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Well, good timing with my previous post on the Mackinlay’s Shackleton whisky replica. It looks like the National Geographic Channel is airing a special on the Shackleton whisky discovery and replication process tonight. I’ll be watching..likely while enjoying a dram of The Dalmore. :-)

[Edit: Oops! I accidentally posted this as a PBS special originally. It's actually on the National Geographic channel.]

Here is the info from National Geographic:

Expedition Whisky
Premieres Thursday, November 3 at 8pm ET/PT
Battling subzero temperatures and using only rudimentary navigational tools, explorer Ernest Shackleton set the record for reaching the furthest south in 1908, just 97 miles from the South Pole.  The expedition was cut short by a lack of food, and Shackleton returned home to a hero’s welcome in England and was knighted by King Edward VII.  But apparently, Shackleton left behind a few “necessities” from his epic journey to the South Pole.  In 2006, Shackleton’s stash of Scotch was re-discovered beneath the hut he used as his base camp.  With rare archival material and the last remaining film footage of Shackleton and his crew, “Expedition Whisky” not only tells the amazing story of Shackleton’s most successful adventure and his secret stash of whisky, but also shows a world’s top taster on a mission to sniff out and remake the vintage.

Shackleton’s Whisky Recipe
http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/national-geographic-channel/specials-1/expedition-week-1/ngc-shackletons-whiskey-recipe.html

Whisky Find of the Century
http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/player/national-geographic-channel/specials-1/expedition-week-1/ngc-whiskey-find-of-the-century.html

Cheers,
Jeff

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Introduction

Sabbatical. That’s what I’ll call my scotch blog break over the past 7 weeks. I didn’t necessarily plan to take so much time off…a week of family vacation here, a business trip there, a couple of medical procedures that each prevented me from drinking anything for a week. When I did have a little free time, I was working on beefing up my JavaScript/CSS/HTML programming skills.

Now I’m back, and I have quite a few tasting notes to post. But first, a public answer to a question I get now and then via email…

Where do I buy my whisk(e)y?

I’ve blogged about far more whiskies than I have access to via local stores. I have people ask me where I find this stuff, especially the expressions that are only available overseas. I do have some links to online sites on my Whisky Resources page. However, let me discuss in a little more detail my purchasing approach.

Local Purchasing

For any more “common” expression, especially when it comes to bourbon, I will start out with my local stores. I also check in periodically with my local specialty liquor store for certain special releases, such as the Diageo releases in the Fall.

  • Total Wine & More: Here in AZ, this is the best priced big box store. They make their money on wine, offering up many scotch and bourbon expressions not much above their purchase price. I also like it that they have somebody like Greg Tuttle who is active on Twitter as @TotalWine, and has pushed for some in-store scotch tastings. They also have a deal going with Duncan Taylor’s Battlehill brand to offer up some unique one-off expressions, like the Caol Ila 25 year that my wife bought me for Christmas.
  • BevMo: I’ll periodically buy from here. There are a couple of expressions that are priced lower than Total Wine, but most are higher. I do have a membership and keep an eye out for coupons or special deals. Recently, they’ve also started offering some interesting looking A.D. Rattray bottlings…their equivalent to the Battlehill expressions at Total Wine.
  • Specialty Stores: I really like the idea of supporting smaller, local specialty shops. The best one that I’m aware of here in the Phoenix, AZ area is Sportsman’s Fine Wine and Spirits. I know there are some for whom this would be a really big deal relative to the big box stores, kind of like the anti-Walmart crowd. I do value being able to talk to somebody at the store who is enthusiastic about Scotch or bourbon. Hopefully, your local specialty store will also have tasting events, which are a great way to get familiar with new whiskies. Ultimately, though, I’ll only reach so far on price. If Lagavulin 16 is $70 at the big box and $105 at the specialty store, I’m going to go big box (or mail order) for that one. On the other hand, if the price difference is reasonably small, I’ll pay a bit more and purchase from the specialty store.
  • Hole in the wall stores: You know these stores…they’re often located on the “other side of the tracks”, and the sign out front simply says “Liquor.” When it comes to whisk(e)y, they probably sell far more small, flask-shaped bottles for under $10 than they sell Highland Park or Ardbeg. I’ve found some really interesting bottles at these stores, though…expressions that are no longer available at the more popular stores. I found a Dalmore 21, Glenmorangie 15, older dumpy bottles of HP 18, Aberlour a’bunadh Batch 15, and more. One store in particular had obviously purchased an initial stock of scotch around 2006/2007 and had never sold much of it. You can’t find this stuff at BevMo.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time visiting all of these stores, and I now have a pretty good idea in my head which expressions are available where, and who has the best price for a particular brand or even individual expression. Regardless of your stance on specialty vs big box, you should definitely spend some time at your local specialty store and get to know the people, their whiskies, and their pricing model. Sometimes they’ll have prices on certain expressions or brands that even the big box stores can’t touch. Plus, you’re more likely to get useful suggestions for new expressions to try.

