Whisky and Words Number 55: Talisker 57° North

The 57 Degrees North. A fine whisky.

Normally, I review whiskies one can find at a reasonably well stocked liquor store. But now and then I cover something a bit harder to get. In this case, my wife had the Talisker 57° N shipped from Scotland for my (57th) birthday. I can imagine the cost of shipping rivaled that of the whisky. I have searched about 10 online liquor shops in the US and none of them had this expression. But if my wife can get it, so can you. It just takes will…and some extra cash.

Talisker intended this whisky to be a tribute to their remote location on the isle of Skye, 57° North latitude. What do they say about it? On their website, Talisker 57° is said to be “an untamed, natural expression of the Talisker’s full power: a volcanic, intensely appealing flavour that most drinkers will have only experienced in a cask strength bottling.” Indeed, 57% alcohol is pretty strong, a true 100 proof. True cask strength whiskies (except for the oldest) are typically higher than that, but 57% is on the cusp. Their flavor map has it dead center in weight, and pretty high on the smoky range. It’s not far from where they put their 10-year expression. I also find the label appealingly similar, the classic off-white label with Talisker in an embossed-style font.

Diageo kept the classic design for this expression.

There is a bit more on the carton, telling us they’ve aged the spirit in American oak refill casks, and it is “Sweet to start, and explodes with smoke and volcanic pepper.” Wow, I did not know volcanoes made pepper, got to get me some of that. I like pepper.

So, where’s the there, you wonder? On the pour, it doesn’t assault the room like a Laphroaig, but that’s not the Talisker way with peat. (Talisker tends to be medicinal in its phenolic content, not oily and ashy like the Islay peat monsters.) I find the nose very similar to the 10, but richer in the top end, where the grassier aromas from the oak are found and lighter on the bottom end, where the 10 brings more fruit to the nose. It’s nice – we probably have younger whiskies in this dram (it’s a NAS after all) but the malt master has done a great job selecting casks to bring out the best in young whiskies. There is no sting from the alcohol: they’ve really nailed the heart on this dram. There are 43% whiskies that sting far more than you’ll get from the 57.

The Talisker 10 (l) and 57 North (r) are very close in color. Sad day for lighting though.

So, on to the taste. I expected..well, it’s a NAS of which I am always dubious and the tasting notes were a bit over the top but yowee, they deliver on this whisky. At first, straight, no water needed, you notice the very nice caramel sweetness and then moments later, the ‘volcanic’ pepper does indeed explode. Holy cow. And then it gets smoky, in a less oily way than an Islay whisky. As I say in my tasting notes, a sip of this is like a drag on a truly good cigar. This is a roller coaster of flavor. Where the 10 is smooth, medical and subtle in its smokiness and spice, the 57 makes no bones about its flavor profile. It’s a big, but precise, flavor delivery engine.

Talisker 57° North, Island (Skye) Single Malt, NAS, 57% ABV

Nose: Very maritime: seaweed, earthy peat, like the 10 but more so. Sweet red apple, celery, fresh cut grass. Smoke is persistent but not overwhelming or oily. Surprisingly gentle on the nose for a near-cask-strength whisky.
Palate: Big toffee and caramel lead, and I get a bit of apple and strawberries. The sweet is quickly balanced by the traditional Talisker medicinal phenols (a bit Listerine, in a good way). Wow, yes it does explode in the peppery spice on the sides of the tongue, transitioning to a hefty serving of ashy smoke near the end, like a drag on a really good cigar. Remarkably smooth for a strong whisky; there is no harshness on the throat.
Finish: The ash stays with you once the pepper finishes its beat-down of the caramel and toffee; those spicy notes continue to balance as the smoke lingers.

Bottom Line: An exceedingly well done NAS whisky. And for a change, the tasting notes from the malt master are dead on. I have to say, the 57, along with the very solid standard ’10’ and the awesome 25-year-old I tried in New York really cements my appreciation for the brand. I am not letting my friends have any more of this. I’m totally going to hog this whisky. Kudos to the best-of-all-wives for ordering this from the Home Country!

