Archive for the ‘Liquid Thoughts’ Category

It’s approaching two years since I last posted…. more on that soon. As I attempt to remount my blogging horse, I thought I’d ease myself into the saddle with some recent Scotch tasting notes.

macallan house

Today a couple of independent bottlings I just polished off from two very different distilleries.

The first, a Macallan, comes from one of the heavyweights of the Scotch whisky world (as of 2009, it was the second largest-selling single malt producer by volume, behind Glenlivet and ahead of Glenfiddich). Macallan is renowned for its traditionally* rich, sherried house flavour, and for its regular release of rare and older bottlings that often fetch astronomical prices. The bottle in review here is far removed from Macallan’s roots and should not be seen as indicative ofMacallan’s typically excellent releases (particularly in the sherried variety!). The Macallan 12 year old was in fact the first single malt that made me fall in love with sherry-matured whiskies and remains a special drop for me, despite its increasingly stupid price.

 Blair Athol Distillery

The second, a Blair Athol, while one of the oldest running distilleries in Scotland(built in 1798), is a rather invisible distillery in the Perthshire region of the Highlands, and likely unknown to most scotch drinkers outside of the most enthusiastic. This is not at all surprising as the vast majority of Blair Athol’s spirit goes directly into blends –particularly Bells, of which it forms the backbone. The owners dorelease a standard 12 year old “Flora and Fauna” edition but thisis typically only carried by boutique stores and specialty whiskymerchants. Outside of this, you may find occasional single cask releases by a variety of independent bottlers, as we have here, and at varying levels of quality.

On to the notes:

Macallan 15 years(Hart Brothers)

Distilled: December1992

Bottled: June 2008

46% ABV

macallan 15hb

Nose: Very muted.Overripe banana. Vanilla ice cream. Balsa wood. Hay, rolled oats, andpencil shavings.

Palate: Banana in continuity with the aroma. Glutinous rice and a touch of cinnamon.Dry bourbon notes. Flat cola and barley sugars.

Finish: Dry and a little starchy. A lingering vanilla sweetness and rather woody.

Thoughts: I suspect this was drawn from a refill bourbon barrel – a very tired one and it shows. From the nose to the finish on the tongue, the experience must be fought for. Look, while it’s not a bad whisky per se, it is definitely an uninspiring drop. The bottle never really grabbed me so I spread it out over quite some time and I will confess that ultimately it did grow on me a touch. Perhaps that is an understated complexity and the challenge of apprehending it. Still, I’d summarise it as a diffident whisky and not a Macallan to be proud of. (Keeping in mind that this was not an official Macallan release!).


BlairAthol 12 years (The Old Malt Cask/Douglas Laing Co.)

Distilled:November 1995

Bottled:October 2008


1 of 760 bottles

Sherry Butt DL Ref. 4686

blair athol 12dl3Nose:Orange marmalade. Treacle. Honeycomb. The sherry influence is clear.Dried dates and grapeskins. Peanut husks. Continues to really open up into a very rich andcomplex nose with time in the glass. Light ginger ale or spritzer?

Palate:Sweet, malty, and quite spicy. Brilliant balance! Lively. Light fruitcake (and really very cakey or bready… think panettone). A lovelyinterplay between spice and wood notes. Plums. Cassia bark and a hintof star anise.

The mouthfeel is full and a touch oily. There is some heat coming from the higher ABV and it will take some water although it is delightful as it stands.

Finish:Butterscotch. A long, luscious fade. Woody andspicy… a touch bitter/sweet.

Thoughts:This bottle is areal cracker. It is in character with the distillery’s official Flora & Fauna release,
but is significantly augmented by the higher ABV and lack of chill-filtration. Richness,complexity, and balance in a glass.

Score: 89

The next review up within a few days, will be of some stellar recent Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings.

*Up until 2004 when Macallanintroduced the Fine Oak series, its whisky was matured solely inOlorosso sherry casks fromJerez, Spain. This turn hasbeen met with very mixed reviews, and more than a little heavycriticism in some quarters. Giventhe release of older age statement whiskies in the Fine Oak series itwould seem Macallan has actuallybeen aging quitea lot of their whisky in exBourbon barrels since at least the 1970s.


