Friday, April 30, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Ardbeg Uigeadail

"Oog-a-dal." It is named for the Loch that is one of the sources of the Ardbeg Distillery's water. I've packed up most of my whisky and put it into our climate-controlled storage unit in an attempt to make some room in the apartment while we pack to move. The only ones I left out were a couple of sample-sized bottles from Glenmorangie, and the dreaded McClelland's Islay, which I left out in an attempt to convince myself to finish it before I can taste anything else. That effort isn't really working, and so today I just had to pick up something else. Stadium Market just happened to have the whole Ardbeg line in stock!

This one is a little tricky to review. Jim Murray named it World Whisky of the Year. Here's a video clip showing Murray with Rachel Barrie of Ardbeg. After an introduction like that, how can I be objective? Or honestly subjective about my own impression?

Well, I'll try. Interestingly, if I had tried this whisky a year ago, I probably would not have been quite ready to appreciate it. I needed to experience whiskies from the various distilling regions of Scotland, as well as several distilleries from Islay. I'm glad I had the opportunity this past Monday night to taste the standard Ardbeg 10, which I found very good. This allows me to put the "oogie" in perspective.

The "benchmark" Islay whisky for many folks is the Laphroaig 10. Laphroaig is highly peated, and provides a big blast of peat, with its phenolic and smoky flavors. If that is all it offered, though, the whisky would not be very good. But it also offers a very flavorful set of sweet, fruity, and malty flavors. These coexist in a way that is hard to describe, but lovely to drink. Laphroaig's notes describe the finish as coming in "alternating waves," and that's accurate -- the peaty flavors and sweet flavors literally take turns on your palate. The Laphroaig that I bought a bottle of is the Quarter Cask, which is cask strength, with a great deal of development of cask flavors.

The Ardbeg 10 is also peated, although the overall smoke and peat is not quite as pungent as the Laphroaig 10. I did not get to give it a long and full tasting in its own right, but it is warming and wonderful, with sweet and dry rich fruit notes, especially dates and prunes; the Ardbeg 10 is definitely on my short list to purchase in the near future.

The Uigeadail is, like the Talisker and Lagavulin Distiller's Editions, finished in sherry casks. After tasting those two bottlings, and comparing them to the Talisker 10 and Lagavulin 16, I would expect the Oogie to have undergone similar changes -- for the sherry to add a layer of complexity and winey notes, and for some of the more pungent notes to be damped down. But what do my eyes, nose, and tongue say?

The Oogie looks like an extra-aged expression -- the color is red-gold and extremely pretty. It forms legs very slowly, but they are well-defined. At 54.2%, this is a very high-alcohol whisky; exercise caution appropriately (I am tasting a smaller-than-normal serving).

On the nose, there is some of that phenolic Listerine aroma, smoke, and some vanilla sweetness. It is not as malty-smelling as the Laphroaig -- I'm not reminded of a sandwich cookie. There are sherry notes but they seem somehow less sweet and more dry. Overall, the effect of the sherry is fairly subtle. There is a seashore saltiness -- I'm reminded of saltine crackers, actually. There is citrus -- in the case of the oogie, it isn't orange, but lime.

One of the hallmarks of a good whisky is that the flavor evolves as you drink it, holding your interest. The oogie has a nose alone that evolves as I continue to sniff it. None of the notes on the nose are overwhelming. They blend and shift, and with the high ABV, the smell quickly begins to permeate the room.

On the tongue, the whisky is extremely warming -- hot all the way down to the belly. The texture is enormously silky and smooth, almost like unset gelatin. It is not as sweet as one might expect with the sherry cask aging -- I'm reminded of quinine in tonic water -- it somehow makes me think of a gin and tonic. That must be some aromatic compound in there that is reminiscent of juniper.

The finish is very long and there are some meaty notes -- Michael Jackson is very accurate when he says it is "like standing downwind of the barbecue while steaks are char-grilled on the beach." But there is more to it than that -- I'm also strongly reminded of a combination of fishy and salty flavors, such as the tins of smoked kippers, packed in oil, that Grace and I sometimes put on crackers. The fish notes are there, as well as the cracked pepper and fruity olive oil. It's quite an unusual and extremely flavorful note to end on.

