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My New Favorite

My current number one favorite, for now at least, is Ardbeg Corryvreckan. This is made by the Ardbeg distillery on the Isle of Islay. They are known for their peat monsters. To the uninitiated, we can talk a bit about making scotch. Single malt scotch is 100% barley, image (1)as opposed to corn, rye, wheat or barley in various combinations in America and Canada. The barley is doused with water and allowed to sprout just a bit. Then it is dried. This is where Islay gets its signature flavor. It’s much too damp to dry the barley without assistance. Given a lack of many tress, they use the most commonly available combustible materail peat.

Peat is a brown soil made up of decayed vegetation. It forms in areas of poor drainage or otherwise unusually wet conditions. The vegetation falls into the standing water and slowly decomposes. More plants grow atop this decaying matter and feed off the carbon dioxide released by the vegetation below. Layer upon layer develops over thousands of years to reach the depths found in peat-lands today. This soil can be cut and laid out to dry and later burned to provide heat and smoke.

The peat found in many parts of Islay allows the whisky distilleries to dry the malted barley and arrest the process of the seed turning to plant. This is enough to develop enzymes in the barley which will be used to convert starches into sugar for the yeasts to feed on. Along with this will be the phenols which come from the smoke of the burned peat used. These phenols, cresols, and other compounds will lend their part in shaping the aroma and taste of the whisky.

What can you expect to smell and taste if you get a glassful of an Islay whisky like Corryvreckan? I get smells of coal tar, band-aids, something akin to Listerine, pears, and depending on the alcohol by volume, smells from ethanol in general. What I taste can often be described as medicinal, or tarry, with a deep flavor of over-brewed espresso, image (1)menthol, and dark chocolate, with a nicely balanced sweetness. The finish lingers, with the ashy campfire smoke of Islays, as well as more tar and dark chocolate covered cherries, accompanied by a nice sweetness. Even though the abv is quite high at over 57%, the burn is scarcely noticeable. Adding water can bring even more scents and flavors out, though I mostly stick to drinking my scotch neat without water.
Do not expect to taste all these things, especially on the first time out. My first experience of it was a mess. I couldn’t differentiate a single thing. I couldn’t even tell what I was smelling, good or bad. My second and third experiences were much better. Then the bottle sat for a long time while I tried many other whiskys. Then I got bored and came back. What a difference! It was like I had never tried it before. I could taste so many things. It was wonderful. I had found a new favorite.

You may not smell or taste anything I listed. You may catch on to things I missed. If you smell or taste it, then that is what you smell and taste. But it is interesting that when someone else tells you what they experience, that you can suddenly realize you get that too; and that in turn can unlock more of the puzzle for you. It’s a matter of trial and error, and reading or asking about others’ experiences to see if they help you at all. If not, no worries. Even if you can smell and taste things that sound like they would be great, you may still hate the impression you get. Works very well in reverse too, obviously. Coal tar and disinfectant smells may not seem yummy, but they can be. Just a matter of having a spirit of adventure and seeing if it pleases you. But if you initially hate things like I often do in scotch, do not hesitate to try again another day. Your tastes may suddenly change for the better! Do not be scared scotchless!

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This is Not a Rant

Is whisky a drink? Funny to be asking this, isn’t it? I mean isn’t it obvious that whisky is a beverage? And yet there are investors who buy and sell whisky to make money. At least one person has stated quite clearly that it isn’t a drink. And he’s right. Whisky is a commodity. As a commodity, it has a mysterious quality. It is not a physical property of the item. It is an intangible quality. Like the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said about Coca-Cola, where the marketing of the product emphatically embraces this intangible quality in its advertisements. Coke is it. Coke is the real thing. Enjoy Coke. What is “it”? What is “the real thing”? Am I obligated to “enjoy” Coke? Does the same hold true for whisky?

When you read about whisky in its descriptions you’ll read all about how this whisky or Ardbeg-Corryvreckanthat was “handcrafted”  “in small batches,” as part of “a limited run” “restricted to x number of bottles” and this treatment will magically infuse the product with something not resulting from its distillation. It is rare. It is special. Possess the bottle and you will possess this something extra.

Drinkers often ask if a particular whisky is worth the extra money spent. That depends. Some whisky is matured for over two decades or more. The age on the bottle (if it has an age statement) is the age of the youngest whisky in the mix. Since it must be maintained for a longer time, the expense involved means that, in order to make a profit, more must be charged to the buyer. This is understandable, but from a taste perspective, this extra expense may not reflect it’s value as a drink meant to be consumed. A higher price tag doesn’t always mean the product tastes better. And in the case of purchasing for investment, the higher price may have nothing at all to do with its taste, but more of its value as a rare commodity.

