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Archive for the ‘Live Whisky Tasting’ Category

Introduction

Fancy yourself a whisky connoisseur? I don’t – not yet, anyway. However, I do obviously spend a fair amount of time reading about and tasting whisky. But has all of this focused effort led to any kind of improved ability to discern whisky expressions by taste, smell and color? I’m not sure a single blind tasting is any way to determine that, but from what I’ve read of them, it’s a good way to gain some perspective, and perhaps a little humility. I’m game for that.

My local Single Malt Scotch Society (which I just discovered a year ago) periodically does blind tasting meetings, and I just recently attended my first one. This is a great group to drink and discuss single malts with. They’re much more experienced than I am, some of them being members of PLOWED, so it’s great to hear about the world of whisky from their point of view. Fortunately, it’s a laid back group, and the primary goal is to have a good time, not impress each other with our tasting prowess.

Let the games begin…

Rules of the game

There were 9 of us in attendance. We received a cheat sheet ahead of time listing 13 possible expressions. Of those 13, 10 would be chosen at random by a non-participant (the brother of John, our leader and host). Those 10 were to be poured into jars and numbered. The name of the malt was written on a card and placed in an envelope with the appropriate matching number.

The cheat sheet

Islay malts

  • Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 1990, 16 yr., OB, 46%
  • Lagavulin 16 yr., OB, 43%
  • Laphroaig 18 yr., OB, 48Q%

Speyside malts

  • Balvenie DoubleWood, 12 yr., OB, 43%
  • BenRiach 1994 Peated Oloroso Sherry Finish, 12 yr., OB, 57%
  • Cardhu 12 yr., OB, 40%
  • Glenfarclas 25 yr., OB, 43%

Highland malts

  • Ben Nevis 1986, 14 yr., Cadenhead bottling, 62.9%
  • Clynelish 14 yr., OB, 46%
  • Highland Park 18 yr. OB, 43%

Campbeltown malts

  • Springbank 15 yr., OB, 46%

Lowland malts

  • Auchentoshan Three Wood, NAS, OB, 43%
  • Rosebank 1990, 14 yr., Whisky Galore bottling, 46%

Upon arriving…we were each given a scorecard to fill out. For each malt, we would fill in the information below. You can get up to 10 points per malt. The winner earns bragging rights in the next society newsletter.

Scorecard breakdown:

  • Region (3 pts): Multiple Choice from:
    • Islay
    • Speyside
    • Other Highland
    • Lowland
  • Age (2 pts)
    • 12 yrs or less
    • 13-17 yrs
    • 18+ yrs
  • Strength (1 pt)
    • 40%
    • 43%
    • 46%
    • Above 46%
  • Cask type (1 pt)
    • Bourbon only
    • Sherry
    • Other Finish
  • Distillery (3 pts)

The Tasting

Malt #1 – BenRiach 12 year

My Scorecard: Speyside (3 pts); 12 yrs (2 pts); Above 46% (1 pt); Other Finish (0 pt); BenRiach (3 pts) – Total 9 pts

Comments: A sherry and peat combination came through clearly. Fortunately, I have tasted a couple of other BenRiach peated whiskies (and own one). There’s something distinctive about the BenRiach flavor of peated whisky (at least their finished ones) that just stood out right from the start. I questioned myself at first, as the cheat sheet didn’t say this was a “peated” BenRiach, but I decided to go with my gut. I’m glad I did! Unfortunately, I screwed up the scorecard on this first one. I put “Other Finish” because it is a “finished” whisky. The correct answer was “sherry.” Basically…I didn’t follow directions.

How I’m feeling (after the reveal): At this point, I’m thinking “hey…I’m going to completely kick ass at this!”

Malt #2 – Rosebank 1990 14 year

My Scorecard: Other Highland (0 pt); 13-17 yrs (2 pts); 46% (1 pt); Bourbon (1 pt); Clynelish (0 pt) – Total 4 pts

Comments: I took one whiff of this, a quick sip, and immediately wrote down that it was the Clynelish. I thought it had kind of a rough and tumble highland flavor that I associate with Clynelish, and I decided to go with my initial instinct. It worked with the BenRiach. A swing and a miss, but the catcher dropped the ball, so I was able to run to first. While I completely missed this one, the age, strength and cask type just happened to match.

How I’m feeling: “Doh! Coming back down to earth, but hey…I’m not familiar with the Rosebank. It just fooled me. I’ll get the next one.” I don’t know if it was because it immediately followed a peated whisky, but most of us were totally surprised to find out this was a Rosebank.

Malt #3 – Clynelish

My Scorecard: Speyside (0 pt); 12 yrs (0 pt); 40% (0 pt); Bourbon (1 pt); Cardhu (0 pt) – Total 1 point

Comments: I was completely stumped on this one. It seemed easier going than the previous dram (Rosebank), so I started down the Speyside track (I think I had Clynelish mentally blocked out because I had just guessed it on the previous dram). I also heard other comments in the group about it being smooth and easy. Only one of the four Speysides looked like it might have only a bourbon cask maturation…Cardhu. Well, it doesn’t seem as smooth and sweet as I’ve heard Cardhu described, but then, I’ve never had it before. A total guess on my part.

How I’m feeling: At this point, I’m thinking “hey…I completely suck at this!”

Malt #4 – Glenfarclas 25

My Scorecard: Other Highland (0 pt); 18+ yrs (2 pts); 43% (1 pt); sherry (1 pt); Glenfarclas (3 pts) – Total 7 pts

Comments: This one tasted a lot like the Glenfarclas 17 year to me, which I’m quite familiar with. However, I expected the 25 year to have a bigger “classic sherry” taste to it. Still…it seemed distinctly Glenfarclas. As we bantered a bit as a group, it seemed like a number of others thought it was HP 18. I couldn’t buy into that, but then, I was completely wrong on the last two. Ok…hedging my bet and going Glenfarclas, but putting “Other highland” for the region, just in case.

