Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) whiskies are highly sought after, rarely found, and cherished by the quarter-ounce when poured. I was at Buffalo Trace Distillery to do a tasting of the 2015 collection prior to release. When I posted a photo of the collection on Twitter, I was challenged with “why bother?" What’s the point of reviewing BTAC when there's so little supply released that it's nearly impossible to get?Read More
Bourbon buyers in Ontario have always had their secrets. When rare products appeared on shelves (Elmer T. Lee back in the day, W.L. Weller 12 today), Ontario whisky buyers snatched them up quickly. Good bourbon options in Ontario are, however, disappearing. We can’t even blame the LCBO on this one. The demand for bourbon in the United States is delisting many favourite bourbons from international sales.Read More
Wild Turkey Forgiven is the result of an accidental blend of bourbon and rye. The story behind the whisky is straight-forward—An employee accidentally blended Wild Turkey Rye into a batch of Wild Turkey Bourbon. It’s not necessarily an easy mistake to make, but distilleries re-route whisky into big vats before bottling. Mistakes happen, though rarely are they this expensive.Read More
As written in the pages of my book, when writing about Buffalo Trace Distillery:
It would be easy to point to the notoriously rare Pappy Van Winkle as the distillery’s crown jewel whisky, but Buffalo Trace Antique Collection (BTAC) is better.
After 971 days and 15 orbits around the earth, the Ardbeg sample sent into space arrived back to earth in November 2014. Ardbeg’s Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks, Dr. Bill Lumsden has recently released his report on how space travel, more specifically, micro-gravity, has affected the whisky.Read More
“The best barley that ever came is from Ireland…It’s a fantastic growing region… Whisky is about barley. That’s what it is. That’s what it comes from. And the best place to grow barley in Europe is Ireland.” — Mark ReynierRead More
With the success of The Whisky Topic, the next step is to move forward with a website that includes writers besides myself. Jamie Johnson, co-host on the podcast, will play an active role here as well.Read More
Meant in jest (I assume!), the fear that Jamie Johnson and I feel when shopping for bourbon expressed perfectly. Bourbon’s Existential Terror:
You don't have to read Kafka to understand what an existential crisis is—just hang out in the Bourbon section of any major retailer long enough and you'll witness it first hand … Sir, can you tell me: does this Bourbon have value? Does it have any meaning? Any purpose? And, if not, what does that say about me? ...
The word ‘craft’ has connotations associated with it that are drawn from personal experiences and expectations. Individual definitions of craft whisky range from it being a meaningless marketing phrase, to the honest belief of a traditional whisky making process. The truth is somewhere in-between.Read More
I got tired of writing whisky reviews
There’s a format to each whisky review that goes something like this: Interesting factoid, some history, tasting notes, and a score. There’s definitely a place for long reviews, and there are reviewers that do this incredibly well (Hey Davin!), but these are not everyday reviews.
I’m tossing out my old (and long-since unused) whisky review format. I want to write reviews I’d like to read. The new review format is shorter and it’s driven by the current whisky market. The reviews will include a hundred-point tasting score and a rating. The combination of a taste score and star rating for whisky seemed ridiculous at first, but the more test reviews I wrote, the more it made sense.
The Whisky Cabinet Rating
With rare exceptions, there are no bad whiskies. As a consumer, though, navigating the waters of which whisky to purchase can be a challenge. It’s important to keep categories in mind: Rye? Bourbon? Scotch? That’s an excellent place to start when buying whisky. Next, what are you looking for? Oaky bourbon, or cheap rye, or well-aged sherry finished scotch? These are just some examples of the many categories whiskies falls into.
The theme of my book is The Whisky Cabinet—finding the most delicious whiskies in the world. The sub-theme has always been value, price, and positioning in the market. Taking this a step forward, I’ve worked on a simple four star rating system.
