Canadian Whisky: Now on Twitter!

#1 #DavinTT-1st-week

 

I joined Twitter about a year ago, and the best part has been meeting all the amazingly cool, like-minded whisky lovers out there. To be honest, that was a big motivator in joining. Twitter works best when you use it to chat and connect with people you’d otherwise never get to know, because they live in other countries, or are outside your peer group, or you have nothing else in common but a shared love of the water of life.

I have made some awesome connections in 140 characters and, just as great, I’ve received incredible opportunities: free tickets to Whisky Live, a mystery whisky tweet tasting for International Women’s Day, and now, a book review and tweet tasting featuring the comprehensive, fascinating Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux. (What a great name, right?)

You can read the full press release below. Basically, every Sunday in the month of May, I and other whisky lovers from across the globe will gather on Twitter to discuss the book and then taste a mystery Canadian whisky. Having literally NO experience with Canadian whisky, I am beyond excited. First, I get to nerd out with a whisky textbook (no lie, I’ve brought my post its on the subway to make notes while I’m reading). Then, I get to nose dive into the pages with a delicious unknown dram! And, with no “standard” by which to measure the whiskies, I am most excited about experiencing something totally new, forming an educated but open first impression, and embarking on a whole new journey of delicious discovery.

If you’re on Twitter, join our sessions by searching for #DavinTT. Grab the book, read a few chapters, open a bottle of your preferred Canadian whisky, and voice your thoughts!

Canadian Whisky Book Review and Twitter Tasting

Be a part of the world’s first ever whisky book review/twitter tasting. Social media are changing the way we read and the way we taste whisky. We’ve decided to integrate the two! Each Sunday for the next four weeks we will review several chapters from the book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and discuss them on Twitter. And we will do this while we taste a representative whisky from that chapter.

If you wish to comment on the book, interact with author, Davin de Kergommeaux, or discuss a Canadian whisky you are tasting, please join us each Sunday at 3:00 pm Eastern time, on Twitter at #DavinTT.

The twitter reviews and tastings begin this Sunday, May 5th at 3:00pm EST when we will be talking about chapters 10 – 13. Davin will join us to answer questions, and contribute to discussion among the participants, etc.

After chatting for about 30 minutes about 15 participants from around the world will open a mystery bottle that we have sent to them. You didn’t get a bottle? Feel free to join in anyway. The more the merrier. After tasting the sample and talking about it we’ll reveal which distillery it came from and which whisky we tasted. Sound like fun?

This Sunday we’ll begin with chapters 10 – 13. Then, Sunday May 12th we will discuss chapters 14 – 17; Sunday May 19th, chapters 18 – 21; and Sunday May 26th, chapters 22 – 25.

We invite the whisky bloggers among us to blog about the book, the experience, the whiskies and/or Davin. Let the fun begin!

If you have any questions, feel free to get in touch with me, @WhiskyLassie on twitter.

Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert is available at Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and many other fine bookstores, or on-line at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.

Advertisements

WhiskyCast Virtual Tasting Starring Moi! *

*Okay, not starring—I’m back to my drama-queen daydreams here. “Featuring”, perhaps. Or “introducing”. Oh, I like that…

I mentioned in my post about Whisky Live that I joined in a Virtual Tasting with Mark Gillespie, creator of WhiskyCast. The tasting is now live here. If you like to listen to people discoursing on beautiful whiskies or want to know more about the character of the whisky before buying, take a listen. I didn’t sound nearly as silly as I thought!

Disclaimer: It is very hard for me to be critical of well-made whisky—I like almost every whisky I try. My enthusiasm can sometimes bubble over but in this case everything we had was absolutely in the top of its class. I recommend them all without equivocation!

Whisky Live 2013: In which my inner fangirl emerges

Photo 1.1

When I lived in Scotland, I knew how spoiled for choice I was when it came to Scotch whisky. Besides the wide array of exceptional (and affordable) drams that even the smallest bars offered, it seemed like every other week there was a tasting, festival, or other event centered around the water of life. I realized that coming back to New York would mean adjusting my expectations of variety and opportunity.

Even so, New York City is probably the best place in the country to be a whisky drinker. We have oodles of great whisky bars, from the high-end down to the cheap and cheerful, and—thanks to the largest port on the East Coast and a slew of excellent importers and distributors—pretty much any whisky available anywhere in the US is available here, too. On top of that, several national whisky festivals make stops here: WhiskyFest, the Single Malt & Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, and WhiskyLive.

Walking into Pier Sixty at Chelsea Piers on Wednesday transported me back to happy memories of the Glasgow Whisky Festival, the Whisky Stramash, and the Whisky Fringe. Booth upon booth of delicious drams stretched before me, freely offering pours of old and new favorites. There was a healthy mix of Scottish, Irish, and American whiskies, as well as international whiskies from Japan, Australia, India, and Sweden.

