"The Cabinet" is a Winnipeg based scotch whisky tasting club that meets every two months to sample, discuss and enjoy scotch and occasionally other related malt-based beverages.

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Lowland Toast

The Cabinet met last week to inaugurate the new year with a look at Lowland whiskies, and to welcome our first new member in seven years. It would be exceptionally easy to find people eager to join, but primarily due to space considerations, and also so as not to change the nature of something that has been working so well, we have capped the membership at nine. 

The Lowlands are perhaps the least loved of Scotland's six whisky regions. Interestingly it also produces the highest volume the highest volume of whisky, but the great bulk of it for grain whisky and for blending. Only four producers of Lowland single malt are still active, although four more may join them soon. So why would the Cabinet attend to the unloved? Two reasons. The first is that our January meeting often is close to Robbie Burns Day, so members that have kilts wear them and a toast to the bard is usually part of the proceedings. Burns was a Lowlander. The second reason is that the Cabinet has not yet devoted an entire meeting to the Lowlands, which seems an oversight.

Auchentoshan, from near Glasgow, is by far the most well known and most widely available of the Lowland malts, so we lined up two of their bottlings - the 12 year old and the "Three Wood". In addition we sampled a Glenkinchie 12 year old, from Edinburgh.


It's a safe bet that if you're reading this you will be familiar with the Auchentoshan 12. It is simple, clean and highly inoffensive. This is the classic beginner's scotch. The classic single malt to buy a non-scotch drinker. But we happen to like flavours that beginners would consider offensive, so an "inoffensive" scotch is something the Cabinet views as little more than a pleasant opener.

On to the Auchentoshan Three Wood then. The box states that it is matured initially in bourbon casks before being finished in Oloroso and then Pedro Ximénez casks. As the latter two are both sherries, the three wood designation is perhaps a bit misleading. Moreover, as bourbon casks are extremely common in scotch production (including the Auchentoshan 12), often not even being declared anywhere on the label, that is unlikely to be a noticeable differentiator. This then means that we are really dealing with a "Double Sherry" rather than a "Three Wood". And it shows. This whisky is a deep russet in colour and noticeably sweet on the palate. There's not a whole lot more going on. It's not horrible, but it's certainly not an improvement on the 12 year old. The opposite in fact.

And what about the Glenkinchie? It declares itself clearly as a Lowland with it's clean caramel malt and faintly grassy character. The finish is a bit briefer and less pleasant than the Auchentoshan 12 though, so it takes second place, ahead of the Three Wood. An interesting bit of trivia about the Glenkinchie is that it is one of Diageo's so-called "classic malts" . They also owned Rosebank and had decide between the two which they would shutter and which they would designate as their Lowland flag-bearer. Although Rosebank was greatly preferred by reviewers Diageo chose the Glenkinchie because it's location was much more suited to building a tourist visitor's centre. Cabinet once had a bottle of Rosebank 21, which we loved. Stupid tourists. 

We finished up with a brilliant selection by our new member: the Laphroaig 18 year old. This was, ironically enough, a bottle we first acquired seven years prior when we last inaugurated a new member. Now this is an excellent whisky. It is clear that our hearts lie further north and nearer the sea.

It wouldn't be a Burns Night without poetry, but I cannot do a Scots accent. Cannot. So instead I quickly composed a little verse entitled "Cabinet Night" that can be read in a flat Canadian accent:

 It is Cabinet night,
And the members gather.
They enter the Chambers,
There's nowhere they'd rather.

The Scotch whisky is poured,
And the glasses raised high.
In the morning they work,
And some day they will die.

But for tonight they live,
And this living is good.
For they hold the magic,
Of grain, water and wood.

So drink up my good friends,
For your soul and your heart.
So drink up my good friends,
And let this meeting start!

Special thanks to our guest, Kevin, for all the snacks!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Member's Choice 2017

The members of The Cabinet met last week for one of our most hallowed traditions - the annual pre-Christmas member's choice night. Normally the Secretary sets the theme and makes the selections, but once a year a rotating list of members pick the whiskies from our stocks that they would most like to showcase.