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Before I moved to the States my impression of American bourbons and whiskies was not a high one. I’m delighted to say that through the encouragement and generosity of some good friends that original impression has been significantly altered. It all started with Knob Creek… but that’s a story for another day. I claim no intimate knowledge of bourbon, and consider myself a fledgling evan williams single barrell 1999enthusiast, but I’m thoroughly enjoying  the ride small batch bourbons have to offer – not to mention the relatively cheap price tag when compared to our beloved scotch).

Evan Williams is no unfamiliar name to bourbon lovers, given that it is the second largest selling brand of Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey in the US. But those sales are largely on the back of their blended black label bourbon. But today we’re reviewing the Evan Williams Single Barrel 1999, their 14th vintage. The E.W. Vintage series claims the impressive distinction of being the only vintage dated bourbon. The fact that each bottle is drawn from a single barrel, rather than a blending of barrels, means that even within a vintage each bottle is likely to express a slight range of unique characteristics. Each vintage year also equates to a novel bourbon, with often significant characteristics marking one vintage from another. What doesn’t seem to vary is the success with which they are greeted year after year. They have a swag of medals and accolades against their name, perhaps most impressively the first ever Whiskey of the Year title awarded to a bourbon by The Spirit Journal. So, let’s try it and see what all the fuss is about.


Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage 1999
Barrelled on 10.12.99
Bottled on 01.20.09
Barrel # 112
43.3% abv

Appearance: Deep, slick amber

Nose: Waxy on first sniff. Then caramel popcorn and warm dark spices – nutmeg and cardamom. A hint of rose, and after adding a few drops of water, charred oak really comes out, as does a little spearmint.

Body: Mid to full, a little oily, very smooth.

Taste: Wonderfully smooth and sweet. The nutmeg is there, and dark, overly roasted butterscotch. A very mature bourbon.

Finish: Spice and toffee, then a mellow woodiness that credits the 9+ years in oak. As all fades away, the impression of raw, crushed almonds. Complex!

Overall Impressions: This is one smooth, complex, and sweet bourbon without being cloying. While this is no great claim, I have no hesitation in labelling this the best bourbon I’ve sampled to date. Well worth seeking out, and I look forward to buying a bottle of each new vintage.

Evan Williams 1999 Spider Score: 86/100.


Here is a clip from the unveiling event of the 1999 vintage. They were sampling cask strength (60-70%) from the first barrel. The clip is worth watching for the inimitable molasses drag of an accent of Parker Beam alone, their Master Distiller. (Parker is a seventh generation distiller and has worked at Evan Williams for over 50 years. His grandfather was the brother of a certain James Beam).

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aleister crowley 1 As is apt to happen just a little too often, my research into one project led me down a rather odd rabbit hole. In doing some reading on absinthe, I found some interesting writing of Aleister Crowley, which in turn led to some fascinating historical brewing connections.


Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947) has to be one of the more curious and peculiar figures of the last century. From rather unexceptional beginnings in Warwickshire, Crowley emerged as perhaps England’s most notorious and controversial personality of the time. An incredibly intelligent young man who studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, accomplished as a writer, poet, and social critic, it was his early embrace of occultism that achieved him fame and prominence.


In his second year at Cambridge Crowley immersed himself in the literature of  alchemy, mysticism, and magic. He was soon inducted into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical order whose notable members included E. Nesbit, Bram Stoker, and William Butler Yeats. The Golden Dawn was rent by a schism in 1900, and Crowley pursued his study of the occult alone. In 1904 while holidaying in Egypt, he purportedly had a mystical experience while invoking Horus who told Crowley that he would be the prophet heralding in a new magical age.book of the law


The next month, still in Cairo, he penned the text Liber Al vel Legis, or The Book  of the Law – acting as scribe for Horus who dictated the text according to Crowley. This marked the beginning of his religious philosophy which he entitled Thelema, based on the foundational law of “Do what thou wilt.” (The word Thelema is a transliteration of the greek θέλημα, or will, a cognate of the verb θέλω – to will or to purpose).

