Category Archives: Drinks

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-

Whisky Advocate; Diageo Tell Us It’s Raining

Whisky Advocate’s end of year awards are always a predictably silly affair, and like all awards, are really scarcely more than link bait. So for the second time this year, I’ll take the bait.

Whisky Advocate’s distiller of the year was a small craft operation you may never have heard of, Diageo. Diageo owns small distilleries like Lagavulin, Caol Ila Clynelish, Talisker, Oban, and so forth. Little operations you’ve never heard of. They also have the stocks for closed distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora.

The most interesting point in the writeup is when Whisky Advocate talked about the Special Releases. The Special Releases that set enthusiasts jaws on the floor and proved the point about escalating prices on whisky. Some may accuse me and others of being idealistic. Maybe it’s true. I tend to think I look at things dispassionately and I know if I was in the producers’ shoes I’d be looking to take some of the money on the table.

However, WA and Diageo (through the word processor of Jonny McCormick) have decided to piss down our backs and tell us it’s raining. Those massive price increases on the Special Releases? We’re no longer referring to them as “price increases” but they are now the latest salvo in “the war against flipping”.

So when you see those prices jump, just remember, that’s Diageo looking out for you and nothing more. Your best interest is at heart – even though it’s just business, they’re trying to keep it in the hands of people who care.  Er, sorry, that “purchasers are truly venerating the single malt whisky in the bottle.”

Really? I’d love to see consumers sharpen up to how much the industry thinks they’re saps, but I’d personally be hard pressed to buy less scotch than I have been of late.

In WA’s defense, the Scotch industry has been out of ideas for some time now so it’s not surprising that this went this way. You can only talk about “cask management” and “wood selection” at LVMH so many times. Kudos for not taking the expected path of citing Ealanta as an example of grand innovation.

Happy holidays!

2013 Wrap-Up and Gift Guide

It’s been a weird 2013. Sku said it better than I could. In brief: American whiskey is getting ridiculous; Scotch has completely lost connection with reality and Japan is going to balloon up to the stratosphere next. I reviewed the 30 year old closed distilleries, had some of my grail whiskeys, made fun of a wine critic’s bad research and fell out of love with the culture emerging in whiskey-dom this year.

I have no idea what’s going on and care little about sorting it out. Despite the fact that everyone with a brain in their skull knows that this stuff is subjective, the economic backdrop seems to have induced some previously lucid people to act like jabbering fools, holding up certain absolute truths on things. (After all, that whisky can’t be any good, Serge only gave it an 85…) If everyone has decided to take leave of their senses, I’m not going to push it.

While pondering this and trying to figure out what I was going to do for the end of the year here, I received an email from a PR contact trying to back their way into suggesting that I cover some random bottle of booze. At first, I thought it was the most laughable yet offensive insinuation – you think you can buy my integrity for a few free bottles of booze a link to some press-ready product JPGs?

Then I realized this was the prime opportunity to unveil the 2014 direction for Scotch & Ice Cream while delivering a wholly commercial (though utterly uncompensated) gift guide and retrospective on 2013. After all, this year is nothing but a triumph of marketing style of product substance.

Best Gin That A PR Person Suggested I Recommend To You
This award indirectly suggested by (though not compensated) a fine PR firm. 
Beefeater Gin. I don’t really drink the stuff (I’m more of a Hendrick’s guy, and I think St. George’s makes a fine couple gins), but they offered to send me some JPGs of the bottle. Since my integrity is totally for sale for a few JPGs, I’m ready to suggest that you buy Beefeater like crazy. Buy it by the case. Hell, go to Costco and get a whole pallet of the stuff. It apparently is great for any cocktail enthusiast. None of these claims have been tested for accuracy, and certainly do not represent my opinion since I don’t really have what you’d call a strong opinion on gin. But I’m sure the fine folks at Beefeater do. And they’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed. So, Beefeater.

Most Limitedest Opportunity:
This award was not suggested by anyone.
Oh, I’m sure you though this would be a dogpile on K&L, but I have no desire to retread. Heck, I like David Driscoll and we have deep heart-to-heart conversations from time to time. (His eyes are kind of dreamy even though he’s not my type)
Nope, you should probably go to The Whisky Shop in the UK and buy the most expensive thing they’ve got in stock. Currently it’s a 1919 Springbank selling for £50K but when that sells out you should probably buy that 1964 Dalmore that costs £20K and was finished in a cask containing stale Raisin Bran. Don’t have five figures to throw at whisky (you poor, pathetic plebe)? They’ve no doubt got an overpriced investment-ready Glenlivet with your name on it.

