Two Generations of Teacher’s: 1950s and 2010s

You know the old saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to”? It’s an easy one to accept as true without having much opportunity to compare old and new. Usually, the past is viewed through the rosy tint of nostalgia and we remember everything great about the things we loved and forget the faults. That’s of course a powerful point to remember in how you live your life as well — don’t get caught up on the faults; you won’t remember them clearly unless you let them define you.

Recently, my friend Chris sent me a box of samples and one of them was intriguing – a 1950s bottling of Teacher’s Highland Cream. I realized I’d never had any Teacher’s – ever – though it had been on my list for a while. I also saw this as a fun opportunity to see how the Teacher’s blend had changed, if at all, in the last 60 years. After all, the line repeated without a second thought in regards to blends is that they strive for consistency above all else. Well, here’s a great opportunity to test that statement! Would the profile be the same after six decades of blending and sales?

One thing was immediately apparent: this wouldn’t be a 100% apples to apples comparison, even discarding six decades in glass: the 50s blend was bottled at the 43% ABV versus the 40% of modern Teacher’s. Yes, I could dilute, but with the small amount available to me, I couldn’t justify potentially wrecking what I had.

A word about the new Teacher’s before I continue. In doing some research on the blend, I found that there’s some back and forth right now about a perceived slip in quality/consistency of Teacher’s. It’s entirely possible that I got a bad bottle (not having a recent “good” reference point. The comments on Ralfy’s review of Teacher’s are not conclusive; hopefully when he re-tastes it we can get a better sense. I’ve heard of people mentioning slight ammonia smells which i absolutely didn’t get in any quantity whatsoever, so I’m assuming my bottle was on-profile.

Let’s start in the modern world before we go back in time. The modern Teacher’s has an unsurprising nose to me for a blend: it’s initially slightly piney, spirity and thin. There’s some watery maltiness, some light floral character and it’s somewhat dusty. There’s a second wave of aromas – buttercream vanilla and mint. There’s also some light peat on the nose.

The palate was a bit of a surprise – the mouthfeel was thicker than the nose would indicate. Gentle barley, lightly malty, and a nice peaty carpet that gave it some dimension. It wasn’t exceptionally strong nor was it exceptionally nuanced, but it wasn’t bad at all – just a little watery.

The finish, as I expect from most blends, was fleeting and light. Some light peat, some light pear notes and a bit of mint. All in all, it was very light. It was reasonably nuanced for a blend overall and fairly well put together, but just a little watery. That said, it’s one of the few lower-price blends that I would be willing to drink regularly.

Interestingly, days before I did my tasting I saw reviews from two guys in LAWS about a 1970s bottling of Teachers and was wondering if this was a case of the blend staying on profile more or less.

The only thing left to do was to pour the 1950s whisky into a glass. I gave my palate some time to settle down and clear, poured every last drop and prepared to see what happens in 60 years.

The nose was immediately more intense. There was peat and malt right upfront; some lemon and light grassiness followed. A gentle, agreeable wood presence permeated the nose with a little light grain as well.

The palate had rich peatiness. It wasn’t overbearing in the least, just added a lot of dimension. The peat had a slightly rubbery tang to it, but not heavily. The mouthfeel was full and, yes, even creamy. A little faint waxiness and heat asserted themselves. It was malty and biscuity; a little faint lemon and light pine rounded out the palate. The finish was warm and malty, with a little heat towards the end. It was a nice, long and very strong finish.

To say the two whiskies were night and day is an understatement. The older whisky, even allowing for a slightly higher ABV, seemed to have a much more pronounced malt content. There was just an intensely rich, very identifiable single malt quality to the mouth and palate. I’ll have to check out a modern Ardmore to see if it bears more similarity to the old Teacher’s (indicating perhaps a higher proportion of grain whiskies these days) or if it’s more like the new Teacher’s (tipping towards a change in the core malt of the blend).

