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

Monday, May 26, 2008

Thirsty in Cow Town?

Hey folks,

I just caught wind of an upcoming event which might be of interest to anyone in Calgary in mid-June with a spare $200 burning a hole in their pockets.

At Buchanan's Chophouse on June 13 is an event they're calling "Black Bowmore Dinner." In addition to a 3-course meal, you get a few shots of single malts including the über-rare Black Bowmore. This stuff retails for over $4000 per bottle, so I guess the $200 price tag on the dinner isn't too crazy.

I'm not going to be there, so won't be able to report on it for you, but if you happen to be looking for something to do in Calgary, your search is over!



Sunday, May 25, 2008

Of Clouds and Silver Linings

Not that it really should have mattered in the end, but I've had one of those weeks that really screw with a person's head. This was the week the new windows arrived at my apartment, and the combination of moving furniture out of the way, letting the construction guys in for a day and then cleaning up after the considerable mess they left behind and only then moving my furniture back to where it should have been really threw a monkeywrench into my schedule. You try working from home with all that going on! Furthermore, the TV show I'd taped and had been looking forward to turned out to be unimpressively dull. And finally, as the crowning glory of a rather annoying week, I discovered that my only copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark had been scratched, and I can no longer get my Indy fix. To most of you, I expect that last one would be a minor irritation, easily shrugged off. To an archaeologist like me, it's a tragedy. Trust me. There were nearly tears.

So, it was with a rather large amount of trepidation that I approached my cask this weekend. After the drubbing my psyche took this week, I was definitely not looking forward to another dose of the awful Glen Parker. But I screwed up my courage, poured a sample, and had a wee sip. Hence the silver lining in this post's title. There have been some nice changes in the whisky. I'm now very happy to report that the Glen Parker has been upgraded from Terrible to merely Bad.

Here's a photo for your enjoyment:

[click to embiggen the photo]

The whisky from the cask is on the right. The uncasked version is on the left. Even though I wasn't too confident about the colour change last week, I think it's clear that casked version is a darker amber. That's good. It definitely means there's a bit of oomph left in the cask, and that I'm not merely hallucinatorilly deluding myself into thinking the whisky's getting better.

Which it most definitely is. Like I said, it's bad. But that's actually a really good thing considering how terrible it was when we started. On the nose, there's a nice smokey aroma rather like a fine cigar. Richer than just wood smoke. It's still sort of washed out though, as if it hasn't reached its full strength. I take that as a good thing; I'll give it as much time as it wants.

That faint fruity note is there still, and I'm still struggling to identify it. It's not quite strawberry, not quite almost reminds me of bubblegum, but that's not it either. Maybe rosewater? Loukoum? Neither of those are fruits, but they're in the right ball park. Ah, well. There's a sweetness of some kind hiding in there, waiting to come out. I'll let you know when it does.

The taste has also improved, but some of the unpleasantness is still there. It continues to have a coniferous taste, though it's moved away from pine to ceder with a hint of spruce. The oak is blending in well, and there's a billow of smoke appearing on the finish, which is nice. The fishy pungency is there still, but it's fading slowly, overtaken by a grainy flavour. I still find myself hoping for the richness of vanilla but finding none. Overall, the biggest change is that I no longer pucker my lips and wince when I have a sip. It's still several steps from being really drinkable, but it seems to be moving in that direction. As long as it gets there eventually, I'll be happy.

Until next week,


Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Maple Leaf Forever!

I really should finish unpacking. I've been home for bloody days now and the luggage is still there on my floor, with who knows what left in it. I mention this only because I was looking for something unrelated and found something I'd forgotten about: whisky.

I know, I know, forgetting about whisky is at the very least a civil crime, but in my defence I thought I'd misplaced it entirely and was happily surprised to find it had been lost not on the streets of Toronto or the floor of whatever nightclub I was at, but in the bottom of my duffel bag.

