the whisky lounge - a journal tracking a whisky maturation project involving a newly-acquired oak cask and a significant amount of patience

Monday, April 28, 2008

Dozo Yoroshiku!

Knowing my luck, instead of succeeding in my little attempt at being clever by casually throwing around the Japanese phrase for "How do you do," I've just announced that I like to eat shoes with ketchup or some such. I'm confident, though: I looked it up on the Internet, and we all know the Internet is never wrong...

Anyhow, the Japanese is here for a reason. Over the weekend, I caught wind of the results of this year's World Whiskies Awards from one of the finest news sources around: Daily India. I still haven't figured out why Daily India should be the one to break the story, but hey: Indians love their whisky, too, I guess. You can also read about it at the Times, or, if you're the wild and crazy type, at Whisky Magazine, who actually runs the competition.

This year brought a couple of surprises which not coincidentally relate to the title of this post: Japanese whiskies won both the best single malt and best blended whisky category. This year's best single malt is Yoichi 20 Year Old, which I've not had the pleasure of sampling. The best blended whisky is Suntory Hibiki 30 Year Old, which I've also not tried. Bill Murray must be pleased about that choice.

I thought to myself that this might be the ideal time to go out and find some Japanese whisky to give it a shot, but I don't have a spare hundred bucks lying around for the purposes of sampling a new whisky. This stuff ain't cheap!

Fortunately, there are going to be some Japanese whiskies at the Spirit of Toronto show which is now only two short weeks away, so I'll get the chance to try them out then.

Hmm... maybe next year I should submit "Ian's Living Room 9 Weeks Old" for consideration. :-)

Cheers,

Ian

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Grab a Fork For Me, Will You?

A fork? Yep. You know, so I can stick it in: this whisky's done! It's been four weeks, and I am pleased as punch with how things have turned out. It didn't transform into a Bowmore proper by any means, but it became something I'd be happy not only to drink myself, but also to offer my friends.

Something interesting has happened to the nose, and I'm not sure I can figure out why. Not that I'm surprised that it would change in character, but I am perplexed by this particular change. I've been noting a rather steady progression from the barn-yard earthiness with tobacco and jasmine undertones to a more heavily floral, yet buttery and earthy (but not barn-yard earthy) nose with a faint hint of smoke. The interesting change is that the earthiness has disappeared entirely and the smoke has taken its place. It's noticeably smokier than last week, and while it still has the rosy floral quality, it has lost the pungency I commented on. The concord grapes have also chosen to disappear completely.

The smoke evident in the nose is just as strong on the palate. And again, there's been an interesting change that seems out of character with the way things have been going. Just last week I commented on the spiciness I figured my cask was injecting. I had noted a very long, spicy finish with grapes appearing at the tail end.

That's completely changed. It's still spicy, but it's not as boldly so as before. It's mellowed down quite a bit. Overall, the taste is oakier now. The floral and even grassy elements are easier to find. I don't notice the grapes any longer, and the finish is shorter, but not dramatically so. The finish stays oaky now, though.

I'd say I prefer the McClelland's to the Longmorn I have. They haven't gone head-to-head (maybe this week???) but this has much more character. The Whisky Works is still by far the stronger of the two (and it's shockingly getting close to the end of the bottle), and they're so unlike as to be unrecognizable as coming from the same cask, but I like them both quite a bit.

Anyhow, I'll be pulling the McClelland's out of the cask sometime this week, just as soon as I have another bottle to pour in. I figure there's one, maybe two more good uses of the cask still to come before it's time to retire it and get a new one. We know Rob has jumped the pond to choose a Canadian whisky for his second batch. I still haven't decided what I'll do, but I have some ideas.

Until then,

Ian

Friday, April 25, 2008

The True North Strong and Free

I got a letter from my buddy Rob who has appeared in this blog a few times before. you'll remember he has recently taken his Whisky Works whisky out of the cask. I learned that he's jumped across the pond to try aging a Canadian whisky. Specifically, he's experimenting with a bottle of Forty Creek Barrel Select.