This was a really fun tasting. It’s very easy to get caught up chasing the latest octave-casked, absinthe-finished, royal trampoline jump commemorative whisky. Digging into the history of a whisky is something I hope to do in the months and years ahead. Fortunately I have some interesting ones to write about that may facilitate this. I doubt I’ll unseat Sku’s fascinating Dusty Thursday series nor will I scratch the surface of the depth and breadth of Serge’s historical notes (and combinations). However, I hope to bring something interesting to the table, or at least share the journey.

Another brief note about glasses… 

Not the kind you wear on your face! One of the most common searches that land here are on glass choice and selection, and they continue to be some of the more active links out of Scotch & Ice Cream. I’ve extolled the praises of the standard Glencairn glasses; they are absolutely phenomenal and my glass of choice when tasting. However, I know not everyone is strictly into nosing all the time, and even I like to just throw some whisky into an old fashioned glass and mix a cocktail or — horror of horrors — have it on the rocks. I’ve never been quite happy with the loss of intensity from the Four Roses glasses I’ve got, nor do I like a traditional straight-walled old fashioned glass.

This week I received two Glencairn Canadian glasses (scroll down to see on that page) that I’d ordered a few weeks ago. They address most of my complaints with the old-fashioned without compromising too much. They’re really great: wide enough to comfortably get some ice in; a nice larger capacity so you can hold more than 2oz comfortably, and the shape still gives you a lot of aromas concentrated at the nose. They seem durable and sturdy, which is high marks for me. If the traditional Glencairn or copita seemed a little too dainty, you might want to check those out.

At a glance:

Teacher’s Highland Cream (modern bottling) 40% ABV
Piney initially, very spirity and thin. A little watery maltiness, some lightly floral notes and a bit dusty. A bit of buttercream vanilla. Faintly minty. Very light peat on the nose. 
Thicker mouthfeel than the nose would indicate. Gentle barley, light malt, and a nice light layer of peatiness to give this some dimension. It’s not very strong and it’s kind of watery, but it’s not bad. 
Fleeting and light. A little peat, some light pears, some light mint. 
Quite light. It’s got a reasonable bit of nuance and it’s better than most blended mass-market whiskies I’ve had. The notes seem fairly well integrated, just watery. 

Teacher’s Highland Cream (1950s bottling) 43% ABV
Peat and malt upfront on the nose. Lightly grassy, a touch of lemon. Some gentle wood, but a little light grain on the top. 
Rich peat. A bit towards the rubbery end. Full mouthfeel – lives up to the name. Faintly waxy. Nice heat. A bit malty, slightly biscuity. Faint lemon, faintly piney. 
Warm and malty, with a little heat towards the end. Nice length and presence. 
This is a really nice blend. There are single malts that I don’t think stand up to this. I’d honestly have no problems buying bottles of this if the modern was up to this standard (alas, it’s not). Very, very malt-heavy.
Rating: B

Thor And The Trap Of First Impressions

Highland Park’s new release, Thor, is a whisky that has utterly confounded me. In trying to review it I’ve rewritten this post entirely four times over. What is it about this whisky above others that has stumped me? Well, for starters, its packaging is almost cartoonishly ridiculous, playing up the Viking angle in the extreme.

Yes. This is the ACTUAL PACKAGING.

The marketing for this release has been pretty strong, as it seems to be the start of another series of releases for Highland Park. A tongue-in-cheek twitter account undercut what could have been a stodgy and way too serious campaign (which is a good thing).

I look at this package and I think, “What on earth would I ever do with the boat-shaped bottle case? Use it as an oven mitt holder?” In my more minimalist world, the packaging probably would have been straightforward.

I like to tell myself that I’m not swayed by packaging and the focus is always in the box. I think Thor has proven me wrong – just in an unexpected way. I have found myself a huge fan of independent releases and things that buck the trend of traditional packaging. The Whisky Agency has done some amazing not-very-whisky-like design in the past that I loved (even if I thought the contents of the bottle were ho-hum).