As it is a busy time of year and as I have left the writing of this a little bit too long, I am going to beg pardon and simply present photos of what was tasted. All are familiar have been reviewed before.

The Highland Park 18 was strictly speaking not a "member's choice", but rather the fruit of careful budgeting, allowing its purchase with the remaining 2017 funds. The clear favourite among the above was, perhaps surprisingly, the Tullibardine 20. If you are feeling generously inclined, this would make a very fine Christmas gift for the right person. $167 at Manitoba Liquor Mart.

Before wrapping up this briefest of posts I should mention that Michael attended the launch of "Canadian Whisky" by Davin de Kergommeaux at McNally Robinson on our behalf. He reported it to be an interesting and amusing evening, although it is safe to say, likely not nearly as interesting and amusing as a Cabinet meeting. A copy of Davin's excellent book was raffled off during our meeting to the member who demonstrated the least knowledge of Canadian whisky and was thus the most in need of education.

Thank you to our members and to our readers, 2017 was another brilliant year for The Cabinet. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Blend 'er

"Blended whiskies are too often dismissed as the poor relation of single malts, but as Dr Jim Swan reveals, their creation is extraordinarily complex." 
So said Whisky Magazine in April 2000. 

"Blending whisky is a considerable art acquired only after years of experience."
Concurs The Scotch Whisky Experience website.

Most of us will agree with the first part of Whisky Magazine's statement. If you're reading this blog I will assume that you have a general preference for single malts over blends. And that is, generally speaking, right and proper, although, as the statement implies, we should all be alert to the exceptions. But the other stuff merits a little more discussion. The Cabinet met last night to conduct a small experiment regarding the complexity of the creation of blends and the amount of experience necessary to acquire the art.

We began the evening with a nice baseline blend, Dewar's "Aged 12 Years - The Ancestor - Married in Oak Casks". It would have been unsporting to roll out a nasty cheap blend, so we went for the best blend in our stocks. And it did not disappoint. The full name may provoke a curious mental image, but the whisky itself is solid and not curious in the slightest. It clearly shows its Aberfeldy heritage. There is caramel and toffee on the nose, heavy malt and a touch of sweetness on the palate and a pleasant, if not overlong, finish. Fine, fine. 

This was followed by an entirely different sort of blend, a private label bottling from Vom Fass in Minneapolis (https://www.vomfassusa.com/). On offer was their somewhat more prosaically named "Two Casks Blended Scotch Malt Whisky". It is apparently a combination of Speyburn (Highland) whisky and Caol Ila (Islay) whisky. Interesting. The first sip was a chaotic and, it must be said, wholly unpleasant experience. Simultaneous feinty funky Islay and sweet floral Highland. Both at once and distinct from each other. It was like placing a stanky tomcat in a sack with a Persian kitten. But then after a few more sips it happened, the flavours merged and mingled and somehow, entirely unexpectedly, became harmonious. To extend my weak metaphor a little further, a sleek, attractive and friendly black cat emerged from the sack. We liked it.
The Dewar's and the Vom Fass were to establish what the best in blends can be. We wanted to demonstrate what years of experience and an extraordinarily complex creation process can produce. And with that out of the way, now we wanted to demonstrate what wanton randomness can produce. 

With nothing more than a funnel and a clutch of unloved bottles I mixed the back row of our stocks and produced the "Coimeasgadh A Dh'aona Ghnothaich A 'Chaibineit 2017", which means something like "Random Bespoke Blend For The Cabinet 2017" in Scots Gaelic. See, I can come up with pretentious names too. But let's abbreviate it as the CADGAC '17. The members were not told what specifically went into it or how it was produced, other than that it involved whiskies we generally didn't enjoy. I told them that it would likely be terrible. And I had fermented Icelandic shark at the ready to blot out the taste if needed. 
So...? They liked it. They liked it a lot. It's a little rough up front, but then opens into fruit and leather and maybe creamed honey. The finish is astonishingly long.  I don't know why any of this happened. It was truly random. The formula was roughly 40% Glenmorangie (we needed to get of it as we had two bottles and nobody was asking for it), 20% Aberlour 16, 20% Stronachie 10, 5% Glendroach Parliament 21 and 5% Smokehead (the smoke didn't come through at all).

