Jul 292012
 

Black Bottle

40% abv

Score:  76/100

 

At one time Black Bottle, one of the flagship whiskies coming out of the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay, boasted that it was composed of malts from all of the Islay distilleries.  I’m not convinced that is the case anymore.  One, because Kilchoman is simply too young and biting to be an integral blending comonent as yet.  And two, because I don’t believe certain distilleries, such as Ardbeg, are really letting any casks go for blending nowadays.  If you know more…feel free to correct me.

Forgive my sloth in covering this one.  Such a storied blend deserves more than the seeming afterthought status I would appear to have given it.  Truth be told, this only recently became available in my locale (well…a few months back anyhow).  I drank it in gulps and guzzles on Islay a while back, but that was more an opportunity to get to know this oft-referenced blend than it was out of any sense of appreciation.

So why the solid rep and rather shining reviews from most?  To be honest…I’m not sure.

This blend is nothing more than ok.  Perhaps this is a batch variance issue.  I have seen a couple different bottlings (packaging and all), so who knows?  This, as I sit sipping, however is malty and feinty.  Very much like the smells in an Islay distillery.  Not surprisingly…some light smoke and very raw peat.  More restrained than you might imagine though.  I’ve read that the component malts are thought to be at least seven years old.  That should give you an idea as to how subtlely this will sit upon the nose/palate.  I’m sure digging a little deeper might elicit a fruit or two, but then again…maybe not.  Who cares though?  I don’t think that was the point.

A wee bit peat-healthier on the palate.  Salty.  I would guess this recipe is highly dependent on the Bunnahabhain for its profile.  Some very restrained fruitiness (though which fruits I couldn’t tell you) and a gooey honeyed sweetness round this one out.

Not bad.

Caveat!  Caveat!  Caveat!  Most of us are used to our Islay whiskies bold and as pungent as old gym socks.  Errrr…maybe just ashtrays and seaweed.  Either way, don’t expect that big mule kick to the noggin that ‘Islay’ usually infers.  This is much subtler, and pulls a Phantom act.  Half of its face is there to be admired….the other half hidden behind a mask of grains.

Overseas this stuff is cheap as borscht.  That certainly adds to the appeal when budget is a factor.  Here in Canada…~$50-55.  You can buy better for that kind of price point.

 

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 11:06 am
Jul 252012
 

A Few From Our Friends At Alberta Distillers Limited

Snugged in not far from the heart of Calgary, just miles from the foot of the Rockies, lies one of the whisky world’s most surprising little secrets.  Namely, Alberta Distillers Limited.

This very industrial looking distillery – leagues apart from the polished copper stills and tour-oriented distilleries of Scotland – is a deceptive little giant.  However, much like in Scotland, the people who run Alberta Distillers are the lifeblood of the company.  A while back a few members of the collective were fortunate enough to tour the distillery and were treated to an absolutely exceptional experience.  The ADL family welcomed us like long lost family members.  From initial contact with recently retired quality assurance manager Kathy Pitcho to our behind-the-scenes tour with Distiller Rick Murphy, this was a warm downhome experience.  The tour itself was both enlightening and entertaining, and the overall experience was every bit as memorable as any overseas distillery tour I’ve taken.

While it is easy to hunt and peck the web (or bookshops) for all the ins and outs of Scottish distillation, details regarding Canadian whisky production are a little more obscure.  This opportunity to spend some time with the faces behind the whisky we love was a treat.

After the tour proper, we were taken back to ADL’s tasting lounge for a dram (or four).  The lounge is a site you simply have to see.  Much like the throwback tasting room in a distillery like Lagavulin, this charming little sitting area is straight out of a time long gone.  Loved it.  As we settled in to sip a flight of whiskies, Distillery manager Rob Tuer joined us for a bit of blind tasting.

We were afforded the opportunity to sample a couple of (as yet) unbottled expressions, under the caveat that we not mention what was being experimented with, as well as an offering from the general release spectrum.  After a bit of fun, several laughs and a brilliant little bit of interaction, we were actually thanked for having asked to come (!!) and each sent off with a bottle of Alberta Premium and a nifty little gift.  Truly unbelievable.

It was great to see that the people at Alberta Distillers are as special as the whisky they make.

While this piece has been a long time in the making, I did sincerely want to take the opportunity to share a little bit about our hometown pride.

ADL’s flagship expression is Alberta Premium, a young 100% rye whisky, rich in spice and sweetness.  And while this whisky is a stunner in its own right, the distillery has also managed to awe the legions of Canadian whisky drinkers twice in the past couple of years.  First with a stunning 25 year old limited release, and then again last year with an equally winning 30 year old.

Stay tuned.  I happen to know there is a further surprise in the coming days.

A big ‘cheers’ from ATW to ADL!

 

 

Unaged Rye (aka ‘new make’ or ‘white dog’)

abv unknown

Nose:  Almond paste.  White chocolate.  Cherry.  Saltines.  Caramel corn.

Palate:  Popcorn.  Almond.  ‘Bitey’.  Silky Delivery, then…WHAM!!  Hottest spirit I have ever tried.  Salty and savoury.  Fast fade.

