July 15, 2014

Islay Whisky Festival 2014 - Ardbeg

Let's start with Ardbeg! In this series I'm writing about visits to each of the Islay distilleries during Feis Ile 2014.
At the annual festival of music and whisky, each Islay distillery hosts a day filled with whisky tastings and events, food, music, special Festival bottlings and loads of excitement and anticipation. Some events are free, some are ticketed and, as I mentioned in my previous post, the ticketed events sell like hotcakes! Take a look at the Ardbeg festivities to whet your appetite for a  future Feis Ile.
The official Ardbeg Day was on the final Saturday when, sadly,  we had to be out of our rental house and on the Calmac ferry from Port Askaig back to the mainland. Luckily, many of the events were duplicated on other days throughout the week and so, thanks to Mickey Heads, Ardbeg's Distillery Manager, and probably too much pleading and cajoling on my part, I secured a place at a midweek Heads Up tasting - a much sought after warehouse experience, and rightly so.
Salty character?
Like many of the folks in the Islay distillery world, Mickey's an Ileach (an Islay native). After previous experience at Laphroaig, and as Distillery Manager at Jura, he's been the Distillery Manager at Ardbeg for seven years, so he's had time to nose and sample a good number of the carefully coded thousands of casks maturing in the Ardbeg warehouses. For the heads up tasting, about fourteen of us headed down to the dunnage warehouse, where a number of Mickey's favourite casks had been rolled out for us to select and taste. Crystal tasting glasses and plates of nibbles waited invitingly on upright barrels, which are just the right size for a stand up tasting.
Let the tasting begin

The first barrel selected for tasting was a 1994 2nd fill bourbon barrel. There is no finer way to taste a dram than straight from the barrel where the whisky has been resting all its life, maturing through cool winters and warm summers, slowly building its character year after year. This 20 year old was a real beauty. At 55% alcohol by volume, and with aromas of apple and smoke and elegance (yes, that is an aroma, in my opinion), it tasted beautifully balanced, fruity and creamy, with some ginger, then a long spicy finish. Yum!
Mickey Heads
Mickey has a great style - easy going, gentle spoken, warm and friendly. His knowledge and experience comes through in his quiet and confident manner. It's easy to tell that he loves his work, and his whiskies, but he doesn't get worked up with differing opinions. Pleased as punch if people in the group liked a particular barrel, he was equally interested in listening to preferences, comments and tasting perspectives, as well as answering any and all questions that came his way.
Ardbeg whiskies are in high demand. Back in the 60's and 70's, one cask from each distillation was filled for single malt and the rest went for blends. Today, it's a completely different story, with an enviable global demand and everything going to single malt. About 36,000 tons of barley comes annually from Port Ellen maltings, but that's not enough to meet demand, so some is sourced from other malting works on the mainland.
The second barrel selected was a first fill oloroso sherry barrel from  1998. The oloroso barrels are mainly used in the brilliant Uigeadail, one of my all time favourite whiskies. This one, at 56.9% ABV, had a wonderful and typically rich sherry cask nose, with dried fruits and a big, juicy, spicy palate.
Next up was a first fill bourbon barrel - cask 2053 to be precise -  from 1999 at 51% ABV. Perhaps the angels took a slightly bigger share of this particular barrel! Or more likely it was its particular higher level position in the warehouse. Incredibly light in colour, with a perfumed, creamy vanilla nose, this one was elegant, balanced, lengthy and simply excellent.
Roll out the barrel
Around this point in the proceedings, we wandered deeper into the warehouse, where a few strong souls tried their hands at rolling barrels along the tracks to their maturation resting place. The barrels weigh about 260kgs and have to end up with the bung holes on top. This is not a lightweight or trivial exercise but it's one of the things to be mastered by a warehouseman. Ardbeg currently has about 3.3M litres of whisky maturing in bond, with about 70% of that at the distillery. There are lots of barrels to be moved around!
Back in our tasting area, one of Mickey's favourites from the selection was poured - cask #2437, refill sherry from 1998. This one displayed orange citrus and spice with sweet smoke. It was very nice. They were all very nice! I kept revisiting the whiskies during the session and my personal favourite was the 1994 second fill bourbon barrel.
So with all that whisky maturing, how does Mickey and his team keep a handle on how the barrels are tasting and which ones are ready for marrying or bottling? This is where experience comes into play. The whisky is all individually labelled and positioned, and the team simply knows when the barrels need sampling. The final call on barrel selection lies with Dr Bill Lumsden, head of Whisky Creation and Distilling at Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, but the job of regularly testing and selecting the main contenders lies with Mickey's team - the proverbial "tough job but someone has to do it".
Another refill sherry cask from 1998 displayed a menthol, herbal nose, a sweet palate, followed by smoke, then a salty, chewy finish - so different from the previous one. Magic!
Tasting from the last barrel was a poignant experience. The 33 year old, third fill oloroso sherry cask was filled on March 11th, 1981, just before production at the distillery dwindled to nothing. The distillery was closed in 1991 until its purchase, in 1997, by the Glenmorangie company, and the subsequent phenomenal revival and success. What a joy to taste something so old and delicious that's been lying around through the historic turmoil of over three decades.
A fine collection
And what does one do after such a brilliant tasting? In my case, I headed to the Old Kiln Cafe, Ardbeg's well-loved cafe, for a haggis stuffed baked potato. Of course!
Yummy haggis stuffed baked potato
A visit to Ardbeg, with a special tasting and lunch at The Old Kiln will be a popular item with my Islay 2015 Tour group. The small group tour will be happening near the end of August 2015. Drop me a line and I'll send you all the details. No obligation, just some great information on what will be a fabulous week. If you'd like to read more about Ardbeg distillery, you can check out the story from my previous visit.
My next post will be about Bunnahabhain. Check back soon or, better still, sign up above for email updates and you'll only get an email when a new story is posted.