The highlight of the evening, though, was the the people. I enjoyed running into friends from the NYC whisky community like Allison Patel, whose Brenne booth was mobbed the entire evening by ardent new fans, and Josh Feldman, pouring for Gordon & MacPhail and charming the whole room with his usual bonhomie. And I was elated to meet IRL Angelo (G-LO) and Max from It’s Just the Booze Dancing. Best of all, though, I got to meet two of my industry heroes. (Am I allowed to be that cheesy? This is my blog—heck yes!)

Max and G-LO

Max and G-LO

G-LO texted me while I was still on my way to say I’d been invited to join a Virtual Tasting panel by Mark Gillespie, whisky writer and the man behind the magic at WhiskyCast. If you aren’t familiar, WhiskyCast is a weekly podcast + app + website/community about—duh—whisky, and Mark is the genius/personality that makes it all go. His weekly episodes, which feature news from the whisky world and interviews with industry folks, are an audible treat that I usually save up for my Sunday morning walk to church (whisky being as reverent an experience for me as worship, dontchaknow).

I tell you what, when I read that text, I had a small panic attack on the M14 bus. I knew Mark was going to be at the event and had hoped to meet him there, even just to briefly shake his hand and tell him what a fan I am. Now I was not only meeting the man, but drinking with him—and the potential for any number of embarrassments reared its head. What if I hated the whisky? What if I couldn’t articulate what I tasted? What if I just sounded dumb (a genuine concern for me since the first time I heard my voice recorded)?

There was no reason to worry. Mark is as friendly and generous in person as he sounds like on the podcast. And the tasting was just like any other, plus microphones, so I felt relaxed and at ease throughout. Together with G-LO and Max, some friends of Mark’s, and Ian Chang, Master Distiller at Kavalan, we sampled four beautiful whiskies: the aforementioned Brenne, an Invergordon single grain from That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Balcones Fifth Anniversary Texas Straight Bourbon, and Redbreast 12 yo Cask Strength. What a delight! It was like being back in Edinburgh, except this time I could blether about my thoughts to a much wider audience than just my husband. (Anyone who knows me can tell you that speaking my mind makes for a very gleeful Susannah indeed.)

With Mark Gillespie!

With Mark Gillespie!

Mark also shared a taste of Cleveland Whiskey which he reviewed a couple weeks ago on WhiskyCast. Dear God. The only thing I can compare it to is if you mixed paint thinner with dried blood in a rusty bucket. Nothing more need be said, amirite?

The thrill of taking part in an actual WhiskyCast (sort of) infused my evening with a happy glow. And the excitement wasn’t over! The other whisky luminary I’d hoped to meet was Davin de Kergommeaux, writer of Canadian Whisky and author of the book of the same name. Next month, I’ll be taking part in a series of mystery tastings based around Davin’s book and I’ve been getting a head start on reading and boy, am I learning A LOT. I know next to nothing about Canadian whisky and what I do know is, apparently, incorrect. This book reveals the truth behind common myths about Canadian whisky plus copious other information: the history of distilling in Canada, how Canadian stills work, flavor profiles found in Canadian whiskies, and more facts about grains and yeast than I ever thought I wanted to know. It’s awesome. I’m actually pulling out post-its on the subway to mark which passages I want to re-read and where I have questions.

At the end of the evening, I still hadn’t managed to track down Davin, but I knew he was there: a tell-tale stack of his books indicated that he’d come by before the night was over to pick them up. I waited around a bit and then spotted Peter Silver, who pointed Davin out just a few steps away. I bubbled over and introduced myself and shook hands and probably acted pretty foolish…But it was just the perfect end to the evening. Davin is so nice. I mean, nearly every whisky person is nice but he is absolutely the nicest because he’s Canadian. He signed my book and didn’t mind a bit how much I gushed. In all the excitement, I forgot to take a picture with him, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that I was  grinning like a kid on Christmas.

I pretty much floated home, that’s how great an evening it was. Because of the time I spent doing the Virtual Tasting, I didn’t sample nearly as many whiskies as I’d have liked—but the trade-off was definitely worth it. There will be more whisky events this year (another is coming up in just a few days) but even if I don’t make it to the rest, Whisky Live 2013 has left me quite content for now.

Tasting Notes: Bushmills Black Bush Head-to-Head

Photo 1

This review is part of a St. Patrick’s Day Flash Mob Blog effort. Scroll to the end for a list of all participating blogs.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t know much about Irish whiskey. It’s not the sort of thing one drinks when spending a year in Scotland. The Water of Life Society hosted a small tasting of Irish whiskies but only because our president was Irish—and I unfortunately missed out on that one. I’m pretty sure the only Irish whiskey I’ve tasted is Jameson—and that was long before I knew how to drink whisky, back in my days of shots and vomit.

So I’ve got some catching up to do when it comes to that other uisce beatha. What better time to start than in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day? The brilliant Canadian blogger and germinatrix of ideas Johanne McInnis of The Perfect Whisky Match suggested on Facebook that we—the whisky bloggers of the world—unite in the first-ever whisky blogging flash mob (first ever blogging flashmob in general?). We settled on St. Paddy’s as it gave focus in terms of whiskey type (Irish) and tie-in with an existing holiday. Bushmills Black Bush was selected as an easy-to-find (for most) and relatively inexpensive Irish whiskey, perfect for accommodating as many bloggers as possible. (A few folks couldn’t find Black Bush in their country or weren’t able to buy an entire bottle—ahem, that’d be me—and other bloggers generously sent samples of their own—ahem, that’d be the ever-gracious, kindest of the kind Joshua Feldman of The Coopered Tot. Just another day of friendliness and generosity in the Whisky Fabric!)

