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!

 

 

 

Notes from a Master Class: Laphroaig Bursts Forth

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The rugged lineup of Laphroaig. Bring it on!

The night was not for the timid palates nor the empty wallets. The night was prime time for those of us who seek out peat and ash and the rare and exquisite in an intimate setting will fellow enthusiasts. The night was buzzing with excitement.

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Nate Shumway. And is that a halo from heaven shining on Joe Howell?

Joe Howell of Federal Wine & Spirits and Nate Shumway of The Olde Mouldy led this private event with humor and historical factoids.  Opening toasts acknowledged Laphroaig’s celebration of 200 years of Islay whisky and for keeping America flush with whisky for “medicinal” purposes during the Great Prohibition.  Hundreds of projected photos of all that is Islay rotated in the background throughout the tasting, causing sighs of longing, memories, and shared plans for upcoming visits. I miss Islay – the blustery wind, the surf on the rugged shores, the fields with cows and sheep, and the distilleries all within easy reach no matter where one sits on the island.

The ubiquitous Laphroaig 10 YO kicked off the tasting as folks settled in and the presenters set the tone for the night. The 10 YO is not the whisky to offer anyone who generally drinks fruity white wine (ouch but true), with its big peat nose, and rough and rumble over the tongue. Put a robust cigar in hand, and there, you have a match. I offer a 2+ out of a possible score of 4.

Some of us have a few bottles of the Laphroaig 15 YO from the early 2000s and were curious as to what the 15 YO expression created for the 200th anniversary would offer.  The color is deeper than the 10 YO and the nose offers more ash and toffee. The taste brings forth a briny, ashy, iodine rush that is smoother and lingers longer with a smoky finish. A 3- score for this release.

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Taking pics, texting notes, tasting awesome whisky, grinning all the way.

After a short break to rest the palate, the much anticipated 30 YO with its Olorosso Sherry, took the tasting to a higher level.  This gem holds a fruity nose compliments of the sherry. The mouth feel is thick and syrupy with a hint of cinnamon; the peaty iodine takes a back seat. The finish brings back the sweet sherry.  When I went back to the dram the nose reminded me of wooden match sticks. Hidden Sulphur peeking? The gem is a 3+.

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Spelling errors don’t count after three whiskies!

The 40 YO, which is lovingly described as a “beautiful juice” by Joe, and is no longer available anywhere, made its grand entrance. Its red carpet reputation did not disappoint.  There is a whiff of springtime and hints of Laphroaig. If the 30 is syrupy then the 40 is lightly spicy. The natural cask strength adds an earthiness at the finish. I saved some of the 30 to compare with the 40 and, for me, the 30 edges out the 40 ever so slightly.  The 40 is beautiful with a score of 3.

And we weren’t done yet! Much has been already written about the 2015 Cairdeas. Word is that this expression was modelled on the 1960s 10 YO. I have and enjoy the 2013 bottling and wasn’t sure what to expect with the 2015. The nose is deceptively mild, the dram is bursting with peat and smoke. Love it and the long lingering finish.  A solid 3 for this baby.

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Look at that deep, rich color of the 1969 10 YO. Significant!

To test the similarities, the 1969 Laphroaig 10 YO was up next. This last dram of the master class, totally puzzled me. I didn’t get the Cairdeas at all.  The color is deep and rich. The nose brings me back to Glasgow and the malting aroma that is often in the air. Boiling potatoes pop into mind. The thick fruit and overripe raisins on the palate are too much for me. I wrote two scores in my notes a 3- and a 2+.  Still can’t decide.

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Ames St. Deli Charcuterie to round out the night.

The master class met all my expectations and then some.  Unexpectedly, Joe announced to the group that my book, Whisky Tales: Tastings and Temptations, has been published. He then asked me to say a few words of self-promotion, which naturally I jumped at the chance.  A few books were sold and deeper discussions with other participants ensued at the end of the tasting. Pleasures that are total surprises are the best!

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I raise a glass to Joe and Nate and the distinct whiskies of Laphroaig.

