Getting Weird with Homemade Blends: Some Thoughts

If you’ve ever been unlucky enough to spend some time with me, you are probably aware that one of my favorite sayings is, “If you ain’t gettin’ weird, weird is gettin’ you.”  And, it is upon that basis that a few years ago, I began to take to experimentation with blending my own whiskeys at home.  If you are one of those folks who believes that each whiskey you buy should be drank neat, then you’ve got to expand your horizons, my friend.  And, as opposed to leaping straight into making Laphroaig cocktails, why not do some dabbling with homemade blends (especially around the holidays when you’ve got all sorts of in-laws blowing up your spot)?

The biggest reason I started working with homemade blends is because of whiskeys that I was not the biggest fan of on their own merits, but saw potential in their flavors.  The first ever blend I created at home (and I always recommend starting with a glass and then working up to a full batch) originated from my having a bottle of Willett rye that was a little hot for my tastes, with some heavy herbal notes that were not my favorite.  To be sure, this Willett was not bad whiskey, merely not my favorite.  So, to bring in some sweetness, but not too much, I created a glass of whisky with 1.5 ounces each of Willett rye and Wild Turkey Rare Breed.  The result was a fantastic dram, but big vanilla and spice, backed by a whispering herb garden.  I was hooked on blending.

My favorite blend that I have ever made came out of the search for good uses for Balcones Brimstone, a Texas Scrub Oak whisky that resembled a mix of gasoline and barbecue sauce.  The flavors were intense and powerful, but hot and unpleasant (it turned out to be a great cooking whiskey, too, but more on that in another post).  At around this same time, somebody gifted me a bottle of Old Crow Reserve bourbon, hardly my favorite bourbon, but decent bourbon at $15/bottle.  I started teaspooning full measures of Old Crow Reserve with Balcones Brimstone, and magic happened.  The result was a bold, brash, and balanced whiskey wafting back and forth between spicy, earthy notes, and sweet cereal flavors.  If you’ve ever thought sweet corn would taste good smothered in caramel and a Cajun dry rub, this was the blend for you.

Not every blend I have ever tried has worked out, but not every person you date ends up being your spouse, but that’s why you date them.  The reason I blend whiskeys at home is because whiskeys are like people – sometimes that friend of yours growing up that always gets the group into trouble just needs to find the right person to be with to smooth out those rough edges and create a masterpiece.  Happy blending, y’all!  Let it ride!

Highland Park 15 Year-Old Scotch Review

If you’re drinking in wintertime, why not drink whisky from the Scottish distillery closest to the Arctic Circle?  If you think Santa is not a frequent guest at the Highland Park visitor’s centre, then you know very little about the man in red.  All of this to say that today’s thoughts pertain to Highland Park 15 year-old.  Unfortunately, as I am writing this, Highland Park 15 is no longer being bottled by the distillery, as it has been replaced with the NAS Dark Origins release (I have yet to get my hands on a bottle of Dark Origins, but I will review it as soon as I do).  HP15 is aged primarily in American Oak ex-Sherry casks, and most of those casks are refill casks.  This has a profound impact on the whisky, as we shall see.  Highland Park 15 year-old is bottled at 86 proof (43% abv).

Trust me, the cookies and cocoa are all smoke and mirrors – Santa is a single malt man.

The entrance to this whisky is a great deal smokier than the 12 yr.  The nose has some lemon, lime, burning figs, wood smoke, burning diesel, and toasted coconut.  The palate is sweet and bitter, sugared limes, figs, dates, burning raisins, wood smoke, and earthy peat.  The finish starts in with bitterroot, peat, and a rolling smoke.  There is a slight twinge of heather in the finish, balancing the smoke.

The different casking in the 15 year compared to the 12 year allows the subtle smokiness of Highland Park to show itself a bit more, as well as bringing some mild citrus notes through this one.  It’s a different expression from the 12 year, not just the same whisky with 3 more years under its belt, and an expression I like every bit as much as the beloved HP12.  My grade: B+.  Price: $90-100/750ml.  Like I said, this whisky can still be found floating around liquor shops, especially here in the United States, but they will not be here forever, an unfortunate truth of life.

Lagavulin 16 year-old Scotch Review

Ever have one of those moments where you awake at night and realize you forgot something at work?  Such was this moment for me when I realized that I had never reviewed Lagavulin on my blog.  The truth is that Lagavulin needs no introduction, what with Diageo having Ron Swanson as a spokesperson and all,  but it is one of those whiskeys that it is crucial to have listed somewhere on your whiskey blog.  The reason for this is credibility – folks tend to take your opinions more seriously when they know your thoughts on Lagavulin.  Thus, without further ado, my thoughts on Lagavulin 16 year-old (bottled at 86 proof/43% abv.).

The nose is traditional Islay, peaty, with some iodine and salt mixed in, taking you right to the seashores of Scotland.  The palate opens up the full complexity of this whisky.  The peat is still there in full force, but it is backed by oak, barrel char, toffee, and some nuttiness.  The finish is rich and well-peated, but it is also smooth and complex, with undertones of vanilla and roasted nuts.

There is a reason that for many whisky-drinkers, this is the benchmark by which all other Islay base-malts are judged – it is a consistently excellent beacon in whiskymaking.  There is great balance in the smokiness and barrel flavors, and the whisky opens up to complex flavors as water is added.  My grade: A-.  Price: $60-70/750ml.  If you claim to know the truth of Islay and have not embarked upon Lagavulin’s journey, its high time.

