Sunday, May 16, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Bunnahabhain 18

My regular readers, both of them, will recall that I have a soft spot (on my skull) for the whisky of the Bunnahabhain distillery on Islay. It does not seem to be one of the blockbuster big-name distilleries -- most of its output seems to go into blends -- but this distiller's whiskies are among my personal favorites, in part because their distinctiveness seems to lie in their subtlety, rather than boldness.

The Bunnahabhain 12 is an Islay whisky, and very unlike the other Islay whisky that I've tasted -- so different, in fact, that it seems to make quite a dent in the "terroir" theory. Oh, it does have some similarities -- it has a very light peat and smoke, and a light saltiness, and a slight oiliness, but the flavors tend more towards sweet nuts, toffee, and apple. I wrote: "there's a wonderful almond flavor, reminiscent of marzipan, and toasted coconut, and vanilla." With water, the saltiness in the 12 comes forward; I described it as a "Pearson's Salted Nut Roll," a regional candy which, sadly, never seems to be on the shelves here in Michigan. About the finish, I commented that "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."

So, Bunnahabhain also offers a standard 18-year-old, which offers an interesting opportunity to do a straight-up comparison. And of course it raises the question of whether those extra six years in the cask create a whisky that is worth about double the price of the 12 (at about $100, this is a fairly expensive whisky, at least on my price scale; I don't buy $100 bottles on a whim, and have only purchased two or three at this price).

So -- the color is a little darker gold, as one would expect. On the nose: apple again, but cider, not fresh green apple juice. A little pungent alcohol burn is still there on the nose, and a bit of smoke. There's just a bit of that peaty, Listerine note -- more than there is in the 12. There's a distinct smell of Hall's honey-flavored menthol throat lozenges along with a nice vanilla custard, stewed apples, banana, perhaps a little pear, and dried tobacco. This whisky benefits from breathing a little bit -- let the poured dram sit for a few minutes, and warm the glass in your hand to bring out some of the more subtle flavors.

On the tongue this one has a syrupy texture that reminds me of Irish whisky, particularly The Tyrconnell again. It seems to have some velvety substance to it, almost like tannins in wine. It's moderately warming, with a nice heat in the back of the throat. That extra aging has really brought up the vanilla notes, but the characteristic Bunnahabhain nutty notes are still there as well; they seem fainter than in the 12. The finish is actually peaty and smoky, more so than the 12 but still light, so that you feel like you're sharing a drink with a smoker, not having a cigarette yourself. And there's something else going on in the finish -- while the Glenmorangies always seem to remind me, literally, of oranges, and the Ardbeg of lime, this one is definitely lemon -- maybe a hint of lemon oil, or candied lemon peel. It reminds me a bit of the lemon oil I use to clean my guitar fretboards. The tail end is a little bit like dark-roasted coffee grounds, and a bit like burnt toast (it seems like there always have to be at least one slightly unpleasant note, doesn't there?)

So how does this compare to the 12? Well, it's interesting. The flavors are less assertive, and more subtle. The texture I like in the 12 is damped down a bit; it's less oily, but more syrupy. The soft fruit notes are very nice. The spices and nuts are fainter. This whisky is very refined, extremely smooth, and somewhat subtle. It's a dessert drink. After drinking a lot of big, explosive Islays, it's partly a relief, and partly a disappointment -- where did all that complexity go? So your reaction to it may depend, basically, on whether you want your whisky to talk back to you, or whether you want it to quietly do your bidding. The 12 will have a conversation with your taste buds; the 18 will serve them unobtrusively.

So -- my rating. The 18 gets an extra half-point for that marvelous smoothness; I'll call it a 9.0. That's probably making just a bit too much of the relatively subtle difference between the two.

I'm happy to have had the chance to taste this one. I'm thinking of this one as a preview, to get me ready to taste the very special bottle I purchased for my upcoming wedding anniversary next year -- a bottle of Bunnahabhain distilled in 1967, the year I was born. So, honestly, which one do I prefer? I could go either way, depending on my mood on any given evening. They're both very good. If I felt a little short of money, I'd happily stick to the 12 and not feel deprived!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: Ardbeg Airigh Nam Biest (1990/2008)

"Ari Nam Baysht," or so I'm told.