I wrote the book as a promise to myself to put pen to paper about my whisky journey and “barrels” of fun! Gotta have some flagrant self-promotion once in a while.

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When Friends and Enthusiasts Gather

We Tweet, we Instagram, we Facebook, we blog but nothing compares to sitting around a table or two with fellow enthusiasts over a few drams of as-yet-to-be-tasted whiskies. The enthusiasts may be whisky curious, collectors, experts or everywhere in between, but with a glass in hand robust conversations bloom into an evening of exhilaration and camaraderie. Such was a recent evening with current and new friends.

There is nothing so tempting as a line of great whiskies!
There is nothing so tempting as a line of great whiskies!

The quasi-bar was lined with 20 different bottles comprised of American, Canadian, Indian, Japanese and Scotch whiskies. The whiskies were primarily from the top shelf, back of the cabinet, hidden under the stairs, or saved for a special rainy day editions.

More than the usual suspects were tippling so I sat with a mix of longtime enthusiasts, bourbon fans, and the curious. There were no braggarts which allowed for very free flowing takes on all the whiskies and spirits tasted. All the pours were purposely kept small so that everyone would have a chance to try something new or preferred; and it helped alleviate the getting-too-buzzed-too-quickly scenario. Well, it helped me anyway; others generally are able to “hold their liquor” much better than I. I did have to drive home.

After studying and re-studying the scotches, I begrudgingly narrowed my tasting to three, keeping in mind that I wanted stark differences between each.

  • I started with a Glen Grant 1992, 22 YO, 57.8%, bottled by Single Malts of Scotland. After the alcohol burst, I found the palate a bit underwhelming and safe, the finish did bring out some hay and the empty glass offered hint of almond. Knowing that I prefer big flavors, this dram only received a score of “2” out of a possible “4” from me.
  • Longing for the peat that Laphroaig is known for, I tasted the Laphroaig, 11 YO, bottled for Friends of Laphroaig in 2004 at 40%. The nose promised the peat, yet, surprisingly, the palate touched upon some sea brine and built quite slowly to a soft ash finish. Going back to nose the empty glass, I found some ripe bananas. I called this dram quite low key for a Laphroaig. I scored it a “2+”.
  • On a friend’s knowledgeable suggestion I tried the Bowmore 17 YO, 1993, 53.7% bottled by Thosop. To my amazement, notes of tropical fruit pushed back the high alcohol and surrounded the entire taste. Thrilling to be stopped short by a new-to-me bottle. This was my winner for the night with a score of “3-.”
A rare sighting. I must taste both - soon!
A rare sighting. I must taste both – soon before they vanish forever!

The two I didn’t try, but will if they show up the next time the group gathers, are at the highest end of the rare spectrum so I want a clear head and clean palate before I go all in. The first is a Karuizawa, Cask #869, bottled for K&L, 13 YO, 1999, 57.7%, from Karuizawa, Island of Honshu, Japan. The notes offered stated: Now sadly dismantled, this remote Japanese distillery, nestled onto the side of an active volcano, quietly made the greatest heavily sherried single-malt in the world. And no one knew it until they were gone. Bacon-wrapped dates, balsamico, scallops seared in butter, black cherry soda, shiitake, tamari.

The second, also a Karuizawa, Cask #1985, 40 YO, 1970, 59.1%. The notes: Typically matured exclusively in sherry casks, this rare, bourbon-cask-matured Karuizawa provides valuable insight into the legendary distillate. Smoked maple, heathery peat, mulch, sage, gooseberry, rose jam, lychee, guava, cherry blossom.

Sleek, classic, and hard to find.  Pontiac antique auto. Reminds me of fine whisky.
Sleek, classic, and hard to find. Pontiac antique auto. Reminds me of fine whisky. I swoon.

As many of us whisk(e)y enthusiasts lament, “so much whisky, so little time.” Having the opportunity to taste the rare, the unusual, as well the expensive-but-when-its-gone-its-gone whiskies is like a gift from heaven.

I raise a glass to friends and fellow enthusiasts and their willingness to share their whisky and their knowledge.

 

 

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.