Tuesday, 26 November 2013

How do you buy whisky as a gift? Part 1

A little while ago we had a post by the name of, how doyou select wine? in which I expressed my dismay at how hard it can be to choose what wine to buy from your local supermarket. I contended that there is just too much choice.

As a result of that, it occurred to me that while I can’t provide much advice to you on buying wine, I might be just the right person to help a novice select a nice bottle of whisky, and with Christmas approaching, there has never been a better time to cover this subject.

Many is the time that I’ve seen a lost soul perusing the whisky section at Tesco, obviously trying to buy a gift for a whisky-loving or whisky-curious loved one but sadly having no terms of reference or idea of where to start. They’re aware that there are good and bad selections, but they don’t know what they are and are reluctant to make a mistake. Well, I’m here to help you out. You may be one of the people I’ve seen at Tesco already, so if you do want to buy your relative or special friend a nice bottle of whisky, take a sip of coffee and sharpen your reading eyes, this is for you.


There are two major obstacles facing the novice who wants to buy a bottle of whisky: variety and price, and how much help you need depends on what you know already – both about whisky and about the person you’re buying for.

Let’s do a role play. For the purpose of the drama, imagine you’re a lady (if you’re not already), you’re in Tesco, and you’re looking to buy your husband a nice bottle of whisky. I’m stood nearby and I notice you looking lost, but I don’t want to impose. You might think I’m trying to pick you up, but I’m happily married and not looking for a female whisky drinking companion. You look at me and can tell that I’m not necessarily there to buy. I’m just looking to see what they’ve got, and whether there are any offers I can’t refuse. I must know something about this subject.

You: It’s so confusing, all these different bottles.
Me: Eh? Oh, yeah I know. Are you buying a present?
You: Yeah, for my husband. I don’t suppose you could help?
Me: Aye, probably.
Pay attention here. I’m about to ask the important questions.
Me again: Is it whisky in particular that you’re after?
That wasn’t one. Just wait.
You: Yes. What would be a good one?
Me: That depends. What kind of whisky does he like?
You: What do you mean?
Me: Scotch, Irish, bourbon…
You: Scotch?
Me: Blended or single malt?
You: I don’t know…

Here you might ask what the difference is. If you did, I would say, “single malt refers to when a bottle contains whisky that was all made at one distillery, while a blend can contain whiskies from any number of distilleries and  50-60% of the contents are usually made up of grain whisky. Grain whisky is cheaper than malt whisky, and that is why blends tend to be cheaper than single malts. Single malt is usually considered to be better, though there are a number of premium blends for which you could pay well in excess of £100.

Me: What does he normally drink?
You: I’m pretty sure he’s had the Glenfiddich before.
Me: Ok, well that’s a single malt. If you’d said Bells or Teachers, those would be blends. Did he like the Glenfiddich?
You: I think so.
Me: The standard 12 year old is halfway decent, so if he liked it, you might want to step up a class and get the 15 year old. It’s a bit more expensive, but it’s supposed to be better, though I haven’t tried it.
Here’s the next important question.
Me: What’s your budget, if you don’t mind me asking?
You: I was hoping to spend about thirty quid.

If you know how much he normally spends, it might be a good idea to spend a little bit more. That way you’re increasing the treat because you’re getting him something he wouldn’t normally allow himself to buy.

Me: All right. You can get something decent for that 30 quid. If you’re lucky, you can get a good single malt, but you’re more likely to if you go 35 quid and up – it just depends what they’ve got. Or you can get a very good blend. Some people are snooty about blends, but there’s no need to be because some are very good. So, first thing; the cheapest single malt they’ve got here is the Glen Moray Classic. See that? £18. Don’t get that. Now, you said you don’t know what kind of scotch he likes,  it would be easier if you did, but we’ll work around that. Does he like the strong flavours or the mellow ones?
You: I’m not sure.
Me: All right. You could just get the Glenfiddich 12. It’s decent and it’s cheap, but I think you ought to be a bit more adventurous. For future reference, the Glenfiddich 12 is still a good scotch for a novice to buy as a present. If it was me though, looking to buy a bottle of whisky as a present, I would be getting the Highland Park 12. It’s single malt, it’s always on offer, even at full price it’s a bargain, it comes in a funky bottle, it tastes great and it’s known for being a quality product.
You: Oh right. That’s under budget.
Me: You can get yourself something nice with the change.
You: Thanks.
Me: No worries.
Highland Park 12... a great gift
That’s one way the scenario could play out. Let’s look at some other eventualities though:

What if they haven’t got the Highland Park, or it’s not on offer?

