Balm of Usquebaugh – Peat Smoke, Allergies & My Hard-Packed Nose

This is not a review of a whiskey. Rather, it’s a story of miraculous healing, with good whiskies as the central characters.

My experiences with those characters are, of course, chronicled below, so you might say there are reviews embedded here, but that is not the point of this particular piece of writing.

The point is: To find a remedy!

REDNOSEThis time of year, my allergies grow intense. Sneezing, watery eyes and, above all, sinuses as productive as an active volcano one moment and, the next, as crammed, jammed and densely packed as a pint of fossilized Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. The first stage is annoying as hell and the second is painful. Like a migraine headache is painful.

Among the standard remedies, Afrin works. However, if you use enough Afrin to clear your sinuses, the next day is worse still, with sinuses even more densely and dryly jammed with snot-rocks than they were the day before. Use Afrin again and the consequences are even worse. It becomes a vicious cycle of relief followed by ever-intensifying sinus pain.

Afrin, then, is not the answer. Not for me.

Last evening, about an hour or two into the second, hard-packed phase of my daily sinus vexations, as the migraine-level pain commenced, I decided a good strong whiskey might help. And, if not, it might at least dull the pain.

blogger-image-1028707313Having recently acquired a bottle of Auchentoshen Valinch 2011, which comes at you with 57.5 percent alcohol by volume, I chose that as experimental remedy #1. This Valinch is a little odd, but wonderful. Tart-sweet red fruits, like a warm Naked red berry smoothie, swirled together with a goodly measure of refined, high-grade, tasteless but burning rocket fuel. The startle of the alcohol even pierced my stuffed-up nose. In the mouth, this intensity is mollified somewhat with the taste of a creamsicle melting on the tongue. Really quite nice. I highly recommend this whiskey, as whiskey.

However, as a remedy for my beleaguered nose, it did not work.

And yet, a sense of mission had overtaken me and was driving me forward with grim determination and fortitudinous resolve. With my chosen arsenal (my whiskey cabinet), I was determined to defeat this sinus-pummeling foe of the nose.

I remembered reading somewhere, in some review of one of Bruichladdich’s Octomore releases, the speculation that peat phenols, at a high enough concentration, would prove to have medicinal qualities. I hadn’t read of any further research on this premise, so I decided to engage in some research of my own.

LGVOB.12YOV1My mind seemed to take on whiskey-soldier status as it marched about my whiskey cabinet, seeking out the strongest phenologic impact on the nose that I could recall. Then it hit me, a memory arose, sitting with my good friend Brad on the night I opened a bottle of the wondrous Lagavulin 12 Year Old Cask Strength, which also came in at 57.5% ABV. We both immediately commented on how the peat-soaked aroma filled the room. The nose on this whiskey was (and is) so intense that, as I recall, neither of us tasted it for a good twenty minutes. In addition to the peat, the vapors rising from the glass wafted sea and salt and fresh squeezed lemons through the air. And sugary vanilla. As all these scent-memories converged, it struck me that this would be the perfect whiskey to deploy as experimental remedy #2. So I poured me-self a hefty dram.

The taste of this glorious stuff, even with barely functioning nostrils, is a natural wonder of the whiskey world. All kinds of sweet and citrusy fruits merge with smoke and peat, a windy beach and an intriguing, mild saltiness to form a taste experience that is at once powerful and elegant. A wondrous whiskey!

AND, as it turns out, an effective remedy for severe sinus congestion! After just a few sips of this phenolic elixir, I noticed my sinuses clearing. By the time I drained the generous dram to its bottom, my sinuses were better than they had been all week!

Blessed relief!, the whisky-soldier cried. And yet, my sinuses were not completely clear, so I felt my mission was not yet fully achieved and I could thus not be discharged from my duty. Like it or not, I would have to continue my quest. The search for experimental remedy #3 began.

My guess is that the Lagavulin 12 Cask Strength has a peat phenol ppm of about 50-55. Strong stuff. But, if that much was good, might not more be better?

When the talk is of ppm, the conversation will likely begin and end with the mighty Bruichladdich Octomore range.

