25 September 2008

Whisky in the jar

A tutored tasting of Gordon & MacPhail Scotch, with Michael Urquhart.

The firm of Gordon & MacPhail isn’t a Scotch producer, principally (though they do produce a little), but instead buys unfinished or partially-finished spirits, then ages and bottles them to their own specifications; not unlike some of the old-guard négociants of Burgundy. One trigger for this sort of production model was – as with so many matters alcohol-related – Prohibition, from which many distilleries never recovered. Since then, even more of the famous old names have closed up shop (80 remain), but given the aging profile of single-malt Scotch, just because a distillery shutters doesn’t mean that there’s no whisky to sell. And that’s where Gordon & MacPhail comes in…though they their own versions of still-operating distilleries’ production.

One barrier to the U.S. market remains, and that’s our insistence on the 75 cl bottle; much Scotch comes in 70 cl form, which is illegal in the States for reasons that would only make sense to bureaucrats.

Urquhart prefaces the tasting with a brief rundown the characteristics of two kinds of Scotch barrels, about which much is made in modern Scotch-making circles: bourbon casks bring toffee and caramel characteristics, while Sherry casks enhance fruit.

And then, with few other preliminaries (it’s late in the day, and everyone’s tired from a full weekend of wine tasting) we’re on to the whisky. Prices are approximate.

Rosebank (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 16 Year Old (Lowland) – Refilled Sherry casks, triple-distilled, 46% alcohol, $70-80. Apple flowers, light and fuzzy, with a clean, simple nose. The palate introduces tropical fruit and apricot skin, but remains simple and clean. Just OK. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Speyside) – First-refill Sherry casks, $110. Paper and old furniture turned to ash, toffee, espresso dust, and raw wood, with a finish of apple that hints at cider. Long and lingering, with hints of bitter chocolate at the very end. Complex. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 21 Year Old (Highland) – Sherry casks, $110. Coconut and rough wood, baking spices (nutmeg and clove), and while it’s harsh without the mellowing effect of a little water, it eventually turns beautiful and rather supple, showing mixed chocolates, hints of fruit, and toffee cream. Very nice. (2/08)

Glen Grant (Gordon & MacPhail) 1965 (Highland) – Sherry casks, $175-200. Sour peat, humid wood, and summer leaves. Then there’s lemongrass, full-bodied spice and chocolate, followed by a finish of smooth apricot and orange. Round and full, with intensity, complexity, and passion. Stunning. (2/08)

Caol Ila (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1982 (Islay) – Sherry casks, 46% alcohol, $150. Peat smoke, iodine, dried meat and the leather that used to enclose it, with exotic flowers and confiture (mostly Mirabelle plum, but there’s Rainer cherry and peach as well). Unbelievably good, and for me the star of the tasting, though a very strong argument could be made for the Glen Grant 1965 as well. (2/08)

Lochside (Gordon & MacPhail) “Connoisseur’s Choice” 1991 (Highland) – Refilled bourbon casks, 43% alcohol, $65-70. Pastry with coffee residue, like the last dregs of a morning stop in a Parisian café, then espresso, stale toffee, almonds, hazelnut, and the drying, slightly acrid smell of flor. Flor? Yes, flor. A very dry style. Weird. (2/08)

Benromach (Gordon & MacPhail) “Organic” (Speyside) – One of the first organic whiskies. $55-60, 43% alcohol. Toffee-coated apples dipped in maple syrup, pinapple, banana, and lush milk-chocolate sweetness, with orange-chocolate candies on the finish. This is too simple-minded for me. (2/08)

Flowers in the Adriatic

[piazza dell’unita]It’s a gloomy, rainy morning. And I’ve discovered yet another problem with our hotel: the pillows are rock-hard, and my right ear feels flattened and numb. I look around our cobweb-filled room lit by the dismal grey gloom, decide that dismay is no way to start the day, trudge to the bathroom wrapped in a blanket to keep out the penetrating chill, and turn on the hot water.

