Review Stub: Compass Box Great King Street

Music: Ray Parker Jr., “Ghostbusters”

Had the opportunity to try this at a Halloween party yesterday via the kindness of strangers. Not all I’d hoped it to be, unfortunately, but not bad by any means. Do keep in mind that this was at a party, and so my senses may have been… distracted.

Nose: Oddly, tequila. Cereals, buttercream, vanilla and apple. My “tequila” sense might be the citrus note others talk about.

Palate: Rougher than I’d like it to be. A creamy whisky, full of vanilla, citrus and cereals. Much of what the nose promises, albeit rougher than I’d like. The odd smoky note here and there.

Finish: Medium.

Grade: B-

A good whisky, and one of the first blends to get a rating above C+. I will say that I did like JW’s Spice Road better.

“If there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, who you gonna call?”

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Classic Coal: Caol Ila 12

Bought a full litre of this wonderful stuff at the Denver Airport Duty free for $54. That’s about half of what you’d pay at the LCBO. Most of the offerings they had were slim in the scotch category, so I decided that I should give this old classic a try. I usually like to travel off the beaten path with my whisky purchases, but as an Islay fan, and a Caol Ila fan, it was about time to give this classic dram it’s due.

Nose: Coal, tar, dill pickles and orange candy. Smoked fish and ham. Cookies. Barley notes.

Palate: Smooth, somewhat oily arrival. Peat and smoke. Sweet citrus. Ashy (in a good way).

Finish: Long and pleasant, dominated by notes of chili pepper, lemon, smoke.

Grade: B+

Very rarely do I give a “standard dram” more than a B. Caol Ila 12 deserves such a grade, however, because it manages to do with 43% what so many others cannot. It’s complex and medium oily, with a long finish. It’s bizarrely refreshing for an Islay, something that can be enjoyed on a cold winter night, or a not-too-hot summer’s day. I look forward to doing a flight with the Natural Cask Strength, 1998 Distillers Edition and the 19yo TWE CS sometime in the near future.

Hot-Tempered from Bangalore: Amrut Fusion

Ever since Curt at All Things Whisky raved about the Amrut Fusion (giving it a whopping 91.5/100) and all Amrut in general, I’ve been meaning to pick up a bottle. Instead of being skeptical about non-scotch whisky, I was eager to try it, and at $69.10, you couldn’t really beat the price for something at 50% ABV.

Months went by and I hadn’t done anything about it until a few weeks ago when a spot opened up in the cabinet. The first dram was heaven, the second was mediocre, and we’ve had a seesaw relationship since, but I think things are finally starting to come around…

Nose: A masala of spices, mixed with honey and chocolate sweetness right off the bat. Think cinnamon and cardamom. Also a cereal quality to it. Spend some time with it and then you get apricots, orange and mixed nutes.

Palate: Oaky with plenty of honeyed oats on the palate. Salty apricot and coriander. Smoke as well.

Finish: Medium, salty, oak and oats.

Grade: B

I don’t know if it’s just me, but here’s another tempermental whisky. It doesn’t swim at all, probably due to it’s youth. A drop or two of water at best. It’s better to let it sit, though, 30 minutes easy. You’re much better rewarded to have the alcohol evaporate than to water down both it and the flavour of the whisky. It gets hot and dull with too much water. This one is at the lower end of my B, just a few darts away from the B-. If the notes were all more pronounced and clean, it’d be a solid B. Maybe future batches will be. In any case, definitely worth a try, but if you’re not used to high ABV whisky, this one may not be for you, as the usual watering-down technique will only worsen the experience.

The Sweet Peat Treat: Bowmore 12

Bowmore 12 and I were not on speaking terms about 5 years ago. A friend brought a bottle to a Scotch and cigar party, and I, with my Laphroaig QC in hand, was not going to be won over by this new peaty intruder. Upon tasting, I recoiled and made a sour face. We didn’t see each other again, Bowmore 12 and I, until just this Christmas, when my darling brother bought me a bottle. I was to meet the beast again, but this time with a more open mind.

Nose: Peat, smoke and citrus. The smoke is very hickory-like.

Palate: Soft, slightly underwhelming. Peat and smoke, with pleasantly sweet-and-sour lemon notes. Like a smoky MinuteMaid lemonade, sort of. A little Caol-Ila-ish at times.

Finish: Rather short, lingering sour peat. Sour, of course, meant still in that good way. Like a lemon.

Grade: C+

There isn’t much to say about this whisky. It’s smooth, smoky and sweet. A little too mild at times to make it perfectly balanced over its few notes, but it’s not nearly as bad as I first thought. It’s a daily drammer when you want that Islay profile with a bit of sweetness, but don’t want to think too much about it. If the tempest is any indication, this would probably be much better in a 12yo cask-strength, truth be told. All in all, I’m happy that I was forced to come back to this again. We’re now casual friends, Bowmore 12 and I.

