Thursday, July 2, 2015

Glen Breton 14 - Lucky number 7 perhaps?

In 2010 I went to visit the Glenora Distillery in Nova Scotia Canada. It was the first distillery in all of North America to make a single malt and, at the time they had recently won their 7 year battle with the Scotch Whisky Association for the use of the word "Glen". It was truly a case of David/Goliath so I was really excited to be going.

That Saturday we received a full tour of the distillery including the warehouse and a tasting in the boardroom. Things started to go off the rails pretty quickly I'm afraid. The tour guide starting talking about the fact that the local maple trees and apple orchard aromas wafted through the air at the distillery, therefore imparting the flavors into the stream that was used to make the whiskies... Errrrr -> What exactly does a maple tree taste like???  

In the warehouse, it only got worse as they pulled samples from a cask of 12 year old and passed Glencairns around. I nosed it greedily and thought wow this is quite a light and delicate whisky, then I tasted it. My immediate reaction was absolutely awful. I wanted to spit it out. I looked around at the other participants but nobody else seemed to be in full panic mode like I was AND to make matters worse; they looked like they were really enjoying the dram. "Maybe I got a soapy glass, I tried to reassure myself". I swallowed, it gave me goosebumps in the worse way possible. I quietly went to the tour guide and said: "I think I may have gotten a dirty glass, could I have another please". He obliged and I went through the process of nosing/tasting the second sample. 

NO DICE. Still dreadful... It was a hot lemon soapy mess. I continued with the tour but bowed out of the led tasting and left that weekend feeling quite disappointed. The following summer I was in Halifax and at a farmer's market where Glenora had a booth. They were pouring a few different samples including something new they were calling Battle of the Glen 15 year old limited edition. I walked over, tried them both and yet again: Lemony soap. I always have an open mind, I constantly strive to try everything. In the last 5 years I've tried their 10 black label, 10 blue label, Battle of the Glen and Ice 10 = None of which have been pleasant whisky experiences.

I have walked away six times convinced I do not like Glen Breton whiskies, however; I am a Canadian whisky enthusiast so I do own one or two bottles as part of my collection and I always offer it to people around the world who do want to try them as I've come to realize that just because I don't like certain whiskies it doesn't mean others won't. In this case, Glen Breton has a pretty loyal following in the United States as well as other countries around the world. 

Two weeks ago my friend Mike Gill came to stay with us and brought a bottle of Glen Breton 14 year old. It was a really busy weekend so we didn't get to open it. The following week I noticed that a few bloggers were tweeting about having been to the unveiling of the Glen Breton 25 year old in Toronto and were making comments on twitter about the 14. Now I knew I had to pop it open to try it. Could this be disastrous Glen Breton whisky #7 or was the streak finally going to be broken?

I sat down at my kitchen table staring at the box. Anxiety crept up my spine and directly into my brain. Wait a minute... Was I the issue? Am I destined to be known as the crazy whisky lady who tastes lemon soap in her Canadian Single Malt? Worse... would I be compared to Jim Murray and cause scandal in the Canadian Whisky World? I chuckled... nah nobody gives a sweet flying duck about what this Canuck would have to say...  ;)

I popped open the box, the bottle seal and poured myself a generous sample of the 14 year old and then... I stared at the glass. The whisky intimidated me and I lost the staring contest. I left it sitting there and went outside to do some weeding. Thirty minutes later I came in and of course it was still there waiting, calling out to me: "I could be the one", it whispered... I rolled up my sleeves and sat down in front of the glass. 

Nose: Very floral, vanilla followed by mint and eventually lemon scented nail polish remover (I cringed... oh no!?) 

Palate: and there it is... soap but this time it's more lavender not lemon. I spit it out into the kitchen sink. I looked at the whisky left in my glass and swore out loud to nobody. My mouth tasted like I had kissed my grandmother's neck after she put on her 'Avon' perfume... 

