Glassware, Whisky, and Winning!

Glassware, Whisky, and Winning!

Some years ago, Jamie and I went to a whisky festival in Toronto where all the whisky tasted terrible. It all tasted the same. The conspiracist in me suspected the big name brand bottles were refilled with junk whisky. Later, though, I realized it was because of the glassware. The festival organizers used thick rocks glasses intended for cocktails and whisky on ice, but not for whisky poured neat.

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Age statements and “Poor Man’s Pappy” with Whisky in the 6

Age statements and “Poor Man’s Pappy” with Whisky in the 6

Fellow Torontonian, Rob of Whisky in the 6, has a popular YouTube channel that features guests and whisky reviews. I came on the show. We talked about Poor Man’s Pappy (a mix of Weller’s 12 and 107), age statements on Scotch, and debated whether or not whisky changes in the bottle. Check it out! 

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Once They’re Gone, They’re Gone - Online LCBO Purchases You Can Get Today, Gone Tomorrow

Once They’re Gone, They’re Gone - Online LCBO Purchases You Can Get Today, Gone Tomorrow

The following list are whiskies to buy today, because they will be gone tomorrow. If you have a whisky friend on your gift list, any of these purchases will not only impress them, but they'll soon realize that they're not likely to see them at the LCBO again.

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Kentucky and Scotland Both Avoid the B Word

Kentucky and Scotland Both Avoid the B Word

Kentucky and Scotland hate the B word. Mention it on Twitter, in Instagram, or during a whisky tour and they'll quickly tell you why you're wrong. "We don't blend! We marry the whisky in a vat." Yes, whisky particles are married, not blended. Despite the best-selling scotch in the world being a blend (Johnnie Walker), blended whisky has bad connotations going back to the 1800s.

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What's the Difference Between "Barely Legal" Rye and Straight Rye?

What's the Difference Between "Barely Legal" Rye and Straight Rye?

American whisky is the most regulated and classified whisky region in the world. It all started in 1897 when the US Goverment passed the first consumer protection act, the Bottled-in-Bond act. It guaranteed certain standards for the production of American whisky during a time where production quality was low. Laws were updated decades after prohibition to include definitions for bourbon, rye, and wheated whiskies. No other country defines these many sub-categories of whisky.

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The Challenges Of "Do-it-Yourself" Whisky Maturation

The Challenges Of "Do-it-Yourself" Whisky Maturation

In almost every legal definition of whisky, there are two factors—the first is a strict control on what one can and can’t do to the whisky from fermentation to bottling. Secondly, there’s the soul of what makes whisky: the law simply states “it must taste like the attributes generally associated with whisky.”

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Bourbons for Every Occasion

Bourbons for Every Occasion

Being a bourbon person, I often get asked for recommendations - a task I find very tricky because it can be such a personal thing. The last thing I want to do is send someone in the wrong direction in their bourbon consumption (the horror!). But, there are a few that I find myself coming back to as recommendations in certain scenarios. I’ve chosen bourbons that are relatively easy to find.

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Homemade Coffee-Infused Whisky, Six Ways

Homemade Coffee-Infused Whisky, Six Ways

For some unfathomable reason, Business Insider is covering alcoholic drinks in their finance section these days. Maybe it’s because finance isn’t a great traffic driver, or maybe they’ve run out of things to talk about in the world of finance. This oddity did, however, birth something I found interesting. 

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Whisky Additives & The Brilliance of Straight American Whisky

Whisky Additives & The Brilliance of Straight American Whisky

Whisky additives have always sparked suspicions from whisky consumers. Many want real proper traditional whisky. But what does that mean? Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire, notes: “In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whiskey was minimally if at all aged. Drinkers often added flavorings to mask any rough edges."

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The Acquired Taste of Whisky

Matt Gemmell is a developer, turned writer. I’m a big fan of Matt’s writing. It’s always a pleasure when our direct interests line-up, such as this piece on whisky:

Whisky, like any non-clear spirit, is an acquired taste - and I mean acquired in the same way that we acquire wealth, or possessions: it takes work. You have to actually decide that you’re going to drink it. That’s the first step.

