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Archive for July, 2009

whisky_and_jazz_coverIntroduction and book synopsis

If you drink scotch and enjoy listening to jazz, you don’t need a book to tell you the two go great together. You might, however, be interested in a book that offers up large, artistic renderings of some of your favorite jazz musicians and scotch distilleries, provides deeper insight into the connections between jazz and whisky, and imparts historical knowledge in a way that both entertains and inspires creative thought. Enter Whisky & Jazz by Hans Offringa, available by mail order from Charleston Mercury (a South Carolina newspaper) for $39.95 plus shipping.

The marketing blurb for Whisky & Jazz on the Charlston Mercury site says:

“Hans Offringa, whisky writer for the Charleston Mercury, ingeniously connects ten famous jazz musicians with ten excellent single malt whiskies. The result is a collection of ten unique blends, each carrying a blue note as well as a tasting note, presented in a sippin’ and tasting guide.”

I was willing to buy the book based on the promise of some great pictures for the coffee table, the hope that this correlation between 10 whiskies and jazz songs would be interesting, and the fact that it was recommended by Serge of Whiskyfun.com. However, the book offers much more than I expected, making for a pleasant surprise when I started leafing through it. I’d like to try sharing a little more about the book so that you can see why I think it’s easily worth the $40 asking price.

Book layout and content

Whisky & Jazz is a good sized “coffee table book” with a little over 200 8.5″ x 11″ pages, about half of which contain full-page and double-page pictures. There is a Forward by Dave Broom (prominent whisky writer) with his own take on the whisky and jazz combination, then an Introduction by Offringa, where he sets up the book and dedicates it to his friend Michael Jackson (the whisky writer, not the pop star).

After the introductory material, there is a section titled The Origins of Jazz, which, in addition to telling the story of the origination of jazz, explains the etymology (breaking jazz down into its component parts), and then details three principal characteristics of jazz music. The next section, The Origins of Whisky, is also divided into origins, etymology and principal characteristics. Hats off to Mr. Offringa for managing to tie the two topics together through history and traits, without it seeming overly contrived in order to push his blending agenda.

Next, we have The Musicians and The Distilleries, with two or three pages (and as many pictures) on each musician and distillery, telling their story, and what makes them unique. I haven’t read all 20 of these yet, but the ones I have read were informative and entertaining. This material is well thought-out and clearly presented, not just a bunch of fluff to fill in between the pictures. There are all kinds of interesting tidbits…did you know about the Glenrothes “Toast to the Ghost”, or that the Stan Getz collaboration with Joao and Astrud Gilberto ended after Getz and Astrud had an affair?

The 10 musicians detailed in the book are: Cannonball Adderley, Chet Baker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Hank Mobley, Charlie Parker, and Art Tatum.

The 10 distilleries are: Aberfeldy, Balblair, Bowmore, Bruichladdich, Bunahabhain, Glen Rothes, Isle of Jura, Lagavulin, Oban and Springbank.

Whisky & Jazz with some whisky and jazz

Whisky & Jazz with some whisky and jazz

Finally, we have The Blends, a subjective “listening and sippin’ guide”  in which Mr. Offringa concocts “blends” composed of individual musicians and individual expressions of single malts. He acknowledges that these are subjective pairings, and encourages the reader to experiment on their own (in moderation). For each jazz/whisky blend, there is a one page summary providing:

  • A creative name for the blend
  • A “Blue Note”, with a paragraph each on the artist and whisky, tying them together
  • The blend “ingredients” (a specific expression and song)
  • Tasting notes – a blend of notes by Offringa and Michael Jackson.

Conclusion and credits

As you could tell by the time you finished reading the title of this post, I highly recommend this book by Hans Offringa. Jack McCray, a jazz historian and freelance writer, is credited as contributing editor on the book. On the book jacket, it says about Mr. McCray…”aspires to present ideas in a clear, resonant and consise style that would impart information in a meaningful way to the reader.” Whatever his influence on this book, he and the author have certainly succeeded in those aspirations. Gijs Dragt, who has apparently designed a large number of books for museums, provided most of the eye candy for Whisky & Jazz, and it’s quite the photographic treat.

