Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Top 5 questions about scotch?

There they are, poor souls... 

Puzzled faces standing and staring at the huge wall of whisky. 

I watch as he or she hesitantly picks out a bottle only to put it back on the shelf then nervously dancing from foot to foot, steps a few inches to one side and looks even more exasperated by the multitude of what lies before them! That’s when I walk over and ask “You like whisky?” Sheepishly they answer: “Yeah but I don’t really know much about it”. Ahhhhhhhh, the whisky novice. Or as many of us refer to them: THE NEWBIE. I personally love them the most sometimes because they are keen but truly free of any snobbery. 

Let's never forget: We've all been there.

Being new to whisky might be overwhelming but if the rest of us 'bozos' remembered that, we could certainly make it a much more pleasant learning experience. So why do some make it such a negative place filled with rules of must's, don't's and shall not's!?? 

I certainly wouldn't feel overly welcomed if was told everything I am doing is wrong and really, it's time we drop the "SHAN'T BE ALLOWED TO ENJOY IT WITH WATER" stupidity once and for all. 

Yes, I've left Facebaffoon pages as a result of the antiquated and ridiculous way some people treat new imbibers. Whisky, my friends has no place for the old fuddy duddy club anymore, seriously... 

So simple advice for the newbies: All you need to start are the basics. Ready?

Number one question I get asked by new whisky drinkers: What is the difference between scotch and whisky? 

Just like Champagne is a sparkling wine only made in the Champagne region of France, Scotch is whisky but it can only be made in Scotland. In general all whiskies start the same way: A mashed cereal which is fermented, distilled and aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels then bottled at a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume (what is often called ABV). What may vary are the rules and regulations of the country where the whisky is made. However, I assure you there is no such thing as an American or Japanese Scotch, nor will there EVER be...

Second most asked: What is single malt? 

Let’s stick to Scotland where the regulating body called the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) stipulates that a single malt MUST be made in Scotland, exclusively from malted barley, pot still distilled at 1 single distillery and aged a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels. 

Now every once and a while a newbie will ask: What is a double malt? There is no such thing?! I've looked high and low and talked to many people in the industry and it seems as though somebody once may have been quoted to say that a double malt is where you take two single malts from two different distilleries and blend them... Other than that... No clue where this came from. All you need to know is that it doesn't exist.

Question 3: I hear people talking about Scotch regions, what does that mean? The SWA recognizes 5: Lowland (light/unpeated), Speyside (light/fruity), Highland (medium but maritime/lightly peated), Campbeltown (salty/industrial) and Islay (heavy, medicinal/highly peated). Whereas many whisky imbibers actually recognize 6. "We" add Islands - Arran, Jura, Skye, Lewis, Mull and Orkney. Those whiskies are often defined as lightly peated and also maritime'ish in nature: Salty, seaweed, iodine, etc..

However keep in mind that distinct styles are blurring so some whisky people tilt toward using flavour profiles. In other words, if you like the following flavours, chances are you might like "this" type of whisky...

LIGHT: Honey, citrus, apples or pear type fruits and cereal notes. The lighter whiskies can be represented by some whiskies like AnCnoc, Bladnoch, Deanston or maybe a Glenkinchie. 

DELICATE: Aromas such as subtle nuts, floral, vanilla or light wood influences might be found in Dalwhinnie, Glenfiddich, Glenrothes or some Juras. 

SPEAKING OF BOLD?! Hello George...
RICH: Now we are moving into bold and warm flavours like chocolate, leather, spices or dark fruits. In this category you might find whiskies like GlenDronach, Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie or Tomatin. Personally, these are often some of my most decadent drams.

SMOKY: Reveals flavours that are linked to hot spices like ginger or cinnamon. Maybe medicinal or salty and of course organic or smoky notes. This covers a wide range of whiskies because hints of smoke can be found in the likes of a Glen Garioch whereas softer peat are found in Highland Park or Talisker. Springbank whisky which is a happy medium to smouldering beach fire found in Ardbeg, Laphroaig or Lagavulin. I REALLY love these on a cold winter night.

Keep in mind every bottling AND every person is different and because aromas/flavours are so subjective you may find all, some or none of these. The key is no matter what system you use, think of it as a guideline and work at your own pace.

#4: What does the age on the bottle mean? Again, let's stick to Scotch and the SWA policy: By law it's the age of the youngest scotch used to make the single malt but the probability is there is older whisky in the bottle. In other countries the regulations are also specific but can be much more complicated depending on the definition of the spirit in the bottle.