This four star system pits the whisky against other whiskies in its category and considers such factors as the taste, price-point, availability, and prestige (which can work for or against the whisky). It works as follows:
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ Not recommended
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ Good whisky, but not a ‘must-have’
★ ★ ☆ ☆ Your great regular rotation whisky that'll come and go
★ ★ ★ ☆ Excellent, a near must-have
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary, memorable, and original
The higher the star-level, the fewer whiskies in that category. Under this system, four star ratings are rare. And since the landscape of the whisky world changes (age statements are removed, new products are released), whiskies might gain or lose a star over time.
The Hundred Point Whisky Sipper Score
I have privately rated whisky for several years, but I never quite felt comfortable posting these scores. They didn’t tell the entire story. Alone, it’s not a perfect system, but with the star rating it has a place in the review. Each reviewer defines their scoring system differently. This is how I view it, keeping it simple:
- 90+ Remarkable, whisky that stops the conversation at a party
- 80-89 From good to approaching remarkable
- 70-79 An okay whisky
- Below 70, probably undrinkable for most whisky sippers
For the taste score, I break down the whisky to its core elements. Nose. Palate. Finish. Balance. Construction. Uniqueness. Flavour. A well structured whisky that offers a broad range of flavours and complexity is likely to get a higher score.
All whiskies are rated based on how they taste in tasting glasses at room temperature.
Difference Between Tasting and Drinking
I couldn’t possibly talk about rating whiskies without noting the difference between tasting and drinking whisky. Tastings are done at room temperature, in tasting glasses, and in a quiet environment. Scores are achieved by tasting the same drink repeatedly, and comparing it to other whiskies of the same or similar categories.
Drinking whisky is the pure enjoyment of the spirit. Any whisky scoring over 80 points will make for an excellent drinking whisky (assuming you like that category of whisky). When out in the sun, or at home with friends, the difference between an 82 and an 88 scored whisky won’t matter overly much.
However, like a delicious plate of food, a whisky that scores over 90 points should stop the conversation at the table. That’s how I score the whisky.
I’ll be posting whisky reviews regularly moving forward, and we’ll get to see whether or not we are in simpatico. As reviews get posted (there are plenty in the queue), this system will start creating it's own dialogue. More on that later.
The Whisky Topic is on its sixteenth episode! I see podcasting as the equivalent to DVD commentary found on many blu-ray and DVD movies (I didn't invent this concept, I think Dan Benjamin may have). This week’s episode is an excellent example. I would rarely write about any of the tastings that I host—it would make for a boring read. I do think, though, it makes for an interesting listen.
This week, Jamie and I are joined by Glenford Jameson to discuss a blind tasting I hosted at my place a few weeks back. I’ve stressed it is important to maintain trust with your audience when doing blind tastings. It insults your audience if you pair two dynamically different whiskies in hopes of ‘tricking’ them. However, I made an exception. I asked a group of friends I regularly drink whisky with to participate in a ‘tricky’ blind tasting. They didn’t know what they were up for, but I broke all the rules. I served them:
- slightly different versions of the same whisky
- the same whisky
- the same mash bill and age statement, but different label
I’m tucked away between two booths at a Toronto whisky event, drinking a rare single malt from Japan. I mentally step away from the crowd of eighty or so people with stretched out arms looking for a similar pour. As I enjoy this moment with the whisky, I feel a gentle tap on my wrist. It doesn’t pull me away from the salty smoky drink, but it lets me know a message is waiting.
After a few more unhurried sips, I lift my wrist up with a flick. “A rare Canadian whisky is being poured at the Canadian Whisky vs Rye booth.” I click “I’ll be there in 5” on the Apple Watch with a pre-configured message, and the message is sent immediately with no further interaction necessary. The screen turns off, as I go back to my whisky.
Lots has been said about the Apple Watch—it minimizes distractions, it’s intended to be fun, and the hardware is beautiful but the software is buggy. All of this is true. We are accustomed to gadgets that require our attention. The Apple Watch is a gadget that gives us back those moments normally stolen away by our phones.
