Category Archives: Bonus

CFPB Enforcement Actions – Learn from Other’s Mistakes

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) permanently banned RMK Financial Corporation, which does business as Majestic Home Loans, from the mortgage lending industry by prohibiting RMK from engaging in any mortgage lending activities or receiving remuneration from mortgage lending. In 2015, the CFPB issued an agency order against RMK for, among other things, sending advertisements to military families that led the recipients to believe the company was affiliated with the United States government. Despite the 2015 order’s prohibition on these and other actions, the company engaged in a series of repeat offenses, including disseminating millions of mortgage advertisements to military families that deceptively used fake U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) seals, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) logo, and other language or design elements to falsely imply that RMK was affiliated with the government. In addition to the ban, RMK will also pay a $1 million penalty that will be deposited into the CFPB’s victims relief fund.

“Even after the 2015 law enforcement order, RMK continued to lie to military families by falsely implying government endorsement of its home loans,” said CFPB Director Rohit Chopra. “Our action reflects our commitment to weed out repeat offenders, and we are shutting down this outfit for good.”

RMK is a privately held corporation with its principal place of business in Ontario, California. RMK is a nonbank that is licensed as a mortgage broker or lender in at least 30 states and Puerto Rico. RMK originates consumer mortgages, including mortgages guaranteed by the VA and mortgages insured by the FHA. However, RMK is affiliated with neither government agency.

In 2015, the CFPB took action against RMK to end its use of deceptive mortgage advertising practices, including advertisements that led potential homebuyers to believe that the company was affiliated with the VA or FHA. RMK sent these deceptive advertisements to tens of thousands of military families as well as to other holders of VA-guaranteed mortgages. In addition to paying a fine, RMK was required to end its illegal and deceptive practices.

The CFPB has previously warned about VA home loan scams. Many servicemembers, veterans, and military spouses receive fraudulent calls and mailers from companies claiming to be affiliated with the government, the VA, or their home loan servicer.

In the case of RMK, the CFPB found that the company disseminated millions of mortgage advertisements to military families that made deceptive representations or contained inadequate or impermissible disclosures in violation of the 2015 order, the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the Mortgage Acts and Practices Advertising Rule, and the Truth in Lending Act. Specifically, the company harmed military families and other consumers by sending millions of advertisements for mortgages that:

Tricked military families about the government’s role in sending the advertisements or providing the loans: RMK sent advertisements that misrepresented that RMK was, or was affiliated with, the VA or the FHA, that the VA or FHA sent the notices, or that the advertised loans were provided by the VA or FHA. Military families or others who view such advertisements may decide to purchase the advertised mortgage based on the trust they have in the government agencies.

Deceived borrowers about interest rates and key terms: RMK’s advertisements illegally disclosed a simple annual interest rate more conspicuously than the annual percentage rate, illegally advertised unavailable credit terms, and used the name of the homeowner’s current lender in a misleading way. Consumers who view such advertisements may be misled about the terms being offered or mistakenly believe their current lender is sending the advertisement.

Falsely misrepresented loan requirements and lied about projected savings from refinancing: RMK’s advertisements misrepresented that the benefits available to those who qualified for VA or FHA loans were time limited. Additionally, RMK’s advertisements misrepresented that military families could obtain VA cash-out refinancing loans without an appraisal and without incurring the cost of an appraisal, that an appraisal was not a condition of qualifying for VA cash-out refinancing loans, and that no minimum credit score and no income verification were required to qualify for VA cash-out refinancing loans. Finally, RMK’s advertisements misrepresented the amount of monthly payments, the annual savings under the advertised loans, and the cash available in connection with the advertised loans.

Enforcement Action

Under the Consumer Financial Protection Act, the CFPB has the authority to take action against institutions violating federal consumer financial protection laws, including the Truth in Lending Act, which is intended to ensure that consumers can compare credit terms more readily and knowledgeably. Today’s order requires RMK to:

Exit the mortgage lending business: RMK is permanently banned from engaging in any mortgage lending activities, including advertising, marketing, promoting, offering, providing, originating, administering, servicing, or selling mortgage loans, or otherwise participating in or receiving remuneration from mortgage lending, or assisting others in doing so.

Pay a $1 million fine: RMK must pay a $1 million penalty to the CFPB, which will be deposited into the CFPB’s victims relief fund.

Today’s action is one in a series of actions the CFPB is taking to halt repeat offenders, particularly those that violate agency and court orders. The CFPB recently proposed a registry to detect repeat offenders in the financial marketplace. The action also complements broader efforts, including rulemaking by the Federal Trade Commission, to deter government and business impersonator scams.

Read today’s order.

Read I am a servicemember or veteran and I have decided to purchase a home. How do I know if a VA loan is the right fit for me?

Read more about VA loans.

Learn more about mortgage protections for veterans.

Consumers can submit complaints about financial products and services by visiting the CFPB’s website or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372).

Employees who believe their companies have violated federal consumer financial protection laws, including the Truth in Lending Act, are encouraged to send information about what they know to To learn more about reporting potential industry misconduct, visit the CFPB’s website.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is a 21st century agency that helps consumer finance markets work by making rules more effective, by consistently and fairly enforcing those rules, and by empowering consumers to take more control over their economic lives. For more information, visit


Did Fannie Just Create A New Job Opportunity ?

Fannie Mae Just Created a New Real Estate Career with their New Appraisal Waiver Program

Fannie Mae’s Value Acceptance + Property Data program, set to launch on April 15, 2023, has cast a shadow over the appraisal industry’s future, potentially marking the beginning of the end for licensed appraisers.

The program aims to transform mortgage loans by replacing traditional appraisals with assessments conducted by unlicensed “Property Data Collectors,” and many are questioning whether this is the first step in eliminating appraisers altogether.

Appraisal Waiver Program Explained

Value Acceptance + Property Data expands upon Fannie Mae’s 2017 appraisal waiver program, providing a more extensive data-driven approach to property valuation. The new program combines automated valuation models (AVMs) with additional property data collected by non-licensed inspectors, currently limited to single-unit properties.

Critics argue AVMs cannot replace licensed appraisers’ expertise, and using non-licensed Property Data Collectors raises concerns about assessment quality and consistency.

Property Data Collectors visit properties to perform data collection using one of Fannie Mae’s six approved apps that meet their Property Data Standard. These individuals must identify safety, soundness, or structural integrity issues and items of incomplete construction or renovation. However, they don’t require a license, raising questions about qualifications and industry impact.

Requirements to Become a Property Data Collector

Fannie Mae requires lenders to vet Property Data Collectors by verifying their background, providing professional training, and ensuring they possess the essential knowledge for competent data collection. However, the lack of a licensing requirement leaves the profession largely unregulated, with the scope of “professional training” left to the lender. This absence of regulation raises concerns about data collection quality, consistency, conflicts of interest, and biased assessments.

Lenders must ensure data collectors comply with fair lending laws and deliver unbiased, accurate results. Lenders are required to ensure that Property Data Collectors have received Fair Housing training, the scope of which has also been left entirely to the lender. However, without standardized licensing, maintaining consistent quality across the profession may prove difficult, potentially resulting in inaccurate assessments and skewed property values.

Potential Impacts on the Housing Market and Appraisal Profession

As more loans bypass traditional appraisals, property value inaccuracies may increase, leading to higher loan-to-value (LTV) ratios, increased default risk, and possibly another housing market crash like in 2008. The absence of a strong foundation in property values could erode trust in the mortgage system, impacting the entire housing market.

The introduction of unlicensed property inspectors in the Value Acceptance + Property Data program could signify the appraisal profession’s decline. As more loans are processed without licensed appraisers, the demand for their services may diminish, jeopardizing their careers and livelihoods.

