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

Monday, July 31, 2023

On Second Thought

Once upon a time, long, long ago, people read.  The world was a much different place back then.  Phones were connected to the wall, and could only be used for talking.  When people wanted easy-to-digest information, they’d reach for something called a “magazine.”

Magazines were filled with ads.  Kilted men were a common sight in ads for scotch whisky.  They were always presented the same way:  sturdy, tough, folksy, masculine.  Titanic tourism springs to mind.  The resting place of the Titanic isn’t a theme park, it’s a graveyard, and something that shouldn’t be exploited for financial gain.  Scottish Highlanders had to endure some pretty brutal stuff over the years.  Using them as a one-dimensional prop has always rubbed me the wrong way.  If you knew their backstory, it’d rub you the wrong way too.

They were banned from wearing traditional dress, and forced to swear allegiance to the ones who took everything away from them.  If I would’ve started this piece using the sentence above, you’d probably think I was going to write about the residential school system in Canada, or the forced displacement of Native Americans in the mid-1800s.  Colonialism can come in many different shapes and sizes.  If you’re an obstruction to power, it doesn’t matter what colour you are.

In 1746, the British wanted to put an end to the clan system, and assimilate the Highlanders.  A clan is a group of people who share a common ancestry.  Scottish clans lived in settlements called townships.  Each clan had their own unique symbol, crest, and tartan, a pattern of plaid made from wool.  They worked pieces of land called crofts.  The more productive the land, the easier it was to pay rent.  Some paid their rent in whisky.

Fearing an uprising (Highlanders fought in the Jacobite rising of 1745, a failed attempt to overthrow the monarchy), British Parliament passed the Act of Proscription in 1746:

-  Traditional “Highland Clothes” could no longer we worn.

-  All weapons had to be forfeited.    Stripping Highlanders of their weapons also took away their ability to hunt for food.

-  Schoolchildren were forced to swear an oath, “To his Majesty, his heirs and successors.”

-  All teachers had to, “Give evidence of their good affection to his Majesty's person and government.”  This was done, “To prevent the rising generation being educated in disaffected or rebellious principles.”

The act didn’t apply to everyone.  Highland dress was permitted for members of the military.  This was an assimilation act after all, and Highlanders who fought for the Crown weren’t seen as a threat.  For landed gentry (nobility), it was business as usual.  As history has shown us time and time again, there’s one set of rules for the rich, and one set of rules for everyone else.

The act was in place for more than 3 decades.  Its aim, to bring a lasting peace, was achieved, but it came at a cost.  Many starved when crops underperformed.  Weavers became obsolete (there were no tartans for them to weave).  Resentment ran high, and continues to this day.  The monarchy is still viewed unfavourably in many parts of Scotland.  The Gaelic way of life, as it was known before the act, never fully recovered.  (There’s more, like the clearances, but I’ll save that for another day.)

When it comes to things associated with tragedy or hardship, it’s important to reflect carefully and tread lightly.  The Titanic wreckage site shouldn’t be seen as an untapped source of revenue.  Likewise, the Gaelic Highland tradition should be respected for more than just its ability to sell whisky.

Happy dramming,


Monday, July 24, 2023

Deep in the Woods

“What do you think is the greatest invention of all-time?  The internet?”

“Perhaps, but it’s hard to give top spot to something that’s mostly pictures of people sharing what they ate for lunch.  I say the barrel.”

“The barrel?”



“I’ll tell you why as soon as I finish writing this sentence.”

Not so long ago, the barrel was used by practically everyone to hold practically everything:  perishable food (salted meat), gun powder, nails, coins, pickles, you name it.  If you wanted to keep something watertight, you put it in a barrel.  If you wanted to protect something from the elements, you put it in a barrel.  Barrels are easy to roll, and easy to stack.  Exploration would’ve been impossible without the barrel.  Fresh water barrels kept people hydrated and alive while at sea.  Barrels made it possible for countries to trade with one another (and trading sure beats warring).  The barrel may no longer be in favour, but it’s still an essential part of the whisky-making process (unless you’re making corn whiskey).  Barrels add flavour, remove unwanted compounds, and (for those who don’t chill filter) enhance mouthfeel.  There are 3 types of barrels commonly used for maturing whisky today:  the American Standard Barrel (ASB), the hogshead, and the butt.

