Friday, December 04, 2009

Whiskey Tasting Party

So, how do people run whiskey tasting parties?

I'd like to host one -- a small one, with maybe three or four guests -- but also want to make sure everyone gets home safely! It would also be nice to record the event as a podcast.

I'd go in order of pungency of flavor and (approximate) expense. We'd have small servings with breaks in between.

The menu might consist of something like:

The Tyrconnell (an Irish whiskey, representing mild Irish single malts in general)

Glennfiddich 12 (representing the malty/vanilla/caramel flavors)

Bunnahabhain 12 (a very mild and uncharacteristic Islay whisky, a good example of that nutty/oily texture, apple, coconut, and some other elusive flavors)

Glenmorangie La Santa (representing sherry cask-aged whisky, with that maple-ish flavor)

The Balvenie Portwood 21 (representing port cask-aged whisky, and with the best nose of any whisky I've tasted to date, although the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban is also very good, with elusive chocolate and mint notes, and costs a lot less)

Caol Ila 12 (representing Islay whiskies on the slightly milder side, with those great mandarin orange and dark chocolate notes)

Lagavulin 16 (representing the iconic peaty/phenolic Islay flavors, and a good place to stop because anything you won't be able to clearly taste anything else for quite some time afterwards!)

Dumb idea? Great idea?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Irish Whiskey Review: Knappogue Castle 1995

While hunting for a bottle of Glenmorangie on a recent trip to Hartford, I came across this bottle and recalled that twitter peep Colleenky recommended Knappogue Castle along with The Tyrconnell. Since I enjoyed The Tyrconnell, I decided to give this one a try.

The 1995 Knappogue Castle is, like The Tyrconnell, a single malt. The dates are usually the year of distillation, and it was bottled in 2007, which makes it about 12 years old. It's also bottled at 40%. Oddly, Knappogue Castle seems to be a brand, and not a distillery per se, aging and bottling selected casks from other distilleries. This whiskey is chill filtered, something many scotch whisky distilleries seem to be moving away from, but has no color added.

Like The Tyrconnell, this whisky is also very pale in color -- an extremely light straw gold. It coats the glass with a waxy texture that runs very slowly. The nose is very slightly pungent, but mainly creamy and rich -- I get vanilla and a big, big note of ripe banana, like banana pudding served with Nilla wafer cookies. There's a bit of something winey, like chardonnay, although this whiskey is aged only in bourbon barrels. There's a yeasty note, and something like cream cheese -- Grace calls it "cheesecake." The nose seems slightly simpler to me than The Tyrconnell. I don't notice any of that lime or honey that I found so enjoyable in The Tyrconnell, and I don't even get the coconut notes. There is some of that chewy oat flavor, but very little malt.

On the tongue, the flavors match the nose pretty well, and it has much of The Tyrconnells's wonderfully smooth, slightly oily mouth feel. I'm reminded of a sweet French Toast batter, with a little bit of cinammon and the eggy custard flavor, or maybe a bread putting with apples baked into it. A review I came across mentioned "fresh wood" and "cigar box," and called it "spicy." Now, here's where this whiskey surprised me. I didn't really get those flavors; there did not seem to be any smoky, leathery, or tobacco flavors that I could detect. I was wondering if my palate just wasn't trained enough, or attuned to the mildness of the flavors that tend to be in these Irish whiskeys, when compared to some of the single-malt scotch whiskeys I've been drinking.

Then, I added a bit of water, and suddenly that chardonnay note was stronger, and -- on both the nose and tongue, there is tobacco! It's quite odd. Grace called it "Lucky Strikes." When you water it, the creamy banana custard flavor recedes and that cheesecake note is amplified; there's that vaseline note that The Tyrconnell has, and it's just a little bit bitter. The slight astringency that was present even without water comes forward a bit.

Although this whiskey is more expensive than The Tyrconnell, the flavors and aromas are not quite as enticing as they are in The Tyrconnell; it isn't as "moreish," at least to my palate. Therefore, I rate it a half-point lower, at 8.0. It would make a slightly better starting point for a first taste of single malt Irish whiskey, since it is milder. It would be interesting to compare the 1995 to a different Knappogue Castle release. Apparently there is a 1951, although this is scarce and, no doubt, very expensive.

It's quite amazing how different these two Irish single malts are from Scottish single malts, even though they are not terribly different from one another. While these Irish whiskeys are very fine, there's something -- possibly in my genes, since I'm part Scottish -- that draws me more to the Scottish drinks. So, I probably won't be buying any more Irish whiskeys for now. However, I would never turn down a free sample!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No, My Rear End is Not Growing Larger

My pants don't fit any more. And this time, it isn't my fault for eating too much lasagna.

One of my favorite pairs of jeans is from Old Navy, their 34/32 "loose fit" jeans, purchased a few years ago.

As all well-loved jeans eventually wear out, recently I was looking for another pair of the same kind. Here's the modern equivalent.

The problem is, they don't fit me comfortably. They don't unzip as far. They're tight in the inseam. When I squat down, I have an immediate case of plumber butt. Here's why. Look at the length of the zipper in the old one (bottom) and the new one (top). It's pretty dramatic.

Look at the distance between the top of the garment and the inseam.

Here is the distance from the back (the top of the back of the pants to the inseam). This difference isn't so dramatic, but the tightness through the whole inseam pulls the whole rear of the pants much tighter. That's flattering to my buns of steel, I suppose, but it also means they ride down, and the boys don't have much room to swing free.

You know, it is easy to make fun of kids today with their pants falling down, or their low-riders that expose the butt crack. But maybe the kids aren't entirely to blame, if they can't buy pants that fit.

Anyway, it never really made sense for me, a middle-aged man, to shop at Old Navy; I always felt out of place there, even though I did like the way their jeans fit. This seals the deal, though. No more Old Navy for me.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Irish Whiskey Review: The Tyrconnell

So, I never really intended for this blog to become a beverage review blog. But if it is going to be a beverage review blog, it doesn't have to be only about Scotch whisky, even though Scots might consider me a turncoat! One of my Twitter peeps and fellow Jonathan Coulton fan Colleenky has been reading my reviews and recommended Knappogue Castle and The Tyrconnell; she claims she is "more of an Irish whisky girl" and leans towards the lighter and sweeter drinks. The only Irish whisky I've tasted to date has been Jameson, which is a blend and which I found unimpressive. But Ireland makes more than Jameson, and The Tyrconnell is inexpensive, so I thought it would be reasonable to buy a bottle. Besides, I'm getting sick of dealing with those little sample bottles.

The Tyrconnell has no age statement, but it is a single malt, and bottled at 40%. That's a bit light on the alcohol when compared to many scotch whiskies. "Single malt" means that it is made from only malt (that is, barley) from one distillery. It doesn't mean "single cask" or "single batch." According to the distiller's information they use copper pot still with large necks. I'm not a sophisticated enough connoisseur of whisky to know exactly what that does for the flavor, but there it is. It is aged in oak for "many years" -- presumably they taste it to determine when a cask is done and blend casks of different ages to try to achieve consistency.

In the glass, The Tyrconnell is a light straw-gold, quite pale and pretty. On the nose there is a little pungent alcohol burn, and a definite malty aroma -- it has a biscuity, cake-like scent. There's some aromatic citrus like lime and a touch of honey. It's a very appealing, gentle nose. Grace claims she noses fennel or licorice in it, but I don't really smell that. She also says there is something that reminds her of "vaseline, but not in a bad way."

On the tongue, there's an immediate sweetness and roundness that is very pleasant. Shortbread or biscuits are definitely up front, but there is more to it than that -- the finish is light on burn but long on pleasant citrus notes, like lemon taffy. There's something like tart green apples; there's yeasty breadiness, like ripping open a fresh baguette. There are apricots (sulfured, but the sulfur is not pronounced or unpleasant). And that mouth feel is really exceptional -- it's not oily exactly, but syrupy. This has one of the best mouth feels of any whisky I've tasted.

With water, the nose opens up and that malt and yeast become more pronounced, and I get an Irish oats flavor, as if I were chewing on some rolled oats. That vaseline feel on the tongue is even more pronounced and it reminds me of... wait for it... processed American cheese singles! (That's the slight petroleum-like flavor combined with something umami, like pickled plums or a faint whiff of soy sauce or fermented black beans). Now that's strange, but not unpleasant. Grace says "grassy, and nougat candy." It sounds like quite a confusing set of flavors, but it all harmonizes quite well, and in fact the reason it is possible to explore so many flavors in this whisky is because none of them are overwhelming. I actually prefer it with water, so try it both ways.