Question 5 - Why do some people think older scotch is better? Lots of debate about that these days. I've said for years the answer is: "IT DEPENDS"

You can have the best newmake spirit in the world but if you let it sit in an aggressive cask for too long it is going to taste like a rum soaked wooden splinter. And, even if you started with a really crappy spirit and put it in a fantastic cask - it's still going to taste like... crap. 

My argument is that it's about quality and not necessarily age. I've had many "old" 8 year olds distilled and bottled in the 60's that were fabulous and I've had a few 35+ that were utter... SHITE. 

Technology, better cask management and trends are leading to “no age statement” whiskies, often referred to as NAS. Some distilleries (not all) are doing this well. In my opinion: Tomatin Legacy, Glenlivet Founder's Reserve or Talisker Storm are some great examples of scotch matured and bottled without an age statement that are fitting of the price tag associated with it.

So feeling a bit better now newbie? Next time you go back to the wall of whiskies don’t be nervous and get ready to jump down that rabbit hole? 

It’s your trip and only yours to enjoy no matter what anyone, including me says. Because seriously... there is NO right or wrong way to be on this whisky journey.



Monday, October 26, 2015

JO LAWSON Guest blog: FEIS ILE = A Free Dram and a Piece of Cake, does not a celebration make!

Continuing with what many others thought of FEIS ILE this year, Jo Lawson (@alpacajo) was with us and like myself she had never been to Islay before. There were many days spent laughing and sharing some really great moments together. Personally, I can't imagine what it might have been like without her there. 

Ladies and gents, my friend Jo Lawson's rendition of the 10 question survey I sent out:

Question 1: I think every whisky geek should attend Feis Ile at least once because: You can't call yourself a true whisky geek if you haven't queued for 15 hours each time, often in the cold and rain, for: Beer, food, toilets, free whisky and often expensive whisky! 

Question 2: What was the best distillery day for you personally? For me I think the best day was Bruichladdich! There was just so much going on: Jim's Masterclass, distillery tours, music, food, local crafts, a beer tent, friends - old and new to meet and greet and everyone just having a right good old time. A proper celebration.

Question 3: What distillery day would you have a hard time recommending? As a true blue, or rather green and white fan of this distillery, it breaks my heart to have to say Laphroaig! The 200th anniversary celebration - A free dram and a piece of cake does not a celebration make!? Where was the music? Where were the people dancing? Where were the distillery tours?? 

Oh, they got booked up in what seemed like minutes of going on sale!?? Well, why weren't extra activities put on? Surely the distillery knew their events would sell out!? All in all, very disappointing!

Question 4: What did you appreciate the most about visiting Islay? The friendliness of almost everyone I met, local or visitor. The locals seemed to view the invasion of hundreds of crazy whisky geeks with good humour and understanding of those of us, like Thomas Speller, that were in search of a new frying pan! As to my fellow visitors, the whisky provided the starting point for many conversations, even if you hadn't met the 11 large Danish men you were touring Bowmore with, before!

Question 5: Of all the people you were fortunate enough to meet on Islay, the one(s) who stand out the the most was/were? Martine Nouet, whose house (the 6 of us staying in our wee cottage) we were invited to dinner with, one evening. Martine is truly a friendly and generous person who shares her vast knowledge of food, drinks, and the pairing of the two with anyone who asks. She welcomed a group of almost complete strangers into her home and made them feel very welcomed. One of the fellow dinner guest was Norma Munro. Hundreds of us had heard Norma sing at Bruichladdich on the Sunday, but that evening at Martine's, this kind and gentle lady (despite being seriously ill) shared her amazing talent with us, in the most intimate of settings. She has the most beautiful and expressive voice, which moved many present, including myself, to tears. These two ladies epitomise the people I met on Islay - Welcoming, friendly and generous of spirit.

Question 6: If you only had the 3 first days of Feis Ile to recommend what would you say? 

Bruichladdich distillery day for all the reason I mentioned earlier, but make sure you get on one of the distillery tours. A visit to Kilchoman so that you can appreciate the differences and similarities between a long established and new distillery. Some time to experience what else Islay has to offer, apart from distilleries. Its history, scenery and wildlife.

Question 7: Which distillery tour was the best? Laphroaig!! Despite the official events being rather non-existent, my first ever tour, of this, my favourite distillery, starting at the stillhouse and travelling back through the process of distilling, conducted by two my best whisky friends: Ansgar & Thomas Speller. It was brilliant fun with "someone" stealing me a very small piece of peat - SSSSH! As to any other shenanigans that went on, well, you just had to be there!

Question 8: What surprised you the most about Feis Ile? How quickly the accommodations booked up! I was very fortunate that Ansgar and friends had a bed available in their cottage because by the time I decided in January of 2015 that I was definitely going there were very few affordable accommodations left!

