Whisky Tasting Brings New Meaning to Family Time

Many of the whisky tastings that I host are for strangers, be it fee-for-service clients, silent auction winners, or various fund raisers. Always interesting spending a couple of hours with new people; and I tend to be in “professional” mode and performing. My modus operandi stays fairly consistent: grab their attention, offer top shelf whiskies, provide some take home materials and own the room. Everyone leaves happy, more informed about whisk(e)y and, perhaps, brought over to the dark side…..

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Yes, the Pilgrims landed in Provincetown before moving on to Plymouth

This past weekend I was in Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts for my niece’s wedding. Ceremony on the dunes, pig roast back at the rented party house for about 40 adults and a smattering of young children. My own adult children were in attendance and this was a perfect opportunity to host a whisky tasting for them…no one had to drive and babies could be tucked safely into bed. The Masthead Resort & Cottages, where we were all staying, was right on the beach, offered spectacular views of the bay and a relaxing setting for a family whisky tasting.

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View from the Masthead Resort & Cottages

Nine of us gathered including the new brides. Four of the nine, including myself, were familiar with scotch. Well, true, I am more than familiar! The remaining five were more or less new to whisky, several were excited to try but stated serious doubts…you know the ones who tend to prefer white wine. It’s OK, the whisky palate does take a while to develop, and not everyone will (shocking!) come to prefer whisky as their go-to drink.

I did spend some time thinking through which whiskies I should bring to the tasting. I wanted a spectrum that would showcase peat, no peat, sherry casks, light, bold, and American. Plus, this wasn’t going to be the occasion to pour the $100 plus bottles. Yet, wanted more than the everyday $30 to $50 range whiskies and no blends.

What I always find intriguing about pulling together four different whiskies is how the varied flavors impact each other in unexpected ways: sometimes good, sometimes not so much. The tasters immediate reactions to each pour and their comments about the nose, palate, and finish teach me more about the whiskies and how to proceed with explanations and descriptions throughout the tasting.

Thus, my selection was set to go!

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First up, Bushmills 16 YO Irish single malt. My reasoning for choosing this whiskey for the tasting and for being the first dram was based on three factors: 1) being matured in bourbon, oloroso sherry and port wine casks spelled sweet and friendy to me; 2) the combination of being 40% alcohol and 16 YO would not overwhelm with an alcohol burn; and, 3) I thoroughly enjoy this expression.

The first time tasters immediately gasped at the alcohol taste. One said this is what he thought whisky would taste like – alcohol smell and taste. I listened to additional comments and nurtured their expectations by asking each one to taste and re-taste to try to understand what flavors came to mind and finally to save a little in their glass so it could be compared to whisky number two.

Number two was the oft-touted and award winning American Westland Peated Single Malt. The peat was quite evident on the nose and mellower on the palate. Everyone recognized the smokiness and it stunned several people who had no idea the flavor of peat and smoke could be tasted in a “drink.” When folks went back to #1, eyes widened and amazement stated on how different the whiskies were and how the sweetness of #1 now came through. The more experienced whisky drinkers were fairly quiet to this point in the tasting. They were gearing up for the two remaining heavy hitters.

A wedding, a whisky tasting, a summer weekend of noshing, swooning over my favorite ice cream hot fudge sundae, shell collecting and most of all…treasured family time.

“In order to write about life, first you must live it.”  Ernest Hemingway
After a bit of a break and general discussion about whisky, I poured #3 the Laphroaig Cairdeas Port Wood Edition 2013. Laphroaig states that this is one to “be savoured” and I whole heartedly agree. I chose this beauty because it offered a real smack of peat balanced by a deep rich flavor from the port. The perfect example of a big scotch whisky. Whereas the Bushmills offered sherry and port and the Westland offered the peat, the Cairdeas combined the sweet and peat and brought it to an exceptional level.  It did manage to intimidate a few of the tasters. To highlight the potential of going deeper with the flavor and removing some of the intimidation, I handed out Lindt 70% dark chocolate. Tasters said it toned down the peat and opened up the richness of the whisky.

 

I mentioned at the start of the evening while giving an overview of the four whiskies that #4 had “changed my life”, at least in the way that I consider the spirit of whisky. Feeling relaxed after three pours the group was more than ready to proceed to the Balcones Brimstone. Blue corn and Texas scrub oak smoked are not familiar “whisky” terms for us Scotch whisky drinkers. Brimstone boasts both and is audaciously in your face with its unique taste.