I’d always recommend going with an Islay malt. They’re among the most interesting and you can usually get a decent one in the under £35 price range – the Laphroiag 10, the Caol Ila 12, Bruichladdich… I even got the Lagavulin 16 for £35 once. If it says Islay on it, it’s probably going to be good. The only drawback is that some people really don’t like the Islay malts, but I think it’s worth the risk.

As I say, you can always fall back on the Glennfiddich 12. Some like the Glenlivet 12 or the Aberlour 10 – they’re classy enough, but a little generic for me.

Can you give me some general things to look for?

It’s a gift, so generally look for a single malt unless you know your target doesn’t like single malt. If you don’t know, go for it.

Always go for one with an age statement, and make sure it’s at least 10 years. Some younger whiskies are excellent, but you don’t know enough to take the risk. Some without an age statement are good, but ages are impressive – it’s psychological.

If it comes in a box, that also suggests quality. That’s not necessarily the case but again, this is a gift, so boxes are good. Something that comes in an interesting bottle is also good. Again, it doesn’t say anything about the quality, but with gifts half the battle is presentation.

What should I avoid?

Definitely avoid the Glen Moray Classic. That’s just from personal experience. Horrible. When I see people buying that, I want to ask “Have you had that before? Cos if you haven’t, don’t”. My personal feeling is to avoid anything that is too pale in colour – there are exceptions to that, but we’re talking generalities. Also avoid Jura – it’s always on offer, so a very popular gift, but in my opinion it’s not so good.

Now, just because I say ‘avoid the Glen Moray Classic’ that doesn’t mean all Glen Morays are bad. Similarly, you can pick up a no age statement Ledaig from some supermarkets that isn’t good. I consider the 10 year old to be very good though.

Don’t get Jack Daniels – unless you’re buying for a very young adult. That’s not to say it’s bad (I actually like it – very nice mouthfeel), but many scotch drinkers are a bit snooty about it, possibly because it is so commonly mixed with coke.

Definitely don’t get Southern Comfort. This is not whisky – and I’m not being facetious here; it literally isn’t whisky. It’s a peach liqueur with whisky flavouring. It’s surprising how many people don’t know that.

If you know your target is a seasoned whisky drinker, your task might be more difficult because their standards can be quite exacting, but don’t worry; I’ll be offering some advice for buying whisky for the more discerning drinker next week. Remember, when someone receives a gift though, they want to be pleasantly surprised, not slightly disappointed. For this reason I’d avoid brands that are a bit too obvious (and that the novice might have heard of or seen on average drinks menus in restaurants) – for me, the Glenlivet 10, Balvenie Double Wood, Glenfiddich 12 and the basic Glenmorangie are a bit too obvious, but you could definitely do worse.

What if your budget is more modest?

I would aim to set your budget around £30-35 because you can definitely do the job for that. Anyone who likes whisky is going to know you spent £30-35, and they’re going to be all the more grateful for it. I understand though, that if you’re buying a gift for a friend, £30 might seem a little steep. You might have been thinking £20. If you were, don’t panic, just don’t be thinking about getting a single malt – unless you want to buy a 35cl bottle. That’s perfectly acceptable. The recipient will still appreciate the effort – and of course, it means you can get something even more special.

However, don’t be scared of going for a blend. A lot of basic blends are good, but if you can just go up one step to the next level, you’re going to be more likely to get one that your target hasn’t tried, or that is a little more interesting. Grants, Whyte and MacKay, Ballantine’s and Dewar’s all make decent, reasonably priced blends, and there are many more obscure ones that are worth a pop. Even a whisky aficionado can find a use for a basic blend. I always keep one for the times when I just don’t feel like getting the special stuff out, or as a precursor earlier in the evening. If you can chance across one that they haven’t tried before, you will have done very well because at least that’s one they can tick off their mental list. But don’t get the Johnnie Walker Red, Bells, Teachers, Famous Grouse or anything that says “bottled for [insert supermarket]” on the label. Not that there’s necessarily anything particularly bad about any of those, but you are buying a gift.