I was prepared for this Irish whisky to seem very unimpressive after the scotch whiskies I've been sampling, but in fact I think it is a very fine drink indeed, definitely "moreish" and I will happily taste it again and share it with my friends. It is notably different than any of the scotch bottlings I've tasted; if I had to pick one that it came closest to, it would be Glenfiddich 12, which has a lot of sweet and nutty flavors, or the Scapa, which is very honey-tasting, or even the Bunnahabhain 12, but it isn't really that close to any of them.

Once again, it never ceases to amaze me that barley and water and yeast can turn into such a wild and fascinating range of aromas and tastes. I give this one an 8.5 because of its clean and intriguing flavors. Grace rates it the same.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenfiddich 18

Tonight's dram (well, half-dram; I'm splitting it with Grace) is the Glenfiddich 18. Earlier, I reviewed the Glenfiddich 12 and found it very tasty.

It's immediately obvious that this whisky is older -- it is a brownish amber, darker than the 12. The legs are not as pronounced. It's bottled at 43% alcohol. On the nose, I notice biscuits, yeast, tea, and an unusual and quite pronounced note of dark chocolate.

In the mouth, I get a little burnt orange, perhaps some walnuts, blackened toast, and coffee. It's only lightly warming, with a relatively short finish. The flavor seems slightly hollow to me: there's a little sweetness, that pronounced chocolate note, and then the burn on the back of the tongue, but it seems like it is missing something in the middle. I don't get any fruit out of this whisky, although reviews mention "dates" and I suppose they are there somewhere. None of the reviews I skimmed mentioned chocolate, oddly, and several mentioned peat; it's awfully light, if it is there, or maybe I just can't taste anything after last night's Laphroaig. The words I ran across most frequently included "subtle" and "mellow," and that it is. It seems to me that perhaps 18 years is too long for this whisky to stay in the cask, although that chocolate note is intriguing.

Water doesn't really improve this whisky, although it doesn't demolish the flavors either.

Grace gives this one an 8 -- she enjoys the bittersweet flavors and especially the finish. I give it only a 7; it's interesting, and doesn't have any off flavors, but just seems to be lacking a little something. It isn't "moreish" like the 12. I wish I liked it a little bit better. I'm looking forward to tasting the 15, which I expect to be somewhere in between the 12 and 18.

Scotch Whisky Review: Laphroaig Quarter Cask

Per Laphroaig's propaganda, they mature all their scotch whisky in first-fill bourbon casks and don't go in for a lot of long-term aging; their "standard" bottling is 10 years old. The 10-year, though, is chill-filtered, which purists claim removes some of the flavor. The quarter cask bottling is an attempt to get back to a Laphroaig as it might have tasted a hundred years ago, when smaller casks were used to transport the whisky on the backs of mules or pack-horses, and maturation times were not standardized. It is also bottled at 48%, which is 20% stronger than the Laphroaig 10.

The Quarter Cask is a ruddy gold color, coating the glass well, with long, rippling legs. On the nose is a substantial peat smoke blast, and the phenol (Listerine) flavor, but interestingly, it does not give a a big hit of rubbing-alcohol burn on the nose like some other whiskies do. Even so, that peat is acrid enough to make my eyes water. It's hard to get much more out of the nose when the peat is so strong, but there is a bit of orange and vanilla there to entice me to take a sip. As the glass warms up in my hand the sweetness on the nose becomes much more pronounced.

On the tongue it's smoke and peat and seaweed, like a campfire on the beach. It's warming but not burning, and the finish is enormously long. The candied oranges are definitely there, with some dark chocolate and marzipan, and maybe some toasted marshmallows; I'm reminded of chocolate-covered marshmallow puff cookies, or even Oreos. Strangely, I don't get any of the promised saltiness. There's some of that toasted coconut that I enjoy. Interestingly, it is the wood that provides the whisky with its vanilla notes. The Laphroaig propaganda says "The finish is very long and alternates between the wood sweetness and the classic phenolic 'peat reek' like waves on our shore." Long is an understatement -- like the Lagavulin, I'll still be tasting this whisky when I wake up tomorrow morning!

Grace decided that one sip was all she needed, and while she was impressed by the pungent flavors, and reports enjoying hints of the medicinal flavors, she does not enjoy their "full frontal assault." She noted licorice as one of the sweeter notes, but I don't taste it; that doesn't mean it isn't there, as I've certainly detected this in other whiskies. She says she believes it would be "an oustanding tonic for anyone with a respiratory illness." (When you consider the cool and damp climate of Islay and the likely ailments of the people who live there, the style of the whisky, as it was developed historically, begins to make a lot of sense!) She declines to give it a numeric rating, saying that it would be unfairly low because she dislikes this heavily peated style of whisky, and thus would not acknowledge its strengths.

I tasted it with a little water. It immediately becomes less syrupy, and hotter, the peaty flavors broadening out to creep down the throat and across the back of the mouth. It actually seems to damp down some of the sweet notes a bit, except for a vanilla malted-milkshake flavor on the finish that seems to intensify a bit, but the dried orange and lemon zest notes remain. If you like the peat a whole lot, try it with a little water; it won't kill the flavor. In fact, you might even like to try it with a little more water than you would normally add to a scotch whisky, keeping in mind that this one is considerably stronger than the Laphroaig 10 (96 proof!)

The Laphroaig 10-year at cask strength has been named "the best scotch whisky in the world" by Whisky magazine, and Laphroaig been granted a Royal Warrant by Prince Charles. Their whisky certainly has a lot of character; I'm pretty sure I could pick it out of a blind tasting, even against Caol Ila and Lagavulin. So, now comes the part where I admit that I'm going to have to go against the consensus of the reviews that I've read, and say that while I appreciate the character of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, like the Lagavulin, it is not entirely to my taste. I have to be in the right mood for all that smoke and peat; I don't gravitate to those flavors naturally, as some folks evidently do. But then again, I don't like only sweet flavors in a whisky; it's possible for a whisky to be too sweet and light for my taste. See my review of Scapa 14 for an example.

I like the smokey Islay whiskies more than I used to, but I doubt this style will ever be my favorite. I do have to compliment the Laphroaig people for making a whisky that I find to be more palatable if, still a bit challenging. It's interesting to me that in trying to create something that more accurately reflects their older whiskies, they're also (perhaps unintentionally) conceding a bit to my tastes. Perhaps it isn't just me, and they're finding the market for all-peat, all-the-time whiskies is not growing? Or maybe they've realized that in going for the peat explosion in recent years, they've unintentionally lost some of the other excellent qualities that used to make their whiskies more balanced? It's been some time since I've tasted the "standard" Laphroaig 10, and I probably won't be buying myself a bottle, but it would be interesting to compare it with the Quarter Cask.

I give the Laphroaig Quarter Cask an 8 out of 10, a half-point higher than the Lagavulin 16 since it is a little kinder to the palate. I'm told that the peaty whiskies are an acquired taste, and since I purchased a bottle, I'll definitely be tasting this one again, and sharing it with any adventurous friends who would like to try it. I may ultimately wind up with bottles of the Lagavulin 16 and Caol Ila 12 too, because of the intriguing similarities and differences between them, and my desire to share those two as well. But of these three peaty Islay whiskies the Caol Ila, which I gave an 8.0, remains my preference, and my favorite Islay malt of islay is still the Bunnahabhain 12, which I gave an 8.5, and which has no peat to speak of.

So, there you have it; it must be the Libra in me, that always strives for balance. I'm sorry this review came out a bit wishy-washy. I was hoping to either love it or bury it, but as it turns out, I merely drank it, and I'd drink it again, although perhaps not for a good long while. Maybe the next time I feel a sinus infection coming on...

This research, sadly, was not funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, and the author has not yet received a MacArthur Genius Award.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: The Balvenie Single Barrel 15

This is the second of three sample bottles of Balvenie bottlings that I got in a small boxed set. I've discovered that 50 milliliters isn't much when I split it with my wife! But it's enough to get a taste of a whisky.

