Scotch Lesson #1: History

The Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old Scotch LabelIt’s always important to get your facts straight when discussing something that you are passionate about.  Unfortunately, whiskey seems to be one of those topics that most people think they know, but they are way off.  A few weeks back, I posted a little lesson about bourbon.  Like most things labeled “American”, its roots are European, and bourbon has Scotland and Ireland to thank for getting the whiskey movement going.

Unfortunately for us enthusiasts, the origination of whiskey is unknown.  The written word “whiskey” (or whisky) comes from the the term “uisge beatha” which means “water of life“.  This term was later shortened to “uishie” which is where we get our modern day translation.  The Scots claim to have begun the process and the Irish counter that argument relentlessly.  Regardless of who started distilling it and why, the sale or trade of whiskey began in the 15th century.

So, why did it take so long to develop this drink, when wine had been around since before the time of Christ?  And why did it happen in Northwestern Europe of all places?

Geographic areas like the Middle East and Southern Europe have been fermenting grapes into wine for what seems like forever.  The mild-to-hot climate in these areas makes harvesting a non-issue.  Scotland is another story.  Not to be left out, the Scots (or Irish depending on who you ask) began distilling fermented cereals; a mix of ingredients easy to obtain in their climate.  To their surprise, this created a whole new type of end product.

This liquid was not always used for recreational human consumption.  Doctors became very interested in this for its medicinal purposes, both for treating illnesses and preserving organs.  Once the distillers began to understand how to condense the liquids and repeat the distillation process, they quickly discovered that this could be drunk!

Of course, the Scottish government saw a wonderful opportunity to tax this new product, and both legal and illegal whiskey distillation began in the late 17th century.  In some geographic regions, there was one legally licensed distillery for every fifty illegal distilleries!  After a couple centuries of turmoil between the government and the distillers, agreements on taxing were reached, and the industry began to prosper once more.

As an American drinking Scotch, I have to thank Prohibition!  Yes, it sounds counter-intuitive, but hear me out.  Because whiskey-making in the United States and neighboring countries was no longer regulated in any way, the quality of that whiskey suffered tremendously.  Those powerful enough to demand a better product, brought in single malt Scotch.  Although Prohibition was lifted in 1933, we still feel the residual effects as the United States remains a big market for quality Scotch.

There you have it; a very brief, concise history of Scotch and whiskey in general.  Your next lesson will be on the five main Scottish geographic locations; Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown.  Class dismissed!



Ten High Bourbon – Review

Ten High BourbonTen High Kentucky Straight Sour Mash Bourbon Whiskey

80 Proof

Price Point: $10 – $15 for 750 ML

Distiller: Barton Distilling Company



All of the whiskeys I have reviewed thus far have been shown in a favorable light.  Frankly speaking, it’s not easy to find a whiskey that I will not enjoy in one capacity or another.  I guess it’s a curse; a wonderful curse.

Ten High will most likely rank at the bottom of my reviews at it is probably the lowest quality whiskey I have ever tasted.  However, it’s still whiskey, and I can still fight through it and enjoy it.



The nose of Ten High is offensive.  Yes, that’s a harsh assessment, but I have pledged to be completely open and honest in this blog, and that’s just how I feel.  You’re really not smelling a bourbon, but a cheap, flavorless, well spirit.  It might as well be a vodka with brown food coloring.  It almost has the aroma of ammonia (try saying that 10 times fast!).

The taste isn’t much better.  Drinking it neat, as I always do for my reviews, Ten High repels rather than invites.  After a couple of seconds in your mouth, the flavor shows up a little, but not all that much.  It’s similar to other basic bourbons, such as Benchmark, but definitely missing a lot of those elements.

The aftertaste is nothing to get excited about.


Rating & Recommendations

Okay, so the moment of truth awaits; the rating.  At my lowest rating ever, I give Ten High a 52 out of 100.

After this review, if you still find the need to drink Ten High, or god forbid buy a bottle for yourself, drink it with a mixer.  No need to drink this stuff in the fashion of an Eagle Rare or Booker’s; clearly you are either on a budget or out of options at a friend’s house.

Do me a favor and don’t waste your time with Ten High.  Although it’s still technically a whiskey, you can find much better offerings for only a couple bucks more.



How I Review

Whiskey SnifterOkay, so I’m a little OCD.  Okay, more than a little.

