Lost it – and getting it back

It’s an age thing, apparently.

I started losing things.

“Losing it” started small – my hair, what day of the week it was, knowing why I’d come into a room, my eyesight (never really been that good), hearing, the keys, my memory and my temper.

Then the losses spread to my balance, what direction I was headed in, reality and – some have been overheard to say – good taste.

But losing things recently took a huge turn for the worst!

Looking Down In The Mouth

It started when I wanted to write to you about a particular whisky I was going to taste.

I poured it out and, in the best tradition, took a big nose-full to check it out.

Strange!  I was expecting much more nose presence than than I am getting, but the nose is almost non-existent.  Water?  Odd for a high-end, high abv whisky to have no aroma at all.

Her weapon of choice has a cotton bud at the business end which she proceeds to shove up my nostrils

Now I come to think about it, food hasn’t had a whole lot of taste recently.  I wonder …….

What have I got that has a strong smell that I would recognise?  I go and pour a couple of drops of my wife’s Lavender Essential Oil into the palm of my hand and take a big sniff.

Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch and Zero.

My nose has gone on strike!

And so have all the taste buds.  Out to lunch – a totally flavour-free, rather boring lunch!  My sense of smell and taste have left the room.  Totally.

To test or not to test

Fortunately I don’t have the dreaded sore throat.  Three home Covid RATs over the next 24 hours are all negative.

These are followed by an ocean-going Covid test at the doctor’s.

Coming for you!

The nice nurse lady wipes an unnecessarily long stick around inside my mouth.  Her weapon of choice has a cotton bud at the business end which she then shoves so far up my nostrils that I’m sure I can feel a small bump the back of my head.

Now I understand the stick’s length.  It’s so she’s got a little bit to hold on to and she can get it back!

And my eyes are watering enough to make the world appear to be viewed through rained-on window pane.

Again, this test is negative too.

Turns out the no smelling/tasting is the result of a sinus infection,  That’s shelved for a while the plan to make whisky tasting an enjoyable passtime!

A Tasteless Joke

Having no taste sensation is really no joke, but it’s funny the way my mind plays tricks on me; not so much with smells, but certainly with tastes.  Like the sporting muscle-memory, taste seems somehow to be attached to my awareness of what I’m eating: for example, bacon has no discernible taste at the moment.  But I know from life experience how bacon should taste, so in my mind this tasteless bacon has a bacon taste to it.

Generally speaking though, all food has no identifiable taste.  There’s only sensation – the sensation of eating polystyrene.  When all the food feels like polystyrene, it tastes like polystyrene.   Breakfast feels like polystyrene, so does morning tea, lunch, dinner, between meal snacks.  Sometimes the food crunches, sometimes it’s soft and pliable.  But it’s till universally polystyrene,

And when any liquid tastes like water, I may as well drink water.  Sometimes heated and called coffee

Getting it back

My wife’s immediate answer  is a course of her garlic-and-horseradish-and-liquorice-and-vitamin-C tablets.  Daily.

The good side to losing my taste is that I can’t taste garlic-and-horseradish-and-liquor-and-vitamin-C tablets.  Believe me, that’s a blessing.

Another good side is that the tablets are gradually making me better.

As I start to get better, though, the bad news is that I can start to taste the garlic-and-horseradish-and-liquor-and-vitamin-C tablets.  Not quite such a blessing, there!

The good news is that, at the time of writing, the polystyrene is fading.  Smell and taste are slowly returning.  At this late stage there’s not much I can do about the other losses, but there is whisky to look forward to!

Some Tastings

These notes were made before my senses of smell and taste departed (well, smell anyway.  My taste has always been a matter of opinion).

Douglas Laing’s Provenance

From Benrinnes Distillery

Provenance

Alcohol By Volume (ABV): 46%,  Age: 12 yo, (distilled 7/07, bottled 2/22)

Colour: Light Amber, Non-coloured and non-chill filtered  (NC2)
Nose: Raw green beans and fainted fried eggs, old rusty tin can, a “low voltage” nose (not much action), brown toast.
Palate: Heat, Black peppercorns, sweet, nutty, cloves.  Sours.
Finish: Hot pepper stays around mouth edges.  Bitter, but no tannin.
Length: Medium/long
Comment: Simple but pleasurable.  You can’t go past a Benrinnes!

Craigellachie
Craigellachie

A Speyside dram

ABV: 46%, age 13 yo
Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: Wood on a hot summers day, dried fruit peel.  Mouth-watering and makes me want to drink it.
Palate: Soft, smooth.  Well integrated, sweetens.
Finish: An oily finish on lips and tongue.  The taste drifts away.  Very drinkable dram, but it doesn’t stay around long.
Comment: Session whisky.  Dangerous – I could drink too much quite quickly.

Glencadam Reserva
Glencadam Reserva

Andalucia single malt (Andalucia is an orange-growing area of Spain) (sample supplied by Pat)

ABV: 46%, no age statement, NC2.
Colour: gold
Casks: Oloroso & Bourbon, then oloroso finish.
Nose: Oloroso sourness.  Citrus peel and golden syrup.  An astringent note.
Palette: Heat in the middle of tongue.  Sour oloroso.  I keep wanting to go back and re-nose it.
Finish: Drops off quite quickly.
Comment: A quaffable dram.

Tamdhu First Edition

ABV: 59.9%, Age: 14 yo,  Single Cask Sherry Butt

Colour: Dark Gold.  Hangs on to the glass, light legs.
Nose: Rich, nose prickle, Sweet sherry, Manuka honey.  Cloves!!  Fruit steamed pudding.  Gorgeous nose!
Palate: Soft and hot, The cloves cut in, and the initial tongue heat settles.  There is a slight dirtiness in first sip.  A wee bit tannic later and a bit white peppery.
Finish: Heat & dry tongue stays.  Clove flavour overlay, but nice.
Comment: where can I get this?? Love it!