The Balvenie Single Barrel 15 is a lovely gold in color, and sticks to the glass with an oily, almost waxy coating. There's a hint of oak on the nose, vanilla, caramel, cinnamon, and a bit of acrid smoke like burning leaves drifting in.

On the tongue the texture is thick and smooth; the whisky is hot and quite drying, but with a nice muscat sweetness, toasted coconut, and maybe even a touch of banana and licorice. There's quite a bit of honey. The sweetness lingers, with a long, yeasty, shortbread finish. There's no peat, but there is some smoke. It's a very nice dram. Grace rates it an 8.5 out of 10, and I concur. I'm especially impressed by the way the heat is moderated by the syrupy texture and the blend of honey and oak; that makes it especially well-balanced and satisfying.

With just a splash of water, the malt and vanilla become more forward, and the heat recedes. Like many whiskies, it paradoxically seems drier in the mouth with a little water. That elusive black licorice note becomes more pronounced. It's definitely worth trying it both ways to bring out that flavor. I actually prefer this one wet. I would definitely consider buying a bottle; this one is mid-priced, as single malts go. All in all, a very fine whisky!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bourbon Review: Maker's Mark

So, just for kicks, Grace and I decided to taste a sample-size bottle of an American-made bourbon, Maker's Mark, and see how it struck us after all these lovely single malt scotch whiskies. Bourbon is an American whisky made from corn instead of barley, and by law all bourbon that is labeled as such must come from Kentucky. And yes, they spell it "whisky," instead of the more common American spelling "whiskey."

In the glass, Maker's Mark is a pale caramel color, with long legs. On the nose, the first impression is a pungent alcohol burn, almost like moonshine or slivovitz ; this isn't a terribly smooth drink, despite their claims. The main flavor note is vanilla, although there is a little bit of a floral note -- maybe rose or carnation. Grace says "light Karo syrup." There's some oak, a little bit of char like burnt toast, and a bit of a licorice-like anise flavor. The finish is long and a little bit sour-tasting.

If you add a bit of water, the burn smooths out and the flavor opens up -- there is some apple and pear in evidence, although the flavor never gets complex.

Grace and I only give this a five on our ten-point scale. With water, it deserves a six. It would make a good mixer, and I wouldn't turn it down over ice and certainly not in certain mixed drinks, but there are much better things to savor after dinner.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenfiddich 12

Tonight we tasked a depressingly small sample bottle of Glenfiddich 12. The color of this one is a very pretty light gold; it's got a little less cling on the glass than some, and forms legs quickly. I had never tasted a Glenfiddich before and it was a treat.

On the nose, the first thing I notice is a big hit of toffee. It never ceases to amaze me that these are just made with malted barley, sometimes peat to smoke and dry it, and water, and the various types of casks, and that's about it. And suddenly you've got butter pecan ice cream. This has the most pronounced buttery aroma and flavor of any whisky I've tasted. Think baking homemade chocolate chip cookies, and pecan pie. There are some delicate floral notes hiding in there -- maybe a bit of rose; Grace suggested lavender. Think baclava flavored with rose water and made with a light, grassy and fruity olive oil.

On the tongue this whisky has a pleasant burn, with a little burnt toast and black pepper, a little drying but not unpleasantly hot. If I had some more I'd try it wet, but alas, I did not; I'd expect a little water to bring out a slight saltiness and emphasize some of the fruit and nut flavors. There's not a lot of oak to speak of.

The balance is excellent. It would be an excellent first scotch for beginners, while still providing a suite of very pleasant and rich flavors for more experienced tasters. Despite the sweetness, I don't think it need be reserved entirely as dessert drink; it would also make a nice aperitif.

Some of the other reviews I read of this whisky mentioned vanilla, apple, pear, coconut, and honey. I'll go along with the coconut, especially if it is toasted, but the fruit flavors are softened and sweetened -- not like the crisp and tart apples in the Bunnahabhain 12, but more like applesauce with a touch of cinnamon, or apple pie with a butter crust.

Grace gives this one an 8.5, while I give it an 8. Looking at prices, it appears that this one is quite inexpensive as these things go, which makes it a terrific bargain. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that since it is inexpensive, popular, and produced in large quantities, that it isn't also very good -- this one really is a very appealing and "moreish" whisky, if a little simple. I'm looking forward to comparing it to the Glenfiddich 15 and 18.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenmorangie Nectar d'Or

This "expression" of Glenmorangie is aged in Sauternes casks. Sauternes is a French dessert wine, made from white grapes, with a sweet and tart flavor. This bottling is a pale yellow-orange, with a syrupy consistency that clings to the glass.

On the nose, there's a lot of citrus and sweet flavors, primarily lemon custard, a hint of lime, caramel candy, and a malted vanilla milk shake. Instead of apple flavors like those that the Bunnahabhain 12 offers, on this one we get pear and coconut notes. It has a wonderful mouth feel, and a nice lingering heat on the palate, with a bit of of nutmeg but very light on the oak. On the finish it reminds me of a cinnamon and sugar donut, or an almond croissant.

Blended with a little water, it gets hotter and the creaminess backs off, revealing more orange, and the sweet notes become more like brown sugar and toffee. Try adding just a touch of water; I think it makes this one slightly better.

Overall, it's a very tasty beverage, but so oriented towards sweet flavors that it is pretty much exclusively a dessert drink. I wouldn't make it a regular dram for that reason and the flavors are enticing but not very deep or complex, and don't evolve on the mouth. I give it a 7.0.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: The Balvenie PortWood 21

We have only a small 50 ml tasting bottle of this scotch, and I just poured it. Even letting the glasses breathe, I can already tell from the aroma wafting my way that this one is going to be interesting.

The color is a nice amber -- it's actually similar to a the color of tawny port, but perhaps with a little more red. It is thick and leaves nice legs on the glass. On the nose, there's a citrus sharpness, like lemon oil, honey, vanilla, and a rich perfume of oak and port. It's a gorgeous, thick aroma... I'm almost tempted to just keep smelling it and skip tasting it. (Well, almost, but not quite!)

On the tongue, it's quite a potent, "hot," drying flavor, but the burn is pleasant. I'm hoping it will help keep me free of viruses this flu season. There's a whole set of peppery, spicy flavors I'm having trouble unpacking -- cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg. I'm not getting much in the way of floral tastes, but that's OK. There is plenty to keep both the nose and tongue occupied as it is!

I'd explore the taste with a little water added, but I can't bring myself to do it! There's just not enough in that little 50 ml bottle, especially split with my wife, to risk ruining it.

Some of the professional reviews I skimmed noted toasted nuts, and I can agree with that, and also notes a flavor of armagnac. I agree -- a nice armagnac is filled with vanilla and caramel notes while also providing a little heat and spice, and this whisky does just that. They also mention "cedar," and I guess that's fair, although I'm not sure I can really distinguish my aromatic woods. Maybe I need to do some homework.

Grace gives this one an 8 -- she is somewhat turned off by the "burn." I think it's incredibly nicely balanced and I don't mind the burn -- because it isn't as overpowering and doesn't stick in the mouth as much as the Lagavulin 16, where the peat and iodine really stay with you. I give this one a nine. I probably wont' be tasting it again anytime soon, unfortunately -- full bottles of this whisky are expensive, ringing up at around $100. But still -- maybe someday!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: The Singleton of Glendullan

This one is going to be brief. The Singleton is an inexpensive single malt scotch whisky, as these things go; it goes for about $36 here in Michigan. Can a lower-cost dram compete? The answer, as usual, is "it depends." Are you looking for an exciting drink that will shock or titillate or intrigue your tongue? Then look elsewhere. But if you're looking for a dram that is just plain very good, then my answer is yes, the Singleton is an excellent bargain and holds its own against some single malts that cost two or even three times as much.

This is a bottling from the Glendullan distillery in Speyside, a coastal region of Highland Scotland that is dense with distilleries. It's a 12 year old whisky. Even without reading the notes on this one, it's pretty obvious from the color and the nose that it was finished in sherry casks, but the literature on this one indicates that it also spent some time in bourbon casks.

On the nose: orange, honey, vanilla, malt, hazelnut, and oak. A professional review I consulted notes "sandalwood," and that helps clarify that faint floral, perfume-like note that I was unable to identify. In the mouth, the texture on the tongue is very smooth and oily. The burn in the mouth is warm and pleasant, not overbearing, and there are no big surprises -- there's nothing in the mouth that wasn't there in the nose. The finish is not overly drying.

