Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Spirit log: Jack Daniel's Old no. 7

do you know who I am?
Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 must be one of the most recognisable whisky brands in the world. Seen on t-shirts, on taxis, in the movies, with such legends as Lemmy and Slash… and yet… it is somewhat disparaged among those who profess to be connoisseurs of whisky – of scotch in particular. Perhaps it’s the too cool for school image, perhaps it’s that it can so often be seen being mixed with coke… I don’t know. I do know that at its normal UK price of £26-28, it was never going to be top of my shopping list, but at £15? You know what was going to happen next.

I’ve never actually owned a bottle of Old No 7 before, but yes, of course I’ve tried it. I still didn’t know where I stood on my opinion of it though – I’d often thought it was a little on the sweet side, and even once or twice might have said it is for people who want to play at drinking whisky, tantamount to a soft drink. What a snob.

It’s fine to play though, isn’t it? I’m not above drinking JD…

Previous Experiences of Note

I guess I haven’t tried it that many times, but I do have one or two conflicting impressions informed by these rare occasions. First, I remember my friend Adam bringing a bottle to a poker game where a number of different spirits were on offer (Maker’s Mark, Highland Park, Jameson’s, el Jimador…) and when tasting JD later on in the evening I was mostly getting banana hints – more like banana flavoured sweets than the fruit itself.

That impression stuck with me for a while until a tasting with the Manchester Whisky Club where we were presented with three unidentified samples at the beginning of the evening. One was Irish, one scotch and the other - no doubt included in order to compare unfavourably with the Jameson’s, which was the focus of the evening - was Jack Daniel’s. When the host asked the room which of the three samples they preferred, it was just me who liked the one with the silky-smooth mouthfeel. It was revealed that this one was Jack Daniel’s, and the room sneered smugly. I hadn’t identified it as Jack Daniel’s, nor could I detect any hints of banana this time, but I know when I like something… in comparison to something else at least.

So finally I have a bottle of my own, and it is time to really get to know it. Fulfilment came one Friday night, shortly after the passing of the DYC8. Despite my previous experiences, and failure to identify it that one time, there is something distinctive about Jack Daniel’s, a dark, charred flavour that it is easy to assume is a result of the charcoal filtering that goes on prior to ageing. Whether that is the cause…  I have no idea – I certainly don’t notice a charred flavour in any of the various brands of vodka that are filtered that way.

What we really want to know

I didn’t have any plans for this, but fate decreed that while I was appraising Jack Daniel’s Old No 7, I would also get the chance to carry out a direct comparison with a budget equivalent – Aldi’s finest, Clarke’s bourbon.

I’ve never even considered buying this before, but it all came about because Mrs Cake decided to make me my very own irish cream for Christmas. Yes, she knows I love irish cream, so one day when she told me she couldn’t think of anything to get me for Christmas, and I flippantly replied “get creative”, she actually did and made me some.

Mrs Cake’s decision meant she needed to get some whisky, and she heard that bourbon would do just fine so she just picked something up at Aldi – Clarke’s. And lucky me, after my gift had been presented, I was also given what had been left over – essentially four shots.

Just because I’d never considered buying it didn’t mean I didn’t want to find out what it tasted like, so after trying the homemade irish ceam, I tried a glass of the bourbon too – making sure to reserve enough for a direct comparison with the JD a few days later.

So before we see how it stacks up, let’s take a quick look at the bottle… I see it doesn’t state “bottled for Aldi” on it anywhere, which is something of a surprise, and that it fulfils the minimum requirement of being 40% ABV. So there’s no particular reason to think this might be bad.

I emptied the Clarke’s into a glass, and poured a couple of measures of the JD into another, then went through to the lounge for a bit of Important Things with Demetri Martin.