The whisky in question is a single shot in one of those mini bottles that Rob gave to me. It's a small amount of his casking of Forty Creek Barrel Select. I have mentioned it before in this blog. In any case, Forty Creek is one of the few Canadian whiskies I'll drink, though I have to admit that it will never be one of my favourites. I find it is a bit too sweet, like most Canadian whisky I've tried. I have heard they had a different grain blend out there somewhere, but I never got the chance to try it. Maybe it would have been closer to my palate.

Rob, on the other hand, quite enjoys Canadian whisky, or "rye" as people seem to call it even though it frequently has very little or even no rye (by which I mean the grain) in it.

Now, as far as I'm concerned, a free whisky is a good whisky, so I'm happy to sample. Here are my thoughts:

Rob's exactly right when he says it's spicier than Forty Creek normally is. The oak is strong in this one. There's a faint hint of, well, the lemony floor wax I recall from childhood. Not quite real lemon, not quite plain wax, but some odd hybrid between the two. It's got a lot of the dried fruit nose that the Whisky Works had, but it's a tad different. Dried strawberries rather than cherries. The vanilla is a strong foundation under all of those other components, at least in the nose. Pepper.

On the tongue, the story is different. It's like my tongue is saying "hey, this reminds me of the Whisky Works stuff we tried" but then is backing off that claim. There are similarities: a long spicy finish, a good amount of oak, a smidgeon of dark chocolate mixed in with the vanilla. But there's something odd here. A bit of leather? Cold tea? There's something that isn't quite integrated, but it's hard to place. Tannins, I guess. I also find that the difference in grain is a bit weird for me. I'm so accustomed to malted barley being the predominant base that when it's corn or rye or wheat or who knows what, I find the taste is a bit odd. Not bad, just odd.

A splash of water definitely brings things together. It cuts out the astringency, letting the vanilla overpower the dark chocolate, and a fresher, grainy taste appear underneath the oak (but still not the right grain according to me). It shortens the finish a bit, but that's all right. All in all, with a splash of water, it turns out quite pleasantly.

In summary, it's good and worth sharing, though I will remain a Scotch drinker rather than a Rye drinker. That's OK, though: the world of whisky is big and varied enough for people of every taste.



Thursday, May 15, 2008

New to the Lounge?

I've noticed, perhaps due to my L337 H4X0R skillz that there is a significant proportion of readers who are new here. Some of you arrived by searching for my name on the Internet (hello!). Others looked up particular whiskies I've mentioned, or the Whisky Works kit I used. One of you even found yourself here by Googling "whisky cheers fun photo." I hope you found what you were looking for.

In any case, this post is just to orient new visitors to what's going on, or to recap for those who need such a thing. If you know what this place is all about, feel free to skip this one.

The posts can generally be clustered into six separate groups based on a particular project. Not every post is listed below, but most of the interesting ones should be. Some of you may be excited to note that I've started using labels to make navigation a bit easier. Anyhow, here's what we have:

1. Setting Up Your Kit

My first experiences setting up a home ageing kit and examining a ridiculously young whisky can be found in the following posts. There's also a discussion about the maturation speed one can expect in small, living-room-appropriate casks as opposed to 200 to 500 litre barrels typically used in the industry.

2. Emu Oloroso Cream Sherry

I chose to treat my cask with a sherry before the whisky, and that took four weeks. To follow that experiment from fruity beginning to complex end, read these in order:
3. Whisky Works Blended Malt

The kit that I bought was called "Whisky Works" and contained a bottle of whisky of the same name. After the sherry had worked its magic, the Whisky Works went in and stayed there for nine weeks. The end result was darned tasty. You can follow this experiment in the following posts, in order:
4. McClelland's Islay Single Malt

Apparently a 5-year-old Bowmore in disguise, I chose the youngest whisky I could find for the next experiment. I was really impressed with how it changed, starting as it did from a rather unpleasant beginning but ending up being quite nice and similar, though clearly not identical, to a more mature Bowmore. It lived in my cask for just over five weeks, and you can read it from beginning to end here:
5. Glen Parker Speyside