This whisky holds up well to a little water, and it brings out some of the drier notes, especially the dry sherry, oak, and date flavors. (Grace says "pine nuts.") I found it pleasing either way.

While sweet, this whisky is not as sweet as the Scapa, which I found slightly cloying. The flavor is very nicely balanced and soothing, without any notes that seem out of place. Grace and I agree that this one would make an excellent regular dram after dinner or before bed. It gives a very warming, appealing blend of flavors. And because it doesn't "show off" like some of the other whiskies with big or very complex flavors, I don't have much more to say about it. Grace and I both give it an 8 out of 10.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Glenmorangie La Santa

The La Santa is an "expression" of Glenmorangie -- that seems to be the recent term of art for taking a mature whisky and putting it in a particular type of cask to age again for a short while, in order to impart some additional flavors. In this case, the casks are casks that previously held sherry (a style of Spanish wine made from white grapes and fortified with brandy). Therefore, it is comes as no surprise that this whisky has a reddish-gold color. On the nose, there is a bit of light alcohol burn -- surprisingly light for a whisky bottled at 46% alcohol -- and a strong sherry aroma, together with a bit of oak, lime, and vanilla. There is no smoke, peat, salt, or iodine that I could notice.

In the mouth, this scotch is smoothly textured, quite sweet, and creamy, with what Grace called an "agreeable" burn -- milder than some other whiskies. The flavors remind me of a malty sweet biscuit, or maybe a vanilla sandwich cookie. There's something reminiscent of a marshmallow held in the fire too long, and a citrus note -- is it lime? Or maybe Seville orange marmalade on burnt toast? There is a slightly bitter plastic or burnt flavor similar to the one I noted in the Scapa, and a professional taster would probably know what to call it, but I don't. There is something slightly inharmonious -- like drinking orange while tasting lime peel, as if two of the fruity notes were clashing. I wish I could describe it better than that, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

There is a mildly drying oak in the moderately long warm finish. Water does not improve this whisky, diluting pretty much all the flavors. Grace called the sherry flavor "maple syrup," and gave it an 8.5. I give it an 8. Altogether a very nice whisky, but that slight disharmony between flavors makes me downgrade it just slightly. It isn't quite as "moreish" as the Bunnahabhain, to my taste, but still a very nice dram.

We have two more "expressions" of Glenmorangie to taste: the Quinta Ruban (with a port finish) and Nectar D'Or (with a Sauternes finish). Of course, it wouldn't be fair to taste them without also comparing them to the original Glenmorangie. We'll be tasting all of them over the next few days.

Scotch Whisky Review: Scapa 14

Scapa is from the Mainland (the biggest island) of the Orkney archipelago -- so it's an island malt, but not an Islay. This is not my first experience with Scapa -- I tasted a Scapa bottling years ago, and liked it enough to buy a bottle a few years back. I haven't pulled it out very often, though, and this is the first time I've tried to coherently rate and evaluate this whisky.

In color, this malt is a nice light gold; it's moderately syrupy, clinging slightly to the glass. On the nose, I first notice a fairly powerful alcohol burn, and a very noticeable sweet cake and vanilla icing flavor, with a touch of honey and oak. There is something faintly unpleasant underneath -- I wrote down "burnt plastic," and I saw another reviewer note "rubber tires." Fortunately it isn't very powerful.

On the tongue, this whisky is syrupy-sweet while very drying, with a hot burn and a short finish. I note something herbal, like sage, a flavor like Keemun (English breakfast) tea, a note of hazelnut, notes of dates, orange peel, and unsweetened chocolate. Scapa is often associated with the phrase "heather honey," and I get the honey, but am not sure I'd know what heather tastes like if it bit me. That's probably the herbal, floral note that I'm calling sage. Whatever you call it, it's somewhat subtle, like the other flavors. Some other reviews I found noted a definite pineapple flavor, and I can agree with that, but it reminds me of pineapple juice rather than the fruit itself.

I tasted it after adding a little water, and was disappointed -- the flavors weaken, and the burnt, bitter notes become more apparent. There's a salty-sweet meaty pickled plum note, which I'll just call "umami," that becomes more apparent -- another reviewer noted this as the dried seaweed used to wrap sushi, which I'd say is pretty accurate. In any case, it doesn't really get better with water added -- this whisky is better neat.

This dram is pleasant enough, but its flavors are rather mild, and while some of the flavors are interesting and it is well-balanced, it isn't layered with flavors like the Islay malts. I don't enjoy the sweet notes now, at 42, as much as I did when I was in my twenties. Note that this would be a great first single malt to taste, if you aren't sure if you'll like the peat and smoke characteristic of most of the Islay malts.

Because of the mildness of the flavors, and the predominance of sweetish flavors to the exclusion of most others, my overall rating is only a 7 out of 10. (Grace says 6.5). Scapa now sells a 16 year old bottling which I'm curious to taste. I'm also looking forward to comparing this with an Aberlour.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Bunnahabhain 12

About fifteen or sixteen years ago, I had a flight of scotch whiskies at Ashely's pub in Ann Arbor. It was one of my first experiences with single malts. I don't remember exactly which ones I tasted, but I'm pretty certain that there was a Scapa, an Aberlour, a Talisker, and a Bunnahabhain.

The Bunnahabhain, which I'm told is pronounced "Boona-hahvin," stood out from the rest because it was a milder whisky, with very little heat or harshness, and also because of its exceptionally smooth, oily mouth feel, almost like peanut oil, and nutty flavors. So I have a bottle, and now that I'm a few years older and, I hope, wiser, and I've tasted a few more whiskies, it's time to put this one in context.

Bunnahabhain is quite different from the other Islay malts we've just tasted. On the nose tonight my first impression was almond. There's a little tang of salt in the background, and no peat or smokiness to speak of. With a few more sniffs the flavor of green apples becomes evident, and that flavor stays in the finish -- not a cider, but more like a tart sparkling apple juice. There's a wonderful almond flavor, reminiscent of marzipan, and toasted coconut, and vanilla, but I don't pick up a lot of herbs or flowers. It's evocative of pumpkin pie spice. There's a nice warming heat, but it isn't overly drying. The sip fades out on a little bit of oak, but the tart apple flavor stays with you. There's just the slightest fresh pepperiness, like Nasturtium, or ground white peppercorns.

Adding a splash of water to this malt changes the character rather dramatically -- the apples recede into the background, but the sweetness is ramped up, reminding me of toffee, and suddenly it's a salty scotch. It's a bit like a Pearson's Salted Nut Roll! There's also a touch of peat that was almost absent before. Grace tells me that to her it gets some of that slightly unpleasant Islay assertiveness, what she calls "rubbing alcohol." The flavors don't collapse with a little water, but do become quite different, so try it both ways.

Grace rates this one a nine. I'll give it an 8.5. It's definitely "more-ish" -- it makes you want to taste it again. Despite having tasted many more whiskies since my first experiences with single malts, this remains one of my absolute favorites, and not merely for nostalgia value.

Update: tasting this again last night, with a clear head, it is evident that there is a little bit of peatiness to the Bunnahabhain 12. Also, The cork tore apart, and I had to remove it with a corkscrew, and replace it with a different one that doesn't fit quite so well. I'd better finish this bottle soon! It's a few years old; it would be useful to compare it to the latest Bunnahabhain 12 bottling, since despite the best efforts of the distilleries the bottlings do change over time, and sometimes even for the better.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Talisker 10

Talisker is not technically an Islay scotch; the distillery is on the Isle of Skye. However, it may as well be -- the style is quite similar to the Caol Ila and the Lagavulin. Grace and I tasted the ten-year-old bottling.

The color is a medium-pale amber. It coats the glass nicely, clinging in sheets and leaving a "high-water mark," and gradually forming thready legs. On the nose, I pick up a light smoke, a bit of iodine, a little spark of sour lemon candy, and a sweet something in the back of the throat -- maybe shortbread, and vanilla icing.

