A Tip Of The Hat…

My friend Sku so graciously linked my blog the other day that I have to take a moment to return the favor, and not out a sense of obligation.

Sku’s Recent Eats is a regular stop for me, and an instant click in my RSS feed. I’ve broken bread with Sku at a number of local Los Angeles restaurants (all his choices, and all wonderful), and had an opportunity to connect with someone whose perspective on local food and drink that I value tremendously.

I realize the vast majority of readers have come to me via Sku, but for the dozen or so who haven’t, you absolutely need to add him to your readers. Yes, he’s got an incredibly deep knowledge of whiskey, but he’s also got a ton of great spots to hit in the K-town area. (Timon, you’ve experienced the greatness of Papa Cristos and I will attest for the greatest of Jeon Ju). He’s also a big coffee fan and travel’s enough that it’s not just a sad, locals-only LA blog.

Though we differ from time to time on our notes, his opinion and perspective is one that I always respect. And most importantly, he has been my Obi-Wan Kenobi as I’ve gotten much more deep into whiskies and bourbons. The knowledge I pass along, I’ve learned from him.

In honor of someone whose opinion I respect, here are notes on a whisky which actually supplants the George T Stagg as the highest rated whisky on this blog. I dislike rating a limited-release so highly, but it’s so tremendous that I had to share.

Bottom line: There are some amazing old Willetts out there. Go split a bottle with some friends. If they’re like this one, you’ll go be done before the night is over.

Willett 17yo Barrel L10-7389. Reid & Emerald XVII-3, Distilled 4/6/93, Bottle 48 of 126, 72% ABV
Nose:  Nice wood and pepper, a very pleasant mix of sweet and spicy. Some cherries and cinnamon. Slight hint of bubblegum and marshmallow.
Palate:  Thick and mouthcoating, rich and bold. Cherries, cinnamon, pepper. Warming nicely. Oak in the background, toffee, slightest caramel; bubblegum. Sweet.
Finish:  Hot, drying, becomes somewhat bitter on the finish with some early vegetables – romaine, endive, a bit of celery root. Then a huge, absolutely massive cherry blast, followed by dry wood.
Comment:  Stunning. Immense. Massive. Easy drinking. This one is near perfection. The slight bitterness is just a nice interlude.
Rating: A

At Last, Ice Cream: The Ardbeg Ten Experiment

As my good friend and local whiskey spirit guide (pun not intended, but I’m not editing it out, so let’s all enjoy it for what it is) Sku noted on his excellent blog, Sku’s Recent Eats, I’ve been lax in addressing the ice cream content this site promises. Well, I’ve actually been working on it. Since he called my bluff, I think it’s time to make good.

But first, a word on the origin of the name. Several months ago, after a great serving of Macallan 18, I knew that a little vanilla ice cream would perfectly settle things down and complement the flavors of the whisky. My wife recoiled in horror at my (serial) pairing of scotch and ice cream. Some days later, we were talking about blogging and I’d mentioned my desire to a blog. She said I should name it “Scotch and Ice Cream”. The name stuck, and when things finally launched, I couldn’t deny it.

I’m sure we’ve all tried — or at least seen — several whiskey-influenced ice creams by this point. One of my favorites has been Jeni’s Ice Cream, who makes a really good whiskey ice cream that balances bourbon flavors nicely. My wife also recently made a Bushmill’s ice cream for her coworkers that was great. This all pointed in the obvious direction: Ice cream made from scotch whisky.

I’m a firm believer that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, and this was one of the best things to overdo. Instead of some dull, middle of the road, bland whiskey, this called for one of the biggest, baddest, boldest whiskies out there: Ardbeg Ten. The pure peat attack of Ardbeg seemed like an interesting and challenging whiskey to tame.

My wife (who has her own blog that I enjoy reading and is vastly less nerdy than my own) worked from the following recipe:

  • 1/3 corn syrup (used due to our lack of honey in this case)
  • 1 & 1/3 cups whipping cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/3 cup Ardbeg Ten
All are combined and run in the ice cream maker for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until it’s creamy.

The end result: a slightly yellow and light, airy ice cream…. that just happened to smell like a fresh pour of Ardbeg Ten. The first bite was surprisingly dry – a not altogether pleasant mix of dairy and peat. The smoke is quite intensely strong and dry against the creamy ice cream base. It’s so dry that at times it verges on being slightly chemical in taste. There’s a slight leather taste after a while.

