Nov 092020
 

I don’t suppose there’s any reason to wade in slowly, is there? I mean…we’ve known each other for quite some time here on ATW, most of us. And I think we all know that most of the time things are more akin to back alley bare knuckle boxing than to full-on gloved-up pugilism, right? So let’s step into the fray a little bit here. I want to say a few things, but I imagine there are a few of you out there that wouldn’t mind chirping in a word or two, as well. Feel free to weigh in with comments, if you so see fit.

A couple of months back, Jim Murray created quite the stir when he crowned Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye his 2021 Whisky of the Year. That, in and of itself, isn’t the biggest deal. Maybe a little bit of a stretch, but to be fair, the whisky was really, really good. The review here on ATW attests to my firm belief of that. And Murray has long been considered a bit of a leading contrarian. His picks always seem to fall far outside the norm of what most would consider believable winners. Unfortunately, accusations of payoffs and under-the-table dealings have followed him for years. Personally, I’ve never bought into that idea. Some of Murray’s more controversial picks have included Ballantine’s 17 year old blended whisky, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, and an elusive, apparently non-existent batch of Ardbeg Uigeadail. The general consensus seems to be that someone like Murray, being the leading whisky critic in the world, probably has access to some of the most insanely brilliant drams from the 50s, 60s, 70s and every other age imaginable. Ergo, it seems almost inconceivable that Murray’s selections would be so…pedestrian. Inconceivable, that is, until one considers that the man is essentially trying to sell the same book year upon year, with minimal changes to the bulk the text. So how does one keep such a tome relevant, and make sure consumers keep coming back with fistfuls of dollars (or pounds/euros/what-have-you)? It’s simple. Keep it controversial; keep ’em talking. And, let’s face it, picking a 1970s single cask outing from, say, GlenDronach, with an outturn of less than 600 bottles, doesn’t really speak to the masses. But some mainstream release that no one could see coming…and available at an affordable price point, to boot? Rather brilliant, actually.

But that’s not the real controversy this time. The issue at hand, as it relates to the Jim Murray brand, is not a new one. It’s a tale that has become part of the oral lore of the man in the white fedora, rarely turning up in the written word (for fear of legal reprisal, I’d imagine?), but almost always surfacing in face-to-face discussion. The real controversy that has bubbled and roiled beneath the surface for years now has been Murray’s reliance on sex, innuendo, and what is being called out as overt misogyny. And unfortunately, the language in The Whisky Bible does little to assuage the accusations.

It took Becky Paskin, spirits journalist and editor of the incomparable (and now sadly defunct) Scotchwhisky.com, to bring this issue bubbling to the surface of our public whisky discourse. Paskin put herself out there and, risking the ire of a largely male-dominated whisky world, said the things that should have been said long, long ago: that this sort of marginalizing, incredibly inappropriate speech is not even close to acceptable. Period. Sexism is something the whisky industry has struggled with for far too long now, but this sort of egregious example is on another level entirely. And while many were quick to agree that things needed to change, it goes without saying that it should never have been allowed to reach this point in the first place. Brands, retailers, and ambassadors have been using Murray’s scores to sell product for years. Why did it take the fortitude of Becky Paskin to make so many of us do an about face?

I think the thing I struggle with most is that it took this long. I mean, rumors of Murray’s impropriety have stretched back many a long year now. I know of venues and organizers who, after hosting him, utterly refuse to have him back. I’ve heard tell of walkouts and interactions with female audience members that made me cringe, simply in the telling of the tale. Forgive me for not rehashing details or providing examples here, but my knowledge of the law is meager, to say the least, and a libel case is not something my bank account can afford right now. Suffice to say, much is word of mouth, but makes me think of the old adage: if it walks like a duck…

But even forgoing the accusations of impropriety, there is simply no question that Murray’s language (bordering on blue, in many cases) is out of touch and anachronistic not just in the age of Me Too and progressive equality, but in the year 2020. We, as a race, should be better than this. Again, I’m going to choose not to repeat any of the dozens of examples of overtly sexual text from The Whisky Bible that have made their way around the media over the past couple of months, lest my doing so amplifies the voice, but let me simply state that if the language one chooses to use marginalizes and makes a segment of the population uncomfortable, then maybe it’s time to change. And by maybe, I don’t actually mean maybe.