Through his continued involvement with occultism, a famed feud with Yeats, annunciation of radical views of sexuality for his time, and prolific writing which more often than not was brazen and scandalous, Crowley received copious amounts of attention from the press around the globe. Much of his writing, particularly the mystical, was laden with metaphor for sexual imagery in which he used language denoting murder, cannibalism and victimhood that convinced a growing number that he promoted, if not actively participated in, human sacrifice among other things. This led the press to memorably dub Crowley “The wickedest man in the world.” Crowley often referred to himself as The Beast, a label his mother used when he acted out as a child.aleister crowley2


So where on earth am I going with this? Interestingly enough, Crowley has a significant relationship to the beer industry, directly and indirectly.


The Crowley family lays claim to a long and significant brewing tradition, having run a brewery in Croyden, Surrey, for over 200 years. In 1821 Abraham Crowley (Aleister’s great uncle) and two of his sons procured The Brewhouse in Alton, from James Baverstock. It was in this brewery in 1768 that Baverstock through much experimentation with a hydrometer discovered he could determine the comparative strength of worts, thus laying the foundation for saccharometry, used by breweries and wineries around the world to this day.


The Brewhouse expanded under the Crowley management and began to offer beer and a sandwich at a cheap price, inventing, according to some historians, the pub lunch. They even get a mention from Charles Dickens in his weekly published journal as “providing a first-rate sandwich and a sparkling glass of Crowley’s Ale.” The brewery produced a fine range of offerings over the years, including a dark brown ale, oatmeal stout, old ale, ‘Alton Brew’ (unknown ale), brown ale, Family Ale, regular stout, and light pale ale.


crowley's ales


In 1877 the Crowleys sold the brewery to the son in law of Abraham Crowley, and Aleister’s father re-invested his share in the sale into Amsterdam’s waterworks. His father was able to retire young on the profits, and when he died he left Aleister a considerable fortune which financed him throughout life and allowed him to immerse himself in his interests. So alcohol really is responsible for the anti-christ…

Part II tomorrow.

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  The New York Time’s wine critic Eric Asimov created quite a stir at last week’s Symposium for Professional Wine wine tastingWriters in his keynote speech entitled “The Tyranny of the Tasting Note.”  Asimov argued that a number of cultural assumptions about the amount of knowledge required before one can even enjoy wine has created a wall of separation for the general public. These assumptions and stereotypes which have raised wine onto a pedestal have been reinforced by portrayals in the media, articles in newspapers, but especially in Asimov’s mind, by the ubiquitous tasting note. I’m sure you’ve encountered some hellacious examples from time to time. Chris Macias cites this beauty,

“The wine opens with a windsong of spice and freshly foraged truffle on the nose, with a final whisper of red fruit that coos in the glass; the taste is a ponderous expression of currants, Godiva milk chocolate, Tasmanian honey and a soupçon of gooseberry that pirouettes on the back end of the palate.”

I’m rather fond of this description: “an attractive minerality that speaks of stones and fresh rainwater and sometimes an oddly characteristic chalky note
that’s oddly reminiscent of clean seashells on an ocean beach.”

Let’s call these for what they are – unfettered flights of fancy cluster bombing pornographic combinations of well-endowed verbs and swollen adjectives (tongue planted firmly in cheek). But is the answer to diminishing an elitist drinking or culture, or to prevent something similar transpiring in the craft beer world to eliminate tasting notes altogether?

I’ve been interested reading a number of thoughts that have boiled over from the Symposium and into the blogging world. [Thanks must go to Stan Hieronymus for several of the links found in his discussion of Asimov’s speech.] Wine writer Alder Yarrow has generated a great discussion on his blog Vinography. Like Yarrow, I think Asimov has some valid critique and concerns about wine culture, but the idea that tasting notes should be relegated to the graveyard seems hyperbolic at best. wine scoring

Tom Cizauskas blogging at Yours for Good Fermentables, sees a danger of  beer falling to formalism and elitism, especially through “overwrought beer descriptions”, similar to wine notes. He linked to an interesting program called Cyclops developed in the UK for bar-staff and beer suppliers to communicate characteristics of beer. The basic principles are that a beer’s appearance, aroma, and flavour are described using a maximum of three words each, aimed at the average drinker. This premise, I think, is a good one for the express context of selling over the counter beer. It allows for bartenders or sales clerks who may never have tried the beverage in question to provide some very basic descriptors to an average customer.