If you’re guessing that this wasn’t a successful experiment, so far, I’d agree. This is not an ice cream as is that you’d scarf down half a pint of.

The next experiment was to try and pair it with two other sweet tastes. The first was simple: honey. After making the ice cream, we happened to have enough honey on hand to complement a small scoop of the Ardbeg cream.

The mix was much more promising: a light mix of sweet, almost floral honey and the Ardbeg peat that couldn’t be missed. The first spoonful was a very solid mix: there was a sharp kick of the Ardbeg, but it was almost immediately balanced by the rich, straightforward sweetness of the honey. The two elements were almost a perfect complement. At moments, one of the flavors would be dominant, but it was quickly balanced by the other.

This seemed to be a much better compliment.

The final test was to use a light spread of the Ardbeg over a chocolate cake. The chocolate cake in question was an old standby: Five minute chocolate cake in a mug. A small amount of ice cream was added to the top of it; not at all unlike the amount you’d get if you ordered a small chocolate cake a la mode. As you’d expect, the smell was dominated by the scent of fresh-baked chocolate.

The mix of chocolate and Ardbeg was a good one. The strength of the chocolate cake dominated the palate; the bittersweet flavor of the chocolate being offset dramatically by the Ardbeg. As things settled down, the chocolate and Ardbeg tastes became less integrated and the more chemical flavor of the Ardbeg became a little more present. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a great change in things.

Ultimately, it’s an interesting experiment. If I were to alter the recipe, I would likely make sure we used honey instead of corn syrup; I’d also use slightly less Ardbeg in hopes of cutting the extreme dryness of it.

I can’t say it was a successful experiment but it was definitely a fun one.

Stay tuned for more experiments. They’ll come around from time to time. If you have any suggestions; I’m all ears. I will note that Usuikyou is strictly off limits in this case.

 

The Whiskey-only Feed

Just a quick administrative note: since coverage has now moved beyond strictly whiskey, I recognize some people may be interested in reading non-whiskey comment. If you fall into that category, I’ve got a whiskey-only feed available, which will cover every scotch, bourbon, rye, and blend that is ever covered here.

The whiskey-only feed is available as RSS 2, RSS 0.92, and Atom.

If you want to get the full feed, it’s still available with all content. RSS 2, RSS 0.92 and Atom.

Back to it!

Developing Your Palate

In recent weeks, perhaps in response to my constant blogging, I’ve found myself in more regular conversations about whiskey. One of the most common things that I hear is, “Oh, my palate just isn’t that good, I can’t really taste anything.” Close behind that is, “I would love to try insert whiskey here, but I just feel like it’s beyond my ability to appreciate.”

The truth is, there’s no superpower involved, and there’s nothing that isn’t beyond the average person’s ability to pick up – especially not among a lot of my friends who have an incredible ability to describe their food at any of the great restaurants here in LA. In my opinion, it’s largely the ability to make associations with things you’ve had before, and it’s something that gets easier the more you do it. There’s certainly no reason to be intimidated or to assume something is “beyond you”. (Beyond the range of the wallet? That’s a different story. In that regard, Glenmorangie Pride will forever be “beyond me”.)

As I’m writing this, I’m preparing to taste a sample of a bourbon that was part of a group buy with some like-minded friends. We each walked away with about 6 ounces, which is a good split  of a bottle – enough to have room to do tasting notes, but plenty to enjoy.

The first thing I use is a good glass. I alternate between two primary glasses for tasting: a Crate and Barrel Sipping Glass, which is a nice all-around glass for spirits, or the whiskey nerd standard Glencairn Whisky Glass. To be honest, I prefer the Glencairn glass because it feels slightly more durable and substantial, but the C&B glass is just fine. They’re slightly different in the aroma that they present, but it’s a relatively minor variation. To my nose (I tested blind), the Glencairn Glass presents with a little more sharpness to the nose that helps make some notes a little more clear. Notable whiskey personality (right, right, “Whyte & Mackay Master Blender”) Richard Paterson favors a copita glass like you’d use for sherry. Glencairn also makes a nice one but for whatever reason I prefer the version without the stem. (Richard, on the extremely remote chance you read this via ping back, I simply think “Master Blender” is inadequate to contain the sheer force of your personality. I hope you’ll forgive me). Try to avoid the traditional “rocks” or “old fashioned” glass as they don’t help. It turns out that your ears are not an important part in the process of tasting a whiskey.

