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Return of the Mystery Whisky Shopper | Blog #67

Last year I had a lot of fun visiting Total Wine in Orlando and pulling a “mystery shopper” on them to see which direction they would steer me for whisky choice. See Blog HERE

Finding myself back in Orlando again I made a bee line back to Total Wine to visit Chris and the team and grab another interesting bottle.

Chris remembered us so there was no mystery shopping this time around. A lot of interesting drams that were available last year were no longer on the shelf. Willet, Angel’s Envy Rye and even Buffalo Trace were all non existant.

To say that American Whiskey has exploded in popularity would be an understatement.

So I asked Chris to suggest something a little secret and unknown to the majority of whisky hunters.

Chris handed me a bottle of Mellow Corn for the bargain basement price of $ 12.99. I had to admit looking at the garishly bright old school label and even…cough… the inexpensive nature of the whisky that it was a hard sell. Chris was not perturbed however and jumped right into explaining why it was worth a shot.

Apart from the amazing price, Chris promised a smooth and delicious dram at 50% alcohol with lovely bourbon sweet notes.

According to Chris, Mellow Corn will not be around much longer as the corn fields used have been converted to a different strain used to make ethanol. Definitely not drinking a bottle of that.

Distilled by Heaven Hills Distillery in Louisville Kentucky Mellow Corn has the same label that it had when it was released in the 1940’s. The ugly yellow label has now become a cool retro badge of honor and Mellow Corn has found a niche in mixology bars in California and New York.

Bourbon by law requires a minimum of 51% corn in the mashbill. Mellow Corn is 90% corn which is a rarity and is considered a Straight Corn Whiskey.

Right so with bottle of Mellow Corn purchased and a bit more time waxing lyrical with Chris about the state of Scotch sales and other interesting whisky topics it was back to the hotel for a much anticipated dram.

Tasted in a hotel rocks glass outside on the deck in sticky 30 degree Orlando weather.

Mellow Corn Whisky Mellow Corn Whisky

Nose: A touch closed at 50% and getting in too close gives the 50% a chance to make it’s presence felt but no where near what you might expect. With gentle swirling and placement lovely buttery sweet and lightly spicy character comes to the fore and actually a little more time in the glass and it starts to shine with even the slight prickle I got at the start completely gone.

Palate: Great combination of sweet buttered corn on the cob with a dusting of cinnamon. I have never tried this combo but could be worth a go next time I am throwing foil wrapped cobs on the BBQ. You would not guess that this whiskey is 50%. Balanced, smooth and well….. mellow.

Finish: A touch of heat does acompany the finish and the spice level kicks up a notch but all the while still underpinned with lovely sweet corn notes. It lingers on and the sweetness hangs right there till the end keeping the spice from overpowering.

Water/ice: While I didn’t add water or try it on the rocks for this tasting given the warm weather I think that might be on the agenda for tomorrow. I think it will lend itself well to a wee splash or one nice cube.

After 4 years of aging in used casks Mellow Corn is impressive to say the least. Of course there is no way you can buy a bottle of 50% anything in Canada for $12.99 and I would think even if Mellow Corn was available it would run closer to $ 30 or more and would still be worth every penny.

If Chris is right about the imminent demise of this throw back label then I would grab a bottle or two of Mellow Corn the next time you are down in the US. Total Wine still has good stocks and I’m sure some searching online will offer up other options.

Thanks heaps Chris for steering me into something I would never have normally picked up off the shelf.

I have always cried a mantra of not judging labelling or price or being snobby about whisky/ey, however standing there cringing at the price and label I’m ashamed to say that I failed to live up to it on this occassion. Never judge a book by it’s cover. Great call Chris.

I look forward to another fun visit to Total Wine Orlando next year.


Secret Whisky Shopper Part 4 | Blog #15

Now down to the final whisky.

My heart really wanted to grab both of the sold out bottles of Rye from Willet and Angels Envy but alas it was not meant to be.

So to counterbalance my bourbon purchase I decided that it would have to be Scotch.

There was only one clear winner in my mind, again suggested by Chris. The Shieldaig 18 year old Single Malt sounded like just the ticket for a dram on the patio later that evening overlooking the pool. I do love Speyside malts and there are definitely lots of reasons why it is the most heavily populated whisky region in Scotland.

Undisclosed distillery of course, but Chris did have his thoughts on what the culprit might be. I can’t print those secrets here however otherwise he would have to kill me.

Bottled at 40% so most likely chill filtered. The Shieldaig Speyside has a lovely colour that is at once a combination of deep amber with just a hint of red-ish tinge. Looks like, baring caramel, that there would definitely be some potential Sherry Cask element to the combination of casks combined to put this Single Malt together.

Nicely presented in a gift box with a window to the whisky bottle within. “A true reflection of Scotland” is the tag line. This would sit happily on anyone’s shelf and not look out of place with much more expensive packaging alongside.

Nose: Comes across very soft and even without knowing its only 40% would seem like it could be no more than that. A little caremelised citrus with some creamed honey on toast. I had to get out the Glencairn on this one as it really helps to focus the nose which was very subtle.

