The Real Thing

Scotch whisky will soon have something else in common with Champagne besides being one of my favorite beverages: It will have protected geographical status.

Like many other coveted products, Scotch whisky is often counterfeited. Fake Scotch whisky is estimated to cost the industry £500 million annually, approximately ten percent of  overall sales.

Old Map of Scotland 1650 Source: Virtual Hebrides

Old Map of Scotland 1650
Source: Virtual Hebrides

A new Spirit Drinks Verification Scheme will require “all businesses involved in any stage of the production of Scotch Whisky to register with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by listing all their relevant sites within and outside Scotland, including distilleries, maturation facilities, blending and bottling plants. Bottlers of Scotch Whisky abroad will also be subject to controls.” (The Scotsman)

For the time being, this verification will only be required for Scotch whisky sold in the European Union, but will be extended to other unique UK beverages with a geographical origin, such as Somerset Cider Brandy and Irish Whiskey produced in Northern Ireland. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the certified Scotch label spread further.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in this case, it would be nice to know that you’re getting the real thing.

And to warm the end of this weekend like a dram of fine single malt Scotch, The Real Thing. Don’t watch if you can’t appreciate the rhythm and glamour that was the mid-1970s.

With thanks to Rachel MacNeill for alerting me to this story!

Golden Note

Last Sunday of 2013, and the sun slivered through heavy rain clouds now and then to cast a brief, golden light on an otherwise grey day.

We finished off our Whisky Advent Calendar with a 40-year-old Glenfarclas, a real treat. I’ve had a bit of a cold, so I can’t really say as much as I’d like to about the taste, but I just got too impatient to wait another week to try it.

A chandelier of olive oil jars, seen in Geneva Old Town. Photo: PK Read

A chandelier of olive oil jars, seen in Geneva Old Town.
Photo: PK Read

It’s rich, with a lot of butterscotch, resin and leather notes – which all blend into something I feel like I should be drinking while sitting in a fine leather armchair in my own private club, maybe next to a fireplace.

The Whisky Advent Calendar was a bit of a mixed bag this year, but it finished with a golden flourish.


Solstice Unspools

Another winter unspools

Winter’s coil

Welcome Winter Solstice 2013. Last year I was relieved that the Mayan End of Days turned into just another day; this year, I’m relieved that the icy grip of early winter thawed for long enough to do some end of year, last-minute garden work.

We’ve been keeping ourselves warm with our Whisky Advent Calendar, and there are a couple of standouts thus far. Both of them are Speyside single malts.

One is the Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask, which is aged in oak casks for fourteen years before being transferred to rum casks for a finishing touch. Very smooth and rich in caramel and vanilla notes, it also carries a swingy basket of exotic fruit – mango, nectarine.

The other current favorite was a discovery for me, a Tomintoul 14 Year Old. It had a creamy, almost buttery taste, like an almond croissant, with a bit of apple and orange. It also seems to be a good value for its reasonable price.

Mistletoe hangs in a tree near our house

Mistletoe hangs in a tree near our house

I’m ready – well, as ready as I’ll ever be – for the snow to pile up.

Better, I’m ready for my favorite part of the winter solstice, the lengthening of days, the shortening of nights.

That said, now that the fog of the last couple of weeks has lifted, it’s almost ungrateful to wish for shorter nights, as the clear sky has been an indigo veil cast with countless gems and the crown jewel of the Full Cold Moon.

A little moon music to warm the coming winter nights.

Whisky Thanksgiving

We’ve had our Whisky Advent Calendar sitting on a shelf for weeks now, and it was a consolation to us yesterday. Yes, we have already entered the final month of a year that has flown by, but on the bright side, we got to open the first day of our whisky calendar.

The first red-waxed dram was a nice surprise, 17-year-old Balvenie Doublewood. As the 12-year-old Doublewood is one of our standards, we were happy to try its more aged sibling. Both are aged in oak casks before being switched to sherry casks. DSC01955

This is a lovely whisky, from the meady, sweet apple aroma to the smooth oak, fruit and spice taste. It’s got a lot of body and depth combined with that light Balvenie touch.

The bad news is, it’s quite expensive and not always easy to come by.

The good news is, although it’s excellent, we found that it drifted a wee bit much into sweet liqueur territory for our taste.