That at least, would be my advice. People all like different things, and there are no right and wrong opinions when it comes to whisky. Personally though, I think some whiskies exist just because people don’t know what to buy, so they all make sales to some degree. I don’t know – would a business be able to survive on that principal? Surely you have to rely on repeat customers. As I get more into whisky though, I find I seldom buy any bottle more than once because there’s always more to try. Caol Ila does well out of me, because I’ve bought four of their expressions so far, and I always recommend it to friends. In fact, usually when I like a whisky, I remember it as one to possibly buy as a gift for a friend, rather than one to buy again for me.

Perhaps one day I will have tried nearly everything (in my price range), and will just want to buy something I like with my money. There was a time when I bought different beer every time I bought a pint or some cans. Now I just buy what I like – though I have gotten into trying IPAs recently. I’m a long way off reaching that point with whisky, so we’ll just have to see how and when things pan out.

So, now if you find yourself at Tesco, and if you can remember any of this, you’re going to do all right. You could also have a look at the Whisky Exchange for specific brands but remember; you’re not going to be able to find most of those in your local supermarket. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask if another customer looks like they know what they’re doing. It might be me, and even if it’s not, anyone who is enthusiastic about whisky is going to be delighted to be able to share a bit of the knowledge.

Good luck, and don’t forget to come back next week when I’ll be considering how you can buy with confidence for the whisky enthusiast in your family.

Last Sunday my whisky advice fantasy almost came true. It was shopping day in the Cake household and, feeling a bit down, I thought adding a trip to Tesco to the regular Aldi shop in order to pick up a cut price Grant’s Sherry Cask Edition that I’d seen on offer the day before might cheer me up. A quick preparatory glance through my wallet and on the fridge revealed that we had £7 in vouchers – though we had to spend at least £40 to recoup one of them. Also in my favour was that I’d stashed £10 away in my booze budget, and then found a farewell fiver in the back pocket of my favourite jeans. I say “farewell fiver” because it was during that shopping trip that they developed a split in the back and threatened to show more and more bum cleavage every time I had to reach down to a low shelf…

Well, as you know, Christmas is approaching and Mrs Cake thought maybe she could get some whisky for her dad and brother… that sounds bad; they aren’t the same person. Yes, I would be delighted to help with that.

Mrs Cake isn’t really one for taking advice. She has her own mind you see, so it wasn’t as simple as me offering a suggestion and her taking it, but in the end she did follow my recommendations despite battling me all the way.

The Highland Park 12 was on offer, and I persuaded her that that would be a good choice for her dad, because it’s “excellent”. He doesn’t like peaty whiskies, and of the ones available in this price range, this was definitely the best choice in my opinion. He had said previously that he likes a 16 year old Glenmorangie, but they didn’t have that (it doesn’t seem to exist), and I doubt the price would have been anywhere near comparable (if it did exist).

Buying for the brother was a little trickier since I remembered he had wanted to drink the Crown Royal Black I took to his house a couple of years ago… with coke. So I maintained that we should get him something he can mix, and that meant a blend. Mrs Cake wanted to get something they wouldn’t be able to get in Canada, but in Tesco there isn’t really anything you couldn’t get in Canada. I advised her to go for the Grant’s Ale Cask Edition as that was on offer too. I don’t actually know what that one is like yet, but it is a step up (price-wise) from the standard Family Reserve and therefore makes a slightly better present than a standard cheap blend. I don’t think Brian is all that knowledgeable about scotch anyway, so we didn’t need to stress to much about it… though I suppose that remains to be seen. Perhaps I’ll follow up this post after Christmas and let you know how we did. To be fair, I probably won’t know how we did for the father-in-law until next year when he sends the bottle back hoping we won’t notice it’s the one we bought him. And if that happened… I would be delighted...

