Bullshit And Beyond; Banff Bonus

WELL HOWDY! It sure has been a while. I’m glad you’re here and reading, even if I’ve been lax in writing. I’d give some long explanation about my slack in writing, but it would amount to bullshit.

Bullshit

Check that segue out. Masterfully executed.

This post is a grab bag of reactions and thoughts. I’m keeping it grab-bag style so I don’t get too long-winded on any one point, but rather long-winded on a collection of points.

Whiskey blogs and twitter dorks are all abuzz about Buffalo Trace’s latest back-slapping press release, which masquerades as information about the company, but is actually PR that would do Barnum proud. Proving the adage attributed to him, I’ve seen non-whiskey blogs lapping up Buffalo Trace’s dire warnings about a whiskey shortage and effectively acting like goldbugs or Jim Cramer, warning you to buy,  buy,  buy while you can, and hopefully, eventually, Buffalo Trace will make more.

This is no Schooner Tuna pitch. This is facts which may individually be true that have been woven into a tapestry of complete bullshit.

Let’s not forget, Sazerac et al were responsible for a vodka so completely gimmicky that you can still find it languishing on shelves years later. Had a similar tale been told about whiskey, that shit would have vanished in a heartbeat. Yes, whiskey lovers, the vodka fans we mock so readily have exercised better judgement and restraint.

There’s an undercurrent of worry, as if old whiskey will never be seen again, or perhaps no whiskey at all will exist in a few years. Let’s review some basic concepts.

Whiskey production is planned years in advance. Yes, the plan is subject to revision, but you’re fundamentally working with about a 4-year minimum window. If you forecast a downturn, you’ll start curtailing production years ahead. If you think your product will increase in popularity, you increase production. Generally that increase, plus a little price bump, will smooth things out.

Well, whiskey exploded about 3-4 years ago, and really in earnest in the last 18 months. We’ve seen products disappear for months at a time (how many times have you heard “there’s literally no [whiskey name] available in the state” from a retailer?). This is a supply shortfall, and in this case, it’s generally demand outstripping supply as opposed to yield problems (production errors – bad batches, etc) or channel inefficiencies (problem physically bringing product to retail shelves).

If you’re afraid that the distillers are losing their shirt, bear in mind that the current situation is that they are selling virtually everything they produce. This isn’t really a “go out of business” problem. This is a “best problem you could hope to have as a business owner”. Money is not being lost, it is merely being left on the table in the short term.

With full-sell through, buoyed by price increases and stretching supply (dropping age statements, lowering proof, repurposing bottom shelf booze to pad out your prize $35-50+ bottles), but faced with a large shortfall, expansion is the logical path. And this path is being taken.

Yes, you will see old whiskey on your shelves again – even sooner if people lose interest in seeing marketing hysteria around whiskeys they will literally never be able to taste. It may take a while, but it will happen.

The other thing to remember is that this affects a handful of producers. You can still find any number of mystery meat bottlings sourced from heaven only knows where. It’s not like some 1980s vision of Soviet market shelves: they’re not bare. They just might not have that bottle you really want.

And that bottle you really, really want that a bunch of other people want as bad as you? Well, good luck with that. Try finding some everyday choices so you don’t have to endure a lot of craziness.

Finally, and I’ve counseled this before with regards to the completely insane “Whiskey Investment” market: if someone has a vested financial interest in you making a purchase and is screaming that the sky is falling and you have to purchase now – you ought to consider opting-out (or at least not going all-in).

But I’ve never been to the distillery, so this could all be bullshit. What do I know? I’m just a dumb blogger.

Beyond

Around Christmastime, I didn’t care about writing a traditional gift guide with lavish praise for questionable booze. However, I had a lot of fun at the expense of an anonymous spirits PR person who offered me JPGs of their client’s product in exchange for favorable coverage.

Sorry, anonymous spirits PR person. No one wants to work with me because I’m not great at playing ball. You can ask Exposure, who seemed to have a successful run in 2012 getting blogs to cover some of their clients’ products. I expressed my dislike for Glenrothes and never heard back. All good!

But it planted a seed in my head. Several weeks ago, almost a year to the day of my constructive criticism of noted wine critic Robert Parker, David Driscoll of K&L lightheartedly called me out in an email about a gin they were selling which Parker hailed as the best he’s ever tried. David set some aside for me to take the Pepsi challenge with; it seemed ridiculous enough to be fun. This is unfortunately not the entry where a series of gins are reviewed; that will be coming soon. (Seriously). Keep an eye out.

And yes, Beefeater will be covered.

Banff Bonus

So let’s wrap this thing up with an old whiskey that you won’t ever find. Maybe this seems unfair; pretend for a minute that I’m a better writer and have a more discerning palate and my name is Serge, and you’ll be able to accept this coverage of a long-since-gone bottle. Alternatively, you can just imagine that this is some coverage of Slappy van Oceanaged’s latest thirty-aught-six year old wheated bourbon from a typhoon-damaged warehouse housing nothing but lost and orphaned casks which serendipitously got a mixture of rye and hydraulic fracturing fluid in them.

Feel better? Let’s continue, then.

This Banff is part of a longer series of reviews of whisky from the closed Banff distillery. Why Banff? Banff was my first drink-your-age whisky; I really enjoyed it and it has a bizarre story.

Why not.

Anyway, this Banff was distilled in November 1966 and bottled in June 2004, aged 37 years and coming from cask 3440. It’s at a whisky-enthusiast-galling 43%, but let’s be fair: it’s 37 years old and was bottled in ’04. It’s a MacKillop’s Choice Single Cask bottle.

