My half-Japanese heritage has bequeathed to me a rather distressing condition:  allergy to ethanol (grain alcohol).  I first discovered this when, at about 13 or so and in Austria, our group (a wind ensemble which was travelling around playing relatively bad music for Austrians who pretended to be interested) we stopped at a small rural inn which served bland food and excellent homemade wines.  After making a total idiot out of myself (as American teenagers will do when suddenly thrown into a permissive society with free access to alcohol), I went to the bathroom, where I noticed my face was entirely beet-red, and my pulse had shot up to somewhere around 135 beats per minute.  This was the first sign of my allergic reaction, which is a fairly common one among Japanese and was well-known in my particular family.  Meanwhile the other parts of my genetic makeup (primarily the English, Scotch and Sioux) were pushing for me to drink more than ever.  This is the fine line I walk.

Realizing that someday I would probably die as a result of drinking too much, I resolved that at least it would not be with some tin can of cheap swill in my cold dead hand.  This policy has served me exceptionally well… I note that every time I approach death’s cold embrace from over-indulgence, I am never looking at a pop-top on a can of Bud Lite or trying to replace the screw-cap on a gallon jug of some Gallo nightmare.

In case any of the people duped into coming to my page are also avid drinkers, or perhaps just a hobbyist wishing to make that leap to "snooty drunk", I offer my personal picks in various categories of ethanol-carrying beverages, and some high-falutin’ speeches about them you can cut and paste into your daily conversation in the delusional belief that anyone is really impressed by it.

Right now I will just be commenting on a few scotches I prefer to keep around, but may later expand into microbrews and my limited knowledge of red wines if I have the time and desire.

 


Scotch

My reputation as a snooty scotch drinker is well-deserved.  In actuality, everyone who is a scotch drinker is somewhat of a snob about their particular brand… I believe the reason for this is that scotch in and of itself has a fundamentally bad taste which we are conditioned to like because it gets us hammered and it’s something we can be snooty about in front of our friends.  Actually, high-quality scotches have distinctive characters and flavors, and anyone who is nuts enough to spend a lot of money on one of these bottles is almost certainly going to take the time to savor it and appreciate it for it’s individuality.

I am personally a hardcore single-malt scotch drinker, as opposed to blended scotches which combine spirits from several different distilleries.  Single malts on the whole tend to be more distinctive, have more individuality, and can be more disturbing to the casual scotch drinker.  I also aver that most blended scotches tend to use the whiskey that "didn’t make the cut" from their various distilleries; the blending tends to smooth out any natural bitterness and acidity, as well as masking any distinct character the individual malts may have had.

Single malt whiskys typically can be characterized according to the region from which they come.  Weather conditions, the sort of wood or peat available, the soil and the barley which it produces… all of these things can be very distinctive region by region, and the differences in the whisky produced from them only magnifies the individuality of the areas in question.  Scotch whiskys have been classified into as few as 2 and as many as 8 categories, with most of the confusion being centered on the various areas of the Highlands region.

The Islay isle is the southernmost of the island regions, comprised of mostly flat green land.  Peat is in very high concentration here, and is conditioned constantly by the sea, as high winds soak the peat in sea mist and then dry it with salt breezes.  All of the Islay whiskys have above-average peat content, as high as 50ppm at Ardbeg distillery; these concentrations tend to be greater at distilleries further to the south.  The Islays are the most hardcore of the single malts, and it is impossible to have a neutral opinion on them.

Lagavulin

Being an extremist, my personal "baseline" scotch is Lagavulin, an Islay single malt aged 16 years before bottling.  Lagavulin has a slightly phenolic quality and a nose which blossoms with the addition of a drop or two of distilled water to the tumbler.  (Of course, such an act is considered by some to be an affront to the Gods of Malt, and for this reason I avoid such adulteration.)  It has stronger seaweed characteristics than the Laphroaig 10, and is a bit smoother.  The smoky characteristics are a hallmark of the Islay malts, a result of drying the barley over blue peat fires.  This is the bottle I typically have in front of me when sitting at my computer at home trying to convince myself that I’m not wasting my time.  Strength:  86 proof.  Appearance:  deep sauterne amber.  Nose:  closed, hints of XO cognac and an odd sweetness peeking through the bite.  Start:  slightly oily, dry, smooth, very rich and spicy.  Finish:  peat smoke, slightly peppery, lingering in the nose, with a pleasant complexity.
 

Laphroaig

Another Islay scotch I like is Laphroaig.  Laphroaig can easily be argued to be the most demanding of all single malts.  Even more so than Lagavulin, there is no middle ground when forming an opinion of Laphroaig.  Its pungency, harshness, powerful aromas and long-lasting burn have chased away more than one associate of mine from this malt.  Laphroaig comes in 10 and 15 year versions, as well as an "original cask strength" version and a 1976 reserve, neither of which I have tried.  The 10 year is the standard version, which may seem like a short time for such a prominent single-malt, but it seems to lend itself well to the charm of this malt.  The 15-year is very nice, but the slight smoothness imparted by the 5 extra years don’t seem to justify the expense of the older variety.  This is a dirty old man scotch, and should be consumed as such.  Historical note:  Although most scotches did not enjoy volume export to the US until the Glenfiddich and Glenlivet took charge, Laphroaig was imported during the prohibition for medicinal use.  Strength:  80 proof.  Appearance:  dark gold.  Nose:  open, quite phenolic and briny.  Start:  oily, medicinal, oddly harsh and very dry, strong smoke.  Finish:  smoke is persistent, with an extremely complex unfolding of various flavors from sweet to salt to stong pepper to charcoal.

