Monday, September 28, 2009

My whiskey tasting - part 3 of 3

After going through all of the other major varieties, my whiskey tasting group finished the evening tasting a couple of very different single malt Scotches:

Selection #7
Glenmorangie Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 10 Years Old
Glenmorangie Distillery, Scotland
43% vol. / 86 proof
  • Back story: Glenmorangie is a classic Highland malt: a delicate, fragrant, highly drinkable spirit of subtle complexity. The Glenmorangie distillery’s secret is hand-crafting of their own casks from carefully selected American white oak.

  • Nose: bright and fruity; apple cider; one taster said it smelled "like an apple orchard."

  • Taste: A wonderful cornucopia of tastes dance across the palette: crisp apples are here as expected, but also citrus, almonds, sourdough bread, spices and a barely noticeable hint of smoke.

  • Finish: Crisp yet complex; fresh fruit yields to oak.

  • Food pairing: A square of 72% cacao Ghirardelli dark chocolate complemented this whiskey very well; the bittersweet chocolate comes alive in the mouth, and the next sip of whiskey takes on a new, intriguing quality. The 60% cacao Ghirardelli was also good, but did not suit the whiskey quite as well.

  • Final verdict: This is a supremely easy to drink single malt. Those in our group that were not accustomed to single malts still struggled with its complexity, but if you like Scotch this one strikes a nice balance. Four stars **** (recommended).
Selection #8
Ardbeg Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky, 10 Years Old

Ardbeg Distillery, Scotland
46% vol. / 92 proof
  • Back story: Ardbeg hails from the island of Islay (EYE-luh), which is known for its smoky, heavily peated single malts. Along with its Islay neighbors Laphroaig and Lagavulin, it is has one of the most intense flavors of any Scotch. Give the aroma of this time to sink in before sipping, and prepare yourself for a full-on assault of complex flavors. This whiskey is not for the faint of heart, but can be extraordinarily rewarding for those who give it time.

  • Nose: "liquid campfire" is how I describe Ardbeg and its Islay cousins. There is a sweetness behind the smoke, though, as well as a bit of saltiness.

  • Taste: it tastes like it smells! Sweet but sooty, like barbecue sauce that has crisped and burned on the edge of the meat. Hidden underneath is sweet cookie and spice. And smoke, smoke, smoke.

  • Finish: Smoke, of course, then salt and baked fruit, a long stretch of grassy peat, and finally a breeze of salty sea air.

  • Food pairing: I brought out some "Scottish style" smoked salmon to go with this, and it was a match made in heaven. Whiskey actually pairs very well with fish in general. (The pairing of Japanese single malt and sushi is inspired.) Because this whiskey was so smokey, the salmon didn't even taste smoked, but it did taste absolutely delicious!

  • Final verdict: I had previously tried the 16-year old Lagavulin (the king of smoke) and the 10-year old Laphroaig (the king of peat). This is a nice balance between those two, and is much sweeter than I expected. It is an acquired taste, but if you like peated whiskey, I strongly recommend the Ardbeg. Four stars **** (recommended).
Bonus Selection
The Macallan Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky, 18 Years Old
The Macallan Distillery, Scotland
43% vol. / 86 proof
  • Back story: After we had finished tasting the eight whiskeys I had selected, I pulled aside the seasoned whiskey drinkers for a special treat. Aged exclusively in European oak casks seasoned with sherry, the 18-year old Macallan is widely considered the standard when it comes to single malts. Macallan is one of the most detail-oriented distillers, and it shows in the results of this incredible whiskey.

  • Nose: deep, rich, oakey and sweet. You can detect the sherry, as well as fruitcake, plums and raisins.

  • Taste: smooth and incredibly deep. The sherry is here and so is the strong presence of the malt and the wood. Grapes and figs emerge on top of a swirl of other complex flavors. One of the tasters called it: "overwhelming - in a good way!"

  • Finish: gloriously long - take a small sip and enjoy it for minutes afterwards. Faint citrus notes appear (tangerine and orange peel), as well as cocoa and plum. Nothing overwhelms on the finish: it just lingers and evolves magnificently.

  • Food pairing: for God's sake, don't ruin your palette with food if you're drinking this!

  • Final verdict: This is heavenly, and still the best whiskey I've ever tasted. Even the seasoned whiskey drinker that doesn't usually like single malt Scotch gave this one its due. It is an undeniable classic. Five stars ***** (must have).