Bendromach 15

ABV: 43%,  Age: 15yo.

Colour: Light gold.
Nose: Sherry, medical (bandages), sweet.  Oak sawdust.
Palate: Smooth, peat (that was not expected!), tannic.
Finish:: First peat taste dies quickly, at the second sip it stays!
Comment: The peat starts to over-ride, with nothing to ease it.

Slainte!

 

 

It’s just like a heavy cold, they said.

If this has a single line on it at C, it is a RAT. 

If it has a second line at T (like in the picture), it’s a DUCK – at least,  I think that’s what my wife called it when she saw hers.

It got us.

My wife and I have both been COVID-jabbed to the full extent of the law – she three times, and me (because of an underlining immunity issue) four.

We’ve managed to dodge Covid since March 2020, but statistical probability caught up with us a week ago.

We have been increasingly encircled, like a vulture circling lunch.  Our daughter-in-law; a niece’s boyfriend, the niece herself and our sister-in-law; our son and his partner.  Friends and acquaintances locally and distantly.  There has been an increasing sense of inevitability – which finally landed a week ago.

We went to a café on Thursday for a late evening hot chocolate, and we think that was the starting point.  The place was pretty full and lively and, being a café, only the staff were masked up.

Statistical Opportunities

According to what appears to be the international Covid-recording database at Maryland’s John Hopkins University, since the first Covid case recorded in New Zealand there have been over 1,300,000 confirmed cases here.  On a population base of approximately 5.1 million, that is 20% of our population who have tested positive.

And that only counts the reported results – it would seem probable that not everyone has been diligently putting his or her positive hand up to be counted!

At five to one, there is a degree of inevitability that you will join the statistics at some point. 

If you haven’t already.

What’s it like?

Friends and relatives who have experienced Covid have said it’s just like a heavy cold.  Sneezing and coughing (a lot of coughing),  feeling achy and lacking in energy, a bit of “brain fog” – that sort of stuff.

They jest. 

It is like that, but they understated just how bad it feels. 

My wife spent the first day she tested positive sleeping in bed.  Days two and three, she sat in an armchair and read books, with a sore throat so bad it made her ears hurt.

There are spells where you think you can get something done, but those spells have the life-expectancy of a Warehouse firework – short, smoky and rather disappointing.

For a person who usually shuns “traditional” medicine – preferring, with considerable reason, to use combinations of essential oils and diet to maintain health levels for us both – she has ingested a small van-load of panadol and antihistamines in the last few days! 

The Symptoms

I could write a list of the things you’ll get with your Covid.  But it would be long, boring, and undoubtedly incomplete!

The short version is to remember back to the worst flu you’ve had, add a strong head cold and a wicked hangover.  And multiply by 2.

Your thought processes than are like a suburban train timetable – running about 20 minutes behind schedule.  Or replaced by buses.  What has been euphemistically called “Brain Fog” causes Wordle to become an inquisition rather than an entertainment. 

You may not remember how to set a fire and it is possible, halfway through the process, to forget how to make a cup of tea.

Exhaustion and lethargy are on an epic scale.  There are spells where you think you can get something done, but those spells have the life-expectancy of a Warehouse firework – short, smoky and rather disappointing.

The Up Sides

Enough negativity!  There have some good bits that cannot be overlooked.

We have been humbled by the attention and offers from friends and relatives, checking on our collective well-being.  They have checked that we have everything we needed (tissues were an issue!), and they’ve fetched and carried for us if we asked.  

We are still standing, pretty much unaided.

And we haven’t used any petrol for a week!

Odd bits

We always have a latte per day, as early as achievable.  We didn’t have one for a week – and didn’t miss it.  We may now have to play catch-up.

The light at the end of the tunnel may yet be revealed to not be an on-coming train.

There has also be a distinct lack of desire for wine – although I did use up some open bottles of whisky, and my wife re-discovered brandy.  We considered that the improved abv was justified as a sort of hand-sanitiser, taken internally.

The Light at the end of the Tunnel

We’re coming right.  The DUCK line is slowly fading and the light at the end of the tunnel may yet be revealed to not be an on-coming train.

The coughing, the tissue consumption and the drug-taking are abating slowly. 

That aside, even though it’s only been a week and a bit, it has been the most horrible week and a bit that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. 

Add to that, the potential long term side effects can reportedly go on for a long time.  Don’t get Covid – it’s a shite illness.  Take it seriously! 

Take all the protections you can.  If you’re offered a fourth shot, take it!  It may (literally) save your life and even if it doesn’t, it will make the illness a whole lot less unpleasant if the statistics get you too.

Post script

I heard that some people intending to go overseas are actively looking to get Covid before they travel.  Apparently, they regard getting the illness as another level of immunity.

Really???? 

From a Canadian alcohol study; “Even moderate drinking can result in hospitalisation or even death”. 
Doesn’t LIFE result in death? 
Just asking.

Whisky Stoppage – Stoppers to delight

By Pat

Note: To avoid creating any panic-buying, this article is not about whisky stocks!

However, it is about the things that stop your whisky from unexpectedly falling out of the bottle.

We all know about letting the Genie out of the Bottle, but have you taken a close look at what stops the Genie from getting out?

in the joy and rush to open that new bottle of whisky you probably haven’t noticed the effort that some of the distillers go to produce some very intricate designs on the bottle stoppers.

