Saturday, October 24, 2009

No Excuse Required

"Formerly every event was made an occasion for drinking. If it was raining, it was 'we'll have a dram to keep out the wet'; if it was cold, 'we'll have a dram to keep out the cold'; and if it was a fine day, why then 'we'll 'drink to its health'".

- J.A. MacCulloch

A wonderful way to become more comfortable drinking whisky is to incorporate it into other activities surrounding your life. Much like having a coffee can become a relaxing experience by association; a dram of whisky can be a nice way to unwind after a long day, such as having a nightcap before bedtime. Although a bottle of whisky is a great way to commemorate a special occasion, the mundane routine of everyday life can also be spiced up with a nice drink now and then. In my opinion, one of the great advantages of spirits over wine is that you can keep an open bottle for a long time, having a drink once in awhile over a period of weeks or months (if not years). Although air in an open bottle will start to affect the spirit over time, it will still be good for quite a while. A couple of years ago, over the course of a brutally cold winter, I went through a bottle of Talisker 10 y-o simply by having a dram every night while reading a series of novels. This is a great way to become familiar with any particular malt, bottling, or expression; by drinking small amounts routinely over a short period of time (weeks to months). It took about 7 consecutive nights/drams before I started really appreciating the dark chocolate notes in the taste of Talisker that I hadn’t noticed previously by having isolated drams every once in awhile.

Bars and pubs can also be great places to try different whiskies on a more random basis and provide a much cheaper alternative to buying a bottle of something you may be unfamiliar with. There are some real diamonds in the rough when it comes to whisky bars. Establishments that specialize in whisky will have increased selection, but the drinks themselves will be more expensive as these places are fully aware of the value and rarity of their stock. If you can find a nice pub that doesn’t specialize in whisky, but happens to have 5 or 6 nice bottles, you can often get a really good deal. These bottles are often due to the past or present employment of a bartender who is a whisky fan, and was able to convince management to purchase some good whisky. My friends and I were able to find a small pub on the West Island of Montreal that sold drams of Oban 14 y-o for $4CDN, as opposed to the $12 that was being charged at some of the Irish pubs downtown. In general, good whisky is quite expensive in bars and something you probably won't be ordering signficant quantities of.

In making the decision on whether or not to have a dram when out on the town, I find it useful to think of it more in terms of coffee than say, beer. In other words, the sorts of conditions that one would make one think of having coffee (other than to wake up) are often good for whisky drinking, too; some examples being: After dinner with dessert, on a cold afternoon with a good book in front of a fire, out with friends for a couple of drinks and conversation, etc. These are all great whisky appreciation moments. Whisky tends to warm you up, so a hot summer afternoon after playing volleyball on the beach is probably not the best time for peat-fueled firewater in the belly! I’m talking about drinking straight whisky here, but there are lots of mixed drinks using whisky served cold that would fit the bill. Alternatively, if you prefer your whisky “on the rocks” (with ice), that will also temper its heat a little bit.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Biosciences trade show in Fredericton, New Brunswick. This was a part of Canada’s National Biosciences Week and it involved exhibits from biotech companies within the province as well as a couple of seminars on building biotechnology infrastructure. I was there representing my employers and since the show ended late afternoon, when it was over I headed to Fredericton’s best whisky bar: The Lunar Rogue. I’ll do another post later specifically on the Rogue, but suffice it to say that its regular list of 200+ different malts has gained it an international reputation as a whisky bar, including a shout-out from Whisky Magazine. Perusing their substantial whisky menu, I settled on a dram of Lochside (bottled 1991), an Eastern Highland distillery that closed back in 1991.

After being served my whisky (in a glencairn glass, no less – good on the Rogue), I mentally reviewed the contacts and conversations made over the course of the day. It was a sunny and warm late summer afternoon, so it was the perfect time to relax on the patio of the Rogue and watch both foot and vehicle traffic pass by on King street. How was the Lochside? Not great, but not bad and certainly better than if I had been drinking it in my living room and really critically analyzing it. No tasting notes for this one. Sometimes it’s nice to just relax with a dram and enjoy the context as much as the drink itself.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

(Not) Just Desserts - Auchentoshan 12 year-old

An important occasion to celebrate provides the best excuse (er, reason) to open a new bottle of whisky. When my friend Jeff turned 30 a couple of weeks ago, it seemed the perfect opportunity to celebrate his three decades of life by encouraging his nascent interest in the water of life. My wife and I spent some time discussing which bottle would make the most appropriate gift; we wanted a single malt that was out of the ordinary (to help pique his interest), but nothing too strong, that might turn him off or limit his enjoyment of the drink. This has proven to be the bane of many whisky enthusiasts when trying to lure (does that have a negative connotation?) their friends into the world of whisky appreciation: Going too strong too fast. In our zest to share our love of aqua vitae with novices, we can push the stronger tasting stuff too quickly: You like a bit of peat? Here, try some Ardbeg!