In the end, my whiskey tasting was a success and we tasted some fine drams. Again, though, it had more to do with the people than the whiskey, so a special thanks to all my guests. I'm looking forward to the next one!

Friday, September 25, 2009

My whiskey tasting - part 2 of 3

After trying three different U.S. whiskeys, my whiskey tasting group turned our attention to blended varieties from Canada, Ireland and Scotland:

Selection #4
Crown Royal Special Reserve Blended Canadian Whisky
Crown Royal Distillery, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada
40% vol. / 80 proof
  • Back story: Canadian whisky blends rye and other whiskeys with relatively neutral base spirits, producing a crisp, easy to drink blend. The standard Crown Royal blend is the most popular Canadian whiskey sold in the U.S. This “Special Reserve” bottling is an older blend with remarkable depth.
  • Nose: very light rye, backed with buttery toffee.
  • Taste: the rye spiciness is there, but it is much lighter and comes with a caramel sweetness and faint fruit and oak overtones. This is by far the mellowest whiskey we tried.
  • Finish: crisp and very short - the strong bitter finish of the American rye is missing, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. I miss the complexity of that long, interesting finish.

  • Food pairing: I did a Google search and came up with Camembert cheese as a possible match for this whiskey. It turned out to be far too mild and was completely overpowered by the whiskey taste. Considering this was itself a mild whiskey, I believe Camembert lovers should stick with wine.
  • Final verdict: This would be a perfect whiskey for mixing (the Canadian tradition is “rye and ginger” - mixing this kind of whiskey with Canada Dry ginger ale). By itself, it is still pretty good and much deeper than most Canadian whiskeys I've tried, but it still disappoints on the finish. Three stars *** (worth trying).
Selection #5
Powers Gold Label Irish Whiskey, A Blend
Irish Distillers Group, Middleton, County Cork, Ireland
40% vol. / 80 proof

  • Back story: Powers is the most popular whiskey in its native Ireland. The distinct, “pot still” character of Irish whiskey comes from combining malted and unmalted barley together before fermentation, and then triple-distilling the resulting spirit in a traditional, labor-intensive pot still. Like most modern Irish whiskeys, Powers is a blend (pure pot still whiskey is blended with column-distilled grain whiskey for a lighter, crisper taste), but it retains a strong pot still character.

  • Nose: the distinct smell of Irish pot still whiskey: nutty, leathery and buttery.

  • Taste: well-rounded and robust, balancing honey, spices and flax. It is very, very tasty.
  • Finish: a wonderful sweet-and-sour finish; long but mellow.

  • Food pairing: Being an Irish whiskey, I decided to pair this with Dubliner cheese. The cheese turned out to be far too strong for the whiskey; they were both delicious, so I would not call it a bad pairing, but the cheese eradicated the whiskey flavor on contact. (Delicious cheese, by the way: if you haven't tried it, do so!)

  • Final verdict: I still prefer pure pot still Irish whiskey (like Redbreast) to blends, but this blend is closer to that than any other I've tried. It is a winner. Four stars **** (recommended).
Selection #6
William Grant’s Family Reserve Blended Scotch Whisky

William Grant & Sons Limited, Dufftown, Banffshire, Scotland
40% vol. / 80 proof

  • Back story: the practice of blending traditional malt whiskey with column-distilled grain whiskey began in the mid-1800s. The result not only increased capacity, but created a lighter, more consistent spirit that appealed to a broader spectrum of drinkers. Today 90% of all Scotch sales are blends. While blends are often looked down upon as inferior, in fact the best blends are every bit as complex and rewarding as single malts. Grant’s is a fine example.

  • Nose: familiar Scotch aromas of malt and peat, but faint and buoyed by floral, fruity scents (apples and apricots).

  • Taste: a wonderful mix of sweet honey, crisp fruit and smoky peat.

  • Finish: mild but long, and well-balanced between the crisp snap of grain and the multi-layered complexity of malt.

  • Food pairing: we tried this with a five-year old Boerenkaas cheese from Morgan & York. It was an inspired choice: the Dutch cheeses seem tailor-made for whiskey!

  • Final verdict: this is a wonderful blend, one of the best I’ve tasted. It has a clear Scotch character, and yet is smooth enough to be appreciated by those not partial to single malts. If you like Johnnie Walker Black, give this a try some time. Four stars **** (recommended).

