Category Archives: Richard’s Blog

Extravaganza

Oh the joys of the well put together whiskey event. As many regular readers know, I live in Atlanta. Unfortunately, Atlanta is not known for its happening whiskey scene. This is why I was understandably very excited about last nights Single Malt Scotch Whisky Extravaganza. It wasn’t quite WhiskeyFest but until Mr. Hansell decides to host one down here (hint, hint) it’s the best we’ve got in Georgia. And it was pretty damn good too!This particular event was held in the Venetian Ballroom at the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead. It was a very nice location and easily accessible by highway, surface street, and rail transit. Registration started at 6:30 PM and when I rolled in around that time there was already a line. They processed us pretty quickly and even though the event wasn’t supposed to officially start until 7:00 PM they let us in a little early.

The event space and whiskey selection is about a third of what you’d find at WhiskeyFest NY but the crowd was about a fifth the size. As WhiskeyFest’s popularity has grown in recent times it’s begun to get a little too crowded. Last night’s event was a good change of pace. There were plenty of people there but we weren’t shoulder to shoulder.

The whiskies on offer numbered close to 100. They ranged from Dewar’s White Label to Highland Park 30 Year Old. I was particularly excited about getting to try The Glenlivet XXV and Glenmorangie Astar. The Glenlivet was phenomenal but the Astar wasn’t available in Georgia yet so we had to settle for the Signet release, of which I was also excited about.

A quick note on the whiskies: I didn’t try everything. For smaller, more directed tastings try everything. For larger events like this you have to be focused. First, you don’t want to end up a crawling drunk by the end of the night. Second, palate fatigue is a serious problem after the first 15 or 20 drams. Finally, just because it’s in your glass doesn’t mean you have to drink it all. They have split/pour buckets for a reason just like a wine tasting. I hit a couple of my personal favorites but for the most part I tried to focus on whiskies I hadn’t tried yet. I think I sampled between 25 and 30 last night.

The food was a wonderful buffet of pasta, side dishes, carving stations, and coffee with dessert. Top notch all the way.

Did I mention the cigars? Included with the whisky, free tasting glass, and the food we each got a cigar goodie bag. Included were selections from Romeo y Julieta, Saint Luis Rey, and Playboy Cigars.

Here are some of the evening’s highlights:

Best Whiskies (that I tried)
Glenlivet XXV – Simply unrivaled
Highland Park 30 Year – As good as you think it is, it is better
Chivas Regal 25 Year – Impossible to put down
Yamazaki 18 Year – If you haven’t had the pleasure, you should
Dewar’s Signature – A case study in balanced whisky

Best Food
Duck Confit Ravioli
It was freakin’ awesome

Best Representative
Laphroaig
Their rep was a true personality. We were like a group of old drinking buddies by the end of the night. He told stories, gave tips, made toasts, and fired up a huge peat block with a blow torch. Did I mention he gave us all Laphroaig peated barley to chew on?

Most Notable Personality
Ronnie Cox, Director of Glenrothes
There were mostly reps and distributors working most of the tables but Ronnie was there and he was a really cool guy to meet.

Best Freebie
Dewar’s Flask
The lovely ladies working the Dewar’s table gave away really nice 4 ounce hip flasks to everyone. If only they’d let me fill it up with Signature it would’ve been even better!

All in all, it was a great event. The $130 ticket price could have been $200 and still been a deal. Hopefully, I’ll see some of you there next year.

Cheers,
Richard

How did you find whiskey?

I was thinking the other day about how I ended up as a whiskey enthusiast. From there I started thinking back to the founding moments on my journey toward whiskey. The more I thought about it the more I thought that it would make an interesting topic for my next blog. And since turnabout is fair play I figured I’d rope Matt into chiming in on this one too after his “The Best” blog pulled me in for comments.

Richard’s Story:
For me whiskey began with a series of unfortunate events. The first such event was a long time ago and it didn’t begin well. I think I was around 14 years old when I took a nip of my dad’s bottle of Crown Royal. You have to understand that the old man drank Budweiser and Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill on regular occasions so to him the Crown Royal was a special drink. He used to keep it in the little cabinet above the refrigerator. One evening when no one else was home I thought I’d take a bit a little swig. The taste was absolutely awful and it was everything I could do not to spit it out or gag. It went down like bathwater and fire. You may be a big fan of Crown and I‘m not knocking it but to this day I still don’t drink it. Some memories never fade.