Most ‘Murican Whiskey:
U! S! A! U! S! A! U! S! A!
Without a doubt, you’re still looking for Pappy Van Winkle. You’re not even a serious bourbon fan without it. I don’t have any but, hey, let’s gin up some excitement here (Speaking of gin: Beefeater!).
I mean, this isn’t where it needs to be until we get stories about beatings and whatnot in pursuit of a bottle. Some serious Black Friday stuff. A simple heist isn’t good enough: that’s just shrinkage in the sales channel.

Best Idea For A Substandard Canadian Whiskey That I Just Came Up With

Awards are about mutual back-scratching. I am scratching my own back.
Maybe our fruited plain will have some of the more storied whiskeys from the Great White North, but until then, sup thee upon some amazing though currently fictional whisky: Trebek’s Treat. 40% and with a blandly sweet glow. Quietly knowledgeable but compassionate with you even when you make a complete idiot of yourself in view of others – at home or on national TV.

Best Pancakes I’ve Had In The Greater LA Region This Year
You have any idea how hard it is to do a quasi-relaxing breakfast with a hyperactive toddler?
Hands down this one goes to Du-Par’s at the Farmer’s Market on 3rd. You can only eat two, maybe three if you haven’t eaten in a week, but they’ve got something unique going on. It’s probably a bunch of cake flour and maybe a dash of vodka for a high-rising cake with very little gluten development, but the things are like crack. Do it.

Things You Ought To Get That Whiskey Lover That Don’t Necessarily Make Them Look Like A Raging Alcoholic, Even If They Are

1. A better shave. This one is primarily directed at the fellas, but ladies certainly can benefit. Tired of chewing your face up on some electric razor? Only hitting the Mach 22 every six weeks to help preserve your $14,000 investment in three blades? Maybe it’s time to take a look at a straight razor. Yeah, there’s a learning curve; I nearly sheared my upper lip off, but it’s a hell of a close shave if you’ve got steady hands. For those of you who have claimed I’m a hipster idiot, add this to your quiver. For those still on board though, you might want to consider Thiers-Issard for a touch of luxury and Dovo or Boker for a good, no-fuss blade. You can get into this for less than the price of a higher-end single cask scotch.

2. Relief from aching feet. I was a firm Chucks guy for the longest time (still love ‘em), eschewing nicer shoes because I thought the random pairs I bought for $80-100 were equivalent in comfort to more upmarket options. Wrong city. Swing by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom’s (to start), find something that tickles your fancy and try on the options. I found a pair of John Varvatos that rocked my world and changed everything. They’re no John Lobbs (or even Crockett & Jones), but it’s like walking around in slippers. Well holy hell: the women in our lives were onto something with the shoe obsessions.

3. Experiences and not necessarily stuff. If you’re of the age and economic status that you’re able to indulge a high end whiskey habit, you probably don’t have a lot in the way of material possessions that you really want for (beyond the crazy if-I-won-the-lotto stuff). That nice bottle of malt might be a great dinner out with family or (if it’s especially costly and what isn’t) a pleasant extended weekend getaway. If you’re chasing ever-more-exotic whiskeys for the experience, you’re clearly an experiences kinda person, so indulge that. Drive out of town and check out the stars. Do whatever.

Things You Might Get That Whiskey Lover That They Can’t Enjoy While Driving

1. Beefeater Gin. Again, I’m not compensated, but they asked, so why the hell not. Remember, by the pallet.

2. A whiskey that’s on their bar. I can’t tell you what this would be: I’m just looking at a composition screen here, not their bar.

3. No ideas? Well, I like Four Roses Single Barrel, Yamazaki 12, Masterson’s, Laphroaig 10, Old Weller Antique, and Port Ellen among others. That’s probably not super helpful. I don’t know that I’ve ever really been much on the helpful side though.

2014
Expect some Banffs next year, a bunch of non-whiskey writing and other silliness. Remember how I claim repeatedly to be little more than a court jester and that I write this mainly for my own enjoyment? The proof will be in the pudding. If you’re along for the ride, great; if not, vaya con dios. Whiskey isn’t gone from here, but it’s definitely going to play a reduced role. I have less than ever and I really can’t stretch the blogging meta-criticism out longer.

I’m sure someone will cover you with a piece on their strongly-held opinions about ratings soon though, right after the next Survey Of Why Dalmore Isn’t Even A Good Punchline Anymore or whatever.