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Alco-Shops... Hotukdeals

The Alco-Shops feature is where I attempt to make you aware of interesting and useful places that you can use for buying booze, and with Christmas approaching, I thought I’d start a sequence of three posts that might help you out with your Christmas shopping, which officially started this week. So I want to introduce you to HotUKDeals, if you aren’t already aware of it, then next week (and the week after) I’ll move on to giving you some whisky buying advice, before moving on to some festive drinking activities. After that I’ll be in Canada indulging in some booze tourism while I visit the in-laws, but I will be back in January to start Drink It How You Like It’s third year of existence. How time flies when you’re drinking heavily…

Hotukdeals is basically a member site (though you don’t have to be a member) where people post all the bargains they’ve found online and in the shops. It covers nearly all genres of stuff, though some of the items make you wonder how people can be bothered to post about them at all (what?!). It could be something as inane as a Cadburys Crème Egg for 25p in Spar, or at the complete opposite end of the spectrum it could be a speedboat for £9000, reduced from £13500. This can be an invaluable resource when the time comes around for you to be thinking about what to buy people for Christmas. Sometimes you just don’t know what to get, do you? Well, just have a browse and you’ll be given bargain present ideas, and directed to various vouchers and sales.

More relevant to this blog though, is that you also get posts about cheap booze - one of the users actually provides a price comparison across a number of spirits in the main supermarkets, so that can be quite useful, especially if you’re stocking up for a party.

Occasionally you’ll see something you actually have to go and get. It niggles at you and forces you to go way out of your way, and the while time you’re on edge – what if they’ve run out by the time I get there?

I was recently forced to abscond from work for 45 minutes so that I could walk over to the nearest Asda where HotUKDeals had informed me they were selling bottles of Bruichladdich Rocks for £20 – an offer I couldn’t refuse. The normal price was quoted around £26, but I’ve seen it priced around £30 previously. The 20cl bottle my brother-in-law had given me the previous Christmas went down a treat, and I’d promised myself I’d buy a full size bottle the next time I got a chance. Well, here it was.

It did conflict with the other vow I’d made to myself about not buying another bottle until next month, but for some things you gots to make exceptions, and since it was a beautiful day, it made sense to sit out in the garden with it as soon as I got home.
Bruichladdich Rocks in the garden. Thanks. Hotukdeals!

 In general HotUKDeals is the sort of place that is worth checking every day if you get chance. Aside from being useful for providing present ideas, it’s saved me an unquantifiable amount of money in the years I’ve been visiting it. Equally it has probably inspired me to part with almost the same amount in buying things that I certainly wasn’t intending to buy before, but just seemed like too good a deal to miss ( I don’t know what I’m going to do with that speed boat…). It’s only money, isn’t it? You won’t even remember it next month.

That name again, it’s www.hotukdeals.com.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2013 Review

Christmas before last, the [then] soon to be Mrs Cake bought me my first Whisky guide; 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, which I have referenced on this blog previously, and even dissected in great detail. You may remember (or be interested to know, if you don’t want to read any of my previous pieces) that, while I found the contents of that book fascinating, I was finding its recommendations to be disappointing. It left me wondering where to turn for advice when it came to buying a new bottle (this was long before getting involved in the local Manchester Whisky Club), so when the missus asked what I would like for Christmas last year, I said a new whisky guide. She duly obliged, and what she came up with was Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2013.

I’ve dipped into this many times already, and wow, he sure has a lot to say. And boy, does he like whisky. I mean, I like whisky, but leafing through these pages that contain reviews (some brief, some less so) of over 4500 whiskies, I started to think that maybe I don’t like whisky all that much after all. Why? Notwithstanding that I would be bored of anything if I’d had to try 4500 varieties of it; the first thing is Jim’s scoring system.

He scores each whisky out of 25 for nose, taste, finish and balance, and combines these scores to give a total out of 100. I’ve been wondering why he scores them out of 25, and can only conclude that this is for the express purpose of combining to make a score out of 100 and when you think about it, when you have over 4000 contenders, awarding up to 5 stars just doesn’t seem adequate. Similarly, scoring each component out of 5 to make a total score out of 20 wouldn’t do; more separation is necessary.

Where this logic falls apart though (apart from the idea that four different components should be weighted equally), is that from what I’ve read so far (that’s all the section on single malt scotch, blended scotch, Irish whisky and selected highlights of the rest), the lowest score any individual whisky achieved was in the mid 50s – and that was an anomaly, most of the others are in the 80s and 90s. The next lowest is something like 68*. 

