Category Archives: Musings

New Toy

‘Cause there’s more to life than malts…

So. I decided I needed a Telecaster. That’s how the story begins.

When I recently told a mate that I needed a Tele, he asked “besides wanting one, which I totally get, what makes you think you need one?” My reply: “guitar people don’t differentiate between want and need.” To which he immediately shot back: “As soon as I hit send I recognized it was a dumb question.”

Fender Telecaster American Ultra Luxe

I can’t lie: I was on the hunt for something with Classic Tele vibes. You know, three saddle bridge, block body, vintage tuners, 50s pickups, etc. I played a couple and found nothing that really grabbed me. Then the gent at the shop showed me this Fender American Ultra Luxe.

Let me just say it: this thing is an illusion. It looks entirely retro (excepting the aforementioned saddles), but make no mistake, is one badass modern machine. Stainless steel frets, six saddle bridge, compound radius neck (10″-14″), locking tuners, tapered neck heel for comfortable access to the higher frets, S-1 switch in the volume knob to run the single coils in series for a bigger Humbucker sound, noiseless pickups, contoured back makes it a great couch guitar (something Teles have never been). Truly a stunning piece of work.

But anyone can a guitar based on impressive-sounding specs, aye? What it really comes down to is a) feel and b) tone. I’d argue a) is more important. You can always change out electronics, hardware, etc, but you can’t (easily) change the way it feels in your hand. This thing is built for speed and comfort. It’s unquestionably one of the best necks I’ve ever played. And yes…it has all the snap, snarl, quack and twang you’d want in a tele. She’s a beast. And I love ‘er.

I shouldn’t have picked it up. I did look at the price tag before even lifting it off the wall. And still, I picked it up. I’ll not be so gauche as to mention price, but suffice to say, it wasn’t what I was hoping to spend. I went looking to drop about $650. Oops.

The Best Laid Plans

Sigh. I sort of feel like the cartoon character that lights the fuse on some big cauldron-bellied cannon and waits for the inevitable ka-boom, only to have the damn thing blow up in my face long after the expected blast should have happened. Such is. As Lennon said, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” That’s all well and good, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean we should just sit around and wait for the other shoe to drop. So, to quote Andy Dufresne, I suppose it’s time to “get busy living or get busy dying.”

Without too much elaboration, ATW was to have become a bit of a Collective. A few of the malt cognoscenti were to have come on board here, creating a bit of a whisky think tank and forum for critical discussion. A few things conspired to make that well-nigh impossible. As I said, such is.

The idea isn’t dead – indeed, there may be guest posts from time to time or something of that ilk – but for now I guess we’ll go back to tried and true. In other words, you’re stuck with the one-man-band. So let’s get back to what we know. Hopefully we can pull up readership a bit.

And fair warning, just to stir a little spice into the stew, I may occasionally drop a few words on other things that light me up: music, guitars, art, watches, writing, family, cigars, who knows?

Sorry we couldn’t bring it to fruition for you, but hopefully you’re interested in walking a little further down the path together anyway.

Peace and love.

Some Stuff…part 1

A series of long-winded essays, or just a few lines to stir the pot and tiptoe back outta the kitchen before it gets too hot. Let’s go with the latter. Less words means less opportunity for me to stick my foot in my mouth. Though, I’m sure I’ll do so a few times anyway. Let’s see if we can’t blow up the comments section below…

First things first. Just a sort of “you heard it here first” bit for you. I am keeping eyes and ears open for the right ATW partner in crime. Finding an Angus (not in the literal sense, of course; I know one of them) is mighty tricksy. I’ve yet to come across someone who shares my stylistic leanings, literary trappings, palate preferences, etc. If and when this happens, these jottings will become a bit more frequent. I struggle more and more to extricate myself enough from life to be able to do this as regularly as I’d like. So…’ATW Angus’…if you’re out there…come claim your place.

