I recently reviewed a book on my future fiction blog (here) which was essentially a celebration of pulp genre – unabashedly raw, rambunctious, and disgusting in parts. A lot of folks liked it, giving 4 & 5 stars on Goodreads. It was a little over the top for me and I wondered if maybe I’m behind the times. I miss things. We don’t have cable — that was a conscious decision before having kids — though we do have internet. (That was not a superfluous decision in the beginning!)
One might be tempted to bemoan the callow ‘modern era’ as being desensitized by video games, violent movies and sex on TV. Take Game of Thrones. I first was introduced to GOT on an airplane, when the gent next to me opened his laptop and started playing the first episode. Look, this was coach, it is hard not to see naked women cavorting in my peripheral vision. He was on the aisle, too, so there were a good 5 rows with a view. I thought he had something from Bob Guccione going over there. I was rather taken aback. Later, I discovered it was Game of Thrones, available to anyone on HBO. Yeah, things had gotten pretty steamy on cable since I had last watched it.
Bushmills white was the first whisky I actually savored. I was young, and impressionable, and thinking myself sophisticated — yet without means of acquiring sophistication. I’d muffed an opportunity to get my life together enough for higher education, so I worked a series of jobs and looked where I could for inspiration in our small town. I had read a book by Jack Higgins, The Eagle has Landed, in which a character named Devlin (an Irish revolutionary) helps out some Nazi paratroopers. It’s an outlandish plot delivered with aplomb and I remember Devlin favoring a specific Irish whisky, Bushmills. As fortune would have it, the local liquor/convenience store across from which I worked had Bushmills in stock and a compliant late-night clerk who would sell us adult (but not adult enough for America) working stiffs some booze.
I had also read that serious students at the university would speak gravely when they were reading The Russians, so I quickly learned who The Russians were (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, that lot) and began ending my day with Lev Nikolayevich and a glass of Bushmills.
So, one wonders if my early search for sophistication was at all well-founded? I’d have to say at least it set my taste for whisky. I’d had bourbon now and then with friends and not liked what I found — an overpowering fruity/sweet nose. That and I overindulged once, and anything that remotely reminded me of bourbon made me ill for some years. But Bushmills has a taste very different of that from the American whiskies. It is light, clean, and refreshing compared to old-school bourbons. That’s no surprise, as the mash bill and process is quite different. Whereas the American whiskies use a lot of corn, in Ireland it is barley and barley malt that goes into their whiskies. That and the Irish triple-distillation would make a sizable difference. Finally, being a blend, Bushmills has some grain whiskies added as well.
At $22 locally, Bushmills white label is in the rotation still at my house. We call on it when a non-peated dram is desired — which, for my wife, is most of the time. I call on Teachers for a taste of smoke for that same price.
Nose: Not like any other whisky I’ve tried and I still struggle to describe it. Grassy? A bit of sweetness, a touch of green peppers, dustiness.
Taste: Distinct barley taste, just a touch of sweetness, roses, oranges, plums. Nicely balanced.
Finish: Clean and quick. A touch of oak tannins.
Bottom line: Quick on the finish but a very good dram for a non-peaty night. Great value.
Since I can’t afford to drink a single malt every day (or nearly every day as moderation dictates), I’ve been looking for something to usurp the place of Johnnie Walker Black and Bushmills Black at my house. Those are both respected and popular blends, and they have enough complexity and refinement to provide a nice grown-up reward after a hard day.
As blends, both contain grain alcohol to dilute the single malt component. In the case of Johnnie Walker, the distiller claims a mix of 40 single malts, and the best information I have (here) is that there is about 23% grain whisky in the mix. With forty individual malts in JWB, the character will be diluted, if predictable. And that describes JWB: predictable. It used to be my go-to dram for the average day, but at its price point (about $40 US where I live), it’s a bit pricey for a daily dram. Bushmills Black is another very good whisky with a cleaner, spicier taste which the wife prefers. There are some decent single malts near that price — even some aged as long as JWB (12 years). Thus, I’ve been looking for a Scotch whose price falls in between JWB and the range of blends like Johnnie Walker Red, Teachers (about 45% single malts), and Black Grouse — reasonably good and reasonably priced blends.
