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!