A Visit to Balblair Distillery

I’ve been a fan of Balblair since the first time I tasted the 2001 vintage a few years ago. It’s a very ur–Highland malt, embodying all the flavors and textures idealized in the style, and because the brand tends to … Continue reading

The Jewel of the Village: East Ville des Folies

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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.

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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.

Tasting Notes: Water of Life Society Annual General Meeting

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The other night, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society held its Annual General Meeting and final (formal) tasting of the academic year. Knowing we would all be on the brink of depression over the summer hiatus — for some of us, the forever hiatus as we leave Edinburgh — the committee selected a cracking line up of truly superb drams, each member getting one selection which made for an unthemed but nevertheless delicious tasting.

Balblair 2001
Balblair doesn’t do age statements, opting instead for vintages. This one was probably bottled in 2010 or 2011.

Nose: Very light and subtle with both toffee and caramel, brown butter, hay. Deepened to include chocolate notes after some time.

Palate: Incredibly smooth and balanced — nothing too complex here but still an enjoyable whisky to roll around a bit on the tongue.

Finish: Like everything else, very subtle. A perfect starter dram to the evening.

Blair Athol y.o. 12 Flora and Fauna
Nose: Lots of desserts here: caramel shortbread, sticky toffee pudding, some light marshmallow notes and something green I couldn’t put my finger on at first — perhaps watercress?

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose would have me believe; mainly nutty and a bit leathery with, yes, a hint of watercress.

Finish: Spicy, short, and satisfying. This was my favorite dram of the evening.

Cadenhead’s 15 y.o. single cask (Ord distillery)
One assumes that by Ord they mean Glen Ord…?

Nose: The first thing I thought was, This smells like a granola bar! And indeed, there’s lots of toasted oats and honey.

Palate: Spiciness hit me like a swarm of bees, but once that settled down I got dark plum with some bits of apricot and nice heavy oak. Adding a drop of three of water allowed the fruity notes to really blossom.

Finish: I neglected to note the finish but from what I remember it was quite lengthy and rich.

SMWS 26.77 “Church Pews and Hymn Books” (Clynelish 27 y.o.)
Nose: I didn’t get the name from the nose at all. To me it was a meadow of sun-warmed wildflowers, with hints of vanilla and some sea-saltiness.

Palate: Here I did get some mustiness of old books and dark wood, but also lemon and rosemary, some other light fruits as well.

Finish: Again, no notes, but it continued in the same fashion as the palate. The dram as a whole definitely improved in balance and depth with water.

Good things come in threes.

Mortlach 16 y.o.
I recently had the 15 year old and found its older brother to be worlds apart in terms of nose and taste. I much prefer this one.

Nose: Quite briny with a bit of cream soda and very light orange — almost Irn Bru-y, come to think of it.

Palate: Lots of cherry and other dried fruit; some vague hints of cough syrup, but not unpleasant.

Finish: Warm and slightly spicy.

Kilchoman 4 1/2 y.o.
Nose: Smoke, brine, and gorse — very pleasant indeed.

Palate: Quite peaty, naturally, with some oatcake and, oddly enough, green lentil. I also got some nice spearmint notes and plenty of oak.

Finish: Still nicely smoky/peaty and not heavy. A really nice final dram to the evening.

During the meeting we conducted business, like electing a new committee for next year, and also held an auction — timed towards the end of the night, as we were all quite steamin’ — for WaterAid. Although I’d have liked to pick up several of the lovely bottles up for auction (like the Wemyss Honey Harvest or a liter of The Dalmore 15 y.o.), I had to think  of luggage restrictions — and all the other bottles I have to take home in August — so I contented myself with one bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street, a fantastic blend which seems to be rapidly growing in popularity.

I’m trying not to think about leaving Edinburgh and WOLS, overwhelmed as I am with work, school, and wedding planning; but when it does cross my mind that there will be no more Thursday night meetings, no more silly banter, no more opportunities to taste amazing whiskies with awesome people at an insanely low price — I feel a little ache, one I’m certain will deepen over time.

One of my biggest personal flaws is my inability to live in the moment, my tendency to feel nostalgic for things before they’ve even passed, but this time, I think it’s warranted.

Thanks for an incredible year, WOLS. Slàinte!