Whisky Wind-down, 15: Rhymes With Nothing

An opened 100-ml bottle of Glenmorangie Original (10YO) stands in front of a Glenmorangie tasting set gift box, the contents of which are obscured. Nearby, a Glencairn glass stands filled with whisky.

Today’s dram: Glenmorangie, The Original, 10-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: The aroma is floral, as a field of wildflowers on a breezy day, when their honeyed nectar was just disturbed by passing bees.

The whisky is smooth and soft on the palate, its flavors so subtle as to seem diluted. It reminds me of nothing so much as a liquified citrus sorbet.

This is the mildest Scotch whisky I can recall trying. It’s barely there.

Today’s thoughts: Speaking of “recall trying,” I’ve had this one before, several years ago, before I had really immersed myself into an appreciation of Scotch whisky.

A friend, made through our mutual interest in hitting one another with sticks, invited me to a Scotch whisky tasting party at his home. I don’t recall much of what was on offer that evening, but I do remember Glenmorangie was there. In fact, it is the only whisky I recall for certain; that’s the benefit of a distinctive name, I guess.

Today’s note on the future: This is one of four bottles I received in a Glenmorangie tasting gift set. What else is in there? I’ll tell you later. I’ll probably also explain that “hitting one another with sticks” reference. Probably.

Today’s toast: To the poets, who know rhyming is usually the least difficult part.

Whisky Wind-down, 16: Festive Midpoint Mistletoe

A bottle of cask-strength Maker's Mark bourbon, adorned with mistletoe, sit alongside a filled glass. In the background, a cat tree bears Christmas lights.

Today’s dram: Maker’s Mark, Cask Strength, Batch 15-04 (bottled at 110.4 proof)

Today’s educational preamble to the tasting notes: Bourbon, as you may recall, is whisky made from at least 51% corn, aged on new charred oak barrels, and … well that’s the essential information.

(It must be made in the States, and there’s some math about distillation alcohol percentages, as well as more math for barreling, bottling, and settling, but I majored in English to avoid a lot of complex numbers, so we’ll stick to the simple but nonetheless important ones.)

Let’s talk about that 51% corn requirement. That’s the minimum, but some distillers use much more in their mash bill.* Corn adds most of the sweetness in bourbon, so most mash bills use quite of bit of corn, plus malted barley, topped with a bit of rye.

A few,** however, diverge and use wheat in place of rye. These bourbons, of which Maker’s Mark is one, tend to have less pronounced spice or “bite” to them.

Apart from the mash bill, the major influence on what comes out of the barrel is how that barrel itself is treated over the years. Say, for example, you took two barrels filled from the same mash bill and aged them both for seven years. One, however, you left in place at the very top of the rickhouse, several stories up in the warmer air, while the other you left at ground level, subject to more cooler temperatures. Seven years later, these would be different bourbons with different flavor profiles.

A lot of distilleries do this, and they sell several different bourbons. The Jim Beam Distillery,*** for instance, produces a couple dozen varieties, aside from the namesake. Barrels from the top floors of their rickhouses might end up blended as Knob Creek; meanwhile, barrels from the ground floor end up as Basil Hayden’s.****

Meanwhile, down the road at Star Hill Farm, the folks who make Maker’s Mark bourbon don’t make two dozen brands. With a few variations, they make only Maker’s Mark. They use one mash bill, and all barrels start their life on the ninth floor of a rickhouse. After a year or so, when the master taster judges them ready, these young barrels are brought down to the eighth floor. And so on and so forth. By the time each barrel rolls out at ground level, it has had a pretty similar journey to its peers.

“Pretty similar” is an important distinction here. Within any particular run, there will be minor variations from barrel-to-barrel, but the overall vibe is such that, when blended, the final product is consistent from year-to-year. However, an especially interesting variation may catch the master distiller’s eye — er, palate — and end up flagged to be sold as part of a small batch variation, or, oh-to-be-the-lucky-one, a single-barrel bottling.