If you get great service/advice at your local specialty store, please consider buying there, even if it’s a few dollars more than at BevMo or Total Wine. I mean, I get it if they’re charging 30-40% more and you decide to purchase elsewhere, but don’t run down the street to the big box to save $5 on a $75 bottle they just introduced you to.

U.S. mail order

I’ll go mail order for expressions I can’t find locally, or when the deal is just too good to pass up. Here are a few places I’ve ordered from with much success. If you can order several bottles at once, you really cut down on the shipping cost. However, I’ve tended to be a 1 or 2 bottle at a time buyer. There are deals to be had even with this purchasing approach.

  • Shopper’s Vineyard: Subscribe to their newsletter and follow them on Facebook or Twitter to keep tabs on their deals. Sometimes they even go so far as to offer near wholesale prices with free shipping!
  • Astor Wines: I purchased Lagavulin 16 from them for $50 plus shipping!
  • For Scotch Lovers: Join their newsletter and check out their Whisky Wednesday deals. They’re not all great, but there are some gems in there.

I also know people who have purchased from Beltramo’s, Hi Time Wine, and Binny’s very happily.

International mail order

There was a time a couple of years ago, when the exchange rate was lower, that it was a much easier decision to purchase from the UK. Now, you really have to look for the right deal, and purchase enough bottles to keep the shipping costs in check. Still, there are some expressions you just can’t get in the U.S., and it’s good to know there are trusted sources elsewhere.

  • The Whisky Exchange: This is where I started with overseas mail order. They have great people, a HUGE whisky fan/collector for an owner (well, he’s not a huge person, but he’s a significant collector and he knows his whisky), and fantastic service. Their shipping for a single bottle is on the expensive side, but order several and you’ll do fine. Their shipping service is top notch. You can track your shipment, and it’s FAST! Check out their own-bottled expressions under the Single Malts of Scotland or Port Askaig brand names. They have some real winners!
  • Loch Fyne Whiskies: Another super high quality store, located in Scotland. I order most of my special one-off editions from them, such as the HP Earl Magnus releases, and the early Kilchoman expressions. They’re very good to their customers. Get on a waiting list for a special release, and they’ll make sure you get it.
  • Master of Malt: Another great group of people…true whisky enthusiasts. I didn’t order from them for a long time, as they don’t subtract the UK VAT in the basket when you set up an order. However, I found out that you can just email them and ask for a refund on that portion of the purchase and they’ll credit you. Not ideal, but it worked, and I trust them. My favorite thing about MoM is their sample program…a great way to try before you buy, or try something that you can’t afford a whole bottle of. Also, like The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt bottles some really exciting expressions of their own.

Trading

Once you’ve built up your whisky collection to more bottles than you can drink over several years (or for some, in your lifetime), a great way to keep trying new expressions is to get to know other enthusiasts and start trading. I’ve gotten to try some amazing expressions this way. You can also do things like split in on an order and divide bottles up between several people.