Thoughts & Impressions:  “A glass of Chuck Norris”

 

Alberta Premium

40% abv

Nose:  Mild artificial lemon.  Light cocoa.  Amazingly clean grain.  Vibrant.  Crunchy berry.  Caramel.

Palate:  Apple.  Sheaves of grain, dripping caramel.

Thoughts & Impressions:  One of the best Canadian spirits going.  And undoubtedly the best price point.  There is always a bottle of this at home.

 

Alberta Premium 25 y.o.

40% abv

Nose:  Lumberyard.  Fresh cut pine.  Dust.  Char and wax.  Bit o’ eucalyptus.  White pepper.  Old dunnage warehouse.  Very dry spiced fruit.  Vanilla.

Palate:  Pine and big grains.  A very mature 25.  More fruit than on the nose.

Thoughts & Impressions:  This has seen more wood than Pinnochio’s girlfriend.  Lovely and charming, and deserves undivided attention to discern all of the nuances.

 

 

Alberta Premium 30 y.o.

40% abv

Nose:  Deep char.  Almost a note of ‘burnt’.  Smells younger than the 25 y.o. expression, and the fruits are certainly more prevalent.  Orange and cherry.  Pine.  Creamy caramel

Palate:  Mature…smoky…waxy…oaky.  In essence…old.

Thoughts & Impressions:  I remember initially liking the 25 more than one.  Not so sure anymore.  Truly a fantastic offering from this distillery.  Up until recently was still available.  You’ll be hard pressed to find it now.

 

Alberta Springs 10 y.o.

40% abv

Nose:  Creamy.  Orange zest.  Gorgeous spice balance.  Rich caramel…bordering on over-toasted.  Sweet and ‘produced’.  Entirely pleasant…better yet…comfortable.

Palate:  Super sweet.  Midway carnival caramel apple.  Very sweet.  Clean and pleasantly spicy.

Thoughts & Impressions:  Hmm…tough one.  Something seems…not natural here.  Lovely, but don’t overthink it.

 

– ATW

– Photos:  Bottles & Glasses…Curt, Cask…Pat

 Posted by at 9:56 pm
Jul 222012
 

Highland Park 25 y.o.Bottle Shots 2 009

48.1% abv

Score:  91/100

 

Highland Park makes damn fine whisky.  And one of the neatest things about this distillery is that they make good whisky at almost any age.  The 12 year old flagship is an absolute go-to malt for many folk I know, while the older expressions are the things to serve kings and queens.  And the 18, of course, is oft considered one of the world’s great whiskies.

A few loping strides further along though, is where you start to see the majesty of this distillery.  As you enter the two decade mark for Highland Park (and beyond, if you’re one of the fortunate few), you’ll see a character almost unparalled.  Part of the reason for this is simply due to the fact that the spirit itself carries such a diverse profile.  At once honey sweet and richly smoky.  You’ll find complexity and individuality in any of the range’s expressions.  So…you can only imagine what happens when you allow a malt like this to take its time and mellow in the cask for a few extra years.

Bottled at a still healthy 48.1% abv, after 25 years in oak, this thick rich nectar is a beautiful brunette I’m more than happy to curl up with.  A real charmer, rich in huge notes of sherried fruits, faint billows of peat smoke and chocolate.  Complimentary notes are a soft dried fruitiness, honey nougat (think Toblerone) and a toffee creaminess.  Finally, there is a rich and comforting note of fine unlit cigar all over this whisky.  You’ll find a wee bit more smoke than peat (deep and dark smoke), though both are more restrained than in younger expressions, and fine layer of salt over it all.

A beautiful dram.  Really.

         

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 1:15 pm
Jul 182012
 

The story of the Brora distillery is a confusing one, so for the benefit of the great unwashed I will try and explain.  The Clynelish distillery was born in 1819 in Brora, Sutherland and operated under the name Clynelish distillery until 1968, after which the owner changed the name to the Brora distillery.  It then operated under the name Brora distillery until it was permanently closed in 1983.

Congruently in 1968, a new larger distillery called the Clynelish distillery had been built across the road by the same owner as the old Clynelish distillery, now the Brora Distillery.  The new Clynelish distillery was using the same production personnel, accessing the same water source and copied the same still design as the old Clynelish distillery.

The old Clynelish distillery, now called the Brora distillery, was not needed and was to be mothballed.  Because of drought conditions on Islay, the Port Ellen distillery could no longer meet the evil owners’ demands for peated whisky used in their blends so the Brora distillery was then used to produce a peated style of whisky to satisfy that requirement.  In 1983 such a surplus of whisky existed in Scotland that the Brora distillery was deemed surplus to demand and was finally put down, along with the Port Ellen distillery and a few others by the evil minions of Diageo.

