Lagavulin 16 YO

Lagavulin-Scotch-Whisky-16-year-oldMy wife gave me a bottle of Lagavulin 16 YO (a southern-Islay single malt) for our last anniversary. It’s I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m not sure how she will top it next year.

Appearance: Deep amber gold

ABV: 43%

Nose: deceptively rich; a slow build-up of smoke with hints of barbeque steak, subtle maritime breeze, and elements of tobacco, tea, heather and citrus.

Palate: rich, velvet smoke, well-steeped tea, malt, a pinch of brine, and a crack of pepper.

Finish: long, luxurious, a hint of peppery-sweetness, fading to a heavenly, smoky dryness.

This is a complex, rich, well-balanced dram, with a hefty smoke component. I found that letting the sample open up for several minutes prior to tasting helped liberate the full spectrum of its constituents; there is a lot happening in the glass, and it should be savored slowly and peacefully. I’ve now finished the bottle, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear after finishing the last drop.

Highly recommended

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Finlaggan Old Reserve Cask Strength

finlagganI found this whisky on a bottom shelf at the liquor store; it was on sale (thirty-percent off: I assume the store is making room for new product), so I thought I’d give it a try. Once I’d placed the bottle on my shelf I began a search on the internet for Finlaggan, a distillery I was unfamiliar with…

It turns out that the Finlaggan brand is a bit of a mystery: there is no distillery of that name; rather, the name derives from the Finlaggan Castle on Islay (pictured on the label), the historic residence of the Lord of the Isles. Apparently, Finlaggan Old Reserve originates from one of the Islay distilleries and is a consistent product. Whichever distillery produces the whisky is a closely guarded secret.

Appearance: pale, pale straw

ABV: 58% 

A quick nosing identified the dram as an Islay product: perhaps a youthful Lagavulan, Ardbeg or Laphroaig (I’ve never sampled Caol Ila, another possibility): reminiscent of idling on a seaside boulder beneath the creosote decking of a dock, the morning fog deposited a smoky, maritime dew on my nostril hairs. I added several liberal drops of water to the cask-strength dram, liberating a citrus spirit and more smoky peat: an agreeable, youthful exuberance.

Tasting echoed the nose (with the additional nuance of surreptitious turpentine); a feisty, cask-strength dram, but enjoyable neat.

Finish: a long, dry, smooth-smokiness with subtle brine.

I’ve sampled the whisky three times now and it is truly growing on me; a first-rate youth.

 

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A farewell to old friends

I was cleaning out some back shelves and said my final farewells to some old friends. I find it difficult to return my empty whisky bottles; to me, they are like a beloved book, a memory that can be rekindled with a glance. Alas, space in our home is insufficient to house them any longer…

empty bottles

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Nikka From the Barrel

Nikka from the barrelNikka From the Barrel is a Japanese blended whisky (grain whisky, and malts from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries). As a rule, I don’t enjoy blends, but this expression was a pleasant surprise. The ABV is high (51.4%) and I added water more liberally than I usually would, but the dram is quite drinkable straight ‘from the bottle.’

ABV: 54.1%

Appearance: Deep Amber. Viscous, lazy legs.

Nose: raisins, caramel, sherry, citrus, and vanilla. After adding water: cinnamon, floral essences, and hints of smoke.

Palate: thick, viscous mouthfeel. Caramel/brown sugar sweetness, spices, vanilla, and a subtle peatiness.

Finish:  Long, pleasant: fruity-oak, vanilla, and lingering warmth (kick in the pants) from the grain whisky.

Final notes: The whisky comes in an unusual, 500 ml square bottle: I like the distinctive packaging, but the first dram was slightly difficult to pour without spillage (I rested the base of the spout on the lip of my Glencairn glass while pouring: a small drop of precious fluid escaped down the outside of the glass, which I was able to capture with a finger and enjoy). There was a strong alcohol aroma when first poured, so I let the dram sit for five minutes to open up before nosing. The grain whisky component was well married to the malts and provided an interesting kick to the blend. I really enjoyed this dram; well suited for sipping on a winter’s night.

Slainte!

