When you see Aberlour’s A’Bunadh, it is quite obvious this is not your run-of-the-mill whisky: the deep tawny-red color is highlighted by a clear glass bottle, short with a high shoulder. The spirit is clear, and when backlighted has tones of polished oak, but when in shadow, the whisky looks like an alchemist’s reagent for making dragon blood. Or maybe it is dragon’s blood—it’s strong enough! Bottled typically around 60% (my bottling, #46, is at 60.4%), A’bunadh has enough kick to get anyone’s attention. This is a spirit to be approached with respect.
Tobermory is one of those was-mothballed, now-resuscitated distilleries which is now producing a high quality product. It’s considered an island distillery, being on the isle of Mull (north of Islay and Jura, south of Skye), but the style isn’t like what we think of as an island malt. It does not have the medicinal quality of a Talisker or Caol Ila, nor the peat of an Ardbeg, nor the smoke of a Laphroaig or Lagavulin. In fact, Tobermory reminds me of a Speyside or lowland malt (as we’ll see, this is no great surprise).
Bought in 1993 by Burns Stewart, the Ledaig distillery, as it was known, has since been expanded and sold a few more times. The current owners are embracing the craft expression, with 46.3% ABV and (since 2010) a non-chill filtered finish. I like the former, as I can add water to taste, but frankly I haven’t been amazed nor confounded by the absence or presence (respectively) of chill filtration to date. Others may carry the torch for that battle (and they do). I need a head-to-head comparison to sort that out.
This is a bit unfair to old JWB — he wants to just keep walking, but just as the old boy saunters past the once-garish, now-tatty hawker’s booth nestled in the seawall of Old Brighton, just west of the pier, out come a couple yobs wielding – wait for it – glencairn glasses. Frightening. You guessed it, we’re not just looking at old JW Black here, but comparing him to another Black and a simian. And even a single-malt. Which we gotta do as there are 1000 reviews of JWB around – we need some spice for this old pottage.
Johnnie Walker comes up a lot in my reviews of blends because I consider the Black a damn good whisky for the price. At $40 US (two Jacksons), you get a consistent product which has enough character to sip neat. And yet, do I buy it often? No, because like my wife and her cooking, I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m always trying new things, even when I’ve found something I like. Johnny Black is like a Seymour Duncan ‘JB’ guitar pickup – reliable in character, and although you know you’ll stray, it’s also known you’ll return home now and then to its comfortable familiarity. It even has a similar name, and costs about the same. Weird, huh?
I first heard about Bunnahabhain while walking around Edinburgh back in 1992. I had been making my way down to high street from Nelson’s column on a Sunday. Not much was open, the skies were leaden, the city quiet. It wasn’t late but the light dim — it was November in Scotland, and that means short days. I was making the most of a day off after having done some business with Heriot-Watt University. Heriot-Watt is notable for being the college where James Bond went to school. I heard that from another Bond fan, I’m not entirely sure this is so, but we’ll let it go for now. What is certain is that they are involved in the country’s business education and especially the whisky business. They even had their own bottling of whisky, and I brought back a sample. I have the bottle still, but the spirit is long gone, so no solid review of that, though I remember not being too taken by it at the time.
The folks at Heriot-Watt were quite friendly, though they had taken particular care in softening up the young greenhorn from the U.S. That had been a day to remember, mainly due to the challenge of remembering it. Professor Scott had dosed me with my first taste of cask-strength whisky, taken me out for Chinese food and a cigar, then on a pub crawl. It was a hell of an introduction to Scottish social life. I’ll never forget him leaning over to me at one pub and saying, “If a Scotsman smashes his glass against the bar, watch out, because he’s gonna swipe it across your face!”
Nevertheless I felt some affection and brotherhood towards my cousins from across the sea (being a long-lost MacNaughton, after all). I enjoyed my time there and took advantage of Sunday’s quiet to tramp all over town. While I stopped in front of a liquor shop’s picture window to gaze at the bottles, another gent wandered up and took station beside me. “It’s too bad they’re closed,” I said. My accent tagged me as an American but he didn’t seem to mind. “What’s your favorite?” I asked after some small talk.
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:
- The Balvenie
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.
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.