Oh Taste & See: Caol Ila 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch

If you read this blog frequently you know that I drink a lot more American whiskey than I do Scotch whisky, but when the stars align there's nothing that compares to a big, peaty Islay single malt. On a cold night by a smoky campfire or in celebration of any major milestone serious Scotch like Caol Ila's 12 Year Old single malt is the natural way to go.

The original Caol Ila distillery was built in 1846, but the current distillery has only been around since the 1970's. It overlooks the sound between Islay and Jura, and is currently owned by global spirits-giant Diageo. Although not the most widely known Islay single malt, Caol Ila is highly regarded by critics and connoisseurs and is actually a decent value at around $60 per bottle.

Color: Caol Ila is a relatively light whisky in terms of flavor, proof (86), and color, and you're clued-in to this right away by the pale, yellow-straw hue as you pour it into the glass. Based on color you'd guess that it is younger than its 12 Year age statement, but nosing and tasting it will renew your faith in its age.

Nose: The nose on Caol Ila is very powerful, but not quite as dominating as some other Islay malts - it's still\ a serious Islay whisky, but turned down just one notch so that you can hear what's going on behind the peat. There are notes of damp, muddy grass, hints of honey, leather and springtime rain. The peat is out front, but plays well with the other aromas, especially as the drink sits for a bit.

Flavor: Caol Ila is a light, clean tasting single-malt. The flavors are mostly peaty and smoky, but I also taste buttered corn, honey, some oaky-tannins, and a bit of sweet malt. It's a relatively simple-tasting whiskey, but it's very well balanced and enjoyable, even a bit refreshing which isn't what you expect in an Islay whisky.

Finish: The peat flavors linger for a while along with cinnamon and spice later in the finish. Overall the finish is very long and this whisky is at its best towards the final fade-away, encouraging you to take that next sip and start the process all over again.


Oh Taste & See: Wathen's Single Barrel Bourbon

Wathen's Kentucky Bourbon is one of those whiskeys that is a bit hard to figure out, at least in terms of exactly where, how, and by whom it was made. The bottle says that it was distilled in Kentucky, but it also says "Bottled By Charles Medley Distillery, San Jose, CA". To add further confusion, Wathen's website claims that the Charles Medley Distillery is in Owensboro, KY. That distillery is definitely there, and is owned by the Angostura company (of bitters fame) but I can't find any evidence that it has actually produced Bourbon in the recent past.

To add to the confusion, the bottle gives no age statement, so there's no way to work backwards to when this bourbon was made. So, I'll assume that Wathen's, in its current form, is made by one of the major distilleries and that the California-based company is merely the owner of the brand. If I had to bet on which distillery it comes from I would go with Buffalo Trace in Frankfort, but I'd love to hear a more definitive answer to this question. For now check this out for more on this part of the story.

All that mystery aside, there's no mystery as to the quality of the bourbon inside my Wathen's bottle - it is excellent. In fact this is one of the best bourbon's I've tried in a long time, and I wouldn't hesitate to pick up another bottle the next time I see one since it's fairly priced for a single-barrel bourbon at $37.99.

Note: This is a single barrel bourbon, so it could vary greatly from one batch to another. My bottle is listed as being from Barrel Number 304, bottled on 3/7/11.

Color: Wathen's has a classic, deep orange color reminiscent of polished maple furniture. Not too dark or too light, but a just right middle-ground.

Nose: The nose is a classic essence of sweet bourbon. There are hints of citrus, orange marmalade, vanilla, and oak. It's a clean, fresh aroma.

Flavor: Wathen's has a rich flavor that starts out sweet with raisins, vanilla, cherries, and oranges and then opens up to nice hot peppers and spice. A very smooth and pleasant bourbon to sip, and all the flavors hold up well to a couple cubes of ice for a hot summer day. Overall it's sweet without feeling sticky or heavy.

Finish: There's a nice bit of spicy burn on the tongue as the taste fades. The finish is smooth with long-lingering spice and grape flavors.