Maybe it’s because we just spent an expat Thanksgiving weekend gorging on pecan pie and pumpkin pie and our taste buds have been strangely affected, but we’ll be sticking with the more pedestrian 12-year-old version.

Between the Advent Calendar, and the fact that we got through our Thanksgiving in London without alerting the local fire department, it was a pretty good beginning to winter’s dawn.balvenie-doublewood-17-year-old-whisky

Whisky Wheel, Bilingual

Over on Whisky For Girls, Rachel MacNeill recently posted an English-Gaelic guide to translating the flavors of whisky – uisge beatha (‘water of life’).

I’ve taken the liberty of making a ‘whisky flavour wheel’ from her list, and I hope I haven’t made too many mistakes! But I thought it would be a fun tool, and Rachel has promised a tutorial in proper pronunciation soon.

English Gaelic Whisky Flavor Wheel Source: PK Read

English Gaelic Whisky Flavor Wheel
Source: PK Read

It’s not as complex as the one I’ve been using, but it’s quite enough for a bit of bilingual tasting and fun.

Locavores and Disruptive Technologies

A recent exchange with woman whisky writer Rachel MacNeill last week about whiskies produced in Austria was based on a misunderstanding. I thought she had been to a tasting of Austrian-produced whiskies, when actually she had been holding a whisky tasting in Austria.

The moment between miscommunication and clarification, though, got me thinking that whisky is the latest Chardonnay, i.e. that popular alcohol known mainly from France that gained enough cachet to become a popular marketing target for development all over the world.

The global demand for whisky has expanded over the past few years, so it’s natural that other people besides the traditionally known producers would want to get involved, driven by passion or business, or both.

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009) Source: Master Of Malt

Per Capita World Whisky Demand (2009)
Source: Master Of Malt

In this age of globalization when we often can’t follow the long comet tail of a product’s origins, there’s a cachet to buying locally. New small-batch whisky producers have been springing up around the world over the last few years, many placing a heavy emphasis on their local roots.

Whisky has an image of slow production. It’s bottled time, something to be savored. Mind you, I’m talking about aged sipping whisky here, not the rough stuff meant for doing shots, or destined for mixed drinks.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me – although this says more about my naivete than whisky production – that there are new whisky producers who have aimed to speed the production process along a faster than the usual multi-year start-up time required of a whisky distillery.

Some small batch distilleries use the straightforward method of using smaller oak casks to increase the surface area of whisky against the oak surface.

One distillery uses a sort of pressure cooker combined with oak wood cuttings to process unaged whiskey bought elsewhere (getting back to the quick Chardonnay trend again), another company has developed a technique of oxidation and ultrasonic waves to process product.

TerrePure by Terressentia Image: Gizmodo

TerrePure by Terressentia
Image: Gizmodo

A couple of quotes from a New York Times article:

“In a matter of weeks, if not less, we have product coming out that rivals 10- to 12-year-olds.”

“Twelve to 18 hours will completely clean 250 gallons of whiskey in a way that is far better than barrel aging.”

So, what is whisky? If it’s simply a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash at less than 190 proof, with the defining characteristic of being stored in wooden containers for some length of time, than whisky is as versatile in its manifestations as beer.

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

I like trying local stuff, and when I travel, I always try to get a taste of something I can’t get anywhere else. So I would definitely try local whiskies even if they’ve been rushed with what has been called ‘disruptive technologies’. And I am big fan of buying local and supporting small businesses.

But in the end, time rushes by so quickly all on its own without rushing an ageing process. Comparing these fast-forward methods with traditional ageing might persuade newcomers, but I don’t anticipate many long-term whisky fans will be swayed beyond the appeal of trying something novel.

Origin doesn’t matter as much to me if the whisky is good. But in the long run, I’ll probably be sticking with the whiskies that have captured a bit of time in a bottle.

Mortlach 70 Year Old Image:

Mortlach 70 Year Old

*On a side note, I found this, the Austrian Whisky Association, a group of fourteen distilleries making whisky in Austria. I’m not sure whether they export at all.