I enjoyed this tasting, then, because I started with a fresh slate. Inevitably, I compared my impressions to Scotch, but I tried hard to nose and taste sans expectations. This tasting was especially fun because I had two different expressions of Black Bush to try. Josh had an old bottle from the ’90s that he’d not drunk much of over the years, and handed it off to me for the project and “for shots when novice drinkers come over.” (I’ve had some disappointing experiences giving good whisky to rubes who shoot it back without a second thought. Sad face.) He also gave me a generous sampling of today’s Black Bush to taste side-by-side with the old stuff.

Were they different? Yes, and no. The flavor profiles had a lot in common but each emphasized different aspects.

Bushmills Black Bush (late 1990s expression)
Nose: Leather, mocha, apples, and lots of spice: cinnamon, allspice, cloves. A sweet vanilla note and light floral topnote, as well as fresh wood or pencil shavings.

Palate: Strong wood pervades throughout the duration of the flavor. Spice, especially black pepper, on the midpalate which fades disappointingly quickly. Slight sweetness and a surprising flash of banana along with more expected citrus. Overall, the oak overwhelmed the more interesting flavors in this dram.

Finish: Oak and more oak. A bare hint of lingering spice but not enough to suit me.

Bushmills Black Bush (contemporary expression)
Nose: Vanilla, cloves, apple bread, pears, cardamom, clean pencil shavings. Light, sweet, and fruity, with a slight mocha or chocolate undercurrent.

Palate: Sweet with vanilla and counterbalanced with oak. The most prominent spice is a gentle cinnamon bark, with baked apples and a hint of banana.

Finish: Again, lots of wood and not much else. There’s some dark chocolate (like unsweetened, 100% cacao) at the back of the tongue but otherwise, it disappoints.

Overall, I found that neither dram fulfilled what I enjoy most in a whisky, but I was glad for the chance to find that out for myself. My opinion wavered as to which I preferred. In the first round, the new stuff came out on top; but round two found me preferring the older version. Neither would be my post-dinner dram of choice, but the 1990s version made a lovely hot toddy, and I’ll surely keep the remainder of the bottle around for future mixing or cooking use.

Flash Mob Bloggers:

http://www.bestshotwhiskyreviews.com/search/label/Black%20Bush
http://misswhisky.com/2013/03/17/black-bush-whiskey-flash-blog/
http://whiskyisrael.co.il/2013/03/17/tasting-bushmills-black-bush-its-saint-paddy/
http://freakywhisky.ca/2013/03/17/bushmills-black-bush/
http://theperfectwhiskymatch.blogspot.ca/2013/03/guest-blogger-for-st-patricks-day.html
http://dramgoodtime.com/2013/03/17/bushmills-black-bush-review-flash-mob-style/
http://whisky-discovery.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/whisky-discovery-349.html
http://gjr71.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/bushmillsmb-flash-mob-tasting/
http://whiskyguyrob.com/whiskyguyblog/robby-oill-and-the-little-people/
http://whiskymeasure.com/714/reviews/bushmills-black-bush-review/
http://themaltdesk.blogspot.dk/2013/03/bushmills-black-bush-distillery-bottling.html
http://awardrobeofwhisky.com/bottle/bushmills-black-bush
http://www.tomswhiskyreviews.com/review.php?articleid=485
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ir0tNwjYahE&feature=youtu.be
http://boozedancing.wordpress.com/2013/03/17/st-patricks-day-flashmobblog-whiskey-review-bushmills-black-bush/
http://maltfascination.com/2013/03/17/bushmills-black-bush/
http://whiskygirl.nl/into-the-black-bush/
http://cocktailchem.blogspot.ca/2012/03/whiskey-for-st-patricks-day-bushmills.html
http://www.whiskyplus.ca/critiques/whisky-critiques/whiskey-whisky-critiques/bushmills-black-bush/
http://theperfectwhiskymatch.blogspot.ca/2013/03/st-patricks-day-bushmills-black-bushhe.html
http://www.connosr.com/reviews/bushmills/bushmills-black-bush/irish-top-blend/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3VDH9kAKKo

An Evening of Scotch & Chocolate

Photo 5

What’s better than a whisky tasting? A whisky tasting with chocolate.

The last time I attended a whisky event at the Morgan Library, it was hosted by Gordon & MacPhail and featured five of their independent bottlings plus a Benromach. Last Friday, Josh Feldman (aka writer of the Coopered Tot and personality extraordinaire) presented six unique whiskies coupled with stunning chocolates by Pacari. In a warm, inviting atmosphere, attendees softened chocolate between their fingers while learning from Francisco Vivar of Pacari about the origins and characteristics of each variety and from Josh about the whisky pairings. We nosed and sipped and tasted in various combinations (whisky first, then chocolate; now chocolate first and then whisky; now together!) to determine the impact on flavors resulting from each order. Surprisingly, it does matter which goes into your mouth first. Even simply placing the chocolate on your tongue, allowing it to melt a bit and then nosing the whisky can radically alter the evident dominant flavors.

