Tasting Notes: Mystic Seaport

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There are many wonderful things Roy has brought to my life.  A few years ago, for my birthday, he signed me up for a Scotch Whiskey Club, where the club travels about to various distilleries in Scotland, buys casks, and then bottles them off – at cask strength – for sale only to members of the club.  The bottles aren’t labeled by distillery for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the cask-strength product is often totally unlike the regular branded off-the-shelf flavor that the distillery generates in some kind of post-production.  The whiskeys, then, are not identified by distillery, or by year, but by unique names reflecting the Total Tasting Impression. My first bottle from them was a Dalmore that any educated Scotch Drinking palette would have sworn uphill, downhill, and straight into the grave must have come from Islay.  The character of these cask-strength whiskeys is wholly unique, and as a drinking sensation, the pleasure is totally unmatched in my experience.

But the thing I love, maybe, best about these whiskeys is the Tasting Notes.  They’re lunatic, yet entirely accurate.  Just reading the catalog that arrives every few months is its own distinct pleasure.  I find that the Tasting Notes and the whiskey itself are best enjoyed as a pair:  sip the whiskey, read the tasting notes, sip the whiskey again.  And these notes are not only astonishingly accurate, they are often totally hilarious.  As an example, I proffer my favorite to date:

Paris To Dakar Rally Dram (This is the name of the whiskey, like where other lesser species might have names like “Lagavulin 16 year” or “The Glenlivet 12 year”.  Instead, here we have “Paris To Dakar Rally Dram”.  It sets a certain expectation, you must admit.)

Here’s the tasting note:

“A dram this big and challenging was bound to split the panel; the nose was amazingly complex – from sticky toffee pudding to caramelised pork, from cheap cola to oily rags, from heather, lavender and thyme to dates, quince and rose. The palate was more divisive – a tongue-roasting, breath-taking, manly man’s dram; over-heated car engines in the desert, just balanced by floral, candy sweetness. The reduced nose had cinder toffee and diesel fumes and the palate suggested peppered candy or chilli fried on an exhaust manifold with a mirabellenwasser finish; contentious, but full of character. Drinking tip: To provoke conversation or to serve up when your Hell’s Angels friends drop by.”

Caramelised pork. Oily rags. Overheated car engines in the desert. Chili fried on an exhaust manifold…with a mirabellenwasser finish.

You must admit, this is Highly Evocative.

And, I will admit, entirely correct.  The fried chilis were easy for me, as a Texan.  Chilis frying on an exhaust manifold was slightly more – but not entirely – challenging. I did not know what mirabellenwasser was until I encountered this whiskey, but once I tasted some of it, I could completely understand the note of the mirabellenwasser and the exhaust and heated metal and chilis.

I don’t know where they get these people, who can think stuff like this up, but I love them.  And I love the Scotch.

Another thing Roy brought to my life was a sense of Spontaneous Tourism.  Today, after the torrential rains of the tropical storm left our area with blue skies and puffy clouds, this took the form of him erupting into my room mid-morning and saying “Hey! Let’s go to Mystic Seaport!”  We had a Groupon.  The weather was fine, and I needed a break from work.  So off we went, an hour and plenty down the road, to Mystic Seaport.  He’s been promising to take me to this place for years.  And I must say, it was well worth the wait.

It’s one of those Live History things that New England is rife with and does so well, like the Shaker Village and Old Sturbidge and Historic Deerfield and Plimoth Plantation.  Some of them are interpretive, with costumed actors, and those are pretty cool.  Some of them just provide the setting and plenty of education materials, and lots of docents and let you wander about and experience it all for yourself.  This was in that latter group.

And we hit it with the Luck of the Irish (or something) because as we pulled in, we saw an enormous sign:  Sea Music Festival.  NOW.  In addition to the large numbers of intriguing and historical watercraft, and even larger numbers of intriguing and historical structures, the grounds were also littered with music historians and historical musicians, all treating the visitors to Sea Music.  One of the historic schooners had what seemed to be nonstop Sea Chantey Singing, as various groups toiled away pulling at hawsers and such while thrumming out a variety of ancient Sea Songs made for work.  Some of the groups had Sea Instruments – not instruments made from shells ala Little Mermaid, but the kind of instruments that would have been in the possession of sailors.  Some of them taught us the difference between a hornpipe, a reel, and a jig…three things I had previously believed to be interchangeable terms.