There are just so many notes here -- a little licorice, a little pepper, a little butter. There are hints of some things a little less savory, like sweaty armpit, lighter fluid, pine solvent, charcoal, and a used ashtray. One writer noted that it is a bit like licking someone's sweaty skin, and I think that's accurate; the flavors are a bit erotic, actually. There are some spices, particularly caraway seeds. The smokiness is not a simple thing, but hides all kinds of complexity -- burning sea grass, driftwood, and pine needles. That extremely smooth texture, and light but not cloying sweetness, ensure that you will come back for another sip.

It might be a near-criminal act to water this, but let's give it just a bit and see what happens. On the nose, the citrus aromas come down a bit, and it's more prominently tobacco smoke and iodine. On the tongue, it's a little sweeter and more conventional, although it doesn't seem to lose any complexity -- all those sea flavors are still there on the finish. I get a new, definite note of hot, candied ginger. The finish does become slightly less pleasant, though -- we're left with a little more of the pine solvent flavors at the end. So -- it is more intense straight, and you should taste it that way. But if it is too hot going down, don't feel too bad about watering it just a touch. 54.2% -- almost 110 proof -- is a lot of alcohol, even more than the Knob Creek bourbon which is at 100 proof, and notably stronger than most vodkas, gins, bourbons, and whiskies, which tend to be diluted to a standard 80 proof or 40% alcohol.

So -- subjectively -- how do I like this one?

I really, really enjoy that complexity. It evolves sip by sip, and that's fascinating. In fact, if you taste it again tomorrow, or at a slightly different temperature, or having eaten a different meal first, you will probably discover something new. It's so complex that I feel like I have only really just begun to tease out flavors.

I like the maritime notes. I'm a big fan of mackerel, smoked salmon, and barbecue. But where did the sweeter notes from sherry aging go? It's a little hard to say. And where are the spices and the nuts that I love in other whiskies? Where are the floral notes? Where is the butterscotch and malt?

The answer is that they are not present in this style, or present in limited quantities. (That's not a bad thing; they would clash with the basic Islay flavors). This is probably the ultimate, or near-ultimate, Islay whisky, insofar as it embodies the terroir of Islay. (The Supernova may take this a little farther, but I haven't tasted it yet).

It is certainly one of the best whiskies I've ever tasted. But is it my absolute favorite? Actually, at the moment I prefer the Laphroaig Quarter Cask just slightly. I prefer Bunnahabhain by a nose. I'm still exploring the Lagavulin and Talisker Distiller's Editions, which also have very complex flavors to explore.

I give the Oogie a 9.5, for its phenomenal complexity and wonderfully evolving maritime flavors -- this is the highest rating I've yet given out. If you like Islay whiskies, you simply must try this one. (If you aren't already an Islay fan, this is not a good one to start with; try Bunnahabhain 12 or Caol Ila 12). But despite the fact that I really appreciate that complexity, it is not quite my personal favorite. But then again, I've only been tasting Islay whiskies for a few months, and my tastes are still evolving. There is so much more out there to taste. Check back in a year!

Music Review: BT: These Hopeful Machines

People write reviews for many reasons. Sometimes they've got a bone to pick; sometimes they want to share a particular discovery. The best criticism, in my opinion, usually stems from a desire to share something the critic has discovered, and the best critical reviews often are interesting to read because provide some insight into the work discussed, the genre, and the mind of the critic too.

So, with that in mind, I can't claim that I'll succeed at this game, but I'd like to point you at BT's newest album of electronic music, _These Hopeful Machines_, and tell you why I think it's fantastic.

Back in 2000 I was an amateur DJ, and co-hosted some great parties at which a lot of guests made us very happy by dancing and celebrating some great music and a great time. Things kind of crashed after the tech bubble collapse and I think there has been a bit of a hangover in dance and electronica that has lasted for the better part of a decade. That isn't to say that nothing great has been recorded, and no one is dancing, but that's how it has felt to me.