I've never been one to keep quiet about my opinion of most Canadian whisky. Maybe it's because I've only ever had the dirt-cheap stuff, but I've not really found one that suits my palate. I've tried Forty Creek before, however, and wasn't turned off. I guess it's my favourite of the limited number of Canadian whiskies I've sampled. Rob seems to like it quite a bit. In any case, here's what he had to say:

"It's been in the wood for about two weeks now. The cask has given the rye a spiciness. It has also sucked out some of the sweetness. It's getting quite tasty. I think priming the casks with only water must have that effect on the whisky. It draws our the sweet and leaves a 'raw' taste to it. I quite like it."

I asked him to clarify what he meant by "a raw taste" and he replied simply that he meant spicier and less sweet: essentially it's becoming dryer as it ages, rather than sweeter.

Rob and I have noted the same things: the cask seems to impart a strong spiciness to the spirit. I quite like it. And it's incredibly powerful: when my buddy Jim was over the other day, he decided to do a home made blend of some Té Bheag and the Whisky Works I have here, and we found that even a few drops of the latter gives the former a FAR longer finish, with a solid oak and cinnamon flavour. That's right: only a few drops. Damned strong stuff!

Remember that it's only a few weeks until the Spirit of Toronto show. I'll be there, as will Rob, along with Premium Bottlers (the guys who make the Whisky Works kit) and a number of other players in the whisky and spirits business. Hope to see some of you there!

Cheers,

Ian

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Just Like Don Quixote...

...I am dreaming that impossible dream. Well, maybe not so impossible after all.

The players: McClelland's Islay. A Whisky Works cask. Three weeks.
The game: to transform the rather insipid whisky into something more robust, like a Bowmore.
The score: it's no Bowmore, but hot damn, that's turning out nicely!

The barnyard touch in the nose has disappeared. Instead, it's just earthy, like freshly-turned sod. But it's even more powerfully floral. WAY more so than the uncasked, and far different from the Whisky Works that was in the same cask a few weeks ago. The tobacco and jasmine in the original have transformed into roses and violets. But there's a butteriness to it as well that reminds me of my mom's home baked cookies (which, I am sad to report, she did not bake when I was visiting my folks last weekend. Sigh). I had reported concord grapes a couple weeks back, but they're really hard to pick out now. I'd describe it as a combo of buttery oatmeal cookies, flowers and a faint whiff of smoke on the nose. It is, however, just a bit too pungent still. I can't put my finger on what that pong is coming from, but there's a bit of something sour or under-ripe. Weirdly enough, the original seems a bit saltier on the nose, which I hadn't noticed before.

Taste-wise, I've described the original pretty well, as have others, and it's nothing special. After only three weeks in the cask, though, it's coming into its own. I think my cask must impart a long, spicy finish, because the McClelland's in there now has one, and the Whisky Works had one as well. They're not identical whatsoever, but they share a long finish filled with oaky aromas and spices. The McClelland's exhibits a bit of fruit juice...actually, it's the grapes that had nearly disappeared in the nose. They're popping up at the end of the finish, after the oak subsides. It's still a damned floral, sweet dram, like rose water in an oak bowl.

Best of all: no dog poo. Zilch. It's gone. It's all flowers and oak and a smoky undercurrent. Not nearly as earthy as it was when it started, which is nice.

To me, this suggests that we're almost done with the McClelland's after only a few weeks. It was older than the Whisky Works was when it went in, and it was also only 40%, so leaving it in too much longer will start to drop its alcohol content past the point where I find it achieves maximal tastiness.

So, off to hunt for another bottle. Perhaps I should branch out and try something Irish, Canadian or even American. We shall see...

Cheers,

Ian

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Battle Royale!

I don't know what's more fitting. Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson? George Foreman and Muhammad Ali? Nacho Libre and Ramses? Regardless, it was a fine competition featuring two strong competitors that really packed a solid punch. I'm talking, as you might guess, about the head-to-head match between my sherried Whisky Works whisky and my buddy Rob's unsherried version.

