Category Archives: Scotch

Review: Tasting Whiskey, by Lew Bryson

On the cover of Lew Bryson’s Tasting Whiskey, there’s a quote from the whiskey writer Charles Cowdery: “I shouldn’t say this is the only whiskey book you need, but it probably is.”

Mr. Cowdery’s reticence is understandable; he writes whiskey books, and he wants to maintain his comfortable lifestyle. I don’t know if I’d go so far as Cowdery. I’ve read some damn fine whiskey books in my years as a tippler, and I’d recommend them all.

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But I will say this much: this is the book you want and need if you’re just starting out in whiskey.

Bryson maps the major styles of whiskey, from bourbon to rye to Canadian, from Irish to Scotch to Japanese, and from craft to the various world whiskeys (that is, from growing markets such as India and Taiwan). He describes what sets the various styles apart from one another; so, for example, he details the grains that are in each style, the barrels it’s aged in, the climates and warehouses that hold it, and the length of time its aged.

Scotch, for example, is made primarily or exclusively from malted barley; it’s aged in used barrels (normally bourbon, but with some sherry and other wine casks tossed in for additional flavor); it ages in a cooler climate that enables longer aging; and it can age for up to 30 years or more without getting too woody.

Bourbon, conversely, is made primarily from corn, with other grains in the mix to add accent flavors; it ages in new oak barrels that impart more woodiness than do scotch’s used barrels; it ages in a warmer climate that ages it more rapidly than Scotland’s cooler climate; and therefore, it usually reaches its peak at roughly 10-12 years.

Each individual style is different, and Bryson masterfully explains how those differences affect the flavors of the finished product.

Every whiskey drinker starts somewhere. I started with bourbon and moved to scotch and then rye and on to other styles. When I started drinking scotch, I couldn’t begin to understand what made it unique until I started reading books that helped me puzzle it all out. Tasting Whiskey is such a book.

Its other strength is the infographics the book uses to illustrate some rather complicated concepts. I write about whiskey, and so I know that it’s not always easy to describe, in words, the effects of barrel aging, or how barrel placement in a warehouse affects how quickly or slowly the whiskey ages. These infographics, illustrated masterfully by Andrew Heath, demonstrate these concepts concisely and thoroughly.

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Excerpted from Tasting Whiskey (c) Lew Bryson. Illustrations by (c) Andrew Heath. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

After describing the major styles, Bryson then provides advice on how to drink the stuff, in an enjoyable chapter on water, ice, and cocktails. Is it okay to drink your whiskey with a bit of water? Bryson tells you. On the rocks or neat? He has some answers for that as well. Cocktails? Of course! What I enjoyed about this chapter was how conversational and story-oriented it was. No recipes at all, just a description of how to make a damn good Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

I’ve met Bryson in person; we were in Kentucky together earlier this year for Jimmy Russell’s anniversary celebration at Wild Turkey. He impressed me with his approachable and avuncular temperament, and that personality shines through this book.

If you’re new to whiskey, and you need a friendly guide to the topic, Bryson’s book is for you. But if you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll still find this book to be enjoyable and useful. I learned quite a bit from it.

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book, and Lew Bryson is a personal friend of mine.

Sipping Scotch in Sophistication

Ever had a whisky older than you? Opportunities such as this don’t come along very often, especially as “you” get older and older and older. When I was in my 20s, for example, finding 30-year-old scotches was relatively easy and only relatively expensive. Now that I’m 45, though, finding a 50-year-old scotch is not just logistically difficult; it’s expensive by nearly anyone terms.

Case in point: the inaugural release of the Glenlivet Winchester Collection, barreled in 1964 and bottled for release this year. Want one? Sell your children; only 100 bottles are available worldwide, and each bottle will run you $25,000.

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But what a bottle. Each bottle is hand-blown glass, capped with a silver stopper, and accented with gold. The bottle sits in a cabinet with a lock and a hidden key, just in case you don’t sell the kids and one of them tries to sneak a sip.

I had a chance to sample one of the 100 bottles this past Wednesday, at a dinner at Le Bernadin. Along with about 30 other journalists, I had a fantastic multi-course meal with wine pairings, punctuated by samples from the Glenlivet range: the 18, XXV (25), and 50.

All three scotches are typical of the Glenlivet style–honeyed, lightly fruity, tasting of toffee and a hint of barley malt, and only the barest, lightest hint of smoke. The 1964 was barreled in used bourbon casks, and for the age it has on it, it didn’t taste woody at all. I found that, all told, it had lighter, more subtle flavors than the 18 or XXV, though I was enjoying it after rounds of seafood and wine, and so my palate may have been a bit dulled.

All in all, this is clearly a whisky for collectors. Scotch, after all, is a luxury good, and all luxury markets have to cater to the collector segment. Glenlivet has put together a beautiful package and a tasty dram. If only I had the $25,000. Anyone in the market for kids?

5 Essential Scotch Cocktails

Next time you’re at the gym or the salon or the grocery, and someone says it’s a sacrilege to mix Scotch into a cocktail, promise me you’ll grab that person, take him or her out back, and…

[Want to know my picks for five essential Scotch cocktails? Read on!]