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Ingredients

The production of malt whisky is a science, but it is not an exact science, and there is more than a trace of superstition running throughout the industry. There is an art to the process, and a little magic. There is a belief among Distillery Managers that any trivial change can influence the taste of the product.

Malt production uses only three basic ingredients — yeast, water, and barley — yet there is an incredible variety in flavour profiles.

Yeast

Yeast is a crucial ingredient — it triggers the chemical process that converts barley into alcohol — but it has the least affect on the flavour profile of the product (the process of fermentation has an effect, but the yeast used is not significant).

Water:

A reliable water source is essential for the production of malt whisky; fortunately, in Scotland, plentiful rainfall year-round provides an abundant supply. Water is used in all phases of production: beginning with malting, and continuing through mashing, and at the end of the process for the reduction of ABV (except, of course, in ‘cask strength’ bottlings).

The source of water used by the distillery is a key factor in the flavor of the whisky produced: adjoining distilleries that use water from differing sources produce products with distinctly different personalities. For instance, water in the Highlands — and, in particular, Islay water — flows through peat regions, which impart minerals that give the water unique flavours: many distilleries remove mineral impurities with de-ionization techniques, but other distilleries use the hard water because of the unique personality it imparts to the product.

Barley:

Barley crops thrive in Scotland because of abundant precipitation and moderate temperatures year-round; even in summer the temperature is rarely above 20° C and there is enough rainfall to keep the barley crops healthy.

Historically, most distilleries harvested their own barley, grown on-site; alternately, the barley would be purchased from local farmers. As the years slipped by, barley production became a specialty commodity and more economical methods of barley production were discovered. Barley crops became an industry, which now sells in bulk to distilleries.

Barley was a hit-and-miss crop until 1965, when Golden Promise was developed by exposing a barely variety to gamma radiation. Golden Promise is a hardy, fast-growth grain, which produces a sweet, clean flavour. Since then, genetic engineering has transformed Golden Promise into new varieties (e.g.: Optic and Chariot), but many claim that the new varieties do not provide the desired malting personality of Golden Promise. Some distilleries (e.g.: Macallan) still use Golden Promise, but it is getting difficult to find, and — as the yields are much higher with the new genetically modified barley, and producers prefer these high-yield strains — it is improbable that  distilleries can now claim 100% pure Golden Promise barley as an ingredient. If you can afford a well-aged Macallan — say 17 or 18 YO — the taste might be worth the price.

It could be argued that peat is an ingredient, but not all malt whiskies are peated, so I’ll discuss peat in a future post, when I delve into the malting process.

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Cragganmore Distillers Edition

Cragganmore-Distillers-Edition-1998Cragganmore the Distillers Edition 1998 (bottled 2011)

ABV: 40%

Single Speyside malt, double matured; finished in Ruby Port Pipes

After sampling the Talisker Distillers Edition, I hinted that I might enjoy the Cragganmore Distillers Edition for Christmas. Either my wife picks up hints well, or my entreaties were stronger than I thought; whatever the cause, my wife — God bless her — deposited a bottle of the Cragganmore under the tree for me.

Nose: Apples, pears, rich port tones, ginger, and liquorice.

Palate: Dry, vanilla-oaked, spiced-tea, stewed apples and pears.

Finish: Oak, pepper, and a long, subtle bitterness reminiscent of an IPA.

Final notes: This whisky is easy to drink, but has a subtle complexity: there is a nicely balanced marriage between the restrained smoke and port aspects. For me, the addition of water brought no additional benefits. This expression is a nice addition to the Distillers Edition collection.

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Sampling Single Malt Scotch

I spent quite some time enjoying Scotch before I began to understand that there was a technique to sampling the wondrous spirit. I’m far from being an expert, but for those who stumble upon this blog and know less than I do…

First, start out with a decent, single malt scotch. If you’re unfamiliar with Scotch, it’s best to sample a few varieties from friends or family to discover what type of scotch you prefer before splurging on an expensive bottle. There are many resources on the web, and hopefully your local liquor store has an in-house expert. If all else fails, at the bottom of this post I’ve listed a few brands and expressions that I’ve enjoyed (I’ve tried to keep my selections within a semi-moderate price range).