Links

  • Hans Offringa, guest blogger – Hans guest blogs on The Book Case blog, providing great background information on himself and the series of books that he’s working on. Check it out!
  • Hans Offringa’s web site – Hans’ official site, with links to more info about Whisky & Jazz and his other books.
  • Whisky & Jazz – A web site dedicated to this book, including a links [spoiler alert] page that lists the jazz/whisky combinations that make up his blends.
  • The Whisky Couple – Hans and his wife Becky are known as “The Whisky Couple.” Here is their web site. Right now, it includes a video from a Whisky & Jazz book signing and whisky tasting event.
  • WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – A much more eloquent review and recommendation than I’ve offered (scroll down a little bit).
  • Accidental Hedonist review – A reminder that whisky and jazz are about enjoyment and spending time with friends, not sitting at home taking notes, and a recommendation for Offringa’s Whisky & Jazz and Taste of Whisky books.

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Introduction

As I await the arrival of my purchased copy of Whisky & Jazz by Hans Offringa, I thought I’d go ahead and do my own Whisky & Jazz post. I was sitting with a couple of Lagavulins recently, going through my classic jazz collection, and I came across an amazing pairing: Lagavulin 1991 Distillers Edition and The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions, by Verve. This bottle of Lagavulin was bottled in 2007 at 43%.

Norman Granz and Lagavulin DE

Norman Granz and Lagavulin DE

I found out about The Complete Jam Sessions three years ago, reading about it in John Marks’ The Fifth Element article in Stereophile magazine. You can follow the link to read his article and learn all about this amazing compilation of recordings. Here are just some of the musicians Granz pulled together for these jams, recorded in 9 sessions during the early 1950s: Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Buddy Rich, Herb Ellis, Stan Getz, Count Basie, Charlie Shavers, and Johnny Hodges. Pretty crazy, huh?

Listening and tasting notes

I want to start with the same Ballad Medley from disc 1 that John Marks raved over, which I listened to last night while drinking the Lagavulin 1991 DE.  I started up the song on my stereo system and poured the Laga while Barney Kessel kicked things off on guitar…

On the nose, the Lagavulin DE has the classic Lagavulin peat smoke. Lost from the standard Lagavulin 16 bottling, at least to my nose, is the apples and vanilla. Instead, an extra sherry presence from the PX casks is presented, rising up seductively through the smoke in the form of dried fruit and ripe berries. Meanwhile, Charlie Parker comes in on alto sax, playing Dearly Beloved. He’s drawing me right in with a solid performance, but things only get better…

On the palate, Laga DE provides a nice strong body, tickling the sweet and salty taste buds and maintaining a strong peat presence. There seems to be a little richer, weightier mouth feel than on the 16 year. Next up on the Ballad Medley is Ben Webster on tenor sax with The Nearness of You. He builds on the foundation provided by Parker with increased dynamics in the intonation that brings out more emotion.

The finish on the Laga DE does not disappoint. It’s got the same explosion of smoke that is so great on the 16 year, and the sherry stays right there front and center in the mix. And the length? I could sit through the rest of the 17 minute Ballad Medley contemplating the finish. After Webster, Johnny Hodges steps in with his rendition of I’ll get by. I was already entranced by the mastery of Parker and elegance of Webster, but Hodges blew me away. I could swear he was feeling inspired by the previous solos, and his tenor sax just oozed emotion. Marks said he was “all gelatinous” by the time Flip Phillips came in 4 minutes later, but I melted about 20 seconds into Hodges’ solo.

Similarities of dram and jam:

Lagavulin 1991 DE brings the bold flavors of Islay peat and Pedro Ximenez sherry together in a way that totally works. You might expect a disjointed effort (especially since the sherry is just a “finish”), but there’s a great interplay and harmony of flavors. Similarly, the Norman Granz jam sessions bring together some of the best jazz players of the time. Sure, there is showmanship involved. On the ballads, however, it’s all about showing emotion, and the competition at that level draws you into the song and results in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Tasting conclusion:

When I first tried the Lagavulin DE, my feeling was that it was better than Lagavulin 16. However, I’ve compared them a number of times since then, and I’ve decided that it’s like trying to decide if a Cadbury chocolate bar with caramel is better than the original. To me, they’re equally good, just different. That’s how I now feel about the two Lagavulins. With the DE, you get the extra sherry influence, and perhaps a bit more body on the palate, but you lose the apples and vanilla that provide additional complexity on the Laga 16. Right now, I’m on a sherry kick, so I might give a half point extra to the DE, but I’m going to round down and give it a 91/100 to match my score for Lagavulin 16.