Seasonal Calendar

On an evening run last night, the sky was blazing while the meadows and paths held strange flying carpets of white. 13100060

Autumn is creeping in, leaving the first tentative misty patches at ground level before the great fogs of winter settle over the Lake Geneva basin. 13100056

Time to prepare for the upcoming season. And so I ordered my Whisky Advent Calendar 2013 for this year. There are two versions, ‘regular’ and ‘premium’. the-whisky-advent-calendar

Yes, I cheated and took a peek at the the contents of the ‘regular’ set of 24 little bottles, and was satisfied enough that I ordered that rather than the more expensive ‘premium’. After all, I’d like to try drams of whiskies I could conceivably afford to buy should I take a fancy to one. A friend ordered the ‘premium’, and I look forward to her detailed reports and recommendations.

But mostly, I look forward to sharing the 24 Advent drams with my husband over the course of a December that will hopefully be filled with more blazing skies than thick layers of fog.

I ordered my calendar here.  There is also a Gin Advent Calendar, as well.

A little autumn music for the season:

Lovin’ Spoonful

We had a thick storm that made itself known at our elevation with pounding rain and a swirling stewpot of black clouds. When the grey haze lifted, the Jura mountains were dusted in season’s first snow and the temperature had plunged.

I thought I’d escaped the bug that was bothering me all last week, but yesterday it came back with a vengeance and an epic sneezing fit. So I hobbled through the day and then decided to use a little home remedy to make sure I got some sleep. It’s cold enough now for hot evening drinks.

The ever-reliable Hot Toddy, friend of stuffy heads and cranky moods. According to whisky expert Charlie MacLean, the hot toddy was invented in the 18th century, a workaround solution to sell raw Scotch. Sugared fruits, honey or spices were added to raw whisky to disguise the taste, with hot water to dissolve them.

Many cultures have their own forms of heated alchoholic remedies. Most seem to involve simply mixing a favorite spirit with hot water and something sugary. One Japanese version is the tamagozake – heated sake with a raw egg mixed in until just cooked, and honey or sugar. I haven’t tried it, but as long as it doesn’t just turn into sake-flavored scrambled eggs, why not?

It’s always been clear to me that the main benefit of drinking my kind of hot toddy – hot water, whisky, honey and lemon juice – was the hot water and lemon juice. Probably most of the alcohol in the whisky evaporates in the boiling water, anyway. But enough remains that I think it helps me get just a bit more of a restful sleep than I might otherwise achieve.

All the necessary ingredients - including fresh ginger for the non-whisky version. Source: Gourmet Traveller

All the necessary ingredients – including fresh ginger for the non-whisky version.
Source: Gourmet Traveller

So, with the soothing effects of my first hot toddy of the season, I managed an excellent night’s rest, and woke this morning to find that my cold was all but gone. Miraculous effects of the hot toddy? Probably whatever I had has simply run its course. The average cold lasts 7-10 days, whatever bug I caught first made itself known over a week ago, so that’s a distinct possibility.

But I definitely feel better post-toddy than I did pre-toddy.

I don’t make my hot toddies very strong – just a one short shot of whisky with a lot of water goes a long way when I’m sick. I made the mistake a couple of years ago of adding a shot of very smoky, peaty whisky, which is one I won’t repeat.

My very basic Hot Toddy consists of a shot of smooth whisky (last night I used Singleton), a mug of hot water, mixed with a sweet heaping spoonful of mild honey and juice from half a lemon. Easy. I found a few interesting, fancier versions here, but I’ll be sticking with my tried-and-true version.

After all, it worked last night, right?

And here’s a musical Lovin’ Spoonful to push back those autumn chills.


Garlands of Hops

Hop garlands at the Fat Pig Freehouse. The garlands were brought in to celebrate the brewery opening on Sept. 14, but will last several months, growing more golden as they age. Photo: PK Read

Hop garlands at the Fat Pig Freehouse. The garlands were brought in to celebrate the brewery opening on Sept. 14, but will last several months, growing more golden as they age.
Photo: PK Read

Over at the Fat Pig Freehouse in Exeter, UK, the place is draped in long garlands of fresh hops, green and fragrant. The Fat Pig is a homey pub, no televisions, no sports, all food locally sourced and freshly made in the kitchen. It claims to be Exeter’s first brewery pub, with a spanking new beer brewery on the premises. I can’t verify that as I don’t know Exeter all that well, but I can state that the Fat Pig India Pale Ale is light, herbal and very tasty.