My bottle, marked 2008, is apparently from the 3rd and final year of bottling of this expression. This contains fairly old whiskies; I was expecting flavors a bit more sedate than those in the Ardbeg Uigeadail. Every time I think that I am starting to understand something about whisky -- like the way in which aging tends to affect the spirit -- I'm proven wrong! Even though this is bottled at a lower ABV than the Uigeadail (46% vs. 54.2%), the flavors are in some ways more pungent and "untamed."

On the nose, it was evident that this is bourbon cask aged, with no sherry influence that I can detect. There is some peat smoke, to be sure, but the aroma is a bit different than the Uigeadail, and I get more yeasty, bready aromas -- a bit like the barley notes in the Arran Malt 10. There are some smoked meats here, particularly bacon; I don't nose the mackerel flavors that I get from the Uigeadail, but could that be -- smoked trout?

There is a lot of lime going on here, and the quinine tonic water notes are even stronger than they are in the Uigeadail. There is some of that juniper.

On the tongue, the dram is warming, the texture is lightly oily, and the finish is quite long The lime and pepper notes are what I'd call "fizzy" -- they practically burn the tongue, not in a hot way, but in a carbonated, acidic way. (Of course I don't mean the whisky is literally carbonated!)

Overall, I am reminded of several extremely specific sets of flavors, and the correspondence is so striking that I found them odd enough to mention.

One of my favorite lunch snacks from Eastern Accents is their bacon and onion bun: it's a slightly sweet, yeast bun wrapping bacon and chopped green onions, and flavored with little else except maybe an egg wash and possibly for black pepper. The Beast reminds me very strongly of this combination -- all the notes are there, including the onion!

I like a good vodka martini, but I don't have the patience, the space, the ice, or the gear to make them the traditional way at home, but as a shortcut I keep a bottle of Ketel One vodka in the freezer, and in the refrigerator a bottle of "Martini Olives" -- pimiento-stuffed olives in vermouth. Toss a couple of these into the very cold vodka, and add a little bit of the vermouth-infused olive juice, and you have a moderately convincing slightly "dirty" martini. Again, the Beast has pretty much all these flavors -- including the pungent green notes of the olive, the saltiness, and a little spice and sweetness from the pimiento.

The third food combination that popped into my head was the classic combination allegedly craved by pregnant women -- "pickles and ice cream" -- the combination of sweet and salty. That describes the Beast pretty well.

Now, the downside: while the flavors are intriguing, there just seem seem to be some things that I dislike: a little too much sour pickle and fizzy lime oil, like lime pickle of the type used to accompany hot and spicy Indian food, but spoiled. Where the Uigeadail finishes with a long draught of wood smoke, that oily bitterness is what sticks around longest here. Grace calls it "all campfire, no marshmallow."

There's probably a specific whisky term for it, but I haven't quite come across it in tasting charts I've seen, or if I've seen it, I haven't recognized it on my tongue. So, sadly, it gets knocked down another full point, to 8.0. It's a shame, because I was so impressed with the Uigeadail. I read some reviews of the "Beast," and they comment on the complex finish. But the one I'm tasting doesn't seem to have a complex finish -- it has a complex nose, and it's complex on the palate, but that bitter note on the finish drowns out the other notes, as that lime oil lasts and lasts. Am I just missing something, or were the 2006 or 2006 "Beast" bottlings a little better?

Just yesterday I received a nice little packet of Ardbeg marketing materials in the mail; I signed up on their web site to join "The Committee." The packet is some of the best swag I've ever gotten -- very tastefully produced, classy, and also laugh-out-loud funny. I'll have to take some photos. I usually don't save things that are basically advertising, but I will definitely save this one! Ardbeg really has figured out to push the buttons of slightly obsessive nerds like me -- they haven't just released, say, a 10, 12, 15, 18, 25, etc. I could probably resist that; I'd just taste one or two of them and feel able to let it rest at that. But they've given each of their bottlings a story and made them intriguing to both collect and compare -- I'm apparently condemned to having to buy and taste their whole line! (Lord help me if I get a hankering to buy the 25-year-old Lord of the Isles...)

If you are interested in tasting the Airigh Nam Biest, you'd better find a bottle soon -- I believe it is out of production. The Corryvreckan, which is bottled at a much higher ABV of 57.1%, is alleged to be its replacement. I'm curious to taste that one, but probably not curious enough to buy it, at least not just yet.

