Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, November 28, 2022

When We Was Fab

There are 2 books I reference regularly when working on ideas for undiluted.  The first is The Social History of Bourbon by Gerald Carson.  He frames his red likker vignettes so eloquently.  On the scotch end, my go-to is The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom by Alfred Barnard.  For 2 years, Barnard visited every distillery in the UK, and documented his experiences.  Some of you may know his work from the Lagavulin 8 bottle.  Lagavulin uses bold red letters in all caps to emphasize the part where he describes the 8 year old as, “Exceptionally fine.”

When Alfred Barnard visited Campbeltown for his book, over 20 distilleries were in operation, practically one on every street corner.  The town, or “Whisky City” as he called it, was thriving.  Barnard recalls walking to Glen Scotia (he refers to it as Scotia), and encountering, “Hardy fish women, with sunburnt faces, selling fresh herring which glistened like silver in the sunshine.”  Jobs were plentiful.  Things were going well.

As the Victorian era came to a close, scotch was generally sold in blended form.  The characterful whiskies of Campbeltown were thought to be too unusual for the masses, and quickly fell out of favour.  The final blow came when the US banned alcohol.  By 1935, only Springbank and Glen Scotia remained.  69 years would pass before spirit started flowing again from a new Campbeltown distillery.  In 2004, Springbank-owned Glengyle launched Kilkerran.  They couldn’t call it Glengyle because Loch Lomond owned the naming rights.

Victoriana is an attempt by Glen Scotia to replicate the look and taste of Campbeltown whiskies during those glory days of the Victorian era, right down to the use of a light green bottle.  Crème brûlée.  For those of you who prefer easy access whiskies, you might not like this one.  It pushes boundaries, and challenges your definition of how a whisky should taste.  Fruit orchard inside an industrial warehouse.  See what I mean?  There’s some char, but it’s only really noticeable on the finish.  Candied mint.  Coating mouthfeel.  Wonderfully balanced.  This is, to borrow a line from Mr. Barnard, exceptionally fine.

Happy dramming,


Monday, November 21, 2022

Like a Virgin, Casked for the Very First Time

Almost every bottle of whisky not from America starts its journey after distillation in an ex-bourbon (usually white oak) barrel.  Bourbon must be matured in virgin (new) oak.  The reason why this is so is a subject of much debate among whiskey scholars.

One widely agreed-upon theory dates back to just after Prohibition.  The US was in the midst of the Great Depression.  For the cooperage (barrel) industry, hard times had been the norm for decades.  When the US entered the First World War in 1917, states passed laws limiting alcohol production.  A couple years later, Prohibition crippled not only the whiskey industry, but everything tied to it from bartenders to barrel makers.  The coopers union, wanting to provide their clients with some form of long-term job security, lobbied Washington to insist all whisky be matured in new oak.  Their prayers were answered in 1935.  The Federal Alcohol Administration Act required all (straight) whiskies be stored in charred new oak containers.

Virgin oak barrels can vary from lightly charred (#1) to alligator char (#4), a name given to that level because it makes the inside of the barrel look like the skin of an alligator.  Charring removes undesired compounds, and unlocks caramel, vanilla, and coconut flavours from the wood.  Most bourbons go with either a #3 or alligator char.  Virgin oak can be pretty risky when it comes to single malts.  Malted barley is far more delicate than corn, the principal grain used in the production of bourbon.  For this reason, virgin oak is mainly used to finish malts, especially young ones.  Shelter Point Ripple Rock is a single malt matured in virgin oak and ex-bourbon barrels.

Surprisingly, there’s not much oak on the nose.  It’s quite fruity and floral.  Creamy too.  The oak makes a grand entrance on the palate, giving it a nice, spicy mouthfeel.  Ripple Rock drinks a tad young, the finish is a little hot, but the nose alone is worth the price of admission in my opinion.  One of the better whiskies made on Vancouver Island, Canada.

Happy dramming,


Monday, November 14, 2022

It Tastes Expensive…And Is

You might be thinking, “What company would have the audacity to use the above title for a marketing slogan?”  The Samuels family, in the words of Robert Frost, frequently took the road less travelled, and for them, it made all the difference.

