Saturday, April 1, 2017

An evening with Dave Pickerell and Hillrock

When I heard about the tasting at Magruder's of DC, I was more interested in Dave Pickerell than Hillrock Estate Distillery. And I have to say he turned out to be more interesting than the whiskeys I tasted.

If you don't know, Dave Pickerell was master distiller at Maker's Mark for fourteen years, and in the last decade he's become the Johnny Appleseed of craft distilleries. He's now master distiller at Hillrock in New York, and more famously (or notoriously) at Whistlepig in Vermont. He mentioned that he's part owner of six (I think it was) distilleries; I don't know whether he was counting the Mount Vernon Distillery, where he's the master distiller for the six weeks a year they make whiskey.

The night's line-up.
The Hillrock angle is terroir. They grow all their grain, have their own malt-house, use their own well water, and if I'm remembering correctly use local wood. Pickerell sees this sort of localization as a feature of American craft distilling, so that all American whiskey doesn't have to taste like Kentucky bourbon made with limestone filtered water and Ozark oak and corn from wherever it is that Kentucky bourbon corn comes from. One thing they've noticed about Hillrock is that all the distillates come with a cinnamon spice note. So cinnamon is part of the Hillrock terroir. (Pickerell assured us that, if different Hillrock fields produce grain that produces distillate with different notes, they'll figure that out pretty soon too.)

We tasted five whiskeys:
  • Solera Aged Bourbon. This was probably my favorite of the night, and has the most interesting story. Pickerell copied the solera setup from a Spanish sherry outfit -- I think it was Spanish sherry, the point is they knew what they were doing. Hillrock has four tiers, with the bottom tier sherry casks, the two middle tiers used (bourbon?) casks, and the top -- because this is bourbon, after all -- new charred American oak barrels. The hard part, the story goes, wasn't getting the solera set up and functioning, it was figuring out how to do it within U.S. regulations for the manufacturing and taxing of bourbon whisky. They can call it "bourbon" because they empty the top level (the "nursery") one barrel at a time, without topping them off (and the other barrels used aren't "barrels," they're small wooden "containers.") They can call it "solera age" because the age of the youngest whiskey doesn't help the customer when the weighted average age is more than four years, as Pickerell assured the TTB it would be, but you can't use the weighted average age on a bottle either. My notes say "spicy and raisiny." The bourbon now being bottled is about 40% rye; what's going into the nursery is about 49% rye, to keep the bourbon moving in the savory direction chefs tell Pickerell the American palate is moving.
  • Double Cask Rye finished in Sauternes Casks. The "double cask" part refers to the rye (100% rye mashbill) beginning in smaller casks, then being moved to larger ones. The Sauternes finish is, like all of Pickerell's finishes, somewhere between 2 and 10 weeks. It gives the rye a honey-sweet, floral nose. The house cinnamon was very strong on the finish. For me, this is more of a "hey, have you ever tried something like this?" whiskey than something to reach for when you want a rye.
  • Double Cask Rye finished in Port Casks. Same rye, different finish, very different effect. If the Sauternes rye is like a soprano -- which it isn't, of course, it's a whiskey, but stay with me here -- then the port rye is like a bass, low and solid. Maybe some chocolate notes, solid and simple on the palate. The rye spice seems subdued. I'd like to try this in a dry Manhattan, with the vermouth playing off the port.
  • Double Cask Rye. An unbilled special guest, this was the same rye that was otherwise finished in Sauternes or port. It was a late addition to the line-up, and if we had to do it over, this should come before the two finished ryes. As it is, it made no real impression on me. My notes read, "Not sure what to think," which I now think reflects on a lack of rye character. I have a terrible palate, so I may be completely off base, but the impression I came away with is that Hillrock rye whiskeys are more whiskey than rye. Which isn't to say I refused a second taste of this; it's a properly made sippin' whiskey. But, at least at this point in the evening, the lack of distinguishing notes was the only note I could distinguish.
  • Malt Whiskey finished in Olorosso and XO Sherry Casks. This is Hillrock's opening volley in producing a heavily peated "Scotch," which is what the owner likes to drink and wants to make. If I have it right, part of the malt whiskey (100% malted barley mashbill) was finished in olorosso, and the rest was finished in XO, then the two were combined. The whiskey was simply baffling to me. There was a little smoke, but more like a midrange blend than an Islay single malt. I got orange hard candy on the nose... and, um, canned peas. "Canned peas" is not one of those "sounds bad but true connoisseurs find such things add to the experience" notes; it's one of those "whiskey shouldn't smell like canned peas" notes. On top of that, there was the cinnamon on the palate. The whole thing was weird. I didn't seem to be drinking the same whiskey that was being described (well, except maybe for one other attendee who suggested manure on the nose).