The first sip has a wonderfully smooth mouth feel, although not really oily like some of the oily and nutty malts. I get an initial impression of smoke, very warming and drying. On the second sip: nice butterscotch. Some of the less pleasant flavors are evident, too: there's a bit of lighter fluid and charcoal, but these are in the background. After the Caol Ila my tongue is hunting for more complex flavors, but not finding much else to report. I'm not getting much that is floral or fruity. The finish is a lingering driftwood fire, but not overpowering, with a little hint of leather and perhaps spearmint. The finish is quite long and this dram leaves your mouth dry; I might need a glass of water in a few minutes.

A little bit of water doesn't hurt the Talisker -- it smooths out the drink, reducing the burn and the dryness, but it doesn't seem to reveal anything new. Try it both ways and see what you think.

Grace didn't care for this scotch very much, noting rubbing alcohol, caramel, yeast, and toasted bread. She dislikes the extended burn of the Islay scotches, in particular criticizing the smoke and the iodine.

Grace rates this scotch a seven. I rate it a 7.5 -- I think it's quite approachable and pleasant and wouldn't pass up the opportunity to drink it again, but there are more appealing whiskies out there in the price range. If you are not brand new to Scotch but have never tasted the Islay malts, this would be a good introduction, followed by the Caol Ila and the Lagavulin (going in order of how "challenging" they are to the palate).

Some Other Scotch Geeks

I found that the ScotchCast also reviewed the same two drams that I just completed -- the Lagavulin 16 and Caol Ila 12. I have not listened to their reviews yet, but I'm about to!

On Top of Old Smokey

Beating the High Price of Scotch Whisky

You may have found yourself wondering how it is that I'm casually reviewing these scotches -- after all, the Lagavulin 16 goes for $45 to $70 a bottle, the Caol Ila from $35-60, and you'll be seeing several more reviews including Talisker, Bunnahabhain, Highland Park, four Glenmorangie bottlings, Scapa, and perhaps some others. Did I buy all those bottles for the reviews?

The answer is no. I do have some whole bottles -- some of them I've had for five years or more, and some I bought in the past year or so. I certainly wouldn't be able to buy more than a bottle or two in a typical month's budget. But here is is a tip -- you can often find smaller bottles in gift sets, and these sets are often heavily discounted. This is a great way to taste multiple kinds of whisky without paying out for a whole bottle. And if you do want to buy a whole bottle -- shop around! Prices vary widely.

The Lagavulin, the Caol Illa, and Talisker are all from this Isles of Scotland box set of 200 ml bottles, which will make three or four glasses each. It cost me only a fraction of the price the site listed, and I found it at Stadium Market. They also have a boxed set of Glenmorangie bottlings, in 100 ml bottles, and I'll be reviewing them together. 100 ml is only a couple of glasses, but it's enough to get a good taste, and costs less than a single bottle of any of the four varieties. In fact, if you find that you like all the bottles in a boxed set, there's nothing saying you can't come back and buy another set -- figure out how to get the most bang for the buck for what matters to you, whether that is variety or quantity.

I will be keeping my eye out for more tasting-size bottles. I wish more distilleries would release their malts in the 200 ml size. I'd happily buy a half-dozen of these at a pop in order to taste a variety, and probably buy then buy one full bottle of the one I liked best.

It's interesting how very individual tastes are. The saying goes "there's no accounting for taste." This phrase is sometimes used to insult someone's poor taste, but I think what it really means is that it is impossible to account for, or justify or explain your taste preferences in a way that someone else is likely to find convincing; you're entitled to like what you like, and dislike what you dislike, and it may be ultimately inexplicable.

I was considering this while I was deciding what number rating to give the Lagavulin 16. Do I think I know better than the critics who give this a much higher rating? No. Grace and I agree that it is an amazing drink, fascinating, savory, intriguing -- but we also agree that while we'd love to explore it at a tasting, it is not the one we'd prefer to drink with modest regularity for dessert or before bed. She was also expounding on pairings. The Lagavulin would stand up to pairing with a cigar -- but I don't smoke. If you're looking for something to accompany a cigar, the Lagavulin might do it for you. On the other hand, we love Maya Gold chocolate, and I think the Caol Ila would probably taste very fine with a square of that chocolate. So consider the ratings to be "to my palate," and not necessarily yours.

Did I mention that Stadium market also makes fantastic pizza and egg salad roll-up sandwiches, and stocks great chocolates? I have not had great luck with their featured wines -- they have uniformly been somewhat disappointing for the price -- but if they would stock Red Bull Cola, my life would be complete. But perhaps it is best that they don't!

UPDATE: I stopped by Stadium Market today, and they had small "trio" boxed sets of 50 ml sample bottles of 3 Balvenie bottlings, including a 21-year-old port cask aged whisky that I'm looking forward to tasting. They also had a nice little set of 3 different ages of Glenfiddich. So we we will be tasting those in the near future too! And what's that hiding in the photo? Could that be a blended Irish Whisky? Hmmm...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Scotch Whisky Review: Caol Ila 12

I've asked my wife Grace to join in with me in reviewing another whisky from Islay. So, tonight we're enjoying Caol Ila (pronounced, I'm told, "Cull Eela.")

Caol Ila is a pale amber dram, considerably lighter in color than the Lagavulin 16 I reviewed yesterday. On the nose, Grace reports a citrus tang (as in Tang, the fruit drink; I'm calling it Mandarin orange, which Grace says is "grilled.") She commented on the legs and the syrupy texture (but this Scotch is not oily), and says it reminds her of a nice white wine.

There's a light and pleasant smokiness, but it's not overpowering. Grace reports charcoal and an anise (licorice-like) flavor. There are modest notes of caramel and vanilla. There isn't much iodine or sea salt to speak of. The burn is mild, and the oaky, peaty, smoky finish is long and dry, tempered by some bittersweet spices, like nutmeg (Grace says cinnamon, I say bittersweet chocolate -- Grace suggests that it reminds her of Maya Gold chocolate, produced by Green & Black's, which is flavored with nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, and orange -- and I concur! There's quite a strong resemblance.)

It's altogether very nicely integrated and pleasant. Grace gives it an 8. I'll agree with that -- it's flavors are milder and not as big and robust and showy as the Lagavulin, and that makes it more approachable and more suitable for regular sipping. It's not my go-to dram, the first one I think about when I contemplate having a glass of whisky, but it will definitely be on my short list.

Scotch Whisky Review: Lagavulin 16

In the glass, it has a really lovely dark gold color. When I stick your nose in, the first thing I notice is a medicinal, rubbing-alcohol, maybe even pine resin or turpentine smell, with a hint of iodine. Warm it in my hand and breathe a little deeper, and it's a campfire of oak logs blowing across the beach, stinging my eyes a bit. This scotch has a big, big aroma.

What else can you get just from the nose? There's a little something like dry sherry. It's notably lacking in some of the sweeter aromas, like caramel, although there is a little bit of vanilla in there to sweeten it up just a touch; as I progress through the dram, slowly, there's a build-up of a sweetness on the back of the tongue that reminds me of sweetened condensed milk. I don't get anything floral from it. I can imagine a little orange, or maybe bergamot, or cherry, but maybe that's just my imagination. There's just a touch of saltiness, and the flavor they call "sea air" -- the iodine reek of seaweed. There's something like black peppercorns.

On the tongue, the texture is immediately striking -- this is an oily scotch, with a smooth feel across the tongue, almost like cream or honey, but dry, dry, dry, as if there were some bee venom in that honey, and it leaves a burn in my throat, cheeks, and tongue that warms and lasts. It's not that it is a terribly high-alcohol beverage; the 16-year-old is 43%, which isn't unusual, and I'm attached to a bourbon -- Knob Creek -- that is 50%, but feels much less punishing to the mouth.

The sensation of peat, and even charcoal briquets and lighter fluid, sticks with me, and I notice it even more as I exhale, taking my little breaks to make notes in between sips. In fact, this dram makes me wake up feeling like I've spent the night face-down in a bog. It will kill everything that used to live in my mouth, in a way that some of the gentler whiskies don't seem to do. And that's not really a good thing. The flavors stick with me so strongly that ten minutes after finishing my dram, I'm still studying the flavors.

This isn't my favorite scotch. It consistently gets high ratings, but while I love the oily smoothness and smoke, the sting and the long-lasting charcoal and peat are a little much. Adding a little water -- not too much -- reduces the burn a little, and I get a little more vanilla, but it doesn't really open up any hidden flavors or reveal anything the way it works in some scotch whiskies. Lagavulin 16 is better straight.