The American Standard Barrel (ASB) is the most common whiskey barrel on the planet.  The reason for this is simple.  ASBs are used to mature bourbon, and bourbon must be matured in charred new oak containers.  An ASB can only be used once to mature bourbon.  There’s a lot of information out there as to why the ASB is 53 gallons.  Most of it isn’t all that accurate.  In the early 1800s, Pennsylvania rye was king.  The 42 gallon tierce barrel was the gold standard in Pennsylvania when it came to shipping or storing items that required a water tight seal.  It’s not like today where everything is made-to-order.  Back then, you used what you had at your disposal.  The tierce was dependable and easy to transport.  The switch to the 53 gallon ASB of today didn’t occur until the Second World War.  Wood, like everything else, was rationed.  Going with a 53 gallon barrel meant less barrels had to be used.  Anything larger would’ve been difficult to accommodate, and retrofitting wasn’t an option.  (Retrofitting requires the use of wood, something they were trying to conserve at the time.)

The hogshead barrel is a bit of a mystery.  Prominent philologist (a person who studies language) Walter William Skeat was convinced the name came from ox-head, the Swedish term for barrel.  When the Moors conquered the southern part of Spain in the 8th century, they named what’s now the city of Jerez, Sherish.  Somewhere down the line, Sherish became sherry, and, somewhere down the line (according to Skeat), ox-head became hogshead.  The hogshead was standardized for the first time in the 1400s.  To make things simple, everything was half of what came before it.  The largest barrel was the tun.  Next came the pipe (or butt), which was half the size of the tun.  Half the size of the pipe was the hogshead.  Hogsheads (250-ish litres) are frequently used in Scotland.  Not only do they take up less space, but it’s believed they’re the perfect size for maturing scotch.  A hogshead is made by breaking down American Standard Barrels.  5 ASBs = 4 hogsheads.

Scuttlebutt is a naval term.  It’s slang for crewmates gossiping next to a water source.  To scuttle means to put a hole in something, which, in this case, would be a barrel the size of a butt (500 litres or so).  The pre-Covid equivalent to scuttlebutt would be when you and your co-workers chatted next to the office water cooler.  The post-Covid equivalent would be nothing, because your company went out of business due to supply chain issues caused by Covid.  The earliest reference to butt (as in storage container) I can find dates back to 1080:

Aliquando vir Dei buttem vini repositam apud quamdam suam capellam habuerat

(Very) loosely translated:

Once upon a time the man of God had a barrel of wine stored at one of his chapels

Butts are used to mature sherry.  Ex-sherry casks are highly sought-after, especially in Scotland.  Initially, butts were made using nearby trees like pine and chestnut.  Once trans-Atlantic trade took off, things changed.  It didn’t take long for American white oak barrels from the New World to become readily available in Spain.  Spaniards loved the influence American white oak had on their wine.  Today, it’s the wood of choice for maturing sherry.

Happy dramming,


Monday, July 17, 2023

Sealed for Your Protection

US presidents, even before the 22nd Amendment prevented them from doing so, didn’t seek reelection after 2 terms.  George Washington, America’s first Commander in Chief, set the precedent, and the rest (with the exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) followed.  Some two-termers did things on their last day they wouldn’t dare try on any other day.  Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother who was found guilty of drug trafficking in 1985, and Grover Cleveland signed a divisive piece of legislation that would forever change the American whiskey landscape.