Truth is, over time you’ll break glasses anyway so you can always try something until the next one breaks. My hard-won advice is that a bottle of Auchentoshan will beat the Crate & Barrel glass when they collide 10 times out of 10.

Next, we pour a reasonable amount in. I go for a standard 1.5 oz. It’s a reasonable amount of whiskey to start with.

The first thing to do is move in for a couple sniffs. Be mindful of the strength – something like the George T Stagg can easily numb your sense of smell for a moment. Even whiskies in the upper 40s can be a bit much, especially if you’re new, so let your nose be a guide. You might need to let it sit a minute. No problem.

When you sniff it, yes, you’re going to smell “whiskey”. But this is where the exercise begins… what IS the smell of whiskey? It’s actually quite different from whiskey to whiskey. This is where the process gets fun. Try to decipher what you smell. Don’t worry about “right” notes or not – everyone’s nose and palate is different, and we all have different sensitivities. The whiskey I’m drinking, an 18 year old wheat recipe Willett, is an absolute treat on the nose. I smell pepper, wood (like an old study or library), and wheat. It’s kind of earthy – think of that wet forest and damp, heavy clay soil. It’s sweet with some flavors of a creamy vanilla, like homemade ice cream. There’s also a hint of toffee in the background.

There you have it – two major “not food” notes. But they’re absolutely part of how I’ll describe it. OK, proceeding on to the enjoyable part, the drink.

You’ve got about an ounce and a half in your glass. Resist the urge to slug it back and grimace like you’re in a John Ford western. Take a small sip and let it move over your mouth. You might not even want to worry about what you taste. Just enjoy it… if anything jumps out at you, make a note of it. Take it through your mouth – the front of your tongue, the middle of your tongue, the very back. Let it get underneath your tongue and let it sit in your mouth. Paterson suggests holding it in your mouth a second for each year. I don’t disagree at all.

On the whiskey I’m having, I get some good spice – cinnamon and pepper again. It’s subtly sweet again, with notes of toffee and caramel immediately present, but some more rich maple syrup notes and a bit of molasses in the mix too. The earthy notes for the nose are there, as is the oak – it’s ever so slightly bitter. After a few seconds, there’s a definite hint of orange.

Some whiskies are absolutely going to burn out your tastebuds, especially initially. It’s OK to dilute with water. Just be aware that older whiskies fall apart quickly – for a 20+ year old whiskey you should proceed very slowly and literally add a drop or two at most initially. If you drown it, it’ll just be kind of a bland, watery whiskey-like substance and you’ll feel disappointed in what remains in your glass.

Water can and will change the flavor of the whiskey as you taste it, which is part of the fun of getting to know a whiskey over the course of the bottle. Some whiskies become more clearly focused with water. Others open up new dimensions entirely. I actually am a fan of a couple drops of water in Macallan’s 18 year old sherry oak expression, which adds a nice wet straw and grass note that takes the drink in an entirely different direction. You’ll never know unless you try.

So, down the hatch. Let it sit and observe what happens. This whiskey I’m having dries out substantially and the orange note from late in the palate comes to the forefront. There’s an earthy sweetness to it, and the bold oak notes and pepper continue.

Don’t sit too long before having your next sip – that first sip sometimes just helps get the system primed. The second sip can be even more revelatory than the first.

As you’re doing this, pay attention to what you’re tasting. There will be all kinds of things that as you dig into them, may surprise you. If you have a hard time describing things initially, try going with the basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. I’ve tasted all of these on different whiskies, so nothing is “wrong” – whiskies absolutely can be salty. Write down your impressions. Ask yourself what it resembles. Sour can be sour in a distinctly vegetal manner, for instance, and I notice a lot of young whiskies smell like corn husks on a hot, humid day. Sweet is an easy one to dissect and we’ve all had plenty of junk food to base our tastes on. Write all your impressions down and remember, there are no wrong impressions! We’re all different, and our palates can differ greatly from day to day.

Of course, this entry is called “Developing” your palate, and I’ve taken you through a straightforward tasting. So how do you develop further?

Practice.