Question 9: After your first visit to Feis Ile the most valuable piece of advice you can give is? If you are thinking of going to Feis Ile for 2017 (yes 2017) BOOK YOUR ACCOMMODATIONS NOW! 

Question 10: What do you think the best kept secret is about Islay? The island itself. To any whisky drinker who has never been there, Islay may seem to be just about the distilleries but is truly is so much more than that. There is a rich history of human occupation, beautiful and varied scenery and a diverse array of wildlife. It is one of those special places that works its way into your heart so that the moment you step on the ferry and it begins to pull away from the island you are already planning your next visit. 

Right... that's it from me.  Thanks to Johanne for letting me share my Feis Ile thoughts with an unsuspecting world.  Me - I'm off back to Islay.... ;)

HUGE THANKS to Jo Lawson. Again, I will stress the importance of talking to a myriad of people if you are looking to get as much information about Feis Ile because as Jo stated: It's not just a free dram and a piece of cake that will make the celebration!

Cheers all!


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fèis ìle - Guest blogger Peter Moser from Friends of Single Malts (FoSM)

Why should you only hear what my opinions are about Fèis ìle after all it was my very first time and there are 1000's of people that go to this festival every year. Wouldn't it be to your benefit and mine to hear/see what other thought as well?  WELL OF COURSE of course it would silly!!!!  

So I devised a plan where I would contact people that I met while on Islay and ask them 10 simple questions. They are from all walks of life, background and nationalities. The first person to answer me was Peter Moser. We actually met on the very last day in the Ardbeg Warehouse tour where we enjoyed a very old dram together while we walked around exploring. 

Peter (@MrSingleMalt) writes for:  which is not in English but has a decent translator so I mostly make sense of what he loves to write about, which in case you didn't know is whisky! So here are the 10 questions I asked Peter about Islay and what he thought...

"Islay was always a place I wanted to go and never did. Eight working distilleries on a tiny little island and a ninth just on the next island called Jura. It is not only the number of distilleries but as well the landscape and people that brought me back after my first visit in 2012. This year was my third visit and it will not be my last. All three times I was joining new and old friends for the Feis Ile – the Whisky Festival on Islay.

1. Do you think every whisky geek should attend Feis Ile at least once and if so why?

Definitely and then see if they can actually resist coming back. I have met a lot of people since I have visited Islay 11 to 14 times and some of them love the island so much they have moved there part or full time. Decide for yourself but be prepared, it's addictive!

2. In your opinion, what is the best option during during Feis Ile for accommodations?

There is not too much available as far as luxury accommodations but the rest has a varied range. So it really depends on your budget and the lead time to get what you really want. Staying with a group in a self catering cottage can be a lot of fun, but most of them are outside of the villages so someone has to drive. I found a B&B in Bowmore and have stayed there ever since. They treat me like family and when you are a first timer they tell you a lot about the island, the people and since they know many of the locals they can arrange things for you. If you have a tent or a caravan you might be lucky enough to stay directly on the grounds of some of the distilleries if you ask them nicely.

3. What distillery day do you think is the best?

This is a hard one. There is no 'THE' best but if I have to choose one it would be Ardbeg. I will also mention that you should not miss Bruichladdich either. Ardbeg has the best day program for all levels of people which includes more than just pre-booked events. They do a great job at providing entertainment for everybody. These are the only two distillery days where I stay on the grounds for the full day. 

4. What things did you appreciate and enjoy the most about visiting Islay and why?

It is a magical island and it's not as simple as stating one thing. Visiting Islay the second time was a bit like coming home. I cannot describe it any better and there are several people I have spoken to with the same feelings. It’s a lot about the landscapes. Light and shadow, sun and rain (even hail showers), distilleries, whisky, meeting friends, finding new friends and lovely local people.

5. What restaurants would you recommend for quality, service and/or price?

There are several with new ones popping up every year. One new one for me was the Lochindaal Hotel Restaurant in Port Charlotte. We had a group reservation (Highly recommend doing that) and we ate some fantastic fresh seafood platters. Just perfect.

6. Of all the people you were fortunate enough to meet on Islay, who stood out the most? 

I could easily choose several like Jim McEwan, Mickey Heads, Georgie Crawford, John McLellan or John Campbell. All great people to meet. Same to a lot of local characters but the one that has impressed me most is Jackie Thomson (Visitor Center Manager at Ardbeg). On my second year visiting Islay she recognized my face and asked me “I’ve seen you before. What’s your name?”. I told her and since then she has greeting me by name every time. She meets thousands of people every year! But to be honest it was quite impressive to meet somebody like her.