Even frequently-covered Bruichladdich tickles my fancy. The very modern, minimalist, bold packaging strikes a chord with my designer’s eye. I know a lot of people aren’t fans of the wrapped bottles (they can be annoying), but their use of type, especially as the brand has developed, is absolutely gorgeous. Yeah, it’s not traditionally designed where it looks like it’s supposed to be mounted in a trophy case and only consumed when you’re wearing a tweed jacket, but I think that’s a good thing. Scotch whisky is a great drink and would benefit immensely from a reduction in the overall starchiness of its image.

So this brings me back to Thor. I could not stop focusing on that damned boat! It drove me nuts almost as much as the Woodford Master’s still bottles. Even as I write this I think it’s just completely idiotic. The bottle itself is completely fine. It’s just the box this thing comes in.

But what is it that drives me nuts about this? It’s only whisky. If I’m a tenth of the aficionado I let myself believe I am, I should really not care. I should be able to take a disconnected and detached view that these things will be special to the right people. The fabric-lined box of Macallan 25 is perfect for the white-collar worker marking a special moment in their career. Signatory’s elegant decanters for the cask strength collection always appeals to my eye. And yet I couldn’t reconcile the boat. However, I know there are people out there who saw it and thought it was the coolest thing ever and they had to have it. And they’ll probably enjoy the whisky even more – the whole thing will be a special experience.

At the end of this self-examination I realize I’m not as far along on this path to enlightened malt-drinking. I’m still a slave to packaging, just in a very High Fidelity, more-indie-than-thou way. Something to keep an eye on I guess.

So the only thing left to do is to strip the whisky of all adornments, pour it in the same glass as a zillion whiskies before it and see how it fares.

The nose surprised me – it’s very light and firmly on the estery side of things. There’s white wine, white grape juice, light pears, green grapes and green apples. It’s got very light and faint peat and it’s faintly oily. Honey and maltiness developed over time in the glass,s but it’s very faint. This whole thing is dominated by the esters. For some reason this reminded me of a freshly painted room, but more as a subliminal suggestion than an overt aroma.

The palate was lightly oily, reasonably malty with a touch of cinnamon. Melons were noticeable among the light fruitiness. Cantaloupe was probably the biggest note on the body early on, balanced by honeydew. Pears and white pepper round out the nose and add a little spice.

The finish led with white pepper and it dried out. Peat hung out faintly in the background but more as a top note than a base element. There was some pleasant heat on the finish.

Overall, Thor is a nice whisky. Surprisingly though, it’s light and fruity – I’d expect this more from Balblair than Highland Park. (It’s drier than your average Balblair though). I think this one is a little ungrounded for me to become a personal favorite, but it’s totally drinkable. Until I get over the boat though, I may have to pour this in an old Signatory decanter.

And seriously, a profile like this called Thor? I dunno. Strikes me more like a Freya.

At a glance:

Highland Park Thor 16y 52.1% ABV
Very light and firmly in the estery side of things. Light white wine, some white grape juice. Light pears, green grapes, green apples. Very light and faint peat that has a very faint oily quality to it. Develops and a little more honey and maltiness show up but they’re very faint – it’s dominated by the esters. I’m reminded of a faint fresh-painted-room smell as well, but it’s almost more subliminal and suggestive. 
Medium mouthfeel – lightly oily, some reasonable maltiness and some light cinnamon tingle. Light fruits – melons for sure. Cantaloupe provides early body and is balanced by a touch of honeydew. Some of the pears from the nose are there and a little white pepper gives some spice. 
White pepper early, drying out. Very faint peat hangs out in the background acting as a top note. Nice little bit of heat on the finish.
It’s light and fruity, but the peat is gently insistent. I think this one is just a little too un-grounded for me but it’s nice enough. 

If You Love It, Set It Free: Bruichladdich Legacy V

When we brought our newborn son home from the hospital in August, I knew my life would change quite dramatically, but even at that point in time I couldn’t quite imagine how it might unfold. Eight months later, I continue to learn so much about myself and my tendencies. The little guy is a mirror and has taught me to be much more present in my life. It’s absolutely the most amazing experience ever.

