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

Monday, August 28, 2023

Quercus Not-So-Suber

WARNING.  The following paragraph contains descriptions which might be unsettling for experienced whisky drinkers.  Reader discretion is advised.

It’s your (insert very special occasion here).  You decide to crack open a whisky, not just any whisky, but a very special whisky you’ve been saving for a long, long time.  You take a look at the label, and fondly think back to the day you bought it those many, many years ago.  It’s now time to open it.  Your excitement turns to unease.  You know how corks and time aren’t the best of friends.  You tip the bottle slowly, count to 5, and take a deep breath.  Here we go.  You give the cork a slight twist, then another, then…rip.

Cork is bark.  It comes from a type of oak tree (Quercus suber) commonly found in Portugal and Spain.  There are people out there who think natural spaces should never, ever be tampered with.  Our planet should only be enjoyed with our eyes, and never with our hands.  Cork harvesting is actually a win-win.  It’s good for the tree (as long as it’s done at the right time), and good for us (sometimes).  Regular harvesting improves the health and vitality of a cork tree.  Cork trees usually get harvested every 9-12 years.  With each cycle, the quality of the cork improves.  One last thing.  Cork trees aren’t endangered.  In fact, there’s more supply than demand.  I know the news would have you believe everything is going horribly right now, but cork trees are doing just fine.

Despite cork being around for thousands of years, it didn’t gain prominence as a bottle closure until the 17th century.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, everything became localized.  If you weren’t near a cork tree, you didn’t use corks.  That all changed in the 1630s when Kenelm Digby invented the super-strength bottle.  Corks could now be standardized and made to fit.  This is also when wine shifted from something that had to be consumed quickly (wine turns to vinegar if not sealed properly), to something that could be matured over time.  Interesting fact.  Back then, you’d never put a cork all the way into a bottle.  The first “official” corkscrew was still over a century away.

Whisky doesn’t age in the bottle.  Like Peter Pan, a 12-year-old will always be a 12-year-old.  Premium wine is meant to be cellared, and should always be sealed with a cork.  A cork allows oxygen to enter the bottle in tiny increments.  This helps the wine mature and gain complexity.  A screw cap would inhibit this process.  Most of the wines on liquor store shelves today are designed for immediate consumption.  They dont need to use corks.  So why use them if they’re not necessary?  People tend to buy with their eyes.  Corks are synonymous with quality.  Screw caps are synonymous with hobos.

Very special occasion whiskies are usually rare and irreplaceable.  The older the whisky, the more likely your cork is going to rip.  Whisky isn’t wine, it can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be polished off in one night.  For those of you who’ve yet to experience a rip, hopefully this’ll help:

1.)  Find a replacement cork or closure.

I always keep a bunch of spare corks for this very reason.  Make sure you keep a variety of sizes too.

2.)  Gently remove the cork stuck in the bottle with a corkscrew.

This has never gone well for me.  Expect breakaway bits.

3.)  Filter your whisky through some cheesecloth.

Lest we forget, all of this is being done in the midst of a very special occasion.  Don’t be surprised if your guests start looking at you strangely after step #3.  Now let’s pretend your very special occasion whisky was sealed with a screw cap.  You open the bottle without incident.  The fill line hasn’t changed since the day you bought it because the seal is airtight.  Your guests aren’t desperately trying to find your cheesecloth drawer.  To (very loosely) borrow a line from Ocean’s Eleven, “Screw caps may not make me laugh, but they also don’t make me cry.”

Happy dramming,


Monday, August 21, 2023

Life Imitating Art

The movie Sideways proved to be both a blessing and a curse for the wine industry.  It centres around an aspiring author, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti, with a real passion for wine.  The screenwriters decided to take an interesting approach with this character.  He loves Pinot Noir but hates Merlot.  That doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, especially for someone who’s supposed to be a “wine enthusiast.”  The Bordeaux region in France is home to some of the most sought-after wines in the world.  Many of them contain a fair amount of Merlot.  That’s not all.  When Giamatti’s character is asked about his wine collection halfway through the film, he says his “star” is a bottle of 1961 Cheval Blanc.  Cheval Blanc is almost half-Merlot.

“It’s a movie Ryan, take it easy.”

“Be patient, I’m going somewhere with this.”

The film spawned a whole new “type” of wine drinker.  The Sideways drinker was only interested in Pinot Noir, and refused to drink Merlot.  Shortly after the film’s release, Pinot Noir sales jumped 16%.  Interest in Merlot plummeted.  Thankfully, time heals all wounds (not really, but it did in this case).  Sideways was released almost 20 years ago, that’s ancient history in movie years.  Merlot is no longer the world’s most-despised grape.  The whole thing was ridiculous anyway.  It’s not like all Merlots taste the same.  It’d be like me saying, “All Canadian whiskies are horrible.”  Only most of them are horrible.