Now, 68% isn’t going to get you an A in your GCSEs, but it will get you a good second class degree and it isn’t that bad – in fact, you’d be disappointed you hadn’t gotten a first if you’d been averaging 68. It works out to an average of 17 out of 25 for each component, and I think 17 out of 25 is pretty good. If you scored that in each round of a pub quiz (probably the only other thing I can think of that could possibly be scored out of 25), you would probably win. I don’t see then, how there can’t be a whisky that’s so bad it only scores 32. Even Aldi’s Higland Earl, about which Murray says, 'I would have scored this higher if it had been labelled grain whisky; the malt is silent' scores 77.

Murray has written an editorial at the beginning, in which he bemoans the practice of using sherry casks that have been sterilised with sulphur candles. Apparently this has been going on for 20 years, and for some reason few people in the distilling industry are aware that it is ruining whole generations of scotch. Murray is well aware of it though. He can smell and taste the sulphur, and he says that there are a number of whiskies, aged in sherry casks, that have been ruined by this practice – ruined. Yet he won’t score any of them below 50 out of 100.

I’m not saying he’s making this shit about sulphur up. I believe him (though I’m yet to experience it myself). I just think maybe his scoring should be more reflective of that. Is it a bad whisky? Yes. So shouldn’t something that is actually bad be scored say, less than 50%?

Some time ago I received a particular bottle as a present which shall remain a secret so as to protect the feelings of the generous donor. I tried my very best to like it, but seriously, it was the worst whisky I have ever tasted. It tasted metallic, and that metallic taste just dominated everything.

I was keen to see what Jim Murray thought when I received his book, so it was one of the first things I looked up. I could see there are actually a lot of bottlings by this distillery, and many score in the high 80s and into the 90s.

Pretty good, but I can see that the one I had tried scored in the middle 80s. Surely that couldn’t be right? That’s actually better than a number of (to my mind) finer whiskies that I’ve enjoyed very much – like the Glenfarclas 10.

What’s more, it’s one of the Sherry Cask editions that received the lowest overall score of 50 something. So mine was supposed to be nice. I’ve checked, and sulphur isn’t metallic, so that’s probably not what I was tasting. So what does this mean? Presumably it means this distillery’s output  isn’t to my personal taste, and perhaps I should follow my original intention to avoid purchasing any further bottlings, at least until I’ve tried one that I like.

Murray goes on to say that many people can’t taste or smell sulphur anyway… perhaps I’m one of them? Though I’m sure I’ve smelled sulphur at some point in my life previously – it stinks doesn’t it? Like rotten eggs?

I suppose I still have to find out whether I’m susceptible to having my whisky ruined by sulphur. I don’t think I’ve tried many that have been aged in sherry casks, and I haven’t been able to detect it in the few I have tried. Some distilleries don’t use casks contaminated in this way anyway, but it seems the only way of knowing which ones do is by reading Jim’s book, so while it’s tempting to avoid any sherry cask whiskies, those have been the ones I’ve been enjoying in random samplings so… I don’t know what to do. I’m certainly reluctant to spend more than £40 on a sherried scotch anyway…

So as I said, Jim seems to love his whisky far more than I do. If I go to a tasting and try 6 different whiskies, instead of coming away with an idea of what I might buy next time, I come away with a list of 6 whiskies I’m not going to spend my hard-earned on. He’s a real enthusiast, with some refreshing viewpoints, occasionally witty, and he doesn’t come across as a whisky snob. What gives me that idea? He loves blends. In fact, he claims that he judges blends by stricter standards than single malts, since he thinks that in blending you should be able to achieve so much more.

I’m not sure I’m inclined to agree, since most blends include a hefty proportion of grain whisky (50 or 60%), that from what I can tell has a harsh taste that has somewhat tended to stand out  - or at least lope about conspicuously in the background - in many of the blends I’ve tried (I haven’t tried any particularly expensive ones as yet).

Jim should know better than me though, and that doesn’t bother him. He’s clearly a fan of the grain whisky too (he’s included a section for reviewing grain whiskies, and they also score well), but he’s especially a fan of the blend. Bells, Teachers, Aldi’s Highland Black, The Black Grouse… they all score really well – especially the Black Grouse, which manages a stunning 94.5. I certainly wasn’t that impressed by it, but clearly I must be an idiot

He reviews just about everything, and that’s part of what makes this book so accessible. If you’re something of a newcomer to whisky, and you pick up 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, you might find you’ve tried two or three, so you don’t have much of a reference point for the rest of the book, but you do have a lot of catching up to do. Because Jim Murray reviews everything (a further 1350 new whiskies were tried for this edition alone – did he try four a day for a year? And if so, doesn’t that cast some doubt on the reliability of the review?), there’s already a whole slew of things in there that you’re familiar with, and you can while away a good deal of your Christmas holiday downtime just flicking through it.