How I’m feeling: “Whew! Back in the game!” Although, my failure on the previous two kept me from fully committing. Oh well…I’d take 7s the rest of the way, no problem.

Malt #5 – Lagavulin 16

My Scorecard: Islay (3 pts); 13-17 yrs (2 pts); 46% (0 pt); sherry (1 pt); Ardbeg (0 pt) – Total 6 pts

Comments: This was obviously one of the three Islays. The color was darker than I remember either the Ardbeg ANB or the Laphroaig 18 being. However, I KNOW Laga 16. It’s one of my favorites. I’m not getting that certain iodine/fruit combination that I know and love from the Laga. Hmm…I know his bottle of ANB is 16 years vs. my 18 year bottle. Maybe it’s a little bigger with less vanilla at 16 years (at this point, my mind is playing games, and I’m forgetting about how dark the whisky in my glass is). Ok, if this was Laga 16, I would just “know it”, so I’m going to hedge my bet between ANB and Laga 16. At least they’re the same age, so I should get the region and age right, regardless.

How I’m feeling: I thought I’d be happy with 6 or 7 points, but…“I’m feeling like a complete fraud for not being 100% sure that this was Lagavulin 16, supposedly one of my favorites, and one I’m most familiar with. On top of that, I’m an idiot for not paying more attention to the color.” I felt a little better to find out this was an older bottle, and has been open for a number of years. That might play into it a little. Still…

Malt #6 – Highland Park 18

My Scorecard: Other Highland (3 pts); 18+ yrs (2 pts); 43% (1); Sherry (1 pt); HP (3 pts) – Total 10 pts

Comments: Sherry for sure, with a little peat, but not Islay peat. I hear a couple of people talking Ardbeg/Laphroaig. No way…I know this one. I’m going all in on HP 18, and feeling good about the fact that our host, John, just indicated that he feels the same way.

How I’m feeling: Back from the brink. “Ok…the whisky gods threw me a bone on this one. It’s good to know I can pick out at least ONE of my favorites.”

Malt #7 – Cardhu

My Scorecard: Speyside (3 pts); 13-17 yrs (0 pt); 40% (1 pt); sherry (0 pt); Springbank (0 pt) – Total 4 pts

Comments: Doh! I really let the group banter get to me on this one. After an initial sip, I checked “Speyside” on the card. Now I just had to figure out if it was Cardhu (which I’ve never had) or Balvenie. We then took a break mid-dram to get some food, as our palates were starting to get tired.

After taking a break, drinking some water and eating a few potato chips, I returned to taste some more. I heard others talking about Springbank. Hmm…maybe that sweetness on the close was a sherry cask sweetness. It didn’t taste like Balvenie, though. Maybe it was turning salty…or was that the potato chips? Time up – everybody else has marked their cards. I decide to quickly do a 3-way hedge between Cardhu, Balvenie and Springbank.

How I’m feeling: Like Charlie Brown: Wishy-washy. Sigh…

Malt #8 – Balvenie DoubleWood

My Scorecard: Lowland (0 pt); 12 Years (2 pts); 43% (1 pt); Sherry (1 pt); Auchentoshan (0 pt) – Total 4 pts

Comments: It seemed obvious on this one that it was either the DoubleWood or the Three Wood. I heard others debating the same thing. I’ve only had a single dram of the Auchentoshan before, and I remember it stood out as being very “woody”…more so than I expected from a NAS expression. Well, this one immediately struck me as being woody as well, and it just didn’t quite seem to have that Balvenie honey/apple combination that I THOUGHT I could easily recognize. I didn’t dare look at Adam on my right…he’s a big “Balvenie guy”, and I knew he’d probably be beaming if this was the DoubleWood. I wanted to get this on my own, though. I’m going with the Three Wood.

How I’m feeling: “Doh! (again)” I’m taking it all more in stride, though. It’s become clear that nobody in the group is able to nail these expressions consistently. Heck, even Adam (who sure enough got this one right) admitted that his taste buds are shot and it was the color that he thought gave this one away.

Malt #9 – Ben Nevis 1986 62.9%

My Scorecard: Other Highland (3 pts); 13-17 yrs (2 pt); ABOVE 46% (1 pt); Bourbon (1 pt); Ben Nevis (3 pts) – Total 10 pts

Comments: Everybody nailed this one. This was the only high ABV whisky left on the cheat sheet. It was very good, though.

How I’m feeling: “I just coated my tongue with 62.9% of Highland goodness. Will I be able to taste #10?”

Malt #10 – Surprise…Laphroaig 30 Year!

My Scorecard: Islay (3 pts); 43% (2 pts); 18+ years (1 pt); Sherry (1 pt); Bowmore? (0 pt) – Total 7 pts

Comments: For this last dram, we had a surprise “off the cheat sheet” whisky. John and Richard disqualified themselves (Richard supplied the bottle). We knew, once they announced this, that it was something special (and it was). Up front, there was a gentle but prominent peat, but it lacked the big medicinal, tarry, oily notes you would get from a younger Laphroaig or Ardbeg. It reminded me of my favorite Laphroaig 30 year, but if that was the case, I would expect more red fruits to come out at the end. This one had some wonderful dried fruit notes, but I didn’t get any ripe berries. Certainly, this was an older (25+ years) whisky, and the proof was relatively low.

A few others speculated about the Distillery, with Bowmore mentioned more than once. I suddenly had visions of having the opportunity to taste one of the famous older Bowmores (Black, gold, etc.). Hey, with this group, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody owned something of that caliber.