Conclusion

Well, there you go…my approach to buying and trading for new expressions on my whisk(e)y discovery journey. Yes, I’ve also gotten some free samples as a blogger, but I’ve purchased or traded for most of my collection. I know there are other great stores out there. If you have a favorite mail order source that I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to hear about it!

Cheers,
Jeff

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Introduction

There are plenty of resources out there explaining how Scotch whisky goes from new-make spirit to full-fledged Scotch via maturation in casks (I’ll include some links at the bottom of this post). However, I decided to go ahead and do a blog post that pulls together some of that information. More specifically, I want to point out and discuss areas where I often see confusion and debate even amongst whisky enthusiasts. Hopefully I’ve got this down, but I’m open to correction if I’ve screwed anything up. :-)

Scotch whisky, after being distilled, must be matured for at least 3 years in oak casks before it can officially be called Scotch. It’s right in the Scotch Whisky Association regulations. American oak (Quercus alba) and European oak (Quercus robur) are the most common species used for cask creation. Additionally, most Scotch whisky casks were previously used to mature bourbon or sherry. On a lesser scale, there are other  types of previously used casks, such as Rum, Madeira, Port, Tokaji, and other wines. These are often used to “finish” a whisky after its initial maturation in sherry or bourbon casks, but can also be used for the full maturation period. Springbank 11 year “Madeira Wood”, for example, was matured entirely in ex-Madeira casks.

It’s all oak!

This brings me to the first point of confusion that I’ve witnessed. American oak bourbon barrels are the most common source for Scotch whisky casks. I’m not sure where it started, but it’s common to see the term “traditional oak” used to describe a whisky matured in ex-bourbon casks. I think in conversation, this sometimes gets shortened to “oak.” Now you have people talking about whether the whisky was matured in sherry or oak casks. Oak becomes a synonym for an ex-bourbon, American oak barrel. That’s very misleading.

All of these casks (bourbon, sherry, madeira, etc.) are made from oak. The maturation differences come down to type of oak, whether the wood on the inside of the barrel was charred or toasted, and what kind of (if any) liquid was previously matured in it. Scotch casks can also be re-used, which becomes another factor in the flavor and color profile of the whisky.

Update: Immediately after posting this, I saw a tweet advertising Black Bull 12 Year, along with the claim “Matured in oak.” This is the kind of lame marketing that adds to the confusion. Stating this on the bottle or marketing literature would seem to imply that it could have been matured in something else. Doesn’t it just make them come across as looking either dumb or condescending, and not like somebody you would want to buy scotch from? I supposed the practice could date back to before oak was called out as the required wood type. However, wouldn’t that at least make it “lazy” marketing at this point in time?

American oak. It’s not just for bourbon.

Myth: All American oak casks previously matured bourbon.

This is point of confusion #2. While it’s true that you can generally assume that a whisky matured in ex-bourbon barrels was matured in American oak, you can’t assume that an American oak cask was previously used to mature Bourbon. American oak is also used to make sherry casks. In fact, Highland Park uses ONLY sherry casks for the maturation of their standard line of whiskies. To adjust the flavors in their expressions, they play with the ratio of American and European oak casks used, as well as the number of times those casks have been refilled.

Stop giving me the stink eye

When I mention that HP only uses sherry casks, I seem to usually get met with a stink eye look. It seems to be very commonly believed that when Highland Park talks of American oak influence on expressions like the 15 year, they’re talking about ex-bourbon casks. However, their web site very explicitly states that they only use ex-sherry casks. I think part of the reason this is hard to believe is that when you think sherry, you don’t think of America. However, keep in mind that using American oak for sherry doesn’t require that the casks were actually made and used in the United States. The wood can be shipped to, coopered and seasoned in Europe.

I actually wondered about this myself. I believe HP when they say they only use sherry casks, but how do they get the quantity of American oak sherry casks that they need? Then I read James Saxon’s blog post about his Highland Park distillery tour. Here’s how his guide explained it to him…very enlightening!

