Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Rare Old Mountain Dew - Jameson 12 year-old

"So take off your coat and grease your throat with a bucket of the mountain dew"
- from Rare Old Mountain Dew, an Irish folk song (sung by the Irish Rovers)

When hearing the word "whiskey", you could be forgiven If Ireland isn't the first country that pops into your head. Strange, given that it is the country with perhaps the oldest claim to whiskey and thought to be where distillation of beer originated sometime in the 12th century. Although whiskey has always taken a backseat to Ireland's more popular export: Beer (Guinness, anyone?), Ireland does deserve some distinction in the whiskey world. It is thought that Irish missionary monks practicing distillation brought the craft with them as they travelled east over the sea to the Hebrides and Scotland, effectively starting the whisky industry there sometime before 1494 (the first recorded instance of whisky-making in Scotland). The Old Bushmills distillery in County Antrim is the oldest surviving licensed distillery in the world, having gained a license from James I way back in 1608.

Irish whiskey has several characteristics which distinguish it from other styles: 1) Most Irish whiskey is distilled three times (as opposed to the more common double distillation) which gives it a lighter style than many Scotch whiskies. 2) The use of pot-shaped stills 3) The use of malted and "green" or unmalted barley. Once again, these are trends but there are always exceptions, and Irish distillers continue to experiment with their products along the same veins as other whiskey makers around the world.

St. Patrick's Day on the horizon and my favourite Irish folk group scheduled to be in town for a concert - perfect conditions for the tasting of a great Irish whiskey. I grew up listening to the Irish Rovers on vinyl LPs owned by my parents and grandparents. The Rovers have been performing for more than 40 years, singing a mix of traditional Irish music combined with some of their own material. Their appearances on several television specials broadcast on the CBC during the 70's was where I got to see them as a child. I've continued to listen to them off and on during the years, so they hold a lot of nostalgic value for me. When I heard that they would be coming to Moncton for a concert, it was a no-brainer.

Undeterred by the possibility of being the youngest attendees (by at least a decade), I convinced a couple of friends to join us for the show. The plan was to meet at our friends' place for a couple of drams of a nice Irish whiskey before walking down to the show. My original target was a bottle of Bushmills 10 y-o, but when it wasn't available Jameson 12 y-o seemed like the logical second choice (although I was sorely tempted by a bottle of Tullamore Dew). The selection of Irish whiskies is unfortunately quite limited when compared to either Scotch or even bourbon. Of the handful that are available, the Jameson and Bushmills blends are probably the two best-known Irish whiskies in Canada.

Everyone had time for two drams before heading down to the Capitol Theatre in Moncton where the Rovers were performing. They put on an amazing show with an incredible amount of energy for men of their age (they haven't lost a step!), keeping the crowd involved and throwing in lots of jokes and anecdotes. Although we definitely represented the lower age demographic of the crowd, there were many "rejuvenated" seniors acting younger than us! Over the course of the show, there must have been at least 20 references to whiskey in the songs, jokes and stories. All in all, it was everything I had hoped for. After the show, the Rovers held an autograph session where your blogger proudly produced an old vinyl LP of "Hung Up", a Rovers album from the late 60's. It had originally belonged to my paternal grandparents and represented some of my earliest memories of the Irish Rovers, who were surprised to see it and more than happy to autograph it.
Jameson is produced at the New Midleton distillery in County Cork, Southern Ireland. The company was first established in Dublin back in 1780 before moving to Cork. The Jameson brand is currently owned by the French beverage conglomerate Pernod Ricard and is the most popular Irish whiskey in the world. The standard Jameson with no age statement runs for about 30$ CDN for a 750ml bottle. For this tasting, we wanted to try their 12 y-o which set me back about $50 CDN.

Jameson 12 year-old

Nose: Cinnamon hearts, toasted oak and vanilla with sugar - marshmallows? Some apple notes.

Palate: Light, creamy and smooth - Irish whiskey all the way. Very oily in the glass, with long legs, but not as oily in the mouth - quite light.

Taste: Malty sweetness at the front, toasted wood and some light sherry and toffee notes. Bitterness at the back of the tongue.

Finish: Sharp and somewhat bitter medium-long finish. Unfortunately, it is the bitterness that remains. This is a whiskey that gets much better as you drink it. The bitterness starts to disappear and you get more of the sweetness and subtle toffee, sherry and fruit flavours. Best to have at least two drams of this one to appreciate it properly!