James Crow is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Bourbon.”  At a time when whiskey was made in a barn alongside livestock, Crow kept his workspace clean and free of contaminants.  At a time when whiskey was made by feel, Crow used science and deductive reasoning.  His Old Crow was the envy of his peers, and the best-selling bourbon in America for more than a century.  Today, it’s bottom-shelf cocktail fodder, even worse than Schenley Golden Wedding (well maybe not that bad).  When Crow died in 1856, his distillery was taken over by a man who could also be rightly called the “Father of Modern Bourbon,” (Honorary) Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr.

Crow may’ve preached the importance of cleanliness, but it doesn’t mean others followed suit.  Films and TV shows do a less-than-stellar job portraying what life was actually like in the 1800s.  The average person had next to nothing.  Life was hard, and usually short.  When it came to consumables prepared by someone other than yourself, it was buy at your own risk.  It’s not like today where everything is regulated and sealed for our protection.  Not once have I gone into a liquor store and thought, “I sure hope this isn’t rubbing alcohol made to look like whiskey.”  Just because Old Crow was safe to drink when it left the distillery, it doesn’t mean it was kept that way.  Customer safety wasn’t a top priority back then, especially if it got in the way of profits.

In 1870, George Garvin Brown launched the first (commercially available) bottled bourbon, but he did so at a loss.  The bottle cost more than the liquid it contained.  Fully automatic bottle-making machines didn’t show up until 1903.  It made more economic sense for distillers to sell their product straight from the barrel.  Adulteration was commonplace.  Some proprietors would empty newly arrived barrels and keep the contents for themselves.  Neutral grain spirit, tea bags, prune juice, even tobacco spit would then be used to replicate what was dumped.  (Now you know why cowboys wince in the movies after shooting back a couple fingers.)  Poorly made knockoffs were also a problem.  E.H. Taylor’s celebrated Old Taylor had to contend with Old Kentucky Taylor, a blend even worse than Schenley Golden Wedding (well maybe not that bad).

When Grover Cleveland became president for the second time, he made John Carlisle his Secretary of the Treasury.  E.H. Taylor pushed Carlisle, a fellow Kentuckian, to grease the levers of Washington.  Legislation needed to be passed to protect “good” whiskey.  Despite protestations from blenders, Grover Cleveland signed the Bottled-in-Bond Act on his last full day in office, March 3rd, 1897.  A bottled-in-bond whiskey had to be from one distillery, one growing season, and sealed with a tamper-proof tax stamp.  Customers would now know exactly what they were getting when they bought a whiskey (as long as it was bonded).  Crow may’ve invented modern bourbon, but Taylor made it safe to drink.  Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond is an easy-going, entry-level sipper.  Rye spice on the nose, caramel corn, floral, with a nice kick on the back end.  I’d give it a solid A, for adequate.

Happy dramming,


Monday, July 10, 2023

All Roads Lead to Cardhu

Some of you may be familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.  The objective is to link any 2 people in Hollywood, using Kevin Bacon as a conduit, in 6 moves or less.  The Kevin Bacon of scotch, for me anyway, is pretty obvious (so much for building suspense, I should’ve went with another title).  The most popular single malt in the world, the most popular blended scotch in the world, and what it means to be a single malt all have one thing in common, Cardhu.

Helen and John Cumming started making whisky without a license in 1811.  Like many farmers in the region, they were just trying to eke out a living.  Back then, Cardhu was called Cardow.  Current owners Diageo love to play up Helen’s “exploits” when it came to duping excise officers.  As the story goes, whenever an officer was spotted in the area, Helen would invite them in for tea.  Once inside, she’d excuse herself, scamper outside, and hoist a large red flag up a flagpole.  This early warning system would give nearby distillers a chance to hide whatever needed to be hidden.  I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine anyone falling for that more than once.  Truth be told, John Cumming wasn’t much of a bootlegger.  In 1816, he was charged with private distilling on three separate occasions.  Cumming went legit in 1824, mere months after the Excise Act made it easy to do so (all you needed was 10 pounds for a licence).