To be continued... (next time: single malts)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

My whiskey tasting - part 1 of 3

I hosted a small get together last weekend: my first ever whiskey tasting. We had a handful of whiskey fans and a handful of people who just wanted to give it a try. I don't think I made any converts among the second group, but I'm pretty sure everybody had fun. (It was more about the company than the whiskey anyway!)

I decided early on that I wanted to cover the broadest range possible: this was a "world of whiskey" tasting that covered every major style. I selected eight bottles - one each of Tennessee, bourbon, rye, Canadian, Irish and blended Scotch, plus two very different single malt Scotches. I had not tasted any of the eight before, so they were as new to me as they were to my guests.

That would have been the extent of it - eight whiskeys and maybe some water - but fortunately I have good people in my life who gave me advice on how to throw a good party. My girlfriend, in particular, saved me. (She is dynamite!) She helped me plan the food and seating and decor. Together, we also selected a variety of food pairings that seemed like they might work with each whiskey.

Here is what happened...

Selection #1
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Lynchburg, Tennessee
47% alcohol by volume / 94 proof

  • Back story: Jack Daniel’s defines the “Tennessee Whiskey” category, and its popular “Old No. 7” bottling is well known even to non-whisky drinkers. Like all Tennessee whiskey, it is made primarily from corn and slowly leached through sugar maple charcoal before being aged, resulting in a cleaner spirit going into the wood. Unlike Old No. 7, which is blended for consistency from various casks, this bottling is taken from a single, hand-picked barrel of distinct, “particularly flavorful and aromatic” whiskey. The result is a complex, full bodied whiskey with great harmony and a pronounced sweetness.

  • Nose: very sweet with hints of maple syrup, ginger ale and burnt buttered toast; also a pronounced, almost medicinal alcohol smell.

  • Taste: with a high alcohol percentage there is an immediate kick and heat here. This is closer to bourbon than the normal Jack Daniel's with a spicy sweetness right out front. It also has a woody bitterness that reminded me of burnt barbecue sauce.

  • Finish: short and sweet, followed by a hint of bitter, medicinal alcohol (one taster compared it to Listerine) and burning matches.

  • Food pairing: we paired this one with savory sausage meatballs in a sweet barbecue sauce. Everyone thought it was a good match and the whiskey became much more palatable after the meatballs.

  • Final verdict: this is not a subtle whiskey, but what it lacks in depth it makes up for in attitude. Put on some Skynyrd and fire up the grill: this is a party in a glass and perfect for a summer barbecue. Three stars *** (worth trying).
Selection #2
Eagle Rare Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 10 Years
Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky
45% vol. / 90 proof

  • Back story: bourbon is America’s whiskey and is the dominant U.S. style on the market today. Popular brands include Jim Beam, Wild Turkey and Maker’s Mark. There are also many handcrafted, “small batch” bourbons on the market, such as the astonishingly expressive Eagle Rare. Like all bourbons, it is made from at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred white oak barrels.

  • Nose: soft and sweet; honey and bananas, with a hint of the bittersweet spiciness of rye; a complex and delightful aroma.

  • Taste: much bolder than expected, with strong corn flavors upfront: spicy and very sweet with a bit of vanilla. Some rye adds nice balance in the background.

  • Finish: the bittersweet rye flavors really comes into their own in the finish, which is long and wonderful.

  • Food pairing: we matched this one with (gluten free) oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. It was a good match. The cookie taste helped mellow the spiciness and kick of the whiskey, and bourbon really made the chocolate chips pop.

  • Final verdict: this seems halfway between a bourbon and a rye to me and offers the best of both worlds. It is a solid, richly rewarding whiskey at an affordable price, and belongs in every bourbon lover's cabinet. Four stars **** (recommended).

Selection #3
Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey, Aged 6 Years

Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort, Kentucky
45% vol. / 90 proof

  • Back story: rye whiskey is noted for its bold, bittersweet taste with touches of spice and mint. Before bourbon became ubiquitous, rye was the dominant whiskey in the United States. Sazerac represents a return to that tradition.

  • Nose: one taster described the smell as "bitter," but there is a sweetness here too. Subtle rye spiciness mingles with blackberry jam; delicious.

  • Taste: wow, there is a lot going on here, starting with a clean, sweet fruitiness and then bold spices.