Pacari is a company that seems relatively unknown to the average US consumer but has captured the spotlight of the chocolate world. Based in Ecuador (Pacari translates as “nature” in local language Quechua), they make 100% organic chocolate and adhere to “fair and equitable standards” of production while aiming to preserve traditional methods of cacao farming. The importance of this becomes clear when tasting Pacari’s different varieties of chocolate, several of whose unique flavors showcase the diversity of the local terroir. And all this isn’t just talk; Pacari really puts its money where your mouth is. The company is the first chocolate producer in the world to earn the Demeter Biodynamic Certification and, what’s more, Francisco’s sincerity and authenticity—he uttered not a word of industry jargon or marketing language—spoke volumes about Pacari’s confidence in their products. Indeed, with or without whisky, this chocolate shines.

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Clay, Allison, and I replacing evil with whisky

Joining me in flavor exploration were pastry chef/food writer Rebekah Pizanaauthor and chocolate expert Clay Gordon, and Allison Patel, Whisky Woman and producer of Brenne Single Malt. We formed a cozy little pack of nerds, exchanging notes and learning from each other throughout the evening. As I know next to nothing about chocolate (except that I enjoy it!), it was truly a privilege to taste alongside someone as knowledgeable as Clay and learn from his insights. It was also a treat to hang out with Allison—and even more so when Josh pulled out a bottle of Brenne to share with the room! For the unlucky (aka non-New Yorkers) who don’t yet have access to it, Brenne is a delicious, different kind of single malt produced in Cognac, France. It always surprises first-timers—even whisky connoisseurs—in a pleasant way and as other guests mobbed Allison to heap effusive praise on her whisky, the night culminated in a truly magical moment. Big ups to Josh for his perfect timing!

The night held other surprises too, not all of which I can reveal just yet. (Check back in a couple of months for something exciting that perfectly marries the realms of chocolate and spirits.) Clay generously shared some unique products with me—the beautiful 100% cacao Il Criollo by Domori, a bit of the ridiculously-addictive (and tragically not available for purchase) dried cacao fruit, and strangely awesome dark chocolate-covered, jalapeño-dusted corn nuts from Fruition Chocolate. (Yeah, corn nuts, I know—you have to try it to believe it.)

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but is worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Dried cacao fruit might not look appetizing, but it’s worlds ahead of your run-of-the-mill fruit leather.

Just as at the Gordon & MacPhail tasting, a comment from the evening perfectly reinforced the philosophy behind this blog, and behind my explorations of food and spirits in general. In the midst of the writers’ geekery over the pairings and our attempts to verbalize the tastes and feelings swirling around our palates and minds, Clay sagely intoned,

“You can take the whisky seriously. You can take the chocolate seriously. But you can’t take yourself seriously.”

How right he is. No matter what tone of “authority” I might take on this blog (and I do hope there’s not much of one), I earnestly believe that eating and drinking should be primarily about enjoyment. Tasting notes and philosophical rhapsodizing help me sort out the mechanics of food and drink, provide an outlet for my natural interest, and enable me to organize my emotional connections to the act of cooking, eating, and sharing. But I don’t have to deeply contemplate a dessert or compose an ode to a dram to enjoy it, fully and truly. In the end, what matters is the pleasure received from tasting what’s good, and that’s it.

All that being said, now I’m going to share my tasting notes. Ha!

Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or 12yo with Pacari Piura 70% Regional
The Piura chocolate is made from Peruvian white cacao beans and is an unprocessed as possible. By itself it had a strong fruitiness—notes of berry, cherry and green apple. Paired with the Glenmorangie (which displayed typical sherried notes of golden raisins on the nose and spiciness on the palate), the two produced a honeyed butterscotch flavor with the fruitiness coming out as peaches, and a hint of underlying white pepper.

Compass Box Hedonism with Pacari Lemongrass
My favorite combination of the evening, best taking the whisky first. Hedonism is an all-grain blend with a sweet nose of marshmallows and gorse flowers and a tropical palate full of coconut. Josh described it as a “500 thread count silk pillowcase” and it is, indeed, indulgent. With the chocolate, the citrus notes of the whisky came out in full force beside the lemongrass along with a crisp freshness—to me, spearmint—which lingered on the finish. As the whisky breathed (and as we tasted other chocolates), the gorse scent (some smelled it more as jasmine) became stronger and more developed and lingered sweetly.

GlenDronach “The Revival” 15 yo with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
Another sherried malt, the Revival gave off strong plum and raspberry notes on the nose and a palate of dried fruit, orange peel and a hint of hot paprika on the tip of the tongue. With the chocolate, strong gingerbread notes emerged which deepened both elements.

Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 42 with Pacari 65% Manabi Regional
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Aberlour and especially their A’bunadh series. Paired with this chocolate, the dram that displays some of the richest sherry notes I’ve tasted takes on an earthiness entirely new to me. The familiar cooked fruits now seemed roasted rather than stewed—bolder and more complex. This was one of the most interesting combinations of the night, as the chocolate and the whisky completely changed each other.

Ardbeg Uigeadail with Pacari Salt & Nibs
The pink salt in this chocolate comes from Cuzco, where people dig ponds, fill them with water, and let the water evaporate, leaving this salt behind. Ardbeg, an Islay whisky, also incorporates parts of the earth where it’s made, displaying characteristic peatiness. Together, these two elements created a total explosion of salt and peat: dissonant at first, but which soon mellowed to a sweet, honeyed harmonization. A very fun combination, especially since this was one of the few chocolates we were encouraged to chew (the “nibs” being little bits of the cacao bean).

Balcones Brimstone with Pacari Fig
By this point, I was so caught up in the general atmosphere of excitement (this was right after Josh produced the Brenne and the whole room went wild), I neglected to take very comprehensive notes. As you might have guessed, the chocolate contained chewy little niblets of fig. Its sweet fruitiness married nicely with Brimstone’s uniquely smoky profile, achieved via Texas scrub oak (whatever that is—tastes sort of, but not really, like mesquite). It was like drinking a barbecue sandwich topped with fig preserves—and therefore awesome. The Brimstone also paired fabulously with the aforementioned corn nuts, leaving me in a state of near-delirium and joy.

PS—Read Allison’s beautiful take on the evening here

The Jewel of the Village: East Ville des Folies

Photo 42

The last time I attended a spirits-fueled theme event, the focus was murder, mayhem, and a roving cast of characters straight out of Dickens. This past weekend, mayhem and characters (sans murder) abounded in a Prohibition-esque party held at Webster Hall, infamously publicized as a former speakeasy run by Al Capone (well, there’s the murder, I suppose). East Ville des Folies seeks to become an annual event celebrating “rare Whiskeys and Beers from around the world” while immersing its guests in “the culture of the original burlesque hall as it was at the turn of the century”.

The jazz was swinging as scantily-clad ladies sporting feathered headpieces beckoned on the dance floors. I headed for the whiskey first, finding a wide selection from Highland Park, The Famous Grouse, Four Roses, Woodford Reserve, and others. As always at these sorts of the things, the ambience didn’t lend itself to properly tasting each separate dram, but I was at least able to weed out the dreadful from the exceptional. (On the former category, I’ll keep silent; on the latter, I’ll point out Whistlepig Rye as a new favorite and the ever-reliable Balblair—represented here with the 1989, 1991, and 2001 editions—as consistently pleasing.)

Three Roses

Three roses at Four Roses

Having exhausted my companion with spirituous refreshment, I moved on to the beer floors, which were far more crowded. Was it just that more people had arrived by that point, or that the demographics of ticket-buyers skewed towards beer lovers? No idea, but it was pretty rough. I managed to taste a few new-to-me brews such as Leinenkugel’s Vanilla Porter (no joke on the vanilla), Curious Traveler Shandy (I’m not a shandy drinker, and I liked it), the range of Full Sails (excellent, each one) and Moa Breakfast, a New Zealand “blend of premium wheat malt, floral Nelson hops and cherries” that, I’m sorry to say, tasted of Dimetapp. Sadly, the Crabbie’s table was all out by the time I got there; but luckily, Williams Brothers was still pouring Fraoch Heather Ale, one of the tastes I miss most from Scotland.

Photo 25

Swingin’ jazz set the tone of the affair.

With four floors of tasting tables, music, and more, this event certainly gave bang for the buck. I loved all the bands (and the phonograph DJs), and the entertainment, which included stilt-walkers, a photo booth I never managed to get to, and an aerialist, definitely wowed me. I had great fun exploring the nooks and dark corners of Webster Hall, too, especially with new drinks to try at every turn. Touting the some of the beers and whiskies served as “rare” might have misled some folks, though at $40 a ticket I’m sure no one expected Pappy Van Winkle. The selection, especially some of the beers, was unique, if not so difficult to find that I’d call it “rare”.

In short, East Ville des Folies provided three solid hours of booze-tastic entertainment and—in a truly “rare” turn for New York—was incredibly affordable. The event sold out, which means with any luck it’ll return next year. I’m already looking forward to donning some beads and feathers, springing for the early-access VIP ticket, and finally getting my shot at the photo booth.

Mulled Wine with Whisky

I have always wondered why Christmas has to come at the beginning of the long winter rather than somewhere later on. Wouldn’t it be better for us to have something to look forward to during the long dark nights and bitterly brief days? Why kick off such a depressing season with our biggest to-do of the year? I mostly ask these questions because all the Christmas goodies would be so much more appreciated on say, January 28, when the cold winds are howling and the snow is piling up, than now, when it’s barely gotten cold enough in New York City for me to break out my awesome new Betsey Johnson coat.