In conclusion, Fannie Mae’s Value Acceptance + Property Data program poses a risk to the mortgage industry and licensed appraisers’ future. By replacing traditional appraisals with unlicensed property inspector assessments, this program threatens property value foundations and could potentially destabilize the housing market. As the industry navigates this new program’s implications, the future of mortgage lending and the appraisal profession hangs in the balance.


Is This Bottle of Wine Still Drinkable ?

I studied in France in college and brought a decent amount of French wine home with me. Some of that wine got consumed with friends pretty much immediately, but a few bottles I’ve held on to and moved from apartment to apartment over the years, saving them for a “special” occasion.

College for me was… a while ago, so looking at the bottles now, there’s a big question: are these still drinkable?

I’ve been very careful about how the wines have been stored through the years, and aside from a few brief power outages during storms in summer months, everything has been kept cool and stored properly. The Washington Post recently ran a story explaining what else is worth looking for in those dusty bottles you’ve been keeping in the basement

Check the Cork

One of the first things you should do when determining whether a bottle of wine is still good is to look at the space between the cork and the wine. Most bottles should have roughly a quarter-inch between the cork and the wine in the bottle. You don’t need to pull out your measuring tape for this if you have another bottle of wine in the house for comparison. If your old bottle has more space than it should, there’s a good chance the wine has oxidized, evaporated or seeped out through the cork.

Look for Leakage

Another good sign things have gone south? If you see what looks like leakage on the outside of the bottle. If the bottle was leaking at any point in its journey, that wine isn’t going to be too tasty now.

Do Your Due Diligence

It never hurts to look up the producer and vintage and just see what’s out there. You can see what others have said about the bottle (and when), and get a decent idea for how things are progressing. For instance, if all the reviews of the bottles have started to get worse in recent years, that’s a good sign that the bottle is starting to pass its prime and it might be time to drink it.

When in doubt, the best solution is always the easiest: just crack the bottle and try it.


Top Napa Valley Wineries to Visit

Alpha Omega

This family-owned winery on the main tourist route along Highway 29 has made its name with high-end single-vineyard Cabernets from famous vineyards like Beckstoffer To Kalon and Beckstoffer Dr. Crane. The rustic-chic, barn-like tasting room offers current releases for $50 and a tour and tasting for $65; there are also private tastings by appointment. Arrive in nice weather and sip on the panoramic terrace.

Beaulieu Vineyard

One of the oldest producers in the valley, BV offers tours of the original winery building, which dates back to 1885. These are followed by barrel samples of Cabernet and a stop in the new Heritage Room, which chronicles the history of wine in Napa.


One of the top large wineries in the world, Beringer has long done an exceptional job of producing a substantial volume of reliably high-quality wine, from the entry level bottlings to the often extraordinary Private Reserves. Its impressive, 1884 fieldstone Rhine House, housing the tasting room, is a Napa Valley landmark. There are various tasting and tour options; try the $55 Taste of Beringer Tour, which includes a barrel sampling in the old, hand-dug caves and a guided, sit-down tasting.

Black Stallion

Visitors can assess leaf shape and cluster size and otherwise analyze 17 grape varieties in the demonstration vineyard here. Drop by for a walk-in tasting room ($20-$50 depending on the flight).

Buehler Vineyards

The nicely understated Cabs at this family-owned vineyard are some of the valley’s best values. Plus, private tours and tastings are hosted by the Buehler family.

Cade Estate

The views of the valley floor are glorious from this super-sustainable, LEED Gold–certified winery, located on Howell Mountain. Guests can taste Cade’s superb Sauvignon Blanc in its chic outdoor living room.


Cakebread, a familiar sight on Highway 29 in Rutherford, was one of the moving forces behind Napa’s revival in the 1970s, and scored a runaway success with its luscious style of Chardonnay, plus full-flavored reds. Cakebread (it’s the family name, by the way, not a wine descriptor) is serious about its guest experience, and offers a range of tastings, tours, educational experiences and food pairings.


This sleek winery in St. Helena is a destination in itself, with the Brasswood Bar + Kitchen serving “Wine country comfort food” Wednesdays through Sundays, the Rosgal Gallery (call ahead), and of course the tasting room itself, plus the clubby Winemaker’s Den private room, available by appointment.


Caymus’ velvety, full-throttle Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon was among Napa’s first “cult Cabernets” back in the 1970s, and it’s still going strong under the third generation of the Wagner family to run the operation. Visitors to their beautiful old fieldstone winery, tucked away off Conn Creek Rd. pay a $50 per person tasting fee to sample five wines produced by the Wagner family (who also make Conundrum, and Mer Soleil among other labels).


This is the oldest winery on Pritchard Hill, a stunning, high-elevation area known for producing some of Napa’s best Cabs. Chappellet’s extensive 90-minute Vineyard Tour and Tasting includes a walk through the organic vineyards and a seated tasting of new releases.

Chateau Montelena

This winery is famous as a location in the movie Bottle Shock, a fictionalized account of the famous 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting, when Montelena’s Chardonnay upset a roster of great French wines. The Chardonnay is still very worthy, but most visitors will arrive at Montelena’s gorgeously sited, 19th century stone château thirsty for the famous Cabernets and Zinfandels. There are numerous tasting and tour experiences on tap, from the $30 current release tasting (reserve ahead) on up.

Clif Family Winery

The Clif family, of energy bar fame, makes excellent wine as well. Rent a road bike from the Velo Vino tasting room and do the 24-mile Cold Springs Loop, past Clif’s organic farm and vineyards, with espresso before and a wine tasting after. Clif Family Winery has also introduced a food truck, The Clif Family Bruschetteria, which is typically parked outside their tasting room. The truck serves numerous variations of bruschetta along with other Northern Italy–inspired fare. Much of the produce is sourced directly from the Clif Family Farm.

Cliff Lede

Each of Cliff Lede’s vineyard blocks is named for a rock song. Get a backstage pass for access to limited production wines, including “High Fidelity” and “Rock Block” offerings. The lounge also features rotating art exhibits. Prior reservation required.

Clos du Val

For many years this foundational Stags Leap District winery was known for an austere style favored by its fans, but at odds with many of its neighbors. But beginning with the superb 2012 vintage, the winery started to produce reds in a richer, more velvety style that, as the winery puts it, “embraces the Napa Valleyness” of the wines. You can taste the evolution at the lovely winery in a variety of settings—there are picnic tables, pre-reserved private cabanas, and a just-drop-in tasting room with current releases.


Make an appointment to taste through library samples of older vintages of winemaker Cathy Corison’s fantastic Cabernet Sauvignons. Tasting flights include our current release and selected library vintages, available exclusively at the winery.

Domaine Carneros

Founded by Champagne Taittinger in 1989, Domaine Carneros’s impressive, largely solar-powered château amid the rolling hills on Route 12 was modeled on Taittinger’s Château de la Marquetterie back in France. You must reserve ahead for even the basic tasting. But it is worth it, both for the educational experience (the $50 tour, offered three times a day, takes you from the vineyard to the cellar), and for the laid-back atmosphere—you can sip away at a table on the terrace with its sweeping vineyard views. Top-notch bubbly is the thing here, but the still wines are lovely as well.

Domaine Chandon

Chandon is one of the few wineries in Napa Valley with a food menu to complement its sparkling wine list. Purchase wine buy the flight, glass or bottle then settle into the festive patio or find a quiet spot in an Adirondack on the expansive lawn under the oak trees.


Duckhorn, one of the pioneers of Napa’s modern era, first struck gold with Merlot, notably its famous luxury bottling from Three Palms Vineyard, which remains its flagship. The winery also has a following for palate-flattering Cabs and Sauvignon Blancs. Though the main portfolio tends toward the expensive, there are more affordable wines well worth enjoying under the Decoy and Canvasback labels. Reserve ahead and taste five current releases for $35, or opt for various limited bottle tastings.


Etude’s deck is idyllic, with bright white umbrellas and tastings of excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs.