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Palates were cleaned, new glasses readied, the pour distributed. I waited. The roar of the crowd burst across the room. Brimstone is different! To add to the experience we sampled Vosges dark chocolate with bacon. This chocolate is a decadent treat out of Chicago and  coupled well with this Texas original. The Brimstone made an impact and was a fitting end to the formal segment of the tasting.

It was time to calculate the preferences. I quickly thought of my undergrad statistics class and fortunately for everyone the thought passed. As we all know, numbers can be manipulated to say most anything, and for this tasting I broke the number down into three categories: 1) overall preferences; 2) preferences of the four who had some level of whisky drinking experience; 3) preferences of the five who were completely new or minor level of whisky drinking experience.

Overall winners:

  • Brimstone ranked either first or second by eight of the nine tasters
  • Laphroaig was a distant second choice
  • Westland ranked either third or fourth by eight of the nine tasters

Preferences of the four some level of experience tasters:

  • Three of the four ranked Brimstone and Laphroaig either first or second
  • Westland was the first choice of one of this group of tasters

Preferences of the new/minor level tasters:

  • Bushmills was ranked first by three of the five and second by the other two
  • Brimstone was ranked second by three of the five
  • Westland and Laphroaig ranked third or fourth all five

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I was stunned by the clear top ranked choice of Brimstone and not surprised at all by the high ranking of Bushmills. The new tasters did not care for the peated Westland nor the Laphroaig while the experienced drinkers overwhelmingly enjoyed both the Brimstone and the Laphroaig. Interestingly enough, I actually went back for the Laphroaig when the formal segment of the tasting was over.

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I promise you that none of my glasses had a trace of whisky remaining

Everyone enjoyed their little foray into the world of whisky so much so that I am rolling around ideas for the next one. Again, the tasting did not disappoint; one never knows which way the rankings will go. Was it Spock who raised his eyebrows and exclaimed “fascinating?”

Whisky is an ever evolving beverage. Mood, atmosphere, weather, company, food all play into the experience for the taster/drinker. We all hear almost way-too-often that whisky is the “water of life” but I’m offering that it is a true joie de vivre (exuberant enjoyment of life.)

One last note for the PC people looking intently at the photo collage, Mommy with the toddler didn’t imbibe and little Garrett was safely tucked into bed after my introduction segment of the tasting. We abide by drinking responsibly.

I raise a glass to new experiences and learning while on the whisky path!

 

 

 

American Whiskies: Hard to Keep Up

The explosion of American Whiskies is being written about and discussed at every turn. On a recent trip to Texas I saw at least three highway billboards during the three hour drive between Houston and Austin advertising a local distillery. Yes, hard to keep up. As a whisky enthusiast, the thrill is in the hunt, the tasting and the sharing. So, as I pick up new bottles here and there, conjuring up whisk(e)y tastings for friends starts percolating. Should the American tasting be focused exclusively on bourbons, single malts, ryes, blue corn? The list feels endless. Oh the fun yet to be had!

I had a dentist appointment this week, which means to those who follow me, a whisky tasting after all the drilling and cleaning has been completed. On his own Dr. Paul doesn’t usually stray too far from single malt scotch, in which I find no fault. Yet, he is always open to trying something new from my stash (smart man); and I can’t drink it all. For this week, I selected American Whiskies as the theme….in an attempt to keep up with the trends all the while pretending to be hip. (Do people still say “hip”?)

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The willing accomplice. Don’t look…plastic cups!

 

The bottles chosen for this “event” are not rare nor priced over $100 each. As it turns out my copy of the summer issue of Whisky Advocate arrived the day before the tasting. There is an interesting article written by Jake Emen called “The Rise of the American Single Malt.” Perfect timing! I immediately switched out one whisky on my list with one mentioned in the article and packed the magazine in my not-so-discrete carrying case.

Dr. Paul brought in two bottles: a Highland Park 18 YO and an Irish Yellow Spot 12 YO. I arranged the now six bottles in the order of tasting and the serious business of imbibing at 12:30 pm on a Tuesday began in earnest. Naturally, somewhat through the tasting Dr. Paul’s wife called knowing he was working only a half day. We have never met but she has long since been resigned to the fact that twice a year there is whisky and women in the office. Well, this time we spoke and I encouraged her to join us sometime and partake in all the foolishness.  She laughed and said, “I don’t drink whisky and I see Paul acting foolish every day.” With that, we got back to business.