The nose on this has some faint buttercream vanilla and a bit of light grassiness; there’s some white pepper and a little tobacco. The tobacco gives a little bit of dimension, but the nose is primarily vanilla and a touch of malt.

The palate is initially bland, with some general sweet and malty notes; honey and vanilla follow. There’s some white pepper and again, some light grassiness.

The finish perks up with a little spiciness – white pepper and cinnamon, some oak, and it’s all got a honeyed side to it as well.

It’s not a particularly complex one, but it does open up and give a pleasant, if not particularly challenging whisky. Interestingly, this is a whisky where the age seems more felt in a spicy wood flavor than a heavy oaken note. In some ways it’s not unlike Powers John’s Lane.

Today this whiskey would cost nine zillion dollars.

And that’s everything from the clown squad here at Scotch and Ice Cream. Stay tuned for the next post when we investigate if angry tweets and blog posts make whiskey taste better, we determine if Glenrothes is even suitable to use as an engine degreaser, and we react passive-aggressively to retailer blogs.

At a glance:

Banff 1966 Mackillop’s Choice #3440 D: 11-1966 B: 06-2004 43% ABV
Nose:
  An initial faint buttercream vanilla flavor with faint grassiness behind it; a little white pepper. A little tobacco in the background, but a stronger vanilla note above.
Palate:  Kind of bland upfront, a little general sweetness and maltiness, some light honey and vanilla, a bit of white pepper and tobacco and a touch of grassiness. 
Finish:  A little spice! Some honey and white pepper, a faint dab of cinnamon, some oak. 
Comment:  The palate isn’t too interesting, but the ages come through more as spice than oak. Agreeable and easygoing; not too aggressive.
Rating: B

Malt, French Style

I’ve been trying to steer clear of the initial rush around new bottles these days. To me there’s a sort of palate/blogger recency effect where everyone ricochets between new releases and really only can contextualize a new bottle in context of the last few sips they’ve had. That’s a big reason why I haven’t been in a rush to be first-to-taste anymore. Plus it’s allowed me to slow down and enjoy what I’ve purchased.

One of the bottles I’ve kind of been on the sidelines of is Brenne. Hang around in whisky circles online and it’s almost unavoidable – among the Twitter whisky people and their related blogs, this one swept through by storm. There was a recent second spasm of coverage following an event in LA. While I love meeting fellow Angelenos, events are just tough for me personally – I really enjoy something a little lower-key. You can call me an antisocial troll; it won’t hurt my feelings. After all, according to Twitter and other retailer blogs, I’m scarcely more than a full-time hater and angry young man.

Being aware of the event, though, I wasn’t surprised to see a bottle at a horrendous, price-gouging, unscrupulous retailer who is really emblematic of all that is Wrong with liquor sALes on the west side of town. SurprisingLY, their uSual staggering markup had been curbed, and this was at market parity. Clearly this means Brenne needs to sling some serious bullshit and perhaps do some artificial special editions; there’s profit being left on the table here. I’d suggest a limited edition trio of bottles – Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, with blue/white/red labels – which really need not differ from the main release but could surely suck another $35 from the unwashed masses. Maybe bump the ABV up to 50%?

This is glib and unfair, of course. Brenne is the brainchild of Allison Patel, and there has been plenty written about this whisky both from her own perspective as well as people with better access than I have. Start with her blog and then hit Google.

The long and short of Brenne is that it’s a French single malt whisky finished in cognac casks.

[pandering and mostly unfunny jokes about surrender, cheese, wine, and freedom fries go here]

Cognac cask finishing is the hook on this one for me. While I don’t like cognac or armagnac (leave that to Sku), I can’t deny that as a finish, it has done some really fantastic things to whisky in my opinion. The Parker’s Heritage finished in cognac originally seemed a little too sweet, but really acquitted itself admirably as a “dessert whisky”, if there is such a thing — sweet and just generally agreeable, though not particularly challenging. There was a 43 year old Glenfarclas aged in a cognac cask, but that’s practically cheating: 43 year old Glenfarclas is a staggeringly high bar to begin with in general, and it sat tremendously well with the cognac finish.

With the opportunity to almost pay a reasonable retail price at Westwood’s Wildly overpriced Wine retailer serving as novelty/justification on its own, I picked this bottle up. And then I even paid for it, all by myself.

When I opened it to pour, I was hit by an intense – and I mean intense – fruit aroma. It was kind of a mix of apple and strawberry, but usually I only expect this kind of a kick of scent from an Islay or an early 70s Bruichladdich, which is just apple overload.

Even on subsequent pours, I kept smelling the strong aroma; it doesn’t seem to be one of those first-out-of-the-bottle exaggerated perception things.

In the glass, this has extremely strong fruity notes; it’s got an apple-esque presence up front, but sort of a strawberry-like body behind it. That strawberry vibe is markedly artificial, and I kept thinking “strawberry Twizzlers”. There’s a candy feeling to the whole thing; I smelled Fruit Stripe gum at one point, but then got some real fruit – poached pear and then a pineapple/banana/vanilla thing. (OK, Juicy Fruit gum).

The palate is where things get a bit confused for me. There’s this mixture of grounded, “real” flavors versus artificial flavors – Juicy Fruit comes up first, with pepper right behind. Hmm. There’s a medicinal quality, but it’s not the iodine/menthol that gets that. It’s that flash you get from NyQuil when you try to figure out what it would taste like without the artificial flavor. To be totally honest, it reminds me of Mucinex Severe Congestion and Cough formula, but less overtly “blue raspberry bomb pop” flavored.

The finish races by with the late Mucinex thing from the palate, but it suddenly shows some traditional whisky notes – slight leather, a touch of cinnamon and a faint, faint dash of white pepper. But then it’s all over.