BT's newest represents to me the culmination of many strands of influence, many of which date back to 2000 and before. The styles of many other electronica producers are evident. One that keeps coming back to me is Aphex Twin, aka Richard James, particularly sounds of the "Come to Daddy" and "Windowlicker" era. I also hear Squarepusher and Autechre all over the place in the polyrhythmic, glitchy, bursty electro sounds BT uses. In BT's hands, though, they are not aggressive and scary, but upbeat, nostalgic and soothing. The synthesizer swells and gorgeously layered vocals remind me of another highly regarded producer, William Orbit.

One of the difficulties with electronic music has been its tendency to be ghettoized into sub-genres and sub-sub-genres: house, hard house, electro, downtempo, and ambient. These styles have partisan fans and followers, but with the exception of some crossover artists, not much airplay and not much audience outside of clubbing fans. This album changes that. This is the one that blends and mixes the genres -- showing an impressive array of influence -- and brings it all home with a large and tasty dose of slightly vacuous but hugely enjoyable bubblegum pop. It even gets a little dark and occasionally moving and touching -- like the artier bits of Madonna's _Ray of Light_ (produced by William Orbit). Several of the tracks will very likely get pop radio airplay, although like most people my age, I left commercial radio behind in disgust at least fifteen years ago, so I doubt that I'll hear them.

BT seems to produce music primarily out of his home studio, and he's famed for his in-depth and inventive approach to editing (his "stutter edit" and his use of granular synthesis). These techniques feature prominently in this album, but as a listener I don't feel abused by them. Because BT is not just good at this kind of editing, but he's also incredible at EQ and mixing. The attention to detail evident on every part on every track is astounding. If there's a vocal glitch or mouth sound, or a little buzz on an acoustic guitar, you can bet that BT wanted it that way and compressed and EQ'ed and reverb'ed it just to bring out the precisely desired effect. He's an absolute lunatic and a control freak, but I mean that in the best possible way. As an amateur producer myself, I can hear the degree of effort that went into it, and it is nothing less than astonishing.

If I tell you that this album is not truly innovative, would you think that I mean something negative by that? I don't. It's the culmination of influence, and crosses and remixes genres joyously. It doesn't break new ground, but it doesn't need to. It's a beautiful thing. I haven't heard anything this good in a long, long time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Kilchoman is Still Not the Newest Distillery!

The Abhainn Dearg site says "It has been nearly one hundred and seventy years since the last legal bottle of whisky was produced in the Outer Hebrides." Wow! I think they distilled their first spirit in 2009, and because it is so new, none of it can legally be called "whisky" yet. They are apparently selling some of this "new make," briefly aged in sherry casks, as "The Spirit of Lewis," but it is not available outside Europe or the U.K. yet.

Arran is Not the Newest!

I was wrong -- apparently Kilchoman is a newer distillery than Isle of Arran Distillery, having started distilling Islay whisky in 2005!

Apparently they've already released some 3-year-old. It appears I may have missed the possibility of getting my hands on a bottle of their very first release; apparently it was not sold in the U.S. A bottle of their second release in Fall of 2009 is available on eBay, but at $150, I'm probably going to have to let that one go by. There does seem to be a Spring 2010 3rd release -- but is anyone importing it? The distillery itself does not list an American distributor. The Whisky Vault wants 48.95 pounds sterling to deliver a bottle to the US -- that's more than the whisky itself, which is 48 pounds!

There is apparently also some "new spirt" available -- although that may be more a novelty or collector's item than something to sip and enjoy.

Why didn't anyone tell me? It's the first new distillery on Islay in 125 years. I am eagerly awaiting a taste!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Stadium Market Spring 2010 Scotch Tasting

Tonight Grace and I, along with my former College of Wooster classmate Ken, who is also the podcaster known as the Wandering Knight, attended the Stadium Market Spring 2010 Scotch Tasting, hosted at Bab's Underground Lounge. For $20 each we got a buffet of appetizers, including shrimp, sushi, miniature croissant sandwiches, stuffed mushrooms, deviled eggs, cheeses, a platter of fruit, and other dainties -- and a huge variety of beverages to taste!

