"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, January 7, 2021

Pandemic Whisky Santa

 


For what I shall refer to as "obvious reasons", The Cabinet was only able to meet three times last year, once indoors before the unnamed obvious reasons came into being, and twice outdoors afterwards. Manitoba winters are long, dark, and cold, and the obvious reasons have conspired to become even more obvious (or, more accurately, foolish people have made them so), so with The Cabinet Chambers sealed, we will have to wait until spring to meet again. This is a very long time to be without the joy Cabinet brings, so on a foul winter's evening the week before Christmas, with an Arctic wind gathering strength, Pandemic Whisky Santa set off, powered by four tiny cylinders to visit each member's doorstep and distribute a few drams from the stocks. 

Let us all raise a glass to 2021 - may our hopes for the new year be realized, and if not, may our glasses be filled whenever we have need!

Slainte!

Monday, September 14, 2020

Comfort

 


The Cabinet met last week to pursue the subject of scotch whisky as comfort. I assume that there is no need to explain the reason for this. If you are in doubt, you are invited to follow the news closely for a few days. We met outdoors again, this time around a small bonfire on the banks of the Assiniboine River as it is dark by 8:00 already. Loudly argumentative Canada geese provided the soundtrack while a whitetail doe and her three fawns raced back and forth nearby.

Some whiskies are challenging, some are boring, some are unusual, and some are undrinkable, but relevant to the theme, some are comforting. They are comforting simply because there is a high probability that they will be enjoyable in a way that makes you feel at ease. You will not have to decode layers of obscure flavours, nor will you have to debate whether to add water or whether you want another one. You will want another one. That was the hope anyway. 

So with this in mind, we tasted the Oban Little Bay, Scapa Orcadian and Old Pulteney Huddart. The first two were familiar to us and therefore selected as safe bets for the theme, and the last one was new, but from one of our favourite distilleries, so confidence was high that it would be suitable.

The Oban Little Bay is a delight. An understated but pleasant nose, a full, even chewy, mouthfeel and that lingering finish that makes you feel you really getting your money's worth. We did want another one, which we allowed ourselves after the other two were sampled. The Orcadian was a disappointment however. We did not want another. It had an oddly oily mouthfeel and a mildly discordant flavour profile. Nobody thought it was bad, but it did suffer next to the Little Bay. The consensus was that oxygenation in this old half empty bottle had done it some harm. And then finally we tasted the Huddart, apparently named for the street in Wick where the distillery is located. This was also a delight. Old Pult never disappoints. Here was another full-bodied whisky with depth of flavour and a lovely long finish. We would have had another, but with a second go at the Little Bay already planned, that would have put us over our four dram maximum. We are gentlemen of restraint and refined judgment after all. Next time.



The fire was so wonderful and the vibe so pleasant and comfortable that we can add this to one of the several pandemic silver linings. Even once we are permitted to breathe in each others faces again in the tight quarters of the Cabinet Chambers, some meetings will still be held around the fire, by the river, with the geese and the deer.



Slainte!

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Highland Park




The Cabinet met last night for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic in Canada. We met in the virus-free fresh air along the banks of the Assiniboine River, we sat spaced apart, and we refrained from speaking moistly. The meeting happily coincided with the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the Manitoba Act, creating Manitoba as Canada's fifth province. The history of this is far more interesting than you might guess, but is also beyond the scope of a scotch whisky blog. Curious individuals can begin here: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/manitoba-act

The Manitoba Sesquicentennial does, however, provide the basis for a tasting theme. There is a strong connection between the Red River Colony which became Manitoba and the Orkney islands. The Hudson's Bay Company governed the territory before Canada's purchase of it in 1869, and 80% of its employees were from the Orkney's. Most of these men settled in the Red River Colony after their terms with the Company were completed and many married Cree and Ojibwa women, so they can rightly be counted among the founders of Manitoba. 

Happily, the Cabinet is very fond of Orkney whiskies, with the Highland Park 18 year old and the Highland Park Dark Origins being particular favourites. To this line-up we added the Magnus and the Valfather, both also from Highland Park. We have Scapa whiskies in our stocks as well, but it made it made sense to compare the Highland Parks side by side.

