31 December 2014

31/12/2014 Finishing in style -- The Old Man of Huy's ratings system

If one has more than a passing interest in whisky, one tends to rate whiskies. Two ways to look at this are why and how.

The why, you can likely work out. It helps you remember whether an experience was good or bad so you can reiterate or avoid it. It helps you decide whether to buy a whisky or not. To simplify: it helps you organise your dramming.

The how is a lot more complex. If one has been in this for long enough, one will either have adopted the prevalent ratings system (Michael Jackson's, supposedly), or will have had (heated) discussions on the matter with other enthusiasts, certain that their respective systems are better.
Of course, they are all wrong, seeing as the Old Man of Huy's method is the best. In fact, that system is so good that only the Old Man of Huy can handle it.

Before I explain this wonderful system, let us have a look at a selection of other methods.

The binary school

All is said.
Wherever there is a complex problem, trust someone to come up with a simplistic simple solution. This one is as easy as:

like not / like

In the words of a long-time SMWS member, 'I don't like this' / 'I'll have more of that.'

Pros: no waste of time, no headache.
Cons: your bottle of Tomatin 12yo is in the same category as your friend's Glenugie 1966. In other words: it lacks granularity.

The out-of-three cult

It is pretty much the binary school with room for uncertainty:

like not / leaves me cold / like

In other words, 'I spit this dram in your visage / I will finish my glass / don't put the cork back yet.'

Pros: no headache, has room for stuff you will neither enjoy, nor rave about.
Cons: still not much granularity.

The PS method

PS, a regular character on this blog, rates out of 5, including 0. My interpretation of his scale is as follows:

0 Undrinkable
1 Terrible
2 Meh
3 Good
4 Very good
5 Teh fenomenallz!!1

It all goes out the window, though, as soon as PS uses half-points, which is often. He really is an out-of-ten in denial.

Pros: manageable scale.
Cons: lacks granularity out of five, half-points are ridiculous.

The Whisky Mag style

You know Whisky Mag, of course: a periodic publication about agriculture and ornithology. Quasi-deities of the malt world such as Dave Broom and Michael Jackson have contributed to it at some point or another, often providing tasting notes for some drams. Next to the colour, nose, palate and finish, contributors give a rating out of five. And halves. And quarters, in places.

Pros: manageable scale.
Cons: lacks granularity, quarter points? Go for /20, then!

The /20 militia

dom666's most prized possession
Having spent too much time in school, several people in my circles (led by dom666 and Psycho) insist on rating out of 20. That started during the whiskogs.com days, of course, where ratings were out of 10, and they were mostly teasing me about that. They hardly used whiskogs and even more rarely to rate anything. Still, dom666 and other heretics thought they needed the granularity of a 20-scale to rate their vast collections of Talisker 10yo from the local supermarket.

Pros: granularity at a manageable level, the last acceptable scale before silliness, familiar to everyone who has attended school.
Cons: only came about to piss me off, scale is on the verge of overkill.

The follow-the-mass hordes

A huge fraction of the world's whisky enthusiasts rate out of 100. Fact.
It is very amusing to ask those people why they do. It is as enlightening as asking a fifty-something clerk in a public function why they do this or that. The answer is inevitably, 'it is what everyone else does,' or 'it is what we've always done.' If you are lucky, you might even get a, 'this is how one does it.'

You know...

People have always died at the end of their life. That is not to say it is always the clever thing to do.
Slightly more seriously, a lot of it stems back to Michael Jackson, who single-handedly created whisky and the industry that accompanies it (sort of). In his Malt Whisky Companion, MJ rated drams out of 100. That was the first book a lot of today's authorities on the matter ever read about whisky and they adopted the scale. Of course, this refutes the fact MJ sometimes scored out of five (or 20) for other publications and that the Companion was not his first book about whisky (that honour seems to go to the World Guide to Whisky, the first book of his I read on the subject, incidentally).
But fair enough.