How I’m feeling: “Oh, come on! This is supposed to be my all time favorite whisky and I couldn’t nail down the taste profile?” Oh well..at least I didn’t think it sucked! In fact, it was so good, I elevated it beyond Laphroaig 30 status and tried to figure out which famous, all but unobtainable whisky it might be.

Total: 62 points.

Conclusion

We added up our points, and believe it or not, I was tied for first at 62 points with Adam! Not so fast, though…after pumping my fists in the air, I realized that with Richard reporting 61 points, but taking a disqualification on the Laphroaig 30, he was clearly the #1 blind taster. Second would be John, who scored 55, but would have had 62 to 65 if he could have gotten points for the Laphroaig. Even with a point tie, I would put John before either of us, as I was “playing the game” and hedging bets, and Adam openly admitted to simply “guessing” the last 4 correctly after his taste buds were shot and his allergies bugging him.

I think a lot of the remaining tasters scored in the 40s, but when you take into account that many were going all in on their guesses (not hedging their bets), there were probably quite a few 1 point scores, even though they may have been close to guessing correctly. I’m also not sure how seriously everybody took it. I will admit, though, that I really, really tried. I was jumping up in between drams and blasting my glass with water in the sink and wiping it with a fresh paper towel, making sure it was as clean as possible. Michael, one of the long time society (and PLOWED) members was laughing at me…saying he used to be the same way. Today, he was just having a great time…he had nothing to prove.

So, what is my takeaway? Trying to guess a whisky based on a blind test is hard! Even if the field is narrowed. However, based on the few successes I had, and realizing how my mind played with me on some of the failures, I DO think there is room for a certain amount of olfactory training when it comes to recognizing distillery profiles. I look forward to practicing more blind tasting at home, and participating in another group event in the future.

How well do you think you know your favorite whisk(e)y, wine, beer or other spirit? Try putting yourself to the blind test to find out…the results may surprise you!

Cheers,
Jeff

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Introduction

I got an email a couple of weeks ago from Stephanie Jerzy of NOVA Marketing asking if I’d like to participate in a Chivas Regal tasting event taking place in NYC on October 5th. Leading the tasting would be Chivas Brothers Ambassador Alex Robertson. The 2,500 miles between myself and the event were not to be a problem, as they would send me a set of samples and hook me up to the event live via chat room. The price was right, too ($0.00). Sold!

The samples they sent included four 50ml bottles of non-commercial whiskies: “Islay 18″, “Grain 18″, Longmorn 18, and Strathisla 18. These are described as being some of the “key components” that make up the Chivas Regal 18 blend, which I previously reviewed here. They also included 200ml bottles of Chivas Regal 18 and Johnnie Walker Blue. I don’t find the Chivas/JW comparison particularly meaningful, as they’re very different taste profiles, but I’m not going to turn down a free 200ml bottle of JW BLue. I do love having the ability to break down a blend into its components. This is what Johnnie Walker did last year with their Art of Blending webcast. I think this is by far the most intriguing and satisfying way to hold a blended whisk(e)y tasting.

 

The components of Chivas Regal 18

 

The Event

There were about 20 bloggers participating in the event remotely. We were able to chat with each other, and Stephanie tuned us into the live action via webcam right there in the chat room. It was nice to be able to compare notes with the other bloggers and ask each other questions. As we went through the tasting, Stephanie served as our proxy, reading some of our questions out loud at the event, and making sure we heard the answer. Prior to starting the actual tasting, the participants in NYC were given a cocktail named “The Crooner Fizz”. I haven’t tried making it yet, but here is the recipe:

“Crooner Fizz” ingredients

  • 2 oz Chivas Regal 12
  • .5 oz Chairman’s Reserve Rum
  • .5 oz lemon juice
  • .5 oz raisin syrup
    • [Raisin syrup recipe: 1 cup muddled raisins boiled in 2 cups water]
  • Topped with Perrier Jouet Champagne

The Whiskies

A couple of interesting facts came out from the Q&A.

  • The Islay and Grain 18 samples are blends from different distilleries.
  • Chivas Brothers sources the spirit, but then takes control of the maturation process themselves.

We worked through the samples in the following order:

  • Strathisla 18 - I was really excited about being able to try this, as the only standard Strathisla distillery bottling is a 12 year (which I haven’t tried either). It seemed like more of a treat than the Longmorn 18 vs. the standard 16 year. :-) The Strathisla is very nice, with an apparent sherry cask influence providing pleasing red grape and dried fruit notes. There’s also a clean maltiness that carries through to the finish. In fact, everything about it is very clean. It’s not very spicy, but has a nice full body. Maybe a hint of smoke at the end? If they bottled this, preferably at 43% to 48%, and sold it for a reasonable price (closer to The Glenlivet 18 than Glenmorangie 18), I’d keep a bottle on the shelf. Many of the participants seemed to feel the same way.
  • “Grain 18″ – Pretty much all I got out of this one was toffee sweetness and fresh oak. It’s ridiculously easy to drink, but doesn’t offer any real satisfaction unless your goal is just to get drunk. However, what really impressed me was the lack of aftertaste. This is a very clean base for the blend, allowing the single malts to shine through.
  • “Islay 18″ - On the nose, I was hit immediately with a combination of sherry and iodine. Then I noticed a toffee sweetness and some smoke. It’s actually kind of easy going and fruity on the early palate, then headed into the finish I get big sweet smoke in the nostrils and another medicinal kick. The finish lasts a while and is quite drying on the tongue. I’d put money on there being a fair amount of Lagavulin in this based on the particular smoke/iodine combination presented. At first, I thought this would make a great “beginner” Islay whisky, but now I’m thinking the medicinal properties are a little over the top. Still, I enjoyed it very much.
  • Longmorn 18 – Hmm…not excited about this one. I much prefer my 2009 bottle of Longmorn 16. The 18 year provides similar fruity notes (more on the apple side than dried/red fruits) to the 16 year, but the 18 year has kind of a stale maltiness that i don’t care for. It seems a little “dirty” compared to the lovely Strathisla 18.
  • Chivas Regal 18 – I commented on Twitter that I thought another name for this could be “Strathisla 18 and friends.” The nose especially really brings out the same kind of fruits and clean malt that the Strathisla provides. The oak/vanilla/spices and sweetness from the Grain 18 is there, and a little extra apple kick from the Longmorn. Islay 18? I tried to find it in here somewhere, but at best, I’m getting a hint of peat smoke on the finish. I don’t think there’s much Islay 18 at all in the mix. The finish is medium in length and overall good, with maybe a hint of that “stale” malt from the Longmorn 18. In the end, it’s a very nice whisky that manages to keep most of the best traits of the Strathisla and Longmorn, adding some additional spices. It’s not going to blow your mind, but I found it quite enjoyable. The $55-$60 price tag seems very reasonable. Well done!
  • Johnnie Walker Blue - I won’t really get into the JW Blue here. I posted my thoughts on it recently. It’s a very good blend and fits right into some of my malt profile preferences. Especially with the increased Island/Islay influence relative to the Chivas 18. Granted, it costs upwards of $200.