I stared hard at the bottle, like it was its fault I was striking out again!? I glanced down at the glass which of course was in cahoots with the whisky. I slowly poured the whisky into the sink. That's only the 3rd time in my thirty years of whisky imbibing that I have ever done that. Glen Breton 7, Johanne 0. I started to justify: "Maybe it's because I let it sit too long in the glass? I should have added a few drops of water? Some ice? Some ginger ale? Some gin? I drank two big glasses of water, not yet surrendered to the notion that this whisky and I would never get along damn it!!! One full hour later I poured another dram and repeated the process:

Nose: Took me awhile but eventually I got floral, fresh cut green grass,mint again and maybe a bit of vanilla but it was really faint. It was more delicate this time (assuming because it was fresh out of the bottle and not aired)

Palate: I cringed as I took another mouthful: Ack!! It filled every crevice with a flavoured gum from my childhood: And back to the sink... ready to spit but in defiance, I made myself swallow (no gutter jokes please). I sputtered, shook and coughed like a child given Buckley's syrup! I put the glass back on the kitchen table and gave it a wide berth of about six feet. Seriously!? What is wrong here....

About 15 minutes later Graham came through the door for lunch. I thrust the glass in his hand. Hmmm, not bad he says. I am stunned??! "You don't taste soap!!??", I almost stutter with what feels like tears starting in my eyes. "Nope, it's floral but no soap". A few days later I give the whisky blind to a friend almost in defiance at this point as I have convinced myself HE will taste soap. His review: "Meh, it's ok but not stellar". STILL NO SOAP.   

So there you have it. I know there are people out there somewhere who get these same flavour profiles as I do but apparently there are twice as many that simply don't. Bad for me, very good for Glenora. I really wish I liked their whiskies. I have to be proud of the fact that they make a Canadian Single Malt. I know for a fact two pubs in Saint John can't keep it on the shelves when the cruise ships arrive, the distillery is shipping the stuff by container load to China and there is a demand for and will be released into the European market very soon?! 

Now the other thing I didn't talk about is the price tag. I have always struggled with how much Glenora charges for their products. Now, you will recall that I highly recommended Stillwaters Stalk & Barrel Single Malt at $100/bottle. Why - Because I like it, it taste good AND it's important to support them now in their infancy so that they survive as a distillery down the line: 

Why won't I pay $100 for Glen Breton 14? Well, it should be obvious "we" don't get along. And... as I was stating, for me as well as a few other people who I asked to try it blind: It's simply mediocre in nature. I have said for sometime now that I personally feel Glenora is doing something wrong somewhere. It's like they are making whisky with less than stellar tools and/or process which means for me personally: At best, it's a $50 whisky being sold for $100. 

There you have it, I have been defeated by a Canadian Single Malt and I concede... Seven rounds, score is still 7-0 and Johanne is down and out. Oh and by the way #whiskyfabric if anyone wants to try the Glen Breton 10 blue label, the 10 Ice or the 14, please let me know I have plenty to share...   ;)


Monday, June 29, 2015

Might not have hearts yet, but plenty of soul - Kingsbarns Distillery

Graham has a quote: "A man is at his happiest on the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it to another sailor." I had never really considered that saying until I met Douglas Clements.

Douglas has always been the face of Kingsbarns Distillery. I met him at a few events in Scotland last year and thought he was quite an interesting person with a great story. It wasn't until I was back home in Canada that I ended up doing research and piecing the whole puzzle together. In the event you do not know you can find it here:

This year we revisited Scotland for three weeks having decided that we wanted to go to Feis Ile 2015. We snuck in a few days in Edinburgh and so it was an easy decision to also book a tour of Kingsbarns, which is only about an hour away. Doug met us at the door on Sunday May 17th and we spent the next two hours doing a walk through, visiting all parts of the new distillery and in the end getting lunch in their little café (which was really good!). When we left and were driving back to Edinburgh I found myself doing much thinking about what we had just experienced.