Slow down, cowboys. Although we all experience the just the teensiest bit of schadenfreude when watching a novice experience the uniquely startling pleasures of tasting a heavily peated malt for the first time, chances are you didn’t start off that way, either. In my opinion, it’s much better to ease in to the heavy hitters after acquiring a palate and appreciation for the lighter stuff. You don’t lead off with your strongest batter, right? With these things in mind, we decided to pick him up a bottle of Auchentoshan 12 y-o.

Auchentoshan is a lowland distillery located very near Glasgow, Scotland. Although the vast majority of Scottish distilleries perform two consecutive distillations in the production of their spirit, Auchentoshan does three. This triple-distillation process is more characteristic of Irish distilleries, and results in a cleaner, lighter spirit. This is due to the loss of oilier, heavier flavours and character during the extended distillation process. In this way, Auchentoshan is very representative of“traditional” lowland malts, in that it has more of a light, floral character than the majority of malts from other regions of Scotland.

In this highly-anticipated (by us) cross-over event with our friends from the food blog “A Foodie’s Thoughts”, Amanda created a pecan pie recipe substituting the Auchentoshan 12 y-o in place of the more traditional bourbon. The result: Delicious! Amanda used slightly more whisky than in the usual recipes, in anticipation that the lighter flavours of Auchentoshan may be muted somewhat in the pie. It proved to be a good decision, as the flavours of the whisky blended so well with the pie that in smaller amounts they may have been lost. The pie was a big hit and your blogger couldn’t help but imagine future pies using other, more strongly flavoured malts! Note that although it is the Auchentoshan Select Reserve pictured in the photo with the pie, it is the 12 y-o (first photo) that was used in the recipe. Make sure you check out the companion blog posting at “A Foodie’s Thoughts” for more info on this dish.

As for the whisky, we do two separate tastings – one before the Auchentoshan-laced pecan pie and one afterwards. The tasting notes that follow represent an effort by four different people and anything described was at least corroborated by two within the group.

Nose: Toffee, vanilla, dried figs and a fresh floweriness of heather with honey. Just a whiff of smoke.

Taste: Starts sweet at the tip of the tongue with some nuttiness, then a crisp, peppery middle. Good complexity and lots of light, subtle flavours to explore with this bottle. Unfortunately, the flavour is somewhat bitter at the end.

Palate: Medium body, a little oily with nice legs on the glass. The finish is interesting: Initially we thought it was short, but then realized that although the taste intensity drops off quickly, a shadow of it remains on the tongue for a long time.

Value: It scores well in this category, not because it is a phenomenal whisky, but because it is not very expensive. It certainly compares well to whiskies in this price range (~$55-70 CDN), while offering a different flavour profile than most of the others.

The Auchentoshan 12 y-o was a pleasant surprise, offering more complexity and character than I was expecting from a triple-distilled, lowland malt. On the negative side, although the finish starts strong it fades quickly and there is some bitterness. Overall, we were very pleased with the bottle and it was a great expression to start with as a foundation for future whisky appreciation. As Amanda’s pie displayed, this whisky is well suited not only to accompany a dessert, but as an ingredient. Both Amanda and Jeff are interested in doing more tastings and inventing other recipes using whisky, so any way you slice it (ha ha), the Auchentoshan 12 y-o was an unqualified success!
Special thanks to Amanda at "A Foodie's Thoughts"

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Surprise Vintage

It's not very often that I receive emails at work regarding whisky, and this one in particular was a pleasant surprise. A co-worker forwarded me the following article from The Times-Transcript, our local paper here in Moncton, New Brunswick:

Suffice it to say that we required no further invitation and spent our lunch hour (and maybe a little extra) at the NewBrunswick Liquor Commission store on Vaughan Harvey boulevard in Moncton. Not really knowing how much of a crowd to expect, we were surprised to see only about 10 people around the tasting counter. Mr. David Mair, the global brand ambassador for The Balvenie, had not yet arrived so the crowd was being offered samples of another Balvenie expression: The Doublewood.

The Balvenie is a speyside distillery owned by William Grant & Sons, a private family-owned company that is better known for its other more prolific distillery, Glenfiddich. While both of these distilleries are located in Dufftown within the Speyside region of Scotland, in my opinion, the Balvenie represents the true essence of a speyside malt. Oakey, honey and toffee flavours with just a hint of smoke and peat. These are the attributes of what used to be its most prevalent expression, the 10-year old Founder's Reserve. This expression seems to have been removed from production, making the DoubleWood Balvenie's most common offering. If you have the opportunity to pick up bottle of the Founder's Reserve before it disappears, I would recommend doing so. It rates highly on the value scale, and is one of my favourite malts under $50.
The DoubleWood is a 12 year-old Balvenie, matured in two different casks. It spends most of its twelve years in a traditional oak whisky (ex-bourbon) cask followed by a few months in a first-fill European oak sherry cask. This adds the sherry fruitiness and sweetness to the malty, honey and toffee flavours The Balvenie is known for. Rest assured that tasting notes for both the Founder's Reserve and the DoubleWood will be appearing in the not-too distant future on The Spirit Safe.