I was recently taking a look at some of my open bottles of Whisk(e)y.  Then I noticed something – the amazing range and variety of design  printed or etched into  corks and metal screw tops, or embossed into plastic tops attached to the cork.

The Glenlivet’s stopper design in particular stood out.  Then I noticed that almost every bottling I had from them was adorned with a different pattern.  Each one is a sort of variation to a theme: a marketing fetish or made for collectors?

Markings

On bottles with corks, the markings are usually covered by the bottle seal and the pattern only becomes visible once you open the whisky.

I have noticed that the distillers usually put screw caps on blends. But even there they still go all out to print company branding on the caps.

Single malts have corks aimed at a different market and the stoppers tend to be fancier.

If you collect these little gems, over time you will soon get a lot of different patterns.  The marketing boffins seem not to like to stick with a particular bottle shape or stopper for more than a few years.  This maybe to prevent consumers getting used to seeing the same thing.   A case in point is Glenfiddich, which delights in coming up with a new variation on their triangular bottle every few years.

Having (as it were) opened this bottle of worms, I started to pull out the array of partly-consumed bottles from my whisky cabinet and take a longer look.  To my joy, most stoppers had a different pattern on them.

Making a Cork Board

This led to a light-bulb moment and a dash to the Bat-cave (read “workshop”) and a “Here we go again” look from my wife.

I have a decent stock of old rimu off cuts in the cave.  I set about designing and making a whisky cork board  to put in my covered courtyard (when you get older it is ok and maybe even expected to become slightly eccentric.

In case you are interested in making a whisky stopper board I have found that there seem to be two size corks.  One is an 18mm hole (the majority) and the other a 22mm one for the larger size ones.  I kept the centre tp centre gap between the holes to either a 45mm or 50mm for a nice balanced effect.

The Cork Board

As you can see in the photo, I have left room for future corks.  The board looks very arty and is a great way of repurposing old wood offcuts.

Any wood would do and you can either polyurethane it or paint for the desired finish before fitting the stoppers and mounting the board.

So, if you have time, want to save the planet, feel arty and have an excuse to consume more whisky think about making yourself a cork board.

Cheers

Pat

Notes from around the world

“Light” whiskies

Picking up on an article on the Irish Westmeath site, I came across the phenomenon of “light” whisky.

Westmeath are reporting that Scottish blenders Whyte & MacKay and Ballentines look to have joined the Irish Dromberg in West Cork in producing a “lighter spirit drink”, running an abv in the early 20% area.

The producers seem a little coy on the target market.  I would not want to speculate.

Minimum Unit Pricing of Alcohol (MUP)

Again, from Westmeath comes the interesting new Government-driven pricing regime of MUP, imposed in Ireland on 4th January 2022.

Under the (quite reasonable) banner of social harm reduction, the idea is to reduce the availability of cheap booze.   The legislation sets a minimum pricing on a unit of alcohol, and the unit cannot be sold for less than that price – regardless of whether in a bottle store, a high-end restaurant or anywhere in between.

A standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol, and the minimum price for a standard drink (in Ireland) has now been set at 1 Euro (NZ$1.73).  As such, that is not a problem really, as most drinks in a bar are well above that price.

But a bottle of 12.5% wine has 7.4 stand drinks, and therefore cannot be sold for less than 7.4 Euro (NZ$12.80).  Plus, of course, all the other production, distribution and profit costs that are present in pricing of wine.

A bottle of whisky has 22 standard drinks, so the MUP will be NZ$38.28, plus the ancillary costs mentioned about.

So, if the NZ MUPpets get a hold of this idea, expect an impact on low-priced whiskies here.

Just as well we are holding good stocks, isn’t it!

Slainte

John

Opportunities Abound – a Glimpse into the Future

Some time ago I commented on the effects that a lack of international travellers would likely be having on the duty-free market.

There is recent estimation that airport passenger traffic dropped nearly 40% in 2020 during lockdowns world-wide.  That is 3.6 billion passengers!  And it is likely that the travel industry will one of the last to return to “normal” – if indeed it ever does.

With the opening of our travel bubble with Australia some of the duty-free markets in NZ will have resumed, albeit to a limited extent.

But I suspect the most limiting factor is now going to be the supply line, especially in the alcohol arena.

The imposed down-turn in duty-free shopping since March 2020 has created some interesting workarounds for the industry.

With the market now gasping for new breath, a goodly part of the stock-holding is no longer there, sold to retail and leaving big spaces in the shelves of duty-free.

The glorious DNS duty-free at Singapore’s Changi Airport has been opened to on-line shopping with free delivery (if you live in Singapore).

In Brisbane, the Brisbane Airport Corporation launched an on-line trading platform called BNE Marketplace.  That allowed duty-free shops to continue trading, even though the airport was closed.  It’s brilliant:  the place is open 24/7 and seems to have the range of stocks that were in Brisbane Duty Free.  Downside is that it only ships to what the Australians define as “Oceania” – just the states and territories of Australia.

And the same approach was in NZ too.

In the concourse of the Auckland Airport domestic terminal, in the little corner shop next to the bar, I spotted a pop-up shop that appeared to contain the contents of the Auckland duty free but with duty added.

These have been really good ideas, effective during assorted lockdowns.

But, with the market now gasping for new breath, a goodly part of the stock-holding is no longer there – it has been sold to retail and leaves big spaces in the shelves of duty-free.

The assumption has to be that distilleries are mashing, distilling, fermenting and  bottling their hearts out trying to catch up

Stock availability

The latest reports from Scotland indicate that things are slowly returning to normal over April.

Businesses are back in business – the pubs and bars and restaurants are up & about and, although information is a bit hard to come by, the assumption has to be that distilleries are mashing, distilling, fermenting and (especially) bottling their hearts out trying to catch up.

