Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Blind Head to Head - Glenlivet 12 vs Glenlivet Founder's Reserve NAS

Or.... do you???
Well, well, well.... Another big whisky company has announced they are replacing a core expression of their product line with... a No Age Statement whisky. Now, mind you they have stated that the Glenlivet 12 (one of the most recognized & affordable whiskies) is not dead. That the Founder's Reserve will replace the 12 in 'mature' markets worldwide including the UK as of March 2015. Ughhhhhh.... I rolled my eyes after reading the headlines on 23 different twitter accounts, why... because I knew I would have to avoid social media and whisky forums for a few days as the trolls and preachers of NAS evil would jump on that news faster than green grass through a goose! I turned off the feeds, drank my whiskies... Tried not to care.

As fate would have it, I received a bottle of the Founder's Reserve as a surprise from a very lovely friend and the plan was immediately hatched: I posted the photo of my new bottle on our whisky society FB page and requested volunteers (especially if they were huge Glenlivet 12 fans) to come to my house for a whisky experiment. We would perform a blind H2H challenge of the 12 vs the Founder's Reserve. Within 10 minutes of posting I had 5 volunteers. (The power of social media or free whisky, or maybe both? hehe) I received a message on the day of the blind taste test that one participant had come down with the flu and wouldn't be coming (thankfully... love ya, but stay away!). He was supposed to bring a friend, well boo! Although I would have preferred a larger group, I was down to 3 people plus Graham and I...

On a random winter evening, I think it was a Monday, the five of us ranging from novice whisky drinker to hard core Glenlivet 12 fans sat down together in my living room. To keep things completely unbiased I enlisted the help of Graham (my partner) to pour 4 pairs in marked glassware (white blank tag vs unlabelled). After he poured and brought those out I went in the kitchen and poured his blind as well, not having any clue what sequence Graham had used. Then the table was set: Water, oat cakes, each a tagged and non-labelled glass with 1 oz whisky pours in them, pen and paper. 

Rules: No talking, nose/taste each of the two whiskies, write down whatever you think, if you had a preference and (optional) which you think is the Glenlivet 12. All nodded and we began. I watched for a few minutes as each person went through their own personal routine of noting color, nose, palate, etc. and making notes as they went. Not one of us did it the same way (remember that statement for later!) No discussions were had, well except the occasional grunt and I was impressed with how much time each person was spending with both samples as I didn't give any type of timeline or deadline. Thirty minutes later the final pen went down and we did a round table. Each person reading out their impressions of the tagged sample as well as the unlabelled one then stating which of the two they preferred. Nobody said out loud which they thought was the Glenlivet 12 except myself. 

Greg: No tag - Seems a bit darker in color than the tagged sample, smooth, just a hint of smoky peat on the palate. Tagged - A sweeter aftertaste, lighter in color, smoother. I prefer the tagged sample. 

John: No tag - Lighter in color - amber. Mild cider on the nose like a fruit wine, slightly oily on the palate with a lovely after taste. Tagged - Color is a medium amber. On the nose I find a dry white wine (a bit of oak) whereas the palate is smooth with a lovely after taste. The tagged is beautifully balanced for this style. I'd give it an 8/10. I prefer the tagged.
Steven: No tag - Not getting much on the nose, barely any aromas for me. The palate is somewhat harsh and it has a long finish. Tagged - I can detect more sweetness on the nose, caramel creaminess on the palate and a sweet finish. I prefer the tagged.

Graham: No tag - Grassy with a touch of wine gummies on the nose. Palate is much more mellow that tagged sample. Tagged - Much lighter on the nose, I get way more grassy and hay like notes. On the palate there was spirit burn and more grassiness. I prefer the untagged sample.