So…about those undisclosed/undeclared malts. Sigh. What should we say here, other than stop…f*cking…doing it. Whatever happened to clever label workarounds, such as hints and clues (and insider secrets, oh my!)? I’ve seen enough $300ca bottles of ‘Undisclosed Speyside’ or ‘Unnamed Orkney’ or ‘An Islay Malt’ to last me a lifetime. If you expect me to pull out my coin purse (figuratively speaking; I don’t actually own a coin purse), I really do want some idea as to what I’m buying. How else are we justifying the price tag on just one more unproven asset?

We get it. The world is watching Campbeltown. Yes, Springbank is brilliant, and yes…Glengyle is really starting to show its pedigree. And absolutely, some Glen Scotia can really shine too. Just, y’know…slow down, folks. Share the wealth. Seeing FB or Instagram posts showing ten bottles of the new 12 year Cask Strength land on one person’s shelf really pisses me off. Especially now, when I can see behind the curtain and know how many others are missing out despite intense passion for the brand.

The ‘drinkers’, the ‘collectors’, and the ‘accidental accumulators’ I can deal with. The ‘flippers’ however…fuck ’em! I keep getting asked for advice as to which bottles are going to go up in value by people I know are looking to make profit off of them. Please don’t ask me anymore. This may be something we now have to deal with indefinitely, but don’t expect me to like it or play along. Start querying me about this and I guarantee I’ll extricate myself from the vicinity in a real big hurry. I wish a plague of medieval genital diseases to befall flippers. Bah. Humbug.

Cadenhead’s recent dumbing down. How we went from the generally exciting Small Batch range to this new dumbed down range is beyond me. Farewell cask strength. So long transparency. Adios to even the tasting notes. They’re not even telling us cask type anymore. Shame, Cadenhead. This is a true regression.

Is Elixir Distillers the future? I continue to be amazed at the depth and breadth of Sukhinder’s amassed stash of casks. Hopefully the well is deep and we’re not simply skimming the best off the top before seeing a stagnant puddle of young Caol Ila and such below. I have a feeling Mr. Singh is much smarter than that. As it stands, Elixir is as exciting as it gets right now. I’m loving where they’re taking us.

Gordon & MacPhail still really needs to loosen the purse strings a bit, and that includes anything to do with Benromach. Seriously. These 40% and 43% malts need to go. The days of Scrooge McDucking it are over, guys. Get with the times. 46 is the new 40. This has always been a problem with this company (or companies). They may have the best warehouses in Scotland, and a wood management policy that shames all others, but this incessant dilution is killing the reputation. Even the new Benromach 21 is at 43%. Why?

No…a revived Port Ellen or Brora will not be the same. And even if it somehow miraculously ends within spitting distance of the old distillate…let’s face it…it will be another 30 years yet before it reminds us of our beloved lost icons. And even ignoring changes to yeast, barley, etc, any chance of a recognizable DNA rests on what happens in a contemporary wood program. Don’t expect prices to get better on extant stock either. Ever. Not gonna happen.

Anyone else missing Not the editorializing, apologism, and opinion pieces (those were largely rubbish, anyway), but the data, news and one-stop-shopping aspect. The team that put this all together deserve their place in the whisky heavens. I miss my frequent visits, and am grateful that the site itself – dormant though it may be – still exists. It truly is a treasure trove of valuable whisky knowledge.

To the heads of the big ‘uns: your ‘brand’ is never going to be iconic if you keep rebranding to modern fonts, brighter colors and square-shouldered bottles. Hate to pick on these guys – two of my favorite distilleries – but Benromach and BenRiach…come on guys…you messed up with the new livery. It really is bad. You both had strong and recognizable images already.

Is Ardbeg clawing its way back to the top? Blaaack, Blaaack Committee, Wee Beastie, Supernova 2019, Traigh Bhan 1 and 2 were all good. Not just good, actually, but really good examples of what each was trying to be. Yes, even those pinot-casked Blaaacks. And yes, even that five year old. But more about that in a moment. In the meantime, can’t wait to try that 25 y.o.

