Monday, March 14, 2011

Whisk-ey

It’s not every day, or week, or even year that I get invited to a whiskey tasting. So when the opportunity recently came my way, I jumped at the opportunity.

In the interest of full disclosure: I do not profess to be anything remotely approaching a professional whiskey taster. If you’re expecting reviews that include descriptions of a nose that incorporates four different fruits, plus the smells of the ocean, together with three specific kinds of flowers, 2 herbs, and some oak to finish it off, I’m afraid you’re likely to be disappointed in my more “everyman” reviews of these fine drams. That having been said, I likewise am no stranger to either scotches or bourbons, the latter of which is in fact my favourite liquid pastime.

Also in the interest of full disclosure, I profess that when it comes to single malt scotches, I lean heavily towards the dense, peaty, luxurious tastes of Islay far more than I do their speyside or highlands/lowlands cousins. So naturally I was initially slightly disappointed that the tasting included nary a whiff of Islay. The disappointment was short lived, however, once I sampled the drams so kindly provided by the Masters of Malt. You can bet, now that I’m in the know, some of my friends will be getting wee drams in their Christmas stockings next year. I may receive more than a few myself, and they will not all come from Islay.

On to the tastings.

The samples we tried were pretty diverse, consisting of:

A Rosebank 19 Year Old 1990 - Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing)

A 30 year old Master of Malt Speyside

A Johnny Drum Green Label 4 Year Old

Just for balance, we threw in one more of our own... a scotch with which many of us are familiar – some 12-year old Glenlivet.

They were all delightful in their own ways. To me, (and to many I think) whiskeys are each suited to a specific ambience and mood. Each of these whiskeys would be a great companion in the right setting for sure.

We began with the Rosebank. It’s hard to believe they bottled it just as I was starting my career. The color was amazing – clear, quite pale golden straw. The nose was sharp – in a positive way, with scents of both flowers (roses did indeed come to mind) and oak. Upon sipping it, I tasted sweetness, a little like honey, very rich with a bit of a sharp edge, maybe even a tiny hint of peat or smoke. The finish was what I would describe “Medium” (but then again, I love the huge finishes of Lagavulin and Laphroaig), with a definite taste of the oak casks in which it was aged. This whiskey is perfect for almost any occasion.

We next moved on to the speyside. I was expecting great things from a dram that had been aging since roughly the time I was in college, and I was seriously not disappointed. The color of this fantastic whiskey is much darker than the Rosebank, deeper golden amber, almost syrupy looking. The nose was the thing here – very strong, and fruity doesn’t even begin to cover it. Fruit explosion more like it – and clover, all infused with that beautiful earthy tannin leathery smell. I could have been happy just smelling this malt. But the taste – again was something to experience. Very full and rich, with spice and sherry. The finish was medium to long with the same fruity and very slightly smoky edge. Altogether one of the most delightful scotches I have ever run across, perfect for those cold Canadian winter nights inside by the fire. Great for those early fall nights at the lake. Come to think of it, I could pretty much enjoy this scotch anywhere anytime.

We switched gears next and flew across the pond from Scotland to Kentucky, where the Johnny Drum Green Label was waiting. I almost felt at that point it was totally unfair – to jump from a 30 year old malt to a 4 year old bourbon just seemed so – totally unfair. But as I said, I am a big lover of bourbon and in fact one of my biggest laments is that there is such a paltry selection of them available in my home province. There’s also that fact that this bourbon sells for a fraction of what you’d pay for either the Rosebank or the Speyside malts, and I have to say that dollar for dollar, this bourbon is a steal.

The colour of this bourbon is pretty different from its Scottish cousins. Much darker amber, with an almost burnished coppery glow. The nose is strong, with the typical sweet smell of most bourbons. Honey for sure, and also the fantastic smell of freshly mown hay. Not at all bad for a (relatively speaking) economical libation. The taste is smooth, deep and mellow, a slight bit fruity with some spiciness as well, with a long smooth finish. Scotch lovers might describe this as a harsh drink, but I can tell you that I will definitely be buying this whiskey when I can.

We finished the night with our Glenlivet, which had some pretty hard acts to follow, seeing as it’s often considered something of a “starter” scotch for newbies to the taste. The nose was sharp – like very strong malt, a little fruity, but almost (dare I say it!) an almost mildly soapy, slightly acrid tinge. Not promising. The color was somewhere in the middle – not the pale gold of the Rosebank or the darker amber of the speyside – but somewhere in between. The palate was spicy and oaky, just as you’d expect from a middle of the road scotch, with a sharp but short finish of oak and nary a trace of peat or smoke. All in all, not the equal of the other drams we tasted, but perhaps that’s not surprising given what it was up against.

So there you have it – musings from someone who loves bourbon and very much likes scotch as well. It was so nice to stray away from the peaty, smokey Islay plates and finishes to these other tastes and sensations. I’ll be buying more highland and speyside bottles this year. That’s one thing a good whiskey tasting will always do: it makes one realize, there is so much good whiskey... and so little time.


~Dave Kerr

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Background on Whiskey

Whiskey is a distilled alcoholic drink produced from fermented grain mash. A variety of different grains can be used, including, barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat, and corn. It may not sound mouth watering, but those who know their whiskies beg to differ. Whiskey is aged in wooden casks which are typically made from white oak.

The art of whiskey making begins with the distilling process and the art of distilling began with the Babylonians in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) around the Second Millennium BC. Perfumes and armomatics were distilled long before spirits. Distillation was also used to prepare treatments for medicinal purposes such as the treatment of colic, palsy, and smallpox.

Since the early 14th century, the Latin word “aqua vitae” has been applied to distilled drinks,meaning literally “water of life.”

Between 1100 and 1300, distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland, through monastic distilleries. Since grapes were in short supply in these areas, they began to use barley beer instead, which evolved into whiskey, and the rest, as they say, is history. They never looked back. As the old Irish proverb put it:

“What whiskey will not cure,
there is no cure for.”
-Irish Proverb

Unlike fine wine, whiskey does not mature in the bottle – only in the cask. The age of a whiskey is therefore calculated as the time between the distilling process and the bottling. Additional aging in a cask beyond 10 or 20 years will not necessarily make a better whiskey.

Whiskey is a spirit that is regulated worldwide. It comes from a variety of origins and includes many classes and types but the typical unifying characteristics are the fermentation of grains, distillation, and aging in wood.

Most whiskies are sold at or near an alcoholic rate of 40 percent, although the strength can vary significantly, depending on the type of cask and the amount of time spent in the cask.

"The water was not fit to drink.
To make it palatable, we had to drink whiskey.
By diligent effort, I learnt to like it."
-Sir Winston Churchill

Links

Master of Malt, a company in the U.K. with a proud heritage of over 25 years in the whiskey retail business. They have conscientiously compiled a catalog of fine single malt scotch whiskies that can be ordered online

Master of Malt Whiskey Gift Page

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2 comments:

Laura said...

Clearly Mr Kerr's palate is beyond reproach.

jessbcuz said...

Thanks for the review. I am not a whiskey lover myself, but my husband is. I just ordered one of their sampler sets for his birthday this month. It took the stress out of trying to pick the perfect scotch based on how I like the name and label (my usual method).

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