Going against the scotch whisky critic consensus, I give it only an 7.5 out of 10. If you're having a tasting, it's definitely an iconic and intense scotch and you must include it. It's very good at being big and intense and I do love that oily texture and smokiness, but the lingering burn and peaty dryness in the throat means it's probably not the one I will turn to often when I'm looking for a little something before bed; it's just too much.

Lagavulin is distilled on Islay. Next time, I'll taste Caol Ila, also from Islay, and then maybe Bunnahabhain, and compare the three different Islay whiskies. I don't have any Laphroaig on hand, but maybe I'll see if I can pick up a bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask.

Spoiler: Bunnahabhain is one of my all-time favorites, although it doesn't seem to get the press and high numbers that some of the better-known malts get. Maybe we can talk about why that is.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Soundflower Back from the Dead?

I note that over on Google Code the maintainers of Soundflower seem to again be responding to bug reports and have released updates -- the latest .dmg is 1.5.1 as of this writing.

See the Google Code site.

I have downloaded 1.5.1 but have not yet tested it to determine if the particular issues I was having seem to be fixed. They were not explicitly addressed (that is, those issues were not touched in the bug tracking database), but at least I can hope.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Deejaying with Jack

So, last night I did a deejay set over ustream and got to test out Jack for Mac. It performed very well -- so far, I'm glad that I dumped Soundflower and installed Jack.

It is a little more complicated to set up, and I had some hung applications until I figured out the sequencing that is required.

The short form of what I'm trying to do is as follows:

1. I have a Vestax VCI-300 DJ controller. It is a sound card; it has audio outputs, and I want to play music through those outputs.

2. Those audio outputs then have to go back into my Apogee Ensemble to feed a pair of inputs.

3. From those inputs, I want to send the digital audio to the Ustream web application for streaming.

First off, it would be nice if I could do this a little more directly -- route digital audio out from the ITCH software to the Ustream web app. The VCI-300 is a combination controller and sound card; basically, it is a big MIDI controller, with jog wheels and faders and knobs and lots of buttons. Rather than a 5-pin MIDI connector, though, it sends this data over USB along with audio data. It is also a sound card, primarily driving a stereo main output and a stereo cue output (normally sent to headphones), but also a microphone input and an extra input for a turntable or iPod.

The problem is, It is integrated tightly with Serato ITCH. This is kind of a blessing and a curse. The tight integration makes the package work really well, but it also means that when I use ITCH to play music from my library, the only audio routing option available to me is to send it it back into the analog realm, out the the 1/4" or phono outputs of the VCI-300.

That's great if what you want to do is a live show, but what if you want to do further processing on the audio in the digital domain? With no settings for an alternative audio output software in ITCH, what this means is that you need to send the signal back to another sound card -- in this case, my Ensemble's inputs 5/6.

The Ensemble does a great job with these inputs -- it realizes that I'm plugging in TS, not TRS, cables, and sets the input level to +4 dB, not -10 dB. The input level seems to be pretty well-calibrated: sending out full-scale audio from the VCI-300 seems to saturate the input level nicely, without clipping.

So, the next step is to route audio from the Ensemble input 5/6 to Ustream. That works if I feed audio into the Ensemble front-panel inputs 1 and 2, but it appears that I can't get the Ustream application to listen to any inputs other than 1 and 2. I Using inputs 1 and 2 is not a good solution because if I want to add live guitar or bass, I'll need those inputs; they are the only two that can accept a Hi-Z guitar signal. I'll keep an eye out for a way to get inputs 5/6 up to Ustream, but meanwhile, I can route the audio with Jack, and that's what I want to talk about.

The process is as follows: first, make sure everything else is in order and that the Ensemble inputs are showing the analog signal coming in. You'll need to have Jack installed. Then, run the JackPilot application. This provides a little GUI that allows starting, stopping, configuring, and changing routings on the Jack server. Before starting the Jack server, I choose the Preferences command. That brings up the preferences window:

Note that the Ensemble is set up with 8 inputs and 8 outputs, and Jack detects this automatically (other configurations are possible; use Maestro to set it up differently). There are two virtual inputs and two virtual outputs. Note that Jack is not a CoreAudio device itself, but it interfaces with a CoreAudio device, which shows up as JackRouter.

Now, I start the Jack server by pressing "Start." On my 8-core Mac Pro, Jack uses a tiny fraction of the available CPU:

Next, I configure the Ustream broadcast console and select, as the audio input, JackRouter. The JackPilot routing screen will now show send and receive ports for Safari. This interface is rather confusing, but the idea is that you want to send inputs 5 and 6 from "system," which seems to correspond to the Ensemble, to the Safari out1 and out2. (Why it also has inputs, I don't know). To do this, you select the output (the send port), and double-click the corresponding input to make it turn red:

Now that this connection is made, audio is routed from the VCI-300 to the Ustream web application. This is a bit convoluted, but I am pleased to report that once configured, everything worked perfectly for a number of hours -- no glitches, no degradation or stuttering.

Now, yesterday I was able to get this all working together with my iSight camera, but unfortunately today the camera wouldn't work, so something is not quite right. In this case I was able to just unplug it and plug it back in, and all seems to be well. But with two FireWire devices (the iSight and the Ensemble), plus the VCI-300 USB device, there are lots of possible points of failure and I've grown to expect a slight flakiness. You may find, for example, that you have to start up or connect your devices in a specific order. For example, if the Ustream broadcast console is not running before you open up the routing options, Safari will not appear as an output.

Next time I want to see if I can get the AudioUnit plug-ins to work to interface Logic and Jack. That offers some interesting options for live performance.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Jack for Mac

So, in previous articles I've written about Soundflower and how I was able to use it to route audio between Mac applications. Well, it appears that Soundflower is, if not dead, at least on hiatus; the developers are not answering bug reports, and the preliminary reporting says that it is not compatible with Snow Leopard. So, the alternatives are to fix it, or find something else to use. I might still be able to scrape together enough time to see if I can get the thing compiling and dig into what is wrong with it, but with full-time work and four kids, that is far from guaranteed. So I did some spelunking and came across Jack.

Jack is a port of a Linux sound routing tool to Mac OS X. As such, it is a bit more command-line oriented. Instead of being a CoreAudio driver, it interfaces with a CoreAudio driver. Soundflower is a simple bus, of two or sixteen channels; Jack is much more configurable, allowing you to route audio in all kinds of ways, even generating feedback loops if you care to.

It's also a little more complicated to configure. The routing user interface is not polished at all; in fact it is pretty far from intuitive. The GUI for editing audio routing is in desperate need of a patch bay-like editor, that works the way Apple's Audio MIDI Setup editor lets you draw wires between MIDI devices. But after a little head-scratching I'm pleased to report that it worked, and it worked really well, using a very small amount of CPU time. And it seems to have more options: I have not tried them yet, but there are plug-in adapters to let you route audio from inside Logic or other tools.

Jack for MacOS X is here:

I will in all likelihood be posting more about Jack in the very near future.

DVD Backup on Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5.7) with FairMount, VLC, and Apple's Disk Utility

So, let's say you have a legally purchased DVD you want to back up to a DVD+R DL. What's the best way to do it?

You can do it with a commercial tool, but a little bird told me that the cool Mac kids are using VLC and FairMount, which smears cream cheese on your DVD, or something. Wot?

Well, actually what it does is mount the disc as another virtual volume, which is decrypted on the fly by VLC, so that you can back it up.

Note that this (the "backing up," no the decrypting on the fly) may be technically illegal. There is a "fair use" exemption to copyright that should, in some sense, apply here, but I've also heard that copying a protected DVD was made explicitly illegal as part of the DMCA. I feel it is ethical to back up a disc which I paid for, especially with a house full of small children who can destroy a DVD in seconds flat, but the legal arguments are far too complicated for me to fully compile -- or even parse -- so I'll leave that to you.

In this post I showed one technique I had worked out for creating a backup of an unprotected video DVD that would then play on a home DVD player.

The situation with commercial encrypted DVDs is more complicated, but VLC 1.0 and Fairmount 1.0.4 seem to make it a lot less complicated.

I don't need to run VLC -- I just need to have it installed. I put in my commercial (encrypted) DVD, and then run FairMount. FairMount will unmount the original disc and mount a "fair" virtual disc that decrypts itself on the fly as you read it. I think it uses a library from VLC to do this. If Apple's DVD Player program started automatically when I put the DVD in, I quit it.