Then again, who says we can’t have holiday treats outside the holidays? I’ve had so little time for baking this month that I anticipate making some of my favorite seasonal delights long after the gifts have been unwrapped, simply because I can’t wait another year to have them. Likewise with this mulled wine: it’s too delicious and, frankly, too perfect for chasing away the chill of winter to limit to one month of this long season. So I plan to make it again and again until the trees start budding and I can move on to that warm-weather wine punch, sangria.

This recipe is great because you can play around with all of it. Don’t like Syrah? Use another red wine. Don’t like red wine? Use white. Adjust the spices, sweetness, and flavorings to your taste. Leave out the whisky if you prefer, or use brandy, rum, or schnapps. Try adding other fruits, like cherries or pears. In short, go wild! Experiment and taste often. Mulled wine is a crowd-pleaser and excellent for parties because a) it’s cheap and b) you can make a big batch all in one go. (Pro tip: Keep it hot throughout an event on the “warm” setting in a slow cooker.) You can also make it ahead of time and store in the fridge for up to a week. In fact, I recommend making extra so you can let it macerate for a day or two and come back to it after a busy workday—time improves the depth and complexity, for sure.

Be warned: the smell of this simmering will intoxicate your brain even before you take your first sip! Prepare for a languorous evening and have bon bons on hand to complete the feeling of indulgence.

Mulling spices

Mulling spices: cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fresh ginger.

Mulled Wine with Whisky

Ingredients:
1 bottle of cheap Syrah (like Trader Joe’s Three Buck Chuck) or other red wine
2 Tbs. fresh ginger, peeled and thin sliced
1 orange or lemon, peeled and segmented (reserve half the peel)
3 cinnamon sticks
1/2 tsp. whole cloves
3 cardamom pods
3 Tbs. honey
1/4 cup whisky (I used Brenne, a beautiful new single malt whisky aged in French oak and finished in Cognac casks. Its light, fruity sweetness marries nicely with the wine.)

Directions:

Combine all ingredients and heat just to a simmer. Barely simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes. Taste, adjust, enjoy.

An Evening with Gordon & MacPhail

Photo 10

Although it’s been nearly two months since Hurricane Sandy devastated many parts of New York, the city is still trying to pick itself up.* While clean-up and rebuilding will go on for months, other activities have resumed with the typical get-up-and-get-on-with-it attitude ingrained in most New Yorkers. Although a lot of events were interrupted by the storm, with some even being canceled, the inaugural whisky tasting at The Morgan Library & Museum went on as planned five weeks late. (And fortunately for me, the lovely and incredibly busy Allison Patel of Brenne passed on her ticket when another obligation kept her from going. Merci bien, Allison!)

The evening promised to be special just for the setting itself. If you’ve never visited, the Morgan is a repository of fine art and literature mixed with other rotating exhibitions; an archive of priceless artifacts, documents, and antiquities; and a truly unique architectural amalgam comprising J.P. Morgan’s purpose-built library/study, his son Jack’s family home, and a soaring modern space designed by Renzo Piano tying it all together. In a city chock-full of beautiful buildings, it has taken my breath away more than once. I am mostly serious about my desire to move into the East Room (a room lined floor-to-ceiling with books, with two hidden staircases to access them).

This is a safe. A safe of books.

This is a safe. A safe of books.

The tasting was held in the less fragile  Morgan Dining Room and introduced by none other than the Coopered Tot himself, Josh Feldman, who works at the Morgan. I was meeting Josh for the first time but any nervousness I might have felt was easily dispelled by his hospitality and relaxed personality. Together with Malt Maniac Peter Silver and Kate Massey, the Whiskey Dame, we enjoyed some amazing drams and good conversation with the enthusiastic guidance of Chris Riesbeck from Gordon & MacPhail who led the tasting.

The assortment of drams represented six different distilleries from all over Scotland. I enjoyed them all, and a few really stood out.

Connoisseurs Choice Clynelish 11 yo
Nose: Cherries, currants, sugar and hints of tangy smoke

Palate: An initial peppery whack slips in luscious rich fruit–cherry, apple–and a tinge of cloves.

Finish: Fades gently to a final fruity (melon? grape?) note.

Connoisseurs Choice Jura 12 yo
Nose: Brine and light peat with lots of kale and cucumber and a sharp spicy note.

Palate: Thick and chewy–eggplant and beans. The heavy spice lingers throughout.

Finish: After such an intense initial flavor and mouthfeel, the finish is surprisingly light and quite balanced, with the spice carrying through all the way to the end.

Old Pulteney 21 yo Exceptional.
Nose: Salt and brine–very much the sea in a bottle. Also some hard fruits–apple, pear.

Palate: Strong initial spice with vanilla and cinnamon too. Slightly thick and lovely, retaining the saltiness of the nose.

Finish: A lingering heat.

Benromach 10 yo
Nose: Peat, mint and watercress–very fresh despite the smoke.

Palate: Plenty of smoke, some baked bread, but that fresh note shines.

Finish: Didn’t note.

Imperial Port Finish 15 yo Exceptional.
Nose: Beautiful fruits, a total feast for the nose of grapes, cherries, and plums.