Listening conclusion:

When I first started listening to the Jam Sessions, I gravitated to the ballads, listening to them over and over. Since then, I’ve really gotten to where I get a kick out of listening to ALL of the songs in the box set. It’s amazing to hear these huge names in jazz belt out solo after solo. Right now, I’m really digging disc 3, with a couple of great trumpet players strutting their stuff…Roy Eldridge blowing great solos throughout, and Dizzy Gillespie joining him on Stompin’ at the Savoy. However, for the purposes of this post, it’s the ballads that go so beautifully with the Lagavulin DE in the evening after the kids have gone to bed.

Finally, I don’t know that I’d recommend either of these to beginners. On the whisky side, I’d recommend checking out the Lagavulin 16 before venturing into the Distillers Edition. Likewise, I’d check out some of the core body of work from people like Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson and Dizzie Gillespie before jumping into these extended jam sessions. Maybe next time I’ll write about a good introductory whisky & jazz combination. You can download the Jam Sessions set for $45 on Amazon, or $50 on iTunes, but I’d go for the CD version from Amazon for $59 so you can enjoy reading through the included booklet.

Other opinions

Lagavulin DE 1991

  • WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – Serge seems conflicted between his desire to dislike “finished” whiskies, and the fact that the Laga DE is pretty awesome. He gave it 92 points blind, but does a seemingly tongue-in-cheek downgrade to 91.
  • Malt Advocate – 91 points here, also…and a better rating than Lagavulin 21 (which I agree with).
  • Whisky For Everyone – Some info about the Lagavulin distillery, along with some nice notes on the Laga DE.
  • YouTube – Peatluvr gives his video review of the Lagavulin 1991 DE

The Complete Norman Granz Jam Sessions

Of course, there’s the Stereophile review that I linked to in the introduction, and the Amazon reviews. Additionally:

  • AllAboutJazz.com – A write-up on this set by critic Norman Weinstein. His overall opinion of it seems to be positive, even though it seems like he doesn’t want to like it (he refers to the up-tempo songs as “noisy, competitive joustlings among hornmen”. Also, given my earlier comments about Ballad Medley on disc one, it’s probably not surprising that I disagree with his assessment that Johnny Hodges seems disinterested. I do agree with him, though, that the ballads are the “real deal.”

Lagavulin DE Quick Take

Here’s my “quick take” graphic for Lagavulin 1991/2007 DE. Scoring-wise, it’s almost identical to my Lagavulin 16 rating, with a little less on the nose and a little more on the body. For more info about this format, and my rating system, see this post.

Lagavulin 1991 DE Quick Take

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Introduction

John Hansell, of Malt Advocate Magazine, recently posted about a new line of Glendronach single cask whiskies. He also pointed out that none of the initial releases are coming to the U.S., but we might get something in 2010. The delay is due to the fact that the standard 700 ml bottle size in Europe cannot be imported into the United States. They have to do a special bottling at 750 ml, which is closer to the old “fifth” (1/5 of a gallon) bottles that were standard in the U.S. before we attempted to go metric in the ’70s. I asked about the whole bottle size restriction thing in the comments section, which led to the following information about this topic…

Key links from the rest of this post

To save the time of scanning through this lengthy post for links, here are some key ones:

  • CFR Title 27, Section 5 metric standards of fill – This is the official regulation that stipulates the bottle sizes allowed to be imported into the United States. This is strictly a regulatory issue. There are no laws prohibiting the import of other bottle sizes like 700ml.
  • Proposal to amend regulation – A proposal has been made to amend the above regulation based on consumer and marketing trends, as well as industry petitions. [Thanks to Mark from WhiskyCast for the link]
  • Federal Register – Should the above proposal get published for public comment, it will show up here.
  • Francis W. Foote – Director, regulations and ruling division at the TTB. This is the person I was directed to after I found out that the “owner” of the above proposal is deceased. He told me that it’s up to the TTB to decide whether to publish the proposal, and there’s nothing for the general public to do except wait and see if it gets published. Anybody want to follow up with him? Email address: Frank.Foote@ttb.gov
  • The Scotch Blog – A blog post explaining the history of the 750ml (vs 700ml) bottle size regulation.

Bottle size regulation. The history.

A couple of John’s readers replied in the comments section with some great information on this topic of bottle size. Neil provided a link to a post on The Scotch Blog titled My bottle is bigger than yours. This is a great article that explains how it’s a regulation, not a law, that sets the bottling size, and proceeds to give the background on who controls this regulation (The Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau, or TTB for short), and how it came to be. I won’t repeat that info…just follow the link for Kevin’s detailed explanation.