I have two of them in my cabinet – the first release, with a ppm of 131, which will remain unopened for the foreseeable future, and the most recent release, the 5.1, which is a veritable pipe bomb of peat phenols with a ppm of 169 and an ABV of 59.5 percent. It was already open and more than half gone.

octomore5whiskynl-620x350Although I’ve never done this, my guess is that, in a blind tasting death match of the Lagavulin 12 vs. the Bruichladdich Octomore 5.1, most of the judges would guess that the Lagavulin is the stronger in terms of peat phenol ppm. The nose on it is certainly much more smoky and puissant.

The mighty Octomore, in contrast, has a more reticent aroma. The nose here is a perfect integration of sweetness and peat, yet it is not overpowering in any way. There’s a bit of port and dark chocolate in there, red fruits, almonds, and a simple syrup sweetness.

Pour it on your tongue and that 169 ppm explodes in your mouth! This is a walloping coastal storm and you can taste the sea-sprayed searing coals and the hot-spiced barbecued steaks on the grill, the salt in the wind and, again, that sweetness, something reminiscent of salt water taffy with a liquid center of ruby port.

Yes, this is medicine! And, two days later, with just the smallest drams of reinforcement as part of a salubrious regimen I have prescribed for myself, my sinuses are still open and clear. A remedy has been found! While I am not so cruel as to wish on you any of the sinus pain and blockage I experience, I highly recommend the cure – whether you think you need it or not!

The Ascent of Mount Balvenie: Three Whiskeys, Three Finishes, Three Nights

4652490124_b08e36fd58I love the whiskeys of the Balvenie Distillery. I even love the shape of their bottles, their wood-capped corks, the informative but restrained sophistication of their labels. But especially, and above all, I love the mollifying, mesmerizing, balmy elixirs cached in each of those shapely vessels.

Though I am not a fan of buying new make – after all, half or more of the magic of whiskey comes via cask choice, maturation and finishing, long after the new make courses through the worm – the Balvenie new make is something I do long to taste because there is a core to each of their expressions that is the object of my obsession with the brand. Going from expression to expression with this distillery is like falling in love with each of several beautiful sisters in the same family – makes you want to meet the mother, to get some insight regarding the origins of a gene pool that can be so beautifully and yet so variously expressed…

But anyway…

The sweet project I have set myself is to savor and taste three of my favorite Balvenie whiskeys in three consecutive nights: The 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask; the 17 Year Old Madeira Cask; and the 21 Year Old Port Cask. In that order…

Night I: Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask

The-Balvenie-14-Caribbean-Cask-e1341585859671-215x300Mmmm – That sweet honey-vanilla-and-oak mild-melting-toffee Balvenie thing.

Just. Sooo beautiful.

Like a Milky Way bar made by a summa cum laude graduate of Le Cordon Bleu.

The influence of the rum cask finish is definitely there rising from the glass, but it is in wondrous balance with other components; it isn’t there in a swashbuckling or bumptious or nagging way – no salt, sand, sea, hot native sweat nor piles of coconut flesh in a blazing tropic sun. Rather, the gentle rum cask influence presents itself as a perfectly fitting piece of the tasty puzzle this whiskey is. The good breeding in this dram is more than evident!

It’s viscous, but still light. A perfect weight for the many integrated flavors this whiskey holds like copper holds heat.

There is fruit – some Guava, I’m thinking, and Canary melon and, aah… what is that semi-sweet melon that also has some spiciness to it? It’s yellow and almost barky, with pink and green splotches on the skin. Hhmmm… Crenshaw! That’s it, Crenshaw melon. I taste Crenshaw melon. The fruity spiciness and clean sugar-honey taste of Crenshaw melon – with a bit of white pepper sprinkled on the flesh!

The core truth about this one is balance. Honey, vanilla, fudge, toffee, maple, moderate oak spice, white pepper, sweet but not overly sweet fruits, rum, a touch of coconut milk – all dancing in unison on a balance beam. Not too sweet, not too dry, with a lingering, flavorful, slowly developing then slowly drying finish.

In short, I think I’ll pour another dram…

Night II: Balvenie 17 Year Old Madeira Cask

madeira-caskAfter dating one of the youngest daughters in the Balvenie family, one thing stands out about her somewhat older sibling – she’s had more time in school and thus her refinement and sophistication are that much more evident.