I came back to this a few times thinking my palate was off or hoping to see it oxidize into something a little less punchy — how many times has that happened? (A lot). Unfortunately, it was pretty much on this, delta the usual night-to-night palate variation.

Unfortunately, this is one of those whiskeys that is just a wide shot off my personal preferences and one that’s going to be hard for me to like. It sits in company like Woodford Reserve (Sonoma Cutrer came to mind from a textural and mouthfeel standpoint, though SC is about a trillion times worse than Brenne could ever hope to be) in that regard. I don’t doubt there are people who like — love, even — what Brenne brings to the table. It’s just so candied and gummy and sticky-sweet that it passes over a personal preference for me.

I certainly don’t write this to savage Allison’s effort; hell, it’s more drinkable than other French malts solo. I also don’t write to be contrarian, as there are a lot of people who really like this stuff. I really am posting my less-than-thrilled take on it because there are people who aren’t as keen on the big, sweet profile in bourbon or beyond. For my peeps in the rye society: this isn’t your whiskey, guys.

That said, if the notes I’ve posted sound appealing to you, Brenne is reasonably priced and worth a risk. To me, and to further ground this, this is in the same category as Angel’s Envy Rye – undeniably weird and unlike anything else due to a very heavy finish influence. AE Rye was weird and emphatically did not work for a lot of people, though I really enjoyed it in its glorious one-trick-pony-ness. Brenne is weird and emphatically does not work for me, but it might be just the thing for you. I’m going to pass if you offer it to me, though.

At a glance:

Brenne Whisky, 40% ABV (Barrel 265)
Nose: 
Extremely strong fruity notes; kind of has a mixture of apple cider but then a more strawberry-esque (but not quite) note, a la red Twizzlers. A kind of candy vibe all over; maybe even some Fruit Stripe gum. It’s extremely powerful. A little bit of poached pear and some pineapple/vanilla/light banana – or keeping with the candy theme, we’ll call it Juicy Fruit gum.
Palate:  Kind of a strange clash. The overpowering half-real, half-artificial note, a little more Juicy Fruit than anything else; butting up against a little very light pepper. There’s also this kind of medicinal undertone to it – not the kind of nasty iodiney/menthol thing, but kind of that flash you get from NyQuil where you’re trying to figure out what isn’t blatantly artificial. This reminds me of liquid Mucinex (Severe Congestion and Cough formulation) but less “blue raspberry bomb pop” flavor.
Finish:  Kind of races out with that late Mucinex thing, but then has a slight leather quality; a touch of cinnamon and maybe a faint, faint hit of white pepper.
Comment:  This one really doesn’t have a chance for me; the profile is just wide of the mark. A little too heavy-handed with the fruit, but when it settled, I wondered if the spirit underneath didn’t have a heavy oak kick. Who knows.
Rating: C

Bowmore and More Bowmore

Given the title, you may think this is a late post on the Black Bowmore tasting LAWS had recently (and that Adam wrote up yesterday). Alas: I was not at that tasting, I did not have the Black Bowmore, and I remain individually bereft. The glorious nectar which aged in a cask  kissed by angels, silently bearing witness to many important events of the 20th century, such as the launch of Billy Beer, has simply not touched my lips.

At least that’s how I think you’re supposed to write about it. I’ll just assume it was not meant to be this time, and at some point, it will. Or it won’t.

All that silliness aside, this is a much more practical and affordable pair of whiskies in the glass. If you need rarity and exclusivity and so on to punch up the cachet of the whisky review, you might find this depressing. Instead – let’s fire up the transmarketifier and really drum these up.

Whisky number one is a Faultline bottling of Bowmore. This whisky was aged 15 years, from June 23, 1997, distilled weeks after the breakup of Soundgarden, and bottled on February 16th, 2013, weeks after Soundgarden reunited and released King Animal. This whisky was placed into casks by Scotsmen who mourned one of the most vital bands of the Seattle scene, who stood above the “grunge” label and had a foot comfortably planted in hard rock and metal. The cask had been hand-coopered sometime previous, and lovingly restored and prepared to receive new spirit. “If Soundgarden’s calling it quits at the peak of their creativity,” it was heard frequently in the warehouse, “then we’d best be careful and tighten our belt. I suspect that we may be only eleven and a half years from a major economic downturn. ” The cask was laid into one of Bowmore’s famed warehouses and forgotten, much as many forgot the unique riffs of Kim Thayil. Days turned into weeks and months; years passed as well.

A young man named David Driscoll couldn’t be bothered to care when this cask went into wood; he was dreaming of the college years ahead, and certain that he could con his professors into accepting his proposed Critical Studies Of Professional Wrestling major. In time, Driscoll too would learn the sting of disappointment as this proposed course of study was not approved.

The sands of time had accumulated, and this cask was nearly obscured in a dark corner of the Bowmore warehouses. Perhaps this would be lost forever. David Driscoll confidently walked through the warehouse, guided by providence, some say. Lesser spirits reps taste barrels, smell and hug them, and try to intuit some greater reality. That morning, Driscoll felt the lofty hand of providence guiding him down to a barrel, tugging impatiently like a toddler. He turned to his right, and time and space vanished. This cask was The One.

The cask was dumped into bottles, filled gently and with unerring precision by a bottling machine that had been serviced hours previously. A Palm Tree label had been affixed to all the bottles, in a style that was strongly reminiscent of old Samaroli labels. At the top, the name: FAULTLINE. This spirit had travelled half a world, and would now only be sold within the exclusive and hallowed halls of K&L in California, as well as via their website, available to any state with permissive alcohol consumption laws, particularly with regards to shipping.

Unfortunately, it’s sold out. That is to say, it is all gone, as unavailable at retail as the Black Bowmore, and you can only find it via the secondary market or a friend who happens to have a bottle.