Credit where credit is due: Murray is a hell of a writer. It’s not easy to sell over a million copies by being a hack writer (James Paterson, Dan Brown, etc not withstanding). If you want to read prose that teeters on the knife edge of poetry, read Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky. As an author, he truly is gifted with a knack for beautiful turns of phrase most of us can only envy and admire. It’s in other matters, though, that he leaves us wanting. Or in some cases, wanting a little less. In Murray’s contemporary jottings, it would seem that a bit more socially conscious diction and a sense of judiciary selectivity are the pieces that are lacking. In short, as gifted as he is, there is simply no need to resort to this sort of lazy eroticizing to romanticize a great drink. There are plenty of non-innuendo driven superlatives that would not only suffice, but more adequately serve the purpose.

But they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and maybe there’s some truth to that. In four days Murray turns 63. Hardly an old dog, excepting in the matter of old habits. Instead of a scenario where most would have issued their mea culpa, Murray instead doubled down, referring to “faux outrage” and the criticism being an exercise in “cancel culture” meant to take down “the world’s most successful author on the subject.” So much for tact.

Whether Murray recovers from this, or The Whisky Bible ever regains its place of prominence remains to be seen. A legit apology or entreaty to make amends does not appear to be forthcoming. I think many are now curious to see what sort of rebranding, if any, will be undertaken to strip the tarnish from this once towering reputation.

So the question now becomes one of who or what fills the void left in the wake of Murray’s exit. Well…it’s simple really. And I don’t understand why it didn’t happen sooner. In 2012 I did an interview with Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, wherein I asked him whether or not he had plans to publish any sort of alternative to The Whisky Bible. It need be noted that Whiskyfun is now home to almost 20,000 tasting notes. In Serge’s genuine and endearing humility, he assured me that he was not the cat to chase down the chubby little mouse (Murray, I mean, and yes…I am paraphrasing, as Serge is much too polite to use such an analogy), and had no plans to publish (in paper form, at least) his whisky reviews. Now here is where I’m left a little perplexed. In an age where paper is starting to take on the stigma of plastic or fossil fuels, why are so many married to the idea of a hard copy book that brazenly refers to itself as the bible, staking claim to a title that suggests near impunity from criticism? All of us, seemingly, carry our phones with us everywhere we go now. Does it not make more sense to simply bookmark Whiskyfun on our mobile browser? The reviews are fair and humble. They are articulate, relatable and succinct. And more importantly, they are legion. It’s hard to imagine a source more complete than what Serge has curated for us on his site. I dare say, in 2020 The Whisky Bible is well nigh obsolete. It has been in my circles for many years now anyway. And no one I know mourns its place on their shelves.

So let’s take this opportunity to reflect a bit on where else we may be overlooking long overdue change. When is reflection ever a bad thing?

Finally, I just want to say thank you to Becky for saying what should have been said long ago. Your courage is an inspiration.

And for those that want a few more details, here’s an article from The New York Times that provides a bit more context.

Yours,

C

 Posted by at 1:26 pm
Jul 112020
 

Hey, whisky friends.

First things first…I appreciate the check-ins and continued interest. I really do. And I owe you. There is more to come. The continued evolution of whisky is simply too interesting to me to step away from.

However…

Many of you said it would be helpful for me to use social media to announce new posts. And you’re right of course. But another me – the one that still believes in this ‘thing’ we call humanity – has sort of hijacked my accounts for purposes that are much more important to me right now than simple malt musings.

If you are a Twitter follower, please consider this my apology. My account there has been co-opted as a platform for speaking out against anything this heinous excuse for a ‘president’ and his criminal cronies in Congress have been up to over the last four years. If this offends you…well…don’t follow me. I’d actually prefer you didn’t, as I really wouldn’t like you as a person.

I’m hoping that – come November – we can slip back into whisky chat. I want nothing more.

I don’t know what happens if by some horribly corrupt methods the current administration holds on to power. Either I wash my hands of America entirely, or double down on my efforts. Who knows?

I guess I just wanted to say that I miss doing this, and at some point I’ll be back at it.

Thanks for your support.