I was surprised at the similarities: they were both quite spicy and packed a strong alcoholic kick. They were exactly the same colour, which really surprised me: I had thought the sherried version would be much darker and redder, but nope: even Rob's version was dark russet/orange/amber. Both had a sweeter nose than palate, and they both had a long, spicy finish.

The differences were less surprising, but quite dramatic nonetheless: Rob's whisky had a strong herbal, malty sweetness to it, whereas mine was closer to cooked fruit. Also, and very weirdly, the smoke was more evident in mine which was the exact opposite of what I'd expected, given that the sherry I used took a lot of smoke out of the cask. Under the heat of the alcohol (or with the addition of a bit of water) Rob's was the lighter of the two with cut grass, cinnamon, vanilla and malt jumbled together.

And here's what Rob had to say:

"The sherry version was certainly more fruity and had the better nose. Sweat and inviting. The oak version, has a very difficult nose to figure out. Grass, Hay, Straw ?? Something rural.

I found the two as similar as they were different in taste. I could tell (although perhaps not in a blind taste test) that they were the same. Similar to comparing a 12 year Glenfiddich to a 15. Same overall taste, but subtly different. The sherry version was more mellow and balanced, where the oak version had an unblended taste to it. Lots of flavours, nothing uniform. You would get a mellow watered down taste and then a sharp unwatered taste.

Perhaps, I noticed this because we added the water immediately before sampling as opposed to the sherry version which had been watered down for a few days. Or perhaps it was because I didn't stir or mix the water into my whisky; I just added water in and had a drink.

The sherry version had more of a pleasant sweet taste on the pallet without a harsh overpowering alcohol taste. I would actually say that there was too much water in the sherry batch. It tasted a bit too watery.

The oak whisky had a 'raw taste' to it. Very much like JB whisky would; where although it's a uniform taste, it tastes blended and undefined. By priming the cask with sherry, it masked the 'rawness' and provided a more uniform and refined taste. This might also explain why I found it to be more like a fine Rye. Most Rye that I drink is blended and has that raw taste and nose."

So there you have it. We both agree that there's some tastiness in the sherried and unsherried versions, and both are noticeably from the same origin, but the differences are notable.

Cheers,

Ian

Where's the Kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!

Hi folks,

Sorry for the longer-than-usual silence. I'm just back from my whirlwind tour of such esteemed communities as Toronto, Orangeville, Kitchener and Cambridge. I had fun, but it's good to be home. And to make up for the delay in posting, you're going to get TWO - count'em - TWO posts over the next couple of days.

First off, cast your mind back a couple of weeks (or to last week, I guess) when I said that Jim, the good and fluffy doctor himself, would be cask-sitting for me. Funny how it's really easy to get friends to say "yes" to babysitting a cask and getting a free sample. :-) Jim did his job admirably, and here's what he had to say (assuming I am reading his cuneiform-style "handwriting" correctly):

"Nose - balanced smokey caramel becoming butterscotch
Taste - again caramel with a nice long smokey finish. Well-integrated, front-to-back of tongue - start to finish.
Verdict - Yum! (or KABOOM!) I'd be happy to drink it as it is now."

The thing that pleases me most about Jim's review, other than the distinct lack of "dog poo" anywhere in the description, is that he thinks it's ready to drink right away. I like the fact that it appears quite balanced after only a couple of weeks. I'm going to give it a try on the weekend as usual and see what shakes. If it takes only a few weeks to turn a run-of-the-mill McClelland's into a really nice, drinkable whisky, then I'm right chuffed.

Which I guess raises another question: what next? I should be able to get a few more uses out of the cask before it loses its potency, so it's high time for some ideas for the next whisky to experiment with. What do you guys think?

Cheers,

Ian

Sunday, April 6, 2008

In Pursuit of a Silk Purse

So, the McClelland's Islay has been at it for a week now, and it's time to check in. You'll remember that I was pretty unimpressed with it before any casking action had taken place, and I'm very keen to find out what has happened. The Whisy Works whisky transformed pretty quickly in its first week, then slowed to a more gentle transformation in later weeks. And the McClelland's? Well...