  • Finish: this is a lively finish, with spiciness turning to a dry bitterness. You either like rye or you don't , and this is the point where we found out who belongs in which group. I personally like it. Yes, the finish is somewhat bitter, but it is full of character. Unlike the Jack Daniel's earlier, if you like rye this is a whiskey to savor.

  • Food pairing: we matched the Sazerac with an 18-month old imported Gouda from Morgan & York. While it didn't click in the same way as the first two food pairings, it was still a pleasant match. The cheese was delicious and had enough full bodied flavor to hold its own with the whiskey. (I've had this cheese with single malt Scotches as well: it is a solid choice to pair with well balanced, full-flavored whiskeys.)

  • Final verdict: I'm torn on whether or not this is the best rye I've tasted to date, but it's damn good in any case. It is distinct and fresh, and very well balanced. I'm on board with rye whiskey, and I will be drinking this again. Four stars **** (recommended).

To be continued... (next time: blends)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happy Hobbit Day

Last Saturday, September 19, was International Talk Like A Pirate Day. I love this holiday for many reasons: it's whimsical, it brings out the kid in me, it's fun to talk funny, and at the end of the day pirates are just plain cool.

With that in mind, I went searching for more of the same. This is what I discovered:

So take that, stupid Ground Hog Day!
If you know of any other fun, whimsical holidays, please leave a comment!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Random top 10 list: best pirates

In honor of International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19), here is my list of the best pirates (or groups of pirates) ever:

#1. Captain Jack Sparrow

The first movie in the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise was a five-star surprise in 2003, and while the sequels have not been as good, they have still been essential viewing if only for Johnny Depp's superb portrayal of the eccentric, tricky Captain Jack. No matter how dire the situation, you can be assured that Captain Jack will find a way out - and make you laugh in the process! (Geoffrey Rush is also fantastic throughout the films as rival pirate Captain Barbossa.)

#2. Captain Hook

Scottish playwright James M. Barrie created a masterpiece when he created the Peter Pan story in 1904. The story has taken many different forms as it has been told throughout the years, but no matter the telling, Pan's arch nemesis is always Captain Hook. The 1953 Walt Disney movie version of Hook may be the most well known, but he is such a classic literary character that he lends himself to good storytelling regardless of the media. Yes, he is evil, yet he is handsome and elegant and strangely sympathetic. And he has a legitimate reason for hating Peter Pan, who cut off his hand and fed it to a crocodile!

#3. Long John Silver

From Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island comes one of the greatest pirate characters- and pirate names - of all time. Want to know where the traditions of peg legs and pet parrots come from? Look no further. Besides being larger than life throughout the novel (ans subsequent movie adaptations), Long John Silver lent his name to an awesome fried fish fast-food restaurant. (As a side note, I traveled to Singapore last year and was amazed to see a Long John Silver's restaurant on every corner. There are 31 of them there - more than any other city in the world.)

#4. Pittsburgh Pirates

Of all the pirate-themed teams in sports (which includes the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, etc.), the Pittsburgh Pirates have the most history, tradition and claim to piracy. They are one of the oldest Major League Baseball teams, originally founded in 1876. In 1891, they took the name "Pirates" to make light of accusations that they signed away players from rival leagues. The name stuck. They have gone on to win five World Series (1909, 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979) and have been the home of dozens of Hall of Fame players, including Honus Wagner 1900-1917) and Roberto Clemente (1955-1972). They have also historically featured a unique uniform style and a rabid fan base, and in 2001 they opened a fantastic new stadium.

#5. The Dread Pirate Roberts

The Princess Bride is an all-time classic book and movie. The legend of the Dread Pirate Roberts is both an integral part of the story and one of the best pirate tales ever spun. ("Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I'll most likely kill you in the morning.") The Dread Pirate Roberts manages to defeat brains, brawn and skill, but in the end it is "true love" that saves the day.

#6. Captain Morgan

Sir Henry Morgan was one of the most famous and dangerous pirates in the Caribbean during the 17th Century, and blah blah blah. All that matters is that his name and legend were adopted by the world's most popular brand of spiced rum. With a killer logo, slogan ("Got a little Captain in You?") and television ads, Captain Morgan rum has made it cool to be a pirate again. Well, a drunken pirate anyway.

