Master Class with Jim McEwan – Revelry Untamed

Back in the early days of my learning curve about whisky drinking I attended a Master Class led by Jim McEwan and hosted by Federal Wine and Spirits at the historic Omni Parker House in Boston. The date: October 25, 2007.

Up until that point I had learned two things: 1) Write down what you drink and what you think of it; and 2) save your notes.

When I heard this past week about the imminent retirement of Jim McEwan, my mind when back to the night I met him and fell under his spell of showmanship. The class was full, of course, of men and just two of us ladies. We sat in the front row. The lesson I hadn’t learned, and still have trouble with, is sip and spit. Especially when tasting ten good long pours of whisky.  I do hydrate with lots of water but not drinking the full shot of Bruichladdich or any other substantial whisky feels a bit like heresy.  My palate was young and unskilled. I was ambivalent about several of the expressions and wowed by a few others.  But, I was totally enthralled by Jim and his presentation.  I wrote about this class in more detail in my book Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations.

To give you a glimpse of the tasting: my top three favorites of the night – as my notes detail were: 125th Anniversary, 3-D Peat Proposal 3rd Edition, and the PC5. And, somehow I have at home a signed bottle of the 1973 30 Y.O. Laddie.  Remember what I said about sip and …..sometimes one doesn’t actually recall the minute details or purchases! Did I purchase it that night or another. Lost. Another lesson not learned at that point: put the sales slip with price paid and date purchased in the box the whisky comes in or keep the slips or write it down in a safe place.

Times have changed since that 2007 Master Class, some bottles are now off the shelves and tucked away in personal scotch cabinets, some sold out and in the hands of collectors, and others simply basic bottles still available.  Here is the list.  You tell me where they are and how much they now fetch $$$.

1. Rocks                                      $51.95

2. 12 Y.O. Second Edition       $64.95

3. 14 YO Links Carnoustie      $77.95

4. 14 YO Sassocaia                     $79.95

5. 14 YO Gaja Barolo                 $79.95

6. 125th Anniversary                 $495

7. 40 YO                                        $2395

8. Infinity                                      $77.95

9. 3-D Peat Proposal 3rd Edition $69.95

10. PC5                                           SOLD OUT

To Jim and all his expressions I raise a glass.



The Dark Side of Bruichladdich

One of my go-to books is the 5th Edition of Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (2004). It is always within reach. I carried it with me throughout my whisky week in Scotland in the fall of 2009. On its inside cover I wrote the names of all the whiskies I tasted during the trip which began in Glasgow and ended in Glentrool. I drank Highlands and Lowlands, Campbeltowns and Islays. The book has notes from distillery visits and interactions with one local on Islay.  The elderly Mr. Willie Powell lived in a small white house with peat bricks piled obsessively neat on either side of the house. He had a barrel stamped with the Kilchoman label in front.  Kilchoman launched its first whisky the month we were there and the barrel, said Powell, was stationed to help visitors find the distillery. I was informed by the Kilchoman representative at the 2014 Sarasota Whisk(e)y Obsession Festival that Willie Powell was still living in his home on Machir Bay. Go Willie!

Willie Powell's Peat Stack Machir Bay, Islay
Willie Powell’s Peat Stack Machir Bay, Islay

More than holding my rambling and scribbles the Malt Whisky Companion is a vessel of whisky knowledge. In his section on peat, Jackson speaks about the ppm (parts per million) of phenol that is measured in whisky. As an example, he refers to Bruichladdich as having whisky in the 2-5 ppm range. He notes that Bruichladdich was in the process of created two distinctly high ppm whiskies.  I made note of both for future purchase:  Port Charlotte 5 Y.O. (PC5) and Octomore 5 Y.O.

I watched and waited and kept in close contact with my whisky-guy, Joe at Federal Wine and Spirits, and upon their separate release, I purchased both and joined what I call the dark side of whisky. These are not for the faint of heart nor “I’ll have a white wine spritzer” type. They are for those who think rugged, deep pungent, and full power of smoke. Robusto cigars and blizzard conditions swirl around the aura emanating from these now hard to find single malts. The PC5 has a 40 ppm level and 63.5% alcohol , but the Octomore 1st release is at a remarkable 131 ppm and while at the same 63.5% alcohol. The peat pulls me in and hugs me in a bear-like grasp. The Octomore, and I hate to admit this, screams for a touch of water to save me from going over the edge.

Big and Burly - bring 'em on!
Big and Burly – bring ’em on!

The Port Charlotte and Octomore range of whiskies are detailed on the Bruichladdich website. I’m attached to the 1st releases. One bottle of the PC5 was finished and it was a challenge finding another 1st release. It’s safely in my arms now. I am all about sharing but the select and limited bottles in my collection are special occasion drams for a small, also select, few.

To Bruichladdich for always taking chances and not being deterred by anything, and to Mr. Willie Powell for being a welcoming gentleman to a car full of tourists, I raise a glass.

