"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.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Dear Mr. Colin Gordon

An open letter to Colin Gordon, Distillery Manager, Ardbeg Distillery, Port Ellen, Islay

Dear Mr. Colin Gordon,

I hope you are well. This not an empty and formulaic hope, but a genuine one. I hope you truly are well, because my colleagues at The Cabinet and I have reason for sincere concern. Allow me to explain.

The Cabinet is an exclusive whisky tasting society based in Winnipeg, Canada. While we make a point of trying whisky from any part of the world without prejudice, we have a particular focus on and passion for scotch whisky. More specifically, our tastes run to the Islay, Island, and coastal Highland malts. I'm sure you will be pleased to learn therefore that Ardbeg is a special favourite. We have rated the 10 year old, the 12 year old, the An Oa, the Wee Beastie, and the Uigaedail all very highly. Even the Supernova. And I have personally spent many a lovely hour at the Ardbeg Embassy at The Caledonian in Toronto. We are fans. We love your work.

Imagine then the scene at Robbie Burns Night this year, just last week, when The Cabinet met to try the newest Ardbeg expression, the Ardcore. Some of us wore kilts, and we're not even Scottish. This is the level of our devotion. The salesperson had brought the Ardcore out from a special locked room and placed it directly in the bag, so I didn't have a chance to examine the box. If I had, my concern might have begun to rise then. I noted only that it was bright blue and yellow. Fine. We are not sticklers for tradition. Then at the meeting the box was taken out of the bag and passed around for inspection. 

Punk rock single malt scotch. 

You're calling this a punk rock single malt scotch and have gone all out with the label and box design to underline this.


Is that like bluegrass Malbec? Or Wagnerian gin? Or alt country Weissbier? It's a non-sequitur. And - forgive me, but I'm going to be blunt here - it smacks of the crassest of marketing gambits. Before you picture us as a doddering group of ultra-conservative old gents with lavish nostril hairs and poorly knotted ascots, just two short steps removed from spending our days standing at the bus stop, shouting about the government, let me disabuse you of that. Ok, the lavish nostril hairs are close, but we are an eclectic group. One of our members played in a punk band. Punk features in our playlist. We are not anti-punk. Far from it. But you seem to be, despite assertions to the contrary. Using punk iconography to boost profits is... Well, you know what it is.

But that would all be forgiven if the whisky was good. But it's not. It's terrible, in fact. It's thin and utterly devoid of what makes Ardbeg Ardbeg. Smoke and peat can only be guessed at, and what you describe as "charcoal" is in fact closer to "ashtray". I suppose that's punk though. Give yourself one point. 

I could go on, but I suspect you've stopped reading already.

Why did you do this? For a laugh? Because you are unwell? This is why I asked the question at the start of my letter. Not just out of politeness. If that's the reason, I hope you are better now. This lapse will soon be forgotten. 

Or maybe we didn't think about this deeply enough. Maybe it really is punk - soak the bourgeois middle class for $230 (Canadian) by filling the bottles with what you'd otherwise have to dump. And tip a few ashtrays in. "Taking the piss". Just not literally, I hope. Now that would be punk.

With respect and hope for your recovery,

Kindest regards,

Philipp Schott


The Cabinet

Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

For our blog readers, here are photos from the evening showing what else we drank and actually enjoyed!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Member's Choice Night, 2022

 The Cabinet met last night for the annual end of year "Member's Choice" event. It was marvelous. Of course it was. I'm going to allow the photographs to speak for themselves.

Slainte until 2023!

(The Bowmore 18 was hands down our favourite. Like chewing on an old leather club chair. This is high praise.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Smoke Gets In Your Mouth

The first snow of  the season was beginning to fall as we met last week, but up until then we had enjoyed classic November conditions. Something about the dry leaves, bare trees, and iron-coloured skies always makes me think of smoke. Smoky bonfires, smoke from the fireplace, smoke from a cigar (well, at one time, my love for those has dimmed somewhat). With that in mind we decided to explore the concept of smoke in scotch whisky.