This post was in no way sponsored or underwritten by the people associated with Beefeater Gin. I just decided to have fun with their PR person’s offer. Sorry I didn’t display any luxe bottle photos. Imagine a clear bottle with a glass and ice and shit near it I guess. I think it’s got a red cap too.

Greed, Gear, Grails

Rumors of my blogging demise are greatly exaggerated.

Over the summer I’ve had a host of conversations with people at various levels on the whisky enthusiasm scale – from self-doubting newbie to well-known names to whisky lovers. It’s been an interesting few months withdrawn from the active, frequently self-referential and repetitive online discussions. While I’ve drawn a distance that I’ll likely maintain from that (stick a needle in my eye if I do a twitter tasting, please), I’ve found some more interesting things to mine in general. I think there’s only so many times you can say “prices are up, quality is down”.

The interesting thing I’ve seen against the backdrop of rising prices is a sense of paralysis in the face of things you own suddenly being “worth” more. As I’ve detailed in the past, my mindset continues to be one of reducing my footprint and owning less. Thus, the few offers I’ve gotten I’ve been predisposed to take.

I was asked about someone who saw a bottle they owned being sold for $1400 in a liquor store back east. They’d bought the bottle years back at a small fraction of that, and here it was – worth $1400! What to do?

The truth is not so simple. Here’s some basic facts to remember. First, if something is on the shelf at a price that seems staggeringly high (and it’s rare), it’s likely to note that it isn’t generally believed to be worth that price, or else it’d be long gone from the shelf. That’s an asking price. Similarly, I have a 90 year old rare snare drum I restored. It’s not for sale unless someone was willing to pony up $25,000 today. Does that mean it’s actually worth 25 grand? No, it’s just my “go away” price unless someone is desperate to own one, in which case I won’t be totally ridiculous.

Second, it’s not worth getting wrapped around the axle of how much something is perceived to be worth unless you have an offer for cash in hand. If you have no intention of ever selling, then why even worry about what other people are getting for it?

Finally on this point, don’t let those high prices spoil your enjoyment. Let’s say you’re the proud owner of a bottle that you paid $100 for. You find out it’s worth $1400 right before you open it, and you’re now in the throes of indecision and feeling unworthy. If you wouldn’t take $600-700 for that bottle, then don’t worry about it. Just drink it, and pat yourself on the back for having found a bottle that time has smiled upon. The worst thing is to just lock it away and promise yourself to have it “one day”. Odds are you’ll deem yourself unworthy. Enjoy it. Things are meant to be used.

I have a camera that has appreciated in value by almost 40% in the last five years. When I sold off my camera gear, it was the last one standing, with the intention of using the hell out of it. Just because the market agrees with my choice years ago that something is high quality doesn’t mean I should suddenly feel like I shouldn’t use it and should lock it away, unseen, untouched and unused. What good is owning something that you’ll never use and never sell, and in essence never see a benefit from? It’s a curious materialistic quirk of the concept of ownership to take this view.

This leads me to the “gear” issue. As a musician, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in everything but the music. Entire forums are dedicated to just talking about the mechanical working of certain pieces of equipment, or pseudoscientific analysis of marketing claims. There are times when there’s an appropriate level of attention paid – researching a new purchase to address a genuine need, or dealing with defects or ideas for improvement. But when a musician gets tied up in getting the next must-have piece of gear, they stop paying attention to the music. You really don’t want to buy an album of someone just describing in exhaustive detail the construction of their instrument and the marketing speak that explains why it’s so much better than anything else that’s ever been created.

Whisky culture is dangerously close to mimicking that equipment-obsessed gearslut mindset. Part of the current hype is fueled is fueled by a weekly score of new “exclusive” and “limited” releases. It’s so hard to single one out – mystery bottles from Glenlivet; hashtagged Aberfeldys; Glenfarclases for wealthy Poles; Dalmores for wealthy people whose decisions otherwise must be made by power of attorney to avoid harming themselves;anything from LVMH. Throw something in a nonstandard cask, spin a submoronic story, toss a few samples to a couple bloggers and everyone goes crazy trying to obtain a sample. There’s no sense of perspective and all discussion centers around the new-release production line. It’s been the equivalent of seeing a new article online and just being the mouth breather who has to first-post it.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t seek out things we’re interested, but a degree of discrimination is useful. There’s a difference between “Boy, I’d like to try a 70s Ardbeg because I’ve heard so much good stuff about it” and “I’VE GOT TO TRY THE BOAT-ENCASED HIGHLAND PARK BECAUSE REASONS!” You want to try a Macallan distilled in your birth year? Have at it (bring your wallet!). But take some time to form your opinions and learn about your tastes at a more affordable level. 90% of the exclusives out there are just carnival huckster level ploys: This will be gone and never again available, act fast (…and if it sells well, we’ll start finishing more barrels this way and extend the line)! PT Barnum would be proud.

