The Beating of the Blend: Artist vs. Craftsman

I generally try to be diplomatic about whiskey on Whisk(e)y Apostle. I think that if you have a website providing something resembling educational or informational content then it’s only good form to be as nonpartisan as possible and clearly state that something is your opinion when it is so and not speak in absolutes.

Today I’m going to break ranks with that and say the typical American single malt drinker is (notice the definitive verb there) a snobbish idiot. There…I said it. I’ve been thinking it for a long time. I just couldn’t keep it bottled up inside any longer. “But aren’t you an American single malt drinker?” you may ask. Yes I am. And I went through a phase of this a number of years back. It was when I was trying cigars, drinking more single malt, and generally thinking I was more sophisticated than I really was. In short, I was an idiot.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well, it’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. What finally sent me over the edge was a post I saw on a forum that I’m a member of. This question was posted:

“Do you guys ever drink single malt scotch on the rocks or do you consider the very idea an affront to all that is good, decent, and proper about whisky?”

Granted that’s a loaded question but there are gentlemen on that forum with good taste in liquid libations so I was curious to see the responses. What followed were general answers like this:

“Single Malts on the rocks is indeed a waste of money. If you want to drink it on the rocks, save money and buy Blended.”

“Honestly, you’re just throwing money away….And as much as that sounds like liquor-snob posturing and “look how macho I am, drinking my whisky straight from the bottle,” I’m really not trying to be. There are some fine blended whiskeys out there that go well on the rocks, and I drink them too.”

These responses annoyed me on two fronts. First, as we say here over and over again, drink it how you like. No one else’s opinion (and it is an opinion, not some mandate from God) matters. I understand the points made in the prior example. Yes chilling the whisky numbs out some of the flavors. But so does not adding water. As long as the water is room temperature it will open up flavors and aromas that you can’t fully appreciate at bottle strength. Do I like mine with water? No. I don’t like it with ice either but we’re not talking about my drink. We’re talking about yours. You’re buying it. You’re drinking it. You get to have it however you want.

But what really bothered me was the left handed slight toward blended scotch. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people rattling on about the superiority of single malts versus blends. “Oh blends are where you start. Once you’re ready to really appreciate scotch try single malts.” “Blends just don’t have the flavor or complexity of good single malt.” And on and on and on. It’s a pile a crap. Just because YOU don’t like blends doesn’t make them inferior. You just don’t like them. That’s your opinion not a fact.

Are there crappy blends out there? Sure, but there are just as many crappy single malts too. It’s not like I’m measuring Dewar’s Signature against Big Al MacLeod’s discount malt. There are plenty of single malts out there far inferior to regular blends like Johnnie Walker Black.

Truth be told it takes as much if not more skill to make quality blends than it does to make good single malt. It may take different skills maybe but not fewer skills. You have be able to source and pull together dozens of different single malt and grain whiskies into a solid uniform piece, balancing and marrying flavors into cohesion. Is it hard to play the trumpet? Yes. Is it less impressive to pull together an entire symphony? I don’t think so.

I think of it like this: The master distiller is the true craftsman, but the master blender is the true artist. Are either the artist or craftsman lacking in skill, talent, or focus? Of course not, they just create differently. The blender is the symphony conductor pulling together all the pieces and parts into what you hold in your hand. They are taking all the different instruments and making something greater than the sum of its parts. Think about that the next you try a blended scotch.

Slainte,
Richard

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

How could a website named Whisk(e)y Apostle let today go by unmentioned?  Personally, I always use today as an excuse to buy yet another bottle for Irish whiskey.  I’ll be drinking Redbreast 12 Year Old Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey today.  What about you?  Grab yourself a glass of Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, Tullamore Dew, Paddy’s, Clontarf, Michael Collins, or whatever other tasty drams you have from the Green Isle and let’s toast one to St. Patrick’s Day.

Don’t have any Irish whiskey?  Don’t think you like Irish whiskey?  Never tried Irish whiskey? Well there’s no better day than today to give it a go.

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

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.