To just back up the DVD to video files that will play on the computer, I could just drag-copy the Fairmount-mounted volume to a folder on my hard drive. But what I want instead is an image file that I can use to burn a DVD+R DL -- with a correctly laid out UDF file system -- that my appliance DVD player can play.

I have a fresh stack of Verbatim 2.4x, just ready and waiting to turn into coasters -- let's go!

In my previous article, I described how I was unable to do something similar, using unencrypted content, with Disk Utility. But that was with a previous version of MacOS X. Disk Utility is, largely, a GUI wrapper on top of several Apple-supplied command-line tools. If it won't drive the command-line tools the way I want it to, I ought to be able to drop down and do it directly. But first, let's see if I can do it from the GUI, which many users might find easier.

When I run Disk Utility, I can see the mounted DVD twice: the DVD in the drive, and the virtual file system provided by Fairmount and VLC. I can just select the virtual file system, and make a new image. The format I want is "DVD/CD master." This ripping will take a while. Even though this machine has 8 cores, the DVD drive can only pull data off the spinning disc so fast. The bottleneck is the drive, not the processors. So, I'll be back after a cup of coffee.

Well, there was no coffee made so I had a wee dram of Lagavulin instead, and watched part of a video on mathematicians who went insane. But now I've got a .cdr file created by Disk Utility. I can mount it in the Finder as if it were a read DVD.

If I select the mounted volume and chose "Get Info," I see that it is a UDF (not HFS) file system, which is a good sign. I ought to be able to eject the decrypted volume provided by Fairmount and VLC, and the original DVD, and still play the new image using Apple's DVD player, using the "Open DVD Media..." menu item.

That works. This normally requires encryption keys that are on the original DVD's lead-in area, and it isn't present anymore, so this tells me the video in the image file has been successfully decrypted, and the DVD's data stored not just to a set of files, but to a mountable image file.

So now let's see if I can burn it for my home DVD player. The burning process has to produce a contiguous file system on the DVD media, since home "appliance" players need the data to be optimized in this way. I quit DVD player, open up Disk Utility, hit the "Burn" button, and tell it where the .cdr file is. I put in one of my DVD-R DL discs. It reads the disc to figure out what it can do with it. For the sake of reliability, I tell it to burn at 2.4x, and ask it to verify and eject. This also will take a while; at least an hour, so I'll be back after an errand!

OK -- errand run, and I've got my burned DVD-R DL; it passed verification and it mounts on my Mac. "Get Info" shows it to be of file system type UDF, and the Apple DVD player application plays it. But will my Sony DVD player play it? (One moment please...)

The answer: yes, it appears to work fine. Navigation, chapters, special features: all there! That's a lot easier than it was last time; no need to mess with DarwinPorts or fink or extracting a binary tool from an application. It just works! [FOOTNOTE 1]

Note that this technique won't let you put a commercial double-layer DVD onto a single-layer DVD-R. That ought to be obvious, but I just thought I should mention it. There are commercial tools (DVDRemaster, for example) which can do this, but they require re-encoding the files into smaller files and so the result is not a perfect copy of the original.

[FOOTNOTE 1] I made backups of 3 commercial DVDs. All of them passed verification on my Mac. On the Sony appliance DVD player, though, one of them seems to work perfectly, one freezes after the menu, and one has a single glitch that causes the video to freeze for a moment and the playback to skip forward ten seconds (although if you carefully back up nine seconds, you can see most of what it skips).

A fresh copy of the disc with the minor glitch worked fine. It seems that the Mac's SuperDrive is better at reading DVD+R DL discs than the Sony appliance player is. That's no great surprise, especially given that the Sony is seven or eight years old. It also seems that DVD+R DL media is just a little bit tetchier than pressed commercial discs. It is after all quite a complex technology, and relatively new; I burned a lot of coasters on one of the first available consumer CD-R drives, back when they were new. DVD+R DL discs are semi-transparent: the laser has to be able to focus and write on two different planes of dye material -- in other words, it has to be able to shine through the first layer without writing it to focus on the second layer. I'm still slightly amazed that they work at all.

For the other disc, the one that wouldn't play at all, a new copy from the image file didn't work either. It seems I must have done something wrong -- perhaps I didn't specify the correct image type? So I ripped a fresh image file tried again, following my own instructions. It worked, which means I burned three usable discs and two coasters out of five tries. Not great, but it could have been worse!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Dance Party Playlist, 11 July 2009

During our recent the Julian Woods Community in Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to deejay a little dance party, using my new Vestax VCI-300 and Yamaha STAGEPAS 300 PA system.

The party didn't go exactly as planned -- it was delayed due to a thunderstorm, which turned into violently blowing rain and lightning. We had to quickly shut down the power and pile everything into the center of the tent, and then try to dry it all out. I was nervous about wet equipment and the hundreds of feet of extension cords running into the tent; I was running around drying wet power strips and gear, and hanging the joints between extension cords off the ground to make drip loops, to try to make sure that no one would get electrocuted by a wet cord. But eventually we got it all looking reasonably safe, and I started the music. The STAGEPAS system performed admirably, with very clean sound and a decent amount of headroom in a portable system. A subwoofer would have been nice, but I could only fit so much gear in the van.

Crafting the playlist for this party was a bit of a challenge. I had a group with an extremely wide age range -- babies to elders. I had been handed a CD of mostly slower world-ish danceable stuff and asked to include some of it, and I had some general requests to play some "African stuff" and also some Motown, plus one guy who was a big, big Michael Jackson fan. Veronica was very adamant that I play the gummi bear song. (One of the funniest moments was mixing in that track, gritting my teeth a bit wondering how it was going to go over, and then looking up to see thirty people of all ages happily dancing along with my four-year-old girl). I had come up with what I thought were a couple of great sets, but then had to heavily revise the pre-planned set lists to accommodate the shortened schedule and some additional breaks for announcements, as well as last-second requests.

I was going to post my exact saved playlist, but apparently Serato ITCH has something I consider a rather severely broken feature. It saves what you've played in a "Review" window so you can keep track of what you've played. There is a "clear" button to let you empty the review window and start a new set. I was going to transcribe my set from the review window later, when I got a chance, but it appears the contents of the review window is not persistent between launches of the software. So I've lost the exact playlist. But here is my best recollection. The numbers in parentheses are the beats per minute, as calculated by ITCH. For the most part, the beats per minute gradually increase, except for the breaks for some slower songs. This allowed me to beat-match some of the transitions.

Joe Jackson: Steppin' Out (80)
Bob Marley and the Wailers: One Love/People Get Ready (Extended Version) (78)
The Police: One World (Not Three) (84)
Plan 9: Flaming Red Hair (from the Fellowship of the Ring Complete Score) (85)
Buckwheat Zydeco: Mardi Gras Mambo (84)
Lou Bega: Mambo No. 5 (87)
Boiled in Lead: Sher (95)
MC Yogi: Ganesh is Fresh (feat. Jal Uttal) (100)
Wyclef Jean: La Bamba (101)
Bee Gees: Stayin' Alive (Teddybears Remix) (102)
Baha Men: Dancing in the Moonlight (114)
Information Society: What's on Your Mind (Pure Energy) (118)
Michael Jackson: Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough (Single Version) (119)
The Archies: Sugar Sugar (Pistel Remix) (121)
Eddy Grant: Electric Avenue (122)
A:Xus: You Make Me Feel LIke (Peace and Love and Happiness) (124)


Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes: Up Where We Belong (70)
Crowded House: Don't Dream It's Over (82)
Enigma: Return to Innocence (88)
Angelique Kidjo: Sedjedo (Featuring Ziggy Marley) (100)
Erasure: A Little Respect (113)
Michael Jackson: Wanna Be Startin' Somethin' (Single Version) (122)
Basement Jaxx: Rendez-Vu (125)
Les Rhythms Digitales: Jacques Your Body (Makes Me Sweat) (126)


Spandau Ballet: True (97)
Johnny Clegg and Savuka: Dela (103)
Stevie Wonder: I Wish (106)
Lou Rawls: You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine (110)
Fatboy Slim: Praise You (110)
Sister Sledge: We Are Family (116)
Brainstorm: We're On Our Way Home (117)
Kool and the Gang: Celebration (Single Version) (121)
Gummibar: Ich Bin Ein Gummibar (German Version) (128)
Erick Morillo and Sacha Baron Cohen: I Like to Move It (from the Madagascar soundtrack album) (130)
Countdown Singers: Mamboleo (130)
Michael Jackson: Thriller (Single Version) (118)
Village People: Y.M.C.A. (Single Version) (126)
Basement Jaxx: Bing Bango (130)
Earth, Wind, and Fire: Boogie Wonderland (131)
Lou Rawls: Groovy People (134)
MC Yogi: Be the Change (Niraj Chag's Swara Mix) (95)
Roxy Music: Avalon (68)

I got a lot of compliments on the set. It was a lot of fun!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Garden, or, Renters Can't be Choosers

So, we have lived in our apartment home in Ann Arbor for eight years now. It's been a bit of an uneasy fit for our family. We've tried to maintain a garden. They throw weedkiller pellets in it. (On the days when we are told the lawn care company is coming to kill weeds, we put up signs begging them not to throw weed killer on our flowers and vegetables; they do so anyway). They throw rock salt in it. Just a week or so ago, they tore out a bunch of sunflowers and put down wood chips, apparently thinking our flowers were weeds.

