Category Archives: Misc World Whiskey

Malt, French Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At a glance:

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

Whither Canada?

It’s no secret that Canadian offerings have been relatively underrepresented at Scotch & Ice Cream, with the bulk in a three-way comparison between Jefferson’s, Masterson’s, & WhistlePig. (You know, those “American” brands. Made in Canada.) The truth is, I haven’t had much interest, since as we know, most liquor stores have Canadian Whiskey in an uncomfortable ghetto near the collected industrial output of DeKuyper. Hey – if that’s your thing, I’m not gonna call you out for your love of 4 proof melon ball shots.

Several weeks back I had a phone call with Clay Risen and we were discussing the Canadian whiskey scene in America. To be honest, I didn’t feel like there was much to talk about – it’s the same story over and over: Great if you wanna be a quasi-baller and roll big with your Crown Royal (sorry, if it’s maple finished, I’m going to have to cut you), or do some kind of weird midcentury DDB/Leo Burnett sendup with Canadian Club. But for whisky enthusiasts, it’s been kind of bleak. Crown Royal offered their XR releases, some overpriced old rye trying to trade on the closed-distillery cachet that was more Brutini than Berluti. They weren’t bad… they just were middle of the road and certainly not worth the money.  Clay covered a lot of that ground in his recent piece on Canadian whiskey.

I was interested when I heard Lot 40 was coming to the US and had finally touched down in California. Lot 40 was on a short list of things that had my interest, so the opportunity to grab it was a welcome one. I went to the store, strolled over to the Canadian section, confidently made my way over to the Canadian section, ignoring the bargain-basement schnapps just over my shoulder, and scanned. And scanned. And scanned. Wait. It’s not here.

I looked in the case. It’s a premium whiskey, surely it’ll be alongside such amazing whiskies as Crown Royal Maple, Crown Royal Black, and Crown Royal Tarragon, Chive and Onion finish. Nope. I stepped back, less confident, and re-approached the shelf as if for the first time, and scanned looking for it. It wasn’t there! I figured the online inventory could be wrong, even though that was lame.

I rounded the corner and browsed bourbon for any interesting entries, while trying to hold back my urge to vomit at the sight of Jacob’s Ghost. Predictably, the bourbon shelf wasn’t stocking much of interest, and the case was the usual set of stuff. Until: Lot 40. In the bourbon case. Right next to WhistlePig.

This is a problem and will be a problem for Canadian whiskey in the US. This felt like one of those “separated by a common tongue” moments, even more so than the tendency to say “zed” or add the letter u to “color”. I’m not sure if the problem lies with the retailer, the distributor, or the industry in a larger sense. There’s almost a chicken and egg problem here.

Customers have not been presented with a really fantastic Canadian offering to date. Honestly, I look at whiskies like Lot 40, WhistlePig, and Masterson’s as incredible value whiskeys that don’t make much in the way of compromises. WhistlePig and Masterson’s try to obfuscate their origin and hang out in the American section, pretending they’re more or less the same as a Rittenhouse or a Sazerac. They’re not, but it’s great. They’re worlds ahead of most of the really sad LDI rye offerings, but by quietly adding the “Product of Canada” piece in the most hidden position imaginable, they undercut the quality of their source.

Retailers obviously have a bias to put things where they sell, and the Canadian whiskey section has not customarily been the spot where amazing whiskeys dwell — on shelves in the US at least. That probably explains the unbelievably odd decision to put Lot 40 next to a bunch of bourbons. Yes, it goes to to toe with a fair amount of them, but it’s different…. and that’s OK (Which consumers need to get comfortable with).

Finally, the question at the larger industry level: why keep apologizing for and obfuscating the source of a new crop of really fantastic whiskeys? Lot 40 is great in this regard, it declares itself to be a Canadian Rye Whiskey. No apologies. WhistlePig, Masterson’s and Jefferson’s would prefer to be lumped with the whiskeys produced south of the border. Perhaps they have longer-term plans to eventually be produced here (I know WhistlePig has made allusions to this), but if not, why bother?

