Just a Thought… Celebrate Robbie Burns

… In Camrose, Alberta!  

I know that the few people who may stumble upon this post can’t or won’t actually be able to do this, especially with January 25 right around the corner and, since it falls on a Monday, festivities are happening tonight. Nevertheless, it’s possible that it might be worth the trip!   

“Whisky and freedom gang thegither” – Robbie Burns
Last night, I attended an event in support of the local chapter of a national charity that helps children from low-income families participate in sports and athletic programs. (www.kidsportcanada.ca/alberta/camrose/) Well, it just so happens that this event was held at the same location as tonics Robbie Burns celebration. And, it just so happens that I know the manager of this establishment quite well. So, I was less surprised than pleased when she presented me with a copy of the pamphlet/menu that will be in use tonight, along with an early invitation to enjoy a couple of the fine drams that will be available! (Unfortunately, I will be on the road coaching tonight – her son plays on my hockey team – so I won’t be able to attend.🙁)

Look at this whisky menu… And look at the prices! In a small city that doesn’t have any great whisky bars, this is a drammer’s dream and I appreciate the efforts taken to educate about scotch whisky to make some fantastic malts extremely affordable to sample! (Yeah, those prices are $CDN!)   
  I know there may be some errors in this, but I still think it’s a nice touch for landlocked Albertans wanting to learn more about scotch… No haggis… But some good eats will be available, too!  

Let me tell you, it was difficult to choose what to sample – my friend has done a great job of selecting a number of excellent whiskies. I was tempted to simply request that a bottle of the Glenfarclas 25 be left at my table… But I decided to just go for a couple of drams I had not yet tried, settling on the Balblair 1989 vintage and the Caol Ila 12 year old. (I know, I know, I should have had that one by now!) I asked for the Balblair first, to avoid having my palate dominated by the Islay malt. 

Obviously, I wasn’t able to do my usual review tasting regimen but a few quick notes on these whiskies:

Balblair ’89 (3rd Release)

I was quite taken by the intense floral character of this whisky, which was in abundance in both the nose and the palate. There is plenty of juicy fruit on the nose, along with some delicious toffee and vanilla – very bourbony!  On the palate, the 46% abv delivers those juicy fruits but turns them jammy and quite a bit darker, with oak and baking spices. It is a rich tasting dram with a long, smooth finish of honey, citrus pith and a nice fruity, floral rye-like character.  Absolutely delicious!

Caol Ila 12

I love Islay! And this dram delivers the typical Islay elements I look for – smoke, maltiness and salty, seeweedy brine – and balances them beautifully. On the nose, the smoke is assertive but not sharp, as it is nicely rounded out by malted cereals and a unique citrusy aroma that reminds me of a spicy Thai basil. The salty character of this whisky leaves impressions of smoked meat but I couldn’t decide if it was more like ham or lox… Interesting though! There is plenty of body to this 43% abv dram and the flavours are sweet and malty with some tar, juicy fruits, restrained peat and smoke. The finish was a lovely assault of salty sweetness, like a smack of Granny Smith apples and kettle corn. Terrific whisky to end the evening with!


Ballentine’s Finest

I’ve had a few of the Ballentine’s whiskies in my day, including the 18 and 21 year old blends, but none of them ever really grabbed my attention. Ballentine’s Finest is the flagship expression and one that I remember my father-in-law often having around before I helped him on his way toward single malt snobbery. I don’t think I have ever bought this whisky for myself but this particular bottle was a Christmas-time gesture from the family of one of the hockey players I coach. I’m certainly not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and I was impressed that they had gone out of their way to find out my preference for the uisge beatha. This dram is bottled at 40% abv. 

To the Eye

Pale gold with flashes of brighter yellow. Skinny legs rapidly drop down the sides of my glass. 

In the Nose

Surprisingly… almost non-existent. For a second I thought that perhaps an Ardbeg I’d enjoyed a couple nights earlier might have fried my olfactory senses! Ballentines has very very little offer on the nose. It smells whisky-ish but everything is so faint and subtle that I really can’t pick out any individual aromas. The empty glass was always full of caramel and vanilla but shouldn’t a full glass possess the superior nose?

On the Tongue

Quite smooth but a rather single-note profile. During each tasting session, I chewed and chewed on this one but wasn’t able to tease much out for my tasting notes… Slightly sweet, a little vanilla, a little oak, maybe a hint of charcoal.  The finish is medium short, a bit longer than I expected, actually, with a slow smoulder of alcohol and a few lingering baking spices. 

