Sunday, March 27, 2011


Well! I suppose since I've named my blog "Whiskey, Cheese and Crackers", it's about time that I actually posted something on that particular topic. (Oh, and that's "crackers" and in small baked crispy things you eat ... not ... well, you know.) So today we get to talk about, and maybe drink a little, whisky!!! Yaaaay whisky!!! Okay, those of you who look for this kind of thing have probably noticed a slight difference in the way I'm spelling "whisky" today, as opposed to the way I spelled it for the title of my blog. There is a reason for this; neither of them is a spelling error - rather, they are regional differences and, to a great extent, refer to two slightly different beverages. "Whiskey" is a more American spelling and generally refers to distilled spirits which are made in the U. S (and Ireland) - whereas "Whisky" generally refers to spirits distilled in Scotland and Canada. Now, you may be asking "whoopdie-fuckin'-do, Private Donut, why should I care how it's spelled???" Well, because you're an intelligent person (you must be if you're reading this) and it is proper to spell things correctly ... even when speaking. I mean, if you were talking to someone, you wouldn't go: "hey, I'm going two go over they're, you want too come to?" I mean, that's just wrong. So, when I created this blog, I was drinking Bourbon Whiskey, and so I used that particular spelling. But I think today, I'm going to talk about Scotch Whisky (by the way, in Scotland ... they just call it "whisky").
What makes Scotch Whisky different? Some folks would probably say "Bourbon, Scotch - they're all the same! It goes in my Coke, what the hell?" The same people would probably say "Kia, BMW, Maserati - they're all the same ...". Pfaugh! Philistines! Okay, in many respects Bourbon, Scotch, Canadian and Irish whiskey/whisky are quite similar in that they are alcoholic beverages distilled from a "mash", which is made from grain and water and has been allowed to ferment. But there are many, many things (some small, some big) that make a huge difference in the way the finished product tastes.

For starters, as the old commercials used to say, "it's the water ...". Okay, that was for beer, but a batch of whisky starts out in much the same way one starts a batch of beer. Whatever else a distillery uses to make their product, they all use water ... and a lot of it. And that water can make a huge difference in the taste of the whisky. For example, Maker's Mark Bourbon uses water from a lake which is fed from a limestone spring - Maker's Mark  has a sweet, mellow flavor. But then you have Lagavulin Malt Whisky from Islay Scotland - the water used has a much different taste and, along with the other ingredients and processes, results in a much stronger flavored whisky. So, yes, the water they start with (and hence the location of the distillery) can make a real difference in the end product.

Next comes the grains. Again, using the example of Maker's Mark Bourbon, in fact all Bourbon whiskeys, the main ingredient is corn. In order to be called "Bourbon" a whiskey has to start out with at least 51% corn. Maker's Mark Bourbon also uses wheat and malted barley. Single Malt Scotch Whisky, on the other hand, is made with only malted barley. This is another huge reason that Bourbon whiskey has a much different taste than Scotch whisky.

So what, you may ask, is "malted barley"? Good question - the harvested barley grains are soaked in water and allowed to germinate, after which they are heated and dried to stop the germination process. This produces sugars in the barley which will be used by the yeast to produce alcohol during fermentation. They are also heated again (or roasted) to develop the flavors more. Why is this important to know? Because the method used for heating the barley can make a big difference. In many cases nowadays, steam pipes or electric heat is used  to heat the barley ... in some distilleries, such as Lagavulin Malt Whisky, they use malt which has been dried using smoke from burning peat. This adds a very smokey flavor to the resulting whisky.

The grains are ground or crushed, added to the water and cooked to extract the sugars. After this it is cooled and yeast is added to start the fermentation. This is much the same as the process for making beer, of course for whisky they don't add hops! During fermentation the yeast converts sugars to alcohol. It's after this point that the real magic begins ... distillation and aging. Distilling is, of course the heating of the fermented mash to release the alcohol which is then condensed. Many whisky distilleries will distill their product two, or more times before casking and aging.

