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

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!

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 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 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.