Conclusion

We closed out with a return to Chivas Regal 18 and a toast. As for the “challenge” part of The Chivas Challenge Live…a few people voiced opinions favoring Chivas or Johnnie Walker, but I think the overriding opinion was that they’re both good in different ways. The Chivas folks didn’t really need anybody to come out and say Chivas 18 was better. Just presenting them as “equals” and getting people to debate the merits of each is a victory for Chivas Brothers, given the 3x price premium for JW Blue.

For me, this event was all about gaining insight into the components involved in creating the Chivas Regal 18 blend. It was interesting to see how smooth the individual components were. This probably has something to do with the manner in which they matured the whiskies. I had figured the smoothness of the blend was purely based on the recipe, but clearly their control over the maturation of the malts and grains plays into the final outcome. I was most impressed with the Strathisla 18 single malt and the Islay 18 blended malt. You can’t buy either, but if you try Chivas Regal 18, you’ll get a pretty good insight into the profile of the Strathisla 18.

Many thanks to Stephanie, Alex Robertson and the rest of the Chivas/NOVA teams for putting together this enlightening and entertaining event.

Cheers,
Jeff

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Introduction

Autographed Single Barrel

We had another great local tasting at Sportsman’s Fine Wine and Spirits in Scottsdale, AZ on April 14. This time, it was Four Roses bourbon, and Jim Rutledge was there to pour our drams. He’s been the Master Distiller at Four Roses distillery since 1995. Like Tom Bulleit, he was a very engaging, down-to-earth guy who enjoyed talking about whiskey, and seemed to get a kick out of seeing others enjoy it. He brought four expressions with him, and didn’t have a problem with folks coming back for seconds of their favorites.

It was an informal, open-house type of tasting, and only cost $10 to attend. We also got special pricing for the night. I ended up spending a grand total of $40, including the entry fee, which got me the samples, plus an autographed bottle of Four Roses Single Batch bourbon. Once again, I strongly recommed getting out there and finding tasting events at your local specialty stores. What a great way to taste new whiskies, learn about the distilleries, and meet interesting people in the industry!

The Bourbons

The four bourbons served at this tasting were the standard Four Roses Yellow Label ($20), Small Batch ($38), Single Barrel ($40), and the 2009 Mariage limited release ($85). I don’t like to attempt any kind of rating based on public tasting events. I’ve found that my opinions can change quite a bit between these types of events and my more controlled tasting sessions at home. I’ll certainly share my thoughts on these, though, along with the the consensus opinions of others in attendance.

Of the three standard releases, my least favorite on the night was the Small Batch, bottled at 45% ABV.  Not because it was bad, it just seemed uninteresting relative to the others. Perhaps my opinion will change in a more controlled drinking environment, but in doing this comparison, the Small Batch came off as being the Four Roses version of Gentleman Jack. Good taste and very smooth, but forgettable. It seemed to be intended more for the occasional drinker than the whiskey aficionado.

The entry-level Yellow Label was of surprisingly high quality, and really caught me by surprise. It’s only 40% ABV, but it’s got a stronger flavor than the Small Batch, with a good mouth presence and a longer than expected finish. It’s sweet, but not sickly sweet, and there’s just enough rye spice to keep things interesting. Despite the price, this seems like a genuine sipping whiskey, not fodder for mixers. This one is easy to recommend.

The Single Barrel expression has the highest rye content of the bunch, and you could tell. It also weighs in at a respectable 50% ABV. I’ve found that in premium bourbons, I tend to prefer wheated over rye. However, the great mouth feel and spicy, yet smooth finish of the Single Barrel really seemed to hit the spot on this night. Granted, this might have something to do with 100 proof being a real sweet spot for me when it comes to whisk(e)y. If you’re a big rye bourbon, or straight rye fan, then you really need to try this. If you’re ANY kind of bourbon fan, you should still check it out. Very nice.

Finally, we have the 2009 Mariage (yes, a single “r”, as this is the French spelling) release, bottled around 57% ABV. The 2009 release has a combination of 10 and 19 year old bourbons vatted together. You can definitely taste the extra wood coming from the older barrels. I happen to like this, and enjoyed this expression as much, and maybe more than the Single Barrel. Most others, including Mr. Rutledge, seemed to disagree. Interestingly, Mr. Rutledge did acknowledge that scotch drinkers seem to enjoy Mariage more than bourbon drinkers. They’re more used to a stronger wood influence, he figured. While I really enjoyed this one, and I understand the “limited release” pricing, I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on a bottle of this at twice the price of the Single Barrel.