Canadian whiskey is largely an inexpensive offering in the US, which makes it attractive against a backdrop of ever-more-expensive whiskeys from everywhere else. Part of this no doubt is due to an ocean of bad whiskey on the shelves: if all the rest of the world got from the US was Early Times and Ten High, perhaps perception would differ there, too. I’d imagine Canada is not immune to the industry-wide pressure on stocks. There’s an opportunity here though to land at 45-65 bucks a bottle with a good offering and absolutely own the “Premium Canadian Whisky” label among enthusiasts in the US. I’m always on the lookout for a better value, especially given the rising prices and outpaced quality of Scotch or the ever-younger bourbons. It’s different, and it’s staking out a new strategy, but that’s where you have the opportunity to make a land grab (which is far more rewarding, potentially, than being the eighth whisky from Scotland to “pursue a premium strategy” with dull, conservative presentation in margin-driving boxes and bottles).

This all leads to the whisky. I’ve tipped my hand that I think it’s better than the swill on most shelves in southern California. Let’s examine it.

The nose has an expected mix of spice – cinnamon and coriander; there’s some dry rye notes and a bit of cider that’s kind of lurking in the background. It’s not far off the mark of a WhistlePig but distinct nonetheless.

The palate is a little bitter at first; an odd mix of wood and an aggressive rye punch. It’s more oily and bitter rye than it is floral, but it works. There’s black pepper, cinnamon, and more of an oily quality overall. It finishes with an unexpected quick hint of savory sweetness – a hot, fresh doughnut with powdered sugar – which fades and lead to slightly bitter rye and a really pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle in the lips and tongue.

I think the single biggest surprise to me with this is how big it is overall given the 43% strength. When I saw the strength, I initially sighed to myself and said, “another thin Canadian whisky”. Only after considering it later did I realize this really big, bold whisky that packed a punch was a lightweight in ABV. Fantastic stuff: It’s great to have a drink that’s not going to put you on your ass in the first three sips. This is no doubt in large part due to the pot still distillation, which lends an oily quality – sort of like the pot still Irish entries.

This one was a little less sweet than Masterson’s and more focused on an oily bitterness that is great and adds complexity. For my money, I prefer the dessert-in-a-glass profile of Masterson’s and (to a lesser extent) WhistlePig, but this is a worthy contender.

Let’s hope we see more of this on the shelves in the future, and more like it.

Canadian distillers, we’re waiting.

Lot 40 Canadian Rye (2012) – 43% ABV
Nose: 
Nice mix of spice – some cinnamon, a hint of coriander, a little rye dryness, even a touch of cider sweetness beneath it.
Palate:  A little bitter at first; some wood and then a pretty full-on rye profile, more oily and faintly bitter than having the floral tones rye can have. Some black pepper, a touch of cinnamon again. Slightly oily.
Finish:  A bit of sweetness not unlike powdered sugar on a freshly made donut, but it vanishes quickly, leaving a slightly bitter rye profile, some sichuan peppercorn tingle on the lips and tongue.
Comment:  Very surprisingly robust for 43%, likely owing to pot still distillation, a little less of the sweeter notes I found in Masterson’s. Another really solid Canadian rye, though I prefer the quality of WP/Masterson’s more.
Rating: B

Random Thoughts, The Manifesto, and The Subcontinent

What’s this, a non-’83 post? Yep. Here’s the scoop!

If you’ve seen me complaining on Twitter and elsewhere like I’ve got a real problem in the world, I’ve no doubt mentioned how burned out I am on the whole whiskey scene of late. “Yeah, how rough. You split great bottles with friends, your job and socioeconomic status is such that you can buy 30 year old bottles from closed distilleries, etc. Cry me a river!” What can I say? It’s the sheer drudgery of drinking astonishingly great whiskey – the true problem of the snob and elitist.

In all seriousness, in the last two to three months, I really have been writing on a much more restrained level. For some reason, like a moron, I decided to worry about traffic and hits more than having fun with this. I appreciate the traffic that some have referred in the last few months, but being a little more straight-and-narrow just sucked all of the fun out of this site, to the point that I entertained serious notions of shutting down the site. That’s stupid: this site isn’t monetized in the least nor do I have any intention of going there, so it better serve a different purpose.

So, the bad news is if you hated the old rambling, barely-connected S&I diatribes that somehow looped back to whisky: sorry, they’re probably back. Meandering streams of thought about my personal life? Yep. Digressions about who knows what? Yeah, the chef is serving that too, and you paid for the tasting menu.