A quick discourse on human behaviours.  You’ve been in and out of lockdown (mostly in) since mid 2020, stuck indoors with not a whole lot to do, bored rigid, and trying to entertain screaming kids.  Two things are likely to increase as a result: the birth rate and the consumption of mind-numbing liquids.

The getting of stock levels back to normal will be a long and slow process.

Stocks of whisky are dwindling on shelves around the world.   A recent (and highly unscientific) survey of whisky stock in NZ indicates that your choice of dram here is at least 35-40% down on normal levels.  Given that there has been a severe restriction in the production of whisky over the last 12 months and that there has been heightened consumption through lockdowns, it is my guess that the getting of stock levels back to normal in NZ will be a long and slow process.

Where will production go first?

In the UK super markets there are some very good whiskies available in Waitrose, Marks & Sparks, and Tescos,  But their stocks have been under tremendous pressure in the last six months.

Let’s face it – if you’re producing whisky in Scotland and a UK chain of supermarkets is screaming for stock, are you going to put all your hard-gotten bottles in a container and send them halfway around the world?  Or will you opt to fork-lift them on to a truck and driving them down the road to London?  Economically, really a no-brainer!

And with the US now tariff-free, there’s another place to try to recoup the estimated £500m the Trump years cost the Scottish whisky industry.

So, where is NZ in all this?  And what do we do now?

Local producers

There are suppliers closer to home and now is the time for New Zealand whisky distillers to take the initiative, get their product to market and build their brand awareness within NZ.

In no particular order, there is Cardrona in Central Otago, Thomson Whisky, Canterbury’s Divergence, Kiwi Spirit in Takaka and the Reefton Distilling Co currently claiming to produce whisky.  And I don’t believe that is an exhaustive list!

Other recent local output has come from Stoke Distilling Co in Nelson.

There are some seriously nice drops of whisky emerging from NZ’s West Island

And there is opportunity, too, for some Australian distillers to help.

Fannys Bay maturing room

Aussies may have issues with rugby and cricket skills, but there are some seriously nice drops of whisky emerging from NZ’s West Island – Lark, Fannys Bay, Nant and any one of the other 30-odd Tasmanian operators just for starters.

How about Starward Australian whisky?  They have just released some new expressions and are backed by Diageo as the distillery showed promise.  Judging by what I have tried they aren’t wrong: a particularly interesting offer is their Two-Fold double grain bottling or a batch-numbered Single Malt called Fortis at 50%.

The next year or two might well be very exciting in the New Zealand whisky world!

The Affordable (and Available) Whisky List

Earlier this year we had an article on whiskies that won’t break your bank.

We observed that over a third of the total advertised drams on offer in the 2020 Dramfest Catalogue were priced below $100 retail.    Note: we didn’t count the ones hidden underneath the tables!

It was interesting that a lot of these “cheaper” offerings were from established mainstream distilleries, were not from start-up operations trying to make a name.

At Dramfest we also put ourselves out to doing some personal research into the quality of some of the less costly whiskies.  We checked them against their more highly-priced cousins and remarked pretty favourably on their quality.

Whisky Books

There are a lot of whisky books that encourage you to try this whisky or that other one.

Sadly many of whiskies they recommend are not available in New Zealand.   And the ones that you can buy can often be too expensive for what they are.

And that started us thinking – why don’t we do some more investigation into the whiskies that may not have seemed “elite” enough to own up to drinking?

The issue of Availability

There are a large number of whiskies available in NZ that deserve to be noticed but that are not at all expensive.  So why not create a list f some of the ones we’ve found as a starter-for-ten guide for others to try?

Stepping out of our comfort zone has been an enriching experience.  Letting your taste buds do the walking may make your whisky world become a fuller colour palette.

One dram well-worth trying is the Loch Lomond 12 year-old.  This won a Platinum at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year.  It also has garnered two Golds and a Silver from other competitions, plus a Gold spirits business award.  That is no mean feat for a 12 year-old!

The Loch Lomond distillery also has an outstanding Single Grain, on show at Dramfest.   Another award-winning dram at San Francisco, it also won the world whisky awards best Scotch grain and a Gold at the Berlin International Spirits Competition 2017.  the Inchmurrin range of whiskies is another product of Loch Lomond distillery.

Non-Scottish

I went out and purchased three bottlings of West Cork Irish whiskey.

Because they were new to the market, I knew nothing about them other than the labels looked pretty cool and the price was right.

West Cork

They were very nice indeed.

With a little assistance I’ve emptied two different bottles already.  Now I only have the blend left – at a whopping 62%, it’s the highest abv blend I have tasted and, much to my surprise, very smooth.

On a whim – because it was distilled in Wellington, South Africa, – I decided to try the Bains single grain.  From the Sedgwick Distillery, this dram is double matured in ex bourbon barrels for five years.  Again, it is a super smooth drop with loads of vanilla. This entry level grain was awarded the world’s Best Grain Whisky at the 2018 World Whisky Awards.  Bains also produce a 15 year-old and three 18 year-olds, currently only available through travel retail.

Blends

Our list includes some really impressive blends.  They have broken the traditional mould for exploring flavour, most made deliberately to be mellow and served over ice.

The first of these is Cutty Sark Prohibition.  This is a healthy 50% abv, and described as full flavoured and complex.  You might well think you’re having a single malt.

Next up is the West Cork blend.  At 62%, the flavour is loads of grapefruit, mouth feel and very smooth.

The Skibbereen Eagle blend took me by surprise.  It is reasonably cheap and from the same distillers as West Cork but has a completely different flavour profile.  It is sweet, with caramel, toffee notes with green fruit, chocolate and cocoa.