Like the wine industry, where certain bottles go for thousands of dollars (or more), the wines meant to be consumed on a daily basis by true fans are likely to be some of the least expensive. If I like wine at lunch and dinner on a daily basis I cannot afford to drink high priced, or even moderately priced wines with every meal. The bottles that cost five dollars or so are meant to be enjoyed often. They may not be the best, but they are good, and more importantly can be enjoyed often without breaking the budget. There are similar offerings in the world of whisky, but usually for quite a bit more than five dollars.

But as a drinker of whisky, is it ever worth it to buy a bottle to be consumed once it has achieved investment status? Have the investors essentially destroyed the whisky’s value as a drink? More importantly, by making a particular whisky be rare so as to increase its appeal to the whisky brokers, are distillers catering not to drinkers, but rather to the investors and are thus making products made to be forever bought and sold but rarely consumed? or is this an unfortunate and unintended result?

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My Journey So Far

As of this year, I decided to do something different. Drink. Everyday. That’s right. I have a limit. I do not drink to get buzzed. I do not drink to get drunk. My two motivations are: a moderate amount of alcohol each day is heart healthy, which is how I determined my daily limit; and the other is flavor. I like the taste of certain types of alcohol. The pursuit of flavor has taken me from vodka, where I learned to become accustomed to ethanol; to rum; and finally to whiskey/scotch, and brandy.

With the assistance of a local fan of whiskey and generous purchasing of mini-bottles, I narrowed my preferences and saved a ton of money in the process. I know what I like, and why. I have a rather decent, but not overly large, collection of scotches and other whiskies (bourbon and corn) at home. I also have had the pleasure to sample others at various taverns around town.

There are right now certain scotches that are promoted by the scotch community as “beginner” type scotches. Ones that have appealed to the palates of drinkers in the past are easily found, represent a good value, etc. I believe the palate of Americans today demands a sweeter profile. It calls into question the selection process. I am determining for myself a selection of various distillers and expressions that will appeal even to a modern drinker.

There are, in general, certain geographical regions which can loosely define whisky in Scotland. Islands, Islay (pronounced EYE-luh), Highlands, Speyside, Lowlands, and Campbeltown. Always expect each distillery and region to produce a variety and blur the lines a bit.

The sweetest and fruitiest examples are likely to be found in Speyside, but can be found just about anywhere. The smokiest or peatiest are found in Islay but can be found elsewhere on
the west coast of Scotland since access to peat is essential to the process. Lowlands are home to some light whisky that might be compared to white wine vs red, but these too can be found elsewhere.
IMG_20150429_184222Major distillers whose names pop up again and again on forums are (in no particular order): Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Highland Park, Glenfiddich, GlenDronach, Glenlivet, Macallan, Bowmore, Talisker, Oban, Glenkinchie, Aberfeldy, Aberlour, Glenfarclas, Springbank, and if you add in Japanese single malts the list grows quickly.

Whisky is typically matured in barrels once used to age bourbon in America and elsewhere. Since bourbon must be aged in new barrels they have no need for them once they have been used. Every distiller in Scotland has access to these former bourbon barrels. Once matured, the whisky may be finished in other types of barrels including sherry casks and vats, port casks and vats, rum barrels, new oak quarter casks, and others to introduce various flavors not found normally in whisky as part of the base distillation and maturation process.

Adding to the complexity are the stills themselves. No distiller uses the same configuration as any other. Even if a distiller was known to use a given configuration, no other distiller would copy it anyway. Even then, when determining what part of the whisky produced goes into the barrel is different again. Peaty whisky tends to have more of the feints or tails added to capture more smoke flavor but introduces more of the heavier compounds rejected by other distillers. This makes for some rather unique scents and flavors. These heavier compounds are what turn many away from scotch if they aren’t prepared for it.

If one is accustomed to the caramel sweet, candy bar flavor of bourbon (I am, by the way), the taste of some scotch can be a real shock. It doesn’t have to be, but given the very limited selection of scotches available at bars, finding one you will enjoy can be a real challenge. Also given that some whiskies are matured for 12, 15, 18, 25, and 30 years or more, price becomes a huge factor very quickly if you plan on buying a bottle for yourself or as a gift. Even a decent baseline expression of 10 or 12 years can cost anywhere from 40 to 100 dollars for a 750 ml bottle. If you don’t have a friend who will let you sample some of these you may never find one you like before you give up in disgust.

I hope to be able to guide people to one they will enjoy. One does not have to collect dozens of bottles to enjoy single malts. Many really good ones are available with a bit of searching and you just enjoy your favorite(s). None of these are shooters. Hardly anyone pops the cork and finishes a bottle in one night unless you have a lot of friends helping you. Indeed, I carefully measure out each ounce and that one drink may last an hour. Many consume scotch this way. While others rack up a huge tab buying shots at the bar during happy hour, I can spend a very frugal sum on a few drinks over several hours and leave for home very happy, and very much under the legal limit, I might add.

I don’t claim to be an expert yet, but I can say I have quite a bit of experience under my belt already. If anyone is interested, ask away. I can, at least, get you pointed in the right direction. If you know a scotch fan and are secretly buying a bottle as a gift I can really help.