Final Thoughts

Ballentine’s Finest is not an undrinkable whisky but it is the least scotch-like scotch I have ever had – it actually reminds me more of a mass-produced, run of the mill rye mixer. This whisky tastes more like the ones I was drinking 15-20  years ago and I can see it working better with a splash of soda or ginger ale in a rocks glass than it does neat from a Glencairn. But that’s not why I buy scotch, so the only way another bottle of this dram ends up in my cabinet is if I get another one as a gift. 

Glenglassaugh Revival

A few weeks ago, after a busy day of last-minute Christmas shopping for the kids, I rewarded myself with a stop at one of those new bottle shops that is more like a supermarket than a boutique. I quite like my smaller, but really quite well stocked, local shops but, when I’m up in the city, I do like to check out some of these stores too… Some of them have incredible scotch aisles!

While perusing, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop with some amusement as an obvious newbie scotch drinker was having quite the conversation about his palate preferences with the staffer working the whisky section. As he struggled to ask about particular bottles while see-sawing back and forth about the two drams he really enjoyed- Octomore and Glenlivet. (Can you can imagine two less-similar drops!) It forced me to reflect upon those days when I was just starting to really become fascinated with whisky. It was/is hard to describe why it’s so damned good and, yeah, there are lots of VERY different styles and flavours, most of which have something excellent to offer. And hey, you’ve got to start somewhere – I applaud the gentleman for trying to educate himself. Anyway, it was actually the whisky-aisle attendant whose comments really caught my attention, since he seemed very familiar with many, many malts and very knowledgeable, as well. When I heard him point out the Glenglassaugh Revival as “the best $67 scotch” he has ever had, I thought, What the hell, let’s give it a go!

After the newbie had settled upon his next malt to tackle, I approached the shop staffer to give me the goods on the Revival.  According to him, the Glenglassaugh distillery is just outside of the Speyside region so, although it must use the more general “Highland” designation, it is distinctly Spey in character. Through many delightful-sounding specifics, I was told to expect a bold sherry character and an extremely well-rounded dram. He also claimed that this NAS whisky is composed with a significant ratio of 8 and 12 year whiskies. This dram is bottled at 46%abv and cost me $67 CDN, plus tax.

To the Eye

The carton notes state this whisky is non chill filtered and of natural colour. Assuming that’s true, I’m well impressed by the rich golden-coppery hue that I see in my glass. With NAS whiskies, I expect young stocks to result in ta rather pale spirit… Or assume caramel colouring has been added. (I suppose “Natural Colour” could just mean artificial agents have been added to create a more natural-looking drop.)

In the Nose

A definite wine-like aroma greets my first sniff, making me wonder about the casting regimen used for this whisky. Bits of black pepper and a new-make sour milk and spicy-sweetness. Obvious sherry notes and, as the glass breaths, caramel-toffee aromas become more assertive, along with some fresh cut wood. Perhaps hints of cherries and marshmallows. I’m not really finding a Spey-like character, as the typical Spey characteristics of orchard fruits and green grass seem non-existent.

(By the time I got to my third/fourth tasting sessions the growing headroom in the bottle seemed to have mellowed and improved some of the less pleasant aromas a little bit.)

On the Tongue

Young, young, young! Really, that’s the best summary I can offer. Early sweetness quickly gives way to a peppery, bitter-astringency eventually makes way for some sponge toffee flavours that were hinted at on the nose. Unfortunately that sour milk note is also showing up although it’s changed a bit into something more like, if memory serves, baby formula(?). A little oak on the exit, leading to a short finish of chocolate caramels that I wish would linger a while longer.

Final Thoughts

This is one of those whiskies that seems to be slowly growing on me and I wonder if I’ll really enjoy it by the time I’m working on the bottom half of the bottle. For the time being, however, the Glenglassaugh Revival has not yet showed me enough that I’d consider buying it again. I can’t help but think that the gentleman at the liquor store literally meant this his favourite whisky that costs exactly $67 dollars… I mean, there probably aren’t many malts falling in that narrow of a range! In my opinion, however, there are many whiskies that cost roughly the same or less that I far prefer over this one. I guess this is just more evidence of the differences between individual palates and a good reminder that one person’s opinion of a dram should not necessarily play as too big a factor on whether or not you try it yourself!