"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.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Backporch Bourbons

Every now and again. for reasons both obscure and irrational, The Cabinet feels compelled to reaffirm its allegiance to scotch whisky. It does so by spending an evening sampling some other sort of whisky, such as Irish or Canadian rye or, as in this case, American bourbon. Now, don't misunderstand me, bourbon is a fine drink, but don't misunderstand The Cabinet either - it is not, in fact, a drinking club. Were it a drinking club, bourbon would be a more welcome regular visitor to our glasses. No, The Cabinet is not a drinking club, but rather it is a contemplation club where the focus of the contemplation is scotch whisky. This works so well because scotch whisky invites contemplation with its complexity and diversity. Bourbon, on the other hand, invites coca-cola or ice or barbecued pork ribs, or preferably all three. It is, as I have already said, a fine drink, but a drink that quickly fades into the background, like an uninteresting party guest who has little to say. To be fair, I should clarify I am talking about the "average bourbon" compared to the "average scotch". The best bourbons apparently exceed the worst scotches. This like a Venn diagram with a region of overlap. Some Cabinet members even reported having personally tasted these superior bourbons, and as their testimony can be taken as reliable, such a beast can longer be considered a unicorn. It is, however, a rare animal, like a white rhino, so the innocent scotch drinker needs to accept a significant degree of risk when pulling a random bourbon bottle off the shelf at the liquor store.

That rambling preamble out of the way then, I will briefly describe the meeting itself. The Cabinet traditionally holds its August meeting outside of its chambers in a gazebo on the banks of the Assiniboine River. This year we decided on the back porch instead, that being felt to be more in keeping with the bourbon spirit. It was a very fine warm evening for us to sip bourbon and listen to Delta blues and distant sirens. I will simply list the bourbons tasted from most favourite to least:

Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10 year old - Here is a bourbon that competes with the lesser single malt scotches. It actually has balance and it has a lingering finish, which is absent among most other bourbons. Given that it is cheaper than many of the lesser single malt scotches, it might be worth a look.

Sazerac Rye - This is certainly a bold one, launching an unrestrained rye assault on your palate. If you like that sort of thing, look no further. I do, on occasion, in limited doses. A bit of a one-trick pony though, to use an American metaphor.

Basil Hayden's Kentucky Bourbon - There are a few things going on here, including some notable rye again, but it is a confused jumble that quickly dissipates and is just as quickly forgotten. Nice looking bottle though.

Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select - I made Cabinet history by actually dumping this one. After two sips the horror was simply too much for me. Fire and sugar and nothing else. However, it must be said that this bottle had been sitting 80% empty for nine years since the last bourbon night, so it may have oxidized considerably.

I called The Cabinet a contemplation club, but that is misleading. It implies that we sit around silently, each deep in private thought, only offering carefully considered commentary. It is quite the opposite. The Cabinet is a contemplation and conversation club, and the conversation ranges far from whisky to Morgellons and storm chasing to the Oakland buddha and the advisability of driving a Lambourghini in Winnipeg in the winter.

Thank you to Trevor and Cory for the splendid snacks, and thank you to all the members for making The Cabinet what it is.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Lag

Wedged between it's more famous neighbours, Laphroaig and Ardbeg, the Lagavulin distillery sits on the south coast of the island of Islay. Call it the Costa del Scotch. You can walk from Laphroaig to Ardbeg in forty minutes or less, assuming you can walk a straight line. But you should stop after twenty minutes at Lagavulin. You may be thirsty already again by that point, but even if not, you should stop. While a dram of Laphroaig or Ardbeg shouts its flavours at you in all caps, which is undeniably exciting, Lagavulin speaks them to you in clear lines of prose, complete with punctuation, which is perhaps a more sustainable pleasure. Don't misunderstand me, The Cabinet loves its Laphroaig and its Ardbeg, but it was time to give the more restrained pleasures of Lagavulin its due. With that in mind, The Cabinet met last night to sample three bottlings of "The Lag". We killed one old bottle of Lag 16, and it was only with restraint that we did not do the same to the other, much fuller, bottles. We are masters of restraint. It is one of our special powers.

The 8 year old was up first. Is it lazy of me to simply cut and paste the notes from February of 2017 when we originally sampled this? Perhaps. But no matter:
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 fetish 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. 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...)

It may be of interest to note that the explosion of smoke described above was less in evidence now. Apparently, two years in a half-empty bottle does something to its contents. Regardless, we still wanted more and in fact had another half dram at the end of the evening.