But this is hardly useful for a beer geek, or wine enthusiast who really wants to get a handle on a drink. And in its current state I would argue the Cyclops program still has weaknesses aplenty. Let me give you an example or two. Since it currently caters only to British beers, I looked up some more common examples that I’ve consumer on multiple occasions – Wychwood Hobgoblin, Adnams Broadside, Fullers London Pride, and Wells Banana Bread. The results varied considerable.

The Broadside it described as red, amber in appearance. Fruitcake and almond for smell, and full, rich, smooth for taste. Interestingly it broke its rule of “do not use distinctive terms such as orange, chocolate, toffee unless the beer is a flavoured beer.” It also seems to conflate the idea of taste with mouthfeel, in this instance offering nothing close to concrete for flavour.

Better was the Wychwood Hobgoblin: See – Dark, Ruby. Smell – Toffee, slight citrus, chocolate. Taste – Toffee, dry, biscuit. Once again breaking the aforementioned rule, but arguably offering something more useful in doing so.

But then we had much worse. Fullers it describes as: See – Tawyny. Smell – hops, malt. Taste – balanced malt bitterness. Imagine that, a beer that smells of hops and malt, and tastes of, well, hops and malt. Utterly useless.


And then we have the inspiring analysis of Wells Banana Bread: See – Dark amber. Smell – bananas. Taste – bananas. It’s not the most complex of beers, granted, but is that seriously all it merits?

Let’s return to the question of tasting notes. I want to argue that Asimov and some others in decrying complex tasting notes, are creating a one size fits all response to a much broader set of concerns. This is really a question of context.

Firstly, to whom is the tasting note addressed? To a drinking newby? Then damn straight, push your half page description aside and offer the generic basics. But to offer such austere descriptions to a seasoned scotch enthusiast, or fellow beer blogger would be useless and inappropriate.

And what of recording your own tasting notes? For those of us who return to our notes to refresh our memories on what we’ve tasted, or perhaps to compare one vintage to another, the note can be quite autobiographical, almost a diary entry. The richer the language and details, the more readily memory of the experience is recalled. The more detail, the easier it is compare the beers we’ve tried and to also provide avenues of exploration for other drinkers to broach. Here I will geek it out unabashedly – I love losing myself in the complexities of a fine drink. There is nothing formal or elitist about whole-heartedly throwing yourself into your passions. But if I’m drinking a few over a football game with some friends, it would be absurd to have my head stuck in my notebook. Again, equally enjoy yourself in a specific context.

I’ll finish my rather disjointed thoughts on the topic with a brief reflection on what many criticise as the major problem of any sort of tasting note – the problem of subjectivity.

Here I think it’s so important that we openly and undefensively admit to the nature of the endeavour. Tasting is unequivocally a subjective experience and our notes will inexorably reflect that.

We are not making truth claims about the constitutive flavours and aromas intrinsic to the drink. That is, we are not saying the flavour of this stout is liqourice. Instead we are saying there is a flavour in this stout that reminds me of liquorice, and we adopt methods of shorthand to facilitate the thought (eg, I taste liquorice). Can we do better any better than this? I don’t think so, nor should we aspire to. Even as science further unlocks the secrets of scent and flavor compounds, its findings will not translate to taste experience. The explanation that linalool found in both bergamot and muscat wines may account for floral or tea characteristics in some muscats does nothing to guarantee the detection of these aromas or tastes by a consumer not equipped with a chemistry lab. What we are attempting to do as we make notes is to gesture at our experience with the flawed medium of language, hoping to cast at best a decent reflection. This should not frighten us away from making or using tasting notes, but instead to take them for what they are – an interpretive portrait, not a high definition photograph, of the drinks we love.