Before I get any further, I’d like to add my thoughts on the ever-contentious argument of whether you should add ice to scotch. In my opinion: no. But it’s your scotch, so do whatever you want (but you probably wouldn’t get a second dram of my single malt Scotch if you asked for ice in the first). Adding ice to scotch cools the liquid and counters the alcohol burn (a difficult hurdle for beginning Scotch drinkers), but you’ll sacrifice taste as the liquid cools: lowering the temperature with ice obscures the elusive flavours Scotch enthusiasts enjoy. Scotch should neverin my humble opinion be cold: if you must add ice, put a large cube in the drink so that it doesn’t melt quickly (the larger the cube, the slower it melts, due to a smaller surface area in contact with the liquid).  If you want to cool your Scotch, there are specially designed stones that can be put in the freezer and used in your drink: the stones won’t scratch your glass and won’t water-down your Scotch. If you insist on having a bunch of ice in your Scotch, I would recommend purchasing lower priced expressions, or blends.

Glencairn glassBuy a good glass (or set of glasses) for full enjoyment: the glass should be used exclusively for enjoying whisky. A tulip glass is favoured by most, but some like a small, fluted glass or snifter. When I first set out upon my whisky-pilgrimige, I found a set of nicely shaped, inexpensive juice glasses that provided an enjoyable experience.  The desired shape is a wider diameter ‘bowl’ and a narrower lip; a tulip shaped glass is an ideal shape for swirling, nosing, and tasting.  I now have Glencairn glasses (thanks to a Christmas gift from my wife).

Pour a dram into your glass. There exists a specific volume associated with the term dram, but — practically speaking — a dram is a term that denotes varying volumes that are dispensed in a whisky glass. The volume dispensed depends on personal preference and/or the generosity of the dispenser: I recommend anything from a half-ounce to two ounces (I’ve never gone below a half, but have occasionally been ‘guilty’ of overshooting the two-ounce specification. It depends on how much time you want to devote to sampling a dram).

Tilt the glass and swirl so the whisky wets the inner wall of the glass, increasing the surface area for evaporation, hence enriching the fragrance. Pay attention to the viscosity of the liquid as you swirl it around the glass. Swirling the whisky opens flavours and mellows the dram through aeration.

Nose the whisky: hold your nose several centimeters from the top of the glass and detect the subtle aromas. Dip your nose a little closer; again, pay attention to the aromas: perhaps different essences arrive. Then lower your nose closer, but not so close that alcohol burn masks the experience. If you keep your mouth open while nosing the whisky it may help in differentiating the diverse aromas.

Gently swirl the whisky and nose again at different glass angles and distances to appreciate all the delicate aromas

The mouthfeel: have a small sip, just enough to coat your mouth and swirl around your tongue. Some whiskys feel thick, oily, or grainy compared to others: coat your tongue and assess the texture.

Taste: hold the whisky in your mouth until you’ve sampled all its flavours, and then swallow. If the whisky is held in the mouth long enough — ten seconds or so — then it will not burn the throat when swallowed.

The finish: after swallowing, breathe slowly out your mouth. Observe the flavours that have lingered on your palate. Now keep your mouth lightly closed and breathe in through your nose, letting a small amount of air enter through your mouth. Notice any flavours that arise up and into your sinuses. Whiskeys have different lengths of finish. When the flavours dissipate, breathe normally.

I usually prefer drinking Scotch neat (except with a cask strength whisky), but when first tasting a Scotch, and after I’ve sampled it neat, I like to add a few drops of water to the dram to see if any aromas/flavours become ‘unlocked’ (don’t use tap water because dissolved minerals and chlorine will mask the taste of Scotch. And don’t use carbonated water. Use filtered water or natural, clear and clean spring water). I’ve searched around to determine why aromas/flavours are released when water is added, and have found a couple of answers: some say the water reduces the surface tension, allowing aromas to escape, while others claim there is a chemical reaction that heats up and unravels chemical bonds to release esters (floral and fruity aromas).

Enjoyed with full pleasure, a dram can last well over half an hour, depending on the volume dispensed.

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I’ve got a lot more sampling to do, but below are a few modestly priced (less than $100) scotches I’ve enjoyed: Continue reading

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