Value: This bottle was purchased for about $50 CDN. Not bad for a twelve year-old, as Irish whiskies are only now starting to command the high prices of their Scotch contemporaries. It is a safe purchase and a very pleasant whisky which stays true to the traditional Irish style. Personally, I prefer whiskies with a little more kick or "oomph", but would be curious to see how it compares to the more common Jameson with no age statement.

The music and whiskey were a perfect complement to each other, both evoking the spirit (no pun intended) of Ireland. Hopefully other Irish whiskies will soon be making their way across the Atlantic to our shores, adding to the same rich and vibrant culture as the Rovers and countless other Irish immigrants over the years!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Aging Gracefully

"I like my whisky old and my women young"
- Errol Flynn

The recent discovery of three crates of one hundred year-old whisky left in Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton provides the perfect backdrop to a posting about age and whisky.

It's a pretty common misconception in the whisky world that older is always better. Age is often thrown about as a measure of the quality in the same vein as karats of a diamond, but the reality is slightly more complex. Although age will definitely induce change in a whisky, it will not necessarily improve it. Increased age will generally be reflected in the price, at a near exponential rate with higher ages (30+ years) but that is more due to its scarcity than overall quality of the product. As a discerning whisky drinker, it is important to understand why whisky is aged so that you can judge the potential effects of extended aging.

There are different laws governing how whisky must be aged, but for Scotch whisky it must be aged for at least 3 years in oak casks (in Scotland) for it to be called scotch. If you ever have the opportunity to sample raw spirit from the still before it is introduced to a cask, it will become immediately obvious what a difference even 3 years of aging makes. The raw spirit is nearly colourless and very harsh, with more of a chemical aspect to it, although very sweet. If you know anyone who makes moonshine, it is essentially raw spirit unless they do their own aging in casks. So how does storage within a wooden cask allow the whisky to mellow?

The wood in the cask is porous, and this allows many of the more volatile elements in the whisky to evaporate as they pass through the wood. Unfortunately, not all of these volatile elements are undesirable, so you lose some good alcohol (ethanol) along with some of the bad alcohols (like methanol). This lost volume of ethanol, affectionately called "the angel's share", amounts to roughly 3% of the alcohol volume per year. While 3% may not seem like such a dire loss, you can imagine how much the lucky angels have taken out of a cask after 40 years! This is a contributing factor to the scarcity of older whiskies and why the price rises so much with age - there is less volume to sell and the distillery is losing more product the longer it sits in the warehouse. Other chemicals are also being lost through the wood. Lighter, more volatile compounds are lost before heavier oily ones. The esters which contribute to the fruity and floral aromas of the whisky are harder to retain than the heavier smoke and peat flavours and aromas.

The wood doesn't just steal, however. it also adds its own special touches to any whisky aging inside, which is why wooden casks are still used after hundreds of years. As the whisky penetrates into the pores of the wood, other chemical reactions take place as it reacts with compounds in the wood. The products of these reactions can leach into the whisky and imbue it with their own special flavours: vanilla, nuts, oak, and butter, for example. The use of wooden casks that have previously held sherry, port, bourbon, or other wines and liquors results in "special finishes", where aspects of the previous occupant (such as colour and flavour) will influence the aging whisky. Just pick up a bottle of something like the MacAllan Fine Oak and compare it to their standard sherry-finished expressions to appreciate the influence wood and casking can make (see the Wood, Wine and Whisky posting).

To much aging in a cask can mellow a whisky too much, however, muting its character. This is why distillery managers are always sampling whisky from aging casks and making important decisions about when to bottle the contents. Whiskies known for their particularly strong flavour characteristics can lose these over time. Aging Ardbeg, for example, brings out some of its more subtle flavours, but too much time and mellowing and it can cease to be recognizable as Ardbeg. Whisky reviews of old bottles (30+ years) will often comment on the extent to which it has retained its traditional character. Ideally, old whisky should keep some of its youthful perkiness while adding smoothness and grace. Just like people!

My father-in-law once boasted to me that he had a bottle of 30 y-o Chivas Regal, then proceeded to show me a bottle of the 12 y-o blend that had been sitting in his liquor cabinet for roughly 20 years (unopened). This is another common misconception about aging of whisky, and I think it must be due mainly to the popularity of wine and wine aging in the bottle. Once whisky is removed from the wooden cask and placed within a corked glass bottle, it is essentially inert, or frozen in time. The glass bottle has none of the porosity of the wooden cask and will not react chemically with the whisky (to any significant degree) with the whisky, so it will not change within the bottle. This has been observed for many old unopened bottles which have been sold in auctions and subsequently sampled. Once a bottle is opened however, it is the presence of air within the bottle which allows for evaporation and can react with the whisky. This brings me back to the lost "Shackleton Reserve". A large measure of the excitement over these bottles is the fact that some of them are unopened, intact, well corked and are therefore expected to be essentially the same as when they were bottled more than a hundred years ago.