Well, some of you did. A fair amount of readers have recently gotten smart and bugged out. I urge the remainder of you to follow so I can get a little more free-jazz and confessional here. Seriously, the bad old days, that’s what I’m gunning for. You want the real scoop of why I think Aberlour A’bunadh is just hideously overrated? It’s coming. Seriously, it’s probably time to unsubscribe. Of course, you can just wait for Google Reader to fade away and it’ll all be moot in a few more weeks anyway.

Alright, those of you who are left… you don’t care? Cool. I don’t either. Let’s have fun. I think there’s some great people in the whisky scene, but it tends to get so same-y and repetitive. All the facts about distilleries are everywhere. I haven’t yet been to any distilleries (… I KNOW!), so I have nothing new to add. When I do, no doubt, I will. Tasting notes are searchable on Google. The Whisky Monitor and LAWS have fantastic searchable archives for that stuff. Serge too. Instead, this is the place get stupid, go out on the tightrope without a safety line and have fun. As much as I’m going to tell you my stupid stories and questionable insights, I’d love to hear yours. Seriously, dumb stories? Odd proclivities? I don’t care. Have fun with it.

So what else has been happening? Why have pages been disappearing? Why have I been removing links from the top bar? Why is my name disappearing from the site? It’s not some sanitizing scrub of my identity and thoughts. For whatever reason, in the last three weeks, the hacking-inclined scum of the earth have directed their attention to this blog. Why? I don’t know. It’s kind of like trying to achieve world dominance by taking over Liechtenstein. There’s not enough traffic here to mount a takeover of the world, and yet, these clowns from various southern European nations are determined to log in. My only guess is these guys wanted to log in and sing the praises of the latest Glenrothes bottling under my name… as if. Only reasonable explanation.

The last point on this meandering, rambling, ill-constructed diatribe (I’m back, baby!): I’ve read the luminaries of the whisky writing world discuss how bloggers are a second class, or are in some way wanting for legitimacy. You know what? I’m cool with it. I’ll take my stand, I’m independent. In fact: at no point going forward will S&I review samples provided to S&I by a producer. It’s all what I’ve paid for out of my pocket. Their business model and livelihood doesn’t allow it. Where they succeed in wall-to-wall access and connections, I have them trumped on the ability to speak my mind without fear of having access cut off… unless someone stops putting their whisky on shelves and only providing direct to whisky writers. This doesn’t even come close to paying my  bills – my day job does that just fine, thanks. I’d rather the readers of S&I get the unvarnished opinion of someone who put their hard-earned dollars (and they are hard earned!) on the line for the whiskey written about here. So, consider this my redeemed no-bullshit guarantee. All this means in practical terms is that you won’t see me presenting a tasting on Questionable Malts Of The Highlands for a bunch of pasty-skinned, too-serious gentlemen (at least on someone else’s dime – I’ll let you know when my Questionable Whiskies Of The World tasting masterclasses are scheduled in Los Angeles).

In the spirit of standing up on one’s own, let’s take a look at Amrut Peated. Amrut? Who’s that?

Well, India is producing whisky. A lot of people still can’t wrap their heads around the whole “Japan makes really good whisky” idea, and I’m bringing the subcontinent into things. What a jerk! A lot of Indian whisky is crap and wouldn’t necessarily legally meet the definition of whisky in most whisky markets – distilled from molasses and such. Amrut, however, wisely said, “people don’t like garbage, we should make a whisky people actually would like to drink and sell it instead of something that makes you worry about imminent blindness.”

So, sitting down with Amrut, what do we get? The nose is a touch watery. There’s a light touch of smoke, some faint leather, some gentle fruitiness and younger malt notes. It’s a touch waxy, but more paraffin than the big furniture polish waxiness of a Clynelish.

The palate has light smoke on the roof of the mouth. It’s slightly thin (it’s 46% so that’s not entirely surprising), but not objectionable. It’s got a fair amount of malt and straight barley notes; and a vague impression of white pepper wafting in from the next room over. There’s also a faint touch of fruit sweetness on the palate.

The finish leads with smoke and follows behind with a really clean waxy apple note, which is uncommon on younger malts but welcome here. There’s some maltiness again as well as straight barley.

Amrut Peated is a bit simple, and it drinks like a blend that’s malt-heavy, but the light peating gives it some grounding and weight. It’s a nice straightforward number – though I can’t deny, I’d like to see an older/stronger/more intense version. Honestly, to me, this is a nicer, lighter, easy-drinking peated malt that could be called on anytime. It’s super accessible, and I’d probably keep this one on hand if I couldn’t keep some Hakushu Heavily Peated.

