2016 Whisky Wind-down, 7: Pleasant Surprises


Today’s dram: Bowmore, 12-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: The aroma is captivating — you opened open a jar of honey minutes after lighting the fireplace. Someone nearby sliced a lemon. 

On the tongue it is soft and mellow. Swallow it, though, and feel a gentle burn, with a kiss of smoke as it fades away. 

This is an Islay whisky, but it is unlike other Islay whiskies I have known. 

I am mostly familiar with the big peaty, smoky works of Laphroaig and Ardbeg. 

If that whisky is a dragon that grabs you by the throat, Bowmore is a dragon that seduces you first. 

Today’s thoughts: This one was a Christmas gift from my sister-in-law, and oh, was I delighted to find it addressed to me. The magic of Christmas may be mostly reserved for children, but now and then a glimmer lands even on a sot like me.  

As my five-year-old nephew ran from sparkling toy to joyful book to holiday sweet, I could just sit back, smiling. He’d wear out eventually, then the adults could settle and sip. 

Today’s note, as an observing uncle: Did I ever have that much energy, even in my single-digit ages? I think not. 

Today’s toast: To families everywhere: Happy holidays, whatever yours may be. 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 10: Family Time


Today’s dram: Crown Royal

Today’s tasting notes: Remember when I described how smooth and easy I found Crown Royal Limited Edition? This is the regular stuff. It’s still pretty smooth for whisky, but it has a bit of an edge to it. Along with a fair amount of sweetness, too. 

Today’s thoughts: This was not on my draft whisky list, and I am not a huge fan of Canadian  whisky overall, but I am a huge fan of enjoying a drink with family. This is one of my father-in-law’s favorites, so when I saw him tonight and he said, “Let’s have a drink,” I could hardly refuse. (You’ll have to ask him why he drinks from a coffee mug.)

Today’s advice to anyone anxious over holidays with family: Whisky can be a common denominator. 

Today’s toast: To holiday mingling: Cheers!

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 11: The Price of Admission


Today’s dram: Ardmore, Traditional Cask (Peated Single Malt, No Age Statement), dressed for the holidays

Today’s tasting notes: Full, rich, warm Highland single malt with a pleasant earthy aroma and plenty of peat on the way down.

I’ve had this bottle kicking around for a bit, but I just went looking for more information on it and learned a couple of things: 1) It won a gold medal in the Highland Single Malt — No Age Statement category at the 2010 World Whiskies Awards. 2) It is no longer being made, having been supplanted by a different line from Ardmore.

Since this whisky lacks an age statement, let’s talk about what that means. (For your sanity and mine, we’ll stick to Scotch whisky, since age statements mean different things to different types of whisky.)

Say you are a distiller with some whisky you have been aging for 12 years, but you aren’t happy with it as-is and feel it needs a bit of mellowing to be just right. You don’t want to wait another year (or two or three), so you decide to mix in a bit from an older batch to get the flavor profile you seek.

First, so long as you’re using another whisky made at the same distillery with the same ingredients and methods, you can still call it single malt. So long as it’s all malted barely distilled at the same location, it qualifies, even if you end up blending different batches of different ages. (The term blended Scotch whisky refers to one that is made from multiple malt whiskies made at different locations OR one that contains grain whisky in addition to malt whisky. Or both. If that sounds confusing, well, yell at the next member of the Scotch Whisky Association you meet.)

So, you think that 12-year-old whisky needs a bit of older whisky mixed in to mellow it out. Even if you add some of your precious 25-year-old to the mix, you still have to call it 12-year-old on the age statement, which legally must be no older than the youngest whisky included. (So, even if you went barking mad and produced a mix that was 99% whisky aged 25 years, with the remaining 1% aged only 12, legally you would have to sell it as a 12-year-old whisky. Right after you got your head examined, I suppose.)

So, what’s the big deal with No Age Statement whisky?

The rise of NAS whisky (as the kids call it) is allowing Scotch whisky distillers to meet today’s increased demand for good whisky by using younger (minimum aging three years) products, blended perhaps with a bit of precious older stock, to make new expressions.

Generally, such whisky is marketed as an artful creation of master tasters, rather than an expedient answer to demand in a booming market.

It’s either that or sell less whisky.

It’s not like there’s a way to speed up the aging process … wait a minute … there is, sort of.

Let’s talk about quarter casks.

These smaller vessels hold less whisky (duh) so it’s a more labor-intensive, materially-expensive way to mature whisky, and you don’t see them employed very often.

The advantage of this method — aside from being able to use nifty marketing spiel about “19th century methods” — is that the whisky spends more time in contact with the wood, owing to the greater circumference-to-volume ratio. Or something. Pi may be involved.

Point is, more contact means more flavor, faster.

Also, being able to say you used “traditional methods,” hearkening to the days when casks had to be lighter to fit on the backs of the donkeys who would carry them through the Highlands, well … it helps people get over their snootiness about your lack of an age statement.

Rounding back to the beginning, the whisky in my glass today was produced in quarter casks, and it has no age statement.

Some people have a philosophical beef with both those factors. For them, Scotch whisky that does not display an age statement, but does use marketing as cover for a distillery’s changing methods, is to be looked down upon.

Me? I can’t say I’m indifferent to these factors, but I care more that you’re serving a good whisky for the price you’re asking.

This fits the bill. It’s a full, flavorful peaty whisky that compares well to many 10- or 12-year-old Highland single malts I’ve had the pleasure of sampling.

Today’s thoughts: The distillers who laid down their whiskies a quarter-century ago might well have thought they were making enough, or more than enough, to meet the future’s demand. Long-term gambles like that are very difficult to get right.