One of the great benefits of drinking whisky relative to wine is that you can keep an opened bottle on the shelf for an extended period of time, dipping into it occasionally before it begins to diminish in quality. There is currently some debate over the extent and rate at which air will start to degenerate the quality of the whisky in a bottle. I tend to look at it in terms of how much air is present within the bottle that can react with the liquor: More air in the bottle means more reactions with the whisky. Some people, as a rule, will try to finish a bottle within a year of it first being opened. I try to finish it within a year once it is below half its original volume within the bottle. The more times the bottle is opened, the more air is exchanged and that will speed up the degeneration. You can experiment with your own whisky stocks to see how they change over time, but the important factors when thinking about whisky changing in the bottle are 1) presence of air 2) time 3) light (in that order of importance).

If you are really concerned about your favourite bottles, there are several tricks to help stave off the ravages of air and time: 1) Transfer remaining whisky to smaller bottles (therefore less air) 2) Displace the oxygenated air within your bottles and replace it with a more inert gas, like nitrogen (yes, people do this!) 3) Put clean glass marbles in the whisky bottles to displace the air. I'm pretty confident that all of these tricks work, but personally I'd rather just finish the whisky!

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Atlantic expedition may have ended badly, losing the good ship Endurance in the process, but I'm glad he decided to bring along some Scotch whisky. It will be a great test for whisky preservation in bottles, provides a glimpse of what whisky was like a hundred years ago, and gives a whole new meaning to Scotch on the rocks!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Flora McBabe - Bruichladdich Valinch Bottling

"Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal"
-Winston Churchill

It is with great pleasure that I post some tasting notes for this very special bottle of whisky: Bruichladdich's Flora McBabe Valinch expression. As described in the "Daddy's Dram" posting, this particular bottle was brought back from Scotland after being bottled at the Bruichladdich distillery by yours truly. It is a sherry-finished Bruichladdich, distilled on the 5th of September and bottled on September 9th, 2004. My bottle is # 691 of 700 and I had the pleasure of watching the distillery staff empty out the last of that cask (#3666) while allowing the visitors who were present that day to fill the last dozen or so bottles.

Bruichladdich is an Islay distillery built in 1881 that is located on the Western edge of Loch Indaal. After being closed in 1994, it came under new ownership in 2000 and promptly re-invented itself to become a prime example of how successful a small, privately-owned distillery can be in this new age of interest in single malts. The owners have done a masterful job in marketing their product with innovation and a small measure of panache. Bruichladdich is one of the few distilleries that distills, matures and bottles their whisky in-house. Master distiller Jim McEwan, who is both well-known and respected after 40+ years in the industry, brings a special flair to his craft and has been given the freedom he deserves to experiment with the expressions at Bruichladdich. Your blogger had the opportunity to meet Mr. McEwan at WhiskyFest 2006 in Chicago. He was charming and very approachable. It is immediately obvious that he loves his job, enjoys meeting whisky enthusiasts, and believes strongly in what Bruichladdich is doing.

The Valinch bottlings are somewhat smaller than traditional bottles, with a volume of 50cl (500ml) as opposed to 70-75cl (700-750ml). They are bottled at natural or cask strength; in the case of Flora McBabe a tongue-tickling 55.2% abv. Bruichladdich whiskies tend to be very fresh and complex. As they are not chill-filtered and no colouring is added, you get the full natural flavour of the whisky. The 10 y-o expression is one of my favourite drams in this age group, and though floral and fruity, it has a touch of peat and is as crisp as a breath of fresh sea air - with an almost effervescent quality. Tasting notes for the Bruichladdich 10 y-o will appear on The Spirit Safe very soon.

So what happens when to Bruichladdich when you add the influence of a refill sherry butt (cask) and a wee bit of porcine inspiration? The tasting notes for this whisky are a collection from several drams shared with close friends and acquaintances: Groomsmen, bridesmaids, siblings, old friends, and the minister who baptized our daughter. In short, they all represented a celebration of our daughter's birth and we couldn't have chosen a better whisky. Samples were sent to a couple of friends by mail which allowed us to do a tasting over the phone. Not as good as doing one together in person, but a great way to share a dram nonetheless!