C

 Posted by at 11:50 am
Apr 182020
 

Can you believe it’s taken a decade for me to get ’round to putting up tasting notes for Oban 14? I carried this one like an albatross for a long time, but I suppose it’s about time for this mariner to shed the dead bird and get on with things, aye?

Oban 14 was one of the earliest malts I remember really sinking my teeth into. And there’s a reason it resonates strongly with me. I moved out of my folks’ place when I was quite young. My dad took yet another work transfer and, at 17, I was stubbornly unwilling to leave my girlfriend and uproot for the umpteenth time in my life. So…I got a job and stayed behind when the fam moved on to…browner pastures. As was probably the case for many of you out there, job number one for me was in a kitchen. I was good at multitasking and good at cooking, but I was also good with people. Fortunately, management saw this and allowed me to start slinging drinks and serving tables instead. I think it was partly in recognition of an untapped resource, but also an empathetic response to them knowing how hard I was struggling to finish high school while working enough hours to cover rent. Either way…they broke the rules and let me bartend underage. This concession, of course, drastically altered my income. There were also…errr…romantic perks. (Enough, boy, enough.)

At the end of the night, when the place had emptied out and the doors were locked, management would take off into the back to finish cashing out, and we front-of-the-house folks would slam a quick pint and sample the whisky behind the bar. Oban 14 was one of the first to really jump out at me.

I’ve revisited a few times since those early days, but not nearly often enough. And now, with a glass in hand, I really do feel like I’ve sold myself short. This is a much more elegant and rounded malt than I recall. I’m digging it now more than I ever have in the past.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Somewhat delicate, but with a big personality, if that makes sense. Quite beautifully fruity, with some nice orange and grapefruit notes topping out first. Kiwi and kumquat. A faint peaty prickle and loads of saline sea breeze. A bit of pepper. Leather. Stewing fruits.

Palate: More peat now. In fact, it arrives first. Milk chocolate and cinnamon/nutmeg-esque spices. A bit of wet, smoky grist. A really cool orange-y tang on the mid-palate. Honey in green tea. Nice thin notes of smoke throughout. A bit drying, with a brilliant grapefruit candy note that teases an appearance in all-too-brief moments.

Finish: Surprisingly long. Leaves some neat fruit skin notes and very clean oak. I love that the barley still shines through.

Thoughts: A real shame about the anemic bottling strength, but I recognize this may not be targeted for the purist. Truly a pleasant revisit. I can’t lie: I’m kinda crushing on this malt right now.

87/100 (Though at 46% or higher, I think we’d be nudging closer to 90%)

025

 Posted by at 1:17 pm
Apr 162020
 

Hey, all.

Hope you’re keeping well, strong, safe, and healthy. These are interesting times, to say the least. After a couple weeks in quarantine (not just isolation), I was cleared to return to work. I spent about two weeks back at it before starting to deal with some more respiratory issues. So…back in lockdown, and awaiting the call to go for another test. Sigh. To be clear…the only real issue I am having is a pretty nasty shortness of breath that waxes and wanes a bit. Otherwise…I feel okay for now.

Staring down another couple weeks of this doc/boss-mandated isolation has obviously burdened me with a lot of free time. My sights turned to writing fiction or writing here for you. I can’t lie; I have the attention span of a gnat lately, so wee blog blurbs have a lot more appeal. However…

Readership is low these days. Not just here, where the updates are served up in fits and starts, but on other blogs as well. People nowadays, I think, are looking for soundbites and immediate gratification (social media); or they’re looking for video content which allows them to listen while doing other things. I fear for future generations and their ability to process the written word. 😉

So, the question is? Do we continue with whisky reviews and chat here? The comments have largely died; most of the usual suspects have moved on; and the per-day visits are like the foot traffic in most brick and mortar retailers these days. Is it worth continuing this little malt log?

Drop a line. Share an opinion.

Hope you’re all well.

 Posted by at 10:36 am
Mar 292020
 

Hi, friends.

For those of you kind enough to follow my darker literary pursuits, Rotten Soil, my second novel is now up on Amazon. A lot of us are in isolation/quarantine/misanthropic bliss, so a bit of escapism is pretty much mandatory. The thing is…most of us are also suffering a fair bit of economic strain too.