Now For Some Empirics

Finally, we have enough data to run a basic empirical analysis. While the data set is very small (47 observations) we can nonetheless run some rather back-of-the-envelope regressions.

I built a data set using the rankings chart, mapping the A-F scale to a 12pt scale (e.g. A–>11.0-11.9). I assigned each observation within each coarse grade bin a grade that accounted for the fact that some whiskies ranked higher within the bin than others (that is, not all As are exactly equal).

I then generated a set of whisky characteristics whose explanatory power I was interested in (with regards to marks). These were my selections:

1. Age (my interest is to test the Jim Murray hypothesis, “Age does not a good whisky make”. Set of dummy variables, control group is ‘NAS’)
2. ABV (Do I inherently prefer cask-strength whiskies? Set of dummy variables, control group is ‘ABV<43%’)
3. Research (Does my research of the online consensus help?)

I also generated some control variables:

1. Region (to control for any possible region/single malt bias. control group is ‘blend’)
2. Peat (to control for what I think is a personal favouritism for peated whisky)
3. Minsample (This indicator marks whether the whisky was tried fewer times than my minimum sample threshold [a 20cl bottle]).
4. lnpriceml (controls for the percentage effect of price per ml — a proxy for raw quality, but admittedly, also for marketing gimmicks)

Running a kitchen-sink regression, I find the following: minsample and peat are insignificant at 10%. Region is also jointly-insignificant at 10%, and if we re-cast the region variable as a single malt variable (vs. blends) we get the same result. Adding controls individually produces the same results. The price control is significant at the 1% level.

So, after all is said and done, what do I find?

1. Jim Murray’s hypothesis is rejected using my sample (0.006<p-value<0.05). Why is there an interval for the p-value? Well, the problem lies in the price control. The price control is necessary to be a proxy for quality, but unfortunately, my regressors for age and ABV are positively correlated with price. Because price is such a good proxy for unmeasurable quality (and I have no others), I would commit the sin of omitted variable bias if I failed to include price as a control, but if I include it, the coefficient estimators for age and ABV end up underestimated (but standard deviation does not meaningfully change). Thus, I provide an interval of the p-value here and say that this test is significant at a level between 0.6-5%.

I find that whiskies younger than 10 years are roughly 2 grade levels lower (on average) over no-age-statement whiskies, and that 10-16yo whiskies tend to get about a 0.75 to 1 grade bump. 17yo+ whiskies get 2 levels. This is as I suspected. Out of curiosity, I tested my suspicion that Jim Murray’s hypothesis may hold up unconditionally, and sure enough it does (p-value >0.26), but when you condition on ABV and price, age does matter. One can see this by comparing my marks for the Auchentoshan Valinch and the Lagavulin 16. The reason they are so close, then, is not because age doesn’t matter, but rather that the Valinch is cask-strength and the Lagavulin is not (Many will argue it’s because they’re is something wrong with me, and that might be true). Bottle the Valinch at 43% (something like the Auchentonshan Classic) and you’d probably see that Auchentoshan around a C+, according to these results (hey, that sounds eerily close to what a standard entry-level OB would get…).

2. ABV matters (H0: ABV doesn’t matter | p-value<0.001), with cask-strength whiskies earning a 4 grade level bump over their sub-43% brethren. Whiskies of the non-chillfiltered 46% variety earn ~2 grade levels, and those around 43-46% earn approximately one grade level. Even after controlling for the ‘single-malt’ bonus (blends are usually low ABV), it seems like my palate prefers CS whiskies. Doesn’t surprise me, as these are often smaller-batch and better crafted. There is also something to be said for the ability to add your own water, to bring the whisky down to the level where you enjoy it best.

3. Research helps. I reject the hypothesis that research is useless to my whisky journey, with researched whiskies getting (on average) a ~1.5 grade level bump over whiskies I try in a bar, or am given as gifts. This is probably not a surprise to anyone.

Some further points of note: I don’t seem to be biasing peated whiskies (whether they be Islay peat or otherwise). Also, Islay whiskies, and single malts in general, (all other things considered,) are not being favoured.

Note: The Breusch-Pagan / Cook-Weisberg test for heteroskedasticity cannot reject the hypothesis of a constant variance (Prob > chi2 = 0.525), so we run our regressions using standard OLS with non-robust standard errors.

Some Caveats: There are (quite a few) caveats worth noting about this “quick and dirty” study that anyone reading this should know before they pass it on to others.

1. Omitted Variable Bias.  This is perhaps the biggest one. What could I be forgetting?

2. Small Sample Bias. Goes without saying that 47 observations is very small. It will be interesting to see how these numbers change (or if they change!) as the data set grows.