Johanne: No tag - Lighter on the nose than tagged sample, I get cereal and grassy. Once it's sat in the glass I do start to get a honeyed aroma. Not very viscous in nature. Thin on the palate with lots of harsh and citric notes. The finish is hot, quite bitter to me and it lingers... Not something I would drink, personally. Tagged - Much more rich on the nose, orchard fruit like pears or apple blossoms. After it sat in the glass much more of a ripe banana overtone. The palate was thin as well but I found it to contain Seville orange citrus vs just citric. No hot finish, no long finish. A more balanced whisky than the untagged. I preferred the tagged and thought the Untagged was the Glenlivet 12.
Greg, Steven, John and I had: 12 year old - Untagged and Founder's Reserve - Tagged, whereas Graham had the opposite. 

Greg and Steven said they would buy a bottle of the Founder's Reserve after the reveal. I don't recall what John said? Graham also stated he'd be more likely to buy the Founders Reserve over the Glenlivet 12 - Price/quality. In our discussion afterward, some were surprised and one was a bit let down that the Glenlivet 12 didn't come out on top. But all 5 of out 5 preferred the Founder's Reserve overall. What exactly does that tell us or you for that matter? 

Well other than the fact that five friends sat down on a random Monday night, nosed/tasted two blind samples and all liked one whisky over the other, not much really? Because the reality is 5 other people in the exact same experiment might have stated the complete opposite. 

Now... I was once told I had a whisky agenda. I was a bit perplexed by that comment at the time but with some thought I guess I do. My agenda, announced here for the first time is: Be open to every whisky experience that is presented to you.

  1. For every person that will ridicule others for putting ice in their whiskies there are five more that will say it's your whisky - do as you please.
  2. For every one 'Messiah' who will make you wait a full hour before you drink a whisky in his masterclass and tell you Scotch is dead while bourbon is the new king - ALL HAIL Pappy Van Winkle!!! There are ten more who will tell you drink what you like.
  3. For every soap box hero that condemns the industry for NAS whiskies, there are just as many who will give the opinion that some of the NAS's on the market are great. And yes, I'm aware some are not just as much as I'm aware that some of the Age Statement Whiskies suck too! Bad whisky is bad whisky regardless. But my worst whisky could be your best so:  

Here is why I will ALWAYS urge you to make an opinion for yourself. Whisky like everything else in your life is subjective. Would you put your complete trust in a stranger who preached that new Hanes underwear should never be bought by everyone because they are now cheaply made, no longer have the 'Inspected by #12" sticker on the inside and they all fit funny? Seriously... then why trust someone else's judgment on the whiskies you drink?

Back to how each of us had our own way of performing this little experiment (told you that was coming) 

SUBJECTIVE: Relating to the way a person experiences things based on their feelings and opinions rather than facts

Objective: Based on facts rather than influence by personal feelings or opinions.

The five of us gave you a subjective opinion on two whiskies we tried. Objectively we can state we tried two forms of Glenlivet, both at 40% ABV. Subjectively we can tell you, all 5 of our personal opinions matched in this case. Objectively we can say that for the price range it was a good whisky to own, 4 (I don't recall if John said he would) would buy the Founder's Reserve over the 12 year old. 

I urge every single one of you to continually try whiskies for whatever reason you choose. Don't be swayed by one person's opinion may it be mine or anyone else's. My philosophy is quite simple: I want to try every whisky I can before I leave this earth knowing full well some will be stupendous, some horrible and some inevitably will be mediocre in nature. 

Now it's your turn. If you are set in your ways, so be it. If you absolutely refuse to try anything new, so be it. But for the rest of you, no matter where you are on your journey be brave, be bold and don't let the opinion of Simon, Jim, or the Johanne's of the world be yours, please. 

If I had listened to many of the self-professed experts this whisky world has to offer, I know I would have missed out on some real gems in my lifetime. Don't get me wrong because they are certainly entitled to their opinions. My point is: so are you and the only way to make that opinion is to TRY THE WHISKY. 