7. If someone only had the three first days to visit Islay during Feis Ile, what would you recommend and why?

Buy a bottle at Lagavulin Open Day (Saturday). They will have their 200 years anniversary next year and will bottle something very special. Say “Hello” to Georgie Crawford. Then drive further on to Ardbeg, eat in their nice Kiln Café and say “Hello” to Jackie. Go on in direction Kildalton Cross but stop before entering the woods. There will be Seals on the rocks. Take a break. Go on to Kildalton Cross and appreciate the history you will find there. Then further on to Ardtalla and down to the beach. On your way back visit Laphroaig. Have a nice dinner at one of lovely local restaurants. You can repeat this the other two days, but on Sunday there is Bruichladdich open day. Very good option to choose. If you are lucky you booked (be quick and book really early!) a masterclass ticket. It might be different next year but I’m sure they will give you a great time. The rest of the day will be full of drinks, eating, music and a lot of talks. You can take your own distillery tour and just go through Bruichladdich on this day. This is very unique. If you did not have enough distillery visits yet, you can visit all the others. You can have some nature walks instead – beaches or the Oa with the American Monument. Be prepared: there is enough you can do that will not fit in your three days.

8. What has been the best distillery tour you received on Islay and why? 

From the standard tours I would say Laphroaig as they do have their own malting floors and you can go into their kiln even if it is “on fire”. There are a lot of special tours at some distilleries and they are always changing over the years. One I really can recommend is “Deconstructing the dram” at Ardbeg. You end up in Warehouse 3 and “rebuild” there standards with cask samples. Great experience. My personal best one was a whole Shift at Ardbeg, but this was a once in a lifetime event.

9. Did you visit Kilchoman and would you recommend it? 

It is at the moment (till Gartbreck is finished) the only Farm Distillery on Islay. It is small and is doing its own floor maltings. Keep in mind you need some kind of transportation to get there as it is quite remote and there is no public transit. Also in that area is some lovely scenery at Machir and Saligo Bay. Be prepared for a bad narrow road and a busy place during the open day.

10. After your first visit to Feis Ile the most valuable piece of advice  you can give is what?

Plain and simple: Don’t go there if you are thinking it's a once in a lifetime trip! If you do not follow my advice chances are might get addicted and go back and back and back".

Thank you Peter for sharing your thoughts with us. It's pleasing to know that you and I share many of the same opinions and would give the same advice when it comes to Islay. I totally agree that once you've been it's highly addictive and the very first thought you have after you drive off the ferry is: "When can I come back"?

Stay tuned for my adventure to Jura... It was another fantastic highlight that I can't wait to share!
Until then... Islay time calls you.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Fèis íle - Part 3 meh... with a silver lining

They, whoever 'they' is, always say that if you have nothing nice to say you shouldn't say anything at all. So, when I got to part 3 of my Islay trip I thought... do I print or not??? But then I realized it's just as important as the rest so why not share.

After spending a glorious first couple of days on Islay with some great whiskies and a fantastic distillery day (Bruichladdich), it appeared like the rest of the festival was going to be awesome! Well, distillery day 3 and 4 simply didn't stand out and if anything by the time we reached Caol Ila day I was suffering from 'idiot overload'. Let me explain. 

I try not to judge people who choose to do the following however by Sunday I was fed up and ready to punch a few in the head. Why you ask: Simply said I don't like "BFK's". Big Feeling Knobs. What is that you ask: It's the idiot who sits beside you in a tasting and never shuts up. The one who loudly talks incessantly about his HUGE whisky collection or the fact that the only reason he is at the festival is to buy as many of the Fèis ìle Limited Release Bottlings so that he can sell them on E-bay for 5X the price AND he's the guy who cracks the same stupid joke while the assistant pours the next whisky: "Hey sweetheart if you could pour just a little more of that in my glass because I'm drinking for two, snorts and laughs loudly..."  FFS and huge sigh...  

I didn't pay $50 to come to a tasting to listen to you be an asshole. I don't give a rat's ass how many bottles of rare and expensive Japanese whiskies you have in your cucking follection and I certainly don't care how rich or important you think you are in the country of your birth. 

So... back to Caol Ila day... While I sat in on the manager's dram selection tasting I was once again seated next to a BFK! He complained about the seating arrangement, the line up of whiskies, the lack of water, that the drams being offered were sub par and for all I know he could have been complaining about the big stick he had shoved up his arse that seemed to be causing his whisky constipation issues because by then I had completely zoned out and made pretend I was reading something very important in my journal... I tried desperately to salvage what little bit of sanity I had left as I nosed and tasted my way through a very nice line up of whiskies. I especially enjoyed the Caol Ila 25!