What else?

Oh, right. Bottling strength. For the most part, after blending the various barrels, the batch will be diluted to bourbon’s traditional 90 proof (or, perhaps, a slightly higher or lower proof to which a particular bourbon is made).

Now and then, the distillers will decide to honor us with a little something special, and they’ll sell a batch at cask strength, undiluted as it came off the wood: strong, pure, bourbon as nature intended.

Today I’m drinking one of those.

Today’s tasting notes: The aroma on this one is something else. It’s, as you might expect, a stronger version of the regular Maker’s Mark aroma — rich, sweet, inviting — and you start noticing it before even bringing the glass up to sip. It’s big, bold, beautiful, and, despite the high proof, there is little discernible alcohol burn on it. Even if you stick your nose right down and inhale deeply, it’s just a big, sweet, friendly aroma. Oh, I love it.

The flavor is an intense version of the regular stuff — warm, on the sweet side, and barely any burn, even at 110.4 proof.

Dangerously drinkable.

Today’s thoughts: I owe this bottle to attention to detail.

Over the years, my family has gradually become accustomed to my “hobby” of whisky tasting (and the associated writings that arise therefrom).

During last year’s Christmas shopping season, while he happened to be out at a nearby military base exchange store, my dad saw this. The words “cask strength” clicked in his mind in association with words I’d written, so he bought it and gifted it to me.

Good call, Dad.

I’ve been hanging onto it for a year now, waiting to include it in this year’s Whisky Wind-down. Sure, I could have opened it earlier, with the intention to save some for now, but … open bottles of bourbon have a tendency to disappear around The Empress of Whisky.

I’m not saying she would steal from her most loyal subject, but there is a troubling “evaporation rate” in her presence. Must be a body chemistry thing.

Today’s note on festive bourbon decorations: You probably noticed the mistletoe. That was a holiday greeting from the distillery. Why is Maker’s Mark sending me a holiday greeting? A few years ago, when we toured there, The Empress and I signed up to be part of the Maker’s Mark Ambassadors.

Aside from adding us to its Christmas card list, the distillery put our names on a barrel of bourbon that is currently winding its way down the racks in a rickhouse at Star Hill Farm. When it finishes, we’ll get a call to attend a bottling ceremony and the chance to purchase a unique bottle from that single barrel. Cool, eh?

Today’s toast: To the seasons, let them turn, turn, turn … white dog into bourbon.

—–

* — “Mash bill” is distiller-talk for “recipe.” It’s expressed as percentages (by weight) of each type of grain that goes into the brew kettle. And, while you’re here, “rackhouse” is just a bastardized spelling/pronunciation of “rickhouse,” which is just what Kentuckyians call a warehouse full of racks for storing bourbon.

** — Okay, more than a few, if you want to get into some of the newer permutations of bourbon. Since the only legal requirement is the 51% corn, you could go nuts and use any other grain for the rest. But your established bourbon-makers are content to focus on variations of the classic corn/barley/rye or corn/barley/wheat blends. Subtle changes in those ratios can make a big difference, before you even get to variations in wood char, aging times, aging conditions. Put simply, master bourbon makers don’t need to play with weird grains to set themselves apart.

*** — The distillery itself, as distinct from its parent company, Beam Suntory, which is the owner of many other brands including — surprise! — Maker’s Mark. I can’t say I’m a fan of corporate conglomerates in a general sense, but in the specific case of Beam Suntory, I have to give the company credit for allowing its disparate holdings to operate in whatever fashion has proved historically viable to their success, with little interference from the top.

**** — Disclaimer: These are brands owned by Beam Suntory and made at Jim Beam Distillery. The floor levels I describe are, however, just made-up examples. Knob Creek might actually be a mid-floor bourbon, while Basil Hayden’s is top. The process is otherwise as described.

Whisky Wind-down, 17: Void

Today’s dram: None.