They have the most dedicated wood policy in the industry – £2 million a year on casks and wood management. This is more than the rest of the industry combined. This was the first I’d heard of it. When it comes to wood, it is Glenmorangie which toots its horn the loudest. Well, like Glenmorangie, Highland Park has its own forests in America where they harvest the wood, lend them to the Sherry industry, then bring them back to Orkney to mature Highland Park. There are no Bourbon barrels in the place, just American oak seasoned in Europe in addition to European oak.

Great stuff! I highly recommend reading the rest of James’ Highland Park tour description, and checking out his other distillery tour reviews on the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

Update: Ok, found another source on the HP sherry cask debate…direct confirmation from Gerry Tosh at HP via Jason Debly’s Scotch Whisky Reviews blog in his nice HP 15 Review.

New Oak. Also not just for bourbon.

Myth: Scotch whisky MUST be matured in used casks.

Scotch is almost always matured in used casks, but there are exceptions. There is nothing in the Scotch Whisky Association regulations prohibiting the use of new (or “virgin”) oak casks in the maturation of Scotch whisky. Meanwhile, there ARE regulations stating that Bourbon must be matured in charred new oak containers. I can see where one might assume that a regulation exists dictating used oak on the Scotch side, but that’s not the case. They just choose to go with used casks to get the flavor profile they’re looking for.

Great resources for more information

  • Malt Madness Beginner’s Guide – The whole beginner’s guide at maltmadness.com is awesome. For information on casks and maturation, check out Chapter 5.
  • Whisky for Everyone – For a quick guide to the types and sizes of casks used to mature whisky, check out this very straight-forward blog post on whisky cask types and sizes.
  • whiskywise.com – Here’s a very comprehensive article on whisk(e)y barrels discussing how oak gives real character to the whisk(e)y.
  • World Whiskey by Charles MacLean – This physical book is highly recommended, especially for the new whisky enthusiast, and served as one of my sources while writing this blog post. At $16.50 from Amazon right now, there’s no reason not to own this book. [No, my link does not earn me any kind of affiliate money]
  • The Balvenie Whisky Academy – The amazing Whisky Academy video series by The Balvenie includes a 10 minute video on Maturation in Module Two (You’ll need to enter your birth date before entering…Doh!). Satisfy your inner whisky geek and check out as much of the series as you can handle. :-)

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Introduction

Dear Santa,
You take the milk and cookies, and I’ll have a nip of whatever made your nose that color!

I see that my 2009 gift guide has been getting a bunch of hits the past few days, so perhaps it’s time to do another one. Not that I’m an expert on such things, but I am a whisky enthusiast. Perhaps some of the things that I’ve enjoyed in the past year, or want for Christmas, will apply to the the whisky lover in your life.

I think most of the items in my 2009 gift guide would still apply, so rather than repeat those, I’ll supplement with some new whisky expressions, and some that are just new to me. There are also some new books, and additional accessories that I’ve discovered in the past year. I’ll include prices, with a link, where I can find good online deals…

Whisk(e)y!

Whiskies under $40

  • AnCnoc 12 – New to the U.S., both the 12 and 16 year have started hitting store shelves. A great alternative to the ‘livets, at $35 locally, the 12 year is a bargain!
  • Maker’s 46 – The first new expression from Maker’s Mark (in the U.S.) in 52 years, it’s got a beautiful bottle to add to the gift presentation. Less than $30 at my local Total Wine & More.
  • Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2010 – A special annual release, with a nose to die for. This one is for the “woody” whiskey lover. I got it for $32 at a local Total Wine.
  • Redbreast 12 – I got a sample of Redbreast 15 this year, which is finally available in the U.S., but I’m sticking with the 12 year. If your whisk(e)y lover is new to Irish whiskies, or has only tried Jameson/Bushmills, introduce them to this beauty.

