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

Monday, June 26, 2023

Never Get Between a Man and His Meal

Here Liberty her throne maintains:

O'er thy delightful hills and plains

No domineering tyrant reigns

-  A heaven on earth is Islay!

-  Alexander M'Gilvray, “Islay” (1850)

Songs, for the most part, are written to inspire and uplift.  Take the 1991 hit “Walking in Memphis” for example.  You won’t find a single verse about Memphis’ high crime and poverty rates.  The lyrics read like a love letter to the city and its people.  Catfish on the table.  Gospel in the air.  The same could be said about the song above.  Delightful hills and plains.  A heaven on earth.  When Alexander M'Gilvray wrote “Islay” in 1850, the island, for most of its inhabitants, was anything but a heaven on earth.

In 1644, Scotland taxed whisky for the first time.  Before 1644, the people of Islay would distill out in the open.  After 1644, everything went underground, and stayed that way for 170 years.

“You’re wrong Ryan!  Bowmore was founded in 1779, it even says so on all of their labels.”

Bowmore may have started making whisky in 1779, but they didn’t obtain a license until 1816.  Putting 1779 on the label is just their way of projecting longevity.  Glenturret does the same thing.  On their bottles, you’ll find “Since 1763.”  Their first license was issued in 1818.

Positives were hard to come by on Islay during the 18th and early 19th centuries.  People mainly subsisted on a diet of potatoes, and only potatoes.  Disease was rampant.  Distilling was the one (and only) thing that could potentially make your life (marginally) better.  As Alfred Barnard points out in his book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, smugglers could, “Clear at least ten shillings a day, and keep a horse and cow.”

For 153 years, not one excise officer was stationed on the island.  When the first wave of officers finally did arrive in the late 1700s, they weren’t exactly greeted with open arms.  Gallows were erected in Bridgend, a village north of Bowmore.  One excise officer, upon seeing this “welcome mat of terror,” quickly made his way to the nearest port, and booked passage home.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece called “Blurred Lines.”  I talked about how my neighbour once baked me a batch of “less than delicious” cookies.  I told her they were great.  Being honest wasn’t an option.  There’s a good chance I’ll be living next to her for decades.  Fines for illegal distilling on Islay tended to be on the lenient side.  The magistrates who oversaw these cases knew the perpetrators, and the perpetrators knew where the magistrates lived.  As for the excise officers who had the audacity to do their jobs, threats and assaults were commonplace.  The smart ones took bribes or looked the other way.

In 1816, the Small Stills Act changed everything.  Small farm distillers (maximum 40 gallons) could now legally make whisky (the minimum before that was 500 gallons).  Slowly but surely, moonlight distillers left the darkness for the light.  Lagavulin and (as we now know) Bowmore went legit in 1816.  Laphroaig started up a few months earlier.

In my opinion, Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength is the best (reasonably priced) product made by Laphroaig at the moment.  It’s barrier, and not chill, filtered.  Barrier filtering gets rid of cask sediment (wood chunks).  The absence of chill filtration means better mouthfeel, and better mouthfeel = better experience.  For the first 14 batches, Laphroaig suggested you enjoy it thusly:

“We recommend you add twice as much water as whisky to fully appreciate the taste characteristics of Original Cask Strength Laphroaig.”

That’s insane.  If I wanted to drink a whisky that tastes like water, I’ll just buy something from Canada.

“That’s crossing the line Ryan!  Not all whisky from Canada tastes like water!”

“You’re right.  How about this?”

If I wanted to drink a whisky that tastes like water, I’ll just buy something, but not everything, from Canada.



On the Batch 15 tin, you’ll find:

“We recommend you add a small amount of water to your whisky to fully appreciate the taste characteristics of Original Cask Strength Laphroaig.”

That’s more like it Laphroaig!

The standard Laphroaig 10 is that person in your office who, although pleasant, is a little on the dull side.  Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength is that same person after a few margaritas at the office Christmas party.  It’s fun, edgy, and uninhibited.  Buy with confidence (if you like peated whiskies).

Happy dramming,


Monday, June 19, 2023

I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles

I'm dreaming dreams,

I'm scheming schemes,

I'm building castles high.

They're born anew,

Their days are few,

Just like a sweet butterfly.

-  Verse 1, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (1919)

Spring 2019, Vancouver Island, Canada…

Ryan is sitting on his front porch involuntarily listening to 20-somethings race their souped-up economically priced cars on a nearby road.  Accompanying him is a bottle of Springbank 10.  The fill line is starting to get dangerously low.  He picks up his tablet, and orders a bottle from a trusted online retailer.