Palate: Full of fig jam and cherries, cherries, cherries. A beautiful, rich, indulgent dram.

Finish: On and on and on with fruit to the end.

Caol Ila 11 yo Cask Strength Exceptional.
Nose: As to be expected, smoke, salt, and brine with some vanilla sugar.

Palate: Packs a wallop but manages to maintain an even keel of sweetness and brine — incredible with a few drops of water.

Finish: Didn’t note, probably because I was too deep in the whisky at this point and enjoying this dram far too much.

Ready to review

Tasting toolkit

In sum, I drammed myself silly and so, it seemed, did everyone else. I also came away with a renewed passion for what I do and why. Chris said something in the course of the evening that resonated quite deeply with me and, frankly, the whole philosophy behind this blog.

“Whisky,” he declared, “should be what tastes right.” You shouldn’t feel that you have to put water in it–or that you don’t. Ignore the people who try to tell you how to drink. Like what you like–there isn’t a right or wrong way to drink whisky (or to drink, or eat, anything!).

To that I say, amen! Life is too short to eat (or drink) poorly.

*If you want to help New Yorkers rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, consider volunteering at NYC Service or donating to Occupy Sandy, Waves for Water, or another charity.

MUfLT, Part Four: Highland Park Distillery

One of the best parts of living in Scotland for a year was the chance to travel to far-flung, isolated pockets of natural beauty, ancient civilization, and whisky. Although we planned our mini-tour of Speyside with a deliberate whisky focus, Sunjay and I spent the bulk of our final holiday in Scotland exploring Orkney and Shetland. These archipelagos off the north of Scotland each have their own unique culture and personality, and I could write for a month about our experiences without being able to fully express how special these places are. If you ever get the chance, I urge you to visit, giving yourself plenty of time to get comfortable in the stark landscape and to take all the narrow, twisting dirt roads that beckon. And, if you visit Orkney, you cannot miss touring the UK’s most northerly distillery, Highland Park. (Scapa, the other distillery on Orkney, lies slightly south and is unfortunately not open for tours since it is staffed by a veritable skeleton crew of three.)

Dates of various builds and rebuilds.

As with Glen Moray, I had never tasted Highland Park before visiting. To be honest, I’d always gotten the impression that Highland Park must be overrated: it has slick (or at least really nice) marketing, it sells several multi-thousand dollar expressions, and, well, people talk of it in hushed tones. I’m always a bit skeptical when that particular trifecta happens — I have often been disappointed when tasting “the best” of anything according to someone else, especially if I know the packaging and the marketing has played into it. And why not be skeptical? Everyone has their own preferences. In fact, I met an Aussie geologist on Shetland who had drunk the local pub out of everything BUT Highland Park because she couldn’t stand it.

I go on the record here to say, however, that Highland Park lives up to everything I’ve ever heard about it. And their distillery makes for an interesting visit to boot.

Floor maltings.

Although, unlike Balvenie, Highland Park does not do all their maltings on site, they do process a portion of their barley the traditional way, on the floor for several days, periodically turned by hand. They also dry some of their barley partially over a peat fire; the rest comes from the mainland and is totally unpeated. This is because Highland Park have their own peat bog on Orkney, where they dig and dry exclusively. If you don’t think the origin of peat makes a difference, taste Highland Park and any Islay malt side-by-side. I don’t know the chemistry behind it, but I’m willing to bet that the factors that go into the formation of peat over thousands of years make quite a difference to its flavor and character. The different environments and local flora of Orkney versus Islay versus any other parts of Scotland surely have an impact.

Silent kiln.

Highland Park keeps a distillery pig. No, it doesn’t eat the barley and in fact it lacks any porcine features. It’s just a rubber ball, the kind you might use for dodgeball, that they shove into the draff pipe when it gets clogged. (The draff is the barley that’s left after all the delicious stuff has been squeezed out in the mash tuns. It’s usually sold or given to local farmers as cattle feed. Lucky cows!) I’m guessing other distilleries have a pig too, but this was the first time I’d seen one.

Mash tuns and washbacks.

The guide talked quite a bit about the distillery’s dedication to sherry casks. In fact, most of Highland Park’s spirit ends up in much-less-expensive bourbon casks, with a marriage of both bourbon and sherry before final bottling. This is a marked improvement over the old days when Highland Park would use just about any wooden cylinder they could get their hands on to age their spirit — including, it has been recorded, herring barrels! Thank goodness they’ve standardized things a bit since then, although I was surprised to find out that Highland Park has only been operating with codified recipes and procedures since the late 80s or so. Before then, things were done a bit more casually, it seems. So today’s 50 year old will likely vary quite a bit from the 50 year old of 2032. Then again, who knows where the industry will be then?

Showing off the cask.

Although the tasting at Highland Park was the smallest of the week, it may have been the most satisfying. Each drop was better than the last, even when I lingered on the same expression. This was the only distillery where I couldn’t overcome the temptation to buy a bottle (though it was just a wee one).

Highland Park 12 yo
Nose: Grape, fresh cherry, bit of raisin and light caramel.

