Robbie Burns Night…

robert burnsHere’s a bottle and an honest friend
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man;
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes no ay when sought, man!

– “A Bottle and a Friend” by Robert Burns

Sláinte mhaith

Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey – Review

Westland_Peated*Sincere thanks to Westland Distillery for the sample.

Conventional whisky wisdom says that peat as a flavor is at its most pungent when a whisky is young, let’s say under 12 years. Once a malt starts edging up into those delightful late teens, things begin to balance out and that once dominating peat starts to integrate itself more with the deepening flavors of maturation. That only makes sense, a peated spirit is a much, much bolder spirit than a non-peated one, and it takes time to for it to mellow and for the wood to catch up and impart its magic in more equal measure.

This isn’t to say that one is better than the other, au contraire, Balblair. Obviously, the high regard for those young upstarts like Kilchoman and the English Whisky Co., the slightly older standards like the Ardbeg and Laphroaig 10 year olds, and the flag-bearers for peated elegance, the Lagavulin 16 year old and pretty much any Port Ellen, shows that if you peat it, they will come. Indeed, you don’t see many non-peated whiskies succeeding at three to five years old, yet peated malts can do well in that range. I suppose one of the main reasons for this is that the strength of the peat tends to mask some of the harsher flavors of youth.

So with all that in mind, here we are at another very young peated one, The Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey. Like their standard American Single Malt, this one owes a bit more to beer brewing than most whiskies do. Made from a combination of peated malt and Washington Select Pale Malt, this edition of the Westland Peated was matured for two years in a combination of new, heavily charred American Oak, ex-bourbon, and ex-sherry casks.

The Nose:  This is not necessarily a heavily peated whiskey. Initially, there’s honey-sweet, slightly beery malt and cereal, along with tart cherries and tannic grapes. The upfront yet relatively gentle peat adds a medicinal, almost mentholated edge to the cherry cough drop notes I found in the Westland Single Malt. There’s a bit of savory smoke, more like barbecuing meat than a dry wood fire. Subtle spice hints of mustard seed, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon are tucked in the background.

The Palate:  The palate edges more towards an expected peated malt flavor profile. Early on, there’s more honeyed cereal sweetness along with baked cherry cobbler. A bold swell of that slightly minty, medicinal peat and savory, bbq smoke, now a touch ashy, leads to more wood and spice than I found on the nose. Sharp, youthful, tannic oak notes, along with white pepper, clove, and faint hot cinnamon wrap things up.

The Finish:  Long-ish and altogether pleasant with a mouth-watering combo of peaty, ashy bbq smoke, mint, clove and oak.

Thoughts:  Really very nice. Every bit as good as the very young and very good Kilchoman and English Whisky Co. expressions of the last few years. Though the nose seems much gentler than the palate, there’s a nice, compact integration and progression with this one. As I mentioned above, peat does seem to cover up some of the harsher edges of youth, and while this one is no exception to that rule, the edges seem less harsh to begin with. The distillery character is evident, the peat and smoke measured, the maturation just enough to bring it all together. Very enjoyable right now and full of great promise for the future. Recommended.

Westland Peated American Single Malt Whiskey, OB +/- 2014

46% ABV

Score:  85

Top Whisky-type Stuff (or not) List for 2015

top_ten__waynes_world_As much as I love year-end lists, I’m beginning to realize that I like reading them far more than I like putting them together. I would happily skip writing such a list if it weren’t for my unfortunate love of trite traditions. Alack, here we are again, stumbling blindly and listing a bit to the left, hopeless and grizzled, tripping over the well-intentioned detritus of another year, our inchoate dreams for the coming months just beginning to come into focus. The new year is like putting on a pair of warm pants fresh out of the dryer, the end of the year is like realizing that you’ve already almost worn the knees ragged, and that unfortunately placed wine stain is never going to come out. Time for a quick look back, while already trying to look ahead…