The next two incidents had a similar result. The first was my high school girlfriend and I sneaking some of her mom’s Dewar’s. The second was my junior year of college. I had an older roommate who was a big fan of J&B with water. To this day I still don’t drink J&B but Dewar’s has grown on me.

I finally turned the corner right after I finished college. My friend Matt (yes the W.A. Matt) came down from UGA to see me in Atlanta. We stopped in at the liquor store and he talked me into a bottle of Bushmills White Label. From the first sip I was hooked. Matt headed off to Wales for a semester abroad and I dove headlong into researching whiskeys of all varieties. We conversed back and forth and usually it started something like…”if you come across something called Redbreast, you’ve got to bring me some back” which was prior to it being available in the U.S. of course. By the time Matt got back I was hooked, both from a flavor perspective and intellectually. One of my favorite past times continues to be research and knowledge gathering of all things whiskey related.

Matt’s Story:
I don’t know that my whiskey story is all that interesting (at least the one I can tell in mixed company). The short of it is that I didn’t like beer (I’m over that now). I used to go to parties where beer was about the only option. Feeling the need to be drinking something, but not willing to drink something I don’t enjoy, I started looking for a hard liquor option. The first alcoholic beverage that I enjoyed was Southern Comfort (a whiskey liqueur). From there I moved to three of the “Four Js” (Jameson, Jack Daniels, and Jim Beam). Later, I met a madman from Montana who turned me onto some other Irish whiskeys (namely Bushmills and Tullamore Dew). So I called myself an Irish whiskey drinker for a while. I introduced Richard to my way and went off to the University of Wales to discover how deep the well really was. While on Easter holiday, I took to opportunity to visit several distilleries across the U.K. and spent one long morning tasting whiskies and whiskeys with the owner of Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh (go there if you get the chance). The whole experience was very enlightening and deepened my love and understanding for the water of life. When I came home, Richard and I started developing our philosophy and became whisk(e)y apostles.

Ultimately, I liked the way my body handled whiskey and I liked the ritual of it. There is myth and mystique to whiskey. Things like that have always intrigued me. Of course, I have always liked the taste as well. I’ve never been into shots (if you have to shoot it, you shouldn’t drink it). I like to nurse a beverage. Whiskey can mellow a man or it can give him grand thoughts, thoughts of sitting around a camp fire conversing with the old gods. So join me, Richard, Lugh and Arawn. Raise a glass to your health, to all that is knowable and that which is not.

So that’s a little insight into how your Whisk(e)y Apostles started down this ever burgeoning path to liquid nirvana. We’d love to hear your stories about how your journey began either via email or in the comments section of this blog.

Fad Focus #2: Wood Finishes

Today I want to talk about the next part of my multi-part series on the notable fads in whiskey today. I started this series a couple of weeks ago talking about the growing levels of peat used in whiskey production. Today I want to talk about wood finishing.

What is wood finishing you ask? Wood finishing is the process of taking mature whiskey from its aging barrel and putting it into another barrel, hogshead, etc. to impart additional characteristics on the whiskey beyond its normal profile. Barrels that previously held different wines and other spirit are used to varying degrees of success to add some part or character of the barrel’s prior occupant to the new whiskey. Port barrels can add color. Rum barrels can add sweetness. Some of the previously seen variations include Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tokaji, sherry, port, rum, etc.

Glenmorangie was one of the first major pioneers of this technique. They originally came out with a range of 12 year old single malt scotches that included finishes in sherry, port, and burgundy wood among others. Many distilleries, mostly scotch distilleries picked up on this trend as a way to offer new and different varieties of their spirits in a relatively quick amount of time. Remember, for scotch most of their product doesn’t see the light of day for at least 10 years. That’s a long lead time for innovation. Whiskey can be wood finished for any amount of time from around 6 months to 6 years or more. Glenmorangie’s wood finished range spent 10 years as regular Glenmorangie and then spent another two years in wood finishing. Even in their case two years is a lot quicker turn around than ten.