The second bottle is a newer Faultline bottle of Bowmore. This is a 16 year old, distilled in 1996 and bottled in 2013. It was aged in a refill sherry cask, and is still available. It doesn’t have a clever backstory. However, and don’t let the terrorists know this, the bottle can be repurposed into a “dirty bomb” by simply ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓  ▓▓▓   ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓  ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓   ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓  ▓▓▓  ▓▓▓.

Obviously that affects the value (and prestige) greatly.

I actually grabbed both of these whiskies within the last few months. I’ve continued to orbit around Bowmore after receiving some feedback from commenters Florin and Mongo, as well as discussing it with my friend Steffen a little over a year ago. Consensus among them and some others were that Bowmore of the late 1990s had the potential to be above average. I figured these two were worth the risk, since they weren’t hideously overpriced. After all, it’s not five years ago, and you can either gnash your teeth and curse the fact, or you can get your liver on the case and try to find the next great things.

The first one I had was the Palm Tree release. This Bowmore is a lighter one, and at 60.1%, I was fearing the worst: A mostly inert cask resulting in a strong new make note and a waterlogged oaky presence with no spice to help it along.

At first approach, it’s got a strong prickle to the nose — hey, it’s 60% — with some malty sweetness behind it. There’s champagne mango, banana, and a touch of coconut. There’s also something that struck me as being sort of like riesling. It’s got a nice, relatively moderated smokiness that isn’t acrid – just rich and full but not overpowering. Classic Bowmore.

The palate has a nice smooth mouthfeel; some gentle spice and heat are there, but it’s relatively controlled given the strength. There’s some smoke, more of the fruitiness from the nose, and some banana richness (it’s not really a banana note per se, it’s just that kind of quasi-dry/creamy impression I get from bananas), some pineapple and a bit of gentle wood and white pepper.

The finish leads with smoke and has a nice body. It’s got a quick bit of fruit, and then it’s got a delicious, briny nori-esque note. It’s not out-and-out fishy though. Long, lightly sweet, and a generous but not overbearing dab of fruit. In short, it’s a really nice whisky, a good balance of fruit and peat, without being too much of either or even walking in the direction of “cloying”.

On the other side of the fence is the newer Bowmore, #90069, also a K&L Faultline exclusive and aged in refill sherry. This one comes in at 52%; it has a darker hue which says the cask did something (unless someone knocked a strawberry pop-tart in and everyone pretended not to notice).

The nose on this Bowmore is initially a little sharp and slightly sour. It’s got some light wood presence and smells turpentine-y and underdeveloped. The peat presence is almost chemical. Even after letting this bottle air out substantially, I find it tamps down the sharper notes, but there’s still a weird artificial tang to the peat notes.

The palate is sweet peat, with malt and more sugary than sherry-influenced. It’s got cinnamon and pepper, and a lightly sour, underdeveloped note again. With plenty of air, I still haven’t found this one to change a lot.

The finish is quite warm, with a vague iodine quality on the peat. On the whole it’s more organic than the artificial tang it had, and dominates the finish over a light chili heat. Unsurprisingly from these notes (and multiple tasting sessions, and allowing various amount of air), this whisky just didn’t do it for me.  I probably have poured as much down the sink as I’ve tasted. I’d love to love it, but I don’t.

So there you have it. One good, one not so good. The hunt continues, but paler, teenage Bowmore from the mid-to-late 1990s may, in fact, be worth keeping an eye on.

At a glance:

Bowmore 15y d:1997 b:2013, Faultline “Palm Tree”, 60.1% ABV
Nose:  Strong prickle initially (hey, it’s 60%!), followed close by some malty sweetness; some champagne mango, some banana; a little and a touch of coconut. Maybe a faint hint of riesling? A nice, relatively moderated smokiness that doesn’t feel acrid, just rich without being overpowering.
Palate:  Nice, smooth mouthfeel. A little gentle spice and heat but quite controlled given the strength. Some smoke; more of the lighter fruity quality; a bit of banana richness (in the background); a touch of pineapple, a little gentle wood and white pepper.
Finish:   Leads with smoke, some really nice body to it. There’s a quick flirtation of the fruit that’s been with this, but then you get this kind of delicious savory and slightly briny note like some nori. It’s not out-and-out-fishy. Long, lightly sweet, with a generous but not overbearing dab of fruit.
Comment:  Really nice. A great balance of gentle sweetness and peat, without being too much of either.
Rating: B+

Bowmore 16y d:1996 b:2013 Faultline (no clever name) 52.0% ABV
Nose:  A little sharp, with a slight hint of sourness. A little woody. Smells kind of turpentine-y and underdeveloped. Peat is there but smells almost chemical.
Palate:  Slightly sweet peat; malt and more sugary than sherry-influenced. Some cinnamon and pepper. Again with that lightly sour, underdeveloped note.
Finish:  Heat, the peat has a slightly iodine-y, more organic character and dominates the finish over the light chili heat.
Comment:  The nose doesn’t work for me at all. The palate has moments of being highly questionable.
Rating: C

Shaking Frustration With Discipline

It’s been pretty clear here and elsewhere that there are rumblings of discontent in the whisky blog nerd space (a whopping 100 or so people, truly a horde indicative of broader societal change). We’re in a time with embarrassing riches: companies are listening; sometimes they even release things that reveal proof of it. There’s any number of whiskies available at any number of ages from virtually any distillery out there; in any number of cask pedigrees. Want something finished in a high-end Bordeaux? No problem. Barolo? Done. Dessert wine? Sure. Herring finish? Been done.