Having had some of my grails though, I will say the experience rarely lives up to the hype. I think in the last two years the only two that met my expectations were Tun 1401/3 and Lagavulin 21 (2007). Meanwhile I had Brorageddon, PLOWED Ellen, a host of old bourbons and ryes and scotches galore in that same time. Don’t get so caught up in the hunt for the rare and exclusive that you lose sight of the bounty available every day. As I said to Sku at lunch yesterday, “if you told me the only bourbon I could have was the standard off-the-shelf 100 proof Four Roses Single Barrel, I’d be totally fine with that”. Find your everyday drinkers.

As a proof of the “unholy grail”, here was one of my momentary pursuits. Glen Flagler was a distillery-in-a-distillery (a la Glencraig) – in this case located inside the Moffat grain distillery. A few years back I found an official 30yo bottling from a 1973 distillation. Why did I care about this one? Because it’s closed and rare! Of course, I should have learned the lesson that “closed and rare” does not necessarily equate with “good”. Here’s the play-by-play.

The nose starts somewhat predictably, with a relatively gentle honey sweetness and some nice barley notes. It gets a little more grassy and is also gently floral. It’s fairly standard stuff for a lighter-profile older whisky, with an overall feeling of a meadow that’s overdue for a visit from a few hummingbirds.

The palate leads with some grassiness and then gets woody. There’s a low-level oakiness underneath everything, it’s got some moderate but zippy white pepper notes and some barley sweetness. It’s also a touch musty.

The finish leads with pepper, followed by bitter greens and woodiness. It retains heat but dries expectedly to bitter greens and oak.

It’s fairly textbook overoaked lighter-bodied whisky. It’s got a nice presence on the nose but the spirit can’t stand up to the rough handling that 30 years in oak gave it. And here we go, another check in the “unremarkable closed distillery” column.

At a glance:

Glen Flagler 1973 (30y OB) 46% ABV
Nose:  Honey sweetness with some nice barley as well. Grassy; gently floral. 
Palate:  Grassy at first; moderately woody, a low level oakiness underneath some moderate and zippy white pepper. Some barley sweetness; faintly musty.
Finish: 
Pepper leading, followed by a mix of a little bitter greens, and some woodiness. Stays fairly hot, but dries a touch bitter and oaky.
Comment:  Nice sweetness and gentleness, but marred by a little too much out of balance oak and the grassiness doesn’t sit right for me. 
Rating: C+

Four Roses Yellow Label; Time To Breathe

Do you wanna hear something sick? 
We are but victims of desire
Pearl Jam, “Gonna See My Friend”

About two week ago, Google took Reader offline. I’d made peace with their decision; it was a service I’d used every day, but it was clear their decision was irrevocable. Coming from the technology world, this wasn’t entirely surprising. At some point, you have to cut your business to what matters.

When D-day came, the remaining handful of whisky blogs I was following vanished from my daily survey of new content. Suddenly, where there was noise, where there was inadequacy and insufficiency, there was just silence.

Of course, that was only a few days ago. I’ve been enjoying some silence on the blog front for a while now. I’ve apparently missed new heights (depths?) of venality on Facebook with various whiskey “Exchanges”. Prices are apparently high for moderate to moderately good whiskey, with a premium on older stuff. I’ve got no doubt that rare & old whiskey will start to be forged soon – obviously the technology exists to knock out a pretty convincing one. With the prices available, if you think you could get away, why wouldn’t you (ethics aside)?

Let the rats eat themselves, I say. Maybe I’m a sap but I’m avoiding the secondary market. Then again, I’m avoiding the primary market as well, as the values are just off kilter. There’s good whiskey to be found, but one needs to be more selective – the $100+ tier is a minefield of questionable whiskey these days.

The last bottle I bought was a humble bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label. I’ve discussed Jack, Jim, and Evan; I figured it was time to revisit this value-priced stalwart. Unfortunately, in Los Angeles (on the west side, at least), Four Roses has suddenly gotten a little bit scarce. Maybe it’s the local landscape catering to an “enlightened” post-Parker consumer, maybe it’s spiked demand; I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s depressing that it’s suddenly so hard to find.