Antiquity Blue is a cheap Indian blend at 42.8%.  This was awarded “Silver Best in Class” in the Spirits Tasting competition by the International Wine and Spirit Competition WSWA in 2012.  At its price point it gives many other blended Scotches a run for their money.

So here, in no particular order, are our picks of reasonably priced (NZ$40 to $105) bottlings that are usually available in New Zealand. For convenience the list has been divided into whisky types.

Single Malt, Scottish, Irish and world

Glenlivet 12 year old
West Cork Irish sherry finish
West Cork Irish Port Wood finish
Tomatin 12 Year old
Benriach 12 year old sherry wood finish
Glenlivet Nadurra oloroso cask strength
Loch Lomond 12 year old
Arran Bothy Quarter Cask
Glen Grant 10 year old
Glen Grant The Major’s Reserve
Paul John Classic Indian Whisky
Glendronach 8 Year old The Hielan
Bunnahabhain 12 year old
Glen Scotia Double Cask
Inchmurrin Madeira Wood Finish

Single Grain Whisky

Bains Single grain South African Whisky
Teeling Single grain Irish
Loch Lomond Single Grain

Blended Malt Whisky

Wemyss Treacle Chest Blended malt
Wemyss The Hive
Wemyss Family Collection Flaming Feast
Wemyss Family Collection Blooming Gorse
Wemyss Spice King Batch Strength

Blended Whisky (Malt and Grain)

Cutty Sark Prohibition 50%
West Cork Blended cask strength 62%
Skibbereen Eagle Irish
Antiquity Blue Indian

Whisky Over 30 Years – Looking Back

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Slainte, John

by Pat Phipps

These lockdown days have given me time to reflect.

The reflection takes my mind back to the 1990s, the time when I first started to drink single malts.  And I look at how far we (the consumers) and they (the distillers) have come in that thirty years.

I went back to some of my old whisky books from the 90s.  One in particular stood out: “The Single Malt Whisky Companion”, by Helen Arthur. The book goes through the distilleries, and has wonderful pictures of bottlings of the era.

I found that an updated version of the book is still available for on-line purchase.  But going back to my 90s copy, it is fascinating to see that most distilleries have changed not only label styles but frequently also bottle shapes as well – maybe to try and stay ahead of the competition and have Our Product stand out on retailers’ shelves.  There are a few that have bucked this trend, but they are a minority.

One phrase used in the 90s was to define a whisky as “Unaged”.  Today, when a distiller does not wish to declare the age of a whisky, it is known as “No Age Statement” or NAS.

Reading through the book, distillery bottlings of the time were limited in their range of offerings.   However, about 20 years ago things changed.  Today, the offerings of official bottlings can be confusing.  When these are added to the growing range available from independent bottlers, the spectrum of choice is truly delightful!

The Golden Age

The past has been called “The Golden Age of Whisky” for the consumer.  The whisky glut in the early 2000s provided some interesting marketing ploys.  Bruichladdich, for example, had a huge and varied range – of which I had my fair share!  Sadly now, this has been reduced to a core range.

Another was the Ardbeg experiment, with their Path to Peaty Maturity range of Very Young, Still Young, Almost There, and Renaissance.  This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.

So, even though the world has given us a greater selection of distilleries to choose from, I still pine for the long-gone great ones I drank.  I wish some of them would come back.  Mind you, some of the replacements are superb, too.

This was an amazing series of bottlings, and are still talked about in hushed tones by Peat Freaks like me.

Regional “Style”

Whisky discussions sometimes turn to talk about regional “styles”.

I believe this styling was valid in the past.  However, pretty much regardless of location, a lot of distilleries these days have progressed: to gain market share, they will produce styles from sherried to bourbon to peated: for instance, in a blind tasting I would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between an Islay and a peated Speyside.

For example, the BenRiach distillery range has drams for almost all tastes.

I recently attended a tasting that brought into stark relief why I think “regionalisation” is not so valid today.

The tasting was titled “Islay whiskies”.

There were the usual seven blind drams.  Six were known and identified whiskies from Islay (notoriously, the home of peated whiskies), with the tasting glass number unknown.  The seventh was a mystery dram – origin and glass number both unknown.

We went through the usual nosing, tasting, commenting and scoring each one.  When the scoring was totalled, the winner was a peaty whisky – an Irish Connemara whiskey.

So much for regional styles!

The Visitor Experience

Another recent improvement for the consumer is the distillery visitor experience.  I noted that, in my 1990s book, a lot of distilleries only allowed visitors either “by appointment only” or not all.

Today’s distilleries want visitors, are glad that people are looking for more information and are interested in the tiniest detail of whisky and production.  Distilleries are building Visitor Experience centres to immerse you in their dark arts – with distillery-only bottlings on sale there to complete the experience!

Because of law changes and advances in technology, small boutique distillery numbers are increasing hugely around the world – and visitors are vital to spread these new brands.  The effort is helped immensely by the World Wide Web – a phenomenon which has also developed exponentially in twenty years.  The increased accessibility to information allows you to learn about your favourite distillery.  In some cases, they provide a “virtual” tour, even if you can’t physically get to the place!

You get to see the grounds, the still houses and, of course, the latest bottlings.

And two fantastic parts of lockdown has been the Facebook dram sessions broadcasts and the Zoom whisky tastings – all in the comfort of your own lounge.

Long Live Progress!

 

The Price of Fish – Whisky without breaking the bank

Spoiler Alert: this article has got absolutely nothing to do with fish.

And this will probably be the last reference to fish.