Spring 2023, Vancouver Island, Canada…

Ryan is sitting on his front porch enjoying the splendour of the day.  There’s a “For Sale” sign on his neighbour’s souped-up economically priced car.  The price of gas is once again approaching $2 a litre.  The bottle of Springbank 10 he purchased in the spring of 2019 is almost gone.  He picks up his tablet to buy another.  It’s not available, anywhere.

We are in the midst of a great whisky boom.  I hate it.  Every product perceived as “collectible” is now next to impossible to find.  Where did all these people come from?  Scotch has had its share of booms in the past, and they’ve all been met with a corresponding bust.

The Pattison family got into blending in 1887.  Some of you may remember the hurricane scene in Forrest Gump.  Forrest and Lieutenant Dan weren’t having much luck shrimping.  One day, a ferocious hurricane came along, and destroyed every shrimping boat in its path.  Their boat was spared.  This stroke of luck made them the only shrimping game in town.  Something similar happened in Europe in the late 1800s.  The phylloxera epidemic crippled the wine industry.  To borrow a line from Forrest, “People still needed them shrimps.”  People still needed their booze.  Blended scotch happily jumped in to fill the void.  The Pattisons hit the ground running.  They soon had a gaggle of brands with catchy names like Morning Dew and Enchantress.

Things started out well.  Their early profits were substantial.  They bought palatial estates, country homes, and large offices.  Considerable shares of Aultmore, Oban, and Glenfarclas were also purchased.  When it came to marketing, they were the Coca-Cola of their day.  They once bought hundreds of parrots, put them in grocery stores, and trained them to say, “Buy Pattisons whisky.”  In 1898, the Pattisons spent an astounding 60 thousand pounds on advertising, that’s almost 10 million in today’s dollars.  To give that incredible number perspective, the Pattisons could’ve bought a 30-second spot on this year’s Super Bowl, and still would’ve had enough money for time on American Idol, The Voice, The Bachelor, and The Bachelorette (love the variety on television these days).

All that glisters is not gold

-  William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice (1590s)

The Pattisons over-stated their annual profits by tens of thousands of pounds, duplicated whisky sales, and over-valued the inventory in their warehouses.  In 1899, it all came crashing down.  They were no longer able to pay their bills.  After going bust, they nearly took the entire industry down with them.  In 1901, the Pattisons were found guilty of fraud and embezzlement.  Before being convicted, it was discovered their product, Fine Old Glenlivet, was nothing more than low-grade Irish whiskey with a splash of scotch.  This revelation eroded consumer confidence in the industry.  In 1897 and 1898, 15 new distilleries opened their doors in Scotland.  By 1933, only 15 distilleries were in operation.  Glen Elgin, the last distillery to open during the Pattison era, filled its first cask in 1900.  Tullibardine would be the next new distillery in Scotland.  They filled their first cask in 1949.

I'm forever blowing bubbles,

Pretty bubbles in the air,

They fly so high,

Nearly reach the sky,

Then like my dreams,

They fade and die.

-  Chorus, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (1919)

Interest rates in Europe are at a 22-year high.  Young people are drinking less than the generation before them, and the generation before them is drinking less than the generation before them.  The price of everything has gone up, and scotch has never been more expensive to make.  These costs always find a way to get passed on to the consumer, but, as the industry will soon realize, we all have our lines in the sand.  Macallan 18 was $300 in 2019.  It’s over $900 today.  No (insert curse word here) way.  This is where I usually talk about a whisky connected to my overarching theme.  Not today.  There’s no point in giving you my take on Springbank 10 because you’re not going to find it, at least not right now.  Whisky is just too darn fashionable at the moment.  Thankfully, all fashionable things have a best-before date.  If they didn’t, I’d still be moonwalking from place to place with a rhinestone-studded white glove on my right hand.  I’ll review Springbank 10 when I can once again buy it with ease.

Happy dramming,


Monday, June 12, 2023

Will the Real Sherry Casks Please Stand Up?

Once a barrel is used to make bourbon, it can never be used again to make bourbon.  In 1935, the United States passed a law requiring all (straight) whiskies be stored in charred new oak containers.  Once used, most bourbon barrels get sent to Scotland.  In Spain, casks are used to mature sherry, a type of fortified wine.  Once used, they too get sent to Scotland.

“Not really.”

“What do you mean?”

“Keep reading.”