The integration of oak, honey and fruit – apples, melon and fresh green grapes, mostly – is mouthwateringly rich and stunning here.

And there is more viscosity here and less white pepper than in the Caribbean Cask. Perhaps due to this voluminous mouthfeel, one of the first impressions I get when it hits the palate is the taste of a liquefied Charleston Chew bar! Or, rather, what I imagine that would taste like…

One begins to wonder how much of the nose and palate of these whiskeys is determined by the finishing casks and how much by the extra years in ex-bourbon casks. What differences would one experience in a Balvenie malt at 14, 17 and 21 years of age if there were no finishing casks used? Or, conversely, what if a cask of Balvenie aged, say, 15 years (so we could compare it with the ex-bourbon only Single Barrel), were finished some in rum, some in sherry and some in port barrels, so that the finishing became the distinguishing characteristic of each? If anyone reading this should happen to run into Balvenie’s longtime malt master, David Stewart, be sure to ask him these questions and get back to me – with an assortment of samples, if possible!

Anyway, the array of fruits proffered by the Madeira Cask is broader and more extensive than in the Caribbean Cask. There are the apples, honeydew melon and green grapes already noted, but also hints of banana and even of blackberries. With a slight touch of citrus zest.

The spiciness here puts the white pepper much further back in the profile and brings forward both fresh and candied ginger with just a wisp of cinnamon.

There’s something like shortbread cookies in there, maybe a bit undercooked, but with a very slight maple coating. I taste vanilla sponge cake, too. With a bit of bittersweet chocolate frosting on top.

Oak, as always with Balvenie, is present, but there is no resinous chewiness nor any woody tannins as found in the anCnoc 16 I reviewed last week (drying aspects of the palate I liked in that whiskey). In the same general category of taste notes, there is a nuttiness – almonds, primarily – and the slight taste of oats or oat clusters – no, actually, it is the taste of Muesli, the cereal.

In a sense, this is a whiskey for all seasons. It has the lightness of Spring veering into Summer with its diverse fruits and honeycomb and plenty of oak and a spicy warm glow to carry one through the Fall and Winter months.

And the finish is long with Madeira wine, chocolate and drying oaky spices. This is superb!

Night III: Balvenie 21 Year Old Port Cask

Singapore-Whisky-Balvenie-21Aahhh, now – This Balvenie sister is old enough to drive, drink, vote and marry. In many respects, her refinement and sophistication surpass that of her 17 year old sister, but all that extra time and schooling haven’t rendered her any less sweet.

In fact, that sweet honey-vanilla-and-oak mild-toffee-caramel Balvenie thing seems at once both more prominent here but less sweet overall. This is a sweetness that does not in any way verge on cloying.

What may account for this sense of somewhat attenuated volume or impact of sweetness is the thinner body of this one compared to the other two. It is not creamy nor does it display much viscosity, if any. It is actually a bit thin, especially compared against the Madeira Cask.

Is that perhaps the price one pays for the extra refinement and sophistication? One remembers the bulbous lips of glowing youth, but this one’s lips have thinned a bit in the years of becoming more urbane.

But just a bit – she is still achingly kissable!

One difference that is immediately noticeable upon drawing a dram of this elegant elixir is its color. Whereas both the Caribbean Cask and the Madeira Cask were of similar shades of golden amber honey, the pink of the port is clearly visible in this one. And it may be, if I am not mistaken, just a tad lighter overall.

On the nose, beyond the vanilla-honey-caramel sweetness mentioned above, is a very distinctive aroma of port wine – of deep red savory port wine. There is also something rind-like in there, like the smell of the orange itself after zesting. And malty waftings as from a bowl of dry cereal.

Unusual aromas announce their presence. Wet cotton t-shirts? Really? Yes, and even a bit of that starchy-earthy smell of potato peels. But these are buried between layers of rich, sweet honey and wine. This is, in my estimation, the most complex nose of the three whiskeys under consideration here (though the others are wonderfully complex in themselves).

The array of fruits here is as broad and extensive as in the Madeira Cask, with some blueberry, pineapple and other tropical fruits added along with the banana, melon, green grapes and blackberries.