There is no price guide however, so you can’t really use it to plan your next purchase in advance, unless you happen to be accessing the internet at the same time. That also means that all whiskies are judged to the same standards, which is good in one way, but less so when you want to consider value because, let’s face it; it makes a difference. No, this whisky isn’t as good as that one, but this one was £13 while that one costs £100. I’m yet to determine whether any whisky can justify an astronomical price tag when I could buy one of my current favourites for £35 to £45.

You might find, like I often did, that Jim doesn’t rate your favourite whiskies as highly as you do, but you know, that’s fine. It’s actually refreshing how he’ll review something like Lidl’s own brand scotch, and score it really well. It gives you the confidence to buy that staggeringly cheap blend, and actually think that it might be ok because someone of his standing is willing to try it, review it with the same attention that he devotes to premium brands, and score it well.

But this is also the problem, though perhaps only for me. I don’t fall in love with every whisky I try. Perhaps I’m setting my standards too high, but if not disappointed, I’m often non-plussed when I try a new whisky, and all I’m doing is searching for that special and sadly rare liquor that I’m going to savour to the very last drop and perhaps even pine for when it’s gone – or want to buy again instead of trying something entirely new. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

Sometimes I feel I’m not even enjoying my glass of scotch, so I certainly wouldn’t be scoring nearly everything in excess of 80 out of 100 (that’s 4 out of 5, which if we were talking books, films or music would signify an excellent score – assuming you reserve top marks for the very select few, as I would).

Don’t think I’m having a go here, because this book is fascinating, but rather than answering all the questions, it leaves me with more.

Get this; it’s supposed to be a whisky bible, so you’d think therefore, that it will be a reference text you can rely on. But no. The impression I get from reading it is that Jim’s opinion of whisky can vary greatly over time – even on something as standard as a bottle of The Famous Grouse. He might say something like, “this has improved greatly since the last time I tried it…”

Now I know the quality of whisky can vary to some extent from one bottling to another, but you’d expect a blend to be pretty consistent. My enjoyment of a whisky can vary from one tasting to the next –from the same bottle. So Jim is clearly well able to rely on his tasting faculties, and treat his conclusions as absolute.

If I tried a glass of the Famous Grouse on one occasion and thought it average, but tried another one another time, and liked it, I’d assume it was something to do with myself or the specific circumstances. Jim just says, “this bottle is better than that one I had last time” – presumably because the method described in his tasting guide is so infallible.

When Jim says in his review of Johnnie Walker Red though, that he had one at an airport and he was overcome by peat, and that it was the earthiest he had tasted in decades… are we to assume he followed all the preliminary steps of his tasting guide, or was his impression open to the same chaos elements that are present when you don’t drink a strong coffee first, find a room with no distractions, haven't recently washed your hands, or have a glencairn glass (does he request one even in airports?) to hand?

Regardless of instances like this, how can you rely on Jim’s recommendation when you might be buying a bottle from the batch he didn’t like? How are you supposed to know?

Another problem is that sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you’ve got a particular bottle. Case in point; Bladnoch 10 yr old. He scores it brilliantly, which pleased me because I’d acquired a quarter of a bottle. On closer inspection though, he specifies that it’s a ‘Flora and Fauna’ bottling, which my bottle didn’t give any indication of being. Then I noticed that he had specified that his was bottled at 43%, while my bottle stated 46%, so clearly they weren’t the same. How different are they? Well, I don’t know, but I suppose it doesn’t matter too much because the bottle I’ve got is very classy; delicate and sweet (just how I like my women).

A look at The Whisky Exchange provided an answer – my bottle retails at around £35, while the ‘Flora and Fauna’ bottling, which is the last Diageo bottling is listed (at time of writing) at £75. It would be nice to know without having to do further research though – I’m used to books giving all the information, not just part of it. I’d also like to know, given that the Flora and Fauna bottling that Murray is reviewing gets 94 out of 100, what mine would score – but I’m not going to buy the 2014 guide to find out (I’ll just have a quick look in Waterstones…).