July 07, 2014

Feis Ile 2014 Islay Whisky Festival - Highlights

Paps of Jura
It's just as simple as this. If you like Islay whiskies, go to Islay. There is nothing to compare with sipping a dram at its source - the distillery where it's made. So, in May, I headed off again to this magnificent island, along with five favourite family members and several thousand other visitors, for the annual Feis - Islay's festival of music and whisky.
Bruichladdich open day
Feis Ile had its roots back in 1984, when dedicated locals decided to initiate a Gaelic, music and culture festival. This was expanded in 2000 when the distilleries became more involved and started holding open days and producing special festival bottlings. The rest, as they say, is history.
This is one of the most successful whisky festivals in the world, and a decision to attend benefits from planning a year in advance. Ferries, flights, accommodations and distillery activities are snapped up like hotcakes for the last week in May. Eagle eyes are useful for figuring out when distillery events become available for purchase, and much tenacity is required to snag a place at some of the headliner whisky extravaganzas.
But ask anyone who's attended Feis Ile - and many return year after year - and you'll hear the same accolades time and time again. This is one fine festival!
New friends and regular attendees from Sweden in their custom Feis Ile 2014 shirts
This year, the sun shone on Islay for the whole week, and I fairly scurried around the distilleries soaking in the atmosphere, local food, fabulous whisky events, happy people and great music.
Over the next few weeks, summer notwithstanding, I'll be writing separate stories about the whiskies and each of the distilleries, including Gartbreck - soon be Islay's ninth distillery - an impressive number for an island of about 600sq kms.
To kick things off, I'm going to pick a few pictorial highlights - a difficult task from a week with endless delights, but here goes.
Cool blades on Flybe flight to Islay

Great views of Ardbeg, Laphroaig and Lagavulin
2 hr queue for Lagavulin Festival bottle - worth the wait, met great people
10a.m. a wee dram of Lagavulin 16 to pass the time in the queue
Fabulous whisky and chocolate pairing at Bunnahabhain
Islay oysters - best I've ever tasted
Cocktail session with whisky ambassador David Sinclair
Jim McEwan's Masterclass at Bruichladdich. What a rock star that man is!
Delicious baked goods everywhere!
Jura Distillery day - awesome.
Honour system for tea and cake at Kildalton Cross
Beautiful views on the Mull of Oa
Awesome Ardbeg warehouse tasting with the one and only Mickey Heads
Running along Machir Bay
Caol Ila  tasting with Distillery Manager David Woods
Meeting Jean and Martine Donnay - creators of Gartbreck Distillery
Malting room at Kilchoman - serene and aromatic
I'm sitting  with a big smile of nostalgia on my face as I post these photos. Check back soon to read and see more about Feis Ile 2014 - never a distant memory!

GrapeScot Islay Whisky Tour September 2015

If you like what you see and fancy joining me on a  small group, very special tour to Islay next September 2015, drop me an email and I'll send you all the details.