  • Best Whisky of the Year:  I don’t know who said it first, but some something along the lines of “the best whisky is always the one in front of me” rang true for me more than usual this year. I drank some very good whiskies this year but nothing that knocked my woolen knickers off. Truth is, I have neither the time, nor money, nor interest in chasing those whiskies that may or may not succeed in knocking off clothing. It’s just whisky. Sadly, it seems the more I have, the more I learn, the less likely I am to be truly, deeply moved. Whisky was the best whisky I had in 2015, let’s just leave it at that.
  • Worst Whisky of the Year:  Goddammit, that Haig crap is awful. I tried it several times in 2015, trying to find something positive to say about it. I found nothing. Good thing it’s so expensive. A certain hirsute, Crown Royal-sponsored personality would’ve made this list if he were a whisky. Sadly, he’s just a person.
  • Best Reasons to be Excited About Whisky and Booze in General in Minnesota in 2015:
  • Pleasant Moments in Affordable Whisky:  I had a few. Thanks to its soaring popularity, the price of all kinds of whisky soared as well…the same cannot always be said of the quality. Still, there are some good values to be had. Among those that stood out for me this year: Benromach’s 10 Year Old, 100 Proof, and Peat Smoke, Glen Moray’s Port Cask Finish, Bowmore’s Small Batch, and a good, cheap bourbon I’d never had before, Very Old Barton. A person always needs good cheap bourbon.
  • One of the Best Things to Happen in 2015 while cringing and anxiously gulping Whisky: The wife (let’s call her Sherry Butts) and I running through The Walking Dead. Though she’s jealously shaking her head at the idea, I’d like to invite Daryl Dixon over for a few glasses whenever he gets a spare moment.
  • Looking Ahead at a Reason to be Excited About Whisky and Booze in General in Minnesota in 2016:  An alley-way door in Northeast that leads to a rustic, cozy spot in front of a fireplace…

There you go. I hinted this wouldn’t be much of a list, and now that I’ve gone back and read through it, I’ve pretty much confirmed I was right.

Happy New Year.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Canadian Whiskey – Review

CrownRoyal_NHRIf you were to, let’s say, come up with a “world restaurant of the year” award, it would seem an awfully broad category, would it not? An award with a title that vague would have to include the Red Lobsters and Applebees of the world right next to the Nomas and French Laundries because, after all they are restaurants, too, right? When it came time to pick a winner, however, the former would be nowhere to be found because they are in every aspect not even close to being in the same league as the latter. The quality of the ingredients, the creativity and skill of their preparation, and the attention to service of restaurants like Noma, French Laundry, and even the Delfinas, Almas, and Sanfords of the world are so far above that of the large, stuff-your-face chain restaurants that no one with even mildly authoritative restaurant expertise would think that, “you know, I think Chipotle is the best restaurant in the world.”

Yet, here we are again. Towards the end of November, a new “world’s best whisky” has been crowned and the mindless hordes are scrambling to spend all their money snatching up whatever bottle carries that title this month. This time around Jim Murray chose, as the major selling point for his book, Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye as the beneficiary of his 2016 World Whisky of the Year award. Crown Royal (owned by the small but very well-funded outfit called Diageo, for what it’s worth) released Northern Harvest Rye earlier this year. It stands out somewhat by being 90% rye whereas most Canadian ryes have much less rye content. That’s about the only way it stands out. The standard PR belch on this one also claims that it is special because it uses Canadian “Winter Rye,” the only grain that apparently thrives in Canada’s harsh Winters. Well now, that would be something, eh? A whisky made with a special kind of rye only grown in Canada? Ah ha, Terroir! It makes sense that this world whiskey of the year would be made with something special like that, right?