Go figure.

We finished with the most excellent Vom Fass "The Gentleman 35 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky", at probably $20 a sip. Thank you Michael!

And to round out the evening in an entirely random fashion I passed around the aforementioned fermented Icelandic shark. There were only two takers and they split one cube.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Return to Orkney

With a stop in Wick along the way...

Entirely coincidental to the previous meeting's theme, last night The Cabinet took another look at the Orkneys, courtesy of one of our members who had just returned from there. Trevor and his family spent two and a half weeks in Scotland and he was able to take in two distillery tours - Highland Park in Kirkwall on Orkney "Mainland" (the somewhat confusing name of the principle island in the chain), and Old Pulteney in Wick, on the actual mainland mainland of Scotland, about a half hour's drive from the where you catch the ferry to the Orkneys.
(Note the highly stylish jersey on the right. 
Nothing says serious cycling like a smokey peaty scotch whisky!) 

Trevor returned with oatcakes, whisky infused chocolate, a Talisker cycling jersey for me that I had specially tasked him to obtain and, most significantly for The Cabinet, a 10 year old cask strength Scapa which is unattainable here. And he also returned with stories. With mouth-watering stories of the tastings and tours. He had also popped into Talisker (see cycling jersey reference above), but did not take the tour there and reported it to be very busy. In contrast, both Highland Park and Old Pulteney were quiet, with only five or six tour guests each. The styles of the tours were very different though. Old Pult is smaller and much more informal. They were permitted to wander around everywhere and poke at everything - at one point being invited to lick a few drops of the 30 year old leaking from a barrel. Highland Park on the other hand was more restricted, more professional, but also more informative. One nugget of information he returned with was the Highland Park guide's insistence that the whisky be "chewed" far longer than we thought reasonable. One is to move it around one's mouth long enough that the saliva begins to make it noticeably viscous. Ok. We all did this. It definitely gives you more for your money in that you are tasting the whisky longer, but you are also tasting it differently as this seems to ramp up the burn until you feel that your tongue and the insides of your cheeks have been injured. File under "interesting".

While all this was described we worked our way through the Old Pulteney 12 and 17 and the Highland Park 15 and Dark Origins. All of these have been reviewed before in these pages. It was very pleasant to return to these while hearing about their distilleries and while sitting in "The Cabinet's Summer Residence" alongside the rushing Assiniboine (it does rush at this point), gleaming quicksilver with the dusk.

And then, to close, the Scapa 10. Aye yai yai! At 59.2% this is a punch in the mouth and then some. So packed with flavour (cherries? licorice? bitter orange?) and so intense it punches you in the mouth, knocks you to the ground, drags you around a little and then gives you a quick little boot to the side of the head. What's not to love? Radically different then the Scapa Glansa. We will return to it soon.

Fine scotch whisky, dark chocolate, old French cheese (thank you Jason), a rushing river and tales of beautiful Scotland and of wild storm chasing in Kansas and of hot women in stilettos stomping on stamp collections (don't ask)  - is it any wonder Cabinet thrives?


Thursday, June 22, 2017


The Cabinet assembled last night to take on the Orkney Islands. Or at least the whisky produced there. This has long been on our radar as a theme for an evening's tasting, but up until recently in Manitoba it would have meant drinking only Highland Park, which, make no mistake, is a fine prospect, but not fully representative of the islands. This is because there is another distillery, half a mile south of Highland Park, called Scapa. It was closed between 1994 and 2004, but since re-opening has produced well reviewed 12 and 14 year old expressions (obviously from pre-1994 casks). These have not been available here, but as of recently their newest, "Glansa" (no age statement), has appeared on local shelves. So finally, we were ready for a proper Orkney night.

We shouldn't have waited. Out of shear eagerness we began with the Glansa (which sounds disturbingly anatomical, but apparently means something like stormy skies in Norse). Scapa tells us that this is only peated by filling the spirits, from unpeated barley, into casks previously used for other heavily peated malts. They needn't have bothered. Peat is barely detectable here. It is not a terrible whisky, but it is not an especially good one either. Faint honey and flowers on the nose, sweet on the palate, thin in the mouth and then a bit of a rough and short finish. Maybe it's a case of having had unhelpfully high expectations. Maybe it's a case of rushing product to market to pay off the capital outlay involved in reopening a shuttered distillery. But, good-hearted as we are (and unwilling to waste even marginal whisky), we will eventually give it another chance.