May 13, 2014

The Sweet and Merry (Whisky) Month of May

I was driving along the other day listening to William Byrd's madrigal, The Sweet and Merry Month of May, written in 1590. Living in Ottawa, I certainly find this May to be sweet and merry, after the winter that kept on giving. I don't even mind that a phantom rabbit, or some such creature, munched all the heads off my crocuses. There were crocuses! Yeah!
(Fake bunny, not crocuses)
It could be due to the giddy joy of Springtime, coupled with the explosive growth in whisky appreciation, but May is manifesting itself as a major merry month for whisky lovers, with an abundance of festivals and events.
To kick things off, Homecoming Scotland 2014 has decreed that May is Whisky Month. The Islay Whisky Festival, Feis Ile, starts in May; the Spirit of Speyside has just finished; the Spirit of Stirling just wrapped up; the third annual World Whisky Day is on May 17th, as is the Glasgow Whisky festival; the first ever International Women of Whisky Day was on May 3rd. Not to focus only on Scotland, the 10th annual Spirit of Toronto event was also on May 3rd. And so the list goes on.
Kusshi oyster with Bruichladdich 10 year old at Spirit of Toronto - Brilliant!
Moment of Clarity - Botanist Gin, Vanilla/Cassia Bark Bitters and Lemon Syrup. My favourite cocktail at Spirit of Toronto

Outside of May, the number of whisky festivals is growing at an incredible rate; and there's no shortage of whisky sippers keen to travel the globe and pay substantial prices for tickets to Masterclasses, grand gala events, distillery visits, food and whisky pairing dinners, and tastings of drams of all kinds. There are thousands of different whiskies on the market, so these events provide an opportunity to taste widely, and hone in on particular whiskies, distilleries, styles and other characteristics that personally appeal. Almost all of the festivals involve live music, much camaraderie, and the opportunity to connect with folks who share the same passion for uisge beatha. On Islay, each of the distilleries produces special festival bottlings for the event - hot commodities that sell out quickly, often on release day.
I'll be on Islay next week for Feis Ile 2014

The Festival phenomena is relatively recent. Feis Ile started life in 1985, Spirit of Speyside in 1999,  in Canada, the New Brunswick Spirits Festival started in 1996. The Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown - a must for Bourbon lovers - will be enjoying its 23rd year this September. Others were born since the Millennium - Inverness (2011), Stirling (2012), Spirit of Toronto (2005), Victoria Whisky Festival (2006), Winnipeg (2013) Kingston (2013). All of these festivals are wildly popular, with many events being snapped up the instant they go on sale.
Official toasting bourbon of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. I served this in April at an Arnprior blind tasting.

Ironically, I booked accommodations on Islay over a year ago, but didn't get out out of the gates quickly enough for the events reservation process, resulting in this kind of dismay.
This can happen quickly when thousands of visitors descend on a  wee island!

Still, thanks to a little tenacity, coupled with the flexibility and generosity of some fine whisky people including Jim McEwan (Bruichladdich), Andrew Brown (Bunnahabhain) and David Wood (Caol Ila), we have a fabulous week of whisky, food, music, hanging out at distilleries, and grand conversation to look forward to. I'll be tweeting and instagramming while on Islay, and writing about all the great events afterwards.
Islay has a ninth distillery in the works. Check out the plans for Gartbreck, hoping to begin production in the Fall of 2015.

Two fabulous whisky and food events


Whisky selection at Divino's April 2014

In April, I returned to Divino Wine Studio to lead another whisky tasting. To my mind, this is one of the premier spots in Ottawa for fabulous whisky and food pairings. Over the last few years, I've selected over seventy different whiskies for this venue. Current Chef and co-owner Cristian Lepore, digs deep into his Italian roots, and turns my high level suggestions for food pairings into delicious works of art, refusing to finalize each of the five courses until he, and co-owner and Sommelier, Eric Diotte, have sampled the whiskies alongside the creations. The result - incredibly happy guests and "Sold Out" signs for every event.
Starting to pour for the Divino whisky tasting

Many congratulations to Top Chef Canada Rene Rodriguez of Navarra Restaurant. If there's ever a global competition for Top Whisky Chef, my money's on Cristian Lepore. This was the line-up for the April event, although the brief descriptions, by necessity, don't fully describe the many nuances and different elements in each course. Delicious!