Ron Swanson was a popular character on the hit TV show Parks and Recreation.  His drink of choice was Lagavulin 16.  He described it as, “God’s chosen elixir” and “The nectar of the gods.”  There’s even an episode where Swanson visits the distillery.  Parks and Recreation averaged 3-4 million viewers a week.  Let that sink in.  Among that 3-4 million were thousands of people who not only loved the Swanson character, but wanted to be just like him.  Wheaties paid Michael Jordan 2 million dollars to use his face on a box of cereal.  Swanson gushing about Lagavulin 16 didn’t cost Diageo, Lagavulin’s parent company, a dime.  Lagavulin happily, that’s not a strong enough word, gleefully, that’s better, went along for the ride.

Paul Giamatti isn’t a wine drinker in real life.  When asked about his Sideways character during an interview on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Giamatti confessed, “I don’t know (rhymes with mitt) about wine.”  Nick Offerman, the actor who played Ron Swanson, not only likes whisky, he likes Lagavulin.  A couple years ago, Lagavulin and Offerman launched a YouTube series called My Tales of Whisky.  The “Yule Log” episode is my personal favourite.  Offerman sits on a plush leather chair next to a roaring fire.  To the left of him is a small side table whose only occupant is a bottle of Lagavulin 16.  Every so often, he sips from a tumbler nestled neatly on the arm rest.  All he does is stare at the camera, without saying a word, for 45 minutes.

In 2019, Lagavulin gave Offerman his very own expression, the Offerman Edition.  Like most celebrity collaborations, Offerman isn’t turning the barley or running the stills, but he does decide what goes into the bottle.  Lagavulin sends him samples, and he chooses a favourite.  The first three editions have all been 11 years of age and bottled at 46%.  I’m always shocked when Diageo gives us poor serfs a little extra alcohol.  Pretty much every Diageo core range product, with the exception of Talisker and Clynelish, are either 40% or 43%.  Parks and Recreation went off the air 8 years ago.  Offerman’s Swanson character, like all pop culture figures, will only remain fresh for so long.  When that best-before date comes, what’s inside the bottle will matter more than the name and face on the label.  To be continued.

Lagavulin 8 was launched in 2016 to commemorate Lagavulin’s 200th year of legal distilling.  As Alfred Barnard points out in his book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, illicit or “moonlight” distilling was taking place at Lagavulin since the 1740s.  Excerpts from Barnard’s book (Lagavulin cherry-picked Barnard’s chapter on Lagavulin to best suit their narrative) can also be found on the Lagavulin 8 label.  Lagavulin 8 is matured in refill (reused) American oak, and presented at 48%.  Smoke, coastal, citrus, vanilla, more smoke.  This is a distillate-driven affair that needs time in the bottle to learn how to be behave in public.  Have a few fingers and put it in “time out” for a few months.  You’ll be glad you did.

Happy dramming,


Monday, August 14, 2023

Faulty Towers

Early on in my whisky journey, I stumbled upon a picture of Oban distillery in Scotland.  The distillery looked like…a distillery.  Distilleries aren’t cathedrals, they’re factories that convert grain into alcohol.  What really caught my eye was the Roman-looking amphitheatre directly above the distillery.  I knew the Roman Empire once occupied England and the southern part of Scotland, but I didn’t think they made it all the way up to Oban.  They didn’t.  The Colosseum-like structure that dominates every wide-angled shot of the town has nothing to do with the Roman Empire, at least not directly.  It was built in the late 1800s by a banker named John Stuart McCaig.  But why?

We all have our bouts of narcissism, you’re reading mine right now.  Some people love letting the world know just how special they are.  They’ll put their name or likeness on all sorts of things:  towers, hotels, golf courses, casinos, board games, even steaks.  (A little too on the nose?)  John Stuart McCaig was a very rich man, a multimillionaire by today’s standards.  He made his fortune as a banker, but he also thought of himself as an art critic and essayist.  (No essays or art criticisms have ever been found bearing his name.)  Construction on McCaig’s Tower began in 1895.  It was marketed as something that would benefit the entire community, something that would keep local stonemasons busy when times got tough.  In reality, it was a vanity project built by John McCaig to celebrate John McCaig (and, to a lesser extent, his family).

Once completed, McCaig’s Tower would be home to statues (more on that soon), a museum, an art gallery, and an observation tower.  McCaig poured 5000 pounds into the project (the average person back then made less than 100 pounds a year).  In 1902, just as the outer walls were starting to take shape, something happened.  John McCaig died.  In his will, he requested his estates be turned into rentals.  The money made was to be spent on, “Erecting monuments and statues for myself, brothers and sisters on the tower.”  Catherine, his sister, wasn’t keen on the idea, so she challenged it in court and eventually won.  Strangely enough, when Catherine died, she too set aside money for statues of, “Herself, her siblings and parents to be placed in the Tower.”  Her wishes, like her brother’s, were shot down in court.  McCaig’s Tower may be short on statues, but it does give you an excellent view of the town’s most popular attraction, the distillery.