Palate: Zero alcohol prickle still with the Glencairn glass tells me instantly that this whisky was designed to please the masses. Completely unobtrusive the softness continues and it takes multiple sips to begin to pick out the character. The sweetness is still there but very muted and the citrus fades to something akin to the fading aftermath of a lemon drop the last suck of which was completed two hours before. A little hint of creamy white chocolate makes a mark.

The finish: with some concentration the finish can be detected for quite a while but again is still very suibtle.

I was right on with this being perfect for vacation time in Florida. Not one to really enjoy a hearty peated dram in 30+ degree weather this is perfect for those warm days when you want something light. Any watering would render the subtle complexities non existant I expect so let me give it a go and see what happens……… insert watered dram drinking here.

Yep do not splash this one or throw it on the rocks or its all over. There was funnily enough however a little more persistent nose. With a little water this bottle could be knocked back really fast as it became so light and airy that you would be forgiven for thinking that you are not drinking whisky anymore.

The 18 years has certainly softened the whisky as age tends to do and the combination of casks and the 40% alcohol have done the rest. For most this will be a super smooth dram that is almost velvet in its lack of impact on the palate.

Delicious and well worth the $ 39.99 price tag. This was a worthwhile suggestion from Chris and I can see why for the price that Total Wine wanted this as an exclusive.

This is an awesome introductory whisky for any newcomers and there is more than enough there for $ 40 for the experienced imbiber.

No doubt there were potentially better whiskies on the wall in both categories but given time constraints and my constant questions I have to hand it to both Tony and Chris for making some very sound suggestions that did not disappoint for the price and would keep me coming back to ask their opinion again in the future.

We normally head down to Florida on a fairly regular basis and I am looking forward to taking both Chris and Tony out for a pint (or a dram) as a thank you for spending so much time with Cindy and I and caring about our customer experience.

Hats off to Total Wine and their excellent staff for an awesome secret shopper excursion.

I will definitely do this again as it was a blast

Cheers Tony and Slainte Chris you guys were awesome – well done Total Wine.

Next week I blog as a Canadian and we’ll celebrate with a great new Canadian Single Malt.

Until then eh!

Keep dramming …



Secret Whisky Shopper Part 2 | Blog #13

Why does a Scot always instantly command respect when the topic of whisky comes up? Firstly, the accent, it sounds as though they have had a few drams already and are speaking from field tested experience. Secondly, given that the Scots have been making whisky for longer than anyone, except the Irish, they deserve the recognition.

If you haven’t read part 1 of this series, check it out here

Tony, true to his word brought Chris over and gave him a quick summary of my needs. Chris, a Scottish infiltrator into the US, has been working for Total Wine for a while in multiple cities. Chris jumped into the opportunity with both hands, He quickly and enthusiastically engaged me with confidence and knowledge.

1st Category Scotch

Like leading a horse to water and forcing it to drink. Taking a Scot into the Scotch section is pretty much going to be a done deal. They will try hard to sell you something from the homeland.

Chris straight away showcased the Shieldaig 18 year old (Speyside). This brand is exclusive to Total Wine. It is bottled at 40% and while Chris did not mention either Chill Filtration or Caramel, I suspect that there is a little of both involved. At $39.99 for an 18 year old Single Malt, it is to be expected that it needs to be 40% for sheer economy of scale and part and parcel of that ABV is chill filtration.

92 points Wine Enthusiast and a Gold Medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition give it a decent pedigree. For the purposes of my shopping experience the $39.99 price tag was certainly putting it right up there as a front runner and peaking my interest.

Given that Tony’s Grangestone 30 year old blend suggestion was $89.99 & Chris’s Sheildaig 18 was $39.99, I already had a leaning due to an agenda to buy two bottles. Chris then also worked to swing my decision with a slightly personal bias against blends. I can sympathize as a lot of the mainstream inexpensive blends can be somewhat harsh and decidedly inferior to most Single Malts. Having said that however, older grain whiskies can be magical and premium blends with higher Malt percentages can be exceptional. With Single Malt stocks at risk due to market demand these premium blends will become the way of the future for affordable Scotch.

I asked Chris in a lighthearted way if he was pushing me towards a Scotch as a true Scotsman should. He smiled and promised me that he would show me some other delicious whiskies as he bustled me over to the Bourbons to show me just how multi-whisky skilled he was.

2nd Category Bourbon

The first Bourbon Chris suggested was the Hancock’s Single Barrel Reserve. 89 points in Wine Enthusiast for $38.99. Chris had a lot of good things to say about this whiskey. I asked him about the Willet Bourbon as a possibility but he came back to the Hancock on value and balance. I am a big sucker for a balanced whiskey so he had unknowingly lifted the Hancock up to the top of the pile with just that one comment.

The second Bourbon option was Chestnut Farms. Receiving a Double Gold at the San Fran Competition, it looked to be a very interesting option. I actually had it in my hand at one point and at $47.99 it would still work within the 2 bottles for under $100 ceiling.

3rd Category Rye

Rye finally got its due and is one of my favorite styles of whisky. I just love all things spicy and Rye scratches that itch for me.