If two years in a half-empty bottle does something, then eight must do more. In looking back it seems the last time we tasted the Lagavulin 16 was eight years ago. The effect was only evident in comparison to our last bottle, but before I get to that let me just summarize the Lag 16 by saying that it is a marvelous whisky. It has been finished in sherry casks, which lends a russet colour, sweetness and fruity notes to it. The combination of sweetness and peat can be off-putting, but Lagavulin handles it deftly, creating a very pleasurable balance.

The last bottle was a brand new Lagavulin "Distiller's Edition". It had no age statement, but research indicates that was essentially a 16-year-old. This was fascinating as it had all the same elements as the old Lag 16, but with everything brighter, sharper, livelier and more well defined. Age - and presumably specifically oxygenation - had buffed the old remnant whisky down, sanding off all these elements. Still lovely, but the new Distiller's Edition was lovelier. This is what a sherry cask conditioned Lagavulin should be. It occupies that Goldilocks territory between the punch in the mouth of its Costa del Scotch neighbours and the limp handshake of some on the mainland. Well done Lagavulin.

And well done Cabinet! We enjoyed all of our whiskies, we marveled at optical illusions and we swapped tales of injuries and tales of strange doings Father's Day. All was right with the world.


Saturday, April 27, 2019

Of Lore and Machir Bay

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You doughty whisky blog readers out there are by now no doubt heartily weary of my circumlocutions, and even more so of my use of words like circumlocutions. Just give us the whiskey reviews goddamitall man. That be what we come fer!

So whisky reviews you shall have. I aim to please. Except when I aim to annoy. But you're in luck as today I aim to please.

Last week the redoubtable (sorry) Cabinet met to do something a little different. Normally we sample four whiskies during a meeting, but that evening we decided to sample two, and not because we are cutting back (shudder), but because we wished to sample each one twice, spaced by the other one, to see how that would affect our judgment. As the Cabinet accounts were flush with treasure we were able to purchase bottles of Laphroaig Lore and Kilchoman Machir Bay for this purpose. We tasted the Machir Bay, then the Lore, then the Machir Bay again which we scored on this second tasting, and then finally the Lore again, which was also scored at this point.

To the reviews!

Kilchoman Machir Bay
The Cabinet's score was 5.7, which translates into a "Two Drams" Honest Whisky Rating (maximum four drams, minimum zero). In plain English this means,"Fair. Recommended with reservation. Don't seek out, but don't necessarily avoid."

This is apparently now Kilchoman's core expression. Kilchoman began production in 2005, becoming the first new distillery on Islay in 124 years. It is still the smallest. It's first release was a profoundly underwhelming 3-year-old. We tasted it in 2013 and at the time said: "The nose is promising enough - a smack around the olfactories with the expected peat and smoke - but the taste snuffs out that promise. Yes, there is peat, but there is also sugar. Lots of sugar. And the sugariness lingers on the palate long after the peat dissipates. It was very odd; a bit like sucking on candied peat. The Cabinet wishes Kilchoman success and more luck with the next bottling. Score: 4.0."

Well, they did have more luck with the next bottling, but not substantially more luck. That sweetness remains and appears in fact to be entirely in keeping with their intent, as their literature promises "waves of honey" on the palate. I'm sure there are whisky drinkers out there whose pulse quickens at the prospect of "waves of honey". Such drinkers are not found in The Cabinet. It is worth noting that the Machir Bay is also quite hot at 46% and as there is not enough complexity to hide this alcohol,  the heat is right up front and difficult to avoid. The finish is quick and unremarkable.

It is also worth noting that many members stated that they would have rated it even lower after the first tasting. Somehow it appeared to subjectively improve, even though the scoring followed a taste of the superior Laphroaig Lore. Mysterious.

Laphroaig Lore 
Score 7.9, which is the very top end of the "Three Drams" range (i.e. almost "Four Drams") in our Honest Whisky Rating. Three Drams translates as "Good. Recommended. Must try."

By the old practice, this would have been known as the Laphroaig 7-Year-Old as the malts in the Lore apparently range from 7 to 21 years of age. But such is not the modern way and The Cabinet has to a large extent made its peace with that. In fact, to call this a "7-Year-Old" would have been misleading as it tastes like a far more mature scotch. The Lore has the richness and complexity you expect from Laphroaig, but some of the more aggressive peaty and feinty notes of the younger expressions have been toned down. They are still there, but it's not a tire fire in your mouth. Interesting to note is that at 48% it should burn even more than the Machir Bay, but it doesn't. The complexity masks the alcohol and makes water addition feel unnecessary. Shameful even. The Lore has a lovely long finish, allowing you to justify the cost with a more sensible dollars-per-minute calculation rather than the customary dollars-per-ounce.

