Wrestling With Peat

I am not usually into peated whiskeys. However, lately I gave Laphroaig 10 another chance and discovered that it wasn’t so bad after all. I can put down Compass Box’s The Peat Monster and not gag. I can even appreciate the Lagavulin 16 every once in a while. However, I have not been able to handle Ardbeg’s super peaty Uigeadail. My Scottish Gaelic is a bit rusty but I alway thought it must mean “sweat from a sheep’s taint.”*

Among whiskey enthusiasts (or at least whiskey writers), I am in the minority. Uigeadail has won several awards and tops everyones ‘Best of…’ list. It does not bother me to disagree with Jim Murray (author of The Whisky Bible). We have very different taste preferences. But when John Hansell of Malt Advocate gives something a high rating, I usually like it.

So, I decided to take my new found appreciation/tolerance for peat down to St. Andrew’s Bar and take another stab at the Uigeadail. When I attended that class with Ethan Kelley last week, he spoke briefly of pairings and recommended pairing peaty whiskies with seafood and Guinness. Plus, yesterday was the 250th birthday of Guinness. So, I ordered the fish and chips, the Uigaedail and a pint. I brought my friend Levia and her beau along for moral support. Levia tends toward the peaty whiskies and is long-time drinking buddy.

Before starting, I add some water (at 54.2% ABV, it can handle a fair amount of H2O). The nose on Uigeadail is smoky, peaty, and briny with hints of leather and honey. All put together, it smells like a well-worn shoe (perhaps a shoe that you wear while you barbeque on a beach by the North Sea). Normally, my opinion would already be tainted by the strong nose, but I decided to look past my prejudices and keep going. I take a reluctant sip after some fish and a long draw from my Guinness. This is where I would normally be spitting and sputtering and verbally abusing this whisky and anyone who likes it. However, my tastes have changed and the pairings are doing their job. This a bold whisky, firm and almost chewy. There is a sweetness I have never tasted before. I can taste the usual tar, smoke and licorice, but they are balanced and dance on the tongue (although with a heavy step, like a reel or polka rather than a waltz). The finish seems to go on forever. Indeed, I can still taste it the next day.

I can see why this whisky is beloved by so many.  That said, it’s not for everybody.  Uigeadail is kind of an old man’s whisky.  As we age, our tastes tend to change toward bolder, more pungent flavors.  If you are already a fan of dark wrapped cigars or are a regular smoker, this may be a good fit for you.  If you are someone who prefers more subtle flavors, head for Speyside malts or an nice Irish.  Come back to this one later in life.

For those of you who have tried the Uigeadail and totally dig it, you might look for the new Ardbeg Super Nova for an even peatier kick.  I have not tried it yet.  I was waiting until I knew that I could do it justice.  Maybe next time.

*The folks at Ardbeg tell me that it is named after the lake from which the water is drawn. Perhaps sweaty sheep bathe there.

In the Land of Giants

This week, I had the opportunity to attend a class at Astor Center, hosted by Ethan Kelley of Brandy Library. The topic of the this class, “In the Land of Giants – An In-depth Look at the Boutique Distilleries of Scotland.” This class is actually part of a series, the first was about peated whiskies, the last will be about distilleries that have been moth-balled.

For this class, Mr. Kelley gave us a whirlwind history as we tasted our way through several small distilleries. Our first dram was the Hazelburn 8yo. Hazelburn is distilled at Cambeltown distillery Springbank. It seems that the owners of Springbank bought all the names from the distilleries that died in Cambeltown. This one is very light in color. There are hints of peat and brine on the nose although I’m not sure if this is actually a peated whisky. The palate is light but complex with only traces of peat. It is triple distilled which gives it a very clean feel and a smooth finish.

Next up, is the Edradour 10yo. Mr. Kelley painted a picture of this distillery that made me put it at the top of my list for what to do next time I visit Scotland. Edradour is a very small operation (3 guys) with a still that is barely big enough to be called legal. This whisky is very interesting. To my sniffer, the nose smelled like peanut butter and caramel. The palate was full bodied, spicy and nutty.