Pandemic sample sharing and the rise of online tastings. I know, I know. It’s not the same as a pint and hug from your mates, but at least it’s something. Small victories these days, aye? And hey…drinking at home means no need to worry about safe travel arrangements afterwards. That’s a win, at least! Dunno about you, but I’m slowly coming ’round to these Zoom sessions.

Let’s get back to the idea of really low age statements. Quit nipping ’em in the bud! While at first I was impressed by the ballsy swagger of releasing 4 and 5 year old malts with age statements, we’re now seeing a couple too many 5 year old indies, etc. Sorry, guys. These are simply not ripe whiskies. A cask has work to do in both additive and subtractive capacities. And no matter how heavily peated your make, or how sloshy your wet-fill barrel is, nothing is hiding the fact that 5 year old whisky is just not ready. Good whisky shouldn’t be overly boozy or spirity.

Not all Clynelish or Ben Nevis is good. Period.

We’re starting to see a trend back to where color is king. Darker malts always draw the eye, but I’d argue shouldn’t always draw your wallet. I will concede, however, that most people falling into the color trap are doing so with the indies, which tend towards a more natural shading, at least. Just…caveat emptor.

The SMWS. Bless ’em. Love the Society, love the ethos (the original mission statement, anyway). But maybe it’s time to ask if the SMWS has abandoned its core principles. I mean, blended malts, cask finishes and $400ca bottles of 12 year old Ardbeg fly in the face of everything the Society once stood for. Namely, the purity of the single cask single malt. Read Pip Hills’s latest literary outing and you’ll see what I mean. Hopefully this new face is only a stopgap measure for dealing with depleted stocks, and one that the folks in charge abandon in short order. Otherwise…this is really, really frustratingly sellout-ish.

Anyone else missing the legitimate experience? Scotland is home away from home for me. I can’t lie…I’m about a month or two away from swimming across the Atlantic to experience the esoteric thrill of a proper warehouse jaunt at one of my beloved distilleries. Dear God, how I miss it all. The tours, my friends over there, the straight-from-the-barrel experiences. All of it.

So. About sherried malts. Man…empty those fucking barrels of their previous contents before filling ’em with malt! A five year old whisky should not be the color of coffee or Cherry Coke. And yes…one egregious example that just arrived in our neck of the woods is really setting me off here. Sherry itself is not that color, so tell me how a five year old from Glenwhozit ends up near opacity when it’s only spent a half decade in wood. I am being 100% honest when I tell you a couple distillery folks I’ve spoken to (and no…I won’t mention who, when or where) have explicitly conceded to wet-fill casking. (i.e. there is still stuff sloshing in the so-called empty barrels that are being filled). Not cool. You can’t hide underage malt behind wet casks.

Anyone else kinda miss the days of paxarette? Just how many of our beloved old sherry bombs were a direct result of the practice of paxing casks?

ScotchTrooper. This one touched me. I remained largely quiet on social media, as I didn’t know Brett personally, but what a devastating story of a man who seemed to have positive interactions with pretty much everyone he met. Hoping the family finds comfort and grace and healing.

Alright. Let’s save the rest for part two. Peace and love, mates. Do something kind for someone today.

Beneath The Fedora

I don’t suppose there’s any reason to wade in slowly, is there? I mean…we’ve known each other for quite some time here on ATW, most of us. And I think we all know that most of the time things are more akin to back alley bare knuckle boxing than to full-on gloved-up pugilism, right? So let’s step into the fray a little bit here. I want to say a few things, but I imagine there are a few of you out there that wouldn’t mind chirping in a word or two, as well. Feel free to weigh in with comments, if you so see fit.