Name changing is not new; history is full name changes.  In the case of the Brora distillery the owners changed the name for a reason, which I believe was to keep the well-respected name of Clynelish alive.  The past is full of other notable name changes to serve a purpose, some good, some twisted, while others are not so easily understood.  Some examples of other prominent name changes are:

– Gordon Matthew Sumner, after a run with the law, changed his name to Sting

– Anakin Skywalker was forced to change his name to Darth Vader

– Franc/Deutschmark/Peseta/Drachma/Kroner/Punt/Lire became the “Euro” and then became paper worth a little less.

– Prince Rogers Nelson was born a Prince, then abdicated to become a former Prince, then symbolized himself and finally we hope, kissed a frog and turned himself back into a Prince

– Marion Michael Morrison road into the sunset with the name John Wayne

– Brad’s Drink fizzed into Pepsi-Cola

– After the death of (Phil Krundle ) Landfill, his brother Gil Krundle took his place and then he changed his name to Landfill

– Ralph Lifshitz metamorphosed into Ralph Lauren

– Ernesto Guevara de la Serna had cause to become Che Guevara

– Cigarette brand giant Philip Morris Co. Inc., changed its name to the soothing and friendly Altria Group

 

So to honor this once great and now lost distillery, we gathered the Gang of Four (named after a failed attempt to gain control of Diageo through the voting stock at an annual meeting of the shareholders) together and sat down on a rainy June evening in Calgary to enjoy a range tasting of Brora malts.  We assembled together six wonderful Brora malts but the more things change the more they stay the same, which is why we included a Clynelish malt in with our Brora malt range tasting.  With each malt, we openly discussed tasting notes, mostly enjoyed each other’s company and noted our top four malts of the night.

 

 

Clynelish 14 year old

46% ABV

NOSE:  Candy sweet, citrus fruits, fresh cut grass, waxy.  Pepper and a hint of varnish.

TASTE:  Tart, ginger, again some citrus notes, salty and nutmeg.

FINISH:  Medium and drying at the end.

ASSESSMENT:  A change to a more peated version would do you good; yes a change would do you good.

 

Brora 21 Year Old 1977 / 1998

56.9% ABV

Rare Malts Series Bottle #2758

NOSE:  Creamy caramel, bit winey. Lemons, oranges and some spice.

TASTE:  Lemon drops, soft wood smoke, black liquorice and very honey sweet at the end.

FINISH:  Medium-long.  Lovely delicate dram.

ASSESSMENT:  Ch-Ch-Changes pretty soon you’re gonna get a little older, time may change me but I can’t make Diageo reopen the distillery and produce a great younger malt as this.  Tied for the second place malt of the night with the 32 year old.

 

Brora 30 Year Old 1975 / 2005 

56.3% ABV

Special Release Series Bottle #2155 of 3000

NOSE:  Caramel, musty, elegant smoke and lemons.

TASTE:  Pepper, citrus, peaty, black liquorice and a hint of eucalyptus.

FINISH:  Long and lingering.  The English refugee in the gang said “you like this because it reminds you of Port Ellen”, mocking me for my love of Port Ellen (Note to self…must check with Canadian immigration to see if he’s in the country legally).

ASSESSMENT:  Don’t go changing to try and please me you never let me down before, release 2005 I said I love you and that’s forever and it’s a promise from the heart, I couldn’t love you any better, I love you just the way you are.  Have tried numerous bottles of Brora over the years, and the 2005 has always been my favorite and was again rated hands up the number one favorite of the night.

 

Brora 25 Year Old 1983 / 2008

56.3% ABV

Special Release Series Bottle #352 of 3000

NOSE:  Farmy and floral, burned butter, oranges.

TASTE:  Very herbal, smoky, citrus and bit briny.

FINISH:  Medium and little salty at the end.

ASSESSMENT:  Diageo now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over and had me believing it was always something that Calgary had done and I don’t wanna live that way now, Brora you’re just a distillery that I used to know.

 

Brora 30 Year Old 1979 / 2009

53.2% ABV

Special Release Series Bottle #893 of 2652

NOSE:  Cherries and oranges, vanilla, candied fruit, sensuous smoke and a little farmy.

TASTE:  Liquorice, green apple tart, lemons.  Where did that complex nose go.

FINISH:  Medium to long and a little oaky at the end.

ASSESSMENT:  We love the peated malt so we keep waiting, waiting on the distillers to change it’s hard to be persistent, when we’re standing at a distance so we keep waiting, waiting on the distillers to change.

 

Brora 32 Year Old 1979 / 2011

54.7% ABV

Special Release Series  Bottle #1353 of 1500

NOSE:  Sweet cherries, lots-o-fruit, lemon and eucalyptus.  Farmy and grassy with infused smoky notes.

TASTE:  Very herbal, pepper and briny.  Citrus notes.  Oily and lots of tannins.  Lots of focused layers to be found on the palate.

FINISH:  Medium to long and a touch briny at the end.

ASSESSMENT:  There were times when I thought the Brora stocks would last for long but now I think they can’t carry on it’s been a long, a long time coming but I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will and Brora will live on only in our memories.  Tied with the 21 year old as the second favorite of the night, although the 32 year old had more number 1&2 votes combined.