Spirit of Toronto was the perfect opportunity to test the watch as a communication device. I was there with eight friends spread across a large facility, with unique whisky pours at various times during the event. Communication was key. The event also allowed me the opportunity to consider social norms when with groups. When is it polite to look at a the watch, and when is it better to simply take out the phone?
Social Norms and Messaging
In today’s society, pulling out the phone while chatting with friends is perceived as more polite than checking your watch. People immediately associate ‘checking watch’ with ‘I want to leave.’ This, though, is a dated faux pas from an era where watches only had one function.
When with one friend or in a large crowd, the tapping on the wrist is without distraction to anyone including the wearer. It’s just enough of a reminder that something is going on, without any urgency. The watch is a much faster way of viewing, scrolling, and even replying to messages. It takes up less time than opening up the iPhone.
At the event, when it came to text messaging, I’d talk to the watch at about chest-level and let Siri dictate the message. I’d only do this when I was alone. Siri dictation on the watch is excellent, possibly even better than on the iPhone. In a noisy room with plenty of people, dictating to the watch was a breeze.
Health Monitoring And Drink Whisky
I burnt more calories being on my feet at the whisky event, and going bar hopping afterwards, then any other day in the last two weeks. I know this because I’ve been wearing the watch every day.
I care about fitness. I go to the gym weekly, but I’m not really into fitness the way my cross-training, bicycle riding, marathon running, triathlon competing friends are into fitness. The activity rings on the Apple Watch, though, make 30 minutes of physical activity seem achievable. Being encouraged to stand up for a minute every hour makes sense. Having a heart monitor on your wrist, a step tracker, and a calorie burn estimator is helpful.
The Apple Watch isn’t the first fitness activity tracker, and it’s certainly not the cheapest one, but it is the first one people are likely to wear to a dress-up event such as Spirit of Toronto. Or for any other occasion. The Apple Watch has encouraged me to be more active in subtle ways that I appreciate.
Fashion? Practical? A bit of both
The Apple Watch is a topic of conversation. It’s tough to summarize it into a few words of “it’s good” or “it’s bad.” The Apple Watch didn’t drastically improve my event experience, but it did stop me from always reaching for my phone to see if anyone had texted (I’ve long-since become immune to iPhone notifications through the pocket of my jeans). Because we were in a large scattered group, with plenty of unique drinks being poured throughout the night, this was helpful.
By limiting the number of notifications, I limit how often the watch taps my wrist. There’s an efficiency achieved here that I appreciate. A casual glance to the Apple Watch is incredibly informative, especially with Apple’s apps. I feel less dependent on the phone.
As I told a friend, as a watch and an activity monitoring device, the Apple Watch is worth the starting price of $350. For that price you get apps, notifications, and additional conveniences. If you care about fashion, the stainless steel models have value.
I expected the Apple Watch to be a device I would be on and interact with frequently. As it turns out, the device is on me, and it initiates interactions using taps. Odd. As Apple said, this is the most personal and intimate device they have ever created. As a device that you wear on your arm, that secretly taps you, it fits that description perfectly.
This week on The Whisky Topic, Jamie and I talk about scotch. Undoubtably, the discussion leads to no-age statement whisky and the current state of whisky from Scotland.
When I wrote about this topic originally, I noted that it’s not just about age-statements. It’s about the quality of the barrels used. Just yesterday, Oliver Klimek wrote about how Laphroaig 10 has changed over the years. Stylistically speaking, I’ve always been a far bigger fan of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and the 18 over the 10. The 10 has always been a touch too mild, and while that can be good, it’s not really the type of drink I want from Laphroaig.
But this brings us back to the point that age-statements are such a small part of the picture when it comes to good whisky. First-fill, second-fill, third-fill, fourth-fill. These aspects of barrel maturation matter far more. That’s not to say all good scotch is made in first-filled barrels. It’s not. It does, however, mean that quality of the barrels matters far more than how long the whisky has been sitting around in those barrels.