Smoke primarily comes into a whisky from malted grain that is dried over a peat fire, although some can come in from the charred lining of the barrel. What we call a smoky flavour or aroma is due to a complex array of phenolic compounds, from cresol (think creosote) to guaiacol (curiously, also found in the guts of desert locusts). Unless you have access to a gas chromatograph, the amount of each of these phenols can only be guessed at. The industry typically reports parts per million (ppm) of total phenols. This includes phenols that taste feinty and medicinal, in addition to the smoky ones, so it's only an approximation of smokiness. 

Enough organic chemistry. Time to start drinking.

We selected four bottles that advertised smoke on their packaging.

1. Tomatin Cu Bocan. 15 ppm. The distillery tells us that Cu Bocan is a legendary dog made of smoke. Ok, why not. Tomatin is a highland distillery that does not peat its whisky 51 weeks of the year, but for one week it does. Enter the smoky dog. If we hadn't been told about the smoke, we wouldn't have noticed it. It's a fine whisky. Good even. But not smoky.

2. Highland Park Valfather. 20 ppm. Who doesn't love Highland Park? If you don't, you can stop reading now. You are not welcome here. Everything they do, they do well. (Except possibly the Magnus, but that's another story for another time.) Even though it only has 5 ppm more phenols than the Cu Bocan, it is smokier. Now, that's a very low bar to clear given that the Cu Bocan was not smoky at all, but well done regardless. Smoke promised. Smoke delivered. The smoke was subtle and most noted on the finish. Overall a marvelously well balanced whisky.

3. Ardbeg An Oa. 50-55 ppm. Now this is what we're talking about. Campfire in a glass. Yet not overwhelmingly smoky. Delicious. Nothing more needs to be said.

4. Ardbeg Wee Beastie. 50-55 ppm. We loved the Wee Beastie when we last had it, and we still love it, but right after the An Oa it seems a little dumbed down. Smoky for sure, but rougher around the edges than its stablemate.

Interestingly, all four whiskies were within ~$10 of each, around $100 here in Manitoba. 


For the first time in Cabinet blog history, a video! Thank you Cory.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

A Visit to Balmoral Castle

The Cabinet met a week ago to mark a sad occasion, the passing of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. While the group held a range a views regarding the legacy of the monarchy as an institution, we were all agreement that Elizabeth, as an individual, was a remarkable person with many admirable qualities, and, moreover, a constant presence in our lives whose sudden absence feels surreal. 

We were also in agreement that it would have been lovely to have been invited to Balmoral Castle during her reign, perhaps especially so when Philip was still alive. We may be wrong, but he just seemed the sort that one could enjoy a dram or two with and expect to be treated to a biting anecdote or an off-colour joke. It's easy to assume that a visit to Balmoral with Charles, now King, would be less interesting, but if you survive to the end of this longwinded post, I've cut-and-pasted part of an article from Whisky Mag that may just change your mind. I was pleasantly surprised and I expect you will be too.

But back to Balmoral with Liz and Phil. 

The Queen was a steady tippler, with her favourite being a Dubonnet (a sweet spiced and fortified wine) and gin cocktail. She also enjoyed martinis, champagne - especially at dinner - and the occasional snort of whisky. 

Which brings us to our Cabinet fantasy visit. 

Picture us arrayed around the big stone hearth. The seven of us are squashed on two couches. Elizabeth is in the overstuffed wingback to our left, and Philip is in a dark brown leather club chair to our right. The corgis are snoring by the fire. Perhaps a piper is playing in the distance, but that's probably too much. More likely the soundscape is the aforementioned snoring of corgis, the loud ticking of clocks, and Elizabeth sniping at Philip for not having insisted on the better glassware for our visit. Oh, and it's late evening and it's raining steadily outside. The castle is damp and chilly, but the fire is lovely.

And so is the whisky. First we are served a Royal Lochnagar 12 year old. Yes, "Royal". It was give the royal warrant by Queen Victoria herself soon after she and Albert settled on Balmoral as their summer home. They had been delighted to discover that not only did they get a castle with an enormous estate, but right next door there was distillery. Right next door! 

We all nod and smile and say nice things about the scotch, but in comparing notes later on the drive to our cheap hotel in Braemar, we agree that it was simply fine. Not bad. Not great. Fine. 