Today’s tasting notes: None.

Today’s thoughts: Some days, it hurts to think. On those days, it may or may not hurt to drink. Sometimes, when you stare into the Abyss, it stares back. Other times, the Abyss would just like to know how you’re doing, catch up a bit, put lunch on the calendar.

Today’s bit of honesty: It isn’t always difficult. Just often. Too often. Even accomplishing the joyful things becomes difficult, in this theoretically most joyful month.

Today’s toast: To all who struggle; struggle on.

Whisky Wind-down, 18: Love and Lightsabers

A Star Wars stein sits on a mantle beside a bottle of 12-year-old Glenkinchie whisky.

Today’s dram: Glenkinchie, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: Dunno. Haven’t tasted it yet.

Today’s thoughts: I love Star Wars.

Since I wrote about that life-long affection a year ago, I’ll focus on something else this time.

The salient point to bring forward is: I waited 32 years* to know what happened to those beloved characters. When The Force Awakens hit theaters two years ago, I was anxious as hell about seeing it, wanting to have hope, but fearing another heartbreak a la The Trilogy of Which We Do Not Speak.

I left that theater feeling renewed hope for the future. Of Star Wars, anyway.

Last year’s Rogue One was also good, but my excitement for a prequel, even a good one, will never match my interest in the futures of Luke, Leia, R2, Threepio, Chewie … and Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8.

Tonight The Empress of Whisky and I see The Last Jedi.

She enjoys the films, and we have had tremendous fun at the last two opening night events, but there is, shall we say, an enthusiasm gap. She would, for instance, be happy waiting as long as tomorrow(!) to see this film.

But she indulges me, even when, as it so happens tonight, the occasion falls on, for example, our anniversary.

Twelve years she’s been indulging me. That’s pretty good, no?

In celebration of which she gave me the whisky above, which is as old as our relationship. Pretty good thinking there. We’ll open the bottle tonight, at home, and discuss the movie over a dram.

Happy dozen, love!

Today’s note on sharing: I think it’s worth considering just how much better life is because we’re in it together. I do, in fact, consider this all the time.

Today’s toast: To my love: May the Force be with you, always. Me, too.

—–

* — If you want to be picky — and really, what Star Wars fan isn’t, to some degree? — I waited 32 years and seven months between the release of Return of the Jedi (May 1983) and the release of The Force Awakens (December 2015). That’s a long time with no Star Wars.**

** — No Star Wars. Nope. You imagined that other trilogy. You must have been on a bender. Bad you.

Whisky Wind-down, 19: Depths

A bottle of Bruichladdich Port Charlotte whisky and a filled Glencairn glass sit alongside a small tentacled box, on a table in front of a painting in which a long black line dangles over a dark blue background.

Today’s dram: Bruichladdich, Port Charlotte

Today’s brief preamble to the tasting notes: Here’s the last of the Bruichladdich tasting pack. After setting itself apart as the lone Islay distillery to make unpeated whisky, Bruichladdich decided to show it can make ’em with peat, too.

Named after the village that lies two miles from the distillery, Port Charlotte is Bruichladdich’s first (but not only) entry into the classic Islay whisky profile.

Today’s tasting notes: It smells like sea wind blowing over a bog. It tastes like water drawn from said bog, first poured over a dead campfire. This is dirty, rough whisky, and I would not advise it for anyone not already into peaty Scotch whisky.

Today’s thoughts: I rather enjoy the sea. Not as seen from a beach. Not with people about. Not in summer. Give me the rough, rocky Atlantic in winter, a sea into which I can stare and imagine the great squid god lying below, waiting to rise.

Today’s wish list notation: As I mentioned, this is the third of three whisky varieties in a Bruichladdich tasting pack. The distillery makes a fourth, “super heavily peated” variety, named Octomore. As a fan of cephalopods and peaty whisky, I need a bottle.

Today’s toast: To the sea, and every wonder within.