There is little to choose between the two in terms of nose, and in flavour there is no obvious difference in terms of quality. Clarke’s is a little more sour and the JD did reveal that ghostly banana note, but on this one it’s all a matter of personal preference and value. I’d like to say they are actually equally good, though I do marginally prefer the JD. Having said that, at £12.97 Clarke’s costs less than half what you would generally expect to pay for JD’s image and reputation [read: marketing]. I think I still lack sufficient experience with American whiskies to be an authority on this but if we were to use JD as a benchmark, Clarke’s measures up quite well. In fact, if bourbon was something you had to have in your liquor cabinet, and you were struggling for funds one month, Clarke’s would do just nicely.
Clarke's - all by its self

Whatever your opinion of Jack Daniel’s, I think it’s good stuff. With so much whisky out there to try though, I wouldn’t be paying full price for it, but I won’t be shy if I see an offer like this again.

As for the Clarke’s? Aldi’s spirits are never on offer and bourbon isn’t currently one of my essential spirits so while it’s a steal at under £15, it’s unlikely I’ll be plumping for it any time soon.

Now, the proof they say, is in the pudding. In this instance, what I mean by appropriating that clich̩, is that we can infer something about the quality of the JD by my use of it. I always have several whiskies on the go at the same time, so if one of them is the one I bring out when I have guests over, or that I save for when the time is just right, we can conclude that it must be of some quality Рat the very least better than the others.

If it’s the one I bring out early in the evening, it is probably cheap but fairly enjoyable. If I swig it out of the bottle before I go out drinking or use it to fill my hipflask, you can be fairly sure I don’t think much of it.

Over it’s lifespan, my use of the JD sadly falls into the last category. I used it in my hipflask, I experimented with it (as you will learn on this blog in the coming weeks) and yes, I may have swigged a little out of the bottle from time to time. So I think we can conclude that for me at least, the JD doesn’t tick all my boxes. I prefer a nice single malt, and probably a decent blend and I don’t feel I’m wasting the JD by experimenting with it. Is that a bad thing? We don’t have to take it that way, but it does say something.

One last thing before I draw a line under this investigation; my recent trip to Canada turned up something that I have been wondering about of late –ever since research on Talisker 10 led to the idea that oxidation can actually be a good thing for whisky, rather than universally a bad thing, as I had understood up to that point.

I arrived at my mother-in-law’s to find that she had two JD miniatures that she would like me to drink. One had already been opened, and a small amount had been consumed, but nevertheless I drank both on the same evening, and found that the one that had already been opened… tasted better. It was sweeter with softer edges and was generally a more pleasant experience. I actually asked how long ago it had been opened, but unsurprisingly my mother-in-law didn’t have a clue. It had probably been opened by someone else and frankly, it could have been a couple of years ago or more. There wouldn’t have been much air in that little bottle but nevertheless, it pointed me in the direction of a realisation that appears to be becoming more self-evident; whisky is actually improved to an extent by oxidation. I’m sure there is a point at which it goes too far, but it certainly seems you’re safe for a good few months – unless in this case the contents were from two different batches, one of which was far better than the other.

Some people suggest you should open a new bottle and then leave it for 15 minutes before pouring to allow the spirit to open up. Frankly, I don’t massively see the point in that. Why not pour it into your glass, then leave that for 15 minutes?

Some also say that you should leave your dram for as many minutes as years it is old… which seems like an odd sentence. I’ve been trying that on and off, and to be honest, it takes me half an hour to drink a whisky anyway, so even if I don’t leave it for 10, 12, 15 minutes, some of the spirit will have been sitting in my glass that long.

Oh well, it’s all things to think about. Where was I?

At the end, that’s where. This week’s post comes to you a little late as Mrs Cake and I have been soaking up the sun in Gloucestershire and Glastonbury. You’ll be able to read all about those at some point in the indefinite future. Next week I’ll probably be looking at the endosymbiotic relationship that has been known to exist between booze and chocolate. Join me for that. For now though, it’s back to everyday life where people get arsey at work, dogs shit on the high street and someone has to make the fricking dinner. And I was all refreshed, too.

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