Wrong. Here’s the thing: “winter rye” is pretty much an umbrella term. It’s a bit more specific than “cereal rye” which serves to differentiate rye grain from rye grass which isn’t a grain at all. There are variations and certified types of winter rye like AC Hazlet, Spooner, and Prima, but they are still winter ryes, meaning that they’re planted in the fall, able to survive harsh winters, and are harvested in the spring. Yes, winter rye is grown in Canada, but it’s also grown in the U.S., Europe, Russia, Turkey, China, Australia, and even in South America. There is a “spring” rye (spring planting, fall harvest) but in general, winter rye is considered the superior crop, both quality-wise and agro-economics-wise. What all this means is that the majority of rye grown and used for distilling, in Canada, in the U.S., in Europe, wherever…is winter rye. That Bulleit Rye you see everywhere? Made from winter rye. Other Canadian ryes made by non-Diageo owned brands? Winter rye. Every bourbon with rye in the mashbill? Winter rye. The use of winter rye does not make Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye special, it makes it pretty much like every other whiskey that uses rye on the market. If Crown Royal made this whiskey with some special variety of winter rye grown only in Canada, then they might have something. But at this point, all official and unofficial coverage I’ve seen of this whisky simply talk about the use of something that sounds unique, but in fact is pretty much the opposite.

So with that in mind, we are to believe that a $30 whiskey made from the same stuff so much other whiskey is made from, made not to explore the possibilities of grain and maturation but to sell as many bottles as possible, is somehow the best whisky in the world? Hell, I guess that could be possible, but in this case, it’s not. Far from it. It’s not even the best whisky on my table at the moment, and I only have two whiskies in front of me. I’m sure this whiskey will appeal to some, but the rave reviews and the some of this misinformation being tossed around about this one is a mystery to me. This is just another inexpensive, mediocre whiskey with a nice bit of misleading PR behind it, hardly a new thing in the whiskey world and certainly not award-worthy.

The Nose:  Hardly inviting – young and solvent-y hot. There are sweet notes of vanilla bean, brown sugar, and apple – both fresh and juicy, and spiced and baked. Nice grain notes of toasted rye berries and rye crackers…and stoneground wheat crackers, too. Behind that, there’s a little cocoa powder and mild spice notes of cinnamon candies and nutmeg. Sadly, all this lies under a heavy veil of cheap nail-polish remover.

The Palate:  Well, it’s better than the nose at least, though still quite hot. There’s more brown sugar and baked apple sweetness, and a bit of orange citrus zing as well. Vanilla and chocolate chip cookies morph into warm fresh rye bread (though less rye than the nose hints at). Some sturdy tannic oak, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and black pepper swell towards the end. A rather sharp, spirit-y, youthful bitterness leads to the finish.

The Finish:  Medium, but given that young astringency, a little too long. There’s brown sugars, grippy oak, soft rye, cinnamon and white pepper as well.

Thoughts:  Hugely disappointing. I was ready to like this, and hopefully file it next to excellent affordable Canadians like Lot 40 and Alberta Dark Horse, but instead, I’m left shaking my head at a rather confusing whiskey. It’s not necessarily horrible, it’s just obviously mediocre…at best The palate is mostly nice, but the hot, solvent-y nose and sharp, bitter finish, don’t leave me wanting more.  This isn’t a matter of a whiskey not matching my personal preferences, this one simply does not meet some obvious, more or less universal standards of high quality whiskey. There are many other Canadian whiskeys to seek out before this one. Save your money, don’t buy the hype. Not Recommended.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Canadian Whiskey, OB +/-2015

45% ABV

Score:  74

The Exclusive Malts 1997 Deanston 17 Year Old – Review

IMG_7892*Thanks to SF and the good folks at Impex Beverages for the samples.

Deanston is one of those relatively rare single malts that is more or less widely available, yet oft-overlooked. They don’t have a large core range, and they don’t trot out tiresome, expensive, heavily marketed special releases a couple of times a year. The distillery has been bottling its single malt for most of its short life, but the majority of its output ends up in the Scottish Leader blend which isn’t really a leader in its category…except in Taiwan for some reason.

Deanston was founded in 1965 when Brodie Hepburn Ltd. converted a centuries-old cotton mill into a distillery. The distillery closed in 1982, but was brought back to life in 1991 after it was purchased by Burn Stewart Distillers. Yet another ownership changed happened in 2002 when Trinidad-based CL Financial took control. Deanston (and Burn Stewart Distillers) most recently came to rest in the hands of South Africa’s Distell Group Ltd. in 2013.

This independently bottled expression from the Creative Whisky Company’s Exclusive Malts range was distilled in 1997, aged for 17 years in an ex-bourbon cask, and bottled at cask strength.

