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The Spirit of Movember

We’re in the dying days of November, which in the last few years has carried the “Movember” name. The general idea, if you’ve avoided reading about it, is that it’s a time where guys grow their best attempt at a non-weedy mustache for the month. It’s supposed to raise awareness of men’s health issues (notably prostate cancer), and like many things, has seen some efforts in the spirits industry to capitalize on.

Glenfarclas has released a 9 year old Movember whisky; there have been several bottles released under the Whisky 4 Movember label. As with all things whiskey, the whole thing tends to be a tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing celebration of masculinity. And of course, a way to sell some middle-tier whiskey and give a small percent to charity (or not).

The thing is, in the celebration of a temporary pursuit of a Selleck-’stache, the bigger point gets lost – that of “awareness” of men’s health issues. However, I think if you’re old enough to drink whiskey and nerd out about it online, you’re old enough to move beyond awareness and into action.

Health issues are a touchy thing to bring up in the context of a celebration of booze that whiskey blogs tend to be. In the back of our minds, we’re all aware that to some extent we’re ingesting something unhealthy and may have a tendency to consume a little too much (when compared to definitions of binge drinking and standard units per week). It’s also likely if you’re active in whiskey clubs you might be aware of people who have struggled with their consumption in the past.

No, no, this isn’t an about-face and entry about renouncing alcohol. Moderate alcohol consumption can confer some health benefits. The trick obviously is not bullshitting yourself that that 2 ounces of 72% bourbon counts as just one of your two “standard drinks” for the day. It’s also important to not bullshit yourself about your habits from day to day.

A few weeks ago, I’d noticed an odd spot on my arm that hadn’t been there previously. It was an unusual color for me and I’d noticed a little growth over about six weeks. I decided I couldn’t just ignore it and it was time to go in. My wife discussed with me about just getting a full physical, and after resisting for a bit, I decided it was time. As we talked about it, I read more articles online and realized that men’s wellness does tend to be neglected. For whatever reason, we as men have a tendency to carry the feeling of invincibility of our youth well forward into our adult years and neglect any sort of health screening beyond routine dental care (if that) until a problem presents itself. Meanwhile the women in our life continue having more or less regular interaction with a doctor through a large percentage of their adult life, which can help catch problems earlier (and hopefully, cheaper).

I was at a Pearl Jam concert last weekend and as the house lights came up, I thought for a moment about my tradition of hashing out the set after the show with my friend Brady. Usually we’d compare to other nights on the tour and recent west coast runs for the band. Right after that thought, I remembered I wouldn’t be having that conversation with him this time of year. Unfortunately, my friend Brady passed away in early 2012 after a very short battle with cancer. It’s hard to say if screening could have caught it earlier, but it wouldn’t have hurt.

In my case, my blood test results weren’t a huge shock – the long and short of my results confirmed what I knew: time to eat better, get a little more exercise and drop some weight. In my case this will be aided a bit by continuing with my reduced consumption of late. That’s fine: with so many questionable bottles, I haven’t felt like I’ve been missing much lately. And the spot on my arm? Nothing at all. Just a sign of getting older. A relief (generally speaking).

I’d had a feeling things weren’t too bad, but I’d done a screening with 23andme earlier this year (who are now under some sort of FDA order to stop selling; apparently people are fairly bad with understanding probability). That, too, didn’t pose much surprise: no real bizarre genetic markers, and a fairly high risk for heart disease: but wait, on average your risk is over 50% - so if you’re inclined to wager, the odds are heavy there.

All this comes back to the original point. It’s fun to grow a mustache, sure. It may even be a decent excuse to buy a younger independent whiskey. Have that Tom Selleck film fest. But what you really should do is schedule a physical if you haven’t been. Get yourself checked out — for the benefit of your loved ones if nothing else. It’s no more than about an hour of your time and you’ll know where you stand and can take some corrective measures if necessary.  Take care of yourself long enough and you’ll live to see the next golden age of whiskey.