But.. like I said with the loudmouth ding dong sitting at my table it really took away from the whole experience so by the time I left the class I was downright grumpy. Outside in the distillery yard the festivities were in full swing: Food, music, drams, and plenty of people to talk to and that's when I started to relax and have fun. Steffen Brauner and the rest of the wonderful #whiskyfabric ended up being my saving grace for the next couple of days on the island. You'll notice that I haven't said anything about Laphroaig day yet and with good reason. It was packed with way too many people, slightly better than disorganized mayhem and honestly for a distillery that was celebrating it's 200th anniversary I expected something special. That was my first mistake: Expectation. The truth of the matter is Bruichladdich Day was so huge, wonderful and well done that, in my opinion it made the next couple of days pale in comparison. As I sat and thought about the things I could have/should have said about the Laphroaig Distillery day, nothing came to mind. Nothing really stood out. Sad isn't it. The crowds got to me, the BFK's were really getting to me. Caol Ila and Laphroaig days were at best mediocre in nature, except for the wonderful company of friends. 

 I did many things while we were on Islay that didn't involve waiting in line for a limited release bottling while listening to a boring BFK and it didn't cost me a fortune: We hiked up to the American monument and drank whisky together as friends. We walked along the seashore and took some breathtaking photos. Ate at little cafés and had fantastic conversations with the locals. (I loved the deep fried haggis balls and hand cut chips). Made plans to meet up with other whisky friends on the island - THANKS for the great night at Bowmore House -> You all know who you are!!! 

The most memorable and thought provoking moment came when we ate lunch in an old church that was converted into a self catering cottage. Steffen's friend John came in and he was greeted with warm handshakes/friendship all around. He asked if we wanted a whisky with our pepperoni pizza and of course we all said yes. He went over to a box near the door, popped open a brand new bottle and poured us all a dram.  

I'd like to take a moment to mention that John didn't really know any of us all that well other than Steffen (which again speaks volume about the fabric). Lots of laughing, stories ensued and we all enjoyed the whisky immensely. I think it was Bryan who asked to see the bottle and that's when my mouth dropped. You see, John owns quite a collection of whisky and the one he chose to open for us to share over pizza was this one:

So there I was eating a store bought $5.99 pepperoni pizza paired with a 1982 Port Ellen. The lesson in all that: John, like many of us, enjoys his whiskies. He doesn't spend an hour sitting beside you bragging about his collection. He, like many of us, chooses to open and share them with likeminded people. And he, like many of us didn't bat an eye to open something wonderful to enjoy with a slice of pizza. That my friend is the epitome of the #whiskyfabric I keep talking about. The ability to look past the snobbery, the pomp, the hooplah and the stupidity that surrounds us sometimes and simply say: "You know what, it's just whisky"...

Later that day, we all piled into a couple of cars and went on another hiking trip where I experienced a little bit of Scottish history at the Kildalton High Cross site. It was a lovely moment spent reflecting, learning and remembering all those who came before us.

 Piling back into the cars we continued our afternoon of exploring and ended up finding a beach that could have easily been mistaken for the Caribbean. Again, just a bunch of friends taking their shoes off (errr, one took off his pants) and wading through crystal clear azure coloured waters. Whisky samples and Glencairns came out yet again, and we toasted and drank with a lust for the life and moments we were experiencing. What did we drink? Doesn't matter. It was good and it came from the heart of the people who shared it from their personal collections (Thanks Steffen, Bryan, AND PETER... don' forget Peter).

I had expectations before i left for Islay that it was going to be 8 days of whisky, whisky and even more serious whisky! And to some extent it was. But taking it way too seriously is another thing altogether. So, by day 4 I had come to realize that some of the distillery days would be... meh... but the memories, and the time away from the distilleries spent with friends proved to be much more valuable and precious to me. The amount of times that bottles were popped, shared and truly discussed amongst friends happened way more often when we were not at a distillery day and the best part: No BFK's! 

I want to thank every single one of you (way too many to mention them all) who thought nothing of sharing a Port Ellen, Laphroaig 30 or your 1976 Ardbeg. The point that was important was that you shared, willingly, proudly and because... it's not about huge collections of unopened bottles, bragging rights or price tags. 

So if you plan on getting to Islay for Fèis ìle for the entire festival be prepared for a few ups and downs, some great and not so great distillery days. Word of advice: Make friends, do some sight seeing, take the time to talk to the locals and remember: Sometimes it's not even about the whisky.