On the palate, these same fruit notes are there, but almost as if the fruits have been dried. Dried apricot and mango are added on the palate. This is not an unpleasant taste whatsoever. And there is plenty of vanilla and spiciness from the oak as well. The white pepper is back in the forefront and the ginger has receded almost beyond notice – but not quite. For the first time with these Balvenies, I sense a hint of nutmeg in the spice. And there are tannins in there, perhaps too many, drying out the otherwise multiplex sweetness of this malt.

The finish is sweet and peppery and moderately long, leaving a spicy, vinous dryness on the tongue.


I’m bad at choosing. My suggestion would be, of course, to run out and buy all three of these tomorrow. Sell those old CDs you never listen to anymore and those old snow tires gathering moss out in the shed – and why keep those running shoes and wellingtons you never wore, those old silk ties and turtleneck sweaters? That’s what eBay exists for, right? I love good single malts and these are all very-good-to-great single malts proffering delightful infusions of richness and sophistication. You should really have them all in your cabinet.

The Port Cask offers a bit more refinement than the others; still, though it displays the richest complexity of the three, it is lacking (only relative to the others) in puissance and a sense of body.

The Caribbean Cask is delightful and rich and almost splendid in its spicy-sweet rum-tinged fruitiness.

The Madeira Cask is the most sensual and seductive with all its creaminess, layers of fruitiness, deeply satisfying honey-sweetness and warm spice.

If I had to marry one of these gals right now and sail off to a deserted island with her and her alone, I would, with sidelong glances at the others, propose to the 17 year old Madeira Cask. It is just a more sensual and luxurious experience. I know I would not regret my choice.

Still, as every one of you single malt drinkers reading this knows, it’s possible I would make a different choice if asked again tomorrow night.


anCnoc 16 – The Incredible Light Creamy Spice Fruit of Being

AnCnoc-16-YOI searched for a metaphor or a story for this one, but I kept getting pictures of children playing or rosy-cheeked harvesters in fruit trees, singing, or dew on a shining gold orb in a garden at dawn – none of which convey the sophistication, palpable age and clean delight of this single malt.

So – first things first.



No smoke.

No peat.

Though Knockdhu, the maker of the AnCnoc single malts, is a Speyside distillery on the eastern periphery of that storied region, one would be forgiven in a blind tasting for assuming this was a Lowland whiskey from a Lowland distillery open to the sea-spray on the coast of Fife, say.

But it is not that. Not at all.

Knockdhu is located squarely in the Speyside region, in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, about 20 miles south and a good 40 miles west of the North Sea coasts and nearly equidistant between Elgin and Aberdeen.

Still, it has Highland region character as well. In fact, this single malt combines the best characteristics of the best Clynelish and Auchentoshan malts that I have had while displaying none of the weak or disappointing traits I often find in Clynelish and Auchentoshan whiskies – of which my experience is limited, I admit.

What we have here with the anCnoc 16 is something complex but clearly structured, resinous, with a light fruitiness, tea, melting sugar, a spicy maltiness, some creamy vanilla, mild apricot, some nuttiness…

And the wonder of it is: Nothing you perceive in the nose or the taste of this whiskey appears to arise by accident. The bitterness is refined, for example, integral to the spirit and not an unintended consequence of maturation or an imperfect cask. This is excellent whiskey by design – you can taste the care that went into its making, where science meets alchemy under the attentive gaze of people who know exactly what they’re doing!

It has a gently sweet clement fruitiness and lots of salt. A wispy floral touch, but mostly fruits like pineapple, lime and other summery sweet fruits. A sliced apricot on the table but not under the nose. And salt.

On top of this, the nose gives off something a bit woody, like masticated, resinious slivers from the core of an old fruit tree.

On the palate, that woodiness shows itself in the tannins that mix with the mild sugars and warm spice – mostly ginger but also a bit of hot pepper – the taste, not the heat. Tangy, spicy, like a homemade sweet and sour sauce.

This is really a delightful whiskey. The finish is long, flavorful, spicy and sweet. Salted, melting pineapple ice cream sprinkled with savory spices…

Check it out: