Saturday, January 17, 2015

Authenticity in Scotch Whisky

I read this article in the New York Times during the holiday break at the end of 2014 and it really resonated with me. My first love in Scotch whisky was Bruichladdich and I could never express exactly why it pleased me so much. They really did attract attention on the shelf at the liquor store and the product was good. But there must have been more to it than that.

The more I learned about who they were and about why they made whisky convinced me that it was their authenticity of product and purpose. As a former Marketing professional, I really appreciate a strong brand and they have always been tough to ignore, and perhaps tough to love due to their unusually diverse product portfolio.

The more I discovered that I liked their products, I came to like that Bruichladdich was* owned by people who were passionate about the place (Islay), about the distillery itself and its history, about the people who live in the area, and about having a positive impact on local economy and the planet - and of course, about putting their own stamp on single-malt Scotch whisky.

I find that I really like whisky when it's about more than just what's in the bottle (though as my most recent blog post will indicate, I don't like everything I drink...). I find that I generally like whisky better when it has a solid back-story.

For instance, I also really like the products of William Grant and Sons (you may have had their products: The Balvenie, The Glenfiddich, Tullamore Dew - the latter being an Irish whiskey product), to this day a family owned operation. In this age of massive drinks conglomerates, I find it's amazing that a "small" family-owned company is able to produce the largest-selling single-malt whisky - at least as of 2012 - (The Glenfiddich) and is able to compete with much larger, much more diversified companies.

I don't only drink the products of independently or family -owned whiskies - I'm just saying that I really like it when the little guy can get some traction in a highly competitive market and can use their personality to stand out from the crowd. If the whisky tastes good to me**, I'll keep trying more expressions from them.

* Note: Bruichladdich was acquired by Rémy Cointreau in July of 2012 and they seem to be honoring their statement that they intended to keep it focused on locally sourced and hand-crafted products. I've been enjoying their three different stable product lines and believe that their quality has been maintained, at least as far as I can tell.

** I hope you'll take my statements about whisky brands as a hint that a whisky might be worth investigating. I encourage people to try as many different whisky expressions as they can, so they can learn what they like. There are probably about 2000 different single malts on the market as I write this, and there are a lot of good choices across all styles priced under $100...many under $50. As you can see, there are many reasons to like a product, beyond the obvious (Do you like it?).

The Islay image is from Wikipedia and the attribution is as follows: "Islay topographic map-en" by Ayack - Own work ;Topography : NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) data (public domain) edited with 3DEM and dlgv32 Pro and vectorized with Inkscape ; UTM projection ; WGS84 datum ; shaded relief (composite image of N-W, W and N lightning positions) ;Bathymetry : USGov public domain data provided by Demis (see the approval e-mail and the Demis forum) ;Reference used for the additional data : Magic ;Locator map : Sting's composition of Image:British_Isles_Northern_Ireland.svgImage:British_Isles_Scotland.svg and Image:British_Isles_Wales.svg (modified) created by Cnbrb under PD ;Note: The shaded relief is a raster image embedded in the SVG file.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Tale of Two Whiskies in One Bottle

Last Sunday my wife was in Trader Joe's and she's in the habit of checking the whisky selection and has a sense of what I like. (Yes, I am very lucky!) She found a bottle of 17-year-old "Isle of Mull" whisky that intrigued me. I told her to get it ($60 is a pretty good price for a whisky that old).

I knew there was only one distillery on Mull: Tobermory. They make 2 different single-malts: Ledaig (pronounced "lah-CHIG") and the eponymous Tobermory. This particular bottle being sold by TJ's was distilled in 1996 and at 17 years old it must have been bottled in 2013 or 2014.

Ledaig is peated, and Tobermory is, which one is in my bottle?  Tonight I opened the whisky and it's definitely not Ledaig.

I've never had Tobermory before, and I have to say I don't like it. I'm not proficient at whisky writing (i.e., reviews of whisky, describing the flavors and smells), and so I try to simply decide whether I like something enough to want to have it again. For me, there is no need to score things on a 100-point scale, or even a 5-point scale.