The evening ended with the other attendees lining up to get bottles signed. I could have applied the $20 ticket price toward a purchase, but I decided even with the discount I didn't need a bottle of Hillrock. Is the Solera Aged Bourbon worth $63? Maybe, but that night it wasn't worth 63 of my dollars.

As you'd expect given Pickerell's experience, Hillrock is miles ahead of the vodka-n-gin-n-rum-n-whiskey microdistilleries who can't or won't age their whiskeys properly. But he says he doesn't just want to outrun the other guy, he wants to outrun the bear. I think that's the right attitude, but for my taste Hillrock should still be grateful there are slower distilleries in the race.

Big Fred and the Dude

Every Friday, gaz regan's email newsletter -- click here to sign up -- includes a "potent quotable," a short passage on bar life, usually from way back. They're always entertaining, but some are more memorable than others. If Damon Runyon had used a couple of them in his stories, his editor would have told him to dial it down.

On other days of the week, you get a cocktail recipe. These are by and for the pros, so they'll have two kinds of amari, or Enzo's muskrat bitters or what have you. They may be delicious, but they aren't meant to be tried at home. Unless you are, or live with, a professional bartender.

Anyway, the most recent Potent Quotable includes a recipe for a Manhattan, which I'm posting here so I don't lose track of it:
'Bartender,' the dude said to Fred, 'mix me a Manhattan cocktail.' He couldn't have done worse. In that time and place a man who would drink a cocktail was considered on a par with a cigaret smoker, which was to say, a degenerate.

Big Fred didn't bat an eye. 'What kind did you say?' he inquired politely.

'Manhattan,' said the dude.

Big Fred went to work. He bit off a chew of the plug he liked and reached for a bottle. Putting one of the Humboldt's generous beer mugs on the bar, he poured a good shot of whiskey into it. To this he added a slug of gin, another of rum, a dash of real brandy, of bitters, of aqua vit', and then filled the remainder of the mug with beer. Placing this dose in front of the dude, accommodating Fred stirred it slowly with a huge forefinger.

'There, mister,' he said obligingly, 'is your Manhattan cocktail.'

-- Little Annie Oakley & Other Rugged People, Stewart H. Holbrook, 1948. ["Big Fred" Hewlett was reportedly the owner of The Humboldt Saloon, Aberdeen, WA., circa 1900.]

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Aultmore, The Deveron, Royal Brackla 12 y.o.s

Dewar's recently sent me samples of their three latest "Last Great Malts" they're bringing to the U.S. market. The idea behind the campaign is to offer expressions from different distilleries that supply malt whisky for Dewar's blends. (I can imagine a "here, take my money" deal where they'd sell a blending kit of malts and grains with enough to taste individually and still blend into something not altogether unlike Dewar's.)