The biggest nonsense with it, in my opinion (which, of course, represents the universal truth), is that the scale is only fully used between 70 and above. Occasionally, a famous whiskylluminatus will drink something terrible and rate it 31/100, you know, 'just to prove the whole scale is necessary.' Really? What is the difference between 31 and 34, then? Other whiskylluminati, in their quest for the best and worst, sometimes come across something so vile it scores negative points. Indeed, a bottle of Dufftown from a wreck received a fantastic -20/100. Sort of defeats the purpose.

The next load of bollocks is how the scale is used in the upper echelon. Nothing is worth 100. We can find things that are below 0, but nothing reaches the top spot. Ever. Might as well rate out of 99, then. But even then, an 85 is an average whisky, while a 90 is supposedly stellar. And 90 vs. 91 is supposedly a much wider gap than 80 vs. 81.

The final load of rubbish is the granularity. What is the difference between 84 and 83 again? Of course, two drams might be in the same ballpark, with one better than the other. Unless you try ALL the whiskies of ALL times and rank them against each other, there is always going to be an outsider to come in between your 83/100 Bladnoch 1989 and your 84/100 Speyburn 10yo. Hundreds of thousands of bottles have come out over the eras. Even if you score out of a million, you will run into cases like that from time to time that will make you question your scale.
More exciting than a drought, though, eh?

Looks pretty exciting, though

Nah. The above is meant as tongue-in-cheek banter, but it is not for me, this one. Too popular anyway. I swim against the current, me.

Pros: everyone is using it, so it makes sense -- the gold standard.
Cons: everyone is using it, including those who don't know how to make sense of it, overkill on granularity, only the top 29% of the scale are really used, one would think each increment has the same significance, when it often does not.

Shame hat, different pershon

The Jim Murray technique

Mr. Murray, author of the yearly Whisky Bible, rates out of 100, but then uses quarter-points. If that was ridiculous on a scale of five, you can finish this sentence yourself. If Jim can accurately rate whiskies out of 400 (1, 1.25, 1.5, 1.75, 2, etc. make up 400 different ratings -- try to follow), I envy his nose and palate.

Pros: sells books.
Cons: are you taking the piss?

The worshippers of the Fibonacci Sequence

This is what a drunkard looked like
in 13th century Italy
Some enthusiasts are clever. Their point here is that small differences in quality between drams do not really count. Only significant variations do. To illustrate that, the gaps between ratings are wider and wider as the sequence progresses. Also, there is no end to that sequence -- which is also smart: no matter how good that Port Ellen 1969 is, there will always be a Linkwood 1952 to beat it. No matter how good that Linkwood is, you are bound to drink something even better at some point (and by the way, it is likely to be a Bowmore).
For those who slept during math class, the Fibonacci sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89 etc., where each number is the sum of the two numbers immediately on its left.
Now, of course, you could drink something so vile it deserves a 1. Later on, you would try something even worse that does not qualify for a 1. Given there is no top end, one could twist the concept to take it below zero. In other words: 1, 0, -1, -1, -2, -3, -5, -8, -13 etc.

Pros: no nitpicking, no headache, granular enough, has no top end, a system so underground it can only be appealing to unconventional people.
Cons: it is not my own idea, since it has no end, this cannot be used to compare to the score of perfection (whether idealised or tangible).

The Old Man of Huy's system

I score out of 10. Why? Well, why not? It gives me the granularity I need without the use of decimals, is manageable a scale, provides my friends with teasing material, has an accessible maximum and I use all the ratings from 1 to 10. Is it infallible? Of course not! To be infallible, one would have to... No! It is simply not possible. Is it better than the others? Obviously! I came up with it, did I not?
What does it all mean, though?

1 Camel piss
2 Diluted camel piss
3 Camel piss that is diluted enough to be tolerable in pastry
4 Not good to drink
5 Vapid, dull
6 Not bad, this
7 Pour me some more
8 Where can I buy this?
9 Price does not matter
10 Quick! Another pair of trousers!