So what will I say about the Founder's Reserve: In a head to head with the Glenlivet 12, I preferred it immensely over the 12. My confession: I don't like the 12, although we do have a bottle of it in the house I don't ever recall pouring myself a dram. I have never used it in a led tasting nor do I recall ever recommending it. It's there for when visiting friends who like it, can have it. 

The Founder's Reserve has been purchased and I will likely recommend it to friends for what it is: Tasty, balanced and a great example of an extremely affordable whisky that (again in my opinion) is done right. Will I even mention it's NAS? Not unless they ask because for me, in the event you didn't already notice -> It doesn't matter...

When the annoucement first came out I noticed many people freaking out and speculating that the NAS would be super expensive! WRONG....

Pernod Ricard is not going to charge you an arm and a leg for this bottle. It's actually going to be a few dollars cheaper than what the 12 is currently going for. Yes, you read correctly. On average, in Canada the 12 sells for about $46 whereas the Founder's Reserve is $2-3 cheaper.  

In conclusion, thanks very much to my friend for bringing me this bottle. She knows me well enough to know that I would appreciate having something different and that I wouldn't judge a whisky before trying it. As for the rest of you: You like the 12 because it's one of your staples? Great! Get out there and buy more, however I do hope will consider trying the Founder's Reserve. 

Either way, don't be blind or get led by hand by anyone. Put down the book, the blog, the forum. Pour yourself a dram and try the whisky for yourself then decide if it's worth buying.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ah'll tak' the geek road...

Courtesy of www.dramming.com

Merriam-Webster defines the word geek as: “A person who is very interested in and knows a lot about a particular field or activity.” We know we are not the typical consumer and thousands from around the world proudly will tell you we belong to that whisky geek category. Talk to any of us and you will quickly discover that we possess a huge collection of books, publications, glassware, samples, t-shirts, hats and of course many bottles of whisky that are all kept in a designated space of our homes. Geeks know the latest on process, distilleries & distillers, authors/personalities and of course whiskies to the point of what some would think might be: Obsession. 
Courtesy: Franck Debernardi (@LaCaveDeCobalt)
Guaranteed that if several congregate together they will share bottle photos faster than proud parents with pictures of toothless firstborns! We speak geekery; exude geekness and regularly pilgrim to whisky’s hallowed grounds. So as a newbie what do you do when you realize the twentieth introductory distillery tour left you thinking…that's it, what else? I'll tell you what you do: You join the ranks of geekdom because we are here to welcome you with open arms!  

In Scotland alone, there are close to 100 active distilleries so if you want to immerse yourself in the grain to glass process then Tomatin is one of the best I would recommend. It is situated at the heart of the Highlands just south of Inverness on the eastern edge of the breathtaking Cairngorms mountain range. There are several tours available but if you want the ultimate distillery experience than the Single Cask Experience (30£) is aimed at people that want a bit more from their tours. It's an in-depth journey like no other distillery does. How about the chance to stand inside a mash tun? Yes, you read correctly... inside. 
A few "geeks" I know...

After you get to see the place you will also experience a tutored nosing & tasting of five different/exclusive single cask expressions. Did you get that: Not the usual whiskies you will find at every shop but FIVE exclusive single cask whiskies. Think you are done now, of course not! The visitor centre is a must see because it truly caters to the male or female whisky geek by including an excellent tasting bar, bottle your own cask strength offerings, casks, clothing as well as an extensive range of interesting and various gifts for the whisky enthusiast. I advise that you call in advance to book as this is easily a three hour experience not to be missed. 

Where to next Lassie? Well, let's go west whisky geeks and head to Tyndrum as one million visitors per year cannot be wrong. The Green Welly Stop features a highly educated customer focused staff that will help you find gems within their eclectic selection and excellent array of whisky miniatures from days gone by. You will not find the likes of a 1968 Glenrothes mini for just over 10 quid in many shops today nor will you walk away so happily satisfied having discovered one of the best kept whisky secrets on the west coast of Scotland. It’s worth the drive! 