 

Brora 30 Year Old 1976 / 2007

57.5% ABV

Douglas Laing Old & Rare Platinum Bottle #63 of 109

NOSE:  Succulent ripe cherries, lemon & lime. Farmy and a little musty.

TASTE:  Black liquorice, delicate peat smoke and a bit briny.  Citrus notes and some raisin.  Waves of taste.

FINISH:  Medium to long. Little oaky at the end, although still very pleasant.

ASSESSMENT:  If the stocks of Brora were to leave here tomorrow, would you still remember the taste and if Brora were to reopen things just wouldn’t be the same cause this new Brora would be a different malt and this malt you shouldn’t change, lord knows it shouldn’t change.  Great showing for this malt and was rated a strong number four of the night.

 

– As always, your humble drudge, Maltmonster

 

A Calgarian went to see a judge in order to change his name.  The judge asked what his name was.  The man said, “My name is John Edmontonsucks.”

The judge says, “I can see why you want to change your name, but what do you want to change it to?”

……………………….“Michael Edmontonsucks”

 Posted by at 7:48 pm
Jul 182012
 

Macallan Fine Oak 10 y.o.

40% abv

Score:  80/100

 

Yawn.  Underwhelmed.  Where is the Macallan of fame and repute that so made the eyes of Michael Jackson (ahem…not that MJ) light up?  Sadly…not here.

This is not a bad whisky by any stretch of the imagination.  It is simply nothing special, and absolutely does not stand up to the Macallan name.  There is a vaccuum of character.  Nothing really ‘off’ here…just don’t expect to be ‘wowed’.

Very Speyside in character (excepting the lack of a nice deep rich sherry wood which may have ratcheted this up a notch or two), with dusty oak and red fruits leading the barley train.  Found this one to be a little dry and figgy as well.  Also on the nose:  a hint of orange…some honeyed woods…cereal…and in all honesty, rather sharp and thin.  Macallan promises so much more.

This pale young’un carries that thinness over to the palate as well, though arrives with a bit more bite than I would have expected.   Not a lot of subtlety.  Youthful and kicking.  The high notes from the citrus here are pleasant however.  It mellows rapidly in the glass and allows the ‘woody’ profile to bully its way to the forefront.  Indeed this seems quite young.  The finish, mostly oak notes, is relatively short.

Overall it comes across as a little too simple, underdeveloped and underpowered for me, but charm finally comes with the balance after 15 or 20 minutes in the glass.

As I said…not bad.

 

Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 7:10 pm
Jul 152012
 

Greetings, friends.

You may have noticed that ATW has been getting updates in fits and starts.  This was bound to cause problems.  Perhaps I should have done what I did on sister site, Liquorature, and simply pulled out all the old content while I did my updates.  Who knows.  Of course Liquorature is a different beast.  It is a site focused on books, spirits and intellect.  All Things Whisky is a site focused on…yep…nectar of the gods.

So…what is the issue?  Well…simple.  I set up ATW wrong when I launched it.  Now I’m fixing it.  While I migrate content from the right hand side of the page (the reviews many of you frequent..and thankee!) to the left (cleaner and more logical), I have left the old reviews visible.  No big deal in and of itself.

However…

Many of those reviews (and especially tasting notes) are waaaaaaay out of date.  Any good taster should have no issue admitting he needs to recalibrate from time to time.  Some of those reviews were from very early on in my tasting ‘career/endeavor’….in some cases even migrated over from the old site.  Inherently a problem all new tasters/bloggers encounter is over-generosity in scoring.  I am in the process of righting the ship now.  The reviews on the left hand side of the screen have marks and notes that I will stand behind.  Those on the right…err…let’s just say those will only be there as long as it takes me to peel them out and update.

At this point I have sipped hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of malts (working towards the first 1000).  The lowest of the low to the highest of high.  Hopefully the reviews herein will speak to that.  Where you take exception…please do drop a line.

…and yes…there are hundreds more reviews coming.

In the meantime…patience, friends…all will be tidy round here soon.

Slainte!

– ATW

 Posted by at 4:34 pm
Jul 152012
 

Calgary’s Andrew Ferguson is an interesting guy.  Truly.

This year marks his tenth anniversary as the ‘Scotch Guy’ at Kensington Wine Market.  In that time he has managed to expand the whisky selection from an initial tableau of 60 expressions to upwards of 300 bottles.  And while quantity tells part of the tale, quality tells the rest, as KWM’s selection is really second to none in the city.  New malts are always en route, often exclusive to the shop, and often sell out rather quickly.

Andrew has made a point of keeping his friends close (and in the case of the Maltmonster…his enemies closer) and it is this engagement with us schmoes that has made him not only the premier whisky retailer in Canada, but also a great guy to call a friend.  Case in point is his dilligence in involving customers in tastings of cask samples to aid in cask selection.  KWM regularly purchases and bottles exclusive casks from some of the world’s greatest distillers.

In February of 2007 Andrew launched the Calgary Chapter of the Companions of the Quaich with an inaugural dinner at Buchanan’s Chop House.  This little enterprise now boasts a membership of some of Calgary’s most entertaining and interesting individuals, and events never fail to be anything less than memorable (and chock full of perfect blackmail moments).

