Category Archives: Scotch

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

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-

Super Nerdy: K-Means Clustering Of Distillery Profiles

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

What’s that, you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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+

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-