I really cling on to habits, and I crave a sense of order in my life.  If you haven’t figured it out yet, this blog is no exception.  I post a review every Saturday and a bit of “Whiskey Trivia” on Wednesday.  My reviews are always in a certain format and seldom venture too far off from that formula.  My images are all shot and edited in a consistent way, and my writing style doesn’t differ too much from blog post to blog post.

So, if I’m that crazy, how do I organize my reviews?

It’s really pretty simple.  First, I find a whiskey in my collection that fits into a category I haven’t reviewed in a little while.  If I just reviewed a Scotch, then I might review a bourbon.  If I already reviewed those, I might check out a rye whiskey.

After selection, I make sure I have a picture of the bottle.  I pour just a little bit into a snifter with no ice or water.  I’ll then smell the whiskey and start to write my background story.  Typically, I have some kind of story to share about how I came to hear about the whiskey or what my first experience with it was.

Next, I do my best to identify the key characteristics of the nose of the whiskey.  I try to spend as much time as I can on this section before taking that first sip (which is actually very difficult!).  Once I am ready, I take a small sip, and let the whiskey sit in my mouth for a little while.  I try to absorb all of the flavors and determine what I can pick up from the taste.  I’ll do this several times until I have an accurate description of the full spectrum of the whiskey being reviewed.  Afterward, I will identify the aftertaste and the associated experiences.

The last thing I do is rate the whiskey.  My rating system isn’t an exact science; rather comparing the whiskey I am reviewing relative to the rest of the whiskeys I have tried in my lifetime on a scale from 1 to 100.

So that’s it!  Not much to it, but I hope it helps produce some interesting reviews.



Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old Scotch – Review

Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old ScotchThe Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky

80 Proof

Price Point: $40 – $50 for 750 ML

Distiller: The Macallan Distillers Ltd.



Sometimes when choosing a whiskey to try, you just have to go with your gut instinct.  You won’t always know every whiskey in the store, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try those of which you have no prior knowledge.

I bought my bottle of the Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old a few weeks back when looking for a good Scotch for my wife’s birthday.  I wanted something other than the typical stuff, so I decided to purchase a bottle of which I knew nothing about.  The Macallan is priced reasonably and has a nice package, so I thought I’d give it a shot.



The Macallan Fine Oak has a nose that immediately gives its flavor away.  Although light in color, you can quickly tell that this is just as robust a Scotch as any other Highland single malt.  Fruit notes are present, particularly apples and pears.

The flavors in the Macallan Fine Oak are all Scotch with none of the peat.  There are a variety of fruits in this whisky, most notably pears.

The aftertaste is a bit harsh for such a fruity Scotch.  It’s not quite as smooth as one would expect for a light colored whisky.  The lingering taste is less defined by the fruitiness and more by the Scotch flavor.


Rating & Recommendations

The Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old is a decent Scotch, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I rate this particular Scotch a 77 out of 100.

I usually urge any Scotch drinkers to prepare their drinks neat.  But, this one really needs a splash of water to make an impression.  I would even recommend throwing a couple cubes of ice in your glass in the absence of water just to bring down its harshness a bit.

To me, this Scotch served its primary purpose.  I was looking for something new to try, and I found it.  I would be curious to try the more mature expressions that the Macallan has to offer, but I’m not entirely impressed with this one.



Whiskey Profiling

Fancy RyanProfiling is wrong.  Especially when it’s done by age.

Admittedly, I understand that I am not the typical whiskey drinker.  I’m in my mid-twenties, and my typical street clothes involve some kind of Philadelphia Flyers apparel.  Surely I wouldn’t enjoy two fingers of Knob Creek, let alone know anything about the brand!  Yet, that’s the impression that I get from time to time.

Just two weeks ago, I was shopping for my wife’s birthday.  Like me, she is a huge fan of whiskey – Scotch specifically.  I went to the local state store and was browsing the Scotch section.  I picked out a Macallan Fine Oak 10 Year Old and a Glenfiddich 12 Year Old.  When I got to the check-out counter, I was asked by the clerk if these were gifts.  Okay, so they were gifts…for my wife…that I would be enjoying with her.  Needless to say, his question had me thinking that he had assumed I knew nothing about what I was buying and was simply doing something nice for a friend.