It takes about ten minutes to arrive, though when it does, it’s blessedly beyond tepid; at least there’s a heat source somewhere in this hotel. Breakfast is no less dismal; despite a few house-made jams, the selection consists of crusty but flavorless bread, American cereals, bland bolognas (calling them salume would be more than they deserve) and cheeses, and canned fruit. Even the coffee isn’t good. In Italy. We leave the hotel discouraged, our mood as grey and soggy as the weather.

…continued here.

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My responsiblity is to myself and to my readers. Not to producers, importers, distributors, retailers, restauranteurs, PR agencies, or marketing entities.

13 September 2008

Separate wines, worlds apart

[upended bottle]I just got back from a trip to Norway and Denmark, and other than a fun night with some wine geeks in Bergen, wine was only occasionally on the menu. Not that it wasn’t available. In fact, many of the restaurants at which I dined had wine lists astonishing for their breadth and depth. Unfortunately, there was another astonishing thing about them: price.

The way wine is monopolized and, more importantly, taxed in the Scandinavian countries means that “everyday wine” doesn’t really exist as a category. Sure, the wines that would fit the bill elsewhere are technically available, but at shocking markups. $85 for Trimbach’s yellow-label riesling. $82 for the Hugel “Gentil.” And so forth. Naturally, the weak dollar doesn’t help, but even a strong dollar wouldn’t put much of a dent in these prices, and neither country is exactly cheap to begin with.

There’s a pair of silver linings on the edge of this gilt cloud, however, and one is that more expensive wines are not priced by demand, as they are in most competitive markets. Thus, the $75 Burgundy that shoots up to $300 in the States after a high score from some critic not only stays at its release price (albeit one higher than $75), but isn’t impossible to source, either. (Though there are limits to this; even in the monopoly systems, there are favored customers and “off-list” wines that end up in the hands of a chosen few.) The other is that restaurants seem fairly willing to cellar wines for a time, which means that while a 2005 version of a $20 wine may be a ridiculous $110 on a wine list, the 1990 version of that same wine may be only a few dollars more, making it commensurate – or even a value – compared to a similar wine on an American wine list.

The Bergen winos’ response to all this was to claim, only half-jokingly, that they “can’t afford to drink anything but the best.” I lived there, I’d be forced to do the same; anything else would be economically foolhardy. And it’s not like drinking really good wines is something to be upset about.

But I admit that I would miss the other kind of wine. The kind of everyday, non-intellectualized stuff that has, historically, formed the foundation of traditional wine-drinking cultures. I’m not just talking about the increasingly anecdotal jugs of local Côtes-du-Rhône that lubricated the equally anecdotal French peasantry, but about the wines both artisanal and industrial that form the bulk of what most people buy and drink on a daily basis.

I would miss this sort of wine because a daily glass (or two…or sometimes three) is, for me, a fundamental part of my enjoyment of a meal. Not all food embraces wine, and not all meals allow consumption, but its presence is always to be preferred to its absence.

Perhaps more importantly, I would miss these wines because I firmly believe they put the better bottles in their proper context. Yes, it’s possible to drink only great wines, and I know people outside Norway who do. In fact, I know people who refuse to drink anything other than the best of the best. I can’t fault them for doing so, but this behavior just isn’t for me. Not only do I enjoy the simple pleasures of humble food and wine in their proper context, but I find that I appreciate the qualities of better wine more keenly when those experiences have a broad and deep foundational perspective. The components and interweavings that make great wines great are all the more obvious when the alternatives have been internalized. And those who drink only the superstars can, occasionally, lose perspective on what they drink, fixating on the niggling details but losing sight of the fact that they are quibbling over degrees of greatness.

I don’t know if there’s much impetus to change, as both countries seem to have well-entrenched beer cultures that satisfy the needs of the lower end (and in Denmark, at least, some really extraordinary things are happening with that beer; watch this space, eventually, for information on one of them). But I do know that I was happy to uncork a bottle of something uncomplicated and moderately priced when I returned home. I’d actually drank better wines on the rare occasions I’d imbibed in Scandinavia. But there’s such a thing as comfort wine, you know.