I'm hoping to do the impossible: somehow make a Glen Parker drinkable. We shall see. It's still early going, but I intend to update this post as I go so the list will remain complete. So far the only posts relating to this experiment are:

6. Other People's Experiments

Other people like my good friend Rob and a fellow I've never met in person named Alex have sent in some tidbits about their own whisky-ageing projects. I've even had the chance to sample some home-aged whisky from other people now. You can read all about these in any order you choose. And if you've got a kit on the go, feel free to share your stories - I'd love to find out how other people are doing, and this is as good a place as any to share tips or warnings.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Aesop's Tortoise

Many of you will have heard the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. If not, it's one of those ancient tales that has a moral at the end of it: you know, the stories from which you're meant to learn something. In this case, the relevant lesson is the well-known phrase "slow and steady wins the race." Or, in the original (should your browser be so equipped) "Ὅτι πολλαὶ φύσεις ἀνθρώπων εὐφυεῖς εἰσιν, ἀλλ' ἐκ τῆς ῥᾳθυμίας ἀπώλοντο, ἐκ δὲ νήψεως καὶ σπουδῆς καὶ μακροθυμίας τινὲς καὶ φύσεως ἀργῆς περιεγένοντο." And with that, I succeed in applying my years of studying ancient Greek! Doctor Fletcher would be so proud.

Slow and steady is the mantra for the Glen Parker experiment. I notice a difference in the 1.5 weeks it's been in the cask, but the changes are subtle. Much more subtle than those in the McClelland's in its first week, or in the Whisky Works. And to prove it, I'll do something I haven't done in what seems like ages. I'll show you a picture.

[as usual, click the photo to embiggen it]

Do you see it? Can you guess which is the one from the cask and which the bit I left in the bottle? If you can't figure it out, the casked one is on the left, the uncasked on the right. It is very slightly darker than the uncasked version, but the difference is very, very slight.

Observant readers might notice something else: the presence of not one, but two proper whisky glasses. The Spirit of Toronto show included one with the price of admission, and it conveniently matches the one given to me by Premium Bottlers, so I can finally at least pretend to be classy and show y'all whisky in its natural habitat rather than funky-shaped juice glasses.

On the nose, the difference is immediately apparent, yet not shocking. The first difference is that the tar and rubber have reduced. They're still there, but not nearly as overpoweringly so. The grainy hay is still present in all its glory. Added to the nose is a layer of smoke which hasn't integrated, but has definitely done some good nonetheless. There's also the faintest hint of a sweet fruit. Strawberry? Maybe: it's pretty indistinct, and will hopefully become more evident as we continue. It's only very slightly buttery.

The fishiness is still present on the tongue, but it's not in the same place. It starts with a pungent piney, oaky tang with a hint of fruit but not nearly enough, then as it begins to fade, fish and seaweed rear their heads just as the finish begins, leaving the whole affair rather sour and pungent. That's actually the perfect word for it: pungent. It puckers the lips and makes me want to have a drink of water to wash out the taste. Sound bad? It is. But it is an improvement over last week. Buried way down in there is the oak which works, but not in combination with the resinous pine and the fishy seaweed. I'm still looking for vanilla, smoke or the other flavours one would normally like to find, but I'm struggling. I keep thinking I catch them, but they're gone as quickly and as impossible to relocate as Keyser Söze. Oh, well. I'll keep looking next week.

Anyhow, I need to go reward myself with a dram of something tastier.

Until next time,


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Spirit of Toronto, Take Two

As promised, here's Rob's take on the Spirit of Toronto show we attended over the weekend. Rob took a Masterclass, which I did not. I think it quite altered his perceptions of the evening. Anyway, here's what he had to say:

"In reflection, I think the event was too much, too fast. Being able to sample that many products overloads the taste buds. I had trouble telling the difference. I think a ticket system would have been better. Six drinks of larger size, would have made me more selective, which would allow a better review of the whiskies."

