Category Archives: Imbibed Musings

The New Normal – Whisky Pricing

Yes, I am piling on to complain about rising prices. I have a very small budget but a very large thirst – which makes for a very bad combination.

Over the past several years China has been extremely efficient in implementing an aggressive tactic in dealing with its territorial disputes with other countries. A bit of background: China has asserted its sovereignty (rightly or wrongly) over several islands to the dismay of neighboring countries that also claim ownership, such as Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines. In asserting its sovereignty, China slowly begins to take incremental action to create a new normal. Taken individually, the actions, although provocative, do not appear overly aggressive or worthy of initiating armed conflict. But slowly and surely the actions erode the status quo and create a new normal. For example, China intermittently starts to navigate its boats into the waters of disputed territories. Then slowly these instances become more frequent. After awhile it becomes normal for Chinese boats to be entering into disputed waters. The same tactic is found with aircraft – an occasional fly through the air space of a disputed island turns into a regular airplane route over said disputed island.

So what does all of this international relations gibberish have to do with whisky? Well to me it feels like the whisky companies over the past few years have managed to create a new normal with the pricing of whiskies – or at least the regular price increases. This is not the case for all whisky companies (there are still some bargains to be found), but to me it sure feels like a whole lot of them. Prices have slowly and steadily crept up on us whisky drinkers. My $60-75 is not as significant as it used to be. Now it takes closer to $100+ for the same amount of whisky purchasing power. Although we don’t like the price increases, we are getting used to it. Besides, it’s normal now.

*Apparently Diagio was a little less tactful with their most recent pricing increase on Talisker 18 as the K&L Spirits Journal reports. They decided to forgo taking incremental steps and blitzkrieg’d directly to almost double the price.*

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Tasting Experience

Since it is the Holiday season many of us will be cracking open bottles to share with friends and family. We will also be sharing our thoughts and ideas about the whiskies we are enjoying together. So I thought it would be appropriate to post up an article we wrote earlier about describing the flavors in whisky. Have a great Holiday Season and enjoy your whisky!

Have you ever read the back of a whisky bottle or the tasting notes from a blog or magazine? Exotic, unfamiliar fruits, greasy mechanical parts – even colors are used to describe the taste of whiskies. Sometimes I wonder if I am reading a flora and fauna guidebook to an industrial seascape or a connoisseur’s whisky tasting notes. One of my favorite retailer’s in-store whisky expert always seems to be able to roll out a litany of delectable berries and spices, flowers and baked goods. Sometimes his description of the flavors does little to provide me with any insight into the whisky, as I am not sure if I have ever actually tasted an elderberry. In the off chance that I did, I have no recollection of the experience. The lack of common reference points and the sheer variety of interpretation can often bedevil any attempt to effectively communicate the taste experience of a whisky to someone outside your own frame of reference. But there is a certain joy in attempting to bridge that barrier.

Why do we love whiskies so much? The wealth and complexity in this fine shades-of-copper-and-brown spirit offer a bounty of different flavors for us to enjoy. There is no right or wrong answer to how a whisky tastes and we all pick up different flavors even though we are enjoying whisky from the same bottle. But how are we able to identify the flavors that we taste in a whisky? Unlike a specific item of food we cannot simply say that whisky tastes like whisky. That is an over-broad generalization of the flavors of whisky and do not do it justice.

All of our collective experiences and memories are available for us to draw upon when tasting a whisky. Even from the start of our whisky journey we drew upon our experiences – you might remember the first time you tasted a whisky and instinctually exclaimed that it tasted of hospital and nail polish remover. But whisky takes time to taste and savor and once we get past the nail polish remover we find that there is so much more. Whisky is like a time machine, less the flux capacitor and the 1.21 jiggawatts. As we slowly savor the flavors of the whisky, it brings us back to the moment that we bit into that crisp, green apple or lingered in front of that fireplace on a cold winter evening. There are fond memories of egg nog and fresh baked bread along with thoughts of vibrant tropical fruits and freshly cut grass that enter your consciousness as the warming whisky moves across your palate.