The majority of the people attending the event seemed to prefer the Single Barrel. This also seemed to be the favorite for Jim Rutledge, although he was very high on the Yellow Label as well. I seemed to like the 2009 Mariage more than just about everybody else there. One guy even apologized and said he couldn’t finish the Mariage, but asked for another sample of the Single Barrel. Each to their own, I suppose.

Interesting info from Jim Rutledge

Four Roses distillery has an interesting setup when it comes to creating different expressions. They use two mashbills and five yeast cultures to create ten different recipes that are aged separately. This gives them a lot of options when creating new expressions. Rather than repeat all of the details that Mr. Rutledge shared with us, I’ll point you to a guest blog post he did for Malt Advocate.

I got some one-on-one time with Mr. Rutledge, and wanted to share some things I found particularly interesting:

  • I’ve read it elsewhere, but he confirmed that Bulleit Bourbon is created at the Four Roses distillery and uses two of their recipes, with both the 35% and the 20% rye mashbills.
  • The 2009 Mariage vatting that was bottled is NOT the one he originally approved. It was supposed to contain somewhere around 9-10% of the 19 year barrels, but the finished product ended up with about 20% of the 19 year. Mr. Rutledge was actually disappointed with the final result, but glad to see some scotch aficionados enjoying it. :-)
  • He had just picked out the 2010 Mariage recipe the week before our tasting. He said he thinks it will be the best bourbon they’ve ever bottled. Of course, he’s a bit biased, but considering how candid he was regarding the 2009 release, I’m excited to see what people say about the 2010 bottling.

Stay tuned for more detailed Four Roses tasting notes

While I don’t like to do ratings or in-depth tasting notes based on these public tastings, I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire samples of the three standard releases. I’m looking forward to spending a number of evenings with these whiskies and sharing my thoughts on them.

Cheers,
Jeff

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Introduction

Signed Bulleit Btl

As I prepared to leave work yesterday, I checked my Twitter feed and saw the reminder from Sportsman’s Fine Wine and Spirits that a free Bulleit Bourbon tasting was taking place from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm. I was kind of tired and almost ignored it, but then…I’ve passed that unique flask-shaped bottle with raised lettering many times and wondered about the spirit inside. Why not take a few minutes to see what it’s all about? I’m glad I went, as company founder Tom Bulleit was there talking about bourbon and signing bottles. Not only was he a very entertaining and likable gentleman, but I also got the scoop on some new works in progress by this [currently] single-expression brand!

Tom talks about the Bulleit History

Tom bulleit at Sportsman's in Scottsdale, AZ

It’s Mr. Bulleit’s Great, Great Grandfather Augustus who is credited with formulating the original Bulleit whiskey recipe. He came to America with his French family in 1805, taking root in New Orleans. In the 1825 to 1830 time frame, he worked his way up to Louisville, Kentucky where he married and ran a couple of taverns. He also started making whiskey, which he sold locally, and would also take barrels back to New Orleans to sell there.

Tom Bulleit mentioned that he DID work at a distillery when he was young (he’s currently 67 years young), but his father was never really involved in the business. Tom went on to be a marine and a successful lawyer. However, he had always dreamed of resurrecting the family whiskey recipe and starting his own business. He said his father wasn’t too keen about the idea, but Tom felt compelled to follow his passion. He founded Bulleit and ran it as a family business until 1997, when they partnered with Seagrams. Diageo bought out most of Seagrams a few years later and Bulleit became their small-batch bourbon. He said that Diageo has been great to work for/with. They can still be very entrepreneurial and independent, but have access to vast resources.

The Bulleit Bourbon recipe

Now, the story goes that the Augustus recipe, after his death in 1860, was passed along in the family, and it was this recipe that Tom used when he founded Bulleit Bourbon in 1987. The current Bulleit recipe calls for 68% corn, 4% malted barley, and 28% rye. This is a significant increase in rye relative to other bourbons. What I found interesting was Tom’s description of the original Augustus recipe. He said it was originally about two thirds rye and one third corn…not technically a bourbon by today’s standards.

So…I guess the “original recipe” thing is a bit of a loose interpretation, with the key being that, as a bourbon, it has a very high rye content. Of course there are other factors involved in the recipe. Apparently they are very specific about how the grains should be grown. They also have a method of filtering the distillate so that they’re only using ethyl alcohol and none of the phenols (something to do with temperature and specific gravity…I took his word for it). This helps give it a very smooth character. They mature the barrels for at least six years, at which point they start checking them for “proper” maturity. The barrels used to make the final product are between six and eight years of age.

Tasting Bulleit

Bulleit Bourbon Frontier Whiskey; 45% ABV (90 proof)

Nose: Gentle, with very little direct alcohol influence. Vanilla and some light fresh oak and medium sweetness. Hints of citrus come and go.
Palate: Gentle at first, then a very noticeable pepper spice, almost Talisker-like. Turns dry fairly quickly.
Finish: The pepper has a medium-long duration, and this is VERY drying on the tongue. More vanilla, and just a touch of smoke in the back of the nostrils.

Comments:

I expected the 28% rye content to really give this a pop, but it’s quite gentle. It’s fascinating to experience that pepper and high level of dryness on the tongue, but have the rest of the experience be one of subtle toffee sweetness, vanilla and light oak. Bulleit compares price-wise with Knob Creek and Maker’s Mark. I’m having difficulty organizing their profiles in a linear fashion, though. The Bulleit lies in between the other two in relative sweetness and spiciness, but it’s lighter than either of the other bourbons. That lightness is similar to that of Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey, but unlike the GJ, you can tell this one is whiskey, not flavored water.