This day, however, belonged to the Vintage Cask.

Each year, The Balvenie malt master, Mr. David Stewart (the industry's longest serving malt master), selects a few exceptional casks of whisky aged over 30 years to release as The Balvenie Vintage Cask Single Malt Scotch Whisky. These bottles are individually bottled by hand and marked with the cask #, the date it was filled, the bottling date, the bottle # as well as the total # of bottles within this particular limited edition. As one could imagine, stocks of these malts are extremely rare and difficult to find. This particular Vintage was distilled in 1976 and aged for 31 years in an ex-bourbon cask before being distributed into a total of 231 bottles in 2007. The Malt Advocate, a popular whisky magazine, rated this particular bottling as one of its top ten new whiskies of 2008: "Balvenie ages well, as this ongoing series of vintage releases proves. Incredible depth and complexity while still tasting quite lively for a whisky this old." The price tag? A whopping $800 US, according to the Malt Avocate. Here in New Brunswick, there were only 5 bottles of the stuff available in the province (where whisky prices are unusually low), at the seemingly bargain price of $616 CDN.

We perused some of the other rare whisky offerings of the Vaughan Harvey liquor store while waiting for Mr. Mair to arrive. These included 30 y-o Brora and 30-y-o Glen Ord bottlings, as well as a 28 y-o North Port (Brechin) expression, all in around the $300 range. When David Mair arrived, he apologized for being late due to problems with his connecting flights in from Paris. By this point there were around 40 people gathered near the tasting table, a mix of whisky enthusiasts and passers-by who were curious what all the fuss was about. Mr. Mair proceeded to give us a wonderful introduction to The Balvenie, explaining that is one of the few distilleries that remain under the ownership of its original family proprietors, as well as one of the very few that does its own floor maltings (and turns them with shovels!). His talk was very similar in scope to those offered as introductions at the distillery tours that I took while visiting Scotland in 2004. While Mr. Mair instructed us on the proper way to nose and taste a whisky, I noticed others around me starting to fidget, anxious to get a taste of the special bottle.

David Mair finished his introduction to Balvenie by describing selection of the vintage cask, done by David Stewart, as well as Balvenie's annual releases of 17 y-o expressions. This year it is a bottling matured for 17 years in traditional oak, followed by a few months aging in a madeira wine cask. I was a big fan of Glenmorangie's Madeira Wood expression, so this is something to look forward to. The Balvenie Madeira Cask bottles allocated to Canada will only be available in New Brunswick and Alberta. These bottles will be making their first appearance in NB at the province's annual Spirits Festival in November, retailing for about $119 CDN. Balvenie's previous 17 y-o bottlings have been very well received by critics and previous incarnations include a Rum Cask finish, Sherry Cask finish and New Oak finish. Your blogger was lucky enough to obtain a bottle of the New Oak, so the tasting notes for that expression will grace a future posting.

Finally, the moment arrived. David Mair removed the bottle from its wooden case and unpeeled the plastic surrounding the top of the bottle. Cameras flashed as he offered the first drink to an elderly lady seated near him, asking her if she would care to be the first to try it. After indulging her, he continued pouring for the rest of the crowd - no measuring, just pouring by hand from the bottle and giving us each roughly half an ounce. Pretty generous given the price of the bottle! The crowd quieted somewhat as everyone got their first taste of the 31 y-o whisky. Your blogger wasn't the first to get his sample, but he wasn't the last, either. Patience has its limits!

How was it? Surprisingly perky given its age. Lots of the honey and toffee one expects of a Balvenie, with some lighter floral notes on the nose, mixed with vanilla. A bit more smoke and peat than I was expecting, and this was in the reflected in the taste as well. It was rich and oily in the mouth and had a great, medium-length finish. Mr. Mair confirmed the presence of the extra smoke and surmised that they may have used more heavily peated maltings at the Balvenie back then.

My co-worker and I spent some time talking to a reporter from the Times-Transcript, not a whisky enthusiast himself, who was trying to get a true feel of how significant this tasting was. I think he sensed the excitement from everyone in the room and the appreciation shown both to David Mair and the organizers of the event. The link to his article is given below:

All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to taste a rare old whisky (that didn't disappoint), meet a great brand ambassador with some other whisky enthusiasts, and it didn't cost a penny - the best lunch hour from work I've ever taken!

Special thanks to Stephen Lewis for the photos!