Blind Tasting: Six Whiskies

For the third year and counting I have had the good fortune to lead a whisky tasting for a group of special clients of a local financial firm. There are a number of bonuses to this event. One, it is held at the toney Union Club on Park Street next to the State House in Boston. Two, I decide which whiskies the guests will tipple. Third, I get to drink right along with the always enthusiastic guests and hosts. Overall it is a fabulous time and has become for me a kick-off to the holidays.

UnionClubview
Union Club was started by Bostonian gentlemen to support Union efforts during the United States Civil War.

 

This year it was agreed that I would present six whiskies – and all be blind tastes.  I wanted to showcase the similarities and differences between single malt scotch, grains, and blends.  The blind aspect would help keep preconceived notions off the table and stimulate conversations. There would be two bottles of each so that everyone would receive a generous pour. No skimping here!

Blind tasting
Thomas Lindall Winthrop portrait. watching over the bottles. Distant grandfather of Secretary of State John Kerry.

 

The tasting began with Monkey Shoulder, 40%, a blended MALT whisky produced by William Grant that is fairly new to the Boston market. Reviews call it subtle, with hints of winter spices and honey butter toast. I found it easy to drink and one that would lend itself to cocktails when not wanting to use a high priced whisky. Once divulged, the biggest complaint by the group is the name.  They thought it was a very poor choice. Boston price hovers around $45.

I paired a Bunnahabhain, 46.3%, a 12 YO Islay single malt that brings out fruit notes and a touch of Islay brininess.  Whisky.com recommends everyone have this on their shelf.  I concur. Priced around $57.

As expected many could not discern which was the single malt.  The names of both bottles were revealed after they guests finished the pour of the second bottle. A few nailed it including one Scotsman who immediately knew the single malt was a Bunnahabhain.  We had talked about this brand before the event started and I was curious to know if he would recognize it. One for the Scotsman!

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Nicely appointed Lawrence Room

 

After a round of tasty lobster nibbles, it was on to the next selection. Johnnie Walker’s new Gold Label Reserve, 40%, a blend, was passed to the guest. I then talked with some of the small groups that had formed to hear their thoughts.  What a range of noses and palates in the room.  One person said the nose was like a locker of a middle school boy, someone else said it felt like a peaty Islay. Fascinating.  My Scotsman said he thoroughly enjoyed the dram. The Gold is gentle on the palate, I believe, and no where near the extreme descriptions given. Like all Walker expressions to me, it fades fast. Priced around $85.

After pouring a top off for those who were going all in, I presented the single malt – a Gordon & MacPhail Mortlach, 43%,  15 YO Speyside that spent time in refilled sherry casks and a spicy finish. This comparison generated a split group on preference.

Smoked duck tartlets were passed around by the efficient and helpful Union Club staff. As expected, the chatter in the room was raised a few decibels higher after what was now four pours of whisky and some top offs.

The last round of the night began with a Gordon & MacPhail Benromach, 43%, 15 YO single malt. Reviews state it shows hints of fruit and chocolate with a clean overall feel.  There were clearly some “oohs” and “aaahs” with this one.  I thought it interesting because the Mortlach was tasted before the Benromach – both single malts by Gordon & MacPhail and both Speysides. I wondered if anyone would pick up on any similarities. Too much fun going on, I guess. Priced around $100.

The last expression was Compass Box’s Hedonism, 43%, an oft touted blended GRAIN whisky. Palates were numbing over a tad at this point and the light vanilla notes and tender taste was lost on some guests. One commented that it would be best served as a summer whisky. Sure, why not!

Union bottles grains and single
Pre-tasting bottles in all their beauty.

 

Guests were given a handout of everything they tasted along with descriptors of the whiskies and definitions of each type of whisky – single malt, blended malt, blends, and blended grains. Some of the guests who have attended more of my presentations and are regular whisky drinkers commented that discovered some surprises and along with whiskies they had as of yet tried.  That is always my goal: showcase something new and have guests leave surprised, content and happy!

With the official tasting completed, guests were able to return to my presentation table and have another taste or two of their favorites. The host suggested I keep an eye on my personal preference, so I could take what was remaining home. Yes! Keeping an eye on the choices for additional pours I concluded that the Monkey Shoulder was the least favorite. The Johnnie Walker Gold impressed the Scotsman and  others who said they usually avoid the brand. Hedonism had the most intriguing name, but it didn’t match the flavor profile. Overall, the one that had the most guests raising their hands as their favorite was the Benromach 15 YO. Mine, too. And, yes, a half of bottle came home with me. It didn’t take long for the remainder of the other bottles to be given by the host to the guests who professed their all out favorite. Lastly, the host mentioned that I have written a book, Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations, and that the first Union Club tasting was in the book, and I had the book for sale. I cheerfully signed some books, feeling like a big time author!