It’s a little strange that Failla even allows visitors, considering how sought-after its wines are. Ehren Jordan, one of Napa’s most lauded winemakers, often hangs out with guests in his courtyard. Taste single-vineyard Pinots (made with grapes from around the state) in the restored farmhouse or 15,000-square-foot cave.

Far Niente

At $75 per person, this tour and tasting may actually be one of the best bargains in the Valley. The fieldstone winery, an 1885 National Register landmark was lavishly restored by the Nickel family, who own the property, dug its famous wine caves and planted its lovely gardens. The tour takes it all in, but the wines themselves are the real draw.

Flora Springs

If you’ve driven up Highway 29 into St. Helena you’ve surely seen the Las Vegas-worthy, wavy façade (a cutaway soil profile?) of Flora Spring’s multi-venue tasting room, which is a lovely, drop-in tasting room inside (with some premium tastings requiring reservations.) But it’s also worth bushwhacking a bit off the main drag to the actual winery, a once-abandoned 19th-century stone structure that is also home to the family proprietors. You’ll need an appointment to access its slate of tours and experiences.

Frank Family Vineyards

Proprietor Rich Frank’s resume as one of Hollywood’s long-running inside players includes nearly a decade as president of Walt Disney Studios. His historic Calistoga winery has a notable history of its own—it is on the site of the old Kornell Champagne Cellars and the 19th-century Larkmead before that. The pretty frame house that serves as the tasting room offers a four-wine tasting, including one of the Cabernets that have quickly put Frank on the map; the $40 tasting includes its often-overlooked, but excellent artisan sparkling wine.

Grgich Hills Estate

Creamy, full-flavored Chardonnays were this Napa icon’s first signatures, and are still the standard-bearers—the basic $25 tasting flight is all Chardonnay—but visitors to this easy-going valley-floor winery (Hills is a partner’s name, not a geographical description) should be sure to get a taste of the lively Fumé Blanc, or the graceful, medium-rich Cab or Zinfandel to get the winery’s approach to making wines of finesse.


Winemaker Stéphane Vivier, a French expat, uses Burgundian winemaking techniques, like fermenting in enormous French foudres and meticulously sorting grapes after harvest, to make his fantastic Carneros Chardonnays.

Heitz Cellar

When your palate is tired out from tasting dozens of Cabernets, try this fantastic winery. It has Cab, too, but it is definitely the only winery in Napa making floral, strawberry-scented and light-bodied Grignolino, an obscure Italian variety.


The elegant, ivy-covered Inglenook Château is a Napa icon, dating back to the 1800s; it was purchased from the Niebaum family by Francis Ford Coppola in 1975. Small-group tours ($75/person) end with a seated tasting paired with artisanal cheeses. Afterward, stop by the perfectly curated shop for tabletop pieces from designers like William Yeoward and L’Objet pour Fortuny.

Long Meadow Ranch

All of the tastings here include samples of the estate’s wonderful olive oils, too. Reserve a spot for the Chef’s Table ($145), which occurs in a private room and is served with wine pairings. Dishes are tailored to the wines, from Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet.

Long Meadow Ranch, 707-963-4555 

Louis M. Martini

This over 80-year-old winery continues to make exceptional, value-driven Cabernet from both Sonoma and Napa for every vintage. Its tasting room offers a rotating selection of 10 wines.


20 small California wineries offer tastings at the Ma(i)sonry collective. Guests can taste from whichever wineries they choose in whichever setting they prefer, from a steampunk-art gallery to a contemporary sculpture garden to a blanket on the lawn.

Newton Vineyard

The vineyard tour of Newton’s sustainably farmed property on Spring Mountain is epically beautiful. Wander through classical English gardens, ride around in a six-wheeler, then look out over all of Napa from beside Pino Solo (a lone pine at the peak of the estate), while tasting Newton’s wines. At $100, it’s expensive but worth it.

Odette Estate

A high-style, new Stag’s Leap winery from the high-profile team (Gordon Getty, Gavin Newsom and Napa Valley veteran John Conover) behind PlumpJack and Cade, this is a gorgeous contemporary winery in a dramatic location under the Stags Leap Palisades. Make an appointment to taste the extraordinary, top-level Cabernet Sauvignon (though taking a bottle home will cost you in the triple digits).


Truchard makes 15 small-batch bottlings of Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, several of which are available only in its tasting room. Tours here (sometimes led by a Truchard family member) take guests around the vineyards and wine caves, including samples of four wines along the way.


Whetstone’s tasting room is situated in a real live Napa Valley château built in 1885. Sit around a big stone fireplace and taste current-release Chardonnays and Syrah while snacking on rosemary almonds.

Whitehall Lane

The Leonardini family’s high-quality winery has remained surprisingly under many wine lovers’ radar. But those who linger awhile at the tasting room off Highway 29 south of St. Helena can taste their portfolio of wines—notably the Cabernets and Merlots—offered at realistic prices. A drop in tasting of four wines is just $25, but those with more time should consult the website for a roster of options, including tastings outdoors in the vineyards.


The Best Free Computer Software

Free software drives the PC industry. Paid-for packages might seem to be the better option in general, but it’s the no-bucks-down applications that make life as an everyday PC user worth living.

Windows owes a big thank you to the dedication and skill of the open source community. They see a problem, find something they want to do, and just go ahead and make it, offering up the software—and the building blocks that put it together—to the world when they’re done. Thanks, folks. You rock, and you make the next generation of software better. Other free apps have been born out of competition between corporate giants, but we’re not complaining when we get a great piece of free software.

The free PC software collected below will make your life better by making your PC more capable. Let’s get you set up to try new things, to create more, to break down format boundaries, to enjoy yourself. Let’s go free: We’ve trawled the web, canvassed our colleagues, and batted away a host of competitors to compile this guide to the absolute best free software for Windows and, in many cases, Linux, too.


Photo editing: GIMP

About as Photoshop as you can get without actually shelling out a small fortune to use Photoshop itself, Gimp is densely packed with features, and capable of a massive array of photo manipulation and artistic endeavors. It’s also far more refined than it was a few years ago, with the frequent crashes of yesteryear all but gone. Only the slightly janky interface remains to remind you that this is open-source software.

Natural painting: Krita

Now 20 years old, Krita is a natural painting toolbox, perfect for everyone from artists to cartoonists, and beyond. It includes art essentials such as stabilized brushes, a pop-up palette, a wrapping texture mode, as well as a full animation interface. There are nine individual brush engines, each customizable and organizable to help you grab the right tool fast. Pick up the paid-for Gemini version on Steam ($9.99) if you’re rocking a convertible tablet and want to support the project.

Video editor: Lightworks

If you’re after pro-level video editing, Lightworks—legitimately used to cut proper Hollywood movies, such as The Wolf of Wall Street—is an incredible choice for the grand sum of zero bucks. You’re restricted to 720p output on the free tier, but everything else is present and correct, from advanced non-linear editing to a whole host of color grading and effects tools. The learning curve is steep, but there’s a vibrant community ready to help if you need any pointers.

Music player: MusicBee

No matter how large your music library is, MusicBee can handle it, with a tiny RAM footprint that makes this handsome skinnable player/manager perfect for even the lowliest laptop. You can tweak your sounds with surround upscaling, ASIO and WASAPI support, and a 15-band equalizer, and even make use of those crusty old WinAmp plugins if you need more. It’ll even properly tag and fully organize that trashpile you call an MP3 collection…

YouTube downloader: Freemake Video Downloader

Downloading from YouTube isn’t strictly kosher, but nothing’s permanent on the Internet’s foremost demonetization platform. It pays to be prepared if there’s a video you can’t do without—particularly if your data plan won’t cover streaming your kids’ favorite weird Spiderman/ Elsa escapades when you’re desperate for them to be quiet for two seconds. Freemake’s multithreaded app is super-simple, super-fast, and it can suck down YouTube vids as well as content from Vimeo, Facebook, and beyond.