I see you coming, dear reader. You think that, by rating TWE's Lochside 1964 10/10, I have shut the door to any improvement on that.
Or you have been reading this blog for a while and noticed that sometimes, I score above ten, prompting you to think I have lost my marbles.
Wrong and wrong.

This guy was so arcore France had to build new mountains
Those who are familiar with the Tour de France will have heard of the mountains classification. 1979, on top of being a great year for Dallas Dhu, saw the advent of a new category for mountains in the Tour de France: Hors cat├ęgorie. It stands for a hill that is so tough to climb it does not fit in any of the four existing categories -- e.g. the famous Col du Tourmalet.

Well, sometimes on your whisky path, you come across a dram that is so spectacular, so mesmerising it shatters your preconceptions and does away with any scale you might have. The chicken's knee-jerk reaction is to act unfazed and quickly change your scale. The mature reaction, in my opinion (the only one that counts for me), is to acknowledge that you are experiencing one of the few instances in which some superior force is communicating with you by means of liquid gold. A whisky that defies all you thought you knew about life, the universe and everything. Something that, for a moment of bliss, opens a portal to the divine. Something that moves you so deeply that time stops. Until you wake up the next day in a puddle of ecstasy-goo with a smile on your face, thinking it might only have been a dream.
And yes, it is likely to be a Bowmore.

Let me illustrate this by tasting one dram. And since we might as well finish 2014 in style, it will not be just any dram.

Lochside 46yo d.1964 (42.1%, TWE, C#8970, 139b): at long last. Nose: fruit and wood. Let me see... Yellow fruit, at first (plums, apricots, mirabelle plums, mangoes, papayas, durian), then woody tones to an almost chemical level (varnish, lacquer). There is some vanilla in there, somewhere, with rhubarb compote. Yellow flowers make a late appearance with dark, juicy cherries. Mouth: finely balanced, delicate and elegant, oscillating between fruity and woody notes again. The texture is that of fruit juice, augmented with rhubarb compote -- fruity, velvety, yet slightly acidic too. Exotic fruits start to emerge at the second sip -- mango and maracuja on the front line. Finish: holy Molly! I will never tire of this. Vanilla pudding, butterscotch, rhubarb compote (insistent, today!) and custard. It is gently warming, elegant and pleasant, until... Wham! Bam! The fabled passion fruit roundhouse kick from below catches you off-guard, along with its acolytes -- mango punch and durian tickle. The finish is long and leaves a creamy feel in the mouth. Fruit-bursting yoghurt. A capital dram, this, and the perfect illustration of a 10/10. The attentive reader will note I should need another pair of trousers, now. I saw it coming: I am not wearing any trousers -- HA! This whisky inevitably triggers a gigglefest at the Old Man of Huy's. Today is no exception. I will miss that bottle, now it is empty.
Happy New Year!

29 December 2014

26/12/2014 Trio - Da Da Da

I would draw your attention to the colour of the middle glasses,
except it is tainted with flipping caramel!
Dalwhinnie 1970 (40%, GMP Connoisseurs Choice, b. late 1980s): I do not often have Dalwhinnie and even more rarely do I have one that is not a core-range OB. An independent bottling is quite the rarity, these days. Nose: all-bran cereals, sultanas, Christmas cake (topical, is it not?), cinnamon and, at last, some dust. Ginger bread, comes out after that, alongside rotting apples. Cereal dust is seemingly the last thing to emerge, though after an hour or so, beef stock becomes very obvious, with flat cola -- a sherry cask it was, then. Mouth: fresh, citrus-y (lemon) and clean. Washing up liquid. Not much else. It is ever-so-slightly metallic, maybe. Finish: wow! This starts citrus-y, then quickly moves towards more chewy tastes -- cured meat, leather, beef stock, oxtail soup; all very pleasant and never overboard. I cannot say this is legendary, but it is honest enough! 7/10