The bottles came, I admit, in enjoyably gimmicky packaging, including a sort of self-contained treasure hunt to find the code to unlock... a USB stick with additional marketing information.
Or, you know, you could just find the screws.
They're all 12 year old single malts, from Aultmore (a Speyside distillery dating from 1896), the Deveron (made at Macduff Distillery, which opened in 1962 and is billed as one of the earliest modern Scotch distilleries), and Royal Brackla (opened in 1812 at Cawdor, and surely others have commented on the Macbeth angle between Royal Brackla and the Deveron; pity Aultmore isn't in Birnam Wood).
If it were tasted when 'tis tasted, then 'twere well it were tasted quickly.

No less an authority than Serge Valentin recently wrote:
I need comparisons, and I’m not good enough to assess one whisky out of the blue at any given time... That’s also why so many people find that any whisky just smells and tastes of… whisky. Give them two whiskies, and they’ll become super-good very fast!
As someone who has had a lot of whiskey that smells and tastes of whiskey, I determined to take this advice and try all three at the same time. It's a convenient trio for this, since the colors are different enough that you can keep track even if you forget where you just set down the Aultmore.

Dark to light: Royal Brackla, the Deveron, Aultmore (which in the bottle kind of really does look like pee)

I did not become super-good, or even competent, but it is fun to pretend sitting in the kitchen drinking three whiskeys at once is how you're supposed to do it.

(Prices are from

Aultmore 12 YO (46% abv, natural color, non-chill filtered, ~ $60)
Nose: Honey, grassy
Palate: Light, honey, sweet; a little water rounds it out a bit and brings the honey forward
Finish: Warming and short, a bit sour

The Deveron 12 YO (40% abv, ~ $45)
Nose: Fruit, almonds, oak, maybe chocolate
Palate: Buttery, sweet, a hint of brine (water makes it watery)
Finish: Pleasant and short

Royal Brackla (40% abv, ~ $50)
Nose: Sherry sweetness, raisins, toasted raisin scones; a bit of a waft of sweat or chemicals; water makes it fruitier
Palate: Pretty much what it says on the nose, with a touch of smoke
Finish: First pour, the finish was raisiny rubber. actually kind of nasty; subsequent drinks were much nicer

The take-away: There's all decent, if unexceptional, malt whiskies. (At least once that industrial rubber taste left the Royal Brackla; if it had stayed, I'd've used it for solvent.) Older expressions are available for each, if you're curious about how they might age. The Royal Brackla, with its blast of sherry and raisins, is the most distinctive, but I suppose I'd say the Deveron would be my first choice among them if I were to buy a replacement bottle.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Baltimore Whiskey Company

My plans for last Saturday fell through; my wife's plans did not. This left me with an unchaperoned afternoon, which I decided to spend seeing the sites in Baltimore.

The first site chosen was the Baltimore Whiskey Company. They are open for tours on Saturday from noon till four, and I'd be getting there right around noon.

"There" is the hindquarters of an unpreposessing brick building in Jones Falls. I got the Jones Falls bit off their website; I know almost nothing about Baltimore neighborhoods. The rest of the description of "there" I got from personal experience.
The entrance. You want fancy, go to the waterfront, hon.
I love distilleries that, from the street, could be galvanized chain warehouses. It suggests a small company focused on manufacturing, which is a very good thing to focus on if you're a small company that manufactures things.

Can a whiskey company door get more Baltimore than this?
The Baltimore Whiskey Company, of course, manufactures gin.

Well, and whiskey too. They are building up stock, from a rye and malted rye mashbill, that will age in 53 gallon barrels for two years before it hits the market. I admire them for that, considering very young ryes do sell these days, and some of them are even good decent drinkable. (If they offered samples of their aging rye to select tourists, that would be okay too.)

In the meantime, cash must flow. To make their gin, they macerate botanicals in grain neutral spirit (sourced, if we say "sourced" about pharmaceutical grade GNS; their copper pot still isn't ever going to give them a pure enough spirit), run it through the still a couple of times, and bottle it at 100 proof as Baltimore Shot Tower Gin. (The shot tower, a Baltimore landmark, is also featured on their logo.)