This was in addition to the regular exhibits, displays, and walk-on whaling ships.  There was a Real Working Shipyard that we could go poking about, with a Real Working Ship Restoration (ditto) taking place.  An ancient whaler.  One step into the second deck of that ship, and I realized that here was the intersection between Roy’s gifts to me.  I defer, when necessary, to the words of the Anonymous Members of the Almighty Tasting Panel.

Nineteenth Century Wooden Whaling Ship

“Tar, pepper and coal on the nose were no surprise; neither, in truth, was the vanilla ice-cream with fudge sauce, but we were not expecting the bacon and egg sandwich. The palate had hard toffee and parma violet sweetness, chilli pepper heat and sooty campfires. Water brought mint and ginger tea with honey to the nose, plus cold ashes, minerals and mosses. The reduced palate contained a rewarding, reassuring sweetness and tasty suggestions of belly pork in five-spice powder.  Drinking tip: The perfect antidote to winter darkness.”

Then there was a short cruise on the Sabino, a steamer built in the shipyards of East Boothbay, right across the street from the General Store where we get our cappucinos when we go to Maine.  She was built to sail the Damariscotta River, home of the Damariscotta Oyster – not as fine a crustacean as the Wellfleet Oyster, but close.

1900 Steamship

“The palate was surprisingly smoky with coastal elements – muscled and masculine – like a pipe-smoking beachcomber scouring a rocky shore. We also found hints of marmalade. Smoke strengthened on the reduced nose, along with salt-and-vinegar crisps and celery. The palate still had big smoke and some mineral aspects but now with lime (lime peel, chocolate limes).  Drinking tip: On the seashore – or – in the bath, especially if needing to relieve stress.”

And then there was the schooner LA Dunton, from Essex, home of Woodman’s, Original Source of the Fried Clam.  Today, the Dunton was hosting the teams of rope-hauling sea chantiers.

Fishing Schooners and Essex Marshes

“On the palate scorched heather, green tea, ginger nuts, witch hazel, fresh mint and eucalyptus make an appearance. And to round everything off burnt caramelised honey that had been blackened from a gammon joint. Banana cake, desiccated coconut, Murray Mints, flying saucers, cola bubblegum and macaroon bars were just some of the aromas after water, while to taste it turned meaty – gammon steaks with blackened pineapple, bacon crisps, salty heather and overripe bananas. Drinking tip: To contemplate over as a curiosity.”

The buildings were just as delightful, including a cooperage.  The cooper had a large wooden vat that had been used to hold whale oil.  He invited us to stick our heads in and sniff.  I was surprised to find that it smelled spicy, not rank and fishy and greasy like I thought it would.  The entire cooperage smelled absolutely delightful.

“A Cooper’s Apron On A Fishing Boat

Fruity aromas dominated with water – apricot jam, hard pears and apples – also refreshers, wet sails, oilskins and hemp rope – strangely maritime. The unreduced palate brought a wee tear to the eye with deep resonances of treacle toffee, charred wood, burnt heather sprigs, leather and oak (someone suggested ‘a cooper’s apron’). The reduced palate evoked tobacco, Balmoral sauce, heather, oily ropes and ‘smoked jelly babies’ – leaving pleasant tingles after. Drinking Tip: After gardening or before fishing.”

My favorite, however, was the building that started it all, the one that made me draw the links to start with.  The Ropewalk. This is an extraordinary structure, part of one that housed the substantial rope-making operations required in any major shipping town in the past centuries.  We walked in, and as I peered at the machinery and through the wavy glass windows, I took a breath.  And another, and another, until I was inhaling so deeply that I nearly passed out.  It was utterly delicious, this smell.  And familiar, although it took a moment to realized why.  The hemp, the tar, the brine, the fresh air, the dust, the history…it smelled just like Scotch.  A fine Islay malt, in particular.  Could have been one of the more interesting Bowmores, or a light Laphroiag.  Possibly a Lagavulin or Caol Isla.

Antique Rope Walk

“A plethora of foodie aromas; barbecued meat, treacle toffees, fruit cake and gingerbread with lashings of molasses, treacle and golden syrup. Beneath were wicker baskets, gunpowder and thatching, reminiscent of an old boat. The nautical theme continued on taste, with a ship’s chimney smoke, eye patches, diesel engine oil and a crow’s nest. Water released warm fragrance to the nose with honeysuckle, fruitcake and rugs by the fireside. The reduced palate became fragrant and smoky; tarry violets, tobacco and smoked honey ham; a leather satchel with tobacco and barbecued steak.  Drinking tip: On a boat after dark.”

An absolutely delicious experience in all.

Mystic’s picture, not mine, alas.

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About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

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