A couple of months back, Jim Murray created quite the stir when he crowned Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye his 2021 Whisky of the Year. That, in and of itself, isn’t the biggest deal. Maybe a little bit of a stretch, but to be fair, the whisky was really, really good. The review here on ATW attests to my firm belief of that. And Murray has long been considered a bit of a leading contrarian. His picks always seem to fall far outside the norm of what most would consider believable winners. Unfortunately, accusations of payoffs and under-the-table dealings have followed him for years. Personally, I’ve never bought into that idea. Some of Murray’s more controversial picks have included Ballantine’s 17 year old blended whisky, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, and an elusive, apparently non-existent batch of Ardbeg Uigeadail. The general consensus seems to be that someone like Murray, being the leading whisky critic in the world, probably has access to some of the most insanely brilliant drams from the 50s, 60s, 70s and every other age imaginable. Ergo, it seems almost inconceivable that Murray’s selections would be so…pedestrian. Inconceivable, that is, until one considers that the man is essentially trying to sell the same book year upon year, with minimal changes to the bulk the text. So how does one keep such a tome relevant, and make sure consumers keep coming back with fistfuls of dollars (or pounds/euros/what-have-you)? It’s simple. Keep it controversial; keep ’em talking. And, let’s face it, picking a 1970s single cask outing from, say, GlenDronach, with an outturn of less than 600 bottles, doesn’t really speak to the masses. But some mainstream release that no one could see coming…and available at an affordable price point, to boot? Rather brilliant, actually.

But that’s not the real controversy this time. The issue at hand, as it relates to the Jim Murray brand, is not a new one. It’s a tale that has become part of the oral lore of the man in the white fedora, rarely turning up in the written word (for fear of legal reprisal, I’d imagine?), but almost always surfacing in face-to-face discussion. The real controversy that has bubbled and roiled beneath the surface for years now has been Murray’s reliance on sex, innuendo, and what is being called out as overt misogyny. And unfortunately, the language in The Whisky Bible does little to assuage the accusations.

It took Becky Paskin, spirits journalist and editor of the incomparable (and now sadly defunct), to bring this issue bubbling to the surface of our public whisky discourse. Paskin put herself out there and, risking the ire of a largely male-dominated whisky world, said the things that should have been said long, long ago: that this sort of marginalizing, incredibly inappropriate speech is not even close to acceptable. Period. Sexism is something the whisky industry has struggled with for far too long now, but this sort of egregious example is on another level entirely. And while many were quick to agree that things needed to change, it goes without saying that it should never have been allowed to reach this point in the first place. Brands, retailers, and ambassadors have been using Murray’s scores to sell product for years. Why did it take the fortitude of Becky Paskin to make so many of us do an about face?

I think the thing I struggle with most is that it took this long. I mean, rumors of Murray’s impropriety have stretched back many a long year now. I know of venues and organizers who, after hosting him, utterly refuse to have him back. I’ve heard tell of walkouts and interactions with female audience members that made me cringe, simply in the telling of the tale. Forgive me for not rehashing details or providing examples here, but my knowledge of the law is meager, to say the least, and a libel case is not something my bank account can afford right now. Suffice to say, much is word of mouth, but makes me think of the old adage: if it walks like a duck…

But even forgoing the accusations of impropriety, there is simply no question that Murray’s language (bordering on blue, in many cases) is out of touch and anachronistic not just in the age of Me Too and progressive equality, but in the year 2020. We, as a race, should be better than this. Again, I’m going to choose not to repeat any of the dozens of examples of overtly sexual text from The Whisky Bible that have made their way around the media over the past couple of months, lest my doing so amplifies the voice, but let me simply state that if the language one chooses to use marginalizes and makes a segment of the population uncomfortable, then maybe it’s time to change. And by maybe, I don’t actually mean maybe.

