"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, May 31, 2018

The Highland Clearances


When I was hiking the West Highland Way two years ago I was struck by how empty the landscape was. In fact, the Scottish Highlands have the second lowest population density in Europe after Lapland. But we would often come upon evidence that this was not always the case. The ruins of cottages and other structures were everywhere. Before the late 18th century the Highlands were much more densely populated but then the "Clearances" began wherein the Highlanders who had lived and farmed there for centuries upon centuries, but who had no officially recognized title to the land, were forced off to make way for the more profitable sheep. This process continued in waves over a roughly sixty year period until 1820. The end result was the decimation of the Highland way of life and mass emigration. With respect to the latter, one Scottish nobleman, Thomas Douglas, the 5th Earl of Selkirk, was taken by the plight of Highlanders and established colonies in Canada to help them prosper in the New World. The most well known of these colonies was right here, along the Red River, and it was a key event in the eventual founding of Winnipeg.

But, this is not a history blog, it is a whisky blog. Sure the Selkirk Scots brought a taste for whisky here, so there is that connection, but the real, and admittedly far lamer reason, for calling our most recent Cabinet Meeting "The Highland Clearances" was the need to clear Highland whiskies from our stocks. The actual physical cabinet is full to bursting, literally to bursting as the doors bulge out and can only be closed with force and cunning. Moreover, as a group we generally prefer coastal and island malts, so the inland Highland and Speyside whiskies sit there, unloved and unasked for.

The first to clear out was the Glen Garioch Founder's Reserve. You will recall (or not) that by the entirely obscure, but charming, rules of Gaelic it is actually pronounced "glen geery". It is fine, not fabulous by any means, but fine. We neither hate it nor love it. The higher alcohol level (48%) gives it a distracting burn, but behind that there is a nicely balanced malt with perhaps some fruit notes, such as apple or pear. There is a finish, but minimal. Again, fine, just fine.

Next up was the Balblair '03. One word describes this whisky: simple. We reviewed it in 2015 and gave it a "One Dram - Mediocre" score, although right on the cusp of "Two Drams - Fair" in our zero to four drams rating scale. Initially that score still seemed about right as that simplicity gave us little to  ponder and little to talk about. But on further consideration we came around to seeing the simplicity as something closer to elegance, the way a classically tailored suit is simple, but also elegant and perfectly appropriate, or even desirable, for some occasions. This would be an excellent introductory whisky for someone wanting to try scotch neat for the first time.

This was followed by an interesting counterpoint, The Deveron 12 year old. Let's start with the "The" - often a mark of pretension, often a warning sign, although "The Macallan" does come by it honestly. Then there's the fact that there the "Deveron Distillery Co" on the label is misleading. This is marketing sleight of hand. There is no such distillery, this whisky comes from the MacDuff Distillery, which primarily produces scotch used for blending in Dewars. All of that would be absolutely fine if the whisky was good, but it's not, it's actually somewhat appalling. I can best describe the sensation of drinking it as taking in a small a mound of sweet malt surrounded by a thin ring of fire. That's it - just sweet malt and some alcohol. Minimal nose and essentially no finish. Like the Balblair it is simple, but unlike it it is in no way elegant. An ill-fitting black velour suit next to a finely tailored wool one. Laughably, it rates 4 1/2 stars (out of 5) based on 18 reviews on one of the most prominent whisky ratings site. So evidently some of you may disagree with us. Go ahead, knock yourselves out.

We finished with the Glendronnach Parliament 21 year old. This was a perfect way to end the evening as it is essentially a dessert scotch. Dark and heavy and packed with intense fruit like dried cherries it felt like it should have been saved for Christmas. A bit of roughness and a poor finish marred it though, so again, not one we love, but we certainly don't hate it either. It was previously rated at "Two Drams - Fair", which seems about right.

It was a wonderfully raucous meeting, full of tales of the Golden Age of ______ (ask someone who was there to fill in the blank), virtual reality, underwater sculptures, landspouts and, of course, the Cowboy Mansion. Oh, and an official invitation on Cabinet letterhead was issued to Bob Dylan to come and personally introduce us to his Heaven's Gate bourbons.