On my visit, the open 500-gallon fermenters -- they're cypress, and they're spectacular -- were filled with apple juice bubbling away, post-pressing peels and such floating on top. This will show up this summer as Charles St. Apple Brandy, following some months in used rye barrels. (The barrels are purchased from Speyside Cooperage, which opened a Kentucky office in 2010, so they're probably from one of the major distilleries.) I'm easing into apple brandy as a hobby, so I'm really looking forward to getting some Charles Street when it comes out.

They're also excited about a ginger apple liqueur -- their brandy "macerated with ginger and other botanicals, and distilled ... then sweetened with molasses, sugar, and apple juice" -- that's coming soon. It sounds like it could make a fantastic toddy, or bread pudding sauce.

Apple brandy in its larval stage.

There was no distilling going when I was there, so I got a good look at the inside of their still. The still, mashtun, and fermenters were all made by different independent craftsmen from around the country; the BWC operation is sort of a compounded craft effort, which is kind of cool -- always assuming the whiskey turns out good.

The freshly scrubbed inside of the 250 gallon still.

The outside of the still.
The left side of the still.
The Shot Tower Gin was the only spirit available for tasting. I admitted I didn't like gin. They said they get that a lot and like to hear what non-gin drinkers think of their gin.

It's the juniper that always gets me. Pine trees aren't people food. I'm happy to say BWC's gin is not particularly heavy on the juniper; you'd never take it for a London dry gin. I could even convince myself it tasted more like an herbal infused aquavit than a gin. It's not something I needed to buy, but I wouldn't wince if someone poured me a glass and I can believe Baltimore bartenders are coming up with good recipes that use it. I hope to try the "barrel rested" gin they'll be releasing in several months; I expect I'd be able to make some cocktails both my Sapphire-drinking wife and I would enjoy.

It's a bit sad to finish a post on a distillery visit with talk of gin, but considering that the Baltimore Whiskey Company started distilling in November, maybe it's just as well. I shall watch their future career with interest, and no doubt some investment as the product line matures.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My integrity is not for sale, I'm giving it away

The other week, Dewars asked me if they could send three bottles of their new-to-the-US single malts for me to review on my channels. "Certainly," I replied instantly. Only later did I face the nagging question raised by accepting their proposition:

I have channels?

Some people say taking free samples compromises a blogger's integrity and makes the reviews worthless. In my case, at least, that's not true. All my reviews are worthless. And I'd never write that a free whiskey is better than I think it is just to get more free whiskey. That would only work if marketers read my blog. But if they did that, they'd surely move on to a blogger who hadn't peaked ("hillocked" may be more accurate) with his 2012 hotel room review of Old Thompson Brand American Whiskey. Checkmate, integrity questioners!
This blog's all-time pageview champion. (Yes, the scale is pageviews per month. Yes, that includes Russian spiderbots.)

I got as far as the above with this post after two of the three bottles arrived. That evening, I mentioned to my 18-year-old son that I expected yet another bottle to arrive the next day. He asked, "Who is sending you all this whiskey?"
"What's a doer?"
A reasonable question under the circumstances. After I answered, he asked the question I'd been asking myself: "Why are they sending it to you?"
"I guess so I'll mention it."
"You should! Then you'll get more free stuff!"
He went on to say that I shouldn't be too obvious, but subtle, like, "You might want to give this a try sometime."
The boy's got the angles worked out already.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A taxonomy of "craft" distilleries

The on-going debate over the meaning of the term "craft" in whiskey-making shows no signs of ending. (Even though, as is so often the case, the answer is waiting to be found in the dictionary: "Craft: skill used in deceiving others.")