How did all this innovation and creativity turn out? Originally, not too bad. There were and still are a number of products that really did well with wood finishing. One of my personal favorites is the 21 year old Glenfiddich Havana Reserve which was finished in Havana Rum casks. Mmm..tasty stuff. But as with most things, over proliferation leads towards some less than stellar examples. We’ve chided Glenmorangie on their Burgundy Wood finished whiskey and it really was pretty bad. “Was” being the appropriate word because they have since discontinued it. Another humorous example of how far this particular fad went was an attempt a number of years ago to finish scotch in used Tabasco barrels. The resulting product was an undrinkable concoction that was repackaged and sold as condiment called Hot Scotch. Jumping the shark a little? I think so.

So where is wood finishing now? It seems to be on the down swing. There are still a number of products out there, both good and bad that tout wood finishing. There continues to be a few new ones popping up from time to time. However, you may not recognize some of these newer ones. “Wood Finish” has become passé in the scotch industry. The new nomenclature? Glenmorangie, the granddaddy of all wood finishers now refers to their products as “Extra Matured”. My personal favorite is Bruichladdich. They refer to their program by the acronym “A.C.E”, meaning “Additional Cask Enhancement”. Wood finishes aren’t dead yet. This particular fad hasn’t quite played out. What will come in the future? Who knows? One particular bright spot seems to be Buffalo Trace. Bourbon wood finishing? Yep. They have a new line of very limited releases under their Experimental Collection. I have not had the opportunity to try any of these but I hear good things.

So what does all this mean? A wider variety of whiskey to enjoy. That’s never a bad thing. However, as with all whiskeys it is a good idea to try before you buy. Just because you love Glenmorangie’s Original 10 year old doesn’t mean the Burgundy Wood should be a staple of your home bar.

Drink wisely my friends.

– Richard

Taste of… The Collector’s Cabinet

Matt and I have discussed, at length the merits of offering reviews on whiskeys that are no longer available.  The argument against it is that if we review a dram that is out of this world then it would offer nothing to our readers but frustration at not being able to procure such a fine spirit.  This was our stance from the outset of Whisk(e)y Apostle.

As time went by we started thinking about this idea in a different light.  We realized that there is something to offer our readers by reviewing the occasional rare whiskey.  From a collector’s standpoint there are other resources available offering assistance in how collectable or valuable certain whiskeys are but rarely anything on taste. (As a general rule, we here at Whisk(e)y Apostle do not advocate the collecting of whiskey.  It is made to drink after all!)

So if you find a rare bottle of whiskey, how are you to know if it’s worth purchasing for the purpose of consumption?  That’s where we hope to offer what little assistance we can.  Matt and I aren’t exactly rolling in dough so this will not be a regular part of our reviews but we’ll do it whenever we get the opportunity.

To kick us off we thought we talk a wonderful whisky from Compass Box called The Spice Tree.  There is an unfortunate story behind why this great whisky is no longer in production.  I’m not going to reproduce the sad tale here but if you are interested further information can be found here (in the “Past Whiskies” section).

The Spice Tree

Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Formerly produced by Compass Box Whisky Company
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky46% ABV/92 Proof
Discontinued

What the distillery says:

A natural, deep, gold-brown color and a rich nose with spices such as clove and nutmeg, and sweet stewed fruits. Palate is soft, sweet, deep and rich with a malt whisky fruitiness embellished by rich spice. Very long.

What Richard says:

Nose: Scotch rolled in a warm bourbon blanket?  If I didn’t know what this was it would really keep me guessing.  Water opens up the nose to honey and floral sweetness.  Quite lovely.
Palate: The wood is the first and last thing you taste but not in the way you might think.  It’s not the tired over wooded flavor of an over aged whiskey.  It’s more like carrying your dram on a walk through the forest.  It’s a fresher wood taste.  There is a minor honeyed sweetness that almost hides from you.  The spice there but much more understated than the name suggests.  There are a lot of nutty flavors and at the very end of the palate I swear I get a hint of spearmint.
Finish: Much smoother than I expected but that really is par for John Glasser’s work.  Spice, nut, and wood remain after the palate is emptied.  It’s almost like peppered walnut bark.
Comments: As unfortunate as it is, this is a discontinued product. If you happen across a bottle at a reasonable price I would highly recommend picking it up.  I can’t give it a “Must Buy” because of the scarcity but it really deserves top honors.
Rating: Must Try