Examples like this are endemic throughout the book. Is this the bottle I’ve got? Is this the bottle I’m considering buying at my local whisky specialist? Is this the particular bottling I picked up at that distillery? He doesn’t provide quite enough information to be able to make you sure (see also Suntory Hakushu 12, later).

Again, I’m not denying Jim’s credentials. He certainly drops enough knowledge and has a lot to say. I don’t think you can fake that, it just means I can’t necessarily rely on the information in the book from one year to the next. What if next year, I buy a bottle of something based on Jim’s recommendation, but it turns out to be terrible, only I didn’t know because Jim’s review wasn’t current enough, or I got an older bottling, or perhaps he changed his opinion in 2014’s guide?

So as I say, extremely interesting, but perhaps a bible to be treated with the same reverence that a modern, non-church-going Christian would treat their Bible. That is, Adam and Eve? I don’t think so. Don’t be getting all Westboro Baptists’ Church about this.

Jim is drawing on 30 years of tasting experience, and he does point out that his scores are very personal, and based upon that. He obviously has a deep familiarity with many of the distilleries and brands that he is reviewing, and bases his score around what he has come to expect from any single producer – so there is ultimately little chance that you would agree with all that much.

To be fair, it doesn’t make the book any less useful or interesting, so I’m just going to have to take it for what it is, and get on with it.

Now, I still haven’t quite seen the point in adding water to whisky, as I know a lot of whisky experts tell you to do – except in the case of cask strength expressions, of course. I understand, and from experimentation with Caol Ila’s cask strengthvariety, agree that the strength of the alcohol is likely to overpower the subtle flavours and aromas in the whisky. One thing that strikes me as strange then about Jim’s book is that he asserts that he tests every whisky, as it is. He doesn’t add ice or water, and the rationale is that there can be no discrepancy between what he is tasting and what you are. That’s great until you think that he must be reviewing the cask strength whiskies under those same guidelines. So how can he provide a sound review of a cask strength whisky – some of which are more than 60% ABV, and intended for the addition of water – when most of its subtleties and nuances are being masked by strong alcohol? Well, presumably he can’t.

He could add half a measure of water to a double measure of cask strength whisky though, and specify that he did. But no. Surely, if his reviews are supposed to hold water (so to speak), he needs to try several stages of dilution and then comment on the overall quality, so that it doesn’t matter whether you add the same amount of water as he does. It’s just one of those things that you’d think a whisky aficionado would have to address – what’s the point in me reviewing this if I’m not allowing it to develop fully?

I suspect that Jim is experienced enough to be able to provide a full review of a whisky from one taste, whereas I would have to drink the whole bottle before giving a definitive (and admittedly less detailed) review.

I suppose the ultimate indicator of how good a guidebook is, is in the results of using it. Did you agree with its recommendations? I have had chance now to dip into it and use it for research when I know what kind of thing I’m looking for, and just require something to give me a definite push one way or another, and as I said, because it’s scope is so extensive, I’ve already formed opinions on some of its subjects, so let’s break this down to specifics. Here’s some comments on some of the whiskies both Jim and I have tried:

Laphroaig 10/Quarter Cask
Laphroaig 10 was one of the first whiskies I ever tried, and I immediately fell in love with it, but the Quarter Cask I actually felt was lacking in everything that made the 10 so great. Jim scores the 10 year old 90 (while noting that it is a favourite of Prince Charles), and the Quarter Cask 96.

Caol Ila 12/18
12 is one of my absolute favourites – sweet, smoky and luxurious – and as such provides a benchmark for the opinions of anyone that reviews whisky. What I’m essentially saying is if you don’t rate the Caol Ila 12, your opinion means nothing to me.  The 18 year old on the other hand was quite a disappointment, with a bitter finish that belied it’s extravagant price tag. That currently stands as the most expensive bottle I ever bought.

In Murray’s book, the 12 scores what is in my opinion, a modest 89 while the 18 scores only 80 – with the stipulation that there is too much oil. 80 seems quite fair, and consistent with Jim’s scoring system.

Black Grouse
This one doesn’t just come recommended by Jim; it’s also in the 101 Whiskies… guide. I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. Jim calls it “a real treasure” and scores it a 94. Frankly that’s shocking. If you read that, and then see you can get it for £18, you’re going to buy it, aren’t you? Sorry, but there is no way this is better than the Laphroaig  10 and the Caol Ila 12. No way – even when you take the price into account.