Scapa out of the way we could happily address ourselves to the two Highland Parks. For the occasion we brought out the 15 year old, which had we loved in February, and the new "Dark Origins" (no age statement). I won't revisit the 15 y.o. in this post. The "Dark Origins" is worth a word or two though. The name is apparently a nod to the founder of Highland Park, but why or how he was "dark" goes unexplained. The bottle is black though and the whisky itself, very... dark. This is because they used 80% fresh sherry casks, which is double the normal number. Usually cask are used multiple times, but the first time imparts the most sherry character. Highland Park is a flavour bomb already, so the sherry notes can be hard to pick out, but the overall effect is very pleasing. In February I had said the following about the 15 y.o.: "medium dark, full, rich, chewy and very malty. It also has that long lingering finish we always look for." This all applies here as well, only more so. More dark. More full. More rich. More chewy. More more more. And a relative bargain at $101.

We finished the evening with a guest selection: the Tullibardine 20 year old, a very fine highland malt (previously reviewed April 2014). And speaking of guests, we had the good fortune to host two lively and entertaining guests, Ben and Leif. Whisky was sipped, cheese was eaten, tales, light and dark, were told and my ukulele found itself in far more expert hands than mine. A splendid evening.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Brown Paper Bag

The brown paper bag is generally accepted as the mark of the fully desperate, fully degenerate drinker. You know who I mean. No, not you, but that old guy on the bench by the bridge wearing a parka in July and muttering about highly sensitive listening devices planted in the trees by Them. He takes swigs from a bottle concealed in a brown paper bag. We judge him. We judge the brown paper bag.

With this post allow me to reclaim a little dignity and respect for that much maligned little sack. Last night the Cabinet met to consider three Highland single malts hidden in... yes, brown paper bags. Truthfully, the effect was ruined somewhat by the bright blue painter's tape I used to make sure that the bags stayed on properly and did not permit peeking. But that is beside the point. The point is that the bottles were hidden. Even the stoppers were removed in case those gave clues. The bags were simply marked A, B and C. The members were then given sheets of paper with the official tasting notes provided by the distillers, printed out in random order. The object was to match up the mystery whiskies with their descriptions. I deliberately chose ones that did not contain bizarre and excessively fanciful adjectives and I deliberately chose three of the same style, so as to make this more of a challenge.

In the end, it was too much of a challenge. Only our guest, a self-described "total rookie", correctly matched all the malts with their notes. From this we concluded that taste is indeed very individual and very subjective. But you knew that already, right? And we also concluded that many tasting notes contain random bullshit. And you knew that already too. Sorry, no epiphanies today.

But what were the three whiskies you ask? They were:
AnCnoc Peter Arkle Limited Edition
Glen Garioch Founder's Reserve
Aberlour 16 year old (this is sometimes listed as a Speyside, but the bottle says Highland, so there)

All three were enjoyed and opinion was quite evenly divided over which was preferred. Subjective. Individual. Again. None were formally scored, but all can be recommended. As an interesting aside I had long held the prejudice that most Highland whiskies were so similar as to be essentially interchangeable. This exercise skewered that prejudice - each one was in fact distinctive. Just not reliably in the way the official tasting notes described.

It is a Cabinet tradition that the guest be permitted to select anything from our stocks. The guest chose wisely and we all very much enjoyed a dram of Talisker Storm. Feeling really quite jolly by that point we decided to indulge in a very rare fifth pour. A member had donated a bottle of Kirkland Highland 16 year old he had been given. Avid readers of the blog will recall that the Kirkland Speyside exceeded our expectations. Now that the expectations for Kirkland (the Costco house brand, in case you are unaware) were elevated the Highland unfortunately fell well beneath them. Funky on the nose - old gym shorts was one comment - and flat and dull on the palate. Sad.

But it was a splendid evening nonetheless. Thank you to Cory for the cheese, Trevor for the bottle donation, Ivan for the photos and Al for joining us!