No, really. Practice. Write things down. Try and dig deeper when you’re specifically tasting to develop your palate. Take your time, go slow, and realize it will come easier with experience.

Pay attention to EVERYTHING you eat. Smell it, savor it, remember the nuances. Fruit can be a huge part of spirits (apples come up frequently and Balblair has a distinctly pineapple note to me) and you’d be amazed how close these taste sensations can be.

This is also a recipe for a great way to live and eat, because you will enjoy and be aware of what you’re tasting more often. I believe strongly that food can be one of the great joys of our lives, and if you really savor it you will appreciate it that much more. Plus, if you take your time, you might find yourself getting full and eating less. Not a bad thing! This approach will serve you well when you go to a good restaurant and try and pick apart the sauces and seasonings. It can also help your cooking immeasurably as you learn how to balance flavors in different ways.

Ultimately, this all ends up with an ability to quickly pull things apart as it becomes a more reflexive approach to eating and drinking. It’s fun to be able to pull something apart and understand it, and then shut off the analytical mind and simply enjoy.

That’s the most important part of all of this: enjoyment. This is yet another avenue to appreciating whiskey (actually, all food and drink) even more. I encourage you to try this so you can understand more accurately what you like.

And, as spirits sensei David Driscoll would note, sometimes you need to just forget all of that crap and just enjoy. Because that is the single reason to be consuming whiskey or any good spirit – enjoyment and community. Getting knotted up in the tasting note cleverness battle is ultimately a weird construct on top of what’s supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Going too far down that path makes you one of those tiresome bores who corrects endlessly about when to use an e in whiskey and when it’s just whisky, or who obsesses to no end over the legal definitions of what a bourbon is and if Angel’s Envy actually qualifies because it’s been finished…

Don’t be that guy.

But I do encourage you to try and be mindful of what you’re having and explore everything. You may not be able to detect some obscure note that someone else can. Don’t worry, that’s not the point. The point is to help deepen your enjoyment of a good thing, and enjoy the dividends that pays in the rest of your life.

At a glance:

Willett 18yo Barrel 12A Paws & Claws. Barrel 56 of 96. October 2010, 66.4% ABV
Nose: 
Nice and woody with some good, gentle spice – white pepper. Subtly earthy, slightly sweet – wheat notes peeking out a bit of gentle toffee. Some subtle creamy vanilla. 
Palate: 
Nice, even, moderate mouthfeel, good spice upfront with some pepper. Subtly sweet, toffee, caramel and a bit of vanilla, with some maple syrup and a touch of molasses. Some good earthy notes and oak. A hint of orange late in the palate. 
Finish: 
Drying, with orange and the earthy sweetness above some big, bold oak and pepper. 
Comment: 
This is great. The wood’s a bit heavy in the balance overall but it’s a very, very solid old wheater. There’s nice nuance to the sweetness on the palate, and the finish is great. 
Rating:
 B+

Stagg Sunday

It’s October, which means that the truly hardcore bourbon dork is hunting for a bottle or two from this fall’s Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. For my friends who are not engaged in this irredeemably nerdy pursuit, here’s the quick and dirty so you can carry on a conversation and impress at cocktail parties:

Every fall, Buffalo Trace releases five bourbons which are some of the most extreme whiskies that you can get with any regularity:

  • George T. Stagg, an absolutely overpowering and massive cask-strength bourbon. Cask strength is one thing, but the Stagg releases are regularly over 70% alcohol by volume. This earns them the nickname “Hazmat” since you actually can’t fly with these (… because they’re hazardous materials).
  • William Larue Weller, one of the most phenomenal and amazing wheated bourbons. The 2010 Weller is one of my all-time favorite bourbons, and the 2009 is not far behind. Like the Stagg, it’s cask strength (though usually high 50s/low 60s ABV).
  • Thomas H. Handy, a bruising cask-strength rye whisky. If I were to summarize this in one phrase, it’d be “like getting hit in the face with a boxing glove covered in cinnamon”. It’s ridiculous and unbelievably powerful.
  • Sazerac 18, a sublime 18 year old rye whiskey, which is about as far from the intensity of the Thomas Handy as you can get. It’s got an amazing, soft rye quality to it and is about as close to liquified rye bread as you can get.
  • Eagle Rare 17 which.. is… Eagle Rare.. but.. 17 years old… I guess you can’t win ‘em all? Snark aside, I just don’t get this one.
But this is too much fun to waste time on snark.