1. It is a somewhat small but brand new distillery so there are no mouldy dank warehouses with 200 years of ghost stories, pagodas or barrels of whisky (Kingsbarns only has spirit ageing at the moment - not yet whisky). 

2. It is state of the art, stainless steel, clean, shiny and, well... sterile feeling.

3. It is not exactly in the heart of 'whisky country' as far as location and still needs a little work as far as landscaping, etc.. but it is quite picturesque on the banks of the North Sea.

I was feeling a bit perplexed. What was it about Kingsbarns that I was initially so enthusiastic about seeing but yet now that I had been came away feeling weird? Hmmmm, I really had to think about that for a few weeks. I replayed conversations Douglas and I had as he walked us through the tour. I looked at the photos I took of the distillery. I drank the whiskies we bought and yet still, I was baffled as to how I could turn my distillery visit into a written piece that meant something to me.

I spoke to Graham about my dilemma and what I was trying to say but not say. I sort of felt like something was missing while we were at the distillery. There was no 'spark' and or maybe like the building did not have a heart yet? It was, and I will use the words again: new and sterile. I mean, it is a great story but somehow, I was almost feeling sad for Douglas because it started with HIS dream and it become something else. 

Douglas worked extremely hard to realize the first leg of that desire and then found himself without the proper resources to make it come to fruition. In walks the Wemyss family with an offer he can't refuse. I was stuck on 'how could he do that, how does one sign the papers and give up on a dream'. Was I somehow transposing how I would feel about this type of project? And that's where Graham in is moments of pure genius pulled out the quote in my first sentence. It all snapped into place after that...

You see, I rarely come up with genuine new ideas but if someone presents one to me I am a pragmatic project manager who can close her eyes and map every step necessary to make the idea come to life. The people who come up with what others might think are crazy pipe dreams - they are visionary individuals. They have thoughts that pop into their head like: "I think St. Andrews should have a distillery". They start forging forward sometimes without a concrete plan or regardless of how insurmountable the list might seem. They keep moving forward...

As we stood in the doocot quietly admiring the first cask filled with Kingsbarns spirits ageing, I thought I could detect sadness when he spoke of some of the things he wanted to do had he continued on his own to build the distillery. As I listened to Douglas during the tour I quickly realized how passionate and dedicated he was/is to making sure the distillery came to life. The ideas were quite good! It was not sadness at all but the reality for him that building a distillery, making spirits and then running that business for years before profit existed was not exactly what he had in mind. He loves what he does now as the Visitor Center Manager. It allows him the opportunity to talk to people, be a fantastic ambassador for Fife, golf and be part of Kingsbarns Whiskies. He is exactly where is he supposed to be and is quite happy. 

Now after hearing Graham quote the sailboat analogy, it makes sense to me. Doug is a Fifer to the core of his soul. He has a deep and long respect for the game of golf combined with enjoyment of whisky. He did not give up on his dream, he chose to let it go to the 'next sailor'. The Wemyss family had everything they needed to launch and Douglas saw that. That takes courage, trust and the personality of a visionary. I admire people like Doug and wish I could be more like sometimes. I am adventurous but often shoot down my own ideas because I think they will fail.

I also realized while writing this that Kingsbarns is a new breed of distillery, not like some of the others we are hearing about. No marketing spin, gimmick stories, having royal stamps since 1608 or anything else that many of us think is so over marketed that we roll our eyes in boredom. It isn't complicated and is simply about a man, a dream and what he was willing to do to ensure it happened. 

Kingsbarns may not have a long history yet I am quite confident that it is already developing a reputation for the little distillery to visit in St. Andrews where one can see for themselves how a dream of whisky flowing in the land of Fife comes true. 

Here is to you, Douglas Clement, for seeing the vision that has become a lovely reality, may it be a long delicious legacy to leave to the #whiskyfabric.