My ranking system is simple: 1=don’t buy, don’t drink  2=fair, middle of the road 3=good, very good-buy it 4=OMG, must have at any cost (well almost any cost)

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Yellow Spot a sweet and gentle precursor

 

 

The let’s get warmed up dram was the Irish Yellow Spot. I have a bottle of one of the Green Spot expressions but this was a first taste for me with the Yellow. Yup, it is Irish…light and spicy, easy to please, good to have around during the warmer months as opposed for the dead of New England winter. I rank this a strong 2+, can’t quite give it a 3-, personal preference wins out over objectivity.

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Young yet

 

First up was a local single malt distilled by Ryan & Wood in Gloucester, MA. “The single malt starts off with a hint of sweet and finishes with a touch of grain. It is light and feathery and makes a nice summer dram.” This is what I wrote a few months back after a visit to the distillery and sampling several of their products. After tasting this week I am modifying my opinion a bit…while it might work in a cocktail, on its own it is too mild for me and a bit off putting with a cardboard like finish. Somehow the grain finish didn’t come forth for me this time. I rank it a 2- at best.

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I wonder who else ranks these Americans equally high

 

Next up was the well respected Clear Creek Distillery’s McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt. I admit to not being impressed with this whiskey when I first tasted it in 2010. Let’s just say I have grown in understanding more of the nuances of whisky. There is a subtle sense of the peat on the nose, a touch of peach on the palate and a sprinkle of ash in the finish. I would certainly go back for seconds this time around! I rank it a 3-.

Not to be undone by a fellow West Coast whiskey, the McCarthy’s was followed by a Washington state Westland Peated Single Malt. This one is fruitier on the nose, perhaps pear. A tip-toe of peat and sherry on the palate and a smooth and lingering smoky grain on the finish. Hmm, the two West Coast editions are neck and neck here. I am leaning towards the Westland. I rank this a proud 3-.

We stopped at this point, I spoke to the wife, as mentioned above, and we chatted for a while before cracking the Highland 18 YO. I have tasted this bottle before, and I am not a genuine fan but can appreciate its appeal. All my previous notes call it a “middle of the road” whisky. That is not a bad thing. You know what I rank this one.

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Brimstone such a fitting name

 

Finally it was time for the extra kick during the business of tasting in a dentist’s office! I pulled out the Texas Balcones Brimstone.  I wrote about this last month and exclaimed, “it has changed my life.”  No, it is not everyone’s idea of a whisky. For me it is a blast of excitement, unabashed whimsy, popcorn and campfires in an old Western movie that has gone from black and white to full glorious color. Dr. Paul agrees.  I have won another over to the new American Whisky side. And, yes, Balcones spells it “whisky.” I rank it a 4 out of 4 – a rare rank from this fussy old bird.

American whiskies are proving to be carving out a sometimes bumpy and sometimes thrilling new path for those of us on a whisk(e)y journey. My walking shoes are always ready as I try to keep up the pace.

A couple of hours had passed, another whisky tasting adventure wrapped up and an appointment set for the end of 2016. I believe the theme will be independent bottlers. Yum.

I raise a glass to whisky. ‘Nuf said.

 

 

Happy Hoopla in Texas

Many of us have experienced the not-so-fun in-laws family get together. Yet, how many of us have had the not-so-fun turn into happy hoopla! So went my recent extended weekend for a college graduation and grandpa’s 90th birthday celebration in Houston and Austin, Texas.

Texas symbol

Travelling from Boston, MA to Houston, Texas, was already a culture shock to the system: Tex-Mex on every corner, only to be outdone by guns and rifles. Add in 14 in-laws, cousins, friends, NON-drinkers and strangers and the potential for disaster teetered on the brink.

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Upon arrival, Tiff and I were met by her niece Anthea and whisked off to lunch at Gringos for our first local taste of Tex-Mex.  Delicious. Shortly afterwards we met up with some of the in-laws and received a warm welcome. 

Not far behind was the arrival of the 2016 red Corvette convertible – all shiny and driven by a young French blonde – Perle, a friend of Anthea. Tiff and I are known as the party people (PP1 and PP2); Anthea has graduated to PP3 and Perle, this weekend solidified her status as PP4.

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There were lots of pictures with the corvette; then Perle and I headed out for a spin around the block and a must needed stop at a liquor store for some local whisky. After the white knuckle ride, I was more than ready for a stiff drink.  The liquor store was small and the pickings were slim, so I bought a bottle of Texas produced and bottled, Rebecca Creek whiskey. Assuming that the whiskey would be on the lighter side, I grabbed a bottle of peach brandy and maraschino cherries. No bitters were to be found.

The group was meeting for the evening at Grandpa’s house. All he had was a mix of wine glasses in which to make my Rebecca Creek Surprise cocktail.  I mixed 2 shots of Rebecca and a ½ shot of the peach, added a cherry and a dash of the cherry liquid. Added lots of ice and the party was on.  Dinner was Vietnamese Banh Mi Thit sandwiches. Smiles abounded.