Bruichladdich Valinch Flora McBabe bottling
Nose: Heavy sherry, molasses with cream. Blacker S says Grape-flavoured cough syrup (not as bad as that sounds!)

Taste: sweet sherry, some nuttiness, woody vanilla and cream notes

Palate: oily and salty, feel it on the back of your tongue and inside of cheek. Finish is long and delectable, with lots of sherry flavour. Some enjoyable bitterness and lingering woodiness.

Value: To be completely honest, I can't remember how much they were asking for the Valinch bottlings, but my memory tells me that it was around 30 pounds, which would make it around $70 CDN. Although this bottle is only 500ml, it is still a good value. As McBabe was bottled at cask strength (~55% abv) you could add another 25% of the volume in water just to get it down to the standard 40% abv.

It's hard to put a price on the novelty of bottling whisky yourself at the distillery. Following through on a promise to save it for the birth of my first child has added immeasurably to its value for me. In this way, the context of a particular bottle of whisky can make it shine in a crowd and stand above the rest. Everyone who has sampled it with me has agreed that Flora is a very tasty whisky. The happiness of that moment (the first dram in the hospital room) makes this a very special malt for me and I hope that everyone reading this post gets the chance to share in a similar moment - with or without the whisky. I never had the opportunity to meet the actual Flora McBabe, but if this pig deserved such a fine whisky, I regret having missed her!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sweet and Salty Tears- Caol Ila 12 y-o

It is a moment of distinct satisfaction to finish a bottle of whisky, tinged with a little sadness; especially if it is one that you have owned for some time, shared some special moments with, or have grown particularly fond of. The latest bottle laid to rest in our household fits all of these criteria, so it is with some small measure of regret that I post these tasting notes for a bottle of Caol Ila 12 y-o. It met its end in the best way a bottle of premium liquor could hope for, savoured by a group of friends still sober enough to appreciate its finer qualities and discuss its merits.

The Caol Ila distillery (pronounced Cull Eela) is located on Islay, a Scottish Isle in the Hebrides that is known for producing smoky and peaty whiskies. Caol Ila stays true to that stereotype, and shares some characteristics with its more popular neighbours: Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. The distillery is found up the Eastern coast of Islay in a remote cove near Poart Askaig, and due to its relative isolation does not see nearly as many visitors as the Kildalton distilleries (the three listed above). Caol Ila is owned by the same company (Diageo) as Lagavulin, and up unitl a few years ago was relatively unknown except to connoisseurs. It was not one of the original six classic malts (see Diageo Calling posting) but was part of the flora and fauna malts range, a group of whiskies sold as single malts in a very limited market. Two particular malts from this group, Caol Ila (from Islay) and Clynelish (Coastal Highland near town of Brora) were selected as the next two whiskies to be pushed into the spotlight by Diageo. They were initially dubbed the "hidden malts" but have since settled comfortably into the classic malt club.

Personally, I've had a soft spot for Caol Ila ever since a trip to Scotland back in 2004 (I can't believe it's been six years!). One of the first things my traveling companion (also a whisky enthusiast) and I did upon landing in Glasgow was visit a whisky shop and pick up a bottle to accompany us on our travels. I had read some good reviews about Caol Ila, so being fans of Islay malts, and this particular one being unavailable in either of our Canadian provinces of residence, it was our first choice. We picked up a bottle of the 12 y-o and it traveled with us for almost three weeks, to Islay, the Orkneys and through the Speyside region of the Highlands. We drank about a dram a day (sometimes two) and after a couple of weeks it became very familiar and distinctive to us. The bottle was ultimately finished in Edinburgh, leaving us with some uncertainty as to whether we would ever have the chance to try it again.

It was a pleasant surprise to discover roughly a year later that Caol Ila 12 y-o was available in Quebec, then in New Brunswick. Over the past few years, it has passed in and out of liquor stores in these provinces (as well as Ontario and Nova Scotia), slowly becoming more of a fixture but not always available. Upon trying it again a couple of years after the Scotland trip, it was immediately reminiscent of those three weeks and the taste was still distinctive and recognizable. I still feel that this is the most effective way to become very familiar with any particular malt: Drink small amounts regularly over a relatively short time period (weeks, not months). My own bottle was bought in Quebec roughly 3 years ago, but I hadn't dipped into it for some time, so when I noticed that there were only a few drams left it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finish it off with some friends and do a formal tasting.