The Dalmore 30yo d.1973 (42%, OB, Gonzalez Byass Matusalem Sherry Finish): nose: this is not Christmas cake anymore, but black bun! Sultanas, Corinth and Smyrna raisins, dried orange and lemon rinds, prunes, dried apricots, marzipan -- there is a full crumble in the black bun! Crushed almond in the back. Mouth: apple juice, cider, as well as more dried fruit (figs, prunes) and a slightly drying touch. Ginger bread and juicy sultanas. Finish: complexity! Dried apples, baked apples, stewed prunes, plums in syrup and reminiscence of the nose: sultanas, dried orange rinds (including the slight acidity), cola, cough syrup. This one went from plain apple juice (ten years ago) to something more complex and delicious. Extraordinary dram. A masterclass in richness, balance and control. 9/10

Dailuaine 22yo d.1973 (61.80%, OB RMS): nose: nail-varnish remover, citrus-scented detergent, then strangely, marzipan cake. A bit of air underlines scents of bonded warehouse, with clay floors and lichen growing on each cask. Buttery croissants come out too. Water makes it gristy. Mouth: a lot hotter, of course (no shit, Sherlock!) Zesty, acidic and astringent. This would strip the limescale off any sink. Hints of milky chocolate and pine sap. With water, chocolate pudding appears, with a twist of the pink-pepper mill. Finish: vanilla is at the forefront, with resinous sap and butterscotch goodness. That is seemingly incompatible with the lemony texture, but it works. Pine planks become prominent, after a while. With water, milk chocolate, augmented with flower juice. Good dram, though a bit hot, neat. 7/10

22 December 2014

21/12/2014 Winter solstice

It has proved impossible to get a committed date from my co-tasters to attend a tasting since September. A shame, of course, yet that should not prevent me from enjoying myself (and make them jealous in the process).
A friend gave me a freebie, recently, that I want to drink up. Looking at my boxes, I see I have two obvious sparring partners. Here is a good opportunity to celebrate the longest night of the year. Or the shortest day, depending on how you look at it. Apparently, the Earth is slowing down, by the way, which means it is the longest night ever. Yes, the longest night in 4.9 billion years.

Off we go.

Dallas Dhu 10yo (40%, GMP, b. late 1980s/early 1990s): nose: dust and old books, as is typical for these old bottles. Citrus and heather are here too. Satsumas, unripe oranges and walnut shells. Toasted bread gone cold. Mouth: watered-down grapefruit juice. Perhaps this has been in the bottle for too long. It lacks energy a bit. Almond milk comes out after a while, still with a zest of citrus and a late twist of white pepper. Pleasant, if (too) subtle. Finish: finally, it wakes up! Wood, nutmeg, white pepper and the bitterness of walnut skin in the shell. Celery stalks? Now, that is unusual! A decent 10yo, this. Not too complex or characterful, yet it does what you would expect from a whisky that age. 7/10

Dallas Dhu 1969 (40%, GMP Connoisseurs Choice, b. mid-1980s): there were two versions of this: a 15yo and a 16yo. Not sure which one this is, as the age is not written on my mini. Nose: behind the traditional dust, we have orange rinds, mud and -- oh! Lychee!? Promising, yet not very assertive. Wait. Time and oxidation help a lot: mud comes out much more, though it is unlike any other whisky-born muds around. Satsumas, clementines, dust and mud. Later, cedar wood appears. Yum! Mouth: a bonded warehouse! Lichen, moss, ageing (decaying) wood, clay floors, nature trying to reclaim its dominion. All of a sudden, almond milk spills over to a point it feels like Amaretto. How bizarre! Cane sugar, a drop of lemon juice and almond milk. Finish: it is tame, but much is happening in this finish. Old books? Check. Creamy almonds? Check. Citrus? Check. Wood goodness? Check. Both coconut and vanilla are there, as well as more Amaretto. This is unexpectedly vibrant. Very nice, even if it leaves the bitterness of vinegar in the aftertaste. 8/10