Despite all this choice, there’s any number of negative reactions. For those who think the industry does no wrong, there’s the fear of missing out on something. This gets even harder when there’s some oddball one-off or batched releases or overseas/travel exclusives.

There’s the contrary view: quality is declining, price is increasing, and times aren’t what they were. This speaks for itself: a sense of loss compared to a perceived time of plenty – really, missing that time before things got more popular, and the attendant shifts that come out of necessity for physical goods when popularity arrives.

There’s all kinds of other things to complain about: Packaging; wooden corks; screw caps (though you’d be wrong in this case); various personalities; breathless retailers; jerkface bloggers; secret clubs; not so secret clubs; exotic tastings; blogs covering the same shit as everyone else; blogs talking about irrelevant shit like pancakes or carnitas; Europeans; Americans; Serge’s connections; etc. etc. etc.

There’s really no shortage of stuff to be pissed off about. So what the heck do you do to counteract that? Find new avenues to appreciate, advocate, and then fall out of love with? It seems like that cycle has burned through most of the facets that exist in whisky appreciation. You’re forced to ask yourself at some point, “Do I still enjoy this? Do I enjoy this in the same way as I did a while ago?”

A while back I started looking for things to replace the holes in my blog reading after I stopped following the majority of the whisky writing out there. It’s way too easy to become hyper-insular when all you do is read, digest and discuss the same content as everyone else in a small subculture. It’s even worse if you’re prone to obsession or geekdom. Suddenly, references, thoughts, and ideas outside  the narrowly constructed box become a point of contention. “Why does Sku write about stupid Los Angeles restaurants? Why does Driscoll always talk about pro wrestling? Why does Serge always have some aside about music?”

The obsessed mind loses context. A picture, generally speaking, needs a frame. It sets the contents apart from the gallery walls that surround it, but tacitly acknowledges the space the picture is displayed in. It provides the boundaries for the work which invite you in further to ask questions – for instance, in the photography of Garry Winogrand or Henri Cartier-Bresson: what was just out of frame? What was happening around what I see? What happened just before and just after?

At a minimum, these things help provide context and information about the person writing. You can’t hardly throw a stone without reading a review of Buffalo Trace bourbon, for instance, but it’s just tasting notes and a score. There’s no sense of the who or what of the review. Is the person a bottom-shelf drinker? Are they attracted to flashy labels or packaging? Do they thrive on novelty? Do they have the underdeveloped palate of a two year old? If I have an objection to scores, it’s this. I don’t know anything about who’s writing, their experiences, or where it comes from.

But context is important than that. It’s  a speed bump to keep you from going too far in. They help remind you that there’s more to life than some controversy about whatever the latest scuttlebutt is about Pappy or what some tour guide at a Diageo distillery said. It’s a reminder that, hey, maybe you should get out. Live life. Give yourself the space necessary to determine what is worthy of your time, because not everything is worth it.

I spent a lot of time away from whiskey. I’m unplugged and clueless about the latest news, aside from the occasional smartass quip on twitter. I lost myself in other interests I’d set aside and cultivated new ones. And it’s brought a lot of perspective.

One of my ongoing projects I’ve discussed here is paring down my possessions. Initially, this was a response to a feeling of wastefulness and overconsumption. Then there was a self-reinforcing sense of accomplishment as things started to dwindle. Now it’s reached a new and very interesting thing: as some of these sub-projects wind to their logical conclusion, there are new perceived gaps and purchases. It’s not a need to re-buy everything in the closet after throwing 70% of it out, it’s realizing there’s a missing middle-ground in shoes, for instance. It’s not buying another snare drum because, hey, a cool one came out, it’s the one you’ve been chasing for years on end has finally surfaced and it’s exactly what you were looking for. And perhaps there’s an element of understanding that even this moment of need will pass and the “need” will no longer exist. And you’ll get rid of the thing: either by selling it, tossing it, consuming it, or wearing it out.

I learned about a great idea/practice in my non-whisky-blog reading of the last few months and I think it’s applicable back to this long winter of discontent in some whisky circles, especially if you’re in the “everything is great” camp or the “everything sucks” camp.

The French Wardrobe

What in the hell? What’s this got to do with anything?

Read enough about clothing, wardrobe selection, etc. and this will pop up sooner or later. It’s a really great idea and one I’ve been trying to apply to my interests in particular but my life in general.

The basic idea is that in any given fashion season (of which there are two: Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer), you limit yourself to five purchases maximum to keep your wardrobe fresh and current. Shoes count, accessories don’t (if they’re inexpensive), and basics (underwear, etc) are exempted as they’re assumed to be a necessary baseline. You’re encouraged to buy for quality and longer life than just the season as well. Some have even advocated taking this down to five purchases a year instead of per-season.

Certainly if you’re more or less set and you’re content to wear underwear until it turns into vapor, this won’t seem like a challenge. But the idea is applicable beyond clothes and towards your passions in general. What if you limited yourself to two nicer bottles in one year, during exclusive season? What would you do with that? Obviously you’ve got your existing stash to drink against, and let’s say you have a $30 per bottle limit the rest of the year. Is it uncomfortable? Suddenly you can get creative. What if you buy one bottle of, say, BTAC, and another friend buys another and you do an enjoyably social thing and have a tasting or sample swap with a few other like-minded friends?

What if you pick the dream bottle to celebrate a milestone?

What if you stopped worrying about keeping up with everything coming out because your consumption changed in such a way to tacitly acknowledge that you won’t even try, and you won’t get bent out of shape?

It’s a good balm for the fear of missing out. It also forces you to re-appraise what you’ve got, which for many people is more than they realize. I spent time going through my cabinet, giving bottles away and purging, and emerged with a much smaller subset of bottles I’m excited to open, enjoy and share. What do you get for the whisky enthusiast who has everything? You challenge them to focus and choose.