The following year, 2008, Andrew started Ferguson’s Whisky Tours.  A couple times a year he leads a handful of enthusiasts across the pond to tour some of Scotland’s best distilleries.  These tours are not your ordinary whisky jaunts.  Andrew’s industry connections and personal passion have led to some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for those who sign up.

Of course, someone with their finger held so tightly to the pulse of the blood of Scotland is bound to be recognized by the industry at some point.  Indeed, April 2011, the Keepers of the Quaich opened their arms to Andrew and toasted him with a dram of anCnoc 16 for his inauguration.

Here’s an opportunity to listen to a guy that has managed to turn his passions into a career.  Not many of us can say that.

 

 

ATW:  First things first…everyone starts somewhere.  What was the catalyst that got you interested in whisky, and at what point did it become more than just an interest? 

AF:  A friend in University got me hooked with a bottle of Lagavulin 16 Year. I didn’t know at the time what I liked about it, I just liked it. So I started buying the odd bottle in University when I had the sheckles, and I recall Bowmore, Bunnahabhain and Lagavulin being my favourites. I started at Kensington Wine Market in 2001, with the intention of just sticking around for a few months until I could get back on my feet and then get a real job. I’d been away travelling and had shut down a painting business I was not enjoying. As it turned out, I was able to create my own career here with the support of an understanding boss. As clichéd as it may sound, it was a very natural and organic process and I never really saw it coming. It just happened!

 

ATW:  You’ve managed to turn a passion into a career.  Something not a lot of people can say.  How did this development come about?

AF:  It really happened of its own volition. I had never started out with a plan to be a Scotch expert, and even in the early years while I was getting my feet and growing my reputation I never really intended to stay the course. I planned to go back to school, get a business degree and land a real job. I envisioned working at a desk somewhere that would allow me to moonlight and sell whisky. But I love the job I have, and it continued to grow in terms of expectations, opportunities and responsibilities; it’s been impossible to let go of it. By far the most rewarding thing about the job is the relationships and friendships which have grown out of it. This is a big part of what has kept me so attached to this place.

 

ATW:  Tell me a little history about Ferguson’s Whisky Tours.  What led to you setting up this enterprise? 

AF:  It started out as a way to cover the cost of my trip to Scotland and also a way to share my experiences with others. I first made a pilgrimage to Scotland in 2006 and fell in love with the country, and even more so with Scotch whisky. I spent the better part of three weeks visiting as many distilleries as I could, wrote a travel blog and immersed myself in the experience. It was a wonderful trip, but lonely as well. I had people from distilleries to welcome and host me, and take me for dinner, but it was a relatively solitary experience. When I started talking with my employer about going back in 2008, she suggested I take a group with me of some of my customers. Around the same time a few of these people had expressed interest in and were encouraging me to put together a tour. I took my first group in 2008, and it was an incredible experience and a huge hit. Some of my fondest memories are from that trip. The next year in 2009 I split it off as a side business and started organizing and guiding trips. It has really taken a life of its own from there and I am currently in the process of building a new website. Both my trips in May are full and I have a lot of people inquiring about trips this fall.

 

ATW:  Can you share a few of the bigger successes, personal highlights and maybe humorous mishaps in launching Ferguson’s Whisky Tours?

AF:  There have been so many highlights that it would seem hard to select a few, let alone one. Tasting the White Bowmore in the Number 1 Vaults at Bowmore certainly would be near the top. We were the first people outside the company to taste the follow up to the Black Bowmore. Jackie Thompson at Ardbeg opening the mill and getting covered with flour is another memorable moment. She was guiding another group and I in May 2011, and was telling a story of the time a group asked her to open the mill and how her black outfit had been covered in flour! I had to remind her that it was my fault… There have been some other funny moments like stone I drove over on Arran which cracked our vans oil pan, the time I awoke sleep walking in the hallway of my Edinburgh hotel and the time one of my guest ran along the side of the slow moving van in the rain to enjoy a cigarette (he tripped over a road construction sign). But the funniest moment had to be the German singing an a capella song in English that he had written about his trip to Bowmore. It wasn’t so much that his song was funny, but he was one of 40 of the most motley crew of Germans imaginable (he was by far the most straight laced), and the buildup to this song was something out of a British sitcom. It was one of those you had to be there moments, I was trying so hard not to laugh that I started crying and had to step outside and just let it out. The next day as we were walking up the malting floor stairs at the distiller we saw the Canadian flag being raised while the German flag was lying in a crumpled heap on the ground. It all came flooding back! They turned out to be good guys, but the scenario was so bizarre,.

Did the Malt Monster ask this question? Ask him why he turned down a glass of the 10th Release Port Ellen in Craigellachie? That’s a good story too!

 

ATW:  Though I imagine each time out is a unique endeavor, what can a guest on one of your tours reasonably expect to experience?