 

The 1983 Tasting Series #2: Banff

The 1983 tasting continues! Thanks to everyone who came for the first installment. I’ll be trying to publish these on Fridays or Saturdays, depending on scheduling.

This week we’re looking at Banff. If I’ve discussed whisky with you and we’ve drifted to the subject of closed distilleries, I have inevitably discussed this one with a little more intensity. Banff was my first “drink your age” whisky a couple years back, and I was blown away at the time by the really gentle buttercream vanilla notes on that particular bottle, as well as the wonderful, relaxed nose. Perhaps that bottle would pale with my malt experience since then, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

Over the last couple years in the wake of that tasting, I semi-quietly went on a Banff buying spree – up until recently they were an incredible mix of availability and value for a 1983 distillery. Banff didn’t have the lofty reputation of Port Ellen or Brora (and it can be an unusual if not polarizing whisky), but I liked the ones I’d had, so I thought I would capitalize on the opportunity.

Fast-forward a few years and now Banff is starting to command loftier prices and is a little less common. It’s still one of the most reasonably priced of the ’83s, though I suspect in the next two years, that will cease to be the case.

Banff marks the first regional shift in this tasting. We started with St. Magdalene, the sole Lowland representative; Banff is first of a set of Highland distilleries. Banff has a relatively colorful history, and almost feels like the Swamp Castle in Monty Python & The Holy Grail, plagued through its history by fires and rebuilding. The first was in 1877 when a fire damaged a large portion of the distillery requiring an extensive rebuild, which took several months.

The most notable incident happened in 1941, a warehouse was bombed by a German aircraft. This article (page 9 of the linked PDF) has a really amazing eyewitness account -

The fires (two 100kg. bombs had been dropped) spread rapidly and a rivulet of burning whisky flowed through the fallen walls and into the stream. Being lighter than water, the flaming spirit spread across the width and was carried by the flow downstream. The burning river continued out of sight behind the peat store where a steeper gradient caused turbulence which extinguished the flames.

[...]

… they had saved twelve barrels out of three hundred.

[...]

Next day the Regimental Sergeant Major, the scourge of the troops, supervised an equipment inspection including water bottles. This resulted in several non-commissioned officers being reduced to the ranks and many squaddies being confined to barracks for fourteen days.

Jock Crystal reported that his ducks were drunk, and that some of the Old Manse cows were [unable to stand up].

 That alone would be a colorful enough past, but in 1959 during maintenance on one of the stills, a spark caused an explosion that damaged the distillery and required repairs. Fortunately no one was killed in that accident.

Banff was closed in 1983 (as all of these were) and the still house has been demolished; as almost a tragicomic grace note to its history, in 1991 one of the warehouses was destroyed in a fire. Banff is certainly in the category of “lost distilleries” – any new distillery to bear the name would be built from the ground up with no usable equipment from the original.

Interestingly (and somewhat in response to the question around St. Magdalene), Banff did practice triple distillation for a while, though the process ended in the 1920s.

Enough history for now: what about the whisky?

This bottle of Banff is from K&L’s 2011 bumper crop of exclusive bottles and was one of the stars of that productive trip (though eclipsed by the Ladyburn which sold out way before it arrived, as well as the Chieftain’s exclusive Brora from the same trip). This bottle is part of the Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare series, which I’ve had multiple bottles from and can’t think of a single one that I haven’t enjoyed. Alongside Signatory’s cask strength decanters, I’m usually willing to give the Rarest of the Rare a chance if I haven’t seen reviews for a bottle.

This was distilled in November 1975 and bottled in May 2011; cask 3353, at 45.2%. Interestingly a sister cask was released in the summer of 2001 – 3352 – as a UK release.

The nose on this Banff is initially sweet, with some malty notes and a touch of honey. There’s an overall dusting of white pepper and some wood in the background.