A proposal for change

Another comment reply came from Mark, who provided a link showing that the TTB is actually considering amending the regulations prescribing standards of fill for wine and spirits. Here is the Abstract for this proposed rule, which was listed in April 2009:

TTB is considering amending the regulations prescribing standards of fill for wine and distilled spirits. Although this issue was addressed previously in 1987 and 1993, TTB believes that recent trends in consumer preferences and marketing strategies, along with petitions recently received from industry members, warrants revisiting this issue. TTB is soliciting comments on whether the existing standards of fill for wine and distilled spirits containers should be retained, revised, or eliminated.

[Here is a link to the spirits-related Code of Federal Regulations citation that they’re talking about amending: CFR Title 27, Volume 1, Section 5]

This sounds very promising! Mark came back with another response, stating that he had talked to Art Resnick (Director of Public and Media Affairs at the TTB), and found out that the proposed rule is on the agenda for review, but has not been released yet. Therefore, it is not open to public comment yet.

My attempt to contact the TTB

In between Mark’s two comments, I made my own attempt to get information from the TTB. I composed the following email and sent it to the contact listed with the proposed rule:

Dear <Contact Person>,

I’m sending you this email in response to a proposed rule, RIN 1513-AB56, which I found posted on the Regulations.gov web site. According to the Abstract:

<Quote from the above abstract text>

As an active member of the online single malt scotch community, I’m very interested in this proposal, as are quite a few others I’ve spoken to about this. There are often special releases of single malt scotch whisky that fail to make it into the United States because of the requirement for a second bottling at 750ml. In the age of “100 calorie packs” of food, and “half gallon” ice cream containers that are no longer half gallon, it seems strange that we’re missing out on a lot of releases in order to protect us from being “deceived” by smaller bottles.

Specifically, I’d like to see a change to 27 CFR Chapter 1, section 5.47a, titled “Metric standards of fill (distilled spirits bottled after Dec. 31, 1979)”.

The Abstract for the rule proposal states that TTB is soliciting comments. I was wondering what form, and from what groups of people, those comments would be desired. The proposal brings up some very valid points, and I’d like to do my part to help move it along. You are listed as the Agency Contact for this proposed rule.

Thanks, Jeff

My email was rejected by the TTB exchange server for being sent to an invalid address. I followed up with the main information link at the TTB, and discovered that the contact listed for this rule had passed away back in February (at a relatively young age, too). This is unfortunate, and I feel bad for the guy’s family, but I still wanted to find out more about this regulation amendment, so I asked to be passed along to somebody who could answer my questions.

Is it is, or is it ain’t, a rule?

My email was forwarded to Francis W. Foote, Director of the Regulations and Rulings Division (Frank.Foote@ttb.gov). We had the following email exchange:

Frank:

Your below Internet inquiry was forwarded to me for response.  The proposed rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register and therefore it is not open for public comments at this time.  If and when the proposed rule is published, it will set forth the procedures for submitting comments on the proposal.

Me:

Thank-you very much for your response. You say “if” it’s published. Is there any way to find out what the publishing timeline is, and what determines whether a proposed rule makes it into that publishing schedule or gets dropped?

Frank:

There is no publishing timeline—the issue is whether it will be approved for publication, and no decision on that has been taken.  If it is so approved, it will be transmitted to the Federal Register immediately for publication, which normally occurs about three days after receipt by the Office of the Federal Register.

Ok, so the rule was proposed by somebody, and it may or may not make it through the process that results in the proposal being published to the Federal Register (when it gets to the Fed. Register, it becomes an NPRM), where we can then comment on it. I still have questions…

What can we the people do?

I realize that I’m just an irritation to this guy. I also noticed that I asked two questions in one sentence in my last reply. I’ve found this is generally a bad idea in emails, as you will often just get an answer to one of them. The question he left unanswered is the most important one to me. I decided to try asking that one again in as polite a way as possible (probably at the risk of coming across as passive-agressive, though):

Me:

Thanks again for the information. If there is anything that a regular citizen such as myself (and others interested in this issue) can do to help get a proposed rule approved for publication, I’d love to hear about it. Otherwise, I guess I’ll just keep my fingers crossed and keep an eye on the Federal Register.

