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.

Monday, January 6, 2014

006 - Great King Street

And now for something a little different: Today we're tasting whisky, but not a single-malt.

All the first five whiskies were single-malts, but that's only one type of Scotch whisky. In fact, it's the smallest category. With that said, it's growing rapidly relative to the other categories. So, it's slice of the pie is getting bigger, while the pie itself is growing. Times are good in the whisky business.

There are actually five types of Scotch whisky:

  • Single-Malt
    • Whisky made from malted barley and produced by a single distillery.
  • Blended Malt (formerly known as "Vatted Malt")
    • Whisky resulting from combining the single-malt whisky from multiple distilleries.
  • Single-Grain
    • Grain whisky made at a single distillery. Could be based on multiple types of grain as long as it was produced at a single distillery
  • Blended Grain
    • Grain whisky resulting from combining the whisky from multiple distilleries.
      • I have never seen such a beast.
  • Blended
    • A mix of malt and grain whiskies.
      • This is the backbone of the Scotch whisky industry.

Today's whisky is from the last category which is by far the dominant form of Scotch. You know their names like Ballantine's, Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, Dewar's, J&B, Johnnie Walker, Teachers, Whyte & Mackay, and many others.

My choice for today is also a blend, which is a mix of malt and grain whiskies from multiple distilleries, in this case assembled by Compass Box. In contrast to my recent choices, it is widely available and affordable ($35/bottle).

What's it taste like?

  • The initial impression on the nose, and on first drinking it, is of Frangelico or a dry Sherry (it's a very nutty mix, with hazelnuts or perhaps walnuts).
  • It is 43% abv so it's not going to burn your nose with high alcohol vapors. 
  • What lingers on the palate is a very nice vanilla complex, perhaps light butterscotch. The most complete description would be fresh-baked Apple pie.

One thing to keep in mind about the word "blended" is that it doesn't mean what you think it means. Other than rare single-cask expressions like the Littlemill I drank yesterday, virtually all whisky is blended if you use the term mean mixed.

Single-malts are produced day in, day out and yet every bottle tastes the same (to a very close approximation). This sameness is achieved year after year. A bottle you buy in five years will likely taste just like you remember. This is achieved by mixing the liquid from multiple casks of various ages to create a consistent product. The age statement on the bottle, if one exists, reflects the youngest component in the bottle. So, even single-malts are mixtures. But the term "blend" is reserved to distinguish whisky that is either the product of multiple distilleries, or that contains multiple types of grain other than malted barley.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

005 - Littlemill

I'm posting this early today so I can run some errands before the Packers-Niners game.
It's thanks to my whisky friend +Joshua McGee that I even know about Littlemill. Its one of the few distilleries that are in the Lowland region. The Littlemill distillery stopped production in 1996 and was demolished in 2005. I was fortunate to find some Littlemill last year at K&L in Redwood City, CA (from a cask that they acquired for their customers) as well as the 24 years old; single-cask bottle that I describe below from an independent bottler, which I found at Beltramo's in Menlo Park, CA. Now I am always interested in expressions from this distillery since the two I've had have been very different.

Without planning to do it this way, the first four expressions I outlined already in this series are from four of the five Scotch whisky regions. With Littlemill, I will have touched on each of the five official Scotch whisky regions (listed here in alphabetical order):
  1. Campbeltown
  2. Highland
  3. Islay
  4. Lowland
  5. Speyside

I regret mentioning Littlemill because it's not easy to find, and as a result it's not cheap. I generally try to promote the many excellent Scotch whiskies that are quite affordable, lest I give the impression that Scotch is only for people with significant disposable income. does it taste?

  • Tree fruit like apples or quince on the tongue
  • Vanilla and soft oak notes in the nose 
  • 49.8% abv (99.6 proof)
  • Spicy - cinnamon under peppercorns
  • With water:
    • Subtle honey sweetness emerges with a mild tartness
    • Water cuts the heat and allows some of the leather and tobacco (oak) notes to emerge


One thing sets many Lowland drams apart is the use of triple distillation (a technique employed commonly in the production of Irish whiskey) because that is rarely seen elsewhere in Scotland. I'll see if I can get Joshua to confirm whether Littlemill used this technique.