Aging in oak barrels is usually the last step before bottling in single malt whisky or small-batch Bourbons. Aging will mellow the flavor of the liquor quite a lot and will impart the final flavors to the whisky. In the case of American Bourbon whiskey, it is, by definition, aged in new, charred oak barrels. The use of "virgin" or new oak imparts a woodiness and sharpness to the flavor of the whiskey. Some single malt Scotch whiskies also use virgin oak, but more commonly use oak casks which have been previously used to age Bourbon or other whiskies, or, in some cases, have been used for aging sherry. These used casks don't impart quite as much woodiness to Scotch whisky aged in them, but it is still there. Also, the use of used oak will add some other flavor notes such as sweetness or fruitiness. Aging can take anywhere from 3 or 4 years (for many Bourbons) to 18 years for some Scotch whiskies.

So ... why do you need to know all of this? Well, I guess if you're just going to drink whatever the cheapest bottle is that you come across, then you don't need the information at all. If, on the other hand, you want to actually enjoy what you drink, then you probably should know a little bit about what you're drinking. The more you know about what produces the flavors, the more you'll enjoy the drink itself. As the old saying goes; "life is to short to drink bad whiskey". So, what is a good single malt Scotch whisky to start with, without breaking the bank? One surprise is The Glenlivet ... it is relatively inexpensive, has a mild flavor with just a hint of smokiness. Good single malt Scotch whiskies, As for Bourbon, actually the Maker's Mark Bourbon I mentioned earlier is very good, so is Knob Creek.

But, if you've stuck with me this far, I'll give you some very simple advice for buying good whisky (or just about any other distilled liquor); if it comes in a plastic bottle - stay the hell away from it! Really... anything in plastic is crap. And, in general terms, if it's got a screw-on lid, it might be okay, but it might not ... if it's in glass with a cork stopper ... it's probably worth trying. (Two exceptions to the cork rule are The Glenlivet and Maker's Mark ... but mostly the rule works.)

Thanks for reading. Enjoy a dram of whisky with a splash of water ... see you next time. Slàinte!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pet Poisoning Prevention Week!

March 20 through March 26 is National Poison Prevention Week. (Yeah, I know I said "pet ..." above, but I guess it applies to people too.) The Animal Poison Control Help Center has a very good page about National Poison Prevention Week and keeping our pets safe from common household chemicals.

What I didn't know is that National Poison Prevention Week has apparently been going on for over 46 years! This is kind of a shock to me ... not that it's been going on for that long, but I can't recall that I've ever heard about it! I can remember poison awareness things in school (along with atomic attack drills where they would have us all go outside - even back then that didn't make any sense), but I don't think there was any emphasis on a particular week. But now that I know about it ... I guess I should observe it. That being said, I promise to not poison any of the neighbors during this week! (Naww ... just kidding - I don't usually go around poisoning people anyway.)

But, I will say that accidental poisoning of a pet can be a very serious issue for a pet owner. I mean we all know that, for the most part, our pets will die at some time. This is something every pet owner must face ... it's not a pleasant thing to contemplate for certain, but it is, after all, the natural progression of things. But having a pet die from old age or even disease is not the same as having it die because we left an antifreeze spill in the driveway. It is quite traumatic to the owners to lose a pet to an accidental poisoning, usually more so than losing them to natural causes.

Many years ago my wife and I had moved from Norfolk, Virginia to San Diego, California. We had a pet budgerigar which we had gotten as our first pet for our first anniversary. She was a lovely pale blue with yellow on her head. We were used to letting our little feathered child out of her cage when we were around the house so she could enjoy being with us and stretch her wings a bit. What we didn't know was that the apartment we were moving in to had been treated for insects by spraying an insecticide along the baseboards before we moved in. It was the second night we were there that we discovered it. She was dead in minutes. That was over 30 years ago, but it still causes a tinge of sadness.

I think most pet owners are aware of the dangers of antifreeze poisoning. But it is something to keep in mind all the same. A few tablespoons of antifreeze can kill a medium-sized dog within a very few days. A couple of teaspoons for a cat. As some of you know, one of my best friends is a veterinarian. Almost every single time a client has brought in a pet which has ingested antifreeze, he has not been able to save them. A quick search of the Internet for "antifreeze poisoning" will find you hundreds of articles, all of which say the same thing; after your pet ingests antifreeze, your vet must start treatment within the first few hours.