You don't have much time and are only sticking to the bigger cities on your trip to Scotland? Well by golly geeks are covered there as well. You will get no argument from me that there are fantastic pubs everywhere but walk into the Bon Accord in Glasgow and it feels like home for whisky enthusiasts. Family run for almost 15 years, it has repeatedly won 35 consecutive awards from top customer care to best whisky pub and there is a reason for that. You might be a customer when you walk through the door but you will leave a friend. Paul has treated every single person that I have recommended a visit to with nothing but the best service and friendship and I have all the photos to prove it.  

The Bon Accord Bar - Drooool
You will be greeted by Paul or his sone standing in front of their selection of 400 quality drams. Both are passionate whisky enthusiasts themselves so let them navigate you through some pretty rare and once in a lifetime drams! My first time there I said to my friend Steffen, sure I'll go for an hour or so. We were there for 4 hours!! Fantastic drams, geekery to its finest and friendships. What more could you want? There is a saying that goes 'People make Glasgow' and if that’s the case then I will tell you that Paul & his patrons make geek dramming. 

Still in Glasgow, this one is a rare and special visit that you should try. Although they do not have a visitor center or dedicated staff, it might be possible to meet the passionate people behind the brilliant whiskies by visiting the Douglas Laing tasting room. That's if you are a huge fan or want to branch out into the world of independent bottlings of course. 

I will stress this is the exception and not the rule. 

It can be an opportunity afforded occasionally but it's by appointment and availability only so please contact them well in advance of your trip. 

Only visiting Edinburgh? It too has countless whisky attractions that will be packed with curious people but Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop is for the true whisky geek. Inexplicably drawn like a magnet past the tourist traps of the Royal Mile you will find yourself standing in front of what seems like a small and unassuming shop.
Ye small whisky shop
When you walk in the door; however, you will know you have reached the whisky mecca so please be patient and polite as you wait because these guys are the Einstein’s of the geekdom. By the time you are done you will have spent an hour of guided tasting through a plethora of the best un-chill filtered and natural colored whiskies in the world. If you are looking to buy something rare and different and are a truly a dedicated whisky geek there is no chance you can walk away empty handed so make room in your suitcase. This is truly the epitome of whisky finds and you will leave many other whisky geeks feeling quite jealous! 

But wait a minute Lassie, I don't think I saw any of these in my Scotland tourism brochure? To which I will say, oh good you noticed. Word gets around on its own and you see, geeks prefer the road less travelled because the majority of us know it's by digging in the coal that you find the diamonds. But, don't take my word on it go ahead and ask as many whisky geeks as you can. 

We all have our stories of the gems we have found over the years and we will gladly share them with you. As a matter of fact, once you start finding yours, be kind to the #whiskyfabric and share them with us as well. If you do decide to try out even one of the places I mentioned just tell them Whisky Lassie sent you, they will know who you mean and probably tell you a good story or at least give you a good laugh. 

Of course I'm a bugs bunny geek too ;)
Whisky geeks are awesome and where we end up is as well. Here's to the road less traveled, may it be as great of an experience for you as it has been for me thus far...

Geeky Lassie out!

Friday, March 6, 2015

What would be your last straw? Don DiMonte doesn't appear to have one or does he?

I met Gary Schroeder, an up and coming Canadian blogger, at the Forty Creek Weekend a few years ago near Toronto and we’ve been whisky family ever since. He’s quite an interesting and unique person trying to find his own way in the #whiskyfabric. His take on life is a satirical and sometimes crazy train ride that leaves you giggling like a giddy school girl but then again, I’ve always been attracted to brilliant and off the wall people. I recently asked Gary if he would do me a favor and be so kind as to interview a man who is on a quest to open a distillery. He’s been at it for a few years now, slowly inching his way forward. He’s relentlessly determined and sometimes that’s the only thing that keeps him going. After the interview was done Gary gave me the most amazing analogy:  It’s like listening to bands that don’t even exist yet… and that's where the story begins.