In summary, the whisky was good and the night was merry. What more can you ask? Honestly, nothing.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Burns Night 2019

The Cabinet assembled last week for its first meeting of the year. We try to hold this meeting as close to Robbie Burns Night as our pathetically complex modern schedules will permit. This is also the meeting where members are encouraged to dress "Highland style", however they chose to interpret that, or "formal style", also however they chose to interpret that.

This year we decided to pay homage to Burns's playful side. He was, predictably, a frequent visitor of the salons and gentlemen's clubs around Edinburgh. And there, equally predictably, much whisky was consumed alongside claret, brandy and port. But after drinking (and talking politics) these establishments were often best known for gambling. In particular dice games such as "hazard", a forerunner of craps, were popular. With this in mind, as well as our overflowing stocks in mind, I devised a dice game wherein the dice rolls would determine the whiskies consumed. The odds were weighted towards the less loved malts occupying precious shelf space...

I left on a trip early the morning after the meeting, so my memory of the details has fogged over somewhat. Therefore in the interests of accuracy, as well as for the pleasure of publishing a short post for a change, I will simply list what we drank and assign each one of our "Honest Whisky Rating" scores based my recollection of the consensus in the room that night:

Stronachie 12 = "Three Drams", good, recommended, must try.

Caol Ila 12 = "Two Drams", fair, recommended with reservation, don't seek out, but don't necessarily avoid.

Balblair 03 = "Two Drams" as well.

AnCnoc, Peter Arkle Edition = "One Dram", mediocre, not recommended, drink only if nothing else available.

It is interesting to note that the Stronachie went up a rating grade since we last tasted it and the AnCnoc went down a grade. Just goes to show. Something.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Member's Choice Night 2018

Another Member's Choice Night passed into history on Tuesday. At the last meeting of each year a rotation of members select bottles that they might have missed the meeting for, or familiar ones that they just want to enjoy again. And being a Member's Choice Night, none of these are new, so I'll cut and paste the old descriptions here to save you the trouble of searching (and to save me the trouble of typing, but more on that below):

Old Pulteney 17
First described February 2017:
"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."

Oban 14
First described April 2011: 
"Some of us had remembered it being peatier and more iodine infused, so we saved it for last, but in fact the Oban ended up being much more gentle than recalled. It is a beautifully rounded whisky with a very pleasant mouth-feel and a rapidly fading finish that makes it easy to drink quickly (for good or ill...). Another winner in a night of excellent scotch whisky."

Scapa "The Orcadian" Glansa
First described June 2017: 
"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." 

Highland Park 18
First described in June 2011 after it was named "best spirit in the world" and when we decided to drink the entire bottle rather than having a glass from each of four different bottles: 
"A fine, well-crafted scotch whisky that is very pleasant to sip on, but, to my surprise and disappointment, not much more than that. To be fair, Highland Park does not advertise this whisky as being complex, in fact the claim is "perfectly balanced", "rich" and "round". They do also, however, talk about a "prolonged, full, smokey aftertaste" and I do not believe that any of us experienced that. Perhaps that was the missing element that made Thursday night's experience seem different and, frankly, inferior to my recollection of this whisky. This again raises the question of consistency that we raised with the Johnny Walker Black Label at the last meeting. Or perhaps our faculties of memory and taste are just beginning to fail us. Incidentally, for the record, our impressions were essentially the same after the third glass, although we were in a jollier and more charitable frame of mind by that point.
Again I want to emphasize however that that the Highland Park 18 is a very fine scotch whisky, but it just is not, perhaps, "the best spirit in the world". Incidentally, Highland Park may, however, have the best whisky website in the world (www.highlandpark.co.uk) with a wealth of excellent videos detailing all the stages of the production process as well as tastings of each of their expressions. Distiller Jerry Tosh does a good job with these and entertained the group with his description of the "hallelujah moment" after sipping a Highland Park 18 when your mouth dries out and begins to water. This is true, your mouth does this, but we suspect it is true for many other whiskies as well."