By the end of the evening our affection for the 18 y.o. and the Dark Origins were confirmed. The other two unfortunately fell short of that high mark. The Valfather is a solid whisky though, well enough crafted to be enjoyable, but just not Highland Park's best. The Magnus, on the other hand, was a disappointment. While broadly identifiable as a Highland Park, it is much thinner than any of their other offerings. There's a reason for this - it's 40% abv versus 47% for the Valfather. And therein lies a little sleight of hand. The Magnus sells for $50 here and the Valfather for $89. The extra water alone accounts for $8 of the price difference. Another element is the fact that it just comes as a naked bottle without a cylinder or even a box. Ultimately, as far as cheap whiskies go, it's a reasonable choice, but if you can afford $105 (all figures in Canadian dollars), the Dark Origins is by far the best value for money. If you can find it. It is no longer available in Manitoba. Given the history, there should be special allocations of Orkney scotch for Manitoba drinkers. The Cabinet will consider drafting a letter to the relevant authorities.

Slainte!


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Ten


The Cabinet met two nights ago to mark the tenth anniversary (plus two weeks) of its founding. On January 15, 2010, three friends met in the basement of a creaky old house on the banks of the Assiniboine River. The basement was still a couple years away from its renovation and was filled with bulky plastic children's toys and old student furniture and was decorated, perhaps incongruously, with posters from the National Film Board and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The intent of this meeting was to explore an idea for a new kind of scotch club. The scotch clubs we knew were all one of two types. The first type were the clubs that appeared to be little more than pretentious forums for the airing of ludicrous adjectives. "I say Reginald, do you detect that shimmering note of finely wadded oregano root layered over the ten day old Hunan tangerine peel zest and mingled with the essence of combusted squirrel penis shavings?" The second type were the clubs that were simply thinly disguised booze-ups. "Bro! Gonna slam some scotch tonight! You in?!"

There had to be a third way. The first type of scotch club was likely to make me vomit quietly into my mouth. The second kind was likely to make me vomit noisily into a wastepaper basket. And thankfully, there was a third way. If you are thinking of starting a scotch club of your own, and you would like to keep vomiting of any kind to a bare minimum, here are the basic principles of that third way:

1) Meet on weeknights.
I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but weekends create two problems. The first is that people, especially with spouses and families, are generally busier on weekend evenings and spouses are generally less happy to see you disappear on your own to "scotch club". The second is that the temptation would be strong to have just another and then another. Having to work the next morning is a powerful restraint. At least if you're over 30 it is.

2) Limit the pours to four.
Four is plenty. After that you're tasting less and less anyway. After that driving home becomes more difficult, if not outright dangerous, illegal and stupid. After that it becomes a booze-up. We all have lots of other opportunities for that. Scotch club is not one of them. Four is plenty.

3) Limit the membership.
It depends on your space, but I have a hard time imagining more than a dozen working very well. Even at ten, conversation tends to splinter into sub-conversations and the atmosphere changes from that of a meeting to that of a drinking party. From an organisational standpoint, collecting dues and scheduling meetings becomes more of a headache as well. A cap of eight works very well for us. This also allows room for guests.

4) Make your membership diverse.
Too many people from one profession or industry is a bad idea. Different backgrounds, different interests and different opinions all lead to more interesting conversations.

5) Charge dues annually to fund the buying.
Some clubs have members simply bring the bottles, but this leads to most of the evening's tasting being from one or, at the most, two bottles. We enjoy tasting a range drawn from the stocks we've built up. Having a single buyer also allows for a better overview of the balance in the stocks. Moreover, the pooled fund allows The Cabinet to buy much more expensive bottles than any one member would likely bring on their own. And it prevents anyone from being accused of being cheap by always just bringing discount blends when it's their turn.

6) Disparage snobbery.
Scotch whisky is a convivial drink meant to be enjoyed rather than described to within an inch of its life. By all means, identify the aromas and flavours, but don't make a cult of it.

7) Don't meet too often.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It does. Every two months is perfect. There's such a thing as too much absence as well.

8) Lock up the stocks.
Keep the stocks in a locked cabinet that is only opened at meetings. This requires no explanation.

And that is more or less it.

To mark this occasion we sampled our ten year old scotches, the Scapa 10, the Ledaig 10 and the Arbeg 10. The Scapa was dark cherry coloured 59% cask strength assault on the mouth, but a friendly assault full of dense malt and caramel, balancing the burn to a surprising extent. The Ledaig was much lighter in alcohol, colour, body and mouthfeel, with the principle distinguishing features being smoke and sweetness, but not to excess in either. And the Arbeg needs no description. I can scarcely imagine a reader who cannot immediately bring to mind those delectable old bandages and burnt tires. Mmm.

We were pleased to be joined by James and Ron as guests and thank the former for his sketch of us and the latter for the marvelous snacks.

Here's to the next ten years! Slainte!

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.

Slainte!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Comfort


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.

Slainte!

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.