Overall this bourbon reminds me of another of my favorites, 1792 Ridgemont Reserve, because it provides plenty of complexity in a very smooth, easy-drinking bourbon that still has some bite to it. Hopefully one day they'll tell us the full story on this delightful bourbon.


Whiskey Book Review: The Social History of Bourbon

The Social History of BourbonDisclaimer: this book took me a long while to get through, so I apologize to the author if I forget anything from the first half. Given that The Social History of Bourbon by Gerald Carson was published in 1963, I thought it would be acceptable to take my time with it since nothing in there could be late-breaking news. Like many a well-aged bourbon, this book went down just fine as a slow and easy sipper.

The Social History of Bourbon attempts to tell the story of bourbon from its humble beginnings as unaged corn whiskey on the American frontier to its revered place in the society of the early 1960's (when the book was originally published). It's interesting to read about bourbon from the perspective of a time when it was not at the peak of its popularity. I would say that bourbon is much more popular today that it was when this book was written, making the book itself an interesting historical artifact.

Nothing in this book is new to a reader with a basic understanding of American whiskey history, but the author does use numerous detailed anecdotes and examples to make the general outline of history come to life. Some of these anecdotes veer into the overly mundane and boring, but some of the whiskey-fueled stories are downright hilarious, and paint a vivid picture of whiskey's role in early America. The author also does a good job of remaining neutral on such touchy questions as who invented bourbon, and how exactly bourbon is best defined. He tells all sides of the story fairly and does a good job of telling all of the stories that are tangentially related to bourbon without veering to far out of bounds.

My overall take-away is that this is an entertaining book if you're a whiskey history buff, and a must have reference if you're doing serious research on bourbon's place in history. It can also be fun if you're willing to jump around from one entertaining anecdote to the next. However, as a straight-through read it's a bit overly academic and quite lengthy, perhaps best enjoyed slowly, one sip at a time, just like a fine bourbon.


Whiskey Book Review: Boozehound

Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in SpiritsOver the course of a quick summer vacation I was able to breeze through a very entertaining and educational book called Boozehound by Jason Wilson. The subtitle of the book is On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, which sums things up very nicely and really reels you in if you're the type of person who reads blogs like mine. The author is the Spirits Columnist for the Washington Post, a great job title if ever there was one, and he also has some local Philadelphia connections - former Philadelphia Magazine writer, teacher at Drexel University, and resident of South Jersey, just over the river. The dry wit and snide humor that I've read in Wilson's columns comes through perfectly in book form, and makes for a breezy, fun read even for non-spirits-snobs.

In Boozehound the author weaves together historical and personal anecdotes centered on spirits ranging from obscure Italian bitters to politically charged Caribbean rums. He reminds his American readers that in many parts of the world spirits are consumed very differently than we are used to, and he tempts us to go out and buy-and-try all sorts of foreign elixirs. Thankfully, if you do end up making a trip to the liquor store after each chapter, the book also includes many excellent cocktail recipes so that you can recreate the drinking experiences it describes at home in your kitchen.

Since this is a whiskey blog I have to give the disclaimer that Boozehound is not particularly focused on whiskey. This doesn't make it any less interesting to the whiskey drinker though because many of the spirits that Boozehound discusses are currently in a state of obscurity, at least in the U.S., much as whiskey has been at different points in time. Tracing the ebbs and flows of different spirits' popularity and their relationships to popular culture is, to me, what this book does so well. Wilson gives praise where it is due - usually but not always to the rare and obscure - and he calls out the overrated whenever appropriate. His editorializing adds a big dash of fun to a very educational book which makes it perfect for summer beach reading.

My only complaint about this book is that it is too short. It's nine brief chapters only allow Wilson to scratch the surface of the world's rare, obscure, and overrated booze. I'm sure he has plenty more stories to tell, and I look forward to a sequel.


Back to Blogging

After taking a few weeks vacation from blogging, with an actual vacation thrown in, I'm back to writing about whiskey, and I've got some fun things to discuss and taste over the next few days. First up I'll review a couple of books that I read over my vacation, then I'll review a few whiskeys that I picked up at the duty free shops...sounds like fun for me, hope you enjoy!