This weekend I unexpectedly ran across the George T. Stagg and got to spend a nice, lazy Sunday afternoon getting acquainted with it.

2011 Stagg

You can read it there on the label – 71.3% ABV, a ridiculous 142.6 proof. You can interpret this as one ridiculously powerful, he-man bourbon, or two bottles for the price of one… I go both ways on it.

My first encounter with the Stagg was only last year when I got deeper into bourbon. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought the 70% ABV was some sort of excessive, hyper-macho “because-we-can” thing. In the time since I had that bottle, I’ve experienced some amazing high-proof bourbons and have learned through experience that despite the ABV, you can actually come out with an incredibly nuanced bourbon.

This year’s Stagg is a massive but nuanced assault on the senses. There’s a lot of grain on the nose, with corn in abundance. There’s tons of caramel and toffee; hints of vanilla and good, well-seasoned wood. It’s kind of like a late summer harvest on the nose.

The palate does not disappoint – it’s warm as you’d expect, as well as rich and buttery, but the heat does not overpower. Toffee starts to emerge just before the heat builds, bringing notes of cinnamon, pepper, and chili oil. Oak balances with some bitterness and then there’s some intensely cherry flavors. There’s a slight bubblegum note that’s perceptible as well.

The finish is initially hot, but loses heat quickly. It remains intensely cherry, to the point that you almost can believe you’re eating cherries. Grain comes back in a big way but doesn’t overpower the cherries. There’s some rye spice after a while, which dries slowly to a corn note.

The other treat with a 2011 Stagg is on ice. The best word to describe Stagg on the rocks is “creamy”. The bitter elements recede and vanilla and cream come to the forefront. The nose gains some molasses and creme brûlée. The palate is toffee, caramel and vanilla, with some cinnamon and nutmeg and a hint of cherries.

Like I said: very nuanced and rich. The 2010 Stagg which I’d had recently prior to this was a little more distinctly spiced with anise very present; also cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. I also thought the 2010 had a trace of saltiness that complemented its caramel notes.

The real joy of the 2010 Stagg was the finish, which had apple pie, mulling spices, toffee, plums and black cherries. As with the 2011, it became really nicely creamy when ice was added, and more of a sweet treat as the wood receded in the presence of ice.

Ultimately, the Staggs are certainly an extreme whiskey – novices may be intimidated or put off. Fortunately, it’s a whiskey that is absolutely able to take what you throw at it – ice, water, air… just don’t add coke.

This year’s Stagg has the distinction of being the first A grade I give out on my blog. There are absolutely more coming from my backlog of notes, but since this is so tasty I wanted to bump it to the head of the list.

If you can find the Stagg, and it’s not an easy find, it’s an amazing whiskey.

At a glance:

George T. Stagg 2011 Edition – 71.3% ABV
Nose: Massively strong with plenty of spice and pepper up front. Corn in abundance initially, giving way to loads of caramel and toffee. Subtle undertones of vanilla; the vaguest hints of black cherry. Some well-seasoned wood comes in and then it all gives way back to corn and grain – smelling like a late summer harvest. With ice this becomes quite creamy and sweet on the nose; ample vanilla and cream. Sweet toffee and a little molasses and creme brûlée.
Palate: Warm on the palate, rich and buttery but not overpowering with heat. Toffee sweetness, growing heat with cinnamon and pepper and a bit of chili oil. Oak is evident and provides a slightly bitter note. After some time some cherry notes emerge as well. Faint hint of bubblegum far off in the distance. Ice makes this amazingly creamy and rich, bringing toffee, caramel, vanilla, heavy cream to the front, with some cinnamon and nutmeg. Some cherries to give a slight cut against the sweetness.
Finish: Hot but losing heat. Intensely cherry initially, almost tangibly so. The grain is evident and the cherry persists. Sweet and spicy, the finish lasts nicely. Some rye spice hangs around and there’s a nice dark fruit sweetness. After a while, corn re-emerges.
Comment: This continues the Stagg tradition of big, bold, spicy, powerful bourbons. There’s a ton of nuance in this one. There’s not a lot to say: it’s great.
Rating: A-