You can support Matt’s writing by checking out his membership page. I’m looking forward to his first novel! 

Glassware, Swirling Whisky, and Winning Whisky Competitions

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.

Whisky Labels. Truth. Fiction. Exaggeration.

Check out Spotlight Toronto for my article taking a deeper dive into whisky labels:

In writing The Whisky Cabinet, I developed a fascination with whisky labels. One would assume that alcohol, being such a tightly controlled drink, would have every word held to high legal standards. Instead, beyond the term whisky and the alcohol content, few words on the bottle are defined.

Perhaps the best bottle to demonstrate this is the George Dickel whisky bottle. It’s a beautiful label that takes you back to the late 1800s, but what do they all mean?

Read the full article on Spotlight Toronto.

NAS Whisky Replaces Age Statements With A Price-tag

With a broad range of pricing, no-age statement (NAS) single malt scotch whisky is here to stay. In contrast, scotch whisky marketers have been telling consumers the importance of well-matured whisky for decades. Many distilleries, however, can’t keep up with demand while aging their whisky ten or more years. The solution is to sell younger whisky without an age statement on the bottle. Often, this new ageless whisky sells for more than their standard offering.

To understand no-age statement whisky, we must first admit that age statements were an over-simplified representation of quality. Scotch whisky is matured in re-used barrels often from either the United States (American Oak) or Spain (European Oak). These different barrels add complexity to the whisky that scotch drinkers enjoy. The first time a barrel is used, it gives the most vanilla and spice flavours (think bourbon). The second time (known as first-fill in Scotland), some flavours might come from the previous spirit that soaked into the barrel. However, the majority of the flavours comes from the wood. The more often a barrel is used, the less flavour it’s likely to offer.

Understanding that, let’s consider how older whiskies are constructed. Whisky makers generally (not always) blend more first-fill re-used barrels in their older whisky. Not only is the Highland Park 18 aged for at-least 18 years, it also contains a higher ratio of first-fill European Oak giving the whisky a nuttier and sweeter characteristic compared to the 12. This added quality is not advertised on the bottle, but it is there.

It’s worth repeating: Not only are bottles with a higher age statement matured for longer, but they’re also often blended with a higher ratio of first and second-fill barrels responsible for additional flavour compared to their younger counterparts. The same is often true with NAS whisky. The more expensive the bottle, the higher likelihood of first-fill barrels were used. How would the consumer know, however?

Age-statements do provide a stated value. There’s an assumed investment by the distillery that if they matured barrels for 18 years, it’ll be the better barrels. With NAS whisky, consumers no longer have a cheat-sheet to help determine the value of the whisky. Instead of depending on the age-statement, NAS whisky has one obvious distinguishing factor: The Price.

Pricing luxury items is greatly dependent on the value of the brand. While whisky is definitely a luxury item, pricing whisky at higher valuations based on brand value doesn’t sit well with many whisky drinkers.

NAS whisky has been a controversy most whisky writers agree on. Scotch Blog ripped into The Macallan 1824 NAS whisky, preferring the older line with age statements. Curt, at All Things Whisky, makes the excellent point that distilleries, if they’re interested in educating the consumer, should note the ages of all the barrels that go into the final product. More bluntly, Oliver Klimek adds this straight-forward reasoning:

Yes, of course there are notable exceptions like the Aberlour A’bunadh or the Balvenie Tun 1401. But especially in Travel Retail (oh no, not again…) NAS bottlings often smack more of cost optimization and problems with dwindling stocks of properly aged whisky than they please the palate.

NAS whisky, on its own, is not a bad thing. Cost optimization, however, combined with NAS whisky is a challenge. Consumers were previously given some security that older whisky meant better whisky. Now they’re being told that price and branding are the only obvious factors that indicates the quality of the whisky.