[I disagree with Rob on this point. The reason, I think, for the discrepancy is that Rob sat in Masterclasses for about half or more of the evening, while I just wandered the stalls. I didn't have trouble taking my time and having snacks and water to cleanse the palate after a sample, and I enjoyed being able to sample many, many things. I think next time, I might take a notebook to jot down my impressions so as to better remember them - Ian]

"The master classes were nice as you focused on one particular topic. They did the basic principle of how to properly nose and taste. Add one small drop of water and taste again. If you're really interested in the topic, then going is worth while. The whiskeys in the peat class tasted amazingly different: adding just a drop of water really opens up the flavour. This class I would recommend. Five bucks well spent. The smoking class, not so much. I would pass on that one. There just was not enough time to focus on the topic."

"Tasting Notes (From what I remember)
Isle Jura Superstition - Good, but nothing to write home about.
40 Creek - Taste the same as the stuff in the store. I really wanted to talk to them so tasting stop well worth it.
Premium Bottlers - I think I'll look them up today.
Yoichi - I thought there was a hint of sake, didn't like the taste because of that. [I haven't a clue what sake tastes like, but I found the Yoichi grainier and less integrated or complex than the Yamazaki - Ian]
Yamazaki 12 & 18 - Both really nice. Light taste and body. Tasted Scottish.
Oban - Quite like it.
Cragganmore - Nice and light. I would add it to your list of old faithfuls. Although a little pricey, you can't go wrong.
Laphroaig - He was pouring generous samples. The quarter cask is still my favourite.
Dalmore - quite nice, but again nothing to write home about.

That was all the damage I could do before heading to my classes. I would recommend going to one class to break up the sampling. I would also recommend it be at 8:00 or so. Hence you've sampled, sit a listen and can sample again."

So there you have it. Rob had an excellent time, but felt a bit rushed. I guess attending a couple of classes really does alter one's perception of the evening. I stayed relaxed throughout without a sense of being hurried.

One thing I forgot to mention is that I met up with my friend James the evening before and shared a bit of my remaining Whisky Works whisky with him. He made the critical error of not believing me when I said it was really strong, so took perhaps too big a sip the first time. Nonetheless, after the coughing and sputtering subsided, a slower, more conservative sample proved quite to his liking. After all the time and effort I'd put into it, he'd damn well better have enjoyed it! :-)



Monday, May 12, 2008

Good Things Come In Pairs

Hi folks,

I decided to turn my whisky weekend in Toronto into a slightly longer affair, and have still not made it back to Ottawa, so no news on the Glen Parker front for another couple of days. But I thought I'd take a break from the gigantic pile of manuscripts and architectural plans staring at me and share my impressions of the Spirit of Toronto show.

In short, I had a blast.

I went with my friend Rob who has appeared in this blog a time or two. Neither of us was entirely sure what to expect, but we were both impressed. I'll put Rob's comments up shortly as well as my own.

The show was very well laid out and organized. I found I never had to wait to sample something, and the folks at the booths and the snack bar were all friendly. The food (crackers and various fancy cheeses, figs, grapes, noodley Asian things and a beef dish I didn't try) was excellent and made a perfect complement to the whisky. The availability of food and lots of water is commendable: I saw no one rowdy or obviously too much in his cups, thanks in part to the food and non-alcoholic drink.

There were spirits from the United States, Canada, France (a cognac, not a whisky), Scotland, Ireland and Japan. The whiskies also ran the gamut in styles, as you'd expect: light and fruity to heavy and oaky, smokey and peaty to herbal and short, regardless of your tastes, you'd find something. As well, I was pleased to note a number of whiskies in every price range to appeal to both budget-conscious tipplers and those with enough money to go wild and crazy in their whisky selection. There are too many to go through them all, but here are some of the interesting things I found:

They had set up Smokehead right beside The Peat Monster. I'd not tried either, but I understand they're aimed at the same market: young-ish men who like strongly flavoured, smokey and peaty whiskies. I sampled them both, and the Peat Monster was head and shoulders above the competition: a more complex array of tastes with (of course) lots of peat, but a nice lemon and salt and vanilla undertone. Smokehead seemed simpler and so smokey that other flavours were lost. It's also about $10 cheaper, so you get what you pay for.