While many of my friends have picked up the torch over the last few months of odd tastings and unusual whiskeys, I’ve been content to take it easy. I checked off a lot of “must have” whiskeys this spring and realized they can be as questionable and variable as  anything else in any price tier. That, coupled with an acknowledgement that I’m pretty happy with the average Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV/OBSK, hasn’t really spurred a desire to spend a lot of money on new, questionable bottles.

Well, that and the on-again, off-again heat in Los Angeles.

Four Roses seemed to be the right one to match my casual mood of late. All too often, things get wrapped up in unfortunate idealism and blindly accepted normative statements. Between blog-overload, questionable whiskey overload, the heat, and a focus of interest elsewhere, finding and noting some sort of “challenging” whisky and casting its place in the larger world was the least interesting exercise I could imagine.

Four Roses Yellow Label is an undisclosed blend of their five yeast strains split across two mashbills. In theory, it’s the accessible pop hit of the Four Roses discography. In practice, well…

The nose is nice and gently earthy, with some wet clay and a light spice. There’s some black pepper and a dab of cinnamon; caramel and easygoing wood. There’s plenty of corn evident, but a little subtly astringent black cherry in the back.

The palate leads with “E” mashbill sweetness – corn upfront with caramel and cherry. There’s wood, cinnamon, and the more distinctive heat of white pepper.

The finish is generally tannic – black tea and wood, cherry, a softer oak influence, and some faint tobacco.

It’s actually a pretty clean representation of everything Four Roses has to offer, in a somewhat condensed format. The “E” bill sweetness is balanced by the “B” bill spice. I actually enjoyed it quite a lot, especially considering this is a 40% ABV entry-level whiskey. It’s a touch thin in the ideal world; at 45% or even 50% it could be fantastic. In my opinion it’s easily the best 40% ABV standard offering on shelves.

At a glance:

Four Roses Yellow Label, 40% ABV
Nose:
Nice gentle earthy, wet clay influence with some light spicing – a hint of black pepper, a faint dab of cinnamon. Some caramel, easygoing wood influence, plenty of corn sweetness balanced by a bit of slightly astringent black cherry.
Palate: Corn sweetness upfront with some caramel and a touch of cherry. A little bit of wood, some cinnamon and a little dab of white pepper.
Finish: Leads with some tannins; a touch of black tea and some wood; a touch of cherry, a little oak, a faint hint of tobacco;
Comment: My only complaint is that it’s a touch thin at 40%. At 45% or 50% this would be fantastic. It’s easily the best 40% ABV standard offering on shelves today though.
Rating: B

Postscript

Please take the opportunity afforded by the Google Reader shutdown to take a breath, unfollow the blogs that only provide noise (including mine), and make sure you’re getting enough real-people-time. I met with a bunch of whiskey friends and bloggers over the last month, and that was far more interesting than reading message boards, facebook groups, and getting in twitter arguments about mundane points of booze.

Obviously this is a “stop liking things I don’t like” sort of non-directive; I am just drawn to say it because the odd undercurrent I noticed in a bunch of discussions was how many lives this hobby and interest has negatively affected. It’s OK to step back; it’s OK to stop jumping just because a merchant or a brand ambassador or a blogger says something is the best whiskey ever.

The 1983 Tasting Series #10: Port Ellen

I almost hate putting “Port Ellen” in the title of a blog post; it’s the cheapest trick available to whiskey bloggers. Some twitter bot will retweet your link-tweet; people will click because – OH MY GOD, IT’S PORT ELLEN.

Not to say it’s not great stuff. Of all of the 1983s, it’s one of the most consistently enjoyable distilleries. In my experience, Port Ellen doesn’t pack a lot of surprises, but it does what it does so well. In fact, the only Port Ellen I’ve had that I didn’t like was the PLOWED society bottling.

I’m not going to recap anything about Port Ellen here. It’s been discussed to death elsewhere, even on this blog.

The bottle in the 1983 tasting series was an Old Bothwell release. Old Bothwell doesn’t really exist on this side of the Atlantic. Even then, they don’t seem to be extremely common compared to other bottlers. I don’t really see much mention of them in the usual dens of whisky discussion, and when they are mentioned it seems to be in connection with Port Ellen.

So – the whisky. The nose is unsurprisingly textbook Port Ellen – the familiar, slightly diesel-smelling Port Ellen peat; there’s a little hint of lemon and some malty sweetness. It’s lightly briny, faintly mineral, and a touch floral.