Oban, before Oban, was nothing.  First came the distillery, then came the town.  Oban, the distillery, is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.  Some distilleries “claim” to be old, but are, in fact, quite young:

“Tullibardine, why do you put 1488 on your bottles?  You only started making whisky in 1949.”

“Hey Ryan, how’s it going?  Would you like to try a sample of my Custodians Collection from 1973?”

“I’m not for sale Tullibardine!  James IV buying ale in 1488 has nothing to do with you!”

“I know.  I just wanted to sound old, like Oban.”

“So are you going to get rid of all the 1488 stuff?”


For those new to scotch whisky, Oban 14 is the perfect introduction to complexity.  It’s peated, but not too peated.  It’s coastal, but not too coastal.  Orange, pepper, honey.  A dash of oak.  Oban 14 isn’t a bad whisky, far from it, it’s just dumbed-down for the masses.

We, as enthusiasts, tend to think with our hearts.  There’s a right way and a wrong way to make scotch.  If one doesn’t adhere to the Holy Trinity (46%, non-chill filtered, natural colour), they must be shunned and shamed until they start making whisky “the right way.”  I have news for you.  From a business perspective, Oban is making whisky the right way.  Special releases don’t keep the lights on, Black Label does.  Most drinkers buy with their eyes, and want something smooth.  They don’t have an issue, or care, that Diageo (Oban’s owner) keeps their malts in shackles, because, as far as they’re concerned, “It tastes fine to me.”  Distilleries are businesses.  Businesses become successful businesses when they satisfy the needs of the largest possible audience.  Take a look at the bestselling whiskies in the world.  What do they all have in common?  None of them are 46%, non-chill filtered, or naturally coloured.

Happy dramming,


Monday, August 7, 2023

Yelling Will No Longer Be Tolerated

It was the ugliest sound that any mortal ever heard—even a mortal exhausted and unnerved by two days of hard fighting, without sleep, without rest, without food and without hope.

-  Ambrose Bierce, “A Little of Chickamauga” (1898)

The “rebel yell” was a sound made by Southern soldiers before engaging in battle.  The American Civil War, unlike most wars, was a necessary war.  It put an end to humans owning other humans in North America, but the price paid, by both sides, was staggering.  The South lost nearly a quarter of their white male population.  The story of those who lose is rarely told well in history books.  Like in the movies, once the “good guys” win, the opposition seems to drift off into the background.  In real life, they go home to a world shattered into a million pieces.  All the sacrifice, all the loss, all for nothing.  You may not like what they were fighting for, but surely you can understand why Southerners found it hard to “move on” once the war came to an end.

To look back nostalgically means to fondly recall something from the past.  The horrors of war tend to be reserved for the attic of the mind.  The rebel yell, on the other hand, was a source of Southern pride.  It was done when moving forward, and when you’re moving forward, you’re not retreating.  Rebel Yell whiskey was launched in the 1930s, shortly after Prohibition was repealed.  It started off as a private brand made exclusively for Charles Farnsley, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky.  He used it to curry favour with state legislators.  Farnsley wanted to release another whiskey called “Damn Yankee,” but the Alcohol Bureau rejected the name for being too distasteful.  His resubmitted name was hilarious, “Old Bad Taste.”  Current owners Luxco bought Rebel Yell from perennial bad boy (in my work) Diageo in 1999.  A couple years ago, they dropped the word “Yell” from the name.  It’s now “Rebel” bourbon.

Luxco has been a non-producer distiller since the 1950s.  Non-producer distiller means they get someone to make their whiskey for them.  Not anymore (kinda).  Luxco (Lux Row) started making whiskey at their own distillery in 2018.  It’s 2023, so that means Rebel 10 was made somewhere else.  Your guess is as good as mine.  Most whiskies are a vatting of multiple barrels, Rebel 10 is a single barrel product.  My bottle, which I bought with my own money, was filled in March of 2010.  The “Since 1849” on the label is pure nonsense.  Rebel was once a Stitzel-Weller product, and W.L. Weller started blending whiskey in 1849 (more on that another time).  Rebel 10 is sweet, fruity, and fragrant.  Roadside fruit stand.  Juicy Fruit gum.  The oak is definitely there, 10 years is close to retirement in bourbon years, but it’s not overwhelming.  Nice viscosity.  This is a solid product.

There are people out there who think all things Confederate (the South) should be eradicated from existence, but if we wipe clean the slate of history, we also remove any chance to learn from it.  One more thing.  Giving the ills of the past an icy stare with modern-day eyes doesn’t make you courageous.  If you were a white male living in the South when the Civil War broke out, who knows what you would’ve done?  The 2023 you would never fight to defend slavery, but that wouldn’t be you.  There’s an excellent chance, 100 years from now, people will find some of the things we do on a regular basis reprehensible.  Luxco’s slogan for Rebel Yell before the name change was, “Never go quietly.”  They should’ve heeded their own advice.

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 ...