One of the things that I’ve come to view with a much more negative eye in the last few months is the hoarding and deep collecting mentality. It’s no doubt because of my inclination in that direction at times. However, having this little guy (and his stay in the NICU) have really given me a deeper appreciation for our mortality and how fragile life can be.

Yeah, I know, what a downer for another whisky post. How does it relate, you ask?

Well, if you follow the whisky blogs, you will have no doubt seen the endless(ly tiring) discussion of collectors, hoarders, speculators and so on. I tried to steer clear of this one because I didn’t really have much to offer on it at the time, and it’s not really my intention to become another voice in the echo chamber with nothing new to say. However, this week brought a new perspective on it it for me as a bunch of things in my life all led me to a shared conclusion.

If you know me in person you likely know that I’ve amassed a fairly decent collection of musical instruments. Over time the cost to store them has gone up and it finally reached a breaking point. I was no longer willing to pay what was being asked to store them. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinning the herd through auctions and have found the forced decision-making to be really refreshing. I’ve tried to plow through my stuff semi-regularly and toss things I haven’t used in a year or more, but my instruments were sacrosanct. Now I’m reducing the collection to the things I use regularly and love, or have plausible near-term need for. Sure, things may break and wear out, but it’s through use and not neglect.

Second, I am reminded of my tasting last summer with Sku who graciously opened a trio of incredible Broras. I didn’t have much to offer – a decent Glencraig. Turns out those three Broras were incredible, and one is high on my list of favorite Scotch whiskies of all time. He could have sat on them indefinitely, waiting for…. who knows what… but he demonstrated that whisky is best enjoyed (ideally with friends, acceptably with random people you’ve met online ;) ), not jealously guarded in sealed bottles hidden from light.

Finally, I was faced headlong with the use vs disuse issue recently when I reopened my Bruichladdich Legacy V whisky. This was the first whisky I’d had that was older than me (an achievement all whisky dorks inevitably feel the need to unlock – go ahead and do it sooner rather than later because it only gets more expensive every year). Fortunately, at the time I opened it, it was absolutely amazing – huge apple notes and floral hints. It really just smelled like an orchard in early fall, with cider presses running full tilt – great grain and fruit notes but never seeming old and tired. Opinions varied widely (Serge liked it; Sku was less taken) but that was beside the point for me – this was one I really, really liked. And I decided this would be the “special occasion” whisky. I would pour it on those most special occasions and savor its endless fruit and goodness and be transported back to my youth in the midwest, making apple butter, apple cider, visiting local orchards and so on.

The problem, as you’ve likely experienced at some point, is that at a certain point, a whisky may go flat. And inevitably there are never enough special occasions to really enjoy and merit pouring of the thing which you found so amazing and special.

Recently I decided I’d waited long enough as there wasn’t anything special to open this whisky which just blew me away. I decided to pour a glass and…. it was a pale imitation of its former self. Oh, it was good. It’s still a B whisky which means I’d rate it good and maybe worth a purchase, but it was previously in the A- to A range for me personally. I’d opened this whisky and in the time since I’d opened it, it had completely lost its magic. What a shame. What a waste. This to me was yet another affirmation of my current state of mind – enjoy the things that are special to you because life moves fast, and it’s better to have great experiences and special memories versus a chronicle of lost potential.

So here’s my advice. That bottle of Pappy sitting on your shelf? That rare Port Ellen? You should open it. You should enjoy it. Life is short. Are you looking for that special occasion? Make some random weekday in April that special occasion where you opened the bottle that you’d been sitting on and enjoyed it. John Hansell agrees. And those open bottles? Just enjoy them. Share them with friends, swap samples, or host a tasting. Or just enjoy it yourself. This deterioration is yet another reminder that nothing is permanent and that life is short. Sku wrote a great blog post on deterioration with age (it does) and Ryan over at Value Whisky  began a series himself (we’ll see if it continues there or at his new blog, Value Bourbon – [looks like he's decided to close up shop totally...])