The first suggestion from Chris in this section was Darby’s Reserve, at $21.99 it seemed like a really good deal. I was not convinced however and in this instance really wanted the best whiskey I could find closer to the $50 mark. I pretty much dismissed this option as soon as it was offered.

Chris also suggested the WIllet Rye Single Barrel which Tony had also done. This made it even more frustrating that there was none in stock. This is a great sales pitch though as it made me want to come back and buy it when it was. A good way to get me back to the store and to begin to build a loyal customer. Good work from both Tony and Chris on this one. 90 points in Whisky Advocate this Rye quickly disappears on the shelf and they had no date for a re-stock. One to look for in the future. $42.99 seems like a bargain.

I also asked Chris about the High West Double Rye and his take on it was that it was too spicy … is that possible 🙂 which put it out of balance. I had to quietly disagree with Chris a little on this one as the 16 year old portion of the Double Rye really does smooth out the spice and leave a lingering balanced finish. But I could see his point as the younger 2 year old does light up the palate with a big spicy intro. Always interesting to get someone else to give you their palate experience on a whisky you personally like. Sometimes the very things you like about it are the same things that causes them to dislike it.

So next week the decisions will be revealed along with tasting notes on the first whisky.

Let me know about a great retail experience that you have had in the past 12 months.

I look forward to talking whisky with you then.



Secret Whisky Shopper Part 1 | Blog #12

What do vacationing in Florida, Bourbon, Scotch, Rye and the Largest liquor store in Orlando have in common? They all come together as the subject for this series of blogs.

Being normally on the selling side of the whisky transaction I thought it would be fun to head into Total Wine in Orlando while on vacation with my wife Cindy. I posed as an interested consumer to see where the staff would direct me to make my purchase.

Total wine has a good reputation for knowledgable staff and an amazing selection. Having been to numerous Total Wine stores in the past I was somewhat prepared and expected a great experience.

My wife Cindy inconspicously took photos and recorded conversations while I made my way around the whisky aisle and started browsing.

To say that Total Wine has a large selection would be a gross understatement. The only thing holding retailers in the United States back is the government regulation to have 750ml bottles. This cuts out smaller United Kingdom producers that use the UK standard 700ml and are not willing to do 750ml due to additional expense and stringent labelling requirements.

The whisky aisle was long, high and imposing with a ton of whiskies that I had never seen and of course a lot that I had.

The first staff member to notice my perusing was Tony. A very nice young guy that instantly wanted to help me find the right whisky. He happily took me down the aisle pointing out a number of selections based on my criteria.

I indicated that I was looking for an interesting whisky that I had not tried before under $100 and if there were some options that would allow it that I could buy two whiskies keeping that $100 cap as a total. I mentioned that I liked Bourbon, Rye, Scotch etc. and was open to any and all suggestions. I’m sure that retailers would love an endless stream of customers like me. Open to suggestion, eager and ready to buy.

Here are the whiskies that Tony suggested.

1.        As we passed the Scotch section he pointed out a 30 year old blend called Grangestone. This is an exclusive whisky to Total Wine put together especially for them in their own packaging. It is $ 89.99 which is a really good price for a 30 year old blend and also picked up a Double Gold at the San Francisco Spirits Competition. A combination of Speyside and Highland Malts combined with Lowland Grain all 30 years or more. A very tempting bottle indeed. However, I wanted a lot more out of this journey so continued on awaiting with baited breath to Tony’s next suggestion. He didn’t really offer any more suggestions in the Scotch category and headed over to the Bourbon section.

2.        His number one choice for Bourbon was Angel’s Envy Barrel Selection. I have had the Port Pipe finish on many occasions and am a true fan of the brand. The Barrel selection was awarded 98 points in Wine Enthusiast and was $46.99. This was straight away a front runner in my bid to buy two whiskies for under $ 100 and left me intrigued as to what might change my mind and see me walking out with something else.

Upon reaching the Rye section Tony had several options that were both out of stock.

1.        Angel’s Envy Rye – limited release and apparently almost never on the shelf this Rye got 94 points with Wine Enthusiast and was $ 75.99. It was out of stock and would have been tempting as I have never tried it and I have a real soft spot for good rye.

2.        Willet Single Barrel Rye receiving 90 points from Wine Advocate and only $42.99. This was according to Tony another sought after Rye and was also conspicuous by it’s absence on the shelf.

Tony was extremely helpful and was doing a great job for Total Wine. He was definitely keen on points and accolades and gravitated towards special, popular and rarer bottlings. I wanted of course to buy everything that I couldn’t have especially the Angel’s Envy Rye.

I asked him about High West Double Rye as both of his suggestions were unavailable. He said that he had not tried it and that he would go and get the whisky expert Chris, who could potentially help me with that and perhaps give me some other suggestions.

At this point I already had some great options but wanted to press further and find out what Chris would have in store for me and if there would be any suggestions in common between the two staff.

Part 2 next week is dedicated to Chris who spent a good long time with Cindy and I and ultimately led to my purchasing decisions. I had already, before entering the store, resolved myself to buy the clear winner in price and suggestion based entirely on what the staff told me to buy. I was just hoping that they were going to sell me something yummy.

What is your favorite whisky category? Let me know in the comments.

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