At a glance:

Amrut Peated Single Malt – Batch 5, Jan 2010 – 46% ABV
Nose:
  A little watery; some light smoke, a faint touch of leather, some gentle fruitiness and young malt. A touch waxy – more paraffin than furniture polish.
Palate:  Light smoke on the roof of the mouth. Slightly thin on the mouthfeel but not bad. Reasonable malt and barley, some white pepper kind of wafting in from the next room over, a faint touch of fruit sweetness on the palate.
Finish:  Smoke leads on the finish, followed close behind by a little waxy apple note. Some maltiness and straight barley on the tongue.
Comment:  It’s a little simplistic and drinks a touch like a malt-heavy blend, but the light peat on this really gives it some weight. Pretty nice and straightforward number. Would love to see an older/stronger/more intense version of this.
Rating: B

†Last year I did a tasting of a dozen Glenrothes expressions with the intention of blogging them. They all sucked. Even the one from the late 60s that just sat in a cask for decades. There’s no point in writing a depressingly long entry about why I hate Glenrothes. Robur Reserve is the best out there and it’s a B. Now you know. If you like Glenrothes, I don’t think you’re a bad person but please don’t ever buy me a bottle of it (or even a dram).

2013 World Tour: South Africa Via Florida

Like many whiskey lovers, I’m always looking for something new and interesting on the shelf. I always am looking for an unusual bottle shape or a label I don’t recognize so that I can find something new and different.

Last fall, I was in in one of my local stores in the early holiday shopping season, and was scanning past a lot of noise – “festive” crap mostly targeted at wine drinkers but cross-marketed to festoon your whisky bottle with some sort of dopey flair. Who doesn’t need a mistletoe charm to slip around the neck of their bottle of Jack Daniel’s, anyway?

As I was scanning, something caught my eye – a plastic pouch. I moved in to look, and was revolted and enchanted at the same time. I had in my hand a “Porta Shots” pack of Kings Crown Whiskey, with the absolute most generic artwork ever. For a moment, I’ll retract my criticism of silly bottles like Thor that are a little too art-directed. Let’s just agree categorically that your packaging artwork should not be done in CorelDraw.

The treasure, in all its glory.
The treasure, in all its glory.

What the hell is King’s Crown? I figured, since this was precariously occupying the tense border between bourbon and, uh.. artistan… moonshine… that it was probably some sort of low-rent, ultra-reject whisky from Indiana, or maybe a head-heavy cut of something unremarkable out of Heaven Hill that they figured they could make a few bucks off of.

ps_2
More detail photos than anything else on this site.

I flipped the pouch over to divine the provenance of this and was immediately taken aback. This “Straight Whiskey” hails from South Africa, specifically the North West province. Apparently the climate is such that you can grow “some of the worlds’ best corn (Maize)”. I’m sure it’s nice, but as a midwestern boy, I’m going to say that you’ll be hard pressed to beat midwestern sweet corn in the summer. That is another debate entirely.

Seems legit.
Seems legit.

Since Bain’s and Three Ships aren’t commonly stocked where I shop, this would be my first African whiskey. This isn’t necessarily the ambassador the local industry might like, I’m sure, but it’s the one I found. For what it’s worth, we have a Tampa-based importer (and PortaShots themselves in Ocala, FL) to thank for bringing us this bounty.

A small amount of the bounty contained within.
A small amount of the bounty contained within.

The Porta Shots package is pretty bizarre and sets expectations appropriately. It’s a large resealable plastic outer pouch with 25 individually sealed pouches of whiskey. The layout on the pouch itself is a little more, shall we say, traditional, but still declasse enough to make most generic mystery-blend bottom-shelfers look like luxurious and grand whiskies. Also of note was a faint hint of corn whiskey when the package was opened. Hmmm.

OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.
OK, OK, maybe a LITTLE art direction for whisky packaging is OK.

Each packet contains 30mL and is roughly about twice as big as a regular Heinz Ketchup packet. It’s plastic instead of some sort of foil like those Heinz packets though. I anticipated this would be a tough one to open, despite a helpful “tear here” label, and this was confirmed. No easy tear was available, so I grabbed a pair of scissors, snipped the corner and poured it into a glencairn to give it a fair shot. It poured surprisingly dark.

Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.
Government warning, continued: you probably ought to consider not opening this.