The following day, I was in Arnprior for the annual Optimist Club whisky tasting fundraiser. For this year's event, Dan and Chris, the tireless organizers, decided that a blind tasting would be fun, so I decided to select five whiskies from five different countries, with minimal clues as to what was going on.
Ed Murphy pouring perfect secret drams in the back room
95% of attendees loved the blind tasting format; a few would have preferred to know what was in each glass beforehand; and a few more were having a good time until they discovered that there was only one Single Malt in the collection.
The line up included the amazing Green Spot Pot Still Irish Whiskey from Midleton Distillery; Nikka Pure Malt White from Japan which, with its peaty character, fooled almost everyone into thinking it was from Islay; the award winning Lot 40, 100% rye Canadian whisky; the delectable 1792 Ridgemont Reserve bourbon; and the luscious and unpeated Bunnahabhain 18 year old, which most people attributed to Speyside.
Three of the five whiskies in the blind tasting
The food at this event was deliciously prepared by dedicated volunteers, and included the best Cock a' Leekie soup I've ever had, wonderful smoked trout and smoked salmon, more-ish corned beef on rye, apple custard cinnamon tarts and spotted dick with two sauces. Yum!
This annual event is like a kitchen party - lots of fun and camaraderie, good food, good whisky. In fact, I think I'll start calling it the Spirit of Arnprior! Join us next year before it's Sold Out.

GrapeScot whisky tour

All going well, and apart from Feis Ile on Islay next week, I'm planning to be in Bardstown for the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in September, and in Scotland again  next May for the Spirit of Speyside, and perhaps another trek up magnificent Lochnagar.

I plan to take a small tour group to Islay in 2015 - probably the Fall. It'll be fabulous, and whisky focused! Email me if you're interested, and I'll make sure that you receive details when the grand plan is ready for release.
After Islay, I'll be back at the Army Officers Mess on June 13th for another great whisky tasting. The summer - yes, it's coming - is a great time for private wine or whisky tastings, indoors or out, for special occasions or just because. Drop me an email if you have something specific in mind, or just an idea brewing.
Meanwhile, have a sweet and merry month of May.
By the way, if you like port, try Madeira. Delicious!
Have some Madeira, m'dear!
Slainte ! Cheers!

March 13, 2014

Does Whisky make you Mad?

Lagavulin 16 - one of the whiskies served at last week's Bachelor Party
Now that I have your attention, I'll shamelessly admit that I brought you here to learn about something other than whisky.
As the Children's Wish Foundation of Canada will benefit from any direct action on your part, I make no apologies for this ruse!

In about three weeks, I'll be joining a jolly group of about 40 thespians of The Savoy Society of Ottawa on stage at the Algonquin Commons Theatre for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta - Ruddygore. I'll be playing the wonderfully ludicrous part of Mad Margaret, one of an outrageous cast of characters who sing and act their way through a zany plot with great music.

Mad Margaret (me), Sir Despard Murgatroyd (Stuart MacKinnon) in Ruddigore (1990) at Centrepointe Theatre.
Here's the synposis............... 
The Baronets of Ruddygore have been cursed by a witch. Each Baronet must commit a crime a day - or die in torture. To escape his dreadful fate, Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd disguises himself as Robin Oakapple, a farmer. Robin Oakapple is in love and wants to marry - but his future plans appear doomed when his true identity is revealed. 

Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a handful of operettas back in the 1800's. The more well known ones are HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado. The Savoy Society has been around since 1975 and has performed all of the 12 main Gilbert and Sullivan works on a quasi revolving basis.
As I've been with Savoy, on and off, since 1981 (ouch!), I've performed in four different Ruddigore productions over the years, playing three different roles. It's been - eh - a few years since I last played Mad Margaret.

My sons - one now an Engagement Manager at a Management Consulting Company and the other the Co-Founder and Artistic Designer of a clothing company.
Back in 1887, when it was first performed, audiences were shocked by the title Ruddygore, and it was subsequently renamed to the more obscure Ruddigore. The stage director for this production, the talented and knowledgeable Richard Langlois, decided to create an authentic production, using the original name. 127 years later, my local community centre seems reluctant to put up a poster! Checkout the link on Richard's name for a You Tube rehearsal clip.
For all the goriness of the title, this production is a delightful and highly entertaining romp, in a beautiful new theatre, with some extremely talented folks on stage. And the Children's Wish Foundation will be the beneficiary of donations to the wishing wells, as well as a donation from Savoy. Over the years, approximately $80,000 has been contributed in this way to worthy causes like Children's Wish.   
Pirates of Penzance 2008 Ruth (me), Frederic (Gavan Quinn), Pirate King (Rejean Dinelle-Mayer)
Photo Spencer Studio.
Performances are on April 3rd (7:30pm), April 4th (7:30pm), April 5th (2pm and 7:30pm) and April 6th (2pm). Tickets are available online at the theatre website or in person at the Algonquin Commons Theatre Box Office located at E104 in the Student Commons building. Tickets (including fees and taxes) are $36.50 for adults and $19 for children 12 and under. 
Do come out and see the show - and then go home and have a nice dram or glass of wine. That's what Mad Margaret will be doing!