Don't confuse triple distillation with the other Irish distillation technique - continuous or "Coffey" stills - that are used heavily in Scotland to produce the grain alcohol that is used in blended whisky.

The effect of triple (vs. double) distillation is that the new-make spirit may reach higher proof levels as it enters the cask, and the flavors may be either lighter or more concentrated, depending on the shape of the stills and on the way they are operated.

I have never had the chance to compare samples from the output of a second (or third) spirit still, but the number of variables is much larger than just the number of stills involved in producing a given finished spirit. All single-malt Scotch whiskies have exactly the same three ingredients: Water, malted barley, and yeast (as well as time, in that they must be aged in oak barrels for at least 3 years) -- yet there are literally thousands of single-malts on the market and they all taste different, despite the fact that most are distilled twice.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

004 - Ardbeg Corryvreckan (Committee Bottling)

Wow, what a story this bottle can tell. It's still packing a peaty punch even 5+ years later.

Back story:

I always recommend to people who are interested in whisky that they should join the clubs that each distillery maintains for its fans. They are free. They are generally informative. Sometimes you get free stuff. Sometimes you get offers you can't refuse. In this case, I got an offer I couldn't take advantage of.
Don't try to stand between me and an exclusive bottling of awesome-sounding new whisky.

Front story:

On a Friday I got a mailing from the Ardbeg Committee detailing their new exclusive bottling of Corryvreckan only for committee members. I called them on the following Monday to see if a US member could buy a bottle. The answer was yes. Then I asked if they could ship it to me. Alas, that was impossible. Made me wonder why they bothered to tell me about the bottling in the first place, frankly. But I don't take "no" for an answer when I want something.

Anyway, I immediately called a buddy who lives in Wales. I got his address and had the whisky shipped to him. He didn't understand the situation and tried to ship the box to me, resulting in the most awesome rejection ever. The bottle came back to him with a sticker on it; reason for rejection: PROHIBITED WHISKY. I still have that sticker. :-)

A few months later, another colleague was on his way to California and was meeting this person for a few days. He agreed to be a mule and bring the bottle in his checked baggage. Almost 6 months after I bought it, I had a bottle that was not supposed to be in my country.

So: Was it worth it?

I do love Scotch. All kinds. This one is one of the very peaty kinds of single-malt. And it's strong: 100° (British) proof (which is 57.1% abv, or 114.2 proof). In my old WordPress blog I wrote about proof. I won't bore you with it here because I already covered that topic elsewhere.

Corryvreckan is a BEAST. Not surprising given that it's named after one of the largest persistent whirlpools on Earth. The peat smoke on the nose is deceptive because while prominent you don't know what  phenolic wonders await when you drink it. On the tongue you get sweet maltiness with a big kick of the smell of walking along disused railroad tracks on a hot summer day but these tracks are near the ocean and you can also smell the salty sea air. The sweet notes are surprising given how strong this whisky is. As usual, Ardbeg manages to achieve balance, not overusing the peat just for the sake of high phenol ppm numbers. You can still appreciate the whisky underneath the peat, which - I'll reiterate - abounds.

To answer my question: YES. It was worth the effort to get it. This was a very special bottle. Sadly, it's almost gone, now.

The Rube Goldbergian effort to get it was the result of the Byzantine Prohibition-era laws governing the importation of alcohol into the United States. It would be nice if it was easier to get special small-batch bottlings into this country. If you can believe it, this bottle was also partly illegal simply because it's the wrong size (70cl instead of the US standard 75cl). That particular law dates to the 1970s when the US attempted to covert to the metric system. But that's a story for another day.

Pictures of my bottle:

Friday, January 3, 2014

003 - Glenlivet NĂ durra

So maybe not every whisky has a story. For me, the only thing remarkable about this expression was where it was found -- Costco in Redwood City, CA. Perhaps as a result of finding it there, the price was outstanding. Sometimes you find greatness at a great price.