It’s got a nice mouthfeel, that bigger, slightly oily kind of whisky. It leads with a fair dose of wood, and has some flintiness to it that’s not unlike older whiskies I’ve had (in terms of distillation date, not time in wood). It’s slightly mineral which just adds a nice dimension. Some of the sweetness of the nose comes through; faint dried oranges and apples. It’s big and bold overall, and the wood creeps up with time.

The finish is warm and with plenty of white pepper; the minerality and a little malt comes along.

It’s a big, bold whisky that hits the spot for me. It’s really enjoyable, and the minerality harkens back to an earlier style of whisky.

This will not be the last time Banff is covered in depth here. As I mentioned, I acquired several bottles. At some point in the future (timing still to be determined), I will go through those as part of a project to do a deeper dive on Banff’s output.

At a glance:

Banff 1975 – Duncan Taylor Rarest of the Rare, K&L Exclusive Cask #3353
Distilled 11-1975, Bottled 5-2001 45.2% ABV
Nose:  Sweet initially with some malty notes and a touch of honey; white pepper all over, a little wood.
Palate:  Nice mouthfeel, leads with a fair dose of wood. Some old-style flintiness to this one, mineral. A little sweet – a faint hint of dried orange and apple. Big and bold. Leans a touch bitter with time.
Finish:  Warm with white pepper, again a slight hint of minerality.
Comment:  Quite big and bold. Really enjoyable. The mineral notes remind me of older (distillation date, not age) malts.
Rating: B+

The Best Tastings Tell A Story

One way to be certain we’re in the midst of a whiskey boom: tastings are springing up everywhere and marketed to the ever-more-casually interested. The other day during the KCRW pledge drive, I heard a whiskey-related premium up for grabs, which went almost immediately. Whisky is undeniably mainstream.

However, as we all know, whisky can be insanely expensive, and unless you’ve openly declared war on your liver, a bottle can be a long-lasting commitment. Sure, you can swap samples with friends or do group buys, but that can be slow going until your whiskey-mania sets in, or until you’ve found many more people to trade with.

One of the best options to survey if you have some similarly whiskey-curious friends is to run a tasting, or to all submit to one. However, a good tasting is more than just grabbing five bottles at random and splitting the costs with several friends. The best whiskey tastings have some sort of narrative to them. It’s not necessarily a deep structure, but having an aim in mind before you start will help you get the most out of the tasting.

First things first: Is this a class or a group adventure?
Some tastings are instructional. One person has a depth of knowledge on a particular subject and presents the key things you should take away on the topic – which can be both gleaned from the experience of drinking, as well as facts imparted during the tasting. If you’re leading a tasting, make sure you’re familiar with what you’re pouring! You don’t want to be discovering a whiskey as everyone else is and trying to weave it into the narrative.

Others can be a group adventure: someone may have an idea about something they’d like to learn more about, and the group at large learns. The “leader” in this case may discuss some bottles they’ve sourced or what gave the idea, but in all likelihood, everyone is on equal footing. There’s an element of risk here, but like attending a Pearl Jam, Phish or Dead show, part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming next.

What Story Do You Want to Tell?
There are several easily-told stories that you can go to and will teach you a wealth about a given subject.

The Effect Of Age
Taking one distillery’s standard range, assuming age is the only variant (Macallan Fine Oak and Macallan Sherry Cask ranges are good examples), this can show you the effect of age on a particular distillery’s character. You can stick strictly to official bottlings, or you can make it interesting and go with independent bottlings as well – a chance to find “in between” ages or especially old/young bottles from a given distillery.
Sample: Macallan Fine Oak 10, Macallan Fine Oak 15, Macallan Fine Oak 17, Macallan Fine Oak 21