However, the article has got quite a bit to do with the price of whisky or whiskey and what you can expect to pay for a palatable drop without breaking the bank.

Think back to the now long-distant memory that was the 2020 Christchurch Dramfest.   Running through the lists of drams in the Dramfest catalogue, there were 321 whiskies on display.  Remember, too, that the lists did not include the “special” bottles that were hidden from view under the tables.

There were 321 drams listed in the catalogue.  120 were priced at under NZ$100 a bottle.  That’s 37% of the offerings.

And, for those who elected to sample a dram or twelve at the event, quite a few of that 120 were very nice whiskies indeed.

From my own experiences, I include (in no particular order):

    • the Loch Lomond Single Grain 46% (NZ$57),
    • the Glen Scotia Double Cask (NZ$83),
    • four of the Wemyss offerings (Flaming Feast, Hive Batch Strength, Spice King Batch Strength, and Blooming Gorse. ABV ranging from 46 to 58%, price NZ$90 to 97), and
    • Teeling Stout Cask 46% (NZ$89)

Outside the delightful Dramfest selection, I have also recently either tasted or come into possession of these interesting items:

    • The South African Bain’s Single Grain 43% at NZ$43 a bottle,
    • Stoke IPA – tasting report in my Christmas Cheer blog. The IPA is cask-strength 59%, Pinot Noir-matured, coming from McCashin’s Brewery out of Nelson.
    • West Cork, an Irish distillery producing Irish single malts and blends ranging up to 62% ABV.  The most expensive available in NZ is a selection of quite nice 12yos (your pick of Port Cask, Rum Cask, or Sherry Cask), each for the massive output of NZ$74.99.

I decided to do some remarkably amateur on-line research to see if my theory about whiskies that don’t break the bank could stand scrutiny.

I picked the websites of two retail outlets.  Shop 1 is a predominantly whisky-oriented one, Shop 2 could be regarded as more alcoholically generalist (although it does keep some pretty good stuff to select from).

In my search parameters I selected “whisky” (all types, including those with an “e”) and sorted them by price.  I was not interested in pricing miniatures or other small bottles, so I ignored bottles that contained less than 700ml.

Shop 1 had 182 offerings that were priced at less than NZ$100, Shop 2 had 59.

Obviously, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that there would be some double-ups on the two lists.  My research was not of rocket scientist quality – sadly not even a Guy Fawkes day one!

It was certainly not scientific enough to remove drams that both shops offered.  But, assuming a 10% “overlap”, that is still more than 210 whiskies to get into!

A lot of the offerings came from “big” distilleries, names that are well known and talked about in reverent tones.  A lot of them are standard bottlings – 10- or 12-year olds, varietals that have been around for a while and not to be ignored.

Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood here.

I am certainly not advocating chucking out all your $200-$300 (or more!) sherry bombs, your esoteric orange-flavoured Amrut, your careful husbanded Batch 35 A’bunadh or your entire Glendronach collection.

As a part of running this website, there is a lot of tasting to be tasted.   I have sampled some whiskies that were good, some not so good, and some absolutely spectacular!

But the more I get involved in the world of whiskies, the more I understand that whisky selection, taste, and choice is an exceptionally personal thing.  What I have found personally is that sometimes I would just like to relax with a whisky, rather than to be challenged by it.

So, there are two stalwarts in my cupboard.  A bottle of Jamieson’s Irish Blend, and a bottle of Glen Grant’s Major’s Reserve.  On the nights when I just want to sit in front of a good TV programme with a relaxing dram, one of these two is a perfectly admirable companion for the evening.

I am certainly not advocating chucking out your sherry bombs or your entire Glendronach collection. 

I came across a quote recently in Ian Buxton’s 4th edition of his book “101 Whiskies to try before you die” [i].   In the introduction, he says “… you don’t have to spend a lot of money to find really great or interesting whiskies.”[i]

I totally agree.

As a side note, if you are thinking of chucking your Glendronach collection please let me know about an hour or so in advance and I’ll be around with a big box to help you.

Happily.

[i] “101 Whiskies to try before you die”, 4th edition, Ian Buxton. Headline Publishing Group, London, 2019

Covid-19 – No Laughing Matter

I’m not the first person to make this observation, but isn’t it weird how the whole world can turn so upside down in such a short time?

Not three weeks ago I was one of 2,000+ people crowded together in the Christchurch Town Hall, revelling in Dramfest and the tasting of whiskies from around the world.  Two-metre separation was impossible – in most parts of the venue, two centimetres was challenging!

Now the world has locked us into our homes for at least the next four weeks, hopefully with someone we want to be locked in with.

And I’m not even allowed to go around to my brother-in-law’s to help him drink his whisky.

“Not three weeks ago I was one of 2,000+ people crowded       together in the Christchurch Town Hall, revelling in Dramfest”

At the start of lockdown, liquor stores were deemed “non-essential” and forced to close.  Sanity has fortunately prevailed and stores are now available again for on-line, “contactless” purchases.

The whole situation is quite typical of the fast-moving nature of this crisis.  And it is a crisis, even before the liquor stores got shut!

Things are changing so quickly it’s hard to keep pace.

I type a really good, fact-perfect, totally insightful sentence.  Then somebody changes something that turns the whole thing into a mockery.  For example, I wrote eloquently about how we could only get our nerve-relaxants from the wine section at the supermarket.  I waxed lyrical about the UK supermarket shelves that stock up-market whiskies.

And what happens?  The Authorities go and allow the liquor stores to open on-line and whole paragraphs have to be consigned to the rubbish tin!

Have some consideration, guys!

One major concern on the alcohol front, though, is that re-cycling in my city has been temporarily halted.  Which means the empties won’t be collected.