George T Stagg – 2010 Edition 71.5% ABV
Nose: Powerful out of the gate (not surprising at 71.5%!) with wood immediately present and toffee right beside it. There is a kind of fall spice element to the nose, with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and anise. There’s also a butterscotch undertone to it. Big and bold but not closed.
Palate: Warming immediately with more caramel sweetness than the nose would indicate, with wood predominant. Continues to warm, has a molasses hint and a slight amount of saltiness to balance the caramel sweetness. Some dark fruits creep in – plums, black cherries. A little cold water and ice cuts the heat and woodiness and brings the fruitier notes to the front quite predominantly. It also pops out a little vanilla creaminess.
Finish: Cools from the palate, hints of apple pie, wood, mulling spices. Toffee is present as well. Plums and black cherries are also evident as well.
Comment: It’s great. I prefer the WLW for 2010 but this is amazing. It’s a bit sharp for me at cask strength though.
Rating: A-

Bunnahabhain 12 year old 40% (old style)

Nose:   Moderatly briny, malty, with notes of hay and grain and a little peat, faintly floral.
Palate: Rich, syrupy, oily mouthfeel; gentle warming and malt flavors, green grass, lightly dusty, and a hint of white pepper.
Finish: Slow, gentle, lingering with the peat and malt coming back; some grain.
Comment:  This is not a big whiskey – it’s a mild, gentle, malty, relaxing drink that would seem like an older Banff or Glencraig with a little more pep. It’s totally enjoyable for what it is but it’s not something that will stick in taste memory for a long time.
Rating: B

Of note, this bottling has been discontinued for a stronger (46%) version. Word is that it’s improved and more intense, if that’s your thing. At 40% this older version is a supremely easy drinker and it’s very possible that you might be able to find it for a great price. Keep your eyes open.

Sharing is Caring: Group Buys and Samples

One of the best things about a healthy enjoyment of drink is finding like-minded people to share it with. After all, imbibing by yourself exclusively is a good sign that you either have a problem or that you’re about as well-socialized as a Morlock.

There are more special releases in any given quarter than most peoples’ budgets or cabinets could reasonably support. Distiller’s editions, Manager’s Editions, Cooper’s Cousin’s Sister’s Brother’s Choice…. Certainly it’s far in excess of my means and space — not to mention that it’d be more than I’m willing to put my liver through. Yet, if you read online, you see people raving about some of these editions. What’s the solution when your desires exceed your dollars?

There are two great ways to solve this dilemma. If, like myself and five other guys, you find yourself saying, “Boy, I really would like to try 192 slight variations on a bourbon to see what’s really great, but I don’t want to get stuck with 19 gallons of (wildly variable) whiskey that I might not like”, the group buy can be a great option. The first task is to identify something that you and some friends want to have. This is usually the easiest task because virtually everyone has the same problem as you. The trick actually becomes finding a reasonable breakdown between price and quantity.

A bottle for our Buffalo Trace buy is split six ways. Since it’s 375mL that means each person gets 62.5 mL, or slightly over 2 ounces. How to get that home? Easy. Go to Specialty Bottle, order a small box of 2 ounce bottles and caps. You can also get heat-shrink to go along with it to seal the bottle caps up tightly. Get some labels (so you can identify the contents), and a small flask funnel, and you can quickly portion it out. I use a Mini Measure glass from Crate & Barrel to avoid free-pouring from a bottle since the flask funnel can get overfilled quickly.

Another great source for bottles is saving the 50mL sample bottles you can get from mini-bars, airlines, and from a lot of liquor stores (especially around Christmas). Wash them thoroughly and you have an easy supply of bottles. Plus, you can also use the contents to try some drinks you’ve never had before. Besides, when have you ever needed more than 50mL of Jaegermeister in your possession?

In addition to the 2 oz and 50mL sizes, I like to hold on to some 1 oz sample bottles, which is also easily obtained from Specialty. You should make sure to buy glass Boston rounds. Glass will not impart flavor like plastic.

If you can’t find people who want to split the same bottle, the other option would be to buy it and trade samples. The sample swap is a great way to broaden your palate and get the opportunity to try things you haven’t before. If you have a friend who travels, they might be able to find bottles not available in the US or exclusive to Duty Free shops. They may be willing to part with a sample if you are willing to reciprocate.