I held the glass up to my nose and sniffed. I was immediately overcome by a reflexive central nervous system response that was somewhere between involuntary twitching and a panic response to get away from toxic chemicals. Despite the color, this was all clearly very, very young whiskey – bearing an incredibly aggressive punch upfront of raw alcohol notes, acetone, low-quality corn whiskey, raw sugar and a general newmake sweetness. Except that it’s not like your average newmake, this is bad. From the nose, I’d guess the color to be completely artificial because this bears virtually no cask influence on the nose.

The palate is similarly young – completely dominated by sugary notes and an undeniable white dog character. It doesn’t have the heat of any of the uncut white dogs you might have tried (owing no doubt to its strength), but it has that rawness. It lacks the sweet corn notes you’ll taste in Buffalo Trace’s white dog, and rests almost entirely on a bland sweetness.

The finish, which I expected to be vanishingly quick and unpleasant was actually the most nuanced part of this whiskey. The corn presence seemed most pronounced here, and even had a slight bubblegum sweetness for a second before returning to corn and newmake notes.

The bag says “Straight Whiskey”, and I don’t buy it in terms of adherence to the US definition (4 years minimum to avoid age statement). As an imported product this likely avoids that regulation, but this was either the most mysterious cask ever – imparting color but zero flavor, or it was aged briefly and colored. My bet is heavily on the latter.

It’s unfortunate to see whiskey of this quality on the shelf; obviously this is not one geared for the connoisseur. Even casual drinkers would not have a lot to love in this one. This unfortunately helps push forward an alternate image of whiskey as low-quality rotgut.

Clearly, the Porta Shots packaging says “party”, and this is a whiskey that demands to be mixed if only to cover up the taste. There’s a part of me that looks at this with the eyes of my college-age self and thinks, “this is a genius way to sneak alcohol into places that I couldn’t have carried it” – but then I am reminded I would have had to take up the unenviable task of actually drinking the stuff that I’d gone to all the trouble to sneak in.

The Porta Shots range consists of several products – three rums, two vodkas and this whiskey. A little sleuthing revealed these to be products of South Africa as well – my guess is this comes out of a contract distillery that produces pretty much anything. I didn’t see any smoking guns in my search. This being from the North West province, according to my limited understanding of South African geography, safely exempts the James Sedgwick distillery as a potential guilty party.

This is an interesting curiosity or a good way to prank your friends. I can’t recommend trying this in any serious context, unless you’re wanting to plumb the depths.

At a glance:

King’s Crown Whiskey 40% (Porta Shots packaging)
Nose:  Oh god. A really aggressive punch of low-grade corn whiskey, acetone, raw alcohol, raw sugar, and a very strong new make character – vegetal undertones. It’s so young and newmakey that I have to wonder if the color isn’t completely artificial.
Palate:  Thin, completely sugary – totally white dog. Not hot, but just raw.
Finish:  Corn, a little bubblegum sweetness for a second. Back to corn and raw new make.
Comment:  Tastes completely unaged. Atrocious.
Rating: D-

The Haphazard Whiskey Holiday Gift Guide

This week while running errands, I saw plenty of stores with Christmas decorations already up and checkout stands looking more harvest-inspired than a week go. Unsurprisingly with Halloween now past, all eyes focus on the end of the year. As I think about making the wish list for my son, I recall the conversations I had with several friends this summer about a simple bottle buying guide.

Instead of mining the ever-more-ridiculous topic of overpriced official and independent bottlings, I thought I’d take some time and lay out a few whiskey buying suggestions. Hopefully those of you who have whiskey lovers in your life (or just like it yourself) will find this guide helpful.

Generally speaking, I’m staying within the realm of “should be available at a good liquor store” and not trying to stack up a year-end-best list with all kinds of bottles that everyone is going to be fighting for.

American Whiskeys
For many, this is the alpha and omega category of whiskey. Others believe that American whiskey is inferior to Scotch for any number of reasons, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re stylistically quite different, but premium bourbons can stand alongside any premium whiskey in the world. Here are a few worth checking out:

Affordable Pick ($25 and under): Old Weller 107. A wheated bourbon, Old Weller 107 can show a lot of classic sweet flavors of caramel, maple syrup, light wood influence, traces of orange and some light pepper. A great sipper and mixes well too. Usually about $25.