AF:  Each tour is unique, and obviously the whiskies change with time. Basically they can expect to get the best tour and tasting the distilleries, or independent bottlers are willing to offer, excellent food, interesting company and generally a great time. I pride myself on putting on the kind of tour I’d want to be a part of. Small, focused on whisky, but ready to have a good time. I look after all the details from the time the guest is picked up in Edinburgh or Glasgow on the Sunday morning until the tour concludes on Saturday night with a dinner at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. Along the way they will see the best whiskies and distilleries the region has to offer (I currently do three tours: Islay, Speyside and one which covers the Orkneys and Nothern Highlands) as well as the most important points of interest. I also where possible try to leave enough time for at least one round of golf, weather permitting. In 2013 I am hoping to offer my first Japanese whisky tour.

 

ATW:  It is unarguable that the mass appeal of whisky has broadened over the past few years.  The reputation Scotch has had as an ‘old boys’ drink has been somewhat eradicated by a slew of interest from the younger spheres, a greater balance in the sexes and aggressive marketing to a younger demographic.  This is all bound to affect the output from the distilleries, in terms of flavor profile, volume, cost and overall quality. Do you see this working for or against the intrinsic quality of good whisky?

AF:  Interesting question. The biggest driver right now is the growth in the BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Distilleries, especially the bigger ones are falling all over themselves to increase production to take advantage of the rapidly expanding markets, especially in the East. While some of the smaller placers are catering whiskies to appeal to certain demographics the bigger players are only concerned with one thing, getting as big a piece of the new markets as they can. And the consequences are already been seen, stock shortages in existing markets and price increases. This leaves me with several concerns: firstly, that quality will suffer, especially from the bigger producers as their production increases; secondly, that rapid and large price increases, especially among the older and rarer expressions, will shift consumer interest to other products; thirdly, that the industry is expanding so rapidly that it is creating yet another bubble (like those of the late 1890’s and late 1970’s) which will eventually pop. The last of these concerns me the most. 

 

ATW:  When you encounter someone in the shop (link to KWM) who is new to whisky how do you generally determine where to lead them and help them make their purchase?

AF:  I have a couple of go to whiskies for the neophyte, like the Arran 10 or the Glenmorangie Original. The key is to start them off with something soft but flavorful. First impressions are very important, you don’t want to ruin whisky for them so in my mind the key is to start with something easy to appreciate. Generally we’ll offer them a sample to see if they like it, and based on their response I’ll generally know which direction to take them. What’s really interesting is giving a tasting with a group of beginners, people who’ve never tried or enjoyed whisky. Taking them through a flight of six whiskies I find that if you start with the lighter softer ones and build into progressively stronger tasting whiskies almost everyone will be able to enjoy peated and cask strength whiskies. What I take away from this is that the manner in which you present them to people, and the order, is just as important as the strength and flavour.

 

ATW:  One of Kensington Wine Market’s (link to KWM) greatest features, I hear repeatedly, is that there is always the opportunity to ‘try before you buy’.  The open bottles in the shop are of all ages and price points.  How do you make it financially viable to open so many whiskies, and do you see the return in what the average shopper takes home?

AF:  This is one of our competitive advantages, and I certainly don’t want to give away all of our secrets. We do pride ourselves on having open bottles of most of our whiskies available for customers to sample. This started out organically and has really taken on a life of its own. I conduct most of my own tastings, rather than relying on agents, suppliers and brand ambassadors to do them for me. I don’t think there are many stores where this is the case. This means the heels, the partially full leftover whiskies stay in the shop, making them available for customers to sample them. Eight years ago when we first started offering samples I might have had a dozen whiskies available for sampling at any given time. It really caught on with our customers and word spread. As business grew we were able to offer more tastings which meant more heels.

The bottles we have  open are a reflection of the tastings we offer, which range from $35 introductory tastings to my Ancient Malts Tastings which cost $200-300/person and many others in between. The Ancient Malts are to the best of my knowledge unrivaled in Canada, featuring whiskies like: The Macallan 50 Year Lallique, Black Bowmore 1964, Gold Bowmore 1964, Auchentoshan 1957 50 Year (both casks) and the Gordon & MacPhail Generations Glenlivet 1940 70 Year (tied for the world’s oldest whisky) to name just a few. In late March of this year we offered an Ancient Malts Tasting featuring seven 40 year old whiskies. I don’t know any other business which is doing this.

Being able to sample a whisky, at $50, $100, $200, $500 or $22,000/bottle, before you buy it gives the customer the confidence that they are making the right decision. Especially if it is my recommendation.

 

ATW:  Something you’ve driven hard through KWM (link) is the importance of having exclusivity of product and purchasing your own casks.  This is obviously a brilliant tool in helping overcome competitors and chains that may be able to undercut a smaller store by way of volume purchasing.  Can you share a bit about what determines your cask selections and what goes into obtaining a portfolio of exclusive bottlings?

AF:  The Alberta liquor industry is a relatively even playing field, at least in theory, all stores have to be given the same price on every product regardless of volume. We believe our  prices are fair, and in line with our major competitors. Exclusives and single cask purchases build interest and mark us out as whisky specialists. We are especially careful about how we choose our casks, because we want our customers to be confident that we will always sell them whiskies of superior quality and interest. Ultimately I will make the final decision when selecting a cask, but I try to involve others in the process whom I recognize as having good palates. At the end of  the day we select our own private bottlings, and this above all else guarantees quality.

