting to see how people treat me compared to the more mature members of the group. Some people are great - they're happy to give me as large a pour as they did for everyone else, they're happy to tell me about the whisky they're pouring, and they're happy to ask me what I think of the whisky after I've taken a good quaff. Others...not so happy.

Some amount of judging a book by its cover is understandable. They would be correct if, based on my age, they assumed I don't have a lot of disposable income to use for whisky purchases. But that won't be the case for long. They would not be correct to assume I don't know what I'm tasting, or that I don't care, or that I just want to get my hands on anything alcoholic.

I think that if whisky producers, bottlers, and marketers really want to start moving more product, they need to not only SAY they target the young-and-not-yet-but-soon-to-be-affluent crowd, but they also need to start TREATING the younger crowd like they're being targeted. Of course, there will be the members of the younger crowd who do abuse the tastings and who do act like morons. But that's true of any group.

I'd like to take a moment to recognize the people who, to date, have consistently been kind enough to regard me and any other young person as an equal member of the whisky-drinking crowd. They are:

- Tim Bachelder, friend and Boston-area connoisseur
- Jeff Fine, owner and whisky guy at Atlas Wine and Spirits in Medford, MA
- Elliott Fishbein, owner and whisky guy at Town Wine and Spirits, Providence, RI
- Joe Howell, whisky guy at Federal Wine and Spirits in Boston
- Brian Johnson, regional manager for International Beverage
- Ryan Maloney, owner and whisky guy at Julio's Liquors in Westborough, MA
- Dave Russo, friend and Boston-area connoisseur
- Garrett Tingle, manager at Tommy Doyle's in Harvard Square
- Melissa Webster, friend and Boston-area connoisseur

The whisky world needs more people like these.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pension paid in Scotch?

Today's New York Times has an article on Diageo's new way of funding its pension plan - using whisky still maturing in distilleries. The company transferred about $650 million worth of Scotch to the pension company to be held as collateral. This is quite an innovative way to plug funding gaps, however, I am not sure how many people will want to receive Scotch as pension in their retirement.