Here, though, are the broadly accepted definitions of some other terms you may hear used to describe your favorite new distillery:

  • Grain to glass: A distillery that turns grains into bottled spirits. In other words, a distillery. Even MGP is bottling these days.
  • Flour to flask: A distillery that couldn't afford a milling machine but does have a gift shop.
  • Soil to slainte: A distillery that grows its own grains and has a tasting room. Just as well, because after all the pretensions about growing their own grain, you really need a drink.
  • Tanker to tasting: A "distilling company" that "produces" its "own" spirits, often according to an "old" "family" "recipe."
  • Cradle to grave: Diageo's vision statement. Resistance is futile, or at least discouraged.
  • Farm to under-the-table: A moonshiner.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

A trip to Fishpaw's Marketplace

I just want those who could have told me about Fishpaw's Marketplace, but didn't, to know that I forgive you.

Some people go skiing between Christmas and New Year's, some go to Disney World. And some people go somewhere fun.

Whoever it was who left a comment I read on some blog post, stating that Fishpaw's -- in Arnold, Maryland --  is a good place for private selection whiskey,  thank you.

What I didn't realize, as I used part of a vacation day to drive the forty miles to Arnold, is that they would have four different single barrel whiskeys, all of which were available to taste. If I had, I would have brought a designated driver. And maybe left my credit card at home.

The lunch menu. (Photo stolen from their website.)

I was particularly interested in the Eagle Rare, since I'd had a private selection ER at Dry 85 in Annapolis that was probably my favorite bourbon of the year. Then I saw the Four Roses, and realized I was facing a quandary. The single barrel Crown Royal Coffey Rye was also eye catching. And what could be wrong with a single barrel Knob Creek?

The tasting bar serves 1/2 ounce and full ounce pours. When you're forty miles from home and you need to pick up your wife, who didn't get the week off work, in a few hours, you don't order full ounce pours. I'd have preferred 1/4 ounce each, which would be enough to make a purchasing decision, but I can adapt.

I started with Four Roses and Eagle Rare. The Four Roses was an OBSV.(as their non-limited edition single barrels are), 115 proof, and a lot more interesting and complex than is appropriate for standing at a tasting bar next to a wine distributor trying to make a sale to the owner. I would have liked a bottle, but in the end I wasn't ready to pay the premium for this bottle over the regular 4R SB.

The Eagle Rare disappointed me. Maybe it was because it came on the heels of a barrel proof Four Roses, but it came off as muddled and not pleasant to drink. Especially disappointing, since it was on sale for $35. (Yes, yes, I should have bought two bottles and waited for my palate to improve.)

An ounce of cask proof whiskey on an empty stomach was enough, so I took a break from booze shopping to get some lunch. (I picked up a bottle of Laphroaig Cask Strength Batch 006 and a bottle of Fiore Sweet Cranberry Maryland Moonshine, which earned me a, "So you're buying moonshine instead [of 4R SB]?" at the cash register.) Just up Route 2 is Cafe Mezzanotte, which has a $15 lunch special and delicious cream of crab soup. (The crab soup isn't quite worth the trip alone, but I will definitely try to time my next visit to Fishpaw's around mealtime.)

Worth a taste, but maybe not the best whiskey of 2015.
Refreshed and with a reset palate, I came back to Fishpaw's ready to try the Crown Royal and Knob Creek. (The owner asked the server if I'd tried the Four Roses. She said, "Yes, but he bought Laphroaig instead." I said, "You keep saying 'instead.'")

The Crown Royal is a single barrel Coffey rye, a flavoring whiskey distilled on a Coffey still that's a main component of CR. It's quite an interesting drink, sweet and creamy, but there's something a bit off (soapy?) right at the beginning of each sip. It's definitely worth tasting, especially at a discounted $3 per 1/2 ounce, but alas, it's not the discount barrel strength Whistlepig I was kind of hoping for.

The Knob Creek -- following the complex, muddled, and unusual whiskeys I'd already tried -- was just a tasty bourbon that brought a smile to my face. The bottle was sold before I finished my first sip. I'll have more to say about it after I've had a chance to drink it under controlled laboratory conditions at home.