Caol Ila 12 y-o

Nose: Sweet, salty breeze, iodine with a whiff of smoke

Taste: Sweet iodine, peat, salt and pepper, salty licorice (the real stuff - think Scandinavian)

Palate: Heavy, oily mouth feel, sort of like melted salty butter. Long, somewhat peppery finish, with tobacco notes

Value: This bottle should run you somewhere between $55 and $75 CDN. At the lower end of this price range, it's a great value; at the higher end, it will depend on your particular preference. At the higher price, it's in the same price as Ardbeg 10 y-o and Talisker 10 y-o, while at the lower end it's closer to Laphroaig 10 y-o and Quartercask. Is it better than these other whiskies? No, but it is quite distinctive and a nice alternative to these other bottles at roughly the same price. Caol Ila is quite peaty and will appeal to those who like their smoke and peat.

In closing, Caol Ila 12 y-o delivers what you might expect from an Islay malt. It has its own character and holds its own against its more popular neighbours. If you like Laphroaig, Ardbeg and/or Lagavulin, you should definitely give this whisky a try. Tasting more of these peaty whiskies helps to demonstrate their variety and complexity underneath the peat and smoke. I'm a big fan of the packaging and the bottle has a simple elegance to it. A solid performer in its price range, Caol Ila 12 y-o is a worthy addition to the classic malts range and could serve as a great introduction to the peatier Islay malts.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


Christmas in Toronto. Not the most romantic notion of the holiday season, even if "Silver Bells" is your favourite Christmas song. The rampant consumerism of the holidays is visible on a whole new scale in the T-dot, and though I wouldn't normally trade the snow-covered firs of the Maritimes for the festive green and red-lit CN tower, we were there to introduce some extended family and friends to our new daughter. We do always enjoy our time in the city, however, and use it as an opportunity not only to visit loved ones but also to get our fix of good restaurants and ethnic food.
Before leaving, my wife asked me if there was anything in particular that I wanted to do in the city while we were there. I gave only two answers:

1) Visit the LCBO in Rosedale
2) Visit a nice whisky bar somewhere in the city

I'll explain the Rosedale LCBO thing in a later posting, but I had read about a couple of great whisky bars in Toronto and hadn't yet had the opportunity to visit them. I'm sure that an article in "Whisky" magazine from a couple of years ago made mention of a bar in the beaches area of Toronto with a phenomenal whisky selection - particularly single malt Scotch. A little bit of surfing brought me to the following website:

In another stroke of good fortune, my best friend Edan also happened to be in Toronto over the holidays visiting his brother's family. He was my travelling companion during a trip to Scotland in 2004 and the man who introduced to the myriad pleasures of quality whisky. Fate, the Spirit of Christmas, Magic of the Holidays - whatever it was, all of the pieces were falling into place, and we weren't going to pass up the opportunity to share a dram together.

We decided to meet late in the afternoon on the 28th of December. A light snow was falling and weather reports indicated the possibility of a storm arriving in a couple of hours. Making our way to the Beaches area, we looked for the pub and did a bit of sightseeing around this pretty unique area of the city, with its brightly coloured townhouses along the main streets and lots of interesting little shops. After parking in a residential area which reminded me a lot of the Westmount region of Montreal, we walked down to Kingston Road and into Feathers.
The atmosphere of an old British pub envelops you from the moment you step inside. A combination of bench/booth seating with more traditional tables, it is a mix of dark wood with red upholstery. Gentlemen playing darts, large photos covering the walls with images of Scottish landscapes, and decorative wallpaper all added to the local pub character. It's the sort of place where you know the owner chooses to spend a lot of his own time.

Edan and his companion Helen had already arrived and staked out a booth for us. As we had our four-month old baby in tow, the extra seating space was a godsend. Edan quickly pointed out the huge cabinet full of single malt whisky bottles behind me and we were both overjoyed to see a large range of malts not commercially available in Ontario or New Brunswick. In particular, Feathers boasts a large variety of the Flora and Fauna bottlings - whiskies from some more obscure distilleries in Scotland that are not sold in a significant fashion on the international market. This range of whiskies contains some exceptional malts (see "Diageo Calling" posting), so both Edan and I decided that with the limited time available to us, this is where we would focus our collective sampling energy.
When the whisky menu arrived, it was immediately obvious that Feathers lived up to the hype. Over 400 malts available and my curiosity was piqued even further when the waitress said that they would have to retrieve one of the bottles we requested from the "malt vault". With a little luck, your blogger will someday have the opportunity to visit this whisky equivalent of an extremely well-stocked wine cellar. We had the time to taste four different whiskies during our visit and I took only rudimentary tasting notes, as the real purpose of the visit was to catch up with some old friends (who weren't in bottles!)