You see, prior to 2005 Canada’s list of distilleries and what they produced was pretty much set in stone. We had 9 distilleries from coast to coast all making various forms of whisky and each satisfying a niche market. No muss no fuss and don’t rock the boat but then something lovely happened. There was this winemaker who decided he would make whisky. What he didn’t know at the time was that he would turn the industry on its head and send shock waves through it which in turn ended up paving the way for many more whisky makers to step up to the still. Over the course of the next 10 years craft distilleries started popping up everywhere and Ontario, specifically, saw the greatest growth. 2015 was the first year that a craft distillery won a gold medal at the Canadian Whisky Awards. Things are booming in Canada, but then again I’ve been standing on the soap box for a few years saying that haven’t I!?
Distilleries in Canada 2014
The next chapter is still blank for the man who seems to be a bit of a mad alchemist in Erin Ontario but that’s ok because he’s also an aspiring distiller plowing through brick wall after brick wall of unforeseen circumstance with the hopes to someday soon open Canada’s latest distillery. Ladies and gentleman, I present Don DiMonte, the brainchild responsible for Last Straw Distillery. The first time I saw his tweets (@LastStrawDistill) I recalled thinking, well that’s a bit of a weird name for a distillery? 

However, as Gary found out talking to Don it’s quite befitting indeed. When Don pitched his “build a distillery” idea to his wife she informed him it was the last straw. Not that it would end their marriage but that financially it was either going to make or break them. Thank goodness for supportive spouses I say!! Moving forward from that moment and never looking back Don has either leaped over or crashed through all of the hurdles along the way. The legal requirements at the municipal, provincial and federal levels are brutal to put it mildly. He’s also had to fight to change zoning laws, exceed operational code requirements and cross off every T on the multitude of checklists that are so mind numbingly long your eyes would hide somewhere at the back of their sockets! 

I for one, feel that the constant bombardment of challenges he has faced and is still facing would have caused me to throw my arms in the air and scream that’s it, I give up. But Don feeds off the strength of the words LAST STRAW, rises above and solves the latest issue that has slowed the process. He’s either simply stubborn or that motivated to see this project through.

Don’s “phantom” distillery carries some ambitious ideas. Settled nicely on a 100 acre plot, he plans to farm the grains he wants to distill. The ability to grow different types within the same season will allow him to control the quality of his products. One of the more refreshing parts of the interview was to hear that Don is already listening to his future customers and is absorbing what they want to see from the distillery rather than letting market trends dictate to him and them what they should be drinking.

Slowly, the distillery is taking shape. Pictures of dry wall, equipment arriving and messages of meeting with lawyers or town councils are what is being shared on social media. Don purchased and has installed a small still with a simple yet effective system. 

It’s a European manufactured product called the iStill which provides a turn-key system that is completely automated which leaves little room for error. Working with a 250L capacity means the distillery will approximately produce 3,000 bottles per year which fits into Don’s hectic lifestyle since he still works full time. Just as recent as March 3rd, the still didn’t pass code so he’s now working yet again to come up with his next plan of attack to move this forward.

Sidelined for now but once he can distill, he wants to make single malt then age it in ex-Jack Daniels and Heaven Hill Bourbon Barrels. Like many other distillers he’s also looking into different aging regiments such as using virgin oak or other first fill barrels but the truly exciting and intriguing part of his plan is that he will be the first in Canada to craft Aguardiente Spirits. Don explained to Gary that his recipe is based on the Portuguese version which is crafted from grape skins and usually kept un-aged. The resulting spirit is brought to family feasts and sits under an open grated grill. On top of the grate a coil of Chorizo is placed over the spirit and a small flaming apparatus kept under the sausage chars and singes the sausage coil resulting in melting paprika scented pork fat to drop into the spirit below, effectively gracing it with some lively flavours.