In addition to our private bottlings we do aggressively go after obtaining exclusive distribution of certain whiskies. Our customers like variety, and this is one way we are able to provide it to them. The exclusive opportunities come from hard work and relationship building. Whether it is with our customers, suppliers or the producers, relationship is everything. 

 

ATW:  What is the most personally rewarding aspect of being in the position you are in, as regards the running of the club, the tours, the shop, etc?

AF:  Without a doubt the friendships which have grown out of the business: customers, agents and brand ambassadors. I count many of these people among my closest and most trusted friends. There is a thriving whisky subculture, and I love being one of the cogs around which it turns in Calgary and Canada.

 

ATW:  Being on the frontlines, and watching the evolution of the whisky Industry, what trends do you see consumers moving towards?  Away from?

AF:  More and more women are getting interested in whisky, though I think there is still a lot of room to educate, grow and serve this demographic. As far as customers shifts I see two divergent trends: firstly, a growth in collecting and secondly, a shift away from brand loyalty. The first, collecting is still on the up, with the major brands leading the way. Some of them I fear are pushing the collectability too far, with the risk they will slay the Golden Goose. But it is the second trend which interests me more. Customers at this end of the spectrum are increasingly less brand loyal and more focused on quality than age or price. Cask strength, unchillfiltered, single cask and naturally coloured whiskies are the future. Whiskies bottled at 40 and 43% with added caramel colouring are the past and rapidly losing market share to the others. Some companies site tradition, fear of alienating customers and cost as reasons to continue these practices, but I don’t buy them. I think they are assuming the consumers aren’t educated in these regards, and that may be the case now but it’s changing. They should be looking to the next generation of whisky drinkers, not just the current ones. Customers are becoming better and better educated, and those distilleries that recognize this trend and respond to it will do better than the others in the long run.

 

ATW:  Which distilleries do you see making the greatest inroads with the consumer right now, and in what ways?

AF:  Small and independent distilleries are the hottest products right now. Firstly, because they have largely bought into the single cask, non chillfiltered, no added  colouring and cask strength trends while the larger companies have not. And secondly, because they are more creative and willing to experiment. There are some bigger players which have started to move in these directions, but they are the exception. Most large players are focused on gaining market share in new markets rather than growing and developing their existing markets. This may pay off for them globally, but it will cost them market share in their existing markets; and already is. Of the smaller players I think Glendronach and BenRiach are the two most dynamic right now. Some of their single cask offerings are spectacular, but also limited. Springbank has long been ahead of the curve on all four fronts, and is still doing well, though it concerns me that they seem to be a distillery with a lack of ambition. They seem to be comfortable with who they are and what they’re doing but have little desire to build on that. I love how the distillery is small, traditional and family owned, and that it is such a big part of the local community. It also makes great whisky, I’d just like to see them take that concept are grow it. They used to be a real leader, and I’d like to see them return to that perch. They have so much potential…

 

ATW:  With so much of your livelihood tied up in whisky, is it still possible to simply sit down and enjoy a dram?  What are a couple favorite ‘downtime’ drams for you?

AF:  Working in an industry where I am exposed to alcohol on a daily basis, it would surprise people to learn how seldom I drink at home. I love micro brewed beer, and good wine, but my drink of choice is still single malt Scotch whisky. When I do have a dram or two, my favourites are generally Bowmore, Ardbeg and Port Ellen. In the last year though I’ve really developed a taste for sherryed Speyside whiskies like Glenfarclas and Glendronach. My preference is generally for cask strength, sherry cask and peated whiskies.

 

ATW:  What is your favorite whisky experience to date?  What is on the bucket list to top it?

AF:  Opening the Macallan Lallique 50 Year live on CBC radio and tasting it blind for the first time was a big moment. It was by a factor of 10 the most expensive bottle I had ever opened and the genesis of much of what has followed over the last 5 years. My second was the sampling of the White Bowmore 1964 in the No.1 Vaults Warehouse at Bowmore on Islay during my first group whisky tour in 2008. We were the first people outside the company to have the opportunity to sample the whisky, and to do so in the holy of holies. It was an experience I will never forget.

As for my bucket list, I would like to eventually visit every distillery in Scotland, of which there are a little over 100.To date I’ve been to 70 or so. I am also looking forward to touring the whisky distilleries of Japan.

 

ATW:  Final question…is there any sort of protocol you have in place for dealing with problem customers?  Like say, some dirty Irish folk from Edmonchuk?

AF:  Patience, lots and lots of patience.

 

– ATW

 Posted by at 3:59 pm
Jul 152012
 

Glenkinchie 10 y.o.

43% abv

Score:  83.5/100

 

Good friend, neighbor and bandmate, Jay, brought this over on a whisky night I threw together for the guys a while back.