And thus we come to Monkey Shoulder. This Scotch is a blend. But it’s a bit special. In the old days, they would have called Monkey Shoulder a vatted malt — a mix of single malts, no grain alcohol added. That William Grant & Sons have produced a vatted malt priced ($32 locally) well below the blacks from both Johnnie Walker and Bushmills is pretty amazing. One wonders how they do it. To determine that, we’ll have to investigate what is in the Monkey Shoulder blend.
First of all, there are three Speyside malts in Monkey Shoulder (see label photo below). We can guess these include the single-malt members of the William Grant family — both Speysiders:
That’s only two single malts — but that’s just the malts Grant sells as single malt. Not all distilleries’ output is sold that way, the single malt being a relatively new (20th century) invention. A clue to Grant’s sources for Monkey Shoulder is found on the Grant website: “Grant’s owns a number of malt and grain whisky distilleries in Scotland.” So we can assume there are distilleries in the Grant family making malt whisky which is not being sold as a single malt, but included in the Monkey and other blends (the firm’s Grant’s Family Reserve line has 25 malts blended). They may even buy some malts from other distillers.
Long ago, in the dark ages of the Internet, when half the links led to sites with the ‘digging man’ in yellow and an “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” banner, I found a site that assisted the harried Father and Husband (as it was assumed by the host) to do his taxes. The video was presented by a stately-looking gent, grey hair (white at the temples), wire-framed glasses, a white dress shirt and, if I remember correctly (this was almost 20 years ago), a tan cardigan. He could have been a lawyer, or the family doctor (nothing so pretentious as a specialist, mind you.) He stood behind a wide wooden desk, a leather wingback chair and bookcases in the background.
In a calm voice, he began with now-familiar advice: “Get your papers in order. Take your time. Arrange your forms to the left, then your income statements and bank returns to the right.” Ah, yes, the old ‘lay it out neatly’ approach.
Then he stood up, straightened his glasses and pronounced this little gem: “When you’ve finished, and your forms are sorted, pour your first whisky.”
A fine tax tip indeed. And that was just the first whisky — there were more to be had — after the Schedule A was completed, for example. Then after Schedule D, when all of those stock transactions (he assumed) were entered. For this guide, the drinks were breadcrumbs in the Forest of Tax Drudgery, little rewards to draw the striving taxpayer along the way and keep him calm.
The Aviators is a good read for the detail-oriented reader with a passion for history and personality. Groom did an amazing job researching his subjects and the result is a very satisfying portrayal of three very driven, talented and certainly lucky men. From their beginnings in various motorsports to military (or adventure) flying, each had a track from field to flight which echoed the others, and Groom points out the similarities as well as divergence of their fates and fortunes. I really enjoyed the view into the cockpit — of Lindbergh’s Spirit, Doolittle’s experimental windowless cockpit, Lindbergh’s biplane fighter. Highly recommended.
Why not mix them up? Some of the greatest writers have drunk whisky. I’m not advocating that for anyone — I never write unless I’m sober, and responsible imbibing is the message here. But I think they can go together. I often have a dram while I’m reading. Both I do at the end of the day to relax. And since I muse a lot about other weird stuff, I’ll be writing about whisky to relax, too.
Note: what I won’t be doing is getting overly-wrought in my descriptions. I do not pretend to be a super-taster, capable of discriminating upon which Caribbean island my toffee was browned. And that’s OK as most likely, you aren’t either. So we’ll keep it sane.
Whisky Review: The Macallan 12
So let’s start with a standard and safe selection, a dram no one will criticize you for buying and everyone will enjoy (no overpowering peat, smoke or oil). The Macallan 12-year-old.
Whenever you see a whisky that’s ‘the’ something, you can bet it has been around a long time. But it does not necessarily mean it is good. ‘The Glenlivet’ 12-year-old, for example, has been around for ages. The Glenlivet is the first single-malt many (such as I ) tried and it has admirers, but to me, the cost/benefit just is not there. The Glenlivet to my palate is uninspiring — just not a lot of ‘there’ there. For a bit more you can get Highland Park 12, which has vastly more character, or Ardbeg, .
But back to the Macallan 12. You have to give those folks at Macallan credit. They use barrels that have been used to age sherry. But not just any barrels — they buy the barrels themselves, from wood they select, then essentially rent them to the sherry producers and get them back after a single run. So Macallan guarantees a steady supply of sherry-aged oak in top condition.