It’s almost as difficult, say, as having children and then wondering what your life will be like a few decades hence when they bring home their spouses for the holidays.

<cough>

I like to think my in-laws are at least tolerant of their poet-in-law. I’ll ask them again in a day or so.

Today’s observation on holiday decor: If you think a whisky bottle dressed as Santa is weird, you should see my mistletoe-bedecked bourbon.

Today’s toast: To families coming together for the holidays: May your homes be as warm and inviting as a good Highland single malt, however old.

 

2016 Whisky Wind-down, 16: Festive Midpoint Hangover

Today’s dram: Tobermory, 10-Year-Old

Today’s tasting notes: The beautiful Isle of Mull lies west of mainland Scotland and is home to caves, an ancient stone circle, and one distillery.

Established in 1798 as Ledaig Distillery, the original operation ceased in the 1930s, amid the Great Depression and lowered demand following American Prohibition. It reopened as Tobermory in the 1970s and today makes two lines of whisky.

The lively, joyful single malt in my glass tonight is the 10-year-old version of the Tobermory line, which is unpeated. (The Ledaig line is a more traditional peated whisky; I haven’t had the pleasure.)

It tastes ever so slightly of salt, and there is a sharpness to it that bites at first but quickly fades, leaving only a pleasant, light tingling on the palate and throat. Its color is paler than most Scotch whisky I’ve encountered, but I think it’s the perfect tone for this bright, happy spirit.

I don’t usually comment on packaging, but I am taken with the simple green, date-embossed bottle and its lovely wooden-topped cork, which features an outline of the isle. There is even a faint outline of the distillery complex etched into the neck wrap. All together it’s a pretty presentation complementing a delightful whisky.

Today’s thoughts: I haven’t much for you today, a day I spent in pleasant remembering of a joyful movie night and eager anticipation of a holiday break.

Today’s personal note: Hangovers I get but rarely. Hate me.

Today’s toast: To seeking joy: May we all find it soon and in unexpected places.

Remember, Remember …

Everyday is everything.

If today isn’t a holiday where you live, it might very well be in someone else’s part of the world. And even if it isn’t a proper, the-banks-are-closed, light-some-fireworks occasion, you can bet there are still a dozen smaller observances, in honor of cats, or tacos, or a type of cancer.

It’s always someone’s birthday, and someone always dies.

Here in the States, November 11 is Veterans Day. Since 1954, anyway. Prior to that, it was Armistice Day, which was kinda like Veterans Day but with a name like that, veterans of wars other than WWI felt left out. Prior to 1918 and the formal end of the War to End All Wars, November 11 was, I guess, just a nice early autumn day.

On November 11, 1991, this date ceased to be anything for me but heartache.

My mother’s mother’s brother — great-uncle to me — was a month past sixty when he died that day, at home, alone in the house he had lived in most of his life. He had been my babysitter, my daycare, and my after-school watcher, a grandfather in all but name to a boy who had none.

He was my moral pole star, though I don’t recall realizing that before he died.

Certainly I loved him. He was the relative I said I’d go live with when my parents or my little sister got on my last nerve and I threatened to run away. He was who I was excited to talk to about my day at school, or my newest action figure, or my plans for this year’s Halloween costume.

If I had wanted to grow up, he probably would have been who I wanted to grow up to be.

Everyone loves and everyone loses people they love, and any day can be a sad day when the pain wells up and the memories comfort you but also make you just a little angry because the world is cruel and the only fair thing about life is that it ends for everyone.

Any day can be a dark day, but I can’t avoid November 11.

I had stayed home sick that day in 1991, and I remember standing at the bathroom sink that evening, a wet washcloth growing cold in my hand, when my parents told me about the call from a concerned neighbor, and asked me to watch my little sister while they went to make sure everything was okay.

I knew then what they weren’t telling me, and the funeral followed three days later.

I can no longer distinctly remember 1992 or 1993. They blur together. I was home sick from school on one of them, and I walked through the day in a fog on the other, and on both I visited the cemetery in the evening and spent time at his grave.

By 1994, I was two hours away at college, the day fell on a Friday, and I drove home after my last class, in time to reach the cemetery by dusk because it mattered very much to me that I be there, that I see the cold gravel six feet over his bones, that I whisper a few words, as though the dead have ears.

I drove back that night, having not stopped to see my living family, or even tell them I had been there.

Through the rest of college, I responsibly kept to my school commitments and made no further pilgrimages, instead making it my habit that day to decline dinner or game night invitations, to be alone, to walk a wooded trail, to sit and listen at nature, to ponder the dead.

Over the years that followed, I sometimes walked alone in woods or through a cemetery near where I lived at the time, I visited his grave the brief years I lived back home, I never left my bed the years I got sick, and I loved my wife for leaving me to myself every November 11 of our marriage.

Once I assembled a desk, just to occupy my mind with a simple task.

Last year, I cooked a meal he used to make, following his techniques as best I remembered, down to cooking in cast iron and brewing teeth-achingly sweet tea to wash it down. I have since learned this is a custom on the Day of the Dead, and that unintended similarity is pleasing.

This year I write.

For the first time, I am able to put twenty-five years of mourning into perspective, by putting it into words, then putting those words into the world.

Every year is different, except every year I wonder whether this is the last time I will feel this.

A hundred people die every minute of every day. I can find no statistics on how many leave echoes, or how long those echoes persist, or whether it is my particular madness that every year I make myself listen for the echoes of November 11, 1991.

Quiet, now; I am concentrating.