I think this was reinforced for me by my plan of avoiding the hunt for exclusives this last fall. I managed to find a bottle of the Four Roses exclusive just by sheer luck, but beyond that, no BTAC, no Woodford, nothing. And I didn’t mind a bit. I instead tried to find my “core” whiskies, as it were. And I’ve managed to find a few that I can happily return to and aren’t obscenely priced. Sure, there’s variety here and there, but I’m not feeling any pressure to get ever more exotic.

If you’re looking for something new to try, maybe restraint is the ticket, both in purchasing as well as content consumption. I’ve discovered blogs I love, but I’m finding it more fun when they go off-script and you see real passion shine through. Don’t lose sight of that!

 

laddie

Trois Couleurs: Bruichladdich

I’ve had a trio of Bruichladdich bottles on my shelf for some time now: Blacker Still, Redder Still, and Golder Still. These are largely gone, but occasionally you’ll see one on the shelves or push through the sales channel, as Golder did with K&L a while back. I’ve had these for a while, but at a recent lunch with Sku of Sku’s Recent Eats, I passed him samples of each of the three. Not much happened; he suggested that we do a joint review (is that still a thing? Maybe it’s retro-revival time). A couple months passed because I still am subject to the whims of the germs my son brings into the house; and then I managed to get briefly snowed under with work.

Finally, though, here we are. The three colors of Bruichladdich. This review will in no way live up the Kieslowski trio, but as a semi-regular reader of S&I, you knew to expect that it was just a cheap culture reference, right?

These three whiskies were released in 2006, 2007 and 2008, anywhere from 3-5 years before the first “New-era” spirit from the McEwan era of Bruichladdich would be released. Blacker Still apparently hails from oloroso casks and was in wood for 20 years; Redder Still was bourbon cask aged and then was in Chateau Lafleur casks. (Bruichladdich notes — interrogatively — that this is favored by Robert Parker.) Finally, Golder Still was aged in “dumpy” bourbon hogsheads; apparently this promoted additional wood contact and an “older style”. Fantastic. Now that we’ve recounted the thumbnail sketch of these whiskies, there’s little left to do but drink them, make some cheap jokes, and assign them a place in the pantheon of Limited Edition Whiskies We Have Chatted Enjoyably About.

Golder Still is the one I have the most experience with; I first purchased a bottle in the dying days of my association with a music startup in 2011. It was both a luxury buy and evening companion to help unwind in the hotel rooms, but I think it also helped me escape the unpleasant truth that I was going to be moving on. In spite of that, I still have only good memories of it. But that was several years ago. How about now?

The nose of Golder Still leads with a slight caramel sweetness with some straightforward malt; there’s some subtle floral hints and a little faint herbaceous grassiness. It’s a little more plain than I remember it being.  The palate leads with a sort of half-waterlogged oak, watery and woody but kind of lacking focus. There’s pepper and a considerable malt profile, and heat grows.

The finish is more oak but drying out and getting a bit of focus, some Sichuan pepper for that pleasant tingle in the lips, and some fairly sweet malty notes. It’s agreeable but not really unique. That’s not to say it’s not worth a try, but at the prices this one is going to command today (unless you’re the benefactor of a Driscollian blowout), it’s not really a great bang for the buck. Golder Still was distilled in ’84 and bottled in ’08 at 23y.

Redder Still was probably the biggest enigma of the bunch for me. I’d heard people call it out as an oddball in the past; though certainly not in the same tone as the late stages of the Chenin Blanc… thing. This has the dubious distinction of a wine finish; a great gimmick for a while (and occasionally successful, even at the House That Remy Bought) but frequently just a way to mask a substandard casks. For a while we even kind of, sort of dug it. I think it’s a much tougher sell these days. Redder Still was distilled in ’84, bottled in ’07 at 22y and 50%.

The nose of Redder Still has a moderately woody backbone, but some fruity roundness smooths it out a bit – Gala apple’s taste kind of jumps out at me. There’s some white pepper and pear; it has this almost quasi-sherried dimension, but the fruit notes aren’t as dark and deep, nor as dimensional. With a little bit more air, it gets to be a bit more floral and shows a light vanilla character. It’s gentle at first in the palate, with a little heat growing, kind of mixing the tingly lip feel of Sichuan pepper and more of a white pepper quality as well. There’s the apple/pear sweetness from the nose, a faint bit of honey, and then some oaky, spicy flavor. The vanilla note from the nose is lightly present here, but the palate eventually is dominated by the drier oak notes, as well as a bit of tobacco.

The finish isn’t amazing. It starts fairly dry and bitter with oak and pepper, but it resolves to something a little less bitter, and the late-palate tobacco shows up. It’s an interesting and layered whisky, but the fruit hinted at on the nose gets overrun by the heavy oak presence on the palate. It makes for an uneasy attempt at balance, and I’m not sure it really works. It’s an interesting drink if you’re in the mood for what it has to offer, though.

Finally, Blacker Still. This one has been the star of this trio for some time; its high reviews at LAWS  (from the early days!) brought Bruichladdich as a whole to my attention.

It’s an interesting thing in this day and age: the two-decade-old cask with a heavy sherry component. We see less of these than we did even a few years ago; though occasionally it’s seen. Usually these are slam dunks for A-range whiskies, generally regarded as great stuff. There have been some slam dunks; the most recent winner in my mind was the K&L/Exclusive Malts Longmorn that was an absolute winner.