Then Philip flashes us a crooked grin and directs the servant (kilt, black jacket, silent as a tombstone) to reveal the next bottle, which had been hidden under a silver dome. It's the Famous Grouse. Philip laughs and tells us he knows what we're thinking, but this is in fact, what most guests are served when they come up to hunt, and is, in his words, "a fine shooting whisky". He didn't take us for snobs, he says. Snobbery is obnoxious, he says. Then he cracks up and so does Elizabeth. We thank him for the grouse and praise its humble splendour (although later we agree that it is either dull or vile, depending on your mood) while Philip makes shooting noises with the fireplace poker, pretending to blast a grouse at our feet. The corgis are roused and begin barking. 

Elizabeth is irate, "Enough Philip! These gentleman have come a very long way" - consults notes - "from Winn-ee-peg, in anticipation of being served our finest single malt whisky, not to be made sport of by our husband! Bring out the special bottles. You know the ones we mean." Philip looks abashed, bows his head, and makes an obscure hand signal to the servant. Almost instantly two bottles of Bowmore are placed in front of us, the Vault Edition and the 18 Year Old. We beam. We positively beam. Philip chortles. Elizabeth grins. The corgis settle down. This is what we came to Balmoral for. This is why we endured the weather and the security clearances and the long awkward conversation with Andrew who waylaid us in the front hall. We did all this to drink Bowmore with the Windsors. The Vault Edition was splendid and the 18 Year Old was excelsior. (We learned this word from Philip.)

By the end of the evening we were all singing Whisky In The Jar - Philip having  a gravely baritone remarkably like his namesake, Philip Lynott of Thin Lizzy -  and then we wrapped the night up with Auld Lang Syne, all of us swaying arm in arm.

What a night. 

(Editor's note: the whiskies mentioned are based on research of what is actually served at Balmoral. The rest is plausible conjecture).


From Whisky Magazine, hope for our new king:

When it comes to the Prince’s favourite nectar, it’s a peaty Islay single malt that pours from his hip flask. Whether he is shooting, hunting or skiing he always carries a flask and finds that the smoky kick of Laphroaig or Bruichladdich gives him the necessary boost when HRH is battling through the blizzards in Klosters or riding through the rain with the Beaufort Hunt. His official visit to Laphroaig in 1994 was well documented at the time but the column inches were not filled so much with details of his fascination with the mash tuns as his unfortunate aeroplane crash. Charles overshot the runway attempting to land His private plane on Islay - this left the plane so badly damaged that he was unable to fly it back home to Highgrove. As a result, what was supposed to be a quick, 20-minute flying visit turned into a two-and-a-half hour extended stay - much to the delight of the distillery manager Iain Henderson, who recalls his visit fondly. “He arrived with his private secretary Richard Ayling and detective Colin Tinning. They were a bit late because of the accident. I took His Royal Highness on a tour of the distillery and he was very impressed with his knowledge. He asked all the right questions and seemed to be enjoying himself. My wife Carole prepared lunch. He wanted a buffet because there wasn’t going to be time for a proper sit down. So he walked around with a dram in one hand and a plate in the other. He had asked to meet all the workers and their wives. He seemed genuinely interested in everyone and everything, and then said to me: ‘I think this is a great place. I like the fact that you follow the traditional methods. Do not let anyone change it.’”

Wednesday, August 10, 2022


The Cabinet met again after what was the shortest interval between meetings in our history (have to make up for ground lost during the pandemic, right?) to consider the question of oxygen. Specifically, we wanted to examine the impact of oxygenation on opened bottles of scotch. In the wine world, oxygenation is the subject of much anxiety. There is far less discussion among whisky enthusiasts, but in theory we should be at least a little bit anxious about this too. In the past we've noted that bottles that have been open for a long time seem to lose their bright edges and become a little flatter, duller. It was time to put it to a head-to-head test. New and sealed beside old and open. 

The first test set a bottle of Lagavulin 8, that was three-quarters drained five years ago, in contrast with a fresh bottle. Because of the time elapsed, the new one was from a more recent bottling, so some difference was expected regardless, but the question was more whether it was notably superior. And the answer? It was, perhaps, a little superior, but not notably. This was a surprise. Perhaps peated malts such as the Islays hold their flavour profile better in the face of oxygenation? The new was livelier, to be sure, but the old was still recognizably and enjoyably a  Lagavulin.  