Audio editor: Audacity

Active development means that this audio stalwart has recently seen a bunch of new features added, and there are more on the way. Not that it necessarily needed much changing: Despite a rather, let’s say, rugged interface, Audacity’s power for multitrack audio manipulation is unsurpassed in the free bracket, and it’s an immensely stable way to record from a microphone, too. Of course, now that it can natively play MIDI files, you’ll be too busy looping canyon.mid to get any fresh recording done.

Video player: VLC Media Player

VLC is brilliantly honest free software. When its creators were offered tens of millions of dollars to slather the app in ads, they refused—it’s open source, proud about it, and the envy of the media player world, thanks to its solid compatibility with just about every media format. It can even handle streams on several protocols, and it’s fully extendable. That said, everything important is on board from the start—no codec packs required.

Streaming audio: Spotify

Despite the fact that it’s cavorting around an increasingly competitive streaming playground, Spotify is still king of the jungle gym. It has the biggest library, the best interface, and its OGG-format files sound all but flawless, despite its lack of official high-res audio support. Admittedly, the ads can be a little repetitive and heavy handed if you don’t shell out for a paid-for account, but that’s the price of free.

Vector image editor: Inkscape

You don’t have a huge amount of choice if you need to create scalable vector graphics on a budget. You could shell out for a subscription to use Adobe Illustrator, or you could download the highly mature and feature-filled Inkscape. There’s not really a happy in-between. Good job, then, that Inkscape is so capable, with support for blurring, gradients, multi-path editing, and exporting in every format you could possibly need.

Video manipulation: Handbrake

When you need video in one format but it’s stubbornly in another, you need to transcode. Handbrake supports a massive list of formats on input and output, with profiles included for a host of common devices, and it’s happy to convert frame rates and add effects on the way. Its key feature, though, is batch processing: Drop a collection of videos in, set it off, and it’ll tell you when it’s filled a folder with your freshly converted media.



Frequent sales, a massive indie library, and an early access program that gets you into new games before they’ve been officially released characterize Valve’s store—but it’s the little extras, such as the vibrant community, the Steam game overlay, and the Steam Workshop for mod content, that really make it. Steam has changed what gaming really is on the PC. Keep an eye on the store to find regular free weekends of popular games, which get you unlimited access for a limited time.

EA Origin

Steam’s publisher deals don’t extend to every producer of AAA titles, and if you want in on EA’s library, you need to use Origin. Whatever you might think about the gaming monolith’s practices, Origin is a convenient way to manage your gaming, and get going with multiplayer action. Check the “On the House” section for a regular rotating selection of freebies, which you can add to your library forever, and take advantage of the trials to get time-limited access to hot new games.

GOG Galaxy

If you’re more inclined toward the old-school end of the gaming spectrum, GOG’s selection of rigged-for-modern PC classics and the occasional new release are reasonably priced and almost always worth checking out. Galaxy is its desktop client, which makes finding and installing your favorite DRM-free titles quick and easy; if you’re on board with GOG’s philosophy and truly love old games, you should get on board with Galaxy.

Software removal: PC Decrapifier

Whether you’re cleansing a new PC of its preinstalled bloatware or trimming down an existing machine to get rid of the stuff you really don’t need, PC decrapifier does the job fast, and it makes it easy. no other package is quite as informed on the awful software that manufacturers so thoughtfully include, and how safe it is to excise it—while you won’t use it often, this is definitely one of those portable apps you’ll want on your USB toolkit stick.

System cleaning: CCleaner

Windows is, among its many other jobs, like a cut-price janitor. Sure, it puts on a good show: It’s packed with tools, and it claims they’ll scrub your OS clean, but it’s lackadaisical. It doesn’t go as far as it could, and it often leaves filth around the edges. For the rest, you need something heavy, such as CCleaner, which can do away with registry artefacts, files left over after uninstalling, and much more.

VPN: TunnelBear

There are stacks of free VPNs out there, but never underestimate the importance of trust when it comes to something that’s purportedly there to protect your web traffic—you need to know you’re safe, not just funneling your entire bitstream through a criminal server. Cuddly ol’ TunnelBear can be trusted, and it’s completely uncomplicated: It just works. It’s fast, it’s solid, and the 500MB monthly free bandwidth should see you through all your secure transactions.

Antivirus: Bitdefender Antivirus Free

Whichever way you slice it, however careful you may be, you can’t get away without having antivirus installed. If you’re going free, pick something with low system load, minimal amounts of notification spam, and a decent engine behind it. Bitdefender’s latest update fits the bill—it’s ultra-effective against malware, and extra light on resources, with a simple interface that just gets on with the job. Try Avira instead if you’d like a touch more control.

Anti-malware: Malwarebytes Free

Admittedly, Malwarebytes’ free tier doesn’t do a huge amount—it’s not a preventative, it won’t steer you away from the seedier corners of the web, and it can’t do anything about zero-day malware threats, unless you pony up some cash. What it does, though, is precisely what you need it to: run it once you think you’ve fallen foul of some terrible malware threat, and it’ll kill that pesky infestation until it’s well and truly dead.

Password manager: Dashlane

If you’ve never used the same password for multiple sites because you don’t trust your memory, you’re in the minority, and if you came up with that password yourself, chances are it’s insecure in some way. Using Dashlane does away with the fallibility of the human brain. Remember one master password, and you need never even know the complex, nigh-unhackable passwords it automatically generates and types into web forms on your behalf—even Dashlane itself doesn’t know them.

File destruction: Eraser

You’re probably already aware that deleting a file doesn’t actually delete it. It’s not until its little corner of drive space is reused that its data actually goes away, and even then there may be some trace of it left behind to be forensically recovered. Eraser ensures that those files you want well and truly removed are fully destroyed, using specially selected patterns of bytes over multiple passes to remove any digital memory of those files ever existing.

System protection: Unchecky

Probably the most common cause of malware infestation is inattention—clicking through a seemingly innocent installer, accidentally skipping past the page where it offers to install a brilliant browser toolbar, cursing yourself afterward. Unchecky doubles up: It unchecks those cheeky checkboxes (as you might expect from its name), and also sniffs out untrustworthy installers, warning you when you’re about to accept an offer of questionable value.

File recovery: Recuva

It doesn’t matter if you’ve accidentally deleted a file, formatted a drive, or suffered some sort of horrific crash, Recuva can take a good stab at analyzing your drive, and getting your data back in one piece. It’s not infallible, but if you have the time (and your hard drive has enough life left in it) to let it run a deep scan, you’re more than likely to see results. It’ll also do a secure overwrite, if you’re looking to do the opposite.

Backup: EaseUS ToDo Backup Free

Selective, automatic, and easy. EaseUS’s solution to backup is probably the most sensible we’ve seen. You can plug in an external drive (or point it at a NAS), and just set and forget—it periodically creates an incremental backup of your selected folders (or those it’s chosen using its smart backup feature), without any more involvement from you. If you want to take a more specific backup, you can, and restoring later on is incredibly easy.

Web browsers

Google Chrome

Whatever you might think of Google, its browser—and the open-source chromium browser that it’s built upon—deserves its place at the top of the tree. It makes big demands on your RAM, but this is because it keeps every one of its tabs in its own memory space, meaning a crash in one window won’t kill any of the others. There’s a massive extension library ready to go, so you can browse exactly as you’d want to— although not every extension is worth the bits it’s made of…

Mozilla Firefox

Far better than it was before it fell off the top spot, Firefox is now a highly efficient browser that’s kinder on your RAM than Chrome, and—depending on your browser habits—potentially more stable, too. Running modern Firefox is a speedy experience, and if you’re looking for privacy, you can do a lot more by default than Chrome’s incognito mode—the anti-tracking features Mozilla has packed in are perfect for those desperate to leave a light footprint on the web.


