Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: Finding your way around the spirits worldBy JIM BEAUREGARD October 04. 2017 12:34AM
I’ve told you before about my friend Simon over in England. He’s the one who is a diehard opponent of change in any way, shape or form. Nothing good can come of it, as far as he’s concerned.
In fact he’s said to me on more than one occasion, “Jim, the only thing in life worth changing is underwear, and on a bad day, even that should be negotiable.”
And yet, change is part of the warp and woof of life. (No, I’m not going anywhere, in case you were wondering.) But, in conversation with Tom my editor over the past couple weeks, we discussed the possibility of expanding this column a bit to include occasionally writing about spirits — not the Halloween kind, though it is October, but rather things like whiskey, bourbon, vodka and the like. And so, this will be my first column to touch on the world of spirits.
(As I mentioned before, I did my training in wine writing through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which is based in London. Now, that title includes the word “Spirits,” and there were classes that focused on the strong stuff.)
So, casting aside fear of change and the new, let’s dive in and take a look.
In case you were wondering, things like whiskey, rum and the lot got the nickname “spirits” because they were stored on the lowest decks of warships back in the age of sail. That’s where they also kept the bodies of sailors who had been killed in action prior to their burial at sea. Sailors, being an often superstitious lot, sometimes considered those parts of the ship haunted; hence the name “spirits” for the drinks. From the captain’s point of view, it was a very good way to keep the sailors from sneaking down below and pilfering the goods, fearing they’d be attacked by ghosts.
My theme this week is “finding your way around.” Someone who’s new to hard liquors is often confronted first, and sometimes only, by the intensity of the alcohol. In tasting and enjoying spirits, however, the essential thing is to “move around” that initial blast, and find your way around what lies behind it, which is where the intrigue of spirits lies.
The newcomer, for example, may think that vodka has no flavor, but in reality, all vodkas do not taste alike — it’s in the process of “finding your way around” the aromas and flavors of alcohol that you will find many delightful and subtle flavors that distinguish one bottle from another.
So, today, for instance, acknowledging the fact that my friend Simon and I both like scotch, we are going to take a look at an Islay scotch from a distillery that has long been a favorite of mine. But first, a word about scotch, and about whiskey in general.
If you happen to be in someplace like one of our state stores, and you take a close look at the bottles in the whiskey aisles, you’ll notice that “whiskey” is spelled with or without the “e.” It’s a matter of geography: in Scotland and Canada it’s spelled “whisky,” while in Ireland and in the United States, the “e” is usually added. It’s really a matter of local tradition — there aren’t a whole bunch of rules and regulations governing this.
Whisky in Scotland has generally, historically, been made through the blending of products from a number of distilleries, rather than a single distillery product. However, there are certainly expressions of a single distillery that are well worth seeking.
In Scotland, whisky (no “e”) can be made with either malt or grain. Malt whisky is generally made from barley, which is first soaked in water for about 48 hours, which releases enzymes in the malt that break down the starch it contains into sugar, which is the initial step to making a beverage with alcohol in it.
But rather than getting into lots of detail on the process of distillation (which I will do in the future), let’s take a look at one Scotch whisky in particular that has long been a favorite of mine.
Laphroaig Lore, Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky: $128.99, New Hampshire State Liquor Store; 48% alcohol by volume. Now, first of all, pronunciation: the island of Islay is pronounced Eye-lay, and the name of the scotch is pronounced La-proy — just pretend all the rest of those vowels, and the “g” on the end aren’t there. This will be a constant issue in both Scotland and Ireland, so it’s good to have a pronunciation guide handy.
Also, as regards the price, I bought it for less than this, and periodically you may find it on sale at the state store. The thing to keep in mind, I think, when buying something like this, is that one bottle can last a very, very long time. This is my third bottle in about 30 years, and I don’t drink it alone.
Laphroaig, on the isle of Islay, has been in operation since the early 1800s and the “Lore” is one of their high-end bottles. A constant characteristic of scotch made on the isle of Islay is the flavor of peat — yes, as in peat moss, a rich, earthy flavor — along with the smokiness that is definitely an acquired taste.
The tasting process for spirits is the same as it is for wine and beer: taking in the appearance, the nose, the palate and then making some conclusions. So here we go with Laphroaig Lore:
It’s clear in the glass, medium intensity with gold amber hues, and a nose that is clean and of pronounced intensity with right in the forefront, peat earth and smokiness, and perhaps even a slight hint of seaweed. There is a slight medicinal aroma as well — this is a good thing for Scotch if it isn’t overwhelming.
On the palate, it is exceptionally dry, with warming alcohol, not at all harsh but in perfect balance. The task, as I mentioned above, is to get around that initial alcohol aroma, which can be off-putting if you haven’t tried something like this before , and see what’s behind it.
In this case, the scotch is medium bodied, very smooth-textured with pronounced flavors echoing the nose, the peat being the most prominent, accompanied by delicious smokiness and some wood flavors from the sherry casks in which it is aged. It has a long finish that holds the flavors long after you swallow — a great scotch doesn’t disappear quickly from the palate. A few drops of water in the glass (more on this later) really opens up the flavor and makes it even more aromatic. A classic Islay.
So, some new vistas open for us. I’m certainly not abandoning writing about wine and beer by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that we will see a little more variety in the future. Sometimes, little change is a good thing, despite what my friend Simon thinks.
Contact Jim Beauregard at firstname.lastname@example.org