There was a structured slideshow and tasting, led by a Master of Whisky from Diageo (I finally heard this pronounced: I think it's "Dee-AH-zhee-oh"). Diageo is the company that now apparently owns a wide variety of distilleries, which now fall under the "Classic Malt" designation. We got to taste peated and unpeated barley, and examine chunks of peat and barrel wood. We got to rub and smell (but not taste) some very bready, malty, yeasty "new make spirit," or un-aged whisky, at 126 proof.

The whiskies that were part of the guided tasting were the Glenkinchie 12, Dalwhinnie 15, Singleton of Glendullan 12, Oban 14, Lagavulin 16, and Crown Royal Black. (One of these things is not like the other, but they are all owned by the same company now.) I had tasted several of these -- the Singleton is a great bargain and I own a bottle. The Lagavulin 16 is an iconic Islay whisky.

The Glenkinchie is a young and dry whisky, hot and peppery with a little malt, citrus, and vanilla, and no peat. It is pretty good stuff, but a little too sweet and hot for my taste. Ken noted that this one mellows out considerably with a little water.

I've had Dalwhinnie before, but not for many years -- the floral notes are very nice, but again, it is not my preferred style.

The Oban, which I had never tasted, was very good, with a cluster of fresh stone fruit notes. Grace enjoyed the Oban as well. (We've recently been debating what constitutes masculine and feminine whisky -- that is, which ones apparently appeal more to the different genders and why. We haven't gotten it all figured out yet, but the Oban 14 is a little on the feminine side).

The Crown Royal Black was interesting enough to get a paragraph to itself. It is aged in charred barrels, and the result was very unusual -- an extremely sweet nose, with a very notable aroma of black licorice, and some fruits I've never tasted in a whisky before, particularly rasberry. It was sweet and extremely smooth. It was too sweet for my taste, but that maturation regimen seems interesting and I'd be curious to see what else could be done with it.

In addition to the drinks that were part of the guided tasting, Stadium Market had a number of others on hand: The Macallan 12, Fine Oak 10, and Fine Oak 15; The Glenlivet 12, Nadurra 16, and 18; Laphroaig 10; Ardbeg 10; Highland Park 12, 15, and 18; and a rum called Ron Zacapa. There were a few others available. I decided that after having tasted so many already, I could not do justice to fairly comparing the nuances of the different bottlings The Glenlivet and The Macallan, so I skipped those and focused on tasting just a few more. I'd love to give them a try sometime -- it would be especially nice if those distilleries had sample-size gift sets available, like the Glenmorangie collection and The Balvenie collection.

We already own a bottle of Highland Park 18, which I have previously reviewed. The 12 and 15 were very interesting in that context. Grace and I both agreed that we prefer the 15, just as I prefer the 15-year-old Glenfiddich. The 15 is very nice -- a little more buttery and bready than the 18, with light smoke and peat, and some distinct dried fruit flavors (prunes, raisins, figs). The 18 has these same flavors, for the most part, but by comparison they seem a bit muted and indistinct. The 12 was a little hotter and more sugary, with light honey notes, and while good, just couldn't quite compare. So, when we finish up the 18, we will probably buy a bottle of Highland Park 15. It was a good illustration of the way in which age and price don't necessarily produce a result you will automatically prefer.

I also took my first taste of Ardbeg (the 10), and found it to be very good stuff -- not quite as pungent as Laphroaig, but very well-balanced, with very appealing sweet flavors offset by the smoke. It answered the question I had in the back of my mind about Ardbeg, which was "is it different enough than Laphroaig to justify buying a separate bottle?" The answer is that if you are an Islay fan, yes, it definitely is. Although the Lagavulin, Caol Ila, Laphroaig, and Ardbeg all seem to me to cluster fairly tightly together, while the Bunnahabhain is more notably different in character. The Bunnahabhain is still my favorite Islay, perhaps largely for sentimental reasons. I'm not sure which of that "cluster" of Islay distilleries I prefer, although the Ardbeg 10 is now a serious competitor. I will have to taste it again, and write it up more formally, very soon!