You might place Opera in the number three free browser slot; we’re going for Vivaldi, the browser that formed from disillusion with Opera’s practices. It’s a truly modern browser, using the same rendering engine as Chrome, and many of the key features of Opera, while tacking on a host of note-taking, tab-managing, experience-modifying features. There’s a dedicated community driving the Vivaldi project on, and you can even use certain Chrome extensions.

System utilities

PDF reader: Sumatra PDF

Adobe needn’t have the monopoly on PDF reading. The format is far more widespread than it once was, and there are smaller, faster, and more versatile readers than, er, reader—SumatraPDF being the best among them. It has a deliberately simple UI, because you’re meant to be focused on reading, rather than clicking buttons, and also includes full support for rendering most mainstream ebook and comic book formats, as well as XPS and DjVu files.

Email client: eM Client

One of the cleanest email packages around, working with POP3, SMTP,  and every other email delivery tech out there, eM Client’s free version only really restricts the number of accounts you can use—every other feature matches up to its pro tier. This includes PGP integration, so you can securely sign or encrypt your messages, along with advanced contacts management, importing from other email apps, and a chat client that supports most common IM protocols.

File synchronization: Dropbox

Keeping files synched between your many PCs and an online drive is a simple way of staying organized and safe, and it’s not without its options. Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, even Mega, they all give you a local folder that automatically mirrors one online. We favor Dropbox for this task, mainly because it feels like the most responsive and sensible way to magically clone your stuff. It’s what Dropbox was built to do—limited storage space be damned.

Media burner: CDBurnerXP

Optical media is a progressively more marginal form of storage, but it ain’t dead yet, and the flexibility to do more than Windows’ own built-in burning tools is essential. CDBurnerXP, which shows its lineage in its name, can burn it all—you can even use it to write HD-DVDs if you can find the hardware—and it can create and convert ISO files, too. Perfect for backing up backups.

Messaging: Franz

Franz doesn’t actually offer its own messaging system, but it does serve up just about every other protocol. Configure your Franz account, add the services and usernames you want to use, and they’re replicated on whatever machine you log on to next. Get your Slack, your Hangouts, your Skype, and even WhatsApp all in one place, and stop shunning that one person who won’t move to the network the rest of your friends use.

Notes: Evernote

The great benefit of being the biggest name in your field, as Evernote surely is, is integration. So many other web services tie into it that you often don’t need to make notes directly—just chuck the content you’re interested in over to your Evernote, and it’s there when you want to remember, organize it into notebooks, and otherwise make use of it later on. You can sync the basic free account with two devices.

Utility setup: Ninite

Efficiency is the name of the game where Ninite is concerned. If you’re putting together a new machine, and you want it packed with free apps, Ninite can supply them—including many of the apps featured here—in one handy installer. Just check the boxes on the site, download your custom executable, and fire it off to get the latest versions of the most popular applications installed with one click. No choices, no options, just clean installs of your favorite stuff.

Virtual machines: VirtualBox

It’s sort of remarkable that VirtualBox is free, particularly since it’s owned by a company as large as Oracle, but the frequently updated virtual machine environment is essential if you want to cobble together sandboxed Windows installs, trial Linux distros, or do all kinds of shenanigans that it might be useful to roll back or keep separate from the rest of your PC. It’s highly configurable, and you can even set up your own virtual networks.

System info: HWiNF064

If you have a problem with your PC—or even if you don’t—it’s useful to find out exactly how it’s operating. HWiNF064 is a diagnostic tool that can serve up everything from a brief overview of your system’s components to a deep dive into the minuscule operations of your PC. You can also use it for real-time monitoring, keeping an eye on the status of problem components, and predicting failure based on its findings.

Compression: 7-zip

We find it pretty amazing how many people have the never-ending free trial of WinRAR installed when 7-zip does the job of archiving and unarchiving just as competently, and doesn’t bother with the nag screens. What’s more, the .7z format, which uses AES-256 encryption and a super-high compression ratio, is both smaller and, usually, faster than using .ZIP or .RAR to squash down your files.

Office suites

Google docs

Although it’s missing many of the more advanced features of full office suites, those are generally things you shouldn’t be using an office package for anyway. Google docs—and sheets, and slides—rocks a winning combination of solid core features, constant accessibility, integration with online storage, and companion mobile apps, which (awkwardly) offer you the same functionality on your phone. You can import and export in any format you choose—what’s not to like?

Apache OpenOffice

One of many successors of original Microsoft Office alternative StarOffice, OpenOffice (passed on to Apache after previous owner, Oracle, abandoned the project) contains a complete suite of software, ranging from the core word processor/spreadsheet/presentations triumvirate to software specifically designed for vector drawing, laying out mathematical formulae, and a database. If you’re not shelling out for Microsoft’s suite, this’ll get the job done.


LibreOffice is, somewhat naturally, just like OpenOffice—while the two packages have followed different development lines since mid-2013, they’re based on the same code, and retain the same naming convention (and, in most cases, a very similar interface) for their central six apps. It’s up to you which free office branch you follow; ignoring the frequent squabbling that split the two (and fellow StarOffice fork NeoOffice), they’re just as capable as one another.


Shark Tank Success Stories

I love tuning in to “Shark Tank” every week for my fill of inspirational founder stories and entertaining investor personalities, but one of my favorite parts is seeing the updates on past deals.

For many of the entrepreneurs, appearing on the show is a pivotal turning point. Unlike a lot of reality television in which the content is staged, it’s not just for the cameras when they shake hands with a Shark. Afterwards, they work together to put their money where their mouth is and create thriving businesses, and there’s no better example of the show’s power than the following companies.

These products have become household names, and they have the sales to prove it. As you’ll see, even though they share the common ground of “Shark Tank” beginnings, there is no formula or recipe for the type of business that does well on the show.

Get inspired by some of the most successful companies that landed deals on “Shark Tank” below.

View As: One Page Slides

Scrub Daddy

The Scrub Daddy is soft in warm water, firm in cold water, and can be used for the toughest household cleaning situations. This versatile sponge premiered in Season 4 and remains the most successful “Shark Tank” products to date. What originally started as a sponge designed for auto body shops and mechanics led to QVC appearances, a deal with Lori Greiner, and more than $100 million in sales.

Scrub Daddy (4-Pack), $14.24, available at Amazon

Scrub Daddy, $3.59, available at Target


For something you probably wear every day, regular socks have a lot of annoying problems, and investor Daymond John agreed. Bombas makes comfortable socks with extra-long staple cotton to keep them breathable, extra cushioning where your feet need them the most, and a blister tab.

The company made $50 million in 2017, which is great news for its community partners as well: for every pair purchased, it donates a pair to a homeless shelter or community organization. Bombas has donated more than 7 million pairs to date.

Shop men’s, women’s and kid’s socks at Bombas here

Tipsy Elves

Robert Herjavec’s $100,000 investment in ugly sweater company Tipsy Elves in 2013 has turned into more than $50 million total sales since. In addition to festive sweaters, it also makes ski gear and costumes that are sure to turn heads and attract some compliments. If you watched the 2018 Winter Olympics, you might’ve caught a glimpse of Jamaica’s bobsled team wearing custom Tipsy Elves warmup suits.

Shop Tipsy Elves apparel on Amazon here

Squatty Potty

The Squatty Potty, a stool placed under your feet to help you do your business, resonated with Lori Greiner and was an instant hit with viewers, selling $1 million in product within 24 hours of its Season 6 “Shark Tank” debut. Sales of this simple product were expected to hit $30 million in 2017.

Squatty Potty The Original Bathroom Toilet Stool 7″, $24.99, available at Amazon


Architecture students Andrea Sreshta and Anna Stork developed LuminAID after seeing the devastation of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. This solar inflatable product provides a source of light in any situation, including outdoor activities like hiking and camping. All five Sharks were interested in this potentially life-saving light, but the founders ultimately struck a deal with Mark Cuban.

Through its Give Light, Get Light program, the company gives LuminAID lanterns to charitable partners for disaster relief. Most recently, it donated thousands of lanterns to Syrian refugees and Puerto Rico hurricane relief.