For some of us, the night didn’t end there.  I was thrilled to be invited to be part of the private cigar and pipe smoking with a final dram in hand upstairs in the Club.  There was some discussion about next November and the decision made to offer all Islay whiskies and then after that in what will be the fifth annual whisky tasting – a favorite of the host from each of the five years. Both upcoming years give me lots to ponder! Which Islay’s?Which order of bottles? How to compare the five year favorites?  So much fun and I get paid too! Life is good.

One last comment: Should blends and grains be compared to single malts?  Should any whisky be compared to another? Maybe, maybe not. Every bottle of whisky has been produced to offer something to someone. Personal preferences and/or opinions are like stars in the sky – more than we can count, some brighter than others, sometimes viewed by many, sometimes not given a single thought.

I raise a glass to drinking and sharing good whisky, whatever the preference,  with friends, family, and clients/guests!

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Becoming a Bon Vivant of Whisky

Adapted from my blog published earlier on getrealluxury.com

Webster’s Online Dictionary defines a Bon Vivant as a person having cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink.

What is entailed to get from novice to mastery as a bon vivant in the multifaceted world of single malt whisky? Some might snicker and say drinking a lot of whisky. There is partial truth to that snarky statement but over the long term a methodical, well-thought out pathway leads to personal whisky mastery.

Global marketers promote hundreds of whiskies with price ranges that match the uniqueness or rarity of a whisky as well as price ranges at the high end simply “because.” Borrowing from the definition of bon vivant, “cultivated and refined” begs for one to taste a variety of whiskies to learn the differences in production regions, styles, age, and personal preferences beyond the marketing promotions. Where does one begin?  In the book, Whisky Tales: Tasting and Temptations, I offer more than a dozen tables that include four or more whiskies for an evening of tasting. The country or region and easy to understand tasting notes round out each table and provides a starting point for discovering the flavor nuances, similarities and differences among whiskies.

Exclusive Tasting
Seek out friends who also enjoy trying whiskies. Jointly purchase a few bottles that might otherwise be out of your price range.

Beyond the plethora of books, blogs, twitter accounts and the whisky expert at one’s local liquor store, there are several additional avenues to take to actually taste a variety of whiskies before purchasing. Whisky festivals are now held throughout the year in many major cities.  The festivals offer many distinct whiskies along with “off the shelf bottles.” Unfortunately, rare bottles don’t usually make an appearance. These festivals, for some, are used to drink to excess. The bon vivant does his or her homework ahead of time and narrows the serious tasting to no more than six or so samples.  After that the palate glazes over and the nuances fade, limiting the learning curve. Of course, food and water between drinks helps negate the glazing over. Practicality for one’s own palate should be considered.

my books
Reading a variety of whisky books will open your world to possibilities.

International purveyors of independently bottled whiskies, such as Vom Fass of Germany, extend the reach to the rare and one-of-a-kind bottles. For those who are cultivating their whisky palate, Vom Fass provides customers the opportunity to taste any of its whisky before purchasing.  And when they are gone, they are truly gone. A prime example took place during a Master Class by Jack Teeling of Teeling Distillery in Dublin at the Sarasota, Florida Vom Fass store. Jack explained that the four Irish whiskey expressions currently for sale at Vom Fass are from stock at his previously owned Cooley Distillery, which was recently bought by Beam Suntory. That stock is no longer available. The message is if you find a special edition or rare bottle you enjoy, buy it.

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I see myself as an enthusiast and never use the terms expert or bon vivant. While I have tasted more than 400 whiskies, I contend that the learning continues.  Yet, overtime the palate develops, preferences for certain whisky profiles emerge, and discussions about whisky elevates to more than “Ya, I like it while munching on a chip.” For me, bon vivant is a quest!

Though most everyone considers Scotch the classic single malt whisky, other countries are producing exceptional whiskies, with more distilleries opening globally at a surprising pace.  There is indeed a whisky renaissance in progress with opportunities to taste what might just become the next classic. The bon vivant quietly assumes a position of awareness and relevance, and appreciates the best there is to offer in the world of all that is whisky.

Start your own quest, stay humble, live edgy and drink good whisky!