Perhaps we could start building a bottle-house with them.  That would fill several gaps – a project to do (pastime), save the re-cycling (conservation), and a new garden shed (utilitarian).

But there are some parts of this New Order which have no humour at all.

The rate and speed of infection spread and the death tolls are horrendous.

The decisions and public pronouncements of some of the world’s “leaders” border on the insane – no names, just think Orange (my last political comment).

The choices of some people to consider that lockdown does not apply to them displays a breath-taking depth of self-entitlement.  And a lot of other similar words, with adjectives.

“Working from home, previously regarded as the ultimate    oxymoron, has become the standard state. ”

However, against that dark background the human condition emerges and lightens the darkness with intense and poignant humour.  Witness:

  • The Youtube video of Jennifer taking her laptop into the toilet during a staff video meeting – forgetting that the camera was still rolling all the while. The looks on her colleagues’ faces was enough!
  • The fake-news item from 2050 which reads “.. and Thomas has just opened the last toilet roll that his parents purchased in 2020”.
  • People reacting classical artworks by playing dressing-ups in their homes.

The communication systems available now have made things possible that could not have happened even thirty years ago.

  • A group of whisky friends have been having email discussions. The chat is enlightening and confirms that tastes in whisky are enormously personal!
  • At 10am last Sunday (International Whisky Day) I Facebooked into a live-video Master Class being broadcast from Bunnahabbhain on Islay. The London Whisky Live had been canned so Derek Scott, Bunnahabbain Brand Director, ran their stand from his living room complete with open fire and Mac the Labrador.   And while the broadcast was going out live to the world, someone from NZ wrote in to say what kind of whisky they were having with their breakfast.  I love that!
  • There are family gatherings on Zoom or Skype, bringing people together virtually. That kind of gathering would normally only be at a wedding or funeral and, sadly, usually the latter!  My sister talked about Skype-reading a book in Dunedin to her five-year-old grandson in Vancouver.  Nice!

Working from home, previously regarded as the ultimate oxymoron, has become the standard state.  And is proving every bit as effective as sitting in an office in the centre of the city.  The 10-minute quiz get-together that used to be held around the morning tea table is now a slightly voyeuristic Skype peep into your colleagues’ homes (or at least that section of it that can be seen in the background of a slightly grainy video picture).

Closing thought

And here is a closing thought for you.  I’ve just been reading about some lovely whiskies that are available as “travel retail only” in exotic airports.

Considering it likely that air travel in the new, post-COVID world will be severely curtailed (and undoubtedly unattractive, too) what will happen to those drams?  Unsold at duty-free, are they likely to start turning up for on-line ordering?

I can only hope!

The Edinburgh Whisky Academy – knowing your Quercus Alba from your elbow

I PASSED!! 

YAY, I PASSED!!!

BRILLIANT!

That’s the first exam I’ve passed for 30 years!

It’s also the first exam I’ve sat in 30 years.  To quote baseball statisticians, I’m Batting a Hundred.

One of the “things” my generation (the Boomers) was taught was not to be boastful.  Hide your light under the biblical bushel.  “Pride cometh before a fall” and congratulations should come to you from others, rather than from within.

Which is all very fine and dandy if others know that you’ve done it.  They don’t, but I do!

In the last 15 years I have spent a lot of my time on whisky – looking at it, reading about it, tasting it, writing about it and even, on occasions, drinking it.

I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I knew a little bit about whisky.  The difference between a single malt and a blend, between sherried and peated, between a Bowmore and an Auchentoshen.  I know that this whisky will taste different to that whisky, sometimes just a bit and sometimes a whole lot.

I’ve listened to learned people talk about whisky, people whose opinion I respect.

I’ve been on distillery tours and visited visitor centres: I have the souvenir caps, etched glasses, and tee-shirts to prove it.

And I did have some samples of their whiskies as well, but those seem to have mysteriously disappeared.

However, when all is said and done, I have been at the far right-hand end of the whisky “chain”.

I know a good drop when I taste one, but when I’ve finished the bottle it goes out in the recycling without too much thought as to how the genie got into it in the first place.

It may sound pretentious or big-headed but, as I mature in the world of whisky, I would like to be taken seriously.  But it was growing on me that the more I got “into” whisky, the less I really knew about it.

Thought process:

  • How did the genie get into the bottle?
  • Why can one whisky taste so utterly different from another whisky?
  • Who invented the stuff in the first place? (the ‘Why” is pretty self-evident!)

Enter the Edinburgh Whisky Academy.

The Academy has been on my radar for a couple of years as an interesting learning centre.  Their cause is helped by testimonial from the respected Charles MacLean.

The first thing I saw was a course entitled Diploma in the Art of Tasting Whisky.

Now there’s an interesting idea – get a diploma for doing what I’ve been doing for 15 years!

Realistically though (and sadly), flitting over to Edinburgh for a one-day whisky tasting is not in the budget (yet), regardless of how esoteric the drams may be.

So let’s see what else is available.

There’s a Diploma in Single Malt Whisky.  That sounds fun!  Two-day course, including a private distillery tour, a breakfast of bacon rolls, classes on the sensory aspects of whisky (look, nose, taste) and a formal assessment.  The course requires me to go to Edinburgh, too.  Sad Face.

An Introduction to Whisky Certificate (On-line).  Now that sounds more like me!

It is certified by the Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA), so it’s obviously got some cred.  And it’s an on-line course, so I can do it from the comfort of my own laptop.

The Academy’s website http://www.edinburghwhiskyacademy.com tells me that is a “fun … on-line course exploring the fundamentals of whisky”.

It goes on to say that the course covers whisky from history, business and raw materials to production and maturation.