ExMalts1997Deanston17yoThe Nose:  Quite sweet and on the lighter side. Took me a while, but I finally placed some of the initial notes – Buckwheats cereal (a vaguely maple-glazed breakfast flake) and sweet cereal milk. There’s quite a bit of brown sugar, malted milk mix, and slightly artificial vanilla extract as well as some Meyer Lemon curd and a bit of lemon oil as well. Less wood influence than I expected, soft polished oak, mild clove and allspice. Adding a bit of water tones down the initial sweetness some and adds a bit more oak…and lemon furniture polish with which to shine it up.

The Palate:  This has a very nice, slightly oily mouthfeel. Much more zippy, sweet citrus and tropical fruit joins the glazed cereal sweetness from the nose. A very pleasant wave of vanilla syrup and candied almonds leads to weightier wood and spice than the nose let on – grippy, waxed oak, vanilla bean, candied ginger, hot cinnamon, white pepper. A little water spreads the vanilla sweetness around more, integrating it all very nicely.

The Finish:  Medium-ish. All that grainy sweetness fades pretty quickly leaving lingering oak and baking spice notes.

Thoughts:  A very pleasant, unassuming, solid whisky. The nose is fine but doesn’t impress much one way or another. The palate on the other hand, with its complex sweetness, especially with water, makes for a satisfying sipper. It is a sweet whisky, full of vanilla and cereal notes which is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it to be very nice, subtly rich, and easy drinking, especially the enjoyable, gently surprising palate.

The Exclusive Malts 1997 Deanston 17 Year Old, Speyside, IB +/-2015

52.3% ABV

Score:  84

Westland American Single Malt Whiskey – Review

WestlandSingleMalt

*Sincere thanks to Westland Distillery for the sample.

Seattle’s Westland Distillery is something of a rarity in the American Craft Distilling scene. A great many small, new distilleries are excited about the prospect of making a whiskey, but the time and financial patience needed to see that whiskey come to fruition also means that more easily produced spirits like gin and vodka feature heavily in their early plans so that there’s a bit of cash flow while the barrels work their slow magic. Despite it requiring a wider range of attention, there’s nothing wrong with this plan. If a distillery is making a good product, they have a good chance of succeeding. Westland, however, took a much more focused approach.

Founded in 2010 by two friends, Emerson Lamb and Matt Hoffman, Westland Distillery from day one has made single malt whiskey its primary focus (there may have been an early gin, but details on that are fuzzy.) Rumors have swirled that the company is very well-funded. That may be neither here nor there, but if true, that financial cushion has given Westland the luxury of patience when it comes to developing and aging their spirit. They reportedly were able to invest in and then fill many more barrels than most new distilleries, giving them a much broader stock to work with when creating their expressions. Recently, Lamb has left the company, while Hoffman remains in his role as master distiller.

American single malt whiskey is a relatively under-explored branch of the whisk(e)y tree. It’s hard to come out from under the large shadow that single malt Scotch casts. But as more distilleries arise, a few more American single malts are showing up on shelves. The development of Westland’s single malt owes a lot to beer brewing, and the production of their whiskey distinguishes itself in several ways. First of all, the grain bills are made up of several different types of malt more familiar to brewers. In comparison, Scotch producers typically malt only one kind of barley in one way. Secondly, instead of the more widely used distillers yeast, they use a Belgian’s brewer’s yeast, though as those two yeasts are somewhat similar, I’d think the differences would be subtle. Third, they use a longer fermentation time than their Scottish counterparts, which, very generally speaking, produces slightly more complex, fruit-toned esters in the wash. Lastly, they use a lot of new American Oak for maturation, along with some re-fill American Oak bourbon and sherry casks. Again, by comparison, single malt Scotch is usually aged in re-fill American oak, and only recently have producers begun using new oak casks more.

Do these variations add up to a distinct product? From the popularity and accolades Westland has garnered thus far, it would seem so. As the “flagship” of their core range, the Westland American Single Malt Whiskey seems an obvious place to begin a look at one of the more widely respected American craft distillers. Several different kinds of malt are used for this expression: local Washington Select Pale Malt, Munich Malt, Extra Special Malt, Pale Chocolate Malt, and Brown Malt. The whisky was aged for two years in heavily charred, new American oak casks.

