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.
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!
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!
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!
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!