Let's say it together: 2021 is going to be the year of positive drinking. And there is a difference. So just in time to miss Bobby Burns night, Celtic Crossing rolled out its new series of whiskey tastings. There is a virtual option that includes curbside pick-up of samples — then check in on Zoom from the confines of your fortress of solitude, where at least you're familiar with the germs around you. For health reasons, I chose to attend the outdoor tasting in masked, socially distanced person because a) I've already had the crud, and b) after last year the greater health hazard for me is a fatal bout of cabin fever.
There is a world of difference between tastings and drinking (or drankin' — defined here as "drinking with intent"). These tastings are great for the whiskey lover as well as anyone who would like to know more. It involves more sticking your nose in snifters and talking about it than actually quaffing booze. Although some of these whiskeys were very quaffable.
I'm a Scotch guy in my off hours, so I was excited about the Aberlour 12 Double Cask Matured. That double cask business — first, used bourbon barrels, then, finished off in sherry casks — makes it deep and spicy. Aberlour is a big flavor without the sensation of wallowing in a peat fire. It's smooth and what fruit there is reminds me of orange peel. It's not too hot and has a nice, long finish that starts off like — words fail me — crème brûlée. I called the winner early in the evening.
The next was the hard-to-find Blanton's — the first single-barrel bourbon commercially produced. It is in the Buffalo Trace family of distillers, so quality control is solid: These are the same people who put out George T. Stagg and are responsible for Van Winkle, "the Beatles of Bourbon." It's a great drinker, not too big, and easy on the heat, with vanilla and caramel sweetness balanced with an element of black pepper spice at the back. The bottle is easy to recognize: It's the one that looks like a hand grenade with Secretariat on top. Those racing jockey stoppers have made it something of a collector's item, which partly explains why the bottles are so hard to find. The retail price is around $50 (ish) and worth every penny. The secondary price, however, can be closer to $200. This is not a $200 bourbon.
Then there was a Bushmills 21-year-old single malt, in a nod to the old country. I've always thought of Irish whiskey as Scotch with the corners sanded off, which is true enough, but it sounds more insulting than intended. Bushmills 21, however, is its own creature and isn't the power-washed version of anything. It's aged 19 years in old sherry and bourbon barrels before being finished off for a couple more years in madeira barrels. Madeira is a fortified wine in the same ballpark as porto, which accounts for the dried-fruit finish over the spicier notes. There are hints of dark chocolate and toffee.
Fine, but to detect the individual elements took a lot of nosing and talking because the layers aren't exactly obvious. The whiskey was like an opera where the end result was so brilliant that you are largely unaware of the individual notes. Despite the elements of fruit, there is a dry, almost creamy finish. Which may account for its 96 rating by Whisky Advocate. I tend to agree.
Which goes to show you that even a Scotch guy shouldn't go calling races in the first lap. The gold went to Team Ireland. The downside, of course, is that Bushmills 21 is a $200+ bottle of whiskey. Whether it's worth the price is up to you, but it's certainly justified.
And that is what I mean by positive drinking.