Credit where credit is due: Murray is a hell of a writer. It’s not easy to sell over a million copies by being a hack writer (James Paterson, Dan Brown, etc not withstanding). If you want to read prose that teeters on the knife edge of poetry, read Jim Murray’s Complete Book of Whisky. As an author, he truly is gifted with a knack for beautiful turns of phrase most of us can only envy and admire. It’s in other matters, though, that he leaves us wanting. Or in some cases, wanting a little less. In Murray’s contemporary jottings, it would seem that a bit more socially conscious diction and a sense of judiciary selectivity are the pieces that are lacking. In short, as gifted as he is, there is simply no need to resort to this sort of lazy eroticizing to romanticize a great drink. There are plenty of non-innuendo driven superlatives that would not only suffice, but more adequately serve the purpose.

But they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and maybe there’s some truth to that. In four days Murray turns 63. Hardly an old dog, excepting in the matter of old habits. Instead of a scenario where most would have issued their mea culpa, Murray instead doubled down, referring to “faux outrage” and the criticism being an exercise in “cancel culture” meant to take down “the world’s most successful author on the subject.” So much for tact.

Whether Murray recovers from this, or The Whisky Bible ever regains its place of prominence remains to be seen. A legit apology or entreaty to make amends does not appear to be forthcoming. I think many are now curious to see what sort of rebranding, if any, will be undertaken to strip the tarnish from this once towering reputation.

So the question now becomes one of who or what fills the void left in the wake of Murray’s exit. Well…it’s simple really. And I don’t understand why it didn’t happen sooner. In 2012 I did an interview with Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, wherein I asked him whether or not he had plans to publish any sort of alternative to The Whisky Bible. It need be noted that Whiskyfun is now home to almost 20,000 tasting notes. In Serge’s genuine and endearing humility, he assured me that he was not the cat to chase down the chubby little mouse (Murray, I mean, and yes…I am paraphrasing, as Serge is much too polite to use such an analogy), and had no plans to publish (in paper form, at least) his whisky reviews. Now here is where I’m left a little perplexed. In an age where paper is starting to take on the stigma of plastic or fossil fuels, why are so many married to the idea of a hard copy book that brazenly refers to itself as the bible, staking claim to a title that suggests near impunity from criticism? All of us, seemingly, carry our phones with us everywhere we go now. Does it not make more sense to simply bookmark Whiskyfun on our mobile browser? The reviews are fair and humble. They are articulate, relatable and succinct. And more importantly, they are legion. It’s hard to imagine a source more complete than what Serge has curated for us on his site. I dare say, in 2020 The Whisky Bible is well nigh obsolete. It has been in my circles for many years now anyway. And no one I know mourns its place on their shelves.

So let’s take this opportunity to reflect a bit on where else we may be overlooking long overdue change. When is reflection ever a bad thing?

Finally, I just want to say thank you to Becky for saying what should have been said long ago. Your courage is an inspiration.

And for those that want a few more details, here’s an article from The New York Times that provides a bit more context.



New Novel

Hi, friends.

For those of you kind enough to follow my darker literary pursuits, Rotten Soil, my second novel is now up on Amazon. A lot of us are in isolation/quarantine/misanthropic bliss, so a bit of escapism is pretty much mandatory. The thing is…most of us are also suffering a fair bit of economic strain too.

So, I have put the book up at $0.99. I make nothing, but at least maybe a handful of good people can fill a few hours with thoughts other than the second coming of ‘Captain Trips’. I have also dropped the price of Sadie (short story) and Darker Things down to $0.99.

If you do read any of them, and find yourself with a few minutes time afterwards, I’d greatly appreciate any reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. No pressure, though. This is not a quid pro quo thing.

Hope you’re all taking care and being safe. I’ve been debating whisky reviews here for a bit now, but it seems almost inappropriate at the moment. Feel free to a drop a line and share your thoughts.


Ever Feel Conspired Against?

Happy New Year, friends. Hope your 2019 was rich in stories and blossoms into some of your greatest memories. And here’s to 2020 being the best yet.

As for me and mine? Well…it’s been a rough go ’round here. The last couple of years have seen some twists and turns in our lives, and very few have been positive. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to let it all get us down. Life is too short to wallow, aye?