So in the interest of what was great and what it’s become, I’ll post the tasting notes. I’m sensitive to note that this is the second post I’ve done about the changes in a Bruichladdich in the last few months. Please don’t interpret this as a hidden agenda to say all Bruichladdichs fall apart. I’ve noticed tendencies on this end among other whiskies I’ve owned, but to see a favorite go from “life changing” to to “good” drove me to write this call to open the bottles.

At A Glance

Bruichladdich Legacy V (33y) 40.9% ABV – initial opening
Satisfying deep wood, a character very similar to an old bourbon. Wood paneling. Light fruits – a hint of pineapple. Lightly floral as well, but wood dominates. Some gentle saltiness, red apples, far-off hints of raisins. A bit of gentle waxiness.
Medium bodies. Initially grain-based, warming more than ABV would suggest. Fruits here – very strong apples, light pear. A honeyed quality, with some barley reappearing later and some gentle sherry notes.
Smooth. Apples again. Quick initial disappearance, reemerges momentarily, some gentle wood and light waxiness.
If this is early ’70s Bruichladdich I’m going to go broke securing more bottles.

Bruichladdich Legacy V (33y) 40.9% ABV – a year after opening
Slightly dusty with some old wood, but some significant bourbon influence on the nose. Well-developed vanilla, a bit of caramel. Some brighter fruit notes; pears evident against some white pepper and cinnamon. 
Pears initially on the palate with some white pepper and cinnamon, old wood that’s slightly bitter. A bit of apple, some light barley. 
Old wood, pepper, a bit of cinnamon, pears. Waxy apple notes as well.
This isn’t quite as amazing as I remember it being. It’s a good but undeniably old whisky. It’s gotten quite a bit simpler in the time it’s been open. The clarity of the fruit notes have been subdued and now it’s more of a (good) fruit compote or canned fruit than fresh fruit. 

Collabo-Review #2: Wild Turkey Rye 101

After our horrendous run-in with Rebel Yell, which was memorably bad, Jason, Sku and I decided we’d do another group review. At the time, we kicked around a few options and Wild Turkey Rye was one on the list. Little did we know what would come to pass in just a few weeks.

As of the time of this review, the status of Wild Turkey Rye, 101 proof, is somewhat murky. A few weeks ago, rumors circulated that it was being discontinued in favor of an 81 proof version. At the time, Campari (the owners of Wild Turkey) said point blank that 101 was discontinued and 81 was the way forward. That was all that was needed for rye whiskey fans to take note and start stocking up like crazy. Unfortunately, the 101 was already somewhat scarce on shelves. Chuck Cowdery then posted an article saying the reality was that stocks of 101 would be scarce through 2012 but in 2013 and 2014, you’d see 81 and 101 coexisting on shelves much like the bourbons are at this point.

Others have speculated that this is a sign the 101 will return with a new price point or as a special edition. Whatever the case, this is look at a whiskey that is currently hard to find and of questionable availability going forward for the next few years. I’m sure Jason and Sku have much more in-depth knowledge of the subject from the business standpoint.

Unlike the “what the hell” approach we took with the first collaborative review, choosing Rebel Yell as a half-dare, half-joke, Wild Turkey Rye is a much more serious choice. No one’s seriously eyeing that Rebel Yell when they’ve got a jones for a good bourbon… but Wild Turkey has released some good whiskeys in the past. However, making good bourbon is one thing… what about a good rye? By all accounts it’s a much harder grain to work with. Not everyone gets a rye whiskey right – the Woodford releases were far off the mark. (As I keep saying, more on Woodford soon…) Beyond that, if you’re not producing your own rye, you’re likely to be bottling LDI rye – which is great, but who needs yet another LDI product when the market has some stellar examples of LDI rye already? It seems like a tough category to work in – and yet demand is increasing ahead of supply.