Recently at Whiskey Fest Philadelphia, I noticed a similar pattern of profiling.  I went with my dad, who fits the demographic of a whiskey conniseour.  However, I must point out that he is not a big fan of Scotch – more of a bourbon man.  When we visited the booths of brands like Balvenie and Glenmorangie, I quickly noticed that I would ask the questions, and the vendors would look my dad in the eye when they answered.  How rude, I thought!

I suppose I’m a bit idealistic to think that this type of behavior wouldn’t be the norm.  Then again, as a businessman I sort of see where they’re coming from.  From a numbers point of view, I’m not the money-maker for the state store employee or the vendor representative.  Either way, it’s tough being profiled.



Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey – Review

Stranahan's Colorado WhiskeyStranahan’s Colorado Straight Rocky Mountain Whiskey

94 Proof

Price Point: $50 – $60 for 750 ML

Distiller: Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey



I first learned about Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey at my company’s Christmas party this past year.  I learned, ahead of time, from the party organizer that only beer and wine would be served.  I was in trouble.

About a half hour after arriving, I headed off to the corner with my concealed bottle of Buffalo Trace.  While pouring, I noticed that the husband of one of our executives was walking toward me.  I panicked for a moment, but there was nothing I could do.  He asked me what I was drinking and I showed him the bottle, hoping I wasn’t in too much trouble.  Contrary to my initial thoughts, we began a conversation about whiskey; apparently he’s a big bourbon fan!  He started telling me about Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, a brand I knew nothing about.  He said it was his personal favorite, and that I needed to give it a try.  A few months later, I had a bottle special ordered, and it quickly became one of my favorites.



Just as stated in my review of Yamazaki 12 Year Old, I was completely surprised by the nose of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.  It has a very fruity, florally smell, but with the harshness of a bourbon.

This whiskey is truly unique in its taste as well.  A variety of fruits are instantly present, followed by a heavy presence of leather and slight hint of tobacco.  Stranahan’s has the florally taste of a light Scotch, with the robust full-body of a bourbon.  Be warned that this is a very sweet whiskey as well.

Afterwards, you’ll taste the full spectrum of fruit and leather, which will linger with you for a long time.


Rating & Recommendations

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey is a very good whiskey, and certainly worth trying if you’re looking for something a little different.  I give this whiskey an 88 out of 100 because it clearly stands out as a fun, young whiskey.

Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey has a whole lot of flavor to offer.  This kind of whiskey, in my opinion, shouldn’t be diluted with ice.  I would recommend drinking it neat or with a splash of water.

I was surprised (pleasantly) by my first experiences with Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.  I would definitely recommend this to somebody looking to branch out and try something different from what they’re used to.



Whiskey Fest 2011

Whiskey Fest 2011 Forty CreekWhat a memorable night.  Stolen bottles, a World Series MVP, and Occupy Philly.  And then there was Whiskey Fest!

2011 marked my first Whiskey Fest, and it certainly won’t be my last.  My whiskey mentor (AKA my dad) offered to bring me along a couple months back when a contact of his gave him a couple of free tickets.  I certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity as most of the whiskeys available to try are offerings I couldn’t rationally purchase (without my wife wringing my neck of course).  After a long, traffic-riddled drive to Philadelphia from the suburbs, we looked up at the Crystal Tea Room from the street and noticed the excruciatingly long line.  This was going to suck.

We found parking, and made our way to the building.  We took the elevator up and walked to the back of what must have been a 300 person line.  Out of nowhere, a woman spotted my dad and told us that we didn’t have to wait in line.  When I reached out to shake her hand, she instead handed me a bracelet and ushered me to the front of the line.  I liked where the night was taking me.

We made our way upstairs, and spent a few minutes mingling with my dad’s contacts.  [Full disclosure – my dad has been in the spirits business for, well, before I was born.  He knows the business extremely well, and in turn, knows everybody else in the business.  This was his first year not exhibiting at the show, but we still had to make the rounds.]  Then the fun began.

Whiskey Fest is just like any other trade show, where tables are set-up, and representatives tell you a little more about their products.  You can very quickly and easily determine who works for the company and who is a hired model; not just by their appearance, but by their knowledge and comfort level with the product(s).  There is also the clear difference between the big guys who shell out a fortune to be seen in big ways, and the little guys who have not much more than a tablecloth and a few bottles.