My tasting notes are based on the in-store tasting last night, and another dram tonight. I’ll hold off on trying to rate this until I’ve had more experience with it. While I’m not going to give up Island or Islay Scotch for this bourbon, my initial impression is that it is a good value if you can find it for a little over $20. I’ll pull it out when I’m looking for something light, but I still want to get an entertaining tingle on the tongue (both from the dryness and the pepper spice).

Bulleit in cocktails

I can’t really offer much when it comes to bourbon cocktails. I like mine neat or with a few drops of room temperature water. Mr. Bulleit also indicated a preference for drinking whiskey neat or on the rocks. He fully supports everyone’s right to create whatever mixes they see fit, but what truly gives him pleasure is seeing somebody enjoy the profile that they worked so hard to create. He did offer up one particular cocktail recommendation. He said this ONLY works with Bulleit [with a sly smile on his face]:

  • A shot of Bulleit Bourbon
  • 1.5 – 2 oz tonic
  • A squeeze of lemon

That’s it…very simple, but he says it’s great. I’ll have to pull a lemon off of our tree this weekend and give it a try.

Conclusion

Signed Bulleit Btl (back)

It was a pleasure meeting Tom Bulleit, and he was incredibly generous with his time. I had monopolized a bit of that time towards the end of the tasting, and when I apologized, he said no apologies necessary. It was a pleasure to talk bourbon with people who are passionate about whiskey. I believed him. He’s a good salesman, but he also seems very humble, down to earth, and appreciative of his opportunity to follow his passion and share it with others. His bourbon is well crafted, refined, and very drinkable. If you’re scared off by the likes of Knob Creek, don’t be frightened by the “Frontier Whiskey” on the label. I’d think of that as more of a reference to Augustus Bulleit’s travels between Tennessee and New Orleans (with whiskey in tow) than to the character of the bourbon itself.

Oh, and I mentioned at the beginning that I got the scoop on some exciting new products they’re working on. However, when I mentioned that I have a whisk(e)y blog, he asked me to hold off putting anything in writing so that they can have first crack at sharing the news. However, I’m free to blog about it in four months if they haven’t gone public with anything. At least that gives you an idea of the time frame they’re looking at. We’re not talking about something that’s years away from coming to fruition.

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Introduction

Beam Global is doing a pretty cool marketing campaign, pitting whisk(e)y from three countries against each other in a debate between brand ambassadors as they battle for whisky supremacy. Attendance is free, and along with an entertaining evening put on by the debaters, participants get to try whisk(e)y samples from the three distilleries involved. This stop on the debate tour was in Scottsdale, AZ at the Hotel Valley Ho (yes, they worked a joke about the hotel name into the debate). The three Distilleries were Knob Creek, Canadian Club and Laphroaig, with brand ambasadors Bernie Lubbers (a Beam “whiskey professor”), Dan Tullio, and Simon Brooking respectively. The moderator was Steve Cole (also a Jim Beam whiskey professor?).

Now, don’t take my calling out of this event as a marketing campaign as a passive-agressive knock on Beam Global or the people involved. I’m just calling it what it is, but I think it’s a great idea, and I love these types of marketing events. Bring ‘em on spirits companies! I’ll go to them, write about them, and buy your whiskey.

How did I find out about this event? I got an email invite because I am a Knob Creek Stillhouse member.

For a good overview of the Chicago version of this event, check out this post over at WhiskyParty.net.

The Debate

Prior to the debate, they sent everybody up to the roof of the hotel where they were serving cocktails made from the three whiskies that we would be tasting. I can’t remember what the make-up of the cocktails was. I just heard “Canadian Club with blah, blah, blah; Knob Creek with Blah, Blah, Blah.” Finally, there was Laphroaig 10 year with water and ice. I ordered that one, but without ice. And I had him skip the water, too. Ahh…now that’s a good cocktail.

The format of the debate involved first having each ambassador introduce the type of whisk(e)y they were representing (bourbon, canadian whiskey, and Islay scotch whisky). Then Steve Cole asked each ambassador a question and had them explain why their whisky was the best. After fielding questions from the audience, the panel made their final arguments and then the attendees voted by raising miniature American, Canadian and Scottish flags that were provided with each place setting.

We had a pretty strong Scottish contingent making a lot of noise at this event, but I think bourbon won out. There were actually a pretty decent number of votes for Canadian whiskey as well. As the event is all in good fun, though, it was declared a draw.

Talking about the "water of life"...on water.

Talking about the "water of life"...on water.

The Whiskies

Wide-mouth plastic cups don’t serve as the best vessels for critical analysis, but here are a few notes on the samples supplied:

Canadian Club Classic 12 Year

Ridiculously sweet, with vanilla, toffee and cinnamon. Weak palate and short finish. No alcohol burn…not even any warmth to speak of. VERY easy to drink…the non-whiskey drinker’s whiskey?

Knob Creek Bourbon (9 year)

Sweet smelling, but not as sweet as the CC. A much stronger nose than the CC, too. Nice spicy notes on the tongue (from the Rye?), and pleasing warmth going down. Maybe slightly rough, but not bad. The finish is longer than the CC for sure, but no lingering smoke like the Laphroaig. Enjoyable and totally worth the $25 it goes for locally.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask (No Age Statement)

Classic Islay with some iodine and lots of smoke on the finish. Sweeter and more oaky than the standard Laphroaig 10. Nice long finish. This is a fantastic whisky, even in a plastic cup. Still, at an event like this, it’s not as “accessible” as the Knob Creek. I think the people that voted for this one were familiar with the Islay profile coming in.