So, I have put the book up at $0.99. I make nothing, but at least maybe a handful of good people can fill a few hours with thoughts other than the second coming of ‘Captain Trips’. I have also dropped the price of Sadie (short story) and Darker Things down to $0.99.

If you do read any of them, and find yourself with a few minutes time afterwards, I’d greatly appreciate any reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. No pressure, though. This is not a quid pro quo thing.

Hope you’re all taking care and being safe. I’ve been debating whisky reviews here for a bit now, but it seems almost inappropriate at the moment. Feel free to a drop a line and share your thoughts.

C

 Posted by at 11:06 am
Feb 282020
 

Only the second Coleburn review on ATW. Tsk tsk. For shame. It’s almost like some strange factor is limiting access to malts from this Speyside distillery. Hmmm. Oh…right.

For the record, Coleburn was yet another casualty of that devastating extinction event that claimed so many distilleries in the early 1980s. The distillery was a bit of a Frankenstein’s lab throughout a fair chunk of its existence, used mainly for production experimentation, and largely dedicated to providing malt for the Diageo family of blends. Seems a shame in retrospect, as we begin to realize the long term ageing potential the malt had. We say that far too frequently of late, I realize. I also concede we sentimentalize a bit too often as well. Such is.

This 21 was one of the iconic Rare Malts releases that sits in high stead and coveted pride of position for many malt drinkers. And rightfully so, I’d argue. We may see more nuance and subtlety through other ranges (and bottlers), but for pure bombast, it really is hard to pip the Rare Malts.

Coleburn was founded in 1897 and shuttered in 1985. RIP.

59.4% abv. Distilled in 1979, bottles in 2000.

Sincere thanks to my mate Brett Tanaka for the opportunity to taste this. The range of bottles he’s been opening for what we’ll call ‘The Brett Sessions’ are simply beyond comprehension. And I am beyond humbled to be able to partake. I’ll be reviewing dozens of them in the coming weeks/months.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Sour and just slightly cheesy. Sour Ju-jubes and quality eau de vie. Greengage. Orange, apple and cranberry. A wee bit of smoke. White chocolate. Honey. Riesling and green grape skins.

Palate: Oh, wow. Great arrival. Enormous, actually. Malt and rubber. Grapefruit zest (and a bit of pith too). Kinda makes it a bit weedy and bitter. Adds complexity. Rubber bands. Vegetal notes. Crunchie bar. Band-Aids. Reminds a bit of old Ledaig (a ’72 Cadenhead, in particular). Kinda dirty.

Finish: Drying, with firm tannins (though not overly aggressive). Let’s call it a ‘fair’ wood presence at the back end. Somewhat grassy. Some rubber. Vaguely industrial or chemical-y. In a great way.

88.5/100

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Feb 112020
 

Everybody’s darling. And rightfully so. It’s gotten to the point where most Springbank expressions don’t even hit the shelves anymore. At least locally. Preorder lists are a mile long, the din of begging voices is nearly deafening, and the tears of those who miss out are nearly voluminous enough to swim in. And why? Well…I think it ultimately comes down to something that would make other brands shudder: A complete lack of consistency. In short, Springbank is the most wildly inconsistent distillery in Scotland. In every sense of the word. They produce what and when they want (irrespective of distillery capacity or clamoring legions of thirsty fans), and they’ve managed to turn the idea of batch variation from something akin to the proverbial albatross into their greatest strength, and even their ‘misses’ are better than most distilleries’ ‘hits’.

This is what whisky making used to be. Period. Before the age of yield and consistency, the industry was very much at the mercy of barley and yeast variance, all-over-the-map wood policies, greater fluctuations in demand and pressures on stocks, less calibrated and measured production techniques (still firing, cut points, etc), and on and on and on.

And while Springbank is not immune to the many changes in the industry, Hedley and Co. have made it their business to march to the beat of their own drum. Status quo is not Springbank’s MO. And it probably never will be. A visit to the distillery will leave you…ahem…’woke’ (to cop an expression the ‘kids’ are using nowadays) to just how alien Springbank is to most of the industry. And just how utterly brilliant it is for it. Also…this is the only distillery on earth that can get away with as much sulphur as it does. I utterly detest the brimstone, but even I can’t fight just how singularly compelling Springbank is.