Even random experiences that you wouldn’t think would have anything to do with the flavor of a whisky will strangely find themselves being drawn upon to express a particular note in the palate. I would never have thought that the time I opened up that transmission with the busted differential from a Honda, a combination of oils and other automotive effluviums, would years later spring to mind as the most accurate and curiously pleasing description of the one facet of a certain Ardbeg in its Islay glory. Similarly, that an aroma emanating from a compost pile I once had the ignoble duty to build would years later be revived to help distinctly delineate the parameters of a blessed pour of an 80’s-era Port Ellen. I have even found myself describing the often disregarded Ledaig as tasting like garbage but in a good way. Quite possibly why it is often disregarded…

As you might imagine, while the scents and tastes of a whisky may often draw upon a strange and surprising range of experiences, communicating these concepts to someone else is not always the easiest of tasks. Like our fingerprints and retinas, no doubt the particular distribution and alignment of our taste buds vary from person to person, and while we may be able to share an experience, the fine details will almost certainly differ. My experiences are more than likely different from yours. So my descriptions of a flavor might be totally lost on you – much like the retailer’s were lost on me. Or my memory of what a specific fruit or spice tastes like doesn’t comport with yours.

At a recent trip to a bar in Tokyo with a friend that isn’t a whisky drinker I found that his memory points of reference differed from mine. We were sampling a fine and very rare 70’s Talisker aged in a sherry cask. I was brought back to dark red cherries, raisins and chocolate. While my friend was transported to a very specific herbal pill for stomach pain. As he described it to me I slowly put it together and figured out what he we talking about…I commonly call it the “stink pill”. Not the most satisfying or appetizing of all flavor descriptions but that is what struck a chord with my friend. And curiously, in the world of whisky, such seemingly disparaging terms are not a negative reflection on the flavor, they are simply an attempt to fix in some expressible medium one aspect of a multifaceted beast. One of the real pleasures of tasting whisky, aside from the obvious consumption of it, is attempting to use concepts like burnt leather, soapy orange, sugared cigar smoke, and grassy biscuits. Flavors that we do not have a culinary reference for, but that we can construct from the vast experiences of our sometimes-mundane memories. And better still is witnessing the recognition on a fellow drinker’s face when they understand what you mean by dark red, salted marshmallow.

As you can see there really is no mystery to the flavors that one tastes in a whisky. It is what you taste and what the flavors in the whisky remind you of. Whisky is a social drink that should be enjoyed with others. So I encourage you to savor a glass of whisky and discuss with others what you are tasting. Much of the enjoyment of whisky comes from discussing what flavors you taste and understanding what others taste as well.

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Getting the Balance Right – Whisky and Running

It is no secret that I like my booze – maybe a little too much some times.  Where else would I come up with fodder for the drivel that makes up all of these posts here?  But as hard as it is to believe I do like to maintain some modicum of balance in my life when it comes to my health.  Drinking whisky and being healthy are not mutually exclusive pursuits.  Mixed in between the low key after work dram nights and complete destruction what was I thinking nights is a healthy dose running for me.  There always seems to be something that nags at me to get out and hit the road running to balance things out – possibly a form of penance or maybe a  not-so-subliminal message I picked up from an oft forgotten B side track from Depeche Mode.

In any event, my running ambitions crossed paths with my whisky interests (I like euphemisms) a little over a year ago with Glendfiddich’s Cask of Dreams.  As a refresher, Glenfiddich traveled around the US with casks to have people write their dreams and ambitions on to.  Later these casks were used to partially age the whisky that would later be bottled and released as the Cask of Dreams.  I happened by Mitch Bechard rolling one of these casks down by the Ferry Building in San Francisco by pure chance.  Without much thought I hastily scribbled one of my “dreams” onto the cask:  “One day I will run a 50K.”  It probably isn’t all that ambitious of a dream but at the time it might have been the same as me writing that I’ll walk on the moon.

This Saturday, a little over a year after memorializing my dream on the cask, I will be running the NorthFace Endurance Challenge 50K through the Marin Headlands in Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  I don’t know how long it will take me but I just want to survive and finish.  What I do know though is that there is going to have to be a whole lot of whisky consumed after I recover to get the balance right.   – Chris

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Hidden Gems II – Campbelltoun Loch

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When I posted earlier I was going off of my memory and didn’t realize that I was spelling the name of the bar incorrectly. It is spelled: Campbelltoun Loch. I have made the correction to my previous post.

Earlier I mentioned the multitude of bars both on the street level and the many floors above, but I forgot to mention all of those bars that are down below street level. Campbelltoun Loch is one such subterranean bars and I would probably have walked right past it if I wasn’t specifically looking for it. Campbelltoun Loch is tended by the very knowledgable and friendly Noboyuki Nakamura. There is a plain white sign with black lettering on the street level with a small winding staircase that brings you down to the front door. Once you slide open the door you realize that space is definitely at a premium and most of that premium space is dedicated to whisky bottles instead of customer seating. There are only about 10 small stools and it is probably easier to wait outside to let people out before trying to get in – that is how narrow the seating is.