Whiskies under $60

  • The Balvenie Caribbean Rum Cask 14 year – I’ll post a review of this in a couple of days. For someone lamenting the disappearance of The Balvenie Founder’s Reserve 10 year, a bottle of this new U.S.-only release will cheer them up. ($53 online)
  • Dalwhinnie 15 – I got to sample this, but would love to have a bottle. This isn’t an “exciting” bottling, but it’s very approachable and a great whisky to share with the occasional drinker.
  • Tomatin 18 – I love this bottling, and for an 18 year, the price is right. A fantastic speyside with sherry influence and enough spice to make it interesting. One of my favorite discoveries this year. ($59.99 online)
  • Hibiki 12 – I haven’t tried it, but I’ve read so many good reviews, this Japanese blend is on my own Christmas list. The bottle is really cool looking, too. ($55 online)
  • The Dalmore Gran Reserva – I reviewed this recently, and while it’s a subtle whisky not likely to wow some single-malt aficionados, it’s another great one to share with friends who don’t drink much scotch. Good presentation, too. ($56 online)

Whiskies under $100

  • Glenmorangie Sonnalta PX – For the Glenmorangie lover in your life, this new release is a must buy. ($67 online)
  • Ardbeg Airigh Nam Beist 1990 – Make sure they like peat, but this one is more approachable than the rest of the Ardbeg line, and it’s going away for good, so it’s a great gift. The price is right, too. It’s going for half of what it sold for when it was in production! ($62 online)
  • Laphroaig 18 – Another peaty whisky, but also more approachable than the rest of the current Laphroaig line. Released last year, but slow to hit U.S. shelves, this will make your Islay-lover happy. ($70-90 online)
  • Compass Box Flaming Heart - A special release celebrating the Compass Box 10th Anniversary. I overlooked it initially, because i seem to generally like, but not love Compass Box (Hedonism being the exception). I’ve heard great things about this one, though, from others who feel the same way about Compass Box. Seems like a perfect gift whisky. ($80 online)
  • Compass Box Hedonism – Another one on my personal Christmas list. I tried it in a vertical Compass Box tasting, and this was easily my favorite of their expressions. It’s a vatting of older grain whiskies, and was quite the revelation for me. There’s more to grain whisky than you might gather from an inexpensive blend!
  • Pappy Van Winkle 15 year bourbon – Released in small batches, the latest bottling is probably already disappearing from your store shelves. This one seems to be the sweet spot in the PVW line. One of my favorite bourbons.
  • Parker’s Heritage 4th Edition bourbon – A limited release, the 3rd Edition “Golden Anniversary” is probably my favorite bourbon to date, and this one, just released this Fall, has gotten solid reviews, so a great gift. ($70 online)

The expensive stuff

  • The Glenlivet Archive 21 year ($130) – This was my Father’s Day whisky this year. Fantastic presentation in wooden box, and oh so drinkable.
  • The Dalmore Mackenzie ($150) – 90 points in my rating system, and my favorite Dalmore so far. This was to be a limited release only in the UK, but you can actually get it at Binny’s right now! ($150 online)
  • Parker’s Heritage Golden Anniversary ($135) - My favorite bourbon, made from a vatting of casks from 5 decades. If you’re going to spend more than $100 on a bourbon gift, it’s hard to do better than this. ($135 online)
  • Glenfarclas 1974 31 Year – I almost forgot about this one. I was lucky enough to get a sample of this (thanks Sean!), and if you like big, thick sherry bombs, this is absolutely incredible! It’s a U.S.-only release. For a heavily sherried Glenfarclas fan, this will be very well received. I want a bottle. Bad. ($190 – $230 online)
  • The Last Drop – Ok, who’s going to get this for me? I’ll share. :-) I only got to try a few ml of this, but it was amazing! ($2,000)

Not whisk(e)y

  • Germain-Robin XO Brandy – It’s made here in the U.S., but it’s made with an imported, antique cognac still by a guy with a cognac family background, and it’ll give more expensive cognacs a run for their money. I got it last Christmas and it’s amazing.
  • Remy Martin XO Cognac – Remy Martin XO is good stuff, too, with a really cool bottle. I mention it here because the price seems to have dropped recently. You might be able to get it for under $100.