Benromach Traditional was next on the list. Very pale in color, Benromach Traditional smells like a doctor’s office. Very weak elements of peat and a vague sweetness mark the palate, but the alcohol is strong. The finish is so short and the whisky so forgettable that you are not quite sure that you actually drank it. At least five more years in a barrel would do this one some good. Skip it!

The best of the first four was the Tomintoul 16yo. The color on this is golden honey like jewel quality amber (it spent some time in a sherry cask). The nose is floral almost like a ladies perfume. I got the image of laundry drying on a line in a field of lavender when I inhaled deeply. The flavor was robust but balanced with wonderful honey notes. Unfortunately, the distillery has changed hands since this bottling, so who’s to say what the future will hold for Tomintoul. Try to get your hands on a bottle of this ASAP.

This is when things started getting really interesting. The Arran Cognac Cask. You can look for it, but I doubt you will find it. It is a single cask bottling of a distillery with limited distribution in the first place. Light amber with a rose tint, this smelled salty, sweet, and nutty with some Cognac notes. By this time, my notes start getting a little less descriptive. For the palate, I wrote “sweet, floral, and amazing.” Lucky for me, there was an extra place setting in the classroom, so I scored two drams of this one. Cognac casks are really expensive, so don’t expect to see this one (or one like it) any time soon. This was an expensive experiment. It is almost a shame that it turned out so well.

Next was the Bruichladdich Rocks. Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich is probably one of the most innovative and bat-shit crazy distillers in the world. He is constantly being recognized for his lucrative experiments at Bruichladdich. One thing he hasn’t had since leaving Bowmore, is a consistent product. Enter Peat, Rocks, and Waves. These three distinct expressions will be a consistent part of the Bruichladdich line for the foreseeable future. Rocks is an unpeated malt, with a nose like smoked white cheddar cheese. Even without the peat, you get the other great qualities of Islay. This is a rich, robust whisky that is far more balanced that any of it’s peated brethren. Mr. Kelley described this one as Talisker light.

Benriach 10yo ‘Curiositas’ is part of a series of peated Benriach. Strangely, this was not a planned venture into peated whisky, but curious finds from the dark corners of the warehouse. Just as the Rocks was everything you love about Islay without the peat, Curiositas soothes you with everything you love about Speyside with a hefty kick of peat.

The last (and strangest) whisky of the night was Ballechin Madeira (distilled at Edradour). This is a peated whisky aged completely in Madeira casks. That’s right, not a bourbon cask or even sherry. This is one of the most interesting whiskies I have ever had. The nose was quite peaty and the palate was like a peated brandy. This one is expensive and rare, but if you ever have the opportunity to try it, take it.

So, that was my latest adventure in whisky. I really enjoy these guided tastings. I always learn something and have a good time. I really like events like WhiskyFest too, but the free-for-all atmosphere on the main floor can be as tiring as it is exhilirating. If you are interested in the class on dead distilleries, I believe there are still tickets available here.

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.

Event Notice: Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza

Atlanta is not like New York in so many ways that it seems silly to even make the statement.  One of the differences that is most pertinent to this blog is the relatively few whiskey related events held in Atlanta.  And the few that their are, don’t get much press.  So in an effort to help out my fellow Atlantans I’ll try to post a notice on all the events that come across my radar.  Please feel free to send me an email or post a comment if you come across any that I miss.

What: Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza

When: Thursday, March 12, 2009.  Registration at 6:30 PM, Event from 7:00Pm to 9:00PM

Where: The Intercontinental Hotel, 3315 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta, GA 30326

Price: $130

What’s going on: Gourmet dinner, imported cigars, and over 80 single malt and other scotch whiskies to taste

Pour list to include: Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Ardbeg, Ardmore, Auchentoshan, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Chivas Regal, Clontarf, Connemara, Clynelish, Dallas Dhu, Dewars, Glen Garioch, Glen Keith, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Johnnie Walker, Knappogue Castle, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Longmorn, Michael Collins, Milford, Scapa, Springbank, Suntory, Balvenie, Famous Grouse, Glenlivet, Macallan, Tyrconnell, and more.

What else: The notice I saw said that this is a more formal tasting.  No sneakers or jeans and jackets are preferred but not required.  You can get tickets by calling (800) 990-1991.