As soon as I walked in though I knew it was my kind of place. Low key, quiet and enough whisky on the shelf (and on the bar top) to keep you busy for hours if you tried to read all of the labels. Campbelltoun Loch has an always changing selection of about 250 bottles. What I found most impressive was their selection of malts from the 70’s and 80’s – it was like an antique whisky library.

With this type of selection, no menu and no prices listed I was worried about how much of a hit my wallet was going to be taking. But when would I get the chance to try distillery releases from 30 years ago? Luckily, the pricing wasn’t too bad and you could order half-pours. Because there are so many bottles available it is easier to ask for a particular distillery, flavor profile or region and Nakamura San will happily bring you a couple of bottles to choose from.

In February I tried four different malts: a distillery release from the now silent Dallas Dhu, an 80’s distillery release Springbank, an 80’s distillery release Mortlach and a fun ’78 Samaroli Sherried Talisker. It was a real treat to try the distillery releases and taste what whisky was like from a different era. It was like drinking liquid history.

I enjoyed Campbelltoun Loch so much that on my latest trip to Tokyo a couple of weeks ago I chose to forgo trying to discover a new bar and went back. As expected there were a lot of changes to the whiskies available. This time I tried 24 y/o Brora, ’68 Glendronach that was specially bottled for ANA airlines, 25 y/o OMC Talisker, ’79 single cask peated BenRiach, 80’s distillery release Lagavulin 12, Barman’s Collection Caol Ila 30 bottled by BBR specially for Campbelltoun Loch. It was another fun tasting adventure this trip, making it inevitable that I will be stopping for some drams here again on my next visit.

Campbelltoun Loch is open M – F 6pm – 4am, Sat – Sun 6pm – 11:30pm, located at 1-6-8 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-Ku. The nearest stations are Yurakucho and Hibiya (Exit A4).

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Hidden Gems

Let’s face it, trying to navigate bars and other drinking establishments in Japan without any assistance can be a completely random guessing game. This rings even more true if you are wondering the streets of popular sections of Tokyo. There are not only the street level store fronts that you have to contend with, you also have to consider what is above your head. Buildings often have multiple floors that contain even more places to drink. It would take a life time to even attempt to check out each establishment. To make things more difficult there is a high turnover rate and new spots are always popping up.

So how does one find a good whisky watering hole? I would first check out Nonjatta for some initial pointers. But what I would really pick up is Nonjatta’s author – Chris Bunting’s book Drinking Japan. I lived in Japan for a year that was about 5 years of partying and drinking distilled down into 4 months – please excuse the poor pun. I also go back as much as possible. But reading Drinking Japan opened my eyes to even more drinking establishments (not just whisky bars). It is more than a list of bars – there are very thorough descriptions and details of each establishment that is mentioned.

However, during a trip in February of this year I was given a suggestion by a local (to Tokyo) whisky connoisseur Mr. Iwasa. He told me that I should check out a whisky bar called Campbelltoun Loch as it has the best selection of malts. With that kind of endorsement I had to check it out even though I had never heard of it. Tomorrow I will post about my visits (yes more than one) to Campbelltoun Loch. Till then a small glimpse of the bar.

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A Quick Check In

There has been a lot of dead air around here lately – mostly because I finally took some time to get away and have been in Japan for the past few weeks. Things are winding down and I’m headed back home tomorrow night. Another all-to-short vacation is coming to an end. I have been doing mostly non-whisky things while here but I did manage to do a couple of fun whisky related activities that I will be writing about shortly. I have also had a few tasty drams while here and one of my favorite of the trip was a peated single cask BenRiach that was just plain awesome! Tropical fruits, loads of white peaches and just a touch of peat, which was quite surprising.

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A Journey With No Ending – Finding the Best Whisky

At the risk of getting horrible Karate Kid sound track theme music stuck in our heads we ponder the quest for the best (around!) whisky…

Efforts to determine and discover what the best is when it comes to whisky can only be described in an equally staunch manner: Impossible. There are some that will boldly proclaim on an annual basis what the best whisky in the world is – but it is not that simple. While whiskies can be and often are described with terms depicting a certain color, aroma and palate, the appreciation of a whisky is preferably interpreted as an experience drawing upon factors both from within and without the glass.

In this fashion, tasting notes of the ultimate whiskies are typically not what one regales others with in moments of nostalgia: it is the retelling of a whisky experience that better communicates what is best in whisky. The consumption of whisky is far more dependent on the particular tilt of any given whiskey drinker. What is the best whisky is too heavily dependent upon the palate and experience of the individual raising the glass, cup or as necessity dictates – the bottle. Because of this subjective aspect of whisky, it is difficult to come to a consensus on what constitutes the best whisky as our experiences are all different and always changing.