I try to sample one-for-one, or at least give pours of similar value. I don’t think it’s worth getting hung up on accounting for the value, but I think it’s polite to try and offer items of value if you’re going to ask for items of value. Don’t ask for the 50 year old Glenury Royal if all you’re going to offer in trade is Glenfiddich 12 or something easily available at any store. On the other hand, if I’m pouring for someone, especially someone who doesn’t have a big cabinet or much experience, I like to try and throw in a surprise now and again, unannounced. The bottom line as always is be fair, be nice, and try not to be greedy.

I think the most important etiquette of the sample swap is to not be offended if someone doesn’t like your samples. I traded with someone whose samples I was not particularly fond of and tried to answer the “what did you think?” question reasonably diplomatically. However, it was received as if I’d made a personal attack. That’s unfortunate – not everything is going to be to everyone’s tastes, and if you don’t like what I’ve poured, it just means we have different palates.

In the spirit of the swap, I’ve got four notes from a recent sample swap.

I encourage you to find someone who might be interested and go in on a bottle with them or do some trading. You’ll have a lot of fun. (If you’re in the US, though, don’t send samples through the mail! It’s illegal…)

Springbank Cream Sherry Cask dist. 6-96, bot. 4-09, Cask 96/271, 56.1% ABV
Nose: Sweet and malty. Nice, light but dominant sherry notes. Gentle, restrained wood. Faint grain notes. Slightly earthy and damp, with the faintest trace of grease. Slight caramel.
Palate: Delightfully weighty on the palate, slightly oily in texture and taste. Malty and with light sherry notes, gently warming on the palate. Sweet and slightly farmy – both earthy and damp (damp hay) as well as oily, worn work clothes.
Finish: Warming, sweet, a bit smoky. The sherry comes in a little later as do slight ripe apple notes, and the slight diesel character is there too.
Comment: Springbank has another good one here. This is a nice balanced sherry – the typical faint diesel, oily notes of Springbank are great with the less strong sherry notes.
Rating: B


Balblair 1989 (2nd Ed, bottled 2010) – 43% ABV

Nose:
Sweet fruits, perhaps slightly overripe and becoming sugary. A bit of white wine. Pineapple, applesauce, slightly malty. Peaches in syrup. Pears.
Palate: Light and malty, warm on the palate. White wine, slight tropical fruits, powdered sugar. Very sweet and sugary – right up to the edge of what’s reasonable.
Finish: Dominated by malt, with a bit of very ripe fruits – peach, pear, apple. A bit of white wine.
Comment: This is one that I can see not liking because of the sweetness and wine notes; it’s a light and fruity drink like the ’97 which can be polarizing. This is a little more overtly fruity than the ’97 but I still like it. A great desserty whisky.
Rating: B

Talisker 57 Degrees North 57% ABV
Nose:
Slightly buttery in a way that is reminiscent of some Broras I’ve had; gentle peat. Reasonably strong on the nose. Light hay, mildly sooty. Malty and slightly musty. Some slight fruitiness in the far off distance, maybe a bit of pineapple? Water brings the fruit somewhat closer to the forefront.
Palate:
Quite warm on the palate, good, rich peaty smoke, slightly buttery, lightly malty underneath; slightly fruity in the background. Spicy – almost a chili oil quality to it. With water, it’s more malty, less overtly peaty, but faintly rubbery.
Finish:
Hot! Peat and smoke, malt. Spicy with the chili oil again. Faintly ashy, ever so slightly rubbery.
Comment:
This one is quite big and bold. A little water helps tame it; it’s almost too big otherwise. One to warm you up on a cold night! The high heat on the palate is a bit much for me and keeps this slightly off a B+ but it’s close.
Rating:
B

Kilchoman Cask Strength (Binny’s) Dist 7-4-07, Bottled 8-26-10, Cask 182/2007 61.1% ABV
Nose:
Light white wine, moderate peat, some lemon, slightly mineral, some banana and pineapple fruitiness. Mildly briny.
Palate: Very light. Good peat on the palate. Warming gently. Some brine, some malt. Warming with time. Pepper, maybe a touch of chili oil.
Finish: Warm initially, some peat and pronounced barley notes, grainy and slightly rubbery. Some white wine after a moment, relaxing mostly into barley and some peat.
Comment: I want the palate to live up to the nose. It doesn’t quite. Good but not there. Hell of a nose though.
Rating: B