Palate: Smooth with a bit of a pleasant burn but balanced, especially with water.

Finish: Smoke and peat, short and satisfying.

Highland Park 15 yo
Nose: Vanilla and ginger; with water, brown sugar and coffee cake.

Palate: Warm, smooth, black pepper; rounded out with a drop of water.

Finish: Same peatiness as the 12 yo but longer.

Highland Park 18yo
Nose: Brine and kelp with a high sweet note at the top.

Palate: Spicy and warm, sweet and salty, with a lingering sweetness just tinged with smoke.

Finish: Again, signature peat smoke that lingers on the lips and tongue. Just superb.

Highland Park has been named “the best spirit in the world” twice. You may not agree, and that’s fine. But if you haven’t yet tasted it, I can only say, Believe the hype! And get thee to a bar ASAP to verify.

MUfLT, Part Three: Glen Moray Distillery

As I munch autumn pears in the cool breeze of a near-October evening, it seems slightly incongruous to recall the glorious summer’s day — the kind that makes you forget the rest of the abominably cold and wet summer’s days — that I visited Glen Moray. The previous day’s dramming at Aberlour and Balvenie had prepared me for the all-too-rare combination of whisky and sunshine, but this day’s pace was less frenetic, its agenda much more open, plus I’d had a full night’s sleep and a proper breakfast. The relaxed style of tour at Glen Moray, then, felt fitting.

Grain mills

Besides me and Sunjay, there were only two other people on our tour in addition to our guide and a trainee guide. The 2-to-1 guide ratio allowed us to wander through and take photos at our own pace, as one guide could lead the way while the other waited to bring up the rear. (As at Aberlour and Balvenie, Glen Moray was in the middle of silent season and so we could take photos throughout the distillery.)

Glen Moray stills – dusting on the to-do list

The whole tour was fascinating but laid back, lacking canned marketing speak and instead more like a dialogue with the guides offering local knowledge and fun facts. For instance, one guide pointed out a road winding through the distillery grounds which was the original way into Elgin and over which Macbeth, among others, is said to have travelled. The road also happened to pass a wee cottage where the excise man used to live — yes, on site! I’m sure today’s excise men are quite disappointed this is no longer the case.

Watching spirit age > watching paint dry

By far the best part of this tour, and most tours, was the warehouse. Here I learned that distilleries throughout Scotland (and presumably elsewhere?) swap casks every so often, storing each others’ aging spirit in their respective warehouses. This is done as a precaution in case some unforeseen disaster — a fire, for instance — were to wipe out the stocks of the distillery on-site: at least there would still be something left in the other locations. Glen Moray have also put transparent lids on some of their casks, allowing one to observe the color of the spirit as it ages as well as its dissipation, the fabled “angels’ share” which evaporates through the porous wood year by year.

Sniff, sniff!

The distillery folks have done another clever thing: setting out different kinds of casks on their sides and allowing visitors to remove the bung and smell the spirit within. (I think I’m sniffing a port finish here.) Although I am pretty familiar with the different aroma profiles of various casks and finishes, it was enormous fun to go from cask to cask and inhale each in turn, especially with the pervasive curtain of general whisky-scent hanging all around me.

Oh yes, it’s dram o’clock.

After the tour, of course, we proceeded to the tasting. I hadn’t previously tasted Glen Moray, so every dram interested me. The guide gamely offered the 8, 12, and 16 year olds, and then allowed us to sample other, less common expressions. While the 16 yo seemed to me exceptional for a standard expression, the Chenin Blanc finish sticks in my mind. I regret not having the space to buy a bottle at the time.

Glen Moray Classic (8 yo)
Nose: Light, citrus-y — plenty of lemon, and some hay.

Palate: Very easy to drink with classic bourbon notes of vanilla and a wee bit of spice.

Finish: Quite short with very little spice, but satisfying.

Glen Moray 12yo
Nose: Cherry, ginger, and a bit of a fruit bowl.

Palate: Overwhelmingly bitter at the back of the palate — I didn’t note anything else.

Finish: Short. (I must not have liked this one much, I wrote next to nothing!)

Glen Moray 16yo
Nose: Toffee, brown sugar, rich stewed fruits.

Palate: Incredibly smooth, with lots of chocolate and ginger notes.

Finish: Light and delicate, but lingering.

Glen Moray Chenin Blanc 2003 (Cask no. 1839)
Nose: Chocolate and toffee — very rich. Opens up with water to include crème brulée.

Palate: At cask strength, lots of dark chocolate, bitter orange and black currants. With a few drops of water, it takes on a lighter character with more lemon and orange.

Finish: I didn’t note the finish — but I noted how much I liked this particular expression!

Glen Moray 1995 Port Wood Finish
Nose: Cherries, plums, chocolate.

Palate: Dark chocolate, oak and bitter orange.

Finish: Not noted.

Two thumbs up to Glen Moray for providing a true five-senses experience! I’m looking forward to further enjoyment of this distillery’s whisky as it becomes more widely available in the US.

Bonus photo: what they do with old casks in Speyside.