Shop LuminAID lanterns, starting at $19.95, on Amazon here


Mobile app Groovebook provides an easy way to print your favorite phone photos on to a custom monthly photo book. For $3.99 a month, Groovebook sends you a 4″x 6″ photo book with perforated pages that you can tear out and share with anyone.

In 2014, just eleven months after the husband-and-wife founders Julie and Brian Whiteman made a deal with Mark Cuban and Kevin O’Leary, Shutterfly bought the company for $14.5 million.


Hanna and Mark Lim are parents who were inspired by their nine-month-old daughter’s ability to drink from a straw. None of the current sippy cups with straws were effective enough or made from safe materials, so they made their own, the Lollacup. Since partnering with Mark Cuban and Robert Herjavec, the company has passed $2 million in sales and expanded into other infant and toddler goods under the brand name Lollaland.

Lollaland Lollacup, Red, $15.95, available at Amazon


Founder Rick Hopper’s patented magnetic solution to the all-too-common and expensive problem of misplaced eyeglasses was a hit among his friends and family, and ultimately won over Lori Greiner on Season 3 of the show. It’s a subtle replacement for ugly glasses straps and can also be used for IDs or earbuds. The company has made more than $8 million in total sales since appearing on “Shark Tank.”

ReadeREST Stainless Steel, Twin Pack, $16.50, available at Amazon

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America’s Most Important Whiskey Bars

Whiskey — like many spirits that rely on an element of craft — is experiencing a full-blown renaissance. As the number of small-batch distillers increases, it seems like whiskey-centric bars are popping up all over the country. This is a good thing for the drinking public. If your local saloon has an extensive whiskey collection, you’ll obviously get to try some truly unique whiskeys (without spending a mortgage payment on a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle).

But not all whiskey bars are created equal. That’s why we asked Michael Neff— a whiskey expert who has created bar programs for such notable spots as Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Ward III, and Rum House in NYC and Three Clubs in Hollywood — to tell us his choices for the most important whiskey bars in America.

It should be noted that Neff’s choices aren’t necessarily the bars that have the biggest whiskey lists or the most expensive selections. They’re also not bars that you would necessarily see on every round up of “best whiskey bars.” That’s because Michael took the time to dig deeper. In some cases mere geography is what makes a bar important. In another, it’s a well-known bar whose whiskey selection is often totally overshadowed by other elements that made it famous.

Far Bar (Los Angeles, CA)

“Far Bar is a gem. You would think that their location — in the heart of Little Tokyo on the outskirts of Downtown Los Angeles — would mean that they specialize in Japanese and other Pacific Riwhiskeyses, and you would be right. That said, they clearly have a healthy respect for whiskey in general, and their sprawling collection winds throughout the space.”

Dead Rabbit Grog & Grocery (New York, NY)

deadrabbitnyc It takes a lot of work to start the day looking like this picture. Work that begins with the night porters in the kitchen from 3am, before they move on to deep-cleaning all three floors of the building. The barback arrives at 8.30am and starts checking, filling, replenishing everything from the juice bottles (with freshly squeezed juice, of course) to the straw caddies and beer lines. Then at around 10am the bartender checks, fills and replenishes everything else – menus, till rolls, coasters. Eveything.
That takes her up to 11am, when she opens the doors – and welcomes the first customers to another day at the Dead Rabbit. Photo by

Whether or not this Downtown destination is the “Best Bar in the World” is a matter for debate. It is, however, a great joint and much celebrated for its cocktails. Their acclaim often overshadows the part that impresses me the most—their Irish whisky collection is unmatched. They clearly have a love of the spirit, and their international notoriety gives them access to bottles that normal humans can’t hope to taste on this side of the Atlantic.”

Haymarket (Louisville, KY)

Great whiskey, particularly great bourbon, isn’t meant to be fancy. Whiskey has historically been a working-stiff’s drink, and bars like Haymarket are there to remind us of that. It has the eclectic feel of a fan-boy’s fantasy basement bar — coupled with an impressive collection of whiskey that spans the economic spectrum. It’s in Louisville, so bourbon prevails.”

We don’t talk about context enough when we talk about whiskey. The environment in which we drink can have an outsized impact on how we feel about what it is we’re drinking. Case in point. Blue Sky Bar is unusual in that it is a). attached to a Quizno’s franchise and b). located on the second level of Terminal A in the Denver airport. Their whiskey collection, however, rivals that of much fancier joints bragging trendier addresses, and their staff is knowledgeable and informed (if a bit surly with it).

The experience of choice and discovery makes any whiskey bar a joy to experience. Having that experience on a layover makes it that much more memorable.”

Delilah’s (Chicago, IL)

“You almost can’t create a bar that would be more perfect for me than Delilah’s. Part punk rock. Part dive. Cheeky and irreverent. And it sports one of the country’s most thorough and well-curated whiskey selections. Mike Miller is one of the great bar creators in the country, and I can’t think of anywhere else I would rather drink whiskey than his fantastic bar.”

“Reserve 101 is a study in picking something you love and doing that to the best of your ability. This unassuming little gem loves whiskey from top to bottom, and their commitment to the spirit is evident in everything they do. The collection of house-selected barrels is impressive, served by bartenders that are knowledgeable and hospitable in equal measures. Texas pride is the clear subplot—whiskey distilled in the Lone Star State is served with extra loving care.”

Poison Girl (Houston, TX)

If you’re detecting a theme in this list, Poison Girl will confirm your suspicion—whiskey bars that masquerade as punky dives hold a special place in my heart. Dark wood, surly regulars, broken pinball machines. A back patio that looks like a sculpture garden created from a pop culture graveyard. None of that distracts from an American whiskey-focused program that rivals almost anything I’ve seen outside of Kentucky.”

Mercury Bar (Omaha, NE)

“Part of opening a great spirits bar is curating your list with what you have available, and Mercury Bar is a great example of this. Nebraska doesn’t always get every spirit the country has to offer, and bars there can only sell what’s available in their state, which means that even their most thorough whiskey collections can’t match those in larger markets in terms of bottles on offer. The folks at Mercury combat this dearth of availability with passion for what they can get. Education is a focus, and they’ve curated a wonderful spirits list with an impressive selection of whiskey from around the world.”

Daddy-O (New York, NY)

“Daddy-O has been a staple in the West Village for over a decade, and it has quietly evolved into a legitimate whiskey destination. The back bar collection of bottles sprawls upward, with a surprising number of independent bottlings sprinkled throughout the stack seemingly at random. Whiskey features behind the bar, sure, but I’ve been to dinners there where every dish is modified to highlight a whiskey ingredient. A great experience that is past due for more attention.”

Gardiner Liquid Mercantile (Gardiner, NY)

“Nestled in the picturesque Hudson Valley, Gardiner Liquid Mercantile is a bit of a dark horse when you’re talking about whiskey bars. It operates under a very specific set of limitations—they can legally only serve spirits that are 100% produced in the state of New York. Aside from its very charming hand-made feel (it occupies the ground floor of a Victorian house), it has two things going for it: New York is starting to produce some very good and unique whiskeys, and the owner of this fine establishment is the great Gable Erenzo, of Hudson Whiskey fame.

“GLM is a great whiskey bar because it was built by a whiskey maker. The staff is incredibly well informed about what they like and what they sell, and if you’re lucky, you might end up sitting next to Gable or one of his cohorts at the bar. Engage one of them in a discussion about whiskey, and you will learn more than a lifetime of tasting mats and marketing material can ever teach you. That possibility alone is enough to make Gardiner Liquid Mercantile one of my favorite whiskey bars not just in the country, but anywhere at all.”

Top 10 Whiskeys of 2017

There have been plenty of reasons to drink plenty of whisky in 2017, and I’ve done my best to honor all occasions. For the new year, I’ve resolved to drink more whiskies in my tireless quest to make as many new discoveries as one fan can responsibly and humanly do.

