"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, December 19, 2019

Member's Choice Night, 2019

As is The Cabinet's long-standing tradition, the last meeting of the year is given over to the democratic concept of "member's choice", wherein three or four members in rotation each select a bottle to sample, typically an old favourite. This also provides The Cabinet Secretary with a small respite from his duties designing the tasting programs. These are, incidentally, often among the most successful of the meetings, so perhaps there is a lesson there...

The photo above is of our current stock list. From this, the members selected the Lagavulin Distiller's Edition, the Laphroaig Lore and the Ardbeg Uigeadail, for an all Islay evening. There are, it must be said, far worse ways to spend an evening. Far far worse ways. We also had an excellent guest who chose the Springbank 10, departing from the theme on the strength of our recommendation of it as being perhaps the best value scotch in our collection.

I will also take a respite from my blog writing duties, citing pre-Christmas demands on my time, and wrap this post up quickly. Suffice it to say that all four whiskies are excellent and that each had it's supporter that night. There was no consensus as to a favourite. Nor should there have been, for taste is the most subjective of our subjective senses.

In closing, thank you to our members for another brilliant year of The Cabinet! Thank you for your stories, thank you for your snacks and, above all, thank you for your fellowship.


Thursday, October 3, 2019


Yes, it is safe to keep reading. The Cabinet did not take a hard right turn last time with the bourbons and decide to further devolve to an evening of Southern Comfort. That syrupy horror, that hangover expressway, that Angel of Death for Janis Joplin, will never see the interior of The Cabinet Chambers. No, instead, the post title refers to the concept of comfort food translated into comfort drink. September was apparently the second rainiest in Manitoba history. October has begun wet as well. Not only wet but chilly and grey. This is weather that inspires a craving for starch and slow-cooked meats and heavy rich sauces. What then is the drink equivalent? Scotch, of course (duh), but which scotch? Here things become rather subjective. Some might feel drawn the smokiest and peatiest and some might crave the deep wood character of an aged whisky. I am more practical and straight-forward. To me, "comfort" means guaranteed goodness and pleasure. No risks, no challenges. For The Cabinet then the choice was simple. We have about a dozen solid favourites, so we selected three of these to represent the various preferred styles among those favourites.

First was the Springbank 10, the only Campbeltown in our collection. Fiery and sharp with a marvelous long finish.

Then the Oban 14, a coastal Highland malt and another longtime favourite. This was, curiously, a disappointment. At least at first. In the first sampling, we finished the dregs of a bottle first opened three years prior. It was a bit flat and smooth. Too smooth in fact, with much of the complexity we remembered before absent. There was also an odd oily mouthfeel. Hmm. Later we opened a fresh bottle and it was an entirely different whisky - bright and lively, really a delight. Expect an in-depth exploration of the topic of oxygenation next year. This could be alarming as we have dozens of half-full bottles in our stores...

And third was the brand new (to us) Talisker Distiller's Edition, distilled in 2008, bottled in 2018. This was perfect. Smoky, but not overwhelmingly. Sweet, but in a malty way, not in a nasty way. And a great long finish. It was also the least fiery of the three and was enjoyed straight without any drops of water added.

All of this was complemented by a sharp cheddar and conversation that ranged from homelessness to Mt Everest to the glory of The Sonics.


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.