The Nose:  Crisp and initially light-seeming, but there’s a taut complexity lurking. There’s cold apple juice and tart cherries initially, along with a nice piece of sponge cake. Close behind that are notes of honey-sweet cereal grain and malt. Subtler hints of cocoa powder, instant coffee, and slightly medicinal cherry cough drops lie further in the background along with vanilla bean, green-ish oak, and clove.

The Palate:  Youngish to be sure, but more mature than I was expecting. More cherry cough syrup to begin with now with a bit of juicy orange and caramel as well. There’s sharper edged, roasted grain here, with some vanilla syrup, and a swell of dark, dark chocolate. Towards the end, rough-hewn, tannic oak with spice notes of pepper, clove, and raw coffee beans.

The Finish:  Longer than expected with grippy notes of unsweetened chocolate, fine ground pepper, clove, and a tiny bit of anise.

Thoughts:  A young whisky, yes, but impressively complex and drinkable. There are few similarities to Scotch single malt. There’s a subdued fruitiness and a unique, roast-y complexity to the grain, which progress nicely from soft and sweet to bold and pleasantly bitter. Kudos to Westland for bottling this at 46%. It’s quite nice at strength, but I found a few drops of water help open it up even further. It’s always hard to judge young whiskies from new distilleries, it often feels like I’m evaluating potential more than how good the whisky is at that very moment. Westland’s Single malt is that rare combination of great potential and a pleasing, realized whiskey here and now. If you enjoy exploring and supporting new American distilleries, Westland’s whiskeys are not to be missed.

Westland American Single Malt Whiskey, OB +/-2014

46% ABV

Score:  83

Mill City Whiskey Review – Re-cap

MillCityWhiskeyReview*Sincere thanks to The Mill City Whiskey Review and Half Full Productions for the media pass.

I recently attended the first installment of The Mill City Whiskey Review, which was the second big whiskey-focused expo held in Minneapolis this year. Two in one year after years of no big whiskey shows at all? A veritable torrent of whiskey…well done, Minneapolis. The event was held in the aptly named Minneapolis Event Center, an exposed brick and beam space appointed with the requisite modern textures and lighting located in the riverside part of town called St. Anthony Main. The Mill City Whiskey Review (let’s call it MCWR, shall we?) seemed to fly under the radar a bit in terms of publicity and social media saturation. I learned about it a little over a month before, and ticketing had not begun much before that. Despite that, I’m happy to say the event was very well attended.

2015MCWR_1The MCWR had a much more casual feel to it compared to other large-scale shows I’ve attended. The pour list was smaller, around 90 spirits, and somewhat unremarkable in that it was made up of mostly big-name, accessible bourbon, Irish, Scotch, and Japanese brands. There were a handful of “craft” distilleries as well. There were no independent bottlers and very little in the way of higher-end, more exclusive selections. However, this seemed to fit the purpose and style of the event well. It was less a show for whisky geeks (at times, an insufferable crowd) and more for the refined reveller who was looking to simply expand their whiskey horizons a bit. Even the tasting glass, a low-ball tumbler rather than a tulip-ed nosing glass, helped the evening feel less academic and more about the fun. The atmosphere was lively, intimate, and social, with very little attention being paid to how long that new Johnnie Walker Select Cask spent in a rye barrel.

Those looking to delve a little deeper into whiskey geekdom were not left out in the cold, however. VIP ticket holders also had access to seminar on peated whiskies lead by Laphroaig/Beam Suntory ambassador Brant Foehl. The capacity group was led through six whiskies: Auchentoshan American Oak, Hakushu 12 year old, Connemara, Bowmore 15 year old, Laphroaig 18 year old, and Laphroaig Cask Strength 10 year old. It was a nice range to lead one through non-peated to very peated, though as it seemed most of the crowd were already fans, Foehl was preaching a bit to the converted. Nonetheless, it made for an entertaining break from the main room crowd.