Whisk(e)y Debate place setting

Whisk(e)y Debate place setting

Shout out

Cheers to Sascha and Julie, a couple of SMWS members from Australia who happened to be in town for the SAP conference. Sascha and I were on each other’s Twitter follow list due to a shared interest in whisky, and the three of us ended up attending the whisky debate together and hanging out talking afterwards at the bar. A couple of the nicest people you’d want to meet – how cool is this online social networking thing?

Video from the event

This isn’t very high quality video, but I thought I’d share some clips from the event. I took these with my Point and Shoot, and quickly realized that I wasn’t going to have enough memory to record the whole thing. I decided to focus mainly on the scotch-related  portions of the debate, given the name of my blog. Too bad, though, as I failed to record a really funny bit from Bernie Lubbers.

Here’s Simon Brooking providing an introduction to Islay Scotch Whisky, and an amusing story about kilts:

Next up was Bernie Lubbers introducing American Bourbon:

It was during Dan Tullio’s Canadian Whiskey introduction (note the Canadian Club hockey jersey) that I realized my limited memory situation on the camera, so I cut him off in the middle…seemed like the American thing to do:

Not to fear, though…here’s a link to another Great Whisk(e)y Debate event with more from Dan, as he explains how Canadian Club can help improve the American economy:

Moving along with the debate, Steve Cole asks Simon Brooking – “Is Laphroaig the whisky of change, or the whisky of experience?”

And now Simon Brooking walks the audience through a tasting of Laphroaig QC, and shares a funny “toast” story:

Fielding questions from the audience, Bernie Lubbers discusses the impact of oak and charring on bourbon maturation:

Simon Brooking follows up on the use of bourbon barrels for maturing scotch whisky:

Finally, here’s the closing toast, after the three debate participants ganged up on moderator Steve Cole and threw him in the pool:

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Introduction

JW Black Centenary Pack

JW Black Centenary Pack

Is that a long title or what? That was the title of an event put on by Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand on 9/29/09 as part of a celebration of 100 years of Johnnie Walker Black Label. The host of the webcast was Andrew Ford, Master Blender for Johnnie Walker, and they aired the event from the Brandy Library in New York City. It was an interactive webcast, with participants able to ask questions via web form during the presentation. Attendance was by invitation only, owing to the “Art of Blending” kit sent to each participant (details below).

So, how did I get an invite? I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I’m very important.

Ok, so maybe that Anchorman quote doesn’t apply…I’m nobody, and definitely not a big deal. However, the guys over at WhiskyParty.net apparently ARE a big deal, and they got an invite. I was fortunate enough to have them give my name to their PR contact at Johnnie Walker. I exchanged emails with the JW rep on Sunday before the Tuesday event, and my “Art of Blending” kit arrived via FedEx an hour before the webcast. Thanks Mike and Dan!!!

The Art of Blending kit

"The Art of Blending" kit

"The Art of Blending" kit

The blending kit sent to each webcast participant included the following:

  • 1 200ml bottle of Johnnie Walker Black
  • 7 sample bottles containing 100+ ml of whiskies representing each region (plus an extra first-fill sherry speyside sample and a grain whisky sample)
  • 1 Spiegelau whisky snifter (nosing glass)
  • 1 measuring device
  • 1 funnel
  • 1 empty sample bottle for storing your own blend
  • A tasting map
  • A map of the whisky regions of Scotland
  • A USB thumb drive with Johnnie Walker Black Label 100th Anniversary press materials and bio of Andrew Ford
Kit contents

Kit contents

The Whiskies

JW Black 200ml plus blending samples

JW Black 200ml plus blending samples

The sample bottles provided with the blending kit only contain high-level descriptions of region or type. They did not divulge the distilleries during the webcast, although there were a couple of hints, and possibly some facial expression give-aways by Andrew Ford during Q&A. Also, all of the samples are representative of whiskies that would go into JW Black (which contains 40+ malts and grains), so they’re at least 12 years old.

Unfortunately, I’m recovering from a cold, so I’m saving full tasting and blending experimentation until my nose and throat are back to normal. My sinuses did clear up enough to be able to somewhat enjoy nosing them, and I did taste a couple.

About the sample bottles:

  • Grain whisky - A very sweet, mild whisky with a definite “grain” aftertaste. Mr. Ford talks about grain whisky being important for blends, providing sweetness and drinkability. He likens it to rice or pasta in a food dish. I don’t know that I’m buying it. If it cost the same to produce a grain whisky and a single malt, would they really still choose to put the grain in the blend? I know it’s possible to create sweet, light, consistent tasting single malts these days.
  • Lowland – This is almost certainly Glenkinche, given that there are very few lowland distilleries (even taking into account closed ones) associated with Diageo. Mr. Ford also gave something of an acknowledging smile when somebody guessed that it was Glenkinche.
  • Speyside - Again, Mr. Ford seemed to almost give away the speyside distillery. He talked about Cardhu being a cornerstone malt for the Johnnie Walker blends. This is one that I tasted side-by-side with JW Black, and you could tell that it’s a big part of the blend.
  • Sherry Cask – A very strong sherry smell that reminds me of Aberlour a’bunadh. He mentioned that it was a speyside malt. Possibly a Mortlach?
  • Highland – A big clue was given for this one, when it was announced that our Highland sample was from a West Coast distillery. Oban jumps right to mind with that geographical reference. I tasted this one as well, but I’ve only had Oban once before. I need to get  a bottle to have on hand for reference. It kind of reminded me of Clynelish (from memory), but that’s on the East Coast.
  • Island – This one sure smells like Talisker, and wouldn’t you know that is a Diageo distillery and one that is known to play a big part in JW blends.
  • Islay – I figured this would be Caol Ila, but nosing it as best as I could with my cold, it sure seemed to have the Lagavulin iodine in it. Score! I can’t wait to taste this one. [Update: I poured a little into a nosing glass and tried it, and I’m pretty sure it’s Caol Ila 12]

The webcast

Webcast with Master Blender Andrew Ford

Webcast with Master Blender Andrew Ford

Tomorrow, I’ll post a full review of the webcast presentation by Andrew Ford. I’ll also share some of the questions and answers from the event. Then I’ll probably do a third post about the whiskies once I’m healthy, and share the recipe and tasting notes for my own custom blend.