Upmarket Pick ($50 and under):
Four Roses Single Barrel
. This is commonly available in a gift pack around this time of year with two glasses and a 750mL bottle. There’s no reason not to get it – it’s the same phenomenal 100 proof OBSV recipe that’s in the usual single barrel bottle. This recipe of Four Roses is a little more spicy than some bourbons, though not enough to be too extreme. Four Roses seems to be able to balance spice with an incredible creamy, vanilla taste and texture, and I’ve always thought this standard Single Barrel does it extremely well.

For those who aren’t fans of spicier bourbons, Woodford Reserve can be a winner (I’m not particularly fond of it) but the consensus pick still seems to be standard Woodford and not the Double Oaked – I’d agree with that as well.

I also think Blanton’s Single Barrel is great in this category. All of these are within 10 bucks of $50.

Other Options:
High West Rendezvous Rye - one of High West’s very best offerings, a mix of an old rye and a slightly younger rye, this brings a good dose of rye flavor with some wood and a floral characteristic as well.

Balcones Brimstone
– Corn whiskey that’s been smoked and aged in full-size barrels. Quite possibly the best whiskey produced by a smaller American producer. It’s very smoky (very smoky!) so it’s not for everyone. However, it’s a great mix of smoke and chocolatey flavors. Both around $50.

Scotch Whisky

Affordable Pick ($50 and under)
Glenlivet 15 year French Oak – a very nice, vanilla sweet Glenlivet single malt. Miles better than the 12 year old option, the 15 is a perfect companion to desserts or just for relaxed sipping by the fireplace. I wouldn’t use the word “challenging” to describe it, but I would say “really enjoyable”. (about $40)

Clynelish 14 – A terrific, bold and character-heavy single malt, with a pleasingly waxy character that comes to dominate older Clynelishes. Underrated and a great value in the ever-more-expensive single malt category. (about $50)

Compass Box Great King Street Artist’s Blend – A waxy profile on this blend (likely from Clynelish), with a lighter character and some fruitiness that you get from blends. One of the very best blends of the last couple years. (about $40)

Upmarket Pick ($125 and under)
Glenfarclas 21 - A great single malt with plenty of age on it, while not feeling tired or overoaked. A little pleasing spicy tingle; again, a whisky that could be sold for much more than they’re asking for it. ($120)

Ardbeg Corryvreckan – For smoke and peat lovers, this is one of the greats of Ardbeg’s range. Plenty of smoke and tar, with a little bit of malty and vanilla sweetness behind it. Frequently overlooked in favor of Uigeadail or the latest limited release, Corryvreckan is still a treat. ($90)

Rest Of The World
Yamazaki 12, from Suntory, is a fairly reasonably-priced Japanese single malt that’s a reliable crowd-pleaser. A nice mix of white pepper and tons of vanilla, it’s got body, complexity, a little sweetness and a character that’s just a bit different than your standard pick. (about $45)

Redbreast 12 Year Old – beloved by many fans of Irish whiskey, with a more oily, substantial presence and more developed flavors than your average bottle of Jameson or Bushmill’s. Among Irish whiskey aficionados it’s a recent favorite.

Off The Beaten Path: Import Choices
If you want to get something for a US drinker that’s not available here, you can get some interesting picks from the UK. Generally speaking, The Whisky Exchange, The Whisky Barrel and Master Of Malt are my favorite dealers.

These are sold in pounds so the prices may fluctuate, and be sure to budget for shipping. That said, I’ve never had any problems with any of the three.

Yellow Spot Irish WhiskeyMy favorite Irish whiskey to date. A mix of three casks types and twelve years of maturation. A great, honeyed, well-developed Irish whiskey. Limited run, available overseas only, and a real special treat. (about $80)

Caol Ila 27 Year Old For The Whisky Barrel - a sherry-matured Caol Ila. This is again for the lover of smoky whisky, though in this case it’s mixed with some sweetness and fig flavors courtesy of the sherry. Bargains like this don’t come around often and it’s a limited run. (about $130).

The Whisky Advent Calendar – Who knows what’s in here? Hard to say. 24 individual 30ml pours (slightly less than an airline bottle), which is about as much as a standard bottle of whisky. Master Of Malt says one of the pours is a 50 year old single malt that normally sells for about $550. Not bad! The set sells for about $240 and is one of the most fun ideas I’ve seen.