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Book Review (2 of 2): Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

Even though I found Blood Meridian tedious, I had already reserved All the Pretty Horses from the library plus, my wife had read it, so I figured I’d give it a go. It is better than Meridian. McCarthy lays off the heavy use of run-ons, got rid of his thesaurus (see my review of Blood Meridian for his obnoxious thesaurus-itis in that book) and the plot has enough elements to it (most of the time) that it kept my interest. There are several extended scenes that kept me reading later than I would have, wherein the fate of the protagonist is in doubt. Again, the descriptions are the forte, and in this case, the focus is not all on horror, but the beauty of a Southwest and Mexico which no longer exist.

TL;DR: A kid (again…) that loves horses goes off to Mexico (Cormac pattern here…). Hooks up w/buddy and one bad ‘un. Gets in some trouble. Gets work, falls in love with rich girl (of course) who (of course) loves him back (why we never know…no romantic development). Lovely descriptions, not so bad run-ons (see Blood Meridian if you want horrific use of run-ons). Kid gets in serious trouble, almost dies, gets paid off to leave girl alone. Goes after his horses, which nearly gets him killed. Deus Ex machina several instances. At the end, he rides off into sunset. Really. It’s a lot of reading to set an atmosphere and I think that’s what McCarthy is after (as his plotting is minimal and characterizations unchanging): setting a longing for a time that never was (for most of us).

Some notable quotes (CM likes to go deep): “it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.” Cheery, as is his wont. He gets a bit less depressing with this gem: “That all courage was a form of constancy. That it was always himself that the coward abandoned first. After this all other betrayals came easily.” Still, he has a talent for taking a positive characteristic, in this case courage, and viewing it from the negative.

And sometimes he’s surprisingly mundane: “In history there are no control groups.

Also, he is REALLY into horses: “The horse had a good natural gait and as he rode he talked to it and told it things about the world that were true in his experience and he told it things he thought could be true to see how they would sound if they were said. He told the horse why he liked it and why he’d chosen it to be his horse and he said that he would allow no harm to come to it.” CM could have called this the Horse Whisperer.

All in all, it kept me interested, though at times frustrated at dearth of character development. His style does not delve extensively into their self-reflection. Their motivations speak through their actions and in the dialogue (which is minimal, in truth). In this book, McCarthy does lay foundations, such as the protagonist’s relationship with his father, his family’s ranch (which he loses), his way of life and even the ranch hands he grew up with. But I really do not see him tie them together into a coherent whole that motivate the character. Sometimes the protagonist seems to do things because the plot requires them and I don’t buy it.As I said above, Deus Ex Machina raises it’s head several times. And there is some Mary Sue here as well. I really do not see how a sixteen year old would have amassed the life wisdom to pull himself out of all those scrapes. These issues keep this book out of my 5-star camp. Still, it’s a good book and worth reading.

Book review (1 of 2): Cormac McCarthy,Blood Meridian

McCarthy is duly famous and you hear his work bandied around by serious readers which I suppose I was once, though I don’t have the patience to plough through heavy philosophy any more. That’s where McCarthy is going, but philosophy steeped in Western ethos and smells – and especially horse-thought. Yes, I said horse-thought. He gets really into horses. I’ve read two of his works in quick succession.

Blood Meridian. I started with as this is McCarthy’s first ‘notable’ work according to Wikipedia. This is a bit tongue in cheek, but really…Blood Meridian can be summarized as tedious and pretentious, if sometimes gorgeous. I usually do not recount plots in my book reviews but this one really begs me to for its ridiculousness. Also, the plot hews to the essence of this review, as it is tedious: A guy (‘kid’ – yes, really, you never get to know his name) hooks up w/ bad people, rides into Mexico. They see Apache slaughter people, so they slaughter people. The gang gets to a town, promise to kill bad guys, go out and kill the people they are meant to protect. Rinse and repeat. At the end the kid runs into someone he rode with who was odd, is still odd, who kills him in an outhouse. Nice. No discernible character development. Super detailed descriptions of the Southwest but brutal run-on sentences for days. Pretentious in concept as well as vocabulary. The author fell into a thesaurus. Should have been a short story! Would have been great.