Many other things common around the house can be very hazardous to pets. Things that we may not even think about. "" has a pretty good list of common hazards for dogs. Most of us probably know that chocolate can be dangerous to your dog's health. But did you know that other common foods such as raisins or onions can be harmful to your furry friends? These, and several other human-food toxins, are also covered at the Pet Poison Control Center. Watch your houseplants and your garden too! There are several plants and flowers that can make your dog or cat quite ill.

The bottom line is that we love our pets. For many of us (myself included) they are like our children. We want them to be happy and healthy and safe. We know they age much faster than us and we accept that. But losing one to an accidental poisoning is a very hard thing. So please watch them as much as possible ...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pi Day! (With a more serious note)

Today is Pi Day!!!! Yaaaaayyy! Of course I am talking about 3.14! Okay ... you still don't get it ... Pi, π, the mathematical expression ... Wikipedia says: (

(sometimes written pi) is a mathematical constant whose value is the ratio of any Euclidean plane circle's circumference to its diameter; this is the same value as the ratio of a circle's area to the square of its radius. It is approximately equal to 3.14159265 in the usual decimal notation. Many formulae from mathematics, science, and engineering involve π, which makes it one of the most important mathematical constants."
Okay, yes I know that "Pi Day" is rather geeky, but it's interesting as well. If one reads further down the wiki article, one can read the history of Pi;

"The earliest known textually evidenced approximations date from around 1900 BC; they are 256/81 (Egypt) and 25/8 (Babylonia), both within 1% of the true value.[9] The Indian text Shatapatha Brahmana gives π as 339/108 ≈ 3.139. It has been suggested that passages in the 1 Kings 7:23 and 2 Chronicles 4:2 discussing a ceremonial pool in the temple of King Solomon with a diameter of ten cubits and a circumference of thirty cubits show that the writers considered pi to have had an approximate value of three, which various authors have tried to explain away through various suggestions such as a hexagonal pool or an outward curving rim."
"So what?" You may well ask! Well, Pi day (occurring every March 14th, of course) is an excellent excuse to eat pie! I personally enjoy a good Key Lime pie, but the Marie Calendar's "Razzleberry" pie (available in your grocer's freezer section) is also quite good and much easier than making one from scratch. By the way, the making of pie is definitely not as "easy as pie" (which refers to the pleasurable experience of eating a piece of pie, rather than making one). I've helped make home-made pies, not really easy when you do them right. But enjoying a pie is a piece of cake. So! Have a piece of pie on Pi day! By the way, an 8-inch pie is about 25.13 inches in diameter (C=πxD), and covers an area of about 50.27 square inches (A=πxR2) (that's supposed to be "R squared").
On a more serious note, probably all of us have been following the disaster in Japan. I know our thoughts and prayers go out to the hundreds of thousands of people involved. I pray the survivors will be aided and those who are still in need of aid will receive it soon. It is at times like these that we realize just how vulnerable all of us are to such natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, blizzards and wildfires have always been with us. But we are now able to send aid to the victims of these disasters more quickly than we have ever been able to before. But it still takes money to send aid. Even Japan, who has had one of the stronger economies of the world, will still need assistance. Please help by donating to your preferred relief agencies ... I've always liked the Red Cross since they go world wide to help when and where they're needed.

The Red Cross website makes it easy to donate, click on the "donate now" link, select a specific issue to help with (such as the Japan earthquake and tsunami, or help American Military and their families, your local chapter or several other specifics), or select "where the need is greatest". The Red Cross is frequently the first aid organization on the scene of a disaster. Or, if you'd like to find another charity to give to, but you're not sure which ones are on the "up and up", check Charity Navigator, this is a great web resource for finding legitimate charities. And don't forget to brush up on your charity fraud awareness a the Federal Trade Commission's web site on that subject.

I've also done a little bit to help out Japan's economy ... I've purchased the New Pokémon games! Gotta catch 'em all!