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.

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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!

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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!

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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 a 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!

Whisky Envy Appeased

I was listening to a news broadcast the other day in which millennials were being slammed for being self-absorbed, in need of immediate gratification, impatient, and so on – none of which sounded very good.  Then I realized that is me – though the age difference is substantial – when it comes to my wanting to have all the whisky I read about, hear about, dream about, and taste. Social media has created a monster in me!  I am following a number of whisky enthusiasts, experts, fans who write about their experiences in a manner that would make my 7th grade English teacher proud. Although, she was a Catholic nun and more than likely frowned upon imbibing any spirits, unless it involved the Holy Spirit and mass on Sunday. I digress. This same group of whisky folks seems to always have hard-to-find whisky on hand, or just delivered, or be in the throes of visiting a renowned distillery. Imagine! The next thing I know, low and behold the whisky monster in me begins to rear its envious head.  Poor me. I am alone with my collection of 160 + bottles. I have nothing. See, the broadcast was not really talking about millennials but me.

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Julio’s Liquors has a fantastic tasting room in Westborough, Massachusetts. The room oozes whisk(e)y!

Just when the veil of gloom and doom was about to surround me and pull into the well of despair, Julio’s Liquors Whisk(e)y Roadshow 2015 appeared in my inbox. I can get to the Roadshow! I don’t have to be so dramatic! I scoured the list of participating distilleries/distributers and found at least a dozen that I have been wanting to taste. Two of us jumped into the car Saturday afternoon and took off. Tippling time!

Brenne waiting for her moment\

Brenne was in the house.  A tease before Allison Patel’s appearance on September 30th with the eagerly anticipated Brenne 10.

I scanned the room and  narrowed the must try list down to six, I did have to drive an hour plus to get back home. The pours were small but enough to get a sense of each whisky. I managed to scribble simple, quick tasting notes.

My system goes from 1 – never buy, don’t drink, 2 – fair, 3 very good – buy it, 4 – OMG, must have at any cost (well almost any cost.)

Gordon & MacPhail (GMP) Benromach 15 YO

Although this is a Speyside whisky, revitalized by GMP, I am always inclined to call it a Lowland whisky due to its lighter presentation.  This 15 YO is no different, I think of a light medium keel, middle of the road and safe whisky.  I’m an Islay fan so my opinion always slants in that direction. I give this a 3- because it is a safe whisky to have on hand for those who are new to the spirit.

GMP Benromach Peat Smoke

After my lips regained their feelings, and the punch of peat subsided from blasting the inside of my mouth, I chased the taste with some water and ended up amazed that Benromach could deliver like this. The numbing of my lips tilted me towards awarding a 2+ score.

Glendronach 15 YO Tawny Port

Yes, I did say I am an Islay fan, but the rich, thick seek port eased itself into my heart. The full and fruity finish lingered ever so nicely.  I gave this a 3+ only because I was hoping to find a 4 during the afternoon.

Glendronach 18 YO

Although the 18 YO comes with a bigger price tag – almost twice as much as the Tawny Port, I was disappointed. I felt thinner somehow. I should have tried the Tawny Port first. I give it a 2+ with apologies.

The Maltman Linkwood 18 YO

Not my cup of tea. I got that soapy burn that seems to pop up now and again. Sadly 2-.

The Maltman Ben Nevis 17 YO

The sherry cask presents itself nicely, then fades. Decent with a 3- score.

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Unfortunately, lately Ardbeg only brings the 10 YO, Corryvreckan, and Uigeadail to tastings.  All excellent, and the Corryvreckan is a 4 for me, but I want to try something different from their portfolio. It’s not like they don’t have any other expressions. Geez!

To round out the day, I jumped the figurative ocean and decided to try a few American products. I rarely mix single malt and bourbons at tastings but we had  burgers and fries provided by the Roadshow that acted as buffers between the two styles of whiskies.

Heaven Hill Distillery has been making bourbon for a very long time and is well respected by bourbon drinkers.  Along with four other whiskies, they offered the Henry McKenna 10 Single Barrel Bottled in Bond. Bottled in Bond labelling has begun to hit the labels again. It dates back to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. It’s bottled at 100 proof, aged at least four years in a USA federally bonded warehouse and produced in a single distillery season at a single distillery. I could sip this bourbon and never have to make a cocktail with it to mask its flavor. Show me a 3.

Lastly, I wanted to try a local distillery, somebody just starting out and producing a whisky that is distinct.  I found the New England Distillery, founded in 2011 and producing rye, gin and rum in Portland, Maine.  Gin and rum is big in the New England region – lots of rum runners dating back to pre-Revolutionary days who seem to have inspired a new flock of distillers. Tim Fisher, the head distiller (no lofty title here), offered me a fine pour of his Gunpowder rye. Spicy, fresh, hints of chocolate.  I found my 4.  OK, rye is not single malt but damn it still tasted mighty fine.

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I do love my Swally Shirt. Whisky fans are always commenting on it.

Along the way I met Jeff Robertson, owner of Caledonia Fine Arts Co. Tours, looking dashing in his kilt.  Made me want to sign up for his tour right then and there.

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Between the two of us we bought seven bottles of whiskies. Not too shabby!

My millennial whisky monster had been appeased by a dram good afternoon.  Between the two of us, we walked away with Glendronach 15 YO Tawny Port, Benromach Peat Smoke, The Maltman Ben Nevis 17 YO, Gunposder Rye, Henry McKenna 10 YO Single Barrel BIB, and somehow a High West Bourbon and a very special SMWS 4.198 Pigs in Plaster.

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This description grabbed a hold of me and wouldn’t let go until I bought a bottle. Well done Pigs in Plaster!

Next week I tame the beast again at a Master Class by Joe Howell featuring Laphroaig expressions. I watched the Laphroaig Live this past week which helped ramp up the excitement level about the Master Class. Stay tuned for tasting notes.

I raise a glass to all the folks on Twitter and Instagram whose whisky passion spurs me on to learn more about whisky and to write about my passion.

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!