The palate has a nice peated quality to it; slightly rubber with some tar. There’s also black pepper, nice malt and a gentle wood quality to it. It finishes more smoky; rubber and diesel notes on the peat. It picks up a little heat, has a faint lemony kick and then finishes with malt and light woodiness.

I thought this was a super-approachable and nicely done Port Ellen. I enjoyed it a great deal.

The 1983 Tasting Comes To A Close

Now for some reflection and self-criticism.

This is a really boring idea for a tasting.

It’s even more boring to write up.

The thing is, there’s no interesting thing here to hang one’s hat on. It’s a shameless exercise in checking the box of closed distilleries; the least discerning type of vapid whisky  adventurism and the most vulgar form of tourism-as-connoisseurship. While it’s passable as a sort of low-grade “tasting of old malts”, there’s not a lot here to pick apart. With one sample per distillery, bottle choice is everything. Thirty years on, that task is quite demanding. The Glenlochys I’ve tried have been rather similar. I still have no sense of Glenugie (though I have some samples from friends I will try in the future). There’s still a wash of generic character over a bunch of these. Sure, some have distinguished themselves – Port Ellen (as always), Brora (as usual); Brechin retains its title as “distillery most deserving closure”. But there’s a vast middle ground that still is a cipher.

The checkboxes are there, many “hard to find” distilleries have now been enjoyed, but I think as far as an educational exercise or critical analysis, there really was no bedrock to build on in this tasting.

That’s not to say I think the participants of this tasting shouldn’t have enjoyed it if they did. I’d like to be clear on that (if any are reading) – and for whisky tasting in general. I don’t claim to be any sort of authority, or even particularly knowledgeable. I don’t claim my experience is transferrable or more valid than yours or anyone’s. The only validity you have in a subjective experience is what you bring to it and what you take away from it.

Even my more simple exercises – Teacher’s over time; Macallan old verticals and replicas vs modern whiskies have had a very clear basis for comparison and discussion. This is essentially a random grab-bag of distilleries that share a simple coincidence of having been closed. You may as well throw darts at the periodic table of whisky and buy one bottle each from the first ten distilleries you hit and call it a tasting.

That said, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit fun.

At a glance:

Port Ellen 1982 Old Bothwell (#2044) 28y 57.5% ABV
Nose: 
Familiar slightly diesel-tinged Port Ellen peat with a great mix of lemon and malty sweetness. Lightly briny, faintly mineral and a touch floral.
Palate: Nice peat – slightly rubbery; a little tar, some black pepper, some pleasing malt, a little gentle wood.
Finish: Smokier on exit. A little rubber and diesel from the peat; a bit of heat, a lemony touch again and then some malt and light wood.
Comment: Super-approachable and really nicely done Port Ellen.  Everything you’d want.
Rating: A-

Another Visit From An Angel

The hype echoed through the whiskey nerdosphere this spring.

“Angel’s Envy… is releasing a rye!”

For some, the excitement couldn’t be contained. Rye, after all, is the whiskey that has the coolest record collection. Everyone wants to be rye, even if they won’t admit it. MGP has obligingly supplied everyone from Diageo (in the form of George Dickel Rye) to High West to a coterie of small bottlers, each with their own comically overwrought backstory and fanciful label.

In that respect, it wasn’t at all surprising to see the port-finished bourbon being followed by a rye. Slap a classy-looking bottle (it uses more or less the same bottle as previously, with gold type instead of white) in the rye section, and they will come – or so is the hope.

Of course, any half-wit can release a youngish LDI rye and slap a label calling it “Capone’s Cache” or “Boos Myllar’s Best” or something equally underthought. The Angel’s Envy twist was to finish it in Caribbean rum casks. It’s either an inspired choice or the height of idiocy.

I myself was in the uninterested camp – how many mediocre LDI ryes do you have to try before you know you’re going to end up with a mouthful of Pine-Sol, an empty wallet and a conscience gripped with regrets? The compulsion to keep trying sourced ryes is like the manic fury that drives a drunken roulette binge at 3 AM in a dark corner of the MGM Grand. The odds are long and almost crushingly hopeless, but the payoff – when it comes – may silence the doubts enough for you to throw another fifty bucks down at the next opportunity.

Even when the inevitable trophy shots came in from well-connected bloggers, clutching – always clutching – prized sample bottles, I was completely unswayed. Everyone loves free whiskey. I wasn’t going to be goaded into a purchase, no matter how many people I trusted who reviewed it from advance samples. You can forgive a lot of sins when it’s free. I’m remaining firm in my conviction: I don’t care who reviewed it or how good the marks were, I am not going to play the part of Pavlov’s dog when someone shouts “new rye whiskey”!