Ads of the Week: Johnnie Walker in the 1960s

Unless you’ve been asleep this week, you’ve probably noticed that AMC’s Mad Men is returning to TV after a nearly 2-year hiatus. What you might not know is that Newsweek magazine this week has turned retro, reverting to its 1960s-era design and featuring advertisements in a 1960s style. You can browse those ads here, and in general, I think the advertisers mostly did a good job. I especially like the ads for Dunkin’ Donuts, Hush Puppies, John Hancock, Allstate, Lincoln Continental, and BOAC.

But I love the Johnnie Walker ad, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since I’ve featured ol’ John’s ads here before. Here it is, in the largest resolution I could get:

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How accurate is it? Well, let’s find out. Here’s a real JWR ad from Ebony magazine, circa 1965 (click through to see it full size):

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I’d say that’s pretty impressive, right? The layout’s the same, much of the copy is the same (or similar), and even the mildly suggestive nature of the photography is the same. I’d perhaps wager the Newsweek version is a reproduction of an actual Walker ad, updated slightly to reflect minor detail changes, except that I can’t find it on Google Books. (At least one change merits mention: JW in 1965 was 86.8 proof; today, it’s 80. Apparently, the proof level changed around 2000.)

UPDATE: I was right. Ad Age confirms that this is an actual JW ad that originally ran in the 1960s.

As a bonus, here’s another 1960s JW ad, this one from Life (again, click through for larger image):

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Hm. Seems a little sexist, but I love the simple, clean design.

Johnnie Walker Double Black Review

Man, it’s like I forgot there was a blog around here. I guess there’s something about a newborn baby that distracts a man from writing.

Some time ago, I received a package from Johnnie Walker, sent to me for review purposes. Inside was a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black, two rocks glasses, coasters, and a bottle of the walking man’s newest offering, Johnnie Walker Double Black. Released last year into the duty-free market, Double Black makes its U.S. debut in time for holiday entertaining and gift giving.

I’ve grown very fond of ol’ John over the last few years, so I was eager to try this. At first, I wasn’t impressed. You see, the idea behind Double Black is to bring more of the smoky smoothness of an Islay malt to the Walker mix, while still retaining the sweet but complex maltiness that makes Johnnie Johnnie. I have to admit, on my first sip, I thought the idea was better in theory than in execution. I love a smoky scotch and would go miles out of my way for Laphroaig or Compass Box’s Peat Monster.

And maybe that’s where I set up myself, and Double Black, to fail. At first I felt that John’s new dram was schizophrenic, smoothly sweet and smoky but in a way that failed to highlight the best aspects of both. But as I tried it again (and again), I came to a different conclusion. As I taste the new blend now, it reminds me on first sip of vanilla and toffee with light heather notes. The smoke now seems more integrated and–forgive me for using this word, but it’s accurate–holistic. Some whiskies just need some attention before you can appreciate them.

Review: Dalmore

For reasons that may become clear soon, it’s been a busy time around here and this site has suffered. But sometimes life just gets in the way of blogging.

Onward to Dalmore.

Back in, oh, December, I received a package with various samples of Jura and Dalmore for review purposes. Dalmore’s a Highland malt, and the house style seems to be a well-balanced whisky, with very little smoke. This style allows other flavors to come to the fore. I think the Dalmore range in general would be a great choice as an introductory scotch, especially for people who really enjoy bourbon. I had several bottlings of Dalmore to review, and although I didn’t find them to range in flavor as widely as the Jura bottlings I tasted earlier, they did show a subtle variance in flavor and aroma from bottling to bottling. Here are the styles I tasted:

  • Dalmore 12
  • Dalmore 15
  • Dalmore 18
  • Dalmore Gran Reserva
  • Dalmore 1263 King Alexander III

Dalmore 12

40% abv.

Color: Amber-gold.

Nose: Malt, toffee, honey, caramel, mild smoke, vanilla, coffee.

Tasting notes: Floral, mildly heathery. Hint of seaweed. Orange and a bit of chocolate. Walnut and pecan on finish.

Dalmore 15

40% abv.

Color: Bronze.

Nose: Very similar to that of the 12.

Tasting notes: Less hot at the front of the palate than the 12. Notes of chocolate, hazelnut biscotti, and white pepper. Orange zest and winter spice. A little winy, probably attributable to the sherry casks it’s aged in.

Dalmore 18

43% abv.

Color: Bronze

Nose: Again, similar to the 12 and 15, but a little woodier.

Tasting notes: Almond, iodine, oak, chocolate, and orange zest. Wine is more pronounced than in 15.

Dalmore Gran Reserva

40% abv.

No age statement, but said to be bottled from whiskies aged 10 – 15 years.

Nose: Honey, flint, pecan, peach, chocolate, coffee. As it opens, it becomes perhaps the most chocolaty of these, at least on the nose.

Color: Bronze.

Tasting notes: Stone fruit, pecans, orange zest, chocolate, subtle peat (very subtle). Creamy.

1263 King Alexander III

40% abv.

No age statement.

Nose: Malt, orange, honey, chocolate.

Color: Bronze. (I’m not sure color adds anything to these reviews.)

Tasting notes: Only mildly winy, which surprises me. This whisky is aged in a bajillion (okay, only six) different types of casks: wine, Madeira, Sherry, Marsala, bourbon, and port. The effect is notable but subtle in ways the 18 isn’t. Winter spice, orange zest, berry, hint of oak.