Some really obscure word choices: pyrolatrous, spanceled, preterite, holothurians. Amazing. He really had me running for the dictionary, and for no really good reason.

I noted that though descriptions are his high point, McCarthy’s descriptions are mostly horrible: “The mummied corpse hung from the crosstree with its mouth gaped in a raw hole, a thing of leather and bone scoured by the pumice winds off the lake and the pale tree of the ribs showing through the scraps of hide that hung from the breast.

Example Run-on: “They saw the governor himself erect and formal within his silkmullioned sulky clatter forth from the double doors of the palace courtyard and they saw one day a pack of vicious looking humans mounted on unshod indian ponies riding half drunk through the streets, bearded, barbarous, clad in the skins of animals stitched up with thews and armed with weapons of every description, revolvers of enormous weight and bowieknives the size of claymores and short twobarreled rifles with bores you could stick your thumbs in and the trappings of their horses fashioned out of human skin and their bridles woven up from human hair and decorated with human teeth and the riders wearing scapulars or necklaces of dried and blackened human ears and the horses raw looking and wild in the eye and their teeth bared like feral dogs and riding also in the company a number of halfnaked savages reeling in the saddle, dangerous, filthy, brutal, the whole like a visitation from some heathen land where they and others like them fed on human flesh.” There were lots of these monstrosities.

Bottom line: Read for the horror and gore. Makes his later works seem more approachable.

Whisky and Words Number 54: Johnnie Walker Blue Label

Don’t step on my blue suede shoes, Johnnie

Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label is a no age statement blended whisky that sells for $200 for a 750 ml. bottle. That’s some coin for a blend! So what makes JW’s Blue so special? According to Johnnie Walker (link above) the Blue is:

an exquisite combination of Scotland’s rarest and most exceptional whiskies. Only one in every ten thousand casks has the elusive quality, character and flavor to deliver the remarkable signature taste.” They also give us some of the constituent whiskies: “Johnnie Walker Blue Label is created using a selection of rare casks from the Speyside and Highland distilleries – including delicate Cardhu and Clynelish, warm, rounded Benrinnes, as well as Islay malts for our signature smokiness.

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Whisky and Words Number 53: Ballantine’s 12 vs. Johnnie Walker Black

My  Dewars vs. Johnnie Walker Red post was so popular, I reprised with the Irish titans, Bushmills vs. Jameson. Today, it’s Ballantine’s 12 vs. the venerable (and titanic) Johnnie Walker Black, another 12-year old blend.

The Ballantine’s story

Ballantine’s 12 – a black label…coincidence?

So, who are behind Ballantine’s? George, the namesake, started his distillery in 1827, and gained some recognition in 1895 with a royal warrant. Ballantine’s Finest was developed in 1910. Their main expression, it sells 200,000 bottles a day according to their site. Assuming a 700 ml bottle, that’s 51 million liters a year! Prodigious. In 1959, they came up with the 12-year expression which is the subject of this review.

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Whisky and Words Number 52: Edradour 10-year

The Edradour 10-year Distiller’s Edition. Dark and lovely.

I first encountered Edradour whisky at The Ship Inn, located on the water in a little town called Stonehaven. Stonehaven is just north of Dunnottar Castle on the east coast of Scotland. The Ship Inn had a hefty book full of single malts to try and I liked their description of the Edradour 10-year. You can read the description in the photo below. It was a good dram, and I was pleased to find when I returned to the US I could find a 10-year ‘Distillery Edition’ in my state. I do not know if it is the same expression as I had at the Ship inn, as that might have been their cask-strength version, which is also 10-year aged (and non-chill-filtered).

Description of the whisky at the Ship Inn. Click to zoom.

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