Blacker Still has that nose out of the gate. It’s rich and deep, slightly sticky-sweet fig quality, some molasses and brown sugar. It’s faintly leathery in a good way (more and more sherried whisky smells like cheap patent leather, it seems) and overall syrupy. The palate continues that syrupy character; it’s thick, rich and coating. It’s got a full mouthfeel and just screams “sherry” with dark fruits,  a little white pepper spice and a faint dab of cayenne. More figs and molasses.

The finish is again – surprise! – stamped with a sherry influence, some leather, molasses, and caramelized sugar. There’s a lingering dark fruit presence as well. It’s just a great whiskey. Is it a staggering, world-beating, grab-this-at-auction-price-be-damned one? No. It’s the best of the Still series by a wide margin, but it’s probably not in my top five sherried whiskies of the last decade. Maybe top ten? I’d have to think on that. This is worth a try but I’d say the hype has exaggerated its legend slightly. I think there are cleaner, better sherried whiskies out there — Glendronach, Glenfarclas, the aforementioned Longmorn and Tun 1401 come to mind.

It’s a fun experiment to look at these whiskies from the period when Bruichladdich was still trying to establish itself. It differs markedly from the lighter, apple-forward stuff from the 1970s; it doesn’t have the lactic character that (to me) defines much of the modern Bruichladdich output. Also fun will be reading the conclusions reached at Sku’s Recent Eats, with his companion review up now. 

At a glance:

Bruichladdich Blacker Still 20y 50.7% ABV
Nose:
  Rich, deep sherry on the nose, slightly sticky-sweet fig, maybe a touch of molasses, some brown sugar. faint nice leather, syrupy.
Palate:  Syrupy, thick, rich and coating; very full mouthfeel, great sherry presence with some white pepper spice, maybe a faint dab of cayenne. Figgy, molasses again, with some dark fruits.
Finish:  Tons of rich sherry influence, a little faint leather, a touch of molasses sweetness, some caramelized sugar; lingering dark fruit.
Comment:  Everything you want. Just a fantastic whiskey.
Rating: A-

Bruichladdich Redder Still 22y 50.4% ABV
Nose:  A backbone of moderate wood, with some fruity roundness – a touch of Gala apple. A little white pepper and a touch of pear; with a kind of quasi-sherry dimension to it, but not quite as much dimension as a sherry-aged whisky would have. With some air it gets a touch more floral and exhibits a light vanilla note.
Palate:  Gentle on the mouthfeel, moderate with a little peppery heat growing – a mixture of sichuan and white peppers. Some apple/pear sweetness, with a little faint hint of honey, and then a little more oaky, spicy richness. The vanilla note from the nose is present but in the background, dominated by the drier notes as well as some tobacco.
Finish:  A bit bitter and dry at first; some oak and lingering pepper; eventually resolves towards a little less bitter oak and some tobacco.
Comment:  Interesting and layered, but a bit of an uneasy balance between the fruit and sweetness and the drier oak and tobacco.
Rating: B-

Bruichladdich Golder Still 23y 51% ABV
Nose:  Light slightly caramel sweetness with some straightforward maltiness, a subtle floral hint. Ever so faint grassiness.
Palate:  Semi-waterlogged oak, a little pepper, fairly malty against an increasing heat.
Finish:  Drying oak, a little sichuan pepper, fairly malty sweetness.
Comment:  Generally agreeable but not incredibly unique.
Rating: B-

maserati

Riding Shotgun With The Ear-Splitting Symphony Of The 1%

I pressed the accelerator as I neared the second tunnel of Kanan Dume, heading south toward Malibu. The midday sun of the Conejo Valley beat down on my wife and I; the wind rushed through our hair, but all that was secondary to the immediate sensory rush we were experiencing. Milliseconds after I pressed, the engine of our Maserati GranTurismo leapt to life, and a wild roar heralded our entrance into the tunnel. We shot past a few cars that had merged right, sensing that the car was going to open up at the next opportunity.

I’d only been in the car for about three hours, but I’d completely fallen in love. The first 80 miles or so were a dead panic: “Please don’t hit me.” “Please don’t run into anything.” “… Please GET OUT OF MY LANE SO I CAN DRIVE ALREADY.” In the afternoon sun, emboldened by some open stretches of the 101 in the far northwest reaches of Los Angeles, I’d finally gotten comfortable with driving it. Only on our return leg back into the city proper was I comfortable “giving it the beans”, as James May has said on occasion.

Now, I unfortunately haven’t seen any of my stock options come through, and I didn’t otherwise stumble into massive wealth that would enable me to own such a beauty as this Maserati. It was a saucy, fun idea my wife had for us to spend Valentine’s Day together in a little style.

Life with a toddler means scheduling around day care availability and sitters; moreso when I’m working on a project. Shortly after deciding we wanted to rent the car, we both took the day off work so we could have the maximum time together and in the car.

I’m a practical car guy. Playing drums and needing to lug stuff around, I opted for a Honda Fit – a tiny car that has a shocking amount of cargo space. Great for lugging an oversized kick drum around, or a feisty toddler and some toys. At the time, the $22,000 seemed like it was a ridiculous sum. I grew up riding in Cavaliers, driving a (very) used S-10 pickup truck, and a succession of used cars. While I could appreciate cars from afar, I kept myself away from any close up experience, for fear that I’d have some urge to rearrange my life around owning something insane – insurance, maintenance and garaging be damned.

My attitude softened in Will’s early days, watching tons of Top Gear in the evenings as he showed an interest in cars and things that go fast. More time and softening of the attitude brought me to Friday morning, when I sat in the Maserati and the agent handed me the key. “Go ahead and turn it on,” he said.