This is just a quick note to let you know that I am wading through a few health concerns as we speak. And yes, unfortunately they are concerns that may well limit my ability to do this. Notice I said ‘limit’, and not ‘prohibit’. Just bear with me. I am trying to find a couple of contributors to maybe help share the burden. Easier said than done. I’ve yet to meet my ‘Angus’.

Anyway…I am okay. Until we reach the end of a run of tests here (a wee ways off yet), then it will be status quo. Albeit, a more leisurely-paced status quo.

In the meantime…how ’bout a Port Ellen review?

…And Home

Back about four and a half days now. And I can’t lie, I have never experienced such jet lag. I simply can’t seem to get back in the swing of things. Granted, I only took a single day of recovery before heading back to work, but still. I think I’m starting to wear my years with a little less grace than I once did. I ask no sympathy, though. How do you feel bad for someone who just spent the better part of two weeks drinking with his mates in some of the greatest warehouses in Scotland?

I have a quick malt malt feature tasting note coming later today, then we’ll start digging into trip updates, reviews and some editorializing. Bear with me. Much to come. In the meantime…it’s good to be back.

And yes…I am already planning 2020 trips.

Striking A Balance

Ever heard that expression ‘if you try to be everything to everyone you’ll end up being nothing for anyone’? That’s sort of what I’m struggling with here on ATW right now. Readership is understandably low coming off a very lengthy hiatus – which means there isn’t much of a barometer to gauge opinions – but I’m doing to my best to tackle a bit of everything here. That was always the game plan and I like to think that, throughout the years, I’ve done just that. I’ve drunk rotgut and scored it limbo-low, and sipped 70 year old drams that would make your accountant’s eyes roll back in his or her head.

Believe it or not, the easiest drams for me to source are those that fall in the mid zone. Couple hundred up to about a grand. Those at the lowest price points are scarce in my circles, simply because neither me nor my friends are buying them. And those at the top…well, I do get to try quite a few, but they’re far from everyday treats. Fortunately, my job allows me access to so much more than simply what I secure myself. Hopefully I’m getting at a bit of what everyone wants to see.

The reality is, though, that there is almost certainly a much wider audience for a review of an Oban 14 than there is for, say, a 1966 Banff. The latter is fun to read about for context and historicity, but the former is what aids in buying decisions for some. And I think, aside from a virtual social engagement, that’s what most use this site for. I think you guys and gals know me by now, though. It’s the scarce and storied malts that really light me up. They tend to be in very limited allocation and they tend to be pricey. ie. Not for for everyone.

But the problem is that notes on so many of these brilliant old and rare drams will never see the light of day. There are legions of hoarders out there who will never open these bottles, collecting showpieces as opposed to collecting the memories associated with the experience of sharing them. And that’s fine. No judgement. (Okay…maybe a little) But if I can use this as a platform for getting more info out there, I will. It gives perspective, if nothing else. And keeps my batteries fueled for the other stuff in life that is less enjoyable.

As I said, though…reviews of that nature target a very select audience: those with pockets deeper than most of us will ever have and those with a bent to masochistic and vicarious participation. In other words, the geeks who can afford ’em and will buy ’em, and the geeks who simply devour every word about the most complex spirit in the world. I recognize that some of the site’s content could be construed as pretentious. I guess there’s no getting around that.

But let’s continue to fight the good fight together. You let me know what you want to see on here and I’ll try to make it happen to the best of my ability. And hopefully I can continue to walk the line between archiving notes on grail malts and sharing the word on the daily drinkers. Because they all deserve their day in the sun, aye? And who knows? With the bubble reaching (arguably) its apex position, its not only possible but probable we’ll see it pop (or at least deflate a bit) and perhaps the gap between these points will close a bit. Food for thought for another day, though: careful what you wish for. It would not be a good thing to end up where we were back in the late 1800s. Or the 1920s. Or the 1980s, to speak to a bit of more topical time.

Much love…