Check back soon for Mad Whisky events during April, May and June!

February 12, 2014

An Olympic fever dram, The Macallan 1824 series, and talking to a haggis

I'm not in Sochi, but I may as well be, given the amount of time I'm spending watching the Olympics. I love winter Olympics, although it's a bit ironic that I convert from a pretty active person into a couch potato, while watching all these amazing athletes push themselves to the limit.   Eight years ago, we were living in France, and I took myself off to Bardonnechia to watch the inaugural Snowboard Cross event. My husband had meetings he needed to go to, so when I say "took myself off" I mean that I hopped on a  train from Geneva and went to the Olympics alone. Who does that!
That's how much I like winter Olympics.

So, needless to say, with even more inaugural events going on, coupled with Canada's great performance in Sochi, it's just easier to stop work, call out for pizza and ignore emails. I jest, but I'm definitely procrastinating more than usual. And I have noticed that Canadian twitter activity has diminished in the last week, except for athletic references. This is not necessarily a bad thing!

A few weeks ago, at the Victoria Whisky Festival, this whisky won the prestigious title of Canadian Whisky of the Year. Reasonably available at the LCBO, and under $40, Lot 40 is a fantastic 100% rye whisky, with a luscious mouth-feel and a spicy character. This is a grand Canadian dram to sip and savour while toasting your favourite athletes.

The Macallan 1824 Series

Two weeks ago, approximately 600 people turned out for the official Ottawa launch of The Macallan 1824 series. Although some of the product has been in the LCBO for quite a few months, this was an opportunity for a large number of people to taste the new collection of colour coded Single Malt Scotches from the great Speyside distillery. In recent weeks, about 3000 people have had the opportunity to taste the four Scotches, as the event made its way across Canada.
The tastings were led by Marc Laverdiere, Canadian Ambassador for The Macallan, and a congenial man with a friendly style and an obvious passion for his work. In Ottawa, attendees were treated to a cocktail made with The Macallan Gold and some tasty nibbles by Tulips and Maple, followed by a sequential tasting of The Macallan Gold, Sienna, Amber and Ruby.
The whiskies increase in colour and flavour intensity, mainly a result of different cask types, but also a factor of age. With no age expression on the bottles, the distillery has more leeway to marry whisky of any age to create the range. The emphasis is on cask previous contents, whether sherry or bourbon, first fill or subsequent fill, married together to create four different whiskies, at four different prices. As the whiskies flow from the lighter, crisp Gold to the rich, chocolatey Ruby, it's reasonable to assume that there are more casks of older whisky in the higher priced, richer flavored  products.

Many consumers like the comfort of buying a whisky with an age expression. If you buy a 15 year old Scotch, you are assured that the youngest whisky in the bottle is 15 years old. With the 1824 series, the distillery can add younger whiskies into the final pre-bottling marriage, if it suits the target flavour (and price) profile. The aim is for consumers to judge and enjoy these Scotches, without getting wound up about age.
My observation is that most tasters try to guess the age anyway, and then relate that to the price, as well as to other comparably aged whiskies. Time will tell whether the new strategy is a winner or not. Certainly, the 1824 series offers up four completely different whiskies at different price points. Current LCBO pricing is $64.95 for Gold, $99.95 for Amber, $174.95 for Sienna and $299.95 for Ruby.

Here are my notes on the range.


Youthful, fresh, citrus notes, peardrops, nutty, white pepper; a warming finish.


Fruity, apricots, vanilla, ginger, smoother on the palate, a medium finish.


Elegant, raisins, figs, fruitcake, a whiff of carbolic soap, cedar, warming and spicy.


Rich, a melee of dried fruits, chocolate, cocoa, spicy cloves, a long warming finish, a cognac quality.

Talking to a haggis

Robert Burns birthday has come and gone. We celebrated well at our house, with eloquent speeches, well articulated poetry, beautiful singing and piano playing, fine piping, Scottish dancing and a veritable feast.
Front and centre of the feast was, of course, the previously mentioned haggis and a grand beast he was.
I chatted to him in the way that one does at Burns Suppers.............


Enjoy the rest of the Olympics!