Although I got quite lost trying to find the Fat Pig – it’s tucked down an ever-so-slightly dark and dodgy side street at the far end of a large shopping area – arriving there was a pleasure. Warmly lit, friendly crowd. I got pulled into a Big Life Questions kind of conversation by the neighboring table almost immediately, and that’s always a fun introduction to a place.

I was sent down to the Fat Pig by the Tiny, barkeep at its sister pub the Rusty Bike (more on that another day), mainly because the whisky collection at the Fat Pig was supposed to be quite extensive – and it didn’t disappoint.

Hop garlands. Photo: PK Read

Hop garlands.
Photo: PK Read

As to the whiskies, I tried out the Speyside Singleton of Dufftown 12-year-old first, and was pleasantly surprised by its sherried brown sugar and burnt apple smoothness, with a bit of oakiness at the end. This is such an easy whisky to like, I would almost recommend it for anyone wanting to try single malt whisky for the first time.singleton-of-dufftown-12-ans

It was so smooth I almost decided to stick with that, but fortunately I decided to try a Highland Island single malt instead, the limited bottling of the Arran 16-year-old.

The Arran was less sugary than the Singleton, a bit less smooth – but rich, creamy, honeyed and for my palate, more interesting. Notes of various spices, especially nutmeg, and citrus. 16yo-BottleTube-Single

That and a plate of house-smoked pork ribs – from pigs raised by the Fat Pig’s owner – completed a really good evening.

As it turned out, finding my way home was much easier than finding the pub in the first place. I know my way now, though, so I can find it again on my next visit.

And in honor of the mellow mood at the Fat Pig, here’s a smooth bit of mildly pork-related jazz by Charles Mingus for a lazy Sunday, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Serendipitous Walk

Near St. Austell, earlier this year. If I had known about Hicks & Heaney whiskey back then, I would have gone in search for it.  Photo: PK Read

Near St. Austell, earlier this year. If I had known about Hicks & Healey whiskey back then, I would have gone in search of it.
Photo: PK Read

I read some time ago about a new whisky produced in Cornwall, the first in 300 years. Small-batch, impossibly difficult to get a hold of, and well out of my normal price range. Hicks & Healey, who spell their whisky with an ‘e’. Cornish whiskey, made with Cornish barley and local spring water. It’s a collaboration between St. Austell’s Brewery and Healey’s Cider Farm.1

I love trying drinks, foods, customs that are highly localised, so of course I was intrigued. But Hicks & Healey’s is hardly the kind of drink that your average whisky bar is going to have sitting around. At a limited edition of only a few hundred bottles a year, this is specialized stuff.

So, this weekend, I am back up in Exeter with my daughter. I thought to myself, maybe I should try and find a sip of H&H, but St. Austell is just a bit too far outside my driving range for this short visit, so I had silently chalked this up to one experience I was not yet destined to have.

Mill on the Exe

Mill on the Exe

Instead, we took a long walk down to the Mill on the Exe, a riverside restaurant and pub that gets very high praise from visitors and which we hadn’t yet tried.  It’s a lively and excellent place. We had a lovely meal, tasty wine, and I decided to see what kinds of whiskies were stocked at the bar.

Chatting with the bartender, I decided to revisit Monkey Shoulder – my first impression of it last year was good but not great, and I like second chances so that’s what Monkey Shoulder was going to get. And as we were talking over whiskies, Ashley Millgate – who turned out to be the manager of the establishment – mentioned that he had bought a wonderful, limited edition Cornish whisky.3

Well, long story short, Ashley went up and got his own private bottle of – you guessed it – Hicks & Healey, bottle number 105. Then Ashley went beyond the bounds of regular hospitality and offered me a taste.

It’s funny how small, unspoken wishes can sometimes manifest themselves in our daily lives.

I don’t know which was better – the light, floating caramel, apple flavors of this unusual, delicate and rare whiskey with an ‘e’, or the generosity and friendliness of a fellow whisky enthusiast.

All in all, a perfect whisky experience, and a great night out. Thank you, Ashley and thank you, Hicks & Healey.


St. Austell Brewery website