3. Multicollinearity. This affects the magnitude of the age and ABV regressors. Because price is positively correlated with both of these sets of variables, it’s likely that their coefficients are underestimated.

4. Personal Preference. As a final caveat, note that this study measures how certain whisky characteristics affect my personal grades. There will always be some sort of unmeasurable personal component to these results (I am not a robot, after all). That means that the old saying “Your Mileage May Vary” is worth keeping in the back of your mind as you read this. If I had a panel data set that included marks from All Things Whisky, Ralfy, WhiskyBitch and LAWS, (with an appropriate way to convert all the different marking schemes) I might be able to do some analysis that removes the individual fixed effect.

5. Analyzing a Time-Series, Cross-sectionally. It’s clear that all these whiskies were not tasted on the same day. This leaves the study open for a possible bias due to the omitted time-trend. Controlling for the time trend may account for my getting used to the power of cask-strength whiskies (and thus enjoying them more as time went on). It might also capture the effect that broadening my whisky experience has on marks: the more I find whiskies that push the upper (and lower,) limit of my marks, the more my older marks become biased if I don’t go back and re-taste them (Laphroaig QC has continued to hold up, though).

Lastly, I’ll say that I’m not a professional empiricist. In fact, quite the opposite, I am chiefly a theorist. But it’s healthy to be able to do both, and so I am using this project to rehabilitate my once-adequate empirical muscle. These “results” are a first-blush attempt to analyse this data set, which will no doubt improve over time as more data, and better variables and techniques present themselves. If you have any comments as to how I might improve this analysis (techniques, variables, or otherwise) do let me know. Also, if anyone has a suggestion for a proxy for quality that may not be correlated with age or ABV, have at it.

Review Stub: The Arran Malt, Amarone Cask Finish

A friend’s recent birthday get together just happened to be at a bar with a decent Scotch collection, stocking many whiskies that I would be unlikely to buy a bottle of because of the price and/or review consensus. This is review 2 of 2 for that series.

Nose: Rich and thick with all sorts of berries. More savoury than sweet. Leathery. A little salt and smoke, too.

Palate: Spicy, woody, with plenty of chocolate cherries and sour berries. Not all that thick. The full-bodied dry wine characteristic is there, but not overpoweringly so. Almonds.

Finish: Medium length with almonds all over the place.

Grade: B-

This one was a bit of a step up from the Glenfarclas 15 I had that night. Still rougher than I’d like my whisky to be, but at what is about 7 years younger, this one was smoother than the Glenfarclas. A little different from what you expect in a Scotch, but I’m always up for new whisky experiences. Am I glad I didn’t buy a bottle when this hit the shelves? Mostly (if only for the fact that my cabinet was rather full at the time.) But, after two tastes of some relatively good Arran, am I going to buy the 12yo CS Arran when it comes out? You betcha.

“Should’ve Grabbed the JWB”: Grant’s Family Reserve

As an all-important first admission, I am not a fan of blends. However, this is not to say I dislike all blends, but rather that I haven’t met a blend thus far that I have truly enjoyed. Admittedly, I haven’t tried any of the Compass Box blends, and I hear they are very good, so I am clearly missing out. I have also heard great things about Douglas Laing’s “Big Peat”.  This review is on a blend that I didn’t particularly like, which is done, in part, to show the reader that there are whiskies I don’t like. Recently, the evidence has been strongly against such a statement, and that is because, when spending what little of my good, hard-earned money that I can actually set aside for Scotch, I tend to research each purchase thoroughly, and usually end up with something B or higher. With the holiday season approaching, however, I am likely to get a gift bottle here and there, so in those cases, we may get something I don’t particularly enjoy. On to “Grant’s”.

I purchased a 20cl bottle of this whisky when heading off to a party about a year ago. I scribbled some notes throughout the evening, and found them this week. With my recollection of the event, I concur with my past self.

Nose: (undiluted) Alcohol. Maybe some cinnamon or nutmeg, but for the most part, malt, grain and alcohol. Dilution cuts the alcohol a bit, and the cinnamon and nutmeg come through some more, but not much. Really nothing here.

Palate: Just malt and alcohol, with sprinkles of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. Those kind of christmas spices, but if you really want to taste those on a budget, buy your self some Aberlour 10.

Finish: Nothing but blech.

Grade: D

Well, this is a mixer if I’ve ever tasted one. Of course, that’s not to say it would make a particularly good mixed drink, but that pairing it with something else would make it more tolerable. In this price-range and volume (20-37.5cl) Johnnie Walker Black all the way. Heck, I’d even take Ballantine’s Finest. You may wonder why this doesn’t get an F. An F is reserved for a whisky that is not just unremarkable water and alcohol, but is actually offensive. Adam and Chris @ LAWS have noted some whiskies that actually smell and taste like soap, varnish, garbage, rotting food, and yes, vomit. We must reserve a grade specifically for those abominations.