The nose on Wild Turkey’s rye is nice – it’s clean up front and has a big floral rye presence. However, it’s got some body to it. When you dig in, you get some pepper and a slightly piney note. The body is anchored and weighty – it’s a mix of cinnamon and a bready grain presence. Honestly, it seemed a lot like cinnamon toast to me. There’s cherry and butterscotch hanging around the edges of the nose as well. Left to develop, it will lose the more sharp rye notes and settles in on wood, pepper and a little leathery presence as well. Water focuses the nose even tighter on the pepper notes and it’s massive black pepper with a little bit of wood.

The body is not unsurprisingly light at first entrance. It’s slightly bitter and thin initially but really quickly opens up, becoming sweet with maple syrup, honey, and nutty toffee notes. The body gains a bit of sweet, syrupy weight pretty quickly. It’s got some real heat to it but isn’t overbearing – cinnamon, black pepper and a hint of cayenne. The fruit from the nose is there as well; cherries sort of frame the top notes and there’s a bit of orange zest too. There’s some woody bitterness and some black tea tannins that start to develop though. Adding a splash of water unfortunately causes it to lose some of the dimension and it is kind of a poor mix of rye sharpness and muddled sweetness.

The finish is led by those tannins; they’re very up-front and dominant with the black tea note giving way to a more straightforward woody cask note. Things dry pretty constantly and you get a celery root note. It also has some bready body to it – really, this is a substantial finish – but it’s not as tied to the cinnamon as before. That’s not to say there’s no heat… it’s got plenty, but it’s not overpowering. There’s a surprisingly strong straight rye note in the finish. Overall, this finish lasts and lasts…

For a mass market rye, this one is pretty surprising. I don’t think it holds up to Rittenhouse 100, but it’s pretty well balanced and fairly reasonably priced. It’s a bit more bitter than I’d like, but it’s got a lot working for it. The nose and body have a lot more weight and presence than I’d expected. It’s got nuance and some interesting notes that work well together. Really, this is a pretty good deal for the money.

Unfortunately, as I said earlier, this good deal is in increasingly short supply. If you see a bottle on the shelves, you should definitely give it a try. If you’re new to rye whiskey it’s a good starting point and will be about as difficult to find currently as Baby Saz or Rittenhouse (at least in Southern California). You can find Masterson’s and Whistle Pig reasonably easy on the shelves but that’s a serious cash outlay. IF you find the Wild Turkey 101, I think it’s worth it. I can’t say what the 81 proof version has in store or how it will stack up. My dilutions didn’t leave me hopeful, but it’s possible Wild Turkey has some tricks up their sleeve.

Read the review at Sku’s Recent Eats

Read the review at Sour Mash Manifesto

At a glance:

Wild Turkey Rye 101 – 50.5% ABV
Clean nose with plenty of floral rye up front – a little pepper when you dig in and some slightly piney notes. Very faint cherry note with a little butterscotch far off in the distance. A little grainy, bready presence and some cinnamon – definitely has a cinnamon toast body. The nose settles down and reveals a little more wood and peppery presence after a while, with some leathery tones to it as well.  
Light body. Slightly bitter initially and a thin palate but it opens up quite fast – a little more sweetness present with some light maple syrup, some honey, some nutty toffee notes. Cherries hang out at the far edges of the palate and there’s a definite hint of orange zest; heat is there and fairly notable – cinnamon, maybe a bit of cayenne, and some regular black pepper. Slight bitterness to the wood; a bit of black tea tannins. With water it softens the bitterness a bit and gets sweeter, but loses what makes it interesting. 
Warm but not overbearing. The tannins from the body hang around in a  big way; there’s wood from the cask and a slightly dry celery root note. It again has a bit of that bready body but not as intensely tied with the cinnamon as before. Rye is quite present on the finish as well. 
For a mass-market rye, this is not a bad one at all – and available at a pretty reasonable price. It leans just a bit more bitter than I like but that said it’s still a solid whiskey.