Well, having just passed it, I can confirm that it certainly does all that.  And then some!

I have learned in-depth things about stuff I knew just a little about (worts, the mash tun, the rules around minimum ABV and age statements), enlarged on condensers and how they work (stuff that I dimly remember picking up by osmosis in college days in those brief periods between chasing girls), and got introduced to things I never knew existed (the 1784 Wash Act and the Illicit Distillation Act of 1822, Analysers and Rectifiers).

Worts and Mash Tuns and Lyne Arms are not just words anymore.  They have meaning in themselves now.  I know where they fit into the process and what effect they have on the outcome of production.

And, while it may not be feasible to go to Edinburgh for the tasting course, the things the Introduction Course has given me on the effects of cask and reflux and malt and grain and blending are already having a big impact on my nosing and tasting of whiskies.

The cost of the on-line course is 120 British quid (about NZ$200) and finishes with a self-assessment module.  There is another 80 quid if you want to sit the official SQA Certificate.

And there is also the Time investment.  I didn’t have the stopwatch going but I would estimate my time at around 15 hours (I was hand-writing copious notes as I went).

But whatever time it took I certainly do not regret one second of it!

Would I recommend the course to you?  Whole-heartedly, especially if you’re like me and know just enough to be dangerous.

Would I do it again?  No, I don’t need to.

I PASSED!

Would I go on any of the other courses?  If the opportunity presented itself, stand out of the way!!!!

PS: after I wrote this article I was looking through an old Whisky Magazine.  I came across an article on charring.

In the past, I would have turned the page over quickly, thinking “that’s too esoteric for me”.

Not now.  I stopped and read it.  And understood it!

The Joy of Packaging

The rise and fall of the Salted Cashew

There they sat.

Arrayed in their colourful red and yellow, consumer-attracting, heat -sealed plastic bag.

A hole has been punched in the geographic centre of the top so it can be hung on the little hook on the display just to the right of the bar.  Convenient.

Very “Point Of Sale”.

All mouth-wateringly salty looking.

Who can resist roasted salted cashews?

The table has a sticky quality.   Drink has seemingly not made it from glass to mouth, and the table top has missed the attention of a clean wiping rag for some time.

Possibly days.

There is a similar stickiness to the carpet – the underfoot feeling leaves the sensation that there is something amiss with the soles of my shoes.  A feeling that  reinforces the distrust of the cleaning regime.

I sat at the sticky-topped table, clutching my unopened bag of cashews in eager anticipation.  Just pull apart the heat-sealed flange at the top of the bag and cashew heaven would be mine!

I am astounded by just how far unsupervised cashews can travel when that heat-sealed top releases abruptly!   A veritable fountain of cashews!  Up in the air.  Onto the floor.  Over both shoulders, to every point of the known compass, and beyond.

In the interests of at least getting some cashews from this debacle, I deemed that the ones that landed in my lap were edible, those that finished on the sticky table met the two second rule – at a stretch.

The ones in my drink were not improved by the experience.  And neither was the drink.

Those that finished on the carpet – sadly the vast majority of the bag’s contents – were definitely no longer for consumption.  Even if I had the inclination to release them from the sticky fluffy matt that now adhered to them.

I didn’t.

The art of destructive packaging

Destructive Packaging has been defined as the modern phenomenon that actively prevents access to the product it contains.  Sadly, we encounter it daily.

Because it seems that these days the packaging is more important than the product it contains.

And if by some miracle you do achieve access, the price of admission is the destruction of the product in the process.  Or possibly the physical and mental well-being of the person attempting to gain access.

Examples of particular “hates”:

Lift and tear tabs that lift and tear the skin on your finger, leave a serious indent around your finger but leave the tin’s contents gleefully intact.

Gleeful ‘Peel here” labels that come away in your hand but don’t free up anything else useful; the lid, for instance.

Plastic wrapping on magazines that defies entry without ripping the magazine in the process.  And to stop people from using the magazine shop as a de facto reading library on wet days. The same wrapping is also emerging as a way to entomb fresh bread.

Glued down foil tops on bottles of pills.  So well glued down that it finally comes away with such suddenness and explosive power that the contents are scattered to the four winds.  The foil layer is, of course, considerately hidden under a perfectly serviceable screw cap – which in turn is secured by an untearable plastic halo arrangement.  Surprise!!!

Seals on bottles of shampoo, fiendishly hidden underneath the jovial flip-top lid.  Seals that you don’t discover until you are under the shower.  With wet slippery fingers and without your glasses. And you don’t even know the little seal is there until you have finished tearing out he last of your locks wondering why the shampoo won’t damn-well come out!

Labels and price tickets attached to clothing by nylon “arrows” that have been neatly fired through the most unforgiving part of the product and require scissors to remove.  Or the labels are sewn on so tightly that removing them risks cutting the fabric.

Plastic milk bottles where twisting the cap is intended to free it from the little ring bit – but doesn’t, and you have to resort to knife or scissors to get at the milk.

The plastic wrapping that surrounds multi packs of toilet rolls or kitchen paper towels.

A questions: why do batteries need to be in plastic inside plastic inside cardboard?

Battery packaging is quite superb.  The product is presented in beautifully windowed, cheerful cardboard.  The semi-perforated panel on the reverse side of the cardboard is intended for the purchaser to push firmly and batteries will be revealed.

Two thoughts:

1  the panel is not discernible to the naked eye, and

2  the levering action with a sharp implement is a very dangerous manoeuvre that should not be undertaken by other than the very experienced unpackager. Or the very desperate!

Once upon a long time ago, the most challenging item to open was a bottle of champagne.

Can we go back there, please!