So have I just been lazy here by retreading the old descriptions? Yes. But also no. To be absolutely candid something was amiss with my palate Tuesday night. Perhaps it was the delicious snacks of stinky cheese and haggis chocolate (yes, you read correctly) or perhaps it was because I was generally feeling slightly off, but everything tasted hotter to me than the actual alcohol content would predict and once the burn subsided, everything tasted blander to me than it should have. Don't get me wrong, it was all wonderful and there are few finer things in life than bantering with friends over a few glasses of high end scotch whisky, but none of the whisky itself caused me to experience spasms of delight. Maybe that's too much to ask for. And in any case it would be uncomfortable for my friends to watch.

Otherwise it appears from the reactions of everyone else that the old descriptions roughly match the present experience. The Oban and the Highland Park were still enjoyable, the Glansa was still risible and the Old Pult 17 was faintly disappointing. And it's gone now too. We drank the last of it and, in the curious lingo of the industry, that expression has been "archived". Probably our review sank it.


Thursday, November 1, 2018

Loch Indaal Limericks

The Cabinet met the night before last to sample the result of our first democratically chosen scotch. Normally the Cabinet Secretary selects the whiskies, or an individual member proposes one. In advance of this meeting we held an online vote to pick one from a list of locally available bottles that were still within the remaining 2018 budget. The Bowmore Vault Edition "Atlantic Sea Salt" came out on top. Incidentally, second place went to the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition and third was tied between the Kilchoman Machir Bay and the Laphroaig Lore. You can expect to see these names in 2019.

Having decided on the Bowmore we had to build an evening around it. We had the Bowmore 18 year old in our stocks, so that was an obvious choice and then in looking at the map, I saw that Bruchladdich was just 10 km away, around the far side of Loch Indaal on the west coast of Islay. We have their "Classic Laddie", so there's our third bottle. And then finally a member brought a small bottle of the Edradour "Ballechin Heavily Peated" 10 year old malt which he had received as a gift, so although Edradour in Pitlochry is a six hour drive on a good day from Loch Indaal, we thought, what the heck, it's got peat. 

Writing this blog can be fun, but at times it can also be dull (I suspect the same goes for reading it). I feel a dullness coming on, so I will take a sharp left turn and abandon the usual format, replacing it with limericks.

Begin with a fireside whisky,
Bruichladdich is not too risky,
Warm fruit on the nose,
No peat that it shows,
One dram and you're feeling frisky.

Then on to Bowmore Vault Edition,
Beats your tongue into submission,
Great lashes of leather,
Wild as big weather,
This bottle has won its audition.
Third is Bowmore Eighteen Year Old,
Soft peat perfume, colour of gold,
It's a sweet smooth dram,
Not something you'd slam;
A sipper to ward off the cold.
Edradour Heavy Peated Malt,
A feinty greasy rough assault,
There's no balance here,
It's a mess I fear,
That will stink up your whole gestalt.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

On The Shores

Just as the federal Cabinet sometimes meets away from Parliament during the summer, such as at the Prime Minister's retreat at Harrington Lake, The Cabinet will also, on occasion, hold a summer meeting in its gazebo on the riverbank, rather than in its customary subterranean chambers. And so it was last night as we assembled there to the murmur of rushing water, punctuated by distant sirens and assorted bird noises. And being on the shores of this beautiful river we thought it appropriate to sample whiskies distilled on the shores of Scotland. Admittedly this is a bit of stretch as far as tasting themes go, but sometimes you just need a loose framework, so long as that loose framework contains tasty scotch. And it did.

We worked our way clockwise along the Scottish coast beginning in the southwest corner with the Springbank 10 year old in Campbeltown, heading north to the town of Oban and the eponymous Oban Little Bay whisky, and then rounding the top to the northeast extremity of the Scottish mainland at Wick, home of the Old Pulteney 17 year old. 

All of these have been reviewed by us before, so you can search for those descriptions if you are keen on them, but for the less energetic among you I can spare you the trouble and summarize as follows. We like all of them, but curiously amongst these three we liked the youngest and cheapest the most and the oldest and most costly the least, keeping in mind that the least liked, the Old Pulteney 17, really only suffers by comparison. On it's own, or put up against the many (many) inferior whiskies, it's absolutely fine. More than fine. The Springbank 10 is the stand-out favourite though for balance, finish, flavour profile and liveliness. The whole package. And the Oban Little Bay sits in-between in age (making assumptions based on colour as there is no age statement), price and enjoyability. Again, an excellent malt on its own, but it suffers beside the Springbank 10, at least last night it did. Sometimes a particular vibe or a particular group mood or a particular environment play a role in what we enjoy too.

So let's wrap it up there and give the rest of the post over to the photographs. Thank you to the members, and thank you to the readers. Until October - slainte!