Charbay R5 Hop Flavored Whiskey (Lot #4) Review

Today’s review is something quite different from the normal whiskey-fare, in that it is whiskey distilled from fully crafted beer.  This is the project of Charbay, to bring beers to their final destination as whiskeys.  There are several different iterations of Charbay whiskeys, ranging from stouts to IPA’s – the subject of today’s review.  This whiskey is double distilled out of Bear Republic’s famous Racer 5 IPA, aged in French Oak casks for 29 months, and bottled at 99 proof (49.5% abv). 

The whiskey is truly a different experience, like no flavors I’ve ever experienced in a whiskey before.  The nose is hot and herbal, like drying mint leaves mixed with oregano and herbal cough drops.  The palate is hot and fiery with some more herbal cough drops, fresh thyme, Simcoe hops, cumin, and pine tar.  The finish is long and dry, with oregano and poblano peppers.

While it is true that the early stages of whiskey-making and beer-making are quite similar, I know of no other distillery outside of Charbay that uses fully matured and ready to drink beer as the basis of their whiskey.  I love the creativity, but I have to admit that I am not a lover of the final product.  I enjoy hoppy beers, but in the distilling process, to my palate, the hops have become acidic and spicy to a detriment to the whiskey.  My grade: C-.  Price: $70-80/750ml.  This one is too expensive for my blood based on the way the flavors present themselves to me.  That said, it’s a cool idea, and I look forward to trying Charbay’s other products and experimenting with this whiskey in some cocktails.

Crown Royal 75th Anniversary Blend Review

Well, with everybody threatening to move to Canada, I thought it was high time I review a great Canadian whisky.  Crown Royal’s 75th Anniversary blend has been produced to honor the origins of the brand, first blended for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Canada some 75 years ago.  It is a rye-forward blend bottled at 80 proof (40% abv).

The nose is dry and oaked, with some vanilla extract, caramel, and dried mangoes.  The palate is dry and woody as well, with caramel and a light rye spice.  The finish is long and very dry with oak, dry cocoa, dark chocolate, and cinnamon sticks.  There is a unique combination of fresh oak/sawdust notes and old, mature oak in the finish.

Overall, this is a smooth as silk blend with a lot of wood influence, but it lacks complexity to be a truly epic whisky.  Even still, this is a top of the shelf Canadian dram, and a worthy pour for the purpose of such a milestone anniversary.  My grade: B+.  Price: $70-80/750ml.

Tullamore Dew 12 Year Irish Whiskey Review

I do not know what the weather has been like this spring in your neck of the woods, but here in the mid-Atlantic, its been somewhat Irish.  Windy, rainy, cold, with just enough sun thrown in to keep the grass on the golf courses green.  So, today I am reviewing a lovely Irish whiskey – Tullamore DEW 12 year-old “Special Reserve.”

The Tullamore 12-year is a blended Irish whiskey aged in both bourbon casks and Oloroso Sherry casks, a classic double-matured style Irish dram.  It is distilled at Midleton, the famed Cork distillery.  This expression was originally a travel retail exclusive, but has now been released as part of the standard Tullamore Dew range.  It is bottled at 80 proof (40% abv).

The color has a orange-ish tint to it, a beautiful color in the glass.  The nose presents apples, white zinfandel, caramel, dried pineapple, and salted walnuts.  The palate is silky smooth, with dry sherry, green apples, milk chocolate, dried plums, and some bitter white chocolate.  The finish is medium and drying with pineapple, sawdust, and dry white port notes.

On the whole, this is exactly what one would expect from a blended Irish whiskey with a substantial amount of Oloroso influence.  It presents a simple, approachable mouthfeel with balanced sweet flavors alternating from both bourbon oak and sherry oak.  My grade: B+/B.  Price: $45-50/750ml.  If you like Irish whiskey, this will be a whiskey worth trying for you, especially if you are interested in trying Irish whiskey with some different aging techniques from standard Irish blends.

The Irishman Single Malt Irish Whiskey Review

Happy Masters week, everybody!  So many folks are talking about this as the year that Rory McIlroy breaks through at the Masters, so let’s reviews some Irish juice!

The Irishman Single Malt is a limited release whiskey that I believe is made at Cooley (but I could be wrong).  It is aged in both ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, culminating in a rich golden color.  This particular review comes from Batch #1402/2014.  There is no age statement on this whiskey, and it is bottled at 80 proof.

The nose is rich and vibrant with fresh pears, toffee, white wine, and hazelnuts.  The palate is smooth and bodied, with toffee, vanilla, and green apples.  The finish is medium, dry, and sweet with orchard fruits and a whisper of oak.

Overall, this is a solid, well-built, tasty Irish whiskey.  It is exactly what I would expect from a single malt Irish whiskey, but it is hardly anything beyond that.  Only being bottled at 80 proof, it lacks some depth and punch, but it has a lot of pleasant flavors nonetheless.  My grade: B-.  Price: $40-45/750ml.  If you’ve got a friend that loves an Irish whiskey, drop them a bottle of this juice and make their day.  If you’ve got a friend that loves barrel strength bourbons, leave this one on the shelf.