"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.

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!

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...


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...


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!