That Certain Something

The Balvenie 125 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 125
Photo: Ernie Button

Some time ago I posted the intriguing images of Ernie Button, who took photographs of dried whisky at the bottom of glasses.

Button tried taking photos of other spirits at the bottom of glasses, but nothing else offered up quite the imagery of aged whisky.

He turned to a researcher in fluid mechanics, Dr. Howard A. Stone, to gain some insight into the why behind the beauty.

The Balvenie Doublewood 101 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie Doublewood 101
Photo: Ernie Button

Previous work has been done on the science of coffee rings, an issue of particle dispersion.

But while coffee is made of, well, coffee particles and water, whisky is made of two liquids – water and ethyl alcohol, which evaporate at different rates.  And, whisky contains something else – polymers that create the patterns as the liquids evaporate.

The coffee ring effect:

Coffee, like many liquids, contains tiny, spherical particles (see the video below). When a drop of the liquid dries, forces push the particles toward the edge, where they are deposited in a thick line. Image/Text: Peter J. Yunker & Arjun G. Yodh/University of Pennsylvania

Coffee, like many liquids, contains tiny, spherical particles (see the video below). When a drop of the liquid dries, forces push the particles toward the edge, where they are deposited in a thick line.
Image/Text: Peter J. Yunker & Arjun G. Yodh/University of Pennsylvania

What I like about this research is that for the moment is that the molecules responsible for the patterns don’t seem to exist in any of the other spirits or liquids tested. Cognac, for example, creates no such patterns when it dries. Some whiskies work better than others.

The images here are of some of my favorite whiskies, all from The Balvenie.

The Balvenie 140 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 140
Photo: Ernie Button

Researchers have not yet been able to replicate the effect by mixing water, a ethyl alcohol and particles and letting them evaporate.

The scientists and Mr. Button suspect that it is something that occurs during the whisky ageing process, some unidentified molecules that seep in with the time and flavour, that are at the heart of the matter.

I’m sure at some point this puzzle will be solved.

Still, there’s a part of me that hopes whisky will be able to keep some of its secrets.

The Balvenie 129 Photo: Ernie Button

The Balvenie 129
Photo: Ernie Button


Variations on a Theme

Peonies (without flash)

Peonies (without flash)

It’s the season of peonies, one of my favorite flowers. We have several peony bushes out in the garden, but a good friend brought over a bouquet yesterday that included a couple of spectacular blossoms.

I tried to capture the color explosion once without a flash, and once with a flash, using my phone camera.

The flowers are the same, but the flavor of each image is different.

This week the fates conspired to provide me, not only with beautiful flowers, but with a variety of Balvenie whiskies.

We usually have a bottle of Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old around, so that’s nothing unusual. Over the past week or so, we’ve been traveling, and we picked up two other bottlings in duty-free areas of the airports we passed through.

We have a Balvenie Triple Cask 12 Year Old, as well as a Balvenie 21-Year-Old Portwood Finish.

Peonies (with flash)

Peonies (with flash)

Last night we tried the two next to one another.

We started with the oldest. The Portwood 21 Year Old is pretty special. It’s matured in traditional oak casks, then transferred to port casks for final ageing. This whisky is such a treat, and is really worth savoring. It’s very rich, has a warm but subtle hint of peat and oak, and for me, tasted of tart apple cider with honey, red berries and malt. Luscious.

The Balvenie Triple Cask series has three bottlings: 12, 16 and 25 years. As far as I can tell, all three are only sold as ‘travel exclusives’, i.e. in duty-free shops. The whisky goes through three types of casks:  ‘traditional refill casks’, ‘first-fill ex-Bourbon barrels’, and  ‘first-fill Oloroso sherry butts’.

Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it well, because the Triple Cask 12 Year is mellow, smooth, with just a whisper of smoke, dried apricot, sherry, burnt sugar and vanilla.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to try the Portwood first, because the Triple Cask tasted almost simple by comparison. But once we settled into it, the younger whisky was also a delight.

And after those two whiskies, even the water tasted wonderful.

A few other fine variations for Sunday.


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

A bit of whisky, a few Bad Seeds

The summer oven of heat got turned up a few notches this week, and I’ve been keeping within the cool confines of our stone house as much as possible. If I don’t move much, and stay mostly in rooms kept shadowed from the sun by the green volets (the old wood shutters that close with iron hooks that let air in but hold the sun at bay), I can make it through most days without keeping my feet in a pan of ice water. It goes without saying that an old French house like ours doesn’t have air-conditioning.

But we can’t spend all our time indoors, and yesterday we ventured out to the Paleo Festival in Nyon, an annual music festival with six stages, countless bands, and a week-long schedule, all set out in a field near Lake Geneva. My good friend, journalist Catherine Nelson-Pollard, goes every year, and she took a few aerial shots earlier this week on a morning before the festival got underway. Her blog, Living in Nyon, has a great round-up of the Paleo festival as well as terrific photos.

This is the nearby town of Nyon, Switzerland.

And this is the festival grounds about ten minutes from the medieval town. The festival, now in its 38th year, attracts just under a quarter-million visitors and has a large campsite. There are around 170 acts this year.

Paleo Festival Nyon 2013
Photo: Catherine Nelson-Pollard / Living in Nyon

The thermometer was up around 33°C (91°F) when we arrived at 7:30 in the evening – clouds of mist issued from water walls, a fireman patrolled, spraying water on any festival-goers who looked overheated. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly, very international (around 40% of residents in this area are foreigners who work international companies and organizations headquartered in the Lake Geneva region), and in spite of the heat, large crowds were dancing to the various bands on the different stages.

But we were there to see one act in particular: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This is a group I remember from my university days, and we were excited to get to see them live. They didn’t disappoint. The band was dressed in funereal black suits, the lighting was as indigo-shaded as the music, and as the concert progressed and the sun sank behind the mountains, the twilight sky matched the mood of the ballads and tales of life’s dusky underbellies. Nick Cave’s akimbo moves and basso storytelling were mesmerizing. The crowd was ecstatic and the show was better than we could have hoped. balvenie-doublewood-12-year-old-whisky

We met the heat with large bottles of water, but deep whisky music calls for good whisky, which is why we brought along a flask of The Balvenie Doublewood 12-year-old to share (yes, Paleo lets you bring in your own food and drink). Smooth, hints of sweet amber from the ageing in sherry casks, some spice and just a faint hint of dark smoke, it is almost too cheerful a drink for the dire lyrics of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but nevertheless, added just the right flavor.

In honor of my physicist hubby and festival partner who braved the Lake Geneva heat with me, here’s the Higgs Boson Blues.


Paleo festival website

Living in Nyon website