Distillery Deep Dive
Taking a broad array of official and independent bottlings, you can sample a range of casks and ages by augmenting official offerings with independent offerings of unusual age, cask provenance, or especially notable vintages. For certain distilleries, this can almost be a whole series of tastings unto itself. You can have the opportunity to find “off-profile” casks which is a great point for discussion. This can teach you a great deal about what the distillery does outside of official bottlings – how it can be altered by casks, age, how it’s changed over time, odd casks, and so forth.
Example: Glen Elgin 1976 “Green Elgin”; Glen Elgin 1975 “Perfect Dram”, Glen Elgin 1971 Cadenhead’s 19y; Glen Elgin Centenary (1981) 19y; Glen Elgin 1991 Signatory 19y; Glen Elgin 16 (OB); Glen Elgin The Manager’s Dram 16y; Glen Elgin 1985 The Bottlers; Glen Elgin Manager’s Choice 2009 (OB). Note: This was a LAWS tasting.

Distillery Style Evolution
Sometimes there’s an interesting question in tracking the evolution of a distillery’s profile over a long period of time and (ideally) holding age statements constant. That’s not always easy to do, but you can ballpark it. Some distilleries showed rapid changes over a short period of time and you may not need to survey multiple decades – others are interesting to track over a long period of time.
Example: Macallan 15y 1952 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1956 Campbell Hope & King, Macallan 15y 1959 Campbell Hope & King. I covered this very tasting a while back.

Mashbill Variation (primarily American)
The more free regulations regarding mashbill in American whiskeys allow for some interesting experiments in understanding how variance in the grain content affects taste. Ideally try and keep it to a single distillery in an attempt to control the yeast variable. Do this one and spend time with it and you’ll start being able to pick out things that you see in wheaters but not rye, rye but not wheaters, and so on.
Example: Old Weller Antique (wheat – no rye); Buffalo Trace (low rye); Blanton’s (high rye); Sazerac (straight rye)

Yeast Variation
This is one that I was initially made aware of during a High West tasting in which we tasted an array of whiskies differing by yeast only. There was a distinct difference in each of them. Since then I’ve tasted several (but not all) of Four Roses’ yeast recipes and it’s been similarly interesting. You’d be surprised what yeast can do to a whiskey.
Example: Four Roses Single Barrel OBSK; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSV; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSQ; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSO; Four Roses Single Barrel OBSF

Deconstructing A Blend
This is not necessarily an easy one – with very few exceptions, blend recipes are fairly closely-guarded secrets. However, various blends have had aspects of their makeup hinted at strongly if not outright divulged. Tasting the original blend and the component whiskies, then returning to the original, can show you how sometimes multiple whiskies come together to make an entirely new thing.
Example: Johnnie Walker Green; Talisker 10 (or better yet, 18); Caol Ila 12; Linkwood 15 (Gordon & MacPhail); recap with Johnnie Walker Green

These are just a handful of options. If you think in terms of themes or bigger ideas, you can really take yourself to interesting heights or in unexpected directions. You’ll learn a lot more about where your whiskey comes from, its place in the whisky landscape, and so forth. You might even be able to find interesting and unexpected opportunities if you keep your eyes open – sister casks from a closed distillery, for instance.

Other good options would include a look at similarly-aged sherry-matured whiskeys; a brief survey of the peated whiskeys on Islay (pay attention to how it changes from one location to the next); the effect of cask finishes on peated whisky; North American single malt whiskeys; closed distilleries; etc., etc. The list is endless.

Of course, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes it’s fun to just have a potluck with basic guidelines on the bottles brought (“independently bottled whiskies from the Highlands region, max $200″) if you’ve had a series of themed tastings. You can also up the ante by doing the tasting blind.

The bottom line is push yourself and your knowledge. There’s a lot you can learn, and all you need to do is step beyond shelf-talkers and alphabetical displays or categorization at your store.

Postscript

It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve posted a review. I’m in the middle of fighting a bug that has me taking plenty of meds and sweating like a malaria patient in Southeast Asia. I’m hoping to have something new up this time next week. Until then, enjoy what you’re having and drop a comment about it so I can live vicariously through your enjoyment.

The Whiskey-only Feed

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

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

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

Back to it!