Royal Brackla 10 y-o
Nutty on the nose and palate, very sweet start but becomes complex with lots of flavours; pepper and spice on the medium/long finish. This was my favourite of the day and I wish it was more readily available on the international market. Another relatively unknown gem in Diageo's immense whisky portfolio.

Mannochmore 12 y-o
This speyside distillery is located near Elgin, with the bulk of its production used in blends. It also produced the infamous Loch Dubh. The malt is creamy with honey and floral notes. Nothing really distinguishable and the least memorable dram of the day.

Bladnoch 10 y-o
This lowland distillery lives up to the regional stereotype: Light and sweet. Don't be fooled; this malt has surprising complexity. After several different owners, this distillery was bought in 1995 by an Irishman, Raymond Armstrong, and production re-started in 2000. If they decide to keep with a 10 y-o bottling, it would be due for release this year. The flora and fauna bottle we sampled would have been produced during United Distillers/Diageo's tenure.

Inchgower 14 y-o
Edan and I sampled this malt for the first time at the Scotch Whisky Heritage Center in Edinburgh. At that sampling, it was certainly distinctive: Awful, and no word of a lie, reminiscent of old sneakers. At the time, we thought maybe the bottle had gone off, but didn't bother to try another dram. I decided to give this one another chance at Feathers. My opinion of it has improved considerably, but no doubt these tasting notes make it sound better than it really is:
Vanilla on the nose; nutty, mincemeat and Christmas cake on the palate, with a bitter aftertaste.

The prices of drams at Feathers are divided into several categories based on age, rarity and cost of the bottles. All of the drinks in this posting were $7.50 CDN, very reasonably priced considering how difficult it is to get your hands on these whiskies.
I got my Christmas wish to visit a fantastic whisky bar in Toronto. Feathers lives up to its reputation and won't disappoint if you decide to stop in!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Diageo Calling

An inevitable side effect of growth in the whisky industry is the acquisition and subsequent merging of many distilleries by large corporations. The number of active distilleries seems to go through repetitive growth and contraction cycles, based on the popularity of whisky as a whole and single malts in particular. As single malts have become more popular (and profitable), companies have purchased and re-opened some previously closed or "silent" distilleries. As part of the purchase, these companies obtain whatever product is aging in the warehouse, so part of the motivation is to gain access to these aged stocks in the hopes of bottling it and selling it quickly. The more shrewd/prescient companies or corporations were able to purchase struggling distilleries in the lean years for a relative song and are now selling bottles of old whisky stock at premium prices.

Even before the single malt boom, large distillers specializing in blended whisky were acquiring smaller distilleries whose products were major contributors to their blends. This served two purposes: 1) Economics, in that they no longer have to purchase the whisky from a third party but can produce it themselves at cost and 2) Stability, keeping production steady in order to maintain the composition of their blend for uniformity of product. It also has the bonus effect of allowing the new owners to limit access of their malts to competitors for use in competing blended whiskies.

Being part of a larger corporation can be a great boon for some small distilleries. If the corporation is interested in promoting their product, injection of capital for marketing and distribution purposes can enhance both the visibility and availability of the whisky. It also allows the distillery managers the opportunity to increase the variety of expressions available to the public, which is demonstrated in the plethora of whiskies available today. So what is the downside? Well, that extra capital comes at a price (literally and figuratively) and that price can be a loss of control at the distillery. Control of production methods and distribution may now rest in the hands of parties that have little interest in tradition or the local influence of a particular brand of whisky.

Diageo PLC is the largest beer, wine and spirits company in the world, formed as a merger of Guinness UDV with the spirits company Grand Metropolitan in 1997. Its brands are highly recognizable in every category of the spirits world: Captain Morgan rum, Smirnoff vodka, Tanqueray gin, Johnnie Walker and Crown Royal whisky, Guinness beer. This is but a small sampling of Diageo's huge brand coverage in the alcoholic beverage industry. The assimilation of Guinness UDV brought with it a collection of Scottish distilleries that used to be known as United Distillers and before that, Distiller's Company, Limited. Six of the more well-known malt whiskies from this collection were selected to become part of a "classic malts" range including representatives from different whisky regions:

Dalwhinnie - Highland

Glenkinchie - Lowland

Cragganmore - Speyside

Oban - Western Highland

Lagavulin - Isle of Islay

Talisker - Isle of Skye

These malts also represent varying styles as well as regions. Dalwhinnie is a very light, honey and heather-like whisky, while Talisker and Lagavulin are very strongly flavoured with smoke and peat, respectively. I've listed them in order of increasing flavour "robustness". These six malts were chosen out of UDV's substantial collection to be their flagship representatives in the burgeoning single malt whisky market. The others continue to exist in relative obscurity, known only to connoisseurs and available almost exclusively in the UK through independent bottlers and Diageo's "flora and fauna" range (so named because they sport relatively unexciting labels which include pictures of local plants and animals). These whiskies continue to be used extensively in blends and there are some real gems in this group.