Since the pour list was, as I mentioned, made up of more standard fare, I didn’t find anything new (or old) that really knocked my jaded whisky-snob socks off. But, in no particular order, here are a few thoughts worth mentioning…

Local Goodness I Was Already Sold On: After being introduced to St. Paul’s 11 Wells Distillery at this years Whiskey on Ice, I was pretty much on board as a fan. So far, their young spirits do a great job showcasing the ingredients with which they’re made. At the MCWR, 11 Wells expanded even further on that theme. Along with their whiskeys, they’ve come up with a line of cocktail-oriented products like their Dry Wermut, a sweet-ish dry vermouth based with Minnesota-grown grapes, as well as a trio of expressive bitters, including the five-spice-esque Chinese Secret. The whiskeys poured at this show were just a little older than the ones from earlier this year (go figure), and showed that same excellent grain character. New to me was a wheat whiskey and their very nice peated single malt, which to my mind, shows signs of being right up there with the young Westland and Kilchoman peated malts. These guys are doing it right.

And While We’re On The Subject Of 11 Wells:  Master distiller/liqueur maker/bitters concocter Lee Egbert has also recently founded Thirst Network, a cool sounding new media project focusing on all those things that help us get rid of thirst: spirits, wine, beer, coffee, tea, sodas, etc.

Another Nice Midwestern Surprise:   Obviously, one of the best things about a show like this is having the chance to taste several similar spirits and experience their range of quality. Along with 11 Wells Rye, southwest Michigan’s Journeyman Distillery stood out above the small crowd of “craft” distillery ryes by showcasing great grain character in their young but pleasingly drinkable Last Feather Rye Whiskey.

2015MCWR_2One That Will Be Missed:  Earlier this year, when Laphroaig announced it was discontinuing the 18 Year Old, it was a sore blow. Adding salt to the wound, the beloved and departed 15 Year Old made a teasing, limited re-appearance but will continue to only be just that, a limited edition type release. It’s never welcome news when it seems a brand is doing away with all its age statement malts. So it was a nice surprise at the VIP seminar to find a bit of the wonderful 18 Year Old in a glass and enjoy it one last time.

Surprising Find of the Night:  Outside of an independent bottling or two, I’ve not tried much Glen Moray. I feel like they’ve always had the reputation of being a decent whisky that’s priced well below the competition. Having the chance to taste through their range more or less proved that point. Specifically, I thought their Port Cask Finish was a bit of a surprise and a great value. For around $30, it’s a well-crafted, no-age-statement malt that shows off the Port influence nicely, making it a pleasing and accessible introduction to cask-finished whiskies.

Best Sounding Guy In A Skirt:  Easy, that would be Dennis from Merlin’s Rest, taking a break from pouring Teeling whiskeys to belt out a few tunes on the bagpipes. Who doesn’t love bagpipes? No, seriously, I love them…doesn’t everyone?

Most Sobering Realization of the Night:  Outside of the 9 or 10 “independently” owned brand booths, the other 80 or so whiskies being poured were owned by just 7 parent companies. Beam Suntory’s brands made up nearly a third of what was offered. While not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, (though variety is the spice of life) it just goes to show how much consolidation there has been in the industry, and the wide net that is cast by these large companies hoping to snare your cash.

2015MCWR_3Overall, the MCWR was good first-time event. Whether or not the more casual, introductory atmosphere was intended, it worked fairly well. I think there is room for this kind of event alongside larger events such as Whiskey on Ice or Whiskyfest that feature deeper, more interesting though possibly overwhelming pour lists. The regular ticket price was very reasonable, being much less costly than those bigger shows. However, I’m not sure the whiskeys offered early and the seminar made the VIP price worth it. Perhaps more notable bottles earmarked for that ticket would add more value. Though I hate to mention it because I feel like I’m always mentioning it, there needed to be more food. What was there was fine, but it wasn’t there long enough. I don’t expect to be served dinner at these things, but access to a little food throughout the night does wonders for one’s outlook the next morning. So, like I said, all in all, it was a good event. I hope there will be a second one and look forward to watching the Mill City Whiskey Review grow.