[Translation: I want to know what the heck is going on with this proposal, but if you want to blow me off, I’ll leave you alone after this.]

Frank:

There is nothing that you would be able to do to push this along at this point.  I would suggest keeping an eye on the Federal Register.

[Potential Translation: I’m up to my eyeballs in tobacco tax issues from the Obama administration. I assigned this one to a dead guy…can’t you take a hint? Go champion a cause at your next HOA meeting or something.]

Where that leaves me

Well, that was kind of a bummer. I was hoping to get information about how the process works and/or how we whisky enthusiasts might be able to take action to move things along. The thing is, even if it does make it to the Federal Register, the “proposed rule” as it stands doesn’t actually propose anything specific. I’m not sure if there are actual detailed proposals for the amendment, just not included in the abstract, or if the point of the proposal is just to begin a round of discussions that may or may not lead to the drawing up of a specific amendment in the future.

Questions I still have:

  • Who wrote up this initial rule proposal? Is there a “champion” for it within the TTB?
  • Is there a point in time at which, if it hasn’t been published to the Federal Register, it probably never will be? If so, what’s the next step? Have the industry do another petition and start the process over?
  • Who decides to take it from proposal to NPRM? Are there regular meetings to discuss the outstanding proposals? How is priority determined?
  • Are there further details for this rule proposal beyond the text in the Abstract?

Anybody want to go next?

If you’ve somehow managed to get this far without falling asleep, do you have any additional information to shed light on this process? Alternatively, would anybody be interested in trying to get more information out of the TTB? I’m going to just leave it alone for a little while and check on the Federal Register (here) from time to time, rather than cross over from curious scotch hobbyist to crazy harassment guy.

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Quick Take

Here’s my “quick take” graphic for Lagavulin 16. For more info about this format, and my rating system, see this post.

Lagavulin 16 Quick Take

Introduction

[Update: I did a follow-up review of Laga 16 using a 2009 bottling in December, 2009]

I was going to do a write-up on a great whisky/jazz combination, involving Lagavulin 1991 DE. However, I decided I should post my impressions of the core Lagavulin 16 expression before delving into that special release, so I’ll put that one off a couple of days.

My introduction to Lagavulin 16 (bottled at 43%) came from a 20 cl bottle that I ordered from The Whisky Exchange. The bottle had a bad cork, got caught up in customs, and arrived with about half of the contents emptied into the packing box (kudos to TWE on their packing, as the smell was completely contained within the box). Upon opening the box, I was hit with a very strong medicinal smell, like band-aids and iodine. Taking in that strong odor from the spilled bottle, I was a bit skeptical of this Lagavulin stuff. This was to be my fourth Islay malt, and I was afraid I had finally met my match. However, as you can verify for yourself, the smell of a whisky spilled on paper is not indicative of the smell (nose) that you get out of the glass.

Oops! Bad cork.

Oops! Bad cork.

The Lagavulin 16 I’m writing about tonight is from another 20 cl bottle. This one is from the Classic Islay Collection 2007 gift pack, although the code on the bottle, which starts with “L6”, appears to indicate that this one was bottled in 2006.

Tasting notes

On the nose, that medicinal iodine smell is there, but to me, it serves as a backdrop to the other scents, not really standing out on its own. I’m struck by a strong fruity smell, like a combination of berries and apples. I could swear there is a sherry cask influence here, but I haven’t read anything definitive about the casks used for this expression. Perhaps it’s a mixture of bourbon and sherry casks, as there is a nice, creamy vanilla note coming out (bourbon cask influence). Finally, mixed in with the fruit and sweets is an equally strong, earthy peat influence with some associated smoke.

If you’re new to Islay whiskies, the iodine/peat might stand out to you the first couple of times you take in the nose. Stick with it, and you’ll see all of the elements integrate together beautifully over time.

The palate is substantial, with some sweetness there, but you really start to notice the peat influence. Then it grips your tongue, and becomes very dry. If you like a drying sensation from your whiskies, this one has it in spades. There’s also some spiciness, but I wouldn’t say this is one of the more spicy drams I’ve tried.

On the finish, there is an explosion of camp fire peat smoke. Hello, Islay! The berries come back, too, mixing with the smoke in a very pleasing way. I’m also reminded of the medicinal notes, but it’s still in the background. This finish goes on for a long, long time.