What Matt says:
Nose: Fox glove honey, caramel, wildflowers, and cardamom.
Palate: Like drinking a nice cup of mulled cider by a fresh cut Christmas tree.  Wood, evergreen, mulling spices, cooked fruit (apples and apricots).  The ultimate ‘comfort’ whisky.  Complex without being uppity.
Finish: Oak, white pepper, and pecan husks linger with a touch of caramel sweetness.  This whisky is incredibly smooth with very little burn on the tongue or in the throat.
Comments: My official rating for this will be a “Must Try” for the reasons that Richard states above.  However, if you see a bottle of this, buy it.  If you see two, let me know.  I will buy the other one.  I love this whisky and lament it’s passing.  When the last drop falls from my bottle, I will shed a tear.
Rating: Must Try

Overall Rating:   Must Try

Closing Comments: A lot of discontinued whiskeys are phased out due unpleasant factors (Glenmorangie Burgundy Wood Finish) or diminished stocks (Ardbeg 17 Year) but the Spice Tree is the unfortunate victim of politics.  There is little lacking in this quality dram.  If you are fortunate enough to come across a bottle or dram, by all means drink up.

Slainte!

Fad Focus #1: Peat

Whisky, like most things goes through phases. Some of these phases are more macroeconomic like the historical boom and bust periods for whisky sales and their impacts on production and distillery openings and closings. Other phases tend to seem more like fads.

fad – noun
a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., esp. one followed enthusiastically by a group

– Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006

Fads are not necessarily a bad thing. All fads aren’t the equivalent of a polyester leisure suit. In whisky fads tend to be inroads to innovation. This blog will be my first in a 3+ part series discussing the various fads in whisky that have come and gone. Today’s focus will be the continued “peatification” (I just made that word up) of whisky in recent years.

What is peat you ask? Peat is an accumulation of decayed or decaying vegetation that typically forms in damp regions that can be cut, dried, and used for fuel. When it comes to whisky, peat can be used in peat fires to dry malted barley that will go into making whisky. At a very basic level this tends to impart a smoky flavor most prevalent in Scotch. Peat taken from coastal areas may also impart a salty or briny flavor in addition to the smoke.

In years past Scotch was easily categorized by its use of peat. Today the degree of peat used in Scotch production varies widely by region and distillery. Islay tends to be known as the powerhouse region for producing peaty whiskies but peat branched out. Connemara Irish Whiskeys use peat and tend to taste more like Scotch than their Irish brethren.

How do we measure how peaty a whisky is? Peat levels are measured by the phenol level in parts per million, usually abbreviated as “ppm”. Phenols are organic compounds imparted on the malted barley when peat is burned to dry the barley. The higher the ppm level is, the more heavily peated the whisky.

So you may be saying “thanks for the history lesson but this has gone on for decades, why is this a fad?” Well, using peat isn’t. The degree to which we’re seeing peat used is. A long time ago in a whisky industry far, far away whiskies were all easily categorized and labeled. Irish was triple distilled and unpeated. Speyside had very little peat (0 to 10ppm lets say). Islay whiskies were heavily peated (20 to 30ppm lets say). Campbeltown and Highland whiskies fell somewhere in the middle. In this land of yore the Speysides were deemed the most desirable because they were easier to drink without all that peat and more closely resembled the famous blends that sold so well. This is partly how brands like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet became the powerhouses that they are today. The more peaty stuff was relegated to aficionados and blends.
Jump a head a few decades and Scotch started seeing a boom in interest. With the boom came the desire for new and differentiated experiences. Those peaty whiskies started getting more attention because they have a more robust flavor.

With me so far? Good because this is where things start to turn the corner. As the push towards peat accelerated we started seeing distilleries releasing peatier and peatier whiskies. At first these whiskies came from their peatier stocks that may have gone into blends before. However, soon they started making their whiskies peatier. From out of nowhere Bruichladdich comes out with Port Charlotte at 40ppm and Ardbeg blasts out with whiskies like their Uigeadail release. Now peat is really kicked into high gear. Then last year Bruichladdich came out with Octomore at whapping 131 ppm.

Let me just say that I like peated whiskies. I like them a lot. Some of my absolute favorite drams are very peaty. But it’s seems that we’re getting to the point where we’re kicking up the peat notch more and more just for the sake of doing it.

I liken it to hot sauce. I love spicy food. I love hot sauce on just about everything to some degree. But there are sauces out there that take the heat to such an extreme that they sacrifice flavor. I worry that Scotch may head in that directions. 131ppm! When will the madness stop?

– Richard