Dallas Dhu 34yo 1979/2014 (55.5%, Cadenhead's Cask Ends, Bourbon cask): nose: a whole different game, this. Much more expressive, with quince, ripe oranges, juicy satsumas and exotic fruit -- mango, durian, coconut, barbecued pineapple (I kid you not). Mouth: perfect balance, innit. Custard first (the texture), then the fruit salad resumes -- ripe clementines, jackfruit, green mango, grapes, underripe green melon, too. A pinch of turmeric completes the picture. Finish: lots of woody goodness -- vanilla, butterscotch, custard, toasted coconut. The yellow exotic fruits appear later -- papaya, mango, durian. The second sip brings  nice, milk chocolate (Belgian, naturally). Hail the oldest bottler in Scotland. 9/10 (thanks S for the sample)

Mix of all three: cannot bring myself to do it, this time. Bah! of course, I can! Nose: interestingly, the fruits have gone to make room for beef stock, old leather, cured meat, roasted walnuts and chestnuts. With no added sugar. Blackcurrant jam? Elderberry? Some dark fruit, in any case. Mouth: mh! This seems completely flat, now. Perhaps a touch of almond milk. Other than that, not much is happening. It is silky, though. Black olive pits? Black bun stuffing? Maybe in the far back. Finish: oh, yes! The finish is balanced, with tapenade, crushed walnuts, dark grape juice (no, not wine) and quince jelly. Love it. 8/10

Good bye, autumn. Welcome, winter.

You missed out, suckers!

8 December 2014

06/12/2014 December outturn at the SMWS (bis) + after-party

We have no fear and a few more bottlings to try. And cheeses to eat.

116.20 26yo d.1987 Fascinating complexity and finesse (61.6%, SMWS Society Single Cask, Virgin Oak Puncheon, 452b): nose: dried ham, Serrano ham, dried sausage, pine cones, paint, cigar boxes and tapenade. Mouth: silk and cotton, with a dash of allspice. Finish: warming, with a controlled sherry influence (hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, chocolate) and a zest of peat smoke. I reckon this is the best Yoichi I have had. JS agrees. 8/10

25.66 23yo d.1990 Bette Davis doing DIY (57.8%, SMWS Society Single Cask, Refill Ex-Bourbon Hogshead, 157b): nose: spring flowers and bushes (kyria Japonica, brambles), but also unripe apricot. Mouth: more spring flowers and bushes of all sorts, black pepper, plant juice and the associated bitterness. Finish: the flowers soon vanish in favour of fruit, still not too ripe (apricots and peaches, carambola). Lovely! 8/10

G12.1 11yo 2003/2014 Oh, so sweet (58.9%, SMWS Society Single Cask, Re-Charred Hogshead, 246b): according to the SWA, this is a grain (hence the number). It is in fact whisky produced in a continuous still (or Coffey still) from 100% malted barley. Nose: varnish and lots of alcohol. Mouth: much more balanced, throughout, full of honey and onion relish. Finish: vanilla, then banana and tropical fruit. Love it. 8/10

G13.1 4yo d.2009 A complete revelation (58.3%, SMWS Society Single Cask, Virgin Oak Puncheon, 622b): this one is grain whisky produced from a mixture of grain and malted barley. Nose: coffee and spirit. Quite feinty. After 20 minutes, blackcurrant and blueberry show up. Mouth: coffee bitterness then pastry dough. Finish: coating, jammy pastry, full of blackcurrant. Very good for a four-year-old, but on the expensive side. I gave it a 7 to begin with. With more time, it deserves more. 8/10

We decide to not go for 1.183, after everyone tells us it is not worth it. Interestingly, I notice both 1.183 and 118.3 are available at the bar. 11.83 is nowhere in sight, but it gives me a theme for a future tasting.
With the addition of sausage, today

After that session, We elope to a secret venue, where a friend kindly lets us taste his dram.

