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 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 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 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

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.