Conclusion:

Lagavulin 16 really hits the spot for me. It’s got earthy peat, combined with just the right amount of berries and vanilla sweets, along with enough of a medicinal character to keep you on your toes. I guess I COULD imagine an improvement with a little more of a Talisker-like pepper on the palate and finish, and possibly even a little more body. I’m reaching, though. There is an amazing balance as it stands. With the enchanting nose and endless finish, I can sit in my favorite chair, listening to a long classic jazz jam session, completely satisfied and free of life’s worries. Surely that’s worth 91/100 points.

Other opinions

  • WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – A very good, but not great score of 89/100 by Serge. Although, I don’t see much in the way of negatives in his notes. He also discusses this classic malt from the vantage point of having tried many other versions.
  • Whisky for Everyone – They call this “a true ‘try before you die’ single malt whisky.” I agree!
  • Whisky Magazine – Huge scores of 9.5 and 9.75 from Michael Jackson and Jim Murray respectively. This article is from about 10 years ago, however. I believe I’ve read some opinions that Lagavulin 16 isn’t quite the “beast” that it was back then. I’m not sure how Murray rates the latest version in the current Whisky Bible.
  • YouTubeIslayScotchWhisky provides a very positive review. He mentions that it tastes almost exactly like it smells. That’s a good point. With the exception of my getting a lot more smoke on the palate/finish, I was amazed at how much of the profile carried through from beginning to end. Next, peatluvr gives a great account of how he didn’t like Lagavulin when he first tried it (early in his scotch drinking days), but now loves it.

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Quick Take

Here’s my “quick take” graphic for Bunnahabhain 12. For more info about this format, and my rating system, see this post.

Bunna 12 Quick Take

Introduction

Bunnahabhain 12

Bunnahabhain 12

Bunnahabhain [boona-havn] is the only active Islay distillery that I had yet to sample. The distillery is owned by Burn Stewart, and my understanding is that this is the core single malt used in the Black Bottle blend. I guess I put them at the bottom of my Islay list because their standard, [virtually] unpeated offerings are not really in the Islay taste profile category. They do offer peated expressions. In fact, I have a sample of their “Moine” peated whisky from Feis Ile  2009 that I still need to try. I wanted to experience their standard product first, though. The Bunnahabhain 12 that I’m writing about here is the core expression for this distillery, and is bottled at 40%.

Tasting notes

On the nose, I get honey sweetness and apples (sometimes cinnamon apples), but then some red [dried] fruits start to come out. Is this partially matured in sherry casks? Sometimes I get a whiff of black licorice, while at other times it comes across as malty. Finally, a little fresh wood at the end. I’m not picking up any peat or smoke on the nose. It’s not super complex, but I’m really enjoying this…I could sit with this dram for a while, just enjoying the aromas.

On the palate, it’s still fruity, with an average body that almost seems a little peaty/earthy, even though I couldn’t pick it up on the nose. It’s very easy on the palate, but could use more oomph, kind of like the Dalmore 12 I tried recently. No alcohol harshness whatsoever, though.

For the finish, the fruit and light peat die off very quickly, leaving just a maltiness on the tongue that sticks around for a medium duration. Sometimes I think there’s a hint of smoke on the finish, but maybe that’s just in my head. This is not a “smoky” dram. Still nothing offensive going on here. This goes down VERY easily.

Conclusion:

Light and refreshing, this is yet another “dangerously drinkable” whisky. I quite enjoyed spending time with the nose, which was a nice surprise. Though the palate and finish are mild, the experience is very smooth and pleasant. I kept wanting to go back for more. You need the right mentality going in, though. If you’re in the mood for a classic, peaty Islay malt, this isn’t going to do it for you.

For me, I would rate this at 83/100, noting that it is very enjoyable and easy to drink, with an above average nose (for a light whisky). What a great whisky this is for a summer afternoon! If you value the palate/finish experience more than the nose, you’ll likely rate this a bit lower, and possibly even be disappointed. What can I say? I’m a “nose” man.

Other opinions

  • Whisky for Everyone – Great information about the distillery, as well as some nice tasting notes. [Update]
  • whisky-pages – A solid 3 out of 5 stars, they’re picking up a level of peat and smoke that I’m just not getting.
  • WhiskyNotes.be – You palate/finish aficionados might relate a little more closely to this review than mine.
  • WHISKYFUN.COM by Serge – A generous 84 points in this review of a 2006 bottling, but I see he lowered his score to 82 for the 2007 bottling, with the average Malt Maniacs Matrix score being 80 points.
  • YouTube – Here’s a video from IslayScotchWhisky.