And then a few average Joes I know purchased bottles. And the whiskey the described was so outside the incredibly narrow expectations I had for this release that I started to pay attention. The notes were all very similar, but they painted a picture of something completely unlike what was on the market. Knowing that the roulette wheel had come up red the last five times I’d tried some LDI-based product, I threw my cash on the table. I knew, as anyone does who has played roulette long enough (gambler’s fallacy be damned!), that simple probability said this spin in rye roulette had to come up black.

I strolled into my local booze merchant, quietly ignored the suggestions that I should check out a bottle of Booker’s, and grabbed Angel’s Envy. I wouldn’t be a victim of rye roulette this time. My bet would pay off. This had to be the first enjoyable rye in a while.

I grabbed the nearest knife I could and slit at the strip trapping the cork on the bottle. I dumped a pour into my glass and waited. The moment of truth.

Immediately it was clear this was not the average rye. Everything I expected was missing. Instead, I got a big hit of gingerbread on the nose, followed by fruity, cooked (and sugary) pineapple, cinnamon, brown sugar and angel food cake. I could only laugh. “Angel’s Envy” manifest in the nose already. Even at arm’s length, caramel sweetness and the confectioner’s sugar qualities were readily apparent.

I lifted it up to my mouth and was rewarded with a mouthfeel that was unlike most young LDI ryes – this one actually had some weight to it. It didn’t cede its identity wholly to the dessert sweetness; it had some rough and piney rye notes, but they were more of a grounding base for everything else, kind of like a better IPA where the drier hop notes add complexity. Pineapple, angel food cake and cinnamon were abundant; there was a hint of ginger, and it was generally sweet like a dessert with flashes of rye dryness.

The finish started dry, with a touch of bitterness, but was balanced by the cake-like sweetness. Confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, pineapple and a touch of vanilla rounded out the finish.

If Angel’s Envy Bourbon could be summed up as the speculative fiction of “What if Balvenie made a bourbon?”, then Angel’s Envy Rye would be, “What if Paula Deen was on your rye tasting panel?”

That obviously carries some weight (ha!), but let’s be clear about what is going on. Angel’s Envy Rye is the sweetest tasting rye you’ll probably ever have. It’s pure southern dessert – angel food cake, amped-up caramel and pineapple sweetness, with just a touch of rye to keep it from going off the deep end.

As the bottle gets some air, the more punchy top notes and overt pineapple-and-caramel quality dampens a bit; it’s still a bit syrupy and a little more spicy on the nose. The palate actually starts to get into cognac territory and the rye asserts itself more. Think of a moderately hopped porter – the hops don’t become the focus of attention, but they add more complexity. So is the rye with time in Angel’s Envy Rye. Also, with time and air, this does become a little more minty and mentholated on the finish, tipping its hat a bit to the origin, but I still would never peg this as LDI.

If you don’t like sweet things, just stay away. I can’t stress this enough. If angel food cake drives you into a rage, you really should not buy it. If you want the same boring rye you’ll get in a bottle of Bulleit or Templeton, skip this. This will not be for you. I promise. You’ll miss nothing by skipping.

But on the other hand, if you’ve been burned for a zillion times running and you’re just looking for something different – Angel’s Envy Rye has that in spades. I can’t think of a rye that tastes remotely like this. I can’t think of a whiskey that really tastes quite like this. And because I think it’s so unusual, I’m sure we’ll be seeing copycats in the months and years ahead.

I’m not sure that Angel’s Envy is an everyday sipper, but in a world of bad rye decisions, this is one of the few options that won’t disappoint. I’ve revisited this bottle a few times now and it’s very much the same thing as my first impressions, with a bit more of the rye character making itself known over time. It doesn’t lose that angel food cake and pineapple sweetness though. For my money, while it’s definitely a very particular style, I happen to really enjoy what’s going on with this whiskey. It’s not a daily sipper, but then, you shouldn’t be having a big, sweet desert every day either.