Whisky Wind-down, 20: Barley is a Vegetable

Today’s dram: Bruichladdich, Islay Barley

Today’s less rambling preamble to the tasting notes: I’m still on the Bruichladdich tasting pack I mentioned yesterday. Here’s another example of unpeated whisky from the distillery, but this one’s a bit … different.

As I said, there was a 20-something page booklet accompanying this trio of whiskies, most of which focused on the philosophy of the distillery. Along in there was something of a screed explicating the Bruichladdich credo: “We believe terroir matters.”

Terroir, if you’re not familiar, is a French term whose literal translation is “earth,” but whose meaning is wrapped up in the belief that the land upon which a crop is grown has a unique and inextricable effect upon the final product. If you’ve heard the term, it was likely in relation to wine-making, where long-accepted wisdom is that the land has a huge effect on the grapes grown upon it, which is an important — or the important — factor upon the wine produced from them.

The concept goes beyond wine, though. Within the ranks of the producers of virtually any crop — coffee, various vegetables, cannabis(!) — you’ll find a contingent that claims terroir matters.

Whether this is science, marketing, or merely a delusion beneath which people who paid too much for their land operate, depends who you ask.

If you ask the folks at Bruichladdich, they’ll tell you it matters that they buy all the barley used for their whisky directly from farmers on Islay.

For this one, which is a bit of a peculiar bottling not part of the regular range, they used barley from a trio of Islay farms grown in 2008, distilled in 2009, and bottled in 2016.*

Today’s tasting notes: Here’s another unpeated whisky you’d swear hit the earth when the distiller wasn’t looking. Damn, that’s big in the glass. Bold earth with a raucous burn — those are the flavors that greet you, and it’s intimidating to take that second sip. But do. Once your mouth has acclimated a bit, there are subtle flavors to key in on here. The literature accompanying this one touts its honey, citrus, and salt notes, over spice notes from the bourbon barrels in which it was aged and the young barely from which it was made.

I can get the honey. It’s subtle but there, on the third or subsequent sip, once your mouth stops throbbing. Spice, yes. From bourbon or barley, I wouldn’t dare say. There’s a tinge of salt, but I wouldn’t expect less from a whisky aged in a warehouse on the shores of Islay.

What else? Oh, aroma. I can’t note anything extraordinary here, except that it threatens to burn your nasal passages, if you take a heavy whiff. Salt? The high proof? Can’t say. Breathe gently and enjoy, instead.

Today’s thoughts: Eat your vegetables, they told me. They’re good for you, they told me.

Meh.

Potatoes are vegetables. So, too, is barley.**

Yet if I have a dinner of fries and whisky, I can just feel the scowls forming on the foreheads of (at least) my parents, my siblings, my physician, some coworkers, and (even though she loves me enough to let it go) The Empress of Whisky.

Today’s obligatory disclaimer: I also eat peas, and sometimes corn. Peppers, on occasion.

Today’s toast: To barley and potatoes. You are the best vegetables.

—–

* — Seven years is on the young side for Scotch whisky, with 10 being the traditional starting point and three the legal minimum. I’ve gone on record as not minding the rise of No Age Statement whiskies, but I know it drives some people up a wall. Me? I just want good whisky. How long it takes is neither here nor there.*** In this way, I’m rapidly becoming a fan of the distillers at Bruichladdich, whose focus is terroir, good barrel selection, appropriate blending (where needed), and damned fine whisky. Are they a touch pretentious in their methods and marketing? Perhaps. But as with any artist, I’ll judge on the results, thank you.

** — Scientifically speaking, I mean. All technicalities count. Someday I may even convince my physician. After all, she’s a scientist. This should be easy!

*** — Welllllll, you can do it wrong, of course. For example, the not-to-be-named operation I encountered where the head distiller, no shit, touted the fact that “whisky only has to touch new oak to be considered bourbon; it does not need to age” as a selling point … yeah. His “bourbon” was terrible.