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Introduction

I didn’t mean to start rating whiskies…it just happened. After all, I’m just some guy living in Arizona (hardly a whisky mecca) who just started drinking whisky a year ago. No industry connections or special olfactory powers, either. I just have a passion for whisky (the drink, the production process, and the history) and thought I’d share my discoveries and experiences as I go. I purposely avoided calling posts about expressions I’ve tasted “reviews”, and stayed away from ratings, as these things are provided by “professionals”.

The rating thing started when I attempted to share my thoughts on the Port Askaig range. I wanted to express my preferences within the range, and provide context relative to other Islay malts that I’ve tasted. I threw together some hypothetical ratings of other whiskies and then fit the PA bottlings into the mix. Once I got started, though, I couldn’t stop. I’ve been sneaking in ratings with more assertiveness with each subsequent post.

My goal

I decided to stop and look at what I’m trying to achieve with these ratings. My goal is not to present myself as some kind of expert, but rather to provide a quick way of communicating how I feel about an expression relative to my own preferences and tasting experiences. Ahh…providing a “quick” understanding of what I’m trying to communicate. Looking at this post, I think this is a good thing. According to my WordPress editor, I’m 250 words into this entry and just getting to my point. Let’s face it…I ramble!

My new “Quick Take” scheme

[Edit on 11/14/2009] I’ll probably be changing this a bit. After 5 weeks of sinus problems, and a focus on samples and/or multi-expression comparisons when my nose has been “working”, I’m finding that I don’t want to do a post dedicated to a particular expression because it’s a pain to fire up PowerPoint and figure out exactly where to put each of the pies in the below quick take format. I’ll look into keeping the same concept, but doing it all in text.

So I came up with a combination graphical/rating scheme that I’m going to use in an attempt to quickly communicate my thoughts on whiskies that I try. I’ll still include the actual tasting notes separately in my posts. Here’s what it looks like:

Bunnahabhain 12 Quick Take

Note: I probably won’t do a full “Quick Take” rating when I only have a small sample of a whisky. In those cases, I’ll probably just provide a “tentative” point rating.

Interpretation of this rating? The nose is reasonably interesting, but the palate and finish are just so-so in terms of impact, complexity and duration. However, what IS there on the nose and palate is quite enjoyable. Left brain says this is just barely above average, but right brain says “yummy…may I have another?” The score reflects my desire to express fundamental enjoyment.

Key to ratings

Complexity/Impact: Divided into Nose, Palate and Finish, The goal here is to give a high level idea of how “interesting” the whisky is through each of the drinking phases. Is the nose multidimensional? Is it bold or weak on the palate? How long is the finish?

Enjoyment: Ok, I suppose “noseability” isn’t a word. That’s my way of describing the amount of pleasure I get by just sitting with the glass and taking in the aromas. For drinkability, was it a completely pleasing experience, or are there distracting elements on the palate and finish?

Pie Ratings

Pie Ratings

Scores

F  (0-24) = Made me hurl.
E  (25-49) = I think I might hurl.
D  (50-69) = Yuck!
C- (70-72) = Drinkable. Barely. Might cause strange facial expressions.
C  (73-77) = Cocktail fodder? Either totally bland, or some significant flaw.
C+ (78-79) = Enjoyable enough, but forgettable.
B- (80-82) = A good drink. Possibly bland or with minor flaws.
B (83-87) = A go-to drink. Very good depending on mood.
B+ (88-89) = Top shelf. Flirting with excellence.
A- (90-92) = Excellent! Always in the mood for these.
A  (93-97) = The best of the best for now.
A+ (98-00) = The search has ended!

Why both a letter and a number?

The numbers are primarily for head-to-head comparison posts, where I want to communicate subtle preferences, but also to give an idea if I’m on the verge of going to the next higher/lower letter grade. I’ll probably just indicate the letter in any summary data that I might put elsewhere in the site.

Conclusion

Well, there you go. I’ll post my Quick Take graphics at the top of whisky “review” posts, and then use the rest of the post to provide tasting notes, links to other opinions, and to ramble on the way that I do. Bunnahabhain 12 will be the subject of my first such post. I’ll also create a Ratings tab that summarizes all of the whiskies I’ve rated, with the letter grade and a link to the corresponding post.

Thanks,
Jeff

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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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