90.5 10yo 1992/2002 Kola Kubes and Lilt (59.4%, SMWS Society Cask): nose: coffee, in a not-too-pleasant way. I reckon I am not going to like this much. Immediately, though, citrus kicks in (lime, lemon, grapefruit) and cut apples. Mouth: acidic at first, before it becomes amazingly sweet -- almost sugary. This is like candy floss. Finish: barley, sugar and a bit of cork -- wow! Unlike what the nose suggested. With water, the finish turns into blueberry juice, plain and simple. Great, this! 8/10 (thanks RT + PS)

05/12/2014 December outturn at the SMWS

Time flies. It seems like there is a new outturn every couple of weeks.
I am meeting up with MJ who experiences withdrawal symptoms. Quite understandable, seeing as we have not had a formal tasting since September!

120.7 14yo d.1999 Sweet, fragrant and satisfying (55.5%, SMWS Society Single Cask, 1st Fill Bota Corta, 517b): upon greeting the staff at the bar, CD makes me order this one. He insists so much I think I will not like it (CD and I have wildly different tastes). Then I nose it and MJ decides to take the same. Nose: liquorice, syrup, apples and a touch of leather. Mouth: slightly drying, earthy, with prunes and dried orange peels. Finish: prunes in syrup, with earth in the far back. Moscovado sugar, caramel, ginger bread, and even, in the end, the dry bitterness of green tea. Not my favourite profile, yet I have to agree CD was right, this time. This is very well made. 8/10

5.42 13yo d.2000 Bathed in a baker's shop (59.5%, SMWS Society Single Cask, Refill Ex-Bourbon Hogshead, 274b): nose: alcohol! Turpentine, nail varnish. This is spirity, with a bit of vanilla. Mouth: warming, displaying acidic sweets and verbena. A few metallic notes too. Finish: interestingly, the verbena and sage notes soon make room for crushed biscuit (speculoos), then milk chocolate. Not too impressed. 6/10

B3.1 3yo 2011/2014 A little box of treasures (53.9%, SMWS Society Single Cask, New Charred Oak, 238b): nose: : a new distillery and my first SMWS bourbon. Nose: ginger bread, cinnamon, herbs (ginseng, I believe). Mouth: easy and balanced, with more herbs and cinnamon. Finish: again, lots of herbs and lovely cinnamon. Simple and efficient. 7/10

24.127 23yo 1991/2014 Northern Lights (47.7%, SMWS Society Single Cask, Refill Ex-Bourbon Hogshead, 262b): this one comes as a pair with the new 25. Need to find out whether it is good enough to justify buying the pair. Nose: resin, tree sap and an extremely high amount of daffodils. Musk soon appears, as well as a few plums. Mouth: honey, honeysuckle. Not too much happening, I have to say. Finish: long, warming, oak-driven. Unremarkable. 6/10

MJ has had enough of the light and fruity and wants something peaty and fruity. Not one to shy away from a good challenge, I order this one for him.

118.3 22yo d.1991 Self-assured, buxom and rewarding (57.9%, SMWS Society Single Cask, 2nd Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel, 206b): nose: yep, peat, mud, farmyard and fields, as well as tons of fruit (mango, lychee, yellow plums). Mouth: velvety. The peat is kept under control and augmented with balsamic vinegar and papaya -- wow! Finish: spectacular. Muddy fields, with lashes of mango, melon and goodness. Adore it. 9/10

JS joins us here.

7.107 10yo d.2003 The good old days (60.6%, SMWS Society Single Cask, 1st Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel, 211b): nose: vanilla, bananas and wood goodness. Mouth: stings a bit  (60.6%, see), but mostly coconut, banana and wood influence. Finish: wood, sawdust, toasted coconut. Not particularly impressive, this, espcially compared to 7.108. It is good, but a bit bland. 6/10

35.105 17yo d.1996 Santa's Christmas Stocking (55.9%, SMWS Society Single Cask, 1st Fill Designer Barrel, 205b): nose: pine wood, peach stone, buttercups. Mouth: fruity, peachy and flowery. Finish: pleasant, balanced, with a dose of milk chocolate. Very pleasant, this. 8/10

MJ asks me to order him something akin to Christmas cake. He gets 9.88, which I do not try.

Good times. The venue was a bit too busy. Good thing the regulars were there: we managed to squeeze into the sofas next to them.