Originally, it was getting torn up by the snowplow every winter, and because of the poor drainage it was literally being washed away in each heavy rain. Actually, our neighbor's garden was downhill, so it was the recipient of our soil improvements.

So, Grace built a wooden raised bed for the garden. They knocked that apart with the snowplow repeatedly and we eventually gave up trying to repair it.

So, Grace built this raised bed of concrete blocks. Last summer in addition to herbs and small flowers in the bed, we grew beans, using a bamboo teepee that Grace built. Naturally the children love to work in the garden. The bed has been here for over a year.

They even managed to knock the cinder blocks out of position with the snow plow, although it was repairable.

Now they're trying something different. We got a letter saying that our garden, where we grow our flowers and foods, and teach our kids about seeds and plants, does not meet the aesthetic standards of the new apartment complex owners, and so we have to remove our bean trellis and raised bed. Which effectively means we have to demolish our garden, with the flowers starting to bloom and the bean plants getting ready to start climbing the trellis.

There are a few things about the apartment complex and the way it has been managed and maintained that don't meet my aesthetic standards, such as the disintegrating balcony that is unsafe to use, the poor ventilation in the bathroom, the mold in the ceiling, the flooding in the basement, and the wiring that is prone to bursting into flames, not to mention the occasional psychotic neighbor and the leak in my son's bedroom roof that took six months to repair and eventually resulted in the ceiling coming down on top of him. But I guess we're renters, and renters can't be choosers. As long as the outside of the building looks uniform and recently painted, who cares that it is disintegrating? At least management can harass us for whatever minor infractions the neighbors are committing right along with us, and (per our straw poll) not being harassed for.

I'm sure management could get some nice, drunken undergrads in here, and they'd be much happier. Maybe they'd even last a little longer than the last batch who were, I think, evicted in under two months.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I Shot Veronica in Her Pajamas. How She Got in Her Pajamas, I'll Never Know

She's as tall as an eight-year old. It's hard to believe she is only four. Until she throws a tantrum, that is.

Woonion '09, Part 2

I took a lot of photos of people, but to be honest, I don't want to upload a whole bunch of shots of people I only knew a little bit. Also, a lot of my friends were actually class of '90 or '91. Here are three of my closer friends from college who were at Wooster with me for the reunion. David Lewellen:

Bill Louth:

And Diane, who carried the '89 banner along with Veronica, seen here in front of the rennovated Kauke Hall:

We stayed in Douglass 105:

Woonion '09, Part 1

I attended the College of Wooster's reunion weekend; I graduated with the class of 1989, twenty years ago. This time I went back with 3 of the 4 kids. Grace had a business meeting she had to attend out of state, so she took Joshua. I brought Isaac, Sam, and Veronica, along with a sitter to help free up some of my time so that I could actually catch up with friends.

Despite the sitter -- I'm not used to working with a sitter -- having the young children with me the whole time was a bit difficult, particularly the long car ride and trying to get them to sleep in the evenings. Veronica loves to be the center of attention, whether you want her to be or not. Sam loves to wander off. It didn't help any that I had to stay up half the night on Thursday night to get ready and to help Grace get ready.

A little bit of alcohol and caffeine were de rigeur -- the caffeine helped me drive there and back safely, and the alcohol helped me get to sleep with 25 international students partying in the lounge next to my room.

Beall Avenue in Wooster is completely torn up and semi-closed to traffic. This is the view across to Lowry Center.

Lowry has not changed much:

The stairwell up to the dining hall looks just like it did 20 years ago.

The kids had a good time in spite of everything. Here are Veronica and Sam finally asleep in Douglass 105!

More photos to come.

The Kids in Saginaw

At their grandmother's house.

I Love Windows (Not)

This isn't really the operating system's fault: it's most likely a crashing driver for a USB device. On second thought, putting USB device drivers inside the kernel is the operating system's fault. Whose idea was _that_?

These crashes always seemed to happen when I was most desperate to finish a build of the DSP firmware I was debugging.

The corrupt iTunes library could be Apple's fault, or a side effect of Windows dying horribly right in the middle of some kind of library update. Well, come to think of it, if your program's data files can be totally demolished by a single crash, that doesn't speak well of your data design and error recovery.

The hard drive doesn't seem to be failing as such, although because Windows hides such errors very thoroughly, it can be hard to tell.

Joshua and the Pickle

Joshua's first official solid food (what he chose to eat, and kept gnawing on) was a dill pickle spear, yesterday, 15 June 2009. We've tried him on bits of rice and bread and things like that before, but they usually came back out.

Work Hours and the Quest for an Even Keel

So, for the last couple of months I've been working an enormous amount of overtime -- and for a while I was commuting to Lansing along with my 12-16 hour days. I haven't added it all up, but I'm pretty sure there were some 80 to 90 hour weeks in there. If I were able to take the overtime as straight comp time, I'd have a couple of weeks off. That won't happen, but I may be able to get a couple of days.

Thankfully, we have mostly shipped our product -- at least the test builds and the prototype hardware. We are getting away from our frantic scramble -- worried that the fate of the entire project might hinge on some intractable hardware or software bug -- and back to a more normal pace of development, which will mostly involve bug fixes and clarifications to the specs.

Yesterday I worked only eight hours. It was a remarkable feeling, driving home while it was still light out. I took baby Sam for a walk, and realized I'd almost forgotten how to interact with my children. The evening seemed really long, and that was only partly because it's almost midsummer. I'd gotten used to work being such a preponderance of my waking hours that I wasn't used to having any to use for much of anything else.

I'm not going to spend all that new-found time blogging, but I'll try to catch up a little.

Here's to the adjustment back to having a life!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Assholes of Michigan

Michigan has some of the worst drivers in any state I've ever driven in. Here are some of the, failing to merge after the third "left lane closed ahead -- merge right" sign -- and causing traffic to back up for miles.

Some say the state flower of michigan is the traffic construction barrel. I say no, it's the asshole.

I was hoping that I'd be able to capture license plates, but my little Motorola cell phone camera is just too crappy. (Also, its color is _way_ off).

The little butt-munch in the small black car -- I think it was a matrix or something -- was particularly offensive. After backing traffic up to 5 miles an hour for miles, he finally cut over, then proceeded to refuse to let anyone else merge, aggressively tailgating and cutting people off and trying to pass on the right. At five miles an hour.

It is hard to believe that people can't understand that failing to merge will make them later, too. They seem to think that as long as they are in front -- even if they have bogged traffic down to a standstill and cost themselves an additional 30 minutes on their morning commute -- they've won.

If I were in charge, failure to merge in a timely manner would be a capital offense. There wouldn't be any other capital offenses at all -- just this one. It would be carried out on the spot by a beefy team of slaughterhouse workers who would just pull the drivers out of their cars, stun them with a shotgun with a captive bolt, reclaim the car, and compost the human waste of air and fuel driving it.

Interestingly enough, waving a cell phone camera out your window at these drivers caused them, pretty uniformly, to immediately merge, as if it suddenly reminded that, oh yeah, they aren't the only human in the world, and solipsism isn't actually a practicable world view on the freeway.