Default Shell in FreeBSD 8.0

So, I've been setting up a FreeBSD machine to function as a firewall/router. So far it has gone very smoothly and very quickly, but there has been one hiccup that drove me up a wall: the shell.

Apparently, if you use the installer to configure a user account with csh, you don't actually get csh. I found this out because I wanted command-line completion. I don't even need anything fancier than that for configuring this box, but I can't live without command-line completion -- it's ingrained in my muscle memory!

If you edit /etc/passwd to set your shell to csh, you don't actually get csh. Your environment will tell you that you are using csh, but it isn't actually csh. Therefore, adding options like "set autolist" to your .cshrc file won't do anything.

To make it work, I had to do "chsh -s /bin/csh," and I magically had command functioning again, without modifying any dot files.

I'm not accustomed to FreeBSD, but apparently this has something to do with the file etc/master.passwd which is used to generate /etc/passwd, so modifying your shell via /etc/passwd doesn't work, even if it appears to change.

Apparently, per some Google searches, I'm not the only one to find this very confusing!

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Rescuing a Mac Mini G4

Today's project is getting a Mac Mini G4 working again. The hard drive was apparently going bad, and while I was at it, I dismantled it as thoroughly as I could in order to clean out dust. I even washed out the fan (don't try this at home, or if you do, make sure to use very hot water and let it dry for a week before attempting to power it up).

I've had this thing for at least five years, I think, and I got it used on eBay, so it's not like it hasn't had a good run. Finding 2.5-inch IDE drives can a little tricky these days, but Newegg had a 5400 RPM 2.5" Western Digital Scorpio Blue 160 GiB for $64.99, which seemed reasonable. It's a little noisier than the original 80 GiB Seagate drive was, but I'm hoping it will settle down after a while.

Mac Mini systems are basically laptops, as far as the components they are built with and the way they are assembled, but they are a little more rugged than laptops, because they aren't usually banged around quite so much and don't have parts like screen hinges that are prone to breakage. They are put together with some of that same yellow Kapton (Polyimide) tape as laptops, so in order to reassemble the original correctly I ordered some. You can get it on Amazon from Techni-Tool -- search for "Kapton Tape." Check your desired width. Black electrical tape probably would have worked, but it is really gummy and the adhesive melts under heat, and collects a lot of dust.

Mac Mini cases are a little fiddly to disassemble and reassemble; you're supposed to use a putty knife with the edges sanded down slightly, but if you're not that concerned about scratching or gouging a bit, and I'm not at this point, given the age of this computer, you can use a flat-bladed screwdriver. I found very effective instructions here.

They are a little fiddly to work on, but despite this I really, really like Mac Mini systems. They aren't the fastest available, but they are extremely quiet. Quiet is very important to me, especially since I use computers for recording. They are also low-power; Apple calls the most recent version "the world's most energy efficient desktop computer." I don't know if that's literally true when compared to some of these very low-end tiny form-factor PCs, but at under 14 watts idle it's certainly plausible.

Anyway, I ran into one hiccup, which was that the original G4 Mac Mini install disc would not instal MacOS X on the new drive. Running Disk Utility from the install disc and formatting the disk would not help; no matter what I did, the installer said it could not install MacOS X on the selected volume.

Fortunately, it turns out that this is just a bug. It had nothing to do with the type of boot record or partition map; that version of Disk Utility doesn't let you choose GUID anyway. I just had to reboot and let the installer take another look at the driver.

The version of MacOS X that gets installed by the original install disk is 10.3.7. There are then a ton of software updates to install -- then a reboot -- then another ton of software updates to install.

Apparently my Leopard install DVD is no longer readable either on this system's drive, or on my Mac Pro's drive. I can't see any visible damage. We've had a severe problem with white humidifier dust in this apartment -- during the winter, we have to run humidifiers constantly. The particulates from these wound up clogging up basically every optical drive in the house, including our DVD player. That I was able to take apart and clean out, but I'm not too keen on having to also replace the DVD drive in the Mac Mini and Mac Pro; they have both scarcely been used. Sigh!

After that I will attempt to bring it up to Leopard, and then after _that_ I need to see if I can get some files (not the whole system, just documents) off of the time machine backup. If that works I will have a separate little box I can use specifically for scanning, which was the goal all along -- before I started having hard drive problems. I'm just grateful that I don't need to buy a whole new machine -- at least not today. I just bought a ThinkPad and built a Xeon-based server for my home office and I'm a little tapped out at this point!