Concord grapes. Ripe red cherries. A bouquet of flowers. These are all leaping out of the nose at me, and none of them are present in the original spirit. Underneath it all, the same earthy, barn-yardish tinge is still there, as is the unmentionable odour first identified by Dr. Whisky. :-)

The original spirit reveals a stronger herbal quality in the comparison than it had just on its own. I guess with the extra bit of sherry flavouring from the cask, the herbal scent is turning into a floral one. They're both about equally smokey. And they're exactly the same colour.

Taste-wise, I'm pleased to report an improvement. The concord grape evident in the nose is still there in the taste, and the earthiness is cut back some. The smoke is still there, underneath everything, but the tarry finish I reported last time is less evident. The finish is longer and warmer, with a smokey caramel underlying a ripe cherry taste. Throughout is a fresh berry taste. A hint of strawberry and blueberry, some cherry. Not the tartness of raspberries, though. Sweeter. It's interesting, since the Whisky Works exhibited a good amount of fruit on the nose, but less so on the taste, and it was along the lines of cooked cherries or dried apricots. Not this time: it's a lighter, fresher taste. It's a bit at odds with the earthiness, but I'm hoping for better integration as it continues to mature.

So, after the first week, I have learned a few things:

  • The McClelland's is far tastier after a bit more maturation, but needs some more work
  • It exhibits some of the spiciness of the Whisky Works 9-week-old, but doesn't taste anywhere near the same, with the fruit in the nose and on the palate being fresh berries rather than cooked or dried anything
  • The whisky has either been treated with caramel, or the cask is losing its ability to quickly alter the colour of a spirit
So far, it bodes well. I, or rather Jim, will fill you in next week. Remember that I'll be away for a few days. And remember also that I'll be hitting the Spirit of Toronto in May, so I'll hopefully see a few of you there.

Until next time,

Ian

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Odds and Sods

Just a couple quick notes today. I heard from my friend Rob again. He's my buddy who has been aging his Whisky Works whisky since December. Like me, he found the angels had been rather greedy. Unlike me, he hadn't been using a humidifier, and had aged his whisky a number of weeks longer. He found he was left with about 340mL of whisky which was still good and strong. Here's how he described it to me:

"The colour is about the same shade as last time. I added a bit of water to my taste sample this time. There is still a very powerful iodine nose and taste. Once the fire on your tongue is finally put out, the finish is still there. Very long and pleasant. The nose smells like a fine rye whiskey. Sweet and oaky. There is something pleasantly sweet to the taste, I think it's the hints of cinnamon I described last time. I can also taste the oak now..."

I'm not sure what to make of "fine rye whiskey" since I'm not generally a fan of rye, but there you have it. It's nice to see that the months in the cask haven't reduced its alcohol percentage too significantly: he still wants to add water to cool it down. That means that the 340mL will work out to quite a bit more volume with added water factored in.

In other news, I'm planning to attend the Spirit of Toronto annual whisky gala on May 10. If any of you are going, let me know, and say hi if you see me. Although, as many of you haven't the faintest idea what I look like, that might be difficult. Perhaps I should post a photo. Or wear a name tag. :-)

I haven't gone to one of these whisky galas before, so I'm not sure what to expect. But it looks like a lot of fun, and I don't get to Toronto as much as I used to. Speaking of which...

The final bit of news is that I will be away in a couple of weeks. In Toronto, actually, but not for any whisky-related events. Just going to get some quality time with some of my peeps. The upshot is that I'll not be here to sample my whisky (gasp!) or post anything to the blog (double gasp!). Fear not, however! My buddy Jim will be looking after the cask, carefully rotating it, and sampling the whisky on my behalf. So I'll temporarily hand over the keys to the lounge, and you can hear what Jim has to say. It should be good. He's promised to use the word "kaboom."

But you'll hear from me once more before my mini-vacation, so I'll sign off and see you in a few days.

Cheers,

Ian