One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Einstein and I think it applies here: "...everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler." I only need 2 points on my scale:
  1. I liked it
  2. I didn't like it
I really try to give myself enough of a chance to make a decision. The reason I don't like to have a deep scale is that I find it virtually impossible to compare two different whiskies to each other - they are all so different. How am I supposed to compare an Islay to a Lowland Scotch? Heck, it's even hard to compare two whiskies from Bruichladdich!!

With my system, I do not have to imagine comparing whiskies to each other - only to the scale. If I say I don't like it, I'd politely refuse it even if it were offered to me for free. I don't say "don't like" lightly. I actually have to spend more time contemplating my 2-point scale than you'd think. I think this scale gives me more freedom to enjoy whisky, and more incentive to really ponder what I like, as opposed to what the whisky brings to the glass.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Hard Way vs. The Easy Way

I saw this book today and was immediately struck by the fact that, unlike home brewing, home distilling is a seriously dangerous (and in many places, likely illegal) undertaking. If your still blows up, kiss your homeowners insurance goodbye.

I prefer buying whisky: Lots of choice and virtually no danger factor.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Oban 21 at The Albion River Inn

On my last night at the Albion River Inn, I treated myself to a serving of Oban 21.

I was lucky to have the first serving from a new bottle, number 1,040 of only 2,860 bottles that Diageo will make available.

The whisky (to me) had nutty qualities on the nose (marzipan, hazelnut) as well as pepper, and as I added more water I got dried fruits like cherries and sugar syrup. The combination of fruits and sugar syrup reminded me of a hint of cough syrup. The nose on the finish had lovely complex wood notes (vanilla, leather, tobacco).

Just the facts:
  • Oban 21 Year Old Limited Edition Single Malt Whisky
  • Cask strength; 58.5% ABV
    • Opens up nicely with a bit of water - I got hints of cinnamon as I added tiny amounts of water
Thanks again to Chelsea and Laura for making sure I had a chance to sample this very rare dram!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Whisky Tourism

You know that stand-up comic who says: "You might be a redneck if..."? Well, if you take a vacation just to drink at a bar with a legendary whisky collection? You might be a serious whisky fan.

I found such a place in Mendocino County, about 120 miles from San Francisco. It's the Albion River Inn. This is the view from my cabin (note: skies are not blue at this time of year!):

Near as I can tell, this is the best time of the year to visit. I'm guessing they don't get many visitors in the rainy season, so the room rates were discounted. Don't worry, you'll spend the savings in the world class bar. That's a joke: The prices in the bar are excellent, so you'd be hard pressed to drink that much.

I have been here since Sunday (2-Mar-2014). I've had:

  • Talisker - 175th Anniversary bottling
    • Recommended by our waiter, David -- great choice!
  • Port Ellen, 8th release
    • 55.3% ABV
    • Distilled in 1978, bottled in 2008 (29 years old)
  • Inchmurrin 28
    • 43% ABV
    • The only expression I didn't care for
      • I always say you have to try new things...especially at $19.50/serving!
    • I had never heard of this distillery, so I did some research (on my own blog...)
  • Bruichladdich Black Art 1989
    • Edition 03.1; 48.7% ABV
    • 22 years old; amazing bronze color; sherry notes prominent on nose; really smooth
      • If you know me, you know I'm a huge fan of Bruichladdich and so I had to try this nearly-extinct expression. Had to! :-)
Tonight I'm going to have:
  • Oban 21
    • It just arrived in the bar yesterday; really looking forward to trying this rare dram
The staff is super knowledgeable, enthusiastic and friendly (another member of the waitstaff, Janet, was very helpful for my wife when she needed to pick a cognac0. Other than the whisky collection, I think staff attributes are the most important metrics in evaluating whisky bars. Also: How Mark Bowery, the hotel's sommelier, finds sources for these whiskies in this county is fairly mysterious. I'm sure some magic is involved. Sadly they don't have their ever-changing whisky (and spirits) list online.

The Albion River Inn restaurant is one of the best whisky bars I've ever been to, and I've been to the Dundee Dell in Omaha, NE (much more whisky but lacks atmosphere and quality food; also, no ocean views). The bar manager, Laura, is amazingly knowledgeable -- there are over 150 Scotch whiskies and she knows a lot about what's available behind the bar. It was her recommendation that made me choose the Bruichladdich, and it was an excellent choice. We had some great conversations about Scotch and I learned a lot.