I decided that in order to avoid exceeding my alcohol limit, I would skip the Bulleit bourbon, although I was tempted by the wonderfully rich color. I also skipped the Bushmills 10, a peated Irish whisky, although I was also curious about that. I did taste the Ron Zacapa rum, which I found to be unlike any rum I've ever tasted -- wonderfully smooth and sweet, with buttery caramel flavors. It would be a crime to use it as a mixer. I have a friend who I think might enjoy it, so I'll have to recommend it to him. I think for now I'll stick primarily to scotch, though. If I start sampling bourbons, rums, tequilas, where would it end? (Bankruptcy, possibly, and maybe rehab...)

Thanks to the Stadium Market and Bab's Underground Lounge crew for putting on such a great event. I look forward to the next one!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Two Special Malts: Arran Malt 10 and Lagavulin Distiller's Edition (1993/2009)

I'm not going to formally review these tonight or give them numbers, but I wanted to type up a few notes on a couple of special bottles I picked up today. We are closing on a house tomorrow. I will probably shortly have to put a moratorium on any new whisky purchases, or at least drastically curtail them. I'm going to have to put my dollars towards things like a new furnace. Fortunately, though, I go through these bottles very slowly, and so the bottles already on hand could probably last me upwards of a year!

The Lagavulin 16 was the whisky that inspired me to start writing reviews. My original review's permalink is here. I was pretty new to Islay whisky, and my palate was fascinated, but also a little bit overwhelmed, by the amazing "peat bomb" that is the Lagavulin 16 -- it is even smokier and richer than the Laphroaig Quarter Cask, and so occupies a position by itself on the Classic Malts flavor map.

Because I enjoyed the Talisker Distiller's Edition so much, I was very eager to taste the Lagavulin version. I did not pour myself a full dram, but just a few sips to taste and nose. The buzz is that it is 16-year-old Lagavulin, given a little extra aging in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks (sadly, I don't know very much about sherry, but I do know that the types of sherry vary a great deal: I've had Amontillado as a very nice dessert wine; we use Marsala, another fortified wine, for making Spanish Torta crusts; and I used a Manzanilla in my French Onion Soup, but it tastes pretty nasty by itself. According to Wikipedia, Pedro Ximenez is a dark and "intensely sweet" dessert wine).

The color of the finished whisky is quite dark, and it has a very waxy cling to the glass, leaving a sort of ridge, with hardly any noticeable legs.

Unlike some other sherry-finished malts, this one does not remind me of maple or honey; it is not extremely sweet. The notes are more of dried fruits, such as raisins and apricots and even papaya, fig newton cookies, and blood oranges. It also has perhaps the faintest hint of sulfur. The flavor is very rich, and has a bit of mellowing biscuit maltiness that is very pleasant.

It seems to me that a lot of those big, beautiful Lagavulin medicinal and seashore notes have been muted more than I would have expected, so at least initially I am just a bit disappointed. I'd be a little frightened of the prospect of a cask-strength standard Lagavulin 16, but maybe a cast-strength version of this one would be more exciting in the mouth?

I'll do a fuller review in the near future, but for the moment I will just say that the complexity and richness here is amazing, and I am especially impressed by the finish; five minutes after finishing my last sip, I'm still tasting kumquat peels, a dry lingering driftwood smoke, tamarind, and peppered beef jerky. In fact, my impression of this whisky keeps going up as I experience the finish, and sniff the empty glass!

And now for something completely different -- ever since reading about Arran Malt in Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, I've been looking forward to tasting something from the young upstart, the Isle of Arran Distillery. Stadium Market had only one bottle from this distillery, stashed up on their top shelf, and the box was very dusty, which tells me that this one is not selling like hotcakes.

Arran Malt 10 is entirely unpeated, and as a result on the nose it immediately reminds me of an Irish whisky, such as the Knappogue Castle. This one is very different, and so my nose is initially a little confounded, and I find myself thinking "wow, that smells good, and vaguely familiar -- but what is it?" So far I've got: nilla wafers, toasted coconut, lemon peel, honey, cinnamon-topped sweet bread pudding and something like creamy peanut butter fudge. (Really? yes, really!)