I made it a point to only try whiskeys that I had not previously tried.  This proved to be much easier than anticipated, as the selection at Whiskey Fest was very broad.  Below is the list of whiskeys I was fortunate enough to sample last night.  I tried a few rums and spiced whiskeys (yuck!), but decided not to list them here.

So you’re probably wondering what the first sentence of this blog post was all about.  The events listed actually occurred in sequential order, and all followed my conclusion of sampling of whiskey.  Once we were all done mingling and tasting, we headed back to one of the booths that my dad had the most contacts in.  [Full disclosure – he used to work for this company and is still friendly with everyone present at the show last night.]

We were all standing around talking, when my dad noticed somebody had just swiped a bottle from one of the tables and walked away.  One of the guys in our group, who happened to be a master distiller and the size of a truck, spotted the thief, ran after him, and retrieved the bottle pretty easily.  He found it unbelievable, as did we, that the bottle burglar decided to steal a $25 whiskey when he could have walked two tables down and stolen a $250 bottle.

Occupy PhillyAlmost immediately following this incident, I notice a very tall, very skinny man walking up to the table we were behind.  It was none other than Cole Hamels.  Surprisingly, nobody was following him or pestering him for autographs and pictures.  I have met a decent amount of athletes and celebrities in my life, and do my best not to make a big deal or have them go out of their way.  I walked up to him, and simply asked for a handshake and said it was a pleasure to meet him.  Of course, after I discreetly did my thing, the masses came out asking for more than a handshake.  Oh well…

The last bit of fun occurred as we were making our way back to the car.  In some bizarre turn of events, we ended up in the subway system and under City Hall.  Of course, we wound up right in the middle of Occupy Philly.  For those of you that don’t know, protesters have been camping (literally) at City Hall in Philadelphia for about a month and a half.  I’m still not entirely sure what they’re protesting, but it was interesting to listen to them and be in the middle of my generation’s form of 60’s protests.

All in all, it was a great night.  I got to try and learn about a huge number of great whiskeys.  I will surely be buying one or two of the above-mentioned expressions and reviewing in the future.  Can’t wait until next year.



Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey – Review

Michter's Unblended American WhiskeyMichter’s Small Batch Unblended American Whiskey

83.4 Proof

Price Point: $30 – $35 for 750 ML

Distiller: Michter’s American Whiskey Co.



My wife and I are easy targets for whiskey marketers.  When we go into a liquor store, 50% of the time we have an idea of what we’re looking for.  The other 50% of the time, we rely on the packaging of the products to steer our purchasing decision.  We bought our bottle of Michter’s about six months ago simply because our eyes were drawn to the unique label (and because we hadn’t tried it yet).

It was a decision between the Unblended American and the Rye.  Because we already had a decent assortments of ryes, and we were intrigued by the idea of a “non-bourbon American”, we opted for the former.  Had our state store carried Michter’s Bourbon, we would have been in quite a predicament.



From the nose itself, you can immediately tell that Michter’s Unblended American will be somewhat rye-heavy.  It smells somewhat strong, as 41.7% alcohol percentage would suggest.

Tasting this whiskey will quickly remind you of the fact that this is not a bourbon.  It has its own unique qualities due to its “signature filtration” process, as stated on the back of the bottle.  As hinted in the nose, a rye taste is present, but not overpowering.  A sweetness, familiar to maple syrup, lingers as well.  The sweet/bitter mix makes for an interesting combination.

The aftertaste retains the sweetness and rye tastes combined.


Rating & Recommendations

Michter’s Unblended American is unique enough to warrant a try.  It’s different than a bourbon, as any bottle marked differently should be.  I give this whiskey an 83 out of 100 because it still intrigues me without standing out as a superior whiskey.

This whiskey shouldn’t be mixed, although the Michter’s website suggests using their variations for cooking and cocktails.  I certainly give them more credit than that, and think that Michter’s Unblended American should be drunk on the rocks.

This whiskey did a pretty good job of drawing me in.  The packaging prompted the initial purpose, and the intrigue of its flavor makes me want to branch out and try one of the other offerings from Michter’s.



What is Bourbon?

What is BourbonAhh yes, the word that everybody loves to throw around; bourbon.  Whiskey drinkers around the world use this word, but often out of context.  Not all American whiskey is bourbon.  In fact, my next review will be Michter’s Unblended American, a small batch whiskey distilled in bourbon country, but does not qualify as a bourbon.

So what’s the difference?  And why does the allure of this word create such a fuss for whiskey experts?  And why should it matter to the casual whiskey drinker?

One of the great things about whiskey around the world is how highly regulated it is.  Of course, when we hear the word “regulation”, our minds immediately shift to politics and whichever end of the spectrum the media has steered us to at this present time.  When it comes to whiskey, regulation is a good thing.  Because of the strict rules associated with distilling spirits, the consumer (you) get all the benefits of a high-quality end product.  If there was no regulation, you could just as well be drinking grain alcohol.

Whiskey can only be called “bourbon” when it meets a clear set of criteria.  If a distiller misses, or adds to, any of the procedures outlined below, the whiskey cannot be called bourbon.

  • Bourbon is whiskey produced from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn.
  • The spirit reaches no more than 80% ABV in the final distillation, and can be put into the barrel at no more than 62.5% ABV.
  • The barrel must be made of new, charred oak, and the whiskey must stay in the barrel at least two years to be labeled straight whiskey; if it is aged less than four years, the age must be stated on the bottle (more than four years, and it’s up to the distiller).
  • No coloring or flavoring may be added to the whiskey, and it must be bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV.

“But Ryan, I thought bourbon was from Kentucky!”  Yes, you’d be correct in stating that most bourbons are distilled in Kentucky.  But that is certainly not a requirement for a whiskey to be labeled bourbon.

“Okay, but what about Jack Daniel’s?  Why is that a Tennessee whiskey and not a bourbon?”  Well first and foremost, kudos for not confusing Jack Daniel’s with bourbon (as most whiskey novices do).  Jack Daniel’s follows all of the steps outlined above, so why isn’t it a bourbon?  It’s because when they distill their whiskey, Jack Daniel’s puts the liquid through an extra mellowing filtration process.  The “sugar maple charcoal” adds a little more sweetness to the flavor.  As stated above, even if you add something extra to the process, your whiskey cannot be called a bourbon.

Despite the strict rules and regulations, bourbon can vary from brand to brand, or even bottle to bottle.  There’s plenty of variety to discover, and it’s comforting for me to know that the word “bourbon” on my bottle ensures a high-quality whiskey inside.



Ardbeg 10 Year Old Scotch – Review

Ardbeg 10 Year Old ScotchArdbeg 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

92 Proof

Price Point: $50-$60 for 750 ML

Distiller: Ardbeg Distillery Limited



I never thought I would enjoy Ardbeg.

My first experience with it was about two years ago.  My father was educating me on Scotch for the first time, starting with Highland malts and progressing to Islay.  Because I did not have any experience with Scotch, the more peaty and smoky the whisky got, the more I was turned off by Scotch.  Talisker was the second-to-last whisky on the flight, and I couldn’t imagine a more repulsive taste.  That was, until I tried Ardbeg.

My first sip of Ardbeg tasted awful.  I immediately told my dad that I would never drink this whisky again.  How wrong I was.



To the trained nose, the aroma of Ardbeg is truly wonderful.  It is overpoweringly smoky.  It barely even suggests that it is a whisky.  Even looking at it in your glass, it seems a bit off.  It’s a very light colored Scotch, contrary to what the dark green bottle will lead you to believe.  Ardbeg is opaque, in that even in a shallow glass, you cannot see through it due to it not being chill-filtered.

Ardbeg’s taste is completely unique.  The nose really gives away the taste of this Scotch.  Immediately you will taste the smoke and iodine.  You are truly tasting the crashing waves of the coast of Scotland.  I will warn any Scotch amateurs that Ardbeg is most definitely an acquired taste.  You may want to save this one until you have a bit more experience.


Rating & Recommendations

Ardbeg is easily my favorite Islay Scotch.  I rate it an 87 out of 100 because it is an excellent whisky, but not for every day.

Ardbeg is probably too high proof to drink neat.  I recommend drinking this Scotch on the rocks.

I learned a very valuable lesson from Ardbeg.  Just because you don’t enjoy a whisky the first time doesn’t mean you should give up on it.  It could very well become your favorite if you just give it another chance.