Wandering around a local liquor store, with his iPhone as a reference tool, he found a couple of solid reviews for this whisky.  Enough, anyway, to convince him to make the investment.  Well…it ended up being a long night, and by the end of it Jay had gotten pretty deep into this bottle, and unfortunately for him, he hasn’t been able to touch it since.  The last couple ounces are now in my cabinet, sans the dram in my glass which I am working on right now.

Though I was pleasantly surprised that night, I must concede a less than pure palate when I first tasted it.  Not only had I been sipping a myriad of whiskies, I had most recently been enjoying a glass of Laphroaig and a Cojiba.  My tastebuds were already singing loud and long before I even got to this whisky.

It was truly a pleasant surprise to open the bottle this eve and be reminded of why I enjoyed this.  Light, not overly complex, yet smooth and enjoyable.  Good beginner’s whisky.

On the nose it is easy to pick out individual notes.  Something bittersweet like maybe grannysmith apples first.  Some oak, buttery caramel, malt and sweet hay.  A bit grassy and herbal.  Puts me in an autumn frame of mind.

On the palate it arrives with a bit of heat, but quickly mellows into flavors of distant maltiness, oak and prairie grasses.  The sweetness is much more prevalent on the nose than the palate, though you still get a green fruitiness on the tongue.  There is an herbal note, somewhat akin to a good sauvignon blanc, that often defines the Lowland whiskies, which seems uncharacteristically tame in this whisky.

It is a rather thin dram, not much in the way of coat-your-mouth-goodness, with a medium finish.  Last note to fade is a nutty oakiness.

My second impression of this bottle was almost as good as the first.  Nothing I would rave about, but a bottle I would have no problem paying for.  One of the better young Lowland whiskies I’ve met to date.

Final note:  Apparently being a part of Diageo’s enormous stable means only about 10% of Glenkinchie’s production is bottled as single malt.  The other 90% ends up in blends.  A shame really.

         

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 3:37 pm
Jul 152012
 

Forty Creek Barrel Select

40% abv

Score:  87.5/100

 

Oh man, is this nice.  The sweet smells and flavors of fresh baking.  All of my early memories, heavy laden with Canadiana and prairie life, are brought forth with a vengeance.  Gramma making homemade bread and buns, sweet fruitcakes, grains and cereals…farmlife.  Serious nostalgia here.

Forty Creek is a blended Canadian whisky produced in Grimsby, Ontario from rye, barley and corn.  According to wiki, each grain is fermented, distilled and aged separately (between 6 and 10 years) before vatting.  Some of these are sherry-finished.  Unique and interesting.  Just like the whisky itself.

For the malt enthusiasts out there…c’mon…branch out.  Live a little.  Canadian whisky can be quite stunning, and for the minimal investment required to nab a decent bottle (<$30), what have you got to lose?  It is a refreshing change, and adds an element of smooth, sweet and unbelievably rich flavor to your whisky collection.

Back to the Barrel Select…

The nose carries the downhome scents of oven-fresh baked goods, as mentioned, but rounds these out with a whiff of smoke, creamy caramel and shake of vanilla and nutmeg.  Yeah…it really is that nice.  Most of this is also be found on the palate, with a bit of chocolate and fruit as well.  The depth of this whisky and the waves of intensity are surprising considering this is a mere 40% abv.

The finish is of medium length and carries lingering chocolate.  Damn, is this nice.

Rewarding and satisfying.

         

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 3:08 pm
Jul 152012
 

McClelland’s Lowland

40% abv

Score:  62/100

 

Not only dull and flat, but actually unpleasant.

It is surprisingly difficult to write about bad whisky.  There is so much in a good scotch to admire and speak about…so many brilliant qualities to draw attention to.  Unfortunately…very few of those are to be found in this bottle.

I want to start out by saying that I truly appreciate what McClelland’s (owned by Morrison Bowmore) is trying to do here.  This series of bottlings are an attempt at creating an entry level line of whiskies, wherein each bottling represents a distinct scotch whisky producing region (Islay, Highland, Lowland, etc).  Though they haven’t necessarily failed in capturing some of the dominant characteristics of said regions, they have left out one important ingredient.  Quality.

There are some deep, dark unpleasant notes on the nose here.  Something bitterly floral/weedy and pungent.  Almost feinty.  It is razor-sharp and zesty, lacking any form of subtlety.  I get a touch of peppery something-or-other as well.  Nothing seems to work in harmony here.  A little time in the glass mellows the pungency a bit, but does nothing to address the off notes.

Tastewise…well…a little better, actually.  It has an alcoholic bite that affirms its youth, and delivers buckets of floral notes and bitter greens.  Still not good, but better than what you get with your nose in the glass.  From here, the finish is all heather and meadows, and thankfully short.

It is hard for me to say that, as for a whisky to earn high marks from me, it must have a long finish that doesn’t deliver sour notes at the end.

Unfortunately, not a lot to say on a positive front here.  Steer clear.

…and for those curious…if you care to know which distilleries are actually producing these young malts of the McClelland’s line…look no further than the stable of Suntory’s malts.

         

– Reviewed by:  Curt

– Photo:  Curt

 Posted by at 2:53 pm