Books

  • 101 Whiskies to try before you die – Not intended to be the “best” 101 whiskies, but rather, a sampling of expressions to educate you (and your palate) on what the whisk(e)y world has to offer.
  • Whisky Bible 2011 – Worth picking up yearly for Jim Murray’s entertaining tasting notes, whether you agree with his scores or not. Thousands of whiskies reviewed, it’s great to have so many expressions discussed in a single source.
  • Malt Whisky Yearbook 2011 – I’ve got the previous two books, but for some reason, haven’t gotten around to ordering the latest version of this one yet. It’s definitely on my Christmas list, though. Another one worth buying yearly. Some of the best whisk(e)y writers in the world team up to share information about all of the major whisk(e)y distilleries, talk about the year in whisky, and point you to useful whisky resources.

Whisky accessories

  • Whisky glasses – Always a good gift. You COULD buy these Riedel Vinum glasses, but I think they’re over priced and don’t funnel the aromas very well. Get some Glencairns or copitas that work better and cost less.
  • Bottle Tote – Now that I’m regularly taking whisky to friend’s houses and attending whisky society meetings, I need something to tote my bottles around in. I think this one looks pretty cool. Although, this rolling wine luggage would be pretty handy (don’t know anything about that retailer, though)!
  • The gift of peat smoke! – You’ve tasted peaty whisky. Ever wondered what actual peat smoke smells like? These Ardbeg Peat Cones from the Ardbeg online store just cost a few bucks plus shipping. Light them up and take in the smoky aroma. Anybody know if they smell like the real deal or not?
  • SMWSA Membership – I’d enjoy getting a membership to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America for the new member kit alone. Even better, being a member gives you access to an exciting assortment of single-cask bottlings from various distilleries. Follow the link to find out about additional benefits. It’s pretty cool.
  • Tickets to a whisky event – What a treat this would be! Give your whisky loving friend/relative a chance to sample whisky, attend seminars, and meet some of the giants in the industry. [WhiskyFest; SMWSA Extravaganza]
Happy Holidays,
Jeff

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No nightly dram today (I take one or two days off each week).  I am, however, watching some great whisky-related videos on Singlemalt.tv.  I discovered them through Twitter, and have just watched three very interesting interviews (click interviewee name links below to watch).

First, I watched interviews with the owners of two of the most popular whisky mail order stores in the UK.  Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies (LFW) seems like a lot of fun and has a great sense of humor.  Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange (TWE) was very down to earth and seems extremely knowledgeable about whisky, especially older bottlings.  Next, I watched an interview with Anthony Wills, managing director of the Kilchoman distillery.  Definitely check this out if you’re a whisky geek and want to know all of the interesting stats like cask types, phenol ppm, etc.  I’ll probably talk about this a little more when my Kilchoman spirit samples arrive.

I’m definitely looking forward to watching more of Singlemalt.tv, and it sounds like they have a number of additional interesting distillery tours lined up.  One thing I’d like to see on their site is better searching capability for videos by key word.  I found it a little awkward at times browsing through the different channels trying to find a particular video.  The search on their main web page, outside of the flash player, doesn’t seem to index into the videos themselves.  Overall, though, it’s a great resource for scotch hobbyists.

The Whisky Channel

The Whisky Channel

Oh yeah…what does this have to do with the crushing of childhood dreams?  A couple of weeks ago, my neighbor came over with his Macallan CS, and I pulled out my Aberlour A’bunadh (Batch 15) and George T. Stagg bourbon.  We sampled these cask strength whiskies and talked about them while our wives and our kids hung out and did…i don’t know…something not related to whisky.  Well, at some point, my neighbor and I became aware that our better halves were mocking us and our fascination with the water of life.  We bantered back and forth a bit, and somebody mentioned that a whisky channel on TV would be perfect for us.  My daughter heard this, disappeared into the computer room for a bit, and came back out with a marketing teaser for a 24 hour whisky channel.  I thought this was great, and the poster now resides on the inside door of my whisky cupboard.

Tonight, I had to break it to her that somebody beat us to our idea (she’s actually completely unphased, but I thought it made for an interesting blog post title).

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