Sherry was transported and sold in cask form in the 1800s.  Bottling sherry would’ve made it considerably more expensive.  In 1870, Old Forester became the first company to bottle whisky in the US.  The bottle cost more than the whisky it contained.  Bottles were handblown at the time.  The first automatic bottle maker didn’t show up until 1903.  In retrospect, bottling sherry probably would’ve been a good idea.  One of the reasons why sherry declined in popularity was its questionable quality due to widespread adulteration.  In 1800s Britain, if you wanted to buy sherry, you went to your local wine merchant.  Rural customers typically bought it by the barrel.  City dwellers, lacking the space of their country counterparts, had to enjoy it by the bottle.  Once a cask was emptied, it didn’t get sent back to Spain.  It was a transport cask, not a maturation vessel.  Its job was to transport sherry from point A to point B.  Distillers were more than willing to take whatever came available.

Unlike ex-bourbon casks, transport casks only held sherry from the time they were filled for transport, until the time they were emptied by a customer or merchant.  Sherry uses a bodega system for maturation.  Casks of varying ages are used, and they all play a crucial role.  Some bodegas use casks for a century or more before retiring them.  Starting in 1981, sherry had to be bottled in Spain prior to export.  The days of the transport cask were officially over.  Many online pundits would have you believe this is when the industry stopped using transport casks, but that wouldn’t be accurate.  Transport casks fell out of favour way before then.  In order to run an effective business, you need consistency and reliability.  The phylloxera epidemic decimated the wine industry in Europe in the late 1800s.  A shortage of sherry meant a shortage of sherry transport casks.  The scotch industry had to start looking at other alternatives.

Today, sherry casks are made-to-order.  Things like wood type (American, European oak) and barrel size (250 litre hogshead, 500 litre butt) are all predetermined by the distillery.  Young wine is used for seasoning.  After a few tours of duty, the wine usually gets turned into salad dressing (sherry vinegar).  Macallan churns out 15 million litres of spirit each year.  Again, if you want to run a business effectively, you need consistency and reliability.  After the phylloxera epidemic, American oak staves were brought in, and turned into “sherry casks.”  They were seasoned with a sherry sweetener called Paxarette.  Naturally, none of this information was made known to the public.  Distilleries (then and now) want their customers to think their sherry casks once held premium sherry.  This is why they put “sherry casks” on the label, and leave the rest up to your imagination.  The Scotch Whisky Association banned Paxarette in 1990.

The Lakes is a relatively new English distillery.  In 2019, they launched a sherry-forward range called The Whiskymaker’s Reserve.  Whiskymaker’s Reserve No. 5 is 52%, and matured in ex-Pedro Ximénez, Oloroso, and red wine casks.  This whisky is oh so fruity!  I’m fairly certain most of it was matured in European oak.  It delivers a fair bit of tannins on the palate, which is usually a dead giveaway.  As you work your way down the bottle, the tannins (sadly) start to tyrannize the experience, or, as they’d probably put it, “the baking spices become more pronounced.”  This whisky, although decent, is a tad too young for my liking.

Late 1980s, northern Manitoba, Canada…

My friend and I were en route to a local tavern.  We were both 16.  I was fair with blonde hair and blue eyes.  I could’ve easily passed for a 12-year-old.  My friend was 16 going on 40.  He looked like a lumberjack.  His beard was full, and the envy of every sub-18-year-old boy in town.  We got in easily enough, but were asked to show ID once we made our way up to the bar.  More accurately, the waitress wanted to see my ID.  I did the old “check the pockets” routine, and was shown the door once I couldn’t deliver the goods.  My friend ordered without incident.  No. 5 is my friend.  It’s going to fool some people, but for those who can see past the fruit, its lack of maturity becomes pretty apparent.  He kept drinking for 2 more hours.  I sat in the car.  Stupid beard.

Happy dramming,


Monday, June 5, 2023

The More You Know

Being a scotch whisky enthusiast these days is easy.  Everything you want to know is just a Google search away.  I remember the days when smartphones didn’t roam the Earth.  You had the information on the label, and the information on the tin, and both weren’t exactly helpful.  Everything was bold, smooth, and had a long-lasting finish, or as I like to call it, “the Holy Trinity of scotch whisky buzzwords.”  Amen.  What frustrated me most back then were the “official” tasting notes.  Early on, I made it my mission to find every smell the notes said I should be smelling:

“Where’s that damn watermelon note?  C’mon Ryan, smell harder!”