I really admire people willing to paddle against the current in the pursuit of something greater.  William Grant started working as a clerk at Mortlach distillery in 1866.  He was a conscientious man, and like most conscientious people, he soon became a valued employee.  It wasn’t long before he found himself managing the distillery.  Life was good, but for a man like Grant, good was never good enough.  Upon hearing the news Cardhu (then Cardow, see above) was planning a major rebuild, Grant walked nearly the equivalent of a half marathon to buy their old equipment.  He now had everything he needed to start his own distillery.  Grant and his family literally built everything from the ground up on a field north of Dufftown.  The Gaelic name for the field was Gleann Fhiodhaich (Glenfiddich).  Today, Glenfiddich is home to over 30 stills.  Whenever a still needs to be added or repaired, the ones bought from Cardhu are used as a template.

By the late 1800s, Cardhu had established itself as a premier scotch whisky maker.  Not only did it feature prominently in blends, but it was also sold as a single malt, a rarity at the time.  In 1893, the Cumming family sold the distillery to John Walker & Sons.  As part of the deal, the Cummings were allowed to stay on and run things.  Cardhu has been the backbone for the Walker brand of whiskies ever since.  Initially, the Cardhu/Walker whiskies were called Old Highland.  There was a Special Old Highland, and an Extra Special Old Highland.  (I hope they didn’t pay someone to come up with those names.)  The Special one had a red label.  The Extra Special one had a black label.  (I bet you know where this is going.)  Special and Extra Special Old Highland was a bit of a mouthful, so customers simply called them “red label” and “black label” respectively.  Johnnie Walker formally adopted the names in 1909.

Cardhu is one of Diageo’s best-selling single malts.  A couple decades ago, its demand exceeded supply.  What to do?

“I know, let’s just make Cardhu a blend.”

“I dunno.  People who buy single malts aren’t usually into blends.”

“What if we called it a pure malt?”

“Isn’t pure malt just another word for blend?”


“Wouldn’t that be deceptive?”


“Let’s do it!”

Cardhu 12 pure malt was a blend of Cardhu and Glendullan, a worker bee malt owned by Diageo.  What made going with Glendullan especially genius (in an underhanded way) is that it, like Cardhu, is located in Moray (Morayshire).

The Cardhu 12 single malt bottle:

Cardhu Distillery, Morayshire, Scotland

The Cardhu 12 pure malt bottle:

Speyside Malt, Morayshire, Scotland

Pretty sneaky.  The colour scheme, font, bottle shape, and abv. were exactly the same.  Unless you had the single and pure malt side-by-side, each one could easily pass for the other.  The industry wasn’t impressed.  William Grant & Sons, the same company that distilled its first drop of whisky on Cardhu’s old stills, publicly condemned the move.

“Small world hey?”

That’s the whole point of this piece, remember?  Kevin Bacon?  I don’t write these things overnight you know!”

Grant’s beef was a valid one.  Single malts are special.  One distillery, one set of stills.  Pure malt is nothing more than crafty wordplay.  You don’t want to say blend, so you replace single with pure and hope no one notices.  Distilleries bouncing from single to pure whenever stocks run low is disingenuous, and not fair to the customer.  The UK government thought so too, eventually.  In 2009, legislation was passed banning the use of the term “pure malt.”

Cardhu 12 is fine, I guess.  It’s 40%, chill filtered, and coloured to look extra flavourful.  It’s made to appeal to the casual, non-discerning drinker.  The kind of person who doesn’t care if their whisky is a pure or single malt.  The kind of person who thinks a good whisky is a smooth whisky.  The kind of person who’d never take time out of their day to read my work (much obliged by the way).  Cardhu 12 is made to sell, sell, sell, just not to someone like you.

Happy dramming,


Monday, July 3, 2023

Reading This Post Will Make You Happier and Healthier

It’s 5 AM.  You drive to a nearby park to meet up with some friends for a pre-work run.  The streets are quiet.  The traffic light turns red.  You stop.  You could go, but you don’t.  You stop because you’re part of a social contract.  We’re willing to suspend some of our liberties for the greater good, like public safety.  Laws allow us to leave the house each day without fear.  The bunny hopping on your front lawn isn’t as fortunate.  Prior to Prohibition, American distillers could advertise as they saw fit.  Telling the truth was optional.  People had to rely upon, as Abraham Lincoln put it, the better angels of ones nature.