Hendrick’s Gin

For this week’s “Taste of” we’re doing something a little different.  In an effort to expand both our horizons and yours, Matt and I are going to review a non-whiskey product.  “Gasp!” you say?  Don’t worry.  We’re still whiskey apostles at heart but it’s good to try new things.  We’ll try to do this about once a month or so.  First up will be a gin.  You can’t get much more different from whiskey than that.  Except for the fact that this particular gin is made by William Grant & Sons.  You may know William Grant & Sons as the makers of Glenfiddich and Balvenie.  Enjoy.

Hendrick’s Gin
44% ABV/88 Proof
Available worldwide for $25 to $35 per bottle

What the distillery says:
This handcrafted gin is distilled for a proprietary recipe which includes traditional botanicals such as juniper, coriander, and citrus peel.  The “unexpected” infusion of cucumber and rose petals results in a most iconoclastic gin.  It is not for everyone.

What Richard says:
Nose: Floral and herbal as you’d expect from gin but almost more so.  It lays out like a well crafted gentleman’s cologne.  When opened up with a little water I find jasmine and lavender with a hint of fresh autumn leaves.
Palate: The palate is very surprising.  It tastes of orange zest in lavender water, more specifically Cara Cara oranges. (If you’ve never had the pleasure I highly recommend them.)  More citrus notes that the average gin.  It’s very pleasant.  It kind of reminds me of Compass Box’s Orangerie aperitif.  Tonic water lends it a sharper more defined flavor well beyond the “alcoholic Sprite” of a lot of gin and tonics.
Finish: Crisp and clean.  It leaves the orange zest in your mouth as the botanicals pass through.
Comments: I’m not really a gin fan but this is a spirit I can truly respect.  And not just because it’s made by William Grant & Sons.  It doesn’t stand out because they turned gin on its head, more likely they pushed gin to its true potential.  Whether a casual gin drinker or a serious connoisseur, I would definitely recommend this.
Rating:  Must Try.

What Matt says:
Nose: Above all this gin smells like it elements.  There are clear notes of juniper, but it’s the coriander and citrus zest that stand out on the nose.  The rose petals and cucumber hang back a little and wait to assert themselves on the palate.
Palate: This is not your average gin.  Richard hit the nail on the head with the Cara Cara orange reference.  The cucumber comes through with a very clean flavor and the rose petals come out just enough to be known.  The coriander and juniper take a back seat to these stronger flavors, but really make the flavor profile dance.  Adding tonic really kicks the cucumber into overdrive (the makers of Hendrick’s suggest garnishing their gin and tonic with a slice of cucumber instead of the traditional lime).  There is a high citrus element, but it is more of a Cara Cara or blood orange citrus than lime like other gins.
Finish: Rose water and orange zest
Comments: I’m an old fashioned kind of guy.  I believe that a gentleman should be drink his martinis with gin and his whisk(e)y neat.  If you are like me and Teddy Roosevelt (or was it FDR?), you’re idea of a martini is a generous pour of gin next to an open bottle of vermouth.  To do this, you must have good gin (you’re drinking it straight after all).  Hendrick’s fits the bill on this one.  I love a good gin and tonic as well and this makes a great one.  This is my very favorite gin.
Rating:  Must Buy.

Overall Rating:
From the moment you see it on the shelf, you know that Hendrick’s is different.  It’s strangley shaped dark colored bottle and artfully rendered label look more at home on the shelf of Victorian apothecary than a liquor store.  As you investigate, you find that even the distillery claims that this gin “is not for everyone.”  Today, you are in an adventurous mood so you decide to pick up a bottle.  You are greeted with flavors you have never tasted in a gin.  You are not quite sure what to think.  Then, as the gin swirls around your mouth and your nose is filled with rich botanicals, you become enthralled.  There is a reason that the Wall Street Journal voted this the “Best Gin in the World” in 2003.  More and more, I’m seeing Hendrick’s offered in bars (they don’t usually have a slice of cucumber though), right next to the Tanqueray Ten and Bombay Sapphire.  The word is spreading.
Must Try.