Maker’s “It tastes expensive” ad came out in the mid-1960s, just as the industry was crumbling.  Young drinkers avoided bourbon like the plague.  It’s what their grandparents drank, and those grandparents weren’t exactly trendsetters.  Prices plummeted, and bourbon was fast becoming something only suitable for the down-and-out.  So why did Maker’s push their product in such a way?  Like Macallan in the 1980s, Maker’s decided to court wealth, a demographic largely ignored by the bourbon industry at the time (but definitely not today).

In addition to boasting about their outrageous $6 price tag, they also “premiumized” their product by dipping it in red wax, a tactic long used by the Cognac industry.  Their first dipped bottle was “baptized” in a kitchen deep fryer of all things.  Maker’s trademarked its red wax seal and drippings in 1980.  Jose Cuervo challenged this claim in 2001, when they started dipping their premium tequila, Reserva de la Familia, in red wax.  Maker’s sued, and eventually won after appeal.  Maker’s had one more trick up its sleeve.

Bill Samuels Sr. had many friends, one of whom happened to be the CEO of American Airlines.  Maker’s mini-bottles became a fixture on flights throughout the country, prompting many people to go out looking for it once they arrived at their destination.  Johnnie Walker did something similar a century earlier when they hired ship captains to transport their whisky around the world.  In the mid-1970s, Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife Margie handed the company over to their son, Bill Samuels Jr.  Maker’s Mark 46 was released shortly before Bill Jr. retired.  It was the company’s first new expression since that inaugural deep fried bottle way back in 1953.

Maker’s Mark 46 is a whiskey specialty.  A product that isn’t matured entirely in new, charred oak can’t technically be a bourbon, and must include the word “finished” on the label.  For this expression, ten seared French oak staves are inserted into the barrel for a few months prior to bottling.  Maker’s tried dozens of different wood samples before deciding on one called “Stave Profile No. 46” (hence the name).  The French oak gives Maker’s Mark 46 an engaging mouthfeel, something the original Maker’s sadly lacks.  Oak (obviously), floral, composed corn, baking spices, caramel, vanilla.  It’s sweet, but not overwhelmingly so.

Happy dramming,


Monday, November 7, 2022

Make It Suntory Time

The title for this post was delivered by Bill Murray in the 2003 film Lost in Translation.  Murray’s character, a washed-up, ethically-challenged Hollywood star, was doing promotional work in Japan for Suntory whisky.  The film turned out to be one of the greatest ads in whisky history.

Many of my non-whisky friends who watched the film were shocked when I told them Suntory was an actual company.  Suntory is very real, and a multinational juggernaut.  Canadian Club, Alberta Premium, Bowmore, Laphroaig, Jim Beam, and Maker’s Mark are all Suntory brands.  There’s more, but you get the idea.  They’re the third-largest distilling company in the world, but in order to become a household name, they needed the help of a film on a shoestring budget.

Suntory had no idea Lost in Translation was using their products until Sofia Coppola, the film’s director, approached them and explained how critical they were to the story.  Once Suntory realized the film didn’t depict their products unfavourably, they gave Coppola the “green light.”  The film garnered international acclaim, winning 3 Golden Globes and an Academy Award.  It also turned out to be a steady diet of product placements and references that didn’t cost Suntory a dime.

The film was a huge hit at the box office, grossing almost $119 million.  People wanted to try the whisky Bill Murray drank in the picture.  Bars all over the world started carrying Suntory products.  The phrase “Suntory time” became synonymous with Japanese whisky.  Liquor stores couldn’t keep up with demand.  Suntory couldn’t keep up with demand.  Suntory, a multi-billion dollar company established a century before the film’s release, became an overnight hit.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony is a blend made from 3 Suntory-owned Japanese distilleries:  Chita (grain), Hakushu (lightly peated malt), and Yamazaki (typically unpeated malt).  Like most Japanese whiskies, it’s very clean and balanced.  Sweet, floral nose with some bourbon and grain notes.  Fruity palate.  The back end is where this whisky really shines, especially the finish.  The bottle is absolutely gorgeous.  Incidentally, Hibiki is the whisky Murray holds up when he delivers the line responsible for selling thousands of bottles of Suntory whisky worldwide.  “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.”

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...