Everything Else: Decadent Splurges And Fun Gifts

My list begins with Macallan 18 – practically shorthand for the midlevel premium single malt. While this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how expensive single malts, this is the black tie malt. It’s timeless, always appropriate, and will be appreciated by the recipient. Aficionados will doubtless argue the relative merits of this compared to previous years, but let’s be honest: Receiving a $140+ dollar bottle of whisky as a gift is a rare occasion. Perfect for a loved family member, a boss who you want to impress, a hardworking employee, or just a quiet no-pressure gift for yourself.

Glenfarclas 40y is the most expensive item on this list, coming in in the neighborhood of $450. Yes – it’s a LOT to pay! There’s no question. But perhaps for the right person, or if you simply have plenty of disposable income, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It’s the most reasonably priced, high-quality official bottling from a major distillery.

On the other end of the spectrum, Old Pulteney again has a neat holiday gift. Last year they were packing their 12y offering with two Glencairn glasses for less than they would cost to acquire individually. This year they’ve got two small bottles packed together with their 12y and 17y whiskies. This is about $40 in Southern California.

Finally, though this is not as common, it can still be found. Compass Box has a five-whisky tasting set of their blends packaged in a neat wood presentation box. The whiskies are individually bottled in long tubular vials – it kind of looks like a chemistry set! It has the five core whiskies of Compass Box’s range of blends: Oak Cross, Spice Tree, The Peat Monster, Hedonism and Asyla. This is a fun way to let someone taste multiple whiskies without committing to a full bottle, and as I said, the sampler set has a really cool presentation. This is fairly variable in price, but I’ve seen it for as low as $40 and as high as $75 so we’ll split the difference and call this one roughly $60.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but if I were to shop for someone or if I were looking for suggestions when I was starting out, this would be what I’d wished someone had led me towards.

Happy holidays! Remember, there’s more to holidays than the Pappy Hunt or the Diageo Chase. Enjoy the time with friends or family!

Alright Already: Redbreast 12 Year Cask Strength

Seems like there was a law that all whiskey bloggers have to cover this one. The licensing bureau just sent me my notice that if I didn’t, my blog license would be revoked. I’d hate for that to happen, so without further ado..

Redbreast 12 Year Old Cask Strength (Batch B1/11) 57.7% ABV
Nose:  A slightly thin nose that is also a little doughy – sugar cookies. Lightly piney, white pepper and pears are the leaders on the nose. Honey is a base for everything. A touch of cinnamon against the sweetness. Water actually brings up some oily and slight tarry notes and gives it a faintly floral top end.
Palate:  Rich and oily, faintly sour and with an extremely faintly tarry note. Honey and white pepper with a tiny dab of chili oil to heat things up. Some maltiness and some grain at the base of this. Again, water opens up a floral dimension, but really blows away the interest and complexity.
Finish: Warm initially, with that oiliness and some of the pine notes leading. Some wood shows up as it starts to last and it dries slightly. Long, lingering and warm finish.
Comment:  It’s Redbreast! It’s got that oily palate that’s familiar from prior tastings. It’s better than most Irish whiskies and worth a try. Unfortunately that doesn’t really bump it up into must-have territory.
Rating: B-

Yes, it’s better than the average Irish whiskey. Unfortunately that’s not saying a lot. If you can’t get Trader Joe’s Single Malt, which I think is a genuinely interesting mix of Irish peat and familiar Irish sweetness, this is probably the next best thing. If Irish whiskies are to your liking, huzzah! You’ve hit the peak and it’s reasonably priced. Sadly, they just don’t do a lot for me, so I have to hunt down cask strength bottles of Scotch whisky bottled in idiotic toy boats.

Still waiting for the Irish whiskey that will flip my lid.

Connemara Peated Irish Whiskey

Connemara Peated Irish Whiskey 40% ABV
Nose:  
Light peat, a rubbing alcohol note, some vanilla sweetness, a little barley, some additional syrupy floral sweetness. Moderate malt.
Palate: 
Faint earthy peat, a gentle cinnamon warmth, thick, viscous mouthfeel, malty.
Finish: 
Warming but quickly fades, not much peat on the finish except at the edges of the maltiness. Faintly medicinal.
Comment: 
There’s just not much to this at all. It’s uninteresting. There’s nothing here that’d cause me to order this, but there’s nothing offensive either. It just is.
Rating:
C

Word is that Connemara’s peated whiskey has been improving somewhat since earlier batches. I’m not impressed with it yet. If anything it shows that peat requires some skill to integrate into a good whiskey.