Unexpected Pleasures from a Quiet Islay Whisky

I don’t know if any Islay whisky can be referred to as quiet. True, many may hit you over the head with their peat and smoke – and deliver a good spanking of leather. Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Ardbeg all quickly come to mind. Quiet, that takes a moment or two of reflection. Bowmore never the first distillery that whisky drinkers speak of when talking Islay – yet is a superstar with several of its expressions.  I have five different expressions in my scotch cabinet; not too many distilleries from any region of Scotland hold that distinction. In my book, Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations, there are two that receive high praise, one is on my Top 10 List, the other should be!!  In 2008 friends from the UK brought the Bowmore 16 Y.O. Limted Edition as a gift. I didn’t realize that it was going to be on the “hard-to-find” list and shared it at several tastings.  Not too bright comes to mind as I look at myself in the hindsight mirror. The 16 Y.O., was distilled in 1989 and bottled at cask strength – a not too aggressive 51.8%. There is a recognition of smokiness but it doesn’t overpower. Quiet and elegant. Find it. buy it. The other is the 13 Y.O. Craftsmen’s Collection: Maltmen’s Selection. Another limited release and bottled at 56.4%. At a 2014 autumn small gathering of serious single malt enthusiasts it was not thought of as one to reach for early and often. Actually, no one had even tried it before. I purchased the bottle at the Bowmore distillery shop in 2009 so it was little known. The bottle was saved for last because the sherry notes were perhaps going to offer a counter point to the other heavy-hitters of the evening.  When the group finally raised a glass. A supersized WOW circled the room. Oh ya. If you can find it….

Bowmore a quiet, masterful, Islay.  I raise a glass.

Lowland Single Malts. I hesitate.

How many Lowland single malts can you name? Exactly. Not too many lining the shelves of your favorite liquor store. I’ve offered Auchentoshan expressions at whisky tastings.  Being very light in flavor, they are the first up. Folks new to whisky enjoy the easiness and approachability.  Once the tasting moves on to Highland’s with depth and Islay’s robust peat, the Lowlands fade for most.

Yet, Duthies Auchentoshan 19 Y.O, a product of WM Cadenhead, is worth trying. I made the comment “that Lowland whiskies are way-too light” while visiting the Springbank Distillery and imbibing at a private tasting. Immediately, Peter Currie, Springbank rep at the time, pulled out the Duthies. I bought a bottle and tucked it in my suitcase to bring back to the US.

Gordon and MacPhail also bottles a few of the Lowland shuttered Rosebank Distillery single malts.  Yes, they are on the light side as well.  But, the Rosebank 17 Y.O. cask strength gives a kick just to make sure one notices. I noticed. The Rosebank 18 Y.O. is more typical.

Spring is here for some and coming soon for others, a good time to rotate the bottles in your scotch cabinet and bring out the lighter whiskies.

I raise a glass!

Ardbeg Always on My Top 10

Continuing with the “A” list brings us to one of the outstanding BIG whiskies of Islay. A friend told me once that he could smell my whisky in hand from across the room. Awesome! My hand was holding a big gun. “A” list in action.

The one he took notice of….Ardbeg, not only delivers punch with its 10 Y.O., but surprises us fans with new expressions that pull and tug at our heartstrings and “Top 10” lists. For me, pour a two-finger glass of the Corrycreckan. In my book I describe it as “Leather with a depth of heat and elegance. Delicious bursts of Islay sea. Never drink Corry first because others would be left behind on the sidewalk.”

Looking over Corry’s shoulder for some well deserved recognition is the Ardbeg Rollercoaster and some might say the Supernova. I own both and smile profusely when sipping them. On special occasions I share a dram with the select few.

If you want to enter the major leagues with Ardbeg, seek out the rare and not so humble 24 Y.O. Provenance. I raise a glass to all that is Ardbeg!

Whisky with an “A”

My scotch cabinet holds a wide variety of single malt scotch, with a smattering of bourbon and rye.  So the question is where do I begin in highlighting  my favorites – do I follow the rows in the cabinet or the order in my book, Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations, or what?  When in doubt, KISS – keep it simple stupid. Here goes, whisky talk in alphabetical order.

Aberfeldy 21 Y.O. , a Highland from Dewar. As a newbie many years ago who thought she knew almost everything but really knew nothing about distillery products and histories, I was knocked off my lofty pedestal when I learned that this gem of a whisky is part of the Dewar portfolio. I know now to always seek out the details behind a whisky.

My whisky preferences most always revolve around the peat and smoke of Islay malts, which is saying something about my being enamored with the Aberfeldy 21 Y.O. I have served it at tastings and it always scores high with participants. This 21 Y.O. is warm and sweet with hints of honey. It is a giant leap from the 12 Y.O.  To me the richness and depth comes through as a perfect dram. It scores an “A” and is shared with special friends.

Raise a glass!