TXBanhMiDrinks

Friday morning the troops gathered and the caravan left for the 3 plus hour drive to Austin, Texas. Along the way we stopped for the locally popular kolaches at Hruska’s Bakery in Ellinger. We ate the sausage and jalapeno kolaches before I could snap a pic! The sweet kolaches were equally yummy for those of us with a sweet tooth.

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The WOW factor kicked in when we arrived at our destination – a rental home on Lake Travis. Perched high on a hill overlooking the lake I felt as though I was transported to Lake Como, Italy – a world away from Texas. The hills around Austin are nowhere near the stereotype of flat, hot Texas cowboy country.

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Nice house, OK, time to jump in the Vette and find some more whisky to get us through the two nights in Austin.  Perle had to cross two lanes of fast moving Texas traffic buzzing in each direction. I gave myself up to a higher authority and somehow lived to talk about it.  Let’s just say this car is very, very fast and the driver very, very heavy footed. Again, the local liquor store was paltry. I really wanted to buy Balcones Brimstone, but, nothing.  I did manage to score a bottle of Aberfeldy 21 YO on sale and was quickly appeased.  A bottle of Bulleit bourbon was added to the shelf with several Fuente Gran Reserva cigars for the late night agenda.

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A few of the men purchased local beer – Austin Amber Beer, Big Bend, Shiner Bock and nitrogenated cold coffee – Black and Blue. All sorts of snacks filled the table and the party was on.  Grandpa was surprised and thrilled with his chocolate decadent cake and Perrier-Jouët champagne and all was well in the party house.

Saturday morning was graduation day from University of Texas, Austin, for niece Kimmy. Afterwards, some of us spent the afternoon playing mahjongg (and gambling) and a few went to shoot guns. Not me – ever! The graduate returned from an afternoon out for another cake – this one with raspberries and pistachio and more chocolate decadence – as well as more champagne. Kerlin BBQ supplied the food – brisket, pulled pork, sausages and all the fixings. Veuve Clicquot, the champagne.

Sunday came too soon and it was time to pack up the troops and head back to Houston and home across the country and Europe. 

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Oh ya, there was a small incident with the Vette, the blonde and Genesis driver, who we will call Sam. Naturally, there was competition between Perle and Sam regarding their fast cars and who was the better speed driver. They finally went out Saturday night for a drive in the Vette. Next thing we know is a text from someone else saying the Vette was pulled over by the police. No surprise. Who was driving, no surprise there either.  About an hour later the Vette pulls up, Sam enters the house first and says “excuse me I need to change my underwear.” He was kidding but the police stop happened.  Rumor has it the car was travelling about 140mph when the police were spotted; the car slowed.  The policeman pursued and pulled them over then walked up to the driver’s side and very nicely said, “I didn’t think I would catch up to you. You were going 97mph.” The French blonde, “I was? I am not from here and I am trying to get my friend back to the house, he is not well.” Sam was indeed sweating and pale, but not from illness but from being stopped by the police. The blonde, “it is just a rental and I don’t really know how to drive it.” Police, “Do you know that this car costs than $70,000?” “No, really? Officer can you tell me how to get back to my house?” “Of course, now do be careful driving home.” “Thank you, bye.”

It’s true, blondes do have more fun and get away with all kinds of shi#!? And this  Corvette driving blonde appreciates good whisky. That a girl! No wonder we now call you PP4!

 TXBrimstone

But, after five days of happy hoopla and in-laws, it is good to be home. Tonight I think I’ll have the Balcones Brimstone, at least I can purchase it in New England.

The three whiskies: Rank of 1 – don’t buy ever, to a 4 – buy all that you can its perfect.

  • Rebecca Creek, Texas. Privately owned – I rank it a 2. Easy sipping. It was perfect for mixing as a cocktail. Someone said, “more like a Canadian blend than a bourbon.” I agree
  • Bulleit Bourbon, Kentucky. Part of the Diageo portfolio – I rank it a 2+. Nice rye spiciness.
  • Aberfeldy 21 YO Scotch whisky. Owned by Dewar’s – I rank it a 3+. Rich, Delicious, hint of sweet.

The beers, cold coffee and champagnes, well, I’ll leave it up to you to decide, I have no clue. I tasted, I sipped, I went back to the Aberfeldy.

I raise a glass to happy hoopla, good whisky, and coming home. A special thanks to all who spent time planning the weekend. Awesome job!