Although the distillery is not yet operational due to the inevitable onslaught of “last straws” needed to seal the deal, Don is hopeful he can deliver some exciting and intriguing products soon. Matter of fact when Gary asked him when he planned the distillations to start taking place, Don replied January. We thought that it was awesome that he would be producing his first whisky in less than a year but then we realized he meant January 2015. Ugh! 

I learned many years ago that brick walls are not meant to keep you from reaching your goals and as Don DiMonte keeps proving they are there to show you how much you are willing to work through all the last straws to get what you really want out of life.
There is a huge part of the story that has yet to be told but what we want to do is bring attention to a distillery that is yet to start production. Now do you hear the music played by a band that does not exist? 

So maestro keep writing the sheet music on the blank pages and at some point many of us will get to hear the symphonies you are about to write because we can’t wait to listen to beautiful songs you will eventually create. There is only one way to find out and that's if you keep crashing through the barriers Don...

Big thank you to Gary for taking the time to interview Don and providing much of the information and inspiration contained in this piece. 

Feel free to check Gary out, Canadian Whisky Enthusiast at: 


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kiss me whiskey, I'm Irish.... Or did I get that backwards?

Of course we are all a bit Irish when it comes to St. Patrick's Day, right? But why is it some people only tend to start asking me about Irish whiskey at that point? I mean, is that the only time you are supposed to drink Irish Whiskies? Our local liquor establishments start the push on advertising on March 1 - BUY IRISH WHISKEY!!! Does this in turn kickstart whiskey drinkers like Pavlov's dog or am I missing something? Maybe I'm simply a whisky geek who enjoys drinking it year round because we always have at least 4 different types of Irish whiskey open at the house and it's often one of the first ones we will offer to people because of how light and delicious they can be.

So, here's a few quick recommendations, since many seem to be asking and it's only March 3rd?? I chose a few that I think are readily available in North America as well as Europe. Price point I used was Canadian.

Under $50

Writer's Tears - Great introductory Irish whiskey. This is blend which is a light but sweet dram made from single malt and single pot still whiskies. A balance of delicate fruit dipped in honey deliciousness that is easy to drink. Careful, I am not kidding when I say it's really easy to drink!

Under $100

Teeling Single Grain - Yes, you read that correctly. The Irish also make single grain whiskey and this one is quite unique. This whisky spends its entire maturation in a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel. This is a full bodied whiskey that exudes spicy qualities as well as some really luscious red fruit. A bit tannic or drying in nature but such a satisfying dram you will find yourself wondering how come your glass is already empty? 

Green Spot - An immediate favorite of mine and albeit difficult to find these days, if you have a chance to get a bottle, do! This whiskey is aged 7-10 years in ex-bourbon as well as ex-sherry cask which gives it a very rounded profile. It's a bit more oily in nature rich with flavors of dried fruit, spices and a long lingering finish. It's a bottle to hold on to and drink slowly.

Red Breast 12 year old - A staple in my collection as well as many of my friend's. Matured in ex-sherry cask this whiskey has a warm and full bodied texture that is fortifying in nature. Spicy with a very creamy mouthfeel. As quickly as it appears at our local liquor store, it disappears. 

There are many more Irish whiskies on the market and a fair share of them making it over to North America these days which is great because there is a resurgence in their popularity with new distilleries opening with every passing year. Take the time to try a few and add them to your collection. Many are still at a very affordable price point, are good value for money and are worth every penny you put down. These four are probably the ones I tend to recommend the most if you are starting out on your Irish whiskey journey. If you feel I've missed a few, please let me know in the comments section. Important to get perspective and share our opinions!

Here's hoping you get to raise a few drams come March 17th but then again why wait until then, go ahead and be a bit crazy. Beat the rush and get your Irish whiskey fix done early or better yet don't be scared to claim to be Irish all year long ;)

Part Irish, part saucy but always a Lassie,