In the glass the Arran Malt 10 is a beautiful, rich gold, and has short legs. On the tongue the flavor startled me -- remember that peanut butter fudge? It's hot and lemony in the back of the throat, but on the front of the tongue there's a whole complex set of raw or lightly cooked barley flavors -- like steel-cut oats, couscous, buckwheat (kasha), and cracked bulghur wheat. (These seem to be what produces that nutty nose). These barley flavors are not unique, but in most other distiller's bottlings they seem to be very faint, and they lean more towards malted, baked flavors: sweet shortbread or wholemeal digestives. This difference may have something to do with the distiller using a wide "cut" -- that is, using more of the original distillate, and the lack of chill filtering. At 46% ABV it is a fairly hot whisky, and my wife Grace finds it a little bit unpleasantly raw in the throat, but yet those barley flavors are so smooth. It wouldn't be a crime to cut this one with a little water.

This is very good stuff. The Isle of Arran Distillery is producing a number of special finishes, but the 10 is proof that you don't need a long aging and fancy woods to get very fine flavor out of barley and water!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stadium Market Scotch Tasting FYI

(Click for a larger image)

Grace and I will be there -- and plan to get a cab home! Stadium Market is my scotch whisky pusher. I'm itching to pick up a bottle of the new Lagavulin Distiller's Edition, and maybe an Arran, and maybe a Balvenie Portwood 21... but these all cost money, some of them quite a bit of it, and I go through these bottles so slowly that I'm going to need to have a tasting party of my own to clear out some room first!
Just a reminder that our *Spring Scotch Tasting* will take place ONE WEEK FROM TONIGHT (Monday, April 26) at *Bab's Underground Lounge *from *7-9pm*.

Over a dozen scotches from 4 different regions

4 special bottles from Diageo including a NEW CROWN ROYAL

A seminar hosted by a Master of Whisky

Appetizers from our kitchen

Discussions with Brand Managers, our staff, and each other

Tickets are on sale at Stadium Market for $20.

Bab's is located on 213 S. Ashley, across from the Home and Garden Center downtown. There are parking lots in blocks adjacent to it.

Any questions, comments, or concerns do not hesitate to contact us. And please, if you know anybody who might be interested, do not hesitate to forward this email.

See you soon!

Stadium Market
1423 E. Stadium Blvd.
Ann Arbor, Mi, 48104

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The WikiLeaks Video

The eagerness of the Apache helicopter crew to open fire is clear, and disturbing. But the contention that the journalists were with a group of non-combatant civilians may be incorrect. Take a look at this animated GIF:


Is that a camera? It doesn't look like a camera to me. I suppose it could be a tripod, but I think there is reasonable suspcion that it may be an RPG launcher. WikiLeaks has claimed on their resources page that a a camera was mistaken for an RPG launcher, and they've got a photo of said camera:

But even with a long lens, it doesn't look nearly as long as the the 3-foot to 4-foot thing in the picture.

I got this from a comment in this thread on

Note the characteristic diamond-shaped head that seems like a pretty close match to an RPG: RPG (Wikipedia Entry)

I'd also expect a tripod to swing a little differently, with most of the weight in the head, not the legs.

Here's another image:

It looks a lot like one of these (again, from WikiLeaks), doesn't it?

Notice the position of the strap, and thus the way it would swing if you were walking around with it hanging from your hand.

These seem to be from the original video at right around 3 minutes 40 seconds.

Here's a full-frame still (click to magnify).

Do you see an RPG, or not?

Here is a series of photos arguing that there was an RPG, and that the American convoy on the scene was at risk from it.

Here is an argument that it wasn't an RPG.

What do you think? It's a bit of a Rorschach test, isn't it?

Reports from the aftermath seem to claim that at least one RPG was found at the scene. But they do not seem to be from an independent source, and given the military's history of withholding information, and allegations of planting weapons at scenes like this, I'd like to see independent verification.

If the group was carrying at least one loaded RPG launcher, then we still have a tragedy, but the scenario looks a little different. An RPG is not a defensive weapon. A man carrying one wouldn't be a bodyguard to a journalist; he'd likely be an insurgent. The judgment of the journalists in choosing to "embed" with armed insurgents may legitimately be questioned. Ground troops in the area reported coming under RPG fire, and while the Apache helicopter was much too far away to be at risk from an RPG launcher, it was on the scene to support the ground troops.

I have not seen any evidence that I feel can justify the later shooting of the van, however.