Any thoughts on this topic folks?

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The Kalevala is a curious creature that evades easy categorisation. At its most basic level it is a united, flowing, epic poem assembled in its final form in 1849 by Elias Lönnrot. Only 3% of the work is thought to be of his own invention, however. Taking a step back it is built on a collection of Finnish folk poetry that was originally penned sometime in the 1600s over a vast area of Finland. The poetry was originally performed in song and is consequently fairly rigid in form and meter (for any music or literature geeks – specifically the trochaic tetrameter).

These 17th century songs are not nearly the beginning of the material. They reflect much older oral traditions, which are evident in many of the themes the Kalevala expresses. The oldest deal with the creation of the Earth and are notoriously difficult to date, although some speculate a figure of about 3000 years ago.

Of particular fascination to me, is the amount of lyrics in the saga dedicated to beer. An interesting and frequently quoted figure, albeit overstated, is that nearly 400 lines in the Kalevala deal with beer, while but 200 deal with creation.

In the 13th poem we have the retelling of the origin of beer. This poem has proved an important but hotly contested source in trying to nail down the elusive place or time when hops began to be used in the brewing process. Based largely on the premise that the lore in the Kalevala come from much earlier oral traditions, some have proposed that the Scandinavians were the first to grow hops specifically for beer. [For more on this debate see Ian S. Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing, London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2004. Pps. 303-14]

A much abbreviated synopsis of this poem is that preparations are underway for a major wedding at Pahjola, and Osmotar of Kalew, a female brewer, begins to make the beer for the celebration. She:kalev6

“Takes the golden grains of barley,
Taking six of barley-kernels,
Taking seven tips of hop-fruit,
Filling seven cups with water,
On the fire she sets the caldron,
Boils the barley, hops, and water,
Lets them steep, and seethe, and bubble
Brewing thus the beer delicious,
In the hottest days of summer,
On the foggy promontory,
On the island forest-covered;
Poured it into birch-wood barrels,
Into hogsheads made of oak-wood.”

Thus far so good, but the beer does not ferment. So growing troubled she queries, “What will bring the effervescence, Who will add the needed factor, That the beer may foam and sparkle, May ferment and be delightful?” Enlisting the help of Kalevatar, the magical maiden, they conjure creatures to fetch ingredients to ferment the beer. The first is a snow-white squirrel which is sent into the forests of the mountains to retrieve cones from a fir tree. Sadly, when they “Laid them in the beer for ferment, But it brought no effervescence, And the beer was cold and lifeless.”

The second creature, a golden-breasted marten, was sent on the unenviable mission of fetching foam from the mouths of bears in battle (presumed to contain yeast). The marten returns successful and unscathed, yet the foam “brought no effervescence, Did not make the liquor sparkle.” Finally a honey-bee is summoned and is instructed to fly to an island in the ocean, and to collect the sweetened juices from the flowering grass beside a sleeping maid. Upon the bees return, the pollen is added to the birch-wood barrels, and the fermentation takes off in earnest, overflowing the barrels and runs in streams into Pahjola.

Osmata is distraught, believing she has failed and that the wedding feast will be a failure. But the birds in the trees assure her that the beer is good, and so she barrels some more and the feast is a great success.

Thus, the Finnish origin of beer:

“Great indeed the reputation
Of the ancient beer of Kalew,
Said to make the feeble hardy,
Famed to dry the tears of women,
Famed to cheer the broken-hearted,
Make the aged young and supple,
Make the timid brave and mighty,
Make the brave men ever braver,
Fill the heart with joy and gladness,
Fill the mind with wisdom-sayings,
Fill the tongue with ancient legends,
Only makes the fool more foolish."


And for Lord of the Rings fans – Tolkien stated that the Kalevala saga was one of his sources that inspired the Silmarillion. You’ll find that several characters and events in the book are readily identifiable in the epic.

* All quotes from the Kalevala are taken from John Martin Crawford’s 1888 English translation.


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