In the mean time, you can read an excellent overview of the webcast on the WhiskyParty.net web site, or check out the live blogging post by Liquor Snob.

Next Post: Part 1 of the webcast

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Springbank/BenRiach tasting mat

Springbank/BenRiach tasting mat

Introduction

I’m back from the Springbank/BenRiach tasting at the Sportsman’s in Scottsdale, AZ; a combination Wine Bistro and Liquor store. For $35, we got a whisky cocktail, 8 samples from Springbank and BenRiach, a Riedel “O” glass, special pricing on the event drinks, and a $10 voucher good for the night. I met up with Sean from the Whisky Magazine forums and enjoyed sharing notes with him. The event was pretty good, but they moved things along a lot more quickly than the last one I went to. It started at 6:00pm, and they were finished with the selection by 7:15pm, at which point people got up and started shopping with their $10 vouchers. Sean and I were three drinks behind at one point. We took our time and ended up leaving about 8pm.

The Whiskies

The official lineup (with my notes):

  • Springbank 10, 100 proof; matured in 100% bourbon casks
    • Closed nose until a few drops of water added. Sweet, with lots of vanilla. I was thinking white cake mix, but then Sean mentioned pancakes, and I could totally see that. Easy on the palate for a 50% abv, but a pretty short finish. I didn’t get any peat, and not much smoke. It was nice, but I was kind of disappointed.
  • Springbank 15 (46%); matured in 60% sherry and 40% bourbon casks
    • More going on with the nose on this one. The sherry isn’t very strong, providing fruit more along the lines of apricots than the red berries or dried red fruits that I normally expect with sherry. A little more smoke with this one. Nice body, with spices and a bit of pepper on the finish. I liked this much more than the 10 year 100 proof. I just wish it was less expensive.
  • BenRiach 15 Madeira Wood Finish
    • Some fruitiness on the nose that I expect with a sherried whisky, but more subdued. Also some vanilla. I didn’t note anything on the palate, but thought there was a little bit of dark chocolate bitterness. Sean, on the other hand, found it more bitter to the point of being a bit turned off.
  • BenRiach 15 Pedro Ximinez Sherry Wood Finish
    • Ahh…here’s the nose I like. I could sit and take this in all night. Nice red fruits from the sherry finish. More sherry and and fruit on the palate, with a hint of spices. No notes on the finish, but I don’t recall it being particularly long. I really enjoyed this one, but the normal pricing here is $93. I can just about get a Mac 18 for that.
  • BenRiach 15 Dark Rum Wood Finish
    • Wow. Not just a rum influence. This IS rum. Oh…and some kind of metalic flavor that turned me off. Next!
  • BenRiach Arumaticus Fumosus (46%); A 12 year peated with a dark rum finish, non-chill filtered and natural color.
    • Completely different experience from the non-peated 15 year dark rum. Probably because the peat completely overpowers the rum influence. In a good way, too. This is a great, pure peat smell up front, mixed with a nice honey sweetness. More like the Longrow kind of peat than Islay. Plenty of smoke…an ashy smoke. Not a lot of rum influence. A real peat-lover’s whisky.
  • BenRiach Herodotus Fumosus (46%); A 12 year peated with Pedro Ximinez finish, non-chill filtered and natural color.
    • More great peat like with the Arumaticus, but the Pedro Ximinez influence is much more noticeable than the dark rum was. I usually dig PX influence, like with Lagavulin DE, but in this case, I preferred the nose of the rum finish. On the other hand, the palate on this Herodotus was spicier and stronger. I’d like to combine the nose of the Arumaticus with the palate/finish of the Herodotus.

As a bonus, they brought out our Riedel “O” glasses at the end with a sample of:

  • BenRiach Authenticus Peated 21 year old
    • Mmm, mmm, good. The pure peat from the 12 year olds has been refined over the additional 9 years and integrated with the rest of the flavors. This one reminds me more of an Islay malt than the younger ones did, more reminiscent of Ardbeg than Longrow. It was VERY enjoyable. I downed this a little quicker than I would have liked, as everybody else was finished by the time I got to this. I’m putting it on my “want to buy” list, although I thought it was priced a bit high even with the event pricing ($146).

Takeaways

  • Springbank and BenRiach are expensive in Arizona
    • I just noticed that I kept feeling inclined to point out the price of the whiskies I liked. My general feeling was that, while there was some good stuff here, it’s priced too high relative to some of the competition (at least based on local prices).
  • Best whisky of the night:
    • BenRiach Authenticus
  • Worst whisky of the night:
    • Easily the BenRiach 15 Dark Rum finish
  • Biggest disappointment:
    • Didn’t seem to get much out of the Springbank 10, 100 proof. I expected much more.
  • Most pleasant surprise:
    • The 12 year peated BenRiachs. I really dig this particular presentation of peat. I had read somewhat mediocre reviews of these on Whiskyfun, so wasn’t expecting much. I bought a bottle of the Arumaticus Fumosus for $63, taking advantage of event pricing. We’ll see if I like it as much at home, and I’m looking forward to comparing this to my Longrow CV.

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