This is not to say that all whisky drinking is relative, but more that whisky drinking is less akin to the search for the perfectly prepared steak and more of a journey without a destination. That journey may lead the inveterate seeker of whisky on many a quest. One such quest is for the holy grail of peat. This is a point where few start their journey but many seekers eventually linger. This leg of the ultimate whisky experience typically leaves a trail of empty bottles with labels mentioning Laphroaig, Caol Ila, Bruichladdich and Ardbeg among others. It starts with attempts to see just how much of the fabled earth elemental one can savor in a single dose. While a denizen of bogs and soil, peat is released by fire, and fire never goes anywhere without his friends smoke and ash. Does the peatiest whisky mean the best whisky? To some it may, to those peat-adverse it will fall on the opposite end of the superlative spectrum – dare I say the worst?

While there are some whisky drinkers that have put down permanent roots in the area of a particular style of whisky, the majority of us are a bit more nomadic and continue on our quest for the best. And so it is with these various travels through grasslands and swathes of grain or more perilous wanderings along craggy coasts, buffeted by salt and iodine winds that our opinions of what is the peak or the trough of whisky expressions at that moment often changes.

In this sense, it is the drinker and their current point in their quest for the pinnacle-dram that determines the worth of any particular whisky. When I awoke one evening to find myself wandering the highlands, very much at the beginning of my search, I would have failed to appreciate the experience of seasoned veterans and their tales of wandering the paths of Isla or the alleys of Campbletown. Until, after years, I found myself haunting similar places, darkening peaty, salty shores. Only to wade back into waves of amber grain with a greater and changed appreciation for many fundamental aspects of whisky, be it elements of the soil and water, the barrel, or the muse of time and its aging process, sometimes enhancing a whisky, other times dampening its fire too much.

Sadly but perhaps fortunately, because the drinker is always changing, if you retained a favorite bottle from years past, you will return to that bottle to find that the spirit was no longer what you thought of as the best in whisky. But take solace in that although you might have lost that best whisky, you have discovered and moved on to another. In this manner, scaling the various peaks of whisky’s seemingly endless range, the whisky drinker is redefined and enriched a little with each ascent. I don’t think I ever want to find the best as it will mean that my quest is over. As such, a long and varied quest is perhaps the superlative whisky experience.

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Our Latest Article for Drink Me Magazine

A fun little write up on the flavors and taste of whisky: at page 32

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The Whisky Roundtable – April Edition!

This month’s Whisky Roundtable is hosted by Gal over at Whisky Israel. Gal poses a very interesting question:

Lately we’ve seen a few examples of distilleries aging their whisky in two (or more) locations until full maturation. Amrut has done quite a few of those with their “Herlad” aged on Helgoland (a wee German island) and the “Two continents”. In Israel the IWC has bought a few casks from the Arran distillery and aged them on holy land for periods of 2-3 years in various locations (Tiberias, Jersualem etc).

What are your views on those methods? Do multiple maturation locations (of the same cask) something that makes whisky better or is it a PR stunt?

Please check out the responses and feel free to join in on the discussion here.

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The Best Bars? The Top Bars?

Here are a couple of articles about the top whisky and cocktail bars here in San Francisco:  The Best Whisky Bars in San Francisco   San Francisco’s Top 10 Cocktail Bars

Articles and lists like these are the epitome of subjective.  What criteria is used when selecting the “best”?  Is it the selection of drinks available at the bar?  Maybe the pricing or the atmosphere? Possibly the innovation or the bartenders?  It is probably a combination of all of these factors and more but with different levels of importance placed on each of them.   For me, being able to actually have a conversation without yelling is of primary importance.  Maybe I am just getting old but I have absolutely no interest in a packed bar with loud thumping music in the foreground – I don’t care how amazing the selection of whisky is.  Coming in second are the folks behind the bar that are serving the drinks.  While I don’t expect bartenders to geek out on whisky and know every every minor detail, I do expect them to have a working knowledge of the spirit.  I am a lot more open to taking a recommendation on what I should try from a bartender that knows what they are talking about.  I’m pretty low key and I think it reflects on my choices for preferred whisky bars in SF:  Whiskey Thieves, Broken Record and 83 Proof.  There are of course many other whisky bars in SF that I haven’t been to – these are simply my favorites for the ones that I have been to. – Chris

What are the qualities/characteristics that you look for in a bar?  What are some of your favorite watering holes?

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