The problem with no-age statement whisky isn't the lack of age statement (though that is a part of it). It's an issue of trust and credibility. For the distilleries that are selling NAS whisky, it's an issue they're going to need to address.
Ultimately, it’s about palate and flavour. Check-out the podcast for a deeper explanation. Meanwhile, I’m going to see if I can find myself a Laphroaig 18. It’s an incredible drink!
In the San Francisco 2015 Spirit Competition, Knob Creek won best bourbon. Knob Creek is a fine bourbon (I often use it whisky tastings!). But is it the best bourbon? Fred Minnick, one of the judges at the competition, summarized the problem perfectly:
While I’ve always liked Knob Creek, I’ve never put it in the super elite, the Staggs and Pappys of the world. I’ve not even considered Knob Creek the best bourbon in the Jim Beam portfolio; Booker’s has held that crown. Has Knob Creek been hidden under my nose as the best bourbon this whole time?
The competition had judges using the Neat tasting glass. Neat glassware is broad on the bottom and top unlike the traditional tulip-shaped whisky tasting glass. The Neat Glass definitely changes the flavour and structure of the whisky. The fundamental flaw/feature in the design has to do with swirling the broad-bottomed glass. On the Neat Website:
When using NEAT, swirl, swirl, swirl … and when in doubt, swirl some more. Swirling enhances evaporation. Swirling the NEAT glass “powers” the evaporation engine that brings up all aromas … Convergent rim glasses (rim smaller than bowl diameter) produce concentrated alcohol right at the nose when swirling, obscuring other aromas even more. That is why other glassmakers tell you “Don’t swirl”
With whisky, in a narrow glass, swirling creates an excessive amount of alcohol vapour blowing out the senses. In wide-rimmed glassware (such as Neat glass), you’re better off swirling the whisky to further excite those molecules because of the broader opening. Neat's clever short design helps in this over the traditional rocks glass, as an example, despite the broad top. So far, so good.
Swirling the glass does, however, change the flavour of the whisky on the palate. Don’t believe me? Take two glasses with the same whisky. Swirl one for a few minutes, and don’t swirl the other. The swirled whisky will likely be sweeter, less textured, muted, and more even-flavoured. For me, in my tests, the essential character of the whisky starts to disappear the same way it would if the whisky was left overnight in the glass.
Excessively swirling a whisky accelerates the natural evaporation process, changing the dynamic of the whisky. This could be good for some whiskies, and bad for others. The same is true when you warm the glass, though at least this is a controlled gentler approach.
However, consider this. Most whiskies are nosed and tasted by whisky makers using tulip-shaped glass. Using broad glassware that requires swirling changes the whisky. To put differently, when reviewing whisky, if I swirl a whisky for four minutes, I’m no longer tasting the same whisky the reader is tasting.
Which brings me back to Knob Creek being picked as the winner in the best bourbon category, over better bourbons such as Booker’s and Stagg Jr. Both Booker’s and Stagg Jr have an incredible thick wonderful nose, that is beautifully balanced with flavour and alcohol on the palate. Knob Creek is a very good bourbon, but in a tulip shape glass, it doesn’t have enough on the nose to keep-up with these stars. In wider glassware, all the best features of Booker’s and Stagg Jr are muted. After excessive swirling, Knob Creek might even stand a chance.
Jamie Johnson and I did a blind tasting earlier in the week, and we recorded it for The Whisky Topic Podcast. While we didn’t use Neat Glass, we used the Canadian-style Glencairn glass. The results were fascinating! I won’t spoil the winners and losers, but this was a very small sampling.
The larger sampling happened in San Francisco, though, when a group of experts picked Knock Creek as the best bourbon in a blind tasting. Maybe for its price-point, but not in a category when Booker’s and Stagg Jr are also included.