But the memories of the 2017 finds linger, and I’d like to share the best of them with you.

I’ve had the good fortune to sample many whiskies as one of my job duties, so what follows is a list of the standouts I had last year. (I did the same in 2016).

Some of these have graced this blog before, and some haven’t. Like last time, my only two selection criteria for these choices is that I tried them in 2017 (even if they were released before then), and that they were able to be bought by the bottle.

I’ve split this list into two parts. Part one, Accessible Whiskies, are bottles that you can still get hold of either online or in specialist shops, and shouldn’t present a challenge to find and buy. Part two, Tricky Whiskies, are are rare, limited or expensive drams (sometimes all three) that I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy.

And so, in alphabetical order, here they are:

Bruichladdich Octomore 8.3

The Octomore range from Bruichladdich comprises some of the peatiest whiskies in the world, but this particular release may be the record holder, at 309.1 ppm (parts per million) of peat. To compare, a heavily peated whisky like Laphroaig tends to clock in at 50-60 ppm. This whisky was a deeply meaty, monstrous pleasure and I feel privileged to have tried it.

Paul John – Classic Select Cask

Paul John is an Indian whisky distillery that deserves to be considered as seriously as the most well-known scotches, and all its whiskies are excellent. I think this one is the best from its core range, though. It’s crisp, creamy, and nutty. Vanilla and bananas are bursting out, complemented by a citrus zing.

Lost Distillery Company – Jericho Archivist

The LDC uses historical research to unravel the taste of whiskies from now-closed distilleries, and then creates blends that match that reconstructed taste profile. To me, this one is their very best release. It’s what us geeks call a “sherry bomb,” comprised of whiskies aged in Spanish sherry casks that deliver deep rich flavours. Caramel, toffee, plums and prunes all shine through with a little ginger tang.

Rabbit Hole Distillery – Straight bourbon whisky finished in PX casks

I’ve heard of a couple distilleries in the U.S. starting to age their bourbon in sherry casks to give extra fruity flavours. This is the first and only one I’ve had of its kind so far. I find it’s superbly balanced. The sweetness of the bourbon is given a lovely depth by the sherry casks where it’s been aged. I really enjoyed trying to pick out elements of each.

Royal Salute – 21 years old

As I wrote previously about this bottle of blended whisky, whatever you may imagine delicious old whisky to taste like, this ticks the box. The perfect choice of drink while surrounded by leather bound books in an apartment that smells like rich mahogany. Bow before royalty.

Tricky Whiskies:

Golden Decanters – The Tight Line

An independent bottler that sells a high-end, four-bottle collection consisting of single cask whiskies, Golden Decanters has bottled one of the best bourbon cask whiskies – a Glenlivet – that I’ve ever had. Extremely sugary and full of citrus.

Laphroaig 10 Cask Strength batch 9

Laphroaig 10 is one of the great standard scotch whiskies out there. Its cask strength version is phenomenal. The 9th batch is my favorite of the lot so far, and beats some other amazing and older Laphroaigs I’ve had the pleasure of tasting. A perfect combination of sea breeze and smoked meat. There’s a few specialist stores that still have it available. Make a quick google search and snatch up a bottle before they’re gone for good.

Bunnahabhain Eich Bhanna Lir

As more distilleries are looking to enter the ultra-luxury whisky market, Bunnahabhain has dipped its toe in the water by releasing its oldest-ever whisky, a 46-year-old single cask beauty. It’s thick, creamy and full of orchard fruit. It also avoids the strong oak often present in really old whisky and that can sometimes be a bit overwhelming.

  1. Compass Box No Name

Compass Box has made a name as one of the top artisanal whisky blenders. Its No Name release is a limited edition from this year, and it’s a rare peated release. Compass Box should do these more often because it’s absolutely delicious. Thick yogurt, meat and tar all through.

  1. Scotch Malt Whisky Society 66.36

One of my all-time favorite whiskies. I bought several bottles when it was released in 2012 and a precious half bottle remains. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is an independent bottler that bottles almost exclusively limited edition single casks. It’s had a busy year, opening many new clubhouses (or working with partner bars to serve their special whiskies) around the world. The 66.36 is an Ardmore aged in a sherry cask that is described on the label as “Milano sausage with a tropical fruit kebab.” That’s pretty accurate.

To keep up with more whisky posts and news, follow me on Twitter at @schriebergfr


Upgrade to a Better Whiskey

When I met Patrick Marran, it was a cold December night in New York City. My girlfriend and I had just given up on trying to break through the crowd at Rockefeller Center to see the big tree and we were in desperate need of a drink. We made our way down 49th Street to escape the masses, rounded the corner of 10th Avenue, and there it was, our saving grace, a whiskey bar.

Learn What All Those Confusing Whiskey Label Terms Mean With This Guide

Whiskey can be a little intimidating, especially when you don’t know terms like “single-barrel” and …

We were immediately drawn to its low-key lighting and relaxed atmosphere, so we walked in, took off our coats, and Patrick, the bartender, immediately greeted us with a hearty “Welcome to On the Rocks.” The bar itself isn’t a big place, but it’s overflowing with every kind of whiskey you could ever want served neat, up, on the rocks, or even in specialty cocktails. And their goal at On the Rocks is simple: they want you to try whiskeys you’ve never tasted before. Marran will ask you what you’ve had and what you’ve liked, then try to show you a better version of your affordable go-tos. After sampling a few glasses of Japanese whiskeys and American ryes I’d never heard of, I was sold, so I asked Patrick if he’d help me offer some useful recommendations to other whiskey fans out there who are looking to upgrade.

Like Maker’s Mark? Try W. L. Weller Antique

What most people don’t understand about their bourbon preferences is the ingredient percentage. Marran explains that Maker’s falls under the category of “wheated bourbon,” which means that after the required 51% corn, wheat makes up a majority of the other grains used during the distillation process. It makes wheated bourbons a very smooth, accessible drink. That’s why W. L. Weller Antique (Old Weller Antique) from Buffalo Trace Distillery is the perfect upgrade for Maker’s fans, and it’s a great stepping stone toward the mythical Pappy Van Winkle. It’s not too expensive either. You can find bottles for around $30.

Like The Macallan 12 Year? Try the Yamazaki 12 Year

The Japanese have been crafting award-winning whiskey for decades, forcing die-hard Scotch drinkers to take notice. Marran says that the Yamazaki almost always wins the blind tastings he does at the bar if someone asks for a Scotch whiskey flight. I’ve had a couple bottles of the Yamazaki 12 myself and can attest to its superior quality. Grab a bottle for around $100.

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I used to get in debates almost every time I drank whiskey on whether or not it was appropriate to…

Like Jameson? Try Some Green Spot

Marran describes Single Pot Still whiskey as a bridge between blended Irish whiskey and Scotch whiskey, and Green Spot from Mitchell & Son is an affordable way to dip one’s toes into the quality improvement over regular blended whiskeys. Marran says:

So many people stroll into a bar and dismiss the Irish whiskey as somehow inferior. That’s about as wrong as snow in July. This is my hands-down favorite option to break someone’s misconceptions.

If you want to go up in price from there, Midleton’s Redbreast isn’t a bad option either. You can find bottles of Green Spot for around $70.

Like Bulleit Bourbon? Try Michter’s US 1 Bourbon

A lot of people enjoy Bulleit bourbon and regard it as one of the best, but Marran suggests Michter’s US 1 Bourbon is a little more balanced in its taste. It’ll cost you a few more bucks, but Marran says it’s ideal for bourbon fans who know that a high-corn ratio in the mash bill is their “problem with whiskey.” And if you’re interested in a whiskey education, he recommends their Rye and American varieties to give you a good example of how different whiskeys taste. You can usually find bottles between $50 and $60.