There were three Japanese whiskies from two distillers: one Yoichi and two Yamazakis. The former was all right, but I found it was too strong in the malt and grain departments and lacked enough peat or smoke. It tasted young, though I'm not sure exactly how old it was. The Yamazakis were very clearly in the style of Scotch. If I hadn't been told they were from Japan, I'd have guessed they were from the British Isles. I'd be happy to have either the 18 or the 12 in my collection, but the price tag is a bit steep.

I, in spite of my reservations, sampled both Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve: American whiskies. The staff at the Maker's Mark booth was insane. I'm glad that they brought their enthusiasm, but I found it over the top. And providing a selection of drinks blended from their whisky was an interesting, though ultimately unsatisfying experience. When I'm in the mood for a whisky, I want whisky. Not something with mint and sugar syrup. In any case, neither of the American spirits grabbed my attention, and I'll continue to dodge bourbons and their ilk for the time being.

I sampled two Isle of Juras: Superstition (a blend of a few different years ranging from about 14 to 21) and the 16. I was impressed at how different they were. Superstition was very rich and smokey and salty, while the 16 was replete with hints of oak and pine and citrus and heather. I liked them both well enough. I tried a few Glenmorangies. This is a whisky Rob says is kind of his default: if you're not sure what to get, this one will do nicely. And it did. All three that I tried were tasty, though none will be my favourite, and if I'm going to buy a whisky at that price, there are more interesting options.

The Talisker 18 was already gone by the time I reached that table, which is really too bad. But I tried a Cragganmore and Dalwhinnie, neither of which I'd had, believe it or not. Enjoyable, but neither leapt out at me. I couldn't pass up the Lagavulin 16 and it was every bit as awe-inspiring as I remember.

I managed to find the folks from Premium Bottlers and had a really good chat. In addition to the Whisky Works kit on display, they had four whiskies to sample, all of which were quite nice, but not necessarily available in Ontario. Fortunately, their vatting of Linkwood 10 was my favourite and is sold by the LCBO, so I'm in luck. I found it nice and buttery, rich and sweet. They've got another on the way to Ontario stores next year, but I admit my brain's a bit foggy as to which it was (Let me know which it is if you happen to be in the loop!) [Update: it's BRIN: a vatting of malt from Benrinnes with a little bit of Canadian whisky)

If you're wondering why I called this post "Good Things Come In Pairs" it has to do, in part, with meeting the guys who run Premium Bottlers. I knew they were both named Barry beforehand, so wasn't surprised. But over the course of the evening, I was introduced to 4 other people. Two were named Andrew. Two were named Paul. I'm no statistician, but I found that meeting 6 people with three names between them was a bit odd, but hey. Odd is what I do.

Anyhow, this post is far too long, so I'll sign off for now.

For those of you around Toronto next May, do yourselves a favour and check out the show. You won't be disappointed.



Saturday, May 3, 2008

... Long Live the King!

Where's Jim Phelps when I need him? This mission could be damned near impossible...

Continuing the trend of experimenting with a cheap, barely drinkable whisky, rather than risking a more expensive one, I have selected a Glen Parker Speyside for the next batch. I know what you're thinking. Glen Parker? Am I crazy? Quite possibly, but hey: if I'm going to follow the effects of maturation, why not start with something so young it's offensive?

For the uninitiated, Glen Parker is rather like the mystery meat of the whisky world. No one seems entirely certain what it is. It's a Speyside, with no age mentioned, and here in Ontario it costs about $36 per bottle. It is rumoured to be just a bottling of whatever single malt the independant bottler can get his hands on at the time, such as Glenfiddich or Glenfarclas, that the distillers just want to be rid of rather than besmirch their good names by selling it under their own banner. And, after sampling a bit of it, I can see why.