As the popularity of single malt whisky continues to grow, Diageo has recently added a couple more representatives to its classic malts range. These two were originally dubbed "hidden malts" but after making the latest cut have joined the classics:

Clynelish: Coastal Highland

Caol Ila: Isle of Islay

Before I digress too much, let me explain why I'm outlining Diageo's considerable whisky portfolio. In November of 2008, the following story appeared courtesy of the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation):

In a nutshell, the story is about Diageo deciding to pull most of its whisky products out of New Brunswick, possibly to sell them in the more lucrative markets of the BRIC countries (specifically Russia, India and China - not sure about Brazil). There was a wide variety of responses, and your blogger posted this comment:

"After all the preaching that customers receive about 'loyalty' to a brand by corporations, here we have an example of a company not being loyal to its customers. I don't blame the individual distilleries, as they would have no say in this decision. This is one of the perils of being part of a conglomerate such as Diageo.
That being said, the power still lies with the consumer. Boycotting Diageo won't hurt them, but we can still transfer our loyalty to local brands (such as Glenora) and smaller companies which would appreciate our patronage. There are plenty of fantastic scotch whiskies out there that are not part of the Diageo empire. Springbank and Bruichladdich are gems that any whisky fan should try, but are not always available in NB. Why not?
If our business isn't good enough for Diageo, then I say let them move to other markets. I strongly urge NBLiquor to support smaller distilleries and companies that want our support and will be loyal to their customers. These don't have to be Scottish brands, as the number of Irish, American and Canadian distilleries making quality product is growing every day.
NB customers aren't good enough for Diageo? I beg to differ."

Let me make a quick point here: I can understand why Diageo is doing this. They can make more money by selling these whiskies for higher prices in some of these developing countries. That makes good business sense, and we're talking about a major multinational corporation - which historically, represent abysmally poor examples of moral judgement concerning individual customers.

Then, after almost a year of living without the classic malts, the following story appeared in the Times-Transcript, a NB newspaper:

So now Diageo products return to the shelves in New Brunswick, and we have sub-prime mortgages, toxic credit default swaps and Lehman Brothers to thank for it. Now if I had to make a guess as to what happened during this whole affair, here's what it would be:

Due to increasing demand in both developed and developing countries, Diageo decides it can make more money by pulling product out of NB and selling it elsewhere. They may have offered NBLiquor the opportunity to purchase stocks of these products at higher prices and perhaps NBLiquor refused. The global economic downturn significantly affects (reduces) demand for many higher priced goods - including single malt Scotch whisky, in many countries. Diageo decides to return some of its products to NB with some slight increases in price.

Am I glad that these products are back? Sure. I like many of the whiskies in the classic malts range, and appreciate the opportunity to buy them even if I feel some are overpriced (Oban). If they want to raise the price due to supply and demand, let them do it and let the customers decide if these whiskies are worth the inflated price. However, I do feel a bit like I've just received a phone call from an ex-girlfriend who thought she could do better, played the field and now realizes she gave up a good thing.

Diageo's prodigious marketing power has done wonders for the single malt and premium whisky markets - providing considerable customer education and attracting enormous interest not only for their brands, but the entire industry. That being said, many customers (including your blogger) will remember how such companies value their patronage and once spurned, may decide not to answer the early morning "booty call".

Friday, December 4, 2009

Mortie's Holiday Whisky-giving Guide

With the holiday season in full swing, it's a great time to review some whiskies for their potential as gifts. Gold, frankincense or myrrh? None of these warm the belly on a cold winter's night like a nice dram. However, before you drop huge coin on an expensive bottle for a friend, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when making a whisky-related purchase for any aficionado on your list:

1) Gift cards are not bad

2) Don't be afraid of making a mistake

3) Go for value, not just age or price

4) Purchase based on recipient's preferences, not yours

5) Underestimate taste tolerance

Let's start with the gift card thing. I know that these have become more popular lately, but I feel like they still get a bad rap. There is a stigma attached to gift certificates and gift cards that insinuates the giver didn't have the time or energy to find a real gift, so they settled on getting a gift card. Personally, I love getting gift cards. They let me go shopping later for what I really wanted in the first place. It may not be as nice as getting exactly what you desire in a completely spontaneous fashion, but it certainly beats an receiving an ugly sweater. As a whisky-lover, I often use gift cards (from NBLiquor here in New Brunswick) to make a nice bottle that's been tempting me for a long time suddenly seem more affordable.