When I don’t want to scare the hell out of someone with an Islay, I tend to look towards the high-end Speyside malts.  Speysides are the most well-known among casual single-malt scotch drinkers, even among those who don’t know about different areas of scotch production.  The first two widely popular single-malts in the US were Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, both of which hail from the Speyside region.  Scotches from this region are typically malted in the waters of the Spey river or one of its tributaries, and typically have somewhat estery characteristics, trading rich complexity in many cases for a smooth agreeability and perfumy character.  The higher-end Speysides tend to age well, their relatively neutral character adapting to the nature of the sherry casks quite readily.

The Macallan

I never really found Glenfiddich to be that interesting, and Glenlivet only mildly so, but my opinion of Speysides turned around when I sampled the Macallan.  The Macallan is a fantastically smooth malt which is aged exclusively in sherry casks (many scotches are aged primarily in white oak for the bulk of their maturing, then transferred to the more expensive sherry casks to finish), the only whisky to be so pampered.  The expensive wood pays off; Macallan is more richly flavored and complex than any of the other Speysides, and most of the Highland malts for that matter, while retaining its characteristic smoothness.  The Macallan comes in two varieties, a 12 year and an 18 year.  Without a doubt I fully recommend the 18 year; the 12 is notably better than your run-of-the-mill malt, but the 18 is a vast improvement, fully meriting the expense.  Strength:  86 proof.  Appearance:  rich reddish amber.  Nose:  sweet, thick, overtones of fruit and caramel with a comfortable hint of leather.  Start:  Rich, syrupy smooth with lasting sweetness, curiously palate-saturating.  Finish:  More of the same, with a bit of smoke and more weight.
 

Loch Dhu

On my recent trip to New Hampshire, home of very reasonably-priced and well-stocked state liquor stores, I was picking up my usual assortment of nonsense for the week… Lagavulin, Boodles gin, Romana Black Sambuca (an impulse buy; I incorrectly thought it would go well with my cappucino), Newcastle Brown Ale, Samuel Adams Honey Porter, some cheesy beer for visiting Philistines and other nonsnese, the clerk pointed out the curious black single malt made at Mannochmore Distillery in Speyside.  Aged in charred white oak casks and made with water taken from Loch Dhu itself ("the Black Loch" in old Gaelic), the scotch takes on the color of the charcoal during its 10-year maturation.  It is quite striking in its appearance, however it fell as a viable contender amongst my snobby peers, captivated as we are by the power of the mighty Islay malt.  The best thing about having the Loch Dhu about is that some of the players in our poker game took multiple helpings of it, not only increasing our pot odds but saving the Islay for ourselves.  It is rather unremarkable except for its color, although not a bad Speyside, certainly superior to the run-of-the-mill Glenfiddich in distinctiveness.  I may pick up another bottle of it and give it a more thorough tasting.  Quote from Tony Faber:  "Tastes like a fine single malt has been mixed with a bottle of vanilla."  Strength:  86 proof.  Appearance:  disturbingly black.  Nose:  closed, mild ketone hints.  Start:  Mild, smooth, distantly warm, vanilla, less smoke than one would expect, otherwise slightly sweet.  Finish:  smooth, slightly more pronounced charcoal, vanilla, somewhat unremarkable.


Stupid Alcohol Tricks

*sigh* As soon as I mentioned that there was a drinking tips section on my site to a friend of mine (whom I was planning to have write tasting reviews of cheap swill), he immediately came out with some rather silly tricks, which made me think of some, and well, what good is a web site if not for aimless rambling?  So for those of you who do not find drinking rewarding enough by itself, I present to you the following stupid tricks.

The Body Shot

Also known as a "Shiver Shot" and featured in the silly movie The Cowboy Way.  It requires a female partner, although a reversed version could be theoretically possible.  A shotglass of tequila is held in the woman’s cleavage,  you lick her neck and sprinkle salt on it, and place a lemon wedge in her mouth (rind in).  Then, (order based on personal preference), lick the salt off, grab the shotglass with your teeth and do the tequila, and bite the lemon in a cinematic kiss.  Silly but effective.

The Cement Mixer

A good drink to force someone to have, and bet they won’t have 2.  One shot of Harvey’s Bristol Cream followed by a shot of lemon juice, both held in the mouth and swished around for no less than 20 seconds.  Try it.

Flaming Dr. Pepper

Warm one shot of amaretto and then set it aflame, like brandy for a flambe, and drop into a mug of beer.  The beer will immediately begin to overflow and must be consumed right away.  The resulting concoction tastes almost exactly like Dr. Pepper and contains an insidious amount of alcohol for such a sweet drink.  Describing this beverage to macho friends at a bar may elicit comments questioning its potency, which is the perfect time to invite them to have a few.  The fun never stops.

Boilermaker

Similar to the Flaming Dr. Pepper, probably its progenitor.  Drop a shotglass of Jack Daniels into a mug of beer and drink immediately in one shot.

How to Drink More by Consuming Petroleum Products

This was done by some insane Europeans I hung out with.  Swallow a small dollop of Vaseline before going on a drinking spree to coat the stomach, allowing you to consume even more dangerous levels of alcohol before becoming ill (unless the Vaseline makes you sick first).

 

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