Thursday, April 17, 2008
OBG Scotch tasting with Stuart Ramsay
What is the best way to spend a rainy Tuesday in Portland Oregon? If you said listening to a Scotsman teach a fascinating course on the history and lore of Scotch whisky, I think you'd be right. This was the OBG's first "bartenders only" event, our chance to give back to the community of bartenders in this state, share some good cheer, and for everyone to increase their knowledge of one of the most fascinating distilling regions in the world, Scotland. Hosted by world Scotch expert, Stuart Ramsay. Bartenders from the greater Portland area and around the state wandered in a little after noon (note to self- always leave plenty of time after the "official" start time for bartenders to show up. We're not a punctual lot), and Stuart had a table set with samples of different elements of flavors that could be contained within Scotch. For instance, one bottle contained a hand written label saying merely, "catty", which should have better been described as "cat piss". Obviously, that bottle pointed out a defect rather than a strength, but it was eye opening to see and smell samples that pinpointed a particular element that can be contained within the distillate. The peat sample was eye opening as well, being able to smell it as a singular component versus as part of a whole bouquet helped me understand what undertones that the peat may contribute to an overall product.
We eventually all took our seats and Stuart brought out the first surprise of the day. A 3 day old Scotch from the Milton Duff distillery. Young and fiery, it was delicious, but as Stuart pointed out to us, only 1/2 of the flavor in Scotch comes from the distillate. The other 1/2 comes from the wood that the Scotch is stored in, and by tasting a raw Scotch, it was apparent as we moved into aged Scotches what flavors that the different woods added to a particular product.
Next up was one of my favorites of the tasting, Benroamach. A light, Speyside Scotch, I got a lot of fruit and spice on my palate with some smoke, but not an overpowering peaty/smoky flavor. I just needed some smoked salmon with this Scotch and I would have been in heaven,
We then moved into blended scotches, as a reference point for our palates. We tasted Chivas Regal, which, as Stuart pointed out, would be perfect in a Scotch and soda, but lacked real any real complexity on the palate. The Chivas 18, which was next up, was fuller bodied and clearly the better made product. I could enjoy a glass of Chivas 18, its not something that I would necessarily seek out, but I definitely found it enjoyable and well made.
Auchentoshan 10 brought us back into the single malts. This whisky was loaded with caramel and vanilla notes, and it was light bodied (probably the result of a triple distillation) and smooth. Stuart referred to this as a "breakfast scotch" due to its light nature and agreeable style. We followed the Auchentoshan 10 with Auchentoshan Three Wood. Matured in bourbon, oloroso sherry casks and pedro ximinez barrels, this was a sweet whisky. I found it redolent of honey and apricots and it had a long, complex nutty (walnuts particularly) finish that lasted 5 over 5 minutes. The triple wood was a hit with the bartenders attending as well, as I could see a buzz start to move through the crowd as people started comparing tasting notes.
Glenlivet Nadurra came next, offering a sweet whisky packed with honeyed vanilla, orange peel, and cinnamon. At 59.2% alcohol (cask strength), I expected this to be hot, and needing a little water or an ice cube to open it up, but I really enjoyed drinking it neat. Its finished in 100% American oak, unusual to be sure for a 16 yr old Scotch, but I think that was what contributed the heavy vanilla overtones to this whisky. Another bottle to add to my shopping list.
Aberlour's a'bunadh came next, finished in Oloroso sherry casks and bottled at cask strength at 59.6%. Another interesting Speyside, it was a fun scotch to taste, but it may have been hurt by being consumed right after the Nadurra.
Next, Stuart took is to Islay to finish off the tasting. He opened and poured us Bowmore, again bottled at cask strength, that I found big, salty, herbal and slightly medicinal, but in a good way. This was a Scotch that I would have hated even a few years ago, but I guess tastes keep changing even into middle age.
Finally, we tasted Lagavulin 16, a hugely complex, smoky and briny scotch, and a perfect cap to a wonderful educational experience on yet another wet Oregon day. Lagavulin is a classic Islay scotch, though not one for the faint of heart. This is complex and not something that everyone would enjoy. In fact, while I'll enjoy this on occasion, when I'm behind the bar, I'll really feel people out before I recommend Lagavulin to them. No point in turning anyone off of Scotch, especially when some of the products like we tasted are already on the market.
Unfortunately, even the most perfect things come to an end, and this was one of them. At least we were well prepared to face the cold rigors of the wet day when we finally did have to leave.