That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? I agree with Curt. If you’re going to sell NAS whisky, give us some idea of where that whisky comes from (Balvenie TUN 1509 does this quite well!). The lack of information on the bottle combined with high prices creates uncertainty. This uncertainty alienates consumers, and alienated consumers will take their money elsewhere. And as trendy as whisky is today, there’s always the next alcohol (already I’m seeing pro-vodka articles!).

High demand, low supply, and commercializes rarely increases the quality of the product. Scotch whisky is no exception.

If there is a bright-side to this, on a whole, there’s a lot of incredible whisky available out there. With all this competition and demand, distilleries are doing incredible things. It does, though, take more research on the consumer’s side when making purchases. Sure, prices are going up, but that’s going to happen with any high-demand product. We can’t help market pressures, but with well-researched purchases, you can continue to enjoy whisky whether or not there’s an age-statement on the bottle.

My book, The Whisky Cabinet, talks about this and many other topics on whisky. It also includes whisky recommendations that are often priced under $100, and easily available. It’s available for the holiayds in Canada, or for pre-order world-wide.

Straight American Bourbon Round-up

Although the recommendations of my Spotlight Toronto piece are more directed at Ontario readers (where one government corporations sells all the whisky), it's still a good piece to brush up on American whisky, and the subtle labeling differences that make all the difference with how the whisky is made:

Each country regulates the requirements for whisky, and these regulations have a big impact on the final product. In Scotland, single malt scotch is defined as being from one distillery, and made of 100% malted barley. The only additives allowed are water and a touch of caramel for colouring. In the United States, “Straight Bourbon” is even more heavily regulated than single malt scotch. Without “straight” on the label, however, the bourbon might contain additional flavouring.
— http://www.spotlighttoronto.com/buys-guide-american-whisky/

Craft Whisky vs Wine Industry

Despite all the controversy around craft distilleries, and small batch whisky (both written about in my book before they even became controversies), the whisky industry remains relatively true to the craft. There are a few exceptions to this, certainly, but many whisky enthusiasts are outraged over just a few drops of caramel additive to adjust the colour of whisky. Meanwhile, the wine industry deals with things like this:

The reality is that modern day winemakers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to make their wines. Some of these are relatively innocuous and are considered as much a part of making wine as crushing grapes. Cultured yeasts are used to do such things as boost aromatics and finish ferments of high alcohol wines. Sulfur Dioxide and sterile filtration stabilize the wine by removing any lingering bacteria. Tartaric acid is added to adjust over-ripe grapes, as is powdered tannin. Sugar is used to raise alcohol levels (chapitalization), or simply sweeten the wine.

But there are many others which are even more intrusive. Enzymes are added during fermentation to do everything from help clarify the wine to boosting aromatics. Water is used to dilute over concentrated juice, woodchips and oils are employed to flavour the wine. Gum arabic adds texture. Products like Mega Purple colour, flavour and alter the texture of the wine. I could go on and on. And this is not even going into more mechanical interventions such as reverse osmosis (used to concentrate wines), de-alcoholizing machines, and micro-oxydation (adding oxygen during fermentation to soften tannins).

With all the press around bad whisky practices, at least we’re not micro-oxidizing and chapitalizating our alcohol (whatever that means).

(Via Chris Nuttal-Smith)

The Definition of Craft Whisky

Adam Quirk (co-founder of Cardinal Spirits) has an excellent post on craft distilleries:

The shelves at any given liquor store are full of bottles that appear to be very different products, made in different places by different companies.

But peek behind the curtain, and the majority of the “craft spirits” in those bottles are manufactured at a handful of huge distilleries.

Whisky makes an impression. Part of that is the bottle, marketing, and the story behind the drink. Sometimes those stories are made-up. In this way, whisky is no different than any other other industry--to succeed you need an excellent product with fantastic packaging and marketing.

Adam makes the point that by not having a definition of craft whisky, the consumers are going to loose trust over labels shared by big whisky manufacturers and true small craft distilleries. In this case, the burden is on the consumer to do additional research beyond what's written on the bottle.