I've had several friends and family members who have told me they didn't want to buy me a bottle of whisky because they were intimidated and thought they might get something I wouldn't like. I'm always really sad to hear that, because even getting a bottle of something I might not have bought myself is a nice surprise. Sometimes my own bias against a particular brand will prevent me from buying it myself, but I'll be very pleasantly surprised to discover how good it really is after receiving it as a gift. Unless you're very wealthy (or financially reckless), you will experience some measure of guilt when spending 50+ dollars on a bottle of liquor. Gifts are a wonderful way to build your whisky portfolio while maintaining financial health!

Everybody falls into the trap of price and age when buying whisky. If you don't know your Ballantine's from your Balvenies the gut instinct is to go for the old, expensive, and single malt. Unfortunately, there are some really bad, old malts out there that will burn your palate along with your cash. Ask for recommendations and do a little bit of reading to determine which whiskies are good bang for their buck. I received a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue for my 30th birthday and although it is a good whisky and I was very appreciative, it saddened me to think of other malts I could have gotten for the $200 price tag. The industry has been booming over the last decade or so, resulting in a great many producers trying to sell older stock for premium prices, whether or not it's actually good whisky. Inform yourself before you buy.

Buying whisky for others can be a lot of fun when you're a connoisseur, but it is very easy to forget you're buying for somebody else and not yourself. Hubris can be a real handicap here, if you start to think you know someone else's palate better than they do: "Trust me, you'll really like this!" It's best to be conservative when buying for others and try to find something they will actually enjoy, even if your conditioned tastes might find it somewhat muted or uninspiring. Better to underestimate someone's tolerance to strong flavours than to go over the top. No one wants that nice cask strength bottling or smoky Islay malt to end up like those "super" hot sauces - served as a novelty but never actually enjoyed.
If the ultimate goal is to help the gift recipient enjoy whisky, this will be better served by slowly building their tolerance and palate. Guilting someone into drinking something they don't really enjoy can turn them against that drink altogether (bah, humbug!)

With that all out of the way, here are some great whiskies that will be enjoyed by just about anybody:

Highland Park 12: I'm a big fan of this Scottish island distillery as they make very complex malts with a nice balance of sweet and peat. There's something in this dram for everyone and the price is right. Neophytes or hardcore whisky lovers alike would both enjoy a bottle.

Benromach (no age statement): Gordon and MacPhail of Elgin, Scotland recently re-started production from this distillery and they know their stuff. Another complex speyside malt with some smoke and peat. This time of year they offer gift packs of a 750ml bottles with two Glencairn glasses for about 55$ CDN. That is a steal.

MacAllan 12: Even people who don't like whisky have a hard time disliking the MacAllan. These masters of sherried malts specialize in sweet, buttery whiskies. Loved by connoisseurs but accessible to everyone, this bottle sells for $60 CDN and up, but is a great value under $80.

Dalwhinnie 15: This light, delicate scotch is a great bottle for people just starting to develop a palate for whisky. Try to find it for under $70 CDN.

Buffalo Trace: This Kentucky bourbon is difficult to find, but worth the effort. Bourbons can be very smooth as they often lack the peat and smoke of malt whisky. A stellar example of how good bourbon can be.

Balvenie Doublewood: This sherried speysider is a great value and a regular recommendation by your blogger. Not as sweet as the MacAllan, but great balance and wonderful presentation. This gift won't disappoint (note the empty bottle).

I could go on and create an exhaustive list, but all of these bottles (except Buffalo Trace, sigh) are available in New Brunswick on a regular basis for under $80. In future posts, I'll discuss other value-priced bottles of higher-end stuff that make great gifts for more knowledgeable whisky fans. The bottles discussed here are appropriate for those starting their whisky journeys of discovery, but should also light up the eyes of any seasoned whisky-lover. When given as a gift, the spirit in which it's given is as important as the spirit in the bottle. Enjoy them with friends and remember to drink responsibly.

Happy Holidays!