I’m rambling now, but perhaps a proper Springbank ‘Distillery In Focus’ feature is in our near future. Hmmm.

Anyway…let’s discuss this expression. Springbank 15 is a juggernaut of a malt. At once monstrously bold and mellowed enough by time to be approachable by all. And if the flavours are not particularly your cup of tea? Well…that’s fine, but it’s hard to argue objective quality with a whisky like this. And the dram in hand…I must say that this particular batch is an absolute cracker. Better than the most recent 18 we had, I’d wager.

46% abv

Tasting Notes

Nose: Noses older than 15, I have to say. Decent wafts of peat smoke. Salty, coastal, briny, and all of those other Campbeltown superlatives. Purple fruit. Oily dried fruits. Engine oil. Tobacco. Old libraries (in a 15 y.o.?!?). Cinnamon. A bit of sulphur (that largely blows off with time). Grape juice. And maybe some bramble jelly. Dunnage. Stables. White pepper and ginger. Just a hint of florality.

Palate: Flinty, Dirty and slightly matchstick-y. Chocolate. A very toasty malt profile, doused in over-caramelized sugar. Plum and prune. Sticky raisins. Some berry notes. Lapsang souchong tea. Licorice. Wet earth. Old World wine, four or five days open. Like spilling spent coffee grounds and a lit cigarette into a glass of Bowmore 18. Yep.

Finish: Long and smoky. Smoked fish and berry coulis. Candied apples. A bit drying, but oh, so long.

Thoughts: Thrilling, really, that a whisky like this still exists in our age of homogeneity. Gives me hope. And 46% is the perfect strength for this dram.

90/100

 Posted by at 5:43 pm
Jan 312020
 

Lord t’underin’ Jaysus, b’y, what a dram!

And what’s this? Our first Millburn on ATW? Not all that surprising, I suppose. Even our mate Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun fame has only managed to wrap his paws around a couple dozen examples of spirit from this long lost distillery. Fear not, though: I have one more sample in the wings that I’ll try get to soon, while this one is still fresh in my memory. To be fair…these things are nearly as rare as Trump truths. And we all know…well…never mind.

Millburn. The distillery that once was, is no more, but now, according to Brian Townsend’s fantastic book ‘Scotch Missed’, is a steakhouse that goes by the name of ‘The Auld Distillery’. A better fate, he argues (and rightfully so), than that of most lost distilleries in Scotland. Shameless plug for Townsend (which benefits me not at all): buy this book. It’s a brilliant wee read. Probably no more than 200 pages, but crammed with enough knowledge to sate even the fiercest malt historian.

This utterly fantastic expression of 25 year old Millburn came from Diageo’s brilliant Rare Malts line. I came in not knowing what to expect and found myself utterly blown back by this one. If you get a chance, do not hesitate. Though I imagine those chances are pretty damn hard to come by nowadays. At least affordably.

61.9% abv. Distilled in 1975, bottled in 2001.

Sincere thanks to my mate Brett Tanaka for the opportunity to taste this. The range of bottles he’s been opening for what we’ll call ‘The Brett Sessions’ are simply beyond comprehension. And I am beyond humbled to be able to partake. I’ll be reviewing dozens of them in the coming weeks/months.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Fruits and chocolate. Pineapple…fresh, grilled, juiced, whatever! Melted honey. Fruit salad. Sandalwood. Melon, orange and more. Man…so much cool fruitiness! Chocolate covered almonds. A slight earthiness. And a very gnarly yogurt note. Beyond unique. Beyond incredible.

Palate: Oy…a very hot arrival. Chocolate (milk!). Smoke. Cherry and orange. Yogurt covered Fun Fruits (anyone else remember those ’80s lunchbox snacks?). Lindt milk chocolate. Oh, so fruity. Nice toasty malt notes. The wood is singing loud and clear.

Finish: Long and fruity. Goes on a wee bit longer than forever.

Thoughts: Whiskybase has this at 89.40, based on 122 ratings. To clarify…122 people are wrong. Simply unforgettable.

93/100

 Posted by at 9:54 am