In the beginning, God created misleading bourbon advertising...

Elijah Craig fathered 7 (possibly 10) children, and was the one-time father of the Blue Run church in what’s now the Commonwealth of Virginia, but to say he was the father of bourbon is pushing it.  No one truly knows who invented bourbon.  Recipes aside, records weren’t really kept.  Thankfully, the lies of today mostly come in shades of white.  The lies of the past, however, had the potential to cause serious harm.  There’s one company that turned irresponsible marketing into an art form, Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, whiskey was still being used for medicinal purposes.  I own a pharmaceutical whiskey label from that period.  Just below Fine Old Bourbon Whiskey, it reads, “For Family Use.”  Whiskey was a trusted remedy for all sorts of maladies back then.  Of course now, we all know the only thing whiskey can mend is a broken heart.  Duffy’s had no shame.  They’d say anything.  Here are just a few of my favourites:

“Vigorous At 148 Years Of Age.”

“Mrs. Nancy Tigue, of Lafayette, Ind., Although in Her 106th Year, Says:  I Really Don’t Feel Like I’m a Day Over 60.”

“Two ounces of alcohol contains more nutri-ment than twelve ounces of meat.”

“U.S. Has 3,536 Centenarians, Almost Every One of Them Owes His or Her Ripe Old Age to Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey, the Elixir of Life.”

Duffy’s claimed to be everything to everyone all at once.  It worked too.  At its height, Duffy’s was one of the most popular medicinal whiskies in America.  In my piece, “Blurred Lines,” I talked about native advertising.  Duffy’s made their ads look like articles, and put them in reputable newspapers and magazines.  We would’ve been duped too.  Who doesn’t want to look vigorous at 148 years of age?  As you’ve probably guessed by its absence on your liquor store shelves, Duffy’s is no longer with us.  Duffy’s reputation as a cure-all began to wane once articles surfaced about its questionable claims.  The one that always cracks me up was when Duffy’s received an endorsement from a “clergyman.”  The clergyman in question ran a quickie marriage parlour.  Duffy’s, like all whisky outfits, fell on hard times during Prohibition.  They went out of business in 1926.

After Prohibition, distilleries were terrified.  I had a bully in Grade 3.  Back then, kids had to repeat a grade if their abilities weren’t up to snuff.  Wilfred, my bully, should’ve been in Grade 4.  He was a tall, angry boy.  On the day of my scheduled execution, I noticed his lunch lacked treats.  I cowered over to his table, and asked him if he wanted my cookies.  My stay of execution was granted.  I gave him my cookies for the next 5 months.  The last thing distilleries wanted after Prohibition was another Prohibition.  Temperance groups were still popular, and very powerful.  It was time to play it safe.  No more health claims.  No more advertising to women or minors.  No more advertising on Sunday, and no more advertising on the radio.  This code of conduct remained in place for 60 years, from 1936 until 1996.

Today, marketing departments aren’t as important as they once were.  Many companies now use influencers to push their products (native advertising).  Up until recently, one man was the undisputed king of all influencers, Jim Murray.  I was helping out a local liquor store when he made Alberta Premium Cask Strength his Whisky of the Year.  The stores that carried it (we didn’t), sold out in less than an hour.  The phone rang all day.  The people who called always asked the same question, “You guys carry the best whisky in the world?”  Like there’s such a thing.  That was his power though.  I don’t really consider myself an influencer, but I do wish I could go back in time and work for the Duffy’s marketing department:

“Duffy’s makes me look so young, I now have to buy Duffy’s with a parent or guardian present.”

“I was keen on a girl, but she found me to be a real flat tire.  I replaced my old cologne with Duffy’s Pure Malt.  Now we’re getting hitched!”

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 ...