Whisky Wind-down, 21: Are We There Yet?

A small bottle of Bruichladdich Laddie whisky sits next to a filled Glencairn glass and tabletop clock.

Today’s dram: Bruichladdich, The Classic Laddie

Today’s rambling preamble to the tasting notes: Yesterday I mentioned the Hebrides. I’m not going to give you a complete Scotland geography lesson — not least because my knowledge of this subject is almost entirely whisky-related — but I will note that these islands are collectively home to several distilleries.

The whiskies made on the Hebrides — with one exception — are considered part of the Highlands, but that region is vast and it’s probably just a matter of time before the Scotch Whisky Association elevates The Islands to region status, which is what happened with the former sub-region Speyside. (Despite this recognition, a few Speyside distilleries still describe themselves as makers of Highlands whisky, but that’s marketing inertia for you.)

Anyway, the exception: Islay.

It’s part of the Hebrides, but it’s not part of The Islands for whisky purposes. Oh no; this island is a region unto itself, as well it should be.

Unless you’ve just stumbled upon this series — in which case, welcome! — you may recall me mentioning Islay frequently. A couple of my favorite distilleries (Laphroaig and Ardbeg) are located there, as well as Bowmore (of which I have enjoyed one and want to try more) and Bunnahabhain (new to me, and also fascinating). Still on my list are Caol Ila, Kilchoman, and Lagavulin.

All of these are known, to one degree or another, for the heavily smoky, often briny flavors in their whiskies.

Now, the exception within the exception: Bruichladdich.

Founded in 1881, but dormant for a good part of the 20th century, this distillery is now run by folks who are, well, let’s call them a tad eccentric. My bottle of The Classic Laddie was part of a three-bottle set that came with a 20-something page booklet almost entirely comprised of anecdotes about the history of the distillery, the people who work there, the local farmers who supply the barely, the antique Victorian-era coal-fired machinery they use to dry the barley …

I’ll stop on that last point, as it has some bearing on the whisky at hand. By using coal, (rather the traditional peat) as a fuel source for malting the barely used to make its whisky, Bruichladdich makes Islay’s only* unpeated whisky.

Today’s tasting notes: It’s briny, innit? You get it first on the aroma, which is sea air with a hit of alcohol burn mixed in. As for flavor, it bears a hint of earth about it, despite the absence of peat in its making. Then the brine comes in again; there’s not overmuch at first, but it lingers in an otherwise smooth finish. There is some burn on the back of it, too, probably attributable to the highish 100 proof.

I hesitate to admit this, considering I generally mock the practice, but after finishing two-thirds of the dram, I contemplated adding a few drops of water, just to see whether that might “open” it up. But then I realized that would require a trip downstairs, so I just finished it as poured.

Today’s thoughts: One of the first single malt Scotch whiskies I ever had, a gift courtesy of the Empress of Whisky, was a bottle from the first run of The Laddie 10. And while I do not recall exactly enough to relate the nuanced differences between that bottling and this lesser-aged version, I can report that sipping this dram brought back fond memories of that long-gone bottle.

Today’s aside: Laugh now, but when Scotland Geography shows up on Jeopardy!, I’ll be smiling. Also? I will crush in Potent Potables.

Today’s toast: To trivial knowledge, which I do not take trivially.

—–

* — Yes, there are exceptions even to this exception-within-an-exception. But Bruichladdich is the only Islay distillery regularly producing unpeated** whiskies as part of its standard range, rather than as special one-off offerings.

** — While I’m foot-noting, anyway, I’ll take the time to point out that a lot of whiskies produced with barley dried without the benefit of peat-fueled fires nonetheless still bear the subtle combination of smoke and earthiness attributed as “peatiness” in tasting notes. Why? Blame the water. When you live surrounded by peat bogs, apparently it permeates your groundwater. And while that may or may not be detectable out of the tap, it shows up when you toss in barley and boil it for whisky.