Saturday, February 4, 2017

A New Hope

The title of this post is a bit misleading as only one of the whiskies we sampled the night before last is truly new and even then the newness needs to be qualified. You'll see. The idea though was to identify age-statement labeled single malts from our favourite distillers that were new to us. This is an admittedly atavistic impulse on our part and a reaction against the essentially random marketing driven naming of scotch. What does the name "Prophecy" tell you about what you are going to taste? Most prophecies in history are of doom... And what does the name "Svein" imply you will find in your glass? I have no idea, but essence of viking is unwelcome, thank you.

At least age statements give the innocent whisky buyer some very general guidance. To be sure, we have long since debunked the notion that age necessarily connotes quality, but more or less predictable things happen to the whisky the longer it sits in the barrel. More contact time with wood means that it becomes darker and takes on more of the vanillin found in oak. And the steady evaporation of alcohol - the poetically named "angel's share" - cools and mellows the scotch and can intensify some of the flavours. This is useful to know when you are comparing a 25 and a 10 year old. Is "Nadurra" useful to know? It might mean "natural" in Gaelic (or it might not), but so what?

Our first "new to us" age-statement whisky was the Highland Park 15 year old. I've written somewhere north of 40 blog posts and I do not believe I have used the expression "wow" yet. It seems I was reserving it for just such a moment as this. Wow. We were all too enthralled to consider voting, so it was not officially rated, but had it been I am confident in stating that it would have scored 8+ ("Four Drams - Excellent - Highly Recommended"). Those of you familiar with the blog know that the Cabinet does not employ or endorse obscure and pretentious descriptors (persimmon gumdrops, dark boot polish, first cut of August hay, and other such nonsense) so you will have to be satisfied with the summary that it is medium dark, full, rich, chewy and very malty. It also has that long lingering finish we always look for. More for your money. Wow.

The Old Pulteney 21 is inarguably one of our very favourite single malts and yet we found the 12 year old to only be of middling quality, so we were very curious to find where the 17 year old lay on that spectrum. It always difficult to follow a "wow" whisky, so perhaps that's a factor, but the
consensus was that while it was good, it was not fantastic. So, I suppose, appropriately enough, roughly half-way between the 12 and the 21. The signature hint of salt is present and perhaps leather from the peat. It is a lovely well balanced whisky with a reasonably satisfying mouthfeel, but compared to the Highland Park it lacks in richness and the finish is not as long. Some of us detected an odd bitter note at the end. Still, overall "good", but this whisky deserves another look when it is not in the Highland Park 15's shadow.

The last new age statement scotch of the evening was the Lagavulin 8 year old. This is a new release

and is being sold as a 200th anniversary edition, celebrating the 1816 founding of the distillery. They decided on an 8 year old as a nod to the Victorian whisky writer Alfred Barnard who declared the Lagavulin 8 year old available in the 1880s to be "exceptionally fine". This was an old whisky for the time as the modern fetishization for aging scotch was unknown then. Lagavulin claims to have done it's best to recreate that whisky and although we are in no position to judge the success of the recreation we did enjoy the outcome. It is definitely a change of pace from the two darker, rounder, maltier bottlings we sampled earlier in the evening. Here the general guidance inherent in an age statement was again demonstrated: light in colour and all the brightness, sharpness and liveliness you expect from a younger whisky. Being a Lagavulin, regardless of age, there are some other expectations and these were met as well: an explosion of smoke up front, akin to inhaling deeply from a cigar, followed by, and strongly contrasted by, a delicate sweetness. It takes a little getting used to, but once you do you want more. And more. (Although your partner may regret it as you begin off-gassing the smoke...)

While all this fine whisky was sipped we talked inevitably of the horrifying strangeness unfolding to the south of us, but also of a member's upcoming tour of Scotland (to the swelling strings of the Lawrence of Arabia theme...) and, in true Cabinet style, of the giant pile of frozen feces near the summit of Mount Elbrus (to the twang of delta blues...).

So, in summary, as the post title alludes to, what we call new is not truly new, but it does bring hope and in fact ended up being perhaps the best episode / meeting in a long while. (Yes, I know I'm reaching.)