From what I know, the Albion River Inn has one of the largest retail whisky collections in North America -- and it's right here in California. It's truly worth a visit. This is a place to relax and unwind. Selling point: No cell phone service.

p.s. They also have an impressive wine list, but I don't know wine.
p.p.s. Great food, too.
p.p.p.s. Thanks to Chelsea, the general manager, for the introduction to Oban 21.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

008 - Single Grain Whisky - North of Scotland

Yesterday's post was delayed by circumstances. Will do 2 today but have to slow down. Will run out of Scotch soon. :-)

The distillery for today (like most grain distilleries) has an unfamiliar name: "North of Scotland." Yes, that's the name of a grain whisky distillery.

It is rare to find single-grain Scotch whisky, or I should say "it's rare for me." I got really lucky when I found this one for two reasons: 1) You never see these in stores, and 2) It was priced way to low -- I got it for less than $200 (it should have been twice that...a price that I would not have paid). 

Unlike single-malts that have well-publicized Glenlivet, Macallan, Dalmore, etc., but grain distilleries mostly operate behind the scenes in the Scotch world. They are huge factories with names you have never heard of: Cameronbridge, Girvan, and this one (there aren't a lot of them).

I wrote about Scotch Grain Whisky on my old Wordpress blog and I even have a list of the distilleries I could find.

You might hear grain distilleries categorized as Lowland or Highland, etc., but these appellations indicate purely geographical, not stylistic, aspects. In reality there are far too few of these facilities to categorize their products meaningfully. First, they are rarely sold, and second they don't have much flavor. Just kidding. :-)

What's this taste like?

Dark color you would expect from a sherry cask
Honey on the nose
Fruitcake on the tongue
Older than me (distilled in 1964; bottled when 40 years old in 2005)
45.5% abv (91 proof) -- cask strength
Astringency (tart fruits)
Indep. Bottler: "Scott's Selection"
Serious wood notes underneath -- not vanilla-y -- like old maple-coated cedar planks

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

007 - Green...Johnnie Walker Green

Since I'm deviating from single-malts for a few days, let's try a blended malt. I have at least two but the one that you are more likely to find is Johnnie Walker Green.

As we saw yesterday, a blended malt results when single-malts from several distilleries are combined. In this case, the blended malt has an age statement: 15 years old -- which means that the youngest component is 15 years old. This whisky is comprised of single-malts from the following four distilleries as described on Diageo's website:
Four signature malts provide the key taste influences for this 15-year-old whisky. TALISKER introduces power and depth of character, CAOL ILA contributes mystery and intensity, and at its heart CRAGGANMORE provides a sweet maltiness, while LINKWOOD adds a final touch of finesse.
Of those four, Linkwood is not generally available as a single-malt. You may see it from an independent bottler, or very rarely from the distillery. The other brands produce multiple expressions.

What's it taste like?

  • The nose is light and fruity - apples or pears, with something like licorice on the side...perhaps lemon peel.
  • On the tongue it's a different story -- the peat from the Talisker is there, with some savory spices like pepper. The peat smoke lingers nicely.
  • Way down I can get oak notes (literally the wood itself plus some leather or damp cigars). Vanilla and its cousins may be there but they don't stand out (to me).
  • The base is slightly sweet but it's not the first thing you notice. Or the second. :-)
  • It's nicely balanced.

So this is I think more complex than a straight blend. The grain whisky in a blended whisky is way lighter and it softens the final product. I don't mean to imply that blended whisky or blended malt whisky is inferior. If you like blends, that's what you should drink - no need to apologize for your choice. Similarly for single-malt drinkers...though it's a rare time you'd be asked to defend your choice because there's a bias in that most people assume that single-malts are "better."

It's true that in many cases single-malts are more expensive, but that doesn't mean they would be universally accepted as superior in flavor. Drink what you like.

But aren't blends inferior to single-malts?

There is no right answer here. Everyone's taste is different. No one should say something is better or worse than something else as if anyone else would share their taste. It's your what you like and drink what you like. All whisky is the result of painstaking attention to detail and almost any brand has devotees that will name it as their favorite.