However, while I say it’s not a daily sipper, I can’t deny I’ve come back to this bottle with regularity and am already thinking about picking up another…

At a glance:

Angel’s Envy Rye (95% Rye) – 50% ABV B
Nose: 
A really unusual mix of gingerbread, a touch of pineapple, some cinnamon, angel food cake, brown sugar. Caramel and confectioner’s sugar. With air and time, there’s a little more syrupy quality mixed with some gentle spice, but never losing that angel food cake quality. 
Palate: 
Moderately thick on the palate, the kind of rough and piney rye notes provide a bed; there’s a big pineapple/angel food cake/cinnamon top end, a faint hint of fresh grated ginger. Sweet in a very dessert-like way with flashes of rye dryness. As the whiskey gains more air, the rye asserts itself more directly with some cinnamon, and has a cinnamon/rye/caramelized pineapple tug of war. 
Finish: 
Dry, a touch bitter but against with that soft, cake-like sweetness. Confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, a little pineapple and vanilla. Air leads this to be drier still, with an almost minty (but not full-tilt minty) or menthol top end, and a little more direct rye and cinnamon. 
Comment: 
The first LDI rye that doesn’t taste like everything else. Very sweet and desserty – indulgent. The elements pop out quite cleanly, but it also reminds me of a hummingbird cake. If you don’t have a sweet tooth (yes, on a rye!), you will not enjoy this. Almost has a cognac-like character at times.
Rating: 
B

Postscript

The bottle has a sticker on it noting the “95% Rye” mashbill. Obviously, this is a clear tip of the hand that it’s LDI rye. However, the fact that this is a sticker raises an interesting question: does Angel’s Envy have casks sourced elsewhere (e.g. Canada) with different mashes (100%? 51%+) waiting for a future release? Only the Hendersons know for sure, but it could be an interesting few years. Taking the whiskey used in WhistlePig or Mastersons and giving it an Angel’s Envy treatment (which seems to be summed up as “March to the beat of your own drummer’) could result in some really interesting choices.

The 1983 Tasting Series #9: Glenugie

The 1983 tasting series has its penultimate entry in Glenugie.

Glenugie was an unknown for me coming into this tasting. It hasn’t seen a tidal wave of single cask releases a la Port Ellen, or garnered a strong reputation like Brora has on the basis of a few stunning whiskies. I knew Serge at Whiskyfun regards it quite highly; even with critical acclaim on that level, I hadn’t managed to try any. It, like many of the other 1983 closures, is just increasingly rare. There were a few Old Malt Cask bottles floating around, but they were few and far between. When I found a Signatory decanter, I jumped on it.

The Signatory release is somewhat uncommon for Signatory in my experience – instead of a standard single-cask release, this particular Glenugie (cask #2) had 100 months additional finishing in an oloroso cask. “Finishing” seems to be a stretch in this case; at 33 years old, it spent nearly a quarter of its time in wood being finished. However, I won’t launch into a research project (or garden variety rant) on the difference between “secondary maturation” and “finishing” (to say nothing of “finesse”) in this case.

The nose on this Glenugie showed overt sherry influences with light leatheriness, slightly mushroomy earthiness, some white pepper, rich dried fruit – orange and fig – and a surprising hint of madras curry.

The palate is very thick and mouth-coating, with the clear sherry notes again. A little pepper and some heat come in after a moment; but there’s a fair amount of wood and slight nuttiness balancing it, as well as dried fruit.

The finish is nutty and woody but generally sweet with dried fruit and other sherry notes. It dries a little woody and has some apple skin, but is generally big and lasting.

As expected, it’s a big, dense, and generally nicely nuanced sherry character. There’s not much I’d change about this whisky except pulling back the pepper quality a touch.

That being said, where this succeeds as a straight-up sherry bomb, it’s not clear in providing a sense of the distillery character. In that regard, while I enjoyed this on its own merits and as a big sherried whisky, I still don’t feel like I’ve really got a sense of what drives Glenugie. I guess I”ll have to find more to drink in the near future (if it’s available or affordable!)

Coming up next, the 1983 series begins near where it started, as well as some general reflections on the tasting.

At a glance: 

Glenugie 1977 Signatory 33y Cask #2 Oloroso Finish (100 months) – 57.2% ABV
Nose:
  Nice mix of light leather, slight mushroomy earthiness, a little white pepper, some rich dried fruit notes; a little orange, some fig, and believe it or not, a very faint hint of madras curry.
Palate:  Very thick and mouth-coating, clear sherry presence, a little pepper and gaining some heat. Slightly nutty; a reasonable wood presence. A touch of black pepper. Some dried fruit.
Finish:  Nutty and woody, sweet with dried fruit and sherry, dries towards wood with some apple skin. Quite big and lasting.
Comment:  Very dense, nicely nuanced. Very little I’d change except for maybe dialing the pepper back a touch.
Rating: A-