I challenge anyone to find a good review of the stuff which actually describes it; I have been unsuccessful. I have however found a number of mentions on just how god-awful it really is. It's one of the favourites on the "what whisky would you never buy again" and the "are there really any bad single malts" fora over at Whisky Magazine. Yes. I said fora. Not forums. I didn't spend three long years studying Latin for nothing. Semper ubi sub ubi, my friends.

Linguistic peculiarity aside, I have to concur with the rest of the plebeians out there: Glen Parker Speyside is terrible. Its nose is a weak yet still impressively malodorous blend of such delightful aromas as tar, rubber (like a pencil eraser), wet straw and moss or mildew. Rather like how a stack of old tires and bales of hay would smell if stored in a wet stone cellar. I had been unimpressed by the McClelland's Islay, but I take my hat off and salute the Glen Parker: I had not thought a whisky could smell so unappetizing.

It's a good thing, then, that the taste is quite different from the bouquet. Well, in theory it's a good thing. In reality, it's really no better, merely different. It tastes of fish. I'm not talking the salty tang of a good stiff sea breeze. Nope. I'm talking fish. Along with the piscatorial deliciousness, there's a strong component of pine boughs and resin. There's also some oatmeal. I can't find vanilla, fruit, fresh grass, smoke or any of the other tastes one can commonly associate with whisky. Just fish, pine trees and oatmeal. It makes for rather a pungent, lip-puckering combination.

It also comes in a green bottle. Not that that actually is of any importance, but it's not something I see terribly often. Just another thing to make this particular whisky all the more unique.

So, this is going to be a difficult trial. I think it's likely that the barrel will have lost a reasonable amount of its oakiness by this point, after having had water, sherry, Whisky Works and McClelland's in it already. I imagine, then, that it will take longer than a few weeks to get the Glen Parker to any state even vaguely resembling drinkability. It may not even be possible. But we shall see.

I won't be here to let you know about the Glen Parker experiment next weekend: I'm at the Spirit of Toronto. I'll try to take a camera with me to get a few shots of the show and I'll let you know how it went and how the Glen Parker is coming along early the following week.

Undauntedly yours,


The King is Dead...

You might remember that about a week ago I announced that the McClelland's Islay I'd been maturing was good enough for me to call it finished. And if everything had gone to plan, I'd have de-casked the McClelland's earlier this week, and been enjoying it since. But, as will not surprise anyone who knows me at all, I didn't quite manage to get that job done until today. Oh, well. The extra week hasn't hurt it at all. Quite the opposite, actually.

Last time, I'd noted that I found a surprising change in the nose and palate of the whisky. It had become much smokier than the preceding weeks. The floral notes were still there, but the smoke that had been very subtle at the outset had really leapt out and overtaken the other components. I wasn't complaining: it worked pretty darned well.

This week, the nose has retained its smokiness, but there's a stronger biscuity smell to it as well. It's kind of like an oatmeal pancake with a jasmine tea in front of a bouquet of flowers and a wood fire with someone smoking a cigar a few metres away. The barn-yardish pungency in the original has entirely disappeared, and I'm happy beyond words to say that. It was pretty harsh before.

It's quite a mellow dram. The smoke is as apparent in the taste as in the scent. The flowers are still there, as is the biscuit, but the oak is stronger on the tongue than in the nose. The finish is moderately long and quite oaky, but the traces of concord grapes have disappeared. There's just the faintest tiny hint of vanilla buried very deeply in there, barely noticeable. It's a light body, much lighter than Whisky Works.

In re-reading last week's post, I had noticed the spiciness was calming down. That's still very true: it's got an element of cinnamon and cloves, but it's a lot fainter than it had been. It doesn't manage to overpower the other components of the flavour, so it has worked out rather well.

All in all, I'm really happy with what the cask has managed to do to the McClelland's. It's a damned cheap whisky, but a month in the cask definitely makes it taste like a much pricier beverage.

I should be able to get at least one more good use out of the cask before the oak has been sapped of its potency. And to find out what whisky is going in next, you'll have to read on...