A few weeks into my scotch whisky journey, a light from above flashed around me.  I fell to the ground, and heard a voice say, “Ryan, why art thou wasting time with tasting notes?”  After that, my watermelon searching days were over.  My attention shifted.  I now wanted to know how that watermelon note got there in the first place.

I’ve never been to the Isle of Raasay in Scotland, but feel strangely connected to it.  In late 1896, Clifford Sifton became Canada’s Minister of the Interior.  It was his job to encourage settlement in Canada’s “desolate” west.  (Native Americans settled Canada’s “desolate” west thousands of years prior, but that’s a discussion for another time.)  The government feared Americans might start moving north now that their frontier was “officially closed.”  Pamphlets promising free land were dispersed throughout Europe.  Tens of thousands of people, including my great-grandparents, immigrated to the region.  On Raasay, there’s a small cluster of houses known as “Manitoba.”  It’s believed this is where people met before making their way to Canada’s west.  Today, Raasay is home to 161 people.  10% of the island’s population work at the distillery.

Some distilleries aren’t a fan of sharing.  They want us to “stay in our lane,” and dine on the word gruel prepared by the hash slingers in their marketing department.  Raasay, on the other hand, loves to share.  Here’s just some of the information they provide for their R-01.1 expression:

ABV:  46.4%

Peat Level:  Barley 48-52 PPM | Residual in Bottle 7.8 PPM

Presentation:  Non-chill filtered

Cask Types:  First fill ex-rye whiskey (65%), virgin Chinkapin oak (25.5%), and first fill Bordeaux red wine (9.5%)

Barley Variety:  Concerto

Water Source:  Isle of Raasay Distillery 60 metre well on-site – Tobar na Bà Baine

Scotch whisky, by law, must be at least 40% alcohol by volume.  Raasay, despite not having to do so, is giving us an extra 6.4% of flavour (instead of an extra 6.4% of water).  Scotch is usually matured (at least initially) in mass-produced, ex-American whiskey barrels from one of the big producers like Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam.  For this expression, Raasay used first fill Woodford Reserve ex-rye, virgin Chinkapin, and first fill Bordeaux wine casks.  This was most likely done out of necessity.  Young whiskies drink young.  (Thanks for clearing up the obvious Ryan.)  Imparting a heavy dollop of cask influence usually makes a young whisky drink “less young.”  Disclosing the barley variety should also be applauded.  Concerto was the barley of choice for most distillers when R-01.1 was made.  My guess is they’ll go with the higher-yielding Laureate for future batches until that too gets pushed out by an even higher-yielding variety.

I think it’s fair to say non-chill filtering is the norm for “craft” or “artisan” distilleries (I hate using those words).  Chill filtration removes fatty acids, proteins, and esters, thought by many to be the building blocks of mouthfeel.  If you expect someone to spend $100 on a 3-year-old whisky, you should, at the very least, give them the best possible presentation.

“How much was that?”


“What a rip-off!  I can get 3 litres of Jack for the same price.”

All the water used for R-01.1 comes from the Isle of Raasay.  Many distilleries engage in a practice I call “faux water marketing.”  Take Talisker for example.  Only a few thousand casks are matured on the Isle of Skye where Talisker is made.  The rest go to a city-sized warehouse in central Scotland where local water is used to cut before bottling.  Finally, including the residual PPM was a class move.  The phenol (peaty, smoky) level when a whisky is kilned is different than the phenol level after distillation.  Some distilleries don’t make this “inconvenient truth” known to their customers.  Raasay used 48-52 PPM malt to make R-01.1, but the actual phenol level in the bottle, according to them, is 7.8 PPM.

Like in golf, I tend to handicap young, “less experienced” single malts.  It’s not fair to compare them to older whiskies.  Many new distilleries, like new golfers, are still learning how to play the game.  You can’t improve until you’ve had a chance to learn from your mistakes.  Despite hearing good things, I expected R-01.1 to taste like most of the pre-schoolers I’ve had in the past:  spirit-driven, heavily lacquered in new or active oak so it’ll taste less spirit-driven, nonexistent finish, light-bodied, adequate.  R-01.1 is really, really good for its age.  The balance is spot-on.  This must’ve been made by a compulsive tinkerer who refused to stop until every instrument in this orchestra played in perfect harmony.  It’s very clean, and quite reminiscent of a malt matured in first fill ex-bourbon.  The peat keeps everything in check, and does so without overwhelming the experience.  Nice viscosity too.  What’s going on here?  This is so much better than most of the boring, sanitized bottlings on the market today.

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 ...