Like Four Roses Yellow Label? Try Sons of Liberty Uprising or Stranahan’s Yellow Label

If you’re always on the lookout for a “super smooth whiskey,” Marran suggests you stay away from bourbons and go for some American single malts. Both Sons of Liberty Uprising and Stranahan’s Yellow Label will have you covered for younger, full-bodied whiskeys that always go down smooth. You can find a bottle of Sons of Liberty Uprising for around $50 a bottle (hard to find in the West), and you can find Stranahan’s Yellow Label for about $65 a bottle.

Like Laphroaig 10? Try Bruichladdich Octomore

According to Marran, Laphroaig Scotch seems to be the go-to for most novice peaty (type of smokiness) drinkers, but there are a dozen other Islay distilleries that deserve your attention. Bruichladdich Octomore is a higher-end smokey whiskey that comes in a few styles and showcases the artistic way the distillers make the flavors pop. Marran recommends you have it neat or with a few drops of water (even an entire ice cube is too much for the peat). You can find a bottle of Bruichladdich Octomore for around $60 to $80.

Like Dewars or Johnny Walker? Try The Shackleton Whiskey

This blended Scotch is easy to spot thanks to its robin’s egg blue box and label. Marran describes it as a blended whiskey that’s “designed” to taste like a single malt, so it’s the perfect whiskey to help ease your transition to a single malt palate. It has a full body, but it’s smooth on the tongue and easy going down. Plus, the recipe has some interesting history behind it. It’s based on the Scotch Sir Ernest brought with him during his 1907 expedition to Antarctica. You can find it for about $40 a bottle.

Like Old Overholt? Try Ragtime Rye

If you’re a rye kind of guy (or gal), Marran says the jump from a basic well rye to a three-year rye is going to knock your socks off. New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime Rye is part of a new whiskey movement in New York City where nine different distilleries are rolling out ryes that are 75% rye compared to the required 51%. This is your chance to upgrade to a “real rye,” as Marran puts it. You can find bottles for around $45.

Everything You Need to Know to Get Started Drinking Scotch Whisky

If you’ve never really explored it before, drinking whisky can be intimidating. Deciding what…

Like Bulleit Rye? Try WhistlePig Farmstock

According to Marran, people like Bulleit Rye because it’s an affordable, mellow rye that eases them into the world of decent whiskey after their college whiskey shooting days. If you’re ready to upgrade to something that’s just as mellow, but with more rye and a better bite, WhistlePig’s Farmstock is the way to go. There are notes of vanilla and toasted honey, and runs for about $90 a bottle.

Already like Yamazaki 12 Year? Try Amrut Single Malt Cask Strength

If you’ve already tasted the greatness that is the Yamazaki, Amrut should be your new best friend. Marran says it’s something all whiskey enthusiasts should try:

Whether you’re in it to show you know more about whiskey, or you merely want to continue building your exotic Single Malt collection, this single malt from India is a must-have in order to see why so many companies are taking the barley approach from Scotland and giving it a whirl.

Amrut’s whiskeys are a bit younger than others, but they’ve got full flavor and have been winning awards. You’ll probably have to order it online (prices can range from $60 to $100 a bottle), but it’s a tasty international whiskey that you can definitely show off to your friends.


The 10 Most Useful Things in Excel

Every Excel user has their own favorite tip. So we decided to bring some method, data, and science to bear in this hotly debated topic.

We consulted the research of 30 of the world’s leading Excel experts, our own internal Excel experts, grouped up and consolidated the emerging features, and applied a scoring methodology and index to produce a definitive ordered list of the 100 most useful Excel features, hacks, tips and tricks.

These are the top 10 Excel tips as determined by our ranking.

Skills are ranked by usefulness and given a score out of 100. Each skill also has a difficulty rating (out of 5) based on the complexity and sophistication of the feature. Finally, we provide the average time in minutes it takes the average learner to go from no knowledge to proficient.

The videos and gifs inserted in this list were created by Business Insider.

1. Conditional Formatting

Utility: 100
Difficulty: 3
Learn in 180 mins

Making sense of our data-rich, noisy world is hard but vital. Used well, Conditional Formatting brings out the patterns of the universe, as captured by your spreadsheet. That’s why Excel experts and Excel users alike vote this the #1 most important feature. This can be sophisticated. But even the simplest colour changes can be hugely beneficial. Suppose you have volumes sold by sales staff each month. Just three clicks can reveal the top 10% performing salespeople and tee up an important business conversation.

2. PivotTables

Utility: 95
Difficulty: 3
Learn in 240 mins

At 4 hours to get to proficiency, you may be put off learning PivotTables but don’t be. Use them to sort, count, total or average data stored in one large spreadsheet and display them in a new table, cut however you want. That’s the key thing here. If you want to look only at sales figures for certain countries, product lines or marketing channels, it’s trivial. Warning: make sure your data is clean first!

3. Paste Special

Utility: 88
Difficulty: 3
Learn in 10 mins

Grabbing (ie Copying) some data from one cell and pasting it into another cell is one of the most common activities in Excel. But there’s a lot you might copy (formatting, value, formula, comments, etc) and sometimes you won’t want to copy all of it. The most common example of this is where you want to lose the formatting – the place this data is going is your own spreadsheet with your own styling.

4. Add Multiple Rows

Utility: 87
Difficulty: 0
Learn in 10 mins

Probably one of the most frequently carried out activities in spreadsheeting. Ctrl Shift + is the shortcut, but actually it takes longer, so Right Click is what we recommend. And if you want to add more than one, select as many rows or columns as you’d like to add and then Right Click and add.

5. Absolute References

Utility: 85
Difficulty: 2
Learn in 15 mins

Indispensable! The dollar in front of the letter fixes the column, the dollar sign in front of number fixes the row F4 toggles through the four possible combinations.

6. Print Optimisation

Utility: 84
Difficulty: 3
Learn in 120 mins

Everyone has problems printing from Excel. But just imagine if what you printed were always just what you intended to print. It IS actually possible. There are a few components to this though: print preview, fit to one page, adjusting margins, print selection, printing headers, portrait vs landscape and spreadsheet design. Invest the time to get comfortable with it. You’ll be carrying out this task many, many times in your working life.

7. Extend formula across/down

Utility: 84
Difficulty: 1
Learn in 5 mins

The beauty of Excel is its easy scalability. Get the formula right once and Excel will churn out the right calculation a million times. The + cross hair is handy. Double clicking it will take it all the way down if you have continuous data. Sometimes a copy and paste (either regular paste or paste formulas) will be faster for you.

8. Flash Fill

Utility: 84
Difficulty: 2
Learn in 30 mins

Excel developed a mind of its own in 2013. Say you have two columns of names and you need to construct email addresses from them all. Just do it for the first row and Excel will work out what you mean and do it for the rest. Pre-2013 this was possible but relied on a combination of functions (FIND, LEFT, &, etc). This is much faster and WILL impress people.


Utility: 82
Difficulty: 4
Learn in 45 mins

This is one of the most powerful combinations of Excel functions. You can use it to look up a value in a big table of data and return a corresponding value in that table. Let’s say your company has 10,000 employees and there’s a spreadsheet with all of them in it with lots of information about them like salary, start date, line manager etc. But you have a team of 20 and you’re only really interested in them. INDEX-MATCH will look up the value of your team members (these need to be unique like email or employee number) in that table and return the desired information for your team. This is worth getting your head around this as it is more flexible and therefore more powerful than VLOOKUPs.

10. Filters

Utility: 81
Difficulty: 2
Learn in 60 mins

Explore data in a table quickly. Filtering effectively hides data that is not of interest. Usually there’s a value e.g. ‘Blue cars’ that you’re looking for and Filters will bring up those and hide the rest. But in more modern versions of Excel, you can now also filter on number values (e.g. is greater than, top 10%, etc), and cell color. Filtering becomes more powerful when you need to filter more than one column in combination e.g. both colors and vehicles to find your blue car.


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