A high whine came out of the car for a half second as the starter turned, and then the engine turned over. That’s a bit unfair and clinical though – this car didn’t feel like it “started up”, but rather “came alive” with a bold growl that echoed through the silent garage. It felt like I was sitting in some sort of living beast – an elegant, dark presence (ours was a black car with black interior, broken up only by red contrast stitching) with just a hint of brutality. I pulled out of the lot and immediately pulled over so I could fix the mirror adjustments and set the GPS.

A very uncool diversion out of the way, I then hesitantly nudged the accelerator and headed north. What’s different about renting a car that retails for about $150,000 is that you don’t get that “nothing can go wrong” assurance of the damage waiver. YOUR insurance is involved. So if you decide to try drifting through Malibu Canyon and go over the edge or into the wall, you’re gonna be dealing with the fallout for a while. The end result is that you spend a while driving like the proverbial little old grandmother, and as Civics and Jettas pass you by, you wonder if you’ve made a terrible mistake.

That’s heightened when you’re in the city, close up with other people. With the top down (the only reasonable way to drive this car), there’s no hiding that you – yes you – are sitting in a car well in excess of most people’s annual salary (likely your own included). The center console proudly shows you that you’re getting 12.4 miles to the gallon. The guy in the Tesla next to you just rolls his eyes. “But my other car gets 36 miles to the gallon,” I wanted to shout. I figured that was the least cool thing to do in this car.

As the day unfolded, we drove north on PCH, the cooler ocean air whipping through our hair and helping combat the sun a bit. A brief stop in Malibu for lunch, and we cut through the canyons and hit the 101 with the intention of really opening  it up. As I turned from Las Virgenes onto the 101, I buried the accelerator. I shot down the onramp at ever-increasing speed, meeting and then surpassing highway speeds in no time at all. A beastly chorus of engine nose echoed through the car, immediate sensory feedback that you are living life as it’s supposed to be lived. It’s a feeling I could only liken to standing next to a guitar amp when it’s at max volume: The sound just cuts through you but it makes you feel alive.

I punched the accelerator more and got up to about 100 before I eased back – the county sheriffs hand out tickets regularly and I’d been a victim. I didn’t really want to do that 30 miles over the limit in an exotic car.

There’s something about the experience that turned me into a little boy. It’s so primal: the engine has this all-consuming growl around you, but it’s this loud low-mid range unlike the grizzly-bear-like growl of a classic American muscle car. It just sounds like finely tuned power. I said to my wife at one point, “I feel like [my son] when he’s really excited – it’s such a pure feeling.” After having gotten over the yips, it was just a delight to rev up at every opportunity and hear that engine sing.

I’ve driven stuff with more power than the econoboxes with four cylinders of fury that I listed above. But nothing ever compared to or prepared me for the GranTurismo Sport. There was never any hesitance, it never wanted for power. 80 miles an hour up a fairly steep grade? No problem. We can do a hundred if you’d like. Wanted to get past a sketchy driver? Just punch it and he’s in your rearview mirror. And all while surrounded in a fantastically well-appointed cabin.

Standing 6′ tall, I found it to be totally comfortable to drive. Even though the clearance with the roof wasn’t great, and while the interior was somewhat close, it never felt like tight or awkward quarters. I’ve driven cars far larger that felt vastly more claustrophobic.

At the end of the day I got to return the car to the lot, a scant 12 miles shy of the allotted mileage for the day. Returning to a quiet Nissan was a bit of an adjustment, but it was fun to play with and live out a recent dream. No doubt insurance, registration and maintenance is more than I’m willing to deal with, so a Maserati isn’t in my near future (who knows; maybe I’ll save my pennies for a Ghibli) – and I just like my humble little compact family hauler.

But if you’ve ever entertained the dream of driving some otherwise unattainable car, I highly recommend checking out the rental options. It’s not cheap (though it’s not much more than two really high-end older bottles of single-cask scotch (err… or maybe not single cask?) but sometimes you have to just live life and not sweat the money.

And, as Ferris Bueller said, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

Until the next time I do this — who knows what will be the next ride? — it’s back to the happy, humble Honda.

Maserati 2013 GranTurismo Convertible Sport. Price as driven, approximately $153,000.00 USD

***

It’s been a while since I last wrote. Apologies! A January of family illness gave way to a hectic February of work. This is the first in what will be a series of pieces that broaden the focus of this site in the weeks and months ahead.

Whiskey will still be front-and-center, but while I enjoy tasting and sampling, I’m finding that writing about how I’m being ripped off by the industry and how the PR machine is tiresome — while spending all my writing effort supporting that — isn’t really satisfying.

If you want just the whiskey, there are links to whiskey-only feeds in the sidebar. Check ‘em out. And happy new year!

Super Nerdy: K-Means Clustering Of Distillery Profiles

Add it to the “terroir isn’t a thing in scotch/regions are meaningless” pile. Over at a big data blog, Luba Gloukhov did a k-means clustering of 86 whiskies.

What’s that, you ask?

K-means clustering is a technique to analyze large datasets where your end desire is to group things together based on mathematically calculated distances between attributes in the data set.  Essentially, the program runs through the data set and figures out what elements are the most alike.

This work is more accessible and understandable in the form of David Wishart’s Whisky Classified, which grouped several distilleries together by flavor profile. While Wishart’s is a great effort and certainly one of the best introductions to the concept, the challenge is data points.

It’d be interesting to see this approach applied to larger, more constantly updated data sets such as the Malt Maniacs’ data, though missing from most of these are an agreed-upon set of flavor variables that may be scored.

If the concept is over your head or you don’t dig reading code samples, just look at his map plots, which show a pretty scattershot distribution across Scotland by flavor. There’s obviously a cluster in Speyside but it’d be more useful to do a zoomed-in view there.

Certainly it’s something that would suggest a lot more fun data mining, but it’s an interesting start.

Don't be a'feared of the brown spirit!