#7. Blackbeard

Another real-life pirate of the Caribbean, Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach) has gone on to be the most famous pirate name of all. He was a legend in his own time, and that legend has continued to grow throughout the years. He has made cameos in such classic fictional works as Treasure Island and Peter Pan (Captain Hook was said to have been his boatswain), and continues to do so to this day. When I asked my six-year-old who his favorite pirate was, he immediately answered, "Blackbeard." When I asked where he'd heard of Blackbeard, he said, "Johnny Test, of course!"

#8. The Pirates Of Penzance

If you haven't seen this Gilbert and Sullivan musical, do so. It opened in 1879 and has continued to be a popular production ever since. It concerns Frederic, a boy who through a misunderstanding becomes an apprentice to a band of pirates. He is bound to serve them until his 21st birthday, but upon turning 21 he learns that he was born on Leap Year Day, so technically he has only had five actual birthdays and must continue to serve the pirates until old age. It is a funny play and contains some wonderful musical numbers ("I am the very model of a modern Major-General").

#9. The Ice Pirates

A campy 1984 Star Wars rip-off starring Robert Urich, The Ice Pirates has become a cult classic. It is very goofy and low-budget, but entertaining. It's biggest contribution, however, was putting pirates in space - where they belong!

#10. Ol' Chumbucket and Cap'n Slappy

In 1995, John Baur and Mark Summers were playing racquetball in Albany, Oregon when one of them got hurt and yelled out, "Aaaaaarrrrr!" And thus International Talk Like A Pirate Day was born. The event, which is celebrated every September 19, rocketed to prominence when humorist Dave Barry mentioned it in a 2002 column. "Ol' Chumbucket" (Baur) and "Cap'n Slappy" (Summers) have continued to promote the holiday, and deserve credit for proving without a doubt that everyone likes to talk like a pirate.

Honorable mention: Eugene H. Krabs

Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob SquarePants' boss at the Krusty Krab may not be a pirate, but there is no character on television today that sounds more like one.

Honorable mention: Pirate Party

This is a real political party in Sweden, founded with a goal of reforming copyright and patent laws. Whatever their political beliefs may be, any group that would name themselves "Pirate Party" is OK with me. Also, check out their cool logo, which mimics a pirate ship sail!

The flip side: worst pirates

Modern-day Somali pirates aren't fun at all - and they don't even talk like pirates! (Boooooooo! Hissssssss!)

Finally, here is a great online guide to talking like a pirate. Enjoy the holiday!

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I saw a band called Note To Self at the Art Fair in Ann Arbor this year. Pretty good band. Also, I know a guy who knows a guy, and now I know those guys. Pretty good guys. (For the record, I drank Scotch with one of them this weekend. Pretty good Scotch.)

Anyway, these guys recently recorded a cover of Coldplay's 2000 hit "Yellow." Now Coldplay's version was absolutely brilliant - four and a half absolutely perfect minutes of music. It was one of my favorite songs of 2000, and is still a favorite. So I do not say this lightly...

Note To Self's version is better.

I know, I know, you're going to claim I'm not objective on this one. But I have played it for a few people now - without any discussion beforehand - and they have all had the same reaction. Listen and download the song here and you be the judge!

Note To Self takes the song in a looser, rougher direction than Coldplay. It has a demo feel to it, seeming at times like a jam session that could unravel at any moment, but that approach works remarkably well, opening up a warmth and intimacy unseen in the original. The earthy, bluesy interaction between acoustic and electric guitar gives it an Americana feel, while a strong, funky drum beat keeps the song buoyant and chugging along.

It is the voices, however, that provide the glue that holds it all together. The band's two singers take turns on lead vocals, with the other pitching in wonderful harmonies. Again, there is a distinctly DIY element to the singing, but that's not meant to imply rough edges. Note To Self's trademark sweetness is there in spades, combining an edgy, alternative rock feel with an underlying, exuberant joy. From the opening call ("One, two, three, here we go!"), my heart just leaps when I hear this recording.

The highlight comes with just under a minute remaining in the song, when someone yells "Everybody now!" in the background and additional voices join in, singing along and then clapping. It is exactly what I feel like doing as the listener! It is the musical equivalent of a group hug, and it sounds and feels incredible. A single voice emerges to sing a couple more lines as the clapping and crowd noises dissipate, and the song fades to a single, quiet drum beat.

Absolutely perfect.

P.S. - In case you're wondering: yes, it feels good to scoop Pitchfork.