Even Steven: Sherry Bomb vs Peat?

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On occasion the whisky tastings that I lead are purely for my own very not-so-scientific analysis. My palate swings wildly through the whisky spectrum, though I tend to experience a bit of ho-hum with a number of the Highland Region whiskies. Anyway, discovering where guest whisky tasters’ preference lands fascinates me. This past week I served thirteen guests as part of a fundraising event. The group was eclectic… male, female, some new to whisky, some experienced, and some who were willing to drink anything regardless. Chef Peter Davis, of Henrietta’s Table in Cambridge MA, donated delicious appetizers and served through out the evening, keeping us all smiling from ear to ear!

 

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Delectable nibbles leading up to pulled pork sliders! Yum!

The line up included four distinct whiskies, all of which I enjoy and keep in my scotch cabinet: Jack’s Choice, Single Cask Nation Westland 20 YO, The Enduring Spirit, and Lagavulin 16 YO.

The opener and closer for the evening was a rare Irish gem: Jack’s Choice. My intent was to learn if tasters felt the same about the Irish after tasting four other whiskies.

 

jackschoice
Simple bottle: complex whiskey

Jack’s Choice is an 11 YO, 40% alcohol, finished in Sauterne casks. Aptly named “Jack’s Choice” by Jack Teeling, son of original Cooley owner, John Teeling. The expression was bottled by Vom Fass using Cooley stock that remained in the Teeling Family portfolio after Cooley was sold to Beam Suntory. Yes, a rare whiskey.

Description: Big burst of flavor, sophisticated and spicy. Light as with most Irish, wonderful on its own. the sauterne shows in the finish. For more on this whiskey, see an earlier blog that highlighted the Cooley products.

The formal part of the tasting began with the Westland 2 YO. This expression was bottled by Single Cask Nation (Jewish Whisky Co.). As many are aware Westland was recently purchased by Remy Cointreau. To me, the purchase is an obvious signal that Westland, an American Distillery from Seattle Washington, is a solid whisky with room to grow.

Description: At 60% alcohol, and aged in 1st fill Oloroso barrels this whisky is a sherry bomb that blasts at the palate.

Tasters defined the taste: from dirty caramel, rubber, smoke to honey, wood, dark heat

 

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Tasters ready for their drams

The second pour, The Enduring Spirit, comes with a knock out storyline. It is the re-creation blend of bottles found below the ice that belonged to Shackleton’s failed expedition to the South Pole over one hundred years ago.

Description: Grassy, spicy, with thoughts of a Lowland whisky

Tasters defined the taste: clove, spice cake, smooth, pecan butter, fruit

The third pour was a marked shift from the first two. Jura Superstition, found most everywhere, is a constant.

Description: Distilled on the Isle of Jura, just a stones throw from Islay. This is a no age statement 43% alcohol, aged in ex-bourbon barrels. The peat is evident immediately but doesn’t overpower. The spice controls the peat.

Tasters defined the taste: cinnamon, butterscotch, burnt sugar, cinnamon then peat

The fourth pour is my personal longtime favorite to introduce those new to whisky – the Islay classic Lagavulin 16 YO.

Description: 16 YO 43% alcohol, aged in oak casks. Rich and deep with lingering and intense peat that is both smooth and warm.

Tasters defined the taste: from paint, chemical to marshmallow dropped in ash, peat and orange blossom.

Now my not-so-scientific analysis. Tasters used a whisky flavor wheel to help them determine the profiles they experienced. The score sheets were handed out, with some more completed than others. Whisky drinking does bring out the les serious side of note taking!

The Jack’s Choice, the outlier, showed its purity both before and after the formal part of the tasting.  As a side note:  A point to keep in mind, is that I highlighted the fact that this is a hard to find independently bottled whiskey. “Specialness” and “uniqueness” and “high cost”, in my experience, influences tasters thoughts and oft their tasting preferences.

By the numbers: Nine tasters completed their score sheets. Four tasters either gave all the whiskies a four or a one – so these score sheets were not included in the results.

Scoring:  1 = never buy this  2 = Honey, buy this for me, maybe  3 = Yes, buy this for me  4 = Yes, honey buy me two

Westland = 18 points   Lagavulin = 21 points   Enduring Spirit = 22 points   Jura = 24 points

Interesting analysis beyond total points:

  • Westland and Lagavulin either thrilled or insulted tasters.  Both received four “1” scores
  • If a taster gave Westland a “4”, then they gave Lagavulin a “1”. Same for the Lagavulin vs the Westland. Either they loved or hated the peat or sherry. Therein lies the Even Steven!
  • The Enduring Spirit did not receive any “1” score, or any “4”. Steady!
  • My score, not included in the numbers and in relation to each other: Lagavulin = 4 (no surprise), Westland = 3, The Enduring Spirit = 3-, Jura = 2+.

As an added bonus – with the intent to raise more money for the Nahant Council on Aging, I offered tasters a dram of Octomore 1.1 – Yes, the inaugural bottle. Now opened! This beautiful expression wowed the group with its over the top 131 ppm. Jim McEwan during his tenure at Bruichladdich was so far ahead of the curve.

 

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Crack that Octomore 1.1

 

What a delightful evening with enthusiastic tasters and wide range of whiskies. Donations exceeded our expectations, and that my friends fills me with heartfelt thanks.

Tis the season for giving. I raise a glass to those who donate in support of non-profit causes. For me, The Nahant Council on Aging is irreplaceable on our tiny island. Gotta take care of our seniors!

 

 

 

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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”?)

Dr.Paul
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)

YellowSpot
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.

RyanWoodsinglemalt
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.

McCarthyWestland
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.