Talisker 10
Another that is almost universally recommended. I think it’s decent but I’m not overly enthused. Jim rates it almost as highly as the Black Grouse, with a 93. He also tastes some Cumberland sausage in there. For the record, I think it is way better than the Black Grouse, but would still score it below a 93… were I able to put numerical values on these things.

Glenmorangie Original
I was surprised to find I enjoyed this very much. Great value. Jim calls it one of the greats, and scores it a 94. I’m not sure it’s that good, but still…

Cutty Sark
I think Jim and I are actually in synch here. Distinctly average, I felt. Not bad for the price I paid, I suppose, but not worth the price you pay in the UK. Jim says it has a ‘nipping furriness’, which I’m not going to disagree with despite not having any way of truly knowing what he means, and gives it 78.

Glenfarclas 10
I enjoyed this very much, but here it scores only 80, and is described as “sweaty” with an odd finish.

Suntory Hakushu 12
I bought this based largely on Jim’s recommendation, though that recommendation was supported by a number of online sources. I did enjoy it, but didn’t quite feel it lived up to the hype. There are three Hakushu 12s listed in Jim’s book. The only way I could identify which one might be mine was by the ABV of 43%. That is actually the best of the three, scoring 95.5. It is apparently one of the most complex and clever 12 year olds in the world, though I felt it had a slight bitterness in the finish that detracted from its oily mouthfeel and sweet entry.

One I actually sought out, based on Jim’s recommendation. I can’t understand what he saw in it. 90 points, ‘clean and cleverly constructed’. I would score it much lower and change ‘clean and cleverly constructed’ to ‘aniseedy and weird’. I rank it as the worst blend I’ve ever owned and the second worst overall whisky.

Ardbeg 10
This is an immense malt and I can only agree with Jim’s glowing opinion of it. 97 points he gives it. I have no problem with that other than that there are only 3 more points a whisky can occupy to be better than it. So it can only possibly get 3 better than Ardbeg 10.

Ballantine’s Finest
A little research I did recently for an upcoming post featuring Balantine’s Finest found that customer reviews on whisky retail sites held it in high regard while bloggers and more formal critics… didn’t. For the record, I have been enjoying the Finest very much, and would place it at 3rd in my all time blended scotch rankings. Jim calls it the work of a blender at the top of its game and scores it 96. I don’t think it’s quite that good – again, when compared with lower scores for Laphroaig and Caol Ila, and especially when he claims to score blends more harshly than single malts.

So what can you take away from this? Certainly that you can’t treat the guide as an all-knowing oracle that you could rely on to find you a delicious whisky, but you can still refer to it from time to time. It’s all about figuring out what you think for yourself anyway, isn’t it?

Jim has a lot to teach you, and will show you that you still have a lot to learn. He’s not going to reveal all the secrets of the universe but now at least now you know how big the universe is (fucking big). Go out and explore for yourself and see if you can’t discover a few things that aren’t even in the book.

*In fact, the lowest it gets is New Zealand's Kiwi Whisky which scores only 37.

That's it for this week. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Next week, I promise, will be shorter. Till then.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Booze Resistor

If you’ve ever bought a bottle of strong alcohol in the southern European country of Spain, there’s a good chance you’ve been confronted with what I can only describe as a booze resistor. Here it is. It is essentially a plastic nozzle that has been inserted and fastened in the top of the bottle. It works in a manner similar to the way an electrical resistor works, in that it prevents some of the current (in this case, booze) from coming out into your glass which - let’s face it – is where you want the fucking stuff.

I have no idea what these are for, as they seem to have no fucking purpose whatsoever. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see what can be useful about a device that facilitates:

  1. Not being able to get the liquid out the first time you open the bottle.
  2. Having to turn the bottle completely upside down and shake vigorously on all subsequent pours (assuming you managed a first pour at all) in order to eke out even an impotent trickle.
  3. Always spilling a couple of drops. It’s hard enough getting a couple of drops out in the first place! How come a couple always have to jump to the side of the glass also?!?
Shake it, fiddle with it, try to break it… you’re not winning with this device. Why, the country of Spain, why?

If there is a logical reason or purpose and I’m just  too stupid to get it, I sure would like to know. Over to you.