Next, we pitted a fresh bottle of Laphroaig Select against one that had been opened nine months prior. About 20% was left. Most whisky drinkers will recognize that nine months is not very long to have an open bottle kicking around, especially if it's one you are wanting to savour, or save for special company, but wine people routinely say that a wine can become "undrinkable" after being open for three days. Not months, not weeks, days. Wine is different. Wine people are different. These two Laphroiags were from the same bottling, so the comparison should be valid. What did we find? The citrus notes present in the fresh bottle were perhaps no longer as obvious, but that was about it. The opened bottle had a very similar profile and was just as enjoyable. One member even remarked that he preferred it. 

In summary - oxygenation is real, but for young peated whiskies, it does not appear to be a catastrophe. At some point we will test other types of whisky and see if we can come up some guidelines. But in the meantime, when in doubt, you can't go wrong by just drinking it all now.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Tri-Whisky Tournament

I am a tardy blogger. And I have no reasonable excuse, only the usual modern guff regarding "busyness". It is now two full weeks since the Cabinet met in its summer outdoor headquarters along the banks of the Assiniboine. We met to participate in the "Tri-Whisky Tournament" (a Harry Potter reference for the attentive and youthful at heart among you). In advance, I poured a bourbon (Basil Hayden's), an Irish whiskey (the Sexton), and a Lowland scotch (Glenkinchie 12) into three vessels marked only with numbers. All three are generally well reviewed by others, and none have especially distinctive flavour profiles. The members' tasks were to score each for overall whisky drinking delight, and to identify which was which.

To avoid bringing shame upon our hallowed institution, I will limit comment on the latter to congratulating Al. Nothing more need be said. And with respect to the former, the Glenkinchie came out fractionally ahead with an average score of  5.8 out of 10, followed by the Basil Hayden's at 5.6, and trailed by the Sexton at 4.1. If these seem like low scores, keep in mind that 10 is set at The Best Whisky Ever - Endless Orgasm In A Bottle, so the impossibility of that considered, anything over 5 is quite good. And we enjoyed those two very much.

After two weeks, that's all my memory offers, so I will leave you with Ivan's splendid photos.



Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Heaven & Hell

 Ok, "hell" is an exaggeration. Consider it click bait. I could have called this post "Contrast" instead, but you have to admit that "Heaven & Hell" has more zip to it. Last week The Cabinet met to compare the two least favoured whiskies (hell) that remain in our stocks with two that we love (heaven). If this seems like a senseless exercise to you, then you may be right, but the objective was to determine just how wide that gap is, and, to be candid, to find a way to use the duds.

Dud Number One was the Cragganmore, Distiller's Edition. It has a lovely label and comes in a fine box, but to quote Gertrude Stein, "There's no there there." She was referring to Oakland, but the expression resonates here. Yes, it's scotch whisky, but there's no nose, no finish, and little in between - just malt and alcohol. It's not offensive, but that is about it. Possibly a good starter whisky for someone graduating from 'lite' beer.

Dude Number Two, the 12 year old Cardhu was even more dudish. It also lacked nose and finish and character, but was a bit rough as well. Enough said. 


Now that we've refamiliarized ourselves with what we don't like, let's move on to what we do like. We like the Oban 14 year old. We like it a lot. It's a long standing Cabinet favourite that you can read about in previous posts. And it continues to delight, despite the pours coming from an old bottle. More on that in a moment.  

Then the finale, a new bottle of Bowmore 18 year old. This was everything whisky heaven offers - complexity, subtlety, balance, the whole package. Perfect right from the feinty smoky nose through to the leathery citrusy taste, and the full creamy mouthfeel, right to the long long finish. 

So, in case there was ever any doubt, there is an enormous distance between a good whisky and a bad one. The good ones may cost twice or three times the bad ones, but the improvements in quality and enjoyment are many times that. Cheap whisky is a species of false economy. Rather one glass of Bowmore or Oban than two or three Cardhu or Cragganmore.

A word about oxygenation before we go. The Bowmore was the only fresh bottle and that clearly gave it a leg up. The flavours were all brighter and livelier. Even our beloved Oban was just a bit flatter and duller than we remembered, and it came from an old, long opened, bottle. This is a topic we will return to and explore in more depth in the future.

Until then, allow me to report what a pleasure it was to gather The Cabinet and sip whiskies, heavenly or hellish, and talk about the news of the world and our lives - profane, profound, and hilarious as always.