All of this and Grant's fabulous Lahproaig oatmeal cookies...

Slainte!

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Walk On Islay


If whisky is a religion, then the island of Islay off the southwest coast of Scotland is its Rome, its Mecca, its Jerusalem. As with any religion there are heretics. The heretics make their pilgrimages to the Spey valley in the northeast, or pehaps to the more accessible parts of the Highlands, or, if they are deeply apostate, to - shudder - Louisville, Kentucky. These heretics tend to be peatophobes and harbour false and misguided views about the nature of peat in Islay whiskies.

There are two important things to know about those of us who orient to Islay. The first is that liking peat does not necessarily mean liking monstrous quantities of peat. A well-crafted peated Islay has just enough. A good analogy comes from the beer world - you may enjoy the flavour of hops but find the idea of some of the new wave of hipster IPAs with 600+ IBUs repellent (IBU = "international bittering units", 40 to 60 IBU is a more traditional level). Or, for the non-beer drinkers among you, a simpler analogy is dessert. You may love the sweetness of a slice of pie, but do you want dump another three or four tablespoons of sugar onto it?

The second important thing to know about people who enjoy a little peat is that we do not refer to ourselves as the opposite of peatophobes. Say "peatophile" out loud and you'll see why.

Peatiness in whisky is more difficult to quantify than bitterness in beer. This is because the burning of peat to dry the barley infuses the malt with an incredible number of different molecules that can then be detected in the whisky that is ultimately produced. The most prominent of these though is phenol, so the level of phenol in parts per million (ppm) is used as a very rough measure of "peatiness". The peatiest scotch is reputed to be the Bruichladdich Octomore at 169 ppm. This would be too peaty. A new wave hipster scotch, if you will. The whiskies we tasted tonight ranged from 30 to 55 ppm. This is just right. The Goldilocks zone for peat. By way of comparison most Speysides are in the 2 to 7 ppm range. And bourbons are 0. Obviously.

So what's with the walk in the title? It's a Cabinet tradition. Every now and again we will dress up an evening's tasting with a virtual "walk" between the distilleries courtesy of Google Streetview. Tonight's walk was perhaps a bit unrealistic though. Our stocks dictated that we visit Caol Ila, in the north of the island, and Laphroaig and Ardbeg on the south coast. The latter two are only a 3.5 km stagger apart, but to get there from Caol Ila would involve a 33 km traverse across trackless moors and hills. Consequently I offered the members a virtual sail as well.



Six paragraphs in and still nothing about the whiskies we tasted, which is presumably why you're reading this. My apologies. I confess that I delayed in part because I find whisky writing to be annoying, so I often only add my contributions to the online stew of adjectives with great reluctance. Increasingly it is my aim to simply let you know whether it is worth trying a whisky or not, and possibly how hard you should try to find it, and then let you sort out for yourself what you are tasting - be it "sweet beef jerky", "wet sea grass", "applewood smoked ham", "lemon peels at the harbour"(?), "flowering currants", "Black Forest honey", or "sophisticated tar"(??)... All these descriptors, and oh so many more, of tonight's whiskies can be found online on prominent review sites.

What then did we taste and what do we recommend?

Caol Ila 12 year old (30 ppm, 43%):
Good, must try. (= "Three Drams" in our "honest whisky rating" scheme, which runs from "No Drams - Avoid at all costs" to "Four Drams - Go out of your way to find")

Laphroaig Cairdeas (40 ppm, 57.2%):
Good, must try.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask (40 ppm, 48%)
Good and must try as well, although most of us prefered to Cairdeas as a bit more complex and with a longer finish.

Ardbeg Uigeadal (55 ppm, 44.2%)
Excellent. To be honest, we didn't actually vote on any of these as we were enjoying ourselves too much, so these ratings are a guess on my part. That being said, all of us did really love the Uigeadal, so although "Four Drams / Excellent" ratings are extremely rare for us, this would likely qualify or be very close.


Having four whiskies that are all recommended and all rated at least good is exceptional. It was an exceptional evening, enhanced by brilliant company, smoked goldeye (a fish), good cheese and an abundance of crackers...

Slainte!


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 very 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 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?

Slainte!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Orkney!

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.