Just the facts:

16 years old
Cask strength - 59.2% abv (118.4 proof!)
Bottled Dec 2006
Distilled on or before Dec 1990
Region: Speyside
Obtained from Costco (my wife's choice)
Price: $45 or so (an absolute steal)

My notes:

Hella spicy, strong - seriously...not your usual Glenlivet!
Intense pepper, cinnamon oil
Some bitter notes, like coffee
With water, considerable sweetness emerges, like butterscotch or caramel candy -- eventually, after you get past the fire, you can pick these out even without water
I am even getting a cherry cough syrup note in the background -- like after you drink a bit, then you get this note when you exhale

I hear that Nàdurra releases after this had a slightly different recipe. I haven't had a chance to compare them side by side in a double-blind taste test (not that I'd trust my palate to make such fine assessments anyway...) so I can't comment on whether this is better.

What I can say is that this Glenlivet expression is a very interesting whisky, and it is a significant departure from what I usually get from a good way! It's another whisky that you could spend an entire evening with a single serving. If you can find Nàdurra for less than $70 (allowing for inflation) -- get it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

002 - Springbank 15 - or...Does every bottle tell a story?

I got this bottle in late Sept or early Oct of 2011 and I took it our on our trip to Evergreen Lodge near Yosemite. It was my wedding anniversary and my wife and I both like Scotch and wanted to have something good to enjoy in front of the fire while reading a good book. It snowed while we were there so the bottle did get used.

Compared to the Highland Park 21 of yesterday's post, this is a very different dram. It's from practically the opposite corner of Scotland. If you've heard of any whisky from Campbeltown, Springbank is probably that whisky. The 15-year-old expression is a relatively mid-priced choice that represents the style of the distillery very well.

The Campbeltown region, broadly covering the Kintyre peninsula, is one of the 5 official Scotch whisky regions. Though Campbeltown has few distilleries today, in the past it had dozens. Whisky from this region is characterized by briny iodine notes overlaid with peat smoke (not to the same degree as some Islay whiskies, which is another of the 5 recognized Scotch whisky regions, and which is quite close to Campbeltown, as the crow flies).

To my limited nose and tongue, Springbank 15 had some oak notes, primarily tanned leather, and the darker berries/fruits or fruitcake that confirms its stay in Sherry casks. There is also a roughness that I quite like, along with a mouth-watering astringency. With all that said, it's also got sweetness in there which nicely complements the rest of the flavors and helps tie everything together. I think this is an excellent dram to nurse for hours, as it will keep revealing new aspects of itself over time. Recommended.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

001 - Highland Park 21

To close out 2013, I decided to finish a time capsule of sorts.

I think all whisky bottles are time capsules. It's a snapshot in this case of what was going on on the island of Orkney in Scotland in 1986 or earlier. Growing and harvesting grain. The weather across at least one growing season, the skills of the maltman, the miller, the brewer, the distiller, the warehouse manager -- all merge together in my bottle.

The youngest component of this travel retail release in October 2007 was 21 years old. But for me this was also encapsulating one of my earliest infatuations with whisky.

I heard about this particular release on a  contemporaneous episode of WhiskyCast and it sounded good (I was already a fan of Highland Park). To add thrill to the chase, it was only available in a few UK airports. But, sadly, I had no prospects for international travel.

Serendipity to the company soon thereafter wanted to send one of my colleagues to India to do some training (name withheld). And he planned to go via Heathrow. To make a long story short, he was audibly clanking as he walked to the escalator down to baggage claim at SFO. He had bottles for himself, me and one colleague from work. They were just over $120/bottle, which is a steal given the rarity, age and quality.

So, what did it taste like?

It's a Highland Park, so there is a distinct orange peel or burnt orange nose. The flavor is full of vanilla notes, with oak notes (tobacco, leather), soft maltiness and even some fresh cracked pepper. It is exceptionally well-rounded. I liked it better than their ever-popular 18-year-old.

The bottle I just finished was the first release but I believe they do still make it. If you see it, I highly recommend it.